October 12th, 2013 Brian Herzog
One of the interesting things about working in a library is that you encounter such a wide variety of people.
One patron can impress you with their motivation and dedication, and the next can disgust you with their self-interest and sense of entitlement. Sometimes patrons will shock me with their flat-out inability to grasp a most basic concept, or their genuine delight in library serendipity, or show such altruism that just makes me feel good about being human. This particular patron displayed many of these traits, all in the course of thirty minutes.
My library offers 1-on-1 computer training sessions. Patrons can sign up for a 30-minute appointment with me, and I'll help them with whatever computer issue they'd like to work on - email, using the library catalog, listing something on eBay, etc.
One of the appointments last week was with a woman, probably in her late sixties, who just wanted to learn "the computer." She said she has computer at home, but only used it for one specific task (accessing a CD-ROM book), and didn't know anything else about it.
That's fine. Even beginners really vary on how much they know about a computer, so I usually ask people to describe their home computer - this helps me gauge their level of expertise, as well as sometimes lets me know what operating system they've used, software, hardware, etc.
In her case, she described her computer by describing the keyboard and monitor. When I asked her if there were any cables that connected those to anything, she then remembered there was a big box on the floor. This is usually a sure sign that the person hasn't yet "gotten" computers.
So we got started, and I found she was actually quite good using the mouse (I guess from using her CD-ROM), but everything else seemed completely new to her - opening a program from the desktop, closing it, even typing gave her trouble. So we took things slowly, and she seemed to be absorbing as we went.
After we got some basics down, I asked her in general what she'd be using a computer for, so that we could tailor what we covered to activities she'd actually be doing. She said,
My grandson lives with me, and I'm planning on homeschooling him. Since computers are everywhere now, I need to learn how to use it so I can teach him.
Holy smokes. After she said this, I felt some pressure to be a really good teacher, knowing that this would all be used to instruct her grandson.
People who homeschool kids always amaze me for the sheer dedication it must take to do it - however, you can't be knowledgeable about everything, and I really had to wonder if this was a good idea in this case. I don't know how old her grandson is, so maybe she has a couple years to learn more before she starts teaching him - at least, based on what she seemed to know now, I hope so. I haven't seen her name signed up for any subsequent sessions, though, so maybe she got everything she felt she needed from that one half-hour session.
You have until Saturday, October 19th, to submit your entries for the best reference reference question contest!
Tags: 1-on-1, class, computer, homeschool, libraries, Library, one-on-one, public, Reference Question, session, training
October 5th, 2013 Brian Herzog
I wasn't involved in this and it's not really a reference question, but it still made me laugh - more than once.
On Tuesday this week, all department heads got this email from the library's office manager:
On Thursday, Oct. 3rd we have a physics teacher coming with approx. 7 students to ride our elevator a few times. The teacher said they all would be very considerate to our patron needs.
I must have missed the word "physics" the first time I read it, because it sounded ridiculous - coming in to ride the elevator? But then "physics" kicked in, and then it made sense that they'd be using the elevator to experiment with gravity.
So Thursday comes, and apparently I'm off somewhere else and miss this whole scene. The school group comes in, and it turns out to be a teacher and seven homeschool students, which explains why they're using the library's elevator rather than the one at the school. They brought some kind of scale, and all eight of them pile into the elevator. The door closes, they hit the button to go, and... the elevator doesn't budge and the alarm goes off.
I think the door opened, but it was just such a surprising situation that no one exited the elevator - I guess everyone just stood there, kind of in shock.
Eventually they got off the elevator, the alarm stopped, and to be on the safe side, staff marked it out-of-order* and called the repairman.
I was here the next day when the repairman checked it out, and I don't think he found anything wrong with it. So the theory is that the class must have exceeded the weight limit, and the elevator shut itself down. I'm surprised that seven kids and one adult could exceed the limit, because I know I've been in there with three or four other adults and a couple carts of books.
Anyway, I thought this was worth sharing because it's one of those things I couldn't even make up - but also another example of how people use the library. Science!
*Being the middle of the day, there were already patrons who used the elevator to get to the lower level, that would need it to get back up to leave. In this situation, staff escorts these patrons out through the staff area and the back door, where we have a ramp for wheeling in carts. A much longer walk to the parking lot from there, but unfortunately it can't be helped - and certainly better for some people than having to take the stairs.
September 28th, 2013 Brian Herzog
This week is more of a technical question than a reference question, because the research part was already done by the time I got involved. But I still think it's an interesting situation.
A coworker of mine has been researching the history of West Chelmsford, in the hopes of opening a new museum in that part of town inside an old train depot building. The most interesting event in West Chelmsford's history, I think, is this: in 1911, the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show was passing through town by train, on the way to neighboring Lowell for a show, when the train derailed near the future-museum depot building. A few animals died, many had to be rounded up from the surroundings by the cowboys, and then Buffalo Bill, since the train was wrecked, marched the whole show through the streets to finish the journey to Lowell.
My coworker found a scanned newspaper article from the time in Google News, but couldn't figure out how to print it. This is when I got involved - as tech support to print the article for her to add to the future museum's file.
I don't think I had attempted this before, but sure enough, Google doesn't offer a direct way to print articles from this interface. There was a way to link to them and a few different viewing options, but that was it - even File > Print didn't print anything for us.
When faced with this kind of situation, my failsafe is always to use the Print Screen key. First you click the Full Screen button in the Google interface to see as much of the article at a time as possible, and then pressing the Print Screen key captures everything on the screen and puts it on the clipboard. Next I pasted the image into MSPaint (as it is the only graphics program installed on the Reference Desk computer) and cropped it to just the article I wanted, and saved it.
Since the article was three screens long, I had to do this a couple more times to get the entire thing - saved as three separate files. The final step was to insert all three of these into PowerPoint, line up all the seams so it looked like one continuous image, and create a PDF file from the result. The PowerPoint step would have been unnecessary if I had Photoshop or anything more advanced that MSPaint on my computer, but you use the tools you've got.
And I think the resulting PDF looks pretty good [pdf] - it is formatted to print on legal paper to make the text big enough to read easily, and my coworker was very happy to get it. This is just for her initial research, and hopefully she'll be able to track down the actual primary resource for the eventual exhibit in the museum.
Still, I thought it was a useful technique for librarians. I think many people already know this trick, so, yes, mainly I just thought the actual article itself funny and interesting and wanted to share.
September 21st, 2013 Brian Herzog
I hear this reference question maybe two or three times a year, and it's one that I equally enjoy and despise. Despise because I tend to have a very low success rate with them, but enjoy because I know that if I weren't a librarian, I'd be calling my library to ask the exact same question.
Through the online contact form of the library's ChelmsfordHistory.org website this week came this question:
I'm trying to figure out who originally built my grandmothers house. [It was] built in 1946. I would like to get a name and or pictures of the original structure and the original owner.
This is probably a common question anywhere that has old houses, and lots of people want to know the history of their home. And for some houses, a lot of that work has been done. Our local Historical Commission has made available online a tremendous amount of information from their survey of old homes, but rarely does the patron asking live in one of these. And in this case, finding a photo of the original home - and the owner! - seemed like a particularly tall order.
I don't think I've ever been asked who the builder of a home was, and it seemed like the only possible record of that might have been on the original building permit issued by the Town. I called the Building Inspectors office in Town Hall and spoke to the Building Commissioner, explaining what I was looking for. Although he was helpful, unfortunately the records he has only go back to the 1960s, and he didn't know if older Town records of building permits even still existed.
In the end, he suggested I look for the original deed through the county's Registrar of Deeds. He said that often the first record of sale is from the builder to the first owner - which I didn't know but makes sense. I've only ever used their land records website for current who-owns-this-property type questions, and again struck out because their online records only go back to 1976.
So at this point, I emailed the patron back explaining what I had (not) found so far. I gave her the contact information for the Registrar of Deeds though, because her contacting them directly - or, more likely, her going there in person - might be able to produce the records back to 1946. With that, hopefully, she'll get the names of the builder and original occupant.
As for photos though... since her home wasn't an old one in an historic neighborhood, I think the only source for photos may be family photos of previous residents. I don't know if the patron is motivated enough to track down the family of the original owner, but it might produce some photographs. Also, if the builder is still in business, they may have photos or plans for the original house too. I don't know how much her house has changed since it was built, but if the the builder built multiple homes in the area, there may be some that used the same plans and are still in their original condition, which may give an idea of what her house originally looked like.
I apologized for not being much help, because I felt like I was really grasping at straws at the end. Hopefully she'll have luck with the Registrar of Deeds - and hopefullyier, I'll find a new and helpful "history of my house" resource before the next question like this comes in.
September 14th, 2013 Brian Herzog
Here's one of those questions where I wish I had gotten the patron's contact information, because not only did I find out after the fact that I gave him bad information, but I also found a good answer later on, too.
One afternoon someone from the Circ Desk called down to Reference. She said there was a patron who wanted to donate money to an online charity, but all he had was cash and he wanted to know if we could help him.
I immediately started to mental spin through all the ways I knew of to pay for something online, and none of them originated with an actual fistful of dollars. The best idea I could come up with on the spot was some kind of prepaid credit card, which is not something the library offers (but I know there are lots out there). However, right across the street from us is a bank, so I just recommended he go over and check with them, optimistically hoping a bank product would be some kind of cash card he could use.
After work that day curiosity got the better of me, so I walked over to the bank and asked them this question myself - and I was surprised that the teller's answer was "no." She said the closest thing they had were regular debit cards, but those are tied to an account. She said they do get requests for something like a prepaid cash card, because lots of bank customers don't want to expose their account information online at all - but they just didn't offer any kind of "internet gift card."
That phrase made some connection for me, and got me wondering if PayPal offered a gift card, much like I see eBay and Amazon gift cards for sale at cash registers. Sure enough, they do! I also found Green Dot MoneyPak, CoinStar, PayNearMe.com, and CashPayment.com.
Drat that I didn't think of this when the patron was in the library. Of course, he'd still have to find a nearby participating retail location, and the charity would have to accept one of these, but at least there is a way to turn cash into an internet-friendly form.
September 7th, 2013 Brian Herzog
A patron came up to me at the desk one evening, when things were really slow and most of the computers were empty, and asked,
What is your average availability for computers?
After a little clarification, what he was really asking was, how often is there at least one public workstation available, versus how often are they all in use.
Anecdotally, for my library, mornings and evenings always have available computers, but during the daytime - especially lunchtime and after school - often every computer is in use. I was able to answer this just off the top of my head, which any reference staff person could.
However, the patron really wanted an actual percentage of time the computers are free, so I had to go into our stats. We use Time Limit Manager for our 22 adult computers (we have 10 other public computers also), and the usage report for July 1 2012 - June 30 2013 broke down like this:
- Sessions: 48,192
- Used Time: 1416 days, 22 hours, 27 minutes, 29 seconds
- Unused: 970 days, 6 hours, 34 minutes, 36 seconds
- Avg Session: 42 minutes 25 seconds
If my math is correct, that rounds to 34,006.5 + 23,286.5 = 57,293 available hours total, and 23,286 is just about 41% of the time. So, roughly, 41% of the time we have a computer available for the public to use.
Those seemed like pretty good odds to the patron, and he explained to me why he asked. He said he uses his home computer very little any more, and figured that if he dropped internet access at home, the amount of money he'd save annually could buy him an airline ticket to Europe each year - and he made it clear which of those activities he prefers.
I'd like to go to Europe every year too, but I don't know that I could do without internet at home. However, I think it's awesome that someone find the library useful and reliable enough to plan their life spending - and traveling - around it. And this might be one demographic that wasn't covered by Sarah's recap of Pew's Digital Divide report - people who choose not to have internet at home because they know they can rely on the library for it.