or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

Reference Question of the Week – 8/9/15

   August 15th, 2015 Brian Herzog

off switchModern Reference work includes tech support too.

One afternoon, a patron came in and asked to use a study room. I signed him up for one, and after he got about five steps away from the desk, I got distracted with other things and completely forgot about him.

About twenty minutes later, I was walking in the direction of the study rooms, and notice he was sitting in his room, in the dark, using his laptop (which of course meant his face was spotlighted by the screen). I thought it was odd, but really it's not entirely unusual for someone to have the lights off when they're in a room, so I just chalked it up to "patrons are funny" and kept walking.

But then, as I walked past the windows of his study room, I heard him shout out, "sir! Sir!! SIR!!!"

I opened the door and said something like, "can I help you?" His response was to sit back in his chair, wave his arms around, and say,

I've got no lights!

This is an easy fix - our study rooms have motion sensors that turn the lights on when someone enters a room, but in this case the rolling white board had been pushed in front of it. As soon as I started pushing the white board over, the lights popped on. The patron thanked me and I left.

But my disbelief in this whole situation stems from that fact that it was twenty minutes - twenty minutes - from the time the patron came in to the time I happened to walk by. I wonder how long he would have kept sitting in the dark, instead of coming back to the desk to ask for help. Or, look around the room for the light switch that must be there somewhere.

Patrons are indeed funny.

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Reference Question of the Week – 8/2/15

   August 8th, 2015 Brian Herzog

Hours spelled out in phone numbersPatron interactions like this are one of my favorite parts of my job.

On Wednesday this week, late in the afternoon, the phone rang. It was just a patron calling to ask what time we closed that night, so I told him, and hung up. No problem.

Then, not two minutes later the phone rang again. When I answered it, the patron asked,

Hello, do you recognize my voice?

Of course it was the same patron who just called minutes before. I said I did, and he continued,

Well, I've already forgotten what time the library closes tonight. Can you tell me again. [I tell him 9:00 pm.] Okay thanks. I'll try to remember this time, but don't be surprised if I call back. You know, you should put your closing time in your phone number, because I have that memorized but I can't remember your hours.

It must have stuck with him this time, because he never did call back. However, what a neat idea - our phone number could be 978-930-2100 because we're open 9:30 - 9:00 (and 24 hour time for 9:00 pm is 2100). Of course, we'd need a different phone number for Fridays/Saturdays, and Sundays, so I guess that idea breaks down quickly.

Still though, it's fun when patrons are creative.

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Reference Question of the Week – 7/26/15

   August 1st, 2015 Brian Herzog

monkey phonicsI think I've already done a question like this one before, but I don't mind repeating it just because this tactic delights me.

A patron called about an hour before closing on a Friday afternoon. He said,

I want to know if you have a book on the steps used in the phonics method of teaching someone how to read. I'm writing an article about how to teach writing and want to use an analogy involving the steps for teaching reading, but I want to make sure I'm using the phonics steps correctly.

I don't know anything about the phonics method for teaching reading, but the question seemed straightforward enough. I told him it'd take me a bit of time to research it and find a book with the steps, and I took down his email address to send him the answer.

I did a few different "phonics" searches in our catalog, but couldn't find a book in our library that listed the steps. However, other libraries had promising titles - namely Phonics for the new reader : step-by-step and Get back to phonics : a step by step approach : how to improve your reading skills.

Normally I'd call the the libraries that had the books, ask them to check the table of contents for the information, and then either fax or scan and email the relevant pages to me. However, since this was at the end of the day and I was pressed for time, I tried the tactic of using Amazon's Look Inside feature to read the table of contents right from my desk.

And in this case, it paid off. Instead of sending the patron the link and trying to explain how to use Look Inside and hoping he gets it, I did the extra work of:

  • open Look Inside and view as much of the first page as I could
  • hit the Print Screen key to take a screenshot
  • paste the screenshot into Paint
  • crop to just the words I wanted
  • copy/paste that cropped image into Powerpoint
  • repeat for the rest of the relevant sections of the Table of Contents
  • once everything is pasted into Powerpoint, print using CutePDF to create a PDF version of just those sections of the Table of Contents [pdf]

That's definitely a quick and dirty way to accomplish this, and probably not the best way, but it worked for me based on the software we have on our desk computers.

But since I don't know anything about these steps, I thought I'd double-check by finding some other resources too. A quick web search turned up two websites, one that I couldn't verify the expertise of, and then a Word document from the National Right to Read Foundation [doc] (which I would tend to trust).

All three were different, but I hoped between them the patron would get what he needed. I sent all of this to the patron, thinking that the PDF would be the best resource. Within a few minutes he replied,

Thank you, Brian. Very quick work. The Word doc was just what I needed. Appreciate it.

So, go figure. I'm glad it was helpful for his article - that's definitely the important thing.

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Reference Question of the Week – 7/5/15

   July 11th, 2015 Brian Herzog

pinesapThis was actually a reference question I asked myself, but it's sort of summery so maybe relevant to other people - and, hopefully, helpful.

I was outside playing one day a few weeks ago and ended up with pine sap on my favorite pair of shorts. That's the worst because I don't like going shopping, and I thought that sap meant pretty much the end of clothes.

I was sad, so I put them aside in the hopes that the sap would just evaporate naturally. I came across them last week, and was able to determine that sap doesn't naturally evaporate out of shorts.

Since no laundry experts were around to ask, it occurred to me search online for "remove sap from clothes" to see if the internet had any ideas. I figured they did, but also figured it involved vinegar - which seems like the magical cure for almost anything, but is too bad because I can't stand the smell of vinegar.

So, with the optimism appropriate to any new trip on the internet, I started clicking links.

There was no shortage of tips and old school remedies, as you might suspect. The consensus seemed to be rubbing (or soaking) the spot of sap in anything from laundry detergent to cooking oil to WD-40 (surprisingly, vinegar was not mentioned).

Most of the options were either things I didn't have, like nail polish, or didn't actually trust, like peanut butter. But one that kept coming up - hand sanitizer - sounded interesting.

I don't have any at home (because, you know, super-bacteria), but it seems to be everywhere else so it was worth a try. I was especially swayed by this guy's video:

My shorts are cotton, but if it works so magically on his, why not mine, right?

And holy cow, it worked! Mine took three applications - my guess is because it was a big blob that had soaked through the cotton (and I had already washed and dried them) - but it worked. In just a couple minutes, it was as if the sap was never there. I don't know where it went, but it went away.

Besides the magic, it must be the alcohol in the hand sanitizer breaking down the sap, but I couldn't be happier to be able to wear my favorite shorts again stain-free.

Yay for internet research.

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Reference Question of the Week – 6/21/15

   June 27th, 2015 Brian Herzog

there was a little girl coverThis question actually happened in February - I had forgotten about it, but I think it's still interesting:

A patron called in and asked for the large print edition of There Was a Little Girl: The Real Story of My Mother and Me. We didn't have that in our catalog, so I checked Amazon, which said it was being published on March 11th (over a month away at the time).

I told him we'd be happy to order the large print edition for him, but then he asked something surprising:

Patron: I've noticed that different publishers have different size large print, and sometimes it's not that much larger than regular print. If it's not going to be much bigger than regular print, then I don't want to wait a whole moth for it. Can you see how big the type will be in that book?

Uhh... that is something I've never been asked before. I have noticed over the years that some "large print" books definitely have larger type than others, but never thought much about it. And certainly have never considered trying to find out how large the print will be before a book is published.

However, being Amazon, they do have the "Look Inside" feature - unfortunately in this case, a message said, "This view is of the Kindle book. A preview of the print book (Hardcover edition) is currently not available."

Well, since size varies by publisher, I offered to go to our large print room and grab some other books also published by Thorndike Press Large Print, and try to describe to him how large the type was. Or pull those as well as a book he'd read recently and relate the size of the two, but the patron felt it wasn't worth it. He said to put him on hold for the regular print copy, and when it came in if it was too small, he'd call back.

He never did, at least not to me, so hopefully he enjoyed the regular print edition comfortably.

After we hung up, I looked a little further and did find some large print publishing standards listed conveniently on Wikipedia:

The National Association for Visually Handicapped (NAVH) provides the NAVH Seal of Approval to commercial publishers for books that meet their large print standards.[3] (Lighthouse International acquired NAVH in 2010).[4]

The standards[5] call for:

  • Maximum limits on size, thickness, and weight
  • Minimum limits on margins
  • Type size at least 16 point, preferably 18 point
  • Sans serif or modified serif font recommended
  • Adequate letter and word spacing
  • Flexible binding recommended to allow open book to lie flat

It's remarkable that I've worked in libraries for almost 15 years now and don't think I've ever seen these standards. I suppose I always knew there must be some, but never went beyond that. And I know the publishers want a balance between the comfort of low-vision readers and keeping printing costs low, but even 16pt seems a little small to me.

However, I suppose this is the single greatest advantage of ereaders - sure they can hold a lot of books, but being able to adjust the type size depending on your reading conditions is something print book just can't do. Large Print audiobooks, though, are a different story.

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Reference Question of the Week – 6/15/15

   June 20th, 2015 Brian Herzog

colonial ninjaI know I tend to be overly-paranoid, but sometimes reference questions are so unusual that I think they just have to be some "secret shopper" type test to see if I'll take them seriously. One such question came in via email last week:

-----Original Message-----
Sent: Tuesday, June 09, 2015 5:11 PM
To: askus@mvlc.org; bherzog@mvlc.org
Subject: Chelmsford Library Reference Question

patron_name: [---------------------]
patron_email_address: [---------------------]
patron_card_number: [---------------------]

Comments: Do you have reference/source documents on trade of goods/ideas from Asia to Europe during the 18th Century? I am a French & Indian War re-enactor, and I am looking to doing some research on whether certain items, bamboo training sword and stuff like that, as well as knowledge of martial arts would have been traded during this time period.

Thank you for your assistance.

What the heck? It sounds both plausible and ridiculous at the same time. However, since that's the kind of criteria that interests me, I looked around to see what could be found.

My coworkers had already pulled the few books we had on the French and Indian War, but they weren't much help. And we didn't have any resources on Europe-Asia trade in the 18th Century, so I continued looking online. The best I could find were references to European colonization of Asia, but not much specifically about the trade of bamboo swords or martial arts training.

So, I replied to the patron with what I could find:

From: "Chelmsford Library Reference"
Sent: 6/10/2015 7:20:00 PM
Subject: RE: Chelmsford Library Reference Question


Unfortunately, we don't have very many resources on the French and Indian war, and for those we do we haven't been able to find any mention of bamboo or martial arts, or any trade with Asia.

I checked some of the history databases we subscribe to, as well as two books that seemed most relevant:
- The war that made America : a short history of the French and Indian War, by Fred Anderson (call number 973.26/Ande)
- Empires at war : the French and Indian War and the struggle for North America, 1754-1763, by William M. Fowler, Jr. (call number 973.26/Fowl)

Since we didn't have any luck with library resources, I tried to find other organizations with more expertise in the French and Indian War. Here are a few groups that might have the information you're looking for:

Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh has an extensive list of online resources:

Fort William Henry Museum in Lake George, NY, has an extensive exhibit and a Contact Us form for questions:

Fort Ligonier in Ligonier, PA, also has an extensive museum and a contact form:

Lastly, the website http://www.warforempire.org/visit/site_listing.aspx?state=massachusetts&c=visit lists sites in MA that might be of use, including the Boston National History Park which can be contacted at http://www.nps.gov/bost/contacts.htm

I did find a reference stating that the French and Indian War was the name of just the North American theater of the Seven Years War, which took place in other parts of the world simultaneously, including Asia. It looks like France, England, and Spain had various battles in Asia, mostly in India and the Philippines. Although fighting happened at the same time as the French and Indian War in North America, I wasn't able to find any cross-over between the two areas.

I'm sorry we can't provide more direct help, but we will keep looking at let you know if we find anything with the connection you're looking for. Thanks.

Brian Herzog
Head of Reference
Chelmsford Public Library

Very shortly the patron replied:

Sent: Wednesday, June 10, 2015 7:38 PM
To: Chelmsford Library Reference
Subject: Re[2]: Chelmsford Library Reference Question

Mr. Herzog,

I thank you very much for your assistance, and I must especially thank you for going several steps beyond what I expected, it is greatly appreciated!

Many thanks,

I always feel a little guilty when a patron thanks me even though I don't feel I helped very much, but perhaps one of the museums will provide the information he's seeking. And I've been mostly out of the library since this question came in, but now that I'm back I can continue looking - I still have the patron's email address, and who knows what further research might find.

Still, though - I will admit to looking this patron up in the catalog to make sure he was real before I started working on the question.

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