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

Reference Question of the Week – 12/8/13

   December 14th, 2013 Brian Herzog

girl scout communication badgeHere's hoping I can crowd-source a reference question to help someone. I received the following message through the contact form on this website:

OK, this is my final attempt to research something. I'm going to pass it to you and then hopefully let it go! My mother died two years ago, Dec. 29th at the age of 91. We had a wonderful final six years together when I moved her to live in a small single floor house right across the street from me. We were great friends, always. (Well, maybe not in my tantrum throwing years) She told me of a saying she learned when she was a girl scout, of all places, that she was able to rattle-off with great speed until the day she died. If I had asked her, she could have made it the last humorous comment of her life. I am so haunted by it because I CAN'T find it anywhere on-line. I only remember bits of it. Now I'm going to see if YOU can research it! It HAD to have existed. Someone else MUST have known it, too. It was a humorous collection of "almost" cuss phrases. See what you can do with this pitiful hint: "son of a biscuit basket cheese and crackers got damp down in the (cellar overnight)" It was longer than that, and my quote may be flawed, after all, I am 67!! My memory is cruddy!! I always meant to write down this whole litany or memorize it, but never did. Do you think you can research it for me? It would help put this aggravating issue to rest in my own brain. Thanks.

I've certainly heard "naughty" rhymes like this, and when I searched online for variations of the key phrases, I did find a few that sounded familiar - though a bit ruder and not quite like what the person quoted.

I found a couple that are close, but don't seem as long as she was looking for:

So, are there any girl scouts out there that know this rhyme?

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Reference Question of the Week – 12/1/13

   December 7th, 2013 Brian Herzog

headphones required signI've seen some weird things while helping with tech support, but this is really one of the weirdest damn things I've ever encountered.

For awhile now, we've been getting complaints about YouTube videos not working on some of our computers. The problem has been easy to reproduce, because, sure enough, the video will play for a second and then the viewer window goes black/staticy and displays a "video cannot play" error.

Usually the culprit is an out-of-date browser or plugin, but even with the latest versions the problem persisted. Searching online didn't really turn up anything useful. I got so frustrated that I had to go to my second-to-last-resort, YouTube's help suggestions - still nothing.

Finally, I went to my last resort, asking our IT person to take over the problem because I wasn't making any progress. It baffled her too for a little while, but after some more online searching, she came up with a fix: plug in the headphones.

I believe our computers automatically mute their speakers when headphones are unplugged (so as not to play sound otherwise, which may bother the patrons around them). YouTube must be looking at some sound setting in the computer and doesn't like not having available speakers, and so just doesn't play the video at all. But if you have headphones plugged in before the video starts, it works just like it should. I have no idea why YouTube videos would not play without this, but there you go.

I don't understand it, but it works, so maybe I don't need to. Just, thank goodness for smart coworkers.

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Reference Question of the Week – 11/17/13

   November 23rd, 2013 Brian Herzog

SlideHere's a service I didn't even know the library could offer - until someone asked about it.

An older patron called late morning one day, and asked if we had a slide projector. Before I could answer (and the answer would have been "no"), she continued, saying that she had a bunch of slides from different places she's been - she hadn't looked at them for years, and just wanted to see what was on them.

While she was talking, and knowing we didn't have a slide projector, I started thinking of other options to accommodate her. To view slides, all you need to do is project light through them, so I thought maybe using a digital projector and holding the slide in front of it might work. Or even just a flashlight.

Then for some reason I thought of our microfilm machine. I've never tried it with slides, but it seemed like it would work - just put the slide on the glass where the film/fiche would go, and it should be nicely viewable on the screen.

So I told the patron to come in, and that we could find something she could use. If the microfilm machine didn't work, there's always a flashlight.

About mid-afternoon she arrived, with a shopping bag full of slide boxes. We went over to the microfilm machine, and I showed her how to turn it on and put a slide on the glass - and amazingly, it worked great:

Slide on the microfilm machine

She's not a very techie person, but she could easily handle swapping out slides and aligning them so she could see them on the screen. There was hardly anything to it, and the image was nice and big. And, a side benefit was that she could even print them!

She spent a couple hours looking at them - not rushed at all, just enjoying them. She let me know when she was leaving so I could turn "that machine" off, and she seemed quite happy. Yay! And double-yay for successfully improvising.

Also: an interesting aside to this reference question is that I believe this is the first time I've ever seen a color image on our microfilm machine - I never knew it had it in it.

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Reference Question of the Week – 11/10/13

   November 16th, 2013 Brian Herzog

blowguncaneThis wasn't a particularly difficult question, but it was fun and interesting - and none of it took place in my library.

One Friday night, a guy I know showed me a cane passed down from his grandfather to his father, and from his father to him. His grandfather lived in Sweden, and all my friend (who is in his sixties) knew about him was that he worked on some kind of coastal cargo boat, making runs to various ports of Europe. He figured the cane could be be fairly old, and could be from anywhere in Europe.

The cane was interesting because it wasn't just old, it also concealed a hidden weapon. Now, I've seen sword canes before and have heard of gun canes, but I'd never heard of anything like this one. It was a kind of gun cane, in that the shaft screwed apart to open up a place to insert a bullet. But the really unusual thing was that the top of the handle also unscrewed, and that was designed as a blowgun.

The net result of this was that you held the cane to your mouth, blew (hard) to move a firing pin forward to strike the bullet to fire it down the barrel which was inside the length of the cane. Very novel design, and a really cool antique cane.


But holy smokes I can't believe people wouldn't knock their teeth out firing this thing.

Anyway, this is what we were able to figure out just from examining the cane. The blowgun part was unmistakable, and the firing pin mechanism was still intact and worked. We weren't sure exactly what caliber bullet it took, and had no idea of the age or origin. However, it was a neat thing to see on a Friday night.

But of course, being a librarian, I wasn't satisfied with that. When I got home that night I started researching "blow gun cane" online, and eventually found a few websites with pictures almost exactly like what my friend had, including some auction websites giving a ballpark value.

Now that was some pretty good information, but I noticed one website included the reference,

Similar to one illustrated on page 191 of Snyder's Canes.

Research is all about following clues, so my next stop was Amazon to figure out what book this "Snyder's Canes" might be. My best guess was Canes: From the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Century, by Jeffrey B. Snyder. Another quick search didn't turn up any option to read the book online, so I checked our library catalog - and my luck continued to hold. My library didn't have a copy, but another library in our consortium did.

Normally I'd just request the book and wait the few days for it to arrive. However, I was seeing my friend on Sunday, and I really wanted to show him what I found. So, while I was out running errands on Saturday, I swung by the Topsfield Town Library to check the book out - yay for Saturday hours, and yay for consortium reciprocal borrowing privileges*.

It's a funny experience to pick up a book for the very first time and be able to flip right to the page with your relevant information - behold**:

Canes book, page 191

The two bottom pictures are exactly it - awesome. Sunday morning I emailed my friend the links I had found and also show him the book. He was suitably impressed and grateful, but above all interested and happy to have the extra information.

The bottom line seems to be the cane is from France from the late 1800s, and probably fired a .32 caliber bullet. He has no plans to sell it or fire it, so for now, this information was exactly what he was looking for. And I of course ended up happy too, because what's more fun than a nice little weekend research project - involving an antique blowgun cane, no less?


*A special treat was that the library director was working the circ desk and checked me out - so a big yay for hands-on directors staffing service desks.

**By the way, this page was scanned with my library's public scanner - another library win!

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Reference Question of the Week – 11/3/13

   November 9th, 2013 Brian Herzog

Harvard ID signThis reference question can be filed under "just one more thing a librarian may be asked to do sometime." A patron came in one day this week and asked if I could write him a letter so he could get into the library at Harvard.

He said he had found two books in WorldCat that he wanted to use, but he needed a letter to be allowed to use them in their reading room. I've never been in Harvard's Widener Library myself, and have heard that anyone who isn't affiliated with Harvard needed special (and hard to get) permission to use their collection.

I'd never been asked to assist a patron in gaining access, so while he got to work on his laptop, I went to work figuring out what I could do to help.

A quick search turned up a webpage for Harvard's Library Privileges Office (the existence of which amused me but someone's got to do it), on which I found the criteria for Independent Researchers not Affiliated with Harvard:

Necessary Documentation: A valid photo ID card AND a letter from the reference librarian of your university or public library stating that the specific library materials needed are not available elsewhere.

Privileges Available
Free of charge:

Application for a Visiting Researcher Card should be made in person at the Library Privileges Office.

Before writing the letter, I looked up in WorldCat the two book titles the patron had given me. Both were indeed at Harvard, however: one was also available at Boston University (just across the Charles River from Harvard), and the other was at Amherst College (about 70 miles away).

I don't know how strict the Library Privileges Office is about "materials needed are not available elsewhere." Although, even though each book was available in another MA college, only Harvard had both, so gaining this access would save time for the patron - who did tell me he had a deadline.

So I typed up a letter [pdf], which I hope is good enough to help the patron. I wasn't sure if there was a proper format or anything, but I really do hope this works. The patron thanked me, took the letter, and I think immediately left to go present it in person at Harvard. I hope the he lets me know how he makes out.

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Reference Question of the Week – 10/20/13

   October 26th, 2013 Brian Herzog

Instead of a single reference question this week, I wanted to detail a series of unusual things that all happened on Friday - none of which had ever happened before.

  1. A patron walked up with with a stack of about five books, and asked if she could leave them on the desk for a minute. Of course that was fine, and a couple minutes later she came back with another big stack. She then asked if she could put one of the stacks on hold, so she could pick them up tomorrow. That sounded odd, but then she explained that she had walked to the library and couldn't carry them all home in one trip. I suppose this is no different than someone placing items on hold from home, but I have never had a walk-up hold request like this before. But the best part was at the end - ask she was leaving, the patron said,

    My daughter always tells me I have too many books, and I say you can never have too many books. I'm not going to tell her that she's right, but sometimes, you can have too many books... to carry.

  2. A patron came up and asked for help using a flash drive on the computer. She said she wanted to work on a Word file that was on her drive, but when she plugged it in the drive was blank, and she was worried our computer erased all her files. When we got back to her workstation, initially I didn't see her flash drive even plugged into the computer, but then noticed it plugged into the USB ports built into the monitor. Those have never been hooked up, and in five years no one has tried to use them (or at least asked me about it). We moved her flash drive to one in the CPU, and everything was fine.
  3. We recently added a public scanning station, which is just a regular flatbed scanner hooked to a computer. When we put it out, we decided we'd have a "scanner first" policy, meaning that if someone was using the computer but not the scanner, and another patron needed to use the scanner, we'd ask the non-scanning patron to move to a different computer. Today was the first time I had to do this.
  4. A patron came in and said that her car was hit in the parking lot yesterday. It turns out, the library's truck was also hit in the parking lot yesterday, but was parked about as far away from the patron's car as you could get. We've never had a hit-and-run in our parking lot, so two in the same day is either a coincidence or one very bad driver careening all over the place. In neither case was the damage very bad, but still - bad driving and library parking lots is a bad combination.
  5. Circ staff called me to the circ desk because a patron asked for help signing up for a SafeLink cell phone - but by the time I got there, the patron was gone. It turned out he only spoke Hindi, and one of our Hindi-speaking staff members was helping him. I checked on them at a computer, but they were doing fine - it's not often I'm dismissed from a reference interaction, especially a tech-support one, but I was absolutely irrelevant to this patron's need. Luckily, my co-worker wasn't.
  6. Near the end of the day, the same patron from #2 came back up to the desk. She had been working on her Word document all day, and said her computer restarted and she lost everything, because it turned out she'd been saving her updated document to the computer, not to the flash drive. She had printed a draft shortly before the computer restarted, so she had most of it, but had to retype the whole thing, and ask me to show her how to save to her flash drive to make sure she didn't lose it again. However, scanner to the rescue! We took her printed draft to the scanner, which has a "scan to Word" OCR function, and in less than a minute had a new Word document for her (and saved on her flash drive). I can not tell you how happy this made her - scanner win!
  7. And finally, the weirdest thing of all came when I checked my personal email right before I went home. In there, sent to my Swiss Army Librarian email address, was this message:

    Hello, I am writing in an unusual case ... Some time ago, I used your services, and one of your employees face was familiar to me. At dinner with my wife, it turned out that he was a burglar, who 5 years ago broke into our home!!! This is ridiculous!!! How you can hire criminals? I found at least 3 bad entries for him at website for background check!! I am sure there are more!!! Please do something about it, things like that are ridiculous!!!

    Now this seemed like spam, but just to be on the safe side, I looked the "from" email up in our catalog, and got no hits. I know spam is inexplicable much of the time, but this was just bizarre. And pointless.

So those were the highlights of my day on Friday. I guess this is more like a Library Day in the Life post than a reference question of the week, but it was an odd day.

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