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

Reference Question of the Week – 6/7/15

   June 13th, 2015 Brian Herzog

questio nmark signSo, Monday was a odd day. All three of these (slightly odd) reference interactions happened in the space of a few hours:

1. A patron, who had been sitting at a table near the Reference Desk for a couple hours, walked up and asked,

Could I have a minute of your time?

Which I immediately thought was suspicious - it felt like he was going to try to sell me something. Then he starts this three minute ramble that his dog just died, and he just buried him, it was a Pomeranian, he was sad, he'll miss him, and it was cremated and he buried the urn.

All the while I was listening and starting to feel sad for the guy, but on the other hand was still skeptical and expecting him to ask me for money or something. Or at least get to the end and ask me a reference question.

When he finally did pause, I said something like, "I'm very sorry, that is terrible" - and then he just said "thanks for listening" and went back to his table!

Now I felt terrible - he was upset and just needed to talk to somebody, and here I was expecting a scam. I don't think he noticed though, because later when he left he smiled and said goodbye.

2. A little while after that, one of the volunteers who leads an English Conversation Circle came to the desk and said she wanted to ask me about proof of residency. She said many of her attendees have only recently come to this country and are living with their kids (who are adults). They don't have driver's licenses or any ID with their local address, and she wanted to know what they could use for proof of residency.

My initial thought was that it all depends on who they are trying to prove it to - the library, for example, will accept pretty much any mail (but preferably a bill) with their name and address on it. But she specifically said they weren't applying for library cards - she just wanted to talk about the concept of "proof of residency" in the next conversation.

I know Massachusetts issues non-driver's license ID cards, through the RMV, so I checked their website. Their requirements to get that ID don't seem to include any kind of proof of residency, and people with certain kinds of Visas are allowed to get one too.

I've never really thought about it before, and although it does seem kind of odd that you'd just walk in and tell them where you live, I guess you have to start somewhere. This might just be me being security-paranoid again.

3. And then, almost at the very end of my shift, a patron who had been in one of our study rooms for a couple hours comes up to the desk. He's got his bag, some books, a small box, and a lot of loose papers.

He asks to use the stapler and tape, which is no problem.

Then he asks if he can hang a flyer on our bulletin board, which he hands to me. It's for a fundraising road race for a non-profit, so I tell him that is also no problem.

Then, THEN, he asks me if I can hang it up right then, and if he can video record me while I hang it, because he's producing a promotional video for their Facebook page.

Well, that feels a little weird, but not so weird that I say no. So we go upstairs to the community bulletin boards right by the front entrance. It's kind of a big sign, so I need to make some room for it as he's getting his phone ready. I ask him for any last minute directorial suggestions, to which he said, "um, just pin it to the board is fine."

So I do, and we pull it off in one take. What professionalism!

I may have hesitated more for another group, but this fundraiser benefits a charity in the name of a local kid who was injured in the Boston Marathon Bombing in 2013, so it certainly is a good cause. I haven't seen the video posted yet, so keep checking.

These may not have been real reference questions, but the Reference Desk certainly is not a boring place.

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Reference Question of the Week – 5/31/15

   June 6th, 2015 Brian Herzog

This is, hands down, one of the saddest reference interactions I've ever had.

One evening a couple weeks ago, a young girl came up to the desk with a stack of pages she had just picked up off the color printer. She said the photo was coming out too dark, and she handed me one to show me what it was:

Lost pet notice

See, that's sad. She wasn't exactly crying, but you could tell that the too-dark picture was just the latest in her series of unfortunate events.

It was easy enough to go back to her computer, save the file onto a flash drive, and then print it to the staff printer at the Reference Desk. For whatever reason, those copies came out just fine, and she was happy.

While we were waiting for the copies to print, I asked her a bit about her cat. She was hopefully he'd be found, so I wished her luck and then she left.

I debated leaving her contact information on the sheet - after all, you'd need it to contact her. However, I was just not comfortable putting a little girl's personal information online, so if you happen to be in the Chelmsford area and spot this cat, please contact me and I'll forward it to her. But since this was a couple weeks ago, hopefully he is found by now.

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Reference Question of the Week – 5/24/15

   May 30th, 2015 Brian Herzog

family feudWednesdays is my night shift, and mid-way through the evening one of our regular patrons called. He's actually one of my favorite patrons because he is extremely nice, his questions are usually interesting, and he's very passionate about whatever he's asking. This time it was Family Feud:

Patron: Brian, you've got to help me. You know how you can get TV shows on the computer, right? Can you find last night's Family Feud? I was watching it but then lost the signal, and by the time I got it back the show had just ended. But I need to see it because the lady who went first at the end got 194 points! Can you believe that?

This is actually just the abridged version of his question.

He's not very tech savvy, so I told him that it's always up to the network to put shows online, and I didn't know if Family Feud did this or not. I checked their website, but didn't see any full episodes. I checked the station's website too, but again, no luck.

The patron was getting discouraged and lamenting that he'd never see this moment, when I got the idea to try YouTube. I figured that if this was as sensational as it sounds (I've never seen someone get that many points at once before), someone may have uploaded the clip.

So I did a YouTube search for "Family Feud" limited to "Today" (since the episode just aired the night before) - but again struck out. I felt like someone must have uploaded it though, so I told the patron I'd keep looking and call him when I found it.

I tried a few different keyword combinations with the YouTube search, but still couldn't find anything. So then I switched to Google, searching for "Family Feud 194" figuring the score would be mentioned in the metadata. And low and behold, the third result was a link... to a YouTube video of that clip, uploaded less than 24 hours ago!

Why that didn't come up when I was searching YouTube directly, I don't know. Maybe it was too recent? I watched the clip quickly to make sure it looked like the right thing, and then called the patron.

He was so happy he came right down to the library. I showed him how to find it on a public computer, gave him some earphones, and he very happily watched the clip of this moment. You can enjoy it too:

The patron and I talked a bit more before he left, and it felt good to make someone that happy. Plus, The Family Feud has always been one of my favorite game shows, although I haven't watched it in years, so this was fun for me too.

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Reference Question of the Week – 5/10/15

   May 16th, 2015 Brian Herzog

Winston Churchill V for Victory signThis isn't a reference question I received (at least, not recently), but this Reddit thread was too good not to share here:

My mother, despite being in her mid 60's, is awesome with computers. She's a public librarian, and is often at the wrong end of users' questions. I came home for a quick Mother's Day visit and she told me this gem:

User: I can't copy this highlighted section! This mouse must be broken!

Mom: Just press the control and C keys at the same time. Yes, that'll copy it. Now hit the control and V keys at the same time.

User: V?? Why not P?

Mom: V stands for Velcro, so when you paste it, it'll stick.

User: Ooh ok! That makes sense!

TL;DR- My mom is amazing.

I never really questioned if the V stood for anything - I just thought it was chosen because it was next to C (and using P for Print makes more sense). However, one of the comments had a different explanation as to why V=paste:


That is a great answer - but still, it has the feeling of creating a sensible-sounding explanation for something after-the-fact, based on context. Like saying that [sic] is really an abbreviation for "spelling isn't correct." I mean, if the V key wasn't next to the C, would they still have used it?

Either way though, associating Ctrl+V with Velcro is a great way to have that stick in a patron's mind.

And someone please help me with this: is there a word for making up a definition for something after-the-fact? Like the [sic] thing? I feel like there should be, but I can't find it. Sort of like neologism I guess, so maybe "Deflogism."

Thanks Chris.

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Reference Question of the Week – 4/26/15

   May 2nd, 2015 Brian Herzog

US ConstitutionAn older gentleman came to the desk one afternoon and asked for a copy of the Constitution. Neat - I don't know that anyone has ever asked me for that.

Since he had a cane and came out of the elevator, I wasn't going to make him walk with me into the stacks, so I told him I'd be right back. I went to the 340s, figuring we'd have something there with the text of the Constitution in it - and that it would stand out on the shelf because I couldn't exactly remember the call number.

Sure enough, we had a Teen book (yay for interfiling adult and teen!) with the text as an appendix.

I took it back to the patron and showed him the text, and he didn't look at all pleased. I asked him if the text of the Constitution was what he was looking for, in case I had misunderstood him initially, but he said yes it was. Hmm.

It then occurred to me that when he asked if we had a copy of the Constitution, he may have thought we have an actual copy of it - either one of the big souvenir rolls like the Declaration of Independence from the movie National Treasure, or an actual original copy.

I didn't ask him this though, and after a second I think he realized that I was handing him a readable text of the Constitution, and he became okay with that. He thanked me and left, but I honestly can't help thinking this YA book was a pale imitation of what he might have expected.

After all, the Dallas Library has an original copy of the Declaration of Independence, so why shouldn't we have the Constitution? Well, the people who know me will point to the food stains on my pants as to why I can't have nice things.

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Reference Question of the Week – 4/19/15

   April 25th, 2015 Brian Herzog

IRS scam alertWorking at a Reference Desk isn't all about funny misunderstandings. Sometimes it's very serious, as this week's question shows. However, two things about this question:

  1. It actually happened last week morning of April 15th
  2. Wednesdays are my late shift, so I only heard about how my coworkers handled this when I came in at 1pm - but they did everything right and I thought it was worth sharing

Apparently, an older female patron came up to the desk and asked for help scanning and emailing something. One of the desk staff showed her how to get started scanning, and went back to the desk. A few minutes later, the patron came back over and asked for help emailing. After a short conversation, when the patron found out the scanner can't email things itself but instead she needs to send it from her own email account - which she didn't have - she put her head down on the table and said,

You just don't understand, you don't understand how serious this is, I'm going to be arrested!

Everyone knows library staff are not supposed to ask why when helping patrons, but they rightly did in this case.

It had been all over news outlets this tax season how there was a new kind of scam: you'd get a phone call and the person would say they were the IRS and you needed to send them money or else you'd be arrested. That was exactly what was happening with this patron - she had just deposited her money in an account in the bank across the street (which was not her bank), and had come to the library to scan and email the deposit slip to "the IRS" so they could withdraw it.

Thank goodness our staff caught on. The patron had a hard time believing she was being scammed, but staff insisted. They brought her into the office so she could sit down relax, and staff called the Police. When the officer arrived, he listened to the situation, and then left with the patron to go over to the bank.

As far as I know, we never heard back about what happened, but it sounds like the situation was derailed in time - at least, I sincerely hope so. And, there are two other comments about this interaction:

  1. My coworker who was helping the woman said the patron's cell phone kept ringing the entire time, and it was the scammer! I guess he knew he was close to getting his money, so he kept calling to find out why she hadn't sent the email yet. Finally my coworker took the woman's phone and told the scammer that they knew what was going on and exactly what she thought of him. I'm sorry I missed that.
  2. Since this was all happening in the public area, and the woman was clearly in distress, of course it caught the attention of all the other patrons in the area. As it unfolded and everyone realized she was being taken by a scammer, other patrons sitting at the computers nearby starting chiming in with their own comments - ranging from advice to criticism on her being dangerously gullible. Now that is almost as pathetic as scamming the elderly out of money.

Anyway, the whole situation seemed to be handled perfectly by the staff, so way to go to them.

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