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

Reference Question of the Week – 1/19/15

   January 25th, 2015 Brian Herzog

I hate coming across as cynical and patron-deprecating on this blog, but I could not resist reposting this comic. I'm sure everyone who has worked at a reference desk has gone through this same thought process - for me, it was almost a GOOMHR moment and sums up much of the reference help I've given this week:

poker face tech support comic

I can even forgive the scroll wheel thing, but typing the URL into a search box and clicking "Search" instead of using the Enter key cracked me up.

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Reference Question of the Week – 1/11/15

   January 17th, 2015 Brian Herzog

surgerysignI know this is going to make me sound petty, but this happened on a bad day and it made me just shake my head. A patron came up to the desk and said,

I'm looking for a book that lists all the medical tests on one page. I got it from here before, or maybe the Lowell Library, but I don't remember what it was or what it looked like. But it listed all the medical tests on one page so you could read about them, and if you just type in "medical tests" I'm sure it'll come up. Do you know what book I'm talking about? But it might be at the Lowell Library.

I didn't know the book, and for whatever reason I thought a better strategy would be to search on "medical procedure" so I did that. And sure enough, the very promising The Gale encyclopedia of surgery and medical tests : a guide for patients and caregivers came up (which does indeed also come up when searching for medical tests).

I got the call number and took the patron over to the shelf, and when we saw it was a four-volume set, he immediate said it wasn't the right book.

Which surprised me since he said he couldn't remember what it looked like, and only really remembered the inside of the book - so to disqualify this one without even looking at the inside made me think the chance of satisfying this patron was very low.

We talked a bit more in the stacks, and I learned he was actually looking for information on a specific procedure he was considering. I suggested one of the four volumes might help with that anyway, even if it wasn't the book he remembered. Reluctantly, he was willing to flip through it while I went back to the desk to keep searching.

I tried a couple different searches and found a few books that might possibly have information on medical tests, and I was making a list of call numbers to check before walking back into the stacks. However, before I even got up from the desk, the patron walk by me on his way upstairs to leave. He was carrying one of the Gale volumes, and said without breaking stride,

This has what I'm looking for.

So, that's great. I'm happy he found something helpful - at least I hope it's helpful - but I can't help being a little frustrated when patrons make helping them more difficult that it should be.

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Reference Question of the Week – 1/4/15

   January 10th, 2015 Brian Herzog

restart dialog boxA patron came up to the desk and asked for me specifically (I was in the office at the time). She said she needs help with her computer, and hoped that I could fix it for her.

The abbreviated version of the story is that her laptop was having problems, so she took it "to the shop" to have them fix it. They said they did, and she never tried it to make sure - she just put it on a shelf and didn't use the computer.

For a year.

Now, a year later, she wanted to use her computer again, but can't remember the password. And can I help?

At least she knew that she had Windows XP, which is something. She didn't have the computer with her, so she said she'd come back the next day.

Which gave me a day to research how to reset or bypass a Windows XP user password, because I had no idea - and it sounded like something that should not be an easy thing to do. However, I found all kinds of websites with all kinds of complicated methods of discovering or resetting the password, including putting password recovery software on a boot disk. Then I found this kid's video:

That seemed easy and straightforward, so I figured I'd try it first - too easy in fact, but, as much as I wanted to help the patron, I didn't think we could really offer support beyond this. Downloading hacking software to a boot disk seemed a bit drastic.

So she came in the next day, and I was shocked that the kid's technique worked flawlessly. Partly because I didn't expect it to be so easy, and partly because it doesn't seem at all safe that it is that easy. But then, this was on a very old laptop with XP.

At any rate, the patron was happy she had access to her computer again - and of course thought I was a genius. I gave her a little talk about updating the anti-virus and getting a year's worth a security updates before she use it normally online, and also told her that XP is no longer supported and maybe think about getting a new computer. She said she got along for a year without a computer at all, so she'll see how it goes.

With a little luck, she may still enjoy XP for years to come.

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Reference Question of the Week – 12/28/14

   January 3rd, 2015 Brian Herzog

Since I've been off so much over the holidays, I haven't got a question for the week. However, in keeping with the general New Year's theme of time passing, here's something great the New York Public Library has been doing - posting photos of old reference questions on Instagram:

NYPL reference question index card

They're also using the #letmelibrarianthatforyou hashtag - if you haven't already seem this (I saw it on Boing Boing), it's worth checking out.

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Reference Question of the Week – 12/7/14

   December 13th, 2014 Brian Herzog

yogaheadphonesThis one took me by surprise.

A patron called in and ask if she could request some books. No problem. And usually when a patron tells me right off that they'll be requesting multiple books, I'll grab a pencil and paper to write titles down and look for after we hang up. If they're requesting just a few items, I'll type them in and request them as we go, but when there are a bunch of titles there's no need to make the patron wait while I do them all one at a time.

So this patron gives me her list of items, which are all yoga books with titles like Ashtanga Yoga: The Practice Manual. After about six titles, she gives me the punchline:

Okay, that's all. And I'd like all those as audiobooks.

A yoga practice manual on audiobook? I'm not familiar with this book, but it sounds like it would be mostly photos of poses, which doesn't seem like it would work at all in audio.

So I conveyed my uninformed skepticism to the patron, and she was in complete disagreement. She was as uninformed as I about the actual existence of these audiobooks, but she was far more confident that they should exist.

Which they might, and I said I'd look for them on audio and request them if I could find them. I checked our catalog, the rest of the state, WorldCat, and Amazon, but unfortunately didn't find any of them with an audio version.

At least, so far - this is one of those questions where I'll end up keeping that piece of scrap paper for years and periodically checking and rechecking various sources to try to locate the item. We'll see, but I'm not going to hold my breath.

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Reference Question of the Week – 11/30/14

   December 6th, 2014 Brian Herzog

stereoThis is a hard question to relay. What you're reading below isn't necessarily what the patron asked, it's just my understanding of what the patron asked - and I'm really not sure I ever understood correctly just what he was trying to do.

A patron came to the desk and said he had a pair of stereo earbuds, which were only playing sound on one side, and the guy at Radio Shack said he'd need to buy an adapter to make both sides play when he plugged into a mono jack (which he said our computers must have because he was only getting sound on one side). But instead of buying an adapter, the patron thought he could just go get another set of stereo earbuds and then plug one into the headphone jack on the front of our computers and the other into the jack on the back of our computers, and put whichever two of the four buds that worked into different ears and listen that way.

Most of this only marginally made sense to me. For one thing, the library headphones we offer for people to use all play sound out of both sides. I had no idea if our computer audio jacks were mono or stereo though, so we proceeded to do a little experimenting:

  • First I plugged library headphones into the front, and both sides played
  • Then I plugged them into the back, and again both sides played
  • Next I left them plugged into the back as he plugged his earbuds into the front - and he had sound on only one side and the headphones had no sound
  • Finally we plugged the earbuds in the back, and again he only had sound on one side

Since using the front jack shut off the back jack entirely, that shot down his idea of two simultaneous separate earbuds - which kind of deflated the whole situation. So after he sat down to work, I went back to the desk to try to figure out if our workstations had mono or stereo jacks. However, I poked all around inside the Control Panel and on the Dell website for our model PCs, and could not determine this one way or the other.

But what the internet did teach me is that you can tell from the plug if your headphones/earbuds are mono or stereo:



Huh - that seems so obvious, but I never knew this. I checked the library headphones, and sure enough all of them had stereo plugs, not mono plugs.

So knowing that, I decided to take a different tack - find a recording that was in stereo and see if the headphones play it correctly. A quick YouTube search found this:

Besides this being my new favorite YouTube video (the guy is so nice and polite!), it also told me that our computers definitely play in stereo. But, sadly, by this time the patron had left.

So now my working theory on what was happening is that the patron actually had mono earbuds, which apparently will only play one side when plugged into a stereo jack. Maybe this is what he was asking all along and I was just confused. He's one of our regulars though, so I'll watch for him and hopefully catch him before he buys some kind of adapter. It won't help with mono earbuds, but at least it'll save him some money. And I can also thank him for prompting me to learn all this stuff.

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