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


Reference Question of the Week – 5/15/11

   May 21st, 2011 Brian Herzog

Giant checkOne of our regulars is a patron with special needs who is in all the time - so much so that I think he considers library staff some of his closest friends.

As a result, he is totally comfortable telling us things that many of us would rather not hear - and in this case, he told me something I wasn't sure what to do with.

Just before closing one night, he comes in and walks right up to the desk, happy as can be. He pulls out a crumpled and dirty check, shows it to me, and asks me if I think the bank will cash it.

It's made out in his name, for $300, and when I ask him where he got it (occasionally he'll get checks for his birthday or things, and always tells us about how much money he has), he says:

I found it blank in the street, so I put my name on it and $300. Do you think the bank will give me the money? If not it's okay, I just want to see if they will*.

I fairly emphatically told him he should absolutely not try to cash that check, that it's illegal, it's stealing, and if he tries it, the bank won't just tell him no, they will call the police and he'll go to jail.

With this negative response, he quickly puts the check away (I also noticed it was already endorsed), and said he wasn't trying to steal, he just wanted to see if they'd cash it. And he didn't care about the police or going to jail, because he's been to jail before, and anyway his apartment was messy and he was out of food (which actually made me laugh, even though I was trying to be serious).

He went to the computers until we closed, and as he was leaving I again told him not to take it to the bank, and he said it was okay if they didn't give him the money, he just wanted to try and see if they would.

All of this happened between 8:50-9:00 PM, so there wasn't much I could do. But when I thought about it on my way home, what could I do? Call the police? The bank? Which bank? His case worker? His mom?

Instead, I emailed my Director, knowing that she has a good relationship with the Police Chief, and I had no idea what legal requirements town employees have when it comes to knowledge of intent to break a law. The next morning, she did call his case worker, who I think has some legal responsibility for him. We also have worked with this case worker in the past, on other issues relating to this patron, so it wasn't exactly a call out of the blue.

I opened that next morning, and within about fifteen minutes of opening the doors, this special needs patron came in to use the computers. I asked him if he had gone to the bank, and he said,

Yeah, they took my check away and tore it up and told me never to come back.

So, good on the bank for that reaction. I know this patron understands that what he was doing was wrong, but I think ending things by just ripping up the check was the right response, given the circumstances. I'm still not sure there is a clear role for the library in a precrime situation like this, but I am happy it resolved more or less correctly - and at least the poor guy who lost the check in the first place isn't out $300.

 


*Also keep in mind that this patron never speaks softly, so when he said this, very loudly in a quiet library, the other ten patrons in the area heard him.



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Reference Question of the Week – 11/30/08

   December 6th, 2008 Brian Herzog

toy gunThis week's reference question is a series of interactions over the course of about twenty minutes. To get the full impact, I need to give some basic background on the patron.

This patron is one of our regulars at the library. He is a special needs patron, and often asks for help with spelling and things like that. However, he is a savant when it comes to anything having to do with horror films/actors, superheros and comics. Also, every so often, he lets us know he's looking for someone to hangout with, by which he means a girlfriend.

One day, he comes to the desk and asks,

How do you spell white?

I write it on a slip of paper for him, and he goes back to his computer. A few minutes later, he comes back and asks,

How do you spell girlfriend?

A few minutes after that, it's

How far away is Florida?

I try to describe it to him, and then show him on a map. Basically, the bottom line is that it's too far away to walk to, which disappoints him. He then tells me this:

I met a girl on the internet, and she's nice. She lives in Florida, and she's a sheriff. She said she wants me to get a fake gun and handcuffs and come to her house and pretend to kidnap her, and then she'll go out with me. Isn't that cool?

I was kind of stunned. Professionally of course, I can't tell him what he can and can't do. But I did give him a lecture about being careful about who he meets online and what he tells them. I also told him that showing up anywhere with a toy gun is dangerous, but he kept telling me it would be a fake gun.

Thank goodness Florida is too far to walk. I honestly don't know what I would have done if he told me this and the person was close enough for him to walk to. It feels wrong to call someone, but he could get shot or who knows what doing this.

Librarians can't monitor patrons' lives, but when a special needs person volunteers this kind of information, I do think it is our place to intervene to keep him safe. With this particular patron, I usually just need to remind him that his mom would be angry with him is she found out, and that's a good deterrent. Otherwise, I'm not sure what I could do.



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