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

Reference Question of the Week – 10/25/15

   October 31st, 2015 Brian Herzog

series of unfortunate eventsThis isn't a reference question, but this whole scenario is a service provided by the Reference Desk (usually without incident) that this time ended up being a it's-funny-because-it's-true series of problems.

So, test proctoring. We do it so often that I created a little info webpage to answer general questions and make us look legit. We probably average one exam or so a week over the course of a year, which feels like a lot to me for a public library.

And of course, with this many exams, we deal with a variety of students and schools. It's mildly interesting to me how almost every school has their own process - 80% of which are totally fine and normal, 10% are oddly casual, and 10% are absurdly difficult.

In this case, the process was unnecessarily difficult. Usually, our process is to have the student tell us when they're coming in for the exam, and the school will send us the test (or login information for online tests) a week or so in advance.

Unfortunate Thing #1 with this situation is that the school's policy is to send us the exam 30-45 MINUTES in advance. That's cutting it close at the best of times, and, to me, seems entirely unnecessary. But it's their test, so okay.

However, Unfortunate Thing #2, the test was scheduled for 5:30pm. My shift ended at 5:00, which would have been no problem since the test should arrive 30-45 minutes early. But 5:00 comes, and my coworker reminds me the test hasn't arrived yet. In my library, any Reference staff person can proctor tests, but I am the primary coordinator so all tests are sent to my email or mailed to my attention.

Oh, and the student had come in about 4:45 wanting to start early, and kept hanging around the Reference Desk looking at us like we clearly were too incompetent to manage something like handing her pieces of paper. I would call this Unfortunate Thing #3, but it's a patron prerogative to come to the library whenever they want, and it's possible I was just projecting this look onto her - because she was actually very nice.

By 5:15 the exam still hadn't arrived in my email, so I call the contact I have for the school. Her phone rings and then goes to voice mail - that is not a good sign (Unfortunate Thing #4). I hang up and try calling the general number for the department - which also goes to voice mail. I look online and try to track down another number, and find a different number for the same academic department. Thankfully, someone answers that phone, and says the person who coordinates these tests has left for the day. Arrgh. But, she transfers me to someone else who she thinks can help.

That person apologizes that the test was never set, and said she'll have someone send it right over. Then, she confirms my FAX number.

Oh. Don't get me wrong, I fully support fax technology and love the fact that it is a service my library offers to the public. Because sometimes, it is the best tool for the job.

However, it is not the best tool in this case. Unfortunate Thing #5.

Regardless, I thank her, and then walk into our office and wait by the fax machine for the exam. After a few minutes, the fax machine comes to life and starts spitting out pages.

Spitting out might be overly-generous imagery - laboriously churning out pages is probably more accurate. After about five pages, at about a minute per page, I think, "okay, this must be about all of them," so I pick them up straighten them, and look at the cover sheet. It says,

Number of pages (including cover sheet): 26

Twenty-six! Holy smokes. Unfortunate Thing #6. And they faxed this to us! Emailing a PDF for me to print would have been So Much Less time. But, fax happens, and there's nothing for me to do but sit and wait it out. Meanwhile, through the office door's window, I can see the student waiting by the Reference Desk - still looking like we clearly were too incompetent to manage something like handing her pieces of paper (says I).

And then, Unfortunate Thing #7, one page later, the fax stops printing. That's suspicious, because I know it hasn't been 26 pages yet. I look at the fax's display:


Oh jeez. I don't even know if we have a backup toner cartridge for the fax machine, so I ask our office assistant if she knows where they are. She's only been here a few months, and said she has never changed one before, but goes to where we keep all our toner - and thank goodness comes back with something that looks right.

I've never replaced the fax toner either, but between the two of us, we take the old one out, put the new one in, and, again, thankfully, the fax machine picks up printing right where it left off.

It's about 5:45 by this point, so I take the first batch of pages out to the patron. At least that way she can get started, and I'll bring the rest in when they finally finish printing.

I hand them to the patron, and her response is priceless:

Me: Here's the first ten pages - the rest are still printing, but you don't need to wait until they're done to get started.
Patron: How many pages are there?
Me: 26.
Patron: 26!

I wish I could explain the look on her face. It's really just 22 pages of test, because four of the pages were the cover sheet and exam instructions, but that didn't really help much.

So she goes off to get started, and I go back to the fax machine to wait.

Finally, just before 6pm, I take the rest of the test out to the desk and my coworkers gives it to the student in the study room.

And then, finally, I can go home - an hour late. Oh well.

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On Helping Parents Instead of Students

   April 19th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Parents with studentToday's post is a response to an email I received (thanks, Amber). She said she just started working in a public library again, and asked if I had any advice on helping parents when they are looking for resources for their child's homework. This happens often enough that I've actually written it into our reference policy.

The best-case scenario is when the parent comes in with the student, and I always try to engage the student as much as possible. After all, it's the student that knows what their assignment is and what kind of information they need - not to mention I am trying to teach them research skills at the same time.

The situation that can be the most difficult is when the parent comes in alone. It is certainly a good thing to have a parent involved in their child's education, but more often than not, I get the distinct impression that the parent is just doing the child's homework for them - which makes me uncomfortable.

Here are some of the tactics I use any time an adult asks for information on the underground railroad, or the Black Plague, or a very specific animal, etc:

  • Ask them if this is for them or for a homework assignment
    Rarely do people let you know right away that their question is for their child's homework assignment, but the quicker you know where you stand, the better
  • Ask if they have the homework assignment with them
    Maybe one person in a hundred actually does, but it can help a lot. For awhile the school library staff were emailing us assignments as they got them from the teachers, but this dropped off after they had staff cuts
  • Ask how much and what type of information is required, and the nature and length of the project
    If they don't have the homework assignment with them, this is the next best thing - but it's still rare that a parent would know very many details. However, sometimes they know that they need just two books*, or that they need photographs, or that the project is a three paragraph biography, etc. Whatever they can tell you will help, because there's a big difference between a five page paper and a poster.

    I also use this question to try to limit the amount of books the parent takes - some parents just want to take every single book they can find on the topic, and let the child sift through them once they get home. This is bad because often more than one student has the same topic, so if the parent says they need just two books, I try to hold them to that to leave resources for other kids

  • Ask for the age/grade of the student
    Obviously this is important in selecting the most appropriate resources, but also tells me right away if adult or teen resources are even applicable, or if I should refer them to the Children's Room
  • Ask when the assignment is due
    The answer to this is usually "tomorrow," but not always. This is especially helpful to know if I'm having trouble finding books on the topic - if the project isn't due for a week or so, that opens up the option of requesting books from other libraries. If there isn't time for that, I do remind patrons that they can drive to other libraries and pick up materials there (thanks to being in a consortium)
  • Give them our guide to accessing databases from home
    Also very helpful when I'm having trouble locating resources in the library, but this of course is limited to people who have internet access at home. I always give my speech about how databases are not an "internet source," and also write down the specific name of the databases that will help. If there is time, I show the parent how to search the database and that there is relevant information - and if we get this far, I always email one of the articles we find to them from the database, to remind them when they get home to use it
  • Tell them to have the student call or come in if they need more help or have questions
    Of course, it is ideal to work directly with the student, even if it's just on the phone. Sometimes students come in the next day after school, but I have had kids call later that night after their parents got home, asking where in the books they brought home is the information they need. I walk them through using the book's index and table of contents, and that is often enough to get them started

I'm curious to find out what other tactics are useful for this situation - it's something we face all the time, so please share your success stories in the comments.


*The absolute worse-case scenario, but one I've been seeing more and more, is when the project is already done and they just need a book source for the bibliography. Generally this confession comes from the student rather than the parent, but I probably hear this once or twice a month. I mentioned this to a middle school teacher who tutors a lot in the library, and she was shocked - enough that she said she'd bring it up at the next curriculum meeting.

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Copyright on Campus Video

   March 3rd, 2011 Brian Herzog

I think this is reatively new - the Copyright Clearance Center has released a very good overview video about "Copyright on Campus"

This is a follow-up to their "Copyright Basics" video, and is among others in the series of educational tools and guidelines. Hopefully the next one will be "Copyright in Public Libraries," but it's all useful - thanks for sharing, Katie.

It also occurred to me that this format might be a good vehicle for an "ebooks basics" tutorial - except, regardless of how informative it might be, I think that would be an ultimately unpleasant video.

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Hack Library School

   February 24th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Hack Library SchoolHere's something to check out: Hack Library School.

It's mainly a tech sandbox for library school students, but since today's students are tomorrow's librarians, keeping up with what they're doing is well worth the time. Librarianship is increasingly technology-based, and libhackers are well-positioned to be the innovators and leaders.

From the website:

The Web is our Campus.

This is an invitation to participate in the redefinitions of library school using the web as a collaborative space outside of any specific university or organization. Imagine standards and foundations of the profession that we will create, decided upon by us, outside of the institutional framework. Ideas like the democratization of the semantic web, crowdsourcing, and folksonomies allow projects like this to exist and we should be taking advantage of it. What will the information professions be next year if we define it for ourselves today? If we had a voice in the development of curriculum, what would that degree entail? This is our challenge to you; participate or come up with a better idea. How would you hack library school?

Besides, they rank Swiss Army Librarian at #5 of library blog to follow, so you know they've got good taste.

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