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


Reference Question of the Week – 3/29/15

   April 4th, 2015 Brian Herzog

2015irswhenwilliThis was an extremely timely question - and one I even personally benefited from.

A patron came to the desk and asked if he could find out if the IRS had mailed him his tax refund check yet. This year has been notorious for longer-than-usual waits for everything from the IRS, but he said he'd mailed in his paper tax returns over a month ago and in past years the IRS has had pretty quick turnaround on refunds.

Coincidentally, I also do my taxes with paper forms, and mailed them in just about a month ago, and likewise have not received my refund check yet. So this patron made me realize I had the same question he did - although I didn't know it until he came in.

Anyway, a rather tongue-in-cheek search for has my tax return been processed led us to the IRS' 2015 Tax Season Refund Frequently Asked Questions, which in turn lead us to the appropriately-named Where's My Refund website.

On this site you have to enter your social security number, your filing status, and your exact refund amount, and it then tells you where your return stands. The patron didn't know his refund amount, but this was clearly the right tool for the job, so he wrote down the URL, thanked me, and left.

When I got home that night, I entered my own information (and although the URL is https://sa.www4.irs.gov, I still felt uncomfortable entering it online - I'm paranoid!), and was happy to see this:

2015 I.R.S. refund status

I said this was a very timely post, because I learned that my check was mailed on the very day I looked it up. So yay for that to look forward to - and also yay for discovering a tool I think might become somewhat popular in the next few weeks. And while I'm handing out the yays, yay to the IRS for making this tool available, easy to use, and very clear. I know they're being roundly maligned this tax season, but not all of it is deserved, and here's proof.



Tags: , , , , , , , , ,



Tax Season Should Be Fun This Year

   January 15th, 2015 Brian Herzog

tax bobbleheadBy now, hopefully you've heard what the IRS will be providing to libraries this year in the way of tax products. If not, here's the email TFOP libraries received last week:

TFOP Filing Season Update

While we had committed to waiting until next year to making changes to the Tax Forms Outlet Program, the situation has changed. As you may be aware, IRS appropriations were significantly cut in the 2015 Omnibus Appropriations bill recently passed by Congress. Unfortunately this puts us in a position where we have very few options. We want to honor our commitment to you by providing some key products, but we cannot deliver nearly what we have in the past.

For this filing season, we will offer the following products:

  • Forms 1040, 1040A and 1040EZ
  • Publication 17, one reference copy for each participant (Taxpayers will be able to access Publication 17 in English and Spanish online from irs.gov/Pub17 and, new this year, it will also be available as a free e-Pub for downloading from IRS.gov and viewing on most e-Readers and other mobile devices.)
  • Publication 4604 (EN/SP), Use the Web for IRS Tax Products & Information
  • Publication 1132, Reproducible Copies of Federal Tax Forms and Instructions
  • The TFOP Poster Package which includes:
    • Publication 1169, Need Tax Help?
    • Publication 1258, Where Should I Send This?
    • Publication 1309, Tax Forms This Way Publication
    • Publication 1725, If The Form Fits...Use It!

No additional products will be available through the TFOP Program. We will not be sending Form 8635-S, Supplement to Form 8635.

We will fill orders for Forms 1040 and 1040A with the quantities you requested on your order form earlier this year. Because Form 1040EZ was not on this year's order form, we will send you 75% of your Form 1040 A order quantity. For example, if you ordered 3000 Form 1040 A, we will send you 2250 Form 1040EZ. It is not necessary for you to place an order for Form 1040EZ; we will automatically ship Form 1040EZ to you once the form becomes available.

Unfortunately, we are unable to offer Instructions for Forms 1040, 1040A and 1040EZ. Your patrons can obtain copies of Instructions through:

  • IRS.gov/Forms - to view and download
  • IRS.gov/orderforms - to order tax products to be delivered by mail
  • 1-800-829-3676 - to order tax products to be delivered by mail

The decision to reduce the number of tax products available to our TFOP partners was not made lightly. We realize this decision is not ideal and we understand it may impact you and your customers. Please offer Publication 4604 (EN/SP) to your patrons to help guide them to tax products and information available on IRS.gov. We apologize for these late program changes.

Thank you for your support,
IRS TFOP Administrator

Which really is terrible news for libraries and patrons - patrons because so many people have relied on easily picking up tax forms at their local library, and libraries because we'll be spending a lot of time apologizing for the IRS to those many irate patrons.

But we can get through this. Libraries near me have been sharing ideas on how to handle these changes. Here's what we'll be doing:

  • Printing a sign to explain the situation to people - basically, to say that these are all the tax forms we have and that's all we're getting
  • Have a handout ready with the URL and phone number above for where people can request forms be mailed to them. My first draft [pdf] looks like this:
    taxforms-bymail
  • Used the order form website myself to get two copies of the instruction booklets so the library will have reference copies
  • Printed copies of the 1040, 1040A, and 1040EZ instruction to make circulating copies in three-ring binders for patrons. We're starting with two of each, and will print more as demand increases (because it's a lot of printing). They'll circulate for one week, and we'll allow patrons to place local holds too
  • Continue with our "first copy free" policy of printing tax forms for patrons. In the past this has just been for the oddball form here and there, but this year we expect to be printing a lot more*. Although for us, this free copy only applies to forms, not instructions - hopefully the circulating copies or reference copies for photocopying will meet that need
  • Make available the IRS' reproducible tax form binder, so patrons can photocopy whatever forms they need
  • We may end up pre-printing a lot of the more common schedules and other forms, just to save the patron's (and staff's) time of having to print-on-demand. But again, this is something we're going to wait and see what demand is like and respond accordingly

So, that's our current plan. I'd really like to hear what other libraries are doing, so if you've got a great idea that will help this tax season, please share in the comments.

Good luck.

 


*I had briefly thought about trying to record all our printing, so get a ballpark figure of how much the IRS' budget cut is costing my library. I hate the idea of shifting costs like that (like when the movie theater hands you an empty cup instead of paying someone to fill it for you! They've just shifted that cost onto their customer. Savages.), but decided that it's probably not worth the cost of our staff tracking, because we'd never use that information for anything anyway. But I'd still be curious to know.



Tags: , , , , , , , ,



Reference Question of the Week – 4/14/13

   April 20th, 2013 Brian Herzog

This week I have almost nothing to say. First, everyone here has been focused on the bombings in Boston and the ensuing manhunt, which thankfully ended with an arrest Friday night. Secondly, this week was also school vacation week in Massachusetts, which always makes for a slow time at the Reference Desk.

No Tax SignAs a result, the most notable question of the week was actually the lack of a particular question. Friday, April 19th, was the first day since January that not one person asked me for tax forms. Now that is a milestone worth celebrating.

Hopefully next week things will return to normal, and I'll get back on track with library stuff - and put away our tax form display for another year.



Tags: , , , , ,



IRS Accounting Thoroughness

   March 6th, 2013 Brian Herzog

I know the IRS prides itself on keeping track of assets, but it makes me laugh every time I see the packing lists that come in tax forms shipments from the IRS:

IRS packing lists

The first line on the top packing list (1 Z Shrink Wrap) accounts for the shrink wrap used to seal the forms, and the first line on the lower list (1 E 182 W) accounts for the one Envelope used. Now that is some fine-tuned accounting, and I can appreciate that.



Tags: , , , , , ,



Reference Question of the Week – 2/3/13

   February 9th, 2013 Brian Herzog

Oscar the GrouchEarlier this week I mentioned something I really like about working in libraries. For the reference question this week, I'm going to talk about something I don't like about my job:ambiguity.

And, fair warning: the next few paragraphs are just me whining, so feel free to skip to the question at the end.

This week was kind of a perfect storm of annoyances for me, if you'll pardon the pun. First, it's tax season. Second, I don't know if this made the news outside of New England, but we got a bit of a storm Friday and Saturday. Most of the questions this week dealt with one of these topics.

First, the tax stuff
Tax forms were late this year, which always brings out the worst in people. When we finally started getting the ones people wanted and put them out for the public, people were happy - until they noticed we didn't have all the forms and instructions they wanted.

Now, libraries don't create the tax forms, and we have no input into the publication schedule - we just help distribute them. We put out what we can, and for the ones we know we're missing, like the 1040 Instructions, we put up a sign saying something like "1040 Instructions have not arrived yet."

Of course this prompts people to ask when they'll arrive. We have no idea. They don't know we don't know, but also rarely seem to take "we don't know" for an answer. It's a no-win situation, and one I hate to be in - I hate it when "I don't know" is really the best thing I can tell someone. It has been especially bad this year.

Second, the snow storm
This storm was predicted to be a big one, starting early on Friday and lasting into Saturday night. It was supposed to be so big, in fact, that about noon on Friday, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick issued an executive order closing all the roads in the state at 4pm, with a $500 fine if you were caught out after that. So, yeah, serious.

All schools in the area were closed on Friday, and most libraries closed at noon - but not us. The way things work in my town is that it's the Town Manager's call, and his philosophy is to keep public facilities open as long as conditions allow. When we do close early, we usually only get an hour or two notice.

This can cause a bit of a problem, because while most libraries announced their early closing on Thursday, Friday at noon we were still telling patrons, "sorry, we don't know how long we'll be open." It was frustrating, because the phone was ringing constantly with people asking, "hey, are you open?" and, "are you closing early?" and, again, the best we could tell them was "we don't know."

This demoralized staff, but was also frustrating for patrons - road conditions were deteriorating, and they had to weigh if it was worth it to drive to the library to get books and DVDs for the upcoming snow-bound weekend. But then not even knowing if we'd be open once they got here was understandably irritating.

Now the question
One question I dread every winter is the "how much snow fell on X date?" We get similar weather-related questions throughout the year, but snowfall is always the toughest. The problem is there is no good local resource that provides the data the patrons want, so the best we can do is cobble together what we can find and let them draw their own conclusions.

This time, someone asked me how much snow fell on two different days in January, because the plow guy she uses billed her for $60 for plowing 4" on January 16th and $40 for 1" on the 29th. Something seemed off to her, so she wanted to double-check to make sure that's how much snow was on her driveway on those days.

Now that is hyper-local, and it's just tough. My favorite historical weather resource, which I've talked about before, is NOAA's snow data files, and they have snowfall and snow depth by month. The closest NOAA monitoring station is only the next town over, which is pretty good, but it's still far enough away to not be able to conclusively say what happened in her driveway on those days.

The other resource I've found that's good for this type of question is Accuweather's past weather table. This is great because it easily lets you scroll backward in time, and shows snowfall in addition to precipitation (most weather resources just show precipitation, which is why snowfall is more difficult than rainfall).

But a problem with consulting multiple resources is when, as in this case, the numbers don't match up. Accuweather's amounts different from NOAA's, which are themselves different from the plow guy's amounts. Not enough to dispute the bill, which I think is all this patron is looking for really. But I include this on my list of "ambiguity annoyances" because I don't like it when I can't find a solid answer for someone. I know it's the nature of research, but still - frustrating.

Anyway, in this particular case, the patron also slightly annoyed that the plow guy charged her for plowing an inch of snow - but, wisely, she decided she wasn't going to say anything to him until after the major storm this weekend.



Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,



Free As in Libraries, But Libraries Are Not Free

   July 7th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Free as in Library signI have less and less time to keep up with reading RSS feeds these days, but a fantastic post by Carrie Straka, a contributor at Tame the Web, reminded me why it's worth it to keep current on blogs.

She attacks the myth that everything in the library is free, and explains why "a library card isn’t a 100% off coupon." Library materials aren't free - we make them freely accessible, because they have already been paid for. It's like the food in your refrigerator - it was purchased at one point, to be consumed at your leisure (or not used and wasted).

Many users believe that the services and materials we provide are free. As all library staff knows, this is a misconception. The services and materials we provide are not free. In fact, they are far from it. Librarians work within a budget and use all money provided to us through taxes, tuition, or other means.

The comments are also interesting.

And something else I'd like to add, in terms of patrons having misconceptions about ownership of library resources: I've heard some patrons say that they're not returning some item, because their tax dollars have paid for it and they want to keep it - and besides, their tax dollars pay my salary so they can tell me what to do.

This too is a misconception. In libraries, there is no translation between one person's tax share and possessive ownership over a portion of the collection. The entire community's taxes are pooled to build a shared community resource, and library staff are paid to maintain a useful collection and ensure all the materials remain available for the entire community.

It seems a little contrary to the library spirit, but I do tend to err on the side of serving the community rather than the individual. It's a fine line to walk, and my library's yes-based policy means we are accommodating in individual situations - but when push comes to shove (which is thankfully rare), I do consider the library a community resource, not a private one.



Tags: , , , , , , ,