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




Reference Question of the Week – 1/29/11

   February 5th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Holy GrailI apologize in advance for this week's question - it won't help anyone, and I was trying to avoid the topic this year, but it seems like it's the only thing on patrons' minds lately.

Now, repeat the following conversation about one million times:

Me: Hi, can I help you?
Patron: I saw all your tax forms, but there were no instructions for the 1040 - do you have any more?
Me: No, I'm sorry, we haven't received those yet. We put out everything we get as they arrive, and we do expect to get some, but we don't know when they will arrive.
Patron: Do you know when you'll get some?
Me: No, I'm sorry, they just come whenever they're printed and shipped.
Patron: Well how does the government expect us to get our taxes in on time when they don't...
[insert any number of rants and complaints here, with varying levels of anger and annoyance]

I always try to tell people that tax forms are delayed this year because the tax cut extensions that were voted on in December pushed everything back. I also try to tell them that everything is available online (which most people don't care about), and that there are still months left before taxes are due, so there is still plenty of time (sometimes that elicits looks like I suggested they go kick a puppy).

Patrons ask if we can call them when the instructions come in (we don't do that), and if we can post on our website when they arrive (we will do that). What bothers me the most are the people who, since they can't get what they want, take one of everything we have (instructions for the 1040A and 1040EZ), "just in case." They take a couple copies of the forms too - and I'm worried that when they do come back to get the instructions, they'll take more copies of the forms then, which will cause us to run out of things sooner, which causes us to reorder more from the IRS, which means they print more, which drives up their printing costs, which defeats the purpose of not mailing forms to peoples' homes in the first place.

I'd be very curious, after tax season is over, to hear how this year's approach to tax forms went. Not mailing them to peoples' homes and getting them out late was just a unfortunate coincidence, but still, I wonder how much money they're saving, how many people will file late or incorrectly (which probably also drives up staffing costs for the IRS), and if it was worth it.

And of course, the conspiracy theorist in me wonders if there's more to it: between IRS changes and changes to the way Massachusetts did tax forms this year, it really is extremely difficult for an individual to do their own taxes. I wonder if there is some powerful Tax Preparer lobby that wants to make it impossible for people to do their own taxes, thus driving up their profits and taking one more bit of self-reliance and freedom away from citizens. Hmm - seems far-fetched, but then all of my favorite conspiracies are.



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You May See An Increase In Patrons

   October 14th, 2010 Brian Herzog

IRS logoI'm sure everyone has heard that the IRS is not going to be mailing 2010 tax forms to peoples' homes next year.

I don't blame them for looking for ways to save money, and it's good to be moving towards more efficient processes. But this isn't exactly a gentle nudge - this is a sharp push, which will be especially painful to people without internet access or few computer skills.

This also means, of course, that libraries will see even more demand for tax forms next year (and probably hear from many annoyed patrons). To warn us, the IRS sent out the following email through their Tax Form Outlet Program - forgive me if you've seen this, but the bold line below was too priceless not to share:

IRS TFOP ALERT: NO IRS TAX PACKAGES
10/01/2010

TO TAX FORMS OUTLET PROGRAM (TFOP) PARTICIPANTS:

Thank you for your participation in TFOP. The IRS announced that individual[1] and business[2] taxpayers will no longer receive paper income tax packages in the mail from the IRS. These tax packages contained the forms, schedules and instructions for filing a paper income tax return. The IRS is taking this step because of the continued growth in electronic filing and the availability of free
options to taxpayers, as well as to help reduce costs.

There are numerous FREE OPTIONS available for your patrons to obtain tax products, tax preparation and assistance in filing their tax returns:

  • Download Forms and instructions online[3] at IRS.gov
  • Visit an IRS Taxpayer Assistance Center (TAC)[4], participating libraries and U. S. Post Offices
  • Individuals making $49,000 or less can use the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance[5] program for free tax preparation and, in many cases, free electronic filing
  • Individuals aged 60 and older can take advantage of free tax counseling and basic income tax preparation through Tax Counseling for the Elderly[6]
  • IRS Free File[7] provides options for free brand-name tax software or online fillable forms plus free electronic filing. For more information, visit IRS Free File[8] on IRS.gov

YOU MAY SEE AN INCREASE IN PATRONS

Although tax products are available online[9] at IRS.gov and IRS Taxpayer Assistance Centers (TACs)[10], you may experience an increase in patrons visiting your location for tax products.

The IRS mailed postcards[11] to individuals who filed paper returns last year and did not use a tax preparer or tax software. The postcard provides information on how to get the tax forms and instructions they need for filing their tax year 2010 return.

ASSISTING YOUR PATRONS

Your TFOP order form lists the most commonly used tax products. Use the order form to order additional stock of any of these products, if necessary. Your order form lists Publication 1132, /Reproducible Copies of Federal Tax Forms and Instructions/ and Publication 3194, /Reproducible Copies of Federal Tax Forms /- Laminated Version. These publications contain the most commonly used tax products that, if available, can be photocopied by your patrons. Tax products will become available beginning January 2011.

Thank you.

IRS TFOP Administrator

I think "you may see an increase in patrons" is a bit of an understatement.

So to prepare, I'll be making signs to put up near the tax forms explaining the situation, and will also try to get the local newspaper to run a notification article or two before tax season starts. I will also quote to them from the CNN article:

Those who prefer hardcopy documents can still find them at libraries, post offices and walk-in IRS offices around the country. After Jan. 1, they can request a mailing through the IRS toll-free number, 800-829-3676.

Yes, it should be a fun one this year.



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Reference Question of the Week – 9/12/10

   September 18th, 2010 Brian Herzog

April 15 - Time is Running OutEarlier this week, a patron walked up and asked if we had any tax forms. I showed him where we keep the leftovers from last tax season, and told him anything he couldn't find there we could print from the IRS and state websites.

He looked at the forms for a few seconds, then turned to me and said,

No, I want the new forms for this year, so I can get an early start on them.

I feel the need to reemphasize that this happened this week, specifically on September 14th (eight months and one day early!). Being asked for tax forms in December and January always seemed early, but September?



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Reference Question of the Week – 3/28/10

   April 3rd, 2010 Brian Herzog

1040 starsThis isn't really a reference question, but it is a question from a patron. It's, well, you decide:

Patron: Have you see the monk hidden on the cover of the tax forms?

As Liz Lemon would say, "what the what?" The patron explained, somewhat cryptically, that the negative space between the stars on this year's 1040 instruction booklet cover design seemed to form a monk.

Can you see it? Hover your mouse over the image to see what he was talking about. It's slightly easier to see on a larger animated version on flickr.

I saw it after he pointed it out, but personally, I think it looks more like Darth Vader. The conspiracist in me knows it's not unusual that secret symbols appear in government printing, but they're usually more Masonic than Imperial (but maybe the stars were just to much to resist).

There must be a word for this - hidden pictures formed by positive space shapes. This is sort of like the distorted tessellations in MC Escher's art, but not quite. I looked around but couldn't find a name or description, so I'll keep looking.

In the meantime, if you're interested, here are a few examples of logos employing negative space.



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MA’s 2008 Statewide Ballot Question 1

   September 30th, 2008 Brian Herzog

Information for Voters booklet coverThis post ended up being much longer than I expected, so I added subheads in bold. I ask librarians to read and comment on the first part, and the rest of the post is background information.

When Does A Library Become Biased?
Last week on my library's blog, I posted information about the three questions on Massachusetts' statewide ballot in November. One of them, Question 1, calls for doing away with personal income tax in Massachusetts.

I feel the duty of libraries is to present unbiased, timely and reliable information. However, Question 1 potentially has a huge impact on Massachusetts libraries, and I'm really torn on where to draw the line on this one.

In the post, I include summaries of each question, and what a Yes or No vote would mean. However, for Question 1, we also decided to include a link to the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners' stance. We did this because, since so many library services are funded by the state, if this initiative passes, library services may revert to the way things were in 1889 - yes, 1889 (read the MBLC stance to find out why).

It doesn't feel like biased information, because it is timely and from a reliable source. However, since there is such a self-interest involved, it feels kind of unseemly. Does including the link to MBLC overstep the library's role? Are libraries allowed to present the case for their own existence?

Question 1, and Why I Don't Like It
First, I have to say a few things:

  1. A similar issue was narrowly defeated in 2002
  2. New Hampshire doesn't have income tax, or sales tax, and they seem to do fine
  3. It appears my job could very well be on the line because of this initiative

In a broad sense, I can agree with parts of the initiative - Massachusetts' state government does seemed to be wasteful, and I do feel over-taxed. But this initiative seems, I don't know, kind of myopic and not realistic.

In the Information for Voters booklet [pdf] from the MA Elections Division, Carla Howell, Chair of The Committee For Small Government lists points in support of doing away with income tax:

  • Your "Yes" vote will create hundreds of thousands of new Massachusetts jobs
  • Your "Yes" vote will NOT raise your property taxes NOR any other taxes
  • Your "Yes" vote will NOT cut, NOR require cuts, of any essential government services

I haven't completly researched this issue, but I see no facts or logical basis that support the first point, and the last two seem mutually-exclusive. By taking away a major source of revenue and not replacing it, they are essentially forcing the government to cut services, many of which will be essential services.

The actual text [pdf] of the question itself also seems, I don't know, less-than-professional. The biggest goal seems to be to label Massachusetts state government as "Big Government," and repeat that phrase as many times in the question as possible, as if just by establishing that label they are assured victory.

Question 1's Impact on Patrons and Libraries
And this issue seems especially poorly-timed, too. In times of economic troubles, the idea of not having to pay income tax certainly appeals to a base sense of self-preservation. But it is precisely in times of economic troubles that the use of libraries increases.

It seems to me that, especially in times of trouble, a community is better served by comprehensive services provided by a stable government, rather than by self-interest.



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Reference Question of the Week – 2/10/08

   February 16th, 2008 Brian Herzog

Not every reference question I am asked is one that I can answer. This is one of those.

Perhaps the very nature of a small public library prevents librarians like me from being experts in any given field - since we have to respond to questions on any possible topic, it helps to know a little about a lot of areas rather than a lot about a single area. Specialists work in academic and large public libraries, and generalists end up in smaller libraries.

But that's not to say that a librarian won't know quite a bit about an area they are interested in. Coworkers of mine could easily specialize in linguistics, pop culture, cooking and modern fiction. Hiking, conspiracy theories, knitting and dystopian novels are some of the particular holes I've dug for myself.

At least, those are all the excuses I can think of for my behavior with this reference question.

A patron sends the following email to our reference desk:

To: Chelmsford Library Reference
Subject: Corporate Tax Rate

Dear Sir/Madam,

I am living in Kuwait and for study purpose I have a 2 US Corporate tax related questions.

A US-Based Company (Domestic Company) have its operations in Foreign Country what tax is levied on this company?

If this domestic company is acquired by a foreign company (and domestic company is still operating in another foreign country)....what will be tax rate implied for that foreign country?

Hope You answer my question

Here's why I answered this question the way I did:

  • Although we help anyone who comes in, calls, or emails us, we do give priority to local patrons. He didn't say he was a local resident who just happened to be abroad, and I didn't see his name in our catalog. I honestly have no idea how he found our email address from Kuwait, and that makes me suspicious and reluctant to spend a lot of time on this
  • He did mention that he is there for study, and I'm always hesitant with students: the line between helping them do their work and doing their work for them is often blurry. I try to err on the side of less help to start with, but keep checking in to see if they are on the right track
  • This is a tax question (and a very specific one), and we have a policy against giving tax advice. Especially with such a specific question, unless you get an answer from a specialist, it's hard to know how much to trust the answer

So, with all that in mind, my reply back to him is below. I knew I wasn't giving him an answer, but I wanted to at least direct him to some resources that might lead him to an answer:

To: [patron]
Subject: Re: Corporate Tax Rate

I'm sorry, but specific tax questions are beyond our expertise here, and also violates our policy against giving tax advice. I did try looking into your request, and found the Internal Revenue Service's International Business page (http://www.irs.gov/businesses/international/), which may lead to the answers you seek.

The IRS also has an office in Philadelphia, PA, USA, that focuses on international issues. Their contact information is listed on http://www.irs.gov/localcontacts/article/0,,id=101292,00.html

In addition, the IRS has technical support for its website, which should aide you in locating the information on their website that will answer your questions: http://www.irs.gov/help/article/0,,id=97185,00.html

Another potential resource for you to contact is the United States Embassy in Kuwait (http://kuwait.usembassy.gov/), which may have an office to help with your questions, or be able to direct you to the government agency that can answer them.

I'm sorry we are not able to answer your questions directly, but I hope some of the above information might help you. If there is anything else we can do, please let us know. Thank you, and take care.

Brian Herzog
Head of Reference
Chelmsford Public Library

This feels like such a cop out, and I feel bad I couldn't come up with a real answer, but this seems like the kind of question someone could spend days researching and still find nothing. The patron did reply with a very polite and gracious thank-you message, but I haven't heard back if he found what he was looking for.

If anyone knows of resource that can answer this, I would appreciate hearing about it.



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