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




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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Reference Question of the Week – 12/30/07

   January 5th, 2008 Brian Herzog

2007 1040 InstructionsBy far, this was the most frequently-asked question this week:

Hey, you got any tax forms yet?

Why yes, we do.

Since last year's display worked so well, I did the same thing again. We've been receiving tax forms since about November, but my library just got big ones last week - the 1040s, Publication 17, and the State forms.

I don't know if there is any hard and fast rule as to when libraries can put out tax forms, but since patrons have asked me about ten times every hour all week, I decided today was the day.

Also like last year, as part of our tax assistance offerings, we plan to have an AARP Tax-Aide volunteer again, but that hasn't been scheduled yet. Better him giving tax advice than library staff.

I guess the only surprise this year was the fancy new cover for the 1040 instruction booklets. It certainly looks nice, but I wonder how many thousands of tax dollars went into designing and producing that.

Happy tax season to all.

form, forms, irs, libraries, library, public, tax, tax forms, taxes



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Reference Question of the Week – 12/2/07

   December 8th, 2007 Brian Herzog

IRS logoThis reference question is a bit self-serving, but...

A patron called my library's Director and said she wanted to donate money to the library. However, she said she could only donate to 501(c)(3) organizations.

My library is a department of the Town's municipal government, and has a trust fund, but our Board of Trustees had voted not to apply for 501(c)(3) status, as it is a tremendous amount of paperwork.

So, my Director asked me to find some kind of documentation stating that this patron could in fact donate the money to the library, and still write it off as a donation.

The first thing I tried was a Google search of the IRS website for "municipal donation site:irs.gov." Among the matches were the IRS' Publication 17 [pdf], Your Federal Income Tax, and their Publication 526 [pdf], Charitable Contributions.

In Pub 526 (page 2), I found the following to answer the question (emphasis added):

...You can deduct your contributions only if you make them to a qualified organization...

Types of Qualified Organizations
Generally, only the five following types of organizations can be qualified organizations.

1. A community chest, corporation, trust, fund, or foundation organized or created in or under the laws of the United States, any state, the District of Columbia, or any possession of the United States (including Puerto Rico). It must be organized and operated only for one or more of the following purposes.

  • Religious.
  • Charitable.
  • Educational.
  • Scientific.
  • Literary.
  • The prevention of cruelty to children or animals...

Even though that seemed to qualify us for the donation, I wanted to find a more definite answer. We still have a reference copy from of Pub 17 from last tax season, so I consulted that and found on page 150:

Deductible As Charitable Contributions
Money or property you give to:

  • ...
  • Federal, state, and local governments, if contribution is solely for public purposes (for example, a gift to reduce the public debt)
  • ...

Okay, "local government...for public purposes" - that's pretty clear. I still maintain that librarians should never give tax advice, but I copied that and gave it to my Director.

And since I enjoy reading the tax code as much as the next person, I read on, and was rewarded with this gem:

You cannot deduct contributions to organizations that are not qualified to receive tax-deductible contributions, including the following.

  • Certain state bar associations...
  • Chambers of commerce and other business leagues or organizations.
  • Civic leagues and associations.
  • Communist organizations.
  • Country clubs and other social clubs.
  • Foreign organizations...
  • Homeowners' associations.
  • Labor unions...
  • Political organizations and candidates.

The one that caught my eye was "Communist organizations." I thought it odd to single them out, especially since "Political organizations and candidates" is also listed. Commies can never catch a break.

charitable, communist, communists, contribution, contributions, donation, donations, irs, libraries, library, reference question, tax, taxes



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