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


Reference Question of the Week – 11/28/10

   December 4th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Pay PhoneThis reference question has actually been in the works for a couple weeks, and isn't officially closed. But I don't expect to get any better answer than what has already been found, so I thought I'd share it.

Before I got into work one day, a patron asked if she could use the phone. Since our pay phone was removed from the lobby, we've been more permissive about letting patrons use our desk phones. However, when the patron said she was going to call India, staff told her she'd need to use a pay phone. So of course she asked,

Where is the nearest pay phone?

They were pretty sure there was one across the street, but just to be sure they also searched online to see if there were any pay phone listings or directories. They found three, but each seemed incomplete or out-of-date:

When I got in, I also searched and found the same thing. I thought the best way to get a listing of pay phones in town was to contact the Verizon rep who handled our old pay phone - if anyone had a current list, it'd be them, right? So I called our Town Hall and spoke to the woman who handles the pay phone contracts for Town buildings. She said all of the Town-run phones had been removed to save money, and that dealing with our Verizon rep was a pain. She didn't have his phone number handy, but said she'd look and call me back (I still haven't heard from her, which is why this question isn't officially "closed").

In the meantime, I thought I'd just call Verizon and see how far I could get. I found a list of Verizon contact phone numbers, and called the Massachusetts support line.

After going through their menu options and waiting on hold for a few minutes, I finally got a nice guy in the billing department. I explained that I was looking for a list of pay phones in my town, and he laughed and said he didn't even know if they even still had a pay phone division. Eventually he found a "coin phone department" on his department list, and transferred me there. But he also gave me the number: 800-782-8355.

After waiting on hold for a long while, I spoke to a woman who didn't seem to like the idea of me asking for this list. First she said I had to go through Town Hall, so I explained that the Town pulled out their phones, which is why I was looking for a list of the rest of the phones in town. Then she put me on hold to confer with someone, and when she came back she said,

I can't give you that list, because a list of where all our phones are is proprietary information.

Yes, "proprietary information." She suggested I just walk around town and look for Verizon signs, because, "they're all well marked."

The good news is that there is indeed a pay phone across the street from the library, so we can just refer people there when necessary. And the woman was correct, it is well-marked.



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Reference Question of the Week – 9/26/10

   October 2nd, 2010 Brian Herzog

Can-and-string telephoneEarlier this year we got rid of the pay phone in our lobby (too expensive), so we've become more permissive with letting people (especially kids) use the desk phones to make calls.

I always ask people beforehand if it's a local call, because historically, local calls are no problem, but long distance calls are limited.

This isn't really a reference question, but I get asked this all the time and I'm honestly curious about it - here's a typical exchange (keep in mind I work at the library in Chelmsford, MA, which is in area code 978):

Patron: Can I use the phone?
Me: Sure, is it a local call?
Patron: Uh, I just need to call my mom.
Me: Okay, what's the number? [I always dial for them, to make sure they get an outside line and don't dial 911 accidentally, which does happen with our phone system]
Patron: It's 603-423...

As I get older (and as kids get younger), I've been noticing that fewer and fewer kids have any idea what you're talking about when you say "local call."

When they say "603" (New Hampshire) or "617" (Boston), I will sometimes say something to the effect of, "hey, a different area code is not a local call," and the response from kids is invariably, "we live in Chelmsford, it's my mom's cell phone."

I don't have a cell phone, so I don't know if there is such a thing as local and long distance calls on them, or if everything is charged the same (or just depends on time of day). But wow, the whole local/long distance thing was a big part of my childhood, so it's kind of stunning to think of kids growing up with no concept of that. Depending on how often people move around, a kid's friends could all have cell phones with different area code numbers, and have no idea why*.

But then again, I guess people don't really dial numbers any more anyway - it's just scrolling through the contacts list and clicking a name. Which means the reasoning behind area codes is destined to become historical trivia like the interstate numbering system, or an anachronistic relic like the phrase, "don't touch that dial."

 


*Tangentially, an old rant of mine is how the FCC dropped the ball when they started issuing phone numbers for cell phones. Instead of issuing cell phone numbers with area code where the phone was registered, and thus running out of numbers and having to slice up area codes and develop new codes (giving rise to situations where the "area" codes make no geographic logic, like 440 in Ohio), they should have created new area codes just for mobile phones. Which would have also helped out with making sure cell phones were always on the Do Not Call List, as they could just forbid those area codes from being called.



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