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


Reference Question of the Week – 6/30/13

   July 6th, 2013 Brian Herzog

EDU test prep booksWe have lots of tutors that use the study rooms in the library. One of them emailed me for help looking for a test prep book for a particular exam:

Hello,
I am trying to search for a practice book for the PRANCE exam- no luck.

If possible, please reserve one for me.
Thank you

I searched the catalog, and sure enough there were no books for this test. I had never heard of this particular exam before, so I turn to the internet to find out more about it. However, my search for PRANCE exam turned up unexpected results.

You see, I was so focused on exam books that I was totally taken by surprise when the first search result was a YouTube video of two girls taking a prancing exam in a ballet school.

[Note: normally I'd embed the video here, but I don't want people to think I'm making fun of the girls. Of course, most graceful movements looks odd out of context - even Pranercising - but what I found humorous here was my own tunnel vision.]

Anyway, after watching an enjoying the video, I got back to work. None of the results looked like a test the tutor would be looking for, so I figured PRANCE must be a typo. The Google search results page helpfully listed some Did You Mean suggestions for both PRINCE exam and PANCE exam, so I checked them both out.

PRINCE looks like a project management technique used in the UK - probably not the right thing. But PANCE is a physician assistant certification test, which sounds much more appropriate.

I emailed the patron my results, but later that same day she came up to the desk. I explained the confusion, and she confirmed it was PANCE her student needed help with. We didn't have any PANCE prep books in the catalog, but that is one of the exams covered by the LearningExpress Library database, to which we subscribed. I showed her how to access the database and drill down to that exam, and she was very happy.

It wasn't until after she left that I realized my tunnel vision had struck again, also with - when coupled with my juvenile sense of humor - humor results. If you don't see why it's funny, try asking people if they'd like help preparing for their PANCE exam. Just, not in the library - you'll probably get thrown out for violating the Appropriate Library Behavior policy.



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Reference Question of the Week – 6/9/13

   June 15th, 2013 Brian Herzog

Wednesday is my night to work at the library, and a couple hours before we closed I got an email from a coworker that just said,

I just took a picture that I think will be perfect for your blog. Ask me about it before you leave.

I had no idea what this might be, but at the end of the night, this was the picture from her phone:

patron kneeling at the Reference desk

She found this amusing because it looked to her that this patron was so desperate for help that she was willing to kneel before the desk (and pray?).

That is a funny thought, but when I explained to the rest of the evening staff what was really going on, they were even more amused.

So: around 2:30 that afternoon, a woman called in asking to reserve a study room for 7-9pm that evening, because she was proctoring a test for a student. No problem. Not 30 seconds after I hung up the phone, it rang again, this time a different woman asked to reserve a study room for her daughter, who was taking a test with a proctor.

I was quick on the uptake and asked if her daughter's name was the same one the proctor just gave me, and it was. Which, really, is just a funny little aside, and didn't really portend the communication difficulties to come.

The evening passd unremarkably. Seven o'clock rolls around and the proctor and student show up for their room.

About seven-thirty, the proctor comes out to the desk to ask if there is a way for her to print from her iPad. This perked me up a bit, because wireless printing is still new to us, and I am always happy when I can show it off. I gave her our little how-to handout, which she was satisfied with and went back to the room before I could help her with it.

About ten minutes later she was back, asking for help - and she was at the desk for the next half-hour. Here's what was going on:

  • It turns out, she was proctoring a test for a foreign exchange student from Australia. The test the girl was taking had been emailed to the proctor, as a password-protected PDF (two of them, actually)
  • She couldn't email the test to our wireless printer because it was a school iPad, and apparently could only send outgoing mail when it was connected to the school's network (this may or may not be true, but her email was definitely not working, and I wasn't going to change any of her school's settings playing around)
  • After we got the wireless printing app installed, we still couldn't print because the PDFs were password protected, and the app just kept saying it couldn't access the file (but gave no provision to enter a password)
  • She couldn't log into her school email from any other computer, because she couldn't remember her webmail password, and had left her school laptop at school

Sometime during our conversation, she also relayed that the test this girl was taking was some kind of Australian standardized test, which all Australian students must take - and must take at the same time. Which, of course, is Australia time, hence why they were in the library so late. Of course, the clock had already started, and we still hadn't even managed to print it yet.

The proctor was frazzled, the student was frustrated, and I, being functionally illiterate when it comes to Apple products, was running out of ideas.

But I know that if you start tapping things on an iPad other things happen, so this became my new strategy. When we just opened the PDF, it launched it Adobe Reader, which had limited export options*. However, at some point one of us noticed that her email had the option to move the PDF to iBooks, so we tried that.

Playing with it in iBooks, we found an option to email it with her personal (non-school) account, which miraculously did work. She emailed it to my library email, I opened the file at the desk, she entered the password, and thank goodness it printed okay. Repeat for part two of the test, and the girl was quickly to work - by about 8:20 pm.

All of this really was an ordeal to get through, compounded by the fact that the longer we screwed around, the less time the student had to take her test. My coworkers all appreciated this, and one remarked that she now understood why the woman was kneeling at the desk.

But no, that's not the reason. The proctor's shirt happened to have a very loose and floopy neckline, and if she leaned over towards the desk in the slightest, she'd be putting on quite a show. So, the entire time I was working with her, she kept using one hand to hold her shirt closed. And I don't know if you've tried it, but it is very difficult to try to operate an iPad while one hand is preventing a wardrobe malfunction.

Eventually, she just gave up and knelt in front of the desk, because at least that meant she didn't have to lean over. That was the point at which my coworker walked by.

So, amusing yes, but the story isn't quite over. At 8:55 pm I went to the study room to let them know the library was closing. Since I knew the student got a late start, I was going to offer to stay a bit past 9:00, if she needed just another ten or fifteen minutes to finish up.

The proctor said she appreciated that, but the test had another three hours(!) to go. Holy smokes. This town pretty much rolls up the sidewalks at 9pm, so I really have no idea where they were going to go to finish this test. I felt bad for them, but they were just happy to have the printed tests and said they'd figure something out.

And speaking of figuring something out, here's something I can't figure out: so, foreign exchange students usually go to the host country by themselves, right? So, when this student's mother called to reserve a room, she must have been calling from Australia. Huh.

 


*One option I never ruled out was opening the test on the iPad and just photocopying the screen. Luckily, we never had to implement this.



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Reference Question of the Week – 6/12/11

   June 18th, 2011 Brian Herzog

SAT score reportOne afternoon, three high school kids came up to the desk and asked if they could use one of the study rooms. I set them up, and then about a half hour later they came back with this question:

Do you have a book with SAT scores by town for all of Massachusetts?

I didn't think we would have anything in print with scores down to the town level, so I told them I'd search online. They said they had been and couldn't find anything - I told them I'd try anyway, and I'd come get them if I found something (said the librarian, with confidence).

The first place I went was the MA Department of Education website, but a search for SAT scores didn't provide statistics, just news articles about trends.

Next I tried a general web search for SAT scores by town Massachusetts, which did produce a Boston Globe article with scores by schools from 2006. Since this proved such data was available, I thought surely the DOE website must have something.

So I searched again limiting to site:doe.mass.edu (actually, at first I just typed in .gov, but it turns out the DOE website is a .edu - huh), and found the exact same Boston Globe data on the DOE website - plus data from previous years.

It always bugs me when Google's site: limiter search works better than a website's own native search, but at least I found something.

And finally, I searched around CollegeBoard.com to see if they had breakdowns of SAT scores. All I could find there were national percentile tables, but that seems like it might be useful, too.

I went to the study room to tell the kids what I found, and they were pretty happy. Of course, since everything I found was online, the only real way to get it to them was to get the email address of one of the girls in the group and email her the URLs - which seems a little awkward to me, but it worked well enough in this case.

This was the email I sent them...

From the Department of Education's website:
http://profiles.doe.mass.edu/state_report/sat.aspx

The same table a little easier to read from Boston.com:
http://www.boston.com/news/education/k_12/articles/2006/08/29/2006_sat_scores_for_massachusetts/

And if you need general statistics on SAT test takers overall, that's
on the SAT website:
http://professionals.collegeboard.com/data-reports-research/sat/data-tables

Let me know if you guys need anything else.

They stayed in the room for an hour or so more, and stopped by the desk to thank me on the way out. How nice.



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Email Scam Competency Testing

   May 6th, 2010 Brian Herzog

SPAM wallHere's something neat - and vital for library staff, both for those who directly provide computer help to patrons and for anyone else who uses a computer in their daily life:

A recent Slashdot post linked to a test to see how well people can identify spam, scam and phishing email messages (which can happen to anybody).

The test is provided by SonicWall, and would be a great for:

  • taking as a group during a staff meeting or training day
  • testing new employees to help protect your network and increase their tech competency
  • showing to students and computer literacy classes to teach them to evaluate websites and email messages

After you're finished, be sure to click the "why" links on the test results to see exactly what looks suspicious and what are the red flags - that is the most helpful part of the test.



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Tests for Hiring and Training

   July 30th, 2009 Brian Herzog

Cones in the stacksOne of my coworkers and her husband run Gibson's Bookstore, in Concord, NH. When hiring new employees, each applicant is given a knowledge of literature test to see how well they'll do at reader's advisory.

Their opinion is that bookstore staff are first and foremost reading advisers, and cashiers and stockers second. The test questions cover a broad scope of literature, just like the questions of customers (and library patrons):

2) Name five characters invented by William Shakespeare.
13) What is Ender Wiggin famous for?
14) James and the Giant ________ by Roald _______.
23) Why do some Sneetches feel superior to others?

To get hired, applicants must get at least half of the questions right. Perhaps libraries could implement something similar? Perhaps they already do.

I also have a list of reference questions and tasks I give to reference staff after they've been hired, to help with training. It is based on something my director found (can't remember what or where), but I tailored it to get new staff familiar with the type of questions we get, our collection, our policies, basic tech support, and reference in general. They get it as a Word document, and work on it for their first few months.

Some people like tests and some don't. But each in their own way, I think these tests are valuable to make sure that the people interacting with the public are really able to help the public.



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Reference Question of the Week – 4/19/09

   April 25th, 2009 Brian Herzog

dewey shelvesSince I was traveling this week, I don't have a reference question today. But a fun post over on Closed Stacks can help hone reference skills.

It lists some online quizzes for brushing up on your Dewey and LC knowledge (I got 100% on both Dewey tests, so yay for my masters degree). Really, one of my favorite parts of the job is when someone comes to the desk and says,

Do you have any books on ____________?

and I'm able to immediately say, "yes, I'll show you where those are," and take them right to that subject in the stacks.

Afterwards, I explain why I could find them and how they can use the catalog to find books too, but the initial shock and surprise patrons show when you can seemingly pull a useful book out of thin air is too good to pass up.

Some patrons think I have every book in the library memorized. I try to convince them it's not magic, just organization, but many people still think locating information is beyond them. Maybe it means we need better signage.



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