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

Reference Question of the Week – 5/15/11

   May 21st, 2011 Brian Herzog

Giant checkOne of our regulars is a patron with special needs who is in all the time - so much so that I think he considers library staff some of his closest friends.

As a result, he is totally comfortable telling us things that many of us would rather not hear - and in this case, he told me something I wasn't sure what to do with.

Just before closing one night, he comes in and walks right up to the desk, happy as can be. He pulls out a crumpled and dirty check, shows it to me, and asks me if I think the bank will cash it.

It's made out in his name, for $300, and when I ask him where he got it (occasionally he'll get checks for his birthday or things, and always tells us about how much money he has), he says:

I found it blank in the street, so I put my name on it and $300. Do you think the bank will give me the money? If not it's okay, I just want to see if they will*.

I fairly emphatically told him he should absolutely not try to cash that check, that it's illegal, it's stealing, and if he tries it, the bank won't just tell him no, they will call the police and he'll go to jail.

With this negative response, he quickly puts the check away (I also noticed it was already endorsed), and said he wasn't trying to steal, he just wanted to see if they'd cash it. And he didn't care about the police or going to jail, because he's been to jail before, and anyway his apartment was messy and he was out of food (which actually made me laugh, even though I was trying to be serious).

He went to the computers until we closed, and as he was leaving I again told him not to take it to the bank, and he said it was okay if they didn't give him the money, he just wanted to try and see if they would.

All of this happened between 8:50-9:00 PM, so there wasn't much I could do. But when I thought about it on my way home, what could I do? Call the police? The bank? Which bank? His case worker? His mom?

Instead, I emailed my Director, knowing that she has a good relationship with the Police Chief, and I had no idea what legal requirements town employees have when it comes to knowledge of intent to break a law. The next morning, she did call his case worker, who I think has some legal responsibility for him. We also have worked with this case worker in the past, on other issues relating to this patron, so it wasn't exactly a call out of the blue.

I opened that next morning, and within about fifteen minutes of opening the doors, this special needs patron came in to use the computers. I asked him if he had gone to the bank, and he said,

Yeah, they took my check away and tore it up and told me never to come back.

So, good on the bank for that reaction. I know this patron understands that what he was doing was wrong, but I think ending things by just ripping up the check was the right response, given the circumstances. I'm still not sure there is a clear role for the library in a precrime situation like this, but I am happy it resolved more or less correctly - and at least the poor guy who lost the check in the first place isn't out $300.


*Also keep in mind that this patron never speaks softly, so when he said this, very loudly in a quiet library, the other ten patrons in the area heard him.

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Spy-Tech Devices Found in Library

   February 15th, 2011 Brian Herzog

USB KeyloggerDid you read the story about a library in England that found two devices, designed to steal patron information, plugged into their computers?

It almost sounds like an urban legend, but even if it were it's still a good remind to all of us that this could happen anywhere.

The devices are USB keyloggers - someone would unplug the keyboard from the computer, plug the keyboard into this device, and then plug it back into the keyboard's USB port. With this device between the keyboard and computer, it can record every keystroke made on the computer - including websites visited, username/password combinations, credit information, etc.

The best defense against this is for library staff to check for these, or anything attached to a library computer that shouldn't be there. The article also suggest plugging keyboards into the front of computers, to make spotting them easier.

To notice something like this, of course, library staff must be familiar with what should and what shouldn't be there. I don't mean to be all preachy, but this is a good opportunity to familiarize staff who may not be really tech-savvy with library equipment. And another thing: take a few minutes today and check all of the computers in your library.

Thanks Dale for sending this to me, and it was also on LISNews.

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Loan Period: One Guilty Conscience

   January 13th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Returned DVDs with note "I'm sorry took these w/out checking them out"Over the last few years, we've noticed a rise in DVD thefts at my library. It seemed to happen in waves - once in awhile, we'd suddenly notice ten or so empty DVD cases on the shelf.

In general we're pretty relaxed at my library, and try to err on the side of good customer service. However, as the empty cases built up, staff started investigating ways to curtail the thefts.

But the kicker was that, when we ran the numbers, all of the security options we looked at (cameras, dummy cameras, security cases, a DVD jukebox, keeping DVDs behind the desk, etc.) were actually more expensive than just buying replacement DVDs. At least, this was true for the rate of theft we were seeing.

It seems counter-intuitive, and a little aggravating, but this is the route we took. The Circ staff was especially frustrated by the apparent "do nothing" approach, but we reviewed the numbers multiple times over the years, and replacement was always the cheapest option. Well, that combined stepped-up monitoring by staff.

And then something happened that no one expected: a stack of DVDs with a note attached ended up in our bookbox. Apparently, whoever had been stealing them got a conscience (or else, as one popular theory holds, his mother found them*). And then, a week later, a second stack of disks showed up.

We had been saving the empty cases all along, so re-adding them to the collection was easy. Hopefully, this trend will continue, and we'll end up with all of our DVDs back - just a couple years late. And we haven't noticed many missing lately, so the increased staff monitoring also seems to be working.


*Most of the DVDs that were stolen were Adam Sandler/Will Ferrell/American Pie-type movies, which implies the culprit(s) is probably high school boys.

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