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


Reference Question of the Week – 7/29/12

   August 4th, 2012 Brian Herzog

Once a librarian, always a librarian. So, my family came to visit, and it was fun to show my niece and nephews around Boston. However, just as we were finishing lunch outside Quincy Market, a man with a German accent walked up to my dad and I and asked:

German: You are Americans, yes?
Us: Yes.
German: Good, I was wondering, can you tell me, why are Americans called Yankees?
Us: Um...

I had no idea. It is one of those questions that feels like it should have an answer that everyone knows, but I couldn't remember ever hearing where this nickname came from - and on the spot, I couldn't even come up with anything that even sounded reasonable.

So we apologized for not being able to help him. He said it was no problem and merrily walked off - but I felt kind of bad, and of course was curious.

Since I was on vacation and not at the library, all I had was the internet - and of course my first stop was Wikipedia's article for Yankee. The Origins and history of the word section starts off with "The origin of the term is uncertain," and cites some pre-Revolution instances, as well as details Faulty theories. Ultimately though, it says that a Dutch origin is the most likely scenario.

The article also has a good Further Reading section, and there are other websites that cite similar origins.

When I got back to work the following week, I checked some of our word origin books, but none that were checked in included Yankee. So, my next stop was our Oxford English Dictionary.

Although the OED also indicated [Source unascertained], it dedicated almost a full two columns to the word. And what it did say about the etymology basically echoed what I'd already found:

OED Yankee

So, I'm sorry German tourist, but it looks like there actually isn't a good answer to your question (so, technically, my Dad and I saying we didn't know was the correct answer).

Regardless, I still felt like I should have given him a business card or something and told him I'd let him know after I I got back to work and looked it up. I guess librarians never go on vacation - just wider roving reference.



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Reference Question of the Week – 6/17/12

   June 23rd, 2012 Brian Herzog

W hand signThis reference question can be filed under, "no matter how much you know about something, there's still more to learn."

One afternoon this week, a patron called in and asked for me specifically. She had a question about Microsoft Word, and since I've always been able to solve her technology questions in the past, she knew I'd have an immediate answer this time. Her question was:

How do you make Word automatically indent the first line of every paragraph?

I thought for a minute, and then realized - I had no idea how to do this. Whenever I want to indent, I just hit the Tab key. But she wanted it to indent automatically - which I was sure Word probably did, I just didn't know where this was in the menus.

I figured it had to be a Paragraph format option though, so I clicked the little square in the bottom right corner of the Paragraph box on the Home ribbon in Word 2007. Nothing immediately stood out, so I did a quick web search for word indent first line of every paragraph, and the first result explained how to do it - turns out I was on the right track.

Once you get to the Paragraph format box, you need to select "First line" from the "Special" dropdown box in the middle of the page. Then you can also set how much to indent by.

Paragraph format box

Great. I found all this in a minute or so, making small talk with the patron while I searched. As I started guiding her through how to do it, we hit a snag: she's still using Word 2003, and I'm on Word 2007 (which is also what the online directions were for).

I use this Paragraph format box all the time, but for the life of me I could not remember how to get to it in the Word 2003 menus. So, it was another web search for word 2003 paragraph menu, and again it was the first result that gave me the answer: Paragraph was an option on the Format menu.

Now I can navigate the patron to the Paragraph box and explain how to set the auto-indent feature. It work, she was delighted, and I was able to maintain my perfect record for her tech support - even though I had never done this before in my life.

Which just goes to prove the reference librarian's motto: you don't need to know everything, you just need to know how to find everything.



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Library Word Find Puzzle vol. 2

   December 8th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Library Word Find Puzzle #2A couple years ago, I posted a Library Word Find Puzzle on flickr. It continues to be popular, so I thought I'd do a second Library Word Find Puzzle.

Sames rules as before: log into flickr and use the Add Note tool to circle a word; words are only horizontal or vertical, and are both forwards and backwards; please only circle one or two words to let as many people as possible play.

The words to look for are below the puzzle on flickr - and this time, there are a few words-within-words (eg, "mobile" and "bookmobile") so be careful.

I made this puzzle using the same spreadsheet as last time, so anyone feel free to use it to make other puzzles.



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Reference Question of the Week – 10/9/11

   October 15th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Change MachineThis was not a difficult question, and not the first time I've encountered it. But the patron was funny, and I was actually surprised how well this particular tool worked.

About eight minutes after we opened one morning, a woman comes to the desk and says,

You have to help me - I'm desperate.

And then she walked away. It didn't take my librarian-sense tingling to know she wanted me to follow her, back over to the computer where she was working.

She sat down and said (without looking to see if I had, in fact, followed her),

I can't print out this project. My son the poor kid wrote it at home and our printer is busted so I came here to print it for him but your computer won't let me open it and he needs it today so can you print it for me it's in my email do I need to save it to a disk it won't open...

You know, one of those situations when the patron won't let you get a word in edge-wise, even to answer their question. Obviously she was in crisis-mode, but was kind of humorously fatalistic about it, because apparently everything had been going wrong: their home printer broke, come to the library to print but can't open the file, etc.

She had emailed the file to herself (which was good), and I could see the attachment was a .odt file, which is the extension of a document created with Open Office. I thought Microsoft Work was able to open that file type, but when I downloaded her file and tried it (which I think is exactly how far she had gotten), it didn't work.

So first I explain to her why it doesn't work - because she created the file with Open Office (which she knew, and that was good), but that we don't have the right software to open that file type. Then I started to explain that she'd have to go back home and use Open Office to save the file in a format Word could open - .doc, .rtf, etc. She then started in (crisis-thinking again) on whether she should have saved it to a CD (which is never the answer), name the file something else, and all kinds of other options.

While she was talking, it occurred to me that we might just be able to use a file converting website, without her having to go home. So while explaining what a converter website is, I did a quick search for convert odt to doc and spotted a website called ConvertFiles.com.

It was perfect, and easier to use than any other converter website I've found (usually my go-to is Zamzar). You just upload your file by clicking the Browse button, choose the format you'd like to convert to, and then click convert. It took maybe twenty seconds, and then we could open the file in Word.

What I liked about this website was that it let you open the file right away, instead of them emailing it to your account as an attachment.

And boy, when her son's report popped up on the screen, she almost cried. She also tried to print it as quickly as possible, just in case it suddenly went away like some cruel trick.

In my library, printing costs $0.15 per page, and her son's report was two pages. She immediately pulled out a dollar bill, handed it to me and said, "keep the change." But she must have known we can't accept tips, because when I showed her how to use the pay-for-print machine, she took her change back - and then hugged the printed papers to her chest and kept saying, "oh, thank you thank thank you..." all the way back to her workstation.

From start to finish, this entire reference interaction took about three minutes - and in that time, this woman's emotions went from one extreme to the other. It was a very small part of my day, but I think it had a huge impact on her's (and her son's) - which is why I think a converter website like this should be in every reference librarian's toolbox.



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Swear Like A Librarian

   August 9th, 2011 Brian Herzog

No Swearing signI hope this post doesn't get blocked by your filtering software.

When not at work, some librarians I know have the filthiest mouths of anyone I've encountered. But at the desk they obviously can't use bad words, so I got curious about the public-safe language librarians use to replace swear words. That's the catch-22 of libraries: serving the public can be stressful, but working at a public service desk means being limited in how we can respond when something goes wrong.

I asked around a bit and here's a list of some choice "safe" words library staff use:

  • some old standards: Shoot, Fudge, Bologny
  • Jeepers Crow
  • Flip
  • Fly me (to the moon)
  • Mother of pearl
  • What the what?
  • For the love of Pete
  • For cripe's sake
  • Frick
  • Shut the front door
  • Sugar Honey Iced Tea

The last one is my favorite - read it again, but just the first letter of each word.

I'm sure everyone has their favorites - what are your patron-safe swear words? Please share them in the comments or make #swearlikealibrarian a trending topic.

P.S.
When I was originally working on this post, I thought some gansta rap-style image would make an appropriate illustration. I couldn't find one exactly right, but I did think this was funny:

I Like Big Books And I Cannot Lie sign

Good job Hillsdale Free Public Library - Sir Mix-A-Lot would be proud.



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Library Word Find Puzzle

   January 22nd, 2009 Brian Herzog

library word find puzzleHere's another way to be interactive with flickr - a cool little find-a-word puzzle.

Check out the puzzle on flickr, log in, and use the Add Note tool to circle words as you find them. Because this is flickr, all the words are either horizontal or vertical, but can be either forwards or backwards.

I put a lot of words in to hopefully let a lot of people play - please only circle a couple words, so everyone can have a chance. All of the hidden words are listed below the image in the description.

I thought this could be a fun thing for libraries to do for their patrons. The puzzle is easy to create (I used a spreadsheet [xls] and print preview - not quite as easy as the library crossword, I admit) and can be made on any theme. I also like that more than one person can work on it, so they can be solved as teams.

I'm actually stealing this idea and modifying it with library words. There are other puzzles on flickr, and where this idea originated will be obvious - but NSFW.



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