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

Reference Question of the Week – 3/7/10

   March 13th, 2010

RaccoonHere's a good example of the danger of jargon.

We have one semi-regular patron who often appears to be drunk when she's in the library. Despite our suspicions, as long as she doesn't violate our general behavior policy*, we treat her like any other patron.

One day this week she came up to the desk and asked if I could help her on the computer. Back at her workstation, she was on the website of a heavy-duty makeup product she said she wanted to purchase. They had an online order form, but since she didn't have a credit card, the patron wanted to find a list of local stores carried it.

I helped her navigate around the website, but there was no link to or listing of local retailers. There was an email contact form, and I said the quickest way to find out where she could buy it was to fill out that form and ask them. She said okay, and I went back to the desk.

Copy Link Location on right-click menuA little while later, she came back up to the desk and asked if I could help her print something. When I got to her workstation this time, she was on the same website, except the right-click menu was popped up. The patron pointed to it and said,

See, right there, it says "Copy Link Location." You print out a copy of their location list, because that link goes to their locations.

For being under the influence, even partially, I thought this was actually a very astute connection. It took me a good five minutes to explain to her that "link location" was a computer term meaning the address of that web page, and not the physical locations of stores. Reluctantly she accepted this, sat back down, and I went back to the desk.

A little while after that, she came and got me again, saying she found a list of the stores and needed help printing. This time when I got to her computer, the Print dialog box was up, and she said,

When I clicked that this box came up, and it has a button you click to see all their properties. When I click it I don't see the stores they own, so you print out that list for me.

Properties button on Print Dialog Box

Again, I have never thought about the use of this term in that context, but I can see why it made complete sense to her. But, again, I had to explain to her that the Properties button didn't refer to real estate properties, but the settings of the printer.

By this time she was exasperated at my total inability to print a list of stores for her. We clicked around the website again, but still there was no list of retail outlets to be found. I asked if she had submitted the Contact Us form, and she replied with something indecipherable.

It was almost closing time then, so she gave up and left**. I feel bad I couldn't find what she wanted, but that product was definitely geared for online sales. Hopefully the company will write her with the information she needs.


*Which has happened, and in those cases we have called the police.

**On her bicycle.

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6 Responses to “Reference Question of the Week – 3/7/10”

  1. Alison Says:

    This story makes me miss working at a public library! And I NEVER would have thought about the jargon of computers the way she did. It’s amazing how quickly someone else can alter our view of the world.

  2. Debbie Says:

    hahah this was really cute to read, though I imagine it was exasperating in person!

  3. David Allen Says:

    Well, I’m reasonably sober (and in the UK) and I have the same problem as your user: how the hell do you find a bricks and mortar store that will sell you something on the net. I need two seven inch wheels. I can buy them on the net and pay twice as much as the wheels for delivery. If I were in Florida I could get them at Ace Hardware. In London? Ay di mi!

  4. Brian Herzog Says:

    @David: I’m sorry I can’t help, but that is a good idea for a shopping search engine: like Froogle, but limited only to stores with a physical location (which would also be good for shoppers who wanted to see something before they bought it – except that has the danger of turning physical stores into life-size display cases). I think this search should be called “Brickle.”

  5. Kersten Says:

    thank you for this post – great story 🙂

  6. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Kersten: you’re welcome. I [heart] my job.