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

Reference Question of the Week – 10/9/11

   October 15th, 2011

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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11 Responses to “Reference Question of the Week – 10/9/11”

  1. Christie Says:

    We, also, have this question at my library quite often. I have found that using Portable App’s Open Office or Libre Office works really well. All you need to do is download the program to a flash drive, and then you have access to the programs on any computer without needing to download them to that computer. Also, I have found that it will open pretty much any word processing/spreadsheet/presentation, etc file I have encountered.

  2. Kathy Says:

    Thanks for the tip! I would not have considered it before

  3. Renée Lowery Says:

    Thanks for sharing this! I used to use Zamzar all the time but got scared off the day it started trying to download malware with my file. I’ll give ConvertFiles.com a try. It’s true – knowing about tools like this can really make a patron’s day!

  4. svm Says:

    You can also upload it to Google Docs and either print it from there, or export it in a different file format.

  5. Alyssa Says:

    I’ve actually had some luck with certain files by just manually changing the extension myself. It doesn’t always work, but it will sometimes. I converted some weird csv file to a pdf by simply taking the “csv” off and retyping “pdf.” Lo and behold, it became a pdf and I printed it out for the happy geometry student.

  6. Matt Amory Says:


  7. Penny Says:

    I don’t really understand techy matters in depth but over the years I have picked up a few skills and tips which make me appear more knowledgable than I really am (especially to patrons). I always tell them that I don’t really understand computer concerns throughly but I’ll tinker with the file to see if I can get it to open. I am usually successful, mostly by just experimenting around. I appreciate this tip because now I can convert files that the Word conversion program might not handle and I will (probably) understand what I’m doing!

  8. Swiss Army Librarian » Reference Question of the Week Solved with a file converter :: Brian Herzog | Library world, new trends, technologies | Scoop.it Says:

    […] Swiss Army Librarian » Reference Question of the Week Solved with a file converter :: Brian H… Source: http://www.swissarmylibrarian.net […]

  9. Elizabeth Says:

    Used the ConvertFiles site today for a patron–thanks for the heads-up!

  10. Adam Steele Says:

    There is a plug-in for most versions of word to be able to open Oo


    Or you could just have Oo on all your machines. ;-P

    convertfiles.com is amazing. I have about 6 Gigs of eBooks (all acquired perfectly legally of course) and I have to convert all the time. I would suggest reading over something if it’s a project though. It’s not always 100% on all letters. I get about 50 weird characters in a book, just a wrong letter or something, nothing big, but enough to mess up a student’s paper.

  11. Christina Says:

    Thanks for the tip! We run into this too, and though I believe we now have the converter loaded on all of our computers (they have Office 7), it’s great to have another tool to use.