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

Reference Question of the Week – 1/20/13

   January 26th, 2013

Jumper cables on a car batteryIt's been really cold in this area this week, so this question is quite timely. However, it doesn't exactly have a happy ending.

When I came in to work on Wednesday, a coworker related this incident from the day before:

A patron's car wouldn't start in the parking lot, so she came back in the library to ask staff for help. She asked at the circulation desk, and they sent her down to reference. Apparently she didn't have AAA or anyone she could call to help, so she was kind of stuck*. However, only one staff person in the area had jumper cables, and he said he couldn't do it for liability reasons. The patron left reference, and by the end of the night her car was gone from the parking lot, but no one is quite sure how she got it started.

The coworker who relayed this story to me was basically asking if staff handled it correctly, and should the library help someone jump start their car. It's something we've done in the past (I personally have), and I think she felt bad this patron was turned away (especially with our "getting to yes" policy).

We don't have any kind of formal jump starting policy (I mean really, who does?), but because it happened once, I thought it was worth exploring. The Director and I discussed it, and ended up posting this on our staff blog:

Patrons and Jumper Cables

Last week a patron’s car wouldn’t start in the parking lot – she didn’t have AAA or any other way to deal with it on her own, so she came into the library and asked if staff could help her.

The Town cannot accept liability for Town workers to jump cars for people (so it’s okay to say no). However, any staff person that is willing to help on their own (with their own car and jumper cables) is free to assist the patron (but they need to know that you’re doing this on your own, not as a library employee).

Instructions on how to jump start a car using jumper cables [pdf] (from Car Talk)

If this happens at closing time, and there is no way to start the patron’s car and no one else they can call for help, please call the Chelmsford Police non-emergency number 978-256-#### to let them know there is a car stranded in the library parking lot.

This seemed to be a good compromise - the Town can't be responsible for untrained staff jumping someone's car, but if a Good Samaritan staff person knows what they're doing and is willing to help, they can. I always feel a little bad when a limit to what a public library can offer is hit, because I still want libraries to be able to do anything.

Also, a note on the instructions: I know different people have different ways of jump starting a car, so I searched around online to see if there was a safe consensus among experts. The guys at Car Talk are expert enough for me, and their method was backed up by other places too.


*I recently had major car problems too, so I can empathize.

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3 Responses to “Reference Question of the Week – 1/20/13”

  1. Justin Says:

    Our library has a set of jumper cables we can lend to the patron, and we also have a battery jumper. If they want the battery jumper, they have to sign a liability waiver before they can have it. So, to answer your question about a “formal jump start policy”: we have one! 🙂

  2. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Justin: having a battery jumper is a great idea! If the library bought one, we could put a barcode on it and circulate it like any item – that way, a patron in need could check it out and use it when they needed it. Thanks.

  3. Michael Golrick Says:

    Interesting timing on this post. As a northerner living in the deep south, I have found that often I am the only one with jumper cables in my car. [My dad always insisted on emergency supplies in each car, but that is another story.]

    Three times in the past month or so I have been part of this scenario. Once it was my car which was dead because I left the lights on. The other times I was the live bait. The second time, there was a “car pro” who managed the whole cable thing — I admit that i am not a pro at it. After reading the Car Guys’ instructions, I think I will print those out, laminate them, and read my car manual again.

    Thanks, and I really do like Justin’s idea!