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Reference Question of the Week – 2/3/13

   February 9th, 2013

Oscar the GrouchEarlier this week I mentioned something I really like about working in libraries. For the reference question this week, I'm going to talk about something I don't like about my job:ambiguity.

And, fair warning: the next few paragraphs are just me whining, so feel free to skip to the question at the end.

This week was kind of a perfect storm of annoyances for me, if you'll pardon the pun. First, it's tax season. Second, I don't know if this made the news outside of New England, but we got a bit of a storm Friday and Saturday. Most of the questions this week dealt with one of these topics.

First, the tax stuff
Tax forms were late this year, which always brings out the worst in people. When we finally started getting the ones people wanted and put them out for the public, people were happy - until they noticed we didn't have all the forms and instructions they wanted.

Now, libraries don't create the tax forms, and we have no input into the publication schedule - we just help distribute them. We put out what we can, and for the ones we know we're missing, like the 1040 Instructions, we put up a sign saying something like "1040 Instructions have not arrived yet."

Of course this prompts people to ask when they'll arrive. We have no idea. They don't know we don't know, but also rarely seem to take "we don't know" for an answer. It's a no-win situation, and one I hate to be in - I hate it when "I don't know" is really the best thing I can tell someone. It has been especially bad this year.

Second, the snow storm
This storm was predicted to be a big one, starting early on Friday and lasting into Saturday night. It was supposed to be so big, in fact, that about noon on Friday, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick issued an executive order closing all the roads in the state at 4pm, with a $500 fine if you were caught out after that. So, yeah, serious.

All schools in the area were closed on Friday, and most libraries closed at noon - but not us. The way things work in my town is that it's the Town Manager's call, and his philosophy is to keep public facilities open as long as conditions allow. When we do close early, we usually only get an hour or two notice.

This can cause a bit of a problem, because while most libraries announced their early closing on Thursday, Friday at noon we were still telling patrons, "sorry, we don't know how long we'll be open." It was frustrating, because the phone was ringing constantly with people asking, "hey, are you open?" and, "are you closing early?" and, again, the best we could tell them was "we don't know."

This demoralized staff, but was also frustrating for patrons - road conditions were deteriorating, and they had to weigh if it was worth it to drive to the library to get books and DVDs for the upcoming snow-bound weekend. But then not even knowing if we'd be open once they got here was understandably irritating.

Now the question
One question I dread every winter is the "how much snow fell on X date?" We get similar weather-related questions throughout the year, but snowfall is always the toughest. The problem is there is no good local resource that provides the data the patrons want, so the best we can do is cobble together what we can find and let them draw their own conclusions.

This time, someone asked me how much snow fell on two different days in January, because the plow guy she uses billed her for $60 for plowing 4" on January 16th and $40 for 1" on the 29th. Something seemed off to her, so she wanted to double-check to make sure that's how much snow was on her driveway on those days.

Now that is hyper-local, and it's just tough. My favorite historical weather resource, which I've talked about before, is NOAA's snow data files, and they have snowfall and snow depth by month. The closest NOAA monitoring station is only the next town over, which is pretty good, but it's still far enough away to not be able to conclusively say what happened in her driveway on those days.

The other resource I've found that's good for this type of question is Accuweather's past weather table. This is great because it easily lets you scroll backward in time, and shows snowfall in addition to precipitation (most weather resources just show precipitation, which is why snowfall is more difficult than rainfall).

But a problem with consulting multiple resources is when, as in this case, the numbers don't match up. Accuweather's amounts different from NOAA's, which are themselves different from the plow guy's amounts. Not enough to dispute the bill, which I think is all this patron is looking for really. But I include this on my list of "ambiguity annoyances" because I don't like it when I can't find a solid answer for someone. I know it's the nature of research, but still - frustrating.

Anyway, in this particular case, the patron also slightly annoyed that the plow guy charged her for plowing an inch of snow - but, wisely, she decided she wasn't going to say anything to him until after the major storm this weekend.

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13 Responses to “Reference Question of the Week – 2/3/13”

  1. The Librarienne Says:

    I agree with you about tax forms. Yes, those questions get less and less each year, but the ones that do come seem to be more annoying. In my case, I work in RI. The state decided about four years ago that they will not distribute paper forms at all. You can request that they send you forms (which I’ve heard takes forever), you can go to the state house and pick them up yourself, or you can print them off the state website. The first year they did this was nightmarish–just awful and I was constantly berated for something I had nothing to do with.

    This year, we are still getting people asking where the RI forms are. It seems that by this point, people should know that libraries don’t have the forms. Where did they get their form last year? Add to that the fact that the 1040s are late again, and tax season at the library still sucks, but at least I know not to wait for the RI forms.

  2. Rebecca Hedreen Says:

    Another precipitation resource is CoCoRAHS, http://www.cocorahs.org, the Community Cooperative Rain Hail and Snow Network. It’s a citizen science project that recruits people to take precipitation measurements, with precise instructions, locally. If you don’t have someone in your community already, maybe one of those interested in the weather would be interested in joining. (Station CT-NH-13 welcomes you!)

  3. Jo Says:

    I read your blog all the time, but never leave a comment ….. but I wanted to today, since at my library, we were just complaining about tax season. I’m in Illinois, where the State forms are always sent to libraries pretty late, and this year, when we got them, we only got about 80 forms (so helpful). Some of our patrons know the drill, and understand that we keep things updated constantly on our tax table. However, there are other patrons who seem to imply that we get all the forms (all of them ever published, ever) and keep them to ourselves, hiding them from everyone else. Makes for some fun patron interactions.

    And for weather data, I like Weather Underground: http://www.wunderground.com/history/

  4. Mamie Anthoine Ney Says:

    There has been a flurry of discussion about tax forms on our state’s librarian listserv. Tax forms and instructions (in particular) are hard to come by, but please don’t blame the IRS. The fault lies with Congress for taking so long to act on key budget/tax items so late. The changes to tax laws have to analyzed, forms adjusted, reviewed, tested, printed, and sent out. It’s not something that can happen overnight. Maine stopped sending out forms years ago and it still is a problem for libraries and taxpayers.

    Here is a bright spot for this tax season. This past year the Maine legislature passed a measure allowing the establishment of the Maine Public Libraries Fund. This effort will raise funds via a check off on the Maine tax forms. Taxpayers can designate $5, $10, $25 or more to go to this fund. It is one of 8 organizations designated to receive funds via a tax check off. The fund will be administered by the Maine State Library. It is required that the funds be used to support public libraries. The key is that we must raise $10K this year to remain viable for next year. If you know anyone in Maine, please encourage them to donate to support Maine’s public libraries via the check off on Form CP. (The only other state to allow this is Hawaii and they raise about $40K per year.)

  5. Matthew Says:

    Great read as always, whining and all! WI also went all digital. Times like these I’m glad I’m in the academic world.

    How much snow fell over the weekend!? 🙂


  6. Brian Herzog Says:

    @The Librarienne: I really can’t decide if not having them at all would be better or worse – certainly a more straight-forward answer, but I can see people being really upset. But I don’t think MA is too far behind, so we might find out next year.

    @Rebecca: thank you very much – I’d never heard of that, but it looks great. There isn’t a site in my town, but close by.

    @Jo: we get that too – as if we’re keeping a stockpile in a back room and not telling anyone. Oh well. I like Weather Underground too, and use it for other things, but I don’t think they record snowfall.

    @Mamie: you’re totally right – but I hesitate to elaborate very far on that, because Congress is elected by the people, so it’s really our patrons’ fault for the tax form situation. I have a feeling no one would like that pointed out to them. Great news about the form check-off – I hope you’re able to clear the $10,000 to keep it there (and I enjoyed the MELIBS discussion about whether libraries can encourage the check-off when patrons pick up forms).

    @Matthew: thanks – I imagine academic libraries have all kinds of challenging tax situations, with students from all over the country in various states of residency. As for snow, I shoveled at least two feet – and took half of Saturday to do it. No power loss though, so everything is mostly back to normal.

  7. winifred flint Says:

    Funny and fascinating as usual. Thanks to you and commenters on weather resources. I have a thought about the move to e-govt that I would like to have your opinion on. Clearly the feds are moving to paperless filing – so would the govt have to provide some form of free internet? like at libraries? and maybe even subsidize it? What do you all think?

  8. April Says:

    Ditto what Rebecca said. I used to be a volunteer with CoCoRaHS, and it’s a great way to get very localized data – and see the fluctuations in precipitation throughout an area. They’ve been going strong for a few years now, with locations added all the time.

  9. Mara Says:

    No, Matthew, Wisconsin didn’t go all digital. All the forms are online and you can get them that way, but we have paper forms and instructions from the state for those who prefer. They were prompt, however, in sending material. But it’s Feb 12 and we are still waiting for the 1040 instructions, having received 1040A on Friday Feb 8. Good news is, it gets a lot of people in the door. Just keep saying “This too shall pass.”

  10. Maria Says:

    Boy, Brian, can I identify. The tax form conversation that we keep having over and over is getting pretty tiresome. We’re not hiding the forms, we are not keeping secrets from you, we don’t have a crystal ball, it’s up to the IRS.

  11. LynneW Says:

    Re: the snow plow question, the driver may have a minimum charge. That’s what they do in our area – it’s so much to show up, and additional based on how much they have to move. Because his costs for fuel, vehicle maintenance, driver time, etc. remain whether they move one inch or several.

    And the question we hear most about tax forms (beyond all the others you’ve mentioned)is: “why does the IRS have to wait for Congress to enact legislation related to 2013 income & taxes, in order to print up the forms and instructions for taxes on income earned in 2012?”

    Does anyone here know the answer to that one?

  12. Brian Herzog Says:

    @winifred: that sounds good to me – but then we might be back to CIPA where only Government-approved websites are allowed.

    @LynneW: we get that too, and I don’t know. I know nothing about tax law, but it seems like one year could affect another. But no, I don’t know. The other question we get is, since the tax forms are so late in coming, will the April 15 deadline be pushed back? I do know the answer to that: Form 4868 [pdf].

  13. Amy's SI 643 Reflective Blog Says:

    […] his experience as a librarian. His insights are very practical: he talks about lost book fines and dealing with snow storms. My favorite feature is his “Reference Question of the Week”, because it demonstrates the […]