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

Reference Question of the Week – 3/31/13

   April 6th, 2013

Hello.  Have you tried turning it off and on again?This wasn't a very difficult question, and although it didn't have a great ending, I thought it was interesting anyway - and happy we could help because the patron had no where else to go.

A patron walked up to the Reference Desk and asked to use the phone. We generally only let people use desk phones to call for rides or other quick things, mainly to make sure phones are available for staff to answer incoming patron calls.

Since it was fairly early in the day, I asked him if he was calling for a ride, and he said,

No, I need to call email tech support. I called them last night to help with my email, but he said I needed to be in front of the computer. I don't have one at home, so I always use the library computers. I don't have a cell phone either, but I think this computer here in the corner is close enough to the Reference Desk that I could stretch the phone cord across the aisle while I talk to him. It should be a quick call.

Okay, by the time he was finished speaking, all kinds of red flags were waving for all they're worth.

I sympathize with people trying to use technology without actually owning their own technology - libraries are great, but obviously some things are much easier to do at home. However, also obviously, I couldn't allow this patron to:

  • block an aisle way by stretching a cord across it
  • engage in a phone conversation at the public workstation, since we routinely ask people doing this very thing to take their cell phone call in a different area of the library so as not to bother the other computer users near them
  • tie up one of the Reference Desk phones for this long a time - no tech support call in history has been "quick"

Hoping to avoid this situation entirely, I asked the patron what he was trying to do, and if I could help. His answer kind of surprised me:

I've always used Hotmail, but now I'm switching to Gmail. The Gmail people said they were able to import everything from my Hotmail account, except what was in my Drafts folder. But when I went in to move those myself, I accidentally deleted some, so I called Hotmail to see if they could be restored.

First, I had no idea that Gmail offered a migration service, but they do. Neat. Secondly, I think he's right in that he'd need Hotmail tech support to recover deleted messages. I did check his account with him, just to see if there was something he overlooked, but from what we could tell the draft messages in question were gone.

And so, this left us with the original question of how he could use a phone and a computer at the same time. Eventually it dawned on me that he could borrow one of the laptops we loan to the public, and the Reference Desk's cordless phone,* and sit in an area of the library where his talking wouldn't bother anyone. It seemed like a good solution, and he was happy.

45 minutes later(!) he came back, a little dejectedly, and said Hotmail couldn't recover his messages after all. He wasn't entirely sure of the reason, but by this point had accepted it. The messages weren't critical, but he certainly would have preferred to have them. I apologized and we commiserated a bit about technological dependence, then he thanked me for the library being able to accommodate his situation, and left.

So in case anyone was wondering, the digital divide is still alive and well. It also made me wonder: do any libraries loan cell phones to patrons? I'm not an expert on cell phone technology, but I think there are the the kind where patrons could just pay to put minutes on them, so it wouldn't cost the library anything. It would have been helpful in a case like this, or if a patron was going on a trip or something and wanted the security of being in touch. It seems like a good idea, but I'm sure I'm overlooking some vital flaw.


*Our Reference Desk has two phones at the desk (and two computers), as well as a cordless phone in the Reference Office behind the Desk. We carry this with us when we know we'll be away from the desk, because it sure beats trying to sprint back to the desk when the phone rings while you're in the stacks.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

14 Responses to “Reference Question of the Week – 3/31/13”

  1. Donna Says:

    Your comment about the digital divide is an important one for us to remember. When I tell people that I am a librarian, I am amazed at the people who say, “Aren’t libraries going away?” My usual response is, “Have you been in a library lately?” I work in an academic library and often all of the computer stations are taken, and at my local branch, there is usually a wait list in spite of Wi-Fi access. Providing hardware, space, and expertise is more important than ever for libraries of all types.

  2. Emily Odza Says:

    I admire your bending the rules and eliminating the obstacles for your patron. I wish our public library would have cordless phones available for librarians and the occasional patron use. Rushing back to the desk is ridiculous; plus it puts a burden on circulation staff to answer when they might already be busy.

    Gmail set up requires the patron to have another email or a cell phone handy, so you can imagine the obstacles this places in front of the patron getting an email address for the first time who doesn’t have a cell phone. This is COMMON!!! I finally realized what a pain it was for the patron to go all the way home to his landline to retrieve a code (and by the time he returned, the registration had expired!). I was embarrassed by what my co-worker had put him through and so, the second time around, since I was the one helping, I used my cell phone during his registration so the code could be instantly sent to me as text. We finally got him set up. (It wasn’t a long help desk conversation, at least). But we librarians shouldn’t have to supply our own technology solutions and potentially threaten our privacy to solve our patrons’ technology problems. Any other solutions out there I haven’t thought of? I also didn’t have a chance to figure out how to delete that cell phone from his account later, but I’m sure he’ll never know it’s even there.

  3. Emily Odza Says:

    I forgot to add that your idea of lending cell phones is good. If it is a pay as you go plan, could the library collect cash for minutes (minus a couple of minutes for the patron to make the call)? Lots of people don’t have credit cards, either. I doubt this would work, as everything is supposed to be “free” in our library (prints being an exception), so I have had objections to various ideas I’ve had that included selling flash drives, envelopes, binder clips, and all sorts of stationery items that people ask for.

    There used to be a pay phone in every library …not anymore. It almost seems like we have to go back to that idea — having a third party vendor operate a lend-a-cell-phone business in our facilities!! Sharing cell phones is common in other cultures, I hear. One person in a village has a cell phone and charges people to use it. Hmmm, we’re already the village commons–we could take that a bit further. We do represent the developing world, in a sense.

  4. Emily Odza Says:

    And one more things — we REALLY need to bring phone booths back. We’re constantly listening to multitaskers on their cell phones.

  5. Emma Says:

    I don’t know of any libraries that lend cell phones, but some systems in my area (Dallas/Fort Worth) have started lending tablets for ebooks. It seems like if we trust patrons with iPads we should trust them with cell phones, which can now be purchased quite cheaply.

    In this case, though, maybe a simpler solution to the problem of needing simultaneous access to a library computer and a phone would be to put one computer right next to the public phone (if you have one) rather than to get a phone that can move to the computer. Thoughts?

  6. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Emma: the payphone was removed from my library a couple years ago, and since then the “public phone” we let patrons use are just the desk phones.

    But @Emily’s idea of bringing back phone booths is a good one – just a quite place people can go and talk. We’ve considered installing a “cone of silence” but haven’t really investigated it.

  7. Emily Odza Says:

    Do tell us more about your “cone of silence” idea! In reality, folks now answer their cell phones just about anywhere–while on computer, at the reference desk, etc…..and I even had one mom use the DVD area as her ‘office’, conducting some lengthy business on her cell phone, leaving her children to fend for themselves in the library for almost an hour.

    I agree – if lending tablets is happening, then cell phones should be lendable too.

    Since it is very common that we help patrons get their first email addresses, at least having one cell phone at the reference desk might be a good idea, so we don’t have to use our own!

    I’m curious about the portable phones some of you have. The office phones that we have (with all the extensions and paging and intercom options) are ancient — and can’t imagine that they make portable versions — but it would be great if they did!

  8. Connie Says:

    I read this at about the same time as I was fielding a request for space to give away free cell phones (250 min/month) to the qualified, an aspect of the FCC’s Lifeline working group. (To qualify, one must demonstrate they are on food stamps, Medicaid, SSI. or other low-income assistance programs.) Any thought about helping the patron get their own phone?

  9. Amelia Says:

    I just finished a class on publishing in the 21st century and a lot of my discussions branched from my experiences as a librarian. So many of my classmates (future authors) we’re clueless to the digital divide. The few that would comment didn’t seem to understand that I meant here in our country not in third world countries. It really bothered me.

  10. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Emily: my library got a new phone system a few years ago, and we opted to get a few cordless phones in addition to the regular curly-cord kind. They’re nothing special though – basically just like the one pictured here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cordless_telephone. Depending on whether your phone system is digital or analog, you could probably pick one up at Radio Shack or somewhere and start using it right away.

    @Connie: I don’t know much about this program, but I have helped low-income patrons sign up for free cell phones from https://www.safelinkwireless.com. There is also http://www.freegovernmentcellphones.net which looks a little sketchy, but the information itself seems legit.

    @Amelia: sad, but if if you’ve never encountered something, I suppose it’s not surprising you couldn’t know about it. I’m glad you had a chance to inform them, and hopefully they’ll be better writers because of it.

  11. Ashley Says:

    If he had already set up a Google account, could you have allowed him to use a pair of headphones with the library laptop to use Google Voice to call tech support (assuming the laptop has a built in microphone that would work)? Other than the headphones, this uses technology the library already has readily available and wouldn’t incur any additional costs.

  12. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Ashley: honestly that hadn’t occurred to me – our laptops do have microphones, and I use mine (with earbuds) for online meetings all the time). Thanks for the suggestion, and I’ll definitely keep it in mind for next time. However, it does seem patron-dependent though – for some, even using a cordless telephone is more technology than they’re comfortable with.

  13. Stephanie Brown Says:

    UMass Amherst has cell phone booths in their reference area (Cell Zone Cell Phone Booth | Flickr – Photo Sharing! http://www.flickr.com/photos/umasslearningcommons/530389087/) Not sure how pricey they are, but it’s a neat idea.

  14. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Stephanie: I love it and now want one. But yeah, they’re not cheap: $2,500-$3,500.