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

Reference Question of the Week – 6/9/13

   June 15th, 2013

Wednesday is my night to work at the library, and a couple hours before we closed I got an email from a coworker that just said,

I just took a picture that I think will be perfect for your blog. Ask me about it before you leave.

I had no idea what this might be, but at the end of the night, this was the picture from her phone:

patron kneeling at the Reference desk

She found this amusing because it looked to her that this patron was so desperate for help that she was willing to kneel before the desk (and pray?).

That is a funny thought, but when I explained to the rest of the evening staff what was really going on, they were even more amused.

So: around 2:30 that afternoon, a woman called in asking to reserve a study room for 7-9pm that evening, because she was proctoring a test for a student. No problem. Not 30 seconds after I hung up the phone, it rang again, this time a different woman asked to reserve a study room for her daughter, who was taking a test with a proctor.

I was quick on the uptake and asked if her daughter's name was the same one the proctor just gave me, and it was. Which, really, is just a funny little aside, and didn't really portend the communication difficulties to come.

The evening passd unremarkably. Seven o'clock rolls around and the proctor and student show up for their room.

About seven-thirty, the proctor comes out to the desk to ask if there is a way for her to print from her iPad. This perked me up a bit, because wireless printing is still new to us, and I am always happy when I can show it off. I gave her our little how-to handout, which she was satisfied with and went back to the room before I could help her with it.

About ten minutes later she was back, asking for help - and she was at the desk for the next half-hour. Here's what was going on:

  • It turns out, she was proctoring a test for a foreign exchange student from Australia. The test the girl was taking had been emailed to the proctor, as a password-protected PDF (two of them, actually)
  • She couldn't email the test to our wireless printer because it was a school iPad, and apparently could only send outgoing mail when it was connected to the school's network (this may or may not be true, but her email was definitely not working, and I wasn't going to change any of her school's settings playing around)
  • After we got the wireless printing app installed, we still couldn't print because the PDFs were password protected, and the app just kept saying it couldn't access the file (but gave no provision to enter a password)
  • She couldn't log into her school email from any other computer, because she couldn't remember her webmail password, and had left her school laptop at school

Sometime during our conversation, she also relayed that the test this girl was taking was some kind of Australian standardized test, which all Australian students must take - and must take at the same time. Which, of course, is Australia time, hence why they were in the library so late. Of course, the clock had already started, and we still hadn't even managed to print it yet.

The proctor was frazzled, the student was frustrated, and I, being functionally illiterate when it comes to Apple products, was running out of ideas.

But I know that if you start tapping things on an iPad other things happen, so this became my new strategy. When we just opened the PDF, it launched it Adobe Reader, which had limited export options*. However, at some point one of us noticed that her email had the option to move the PDF to iBooks, so we tried that.

Playing with it in iBooks, we found an option to email it with her personal (non-school) account, which miraculously did work. She emailed it to my library email, I opened the file at the desk, she entered the password, and thank goodness it printed okay. Repeat for part two of the test, and the girl was quickly to work - by about 8:20 pm.

All of this really was an ordeal to get through, compounded by the fact that the longer we screwed around, the less time the student had to take her test. My coworkers all appreciated this, and one remarked that she now understood why the woman was kneeling at the desk.

But no, that's not the reason. The proctor's shirt happened to have a very loose and floopy neckline, and if she leaned over towards the desk in the slightest, she'd be putting on quite a show. So, the entire time I was working with her, she kept using one hand to hold her shirt closed. And I don't know if you've tried it, but it is very difficult to try to operate an iPad while one hand is preventing a wardrobe malfunction.

Eventually, she just gave up and knelt in front of the desk, because at least that meant she didn't have to lean over. That was the point at which my coworker walked by.

So, amusing yes, but the story isn't quite over. At 8:55 pm I went to the study room to let them know the library was closing. Since I knew the student got a late start, I was going to offer to stay a bit past 9:00, if she needed just another ten or fifteen minutes to finish up.

The proctor said she appreciated that, but the test had another three hours(!) to go. Holy smokes. This town pretty much rolls up the sidewalks at 9pm, so I really have no idea where they were going to go to finish this test. I felt bad for them, but they were just happy to have the printed tests and said they'd figure something out.

And speaking of figuring something out, here's something I can't figure out: so, foreign exchange students usually go to the host country by themselves, right? So, when this student's mother called to reserve a room, she must have been calling from Australia. Huh.


*One option I never ruled out was opening the test on the iPad and just photocopying the screen. Luckily, we never had to implement this.

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9 Responses to “Reference Question of the Week – 6/9/13”

  1. Mary H. White Says:

    The first thing I notice is that your reference desk should have a chair for the patron so that you can sit side-by-side while working on a question. Have you folks given this any thought?

  2. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Mary: yeah. When our new construction was completed in 2001, a huge granite-topped reference desk was donated by a local family. It looks great, but isn’t very flexible. Side-by-side chairs would only really work on something much smaller, but we’d have to smash this one out first to accommodate that (which we have idly talked about, but have no plans for).

  3. Christine Says:

    Do you offer proctoring at your library? My public library offers it, but it’s a bit of a sore spot as we don’t advertise the fact (on purpose) and there’s always debate whether we should have it or not. That is a potential topic for a blog post too!

  4. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Christine: Ha. We do offer proctoring, although we do it on an “on our terms” basis. Our terms are: the student will use one of our study rooms, and staff will handle paperwork and logging in and start and stop tests at the right times, but we cannot be monitoring the student the entire time they’re taking a test. All of our study rooms have glass fronts and are right next to the reference desk, so staff can easily observe the student any time, but we can’t watch them all the time (similar to prisons built with all cells facing a central guard tower). Some schools have not allowed students to take tests here because we couldn’t monitor them the entire time, but most are fine with it. We don’t charge, and at the end of semesters, we probably average a couple students a week.

    That’s pretty much the whole story for us though, and I don’t think I could make it a full post – but I would be curious to hear what other libraries do.

  5. Jenne Says:

    Okay, now I’m curious. CAN you photocopy the screen of an ipad?

  6. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Jenne: I actually had no idea, so I just tried it – it seems the answer is no. It seems like the screen reflects the light, and it all comes out black. So, Plan C would be to use a camera to photograph the iPad’s screen, and then print the photo. Whew.

  7. Lisa Says:

    It’s good to know I’m not the only Mac barely-literate reference person out here. 🙂

  8. ash966 Says:

    Well, if it happens again, it’s pretty easy to take a screenshot. So easy, I do it by accident sometimes.


    When doing screenshots for Overdrive tutorials, Nook tablets were the tough ones. I had to try at least twice most times. With the Sony Wi-fi, I just used a camera,

  9. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Lisa: no, I am quite sure we are not alone.

    @ash: good point, I had not considered that. At the time though, we were still struggling with emailing things off the iPad, so what I really need to brush up on is my options-for-transferring-things-off-the-iPad skills. Or, just invent a dongle that allows connecting a flash drive to an iPad.