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 Brian Herzog

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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Reference Question of the Week – 5/18/08

   May 24th, 2008 Brian Herzog

UHF logoA patron called in and asked for a listing of all the public access television stations in Massachusetts. She said she had an idea for a show, and wanted to see about getting it on the air.

In our reference collection, we have the Directory of Massachusetts Broadcasters, from the Massachusetts Broadcasters Association, but it didn't seem to list public access stations. I called them and spoke with someone who checked with their assistant director. The word was that they do not deal with public access, and they suggested calling a local station and asking if they had a directory.

We do have a local cable station in town, Chelmsford Telemedia, but they patron said she had tried calling them but couldn't get through. We've got a pretty good relationship with them since they film lots of programs at the library, but when I called everyone was out of the office, too - those are four hard working guys.

So, continuing on, I tried the Gale Directory of Publications and Broadcast Media, which is also in our reference collection. This looked like it had what the patron wanted, but also listed a lot besides public access stations and seemed difficult to sift through.

Next I tried the FCC and Massachusetts State government websites, thinking they might provide a list, but couldn't find a simple list. Then it was onto the general internet, using searches like "list of public access stations" and "public access television massachusetts," and found:

All of these listed more or less the same stations. I called the patron back to let her know what I found, and she was happy to hear about the online lists. I sent her all the urls in an email, and also said that if she comes to the library we can help her look through the Gale directory.

I never heard back, so I take that as a good sign - the online lists got her off and running on her project, and she was just too busy to reply (whereas I usually hear back right away if the information is not helpful).

I still feel like there should be an official government source for this type of listing, but I still have yet to find it through any official channels.

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