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

Details Create the Big Picture

   October 13th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Walking in someone else's shoesThanks to everyone who took part in Work Like A Patron Day yesterday, and I hope you got something out of it.

I wasn't able to spend as much time with it as I had hoped, between meetings and projects and helping patrons (it was a busy day yesterday). In the time that I was WLAP'ing, I didn't notice anything major, but just a lot of little things - hence the title of this post, which is a quote from Sanford I. Weill.

  • At the public workstations, I'm always straightening our scrap paper and pencils holders, but when you sit down to check your email, it's easy to get tunnel vision and not even notice that stuff - maybe I'm just more of a neat-freak than necessary
  • The tunnel vision also filters out most of the noise and bustle of the library - which, in my library, there can be a lot of. At the reference desk the noise makes me tense because I worry it might be bothering other patrons, but when WLAP'ing, it didn't really seem that bad. Actually, it just seemed like I was sitting in a very busy and active library, which was great
  • We have an overhead public address system in my library, and you can clearly tell which staff are comfortable using it and which are a little intimidated, by the tone of their voice during announcements
  • The woman who used the study room before me smelled strongly of mint
  • Another staff person pointed out that we need to clean the front of the building - it looks okay in this picture, but the "Chelmsford Public Library" engraved in the stonework is getting obscured by rust from the roof

I was a little disappointed I didn't get to spend more time with this today, but it's certainly not just a one-day event. I try to do this any time I can all year round.

Thanks again to everyone who participated, and please share any highlights of your day.

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Work Like A Patron Day 2011

   September 27th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Working like a patronIn 2008, I announced the first "Work Like A Patron" day - I've been mostly quiet about it since, but David and Jessamyn have both talked about the idea lately, so I thought I'd offer it up again.

The point of Work Like A Patron day is to remind librarians that libraries are for patrons, and it's important to gauge the result of our efforts from their point of view. I know lots of people do this on a daily basis anyway, but for my own benefit it helps to make a special effort to view the library through a patron's eyes.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011
Work Like A Patron day takes place on the Wednesday of the week six months after National Library Week. That was April 10-16, so this year's Work Like A Patron day will be Wednesday, October 12 - that's just two weeks away!

Ideas for Working Like A Patron
I know every library is different, and lots of people routinely do these things, but here are a few things I do to get out from behind the desk and experience the library like a patron:

  • enter and leave the library through the public entrance (not the staff doors)
  • use the public restrooms
  • try doing some work on the public computers
  • call the library's main number and negotiate the phone system
  • reserve public meeting rooms for meetings
  • return your items in the book drop
  • navigate the library's website as if you're not already familiar with it
  • follow all library policies
  • read posted signs to see how helpful they are

Obviously, not everything will be applicable to every library, and not all library staff can do their work away from their desks. The real point of Work Like A Patron day is to just spend some time experiencing the library like a patron, not like a librarian.

Share your Experience
I'm always curious to hear about it, so if you'd like to share what you did on Work Like a Patron day, tweet with the hashtag #wlap or add a link to the Library Success wiki Work Like A Patron page. Or, of course, share in the comments below.

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Closed for Veterans Day

   November 11th, 2010 Brian Herzog

No post today in honor of Veterans Day. Read about the history of Veterans Day from the Army and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

WWI Soldiers

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Library (Bad) Day in the Life

   August 25th, 2009 Brian Herzog

I feel bad when I complain, but here's a version of the Librarian Day in the Life for A Bad Day.

7:00 am, Monday

  • Wake up before alarm, feel pretty good
  • Play on internet, read, mess around house because I have lots of time before work

8:12 am

  • Remember I'm supposed to meet printer repairman from Conway at library at 8:15 am
  • Call library to let someone know I'll be late and to pass word to Conway guy; no one answers the phone
  • Shower, shave, dress, pack lunch
  • Spend five minutes looking for my keys - I never lose my keys - give up and use spare

8:45 am

  • Arrive at library, find out two people have called in sick
  • Talk to Conway guy, who is installing latest version of Envisionware LPT:One to fix all the bugs with current version
  • Find out catalog is slow-to-stopped; call catalog tech support to report it

9:00 am

    Library dome inside

  • Maintenance guy tells me this: he noticed water streaks on the inside of the library's dome, so he and the sprinkler repair man were up on ladders this morning looking for leak. It turns out it's a hole in the copper roof, not a sprinkler leak. But while moving around up there, one of them bumps a light fixture, which tips and water spills out (apparently, this light was right under the leak). Both guys go to grab it: our maintenance guy grabs the outside of the fixture, but the sprinkler guy grabs the edge, and when his fingers touch the water inside the fixture, he gets a (thankfully mild) electric shock. Neither guy falls off ladder, which is good
  • Reference coworker arrives, and she tells me I asked both her and another person to work the same shift this past Saturday - I have no memory of this, but it makes me feel bad I made both of them get up early on a Saturday
  • Catalog seems fixed, which is very good
  • Find out two more people have called in sick; start scrambling to find desk coverage
  • Circ staff says someone threw a full cup of Dunkin Donuts coffee in the book return box (two weeks ago it was an egg) - don't know how many books were damaged

9:30 am - Library opens to public

  • Conway guy finishes up, everything seems to be working properly (for the first time in 10 months)
  • Childrens room reports that a patron peed on the floor

10:00 am - 1:30 pm

  • Many patrons calling in for museum passes, since this is the last week before school starts - almost all passes are already taken, and no patrons are happy to hear this
  • Try to continue with updating policy manual (we revised all of our policies this year, and they were approved by Trustees in April. Ever since have been trying to get new policies consolidated into a single Word file and on website) - tedious but necessary, but don't get very far because of a lot of patron questions and calls
  • Talk to Director about "changes due to budget cuts" announcements - changes include cut to hours at both branches, cut to materials budget, and change in how items can be requested from branch. During the conversation, I find out that no one actually understands the technicalities behind the change to how requests are handled, so even though patrons have been noticing it and calling about it, this section is cut because we don't know what the system is doing
  • A computer support volunteer is updating our Amazon API (which broke last weekend) behind the reference desk. While I'm on the phone, I hear him offering to help patrons with their reference questions - does this bother other people as much as it bothered me?

1:30 pm - 2:00 pm

  • Lunch break - or so I would think. Computer volunteer comes to find me about 1:40 to talk about update; spend ten minutes testing to make sure the update worked (it seemed to, which is a good thing). Hurry to finish lunch of very unexciting salad
  • On my way back to the desk, I find a woman wandering in the back room looking for the Director. She's out of the building, so I talk to the woman. This woman has been in the library every day for the last eight months asking for a job. She will not get a job because: 1) we had to lay people off due to budget cuts, so, obviously, we're not hiring; 2) she can barely speak English (excellent communication skills is a requirement for a public service position); 3) she has actually yelled at library staff when we repeatedly, every day, tell her we are not hiring. Today was my turn again

2:00 pm - 3:30 pm

  • Group in meeting room needs projector - go get projector, bring it to them. Two minutes later they ask for Mac adapter dongle for projector - spend ten minutes looking for it, but it is nowhere to be found. Go to meeting room to let the group know, and they're using one they brought (so why'd they ask for ours? And where has ours gotten to?)
  • Find out that the email announcement about the change in hours listed the wrong hours. Sigh
  • Work on updating the schedule for coverage at the Reference Desk. Anytime I try to change the schedule, everyone gets upset with me, and this time is no exception - this has been a tense topic for the last week and a half
  • Patron looking for summer reading books is upset that none of the books her child wants are checked in - one week before school starts, this should not be a surprise

3:30 pm

  • Notice one of the YA computers is missing. Which is odd, since it was there this morning, and no other tech person is in the building. Check logs, and the last activity was that it was a session ended by user at 1:39 pm. Ask around, no one knows anything about it, so can only conclude that it must have been stolen. Monitor is still there, and so are all the cables - it looks like someone just unplugged the CPU and walked away. Look in all corners and bathroom of library, but it is nowhere to be found.

4:00 pm - 5:00 pm

  • Patron question: "I have a tenant who wants to open a day care in her apartment - can I get the legal form for that?" Look in all our landlord and legal forms books, but patron doesn't see what she's after. Look online, can't find anything. The closest thing I can find is a commercial lease rental form, which covers running a business from a rental property, but patron (inexplicably) says that's not what she wants. Request books of rental agreements from other libraries for patron, but patron is clearly unhappy she might have to contact a lawyer. Patron also is not interested in referral to Lowell Law Library or BPL's business branch
  • A different patron wanted the transcript from Obama's recent interfaith conference call - couldn't find that, but could find a site with a video. But all the computers were in use so the patron couldn't watch it right then, and she didn't want to wait for a computer, so she left (annoyed)
  • 5:00 pm - evening desk staff comes in. Have you ever noticed that when you're in a bad mood, everyone else seems to be in a really good mood?

After Work

  • Go to grocery store (which I do not enjoy). The Hannaford by me recently remodeled, so in addition to not knowing where anything is anymore, when I do find the right section, it seems they no longer carry a lot of the brands or sizes I used to buy. And then the cashier acts put-out that I bring my own cloth bag and don't want plastic bags
  • Get home, unpack groceries, find keys (way down between couch cushions), eat popsicles and watch Danger Mouse (which is great, but I can't find any Bananaman - oh well)

Tomorrow can only be better, right? But I still wonder what happened to that computer.

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Library Day in the Life Project 2009

   July 27th, 2009 Brian Herzog

Today, July 27th, 2009, I'm participating in "Library Day in the Life Project" (more here) I'll be live-blogging what I do during my 9-5pm shift at the reference desk. And today might be more interesting, since my coworker called in sick.

Today's To-Do Pile (so far)9:00 am: - Get to Library

  • sort mail, make "to-do" pile for the day
  • find out catalog is down, put out-of-order signs on lookup stations
  • check Reference Desk email, respond to 2 emails
  • start pulling books requested by patrons over the weekend (we call this the "pull list")

9:30 am: - Library opens to public

  • grab cordless phone and keep pulling books
  • field lots of phone calls from people requesting museum passes
  • 9:50 am - catalog comes back up; can start placing requests for books that I'd been keeping on note paper so far this morning
  • Update events listing on homepage, and book sale drop-off schedule


  • help someone locate a lawyer in the area; make note to improve "find a lawyer" section of our website
  • 10:40 am - all public computers are in use
  • assorted reference questions
  • take recently-returned books off shelving cart from circ desk to put on sorting shelves; put pull list books on cart to take up to circ desk

Mysterious Box from Ebsco11:00-12:00

  • sudden rush of in-person patrons and calls, need to IM director to come to the desk for backup
  • date and shelve latest Banker's & Trademan, Morningstar, CQ Research, Central Register and Goods and Services Bulletin to collection (which arrived in the mail this morning)
  • patron calls: "what was that Glenn Close movie from the 90's where she died and came back in someone else's body?" I didn't know, so went to IMDb and read her all the titles from the 90's, and then 80's, before she recognized "Maxie" (from 1985)
  • open mysterious "fragile - glass" box from Ebsco - hey, we won an award (more on this soon)
  • trying to help patrons and type about helping them at the same time is really difficult


  • try to coordinate lunch breaks, so ref desk is covered while I'm eating
  • patron asks: "if I give you someone's name and social security number, can you tell me their address?"
  • show a student how to log into databases to research the science of attraction
  • finally finish placing requests for all the items on my note paper from this morning
  • well into the lunchtime lull - slow enough to spend a few minutes straightening the 520's, which I noticed were a mess while doing the pull list this morning
  • too bad today isn't one of the days we track stats (by counting the number of questions asked) - it was a busy morning, but not with questions significant or interesting enough to type here
  • print 1 and 0 to participate in Library 101 video


  • working my way through to-do pile - all mail and catalogs dealt with, now on to magazines
  • just extricated myself from one of our chatty regulars - 10 minutes of monologue; I just listened, but I'm exhausted
  • 1:30 pm - time for lunch (my first break of the day) - yay


  • back from lunch (turkey, lettuce and tomato on wheat from Subway)
  • the August BookPage arrived - two patrons asked for one while I was taking them out of the box
  • Patron called to ask for the phone number of Sotheby's, Christie's, Leslie and Leigh Keno, and Skinner's. After I gave them to her, she asked if I thought they would auction something she was going to send to them as a photo from her camera phone
  • Circ desk called to tell me there's a pizza delivery guy here with three pizzas, and do I know anything about it. Turns out, some kids called and wanted them delivered to the front steps for a study break on the library lawn


  • today must be spring-cleaning day; I've had three calls from people asking how they can donate books to the library - why, on our drop-off days or using our new drop box, of course
  • quiet afternoon means I was able to add a big stack of new magazines to the catalog with only two interruptions (usually Tech Services adds items to the catalog, but I'm filling in while someone else is out sick)
  • scan some recipes for a coworker to email to her mother
  • while adding magazines to our catalog, I noticed a couple not listed on our website's periodicals listing. So, I printed the webpage to compare to our latest Ebsco list


  • trying to find empty carts - some of our pages have been off on family vacations, and we've had so many books returned in the last couple days that we're running out of room
  • started creating a Legal Information Resources subject guide webpage - needs much more work, and isn't linked-to from our website yet, but it does have a feed in from our Delicious account
  • just did an Abbott and Costello routine with phone patron on reserving museum pass: "you'd like the pass for the twentieth? No, the twenty-eighth. Okay, the twenty-eighth. No, not the twentieth the twenty-eighth. Yes, the twenty-eighth. No, not the twentieth..."

5:00- - Bonus Time (staying over to cover for someone to take her dinner break, because she's been here since 11am and is working to 9pm)

  • Things I have not done today that I wanted to do: read rss feeds in Bloglines, do selection (via rss and journals), sort donated genealogy books to see if they should be added to collection
  • patron: the computer I'm on isn't playing sound. me (after walking over to the patron's computer): oh yes, I'm sorry, the sound card on this computer isn't working (I say this as I casually point to the hot pink sign taped to the computer). patron: so that applies to me, too?
  • actually getting some selection done - made it halfway through 7/09 Library Journal
  • 5:30 - time to go
  • last job of the day: check & empty the new book sale donation box on the way through the parking lot

Thanks to Bobbi Newman, aka Librarian by Day, for this great idea. I don't think I could possibly do an entire week, but this may be a more-than-once-a-year project for me.

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