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

Reference Question of the Week – 2/24/13

   March 2nd, 2013 Brian Herzog

Library Emergency PhoneThis sort of happened once before, and I think it's awesome - although it probably wasn't very awesome to experience.

One member of our staff recently took a two-week cruise, leaving from Florida. She and her partner flew to Florida, took a shuttle from the airport to the dock, and were just about to get on the boat when the realized one of their suitcases was missing. But worst of all, it was the suitcase that contained his blood pressure medicine.

They simply could not go on the cruise without it. And they only had an hour and a half before they had to check in on the ship, so they didn't have enough time to get all the way back to the airport and try to track down the bag.

So, she did the only smart thing - she called the library.

Her logic was this: they knew the name of his doctor and the town in which he practiced, but no other contact information. The Reference Desk was able to easily find the doctor's office phone number, which she then called from her cell phone in Florida.

The doctor's office said they could send a new prescription to a local pharmacy down there - but of course they were at a cruise ship terminal and had no idea where a drug store might be.

The ensuing story sounded like the stuff of a Benny Hill sketch: they found a taxi, but the driver barely spoke English. He tried to locate a CVS Pharmacy on his smartphone's GPS, while my coworker tried to keep the doctor's office on the phone. I can just hear Yakety Sax playing while picturing this cab racing down the street, cell phones blazing, communication barrier humming, and the clock ticking.

They finally find a pharmacy, (hopefully) convince the cabbie to wait in the parking lot because they'll be right back out and need to race back to the dock - my coworker still has the doctor's office on the phone and gives it to the pharmacy technician so they can work out where to send the prescription.

After a few tense minutes the new prescription is filled, the smiling taxi driver is happily waiting for them, and they make it back to the cruise ship just in the nick of time. The rest of the cruise goes smoothly, they have a wonderful time, and they even manage to pick up their lost suitcase on their way back through the airport going home.

And the moral of this story? Never go on vacation without taking your local library's phone number with you.

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Reference Question of the Week – 2/21/10

   February 27th, 2010 Brian Herzog

I Assure You We're Open sheet sign from Clerks movieOnce again, heavy winds and rain has been knocking out power to most of the area (especially yesterday), so this question of the week is a repeat:

Hey, are you open?

My library had power all day, but most of the town and other nearby libraries did not. The library was packed, and more than a few times I was asked if I knew when power would be back on at a patron's house.

I think the power companies learned a public relations lesson last year, and have been more proactive in providing information. In searching the internet, I found some helpful National Grid storm resources:

When I asked my Director if we'd be staying open late to serve as a shelter for people without power, she said we officially cannot do that. Apparently there are strict certifications necessary for a Town building to function as an emergency shelter, and the library is not certified (neither is our Senior Center, which did stay open last year, but was closed when someone noticed the lack of certification). Granted, this week's outage (and weather) is certainly not as bad as last year's ice storm, but I really don't know how involved certification would need to be. We wouldn't be providing food or aid or beds for people, just heat and power and chairs and internet, which we already do every day. Of course, we'd have to pay staff to stay open, and that is tough with our budget situation.

So, not a very inspiring reference question, but it's been that kind of week. For a real Reference Question this week, check out a great transaction from The Surly Librarian.

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Reference Question of the Week – 3/8/09

   March 14th, 2009 Brian Herzog

broken pay phoneThis question started off normal enough, then kind of hit a brick wall 30 seconds into the phone call.

The phone rings on a Friday morning, before there were very many patrons in the building:

Patron: I'm looking for someone who comes to the library a lot. I think he called from the pay phone in the lobby. A number showed on my caller ID, and I think it must have been him calling from the library.
Me: Okay, if you describe him I can look around the library and try to find him.
Patron: He's not at the library.
Me: Oh... then-
Patron: This is an emergency and I need to find him. It's a matter of life and death.
Me: If he's not at the library, have you tried calling his house?
Patron: He doesn't have a phone, and he moved and I don't know his address. But I need to find him. It's a matter of life and death.
Me: If it's that urgent, perhaps you should call the police.
Patron: I talked to them and they won't help. I told them it was an emergency. I know the address where he used to live. I need to find him.
Me: I could look up his old address, but if he's moved, it would give the phone number of the new person. Unless he just moved recently, then it would still be his contact inf-
Patron: He doesn't have a phone. Would his phone number be in there?
Me: If he's moved, his address will still be there, but it might be listed with someone else's name.
Patron: Maybe they know where he is. What's their number?

I was unsure about giving this out. But since it's public, and there's a chance the current residents are his old roommates, I looked up the address in the criss-cross Polk directory and gave her the two numbers listed for that address. She took them down down and quickly hangs up.

Two minutes later the phone rings:

Patron: One number was disconnected and the other one said they never heard of him. I told them it was life and death but they hung up on me.
Me: Hmm. Do you have any idea where he might be?
Patron: No, but this is an emergency and I need to reach him. You don't know where he is? It's a matter of life and death.
Me: Have you tried calling any of his friends? Maybe they would know how to reach him.
Patron: His friends? I'm his friend. [pause] They might know where he is. I'll call them. [click]

And that was that. I felt bad, because throughout the phone call she was becoming more and more distraught, but I really didn't see any way I could help her. I don't know that the police could have either, but I certainly would have thought they could help more than the library. Hmm.

This one is right up there with Rachel R's comment. It's good that people think to call the library, but sometimes their expectations are a bit too high.

How do you find someone quickly if you don't know where they live and they don't have a phone?

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