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

Tax Season Should Be Fun This Year

   January 15th, 2015 Brian Herzog

tax bobbleheadBy now, hopefully you've heard what the IRS will be providing to libraries this year in the way of tax products. If not, here's the email TFOP libraries received last week:

TFOP Filing Season Update

While we had committed to waiting until next year to making changes to the Tax Forms Outlet Program, the situation has changed. As you may be aware, IRS appropriations were significantly cut in the 2015 Omnibus Appropriations bill recently passed by Congress. Unfortunately this puts us in a position where we have very few options. We want to honor our commitment to you by providing some key products, but we cannot deliver nearly what we have in the past.

For this filing season, we will offer the following products:

  • Forms 1040, 1040A and 1040EZ
  • Publication 17, one reference copy for each participant (Taxpayers will be able to access Publication 17 in English and Spanish online from irs.gov/Pub17 and, new this year, it will also be available as a free e-Pub for downloading from IRS.gov and viewing on most e-Readers and other mobile devices.)
  • Publication 4604 (EN/SP), Use the Web for IRS Tax Products & Information
  • Publication 1132, Reproducible Copies of Federal Tax Forms and Instructions
  • The TFOP Poster Package which includes:
    • Publication 1169, Need Tax Help?
    • Publication 1258, Where Should I Send This?
    • Publication 1309, Tax Forms This Way Publication
    • Publication 1725, If The Form Fits...Use It!

No additional products will be available through the TFOP Program. We will not be sending Form 8635-S, Supplement to Form 8635.

We will fill orders for Forms 1040 and 1040A with the quantities you requested on your order form earlier this year. Because Form 1040EZ was not on this year's order form, we will send you 75% of your Form 1040 A order quantity. For example, if you ordered 3000 Form 1040 A, we will send you 2250 Form 1040EZ. It is not necessary for you to place an order for Form 1040EZ; we will automatically ship Form 1040EZ to you once the form becomes available.

Unfortunately, we are unable to offer Instructions for Forms 1040, 1040A and 1040EZ. Your patrons can obtain copies of Instructions through:

  • IRS.gov/Forms - to view and download
  • IRS.gov/orderforms - to order tax products to be delivered by mail
  • 1-800-829-3676 - to order tax products to be delivered by mail

The decision to reduce the number of tax products available to our TFOP partners was not made lightly. We realize this decision is not ideal and we understand it may impact you and your customers. Please offer Publication 4604 (EN/SP) to your patrons to help guide them to tax products and information available on IRS.gov. We apologize for these late program changes.

Thank you for your support,
IRS TFOP Administrator

Which really is terrible news for libraries and patrons - patrons because so many people have relied on easily picking up tax forms at their local library, and libraries because we'll be spending a lot of time apologizing for the IRS to those many irate patrons.

But we can get through this. Libraries near me have been sharing ideas on how to handle these changes. Here's what we'll be doing:

  • Printing a sign to explain the situation to people - basically, to say that these are all the tax forms we have and that's all we're getting
  • Have a handout ready with the URL and phone number above for where people can request forms be mailed to them. My first draft [pdf] looks like this:
  • Used the order form website myself to get two copies of the instruction booklets so the library will have reference copies
  • Printed copies of the 1040, 1040A, and 1040EZ instruction to make circulating copies in three-ring binders for patrons. We're starting with two of each, and will print more as demand increases (because it's a lot of printing). They'll circulate for one week, and we'll allow patrons to place local holds too
  • Continue with our "first copy free" policy of printing tax forms for patrons. In the past this has just been for the oddball form here and there, but this year we expect to be printing a lot more*. Although for us, this free copy only applies to forms, not instructions - hopefully the circulating copies or reference copies for photocopying will meet that need
  • Make available the IRS' reproducible tax form binder, so patrons can photocopy whatever forms they need
  • We may end up pre-printing a lot of the more common schedules and other forms, just to save the patron's (and staff's) time of having to print-on-demand. But again, this is something we're going to wait and see what demand is like and respond accordingly

So, that's our current plan. I'd really like to hear what other libraries are doing, so if you've got a great idea that will help this tax season, please share in the comments.

Good luck.


*I had briefly thought about trying to record all our printing, so get a ballpark figure of how much the IRS' budget cut is costing my library. I hate the idea of shifting costs like that (like when the movie theater hands you an empty cup instead of paying someone to fill it for you! They've just shifted that cost onto their customer. Savages.), but decided that it's probably not worth the cost of our staff tracking, because we'd never use that information for anything anyway. But I'd still be curious to know.

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You May See An Increase In Patrons

   October 14th, 2010 Brian Herzog

IRS logoI'm sure everyone has heard that the IRS is not going to be mailing 2010 tax forms to peoples' homes next year.

I don't blame them for looking for ways to save money, and it's good to be moving towards more efficient processes. But this isn't exactly a gentle nudge - this is a sharp push, which will be especially painful to people without internet access or few computer skills.

This also means, of course, that libraries will see even more demand for tax forms next year (and probably hear from many annoyed patrons). To warn us, the IRS sent out the following email through their Tax Form Outlet Program - forgive me if you've seen this, but the bold line below was too priceless not to share:



Thank you for your participation in TFOP. The IRS announced that individual[1] and business[2] taxpayers will no longer receive paper income tax packages in the mail from the IRS. These tax packages contained the forms, schedules and instructions for filing a paper income tax return. The IRS is taking this step because of the continued growth in electronic filing and the availability of free
options to taxpayers, as well as to help reduce costs.

There are numerous FREE OPTIONS available for your patrons to obtain tax products, tax preparation and assistance in filing their tax returns:

  • Download Forms and instructions online[3] at IRS.gov
  • Visit an IRS Taxpayer Assistance Center (TAC)[4], participating libraries and U. S. Post Offices
  • Individuals making $49,000 or less can use the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance[5] program for free tax preparation and, in many cases, free electronic filing
  • Individuals aged 60 and older can take advantage of free tax counseling and basic income tax preparation through Tax Counseling for the Elderly[6]
  • IRS Free File[7] provides options for free brand-name tax software or online fillable forms plus free electronic filing. For more information, visit IRS Free File[8] on IRS.gov


Although tax products are available online[9] at IRS.gov and IRS Taxpayer Assistance Centers (TACs)[10], you may experience an increase in patrons visiting your location for tax products.

The IRS mailed postcards[11] to individuals who filed paper returns last year and did not use a tax preparer or tax software. The postcard provides information on how to get the tax forms and instructions they need for filing their tax year 2010 return.


Your TFOP order form lists the most commonly used tax products. Use the order form to order additional stock of any of these products, if necessary. Your order form lists Publication 1132, /Reproducible Copies of Federal Tax Forms and Instructions/ and Publication 3194, /Reproducible Copies of Federal Tax Forms /- Laminated Version. These publications contain the most commonly used tax products that, if available, can be photocopied by your patrons. Tax products will become available beginning January 2011.

Thank you.

IRS TFOP Administrator

I think "you may see an increase in patrons" is a bit of an understatement.

So to prepare, I'll be making signs to put up near the tax forms explaining the situation, and will also try to get the local newspaper to run a notification article or two before tax season starts. I will also quote to them from the CNN article:

Those who prefer hardcopy documents can still find them at libraries, post offices and walk-in IRS offices around the country. After Jan. 1, they can request a mailing through the IRS toll-free number, 800-829-3676.

Yes, it should be a fun one this year.

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Reference Question of the Week – 3/28/10

   April 3rd, 2010 Brian Herzog

1040 starsThis isn't really a reference question, but it is a question from a patron. It's, well, you decide:

Patron: Have you see the monk hidden on the cover of the tax forms?

As Liz Lemon would say, "what the what?" The patron explained, somewhat cryptically, that the negative space between the stars on this year's 1040 instruction booklet cover design seemed to form a monk.

Can you see it? Hover your mouse over the image to see what he was talking about. It's slightly easier to see on a larger animated version on flickr.

I saw it after he pointed it out, but personally, I think it looks more like Darth Vader. The conspiracist in me knows it's not unusual that secret symbols appear in government printing, but they're usually more Masonic than Imperial (but maybe the stars were just to much to resist).

There must be a word for this - hidden pictures formed by positive space shapes. This is sort of like the distorted tessellations in MC Escher's art, but not quite. I looked around but couldn't find a name or description, so I'll keep looking.

In the meantime, if you're interested, here are a few examples of logos employing negative space.

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Reference Question of the Week – 3/21/10

   March 27th, 2010 Brian Herzog

2010 censusThis was a challenging question, because it took place over the course of a week and because I kept getting conflicting information.

On a Thursday, my Director asked me where we were keeping our 2010 Federal Census forms. Town Hall had been referring people who to us for a new form after they made a mistake or destroyed the one they received in the mail. I told her we hadn't gotten any Census forms, but I'd look into it.

On the 2010 Census website, I didn't see anywhere to download or request blank forms, so I found their Contact Us page and called our local office (but oddly, the regional offices have since been removed from their contact page). The woman I spoke with there said there will be no generic blank forms people can pick up. She said every Census form has a personalized barcode on it, so if anyone makes a mistake and needs a new form, they have to contact the closest Census Call Center to request a new barcoded form - but that information wouldn't be on the website until Monday.

I emailed Town Hall with this information, and they forwarded back the email that they received saying these forms are available at the library (emphasis mine):

> From: [email protected]
> Sent: Friday, March 19, 2010 9:07 AM
> Subject: RE: Census form
> Hello,
> Before calling to request a form, we ask that you wait until April 12 to allow
> sufficient time for the questionnaire to be delivered to your address. If you
> still have not received your form by April 12, then you may contact one of
> our 2010 Census Toll‐free help lines.
> o English: 1‐866‐872‐6868
> o Chinese: 1‐866‐935‐2010
> o Korean: 1‐866‐955‐2010
> o Russian: 1‐866‐965‐2010
> o Spanish: 1‐866‐928‐2010
> o Vietnamese: 1‐866‐945‐2010
> o TDD (Telephone Display Device for the hearing impaired): 1‐866‐783‐2010
> o Puerto Rico (in English): 1‐866‐939‐2010
> o Puerto Rico (in Spanish): 1‐866‐929‐2010
> You can also complete a Be Counted questionnaire if you have not received
> your form. Beginning March 19 through April 19, Be Counted
> questionnaires will be available in public locations, such as libraries
> within your community and at Questionnaire Assistance Centers where census
> workers will be available to answer questions. Beginning March 18, these
> locations will be posted on 2010Census.gov.
> Direct link: http://2010.census.gov/2010census/take10map/
> Thank you

The Direct Link wasn't yet working, so I looked around the Census website and found another reference to these "Be Counted" forms on their Questions You May Have page under the question "Is there another way to get the form other than the mail?" When I searched the internet for that phrase, I found a Census faq [pdf] from the Missouri State Government that stated,

The Be Counted program makes census forms available in many different public locations in areas that have been historically undercounted by the census. These locations include community centers, health clinics, convenience stores, churches, businesses and other.

Okay, within that context, the information started to make sense. Chelmsford is a fairly typical upper-middle-class small town, and the residents probably are not "historically undercounted by the census." I emailed other librarians in my consortium, and sure enough, a couple libraries in large cities with significant immigrant, migrant or homeless populations had received these forms.

I tried the http://2010.census.gov/2010census/take10map/ link again the following week, and this time it listed the Questionnaire Assistance Centers - and as expected, they were clustered in larger cities.

Just to verify I had everything correct now, I called the main Telephone Questionnaire Assistance phone number (866-872-6868). When I finally got a live person* she gave me this summary:

  • everyone gets mailed a census form at their house, and these have
    personalized barcodes on them
  • there are public assistance centers throughout the country, which do have blank Be Counted forms (as well as scheduled times census workers will be available to answer questions). A map of these sites is available at http://2010.census.gov/2010census/take10map/ - if you're not already one
    of these sites, you can't get any blank forms to pass out
  • if someone needs a form, they can either use the map to find a location to pick one up in person, or else call the Telephone Questionnaire Assistance listed at http://2010.census.gov/2010census/contact/index.php (different numbers for different languages)
  • participating in the Census is required by law: Title 13 > Chapter 7 > Subchapter II > § 221 (also). Anyone who destroys or ignores their Census forms because they feel it's an invasion of their privacy will be visited at home by Census workers to answer the Census questions in person (privacy info and video)

All very interesting. And since I spent a lot of time on the Census website, here's a few of the pages I found most useful:


*The menu system at this number is kind of annoying, but I learned that you can say "operator" at any point to circumvent the system and speak to a live person.

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Web Tool for Filling in PDF Forms

   February 18th, 2010 Brian Herzog

FillAnyPDF.com logoFile this web tool under "why didn't someone think of this before?" FillAnyPDF.com lets you upload any pdf or image file (such as a blank form), type on it, and then save the completed form as a new pdf file.

It's not perfect, but it's easier than a typewriter. I'll use this both for patrons and myself, and I'm still surprised there aren't tons of these sites out there.

via LibraryStuff

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Reference Question of the Week – 9/13/09

   September 19th, 2009 Brian Herzog

band-aid boyA woman walks up to the desk and says that she needs blank Power of Attorney and Health Care Proxy forms. Internally I cringe, because legal forms always have the potential to be problematic.

I took her over to our Forms on File sets, and we found a Power of Attorney form, but no Health Care Proxy. While she made photocopied, I went back to the desk to keep searching for the other form.

I didn't find anything in the few minutes it took her to make copies. But, when she came back to the desk, she started to tell me more of the story:

  • The forms were actually for her son
  • Who will be deploying to Afghanistan soon
  • And who lives in Vermont
  • But she lives in Massachusetts
  • And Vermont doesn't have Health Care Proxy, they call it a Living Will
  • If anything happens to him, she'll want the son brought to a hospital in MA
  • The son doesn't want to think about any of this, and so isn't helping or doing any research
  • Her husband is driving up next week and wants to bring all this paperwork with him so the son can just sign it

Oh. I don't know this for sure, but when she mentioned he was deploying to Afghanistan, I suggested that the military should be able to help take care of all these issues and forms before he deploys. Not to mention that if he is hurt, she might not have a choice where he goes to recover.

Which was all well and good, but she still wanted these forms. However, neither of us knew if she'd need Massachusetts forms or Vermont forms. Then she said she had some errands to run, and would come back later that afternoon to pick up whatever I found.

mass med logoOkay. I decided the first thing to do was to call Massachusetts Health and Human Services, to see if they knew which form the son would need, and if they had the forms on their website. The woman I spoke with said she had no idea on either count, but said she actually was just looking for the Health Care Proxy form the week before for her own parents, and did find it online. However, it was on a different computer in her office, but she'd email it to me in an hour when she was back at that desk. And she wasn't sure, but she thought she found it on the Massachusetts Medical Society's website.

So I search the web again for health care proxy form massachusetts medical association and found their Health Care Proxy information page, and a link to the form itself [pdf].

Since they make the form available, I thought I'd call them, too, and ask them the MA/VT question. I do, but the woman on the phone has no idea. She said it's up to the hospital itself to honor the form, and she thought that any hospital in the country would, regardless of which state it came from. She did verify Vermont calls it a Living Will, but wasn't sure what the difference was.

VTmd logoSo I went back to the internet searching for living will form vermont (found one [pdf]) and the Vermont Medical Society. I called them, too, and again the answer I got was, "I don't know. That's a good question."

This woman confirmed that the form I found would be okay, and also said that every doctor's office in Vermont will have copies of the form, too, so they should check with his local doctor. And she also felt that the military would be able to provide all of the paperwork the son would need, and she recommended the parents start there.

Shortly thereafter the woman returned, and I conveyed everything I found. She didn't think it was likely that the military or local doctor would be much help, since her son was avoiding this topic, so she was happy to have copies of the different forms - even if she didn't know which she needed.

It bothers me when, after helping someone, all I can do is hope they have the right information.

And shortly after she left, the forms the woman from the MA-HHS emailed me arrived. Happily, it was the same one I found on the MassMed website.

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