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

Reference Question of the Week – 12/13/15

   December 19th, 2015 Brian Herzog

One slow evening, a patron walked up to the desk and asked if anyone had turned in a pair of glasses.

In my library, we have two lost-and-founds - one on each floor. I try to keep the downstairs one, at the Reference Desk, limited to valuable and personally-identifiable things only, and bring things like glasses, coats, dolls, etc., up to the main lost-and-found by the Circ Desk by the front door.

However, since this doesn't always work, I checked the Reference Desk lost-and-found to see if there were any glasses, and there were:
lost and found glasses

Far more than I would have expected. I asked the patron what his looked like, and he said,

They were gray, with big frames.

I didn't see any in the pile that I would describe that way, so I spread them all out on the desk for him to look through, just in case. Sometimes with lost-and-found requests, I get the feeling people think I'm lying to them, and that their item actually is right in front of me but I'm choosing not to give it to them. I don't really understand that, but it happens all the time.

So the patron starts looking through them, and then things get odd. There is one pair with gray frames, but definitely not "big frames." He picks up this pair and says,

Patron: Mine kind of looked like this, but were bigger. Do you think these are mine?
Me: [Having no idea what his glasses look like, and being surprised he'd ask that] Oh, I don't know - do they look like your glasses?
Patron: Kind of. [Continues to turn them over and over looking at them]
Me: [Stares at patron staring at glasses, wondering if he can't tell if they're his or not because his eyesight is so bad without glasses that everything just looks fuzzy.]
Patron: [Eventually puts glasses on.] These work pretty good. I can see. But they're bifocals, and mine weren't bifocals.
Me: Oh, then maybe those aren't yours after all. I'm sorry yours don't seem to be here.
Patron: [Still wearing the glasses, looking around the room.]
Me: [Watching patron look around the room.]
Patron: [Tilts head up and down, to alternately look through and look over bifocals.]
Me: [Still watching patron, but now starting to compose this blog post in my head.]
Patron: Maybe these aren't mine. But I can see well with them, so it seems like my prescription. I don't know who else would have my prescription.
Me: I think...
Patron: Maybe I need bifocals after all. Maybe I had them and didn't realize it. At least, these will let me drive home tonight and be able to see.
Me: Okay.
Patron: Do you think these are my glasses?
Me: I don't know, but if you think they're yours, you're welcome to them.
Patron: Thanks for finding my glasses.

With that, the patron turns and walks away. He sits back down at his computer for awhile, and then maybe a half an hour later packs up and leaves.

This whole exchange was strange, but primarily due to the idea of someone "stealing" someone else's item out of the lost-and-found. But really, I have no idea if that happened here - I don't know whose glasses those were, and they very well may have been that patron's.

Lost-and-found in the library has always kind of bothered me. On the one hand, I really like the idea of making sure a lost item get back to the right person. In many cases, this is easily possible - cell phones, lost flash drives (that, 99% of the time, have a resume with the person's name, phone, and email on it), purses, wallets, photocopies of important documents, etc - anything with ID or a person's name is usually returnable, and we make the effort to notify the person and hold the item until they pick it up.

Other things though - glasses, keys, coin purses, cell phone chargers, favorite pens, jewelry, hats, coats - that don't have any kind of identification, are just lost items. In general, we hold those at the desk until the end of the day (or until the end of the next day), and then take them up to the main lost-and-found by the Circ Desk. This one is just a basket in a public area, which anyone can look through to find their stuff.

This has the sense of "well anyone could just take anything," but at the same time, I really don't like the idea of library staff being responsible for lost items. Valuable or personally-identifiable things don't get put in the public lost-and-found basket, but everything else should.

Otherwise, we might have gotten into the situation of me, since I suspected these glasses may not have actually belonged to that patron, forcing him to prove to me that they were his, otherwise I wouldn't have let him take them. That is impossible and not a position library staff should be in.

Plus, I was kind of interested in the fact that this patron really seemed to think that eye care happens serendipitously - when the universe decided he needed bifocals, it gave him a pair. If nothing else, him driving home safely is a good thing.

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Lost and Found Flash Drives

   January 24th, 2012 Brian Herzog

I feel like I've talked about this before, but it's something that continues to puzzle me. Every week or so we find flash drives left behind in the public work stations after patrons leave - here's what we've got in our Lost & Found bin now:

Found flash drives

Most of the flash drives we find get returned because our policy is to check the flash drive to look for a resume or something that has contact information in it.

But of the others, no one ever comes looking. And it seems that every time someone comes to the desk to ask if we found their flash drive, none of the ones we have belong to them. I find this odd.

Two other things I find interesting: one is the different kinds of drives people use (and the ones that are the same), as well as the different ways staff has of marking the drives as to when and where they were found (all our public workstations are named after authors).

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Reference Question of the Week – 9/25/11

   October 1st, 2011 Brian Herzog

Lost and Then Found signIn library school, one things I was taught was the way a library is organized allows for a great deal of serendipity. This isn't really a reference question and doesn't have anything to do with the way a library is organized, but when I came in to work one day, two of my coworkers filled me in on this odd case of serendipity.

About 10:45 that morning, a patron came to the desk and said,

I left my laptop here last night - did anyone find it?

My library is on two levels, so we have one lost-and-found at the Reference Desk (downstairs) and another upstairs near the Circulation Desk. The person on duty at the Reference Desk checked our lost-and-found box, and not finding a laptop there, went upstairs to check the other one.

Nothing there either, so she came back down to the Reference Desk to search a little more thoroughly - thinking that if someone had found a laptop, perhaps they put it somewhere a little more secure than just the lost-and-found box (which is a drawer in the Reference Desk). She searched all behind the desk, and after not finding it, started looking in the Reference Office (which is right behind the desk).

The only thing she found back there was a laptop in a Black & Decker bag that had been left here over a year ago. The battery was dead and we didn't have a charger for it, so we couldn't turn it on to try to identify it. I didn't want to just throw away a laptop, so it just sat in a corner of the office - literally for over a year.

The staff person knew that couldn't be it, but picked it up and showed it to the patron anyway saying something like, "this is the only lost computer we have."

Apparently, the patron looked at it intently, paused, looked at it again, and then said,

Well, wait. That is my laptop. It's not the one I lost last night, but it's mine - I lost it like a year ago just before I stopped working for Black & Decker.

How bizarre is that? Since he had the timeframe right, she gave it to him - but it still didn't help find his most recently-lost laptop.

By then it was 11:00 AM, and the second reference person was just getting to the desk to start her shift - and, it just so happened that she was the person who had closed the night before. She remembered the patron, because just before closing time the previous night, she had seen a laptop sitting unattended on a table, and asked him it if was his (since he was one of only two patrons still there at the time). He had said it was - but even with this reminder, apparently he forgot to take it with him.

Since the laptop was nowhere else to be found, she walked over to the table where she had seen it last night - and there it was.

The patron was happy to have both laptops back, and left - and the Reference staff were kind of baffled that he had them running all over the building looking for it, without even checking to see if it was where he had left it the night before.

Lost and Found Policy
I was happy too, because it made me feel vindicated for not chucking out that laptop long ago. I didn't want to get rid it of without knowing if there was private or personal information on it, but I also didn't feel right drilling or otherwise destroying it.

But this makes me curious what other libraries do with found laptops. For flash drives, I look at the files and 90% of the time find a resume that allows me to contact the owner and return it. Otherwise, our policy basically is keep everything until we run out of room, and then get rid of the really old stuff to make more room (and delete all files on any disk before we recycle it).

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Reference Question of the Week – 9/19/10

   September 25th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Lost Cell Phone signThis is more of a reference anecdote than a reference question, but it was still unusual and entertaining. The phone rings...

Me: Reference desk, can I help you?
Caller: Hi, I work at [Local] Bank, and I found a cell phone in my office earlier today. It just rang, and when I answered it, the person who called said the phone's owner is probably at the library right now. Can you find [patron name] and let him know I have his phone?

I had to ask her to repeat all that before I understood it. And she didn't know who the phone's owner was, so didn't have a physical description of him. It seemed like a long shot, but I was game - I made an announcement over the library's overhead paging system asking for that patron by name to come to the Reference Desk (but not before double-checking to make sure this wasn't some kind of Bart Simpson prank).

In about three minutes a somewhat bewildered man presented himself and asked why he was paged. I told him the bank called and said they had his cell phone, gave him the bank's number and offered him our desk phone to call them. Before he did, he stood there for a good five minutes trying to puzzle out how in the heck losing his phone at the bank could evolve into being paged at the library.

After he got off the phone with the woman at the bank, he explained the interworkings of his day:

  1. He left work for lunch, and stopped at the bank. It was unusually warm today, so he took his jacket off while in the bank, and the cell phone must have slipped out of his pocket
  2. He left the bank and went to get a sandwich for lunch - at the sandwich shop he looked at his watch to see what time it was, and realized his watch had stopped
  3. There was a jewelry store across the street, so he went there to see if they could replace the battery. The jeweler said it would be about a half hour, so he gave her his business card (with his cell phone number on it) so she could call him when it was ready. Before he left, he casually mentioned he was on his lunch break and was going to run over to the library after he finished his sandwich
  4. He comes to the library to browse for DVDs for the weekend
  5. The jeweler replaces his battery, and dials his cell phone number
  6. When the cell phone rings under a chair at the bank, one of the employees picks it up. Seeing no obvious owner in the area, and thinking it might be the owner calling to find out where it was, she answers. I can only imagine the conversation the banker had with the jeweler, but the jeweler tells the banker the man said he was going to the library
  7. The banker decides to call the library to try to track down the man, gets me, and you know the rest

He was funny - the more of the story he related, the more excited he got about how crazy and convoluted it was. I think he used the phrase "weirded out" twice. He was the epitome of bewildered delight, and eventually thanked me for my [small] role in returning his phone and walked off to collect it and his watch.

So, yay for small town helpfulness - and even though we were just a minor cog in this complex anecdote, this is one more patron with a positive library experience.

Also, here's a slightly-related tangent: wristwatches are one of the things becoming obsolete because of cell phones, so stories like this may soon be a thing of the past.

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