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

Reference Question of the Week – 2/24/08

   March 1st, 2008 Brian Herzog

Microsoft Office logoThis is a question I've gotten in various forms, and I finally have an answer for it. Usually, the reference interview goes something like this:

Patron: I can't open a file on your computer.
Me: Oh; what kind of file is it?
Patron: It's just my resume. My sister updated it for me on her new computer, but her printer is broken, so I came here to print it out. But now it won't open. It works fine at her house.

The two key parts of the patron's last statement are resume and new computer. These words almost always indicate a Word document created on a Microsoft Vista computer running Office 2007. My library's computers have Windows XP and Office 2003, which cannot open Office 2007 documents due to the change in file formats.

That is, until now.

Our IT person found a plugin that will allow Office 2003 programs to open Office 2007 files. This plugin is available from the Microsoft download center.

We have installed this on the computers at the reference desk, but not yet on all the public computers (we are changing the profiles on all of those, and this plugin will be part of it). And of course, since installing it, I haven't gotten this question again.

But we'll be ready for the next patron...

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Reference Question of the Week – 12/9/07

   December 15th, 2007 Brian Herzog

Pixenate logoA high school student walks up to the desk and asks if there are any "picture programs" on the computers.

After a bit more questioning, I realize he's looking for a photo editor, like Photoshop. It turns out he was joining some online group, and needed an image for his avatar. He wanted to crop a picture of himself from his friend's myspace account, and use just the t-shirt he was wearing in that picture to be his avatar.

(Quite the far cry from helping a student find information on European explorers for a homework project, but you answer the question you're asked.)

Unfortunately, my library doesn't have any kind of photo editing software on the public computers (not even MS Paint). Perhaps because of this, I've been paying attention to mentions of online photo editors, so I had something to offer this kid.

I personally have used Pixenate (or, PXN8) a couple times. It allows most of the basic photo editing functions, and doesn't require you to create an account to use it. This is what I showed the student, and we were able to save the photo from myspace to the harddrive, crop it accordingly, resize it, and upload the result as his avatar.

I like to think that this high school kid has new respect for the library as a high tech mecca, but since I need to tell this particular kid regularly not to swear in the library, "respect" might not be the right word.

Anyway, here's a roundup of online photo editor posts I've seen recently (along with a few other image-related posts, for good measure):

I'm sure there are more out there, and that everyone has their favorite. I'm going to keep my eye on Splashup, and in the meantime stick with Pixenate for the simple stuff.

image, libraries, library, online photo editors, picture, public libraries, public library, reference question, tools, web-based

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Providing Access to Information, with a Shovel

   December 13th, 2007 Brian Herzog

Outside Shoveling - Be Back SoonLike much of the country today, Chelmsford was hit by the "fast-moving, intense" snow storm. And, throughout most of the storm, my library stayed open.

Even though I do not know what they are, the powers-that-be in Chelmsford Town Hall decreed that we remain open until 5:00 pm. For eastern Massachusetts, that was five hours into the storm, after dark, and after about six inches of snow. Wouldn't it be better to send staff home before the storm, so they can drive home before rush hour, in the daylight, and not in a blizzard? But I complain.

Anyway, we stayed open, and I spent most of the afternoon shoveling the steps and walks, making sure patron still had the regular access to information that it is a librarian's duty to provide. A few pictures from the day are shown here:
Library in Snow 12-2007

The Library Is Open

blizzard, chelmsford, closing, libraries, library, public libraries, public library, shoveling, snow, storm

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“Live Free or Die Harder” Download

   December 4th, 2007 Brian Herzog

Die Hard DownloadIn each of the DVD copies of "Live Free or Die Harder" purchased by my library, we found the little insert shown here.

I'd never seen this before, but it is instructions on how to download a digital copy of the movie, from the DVD itself, to your computer (or portable device through your computer).

That's novel. It looks like a one-shot deal, as in, you can download it once (using the code on the card, which is internet-verified), and that's it. No downloading to your computer then sync'ing to a device later, or to multiple devices. But still, for those people who purchase the DVD, it's a nice thing to offer an easily-accessible digital format.

But bad that it can only be transferred once.

And bad that it requires an internet-verified code.

And bad that it doesn't work on iPods, PSPs, or Zunes.

And bad that it's yet another failed attempt at trying to control how people use the products they purchase.

digital rights, digital wrongs, drm, dvd, dvds, libraries, library, live free or die harder, public libraries, public library

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Reference Question of the Week – 11/25/07

   December 1st, 2007 Brian Herzog

Webster's New World Dictionary coverThe phone rings...

Me: Reference desk, can I help you?
Patron: This is a bizarre question, but I don't have a dictionary, so you can't tell me what "utensil" means, can you?

I thought it an odd mix of optimism and pessimism for a patron to call the library for help, but phrase his question in the negative. Regardless, I reached for our ready-reference copy of Webster's New World Dictionary (updated 1994 edition), and read him the definition:

u|ten•sil n. 1 any implement or container ordinarily used as in a kitchen   2 an implement or tool, as for use in farming, etc. --SYN implement

That seemed straightforward. However, I then had a ten minute conversation with the patron about whether the phrase "a writing utensil" was proper English. He was writing something and wanted to use it, but wasn't sure if it was okay.

I generally do not interpret information for patrons, and rarely give my opinion on something, but I felt pretty safe in this case telling him that "a writing utensil" was okay. We each had heard the phrase before, and one meaning given was "an implement or tool."

I don't think I've ever dissected a definition so finely before, but we agreed (at his insistence) that the "etc." that came after the mention of "as for use in farming" meant that "farming" was just one example of how a "tool or implement" might be used, and that a pencil is therefore a legitimate "tool or implement" as for use in writing (etc.).

Perhaps I play more fast and loose with my grammar than does this patron, but I wouldn't have given this "a writing utensil" usage a second thought - even after looking it up. And not that I'm making fun of him, but it amuses me how much thought and effort people put into certain things.

But without a doubt, that is leaps and bounds better than being careless or lazy. This is why I enjoy helping patrons like this, despite some of my coworkers marveling at my patience with such questions.

*This image is coming from Amazon, but "abused" (lightly) using the great guidelines found here

grammar, libraries, library, public libraries, public library, reference question

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Patrons Participating in Library 2.0

   November 27th, 2007 Brian Herzog

Historical photograph of house in North Chelmsford, MAI'm sure there are lots of little stories like this in the library bloggy world, but here's mine:

Earlier this year, my library uploaded to flickr a set of historical photographs taken around town in 1901. We thought it was a good way to make these library materials more accessible.

I just noticed a comment on one of the photographs. A patron recognized another patron's house, and forwarded him the link to our historical photograph. The second patron then uploaded a photograph of his house today to his flickr account, and linked the two together using comments.

That's great - that's exactly how libraries can enrich their collections and communities. We didn't really do anything, other than put our pictures out there (no real promotion or involvement after that). It was word-of-mouth between patrons that brought this about, and let the library be involved in their daily lives. Neat.

And for those looking for meaning in life: note the sign in the foreground of the "today" photograph.

flickr, libraries, library, library 2.0, library2.0, public libraries, public library

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