Chad Comello

libraries, culture, typewriters

Category: Refer Madness (page 1 of 3)

Refer Madness: Always on call

Refer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy stories from the library reference desk.

You know how doctors are always on call? Someone has a heart attack on an airplane or chokes at a restaurant, and doctors, nurses, or other care providers jump to the rescue, even if they are off the clock. Even medical students count: I witnessed a friend dash to the aid of a woman who injured herself while dancing during a wedding reception.

Professionals never know when they will be called to duty, librarians included. We might not be setting broken bones or taking vitals, but we info-slingers have a knack for finding opportunities to serve random reference needs.

One day, I was chatting with a neighbor in my apartment building’s laundry room. He’s a counselor, and he had just read about a theory that he wanted to learn more about. Google wasn’t offering much of any depth. He didn’t work for or attend a university, so he didn’t have access to specialized journals and databases. Amid the thrum of tumbling clothes, I told him I would help him check with our local public library to see what they had access to.

It was just that simple. Simple for me, anyway, but not for my neighbor. Familiarity bias makes it easy for librarians to forget that most people do not know everything the library offers, or even think of the library as a potential remedy for a problem. This can limit our fellow citizens’ information epiphanies.

I recently attended a seminar, and while grazing the snack table for coffee and a bagel (the Official Refreshments™ of seminars everywhere), I struck up a conversation with another attendee. He was a newly hired city planner in charge of reaching out to local businesses, and the task was overwhelming him because he was new to the area. I knew that his library was likely to be subscribed to ReferenceUSA or something similar, so I told him how he could use an e-reference tool like this for his project, without costing the city extra money.

Again, this public library pitch required hardly any effort in the moment, but it will likely pay dividends in the future. The actual work lies in the preparation, before the opportunity to share presents itself. The more knowledgeable you are about what libraries offer—and not just your library—the better equipped you will be to save the day. A friend is in the market for a new car? Consumer Reports online. Need a template for a new lease? EBSCO’s Legal Information Reference Center. Want a software refresher before a job interview? Lynda.com.

Whether the unsuspecting patron actually uses the resource is out of your control. But it’s exciting to consider what planting that seed could lead to: maybe that person’s first library visit in years, or a card renewal, or excitement about e-books and museum passes. Or maybe even a word-of-mouth recommendation to a friend, which starts the cycle anew.

I wonder how the woman at the wedding reception would have fared had my friend not been there. Since the spirit of the celebration rendered most of the other guests unhelpful (and telling her to check out MedlinePlus didn’t seem useful in that moment), she no doubt would have been worse off without a professional’s help. Luckily she only ended up suffering a swollen ankle and a bruised ego, but my friend didn’t know that when he jumped to her aid. He just wanted to help.

Refer Madness: Hate the change, love the library

Refer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy stories from the library reference desk.

A while back, my department’s email received this message:

“What happened to the CLASSIC CATALOG? I am old, I hate change, but love my library. Thanks.”

I had to laugh. Funny but dead serious, succinct and self-aware, this missive captures a very real conundrum: How do we serve people who hate change but love their library?

The “CLASSIC CATALOG” in question was my library’s previous OPAC. We migrated from it a few years ago but still allowed access for those diehards who didn’t want to use the new system. Recently, that access disappeared. Probably 99 percent of our users had already moved to the new catalog, but I’ll bet those bitter-enders really loved the old one.

Soon my library will be migrating to yet another catalog, this time because we are joining a consortium. It’s change for the better, I believe, but it will also be disruptive to the status quo. That means it won’t just be the CLASSIC CATALOG patron who speaks up about it . . .

On the one hand, constant change is the new normal with technology, in libraries and the world at large. The newer and shinier (if not always better) version of whatever you’re using seems ever around the corner. Libraries can try as much as possible to prepare patrons, but at some point, the base expectation for technical competence will rise, and everyone will have to adapt.

On the other hand, I empathize with this patron. Though being tech savvy is part of my job, in my personal life, I’m far from an early adopter. Even products with a fairly strong reputation for reliability and style, like Apple devices, to me aren’t worth the headaches their debuts can create. I prefer to wait out the newest thing. Let beta testers and true believers ride the first few waves of glitches that inevitably pop up—I’ll come in later and enjoy the smoother ride.

Most patrons understand that tech is ever-changing. But for those who don’t, librarians and IT staff can do a lot. We can offer abundant opportunities for instruction, both online, with explainer videos or blog posts, and in person, with classes or one-on-one sessions. We can use whatever power we have to make the new technology as user-friendly as possible. We can try to anticipate questions that any disruptive changes might trigger and smooth out as many potential stumbling blocks as possible.

Above all, we can and must be patient and listen.

If we can do that, I think even the bitter-enders will still be able to love their library.

How to pay your library back

Refer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy stories from the library information desk.

A regular came to the desk with the George Carlin Commemorative Collection DVD she was returning.

“Before I return this,” she said, “I’d like to know how much it was for the library to buy because you bought it based on my request but I didn’t like it, so I’d like to pay the library back.”

Well, that was a first.

I reassured her that she didn’t owe the library anything, that we’d be keeping the item regardless, and that someone else will gain enjoyment from it. The library gets a lot of purchase suggestions, most of which we buy. The rare item that we don’t buy is either too expensive, too esoteric, or otherwise not in keeping with our collection policy.

Nevertheless, she persisted. Even if it wasn’t for that item, she wanted to compensate the library in some way. So I thought of some ways she (and everyone) could do so.

How to pay your library back

1. Use it.

Check things out, early and often. Books, movies, music, magazines, WiFi hotspots, ebooks, whatever your library provides. If fines are keeping you away, ask nicely to have them reduced. Seriously, this might work. (Or just bite the bullet and pay them: see #5.)

2. Get your friends and family to use it.

There’s no better publicity than word-of-mouth. Each of your kids should have their own card. Just watch out for the fines…

3. Make suggestions.

Your library doesn’t have an item or service you think they should? Ask them to get it. Think they should go fine-free or set up automatic renewals? Tell them many libraries are doing it. Comments and suggestions from local cardholders are powerful, especially en masse.

4. Volunteer.

Newly retired? In library school looking for work experience? Odds are your library has something for you to do. Volunteers often get hired because of that proverbial foot in the door.

5. Donate.

Your gently used books and tax-deductible donations are always welcome. You’ll get the money back in the improvements the library can make with it. Donate enough and you might get a meeting room named after you.

Refer Madness: The Book Dropper strikes again

Refer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy stories from the library reference desk.

A few months ago, a coworker and I noticed that every Tuesday, two items appear on the library’s book sale shelves that shouldn’t be there. The library has a system for what gets placed in the book sale, so we know which items are out of place. Given the regularity of these deposits, they are clearly being left intentionally, by someone who knows the library’s donation policy but is choosing to ignore it.

I’ve come to call this library phantom The Book Dropper. The Book Dropper is sneaky, and The Book Dropper is patient. The Book Dropper doesn’t lug in a bag of nasty books hoping the library will accept them. The Book Dropper brings only two at a time, once a week, every week, presumably until there are no more books to surreptitiously drop.

The Book Dropper haunts me.

The Book Dropper’s books are usually in sorry shape, and sometimes downright silly. Decades-old mass market paperbacks, electrical engineering manuals, and a host of other esoteric et cetera in no condition to be sold or added to the library’s collection.

Normally, as soon as we spot the latest evidence of the Book Dropper’s continued ability to evade justice, we recycle them along with the other discarded books. But this week’s evidence was extra special:

That would be a chewed up, dilapidated copy of Everything But Money by Sam Levenson and a Betamax tape of Santa Fe Trail, the 1940 western starring Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, and a suave-looking Ronald Reagan.

*chef’s kiss*

You got me again, Book Dropper. I can’t decide whether to shake my fist dramatically or slow-clap. I’m going to keep Santa Fe Trail on my desk at work as a reminder that this scofflaw is still at large. Perhaps I will watch it only once the Book Dropper has been identified and politely informed of the library’s donations policy.

Refer Madness: Could be home, doing nothing

Refer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy stories from the library reference desk.

In my library, one of the information desks sits in a high-traffic area where all the activity from the entrance, auditorium, elevator, and stairs to Youth Services converge. One result of this configuration is that whoever is at the desk (and anyone in the nearby Periodicals area) can hear everything that happens in the cacophonous cement stairwell that leads to Youth Services. Sometimes it’s a toddler’s tantrum or a boisterous conversation. And sometimes it’s a parent who doesn’t realize strangers are listening.

The other day it was a mother frustrated with her son, probably a four year old. From what I gathered, the boy had not been a good listener and they were leaving this library trip in a bad mood.

“I do this for you,” the mother said as they emerged from the stairwell and walked out the door. “I could be home, doing nothing. But I’m nice. I actually care about you and want you to read good books.”

In one interpretation of this scene, the mother is the villain for snapping at her child. But she wasn’t. Her tone was part frustration and part disappointment, without animus or aggression. Since I didn’t see what had happened before their departure, I can’t judge the son for his behavior or the mother for her reaction to it (though from his lowered head and lack of protest I’m guessing he deserved the rebuke).

Despite not being a parent myself, I deeply sympathize with parents in public with their kids. Planes, parks, restaurants, stores, and other public spaces offer ample opportunities for kids to misbehave and beckon the judgmental glances (and even comments) of other adults.

But unless it’s the parent who is egregiously misbehaving, I usually side with the adult. Especially one who brings her child to the library when she’d rather be at home, doing nothing.

Refer Madness: A String of Beeps

Refer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy questions I encounter at the library reference desk.

I was on the phone with a patron when I heard it: that incessant beep the copier makes when something goes wrong.

Once I finished with the patron on the phone, I went over to see what was the matter. This time it was “Insufficient funds”. The coin tower screen showed 25 cents, which was enough for the two copies the patron wanted to make. I cleared the attempted copy job, tried it again, and it printed fine.

I assume copier technology has advanced since the mid-20th century, but you wouldn’t know it based on what’s churning out copies in many libraries.

“I guess it just hates me,” the man said with a smile.

“It’s just old and cranky,” I tell him, which is true.

“Well, I’m old and cranky too,” he said wryly. (A sense of humor goes a long way when dealing with technology—of any age.)

It’s a phenomenon we’re all familiar with: the computer or copier or iDevice malfunctions, but as soon as someone comes to the rescue, it works fine. We made it through this operation painlessly, but it was emblematic of how much of my job is realizing how things get screwed up and how often it’s the machine’s fault.

I can’t tell you how many times a patron brings a device to the desk and says “I feel so dumb” or “This is a dumb question, but…” Sure, sometimes patrons don’t read instructions or signs correctly. But just as often it’s the design of the machine or app that led to the failure. The annoying beeps and popup error messages are just an insulting icing on the cake.

Though the machine is just trying to say:

*BEEP* ERROR

its frustrated victims actually hear:

*BEEP* WRONG
*BEEP* YOU’RE STUPID
*BEEP* SCREW YOU

Counteracting this ought to be the chief quest of good design. It makes everything better: users can actually use things without going insane and devices can be used with minimum intervention from outsiders.

Easier said that designed.

Refer Madness: The Worst Thing

Refer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy questions I encounter at the library reference desk.

Some days on the desk are rough. Challenging patrons, technical difficulties, a case of the Mondays—whatever the issues are, like sneezes and football sacks they often come in bunches to create a day that’s better forgotten.

This was not one of those days.

First, there was a man who said he’d submitted an interlibrary loan request for a movie two months ago, hadn’t heard back, then found out there wasn’t a record of it at all. This is an aggravating situation all around, for patrons who deserve better service and for staff who seek to eliminate mistakes. Such a blunder can make a patron visibly and justifiably frustrated, but this gentleman wasn’t. “If this is the worst thing to happen to me today,” he said, “then I really just have first-world problems.”

Thirty minutes later, a colleague was setting up for a presenter who needed a PowerPoint and projector. Such a routine and simple task that usually goes off without a hitch. Instead, the laptop decides to become possessed and inhabit the projector as well. Murphy’s Law reasserts itself yet again. The speaker could not have been nicer. He spoke to the attendees as we futzed with cables and buttons. “If this is the worst to happen to your day,” he said, “it was probably a great day.”

That really happened: two different people used the same line within a half-hour of each other.

Not ten minutes later, I had to bump a patron from a study room to make room for someone who’d made a reservation. He was a regular and knew the study room policies, but you never know how people will react to getting booted. “I don’t have to go home but I can’t stay here, right?” he said with a smile. It wasn’t quite closing time, but he got the picture.

The next time I am having one of those terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad days on the desk, I’ll remember this hat-trick of good humor and hope to experience it again.

Refer Madness: A Patron Mount Rushmore

Originally published at Booklist

In the office one day, my colleagues got to discussing who our library’s Mount Rushmore of patrons would be. Not necessarily the nicest ones but the ones who have become iconic among staff largely because of the mystery that surrounds them.

I thought of a few candidates right away. The man with the quiet, husky voice who calls our small, suburban Illinois library for phone numbers in California. Or the woman who calls looking for information on a website, the same one every time, whose calls are so predictable they could follow a script.

And then there’s the man who calls occasionally with a request: for us to print out the Google Maps Street View of certain intersections, all four corners of them. Sometimes it’s a specific one, but other times he just names a landmark or a city and will accept any street-view pictures of it.

He’s also into appraisal. If we’re not on Google Maps for him, we’re looking up the value of certain artifacts and printing screenshots of similar items on eBay. Previous examples include a Star Wars novelty coin, a book about the First Cavalry Division in the Korean War, an 1853 French coin, and a John Lennon and Yoko Ono “Let Them Stay In” button.

All of this begs so many questions. Where does he get these artifacts? Is he a collector or just trying to make a buck? How amazing is his coin collection? Why the fascination with intersections? (I heard a rumor he asks for the street views because he’s unable to travel and uses the pictures to do so vicariously.)

Whatever the truth is, it’s not my business to ask. I’m very curious about the lives of certain patrons; curiosity is an occupational asset in librarianship. But I’m also very cognizant about not breaking the confidence of people who trust the library enough to bring us their personal requests, however odd or seemingly simple they might be.

So I’m fine with not knowing everything about who’s on the other end of the line. Like the real Mount Rushmore, whose presidential likenesses are famously unfinished but iconic nevertheless, the incompleteness of patrons’ stories is instrumental to their mysteries. And if there’s anything desk librarians should enjoy, it’s chasing down a mystery.

Refer Madness: Making Converts

Refer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy questions I encounter at the library reference desk.

One of the best things about having a digital media lab in my library is introducing eager patrons to what it provides. Since ours opened two years ago, the most popular feature by far is the converting software that transfers analog media to digital, like cassette tapes, photo slides, LPs, and VHS tapes.

One couple came to the desk and said they’d heard we could digitize their VHS home videos. I brought them to the room, got them set up with the software, and popped in their tape to test it.

“Oh my God!” the mother said as the video played on screen. She explained it was footage of their son’s first birthday party from the late 1980s. “We haven’t seen this since that day! He is going to medical school now!” They didn’t know what was on the tapes, so the look of surprised delight on their faces was their genuine reaction to being suddenly sent back in time.

Much of the equipment library staff have to deal with every day lose their luster quickly. (Just ask a librarian about 3D printers.) But because, as Arthur C. Clarke said, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” it’s good to be reminded sometimes that technology can be damn near magical if we’re able to see it with fresh eyes.

Refer Madness: Word Nerd

I’m back in Booklist‘s Top Shelf Reference newsletter today, with a Refer Madness column on one of my favorite reference questions: crossword clues!

Check out more Refer Madness posts here.

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