Chad Comello

libraries, culture, typewriters

Category: Refer Madness (page 1 of 2)

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

My latest Refer Madness column for Booklist‘s Top Shelf Reference newsletter—“A Patron Mount Rushmore”—concerns those patrons who are so iconic yet so mysterious that they deserve to be chiseled into stone, or at least wondered about. Curiosity, after all, is an important tool of the library trade.

Filed under: Refer Madness

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.

Top Shelf Madness

Almost two years ago I started writing about strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy questions I encounter at the library reference desk, in a series I call Refer Madness

My latest one, titled “Finding Angels,” is debuting over at Booklist, as part of the latest issue of “Top Shelf Reference” newsletter. This latest one is about a patron who came in looking for a book about angels, but actually desired something else. 

I’ll continue Refer Madness here, but hope to keep them going in Top Shelf semi-regularly. Thanks to Rebecca at Booklist for the opportunity! 

Refer Madness: Thanks, Man

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

Coming out of a recent concert at the library, an elderly man asked if we had a calendar of events he could take home. I showed him where they were on the shelf, and as I was about to return to the desk, he started talking.

“You have a great facility here,” he said. He’d been a longtime library lover, longtime supporter. He remembered that when his home library was doing some major renovations, one of his neighbors was peeved about the cost:

“She said, ‘Why are they doing that? They’re using my money!’ And I said, ‘You don’t like that?’ She said no. So I told her, ‘Well, they need to keep adding new things and making sure people have the opportunity to learn and grow and get educated. You don’t want that?’ And she said no, that it’s not necessary and a waste of money. So I asked if she had any grandchildren and she said yeah. I said ‘Well, you don’t want those things, but what about them? You want to deny them a good library and good services just because [he leans in and says in sotto voce] you’re a tight-ass?’ No way, I said.”

I thanked him for his kind words and support and he went on his way. Often librarians at the public desk hear from people like the man’s neighbor, who rail against the use of taxpayer money for public services they don’t like. It’s a rare treat, then, to hear such unprompted, unabashed praise and support from someone who had nothing to gain by sharing it.

Refer Madness: Future Scientist?

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

A mom was looking for her middle-school daughter’s next book. She said her daughter had loved The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, and “all the Holocaust stuff.” But she wanted her to discover some real people as well. My first thought was the young adult version of Unbroken, but the library didn’t have that one. I asked if she liked creepy stuff and graphic novels, because then Emily Carroll’s Through the Woods might hit the spot. (Nope: “We showed her The Sixth Sense — big mistake.”) But she took it for herself, because she loved creepy stuff.

Then, right before the mother was checking out, I remembered we had Rachel Ignotofsky’s beautifully illustrated Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World on the New Nonfiction shelf. Real women, nonfiction, easy read. I gave it to the mother and hoped for the best.

In my dreams the girl reads it and has her mind blown by the badass women throughout science history, leading her to a career in science wherein she invents something that saves my life a few decades from now. Or she reads the first page, gets bored and discards it. Such is the way of things in readers advisory.

Refer Madness: Playing Favorites

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

Every librarian has favorite patrons. Like parents we aren’t supposed to admit it, but it’s true. My favorites have developed because of how nice they are, for their interesting requests, or for their particular outlook on life. One of my favorites is an older woman, a regular, who is delightfully candid about the books she reads and, I’m discovering, shares my taste in reading.

She had Ann Patchett’s new book Commonwealth in hand to check out, and I said I heard it was good. “Yeah, I don’t know, we’ll see,” she said. She wasn’t fond of Ian McEwan’s Nutshell: “The baby in the womb? How dumb was that!” Her favorites this year have been When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, and Before the Fall by Noah Hawley, which we bonded over. “So much people read is just trash,” she told me. “It’s nice to be on the same wavelength with someone.” I agreed and wished her luck with Commonwealth.

This Thanksgiving, I’m grateful for patrons like her.

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