Chad Comello

libraries, culture, typewriters

Tag: Refer Madness

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: 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.

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