Thursday, March 24, 2011

Identity Crisis

Being a small town library in Northern BC is not without its entertainment value, especially when the small town that we are in shares it’s name with a much, much bigger– not to mention well-known – city in the United States. But here in tiny little Houston, BC, we get an inordinate number of calls and e-mails from people looking for the Houston, Texas Public Library.

Last month I received a call from a very nice lady from a South Texas library inquiring about a missing Inter-library Loan. The accent twigged and I asked her what library she was from. I wish I had written it down because I now cannot remember the name of the town way down on the southern tip of the state. (I think it was Olmito, but I’m not entirely positive of that.) When I explained that she had reached Houston, BC – in Canada! – she was stunned. Several seconds of silence followed my announcement before she said, “How am I going to explain this phone call?” I seriously sympathized with her.

Today, a young girl, probably in her early to mid-teens called to ask if anyone had found her binder that she had left by the computers yesterday. The connection was not a good one, sounding like a cell phone call from the outer edge of a service area, so I missed any tell-tale accent that might have given me a clue to her location. I asked her to hold while I popped out of my office to go and take a look. No binder. I gave her the sad news, but assured her that we would keep our eyes open for it and took down her name and number. It was a Texas exchange. She hung up before I could give her more sad news. (Wait until Mom gets the phone bill!)

E-mail queries through our web site come in on a very regular basis. Often people ask about back issues of major Houston (TX) newspapers, looking for obituaries or articles about their late, great-grandmas. Others wonder why they can’t log into their accounts. I get asked to renew books and update addresses. The other day a woman asked if I could give her a tally of the number of volunteer hours she put in two years ago at the ‘down-town’ branch. I have no doubt that the fact that the Houston (TX) Public Library having 40+ branches only adds to the confusion.

My favourite call was from a disgruntled patron who had been mistreated by an apparently equally disgruntled circulation clerk who refused to check out a book on the basis of the patron owing a large amount in overdue fines to the library. This was not an acceptable way to treat a faithful and long-standing patron since the overdue material had all been returned and she didn’t have her purse with her at the moment, but would come back on Saturday to deal with it!

I wanted to tell her to go back and tell the circulation clerk that I said it was okay for her to take out the books and pay the fines on Saturday, but the angel on my right shoulder punched the devil on my left shoulder in the nose and won that ethical debate. There is honour among librarians!

I simply sympathized with her for her plight and then explained her that I was unable to help due to the fact that I was in Houston, BC and had no influence over the staff or the policies in Houston, TX. She called me a liar, told me that she had lived in Houston all her life and had never heard of the British Columbia branch. Then she hung up, making me quite glad that the angel had triumphed.

While it is comforting to know that our web site comes up so readily when people are searching for Houston Public Library, I have to wonder how this happens so often. When I Google Houston Public Library without any qualifiers, the Houston (TX) Public Library comes up at the top of the list every time. So, what are people searching for that brings them to us instead? Every now and then I ask one of these wayward patrons how they found us. The answers range from: “I Googled you,” to “I looked it up on the Internet,” to “I asked my mom and she told me.” One lady asked me if it mattered and one man told me it was none of my business. And once, an e-mail patron said, “I looked you up in the phone book.” I’m still trying to work out the logistics of that one.

Reactions to finding out that they have reached a Houston Public Library, in what some seem to believe must be another dimension, vary as well. Usually I get a sheepish “Thank you for your time.”, along with an apology for bothering me, but sometimes they act like they are on one of those hidden camera shows. “Is this a joke?” “What is going on here?” “You’re kidding, right?” I can visualize them poking around the foliage of their house plants in search of the camera. Once I had a patron ask to speak to my superior. Not to appear vain, but I just couldn’t help him. So I invited him to submit a letter in triplicate to the board of directors and hand-deliver it to his local branch. (The devil won that time.)

I can honestly say that I have never heard of anyone from Houston, BC Googling the Houston Public Library, finding the Houston, TX site and following through with a call or an e-mail. Part of me wants to believe that would never happen. Part of me knows that it is quite possible. Hopefully, it is just a matter of being too embarrassed to admit it if it did! The stereo-type dictates that chances are greater that a Houston, TX patron would make the mistake, but we all know that in reality, statistically speaking, the population of Houston, TX fulfills the larger side of whatever the ratio of Houston, Texas to Houston, BC patrons calling the wrong library might be. If, for instance, the ratio were 1:1,000,000, then only two people in Houston, BC have ever done such a thing. Seeing as Houston, TX has a population of about 2,000,000 people and at least 50 of them have e-mailed or called in the three years that I have been working at HPL (BC), that still means that only a tiny fraction of one Houston, BC patron could have made the same mistake, and it’s impossible for .008 of a person to do that. I think we’re safe.

Now I have to wonder if the library in Houston, Scotland ever receives calls or e-mails from people in Texas…


  1. How incredible is that!!! Don't they think when they dial the area code???

  2. Apparently not. Phone calls are not as common as e-mails, but they do happen.


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