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How the HECK did you get into university?

I work at the Engineering and Computer Science Library at the University of Toronto, a job that involves a lot of public service. Yes, with engineering students, probably one of the strangest species on the planet. I've made a list of the jaw-droppingly stupid questions they come and ask, making me want to respond with the title of this page.

> Contestant number ONE

Student: "Can you help me find books on nanoengineering?"

Lynn: "I'm sorry, the system's down, I can't look anything up."

Student: "Well, can you at least tell me what call number range to look for?"

Lynn: "I don't know." To me: "Anne, do you know nanoengineering call number range?"

Me: "Um, no."

Student: "Well, can't you look it up?"

Lynn: "The system's still down."

Student: "Does that mean you can't find the call number?"

Me: "Uh, yes, that would be what it means."

Student: "Don't you just _know_ what call number range it would be?"

(Lynn and I look at each other, contemplating memorizing the locations of every single one of 400,000 books in this library.)

Lynn: "No, sorry, maybe they do at reference."

Student: "Geez."

SECOND contestant:

You have to understand a little bit about course notes. They are (mostly) photocopies of various things, journal articles, lecture notes, etc., that the professors want the students to read. Sometimes they come to us as loose-leaf pages in binders, other times in assorted different formats. The course notes for PHL291 (no idea what course that is) are in what's called pamphlet binding; meaning they're soft-covered with some sort of binding material holding the spines together. Obviously the prof had these done at the campus bindery.

I had a student come in today to ask if he could take the binding apart in order to photocopy the notes. I said "No." He proceeded to explain that since everyone in the class would be photocopying them anyway, this would save a lot of time and money and trouble for the rest of his class. I just looked at him and said, "I'm sorry, you still can't take them apart." He complained, bitterly, about my unreasonable stand on this issue. I told him to go and talk to the professor (whose name, I swear, is Donald Waterfall) and if the prof gave him permission to dismantle the notes, then it was fine by me, but that I couldn't give him that permission, and that we would charge him for the replacement copy if he took them apart without permission.

He walked away, still muttering about the lousy service in the library and how much time would be wasted unless he could do this.

Sigh. I'm not allowed to smack them upside the head.

THIRD contestant:

A student just came and took out five books. I handed them to her and she asked when they were due. Since I never remember stuff like that five seconds after the transaction is finished, I told her the due date was on the print-out in the top book. She looked at it and said "Feb 13th? I thought I got a month!"

I asked if she was a grad. She said yes. I told her that grads get four weeks. Count 'em. Four weeks, 28 days.

She said, "That's not a month."

I said, "That's the loan period for grads. You don't get a month, you get four weeks. There is nowhere that it says you get a month. You get 28 days."

Her, "That's not a month."


Hey, it's the month of February! Count 'em, 28 days... (make a good movie title, too. Maybe starring Sandra Bullock.)

FOURTH contestant:

I just had someone call me, from Indiana (hey down there), saying he was a grad student and wanted to come back for post grad work, but that they wouldn't let him across the border without some proof of his post grad status. Could I direct him to the right office?

Argh. Why do they call the LIBRARY for stuff like this? Why don't they call the blinking REGISTRAR?

And in case you think he did try to call the registrar and got a wrong number, or was misdirected by an operator or other service, his _first_ question was "Is this the engineering library at U of T?"

FIFTH contestant:

Student comes up to the desk with some books to sign out. I notice that he's taken one off the New Book shelf (we put out new books as they come in, for display purposes, for one week. There's quite a large and noticeable sign above this shelf informing people that these books do not circulate until Thursday of each week. We can identify them easily by the white dots on the spines; the dots are removed when the book is taken off the shelf for circulation.) So I say to him, "I'm sorry, this is a new book, you can't take it out til Thursday."

He looks at me blankly and says, "Oh, do I have to fill out some kind of form or something?"

Patiently (heh), I reply, "No. It's a new book. You took it off the new book shelf. There's a sign right above the shelf you took it off of, saying that these books don't circulate until Thursday. You can't take it out til Thursday. Please put it back on the shelf you took it from."

So he takes the book and I sign out his others and he starts to walk away. I think "Oh, good, he's got the idea, he's going to put it back on the new book shelf."

But nooooo... he looks at the book, turns back to me, and says, "You didn't scan this one in, so it's not signed out to me."

I'm not allowed to smack them.


This one nearly didn't make into the How The Heck Did You Get Into University contest because it was just so very bizarre.

The Aerospace library, which is affiliated with us, is quite a bit up north of the city; it's only open three days a week and you have to make an appointment to see Nora, the librarian. So when somebody comes in who wants a book from there, we arrange what is now called Intercampus Delivery (never mind that I think that's a sh*t stupid name, because half the deliveries aren't intercampus...). We do NOT send people up there. For one thing, I'm not even sure you can GET there by public transit.

I had a student in yesterday who asked me about a book from Aero. I explained to him, I felt quite adequately, that he had to request the book be brought down and that he could not go there.

He flatly refused to believe me, and kept hounding me over and over again, to tell him where the library was and how he could get the book. He kept asking things like "You _are_ talking about UTIAS*, right?" and "What do you mean, I can't go there? All I want is a book." I finally sent him over to the reference desk because he simply did not get it. The only reason I'm hesitating over whether to add him to the HTHDYGIU contest is I'm wondering if there was a language barrier involved. But it's a bit disconcerting to get a reaction from someone as if you're lying to them.

*University of Toronto Institute of Aerospace Studies. We are in love with acronyms here.


Okay, here's the set up:

We have bound copies of old examination papers. The closer it gets to exam time, the more these become the bane of our existence. They're heavy, awkward to handle, and at the height of panic season, in constant demand. We all hate them and wish we could dispense with them all together. Unfortunately not all the exams are available online (please don't ask why; it's all very convoluted).

These are bound in the way that makes the most sense: alphabetically by course code, separated by the examination season and year. Spring 2005, for example, is a set of four volumes, sorted by course code. Fairly simple concept, yes?

So the student comes up to the desk and says "I'd like to see the exam book." End of information.

So naturally I say "Which exam?"

He looks at me like he thinks I'm the stupidest moron on the face of the planet and asks, "What do you mean, which exam?"

Me: "I need to know which exam you want."

Him: "Engineering." You could practically hear him add "duh!"

Resisting the urge to add "duh!" back, I say, "I need to know the course code of the exam you want to look at." (inwardly, I snort, "Engineering--yeah, that's a lot of help...")

Oh. He hems a bit and then says "CIV 433," as if I should have known this all along.

So I say, "Okay, what year would you like?"

Once again he's giving me that look, like he thinks I'm shit stupid. "4th year," he says.

Patiently. "Yes, I know, but what calendar year? We have them divided by year. Do you want last year's?"

"Aren't they all in one book by course code?"

Ten points from Hufflepuff for not LISTENING TO WHAT I JUST FREAKING TOLD YOU. "No, they're divided by calendar year, and by course code. So you want CIV433, but for what calendar year?"

Oh. More hemming. "Do you have last term's?"

"No, not yet."

"Okay, give me last spring's, then."

So I go and get him the book that covers CIV400-ECE300. He looks at it. "CIV433, I said," he says, as if I had produced entirely the wrong thing.

Gritting my teeth, I say, "Yes, you told me. They are alphabetical by course code. CIV433 is in this book."

Finally he takes it and wanders off. Hopefully to go fall off a bridge he built.


In the prestigious "How the heck did you get into university" sweepstakes! Finally, we have contestant number eight! Step forward and take a bow.

There's a book on short term loan--something about data mining, don't ask me what--that's there because demand is so high for it. I remember I was on the desk when this kid I'm talking about came and got it out. At the time, he tried to argue with me that it shouldn't be short term loan because he was the only one using it. Yeah, right, that's why it had FIVE holds on it at one point, eh?

Anyway, he brought it back today. I had someone ask me about it yesterday and no more than ten minutes before he brought it back, I'd had someone else in asking about it.

Mr. Genius asks me if he can renew it. I told him there were no renewals on short term loan material. Period. He would have to leave it a couple of hours to give someone else a chance.

Once again, he tries to tell me he's the only one reading the book. I called his bluff and told him that someone had been in ten minutes ago, asking for it. So he got a little embarrassed and said "Okay, I'll wait a bit."

He comes back less than 10 minutes later, asking if he can have the book! I said a couple of HOURS, not minutes. I got so p'd off at him that I changed the loan period to one day--now he can try hogging it. Hah.

Special bonus:

We've been having lots of system problems lately. SIRSI workflows goes up and down, frequently making us unable to sign out books in the system. This forces us to go to our manual back-up system of carefully writing down patron barcodes and the barcodes of every book they sign out, to be entered later when the system is restored.

Every single man Mahood or Wang or Ivan of them, watching us do this, has asked "Is the system down?"



I didn't think I'd be able to update until They started coming back next week!

Verbatim conversation:

Patron comes to desk: "You know the public terminals over there?" (points to computers)

Me: "Yes?"

P: "When they log on, they are at 65 MgHz."

Me: "Um, okay." (What I don't know about computers could fill volumes.)

P: "I have to reset them manually to 80 MHz every time."

Me: "And?"

P: "Otherwise they flicker and they give me a headache. You can adjust them all to 80, it is very easy."

Me: "They aren't _our_ machines. They belong to Information Commons. We have no control over them. You would have to talk to Information Commons about changing the settings."

P: "But it is very easy to change."

Me: "They aren't _our_ machines. I will talk to our liason person at Information Commons about it, but I can't promise anything. All the public terminals in all the libraries belong to Information Commons."

P: "But it should be fixed."

Me: "I'm sorry, I can't do anything more than I've just said. They aren't our machines."

P: "Then I will have to keep doing it manually each time."

Me: *requests two by four from majkia*

Contestant number TEN:

A girl comes to the desk on Friday and asks me if we have any archives of past exams. I say "Yes, finals only." She looks at me blankly then says "You don't have any midterms?" "No, only finals." She looks wildly uncertain and asks, "No midterms?"

Trying very hard to be patient, I say, again, "No, I'm sorry, we only have finals. We do not have any midterms."

And unable to accept this THIRD repeat of "no", she asks: "Are you sure?"

Contestant number ELEVEN:

A student came in to ask if the book he had on hold was in yet. So I checked it for him and said that, yes, the book was in, but somebody else had a hold on it before him and that this student would be able to take the book out first.

"Uh, okay," says unlucky student with hold number two. "Do you know when this guy's going to come in and pick it up?"

Apparently I have to add "psychic" to my job skills.


Forlorn little student comes up to the desk. "The copier isn't working."

We get that a lot. In order to copy, you have to press the button marked "copy". So I told her that. She comes back a minute later.

"It's still not working."

So I get up and walk over to the copier. There's no T-card (student/library/photocopy card) in the slot, nor is there an indication on the meter that any money has been put in the machine.

So I ask her, "Did you put any money in?"

Her: "Um, no, do I have to?"

"Yes. You have to pay to get copying."



Yesterday, a young man came in wanting to do some printing. I asked him if he had his T-card.

"Um, no," he said.

"Sorry," I said, "you need your T-card to print."

"Um, I don't have it." After a minute, he volunteered, "The frat I'm pledging to took it."

I just stared at him. "You let your frat take your T-card?"

Would YOU hand over an important piece of ID--without which you cannot take exams, borrow library books, etc--to a FRAT???

(and then he had the nerve to tell me he thought engineering students got free printing.... oi.)


Student comes to the desk with a call number and asks where he can find it.

"Go up the stairs, through the doors on the left, and it will be on the lower level."

He stares at me. "What doors?"

Trying to be patient. "If you go up the stairs, you will see a set of doors on the left. Go through those. The TKS are in that room."

Him: "That's the quiet study room, right?"

Me: "Yes, but it's also the book stacks. TK is in that room."

Him: "Through which doors?"

Me: "The ones on the LEFT."

You know, you'd think they'd know which side was left by now...

Contestant fifteen:

We have a deal with the University of Alberta, in that we send them books for something called the Alberta Project. I’m not entirely sure what they do with the books, but once they are in Alberta, it’s pretty hard to get them back.

A guy called me today to tell me he had a hold on a book and it was overdue and could he please get it back? So I looked it up for him and lo and behold, it’s signed out to the Alberta Project.

So I start trying to explain this to him. “All we can do is call the people over at Robarts who oversee the project and get them to call U of A and see if they can ship the book back.”

But he just starts complaining… BITCHING… about how much he needs this book, how important it is, how rare it is, how much it costs to order on (like I CARE?), etc. etc. and whining about how he needs it.

I explain to him again, “The book is in Alberta. We have already asked them to return it. That is all we can do.”

“Can’t you do anything else at all?” he whines.

Like what??? Fly to Calgary and kick their door down?


I haven't had any new jaw-droppingly stupid questions lately, so I haven't been able to update the How The Heck Did You Get Into University contest page. But, by special request, I bring you some of the questions I get asked on a frequent basis. So frequent that some of them are DAILY, or at least bi-weekly (that's a librarian joke.) Remember: these are engineering and computer science students. You'd expect engineers to know some of this stuff.

1) "Is this the engineering library?" I don't mind that one TOO much over the phone, even though we answer it saying "Engineering and Computer Science Library", because people often don't listen to how you answer the phone, or there could be static or some other problem on the line. But when someone who has just walked IN asks it... "Well, let's see. It's an engineering building. (we don't have a separate, independent library, unlike luckier faculties. We are on the second floor of the Sandford Fleming Civil Engineering building.) You have to walk under a sign, in very large letters that says "Engineering and Computer Science Library" above the door. It's a library; that's why we have all these books. Take your best guess if we're the engineering library, go on..."

2) "Do you have photocopiers/where are the photocopiers?" Those would be the three machines that look vaguely sinister, there against the far wall, under the large sign that reads "photocopiers".

3) "Where do I return a book?" That would be the handy slot in the desk under the large sign (are you sensing a pattern here?) that reads "book return". You'd be astounded at how many university students don't get the idea of the slot. They leave the book on top of the desk, (a really stupid thing to do, as if we're too busy to notice it, someone else could take it and they would be charged.) Or they just stand and stare at me blankly, as if I'm speaking Swahili. Half the time I end up taking the book and discharging it myself, because they're just too dense to grasp the idea of book return. I had one kid who parked his bag in front of the slot and then spent ten minutes looking for it.

4) "How do I use the photocopiers?" Please tell me how you got to university without EVER using a photocopier in your life? They work just like every other photocopier on the face of the planet.

5) "Where is your printer?" You just tripped over it. Variation: "do you have a printer?" No, we make you copy out everything by hand.

6) "Could I have an envelope?" We are exceedingly generous with office supplies. We will give you paperclips and staples for free. Ditto tape. You may use a paper cutter, three hole punch, 3 sizes of staplers, rulers, pens, pencils, markers, scissors for free. You may even have blank paper for free, though we usually only give you one page. You want an envelope, go by one. The library office supply budget just got brutally slashed.

7) "Are you open during reading week?" It's a LIBRARY. We have BOOKS. What do you do with books? You READ them. Granted, there are no classes during reading week, but the library is frequently open when there are no classes. This question drives us utterly insane.

8) This one's a bit complicated. Journals circulate. It's one of only two libraries where they do. Because putting them into the circulation system would be an utter nightmare, they have to be signed out manually, on little slips of paper. When someone takes one or a bunch out, we tell them that because it is a manual charge, the record of their borrowing said journal(s) will not show up in the system. They will not receive an email notification that the journals are due or overdue. That's what manual means. There is no record in the system. That means no automatic emails. We explain this. Carefully. They will still return them overdue and say "But I didn't get an email!" Argh. I even had one girl tell me once she just assumed the records got added to her account. Um?

9) "Can I use my debit/credit card in the cash to card machine?" Think about the name. Just for a second or two.

Asking about colour. "Is it red?" "I know I returned that book, it was green." The colour is irrelevant, and I do not remember the colour of every book in the library.

I'm sure there are more and I will update this list as they occur to me.

That wraps up the 2006 version of the How The Heck Did You Get Into University Contest. There will be a poll posted on my blog to help you vote for the winner... loser?

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