Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Death and Taxes at the Library: Stories of Service

As predictable as the pitchers and catchers arriving at spring training in Arizona and Florida is the arrival of citizens looking in the library for tax forms. Every February the stream increases, and we stock and restock the stacks of federal and state income tax forms often. Most of the people need no help, and we miss getting anything more statistically than a traffic count at our front door. It may appear to be a mundane event, hardly worth noting, but I pose that it is really quite important. There are very few places to get printed forms, the supply in the library has to be replenished often, and behind every person taking a tax form has a story. We get to hear some of them.
After a conversation last week, I really question how the IRS identifies its forms. An older woman came to the reference desk to ask whether she had the right forms. She was told by someone (family, friend, tax preparer?) to get 1040A and mentioned needing to list her interest and dividends. In her hands, she had the federal Form 1040A and the Schedule A/B that goes with the Form 1040. I explained to her that she would need a Schedule 1 for the Form 1040A if she wanted to file the Form 1040A, or she needed to have a Form 1040 to go with the Schedule A/B for the Form 1040. She also asked for a Form 1040A for Illinois, which does not exist, and asked for a form to list her interest and dividends for Illinois, which is not required. Has this got you confused? Just as I thought we had it all straight, she would say, "So, I still need to find a Schedule A to go with a Form 1040A?" or "So, do you have an Illinois 1040A?" We went through the forms again. As we were doing so, I was guessing that she has never done her own taxes and wondering if her life has changed in the past year. On several occasions I have had older people tell me that their spouses, who had recently died, had always done the taxes and the banking and they were having some trouble with all the new responsibilities. I often try to steer them to the local senior center that has volunteers to help in these cases.

When I think of the need we are serving, I am able to accept the stacks of forms on my work desk better. I also think about a strange conversation I had several years ago. A man who identified himself as a lawyer asked if we had any forms. I told him that we did and that he could take some if he wished. He snapped back at me that he could take all of them if he wished. He started lecturing me that the forms belonged to the federal government and that I had no right to limit their distribution. I pointed out that we were providing them for anyone in the community and were hoped that people only to take what they needed so there would be forms for others. He replied that if he wanted all the forms he would jolly well take them all and he was a lawyer and he might file a lawsuit against me and the library if we denied him any forms. Then he hung up. I never heard from him again, for which I am grateful. I never put all the forms out anymore. I have supplies around my desk is in reserve in case he or some other person decides to take everything on display, which has happened with some forms. (Isn't that a good tax season story?)

I am wondering if there is another story that I do not as yet know. One of our regulars at the library is a volunteer who helps seniors with their taxes. For years he has come in to use our Internet computers to take IRS online training, get IRS news, and ask us to help him with IRS laptops. We have spent much time troubleshooting technical problems with him. He always has a broad smile when he has another challenge for us. While writing this piece I realized that I can not remember the last time I saw him. I hope that he is okay.

I must admit that I will feel some relief when tax form season is over, for we can clear off the counters and desks that are now covered with forms and I will be able to move some boxes away from my desk. I do not, however, regret that we have the local tax form monopoly. Some libraries around us stopped carrying forms several years ago, saying they were not going to serve as lackeys of the IRS. They claimed that their work loads became too heavy and that taxpayers passed their bad feelings about the IRS on to the library. I have never experienced this at our friendly library. We see people we do not normally see and most seem very glad to find the only place in town that would carry tax forms. Making people happy is why we are here.

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