security issues in virtual reference systems, ageism

Please don’t mistake this post a bit of schadenfreude, but I was very interested to read an article titled “a spam filter for questionpoint” the other day. In it, Caleb Tucker-Raymond, the Statewide Digital Reference Coordinator for the L-net project, describes the issue of spam coming through QuestionPoint. He also does a great job describing the measures he considered implementing, and the one he actually has implemented to (mostly) stop the arrival of virtual reference spam. Regarding IM security, Caleb hits the nail on the head:

I haven’t used Meebo or other web IM clients much, so I’m not sure if embedding and HTML image or movie or piece of malicious code would be a problem, but something tells me the IM people have it figured out already.

What interested me most about this post, and others about patrons changing font colors within QP by (perhaps) writing some HTML and leaving tags open, is how vendor driven VR products are seen as safe and instant messaging is seen as insecure.

There are a number of reasons why librarians started believing this, but one reason I want to bring up is the not so subtle ageism I see present in many libraries. Because of their age and associated lack of power, it is easy for libraries to manage their behavior. Even though both groups might be participating in the same activities, librarians can much more easily act on biases they have about young people than they can act on the the biases they have about other people. There’s no difference in one patron emailing friends, and another IMing friends. Both are legitimate library activities, and should maybe even be encouraged. “Libraries? Oh yeah, that place where I connect with my friends.” That has a nice ring to it.

It is only possible for librarians to take issue with web activities like gaming, IM, blogging, and MySpace because these things are (incorrectly) seen as the territory of kids. If these things were introduced to the library world not as things that “those crazy Millennials are doing” but rather as new information trends, I doubt librarians would have been able to take such objection. Just because younger people were among the early adopters of these technologies does not give libraries the right to treat them as illegitimate.

6 thoughts on “security issues in virtual reference systems, ageism”

  1. Right on. This is something that has been bubbling in my head as well–if it’s something for the young, it’s somehow less valid than it would be if the same thing was being used by adults. It’s interesting how such misperceptions and service-inequality invade even our profession…

  2. Marconi was a teen when he started playing around with what became radio. The old guys could not see why he would bother when they already had telegraph. They were ready to write the kid off.

  3. I haven’t really seen any evidence for or against ageism vis a vis choosing virtual reference software, but I would love to hear more.

    Regarding public access internet policy I think you could be on to something. I’ve met those sad teenagers who wait for their moms in near-empty libraries, not using the computers because it won’t let them do anything interesting.

    As far as software goes, libraries trust medium-sized, established, slow-moving organizations more than we trust huge, sometimes agile (sometimes not) media conglomerates with no history of service to libraries. That’s not ageism so much as risk-aversion.

    It sounds like you’re saying it’s time we trust our patrons, and I’m with ya. What’s riskier than shunning our patrons?

    Besides that, I feel like the conversation about IM in libraries, both on the staff and public sides, has been taking place largely in blogs and in for-profit trade magazines and conferences.

    Meanwhile, ALA, regional library conferences and library schools have held another conversation about “virtual reference” in their own conferences, e-mail discussion lists and magazines, hardly ever mentioning IM.

    Change is trickling in slowly – I’m glad to see you and the other blog people continue to be invited to speak all over. I’ll see what I can do from this end.

  4. I’ve done some promoting of IM at regional events, but I’ll certainly agree that ALA conferences are a bit behind.

    I also agree that libraries sometimes have an easier time getting sold a bill of goods from library vendors than making decisions for themselves, but I still think that ageism has something to do with it. They trust “medium-sized, established, slow-moving organizations” run by their peers rather than the obvious preferences of young people. Another way to get at the issue is this: if the first thing that libraries ever heard about IM was that people were using it at work to talk to each other (just like email), would libraries have felt the need to buy big VR products? I’m guessing that it would have been seen as a legit activity.

    Thank goodness young people weren’t the pioneers of email! Libraries might be using crazy systems to hook into “those email networks kids are using!”

  5. actually, we use the same crazy system to do e-mail reference as we do to provide chat reference. it was actually a selling point – why do we need to learn 2 crazy systems? can’t we find a crazy system that does chat AND e-mail?

    our next-gen crazy systems are going to keep track of walk-up reference desk stats and website hits and also handle reference (but not circ) questions via chat, e-mail, IM, text messaging, VoIP, and it seems like the library community is really building up steam on the whole “second life” thing, too.

    crazy systems are endemic to our professional culture.

    let’s buy a computer program that will do everything our library needs to do, only it will do none of it well. we’ll call it an integrated library system.

    here’s another idea, let’s divide all knowledge into 10 neat little categories, then divide each of those into 10 neat little categories and so on and on and on until we have classified everything! i swear, it works.

    also, wouldn’t it be easier to look things up in carde catalogues if every librarian had the same handwriting?

    i’ll agree youth services is important on every front, and especially that we consider kids and teens as people with legitimate information needs (including homework help and finding lyrics and game cheat codes) and not merely as a group of “future voters and parents” we don’t want to lose touch with.

    from where i sit, the benefit to the crazy system is that it lets us collaborate, allowing statewide services take on 20 to 100,000 questions a year (i think i know how you feel about that). but the software isn’t what makes us collaborate.

    we collaborate because it provides a forum for discussing best practices, patron privacy and how to talk to kids online – discussions I fear that many IM proponents are not having. collaboration gives us a means to build on some whys (and what-ifs) to our measly little hows and whats.

    anyway, i don’t see ageism. there’s a fear of the newfangled and a fear of youth, and a terribly long process and complicated system for doing anything at all, but no deliberate attempts to discriminate.

    thanks – i’m doing my best to infiltrate the crazy systems. sorry for windiness. have a good holiday.

  6. @ caleb,

    “let’s buy a computer program that will do everything our library needs to do, only it will do none of it well. we’ll call it an integrated library system.”

    i for real LOLed.

    but one more thing about the ageism (and i appreciate you having this conversation with me). i agree that it isn’t deliberate. in fact, i think it is a bit institutional…built-in to the way we do things. this might be more dangerous than if it were deliberate age based discrimination. The phrase you use, “fear of youth” might just put a finer point on it.

    you too have a good holiday and we’ll catch up after.

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