Is something up with the Library of Congress’ QuestionPoint service?

I’ve recieved a few emails from the Library of Congress’ “Ask a Librarian…” service that I wasn’t supposed to get. Either patrons have started entering in my email address as their own for the past two weeks or there’s, well, something wrong with the service. I don’t know which is more likely.

One reason why I don’t think that the error is coming from a faulty patron side input comes from a small bit of detective work. The help link at the end of the email leads to a password recovery box. I entered in my email address and never received and email. I *think* the form works because the URL for the page changes, but nothing changes on the page. Not a good user experience, eh David King?

Here’s the latest email directly from my account, spacing and odd left/right carats around URLs intact. Dont read it all because it is long and a bit unwieldy, which I wouldn’t expect from a mostly boilerplate, “We can’t/don’t want to answer your question” document. I want to include it all here to show just how big and hard to read it is. Another reason why I think something is up with their software is because the email answer is also found in the “question history” portion of the email. How does that work?

Yeah, I’m a bit cranky because of my previous bad feelings about QP, but I think the whole thing is odd!

Hello [patron’s name]

We suggest that you spend some time searching the Library of Congress online public access catalog (OPAC) to find titles of books that are relevant to your topic. Then you can see if your local library has copies of these books, or can arrange to borrow them through interlibrary loan.

To search the OPAC, go to the Library of Congress home page at: < > Click on “Search our Catalogs” or go directly to < >. Click on either “Basic Search” or “Guided Search.” A “Basic Search” will allow you to search by author, title, subject, call number, keyword, guided keyword, or International Standard Bibliographic Number (ISBN), International Standard Serial Number (ISSN), or Library of Congress Control Number (LCCN). For a “Basic Search,” first you must choose your “Search Type,” and then enter the appropriate information in the search box. A “Guided Search” will allow you to perform a keyword search in specific fields of information, such as title, subject, author, publisher, series, or notes or a wide search in all fields. Boolean searching can be performed using a “Guided Search.”

Before performing your search, please take time to look over either the “Basic Search Tips” or “Guided Search Tips” which provide detailed and specific examples of search strategies. A detailed help guide is also available for all types of searches. The Help link is found at the bottom of each search page.

We also suggest that you discuss your needs with a reference librarian in a nearby library. For help in locating a library in your area, please look at the suggestions on our website at < >.

You might also wish to search for appropriate websites at The Librarians’ Index to the Internet at < >.

The Library of Congress online catalog is a catalog of bibliographic records. Unfortunately, except for very rare instances, full-text books cannot be found online at our website. It is likely that you will need to go to your local library to find the book itself or ask them about interlibrary loan if they do not own the book.

The Library of Congress has digitized a small portion of its collections focusing on graphic materials such as maps, photographs and manuscript materials and which are primarily historical Americana. If you are interested in seeing these materials, please look at our American Memory collections at < >.

There are numerous organizations that offer digitized books, though at present most free online books tend to be “classics,” i.e. older materials no longer covered by copyright. Some publishers also provide electronic versions of contemporary books but there is usually a fee involved (or you may be able to access them through a public or university library which subscribes to them.) You can find links to a number of organizations which offer free access to online books by using the search engine and typing “full text online books”. Specific sites which you may find helpful are:

Digital Book Index
< >

Online Books Page, University of Pennsylvania < >

Full Text Books Online, College of Saint Benedict/Saint John’s University (see the “Free of Charge” section) < >

Internet Public Library Online Book Page < >

Full Text Books and Journals, Australian Catholic Universities Libraries (arranged by subject) < >

A free service from Bowker < > lets you search for e-books (electronic) and on-demand titles from the “Books in Print” database.

Search E-Books < > is a search engine for electronic books.

Reference Specialist
Main Reading Room
Humanities and Social Sciences Division
Library of Congress
101 Independence Ave. SE
Washington, DC 20540-4660


Question History:

Patron: hello my name is [patron’s name] i was wourding if you have any books on the coins or any papers on the coins i can do so i wouldn’t bee so board. from [patron’s name]

Librarian 3: We suggest that you spend some time searching the Library of Congress online public access catalog (OPAC) to find titles of books that are relevant to your topic. Then you can see if your local library has copies of these books, or can arrange to borrow them through interlibrary loan. [The email then continues to repeat itself]

bonus questions

The LiB and I bombarded our audience for our SirsiDynix Institute program with a bunch of ideas and information. Since it was only an hour session, this left plenty of questions. We took some time to answer them, figuring they’ll be useful for more than the individuals that asked. Here they are.

How do I convince my library that it is safe to post pictures of events online (especially of teens), and to allow kids to do podcasts, etc.? My library is soooooo litigation scared.
This is the perfect opportunity to counter a why with a why not? Do the admin/board in question have any hard evidence about library getting into hot water for using pictures of their patrons? Libraries are public places and can be photographed. Indeed, private places open to the public can be photographed as well. Anyway, chances are they we’re all getting our pictures snapped more times per day than we’re aware. The worst that can happen is that someone asks for an image, podcast, print book review (whatever) be taken down. Then the library takes it down. This is unlikely to happen. I’m not saying that we should be publishing full names, ages, and Social Security Numbers, but a photo of some kids at the library? Of course! Here’s a decent article titled “New digital camera? Know how, where you can use it”

What if you have a board that definitely won’t allow im or chat? (they’ve been that way since we first received computers in 1996-patrons have complained to the board and they won’t budge!)
The board is certainly not doing their job if they haven’t even responded to *patrons* asking to use IM on the library’s computers. How long are the board member’s terms 😉 Isn’t it their job to be representatives of the community? Perhaps showing them examples of what other libraries are doing with IM, without any troubles, would help your cause. They need to know that this policy is preventing the library from growing.

About IM, my board has banned IMing on our public access computers (concerns about predators, mostly. they see it as similar to chatrooms, which for them have negative connotations). How can i overcome this fear on their part? Any evidence, stats, or ways I can alleviate their fears about safety?
Take a look at the 2004 Pew Internet and American Life report on instant messaging: As we mentioned during the presentation, these stats are old now, and the numbers now are much higher, but they show that IMing isn’t just for kids, and that’s it’s become a vital way for many people to communicate. For many, if you’re not available via IM, you don’t exist. Show them the huge list of libraries that are successfully offering reference services via IM. Tell them that many websites (like MySpace, Meebo, etc.) include a built-in IM feature that gets around any IM-ban they’ve put in place technologically, so there’s no way to really ban it. If people want to IM on your computers, they are finding a way. All the library does by banning it is make itself look technologically regressive and out of touch with what today’s users need from our computers.

Any suggestions for getting on user’s buddy list? we are an undergrad 4 year school.
The best way to get students to add your screen name to their buddy list is to provide great reference (or otherwise) service during hours convenient to them. IM enthusiasts will add their library’s screen name to their buddy lists out of convenience, just like they might bookmark their library’s website. It could be fun to hold some sort of contest, the addition of the library screen name as the entry, but there’s no good way to see who has done this

Difference betweem offering content for IPOD’s vs. the new play-a-ways?
The Playaway all-on-one audiobooks could be a decent option. However, they lack the mass appeal of the extremely popular ipod. The great thing about providing content for ipods (whether it is purchased audiobooks or library generated content) is that it uses technology that patrons are already using. It shows that the library understands the information preferences of its users, and is convenient for them to use.

When loaning ipods for borrowed books or music, do you lose some? They are expensive…

Yes, they aren’t cheap, but the TFML hasn’t lost any, and I haven’t heard of any other library with any theft issues. Libraries can set the replacement fee at a price of their choice.

How do we do IM reference when we are often not sitting down at the desk? We are often getting up and down for to help people and do projects.
Away messages can help with this. Setting an away message every time you get up will take some habituation, but it can be done. Otherwise, IM reference can always be done off desk.

Are you saying that it is alright for teens to play any type of games on the computer. I have seen some weird games being played

Heck yes! Weird is in the eye of the beholder. If it isn’t illegal (and I don’t know of any illegal games) libraries have no legitimate right to prevent people from playing it (or reading it, looking at it, etc). Anything short of this is censorship.

Do you think if you “market” these different venues (IM etc.) to teens, will it automatically crossover to adults?

I think services that are useful to teens are also useful to some adults. I also think that without appealing to teens and getting them interested in libraries, we won’t likely see them again until they have children and come back for storytime.

quick question about meebo…away message? Is there a way to set one up? I’ve just been logging off everytime I step away.

Look towards the top of your buddy list. The default is “I’m available.” Clicking there will let you change and customize your message.

What about cell phone disturbing other patrons?
Libraries already have noise/behavior policies in place. Enforce them—whether or not the user is using a cell phone, talking to a friend, or simply yelling to get attention. Address the behavior, not the technology…because the technology keeps changing and there’s no way to keep up.

When considering these changes, have you taken into consideration the security of the materials in the library?
We talked about a lot of different changes during our webcast, so we’re not sure we understand which ones you’re referring to that would in any way impact the security of library materials. We haven’t said anything about removing security strips, taking down the security gates, or leaving the doors unlocked—
which are the only things that would affect the security of library materials.

What is a blog?
Blog is short for “web log.” A blog is a website. That’s it. Most blogs are presented in a format where the newest entries are at the top, and older entries are automatically archived by date and/or subject. Blog software allows just about anyone to create a webpage—with no HTML coding skills necessary. Here is the Wikipedia entry on “blog”:

Do you have suggestions for helping school districts understand the BLOGS shouldn’t be blocked by filter…reason “personal page” – go figure!

First, I would ask WHY the institution is blocking them in the first place. If it’s simply because, as you say, it is a personal webpage, then I would counter with examples of helpful institutions and government agencies and educational groups that are blogging. The White House has blogs, for goodness sake! Schools and libraries have blogs! Authors and artists and teachers have blogs! I would also be curious as to how they are blocking blogs: are they blocking certain blogging websites (like Blogger, Typepad, etc.)? If that’s what they’re doing, there’s no way to catch every blog, as there are hundreds of blogging sites, and many sites have their own domain names so the filter wouldn’t catch them. Basically, their system isn’t even working.

What service provides the books via iPod? We can’t do that because of DRM that isn’t supported on iPods.

Unfortunately, there is no audio content service that sells in a platform environment (like Overdrive or NetLibrary’s Recorded Books) to libraries that also works with iPods/Macs. What libraries are doing is purchasing eBooks, as consumers, through either iTunes or and then pre-loading them onto library iPods and checking the device out, or allowing users to bring in their own iPods and loading whatever book/album they want onto the user’s iPod.

How can we allow iPod use on our PCs? My understanding is that iTunes is so highly customized that it’s impossible to use in a multi-user environment.
iTunes can be installed on Macs and PCs. The library we discussed loaded all of their CDs into iTunes on their public computers. So…users could listen to the music on the library’s PCs without having the CD in hand. We’re not sure if the library allows people to bring their iPods in, actually, to transfer the files from the library’s iTunes account to their iPods. iTunes is an individual library of songs, but can be used in a multi-user environment. It just depends on what you’re trying to do.

I work in a multi-branch public library. Can you recommend online games that teens at my branch can play versus teens at another branch?
As Aaron replied to a similar question during the webcast, the best recommendation we can give you is to ask the teens in your area which games they would like to play. Some of the games that seem to work well in a competition environment, though, are those that go quickly so teens can take turns playing: driving/racing games and Dance Dance Revolution come to mind.

Hi – this was good – it’s 2am where I live so I’m off to bed. Have a happy day!
Thanks for getting up so early and listening!!

fire, brimestone, and questionpoint

All I could think about while Rick and I tested the latest version of OCLC’s QuestionPoint virtual reference software was Jonathan Edwards’ Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.

The wrath of God burns against them, their damnation does not slumber; the pit is prepared, the fire is made ready, the furnace is now hot, ready to receive them; the flames do now rage and glow.

I seriously can’t imagine how we’re going to give our users a good experience with this software. Sarah Houghton did a great job of listing her issues with QP in her post New QuestionPoint Flash Interface: LiB’s Review. I’m not patient enough to make such a list, but I can say that this software is designed with the librarian in mind, not the library patron. And all of the extra megabytes of software seem like cruft. It may have placated me a bit if, say, all of the testing we did with sending info from our databases worked well, but no such luck. I’m afraid that virtual reference software is still an expensive and cumbersome solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.

Jenny sums up another feeling of mine in her post about the Homer library getting good (print) press for their use of RSS and Flickr:

It’s easier to cut our funding when we’re just the nameless, faceless “library” than it is if they see happy, smiling taxpayers.

I’m afraid that big, multi-state virtual reference projects turn us into the “nameless, faceless” question answerer that Jenny mentions. People are less likely to become excited library supporters if they’re serviced by strangers. When people in Western Springs send an IM to thommyford , they know they’ll be chatting with someone from the TFML. The next time they choose to visit the library in person, they can say “Hi” and shake hands.

if you build it

An online library card application was the easiest thing I’d never done for the library’s website (I really like the URL too – All it took was the repurposing of an email form already in existence and a few head nods from staff involved. The email gets sent to two address, the general one monitored by Reference, and to the head of Circ. The head of Circ gave a memo to her staff, created a box in which to put ready for pick up cards, and we were done.

We got an application within 24 hours of the form being on our website, so I’m very interested to see if it’ll get used often.

thoughts on the stapler

My small post about the reference desk stapler solicited some hilarious and insightful comments both here and at a pic of the stapler on flickr.

Highlights include Richard Ackerman’s comment:

Of course we let our patrons use staplers! We just require they take training in the use of advanced stapler features first

and Jenny’s response. As usual, she’s spot on:

And we call it a collation tool that you have to reserve in advance and show a library card to use. Then we make you use it in the designated collating area, where no more than two people can be at any one time. Removing the collation tool from the collating area will result in an immediate suspension of all collating privileges.

Users are allowed to collate up to 30 pages or 10 sets before they must surrender the tool to the next patron in line. If no one else is waiting, the patron may continue to use it for an additional 15 pages or 5 sets. Patrons may not exceed 60 pages or 20 sets in any one 24-hour period. Failure to observe these rules will result in the immediate suspension of all collation privileges. Staff will refill staples in collation tool within 24 hours of the first written report of an empty cartridge.

Collation tool hours are 9:16 a.m. – 8:44 p.m., Tuesday – Thursday. Classes in basic and advanced stapling are offered in January, June, and October.

JanieH links to a post on “Library Garden” which asks the great question, “Have you considered the price you are paying by punishing the majority of your good customers to deal with a few of the bad?” It also links to an amazingly titled bit from “Pop Goes the Library:” Red Tape = Patron Kryptonite

All of this is feeding into what I decided was going to be my theme for this year: Let’s Make Libraries Easy. I’m not a big fan of when people throw their arms up in the air and proclaim, “Libraries can’t be everything to everyone” because, duh, it’s a totally obvious statement. What I really dislike about the phrase is that it seems to discourage innovation and prevents us from striving to do the best we can. Right? “We can’t be everything to everyone so we probably shouldn’t try this new service.” “It might be nice to have IM clients installed our our PACs, but we can’t do everything.” Concentrating on the fact that we can’t be everything to everyone will lead us to become nothing for nobody. So instead, let’s think locally. We can be, and often are a heck of a lot to our communities. And I don’t mean communities in just the geographical sense.

We can’t maximize what we can do for our communities unless we stop with the passiveaggressiveness and make nice library signage, reduce barriers to service and think about our libraries from a non-librarian perspective.

Here are five things you can do this week to make your library a better place:

  • Let people bring drinks into your building. Let that group of high schoolers studying together eat the cupcakes they brought in. They might even offer you one. If they do, take it. It’ll make you seem human.
  • Communicate with your users who IM.
  • Let patrons plug their digital cameras into your computers.
  • By your DVD collection, have hold slips filled out with the info for popular films. They’ll just need to write in their name and hand it to you.
  • Allow kids to bring their skateboards in the library

The next time you’re involved with making a decision in your library, please consider the needs of your users. My thanks go out to all of the library workers – shelvers, administrators, IT geeks, janitors, catalogers and everyone else – who are working to make their libraries easier to use.

give them help

“When I think of the need we are serving, I am able to accept the stacks of forms on my work desk better.” RickLibrarian

Pretty much every time I’m in a conversation with librarians about the implementation of a new technology, someone asks something to the effect of, “This is great! I love it, I get it, but how do I convince other people at my library that we should be doing this?” Staff buy-in is a huge issue. There are many reasons an individual might not be interested in learning and using new technology. Discomfort with technology and fear of failure are two reasons stemming directly from the technology specifically, but there are also others. Here I’m thinking about a general dislike of change. It is probably easier to get people to warm up to technology than it is to alter their worldview regarding change, though I’m sure it can still be a monumental task. Can people resistant to change enjoy working in libraries? Maybe some Heraclitus would do them good.

So, what’s the best way to get staff to drink the proverbial kool-aid? You could present them with some statistics about the technology, but that’s not going to do much. Numbers are abstract and cold. You could tell them that every library is doin’ it, at which point they’ll expect you to jump off of a bridge. No, the best way to create buy-in is to appeal to their sense of being a good librarian. The most important trait a librarian can have is the desire to help.

Jettisoning technology’s emotional baggage and communicating that IM/weblogs/telephones/whatever meets a need in the community helps people understand why it is important. And I know this sounds harsh, but if people have lost their drive to be helpers they need to be far, far away from the public. Good librarians do all sorts of inconvienent things for the sake of better helping their users. Truly great librarians often don’t even see these tasks as inconveniences because they concentrate on the end result of helping rather than the means. I’m going to incorporate Rick’s story into my spiel about creating staff buy-in because the same great motivation is at work. While this weblog is mostly about technology in libraries, but I hope to inspire people to become good helpers along the way. Let’s make libraries easy.

Bad Sign

Hot on the heels of my post about libraries trusting patrons, and writing a sentence about drinks (gasp!) in our buildings, I walk into a local library and see this sign. Does this make anyone else as sad as it does me? Why does this library want to treat their patrons like children? Clearly there are much nicer ways of getting this point across. My favorite part of this sign is the miniscule “thank you” at the end of the message, put there as if forced, or even patronizing. The font they used is so small, you’ll likely have to click through to flickr to see a larger sized image. Look at the weight they’ve given to the “NO” in comparison to the “thank you”. This is what user hostility looks like.

libraries and trust

Perhaps it was because I was trusting the motorists as they whizzed by me and my bicycle, but on my afternoon ride I started thinking about the issue of trust in libraries. It really seems central to what we do. Here are some examples, and you all come up with more I’m sure.

In every reference transaction there is an exchange of trust. Asking questions of a reference librarian is an act of reliance. If a patron perceives a librarian as untrustworthy they’re simply not going to feel comfortable asking them questions. Would you? Good reference librarians connect with users as fellow humans and empathize with them. The most successful transactions are those in which this connection is realized and users trust that the librarian’s concern leads to accurate and useful information. Of course, this is rarely explicit and usually takes place through friendliness, attentiveness, verbal cues and body languge. I don’t think it can be faked.

“Every reader his or her book” is an exercise in trust. In this statement, librarians trust individuals to choose what is best. Ranganathan trusted library users, which was a change of pace from previous didactic ways.

The notion of trust manifests itself in the new focus we have with our presence on the web. Users trust us enough to care about, say, the bookmarks we store on, and we trust users to not leave inappropriate comments on our weblogs and wikis. This is the same type of trust that enables people to be interested in our print collections, and enables us to trust that they aren’t going to rip pages out of books. Or fill out the crossword puzzles. Or use a piece of pizza as a bookmark. Sure, bad choices are occasionally made and people misbehave but these incidents appear to be the exception rather than the rule.

This sharing of trust is an important connection and something that our users appreciate. Trust is the strong suit of successful libraries, and Libraries in general would benefit if it became part of our “brand.” More people would use libraries if our institutions were associated with comfort and trust.

Non-user-centered library policy corrodes the trust that we should be aiming to develop.
“No Drinks in the Library” equals “We don’t trust you to keep our library clean.” “You must give us your name to use our computers” equals “We think there’s a chance that you’re going to do something wrong or bad and we want to know how to find you.” The same case could me made about the fines we charge or overdue items.. Do they exist because we don’t trust our users to bring items back? Is this justified?

There are many barriers to the establishment of trust between a librarian and patron. Age, race, appearance, socioeconomic status, time of day, personality and more can affect people’s perceptions and prevent them from being comfortable around each other. However, we’re all human and we should all be in this together. Keep this in mind as you help people in the library this week. You’ll find that trusting the users of your library will improve your service and enhance your life.