January 2005
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Month January 2005

instant messaging in Qatar

Check out this job description for a Reference Information Technician at the Weill Cornell College in Doha, Qatar. Under the Major Responsibilities you’ll find this, emphasis mine:

2. Supervises the Reading Room and interacts with patrons either face-to-face or through a variety of media (telephone, e-mail, and virtual Web-based reference including iChat).

This is amazing for two reasons.

First, I’ve never seem IM reference included in a job description before and it makes my heart warm.

Second, I’m not familiar with this institution, but I am familiar with Qatar, and I’d guess that this library isn’t in any better position than universities or public libraries in the United States. IM reference was clearly a priority for them (I can imagine very good reasons for them to be using it) and they are making it happen. In other words, if you put your mind to it, you can certainly overcome the obstacles to starting IM reference in your library.

note: nothing appears on their library’s wesite about IM reference at this point

library coverage on WBEZ Chicago: Libraries of the Future

Hey folks –

There was some talk of libraries on my local NPR station this morning. I know how much librarians love to hear people outside of our world talk about us, so here’s a link.

I have yet to listen to it, but plan to soon.

From the website of WBEZ

Some observers thought the rise of the Internet would be the death knell for local public libraries. But many libraries are busier than ever. What’s keeping libraries viable, and what might they look like in the future?

Guest Kathleen Bethel is a part-time librarian at the Wilmette Public Library in the north suburbs. She’s also a member of the American Library Association board. Nathan Bierma writes the weekly “On Language” column for the Chicago Tribune. His article, “Future Bound: The greatly exaggerated demise of an American institution,” appears in the January/February 2005 issue of Books and Culture magazine. Julie Spielberger is coauthor of the study, “New on the Shelf: Teens in the Library—Findings from the Evaluation of Public Libraries as Partners in Youth Development.”

Link to RealAudio of the program

iRead shuffle

What would happen if someone tried to apply the logic of the iPod shuffle to a library collection? I think it would be something like this.

Does it work? I dunno.

the image on this graphic was lifted from possible images for Revolting Librarians Redux and then photochopped, with J’s consent.

some problems with virtual reference

I came across Virtual Reference: Alive & Well by Brenda Bailey-Hainer the other day. The piece is a response to “To Chat Or Not to Chat—Taking Another Look at Virtual Reference, Part 1” and ”…Part 2” by Coffman and Arret.

The article takes a look at statistics that Coffman and Arret didn’t. It cites encouraging numbers from statewide projects and gives some tips for being successful with VR. I like the article, in particular because “To Chat…” left me with an icky feeling. However, if people are going to be debating that state of Virtual Reference, it might be valuable to examine some inherent problems with the systems. If we do this we can perhaps see these as the cause of issues that arise with VR. Also, importantly, we can think about trying to address the problems.

Virtual Reference is not user-centric. Expecting people to enter into and operate in a little world that vendors have created is a bit naive. VR systems clearly were built with librarian in mind. The benefits awarded librarians vs. patrons illustrate this.

Benefits for Librarians
Authentication scheme
Record keeping (stats, transcripts)

Benefits for Patrons
Transcripts via email
Ability to received pushed pages

These patron benefits are a bit weak. Transcripts of the chat may be useful for patrons, but having pages pushed on them isn’t that valuable when the alternative is simply clicking a link.

Virtual Reference does not connect patrons to their community. Bailey-Hainer is correct about statewide VR (or other large scale collaborative) projects being the only viable solution. Software and staff time costs are generally too high for localized options to be viable. Large scale projects can (somewhat) successfully answer patrons’ general reference questions, but they cannot provide answers to local questions or handle home library specific tasks.

These tasks often have to do with materials, e.g. holds, renewals, and fines. To resolve home library specific tasks, the remote VR Librarian is forced to either simply push a webpage where the patron might be able to solve her problem, give the patron the phone number to his home library, or call the home library themselves. I tried this last option on one occasion and it was awkward. It might be wholly inappropriate for many home library specific questions to be asked by an intermediary VR Librarian. If someone called asking me to peer into my patrons’ records, I would be a bit suspicious. If fact, I hope this would raise red flags for all of the staff at my library. When a telephone must be used in this way to take care of the request, VR (in this form) doesn’t seem to be the right tool for the job.

Although general reference questions (not home library specific), can be answered through VR, they don’t have as much added value for the patrons or librarians as other chat based interactions (such as Instant Messaging) can have. The added value that is missing is community. Many patrons have lists of their trusted peer groups in their IM programs. To use current VR services, they can’t consult their peer group. In a certain sense they must leave their comfort zone when they enter into our VR services. We shouldn’t be asking our patrons to do this. Imagine instead the comonsense proposition of libraries being where our patrons already are. Imagine them adding us into their trusted peer group. Imagine our patrons not having to jump through hoops to chat with us.

To be fair, chat-based Reference via Instant Messaging has received some words of concern. A number of people have raised the issue of chat logs being stored on company servers and the resulting privacy issues. While it is good to be mindful of this, it is only raised because IM is a new (and unfamiliar) technology. My ‘IM as email on steroids’ analogy works here. Many private companies have had the content of our email conversations with patrons on their servers for years. Not many bat an eyelash at this these days. Is there a privacy concern with email and IM stored on servers we don’t control? Perhaps, who can say? But the potential risk isn’t stopping us from emailing our patrons. So it will be with IM in years to come.

One of the most significant concerns of using IM for chat Reference is authentication. Note that this is a significant concern for our well being, not our patrons’. Many libraries are concerned about being exposed on the web, leaving themselves open to answer reference questions from a grandma in Deutschland. I can’t help but think that the same issue was raised when email and telephone reference began years ago. Also, we should all hope that our marketing is superb enough to reach people that aren’t our patrons. If you’ve ever tried to market a library service, you know how difficult it can be to reach your patrons, let alone someone from the next town over. PubLibs shouldn’t have a problem serving someone that wanders into the library that isn’t a resident of their community, and they shouldn’t have a problem answering an electronic question from a nonresident either.

All of this isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be doing things with standard Virtual Reference. The concept is still very new, and thorough our influence, can evolve into something more appropriate. Right now, though, it is just addressing a symptom – “We need to be answering questions for patrons online.” Perhaps in the future it will be able to address the root problem – “We need to be connecting to our patrons online.”

got something to say?

You should come hang out in Monterey in October. I’ve enjoyed attending and learning at past Internet Librarian conferences, and IL’05 will be no different, I’m sure.

Moreover, you should share your passion for technology in libraries by tell us about it.

Here’s InfoToday’s call for speakers.

note: email me if you have a good idea for something related to public libraries

rss hub-bub

By now you’ve surely seen Jenny’s post regarding SIRSI integrating RSS into their Rooms product (note: not their ILS). And surely you’ve read Sarah’s link to it and Michael’s challenge (which I second here) as well.

I don’t mean to just provide you another link to her post, but I would like to reprint a comment left on that post*:

I work for yet another library automation company. I’ve propsed [sic] a few different RSS ideas to others I work with and the general response I get is “where are the customers who want this?” which is a very important question to answer when working in an agile development environment.

So I ask you, where do I find customers (librarians) who want this?

Brad ClarkeHe has a point that is sometimes difficult to remember. There are still many, many people that aren’t familiar with RSS. Ask your neighbor what “Really Simple Syndication” is. 98% of you will come back having received strange looks, and maybe 1% of you (likely less) will have the correct answer.**

I’m afraid that we won’t get RSS into our OPACs until the vendors know that Joe and Jane Public are using it. Best case scenario is that vendors listen to our pleas, ask us what we want from RSS in our ILS and build it. We get to display feeds of searches as HTML on our websites and no longer have to type in titles for our “What’s New at the Library” lists. We educate our patrons about a developing technology*** with which they’re not familiar (helping them and giving us TechCred in the process). We help them create feeds about topics they fancy, and for their overdue notices as well.

But what if RSS does take off in a major way? Don’t you think that it is going to be ruined? If not by some new fangled spam, then it’ll be by the abundant adverts and few full-content feeds. It could be rendered as painful to use as email. In 20 years, Steven’s daughter will be running around telling people that “RSS is a dead technology” just like what he loves to say about email (partially because he believes it and partially, I think, because he likes to get a rise out of those who hear it).

*If you operate solely in RSS land you could have missed it. I would have if I hadn’t gone to her site to get this permalink.

**The missing 1%? You’ll come back with a black eye.

***PubLibs walk the fine line between pushing new technologies on their patrons, and guiding them through technologies they might benefit from learning about.

updated to fix my bad HTML

tech needs pyramid

Most of us are Humanities types, I’m sure, and therefore probably have come across Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs once or twice before. If not, here’s a short explanation.

Maslow hypothesized that there are certain fundamental needs that need to be met before others can. At the base of well-being are physiological needs such as food and shelter. Without these, we have a hard time taking care of the other levels of needs, such as security, love, esteem, and finally self-actualization.

I’m not here to play amateur psychology prof, I just think that this model might be useful for thinking about technology in libraries. Below is a diagram illustrating the levels of technology needs for libraries. Just as in Maslow’s scale, those at the base are core, essential needs that must be met for survival. As we look up the pyramid, we see technologies that can be considered higher functions.

Libraries are different enough that it was take more thought than I’m willing to give this right now to come up with a prescriptive pyramid. This is just a sample of what a tech needs pyramid for a public library could look like. In your tech planning, make sure your base needs are met, whatever they may specifically be. Then keep on building.