Are Libraries and Social Q&A Services Competing?

Jeff Pomerantz has launched an interesting conversation with his post, “Facebook Social Q&A Service Is the Death of Library Reference.” He argues that with Facebook now getting into the growing business of social Q&A services (such as ChaCha, Aardvark, etc.), libraries need to think seriously about whether reference is a core library service or perhaps a niche service. There are already a lot of comments on the post (including mine) and more on FriendFeed:

On a related note, check out Brian Mathews’ posts at the Ubiquitous Librarian regarding his experiences trying out some of these Q&A services: Course Hero and KGB.

Cornell University’s Chat Service Turns 10

A note of congratulations to the library staff at Cornell University, who are celebrating the ten-year anniversary of the launch of their chat reference service. I remember in fall 2000 looking closely at how they ran their service as my library was in the planning stages for its own chat service (launched March 2001).

For a thumbnail history of chat reference services, the best starting point is Bernie Sloan’s 2006 article:

Sloan, Bernie. “Twenty Years of Virtual Reference.” Internet Reference Services Quarterly 11.2 (2006): 91-95. Web. 22 Apr. 2010.

Helping to Research Points of View You Disagree With

We significantly influence or control the selection, organization, preservation, and dissemination of information. In a political system grounded in an informed citizenry, we are members of a profession explicitly committed to intellectual freedom and the freedom of access to information.There is an interesting exchange going on over at the Library Praxis blog in response to a post by Maria Accardi about her experience assisting a student who wanted ” to find scholarly articles about why it is a bad thing that homosexuality is portrayed positively in the media.” After some discussion of keywords, etc, Accardi mentioned that she happened to be gay, the student explained that his views that homosexuality was essentially wrong came from Christian faith. Accardi then noted that she was a Christian, too. After that brief exchange, Accardi said they returned to discussions of databases and keywords. Her post concludes this way:

Did I do the right thing?  Professionally, I think I did.  I showed him how to find information on his topic.  But beyond that, beyond the most basic reference transaction level, I think I did the right thing in a critical, moral sense.  Coming out is one of the best tools to combat homophobia and bigotry.  By telling this kid that he was talking to an actual gay person, I think I pretty much blew his mind.  Maybe he’ll rethink his position on gays.  Maybe he won’t.  Maybe he’ll rethink his position when he is totally unable to find reputable scholarly research that supports his point of view.  Or maybe not.

How to handle such situations is tricky, as who the librarian is and what they believe can affect what kind of a response is possible or at least workable. In his comment to the post, Rory Litwin, notes that it would have been more challenging had Accardi not been gay or Christian:

I think you handled it right, but I think in a way the situation was simplified for you by the fact that you are gay and a Christian. You were able to be instructive simply by telling him who you are. But what if you were neither gay nor Christian and equally, or almost equally, had a problem with the student’s question? In that situation, simply sharing who you are wouldn’t be instructive, and there is no easy way to confront the issue. Even if you were gay but just not Christian, it would have been a little more complicated to find a good solution.

As someone who is straight and who was raised religiously but grew to become indifferent to religion, I can only say that I would have just pointed out that finding sources taking this point of view was going to be challenging given that it was a minority viewpoint. I might also have wondered aloud about the quality of any scholarly sources that he found that appeared to back up his viewpoint and cautioned him about thinking seriously about the quality of the argument offered in such articles; in particular, he’d want to make sure those sources reasonably treated other points of views, that they sources they themselves included were representative of a wide range of views. I might also ask him a bit about what sources he had found that represented different points of view (as he’d want to demonstrate to his professor that he’d wrestled somewhat with the discourse on this topic).

Helping people research points of view or opinions that diverge widely from your own is indeed a dicey proposition. I can recall wincing inside as I helped students find sources that showed the global warming was a myth, or another time, when I assisted a student who wanted to argue that smoking might actually be good for you (admittedly, I didn’t get too far with that last one). The ALA’s Code of Ethics touches here and there on the tensions between the information requested or needed by the patron and the librarian’s personal point of view:

  • “We significantly influence or control the selection, organization, preservation, and dissemination of information. In a political system grounded in an informed citizenry, we are members of a profession explicitly committed to intellectual freedom and the freedom of access to information.”
  • “I. We provide the highest level of service to all library users through appropriate and usefully organized resources; equitable service policies; equitable access; and accurate, unbiased, and courteous responses to all requests.”
  • “VI. We do not advance private interests at the expense of library users, colleagues, or our employing institutions.”
  • “VII. We distinguish between our personal convictions and professional duties and do not allow our personal beliefs to interfere with fair representation of the aims of our institutions or the provision of access to their information resources.”

I suppose that is it is impossible for my politics, my beliefs, my sense of who I am and how I fit in the world, to not interfere in any way with the way I interact with patrons in reference situations. I’m only human. It seems to me that much depends on the care and delicacy of the way that a librarian handles these information requests for sources that are very much at odds with her own beliefs. From Accardi’s description, it sounds like she handled the situation like a human and not some ALA Code of Ethics robot, and that’s probably OK.

Chat Sessions That Require Followup

I’m in the middle of another number crunching phase here at Baruch. I’m trying to find an accurate way to estimate the number of chat reference sessions in which the librarian decided to refer the question on for followup via email (in the QuestionPoint system, librarians just bring up the transcript for a question that has been marked for followup, click an “Answer” button, type a reply, hit “Send,” and the reply goes off to the email address that the patron provided when they logged in to chat). The QuestionPoint reporting features don’t seem to provide a way to identify every single chat session that had some sort of email followup, but by using some comparisons of different reports, I was able to make a defensible estimation that about one in five chat sessions gets marked for followup.

Online Tools to Enhance Instruction and Reference

Just a quick note to mention that I’ve been trying to settle down in using a handful of tools to extend the reach of content I create for reference and instruction purposes.


I’ve been playing around with uploading to this site some of the handouts for course-related lectures and workshops that I have taught. Many times, after a workshop is done, a professor I’ve worked with has asked me for a copy of the handout so she/he can post it to the course blog or website in Blackboard. By putting the document in Scribd, I can give that professor a URL to go to and download the document from. This means I don’t have to worry about sending unwieldy (and, ahem, forgotten) attachments. By using Scribd, I can also give the professor an easy way to present that handout online in a document viewer (the “Share” feature gives you embed codes for documents that let you display the document in your blog or website).

Another nice benefit of course is that I’m releasing my handout into the wild on the chance that someone outside of my college may find it useful. Feel free to browse my handouts on Scribd and reuse them (I use the Creative Commons Attribution/Non-Commercial license for any items I upload).

I’ve had my account on Slideshare for a while now and have mostly used it to host slide presentations that I’ve created for professional events (workshops for other librarians, etc.) I’m going to try using it more often for course-related workshops that I do here at Baruch, as well. The same benefits that I get from Scribd (better way to share files, network effects from putting your content out on the open web, embed codes) apply to Slideshare as well.

YouTube and Capture Fox

There are times when I’m composing an email reply for a reference question that it just seems too tedious to explain step by step how to do something in a database. Lately, I’ve been experimenting more often with creating on-the-fly screencasts in which I record what’s on my screen and narrate as I go. For a while, I was using Screenjelly (feel free to browse my videos on Screenjelly), but in the past few weeks, I’ve been relying more on using Capture Fox, a Firefox addon, to record the screencast and my personal YouTube account to host it. The library at Baruch College where I work has its own YouTube account that I could theoretically use to host these screencasts; before I can start using that account, though, my colleagues and I will want to hash out the issues related to publishing video content online under the name of the library.

There are, of course, other options for creating slicker-looking screencasts than what Capture Fox or Screenjelly will allow for (my library has licenses for Captivate, for example), but I’m kind of partial to Capture Fox because it is (a) free (b) fast and (c) lightweight.

Expanding CUNY’s Chat Reference Cooperative

For a number of years now, my library (Baruch College’s Newman Library) and libraries from five other schools in the City University of New York system (Borough of Manhattan Community College, Brooklyn College, CUNY Graduate Center, Hunter College, and John Jay College) have been sharing a subscription to QuestionPoint and its academic reference cooperative service. Lately, a few other libraries in CUNY have expressed interest in joining our subscription group. For a number of reasons, I really hope at least one library does decide to participate.

First, any additional institutions in CUNY that join our subscription group will help lower prices for the currently subscribing CUNY schools. QuestionPoint’s annual fees consist of three things: flat charges for a “service unit profile” and a “base management environment” and a charge for membership in the larger QuestionPoint cooperative reference service that is based on your subscription group’s total FTE (for public libraries, I think it is based on the population numbers for your service area). With each additional college in CUNY joining our cooperative, the cost of the flat charge for the service unit profile and the base management environment is proportionally smaller for each already subscribing institution. The quote I just got from QuestionPoint also shows that the FTE costs would go down a bit if we added one or two more members to our subscription group. So while the overall cost to Baruch is still not trivial, it would go down if we can get some more members to share the subscription fees.

The second reason why I’m eager to have more CUNY schools join our cooperative is because having a 24/7 service is quite a major selling point to our students. CUNY students tend to work part or full-time jobs, juggle family responsibilities, and, in general, lead fairly complicated lives with hours that don’t always mesh well with the hours of our physical libraries. (This report offers a nice profile CUNY’s undergraduates, including the interesting data point that 41% of undergrads work for pay for 20 or more hours a week.)

I should also disclose here two things. First, I am on the QuestionPoint 24/7 Reference Advisory Board, a group that helps guide policy for how the academic and public cooperatives should work. Second, I should mention that although I really like the cooperative reference service itself that QuestionPoint offers, I am not blind to the price advantages offered by other chat/IM options and some of the features those tools offer that aren’t in QuestionPoint (yet).

Moving Digital Reference to a New Domain

This spring, I hope to migrate this blog from my domain, where it has resided for the past six years to my domain. I’m not sure what would be the best URL for my blog:


With a URL ending in /blog, it will be easier for everyone to type the address in or for me to tell people where my blog is. Having it end in /blog will signal clearly to search engines that the site is a blog. I am kind of partial, though, to the URL ending in /digitalreference as it would neatly pair up my name and the blog title in the URL. Also, if I ever decide to start a second personal blog, it would be easier to add it to my domain.

I’m torn about what to do. Any suggestions?

Ups and Downs of Video Reference

Earlier this January, Chad Boeninger wrote on his blog, Library Voice, about the lackluster use of the library’s video reference service at Ohio University, which is advertised on the Skype portion of the library’s Ask a Librarian pages. The library had also been using Skype to power a video reference kiosk located far from the reference desk (the service was ended last fall due to lack of use). Although Boeninger believes that his users may never get on board with the idea of requesting help via video chat, he does not have regrets about the project:

In many circles, our experiment with Skype video reference might be considered a failure.  At my library, we tend to try something while studying it, rather than study it for ages before attempting something new.  While we didn’t get the results we expected with our video kiosk experiment, setting up the service cost us almost nothing.  In the process, we learned about video calling software options, how to configure pages to close automatically with javascript,  discovered how flaky wireless connections and computer applications can be, and much more.  We also learned to be flexible, patient, and try different things to improve the service.

With his post in mind, I was intrigued to see that the Hennepin County Library is considering setting up its own video reference system. At the upcoming Library Technology Conference (March 17-18) at Macalester College, a pair of librarians from Hennepin County Library will give a talk titled, “Video Reference: A Pre-Test and Pilot Project.” As noted in the description of the talk, the rationale for piloting such as a service is to address limited staffing options in two new libraries that the library system is opening and to see if the service might also help out in smaller libraries that also want to expand their reference options. Given Ohio University’s experience with video reference, it will be very interesting to see if Hennepin County Library finds a way to make such a service work (my fingers are crossed for them!)