The ties that bind chat cooperatives

The chat cooperative that my library belongs to, the 24/7 Academic Cooperative (which is administered by 24/7 Reference) includes academic libraries at dozens of colleges and universities from across the U.S. (and one in Canada). The greatest challenge of doing reference work in such a large cooperative is that users expect you to know as much about their library as you know about your own. If the cooperative just consisted of libraries in New York City, where my college library is, it would be easier for me, as I know a few things about many of the libraries in my area (thanks to local conferences where I meet colleagues working nearby and thanks to the occasional visits I’ve made to other libraries here).

Since it isn’t likely that I am going to visit the libraries that in the 24/7 Academic Cooperative (much as I would like to), I have to rely on other means to familiarize myself with those libraries as I assist their patrons in chat. Although many questions in the chat cooperative don’t necessarily require an intimate knowledge of a member library’s policies and services, there are a notable number that do. Questions like these from users at other libraries in the cooperative are often challenging for me:

– “Is there a photocopier on the 3rd floor of the library?”

– “Does the library have a pencil sharpener?”

– “I have a telecourse this semester. Does our library have the review sessions videotapes?”

– “Is there a problem with the remote access to databases service or am I doing something wrong when I try to login?”

– “The link to the full text of an article in such-and-such database takes me to a page that says I need to enter a user name and password, but our website indicates we have full-text access to this journal.”

The last two questions can be hard for me to answer even when the user is from the college where I work. Imagine trying to handle those questions when the user is from another college across the country. If I am lucky, there may be a librarian online from that user’s school that I can transfer the chat to. But in most cases, I am left to my own devices, trying to help the user whose library I am unfamiliar with. So how do I proceed when I really don’t know that much about the user’s library?

There are two main sources of information that I draw upon. One source is the library’s own web site (more on that later). But the first source I look at is a policy page that has been created by the library whose patron I am assisting. Our cooperative requires that each member library create a detailed profile of itself (especially its services and policies). That profile is typed into an online form, which in turn generates a web page that librarians in the cooperative can access. Most of the basic fields in the form are simply places to put a link to a relevant page from the library’s web site. The basic fields in the form that the library need to fill out are:

– home page

– web catalog

– databases

– research guides

– phone

– location

– hours

– library cards

– loan periods

– loan limits

– renewals

– holds

– late fees

– interlibrary loans

– course reserves

– cooperative arrangements/delivery

Some libraries add more than a link in each field and instead provide details on the policies and service. The more info I find here, the easier time I have helping the user with his or her questions, especially if those questions are for things that are what I think of as local knowledge (such as in the challenging questions mentioned earlier). These local knowledge questions typically relate to services or problems that are not adequately addressed (if at all) on most library’s web sites. It would be nice to believe that libraries are capable of creating a web site that offers complete details on every service it offers, but so far I have yet to see such a site. There is always some nitpicking caveat to a service that goes unmentioned on any library’s site.

Such small (yet often crucial details) also often go unmentioned on the policy pages that libraries are asked to create when they become members of the 24/7 Academic Cooperative. When it comes to updating, one advantage policy pages have over a library web site is that the former is more easily updated. If I know that my library has just added a new service, I can quickly summarize it on the policy page on the day that I first hear of it; to create and mount a new web page on our library site about a newly launched service typically takes days or weeks of effort that involves at least two or more staff. Most policy pages set up for the cooperative are maintained by the same person who also is the administrator for the library’s chat reference service.

Because the policy pages are not publicly accessible and are created with a librarian (and not a library patron) in mind as the intended audience, it is permissible to use library jargon. While jargon is a pain for our users to decipher when it appears on a library web site, for librarians in the cooperative reading a policy page it offers an efficient shorthand. Thus, the policy pages are useful cheat sheets that quickly bring a librarian up to speed when he or she is helping a patron from another institution.

Unfortunately, it is often the case that a library has not done a thorough job of completing its policy page. If that is the case, then my only lifeline is the library’s web site. It’s not uncommon for library web sites to also be missing critical information (and, I am sad to report, that includes my library’s web site, too). You can really gain a fair amount of sympathy for users when you try to help them figure out their library’s web site and find it lacking.

In a future posting, I hope to offer some suggestions for ways that libraries in a cooperative can better keep each other informed about each other’s services.

Chat reference buttons in databases and OPACs

This summer, I hope to help our library add a chat reference button to our OPAC (Aleph500 from ExLibris). The libraries at the University of Iowa have already done this with their implementation of Aleph 500.

I’d also like to find out what database vendors will let our library add a chat button on database search screens. I’ve heard that Gale allows this, but I haven’t had a chance to see what it looks like. I can imagine that EBSCO might allow this, too, as they already give us space to put a link to the library’s web site at the top of the screens for the main different databases we get from them (Academic Search Premier, Business Source Premier, EconLit, MasterFile Premier, PsycINFO, etc.)

The logic for adding a chat button to database and OPAC pages is obvious: offer your help as a librarian where the users actually are. Users shouldn’t have to backtrack to the library’s web page to launch a chat. Now if only we could figure out a way to get some real estate on Yahoo! and Google.

Online symposium on digital reference

There’s a nice digital reference symposium hosted by OCLC that you can view online. There’s streaming video of the proceedings that not only gives you the speaker but also their slides. You can even skip ahead to speakers that you might be more interested in.

Click on “Reference reality check” in the Video Symposium section. Once the streaming video screen loads on your computer, you can jump around the presentations to the ones you’re interested in by clicking the link labelled “Speakers and Topics.” I found these two presentations particularly worthwhile:

– Susan McGlamery “Cooperative Reference: Why It Takes a Village to Provide Virtual Reference.” Susan is the head of 24/7 Reference, the service used at my library.

– Joe Janes “Digital Reference Isn’t.”

Is co-browsing doomed?

I’ve been wondering lately if co-browsing is really such a great technology. I’m not just thinking of the weirdness that ensues when you try to co-browse a database like Factiva, which resists all attempts to be shared with patrons. These days, I’m wondering if the growing number of users who have firewalls (both at work and, more to the point, at home) is going to get in the way of this gee-whiz technology. As I’ve seen many times, a user’s firewall usually prevents any co-browsing from taking place. The suggested solution–convince the user to disable the firewall while we co-browse–is not too attractive these days thanks to all the viruses, worms, and malware out there.

After seeing my college’s computers taken down all day last month thanks to the Sasser worm, I’m not too comfortable asking a user to drop whatever paltry security they’ve set up to protect them from the evils of life online.

And then there are pop-up stoppers to worry about. Those interfere with co-browsing, too (another piece of technology we have to ask users to disable before we can start sharing our browser). So if some poor user has both a pop-up stopper and a firewall running, I have to ask her or him to turn them all off before I can start really helping them.

Almost makes me want to go back to just simple chat.

Thank you Steven Cohen!

I could not have possibly relaunched my blog without the generous help of Steven Cohen, whose Library Stuff is required daily reading for me. We both host our blogs at LIShost, a hosting service that I just moved my blog and my web site, the Teaching Librarian, to over the past week.

I am afraid that I am not technologically adept enough to have saved the archive of messages from the Digital Reference blog and am resigned to the fate that has befallen them: lost in translation (which by the way, is a great movie).

Now that the blog is back up, I have a backlog of blog postings to crank out. Stay tuned.