Personalized Documentation in Reference Interactions

Does this scenario from the reference desk sound familiar? A student asks for help finding something that requires you to set up a complicated search with lots of limiters, nested terms, truncation, etc. Or maybe the search you want to demo is in one of the funkier databases where it takes a few minutes just to get the query set up (Factiva) or where it takes a lot longer (Datastream). Or worse, you know that the seemingly simple request for information is going to require them to go to two or more different databases (this one for the articles, that one for the datasets, and another for that specialized report).

As you try your best to explain to the student what you are doing, you maybe urge them to take some notes. Maybe you print out a screenshot and mark it up to make sure the student doesn’t forget to tick off that little checkbox in the lower right corner that is absolutely essential to the query working at all. The student, eyes glazed over, maybe a little fearful looking, thanks you and walks over out the door hoping they’ll remember everything they heard by the time they get to a computer (across the library, in a lab, or worse, at home, hours later).

Wouldn’t it be great if all that demonstration you’re doing on the staff computer at the desk could be automatically recorded, uploaded to the library’s YouTube account with a private URL (maybe even one that could be password protected by you and the student)? And then, to help the student get to that URL, the screen on your computer would offer up a shortened URL and an affiliated QR code. You could print out the page with the URL for the student, or he/she could capture the URL with a QR code app on his/her smartphone. Maybe the screen would also have options that would let the user type in a mobile phone number or an email address that they’d want to the URL sent to. Or if I can really go off into fantasy land, the student could send the video to their personal research pad that the university set up for him/her on the first day of school (see my previous post for details on this).

While I’ve long done annotated screenshots on the fly for students I’ve helped at the desk (and also in email and chat reference interactions), it would great if we could provide richer personalized help documentation. Pieces of this vision are doable now: it’s trivial to set up screencapture software or use web-based services to record your demo. It’s not super hard to upload video to sites like YouTube or Vimeo. You can use things like to generate shortened URLs and a related QR code. But what I’d like to see is a system that can automate some of these processes: click the “stop” button on your screencapture software and the system does all the rest of the steps for you quickly, minimizing the time you and the student have to wait for it to do its thing. This is the future I want.

Greeters at the Library Entrance

Today is the first day of the fall semester here at Baruch College. From 9-10 this morning, I was scheduled to work as a greeter by the turnstiles at the entrance to the library. As students and faculty filed in, I greeted each one with, “Good morning! Welcome to the library.” I got lots of returned greetings, many smiles and nods of recognition, and nearly three dozen reference questions. I’m eager to hear from my colleagues who are doing the same thing throughout the day to see if they had the same good experience that I did.

When first asked to participate in this little project, I imagined it would mostly be an exercise in relationship building. I never imagined that I’d be helping the reference desk out by fielding so many questions.

Getting More Mileage Out of Reference Interactions

A recent article in Reference & User Services Quarterly caught my eye today:

Finnell, Josh and Walt Fontane. “Reference Question Data Mining: A Systematic Approach to Library Outreach.” Reference & User Services Quarterly 49.3 (2010): 278-286. Web.

The authors describe a process developed at the library at McNeese State University in which reference statistics recorded at the desk included not just question type but also the subject of the question and the course (if any) connected to the question. Questions were later mapped to LC classification numbers, which then helped library staff to make collection development decisions. The data also led the librarians to refine their instructional offerings and to make new outreach efforts to specific departments.

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.

It’s ok to refer digital reference patrons to print materials…really

In our cooperative chat reference service, I have noticed that some librarians rarely point students to print resources when those resources may in fact be the best (and sometimes only) source of information for the topic in question. In one example, a student logged in repeatedly asking for help on the same question, and no one thought to recommend what is pretty much a standard reference source that would have quickly answered the question.

There are a lot of reasons why a librarian in chat or IM might rush to recommend an online source:

  • The librarian assumes that the patron isn’t on campus (or even in the library) and thus has no interest in print resources. This assumption is not often accurate. In our chat service, we find that at 40% of all chat sessions originate from computers here on campus.
  • Fearing impatience (often, rightly so) from the patron, the librarian takes a satisficing approach to the patron’s information need and rushes to show the student something that is maybe, just maybe, good enough to placate the patron for the moment. It may be that some librarians then intend to recommend to print sources, as they feel they have earned the trust of the patron; some do go on and suggest specific sources or suggest a search strategy in the catalog, but many never do.
  • The librarian mistakenly assumes that since the patron is online, ergo the patron only will accept online sources.

Although I am beginning to scale back on my acquisitions here at the library in Baruch for print reference sources, I still feel that librarians in digital reference must advocate on behalf of the richness of their print collections whenever appropriate. If we don’t speak up for print collections and remind users of them, who will?

UPenn librarians making IM friends

For a long time, I’ve been lurking on the RSS feed for the blog for library staff at the University of Pennsylvania and was amused today to read this post about an exchange a librarian had with a student on the library’s IM service.

By the way, if I am reading a blog feed that is clearly not aimed at me but rather at a small group of people who work together, is it accurate to call me a “lurker?” A “busybody?” Or maybe just “plain curious?”