Digital Reference as Early Warning System for Systems Issues

Today, while covering chat reference, I noticed an earlier session where a  major problem was reported by a student that no one else had noticed: links to full text in our discovery service (from Summon) had mostly stopped working.This is the first time that a problem has been reported in a chat session or in an email reference query. It seems like the greatest source of news that this database isn’t working, or the full text for that article or journal is unreachable, is from chat and email reference interactions. Problems like this don’t seem to get reported at the reference desk so much. My theory is that if a student is having a problem, they are far more likely to report it immediately than later on; the only way to reach us immediately is through our digital reference services (we also get some from the telephone at the reference desk). Our current admin for our digital reference service does a marvelous job of passing on to me and the head of collection management problems first noted in chat and email interactions.

I’m beginning to think that we might want to explore building out a problem-reporting system that is tied to our digital reference suite from QuestionPoint. It could be coming up with a a system for users who are encountering technical problems to report them within the framework of  our digital reference services using some sort of structured form that gathers the info we need. Or it could be designing a system that makes it easier for librarians to report these issues as they encounter them in reference interactions.

However we decide to work with the information coming in, it’s clear we’ve got a really valuable source of feedback about our systems coming in via digital reference channels and we would be well advised to continue paying close attention to that feedback.

Going from Micro to Macro

One of the great challenges when working with students is convincing them that it’s OK to narrow their research topics. Students commonly report that beginning a research paper (understanding the scope of the assignment, picking a topic, and finding a question to answer) is usually the most challenging part. Alison Head’s 2007 article in First Monday about the results of focus groups and surveys with college students at one college noted that “[t]rying to figure out what constituted a professor’s expectations for an assignment caused…the most frustration.”

From what I’ve seen, students flounder around in a sea of broad topics at the outset of the research process for a variety of reasons:

  • Lack of domain expertise. They usually don’t know enough about the topic yet to know what sub-topics, sub-sub-topics, sub-sub-sub topics, etc. exist. Reading/skimming around, presearching, talking to someone else (teacher, librarian, friend, etc.) are all strategies that can help at this early stage if the student has set aside enough time for it.
  • Fear of picking a topic that’s too narrow. Students often worry that the professor won’t approve of a topic that . Students believe they need to impress their professor with grand topics, that they need to demonstrate that they have wrestled with mighty issues. Students also fear that they won’t find enough sources on topics that are too granular.
  • Limited ideas about how to use sources. Students commonly have very basic notions about how to use sources creatively and strategically. They tend to limit their searches to those sources that that they believe will directly discuss their topic and back up their assertions; they rarely think about finding sources that will complicate their assertions. (For more on helping students understand how to think more broadly about source use, see my post about using Joseph Bizup’s BEAM model; also take a look at Mark Gaipa’s article in Pedagogy, “Breaking into the Conversation: How Students Can Acquire Authority for Their Writing”).

Because students can’t see how they can crossbreed sources across disciplines and topics, they tend to think their research topics should be broad, as that’ll make it easier to find sources. We must convince them that a narrow topic can be connected in lots of interesting ways to larger topics and disciplines, that sources from left field can be deployed in defensible ways in their papers (see Joseph Bizup and the BEAM model). I recently stumbled across these lines by William Blake in “Auguries of Innocence” that have inspired me to work harder at communicating this essential cognitive skill we want to teach, the move from micro to macro:

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

I think I may have a new poetic pitch to deliver to the students I work with. Here’s hoping it helps.

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.

The Student Research Pad

Students today have lots of great options for keeping track of sources they find:

  • citation management software and web services (Zotero, Mendeley, EndNote, RefWorks)
  • bookmarking services (Diigo, Delicious, Pinboard)
  • note-taking software and services (Evernote, OneNote, Springpad)

As wonderful as these tools are, there are a couple of notable barriers to their wider adoption:

  • a herculean effort is required to ensure that each year’s newest batch of first-year students, transfer students, and grad students are made aware of the existence of these tools
  • once made aware of the tools and convinced of their utility, students still have to take the extra step to register for accounts and/or download and install software

What if colleges were to set up a combination note-taking, bookmarking, citation management web service for every incoming student? The tool could be all set up and ready to go, accessible on the web to the student by means of the same authentication/login system they use to get to campus email, course management systems, remote access to library databases, etc.  The “research pad” that I have been brainstorming off and on for the past few years would connect to lots of resources and tools automatically and would allow the easy manual import of new items (articles found in a database, for example) via a number of means (bookmarklets, import via a custom email address, RSS feeds from your Zotero account, etc.)

Here are the components such a tool could have:

  • Place to see all the items you have currently checked out from the library (a click through on any item would take you to the “my account” feature commonly found in most library catalogs). Through an opt-in system, a user could decide to retain a list of items they have checked out in the past too (the click through on any item would go the item record in the catalog). This archive of what you have borrowed touches on a major third rail in library privacy issues, but perhaps if it was opt in and we did a really good job of informing our users of why they might not want to do this, it could fly in some libraries.
  • Place to see all the articles you’d found in any database the library has. Most databases have an “email this citation/full text” function of some sort; patrons could type in their unique research pad email address and have the database send the article straight to the student’s research pad. The research pad could also be set to sync with Zotero, RefWorks, or other citation management systems.
  • Section to save your bookmarks of web sites found on the open web. Given the recent rise of tools like Tumblr and Pinterest, and the longer successes of bookmarking services like Delicious and Diigo, a bookmarklet might be familiar enough to many students that it would be installed and used. At the very least, the Research Pad would let you import your bookmarks from your browser or from other bookmarking services.
  • A portion of the page would show the student help in various forms from the library: screencasts and screenshots custom made by the librarian at some reference service point (see my next post for details on this) and automated recommendations of relevant databases (or maybe article content from a service like Ex Libris’ bX Recommender or book content from LibraryThing or GoodReads).

Here is a mock up of the research pad that I put together today:

I’m not a web designer of any sort, but I would expect that you’d want to have the sections made collapsible or tabbed. I also realize that much of the functionality I’ve dreamed up here is not technically or practically possible (yet). But I do think we in the library world need to be dreaming our own dreams of what we’d like to have developed and not rely on the limited and siloed offerings we current get from various vendors. Many databases have “my account” features that let you keep track of content you’ve found just in that one platform; I’d like to see a tool that would be platform agnostic, that would let students pull in sources from all sorts of places and that would be connected via the library’s authentication systems in a seamless and invisible way (students shouldn’t have to think about how to set up remote access options in citation management software or how to log into some database’s “my account” feature).

What important features and functions did I miss? What elements of my research pad are unnecessary? Has anyone ever built a tool like this that pulls in such a wide range of services and resources? I’d love to hear back in the comments.

Space for Our Services

It’s quite simple, really. If you want folks to use your digital reference service, you have to make it easy for them to find it. In fact, they shouldn’t even have to go hunting for it; it should be right there in front of them as much as possible. A year and a half ago, I was excited when a change in the EBSCOhost platform allowed libraries to insert chat widgets into all search results pages that got generated (see Paul Pival’s post with step-by-step instructions about how to set it up). Some libraries had already managed to find a way to get chat widgets placed in their library catalogs, but getting a database company to free up space like this seemed truly revolutionary. In the years since, no other vendor that I know of allows this kind of customization. Yes, many platforms give us ways that we can put custom links in and graphics. What we really need, though, from the likes of LexisNexis, ProQuest, etc. is just a little bit of space for our widgets, just a sliver.

I should note that this plea for space was sparked by an announcement from the California Digital Library that the WorldCat Local instance for the entire University of California library system would have a chat widget in it. The announcement isn’t quite accurate, as the chat widget itself is not embedded in the interface; instead, there’s just a graphic (albeit, a nice one) that says “Chat with a librarian” and that when clicked, opens a pop up window with their chat widget. At that graphic is only on the search results page (it should probably also be on the search page too).  I think it would have been much cooler if the widget was actually embedded in the page, as our chat widgets in EBSCOhost can be.


My New Job as User Experience Librarian

This month, I ended more than ten years of service in the Information Services Division at the Newman Library at Baruch College and started a new position as a user experience librarian in the Collection Management Division. While I will continue to provide reference services and teach workshops and credit courses, I’ll be working on all sorts of projects in Collection Management that focus on improving access to and integration of the library’s online and on-site resources. The work will consistently be driven by user needs, which means that I’ll be involved in a lot of usability tests, focus groups, surveys, and more, as part of an effort to design a better experience for our students and faculty. So far, I’ve been hip deep in our link resolver (SFX), our ejournals lookup system (Serials Solutions 360 Core) our federated search tool (Serials Solutions 360 Search), and admin options for various databases. My supervisor and amazing colleague, Mike Waldman, and I hope to release a mobile-friendly website that links to mobile-friendly databases, a LibX toolbar, and a project involving QR codes in the stacks linking users to electronic resources and LibGuides.

I expect I’ll still be posting items here at Digital Reference, but will also be active over at my other blog, Beating the Bounds, which is where I go when I want to talk about scholarly communication, open access, fair use, copyright, information literacy, databases, social media, and user experience.

(cross posted at Beating the Bounds)

Guide to Reference Services

This week, I completed work on a guide to reference services that was commissioned by the Metropolitan Library Council of New York. Originally, I was asked to create a guide to digital reference, but lately I’ve been feeling less inclined to carve out a unique space for “digital reference” in the larger sphere of reference services. More and more, I think of any question answering libraries do as reference and try not to get too hung on distinctions that mean less and less and online reference services have become commonplace and the cross-referrals between online and physical service points are de rigeur.Libraries have mostly moved past the era of creating separate, cutesy brand names for the IM or chat reference services and now just present a raft of service options under the rubric of “Ask Us” or “Ask a Librarian.”

This guide is meant to appeal to libraries of all types, although some might see a bias toward the needs of academic libraries. If you have any suggestions about links or changes in terminology that would broaden the appeal the guide, I’d love hear about them.

Discussing a National Virtual Reference Service

I really wish I was going to ALA Midwinter this week just so I could participate in the discussion hosted by OCLC on what a national virtual reference service might look like. Here is the description of the event on the registration page for it:

Sunday, January 9
10:30 am – 12:00 pm, San Diego Convention Center, Room 24 A
Building a National Reference Service
Libraries provide virtual reference services locally, with local library staff, and—in some cases—regionally or statewide. While many countries have national reference services, the US does not. Join us for a discussion of what a national ‘ask a librarian’ service could look like, and how it could be accomplished.

I have been aware of some of the discussions over the past few years, but they only seem to take place at ALA events. Is anyone else writing or talking about this someplace else?

More on the Paging System at Darien Library

To followup on yesterday’s post in which I noted that I was going to look for more information on the patron notification system at Darien Library, I’ll note here that Diana K. Wakimoto’s post at the Waki Librarian provides a nice summary of John Blyberg’s presentation about the project at Internet Librarian last month. If your library was thinking of moving away from a constantly staffed reference desk or wanted to find a way for patrons in far flung parts of the library to be able to request assistance, the Darien Library’s patron notification system seems like a well thought out solution.