Library Camp East

I hope to be at Library Camp East next Monday (September 25). Given that I don’t consider myself a techie, it should be an interesting experience for me. If you see me there, please say hello (and maybe explain what is going on).

Linking to chat services in the catalog and defending coop services

Our library here at Baruch College is part of the QuestionPoint 24/7 Reference service and participates in the academic chat reference cooperative. While helping a faculty member at the New Jersey Institute of Technology this morning, I noticed a neat little feature that appears in the library’s catalog when you get a null search. The searcher is presented with this little message placed smack in the middle of the search results screen:

Your search resulted in no hits.
Live help from Research HelpDesk.

“Research HelpDesk” is set in that message as a link to a page about the library’s IM service (a page that oddly doesn’t also link to QuestionPoint, the sevice that brought the patron to me in the first place). If you’d like to see what it looks like, here are null search results in the catalog for my name. (If that search result times out, just go to the catalog yourself and try some searches that will likely result in zero items found.)

Unlike the catalog link to the “Research HelpDesk” that only offers connections to the IM service, the library’s web site offers a link to “Ask Us…” on the home page that lists the IM and the QuestionPoint services. Although the faculty member I helped must have to come onto the service via the “Ask Us…” link from the library home page, I think it’s a great idea to offer links to any live help service (chat or IM) from within your databases and catalog. What NJIT did by making a special, hard-to-miss link appear after a null search is a brilliant idea.

To return to the patron story, I should mention that I was able to steer the faculty member in under 10 minutes to the correct database that offered access to the item he had earlier found in a web search. In that space of time, I did a reference interview to confirm exactly what he was looking for, located on the web the item he was looking for so that I could get the full picture of what I needed to track down in the library’s collections, and then used the library’s web site to determine which database would definitely have what he was looking for (a database that I have personally never used before).

I hope to find time soon to write a post that will offer a better defense of cooperative chat reference than this the little story above, which argues solely on the basis of anecdotal evidence (and just one picayune anecdote at that). There has been an interesting and lively conversation lately about how well cooperative services can provide quality reference; see Jessamyn West posts here (make sure you check out all the comments) and here, Jenny Levine’s post here, Steven Cohen’s post here, Luke Rosenberger’s response to West and Levine here, Caleb Tucker-Raymond’s response to everyone else here, and then Jonathan Smith’s post here. There’s been a lot of great debate already; I just hope I have something new to add to the conversation.

Stinky library hours in NYC

Today I took the morning off to spend some time with my 3 1/2 year-old son. Thinking that a visit to our local branch of the New York Public Library would be an ideal way to entertain us both, I took my son at 9:30 over to the St. Agnes branch, a 5-minute walk. Thinking that maybe the library would open at 10, I was annoyed to find it would not open until 1 PM. My son, on the verge of tears upon hearing of the collapse of our plans, vaguely agreed to ride the subway with me up to the Morningside Heights branch, our other “local” branch up by Columbia University (there are a few other branches that would have involved a 15-20 minute bus ride that we could have considered, but I had never been to them and was a bit unsure of their exact locations).

On the ride up, my son turned to me and said, “So, what do you do at work?” Suddenly my son is a conversationlist. I’ll have to bring the kid to work some day soon and show him the deep dent in my office chair (that would be the chair planted squarely and perpetually facing my computer screen).

Upon approaching the entrance of local library #2, what a surprise we had when we discover ed that this branch also didn’t open until 1 PM. Reading the sign on the door posting the hours of other libraries in Manhattan, I realized that every single branch is either closed or doesn’t open until 1 PM! I’ll have to remember that bit of incovenience for the future.

As much as I love the NYPL (and the Brooklyn PL and the Queens Library), the hours leave a lot to be desired, a problem that Library Journal and the Daily News recently noted.

So plan C (the C is for “Crisis situation leading to a Cash transaction”) was put into effect: a visit to an amazing children’s bookstore a few blocks away from the Morningside Heights branch: Bank Street Books. So all’s well (uhm, sort of not really) that ends well (the kid got a DVD version of a bunch of Leo Lionni books he loves, the very thing we went to our local branch to borrow in the first place).

Final score: Private Sector 1, Public Sector 0. Not what I would have wished for.

L2 script pretties up item records

Just stumbled upon the L2 script for Firefox. Once installed (note: Greasemonkey must first be installed), it opens a small box in the upper left corner of the item record display as long as there is an ISBN on the page. Clicking the plus sign in the box expands the window to reveal:

  • jacket art (via
  • links to search LibraryThing and WorldCat for that item
  • links (with prices) to buy the book at et al.
  • editorial reviews from
  • customer reviews from

You can slide the box around on the screen, too. What a neat little tool. Too bad our OPAC at CUNY (Ex Libris Aleph) requires you to go to the MARC view to see the ISBN. That adds a clunky additional step for me. Still, I’m excited that now I can use BookBurro (which also has a WorldCat lookup) when on and L2 when I’m in an OPAC; mmm…what a tasty combination!

UPDATE: An hour after I published this, I found this post by Casey Bisson on the Talis Shared Innovation blog indicating that the L2 toolbar is his entry in the Talis Mashing Up the Library competition. I should have mentioned that I found the L2 toolbar in a really roundabout way. While reading the comments on the Thing-ology blog posted in response to Tim Spalding’s entry on subject headings, I noticed a comment by Casey that offered a link not to his blog but to his Lib 2.0 website. Anyway, thanks Casey for the great tool!

Earning the trust of our users

If the comments on the first post of a newly launched blog, Virtual Reference, are any indication of future success, then I think this new site will be winner. Sponsored by the Virtual Reference Committee of RUSA’s Machine Assisted Reference Section.

Commenters on the initial post on the blog, “Abuse is in the Eye of the Beholder: Managing Challenging Users in Chat Virtual Reference,” first raised the question about what might constitute an “innapproriate” or “unsuitable” message from a patron in a chat reference service. Personal questions from patrons (such as “Are you single?” or “Where do you live?”) were considered by some to be irrelevant to the job of connecting users to information and of being regarded as a trustworthy source of help. But a series of excellent comments raised an argument for why we need to also be aware of the need to earning the trust of our users. Caleb Tucker-Raymond and Luke Rosenberger’s comments and their posts on their own blogs make a good case for why a successful reference interaction might involve more than just delivering “answers” to users (see this post by Luke and this one by Caleb).

In library school at the Pratt Institute, I was fortunate enough to take my required reference course with Marie Radford, who worked hard to teach her students about the value of interpersonal communication in reference transactions. From this course, I took away a sense of how important relational skills are in successful reference work. As noted in Radford’s book, The Reference Encounter: Interpersonal Communication in the Academic Library, patrons tend to value highly the relationship they form with the librarian, perhaps more so than librarians are aware.

In my own experience in chat reference, I have found that when I disclose personal information (e.g., “I know that book! I remember reading it in college.”) or reply to questions from patrons, I generally get a good reaction from the user (much as I do at the reference desk). Working in a college library, I know that many of our patrons (particularly the students) have to deal with a lot of bureaucratic situations on campus (e.g., straightening out issues with financial aid, student visas, tuition issues with the bursar, course enrollment problems with the registrar, etc.) There is also the issue of anxiety that many users feel when confronted with the need to use the library for research (my colleague, Gerry Jiao has written extensively on this topic).

The better I can convince the patron that I am truly interested in his or her question, that I let them know that he or she has come to the right place to get help, the more likely it is that the reference interaction will go well. If telling the patron a bit about myself is what it takes to build that relationship of trust with the user, then that’s what I’ll do. Of course there are limits to what I’ll disclose; I try to use my professional judgment to decide at the time what is inappropriate. I think most discussions about what is and what isn’t suitable for a librarian to reveal generally depend on a number of contextual details about particular reference interactions.

At the reference desk, establishing that relationship with the user is a bit easier than in chat, where we have far fewer cues (particularly the nonverbal ones) that indicate a meaningful bond of communication and trust has been formed between librarian and patron. Perhaps in chat the value of sharing personal information where appropriate and reasonable is even more critical than at the reference desk, where we have other ways to form a bond (albeit one that is often short-lived) with the patron.

Let’s not also forget that for most of our patrons the idea of chatting online with anyone other than a friend or co-worker (or maybe a client) is still a bit of a novelty. Back in the late nineties, when librarians first looked with envy at the fancy chat software used by online merchants like L.L. Bean and Lands End, it was often assumed that in the coming years our patrons would all be familiar with the idea of chatting online for customer assistance. As someone who resorts to the web for all sorts of personal consumer needs (shopping, tech support for items I have bought, etc.), I am surprised by how rarely I see a chat service for customer support. Six years ago, when I first started investigating how our library could set up chat reference service, I never would have imagined that chat would still continue to be a rarity on consumer-oriented web sites.

When I get questions in chat reference from students who want to know, “Are you a robot” or “Where are you located,” I know not to automatically assume that the student is just fooling around or asking inappropriate questions. They really want to know because our chat services are still novel to them. And I can understand the impulse, too; many times I’ve wanted to ask a customer support rep that I’ve been on the phone with for a while, “Where are you?” Hey, I’m curious. I also know that I appreciate it when the customer support person truly feels sympathetic and interested in the problem I am calling for help with. (For an example of a person getting unsympathetic customer support, check out this recording made by someone trying to cancel his AOL service.)

My master’s thesis is now online

I just uploaded a PDF of my master’s thesis, “McCarthyism and Libraries: Intellectual Freedom Under Fire, 1947-1954,” at my personal wiki. Now that I’m done with my 2nd master’s degree (it only took four years), I’d like to focus on doing some writing for publication on some aspect of anticommunism and American libraries, perhaps looking more deeply into one of the many stories I covered in my thesis about how librarians and library organizations responded to the pressures of McCarthyism.

At the same time, I also expect to start pursuing some research interests I have into chat reference services. Since I last published an article in a peer-reviewed journal (my one and only) five years ago, there’s been a ton of research in this area that I want to catch up on and contribute to in a more analytical way than my musings here in this blog.

With those concerns in mind lately, I found Steven Bell’s recent posts on ACRLog about academic librarians and the need to publish to be timely and compelling: