Monday, May 26, 2008

Providing Reference Services

(Cornell graduation ceremonies on Sunday)

Almost whenever I spend time at the reference desk, I find myself thinking "there has got to be a better way." That is, a better way to provide research help to students. I've watched a student sit at a computer station and struggle, increasingly frustrated, trying to do library research, and the idea never occurs to him/her to walk over to the reference desk 10 feet away and ask the librarian for help. I know, I know, in this case it's my responsibility to stand up and walk over to him/her and ask if they need assistance, but the point is that it's not obvious to the student that I can help.

I know there are many tools besides the reference desk that librarians can use -- online chat, email, the phone -- but I don't believe those are currently satisfying the need either, and they're often more of a hassle than what's involved in a straightforward face-to-face encounter.

Is it a problem with image? Have librarians been so long considered the gatekeepers that they're not associated with patient, helpful research assistance? Is it the space -- that students go to the library to work quietly or to study (or, very rarely, to grab a book), not to find help with research? Where do they go when they start thinking about research? If it's google, we librarians need to rethink our strategy here. If it's google, we can sit at the library ref desk 24/7 and it's not going to help students.

The images that appear in my mind are these:
-a student comes to the library to use the space/ambience -- the computers, the desks, or the quiet -- and the only time they look for help is when they have computer problems.
-On the other hand, when a student sits down to start thinking about research, what she/he often needs is a librarian to help at efficiently finding the necessary information. But where's the librarian? At the library. So physical space becomes an impediment. At this point it's ideal to have a free, back and forth dialogue with the librarian, but none of the tools besides face-to-face interaction accomplishes this perfectly. Unless the student happens to be sitting in the library, the librarian is not fully reachable. 

This is the challenge to librarians then: getting rid of the library building when it's not necessary for research assistance, and getting rid of the librarian when the building facilities are what's needed. 

One idea I've been working on, besides embedding librarians in online classes, is to have the librarian chat button EVERYWHERE, and not just on library pages. If students start to think about research help being available through instant messaging, maybe they'll start to use it. (And hey, it's better than nothing.) Unfortunately, turf wars being what they are, I can't imagine a 'chat with the librarian' being embraced throughout a campus community and placed on most/all pages, so I'll keep dreaming.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Systems Librarians Everywhere

Suddenly everything is green

As one who handles many more questions about how to do things on a computer than questions about library resources, I was interested to learn from Bill Drew about a book called The Accidental Systems Librarian. It's a little old (anything published about computing in 2003 is going to be dated now) but a lot of the information is still relevant.

One of the points I agree with is that we're all systems librarians to some extent. Unless we prefer to bury our heads in the sand, every one of us has to be up to date with basic computing and how various technologies work. This is not just a matter of getting our work done efficiently, but being able to help our patrons, and it relates to an idea I've been hearing a lot lately: that although the Millennials have learned to expect immediate gratification from technology, they often don't understand how it works. 

And as a newbie to the library profession, I was initially really impressed with all the librarians who seemed to have had the opportunity to live through the computing revolution. I felt they knew a LOT more than I did about computers, because libraries were some of the first workplaces to automate, and many librarians got to experience the whole introduction and development of computers in the workplace.

But in fact librarianship is a mixed bag, and I'm sorry to find out that many of us kicked and screamed and resisted and ignored the opportunity of learning all they could. So now it's assumed that because I'm young I know a lot about technology when more than often I don't, but because I'm curious and interested and can see its importance, I'm quickly picking things up.

And weirdly, maybe this is what people mean when they get so excited about younger librarians entering the field - that we more readily embrace technology. In the meantime, I'm just shocked by librarians who choose not to. 

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Collection in the Librarian

Ithaca May flowers

I'm slowly realizing that librarians are biased. I don't know why I didn't think about this sooner. I suppose going through library school and realizing what's involved with being a reference librarian made me think that reference librarians knew as much as there was to know about information resources. Even though it was pounded into me that the real skill is knowing how to FIND information, I imagined that reference librarians memorized lists of particularly wonderful and well-known resources. I guess that's what I've been doing a little bit, during my first few years at the reference desk: as I discover particularly useful or relevant resources I file the shortcut in the back of my mind (or my browser) to pull out later instead of having to redo the search from scratch. But it should be no surprise to find my mental list is far from exhaustive.

In effect I've been creating and maintaining my own collection, and this makes me think librarians are similar to journalists or psychologists: They can rarely be completely objective. They bring their backgrounds and interests and tastes to any interaction with a patron, which is why you'll get different information about subject X from Librarian #1 than from Librarian #2. Ideally #1 and #2 would be interchangeable, because they would both know how to objectively find information about X.

Some of the differences between Librarian #1 and Librarian #2 could have to do with personality, it's true, but I think the more significant factor is the type of collection they've been building internally and what they think of when they hear about X.

Anyone not recently out of library school is probably rolling their eyes at how obvious this is, but it was quite a revelation to me. I guess the idea of every librarian attacking X with the same gusto was reassuring. Maybe it's time to face the fact that librarians are only human :-)

Sunday, May 4, 2008

The OFF button

(greener every week)

I've written about this before, but after a particularly hectic week I started thinking about how difficult it can be to find the OFF button in the midst of modern connectivity. It takes a serious effort, I find, to unplug. And once unplugged, there's a niggling feeling that you're missing something. Some important message or update or question that only you know the answer to.

The feeling is exacerbated by the fact that you never really have to be alone anymore. If you're near a computer or have a mobile phone, you have people to talk to. Even if you don't actively call or instant message them, you are connected to them and only a message away. You know that someone is listening to you, wherever you happen to be. It's like a religious presence, but instead of a deity it's a buddy or coworker or family member.

I'm not the most connected person in the world, and as a relatively late (and passive) adopter of this lifestyle I wonder what it's doing to the participants. Will we ever face the void? Rather, will we ever understand what the void is? More prosaically, can we ever fully relax? 

I guess constant connectivity is nowhere more evident than when patrolling the library and observing college students (a daily activity for a reference librarian). I'm sure there's nothing to worry about. I'm sure that the OFF button only seems unachievable to those who haven't mastered the balancing act of using technology instead of being used by it. Maybe we'll all be better off by embracing the lifestyle of being plugged in 24/7, in fact, because the sooner we embrace it the sooner we can figure out how to manage it.