Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Reference Desk

winter morning sunrise

This may sound strange coming from a librarian, but I have an uneasy relationship with the reference desk. I go back and forth (basically depending on the day) about whether or not it's a worthwhile way to spend my time, and whether or not we actually need a reference desk. On days when I'm really busy with reference questions, I'm happy to be out there instead of back in my office. On other days, when it feels like all I do is demonstrate how the printer operates (see a very well-written ACRLog post by a fellow First Year Academic Librarian about the angst this causes), I think my time would be better spent elsewhere.

One problem is that I have trouble getting other work done at the reference desk, because I want to appear completely available, and this involves being aware of the surroundings instead of being focused on the computer. So when not engaged with helping a student, I do a lot of reading and responding to emails while I'm at the desk -- tasks I can set down in an instant and go back to later. At my community college library, I'd truly rather be less productive than seem at all irritated by students interrupting -- these students often do not have much confidence in their academic skills to begin with.

Which leads me to a positive aspect of staffing the reference desk: How many other professional services are quite so visible and accessible? Sometimes I wonder if it's even an expectation people have any more. What? There's a person with a master's degree who has an amazing ability to track down and find whatever we're looking for, and she/he is just sitting right there?

Ultimately I'm in favor of the reference desk, though, because I am unable to put forth an alternative service point that is as immediate, direct, and personal. Until the day comes when a superior option emerges, I'll continue to be a supporter.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Hey, You!

Wolf moon (January's full moon)

Today when millions of people took time out of their days (one way or another) for President Obama's inauguration, and when it was difficult to avoid what America was collectively paying attention to, there were plenty of people in the library who walked straight past the broadcast of the swearing-in and speech of the new president of the country and barely looked up. Were they too busy? Indifferent? Was this event just not part of their current set of concerns and mental space? If not this event, then what would do it? 

I've been noticing a habit of my own that I think will sound familiar to many lifelong computer users: In order to be really productive, I have to have a single track mind when working online. In the face of attention deficit disorders and constant multi-tasking, the power of ignoring is sometimes more important than the power to take in.

I bring this up in the context of libraries because we're unveiling a new website with a federated search this week, and it reflects a common trend in library web design thinking: Make it clean-looking, and have a google-esque search box front and center. Get rid of the text-heavy pages that librarians tend to be fond of. The thinking is that library patrons don't want to figure out what a catalog is and how it works, nor do they want to figure out what 'reference' materials are. They don't want to have to hunt through a million native interfaces of databases and ebook platforms. I think the new page bears all this in mind, without preventing patrons who DO want the catalog and reference sources and individual databases from getting to those things easily.

But the underlying difficulty is that it can be hard to anticipate the exact needs and expectation patrons have when they go to the library home page. Maybe they want to know if we own a book, maybe they want help with how to start a research paper, or maybe they're tracking down a citation...and when they are focused on their particular task at hand, they walk right by the screen broadcasting the presidential inauguration -- that is, they don't see the new books slideshow, or the opportunity to subscribe online to a journal they like, or the other neat features and services the library provides. They figure out how to do the one task they came for -- as efficiently and quickly as possible -- and then they disappear again. 

And this is very natural, but it means that when everything goes well and works seamlessly, the library (as an online entity) draws minimal attention to itself. It's a strange thought, that we'll be doing our jobs best if people don't even realize we have their attention. 

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Place of Blogging

moss, appearing after last week's rain

As I've been contributing to a couple of other blogs this past week (on twitter for ACRLog, and on the topic of information literacy assessment for the VALE blog), my thoughts have turned to ... blogging. More specifically, the place of blogging in the academic library. I think it started with the realization that this blog is probably more generally accessible than an article I might publish in the professional literature (see last week's post). And if that's the case, I have even less incentive to publish the aforementioned 'how we done good' type of commentary in library publications. I think if I had some real research though, I wouldn't necessarily publish it here. Nor would I post a book I had written here. I can't tell if that's because the models for those formats are so ingrained (book=for sale through a publisher, research=published in a professional journal) or because blogging really is a different way of communicating. 

Monday, January 5, 2009

Professional publishing in libraryland

frozen puddle / January

In between semesters, when academic librarians can take a collective gulp of air before plunging ahead, is a good time to take stock of the work you've been doing and where you're heading. For a while I've wondered how to contribute more broadly to the library profession, and I think the traditional answer would be to try and publish in the professional literature.

A wise professor in library school, however, pointed out the two basic categories of library literature -- the 'how we done good' kind and the serious research kind. Meaningful contributions to the profession are found in serious research because (in theory) they are universally relevant, rather than only being useful to a few libraries.

Since adopting this high-minded approach, however, I've discovered the reasons why serious research is not the only literature in the professional journals: 1) Serious research is frequently expensive. It doesn't have to be, but the amount of time and energy and materials can add up. 2) Research requires some expertise. Granted there are many Ph.D.s among us, but that degree is not always a requirement to become a librarian. And while many people with master's degrees are entirely capable of conducting research, they may have to learn from scratch. 3) Bearing these last two points in mind, scholarly publishing is a requirement for tenure and promotion for librarians at many institutions (not mine!).

I feel I have the energy to overcome the first two reasons and am not concerned about the third, but I am short on ideas to write about. From my position, what can I study that would be worth communicating to the library world at large? Of course I'm interested in where I work, but what's so remarkable about it? What is worth studying seriously? I think after my first four months there, it still remains to be seen ...