Thursday, January 28, 2010

Is Using the Library Like Cleaning the Bathroom?

Driveway, after Monday's storm

I was thinking the other day about what a lazy person I am. Now, anyone who took a peek at my calendar and various to-do lists would probably not characterize me as lazy, but here's what I mean: I'm lazy when it comes to doing things I don't feel like doing. In fact, unless I enjoy doing something, I'll procrastinate until the last minute and then rush through it, even when I know it's important.

Usually I would keep this psychological insight to myself, but I think it has implications for providing services at the library:

(1) This probably sounds trite, but motivation and attitude can change everything. Once something seems interesting, the amount of time and energy invested doesn't seem as big a chore -- Suddenly there is no need to avoid it.

(2) I care about words and sound in general, and so I find myself concerned about preserving books and audio. If the task before me was "Read X" or "Listen to X," and I did not care about words or sound, would I care about books or audio files? Probably not. I'm short on numerical data, but I venture to guess that this is the case for many of our students.

(3) When I do not want to do something and finally talk myself into it, I move from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible. This is labor in the fullest sense of the word. Again I don't have the numbers to back myself up, but I wonder if this is where the bulk of our students find themselves when they use the library. It is also why the library needs to make its processes as convenient as possible: We can and should always dangle out the possibility of further exploration for when a student comes to agree that Literature Is Fun, but we cannot depend on this happening, and this assumption cannot be the library's bread and butter.

(On a side note, reading the discussion of book piracy at Mad Woman in the Forest makes me wonder: Does anyone pirate books due to the convenience & immediacy, and not only because they're free? I think libraries are mostly successful at replicating the convenience & immediacy of file sharing servers as they foray into collecting digital content, so it'll be nice when people don't have that excuse.)

To return to the title of this post, it's very easy for librarians and regular users to forget that many students turn away from the library because they perceive using it to be a chore. This is worth keeping in mind when we try to win them over.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Mobile Services at the Library - Status Update

City skyline, from the Boston Convention Center on Summer Street
(I happened to be in town for ALA Midwinter & went to the exhibits)

Earlier in December I was preparing to contact hand-picked faculty to see what they thought of EBSCO's mobile interface. Since then, I've been ... thinking more about it.

First, what is our library trying to offer here? (With a budget of zero, bear in mind.)

-Are we trying to offer a mobile interface for our web pages? Lacking a content management system, who should be in charge of making sure these pages are updated and current?

-Are we trying to offer an app that would allow a person to search our collections? Is it worth developing one that would only be compatible with a certain phone or plan? Our integrated library system has a mobile app for sale, for example, but it only works with an iPhone or a Blackberry.

-Are we trying to offer the opportunity to send a text message to a reference librarian? Ruling out purchasing a cell phone for the reference desk, and adding the fact that I haven't found a reliable and free way to funnel a text message into an email or a chat session (to use Google Voice we would need a google account for the library; also we'd have to be invited), I'm not sure how to accomplish that right now. I'm always looking, however, and it's always changing...

We do have the immediate capability of offering a mobile interface for our EBSCO databases. This allows patrons to search for articles, and then to email those articles from their mobile devices. Most patrons would not be able to read the articles that are in PDF format from their mobile devices -- at last glance Adobe wasn't offering something compatible with all mobile devices -- nor would they probably want to.

This begs the question, which mobile services are relevant to our user population? EBSCO Mobile might be most useful for select groups, such as nursing students frequently using CINAHL. Other options, such as Naxos's free iPhone app, are limited to patrons with certain phones, and I'm not sure how we could identify those patrons, never mind selectively target them in light of which classes they are taking.

If it does become possible for us to offer SMS reference for free, it would be a neat addition to our suite of ways to connect with the library. But as things stand right now, I'm not confident it would get enough traffic to justify paying much for it.

Ultimately, if the purpose of providing mobile services at the library in some form or other is to have a 'look-at-me' moment where the library seems really hip and technologically up-to-date, we should do implement them pronto. If, on the other hand, we are trying to provide viable, robust, dare-I-say useful services, the current picture doesn't look as rosy.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

VALE Conference, Part 2

(small, blurry shot of my VALE poster*)

Following last week's post, I got a lot of helpful and interesting feedback at the VALE Conference, and I wanted to share some of it. I won't use names in case people prefer not to be identified here, but these are some ideas I picked up:

-I had a long interesting discussion with a Rutgers librarian about how transactions at the reference desk should be treated more as an art than a science. The conversation with her paralleled what I wrote last week, in that many interactions at the reference desk were more complex than I had originally anticipated. She recommended a lot of great reading, mostly to do with The Reference Interview. While I definitely agree that patrons are best served when they are treated as individuals rather than a uniform group, I still see some inefficiencies and areas for improvement in reference services.

-There was a great conversation with an NJIT librarian about their campus-wide use of intelliresponse, which you can see in action front and center on their library page. Spearheaded by my boss, we are going to debut Springshare's LibAnswers at the college this spring, and the two products seem quite similar. I am really excited to be able to combine our FAQs with our Ask-A-Librarian page, and it will be interesting to see if there is a difference in the volume and types of questions we get. In fact, using LibAnswers this spring will be a great follow-up to the data I gathered last semester.

-I talked with a number of other librarians struggling with how best to serve patron groups similar to those at the community college, such as ESL students, students with latent or obvious learning disabilities, etc. A great number of reference desk transactions that I recorded seemed to hinge on a lack of student reading/writing/computing skills, and I wonder how different the transactions would be if I only gathered data from a population with relatively equal abilities, such as nursing students. Would I be able to pinpoint more specific areas of need than "I don't know how to look up a book"? What are the reasons that it does not occur to students to look for a library web page with a search system? Or, if students try and fail, at what point do they give up?

At any rate, this spring I'm looking forward to the second semester of collecting data at the reference desk and thinking about usability. (Note the new LJ column The User Experience.)

*I learned the important lesson that scotch tape rolled into a circle does not encourage paper to lie flush against foam board. Must try a different tactic next time.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

VALE Conference

(pine cone, surrounded by leaves & pine needles)

After a lovely week of vacation, I am hard at work on a poster for Friday's VALE Conference. Originally the poster's title was "Reference Desk (Point of Service) Interactions Re-framed as Usability Problems," and while that still accurately conveys the spirit, the current heading is "376 Questions for the Reference Librarian = Ideas for Improving Library Usability?"

Notice the question mark at the end of the heading. When I blithely began this project at the beginning of the Fall 2009 semester, I genuinely believed that most interactions with patrons at the reference desk could be thought of in the context of usability, and that clear, preemptive solutions to students' problems could be found. (I have read various definitions of usability, mostly in reference to web design, but what I mean is getting from Point A to Point B in a straightforward, intuitive manner.) In fact, this is not necessary so.

In analyzing my data, I notice a few things. I should not be surprised that students' mannerisms and attitudes affected my reference responses, and that recording the transactions influenced how I thought about them. However, the high number of ESL students I assisted, and the large amount of basic orientation I did, suggest that what I am doing at the reference desk is more nuanced than I thought.

I also realized that solutions to some problems can be extremely complicated or ultimately not worth the effort. A library orientation program, for example, would prevent a lot of common confusion, but due to a number of local factors this will probably not be implemented. From my perch, it is easy to shake my head at design failures, but for others it can take far more energy to undo something than to find an acceptable alternative or work-around.

At any rate, I'm looking forward to discussing this and other topics with colleagues on Friday!