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Month: January 2005

My High School Binder: Privacy and the Cyber Librarian

My High School Binder: Privacy and the Cyber Librarian

Over a year ago I was sitting in class listening to a speaker talk to us about virtual reference. He was discussing the pros and cons of a very expensive v-ref package, something our university library system had experimented with but hadn’t chosen to use in the end. The cons included frequent crashing and blue screens, and the pros mostly highlighted a function the cheaper packages didn’t have.

“Co-browsing,” he said. “It means we can control a patron’s browser remotely, take them to web pages, type in logins, that sort of thing.”

I was shocked.

Another story: some years ago now I spent many an hour coding an extensive historical recreation in an interactive environment. Essentially, you could wander through this virtual world and meet and talk with historical figures in the midst of some important moment in their life. St. Francis preaching to the birds; Marie de l’Incarnation looking out the convent window as her son stands below, demanding the return of his mother; Martin Luther defending his position among the Roman Inquisitors. One of the first little programs I created was one where the user would contract plague. They would experience all the symptoms over about a 20 minutes period, and then be magically cured by the patron saint of plague-suffers. The entire cycle started only if the user opted to pet a rat that they found in one of the tavern rooms. In another spot, I wrote a program that would add early English phrases to everything a user said. For instance, a user typing “Hi there!” to another user in the room would instead have said “By God’s blood! Hi there!”

There was serious consternation among the administration about these programs as I was writing them. Was it ethical to have our environment act upon a user without their explicit consent, and without them having any ability to stop it? While users were entering a world of my creation, where should my programming tweaks stop and the user’s autonomy take precedence? At what point did my neat little tricks start to seriously edge in on the user’s sense of control and self of (online) self? Could that violation damage the learning experience?

One of the issues involved in internet life has long been called ‘netiquette’; what is polite and what is offensive in this environment of the internet? What are the rules? How shall we determine good behaviour? As it turns out, the rules are still very much contested and in flux.

As far as I’m concerned, the user’s own computer is an extension of his or her brain. Your desktop is your mental landscape, your workspace; in order to truly create you need to feel safe within those four borders that make up the edge of your screen. Isn’t there something inherently creepy about the idea that someone might have an eye in on what you’re doing on your own computer? While a public terminal or lab computer may be simply a tool in the public eye with no personal owner, a personal computer is, to me, sacrosanct. It is a person’s personal view on the wired world, an archive of everything you’ve done, a half-empty notebook waiting for more bad poetry and silent declarations of undying love. A personal computer is that old high school binder with all the traded notes and pictures still in it. The teacher may control what kind of mimeographed papers end up inside it, but the housing itself, the binder, the words scrawled on the pages: that’s mine.

This is how I feel about my own computer, and nothing quite riles me in quite the same way as someone peering over my shoulder to read my screen. To me this is a serious breach of privacy, the same as peering into my ears in the hopes of seeing what I’m thinking. This computer is mine; the organization of the desktop is my own; while the software may be “owned’ by some fancy corporation, this iteration of it is mine. Asking for help is not the same as turning over my brain. Asking for help is not an invitation into my high school binder.

I suspect a librarian at the reference desk would not grab a patron’s notebook and start writing directions and advice in it. I presume she would not write a phone number on a patron’s hand in a magic marker, useful as that may be. She would not, I gather, take a patron’s notes, reorder them, add new headings, and hand them back in a shiny plastic folder. Are we so certain that “co-browsing” is a good idea in the first place? To me, taking remote control over a browser of a patron is unethical and an invasion of privacy.

I understand the appeal. It’s always easier to take the keyboard away and “show them how to do it right”. But should that be our professional practice?

What business are we in? That’s what my friend Jennifer Robinson always asks. Are we in the business of doing a patron’s learning for them, stepping in and typing the keywords for them, or are we in the business of helping patrons to find what they need, providing some help and guidance in the ebbs and flows of the information world? Yes, it’s so much easier to do it for them. It’s easier to take over control of their hands browser and show them how its done. It’s harder to give clear, verbal or type-written help based on the needs and skill level of a patron. It’s harder to listen in over the phone as a patron does the typing with two fingers. It’s harder to start from scratch and explain where the search box is and what goes in it.

But isn’t that our job?

Adminblog: Other (academic) uses for blogs

Adminblog: Other (academic) uses for blogs

I went on at length here about the use blogs in education, a topic near and dear to my heart and one many of my friends (and others) have spent years contributing to. As a (very) newly-minted librarian, my short experience working in academic library administration has shown me how useful a blogging system could be in an library environment.

Blog This!
To date I’ve mostly seen administrative blogs used for public consumption; many large libraries are using blogs and their associated RSS feeds to keep their users informed of news and updates. A blog as a public face of an institution means that the information on the website is constantly changing. In my experience in web-based community building, a constantly updated website is critical to it reaching into the public consciousness. If there’s something new and interesting on a webpage every day or every few days, web traffic stays high and the word you want to get out is more likely to get there. What can your institution contribute to the information landscape of its community? How can you make your website a must-see destination for members of your community? A blog like this takes time and effort to maintain, but the software by its very nature supports this kind of endeavour.

A blog written by a person can give an institutional website a human face, and as Google Scholar comes in to take over the finding of things, we as librarians need to step up to be the human face of this new information world. Blogs are a quick and easy way for us to start.

Are the printers down again?
But a public blog is only one side of what a good administrative blogging system could accomplish. On the other side of the reference desk, a staff blog could help keep an entire staff team up-to-date. When a reference librarian comes to the desk to start his shift, he needs to know a whole rash or things at once; are there any instructional sessions scheduled for today? Will I need to direct anyone to a particular classroom? Is there an assignment coming due that is bringing students into the library in droves looking for a specific source? Are the computers acting strangely? Are the printers down again? The number of possible bits of information required for each librarian or reference staff member on a given day is impossible to quantify. A blog kept by a group, noting anything unusual that is happening in the community or anything that the staff should be aware of, could keep a team on the same page.

Most organizations already do something else in place of a group blog. They send mass emails. Hundreds of mass emails a week, which generally clutter up mailboxes or get deleted. Wouldn’t a blog be better? Rather than spotty archives in people’s email, everyone could have access to ONE keyword-searchable, date- and time- stamped archive. Rather than carry on a conversation on a listserv, forcing all staff to get our witty repartee via email, staff with questions could post comments and have them answered by the poster or anyone else with information. I suggested complex, threaded comments for educational blogs, and I would definitely suggest them in this context as well. With threaded comments, questions could be asked, answered, and archived in a forum open to all staff without clogging up inboxes.

Keeping in Touch
At the library where I worked this summer, there were two kinds of people; staff who were often on the reference desk and those who rarely were. Many of the subject librarians were often too busy for long reference shifts. In the profession, the reference desk is in many places dying a slow death; the “reference librarian” is becoming a thing of the past; no one can be just a reference librarian anymore. Anyone with an MLIS is busy behind the scenes building collections, managing staff, arguing over digital resources, teaching classes, and consulting with faculty. As one librarian noted, cutting subject librarians off from reference means that the people buying the books and making the decisions are getting more and more distant from frontline knowledge and needs. While the reference staff are well aware of which reference sources are being used, what sorts of questions are stumping students, and what kinds of books are in need, the librarians exist in a more hermetically sealed world where they speak to advanced graduate students, faculty, and undergraduates only in a classroom setting. When they do make it to the reference desk they feel rusty and out of touch. A well-used, often-updated blog chronicling not just problems but also interesting questions, trends, and suggestions for sources would help keep staff in touch with each other as well as their patrons.

A frequently-updated group blog can also help train new staff, introducing them not only to the personalities in the department but also to the issues they face daily at the reference desk. And it can bring staff up-to-date when they return from maternity leaves or holidays, and even connect everyone with events and problems that occur in the evenings or weekends.

Categories and RSS
In an educational capacity, I discussed how categories with individual RSS feeds are necessary to filter content to one class or another; good categorization with RSS organizes content for consumption by a particular audience. In an administrative capacity, categories fulfill the same function.

What kinds of categories are needed depend entirely on the library and its set up; part of the benefit of a blog system is how flexible it is and how many options it presents. Determining what categories are significant for a particular workplace is as simple as searching through ye olde email inbox to see what sorts of information staff are generally sending out. Announcements of events happening in and around the library; new developments in databases or online sources; technical problems with photocopiers, printers, microfilm readers, or other equipment; lost items; class information and specifics regarding assignments; new print sources added to reference, or other significant sets; meeting minutes, etc. If circumstances demanded, a reference blog could have categories for each subject area to note any significant problems or interesting questions that arise in specific disciplines. This would make it easy to find class-related information and for subject librarians to keep tabs on the needs of the students in their disciplines. The blog archive could act as a record of frequently-asked-questions for specific classes and thus a resource for reference staff.

When we introduced the idea of a reference blog to the head of reference this summer, she had an additional category idea; just general chatter. As head of the department, she wanted to know in general how things are going; was it really busy on the desk today? What interesting things are happening, good as well as bad? What general problems are people encountering? What’s the general student mood? Are they stressed out? Are reference desk staff feeling cut off? Do they feel not properly trained on a piece of equipment or particular source? Did someone go looking for something in an obvious place and not find it? She wanted a category for the general, so she could scan it regularly and get a sense of what’s going on and how everyone is doing.

So how does RSS fit in? With only one blog, there is hardly any need to syndicate. With a good archive (which most blogging software has) and good categories, staff can simply use the website itself rather than aggregating its content. Having no new clients to download to their own computers is a bonus; the blog would be one stop shopping for most mass communication needs. A good blog archive structure can take away the need to store this information in a feed reader. For front-line staff and subject librarians, bookmarking the blog and possibly one or two category indexes would probably be enough.

But there are other complications. Many academic libraries exist as part of a system; at Western Libraries where I did my co-op term, there are seven libraries and thus seven reference desks, and I know many other systems are larger than that. Administrators will not want to keep track of seven or more separate blogs recording everything that happens; they need categorical RSS feeds so they can choose the categories they want to follow from each library and read them in the comfort of a solid RSS reader. This gives administrators an “at-a-glance” sense of what’s going on in the libraries and gives them the opportunity to dig deeper into any particular issue.

Shout it out
In an educational context, we want a blog that represents the student’s thinking, and then a page that represents the thinking of all other participants in class, with opportunities to comment and engage in a discussion. But the administration context is a bit different. It’s all at once an archive, a newspaper, and an alerting system, but not a record of personal thoughts and opinions. The people who use it are busy and don’t want to look in more than one place for information and updates, either. How can we keep all information relevant to the staff in one place?

What if we have an option that adds a particular post to every library’s blog? This is arguably dangerous. To compare with LiveJournal, this is the equivalent to posting to a community, but instead having that post hit everyone’s personal blog rather than one communal blog. The key difference here is that each blog is not personal; it is already communal. A system-wide option would allow higher-level managers make announcements that appear in a local space; a notice that appears in every local paper, so to speak. It would also allow each library to communicate important information with the entire system with one post, without sending mass email.

My monitor just exploded!
My goals with an administrative blog are clearly bent on keeping all the important information in one place rather than scattering it to a feed reader or page buried somewhere behind a link. In the structure I’ve laid out, there are a variety of categories for a variety of things, much of which might not be useful to staff in departments. However, certain categories might be extremely important to someone in another department.

At the library where I worked in the summer, there was a very carefully-constructed alert system created to let the LITS (Library Information Technology Services) people know when there were computer problems. Staff filled in a help form, which was sent to a generic email address that LITS staff took turns monitoring. That email was cc’ed to the entire reference staff, keeping everyone in the know about things technical.

What if we had a blog category for computer related posts? This would have the effect of keeping the entire staff informed of problems. But blogs aren’t the quickest way of getting the word out. Sometimes those help emails were dire; “the computers in the reference hall are down!” When those computers went out, they went out all together, as one 400-seat unit. That’s are emergency situation in an academic library. LITS received the same kind of alert messages from all seven libraries in the system.

A good RSS reader at LITS could keep everyone on the ball; a reader could check the feeds every few minutes for problems or questions. I trust RSS to get the message out fast, but RSS alone doesn’t seem like enough. There are lots of different questions that get sent on to LITS, and not all of them are emergencies. LITS could subscribe to all computer-related categories at the seven libraries, which would keep them in touch with all technical problems, questions, and issues. That in itself would confront a whole host of problems related to communication issues within the system, including keeping an archive of a problem so that a history of it exists (What if, for instance, printing always goes down at 2pm every other Thursday?) as well as alerting the rest of the related staff to the problem. But what if the category itself included an emergency flag that sent out an email notification to an address tagged by the category? That way, if smoke started pouring out of a monitor, the blog itself could act as recorder, archive, and emergency help line all at once.

That functionality could work its way through the entire system, allowing an administrator or subject librarian to be notified if something dire is happening in an area under their supervision, or simply if their attention or comment is required. This way staff could still get in touch with someone in a hurry using email without actually having to use multiple systems for recording information.

Keeping up with the Joneses
Blogging software is not new, but it’s still barely breaking into the larger world. What librarians and administrators need to understand is that blogs aren’t just journals; they are complex content management systems that have a lot of offer to a variety of environments. Since information and information delivery is supposed to be our area of expertise, it seems to me that it behooves us to get in touch with some of this software. And on the flip side: working in a information-heavy, blog-free environment was certainly an eye-opening experience for me. Everywhere I looked I saw another task that a blog could take over.

Now we just have to get down to actually writing the software for it. Unless someone else gets around to it before we do.