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Month: April 2005

Can the Stacks Save Us?

Can the Stacks Save Us?

An interesting anti-technophile rant from Chuck, a systems librarian in Kansas City, titled Primitivist OR Luddite AND Librarian:

How about this innovation: libraries should be tools for social change, especially when it comes to fighting ignorance and illiteracy. Most people in this country (the USA) aren’t intellectually curious. More and more of them are becoming functionally illiterate. Making motherfucking RSS feeds and XML metedata available in your public library aren’t going to educate the majority of your neighbors who think that weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq. New techonology innovations are a fucking waste of time if your patrons can’t find Pakistan or Venezuela on a map.

I understand where he’s coming from. It must be extremely difficult for a socialist person to live in the heart of the United States right now; information literacy takes on all sorts of new dimensions when you think about it in light of the realities of citizenship. The statistics show us that someone has managed to bamboozle the majority of Americans into believing things that aren’t true. How can anyone consider things like podcasts and RSS newsfeeds when basic literacy and misinformation are becoming an increasing problem in middle America?

But are books going to save them? If you throw out the technology, go back to the card catalogue, bring the books forward into those spaces they once vacated in order to add more computers, how are you moving closer to literacy or information literacy? How is that priority, the printed page, more useful to the mission of targeting and eradicating misinformation? How are the stacks going to change the world?

This rant isn’t about technology at all, though it’s been billed as such. This isn’t even about books, strangely enough. This is about the idea of that librarians should be educators, a highly contested role that many librarians refuse to embrace. From Chuck’s Addendum:

I’m of the opinion that libraries exist to serve a diferent purpose, which include things such as literacy, teaching critical thinking skills, promoting big picture understanding through reading, and providing the printed resources necessary for the survival of a healthy society.

While I am on the side of that supports the idea of librarians as educators, I must ask the obvious question: what makes librarians think they’re qualified to teach?

In my experience, most librarians don’t know the first thing about pedagogical theory or practice. Librarians have not been to teacher’s college (generally). While instruction is an element of reference service, librarians are not teachers. If this is something we have decided is crucial to the enterprise, we need to re-evaluate how we educate librarians. We should be studying pedagogy. We should be practice teaching. We should be engaged in the global conversations about teaching and learning with the experts in the field. Which part of library school education tells us anything about critical thinking skills and how to impart them to others? I learned how to catalogue in DDC and LC, how to provide reference service, how to make sense of statistics, some basic computer skills. I learned a bit about management and strategic planning, legal issues, and so forth. Where was the class on even defining critical thinking let alone teaching it?

Classically, librarians help link up individuals with the information they are looking for; the job of library staff is to find and provide sources for people so that they can do their own thinking. We don’t interpret their questions for them, we don’t proofread their papers, we don’t even criticize the basic ideas they bring to their information search. If someone comes into a library wanting to write an article denying the holocaust, the job of the librarian is to help them do that with whatever sources they can find. The sources are supposed to do the educating, not us. The goal of the objective library, the objective catalogue, the objective librarian, is still very much current.

What is the relationship between the public library and instruction? When I finished up library school, I suggested that instructional method and pedagogical theory should be more prominently placed in the core curriculum, but one of the administrators told me it was unnecessary for public librarians. They have no instructional role. I tried to argue with her, but she was (and still is) an important member of the faculty. I mean, what do I know, it was my exit interview. Clearly my experience was pretty limited. Who am I to say she’s wrong?

The people who can and are making themselves useful in an instructional context are the academic librarians. The higher up you get on the educational ladder the less instructional training anyone has had, so librarians can burst into that sacred classroom with some legitimacy. At least if they’ve done a bit of reading on the subject. Since undergraduate students are largely hung out to dry on the subject how to interrogate the information they find themselves swimming in, academic librarians can offer a welcome and needed helping hand. They can become an integral support service for instructional faculty, introducing pedagogical ideas, taking care of instructional software, troubleshooting, training, and providing general assistance. They can be on the lookout for new and interesting innovations that might help improve the teaching/learning experience. Librarians can be the filter; we can do the legwork and offer up the solutions to the teaching faculty. We can help train TAs. We are already part of the institution as a service. Inching into instruction comes almost naturally.

Where exactly does this leave public librarians? Is there a place in the traditional classroom for a librarian, one who is not paid by the school board, one who has not had the training required of everyone else involved in the education of the community’s children? On the basis of insurance alone I suspect they are left out in the cold. Their role in formal education is restricted to helping students find books on frogs for their report.

But what if we think about pedagogy in a larger sense, in a lifelong learning sense. What if the library is in fact an educator, not necessarily for the ones officially being educated, but for the rest of the community? How can the library as an institution fight against misinformation?

And this is where Chuck both has and loses his argument. On one hand: librarians are (according to him) too dazzled by the shiny new toys that web applications are bringing us, and are spending too much time trying to play with them in a way that looks institutionally significant when they should be fighting the demons of misinformation. On the other hand: maybe those librarians are seeing something you aren’t, and are using those dazzling new toys in the fight against ignorance? Increasing the presence of librarians in the world in every way, including every digital way, can only help in that end goal. What if the public library takes its educational role as seriously as Chuck does and decides to become an alternative news outlet, using the technologies available to piece together something to shake up the status quo? What if technology (like those darn RSS feeds) are a way to bring together and present alternative opinions and perspectives, together with a space for members of the community to add content, ask questions, interact and question the information around them?

While in some ways I feel as though Chuck is pointing a finger precisely at people like me, I sympathize with him. But it’s not the webmasters and the programmers and the RSS-pushers that are the problem. If librarians need to have their core values and goals readjusted, then more power to him for trying to initiate that conversation. But blaming technology is not the answer. Possibly revisiting library curriculum is.

V-Ref and the Spectre of Transcripts

V-Ref and the Spectre of Transcripts

More ideas-swapping, this time from lbr:

I am a firm believer that text transcripts are one of the most revolutionary aspects of virtual reference. They open a whole new world of possibilities for resources that would be difficult if not impossible in traditional reference interactions:
detailed self-review and peer-review for quality control and improvement
ongoing modeling of good (and not-so-good) reference techniques for new and future librarians
– construction of knowledgebases of past interactions so that librarians can benefit from their colleagues’ knowledge and discoveries when answering the same questions later
– large-scale aggregated analysis of patron questions and needs to inform administrative decisions about staffing, training, collection development and resource acquisition.

I could not disagree more. I say this with a background in educational technology, virtual environments, and as a person active in a variety of online communities. Admittedly I have the default reaction of cringing every time I hear about someone collecting transcripts from IM conversations, but even aside from that, I don’t think transcripts are what make v-ref a good thing.

Let’s say we agree that recording the interaction between patrons and library staff is something we’re interested in doing. For all the reasons listed above, why wouldn’t we just install cameras and microphones at the reference desk? Why not at least record the audio of all reference interviews, and since voice-to-text transcription is reasonably accurate, why don’t we just keep a text transcript of all interactions that way?

Well, that’s easy to answer. What patron would possibly want to talk to you if they knew everything they said to you was being logged, for whatever reason?

Yeah. You see where I’m going. The fact that transcripts are kept and held by off-site vendors without explicit warning creeps me out as it is. On one hand people talk about wanting to implement v-ref in, say, public libraries in order to reach a different audience (read: teens and tech-savvy young adults), and on the other they’re talking about logging transcripts and storing them in databases. What teenager would ever use a service that had a big pop up window that said “Hey, we’re recording everything you say here, btw, and we share it with our friends”, an extra and unpopular step that ethically MUST be present if you want to collect transcripts? Honestly, I’m not sure I even would use such a service. I’d be tempted to claim copyright infringement and sue the pants of the library, but I’m not that sort of person. Usually.

I will attempt to keep my personal distaste of transcripts to one side as I break down some of the “possibilities” of transcript collection as described by lbr:

detailed self-review and peer-review for quality control and improvement.

Transcripts are hardly the greatest way to do self-review or peer-review. Pulling out the transcripts and going over them presumes that the staff member is somehow unaware of the kinds of conversations they have in v-ref. Ideally, reference managers have open lines of communication with their staff wherein there is a constant conversation about what’s going on with v-ref. I’d be happier if the request were instead to have staff post to a v-ref blog at the end of every shift, detailing the sorts of questions they had that day and the problems they encountered, sharing ideas for good answers to difficult questions and fielding comments from other staff members.

In you’re really interested in using v-ref transcripts in performance reviews, you can just have staff print off a few transcripts for personal staffing records rather than compiling a universal database. To me this feels like trying to grab a bull by the horns and reaching for his tail.

As for improvement and “quality control”; the best ways to move in both of those directions is to do regular and thoughtful staff training. In my experience (as a v-ref user and on the other side of the fence), most library staff come to v-ref as their first experience ever with IM; they are clumsy, awkward, and often come across as brusque and/or too busy to really investigate the patron’s query. They end conversations too early, are in my opinion overly concerned about “appearing professional”, scared of l33t (net speak), intimidated by the speed at which v-ref moves, and generally uncomfortable with the medium. If you’re interested in improving the quality of v-ref service, install an internal IM system and let staff get used to communicating using it. Bring in someone who knows how to IM and knows how to talk about using IM. Reading transcripts is not going to change anyone opinions or make frustrated, frightened staff better v-ref service providers. It may in fact only make them perform less well, given the pressure of being permanently recorded.

construction of knowledgebases of past interactions so that librarians can benefit from their colleagues’ knowledge and discoveries when answering the same questions later

I’m profoundly uncomfortable with the idea of a database of “good” reference answers. If someone comes to me at the reference desk looking for some really good articles on the American Civil War, I am not going to go first to a database of reference answers handed out over the last few years by other reference librarians. Any such database (after all the scrubbing of personal information and uploading from one institution to the main database) would be out of date. Sure, it might help me find something we may or may not have access to at my library, but it would be missing articles that were the most recent, and would direct me to listen more to the “popular” answer rather than the patron’s needs. I have been trained on the resources at my own library. Most library staff are extremely knowledgeable about the resources available, and if you fear your staff are not knowledgeable enough, this is another moment to look at staff development, not collecting transcripts. We have spent a lot of money making databases accessible and relatively easy to use. Why this sudden distrust of library staff? Two heads are better than one, I’ll agree, but I’m not sure 1500 are better than two. Instead of implementing a database, get your reference staff to rely on each other for help. Have a gov docs question and you feel out of your depth? Isn’t that why we hired a gov docs librarian?

And more to the point: your reference interactions should not be the means through which you staff communicate with each other. In my experience the reference interactions that really require mediation are specific class assignments; these are best dealt with through a staff meeting, wherein the subject librarian who is aware of the assignment details the question and gives some good directions for answers. Support in that case should really not be mediated by technology. Unless that technology is a blog where a subject librarian posts the details of assignments and the best databases or books where sources can be found. More direct communication between librarians, even from campus to campus or across the country, is a better method of knowledge-sharing than breaching patron confidentiality by storing v-ref transcripts.

large-scale aggregated analysis of patron questions and needs to inform administrative decisions about staffing, training, collection development and resource acquisition.

There are only two statistics administrators need to know for the purposes of understanding the importance of v-ref. How many patrons logged in to the service, and how much time was logged by staff. Libraries are staffed by knowledgeable, thoughtful people. We don’t need a database to tell us if patrons are pointing out that our collections are suffering. Having open lines of communication between front-line staff, acquisitions librarians, and administrators will render such a database obsolete. If staff are routinely encountering questions they feel ill-suited to answer, they need a venue to voice that concern. Is there a library staff member who would not report the lack of an important source once it was brought to their attention?

Personally, I would prefer to see no v-ref transcripts held by any library anywhere. Offer the transcript to the patron if they want it, and to the individual librarian if they want to keep it, but the institution should not be holding transcripts of reference interviews. We still have issues around holding borrowing records, why on earth are we so flippant about storing actual conversations between library staff and patrons?

I am all for using technology to make library services better, but just because you can record something doesn’t mean you should. Refocus on the problems you think transcripts will solve and work out better ways to do so. Nine times out of ten, the problems can be solved by improving internal communication, staff development, providing outlets for concerns, and encouraging staff to talk openly and honestly about any problem they are encountering in the workplace.

Recording everything that happens between reference staff and patrons is not only a turn-off for patrons. It sends a rather unsavory message to library staff as well. In recording everything library staff say, are you making their workplace uncomfortable? Sure, we expect all interactions to be upstanding and ideal, but what does recording actually accomplish? We expect teachers to do their jobs well, but we don’t record everything that goes on in the classroom. That would be a breach of privacy and a mark of pretty profound distrust between teachers and administrators. In recording everything reference staff say, are you preventing them from uttering those painful words, “I don’t know, but let me find out who does”? They are typing words directly into their performance review, after all.

I don’t like transcripts. I’ll be honest. I’ve experienced that sick feeling when you realize that a delicate conversation you had with a friend has been helpfully emailed out to a few others for the sake of keeping everyone in the loop. IM has as relationship with speech, with a face-to-face interaction, and I believe we should grant it the same respect we grant voice-delivered reference questions. When you start up an IM session, you are speaking to one person, not a whole host of librarians across the globe.

The history of IM is a far more personal one than email; email was always more professional in purpose, a tool for exchanging ideas and documents rather than sensitive information. From the beginning IM has been a way to connect with one person in a largely undocumented and undocumentable way. It is more personal and off the record. We should be honest and upfront about what’s going on in that interaction and not bait and switch our patrons, who are not used to the idea that IM leads directly to recording and database population. V-ref is not an opportunity to milk patrons or library staff for information to help us improve our services globally. V-ref is an extension of traditional reference, and is a service libraries should provide to patrons who need alternative means to connect with library staff.

Once we’ve got a more complete and comprehensive archive, we can really start to leverage it as a knowledgebase with the ability to search previous transcripts for keywords and have them help us find resources for the session we’re in right now.

It all boils down to a simple information literacy rule: don’t let other people do your thinking for you. Reach out to your colleagues when in a bind. Don’t let staff do v-ref alone in their offices, or in a generally isolated place. There are so many skills in a library reference office; encourage staff to understand the skill set of their colleagues, and call on them when needed.

Let’s not outsource the expertise that’s already there.

Libraries and IM bots

Libraries and IM bots

I was reading through my feed reader just now and I stumbled upon this from

Just as you often have phone trees with recordings covering the basics, I wonder if there is a way to set up a centralized Jabber server that all libraries could use to do a similar service to the Major League Baseball (MLB) “IM bot”?

My idea is that libraries could have a “bot profile” that they could customize and then patrons could IM for the automated information they want, like phone numbers, branch locations, hours, events, etc. So, one library runs the server, but it handles multiple libraries each of whom is responsible for logging in and customizing the responses as the information changes (like if you shift from summer to winter hours, etc.) through their account. Then you could set up one IM address for the entire system for the automated info – or each branch could have it depending on the situation and preference of the library.

The example he’s working from is a baseball statistics bot:

Look up Carlos Beltran’s postseason stats, Barry Bonds’ regular season numbers, historical stats and every mathematical marvel that matters to a baseball fan. Let’s say you’re at the office or a sports bar and need a quick answer for a statistical debate. Just IM “MLB” and choose 9 from the main menu and let your digits find the digits.

Now, communicating with cell phones is an interesting idea and certainly one to explore, and admittedly I’ve not spent a whole lot of time considering that potential route. (I expect to do so as soon as I make better use of that technology myself.) But my gut reaction to IM bots answering reference questions, no matter how basic, is please please don’t do it.

I should preface this by saying that I have spent many many months of my life tinkering with virtual bots. I am a keyword bot specialist, in fact. I have built bots for the sole purpose of responding to other bots to underscore a particular piece of information. I have built dramatic historical recreations using only bots. I have built bots that people sometimes mistake as real people, who never repeat themselves in the course of a conversation. I love programming keywords. I love bots.

If v-ref experiments across the continent are determining that people always ask the same kinds of questions (“What are your hours?” “What’s your phone number?” etc.), I’d say the key here isn’t to develop a bot to answer those questions. Take that knowledge and display that information more prominently on the library’s website instead. Make the information easier to find, or include it on the same page as the IM service in addition to its regular place. Add a FAQ if you can’t work out better ways to answer obvious questions on the front page. I think limiting v-ref by creating databases of generic answers is a really good way to kill the service rather than promote it.

The baseball database is interesting and probably works well; but it works only on the assumption that no real person will ever respond. The user realizes they are sending queries to a database. This is a fancy way of scanning an index, and one I think has potential and is interesting, but telling a patron that their reference question is in some way generic and does not require a real person’s attention is not a good way to promote reference service in libraries. Yes, a person may ask the same question the last five patrons asked. But it’s the first time this patron has asked it, and since the one thing everyone loves about librarians is that their nice, replacing that nice person with a bot is probably not going to be popular.

In order to enable the bot on a standard v-ref service, you’d have to have the bot scan the questions as they are asked for keywords. In the baseball example, people are working from a “menu” and typing in specific, known, predicable queries on a very specific subject. How would we create a generic answer for the question “what are your hours?” Bots are keyword promoted, so what’s the keyword? “hours”? What happens when someone wants to know more about the film or the book The Hours? Or what if the patron says “I’ve been looking for this information for hours, I hope you can help me!” Is the keyword “what are your hours”? Then when do you do if the patron says “I can’t seem to find your hours listed on the website, when do you open on Saturdays?” I could go on, but you see what I mean. Patrons do not ask questions in a reliable, predictable way, so don’t try to use bots to spit out answers to ideally-worded questions. In the end, this offends more people than it helps.

There are two ways to think about technology and implementing it in a service context: either it’s a way to automate your universe and make everything faster, easier, and more slick, or it’s a way to connect flesh-and-blood human beings with flesh-and-blood human beings. The greatest value of IM is the way it connects two people; what is possible to translate over IM is exactly the qualities that people like in library workers. Joviality, friendliness, openness. In an IM conversation you can convey information quickly, but the real beauty of it is that you are talking to a real person. You can ask a couple of questions at once, the way most people are wont to do; you can get a name and feel that you have a ally in that big concrete building. Library staff can clarify a patron’s question on the spot, tell a person it’s really not a dumb question at all and make all the same reassuring noises we make in real life, and in the meantime learn a bit more about the search and the patron in order to provide a good answer. IM reference offers many of the same benefits that face-to-face reference offers, and this will become more and more obvious as library staff get more accustomed to the technology and more literate in the social sphere and culture of IM.

No one likes those phone trees. Everyone wants to talk to a real person, to get real assurance from someone who appears to know what they’re talking about. Automation in the library is a good thing, but there’s no need to go automating the reference librarians. The real blessing that web technology brings to a library is the capacity to connect library staff with their patrons more directly and more easily. Don’t hide them behind a bot.