virtual services in libraries

This started as a comment response to David Lee King’s admonition, but by the time I got to paragraph three, I decided it would be better to post it here instead.

My library (small private academic university) offers both IM and email reference services. There is a note on the IM page of the website which states, “Users at the Main Service Desk have priority over IM users. IM users are taken in a first-come, first served order. If you would prefer not to wait, you may always email a librarian.” Essentially, this is the only way we can manage IM reference service with one person handling it at the same time they are answering questions at the desk and responding to email queries. So far, our users have been understanding, and IM reference makes up approximately 10% of our reference interactions.

I don’t see this as discriminating against our virtual users. Anyone in customer service will tell you that the person standing in front of you takes priority. The culture of IM is such that a delay in responding is acceptable, if not expected. Chat doesn’t mean that you drop everything else — we’re all used to multi-tasking while having an online conversation. Chat provides a faster back and forth than email, which is why many prefer it for reference interactions, but that doesn’t mean they expect instantaneous service.

The libraries with explicitly stated response times that DLK points out are large institutions serving large populations. My library can get away with fast response times because we might get one or two IM questions an hour, at most. Larger populations result in more questions, and depending on how in-depth those questions are, it may take several hours or longer to respond with all of the information the user is seeking. I often conclude a basic IM reference transaction by providing the student with the contact information for their subject librarian and the personal appointment request form. Some research needs can’t be met exclusively in an online environment.

I get what DLK is trying to say, and I agree that we should treat our online users with the same courtesy we do our in-person users. However, the limitations in online reference tools, staffing, and resources all combine to make it difficult to create a virtual library utopia. We should strive for it, yes, but making librarians feel even more guilty because they can’t do it (for whatever reason) is not going to improve the situation.

I got skillz and I know how to use them

What I wouldn’t give for a pre-conference workshop on XML or SQL or some programming language that I could apply to my daily work!

Recently, Dorothea Salo was bemoaning the lack of technology skills among librarians. I hear her, and I agree, but I don’t think that the library science programs have as much blame as she wants to assign to them.

Librarianship has created an immense Somebody Else’s Problem field around computers. Unlike reference work, unlike cataloguing, unlike management, systems is all too often not considered a librarian specialization. It is therefore not taught at a basic level in some library schools, not offered as a clear specialization track, and not recruited for as it needs to be. And it is not often addressed in a systematic fashion by continuing-education programs in librarianship.

I guess my program, eight years ago, was not one of those library schools that doesn’t teach basic computer technology. Considering that my program was not a highly ranked program, nor one known for being techie, I’m surprised to learn that we had a one-up on some other library science programs. Not only were there several library tech (and basic tech) courses available, everyone was required to take at least one computer course to learn hardware and software basics, as well as rudimentary HTML.

That being said, I suspect that the root of Salo’s ire is based in what librarians have done with the tech knowledge they were taught. In many cases, they have done nothing, letting those who are interested or have greater aptitude take over the role of tech guru in their libraries. Those of us who are interested in tech in general, and library tech in specific, have gone on to make use of what we were taught, and have added to our arsenal of skills.

My complaint, and one shared by Salo, is that we are not given very many options for learning more through professional continuing education venues that cover areas considered to be traditional librarian skills. What I wouldn’t give for a pre-conference workshop on XML or SQL or some programming language that I could apply to my daily work!

graduate assistantships available

The James E. Brooks Library faculty announce a graduate assistantship program for individuals who already have an MLS, or equivalent, and who desire a second subject master degree.

Graduate Assistantships Available
The James E. Brooks Library
Central Washington University
2007-2008

The James E. Brooks Library faculty announce a graduate assistantship program for individuals who already have an MLS, or equivalent, and who desire a second subject master degree. This unique two-year program allows an individual to study in any of eighteen graduate programs while gaining valuable professional experience in an academic library. Ideal for new or experienced tenure-seeking librarians, candidates must apply to the graduate school and be accepted into a program prior to being accepted as a paid library graduate assistant.

The assistantship is really two programs; an opportunity to gain valuable professional experience under the tutelage of professional librarians while getting that second, often necessary, advanced degree required at many academic libraries. For experienced librarians this assistantship is also two programs; a chance to advance by studying for an advanced degree while renewing and recharging one’s self during an extended leave of absence. Total benefits include a stipend of $7,120, plus paid tuition, medical insurance and health center fees equaling approximately $13,888 per academic year. Summer study and employment opportunities may also be available.

Opportunities are available for candidates to gain professional experience in reference, instruction, library technology and systems, technical services, outreach, archives and record management, government publications, maps, assessment and research.

Application and queries may be initiated by contacting Dr. Thomas M. Peischl, Dean of Library Services at peischl@cwu.edu, or by telephone at (509) 963-1901, or by mail at The James E. Brooks Library, 400 East University Way, Ellensburg, WA 98926.

Central Washington University
The James E. Brooks Library
The Office of Graduate Studies and Research

women in digital librarianship

In the August 2006 issue of Library Journal, Roy Tennant writes about the gender gap in digital librarianship. It’s a concern that I have been pondering on a more personal level for quite some time. I totally geek out over the shiny toys being pumped out by the Library 2.0 geniuses, but when it comes to creating my own contributions, I falter. Even just writing about them makes me nervous. Who am I to pretend to know something about these things? I’m just the person who pays the bills.

This is not entirely an accurate picture of my work, but a great deal of it does involve managing budgets, as well as staff. Occasionally my Dean will discuss my scholarship direction and interest in library technology, and inevitably the phrase, “but I’m not an expert on that!” will come out of my mouth. He wants me to publish, and I find myself floundering around trying to find something – anything – that I might know more about than the average librarian. The problem is that I am the average librarian.

I’m not Michael Stephens and Jenny Levine, jetting off to here and there to bring the wonders of Library 2.0 to the commoners. I’m not Sarah Houghton with my hands buried up to my elbows in library technology. I’m just a normal person with some HTML skills and an interest in technology. I’ll never be a Mover and Shaker.

This is the mental block that gets thrown up every time I think about my role in digital librarianship. I’m always going to be on the second or third wave of folks implementing new technology in libraries.

What I need are the tools to become more technologically savvy. I’ve looked into some of the options offered at my university, but aside from seeming rather intimidating, I worry that they will be too broad for my needs. What I would really like to see are some training sessions like what Michael and Jenny have been doing, but at a higher level. For example, how about something for folks who already know about RSS feeds but don’t have the skills or tools to use them in more creative ways? That would be very useful. Or maybe a crash course in MySQL databases with PHP interfaces. I can think of a lot of uses for that just in my daily job.

Some of us are lucky enough to live relatively close to Library Science programs. If the iSchool at the University of Washington offered a day or two long continuing education course on MySQL and PHP in the library setting, I would attend.

Maybe that’s something that Tennant and his posse should consider. We can’t wait for a new generation of women to grow up encouraged to be interested in technology. We need to do something for the women who are currently in the profession, as well.

nasig part three

The Friday vision session was given by Marshall Keys. He spoke about the chaotic transitions brought on by technology. He said that the “future of libraries depends on their ability to meet the emerging needs of users” and that we need to first understand what those needs are. None of us know what tools we will be using in libraries in the future, but we should keep aware of trends and try to anticipate them.

Keys talked about the “blog mentality” of the younger generation of library users:

  • What I think is important
  • What I think is important to other people
  • Something is important because I think it is important (“Whatever” corrolary: If I don’t think it is important… whatever.)
  • Privacy is unimportant
  • Community is important

The last two aspects of the “blog mentality” are particularly relevant to library technology. Emerging users want community, personalization, and portable technology, and they are willing to have it all at the expense of a loss of privacy. For example, they want to know what their peers are interested in, and they can get that kind of information from places like Amazon, Netflix, and Friendster, but not from the library catalog.

Another point on technology that Keys made about our emerging users is that the phone is their primary information appliance, and as the sales of ringtones indicate, these users are willing to pay for the ability to customize their tools. One not-so-emerging proponent of a phone as a primary information appliance is the Shifted Librarian herself, Jenny Levine, and her treasured Treo. She and Marshall Keys would make for an interesting pair.

Side note: I am writing this in the SeaTac airport while waiting for my shuttle back to Ellensburg. At a nearby table is a ten year old girl and her little sister along with her father. Just now, he was having trouble with something on his cell phone, and she took it and showed him how to do what he wanted to do. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that someone so young would know more about how to use the phone than the person who owns it, but I am anyway.

The point that Keys was trying to make was that if emerging users consider their phones to be primary sources of information, then we need to be developing reference tools that acknowledge that reality. There are text message services that answer questions quickly for a nominal fee, and if our users are more inclined to pay for that service rather than come to us through traditional methods, then we need to consider ways to implement similar services. We also need to face the reality that a majority of library functions can be outsourced off-shore, including technical services and reference services. If we aren’t preparing for this eventuality, then it will be even more difficult once it happens.

Keys stated that, “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” If we aren’t prepared to provide accurate information quickly to our users in the formats they prefer, then we will become irrelevant.