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Posts Tagged ‘virtual reference’

web 2.0 – lib 2.0

The topics that have been covered thus far in the blog (remember, if anyone new to blogs is reading this, ‘written first, read last’) have been but a few examples of ‘2.0’ technology. Collaboration, sharing, user participation and feedback are all components of Web 2.0 thinking. Applied to libraries, this thinking is intuitively referred to as Library 2.0.

As I mentioned at the end of the Virtual Reference post, the web has changed so much already in its lifespan, there is almost no way we can even guess at where it’ll be 10 years from now (or even less than that). Tim Berners-Lee will be one of the first to say that the web is nowhere near mature…Web 2.0, a big, big deal right now, will eventually be talked about in the past tense.

So what does that mean right now?

What does that mean for libraries and the people who work in them?

That question was asked 2 years ago (I’m sure it’s been asked many times, far more recently than that) on lisnews.org, but the answers weren’t particularly penetrating. Trying now to predict our own future will do us little good, with all of the advancement that we’re facing. If we could see where the web, and even our jobs, would be taking us, we wouldn’t know what to do with it.

What will likely be the most constructive course of action will be learning as much as possible from as many sources as possible. Thomas Friedman’s book The World is Flat draws on 10 Flatteners, of which five are technological. Though largely economic, his book draws the same conclusion about what is to be done…adaptation will the key.

Adapting to 2.0 technology has been the goal of the library for this first decade of the ‘new’ millennium. And for the most part, it has been working. Libraries are bringing automatic book-sorting machines to do what a library assistant use to do, but at the same time, librarians are expanding their roles at an unprecedented rate. In 1964, Ellinor G. Preston wrote the following:

The librarian, that is the person who has been trained in the evaluation, selection and organization primarily of books, has a greatly expanded role in a facility offering not only books, but a great variety of materials. He must then be ready to accept this new role and contribute his skills to the efficient organization of all materials.

It was clear then, to Ellinor G. Preston, that the future was murky at best. More preparatory than cautionary, the message is the same: adapt.  While the exact duties to come were unknown, the role would be distinct, and crucial.

As I look at libraries where I grew up and worked, I know that the future may be hard for them. Especially the library in my hometown…only a few thousand people in the combined towns that share the library, many of whom don’t support the library as it is. In the face of changing technology as well as a foundering economy, libraries have a tough row to hoe…a long book to write…a…

…a need for capable, and (once more for good measure) adaptable employees and patrons alike. Or else I just might change the name of this blog to the underbooked librarian.

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Virtual Reference

This post will focus on messages of the instant persuasion. Often referred to as Virtual Reference, chatting programs are marketed as away to connect directly and immediately with a reference librarian. The service is based on the premise of convenience…the ability to chat from your own home – in your bathrobe! And slippers! I thought about putting a link to the Snuggie website here, but I didn’t want to get too far off topic. Just believe me when I say, the idea of chatting with librarian is supposed to make reference as convenient as a corner produce stand in downtown Vancouver.

The program with which I’ve had the most interaction in this field has been askaway, where you get to talk to “Real people.” And you receive “Real help.” Or so they say…I’ve used the service several times though, and have no complaints.

I’ve asked away to two different libraries, Vancouver Public Library and UBC’s library system, and like I said, the experiences were positive. The first time, I signed in to ask a librarian at Koerner Library for assistance in locating some DVD’s for my viewing pleasure. While the exchange went well enough, there were not many results that worked for that particular situation. More recently (about a week and a half ago as of this writing), I engaged VPL Central to assist in a search for government documents. In this case the both the exchange and the results were favorable. As we were chatting, the librarian sent me a list of links (and I didn’t have to write anything down) to browse; I found useful and usable information very quickly.

Apparently, having taken part in this particular mode of communication, both myself and the librarians with whom I was conversing are, as the kids say, “hip.” So Marshall Breeding would have us believe anyway…he labels instant messaging as such.

Not wanting to get left behind, Green River Community College’s Holman Library became hip this past summer, announcing the addition of virtual reference to their services. This has been a common theme in the past few years. In 2006, a statewide website was launched in Pennsylvania called Ask Here PA that now covers nearly 60 libraries in the state.

Considering the success I’ve had with virtual reference, it’s hard to imagine any true disconnects that others may have had. That would be the problem that I would suggest to be the worst-case scenario – being disconnected. This post quotes several users who feel similarly to the way I do…the convenience is appreciated, even when the results may lack.

Following the rules of responsible blogging (which may or may not exist…I’ll google it sometime), I will admit to the existence of naysayers, and even post a link here. This post is from 2005, but the points made by the author are not wholly unreasonable or outdated. The author feels as though virtual reference is not in the best interest of the patron, nor is it the best medium through which the library can accurately connect with their patrons. He says that we lose our sense of “community” and replace it with an insecure conversation with a person who may not even be affiliated with our local libraries.

The American Library Association (ALA) tells us that Virtual Reference has been around for some time, having gotten its start in 1995 with the Internet Public Library. It is relatively recent, however, that instantaneous chat has been the primary means of communicating. The initial service was based on email, and still has the potential to be helpful (just…not really). On the Library of Congress webpage, most of the reference question are still set up to be answered by email. Email suffers when compared to chat based on the time it takes to communicate. Email is, by nature, a slower medium, with more of an emphasis placed on composition instead of instant transmission.

If ever there was an attempt by libraries to engage their users, this would likely be it. Reaching out to the homes of patrons via the internet allows for quick reference help on a wide range of topics. As the technology available continues to develop, the process will be smoothed out. The next generation of library users will likely be comfortable with a concept that was developed only 14 years ago.