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Revisiting libraries on Facebook

Posted on 17 February 2010 at 10:13 pm in Musings.

Last week David Lee King wrote an excellent blog post on academic libraries and Facebook, and it forced me to rethink some of the assumptions I made a year ago in a blog post on the same subject. At that time, I felt that Facebook was far more useful for networking with other professionals and staying in touch than it was for institutions, but some of the newer features on Facebook have really changed the landscape.

The single biggest change as far as institutions are concerned is that Fanpages can now post updates and have them automatically appear in the Newsfeed of their fans. This was implemented in the spring of 2009 and it allows libraries to create a far more active relationship with their fans. This simple but key difference means that instead of the user needing to visit and revisit the fan page in order to interact with the library, all they have to do is sign up as a fan and the news will come to them. Instead of fans having to post on the wall of the fanpage, they can post comments right on each update, creating a dialog.

That is, as long as the library remembers to post news. And that was the biggest element of King’s post. If libraries want to gain fans and have relevant fanpages, they can’t just set up a page and walk away. They need to keep a frequent stream of updates relevant to their institution, invite their fans to events using Facebook’s Event feature, and add photos and videos, much like an individual uses their personal Facebook page.

I can imagine a few groans now. Who has the time to keep posting these things on Facebook when the library is busy and (likely) understaffed? Well, it’s worth remembering that the library is already creating all this content. It already hosts events. It already publishes guides and pathfinders to its website. Perhaps it already has a blog. All of these things can be fed through Facebook updates with just a few clicks. If the library also has a Twitter feed, the tweets can be linked to the fanpage account and be posted simultaneously in both places.

I’d like to add one point to King’s. Ultimately, a library (or any institutional fanpage) will be most successful if they spread the responsibility between staffmembers. I heard this from two different colleagues in the last week — one my former Technology Tools professor, and the other a former SLIS classmate — and the reasons why are pretty obvious. If only one person is keeping the Facebook page going, any time they go on vacation or get too busy the Facebook page withers away. Instead, if several people are involved it is easier to maintain momentum and vary the content.

Does anyone know of any particularly good library Facebook pages to recommend?

There he sat with an answer for all

Posted on 8 April 2009 at 10:25 pm in Coursework.

They coaxed and questioned, they queried and quizzed,
Till the windows winked and the pillars whizzed:
O, heavens, the things they wanted to know
From Moses’ tomb down to dynamo!
“I should like to make some Ozokerite;”
“A cure, if you please, for potato-blight;”
“What is the catch of Saskatchewan River?”
“What have you got on the spleen and liver?”
“The pedigree of the monkey-wrench -
Had I better look in Darwin or Trench?”
“Is there any new trick for coloring butter?
By the way, do you swear by Dewey or Cutter?”

-Excerpt from “A Librarian’s Dream”, by John Vance Cheney, 1891

Publicly presented that year at the American Library Association Conference

Reference is one of the most hallowed and ancient duties of a librarian. Regardless of technology and changing times, librarians have always had two fundamental duties, from Ninevah to Alexandria to the Boston Atheneum: organizing the collection (cataloging) and helping the patrons (reference). In the face of Google and the web at large there are many cries, to paraphrase Nietzsche, that “Reference is Dead!”

Reference is not dead. The shape of it, however, is changing.

It is true that in a minute or so of googling I could find out how to make ozokerite, and would not need to disturb the librarian. Reference inquiries at public libraries are undeniably down. However, the number of online databases continues to multiply, and the differences between the various subscription and free services are becoming trickier and trickier to master. Standards are far from uniform, and students arrive at projects with little or no schooling in research tools. There is still room for the professional. With much of the need coming from our academic institutions — both the students and the research faculty — the academic library needs to take a look at how researchers work and how to best provide them with the reference service they still need.

When researching a new subject, my first step — and this is becoming close to universal — is to sit down at my computer. I see what I can find on google first, and from there I might log onto San José’s King Library databases to find peer-reviewed articles and resources. Only after I have exhausted online resources will I start to look at print information and archival collections. Since the bulk of my time is spent looking at a monitor — a monitor in my house — it makes sense that my library be there waiting for me. I live 70 miles away from the King Library, but I still need reference services. I just need it where and when it is convenient. Fortunately, computer technology — the very bane said to be the Death of Reference — is the tool I can use to connect to professional librarians, 24 hours a day. Email is a difficult tool to use for reference since so many inquiries require back-and-forth responses. The key is synchronous communication. Chat, Instant Messaging, and SMS Texting are all forms of typed, synchronous communication. VOIP (voice over internet protocol) is a form of verbal communication that can blend audio, text and video. Both types of services can take place when the patron is front of their own computer (or the library’s, for that matter), or over a mobile telephony device. Since the researcher will spend more time at their computer than in the Reference Department, that’s where reference services need to be located to be useful.

The Latest Tools and Tricks

There are a number of different “2.0″ tools that libraries are using to provide synchronous online reference. Most are variations on the same concept. The IM world is beset by competing Instant Messaging services, each with their own log-in data, such as AOL’s AIM, Google Talk, MSN and Yahoo!, but this can be sidestepped by services like Meebo or Plugoo, both of which provide account holders with blog or webpage-ready widgets that merge different services and allow anonymous users to contact account holders. In this case, the account holder would be the library’s reference department. IM, and its kissing cousins text and chat, are great ways to provide reference since the written word can provide greater clarity than conversation and relevant html links can be copied, pasted and sent straight to the user.

I’ve been able to both use and provide chat reference and found it to be a great way to communicate — with a couple caveats: 1) It’s better to use a chat service provided by a library you are a member of, since then the librarian can accurately judge what resources are available to you; and 2) the user and librarian should both be prompt in replying to each other. A long lag-time between responses — I’ve had patrons go five minutes or more without responding to a question from me — disrupts the process and makes it hard to narrow down the question’s parameters. Obviously a phone or in-person reference interview is not in danger of going idle at seemingly random intervals.

I would also invite readers of this blog to head over to The Pinakes reference desk, near the top right of the screen. You’ll find a Meebo widget with which you can fire any questions you might have my way. You don’t need an account to use this tool. If it indicates I am online, I will try and answer you straightaway; if I’m not, I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.

An alternative to text-only services is VOIP in the form of a service like Skype. In its most basic use, Skype is a great way to get free long distance phone calls; with a microphone and speakers (or a headset) the user can speak to any other Skype user for free and make calls to land lines and cell phones. Skype can also be used to send SMS text messages or live chat. A computer with a video camera — increasingly a standard feature on monitors and laptops — can be used as a video phone. The user can simultaneously use the chat features as well, so a Skype reference call could feature live voice interaction with copied links to information resources. Far more versatile than a standard phone call! My experiments with Skype this week reveal that it has a few bugs to work out — different users had different interfaces, the program crashed on some users — but it’s safe to guess it’s only a matter of time before the platform is stable and consistent. The catch with a service like Skype, or even the more bare-bones video conferencing provided by Google or Meebo — is that only a small percentage of users are comfortable with using them (and have the technology).

This is even more true of the Java-based Elluminate, a great video conferencing tool used by many educational institutions but not something most library users have experience using. It allows the moderator to speak back and forth with users, show the user web sites, interact on a virtual white board and more. Earlier tonight I got a great tutorial on Elluminate from the host of Bibliotechno (who is a regular SLIS Elluminate moderator), but are library users really going to flock to a program that requires a tutorial in the first place? Elluminate would probably be best used by libraries on university campuses that are focused on e-learning, with students already accustomed to its use.

None of these services have yet passed the tipping point of popularity and saturation, but I suspect each will become more and more popular — and replaced by dramatically more user-friendly and intuitive variants — as the aughts fade to the teens.

We should not mourn the fact that the number of reference interactions is diminishing. What we are losing in quantity we can make up for in quality — we have more time to work in-depth with the patrons that need it. The reference inquiries that are disappearing in the face of internet search are the ones that weren’t that hard to answer in the first place. Instead, we can grant more time and more assistance to those researchers, students and patrons who are looking into serious questions or truly need help learning and mastering the tools of academic research. This is a blessing.

In his chair, unflinching took shock after shock;
Without so much as a glance at his clock,
He answered ‘em, yea, by Peter and Paul,
Serenely he answered ‘em, one and all.
His dinner at six, ’twas now quite eleven,
But there he sat, as the saints sit in Heaven;
The friend, the peer, of the shades on the wall,
There he sat with an answer for all

-Further excerpt from “A Librarian’s Dream”, by John Vance Cheney, 1891

The full text of the poem quoted in this blog post can be found in the Papers and Proceedings of the General Meeting of the American Library Association, 1892, pgs. 137-138.

Wiping the Screen Clean

Posted on 18 March 2009 at 3:32 pm in Coursework, Podcasts.

In Ancient Rome, it was fashionable for the sons of the wealthy to be educated by literate Greek slaves, some individually, others in small, privately run schools with at most a dozen students. The typical writing materials of the era were parchment (made from animal skins; vellum, from calves, was considered the highest quality) or papyrus, made from beaten reeds. However, both parchment and papyrus were too expensive for children’s education, so tutors used a clever alternative: a wax tablet and stylus.

The tutor or his students could use the stylus to draw markings in the semi-soft wax; afterwards, the text could be smoothed out and the tablet used again. With this tool, the tutor would teach the most important subjects to his students: Greek, Latin, and arithmetic. This idea never went away — from slate chalkboards to contemporary whiteboards, reusable writing surfaces have had a long lifetime.

Education today, of course, takes many forms, and extends far beyond the classroom. With distance learning enjoying ever-increasing acceptance, new tools had to be created to allow for classroom-quality teaching to be available in an asynchronous electronic environment. The computer, once owned and online, is a tool where lessons can be written and re-written, viewed and re-viewed, and updated all with minimal cost. One tool intended to fulfill that role is screencasting. A screencast is a video screen capture combined with narration and disseminated using RSS feed enclosures, much like a podcast or vlog.

One entertaining and well-known example of a screencast is the ‘heavy metal umlaut‘ screencast by Jon Udell that serves as a primer on wikipedia.

So how is the screencast being used by our bibliosphere? Meredith Farkas points out a number of examples:

  • The UCLA Library’s “Road to Research” online research guide contains a number of screencasts, such as this side-by-side comparison of Google Scholar and the PsychINFO database.
  • Princeton’s “UChannel” streams a mix of screencasts, filmed lectures and other materials, also available over RSS feeds and iTunes.
  • The University of Maine has many of their online tutorials available as screencasts.

Other institutions use related technology for the same purpose. San Francisco State’s J. Paul Leonard Library prefers narrated slideshow style presentations, such as this one entitled Intro to College Level Research. I like this product since it avoids some of the herky-jerky, follow-the-mouse effects of Camtasia screencasts; it also has easy-to-use options for captions for users without speakers or headphones (this can be very important for library users!).

This is one of the chief perils of relying on screencast technology for user education; users at library computer terminals may not be able to listen to narrated presentations, or even if the library allows sound, they may hesitate to. We cannot assume that all users are accessing these types of resources from home computers; in fact, many users are at the library because they do not have home internet access. Therefore, we should provide multiple options, including captioned presentations and non-video (text and/or image-based) alternatives.

A Long Way from Babel

Posted on 30 January 2009 at 12:21 pm in Coursework.

The moving picture has an enormous power to communicate beyond the mere word, spoken or written. The versatility of the power to combine motion, image, sound, and music has long since exceeded the vision of the Lumière Brothers. One of the most ballyhooed — and profitable — shifts in internet technology was the debut of YouTube and its countless imitators. These services make the sharing of short videos quick and easy for the tech savvy and novice alike.

The following video, available on YouTube, demonstrates that ably: it is a promotional video for the Bibliotheek Amsterdam, the modern public library in the heart of Holland’s greatest city. While the voice-over is entirely in Dutch, the graphic design and editorial choices made by the director makes it easy for any non-speaker to follow — film transcending language. I knew and understood what the video presented without understanding any of the narration. It is a triumph of design.

The video makes clear that the Bibliotheek Amsterdam is a forward-thinking library, ready to use the tools of the 21st century to provide better service to their users. It demonstrates the online tools provided by the library and its slick, modernist website — which is, incidentally, available in both Dutch and English.

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