don’t send me away, librarian! on second thought, please do

go_awayThe university library collection is divided among several buildings on campus. When seeking help with my question, I made what initially seemed to be a false start: I took my question to the wrong building. The librarian’s response was: “What subject area is this?” This stumped me: if the librarian, with her knowledge of the library, didn’t know the answer to this question, how could I? Users have difficulty mapping their questions onto the internal structures of an institution. Unfortunately, these internal—often bureaucratic, usually opaque—structures may inform the structure of user-facing resources such as an external website or even a reference desk. When I hesitated, the librarian told me that the collection in her building was limited and that I should instead visit the central location.

I was disappointed to be sent to a different building. Just as the library website provides a seamless front-end to all the library resources within the various physical buildings and online databases, and just as any computer terminal allows me to search the entire collection from a central page without knowing how things are organized on the back end, I felt that any librarian at any reference desk in any building on campus should have been able to assist me. I felt that the information desk should not require me to know the contents of the buildings before asking for help.

Yet I adjusted my opinion after a recent positive experience at the public library. This interaction showed me that a librarian who really knows the contents of a collection is able provide more than just excellent search skills. And so the first librarian I spoke to at the university—the one at the smaller, more specialized location—might not have had the collection knowledge to answer my question effectively. Instead, she sent me to someone who did.

[Done as part of assignment for LIBR 503 at the UBC iSchool]

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meet the kids, librarian

SONY DSCAfter trying out some chat reference services, it was time for some in-person visits. I took my problem:

“I am looking for information on how to sleep-train a toddler.”

to both an academic library and a public library to see how I fared with some face-to-face questioning.

Approach
In each case I entered the library in the early afternoon and headed straight for the well-marked information desk. From there I was redirected: in the academic library, to a different building (look here for my initial impressions of this); in the public library, to the appropriate floor.

Here the similarities end. I went to the academic library on my own; I went to the public library with three children in tow—including the energetic subject of my inquiry. This difference influenced the experience substantially. First, it was clear to the public librarian that I am a tired parent with my hands full; when I asked my question, very little additional context was needed. Second, it gave her a prompt for some friendly chit-chat.  The academic librarian had more work to do to “negotiate the question,” to use Cassell and Hiremath’s terminology (p. 17), and had no obvious opening for informal conversation.

Establishing Rapport
Both librarians greeted me in a friendly manner. However, the presence of my children made it easier for the public librarian to establish a connection: she mentioned that she was also a mother, she told my older children about a contest that they could enter, and she found my toddler amusing. According to Cavanaugh, such interaction between librarians and patrons is common: “library staff and clients describe chit-chat or small talk as a means of engaging with their clients” (p. 13). Moreover, this interaction is more than merely pleasant—it develops what Nardi calls “affinity, commitment and attention” (cited by Cavanaugh, p. 14), which in turn leads to better results.

Negotiating the Question
After a disappointing false start which had me taking my question to the wrong building, I  finally found a librarian at the academic library who could help me. She got straight to business, asking me questions such as “Is this for a class?” and “Are you asking as a parent?” to learn more about what I was after.

Developing a Strategy; Locating the Information
The academic and public librarians both impressed me with their knowledge. Yet, the type of knowledge that each demonstrated, as evidenced by the way in which each approached my question, could not have been more different.

Referring to the online catalog as a “narrative prop,” Cavanaugh describes how librarians “co-browse,” working with patrons to construct queries and turning the computer monitor so they can see it clearly (p. 14-15). This inclusive approach was certainly what I experienced at the academic library. Once my question and context were clear, the academic librarian recommended a particular psychology database, passed me paper so I could make notes, adjusted her monitor so I could see what she was doing, showed me how to limit my search to peer-reviewed research involving children in the appropriate age range, and worked with me to come up with good keywords. On leaving the library, not only did I have a list of promising resources, but also I had learned something about the available databases and how to search them effectively.

What struck me the most about the interview with the public librarian, however, is that she did not consult the catalog at all. Because I was already in the relevant section of the library, I had reached a professional who was familiar with her collection. Once she had clarified my question, she sat back and thought for a few minutes, before taking me straight to the appropriate section where she pulled out several relevant books. I was seeing the advantage of receiving assistance from someone with a deep understanding of a particular collection. I went in expecting help with search queries, but here I saw how much more was possible.

Follow-up and Close
In both cases, it was clear to the librarians that I ended up finding what I had come for. At the academic library, I had written down the call numbers of the two books that came up through our search; I’d also noted the most useful of the databases. At the public library, the librarian was beside me in the stacks, pulling books off shelves and helping me examine tables of contents, indices, and references. Neither said anything as direct as, “Come back if you need additional help,” but I certainly wasn’t disappointed by the way the interviews concluded.

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References

Cassell, Kay Ann & Hiremath, Uma. (2011) Reference and Information Services in the 21st century(2nd Revised ed.). New York: Neal-Schuman.

Cavanagh, M. (2006).Re-conceptualizing the Reference Transaction: The Case for Interaction and Information Relationships at the Public Library Reference Desk. Canadian Journal of Information & Library Sciences, 30(1/2), 1-19.

Radford, M. L. (2008) Encountering virtual users: a qualitative investigation of interpersonal communication in chat reference. Journal of the American Society for Information Science & Technology, 57(8), 1046-1059.

Ward, J. & Barbier, P. (2009) Best Practices in Chat Reference Used by Florida’s Ask a Librarian Virtual Reference Librarians. The Reference Librarian, 51:1, 53-68.

 

[Done as part of assignment for LIBR 503 at the UBC iSchool]

let’s chat, librarian… :)

SONY DSCI took my problem:

“I am looking for information on how to sleep-train a toddler.”

to two different virtual reference desks: one at an academic library, the other at a public library. What follows is my experience through the lens of Cassell and Hiremath’s analysis of the elements of a reference interview: establishing rapport, “negotiating the question,” developing a search strategy, finding information, and follow-up and close (p. 17).

Approach
I would not have noticed the chat functions on either library website if I hadn’t been looking: in both cases, the relevant link is only accessible from a second-level page. (In contrast, the physical libraries have large “Information” signs identifying where to start for in-person assistance.)

Establishing Rapport
I expected to see boilerplate messages appear as my message entered a queue and was assigned to a librarian. This was the case for the academic library, which uses the AskAway program. Boilerplate, certainly, but polite and friendly in its reassurance that my message would soon receive a response. It wasn’t long before a real person took over. By contrast, all messages with the public library were clearly from a human right from the start. And whatever the disadvantages of automatic messages, the public library chat was perhaps too informal at the outset. Compare:

Academic library:

  • Hello, fiona (No e-mail provided)
  • Librarian@AskAway: Librarian ‘Librarian@AskAway’ has joined the session.
  • Librarian@AskAway: Hello and welcome to AskAway. I’m reading your question now, and I’ll get back to you in a moment …

Public library:

  • Public Librarian: hi

Without nonverbal cues such as facial expression, eye contact, and tone of voice, text is important. I was surprised at the informality of the public library’s chat system—no logos or other institutional identification, no standard greetings, and a casualness that initially made me doubt the quality of the help I would receive. Nonetheless, I felt reassured as the interview progressed.

Radford (2008) asks, “How do clients and librarians compensate for lack of nonverbal cues in chat reference?” (p. 1048). Both online librarians compensated in various ways. For instance, they let me know when they were taking time to search so I knew to expect a delay:

  • Librarian@AskAway: Ok – let me try a few searches…I’ll be back shortly so I can offer some suggestions…
  • Public Librarian: be back soon

They also maintained contact throughout, and the academic librarian in particular demonstrated enthusiasm with friendly words (e.g., “Great!” and “You bet”), exclamation points, and even emoticons.

Negotiating the Question
As recommended by Ward and Barbier (2009, p. 58), at the beginning of the chat session, each librarian inquired further to get a better sense of my needs:

  • Librarian@AskAway: Are you doing academic articles on this topic or looking for practical advise [sic] or examples?
  • Librarian@AskAway: I should ask – where have you been looking so far on the library website?
  • Public Librarian: are you interested in books ? are you looking at some scholar lyariticles [sic]
  • Public Librarian: are you asking as a parent?

In both cases, this established what I wanted and my degree of familiarity with the library.

Developing a Strategy; Locating the Information
The librarians built a rapport as they helped me search, primarily by encouraging me to search with them. They recommended databases, sent links, helped me construct and refine my searches, and sent the results of their own searches.

Follow-up and Close
I tried to avoid initiating what Radford terms the “closing ritual” (p. 1049) myself, to see how the librarians would do so. As before, the academic librarian was especially enthusiastic:

  • Librarian@AskAway: feel free to do some exploring and log back in later if you need assistance!
  • Me: OK, will do! Appreciate your help
  • Librarian@AskAway: Your [sic] so welcome! Happy searching:)

And while the public librarian did not explicitly encourage my return, he or she was friendly enough:

  • Public Librarian: good luck…
  • Me: thanks for your help
  • Public Librarian: welcome, have a good day and a good night later
  • Me: you too. Bye
  • Public Librarian: bye

Ultimately, the chat reference interviews were successful. I left both with a better awareness of how to search the catalog, and the interactions were sufficiently pleasant that I would try the services again. In fact, the interviews were “successful” rather than “very successful” only by contrast to the impressive in-person interviews that followed.

Next ….details of my in-person interviews.

—————

References

Cassell, Kay Ann & Hiremath, Uma. (2011) Reference and Information Services in the 21st century(2nd Revised ed.). New York: Neal-Schuman.

Cavanagh, M. (2006).Re-conceptualizing the Reference Transaction: The Case for Interaction and Information Relationships at the Public Library Reference Desk. Canadian Journal of Information & Library Sciences, 30(1/2), 1-19.

Radford, M. L. (2008) Encountering virtual users: a qualitative investigation of interpersonal communication in chat reference. Journal of the American Society for Information Science & Technology, 57(8), 1046-1059.

Ward, J. & Barbier, P. (2009) Best Practices in Chat Reference Used by Florida’s Ask a Librarian Virtual Reference Librarians. The Reference Librarian, 51:1, 53-68.

 

[Done as part of assignment for LIBR 503 at the UBC iSchool]

help, librarian!

SONY DSCWhen scholars such as Richard Cox (2000) tell us that the “information age heralds a time when every person … can harness more information in practical ways than ever before” (n.p.), we may ask, as does Mary Cavanagh (2006), “is it reasonable to argue for increased funding for public libraries when the Internet is such a powerful, alternative information source?” (p. 3). The problem, however, is navigating and evaluating information on the internet. Here a reference librarian may be of service.

For this project, I identified a polarizing issue widely discussed on the Internet to see how librarians could help me find useful answers. I consulted an academic library and a public library, both in person and through online chat services. In subsequent posts, I analyse the interviews according to the framework set out by Cassell and Hiremath (2011, p. 17), assess how “human-centred” mediation (Cavanaugh, p. 3) influences information-seeking, and provide some reflections on the quality of the experience.

The Question

My toddler is having trouble transitioning from his crib into a bed. Sleep deprivation (his and mine) is taking its toll on our household. The Internet has plenty of information on the subject, but much of it is opinion with little consensus. Hence my problem for the librarian:

“I am looking for information on how to sleep-train a toddler.”

I planned to provide the following additional information over the course of the interviews, if asked:

  • I am asking as a parent.
  • I have Googled; information is conflicting and hard to evaluate.
  • I am wary of pop psychology and passing trends.
  • I am interested in peer-reviewed research.
  • I am new to the library.

Environments

Because my issue is both academic and pragmatic (I want research findings and parenting advice), I decided to approach both a large university library and the central branch of a municipal public library. I first tried their online chat services and then went in person, conducting four interviews in total.

My breakdown of the interviews is inspired by Cassell and Hiremath’s analysis of the elements of a reference interview: establishing rapport, “negotiating the question,” developing a search strategy, finding information, and follow-up and close (p. 17).

Details of my chat and in-person interviews coming next….

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References

Cassell, Kay Ann & Hiremath, Uma. (2011) Reference and Information Services in the 21st century(2nd Revised ed.). New York: Neal-Schuman.

Cavanagh, M. (2006).Re-conceptualizing the Reference Transaction: The Case for Interaction and Information Relationships at the Public Library Reference Desk. Canadian Journal of Information & Library Sciences, 30(1/2), 1-19.

Cox, R. (2000, Sept.) The Information Age and History: Looking Backward to See Us. Ubiquity.

Radford, M. L. (2008) Encountering virtual users: a qualitative investigation of interpersonal communication in chat reference. Journal of the American Society for Information Science & Technology, 57(8), 1046-1059.

Ward, J. & Barbier, P. (2009) Best Practices in Chat Reference Used by Florida’s Ask a Librarian Virtual Reference Librarians. The Reference Librarian, 51:1, 53-68.

 

[Done as part of assignment for LIBR 503 at the UBC iSchool]