Wednesday, May 13, 2009

More Things on a Stick: Thing 34 "Is This Our Competition--Online Answer Sites"

We're off to a rollicking start with article one The Future of the Reference Desk. The first line is "I’m not sure the reference desk makes the most sense anymore." The author, Lauren Pressley is an academic librarian. She goes on to say "I say that, though, based entirely on my own experiences at my own institution. Most of the questions I get are either way out of my league and something for a subject specialist, or they are super simple “how do I print” or “where is the restroom” types of questions. Rarely am I asked something that is challenging enough that I’m glad to be there but also isn’t a four hour long, in-depth issue."

My own library experiences have been in school and public libraries. I have never felt in either type of library that a reference desk was outdated or without further use. In the public library especially, as we layer increasingly complex technologies over the traditional services that are still expected and in demand, we do a daily juggling act to answer an incredible range of questions. We serve all ages and interests. If a question is truly beyond our scope we attempt to refer elsewhere, or acquire the information from other sources.

Article two That Thing You Do by RUSA President David A Tyckoson is the most reasonable response to the musical question "Can a librarian be replaced by a really smart photocopier?" Wow! Give this man a hug! He totally understands what libraries and librarians actually do in the course of a day, and the value of having an person to guide the customer through their questions.

This brings us back to the function of the reference librarian
(this is a reference journal, after all). For almost 150 years,
we reference librarians have served to enhance the interactive
nature of the library. We answer questions, suggest reading
materials, advise on research strategy, teach about our resources,
schedule programs and events, help with equipment,
direct people to the bathrooms, and interact in hundreds of
other ways with the people who form our community. The
reference librarian is the library’s human face and a gateway
to an entire social network of library users.


Article three: Librarian 2.0 - Interviews of the future of librarians Certainly an interesting group of librarians and opinions. I most enjoyed and agreed with the philosophies of Tim Spaulding and Meredith Farkas and Sarah Houghton-Jan. Their humanistic approach to all sides of the library equation is what we need to move forward. I particularly enjoyed reading this from Houghton-Jan:

That being said, libraries and librarians are still necessary as an institution of our culture. Erase the libraries, and you've erased the single institution in our culture that evens the educational playing field for all people. Erase the librarians and you've erased the people who help get you that information that educates you, stimulates you, entertains you. Librarians are the people who can help you, whoever you are, find whatever information it is you need. Search engines don't do that. Portals don't do that. You need an expert to get in there and suss out the information you're looking for. For some questions, "just good enough" isn't good enough.

Article four: Evolution to Revolution to Chaos? Reference in Transition by Stephen Abram I saw Stephen Abram speak once, and he has that ability to inspire by making the future seem bright and shiny and irresistable. He does that in this article, presenting a range of scenarios for libraries. Somewhere within his fourteen possibilities is the path we'll take, but slowly.

I don't think that libraries and librarians are really opposed to change (even the dinosaurs such as myself), I think they just change more slowly than many might wish, largely because they are institutions, and politically based and funded institutions. Everything must be passed through a dense set of filters before anything can happen. Sometimes those filters have debris in them that partially and temporarily block the flow of progress before everything can move on through the system and we see change.

David Lee King's Ask-a-Librarian Services Need a Reboot post has its heart in the right place (making sure your email reference service is equivalent to your in person service). He points out the common language used in Ask a Librarian scope of services statements (most saying they will respond within 48 hours and that brief factual answers will be provided).

Having worked on our own statement, I can say we looked at what other libraries at the time were saying and we put similar statements on our site. In reality, we check for Ask A Librarian questions during all of the hours we are open, and we respond back to the customer very quickly, to acknowledge receipt of the question, and we provide an answer if we have one or let them know what we think we will need to do to find their answer. I suspect most Ask A Librarian services work this way. Those formal statements are just that, formal statements. I do not believe most customers even read them, they use the service if it is convenient for them.

Slam the Boards "The 10th of each month is Slam the Boards Day, where librarians demonstrate their reference skills on the online answer boards." I love this idea. It is simple and practical and goes with the "Be where the customers are 2.0 theory of librarianship".

Yahoo Answers

Here are some of the questions under their Home and Garden category. These are all completely typical questions we might get. As with any online discussion forum, you have to take the answers provided by readers with a block of salt. For the questions that do have a set of responses, none cite any further authority, nor do they give the questioner ideas for where to get more information. Ok for grass stains, but dicey if something more expensive or complex is on the line.

1.Fire alarm won't stop beeping even after I take out the battery?

2.What kind of tree to plant in honor of our baby?

3. How can I live in my house for weeks/months without power in the summer, and getting cut off tomorrow?

4.What's the difference from 200, 230 and 300 count sheets?

5. Sharpening a small field knife?

6. Most important woodworking tool?

7. How do you remove jeanstains from your grass?

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