Sunday, January 29, 2006

Implementing an instant message (IM) reference service

After a lot of discussion, the library faculty at my institution decided to offer instant messenging (IM) reference. We started at the beginning of spring semester.

It began when I occasionally forwarded articles about IM and virtual reference to the other librarians. I also brought the topic up in meetings, and we had many a lively discussion about offering reference services through this medium. One issue we discussed was, are IM reference questions less important than in-person questions? I think we ultimately came to the understanding that we cannot judge our users' questions or the means they seek information, but that we should provide the "highest level of service to all library users" and "courteous responses to all requests."

Eventually, the library faculty decided to entertain a proposal for IM reference. We used RUSA's Guidelines for Implementing and Maintaining Virtual Reference as a model for the proposal. In our discussions and during the drafting of the proposal, I leaned heavily on statistics about IM usage (such as from the Pew Internet & American Life Project) and my own experiences in my previous position.

Since many of the librarians had never IMed before, we all installed Gaim (an IM client that can interface with multipe IM networks) on our computers and practiced IMing among each other for several weeks. I then developed and taught a three-hour IM reference training program for the reference librarians before we went live.

Our IM service is staffed by the reference librarian currently at the reference desk and during the desk's open hours. So far, service has been light, but I believe this is because we have not heavily marketed it. I think eventually it will be heavily used, as it was at the institution I came from.

Saturday, January 28, 2006


The glazed looks... The students IMing during your carefully prepared database demonstrations... An instruction librarian's worst nightmares! How can librarians motivate their students to actively engage instructional content? This issue has produced a flurry of e-mail as of late on the Information Literacy and Instruction listserv. (See, for example, these messages.) The answers have ranged from "give 'em chocolate" (an idea that a good friend of mine challenged) to "let the students teach the class." The consensus, though, seems to be that instructional content must be connected to course content (so students see the relevance of the material) and that sessions must include a healthy amount of active learning (so that students take responsibility for their own learning and "construct" their own knowledge).

In my first several months as an "instruction/reference" librarian, I have been experimenting. Like everyone else, I have had my successes and failures. Here's my general format: Each session includes some brief demonstrations. Then students are turned loose on an "assignment" that requires them to demonstrate their understanding of the material, as well as provide them with some initial sources for their research projects. The assignments are then submitted to me online, where I can provide each student with individual comments. Not only does this give me a chance to make an individual connection with each student, it also helps me assess the effectiveness of my teaching (ostensibly, if students successfully complete my assignments, they have mastered the objectives I set for the session). I also prepare course pages for each class I teach, so students can come back if they forget a resource or strategy I taught during the session. If any of you are interested in seeing my activities and course pages, please e-mail me.

Next week will be busy for me. I'll be teaching a session for the Eastern religions class on Monday, a session for the biblical interpretation course on Tuesday, and a session on finding secondary sources for a history course on Wednesday.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

An online catalog revolution?

Librarian Karen Schneider of the Free Range Librarian and the Librarians' Internet Index has some interesting things to say about North Carolina State University (NCSU) Libraries' new online catalog. The catalog is fantastic. However, I don't agree with the idea of pitching the controlled vocabulary used in our online catalogs. Since our catalogs don't contain the full texts of books, there is no real way a Google-type search could work. Indeed, that is one of the faults of Karen's argument: the online library catalog is not the same thing as "Google, Amazon, A9, AskJeeves, Technorati, [or] Google Book Search." (Google indexes billions of Web pages; my library catalog contains descriptions of a relatively small number of books that sit on shelves.) The controlled vocabulary used in the catalog, in the form of Library of Congress Subject Headings, provides additional searchable metadata and a greater degree of precision to our searches. Sure, the "aboutness" of any information resource is disputable; but generally, LCSH has served me well. The revelation occurred to me when librarian Thomas Mann, in his book on library research, pointed out the problem of a catalog search without standardized subject metadata: Imagine performing a keyword search using the phrase "death penalty. Without controlled vocabulary, you would miss resources that use different terminology, such as "capital punishment."

Yes, catalogs aren't perfect, and I want NCSU's catalog at my library. Subject-level cataloging is horribly expensive. But in a world with varying terminology and catalogs that contain records that are meant to represent physical objects, I think subject cataloging is necessary and will always be with us.

Yes, I'm still here

Hi, all. Sorry for my long absence. Although, I do feel less guilty after reading in another blog several months ago that bloggers shouldn't feel guilty if they don't post in a while. (Sorry, I can't find the citation right now.) :-) Anyway, expect some posts from me soon about:

1) IM reference services. My library recently implemented an instant messaging reference service. Why and how did we do it? Stay tuned.

2) The American Library Association Mid-Winter conference. This was my first Mid-Winter. I'll describe the conference and how to get involved with ALA committee work. It's a great way to meet other professionals across the country and make a meaningful contribution to the profession.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Intellectual Freedom

Intellectual freedom is a major issue for librarians. My graduate school, the Graduate School of Library and Information Science (GSLIS) at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, recently awarded its annual intellectual freedom award to John Doe, the individual "whose legal challenge to a National Security Letter requesting library patron records represents an important defense of intellectual freedom." Read more.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Google Defends Privacy (?!?)

The controversy over Google's refusal to comply with a federal subpoena that asks for information that will allegedly help them estimate the amount of porn on the Web and its imperviousness to filters has put information and privacy in the spotlight. Apparently a lot of people are shocked, shocked to realize how much personal information is gathered by Google and other search engines. (Google saves more information than any of its competitors.) I'm not sure if Google's stock price is falling because investors worry they'll lose in court (the government has filed a "motion to compel" - it's worth bearing in mind this is not a criminal investigation but a demand for information to build a better case for a law that has been struck down in the past) or if they're concerned Google's trade secrets will be revealed in the process.

One thing worth pondering: we'd never know about the government's request if Google hadn't said no. If the DoJ truly just wants to understand the extent of porn on the Web, why couldn't they have done the research in the open, rather than secretly with subpoenas?

At least libraries understand the risk of hanging onto personal information, even if tracking people's reading habits seems relatively benign. Yet they have to decide whether adding popular convenience features that suggest books a patron might like or that offer opportunities to share reading lists (a la Library Thing) trump that risk. Personally, I'm fairly knee-jerk about privacy, but I have a feeling that libraries may be growing less protective and more interested in adding the social networking features that are becoming so popular.


Saturday, January 21, 2006

LIS Forum in March

On March 11th New York-area librarians affiliated with Radical Reference are holding a Library Education Forum for library school students and recent grads (though faculty and not-so-recent grads are also invited) to talk over LIS education. Among the questions they expect to discuss:
  • If technology is changing the nature of our profession, how should LIS programs reflect this?
  • Should LIS curriculums be more practical or theoretical?
  • Were there glaring omissions in your education? Are there skills that you have gained after graduating that you wish had been part of your curriculum?
  • What are the profession's core values? How should LIS programs reflect them?
It sounds interesting - so interesting, in fact, that the Librarian in Black hopes someone will host a webcast with participant chat. Stay tuned...


Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Information Overload

In libraries we sometimes think the more information the merrier - and then find in a focus group with students that they think we have too many databases. As we add information, we also can lose sight of which information is best for a particular purpose.

We're not the only ones with that problem. In this article in Wired, Jennifer Granick argues that mass surveillance leads to an unacceptable number of false hits. Not only do innocent citizens suffer, the bad guys get lost in the clutter.


Monday, January 16, 2006

What's in a Name?

The image of librarians gets a lot of attention, with librarians frequently upset by the librarian as represented in popular culture. Here's a description of the profession from The Island of Lost Maps by Miles Harvey - a book about a map thief and about maps themselves that I read over the weekend.
What a vapid job title our culture gives to those honorable laborers the ancient Egyptians and Sumerians veriously called Learned Men of the Magic Library, Scribes of the Double House of Life, Mistresses of the House of Books, or Ordainers of the Universe. Librarian -- that mouth-contorting, graceless grind of a word, that dry gulch in the dictionary between libido and licentious -- it practically begs you to envision a stoop-shouldered loser, socks mismatched, eyes locked in a permanent squint from reading too much microfiche. If it were up to me, I would abolish the word entirely and turn back to the lexicological wisdom of the ancients, who saw librarians not as feeble sorters and shelvers but as heroic guardians. In Assyrian, Babylonian, and Egyptian cultures alike, those who toiled at the shelves were often bestowed with a proud, even soldierly title: Keeper of the Books. (113, Broadway paperback ed.)
This is one of those pats on the back that can make you cringe. Yes, special collections librarians do take preservation seriously, for good reason. But there's a lot more variety in the profession than keepers and preservers of books. The image of "heroic guardian" who saves books from people doesn't make me that much happier than "stoop-shouldered loser" - unless the heroics are tongue-in-cheek.


Friday, January 13, 2006

What are Catalogs For?

There's an interesting thread on the Collib-L discussion list about linking information about books to the catalog. Bill Drew posted some information about the memoir A Million Little Pieces by James Frey; it's veracity was challenged by a blogger, turning it into a big story (even though the Star Tribune scooped the blogger by two years and Janet Maslin seemed to have doubts when she reviewed it for the Times). He's linking this blog entry to the library's catalog.

While an intriguing idea, I'm not sure what to make of it. There are a great many books whose "truthfulness" has been challenged, or which have been found to be plagiarized. Do we "add value" to catalogs by making them interpretive rather than descriptive? (I have to admit, it might make cataloging more fun. It certainly would make it more time-consuming.) Or should we let people draw their own conclusions and assume all books are subject to scrutiny?


Thursday, January 12, 2006

Do Library Schools Need Reform?

A short piece in today's LJ Academic Newswire on the American Library Association's upcoming midwinter meeting. This news item focuses on ALA president Michael Gorman's contention that the master's programs in library science don't do a good job of preparing librarians for the profession and need reform.

It's been a long time since I went to library school, but I have to say among the relatively recent graduates working in our library, I can't say I'm unhappy with the schooling they received. They seem amazingly ready to get to work productively. And while there are things they need to learn on the job - there are lots of things I still need to learn on the job, since the job is always changing.

It will be interesting to see how this debate plays out, though, since ALA accredits library schools so has leverage to make changes.