Librarians going beyond Google

In a continuing series of engaging panel discussions hosted by American Libraries, AL Live, the episode presented last Thursday offered a rich mix of observations, insights, and big questions about how library staff–most particularly reference staff–out-Google Google’s popular reputation as the resource par excellance. Going Beyond Google  worked through such concerns as utilizing Google web crawling to reveal library contents for user discovery; recognizing reference staff’s shift from fact-finders to evaluation guides; teaching students the difference between the wisdom of crowds and authentic data; and, most especially, the seemingly irreplaceable role human interaction–conversational communication–plays in getting the person with the question to infomation that best responds to addressing it.

The live webcast itself epitomized the very values being named and addressed throughout it. Panelists engaged each other, through Dan Freeman’s fast paced hosting, rather than announcing positions held individually outside the influence of the ongoing conversation. Virtual participants added meaty remarks, with Dan turning to these text chatters frequently enough to keep the preset discussion questions fluid and evolved under the comments added extemporaneously.

Among the takeaways from this model reference engagement process was the citing of an ACRL document authored by Megan Oakleaf,  The Value of Academic Libraries, which provides–and importantly for public and other libraries beyond academic ones–replicable charting methods for displaying how libraries, and librarian-provided services, provide institutional value.

Other takeaways included the restatement of reference (and other library provisions) in a “Google world” as being one of fruitful addition, wayfinding, mentorship, and authoritative balance rather than an unfruitful competition between librarian and search engine. The incomparable worth of communication–between librarian and information seeker–was highlighted as the epitome of library added value to any knowledge search beyond the identification of simple fact. And to that end, the webcast itself was a model of communication among librarians about where and how to get beyond Google.

Embed ‘Em Where the Action Is: Watering Holes

Every week, I have the opportunity–often the opportunities–to provide on-the-spot reference services at a local coffee shop. Among other morning caffeine inhalers on hand as I make use of my own most portable electronics, some shyly ask about the rudiments of choosing and/or using specific creation-enabled tools (iPad, smartphone) . Others ask for help altering the settings on their ereaders. Another kind of query relies on my ability to connect them to online resources when they’ve been stumped by their own efforts to find the very specific information they’d like to uncover.

This morning’s exchange began with an elderly woman who is in the market to replace her laptop, which has become a burden for her to haul around. We toured the possibilities a tablet would allow: document creation and editing, document exchange, searchable pdf files of publications on the iBook shelf, the keyboard’s utility, and, in this case, of course, the heft of the tablet itself.

Not for the first time, I regretted that I have no business card from the local public library (the main branch of which was three blocks away and open) to offer her, with the suggestion that she could follow up our discussion, if wanted, with further exploration with the reference staff (Saying and supplying a card with hosting invitation are two very different messages). What would be welcome here, of course, would be a real presence by reference staff, equipped to guide, to explore database possibilities (in response to some other reference interviews I have carried on over my glass of coffee), and to hear what community members are wanting and needing on the spot.

It’s a two-way street as well: in this venue, I have had the opportunity to casually listen in while groups of teens from the local high school discuss what they are reading for pleasure; I’ve heard and been able to ask questions about what undocumented detainees can expect to happen before a judge (from a court-sanctioned interpreter and one-time high school teacher and professional actor, demonstrable skills for a public presenter); and how changes occurring in university library public staffing practices have affected alumni efforts to pursue scholarly research of their own. If I worked for the public library here, I would be gaining valuable insights that range from traditional collection management to the real deal behind the policies of other agencies and institutions that should be impacting service provision plans in my own workplace.

There are public libraries that have taken the step of stepping out, assigning and supporting trained staff to move from behind the reference desk and out the door of the building to be where the action is. Staff visits the local food pantry to see what groceries are going home with those in need that week that will most likely require recipe help for consumers unfamiliar with canned garbanzo beans or bulk buckwheat. Others hold down booths weekly–not just for special events–at farmers markets, prepared with netbook and ready to aid other market regulars with non-market information needs. You can read about the theory and forty-year-old practice of this kind of where-the-action-is library service in John Pateman and Ken Williment’s new book, Developing Community-led Public Libraries.

There is opportunity for the evening library staff shift as well. Bar customers famously lay bets in need of demonstrable settling, if we are going old school, and those of us who read in them are regularly approached for advisory help–real advisory help, not just “Would I like the book you’re reading now?” (Bars, by the way, serve soft drinks unblinkingly, so the on duty staffer need not imbibe on work time).

A challenge? No more so than evaluating the traffic–both volume and professional need–at your current information or reference desk, and sorting service priorities to address the reference needs where staff probably already drink during breaks, before or after work. Scary? Probably for many, administrators as well as staff. Training is involved, but so, too, is valuing proactive library service over maintaining a line that has become a kind of monument to pre-wired days. Come on, I know you can do it. I’ve seen it done. I’ve done it myself, both as an administrator and as frontline librarian.

How Do Off Duty Discussions Influence Your Library Practice?

Over the weekend, I spent a couple hours in discussion with three lawyers, one practicing, one retired from an academic career, and a third disillusioned and in the throes of considering other vocational options. At some point, the talk turned to classification–within library systems of materials and, in hyper-contrast (?), by the Nazis of populations–and the question was floated: are you a lumper or a splitter?

While the  most illogical assertion that came forth was: “Everyone’s a splitter,” the discussion did set me to considering how lumping and splitting influence both library practice and the work Infopeople does in regard to providing library staff development opportunities. How do you, as a library practitioner, view staff training opportunities?

  • Do different training topics suggest particular staff as well suited targets, either by staff classification (!) or by individual?
  • Do your own library’s organizing and reorgnizing efforts suggest training areas you believe Infopeople would be well suited to develop and offer?
  • Do training means and formats (webinars, live and archived; online, unfolding across time and with institutional commitment to required technical access both material and participant ability-centered; other) figure into your training promotions, agreements and/or suggestions?

When I look at participant evaluations completed by learners, I often note a high rate of identification with the survey statement that the participant is expected by his or her employer to share what has been learned during the course. What does that “sharing” mean to you, as the lead person in your library service configuration? Is it lumping the big “big takeaways” into a local staff message? Is it participant-centered and inclusive of how the actual training experiences–demonstrations, resources, interactions–might inform local library practices?

At the beginning of this post, I identified the training of the folks with whom I had the lumping/splitting discussion. Did that bit of lumping suggest a particular population type to you the reader? Had I identified them differently–either as personalities or in reference to what they share with me–would you have “seen” them differently? Are you a lumper or a splitter–or well aware that there are, indeed, times that require each of us to change up our comfortable go-to option? Times like when we consider how training and libraries, organization of services and the staff we support in providing those services, all have to swim in the same river?

Happy New Social Media Year

Here at Infopeople, the new year brings a generous buffet of free webinars, high ROI online courses, and a variety of special projects. You’ll continue to hear about these from time to time right here on the Infoblog.

This blog, of course, is one form of social media we use to spread news, ideas and experiences to you, our community of librarians, library fans, library lovers and cognescenti. We are stirring the pot in some other social media channels as well:

Our Twitter feed, @infotweets, offers what we hope is a rich diet of curated info relevant to libraries, information management, literacy and literature, and cool ideas from other fields that you might just be able to find relevant for your library work. The keyword there is curated: follow us on Twitter and you’ll get just in time news of published research reports and professional events currently underway, but not much (maybe not any) movie celebrity sightings or updates on how we feel about the barista at the local coffeehouse.

Our Facebook page, too, has been restored to a venue we are updating with both status reports–and events such as upcoming free webinars–and postings of news you might use as you consider ways to reconceive problems or issues that have been in your face for so long you may need a jog or reminder that there are indeed different perspectives to consider, perspectives that could offer renewed energy and solution forming locally. (Some of what we tweet also gets featured on our Facebook page, but just the stuff that seems to cry out for a longer discovery period for its potential audience).

Pretty soon we’ll be revamping our Google+ presence and stepping into Tumblr as well.

All these media channels help form our social footprint–and you know what that means: we want responses and leads from you. Armchair travel is fun, but getting back to the author after you’ve visited the place in person enriches everyone.

Happy new year!


New Year’s Resolutions @ My Library

Once upon a time, when public library collections revolved around the paper of books and magazines and the vinyl of locking CD and video cases, the midwinter high school break was nigh and all of the teen workers employed at my public library wanted to schedule extra hours of work. One of the reasons we had created and maintained this worker classification was to give adult staff more awareness of how teens saw the library as a working environment, and another, of course, was to expose the teens to the library as a working environment. With those two (among about five) documented rationales for “extra” teen worker presence as the year slid to its close, I asked them to spend one afternoon organizing personal lists of resolutions for the new year and then find materials in the collection that might help them reach or maintain these goals.

Needless to say, what the kids turned up in the way of collection abundance (college application essay writing) and paucity (career planning advice for a serious female wrestler), datedness (useful guidance for exploring weight control for an adolescent diabetic) and out of age scope coverage (religious conversion) ranged from the expected to the laughable to the frightening. The kids had the role of canaries in the info mine and some of those birds weren’t going to be singing much longer.

Since then, at the bitter end of each calendar year, I look ahead to how libraries play a role in my resolving for an improved me in the new year. This turn-of-the-cycle, it’s a resolution to act on the good advice, or adopt the commendable insights, of some of the librarians I know:

From Michael Cart, I learned years ago to be a readers’ advisor anywhere anytime. In 2013, I resolve to listen to more book talkers and follow through on their suggestions, instead of hewing so closely to my abundant assignments and what strikes me in print reviews.

From a cooperative project between the human resources officer and some union members, Berkeley Public Library experimented with a staff walking program that involved local scavenger hunt style inspirations and the opportunity to learn Twitter to report sighting the week’s target. In 2013, I resolve to act on “lifelong learning” including  physical as well as intellectual renewal.

Ryan Deschamps, a librarian I was lucky enough to meet during my short stint in   Nova Scotia, used his double degree–MLIS combined with a master in public administration–to feed and nurture his care for community, rather than as a boost up a corporate or civic ladder. In 2013, I resolve to continue to explore who needs what and where and how to smooth access to information, innovation and imagination.

And finally, a librarian with whom I worked for years, amidst all those comings and goings of teen workers, has the perfect response for someone who can’t quite pull off what they had hoped just now: “Well, every day’s a new day.” And so, in 2013, I resolve to have 365 new days.