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.

American news habits and information needs

A week ago, during a multi-organization meeting about how public libraries play a role in connecting federal and state policy information to the community members in need of the real scoop, the topic of broadband access was teased out in a couple salient directions. One I found particularly wanting further discussion is how disconnected a community can become from changing government directions (think the Covered California insurance marketplace as an example) when its online access is limited to public computers? It’s not that skills like using a mouse or email continue to lack penetration; instead, what hasn’t bloomed in such circumstances is the habit of staying informed around civic engagement concerns.

How do we, as information specialists–and civil servants, help community members build the skills and the habits which constant news updating require of anyone participating in our culture?

Joachim Scopfel, Director of the Atelier National de Reproduction des Thèses, Charles de Gaulle University (France), has published an infographic that gives us not only numbers related to how Americans share news, but also points up the very venues for news that may not, after all, be all that available to all Americans. And even when technical availability exists, are community members engaging the most efficient methods for accessing policy updates? The research shows a continuing reliance on email over social media, as the online channel for updates. As with all correspondence, email brings with it the requirement that the recipient evaluate the authority of the sender: is the news included reliable, timely, and appropriate to the recipient’s own situation? On the other hand, a direct Twitter feed, from, in this example, Covered California, guarantees the authority and timeliness, while each message’s design should allow the reader to be able to judge quickly whether it pertains to her situation.

As information guides, can we boost community access to what’s official, help direct community members’ attention to how they, impacted as they know they are by government policy and policy changes, can take control over keeping abreast of those policy news bits, bites and bytes that affect them? What does tech access education look like in libraries offering the news skills needed as we approach the first quarter point of the 21st century?

Prepare to document your library’s value

The initial health insurance open enrollment period, a key component of the Affordable Care Act, provides an excellent opportunity to demonstrate the meaningful role public libraries serve in their communities. By documenting the work your public library undertakes on behalf of assisting its community in connecting to the information and access points they need related to the Affordable Care Act, you can build the profile of public libraries in general as well as become more visible as a local community resource.

To collect quantitative data that displays this value, your library should take some steps before the enrollment period begins on October 1:

  • During the week before enrollment opens, document the number of uses made of public access computers; you can use this figure later to contrast with use during the weeks of the enrollment period, through March 31.
  • If you have a public computer lab or classroom, be sure to reserve it for about two-hour periods of time for weekly online enrollment opportunities; these hours are also quantitative and you can record the numbers of community members who visit the lab or classroom to enroll on a weekly basis.
  • If your library has a publicly accessible TTY connection, be sure staff understand its use and communicate the parameters under which your library will make it available to community members who need its support to reach telephone assistance from Covered California. The numbers who do can also be documented.
  • If your library itself doesn’t subscribe to Language Line, the professional service through which community members who need interpretive assistance in order to enroll in the insurance marketplace, find out which city or county office does. Be sure to communicate with that agency about the library’s likely need to understand its use during the enrollment period and be sure that appropriate library staff receive the little training its use requires. Such occasions become yet another quantitative detail to track during the enrollment period.

Making these counts and arrangements now will put you in a good position to show the amount of assistance (value) you deliver during the initial open enrollment period. Like almost every challenge, this period of open enrollment provides a great opportunity–in this case, to collect hard data to use in future advocacy.

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.

Learning and Teaching by Pattern Recognition

There is no longer any credible argument that a range of tech skills aren’t  important to 21st century literacy. Yet one worry/concern/unhappiness I often hear from public library staff is frustration with trying to teach folks how to navigate various databases and distinguish the user’s perceptions of databases from the World Wide Web. Maybe reviewing what we know about our own–and users’ –abilities to recognize patterns can lower that threshold of angst.

Pattern recognition is something we do all the time:

  • Knowing when various intersection signals will turn to give us the right to “go”–even at the intersections we pass daily where the pattern is not as simple as north-south goes and then stops while east-west goes. Think about an intersection you enter daily where signaling takes into account an extended left turn light or the meeting of three or four separate feeder streets.
  • Being aware that grocery stores tend to stock the most essential foods at some remove from the checkout point and that there will almost always be candy and gum near the register. That awareness certainly helps us cut to the chase when we enter a grocery store we haven’t visited before.
  • Feeling a sense of certainty when passing an unfamiliar playground of the approximate ages for which it’s been designed, by viewing the size and design of its equipment.  Low, spring-based riding options signal a toddler crowd while a swing set that has a two and half foot clearance beneath flat-bottomed, unsided swings suggests an older child, right?

How do we use this ability to learn patterns and put them to practical use translate into helping library users feel a sense of clarity and thus comfort accessing our databases?

  • Learn and teach databases’ commonalities, including the fact that all of them have “help” or “user tip” pages that can and should be accessed.
  • Overcome our shyness about using such terms as “search box” and “saving options” so that users can gain the power of recognizing that these key points exist practically everywhere online.
  • Walk users through a simple search that is relevant to what they are trying to accomplish. You can do this by standing with them at a computer station–letting them manipulate the mouse, of course!– or over the phone as you shadow the clicks they are making, or which you suggest they make, at a remote computer
  • Articulate references to analogs in the physical world you know they recognize: news articles tend to give readers the big picture first and the details later in the story; information from different sources vary in reliability and thus in usefulness, just as you might trust a three-year-old to tell you if she’s happy but not if she’s tired.
  • Remember that you are capable of learning every day. That doesn’t mean mastering something new every day, or even every month, but noticing something new and using that new information to build new pattern senses that will be useful  to you the next time you confront the same set of parameters.
  • Remind users that acquiring a new skill feels good but doesn’t happen overnight, that you are open to helping them refresh what they learn today when they next have a search question, while assuring them that next time it will be just a little bit easier at the start.
  • Offer guidance in multiple formats–screencasts, wall-mounted infographics, “prescription pad” customized search terms–so that users can choose the format they know works best for their own learning style, a pattern itself with which they are familiar.

Notice what you notice as a pattern in the physical world. How can you use that information about your own capacity to recognize patterns to help yourself become a better guide to users new to accessing databases effectively?