Thursday, June 08, 2006

Cuban Librarian Day and Musings on Virtual Reference

Today is Librarians in Cuba Day. Happy happy. I assume my blog readers are Google proficient enough to do some basic searches on the controversy surrounding Cuban librarians and the ALA's refusal/avoidance to take a stance on the issue.

But what I really came here to talk about are some assumptions IÂ’ve made while reading about virtual reference services:

1. Librarians want users to say "thank you"” and indicate when they are leaving the chat environment

Get used to chatting.. Perhaps find an option for archived chat so librarians and patrons can pick up where they left off if interrupted.

2. Librarians think video chat will improve service because they can read visual cues

I think this sounds too personal and librarians will have to deal with looking at exhibitionists too often.

My main thing is the librarians I've read about in the research studies need to GET OVER their fears of online chatting. Yeah it is imperfect, but millions of people are chatting away, loosing all ability to make eye contact and develop traditional social skills. Honestly, one paper I read made the assumption that a librarian would type about 20 words per minute. Who the hell works with computers and types 20 words per minute? If this is the truth, no wonder they are having problems with patrons leaving in the middle of the chat.

Marketing...I don'’t think many people know librarians are out there willing to help them online, and the research I've read confirms this. can you imagine if instead of cam girl spam you got a message that said "“Hey, this is Lisa the librarian at Your Library, if you need any help finding information, feel free to ask. Until then, add me to your buddy list so you don't forget I'm around, okay?"” However, maybe I am disconnected from the "screenagers" of today, librarians as "psycho killers". I think there is a healthy boundary here that teenagers do not want adults interfering with their online experiences, but something needs to be done to show people chat can be used for help beyond free peer to peer counseling.

Or libraries are still scared of chat rooms and providing a forum for people to meet around a common interest, but how cool would it be if you could log into a library chat room and have a book discussion with a librarian ANYTIME? 24/7 librarian mediated book talks? I love it. It seems like the focus on reference leaves out librarians that might be more comfortable talking about fiction. "Oh, I haven'’t read it, that sounds interesting?"” "“Would you like me to put in a purchase request for you?" "“We have a resource where you can find all the books in that series." A 24/7 book discussion group might get people more comfortable with using the library chat services for reference/information needs beyond entertainment.

My strangest fear when I first used virtual reference was wondering who was in the room. I assumed it was a chat room with other patrons milling about, people talking, the expert doing research but in a public forum. Not so, which certainly has its benefits and goes along with the libraries commitment to privacy, but I imagined it as "“hanging out" with librarians and patrons. In fact, somewhere in my reading librarians complained about patrons that wanted to chit chat online. Chit chat is how trust and relationships are established, and I know it is easy to enforce your boundaries online, but I think patrons WANT to know if you have a garden or a dog or kids if theyÂ’re asking for your help on those subjects. It helps the patron assess what vocabulary to use and what level of information you might be familiar with.

Confession, when I a’m at the reference desk and it is slow, I keep Gmail open and solicit reference questions from my friends via chat. I count that as library statistics too. We do book talks and reference questions, and I put items on hold for them too. I would love to have a Gmail account for library work, be very up front about the tradeoff between privacy and archiving, and use it for both professional networking and patron interactions.

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