Hi, my name is Stephen Francoeur. I’m an information services librarian at Baruch College in New York City. For the next 25 minutes, I want to give you a quick tour of some of the more important trends taking place in the tools librarians are using to communicate with their patrons and to help them use the tools patrons need to find they information they’re interested in. I’m not really going to be talking about things like databases or discovery layers but instead the ways that we can interact with our users and the tools we can use to help those interactions move along.
In the past decade, there’s been a lot of growth in the number of options that users have for contacting the library. The mainstays of reference service—the reference desk and the telephone on it—were joined in the early 90s by email, instant messaging, and web chat. Recent experiments with video and VoIP (and I’m thinking of services like Skype mostly) haven’t really panned out…yet. We’re seeing libraries start to accept questions, albeit in very small numbers, sent to them via Twitter, via library pages in social networking sites like Facebook. In the past two years, there has been a sharp rise in the number of libraries who are offering text message reference services. Some of you may have noticed that I put mail on this list. Quick story: when I was poring over the archives of the New York Public Library to learn more about how the library responded to the pressures of anticommunists in the McCarthy era, I was struck by the volume of email reference correspondence handled by the chief of the Jewish Division, Joshua Bloch. Every day, he would find time to respond to reference queries from all over the world, often taking the time to compose his letter on a typewriter with Roman characters on it and then fill in Hebrew words where needed with a typewriter that had Hebrew characters on it. So, have I missed anything here?
I’d like to distinguish the tools we use to accept questions from our users from the tools we use once we are engaged with our users. These helper tools include ones that can be used in the midst of an interaction, while others are typically used in advance of expected questions (such as subject guides, tutorials, FAQs, etc) or after a series of related questions suggest that such a tool is needed. Let’s take a quick look at some of these tools In web chat systems, such as QuestionPoint, you can push web pages that will show up on the user’s screen while you are chatting with them. If the stars are aligned (you and the patron both are using Internet Explorer and Windows), then you might be able to synchronize your browser so you both see the same pages at the same time; this is called co-browsing, and honestly, it was a technology of great promise that sadly turned out to be highly unreliable. Desktop sharing takes the co-browsing functionality a step further so that the librarian can actually control the user’s computer. Because of security and privacy concerns, libraries haven’t really bothered with this technology very much. Libraries are now beginning to use lots of tools to help users navigate complicated or confusing sites and search tools. We can easily annotate web pages on the fly using tools like WebNotes or Diigo. We can do quick screenshots with tools like FireShot or LightShot and then email them to our users (or put them on photo sites like Flickr). With tools like Captivate, Camtasia, Jing, or my personal favorite (because it’s free and lightweight), CaptureFox, we can make a recording of the process of setting up a search and upload it as a screencast to YouTube.
Here’s a real quick view of our library’s web page.
Here’s what it looks like after I annotated it using WebNotes. There are lots of services out there that let you annotate web pages and then get a shareable URL to send to the patron that will allow them to see your marked up page. Yesterday, I learned about a new tool for annotation called Bounce, which I hear is the easiest and fastest way to create a sticky note on a page. Let’s move on and take a look at tools that librarians use to prepare for expected questions.
Many library websites have long featured a page called Frequently Asked Questions (or maybe “How do I?”) that is populated with lots of policy related question and answer pairs. Libraries are finding more robust tools these days to create more vast collections of FAQs that are searchable and browseable. Here’s a system that was set up by the staff at the Lippincott Library at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. What’s especially interesting about this searchable FAQ system is that Penn has created a service that other libraries can copy and rebrand as their own; you can see customized versions of this same FAQ system at NYU, MIT, and a host of other libraries.
Ohio University and UC Berkeley have in the past few years built out knowledgebases using the open source software, KBPublisher. I really like the highlighting of “Most viewed” and “Recent articles” on this page. In a little while, I’ll talk about a commercial service for buidling knowledgebases called LibAnswers. Let’s take a step back from the welter of tools and talk about commonalities among them and their value to libraries.
I’d like to talk about four trends that I’m seeing in the way libraries are using tools for reference and the way new tools are being designed. Let me tackle the trend of tools being user centered first. By this, I simply mean that increasingly the user doesn’t have to come to the physical library or even the library’s website to ask us for help. It’s possible now for us to establish lines of communication that connect us with the central points in our users’ world. In the 1990s, that meant that users could add an email reference address to the address book of their email client; then they could add the screename from our IM reference service as a buddy to their IM client. Text messaging services give the users a phone number they can add to their address books and ping us questions from their phones whenever they want to. Users with Twitter accounts can start following the library’s Twitter account and send questions as direct messages or using the @ functionality. If our library page in Facebook gets friended by our users, they now can contact us in multiple ways through their Facebook accounts (wall posts, chat, direct messages). This leads to the next trend: integration. I’m thinking of integration in a few different ways. First, by making our tools more user centered, they can be more integrated into the world of our users. Second, the tools we use to communicate with our users are being integrated with each other. Consider this now common scenario: a student logs onto our chat service and gets some assistance, but the librarian recognizes that a subject expert can provide a more in-depth answer. The chat ends, the question is marked for followup, and a subject expert logs in and using the same system, sends an email message to the student. Here’s another scenario: someone logs in to chat, the librarian realizes that instructing the person in how to set up a somewhat complicated search in a database isn’t easily explained in chat, and the librarian then creates on the fly a screencast in which the librarian narrates what she is doing; or maybe the librarian just tells the chatting patron, “Hey, would you like me to just call you right now? This might go a whole lot faster for you if we’re on the phone.” The service points where we offer reference can now be integrated in various ways. An interaction that started off in one place can be passed over to another. Let’s take a look at some examples of integration.
Google Voice is an interesting tool that some libraries are using to run their text message reference services. Because you can get a phone number when you set up the service, you could also use it for your library’s telephone reference, thereby integrating two service points in one interface. One cool thing that Google Voice does with voice mail messages is make them accessible via the web and provide serviceable transcriptions. Recordings of voice mail messages can be emailed directly from the interface as well as downloaded for local storage. So if you set up Google Voice for your telephone reference service, any calls that you didn’t answer would wind up in voice mail here. The system will record the phone number of the caller for you, so you can call back; if it is a cell phone that was used to leave the message, you could also send a text message to the caller.
Many of you have probably already heard of or may even be using LibGuides, which is a great system for libraries that want to rapidly create and publish subject pages. Here’s one by Jason Puckett, a librarian at Georgia State University who is an expert in Zotero, the free tool for gathering citations and generating bibliographies. You’ll notice that that there is a link to the library’s “Ask a Librarian” service in the upper right corner. Also, in the profile box on the lower right for Jason are indicators showing if he’s currently logged in to his AOL account. Many libraries have chosen to embed a widget here for their chat reference service.
In the past year, the company that makes LibGuides, Springshare, has launched a new service called LibAnswers. This service makes it easy for libraries to build up an FAQ using questions that the library staff has thought up and entered into the system and also the questions that users have submitted directly to the service after filling out a web form. Users are notified via email when an answer is ready for them. You’ll note that there is a My Meebo chat widget on the right where users can connect to library staff when they are online. You can put any kind of a widget here. Even more interesting, though, is that users can submit questions via text messages or Twitter, options that you can see on the right side of the page.
Here’s an example of a question-answer pair from the business library at Emory University. Note that the reply, which is published on the web as well as sent to the user via email, includes a footer linking to the library’s ask a librarian service.
Next, let’s take a look at how mobile technology is creating new opportunities for reference. I’m sure everyone in this room has noticed lots of seminars, webinars, workshops, etc. on the mobile web and libraries. Although there is a lot of interest and many pilot projects, I don’t think we’ve really seen yet how mobile can be a game changer for reference services. A number of libraries are beginning to develop websites that are optimized for the mobile web, like this one from North Carolina State University. This page we’re looking at is the Ask Us page. Other libraries have created apps that users can download to their iPhones, Blackberries, and Android phones. Whether we’re talking about mobile websites or apps, much of the functionality right now is replicating what we can already do on our laptops and desktops. Although reference services on mobile devices seems to be a really hot trend these days, I’m not seeing much yet that really takes full advantage of what it means for the patron to be using a phone to connect with us.
One interesting development, though, that takes advantage of a unique cell phone technology, are QR codes, which are a particular kind of bar code in that cell phones can read via the built in cameras that many phones now feature.QR codes that can be printed out or saved as JPGs. Some libraries are placing QR codes on posters and web pages to make the user’s phone do certain things, such as: Connect the phone’s browser to a specified web page Add a phone number to the phone’s address book Add a calendar entry to the phone’s calendar Send a text message to the user’s phone Send a note to the phone’s notes system Some libraries are putting QR codes in the item records in their catalog so a patron on a desktop or laptop can easily get the record onto their phone.
The last trend I’d like to highlight deals with the reuse of artifacts from reference transactions. One thing that makes digital reference different from face to face is that we often have detailed records of the interaction itself recorded automatically. What we do with those records depends on what kind of value can be found in the interaction and whether it is in accord with our principles of privacy. The L-net service, the statewide chat service in Oregon administered by Caleb Tucker-Raymond, offers its users (and librarians) the opportunity to search through the transcripts of previous chat sessions. You can see on the lower left that the service will only “share a conversation” if “the person asking the question gives permission,” “the transcript is scrubbed of the person’s personal information,” “a polite and helpful conversation takes place,” and some local considerations as well. In way, this reuse of questions and answers is not dissimilar from with Springshare does with its LibAnswers product. Librarians using that system can decide whether or not they want to make a question-answer pair public or private. They can also edit the content before making it public. The practical utility of reusing and repurposing the knowledge created in reference interactions should be pretty clear to most anyone that’s had to handle the same tricky reference question more than once. But there’s also a larger win here for reference staff: the chance to expose the work we do and make it more visible to our users, many of whom may have little idea that they can even ask such questions of us or expect the kind of in-depth help we are always eager to provide.
Here’s another L-net service that tries to get extra mileage out of chat interactions. This system collects URLs of sites that librarians have pointed users to in chat sessions on the service. Patrons can enter keywords to find matches among this curated set of sites. A few years back, David Lankes from Syracuse University and Mike Eisenberg from the University of Washington proposed a similar system called Reference Extract that also featured automated curation of links from chat sessions. In this project, though, we are talking about a far larger corpus: all the chat sessions in the QuestionPoint system. To give you an idea of the scale of this project, QuestionPoint recorded over 600,000 chat sessions in 2009.