Wednesday, January 6, 2010

VALE Conference

(pine cone, surrounded by leaves & pine needles)

After a lovely week of vacation, I am hard at work on a poster for Friday's VALE Conference. Originally the poster's title was "Reference Desk (Point of Service) Interactions Re-framed as Usability Problems," and while that still accurately conveys the spirit, the current heading is "376 Questions for the Reference Librarian = Ideas for Improving Library Usability?"

Notice the question mark at the end of the heading. When I blithely began this project at the beginning of the Fall 2009 semester, I genuinely believed that most interactions with patrons at the reference desk could be thought of in the context of usability, and that clear, preemptive solutions to students' problems could be found. (I have read various definitions of usability, mostly in reference to web design, but what I mean is getting from Point A to Point B in a straightforward, intuitive manner.) In fact, this is not necessary so.

In analyzing my data, I notice a few things. I should not be surprised that students' mannerisms and attitudes affected my reference responses, and that recording the transactions influenced how I thought about them. However, the high number of ESL students I assisted, and the large amount of basic orientation I did, suggest that what I am doing at the reference desk is more nuanced than I thought.

I also realized that solutions to some problems can be extremely complicated or ultimately not worth the effort. A library orientation program, for example, would prevent a lot of common confusion, but due to a number of local factors this will probably not be implemented. From my perch, it is easy to shake my head at design failures, but for others it can take far more energy to undo something than to find an acceptable alternative or work-around.

At any rate, I'm looking forward to discussing this and other topics with colleagues on Friday!

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