Wednesday, February 23, 2011

When Technology Doesn't Do What It's Supposed To ...

A bit more snow on Tuesday

This may be a common trope here, but for all the work I do teaching people how to use the library and how to find and get the materials they need, I also troubleshoot a lot of purely technology problems. I'm bringing this up again because I've modified my opinions: In the past I may have complained about having to support technology problems instead of library problems, but now I think we should be professionally embracing both. The word 'troubleshoot' brings to mind images of changing toner cartridges and checking power cords, but a lot of troubleshooting can be subtle and sophisticated and can require a certain amount of expertise.

For example, the cognitive process of finding the right keywords to search an academic database for a given topic can be really tricky for students accustomed to typing "when was prezidnt lincon shot?" into google and being matched with the correct answer.

Also, despite everyone's best efforts, many online interfaces are poorly designed and difficult to use.  Savvy users will be able to overcome confusing web design, but many people -- even those who use computers and cell phones somewhat regularly -- are limited in their computer skills and have little understanding of how the underlying technology works.

In addition, when we support systems outside of the library -- such as the online materials attached to textbooks -- we increase our value to the institution as a whole. Often when a service is moved online, the expectation is that there will be no need for human mediation. When this proves false, librarians are often on the front lines of supporting services outside of our expertise. Instead of rejecting this role, why not expand outside of the library and become proficient in understanding the college's email and online course management systems? 

We strengthen the profession when we can not only provide but demonstrate the value of human assistance with technology problems. There may be a day when this is no longer necessary, but I doubt it. And although I still occasionally catch myself asking "Is this the best use of my time?", I now see the library as a more holistic space, where a traditional reference question may intersect with an off-campus authentication question, and where I should be able to assist with both. When I can, it improves people's perceptions of the overall usefulness of librarians.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Weeding the Printed Books

Book stacks on the 2nd floor

In recent weeks, because the library instruction room has been reserved for something else, I've been helping with a big weeding project. An entire floor of shelves needs to be looked over in order to make more room for group study tables. The experience has reminded me of several things about collection management:
  • Discarding books is difficult, in that it's time-consuming and brain-sucking, not to mention dusty work. It's the type of task that can make librarians and people who work with books embrace e-books. It's much easier to let ebrary (or amazon, or whomever) manage the electronic titles and bring problems to their attention, rather than having to diligently perform inventory of the stacks ourselves. Right? (Yes, that is tongue-in-cheek.)
  • Maybe I'm overestimating the importance of the printed collection, but with every decision I feel personally responsible for the historical record -- particularly as I'm working mainly in the D section. As a librarian, I was trained to do this, and as a rational, educated person I feel equipped to do this, but the necessary individuality of the task, as well as the need for haste, makes me a bit uncomfortable. Don't worry, I am being supervised, but my tendency is to linger over every title and weigh each one very carefully. This does not translate into an efficient process. I understand that a community college library is not a research library, and that our collection has never had the depth one might expect from a full university library, but the process still pains me. And when perusing the great events of European history, for example, the present-day desire to push them aside to make room for student seating seems somewhat frivolous.  
  • Even though I trim using tweezers rather than a machete (multiples copies and poor condition are my most common reasons for deciding to discard something), I still find it really hard to get rid of something. I'll be welcoming next week, which is jam-packed with classes, with something like relief.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Anatomy of a Reference Question (Mine)

Snowy campus

At the reference desk last week, I decided to research a question I've had for a while. I've been wondering where to find information about performances and recordings of classical music. Partly this is due to a radio program on Princeton's WPRB called Towe on Thursday, which I listen to on my commute, and partly it's just general curiosity about not only specific pieces of music but the various iterations.

So first, here's what I did: 
-I searched past questions on Ask Metafilter and found a couple of relevant conversations.      
-Then, I browsed some of the sites mentioned (American Record Guide, Fanfare Magazine, and a neat reviewing site from the BBC, among others).
-After realizing that most of the content from Fanfare and American Record Guide was subscription-only, I checked to see if the library where I work had access to those publications. We did, so I was able to sample the content by searching the archives for reviews of a few pieces I was particularly interested in.  
-I compared some of these reviews to reviews on Amazon.
-I bookmarked everything and linked to the most useful sources in our Music Subject LibGuide, to remember for next time.

Upon reflection, a couple of things strike me as interesting about this process. First of all, I wasn't looking for and didn't expect to find any one particular authoritative source, instead relying on the wisdom of the crowd in several instances (metafilter, amazon). Also, the entire process occurred online, and although I took advantage of many people's advice, I did not interact directly with anyone in person. Even though I traveled down several different blind alleyways, I never felt lost or overwhelmed. Actually, the only delay I encountered was when I was looking at the free interfaces of the review sites and wondering if it would be worth subscribing. It took a beat to remember to check our library's holdings. And I'm a librarian. 

When analyzing my own information-seeking behavior, it's hard to judge how much of the process is normal and how much is influenced by being a librarian, but I think there are a couple of lessons to take away here: (1) I seriously appreciated the fact that I could do all this without getting up from my desk, and (2) I was able to figure out a satisfactory answer using a combination of sources instead of consulting a single expert. Or librarian.