‘Predatory Reference’ an Interview with Bill Pardue about ‘Slam the Boards.’ Second Slam Coming Up on October 10, 2007!
Bill Pardue is the Virtual Services Librarian at the Arlington Heights (IL) Memorial Library. He worked previously at the Illinois Institute of Technology and received his MSLIS from the University of Illinois in 1992. Bill is also involved with the AskAway Illinois Advisory Committee and manages the website for the statewide VR service.
Bill initiated “Slam the Boards” by inviting librarians “to be bold and invade online answer sites such as Yahoo! Answers, Amazon’s Askville, and the Wikipedia Reference Desk” and to market libraries by “making it clear that this question was answered by a librarian/library professional/etc.”
Here’s my recent interview with Bill.
Marie: Bill, thanks so much for visiting Library Garden today. To get us started, tell me about “Slam the Boards” and especially how the idea occurred to you.
Bill: It was a very social process. I started playing around with Yahoo! Answers on my own and realized that it might be an opportunity for librarians to interact with users who don’t even realize that libraries have reference services. Paula Moore, our Coordinator for Public Services at Arlington Heights, commented that we ought to encourage lots of librarians to do the same. At the Collaborative Virtual Reference Symposium in Denver this past July, I mentioned it to Caleb Tucker-Raymond of the Multnomah County Library. He immediately said that instead of having some vague effort to get librarians more involved, a single day should be picked and promoted, in order to provide a real focal point. It was exactly the thought I needed to take action. Within a week I’d set up a Slam the Boards wiki and started putting the word out on listservs and anywhere else I could leave a comment. Then the viral part took over. In just over a month we had participants listed from the US, Europe, even New Zealand. It just seemed like the right idea at the right time…I just set up the wiki!
Marie: Caleb has such great ideas, I visited him on June 1st at the Oregon Virtual Reference Summit.
What were you hoping to achieve with “Slam the Boards”?
Bill: Mostly awareness on both sides of the question/answer transaction. Awareness among librarians that there’s a large potential patron base that we’re missing and need to promote to, as well as an arena in which we can showcase our excellence. On the asker/patron side, I’d just like a few answer board users to be pleasantly surprised that librarians don’t only provide people with books and videos, but also provide reference service. What I certainly didn’t hope to achieve was a cessation of people using answer boards. It just won’t happen, and people get some very good answers there. But I want librarians to realize that answer boards aren’t “the enemy.”
Marie: I know that one interest you have is in evaluation of the event, and, as a researcher, I’m especially interested in looking at reference quality issues, but would you deem it to have been a success? Why?
Bill: At this point, I’m gaging success in terms of engagement. Of course, it’s great to have a reply chosen as “best answer” now and then, too! The main point, though, is that we were out there, we saw what kinds of questions people ask and we hopefully provided useful, sourced answers. Some folks have started archiving answer board responses in a special QuestionPoint account that will allow for analysis by anyone who’d care to look at them. Currently it’s at about 75 questions (too many of them mine!), but I’m hoping that number increases. Quality’s an interesting issue. In a voting environment like Yahoo! Answers, I ended up feeling extra pressure to give a really good, sourced answer. It even stung a little when someone else’s off-the-cuff reply (which may have said the exact same thing) was voted best. I’d be interested to see how a more thorough study of quality on answer boards is conducted and what kind of results come out of it. You’ve got your work cut out for you!
Marie: So, did Slam the Boards achieve what you had imagined?
Bill: I think it did, partly because it had such a simple goal…get librarians involved, get them to think beyond their library confines and get engaged in some “predatory reference.” We’re still just a drop in the bucket in terms of the total traffic on a site like Yahoo! Answers, so I have no illusions about having a measurable impact on library reference numbers or VR service statistics.
Marie: I’ve heard you talk about “predatory reference” before, and like this radical concept! Would you mind defining it for us at Library Garden?
Bill: I’ll be the first to admit that it’s a somewhat over-dramatic coinage for a fairly straightforward concept. Librarians need to start actively finding reference questions, rather than just waiting for them to come in. Don’t limit your presence to just the reference desk or the library’s IM or VR service. Instead, find out where the where the questions are and start providing answers unsolicited. Being a “virtual services librarian” I tend to think first of online options: looking for points of fact in local discussion forums, blogs, etc. Out of such activity at Arlington Heights, we’ve even worked out partnerships with two local discussion board that take questions from the community. One is the “What’s the Fact” column of the Daily Herald’s Beep Central site. The other is the “Ask an Arlington Heights Librarian” forum.
There are less virtual ways, to do this, too. One local library (and I apologize that I can’t remember which) has been having reference librarians participate as judges for a local bar’s weekly trivia night. The Arlington Heights Memorial Library regularly sends our librarians out to community events (festivals, senior center events, etc.) with a wireless connection that allows us to provide many of the same services that we would at the reference desk. The point is to start being a little…dare I say…pushy about showing off our skills, so that potential users will realize that libraries equal more than just books! I’m sure we could think of other ways to get involved. Show up at village council meetings and if a tough topic comes up, volunteer the library’s reference service to help find some background. When you’re with a group of people, listen for points at which you can mention/promote reference services. If you overhear a local business person talking about doing mailing lists, let them know that the library has tools like ReferenceUSA that can be of use (and that someone on your staff is willing to demonstrate it to them). The opportunities are out there, we just have to be looking for them.
Marie: Do you have any idea about the number of librarians who participated and/or number of questions answered, even if it is a rough guess?
Bill: Ultimately, it’s a tough call. My intuition is in the hundreds of librarians, with maybe a thousand questions…but I have absolutely no way of knowing. Some of the more enthusiastic participants put their names on the wiki.
I counted 98 names there on 10/5/07. If you figure that 2-3 times that many actually participated, and the average “load” was 5 questions (I picked up 25 myself, and I know several others had matched that number), I’d say that 1000 questions isn’t unrealistic.
Marie: This question is from Beth Cackowski of QandANJ “Were the majority of questions answered by librarians, research questions? In other words, were they questions that library customers might expect a librarian to answer, or were they questions that the general public might be surprised to see answered by a librarian, for example: automotive, sports, pop culture, medical, legal?”
Bill: The unfortunate part is that most users don’t have any expectation of what kind of questions a librarian might answer (beyond “do you have a book on…”). To keep things mixed up for myself, I bounced around from category to category, picking up homework help questions, business, arts & humanities, cooking & recipes, geography, etc. I expect others did the same. If you check the list of participants above, you can see that many have added links to their Yahoo! Answer lists, so you can check out how they moved through the categories.
Marie: I definitely agree that many people don’t have a clue as to what types of questions a librarian could answer. Our abilities are usually underestimated.
Here’s a question from Julie Strange of Maryland AskUsNow! “Do you have a sense of how librarians went to find questions? Did they sort through the subjects and go for ones they specialized in? Or did they take new questions as they came in?”
Bill: Cherry-picking is essential on the boards because so many questions aren’t really informational. “What’s your favorite shampoo?” “I really like this girl, but I’m afraid to ask her out. What should I do?” etc. So, after a little digging around, you see that certain categories in any board have a higher ratio of informational vs. social questions and you start to “hang out” there. It’s kind of like “working the room” until you find someone you want to talk to at a party! As far as specializing in a subject, I think that’s very much up to the individual librarian. I consciously tried to be a generalist, but I also picked up a couple of questions in the Science/Astronomy category because that’s my hobby.
Marie: That’s really interesting, I like your “working the room” comparison. Have you gotten any feedback from librarians about their experiences?
Bill: Most of the feedback has been very positive. A lot of librarians were a little taken by the social nature of a lot of the questions, but ultimately were able to find at least a few to answer. Finding out if you received a “best answer” can take several days, so there were numerous messages from librarians when they got word of their “wins.” I got some negative feedback beforehand from some folks who couldn’t see the point of it, but nothing from anyone who actually participated. Of course, there could be all kinds of biases that account for this!
Marie: Did the librarians get much feedback from the users of these services?
Bill: The user feedback is pretty much determined by the mechanisms in place by the answer board. After one question was chosen “best answer,” there was a “nice answer” comment from the user. I’ve received a few like that now. If you give a particularly good answer, you can get “star” ratings, up to five stars. Of course, there’s the voting, too. It can be done by the asker or other readers. It’s nice to see your count of “thumbs up,” but you get a “thumbs down” every now and then. You’ve got to have a thick skin! An interesting anecdote is that I actually had a fairly extensive post-question correspondence with a user who had a tough corporate question. I actually ended up making several phone calls, just as I would have done for my own library’s patron.
Marie: Sounds like you could have parlayed that corporate interplay into some consulting business if you wanted to be more entrepreneurial ;)
Finally, I see that you are encouraging librarians to repeat “Slam the Boards” for October 10th, tell me about your vision to keep it going.
Bill: I’m really hoping this takes on a life of its own. The success of something like this is that it ultimately shouldn’t need a specific set of individuals to keep it going. I’d like to know that there’s a spike in answer board activity each month on the 10th, as well as a baseline through the rest of the month. I’d like to see discussion of this initiative on the existing listservs (it’s a bit too insular to just have its own listserv, I think) and informal discussion groups at conferences. I’d love to hear about a dine-around at Internet Librarian this year! Unfortunately, I can’t make it myself, but that’s all the more reason for others to do this. The best thing is that this is a way to promote library reference service that costs very little money and has the potential over the long run to enhance our image with a user base that almost never thinks about us.
Marie: Nicely put Bill. Thanks so much for your candid answers! Good luck with this month’s “Slam the Boards” on October 10th. I’ll be away at the Library Research Seminar IV in London, Ontario, from Oct. 9-11th, but will see if I can find a wifi hotspot and join in some predatory reference!
Gerry McKiernan of Iowa State University recently put a post on the dig_ref listserv (DIG_REF@LISTSERV.SYR.EDU) that dealt with a topic I have been talking about and thinking about for quite a while now, namely that:
NOW IS THE TIME TO PROMOTE PHONE REFERENCE SERVICES!!!
The ubiquitous nature of phones in everyone’s hands should make it a totally no brainer that we should definitely, absolutely, without question be actively marketing this underused service.
To quote Gerry: “Another Radical (but Conventional) Idea for OnCall, OnDemand, On Site Reference Service. Publicize the Library Hip Reference Help Phone Number… via Library Newsletter/Blog/Liaisons/Campus Groups/Table Tents/Billboards/TV Commercials/Facebook/etc. Why Chat When You Can Really Chat [:-)”
I agree with what most of Gerry is saying, although my research shows that people choose chat over phone reference for reasons of convenience (some love the transcript) and avoidance of awkward silences that occasionally happen on the phone (I’m not kidding about this, just ask any teenager).
His wake-up call to promote phone reference, however, is totally SPOT ON! All his ideas for marketing library phone reference are excellent. Table Tents are an especially good idea since many library users WILL NOT LEAVE or PACKUP their laptops (who can blame them?) in order to approach the reference desk if it is more than 12 feet away from where they are sitting! It would be nice if they saw the phone number on a table tent and could call for help instead of shrugging off their information need. Of course then we have to lift the ill-advised and impossible to enforce ban on cell phones in the library (and replace this policy with one that asks users to be respectful of others when using cell phones in public areas).
September is also the perfect time to do classroom marketing, what with students in Universities and schools undergoing bazillions (ok, thousands surely, maybe even tens of thousands?) library use instruction or orientation sessions!
Here’s my script for anyone doing one of these sessions:
“Greetings students! I am now about to ask you to do something that NONE of your other teachers/librarians have ever asked you to do…” (wait… for it….)
“TAKE OUT YOUR CELL PHONES AND TURN THEM ON” (amid gasps & nervous laughter from startled students, but they will do it eagerly!)
“Now, enter this library reference desk number into your phone BUDDY list…” (give ref desk number…)
“Next, here are the library hours when you can call this number for reference help” (now the students ACTUALLY have a reason to pay attention to the times when the library is open).
Here’s the clincher… “AND during the OTHER hours we are available by…” (chat, IM, e-mail, whatever you have!!)
Thus marketing chat, e-mail, etc. services along with the phone service. Wow, what an exciting old/new idea!
Wouldn’t it be great to see phone reference stats go through the roof? It’s high time to shake our fear of being overwhelmed at the ref desk.
Now is the time! Go for it!
We examined 600 chat transcripts randomly selected from QuestionPoint bank of almost 500,000 transcripts. Here are some of our findings (and an invitation below to the Seeking Synchronicity web site to see the PowerPoint slides and handouts from this presentation).
Do librarians clarify?
75% (in 434 of 581 usable transcripts) librarians did ask clarifying questions.
Did they ask the highly recommended follow-up question? (some version of “Does this completely answer your question?”)
50% (217) of the 434 librarians who clarified did ask the follow up question.
What types of questions were asked?
66% (554 of 838 questions asked by the librarians) were closed questions.
34% (282 of 838) were open.
What did librarians ask about?
Librarians asked users questions about: topic, background, search history, type of resource needed, extent/depth of information needed, if the user wanted a referral and more.
How about the virtual reference users?
Users offered information about: topic, background, extent/depth, and to correct the librarian’s misunderstanding.
Surprising finding! 2 different patterns of clarification!
Librarians clarified more often in the beginning of the interaction
Users clarified in the middle more often.
Most important finding! How to improve accuracy in chat reference?
For the 180 ready reference questions in our sample, we looked at accuracy (see my blog posting of July 10, 2007 for more on ready reference in chat).
Clarifying the query and asking the recommended follow-up question both boosted accuracy.
Always ask clarifying questions, even if you think you understand the question (one user asked for diving instructions, but had made a typo and wanted driving instructions, early clarification would have saved the librarian much searching time!)
Always ask a version of the recommended follow-up question: “Does this completely answer your question?”
Interested in more detail on the above findings? Please click on the above links to see the PowerPoint slides and handouts.
ALA Redux – Ready Reference in Chat – Not Dead Yet! PLUS 1 Foolproof Way to Increase Accuracy in Chat Reference
I wanted to update the LG faithful on the 5 (5!) very different presentations I gave at ALA in Washington DC, based on the research we are doing on the Seeking Synchronicity IMLS grant studying live chat virtual reference at Rutgers University, SCILS and OCLC.
It was wonderful to speak to so many people at ALA who were eager (yes, actually eager) to hear about research in Virtual Reference! Feedback was amazingly positive and I plan to blog about each of these presentations, just to give some highlights, and to point you to the PowerPoint presentation and handouts if you want to get more information.
For the 13th RUSA New Reference Research Forum at ALA, Lynn Silipigni Connaway of OCLC and I presented “Not Dead Yet! Ready Reference in Live Chat Reference.” We had pulled a random sample from almost 500,000 QuestionPoint transcripts from 2004-2006 and done an analysis of the types of questions and an evaluation of accuracy in ready reference. We found that early reports of the death of ready reference (due to user’s ability to search Google and Wikipedia independently for factual type questions) are premature and that these types of questions surprisingly still comprise nearly 30% of chat questions. Here are some of our findings as a tease to invite you to go to the Seeking Synchronicity site for more detail:
What Types of Questions are Being Asked in Chat?
Of 915 total chat reference questions:
- 243 (27%) were Ready Reference (short, factual, questions)
- 293 (32%) were Subject Searches (largest group)
- 10 (1%) were Inappropriate (comforting in such a low number)
What Types of Libraries/Consortia are Getting more Ready Reference Questions?
Of 162 chat transcripts:
- 59% of the Ready Reference questions came from Public Libraries
- 45% from Public & Academic Consortia
- 35% from Adacemic and Law Libraries
How about Accuracy?
How accurate are chat librarians in answering ready reference questions? We used the Arnold & Kaske (2005) method to classify chat ready reference answers and found 78% (141 of 180) to be correct. 69% (125 of 180) meeting the gold standard of correct with citation.
Increase Accuracy! Our Most Important Finding!
For the 20% (35 of 180) incorrect questions, the most frequent reason was that the chat librarian sent only general information (usually a website on the topic). The general website did not contain the specific information requested.
So the “One Foolproof Way” to increase accuracy for ready reference chat questions is as follows: before you push a general information page, make sure it has the specific, exact answer to the user’s question.
Cited Reference: Arnold, J. & Kaske, N. (2005). Evaluating the quality of a chat cervice, portal: Libraries and the Academy, 5(2), 177-193.
Special thanks to Janet Torsney, an MLIS student at Rutgers University, SCILS, for her help in doing the accuracy analysis and Susanne Sabolcsi-Boros for intercoder check. Also thanks to Nick Belkin of SCILS for suggesting the accuracy analysis.
News from Oregon Virtual Reference Summit 2007 – QandA and Ready Reference from Texting Google Mobile SMS (Beta)
I just recently returned from giving a keynote address on June 1, at the Oregon Virtual Reference Summit 2007. Caleb Tucker-Raymond, Oregon Statewide Digital Reference Services Coordinator, organized this wonderful conference that drew participants from Oregon, Washington, and California, but was mainly designed to bring together librarians who participate in L-net: Oregon Libraries Network. My plenary was called “I Was Kind of Confused b4” Interpersonal Communication Research in Virtual Reference” and I gave a workshop on “Exploring Encounters with Chat Users: Analyzing VR Transcripts.” I am willing to share ppt and handouts to LG readers if you send me an e-mail request. The plenary was videotaped and may be on the open web at some point, I will blog about it if/when this happens.
While at the conference, I attended a fascinating panel on: “What Students Need, What Schools Need.” This program brought together the viewpoints of middle and high school librarians, public librarians, and a delightful young junior high student who spoke about VR from the student perspective. After the panel, I congratulated her on her presentation, poise, and enthusiasm for VR. She mentioned that she had heard me speak in the plenary, but at first had not know what the word “plenary” meant, so she had sent a text to Google. I said: “You did WHAT???” She said: “I sent a text to Google (466453) and I put in define plenary and it gave me the definition.” I had her show me and saw that it also returns the URL where the answer was found on the web.
Some of you may already know about (or use!) this service (which is in Beta testing), but it was news to me! (It was also news to my 16 yr. old daughter, the text maven in our house, which helped me to decide to blog about this). Later one of the helpful L-net participants printed out the Google Mobile info page and I found out that not only are word definitions possible, but also you get info on weather, flight updates, movies, translations, currency conversions, driving directions, QandA and more. Google’s example for using their QandA is: abraham lincoln birthday. If any of you have tried this service out please leave a comment telling me what you asked and how it went!
Here we see Google testing the waters, as some libraries are doing, with text reference services. The latest start up I have heard of SMS for libraries was in Australia as reported on the dig_ref listserv this week by Colin J. Bain, Library Services Manager of Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane. Their SMS service just started this past Monday (June 4th) and Colin told me that they have only had 2 queries so far about library opening hours. Since they haven’t done any publicity yet, traffic will surely pick up.
Hmmm, now I am definitely going to have to spring for unlimited text messaging on my cell phone.
In the interest of being a member of the LG team, here goes my 8 revelations. Warning to all, the below is (almost) totally unrelated to librarianship. Abandon hope all ye who enter here!
1. If you have ever heard me speak, you may be surprised to learn that I had a bad lisp as a kid. My speech therapist advised me to take up public speaking to help overcome the lisp. Now I have a passion for public speaking and have had a career in teaching/librarianship (from Kindergarten through Doctoral courses and every grade level in between) and can’t get enough of either.
2. Following from the above, I admit that the famous YA advocate Mary K. Chelton, of Queens College, has (affectionately I hope!) dubbed me a “great big ham.” It fits.
3. After the lisp removal, I wore braces for 4 years in HS. Yuck! Today kids wear trendy colored braces in JH which are a status symbol of sorts. Not so then, when I endured being called “tin grin,” “can opener mouth,” (and worse unpleasantries that shall remain nameless). I must say, however, that this horrific experience made me a better person, especially later, when I was a school librarian with zero tolerance for vicious name calling or bullying.
4. Acting again on the advice of my speech therapist, I got involved in radio and had my own late night show for 4 years on the College of NJ (then Trenton State College) radio station, WTSR. My air name was “Me” and I played blues and rock n’ roll.
5. At WTSR (still WTSR 91.3 FM to this very day) I recollect that I once had a mad crush on another DJ whose show followed mine. I later found out he was gay (sigh). I should have known better, as his air name was “Peter Pan.” You can’t make this stuff up.
6. I am totally untalented when it comes to athletics, but I’ve been: an assistant cheerleading coach (to purge my intense dislike of cheerleaders, acquired in HS, see #3 above), a girl’s softball umpire, a scouting assistant to a HS football coach, and a choreographer for a HS production of Oklahoma.
7. I have never had the urge to do the following: ski, sky-dive, skateboard, bungee jump, or surf. But I have parasailed in Acapulco, ridden a motorcycle, refinished loads of antiques, and driven from NJ to Houston to cheer the Rutgers football team to its 1st bowl victory ever in the Texas Bowl last December.
8. I have had drinks with Umberto Eco at Erica Jong’s apartment. Read more about this story from my husband Gary’s point of view at his website (note the photo credit for the picture of Gary with Umberto!)
As promised in my post on February 20th User 2.0 Innovative Library Sites (Part 1- Academic Libraries) here is Part 2 of the preliminary list of Innovative Library Sites – this time for public libraries. Thanks again to David M. Drados, PhD student at Rutgers University, SCILS, and Lynn Silipigni Connaway of OCLC. This list was compiled from suggestions of librarians from the dig_ref listserv, from journal articles, and librarian colleagues.
Again, this list is not meant to be definitive, is a work in progress designed to start a discussion. Your comments and suggestions are welcomed!
- Ann Arbor District Library (MI) Uses the open source Drupal content management system with incorporates blogging, tagging, user comments, and RSS feeds. Its location page is tied into Google Maps.
- Arlington Heights Memorial Library (IL)
Features “Vlogs” – Video casts.
- Atlantic City Public Library (NJ)
Site features podcasts as well as RSS feeds.
- Denver Public Library (CO)
Has RSS feeds for library news and local events, podcasts, teen MySpace Account.
- Goshen Public Library & Historical Society (NY)
Maintains several blogs on various topics—book reviews, computers, library news, and also has a MySpace page.
- Hennepin County Library (MN)
Has blogs for library news and teens, RSS feeds built into the catalog along with user reviews/comments, a MySpace account and, podcasts.
- Memorial Hall Library (MA)
Library director maintains a Blog and site has a wiki with an accumulated collection of reference question called “Andover Answers,” teen podcasts, and a MySpace page and an online community calendars.
- Mesa County Public Library District (CO)
Has a library director blog, a staff “librarian’s love” blog, and links to online book clubs.
- Salida Regional Library (CO)
Links to Library Elf which allows users to track due dates on checked out items; local digital archive link, downloadable audio books, director (weekly) newspaper articles, and staff recommendations.
- Stevens County Rural Library District (WA)
Maintains a library news blog and a public wiki project designed to create a guide to Stevens County, including local history.
- Westerville Public Library (OH)
Features director, teen and adult services blogs, library Flickr and MySpace presence, RSS feeds, podcasts and videocasts, user rating of catalog items with links to Amazon, B&N, Novelist and Syndetics for reviews.
- Worthington Libraries (OH)
Has a teen blog along with an associated MySpace site.
Happy New Year to all the LG faithful! At the risk of shameless self-promotion, I am writing because I am very excited at my 1st publication in an electronic journal. Lynn Silipigni Connaway of OCLC and I were invited to do a Guest Forum for the Informed Librarian Online, which we have called “The Thrill of the Chase in Cyberspace: A Report of Focus Groups with Live Chat Librarians. ” It is a brief account of the results of our focus group interviews with chat librarians from our IMLS grant Seeking Synchronicity: Evaluating Virtual Reference Services from User, Non-User, and Librarian Perspectives. The results of these focus groups have been used to design an online survey which we are in the process of conducting with 200 chat librarians. I am very interested in your reactions to our findings and welcome your comments!
Richard Sweeney University Librarian of the Robert W. Van Houten Library of New Jersey Institute of Technology graciously agreed to be interviewed recently by myself and Robert Lackie for Library Garden. His contact information and biosketch are found below. Here’s how the interview evolved over several emails.
Thanks so much Richard for being willing to be interviewed for the Library Garden blog. We were fascinated by Richard’s presentation about the Millennial Generation at the New Jersey joint SLA chapter meeting with the New Jersey SLA and the Princeton-Trenton SLA Chapters held at Rutgers University this fall and were interested in learning more about your findings in conducting a series of focus groups with members of the Millennial Generation (born from 1979 to 1994). So we have a few questions for you. To start off, with all your research on the Millennial Generation what do you think are the most critical differences between this generation and previous generations?
Richard Sweeney: There are quite a few important Millennial behaviors. Perhaps the most important behavior is that they expect /demand many more choices (more selectivity and variety) in their consumer products and services. They have had a wide array of selectivity from birth and they expect it. For instance, they don’t have a generational music any longer because they have so many musical choices available to them and they do not have the need to conform. They want more personalization and customization in their products and services, once they are selected. Another behavioral difference is that expect instant gratification; they have no patience; they try to pack as much as they can into their day. This drives their multitasking, instant messaging, text messaging, collaboration and online just-in-time access from anywhere. They are experiential learners, preferring to learn by trial and error, and by doing rather than by being told. They are reading literature less and newspapers far less than other generations at the same age. There are 30 or so behavioral characteristics that I have discovered and most of these hold up with U.S. college students regardless of where or who. They are more open to change, they have more friends and they communicate with them more frequently. They are better collaborators, although they may not always actually prefer doing so.
Robert: Wow—these behavioral characteristics you describe certainly do seem to fit our undergraduate student population here at Rider University, too, as well as my own Millennial son. “Multitasking” is definitely a very descriptive word for this group, and library and teaching faculty here also describe them as a “wired-in group” that “want to be successful, and if not in the classroom, then socially.” We concluded in a recent faculty/staff development session here that we must invite Millennials to participate, be involved, and learn along with us. We certainly can learn from their general ability to quickly change and adapt to technology and its effect on their surroundings—it is a stimulating world we live in.
Marie: Well, reading Richard’s biosketch below, and since I have a 16 year old daughter, it is evident that all three of us have Millennial children which gives us a “close up and personal” view of this generation. Richard, your findings also certainly resonate with findings from recent focus groups I have conducted with the youngest members of this fascinating group (which I have referred to as “screenagers”) from rural, urban, and suburban areas as part of my IMLS grant “Seeking Synchronicity” that studies virtual reference. The teens I interviewed use libraries, but not virtual reference services, and trust Google, their own ability to search for information and to evaluate that information above the professional librarian’s abilities. They rarely check information found in Google against authoritative sources. They also spend large amounts of their time online or in gaming environments and often choose to learn by trial and error. Static library websites that are difficult to navigate and jargon laden just don’t cut it.
Marie and Robert: As a librarian, what is the most exciting thing you have learned about Millennials?
Richard Sweeney: Millennials love to learn by doing, by exploring, by discovery (on their own as well as peer-to-peer). I am excited about the opportunities to change libraries and higher education institutions into learning infrastructures with many more options preferable to Millennials. For instance, learning management systems such as Blackboard or WebCT, currently do not promote and facilitate peer-to-peer learning, learning by doing. Neither do library databases, such as ABI Inform or Business Source Premier, to name just two. They are geared more toward individual self-paced presentations and searches. The way students are learning has not yet fundamentally changed the way in which the pedagogy occurs. They require continuous feedback and interactivity, much more than they typically get in libraries. In short, the databases in libraries don’t know who the user is, do not change or adapt to him/her and do not speed up their learning/searching based upon past experience. They are dumb. Libraries have a role, and always have, in self learning and peer-to-peer learning. We have not done a very good job of creating a library learning infrastructure that specifically supports technologies that will exploit user behaviors to their own benefit. Perhaps Web 2.0 and Library 2.0 will do so.
Robert: Yes, course management/learning management systems such as Blackboard and WebCT (which, by the way, are soon to be integrated) still need some work, and we found that was very true when they were used to teach online-only courses. About library databases, providing plenty of hands-on opportunity with our databases within our research instruction sessions does seem to be appreciated by the Millennials, as they get quickly bored with our lecture/demonstrations. We know, however, that using active learning techniques with our instruction sessions is not enough, so we are exploring best practices for Web 2.0 technologies within the library. An expert guide on this that we have found very useful is the July/August 2006 Library Technology Reports (Vol. 42, No. 4) by Michael Stephens, entitled “Web 2.0 & Libraries: Best Practices for Social Software.”
Marie: I also agree that libraries should offer a variety of digital resources and venues for reference service that allow the Millennials to choose how they want to interact with librarians. Research by De Groote (2005) at the Library of the Health Sciences reference desk at the University of Illinois at Chicago found that chat reference was used most often by undergraduates (35%), email reference by graduate students (34%), and phone reference by faculty/staff (39%). One lesson here is to offer a range of reference services to meet the different needs of users. [See: De Groot, S. L. (summer, 2005). Questions asked at the virtual and physical health sciences reference desk: How do they compare and what do they tell us? Medical Reference Services Quarterly, 24 (2), 11-23.]
Marie and Robert: What are the most critical implications of your findings for librarians and library service in the present and in the future?
Richard Sweeney: Librarians can no longer think of themselves as primarily managers of collections of static documents (books, DVDs, CDs, remote databases, etc.). Libraries are fundamentally about learning, especially self learning and peer-to-peer learning. We must play a larger role in motivating and accelerating our user/patron learning, whether we are in public libraries, special libraries, academic libraries, or school libraries, etc. We need to embrace dynamic documents and allow for dynamic catalogs. This library catalog does not know nor keep track of my past uses, nor preferences. The library catalog does not let me leave notes for my friends about some books that I read and enjoyed. The electronic databases do not let me attach related citations that I think are relevant and see them whenever I would do a new search on that subject. Librarians have to see themselves not (just) as someone who works in a library, or someone who is essentially a bibliophile or even someone who helps to dispense information, or a tutor about how to find relevant documents. I think librarians will be those who practice and teach the art of satisfying each person’s learning needs better and faster. For example, the librarian should help organize access to podcasts of lectures and allow other students and faculty to add comments and notes to the podcasts, at least for themselves and friends and, when warranted, for any user. Such podcasts would not be static. “Tricks” for learning a section faster can be appended. Librarians should be able to help put together the most frequently asked question (FAQ) lists for their community so that good, fast answers to natural language questions can be automated.
Robert: Web 2.0 and Library 2.0 seem to echo in your comments, Richard. This reminds me of Roy Tennant’s quote in his article “Strategies for Keeping Current” in Library Journal (9/15/06)—he says that “We learn all the time without even thinking about it….We think that if someone doesn’t stand up in front of us and talk to us with either a chalkboard or PowerPoint slides, we cannot learn. We must regain our sense of wonder and our desire to learn.” I love your examples of making our interactions more dynamic and meaningful to our users, Richard. Michael Stephens also gives plenty of examples of social software and libraries using them to better connect with their users in his report mentioned earlier, and to librarians who are considering implementing Web 2.0 technologies and thinking in their libraries to better connect with everyone, especially Millennials, he simply states, “Come in, the water is fine.”
Marie: If libraries are to remain vibrant, responsive, and relevant, it seems to me to be like reading the writing on the wall (or writing on the screen) that significant change is needed in library web interfaces and services. Rapid technological change is difficult for many of us who are digital immigrants rather than the Millennial digital natives, yet our sense of wonder and curiosity is probably what led us into this profession to begin with and I for one am easily bored, so love trying new approaches and also love learning from the Millennials.
Marie and Robert: Do you see any possible consequences if libraries continue to do “business as usual” during the next few years? If so, what might they be?
Richard Sweeney: Our user behaviors, interest and needs are rapidly changing. If libraries do business as usual, they will become less and less relevant to these users. Already the young people think libraries are more about books and less about information than the older generations (De Rosa, Cathy et. al. Perceptions Of Libraries and Information Resources; A report to the OCLC membership. 2005).
Robert: Ouch! It seems that we need to not only better connect with Millennials, but we need to better market or advertise what we are doing for them now and get their involvement and input.
Marie: I couldn’t agree more with Richard and Robert.
Marie and Robert: What changes do you anticipate making in the next few years to accommodate the Millennials and to encourage them to use the NJIT library and electronic resources?
Richard Sweeney: One of the immediate problems we face in libraries is that we know less today about most of our users, i.e., users who search and use our online resources remotely. Millennials vote with their clicks. In our focus groups, it was obvious that the OPAC was not being used very much by our students, except to find out if we had a copy of a title available. We only know that, say 100 uses were made of the XYZ database. Was that 100 different users or one user who executed 100 searches? Were the end users successful in any of their searches? We need to begin to accumulate much more focused information about specific user satisfaction or the lack of it and then find ways to use technologies to improve user learning. We are already taking steps to move outside of the traditional catalog to obtain NJIT library resources. Our library will always be about serving people, by helping them learn better and faster. But in the future libraries will play a more active and engaged role integrating published knowledge with internal instruction, individual and peer-to-peer learning, and university research and community service.
Marie: Yes, it is true that current logging software and available reports leave much to be desired. We certainly need to find out more about this population and their information seeking and communication behaviors.
Marie and Robert: Finally, where can we find out more about your research with Millennials?
Richard Sweeney: You can take a look at my web page.
Robert: Thanks for the link to your web page, Richard. Anyone who is interested in more information on Millennials and what we can do as librarians or educators to better connect with them will love viewing your “Millennial PowerPoint” presentation with your graphs, charts, statistics, and many quotes, and your August 14, 2006 article “Millennial Behaviors and Demographics” is very informative and well-written—we especially found the listing and descriptions of Millennial behaviors that are impacting our society to be enlightening, especially in regard to how their behaviors impact their approach to learning and communicating. Thank you for including these, as well as the PowerPoints from your many recent ALA presentations.
Marie: I might add, Richard, that your article also has a great bibliography for those who want to learn more, and I’d also like to add my thanks for this interview!
Biosketch and Contact Information for Richard Sweeney
Richard Sweeney is the University Librarian at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. He has been vice provost for libraries and information services at Polytechnic University in Brooklyn, executive director of the Public Library of Columbus and Franklin County in Ohio, director of the Genesee County Library in Michigan, director of the Atlantic City Free Public Library in New Jersey, and Librarian at Central Junior High School in Atlantic City. He has served on the Board of Trustees of Thomas Edison State College in New Jersey; has taught at the high school, college, and graduate levels; and has served as president of the Columbus, Ohio, Cable Commission. He has conducted more than 35 Millennial Generation panels in a dozen states. His most recent article is “Reinventing Library Buildings and Services for the Millennial Generation,” which was published in the fall 2005 issue of Library Administration & Management. Two of his six children are Millennials.
Contact Information: Richard T. Sweeney, University Librarian, Robert W. Van Houten Library, New Jersey Institute of Technology, University Heights, Newark, NJ 07102-1982 Voice: 973-596-3208 Fax: 973-643-5601.