Author Archive

Announcing “A Reference Renaissance: Current and Future Trends” Conference August 4-5, 2008 to be held in Denver CO

Exclusive scoop! Library Garden is pleased to proclaim this exciting news!

The Reference Renaissance conference website just went live and here’s the link to the call for participation with submissions due by April 4, 2008. I am honored to be chairing the conference program, and to be in on the ground swell (dare I say movement?) that is bringing this conference to life.

The Reference Renaissance is sponsored by BCR (Bibliographical Center for Research) and RUSA (Reference and User Services Association, ALA). BCR’s dynamic President and CEO, Brenda Bailey-Hainer is chairing the conference committee. The committee is a group of vibrant library professionals who recognized the vacuum that was created when the Virtual Reference Desk (VRD) series of 7 conferences ended in 2005. The Reference Renaissance conference fully embraces and builds on the legacy of the expanded VRD mission to create a forum of LIS professionals, researchers, and students to explore all the facets of today’s reference service array, including traditional and virtual reference environments.

I believe that reference and information services are far from moribund and are undergoing an incredible, rapid, and revolutionary transformation. Our title “Reference Renaissance” was taken from an editorial by Diane Zabel, in RUSQ, in which she wrote of a “resurgence of interest in reference” and that “reference is experiencing a regeneration, a reference renaissance.”

I am thrilled (alright, downright ecstatic actually) that one of the inspirations for her editorial was the reference retreat I spoke at and helped to organize at the forward looking Penn State University Libraries last summer.

Mark your calendar and please think about attending and/or submitting a proposal for a paper, panel, workshop or demonstration! As noted above, all submissions are due to me by April 4! If you are interested in becoming involved in the conference planning activities, please e-mail me ASAP at mradford@scils.rutgers.edu. We are eager to hear about how you and your library are embracing the Reference Renaissance!

By Monday, all your favorite listservs will be carrying e-mail announcements about the Reference Renaissance conference, but you (well-informed reader of the Library Garden Blog that you are) can say you already know about it ;) Please help us to spread the word!

March 1, 2008 at 1:24 pm 3 comments

New Pew Report Looks at How America Solves Everyday Life Problems Using Libraries, the Internet, and Government Agencies


With interesting timing to those of us who are into holiday parties, hanging out with friends and family, and looking forward to the New Year, on December 30th, 2007, Pew Internet & American Life Project (PIAL) released their latest major report. Information Searches that Solve Problems: How People Use the Internet, Libraries, and Government Agencies when They Need Help studies the problem solving strategies of American adults who are 18 years old and older as they deal with 10 everyday issues. These issues included addressing health concerns, investigating school finance or enrollment, improving their work skills or changing jobs, and wrestling with problems involving government related programs such as Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, and tax issues.

PIAL has become a leading source of research for up-to-date and reliable information on how Americans are using the internet and libraries. Once again, this latest report does not disappoint. Leigh Estabrook of the University of Illinois – Urbana Champaign, Evans Witt of the New Jersey based Princeton Survey Research Associates International (PSRAI), and Lee Rainie, Director of PIAL have crafted a well-written and highly readable report. From June to September 2007, PSRAI conducted 2796 phone calls yielding 2063 usable interviews with a deliberate over-sampling from African-American, Latino, and 733 households with “low access” to computers and the internet.

The full 42 page report Internet Searches that Solve Problems that chronicles the results of these interviews is well-worth reading, but if you want to just hit the high points, check out the first 6 pages of executive summary.

Some findings I’d like to highlight:

  • Public libraries and government agencies got high marks from the respondents when among the choices for their information seeking when faced with everyday life problems, but (of course!) the star was again the internet. 58% of respondents said they used the web when they recently (within the past 2 years) encountered everyday life problems.

  • When faced with the above problems, the age group that reported visiting the pubic library the most was Gen Y (18-30 years old) with 62%. Trailing Boomers (43-52 years old) were second with 57% and Leading Boomers (53-61 years old) had an even lower percentage of 46%. This finding surprised me since I think of the Gen Y group as being more oriented to online resources and less likely to visit “brick” libraries.

  • The most frequently encountered problem reported (45%) was a serious illness (either themselves, or someone close to them). This finding confirms other studies that find health concerns to be among the top reasons people use the web when addressing personal matters as opposed to school or work-related searching.

  • Regarding privacy issues, Pew found that only 20% of the respondents “were concerned about privacy disclosures as they hunted for information” and “they were somewhat more pronounced for the low-access group” (p. viii). Since some of these issues were very personal in nature, I would have expected this number to be much higher.

There are many more intriguing findings from this report, take a look – perhaps when you recover from New Year’s celebrations! Happy Hols to all!

December 31, 2007 at 12:46 pm 2 comments

"I Was Kind of Confused b4" – Audio of Radford on Chat Reference at Oregon VR Summit ’07


On June 7, 2007 I blogged about a keynote talk I gave on June 1, 2007 at the Oregon Virtual Reference Summit 2007 organized by Caleb Tucker-Raymond, Oregon Statewide Digital Reference Services Coordinator for the L-net: Oregon Libraries Network consortium. The talk just became available as an audio file on the open web. (Thanks Caleb!) I promised to post to the blog when this happened, so am now able to make good on my promise.

If you’d like to listen to this presentation, click here: “I Was Kind of Confused b4” Interpersonal Communication Research in Virtual Reference.”

The talk focuses on the information-seeking and communication behaviors of the youngest Millennials – the Screenagers. I discuss their predilections and characteristics (multi-tasking, impatience, practicality, convenience, etc.) as well as their perceptions of librarians (“I don’t trust librarians, I trust Google”) and fear of cyber-predators in chat rooms that extends to chat librarians (“I don’t like to chat with strangers.”)

In addition, I comment on some recommendations for improving chat reference encounters with teens . These recommendations were derived from focus groups with screenagers and from in-depth chat reference transcript analysis as part of the IMLS grant project Seeking Synchronicity.

The keynote was about 50 minutes, followed by Q and A, so be forewarned that it is long. Hey, feel free (of course!) to check your e-mail while listening, or to multi-task with other activities ;)

I begin by talking about my background and how I got interested in studying chat reference, so if you want to get to the research results, fast forward through the first 15 mins. or so.

October 27, 2007 at 8:25 am

‘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!

October 7, 2007 at 2:23 pm 11 comments

Back to the Future: Phone Reference “OnCall OnDemand OnSite”

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!

September 25, 2007 at 6:30 pm 6 comments

Are We Getting Warmer? Query Clarification in Virtual Reference (ALA Redux Part 2)

At the Library Research Round Table at ALA in Washington, DC, on June 23, 2007, Lynn Silipigni Connaway of OCLC and I presented our latest findings on Query Clarification in VR (aka question negotiation or the reference interview).

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.

Bottom Line
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.

This research is funded by IMLS, Rutgers University, and OCLC.
Special thanks to Susanna Sabolcsi-Boros of Rutgers, SCILS, and Patrick Confer of OCLC, for their help with this part of the project.

July 13, 2007 at 7:52 am

ALA Redux – Ready Reference in Chat – Not Dead Yet! PLUS 1 Foolproof Way to Increase Accuracy in Chat Reference

“I’m not dead yet!”

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.


Clidk here for the Not Dead Yet! PowerPoint presentation and here for the Not Dead Yet! handout that details coding procedures for type of question and accuracy.

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.


July 10, 2007 at 10:31 am 2 comments

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