But what about when the armageddon comes?

Issues of access and technical skill aside, electronic materials have a huge practical advantage in terms of storage space and use (easier to search for and to search within the text).  As users grow more and more comfortable with accessing electronic information, there seems little reason to turn back to the physical.  While there may be a fondness for print, a sentimentality for the smell of old books and holding a new novel in one’s hand for the first time, electronic materials are also growing increasingly user friendly.  Although e-books are not yet be the preferred format for American readers, Anderson provides a short laundry list of necessary improvements such as “instant on-off, no boot-up time, high-contrast, high-resolution, jump instantly to a chapter or bookmark, durability, storage, up to 50 gigs to accommodate multimedia, compatibility with all networks, integrated animation and video, and acceptable digital rights management and intellectual property protection” (Anderson, 2009, p. 75).   Most of those features seem well within the grasp of a few more years of technological development, with the exception of the tall order for acceptable digital rights management.

In the past few centuries, as print became more practical and copyright laws grew to protect not only the work of the creator but the investments of industry, ownership of content has been increasingly divested from the hands of the consumer.  Now that we are returning to a more interactive media culture, precisely which content can be owned is becoming increasingly nebulous.  It seems as though we are on the brink of major decisions which could either change the culture of publishing and producing or could put a price point on each line of text.  Exactly how it will all shake out will be very interesting to watch.  Libraries must not only work to provide the best current access to quality resources, they must preserve that access for the future.  Libraries act as a reservoir of knowledge, holding information to quench the thirst of patrons.  If costs continue to increase, if copyright and ownership tighten down to charge per use, if resources can be taken away or leveraged at the whim of the distributor, libraries could face astronomical costs.

And what if all our wonderful technological infrastructure goes south? In a bleak depiction of the collapse of our world due to over population and exhaustion of our natural resources, primarily petroleum, Hecker describes a secular return to the monastic libraries of the dark ages.  He envisions academic libraries, perhaps in conjunction with public libraries, as precious repositories of pre-collapse culture and information.  In his future, library staff will band together to conserve physical materials, which will be the non-renewable resources of the post digital society.  While his dire warnings may never come to pass, it is worthwhile to think of the consequences of digital collapse, as so many other articles speak only of the infinite possibilities of technology.

Anderson, B. (2009). E-book Growth. Behavioral & Social Sciences Librarian, 28(1/2), 74-6.
Hecker, T. (2007, July). The Post-petroleum Future of Academic Libraries. Journal of Scholarly Publishing, 38(4),

A Happy Library

I don’t work at a library yet but I am doing this resource building project for a non-profit.

The project was born in a bar, as all good projects are.  I was talking to the program director about wanting to build a cheese library when he said to me “you know, our library is really sad.  Two sad shelves of out dated-books.  It’s just really sad.”  We started talking about the possibility of me doing some volunteer work and I began to get really excited.  I was in 202 at the time and had visions of building a beautiful database for which I would create a custom classification system to catalog all the wonderful new resources I would find.

Then when I sat down to actually meet with the director and his co-worker, they began to talk about how it wasn’t just books they needed, but they wanted to improve the staff culture of resource sharing.  They told me that each staff member had their own go-to resources, but that there wasn’t really a practice of sharing those resources with each other.  No problem.  At this point I was taking Web 2.0, and I had wonderful plans to get the staff to build their own wiki, which would be populated with blogs and RSS feeds of their Delicious bookmarks.  I would show them how to set up feed readers, and they would spend their days reading and sharing electronic articles.  They would be so happy!

So next we took a staff survey, and I came to a staff meeting to talk about the results and show off some of my new favorite web tools and resources.  I was able to wow them with some of the possibilities, but the take away was really that while tools and resources were exciting, the staff was not so interested in actually using them.  They voiced the opinion that they would like resources for their clients to use, and that those resources should be electronic.  Fair enough.

Which brings me to where I am now.  We’ve decided to use a wiki to list electronic, held print items, and recommended off-site print items in four main categories.  Staff and clients will be able to use the wiki to find information for the clients.  We will focus on electronic resources, but will also aim to beef up the print library.  The recommended items will also serve as a wish list for the organization.

So how does publishing affect this project?  In a broader sense, we are exploring the print versus electronic issue. In order to make this project useful, it will need to be easy to integrate usage of the resources into practices with and by the clients.  There are computers available for clients to use at the organization, but they are mostly in another area of the building.  Clients may not have computer or internet access at home.  While print resources don’t require any special equipment, there is concern that items which are lent out will not make it back to the organization.  Will teens (many with literacy issues) sit and read a book in an office building?

Because we will be purchasing at a low volume, we will not run into the complexity of issues raised in a larger library.  My plate is full with this project, I can only imagine the headache it would be to expand this more basic question into the details of which serials justify a $14,000 subscription.  As librarians and library students we get excited about all sorts of things that the general public doesn’t really give a hoot about.  I think that not only must you balance between print and electronic, you must balance between what is practical (what will actually get used) and what is essential to the library’s reputation or image.

Two Digital Reference Questions and an Interaction with a Librarian in a Library

I recently completed an assignment to compare reference transactions in three different media: at the physical library, via email, and through a chat service.

It was only when I set out to do this that I realized I couldn’t recall ever asking a librarian a reference question.  As a kid I loved the library, but I really enjoyed wandering around picking out my own books.  As I grew older I had the attitude that I should be smart enough to know how to do my own research.  One reason why I am grateful for this assignment (and class), is that I see there’s no shame in asking a librarian a question. 

The transaction I preferred was the email transaction.  The form was very simple; the only required fields were the question and an email address. I appreciated that it was so easy and really liked that I could ask my question whenever I wanted, from wherever I was.  My answer was written clearly.  I now have a document I can refer to, instead of having to rely on my memory as in the desk transaction.  I was given fewer resources than when I used desk reference, but was given the librarian’s name and several points of contact for follow up.  This shows the potential to develop a relationship with the librarian, allowing us to continue to work on my question.

I had high hopes for chat reference.  I anticipated that it would combine email’s ease of use with a transparent search more tailored to my specific needs.  I thought it would be a great opportunity to work closely with someone to explore online resources and develop a good search strategy.  Unfortunately my librarian, while friendly, did not keep me informed of what she was doing.  She disappeared during the search, and I was left twiddling my thumbs while she was presumably browsing the web.  The session basically took up thirty minutes of my time and presented four links, two of which I had already discovered quite quickly via Google.  At the end of the session she told me her shift was over but did offer to transfer me to another chat librarian or forward my question to the library as an email.

The desk reference transaction produced the greatest number of resources, but was somewhat unfocused.  I am kind of a shy person and felt a little overwhelmed by the reference set up.  The library was busy and there were no clear markings stating “This is the Reference Desk.”  When I finally worked up my nerve to approach a desk, the librarians were friendly and attentive.  I was referred by my initial contact to another librarian.  Both of them set aside what they were doing and gave me their full attention.  The librarian who ended up helping me walked me to the section she thought might be appropriate.  The service fell down a little bit in terms of questioning, search and follow up.  She did not try to figure out where I’d already looked, she didn’t ask me if the material was what I needed, she indicated sections of shelving which might be appropriate but didn’t tell me why or help formulate strategies, and she didn’t advise me to come back if I needed more.  I was mostly satisfied with the transaction, primarily because of her friendly demeanor (something which I think is more difficult to convey via digital reference), but I think my search could have been better served.

All the services I tried could have done better in terms of instruction and questioning.  I now have some great resources for the project on which my question was based, but I don’t have any better idea on how to find more by myself.

Relatedly: I sent an additional email question on behalf of a friend of mine.  In the answer, the librarian quoted Wikipedia!  In all fairness, the quote did explain the answer clearly and concisely, but I was a little shocked.

The Cheesemonger’s Reference Interview: Taylor’s Five Filters

“What cheese would go good with bread?”
“I had this cheese at a party that I really liked and I think it was yellow.  Do you have it?”
“I wanted to put together a cheese plate with three different cheeses?”

How is a cheesemonger like a librarian?  When it comes to the reference interview.  In both vocations (or avocations if you’re that sort), people often approach the professional with an undefined need.  At the cheese counter, they are searching for appropriate deliciousness. 

Determination of Subject
In the three questions above, the first step is for the cheesemonger to narrow down the subject.  Asking “What cheese would go good with bread?” is kind of like asking the librarian “Do you have any good books here?”  And yet we must resist the temptation to shout “Open your eyes you fool!”  Each person’s notion of what is good, or appropriate, is subjective.  For the cheesemonger it is useful to narrow the options by classifying the customer’s need.  Is he or she looking for bloomy rind, fresh, soft, semi-soft, firm, or blue?  Sheep, goat, cow, or other?  Pasteurized or raw?  Organic or conventional?  Is there a preference for country of origin?  Mild or stinky?  At this point rather than overwhelming the customer with choice, it may be useful to find a starting point by asking “What is your favorite cheese?”  This will give the cheesemonger an initial frame of reference.  From a library standpoint, the monger could also employ neutral questioning techniques and entice the customer to “tell me more about what you are looking for in such a cheese.”

Objective and Motivation
The customer who wants to put together a cheese plate with three different cheeses (please note the cheeses should be different, rather than a plate of three wedges of the exact same cheese) may have additional requirements based on the projected use of the cheese.  One customer may be planning to serve a formal cheese plate at the end of a three course meal for the boss of his or her partner.  Another customer may want to put out snacks during a superbowl party.  A third customer may be looking to seduce a date at the end of a home cooked meal.  Each scenario requires a different style of cheese from sophistication to more-ishness to decadent luxury. 

Personal Characteristics of the Inquirer
Somewhat related to narrowing the subject field, the determination of an individual’s tastes is integral to the cheesemonger’s reference interview.  Presenting a challenging stinker such as Grayson to a cheese novice can sour a person’s taste buds for the rest of their visit and perhaps their future cheese forays.  As with any food there are additional considerations which may have health implications.  Is the customer allergic to cow’s milk?  Is she pregnant and avoiding unpasteurized foods?  There are also practical considerations such as budget to be taken into account.

Relationship of the Inquiry Description to the File Organization
In the case of the customer who is looking for “that yellow cheese” he or she had at a party, the ideal scenario for the cheesemonger is that questioning and tasting can discover the exact same cheese.  Of course, reality is often much murkier.  The customer may taste a cheese that “could be it” or it may be determined that the shop does not carry the cheese in question.  In which case, the cheese in question can be translated to a cheese that is present.  The cheesemonger may produce a cheese from the same region with similar characteristics, or she may introduce a cheese which matches the qualities the customer found so intriguing in the mystical “yellow cheese.”

Anticipated or Acceptable Answers
In the final negotiation, hopefully informed by the other four filters, customer and cheesemonger must determine the form (and price) of the cheese to be purchased.  Often customers have no idea what a quarter pound looks like or how much cheese is needed to feed six people.  Here is where the savvy cheesemonger can interject helpfully by showing the relationship of a smaller weight to a large hunk of cheese or by memorizing recommended serving quantities.  The customer may also have preconceived notions for appearance, for example thinking that white cheddar is sharper or requiring small self-contained rounds of cheese rather than wedges from a larger wheel.

Nerds Attack! How you can defend yourself with a collection development policy..

This article on collection development policies jumped out at me because I’m a bit of a sci-fi/fantasy geek.  Nikkel and Belway describe the attempts of an academic library staff to weed a truly astonishing collection of science fiction, ranked “10th in the world in terms of size” (2009, p. 197).  The collection had began in 1966 as a gift by a faculty member, and grew to over 190,000 items (at a school of only 2,200 students).  While impressive, “the collection had been little used for several years, and systematic collection development and management had long since ceased”  (2009, p.196).  The library’s lack of a cohesive collection development policy had allowed books to be added (generally at reader suggestion) without any attempt at creating balance. 

When the library decided that the collection should be weeded to make room for new projects and storage, “responses to the decision ranged from confusion to outrage to thoughtful defenses urging caution and offering advice on how to assess the collection, ironically resulting in more attention than the collection had received in years” (2009, p. 197).  Eventually the librarians sat down with faculty members to hammer out guidelines for weeding as well as future development.   Because no “coherent collection development policy, except for a short statement appearing on the library’s Web site, had been articulated for the collection at any point in the four decades it had been in existence” (2009, p. 202), it had fallen into disuse and irrelevancy.  Meetings with faculty resulted in a number of resolutions, including subtle promotion of donations for a new library (where the science fiction could be housed) and a new collection development policy.  Ultimately “the project … increased interest in the collection and the library, both on and off campus (2009, p.204)

Nikkel & Belway articulate the need for a collection development policy in practical terms, through the illustration of the results of not having one.  Although the end result of this project seems postive, with better understanding and involvement from both staff and faculty, a clear document would have served to guide the collection through continued use.  At the very least it validates Evans and Saponaro’s assertion that “no gift is ever free”  (2005, p. 61).

Evans, G., & Saponaro, M.  (2005).  Developing library and information center collections.  Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.
Nikkel, T. & Belway, L. (2009). When worlds collide: Dismantling the science fiction and fantasy collection at the University of New Brunswick, Saint John. Collection Management, 34(3), 194-208.