MassAnswers, a 24/7 ref project, answers my question sort of

Again, I say I feel odd commenting on the work of other librarians, so I’ll let this one mostly speak for itself. I had a friend who works in Boston who had a reference question “How many pre-1900 cemeteries are there in Massachusetts?” I thought I might be able to get this one with a quick Google but I was mistaken. So I decided to try out a service I was curious about: MassAnswers.

You know how Home Depot in every state says “[your state name]‘s Home Improvement Warehouse”? MassAnswers is just a rebranded 24/7 Reference project. So while the main page strongly implies you’ll talk to someone local (and I did), they also note that your question “may very well be answered by one of these Massachusetts librarians, or it may be answered by a librarian from California, Florida, North Carolina or some other community who contributes to the 24/7 service.” I decided to try it out, and I went there from the main page of Boston Public Library, where I have a library card. I use chat all the time, every day, a lot. I was curious to see how chat reference worked in a 24/7 environment. MassAnswers says this on their how does it work page.

You will communicate with the librarian using chat software accessed using your internet browser. You will type in questions to the librarian, and read their responses. Chat combines the immediacy of the telephone with the preciseness of a written e-mail. As you get into this form of communication you will realize that the pace of a chat “conversation” is a bit different than you might expect. You will put in a question, and then go off and do something else on the computer while the librarian picks up and formulates a reply. There will follow periods of rapid interchange of messages interspersed with longer pauses. During the pauses it is best if you open a complete new browser window if you want to do other web-browsing. That way you will not inadvertently drop the 24/7 connection.

It’s an interesting way of explaining chat, and yet read in a really odd stilted way, don’t you think? Once you get to the login page, you also read this:

Please do not try to bookmark (add to favorites) or print anything during the session! At the end of the session, you will receive a list of live links, which will allow you to go back and visit all of the pages the librarian showed you. You can bookmark anything you want at that time. If you try to bookmark during the session, you may experience a disconnect.

So, I will be shown websites which relate to my query and yet I shouldn’t be bookmarking them, adding them to my favorites, or printing them? Wasn’t one of Ranganathan’s five laws “Don’t make the user’s computer act differently from the computer they are used to”? If not, perhaps it should have been. Sarah Houghton has talked a lot about what needs to be fixed in QuestionPoint new interface but I’m pretty sure I was using the old interface. Stephen Francoeur has also discussed what he’d like to see fixed or improved. I’ll briefly talk about my experience.

Here is my transcript from which you can glean a lot. An interesting thing to note is that while the librarian I was working with was designated by her location and her initials, the transcript I received merely called her “librarian.” Also interesting is that the realtime transcript I was seeing had no timestamps on it while the transcript that was emailed to me clearly did. My reference transaction took 37 minutes and at the end of it I had the name of a book to go look in and a number of a librarian to call. My question was not answered, though to be fair it may have been a tough one.

A few things to note from the transcript:

  • the first link I was given was a) one that I had found in my own 5 minute google search and b) unhelpful because it had no date information. I’m sure there are many people who don’t know what the heck they want when they’re in this sort of situation, but I was not one of them. My question was clear. This web site did not answer it.
  • There was clearly something wrong with either her software or her understanding of it (I am assuming this was a woman I was dealing with) if you’ll note the times I got an address or a book title pasted eight times (twice)
  • The narrowness of the browser window — which is adjustable, but I used the default settings — means two things 1. all the cites she pasted for me were horribly formatted and hard to read 2. all of the websites we co-browsed were horribly formatted and hard to read
  • At the end of it all, she looked up a book for me in an OPAC though she admitted that there might have been print resources that would be helpful. She was clearly not in a library. I understand this is how these systems work, but it seemed like if she had had the book in front of her that she might have had a chance at helping me with my question.

The MassAnswers site spends a lot of time saying “librarian … librarian … librarian…” over and over again like a mantra, but I think it’s a valid question “Just how useful is the librarian outside of their library?” I feel that I’m pretty useful on Ask MetFilter and on these silly IM reference hunts, but honestly when we tell people we’re providing them with librarians but what we give them are MLS-educated people with access to the Internet (same as the asker in this case), what are we providing? What are we telling them? I’m pleased that the person I worked with tried so hard to help me out, but what chance did she have? I answered the follow-up survey I got honestly, and OCLC swears “Your answers and comments will help us to better tailor the system to your needs.” but I doubt it, I really and truly doubt it.

RLG + OCLC = ???

Will Walt Crawford start blogging for It’s All Good? We can only think about whether that would be a consequences of the pending OCLC and RLG merger. Here is OCLC’s press release. Here is RLGs press release (note, they are the same). I’ll link to RLG’s version when I can find it, or when they write one.

According to the release, the current president of RLG, James Michalko, will get a new job title: “Vice President of RLG-Programs Development, working under the leadership of Lorcan Dempsey, Vice President of Research and OCLC Chief Strategist” The press release also notes that “Any change in RLG service offerings will be announced well in advance.” and doesn’t mention what will happen to OCLCs service offerings, presumably nothing. The press release uses nice words like “combine” a lot, an awful lot actually, but when I think of combinations, I think of how you mix butter and sugar to make something that is part both and part neither. This seems to be the sort of combination where you mix sugar and water and what you wind up with is water, sweetened. It will be interesting to see how this works out. [web4lib]

death, the blog

Sometimes it’s interesting to subscribe to odd feeds just to learn something about the way other people receive information. When David Bigwood posted about the new OCLC Death Dates feed (they call it something like “closed dates in authority records” *yawn*) I knew I had to check it out.

who owns the review I gave to worldcat?

With OCLCs reader review capability, who will own the data? Asked and [sort orf] answered on the Web4Lib list.

preparedness, before and after

It’s All Good plugs OCLCs digitizing services ["aren't you glad you've done the hard work of digitizing all your special collections at times like these?"], and then points to two useful pages on the SOLINET web site: Before the Storm: The Countdown (Preparing for a Storm) & Actions for the First Day After (Cleaning Up After a Storm)

Harris Interactive: How Academic Librarians Can Influence Students’ Web-Based Information Choices

A pretty interesting look at what the “end-user market segment” that is college students thinks about looking for information online. Keep in mind this is not positioned as a study about people look for information in libraries generally, though the argument could be made that more and more people are looking at the Internet as the first, and perhaps the last, destination for information retrieval. However, that point is not addressed in this survey. Some random facts I pulled out

  • 80% of students surveyed are bothesred at least a little by advertising within websites though “only one-in-five believes ad-free websites have more reliable information.”
  • The survey says “They access the web via high-speed lines, with over 40% logging on via cable modem, T1/T3 line, ISDN, or ADSL/DSL.” which has the obvious follow-up question of how the majority of them access the web, or perhaps whether the response was phrased oddly and is confusing like this sentence nearby “[O]ver 90% access the web remotely from the library via their home computer” which i think means they gain access to the web through the library’s web site?
  • Students find librarians assistance with searching online no more helpful than that provided by teachers or friends “The mean satisfaction score for librarian-provided help is 7.8 (on a scale of 0 to 10), compared to scores of 7.9 for help provided by professorsor teaching assistants and 7.8 for classmates or friends.” I wonder if this would have a different result if it asked about print resources, or other in-library resources?
  • There are further questions about print resources that show that 89% “use the campus library’s print resources” with books, journals and articles getting 75/70/64% respectively.

The survey also contains recommendations

The data strongly suggest that there are real opportunities for academic librarians to connect students with libraries’ high quality resources. A successful approach should incorporate the following tactics to increase libraries’ visibility on the web:
  1. Emphasis on students’ and librarians’ common preferences for accuracy, authority, timeliness, and privacy
  2. Tight integration of the library’s electronic resources with faculty, administrative, and other campus websites
  3. Open access for remote users
  4. Clear and readily available navigational guides–both online and in the library.
  5. Relentless promotion, instruction, and customer service.

The study ends with some questions for further exploration which have a bit too much market-driven speak in them for my tastes, but I know libraries have to start thinking about these things in an academic environment, or at least that’s what people keep telling us. Two examples

  • Students expect service providers–both electronic and bricks-and-mortar–to offer convenience, selection, quality, and a welcoming atmosphere. Can librarians create a customer-friendly experience to match the best merchants and consumer websites?
  • Students want to know more about the library and its resources. Can librarians execute marketing rules for product definition, promotion, price, placement, and positioning?

I guess a secondary question to these last two is “Should they?” I honestly don’t know. OCLC has the 2005 numbers, I’m curious to know what they say. [iag]

save the date, blogger get-together at ALA

The folks from the It’s All Good blog are sponsoring a libraryland blogger get together at ALA, Sunday, June 26, beginning at 5:30 pm, final exact location TBD.

thousands of hits, good news or bad?

Somehow missed this last week — an excellent point/counterpoint [in the form of a blog entry and comment] over at the OCLC blog. Topic? That ongoing “Do we make the library more like Google, or make Google more like the library?” I think it also points out another hidden conflict area that is fast becoming a favorite topic of mine: to what extent do we let the software dictate the way the user can search, and hopefully find? ALA’s ballots are being distributed over a one week [for e-ballots] or two week [paper] schedule. Why can’t we send them all at once? Because ALA worries about server overload problems. Is this saving the time of the user? Does Google?

Pretend you’ve never ever been in a large library. Pretend you know absolutely nothing about taxonomies. Pretend you don’t know the difference between a magazine, a journal, an index and a book. Pretend you don’t know what you don’t know, and don’t know how to articulate your unknowingness. Once you’ve pretended all this, make a pretend visit to a very large library for the first time.