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Thoughts on Innovation in Reference Services

Last Friday I had the pleasure of [virtually] being part of a panel at the WLA / PNLA conference in Victoria. The panel was called “Reference Service Innovations: Present and Future”, and my fellow panelists and I were given some excellent questions to consider.

Since I wasn’t sure how the technology would play out (I was a virtual presenter on a panel that was otherwise physically present AT the conference), I recorded the questions with my answers and sent them along so that I could be represented even if the technology failed. Thankfully, it didn’t, and I’m happy to have my thoughts recorded so that I can share them here with you.

The questions were provided by Heather McLeland-Wieser at the Seattle Public Library. These answers represent some of my thoughts on the future of reference service. I hope they’re of interest, and that you’ll share your thoughts as well in the comments.

  1. I personally am very intrigued by “reference service at the point of need.”  Do you have any examples of libraries who are trying this innovation?  How is it really an innovation? Are they doing this digitally or in person?

“Point of need” is one of those terms that I’m guilty of using but I’m still not 100% sure what it means. I suppose it means the point when someone realizes that have a specific need, which would be more a “point of realization” … but I’ll try not to get too semantic.

I forget who it was, but at the Internet Librarian conference last year someone said that what we should do is follow our users around (physically and on our web sites), and pay attention to every place that the user gets frustrated. It could be in the library catalog, or in the stacks, or trying to find the right database. And then at all of these spots of frustration, which are the points of need, we should make ourselves available to help. “Having trouble? Get help from a librarian.” And we should do this so well that it should seem like magic.

To me “point of need” isn’t a reference idea, but a more holistic service idea. If someone is at the stacks with a call # in their hand and they realize they don’t have any clue about how to use that # to find the item they want, our point of need service would have anticipated that, and we would having some sort of finding aid there at the stacks to get them where they need to be.

Of course, this finding aid could be a reference librarian, and you could put them out there in a roving reference model, or provide the user some way to contact them from where they are. I assume that it’s no longer really a point of need service if you put a sign up saying, “Can’t find your book, go ask the librarian at the reference desk.” So you could put some way to contact them, maybe a computer terminal that connects to chat – though if you’re doing that, you could also put an interactive map of the stacks there, too, and that might be more useful. Or you could put the reference desk phone # up at the end of each shelving unit, and let your librarians decide if they want to talk the user through over the phone, or meet them in the stacks.

In terms of specific examples, the Norlin Library at the University of Colorado @ Boulder is running a pilot “information kiosk” program, putting customized kiosks at a number of pre-determined points of need. They’ll have one kiosk at their main stacks, another at their defunct government information desk, and have plans for a number of others. These kiosks will provide catalog access, maps, and of course, links to chat with a reference librarian.

I do like the idea of kiosks, especially those that are customized with services that exactly match the anticipated need for their location. It’s got an automated component, as well as a live component by offering chat, which I think works well together.

For my money, what point of need really means is that we either have to be really good at anticipating need, or we need to provide reference access points in as many places as we possibly can. In a physical sense, this means that we should be visible everywhere in the library, as well as in schools and community centers. In a virtual sense, we should give our reference services more visibility on our websites, and we should work with community partners to have links on their websites too. Moving beyond the web, we should have at least ONE way for mobile users to get in touch (aside from calling) – be that SMS reference, or a great app, or a clean mobile website.

In short, our users will choose their points of need. It’s our job to be ubiquitous.

  1. Cost of service delivery has become a huge obstacle for many library systems as they try to innovate.  Are there innovations that can be accomplished with minimal upfront costs? Are there innovations that have a larger upfront cost but that will require lower staffing and servicing costs down the road?

Well, here in Washington the cost for the virtual reference coop is picked up by the State Library, so that’s a free service for libraries to use, which continues to innovate. My experience in reference service is that innovation doesn’t cost in terms of money, though, but in staff time, and that’s a harder obstacle to overcome.

I think that putting ourselves out there in social networks is a fairly low-cost way to improve our service delivery, but like most things, libraries will probably get more out of it the more they put into it, again in terms of time.

I think that in terms of point of need innovations, there is a lot we can do at a very low cost. Something as simple as the right sign at the right place can be the perfect service delivery, and for what, like a dollar in printing costs? And the same thing with websites, all we have to do is watch our users, and then make sure we are providing the right services in the right places.

I think that subject guides and screencasts are both underused technologies that have a low cost and can be used innovatively. In a talk I gave to academic librarians earlier this year I said that we need to learn how to clone ourselves. What I mean is that there are  a lot of tools to record our expertise, be those tools that actually, literally record our faces and put them up on a website to talk to users on our behalf, or tools that record our expertise and make it easily findable by our users. Pretty much all of us are already doing this, I mean what library doesn’t have some sort of subject guide on its website … but in general we’re not doing it very well, either in terms of getting our users to look at and use the guides, or in terms of making the guides EASY to locate and use.

  1. Many people think innovation must involve technology – what is your opinion?  Do you have some examples of innovations that aren’t technology oriented?

Absolutely. I think the best example of non-tech reference innovation is to embed reference librarians in the community. In terms of public libraries, this means getting our reference librarians out of the library in some sort of visible way and out among people: in cafes … in the park … at the farmer’s market. They should have some sort of card pointing out their reference service, online, in-person, mobile … all of that, but they should also be willing and able to answer questions on the spot. They can focus more specific reference services in more specific venues: neighborhood resources at neighborhood association meetings, local history and legal resources at community or city council meetings, business advice and resources at the downtown business association.

Jamie LaRue, the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Colorado, has been embedding librarians in the community for a few years now, and says now: “The community meeting doesn’t begin until the librarian shows up … they don’t believe anything important can get done until the librarian is there.”

You can consider mobile innovations to be technologically-driven, but the fact is that they’re much more about place than they are about technology. It isn’t the fact that I can ask a question with my mobile phone, it’s the fact that I can ask a question when it occurs to me, in the car or at the café or the movies or wherever. I don’t really care that I’m using a technological device to do it, I just like that I can do it, wherever I happen to be.

And that’s great, because we can get out to these places on mobile devices but we can also explore ways to be there in person, to expand beyond our walls and find those places of need where our users want us, maybe even need us, but are not (yet) used to seeing us.

  1. What  one service or technology do you think has the greatest potential to change the way we deliver reference in the future and why?

I don’t think there’s any way around saying that the answer to this is mobile technology, that is mobile phones and everything that goes along with them, apps, SMS, the mobile web … this is seriously changing the game, in terms of user expectations and also in terms of the role of the library.

And it’s interesting because right now we can do anything, all the old stuff that we’ve been doing, and if it’s mobile than it’s automatically innovative. Placing holds online? People have been able to do that for years and years. Placing holds via their mobile device? Innovation! Even being able to search the catalog via a mobile device is considering innovative right now, which is all well and good but I’m not sure what it says about actual new innovative services. Yeah, we should make all our core services mobile, getting books and asking questions and such, but we should move beyond that too.

The one mobile technology that I really like for libraries in the future is augmented reality. I like the idea of looking at the world through a lense that provides information about what I’m looking at, in real time and wherever I happen to be. This totally seems like science fiction but it’s already something you can do with just an iPhone and a free app (Layar). For libraries, application could be static – look through your phone to find the book in the library, or look at a book in the library to find other books like that book, or browse based on author or subject – or it could be more interactive, use the phones camera as a live co-browse of the world, with a librarian watching with you and helping you make sense of what you’re looking at. This seems even more sci-fi but we could already be doing this with apps like Facetime and librarians that are willing to try something a little different.

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