Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Article Note: On blogs and reference collaborative work

Citation for the article:

Pomerantz, Jeffrey and Frederic Stutzman. "Collaborative Reference Work in the Blogosphere." Reference Services Review 34.2 (2006): 200-212.

I have been coming across a few articles and items about blogs and applications for libraries and reference work. This article was picked up by Stephen Abrams, of Stephen's Lighthouse. Since he said it was a quick reading, I figured I would give it a try. He provides a link to the article, but it should be available on Emerald as well. The title did sound promising.

The article provides some basic definitions of what is a blog, and it identifies three types of blogs within the library community: the bulletin board type, the ones kept by individual librarians (like this one), and the ones from professional organizations like ACRLog. They make a small observation that "at this rate [referring to Technorati's "State of the Blogosphere"], it seems likely that blogs will come to reflect any and all topics in which people are interested" (201). I was thinking of how accurate or not that remark might be in light of Pew's recent study of bloggers. I found the collaboration idea quite intriguing, but in the end I am left with the question of how does the reference transaction start. Does a person post to a blog? The author's suggest that a reference transaction begins with the question from the patron (205), but does it mean it mean then a library would have a fully open blog for any patron to post? If so, how would one overcome issues like vandalism and spam? This is not made clear. They cite the example of Metafilter, but in order to post there, one has to register to become a member. I just don't see this detail working out well in libraries without a little more thought. Now, the use of the blog posts as a form of collective knowledge, an information resource, resembles what a knowledge base would do. I can attest that reference questions very often are repeated by various patrons over time. Our e-mail reference is an example of this, and some librarians who are savvy enough to save previous answers often will cut-and-paste a reply to a duplicate question (after editing out any previous identifying details). A reference blog might help solve this situation by making the answers to questions more accessible, but how does the user get to post the first time? Would we really expect our users to register for yet another thing in order to get an answer? This would not be unheard of, to an extent. Theoretically, many libraries restrict or limit their online reference services to people that they serve (an academic community, a particular county, etc.), but in practice, people can often send in a query if it is not really restricted (i.e., the library states a "preference" but does not verify if someone is affiliated to the academic community for instance). My question is would this be desirable and practical? It's the one question that the article did not seem to address clearly. Maybe the collective knowledge of readers out there might shed some light on the matter. The authors seem to be suggesting using the concept of a community blog, but unlike something like Metafilter, I am not so sure it would be as easy to get library users to register to another community. Then again, as I continue to spin it over, I wonder if the work some teen librarians have done for their libraries, where they do let patrons post reviews and things like that, may yield a possible answer. That would probably make a bit more sense in my estimation.

The authors also discuss possible issues in using a blog for reference services. One of these issues is the matter of credentials. Do we only let librarians answer questions? What about other paraprofessionals? Would patrons make an issue of this? Another issue is that of referrals. Librarians may at times refer a patron to another agency or location to get an answer. This could be addressed a bit better online because referrals may well be unnecessary. Since it is a community blog, the diversity of membership would be able to provide an answer. In contrast, in the traditional model of one librarian and one patron, if the question is outside the librarian's scope of knowledge, it would need a referral. Online, it would be like bringing various minds together. I can see the possibilities.

Some questions that the authors propose for further study include: maintaining quality of the responses (this is to avoid the Wikipedia syndrome), and what are best practices for using blogs in reference work (211). There are still questions, but this article does suggest some interesting ideas.

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