Monday, November 06, 2006

Article Note: On reference desk blogs

Citation for the article:

Barton, Emily and Arlene Wesmantel. "Reflogs Now." Library Journal (October 1, 2006): 28-30.

Read in print (via the snail MPOW routing). Link to the article here.

If you are wondering if there is a better way to keep track of reference answers and frequently asked questions at your reference desk, this small article is good reading. It is something I have been pondering for a while myself here, and I came to a similar conclusion: that we (probably) use a blog to keep track of various reference items at the desk. We all come up with a variety of hints and ideas to answer a broad array of reference questions. However, they either get shared via e-mail or end up in the ratty old reference notebook. OK, it is not really ratty old, but very often the assignments do not get updated or weeded. In fact, I recently tried to weed some of the items out, and I got requests to actually put the stuff back in the notebook. I guess I shook someone's comfort level, so I put them back and stopped worrying about it. However, I get this situation often enough:

When a student came to the desk, I would have to search through my email or the notebook trying to find these helpful hints. For assignments given well before the due date, it was difficult to find the information in my email, and sometimes I had already deleted the relevant messages (28).

I so want to solve for that. The Systems Librarian and I often talk about this, about how good it would be to have a wiki or some form of knowledge base. However, with the restrictions we face in terms of online construction resources (i.e., no server, no place to build anything), creating something robust is a slim possibility. A blog at least could, as Barton and Wesmantel point out, "serve as a searchable archive (you can search by date, category, word, or phrase) so we can refer back to our work when the same assignment pops up a year later" (28). Where I worked before I came here, we had a reference desk log, so it is a tool that I have come to sorely miss here, precisely for that reason. All that stuff we keep having to dig up again and again can be there. Unlike the authors, we would have to use some online hosted solution, if at all, so issues of customizing may come up. A reference desk blog would have to be closed, namely only for the reference people. My guess is we could probably use one of the services that allows for controlling who sees the content of the blog. I would have to check on this. My blogging experience is mostly here on Blogger, and I have not switched to the beta, which I hear has better privacy features. My library has a Typepad account for its blogs, but I am not sure if a private blog could be made. I don't post there often enough to know all the features, and I am just a contributor anyhow; I don't administer it, so a question to ask the administrator of the library blogs. And of course, I would want to know, if it can be done, then why have we not done it yet?

The authors have the good fortune that they have a good relationship with the campus IT. In here, we can barely get our IT people to notify us when some major change is coming that might affect the library. If I sound slightly frustrated, I have reason to be. Having them "overlook" the library is pretty regular around here. As for our librarians, e-mail is the dominant form of communication. For online reference, it is an e-mail leading to a listserv. The answers for our online reference are shared, if the librarian answering a particular question remembers to copy the answer to the rest of us. Then, the reply may or not get stored locally by a librarian if they remember or feel inclined to do so. Not very efficient, but it falls under "this is the way things have been done." Now, I am not saying my supervisors are averse to something like a desk blog. The concern in large part is finding the old answers and putting them someplace handy. I am at a point where I am more than willing to say, the hell with the old stuff. Start anew with incoming reference answers and items and build from that. Everyone cringes at the idea of indexing old text files of reference answers. If that is the big deal, forget that. Start anew, use tagging and categories, if the blogging system allows it and go from there. You have to start somewhere. My two cents. The authors do note that "the primary reason to implement the blog was that it could be a better searchable archive than our e-mail distribution list" (30). I don't see why something like that would not work here.

I do like better the authors' idea of a blog to keep track of questions received in public service desks. At the end of the day, I am thinking I just need to solve for this in my own practice. My instruction duties, complemented by my reference work, means I could certainly use some kind of reference items blog. Maybe that's what I should do: create my own reference/blog file that I can access anywhere online. This one would not be closed. On the contrary, I would want it open, and I would probably advertise it to my students. I have been experimenting with making notes of useful reference items in Alchemical Thoughts. Basically, I just make a note over there when I come across some item--an article, a website, maybe refer to a book I read that may be relevant-- that I think a student could use for a research assignment or may be interesting for classes. It has been sporadic, as I am experimenting with how it feels to do that. This process of exploration and gathering could be formalized. Since this would be my tool, I can just use any free online service. I have a couple of accounts that I have not explored enough. Maybe it's time to take a second look and see if anything catches my eye. Another possibility may be using a MySpace or Facebook page for the task, since those are virtual spaces where the students roam. I still have some thinking to do, but since I am aiming at providing some additional resources/hints/tips to students, the issue of whether it is under the official umbrella or not does not matter. Tagging and sorting by categories would like be helpful to ease searching.

For reference, I have been thinking about this in other posts, for instance here, referring to subject librarians having a blog for liaison work. Now, there is another thought, but that may have to wait a bit more. We'll see. Anyhow, go and look at the article. For some, it may be stuff they do already or know about, but it looks helpful for others who may be asking the same questions.

Update Note: (11/10/2006): My director read the post and commented via e-mail to others and me. The Web Librarian has worked on a test blog with categories, and it may lead to some degree of redesign. I will make notes when I see where it leads. It's a start.

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