I’m currently in my 6th week of working primarily from home and my 4th week working entirely from home. Writing that sentence was an odd experience, actually. It’s the first time I’ve actually quantified my own pandemic self-isolation in that way, and I’m honestly having a hard time coming to terms with those concrete lengths of time. It feels like it’s been a long time, sure, but 6 weeks is far, far longer than I would have guessed. I guess Time has little of the same meaning now that it had in the Before Times.
There are all kinds of things I could write about how I’ve settled into my new work space and work habits here in my kitchen’s dining nook (not least of which is the extra care I have to give to ergonomics). And maybe I will write about some of those things some other time.
One thing that’s struck me, though, is how completely similar my work as a Reference Librarian During Pandemic Times is to my work as a Reference Librarian. I work with heavily text-based departments, and in fact a whole lot of what the researchers in my areas rely on has not been digitized. I’m not as physical-object-based as some others in our library, but I had kind of wondered what it would be like to support these departments without direct access to our physical materials.
And granted, the vast majority of my work in the Before Times involved in-person conversations, and a goodly proportion of those conversations took place in the stacks. And I’ve never enjoyed having to say that something is inaccessible, which now happens more often than it did before. So yes, my work is definitely different.
But what remains exactly the same is that one of the absolute core principles of my work is to help researchers define and scope their information needs within the practicalities of whatever circumstances they’re in. It’s not just, “What research question is manageable within a 10-page paper;” It’s also, “What research question is manageable given the evidence that’s accessible using available time and resources.” I talk about this pretty explicitly with upper level students, but it’s always an undercurrent in conversations with researchers of all levels.
Usually the things that aren’t available to us are physical things that are out of reach because the researcher doesn’t have money or time to travel to a particular archive or special collection. Or materials are inaccessible because they were never publicly available, or they’re classified, or they’re locked down because of privacy reasons… So much of the world’s information is impossible or impractical for use.
The difference is that now the impossible/impractical category has extended to include most of the world’s physical library collections. There’s a ton that’s been digitized, and between libraries working to license more and more of that content and vendors opening up temporary access there really is a lot out there. But of course it’s not everything. It will never be everything.
So then we’re back to the conversations that are actually familiar even while feeling strange — those reference interview questions that are intended to help you and the researcher figure out what the goals of the information need are, and whether those goals could be accomplished with materials that are accessible. And if not, what are some accessible materials that are sufficiently interesting and similar that if we adjust the goals slightly the researcher could have meaningful work to accomplish.
So yeah. Reference interviews can take longer these days, both because we can’t do them face to face and because there are proportionately more that require pretty creative thinking on both sides. But it’s still the good ol’ Reference Interview, and we’re good at that. And that’s comforting in a world that feels pretty chaotic and uncertain.
In the last few weeks I’ve been part of several conversations with other librarians about reference services. And now that I’m at an academic librarian conference (Hello ACRL!), I’m having even more of these conversations. Some people talk about moving away from the reference desk model entirely, others are conflicted, or shifting the service in various ways. All have very good reasons for making the decisions they’re making.
Like so many things in life, though, I find that there are a lot of unstated assumptions and values at play in these conversations. This morning I attended a great talk about navigating change, and one of the biggest assertions in that presentation was that we have to unpack the words we use when we state our values because our working definitions and the behaviors associated with those working definitions can vary significantly. People may think they’re talking about the same thing because they both say “Openness” or “Respect,” but they’re actually not. And if people think that there are gaps between their experience of your stated values and your working, behavioral definitions of those values, that’s when trust erodes.
This connected in my connection-seeking brain with all the librarian conversations where people decide what kind of librarian you are based on your stance on staffing models for reference desks. Are you That Kind of Librarian who wants to staff the desk “just in case” there are questions, or are you That Kind Of Librarian who “doesn’t value reference?” Whole identities can be decided in a moment on this one issue.
But here’s the thing, if we start to unpack what we actually mean when we talk about “the desk” — just like we use the reference interview to unpack patron needs — I think it uncovers a much more fundamental set of values. These values may or may not be served by a reference service at any given institution, but where a reference desk is not the option, these values still need to be enacted by some other service model somehow.
So here are three of the things that have bubbled to the surface during these conversations I’ve been having in the last few weeks. None of these were true 100% of the time at desks, of course, and none of them will be true 100% of the time in any model. But they are values that I think are key to building and sustaining a research/reference service.
Visible Demonstration of Function (Especially Interest)
Even if patrons aren’t actively seeking out the service or actively learning about support options, they should be able to see you being kind and welcoming and helpful and engaged and excited about other patrons’ information needs. Maybe your patrons will walk past you a million times on the way to and from the printers, or the bathrooms, or whatever, but they become passively aware of the service and its function. And they become passively aware that librarians love the act of information seeking, love the hunt, love the puzzle, and love more than anything else the opportunity to engage with people who are curious or confused and who will have their lives made easier by access to some information or a more nuanced ability to evaluate and use what they have found.
We’re nerds at heart, and pathologically helpful, and we find our reason for existing in the ability to both help people and geek out at the same time. But our “brand” on campus is often much blander than this – much more tied to the mechanics of access. And the only way to help people see that we’re good for more than “My professor said I needed 3 peer reviewed articles…” is for people to see that we’re broadly interested in information seeking and use, information-based rhetoric, and information structures. Without this, we run the real risk of having ever fewer questions, and then cutting services back further, and then having fewer questions… in a vicious cycle to oblivion. And all this not because we’re no longer relevant or whatever, but because people can’t see what we actually do and care about.
Low Barriers to Use
Barriers come in all shapes and sizes, of course, and different people find different things to be barriers. This is one reason to have multiple methods of getting and receiving help.
At least one of these methods should allow people to somewhat randomly get drop-in help without doing a lot of information seeking to find out how to get help or to formally schedule things. Predictable drop-in hours and locations (physical or virtual) that are well matched with people’s existing habits help tremendously with this. So does shared language and modes of engagement that match existing cultures and contexts.
For the librarians: Access to a broad cross-section of questions – especially “basic” questions
We know better what’s working and what’s not, what instruction worked and what didn’t, what tools work and what tools are confusing, etc, by being exposed to as many questions as possible from as broad a cross-section of a community as possible. The questions from just the people who know you already or just the people who specialize in the same things you do are good and important and useful, but more than that is even better.
In a lot of ways, the “easy” questions are more telling than the complex ones if your goal is to keep tabs on what your population finds easy or hard. These “basic” questions may be accommodated by a variety of service models, but they are decidedly not unimportant questions. If anything, they may be the most important questions — the questions that tell us valuable things about tools or services that we haven’t set up right. It’s not the patron’s fault for asking the “wrong” questions — The User Is Not Broken. It’s on us to make it so that, wherever possible, “easy” things are easy for our users, too. Or if we make the decision to opt for a set-up that isn’t strictly the easiest option, we should have well-considered reasons for this choice. In academic libraries, for example, there are times when the better solution is one that helps our students learn things even if it means an extra click or two. But these decisions should be weighed carefully, and monitoring the tenor of these most basic questions is one way of figuring out if you’ve struck the right balance for your context.
These are some of the things that I think lurk beneath the surface for people who “value the desk.” And for people who have moved away from the desk, these are some of things that they have to recreate in their new service models.
What else is lurking? What else do we value in a reference service, no matter that service’s model? What are effective modes of enacting those values so that they are apparent and transparent to our communities? Let’s build an actually articulated definition, and then test our services against that definition.
If you work at a library that has or soon will be transitioning to the new Primo interface, and if you have research guides or other web pages that link into content from the old interface, read on because you may want to consider doing a URL updating project even though there’s an automatic redirect.
First of all, if you link to searches done in regular Primo (not the journals a-z list), those apparently don’t redirect. If you link to items from regular Primo or to Journals list items or searches, there’s a redirect but it takes a long time to resolve — about 25 seconds in my library’s configurations. Long enough for me to click a link, get a drink of water from the fountain outside my office, come back, and still wait a bit for the screen to load. (Plus it flashes through a couple of weird pages including a “zero results” page that just isn’t true.) And finally, the old Journals list didn’t have an option to search by ISSN, so many results (like if you’re looking for the journal Science) were pretty messy. The new platform does have an ISSN search, which is far more accurate for direct linking.
Given all of this, I’m updating every URL from our libguides to our catalog, both to make it resolve directly to the new interface and to have journals resolve to an ISSN search whenever possible. If you want to do something similar you can follow (or improve upon) my process.
Learn how to distinguish between old an new URLs.
The main distinguishing features of my campus’ configuration is that the old URLs contain /primo_library/ and the new URLs contain /primo-explore/ instead. In addition, there are three sub-types of URLs that might be useful to know:
Primo Query URLs (the ones that probably won’t redirect)
So now you can go into the Search/Replace feature of Libguides and do a search for all content items containing the URL snippet either for all of the old versions, or for each of the three sub-types of the old version, depending on your workflow.
NOTE: You cannot use the Replace feature built into Libguides because the old URLs put search terms at the end of the URL, but the new URLs put the search terms both into the middle and at the end.
So, do your search, and then select all the records Libguides pulls back for your search, and paste them into a spreadsheet. I then delete the messier/unnecessary columns so that I end up with a first column to indicate whether I’ve fixed that URL or not followed by three of the columns that Libguides generated: Asset ID, Asset Type, and Asset Title. (I used Google Sheets for this.)
If you’re like us, you’ll have several hundred links to update, all told. And obviously this will be a lot less painful if you do a project BEFORE starting this project to go through and consolidate multiple copies of links. And unfortunately there’s no automated option to do that consolidation project, either.
Have two tabs open: your new Journals A-Z search and the spreadsheet from Libguides.
Click on the link to the Asset ID to open the Libguides record for that asset
Open the asset for editing
Collect the URL and open it in a new tab – you now have two tabs that are “temporary,” the Asset and the Redirected-and-Resolved Primo tab
For journal records, open a record for the correct journal and collect its ISSN
Back in the tab for the Journals search on the new platform, search for that ISSN
Collect the URL from the new platform’s ISSN search and paste it into the Libguides asset’s URL field.
Click “Save” and close the two “temporary” tabs.
Mark the column in your spreadsheet so that you know that this asset has been updated.
For URLs that don’t need any special investigating (figuring out exactly which journal was intended or if there are special limiters invoked in the original Primo search that you need to recreate in the new search, etc) it takes nearly a minute per asset, so it’s definitely a good idea to listen to podcasts or audio books or something while you work your way through the spreadsheet.
This morning my coworker Sarah Calhoun and I presented again at the Oberlin Digital Scholarship conference, “Building a Distributed Collaborative Model for Digital Scholarship Support at Liberal Arts Institutions: A Mixed Metaphor Salad.” Our other co-presenter, Austin Mason, couldn’t make it to the session, but he gets the credit for finding and bringing to us the metaphor that drove the session. He’d attended a session by Liz Milewicz of Duke University and gotten permission to reuse her metaphor. And the metaphor in question? Various methods of crossing water from one shore to another. Here’s how we used it.
On occasion, supporting the digital humanities can feel an awful lot like trying to drive a car across a rope bridge. Either the infrastructure is inadequate for the project, or the project chose the wrong infrastructure to use to get across the river.
In an attempt to avoid this unfortunately pairing of project and infrastructure as much as possible, we propose thinking carefully about the infrastructure we put into place, and also about how to communicate clearly with researchers and with ourselves. We want researchers to find and use the right resources for the job, and we want to prevent siloed services that may duplicate effort or cause turf wars. And one way to think through these issues is to map out what’s happening on your campus.
Most campuses will have brave DIY-ers, who cross the river in daring ways using found objects (fallen logs) or special skill/access (base jumpers). These are important parts of creative research on our campuses, but they are not very repeatable or scaleable. They are not a great plan for a support model.
One of the low-barrier, low-overhead, repeatable methods of crossing might be a rope ferry. These work quite well either solo or with a ferryman, but they may not be terribly stable over time. Perhaps various semi-ephemeral things like free blogs or social media fit here, where researchers can get information up online, but it may not be stable over time if the researcher or the service move in new directions.
Or perhaps there are more modern ferries available. These are larger, more powerful, and require less effort on the part of the researcher. Maybe something like an institutional subscription to Omeka or WordPress fit here. They were for a lot of people interested in doing a lot of different kinds of things, and support can be pretty standard on campus.
But if you have a ferry running the same route over and over and over, and if you also have some money and staff for new construction, maybe it’s time to build a bridge. Some schools, for example, have a whole unit or a Center dedicated to supporting digital humanities. Some of these Centers are even iconic, like the Brooklyn Bridge. And I think that depending on the school, a massive, multi-lane bridge with tons of on-ramps and off-ramps might be a wonderful thing.
However, bridges really do require upkeep, they can become bottlenecks, they often have height and weight restrictions, and they may not serve all needs. Researchers are creative beings who may need to start in a different spot, end in a different spot, or get across in unusual ways. So at this point it becomes a matter of project portfolio management.
Jennifer Vinopal (who was also this conference’s keynote speaker, though we’d planned to site her even before we knew that), and her colleague Monica McCormick wrote a fantastic piece on “Supporting Digital Scholarship in Research Libraries: Scalability and Sustainability” in the Journal of Library Administration. In it they recommend having an infrastructure such that the majority of project can use standardized tools that are well-supported on campus. Then allow for creativity by building in support for projects that can mostly use those standard tools but with some standardized consultation services, or with a bit of custom tweaking. But reserve some capacity for a few truly custom projects that will require a lot of support (and try to make sure that these project can be “first of a kind” rather than truly one-off projects). So perhaps you have a couple of docks for some ferries not far from your bridge, or a landing area for your base jumpers, but there’s communication and vetting involved in committing resources to these special projects.
And no matter your solution, close communication between support and coordination folks will prevent boating collisions, or the building of duplicate bridges. To mix metaphors quite wildly, at Carleton we think of our coordinating folks as a three-legged stool: Library, Humanities Center, and Academic Technology. Representatives from these areas try to make sure that things move forward in a coordinated fashion even when the actual support and work of digital scholarship happens in all kinds of places on campus. We’re calling it a “coordinated distributed model,” and it is still in its infancy. We are currently tackling the question of what infrastructure to build and for whom, which tools will be our standard and which will we cut loose, who will be involved and to what extent, and how will we make sure that people who need us will find us?
Exploring these questions, we handed out blank maps to participants and asked them to depict their campus’ current models, talking in small groups about how things work on their campuses, and comparing with others to find trends and themes.
One fascinating thing was that there were three participants from one college, and all three drew different maps. Others drew people drowning in the river, or people standing on one shore and gazing longingly at the distant shore. But one thing that became clear was that whatever infrastructure an institution adopts, it has to fit the local context. There’s no sense sinking a ton of money in a massive bridge if there’s no demand, or just because another school did it. And on the other hand there’s no sense leaving researchers to fend for themselves on campuses where lots of people have a similar need.
Then we handed out new blank maps and asked participants to think about an ideal infrastructure for their campuses over the next 5-ish years. There were so many interesting and useful responses. One person drew a crew of happy inner-tubers (beer implied), and someone at a different table drew one big inner tube. Most had more than one method of getting across. Others had thought about setting up villages or resorts on one side or the other to show the community that would be important, or close communication, or the bringing together of units that are currently separate. The creativity and thoughtfulness in the room was so inspiring!
At the end we asked participants what one thing they wanted to take back or change first at their institutions. My own answer was that I want to hand out blank maps to the people I work with on campus and see what we each think the current model looks like, and where we each hope it might go.