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Libraries and Librarianship

Teaching and Learning

Wrestling with Reference

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.

Tracking down known (or known-ish) documents — some strategies

A faculty member asked if I could come to his class and teach him and his students to track down documents that they see referenced in their research. Some things they’re seeing are well cited, some things are just alluded to, and some things are decently well cited but they can’t find the text. What strategies and techniques do I use? Where do I look? Basically, what do I do every time he emails me and says “I’m looking for this publication but can’t find it” or “This person mentioned that there’s a study on x, how do I track that down.”

My initial thoughts were “This’ll be fun!” and also “I do this every day but I have no idea how to explain it in a coherent way.” It’s just something I do, and it’s never exactly the same twice in a row. But I decided to distill some of the strategies that I use most often, and then give the students a check-list of potential tools and strategies for their research area.

My Top 8 Strategies

1) Find out as soon as you can what kind of document you’re looking for.
Books and book-like-things (things that are formally published, generally all at once as a single entity) are findable in different ways than dissertations or periodicals or essays or websites or reports, etc. Different places collect information about different kinds of documents, they have different metadata associated with them, and basically if you can’t figure out this part the rest of it will be much, much harder.

2) Assume that key parts of the information you have about the document are wrong. A major early strategy is to find the best and most complete citation possible.
People misspell other people’s names all the time, or get the title wrong, or remember the wrong publication year. Similarly, scholars change their names all the time, or things get reprinted in various ways, sometimes with varying titles. Don’t even get me started on transliterations from non-Roman alphabets. (People are less likely to get the place of publication or publisher wrong because those are things you have to look up on the spot as you’re writing a citation, and they tend to have more standardized ways of being written down.) I can’t over-emphasize how useful it is to reframe your search from “I want to find this document” to “I want to find accurate publication information about this document.”

3) Use creative, “fuzzy” searching and browsing.
Pick out a few words that seem the least likely to be wrong and the most likely to be unique. Maybe choose the author’s last name (first names sometimes get truncated or left off entirely) and a key term or two from the title or topic. Maybe see if you can find everything by a particular author (maybe that author’s CV), or find everything on a topic published in a particular year by a particular publisher. Boolean operators, truncation, and nested search terms are more important in these searches than in a lot of other searching. For example, you can OR together alternate spellings or translations. Basically, figure out ways to give yourself a manageable list (tens, maybe hundreds, but not thousands) of things that could reasonably contain your thing, and then read through that list.

4) No single search tool works every time, and each tool has its strengths and weaknesses, so use multiple tools.
Google is amazing at free-text searching, and it’s HUGE, and it can do things like match up synonyms for you, or correct for spelling variations. It’s not great at letting you work with structured metadata or telling you what you actually have access to from your institution. Meanwhile, library systems don’t contain as many records (sometimes a pro, sometimes a con) and they aren’t as flexible about interpreting search terms, but they’re great at pulling together publications by discipline and/or providing access to structured metadata. And each library tool has its own advantage and disadvantage. So most of the time you’ll end up using multiple tools to track down an obscure document.

5) Always start out with the hope that you’ll find the thing in the most obvious place, but don’t get discouraged if it’s not there after all. (Or the second place, or the third… this is an iterative process)
Sometimes I second-guess myself and think “This thing is so obscure, I should start with a specialized search in a specialized place” only to find out that it would have come up immediately in a basic search of my library’s discovery tool. That said, some things only reveal themselves when you’ve worked your way through dozens of places and picked up bit of information along the way.

6) Tracking down a document is a team sport — ask your team mates and your librarian for help and ideas.
I do this every day, and I have a whole masters degree in exactly this, and I ask my colleagues for help and ideas all the time.

7) If you can’t find the thing, or can’t find it in English, or whatever
Can you find something like it that would help you accomplish your goals? Can you adjust your goals to mesh with the information you can access? Or can you use the non-English version somehow given what you know about the standard structures of most scholarship? Maybe you can find something you can use that cited the thing you can’t get/use and that built on that first thing in useful ways? In a pinch, if no other options are available, is secondary citation an option?

8) Remember to think about whether the document is actually the best document for your needs.
It’s a heady moment when you finally track down that obscure conference paper that you saw referenced as THE source for an idea in someone else’s paper. But is it actually THE source? Or is it just the source that that other scholar knew about? Don’t cite it just because you found it.

Key tools

  • For Everything
    • Google (keeping in mind its search operators – and remember you’re looking for information about the thing as much as the thing itself)
    • Wikipedia (especially for alternate spellings, related terms, citations)
    • Internet Archive (kind of like google books, but a different set of digitized things, and not just books, from institutions as well as from individual people)
    • LC Authorities (for alternate spellings/names for particular authors)
    • Any other tool that lets you search through the full text of scholarship in your area (JSTOR, Project Muse, etc), so that you can find other scholars mentioning the thing you’re looking for.
  • For Books and Book-like-things
    • Your library’s catalog
    • Google Books (especially for finding citations in scholarly works, or finding essays or reprints within compilations)
    • WorldCat (especially for searching by publisher or publisher location, or for any books or book-like-things — it’s not great at non-roman letters, though. If things get really hairy the old FirstSearch interface allows some ultra-advanced options that are helpful)
    • HathiTrust (added thanks to comments!) — especially for scans of out-of-copyright things, including really really old cool stuff.
    • The national library of whatever country seems most relevant
    • Publisher websites, researcher websites/CVs, academic department websites, etc
  • For things published in periodicals
    • Your library’s journal browse list
    • Disciplinary research databases from relevant disciplines
    • Google Scholar (especially for broad, fuzzy searching, or for cited reference searching)
    • Ulrich’s Periodicals Directory (especially to find out where a periodical gets indexed for searching/browsing) – requires subscription
  • For dissertations
  • For reports and conference papers and the like
    • Mostly Google, some disciplinary repositories or research databases… Often these aren’t actually publicly available, and when they are they can be difficult to track down.

For the topic these students were exploring, I put these tools into this long checklist of possibilities.

What about you?

Most of you are librarians — what are your go-to strategies for tracking down the documents your researchers are looking for?

I coded from an API for the first time, and so can you!

A couple of weeks ago, my library upped our Libguides instance to Libguides CMS, which means that a few weeks ago I came to be in charge of a system that has APIs for the first time in my life. We got the system so that we can pull more robust information from Libguides into our discovery system (so that’s our systems librarian’s domain, not mine), but there have been a couple of tiny things I’ve wanted to do that would be so much better with an API than with the built-in widgets, so I cracked my knuckles and set to learning.

Here’s the first tiny project I did, narrated so that you can do something similar if you, like me, are not an expert in web coding but have access to Libguides APIs.

Building an API-fed dropdown menu

I know, I know, there are dropdown menus of guides available in the built-in widget builder, but I don’t like how they look, and I don’t like that you need the “Go” button to make them go. So this made a perfect first toe-in-the-water project for me.

Getting data via the API

First, I needed to figure out how to make an API request. Libguides CMS “Endpoints v1.1” has a section to GET Guides, a list of “parameters,” an example request, an example return, and not much else. It took me a while to figure out that the example request didn’t work because it was asking for 2 specific guide IDs — IDs for guides that do not exist in our system. Once I deleted those two numbers I could start building requests that actually worked.

Then I figured out that you add a parameter by adding “&parameter_name=parameter_value” to that base URL. So http://lgapi-us.libapps.com/1.1/guides/?site_id=…=owner&sort_by=name would take all our guides and sort them by guide name. From there I could happily keep adding parameters, and if I wanted both “Course” and “Subject” guides but not other guides, I could put a comma between the parameter values “2” and “3” to get “&guide_types=2,3” in my request URL.

Other useful terminology I learned along the way that will help my future Googling includes:

In the end, I created an API request for published guides, sorted by name, and filtered to just those having a particular tag. Here’s an example record from the JSON output I got from that request:

Using the API-generated data to feed a dropdown menu

Then came the searching around through StackOverflow for examples of code that uses a URL to point to JSON-formatted information, examples of code that use JSON fields to populate a dropdown menu, and examples of code that use javascript to add an “event sniffer” to a dropdown menu so that when a user selects an option, the menu opens a new URL without requiring anything else (like clicking a pesky “go” button). This step took me a while… In the end, I fiddled and fiddled with example code until all of a sudden, bits and pieces started to work! So exciting! And little by little I arrived at code that works for me.

Here’s an annotated version of what I built (and an html document you can download and mess with).

(And if you are someone who actually knows what they’re doing, and you see that I made dumb mistakes/choices, please let me know! I’m eager to learn.)

Information Architecture, from information about architecture

I’ve just started work with a team of people who are going to be redoing our library website’s information architecture. Maybe some design, but mostly the structure. So of course I do that thing that I do so often and try to figure out how to think about the problem at hand before actually diving into the problem at hand. And this time I seem to be doing that by reading about architecture.

I’m not the first one to do this, by any means. There’s a great talk by Dr. Molly Wright Steenson from this month’s MinneWebCon that lays out lineage of current artificial intelligence work, including the inheritance from architecture. And her talk reminded me that this is exactly what I needed to think about again in order to think about our website structure.

So I went down into the stacks and checked out Christopher Alexander’s two most famous works, A Pattern Language and The Timeless Way of Building. These are two very very large works of architectural philosophy, so there’s no way that I’ll be able to read and apply them thoroughly to my current project, but something is better than nothing, right?

And then, on page 55 of The Timeless Way of Building, the primary claim from Chapter Four jumped out at me:

We must begin by understanding that every place is given its character by certain patterns of events that keep on happening there.

This is “the user is not broken” stated a different way. Spaces are set up, and people will behave in relatively consistent ways in those spaces depending on the affordances of the environment. If they do things we think are wrong, and especially if they do them consistently, then we have clearly set up a space that invites those events. The user was not broken; our design was broken. But Alexander’s formlation works better as an aspiration to achieve rather than a resignation to past failures. If we can know these patterns that environments evoke, we can design environments that evoke patters we want. If we set up a space (physical or digital) that invites the kinds of events that our community wants and needs (actions, reactions, experiences), and invites these events consistently, then that is a space that has Alexander’s “quality that cannot be named” that animates every successful design. (He goes into detail about definitions of that quality in chapter 2, but I won’t do the same here. You can go puzzle over that chapter if you want to, but my big short-hand for it all is “it works beautifully.”)

He then usefully qualifies his thesis:

This does not mean that space creates events, or that it causes them.

For example, in a modern town, the concrete spatial pattern of a sidewalk does not ’cause’ the kinds of human behavior that happen there.

What happens in much more complex. The people on the sidewalk, being culture-bound, know that the space which they are part of is a sidewalk, and, as part of their culture, they have the pattern of a sidewalk in their minds. (72, emphasis original)

And, in the same way, the patterns of events which govern life… cannot be separated from the space where they occur. (73, emphasis original)

So what are similar structural digital elements that we could switch out for “sidewalk” here? Search box? Menu? Bullet point? We have to keep in mind that in our culture, these things call on a whole network of cultural-bound events. We cannot say “well, we know that search boxes you’re familiar with when doing research are boxes that search through the full text or at least a paragraph of text, but this particular search box searches through a list of library research tools instead.” (Incidentally, this is part of what makes the MLA International Bibliography so hard to use and teach.) People will fall into patterns and perform topic searches in that search box, and they will do so over and over again. And they will wonder why our search box is broken. These patterns are patterns that we can often predict, and good intentions won’t matter if you ignore these predictions.

That said, we can help shape the patterns that happen again and again. For example, we don’t have to blindly follow our novice patrons to their best-known patterns just because many of our patrons are novices. We have to know what they expect and their habitual patterns, and also the expectations and patterns of the experts on our campus, and we have to create systems that invite useful events for all. This may mean educational events that help the novices learn the patterns that are typical of the new culture they have entered. This may involve educational events that help experts navigate evolving systems and patterns and academic cultures. But these educational events can’t happen unless we build bridges for the inhabitants of our spaces (digital and physical) from the patterns they have known to the patterns they are developing.

Alexander, Christopher. 1977. A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction. New York: Oxford University Press.

———. 1979. The Timeless Way of Building. New York: Oxford University Press.