Posts Tagged 'reference'

How much is enough?

How many times does a scholar have to browse the stacks for us to believe her when she says browsing is important to her? Is once a quarter enough? Once a month? Or must a scholar browse daily for us to believe her when she says being able to browse physical stacks is important to her research?

How many physical books does a scholar have to check out from the library for us to believer him when he says having books on campus matters to him?

How many in-person questions do our reference staff have to answer for us to consider staffing reference desks important?

How much content has to be deposited into our IRs for us to consider them a success?

How many times does a box of manuscripts have to be paged for us to consider it important enough to keep?

How many people have to use our Makerspaces to actually make something for us to consider it a good investment?

I’m not sure we (the royal we) have any fricking idea.

And yet I constantly hear some version of “scholars say ______ is important to them, but our data shows otherwise.”  And most of the time, the data is on frequency of some activity.  But frequency =/= importance.

I get it that we have hard decisions to make about priorities in the face of limited space and limited budgets, and we may well have to make decisions based on how often various services and resources actually get used.

But can we please stop saying something isn’t really important to scholars (even though they say it is, poor deluded souls) because they don’t do it often enough to meet our unspoken and shifting definition of what enough is? Pretty please?

Street Fighting Research

altered book cover for street fighting mathematics
I think it is time for us to develop a Street Fighting approach to information literacy. From the preface to Street Fighting Mathematics: The Art of Educated Guessing and Opportunistic Problem Solving:

Too much mathematical rigor teaches rigor mortis: the fear of making an unjustified leap even when it lands on the correct result. Instead of paralysis, have courage–shoot first and ask questions later. . . . Educated guessing and opportunistic problem solving requires a toolbox. A tool, to paraphrase George Polya, is a trick I use twice.

And from the back cover of the same book:

In problem solving, as in street fighting, rules are for fools: do whatever works–don’t just stand there. . . Traditional mathematics teaching is largely about solving exactly stated problems exactly, yet life often hands us partly defined problems needing only moderately accurate solutions.

I think there is enormous potential in taking a Street Fighting approach to our traditional Information Literacy and Library Research Methods programs. I like the idea of empowering and equipping patrons with the tools and the confidence to try whatever works for a given research question.

For the vast majority of library research tasks, there are likely to be any number of paths that will get someone to a perfectly acceptable resolution.

At the risk of extending the analogy too far, my fear is that we are intent on teaching kids the formal Queensberry Rules of Boxing when they really need to be prepared for something more like an anything-goes Mixed Martial Arts cage-match. The information context in which scholars must operate today is messy and getting messier. We need to help them develop attitudes and instincts that serve them in that environment. We have to teach them to fight dirty. Sometimes that means using Google to jumpstart a search, sometimes it might mean culling blog posts and Twitter archives, and it often means combining many strategies and sources to address a given research question.

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New tech meets old tech with QR codes

Whiteboard with QR code

Whiteboard with QR code

Plenty of libraries are doing cool stuff with QR codes. We have added QR codes to our catalog records (public version to be released soon), even though we aren’t yet sure how they will be used.
We have also been playing around with different uses for small mobile whiteboards as ways to create some community and interaction.
Here, we ask a “This Day in History” question, and tape a QR code to the board for a resource that answer the question.

I expect plenty of patrons won’t know what the QR code is, which hopefully means they will ask.
From Wikipedia: “A QR Code is a matrix barcode (or two-dimensional code), readable by QR scanners, mobiles phones with camera, and smartphones.”

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Browsing magazines in Google Books

Google Books has responded to pressure to provide a way to browse all the available magazine titles. Software Engineer Jeffrey Peng coded a page that lists all the magazine titles, with a Cover View or List View option.

You can also get a full list by going to Advanced Search, clicking the Magazines radio button (don’t put anything in any search box, and leave All Books checked); then hit Google Search. Again, you can switch between List View and Cover View (links in the top right of results page).

Our reference staff had just been talking about the heavy use students in Stanford’s Program in Writing and Rhetoric are making of the magazine archives in Google Books, and how helpful a “browse title” feature would be. Kudos to Google for making this happen and responding to user feedback.

Now if they could only do something similar for Google Scholar, so you could browse a list of all available journal titles … that would be really cool.

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Death of reference greatly exagerrated

It seems to have become conventional wisdom that library reference is dying, or already dead. Conventional wisdom says that we are wasting valuable resources staffing anachronistic desks with professional librarians who do nothing but tell people where the bathroom is.

Well, conventional wisdom doesn’t match up with our statistics for the past year (June 2008 – June 2009):

  • 63% of the questions we answered at the reference desk were Reference questions
  • 6% were technical (and no, we do not count adding paper to printers as a technical question–we don’t count those at all)
  • Only 31% were directional

Statistics from June 2007 to June 2008 show the same breakdown of questions.

And we are not talking about small numbers: We answered 20,758 total questions at the desk last year; 13,052 Reference questions. For us that comes out to 9 total questions an hour, more than 5 Reference questions an hour. I can’t speak for other reference desks, but at Stanford’s Green Library, we are definitely not sitting at the desk knitting and occasionally telling kids where the bathroom is. We are doing real reference, lots of it, and it is paying off.

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No such thing as a library emergency

“There is no such thing as a library emergency.”
This is one of my favorite sayings, and one I frequently use with colleagues and employees in an attempt to remind us all not to take ourselves too seriously.

A corollary is “There is no such thing as a Reference emergency.” In these stressful times, I have been feeling the need to remind myself and others that there is nothing so important about our work that requires us to sacrifice our physical or emotional well-being.

Because of my particular background, I sometimes get to embellish the saying with:

I served for 10 years in an organization that legitimately required me to put my life on the line in service to the mission. The Army could legally require me to perform my duties under physically dangerous conditions, at any hour of the day or night, and for as long as needed. This (the library) is not that kind of organization.

Let’s not take ourselves too seriously. If we have to close a service point a half hour early because someone’s kid got sick, I’m pretty sure that teaching and research will not grind to a catastrophic halt.

There is no such thing as a library emergency.*

(* Yes, I am aware of the very interesting exceptions for medical libraries attached to hospitals and the like. If a surgeon calls the reference desk from the operating room, I suppose that is an emergency; but I don’t work in that kind of library).

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Thanks wikipedia

I probably shouldn’t be amused, but I am …

Thanks wikipedia

Thanks wikipedia

Librarians give the best answers

Of course they do.

More on reference books

The problem with reference publishing is discoverability. One answer is full-text indexing, with results integrated into mainstream search sites — especially our library catalogs.

See earlier post: Essential Reference: Not an oxymoron

Essential Reference: Not an oxymoron

Over at The Millions (a blog “offering coverage on books, arts, and culture since 2003”), they ran a piece The Millions Quiz: Essential Reference.

Contributors (scholars, authors, book lovers/critics) were asked:

In the age of Google and Wikipedia, reference books seem anachronistic, but some have not been superseded by the internet in their usefulness and convenience and even in their ability to divert and entertain. What is the one reference book you couldn’t live without?

Atlases (example and example) and dictionaries (Webster’s or compact OED) of varying kinds seemed to be the most popular.

The range of responses, and the passion folks have for their favorite reference titles are really interesting. I also found the contrast between “Kevin” who claims that “The dictionary, though, neither needs nor responds well to the type of advantages the Internet has to offer.” and “Emily” who proclaims that “the online version of the OED is the reference I can’t do without” to be pretty interesting. I can’t help but think that Kevin might like online dictionaries if he gave them a try.


Mike Lindgren: Chicago Manual of Style. It would not be readily reproducible online, and it is essential for anyone serious about the business of words.

I absolutely agree that Chicago Manual of Style is essential … which is why I love the online version.

Bottom line, reference titles still matter. Some scholars still like print, and some can’t do without the online reference titles that access to research libraries provide them.

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