Taking care of your users/patrons/readers/whatever.

Today I read two blog posts that made me think, “Duh! Isn’t that obvious?” But if two of the library world’s most esteemed bloggers are writing about it, then maybe not?
One was David Lee King talking about Darien Library’s Extreme Customer Service (or should it be Xtreme?). The other was the Library Rebooted.

The message I gleaned from both posts is:

  1. Libraries need to endear themselves with their user community.
  2. Libraries need to convey some value not easily replicated by the internet.
  3. Libraries need to make an impression on their users, preferably positive.

So what do cupcakes have to do with that? Well, I know my users (primarily grad students) love baked goods. Giving them free cupcakes during finals could be called extreme customer service, but it goes along with the whole library as the living room concept. If libraries are to survive, they need to not just be a place for books, but a place where people actually want to go and feel like part of the family. This is a mutually beneficial relationship – users or patrons get what they want or need, and libraries have a better understanding of what those needs and wants are and how to provide them. Of course people will want to be a part of that! (On both sides.) It’s sort of like that coffee shop you love, or your favourite record store. I know I could make a pot of coffee and save money, but I also like the experience of going to the coffee shop on the corner. I could easily buy that new record from a place like Amazon, but I go to Amoeba Records or mail-order from a small distro, like Little Type, for the experience and the interaction. I want going to the library to be the same sort of experience for my users, and I try to foster that sense of community. It can be difficult with limited resources, but little things definitely help. My library may not yet have an ILS, but we have free candy, a white board for math problems (or doodling), and computers for homework, Sim City, or internet quizzes.

Have a discussion with your users and it pays off.

The annoying side of copyright or why I’m annoyed with Harvard Business School.

Photo source.
For years I couldn’t name anything more obnoxious than the crazy frog, but I stand corrected. I’ve long thought that the DMCA was ridiculous, mostly for the broadcast implications, and that DRM was just a band-aid that irritates people and doesn’t actually prevent piracy. Well, today a student came into our library to see if we could purchase a case study from the Harvard Business School. Should be a simple request, right?


HBS has an almost punitive rights statement which makes it nearly impossible for libraries to purchase case studies for their users. Why? Money, of course. By virtually ensuring that everybody has to purchase their own copy of a paper, it guarantees lots of money for the HBS. It’s a veritable cash cow! I remember when I had to purchase a case study for a class, I was a little shocked that everybody (all 30 of us) had to plonk $20 for a pdf of the article.

So now, the library can’t purchase a document we would love to have and we have to shrug and hope the student can afford the document for find somebody else who can. (I actually don’t want to know about it.)

These sorts of policy not only hinder access but also get in the way of research and progress. How obnoxious, even more so than the crazy frog.

Oh, the many uses of a library!

TRANSOC pinball tournament
TRANSOC pinball tournament
David Lee King, one of the well established voices of “Library 2.0”, recently blogged Can a Library Be Your Office?, which looks at how libraries can lure business people and freelancers out of bookstores and coffee shops and into the library to work. This is all in response to Chris Brogan’s post about why bookstores are his office. His points are:

  • Libraries have books, which are full of ideas.
  • Libraries have fresh food and lots of people anxious to serve me the food.
  • Libraries have big parking lots and lots of room to hold brief, cafe-shaped meetings with a few people.
  • Libraries are usually staffed with pleasant people who don’t do what I do, so they’re willing to chat for a few minutes, but won’t bury me in the details.
  • Libraries are actually fun.

DLK then calls for us, the library world, to remove our anachronistic rules about cellphone usage, food, and noise. Do I get a cookie if we’ve already done that?

I’ll admit, I’m not DLK’s target audience. I’m making the assumption that he’s talking to public libraries, which MPOW is not. Instead we are the library and designated “living room” for a research institute. People routinely have study groups here. We have cookie receptions every Friday afternoon in the reading room. On any given day, there will probably be a group of researchers talking, perhaps on the phone, eating, and just being social. Did we do anything special to cater to them? Not really, other than offering some free candy.

Should we try to become the office of any possible patron? Of course as a special academic library that’s not entirely realistic. Instead, I don’t just want MPOW to be an office for our researchers and grad students. I want it to be a place they feel comfortable, whether that means participating in a ping pong tournament or sitting back and reading the latest issue of Transportation Research Part A.

I get what DLK is trying to get people to do from this post, but I think he doesn’t stress that each library needs to evaluate how it can best meet the changing needs of their patrons. What’s good for us won’t work in the library 100 yards away. Different situations call for different answers. Asking questions and looking to other areas is a good start, but people should feel compelled to copy anybody.

British Library “loses” 9,000 books, really?

British library
Photo source.

Today the Guardian reported about the British Library misplacing/losing 9,000 books:

More than 9,000 books are missing from the British Library, including Renaissance treatises on theology and alchemy, a medieval text on astronomy, first editions of 19th- and 20th-century novels, and a luxury edition of Mein Kampf produced in 1939 to celebrate Hitler’s 50th birthday.

The library believes almost all have not been stolen but rather mislaid among its 650km of shelves and 150m items – although some have not been seen in well over half a century.

Mislaying 9,000 items accounts for approximately .006% of the collection. Maybe it’s because I work in a small library without an ILS, but I don’t see how this is news. Maybe the figures from the inventory, but human error happens. Library’s, despite our best efforts, always are at the mercy of the carbon filter. Of course with a collection like the British Library’s, misplaced items are easily valuable tomes of western culture and not some V.C. Andrews or Robert Ludlum novel that could be replaced for a couple of bucks. No, it’d likely be a first edition Dickens novel or The Picture of Dorian Gray.

The Guardian also has an interesting piece by novelist Michèle Roberts where she describes libraries as a “maze of magic“. (Roberts trained as a librarian for a few years.) She writes:

I did not survive long as a librarian. After a seven-month stint as the British Council’s librarian in Bangkok (I blotted my copybook by sending the king and queen stern reminders that their library books were overdue), I returned to the UK and supported myself through part-time teaching and journalism. From time to time, I meet some of the librarians with whom I trained: they have had to become expert managers and ideologues in a free market, fighting the narrowing availability of public libraries and their reduction of stock, coaxing disaffected youngsters into Idea Stores, battling the contempt for intellectual life initiated in the Thatcher years. Librarians are necessarily heroes and warriors – albeit in disguise.

Of course that last line just gave me some warm fuzzies, but she basically outlines how much work it is to keep things organize and retrievable. It takes an army of people to make it possible for somebody to come and find that book they want when they look for it. It works most of the time, but of course people remember the failures more often than not. Overall, I think this has been an interesting glimpse into a major institution, something the public should see (warts and all).

Crowdsourcing for Indexing and Abstracting: Can it Work?

Dorothea Salo posed this question of FriendFeed:

Crowdsourced abstracting and indexing service. The next big thing, or a really dumb pipe dream?

MPOW has a contract to provide indexing and abstracts for TRIS, the main transportation database for North America. The quality of indexing and abstracting varies, because most of the people performing the work are contracted, and all have different levels of expertise, training, and interactions with users. I mention users because all too often, they are overlooked in the discussion. Especially now, that most article databases are readily available online, even with a subscription, and not restricted to something like Dialog, the importance to index for information retrieval by an average user is more important.

So how could crowdsourcing for indexing and abstracting work?

  1. It needs to be for a small community. I could easily this this working in a field where everybody really knows everybody, like transportation. I don’t this this would work for JSTOR or Web of Science, but it could possibly work for TRIS. The volume isn’t too great, and it’s a very narrow subject.
  2. There needs to be adequate incentives. Money is the greatest incentive for people to take on such a task. This could be in actually payment, or access provided to services, such as the database or other resources that would help defray the cost of indexing. Perhaps even the cost of subscription for the titles indexed? Other incentives could be prestige, as in YPOW is contributing to the greater community, and could be considered a leader. My real incentive would be in better representation for the user. I personally hate trying to negotiate a messy record for a confused user when they did everything right. They didn’t use Google, they tried the database, and it’s letting them down. That’s not their fault, it’s our fault.
  3. There needs to be adequate training. It’s foolish to think that people can be good indexers or write decent abstracts for any database without training. Sure, library school can give a person a strong foundation, but every application is different. Is there a controlled vocabulary? How is it used? How will people be searching the database, and how do searches pick up the index terms or abstracts? Indexers need to know these things in order to provide terms that will help with retrieval. (I guess this goes back to the users.)
  4. There needs to be some quality control mechanism. This could be done through allowing people to edit records regardless of who entered them, or having some sort of review process where people could flag errant entries and there could be a discussion. I would probably prefer the former, but I also have concerns about people potentially misusing index terms. That’s not to say, that it would not actually be a problem though.

Ultimately, for any sort of crowdsourcing to work with indexing and abstracting, there needs to be a fair amount of trust within the community. Trust that the controlled vocabulary, if there is one, will be used properly, and trust that the quality of work will be consistent. There will also need to be communication between all parties involved. Users, those using the database to find information, should be able to provide some feedback. Those providing their services and expertise need a forum to discuss issues they may have and to actually engage with the work.

I personally would love to see this happen, not just for MPOW, but any community small enough that it’s actually feasible.