No Rest for the Weary

Summer lull is a myth. People in academia so want to believe that we can spend June, July and August catching up on the craziness from the spring semester. Once again, the season has flown by without warning. One of the biggest projects we’ve been working on at MPOW is revamping our freshman orientation programs. Don’t get me wrong–we’re still going to give the standard library tour and introduction to resources this September, but we’re doing things a little more systematically and creating content with our audience in mind.

In the past our tours had always been a reflection of the librarian leading them. With no standardized route or formal agenda, we weren’t all singing from the same sheet—some of us weren’t even singing the same song! So with the opening of the learning commons this month, we had the opportunity to establish a more structured walk-through for our new users. We’re even switching to a peer-to-peer learning model by inviting grad students from the Info Desk to lead the tours. That way they can have a candid exchange with the group and share real insight about how the spaces are used.

Writing the script was truly challenging. I worked closely with our fabulous User Experience Director, Steven, to get a sense of how freshmen are using the library. The data shows that underclassmen view us as a social space where they can work on homework alongside their friends. We certainly want to encourage and facilitate that behavior, so we’re skipping over all the quiet study zones and instead leading them through the talking levels, group study areas and our brand new café. We’re also highlighting the fluffier areas of our collections like the popular fiction and nonfiction shelves and our extensive AV collection. Meanwhile my fabulous colleague, Heidi, is working on creating a scavenger hunt to familiarize freshmen with the library functions they will most need, such as lockers and printing. It will be more fun than it sounds, promise!

Librarians live to be helpful and often try to cram every little bit of information possible in the 45 minutes we have with groups; after all, you never know if or when you’ll ever see them again. Our goal is to avoid information overload. We aren’t expecting freshmen to learn all our library resources forever; this is actually a PR opportunity. As Cynthia Hart from Virginia Beach Public Library explained at Computers in Libraries 2011, the library’s brand is about more than a logo or even books–ultimately it is about the emotional response we elicit from consumers. Take Coke, for example, and their Happiness Machine. They’re not demonstrating how to quench your thirst, they’re trying to make you smile. Along those same lines, we want people to leave this tour thinking of the library as a fun, welcoming place and equip them with just enough information that when they are ready to delve into more complex research, they know where to go to ask those questions.

Jump Starting Your Library’s Social Media Presence

For the last six weeks, our library has been hosting a very sweet woman from the University of Pretoria as part of the Carnegie Library Leadership Academy for South African librarians. We were interested to learn from her that social media is just starting to gain widespread traction in that part of the world. And while, they have established a Facebook page and a YouTube channel, they’re still trying to figure out how it fits into the bigger picture.

We’ve already outlined why we do what we do, but we know from personal experience that the hardest part is always getting started. Even for those who have taken the plunge and set up pages, it can still feel like you’re floundering. For this very reason, we devised a roadmap to success, no matter what stage your organization is at. But for this post, let’s start at the very beginning.

  • Start small. It’s tempting to want to take on every social media outlet, but don’t be an Atlas, stuck with the weight of the world on your shoulders. Focus on doing one thing, and do it really well. We started with our library blog in 2007, and that was our only outreach method for a full year. It wasn’t until after we had got our bearings and found our voice, we folded in Twitter and Facebook. I’ll admit we flew under the radar with those for a solid year as well before beginning to advertise our presence.
  • Recruit help. Very few libraries are lucky enough to have a dedicated marketing or outreach person, so librarians must often fill that role. While many hands make light the load, we also just like having the opportunity to show off the personalities and expertise of a wide range of library staff.  Having a dozen contributors is one of our greatest strengths!
  • Read up. Social media sites are changing all the time, and often the platforms are the last ones to notify you (Goodbye CoTweet, hello Timeline!). We regularly read tech blog Mashable to keep apprised of any developments and gain insight on how other organizations are using social media. For Facebook specific changes, we also pop in on AllFacebook from time to time. Of course, our rad fellow librarian bloggers have some of the best ideas. But no surprises there!

Seasoned social media’ers—am I missing any biggies? What advice would you give to a library new to the scene?

My Name is Ellen and I’m a Librarian

Because of this status, my mom tends to think I’m a superhero. Instead, I sometimes exhibit not very heroic behavior where problem patrons are concerned. But, just as Wonder Woman had her lasso and invisible plane, and Superman had his Fortress of Solitude, I have a secret weapon that reminds me of the hero I need to be. It’s an article titled “Negative Closures: Strategies and Counter-Strategies in the Reference Transaction” by Catherine Sheldrick Ross and Patricia Dewdney. Published in Reference and User Services Quarterly in 1998, it won the Reference Service Press Award in 2000. The centerpiece of the article is the study of the negative behaviors librarians employ to end the reference interview including the infamous “without a word, she began to type” strategy. These behaviors have been observed by library school students employed in the somewhat controversial assignment of posing as patrons with questions. I won’t debate the ethics of the reference observation but I will note that I recognize the tactics employed by the librarians observed, not just because I’ve seen colleagues use them (in an eighteen-year career, I’m not naming names!), but because I’ve been guilty of using them myself. What are these tactics? I won’t cheat you of the pleasure of reading the article. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Okay, you’re back. In a nutshell, negative closure tactics include the unmonitored referral (sending the patron to another person/location without verifying the needed information is there), heaving the exasperated sigh “well, where have you looked?”, being dismissive of the patron’s question, expressing doubt about the likelihood of finding something before even beginning to search, and negative body language, turning away from the patron to type without narrating what’s being searched.

I’m one of those people who loves examples of what NOT to do. I used this article when I taught Reference and Online Services as an adjunct at Dominican and also when I moved to Baltimore and first met with the graduate student workers I’d be supervising. I’m a fan of positive reinforcement as much as the next person, but the examples in the article are so awful and yet so real that I thought the graduate student workers would appreciate the stunning lack of customer service and understand I wanted the opposite of these behaviors at the Information Desk.

So, why is this article coming up for me again? It actually came to mind after a frustrating discussion in our department about how to handle one of our problem patrons. Every library has them, and we’re fortunate that problem patrons are the exception, not the rule, in our place of work. Still, we’ve got them, and one in particular has us tearing our hair out. She’s an older woman who has had interactions with almost all of us. A non-affiliate, she  lives in the neighborhood and sees us as akin to the the public library. We’re open to the public and take patrons’ questions first come, first serve in the Reference Office, but I’ll be frank: this woman gets on our last nerve. She has called us and visited us to complain about a number of things that aren’t library-related (FWIW, we have no control over loud noises in the neighborhood). And now steam is coming out of my ears and I forgot my point. Oh yes, Ross and Dewdney’s most excellent article. We’ve employed negative closures to send this woman on her way, but she always comes back (and she predates my nine-year tenure so she’ll always be back!). We’ve let our personal annoyance with her distract us from helping her when she has a real question. And yes, sometimes she has real questions. Because everything can be traced back to pop culture, I think of a line in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy where a character admits he did something as a distraction, i.e., because I did this, I thought you’d be disinclined to notice that I was doing that. Because we sigh when we see her (much like the librarians observed in the article), we are already predisposed not to listen to her. So, I’m advocating a return to our Librarian Action Figure status, conducting a real reference interview with this patron, asking open-ended questions and then closing the interview when appropriate and making a monitored referral. Remember, Batgirl was a librarian, so superheroism is within our grasp!

Social Media Policies, or Are We Really as Smart as We Think We Are?

For the past three weeks, I’ve been taking an asynchronous online class through ALA Editions called Reference Through Social Media: Developing Standards, Guidelines, and Policies. It’s been skillfully designed and facilitated by Sarah Steiner of Georgia State University. I’ve paid for this (well, MPOW will, once I get reimbursed), so my intention isn’t to rehash for free what Sarah worked so hard to create. I do, however, want to share the some of the takeaways that struck me. We’ve been proud, rightfully so, I think, of our success with social media. We’ve incorporated it into our workflow, we’ve demonstrated its value, and we’ve created an internal social media policy with guidelines for each of our platforms. And yet, nobody’s perfect.

What we’re missing:

An external policy: We’ve documented our internal policies up the wazoo, but if you didn’t work here and didn’t have access to our wiki space, you’d have no idea why we do what we do. Transparency and openness are two watchwords that guide our internal communication, and they need to extend to our external communication. Fortunately, Week 1’s assignment was to write an external policy for our library. Now to get it approved and posted.

Greetings: One of the most eye-opening takeaways was the feedback that Sarah’s library received that patrons contacting a library via chat expected a response within 30 seconds. Please note, that’s a response, not an answer. To back up slightly, we were very late to the chat party, and I take the blame for that as I twisted myself into knots trying to figure out how it would be scheduled. It took a new colleague to tell me that at her former place of work, they had simply covered chat from the reference desk. Duh! And so we rolled it out last August, just in time for the fall semester. We’ve been using Meebo, with the chat widget placed on our Ask a Librarian and any LibGuide that’s been “authored” by Ask a Librarian so we get a fair amount of business via chat, even without the widget on the home page. This long-winded backstory is to provide context for our current situation, in which we do not reply to chats within 30 seconds. A variety of reasons account for this–we leave the Reference Office to help out at the Information Desk and forget to set chat to “away,” we’re working with a patron in person or on the phone and again, forget to set chat to “away,” or we simply don’t have the speakers turned up high enough for our audible cue that we’ve got an incoming chat. I think in chat our patrons understand multi-tasking. After all, they’re online too as they’re asking their question, searching databases, posting updates to Facebook, but it is entirely appropriate and desirable that we acknowledge them with at least a “hello, I’ll be right with you” reply. As Adriane commented to the department when we were discussing why we do what we do, a virtual interaction is still an interaction. Not acknowledging a virtual interaction is akin to not acknowledging a patron when he or she walks into the reference office to ask a question. We don’t need to provide the answer immediately but we need to acknowledge that we’ve received it and that it’s important to us.

Legalese: Libraries are champions of rights and patron privacy and are opposed to censorship but I imagine that many of us may not consider the implications of deleting comments to our blog or FB page that we find offensive. Turns out we DO need to consider those implications. In Sarah’s work on drafting an external policy for Georgia State, she discovered that “publicly funded institutions may not judge what content is offensive or racist,” (read Sarah’s excellent article with Brian Kooy) and this extends to private institutions that receive public funds. We’re one such institution and to my chagrin, in our About page for our blog, we did have language that said we reserved the right to not post any comments that we deemed offensive (and to show you how long it had been since we looked at this page, it also said something along the lines of “give us feedback on this new venture”–we started the blog in 2007). We quickly cleaned up that page, but Sarah alerted me that our statement “Please be advised that all comments and suggestions can be anonymous and are moderated for clarity, brevity, and appropriateness” needs to be vetted by university counsel. When we provide the medium for communication and feedback, we can’t decide what feedback we don’t want to receive.

The bottom line is that although we’re doing many things well (yea us!), there’s still room for improvement (continuous learning is part of the librarian’s job). And, these three takeaways are all items that benefit the patron. That’s what we’re all about, so thanks Sarah, for a great course!

CoTweet Alternatives or You Get What You Pay For

I’m channeling Lucille Bluth today. “CoTweet, you’re killing me!”

I’ll back up a moment. When Adriane and I discussed topics we wanted to blog about, we agreed that discussing the challenges and failures was as important as writing about the successes. Our seventh post in, and it’s time to discuss a challenge (we’re refusing to mark it a failure . . . yet).

This is a tale of Twitter. Our library’s Twitter presence started low-key, tweeting out announcements of new LibGuides. It gained traction among our DC-based Communication grad students in a social media class, and well, went viral. We decided to promote it more intentionally and distribute the workload so all in our department were participating in a week of coverage at a time. CoTweet made this so easy. Let me repeat that: COTWEET MADE THIS SO EASY. For those of you unfamiliar with CoTweet, here’s how it worked. Every staff member on Twitter duty had their own login to CoTweet. When it was your week to tweet, you’d mark yourself “on duty” in CoTweet. This meant you’d get an e-mail from CoTweet whenever anyone tweeted at you. See how nifty this is? No staring at your live Twitter feed all day, refreshing every few minutes so you can catch that live mention and respond in real-time. It wasn’t perfect (nothing is) but it worked 95% of the time, and we know that librarians are on their e-mail more than they are watching a live Twitter feed. CoTweet had other advantages–the ability to schedule tweets, manage lists–that it shares with other third party social media management tools. On January 17, CoTweet announced that it was discontinuing its free service as of February 15 in favor of a new fee-based service called SocialEngage. Those interested could write and ask for pricing (always a bad sign).

With a month to scramble, we realized what two things we had taken for granted with CoTweet: cost and ease of use. First, the cost. Although we invest staff time and therefore salaries (an indirect cost) in social media, we’ve yet to shell out money for the platforms themselves. Subscribing to databases and investing in an ILS are much more tangible and relevant than something some kid invented at Harvard so he could meet women. With no cost to the platforms, social media has been an easier sell than it would be otherwise. Second, ease of use. We’ve also had to sell staff on the idea that social media is a natural extension of our outreach. Ease of use plays a big part in that (see above, all librarians love to check their e-mail). With ease of use falling by the wayside–believe me, none of the other free alternatives offer the notification e-mails that CoTweet did–social media is back to being a hard sell for staff.

So, where do we go from here? That’s our challenge and not yet our failure. We’ve moved the library’s Twitter account into HootSuite and native Twitter e-mail notifications into our Ask a Librarian e-mail. But, HootSuite only allows for a single login for its free version and native Twitter has yet to be very reliable at e-mailing us notifications of mentions (I count at least two missing so far). We’ve pulled back on coverage by all staff and are taking it a week at a time between the two of us. It’s my Twitter week and I’m doing what I’ve never had to do before–stare at my HootSuite screen, clicking on refresh, anxious not to miss that real-time conversation.

Stay tuned . . .

So You Want a Social Media Policy

You’re not alone! In July 2011, Brian Mathews took an informal poll, asking librarians if they had policies or procedures guiding their social media presence. His results showed that only 20% had a formal policy in place. 40% had no policy and the other 40% were working on one. This post goes out to those 80% working without a social media policy.

Now certainly your library can (and may already) nimbly navigate the virtual world without a policy in place. In fact our library has been active in social media since 2007 and has only just implemented a social media policy within the past year. So why might one want to go to the fuss of formalizing such a seemingly innocuous thing?

As always, patrons were our motivating force. Wanting to provide consistent service across platforms, we drew up a list of best practices that broadly apply to all forms of online communication. We’re lucky have a team of around fifteen librarians each contributing blog posts and tweets on a rotating schedule. Now mind you none are trained PR professionals, so it was necessary to clarify what constitutes good communication and establish expectations.

We were careful to make it a list of “do’s” rather than “don’ts” so contributors would feel comfortable writing in an authentic manner. Our guidelines aren’t much different than what you’d ask of someone staffing the reference desk…be responsive, educational, entertaining and so on. Since everyone is speaking anonymously under the guise of the library, we also linked to the university’s established policies on discrimination and anti-harassment. We made an effort to keep the policy short and sweet in hopes that people would read it in its entirety…maybe even more than once!

Ready to plunge into your own policy-making-palooza? To get started, you’ll want to think of a really great blog post, tweet and Facebook update—ones you’ve written or a message by someone you respect (ahem, ahem, nudge). What elements do they hold in common? Those strategies of effective, engaging communication will become the meat of your policy. If you need further inspiration, you can check out what we came up with (hell, you can wholesale copy ours if it fits your model). Stay tuned for future posts where we’ll cover each point of our policy in greater detail.