On the Road with Jenny and Michael

By Teresa Koltzenburg | Jenny explains how blogging helped the Metropolitan Library System (MLS) with information dissemination.Friday was the first date of the ‘Conversation, Community, Connection, and Collaboration: Practical, New Technologies for User-Centered Services' Road Show, and after some minor technical difficulty—which co-presenter Jenny Levine sportively referred to as ‘Technology Minus 2.0'—those of us in attendance settled in for a thought-provoking morning session.

Hosted at the Chicagoland-serving Metropolitan Library System (MLS) headquarters in the picturesque village of Burr Ridge, the Road Show began its charge: to educate library pros about the community-building and collaboration technology tools—which many online users are already using out on the Web to get information and for much more—to reach out to their patrons with technology-enhanced, user-centered services. This ‘Road Show,' a co-creation of librarians and ‘Library 2.0' advocates Levine and Michael Stephens, substantivally covers four specific low-cost, sometimes even free, tech tools (blogging software, i.e., that from Blogger or Wordpress; RSS feeds; instant messaging, IM, and SMS, short messaging system, use; and wiki software) that libraries can implement to reach out to their users, where their users are. The session also features a healthy dose of case histories—from Ann Arbor District Library and the University of Winnipeg's library to the Yorba Linda Public Library—of successful online, library-produced, user-centered services developed from these new, emerging, and developing technologies. To top it off, Michael and Jenny provide a list of best practices that libraries can follow when implementing any or all of the discussed technologies.

Beginning with Blogs
According to Jenny, blogs are a key way for libraries to engage their users, to reach out to their patrons via a back-and-forth communication model online. “Blogs have driven a whole new level of conversation on the Internet," she explains. “So if we talk about Web 2.0, blogs are one of the biggest drivers of that. It's quite a different concept for many of us—for those of us who grew up with television and the beginnings of the Internet, where everything was just this one-way information channel, where we're used to just going somewhere and reading whatever's there. But kids today expect to be able to interact back. There's a rising level of expectation of interactivity in Web sites in general."

Jenny says that blogging is one way for libraries to achieve this interactivity. “Because, right now, your Web sites are very static, and people can't contribute back to them. Blogging, though, provides one way for your library to get there."

Ann Arbor District Library's Books BlogAmong the examples Jenny provides is a Michigan public library—one that she's referred to in past sessions as the “Mecca of Blogging"—the Ann Arbor District Library, where the library offers a variegated line-up of blog-based services for access to, and interaction with, information, including a portal to promote and discuss its events (via its events blog); an online place for the library to announce such things as a branch-opening and circulation information (via its Director's blog); and a readers' advisory portal via its Books Blog, which is easily accessible through its OPAC.

Another ‘case history' of a blogging-based, user-centered service co-developed by a library Jenny points to is Western Springs History, a joint project of the Thomas Ford Memorial Library and the Western Springs Historical Society (Western Springs, IL).

A third example, says Jenny, of how blogging is poised to help libraries create user-centric services is through a revamping of the much-derided, user ‘unfriendly' OPAC interface. “This is my new favorite example," she says, referring to the work of Casey Bisson. “This is an online catalog built by this guy, Casey Bisson, and he did it based on it blogging software. He took Wordpress and he extended it to be an OPAC. He thinks that's the biggest mistake that librarians make—is that we think the OPAC has to be part of the ILS systems we buy. And I kind of think he's right."

Jenny explains that this out-of-the-box thinking, and resulting service implementation, is what may help libraries make their OPACs more attractive to patrons, who are used to that ubiquitous single-search-field box they encounter when using Google, MSN, Yahoo Search, or even in RedLightGreen.

“Every single record in the catalog is now a blog post, so it has a static, permanent URL, which means it can be indexed in Google and Yahoo and everywhere else. It also means that if you open up comments, people can then post. So all of a sudden you have something like Amazon, just because you installed the free blogging software and tied it to the ILS. You also you get something called 'trackback.' If somebody, on his or her Web site, points to this record, with 'trackback,' it will note it at the URL of the person's post, on the record itself. Talk about conversation! A patron can leave a review here, or review it on his or her own Web site, and it will appear here, and then you can point to this record. How cool is that?"

Ready for RSS?
The next act in the Road Show highlights RSS, which stands for “Really Simple Syndication," a feed-based technology that Jenny has stated is “critical" for libraries to understand and implement. “There's a very real possibility that the Web is going to shift from HTML to RSS as a foundation layer. It's critical that libraries be part of that, and for that to happen they have to have RSS."

Jenny explains the basic concept of RSS—"publishing content over here and being able to display it over there"—comparing it to syndicated columns that run in print-based newspapers. (She also points out that MLS provides RSS training, alternating between the MLS's Burr Ridge and Chicago locations, “pretty much every month now." More information about MLS's education and training opportunities is available via its calendar.)

Among Jenny's examples of libraries utilizing RSS to make a library Web site more dynamic includes Yorba Linda Public Library's display of the RSS feed sent out by Librarians' Internet Index (LII). “Every time LII updates, this little sidebar will update automatically."

She also explains how libraries can get their RSS feeds displayed on other organizations' Web sites. “For example, you can take your headlines in ‘What's New,' and you could go to the local village, the local park district, or school, and display your headlines at these places."

Jenny says the vendors, too, finally seem to be figuring out the benefits of RSS, although she does urge librarians and library staff to demand RSS from the vendors. “When it's contract-renewal time, when they are calling to ask how things are going, when you go to a conference and go out on the exhibit floor—the biggest thing I hear from them is that nobody is asking for it. Well, duh! You don't know that you should be asking for it, because you don't know what you can do with it. It's critical you tell them you want RSS."

Proquest's example of how a library could use its RSS-feed-enabled database content to add content to the library site.One vendor developing a way to utilize RSS, reports Jenny, is ProQuest. “ProQuest is leading the way with databases, not just the catalog, but databases that we're already subscribing to. So [when the service is up, running, and available], after you've run a search like you normally do in the database and get the results, you'll see the link to ‘Create RSS Feed.' From this link you'll be able to get the URL for the feed, which you can then use to display those database items somewhere else."

Jenny remains adamant about RSS for the library field. “Libraries absolutely have to have an RSS feed, and the best way to get one is to start a blog. That's why these two are tied together. So start a blog for your 'What's New' section, and you'll get an automatic RSS feed."

Michael Stephens at the '4C' Road Show in Burr Ridge, IL (2/10/06).Interacting via IM
A third communication/ conversation tool illustrated in Michael's and Jenny's road show is instant messaging, better known as IM. IM, says Michael, for his own public library, the St. Joseph County Public Library in South Bend, IN, is a low-cost, yet highly effective way, for the library to provide virtual reference service. But, says Michael, his library's use of IM started after a VR disaster.

“Back in 2002, my library jumped into the virtual reference game, and we wrote a gigantic check to an unnamed VR company. We spent the summer doing intensive training. I was training at that time at my library, and I designed a four-session, four-hour-apiece training course to get people comfortable with this huge, scary thing that was virtual reference."

According to Michael, after the large initial investment made by his library in the VR product, plus probably another $5,000 on the training, and the staff time spent promoting it, his library's virtual reference service, via the vendor-supplied software, “fell flat on its face." He explains, “After you pulled your users into this Java-enabled, chat queue, they got the message, something like, ‘Hold on. The library will be right with you.' Then the whole thing would crash. What kind of message were we sending with that one?"

IM, for SJCPL, was meant to be a temporary VR fix, but as of today, says Michael, “It's permanent. We cancelled that contract on the unnamed VR product, said ‘good-bye,' and today we use IM. I can't tell you enough how great it is."

Michael says among the best practices for libraries using IM for VR is the practice of making VR IM available to users no matter which IM client they're using (AOL, Yahoo, MSN, or iChat for Mac users). One time-saving device/step for IM lies in Trillian, he adds. “It's an application that allows you to log into all of the IM clients at once. So you can have a one-stop-shopping place for turning on your IM reference service. You don't need to have all those different programs open at once."

Michael emphasizes the importance of keeping up on the latest tech trends in and out of the library field. Michael also provides a bevy of case histories of libraries using IM, and you can find out about the different libraries utilizing IM for reference services via the LibSuccess Wiki. “One of the beautiful things about this is that we're not alone when using this stuff. You can look at what other libraries have done and copy it," he adds.

Working It Out with Wikis
As demonstrated by the LibSuccess Wiki (begun and managed by Meredith Farkas) mentioned above, the wiki technology tool, according to Michael and Jenny, provides the library field with a valuable collaborative, knowledge-sharing tool with the lofty aspiration of housing an online space to “harness collective intelligence," a very Web 2.0 concept propounded by Tim O'Reilly.

Michael points to his own library's innovative use of the wiki tool for its ‘SJCPL Subject Guides.' “This was inspired, in part, by the Kansas City Public Library and its blog-based subject guides, which have RSS feeds coming from them," he explains. “In the front end of the ‘SJCPL Subject Guides,' only librarians can edit, but they've opened up the discussion page, and by clicking on a tab, you can actually talk about any of the subject guides."

Michael adds that SCJPL created its Subject Guides wiki via the Open Source software provided by MediaWiki. “What that means for the library community is we can jump on these applications, which are being developed out in the world of programmers, and use them for free."

Don't Forget about del.icio.us and Flickr
Although the majority of ‘Conversation, Community, Connection, and Collaboration: Practical, New Technologies for User-Centered Services' focuses on the four technologies identified above, Jenny and Michael conclude their show by touching on del.icio.us and Flickr, two other social-software mechanisms that can help your library reach out to the community. Del.icio.us, a social bookmarking site, can help libraries teach information literacy. For example, through its bookmark site on del.icio.us, the La Grange Park Public Library provides links to Web sites the library has taken the time to bookmark and to which its patrons can directly link to for authoritative information. And Thomas Ford Memorial Library has its very own Flickr portal, which highlights the new materials the library has added to its collection.

On the Road Again
A 2,000-word post can barely touch on the all the examples, tips, tricks, and issues that ‘Conversation, Community, Connection, and Collaboration: Practical, New Technologies for User-Centered Services' covers. To catch their Road show in person, check out the MLS Calendar for March 3, where the two will be presenting it again in Chicago. In addition, say the pair, they have plans to present the session at the Texas Library Association Meeting, as well as in Seattle, later this season (hence the ‘Road Show' concept). Specifics about upcoming dates and locations will be announced on this blog.

(To check out more pictures from the Road Show, see Michael's post at Tame the Web.)

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