A TechSource Conversation with Meredith Farkas

By Michael Stephens | HigherEdBlogCon 2006 Less than a month away is HigherEdBlogCon: Transforming Academic Communities with New Tools of the Social Web, a Web-based conference that “will focus on the use of blogs, wikis, RSS, audio and video podcasts, and other digital tools in a range of areas in academe.”

Meredith Farkas, author of 'Information Wants to Be Free' blogPlaying a key role as Section Chair in the Library and Information Resources track of the conference is Meredith Farkas, who you may know from her blog “Information Wants to Be Free” and her work on many wonderful library-related wikis. In the conference portal, Meredith answers some questions about her focus for the libraries track and Library 2.0:
    "The idea of Library 2.0 represents a significant paradigm shift in the way we view library services. It's about a seamless user experience, where usability, interoperability, and flexibility of library systems is key. It's about the library being more present in the community through programming, community building (both online and physical), and outreach via technology (IM, screencasting, blogs, wikis, etc.). It's about allowing user participation through writing reviews and tagging in the catalog and making their voice heard through blogs and wikis. It's about making the library more transparent through its Web presence and its physical design. We need to make the library human, ubiquitous, and user-centered. This involves a change in our systems, our Web presence, and our very attitudes. It will take a lot of work for a library to be completely 2.0, but the idea should inform every decision made at the library.”
Making the library human is very important to me as well. In the ongoing discussions about implementing Library 2.0 principles, that's one of my favorite parts to bring out: blogs, IM, flickr, and faces of the authors on various library Web sites all contribute to enhancing that human presence online. That human face on library services will connect us to users and encourage them to look for us when they need guidance in our information “raining down like water” future.

In her Q&A with HigherEd BlogCon's Dan Karleen, Meredith goes on to say:
    A lot of people are talking about the application of Web 2.0 in libraries, and I'd really like to see concretely how people envision these ideas taking shape. I'd love to see presentations in a variety of formats (screencasts, podcasts, etc.) to appeal to the diverse range of learning styles, since that's certainly a big part of Library 2.0.
So I sent Meredith an IM and asked her to chat a bit about what she sees as some important concrete steps academic libraries can take toward Library 2.0.

MS: Meredith, what got you started on developing wikis for the library world? You really gave us all a big push forward with the ALA Chicago wiki.

MF: Well, necessity really is the mother of invention. I didn't sit around thinking "Wow, I'd really like to create a wiki!" I just wanted to create a guide to Chicago for ALA Annual—I was living in Chicago, and I'd found my first ALA Conference the year before so confusing. And I quickly realized that although I could offer some insights and provide links, it was just one person's opinions. There are a whole lot of people who know Chicago (and ALA conferences) a whole lot better than I do. That's when the wiki idea popped into my head. It was the only way I could think of to capitalize on the collective intelligence.

Having a wiki allowed us to add little bits of our knowledge about ALA conferences and Chicago, until it became a really amazing resource for people. It was inspiring to me to see so many people working together like that for the collective good. Just to show you how much I was not thinking about wikis before that, I had never even edited a wiki before I created the ALA Chicago Wiki!

MS: What concrete steps are you taking in your job at Norwich University in Vermont to bring in Web 2.0 tools and Library 2.0 thinking?

MF: I don't know if anyone would call what we're doing at my Library 2.0, because we're just a small rural academic library that's essentially starting from zero tech-wise. But if Library 2.0 is about meeting the needs of users, then we're definitely moving in that direction.

The first thing I did when I got to Norwich was ask a lot of questions and try to integrate myself into Academic Computing and into the Online Graduate Program. I knew I wouldn't get anything done in terms of serving the distance learners if the people in those departments didn't trust me and think of me as part of the team. Also, during that period, I really got to know what the needs of the distance learners and faculty were. It's important to learn all this stuff before assuming you know what people need. Just because it worked in one place doesn't mean it will work for your patrons.

Although I do shifts at the reference desk and teach information-literacy classes, as a Distance Learning Librarian, I am primarily working with virtual patrons. So I've been working really hard to create an online presence for the library—within WebCT—that is human, welcoming, and usable.

One of the first things I did was to create a page called, "About Your Librarian", which has a brief bio about and a picture of me. I just wanted them to know that there is a real person at the library who cares about them and wants to help. I know how isolated people can feel in distance programs, so I try to forge a connection with every student I deal with online.

And yes, I do have a news blog for distance students and faculty, an internal wiki for the public services staff, and we just started offering IM Reference. But more important than the tools we use are the efforts to connect with patrons and the fact that we are trying to give them the things they need most (which, right now, is primarily online instruction). I know most of the things I'm doing aren't revolutionary, per se, but when you're starting from zero, a research guide and an OpenURL Resolver are pretty incredible leaps.

Recently, I've been planning a big marketing campaign to market and "humanize" the reference desk. So many students are intimidated by the reference desk and they apologize for asking us questions—as if that isn't the reference-desk librarian's job. My goal is for us to be the first thing students think of when they're having problems doing research.

I don't know. Are these things 2.0? Maybe not. But if they help the students and faculty, that's all I really care about.

MS: What should academic librarians be doing NOW to prepare for the future?

MF: We are all starting from such very different places. Some schools have been doing amazing things with technology for well over a decade, while other schools (like mine) are just getting started. But like I said before, it can't just be about technology. There are so many little things you can do to improve your services. I think step one is rethinking everything. Question why you are doing things the way you're doing them. Question whether what you're doing is really helping your patrons. Question EVERYTHING.

MS: That's a far cry from the old librarian adage that some folks STILL say in their libraries: "We've always done it that way."

The cool thing is we can learn from the schools that might be out at the forefront. We can share. The best librarians, in my book, are the ones that always seek out new ways of thinking and share resources with each other. That's one thing about the social tools we are discussing so much—they break down the boundaries of space and time and allow us to work together to create content. This weekend I got to turn my class at Dominican on to wikis, IM, and flickr! What fun to show them folksonomies and tagging! To bring it back to how these new tools might change services was very important. It also impacts "bigger picture" thinking.

How was it for you coming in to Norwich and asking questions about services?

MF: When I got to Norwich, I was told that people don't use the reference desk as much here. Ok… well… why is that? Does it necessarily have to be that way? It should be the same with our information-literacy classes, our collection-development policies, and the way we implement technologies. How do our patrons respond to our services? What could we do differently and how might things look if we tried that? Talk to your patrons. Ask them what they don't like about the library. Ask them what they'd like to see. Operate under the assumption that everything you're doing now is wrong and then try and figure out what you're doing right and what needs to be changed.

Then, imagine yourself as a first-year student coming into the library for the first time. What would be confusing? What would be intimidating? Now, what can we change to make it less intimidating and less confusing? I was one of those people who never used a reference desk—not in public libraries, not as an undergrad, and not even in grad school. It was very intimidating to me, so I totally understand why students often aren't seeking us out. However, I also know that no one at the libraries I used tried to make the reference desk less scary or ever got out of the library to promote their services. I never saw bookmarks that said, "If you have a research question, come visit us at the reference desk. We LOVE questions." We could always be doing more to make the library and our services more inviting, human, and interactive.

It's great to have blogs and IM to communicate with patrons, but it's much more important to create change where it's needed most in your library. If that means starting an IM Reference service, great! If it's improving your information-literacy program or marketing the library all over campus, that's great too! It's all about figuring out what your patrons need most and providing that to them. It's not just about the latest Web 2.0 tools. This means that any library can be moving toward Library 2.0, even without the tech stuff. We should always be focused on patron needs, not our own technolust.

Catch Meredith's (as well as others') work at the HigherEd BlogCon next month at www.higheredblogcon.com.
Technorati tags: , , , , ,