MyLibrary in your library

Traditional reference services could benifit from a bit more automation and at the same time continue to provide the human interaction our profession has so dearly provided for decades. Considering the growing number information services available, reference services will evolve at a faster pace in order to compete with the myriad of similar services. A combination of electronic, customizable interfaces -- complete with more effective context-sensitive help, automated, guided assistance, and personal librarians on call -- may be part of the answer.

    "No, no, no. You can't put the services first. The list of databases is really what the patron wants. 'Every book a reader. Every reader a book,'" said Mr. R.

    In his usual stern manner, Mr. D replied. "The core of library service is service," and he banged is fist on the table. "Therefore our list of services should be listed first."

    Then Clarence, quickly loosing his patients, chimed in. "I don't think either one of you are right. I've been sitting around here for a long time trying to play this game by your rules. Dewey Decimal, c'mon! Get real. Can't you get it into your heads that any sort of 'information system' you create has got to be customizable for me and my personal interests. I want 'MyLibrary!'"

    After calming down a bit, Clarence went on to explain....

As of only ten years ago, the place to be in just about any library was the reference department. The public has always identified librarianship with the Dewey Decimal System and the process of cataloging, but to ourselves, reference epitomized the profession with its pervasive service component. From where I sit, the ways of reference have changed at a slower pace than the ways of other departments. Automation has played a key role in changing the ways every other department of a library operates more than it has changed the ways of reference. This does not mean reference service must necessarily employ more automation; I do not advocate automation for automation's sake. On the other hand, if you can use automation to improve your goal, then by all means do so.

"Ahh," you say, "but there are plenty of so called reference desks on the 'Net." Yes, there are projects trying to automate reference services, but they have not learned to use the new tools of the trade to do more than reproduce old processes. Reference service is today what OPAC displays were ten years ago. Reference is mimicing old paradigms in the new medium and not using the new medium's fullest potencial.

The 'Net contains a significant number of quality resources for scholary activities. While there are more of these sorts of items in print, our clientele, for the most part, want digital materials. Our simple lists of digital resources, whether searchable or not, represent an effort that is either behind the times or "too little, too late." The number of available subject-specific Internet collections is large, and frankly, any guide you create will most likely have few things to differenciate itself from its brethren. In order to make the your collection more useful, you must discover a way to improve its functionality and make it standout from the crowd.

To make your collection, and ultimately your reference services, standout, you can make it more customizable and interactive. You begin by using the resources you already have. First, make sure they are in a database. (Your OPAC will, most likely, not work here.) Next, construct a customizable front-end to the database. The front-end allows each person to select items from your collection. The front-end remembers each person via a, you guessed it, database and displays their customizations each time they connect.

Here in the Department for Digital Library Initiatives of the NCSU Libraries, we are begining to call this process MyLibrary. Through this process things called MyCollection and MyIndex are can be created. MyCollection is the customized list of resources chosen by users. MyIndex could be a searchable database created with an Internet robot (Harvest, Ht://Dig, Verity's Search '97, etc.) based on the URLs in MyCollection. This way the user could not only visit the selected URLs, but they could also search the content of the sites identified by the URLs. A proof-of-concept prototype has already been created. If you ask, then I will point you to the URL where you can see it.

    "Ahhh", exclaimed Mr. R and Mr. D in unison as Clarence finished.

    Mr. R continued. "To summarize, you think we should allow you to organize our materials. We put them all in some sort of browsable/searchable list, and when you connect to our services we present you with the items you have previously selected."

    "Correct," said Clarence. "And when I'm feeling uncertain, then I'll want some help. Again, when it comes to help, I want choices. Sometimes I'll want a simple help text. Sometimes I'll be willing to try an 'automated expert.' If my 'need', as you call it, is not too great, then I'll send an email message. Othertimes I'll want to talk to a real live human and I'm willing to do this via the telephone or computer. As a last resort I'll may an appointment to visit you or just drop by."

Now that your interface has both dynamic and internactive elements, you will have to add some sort of help. This is where you will have to use the shotgun approach to assistance since there is no silver bullet going to satify every individual. Some people are going to want terse help texts. Others are going to want something more verbose. Some will expect context-senstive help. Some will be willing to try automated, guided assistance in the form of expert systems. Some will want to talk to a librarian and some won't. For the people who do want to talk to a librarian, they can obviously use the telephone, but they could just as well employ digital communications mediums like video conferencing and two-way chats. If you get really tricky, you will be able to connect to the user's computer from the 'reference desk' and actually manipulate their computer remotely


    Mr. D answered his terminal. He had a new patron to whom to attend.

    The communication was from Clarence. "Hi, Mr. D. I see you have incorporated a messaging service into your services. Cool."

    "It's nice to 'hear' from you Clarence. What can I do for you?", replied Mr. D.

    "I am having trouble generating a list of articles for my research paper. Can you show me how to find something about Rococo?"

    Mr. D. scanned the system's log files and extracted the transactions based on the terminal code of Clarence's computer. Based on the logs, Mr. D. noticed that Clarence was having a difficult time using the controlled vocabulary features of the bibliographic database.

    "I see you have not used the thesaurus feature", replied Mr. D. He continued, "Try selecting the Thesaurus button, input 'rococo', and tell me what happens."

    Clarence did what he was told and discovered numerous other terms for his search. He replied to Mr. D in kind words and signed off. The whole interaction took about three minutes.

    As Mr. D updated his own transaction log files he couldn't help but to appreciate what Clarence had suggested those many months ago. Mr. D and his fellow reference librarians where answering many more questions than before and the patrons truely seemed satisfied.

    "Maybe librarianship still is about service," he thought. The idea brought a smile to his face.

Creator: Eric Lease Morgan <>
Source: Computers in Libraries, sometime.
Date created: 1998-04-17
Date updated: 2004-11-12
Subject(s): fiction; MyLibrary;