Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Librarian with a Latte

How appropriate is it that I’m in the basement of Espresso Royale here in Ann Arbor to write this Librarian with a Latté post. This is the same basement a horde (yes, a horde) of COMM 101 students took over a few months ago. I’ve learned a lot since that initial implementation of the Latté session – and I’ll share the process and my reflections on it here.

Librarian with a Latté is a strategy I used to connect with undergraduate students in COMM 101, an introductory communication studies course. Here’s a detail of how the process unfolded:

1 - Communicated to the faculty that this was an option.

I sent an e-mail to all Communication Studies faculty member across their mailing list. It read something like this:

Hi COMM Faculty!

This is Eric, your librarian! I’d like to offer your students an opportunity to get some one-on-one library assistance at a coffee shop – let’s call it “Librarian with a Latté.” If you have a research paper or any kind of research assignment you assign to students, let me know, and I’ll arrange a time to be at Espresso Royal on S. University at a time that would be convenient for them.

All you need to do is let me know when their assignment is due, and I’ll take care of the rest.


I received only one reply, from a faculty member teaching COMM 101. Her students were within one week of a deadline to turn in a 3-item bibliography for their semester research papers. They had not received any form of library instruction thus far, except for a brief introduction done by the professor herself.

2 - Found a good time for the first drop-in session.

Since the deadline was fast approaching, I proposed a 2-hour block of time in which I would be at the coffee shop, ready to help students find the three sources they needed for their assignments. The time I chose was from 5pm – 7pm on a Monday, hoping that the later hours would provide more students the opportunity to come, since so many classes were during the daytime.

This is the key: timing. This library session was held four days before their bibliographies were due. So much has been said about “going to where they are,” but I think we all agree that “being there when they need it” is also particularly effective for making first contact.

3 - Composed an inviting message to students to be distributed by the instructor.

If there’s anything I learned from the cognitive psychology bit of my foundations courses at the University of Michigan School of Information, it’s that pop-out is an effective way of drawing peoples attention to specific parts of some large whole. It also serves to break up the monotony of a long, drawn out blog post.

Using ALL CAPS, I tried to make the e-mail easier to read – my intention was to engage them with words that would get their attention:

Hey COMM 101:

This is Eric, the COMM Studies librarian. You’ve got a bibliography due in just four days! Do you need help FINDING YOUR 3 ARTICLES? I can help! I’ll be at ESPRESSO ROYALE from 5 – 7pm, THIS MONDAY with a laptop. We’ll discuss your topic and I’ll help you FIND those articles you need.

NO SIGN UP NECESSARY – just pop by Espresso Royale on S. University from 5 – 7, and look for the “LIBRARIAN WITH A LATTÉ” sign.

Can’t make this time? Then shoot me an e-mail, and we can arrange a one-on-one consultation at my office. HURRY! The bibliography is due this FRIDAY!

Eric, the COMM Studies librarian.

4- With laptop in hand, I went to the coffee shop.

I showed up half an hour early to test the wireless and ensure I would have a seat (this is a particularly crowded coffee shop at a key intersection near our Central Campus). I made a table tent with the words, “Librarian with a Latté” and draped it over the table’s edge. I loaded up the library website, tested a few of the resources I knew I would be showing, and then grabbed a coffee and waited.

(Note: I actually don’t much care for lattés… the name is strictly for alliterative purposes.)

5 - They came. And came. And kept coming.

At 5pm, I had a student already 10-minutes into a consultation. We sat in adjacent seats, and I had her controlling the mouse and interacting with the resources and we moved into the databases and the catalog. Then another showed up – I invited her to join in on the conversation, but let her know that she should be thinking about the keywords she would use as we went through. Then a third came. And then the flood.

6 - Changing strategies to fit the situation.

In all, I counted 30 or more students packed into the basement. By the fourth and fifth students to arrive, I had taken control of the mouse again, and had turned the laptop to face the larger audience. I was doing a library instruction session, not an individual consultation, in the basement of the coffee shop.

Since the screen was obviously too hard to see from behind three rows of students, some attendees couldn’t get a visual of what I was trying to show. I couldn’t show them the mechanics of the library website, so I talked to them about their research goals.

“You’re trying to find peer-reviewed journal articles. What does that mean?”

“Where can you find these kinds of things? In journals? Where are the online journals? Which journal title do you want to search? Don’t know? That’s what a database does! A database gathers together articles from a lot of different journals and lets your search through them. There are databases with communication and mass media journals in them, more general databases, etc. This is how you get to them.”

By taking them through these questions, it prepared them for the terminology they would encounter on the library web site. I pointed out the “Find Databases by Subject” tool in Search Tools, our gateway to electronic resources. I described what they would be doing in their own time: picking a database from a list.

I also talked about choosing the right words to search with when actually within a database, and then wrapped up the session at 7 with a description of their research process: first, find a database to use; second, figure out keywords to use; third, find a way to limit your results to peer-reviewed, or figure out how to find out if the title you’re looking at is peer-reviewed.

7 - Encourage follow-up.

I had (luckily) enough of my business cards to go around. I encouraged people who couldn’t hear or see to get in touch with me over e-mail. I also showed them my Facebook account and encouraged them to look me up and ask questions through there. I pointed out that ‘lonely librarians’ are always waiting to chat on IM or through our web-based chat tool.

I also apologized for the poor setting. I made sure that I was there to help them one-on-one during other times if they needed that help.


That night, when checking my Facebook, I received a friend request from someone I didn’t recognize. The accompanying message was:

Hi Eric, I hope things are well! Sorry to bother you, but i was wondering if on Proquest there was a way to specifically search for communication articles?? Thanks a lot!

We exchanged a few Facebook messages in this way. I received another message the following day:

My topic is about the internet and how it is the ultimate public sphere. I plan on also talking about how it ideal for democracy as well. The topic is rough, so if you have any suggestions, they would be greatly apreciated (sic)! Thanks again!


Shortly after this, the faculty member e-mailed me:

Hi Eric--

My students are clamoring for more Librarian with a Latte time, especially since they got feedback on their paper proposals.

I'm taking the liberty of attaching the latest assignment, which is to produce a fleshed-out outline/draft for the paper. Many students (esp. those who didn't come see you, I think!) need to re-think their search strategy, since many had few scholarly resources.

If you can do a latte time before Thursday 2/22, let me know.

We arranged to meet up and discuss the things I could do for her class, and while we could not fit in course-integrated instruction session, we did arrange two more librarian with a latté sessions, but held them in computer labs in the library instead of the coffee shop. These had a good turn out as well, but not as many students came to these as the original event.


Reflecting on the process:

When I do this over again (and I will – next semester, the new instructor for COMM 101 has contacted me to arrange in-class and drop-in librarian with a latté sessions), I will likely hold more than one session in the days leading up to an assignment deadline, and I will return to the coffee shop. One student, in a recent survey, said,

They were very friendly, and by making it informal and a drop-in session like
the espresso royale, i knew there was no pressure, but that it was a really good
way to get some help - thanks a lot!

I’m also hesitant to require a sign-up for a slot. I want to keep this as informal as I can. Sign-up sheets might help crowd control, but it makes it seem like a formal meeting, which may indicate there’s some expectation that they come prepared. I want these experiences to be loose: if they want to talk about and refine their topic with me, great. If they want to find articles, great. If they haven’t thought much about their paper yet, then I’m perfectly okay being a sounding board for their ideas.

There were many, many unexpected benefits to Librarian with a Latté – other faculty members have heard about the program’s success from the one that participated, and I’ve been invited to teach a library session in a few new courses next semester. I’ve had more requests for individual consultations.

More importantly, the students of that class have not only been interacting with me more, but with other librarians at reference desks, through IM, and through e-mail as well. I’ve heard so many of my colleagues discussing “that COMM 101 assignment,” a sign that students are going to the desk as well.

A colleague and I are working on developing a model for reference that is multi-pronged. Many Web 2.0 initiatives are out there right now, and there are field librarians, roving librarians, IM, e-mail, and other virtual and physical ways of conducting reference. We would like to think about how these variety methods of interacting with students can be used for making ‘first contact’ and for developing continuing relationships with our faculty and students. I’ll keep this blog posted as we work.

Thanks for reading! Comments welcomed.


Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Chronicle Article / On Social Networking in Reference


I'm not a blogger. But here's a blog, mostly because I've found myself writing the same thing over and over again, responding to e-mails and blog posts about a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and I need a venue to share my own response to what was written. In a read-write web, why not blog it?

Scott Carlson of the Chronicle wrote an article called "Are Reference Desks Dying Out?" You can find it here if you haven't already seen it... but since you've found this blog, I bet you have. (The link might go bad in a couple of days. If you've got access, you may be able to read it through LexisNexis.)

I'm glad Mr. Carlson chose to highlight the Librarian With a Latte service I've started offering this past semester. I'll make another posting a bit later on my success and failures with it -- I did learn some lessons from it! But for now, I'd like to directly respond to some of the spicier bits of the article regarding the panel presentation "The Future of Reference," presented at the ACRL National Conference in Baltimore a couple of weeks ago.

In the article, Carlson reports on the interaction between panelists and a librarian, Kathy DeMey from Calvin College:

"When Ms. DeMey mentioned the results [of a survey that suggested nearly 85 percent of students preferred face-to-face interaction above other types of interaction], the librarians on the panel ridiculed her, saying that she had probably misread them. Helping students with tough problems can be an ego booster, the panel said, and Ms. DeMey was very likely sentimentalizing her experiences at the reference desk. Others who stood up and extolled the virtues of face-to-face reference interactions got similar dismissive responses." (emphasis mine)

Carlson's description reflects an atmosphere that, for me at least, was one of palpable discomfort. However, that discomfort, frustration, and as I am quoted saying, anger, isn't fully explained here in the article. I'd like to expand a bit further on this.

The anger and frustration arose not from the suggestion that librarians need to get with social networking tools -- I think the pervasiveness of social networking as a topic at ACRL proves this point. We're definitely all on board in seeing these tools as new ways to reach students. Instead, I was angered by the lack of answers the panel provided. Instead of responding to DeMey's comment with some ideas on how physical and virtual reference interactions can take place, they criticized her survey methods. Even if they weren't "ridiculing" DeMey, it's hard to understand why they didn't address the real question behind her comment: will it work? Why do you believe it will work? How do face-to-face interactions and virtual interactions fit together?

More than one other questioner from the audience was answered with "I'll get back to you over e-mail." This was particularly frustrating, because people who got up to the microphone had valid questions, and the panelists did not provide any insight to the audience. Who knows how the questions posed were answered?

Certainly librarians are not Luddites. In fact, it is in our blood to pioneer new methods of serving students in the academy. I tend to agree with just about everything the panelists have talked about in terms of finding new ways to remain relevant in a world where students are more likely to use Facebook than a library website. I also think that the panelists, Brian Mathews in particular, believe that face-to-face interactions with students are important in developing working relationships with them.

However, I'm not certain that anyone has any answers as to how it all pieces together just yet. How do reference strategies like Facebook profiles, scouring student blogs, and Second Life reference desks fit into reference practice as a whole? How do traditional reference interactions influence the likelihood of success in a social networking environment? Do students want us there?

I currently get reference questions through Facebook myself -- generally, these questions are from students who I've met in other modes of physical interaction. I've never had a student contact me out of the blue in Facebook before, despite having had an account for a year. I register for classes so I appear on class rosters for my COMM classes, and my profile image actually has the words "COMM Studies Librarian" in the image itself, so I don't appear just as another face. Still, however, I don't get any contact through Facebook unless they are students I've met physically.

This brings me to my own thoughts on social networking sites: great for 'being where they are', but not so hot for that 'first contact' with a student. I'm curious if librarians out there have any suggestions or thoughts on this. Brian Mathews, in the panel, mentioned that students don't really think about Facebook as places to think about research and work, and that is something that needs to change before the culture of social networking sites can include academic correspondence -- is it just a matter of time? Will this change require the increasing presence of faculty and librarians on Facebook? More importantly, do the metaphors of social networking tools (i.e. contacts are known as 'friends', giving 'gifts' to people, writing on the wall, poking people) define the space as a social space devoid of work- or study-related topics?

These questions have not been answered yet. I think there are some talented librarians out there that are adept and conducting research studies -- I hope some of these questions are taken on by someone who can really go out and get some answers.

I also think there needs to be a more open discussion about these topics. Blog posts like this one, despite being issued through a Web 2.0 read-write tool, the blog, still seem a bit one-sided in the sense that the blog authors still control which comments are okay to go, and which ones are not.

Scott Carlson referred to me as a young librarian -- this is true. I'm but one year our of library school. I'd very much appreciate some feedback, some referrals to mailing lists that would promote a discussion of this sort, and any response you have to the article.

Finally, I want to say that I think the article has given Brian Mathews and his fellow panelists undeserved bad publicity. Mathews has pioneered the venture into social networking environments, and I find it hard to criticize any efforts to be proactive with new technologies. Sure, I think the panel itself left much to be desired, but I don't think any of the ideas the panel presented were necessarily bad ones. The work Brian has done should not be overshadowed by one panel presentation that struck the wrong chord with many.

Librarians are interested in the future of reference -- whatever form that takes. But we're also interested in reference in the present, and the connection between what we do now and what we might do in the future.

Thanks for taking the time to read this. Please also see Brian Mathew's blog post on the backlash he's received from the Chronicle article, and some of the insightful comments that have been made there. I've also made a comment there to the effect of this post.

I'm on Facebook. Feel free to add me as a friend and send me messages through there!

Eric F.