Sunday, May 13, 2007

Federated Searching and Scaffolding

CogSci Librarian's latest post on the future of reference is unlike some of the doomsday and defensive prophesies I've seen floating around the library world. I highly recommend giving it a read and contributing to the discussion though your own posts or in the comments.

In response to her point about searching, I'll be glad to see the day when federated searches across databases from a variety of vendors can work smoothly. We have Metalib (our edition is called "Search Tools") at the University of Michigan, and while I teach it to intro-level classes, I generally avoid it when getting into upper division and graduate level courses because of the metadata that's available and similar across databases.

Metalib does a fine job with what it's working with, but until there's some standardization in terms of what fields are available to search and searching capabilities from vendor to vendor, we're being reduced to lowest common denominator when performing a federated search. I can't perform complex boolean searches because some of the databases searched during a federate search don't support them. Thesauri are database-specific in many cases, so controlled vocabulary is out of the question. I'm sure we'll hit the same problem when we try to make a federated search engine that does our catalog, our finding aids, our subscription databases.

This, in my mind, is cutting off any ability for us to help patrons construct great searches. If keyword searching is going to be as good as it gets with federated searching, I do think that I'm fairly useless when showing students metalib -- why even ask a librarian when they're not going to be able to get better results than your keyword searching?

I guess that's why I try to focus on evaluation of results and the importance of citing things properly when I teach lower-division college courses. Generally, the assignments they receive in COMM 101 call for only 6 resources. They can find 6 resources using keyword searching in Metalib. So, why focus on controlled vocabularies and complex combinations of Boolean operators when I can take a holistic approach to writing research papers? Why not spend time with them talking about evaluating the things they find? Why not help them use RefWorks to cite their stuff, and give them idea about how to paraphrase and incorporate their findings into a coherent paper? If they can find 6 items through Metalib, they don't need more than that in terms of 'power searching' ... yet!

It's those upper-division courses when their topics are a bit more focused and they need to find articles that may not fit into a single keyword search. It's the grad students who are going to be producing lengthy tomes of research -- much longer than my 101 students' 5-page papers. I'll save my schpiel on using databases' native interfaces and getting the most out of strategic searching for then. What my 101 students need is something else.

So! In response to CogSci Librarian: no, I don't think that federated searching dumbs down the search process. I think it places limitations on the control you have when searching. Many educational practitioners (myself included) use scaffolding -- slowly letting students become more and more independent. I don't want to dump strategic searching on them until they've become comfortable incorporating sources into their papers. I'll let Metalib handle the searching. But as they grow, and as they progress in their studies, we do need to remove the scaffolding.

I saw a poster at ACRL, and if any reader out there knows who made it, or remembers the title, I'd love to hear about it. Or maybe it wasn't a poster. Shoot, now I can't remember where I heard this, but it impressed me: instead of just doing a 'library session' for an instructor, they will provide a list of topics they could cover with the amount of time it would take to cover each one. For example, I sent my faculty this message yesterday:

Why schedule a library session this Fall? While your students may have had a session in using the library before, there's so much more I can help them with. Take a look at the topics here, and pick one or two for me to cover in a library session. This way, if you're pretty sure you student have been introduced to Mirlyn, I don't have to teach it!

- Popular vs. Scholarly vs. Peer-Reviewed
- Introduction to Library Resources (Mirlyn, Search Tools)
- Managing, Citing, and Incorporating References (RefWorks, Style, and Avoiding Plagiarism through effective use of quotes and paraphrasing)
- Finding Primary Source Material (newspapers, news broadcasts, transcripts throughout time and from around the world)
- Fitting Wikipedia (and Google Scholar, and the WWW) into Research Papers

...or, I could custom design a session for your class's special info needs. Build a library session into your course's Fall schedule and let me know when and where to be.
I didn't incorporate the time limits into mine -- I figured opening the channel of communication between my faculty and me would be a good starting point for a discussion of how to incorporate information literacy standards into the class. We'll see how this goes. I shouldn't have sent it on a Saturday. Now it'll be buried in a bunch of weekend spam and junk mail when they check for it.

Anyway, I thought this approach was an elegant solution for a problem I've noticed: faculty members know they students have had a library session before, so they don't think I should come teach again, because they've already heard it. This way, they can get an idea of what I can teach, and they can customize their session for their students' needs, and skip the intro stuff if they feel their students don't need it.

Yes! I wish I could remember who gave me this idea! I owe them oodles of coffee.

Anyway. Long post. Thanks for reading. It's been very interesting becoming part of the blogosphere over the last few weeks. Thanks for the comments and making me feel welcomed.


Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Glut of Facebook Traffic

Wow! Since ACRL came and went, the listserv's and message boards have been going crazy with Web 2.0 talk -- in particular, has been getting a lot of buzz. I've received many "friend" requests from librarians around the country -- it's nice to be so connected!

I'd like to talk a little bit about how fits into the reference services I provide here at UM. It's less of an outreach and a 'first-contact' tool than it is another method of communicating with students. While there seem to be some functions of Facebook itself that would lead us to believe it could be useful as outreach, I'm not entirely convinced that it is useful for those purposes. Here are some outreach methods I've seen on Facebook:
  • Sending individual methods through Facebook
This is probably the most effective way of 'first-contact' with students. At ACRL, Shannon Kealey presented a poster on outreach with Facebook. I forget now what the poster's title was, but it described the process of using Facebook Flyers (paid-for advertising banners displayed to users), a Facebook group (opt-in groupings of people that can be mass-messaged), and individual messages sent through Facebook.

Since groups are opt-in, and Facebook does not provide data on how many times a Flyer is clicked, the most important data Shannon presented was the rate of response to her messages. I forget the number, but I think it was in the 20%'s -- that's actually pretty good in my opinion, considering the amount of messaging she did -- she contacted everyone in the NYU network.

Wait? What?!? Everyone in the NYU network? Similarly, Brian Mathews did the same for his engineering student population at Georgia Tech (see Mathews, B. (2006). "Do you Facebook? Networking with students online." C&RL News 67(5). Link requires ALA authentication). Both described the amount of work it took to accomplish this task: a lot! Facebook's junk mail / mass mailing deterrents limit the amount of messages you can send in a period of time, and it will detect when you're sending the same message over and over again.

Both Shannon and Brian provide ways of coping with this: Shannon had three different messages she cut and pasted on a rotating basis to get around the "same message" trigger in Facebook, and Brian limited himself to a small amount per day.

While this outreach method seems to be the most effective, it requires a lot of work on the part of the librarian -- and it requires this task to be done for incoming students each semester (identifying newcomers to Facebook may be difficult).
  • Creating a Library "Group" for students to join.
What's nice about a library "Group" is that you can send a mass message (as long as your group has 1000 members or less -- and if you have more than 1000 members, you're freaking amazing!). This makes it really easy to notify interested students in library activities - so for advertising your resources and events, it's phenomenal.

The problem is initiating first contact -- students must opt-in to the group. You could create a group, then do individual e-mails as described above, inviting students to join the group. The group itself can't be used to do outreach to students, though.

However, with Facebook's news feed, if you can get a few students to join, there might be a landslide of joiners afterwards, thanks to the "network" part of this social networking tool. When a someone sees that their friend joined a group, they, too, may click on and join the group.
  • "Registering" for classes
One promising feature of Facebook is the ability to "register" for classes. You can enroll yourself in a class at the university, and when students peruse the list of facebook profiles enrolled in their courses, they will see you there!

Though it seems like this would be a great way to do outreach (it puts you in a place where students in classes you support will see you), I don't think it's altogether that effective. Some students are very loose when they choose who to "Friend" -- even if they don't know someone, they'll add them as a "Friend." Others are more conservative, and prefer to add only those people they actually know as "Friends." In either case, it's highly unlikely that a student will add you as a friend if they don't know you in person (or at least through e-mail or other modes of communication).

Even the most liberal friend-adders don't add everyone they come across in Facebook, and to be quite honest with you, unless you've already had a chance to interact with these students in a course-integrated instruction session or in other ways, you're just another random face out there in Facebook. If you've been reading this blog, you'll notice I've added the text "COMM STUDIES LIBRARIAN" directly to my picture so student who come across my mug will get an idea of who I am -- still, though, it's little incentive for students to add a librarian as a friend when they don't even know what a librarian does.

Content Matters

If you do start a group, send individual e-mails, or create a profile, put something useful in those spaces. Communicate to students what you do and how you can help them in very practical ways: helping them narrow their paper topics, helping them locate "scholarly" articles, helping them create bibliographies, etc. Tell them WHY they would want to contact you.

I don't recommend making your profile just another portal to library resources -- make sure they know that the purpose of the Facebook account or group is to provide another way of getting help with these resources (not just another way of getting to these resources).

Personality and Willingness to Return

So, how do I do my Facebook? I don't do outreach at all in Facebook itself. Instead, when I go out to teach a course-integrated library session, towards the end, I show them my facebook profile in class and encourage them to add me as a friend or message me with any questions. On any course-specific research guide I create, I make sure there's a link to my Facebook profile along with other means of contacting me (example).

If I'm a bad teacher, and I do poorly in this instruction session, I doubt people will think I'll be more helpful through facebook, e-mail or anything else. So, the best methods of getting students to see Facebook (or any other method, really) as a way of getting help with an assignment is by being a good teacher, by making myself accessible, and by being a welcoming individual when I do get the change to interact with them personally.

The tried and true lessons from the Willingness to Return study (see Durrance, J. (1995). "Factors that influence reference success: what makes questioners willing to return?" Reference Librarian 49/50, pp. 243-65.) apply in these situations as well.

When interacting with patrons over Facebook, any best practices from our history in digital reference in other forms apply as well.

This is my take on Facebook. I'm always scouring blogs and listserv's for more information, and I'm excited to see that there's a new blog devoted to this topic (see Friends: Social Networking Sites for Engaged Library Services), and I'm always changing my opinion on these things. Stay posted!