Saturday, July 29, 2006

The Future Library or Traditionalist Paranoia?

Jeannette Woodward's Creating the Customer-Driven Library: Building on the Bookstore Model offers fascinating insights into the emerging bookstore-concept library. Woodward argues that, for the library to not only survive, but thrive, it must adapt to the retail bookstore model of tailoring services and products to the tastes of the patron. The Richmond Public Library has adopted this philosophy almost to the tee. However, what makes it unique also makes it controversial. Here's why:

(1) Customers service - The RPL prefers "customer" over "patrons." It's all semantics, but behind this innocuous phrase is a pure concept of pleasing the person who steps through the gates. In a way, is not every library's mandate essentially the same, particularly for "public" libraries?

(2) Merchandise - Calling books "products" seems weird, but referring to them as "merchandise" might be ludicrous for some. Put it any way you like, a duck is a duck. Quack, quack. Nonetheless, language does make a difference in the way human cognition operates. By focusing on promoting the items in the library, it does highlight the importance of what is at stake. Is it a bad thing to "sell" what you have?

(3) Self-service checkouts - 95% of the circulation is done by self-service automation. Even holds are self-service. Understandably, traditionalists are upset that such a trend will ultimately displace the library staff, namely the paraprofessional and support staff. The RPL disagrees. It believes that such a system frees up staff to do other customer-service tasks.

(4) "Walking the floor" - In adopting this retail concept, the customer will always be served and the products continually replenished. Staff members are to proactively walk around the stacks and offer assistance to those in need. However, at the RPL, this is the case for certain sections, namely the Popular Titles section, where it is an amazingly dynamic area of the building.

(5) Automated scheduling - Democracy or pseudo-outsourcing? Call it what you will, by allowing auxiliary staff to pick and choose their own schedules, the RPL allows ultimate flexibility. But why not just hire more full-time staff instead of piecemeal? By doing so, the RPL argues that it maximizes on the full potential of its open hours (it has the longest hours of any public library system in North America). But does it to save in other areas?

(6) Themes - To a certain extent, this is not new. However, RPL takes it to another level, and offers new themes regularly, such as "Asian Reads" or "Biography Lovers." In such themed areas, books are picked off the shelves and placed together.

(7) Outsourcing of cataloguing - RPL doesn't create its own catalogues. Nor does it even copy-catalogue. Everything is done by contract. Does it work? Well, it does free up the essential revenue for other areas, such as the latest DVD's and more newer titles. In the end, the question is, does the customer/patron benefit?

(8) Reference - The traditional reference desk, where the librarian snuggly sits for hours on end, quietly working away on the computer is replaced by Information kiosks.

(9) Signage - Not unlike bookstores, RPL's sign are sharp and attractive. The signs say it all. "Kids Place" replaces the traditional Children's section. Is it a sellout to the bookstore? Or are we simply using a good, simple idea and applying it to the library?

(10) Coffee machines - Traditionalists cringe at the thought of drinking in the library. However, RPL promotes it by having machines right inside. Although somewhat teleological, Woodward argues that since patrons are going to drink/eat at home with the books, we should perhaps be at peace with the inevitable.

So far, RPL has been very successful. In my opinion, location is everything. Gate counts are one of the highest in Canada. Yet, what works in Richmond might not work in Abbotsford or Victoria. The demographics in Richmond make sense: young, hip, urban, and middle class. The sleekness of the RPL suits such a chic clientele. But will such a model last? Time will tell.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Email: Beware. . . or at least be careful

"Why then, can one desire too much of a good thing," says Rosalind in As You Like It. How true Shakespeare's words still ring! Although information professionals are relied upon to find and retrieve timely and accurate information, they are ironically at risk of running into occupational hazards, personally and professionally.

Why do you ask? Besides addiction (which deserves a future blog posting upon itself), email messages can easily be misinterpreted and written out of context. Tom Van Vleck's "The Risks of Electronic Communication" offers an excellent "how to" guide on how to properly use email. I've summarized his salient points.

(1) Jokes. What appears lightheartedly humourous may offend others. People are more offended by offensive jokes through emails than through in-person commentaries.

(2) Anger. Emotions run high online. Without reading them carefully, emotional messages can trigger strong emotions from the recipient, often taken out of context (by both sides). Hence, the solution? Pick up the phone!

(3) Sarcasm and Irony. Some people read hastily; others just take words literally and don't understand that you really meant the opposite of what you wrote. As Van Vleck warns, even a smiley or "just kidding" won't always work.

(4) Criticism. Don't do it online, even if temptations run high. Even criticism of trivial matters can be construed out of context. People are touchy; if they feel attacked, they attack back.

(5) Late Night. I like this one the most: messages composed late at night can cause serious damage. As Van Vleck points out, some mysterious influence of the brain gets triggered after a certain hour, 9PM or so, which makes us think we're typing in sensible messages, when in fact they are subject to severe misunderstanding. Hence, the best solution is to save it in a file and look at it tomorrow morning. (Guilty as charged!)

(6) Personal Remarks. Making derogatory remarks about others is a bad idea. Doing it behind their back is worse. Doing it in public is deadly. Electronic messages are the last place for any kind of uncomplimentary remark. Sometimes, that FWD can turn into a REPLY, and hence, the nasty email remark gets sent to the very person you don't want reading it. (Guilty again!)

Hence, for the information professional, "handling" information/records is every bit as essential as searching, organizing, and disseminating. Perhaps it's time that proper usage of email be included somewhere in the LIS core? Have we taken email for granted, perhaps blinded by its supposed simplicity when in fact its more complicated than we realize? Amazingly, Van Vleck's article, written 11 years ago, is still as relevant as it is today as it was then, if not more so. If I had only read it when it first came out, I would be so much better off!

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Open Access, Open Search, and Social Tagging

It's summer, and with the heat, ideas too can melt and meld together into a mishmash of incoherent mess. Recently, I've been introduced to a variety of online tools. With some reflection, I believe that three "trends" if we can call them that, have emerged from online environment which are highly relevant to the information professional.

(1) Social tagging - Flickr,, Wikipedia, and Library Thing are but a few of the online tools for which users can freely search for information (an items) through the creation of hyperlinks without the constraints of controlled vocabulary or rigid taxonomy structures. Anyone and everyone can create his or her own terms, post them, and share them other users. The question is, is such social tagging (ethnoclassification, folksonomies, or collaborative tagging) a new thing? Or is it an outgrowth of an existing online world which we've been using all along since the inception of the internet? Only now, we have terms for them.

(2) Open Access - Journals are slowly integrating themselves into the online world. Open Access is perhaps one of the hidden gems of the internet that is slowly emerging as an important tool in the academic/professional community. Library Student Journal, Journal of the Association for History and Computing, and Biomedical Digital Libraries are but an inch of the light years of open access journals readily available for perusal. Yet, recent controversy surrounding open access is just how "open" is it? Some journals charge its writers for a fee.

(3) Open Searching - Pubmed is one of the shining examples of how collaboration can open up the world of information to users in need. It's a matter of time, that it opens up to other avenues beyond the health sciences world and into the humanities, social sciences, and business. It still intrigues me the shroud of secrecy in the legal world, where Lexis Nexis and Westlaw charge the users by the minute. Although it does promote the librarian to a higher status of importance in the particular locale, does it not make an intriguing contrast with the "openess" of Pubmed?

So with this said, the question remains, is the librarian useful in this online world? Ab-so-lute-ly. As an information professional, librarians are perfect for such fact-finding and information searching missions. Not only do librarians have the knowledge of cataloguing/classification essential for a deeper understanding of how information is organized, they also have the social skills (and interest) to help users look for what they are searching for -- they're good at customer service! Because if you think about it, the online world is a jungle, and librarians are trained to sort through all that mess.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Librarians and Teaching Styles

Before entering the MLIS program at UBC, I had never realized how important teaching is in librarianship. Today, I had the chance to see one librarian in action, and it was fascinating to analyze his teaching rather than on his teaching content. On top of the usual core competencies of LIS (bibliographic control, refence, management, collection development, and info technology), I would add teaching as part of the mix.

Because there are numerous teaching styles, there can not be "categories" that cleanly and clearly define such styles. (Although, in Confucius' case, his disciples created several schools of thoughts based on different interpretations of their master's teachings).

Regardless of styles, or different schools of thought, teaching is an integral part of the librarian's work. He must not only present the material in a coherent manner, but also be engaging to his audience at the same time. In fact, teaching for librarians is probably more difficult than "traditional" teachers such as college professors, high school and elementary teachers. Whereas these teachers have a fairly predictable group of students, librarians have to constantly adjust and tailor their teaching styles according to their different audiences. For example, the approach that a librarian takes when teaching a class of undergraduates how to use databases might be completely different than how they teach a group of university professors how to start a weblog account.

A valuable and intriguing website for any information professional interested in improving his or her teaching skills is, which offers great lesson plans.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Leadership and Management

Recently, a librarian manager discussed with me his managerial philosophy. Managing people has always piqued my interest, as I see it as a combination of teaching, parenting, and coaching. Incidentally, I came across a fascinating article, Leadership or Management: Expectations for Heads of Reference Services in Academic Libraries, from Reference Librarian which nicely delves into the issues that we were discussing. (The same Volume: 39 Issue: 81's issue offers other articles related to the topic of library management).

In the organizational hierarchy, the most difficult position is the “front-line manager” who are the lower-level managers who supervise the operational activities of the library. Although it can be seen that they serve as the link between the management and the non-management staff, it can be construed that they are often squeezed into unenviable positions, making decisions which pleases neither the top nor the bottom.

Unaeze argues that management and leadership are not the same. While management plan budgets, organize the staff, solve problems, and provide stability, leadership requires establishing direction, motivating people, and producing change. A list of traits are analyzed, such as courage, decisiveness, flexibility, and time management.

I’ve had some super bosses but also have had mediocre ones. As important as Unaeze’s points are, my experiences offers some observations of management from the employee's perspective.

(1) Humour – Laughter often brings out the best in us. I find that using humour – even if the punch line fails – generates morale and eases the burden of the workday. The best bosses I’ve had (as well as teachers) have been those who took the time during breaks to come out and crack a few jokes, talk about the missed penalty, or just how wonderful a movie Back to the Future was.

(2) Trust – Managers don’t always need to be judicial. Sometimes, discrete should be traded in for a good chat with employees. It fosters trust. Of course, confidential discussions will be always be at risk, but as the saying goes, with high risk comes high rewards.

(3) The Human Touch – The best managers I have had are those who show their vulnerabilities. Cynicism, despondency, animosity are what makes us all common. I am often touched after personal chats with the supervisor, or when he or she spills a few personal anecdotes about the roadblocks that he or she faced along the way. With humility comes communication, and with that, a better, more motivated team.

(4) Hardwork – Even if the manager is not working on a task, he must appear as if he is, just for the sake of the team. Motivation and example come from the top, and if the leader doesn’t show it, then the staff is doomed to follow. I once had difficulty cutting some tape for urgent delivery from a busy retail bookstore. The manager brusquely took it out of my hand, sheared it with her own teeth, then resumed whatever task she was doing. Job done, problem solved. The experience left an indelible impression in my mind; it helped me realize that managing isn’t just about conceptualizing and brooding in a spacious office.

(5) Generosity - As the author Robert Kiyosaki once said, if you want to make money, you also have to give away money. And do it all without the expectation of any returns. Hence, I truly believe the best managers are those who are not shy to divulge "secrets of the trade" to others, and I most admire those who take on mentorship roles. In a profession which relies on information exchange and dissemination, what better way than to multiply your own information gathering talents?

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

The Scholar versus the Invisible

In refuting the findings of Bergman’s size of the unreachable areas of the internet called the “invisible web,” Exploring the Academic Invisible Web argues that that no single library alone will be able to index the invisible web, let alone the Academic Invisible Web (AIW).

The article’s arguments are interesting when used to analyze the effectiveness of search engines, such as Google and its counterpart, Google Scholar. In the author’s opinions, the AIW can be effectively indexed only through cooperation of portals, that is, combining Google with Scirus, BASE, and Vascoda. Only by balancing the strengths and weaknesses of each can the AIW be properly mined.

The article offers a fascinating complement to a recent article, The Depth and Breadth of Google Scholar, which argues that one of Scholar’s weaknesses is its bias towards the sciences. However, that is just the tip of the iceberg; here are others:

(1) Broken Links – What makes Google strong also makes it weak. While citation analysis offers integrity to its sources, it unfortunately has a “blindspot” to sources that are single-paged entities which are put up on the internet solely not for linkage. There are numerous pages like this on the so-called “invisible” web, which Google does not catch, while others such as Yahoo! might.

(2) Currency - While Google Scholar has a plethora of sources, not all of it is recent. In fact, it might be detrimental for the health sciences if new discoveries are left at the bottom of the pile because they are not as cited as much as the older documents.

(3) Law of Diminishing Marginal Utility – With information saturation, the tradeoffs are up to the user’s needs, and requires Rangananthian philosophical debate to resolve. While Google provides a great deal of information, it requires users themselves to sort through the mass of information.

(4) Indexing – Although citation analysis is reliable, there is still too much grey literature floating in cyberspace. Until Google can somehow reach into these areas, it is still an incomplete tool. One possibility is its emulation of the Dublin Core, which can create a generic uniformity for everything posted on the internet. Although only apipedream, imagine the possibilities!

As someone once commented, relying Google for critical information can be like using an “axe instead of a scalpel” in surgery. Although it cannot replace the librarian professional, it does offer a nice complement to the team.