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Two more – then I’m done!

Another fall project we are undertaking in Research and Instruction is a more robust and thorough student training program that will last all year. In the event that we do go the information commons route, it will be more important than ever that our students are well trained and that we put in place a more robust monitoring and assessment of the service our students provide. To this end many things are coming, including a Sakai course with learning modules, moving to the LibraryH3lp native interface for chat, investigating LibStats for statistics and more. I attended a session on VR service and even though it was primarily discussing consortial programs for VR, there were good nuggets to take away that related to all VR.

One was not to expect more out of VR than you do out of in-person, email or telephone reference. Just like the person at the desk cannot always answer a patron’s question in full by themselves, you should not expect to be able to do that in a chat session. You still have referrals, assistance and suggestions of face to face contact that can be used when the question goes beyond the expertise of the person at the keyboard. Another item is that it is critical, especially when you have students answering questions on chat, that you monitor those transactions. Read transcripts, praise good answers and correct incorrect ones. Librarians also have to be willing to analyze chat sessions from other librarians and be willing to have their own analyzed. The idea is to continually improve your service and in order to do that you have to assess it. When we move to the native interface of LibraryH3lp in July and away from Meebo, we will be able to capture our chat sessions and become better able to assess what happens in this medium. While WFU does not have nearly the volume of VR that many schools do, it is a growing percentage of our reference transactions, and needs to be trained and assessed in a more strategic way.

Finally there is the issue of web-scale discovery services (my thread is starting to look like a rope). I attended a really interesting session on user experiences when their libraries implemented web scale discovery services. Two of the schools had implemented Summon and one has implemented Ebsco Discovery Service. Their experiences were similar in many ways and they learned many lessons along the way that are critical for us.

First, DO NOT take away easy and obvious access to your catalog and your database and journal finder tools. There are many valid reasons people may still want to search your catalog or go to a specific journal or database and if you make that hard or hide the access you risk infuriating your patrons and creating a bad launch of what otherwise is a useful product.

Second, the content differences among these products is not significant enough to worry about. They are good for undergraduate researchers and though they will claim to be far superior in one way or another, they probably aren’t. What the library has to focus on is how they integrate with your journal data (both platforms, coincidentally, reported that they still find journal data in full text options to be incorrect in some cases – but everyone agreed that this happens in all systems so it is not really a deal breaker) and how you choose to integrate it into your web site. Giving it a good name and brand, placing it in appropriate places on your web site, explaining what it does, providing instruction in how to use it, keeping everyone on staff positive (but realistic) about the product all go a long way to make it a success on your campus.

Third, they don’t solve all your problems. In fact, they can create more confusion initially for students when using them without prior instruction or any guidance on what they are and what they do. Both Summon and EDS, for example, tout that one strength of web scale discovery is that the facets you apply after your search can drill you down to exactly what you need. But what all the libraries found is that no one notices the facets until they are pointed out to them. Edges of a screen have become on most web sites where ads are placed, so our students tend to tune them out. This means that the 650,000 hits they get can be so overwhelming, especially if they do a very general search, that their frustration grows. But all the schools also said that when you teach students and faculty how to search and use the facets, they are really excited about the product and wonder where it has been all their lives. So setting expectations and reformatting our instruction to make the best use of our time in demonstrating a discovery service will be extremely important.

Finally, I was surprised at how all of the schools talked about keeping abreast of all the services and not committing forever to a particular product. They all agree that the products are developing and improving so fast that you need to be willing to consider them all and avoid long-term commitments for the next few years. Even the school that was one of the first Summon development partners agreed that even though there is time invested in the setup, that can’t be your only reason for staying with a product if it doesn’t suit your needs or if other products develop differently. Change is the new normal.