“Turn ON your mobile phones!” This was the opening statement given by keynote speaker Andrew Walsh, University of Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, UK at the 2010 Reference Renaissance conference, Denver, CO August 8 – 10. This statement aimed to push reference librarians in attendance beyond some of their comfort zones and into acceptance that mobile technologies are here to stay; therefore, we as librarians need to embrace the technology and get with the program!
Walsh proposed many challenges for everyone in the profession which would be steps to implementing the conference theme- “inventing the future”. The argument was made that we need to not only adopt and keep pace with new technologies, but we, as librarians, need to look ahead and not be in the role of playing catch-up. Rather, we need to be leaders in developing technologies to improve the experiences of our patrons.
The challenges included:
• Begin accepting text message reference
• Be radical
• Accept mobile technologies
The first challenge posed was to begin accepting text message reference questions. By a show of hands, about 20% of the academic, school, special and public librarians in attendance had already implemented this service. Individuals of all ages communicate via text messaging so why not make this an option for patrons wanting to contact the library with a quick question. The State Library of Kansas (SLK) is among those receiving text reference questions as are other libraries around the state. Nearly a year ago SLK obtained a Google Voice number (785-256-0733) and integrated the Topeka-based exchange number into its chat reference service, Libraryh3lp. The set-up was relatively easy. The interface is identical to the instant message questions which have been received for more than two years. There were no new skills to learn.
The second challenge was to be radical. While radical is a… well, radical term to use for a library striving to be on the cutting edge of technology, there are steps which can be taken to push the envelope and keep pace with patrons. QR (Quick Response) Codes (or 2-dimensional codes) is one technology which is starting to be seen, as Walsh put it, “in the wild”. However, QR Codes have been around and popular in Japan for about 15 years. These black-and-white square barcodes can be read with smartphones, for example, and a number of other devices. Some possible applications SLK has been considering with QR Codes is imprinting on business cards to link to our Ask a Librarian contact page. Another idea is placing the code on handouts, especially extensive webliographies, distributed at presentations. The QR Code can be linked to a URL for easy navigation to a desired page online. Codes can be generated at no cost, made in various sizes, and used for more than URL linking.
To take this challenge one step further, Walsh encouraged librarians to think about how to deliver answers to patrons in a variety of ways. For example, a patron contacts a library and is having trouble figuring out how to place a hold on an item within your online catalog. You could walk the patron through the steps by phone, type the steps in an email or direct the patron to an already created online tutorial. But, what if the patron has a specific issue and cannot figure it out while you are in direct contact with him? Why not consider sending him a simple podcast created on Audioboo (popular in the UK but spreading quickly in the US) or a screencast with Jing? Quick methods of providing assistance can be beneficial to patrons who might need help with this same or similar question in the future. Patrons have a variety of learning styles; having the ability to see and hear the steps, as in a screencast, would be helpful for many.
The third challenge was overall acceptance of mobile technologies. Instead of having signs in libraries stating “NO mobiles allowed” consider changing the sign to “Please switch to silent” or a simple sign requesting patrons to take calls outside or in a designated area. You know your individual library better than anyone. While this might not be possible in all settings, avoiding the “no” word and using a request instead might help patrons understand it isn’t the device which is not wanted, but the disruption.
Besides the keynote address, I attended many sessions, all focused on connecting easily with patrons, regardless of the preferred method of communication by the patron. Many of the PowerPoints and handouts used by the presenters are available here. What I gleaned from conference was the enthusiasm necessary to continue to push boundaries of where and how librarians assist patrons. To quote Nam June Paik, “(t)he future is now” and I couldn’t agree more!
Megan Schulz can be reached at email@example.com