IMPROVING SERVICE BY SHARING KNOWLEDGE
Don't you hate it when a user asks you a question and the staff person who knows the answer is not at hand: Has a periodical that isn't on the shelves been sent to the bindery? (Damned if I know.) Is a particular article available in one of our full-text databases? (Maybe. Ask at the reference desk.) Is a particular book on order? (You'd have to ask Nancy.) What's the name of that book Dr. Singh has on reserve? (Ask at circulation.) When is the library's next book sale? (Wasn't that in the last newsletter? Don't we have a copy around here someplace?)How do you use ERIC? (You need to talk with a reference librarian, and they've all left.)
Sharing our knowledge with other staff members is one of the best uses we can make of a library network. Some information, of course, we can post publicly on our web site, available for anyone to see: our schedule of events, our hours and policies, our periodicals subscription list, instructions for using each database, and such.
There is other information that is not public that we might still wish to share with each other: What books are on order? How much money is left in a particular budget line? Who's working the reference desk on Saturday? In an academic library, we might want to know what departments have not spent their book budget yet, or what books various professors have placed on reserve.
With a library network that is inaccessible to the general public, we can post privately created databases, like our acquisitions records, so that librarians can see not only what they have ordered already, but check to see if anybody else has ordered an item they want, or if a book on order has arrived. We can post working documents, like the annual report, for comment and additions. We can post internal calendars so we know who's on base and who's in the ondeck circle: the reference desk schedule, meeting schedules, vacation schedules and such.
The more we can take our own unique bits of knowledge and put them on an intranet where they're available to other staff members, the less we'll each have to stand there with egg on our faces saying "I'm sorry, Kathy's the only one who can answer that, and she's on vacation." If we pride ourselves on being the information place, we can start by keeping each other informed.
Of course, many of you are already doing this. For you, the only question is, what ELSE can you share on the network to make your library work even better? Start with those questions people at the circulation desk can't answer, or the reference questions that only technical services people know the answers to. Can you construct an FAQ page? Is there a database you can construct and share on the intranet? Our intranet is a splendid way to make us ALL look professional and knowledgeable.
Doing research on the Web is like using a library assembled piecemeal by packrats and vandalized nightly.
Roger Ebert, in Yahoo! Internet Life, September, 1998, p.66
GOOEY AND THIRD VOICE: A CHANCE TO TALK BACK
I've been reading about two new software programs that allow users to make public comment on any web site. The first is Third Voice, downloadable at http://www.thirdvoice.com, which allows users to essentially stick electronic post-it notes anyplace on a web site that they want to comment on. Those notes do not change the web site itself, because they are visible only to people who have also installed the Third Voice software. The second, Gooey, downloadable from Hypernix http://www.hypernix.com/, allows you to chat online with anybody currently visiting the same site you're at, as long as they also have the Gooey software.
I'm no expert on software, but what you have here, it seems to me, is the online equivalent of reading other people's scribbles in the margins of books, other people's highlighting of texts, with all the attendant benefits and perils. Comments may be intelligent and useful, or stupid and scatological. (Just think what the White House page would look like.) Even when comments sound intelligent, you have no idea whether the person making them is an expert or a poseur, a professor or a freshman.
So the obvious question is, why would you want to read such a mixed bag of other people's scribbles?
I can think of a number of reasons. A professor could post the assigned readings online and students could post their questions or reactions AT THE POINT that raises them. Students and professors could then respond online, so that you could have an entire discussion thread about one specific idea in the piece, leading to a specificity that formal class discussion groups rarely arrive at.
You could post working documents on your web site for review and comment: were some issues not addressed at all? were some statements vague and unclear? was information left out by accident or not considered in the first place?
These programs also offer the possibility of both control and community. Instead of looking at the blank face of an existing web site, which may or may not offer a discussion room or other interactive features, we could share our ideas with the web site creators AND with its visitors. We could contribute our own knowledge and viewpoint to the discussion, and meet people who, as Gooey's creators say, "share the same interests and Net habits, creating the first Dynamic Roving Community on the Internet." Or, of course, we could get revenge on the site's creator.
That's one of the obvious down sides you'd have to think about. Is there any way to control for good manners? Can you prevent any one person from seizing control of a discussion? Are comments anonymous? If not, is there a possibility of retaliation by professors or bosses or web site creators against people who offer criticisms? Is there a way to retract ill-advised comments after you've made them? Is there an expiration date on commentary so that the site does not become more post-it note than original content?
Also, how about the rights of the creator of the web site/column/story/art work/ to have the work viewed in its original form? I know that as a writer, I prefer that you follow my argument to the end and then comment; if you go off on a tangent, and take my other readers off on a tangent, you may never understand the point of what I was saying.
Still, if we value a team environment, if we respect the contributions of our colleagues, if we want user feedback, and if we understand that much of what we learn comes not from the professors but from our fellow students, we should welcome opportunities to enhance the possibilities of collaboration. These free downloadable software programs seem to me worth exploring.
You are welcome to copy and distribute or e-mail any of my own articles (but not those by my guest writers) as long as you retain this copyright statement:
Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians and Other Information Junkies.
Copyright, Marylaine Block, 1999.