of Library Technology

                  Look carefully before you leap

into online reference service

Seven Deadly Sins

A s a true academic, I once wrote a book-length report on some-thing I had never done. When I wrote “Establishing and Maintaining Live Online Reference Service” for ALA’s Library Tech-- ology Re ports, July/August 2002, I had neither experience in nor any opinion about providing computer-based reference assistance. But now that my library has attempted to establish and maint-ain live online reference, I definitely have an opinion-some might even call it an attitude -about the service.

Several months after my report came out, the Miami Dade College library installed a live streaming-video computer hookup providing reference assistance from our campus to a satellite location. Librarians and administrators heralded the service as cutting edge and a wave of the future. Enthusiasm about the service was abundant but, alas, short-lived.

The system required laborious training and suffered constant techno-logical problems. Posting a question was so complicated that students never used it, especially since the telephone was quicker and easier. The project was abandoned just a few months after it started. Undaunted by this first failure, several months later our library joined the Florida Department of State’s collaborative “Ask a Librarian” service to provide chat-based virtual reference service. It is too early to offer any solid conclusions; however, early indications reveal the same pattern of continual technical glitches, low enthusiasm among librarians, and even lower student use. One librarian characterized his first scheduled service as ‘an hour-long ordeal” because of the barrage of error messages he faced. Another said the four librarians on duty during her hour fought over the two questions posted.

Intrigued by our unhappy experiences, I turned to research (always the academic) for an explanation, where I identified seven common pitfalls when applying new technologies. Unfortunately, all seven are evident within virtual reference service. Influenced by my recently minted graduate degree in theology, I have dubbed these” The Seven Deadly Sins of Library Technology.”


In the beginning there was the idea to provide live online reference service. But rather than pronouncing it good, many are asking, “Whose idea was this anyway?” The idea for real-time, computer-based reference assistance rarely comes from the reference librarians who must deliver this service. Many can barely handle their current workload, let alone add the onerous burden of live online help 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The possibility of chatting with a drunken pervert at 3:00a.m. is not high on anyone’s wish list. Librarians are also keenly aware that inadequate, if any, additional staff are usually provided for new services.

Nor did the idea seem to originate with library users. I have never heard patrons say they wanted computer-based help from home. Rather, most library users want what Clifford Stoll identified in his 1995 book Silicon Snake Oil (Doubleday) as three of the basic components of his ideal future library: a card catalog, books, and ‘a harried, but smiling, librarian.”

Agreeing with Stoll, my sister tells me, ‘1 feel like such an idiot in the library. I can’t find a book with that stupid computer. I wish you would bring back the card catalog!” And as for books, AARP the Magazine in its November/December 2003 issue listed libraries among the 14 things that “just aren’t as good as they used to be” because they no longer have “things called books’ kept on shelves.” A recent user survey at my own library revealed that the number-one item patrons requested was books (along with coffee). But rather than books or coffee, we give them computers. We then offer live online reference so patrons can use the computers they never wanted in the first place. If users and librarians are not pushing for virtual reference, who is? Virtual reference is often a top-down decision foisted upon librarians by eager administrators. But why would administrators suggest a service that neither librarians nor patrons want? The answer can be found in Sin #2:


It has been said there are only two kinds of news stories: the shame of it all or the wonder of it all. The same is true for new technologies. As Lauren Wiener writes in Digital Woes (Addison-Wesley, 1993), “We hear a lot about the benefits of the proposed systems, but we seldom hear what we are risking or get an accurate picture of the cost. Systems are described in glowing, unrealistic terms dominated by those thrilled to breathlessness by the thought of building these systems.” So passionate are proponents, they even dub their systems ‘sexy.’ And why not, for they often suffer from Sin #3:


Grand, complex, and all-encompassing-those are just some of the attributes of new technologies. In his excellent book God and the Chip (Wilfrid Laurier University , 1999), sociologist William A. Stahl calls these “grandiloquent visions” of those who have something to gain, rather than realistic assessments of the complexity and limits of the systems. Movies are replete with grandiose, super-controlling computers. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, HAL controlled first the environment and then the humans. In Desk Set, Spencer Tracy makes an ill-fated attempt to replace librarian Katharine Hepburn with a system called an “electronic brain.”

The knowledge base proposed to ultimately comprise a database of answers to all the world’s reference questions is a grandiose library-based technological system.And as in other technological visions, a virtual reference knowledge base would require a person to interact with a computer, which would then automatically process the request and spit out some form of digitized answer. But why, you may ask, would one want to interact with technology in this way? The answer can be seen in Deadly Sin #4:


“Technological mysticism”-the myth that technology equals progress-is the unspoken religion of all industrial societies, Stahl claims. Central to this religion faith that everything can be solved through a technological magic bullet. “From Star Wars generals to computer hackers, devotees believe technology is both the question and the answer,” Stahl says. Through and with computers, the Kingdom of God will arrive.


But this vision of God’s kingdom is missing one basic element: people. As Barbra Streisand says, people who need people are the luckiest people in the world. Especially when dealing with computers, people need people, because technology uncomplicated by people leads into the realm of fantasy. As we here in Florida know all too well, voting can demonstrate what happens when too much money is spent on technology and too little on training people.

Years before the Florida election fiasco, Nova Scotia tried a telephone voting system in the hopes of getting more people to vote from the comfort of home. But just like our first virtual reference experiment, it turned out to be a short-lived disaster. The system was too complicated, required too much training, and was used by few people. In reviewing the system failure, Wiener explains that the project had attempted to correct the wrong problem. When people do not care to vote, allowing them to do so from home does not help. The same can be said for library users.


When dealing with computers, the most ordinary tasks must be spelled out in complete detail; what is easy for humans to do can be extraordinarily complicated for computers that lack common sense.

Internet filters are a perfect example of how difficult it is for computers to automate a human faculty Local communities have great difficulty agreeing on what is obscene, so how can a machine be expected to locate and identify pornography and then allow access to adults while withholding it from children? A lofty goal, indeed, but one missing common sense.

People also ignore their common sense by attempting to replace the phone with a computer. The future holds exciting possibilities for collapsing the functions of these modes of communication, but that future is not here yet. For now, the telephone is still the preferred communication method and should remain so until the alternative is an improvement. Too often replacing the phone with a computer may save the service provider money but costs the user in frustration.


Frustration and exasperation are unwelcome byproducts of most new technologies because they are so often accompanied by unintended consequences. We employ computer systems to gain control, but ironically the computer ends up in control of us. (HAL may be closer to the truth than we think.) In libraries, the Internet provides a sea of information but drowns us and our patrons along the way Wasn’t it better to have four books on genealogy than 1,736388 hits on Google?

Virtual reference systems come equipped with their own technological revenge: reference interview transcripts. Every question asked in a reference interview down to the word and keystroke and millisecond-is recorded for posterity Having to figure out what to do with this written log is a technology-produced unintended consequence. The state of printing (or nonprinting) in libraries is my own technological pet peeve. In too many of our libraries we force patrons who have laboriously searched database for hours to endure yet another technological obstacle course just to print the results.

Technology even rendered my own public library useless once when I went there to pick up a book. I had for gotten the call number but could not look it up because all of the computers were in use. Waiting in line for one I was struck by the irony of my technology-produced problem: Here stood a professionally trained librarian, in a library, knowing the book I needed, but thanks to technology, I was totally helpless. Just like my sister, I longed for the card catalog. But we need not bring back the card catalog, nor abandon library technology, to offer library service to patrons. Instead, we need to convert these deadly sins into blessings:


Before offering any technology-based service, determine the appropriate target audience. This sounds easy, but it is not. Most virtual reference systems operate on a build-it-and-they-will-come model, assuming library users will flock to a new online service. But low usage statistics question this assumption. For instance, one well-established virtual reference service reports an average of under seven questions per day, while another has a six-month average of 11 questions a day.

Advice on implementing a new virtual reference service continually stresses publicity and marketing. No one seems to need or want the service without vigorous selling. The trick is locating and listening intently to your users. Perhaps teens or subject specialists would welcome a live online reference service, or maybe librarians themselves are the ideal target audience. Many libraries find that once they install a virtual reference system they end u p using it to communicate internally. Whatever the population, make sure you know who you are serving before you begin.


Discussion about whether a technology can help must be an open, honest, and realistic assessment of advantages and disadvantages. Weigh both the financial and human costs. Exclude from these discussions anyone selling the system or those with a financial stake in its adoption.


To rectify the sin of grandiosity, limit the solution to the problem at hand. Too often computer solutions are proposed to automate one function, but end up laden with nonessentials. Start small and fix only what’s broken-nothing more and nothing less.


Just because it can be plugged in does not make it better and may even make it worse. Rather than equating computers with progress, let the benchmark for success be that a problem has been solved. Start with a statement of the problem and see if-and how-technology can help. As the Nova Scotia home-voting example demonstrates, automating a service no one needs is fruitless. Indeed, it could be argued that more and better face-to-face reference time is needed, not more technology.


Keep people and common sense at the core of every technological solution. Despite all the bells and whistles of virtual reference systems, “Please come to the library” remains one of the most frequent responses e-mailed to patrons. The harried-but- smiling librarian is still the key to effective reference service.


Assume that the system will malfunction or crash. Design a backup plan. Prepare for unintended consequences, even though it is impossible to predict specifically what they may be. Ask yourself if a glitch-ridden new system-and what new system is not?-is better than what you have now. If you would be better off with no system, you may want to start again and craft new solution that turns all seven sins into blessings.

But this time, as you repeat the seven steps, try praying as you do. •.

By: Nancy Kalikow Mexwell

Assistant Director - Miami Dade College

P.S. These thoughts are hers - not theirs!

Director Maxwell can be reached at:

North Campus Library

This article is based on keynote address

presented at a 2003 SEFLIN (Southeast

Florida Library Information Network)

conference.                                                     SOURCE: SEPTEMBER 2004

                                                                        AMERICAN LIBRARIES

                                                                                                      (Pgs. 40-42)

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