Friday, May 30, 2008

What To Do When You Know You Should Know Something But You Don't

As reference librarians, we are expected by the public to be know it alls. Many patrons ask me questions and they seem surprised when I consult a resource to answer their question. I have also fielded questions over the phone where the patron has said, "If you don't know it off the top of your head, don't bother looking it up--I'm in a hurry." Sometimes this confidence can be a refreshing moment in a day of lost books, damaged books, disputed fines, rowdy patrons, and long lines. At other times, however, it can be a tad disconcerting because sometimes, we haven't got a clue.

Now, the problem isn't always that we don't know anything. Sometimes, the patron is mumbling (or we're hard of hearing.) Sometimes, the patron was sleeping:

"Do you have Raven in the World, by Aldiss Hussey?"
"Do you mean Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley?"

Sometimes, we're wrestling with inadequate technology, like a million dollar catalog that struggles when you search for more than two terms at a time. Sometimes, the patron doesn't have a clue (just kidding, the patron's always right.)

Anyway, after we say, "I'm sorry, could you please repeat that?" there are a number of things we can focus on to keep our patrons confident in our abilities.

First, we must radiate assurance as we subtly Google the bizarre words that we thought we just heard. This is the point where we are silently thankful for Google's "Did you mean...." result that can make us look so intelligent when we say, "Ah, yes. Here it is!_____________" and say the phrase correctly as if the patron said it that way to begin with. Yes Google is scanning our libraries, serving as the first resource for curious patrons and putting us out of jobs, but really, this kind of image protection is priceless. Just don't let the patrons know what you did.

Next, blame the computer. The patron has no idea what's going on on your side of the monitor. They believe that we are whipping through secret databases, archives or technical "web stuff." They don't have to know that you're frantically Googling, Amazoning, Worldcatting or whatever alternate resource you are using because your catalog freaks out when too much is asked of it (au: Grisham AND su:lawyers....1,000 AND su:lawyers AND kw:cancer....does not compute.)

Third, use clarifying questions that help you avoid exposing your lack of knowledge, while you try to piece together the information the patron is really looking for. This is similar to the tactics many of us use when we can't remember someones name: "Hey there, you. I haven't seen you since...since...since....How long has it been?" In library terms, this would involve questions like, "How do you intend to use this information?" or "What aspects of the subject do you wish to know about?" or "Tell me what you know about it so far." Caveat: This approach does not work well if the patron's question was, "Where is the restroom?"

Finally, if all else fails, casually laugh and tell the patron that you don't really work there--you were just looking for the real librarian--and slowly walk away.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Portable Apps Experiment in Limbo

My little experiment with the portable apps on a stick didn't work so well in the end. Not only does the network interfere with my ScribeFire application, it also resets the bookmarks, toolbars, and extensions in Firefox when I switch computers. I will need to use a laptop if I want access to my favorite applications, and I want to keep my data with me.

Monday, May 12, 2008

ScribeFire Update

I think that I have ScribeFire working-but it only works at home. Apparently, I can't get it through the network at work. Bummer.

Dealing With Network Lockdown Issues

As many of you know, MPOW has a very active filtering system. They haven't blocked sites totally, but trying to use services like IM, Google services and anything else that's AJAXy can be a real pain in the butt. I find myself instructing patrons and saying things like, "on a regular computer this would work," or, "what you should have seen at this point is...." Needless to say, that gets old. I cannot teach classes where I just show the patrons how to do something--they have to use their imaginations.

Anyway, I'm trying to build a collection of portable apps on a thumb drive that will allow me to show our patrons how to do things without some of the network restrictions on downloads. So far, I have Portable Firefox with The following add-ons: ScribeFire, Zotero, Meebo,, FireShot, a MindMeister shortcut, and the Google Toolbar. I have made my iGoogle page the homepage for this experiment and added gadgets for todo lists, Gmail, Google Reader, Google Docs, and Google Notebook. In addition to this, I've loaded a TiddlyWiki onto the drive, just for the sake of experimentation.

So far, I have had mixed results. The network lets me open an instance of Firefox. I loaded the MindMeister shortcut on my computer at home, now the shortcut doesn't display at work--I must have left behind a cookie. The button works fine. I haven't had the chance to chat with anyone using Meebo, but it did sign in and open when I clicked on the button. TiddlyWiki works just fine. The Google Toolbar seems to reconfigure with each computer I plug the drive into. FireShot works beautifully, I'm really pleased with that one (I like the ability to annotate the screenshots on the fly.) The only downside is that it only captures the web page, not the browser as well, but I can live with that for now. I can get Zotero to work for capturing complete web pages, but not for capturing snippets.

The real problem, so far, has been ScribeFire. I cannot get it to add my Blogger account. I have tried a number of solutions that I have found in their forum, but nothing has worked so far. The only thing that I can think of, is that the '.' in my user name must be throwing them off. This is a real disappointment, because one of the reasons I had for creating this portable environment was to enable me to post on the fly, from any computer at work, or at home.

I'll keep at it though and let you know how it goes.