I was cleaning up some old email the other day (finally!) and I came upon a folder full of the gory details about herding the cats, errr, I mean scheduling the libraries who participated in public library AskAway, the collaborative virtual reference service I ran for a few years. Askaway had its provincial funding cut in 2009 and had to close the service in 2010. I always felt that Askaway was cancelled at a critical time but I couldn't always put my finger on why it seemed that way. Now I think it's because, while we didn't realize at the time, we had built a customer base who were using the service intensely and recommending it to friends but they were not using it because of some allegiance to libraries as a whole.They were sticking (at least for a while) with the service that they used but they were not going to stick with libraries for the sake of using libraries.
And then Askaway was gone and a year-and-a-half later, JustAsk started up. The customer traffic for JustAsk is a fraction of what we experienced with AskAway: during peak months from autumn to spring when schools and colleges were in full-swing, Public Library Askaway averaged over 3700 sessions per month. JustAsk appears to average 840 sessions during the equivalent months. Even taking into account the fact that JustAsk serves only a portion of the province, it still covers the libraries with the highest use of AskAway, and the difference in traffic is far greater than just for that reason. There has been some explanation about this that school-aged kids are not using chat-messaging anymore like they used to. I don't think this is an adequate explanation. It's not that chat messaging has become a "niche" communication vehicle, maybe it's because asking the library questions is a niche activity (!!!) and we haven't wanted to admit that to ourselves until it's too big to ignore. As usual, we've spent our time looking away from the big scary answers; preferring instead to believe the little answers that don't speak to our looming irrelevance.
A good post here about some of the deep problems we have in libraries with our unwillingness to engage in... deep, inquiry about why we are doing what we are doing. If you don't watch this blog, you should.
I've been participating in a discussion about the hypothetical design of the perfect library catalogue discovery layer. I guess I've been thinking a lot in terms of scenarios, these days and when asked if I could design the perfect system, here’s a scenario that helps me think it through:
In the ”old” days, not too long ago, the public library would have dozens of copies of a tax return guide, either like this: http://vpl.bibliocommons.com/item/show/2803009038_personal_tax_return_guide, or the one that Revenue Canada gave out for free, as well as samples of the tax return form itself, and those would be the basic knowledge-containers that a citizen might need to do their taxes.
Within this service is an online guide to filling out the tax return as well as a question-and-answer forum that users participate in to answer each other’s questions. This isn’t just something for the well-off members of a community. $18/year is well within the reach of almost all members of an ordinary community in Canada. For that much money, they get the app that does much of the work for them, an online guidebook, and a knowledge-network to keep themselves informed.
So, let’s ask ourselves, where does the library fit in? If a public library can’t find some way to lead someone seeking information about filling in their tax-return to these services, we’re not really giving our community all the options that are available to them.
The line between the information/knowledge about something and the act of doing it are breaking down. I wrote a proposal for my library many months ago about building a maker lab and I said that the guiding ethos of that lab should be ”turning learning into action”. As I think about these basic first principles of library discovery, I think I’m arriving at the same catchphrase. How can we get a link to that online tax return service, and all the other services and apps and programs in all the subject areas we cover, into our dataset so that when our patrons are discovering (ie: learning) what resources are available for their query, the value we offer them is to turn their learning into action?