It's about the Information!

  • Parent Category: Commentary
  • Last Updated: Thursday, 16 January 2014 20:15
  • Written by Phil
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The Governor General of Canada sent out a very nice message proclaiming that October is Canadian Library Month. Her message starts by telling us how books are so special and ends with a salutation wishing us "many long, enchanting hours spent with a good book". I'm not kidding! Would someone please tell the GG that it's about the information? Books are really just a container. Really!

As I become the Systems Librarian

  • Parent Category: Commentary
  • Last Updated: Thursday, 16 January 2014 20:15
  • Written by Phil
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As I start my new job  tomorrow as Systems Librarian at Vancouver Public Library I leave the AskAway virtual reference service with mixed feelings. I'm pretty excited about the prospects.

Below is what I wrote to all my staff, colleagues and stakeholders on my last day but, coincidentally, here is something that came across the radar today. Can you say "mixed feelings"?  


To: Bc Virtual Reference Staff List; Bcvr-Plcontacts; Bcvr-Suppstaff;
From:     Phil Hall
Subject:     Moving on
Sent: September 18, 2009 5:08 PM

Hi AskAwayers,

Today is my last day as AskAway Coordinator for public libraries. I feel like I could write a book about the amazing experience I’ve had since I started here in June 2006. I also realize that that book would be incomplete without all the stories that all of you could tell about your successes and frustrations as we’ve travelled together starting this new service and this new way for libraries in B.C. to provide reference service together to all our patrons. But, since I’ve talked to so many of you over those years and learned so much from you, I’m going to share with you some of the things I think we’ve learned and some of the things I think we can do with that learning.

I think the first thing we learned is: virtual reference is hard. In fact, general reference of any kind is hard. AskAway staff showed amazing bravery as patrons we never knew much about asked us things, and said things to us, that we had no way to expect. Despite how much our society celebrates the cult of specialization, being a generalist is perhaps the hardest kind of reference of all. But perhaps we knew that already and just forgot that we knew it.

We should always remember that someone might have faced the same problems we face before us: VPL's Finditnow VR service was an extraordinarily stable foundation on which to build this service and the many collaborative services around the continent were always keen to share their good ideas and hard-won lessons with us. And, that’s the second thing we learned. Lots of people in libraries are constantly having good ideas. Some of them shout their ideas from the rooftops but some of them are very quiet. Those of us running the coordination and administration of AskAway certainly learned to ask our colleagues whenever we faced a puzzling problem. We were very likely to find someone who not only had a useful solution, but were more than willing to share it.

The third thing we learned, of course, is that we can do things together that we can never do alone. I know that sounds like an obvious profundity, but there’s more to it than that. We’re starting to learn that when networked-services and ideas get bigger, they aren’t just the same as the small services scaled-up. Rather, bigger is different. It allows us to find solutions and reach goals that we can’t even consider without the large-sized effort. Our Collaboration is an example of this. We all collaborated and offered real resources and real effort to put patrons first. Library staff with different backgrounds and from different regions bent over backwards to help each other out. Our successes, both in numbers of patrons we could serve and numbers of libraries who could participate, would not have been achieved without this.

But don't let it sound like I'm complacent or that I’m ignoring the problems. We had many struggles which we didn't completely overcome. Anonymous youth can be incredibly rude and objectionable. Some of us find this really bothersome and, frankly, it would be great if we could do something about it. Some school children would really like us to do their homework while, at the same time, some school systems seem to provide no other resources for their pupils to use, even while they are sitting in a computer lab in their own school. These are certainly inconsistencies that I would have liked to have found a solution for. Lastly, some of our libraries did not attract many patrons through their own patron links. I always felt that more could be done to help those libraries attract their patrons.

But, at the same time as these success and problems, some core of what we have always stood for was also evident everytime AskAway opened in the morning. I started my first regular job in a library 30 years ago this month. So much has changed but some very important, powerful aspects of what we do have remained. I’m sorry to say that some of those aspects are not really helping us: the building I worked in 30 years ago is still there and still performing it's core function (Woodward BioMed library @ UBC) and sometimes, I think, we take refuge in the buildings and their collections as a way of avoiding the change that is all over us.

But by the same token, much more powerful aspects of our work also remain and these will help us retain our place and our mission in our communities. Libraries, whether on the ground or on the net, are still bastions of neutral, honest, skillful information service to anyone who has a need and who knows to ask us. Through all of the changing formats, the changing nature of digitial info and "locationless" service, our core ability to connect with a person's needs and help get them further along their route from ignorance to knowledge, is what I take with me to my new job.

But this is an email, not a book, so I’m going to have to stop here. Everybody in B.C. libraries who had anything to do with AskAway is part of the reason I was able to do this job. You were amazingly helpful and patient. As I leave, I know that virtual reference won’t disappear from public libraries in B.C. As you build the service that will come after AskAway “as we know it”, I know you will take all the things we learned and make the best of it that you can.

I won’t be very far away, figuratively and literally. I wish you all the best and know I’ll see you at conferences and on listserves and I look forward to talking to you all again.

With Kindest Regards,


Digital Services for "non-patrons" in our libraries

  • Parent Category: Commentary
  • Last Updated: Thursday, 16 January 2014 20:15
  • Written by Phil
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Picture a library. One with good, comfortable interior architecture that attracts hundreds, maybe even thousands, of people per day who come in to sit at one of the carrels or tables, plug in their laptops and connect to the libraries free public wifi service and then go about their business (studying, research, email/messaging, whatever). Isn't that a golden opportunity to show the patron some of the other amazing services they can get from the library while they are there? 

 But in many libraries, this opportunity is wasted on a cold, legalistic wifi-authentication page that says something like "here's the list of things you aren't allowed to do and if our wifi service disappoints you, it's not our fault, you must hold us blameless" and then it asks for their barcode & pin and sends them on their way. 

Why throw away the chance to welcome them to the library and remind them that there are things we can do for them while they're here? In my article responding to VPL's Vision & Plan for 2015, I go on aboutwhy I think libraries have to become more agressively digital. Here is a basic scenario for improving digital services to patrons who are already in the library.

I think we should start from the premise that no one who uses library "stuff" should use that stuff without being offered the services of our expertise. So, the idea that patrons of the library can walk in, sit down in one of our seats, and use the library's wifi connection without being offered any other services has got to end. When they connect to the wifi, they should be directed to a welcome page that recognizes roughly where they are and tells them what they can get while they are there. So, if a patrons sits on the 2nd floor of the library and connects, the router on the 2nd floor triggers a welcome-page that says:

"Welcome to level 2 of the xxxxxx branch library. Did you know that new this week in the Science collection are database directories of blah blah and so on. Don't forget, you can always ask the reference staff any question you have about finding anything you are looking for, either here in the library or on the web. Just look for someone with an orange badge or type your question here in this widget [and, of course, the page has a chat-reference widget on it]."


It's that simple. Essentially, everyone who touches the library, either virtually or physically, gets offered services to assist them. I realize that many library people will feel that the fact that we have reference staff at reference desks means we already have made the offer of our services but I'm afraid that that offer is lost on an increasingly number of library users. They need the offer of services in a format and a place (their computer screen) that they recognize as being directed at them. I also realize that many many people who connect to the library will ignore these offers of service and will carry on and I think that's perfectly okay. Some of them will take us up on the offer and, just as important, we will establish the "authority" of our services in our space.

Libraries in 2015 "and beyond"

  • Parent Category: Commentary
  • Last Updated: Thursday, 16 January 2014 20:15
  • Written by Phil
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I've finally uploaded my article responding to my library's "Vision and Plan for 2015" that I promised ages ago. It's a couple of PDF's here:





Unfortunately, I don't think  the Plan is published on the Library's website yet but I'm told it will be soon. I'll point to it when I can.