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Sep. 27th, 2005 @ 09:54 am User-centeredness
I'm developing the bit below into a longer work -- RAH

I started work at William Paterson on the first day of the Fall 1995 semester with the understanding that I was to create a staff of student lab technicians – as well as the labs in which they were to work. What I found when I got there were two in-staffed labs each with some battered 386 and 486 computers running MS DOS. Plans were afoot to create a third lab, this in an unused room adjacent to the reference center in the library. There would be new computers in the library Electronic Resource Center (ERC), and they would be running MS Windows NT and, better yet, connected to the Internet. So in addition to hiring and training a staff from scratch I was faced with two poorly equipped old labs that needed new operating systems and Internet connections, an one new lab that would have both those things. Naturally I thought most of my trouble would come from the superannuated labs; Imagine my surprise half a year later when it occurred to me that the library-based lab had caused me more problems than the other two combined.

One problem was the fact that adults – the reference librarians – shared contiguous space with the ERC technology lab. The other problem was that those adults were reference librarians. For example, since both the program and the students were young there was a problem with tardiness. Most students have a generous opinion of what it means to be “on time,” and shift changes often resulted in coverage gaps. If the biologists down near the Science lab ever noticed these inconsistencies I never heard about it. Ditto the computer scientists in the Coach House. I noticed, of course, but I didn’t tend to call myself in order to leave panicky messages on my voice mail. The librarians noticed, and boy did they call. Such was their concern that a restroom-length absence might be enough to trigger a call. These calls were so persistent that I soon, made “friendships” with many of the librarians, and the memory of those relations are carried down to today, a decade later*.

A bigger issue arose from the nature of help offered the patrons. The student technologists were there to help their peer students use the computers: getting online, double-spacing in MS Word, learning what spreadsheets do, and the like. But because the reference area and computer lab share a contiguous area many patrons approached the technologists with questions better handled by librarians trained in consulting with patrons on library-related issues. But the student technologists had been trained to be helpful, and when someone approached with a question they tried their best to answer it without distinguishing between technology and reference. This did not make the librarians happy. They complained to the students, to me, to my supervisor, and the their supervisor. The library supervisor in turn complained to the students, to me, to my supervisor, and to the provost. The provost has recently retired so I can’t ask him if he complained to anyone.

At the time I assumed the librarians had some kind of turn issue with the STCs. A proud lot, they knew their jobs but at the time those jobs didn’t entail use of technology and many were, to be blunt, afraid of computers. Afraid perhaps that computer labs staffed by scantily trained (in comparison to their own) student were going to take their jobs. Despite any fears and the occurrence of panicky calls one thing the librarians had in abundance was patience. Again and again they explained to me the importance of what they called the “reference interview,” the process by which they teased answers to questions the patrons weren’t sure of to begin with. I thought the librarians were being over-sensitive and picky; they probably thought I was being insensitive and sloppy. No doubt there’s some center ground between the two positions that best describes the scenario I am relating, but over time I came to better understand what it is the librarians had in mind.

At the root of the librarians’ argument was the principle of customer service. Patrons were at the center of every interaction, and the importance was to understand what the patron wanted (even if s/he didn’t) and provide the appropriate resource(s). I didn’t reject their argument because I disagreed, but because I felt that my students actions complied en toto with that described by our friends in the reference section. I’d trained the students in the technological aspects of their jobs and had no doubts they understood the proper resources in that arena, and I’d advised the best resource for reference-related questions were the librarians. My bases covered, I didn’t see the problem.

With time and observation I gradually began to understand the librarians’ perspective, but it took this weeks reading to uncover the root of their orientation. While both camps had the best intentions, the librarians had a theoretical matrix from which to work while I did not. The librarian entrusted with overseeing the ERC was fresh from library school and could probably quote textbooks from memory. I don’t know the texts in question, but no doubt they were influenced by the user-centered approach espoused by Belkin and others. Implicit in that approach was the concept of negotiation. I never once suggested that the students knew more than the librarians, I just didn’t think it was such a big deal that the students could take first whack at student questions then refer them to the librarians if necessary. I tried to frame this approach as labor-saving, but the reference staff wasn’t going for it. They didn’t want their labor saved, and now I see a little better why. The student workers not only didn’t know the answers, to a large degree they didn’t know the questions. They didn’t know how to help the patrons articulate their queries, for example. The issue was more than one of turf or of understanding the library, but of understanding the patrons themselves. Taylor and especially Belkin have helped me to understand the user-centered library in a more sophisticated manner. The patron is not just the center but is the point of the entire exercise.

I don’t think it has always been that way. Back when I was still flogging away at my history dissertation I spent some time in an archive at a coal museum in Pennsylvania where I shared a table with the volunteers who helped out. One of the regulars was a professional librarian probably in her 80s, someone who’d worked in both school and public libraries. I understand it is a mistake to use one person as a template for understanding an entire profession, but this old gal did not suggest a user-centered approach. Just the opposite, in fact; her opinion seemed to be that she guarded a precious resource, and her most important job was to maintain strict vigilance over it. Yes, users should be allowed in a library, but only if they met certain criteria and acted in a given manner. She was like a mother hen guarding the latest batch of chicklets. I suspect that what new librarians today might want to remember about Belkin et alia is not just their message but the fact that it was probably revolutionary for its time, and helped to shape not only the librarians of today but the libraries themselves. And if the architects of the Internet can bring that message online it can only help to improve the usefulness of cyberspace as well.

*One of those librarians is currently on the faculty at SCILS – not telling you who!
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punts, oxford
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From:fist_of_khonshu
Date:October 5th, 2005 12:10 am (UTC)
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Yo, RAH. This is a certain person with the initials MJG from your online HIB class. I'm going to friend you, because you seem like a swell fellow (or "swellow?"), and because we digital librarian-types need to stick together.

See you around!
From:(Anonymous)
Date:January 31st, 2011 09:59 am (UTC)

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С уважением ваш друг Олег