Sunday, October 18, 2009

GoogleWave - First thoughts

It has being a crazy week, I was stressing out having to give my first ever presentation at the Libraries of the future seminar (with the new presentation tool Prezi !).

Google decided to make things more complicated by sending me an Invite to Google Wave! I promptly gave it out to librarians I knew on Twitter and settled down to play with it.

First off , it's supposed to work in Firefox and Google Chrome. But many people have reported that it's slow and unstable in Firefox, and that has being my experience as well, so I use Google Chrome for now. It's still slow and not totally stable but it's far worse in Firefox.

Google wave as a email/IM hybrid

Google wave is hard to describe, but it's basically a Email/IM/Wiki hybrid.

You "wave" to one or more googlewave accounts by adding your contacts to a new wave, similar to the way you add email addresses when emailing. If people you have on your google contacts have a wave account they automatically appear as one of the possible contacts. The image below shows me starting a new wav.

Chances are though , you will have no one to wave to at first, so you have to figure out what their wave addresses are, or find some public waves to interact in.

What are public waves?

Like email conversations, you can usually only read waves you were added to as a contact. It is however possible to make a wave "public", so anyone with a wave account can read it (see this on how to make a wave public).

You can do a search with:public keyword search in the middle pane, to find public waves. I like to do a search with:public librarians 

There are waves such as the Librarians wave directory that lists librarians on Google Wave, or you can go to any wave, click on the row of accounts listed in the wave, and add them to your contacts

The interesting part is that if the people you wave to are online, you can see them type their responses in real-time and by real-time I mean you can see them type their responses letter by letter! You can also respond in real time, so you can respond mid-way even before the other party has answered.

It's a novel experience, particularly if you have not used real time collaborative  tools like Etherpad or Googledocs before. 

Each wave you see would include a threaded history of the conversation so far, and you can add new people to the wave at any time, and they would have access to the whole conversation. 

When you view any wave that has changed, any new wavelet (a message in the wave)  or changed wavelet (see later) will have a green border around it. You can click on space bar, to quickly jump to these wavelets.

There is also a "playback" mode that allows you to see how the wave changed with time, who added new wavelets etc.

At this level of use Google Wave is just a email replacement, with the added advantage of being able to react in real time like IM, if your contacts are online. The presentation also reminds me of a threaded web-based Bulletin Board forum

Google Wave as a email-IM-Wiki Hybrid

An interesting twist is that the messages you type as well as those added by others can be edited/revised at anytime by anybody already on the wave.

This is of course based on the wiki concept, with similar history tracking features.

Embedding widgets, robots 

Google Wave also makes it easy to embed widgets from IGoogle or OpenSocial gadget. But I found this really interesting extension that allow you to embed anything or html into the wave! So you can embed anything from Slideshare widgets to searchbox widgets or anything else with the correct html sniplet.

Google Wave also allows you to create robots which are automated agents that respond to events in the wave to carry out automated tasks. I don't have the programming chops to work this out yet, but here's a interesting bot that looks for ISBN13 and replaces with a book cover.

You can also embed the wave into blogs, webpages etc, but it isn't as easy as simply copying and pasting html. In this area,  Friendfeed is much more user-friendly with similar real-time functions. Mashable has a nice explanation of this and more.

First thoughts

Google wave adds yet another possible communication tool to libraries. With libraries struggling with new communication channels such as Instant Messaging, Text messaging, Twitter, Facebook and more, it is a interesting problem to have.

To me the obvious use of Google wave would be as a replacement to email. Once Google Wave becomes ubiquitous like email or gmail or if institutions implement their own Wave platforms (it's an open platform), I suspect all libraries would use this routinely to answer queries.

It has all the features of email with added functions of Instant messaging.  My experience manning email library accounts is that more often then not, library users give you insufficient information to help them and you desperately want to ask them more questions in real-time. Currently I either pick up the phone and call them, or possibly invite them to a meebo chat site or use services like Tinychat.

Not all of them will respond and even if they do, bringing the conversation to another location, means needing to keep track of the transaction on another communication platform (logs etc).

Google Wave makes all this seamless.

I've being racking my brain to see if anything currently done with wave cannot be done with email and so far I haven't come up with much.


Currently there are many issues with Google Wave, which is not surprising given the innovative nature of the service.

I think it's quite complicated to use, and being beta the interface needs tons of work, so much so that many people (almost all whom are geeky early adopters) are struggling with it.  So it definitely isn't ready for the masses for a long while.

The main one is that I haven't found a way to be automatically notified in a popup that someone waved to me, or added me to a wave. (The 'Ping' mechanism is clumsy), leading to a strange situation where people are co-coordinating with each other via Twitter/IM first before going to Google wave to communicate.

For instance I have being using Twitter with @digicmb and @mlibrarianus to connect with them first before going to test wave.

My first library transaction over wave

Somewhat interestingly, I got a wave from a library user which would be my very first ever library transaction conducted via Wave (permission granted from user).

Nothing particularly interesting, at this level it works just like email, or rather gmail with threaded conversations or a normal web-based forum, particularly since we were not both online at the same time. If only Google wave could send me a popup notification of a reply, so I could respond instantly if desired.

The wiki-like functions of Google Wave isn't necessary a boon, in most cases, I don't really see the need to allow anyone to edit everything. Currently there doesn't seem to be any controls allowing you to turn that off, though there seems to be a provision for "read-only" messages that hasn't be turned on yet.

Also as @eagledawg on Twitter pointed out to me, while waves are private by default, anyone you include in a wave, can invite anyone else to join, there is no way to control this.

Other use cases

Obviously people are still trying to figure out Google wave. I have written in the past about mashups/services such as

These pieces were written with the full understanding that Google Wave might make all the ideas there irrelevant eventually. In theory Google wave could be a component of the use cases above (probably as a replacement for meebo, or Friendfeed real-time widget), or it could be used on its own.

For instance the Rssybot which allows you to watch RSS feeds in wave, seems to have a lot of potential.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Librarian at the reference desk. How do you manage your workflow at the reference desk?

Reference desk duty is probably the most interesting part of my day, as I get to interact with users. One thing that interests me greatly is how different librarians setup their systems to respond to users.

As I see it, there are two main competiting interests. On one hand, you want to be able to work on your own library assignments during idle periods. On the other hand, you want to be able to quickly put aside your work and attend quickly to the user in front of you when he consults you.

Of course how your setup your browser, your desktop, would depends on a myriad of factors, from the types of help channels you are monitoring (some librarians handle anything from Skype to Twitter to Meebo while other more traditional librarians handle only phone calls and in-person reference transactions.), to the type of queries you usually receive (directional vs research), to the nature of your other duties (cataloguing, event planning, Library information technology etc).

In the past, I suggested that one idea might be to create a mashup of most commonly used resources into a "information dashboard" using tools from Friendfeed to Netvibes (see also RefStart by Text a Librarian -Mosio).

These tools would be designed to help you answer queries effectively and efficiently, though there are other solutions of course, such as using opensearch plugins or just opening various browser tabs.

The problem here is that these tools help you answer questions efficiently (but see this comment about the dangers of being too efficient without educating users), but they don't help you manage the interruption, one moment you are working on say cataloging a book, or answering some email to your boss, or editing your subject guide , the next you are assisting a user seeking to find some city-level China data statistic.

And if you are like me, while working you will have many windows/programs (FrontPage, Library management system (LMS) interface, Instant Messaging Client etc), browser tabs open and it gets confusing fast (to the user if not you!) when you mix that with the browser tabs and programs you open while assisting the user.

By the time, you turn back to your work, you might have forgotten what you were working at (some browser tabs might be closed/replaced already), and this can be the source of serious mistakes.

Another problem is that while working you might be viewing and displaying several screens with confidential information (loan records, financial data etc) , and you have to hide/close them before using the PC to assist the user.

This isn't ideal, you want to respond instantly to the user in front of you or the user who called you over the phone, Instant messaged you etc etc. This is less of an issue if you don't handle users in person (or don't do stuff like screen sharing!)

I'm not sure what the policy is at other institutions, some might forbid the librarian from doing their work at the reference desk, but I suspect given how busy librarians are generally, this is unlikely to be common practice.

I'm curious how other librarians tackle this problem.

For me, what I do is to login to the Reference Desk common PC as per normal then do a remote desktop access to my desktop in my office. I do my work on the remote desktop, and assist users using the "Real" PC desktop. This has several advantages

I get to work with exactly what is on my system back at the office

Depending on the policies at your institution, you might not have as many user rights when using the common PC as opposed to your own PC back in the office. Doing a remote access to your own PC, bypasses all these problems allowing you to work with exactly what you are used to.

I can continue to work up to the last minute or second while on shift.

When someone relieves me, all i need to do is to close the remote desktop (one click), log-out of the common PC, and the work still remains at my desktop PC. This isn't possible if you are doing your actual work on the common PC, as you have to waste time saving files, closing browsers etc.

Separation between work done for user and your own work.

The idea here is simple, use your remote PC for doing work, switch back to the "real" PC when assisting with queries. The switch can be done in literally seconds. This way when assisting users, you show a relatively clean profile instead of your own work PC which has many confidential windows open.

To be frank, I don't always use the "Real pc" to assist users, often I forget, then I run into problems when either printing say a map for the user (it goes to the wrong printer in my office) or when I insert a thumb drive to copy a file for the user (you cannot transfer the file from the remote PC to the thumbdrive inserted locally).

There might be technical solutions to this, but it seems easier to just remember to stick to using the local pc for assisting users.

Other solutions

I'm aware that not all institutions are liberal enough to allow users to do remote access, and that there might be other ideas so I'm really curious how other librarians handle it.

Some ideas off the top of my head

  • Use different browsers

  • Use two different physical machines side by side?

  • Use virtual machines??
  • Some smart "panic" button that closes/hides every window when a user approaches?

I'm sure there are many other workflow ideas used at the reference desk, please share how you do it at your reference desk in your comments. I'm also somewhat curious about whether there is a uniform practice within your institution with regards to such matters, or do Librarians generally use whatever method they find most comfortable?

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