Sunday, December 5, 2010

Points of needs in the library - Signage , Kiosks & librarians

Recently, I wrote 12 User points of need - where to place your services online , but we do not expect people to be glued to their computers , they operate in the real world too.

The interesting question of course is where such points are both in the library and outside the library. There might be some clever way to figure this out, besides following users around to see where they are puzzled (heat map of some kind??). But that will have to be another post.

What I will discuss in this post, is say you have located a certain point of need in the real world, what will you put there? Ideally if we can fully anticipate member needs the signage or help posted there should be specific to what the members are confused about or wondering about so it will seem like we magically read their minds. So for instance, maps would be important for people trying to find their way around, so you see most libraries putting signages at stairwells as an obvious example.

But that would require quite a bit of mind-reading (or rather ethnographic observation) so failing that we need someway for the member to get help from the librarian and we can't be everywhere.

For example in my institution,   the open stacks are on one level and  the reference and loans desks are on another level. How can we save the time of the user who needs help? By providing either remote help or a way to "Summon the librarian"!

How do we do that?  Looking at other libraries, I see there are probably 2 main methods

(I) Simple Signage with contact information - member uses his communication tool

(II) Computer Terminal or "Information Kisok" - library provides the communication tool

These methods are relevant whether you are using a roving librarian model in which case, the reference desk can have either (I) or/and (II)  when the librarian goes to rove, or a more traditional reference desk model, where librarians are still stationed at the desk, but (I) and/or (II) can be deployed at areas where members are usually stuck but far away from the reference desk and you can provide remote help.

(I) Signage 

This can be pretty low cost solution, from simple printed paper posters pasted on walls boards or shelves or put on stands, to permeant fixtures/signs mounted on walls. Another high cost option is digital signages such as LCD,plasma displays.

There's quite a lot of literature on designing libraries and signage (I'm totally ignorant of them all), so I'm not going to say much beyond some obvious remarks.

The type of signage used will depends on the point of need, for example digital signages such as Plasma displays are very flexible as you can control the information you want to display, but can be put up in only areas with lots of space. Printed posters on the other hand can be placed practically anywhere.

Contact information you can put on your signs?

(I) Phone numbers
(II) SMS/Twitter (if you provide SMS/Twitter reference service)
(III) IM Name (if you provide IM reference service)
(IV) QR Codes (Lots of discusions on use of QRcodes)

The main issue with all these methods is that IM, QRcodes, relies heavily on the user having a smart-phone or have installed a QRcode reader. While phone & SMS requires just a normal phone, some users might still balk at the cost of calling or texting or the phone battery is dead etc. Also communication using a mobile phone (smart or otherwise) does not always have high usability at least in the case of IM.

I've left out email, because, email is not considered "instant" enough, and even if I had a smartphone to email you the question, there are doubts how fast the reply would come and when you are stuck at the open stacks far from the librarian you probably need instant help.

My guess is that listing plain old phone numbers would be most valuable followed by SMS if the library does SMS reference.

What these methods have in common is that, it relies on the user having their own communication device.  How about if the library provides the means of communication instead? Which brings us to the next section.

(II) Computer Terminal or "Information Kisok" 

In this day of iPhone and iPads, it might be bit archaic, but perhaps one could put a phone or intercom of some-sort at a point of need far away from the reference desk where users can call for help?

But of course, the trend now is to go for computer terminals or information kisoks.

The good thing is that these days a locked down old PC can easily serve as one, without having to pay for expensive custom made hardware.

One can put a computer equipped with

(A) Web chat link

"Another option for older systems is to use them as communications stations, setting them up with nothing but an IM client directed at your Reference department IM account and a background that says “Need help?” Throw in a cheap wireless card, and you can throw one anywhere you have a power outlet as a help station for the lost patrons who just want to know why they can't find a copy of Harry Potter in the HP section." -- Source

Anyone have example of this? Or is this no longer necessary, since you can have web chat boxes on every part of your library webpage from the catalogue to the library homepage?

(B) A more fancy setup with Web Cams for Skype or Video calling

Some libraries have being experimenting with even more advanced setups, that allow Video reference, typically using Skype. Two examples I have found includes  Ohio University Libraries’ Skype Reference Service and Ask Ontario . There's also a paper here on the system at Ohio University.

Video by Chad Boeninger, Ohio University Libraries introducing Skype Kisok. 

Unfortunately it seems both these experiments, seem to be unsuccessful. At least members didn't seem to be using the Kisok to Skype, see experiences here and here. The main reason seems to be our members generally don't want to Skype with us, as they prefer to be able to multi-task and are shy to do video calling with strangers. It's telling that in the Video, Chad says there is some usage of the Skype account that is linked to on the home webpage, but most of them just use the text based option.

(III) Touch screens?

In addition, if all you want is a way for patrons to summon a librarian, you can look at Darren library's Patron notification system which uses Growl (I think) .

"They bought touchscreens for the desks and have a screen that says “Touch Here for Assistance” that patrons can use when there isn’t a librarian at the desk. Just touching the screen pages a librarian. Decided to use for notification “router”: it is free to use and you can download it to host it on own servers. Can send notifications via IM, email, and Prowl/Growl. Gave librarians iPads and iPod Touch running Prowl so that librarians could be notified when not on the desk. It shows information about where the patron is located and a link to click to notify the patron via the touchscreen that a librarian is coming to help the patron." -- Source

Touch screen for users to summon help. Source : Jblyberg Flickr account 

Librarian with iPad gets alert. Source : Jblyberg Flickr Account  

The Kiosk approach using either IM/Web reference or Skype/VOIP would seem be more flexible than  Darren library's Patron notification system , since the former allows you to both communicate with a librarian who can come down if necessary, while the later if I understand correctly can do one thing only, that is summon help.

That said Darren library approach is far simpler, press the screen and help comes, while depending on the setup for Kiosk, it might be far more daunting to use and if there's one thing I learn't about people is that simple wins.

I have no doubt they have looked at probably simpler systems, for example a simple alarm push button system that sounds, but it seems Darren library uses the roving librarian model, so it is important for the alert to be able to received remotely.

In passing, a weird idea I read about about a year ago, reverses the model, as in the librarian broadcasts his location while roving but I can't find the reference now, though I'm sure it doesn't involve the current FourSquare check-in craze.


I'm guessing a mixed approach using both signs and information kiosk systems will be best obviously. I suppose one interesting experiment to do would be to locate one point of need.. and then try using the different approaches above e.g. First plain poster with different contacts, then digital signage, then Kisok with skype, then with touch screen etc...

Which method would get the most use? Is a simple sign with phone number almost as effective as a information kiosk? How often do users want to "summon a librarian" as opposed to call, chat or text them?

I would be remiss if I didn't point out that sometimes though, the best thing to do with a point of need in the library is to station a librarian there! Over at Librarian with different hats  , Librarian Hoi blogs about her experience sitting up a make shift station to be closer to library members.

"As a little library lover I was always curious about what librarians do - they must be fairies, so I thought. How wonderful will that be if I could even catch a glimpse of a working librarian, let alone talking to them face to face.
Been toying with this idea ever since I became a librarian, and I did exactly that today. I put up a home-made poster, chose a spot at the end of the magazine bay, set up 2 chairs, a table and ta-da, the doctor is in =)

The little sign that says "Feel free to interrupt me .." is a nice touch, since it has being reported that some users are reluctant to interrupt a librarian because they look so busy while doing their work.

Stephen Francoeur's Digital Reference blog was very useful for writing this post.
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