How to Fix Reference

At the ACRL-NEC conference I attended recently there was a fair amount of talk about decreasing reference usage. I suppose I have heard rumblings about this, but I didn’t realize how serious a problem in many places. At Champlain College where I work, our reference usage stats are increasing, and I think some of the things we are doing could help other libraries as well.

First, it helps that we get to see students almost every semester through our revolutionary information literacy program spearheaded by Sarah Cohen. Students get used to seeing a librarian and realize that we can help them. Instruction is very closely tied to reference. Re-evaluate what and how much you are doing in the classroom. Don’t just tell students there are databases available to them. Tell them WHY Google is not always the best place to get information. Make the case for libraries.

Second, professors give assignments that require library resources or that students must talk to a librarian. I think this one would be the most beneficial for anyone in increasing their reference usage. Forcing students to use the library is a great way to help them try it out and see how beneficial using the library can be. I constantly see students amazed at how useful the library is after they get over the idea that “it’s all on Google.” One student even found that using the library was quicker than searching online because they didn’t have to wade through all the “useless websites.” So, talk to your professors. Ask them to build the library into their assignments. They’ll be rewarded with better student work and you’ll be rewarded with a busy reference desk. I know we are.

Finally, we record reference statistics differently from other libriaries I have worked at. Instead of doing the tally method we are usingĀ Zoho Creator to easily create a form to record every reference encounter. This form collects all the data and you can export it easily into an Excel spreadsheet. This makes data collection simple, but it also allows you to see what stories your numbers are telling.


I made up a graph With the help of my good bud Chris Campion I made up a a graph in Excel using our data and we can see that a good percentage of our questions are coming through chat. You can also look at other things like “when are the bulk of your questions coming in?” Are you getting a lot of questions later at night? Perhaps you might want to discuss changing your reference hours to support this trend in the data.

These are just a few ideas, but they seem to be working for us. What’s working at your library, or what isn’t working?


Wolfram Alpha

There is a new search engine that has just launched called Wolfram Alpha. As opposed to being a “Google killer” it creates its own niche. Google serves up webpages relevant to your query. Wolfram Alpha seeks to “to make all systematic knowledge immediately computable and accessible to everyone.” In other words it is good for queries that you want to compute and understand in depth. It breaks your query down into the key facts about it.

I put in my birth date this morning and it gave me relevant computations about that day including how many days ago it was, notable events, the sunrise and sunset, and that it was a “waxing gibbous moon.” I can see this being a very powerful tool for doing more in depth and especially precise research.

The goal of the Wolfram Alpha folks “is to build on the achievements of science and other systematizations of knowledge to provide a single source that can be relied on by everyone for definitive answers to factual queries.” It is a very ambitious project and am excited to see where it goes in the future. Give it a try!


Reference for Dublin Students?

Traditional Irish Breakfast

I recently had an excellent summer scheming meeting with my amazing colleague Sarah Cohen. I like when we put our heads together. It gets me energized and excited about new ideas and initiatives that we could try.

Sarah had just gotten back from a trip to the UK and while there she visited Champlain College’s study abroad campus in Dublin. She related that immediately when she got there she had reference questions from the students there. Apparently students are doing significant research while they’re abroad, and are not quite sure where to get appropriate resources.

Even before she told me her idea I was on the same page as her: we should offer in depth reference to these students using a service like Skype or something similar. They do have our Digsby/IM chat available to them (which they have made use of), but with in depth research something more is needed.

I think we are going to look into it this summer and then maybe run a pilot of the service in the fall. The only missing piece that may be necessary is screen broadcasting software. I really like Procaster, which allows you to live stream what is going on on your screen.

But I really would like something that would allow me to use Skype and then simply switch from my camera to viewing what is on my screen. Is anyone using anything like this? Are there any free or cheap options available? I’ll do some more research, but it should be fun trying something like this.