A Tale of Two Citation Tools

I recently heard a presentation at ALA Annual about innovation in an age of limits. In the presentation one of the presenters discussed the citation tool EasyBib and how it was created by high school students. This got me interested in how different organizations go about creating solutions for the same problem. Compare the two about statements from notable citation companies RefWorks and EasyBib:


“Founded in 2001 by a team of experts in the field of bibliographic database management, RefWorks is dedicated to providing a high quality web-based research management, writing and collaboration tool for the academic, government and corporate research communities. Used daily by thousands of researchers in over 900 organizations globally, RefWorks supports hundreds of online databases and output styles covering a broad range of subject areas. RefWorks collaborates with some of the world’s most prestigious online information service providers including ProQuest, BioOne, EBSCO, Elsevier, HighWire, H.W. Wilson, ISI, OCLC, Ovid and Serial Solutions, to name a few.”

What comes to mind when you read that description? It sounds very serious and scholarly. They use words like “prestigious” and “experts.” This product seems designed for people who value quality, organization, and serious research. Now read the description of EasyBib:


“When we (Neal and Darshan) were in high school, we each had a huge writing assignment. We found that the most tedious part of our paper wasn’t the writing or the researching, but the bibliography itself. We had to constantly refer to our citation guides to figure out how to cite sources and where to put the periods, commas, and underlines.

Needless to say, we thought this would be a perfect application for the Web. After a few months of figuring out all the bibliography rules (Neal) and coding the site (Darshan), the first version of EasyBib launched in February 2001.

Eight years later, EasyBib is now the largest online bibliography site on the Web, visited by millions of students per month. We’ve expanded our team with some of the smartest people out there, and are going to continue building products that make life easier, faster, and better for our users.”

This description on the other hand sounds a lot less serious. This product was not created by a “team of experts.” It was created by a couple of high school kids who were annoyed with having to create a bibliography. The reason they created it is because the wanted to “make life easier, faster, and better.” That’s a great mission to have.

Looking at both of these companies they are very different, but they are trying to solve the same problem. One company sells subscriptions directly to researchers or institutions. The other company has a freemium model that allows students to create MLA citations for free, but also has paid versions with additional bells and whistles. It’s important to recognize that the way these companies solve the problem of citations appeals to different sorts of people. They both work well, but in very different ways.

My colleague Sarah, raves about RefWorks, but she is a serious researcher. And that it seems, is the market that RefWorks attracts. Faculty, grad students, researchers, anyone who is generating serious research would find RefWorks incredibly useful. Undergrads though are not serious researchers. They need to do some exploration and research, but they’re not going to be saving citations for another scholarly paper that they want to get published. They want to easily finish their bibliography with the least amount of hassle. Hence, whenever I ask what students use to do their citations in information literacy sessions, I always hear several students mention EasyBib.

In order to innovate as librarians, we must first look around and ask “what are the problems that our users need to have solved?” In this case it was the problem of citations. These problems that we identify are the opportunities for innovation. Then, we have to be careful while designing the solution and take into account our audience. Are we designing it for librarians and faculty (RefWorks)? Or are we designing it for undergraduate students (EasyBib)? EasyBib was designed by high school students. Perhaps our users should be intimately involved in the design and creation of new library services. Who knows, maybe they could even get academic credit for it…



Serving Users and The Element of Surprise

Every year we have a library retreat at the Inn at Shelburne Farms. It’s a really relaxing, reflective environment and it’s always productive. This week, one of the conversations that we were having out there centered on our service philosophy and how we go about serving our users. This meant serving them in person, via chat, in the classroom, on our website, etc.

Our team had a lot of great insights, especially in talking about our reference interactions. In reflecting on how I wanted my service to look, I realized that I dont want to simply satisfy them or give them a positive experience. I want to surprise them. I want users to walk away from a reference question thinking “wow, I didn’t realize how much time asking a librarian saved me.” I want students in a class to think “this person is a librarian? This class was actually fun and I learned something useful!”

And sometimes this happens. This semester a student came up to me when I was wandering through the library and we had something resembling the following conversation:

Student: “Can I ask you something?”
Me: “Sure, what do you want to know?”
Student: “Why do you librarians always smile so much? You seem so happy.”
Me: (smiles) “Huh, I guess we just really love what we do. Thanks for saying such a nice thing.”

Surprise is all about doing things that are unexpected. In their book Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath state that one of the factors that can contribute to an idea or experience being sticky is if it is unexpected. People may not expect librarians to be smiling all the time. Perhaps they had different experiences other places they’ve been. Students may not expect library instruction sessions to be fun and engaging. Maybe they’ve seen boring lectures before. Students may not expect a librarian to be non-judgmental and amazingly helpful in a reference encounter. When these things do happen it creates a very memorable experience.

Steven Bell did an excellent conference paper presentation at ACRL this year about this. In his paper he outlines strategies to deliver a “WOW user experience.” He points out that student expectations for libraries are actually fairly low. In fact students sometimes even think it will be a painful experience. According to the literature there are students that have library anxiety. It makes surprising students that much easier.

The element of surprise is a powerful weapon. It makes experiences very memorable. If you are able to surprise the people you’re serving, then you’ll likely have people who keep coming back and maybe even tell their friends.


But What Can You Do With It?

Do you ever have tours come through your library and the tour guide starts talking about the impressive amount of resources you have? “We have 50,000 books, 60,000 e-books and thousands of online journals!” First they never get the numbers or information right. Second, who cares? What does x number of journals mean to a prospective student anyway, let alone an undergraduate? Nothing.

The best student tour guides are the ones who tell stories. “I was able to Skype a librarian when I was abroad to get help on my research paper, and I got an A because of it.” When you get an actual example of the library being beneficial it makes it more concrete and gives it meaning. It’s much more effective to portray our experiences than our stuff. Apple does this well in their commercials.

In this commercial they don’t talk about the specs of the iPhone or about how the picture is crystal clear. They simply show what you can do with it. They portray the relationships that are strengthened and the magic that happens because of it.

Google, though almost never an advertiser, realizes that search by itself is boring. But what you can do with it can be life changing.

The first time I saw that commercial I think I misted up a little. Searching is like breathing for people who use the web. We don’t even think about it and it is completely mundane. But this commercial shows the power of a story and an experience. This is how we need to market and portray our libraries. In conversations, on Facebook, on Twitter, in videos, we need to share the stories of what libraries can help you to do.

Instead of “hey look at all our stuff,” we should be saying “hey look what you can do with our stuff.” It’s only a slight shift, but it makes all the difference.