Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Baruch's reference blog

I am really pleased with the way that our library's reference blog, Reference at Newman Library, has continued to thrive after being launched four years ago. We've now posted over 1300 messages (and hundreds of comments, too); our weekly average is about a dozen posts.

When we started the blog, it was intended to do away with the informal and haphazard systems we had to notify each other at the desk of technical problems and to alert each other to new resources and tools. We had been using:
  • notes taped to the desk
  • a printed reference manual in a 3-ring binder, which is now replaced by our password-protected reference wiki (screenshots)
  • emails on internal listservs
  • word-of-mouth (i.e., tell the person coming on after you at the desk what to watch out for)
With the blog, we made all that great content easy to publish, easy to share, and easy to find again later. Since most of my colleagues don't like using feed readers to keep up with RSS feeds, I set up a system to forward every post to them via email as soon as the posts are published.

Since we started our blog in Blogger in the days long ago when the service did not offer categories or tags, I've been relying on a account I created to tag all the posts and give multiple entry points back to the content. Every time there's a new post, I tag it in A link to the index can be found on right column of the blog, allowing my colleagues to scan the subjects covered already on blog posts. There's also a search box, which I hear gets pounded a lot by the staff trying to track down content they recall having seen.

Over time, the blog has turned into a repository of reference question and answer pairs. We often post stumpers to the blog or notable reference questions tied to assignments, which lately have been leading to more and more comments and suggestions from librarians. It's kinda interesting that if you Google Apple audited financial data the first hit is a post from our blog about what database to use to find this information.

As someone who started working at Baruch's library as an adjunct, I know how out of the loop you can feel when you miss out on staff meetings and informal conversations during the workday. A number of the adjuncts have mentioned to me that the blog (and the wiki) are invaluable to them for finding out about things that they might not have otherwise heard of.

Now if only I could convince my colleagues to use Bloglines or Google Reader to keep up with posts from the reference blog (as well as others they might enjoy)...


At 1:33 PM , Blogger Emily said...

This is great! We started a blog for our information desk at Sarah Lawrence, but have had less success in adoption. Student workers and reference and access staff were all invited to join, but few actually posted or even checked the blog for information. We still rely on the post-its-and-desk-calendar method of communication. Any tips on encouraging adoption?

At 2:54 PM , Blogger Stephen Francoeur said...

I should mention that there are about 20-25 people who staff our reference desk (a combination of full-time and adjunct librarians). In that group, there are about 3-4 of us who post a message every few weeks at least, then about 5-6 who post once every few months, then 4-5 more who have only posted once, and finally the rest who've never posted. I guess we have a critical mass, then, of posters, which helps.

We try to make the content compelling enough that people find it in their own interest to at least read the posts, if not write their own or add comments.

I'd recommend that you find a way to email the blog posts automatically to everyone. Two ways to do that: if there's a internal listserv that everyone is already on, you could have the blog posts get sent as email messages to that listserv. Or you can set up systems to automatically email each person their own copy of the blog post.

I do the second option. I set up Blogger to automatically email a copy of each post to a Gmail account (Blogger only lets you do this with one email address). Then the Gmail account is set up with filters (rules for processing incoming messages) that forward the incoming email of the blog post to each person who staffs the desk.

If you use the Feedburner service to set up your feed, it comes with an email subscription service that allows readers to get email posts by email. I declined to use this feature for our reference blog, because each staff member had to sign up themselves, which is a barrier to actually doing it. Everytime we get a new staff member, I go to the Gmail account and add a new filter to send that new person the blog posts as emails.

Another way that we have raised the visibility of the reference blog is by adding a bookmark button to the bookmark toolbar in IE and Firefox on all the staff computers at the reference desk.

Over the years, I've done a number of demos of how to post blogs at meetings of the Information Services Division (which manages reference services and our instructional offerings). From time to time, I stop by my colleagues offices to show them some feature that will help them compose their posts in more advanced ways (e.g., how to do block quotes, how to do hyperlinks, how to do bullets, etc.)

At the start of each semester, the head of reference services will review blog posts that were written during the break (winter break, summer, etc.) and write an email to all the adjuncts that includes links to notable posts that were written while those folks were away (during breaks, the desk is staffed just by full-time librarians).

For a short while, we had the reference blog set as the home page in the browsers on the staff PCs at the reference desk, which put the blog front and center in the eyes of reference desk staff, but many found that tedious when working with patrons. A way around that, which I haven't tried, is to set the browser to open both the library home page and the reference blog page as tabs in Firefox everytime the home button is clicked on the browser toolbar or a new browser window is opened.

At 10:41 PM , Anonymous Aaron Bowen said...

Wow, excellent post. The pace of adoption Emily mentions is something we have encountered in our library at Cal State, Chico as well (although I'm pleased to say I think this will be less of an issue with time). The strategies you adopted to produce content for your blog and get people looking at it is definitely useful information -- thanks for sharing!

At 5:26 PM , Anonymous Dances With Books said...

Wow this is a great post and idea. Here, it has been similar in terms of the challenge: getting people to adopt it. One of the librarians simply is not convinced a blog would work for this type of purpose ("you can't search it" "it's in chrono reverse order, so that certainly can't work." And a few other excuses). The other is pretty much an old school librarian pretty much afraid of anything too technological (thing is, she is a smart lady though). Heck, I can't even get them to post to the library's blog (the one we use for news, etc.). Buy-in has been the obstacle, but oh well, I keep trying. We are a small staff, so if those two block it, no matter what the director says (and director is usually amenable to trying new things now and then), it won't fly.

I did not know the trick about using Gmail to do what you do to automate the e-mailing. I may have to look into that.

Anyhow, thanks for some inspiration.



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