Month: September 2020

Linked by What? – Reflection on Participatory Service and Hyperlinked Communities

The existence of libraries is often questioned by some when it comes to information seeking. In this digital age, it’s normal practice for people to go to search engines like Google when they need to find information about anything they are concerned with. Well, if Google can provide all the information we need, then why do we still need libraries? Before we proceed any further, we may want to ask ourselves two questions: Can Google really provide all the information we need? And do we really know what we need?

When I took INFO 202 Information Retrieval System this summer, I came across an inspiring talk called “Challenging the Algorithms of Oppression” by Safiya Noble.

I appreciate how Dr. Noble conceptualized the different mechanisms behind search engines and libraries. She stated that “search engines are not information retrieval algorithms” and that “they’re not concerned with information retrieval in the way that information professionals like librarians… are concerned with”. Search engines, as she put it, deal with” advertising algorithms” which link people to “things that are commercially viable and profitable” (Noble, 2016, 6:19).

We may all have had amazing/unpleasant experience with Google’s autosuggesting. Thanks to “big data”, we are often astonished by how Google understands us so well that it knows exactly what we are looking for. However, it can also be misleading and even annoying when we are just looking for general knowledge about a certain country, a group of people or a phenomenon – because the top-ranked websites are not necessarily the most objective or informative ones. In the article “What World Are We Building?”, Danah Boyd raised the issue of statistical prejudice where she mentioned that machine can learn from “data entered as input” and “when the data you input s biased, what you get out is just as biased” (2016). I believe this echoes with Dr. Nobel’s idea that search engines are using algorithms that are not adopted by information retrieval systems in libraries. Therefore, the information they provide is very much shaped by their users and the user generated data which can be biased in many ways.

So, in the age of algorithms, should information seeking behaviors still involve humans? The answer is obvious. As Michael Bhaskar mentioned, the need for “informed and idiosyncratic selections” is increasing because curation “captures this irreplaceable human touch” (2016). Technology will only prosper when human beings can all benefit from it. Without the “human touch”, technology can only take us thus far.

“We want to be surprised. We want expertise, distinctive aesthetic judgments, clear expenditure of time and effort. We relish the messy reality of another’s taste and a trusted personal connection. We don’t just want correlations – we want a why, a narrative, which machines can’t provide.”

Michael Bhaskar, 2016

Now let’s go back to the question at the very beginning – why do we still need libraries? To make my point, I’d rather rephrase it to “why do we still need library services offered by humans?” As far as I see it, library service is more about human connections than about books. When we guide users to participate in reshaping library services, we are actually caring for their needs. By listening to our users, we empathize with them. Because of the human interactions, we are able to learn from their stories and “surprise” them by meeting their needs that they didn’t even know existed. A hyperlinked community is very indicative of the technological elements in the services we offer, but it also envisions a community where human connections are greatly valued and appreciated – and this, I believe, is what truly linked us.


References:

Bhaskar, M. (2016, Sep 30). In the age of the algorithm, the human gatekeeper is back. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/sep/30/age-of-algorithm-human-gatekeeper

Boyd, D. (2016, Jan 25). What world are we building? Medium. https://points.datasociety.net/what-world-are-we-building-9978495dd9ad#.auzbwo27v

Noble, S. (2016). Challenging the Algorithms of Oppression [Video file]. https://youtu.be/iRVZozEEWlE

Marketing the Library with “STEPPS”

In his book Contagious: Why Things Catch On, Jonah Berger introduces us to STEPPS – the six principles that make things go viral – namely social currency, triggers, emotion, public, practical value and stories. As I read it, I try to relate them to our practices in the academic library I’m working at and see how our marketing strategy can benefit from his principles. Among the six, I have found social currency, emotion and practical value most relatable to my own experience.

Social Currency

Berger contends that people “share things that make us look good” (2013, p. 207). Narcissistic as it may sound, we all know it reveals our inner world – at least partially – when we process information. One of the tips that resonates with me is to “make people feel like insiders” (Berger, 2013, p. 51). We’ve been interviewing candidates for our student worker position recently. During the interview, one thing caught our attention. Several candidates applied to this position because of a previous student we hired. It turned out that this student had shared his own working experience in the library and also disclosed some “inside stories” with his friends, which made them curious and interested in library work. We are all fascinated by the attention generated by a single student and now we are thinking of using that as an inspiration when marketing library services: let the message spread from insiders – our own student workers.

Emotion

“When we care, we share” (Berger, 2013, p. 207). As an academic library, our purpose is to provide resources and support to faculty and students in their teaching and learning activities. Therefore, our daily interactions with users are mostly result-oriented: they need something, we find it for them. So, what role does “emotion” play in promoting our services and making people care what we do? It hadn’t occurred to me how emotion can be involved in our marketing strategy until a student approached to us two years ago and said she wanted to work for us. It all started with her first major assignment in the freshman year. The professor had asked them to register on a website and use an online tool to complete their work. Due to some miscommunication, this student, along with some of her classmates, had all come to the library for help. Unfortunately, our service staff were not informed by anyone and didn’t know anything about the tool at the time. However, we knew better than to turn these freshmen down and let them leave in disappointment. We called our IT department, consulted with Academic Affairs, and even Emailed their professor to inquire about this tool on their behalf. Our efforts were not in vain. We finally found a technologist in the Research and Instructional Services Team who could address their concern. Two days later, that student came to submit her resume and said she was deeply touched by what we did for her that she wanted to join us and do the same for others.

It was an emotional moment because nothing felt better than to be appreciated, valued and understood. We hired her in the end because we knew where she came from, and we were lucky to have the opportunity to nurture the tenderness and gratitude we both share in that encounter. It has encouraged us to truly care for our users by offering remarkable services through the unremarkable daily interactions.

Practical Value

As Berger mentions in the book, people are passionate about sharing things when they think the content is useful (2013). It’s without doubt that an academic library is of practical value to our faculty and students because that’s basically the reason why we exist. However, to distinguish our unique values from regular services, it’s imperative that we promote the things that are useful but usually unobvious to the users. To achieve this goal, we’ve adopted different approaches when marketing the library in our community. For example, we compiled a list of tips for our students regarding how to make the most use of library resources. We encourage students to borrow course reserve items before we close so that they can keep the books overnight; we promote our partnership with local public libraries so that students know they can utilize resources in those libraries as well; we also send series of posts on various topics of library services via social media platforms which introduce databases or tools targeting students of different majors. When students see the value in these tips and posts, they tend to tell their fellow students about them.

I believe the other three principles – triggers, public and stories – can also guide us in our future marketing strategy. How can we get our users to talk about the library by implementing “triggers” on campus? How do we make library services more visible to the community? How do we share our stories and even motivate users to share their library stories with the community? I’m looking forward to answering these questions as I delve deeper into this course.

References:

Berger, J. (2013). Contagious: Why things catch on. Simon & Schuster.

“Everything human is at least a little bit broken”

I planned to write about “change” when I was reading Library 2.0 because the concept of “Library 2.0”, as I understand it, is all about adapting to changes and involving users in those changes (Casey & Savastinuk, 2007). Given the current circumstances, we must all have something to say about the changes we are experiencing in today’s world and in our own professions. However, as I proceeded with the readings in Module 3, I found myself emotionally triggered by David Weinberger’s idea when he stated that “Every business is dysfunctional because everything human is at least a little bit broken” (1999). Something hit me, strongly. As I finally started reading The Heart of Librarianship (Stephens, 2016), that “something” finally revealed itself to me – the “heart”.

Long before I joined this MLIS program, I had decided to learn more about new technologies and tools which I believe would serve me better in my future career. Things like database management, website designing, programing, video production, etc. have all struck me as mysterious and fascinating. The reason for me to feel that way is simply because I don’t know anything about them, and seeing other colleagues working with these “cool stuff” makes me feel that what I do as a service staff is not promising and contains little value. To me, a “tech-savvy” librarian sounds much more capable and smarter than a “warm-hearted and helpful” service staff. I know this doesn’t sound right and it may offend other service staff (I’m sorry!), but I want to be honest about my own feelings here.

Believe it or not, this is why the “heart” hits me so hard, because it feels like someone understands me. “Everything human is at least a little bit broken” (1999) – thank you for saying that Mr. Weinberger.

Emerging technologies, new trends, data, social media…these terms have been incepted into our head and pushed us forward into a dynamic information era. We are told to be adaptive, trained to be competitive, and also required to be productive at work. To build a successful organization, we must be professional and avoid mistakes in every possible way. We calculate numbers, communicate with charts and reports, analyze pros and cons, and then implement or cancel a service as our statistics have suggested. I understand how it works and why it works this way, but still, something is missing for me.

Coming into library work as a service staff, I mostly work at the front desk and interact with our users face to face. They come to me with questions about the location of a book, a dysfunctional printer, the time of an upcoming workshop, and a broken stapler…Simple questions like this can surely be solved by technology, but why do we still need service staff at the circulation desk? We are so used to approaching users with reasons, numbers and new technologies, to an extent that we forget about the essence of providing services – the heartfelt interaction between humans – no matter how “inefficient” or “unproductive” it is.

Technology isn’t going to solve every problem for an organization, but people can. Technology appears to be so cool and sometimes they make people like me feel so small, but people understand your feelings and empathize with you. No one wants to be perceived as stupid or less capable, so when users come to us with a seemingly “silly” question, they are also revealing an unconfident self to us. What they need is someone who is empathetic and understanding, someone who does not judge them by their “silly” questions, someone who recognizes the “broken” bit within a human being and protects it gently. In my humble opinion, that’s the bit technology can’t provide, and that’s the “heart” of librarianship.

Source: Pinterest

References:

Casey, M. E., & Savastinuk, L. C. (2007). Library 2.0: A guide to participatory library service. Information Today.

Levine, R., Locke, C., Searls, D., & Weinberger, D. (1999). The cluetrain manifesto: The end of business as usual. Basic Books.

Stephens, M. (2016). The heart of librarianship: Attentive, positive, and purposeful change. ALA Editions.

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