The Real-Time Library

Librarians across all sectors of the profession have spent considerable time discussing and analyzing the impact of Web 2.0 and what it means to have a Web 2.0 influenced library. Here at ACRLog we first acknowledged Web 2.0 in December 2005. Since then we’ve offered a number of posts about academic libraries using 2.0 technologies to enable more user participation, to reach out to users in the spaces they prefer to be, and even to stress the need for a more user-engaged instruction session. But as with all technology trends this one is evolving too.

A few weeks ago my Temple University colleagues and I traveled to Princeton University for a joint staff development program on digital reference. Stephen Francouer did a fine job of leading us through the evolution of digital reference, and shared his thoughts on where the technology and service is headed. Francouer summarized the key points of his talk in a post at his blog if you want to read what he had to say. There was no lack of excited conversation about the different appoaches our libraries were taking with chat and text reference. The discussion focused on using these technologies to connect with users and extend our traditional services in ways that better serve the user community.

What if the program theme had been tagging or podcasting or blogging or facebook profiles or any of the other 2.0 technologies academic libraries have adopted? I think the character of the conversations would have been far less dynamic with much less enthusiasm for where we are headed. It was as if we were talking about the next frontier – even though digital reference is hardly new. But digital reference is emerging as the library service – and technology – that best moves us into the next Web revolution.

According to BusinessWeek, that revolution is the “real-time web” which it describes as:

the exploding number of live social activities online, from tweets to status updates on Facebook to the sharing of news, Web links and videos on myriad other sites. It’s a whole new layer of innovation that’s opening up on the Web.

Academic libraries always had elements of Web 2.0 to them, but without the 2.0 technology. Much the same, the exchange of information in real-time (think phone and F2F reference) is not new to libraries, but now we have the convenience, immediacy and community presence of the real-time web world. We are poised to move there.

What are some characteristics of the real-time library?

* The real-time library is socially networked but it’s about more than just owning social network accounts; the real-time library has an active presence and shares information in real time.

* The real-time library updates its status regularly.

* The real-time library offers targeted services to the networked community.

* The real-time library is accessible on real-time communication devices.

* The real-time library is ready and waiting – all the time – to deliver information services.

* The real-time library monitors the multitude of emerging real-time web services and experiments to find those with the potential to enhance service in real-time mode.

* The real-time library designs information services specifically for delivery and use on the real-time web.

* Real-time librarians are adept at creating relationships with real-time library users.

At our program we explored the opportunities opening up to academic librarians connected to the real-time web – although “real-time web” was not a part of our terminology. But much of the conversation was about providing services in real time, and how to do that successfully. There was some talk of the Google’s Wave product. It will be a few months before we fully grasp the details, but the early announcements suggest it may offer a platform for real-time libraries that want to move even further into new communication and information exchange environments with their users. In real-time environments we may be able to work more collaboratively with each other and our users – even to the point of seeing the words of the other person’s messages as they are typed.

For now, don’t expect a set of principles for real-time librarians, the Real-Time Librarian blog or real-time library manifestos. This is all part of the user-generated/user-participation web evolution. As our users – our next generation of students – develop new behaviors and expectations for how they acquire and use information it is important that we pay attention to it, understand it and design it into the services we deliver.

8 thoughts on “The Real-Time Library”

  1. This is a really important conceptual development: the separation of what you call the “ real-time librarian” from other web 2.0 or even library 2.0 concepts. I’ve been thinking a lot about web 2.0 and library 2.0 ever since I recently read Cheryl Peltier-Davis’s article, “Web 2.0, Library 2.0, Library User 2.0, Librarian 2.0: Innovative Services for Sustainable Libraries” in the Nov./Dec. 2009 issue of Computers in Libraries. Peltier-Davis does an incredible job of (comprehensively) characterizing these emerging 2.0 concepts (even if some of them are truly embryonic), but I think your bulleted “real-time librarian” concept gets at how we can truly connect with users and serve them best. We just have to reach a critical mass with our users and a stable, widely accepted (perhaps next generation) platform to engage users in real-time. I think LibAnswers comes close to a virtual reference platform for real-time librarians.

    But, is this a build-it-and-they-will-come situation or, as I suspect, a dam ready to break once our users become aware of these services and fully or readily adopt them? Our staffing and reference desk shifts (for front-line librarians) will have to take into account this heavier emphasis of virtual real-time reference and instruction. I think we might have to allow some of us to be real-time librarians a healthy percentage of the time. Perhaps the future will see full-time real-time librarians (aside from those employed by virtual reference after-hours services).

    In general, I see library 2.0 practices as a way to engage users and get them in the door (virtually speaking). This is especially true in the social networking model of communication, in essence going where the user is and being hyper available. But, I think that your “real-time librarian” will serve the user the best through robust virtual reference: the kind, at least in quality, that the user can get face to face. Virtual users especially need help synthesizing, evaluating and analyzing information and resources, since they (in my experience) seem more in pursuit of instant gratification and easy fixes. Hence all the hype about the “Google-generation” in recent years. Most users (and students) will just try a series of (Google-style) searches from the first search box available to them after multiple failures to find relevant results.

    Virtual reference users as well as those who use our electronic resources seem to expect the right answer or resources with minimal effort. This has been our goal for users for longer than most of us can remember, but I don’t think we can import information literacy into our resources without the real-time librarian as mediator. Well-placed and prolific online tutorials may at least start the process. But this would mean lots of tutorials and users willing to watch them.

    If we staff virtual reference to a point that we can be real-time, we should have links to virtual reference near all search text-boxes and on all search results pages. This is especially important on “no results pages”. I see users give up at this point all too often, before I can intervene. This goes for the catalog and well as our commercial databases.

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