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ALA Annual Conference Atlanta, Georgia Jun 14-17, 2002

Report Submitted by Fran Zedney


I love ALA! This was the fourth ALA annual conference I've attended--and the first one in Atlanta--and I am still dealing with information overload from all the sessions, exhibits, etc. Following are my notes from the sessions I attended. I have handouts from poster sessions, the swap 'n shop, etc. if anyone is interested in seeing them. A special thank you to Joan Hubbard and Kathy Payne for allowing me to attend the conference!

I.  Virtual Reference 
II.  Reference Service 
III. Marketing
IV.  Usability Testing and Web Page Design
V.  Other


I. Virtual Reference        

Care and Feeding of the Virtual Librarian  
     Speakers from several libraries that have instituted chat reference offered some tips. Here are some  suggestions:

  • Librarians assigned to this service should know the core resources and relevant databases for each major subject area.

  • If part of a consortium, be familiar with the home page of each member library and where to find info for each

  • Regularly review statistics to add canned messages, etc. for frequent questions, etc.

  • Don't try to handle more than two customers at a time

  • Consider installing instant messenger so you can message another librarian if you get busy, need help with a question, etc.

  • Provide ongoing support for the service and to the staff who participate

  • Establish guidelines for customer service. Consider what services will be provided, to whom, by whom (not individuals but people in which dept. or with what background, etc.)

  • Determine how the program will be monitored. Transcripts may be given to individual's supervisor, for example.

  • Library staff who provide the service should be instructed to use clear language (no lingo or abbreviations like BTW, for example), have reference negotiation skills, know how to cite sources, and use proper netiquette.

  • Training should include lots of practice so staff are comfortable and competent. Technology related stress and coping skills should be part of training. Don't stress over how long it will take to answer some questions. Expect people to be rude. Staff members also need to know the basics of Windows--how to minimize a program, etc. before training. Chatting skills are important and may require some training.

  • Having a technical support contact person is critical. You need to have a tech-savvy person who can call about problems and who can talk to the vendor.

  • Consider using scanners to convert print collection to PDF so print resources may also be used to answer questions

  • Managers of the service should be trained in collaboration, contract negotiation, and program assessment

  • Consider having Emporia State MLS students work with our service to give them experience. One educator has her MLS students work for IPL to give them experience.

  • "Know thy user"

  • Practice, practice, practice

Cleveland Public Library has been doing virtual reference for about a year with their Know It Now service. They average about 50-60 questions per day. They contract out the "late shift"--8:30 pm to 9 am. That time period accounts for 22% of usage. They have also partnered with a medical library, a law library, and for homework assistance.

Mary Stansbury, Kent State University, is concerned that reference statistics don't reflect the degree of instruction going on during the virtual ref session. She thinks we need a new way to indicate the value of the service.

Anne Lipow, founder and director of Library Solutions Institute and Press, has a book coming out this fall on virtual reference (Virtual Reference Handbook) and she had some very interesting/controversial comments. I thought she was fascinating! She thinks new skills and knowledge as well as a new way of thinking are needed in virtual reference.

  • Need to compensate for lack of visual and auditory cues in virtual ref (VR)

  • Must be able to juggle simultaneous tasks: learn browser tricks and know the bells and whistles of your VR software

  • Pace the transaction--need to periodically let the patron know what you're doing

  • Become marketers and publicizers of the service

  • Remember your print collection

  • Evaluate and improve your VR web site

  • Seize and create learning opportunities

  • Take responsibility for your own continuing ed needs


Future of Reference Services

Papers from the five speakers are available at Some of the key ideas:

Dave Tyckoson  How well are we serving our constituents (community)? What do we do for our community? He offers that we select, collect, and preserve information, we organize that information, and we help the community use that information. He thinks in the future we will have a fourth function: creating information but he doesn't know how that will evolve.

Jim Rettig  He recommended reading an article "The Fear of Reference" in The Chronicle of Higher Education. He advocates roving and thinks reference service should be place-based but not place-bound. Values of the younger generation are immediacy, interactivity, personalization, and mobility. They accept whatever they find but he thinks they can generally recognize "good stuff." He recommends the research wizard that University of Nebraska, Omaha developed to search their web pages. He is predicting the death of reference books. Says that none of the virtual reference searches that he's seen have used print sources. And he's no advocate of information literacy. He says BI is BS.

Joe Janes  Here is another very personable speaker with some controversial viewpoints! He said 99% of  people don't care about HOW to find information, they just want the information. The one percent who do care are librarians! He used the analogy "Don't try to teach a pig to sing. You won't be successful and it will just annoy the pig!" So how do we allocate ourselves and our resources to best serve our community wherever they are? He thinks you have to offer a variety of services and let people choose how they approach you--in person, by phone, email, chat, etc. He thinks we are the last generation to use ready reference collections. Google is now serving that function.  He thinks the goal of ready reference librarianship has been met and that our job now will be more in-depth research. He also suggests looking at to see what new technology is up and coming on the web. Finally, he is against the term "Reference." He says it means nothing to our users.

Jo Bell Whitlatch  She thinks we need a new model for evaluating reference service--what we do now doesn't take into account the value of our services.

Anne Lipow   Yep, here's Anne Lipow again. She suggests that signage, our catalog, etc. have failed if someone has to ask simple questions at the reference desk. She thinks we probably don't need a reference desk! We need to be thinking in broader terms than virtual reference. We should be working towards something like network based consortiums in her opinion. She thinks the human need for convenience will be a driving force. She suggests that while roving reference area  we ask patrons how they are using the databases, catalog, etc. Informal dialogue may help identify problems with web design, etc. She suggested looking at Woody's Lounge for info on Microsoft products. In regard to information literacy she says we have to ask "Are they ready to learn?"

Additional comments by Anne Lipow regarding reference service 

Here are some of her comments regarding instituting change in the work place. To change minds you must:

     1) Value confusion in others.

  • A confused staff moves faster through change

  • A confused staff challenges long-held beliefs such as if paraprofessionals are working alongside professionals at the the reference desk, are they making the same salary? Do we have control over our collections if database aggregators are calling all the shots? Are we changing our terminology to reflect our patrons' understanding?

  • A confused staff asks difficult questions such as do librarians have responsibility for national security (in light of FBI requests for library records)?

  • A confused staff grapple with dilemmas such as how to resolve the issue of patron confidentiality when providing personalized services

   2) Create a climate of learning

   3) Become eustressed. Eustress is good stress--gets things done. A eustressed staff is restless in the status quo, comfortable not knowing it all, optimistic, undefensive, approachable, self confident, curious, loves learning, inspires others to follow

   4)  Encourage change at the margins. Don't wait for total buy-in. Create an atmosphere of innovation. Fund small pilot projects to get the ball rolling. Travel at the speed of life.

   5) Prevent the Einstellung Effect. (The tendency for people not to want to learn anything more once they've reached a certain level)

Here are some of her examples of old and new thinking:

OLD thinking: remote patrons
NEW thinking: the library is remote, not the patrons. How can we best reach them?

OLD thinking: person at desk has priority over telephone patron
NEW thinking: person at desk, virtual ref patron, telephone patron, etc. have EQUAL priority

OLD thinking: I'll wait for them to ask me a question
NEW thinking: I'll be where they can't ignore my presence. Get away from the reference desk, reevaluate your web page, etc.

OLD thinking: professional work is what I do
NEW thinking:  professional work today is different than what it has been. She thinks we shouldn't be sitting at the reference desk waiting for people to ask questions. Professional staff need to ask themselves what percentage of questions at the reference desk require their MLS. If the answer is a small percentage, then maybe we need to look at how we are staffing the reference desk and use professionals in other ways such as developing better web pages, more user-friendly tutorials, etc.

OLD goal: expect or teach patrons to find what they need
NEW goal: tiered services to meet individual needs

And her controversial comment of the day was Reference questions reflect a FAILURE of your library. Our services need to be more self evident. She highly recommends Peter Senge's book, The Fifth Discipline:The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization.

III. Marketing

Branding Your Library
Al Ries and his daughter Laura Ries spoke about concepts of branding--what do customers think of when they think of your product . They are the authors of The 11 Immutable Laws of Internet Branding (their book was given to all the audience members). They previously wrote the book The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding. Key ideas from this session:

  • Narrow your focus. If you mean too many things, you end up meaning nothing. You can't stand for everything. Focus on one word or just a few that represent what you want your customers to think of when they think of you. Wal-Mart, for example, sells nearly everything but they have created brand recognition by focusing on "sell for less."

  • Law of expansion states that the power of the brand is inversely proportional to the scope--the more brand concepts, the less impact. 

  • Law of contraction state less is better. Example from Nordstrom's employee handbook, "Use your good judgment in all situations. There will be no other rules." Focuses on Nordstrom's brand--customer service 

  • Don't try to represent too much with your brand. Focus on a single message.

  • You can't "own" everything--you can't stand for low prices, great service, value, etc. Focus on one of those concepts.

  • Know your enemy. Who is your competition? I offered that self service, i.e. home access to databases, is an enemy. Others suggested that the Internet is our enemy. Once you know your enemy, you can work on ways to work with it.

  • We need to better brand our web pages

  • When we do flyers about library service, where do we put them? The idea should be to get them OUTSIDE the library, not left at the reference desk, etc. Translate them into other languages if necessary.

  • Ideas for brands for libraries include Service and The Ultimate Search Engine. Also use ALA's @ Your Library brand.

Other speakers at this session offered the following:

  • ALA will be introducing the @ Your Library campaign for academic libraries this fall and next spring

  • Bradley Baker, of Northeastern Illinois University's library, is working on a book about marketing for academic libraries. He said their message is "service" and they have adapted the @your library brand in the following way. During finals week they put "Study Late @ Your Library" in the student newspaper.

  • Don't compete with university marketing.

  • Don't have a contest--you might not like any of the entries and you'd be committed to choosing one!

Brand Aid: Creating a Presence
Powerpoint presentation for this session may be found at

Branding is not a simple process. It centers around getting people to think of your product or service as their only solution to a problem or need. When developing new projects or services focus on these questions:
    Will it save my customers time?
    Will it save or make them money?

Gail Payton of Mississippi State University developed an outreach program to area businesses. They involved all the library staff, not just business librarians. Her advice is Get out of the Library!! Visit departments and show department secretaries (not just the faculty!) new databases you have that would be relevant for their dept.

Marketing ideas

  • has email newsletter patrons may subscribe to

  • Does your campus have a PR committee? If so, is there a member representing the library?

  • I picked up some PR materials from swap 'n shop and poster sessions which anyone can look at

IV. Usability and Web Page Design

Keeping up Appearances: How We Reinvented Our Library Website for the 21st Century, presented by members of the California State University, Los Angeles Library Web Team

This presentation can be found online at It describes why they redesigned, steps they took, aspects of accessibility issues, etc. Their new page will be up this fall.

Usability Testing for Reference Librarians: Doing It Right, Doing It Yourself
Molly Frier, Carleton College, spoke very humorously of their adventures redesigning their web page. Their page is

Marty Courtois of Gelman Library, George Washington Univ. spoke of the problems redesigning their pages. They had over 1200 web pages! They were inspired by Jacob Nielsen's article "Why you only need to test with five users" at  They used students who were taking a class "Internet and Society" and offered extra credit to participants. His advice:

  • Emphasize to participants that you are testing the web site, NOT their computer skills

  • Check with your organization about informed consent, confidentiality issues, etc.

  • It's good to do a pilot test with one person first

  • Treat study participants with respect--don't call them "subjects" and don't call it a "test"--instead say "participants in a usability session"

  • It's handy for the notetaker to have a laptop to type observation notes rather than having to retype later

  • They found few users read the text on a page fully

  • Users don't use navigation bars, only the back button

  • You still need to study good web design--don't rely solely on usability study

  • See their report at

V. Other

Tour of University of Georgia, Athens
On Friday June 14 I took an all-day tour of the University of Georgia, Athens. They offered a tour of their new Learning Center, originally scheduled to open this Fall, but now postponed until Spring. I thought it would be interesting to see what they have planned in contrast to what we are doing with the new Davis Campus. Little did I know the HUGE scale their project involves. Imagine a four-story building with 26 electronic classrooms, ranging in size from 24 to 280 seats. As well as 1000 connections for laptops and 500 computer workstations. Printers will be networked for every 10-15 stations and will use cash cards to pay for printing. According to the provost, their goal was to add classrooms and library seating. The new building is a meld of library and electronic classrooms. If the building is full of students, it will hold 4500-5000 people! The facade includes 800,000 red brick and a wonderful cupola which reflects the classical architecture prevalent on the campus. (Buildings on campus date back to 1805!) Inside, more than 2800 MILES of wires and cable provide computer and Internet access. You can see for yourself at

Opening Session 
Robert Hughes was the speaker for the Opening Session. He is Time Magazine's art critic and the author of several books including The Fatal Shore, about his native country of Australia. He is an outspoken liberal who was critical of President Bush, the FBI, John Ashcroft, and others. He compared Fundamentalists to Muslims. When he finished speaking, ALA president John Berry said, "Now, Robert, tell us what you REALLY think" which had everyone laughing. I also got to see one of the original copies of the Declaration of Independence (the copy Norman Lear paid $8,000,000 for) which was on display for the opening session.

I have a variety of handouts and bibliographies on distance education, virtual reference, GPO Access, marketing, etc. Let me know if you are interested in seeing them.

Learning Styles
On the bus ride to the University of Georgia, Athens I sat next to Katherine Holmes who is assistant director of the library at Lesley University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. She was interested in the Best Practices conference on information literacy and gave me the URL for a presentation she had done on learning styles. I think it has some very useful information.

It's a small world category
Finally, at a session on marketing, Grolier awarded the Omaha Public Library with $1000 for their use of the @your library campaign. The director's name seemed familiar to me. Turns out that Ron Heezen, who used to be the branch manager of the Davis County Library in Clearfield more than 20 years ago, is now the director of the Omaha library. He was instrumental in encouraging me to enroll in the MLS program BYU offered. It was great to see him after so many years. And Omaha is where I lived until I was nine years old. As they say about a small world....

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