26 September 2012

Statistically Speaking: Reference Stats

Originally published in the ALLUNY Newsletter 34.1, March 2009

So far in this series, we have discussed why and how to use statistics for analyzing and tailoring Wexis subscriptions.  While this sort of collection development work is worth the time we've spent because it is challenging but can produce significant opportunities for saving money, it is not the only way we can use statistics.

In fact, what we really mean by 'statistics' is more precisely 'record of actions'.  These actions may be anything at all--the number of times we look up a pizzeria phone number for the receptionist, how much coffee we drink, anything.

Some of these, however, might be more valuable than others.  The ones we want will help us demonstrate value to our clients as part of a personal library marketing campaign.  In times of tight budgets, keeping management apprised of what we do and the value we provide is more important than ever.

The obvious starting point is with reference interactions.  Any reference desk I've worked has featured a tally sheet, where the number and type of question is recorded.  Standard categories include medium--in-person, telephone, and email questions--and duration, usually with under five-, under fifteen-, and over fifteen-minute categories.  Simply providing an accurate count of the questions we answer in a given time can make a big impression.

Beyond how the question reaches us and the time spent on it, we might also try to categorize it by type: is it a general reference question, a document retrieval (from either citation or search), or a research project?  These distinctions could, alternatively, be seen as different enough from reference to each be a unique category.  Another subset of research, such as competitive intelligence, building a business development book of potential-client background information or searching for patent-related prior art materials might be also common or important enough to break out with its own recording.

Other activities that might be tracked include time spent outside the office for library work: we record the date and duration of such visits, as well as the library visited and general purpose, whether that is borrowing a book, photocopying an article, or something else.  It may, also, be worth tracking the number of loose-leaf updates file, books re-shelved, training sessions delivered, or articles published in the association newsletter.  The purpose, after all, is to help our clients understand what we do and how that is valuable to them.

In short, anything we do at work can be recorded and used to demonstrate our value to clients.  What to track ultimately depends on circumstances, and should only reflect what is meaningful to the situation.  In fact, a job description could be a good source of ideas for tracking.  Remember, though, the intent is not to create busywork, but to provide an easy way for showing what work is keeping us busy.

20 September 2012

Mobile Reference

Originally published in the ALLUNY Newsletter 35.3, December 2010

Once upon a time, reference librarians sat at imposing desks surrounded by stacks of obscure books waiting placidly to dispense truth to its ambitious seekers.

That was before the truth-seekers discovered Google. Upon finding the new oracle, truth-seekers stopped approaching the imposing desks, leaving reference librarians free to concentrate on important tasks like polishing resumes, or to worry that the truth-seekers might be seduced by an easy interpretation of the oracle’s response and never actually penetrate to the truth that Google might (or might not) provide, or obscure, or mis-represent.

But one brave librarian, rather than worry about being replaced or worry that truth-seekers might be led astray, decided to leave the imposing desk’s safety and actually interact with the library patrons no longer approaching it.  This librarian found that people still had questions—but thought they ought now find the answers themselves, instead of asking for help, and appreciated help coming to them.  Thus began mobile reference, which is now common in libraries of all types.  But in the past two years, mobile reference has become nearly as resource-rich as the desk-bound variety, thanks to the iPhone’s impact on mobile technology.

The iPhone (or iPod, or iPad) wasn’t the first “smartphone” device, but it was the first featuring enough screen space to make using the internet practical—and suddenly, a roving reference librarian had access to nearly all the resources available from behind that imposing desk, including the library catalogue and yes, even the Google.  The excitement, captured on film, can be seen in late-night commercials for “Reference Librarians Gone Wild”.

Lawyers, though, aren’t as easily fooled as undergraduate students; lawyers know that sometimes the Google is wrong, and expect more authoritative responses from their librarians.  Fortunately, there’s an app for that.  Apps are miniature programs designed to run on the iPhone and sold via Apple’s iTunes Store.  The concept has now spread to other smartphones as well, so while the following discussion uses Apple examples, similar products are or soon will be available for devices running Google’s Android system and Blackberrys.

Start with books; lawyers love books.  There are a number of e-reader apps on the market: Stanza and iBooks are good, while both the Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble Nook software have also been retrofitted for the iPhone.  Any of these will allow downloading full text of many titles, and out-of-copyright material is often free.  A pity, then, that so few legal treatises are available in this format: Kaplan’s Paralegal Handbook may be the only one, and that hardly counts.

Other apps make up for this, though.  Lexis and Westlaw both have free apps that will allow account access; the Lexis version will pull or Shepardize a citation (My firm doesn’t have Westlaw, so I can’t comment on that app).  FastCase has an even better option; it retrieves cases and statutes, for free.  OpenRegs tracks Federal rulemaking, with access to proposals recently opened or closed for commenting, regulations by agency, and more, also free.  Both LawBox and LawStack provide archives of Federal and State Code and Rules, with individual titles for sale within each app at reasonable prices.  Finally, Black’s Law Dictionary is a pricy app, but Nolo’s Law Dictionary is a less-comprehensive free alternative.

There are other fine and valuable apps for legal reference; Vicki Steiner at the UCLA Law School Library maintains a running list.  With resources like this in hand, even staid law librarians should feel free to step out from behind the desk on occasion and take the reference out to find questions in the wild.

15 September 2012

The Tie-brary

Originally published in the ALLUNY Newsletter 35.2, July 2010

Last time, we discussed how LibraryThing can make cataloging a small collection more practical.  Most of us already have cataloging software or services, though, and don't need a way to process our print material.  But what if books aren't the only things we collect?

My firm has adopted a business-casual dress code for the summer, but still expect attorneys to dress appropriately for client meetings and court.  Sometimes, one will forget an appointment and arrive at the office without a tie.  This leads to a frantic search for someone who 1) has a tie 2) that matches and 3) doesn't need it.  How much easier would it be for the forgetful attorney to simply walk over to the library, select a suitable neckpiece, and check it out for the day?  This lending collection is a tie-brary, stocked with donations from our attorneys.

Any collection requires cataloging, which simply creates a descriptive record allowing for inventory control, but most catalogs are only build for books.  Not even LibraryThing can help us here, so how can we keep track of all these pretty bits of silk?

Fortunately, fifteen years ago some folks realized that the Anglo-American Cataloging Rules were not particularly suited to describing networked resources.  They met in Dublin, Ohio to develop simple standards to facilitate finding, sharing and managing information and came away with a set of fifteen descriptive elements call the Dublin Core.  These basic metadata are broad enough to apply to almost any object or item because, well, who knows what we might want to find, share and manage?

A Dublin Core record for neckware, for instance, might look like this

Fields                          Metadata

Contributor                  Everett Wiggins (tie donor)
Coverage                     (branch office holding tie)
Creator                        Jerry Garcia (tie designer)
Date                            (date added to collection)
Description                  gray, with swirls (color & pattern)
Format                        silk (material)
Identifier                      8 (item ID number)
Language                     n/a
Publisher                     Jerry Garcia (manufacturer)
Relation                       n/a (points to other relevant items, e.g. matching sport coat)
Rights                          (denotes use restrictions)
Source                         n/a (if inspired by/ derived from something, note here)
Subject                        n/a (a controlled vocabulary field)
Title                             Junglescape (designer's name of tie/ pattern)
Type                            necktie

As you can see, these fields capture descriptive information about the physical item and its creation, as well as how it came into the collection and how it may be used.

Unfortunately, I do not have an easy way to incorporate Dublin Core records for non-book items into a standard OPAC system.  I get around this by creating a simple spreadsheet, using a column for each record field, with each individual item record on a new row.  While this doesn't give me a friendly end-user view, it does let me lock the document against changes and post the inventory to our company intranet, where attorneys can then access and sortable, searchable list of available neckties should the need arise.  I use the same system at home to catalog my DVD collection; Dublin Core provides a fast, easy way to develop records for almost any things you might wish to make available for borrowing.  Even neckties.

09 September 2012

The LibraryThing

Originally published in the ALLUNY Newsletter 35.1, March 2010

As library students, most of us probably took a course in cataloging.  As librarians, that course was probably the extent of our cataloging experiences; even if our institutions do original cataloging (and it seems that only major academic libraries do, now), it is usually done by specialists--catalogers, who do nothing else.  For the rest of us, copy-cataloging is the way to go.

Most libraries of any size have processes in place to address this, with services providing OPAC platforms, subscriptions to OCLC for catalog records, and the like.  But we're librarians, and even if we don't want to do original cataloging, we do want the access and inventory benefits of a catalog for our own books as well as those of our employer.

Enter LibraryThing, a Web 2.0 project that uses the same Z39.50 protocol as OCLC to import metadata from the Library of Congress, Amazon, and other resources, allowing users to add their books, either using a barcode scanner or by typing the ISBNs, and create a personal catalog.  To date, nearly a million members have used the site to add over 47 million books (more than five million unique titles).  More than just a catalog, though, LibraryThing provides a book-based social networking arena like Facebook or LinkedIn, with subject-specific groups like "Law Librarians" and "Librarians who LibraryThing", discussion forums, book give-aways, and live local events.  Members can see who else has a book, contribute or read reviews, add descriptive tags to entries, and get recommendations based on their collections.

Among these features are a few worth specific mention.  Once a catalog is created, users can control how the books are displayed; there are several views available, including lists that sort by author, title, or Library of Congress call number.  Books can be displayed as a list, or by using their covers to identify them, and each item carries social metadata as well as standard cataloging information: it shows how many other users have uploaded the title and whether reviews are available for it.  Even more fun, though, is the material under "Zeitgeist", which aggregates statistics about the entire LibraryThing collection to show what titles, tags, and authors are most popular; what is currently being read or wished for; and even published authors who also use LibraryThing.  Additionally, the LibraryThing Local feature, which includes a free iPhone app called "Local Books", directs users to libraries and bookstores, or book related events, in their area--making it that much easier to interact with other nearby book lovers.

Individuals can join LibraryThing for free, but these accounts are limited to 200 books.  An annual subscription allows adding unlimited books for $10/ year, but $25 will get an unlimited lifetime account.

This likely appeals to us on a personal level, but what does LibraryThing do for us professionally?  Two things, or one thing if the organization already has a catalog and another if (the horror!) it doesn't:  LibraryThing is available at an organizational level, allowing a small firm to create a library catalog, and can also be integrated into many existing catalog systems, bringing the interactive benefits of tagging, recommendations, and user reviews to patrons simply by adding a few lines of HTML code.  Best of all, organizational subscriptions cost the same as personal ones; a lifetime account for up to 5000 books is just $25.

You are welcome to begin exploring LibraryThing by starting with my own catalog.