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Friday 26 October 2007

What non-librarians think of libraries

Rhonda Gonzalez is asking about the top myths about libraries.

One of the things we tried for Library Week here was an "In 2017, libraries will be..." display - shamelessly stealing the idea from National Library's LIANZA 2007 campaign and asking students what their vision of the library in ten years time will be.

Answers so far are on Flickr. We haven't got a huge number of responses, but we'll probably leave it up for another couple of weeks (ie until the end of exams) to see how it grows.

I'm now thinking towards next year's Library Week - say, a display showing "a day in the life of a librarian" with all the things we do in a day beyond issuing books....

Friday 19 October 2007

Full disclosure

Of course we did have glitches of varying problematicity over the week. In no particular order but my memory:

  • screensavers! We used our normal log-in to run the Skype stations, and so the screensaver kicked in every 15 minutes. At one point I fixed it to kick in only every 30 minutes; sekrit IT codes or something were needed to make it not kick in at all, and everything was always too hectic to actually get around to this.
  • speaking of hectic, it was the last week of term before end-of-year exams. I don't think the "too busy studying" thing actually had that much effect, but on Friday the "too busy getting drunk" thing definitely did.
  • in testing, a couple of us had weird video effects, like a yellow translucent bar down the middle of the screen; or our preview image showing pink; or video freezing. Perusing the Skype forums suggested using the older but more stable version - we switched accordingly and never had the problem again.
  • dropped calls for mysterious reasons. This often required one library phoning another as not all stations were visible from a service desk so they mightn't be aware of the problem. Hypotheses included mischievous students messing with it, screensaver issues, and gremlins. Once it was our wireless connection failing (though otherwise it behaved impeccably all week).
  • a couple groups of students making rude gestures and saying ruder things. Well, there's always a couple who'll drag the rest down.
  • quality was better at some libraries than others - blurry images, timelag, sometimes voice and image out of sync. Don't know whether this was equipment/computer-related, or bandwidth-related.
  • webcam out of alignment with screen, so eye contact fails. Not much way to fix this with present technology, but the problem was magnified for those of us who projected onto larger screens.
  • a computer blowing up. I didn't hear the full story behind that so like to think that it was just one of those things that happens, nothing to do with Skype, move along now...

Also - not a glitch exactly - it was only between two libraries at a time. Using different software that'd connect one-to-many, or many-to-many, would increase possibilities for sharing events. Of course at this time of year we were all too busy to think about extra events. And also one-to-many would make it much less private for students who wanted to talk to a friend or family member in another city. So, pros and cons; but it's something worth exploring if we do anything like this again.

And there has been talk of doing something like this again, perhaps in a different time of year - for example during Orientation, or after the settling-in period. So obviously it hasn't all been bad. :-) For myself, it's been a great buzz seeing it all come together, watching the students get so much use out of it, and each day meeting face-to-face more of the librarians who've made this such an amazing event.

Videochat station set up

(Wow, Blogger's code for images is rather intimidating.)

Okay, this isn't a very exciting picture and the quality's pretty bad because I haven't tried any sort of clean-up. There aren't any students in it because of library policy that photos with people require permission and I was feeling a tad lazy. And it's dark because I couldn't use the flash because the image was being projected.

That said, it gives an idea of how we set up the station: smartboard with image projected onto it; laptop sitting below connected to speakers and webcam. We put our webcam to the right, just above the poster showing the timetable. (Other things displayed were a library week banner, fliers showing the timetable and library tips, and a whiteboard naming the library we were connected to at any given time.) Internet was wireless which only caused a problem once, briefly, late in the week.

This image shows us connected to Lincoln University Library, in their student lounge. (Different libraries set it up in different areas - some near the main entrance, others near the service desk, etc. In my branch we had a good spot that let us combine these two: directly in front of the main entrance so it got lots of traffic, and next to the lending desk so we could quickly respond to problems, and also overhear and respond to students wondering among themselves what it was about.)

Some libraries had it just on a normal computer monitor, rather than projected onto a screen. This wasn't so visible, but it had the advantage that people could sit down at it. When one of our students wanted to sit down and chat with his sister we brought a chair over for him but it was trickier to adjust the camera angle.

I'll try and clean up some of my photos over the long weekend and hopefully post something slightly nicer when I'm back on Tuesday.

Thursday 18 October 2007

Videochat success stories

So far today:

  • I chatted with the librarian setting it up at her end, about some alternative ideas that have been raised in email discussions.
  • One of our students came along for a prearranged meeting for his sister in another university - they talked for about a quarter of an hour.
  • One of our postgrads asked whether it'd be possible to use it to talk to a librarian in another library to help with finding what resources that library has (presumably to then get through interlibrary loan). We didn't actually try this out and I'm not sure if he had a specific application in mind but it'd definitely be possible and is a neat idea.
  • Lots of people stopping to look, wave at people through the screen, and chatting with us at the desk about it - it's not so glamourous as the rest, but I think this sort of light interaction goes a long way to make us more approachable by users.

Other uses I've seen or heard about:

  • Helping a colleague in another branch sort out a problem with wireless access by having her turn her laptop screen to the camera.
  • Another couple of colleagues in different branches talking over the connection.
  • Keeping our manager (at the time in another branch) informed about developments here.
  • Colleagues being able to put faces to names they'd only seen before in emails.
  • Students having fun pulling faces at students in other libraries. :-)
  • A student in one branch seeing a friend in another: "There you are! I've been looking for you!"

Ideas being talked about:

  • using it in Orientation Week
  • using different software over the KAREN network to be connected to several libraries at once
  • possibilities for management purposes (our manager runs two branches so is constantly back and forth)
  • between interlibrary loan departments to save on toll calls
  • distance reference provision

(Well, at least I'm talking about the last two - but people are humouring me and agreeing that they're nice ideas.)

As I write this, there's a flurry of Twitter messages over the news that MySpace is going to embed Skype in its interface.

Wednesday 17 October 2007

Skyping for Library Week

Generally New Zealand's Library Week is very focused on public libraries but earlier this year I was asked to come up with some ideas for what we could do in our university library. I brainstormed with a couple of colleagues and somehow came up with the idea of getting together a network of uni libraries from all over the country to have videolinks set up between each pair, throughout the whole week.

A couple of months later, it's actually happened. I'm now typing this from our front desk with a good view of both my own branch and one of the other branches on campus, and we also have been and will be connected with other cities. 11 libraries are involved from 6 universities - for an example of the timetable seeour timetable - probably a temporary link.

How it works:

We're using Skype because it's free, easy to use, and I was familiar with it. :-) Each library has a computer station with webcam set up in a public area - here we're also projecting ours onto a large screen so it's very visible. The connection is set up to be permanently open for four hours per library, morning or afternoon - so students can see into the library and talk with whoever might be passing, or make a date with their friends to talk over the connection.

People were a bit shy of it to start with but they're getting more enthusiastic about it, particularly when the opportunity of talking to friends in other cities is pointed out. I've heard several students planning to text their friends - and people have passed on stories of students arriving at preplanned times to meet friends. Librarians have been using it too: one person phoned a colleague to come and talk over the connection about something, and I used it myself to talk a colleague through a laptop issue (she held the laptop screen up to the webcam so I could see what was going on).

Libraries being what they are I've been writing this post in bits and pieces over several hours so I'll stop here and post, but I'll come back later in the week and write more about the experience - glitches, success stories, ideas for future usage. For now I'll just say that it's been really great to see it up and running and getting so much interest from our students.