The Development of the Virtual Notebook, a Wiki-Based Ready Reference Technology

Matthew M. Bejune and Sara E. Morris

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Traditionally, library professionals have used a variety of ready reference technologies to assist in providing reference and user services. Technologies such as card files, vertical files, and reference notebooks are frequent components of library service desks. Ready reference technologies serve many purposes, most notably, helping staff to answer frequently asked questions and facilitating the sharing of information between library staff. This paper traces the development of the Virtual Notebook, a wiki-based ready reference technology, at Purdue University. The tool is placed within the historical context of ready reference technologies within the library profession and at Purdue. The authors present preliminary results from the implementation of the Virtual Notebook and discuss the tool’s future. The manuscript is an outgrowth of a presentation at the 2008 Brick and Click Symposium at Northwest Missouri State University.

In 1897, Eleanor B. Woodruff, a librarian at the Pratt Institute Free Library, wrote in Library Journal of the repetitive nature of reference questions. She informed readers that “certain questions come around with the regularity of the seasons.”1 With this and the effort sometimes devoted to answering a question in mind, Woodruff advocated librarians record questions, answers,

and sources on “spoiled catalog cards.”2 Additionally, she urged librarians to take notes from their readings, record factoids, and paste clippings from the local newspaper on cards. She insisted that once assigned subject headings and arranged alphabetically, these old cards would become an essential reference resource. Locally developed reference technologies such as Woodruff’s card file have long been used by librarians to answer questions in conjunction with commercially printed resources. Robert Slater made similar remarks in 2006, stating that at almost every reference desk one “can find an amalgamation of vertical files, Rolodexes, notebooks, desk blotter scribbles, post it notes, word processor documents, and webpages that together, represent the need-to-know information.”3 Although reference technologies have evolved significantly since the time of “spoiled catalog cards,” locally created resources continue to assist in answering patron’s questions quickly and accurately.

Reference librarians frequently utilize reference technologies, whether books, vertical files, three-ring binders, card files, or electronic equivalents, as their first line of defense in answering questions. These resources contain information specific to a library and its community, along with current information, frequently asked questions (FAQ), and answers to questions that librarians deem difficult. As new modes of reference have emerged, these resources have adapted. Tracing the history of reference tools places the development of Pur-due University’s Virtual Notebook in a historical narrative of ready reference technologies that is more evolutionary than revolutionary.

Definition of Terms

Ready reference technologies are tools used to assist in the provision of reference and user services. They capture and record data, and in the process help them to proliferate so that they are more easily accessible. Common examples include notebooks, card files, vertical files, and their electronic equivalents. Library staff are crucial to the success of reference and user services and in many cases serve as repositories of data, information, and knowledge. Yet, in this context, staff members themselves are not considered ready reference technologies. First and foremost, library staff are people, not things or technologies. Second, the data, information, and knowledge stored within each library staff member is not easily accessible. Ready reference technologies make this tacit information explicit.

The Evolution of References Resources

Reference librarians communicate with each other to better serve patrons. Whether notifying colleagues about classroom assignments or recently asked questions, librarians participate in knowledge management. Borrowed from the corporate world, knowledge management describes the methods an organization employs to share information. Early literature stressed the role of special librarians and their possession of skills to effectively assist this corporate activity.4 Townley addressed the role of the academic library in knowledge management in 2001. Townley defined knowledge management as “the set of processes that create and share knowledge across an organization.”5 He lamented that while libraries assisted in the sharing and preservation of knowledge within their larger institutions, they failed to heed their own advice as a smaller entity within the larger organization.

On the most basic level, knowledge can be classified as either tacit or explicit.6 Tacit knowledge is what people know intuitively or have learned over time because of job specialization— individuals often view such information as unimportant. This perception of insignificance often results in tacit knowledge going unshared. Explicit knowledge has been shared either verbally or in writing. Printed documents like rules, regulations, and procedures are examples of explicit knowledge. Distributing information on scratch paper or in an e-mail transforms it from tacit to explicit.

How librarians share information with each other at the reference desk has received relatively little attention in the research literature. Presumably, the ubiquity of ready reference tools has led the research community to take them for granted and treat them as unworthy of studies concerning how many libraries have Rolodexes or how frequently reference desk staff consult their desk’s three-ring binder.7 Instead, the majority of resources mentioning card files, vertical files, reference desk notebooks, or message clipboards are manuals and descriptions of local resources.

Traditional Reference Desk Resources

A common component of reference desks in the predigital age was a notebook or a binder where staff left messages for each other or copies of important information. In his column, “Pencils Never Crash,” Bell wrote that his colleagues at his first professional position encouraged him not to just contribute to the shared notebook but to maintain his own. Bell’s personal reference manual quickly became his most important reference source, and he filled the binder beyond capacity. Bell equated the librarian’s relationship with this long-standing reference necessity to that of Peanuts character Linus’s security blanket.8

The need for more permanent storage space than a notebook led to locally produced card files. The importance of this tool is evident in the textbook The Effective Reference Librarian. The authors gave detailed directions about when and how to create an entry, warning that “unsystematic storing of notes and file cards can keep a would-be reference librarian unproductively busy.”9 Other librarians gave practical examples of how to use a card file as a complement to commercially produced products.10

Another supplementary tool, the vertical or pamphlet file, provided a method to organize larger pieces of printed information. Virginia Fairfax, a librarian at Carnation Milk Production Company, observed in 1921 that in the quickly changing world, books often arrived at the library out of date. To solve this problem she supplemented Carnation’s book collection with a filing cabinet of current information.11 H.W. Wilson’s inaugural issue of the Vertical File Index in 1932 demonstrated the widespread importance and adoption of the tool. This serial described pamphlets and ephemeral material, their price, and how libraries could obtain desired pieces.12 In 1954, Ireland advocated such resources as a solution for dated monographs and to supplement small serials collections.13

The importance of the vertical file resulted in various attempts to improve awareness through electronic access. In 1980, the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at UCLA attempted to automate the Undergraduate Libraries’ information files, but failed because of insufficient technology. An attempt six years later succeeded.14 In 1989, the Spencer S. Eccles Health Sciences Library at the University of Utah added records for their vertical file to the online catalog using Medical Subject Headings. As a result, use of the files increased significantly.15 However, in the same year, Abbot declared, “The vertical file is the Rodney Dangerfield of our academic library’s reference collection. It gets no respect.”16 This bothered Abbot because he believed it to be the perfect resource for undergraduates.

Changing Resources for New Forms of Reference

The introduction of the telephone to library reference services led librarians to rethink how they provided their services. Libraries with high call volumes established specific desks to handle phone inquiries. Separated from resources at the desk, libraries built reference collection materials specifically for these areas.17 Some telephone collections were kept on a circular bookshelf that spun around for quick access. Without an official name, these reference technologies have been called wheels, lazy Susans, and information carousels.18

As chat and e-mail reference services emerged, librarians further reconceptualized resources needed to facilitate reference desk transactions. They debated where to physically staff chat and e-mail services: at the main reference desk or somewhere away from the public? A secondary problem became proximity to traditional reference resources. Did one need easy access to ready reference materials or the larger print reference collection? Such debates subsided as commercially produced resources became available electronically and information on the Internet grew.19

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