Today’s library thought leader is Mary-Carol Lindbloom, the Executive Director for the South Central Regional Library Council in New York state.
When did you get started in reference, and more specifically virtual reference?
In the summer of 1999, when a group of us, including Tom Peters, Lori Bell, and Ginny McCoy, met in person at Eureka College (IL) to brainstorm a grant for an academic virtual reference collaborative. Eureka, indeed! Initially, as we thought about the grant, we planned to staff the virtual desk afternoons only. But it was a grant—why not experiment and use that opportunity to explore 24/7 virtual reference? Would students and others really use the service in the middle of the night? The grant application was successful, so we used that opportunity to find out. I was the project director for the grant and Bernie Sloan was the evaluator who analyzed such areas as time of day, days of week, questions, etc. I have only been involved with virtual reference in a collaborative environment—the service was planned, implemented, and delivered collaboratively. That project was called Ready for Reference; a year later we combined with a public library virtual reference service to form My Web Librarian; eventually MWL merged with AskAwayIllinois.
How did you come up with the idea for My Info Quest?
I personally didn’t! Many of us had been working with virtual reference for over a decade at that point, and Lori Bell, who worked at the Alliance Library System in Peoria in 2009, raised the question about SMS texting as a service platform for the 21st century. She was able to secure funding to test this; when the funding ended, the project continued as a library/library system-sustained program. SCRLC had been involved in MIQ from the get-go, so we took over some of the leadership after the Illinois library systems merged.
If you were to start it again, what would you do differently?
I would have a business plan from the get-go. Several virtual reference cooperatives have started with grant funding, and find it very challenging to move from grant funding to library-sustained. I might explore grant funding to study certain aspects of the service, but at the core, there has to be a committed group of libraries willing to pay for the service. There also has to be ample funding for a project coordinator/director and marketing—marketing to two difference audiences (librarians and library users).
What advice do you have to anyone looking to manage a cooperative?
This advice pertains to a virtual reference cooperative! Ensure you have adequate time and funding to devote to the process, including time to evaluate and analyze. If you do not have a general business plan or strategic plan, get with your group and develop one—include goals and objectives. As with all library positions in the 21st century (and all centuries, for that matter!), there are multiple components to manage within a virtual reference cooperative. Be comfortable with ambiguity and change—it is cliché but those are the constants—especially change. In addition to time spent on the actual desk answering questions, in MIQ there are scheduling, marketing, best practices, standards/policies, recruitment, training, and sustainability. Ensure that training is interactive, even at a distance. Sharon Kim, our current coordinator, has used Google Neighborhood and GoToMeeting to train librarians and students (we have student librarians in this service, as well). She developed practice questions that also lead trainees through the service’s best practices. Set up a Google Group to communicate (this is used to sent pointers, meeting notices, participants request temporary desk shift changes, other information, etc.). Try to meet virtually on a regular basis (we have monthly meetings for those who can tune in). Develop working groups, as needed—one wonderful aspect of being part of a collaborative service is that we don’t have to go it alone! MIQ has a culture where participants feel safe and comfortable in expressing and contributing their ideas.
What does virtual reference look like in the future?
Most libraries reachable to their users via virtual reference services! The number of libraries that are not reachable via virtual reference, i.e., SMS text and web-based chat, is amazing to me. In point-of-need service, which many of us try to provide, users/members/patrons must be able to walk in, phone, email, text, or chat up the reference desk. If I recall, according to one of the Pew studies, 31% of texters prefer texting to talking—and that was a study that included young adults but not teens. If we are to stay relevant to future users, we absolutely have to be reachable to users in all ways. I would like to see libraries rival the commercial chat services, e.g., ChaCha—to be the go-to service for questions that increasingly our smart phones can’t answer. And I do think that is a factor. We’re seeing less “ready reference” questions in our service and more library-related. With the increase in smart phone ownership, I think that those folks are finding their own quick answers. VR still enables us to be the human behind the machine! But…it could go the other way—with budget and time challenges, there could be fewer individual libraries offering their users this capability, and cooperatives could dissolve. Hopefully that only occurs in an anti-universe far, far away! My hope: All users are met at their point of need 24/7/365, by librarians—that our libraries are relevant, valued, and supported by our communities! I would also like to see VR become such a standard part of library service that there is no need for lists in the Wikipedia of libraries that offer virtual reference (or SMS text reference). When is the last time you saw a list of libraries that offer phone or email reference?
What is a current trend in libraries that interests you?
Just one? The effect of patron-driven-acquisitions on resource sharing and collection development; trends in texting for information; best practices for continuing education delivered via distance learning; assessment and the relationship between student outcomes and library services.
Ok, now ask us a question.
Where do you see Mosio for Libraries in five-years, including…..any plans for a back-up reference service?
About Mary-Carol Lindbloom: Mary-Carol is the Executive Director for the South Central Regional Library Council. SCRLC is a non-profit, multi-type library consortium, operating under charter by the New York State Board of Regents. It has member libraries located in the counties of Allegany, Broome, Cayuga, Chemung, Chenango, Cortland, Delaware, Otsego, Schuyler, Seneca, Steuben, Tioga, Tompkins, and Yates. The members include academic, corporate, hospital, public, school, and non-profit libraries.
Facebook: South Central Regional Library Council