Many academic libraries employ the use of subject specialists that serve as “library subject experts” in a particular field or discipline. These subject specialists, also called subject bibliographers or subject liaisons, often work very closely with the students and faculty of the academic community they serve. This close interaction with the library constituents can be very rewarding and challenging at the same time. Instant messaging, blogs, and wikis can help to make the subject librarian’s job easier and more effective, as these technologies allow for increased communication with the academic community.
At Ohio University Libraries, each professional librarian serves as a subject bibliographer for one or more academic departments or colleges. As the subject bibliographer for the College of Business, I am fortunate to serve 1700 students and over seventy faculty members from the college. I am also blessed with the opportunity to deliver library instruction sessions to approximately 300-400 students each quarter. With the amount of instruction opportunities that I have, and the overall difficulty of doing business research, I have a great deal of contact with faculty and student researchers. As I am the only librarian on staff who specializes in the area of business, it can sometimes be a little overwhelming during the busier times in the quarter. As a result, I am constantly on the lookout for new tools that can help me and my colleagues better serve the academic community. I’ve found that a blog, instant messaging, and a wiki are all excellent tools that have helped me to better communicate information to my patrons and colleagues, while also helping to save me time and effort.
The business curriculum consists largely of project-based group work. For example, the sophomore business cluster class generally has about 40 students. The students are divided into eight groups of five, and each group has the same or similar project. Each group might each be assigned to demonstrate why their individual company is the best company to work for in America, or all groups may have to develop a business plan for one local company. In each quarter, there are two sophomore business cluster groups (80 students total), two junior business cluster groups (another 80 students), the MBA cohort (50 students), nine Professional Communication classes (about 250 students), and other individual business and marketing classes. Each quarter presents new challenges as I get to learn about different companies, industries, resources, and business terms as I help the students learn how to find the information they need.
Since the business projects change with each quarter, I needed some method for pointing students to project-specific resources. With each class and group that I talk to, many students have the same question as other groups. In many cases, I would get the same question from different groups over and over again. I did not mind answering the questions, but I figured that there had to be better way to make this information more available to the students. In March, 2004, I started the Business Blog for this purpose. I figured that if I made the answers to these popular questions available via the web, then that might help save the students time in their research endeavors. In the process of saving them time, the blog might also help to free up some of my time, allowing me to focus on more advanced research questions.
The content of the Business Blog posts has ranged from general business research tips, such as how to find a SWOT analysis, to more specific topics such as finding information about the popcorn industry. I’ve even used the Business Blog to tell faculty and students about new databases and resources, as well as alert them to upcoming library events. Regardless of the content, the intent of each post is to teach and recommend the best resources for a project, not to simply provide an answer to a question.
Probably the most popular post in the Business Blog is the post that offers PRCM 150 Business Etiquette hints. While giving library instruction sessions to nine PRCM classes each quarter, I would show the classes how to find the list of resources in the blog. Since I only had about 50 minutes to teach them the sources for their papers, the blog post served as a resource that they could refer to after the class. I also hoped that listing many of the resources on the Business Blog would deflect some of the questions that my colleagues might receive about particular resources. In other words, I did not want students going to the reference desk saying, “Chad showed us this book in class, at it was green. Can you help me find it?”
When I first started the Business Blog, I had aspirations that the communication it enabled would flow both ways. I had initially envisioned that students and faculty would welcome the opportunity to add comments to the Business Blog posts. However, this has not been the case, as I have not had a single comment from the academic community on my blog. The lack of comments could be attributed to a number of factors. First, since the blog is hosted on the library web server and the blog has my picture on it, students may be reluctant to add to “Chad’s blog.” Secondly, the very nature of the business cluster curriculum fosters competition among the different groups, so sharing knowledge by commenting on a blog might be counterintuitive to this competitive culture. Finally, discussions within business groups are taking place in course management systems such as Blackboard.
Even though no one is posting comments on the blog, I can still tell that it is being used. With our proxy server, we are able to measure usage for all resources that are contained in InfoTree, our Gateway to electronic resources. InfoTree currently has over 3100 resources, which consist of subscription databases, quality web sites, library research guides, and some print materials. In 2005, the Business Blog was the number 38 most-used resource in InfoTree, with nearly 2300 hits measured through InfoTree. While I have no good way to actually tell what the users are reading, this usage does show that the Business Blog has proved to be a very effective resource for communicating with business researchers. Since creating the Business Blog, several other bibliographers have started other subject blogs, as they too have recognized that a blog is an effective tool for faculty and student outreach.
While the Business Blog has been an excellent mechanism for communicating asynchronously with the business research community at Ohio University, I saw the need for extending synchronous communication mechanisms. Most of my business reference questions and student interactions were in the form of email or in-person meetings. Email is a very powerful tool for answering reference questions, but it does have several weaknesses. Because email is an asynchronous communication tool, it may sometimes take several emails between the librarian and patron in order for the librarian to determine the patron’s real information need. This can take a considerable amount of time for both the librarian and the patron. In-person reference transactions are more effective at allowing the librarian to determine the patron’s information need, but these transactions generally require the patron to come to the library. In addition, I have found that many in-person inquiries could have been answered by other library staff, or through other means such as email or telephone.
In January of 2005 I began offering instant messaging(IM) as another means to communicate with business researchers. Since the majority of undergraduate students are already using IM, it made sense to offer this as another communication option. Offering the service was easy, as I simply put my personal IM screen names on my Business Blog, as well as in other places on the library website that had my contact information. In each class that I taught, I told the students that IM was another way that they could contact me. I don’t have any set hours for IM, as I just tell students that I am always logged in to IM whenever I am at my office desk. Offering my personal screen name is different than participating in the library’s general chat and IM services, as my personal screen name gives patrons a direct line to contact me via IM. Business has not been overwhelming, as I only had 24 IM transactions in 2005, and I’ve had eight this year. Email is still the preferred virtual method to contact me, as I average over 40 email questions each quarter. Nevertheless, I have had several very successful IM transactions with business students. Many of the questions that I have received via IM would have been very difficult to answer over email. This is because in many cases, the researcher does not necessarily know what kind of information that he or she needs. The synchronous communication that IM affords has allowed me to conduct a reference interview in real time, thereby avoiding the time lag of email.
Because IM is a synchronous communication mechanism, I’ve had several opportunities where an IM transaction has turned into an in-person conversation. In one example, a student was looking for financial ratios for businesses in a particular industry. We own a few print resources that will provide industry financial ratios, so in this particular instance I was able to tell the student to meet me at the reference desk in a few minutes. She walked to the library from her dorm, and I was able to show her how to use the books. This interaction would have taken considerably longer to set up via email.
After using a blog and IM as communication tools for some time, I began to look at new ways of creating and maintaining research guides. Like many librarians, I maintained research guides that contained lists of the best resources (print and electronic) for the subject of business. These research guides are often called pathfinders or subject guides, and many public and academic libraries create and maintain them. Since becoming the business bibliographer two years ago, I have maintained three research guides: one for general business, one for international business, and one for marketing. While the research guides contained very valuable information, I did not use them very much. To me, they were not very user friendly, as one had to scroll down the html page to find information. In addition, the research guides were not searchable, meaning that if a user wanted to find a particular term in the page, he would have to use the internet browser’s “Find” feature.
I was also dissatisfied with the content of the three research guides. First of all, while each guide was designed for a specific type of business research, many of the resources were listed in each of the three guides. This redundancy meant that when a resource changed, I had to edit as many as three different html documents. I was also not satisfied with the amount of information available for each resource. In some cases, all the information that I had for a key resource was the title and the call number. To address some of these issues, I began experimenting with a wiki as a research guide in July of 2005.
Wikis are generally database-driven web sites that can be easily edited through a web interface. Wikis are often edited by a community of users which can promote community and collaboration. Probably the best known wiki is the Wikipedia. For more information about wikis, please see the Wikipedia article about wikis.
To start, I downloaded and installed MediaWiki on our web server. I’d love to say that I evaluated a number of different software options, but basically I chose MediaWiki because it is the same software that the Wikipedia uses. Because it is used by the Wikipedia, I figured that the MediaWiki developers would continue to release new updates for the software. I also reasoned that I could use the Wikipedia as a guide in organizing and formatting my wiki. MediaWiki is open source software that requires Apache, MySQL, and PHP to run.
After setting up the wiki, I first began populating the wiki with some of the key resources from my three business research guides. This allowed me to keep the most useful content, while discarding the lists of less useful resources. While cutting and pasting from the research guides to the wiki, I also added more content for each particular resource. In doing so, I hoped to add value to the resources by demonstrating how the resources could be used to satisfy a particular research need. After a few weeks of adding some content and organization to the wiki, I released the Biz Wiki for its debut in July of last year.
As described on the Main Page, the Biz Wiki is a collection of business information resources available through Ohio University Libraries. It is designed to assist business researchers in finding the best resources for their projects or topics. The Biz Wiki contains articles about business reference books, databases, websites, and other research guides. Nearly all of the resources will only be available to current members of the Ohio University community, as many of the resources are subscription databases or local reference resources.” The Biz Wiki has several features that are really useful in a wiki format. First of all, the Biz Wiki is searchable by keyword. If a researcher wants to find information on how to find a SWOT analysis, then he/she just has to type “swot” in the search box to find all of the relevant wiki articles that mention that term.
Another excellent feature of using a wiki as a research guide is the ability to assign categories to wiki articles. Every Biz Wiki article is assigned a category to facilitate browsing of the resource. If a user searches for “buying power” using the search function, he/she may find Demographics USA as a source for buying power. The article gives a small overview of the information contained in the reference book as well as the location and call number of the book. At the bottom of the article are relevant categories for the wiki article. In this case, Demographics USA has been placed in the Demographics and Market Data Categories . If a user clicks on the category (much like clicking on a subject heading in a database), the Biz Wiki will show other resources in the same category. Of course, users don’t have to begin using the Biz Wiki with a keyword search, as the broad categories are displayed right on the front page.
Another fine feature of using a wiki as a research guide is the ability to easily interlink different wiki articles. For example, the Industry Research Basics Guide links to several other Biz Wiki articles. This also helps to facilitate finding relevant research sources. If a link or call number changes for an individual resource, I generally only have to make one change in the affected Biz Wiki article to update the information.
One of my favorite aspects of the MediaWiki software is its ability to record hits for each wiki article. In doing so, it is possible to see which Biz Wiki articles are the most popular. This information is available on the Popular Pages list. By looking at the popular pages, I am able to determine what resources are being used the most. This was definitely not an available feature using static html research guides, and this feature can have influence on my collection development and library instruction responsibilities.
The final feature of using a wiki as a research guide is probably the most appealing. Using a wiki to communicate library information is very fast and easy. Once the wiki software is installed, wiki articles can be created very quickly. Because of this ease in creating content, a librarian can easily add and update content. Keeping the content fresh and relevant helps the librarian to better serve the user community.
Since its debut in July 2005, the Biz Wiki has been one of the most popular resources each quarter. According to our proxy server statistics, the Biz Wiki was the number 25 most-used resource during Fall Quarter 2005, and the number 21 most-popular during Winter Quarter 2006. I have received encouraging feedback from faculty, students, and library colleagues about how easy it is to use to find business information.
While positive feedback is encouraging, I had originally hoped that users would be willing to contribute to the Biz Wiki. Since the Biz Wiki is in fact a wiki, anyone in the user community is able to add and edit content. Unfortunately, much like my experience with the Business Blog, the business research community currently prefers to leave the creation and editing of content to me. I’m okay with that, but I do have hopes that eventually the wiki can be a more collaborative source within the business research community. Even though I am currently the sole content provider of the Biz Wiki, using a wiki as a research guide has proven to be a very effective library communication tool. The wiki’s speed, flexibility, interlinking capabilities, and organization make it very easy for me to create and maintain content for the academic community that I serve.
Each of the three tools discussed have helped me to better communicate information with faculty, students, and library colleagues. The Business Blog and the Biz Wiki have allowed me to generate dynamic content as it is needed with ease, which facilitates asynchronous communication with the academic community. Likewise, instant messaging has helped to make my services more available, allowing me another option to communicate in real time with patrons. While I am now using a blog, a wiki, and instant messaging to communicate with business researchers at my university, the tools may be used individually or collectively to enhance communication. My experiences with these tools have been very positive, as each one has helped me to provide better services to the business research community while making my job easier (and even more satisfying) at the same time.