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ONLINE SEARCHER: Information Discovery, Technology, Strategies


Getting Personal: Meeting Your Community
By ,
July/August 2020 Issue

Successfully navigating an ever-changing information landscape is what we do as information professionals. Consider all the advances in technology and access we’ve incorporated into our services in the past 2 decades. Now, during the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve witnessed another pivot—businesses, universities, and libraries closed physical buildings and turned to offering online services. Currently, we are in various stages of reopening and planning for a decidedly different future.

In the fall, some institutions of higher education will offer mostly online instruction or a hybrid model dictated by social distancing in the classroom. K–12 will also experience growing pains, putting into doubt what the future class room experience might be for learners of all ages. How will information professionals re spond? How do we ramp up an already strong game of online outreach and engagement? Here’s the thing: We are accustomed to learning about new tools. We have a strong desire to meet with our communities of users across all types of libraries and to be helpful. This is what we do. 

In many ways, it feels like we’ve made an evolutionary leap forward, going from a physical, in-person society to a distanced, tele-working, online shopping society. With stay-at-home or ders spreading rapidly across the nation (and the world), new tele-workers adopted corporate communications tools such as Zoom, WebEx, and Google Meet to stay in touch with friends and loved ones. Netflix viewing parties and weekly Zooms with the grandparents be came regular occurrences, replacing a night out with friends or an extended family dinner.

This rapid democratization of web-based video conferencing has suddenly trained multiple generations on its use. With this barrier to use now removed, libraries have before them a very large population that is comfortable with web conferencing, tele-medicine, and other tools for remote video interactions. Our for merly in-person reference transactions and public-facing training sessions can now take place online, “face-to-face,” with powerful tools such as screen sharing and remote computer control at our disposal. We can meet the needs of those who might not have online access by establishing loaning hotspots, partnerships with tech organizations, and parking lot Wi-Fi and circulating tablets or other devices.

Staying Connected

In the early days of COVID-19, librarians scrambled to replace in-person programming with online versions. But within a few days and across the nation, we saw virtual story times, knitting and cooking how-to’s, and author interviews. The infrastructure is now in place, and we should use it to reach deeper into the daily life of our community. Equipping your call center staff with webcams and video chat software elevates the personal nature of your remote reference. And, if you can rework your call center schedule to cover later hours with the same number of staff, you’ll be able to offer that personal interaction during nontraditional hours to meet your users when they need you most. 

Find inspiration in Alameda County Public Library’s Kind, Connected Conversations program, a “service where anyone could connect with another person and talk in a neutral space” ( This new service aligns with the library’s vision statement of Kind, Connected Humans and offers anyone a chance to chat with a staff member. Alameda’s program is phone-based, but web conferencing would work as another channel to extend the connection.

Support learners of all ages in your community as well. Can you partner with local pre-K’s and daycares to offer customized online programming to support their curriculum? Does your staff have time to offer digital resource training to school media specialists? Can you bring in local experts to teach via video programming as well as through place-based classes? 

Academic librarians can continue to offer video sessions for research strategies, support for student learning, and high- touch, hands-on instruction on creation tools and more. Professors—consider broadening office hours with Zoom. Your students will benefit from the face time for sure.

Searching and Learning Anywhere

Libraries need to move beyond the simple phone call or text interaction, and today’s tools make that rather easy. Some of fer online calendars in which customers can reserve a time slot to talk with a subject matter expert one-on-one. Video face-to-face applications allow the librarian to share her screen and documents, but these apps also allow the customer to share his computer screen, thereby permitting the librarian to conduct a true learning experience. The customer can be walked through a search, a new database, or shown how to download and install a new application. This ability to hold the customer’s hand, so to speak, is a powerful training tool. 

Some libraries used Google’s Classroom tool to package videos with instructional documents to deliver training to staff stuck at home during the pandemic. Topics for staff learning included refreshers, new software training, and overviews of reopening plans. One-on-one sessions, just like the kind with users, would be an option as well for training and troubleshooting on-the-go. Being able to focus staff attention to one training subject, uninterrupted by other duties, is very helpful. This type of delivery of professional development should continue.

Bring Your Heart with you

For the vast majority of library staff who were sent home to work, tele-working was a new and challenging experience. With digital training expectations and department and system Zoom meetings, information professional tele-workers had to quickly become comfortable with the new remote tools. Now, those same staff members may very well be ex pected to use those new skills to reach out to their community and meet those users where they are most comfortable.

The secret? In our opinion it’s a wholehearted approach based on the fact that these video tools extend our human presence. This might have never happened if it wasn’t for months of Zoom happy hours and Google Hangout movie nights. With so many new tools utilized for outreach, our advice has been to bring yourself to the work. That’s why some of the best story times or programming sessions offered by librarians at this time were just so darn interesting: You caught a glimpse of the person at home or sharing a bit about their own interests. Maybe there were flubs, tech difficulties, and the like. No worry—that makes us human too.

It’s hard to tell what the lasting impact of these times will be, but don’t let the opportunity to continue face-to-face video as part of your toolkit slip away.

Michael Casey is currently the director of customer experience for the Gwinnett County Public Library in metropolitan Atlanta.

Michael Stephens is associate professor in the School of Information at San Jose State University.


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