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Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Report: ARRT Program on Virtual RA

Last week I mentioned here that I was going to the ARRT Going Viral: Becoming a Virtual Interactive Readers' Advisory Librarian program.  Today, I finally post my report on what I leanred there.

Let me begin by commending the three speakers all from the Skokie Public Library, Ricki Nordmeyer (recently retired Head of Popular Materials), Annabelle Mortensen (a RA librarian) and Toby Greenwalt (the guy responsible for the library's virtual services).  I do not have the luxury to attend many librarian training programs since I spend too much time presenting said programs, but I am glad I found the time to go to this one. I left Skokie energized. The presenters did a great job both explaining what they do at their library, and making what could be a daunting topic, seem conquerable by any librarian willing to give it a try. Not an easy feat guys.

On to the program itself. First, I should refer everyone to the Skokie Public Library's web site, specifically their "Reading" section since everything that was discussed at the program was based on the Skokie model.  Also, much of the technical talk of building virtual RA service was prefaced with this very important point: All of this technology is based on building an RA culture of helping leisure readers at your physical library first. If you like providing RA service, you can learn the necessary technology to provide this service in an online environment, no matter the level of your technical skills. This was great advice!

After a basic introduction by Ricki, Annabelle stepped up to the podium to show off some of the content Skokie is providing on their Reading pages. I will let you go over and surf the pages for yourself. Annabelle then got into the nitty gritty on how much of that content is created and cross-posted. This information was invaluable.

For example, the Skokie staff has compiled an impressive collection of reading lists here. Annabelle talked about how they work as a team to compile lists and use them for other projects such as displays, readalikes for popular authors, or summer reading.

But the best advice she gave on building these lists, and really for any of these virtual services, is to spend your time at the front end building a great template. Creation of these online lists is no more technical than filling in a form. As she said, "keep the technical stuff simple so you can focus on the advisory aspect." This is probably the most important thing I learned at the meeting. Technology is always going to be changing, but our RA skills are what drives our service, regardless of the technology. Sometimes it is important yo be reminded of the most basic facts, especially in the face of what could be daunting change.

Skokie also has an extensive collection of staff book reviews here. You can search them by author, title, genre, or reviewer.

These are very similar to what we at BPL do with the Browsers' Corner and on our Shelfari shelves, but it is in the next step that Skokie is setting a superior example. They have been able to cross post all of their lists and staff recommendations on their catalog! So, when a patron searches for "The Help" by Kathryn Stockett on their website, if it appears on any of their lists or in their reviews, you can access that information right in the record. (use this link to see what it looks like). This takes the Advisory part of RA right to the patron using the OPAC. Whether they are in the library or at home, the patron can access your professional RA services with one click.

Their catalog also allows patrons to comment on their opinion about a book. Again, go to this example record to see. I am familiar with this; it is not much different than the reader comments on Amazon, however, what made this useful was again Annabelle's commentary.

She introduced the group to the idea of "the third reader." Let me explain. The catalog record is number 1. When a patron reads the record and then comments on the book, s/he is reader 2. The patron who encounters the catalog record and the comment is "the third reader." This patron is using all of the conversation in the catalog record to influence his or her reading choices.

This idea of the third reader works anywhere there are comments on an original work. I am happy to know that Encore, the catalog BPL uses will soon allow for us to have the "third reader."

The discussion then moved on to how the Skokie staff manage their popular Book Match in which patrons answer a survey so that the RA staff can provide a hand picked list of books for them. I paid especially close attention  here as we are planning to offer this service at BPL in the future, but trust me, you don't need me to replicate my copious notes here.

After Annabelle came Toby who focused his talk on using social media to "create conversations" about the library in the community. The key, as Toby described it, is to keep it local and to be proactive. For example, he suggested setting a Twitter search for any query within 5 kms of your town that mentions book recommendations. He gets the Tweets as a RSS feed and then answers people's questions, reminding them that the library can help.

He has also used Facebook to create activities for the community to participate in. He currently has "Stump the Librarian" Wednesdays where patrons are encouraged to throw their hardest questions out to the staff. Also popular is "Friday Book Sharing."

He gave a few more examples, but the overall point he was trying to make is that you have to use social media to bring the patrons back to your core services. Also, they are a great tool to lift the veil of mystery over the people who work at the library and show the real people behind the desk.

If you want to contact Ricki, Annabelle, or Toby for more information, please contact me and I can pass your info along to them. Personally, I left inspired and ready to start improving the BPL's VIRAL RA services.

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