The past few months have pushed both libraries and library users to try out web based library services. The basic techniques have been around for a long time, but the addition of video makes it worth while to review what we have learned so far. Video has made it easier to remotely engage people for 3 of our primary activities: reference services, public workshops, and professional meetings (including board meetings). A fourth activity, storytimes, remains difficult to provide remotely. Fortunately, the web still makes it slightly easier.
Of all our remote library services, reference has been around the longest. Snail mail, telephones, fax machines, email, online chat — remote reference has been around for well over 100 years. The basic techniques have been worked out. Video does add a few new challenges. When working from within the library, the camera introduces the risk of surreptitiously exposing who is using the library. While public libraries have always been a public place, we have also worked to maintain a certain level of privacy for library users. To this end we routinely handle building surveillance cameras as confidential records, give people the opportunity to not be photographed at events, and otherwise try to limit observation to people who can themselves be seen. Video reference at the reference desk can inadvertently reveal who is using the library by showing what is going on behind the reference desk. Considering that reference desks are typically placed in the middle of the room when possible, this is a significant opportunity for mistakes to happen. There are 2 basic ways to address this: place the camera so only a controlled view of the library is visible (a wall, plants, or other screen), or use web chat/meeting software that adds a fake background. 30 years of dealing with IT have given me a few rules, like technological solutions can be misconfigured, glitch, or be hacked.
Another problem introduced by cameras is the need maintain a professional appearance when working from outside the library building. This sounds obvious, but the are plenty of high profile failures to be found throughout the world. https://slate.com/human-interest/2020/04/work-videoconferencing-fails-funny-goofs-gaffes.html This brings up another rule I use: do not copy when you can learn instead.
A different problem come up when several people want help at the same time. In person reference and other technologies make this straight forward. People can form a line, leave a message, or try again later. Some video technologies like FaceTime and Duo follow the same model. If the library uses a web meeting room to manage reference then this becomes more difficult. Privacy needs to be maintained by keeping the web meeting room closed and only allowing one library user in at a time. Also provide an automated message that everyone will see or hear when trying to connect so they will know what to expect. Not all platforms can properly manage a queue.
Workshops and Meetings
Workshops and meetings have been online for a long time and have already developed into a robust industry. Despite their outward similarity, webinar and web meeting platforms have significantly different features that can be described as the two ends of a continuum. Webinar platforms are good for centralized communication. This is good when delivery is very structured. This is not only for seminar style workshops but also for panel discussions and for meetings where a parliamentarian maintains strict speaking order. Web meeting platforms form the other end of the spectrum with tools that facilitate multi-directional communication. This is good when open exchanges of ideas are emphasized like with staff meetings, book clubs, and teen advisory board meetings.
The features of webinar and web meeting platforms are not a strictly one or the other. They really do form a continuum with different services offering different combinations of features. This means that a platform focused at one end of the spectrum could be used with limited success for work at the other end. However, if both styles of communication are needed for your library’s operation then it makes sense to have both platforms or at least a middle of the spectrum platform that is good enough at both.
Storytimes are the bane of online communication. There are many ways to make the more obvious aspects successful. The “show me” part was fully worked via television decades ago. Excellent advice on that is abundant and free. The “do it together” part has been a particular focus recently. Craft kits may be delivered separately so kids can do a craft while following along with the video, either live streamed or pre-recorded. Similarly, call and response activities, like “Hot Lava” or “Freeze”, can be live streamed or pre-recorded. However, storytime also serves a socialization purpose. The children in the storytime audience act as a stable group with some individuals entering as others leave. This creates a situation where the new kids learn by example from the kids who are already there; they copy to fit in. In educational lingo, by embedding a child in a group of other children they learn important lessons about socially appropriate behavior. Someday in the future virtual reality or augmented reality may create a way to accomplish this socialization remotely. We are not there yet.