Non-academic questions regarding special services, phone numbers, web-sites, library policies, current procedures, technical notices, and other pertinent local institutional information are often asked at the academic library reference desk. These frequent and urgent information requests require tools and resources to answer efficiently. Although ready reference collections at the desk provide a tool for academic information, specialized local information resources are more difficult to create and maintain. As reference desk responsibilities become increasingly complex and communication becomes more problematic, a web database to collect and manage this non-academic, local information can be very useful. At the Oregon State University, librarians in the Reference Services Management group created a custom-designed web-log bulletin board to deal with this non-academic, local information. The resulting database provides reference librarians a one-stop location for the information and makes it easier for them to update the information, via email, as conditions, procedures, and information needs change in their busy, highly computerized information commons.
Where do I get my thesis bound? How late is the computer lab open? How do I set up an email account? These questions can't be quickly answered from traditional printed reference sources, but they are the type of questions encountered at academic reference desks every day. Most libraries have developed tools, such as vertical files, static web pages, and index card files, to deal with these questions about local services and to provide institution-specific information.
At Oregon State University (OSU), expansion of the Reference area into an Information Commons has increased the number of questions of this local, non-academic nature and has stretched these traditional printed tools to their limit. The Information Commons, a complex suite of library and computer services, has broadened the scope of responsibilities and knowledge needed by staff at the reference desk. The library offers general web access and is taking on more computer lab functions. Consequently, the staff is being overwhelmed by a plethora of frequent and urgent information requests. While some of the answers to these questions are stable, many are ephemeral. All of the requests require awareness of and quick access to resources to provide adequate answers. For instance, students and university staff come to the library to register for classes, meet with the writing and mathematics consultants, pick-up remote access communication software, get help with connection problems, obtain statistical assistance, and get help with other, previously decentralized, services. Furthermore, the library has expanded the use of the web to support special library assignments, schedule rooms for group meetings, and provide electronic classrooms. The library provides word processing and presentation software and checks out laptops.
The hectic environment of the Information Commons has made the traditional reference desk paper resources -- card-file, clipboards, manuals, and directories -- more difficult to maintain and update. At OSU, librarians had created and used a number of tools in physical format: a card-file of frequently asked questions, phone numbers, addresses etc., arranged alphabetically by keyword; a printed manual which included policies and procedures and passwords to databases; and a clipboard that held copies of email through which reference staff kept each other updated about class assignments and other pertinent information. But these tools were difficult to manage and maintain. Only a few enterprising librarians volunteer to contribute to the local information resources and few have the time to maintain and update them. The reference staff soon becomes weighted down with trying to find answers in sources haphazardly stored and often outdated.
To address this problem, the reference desk management group decided to replace these physical format tools with a comprehensive web database solution. This web application would be designed to function like each of the paper compilations, but would make information more conveniently accessible. Additionally the group felt that a web database that could accept email updates, centralize storage and maintenance, and provide access at any networked computer would leverage the efforts of the reference desk. Many service points throughout the OSU library would benefit from cross-communication and the sharing of information to enhance public service.
The database the group created is called Reference Desk Manager (RDM) and it facilitates this information sharing by allowing other divisions of the library to include local information in the RDM web application within separate but sharable modules. The possibility for sharing critical information is only limited by the motivation and imagination of the participants.
This article describes the design and salient features of RDM. It provides a brief description of RDM programming strategy as well as a description of the working prototype. This is followed by evaluation of RDM and description of how this program affected workflow. Finally, for other libraries that may wish to experiment with RDM source code, information for downloading RDM is provided in an appendix to this article.
Reference Desk Manager (RDM) Features and Functions
When the web application to store local information for reference was first conceived, four distinct kinds of information resources were identified.
RDM was designed to store and provide access to the above types of information resources and includes: a combination of a keyword-searchable electronic card-file; "topical issue folders" that contain email messages sent to reference desk staff; hyperlinks to electronic documents containing library policies and procedures; and answers to frequently asked questions (FAQs). Reference staff can access and update RDM via a web interface.
RDM home page
RDM has the characteristics of a web-log archival messaging system, searchable database, windows folders, and web page link lists. (See Figure 1.) A searchable database of FAQs is at the top of the page. This part of the RDM database was populated with information from the library's printed card file. The entries can be searched or browsed by keyword. The Reference Desk Email section is similar to a web-log. Web-logs are a popular method of communication for web-site users. Some web-logs host a messaging system that allows users to input messages in a threaded discussion. RDM eliminates the threaded discussion because each email submission to RDM functions as a final entry to the database. Links to frequently used campus services outside of the library are located on the right side of the folder. Email messages in the Reference Desk Email folders, electronic card-file entries, and web links are all stored in a MySQL database loaded on the library's unix server. The users of the RDM system see none of the backend database details. They only see the editing functions of the web interface.
Most reference desk issues are first brought up in email communication. Hence, the ability to forward email to an archival database is a chief feature of RDM and allows broader reference staff participation in and responsibility for updating the information stored there. At first, the designers of RDM envisioned that each email submission could be tagged with codes to allow direct input into a subject folder. However, it became apparent that this would discourage use of the database, as staff would have to memorize some 8 - 10 tags corresponding to the folders. Therefore, currently all email is sent to the “latest news” folder, which then can be parsed into various subject folders. A designated RDM administrator on the staff is responsible for culling and sorting the email, adding users, and dedicating issue folders. Email sent to the log is forwarded to a dedicated email address. When a user logs into RDM, a PHP (server-side, cross-platform, HTML embedded scripting language) script queries the account, downloads the email headers, and writes them to a web page. At this point, users can move the messages to any of the defined folders in the email system. Messages remain within the dedicated email address until they are moved to a defined folder. Once the messages are extracted from the dedicated account, they are stored in a MySQL table. Once in the database, the messages can be moved, deleted, revised, or answered.
Reference desk email
Thus far, the reference desk management group has created the following folders for email messages containing relevant hints, solutions and contacts for the specific topic of each folder:
Because the editing of named folders is easy in RDM, the staff can experiment with the folders. With the assistance of the RDM administrator, it is easy to eliminate folders that are found to be of little use and to add others that might be needed. It is expected that this tool will evolve as reference desk conditions change.
Electronic card-file FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)
The paper card-file had been a constant and useful resource for the reference desk. The web version contains much of the same information but with the addition of live web links. The web electronic card-file (FAQ list) contains local phone numbers, hours of operation, and information about campus and library services that are often asked for at the desk. Information within the electronic card-file can be input directly through the main web page or submissions can be sent to the general folder by email where the moderator can transfer the information. (See Figure 2 and Figure 3.)
RDM's web links section can be designed to meet various needs. Since there are differences in approach to answering reference questions while using the library web pages, the reference division has not completely agreed upon what the exact nature of these links should be. However, currently most links are being selected from heavily used web services in the library and other campus servers. The RDM team believes that the ability to adapt the web links section is one of main values of the RDM system. Providing links to general library web pages such as the research gateway, library home page, university home page, local statistical sources, etc. increases access to the main library services. The main web application home page breaks down the hierarchy of the library web pages in a way that reflects the most frequently used pages in reference service and instruction.
Evaluating the Use of the Database
Currently, RDM is available as an automatic login icon on three reference desk computers. Librarians who have shown the greatest interest in the database build the contents of the bulletin board folders, lists, electronic file database, and links by sending email to the dedicated account. Some librarians have been actively using the system to communicate and answer urgent or persistent questions at the reference desk since the beginning of the fall 2001 term, and the fall term is traditionally the busiest time of year. Unsolicited feedback from these staff users suggests that most of the functions for which the application was designed are being met. The designated RDM administrator has been successfully identifying, sorting and filtering various pertinent email that may be usefully archived and displayed on RDM web pages. Changes in folder names and categories to more precisely correlate with repeated information needs at the desk has proven the system's adaptability. More training and demonstration is needed to teach librarians how to submit information to the database by simply sending "solution-based" email to the dedicated email address as well as the reference department's distribution list. To more precisely gauge the effectiveness of the RDM database, as well as to raise awareness, a formal user survey will be targeted toward the reference desk staff near the end of this term. (See Appendix.)
Advantages of the database and future enhancements
Clearly, one advantage of RDM is that it gathers in one place all information needed to address questions about institutional and local services. Because RDM is on the web, it is accessible at multiple service points, including the Government Publications and Maps Desk, the Circulation Desk and the General Reference Desk. Another advantage of RDM is that it is easy to update. Any staff member can input new entries directly into the FAQ database or send an email message containing information to be included in the topical folders. RDM does not solve the problem of information becoming outdated, however. Staff must continue to review the contents of the database for accuracy, but it is hoped that this will be a much less onerous task now that updating information can be done online. Furthermore, some updating procedures can be automated. For example, with simple modifications of the code, reports can be generated of entries that have not been updated since a certain date. Future possibilities of automating the process of providing local information include tagging some of the ready reference information in the database for porting into the general library web site so that library users will not have to involve the reference librarian in order to obtain answers. Additionally, recent discussions have taken place about merging the reference desks and technical service desks, which would result in more communication about technical problems within OSU's Information Commons. RDM's role of facilitating communication between the public and technical services staff is obvious to many.
Scalability and maintenance requirements
One of the greatest strengths of RDM is its ability to scale to users' needs. By using MySQL as the application's backend database application, there seems to be no limit to the number of modules or data elements that can be added to RDM. For normal use, RDM requires little or no maintenance in terms of table or data manipulation. Since all the information in RDM is added and/or modified by its users, and the RDM administrator is the one who assigns users, the application developer's work generally doesn't include database maintenance. During testing at OSU, the role of the developer is primarily to integrate new modules and design features into RDM. Since RDM was designed with expansion in mind, adding new modules to the application has generally been a fairly simple process.
The Reference Desk Manager (RDM) design team believes that the potential for RDM to collect, store, and manage critical non-academic, local information at the library's public service desks is considerable. Because of the web, library computers have become proxy service points for other university units. Students are using the OSU Web in the library to register for classes, take online quizzes, open computer accounts, do general word processing, etc. The reference desk staff are taking on more administrative and technical questions in addition to general reference questions in support of library databases. This makes effective communications between the library and other university units, between technical staff and public service staff, and between one librarian and another even more necessary.
Application development to solve the evolving needs of reference and public service desks may prove more important to libraries in the future. The RDM development activity has taught OSU library staff how to identify, specify, create and manage web-based tools that will facilitate the coordination of information within the library and throughout the university campus.
Appendix: Reference Desk Manager - Evaluation and Downloading
References and Further Information
PHP home page <http://www.php.net/>
Linux home page <http://www.linux.org/>
MySQL home page <http://www.mysql.com/>
Mike Miller, "A Contact Database using MySQL and PHP" Webtechniques. Available at <http://www.webtechniques.com/archives/1998/01/note>
Copyright 2001 John C. Matylonek, Carolyn Ottow and Terry Reese