We are experimenting with letting patrons have accounts on this site so that they can save and manage their chat interactions. Instead of every patron being a one-time visitor (no matter how many times they've visited our site), librarians will be able to look up the patron's prior interactions.
I made a short screencast about this what it looks like on the librarian side:
The first group of patrons to have accounts are some middle school students in Southeast Portland. The idea is that we'll be able to provide them better service if we can have an ongoing relationship with them, if we can acknowledge they are working on L-net as part of an assignment, and if they can save, re-use and share their work.
In most chat reference interactions, librarians know very little about why patrons are looking for information and what they are going to do with it. Librarians' experience and patrons' experience intersects only at the reference question.
OCLC's QuestionPoint product is aptly named: there is no relationship here, only a point of contact, though in fact OCLC automatically creates an account for each patron. They just don't let you do anything cool with it.
As our service has grown, I've come across three types of patrons that I think would benefit from a more sustained relationship with reference librarians:
1) The researcher: Some of the first questions I answered on L-net were from someone researching the history of the Creationism/Evolution debate. It wasn't useful for her to reconnect to the service and do the reference interview over and over, only to be sent the same basic resources by each librarian.
Think of someone buying a house for the first time and all the questions they might have. It would be nice to be able to refer back to them.
2) The student: We've had over 1,000 questions this year with the word 'immigration' in them. Why? Because a whole class of students had an assignment on this topic this year and each student asked their question over and over.
This isn't pleasant for anyone. Librarians burn out, and students don't get help.
3) The contributor: Since going live with our conversation archive, about 20% of patrons have said they would let us make their question and answer public. People see value in what the library can give to them and they want to see other people benefit from it as well.
Instead of having patrons commit to receiving a transcript or not, patrons with accounts will be able to decide later if they want to keep, delete, or share their transcripts.
There are several other opportunities and stumbling blocks I want to touch on briefly. I don't mean to say that any of this will happen, just that I've been thinking about it.
The first opportunity is the discovery layer: Right now the demonstration highlights our site's Google Custom Search Engine, made up of websites that librarians have already shared with patrons.
But what if we could add articles from our statewide databases?
Downloadable audiobooks from Library2Go?
What about books from each patron's library?
What about answers to L-net questions?
It's true, many libraries offer federated search tools already, but we could bring it to all Oregonians.
The second opportunity is the social software layer. We could make L-net a social software site centered around the idea of asking Oregon librarians reference questions. You may have noticed already that patrons can tag questions in their accounts.
In that social software way, patrons could organize themselves into groups, share questions and answers with each other and contribute to answers themselves.
Our Drupal website is already set up to these things, we just haven't allowed patrons access to these features before.
Building on this idea, we don't need to make patrons sign up for accounts. We could authenticate them based on something else - their library card number or their FaceBook account. They could automatically share transcripts with their friends from FaceBook.
Instead of providing answers, we could be helping to facilitate a conversations around research and what library resources have to bring to it.
Another opportunity is the content layer.
If I'm right that this is a better way to work with schools, here is also an opportunity to pull together quick subject guides for patrons working on the same assignment. We could work with school librarians and teachers to build guides to online content, then when students logged in, they could see that guide available in their account.
But content might be valuable in other ways as well. Different types of libraries will be able to contribute different resources on the same subject.
What happens if we combine the collections of musical scores at Multnomah County Library, the University of Oregon and Jackson County Library?
What do a public library, a research library, a law library and a naturopathic medicine library have to say about medical marijuana?
We could host a killer genealogy page for Oregon. Oregon libraries have so much to offer Oregonians.
The major stumbling block I'm thinking of is kids. L-net is used heavily by kids, and if you haven't noticed, if you put kids and social software together, someone is very likely to scream "online predators!"
And it isn't that I believe that L-net would be used in this way, but I do imagine that we would have to meet the sometimes very-strict policies that schools have regarding using social software sites. If we're going to be helpful to kids, we have to consider these questions.
If these tools are valuable to kids, do we need to separate accounts based at schools from other accounts?
Do we need to ask everyone how old they are?
Do we need to be vigilant about reviewing contributed material such as comments and other communication between patrons?
I have some ideas about all of this, but I'm going to shut up now. I'd like to hear from you, whoever you are, about your ideas to make collaborative multi-type virtual reference better.