Tag Archives: instant messaging

The tale of the terrible digital reference interaction, part II

Cartoon of a woman in a pink dress typing frantically on a laptop

Image via Hyperbole and a Half

In part I, I told you about how my digital reference interview went sour. Tonight, I’m going to reflect and look at the role the medium of communication (instant messaging, or IM) might have played in all of this.

One of the great things about IM is that it lies between email and face-to-face conversations in terms of the speed of exchange of words. Like email, you can type out a message and edit it before you hit “send” (or, if you’re like me, you hit send too soon and don’t realize you spelled “sometimes” as “sometmies” and “the” as “hte” until it’s too late). And, like a face-to-face interaction, the other party or parties will receive your message instantaneously (well, as soon as you send your message).

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The tale of the terrible digital reference interaction, part I

Portrait of the pickup artist named Mystery

Mystery, a famous pickup artist.

Once upon a time (last March), my Reference and Information Services professor, the wonderful Michelle Holschuh-Simmons, asked us to complete observation analyses of two providers of reference services. I chose to unobtrusively observe the reference desk for a few hours at my local public library and participate in a reference interview as a patron with the digital reference service to which the library subscribed, AskNow, which has since ceased operation.

I chose a reference question and a fake persona for my digital reference interview. I was an SJSU undergraduate student who wanted to know about the pickup artist phenomenon in popular culture for a women’s studies class.

Now, before I continue with the story, let me emphasize how relaxed I was before the reference interview. It was to be conducted via instant messaging (IM). I had never communicated with a librarian via IM before, but I’ve been using IM software for ten years. I can adapt to new interfaces quickly. I’ve IMed with coworkers, friends, family, and casual acquaintances. I figured I could handle whatever this digital reference interview threw at me.

I was wrong. So wrong. I’ll give you the short version of what happened: the librarian to whom I was assigned (let’s call him James) knew nothing about the pickup artist phenomenon and asked me to explain it to him. I panicked. How much information did he need? Would he get impatient and cut me off halfway through my typing the explanation? I scrambled to come up with a professional-sounding explanation. It took a while, and soon after I hit the return key, he asked me where I went to school. I told him I went to SJSU, and he directed me to the SJSU King Library’s databases. At least he had the courtesy to show me what the database homepage looked like via screencast. James then told me I could sign on again if I had further questions, bade me goodnight and signed off. Nary an open-ended question in sight (save for the “what is the pickup artist phenomenon” question)!

After the IM session ended, I started kicking myself for telling James I was a student. You see, it gave him an easy out. “She has her own library,” he probably thought.* “Why is she coming to us with this?” That brings up a good question. Is there such a thing as a wrong patron for a library? Yes, in some cases. For instance, I wouldn’t have asked a medical librarian to tell me about pickup artists. If the medical librarian had a sense of humor, they might point me to some resources on venereal diseases, but their job is to serve doctors and patients. The digital reference service, on the other hand, is there to serve everybody, including college students. The same goes for public libraries.

While James actually served me, as a library student, I found his approach to my question lazy. Our interaction could barely be called an interview. Where were the open-ended questions? For instance, he could have asked, “what kind of resources are you hoping to find?” or “what exactly are you writing your paper on?” or “in what ways are pickup artists a part of pop culture today?” I didn’t want to help him, either, because I wanted to mimic what a shy patron without actual library experience would do. All in all, I think I did the right things.

I thought I’d end this part of the story by answering my own reference question. Below is a list of resources that someone might find helpful when writing about the pickup artist phenomenon in popular culture.

  • Grazian, D.G. (2007). The girl hunt: Urban nightlife and the performance of masculinity as a collective activity. Symbolic Interaction, 30(2), 221-243.
  • Kilgannon, C. (2007, November 4). The art of the pickup, as novices seek advice. New York Times, p. 1.
  • Lianne, G. (2005). Ladykillers. Maclean’s, 118(36), 38-40.

And, if you’re interested in casual ethnography:

Well, that’s it for part I. In part II, I’ll discuss why I think instant messaging is not always the best choice for digital reference interactions.

*My other theory is that James leads a secret life as a pickup artist and doesn’t want some nosy college student discovering the techniques he uses to bed thousands of women a year.