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Find more Notes from the Field
John Keogh is the digital user specialist at the Kansas City (MO) Public Library. He recently took the time to talk to me about all things digital, including how his library is addressing the digital divide and how RA and technology go hand-in-hand.
Tell us a little about yourself and your current position.
John: I’m the digital user specialist in the Digital Branch at the Kansas City Public Library (KCPL). I’ve been in this position since January 2013. I started at KCPL in July 2011, as the web and multimedia specialist in the Public Affairs department.
In a nutshell, my job is to make sure the digital resources and services we offer at KCPL serve the needs of our users and our community. I utilize patron and staff feedback, circulation and demographic data, user testing, user stories, and surveys of up-to-date UX and web-design research to ensure that our online resources are both needed and usable.
Reading begins with discovery, and it requires access. We want as many people as possible in the Kansas City metro area to read and use the library for all it offers. An essential part of that goal is making sure that people can find what we have and know how to use it.
One of my major responsibilities is to determine the best ways to provide access to everything from our e-book and digital media platforms, to our research databases—to increase the discoverability of our collections. I work under our Digital Branch manager, Dave LaCrone, and I also collaborate with many of the other departments and branches in the library: Readers’ Services, Youth & Family Engagement, Collection Development, our 10 physical branches, our H&R Block Business & Career Center, and the Missouri Valley Special Collections, to name some.
What I enjoy most about my job are the myriad opportunities I have to be involved in so many different projects at the library. In addition to the direct responsibilities of my job, I’m also involved in several different interdepartmental teams and committees, as well as a couple of interlibrary cooperative projects in the Kansas City metro area.
How do you think the advent of social media has changed libraries?
John: Obviously, social media creates more and better opportunities to connect and communicate with our users and our communities. It’s a great marketing tool. But I don’t think it’s been the grand revolutionary thing for library services that it was touted as.
Our patrons haven’t turned to social media to interact with us the way we thought they would. Social media can’t function as a surrogate for face-to-face interactions. People don’t have conversations with the library—they have conversations with librarians. People who want to converse with us come into our buildings, or contact us via phone or e-mail or private online contact forms. There’s a perceived lack of privacy on social media that turns some people away—they don’t want to share their library usage for others to see. For those who do want to share—those who want a social component to their library—social media isn’t necessarily the right environment.
KCPL had some success for a time doing readers’ advisory once a week on Facebook, largely because the responses were personalized by members of our RA staff. But it’s important to bear in mind that people’s reading habits change when you introduce a social component—reading for yourself versus reading as an act of display. That makes it different than more traditional forms of RA, or RA conducted via private online forms.
The biggest effect social media has had on libraries hasn’t been public; it’s been professional. Just look at Twitter every time there’s a library conference, or book expo, or ALA election: there are tons of real-time, hash-tagged recaps of presentations and professional events. At any given moment, I know what’s going on in libraryland anywhere in the world, easily and at my convenience. As professionals, we’ve never been more connected than we are now. The discussions, debates, and arguments that are ongoing on social media are vibrant, interesting, eye-opening, and occasionally infuriating. It’s never been easier to stay informed about our profession. It’s exciting!
As a librarian who works with digital resources, social media is the best way for me to keep up-to-date on the newest services, platforms, and offerings. It’s how I keep tabs on what other people are doing, what works and what doesn’t. I can turn to social media to get answers to my questions and solutions to some of our problems. It helps us all to work together to figure things out.
Tell us about KCPL’s digital initiatives.
John: Last December, KCPL unveiled a new tool to make our digital resources easier for members of our community to access: eCards. The eCard removes barriers and makes it easier for people to turn to the library.
Anyone who doesn’t already have a traditional card with us and lives within the Kansas City metro area (over the age of 13) can apply online and gain nearly instant access to all of our digital services and collections. There’s no need to come into one of our physical locations to complete the transaction to get the eCard. For those residents who want to take advantage of our digital content, this is as convenient as it gets. Anyone with an eCard who decides that they want to take advantage of our print materials can come into any of our branches with proof of ID and address and convert to a traditional card.
We also treat our Digital Branch like it is any other branch, and not as a special service. The Digital Branch is a holding location in our ILS. It’s listed as a location in the drop-down menus in our catalog, alongside our physical branches. Library users can select the Digital Branch as their home library on their accounts. We treat our digital-only users no differently than our print-materials users.
We also take digital literacy very seriously. My manager, David LaCrone, helped to create the Kansas City Digital Inclusion Coalition (http://digitalinclusionkc.org/) to directly address the problem of the digital divide in Kansas City. Digital Inclusion KC helped inspire the first national coalition dedicated to addressing these issues, the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (http://www.digitalinclusionalliance.org/). Cheptoo Kositany-Buckner, the deputy director of strategic initiatives at the KCPL, is a member of the NDIC Founding Council.
We recognize that the digital divide is about more than just access, although that’s a huge issue to overcome. It’s also about digital literacy. It’s not enough to merely provide access; people need to know how to use technology once they get it. There’s also an interesting challenge posed by those people who’ve gotten by this long without using digital technology and don’t understand why they should start using it now. It’s a cultural and knowledge divide, as much as it’s about access.
We recognize, too, that digital literacy can’t be fully addressed through one-off classes, as has been the standard model for libraries thus far. KCPL held a series of “Ask an Expert: Bring Your Own Device” sessions this past year—a Genius Bar–style setup where people could come in if they had problems with their tablet or smartphone. It was interesting to see that while we had some of that type of interaction, we also had people coming in who wanted to learn how to use their computer in general or to use the Internet or e-mail. It became apparent that what we face here is a larger issue of general digital illiteracy, one that can’t be effectively addressed through a Genius Bar model.
Like traditional reading and language literacy, digital literacy requires a commitment of time and ongoing one-on-one attention to teach. KCPL has relationships with existing traditional literacy organizations in the community, and now we’re working to establish similar partnerships with organizations that are beginning to tackle issues of digital literacy.
With the library providing access, and our partnerships helping us deliver digital literacy education, we’re hopeful that we can make a measurable impact on the digital divide in Kansas City.
What else is KCPL doing, technology-wise?
John: Some of the other major projects we’re working on right now that directly address the need to provide greater discoverability and access to our digital resources are a redesign of the KCPL website (coming soon!) and the next installment of our online encyclopedia of Kansas City history.
Our new website is being designed with reading at its core. We’ve established more direct and intuitive access points to the full variety of resources and services the library offers. I worked with Kaite Stover, our director of Readers’ Services, to create an online readers’-advisory request form, and Jeff Petersen, our in-house web developer, created administrative response and tracking features to make it easier for us to establish ongoing relationships with the people who use it.
We’ve created new ways to tie together our book groups, book and media reviews, and our curated content lists to increase the options for our patrons to discover books to read, movies to watch, music to listen to, as well as more ways to participate in the social aspects of reading culture.
The library’s online encyclopedia of Kansas City history, currently spearheaded by Dr. Jason Roe, is envisioned as a series of websites that each explore a different era of Kansas City regional history, using local archival and historic materials, digitized and online. It’s a collaborative effort between KCPL, other regional knowledge and cultural institutions, and an advisory board of committed individuals. There’s a demand here for Kansas City history resources but surprisingly little in the way of comprehensive published material. Collections of historic materials are scattered across many different organizations: local archives, museums, libraries, and historical societies. We decided to meet this need by creating an online structure that can bring together all of this material in one place and contextualize it with original scholarship written by recognized experts in the field.
Is there anything unique or different that KCPL does in its approach to readers’ advisory or collection development?
John: Our approach to readers’ advisory is to make sure we offer the highest quality service possible. Our methods are tried-and-true. Our single greatest advantage on the RA front is that we have the amazing Kaite Stover at the helm of our Readers’ Services department.
When Kaite began to explore online RA options, she took the time to thoroughly evaluate existing methods, to learn from the successes and failures of other libraries, and we created an online RA form that we hope will work best for us and our patrons. The Digital Branch then explored the best UX designs to create the kind of online interaction she wanted, and we were able to add some features and functionality to expand on her vision. Our new online RA form will go live with the launch of our new website later this year.
Debbie Stoppello is our head of Collection Development, and she has a unique approach to e-books—she assess the e-book collections of the other public libraries in the metro area and tries to fill in their gaps. For example, we have more back-catalog titles from popular authors in e-format than other KC area libraries.
This strategy has proven very successful. It’s something I hear often from our patrons—they come to us to find older titles that the other libraries don’t have. They appreciate that we serve this need. I like this approach because it envisions collection development as a collaborative process between all of the libraries that serve the metro area population. No matter what someone wants to read, they can be confident that at least one of the libraries in the metro will be able to supply it. This is good for all metro area patrons and all metro area libraries.
What kinds of things do you find your collection is in need of most right now?
John: From my perspective, what we need most are more and better suppliers of digital comics and graphic novels. Digital comics are lagging behind other types of content. The two publishers everyone wants, Marvel and DC, have their stuff locked down so tightly that libraries are simply out of the running for digital versions. We offer what digital comics we can, but we know we’re not providing the titles people want most.
What advice would you give to a library looking to emulate the things that you do?
John: Get comfortable with change. No matter how well you anticipate and plan, you can’t know how each new thing is going to work in practice. You have to be willing and able to adapt. People are going to use new services in completely different ways than you intended. Usage is going to uncover problems you hadn’t seen before. People will misunderstand what you’re trying to do.
Our eCard is a good example: Kansas City area residents who have traditional cards with us already have full access to our digital resources. They don’t need an eCard. But people saw our promotions for the new eCard, and they assumed this new and different thing would get them access to new and different stuff. We had a lot of traditional card holders try to apply for an eCard. It hadn’t occurred to us that people would think of the eCard this way. We had to change our messaging and promotions to compensate for it.
I would also emphasize the need to prioritize your efforts. It’s all too easy to be dazzled by each shiny new toy on the market. Just because something is new doesn’t mean it’s necessary for your community, or that it will serve a need better than what you already do.
It’s crucial to evaluate new services and platforms with a critical eye. It’s crucial to have good usage data, and robust feedback from patrons and staff, to determine areas of greatest need. Sometimes the newest, shiniest thing isn’t the best way to serve our patrons.
John’s personal musings on library life and book reviews can be found at http://johnthelibrarian.com/ (standard disclaimer applies, they are his opinions and not those of his employer.)
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