The Librarian at the reference desk. How do you manage your workflow at the reference desk?

Reference desk duty is probably the most interesting part of my day, as I get to interact with users. One thing that interests me greatly is how different librarians setup their systems to respond to users.

As I see it, there are two main competiting interests. On one hand, you want to be able to work on your own library assignments during idle periods. On the other hand, you want to be able to quickly put aside your work and attend quickly to the user in front of you when he consults you.

Of course how your setup your browser, your desktop, would depends on a myriad of factors, from the types of help channels you are monitoring (some librarians handle anything from Skype to Twitter to Meebo while other more traditional librarians handle only phone calls and in-person reference transactions.), to the type of queries you usually receive (directional vs research), to the nature of your other duties (cataloguing, event planning, Library information technology etc).

In the past, I suggested that one idea might be to create a mashup of most commonly used resources into a “information dashboard” using tools from Friendfeed to Netvibes (see also RefStart by Text a Librarian -Mosio).

These tools would be designed to help you answer queries effectively and efficiently, though there are other solutions of course, such as using opensearch plugins or just opening various browser tabs.

The problem here is that these tools help you answer questions efficiently (but see this comment about the dangers of being too efficient without educating users), but they don’t help you manage the interruption, one moment you are working on say cataloging a book, or answering some email to your boss, or editing your subject guide , the next you are assisting a user seeking to find some city-level China data statistic.

And if you are like me, while working you will have many windows/programs (FrontPage, Library management system (LMS) interface, Instant Messaging Client etc), browser tabs open and it gets confusing fast (to the user if not you!) when you mix that with the browser tabs and programs you open while assisting the user.

By the time, you turn back to your work, you might have forgotten what you were working at (some browser tabs might be closed/replaced already), and this can be the source of serious mistakes.

Another problem is that while working you might be viewing and displaying several screens with confidential information (loan records, financial data etc) , and you have to hide/close them before using the PC to assist the user.

This isn’t ideal, you want to respond instantly to the user in front of you or the user who called you over the phone, Instant messaged you etc etc. This is less of an issue if you don’t handle users in person (or don’t do stuff like screen sharing!)

I’m not sure what the policy is at other institutions, some might forbid the librarian from doing their work at the reference desk, but I suspect given how busy librarians are generally, this is unlikely to be common practice.

I’m curious how other librarians tackle this problem.

For me, what I do is to login to the Reference Desk common PC as per normal then do a remote desktop access to my desktop in my office. I do my work on the remote desktop, and assist users using the “Real” PC desktop. This has several advantages

I get to work with exactly what is on my system back at the office

Depending on the policies at your institution, you might not have as many user rights when using the common PC as opposed to your own PC back in the office. Doing a remote access to your own PC, bypasses all these problems allowing you to work with exactly what you are used to.

I can continue to work up to the last minute or second while on shift.

When someone relieves me, all i need to do is to close the remote desktop (one click), log-out of the common PC, and the work still remains at my desktop PC. This isn’t possible if you are doing your actual work on the common PC, as you have to waste time saving files, closing browsers etc.

Separation between work done for user and your own work.

The idea here is simple, use your remote PC for doing work, switch back to the “real” PC when assisting with queries. The switch can be done in literally seconds. This way when assisting users, you show a relatively clean profile instead of your own work PC which has many confidential windows open.

To be frank, I don’t always use the “Real pc” to assist users, often I forget, then I run into problems when either printing say a map for the user (it goes to the wrong printer in my office) or when I insert a thumb drive to copy a file for the user (you cannot transfer the file from the remote PC to the thumbdrive inserted locally).

There might be technical solutions to this, but it seems easier to just remember to stick to using the local pc for assisting users.

Other solutions

I’m aware that not all institutions are liberal enough to allow users to do remote access, and that there might be other ideas so I’m really curious how other librarians handle it.

Some ideas off the top of my head

  • Use different browsers
  • Use two different physical machines side by side?
  • Use virtual machines??

I’m sure there are many other workflow ideas used at the reference desk, please share how you do it at your reference desk in your comments. I’m also somewhat curious about whether there is a uniform practice within your institution with regards to such matters, or do Librarians generally use whatever method they find most comfortable?

An information dashboard for your library service points (II) – Using Netvibes and FriendFeed

First, a look at the final product.

Recently, I have being thinking about how information flows in a large organization, including libraries.

In my last post, I talked about two methods in which one could quickly aggregate critical information that are sent internally in libraries by email to a “information dashboard” (I note with embarassment that I’m probably misusing this term) .

I noted that sending mass emails to everyone’s inbox was not a good idea, because people might just miss the email. Wikis would be an answer, but it is unrealistic to expect wikis to be updated instantly upon being sent an email, and there was a need to keep track of such emails to ensure that the wiki was being updated.

My idea was to forward the email to a service that would accept input from emails and aggregate the result in a nice format. Further more, one would then pull that information and other useful information via RSS into various services such as Netvibes, Igoogle, etc. The librarian would then consult that page when on duty at service points. The first solution (using Individurls) looked like this.

The more I thought about it, the more i realized this wasn’t a particularly good idea, because RSS feeds can take 20 minutes to update and the whole idea was to be updated in as near-real time as possible.

Was there a real-time alternative? I looked at XMPP, SUP but it was too difficult.

I did talk about Friendfeed in my last post , on how one could send an email and it would update friendfeed, but I suggested that people refer to the page at the start of duty and then either refer to that page constantly or install FriendFeed Desktop notifer to be informed of new posts.

But I missed the obvious, elegent solution! Why not embed the real-time widget Friendfeed offers into Netvibes, Igoogle?

To recap, here’s my idea.

1. Set up a special Friendfeed account for internal use for the library and keep it private.

2. Then as per instructions in my last post, forward critical emails to that account so it would be updated with latest news

3. Now embed the real-time widget into Netvibes, Igoogle, etc.

4. Then add any other useful widgets to that page and use it at the service desk.

It works really well, when I mean real-time, it really means that. Send an email from a registered account to a certain email address or update Friendfeed directly and it updates on Netvibes page instantly without reload!

To do so, log-in to your Friendfeed account. Select “tools”, then “embeddable widgets” , scroll down and click “Real-time widget”. Or go to this link

If lots of librarians in your organization use Friendfeed, you might one to embed a Friendfeed group (formerly room) instead. If no-one has their own Friendfeed account, they can still use friendfeed to communicate (they will all be using the same account, more than one can be logged in from different locations to the same account), but you can’t tell who is saying what, since it all comes from the same account. A group gets around that problem.

I can’t really talk highly enough about using Friendfeed this way, as it’s really flexible. If you don’t want to look at the netvibes page or the friendfeed page, you can setup to be updated via IMs, emails, RSS , Facebook, Iphone or download their own Friendfeed notifer. You can also update friendfeed using email, IM.

So it is suitable for librarians who have different comfort levels for technology from the geeky librarian who is god at Librarian2.0, to those who just use email.

Of course, when you use AJA startup pages like Netvibes you can be as creative as you one and add widgets to centralize all kinds of information needed by a Librarian at a service point.

Some very basic ideas.

1. Search widgets

I prefer to use OpenSearch plugins in my browser to quickly search commonly used services, but for people who don’t have this habit, you can provide simple search widgets using the method I blogged about here on how to create almost any search widget with no programming or scripting skill required. For me, I’m thinking of adding search widgets to search our internal wiki for policy, telephone directory of my University etc.

2. Twitter, Meebome/Meebo room widgets

If your organization uses Twitter/Meebo or any web-based chat widget either for internal or external use, you can embed widgets for those.

3. RSS feeds

Though these do not update instantly, it does not hurt to add them. I add our own external blogs, news page etc.

One could also add the rss feeds to the Friendfeed account of course, but I personally prefer to leave the friendfeed account clear except for critical information sent through email.

4. Other widgets

I’m sure there are tons of interesting widgets one could add.

Though one can use the friendfeed widget to communicate, probably that isn’t the best use.

For simplity, I like the webnote widget from Netvibes for instance.Then one could quickly leave notes to the next officer at the desk. Perhaps even better would be something that provides real-time collobration , etherpad , googledocs or better yet the coming Google wave!

Another obvious idea you could also add online calenders, those using ical, google calenders etc.


Haven’t quite worked out the logistics, but using Netvibes, one can share the page with several different Netvibes accounts, or one can share each widget, so each librarians can customize their own Netvibe pages they want to use at the service points. Other librarians who don’t want to, can just use the default.

I’ve always being remiss in acknowledging where my ideas come from, in this case, I believe my idea was inspired from real-time blogging with Friendfeed . Also I remember seeing either a Tweet, or throw away comment by someone about using Netvibes for librarians at service points, but try as I might I can’t find it. My thanks to both for their creative ideas.

An information dashboard for your library service points (I) – Using email, RSS and FriendFeed

Librarians are often overwhelmed by the mass of fast moving information they need to keep track of. Particularly in large libraries for librarians manning information desks, keeping up to date with the latest changes in policy and instructions is often a challenge.

One can use Wikis, or tools like Etherpad to manually update a “news page” or to make changes to the documentation, but often the latest changes and news is propagated through email from top management who are too busy to update the wiki. You also don’t want to update the wiki with something that is of short term utility and won’t apply after a week.

In the past, I used to just move these emails into a “policy” folder but that was unwieldy. Not to mention the fact that I would often miss such emails among the crowd of other emails in my inbox.

Creating a information dashboard

A natural idea here is to try to create a information dashboard for librarians manning information desks that puts essential information at one place.

It seems to me that the information dashboard would serve 2 purposes

(1) Providing fast access to commonly used resources (e.g. common search widgets, lists of phone numbers etc)


(2) It would bring together data about the latest changes in Library policies, things to take note of etc.

In this blog post, I’m more concerned with (2) – a future post might address (1). What is the most effective and efficient way to manage such information? The idea here is to setup something that is light weight, easy to use for all librarians of different skill levels. Ideally they would scan this information dashboard before they started their duty to remind themselves of the latest information.

One would of course set up desktop widgets using Google desktop, Yahoo! widgets etc on the computer used at the service point, but that would not be a very simple solution. You can also have a poor’s man desktop widget using Active Desktop (Windows XP) , an idea I might cover in a future post.

The other option would be to use web-based startpages like Netvibes, Pageflakes or Igoogle etc. The idea is simple of course, get the updates you need in RSS, and then feed it into the start page.

You could get the RSS feeds of your news portal (or do screen scraping if required), calender events etc (ical to rss) and put it into whatever startpage you like.

Some other odd ideas, how about pulling in your internal Twitter accounts used for communication , so one can leave messages for whoever is taking over next?

In this blog post, instead of using the usual suspects such as Netvibes, I used Individurls – a service that displays RSS feeds. There are other choices but I chose it because of its simplicity and elegent displays.

Email to RSS

Okay it’s obvious what to do with RSS feeds and you can feed news sources if they come in RSS, but what about emails?

My institution has access to Confluence Wiki, a enterprise level wiki which allows you to generate RSS feeds of any page, including “news” pages and “mails” pages.

What “mails” does is that you set up a POP/IMAP account with Confluence wiki, and any emails sent to that email account will be posted on the Wiki.

From there, one can then generate a RSS of that mails page and pull it into Individurls (or any RSS reader or display widget). If your wiki is password protected you will need to set up your RSS feed with the user name and password string.

So all you need to do is to tell people who want to send important internal mail to cc that email address, and the information there will be automatically posted.

Here’s how it will look like.

No access to Confluence Wiki, or any Wiki that has this feature? You can try services like MAILtoRSS , or any service that accepts input in emails but can output in RSS such as Posterous. I’m sure there are others.

One thing that concerned me was the delay involved. While the email to RSS portion seems to be negligible , RSS feeds takes a while to update (and even more delay if you need to do screen scraping). I did some testing and it can take about 10-20 minutes to update via RSS.

I tried using Pingshot service from Feedburner (similar service is and more here), which speeds up updates to selected services, including MyYahoo! . MyYahoo! incidently allows you to display RSS feeds so one can burn feeds using Feedburner, turn on the Pingshot service and plug the resulting RSS feed into MyYahoo! In theory, this should speed up RSS updates. But it was still slow to update in my testing.

Using FriendFeed to create a information dashboard

How about using Friendfeed? It is already set up as an aggregator of feeds and unlike RSS feed readers it displays images too. On top of that, the page autoupdates in real-time, so you can keep it open and watch without reloading.

You can also update FriendFeed using email and that will show up immediately on the Friendfeed page.

First register/update the email addresses you will be updating Friendfeed with (you can add more than one). From the registered account, you then send an email to, and “The subject becomes your entry title and anything in the body of the email is posted as a comment. You can even attach a photo to be included in your post”.

You can also, install the FriendFeed Desktop notifer, which will pop up whenever it receives something new.

This gives you both a page listing the recent changes, as well as instant updates via a popup.

Sadly you can’t do anything about information that is aggregated on Friendfeed via RSS as that will still have its normal delay(though there are solutions like simple update protocol (SUP) that speed up updates for supported services like Disqus and Backtype) ,

One way of working

When you start duty at the service point, you go to the Friendfeed page to refresh your memory about the latest news. The information there will be updated in near real time if it is pushed via email. You can continue to monitor that page, or you can just rely on the FriendFeed Desktop notifer to update you instantly of any other changes that occur while you are on duty.

Once a month, someone reviews all the news and decides which ones if any, should be updated in our Wiki.

I suspect that there are better ways , cleverer ways to do this by chaining several services, but all this might be moot, as Googlewave might just blow them all away. ūüôā

Top 10 opensearch searchplugins used at the Information Desk


I have being heavily using opensearch searchplugins to help speed up access to common used searches at the reference desk. I take it for granted, most people already have Google, Wikipedia, Youtube, Amazon etc. But what else should you add?

As WordPress strips out all javascript, I am unable to provide a direct clickable link to install the opensearch plugins mentioned below. Sorry about that. This page lists them all and more.

1. SearchPlugin to my Institution’s OPAC

This one is obvious.¬† I have searchplugin’s to our new Encore system which does a keyword search , and another to do a search by Call number.¬† The latter is necessary because Encore still doesn’t do call number searches yet and a lot number of our patrons like to give me call numbers to verify.

Of course, you could always keep a tab open on your OPAC search page, but being able to interrupt your work and instantly look up something without hunting for a tab is good.

2. SearchPlugin to Google Scholar and Google Books

In earlier posts, I have explained I’m a big fan of Google scholar and Google books. Naturally I have searchplugins for them. Use Google scholar to verify citations, hunt for obscure terms when your other sources don’t find much and a lot more. Google books. is great for verifying contents of books (those with limited preview or full view). Strangely I find myself doing it more often for books that we own. That sounds a bit odd, but when you can’t leave the desk to verify if a certain book really has the chapter the patron needs (and the catalogue doesn’t have the tables of contents), Google books is a god sent.¬† Also great for remote reference to help patrons decide if they really want to come down physically to borrow the book.

We don’t yet have a openurl resolver up yet, so when clicking on¬† Google scholar results sends me to the vendor page, I log-in directly with a bookmarklet that adds our ezproxy string to the url.

I’ve considered adding other members of the Google family such as Google Groups (great for tech support), or Google news, but I seldom use them at my reference desk.

3. SearchPlugin for directions

Want to know the way to the Zoo from the library? To the airport? I’m the last person you should ask, since I was born without a sense of direction. To solve this problem, I have a searchplugin from that allows you to key in any postal code or road name or building in Singapore, and it will automatically work out the best route to go there from the library, whether by driving, or by public transport (Bus and MRT). This can then be easily printed. You can also flip it around with a click so it goes from any location to the Library.

There are many similar services here in Singapore, but they either don’t provide directions for public transport (e.g. Google Maps, Red nano) or they allow you to only search by Street or Postal or building name and not all three together in one search. (e.g.

4. SearchPlugin for Google site search of my institution

Another no-brainer.¬† Often you need to just search for things on your institution’s domain. If a custom google site search¬† for the domain exists, create a searchplugin for it.¬† or if it does not exist and you don’t want to create one you can create a normal Google search plugin, but remember to insert before creating.

If your institution has a specialized intranet search engine (e.g google search appliance), you might want to create a searchplugin for that too.¬† In the same category is a searchplugin for searching your institution’s staff directory.

5. SearchPlugin for newspaper searches

Patrons tend to like to ask questions that require searching of Straits Times, our national newspaper. Since I haven’t yet figured out a way to get the plugin working for Factiva, I created one for Lexis-Nexis Academic which searches our local newspapers. But what about older archived issues not covered? Recently our National Library scanned all back issues of Straits Time (up to 1982)¬† at I created a search plugin for that,¬† it shows only abstracts, but that is good enough to verify for users whether they want to go to our microflim collection to get the full text.

6. SearchPlugin for Thesis

Another common query is for thesis.  I generally add PQDT. Some others I occasionally use also are  NDLTD, Hong Kong University Thesis etc.

7. SearchPlugin for Open Access archives

They are several you could add.  Google scholar already covers quite a bit, but I could envision adding Citeseerx, Arxiv, Biomed central etc depending on your needs. Others you could add include Open J Gate, DOAJ, OAIster to search by article. etc.

8. SearchPlugin for digitalized book collections

Try adding the free Open content alliance (via Internet Archive), Universal Digital Library, China-US Million book project. If your institution has subscriptions you could add Springer Books, NetLibrary etc.

9. SearchPlugin for scholarly search engines.

Try adding some high quality web search engines, Federated search engines that index academic material only such as Scirus,  Mednar, Biznar, etc.

10. SearchPlugin for anything else

Be creative, add book vendors like Bookdata online, Worldcat etc. Or Social sites/research 2.0 sites  like  Librarything, Bookjetty, Citeulike,  Slideshare etc.

I personally also add Scopus, EconLit, Blackwell-Wiley, Project Muse, for specific reasons to do with the interaction between Google scholar and the proxy bookmarklet that I won’t go into now.


Yes, I have a big bunch of searchplugins in my browser. In fact I have 2 lists one for IE7 , one for Firefox. The later I use at the reference desk, the former I use when I’m in the back-room doing cataloguing, acquisitions etc with the appropriate search-plugins. But that is another post.

So dear librarians, what search tricks do you use (need not be opensearch plugins, could be smart keywords) do you commonly use at the desk?