A Slavist with DH in the Library

 "The Reference Desk" by CSUF Pollak Library   CC Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License

“The Reference Desk” by CSUF Pollak Library
CC Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License

Here I am unexpectedly getting started with Day of DH 2014 from home. Walking the few minutes from the bus to my house last night I lost my footing on the uneven sidewalk and sprained my ankle.  In addition to garnering me some instant uncoordinated-nerd-cred (right?), I guess, working from home will make the whole day all digital all the time.

For me, that means starting out with an hour-long shift of digital reference (what UCLA calls on our webpage the “Ask a Librarian” chat service. If DH is “humanities work which uses/engages/builds with digital tools and possibilities” then is that ever what I’m doing right now. (Thanks, Megan Brett [@magpie], for that definition! I like it so much more than my wordy attempt at one, myself.)

I’ve been doing dig ref (pronounced /dij ref/ by the cognoscenti) for a little more than a year, and I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, I really like the idea, in principle and in practice, of providing just-in-time assistance that helps students and researchers find the information they need. And I’ve had some great “chats” where I could actually feel the relief radiating through the screen from a student who had no idea where to start with a paper topic on Usonian architecture or online censorship when he suddenly found himself in possession of the titles and locations of a half-dozen very relevant sources.

What’s uncomfortable and unsatisfying is providing dig ref assistance not just for students at UCLA and the other UCs, but also for as many as 80 other schools – some of them as far away as England or Mexico. (That’s what we do in return for being able to offer 24/7 access, which means that there are far-away librarians helping UCLA students at 2 or 3 in the morning.) Trying to help them make best use of their particular school’s resources is challenging mostly because: a) I don’t know what they have available at their institution and have to work really fast and on the fly to figure it out, almost always *without* having login access to licensed resources;  b) I have no idea what the institutional culture and practices are like where they are (typical assignments, what kinds of other assistance they have available, what kind of preparation students usually come in with); and c) some partner libraries seem to foist queries about fines, loan periods and other things I have no authority to fix directly to “Ask a Librarian.”  Sometimes I’ve even found to be doing homework coaching for highschool students who found their way to a library chat portal (my favorite was one where the person I was helping told me she would be back in a half hour because her mom said she had to go eat dinner). Or been asked to proofread, copy-and-pasted by copy-and-pasted sentence, a standard 5-paragraph essay. And there are many, many times when I’ve been pressed into attempting to provide technical help to someone who can’t login to their home school’s library system.

But then again, absolutely all of the above is providing help, mediated by an app, to people who need it and don’t know how else to find it.  I’ve been lucky, apparently, in that I haven’t ever been pranked or abused (yet) while I’m on call. The worst that’s happened is that users can just kind of wander away from the chat window and I don’t know whether or not they’re coming back, and that may be a fault of the interface somehow.  And in the end, providing someone with information or an answer they can use feels pretty good.