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Vol. XIII, no. 2

TCU Library Newsletter, Web Edition

November 2001

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An Uncommon Proposal
by Kerry Bouchard


 In the April 2001 issue of Windows, Bob Seal described the “Information Commons” initiative – a proposal to combine assistance with library research, computing, and “production” (e.g., writing coaching, help with presentation graphics) in one service.  During the spring 2001 semester, I chaired a university committee that wrote a vision report for the Information Commons (“vision” meaning “pretend that money is no object”).  Membership included staff from the Library, Information Services, Instructional Services, and the Center for Professional Communication in the Neeley School, supplemented by the director of the William L. Adams Writing Center.  At the same time, Janet Kucko, an instructor in Interior Design, made the Information Commons the focus of a class project that yielded many fascinating visions of how the space in the Library Reference area could be remodeled to support a commons – ranging from futuristic scenes with students and staff sitting on inflatable spheres (realities of middle-aged lumbar alignment made that one of the less popular ideas with staff), to elegant studies in light, water and stone. The committee’s report was well received by the university administration, and so during the fall 2001 semester, Bob and Dave Edmondson in Information Services came back to the committee and asked us to put together a Phase I implementation plan for January 2002 (“implementation” meaning “there’s no money, don’t object”).

Actually, that last is a slight exaggeration. In addition to a gift from the Friends of the TCU Library that will buy furniture for the new Information Commons Help Desk, TCU received two grants from the Texas Telecommunications Infrastructure Board to buy computers and network hookups for a major expansion of the Library computer lab out into the Reference area. Furniture costs to support the new equipment and remodeling costs to knock down the east wall of the lab are being funded out of the Library and Information Services budgets, and a special allocation from the Vice Provost. In summary, our plans for Phase I, beginning January 2002 are:

Information Commons Help Desk

The Library Reference Desk, Information Services Help Desk, and Library computer lab support desk will be combined in one “Information Commons Help Desk”, located near the center of the Library Reference area. (Centrality of location was a key point that kept coming up in the interior design class projects – studies show that users are much less likely to approach a service desk located on the edge of a large space.) Staff at the desk will consist of reference librarians, user services consultants (the computing support equivalent of reference librarians), computer lab support staff, and lots of student workers.

Student workers from the Library Reference Department and computer lab and from the Information Services computing Help Desk will be combined into one group, and trained to handle both computer support and reference work.  In most cases, this means being able to handle routine requests (e.g., “I’ve forgotten my password to log on to the network,” “Where are the encyclopedia’s?”) right away, and knowing how to refer other questions to the right person.  Combining student workers into one group this way will enable us to provide computing as well as Library support for the entire 101.5 hours per week that the Library is open, without having to create new positions.  (Up till now, the Computing Help Desk has only been open for 60 hours per week.)  Student workers will be provided with 30 hours of paid training before the start of each semester.  Library students joining this group will get a raise in pay to match the salaries of the Computing Help Desk students.

Staff from other departments included the Information Commons vision report, such as the Writing Center and Instructional Services, will not be present at the desk, but desk workers will be trained to recognize questions that should be referred to them. (The Information Commons web site, discussed further below, will also contain prominent links to those departments.) The goal is that once a TCU student/faculty/staff member asks a question at the I.C. Help Desk, they will get an answer back from the right person, without having to embark on a individual quest to find the right department.

Computer Lab Expansion

It is possible that ownership of personal computers will eventually reduce the demand for centralized facilities, but such has not proved the case so far at TCU.  Just as the study carrels, group study rooms, and work tables in the Library stay full many afternoons and evenings, the Library computer lab has often been in the position of having to turn away students during the last two years because all the seats are filled.(Some students have told us that they are reluctant to leave their seats and ask for help for fear that someone else will grab their space before they get back!)

Since the new Information Commons will provide extensive computing help directly in the library, we anticipate that this will increase demand on the lab facilities even more. Therefore, the committee recommended an expansion of the computing lab as part of the overall Information Commons project. The lab will be almost doubled in size – to a total of 100 computers – including updated multi-media workstations, and ADA-compliant furniture and software.

In case the expanded lab still fills up, the manager of the Computing Help Desk has already begun work on software that will let students request help without ever leaving their seats – much like the button you push to get a flight attendant’s attention on an airplane.

Information Commons Web Site

In addition to the staff and physical facility that comprise the Information Commons, there will be a “virtual” Information Commons in the form of a web site. In most cases, the information we need to link to is already available on departmental web sites maintained by the Library, Information Services, Writing Center, etc. Design of the Information Commons web site is focusing on task-centered links that will better relate all these existing services to the needs of users – for example: “I need help finding articles for a research paper”, as opposed to “Databases”. This recognizes the fact that our users, particularly students, shouldn’t have to start by memorizing the TCU organization chart to find the help they need – we should try to communicate to their needs, and lead them to where they need to go.

The volume of questions received at the Computing Help Desk is much larger than the number of questions received at the Library Reference desk.  To cope with this volume, Help Desk staff use special software (“HEAT”) to log each question and track it as it is referred to (potentially) several other staff.  This enables managers to catch any questions that go unanswered for a given length of time, and provide other kinds of quality control.  The same TIF grant that is funding new computers for the computer lab will also pay for an upgrade to the HEAT software license that will allow staff from the Library and other departments to begin using the same referral mechanism; it will also include a module to enable students, faculty, and staff to enter help requests and review the status of their requests online. 

To make sure that the Information Commons web site is meeting student and faculty needs, staff will conduct “usability testing” on a regular basis. This means giving volunteer users a list of questions that we want them to be able to answer using the site, and encouraging them to think out load as they do so.  Experience at other universities has indicated that usability testing with a handful of people can quickly yield valuable insights for improving a web site, as compared to statistical analysis of log files.

Everyone involved in the Information Commons project as had put a lot of extra work into making sure we are ready to go by January 2002. In order to create space for the expanded computer lab and new service desk, Reference staff began “weeding” the Reference print collection in Summer 2001. Assistant University Librarian for Administrative Services James Lutz has had numerous meetings with the committee and TCU Physical Plant to organize everything from wall demolition to keeping us within our furniture budget. Lindsay Beeler in Information Services has been working with Library staff to put together the training program for the much larger staff of student workers she will be supervising in January. Bob Seal and Dave Edmondson have given the committee the support we needed to produce a plan and somehow do our other jobs at the same time.

Jorge Luis Borges opened his story The Library of Babel with the statement: “The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite, perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries.” While not quite trying to place the Library in the center of the universe (as the attached diagram shows, the Information Commons Help Desk will be an irregular hexagon), our hope is that by combining Library support with support for computing and related tasks, the TCU Information Commons will indeed be a center for TCU students, faculty and staff to come to for any information need.

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