San Francisco State University is the school I attended for my first master’s degree.  As a history student, I naturally ended up using the library a great deal.  It is important to make it clear from the get-go that my experience of the SFSU’s J. Paul Leonard Library was, to put it politely, complicated by the fact that it was undergoing a complete renovation.  There are other words I could use to describe my frustrations with the problems facing a master’s student in a humanities discipline with such limited access to a university library, but I choose to remain at least outwardly ladylike.

For this exercise, however, my experience of the SFSU library is surprisingly useful.  The main library building was completely under construction (causing, I might add, remarkable amounts of noise – that open space on campus has distressingly live acoustics) and as a result I had no access to the stacks. My normal approach to research, which is to find a few titles and call numbers and then browse the shelves around them, was no longer possible. I could check materials out, but I had to know what I wanted and request it.  Many universities find that their library collections have grown too large to be stored in the main library facilities and have created large storage facilities, such as Stanford’s Auxiliary Libraries 1, 2, and 3. To get items from these, the patron has to request them through the online system, much like public libraries allow requests placed on materials held by any branch in the system and deliver them to the desired location.

What I am trying to say here is that my experience of the J. Paul Leonard Library at San Francisco State University was almost entirely virtual. This was very frustrating.  I feel most confident about research when I can browse the shelves and know I’m getting a larger picture of the resources available. Moreover, I love walking through the stacks of a large library – there is something comforting and supportive in the thought of being surrounded by so many years of knowledge.  Other people may feel overwhelmed by the idea that there are so many books they will never get to read, but I feel welcomed and calmed by the seemingly endless vastness of thoughts surrounding me.

HOWEVER. The lack of a physical library forced me to develop skills and explore resources I might otherwise have ignored in favor of the familiar paths I have trodden for so many years in public and school libraries.  The Stanford library blogs (when they exist) are specialized, intended to serve almost as department newsletters for staff.  The SFSU library blog could be used as an example of the word “functional” by the Oxford English Dictionary.  The current top page of entries is dominated by announcements of different systems being down or having problems, holiday hours, and so forth.  The sight of so many technological failures is a touch depressing, certainly, but it is a fantastically useful resource to check to see if the problems lie within one’s own computer or the system as a whole.  I would use it and I have used it, though living off campus means I used it less than I might have otherwise.  Most importantly, it is easy to find. The link, though small, is smack in the middle of the library homepage.  It is not hidden, it is not disguised by a clever name, it is simply a hyperlink that reads “Blog.”  In some ways this seems to exemplify the SFSU approach to its technological systems: straightforward, functional, completely without frills or furbelows.

The SFSU library sticks out in my mind for one other reason. It is the only library through which I have had a satisfactory and helpful virtual reference experience.  There is a sidebar on the right-hand side of the library homepage, and top of the list of links on it is “IM Library Help,” followed by options for texting librarians, how to find service desks, and a few others.  These options, made to draw the eyes by way of a big blue button, are also available through the “find” and “research assistance” tabs at the top of the screen.

Last year I took a class that explored the historical conception of “the West.”  For the final project, I needed to find information about a certain opera based on a previous play, both of which are based on a poem (yes, I know, it’s complicated, but bear with me), all of which were originally released in England during the nineteenth century.  I made use of the virtual chat reference function from home, a luxury that delighted me (library reference! In my pajamas! O joy, o rapture unforeseen!) . Not only did the librarian answer promptly, but the answer to my question was clear and very helpful.  I wanted to get access to historical newspapers in the hopes of finding a first-night review of the opera.  The librarian directed me to the appropriate database and explained how to find the database in the first place.  It was a simple exchange, not lasting more than five or ten minutes at most, but it gives me hope for the future of chat functions in reference contexts.

Virtual reference, while theoretically a great idea, has many potential pitfalls that can outweigh the positive aspects. It runs into all the problems that plague any chat function – lack of face-to-face interaction means no sense of inflection, jokes, or the nuances of meaning found in spoken language. Librarian and patron can become distracted, walk away from the computer, or come across as brusque and unfriendly.  It is a dry medium used best for factual requests – where can I find a database that includes historical newspapers, what kind of sources do you have on the topic of operas, etc. For this reason, I still prefer in-person to online reference, but overall I try to do as much as I can on my own. The virtual reference experience I had through SFSU facilitated my independence. I asked a straightforward question, got a straightforward, friendly answer, and successfully went about my research.

The SFSU library had its flaws during my time there. The books are often not  in great condition, the librarians in person were not all that friendly, and of course there was no physical library space to go into (they had a study area they called the Annex or the Big Bubble which housed periodicals, but I never went over there – not convenient for my schedule).  Like I said, though, it forced me outside my comfort zone, giving me a crash course in Web 2.0 functions for university libraries and adding to my research toolbox.

Exploring Stanford and SFSU has already brought to the fore an idea that has occurred to me before.  By figuring out what different institutions have in terms of Web 2.0 tools, I’m beginning to think more about how and why each tool gets chosen.  In a blog post on October 18, 2009, the Unquiet Librarian describes all the Web 2.0 resources out there for potential library use.  She reminds us all that “No where did it state in the article you have to participate in all forms of communication; instead, find an entry point and grow your means of connecting with others at a pace and with the tools that are comfortable for you.” Words of wisdom!  Don’t adopt things just because the technology is “shiny,” but vet them and think through your options before you adopt.  SFSU has done that – the blog and the chat reference are useful, serve their audience, and are easily accessible.

 As a side note, I’d like to mention that SFSU does have a Twitter feed (@SFSUlibrary) but has not posted.  Hasn’t come up, I guess.

Next time we travel across the Pond to explore one of the most famous libraries in the world: Oxford’s beloved Bodleian.