Joining the Flow – Invisible Library Tech Support

Idling some thoughts about what to talk about in a session the OU Library* is running with some folks from Cambridge University Library services as part of an Arcadia Trust funded project there (blog), I started wondering about how info professionals in an organisation might provide invisible support to their patrons by joining in the conversation…

*err – oops; I mentioned the OU Library without clearing the text first; was I supposed to submit this post for censor approval before publishing it? ;-)

One way to do this is to comment on blog posts, as our own Tim Wales does on pages from time to time (when I don’t reply, Tim, it’s because I can’t add any more… but I’ll be looking out for your comments with an eagle eye from now on… ;-) [I also get delicious links for:d to me by Keren – who’s also on Twitter – and emailed links and news stories from Juanita on the TU120 course team.]

Another way is to join the twitterati…

“Ah”, you might say, “I can see how that would work. We set up @OULibrary, then our users subscribe to us and then when they want help they can send us a message, and we can get back to them… Cool… :-)”

Err… no.

The way I’d see it working would be for @OULibrary, for example, to subscribe to the OU twitterati and then help out when they can; “legitimate, peripheral, participatory support” would be one way of thinking about it…

Now of course, it may be that @OULibrary doesn’t want to be part of the whole conversation (at least, not at first…), but just the question asking parts…

In which case, part of the recipe might go something like this: use the advanced search form to find out the pattern for cool uri that lets you search for “question-like” things from a particular user:

(Other queries I’ve found work well are searches for: ?, how OR when OR ? , etc.)


The query gives you something like the above, including a link to an RSS feed for the search:

So now what do we do? We set up a script that takes a list of the twitter usernames of OU folks – you know how to find that list, right? I took the easy way ;-)

Liam’s suggestion links to an XML stream of status messages from people who follow PlanetOU, so the set might be leaky and/or tainted, right, and include people who have nothing to do with the OU… but am I bovvered? ;-)

(You can see a list of the followers names here, if you log in:

Hmmm… a list of status messages from people who may have something to do with the OU… Okay, dump the search thing, how about this…

The XML feed of friends statuses appears to be open (at the moment) so just filter the status messages of friends of PlanetOU and hope that OU folks have declared themselves to PlanetOU? (Which I haven’t… ;-)

Subscribe to this and you’ll have a stream of questions from OU folks who you can choose to help out, if you want…

A couple of alternatives would be to take a list of OU folks twitter names, and either follow them and filter your own friends stream for query terms, or generate search feed URLs for all them (my original thought, above) and roll those feeds into a single stream…

In each case, you have set up where the Library is invisibly asking “can I help you?”

Now you might think that libraries in general don’t work that way, that they’re “go to” services who help “lean forward” users, rather than offering help to “lean back” users who didn’t think to ask the library in the first place (err…..?), but I couldn’t possibly comment…

PS More links in to OU communities…

which leads to:

PPS (March 2011) seems like the web ha caught up: InboxQ

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

12 thoughts on “Joining the Flow – Invisible Library Tech Support”

  1. I’ve setup an RSS feed via Twitter Search (Summize) to monitor Twitter for mentions of ‘Imperial College Library’ – this was exactly because I’d been impressed by the way some companies had responded to comments made via Twitter.

    So far (apart from my own tweets) I’ve seen a single real one, from a new student, exclaiming how pleased they were with our CD collection.

    I can see two main problems here. Firstly the one you identify – how to effectively monitor those who might appreciate support from the library. The point here is that my approach (searching Twitter) is not going to catch one of our researchers or students tweeting ‘looking for information on x’. However, the approach you’ve taken is going to have quite a few false positives in it I imagine, and is clearly not going to be complete.

    Secondly, where I do identify a relevant tweet, there is the question of whether the twitterer (tweeter?) will appreciate intervention from the library? In the report on Student attitudes to and expectations of IT that JISC commissioned ( there are a couple of comments (p41) relating to the use of Facebook by tutors:

    “I only use it for peers and friends. You wouldn’t
    want lecturers and tutors to see Facebook”
    Discussion group 1, male, pharmacy student

    “I don’t know, it would seem kind of weird getting
    lecture notes or speaking to your lectures
    through Facebook!”
    Discussion group 4, female, law student

    We’ve got to a tread a line between “leaning forward” and “interfering” – and outside the safety of institutional environments this is very hard to judge.

  2. “the approach you’ve taken is going to have quite a few false positives in it I imagine, and is clearly not going to be complete.”

    Yes, but my thinking was that a search filter could be used to get the flow of messages down to something manageable, and then only respond to ones where a response might be appropriate or useful.

    If a user subscribed to @openlibrary, or whatever, then sent a tweet along the lines of “@openlibrary, how do i get an Athens password” then the user would expect a reply, especially if they were being followed by @openlibrary and maybe even if they were just following @openlibrary. (I don’t know if anyone’s bagged @openlibrary…)

    I was thinking more of the library choosing or not whether it wanted to respond to tweets of the form “any OU folks know how to get an Athens password? The website is too hard and doing my head in”

    Your point about early reponder messages from some startups is well made; I’ve been replied to by flocker, and notice slideshare have just started following me too…

  3. Tony,

    I think this is a great idea – there are already a number of OU Library staff on twitter (including the Director), and individually I think that we are trying to act in this way. Certainly if I saw a tweet asking about Athens passwords then I would respond, although I don’t reply to people who don’t follow me as I don’t see the point – do you look at replies from people who you don’t follow? I know you don’t follow me and so I never reply to you on twitter as I assume you won’t read it.

    If OU Library users don’t choose to follow the OU Libray twitter account (or any individual library staff who are on twitter) then we can try and help as much as we like but without getting through. It’s an area that we can look into though as part of the Helpdesk we already run.

    Clari Hunt

  4. “do you look at replies from people who you don’t follow?”

    I have a search feed set up using tweetscan or similar for my twitter username, so I do see tweets directed at me from people I don’t follow… I then glance over their tweets, and if it looks like they contain stuff that’s interesting to me, I tend to start following them…

    (As a rule I don’t even look to see who’s following me – the “X is now following you” emails get junked…)

  5. Agree very much with Owen and like the line “We’ve got to a tread a line between “leaning forward” and “interfering””

    I do the same in that I have alerts for mentions of Edge Hill University (not only the library there then) and some others set up, and have up until now not seen anything worth a reply to. I do know @mikenolan (Edge Hill’s web services manager) did reply to a student query and there was some sort of accusation of ‘big brother’ even though the student had Edge Hill as part of their bio and asked a specific question.(have just searched for evidence of that and can’t find any, Mike may be able to clarify) so very dodgy ground.

    I’m much more comfortable replying directly to a student post on the University forums, where it is clearly a shared space than on Twitter.

    That said, using the Athens example, I do think timing has a big part to play. If it was only a few hours old, I’d likely respond, more than a day I’d presume they would have found the information from elsewhere.

  6. This article just popped up on twitter, I clicked to follow the link and re-read it whilst being struck by a few things;

    A. this was posted over two years ago (how time flies)!

    B. I read the comments with interest and forgot I’d even contributed originally

    C. How my opinion has changed, and I’ll try to explain why/how.

    2 or more years ago Twitter was a relatively new platform, my use of it was tentative, feeling the way, enjoying the personal aspects of building networks and considering how to use it in my professional context.

    Few businesses were using it as a listening mechanism.

    There’s a few things that have changed for me;

    Twitter has gone mainstream, lots of questions, lots of shouting into the ether, lots of students engaging actively and giving really valuable feedback – not always directed.

    Expectations – mine and yours. When I ask a question on Twitter, I expect a response. How that response arrives tells me which businesses are listening and engaging with their customers.

    Confidence – aligning the physical and virtual worlds. If you asked a question out loud in the queue for coffee and I could help, I would. So, what’s different about using social media to be helpful, responsive, pro-active?

    I’ve changed my role too which may have changed my perspective!

    So, in short – if we’re not doing invisible support we’re missing a bloody big trick, and in this environment of aiming to deliver at every level of student experience, that’s something we can’t afford to do.

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