Reference Service

STAPLR: Sounds in Time Actively Performing Library Reference

“That music is simple to make comes from one’s willingness to accept the limitations of structure. Structure is simple be-cause it can be thought out, figured out, measured. It is a discipline, which, accepted, in return accepts whatever, even those rare moments of ecstasy, which, as sugar loaves train horses, train us to make what we make.” — John Cage, Lecture on Nothing (1959)

I sit at the reference desk. Someone approaches. They have a question. We try find an answer. Mostly we succeed.

Reference Desk

I record details in our reference desk statistics system.

Which desk was I on? What time was it? Undergraduate or graduate student, or professor? What type of question, from 1 (directional) to 5 (specialized knowledge)? How long did it take?

All this goes into a database. Every month, scripts generate charts that break down desk activity in every possible way. We see how it compares to previous months and years.

Metrics. Analytics. Assessment.

How can we be aware of what is happening at our desks while it is happening? Not a month later. Not a year later. Now.

One approach to this is sonification.

Turn the desk into sound. Listen to it live. Why just sound? Why not music? Turn the desk into music.

Thus: Sounds in Time Actively Performing Library Reference. STAPLR transforms: librarian + researcher + desk = music.

Sonic PiIt does this with Sonic Pi, a powerful and easy to use programmable synthesizer built as a tool for teaching computing and music. Compositions can be intended for background listening. Ambient awareness of desk activity. Is it loud? Is it fast? Or is it quiet and slow? Identify particular sounds with different branches, or pitches with question types. Make the sound last for as long as the desk encounter took. Should it be pleasant, or should it be noise? Compositions can be intended for attentive listening. Should it be pleasant, or should it be noise? If the desk becomes music, what is that music?

Our system stores only minimal details of an important human encounter: someone went from lacking knowledge through a process of discovery to having knowledge. A database cannot capture that. But the sparse structure of those simple facts is enough to make music. Facts cannot have emotion, involvement, urgency or humanity. Music can.

What other music can we make from the desk?
What other art can we make from the desk?
What other art can we make as librarians?
What art can we make from libraries?

William Denton works at York University as both the scholarly analytics librarian and the mathematics and statistics librarian.  His library-related performances include a site-specific LibraryBox at Andrew Sookrah’s 2012 Nuit Blanche installation “In Fear We Trust” and “Digitize and/or Destroy” with Adam Lauder and Lisa Sloniowski at HASTAC 2013. He can be contacted via his website, Twitter (@wdenton) or email (wdenton [at]

ASKON Adds Text!

In recent years virtual reference has become a core library service, an expected and preferred form of reference service by users at academic institutions. For a virtual reference service to remain relevant to users, it must evolve to reflect trends in digital communication. After seven years of offering virtual reference through chat, askON is excited to enter a new era of virtual reference with the September 2015 launch of the askON TEXT service delivered in parallel with its world-class chat service.

askON is an instant-messaging-based virtual reference tool that can be accessed through the websites of Ontario college library partners. Initially developed and launched in 2008 by Knowledge Ontario and managed by the Ontario Colleges Library Service (OCLS)or the Ontario colleges since 2012, askON is a thriving college library service that has responded to over 100,000 chats to date.

Perhaps the strongest value of the askON service can be found in the collaborative staffing model, which allows partner libraries to extend the service hours they offer to students beyond what they could provide on their own.

askONEach partner library contributes a small number of staff hours per week, and in return their students have access to sixty-two hours of service. Over one hundred and twenty-five staff from twelve participating libraries, and a team of skilled interns from library programs across Ontario, work together virtually to staff the service and provide research assistance and curriculum support to students from each other’s libraries. Through the askON internship program, current Masters and Library Technician students receive training on the best practices in virtual reference and gain experiential knowledge through their term on the service, which they take with them to libraries across the province and beyond as they move on in their library careers.

Why Text?

For several years, the askON team explored the possibility of expanding to include a text-based service delivery that could respond to college students’ deadline-driven need for information when they are on the go. To determine the need for a separate text service to be delivered in parallel with its chat service, the askON team ran an eight-month pilot during the 2013-14 academic year.

Not only did college students embrace the service, the pilot results demonstrated that they used the service differently than they used the chat service.

The chat service is designed to be used by students while they’re sitting at their computer, engaged in research or looking up information on the library website, making it the ideal medium for in-depth research questions, whereas the text service can conveniently be used from anywhere and is often used to find quick information.

The askON text service is intended as a ready reference service through which staff provide library users with information about library policies and operations, assistance with technical issues, and answers to other quick questions that don’t require a reference interview or information literacy instruction. Like the rest of us, most college students have their phones at their fingertips at all times, but they may not have the time to spend navigating the library website to find the information they’re looking for. With their library’s askON text number, they can reach the service and receive an answer on their phone on the fly. These brief interactions give students the opportunity to learn about their library wherever they are, establish the library as a valuable resource, and open the door for future interactions with askON and their home library.

Looking Ahead

The askON team continues to look for opportunities to work with other college libraries and is excited to be part of the college library partnership with OntarioLearn, an online learning resource and platform for Ontario’s 24 community colleges. In September 2015, Ontario colleges added the Ontario Colleges Digital Library (OCDL) portal to the OntarioLearn platform offering online students easy access to college library resources, including virtual reference services. In later phases of the project, askON will plan to become one of the support service points through the library portal, and will be directly available to support OntarioLearn students with their informational and research needs.

In future months, askON task forces will study enhancements to the service which may include:

  • proactive chat that allows askON staff to reach out to users who are hovering on a particular page;
  • developing a knowledge base of FAQs for users who prefer a “self serve” flavour;
  • offering local service to colleges who want to extend their service beyond the collaborative hours; and
  • exploring how to provide support for students who want to use the service in French.

Jan Dawson is the Services & Communications Coordinator at OCLS and the askON Project Manager. Her interests lie in reference, service, tech, and community management. She tweets as @nunanishi. Siobán Linnen is a member of the eResources team at OCLS and the Training Associate for askON. Her interests are in the areas of reference, instruction, outreach, and accessibility.

The art of the ask: 10 tips for asking for a reference

Sophia Apostol

Sophia Apostol

Girl Guide cookies? Run-for-the-cure? We are both asking and asked often to support causes, and the “art of the ask” is meant to remove barriers and encourage participation. These principles can be used when you’re asking for references as well.

I’ve been on both the “asking” and giving end of the reference scenario. I remember finding it soooo hard to ask for references, but now I actually love giving them—it’s like I’m helping someone deserving get a job they really want.  And who wouldn’t want to play a small part in that?  Here are my top 10 tips for making it easier to ask for and keep a reference—from someone you know well or someone you don’t (see #8).

1. First contact. Mention how you know each other, especially if you don’t have frequent contact, and provide some context (Hi, I’m Sophia. We sat beside each other a few years ago at the OLA Saturday lunch. Remember that joke Jian Ghomeshi told that made us laugh so hard that coffee came out my nose?).  You want them to know exactly who you are so they can wax poetic about your charms and talents.

2. Find out what process works best for your reference. For example, I give blanket permission to referees to use me as a reference, but I ask them to let me know if they have had an interview, in case I get a call and have to perform my official reference duties. Then, I want the relevant information (#3, #4, and #5) so that I’m ready to go when contacted.

3. The job. Provide the full text of any relevant job description.  Too many times, an online link to a job doesn’t work because the deadline has passed and the posting has been taken down.  That forces the reference to ask you for information in order to understand the nature of the job so they can say nice, relevant things about you . . .don’t  force your reference into using their improv skills.

4. You. Highlight some of the key aspects of YOU that YOU want your reference to emphasize.  I may think that you have excellent skills or abilities for “XYZ”, but the position really needs expertise in the area of “ABC.” Ask yourself, “How can I help my reference provide the best information for this job?  What skills do I want my reference to highlight?  What aspects of my personality should my reference emphasize?”  Share that knowledge and insight so it’s clear how what you’ve done professionally and who you personally are align with the position qualifications.

5. Cover letter and CV. Please, please send your reference the cover letter and CV/resume you used to apply for the job. This one should b e self evident.

6. Update your references on the application process. Did you get an interview? Are they going to call references? Did you get the job? Did you not get the job? Don’t keep your references in suspense! Perhaps they can even give you an emotional boost when you need it.  References form an important part of your network, and they can also serve as mentors. Which leads to . . .

7. Thank your reference. This should definitely include an email, but how about at the next conference you take your reference out for a coffee?  Hint: I’ll be at the OLA Super Conference, and I like my coffee with two creams 😉

8. Nurture the relationship. Don’t just reach out to your contacts when you want a reference—that just makes people feel used. Rather, connect with them on LinkedIn, send them a few emails a year to let them know how your job hunt is going or how you’re liking the job you got, or any other cool things you’ve got going on in your life. They obviously like you if they’re willing to vouch for you, so maintain the connection because you never know when you’ll need them again.

9. Develop your network. Our profession is small enough for you to get to the point that people in your network reach out directly when they hear about jobs that they think would really suit you.  To get to that level, your professional connections should have some knowledge of where you are, what you’re doing, what your goals are, etc.  Someone from your network can easily become a reference, so go forth and be social!

10. Pay it forward. Soon you might be in a position to be asked for a reference. Be clear with referees about how you’d like the process to work. Harken back to when you were doing the asking.  Use your powers for good and  help prepare referees for the road ahead. You’ll get more out of it than free coffee.


Sophia Apostol, Director of Sales, YBP Library Services and President-Elect 2014, OCULA. Sophia can be reached at sophia[at]