3.00 FYI France: Ejournal and archive

by Jack Kessler, kessler@well.sf.ca.us

May 15, 2004 issue. This file presents an archive copy of the issue of the FYI France ejournal, ISSN 1071-5916, which was distributed via email on May 15, 2004.

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Versions of the following have appeared online regularly, since 1992, as a feature of the FYI France ejournal, ISSN 1071-5916, which is distributed for free via email every month except August. Ejournal subscriptions may be obtained via email request to: kessler@well.sf.ca.us

Here this file is one of a number made available -- hopefully attractively, all in one place, and relevant to libraries and online digital information work in France and Europe -- as part of FYI France (sm)(tm), an online service to which anyone can subscribe for 12 months by postal mailing a check for US $45, payable to Jack Kessler, to PO Box 460668, San Francisco, California, USA 94146 (site licenses also are available): please write your email address on the front of your check. Please email suggestions for improvements to me at kessler@well.sf.ca.us


Digital Convergence, in Education?


"Education Convergence"... for teaching physical geology, or anything else, to anyone, all over the globe... 3 ingredients:

1) Online Reference Service

For an interesting new example of online reference service:

-- a leading library in France -- its new online digital reference service...


Online Digital Reference service itself is not a new idea. Since the early 1990s, librarians on econferences such as BIBLIO-FR and PACS-L have described projects to offer reference service via email. With the general development of Digital Libraries, these projects have turned into sophisticated and successful document delivery and research efforts, at many institutions.

Descriptions of this online digital reference service history abound, on the Nets. Bernie Sloan's is the leading compilation:

Along the way, several fundamental operational problems have been dealt with by different institutions in different ways: for example --

  1. Too many "computer" questions. Early online reference service efforts were inundated with technical questions regarding how to logon, how to navigate the Web, computer operation, passwords, glitches. The librarians thought they were going to receive substantive research inquiries, but instead they became "computer plumbers": sort of the digital analog, some commented, to the many "where are the toilets?" questions received historically at the reference desk... The problem has abated, somewhat, as the users have become more sophisticated about "computers", and as the systems themselves have become more user-friendly; but, still, these form a large percentage of the questions received.

  2. Too many "commercial" questions. Commercial firms and professional inquiries, too, can inundate an online reference service. Also from the beginning, the librarians had vast lists submitted to them from firms in need of data for their work, firms very able to pay for a service being offered for free to the general community. Gradually solutions have been developed: fee-for-service for document delivery, limits to inquiry sizes, accounting systems. But abuse of the free service, by lawyers and accountants and commercial firms, continues to be an online reference service problem: "I need the names and addresses and gross receipts of all of the electrical firms in the city..." -- not the sort of "reference question" contemplated originally.

  3. Too many questions, period. Managing the followup, and the backlog, arising from sheer call-volume becomes a challenge for any sort of "customer service" operation, whether commercial or government or public service. If the users are not handled efficiently, they will go elsewhere or stop calling. And too many users degrade efficiency quickly. The system design necessities, for such an operation, nearly always are under-estimated: in practice, "call tickets" get lost, calendars get confusing, followup gets delayed or forgotten, someone always thinks someone else was supposed to do it... And then the "backlog" begins to build... The service must be designed, from the beginning, to treat each caller very specially, because that is how the caller sees herself: it being true in service, as in business, that "the customer is king".

  4. Confidentiality. And since its beginnings threats posed by online reference to library service confidentiality, real or imagined, have been major concerns. The ease with which supposedly "secure" library user records may be penetrated makes headlines daily, now: both by implication, with the constant stream of "hacker" and "virus" and "worm" headlines offered by the news media, and also directly, as governments and politicians become increasingly concerned with "terrorism". What formerly was considered sacrosanct and beyond reach, in confidentiality, is not so any longer. This increasing worry applies to all records, digital or otherwise, but online digital reference service must consider it at least no less than any other.

To these "fundamental four" many other problems posed by online digital reference service might be added. Complete lists might best be compiled by mining through Bernie Sloan's entries, mentioned above. Online reference service efforts nevertheless are increasing: as so they should, as they offer answers to many of the fundamental questions now being asked about both library service generally and about the future of digital information.

Digital information has grown, as predicted, to the point where "information overload" has become a problem for all of us: and even well past that point, for many of us -- as The Police put it in their song, now a long time ago,

And as the users increasingly need help, so do the librarians. The quest for a role in the new digital information world has been answered in the generality by the Digital Library concept. But so far this is just a concept: in execution, the digital library idea has taken such a variety of approaches as still to be undefinable -- some things that are "digital" have become "libraries", and some things that are "libraries" have become "digital", but beyond that there is not much common ground, yet.

Whatever form or forms the future Digital Library will take, however, it seems that there will be room of some sort in it for Online Reference Service: that is what "librarians" will be doing, in large part, in the coming years -- not all librarians, but hopefully a lot of them, and at any rate more than are now.


At the BM Lyon, for example, their Online Reference Service model is a sophisticated one:

[The BM Lyon appears to have anticipated the general online digital reference pitfalls outlined above. Their considerable experience in reference must have taught them, above all, to "get the users to hone down the question".]

[France has the same problem which the US and other places do, now, in the de-professionalization of many positions: there, too, student aides and part-timers and other non-professionals increasingly perform many library functions, including "answering the fones..." So this is a "quality assurance": that in fact this Online Digital Reference service is going to be taken seriously, by the BMLyon, and that real professionals will be putting their minds and training and experience to work on a user's question.]

[The nub of the operational challenge, for the service: how to manage the workflow smoothly, internally -- so that followup in fact takes place, and so that backlogs do not build...]

[This is at once the greatest challenge and the greatest promise, perhaps, of this new service... The BMLyon has a unique mandate, among libraries, in that there are few equivalents to a French "bibliothèque municipale" to be found elsewhere in the world: a "city library" with enormous, and rich, and very ancient collections -- but one also offering public lending, and children's services, and branch libraries and other outreach.

Other nations have national libraries, similar in intent to the Bibliothèque Nationale in France, and others have magnificent "rare book" collections and "public library" institutions as well. But few have many libraries which combine all of these functions, and few are so well-endowed as is the BMLyon.

This said, every place has its limits: the Internet can put people in Tasmania in touch, now, with the BMLyon librarians -- who protest that they can handle inquiries in languages other than their own -- assuming that the BMLyon can do this, then, this effort could be the beginning of a major initiative in purveying the riches of "la francophonie" to the world... and it is to some extent a grand experiment in the multi-cultural and even the trans-national (see more below)...]

[I happen to be active on The WELL / the Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link: that was one of the first Internet "forum" structures (1985), and it still is operating very efficiently. Now in our US Presidential election year, this year, all of the candidates' campaigns are trying out "forum" and "blog" and "chat" and other forms of digital groupings and communication structures.

And I am a fan, of the "forum" format, as this usually is organized around topics of common interest: to discipline the terrible "topic drift" which distracts and ultimately destroys "blog" and "chat" and other less-focussed digital techniques. People are busy: they do not all have time to "blog" and "chat".

A fan of Listserv econferences too, for this same reason: I still am on PACS-L and Exlibris and of course BIBLIO-FR, and a few others. The discipline exerted by their "topic" orientation, and by a good "moderator", can be absolute necessities.

Interesting as well the combination of the two: this way the BM Lyon will reach both the users who have "random minds" -- who generate their best ideas through "chatting", digitally or otherwise -- and the users who have "specific questions", the savants out there.

This is, sort of, the "browsing" versus "known item" distinction in information science...]


So the BMLyon has the right idea here, I believe: online digital reference service, structured but apparently flexible enough, so far, to embrace alternative communications approaches as varied as the web and email and chat and structured "forum" econferencing. Resources for users / outreach for librarians.


2) Online Texts

Now for a fascinating new example of online text presentation, see:

-- particularly its Instructor Companion Site and Student Companion Site --


This is the latest edition of one of the leading texts in earth science / earth systems science / physical geology, in use all over the US -- and a Website, hosted by the book's publisher, offering extensive online digital materials supplementing, reinforcing, and extending the message of the printed text.

Professor Skinner and his team offer online now, to student readers of the famous "physical geology" text -- in fact now to any readers, anywhere... --

-- and instructors even may obtain online, in addition, from their own password-protected "instructors' site" so that they actually may use these in class --


** And both of these -- the new site offering online reference service, which happens to be in France, and the new site offering this online text, which happens to be in the US -- now can be reached from anywhere...

** So now, for a moment, consider the impact upon education of a combination of the two...


3) Online Instruction

And, in further addition, interesting new examples of online instruction: there is a rapidly-expanding global market in online distance education emerging now, as well -- for instance, from a consortium of Oxford & Stanford & Yale --

and from MIT --

and from newer institutions --

and older "distance education" / "lifelong learning" pioneers --


4) Combinations... and a role for librarians(?)...

The Distance Education boat is leaving port, I believe, and my only question is whether any librarians will be on it...

As the world "globalizes", and as its industrial structure fundamentally changes, one clearly-emerging common thread is the growing need for "continuing education" and "lifelong learning".

-- all of this very much to be conducted "at a distance" -- at, more generally, the convenience of the paying student rather than of the instructor or institution... just as "universities" were designed originally, back in the European middle ages... the "customer" perhaps once again is to be "king", in education...

There is less and less room, any longer, for the rigidities of 19th and 20th century static and tiered education, a process which "begins" at one point and very firmly "ends" at another.

In a high-turnover and very insecure new jobseeking world, then -- one in which positions terminate every two years, and entire fields and personal careers may "flip" several times during an individual's lifetime -- "continuing education" has become one of our postmodern workforce necessities. And if our populations all are "ageing", then until our societies decide to provide better for those "aged", that education had better be "lifelong", too...

In this new paradigm there ought to be room for librarians. The vast online and other information resources -- of online global classrooms such as those offered now by the Alliance for Lifelong Learning, or of digital texts such as that of Professor Skinner's in physical geology, both of which now can be reached from anywhere via a simple mouseclick -- are certainly no less confusing to users than were the printed book information systems for which the older librarianship was designed. The digital world needs information mediators and moderators and navigators, too.

Let these be services such as the BM Lyon's new Guichet de Savoir, then: online digital reference service, like this, needs to be propagated widely, and expanded greatly -- integrated, with the online texts and online classes offered in the new distance learning trends.

I would anticipate, for example, increasing coordination and even full integration of the three emerging worlds: of the BM Lyon's Guichet de Savoir, and Professor Skinner's Physical Geology, and the Alliance for Lifelong Learning's course offerings -- Online Reference Service, and Online Texts, and Online Instruction -- as these three digital worlds continue to evolve, and become more aware of one another.

The student, in Hobart Tasmania or Akademgorodok Russia or wherever, needs access: to her teachers, to her texts, to her librarians.


Jack Kessler, kessler@well.com

ps. Interestingly this activity is trans-national:

-- independent, somewhat already and definitely increasingly, of the "nation-states" which make so many of the negative headlines which most of us read nowadays. In a click 'n educate world, the nationality of students and instructors and resources need not have the ties, perhaps, to traditional nation-states and politics from which traditional education so often suffers.

In terms of digital access, at least, online distance education can reach, and be reached by, any student wherever located. Intellectual and financial access may pose difficulties, as might the quality and even nature of course content. The provision of the education as a transnational service might, as well: although one would hope that nowadays the education of anyone, anywhere, would be in the collective interests of all of us on the planet.

But these are questions deserving current research. The current providers are experimenting with them. At least students -- any, anywhere -- now have resources online from which they can learn, about such questions as well as others. And now they always can ask their online reference librarians...





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Last update: July 21, 2004