ASSOCIATES (2006, March, v. 12, no. 3) -

*When You Can’t Reach Out and Touch Someone –
Electronically, I Mean*


Douglas Morrison
Reference/Serials Librarian
Ohio State ATI Library
Wooster, Ohio

One day in late December 2005 a member of the ALAO-SS list that was hosted by Kent State University contacted me and asked me to find out why their email had not gone through to the list. Previously, I had been appointed list moderator and the message had been sent two days earlier. That one request created a major flurry of activity and led to one of the great email mysteries of the first decade of the 21st century.

Since the beginning the list had been an interesting communication venue for our state academic library association’s support staff group: it was used to both advertise the group’s continuing education programs and workshops and to provide a way to talk to other library support staff working in libraries within Ohio. The Academic Library Association of Ohio (ALAO) is the state chapter of the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL). It is also the professional organization for academic library staff and librarians in our state. ALAO is further divided up into six different interest groups that provide specific sub-groups inside the organization with a voice and committee that can plan activities designed to meet the needs of their members. One of the most active of these sub-groups is the Support Staff Interest Group (SSIG). After 1998 the SSIG was just beginning to gather new members and collective strength following a period of inactivity that nearly saw the demise of the interest group. After two years of efforts to “get the word out” regarding their continuing education activities and a recognized need to connect with their fellow constituents across the state, the SSIG Chair and its Program Planning Committee decided to pursue the development of an email discussion list that could also serve as a public relations vehicle and two-way communications tool.

Their efforts to find a sponsor for the new email list became reality in May 2001 when the library at Kent State University agreed to host the list for the SSIG. Kent State left the rules of conduct and the moderation of the list up to a representative selected from the group membership to act as a moderator. The reasons for the first list were simple. To quote the details from the June 2001 announcement "… to have an email discussion list that we hoped would help bring library support staff around the state of Ohio closer together and to discuss issues and share feedback on items of concern that affect all of us working in libraries within the state in these positions today." This first effort topped out at around 150 subscribers. This tool never developed into a high traffic list that would bring the support staff of Ohio closer together. It became mostly an announcement list for the SSIG and the other efforts and opportunities the larger association offered. The list served a purpose and the interest group was comfortable with what it was being used for. Our list was being hosted at no cost for us by one of the association’s member institutions, and they took care of all the associated technological and “behind-the-scenes” operations on our behalf. There are many institutions of higher education willing to do this for the opportunity of being recognized by the organization for which they are hosting the list. Not a bad price to pay for a freely hosted and technically maintained email discussion list!

This arrangement worked well for us until that fateful day late in December 2005. One of the listserv members contacted me early in the morning and said they had received a strange message from the servers hosting our list at KSU. The message sent by the mail management software said "…there is no such list as ‘ALAO-SS’ located on this email server…" Well that was certainly disturbing, but at the time did not seem to be any cause for alarm. Email lists had been switched around to different servers at KSU before, and it most likely was just one of the lists in the process of being transferred. The ALAO-SSIG list had been at KSU for over four years, and we had experienced no major problems during that time. I felt it had to be something minor. I contacted the KSU library representative we normally worked with when we had to address some problem with our list. He was busy at the time, and we worked out a time frame for him to investigate the problem and help us out with a solution. By late January 2006 he had found out the problem. The list no longer existed and there was no sign of the backup archive to be found anywhere on the KSU servers. In fact the list may have been gone for as long as five months prior to this incident! The list had been annihilated during a switch over from old servers to a new network structure and there was no chance of a subscriber list or backup archive recovery. At least this is the best guess our representative had at this time. He was quite puzzled by the mystery of how our list just disappeared into the electronic ether.

The news was a shock for us and the timing for our group could not have been worse. We had been planning our spring 2006 workshop and the planning had progressed to the point where we were getting ready to announce workshop details to build interest. Our email list was going to be integral to our advertising campaign. It is interesting to note how quickly you can work to overcome adversity with mild panic as a motivator! Our next program planning committee meeting was scheduled for early February. It was during this meeting that ALAO-SSIG looked closely at its available options. We could re-establish a new list at KSU, or we had a new option available to us. One of our former interest group chairs, who worked at another university, had offered to host a new list for the SSIG. Two days prior to the meeting he had created a new email discussion list through the servers at Miami University of Ohio’s Middletown branch campus. We were quick to make use of the new resources and ALAO-SSIG officially re-launched its email list on February 13th of this year. Since that date we have almost reached the same level of list membership as we had with the old list. The new level of list membership was achieved within a period of four weeks.

Why is this list becoming successful so quickly? The answer lies in the approach we are taking to the purpose of this list as opposed to the last one. The first list had a more narrow focus, and it primarily operated as a vehicle for informational releases and public relations announcements. The new list has a more open and inviting purpose than its predecessor. The SSIG looks at the new list in the spirit of working towards fulfilling the organization’s stated goals and objectives. Among these are promoting the exchange of ideas among support staff; to carry forward the idea of cohesiveness among support staff statewide and beyond; to encourage the participation of colleagues at all levels to achieve the common goal of quality service; we also look to the furthering of efforts at collaboration and cooperation with our colleagues in other libraries. All of these ideas are posted in the announcement the ALAO-SSIG made of the new list during February of this year. How the character and use of the list develops in the pursuit of these stated goals will be a function of time. Previous experience has taught that the more restrictive and limited the stated purposes and uses of an email discussion list, the less usefulness and need for such a list can be found.

Why re-launch an email discussion list? Why not a weblog or some other form of digital communication used with today’s technology? The answer to the question should be why not use it, but in concert with the newer communications tools. The ALAO-SSIG has just recently launched its own weblog, but it doesn’t fill all the group’s needs when it comes to needing a “voice to the outside.” Weblogs and podcasts offer the ability to communicate your message in a one-way message mode. Instant messaging and computer chat clients offer two-way communication, but these are often limited to two people or a small group of participants. The true benefit of the email discussion list to library support staff organizations is in the large “bang for the buck” impact it can have as a communication vehicle for your group's purposes. The ability to deliver news and content to potentially hundreds or thousands of list members simultaneously and the impact of multiple views and feedback from those very colleagues can pack a tremendous benefit for an organization of any size. So, I would recommend giving it a try. Reach out and touch someone…..well, electronically anyway.

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