(Library Reference) Impressions of America Online

Before I Joined
America Online was not my first choice of commercial online providers for this class; I wanted to observe e-world because it is new and I know nothing about it besides the cute little pictures that pop up in MacUser each month. But I was slow and lazy; my e-world opportunity that had come with my purchase of a Mac in October ran out December 31, and besides, I get a free disk in the mail from America Online just about every month. So it was the easiest, in-your-face choice. But before I signed on, I read the FAQ:

I remember last spring when AOL opened USENET access for its subscribers .... and how everyone on the newsgroups complained about how stupid they were. It was when I was just getting started on newsgroups myself, and I was taken aback by the vehemence of the complaints. I didn't see the AOL populace as so much of a problem, but then, I don't hang out on alt.binaries.pictures ... (but now I think it strange that I can't remember where I was reading all these awful complaints ... it just seemed as though they were everywhere). In a way, I wondered what all the fuss was about (I find it amusing, from reading the FAQ, that AOL posts a list of complaints to several USENET newsgroups discussing online providers). So I popped in the free disk to find out just exactly what I've been missing.

Setting Up
My initial subscription went very, very easily. I was amazed at how user-friendly AOL has made the set-up -- it was about ten times as easy as setting up my PPP connection to school, and I have a Mac (the easy set-up). I was walked through everything, with buttons and fill-in-the-blanks. Once on and logged in with a username and password of my own selection (somewhat; I wanted "Nettie" or "Lagace" but was refused -- AOL came up with the compromise "ALagace") all it took was some loading of graphics and away I went to explore the wonderful new world! Whee! I didn't take the little "tour" that AOL offers new subscribers; figured it would be easy enough to figure out on my own. And it was, for the most part. I was more than slightly puzzled by AOL's constant use of "keywords" to point out locations for information, mostly because I couldn't figure out where to input the keyword ... for something used so ubitiquously, it's not that easy to find; I had to go into online help to figure it out.

The Experience
America Online gets a lot of heat from folks on the Internet, more so than other online service providers. Why is this?

I didn't think AOL was really so bad for what it was, its own little world. Why not have a little place where casual users of online can gather for entertainment's sake? Sure, I am an Internet junkie, but to be frank, if there is a place for newbies to gather and stay away from my stuff, that is fine and dandy by me. I know better than to spend my money on AOL; when I leave my educational access I will search out an independent service provider. In my opinion, if you are dumb enough to spend your money on AOL, then you are dumb enough to have it. Here are some quotes from AOL member profiles (members are asked to provide a short description of themselves; some include favorite quotes): One of the most interesting parts of my AOL experience was observing its "reference desk." The reference desk intrigued me because it seemed a practical library-focused application of AOL technology -- real time reference -- and also is similar to the MOO that we are trying to build for the Internet Public Library. On the Internet Public Library MOO, I am concentrating on studying the different aspects of the reference process and trying to figure out ways to map the face-to-face interaction to a textual setting. Through the existence of its reference chat room, AOL helped me to visualize how some problems of such a place would actually play out -- here's part of the text from one of my visits with "REF Sudie," the reference librarian: I visited the chat room at about 10 pm on a Sunday night; poor REF Sudie seemed overwhelmed but kinda used to having a crowd. She maintained good humor throughout. I was afraid to ask my question because it was so crowded and I was new to AOL -- REF Sudie, to her credit, prompted me to ask, and was very friendly -- but the whole process was so confusing and random. REF Sudie even had a random helper, an AOL member named "Badditude" (just the sort of person I'd like to get my information from), who was assisting with throwing out solutions to problems. There was absolutely no privacy, and REF Sudie was working on about three questions at once. I felt like I was on a game show, trying to get my question heard. Smilies ( :) ) abounded, as if everyone was admitting that their text responses were not human enough, and were too hastily-composed to communicate any real feeling.

When I did ask my question (what's in a lava lamp?) REF Sudie was quick to respond, but said she would have to email me the answer since it was in a file at work (so was she at home on a Sunday night, hanging out at the AOL reference desk? cool!). She said she got the answer from STUMPERS-L, a listserv "for librarians." I would like to go back and query the REF librarians at AOL to find out if they are indeed degreed librarians -- I guess they are. One of the recent messages on PACS-L, cross-posted to PUBLIB-NET, was from the "Eleclbrn@aol.com" asking about information on The Internet Compendium, a 3-volume reference set edited by Lou Rosenfeld, Martha Van der Kolk, and Joe Janes, all people associated with SILS. I thought it was really cool that AOL librarians were asking questions about something that SILS people had created.

Ultimately, I got a lot of information from AOL. I observed things on the AOL reference desk that I do not want on my MOO desk: I don't want it to be so disorganized and cattle-mart-ish as AOL's is. I want the reference librarians to really find out what the patron's need is, not hurriedly try to find any answer that seems to "match" what the patron is asking for. I don't want nearby patrons poking in on the process. I don't want five different people talking at the same time.

At the same time as I decided what I did not want, though, I was forced to realize what some of my upcoming problems on the MOO might be, for both patrons and librarians. I plan to go back and talk to librarians about their experiences ... I almost did, one night at 3 a.m., but I was too tired to be really coherent, and so I left it for another time. Also, AOL should be commended for posting the reference desk on the top level of its menu page, and for calling the people who are answering questions "librarians" (although I am not sure whether they really are or not ... and whether or not this is a good thing). It does remind people that libraries are places to find answers.

AOL is fine, just fine, for people who want a mild dose of online. Or am I just biased? I take information a lot more seriously if it comes to me via the Internet and any of the seven or eight newsgroups I'm subscribed to (except for the lawyers' list -- a pile o' newbies). I believe REF Sudie and her librarian (?) cohorts on AOL, but the chat rooms there are ridiculous, not even worth five minutes of lingering. AOL's news page was like reading USA Today ... does it all come down to the lowest common denominator? If AOL is the future of online, they all can keep to themselves.