Monthly Archives: December 2007

Research Has The Power To Enhance The User Experience

Editor’s Note: Today we bring you a guest post from Ms. Valeda F. Dent, Associate University Librarian, Research and Instructional Services at Rutgers University. In this post Ms. Dent shares a report from a recent program held at the Council for Library and Information Resources (CLIR) on December 12, 2007. The ACRLog blog teams thanks Ms. Dent for her contribution, and invites our readers to share their conference and workshop experiences.

“I’ve become conviced that many innovative ideas fail to be commercially successful beacuse we haven’t understood the role of design. Design isn’t decor. At Stanford, we teach ‘design thinking’- that is, we put together small, interdisciplinary groups to figure out what the true needs are and then apply the art of engineering to serve them. Only by combining design and technology will we create innovative products and services that can suceed.” This quote was made by Hasso Plattner, cofounder of SAP, perhaps one of the largest software companies in the world, and founder of the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University, during a recent interview with Newsweek magazine (December 10, 2007, pg. E6). As I read his interview it occured to me that although he was primarily referencing innovation in terms of his own industry, his idea could apply to any area where products and services are created to meet the needs of a user population. Like libraries.

Plattner’s interview made me think about a symposium I had attended earlier in the week, sponsored by CLIR. “The Architecture of Knowledge: How Research Programs and New Courses are Built“, featuring presentations by three prominent scholars about the resources and methods they used to conduct original research, and how their work eventually had a profound impact on the development of courses, digital products, and related research areas. Although the work that each discussed was very discipline-focused, there was a common theme – how their research created or enhanced the user experience in some way.

Nancy Foster, lead anthropologist for the University of Rochester’s River Campus Libraries, described the library’s approach to designing better user experiences. This ethnographic study of user patterns and behaviors was the most direct, and stands out as a great example of design thinking – inclusive teams working on gathering information about how users work, then leveraging that information to design a better space to discover, study, find and use resources, and connect with others. Highlights from Nancy’s presentation included a hand-drawn diagram made by one of the student participants in the study, depicting his “research process”. This low-fidelity user feedback tool was jam packed with cues about how this student worked – the fact that the current paper he was working on was stored in more than one location, the fact that his anxiety was greater at the beginning of the research process, the fact that he spent time working in his department, at his home, and in the library, the fact that new paths or ideas might spring up at any time during the research process. The Rochester study showed us some ways that librarians might take this kind of rich data and transform it to facilitate a better experience for the user.

Stephen Nichols, a French professor at Johns Hopkins University, talked about the beginnings of the Roman de la Rose digital library project. This project, whose goal is to digitize numerous medieval manuscripts of Roman de la Rose and make them available via a digital portal is a great example of how a digital collection might create a better user experience by locating the manuscripts digitally in the same space. Previously, this type of manucript comparison would be difficult for a researcher to undertake, as the manuscripts are scattered far and wide. Christiane Gruber, a scholar and Art historian at Indiana University, talked about her work with Islamic manuscripts, and how she gained access to texts and images at institutions throughout the Arab world, sometimes with great difficulty. Her work, which she has made available through her teaching, digital collections, articles, and manuscripts, has the potential to provide other researchers access to material previously unavailable.

In each of these cases, the role of the library (either the local library or libraries abroad) and librarians were clearly seen as critical to the success of the projects, and to making the research more broadly available to users. The symposium was well-attended and generated a good deal of discussion and feedback from the audience. Although mostly informational, I can say that what I learned informed both the way I continue to think about the creation of research, how this work can in turn impact the user, and the role of librarians in helping scholars make connections between their work, the academy and the public.

Some Thoughts on Privacy 2.0

The Pew Internet in American Life project has just come out with a report on how people feel about their online identity. Digital Footprints examines who keeps track of personal information available online, how they feel about inaccuracies they might find, and whether they are nervous that so much personal information is publicly available.

The majority of Internet users responding to the survey say they don’t worry about it. Most would like to control their digital image – but don’t take steps to do it. (Interestingly teens are more likely to limit access to their profiles. Many adults feel an unlimited online presence is necessary for their careers – and teens may feel limiting their profile is an equally smart move for their future careers.) Technology has changed our expectations: the interactivity of Web 2.0 and the addition of new data formats and geotagging will only increase the fine grain of our digital footprint. But so have external events. The public grew far more tolerant of having their privacy invaded after 9/11, according to several studies in a fascinating section of the report.

My guess is that we’ve been equally desensitized by advertising that is driven by harvesting and analyzing our searches, and by banks and other corporation routinely mining our lives for personal information. (Fortunately Senator Dodd thinks there should be some limits to corporate spying, at least when it contributes to a violation of the constitution.)

The recent OCLC report on Sharing, Privacy, and Trust in our Networked World found that only about half of respondents want libraries to keep their activities private, in contrast to librarians, who are more likely to find privacy important. In general, this report jibes with Pew’s in that people want to control what they share. They just aren’t very aware of what they’re sharing when they’re not in control. The degree of trust in information services that store their searches and use that information commercially either means there’s a disconnect between wanting to control what they share and letting corporations harvest information from their searches – or they simply don’t recognize the extent to which it’s happening.

The OCLC report urges libraries to do more social networking to develop trust.

We know that privacy is important to users, and to librarians, but we also know that sharing and open access matter. Privacy matters, but sharing matters more. If the axiom “convenience trumps quality” was the trade-off that gave rise to the search portals as providers of “good enough” information, it might be said of the social Web that “sharing trumps privacy.”

Unfortunately the example they use as a success in this area is the banking industry (huh?), not sites that seem to take both readers and privacy more seriously, like LibraryThing (which is not mentioned in the OCLC report, though it’s doing largely what the report recommends libraries do). And it seems to contradict the report’s belief that people are desperate to share that there are only seven comments at the site OCLC created to discuss the report.

The blogger Rudibrarian has a brilliant post on this issue.

Something I think about whenever I see a list of Cool 2.0 Free Tools You Can Implement At Your Library is privacy (or more accurately, confidentiality). Why are they free? Who’s getting what? Does the user retain ownership of their information? Is the library facilitating the sale or use of users’ information when offering this tool?

I *only* think about this when I see others’ implementations or lists of tools. I almost never think about it when I myself am doing something where I ought to think about it. Like, perhaps, when adding applications to my facebook….

…Users ought to worry about this stuff but the information world has gone completely mad and out of control and is being monetized and ramified in all sorts of ways they can’t even begin to understand when they take their first gateway drug (which might be a DisneyPhone designed to allow their parents to track their every movement and thus desensitize them further!)

So, librarians used to have this bill of rights to guide library services which states

IV. Libraries should cooperate with all persons and groups concerned with resisting abridgment of free expression and free access to ideas.

Which I read to mean that libraries and librarians work to support the statement that all individuals are free to read whatever they choose and that such reading is nobody’s business but their own. Essentially, that libraries and librarians are (or should be) committed to protecting patron privacy and confidentiality (two similar but not identical goals).

So, questions to ponder for later parsing:

1. Are libraries still committed to this?
2. Should we care that our patrons (especially academic library patrons, since that’s my ball of string) don’t care about their own privacy or confidentiality? Should their naiveté trump our responsibilities?
3. Does our desire to do more for our patrons hold hands with their naiveté to further sexy goals, or is it OK to not let them know what we’re doing (or that we don’t know!)?
4. Does anyone know how much info we’re giving away though Facebook? or other username/password identity sites?
5. Is it still within our power to prevent Minority Report from becoming reality?

To which I’d add: Aren’t these all questions we should be asking ourselves, right now, urgently?

You mean I can’t throw these out?

James Cortada, a historian of computing who works for IBM, has a nice screed (Save the Books!) over at the American Historical Association that heaps a bit of anger on us lil’ old academic librarians.

Fresh from reading Nicholson Baker and full of Google digitization anxiety, Cortada charges that a new spectre is haunting libraries: heartless librarians ruthlessly discarding old PC-DOS manuals. (Wah! I had to scrounge second hand bookstores to write my 3 volume history of computing! Bad librarians! Them not book people!) Apparently no one told Cortada that when librarians discard books it’s called deselection, and we have rigorous protocols in place for that kind of thing.

Kidding aside, I agree with much of what Cortada has written and don’t think librarians and historians are as far apart on the issue as he claims. The future of print collections in light of the Google digitization project is a serious issue that is seeing ongoing discussion by librarians. In New Jersey, academic librarians gathered at Fairleigh Dickinson University for a one day symposium on the Future of Print in the Academic Library that included suggestions for collaborative solutions. Obviously, all libraries can’t and shouldn’t be holding on to everything, therefore choices must be made as to who saves what.

IUPUI Library Dean David Lewis demonstrates a nuanced understanding of the issues in his recent “Strategy for Academic Libraries in the First Quarter of the 21st Century.” In his section on “retire legacy print collections” Lewis talks about regional collection management and the use of OCLC’s WorldCat as a tool for this purpose. He writes perceptively:

Whether it will be possible to build a national consensus and to implement a concerted program of action or whether a laissez-faire approach will be adequate is unclear. Until one approach or the other is proven to work, individual libraries will either have to delay decisions or make them on faith. Neither choice will be attractive to tradition-minded librarians who do not wish to antagonize faculty who value proximity to “their” books.

That sounds familiar, as I’ve been purposely procrastinating on a project of sending more of our history collection to remote storage for a while now. I’ve knocked off some low hanging fruit, like multi-volume outdated reference books in foreign languages, but more difficult decisions loom. Historians do tend to feel that the library should buy everything and hold on to it forever. Cortada’s piece can be a jumping off point for communication between librarians and historians. If librarians can understand more about the importance of holding on to ephemera (and non ephemera) for future historical writing, historians can understand more about the realities and economics of space planning. Beginning the conversation early is better than doing the evil mad laugh while running from the dumpster.

What You Want To Say And What You Do Say

I think this post over at Not of General Interest will resonate with any academic librarian who has worked the reference desk, taught an instruction session or possibly even graded some research papers. “Bad Professor, Good Professor” reminds us that even though we may sometimes have bad thoughts or reactions to what our students write, say or do, as academic librarians and educators it’s important for us to remember we’re here to help our students learn and achieve academic success – even if it sometimes takes lots of willpower. My favorite is found in one of the several worthwhile comments:

Bad professor thinks: Dear lord, you sound like a gum-smacking 12-year-old talking on a cell phone on a city bus.
Good professor writes: Establishing a more serious academic tone in your writing would help support your argumentative authority.

I think you get the idea.

So let me add one of my own, from the librarian’s perspective:

Bad Librarian thinks: Good Lord. Where did you come up with that idea! You can’t seriously be thinking you can actually research that topic when your paper is due in a week.
Good Librarian says: That’s a good start. Let’s take a step back and see how we can refine that idea into something that you can start researching in some of our databases.

So, have you ever had – wait, that’s a silly way to put it – of course you’ve had them. What is your memorable “Bad Librarian, Good Librarian” moment?

This Brainstorm Could Be Good For You

Though I suspect it didn’t have the desired outcome, I’m still glad I made the effort to expose ACRLog readers to some faculty blogs in parts one and two of the Carnival of the Professoriate. I’d still like to think that academic librarians can benefit from occasional reading of faculty blogs. But if faculty blogs, at least the ones I mentioned, fail to capture your attention or otherwise enlighten you then perhaps Brainstorm will be more to your liking.

I just started subscribing to this feed a short while ago as it’s a fairly new blog. It’s a group blog that includes some well recognized thought leaders in academia, a mix of professors and higher education analysts. In fact, if you regularly read the Chronicle of Higher Education Review section, then you’ll recognize the contributors. Their past essays have appeared in the Review, and now they are writing commentary for this Chronicle sponsored blog. So you can imagine that the conversations can provide some valuable insight into and perspectives on change in higher education.

Changes such as the growing first-year college dropout rate. Mark Bauerlein, professor of English at Emory University, examines the issue in a recent post in which he considers the connection between reading and academic success. Bauelein writes “Statistics from the Department of Education make the correlation between reading for pleasure and academic achievement crystal clear (see this document, pp.50-55). The more kids read on their own—anything, that is, not just classics and books—the better they do in class.” There’s a real problem when 25% freshmen in 2005 reported doing no reading in their senior year of high school.

Though we may have no immediate solutions, as academic librarians we can’t help but think there might be things we could do to encourage reading in and outside of the classrom. Our libraries have collections of great leisure reading and the latest fiction. We offer bookclubs and book talks. Even inviting video games and game competitions, no doubt a factor in the decline of book reading (especially for males), in to the library could allow non-readers to potentially connect with books of value. In a time when academic libraries need to do all they can to promote retention, perhaps something as simple as helping to increase reading – something so central to the library’s existence – can allow us to play a more significant role in helping students achieve academic success.

So if faculty blogs weren’t to your taste, perhaps a little “Brainstorm” may be just the thing to get you to pay more attention to what’s happening in higher education.