Monthly Archives: June 2009

The Pros and Cons of Reinventing the Wheel

Now that the slower summer months are here I’m taking some time to work on a couple of big projects. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about online tutorials. We have a large student population and a relatively small library, and I’m always looking for ways to extend our instructional efforts. Tutorials covering various research skills, information literacy competencies, and library services may be one way to stretch our resources and reach more students and faculty than we can in the classroom or at the reference desk. And tutorials delivered via video, audio or text can provide additional means of instruction to accommodate multiple learning styles.

On our library website we link out to several great tutorials from other colleges and universities. There are also many online tutorial repositories out there with loads of good content, including ACRL’s own PRIMO: Peer-Reviewed Instructional Materials Online Database. MERLOT, the Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching, also features research-related tutorials.

But recently I’ve started to think that we should create our own tutorials. Local conditions are certainly a factor. Some resources, like the catalog, are unique to us, so we can’t just link out to another OPAC tutorial. But we are part of a large university system, so in theory we could link to tutorials for shared resources created at other campuses.

There may be usability issues as well. When patrons open a linked tutorial from another library — even if it’s in a new browser window — I worry that we may lose them from our own website. If we use tutorials from other libraries, we must consider how to direct users to those resources from our own library homepage. What about training materials provided by database and service vendors — do they have a place alongside our own, librarian-created online instructional materials?

There’s also the issue of branding: must our online instructional materials have our own logo and library name? I wonder whether local branding is important to students and faculty, and how our users feel when they’re directed to a tutorial created by another institution.

Academic libraries come in many shapes and sizes, though we all share a similar mission of which instruction is a critical component. But no institution has infinite funding and personnel. While the tools for creating web guides, audio podcasts and video tutorials get easier to use (and less expensive) by the day, it still takes time and effort to create them. And many institutions have already created excellent online instructional materials.

Do we spend too much time reinventing the wheel when we create local versions of tutorials on common topics? Is it smarter to link out to materials created by other entities? Or is a mix of the two the best strategy?

Tapping Your Inner Entrepreneur

Are you a Librarian Entrepreneur? You might be. Would you answer “yes” to these questions:

I am an opportunist.
I am a creative genius (or part of a creative work team)
I am persistent
I am customer focused
I connect the dots
I am passionate
I am a risk taker

According to my research in preparation for a talk at Inspiration, Innovation, Celebration: An Entrepreneurial Conference for Librarians those are the seven core qualities of an entrepreneur; I learned a good deal about the characteristics and practices of entrepreneurs at my institution’s Center for Entrepreneur Research. Based on what I heard at various presentations delivered at the conference, at least one or more of these characteristics are indeed associated with with the work of librarian entrepreneurs. But for my closing keynote talk I raised a simple question: Is the term librarian entrepreneur an oxymoron? Considering what business and start-up entrepreneurs do how would academic librarians achieve entrepreneur status? I asked quite a few librarians if they could name a librarian entrepreneur. Ninety-eight percent could not. A few named someone entrepreneurial who created a library product or service, but who was not a librarian. If there are librarian entrepreneurs out there why don’t we know who they are?

Part of the confusion comes from the uncertainty about the work of entrepreneurs – and does coming up with an innovative idea make you an entrepreneur? In the classic business sense an entrepreneur is an individual or group that comes up with one big idea and essentially puts all their resources (time, money, energy, etc.) into pursuing it to make it happen with the intent of eventually being profitable. I shared tales of entrepreneurs who had done just that, putting everything they have into a single business idea. Clearly not the sort of thing we do in libraries. I also asked librarians to name any entreprenuer. Virtually all had no trouble answering that question; the most frequently named entrepreneurs were high visible, business people, usually technologists and wealthy (think Bill Gates or Steve Jobs). So the characteristics we associate with entrepreneurs would, for most people, hardly fit a librarian.

So even though I tried to raise some doubts about the viability of the librarian entrepreneur concept, it would be difficult to claim that librarians fail the entrepreneur test with the evidence delivered by the presenters. You can review the ideas that were shared at the conference site, and some of the presentation slides are now available. I liked the opportunism and creativity employed but the folks who developed a digital media center at SMU. Attendees were buzzing about the academic library that included an 18-hole mini-golf course in their library redesign project. At UNC-Greensboro they developed an A-Z journal finder that was eventually sold to a commercial vendor, and returned some profits to the institution. So while academic librarians rarely put everything into a single big idea with a go for broke attitude, there certainly are plenty of examples of projects that demonstrate creativity, innovation and some degree of risk.

I closed the conference with ten tips for aspiring library entrepreneurs, and a few messages about creating an entrepreneurial library from some folks who I think have proven to be particularly successful at doing just that. Those tips, messages and clips from my librarian interviews are embedded in my slides if you want to have a look (the embedded videos will run best on a mac). If you think of yourself as a librarian entrepreneur, share an example of something you’ve accomplished at or beyond your library.

Sustaining Scholarship

As Jennifer Howard of the Chronicle reports, collaboration between libraries and presses was a theme at the most recent meeting of the Association of American University Presses, but there seems to have been some heat generated over library/press relations and the open access movement.

One option is the “Michigan Model” in which a press becomes a part of the library’s operations, sharing a common vision, but having to adapt to library culture or risk marginalization. For some presses, this probably sounds like “resistance is futile. You will be absorbed.” But Michigan is not the only press to be aligned with the library’s operations. As reported by Scott Jaschik in Inside Higher Ed, Penn State University Press is also part of the library division, and according to Patrick H. Alexander, that means adjusting to very different experiences.

Presses, he said, “look outward” and are “very much concerned about professors at other institutions, relationships with external vendors — we work largely with people outside the institution. That is not the perspective of the university library,” he said. University presses must be constantly thinking about revenue, while libraries, he said, are focused on service. At a university press, he said, the motto must many times be “just say no,” as editors turn down book proposals they can’t publish and must do so all the time. The library, he said, is much more of a “yes we can” place, trying to satisfy the faculty and students of the campus.

Maybe through this cultural collision we’ll both learn something valuable.

Doug Armato of the University of Minnesota Press criticized the “polarizing and self-serving rhetoric” of the open access movement. This year’s president of the AAUP, Alex Holzman of Temple UP, predicted that the electronic revolution for book publishing is about to take off and change everything, though he doesn’t see open access as the future of university presses.

But Michael Jensen of the American Academies Press (whose books have been browsable for free online for years) had a different prediction.

In the conference’s final plenary session, “Directions for Open Access Publishing,” Michael J. Jensen, director of strategic Web communications for the National Academies Press, made an extreme version of the adapt-or-die argument for incorporating open access into scholarly publishing. Mr. Jensen entertained the audience with a description of his longtime obsession with crises that threaten life as we know it. Then he went for the Darwinian kill and linked print-based culture with global warming.

“C02 must be radically curtailed,” he said. “Print is CO2-heavy.” How about a business model that would rely on 50 percent digital sales, 25 percent print-on-demand books, and 25 percent institutionally funded open-access publishing? “Open access in exchange for institutional support is a business model for survival,” Mr. Jensen advised, all joking aside.

“If we fail to make these changes, we will be knowing participants in the death spiral,” he warned. “The print book must become the exception, not the rule, as soon as possible.”

Inside Higher Ed has further coverage of the debate over open access and different possible models for long-term sustainability.

More immediate threats to presses facing closure were also on the agenda. Take, for example, LSU Press. They have a terrific list, books that have won Pulitzers and become bestsellers as well as scholarly books that might not find a home elsewhere. Check it out – maybe you’ll find some books that fit your curriculum that should be on your shelves. And maybe it will help sustain a valuable press while together we figure out the best way to disseminate scholarship in the 21st century.

Five Tips For A Better ALA Conference Experience

It’s now mid-June and the ALA annual conference will be upon us in no time at all. If you plan to be in Chicago now is the time to start thinking about your conference strategy. I hope you followed my advice on getting the hotel you want (see the third item) – and that you actually got it. Now that the hotel is out of the way I’d like to share five ideas for having a better conference experience. I’m certainly not the first blogger to offer their tips for having a better ALA conference experience, but these tips are based on an experience I had for the first time at the 2008 ALA in Anaheim – and no – it didn’t involve any Disney characters.

For the Anaheim conference I volunteered to be an ALA Ambassador. So what do ALA Ambassadors do anyway? That means I needed to e-mail a few first-time attendees to give them my sage advice on how to have a better conference experience. I had an exchange with a first-timer from down under. I also did a two-hour stint at the Ambassador’s Desk, and I wore a badge to let first-timers know I there to help out and answer questions. It may sound dreadful but it was actually a good eye opener – seeing ALA from the perspective of the newcomer. So here are my tips – hopefully not the obvious ones you’ve heard before. You conference veterans should feel free to add your own tips.

1. You will be overwhelmed by the amount of programs and activities. Try not to be overwhelmed. You can’t do it all or even close to that. The best thing to do is plan ahead to get a sense of how to spend your time. I met one first-timer at the Ambassador’s Desk who told me she was going to figure out what to do each morning. Between the conference previews you get from ALA and Library Journal – and loads of e-mail announcements – I recommend planning your conference in advance, and making “Plan B” choices in case your first choice doesn’t work out (e.g., you realize you are two miles away and your first choice program starts in 10 minutes).

2. If you’ve never been to the exhibit hall, plan to set aside about 4 or 5 hours to cover it adequately. Yes, if you can hang around till Tuesday you are more likely to find publishers getting rid of their display books at deep discounts. Check the hours of the Exhibits. It may be ending earlier on Tuesday than you expect. [Note: I think it is over at noon on Tuesday - a few hours earlier than in past years].

3. Don’t carry the whole conference program book if you can avoid it. You’ll start feeling the weight later in the day. Just tear out the pages you need (like the hotel abbreviations page) for each day.

4. Bring some cab money with you. Believe me, this is a good reason to raid your piggy bank. I know cabs cost more than the free shuttle buses, but there may be a time when you need to get somewhere fast and it’s too far to walk – and if it’s hot – wait a minute – if it’s ALA annual you can guarantee it will be hot and humid – you’ll be a sweat puddle by the time you get there. The shuttles are great but sometimes there can be quite a wait. It’s all part of being prepared. It’s worth it. Sharing a cab may save you some money. Ask folks waiting in the bus line if anyone is interested in sharing a cab ride to your destination. All they can do is ignore you – and think you have money coming out the wazoo.

5. Another first timer asked me what programs he should attend – or what I’d recommend. I declined to make a recommendation not knowing what his interests were. The obvious choices, I suggested, were related to his work setting. But I also suggested going to at least one or two sessions completely unrelated to his library type. I’ve learned some useful things at sessions for public and school librarians. Go hear a big-name speaker you’ve never heard before. Take a chance on something different. You may be pleasantly rewarded. If you get there and the first 15 minutes are a bust, leave and go to your Plan B program.

So there are five things you can do to have a better ALA Conference experience. Use the comments to add another. If you do make it to ALA annual and you spot me, please stop and say hello. I always look forward to meeting and chatting with ACRLog readers.

Gone Camping

It’s summertime, so last week I packed my bag and headed off to camp: LibCampNYC, a library unconference held at Brooklyn College, CUNY.

This was the first unconference I’d ever attended, having narrowly missed out on signing up for Library Camp NYC in 2007. One of the defining features of an unconference is its loose structure. I have to admit that I came into the day somewhat skeptical that the model would actually work, that 100+ people would be able to plan the day’s events on the fly first thing in the morning. While the organizers had done some pre-planning, arranging the topics proposed by participants on the preconference wiki into clusters of similar themes, the 4-5 sessions that ran in each timeslot were determined by the entire group. It was amazing to watch the schedule coalesce right before our eyes.

I went to four sessions over the course of the day, opting to stay in each one rather than move around. Lots of interesting things were discussed:

  • In the How should we handle the dinosaur known as the reference desk? session, the point was made that at academic libraries students may not feel comfortable approaching the reference desk when it’s not crowded because the librarian on duty looks busy, and students don’t want to interrupt. On the Twitter backchannel, bentleywg shared that his library places signs in front of the librarians’ computers on the ref desk that read “Please Interrupt Me.” Such a great idea!
  • I co-facilitated Information literacy instruction and strategies, and I was especially pleased that so many public librarians came to that session. It was so interesting to learn about the variety of opportunities that public librarians have to teach their patrons, from kids through adults, aspects of information literacy. I’ve often wondered about how my library could partner with the public library, since we only have our students for four years and public libraries have them for the rest of their lives (but that’s probably a topic for another post).
  • The Open access session was fairly free-form, with discussion on the topic ranging far and wide. Advocacy was a recurring thread, especially how academic librarians can educate faculty about open access on their campuses. One of the most interesting suggestions was to engage students in advocacy, as discussed at the SPARC session on this topic at ALA’s Midwinter meeting in 2008. For example, Students for Free Culture, a multi-campus organization, seems like a great partner for librarians working on OA issues.
  • The final session I attended was Critical pedagogy/critical information literacy, a topic I’m very interested in though just starting to read and learn about. A big theme in this discussion was the “tyranny of the one-shot,” with many librarians chewing over how to bring critical pedagogies to a library session that may be restricted to as little as 45 minutes.

The day went by in a flash and was great fun. My only small frustration was that the sessions seemed too short. By the time the participants said a few words introducing ourselves and expressing our interest in the topic and the conversation really got going, the session time was nearly half gone. But it’s also true that longer sessions = fewer sessions, and I wouldn’t have wanted to drop any of the four that I attended.

Longer sessions would also have allowed for more space to accommodate the variety of experience with and interest in a topic that everyone brought to the sessions. And while I do think that this diversity of perspective added depth to our discussions, sometimes a conversational thread that was interesting to me was snipped short and I wished we had more time to for it. But of course that’s the spirit of an unconference, that the program evolves continuously. And that made the event one of the most exciting and learning-filled professional events that I’ve ever attended.

But I think that what I valued most about LibCampNYC was the ability to connect with librarians from across the profession. I spend most of my time with academic librarians, and it was great to have the opportunity to learn from my colleagues in public, special, medical, and other libraries. I also appreciated the diversity in experience — the mix of both newer and more seasoned librarians in addendance. And of course this was much more participatory than a typical conference, because the program and topics were determined by all of us, together.

If you’re interested in reading the session notes, you can find them on the LibCampNYC wiki. I can’t wait to go library camping again!