Monthly Archives: November 2010

Focus on Flexibility

This semester the information literacy course that I’m teaching started off in our main library classroom. It’s a fairly typical instructional space with rows of desks topped with computers, an instructor computer at the front, and a couple of projection screens. It’s a nice room – we got 30 new, faster student computers over the summer, internet connectivity is solid, and we have some nifty classroom management software that allows us to push out content to the student machines as well as project content from student machines onto the big screen.

About midway through the semester my class moved into a new workshop space in the library. This room is smaller – we can only fit about 16 students – and has an instructor computer, a lockable laptop cart, and a smartboard on one wall. I absolutely adore this room! Instead of long, hardwired rows of desks we have round tables that seat 4 students each, which makes group work so much easier. The space is so flexible – we can use the computers when we need them, but when we don’t they can be tucked away in the cart (rather than tempting students with Facebook). I do miss the classroom management software, and sometimes the wifi is a bit dodgy, but this room is about as close to my ideal instructional setting as I’ve ever had.

This midsemester venue change has me thinking about flexibility: of design, of space, of our library facilities. Like many colleges our enrollment is up and we definitely feel it in the library. Sometimes it seems like we are bursting at the seams, especially as finals week looms ever closer. How can we get the most out of the space we have?

Studying is another library use that could benefit from greater flexibility of our physical space. Students work in many different ways: in a group, individually, quietly, and in discussion. When the library gets busy our group study rooms fill up, and other groups studying in the library disturb students who want quiet, individual study space. We do have designated quiet and conversation areas, but it’s easy for a group working together to get too loud for an open area. What if we could use partitions to design flexible, pop-up group study rooms? Would that be a way to maximize our space for multiple uses? What if we left them open rather than requiring groups to check out a key? Would single students monopolize a group room for long periods of time?

What stands in the way of flexibility? I think funds play a big part. For example, during the busy parts of the semester our classroom is booked solid with classes and workshops, but at other times it’s empty. I often hear students complain that there aren’t enough computers available for their use at the college. Why can’t we use the classroom as a student computer lab when there aren’t any classes? In this case I can answer my own question: that room isn’t staffed when there are no classes in session, and we would need to add staff to open the room for drop-in use by students. I can also envision logistical headaches in the mixed classroom-lab scenario, for example, having to shoo out the students using computers when a class is about to come into the room.

Even small renovations to spaces that already exist require funding, which can be hard to come by these days. However, in this economic climate it’s probably unlikely that many of us will see expanded or new library buildings, especially in space-starved urban areas. Advocating for funds for flexibility might be in all of our futures, to help us get the most out of the space we have. Is your library moving toward more flexible use of space and facilities?

Interview Questions Are A Two Way Street

If there’s one thing current and prospective academic librarians are always looking for it’s advice about job interviews. One of the most important parts of the interview process are the questions. You know you’ll be getting them, and you already know to anticipate them and be as prepared as possible. For example, you know someone is going to ask (probably more than once) “Why do you want to work here?”. You should have a good message prepared that communicates your passion for the position in a sticky way – so what you have to say is remembered.

When you are the one conducting the interview you need good questions to help get at the candidate’s potential for success at the position. As the job candidate, you should demonstrate the ability to ask thoughtful questions that reveal your intellectual curiosity. So interview questions are a two-way street, and no matter which of the two roles you are playing, coming up with good questions can be a challenge.

One of the non-library columns I like to follow that is a good read for anyone interested in leadership and management issues is the NYT’s Corner Office. Each week a different business executive is interviewed, and the questions typically seek to reveal that executive’s advice for aspiring and experienced leaders and managers. At least one question is usually related to hiring matters, such as “what do you look for in job candidates”, and occasionally the column editor will ask what question(s) the executive likes to ask in job interviews. I’ve found some interesting examples there.

Here are a few from recent columns:

Tell me where you are right now and why you are looking to change?

Can you do the job, and would I enjoy spending time with you?

What do you think you’re really good at?

Tell me about a challenge you’ve overcome, and don’t tell me a work challenge — in life, what’s a challenge you’ve overcome, either as a child or as an adult?

There are five animals — a lion, a cow, a horse, a monkey and a rabbit. If you were asked to leave one behind, which one would you leave behind? I admit the prospects of being asked this one are slim, but if this has gotten you curious take a look to find out what your answer would suggest to an interviewer.

And I saw this one mentioned elsewhere that I’ll paraphrase here because it’s a good one – certainly a challenge: What are you doing now – or something you have done – that will be looked back on five years or more from now and still be considered of importance or value (and interviewees could turn that around as a question for their potential employers – what are they doing now that will still be considered of value to the institution five years or more in the future).

If you’ve struggled in the past with interview questions, either as the employerl posing the questions or the candidate who’ll be answering them, be aware that there are many sources of help found on the Internet (e.g., search “good interview questions”). As an interviewer you want to be asking questions that will ascertain the candidate’s capacity for success. The recommended way to do that is to determine what, in the candidate’s job history, provides a good example of those qualities needed for success. You’ll no doubt also want to ask a few questions to help you get to know the candidate better as a person – to get a sense of how well he or she will fit into the organization.

As a candidate, you absolutely want to avoid having no questions at all, as in “No, I can’t think of anything in particular to ask you.” Don’t think this doesn’t happen – I’ve experienced it more than a few times. As you are doing your advance preparation and research, jot down some questions as they occur to you. Keep them handy during the interview process. Here’s an example: “How do you think your website will evolve to encourage use of your new discovery engine?” Not too difficult to come up with those sort of questions, right. One way to develop good questions is to review the website, the strategic planning document (if a recent one is available) or other content that will help you compose a few questions in advance.

If all else fails, try the one about the lion, horse, monkey, rabbit and cow. That should start an interesting conversation. Of course, just hope the other person is not a reader of ACRLog.

Going Corporate – Guilty As Charged

In his recent Chronicle essay titled “Library Inc.”, which was part of special Chronicle Review focusing on the corporatization of higher education, Daniel Goldstein takes academic librarianship to task for selling out to corporate America. Judging by the comments shared by readers the reaction to the essay is mixed; while some agree others take Goldstein to task for blaming librarians for a situation beyond their control. Goldstein focuses the essay on two areas where he sees commercialization of the library most evident. The first is collections, where Goldstein is critical of academic librarians for allowing corporate mega-publishers to take control of the academic journal publishing. If Publisher A buys out Publisher B, I’m not sure how that’s the fault of academic librarians. Maybe we didn’t work hard enough to fight these developments, although I recall a number of academic libraries that joined together to reject big packages and unjust price increases.

I’m not as interested in what Goldstein has to say about collections as I am about the second area where he claims our profession has gone astray – customer services. Far fewer commenters had anything to say about this part of the essay, yet that’s the area where, from my perspective, the arguments are particularly weak and unfounded. As I read the essay, the conclusion I draw is that if you believe there is value in delivering high quality customer services, if you and colleagues go out of your way to understand your user community and design services that meet their expectations, and if you – heaven forbid – believe there is something to the idea of creating a well thought out, holistic user experience for your user community, then you have somehow sold your soul to the corporate devil. Goldstein writes, “There are far-reaching implications to disregarding so much of what a library does in favor of an impoverished, customer-service-centric model.” Goldstein is entitled to his opinion but my response to it: what utter nonsense.

I realize this is a short Chronicle essay, so I won’t fault Goldstein for failing to provide some good examples of what these “far-reaching implications” are, but I think it has something to do with dumbing down a student’s research process so that they actually discover information with simple-to-use interfaces instead of facilitating thorough and precise “systematic research” that leads to the production of new knowledge. That sounds great, but I’m not sure Goldstein has worked with many underclassmen lately – the students who mostly never even bother using the library at all. Does he prefer that to better customer services designed to engage distracted students? Has he paid any attention to the Project Information Literacy reports that document what an unpleasant user experience our libraries can present to overwhelmed students who are greatly challenged to get started on the fundamental research paper? Goldstein waxes eloquently about the noble work of the academic librarian who shepherds students to produce new knowledge in response to “new and unusual” questions. The reality on the ground level is that academic librarians are typically confronted by confused undergraduates struggling with the same research project that’s been assigned to hundreds of other students before them. When you frame our challenging problem more realistically, going corporate – if that’s what you want to call it – looks more and more like a pretty good solution.

As I read Goldstein’s concerns about “a future when libraries look a lot like Google: a vast, undifferentiated mass of information queried by a simple search box”, it sounded vaguely familiar. It should. I wrote pretty much the same thing back in 2004 in a Chronicle essay titled “The Infodiet: How Libraries Can Offer An Appetizing Alternative to Google”. In it I raised similar concerns about how we observed students consuming a steady junk food diet of information rather than the high quality “nutritious” content our libraries offered. Since then I’ve come to worry less about this problem because I don’t think the answer is simply found in wishing for the good old days of…what…just exactly what is it that Goldstein is recommending we do other than “insist that scholarly requirements take precedence over commercial interests.” How exactly do we do that? By abandoning the core value of delivering good customer service in which we empathize with our community members and attempt to deliver a research environment that responds to their expectations?

I suppose the bottom line from my perspective is that there’s absolutely no evidence that establishing a culture of service diminishes an academic library’s ability to help students develop strong research skills. I would argue that if we want students to move beyond dumbed down research, junk food resources, and all that which Goldstein abhors, then the answer might be expanding and improving our services and user experience so that we do a much better job of building relationships with students. We can’t expect them to magically want to become the passionate researchers that Goldstein envisions unless we figure out how to create an emotional connection between them and our libraries – so that they actually perceive academic librarians as trusted sources of information. If we do this right, we’ll create the passionate users Goldstein visualizes, the ones who’ll come to us when they want to learn – not just when they’re forced to by their instructors.

Creating a passionate user is no random act; we need to be thoughtful in designing a holistic library experience that engages students and encourages them to pursue research interests. I believe that corporate America (think Starbucks, Amazon, Zappos, Apple, Ritz-Carlton, etc.) provides good ideas for how to design the right kind of experience for a specific community. That’s not saying our libraries are businesses, or should be run like business, but rather that corporations can offer ideas worth exploring. We need to discern the good ones from the bad ones, and then wisely implement the good ones to the benefit of our user community members.

So I may be a tool of corporate America, but I’m going to continue to advocate that there’s much we can learn from the companies that excel at designing great user experiences. Doing so doesn’t mean that you are commercializing the library. It means that you think there’s a better way to accomplish an outcome we all share. It’s great for Goldstein to share his noble aspirations with us, but it’s better to be realistic about what you can accomplish and how you can best go about getting it done. If you believe there’s value in exploring the business perspective on creativity, innovation, user experience – and all those other evil corporate machinations – come on over to Designing Better Libraries for a taste of the devil’s brew.

Building Smart Collections for Today’s Users

This month’s post in our series of guest academic librarian bloggers is from Anna Creech, Electronic Resources Librarian at the University of Richmond, Virginia. She also blogs at Eclectic Librarian.

Some days I look at my projects list and tasks and wonder how in the world I ended up here. They often appear to be more like what one might expect to be doing in an office of institutional research rather than in a library.

I am an electronic resources librarian, which I have found to be a title used for everything from online reference instruction to cataloging to acquisitions. In my case, I do little instruction or cataloging, and spend most of my time analyzing the digital resources we have acquired.

Increasingly, as libraries are forced to cut their resources even more severely, and in some cases, justify their existence, we have had to use more metrics to determine the value of our resources, whether they are personnel or materials. While this has been a tradition in libraries for as long as I’ve known them, it’s not what most of us thought we would be doing when we entered the profession. But, we can’t keep our heads in the sand any longer.

Just as we have many people who are passionate about the preservation of materials, we need to have as many if not more people in libraries who are passionate about the stewardship of the resources we purchase. We can no longer afford to purchase material that sits on a shelf and may never be touched. We need to be smarter about the things we acquire and a big part of that is looking at trends in the past to predict the future.

When I analyze usage data, I am looking for the anomalies that indicate a problem with a resource, such as sudden drops in use, declining patterns, etc. I talk to the public service librarians about resources that seem to be declining in use to make sure they are still relevant to our programs and researchers. We consider accessibility issues and course offering patterns before ultimately deciding whether or not to renew the resource or continue to collect in that area.

I hope that someday, we will be able to shift the 80/20 rule towards 100% circulation so that more of the resources in undergraduate libraries are used and not just sitting on the shelf waiting for someday to arrive. Alternative purchasing models like patron-driven acquisitions and collaborative collection development agreements indicate a trend towards making more purchasing decisions based on what users want now, and less towards purchasing things they might want later.

I know that some librarians are concerned that just-in-time collections will have significant gaps that may not be filled later on, but I don’t think we can afford to continue to maintain large just-in-case collections of materials. Academic libraries need to transition from being warehouses of books to being collaborative and individual learning spaces where research and innovation happen, and in part that means using ILL, document delivery, and online content to supplement materials that are not on the shelf.

If a publication is significant enough to be of value to a researcher someday, then it’s likely that a library somewhere has purchased a copy. Besides, we live in the future now. There’s no reason why a book needs to be out of print when it could be sold or otherwise made available in electronic formats. The argument of “we must purchase everything now or it may not be available later” is becoming less and less relevant.

I also hope that someday, libraries will have business intelligence tools to help them assess the return on investment for their collections. We do the best we can with the tools we have, but I think we could better make use of staff time if we didn’t spend so much of it getting our mish-mash of systems to spit out comparable data. This is why I believe we should be actively supporting standards initiative like COUNTER (Counting Online Usage of Networked Electronic Resource), SUSHI (Standardized Usage Statistics Harvesting Initiative), and CORE (Cost of Resource Exchange). They’re just the tip of the iceberg, but it’s a start.

We librarians are an intelligent and resourceful bunch. With the right set of tools, I believe we could come close to creating “perfect” collections to meet the needs of our users. With the right set of tools, we can be better stewards of the financial resources provided by our institutions. It’s time to work smarter, not harder.

Not Halfway But It Could Be A Start

Are you attending ALA Midwinter – assuming you still think there should even be a Midwinter conference? How about ACRL 2011 in Philadelphia? A west coast colleague recently asked me for some advice on getting to the Convention Center from the airport. It made me realize ACRL 2011 is not that far off if the west coasters are already planning their trip east – as I recently did for my trip to San Diego.

As I was making my Midwinter conference plans I came across John Berry’s editorial in the October 1, 2010 issue of Library Journal titled “Half Way to ALA”. Basically the column is about the inequity in our profession (I’m sure it’s common in other professions too) whereby administrators and senior librarians are much more likely to be subsidized for conference travel than their newer and possibly younger colleagues. Berry admits this is nothing new, and recalls that when he was coming up in the sixties a friend of his suggested the “half way” solution. What was it? To help their newer-to-the-profession colleagues to attend the national conferences, the friend thought administrators should subsidize half of their expenses. I’m guessing that one never got past the idea stage. Andy Woodworth is also thinking about the “Half Way” idea over at his blog, and he wonders if there are other ways to sponsor the newer-to-the-profession librarians so they can attend the big conferences.

Woodworth and those who commented on his post provide the new-to-the-profession librarian’s perspective on Berry’s opinion piece. Let me offer a reaction from a not-so-new-to-the-profession librarian. I have a suggestion that might help this situation, though it’s not quite as “out there” as half-way – maybe it’s more like a tenth of the way – but we need to start taking action somewhere – not just talk about the problem. If enough of us senior folks helped out even to a small extent it could provide subsidies to far more academic librarians to at least attend ACRL 2011. I can’t say enough about how important that is, not only for their professional development, but simply for the fact that it adds a vibrancy and dynamic dimension to our conferences, and that makes it a far better experience for everyone. At least that was the way I felt after Seattle in 2009.

And I can’t make the point strongly enough that we must avoid turning this into some sort of generational conflict issue. It isn’t about newer-to-the-profession colleagues being at the conference instead of us senior folks because we won’t get as much out of it as our newer colleagues would. That’s nonsense.This is about having good representation from across our entire professional demographic. That’s what will make the conferences a better experience – not another US versus THEM debate.

Berry’s “half-way” idea should really get us senior academic librarians and admin types thinking about this issue and what we can do to improve our conferences by making sure our newer colleagues are well represented and getting the opportunity for professional development. If we are committed to the future and sustainability of our libraries and our profession don’t we have an obligation to make sure the next generation is well prepared to take this enterprise into that future? I think Berry ignores a solution we already have in place – at least for ACRL. The solution is becoming a Friend of ACRL, and donating money to the organization and scholarship funds. According to the Friends page, there were 15 scholarships for the 2009 ACRL Conference valued at about $9,000. For an organization of this size with the average member age at approximately 48 – that’s abysmal. I believe ACRL currently has about 13,000 members. Let’s assume just 1,000 of those are senior librarians making decent salaries – and getting a subsidy to the conference (yes, I fall into that category). If each one gave just $100 a year – that’s $100,000 for scholarships so instead of just 15 we could subsidize another 75 newer academic librarians. Now we’re talking some real representation at the next generation at an ACRL conference.

I just renewed my ALA membership. I once again made a contribution to maintain my Friend of ACRL status, and gave extra for the scholarship fund. I’m encouraging you to do the same the next time you renew your ALA membership. I know there are lots of charities and causes that need our help, and you only have so much to give. But give some thought to Berry’s editorial. I think you’ll agree we senior librarians need to do our part to bulk up the scholarship fund to an amount that reflects how we really feel about this profession – and our commitment to help our newer colleagues get to the conferences.

I know this isn’t quite what Berry was hoping for – it’s sure not half-way, but it’s a start. I sure hope this brightens up his day.