Monthly Archives: May 2011

Embracing Discovery

This summer my library, like over 60 others, is implementing Summon. Serials Solutions’ discovery layer is meant to provide our users with that “one search solution” we’ve all been waiting for for so long by sucking all our resources (catalog records, local digital collections, and database content) into one central index that searches it all at once and links back to full text wherever it’s available.

So far, it’s kind of working that way – a tedious and detailed testing process is revealing big gaps in the index for us and more failures in linking than I’d like, but we are still very early in our implementation. (Whether these are Summon errors or local implementation errors is hard for me to tell, since there is not a transparent admin module to control the local index we’re building.) A built-in “database recommender” gives users additional options for finding resources based on their Summon search results – a feature I would like a great deal more if it didn’t provide such strange recommendations sometimes, like the humanities and social sciences index FRANCIS for the search “eating disorders.” (That technically works, but there are other places I’d probably try first.)

One very interesting side effect of our implementation is the conversations we’ve been having, both within my library and with other libraries in Ohio, about what we expect from Summon. Many people have expressed the idea that discovery layers will be something librarians promote to novice library users, but that we’ll still be directing users to our catalog for known-item and advanced searching, and to our existing database lists to choose advanced subject-specific resources. While I understand the impulse behind this idea (especially as I experience the limitations of the discovery layer during our testing), I am worried it is unrealistic in the short term and ultimately does our patrons a disservice over time.

On May 9 I spoke at a statewide electronic resources management forum in Ohio about usable database records and lists. Alan Boyd, Associate Director of Libraries at Oberlin College, asked me what I thought the future held for such lists. I said that in five years I expect our reliance on local A-Z lists and the like will be replaced by a more contextual and topic-driven solution, like Summon’s database recommender, within our discovery layers, and that we’ll be abandoning the format-specific information silos we currently maintain. This suggestion, however, was met with vigorous disagreement from some in the audience.

I see the point: discovery layers are very new. They don’t (and probably won’t) include everything we own, the indexing they provide is subject to the whims of the highly competitive publishing and library database industry, and they are not entirely successful yet at synthesizing detailed information in very disparate source formats (MARC, MeSH, Dublin Core, etc.). However, it is as naïve to assume we’ll continue to develop or even maintain the front ends of our ILS systems as it is to assume our users will want to seek out and learn how to use them. In a usability project we did last spring on the BGSU library’s website, we watched users struggle again and again to find known items in our OPAC, use our databases-by-subject lists to choose resources by topic, or navigate our e-journal portal to find the full text of an article from its citation. The reality is that the tools we have now don’t actually work that well without specialized knowledge: most users don’t know you have to search for the journal title and not the article title, or that catalog searches are messed up when you include punctuation, or that sometimes when you search without the subtitle you have more success – and why should they? When I was in library school I read Christine Borgman’s excellent article “Why are Online Catalogs Still Hard to Use?” It was published in 1996. Why are online catalogs still hard to use, even now, in 2011?

I hope we will be able to move beyond them. Perhaps discovery tools, like Summon, will be our vehicles for doing so (dozens of libraries are making that bet this summer, including my own). In the short term we’re going to be balancing the needs and knowledge of our current users with the limitations of our current tools, but we need to be ready to embrace a future in which powerful searching of vast repositories of content replaces navigation for both known items and discovery, and where we both build tools to support this new future of finding and are ready to abandon the old ones that never worked that well anyway.

Showing Emotion? Keep It Real

You’ve no doubt had that experience where you go to a store, hotel or some other setting where you receive service, and the person (or people) serving you is doing all the right things to be nice – but you know it’s an act being put on for your benefit. We accept this because we know the person is doing their job and the management expects them to put some kind of positive emotions into the service. Just the same, it may leave us feeling a little weird. Should businesses expect their employees to fake emotions with you? This question is raised is a column titled “The Coming Point of Sale Revolution” by Grant McCraken. He understands the strategy but has a problem with it:

One of them is the American conviction that your emotions are your own personal business. Generally, we believe emotions are a private matter and that it is wrong to ask the employee to use them for public, commercial purposes.

McCraken shares the story of Dolores, a clerk at a busy 7-11 that sells the most cups of coffee of any other similar convenience store in America. Try to watch the video of Dolores in action. There’s nothing fake, contrived or insincere about the way she greets the customers and makes them welcome. While many of our service desk-based interactions could be described as impersonal transactions, I believe that we too have our “regulars” that we chat with, share a story or greet warmly. In other words, we put our emotions into those relationships – and the community members know it is sincere.

McCraken goes on to suggest that service-driven businesses should go out of their way to look for people like Dolores, or even those who have the capacity, through staff development, to be more skilled at what he calls “reading people and responding to them in real time” – the opposite of which is always avoiding eye contact, being sullen or professionally cold or aloof. I have no idea if that works for academic libraries. We talk about the importance of customer service, but when hiring and developing new librarians what do we tell them about connecting with community members when at a service desk or in consultation situations. Should we be asking or suggesting that academic librarians engage with everyone in a more personal and emotional manner – or at least be more adept at reading people and sensing at what level they desire personal engagement? It’s not necessarily a skill we all have.

Perhaps the important thing for all us who connect with community members in one way or another, at a desk, in a classroom, in offices or wherever, is to be thoughtful about the possibilities for building relationships. They can start with an enthusiastic greeting, sustained eye contact or simply demonstrating that we care. We should avoid at all cost communicating that the interaction is no more than an impersonal or bothersome transaction we perform in order to survive our time at the desk until we can get back to whatever it is we’d really rather be doing. Putting some emotion into our work can be a good thing. Do we all need to be Dolores? Of course not. Faking it, in fact, may be far worse.

Seven Tips For Highly Effective Networkers

Editor’s Note: In this third in a series of posts about the upcoming ALA Conference in New Orleans, Elizabeth Berman, Science & Engineering Librarian at the University of Vermont, and Breanne Kirsch, Evening Public Services Librarian at the University of South Carolina Upstate, provide seven useful strategies for improving your conference networking. We’ll be hearing more about the ALA Conference from our new team of ALA Emerging Leaders over the next few weeks leading up to the big event.

Attending the ALA Annual Conference can cost a chunk of change when you include registration, travel and lodging (not to mention shipping home all the swag you score at the Exhibit Hall). With library budgets tighter than ever, we are all being forced to question whether attending physical conferences is still relevant in today’s economy.

Short answer: yes! One of the greatest benefits to attending the ALA Annual Conference goes beyond the boundaries of the information that’s delivered; it is about connections you make with colleagues through the act of networking.

Networking is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the action or process of making use of a network of people for the exchange of information, etc., or for professional or other advantage.” In other words, it’s like Facebook, but in person. Networking is an advantageous skill to develop, opening you up to new information and knowledge, creating contacts and a professional support system, and improving your reputation. Here are our seven tips to help you become a networking ninja:

1. Have a plan. Are you job-hunting? Are there vendors that you would like to connect a face to? Are you looking to get more engaged with librarians in your particular field or area of specialization? Identifying who you want to engage with (be it a person or an organization) is key to making effective and meaningful connections during the short duration of a conference, especially if you are networking with a purpose. Remember to bring your business cards to hand out to others and collect their business cards as well.

2. Get social. ALA conferences are ripe with social activities, from committee breakfasts and soirees to interest group happy hours to vendor-sponsored parties. These are some of the best places to make connections because the atmosphere is more relaxed – you’re not going to interrupt a speaker.

3. Use the “power of hello”. While it may seem obvious, talk to the people around you. Say hello. Introduce yourself. Ask them questions and engage them in conversation: Where do you work? Are you involved in any committees? What interesting sessions have you attended at this conference? Not only will this help break the ice (who doesn’t like talking about themselves?), but it will also make it more comfortable to chat with them if you see them again later at that conference, or at future conferences.

4.Break out of your comfort zone. It can be easy as a new librarian to default into a passive role and wait for others to introduce themselves – they are the veterans, right? Conferences are a fantastic place for old friends and colleagues to catch-up and often times – unintentionally – librarians group together in what feels like closed circles. But by channeling your “inner social butterfly,” you will open doors that from a distance looked closed.

Elizabeth’s story: Since 2007, I have attended the Science & Technology Section’s (STS) Soiree, a casual drinks-and-appetizers affair held at a local eatery. I will be the first to admit that for the first several years, I showed up, talked to one or two people I knew from committee work, and retreated early to the safe confines of my hotel room. My tendencies are more wallflower-y, and walking into a situation where it felt like everyone already knew each other was daunting. It felt awkward inserting myself into a group situation where I knew nobody, where I felt I was interrupting conversations.

This past Midwinter in San Diego, high on the wisdom imparted at the Emerging Leaders program, I decided to change tactics – and my mindset. I realized that I wasn’t doing myself any favors sitting on the sidelines, and this pattern would only get more awkward the longer I was an STS member (can you imagine being the 10-year veteran of an organization where no one knows you?) Going against my personal level of comfort, I worked the room. I walked up to every table, every group, and introduced myself. Most of the time, people glanced at my nametag and noticed something we could talk about: I was an Emerging Leader, I was from Vermont, I worked with both the sciences and engineering. Conversation came easy. Was it difficult putting myself out there? Absolutely. But guess what? No one shunned me or laughed at me or told me to go away. In fact, I made some excellent connections that I hope to build on over the years.

5. Just connect. You will likely have distinct networks that you are familiar with at the conference – librarians you went to school with, librarians you work with, librarians you serve on committees with. Don’t be afraid to introduce others and serve as a connector. If you are talking with a co-worker and an acquaintance from one of your committees walks up, introduce them. Not only does it relieve a potentially awkward situation (no one is left staring at the ceiling or floor as you finish your conversation), but who knows what kind of connections you just helped form. And with 60,000 librarians attending these conference, small actions like this help make the community feel smaller.

6.Follow through. It is one thing to connect with people at a conference, but the more important piece is to follow up with them. A great idea, collaboration, or friendship can’t exist unless it’s acted upon. So follow up with the people you really connected with, send an email telling them you (sincerely!) enjoyed talking to them about X, Y, and Z. It makes a difference, it really does! And who knows what sort of opportunities can follow.

Breanne’s Story: At the South Carolina Library Association Conference, I had a wonderful networking experience at the exhibitors opening reception. My husband, Jonathan and I found ourselves talking with a few other librarians about current projects we were working on at our respective libraries. One of the librarians mentioned that she was coordinating a steampunk conference and encouraged Jonathan and I to submit a proposal. Our proposal was accepted and we gave a presentation on Steampunk Aesthetics and Themes in Film: A Literature-Based Approach. The conference proceedings are in the process of being published in a manuscript. This example might be a little unusual, but there are many opportunities that come about from networking at library conferences. You may meet someone that is an expert on a new technology your library is thinking of implementing or a librarian that will be your future employer.

7. Have fun. Networking shouldn’t feel (or look) like a chore. Some of the most successful networkers work the room with an ease that betrays the fact that they are working the room. So relax, be yourself, and above all, have fun with it. What’s the worst that can happen?

So as you gear up to attend ALA Annual in New Orleans this summer, think about using these seven tips. Odds are, you’ll enhance your conference experience and expand your network.

The What Versus The Why

When the topic of conversation turns to change, it’s not uncommon to hear an academic librarian say something along the lines of “before we change we need to really understand why we do what we do – what is it that defines what we are all about”. Others might describe that as having the ability to articulate the library’s core values. It might even be something found in a mission statement.

I recently heard a library presenter run through a list of these potential “why we do what we do” possibilities. For this presenter one emerged as the most clear rationale for the why of an academic library – or perhaps any library. The word used to describe the “why” was “connection” as in “we connect the user / client / customer / community member with information / content”. That was this presenter’s answer to the “why do we do what we do” question. I think there is much more to this than just connecting people with information, and that the act of “connection” is not actually a “why” but a “what” – and yes there is a distinction.

In a previous library position the actual mission statement, something along the lines of “This library exists to connect the students, faculty and staff with the information they need to succeed.” Not bad. But now I realize that this act of connection is not the “why” of an academic library. Rather, it is just one “what” of the many things we do for our communities. The “why” and the “what” are different. Let me explain using the Golden Circle framework advanced by Simon Sinek. The Golden Circle has three concentric circles. The farthest circle outward is the “what”, the middle circle is the “how” and the innermost circle is the “why”.

WHAT = the results we get
HOW = what we do in order to get the results (think process)
WHY = our beliefs, cause, purpose

Connecting people with information is a good thing, and an important function for any library. What makes it a “what” rather than a “why”, according to Sinek, is that it is a result – not a cause or purpose. Do you come to work everyday to make sure people connect with information? If that’s our cause or purpose, why should anyone care about academic libraries when they can get connected with information anywhere, at any time. The “how” of connecting people with information is all the things we do behind the scenes to make it work: developing budgets; having acquisitions workflows; processing materials; setting up loan policies. You get the idea. But it all starts with the “why – or rather it should start there. In his book Start With Why, Sinek provides examples of inspired leaders and organizations that succeeded where others failed because they had a much clearer vision of “why” and started their work by being able to understand and articulate first from the center of the Golden Circle.

According to Sinek, the absence of a “why” is a problem that often leaves us uninspired about our work. Most of us academic librarians understand the “what” and the “how”. The hard part is the “why”. We may have failed to spend time thinking about the “why”, and that is where we should begin. The “how” and the “what” should flow from the “why”. What would a “why” sound like for an academic library? Here’s a possibility: “We believe our library transforms its users from one state of knowledge to a higher state of knowledge.” How about: “We believe our library prepares community members to succeed as citizens, employees and scholars”. Those, to me, speak more to having a real purpose for why we should exist. Those statements are about believing that our work is going to make a difference – but only if we pursue our cause with great passion. It is not merely a result of our activity. It is a reason to perform the activity whether the result is connecting someone with a piece of information, helping them publish a scholarly article or getting a job.

I am still thinking about these ideas and what it means to develop a “why” statement or position for an academic library. If this post helps you to have a better sense of the difference between the “why”, “how” and “what” that is a start. Sinek’s web site has more information if you are interested in exploring this further, but feel free to share your “why” statement as a comment.