Monthly Archives: July 2011

Is It Just Me Or Does It Seem Like Some Startup Is Always Stealing Our Great Ideas

Social networking and media are attractive tools for academic librarians. While we are still looking for the killer application for an academic library, our experiments and efforts to leverage social media to connect with students are worth pursuing and occasionally produce good results. There is evidence that having a presence in Facebook, Twitter and YouTube can increase the possibility for connection between the academic library and its community members. Some of us are taking a more strategic approach to using social media. We may be creating guidelines for the appropriate uses of media, staff teams devoted to the regular use of social networks and our parent institutions are getting more serious about their use of social media as well. Where we still struggle though is in figuring out how to exploit social media to get students to become more aware and make better use of academic research resources for their course-based assignments.

I’ve always thought the real success of social media for academic libraries would involve some type of application where we would create networks that allow our students to engage with us and their peers to get the research help at the point of need. Consider a scenario where a student is working on his or her research paper assignment. He or she needs to find several articles for background information, but hits a roadblock in trying to find a few on-target scholarly articles. Instead of falling back on an Internet search, what if the student could tap into a social network monitored by academic librarians who could quickly respond with advice and direct links to the appropriate resources? It’s similar to the embedded librarian approach, but without the need for a formal arrangement with a faculty member for a specific course. The network would allow librarians and students, and perhaps faculty as well, to informally engage with each other to promote academic success.

Now a start-up, entrepreneurial venture is pursuing the exact sort of thing we academic librarians recognize as a good idea, but are without the capital and infrastructure to create ourselves. As I read the New York Times article “Homework Help Site Has a Social Networking Twist” I got that deja vu all over again feeling. The article discusses a new firm called Piazza that is signing up higher education institutions for a homework support system based on social networking concepts. According to the article here’s how it works:

Students post questions to their course page, which peers and educators can then respond to. Instructors moderate the discussion, endorse the best responses and track the popularity of questions in real time. Responses are also color-coded, so students can easily identify the instructor’s comments. Although there are rival services, like Blackboard, an education software company, Piazza’s platform is specifically designed to speed response times. The site is supported by a system of notification alerts, and the average question on Piazza will receive an answer in 14 minutes.

Go to the Piazza site and read some of the testimonials from faculty such as this one: “Piazza has proven to be an ideal forum for my class. Compared to conventional bulletin boards, the design makes it much easier for students to find relevant posts, and for my staff and me to keep track of outstanding questions.” At first Piazza sounds like the typical course management system discussion board where students might post their questions. Piazza adds the social networking component by issuing alerts so questions receive an answer quickly. Apply that to a research help scenario and instead of waiting around for a librarian to respond to a question posted to a discussion group, a text message could alert the librarian that a student needs assistance pronto. Even if a librarian wasn’t available to provide immediate assistance, in a large network research help could be provided by a more experienced student or faculty member, with a librarian checking on the accuracy of the response and improving on it if needed. Piazza is designed to reward good responses.

One thing I did notice about Piazza is that most of the highlighted courses are in the hard sciences. No doubt most of the assignments are problem-based, rather than research projects. The article states that while Piazza now has subscribers at over 300 institutions (it may be just one or two faculty per institution), it’s not making a profit and isn’t exactly picking up new customers like gangbusters. That’s something we academic librarians often overlook when we ask questions like “Why didn’t we create Google (or Amazon or YouTube, etc.)?” We seem to think that we have a natural instinct for coming up with surefire entrepreneurial concepts that involve the organization and distribution of any type of information content. What we fail to recognize is that most of these ventures lose money and disappear quickly. We like the idea of starting up an innovative new business venture, but we rarely think of the risks involved. Even if Piazza doesn’t make it, as the article points out, there are plenty more startups out there with every intent to disruptively innovate higher education with new concepts and platforms for helping students to learn by interacting in different ways with each other and their instructors. While we academic librarians may not be on the forefront of creating the new innovations, we may benefit by following the action closely and picking the right ones with which to partner.

Our Non-MLS Director is Great! Compared to What?

One of the programs I attended at the ALA Conference in New Orleans was titled “Hiring Non-MLS Librarians: Trends and Training Implications.” The first panelist shared some research findings from a survey in which library directors were asked about the positions in their libraries that they believed did or did not require an MLS. The results were pretty much what you’d expect. Directors expected the MLS for positions related to reference, instruction, and metadata services – the more traditional librarian functions. For positions in human resources, IT, fundraising and instructional technology, not so much. The other three panelists addressed the pros and cons of hiring non-MLS holders (as they were called) for librarian positions in libraries. My impression is that all three panelists supported the notion of hiring non-MLS holders under certain conditions, but that if a MLS librarian was available at the right price and with the right skill set an MLS holder is preferred. But in each of their libraries, it appeared that hiring non-MLS holders for librarian positions is an accepted practice.

The comments that followed the presentations revealed the strong, mixed emotions about this topic. It’s definitely a hot button issue, and I commend the organizers for providing their perspectives on why we’d want to hire non-MLS holders for some professional positions in our libraries – and those conditions that make it a challenge to fill an opening with an MLS librarian. Given the topic I was surprised by the light turnout. Perhaps the 8:00 am, Sunday morning time slot had an impact. One commenter mentioned that the “MLS attitude” is more about individuals than the profession, and that the “Yes I am superior to you” mentality, while unfortunate, isn’t limited to MLS holders. The dean from an LIS program shared his concerns that we think it’s fine to replace MLS holders with non-MLS holders, and articulated some excellent thinking points for what LIS grads can bring to libraries in tangible and intangible ways. But it was the comment from the public library board trustee that most concerned me.

The trustee shared a story about the current library director. Apparently this person has no MLS. She has worked at this library for 40 years in different positions (we have no idea what the size of the library is or where it’s located). “She’s doing a bang-up job as our director” was the comment. I take that to mean you can be a great non-MLS library director – or librarian – with many years of on-the-job training/experience regardless of your educational background. My response to a statement like this one – which I suppose is often thrown out to justify non-MLS librarians – especially in administrative positions – is “compared to what?” Perhaps this person does do a great job, but according to what standard? What does this director deliver? Maintaining the status quo for all those years? Doing whatever the trustees want? Making sure the community doesn’t complain by keeping it all the same and giving them whatever they want? Is that what constitutes “bang-up” results? In comparison to similar libraries with MLS directors, what has the non-MLS director actually accomplished? Perhaps more and even better things, but without some sense of the outcomes achieved doing a “bang-up job” means little and is hardly a rationale in support of non-MLS holders in librarian positions.

What are we to make of the “anyone with on-the-job experience can do the MLS holder’s job” proposition, especially when it’s being spread in public forums? We all know there are non-MLS folks who do their jobs well, just as we know there are MLS holders who should practice another profession. But it’s not about just doing a job well, being proficient or keeping the masses happy. We need MLS librarians because their specialized education and commitment to professional development is about more – or should be about more – than just maintaining the status quo and being good enough. As I said to the LIS dean afterwards, we need LIS programs to educate professionals who will challenge the status quo at their institutions, who will do the research that leads to new discoveries, and who will the explore the mysteries that lead to new knowledge and innovation. In essence they will do more than just get the job done. They are motivated to advance the science and practice of librarianship. They are inspired to keep their knowledge current with the state-of-the-art, but are constantly motivated to learn new skills. They debate the issues of the day among one another. For MLS holders, librarianship is more than just a job; it is a driving passion.

None of this is to suggest that we should be insistent that all professional positions in academic libraries require the MLS degree. We need to accept that our future will require a mix of skilled professionals. As was discussed at the program, it is accepted and sometimes preferred to have non-MLS colleagues for specialized positions in human resources, information technology, instructional design or the business office. In academic libraries specifically, non-MLS PhD holders may be best suited for some highly specialized collection or archival areas. I do believe that the MLS is the preferred degree for academic librarians. It is advantageous and often necessary for research support, education and strategic operations.

If we desire to establish the validity of the claim that communities best benefit by being served by MLS holders, then it is our responsibility to show that our careers result in concrete improvements, substantial advancement and benefits that would not otherwise be possible. That requires a commitment from all those who earn the MLS and the right to qualify for ALA-accredited positions in academic libraries to demonstrate, with humility and respect for colleagues from any and all educational backgrounds, that there is more to being a professional librarian than just meeting expectations and maintaining the status quo. It requires a passion for exceeding those expectations and constantly questioning what we do and how we do it – and in what ways could we make our libraries even better for our communities. When those inevitable comparisons between non-MLS and MLS holders in librarian positions are made, the rationale for and value of the MLS should be an easy case to make.