Monthly Archives: October 2012

Enabling the Research ‘Flow’ and Serendipity in Today’s Digital Library Environment

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Bohyun Kim, the Digital Access Librarian at Florida International University Medical Library. She blogs at Library Hat (http://bohyunkim.net/blog) and can be found at @bohyunkim (http://twitter.com/bohyunkim) in Twitter. She also writes regularly on ACRL TechConnect blog.

Today’s library users do not carry pencils and notebooks to a library. They no longer want to be isolated to concentrate on deep study or contemplative reading when they are at a library. Rather, they have the dire need to be connected to the biggest library the human race ever had, the World Wide Web, always and even more so when they are at a library walking through the forest of fascinating knowledge and information. The traditional library space packed with stacks and carrels does not serve today’s library users well whether they are scholars, students, or the public visiting a library for research, study, or leisure reading. As more and more library resources are moved to the fast and convenient realm of the World Wide Web, libraries have been focusing on re-defining the library space. Now, many libraries boast attractive space almost comparable to trendy, comfortable, and vibrant coffee shops. The goal of these new library spaces are fostering communication, the exchange of ideas, and social learning.

How the loss of book stacks and carrels affects library patrons

However, some library patrons complain about this new and hip research and reading environment that libraries are creating. They do not experience comfort and excitement, which today’s libraries strive to provide in their new coffee-shop-or-makerspace-like library space. These patrons rather miss the old dusty moldy stacks packed with books, many of which were left untouched except by a handful of people for a very long time. They miss the quiet and secluded carrels often placed right outside of the stacks. They say that browsing a library’s physical collection in those stacks led them to many serendipitous discoveries and that in those tiny uncomfortable carrels, they were completely absorbed into their own thoughts reading away a pile of books and journals undisturbed by the worldly hustle and bustle.

This is an all-too-familiar story. The fast and convenient e-resources in library websites and the digital library collections seem to deprive us of something significant and important, that is, the secluded and sacred space for thought and contemplation and the experience of serendipitous discovery from browsing physical library collections. However, how much of this is our romantic illusion and how much of it is it a real fact?

How much of this environment made our research more productive in reality?

What we really love about browsing book stacks at a library

In the closing keynote of 2012 ACCESS Conference last Sunday, Bess Sadler, the application development manager at Standford University Libraries noted the phenomenon that library patrons often describe the experience of using the physical library collection in emotional terms such as ‘joyous,’ ‘immersive,’ and ‘beautiful’ characteristic to our right brain whereas they use non-emotional terms such as ‘fast’ and ‘efficient’ to describe their use of a library’s online/digital resources. The open question that she posed in her keynote was how to bring back those emotional responses associated with a library’s physical collection to a library’s digital collection and its interface. Those terms such as ‘joyous,’ ‘immersive,’ and ‘beautiful’ are often associated in a library user’s mind with their experience of serendipitous discovery which took place while they were browsing a library’s physical book stacks. Sadler further linked the concept of serendipitous discovery with the concept of ‘flow’ by Csikszentmihalyi and asked the audience how libraries can create such state of flow with their digital collections by improving their interfaces.

One of the slides from Bess Sadler’s Closing Keynote

This was a very interesting question to me because I have been mostly thinking about the concept of flow in the context of library services (and more specifically, gamification applied to libraries) and the usability of the systems that serve a library’s online resources.

The most annoying thing about the e-resources that today’s libraries offer is that the systems where these resources reside do not smoothly fit into anyone’s research workflow. How can you get into a zone when the database you are in keeps popping up a message asking if you want to renew the session or demands two or three different authentications for access? How can you feel the sense of smooth flow of thought in your head when you have to navigate from one system to another with puzzling and unwieldy interfaces in order to achieve simple tasks such as importing a few references or finding the full-text of the citation you found in an e-book or an online journal you were reading?

Today’s research environment that libraries offers with its electronic resources is riddled with so many irritating usability failures (often represented by too many options none of whose functions are clear) that we can almost safely say that it is designed anything but for the ‘flow’ experience. The fact that these resources’ interfaces are designed by library system vendors and light years outdated compared to the interfaces available for individual consumers and that librarians have little or no control over them only exacerbate the problem. So I always associated the concept of flow with usability in the library context. And considering how un-user-friendly the research environment offered by today’s libraries is overall, asking for ‘joyous,’ ‘immersive,’ or ‘beautiful’ appeared to me to be a pretty tall order.

But more importantly, the obstacles to the ‘flow’ experience are not unique to online resources or digital libraries. Similar problems do exist in the physical collections as well. When I was a grad student, the largest library collection in North America was available to me. But I hated lugging back and forth a dozen periodicals and monographs between my apartment and the university just to get them renewed. (This was the time before the online renewal!) After the delightful moment of finding out in the online catalog that those rare scholarly books that I want are indeed available somewhere in that large library system at Harvard, I grumbled at the prospect of either navigating the claustrophobic rows and rows of stacks at Widener Library in order to locate those precious copies or running to a different library on campus that is at least a half mile away. At those times, the pleasure of browsing the dusty stacks or the joy of a potential serendipitous discovery was the last thing that I cared for. I was very much into my research and exactly for that reason, if I could, I would have gladly selected the delivery option of those books that I wanted to save time and get into my research flow as soon as possible. And I did so as soon as my university library started moving many books to an off-site storage and delivering them on-demand next day at a circulation desk. I know that many faculty at academic institutions strongly protest against moving a library’s physical collection to an off-site storage. But I confess that many times when the library catalog showed the book I wanted as located on the stacks and not at the off-site storage, I groaned instead of being delighted. I won’t even discuss what it was like to me to study in a library carrel. As an idea, it is a beautiful one to be immersed in research readings in a carrel; in reality, the chair is too hard, the space is too dark and claustrophobic, the air is stale, and the coffee supply is, well, banned near the stacks where those carrels are. Enough said.

The point I am trying to make is that we often romanticize our interaction with the physical stacks in a library. The fact that we all love the library stacks and carrels doesn’t necessarily mean that we love them for the reasons we cite. More often than not, what we really like and miss about the library stacks and carrels is not their actual practical utility to our research process but the ambiance. Strand, the used bookstore in NYC is famous for its 18 miles of books. Would you walk along the 18 miles of books even if you know in advance that you are not going to make any serendipitous discovery nor find nothing directly useful for your research topic at hand? Yes you bet. Would you walk by the stacks in Trinity College Library in Dublin, UK even though you are not doing anything related to research? A very few of us would say ‘No’ to such an invitation.

Can you resist walking between these stacks? Our desire doesn’t always correspond to its practical utility.

But the fact that library stacks and browsing them may contribute very little to the actual research output doesn’t mean that the stack-browsing is therefore not useful. To borrow the words of Saint-Exupéry, something is truly useful because it is beautiful (The Little Prince, Ch. 14). Let me explain.

The library book stacks as high as the walls filling up the whole floor generate the sense of awe and adventure in us because it gives us the experience of ‘physically’ surrounded by knowledge. It is magical and magnificent. It is amazing and beautiful. This is where all those emotional adjectives originate. In the library stacks, we get to ‘see’ the knowledge that is much bigger than us, taller than us, and wider than us. (Think of ‘the sublime’ in Kantian aesthetics.) When our sensory organs are engaged this way, we do not experience the boredom and tediousness that we usually feel when we scroll up and down a very long list of databases and journals on a library web page. We pause, we admire, and we look up and down. We are engrossed by the physicality of the stacks and the books on them. And suddenly all our attention is present and focused on that physicality. So much so that we even forget that we were there to find a certain book or to work on a certain research topic. It is often at these moments that we serendipitously stumble upon something relevant to what we were looking for but have forgotten to do so. Between the magnificent tall stacks filled with books, you are distracted from your original mission (of locating a particular book) but are immersed in this new setting at the same time. The silence, the high ceiling, the Gothic architectural style of an old library building, and the stacks that seems to go on forever in front of us. These are all elements that can be conducive to a serendipitous discovery but “if and only if” we allow ourselves to be influenced by them. On the other hand, if you are zooming in on a specific book, all of this visual magnificence could be a nuisance and a bother. To a scholar who can’t wait to read all of the readings after physically collecting them first, the collection process is a chore at best. To this person, neither a serendipitous discovery nor the state of ‘flow’ would be no doubt more difficult to happen in between the stacks.

If this is a relatively accurate description of a serendipitous discovery that we experience while browsing the physical collection on library book-stacks, what we really miss about the traditional library space may well be the physicality of its collection, the physical embodiment of the abstract concept of knowledge and information in abundance, and its effect on our mental state, which renders our mind more susceptible to a serendipitous discovery. And what we are most unhappy about the digital form of knowledge and information offered by today’s libraries could be that it is not presented in the space and environment where we can easily tune our mind into the content of such digital knowledge and information. It is the same Classical Greek text that you see when you pull out an old copy of Plato’s Meno in the narrow passage between tall book-stacks at Widener and when you pull up the text on your computer screen from the Perseus Digital Library. It is our state of mind influenced by the surroundings and environment that is different. That state of mind that we miss is not entirely dictated but heavily influenced by the environment we are present. We become different people at different places, as Alain de Botton says in his book, The Architecture of Happiness (Ch 1). Who can blame a library user when s/he finds it hard to transform a computer screen (which takes her to many digital collections and online resources from a library as well as all sorts of other places for entertainment and distraction) into the secluded and sacred space for thought and contemplation?

Using Perseus Digital Library is way more efficient for research and study the classical Greek texts than using the physical collection on your stacks. However, we still miss and need the experience of browsing the physical collection on the stacks.

How to facilitate the ‘flow’ and serendipity in today’s libraries

The fact that today’s libraries no longer control the physical surroundings of a library patron who is making use of their resources doesn’t mean that there are nothing libraries can do to make the research environment facilitate serendipitous discoveries and the state of ‘flow’ in a researcher’s mind, however. Today’s libraries offer many different systems for library users to access their online resources. As I have mentioned above, the interfaces of these systems can use some vast improvement in usability. When there are as few hindrances as possible for a library patron to get to what s/he is looking for either online or at the physical library space, s/he would be able to concentrate on absorbing the content more easily instead of being bogged down with procedures. The seamless interoperability between different systems would be very much desirable for researchers. So, improving the usability of library systems will take library patrons one step closer to obtaining the flow state in their research while using library resources online.

As far as the physical space of a library is concerned, libraries need to pay more attention to how the space and the environment of a library emotionally affects library patrons. Not all research and study is best performed by group-study or active discussion. Baylor University Libraries, for example, designate three different zones in their space: Silent, Quiet, and Active. While libraries transform more of their traditional stack-and-carrel space into vibrant group study rooms and conversation-welcoming open spaces, they also need to preserve the sense of the physical environment and surroundings for library patrons, because after all, all of us desire the feeling of being in a sacred and dedicated space for contemplation and deep thoughts from time to time. Such space is becoming rarer and rarer nowadays. Where else would people look for such space if not a library, which the public often equate to a building that embodies the vast amount of knowledge and resources in the physical form.

Facilitating the serendipitous discovery in browsing a library collection in the digital environment is more tricky because of the limitation of the current display mechanisms for digital information. In emulating the experience of browsing books in the physical form on a computer screen, the Google WebGL Bookcase has made some progress. But it would be much more efficient combined with a large display mechanism that allows a user to control and manipulate information and resources with gestures and bodily movements, perhaps something similar to what we have seen in the movie, Minority Report. However, note that information does not have to be bound in the form of books in the digital environment and that digital books do not have to be represented as a book with pages to thumb through and the spine where its title is shown . If we set aside the psychological factors that contribute to the occurrence of a serendipitous discovery, what is essential to efficient browsing boils down to how easily (i) we can scan through many different books (or information units such as a report or an article) quickly and effectively and (ii) zoom in/out and switch between the macro level (subjects, data types, databases, journals, etc) and the micro level (individual books, articles, photographs, etc. and their content). If libraries can succeed in designing and offering such interfaces for digital information consumption and manipulation, the serendipitous discovery and the efficient browsing in the digital library environment can not only match but even exceed that in the physical library book-stacks.

 

“Power Searching” with Google

Google, common “frenemy” of academic librarians everywhere, has put together a short online class called Power Searching. The course is designed to teach you how to find good, quality information more quickly and easily while searching Google.  When I first heard about this course, my first thought was “Ah, Google is stealing my job!” After I calmed down a bit, I read over the description for the course and decided to enroll. I wanted to check out our potential competition and I hoped I might be inspired by new ideas and tools to incorporate into my teaching.

The course is divided into six classes and each class is further broken down into short videos. Each class totals approximately 50 minutes of video content. Following each short video there is an optional opportunity to test the skills demonstrated by David Russel, Senior Research Assistant, through an activity or quiz. The course contains a pre, mid, and post class assessment.  After successfully passing both the mid and post class assessments, you receive an official certificate or completion. To supplement the concepts taught in the classes, Google search experts also offer forums and Google Hangouts. When I took the course, it lasted about two weeks and a new class was released every three days or so. The classes could be completed any time prior to the specific due date.

The classes themselves definitely hit on topics that we usually cover in our library workshops, such as choosing good keywords and thinking critically about the source of the information. But for the most most part, it was about more about clicking this and then clicking that…similar to a typical electronic resource demonstration.  I did get bored a few times and skipped some of the activities. Also, I never had the motivation or desire to participate in any of the forums or Hangouts, but that was mainly due to my busy schedule. Despite all of this, I’m not too proud to admit that I also learned a few things–specifically on how to specific operators and how to do an image search.

So, is Google stealing our jobs? No. (At least not right now.) What academic librarians do that Google cannot is work with researchers on the gray, messy stuff like choosing a research topic, determining what types of info are needed, and figuring out the best way to use information. If more first-year and non-traditional students took the initiative to enroll in Google’s Power Searching class, I think it would help me as a librarian to focus more on those gray areas and less on the logistics of doing a simple search. While from a pedagogical stand point I didn’t have any “Aha!” moments, I may incorporate some of their search examples into my future library sessions.

I think it would be awesome of Google collaborated with a college or university library and did this same type of class for effectively using Google Scholar for research. (If you’re reading this, Google–I’m available!)

Have any other librarians taken Google’s Power Searching class? I’d love to hear what you think of the course and its content.

The Transition

Please welcome our new First Year Academic Librarian Experience blogger Rebecca Halpern, Reference and Instruction Librarian at Antioch University Los Angeles.

I very recently began my position as a reference and instruction librarian (though all opinions herein are entirely my own). Our library is teeny-tiny and I’m part of only a two-person librarian team. The position brings a lot of challenges and opportunities which I’m looking forward to sharing here, but lately I’ve struggled with something unique to being a first year librarian, something no one had really prepared me for, something that should have been obvious: not being a student any longer.

Like a lot of my colleagues, I really enjoyed school. I loathed snow days, felt cheated when my teachers showed movies, and always finished my homework early. Is nerd the right word to describe me? I think I prefer academically-minded. I went straight to the University of Michigan after high school and took only a year off between undergrad and enrolling in my MSIS program at the University of Texas. For the past 25 years, I’ve identified as a student and had come to really appreciate the lifestyle studenthood brought. Like many of my classmates, I worked, had internships, presented at conferences, and took a full class load. My weekends were hardly restful; indeed, I used weekends to catch up on projects and pick up work hours. I often went weeks at a time without having a “day off.” Crazy as it may seem in hindsight, I liked being extraordinarily busy, filling my free time with homework and volunteering and internships.

Though I’m sure my boyfriend and family appreciate that I now have a regular 5-day schedule, I’m finding it difficult to feel fulfilled with my weekends. Two-plus decades of being a full-time student kind of interfered with my development of non-academic hobbies. I find myself pacing around my apartment at times, not sure what to do with myself. Sure, I like to read and exercise with my dog and spend time with loved ones, but no longer living my life at a breakneck pace feels kind of…dull. I’m still looking for ways to fill my time that feel as satisfying as finishing off a collaborative school project. Transitioning out of student life has meant, for me, that I get to explore new interests and develop new skills. But in the meantime, that transition has been slow, frustrating–and dare I say–scary.

It seems kind of silly to complain about free time, doesn’t it? When I thought about joining the FYALE blogging team, I was excited to start writing for a blog again. And the first year of any job, let alone an academic librarian job, is sure to bring a certain amount of adventure. Blogging creates communities and professional communities are very important to me. But for this first post, I wanted to go off-the-beaten track just a bit and remind myself (and all of you) that we have lives outside of our professional roles–and indeed, part of being a first year librarian is finessing how to balance our professional selves with the rest of us. We all had to balance the professional and the personal in grad school to be sure, but at least for me, I found those two worlds to be blissfully intertwined. Now that I have non-librarian friends who want to do non-library school activities, that balance is a bit harder to achieve.

What has been the biggest surprise for you since leaving grad school and joining the professional world? How have you handled your own transition? Share your story with me in comments or on Twitter, @beccakatharine.

Making Things in Academic Libraries

The past few months have seen lots of discussion about makerspaces in libraries. What’s a makerspace? Buffy Hamilton’s great post over at the Unquiet Librarian has a couple of good definitions, but essentially it’s a place for folks to make things, perhaps writing and illustrating a zine, using the open source Arduino computing platform to program a robot, screenprinting, or creating model houses with a 3D printer. Makerspaces often include tools and equipment that are too expensive or specialized for most people to have in their homes, as well as provide a gathering place for like-minded hobbyists to create and collaborate.

Makerspaces seem like a great fit for public libraries, which often run programs designed to teach new skills and to create something, like an arts and crafts hour for kids. And indeed, some public libraries are experimenting with makerspaces, including Fayetteville Free Library in New York, Westport Public Library in Connecticut, and Cleveland Public Library in Ohio.

What could a makerspace look like in an academic library? What do we help our patrons make? We have computer labs, some more specialized and high-end than others, and we could add equipment like 3D printers. Of course, not every library will have the funding and staff to create tech-centered makerspaces. And faculty and departments may already have that equipment for students to use, especially those in engineering, computer science, and other technical majors.

For those colleges or universities that can’t create a physical makerspace, what are some other ways we can encourage the maker ethos in our libraries? When it comes to instruction and information literacy, I’ve definitely got a some ideas about how to make things with students in a semester-length course. We could produce a student journal or create a zine, and I have a colleague who asks students to create their own citation style. But I’m struggling with the idea of the one-shot instruction session as makerspace. What can students “make” in a one-shot? If we give them a worksheet to fill in or ask them to come away from the session with a specific number of sources to use for their assignment, have they made something?

Perhaps applying the makerspace concept to library instruction and information literacy really means expanding our own understanding of what we do when we work with students. We’re not just teaching them to find information — when we help them zero in on a source that really fits their needs, we’re supporting them as they make: make new knowledge for themselves, construct the outline for their assignment, build their ideas into an argument.

All the same, I’m interested to think about how we as academic librarians can take the concept of libraries as makerspaces even further, especially with students. We need to find ways to support creating, not just finding. The Student as Producer project at the University of Lincoln in the UK is an interesting model to consider. Undergraduates are deeply involved in research across the curriculum, and thus come to their college studies to actually create knowledge rather than passively consume it. Again, this is something that perhaps comes more easily to faculty teaching semester-length courses or doing lab research with their students.

How can academic librarians, our contact with students often limited to a few minutes at the Reference Desk or an hour or so in the classroom, become involved at the making, producer level with students?

First Day Reflections

Please welcome our new First Year Academic Librarian Experience blogger Kim Miller, Research and Instruction Librarian for Emerging Technologies at Towson University.

This fall, as new-student orientation and move-in wrapped up, the campus at my new institution was noticeably abuzz with the promise of a new start – a new semester, new students, and new faculty. As a life-long academic, there’s something about this time of year – those first few days of a new school year, as the weather turns and the leaves begin to change – that always makes me feel like anything is… possible.

Earlier this summer, I also started my first job as a newly minted, “real” academic librarian. That day, although I had just completed the rigorous academic interview and hiring process, not to mention moved myself and my family 600 miles to our new home, I felt more like “the new kid” in school than a recently hired professional.

The night before my first day, I tossed and turned, anxiously awaiting the moment my alarm would ring, telling me it was time to begin my day. As I showered, got dressed, and ate my breakfast, I worried about basic things the other kids librarians probably already knew – like where to park my bike car, which door to go in, where the “cool kids” other staff members eat lunch, and when the final bell rings everyone leaves for the day. As I drove my new 45 minute commute, carefully following the directions printed out the night before, I excitedly wondered if today, the pinnacle towards which I had been striving, would be all that I hoped it would be. And luckily, it was. That evening, about eight-and-a-half hours after I first walked over the library’s threshold, I drove home excited by all of the… possibilities.

As I now welcome new students to our campus, I find myself reflecting on my own first day. And just like being the “new kid” at school, I think there are a few basic tips for the new academic librarian:

  • Use the buddy system… and find a mentor. New places are instantly more welcoming if you explore them with someone else. Two extremely useful types of people are: other recent hires (if available), and more experienced librarian mentors. If librarians at your college or university are on the tenure or permanent status track, your “cohort” of newly hired librarians will become the people you “grow up” with throughout your career. They are likely as eager as you to begin researching, presenting, and publishing, probably with YOU. And some day, you’ll be each others support as you complete the dreaded promotion “dossier.”  Equally important are the “lifer” librarians – not just the people who’ve worked at the institution for a long time, but those who are integrated into the “why” and “how” of the library. They know the history, they’ve experienced successes and failures, and since they probably had a hand in hiring you, they are invested in your success. Having a hard time identifying a mentor at your own institution?  Look into the national organization’s mentorship programs to find one.
  • Raise your hand… and ask a lot of questions. Every library works differently – they have different policies, different philosophies, different users, and different cultures. No matter how long you’ve worked in libraries or how much research you do about your new library beforehand, there are some things you simply can’t learn until you experience and question them. Simple things like, “Where’s the printer paper?” to more complex, cultural questions like, “Am I allowed to post to my liaison department’s email list?” will require answers. You won’t know until you ask.
  • Join a club… or as academic librarians like to call them “professional organizations” and “committees.” Our profession is all about making connections. Professional organizations and committees are one of the best ways to connect with other librarians in your community. We are all too busy, too underfunded, and have too many interests to work solely by ourselves or even within our own institution. Finding like-minded professionals to learn from and collaborate with, forming our own “personal learning network,” helps us develop our professional identities while collaborating with other people who are interested in asking the same questions and solving the same problems we face daily. And if you’re not physically near a pocket of professionals, social media outlets are making it increasingly possible to develop and maintain your PLN from a distance.
  • Walk like a duck… so pretty soon, you’ll feel like a duck. It’s not uncommon for brand new professionals to feel something like an “imposter.” Although we have worked hard to finish our degrees, made it through (sometimes numerous) professional interviews, and celebrated our accomplishments with family and friends, we are also faced with severe self-doubt. Given a real position of authority, we’re afraid we’ll be exposed as a fraud – that somehow we’re clever magicians who’ve fooled the world into thinking we know anything about… well, anything. In these instances, the best thing for us to do is “fake it ’till you make it.” That is, after a while, that fear and self-doubt will be transformed into the confidence needed to accept success and bounce back from failures.
  • Enjoy “recess” and obey your bedtime… you’ll need the downtime. The excitement of starting a new career makes it easy to dive into your work so enthusiastically that you forget about everything else. But to be our best at work, we need to respect the work-life balance and make sure to take care of ourselves in the process. People sometimes scoff when I insist on enforcing my own bedtime, but getting rest is essential for top-quality everyday functioning. Lack of sleep makes it harder for us to focus, remember, and learn new skills, making us less effective workers. Sleep deprivation also makes us sick, increasing the likelihood we miss work, adding to our own stress. Respect your body and it will serve you well.

Although there is no one-size-fits-all formula to surviving your first few days as an academic librarian, I hope we are all filled with the sense of possibilities the new beginning brings.

Did you start a new job recently? What are your tips and tricks for thriving in the first few months as a new librarian?

Image by Vipal