Monthly Archives: January 2013

“In-house Document Request”

One of the first duties I inherited in my new job was becoming the campus key contact for SciFinder. SciFinder is, at least here, the favored chemical search database of the students and faculty.  Like many databases, SciFinder has an assist to get to the full-text, in this case CAS Full-Text Options – a collaboration between CAS and various publishers. Among the various methods of connecting users to full-text is integration of the catalog, external links to patent websites, links to publisher websites and, if desired, “In-house Document Request”.

The user sees the link “In-house Document Request” and there is no indication of what it is or how it works. But when they click through, it shows my email address, has a form to send a message and then the citation for the troublesome article, patent, what have you. I get an email notification and then I try to help the person out.

When I gained this responsibility I also started recording the requests and my responses. I picked up this data collecting habit in my lab manager job because I found it always useful at work to argue about data and numbers instead of feelings and impressions. In any case, since July 10th I’ve had 130 In-house Document Requests and I broke down the responses into four broad categories: interlibrary loan request, physically on the shelf, part of the e-subscriptions, or available free online. There were also some requests I didn’t answer; usually because the article was in a foreign language and when I asked the user whether they really want an article in Kazakh the answer is typically “no”.

I’m about to give you the percentages, but remember that there is no user instruction on what “In-house Document Request” is, how it works, or when it should be used. So here are the numbers:

  • Required interlibrary loan request – 36.9%
  • Available in print in the library – 22.3%
  • Available through our e-subscriptions – 9.2%
  • Available free online – 23.9%
  • No response – 7.7%

Before talking about what I learned, let me curtail some hand wringing about the state of information literacy in America. The “available free online” category consists overwhelmingly of patent requests, often untranslated foreign patents. Even with detailed instruction, Espacenet or the Japanese Patent Office can be daunting the first few times you visit.

Also, SciFinder only reports the first appearance of an article. So a citation from Vysokomolekulyarnye Soedineniya can usually be filled with the English translation in Polymer Science U.S.S.R. a few months later – which is “available through our e-subscriptions”. So, the kids are still all right and civilization isn’t doomed.

Some lessons learned – I should do some outreach and learn more about patent searching. A lot of students just don’t know what to do with those references. I’ve also learned to use these email contacts are an avenue for liaison work. Email is main way I am contacted and the SciFinder requests have led to a couple students coming in for pointers. I learned users interpret this option in wildly divergent ways – and since there’s no guidance, who can blame them? One user requested every single reference this way until I informed them that I expected them to at least look before contacting me (there is a story behind that policy, but moving on…). Some students hope I will conjure a digital copy for them so they don’t have to come in, or just don’t check anything beyond the e-journal collection. So the abstract concern that some users don’t consider the physical collection as real has become concrete for me. But most often the requests have some element of trickiness to them, show me broken links, or cataloging mistakes. Overall, I’ve learned to enjoy these requests as little puzzles and pleasant detours from the routine.

The Library is Open

For the past couple of years I’ve been wearing two main hats at my job: one as an information literacy librarian and the other as a lead on a collegewide pedagogical grant. I’ve had several opportunities to connect the two, which I think strengthens both my library and my grant work. This year the connection I’m working on most actively is between the library and a new digital platform that’s been developed via the grant: the City Tech OpenLab.

The OpenLab is a website that faculty and students can use in their work on courses, but it’s much more than a learning management system. The website also provides spaces for projects and clubs to collaborate and promote their work; it hosts our student eportfolios, too. As a commuter college we’re hopeful that the OpenLab will help strengthen the City Tech community by providing our students, faculty, and staff with a virtual space to connect and collaborate.

We built the OpenLab using the open source applications WordPress (blogging/sitebuilding software) and BuddyPress (social networking software), much like successful efforts at our university and others, including the CUNY Academic Commons and Blogs@Baruch, as well as the University of Mary Washington’s UMWBlogs. All of these platforms share a commitment to openness that’s missing in most conventional learning management systems (like Blackboard) and even open source systems like Moodle and Sakai: the ability for users to make their work publicly visible and to share it with the entire university and beyond.

Academic librarians have been successfully working with learning management systems for years now, and there are lots of articles, blog posts, and other sources to consult for ideas and strategies about how best to collaborate with faculty and connect with students as embedded librarians in these platforms. At City Tech our librarians do a bit of embedding in Blackboard, the LMS that our university uses, too. But the OpenLab is different: it’s not just for coursework, and the tools available on the platform — discussion boards, blogs, collaborative documents, and file storage — are available to any member, project, or club.

It definitely makes sense for the library to be involved in the OpenLab, and my colleagues and I have been grappling with the question of how our presence on the platform can complement and augment the other ways the library uses to reach students and faculty. It would be great to use an OpenLab space to answer questions from library users, to point them to resources and services, to share news, and to highlight librarian profiles. But we already have a library website, which includes one page for each of our library faculty, as well as a library news blog.

We might need to be careful about duplicating our efforts excessively in the two spaces. Will patrons be confused if some library content is available on the OpenLab and other just on the library website? We can presumably use RSS feeds to bring content over to the OpenLab from our blog, so we won’t need to reproduce that content in two places. And we don’t have an interactive area for patrons to ask questions on our website, just a suggestion form and email address, so it’ll be interesting to see if we can attract Q&A in a more synchronous way from students and faculty on the OpenLab.

We’re actively brainstorming other ways to take advantage of the opportunities that the OpenLab offers, and I’m eager to begin experimenting in this new pedagogical space. Have other academic libraries worked with students or faculty on open educational platforms? I’d be interested to hear about your experiences if so!

Not as simple as “click-by-click”

One of the projects I inherited as emerging technologies librarian is managing our library’s collection of “help guides.” The online learning objects in this collection are designed to provide asynchronous guidance to students when completing research-related tasks. Over the last few months, my focus has been on updating existing guides to reflect website and database interface changes, as well ensuring compliance with federal accessibility standards. With those updates nearly complete, the next order of business is to work with our committee of research and instruction librarians to create new content. The most requested guide at the top of our list? How to use the library’s discovery service rolled out during the Fall 2012 semester.

Like many other libraries, we hope the discovery service will allow users to find more materials across the library’s collections and beyond. Previously, our library’s website featured a “Books” search box to search the catalog, as well as an “Articles” search box to search one of our interdisciplinary databases. To ease the transition to the discovery system, we opted to keep the “Books” and “Articles” search boxes, in addition to adding the “one search box to rule them all”; however, these format search boxes now search the discovery tool using the appropriate document type tag. Without going into the nitty gritty details, this method has created certain “quirks” in the system that can lead sub-optimal search results.

This back-story leads to my current question about creating instructional guides for our discovery system – how do we design screencasts to demonstrate simple searches by format?

So far, this has boiled down to two options:

  1. Address the way students are most likely to interact with our system. We know users are drawn to cues with high information scent to help them find what they need; if I’m looking for a book, I’m more likely to be drawn to anything explicitly labeled “Books.” We also know students “satisfice” when completing research tasks, and many are unfortunately unlikely to care if their searches do not retrieve all possible results. Additionally, whatever we put front-and-center on our homepage is, I think, a decision we need to support within our instructional objects.
  2. Provide instruction demonstrating the way the discovery system was designed to be used. If we know our system is set up in a less-than-optimal way, it’s better to steer students away from the more tempting path. In this case, searching the discovery system as a whole and demonstrating how to use the “Format” limiters to find a specific types of materials. While this option requires ignoring the additional search options on our website, it will also allow us to eventually phase out the “Books” and “Articles” search boxes on the website without significant updates to our screencasts.

While debating these options with my colleagues, it’s been interesting to consider how this decision reflects the complexities of creating  standalone digital learning objects. The challenge is that these materials are often designed without necessarily knowing how, when, or why they will be used; our job is to create objects that meet students at a variety of point-of-need moments. Given that objects like screencasts should be kept short and to-the-point, it’s also difficult to add context that explains why the viewer should complete activities as-shown. And library instruction are not usually designed to make our students “mini-librarians.” Our advanced training and interest in information systems means it is our job to be the experts, but our students to not necessarily need to obtain this same level of knowledge to be successful information consumers and creators.

Does this mean we also engage in a bit of “satisficing” to create instructional guides that are “good enough” but not, perhaps, what we know to be “best?” Or do we provide just enough context to help students follow us as we guide them click-by-click from point A to point B, while lacking the complete “big picture” required to understand why this is the best path? Do either of these options fulfill our goals toward helping students develop their own critical information skills?

No instruction interaction is ever perfect. In person or online, synchronous or asynchronous, we’re always making compromises to balance idealism with reality. And in the case of creating and managing a large collection of online learning objects, it’s been interesting to have conversations which demonstrate why good digital learning objects are not synonymous with “click-by-click” instructions. How do we extend what we know about good pedagogy to create better online learning guides?

 

Building a Pedagogy

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about pedagogy. To tell you the truth, throughout graduate school I thought very infrequently about pedagogy, assuming that even as an instruction librarian, something as theoretical as pedagogy would be outside of my professional bounds. Though the instruction course offered at my university did touch on the aspects of designing an information literacy curriculum, it was a far cry from being a course in pedagogy. In fact, as librarians, we often become so overworked in our day-to-day tasks of making sure our resources and services are accessible, we can forget that first and foremost, we are educators. And like any highly skilled educators, having a strong grounding in pedagogy is essential to our job.

Pedagogy is, simply, the art of education. It is how we teach, how we connect students to the curriculum, and how we position students to be learners. Pedagogy is the beating heart of the teaching professions. I come from a strong social science background, particularly one poised to challenge and investigate systems of the status quo. I spent all of my undergraduate years studying the prison industrial complex from a gender perspective and my favorite courses in library school were on the politics of classification and knowledge production. Not surprisingly, then, I tend to frame my own librarian practice within a framework of social progress and have only recently begun to consider how to use this framework in library instruction. Yes, I want my students to be skilled in information seeking, but I also want them to be willing and able to think critically about information and the politics through which it’s produced. I take my pedagogy cues from the likes of Freire, hooks, Zinn – in other words, I want my students to be rabble rousers.

I am extremely lucky to be part of an institution with which I share these strong social convictions. My university’s commitment to social justice and radical learning is at the core of all it does, including its library instruction. I, along with the library director, have recently begun developing a comprehensive information literacy curriculum for the library. How can we reframe the ACRL Information Literacy Standards to a more critical perspective? We always have and will continue to have the one-shot in-class library workshops, but we are starting to strategically envision what skills and concepts we want to consistently deliver. In addition to the traditional keyword-forming, full-text finding skills, how can we give students the skills to think critically about the information they both find and can’t find? How can I open the discussion about the problematic nature of academic publishing? Where is the room for this agenda? It’s a lot to fit in the 50-minute one-shot.

I am in no way the first person to think about this. Many, many books have been published on this topic and continue to be published. And, indeed, many of the student-centered, critical strategies involve very few bells and whistles. A few ideas that have left me inspired:

  • include critical reading skills in every workshop. As simple as that! It is as important as knowing how to properly cite a resource or construct a search term.
  • Have students search for articles on a purposefully controversial topic, like the link between autism and vaccines. Have them note what information is in the peer-reviewed literature, what stance it tends to take, the methodologies it tends to employ, and where alternatives may exist.
  • Show students how to find and use open-access journals and repositories. The few times I’ve done this, I’ve vetted these sources to ensure they are of high quality and repute (and explain that I’ve done so, using which criteria).
  • Change the way I organize my lessons. Instead of PowerPoints, I try to structure the lesson according to student suggestions and examples.
  • Leave the more traditional information literacy skills to Lib Guides and other digital learning objects. I’d rather spend my precious face-to-face time on the more nuanced aspects of information seeking and point them to videos and other online resources to do the more mundane tasks, like how to find full-text.

Where do you draw your pedagogical inspiration? Does your library have an comprehensive information literacy curriculum? Share your thoughts, resources, and inspirations in the comments section, or tweet me @beccakatharine.

A Librarian at the MLA

I recently attended the Modern Language Association’s annual convention. The theme of the conference, “Avenues of Access,” encouraged reflection on how scholars, students, and publics access the humanities within institutions and on their margins. What does access mean for students when many American universities are eliminating humanities departments and programs? What does access mean for scholars when, according to the MLA’s own statistics, only about half of all doctorates in languages and literatures ever receive tenure-track positions?

As librarians, we might think of “Avenues of Access” in a different way – libraries are the central physical and digital avenues of access to the humanities on many campuses. How can attending MLA and other disciplinary conferences help us do our jobs better as librarians? Among the panels I attended, three stood out in offering ideas.

The roundtable “Theories and Practices of the Literary Lab” (abstracts) brought together six panelists discussing literary labs as campus centers for research, teaching, and discussion. Literary labs are spaces for distant (as opposed to close) reading, quantitative textual research, and collaborative projects open to experimentation and failure. As one panelist argued, book history and bibliography are often missing from the conversation (there were no librarians on the panel). How can librarians use our expertise to enhance literary lab scholarship? When I asked the group this question, the general consensus was just as faculty culture had to change to accept and nurture new kinds of literary research, library culture had to change – in particular, to be less proprietary about data – in order to participate.

The session “How Many Copies Is Enough? Libraries and Shared Monograph Archives,” arranged by the MLA’s Discussion Group on Libraries and Research in Language and Literature, asked “As libraries rely increasingly on digitized texts and on partnerships for archiving print volumes, how do libraries and scholars cooperate to ensure preservation of copies with artifactual value for scholarly purposes?” (abstracts and bibliography) Some questions from the discussion: How do consortial agreements about legacy collections affect bibliographers’ decision-making about current acquisitions? How can we add value to catalog records to identify print copies with artifactual value? How do we adapt the serendipity of browsing in the stacks to browsing in the digital environment? What criteria do we use to define “unique” in terms of a print copy? (A sidebar: We learned at this session that the MLA is revisiting the 1995 Statement on the Significance of Primary Records and the subsequent 1999 report Preserving Research Collections: A Collaboration Between Librarians and Scholars.)

My favorite session, overall, convened by the MLA’s president, Michael Bérubé, was “Avenues of Access: Digital Humanities and the Future of Scholarly Communication.” Inspired by the advent of MLACommons, a new social media platform for members, Matthew Kirschenbaum performed an archeology of his own digital presence, excavating material from Usenet, listservs, and early 1990s websites (complete with flashing graphics on the Geocities platform). He made three assertions about access. Access engenders power, he argued, in patterns of contact acceptance in social media platforms that parallel in-person networks in scholarly institutions like the MLA. Access entails risk: as a doctoral student, he posted drafts of his dissertation on his website, writing in the agora, hiding his ideas, like Poe’s purloined letter, in plain sight. And access requires time: we might envision a future where tenure and promotion are based on “cycles of attention” – the “likes” and retweets that make up the bibliometrics of social media. On the same panel, Bethany Nowviskie used William Morris’s statement that “you can’t have art without resistance in the materials” to make a case for the productive resistance on the margins of the profession. Those in adjunct positions and the alternative-academic movement, as well as librarians and technologists, are the translators and intermediaries, the generators of ideas and pedagogy in the digital humanities. By being generalists – jacks of all trades and masters of none – we enable the work of specialists and ensure access to scholarly communication for all.

One final note – as at most professional conferences, the MLA’s Twitter backchannel was a rich resource for commentary and discussion. Check it out at #mla13, and see my own comments at @laurabrarian