Across Divides: Librarian as Translator

Editor’s Note: We welcome Jennifer Jarson to the ACRLog team. Jennifer is the Information Literacy and Assessment Librarian and Social Sciences Subject Specialist at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, PA. Her research interests include information literacy and student learning pedagogy and assessment, as well as issues regarding communication, collaboration, and leadership.

A few weeks ago, I facilitated a few discussion sessions with faculty at my institution who had participated in a recent information literacy study.  Together, we reviewed and interpreted some of the more significant themes of the study’s findings.  We discussed, for example, evidence of students’ competencies and sites of their struggles, our teaching and learning goals and the gaps between our goals and our realities, and so on.  As we identified areas of students’ disconnects, some faculty began to identify a disconnect of their own.  We need help, they said, to better understand conventions and ways of knowing outside our own disciplines.  We recognize that disciplines view and value source types differently, for example, or cite differently, but we don’t know how and why.  As the discussion continued, faculty described wanting to better understand the perspectives that students from different disciplinary backgrounds are bringing to their classes.  In core courses within their departments, faculty described comfort with their own disciplinary traditions, of course, traditions in which their students are becoming knowledgeable or are already well-versed.  Yet, in the increasingly interdisciplinary areas of our evolving liberal arts curriculum — first year seminars and cluster courses, to name a few — faculty described feeling a little more at sea.  So deeply steeped in their own disciplinary traditions, they asked for a little help interpreting other disciplines’ points of view and the varying research approaches through which students might be passing on the way to their classes.

This request — for librarian to operate as translator — is not unfamiliar territory.  We librarians frequently work as translators, as interpreters.  In fact, it seems rather like our home turf.  Facility with different ways of knowing and organization is our wheelhouse. Decoding those schema and perspectives for our different user groups is a language in which we’re fluent.  We interpret our users’ needs when we engage in a reference interview.  We translate their needs into search strategies to best fit database structures or into relevant subject headings in a catalog.  We interpret for students an assignment’s purpose or their professors’ expectations.  We interpret for faculty points of research/information literacy confusion and difficulty commonly experienced by students.  We decipher for users the elements of citations and clarify their means of access.  The librarian-as-interpreter (or perhaps we should say negotiator?) paradigm holds in navigating relationships between faculty and student, faculty and faculty, discipline and discipline, and information resource and user.  It’s in my sphere of public services that I’ve given this topic most thought, but the librarian-as-translator trope doesn’t end there.  The parallel surely continues in cataloging, systems, web design, and beyond.

So what is it about librarians that situates us in this role?  And serves us well in it?  It’s the nature of our work itself, no doubt.  By working with our users, we see through their eyes.  It’s the philosophies and values at our profession’s core (Ranganathan, anyone?), however debated our philosophies might be.  With deep respect for our users and our resources alike, we aim to bridge the gaps between them.  It’s the nature of our location, at the intersections of so many points in our information ecologies and our campus landscapes.

Access to these points — these viewpoints, these skill sets — is not something to take lightly or ignore.  Our unique position affords us opportunities to reach across divides of perspectives, stakeholders, and disciplines.  At the same time, we must take care to evaluate our neutrality in such a position; we must recognize the role we play and our responsibilities in these acts of translation.  With an ear tuned accordingly, we can bring a diversity of voices to our varied campus tables.

What are you hearing?  For whom and how are you interpreting?  I would love to discuss your thoughts in the comments…

Apply Yourself

I have been thinking about the hiring process lately. Partly because I’ve so recently managed to get myself hired at the University of North Texas. I am also serving on a search committee for an open position here at UNT and so have spent some time reviewing applications, cover letters and curricula vitae. Finally, it’s on my mind because quite a few people I know were searching for jobs this year and I served as a reference (and occasional resume proofreader) for several former colleagues. And since the hiring process is on my mind that is is the topic I decided to write about today. In a future post it is very likely that I will be writing about the culmination of a successful application process – the dreaded and intense academic interview. But I will save that for another month.

Throughout my career I have had quite a bit of experience with hiring and so have spent a lots of hours reviewing resumes and applications. I’ve seen the difference between the application processes in corporate settings, secondary schools and now a university. While obviously the process varies it has been interesting to see that there are common mistakes made by applicants in each field. So here is some unsolicited but, I believe, critical advice for anyone looking to get hired into an academic library. It is a great field to get hired into, by the way, and I highly recommend it!

1. Update your Resume
Of course, if you are applying for academic positions your probably have a curriculum vitae instead of a resume but many institutions will accept either and resume is more generic so I’m going with that. Anyway, it seems that some people feel as though a standard one-size-fits-all resume is sufficient — but each position you apply for is different so you should highlight different skill sets and/or experience. If you are applying for a Reference & Instruction position highlight the time you spent staffing the desk during grad school. If you are applying for a position as the Electronic Resources Librarian highlight any experience you have working with vendors or maintaining a website. If you are applying at a non-tenure track institution you might only mention a few key past publications and presentations; for a tenure-track position you might go into more detail. It is unlikely that you have to create a totally new resume. Simply tweak the content so that it corresponds to each specific position you apply for and, obviously, make sure everything is up-to-date and includes your most recent work

2. Write a Cover Letter
Let me emphasize: write a cover letter. Don’t change the heading on a generic letter that you wrote during your final semester of grad school. Go further than simply changing the last paragraph to include a mention of the institution to which you are applying. In my opinion, originality in this portion of your application is even more important than the reworking you do to your resume. Use your cover letter as an opportunity to show that you understand the position you are applying for and that you are interested not just in any old job but in that job specifically. What drove you to apply for this position? Even more broadly, what drove you to become a librarian (hint: not the salary!)? Also use your cover letter to express what makes you an excellent candidate. Don’t be boring and restate your resume; look at the job posting to see what qualifications they are looking for and then write a paragraph or two stating the ways in which you fulfill those specific qualifications. Now just make sure to keep things brief and your cover letter will be golden!

3. Read the Instructions
Seriously, read the instructions. Then, once you have read them – read them again. If you have a hard time focusing on details and following nitpicky online instructions then get somebody else to read them out loud to you. It is truly amazing how many people miss what should be obvious when they are completing a resume. Are you supposed to list three professional and two personal references? Don’t provide contact information for your five favorite cousins. Are you being asked to provide a philosophical statement related to the job you are applying for? Don’t upload a copy of your transcripts. These are just a couple of the mistakes I’ve seen and it is certainly not just academic librarians making them – this kind of oversight was common in both the corporate and the secondary school environments. Missing a detail or two when completing an online application is an easy mistake to make. Luckily, if you are careful, it is also an easy mistake to avoid.

4. Follow Your Own Advice
Proofread! You are a librarian so I know that you know the power of careful editing. Chances are that you have provided some sort of proofreading advice or assistance to library users. So why do so many resumes contain misspelled words, run-on sentences, inconsistent verb tense and other errors that running a quick check in your document software should catch? In addition, check your formatting. Wouldn’t it be sad to know that your resume was set aside simply because you randomly and accidentally switched font sizes several times? One of the things that has become apparent to me over the years is that organizations miss out on interviewing – and potentially hiring – some great people simply because those candidates didn’t take the time to proofread. If you are seriously interested in a position take the time to check, double check, and then have someone else check your work.

5. Be Positive…
…but be honest. You might be the most amazing librarian on the planet, universally admired and highly successful but if you don’t market yourself that way in your application it won’t help you get a job. Not including as many of your excellent qualifications as you can fit in a resume is another easy-to-make mistake that might get your resume shuffled to the bottom of the pile. Even worse than being ignored for not tooting your own horn loudly enough, however, is dishonesty. Just don’t do it. In one job that I had in the past we flew in a candidate for an all-day interview – during which it became obvious that this candidate was totally unqualified and that their resume greatly exaggerated both their knowledge of and experience in the field. What a huge waste of time and money that was! A typical interview at a university is a grueling, one-or-even-two day process. If your reality doesn’t match your resume it will become evident and how embarrassing is that?!

Here at UNT we use a rubric to judge applications so that the process is as objective as possible. It would be really interesting to go back over my own applications from the past decade with a rubric to see how well I measure up to my own standards. I know for sure that I have made several of the mistakes mentioned in this post. I guess the best thing about being able to participate in hiring others is that it has helped me become a better applicant myself.

Like a Real Library?

I’m a regular reader of Matt Reed’s Confessions of a Community College Dean blog over at Inside Higher Ed, and last week he published a post that has had me thinking ever since. His post “Like a Real College” reflects on the experiences that hybrid and online learning in colleges and universities sometimes leave behind, like graduation ceremonies and in-person social interactions. Reed notes:

I’m consistently struck at the resonance that some of those traditional trappings have for non-traditional students. They may need scheduling flexibility and appreciate accelerated times to degree, but they still want to feel like they’ve attended a “real college.” I’ve heard those words enough times that I can’t write them off as flukes anymore.

How does this translate to academic libraries? Lots of recent research has shown that many students appreciate what we think of as a traditional library atmosphere for doing their academic work: book stacks, good lighting, table and carrel desk seating, and quiet (see Antell and Engel, Applegate [paywall], and Jackson and Hahn, to name just a few). My research partner Mariana Regalado and I heard similar preferences from the students we spoke to in our research, several of whom also specifically mentioned their admiration for the the very formal, serious library at one CUNY college. To me this suggests that our library space planning and renovations need to balance collections and study space, and acknowledge the importance of books and other physical academic materials for environmental as well as informational reasons.

But what about online learning or competency based degrees, as Reed refers to in his column? How can the academic library contribute to the “real college” feeling that students say they want? Online learning seems to pull apart the collections and workspace roles of the library. And while not always the easiest or most user-friendly experience, online access to our college and university library collections is often (and increasingly) possible.

Is it possible to replicate, or even approach, the traditional academic library experience for studying and academic work with online-only students? One question I have sounds almost too simple to be asked, but also seems fundamental to the online student experience. Where, exactly, are our students when they do their online and hybrid coursework? At home? At the public library? At a coffeeshop (or McDonald’s)?

The college where I work is still very focused on our students in face-to-face classes, and we don’t have any fully-online degrees (though the university that my college is part of does). Anecdotally, we do see students working on their coursework for online or hybrid classes in our library computer labs, though I’m sure they also work on it elsewhere. But I’d be interested to hear about other academic libraries that have grappled with this: are there things we can do to bring the traditional, library-as-place to online-only students? Is the “real library” experience possible?

Using the New Framework to Teach Ferguson

In moments like the reaction to Brown’s death, we need more engagement, not less, and each of us has something to offer. –#FergusonSyllabus by David M. Perry

Last week, on November 24th, the grand jury of St Louis County announced their decision not to indict Darren Wilson for the August 9th murder of Michael Brown. A flurry of conversation and protest started. People began tweeting and media outlets started covering multiple cities across the nation (and the world) that were protesting in solidarity with Ferguson. London, Atlanta, Boston, New York, and Chicago were just a few that participated.

Amidst the tweets expressing outrage and shock about the decision, a conversation began about education, pedagogy, and the nation’s youth. Marcia Chatelain, an Assistant History Professor at Georgetown, had already started the conversation in late August with #FergusonSyllabus.  But the decision not to indict revitalized the conversation. More educators—of any level, from elementary school teachers to college professors—added suggestions under the hashtag. Moreover, blogs and media outlets started to curate the resources being shared and interview other educators about best practices for starting the Ferguson conversation.

A passage from Dissent illustrates the complexity and magnitude of the effort:

“A middle school teacher in Madison, Wisconsin had students review the grand jury evidence. Meanwhile, I had my students in Washington, D.C. connect the Ferguson decision to Rosa Parks’s activism in seeking trials for black women raped by white men in the South. Volunteers in Ferguson read books from #FergusonSyllabus to children—unexpectedly out of school again—at the local public library.”

Some of the most profound teaching recommendations (I think) came from instructors that were utilizing inquiry-based teaching models. By encouraging students to construct their own meaning and giving them a space to do, these instructors stimulated critical thinking, metacognition, and deep self-reflection in their students. One such example, from an instructor named Melissa, was featured in the New York Times Blog. Here are some of the insightful, open-ended questions she posed to her students:

  • What is justice?
  • How can we enforce it?
  • Who should enforce it?
  • What factors stand in the way of justice?
  • Do we need police? If so, what should be their job?
  • What role does/should the media play?
  • How did the media frame Michael Brown’s shooting and why? (Looking at various media outlets, including the New York Times obituary, which surprised me…)
  • Why do humans hold prejudices and how can we acknowledge them and move on?

The variety of topics introduced range from racism, housing inequality, and militarization of the police to international human rights. This movement has even gone beyond the humanities. PBS reported that science teachers were also challenging their students with issues surrounding Ferguson. One example included an instructor asking his students to learn more about tear gas and its effects on the human body.

Yet, the conversation—at least publically—on education and Ferguson has been almost silent in the library world. Some of the incredible #critlib folks mentioned it in passing in regards to critical pedagogy, but otherwise it is difficult to find other conversations. Many have rightfully acknowledged the Ferguson Public Library and their instrumental support of the community. But there still seems to be a gap in librarians’ conversation and sharing of resources, specifically among those of us that do instruction and work directly with students on information literacy.

And there is a need for our voices! The same PBS transcript featured the following conversation:

Jeffery Brown: You know, Liz Collins, you just said something a minute ago about determining the truth. When information is coming at us so quickly, especially in social media, there’s misinformation, right? How do you — how have you dealt with that?

Liz Collins: That’s so tricky and something that teenagers deal with all the time, because they love Twitter, and Facebook, and Instagram, and the information moves faster than the fact-checking. So, I think that’s an important lesson for them to learn across the board.  Just because you’re getting this information, who’s the source? How trustworthy is it? What’s that person or organization’s bias? What do they want you to think and why?And I think teaching them to challenge that and think about that goes beyond this issue, but also gives them a lens with which to approach this issue as more and more facts come out.  And every day, we’re learning more and more about what happened and having to sift through all those facts.  And I think teaching that skill is valuable in any subject and easily transferable. 

If this isn’t information literacy, folks, I don’t know what is. It might be a coincidence that ACRL released the third version of the Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education exactly two weeks prior to the grand jury’s decision, but I think that we should see it as an opportunity.

Several pieces of the new Framework challenge us to teach students these exact skills. The issues in Ferguson can be a current, relevant, and important vehicle for students to explore their information literacy skills in. Here is an introductory list of the more salient examples in the newest document that could reflect issues specific to Ferguson as well as questions/ starting points librarians might use to form learning outcomes and activities:

Experts understand the need to determine the validity of the information created by different authorities and to acknowledge biases that privilege some sources of authority over others, especially in terms of others’ worldviews, gender, sexual orientation, and cultural orientations (lines 160-164) 

  • What type and/ or medium of information is privileged? What are some structural reasons for this?
  • How might you be an active member of the information ecosystem in combatting this privilege? What specific forms of communication might you use?
  • What modes of communication lend themselves to bias? How can you detect bias about current events like the issues in Ferguson?

Recognize that authoritative content may be packaged formally or informally and may include audio, visual, and other nonprint sources (lines 185-186)

  • Find an example of authoritative, visual content about Ferguson. What type of source is this (primary or secondary)? Why do you consider it authoritative?
  • Compare a tweet, blog post, and news source about Ferguson. Which one(s) are authoritative and why? Does authority always correlate with medium?

Understand the increasingly social nature of the information ecosystem where authorities actively connect with one another and sources develop over time (lines 191-192)

  • Find one conversation on Twitter that includes more than two people and has more than ten tweets. How were opinions changed? Were beliefs confirmed or challenged? Was anything cited and if so what impact did that have? 

Understand how and why some individuals or groups of individuals may be underrepresented or systematically marginalized within the systems that produce and disseminate information (lines 276-278)

  • Find one source where a protester is interviewed (not just photographed). How difficult was it? How is the protestor portrayed? How does this portrayal relate to the medium and/or the article’s author’s affiliation?

Employ critical skills to evaluate information; effectively resolve conflicting information; monitor gathered information and assess for gaps or weaknesses (lines 319-321)

  • Find two sources that express conflicting information about what happened between Michael Brown and Darren Wilson. Where are gaps present in either? What sources do they have (eye witnesses, forensic evidence, etc.)? What conclusions did you reach and why?

This work is hard, especially if you only have one-shot sessions. But it’s still important. For those of us that would rather stick with looking at peer review or studying the information cycle, David B. Cohen has some wise words to offer. He challenges us to think about this singular time in history as well as what we want and expect our students, the future leaders of this country, to be able to do:

And for some students who will most certainly remember this time, we’ll have to explain why this particular event—and the tragic pattern in which it fits—that mattered so much to them was not worth our time, not considered educationally relevant (emphasis mine)

We must remind our students that both stories and information are not one-sided but instead very complex and contextual. Despite some technical flaws I (and others) might see in the Framework, it is clear our profession is moving in this direction. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie articulates what happens when people engage with only one story or perspective:

The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar- “The Danger of a Single Story”

As librarians, we must still continually remember that failing to teach students to be perceptive, empathetic critical thinkers has immense consequences for our entire society.

Note: It would be impossible for me to cover all of the brilliant blogs, tweets, and summaries of teaching material covering Michael Brown’s death within this forum. This is in no way an exhaustive list. Please feel free to explore more sources on your own and tailor the pedagogical conversation to your area of expertise.

Likewise, the ideas generated from passages in the Framework are merely starting points intended to start conversation. They are not meant to be prescriptive or exhaustive. Librarians should adapt these ideas (and other parts of the Framework) to best accommodate their teaching constraints and style.

What We’ve Always Done? User Experience and the Library

Editor’s Note: We welcome Sarah Crissinger to the ACRLog blog team. Sarah is a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, completing her second year as a GSLIS student. She holds assistantships in the Reference, Research, and Scholarly Services (RRSS) and Office of Information Literacy and Instruction departments within UIUC’s library system. Her research interests include serving underrepresented populations, new forms of scholarly communication and measuring impact, and user experience in academic libraries. Sarah hopes to provide the ACRLog with a LIS graduate student’s (and current job seeker’s!) perspective.

As a second-year LIS graduate student quickly approaching the job market, I decided that this fall was an opportune time to add more practical experience to my resume. What better way to accomplish this than a practicum? I also found myself hoping to use the practicum as a space to push my boundaries and comfort zone. I have years of experience doing reference and instruction in different settings, but I have never thought of myself as particularly technical person. Thus, I approached a connection I had at a local web design and technology solution business, Pixo, about the prospect of completing the one hundred hour project within their User Experience (UX) department. I was thrilled when they agreed.

At the same time, some level of anxiety often overshadowed my excitement. I worried that not being fluent in programming languages or not being an experienced graphic designer would inhibit my ability to make the best product for the user. While this might be true in some situations, I have learned that UX is much more intuitive and approachable than we—as librarians—might think.

As I finished my practicum, I was asked to write a short reflection on what I learned from my supervisors, what surprised me, what was most challenging, etc. Here’s a snippet of that response:

I think the thing that surprised me the most was how well equipped I was to do this practicum. I came in being nervous about only having a humanities/ classic library science background. I told myself that I didn’t have the technical skills to do such complicated tasks.

But in essence, Pixo’s UX team relies on critical thinking and organization significantly more than advanced technical skills. Many of the tasks I completed and learned about—using analytics, creating personas, card sorting, making changes based on feedback, thinking strategically, communicating with clients—relied more heavily on my ability to think analytically and have empathy for the user. Yet these tasks still informed technical and programming decisions in important and significant ways. One of the greatest accomplishments of my practicum is that I now think of user experience as being much less intimidating.

I’d like to reflect more closely on UX in the context of the library. In doing so, I’d also like to make somewhat of a provocative claim: the library, as an institution, has always inherently done UX. Now I know what your reaction is. You’re thinking, “but, Sarah, look at all of the unintuitive library websites we have” and “what about the 40 hand-written signs that my library uses which hinder patrons instead of helping them?!” Those are perfectly legitimate responses. But I think that we have to dig a little deeper to truly understand them.

A few months ago, I attended a SELFIN virtual conference entitled “User Experience: Seeing the Library Through the User’s Eyes”. The conference went well beyond library website design by tackling issues of library space and organization, service points, and content considerations. I hope to borrow a few salient examples from this unique (and in many ways, groundbreaking) conference to illustrate a few of my points.

Even though we might not (and many would argue should not) think of the library as a business, we need to recognize that our patrons go through many touchpoints in their quest for information from the library. Every interaction we have with a patron matters. And I’m not just referring to interactions at the reference desk or other service points. Our library’s interactions with patrons often happen through our website, library entrance, stacks, instructional sessions, terminals, and other equipment—even if we aren’t present. All of these interactions count because they impact the patron’s overall experience. Many UX experts have started mapping users’ journeys through a business or organization. Check out this insightful journey map Aaron Schmidt made specifically for libraries:

crissinger1

I think that librarians are constantly considering the user, especially within public service departments like reference and instruction. It’s just what we do. But I think that it’s rare for us to think of the user’s entire experience in this holistic way. Moreover, we have a difficult time going back in time to relate to our patrons more authentically. Even as a graduate student, it is challenging for me to remember what was confusing or daunting about the library at my undergraduate institution. By not recognizing that what might be easy for us isn’t easy for our patrons, we do them a great disservice. That’s why Schmidt (and many other UXers) constantly remind us that we are not our users.

An example might help solidify this claim. In Schmidt’s presentation on UX in libraries he told a story about a very confusing library website, filled with jargon that only the librarians could understand. When faced with feedback about the difficulties that this created for patrons, the library implemented a glossary for patrons to better understand the jargon and thus more effectively use the site. This is counterproductive! As librarians we often want to give our patrons all of the information we can. As an educational institution, we want them to leave with a lot more knowhow than they came with. We might even believe that patrons have a similar interest and dedication to the library as our own. To make it more complicated, as academic librarians we often deal with patrons at all different skill and interest levels. We have to create products, applications, spaces, instructional sessions, and reference interactions that appeal to tenured faculty and undergraduate freshmen as well as everyone in between. That’s no small feat!

But if we are going to move forward with wholeheartedly incorporating UX techniques into the library setting and making the library more effective for the user—regardless of what they means for us—then we have to acknowledge that users inherently have different goals, motivations, time constraints, work habits, and stressors than we do. For better or worse, it’s the reality that we live with.

So we have established that we are not our patrons. How do we really get to know them then? That gets precisely to my point. In many ways, we are already trying! Librarians are doing great work to make evidence-based decisions that rely on the user’s perspective. Library research often utilizes interviews and focus groups. Ethnographers like Andrew Asher and Donna Lanclos have taken that research to the next level by studying users in even more detail (for another great example of ethnography used  in libraries, see Andy Priestner’s recent presentation). As vendors and consortiums create new discovery systems and OPACs, usability testing and other UX tools are being utilized. A conference I recently attended, the Indiana Online Users Group (or IOLUG), featured two librarians from Northwestern that did extensive usability testing on the LibGuides 2.0 interface before making documentation to guide consistent layout and information architecture across their library. At my institution, UIUC, we recently implemented a new library gateway. The web team made content decisions based on user stories, which act as less fully formed personas that convey users’ informational needs to developers and stakeholders. The list goes on and on. Some academic libraries are studying users in order to provide more accessible service points, liked a single-service point for reference and circulation. Others are asking users directly what works and what doesn’t work for them in chat reference transactions.

While I believe that libraries are already practicing some great UX techniques, I think that we have a lot to learn from the UX community. Kathryn Whitenton also presented at the SELFIN conference. She had this graphic to share:

crissinger2

It’s obvious that libraries are currently implementing many of the more basic UX techniques. But there’s so much more we could be incorporating. Many library websites have no clear information architecture and even have pages that only exist within the CMS but can’t be discovered by using the navigation. They could benefit from a content inventory. We don’t think of library service as being competitive yet we could still definitely learn from similar library’s strengths, whether we do it through conferences or simply exploring their website. We could implement user feedback to make small changes to a service or website and then utilize analytics to determine the outcome.

More simply, we should incorporate usability testing in every facet of our service. (If you can’t tell, it’s probably my favorite technique in the UX suite of tools). Usability testing relies on the statistic that 5 users can find 80% of the problems on a website. What a great thing for libraries! By simply following five users through your stacks (service point, website, etc.) as they complete a task, you can find up to 80% of the challenges they face.

UX is simply about making intuitive, satisfying, and useful experiences. It’s a natural fit in the library community and I can’t wait to see it grow within our profession.

This post is only possible because of the support, mentoring, and leadership of Cate Kompare and Melinda Miller. Thanks for being such inspiring practicum supervisors!