All posts by Maura Smale

About Maura Smale

Maura Smale is Chief Librarian and Department Chair, Library, at New York City College of Technology, City University of New York.

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?

On Working and Not-working

What’d you do this past weekend? Though I’m in NYC I was unfortunately unable to attend the Digital Labor conference at the New School, which looked like a terrific and interesting event. Instead I planned to follow along on Twitter, but that ended up not happening because I had a bunch of things to catch up on: a peer review, a revise & resubmit, some conference organizing tasks, drafting this post. You know, work. The irony that I didn’t have time to check in on a digital labor conference on Twitter in part because of the digital labor I was doing is not lost on me.

How many of us work on weekends even after we’ve worked the whole week? How many of us are carrying lots of vacation days because we haven’t felt that we could take them? This might be due in part to the having-a-job-that-you-love problem: many of us do truly love our jobs and our work, and feel fortunate to have them. And since academic librarianship often requires or encourages us to do research and scholarship, it can be all too easy to let that work spill over into evenings and weekends. I’m most definitely prone to this, and I do find myself working during non-worktimes.

Also, as I learned recently when our HR department sent out their biannual reminder of leave time accrued, I have a balance of vacation days that are beginning to pile up (though not enough to lose them, thankfully). This semester I’ve been perhaps more guilty of non-worktime work and not taking leave than in the past, in part because coming up to speed on my new management responsibilities at work haven’t left me with much room to spare during the week, especially for research and writing. Different folks have different tolerances for and interests in working during off hours, and that’s okay. There may be other reasons for extra work besides the feeling that there’s work to catch up on: maybe you’re working on another degree, or writing a book.

We all deserve to use the leave time we’ve earned, and there are demonstrable benefits for workers (and workplaces) in taking time off. But in my new position I’ve been thinking about extra work in an additional way, and realizing that there are impacts on the library, too. How can we have a complete, realistic picture of the work of the library when there’s unused leave time? Some folks may feel overworked, some just right, and hopefully no one feels like they have too little work to do. It’s difficult to balance workloads or to plan to add new services and projects if we carry over our leave time rather than use it.

I’m thinking of this as a pre-New Year’s resolution: I’m going to try and be better about using my time off, and invite you to join me.

Digging Into Institutional Data

I have both a professional and scholarly interest in how the students at the college where I work do their academic work, and (of course) whether and how they use the library. In my own research I’m much more likely to use qualitative than quantitative methods. I prefer interviews and other qualitative methods because they offer so much more depth and detail than surveys, though of course that comes at the expense of breadth of respondents. Still, I appreciate learning more about our students’ lives; these compelling narratives can be used to augment what we learn from surveys and other broad but shallow methods of data collection.

Not *that* kind of survey
Not *that* kind of survey

But even though I love a good interview, I can also be a part-time numbers nerd: I admit to enjoying browsing through survey results occasionally. Recently I was working on a presentation for a symposium on teaching and technology at one of the other colleges in my university system and found myself hunting around the university’s Office of Institutional Research and Assessment website for some survey data to help contextualize students’ use of technology. My university runs a student experience survey every 2 years, and until last week I hadn’t realized that the data collected this past Spring had just been released.

Reader, I nearly missed dinnertime as I fell down the rabbit hole of the survey results. It’s a fascinating look at student data points at the 19 undergraduate institutions that make up the university. There’s the usual info you’d expect from the institutional research folks — how many students are enrolled at each college, part-time vs. full-time students, race and ethnicity, and age, to name a few examples. But this survey asks students lots of other questions, too. How long is their commute? Are they the first in their family to attend college? How many people live in their household? Do they work at a job and, if so, how many hours per week? How often do they use campus computer labs? Do they have access to broadband wifi off-campus? If they transferred to their current college, why? How do they prefer to communicate with faculty and administrators?

My university isn’t the only one that collects this data, of course. I imagine there are homegrown and locally-administered surveys at many colleges and universities. There’s also the National Survey of Student Engagement, abbreviated NSSE (pronounced “Nessie” like the mythical water beast), which collects data from 1,500+ American and Canadian colleges and universities. The NSSE website offers access to the data via a query tool, as well as annual reports that summarize notable findings (fair warning: the NSSE website can be another rabbit hole for the numbers nerds among us). There’s also the very local data that my own college’s Office of Assessment and Institutional Research collects. This includes the number of students enrolled in each of the college’s degree programs, as well as changes through time. Retention and graduation rates are there for browsing on our college website, too.

What does all of this student data collected by offices of institutional research have to do with academic libraries? Plenty! We might use the number of students enrolled in a particular major to help us plan how to work with faculty in that department around information literacy instruction, for example. The 2012 annual NSSE report revealed that students often don’t buy their course textbooks because of the expense (as have other studies), findings that librarians might use to justify programs for faculty to create or curate open educational resources, as librarians at Temple University and the University of Massachusetts Amherst have done. And at my library we’re using data on how and where students do their academic work outside of the library, both the university-collected survey results as well as qualitative data collected by me and my colleagues, to consider changes to the physical layout to better support students doing their academic work.

Have you ever found yourself captivated by institutional research data? How have you used college or university-wide survey results in your own library practice? Let us know in the comments.

Photo by Farrukh.

Appreciating Open Access Advocates

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Happy Open Access Week, everyone! Though maybe it’s not the happiest of weeks this year… Last Friday the news broke about the appeal of the Georgia State University e-reserves case. It looks like many of the rulings in favor of fair use from the initial suit may be overturned, though it’s not certain exactly how things will shake out yet. Kevin Smith, Scholarly Communications Officer at Duke University, shared a few early thoughts on his blog, and Nancy Sims, Copyright Program Librarian at the University of Minnesota, wrote a longer post discussing the ruling. I’m sure we’ll see much more conversation about this in the coming weeks.

I’m disappointed about the ruling, for sure, but in some ways this just makes my support of open access and open educational resources that much stronger. The academic and textbook publishing model we have cannot be sustained. Students have already pulled way back in buying textbooks and required readings for their courses, and libraries can’t purchase these materials (or pay copyright fees) infinitely or perpetually. I work at the City University of New York, the largest urban public university in the U.S. Forty-seven percent of CUNY students live in households with an annual income of less than $25,000. My library does purchase textbooks for reserve and they are used so heavily by our students that many are beyond repair by the end of the academic year. Textbooks can represent a significant portion of students’ expenses, any many of them just can’t buy the books.

As these forces continue to converge, I’m hopeful that faculty and administrators will be ever more receptive to open access and open educational resource advocacy. We’ve been talking about this for many years at my college and university, and while it’s sometimes frustrating to have to say the same things over and over again, we’re definitely starting to see results. Some are department or college level initiatives, like the precalculus textbook that two members of my college’s Math department wrote. It’s available as a printable/downloadable PDF (which students can print for free in the library and other computer labs on campus), or as a print on demand book for $13.00. All sections of the course are now using the book, and the authors are sharing it throughout the university.

At the university level, this fall the central library office at CUNY is sponsoring an OER course on OERs (so meta!). The course runs online over two weeks and includes materials and discussion, and aims to teach faculty how to create or curate OERs for their own courses. Faculty receive a small stipend for completing the course. The response to this course offering has been huge, and there’s already a waiting list for the next time the course will run. I was delighted to learn that the faculty response and interest from my college was particularly strong, and added those folks to my mental list of folks who might be open to further advocacy efforts or partnerships with the library.

So even with the disappointing news from Georgia, I’m feeling optimistic this Open Access Week. And I want to share my appreciation for everyone in libraries who does this hard work of open access and open educational resource advocacy all year round, not just for one week. Thank you, and keep up the good work!

Image by Biblioteekje.

Handling It: Under New Management

I’ve recently moved into a new role at the college library where I work. Our former Chief Librarian retired, and I applied for the job and was appointed as the new Chief at the beginning of the semester. My new job is exciting and challenging — I’m fortunate to continue to work with my terrific colleagues in the library and at a college in which the faculty and administration view the library as a valued partner. While I miss the teaching I did as Instruction Coordinator, I hope to be able to add some instruction back into my days once I get more settled. As Steven has blogged here, it can be hard to move into an administrative position that affords fewer opportunities to work directly with students. I do have one reference shift this semester, and I’m also looking forward to more opportunities in my new role to make good use of what I’ve learned in my research on how students do their academic work.

Any new job comes with a learning curve, even one in the same institution you’ve worked at for a while. Some days I feel a little bit like Atta in this scene from the movie A Bug’s Life:

And other days I like to channel Manfried from Adventure Time:

Luckily there haven’t been any literal (or even metaphorical) grasshopper infestations or fires to extinguish (…yet?). But I’ve been a bit surprised by how busy I am. In other new jobs I’ve always had some breathing room as I learned the ropes, some down time in those first couple of weeks in which there wasn’t anything immediately pressing to do. But moving into a new job in the same place has kept me nearly constantly busy with meetings, planning, and other duties.

I’ve got my eye on a couple of books to read about academic leadership and library management, but with my time so short I haven’t been able to carve out a space for reading them yet. Instead, I’ve been collecting shorter reads — blog posts and articles — about library management and leadership in general. Here are some that I’ve found really helpful so far:

Jennifer Vinopal’s blog post My job? Make it easier for employees to do their jobs well was published at the perfect time for me, right before I was interviewed for my new job, and I’ve kept it in mind ever since. It pairs well with an article published in the May issue of C&RL News: Start by interviewing every librarian and staff member: A first step for the new director, by Scott Garrison and Jennifer Nutefall. Even though I’ve worked with most of my colleagues for 6+ years, I’ve adapted these questions and am meeting with everyone one on one to learn more about their jobs and goals.

I’m also learning from several folks who’ve been doing this for longer than I have. At the end of last summer Karen Schneider posted her reflections on five years of being a library director, a post chock full of characteristically level-headed and wise advice. I’ve been reading Jenica Rogers’ blog Attempting Elegance for a while now too, even before the thought that maybe I would be interested in being a Chief Librarian entered my mind, and I’ve always appreciated her transparency about the large and small tasks that come with being a library director, and the highs and lows.

One of the things that’s been occupying my time this semester is working on hiring in two faculty and two staff positions. While I’ve been on search committees at my library in the past, this is the first time I’m acting as chair of these committees. I thoroughly enjoyed this well-written post about orienting new staff by Megan Brooks — Hospitality and Your New Staff Member — on Jessica Olin’s Letters to a Young Librarian blog last week. This post provides a great reminder about what to do (and the reverse, what not to do) when bringing new folks on board.

Do you have a favorite or recommended reading of the shorter-than-a-book variety for busy new library managers? Let me know in the comments!