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.

The Good Kind of Contagious

I haven’t written an ACRLog post in a long time. It’s an all too typical story of the combination short-on-time + writer’s block sort: a busy late Winter/early Spring (such a wintery late Winter, too), and I’ve had conference and other presentation preparations to do as well as the usual work stuff. And since this is only my second semester as chief librarian in my library, “the usual” still includes a fair number of tasks and responsibilities that are new to me, and I’m still learning a lot. I’ve had post ideas in my head for sure — about the ACRL conference (which was terrific), for example — but I’ve been slow on the uptake and time has passed. Lucky for me, with Jen, Sarah, Erin and Lindsay on board we’ve not lacked for great stuff to read here.

One of the overarching themes that my colleagues and I have been working on this year in our library is environment. What’s the environment like in the library, for students using our resources and services as well as for our workers: library faculty, staff, and students? Enrollment at the college (and at the entire City University of New York) has grown tremendously in recent years. Which is terrific! Though of course sometimes having more people in our not-any-larger space can be a challenge. We’ve also navigated some retirements and hiring of new faculty and staff, and it’s been a more change-heavy year this year than in the recent past.

Environment encompasses both a physical component as well as a mental component. I don’t want to minimize the challenges that can come from shortcomings of the physical facilities — these are real difficulties that can impact our ability to work. But sometimes I think that the mental environment is even more important. We can feel it now in our libraries with finals upon us (or nearly so) and many students hard at work and/or stressing out. It’s why academic libraries often offer finals week stressbusters like coffee and snacks or therapy dogs, to give a little positive boost to the mental environment in the library at a time when it’s much needed.

Last week my research partner and I presented at the Connecticut Library Association Conference, capping off these busy past few months. We weren’t able to stay for the whole conference, unfortunately, but we did catch featured speaker JP Porcaro‘s presentation. JP spoke about inspiration, leadership, and the importance of a positive attitude, and one of his slides really resonated with me:

Emotions are contagious.

We all come from different places and have different reasons for being here. Everyone has a bad day occasionally, those times when it’s hard to stay positive. I want to work in an environment where we give everyone the benefit of the doubt, where the mental component of the environment is more positive than negative, even during finals week. It’s an important part of my job to help make that happen, and one that I’m still working on, especially on those mornings that start off with subway troubles or my teenage kid waking up on the wrong side of the bed. I’m redoubling my efforts here as the semester speeds to a close, reminding myself that emotions are contagious.

Don’t Write the Comments?

We had a month of especially active blogging in January and early February this year here at ACRLog. In addition to the regularly scheduled posts from Erin and Lindsay in our First Year Academic Librarian Experience series, there were also great posts about the upcoming Symposium on LIS Education from Sarah, and on better communicating our ideas to different audiences from Jennifer.

But what really pushed us over the top last month was a group of guest posts about the new ACRL Framework for Information Literacy in Higher Education. First we featured the open letter from a group of New Jersey information literacy librarians sharing their concerns about the new Framework replacing the old Standards. Several responses followed: Ian Beilin and Nancy Foasberg wrote in support of the Framework, then by Jacob Berg responded to both the open letter and Beilin and Foasberg’s response. Donna Witek contributed a post on the Framework and assessment, and Lori Townsend, Silvia Lu, Amy Hofer, and Korey Brunetti closed out the month with their post expanding on threshold concepts.

Since the Framework was scheduled to be discussed and voted on at Midwinter at the end of January, the timing of this flurry of posts isn’t surprising. These Framework (and related) posts tackled big topics and issues, issues that academic and other librarians have been discussing in many venues. So I have to admit that I was surprised to see that there was practically no discussion of these posts here on ACRLog. One person left a comment on the threshold concepts post sharing a citation, and there were a couple of pingbacks from other blogs around the web linking to these posts.

The absence of discussion here on ACRLog seems even more remarkable given the presence of discussion in other venues. I’m active on Twitter and there have been many, many discussions about the IL Framework as a replacement for (or supplement to) the Standards for months now. Whenever a post is published on ACRLog it’s tweeted out automatically, and these Framework posts sparked many a 140 character response. I’m not on any listservs right now (I know, I know, somewhat scandalous for a librarian), and I’m also not on Facebook, but from what I gather there was discussion of these posts on various listservs and FB too.

Even in our post-Andrew Sullivan era, I still read plenty of real live, not-dead-yet blogs — indeed, trying to keep up with my RSS reader is sometimes a challenge. But it’s been interesting to see the comments, the conversations, move elsewhere on the internet lately. Not that our ACRLog comments have been totally silent, but more often than not I login to find that the comment approval page is pretty quiet. This is despite some of the obvious advantages to blog comments over other options (though as anyone who’s ever encountered a troll can attest, there are disadvantages too). While Twitter can offer the opportunity to immediately engage with folks over a topic or issue — and there are many, many librarians on Twitter — the 140 character limit for tweets can often feel constraining when the topic or issue is large or complex. Listservs allow for longer-form responses, but of course are limited to those who subscribe to them; as a walled-garden, Facebook also suffers from audience exclusivity.

All of which has me wondering if there’s a way to combine these different media to enable interested folks to participate in the conversation using whichever platform they prefer. I know there are plugins out there that can pull media streams together, but can these be combined in a way that’s less about displaying information and more about encouraging discussion? Or is that too much work to solve a problem that’s not really a problem? Should we be concerned that different conversations about the same topics in librarianship are happening in different online places, perhaps with little crossover?

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts in the comments. :)

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.