All posts by StevenB

Today’s Computer Commons is Tomorrow’s Card Catalog

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian at Temple University, and founding blogger at ACRLog.

Anyone who worked in an academic research library in the 1970s-1980s remembers the vast amount of library real estate devoted to the physical card catalog. For those newer-to-the-profession colleagues who are unable to picture this – and those who prefer to forget it – here’s a reminder:

duke university library card catalog
A typical research library catalog taking enormous amounts of floor space

As academic libraries of all sizes completed their migrations to online catalogs the librarians looked forward to the removal of the massive catalog furniture, and dwelled on how they would use all the space made available by the its departure. As timing would have it, the advent of the personal computer right around the same time the catalog went away made for an almost natural transition of the space from cards to computers. In my own place of work, where the catalog used to sit one now finds a field of personal computers – all of them hardwired desktops. One also finds printers, scanners and technology assistants to help keep it all running.

As my own library embarks on the planning process for a new building, one that will serve the institution throughout the 21st century, the future of desktop computer and whether tomorrow’s student will have any use for this technology is one of many questions related to technology planning. The current wisdom seems to be that undergraduates still prefer to have access to hardwired desktops – even though the vast majority of them own their own desktops or (increasingly) laptops.

It would be both questionable and considerably risky to plan for an academic library to open in 2017 without public desktop computing. Looking out into the not-too-distant future beyond that though, perhaps just another 10 years, I believe academic librarians will once again be in search of a purpose or application for all the space created by the removal of obsolete desktop computers. This technology will be just useful in 2027 as the physical card catalog was to the academic library by the time online catalogs were as common as desktop computers are today.

There’s no question that today’s college students still expect the library to offer them lots of desktop computers – as odd as that may seem when many of them own their own desktops, laptops or tablets. An article in the December 2012 issue of Information Technology and Libraries titled “Student Use of Library Computers: Are Desktop Computers Still Relevant In Today’s Libraries?” by Susan Thompson of CSU San Marcos, shares the results of two years’ worth of study into student use of the library’s desktop computers. According to Thompson, the students still preferred for the library to offer desktops for a number of reasons with which many of us are acquainted: faster connections; reliability when papers are due; access to onsite printers; preference for leaving laptops at home (this article focuses on a commuter institution); access to special software; fear of stolen/lost laptops; convenience. It’s a conclusion that many of us would expect.

But the data was collected in 2009 and 2010. That’s eons ago in the computer age. As I read it I wondered whether these findings would accurately reflect the technology habits of students of 2013 – and would they at all reflect the students of 2027? I know that as I walk through my own library almost every student who is not sitting at a desktop is using (or has nearby) a laptop, tablet or smartphone. Then again, at times of the day students are challenged to find a desktop when they want it.

I suspect that we will see some rapid change in student use of mobile computing and that it will, in time, chip away at the preferences identified by Thompson’s research. The future of institutionally supported desktop computing at colleges and universities is one that our IT colleagues continue to debate. Some institutions are abandoning desktops entirely while other swear on the value of offering acres of desktops and laptops to go. Factors such as residential vs. commuters, socio-economic status of the students or the local technology culture can all impact on the need for desktop computing. In an increasingly BYOE technology landscape, it seems inevitable that students will have no real need for a library provided desktop. That appears to be the thinking behind the planning of the Brody Learning Commons at Johns Hopkins University. It offers access to great study and learning spaces with technology support – but no computers are provided. Then again, they are nearby if needed in the familiar confines of the attached Eisenhower Library.

Perhaps the best thing we can do, in planning for onsite library computing today, is to aim for maximum flexibility. Students may express a demand for desktops today, but it’s hard to imagine that will be our future. When we gaze out upon our fields of computers we should, in our mind’s eye, envision it as a room that holds nothing but an enormous, as far-as-the-eye-can see card catalog. Because, ultimately, as the next generations of students make it to our doors, it is less likely they will expect us to provide them with computers, and it may be that they would consider such amenities laughable and a waste of their tuition dollars. It is a bit premature perhaps, but not unreasonable, for us to begin thinking about how we will use all the space currently devoted to desktop and laptop-loan computers. My crystal ball is less clear on this matter, although I suspect we can always improve things by expanding the café.

Photo courtesy of Duke University Archives

No Sentimental Farewells From This Blogger

Going back to March 15, it was a really busy time for me between then and ALA Annual. Here’s a rundown to give you a better picture:

  • Presentations to students, faculty and library staff at the LIS schools at the University of Missouri and IUPUI
  • At the end of March, a paper and CZS presentation (see “Five Quick Tips for Your Flip”) at ACRL
  • In early April I visited Rice University in Houston and then went to Austin to present at the Texas Library Association
  • A mid-April keynote for the annual meeting of the Maryland Congress of Academic Library Directors
  • A closing keynote for the Michigan Library Association‘s Academic Division the first week of May
  • Mid-month I gave the closing keynote for the Amigos Virtual Conference 2011 – no travel involved
  • Later in the month I visited the libraries at Duke and UNC, and then gave the I.T. Littleton Lecture at NCSU the next day
  • Moving into June I spoke at the SLA annual conference, delivering at one of their “spotlight sessions”
  • With ALA coming up I shifted gears to finish up preparations for a full-day workshop on “presence” that I co-delivered with Brian Mathews
  • I finished up the spring (now summer) presentation schedule with a talk at the AALL Annual Conference (like SLA – also in Philadelphia)
  • Somewhere in there I managed to write my weekly “From the Bell Tower” columns, and on occasion post to various other blogs. With no let up in my regular job duties, I greatly appreciate having supportive colleagues who make it possible for me to occasionally maintain a hectic professional speaking schedule.

    If you’re a regular reader of ACRLog you know it’s generally not my style to go on about myself, my work or professional activity. Whether it’s this blog, Facebook, Twitter or Friendfeed, you generally won’t find me suffering from BTY Syndrome. But this is one time when I do want to share that I can get myself into a fair amount of work. Now, it’s likely to get busier. That means some change is in the picture.

    What else happened? I was elected vice-president/president-elect of the Association of College & Research Libraries. It was a great thrill to learn I had won the election, and I’m looking forward with great enthusiasm to contributing to ACRL’s future in this new leadership role. As with any association leadership position, it requires a significant time commitment. I’m already involved in recruiting colleagues to lead or serve on committees, reviewing the work plans of the multiple committees for whom I serve as the ACRL liaison, and contributing to the agenda for ACRL’s fall planning meeting. I believe that ACRL is the professional family for academic librarians, and it’s a family where I belong.

    I’ve been asked more than a few times how this new responsibility affects my role as an ACRLog blogger. Put simply, I’ll be winding it down over the next few months. Not only will I have less time for blogging (and I do want to try keeping up my other blogs as much as possible), but I want to be even more clear about the division between my role as an ACRL board member and an ACRLog blogger. Even though ACRLog has the obligatory disclaimer, I want to eliminate any possibility that what I write as a blogger and vice-president/president-elect would be interpreted as ACRL’s position or policy. Since I started writing here at ACRLog, only once has someone suggested that a post was a statement of ACRL’s policy concerning an issue. With over 500 posts in those years, most of you ACRLog readers clearly understood that my views and opinions were mine and mine alone – no reflection on ACRL. That’s good, but now it has to be even better. And the best way to achieve that is to take a hiatus from blogging at ACRLog during my three-year term.

    Will I be signing off with a sentimental farewell of a post? Probably not. You’ll just be seeing less and less of me here, until some future date when I’d hope to contribute a blog post or two again – and I imagine a break between us won’t be such a bad thing. After over 500 posts you are probably getting a little tired of what I have to say anyway. On the other hand, you know it’s hard for me to shut up. If I’m blogging about academic librarianship it will likely be in the role of ACRL vice-president/president-elect, with a new blog or at an existing ACRL communication vehicle. The good news is that ACRLog has a good core of bloggers, and we’ve probably done a better job than any other blog of inviting guest bloggers to participate with ACRLog. I know that ACRLog will continue to be one of the best blogs focusing on academic librarianship. That said, I’d love to see a new blogger or two join ACRLog, and help to sustain it. If you think you have what it takes, can post on a fairly regular basis (two to four times a month) and are willing to share your opinions and ideas – this might be the blog for you. If you are interested, you know where to reach me. Maura Smale, who has been contributing regularly to ACRLog for a while now, and who has done a great job with our guest series highlighting academic librarian bloggers, will take over some of the occasional coordinating responsibilities here at ACRLog.

    Helping to start ACRLog and working to sustain it since October 2005 has been one of the highlights of my professional career. It will be tough to walk away from it…wait a minute…no sentimental farewells. Heck, you know what I mean.

    If You Can’t Reach Everyone Aim For The Passionate Users

    Does your town still have a video store? Most do not. I don’t mean a Blockbuster or some other big chain store. Those are getting harder to find too. I’m referring to a small, independent, niche type video rental store. I recall that when movies first became available on VHS the rental stores soon began popping up everywhere. At first they were all independent, like individual bookstores with unique personalities. Then a few local chains sprouted up. Then national mega-chains started to dominate the landscapte, and with their lower prices and quantity they pushed out many of the smaller independents who had no way to compete on price, selection or convenience. It is all reminiscent of the retail evolution from mom-and-pop grocery stores to Wal-Mart.

    The independent stores were usually much beloved, and as when long-time bookstores finally close, it makes the news. No doubt, public libraries, with their free videos, help to put a nail in the coffin, but nothing comes close to the spike delivered by Netflix. As it masters the art of streaming video to all devices, Netflix tightens its grip on the video rental industry even as its recent price increase has customers griping loudly. As the dominant player in its industry, Netflix is now every competitor’s number one target.

    Despite the overwhelming odds against success as an independent video store in 2011, a few are actually surviving if not exactly thriving. What these survivors are doing could provide a lesson for academic libraries that face similar challenges in a world where our target population can find information elsewhere with greater ease and convenience. In an NYT article titled “Video Stores, Reinvented by Necessity” we learn these strategies include participative film viewings, presentations by filmakers, film classes, trivia nights and yes, better facilities.

    I especially like that the core of these strategies is based on trying to compete with giants like Netflix and Internet-delivered video by focusing on the community and the building of better relationships. As one store owner said “What we should be focusing on was community and people talking to each other,” Ms. Polinger said. “We just wanted to go the other extreme and be more interpersonal.” This resonates with me because I’ve been emphasizing the importance of relationship building to capitalize on an experience we can provide that our community members cannot get with those nameless-faceless-corporate Internet providers of information.

    Another lesson to learn is that personalization makes a difference – and that being different is a competitive advantage. Another independent store owner proclaimed that “People who work in the video store are very knowledgeable about film. There’s always a conversation, not just a click. Those kinds of real experiences, you can’t really duplicate when you’re getting a movie out of a vending machine.” That sounds vaguely familiar to personal reference services in a library. What’s different is that academic librarians often approach these interactions as simple and forgetful transactions when they are opportunities for a conversation. Every academic librarian’s goal should be to provide a better experience based on personalizing each transaction. We do not help ourselves by simply pushing out more content – even if we allow our community members a more personal role in choosing it.

    Another potential lesson is to concentrate our efforts on the segment of the population that has the capacity to become the passionate users. The video store owners are conceding the bulk of the community to Netflix. They changed their strategy to focus on the passionate users who need more than convenience – those who want the conversation. I think this is what Brian Mathews is getting at in this interview when he said:

    “There are just some people who don’t use libraries, and so we can’t expect to reach them…I think there is potential to further educate current users. There is a population of people who just love books or love being in large computer labs or who just want to get away from the dorm and have a more ideal learning environment. This is our base. It’s these people who we want to focus on and expose to other things that we have to offer. In this regard, I think we can tip people along to other aspects of the library that they might not be aware of.”

    Given the size of our staffs and number of potential users we’ll likely never have the capacity to reach all of them – and many of them are not interested in what we offer. That was a major lament expressed by Bohyun Kim in her ACRLog guest post when she wrote “users prefer not to be mediated by librarians in locating and using information and resources…So where do research libraries and librarians go from here?” While we would never want to intentionally abandon any segment of our communities and we will always promote our openness to all, the place to go, I think, is where we put our energy into connecting with the segment that has the capacity to become passionate about using the library. Create the programs, conduct the activities and build the relationships with those who do care about the library.

    I’ll paraphrase what Simon Sinek says in his book Start With Why (and in his TED Talk): “The goal is not to push your services to everyone who potentially needs what you have – your goal should be to focus on the people who believe what you believe.” That, Sinek tells us, is how you build loyalty and increase the likelihood that your loyal customers will tell their friends how great the experience is at your library. That’s exactly what those remaining, surviving video stores are doing.

    Just as with other industries that are being displaced or disintermediated by disruptive innovators, newspapers, travel agents, music delivery, bookstores, higher education, there are lessons that academic librarians can learn from those who survive when all others are becoming irrelevant, marginalized and obsolete. There’s only a crisis in academic librarianship if we let it happen.

    Are You Thinking About Going Corporate

    I had two jobs before I started my first academic library position. Going through library school I was thinking special libraries. I never really thought much about academic librarianship as a career option. The prospects of working on more in depth research projects for others appealed to me. One of the special library jobs was in a nonprofit, but the other was corporate. Both were good jobs where I learned lots of useful skills, and worked with exactly no other librarians – but many other interesting colleagues with diverse professional backgrounds.

    As I became more professionally active in local associations I got to know a few academic librarians. I really liked the ideas they were sharing and the work they were doing. It became more clear in my mind that working in a one-person library setting was inhibiting my professional growth – I wasn’t learning from library colleagues nor was there any advancement opportunity. The possibilities of being engaged in the teaching and learning process began to carry greater appeal than performing the research for other professionals, however challenging it was. I started applying for academic library positions, and was frequently rejected. I had absolutely no experience working in an academic library. Eventually, thanks to the business research skills I developed in my corporate special library job, I was able to make the transition to a business library at a research university. I’ve never looked back.

    What about going in the opposite direction? I actually cannot recall even a single academic librarian who has left academia to transition to a position in a corporate library. I’m sure it happens more often than we know. An academic librarian could get burnt out on dealing with students and faculty. He or she might decide to get off the tenure track, or tire of dealing with library co-workers. A forced relocation may take someone to a town where the only opportunity is in the corporate sector. And yes, corporate/special library positions often have higher salaries. There are any number of reasons why an academic librarian might want to go corporate.

    That was the topic of a thread at the BUSLIB-L discussion list where there are many corporate and academic librarians exchanging information and advice. The conversation was started by an academic librarian who inquired about the possibilities for going corporate. Wondering whether it was time to pursue opportunities outside of higher education, this academic librarian asked others to share the pros and cons of their jobs in academic or corporate libraries. The conversation generated quite a few responses, and here is a summarized list of the pros and cons for each type of library position:

    PROS – Corporate Librarianship

    * Less of the committee work that often comes with academic librarianship, and less need to juggle multiple opinions and multiple constituencies, so to speak
    * More opportunities to be an independent operator; self-starters would find the corporate environment stimulating
    * No publishing requirements
    * Focused, directed work process aimed at a specific outcome; less of the “fuzzy” goals that sometimes characterize academia
    * research and analysis-driven, rather than teaching-oriented

    PROS – Academic Librarianship

    * Work in a highly collaborative environment
    * Persons around to back you up and mentor you if/when needed
    * Opportunities to teach and nurture students and library patrons
    * You show people how to research, rather than doing all the research yourself
    * A more laid-back environment than corporate; can wear jeans to work

    CONS: Corporate Librarianship

    * A driven, hectic pace; work must be completed speedily and efficiently with little space for lengthy rumination; “pressure cooker” environment
    * Corporate librarians are often solo operators; no-one to back you up when you’re sick or need to take time away from work
    * Constant need to reaffirm your worth to the corporation (that’s worth in monetary terms); corporate librarians are easily laid off in bad economies
    * Must constantly network and liaise with persons within and without the company

    CONS: Academic Librarianship

    – The requirement to solicit and consider opinions from many persons and many different bailiwicks prior to making decisions; the collaborative environment is not always the most efficient
    – “Publish or perish;” tenure/continuing status pressures
    – Generally lower salaries

    As with most lists of pros and cons, someone’s “pro” is another person’s “con”. I don’t see the need to publish as a drawback in academic librarianship. If you like to research and write, share your ideas, enjoy the rewards of publications, etc., it’s great to be in an environment that supports and potentially expects you to publish (bear in mind that approximately half of all academic libraries have no tenure or publishing requirements, so if you don’t like the publish or perish environment it can be avoided). The work environment also comes up here. Do you like to work with other librarians or would you rather be a one-person librarian? No one mentioned the potential advantages of working with a group of non-librarians. I always learned a great deal from the social workers, fundraisers, planners, marketers, tech wizards and other non-librarians I worked with – and in academic librarianship we get to work with many non-librarian colleagues in student services, residential life or administrative services.

    What would I add? For me a pro of academic librarianship is tuition remission and access to further education. I would never have earned my doctorate had I stayed in the corporate world. Not only did I have access to a program right on my own campus, but the bulk of the tuition was covered. Corporate librarians could counter that by suggesting one doesn’t necessarily need advanced degrees in their world (although a business librarian in the corporate sector can certainly appreciate having an MBA). And let’s not forget tuition benefits for children and other family members. With the cost of college today, tuition support for family members is a fantastic benefit, and almost worth putting up with any “con” of academic librarianship. I am aware that many corporations do offer tuition reimbursement to their employees, but I suspect the number that help pay for dependents’ education is quite small.

    Although this conversation focused primarily on going from academia to the corporate world, I’d suggest that academic librarians seeking to transition out of higher education think of it as academic versus special. Most of the “pros” for corporate librarianship apply to nonprofit sector special library positions. This is a good option for those who might want a one-person library position that doesn’t require going corporate – or the need for business librarianship skills. Of course, I hope academic librarians will always seek to stay committed to a career in higher education, but personal goals change and sometimes life’s circumstances require us to shift career paths when we least expect it.

    So what pro or con would you add to these lists? And just for the record – I have never worn jeans to work.

    Is It Just Me Or Does It Seem Like Some Startup Is Always Stealing Our Great Ideas

    Social networking and media are attractive tools for academic librarians. While we are still looking for the killer application for an academic library, our experiments and efforts to leverage social media to connect with students are worth pursuing and occasionally produce good results. There is evidence that having a presence in Facebook, Twitter and YouTube can increase the possibility for connection between the academic library and its community members. Some of us are taking a more strategic approach to using social media. We may be creating guidelines for the appropriate uses of media, staff teams devoted to the regular use of social networks and our parent institutions are getting more serious about their use of social media as well. Where we still struggle though is in figuring out how to exploit social media to get students to become more aware and make better use of academic research resources for their course-based assignments.

    I’ve always thought the real success of social media for academic libraries would involve some type of application where we would create networks that allow our students to engage with us and their peers to get the research help at the point of need. Consider a scenario where a student is working on his or her research paper assignment. He or she needs to find several articles for background information, but hits a roadblock in trying to find a few on-target scholarly articles. Instead of falling back on an Internet search, what if the student could tap into a social network monitored by academic librarians who could quickly respond with advice and direct links to the appropriate resources? It’s similar to the embedded librarian approach, but without the need for a formal arrangement with a faculty member for a specific course. The network would allow librarians and students, and perhaps faculty as well, to informally engage with each other to promote academic success.

    Now a start-up, entrepreneurial venture is pursuing the exact sort of thing we academic librarians recognize as a good idea, but are without the capital and infrastructure to create ourselves. As I read the New York Times article “Homework Help Site Has a Social Networking Twist” I got that deja vu all over again feeling. The article discusses a new firm called Piazza that is signing up higher education institutions for a homework support system based on social networking concepts. According to the article here’s how it works:

    Students post questions to their course page, which peers and educators can then respond to. Instructors moderate the discussion, endorse the best responses and track the popularity of questions in real time. Responses are also color-coded, so students can easily identify the instructor’s comments. Although there are rival services, like Blackboard, an education software company, Piazza’s platform is specifically designed to speed response times. The site is supported by a system of notification alerts, and the average question on Piazza will receive an answer in 14 minutes.

    Go to the Piazza site and read some of the testimonials from faculty such as this one: “Piazza has proven to be an ideal forum for my class. Compared to conventional bulletin boards, the design makes it much easier for students to find relevant posts, and for my staff and me to keep track of outstanding questions.” At first Piazza sounds like the typical course management system discussion board where students might post their questions. Piazza adds the social networking component by issuing alerts so questions receive an answer quickly. Apply that to a research help scenario and instead of waiting around for a librarian to respond to a question posted to a discussion group, a text message could alert the librarian that a student needs assistance pronto. Even if a librarian wasn’t available to provide immediate assistance, in a large network research help could be provided by a more experienced student or faculty member, with a librarian checking on the accuracy of the response and improving on it if needed. Piazza is designed to reward good responses.

    One thing I did notice about Piazza is that most of the highlighted courses are in the hard sciences. No doubt most of the assignments are problem-based, rather than research projects. The article states that while Piazza now has subscribers at over 300 institutions (it may be just one or two faculty per institution), it’s not making a profit and isn’t exactly picking up new customers like gangbusters. That’s something we academic librarians often overlook when we ask questions like “Why didn’t we create Google (or Amazon or YouTube, etc.)?” We seem to think that we have a natural instinct for coming up with surefire entrepreneurial concepts that involve the organization and distribution of any type of information content. What we fail to recognize is that most of these ventures lose money and disappear quickly. We like the idea of starting up an innovative new business venture, but we rarely think of the risks involved. Even if Piazza doesn’t make it, as the article points out, there are plenty more startups out there with every intent to disruptively innovate higher education with new concepts and platforms for helping students to learn by interacting in different ways with each other and their instructors. While we academic librarians may not be on the forefront of creating the new innovations, we may benefit by following the action closely and picking the right ones with which to partner.