Category Archives: Higher Education

Postings about the higher education industry.

The Polymer Librarian?

Happy 2013 everyone, it will be incrementally different than 2012.

In my new position one of my primary responsibilities (depending on whom you ask, THE primary responsibility) is providing support to our departments of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering. Akron is the historic home of the rubber industry and the regional research focus on rubber has expanded and evolved over time to encompass all aspects of polymer research. University of Akron has the only Polymer College in the United States, so while there are many fine polymer graduate schools, none of them carry quite the administrative gravitas of polymer science at Akron. To put it in perspective there’s a building for polymer science and another building for polymer engineering. It is the university’s strongest research field.

Which leaves me in a strange place for subject work. There are, relative to a subject like chemistry, relatively few librarians supporting polymer science and there’s a correspondingly thin literature on the subject. Also, chemistry resources for polymers usually don’t have quite the same functionality (for example, you cannot order polymer substance results by molecular weight in SciFinder). So there are few colleagues to talk to and not a whole lot to read. (But shout-out to Nico Adams for his work on polymer informatics – very interesting stuff.) The final issue is that one department is a few blocks away and the one next door is physically locked to me, which is a problem when your liaison style could accurately be described as “just barge in on them”.

So what to do? I’ve tried, with mild success, stalking the faculty at their seminars and I was able to do a presentation to one of the graduate student organizations. I’ve fielded a few research questions well and received some praise. I had a productive meeting with one department chair, while another has so far eluded me (his research is going gangbusters, so no hard feelings).  But I need to do more.

My current plan is to focus my research on our polymer collection, most likely by a citation analysis. Perhaps it’s a bit pedestrian, but my thought is that scientists will appreciate a data driven approach to meeting their needs. Also, I did work in a research lab and supporting researchers so when I see a problem, I look for ways that data collection and analysis can solve it.

So does anyone out there have any other (hopefull better) ideas on engaging my highly specialized research faculty in a locked tower? I would love to hear your thoughts.

The Unexpected Benefits of a Varied Life

This post originally was about using my liberal arts social science background as a physical science librarian. But a comment from “Bob” on my last post got to me when he mentioned some “dead ends” in his background. So here’s a roundup of ways I’ve tapped by wealth of experience to perhaps demonstrate the use of dead ends.

1) The history degree

My first tour of duty in academia was as a history major at a small liberal arts college and I wrote my thesis on Japanese militarism in China. Forward 18 years, I was asked to find an old Japanese patent that just didn’t come up in the Japanese Patent Database. But via a lovely non-linear insight, it struck me that there should be a year at the beginning of the patent application and it quickly clicked that the patent used the imperial calendar. The patent was retrieved quickly and the speed was due to this degree.

Also, I had a request for articles on Greek cultural life in America. Akron’s nursing program requires students to investigate an ethnic community and social sciences literature remains unfamiliar to most of the students. Although not as smooth as an actual specialist librarian, I at least knew to recommend an anthropology database and we found something a bit quicker than if I had not taken a few anthro classes.

2) Used Book Buying

For about five years. I worked as a book buyer at Powell’s Books and during that time purchased and priced around a million. From this job I was able to tell a coworker how to unslant a book’s spine and how to get out mildew smell. One of my liaison departments had a very nice book set donated to them and wanted an appraisal to decide if it was worth dealing with the administrative red tape to sell it (being useful is essential for liaison work).  Finally, dealing with customers at bookstore information shifts was solid preparation for reference shifts.

3) Janitorial

I can change toilet paper rolls like a champ.

4) Lab Work

My job as a research technician and lab manager has allowed me to talk shop with some of the students (giving advice on how to plate bacterial transforms is something of an eyebrow-raiser at the reference desk). Understanding lab group social structure and communication dynamics developed an understanding of the pressures facing my various user communities. Running a facility gave me experience in spending, budgeting and dealing with vendors. Also, being a former equipment manager certainly helps when the printers get jammed.

There’s more, but librarianship requires and rewards a broad skill set and may offer a chance to resurrect some of those career dead ends. That said, I’m not sad that my years of restaurant experience have lain dormant … oh, wait … I volunteered to help plan the holiday party.

But what about you? Please share your stories of unexpected value from allegedly unrelated fields, I’m really curious.

Digital Badges for Library Research?

The world of higher education has been abuzz this past year with the idea of digital badges. Many see digital badges as an alternative to higher education’s system of transcripts and post-secondary degrees, which are constantly being critically scrutinized for their value and ability demonstrate that students are ready for a competitive workforce. There have been several articles from the Chronicle of Higher Education discussing this educational trend. One such article is Kevin Carey’s “A Future Full of Badges,” published back in April. In it, Carey describes how UC Davis, a national leader in agriculture, is pioneering a digital open badge program.

UC Davis’s badge system was created specifically for undergraduate students majoring in Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems. Their innovative system was one of the winners of the Digital Media and Learning Competition (sponsored by Mozilla and the MacArthur Foundation). According to Carey,

Instead of being built around major requirements and grades in standard three-credit courses, the Davis badge system is based on the sustainable-agriculture program’s core competencies—”systems thinking,” for example. It is designed to organize evidence of both formal and informal learning, from within traditional higher education and without.

As opposed to a university transcript, digital badges could provide a well-rounded view of a student’s accomplishments because it could take into account things like conferences attended and specific skills learned. Clearly, we’re not talking about Girl Scout badges.

Carey seems confident that digital badges aren’t simply a higher education fad. He believes that that with time, these types of systems will grow and be recognized by employers. But I’m still a bit skeptical over whether this movement will gain enough momentum to last.

But just for a moment, let’s assume that this open badge system proves to be a fixture in the future of higher education. Does this mean someday a student could get a badge in various areas of library research, such as searching Lexis/Nexis, locating a book by its call number, or correctly citing a source within a paper? Many college and university librarians struggle with getting information competency skills inserted into the curriculum in terms of learning outcomes or core competencies. And even if they are in the curriculum, librarians often struggle when it comes to working with teaching faculty and students to ensure that these skills are effectively being taught and graded. Perhaps badges could be a way for librarians to play a significant role in the development and assessment student information competency skills.

Would potential employers or graduate school admissions departments be impressed with a set of library research badges on someone’s application? I have no idea. But I do know that as the amount of content available via the Internet continues to grow exponentially, the more important it is that students possess the critical thinking skills necessary to search, find, assess, and use information. If digital badges do indeed flourish within higher education, I hope that library research will be a vital part of the badge sash.

Wearing Different Hats: Academic Service and Librarianship

Like many academic librarians, I’m on the tenure track, and with that comes the opportunity and requirement for academic service. I genuinely enjoy most of my service work, which ranges from membership in our faculty governance body to work on committees dealing with academic technology and curriculum development, among others. Right now I’m in the midst of a five-year commitment on a large grant-funded pedagogical project at my college. My time is devoted either to the project or to my work in the library on different days of the week, with some exceptions. I joke about taking off one hat and putting on another from day to day or meeting to meeting.

My library days are structured along similar lines as they were before my involvement in the grant project. But on my grant days I often don’t feel like a librarian: no library instruction, no reference, no information literacy program planning, no library meetings — only work related to my other service obligations. On those days I sometimes wonder: what does it mean when I spend more time outside of the library than inside?

Despite occasionally feeling as if I’m being pulled in different directions depending on which hat I’m wearing, I’m certain that my service work augments my work in the library. College service makes me feel connected to the institution, and allows me to gain a more complete understanding of and contribute to the college’s mission, going beyond the work I do in the library. I also think that academic librarians taking on service commitments can bring more visibility to the library on campus, almost a stealth form of marketing. Faculty in other departments whom I’ve met on various committees will sometimes contact me to ask a question about the library, and I hope that makes them more likely to send their students to the library as well.

My academic service outside of the library also helps inform my work as an information literacy librarian. In my roles on college-wide projects I’ve become much more familiar with the programs and majors available for our students, which facilitates making connections across the curriculum and planning information literacy outreach. College service work increases the number of faculty from other departments whom I meet who can be potential collaborators, too. I’ve drawn on these colleagues when we’ve wanted to pilot different initiatives for library instruction, and have sometimes sought feedback from them on our programs and efforts.

I hope that being in this space at the intersection of multiple identities can help push me to think in new ways about the role of academic libraries and about myself as a librarian and an academic. But despite the benefits of college service work, the crowding of these multiple identities that I inhabit is not always entirely comfortable — sometimes I wish I had two heads for my two hats. If you’re a librarian involved in academic service, what strategies do you use to reconcile your two roles?

Teaching Workload and New Librarians

The following story is true. However, the names have been changed to protect the innocent.

Meredith, an acquaintance of mine from library school, is an extraordinarily bright person with an amazing attitude. The moment I met her, I knew she would make an amazing librarian. Despite the small number of jobs available to academic librarians in this economy and despite being limited geographically, Meredith was hired fresh out of library school as a full-time adjunct instruction librarian at a medium-sized public university. In her first semester Meredith somehow taught over 40 instruction sessions, which included several two-week intensive information literacy course sequences for introductory general education courses.

On the Friday before spring semester classes began, Meredith was informed by her administrators that no temporary staff were to be hired to fill in for a librarian going on sabbatical. Instead, Meredith was now expected to take on 50% of her colleague’s workload, without any additions to her salary. Previously, Meredith had provided her superiors with a thorough account of her work hours—complete with professional standards from the ACRL Standards of Proficiencies for Instruction Librarians and Coordinators—in order to demonstrate that she had a full workload.  Despite this, they believed that she was under-worked and that this addition to her current duties would bring her up to full-time.

To make a long story short, Meredith decided to fight this by arguing that if she was forced to take on 50% more work, the quality of education that she provides would severely deteriorate. She told me, “I cannot roll over and become part of the cycle that is perpetuating the corporatization of higher education.” In the end, Meredith was able to prevent the increase to her workload.

This situation is the result of an unfortunate combination of massive budget cuts and administrators questioning the value of teaching information competency in higher education.  While Meredith’s situation is extreme, I have a feeling that her situation may not be an isolated incident. In this economic climate of dramatic budget cuts, librarians—particularly new, adjunct, and temporary librarians—are especially vulnerable. And the time available for some of us to provide effective instruction in information competency is getting compacted with additional duties and tasks.

I don’t want to make this a “librarians vs. them” kind of a thing because I realize there are a lot of complicated factors at play. But I would like to know: how do we successfully determine and prove what a feasible teaching workload is and how can new librarians like Meredith effectively share and demonstrate workload concerns with their administrators?