Category Archives: Innovation

Do You Have The Tao In Your Toolkit?

In his blog post, The Tao of Librarianship, Andy Burkhardt reminds us how we can apply the ancient wisdom of Taoism to library policies and services. Burkhardt addresses library food policies, space design, planned abandonment of outdated formats and services, and adapting to change through the lens of Taoist philosophy, which he summarizes as, “instead of struggling against everything all the time, Taoism states that humans should try to see how things actually are and live in harmony with them.”

Another more colloquial way of stating this is the expression, “go with the flow.” Going with the flow is more commonly associated with surfers and hippies than librarians. Traditionally as a profession we tend toward rules, policies, standards. We prefer to “get things under (bibliographic) control.” A tweet at a program at ACRL 2011 put it this way: “Control freak streak runs in the profession. Sadly, yes. #lettinggo #acrl2011.”

Burkhardt is right to suggest that Taoist principles could help us more effectively deal with the change in our world and in our libraries. In addition to the areas that Andy brings up, Taoist ideas can also be useful when it comes to collaboration within and outside the academic library. In their ACRL 2011 program, Letting Go: Giving Up Control to Improve First-year Information Literacy Programs, librarians Meghan Sitar, Cindy Fisher, Michele Ostrow, of the University of Texas Libraries explain the difficulties they faced and the concepts they had to embrace in order to give up control and collaborate with other faculty and professionals on campus.

One of the more beautiful metaphors in Taoism is the admonition that we should be like water, fluid and responsive (Tao 8). Is your library frozen like a glacier or flowing like a mountain stream? Are you part of the ice jam or part of the break up? Have you come to terms with your inner control freak? As a profession, how can we become less controlling, and what should we let go? Can the principles of Taoism help us?

There are many translations of the Tao Te Ching. An interesting one is The Tao of Leadership by John Heider.

Ideas For Innovation Are All Around Us

We are subject to a non-stop barrage of information about innovation. Experts give us advice on how to be more innovative. The stories we read in our library literature share news about innovative libraries. Yet we rarely learn how to be innovative. Ask a few librarians what it means to be innovative and you’ll get many different answers. It’s something new. It’s something different. It’s something creative. It’s something that comes from business. I know this because in preparing for a presentation about innovation in academic libraries, I asked many different academic librarians to tell me how they define innovation. The best definition of innovation I have come across defines it quite simply: something new or new for your organization that provides value. The emphasis is on “value”. You can come up with something new, different, unique or creative but if it fails to deliver value to members of your user community – or the library staff – it’s not innovative for them. Sometimes it’s our failures that lead to the real innovation.

Many of us academic librarians think of ourselves as being innovative or we want to be more innovative than we are. Succeeding at it is hard. The challenge is finding ideas that are likely to result in good innovations for your community. I do believe our future relevance (or indispensability if you prefer that) depends on being entrepreneurial and proactive about innovation. Not just innovation in the library, but looking for ways to be innovative in the campus community. That could mean aggresively looking for opportunities, for solutions to problems that students or faculty have, but for which no one is delivering a solution. It may not be a solution to a known problem, but a service or resource that the community needs that has yet to even be sought out. That’s the Apple philosophy – don’t give people what they ask for – give them the things they will want but haven’t even expressed a desire for yet.

Our success and sustainability can no longer be guaranteed by simply doing the same things we’ve always done and which is what everyone expects us to do – and for which they increasingly no longer really need us. When we innovate we seek out new services that provide value to our community members. To my way of thinking, anything that allows them to do something new that they can’t do now, or allows them to do something better, faster, easier, more expeditiously than they can now – that’s a breakthrough innovation. But where do you get the ideas for that? It helps to be an explorer, the type of person who constantly seeks out new mysteries and then seeks to unravel that mystery. It’s like Roger Martin says: All human knowledge is advanced by mystery. The explorer, through diving into new mysteries, will discover what people want to do or need, particularly something they can’t do easily now or that requires great effort.

The opportunities are out there. Here’s an example I want to share. During the first week of May the Chronicle of Higher Education featured a special supplement called “The Digital Campus”. There were several good articles. As I read this one I thought this is just calling out to librarians to get their innovation engines revving up. In “New Technologies to Get Your Students Engaged” author Ryan Cordell shares his techniques for getting students to interact with research material. He writes:

I want my students to conduct research using primary sources. Every year more digital archives publish historical books, magazines, newspapers, letters, tracts, maps, photographs, audio, and film. Delving into those archives allows students (nearly) direct access to materials that were once available only at colleges with extensive special-collections libraries. I’ve asked students in my 19th-century-literature classes to research historically grounded projects using the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America project, an open collection of historical American newspapers.

Cordell also talks about wanting his students to use personal bibliographic management software. He goes on to mention a handful of technology tools he exposes to his students, including Evernote, blogging and Omeka (for organizing digital collections). For Cordell, using these technologies is all about giving students an authentic research experience that enables them engage in his course as scholars.

It’s clear that Cordell is ahead of the curve with these technologies. Yet even he can probably discover resources offered by the library that faculty often overlook. But what about all the other faculty that may be encouraged by Cordell and will want to incorporate more primary research and scholarly engagement into their courses? They may not have the time or technology experience to replicate Cordell’s pedagogy. Who will be there to help them go choose the right technology tools, and help connect their students to primary research materials? We can be there, and that’s where entrepreneurial spirt is required. The ideas are out there. Academic librarians need to supply the drive and enthusiasm to find them, refine them and implement them.

Social Hacking at the Library

I’m always interested to read about ideas that folks outside of librarianship have about libraries. The other day my partner forwarded me a tweet from tech publisher Tim O’Reilly:

Interesting note about an MIT professor who “hacked” (socially) the library as a way of recruiting interesting students http://bit.ly/k4qzrl

O’Reilly links to Harvard’s Library Innovation Lab blog to a brief post by Matt Phillips that discusses an obituary for an MIT professor. The obituary noted that this faculty member kept many library books in his office long after they were due, because:

the library would send him the students who wanted those books, and he would interview them as potential assistants

Phillips goes on to write:

People connect through works held at the library and the library should encourage these connections.

Many of the thoughts that ran through my head after reading this are expressed in the comments for the blog post. How could the library reveal which patron had checked out those books?! Doesn’t LibraryThing (among other social reading tools) already help readers connect over similar interests? And what about the poor students who didn’t feel like going over to that faculty member’s office — wasn’t he holding those books hostage?

While the specifics of this situation are probably somewhat unique to the institution, I do think that providing opportunities for patrons to connect around library collections is an interesting idea. But the privacy concerns are a big deal. Protecting our patrons’ privacy is a core value of librarianship, and revealing to another patron who has checked out a book flies directly in the face of that.

Perhaps we could provide the opportunity for patrons to opt-in to a service that would allow them to connect with other interested readers, to give our users a choice between keeping their reading history private and sharing it. Though I worry that it can sometimes be easier to see the short term benefits of decreased privacy than the possible longer term detriments. With so many services incrementally moving to public by default (yes, Facebook, I’m looking at you) it’s getting easier to share more and more of our information, and it seems like the more we share the easier it gets.

There are also technical issues. Barbara wrote about academic libraries using LibraryThing a couple of years ago, but it seems like most libraries that have added LibraryThing to their catalogs feature tags and related readings only, not the kinds of social connections that are available on the main LibraryThing site. Would it be possible to layer what is essentially social networking on top of our library catalogs? I’m sure the feasibility of this would vary between catalogs. There are some promising social networking applications out there, including open source options like BuddyPress, a plugin for the WordPress blogging platform, which might be a candidate for a social catalog hack.

I’m sure there are lots of other possibilities for making our catalogs (and databases?) more social and helping our readers connect over their shared interests. If you’re experimenting with these kinds of features in your library, I’d love to hear about your experiences.

After The Values Study

ACRL has received a considerable amount of positive feedback about the Values of Academic Libraries Study. Perhaps you’ve had an opportunity to catch one of the presentations about the study that Megan Oakleaf, author of the study, or ACRL President Lisa Hinchliffe, have conducted at a number of different conferences.

At the Midwinter conference, during a meeting of ACRL’s Leadership Council (the Board, section chairs, and other miscellaneous representatives), a question was raised about what we do next with the Values study, or rather what comes after the study. If anyone at the meeting had a good idea, he or she chose not to share it because there were no responses to the question – and perhaps folks just had not yet had much time to give thought to that particular question. The study provides abundant information, from a mix of qualitative and quantitative studies, to help academic librarians provide evidence of the ways in which our libraries make valuable contributions to student and faculty success, and help to improve higher education. But the report itself is not a research study that provides concrete documentation of the value of academic libraries. What it does well is provide ammunition for library leaders who will want to argue for the value of academic libraries, and use it to make a case for institutional support. So the question about what comes next – what more can be done to create a strong connection between academic librarians and the value they provide – is a good one. I suspect ACRL is already cooking up some plans for next steps to extend the “value of academic libraries” initiative, but I’m not sure what they are.

As I’ve been thinking about this “what comes next” question, two possibilities have come to mind. I continue to believe that some of the most essential areas in which we can demonstrate the value of our work are student retention, persistence to graduation and student success beyond graduation. How do we connect our contributions to these higher education performance issues? I wanted to share some thoughts about this, and would like to hear what you think might make a good follow-up to the values study. One inspiration for a next step is the recently released book Academically Adrift that has created quite a stir in higher education circles with its finding that for many of our students there is little learning in their four years of college. The findings are based on data collected from a sample of 2,000 students from 24 four-year colleges. The students took standardized learning assessment tests three times during their college years.

That approach could offer some possibilities for a next step. With enough grant money a sample of students could be tracked in order to assess changes in their research skills. As seniors would they still be starting their research at Google? If asked, to what extent would they point to the librarians at their institution as playing a role in their academic success? Did the librarians have any impact on their ability to stay enrolled? The authors of Academically Adrift are already moving on to the “next step” in their research on student learning, and they’ll be looking more closely at alumni and what happens after college. Targeting alumni might even work better as a way to document the value of the academic library. If asked, what would alumni have to say about their library experience? I could see that as a more qualitative study, interviewing alumni to get more in depth information about their library experience, what value it provided and whether it was making a difference for them in their careers (assuming they’ve started careers).

A few colleagues and I previously did some quasi-experimental research on the use of LibGuides and whether, by examining the annotated bibliographies produced by the students in control and experimental groups, we could ascertain if the LibGuides made a difference in the use of library resources. While it was difficult to determine if higher quality work could be attributed to having access to the LibGuide, one thing we did notice is that there were clear outliers within the study groups. Some students performed far better, and perhaps that’s not unusual in any academic setting. Looking specifically at library research skills though, especially evaluation of content, what leads some students to excel? Another possible follow-up to Values Study could track the outliers into their post-graduate years to determine whether or not they still use their learned library skills in the workplace – and can any post-graduate success with work that involves research and/or writing be attributed to library research skills education. If we could link library research skill building with positive post-graduate or career performance that could definitely speak volumes about the value of academic librarians. There’s no question that these types of research projects are involved, somewhat complicated and almost a full-time job in themselves. That’s where ACRL’s connection with LIS educators to conduct the research makes good sense.

I’m not sure what will come after the Values Study. Given its success and value as a starting point, there is strong support in the library community for further research into the value of academic librarians and their libraries. In this post I focused on student retention and persistence to graduation. The Values Study also points to the academic librarian’s contribution to faculty research and productivity, as well as institutional prestige. There are important areas too for “next steps” research. ACRL is open to ideas for what comes next. Let ACRL know what you think would be a good next step. A great idea for what comes after the Values Study could come from anywhere in our profession.

A Day for Design

Last week I attended the ACRL/NY Symposium here in New York City. It was the first time I’d been to my local chapter’s annual program and a fun day: great speakers and posters and a nice opportunity to catch up with colleagues from libraries in the NYC metro area. The theme of this year’s program was Innovation by Design: Re-Visioning the Library which, as the day’s first speaker reminded us, could not be more timely. Bill Mayer, University Librarian at American University in DC, started us off with his talk “Redesigning Relevance: Creating New Traditions in Library Design.” He noted that in this economic climate renovation is often the new new construction: many of our institutions won’t have the budget for new buildings, so it’s important to make the most of what we have.

Mayer reminded us that the recent Ithaka report reveals that faculty use of our physical spaces is declining. He encouraged us to think about how we can make the library best for students, our primary users. He sees library-as-warehouse as an outdated model, and recommends reducing the collections and materials kept onsite as well as increasing reliance on consortial collections to free up more space for students to use.

Mayer shared some of the ways that this kind of redesign has been implemented at American University. After moving many volumes to offsite storage, they discovered that the additional space available for the books that remained made it easier for students to find books. Students wanted more computer workstations and access to wireless, so they added more space for student work too. Mayer cautioned that of course local conditions matter — there’s no one size fits all approach. He suggests making our process inclusive and asking faculty, students, and administrators for input during the process.

The next speaker was Lauren Pressley, Instructional Design Librarian at Wake Forest University, who presented “Re-Visioning Teaching: Adapting to a Changing Educational Environment.” She began by acknowledging that libraries are changing, as is higher education: there’s more information and technology, and higher expectations and costs. How can academic libraries adapt to these changes? Pressley suggests that instructional design can help. Systematic design can provide structure for our library instruction and produce data we can assess, which is becoming increasingly important for demonstrating the value of our libraries.

Pressley assured us that we are already engaging in instructional design in our libraries, we just might not be aware of the vocabulary that can be used to discuss it. She described the ADDIE model: analysis, design, development, implementation, and evaluation. Most of us probably follow these steps when creating library and research instruction, whether for in-person one-shots or multiple sessions, or for other forms of student research support like tutorials or research guides. Pressley encouraged us to find the best instructional solutions for our students and situations.

Aaron Schmidt, Digital Initiatives Librarian at the DC Public Library and one half of the consulting team Influx Library User Experience, was up after lunch, with “Librarians as Designers: Making Deliberate Decisions.” He wants librarians to be proud of what we offer, and provide our users with better experiences. Schmidt began by showing us examples of poorly-designed signs and experiences. He emphasized that everything is designed, even if by neglect; design is arranging things for a purpose, and we can choose to have good design in our libraries.

Schmidt thinks that libraries are spread thin trying to be lots of things to lots of people — we could make 50% of people ecstatic about our services rather than 100% lukewarm. He recommends that we practice design and look at the actions of our users more than their motivations. What are people doing in our libraries, and how can that knowledge guide our design? One interesting suggestion is to implement a “work like a student” day in which we use only the resources that students have access to, for example, public workstations and study areas. Schmidt reminds us that ultimately libraries are about solving problems for people, and well-designed experiences can help.

The day’s final speaker was Leah Buley, Experience Designer (with an MLIS) at design firm Adaptive Path, who spoke about “User Research in the Library: How to Understand and Design for Patrons’ Needs.” She noted that user research can help us understand how people really experience information and how we can help them use the tools that are available in our libraries. Buley began by mentioning a few exemplary user studies, for example, the University of Washington’s website redesign revealed confusion over what is available on a library website, which suggests that users may be confused about what is available in the library. In a study at Cal Poly, students led the research to evaluate a federated search product, which helped students broaden their views about library services.

Buley reminded us to “Know Thy User,” and detailed a variety of user research methods we may want to implement. We can examine log files to find out what search terms are being used, which can help us learn what users are looking for. Ethnographic methods like observation, timelines, and diary studies can give us a window into user needs and experience. Paper can be put to good use to prototype design ideas, or we can invite our users to codesign by drawing their ideas. Buley suggests that we ask what we need to know about our users — the answers will guide us in choosing our research methods.

The Symposium gave me lots of library design possibilities to think about and I’ll definitely need some time to digest it all. The program organizers will be adding notes and slides from the speakers to the Symposium website soon, so head over there for more information. And if you’re interested in reading more about design thinking for libraries, our own Steven Bell blogs regularly at Designing Better Libraries. Thanks to everyone involved for a great day!