Category Archives: Innovation

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!

Focus on Flexibility

This semester the information literacy course that I’m teaching started off in our main library classroom. It’s a fairly typical instructional space with rows of desks topped with computers, an instructor computer at the front, and a couple of projection screens. It’s a nice room – we got 30 new, faster student computers over the summer, internet connectivity is solid, and we have some nifty classroom management software that allows us to push out content to the student machines as well as project content from student machines onto the big screen.

About midway through the semester my class moved into a new workshop space in the library. This room is smaller – we can only fit about 16 students – and has an instructor computer, a lockable laptop cart, and a smartboard on one wall. I absolutely adore this room! Instead of long, hardwired rows of desks we have round tables that seat 4 students each, which makes group work so much easier. The space is so flexible – we can use the computers when we need them, but when we don’t they can be tucked away in the cart (rather than tempting students with Facebook). I do miss the classroom management software, and sometimes the wifi is a bit dodgy, but this room is about as close to my ideal instructional setting as I’ve ever had.

This midsemester venue change has me thinking about flexibility: of design, of space, of our library facilities. Like many colleges our enrollment is up and we definitely feel it in the library. Sometimes it seems like we are bursting at the seams, especially as finals week looms ever closer. How can we get the most out of the space we have?

Studying is another library use that could benefit from greater flexibility of our physical space. Students work in many different ways: in a group, individually, quietly, and in discussion. When the library gets busy our group study rooms fill up, and other groups studying in the library disturb students who want quiet, individual study space. We do have designated quiet and conversation areas, but it’s easy for a group working together to get too loud for an open area. What if we could use partitions to design flexible, pop-up group study rooms? Would that be a way to maximize our space for multiple uses? What if we left them open rather than requiring groups to check out a key? Would single students monopolize a group room for long periods of time?

What stands in the way of flexibility? I think funds play a big part. For example, during the busy parts of the semester our classroom is booked solid with classes and workshops, but at other times it’s empty. I often hear students complain that there aren’t enough computers available for their use at the college. Why can’t we use the classroom as a student computer lab when there aren’t any classes? In this case I can answer my own question: that room isn’t staffed when there are no classes in session, and we would need to add staff to open the room for drop-in use by students. I can also envision logistical headaches in the mixed classroom-lab scenario, for example, having to shoo out the students using computers when a class is about to come into the room.

Even small renovations to spaces that already exist require funding, which can be hard to come by these days. However, in this economic climate it’s probably unlikely that many of us will see expanded or new library buildings, especially in space-starved urban areas. Advocating for funds for flexibility might be in all of our futures, to help us get the most out of the space we have. Is your library moving toward more flexible use of space and facilities?

Technical Drudgery Revisited

On October 7, NISO sponsored a workshop in Chicago called “E-Resource Management: From Start to Finish (and Back Again).” In the opening keynote, Norm Medeiros of the Tri-Colleges (Haverford, Bryn Mawr, and Swarthmore) asked what value electronic resource management (ERM) systems bring to libraries. His answer? Not much, yet.

If what your library needs most is a data warehouse for e-resources information, Medeiros said, you should not purchase an ERM. An Access database or other homegrown solution will work just as well, with less cost in both dollars and staff time and expertise for implementation. He said that libraries with large, distributed staffs, decentralized environments and the need to manage higher-level tasks or functions need these tools most – but that they are mostly failing at those very functions for those very libraries.

Medeiros listed functions he wanted ERMs to perform, most of which involve being able to re-use data with flexibility and fluidity to eliminate the need for duplicative systems and “technical drudgery”: he thinks ERMs should allow for global updating, incorporate a knowledgebase, be interoperable with other systems, and store data and generate reports. He stressed that managing workflow and communication are the biggest e-resource management challenges and no existing ERMs really meet them effectively.

For a while now I’ve thought that OCLC’s interlibrary loan software ILLiad would make a great model for an ERM. It combines a knowledgebase (patron data and lending library information as well as WorldCat bibliographic data) and data tracking and reporting (statistics about requests, patrons and expenditures) with a web-based workflow management portal that allows staff to see at a glance the status of all the library’s active borrowing and lending requests. Staff in different physical locations have access to all the data they need. Each task in the process – from the submission of a request, to searching, copyright clearance, requesting, re-requesting, and fulfillment or cancellation, with all the capability to communicate with patrons, staff and other libraries in between – is defined, and as one process is completed, the software automatically pushes the request on to the next step in the workflow. Libraries have ILL down to a science, and, even without ILLiad, libraries don’t lose requests, can be reasonably sure of responding to them within a certain time frame, and can measure and predict their costs and workloads with accuracy.

Why does interlibrary loan work so efficiently while electronic resources management is still such a mess? Are e-resources really that much more complicated? Think of all the variables involved in an interlibrary loan request – a patron, a source (database, bibliography), local ILS’s, borrowing libraries, lending libraries, student workers, consortia, scanning software, legal issues (copyright, licensing), the postal service, language barriers… And let’s not forget – much of the work now involves digital objects, not paper: interlibrary loan departments, while they still deal with physical objects, have successfully migrated to working in an electronic environment with electronic resources when possible. What have we figured out about ILL that we can’t seem to about databases?

I keep coming back to that idea of a knowledgebase. We have them for e-journals, but, for databases, every library is still creating its own. Vendor contact information (especially support websites and e mail addresses), information on where and how to download usage statistics, information about MARC record availability, customization options, etc., should come with the system – I shouldn’t have to enter it into my ERM the first place or update it ever. Such a knowledgebase should also include information about databases – titles, descriptions and urls. There should be no need for every library to separately maintain urls to all our EBSCO databases, for crying out loud. We don’t do this for e-journals – why are we doing it for databases?

The same thing goes for data sharing. This summer I looked at all the ARL libraries’ websites to find out how they were managing public displays of their databases (A-Z lists, subject lists, and full resource records). Most libraries use homegrown systems to generate the webpages that contain this information, not vendor-supplied ERMs, though many of the same libraries have purchased ERMs. Exporting data in a shareable format from most vendor software requires complicated workarounds which even then don’t guarantee it can be used where it’s needed. Most libraries maintain double sets of data about their e-resources because they lack systems that allow data to be used and re-used as necessary.

Why are we stuck in this place with e-resources management while resource sharing is light years ahead? Maybe because creating a patron- and library-ready knowledgebase of databases would require competing vendors to work together (gasp) when what they really want to do is each create their own products to get a piece of the library automation pie. Resource sharing works because libraries believe in working together. As long as libraries keep feeding Audrey II, we’re never going to get the collaboration from vendors we need. And even though OCLC has been accused of anticompetitive business practices, you still have to admit that the system libraries have created through OCLC for resource sharing is one of the best and most cooperative things we have.

Lately I’ve been engaging in a lot of the “technical drudgery” Medeiros decried, entering all the administrative information about our databases and their vendors into the data warehouse that is our ERM, mostly because I’ve discovered I’m spending way too much time trying to track this information down when I need it. I have admin info in there, stats info, vendor info, database info, tutorial info – you name it. I’d be happy to send it to anyone who wants to re-code it into XML so we can re-deploy it and everyone can use it. But you’d have to get it out of my ERM first.

The Art Of The Electronic Message Display

Editor’s Note: At MPOW we are ramping up to use a prominently positioned video display near our entrance for promotion. I realized I had no idea how to approach it. It seems so many academic libraries are using electronic display monitors to promote the library. I was wondering if there were best practices? So I put out a call for help and advice – and the academic librarians came through – big time. One response, from Wil Hutton, the Visual Communication Specialist at Penn State University’s main campus library, was so well thought out and informative that I wanted it to have broader exposure. So I asked Wil if he’d prepare it as a guest post for ACRLog – and I’m pleased that he did – so that we can share it with you. Many thanks to Wil for his contribution to ACRLog – and the wonderful gallery of screenshots from his library’s monitors that he organized for all of us.

So, you want to put up some video display screens in your library to announce coming events and advertise services. Or perhaps you’ve been tasked with making this happen. Two questions arise: how do you create an attractive, effective display system without the expense of a turnkey, proprietary electronic signage solution; and how do you manage the system once installed?

At Penn State, in 2006, we found ourselves in possession of three 42-inch plasma displays—just enough, as it happened, to cover our main library’s three entrances. Unfortunately, getting them mounted and wired proved so costly that there was virtually nothing left for additional hardware and software. So we used what we already had—we connected each screen to an obsolescing PC, and connected those PCs to our local area network. PowerPoint, for which we have a site license, became our delivery system: one copy on each PC, and one on my Mac, as it fell to me to design and maintain the screens’ content. I edit the slideshow on my desktop and upload it to a directory on our server; from there, a piece of open-source software pushes the file out to the three PCs. A relatively inexpensive NewsPoint plug-in then adds dynamic content to several slides—real-time library instruction schedules and an RSS news headline feed.

We have three basic types of content: perishable—current news, exhibits, events; seasonal/repeatable—calendar-based services, holiday messages; and evergreen—people, facilities, collections, services available any time.

Within that framework, content categories include: Welcome messages, News and Events (including that RSS news feed); Alerts; Exhibits; Collections; Facilities; Services; and People (a faculty/staff spotlight featuring a different library employee each month).

In nearly all cases, content on the screens is tied to identical (though often more detailed) content in another medium. For example, our multilingual welcome screen and various evergreen service promos also appear on the screen savers of our public-use PCS; and all alerts and promotional messages appear also in print.

Some recommendations:

1. Think holistically—People are more likely to remember your message after they’ve seen it three times, so put it out there often and make sure all your versions match visually. Central to our program’s success has been our coordinated approach. Communication packages encompass a range of print and digital media: posters, flyers, postcards, newspaper ads, magazine ads, e-flyers, banners, and display-screen images. When designing these materials I maintain a consistent visual grammar—images, color schemes, type treatments, etc.—throughout so that the electronic and printed materials complement each other.

To facilitate this, I’ve found it best to override PowerPoint’s inherent design constraints by loading full-screen images with all the type and graphic elements included into the slideshow file, relying on the software only to set slide timings and transitions.

2. Think “supplementary” —Remember, unless you have a multi-pane display system that allows selected information to be kept constantly visible, most of your messages will be out of sight most of the time. Don’t expect your electronic displays to replace conventional signage.

3. Simplify and shorten—Consider screen content a “teaser”; keep text to a bare minimum. Our default slide duration is 7 seconds. In practice, we find that patrons rarely stop and read the screens. More typically, they’ll glance in passing, and that’s why we coordinate the look of our print and electronic images—to encourage patrons to stop and read our printed pieces, having previously glimpsed the same visuals on the screens.

When longer messages can’t be avoided, rather than stretching out the slide duration I’ll stretch the message across two or more slides. Sometimes I keep the background constant and have only the text change, similar to a PowerPoint build. At other times, to add visual interest while giving a simple message extra screen time, I’ve used multiple slides to create a rudimentary animation. Here the message remains static while the background moves. Once, for an exhibition featuring historic photographs, I used Photoshop to create a series of background images in which a contemporary street scene match-dissolves into the same view from a 1920s photo.

4. Darker=greener—White space is economical on a print piece, since dark backgrounds use more ink or toner, whereas on a plasma display the more pixels you light up, the more energy you use, and the faster the screen wears out (LED screens employ a different imaging system and use power at a relatively constant rate). Think white (and lively colors) on black.

To see representative samples of our content, minus the slide timings and transitions, please visit our online display gallery. Though we’ll probably move to a purpose-built solution at some future point, our experience to date shows that with the right approach, a quick-and-dirty startup doesn’t need to look that way.