Category Archives: Innovation

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.

Tapping Your Inner Entrepreneur

Are you a Librarian Entrepreneur? You might be. Would you answer “yes” to these questions:

I am an opportunist.
I am a creative genius (or part of a creative work team)
I am persistent
I am customer focused
I connect the dots
I am passionate
I am a risk taker

According to my research in preparation for a talk at Inspiration, Innovation, Celebration: An Entrepreneurial Conference for Librarians those are the seven core qualities of an entrepreneur; I learned a good deal about the characteristics and practices of entrepreneurs at my institution’s Center for Entrepreneur Research. Based on what I heard at various presentations delivered at the conference, at least one or more of these characteristics are indeed associated with with the work of librarian entrepreneurs. But for my closing keynote talk I raised a simple question: Is the term librarian entrepreneur an oxymoron? Considering what business and start-up entrepreneurs do how would academic librarians achieve entrepreneur status? I asked quite a few librarians if they could name a librarian entrepreneur. Ninety-eight percent could not. A few named someone entrepreneurial who created a library product or service, but who was not a librarian. If there are librarian entrepreneurs out there why don’t we know who they are?

Part of the confusion comes from the uncertainty about the work of entrepreneurs – and does coming up with an innovative idea make you an entrepreneur? In the classic business sense an entrepreneur is an individual or group that comes up with one big idea and essentially puts all their resources (time, money, energy, etc.) into pursuing it to make it happen with the intent of eventually being profitable. I shared tales of entrepreneurs who had done just that, putting everything they have into a single business idea. Clearly not the sort of thing we do in libraries. I also asked librarians to name any entreprenuer. Virtually all had no trouble answering that question; the most frequently named entrepreneurs were high visible, business people, usually technologists and wealthy (think Bill Gates or Steve Jobs). So the characteristics we associate with entrepreneurs would, for most people, hardly fit a librarian.

So even though I tried to raise some doubts about the viability of the librarian entrepreneur concept, it would be difficult to claim that librarians fail the entrepreneur test with the evidence delivered by the presenters. You can review the ideas that were shared at the conference site, and some of the presentation slides are now available. I liked the opportunism and creativity employed but the folks who developed a digital media center at SMU. Attendees were buzzing about the academic library that included an 18-hole mini-golf course in their library redesign project. At UNC-Greensboro they developed an A-Z journal finder that was eventually sold to a commercial vendor, and returned some profits to the institution. So while academic librarians rarely put everything into a single big idea with a go for broke attitude, there certainly are plenty of examples of projects that demonstrate creativity, innovation and some degree of risk.

I closed the conference with ten tips for aspiring library entrepreneurs, and a few messages about creating an entrepreneurial library from some folks who I think have proven to be particularly successful at doing just that. Those tips, messages and clips from my librarian interviews are embedded in my slides if you want to have a look (the embedded videos will run best on a mac). If you think of yourself as a librarian entrepreneur, share an example of something you’ve accomplished at or beyond your library.

Innovation Moves Our Profession Forward

In a previous post I had a some fun pointing out some obsolete tools and technologies that were no longer important to the work of librarians. You must have had some fun with it as well. That post remains the most commented on one we’ve written here at ACRLog. Readers shared examples of their own obsolete equipment, technologies and techniques. By looking back we collectively measured the great leaps and bounds by which our work has evolved. We might likewise measure our progress by examining how innovation has changed what we do and how we do it.

Knowledge@Wharton published their list of the top 30 innovations of the last 30 years. I was struck by the ones that dramatically transformed my work since I first entered the profession in 1978. What didn’t I have then? No computer (#2). No Internet or Web (#1). No email (#4). No cell phone (#3). No GUI (#21). How did we ever manage? Just those few innovations alone have revolutionized and forever altered librarianship. Sorry gaming librarians – video games didn’t even make the list – but social networking did (#20).

At its most basic and fundamental foundations the library is about acquiring, storing, organizing and disseminating information/content. Every one of these functions is radically altered by just these four innovations. It is difficult to even imagine what new and future innovations will change our work in the next 20 or 30 years. Perhaps in just the next 10 years we’ll see as much innovative technology change as we did in the past 30. Electronic ink and foldable computer screens. Personal intelligent assistants. Advanced virtual world simulations. Ubiquitous VoIP integrated into digital technologies. Oh yeah, flying cars! These and other technology innovations stand poised to even more radically change the nature of library work. Well, maybe not the flying cars. There’s much to look forward to in our profession and the ways in which we’ll harness the innovations of the future to better serve our user communities.