Category Archives: Just Thinking

Use this category for raising questions and thinking out loud or reflecting on writings for which there is no real specific topic.

Expanding Our (Conference) Audience

The week before Thanksgiving I joined thousands of anthropologists and others who descended on Chicago for the American Anthropological Association conference. My research partner Mariana Regalado and I participated in a roundtable session with colleagues from four other institutions who are also doing ethnographic work in libraries and higher education: Andrew Asher, Lesley Gourlay, Lori Jahnke, and Donna Lanclos. Our session discussed the myriad ways that college and university students engage with technology, and how students’ lived experiences can add detail that may be missing from data collected to inform strategic plans and administrative initiatives. Also threaded throughout was an interrogation of the idea of the undergraduate as digital native, which of course academic librarians readily identify as problematic. Donna both blogged about and Storified the session well, if you’re interested in the details.

The roundtable format at the AAAs was new to me, and I have to admit that I was a bit nervous before the session in part because I was not quite sure what to expect. From what I could glean beforehand it seemed like roundtables are intended to be a bit like what many library conferences call panel sessions, though somewhat less formal. We didn’t have papers to present or a linear slide deck, but rather began with each of us describing our projects, using a Prezi to offer a few visuals, then jumped in with the six of us discussing broad themes and talking points we’d identified beforehand. We had just under two hours for the session and there was lots of discussion and conversation with our audience.

And our audience was delightful! As a group they were highly engaged, with multiple folks asking questions and offering discussion points from their own experiences. Though smallish in number, we were lucky enough to have attendees who inhabited different roles in the higher education: full-time faculty members, adjunct faculty, graduate students, and even a thoughtful, well-spoken undergraduate who asked terrific questions and readily shared her frustrations and challenges with academic technology with us. It was fascinating to hear from an adjunct who shared her story of being assigned a new classroom chock full of the latest tech tools, and her struggles to use the technology in the absence of thorough training. And the undergraduate noted that sometimes her professors assign tech-heavy projects seemingly without a full understanding of the time and effort involved in pulling them off, assuming that all students her age have loads of experience with any new tech tool.

In some ways the session was like a mini-focus group, with the end result that the six of us on the roundtable left energized and enthusiastic for future research and collaboration. Since then I’ve been thinking not only about our research but also about the audience. At academic library conferences we tend to talk to and amongst ourselves — fellow academic librarians. Sometimes graduate students attend, but conferences are expensive, and since academic librarianship doesn’t have the strong tradition of the conference job interview the way many scholarly associations do, there’s perhaps not as much of a reason for MLIS students to attend conferences while still in graduate school.

But wouldn’t it be fabulous to have conversations — both formal presentations and informal — with faculty, students, and others who use and have a stake in academic libraries at our conferences? Of course we can hold focus groups at our own institutions, but there’s a different dynamic at conferences, in addition to the opportunity to speak with folks from other colleges and universities. I’m not sure that there’s enough relevant content for faculty and students from outside the library to come to a conference geared towards academic librarians, though. Have you been to any library conferences that drew attendees from outside of the world of academic libraries? Other than inviting non-library folks to present with us, are there other ways we could encourage them to attend?

Strategies for That Time Again

It’s that time of the semester again, the time when I find myself responding to requests by saying “When is this due? It’s that time again.” And beginning conversations with the same phrase: “How are you?” “Busy,” is usually the response. “Me too — it’s that time again.”

At my university the weeks between Halloween and Thanksgiving are usually the busiest time for library instruction, the time just after midterms and when students are beginning to work on their final research assignments. This year enrollment is up at the college so we have an unexpectedly large number of library sessions for our introductory English Comp course. It’s a good thing — we love it when students come to the library! — though our Instruction Team is perhaps stretched a bit thin this semester, our classroom nearly constantly booked.

With so much instruction this semester it’s easy to feel somewhat out of control, like we’re spending our time being more reactive than active and less intentional about instruction than we’d like. Our Instruction Team’s usual strategy for instruction is to tie it closely to students’ course assignment, to allow students time to work on their course-related research during the library session, to try to incorporate active learning whenever possible. But when things get busy it can be challenging to meet these goals. With all of the additional sections there are a large number of adjunct faculty who are new to the college, and it can sometimes be difficult to get in touch with them to discuss the session beforehand. Sometimes an instructor’s schedule will change; what seemed at the beginning of the semester like a library session date that fit well with students’ work on research assignments suddenly isn’t anymore. And sometimes, despite our best efforts, a class comes in without an assignment, the instructor requesting an orientation lecture that’s not closely tied to their research for the course.

My colleagues and I have given lots of thought to these intro English Comp sessions, the backbone of our library instruction program. We’ve created student learning outcomes, we have a short assessment, we think hard about how the session can meet the needs of our students as they begin to build their information literacy competencies in college. But when the classroom is booked straight through from 9am-5pm most weekdays, when we can’t find an hour during the week for our whole team to meet, I wonder how we can preserve some time for reflection and intention. What strategies do you use to build in time for thinking on and discussing instruction at your library, even when the semester’s at its most scheduled?

Office Space in Academic Libraries: Lumpers or Splitters?

Several colleagues and I took a field trip last week to Bronx Community College (BCC), one of the other colleges in our university system, the City University of New York. The library at BCC recently moved into brand new digs in a freshly-constructed building, a rarity for colleges here in the space-challenged NYC metropolitan area. In the library at City Tech where I work, we’re thinking about space use and the possibility of renovations, so we were eager to see what BCC’s librarians and the architects who designed the building had done with the opportunity to build a library space literally from the ground up.

The new BCC library is gorgeous, and my colleagues and I came back to Brooklyn with lots of ideas to think on for our library at City Tech. Curiously, since then I’ve found myself not reflecting on what students are doing in a college library, which is usually the lens I use when I look at space use in our library. Instead, I’ve been considering how we librarians use and move through space in a library.

At City Tech, offices for librarians are located along the perimeter of the library and divided nearly evenly between both of our two floors. We have a few areas that include several offices that open into a shared space, but most of us are in individual spaces with doors that open into the library itself. Staff restrooms and our lounge/kitchen are on one end of the upper floor of the library, our conference room is on the other. My colleagues and I are, for the most part, split up — scattered throughout the library.

BCC’s new library features a different plan for librarian offices: there the offices are clumped together on the first of the library’s two floors. The office area is rectangular with librarian offices along the outside edge, presumably to take advantage of the incredible views that accompany BCC’s location in the University Heights section of the Bronx. The office area also includes staff cubicles (in the center of the space), restrooms, a conference room, and a kitchen/lounge. The librarians are all together, and the space is accessible from one corner of the public area of the library via a single door.

How does office configuration affect the ways that we interact with each other as librarians and with our students and other patrons in the library? Because we’re so spread out at City Tech, I can sometimes go days or even a week without seeing my colleagues who have offices on the other side and floor of the library from me. While of course we mingle in meetings, at the Reference Desk, and in other library-related functions, my colleagues and I often have to intentionally seek each other out to have the kind of casual conversations that were common when I used to work in an office that was all cubicles, the kinds of conversations that I imagine are a part of the daily routine at BCC where the librarians’ offices are all together. Those conversations can provide a social glue that fosters camaraderie and helps a group of people work together as a team.

While I may not see my colleagues as often as I would if our offices were grouped together, a benefit to having librarians spread out like we do at City Tech is that we have to walk through the library’s public areas throughout each day. Anytime I come and go from the library, use the restroom or microwave, or need to make a photocopy, I’m walking through our stacks and study areas. Since I can never really turn off my inner anthropologist, I find that I highly value the opportunity to observe students and other patrons as they use the library. In the best moments these observations can provide inspiration to try something new with our services and resources. And of course the insights they offer can also inform our thinking about renovation possibilities.

It seems like there’s a strong positive side to both lumping and splitting office spaces in the library, so I’m not certain that one layout is clearly better than the other. I wonder if there’s any configuration that would facilitate the advantages of both?

Analyzing Authority @ the ACRL Conference

On the last morning of my last day at the ACRL Conference I tweeted out a quick observation:

I got a couple of retweets and even started up a Twitter conversation with @nancyeadams, who shared a preprint of an article she’s written that discusses authority (among other topics), which I’m looking forward to reading this summer. But then it was time to head home.

I’ve never done any textmining before, so I tried to dip my toe in the pool by using Storify to pull together tweets that included the word “authority” and the hashtag #acrl2013. But I was tired after the conference and somewhat impatient. I couldn’t get Storify to simultaneously display tweets with the other hashtag (#acrl13) I saw being used occasionally, so I gave up pretty quickly; it also seemed like Storify wasn’t pulling in every single tweet from Twitter. I tried using Zach Coble’s fascinating ACRL Conference social media archive, but I couldn’t manipulate the tweet text all at once. I was also worried that as the conference receded into the past, tweets would become more difficult to find. So I went for the bash-it-with-a-rock strategy: I did a search in Twitter for each of the two hashtags, then I cut and pasted all of the tweets into a text file.

And there the text file sat until Memorial Day weekend, when the semester had ended and I finally had a chance to get back to it. I should stress that this is (still) a fairly basic analysis — I’ve gone through the text of tweets from the beginning of the conference to the end to find all instances of the word “authority” to see whether anything particularly interesting stood out. I’m certain that there are better tools to use for this task, but I’m (still) impatient so I’m plowing ahead with my rocks. (If you’ve used any tools that seem like they’d be useful in this context, please let me know in the comments!)

So, what did I find? I pulled 8,393 tweets (including retweets) with the hashtags #acrl2013 and #acrl13 dating from April 3 through April 16 at around 10:30pm. There were 60 occurrences of the word “authority” in the tweets I pulled.

Some of the patterns are easy enough to see and explain. First thing Thursday morning was the panel session “Questioning Authority: Standard Three and the Critical Classroom” with Jenna Freedman, Emily Drabinski, and Lia Friedman. This session had its own hashtag — #qacrlauthority — which made the tweets even easier to spot (and which I really appreciated since the wicked weather made me miss the session). There were 41 occurrences of the word “authority” in the tweets and retweets from this session. Laura O’Brien created a Storify of the panel which looks to have captured the session well. As librarians we should examine the authority embedded in controlled vocabularies, sources, and other library systems we use, and consider the ways we can empower students as authorities.

Chronologically, the next mention of authority was a tweet from Alison Head’s invited paper on Project Information Literacy, a multi-year, multi-institution study of college students’ information seeking and use. They have a nifty infographic created from their data on how college students seek information.

I missed that presentation (and haven’t read the paper yet) so I can’t offer any extra context around this tweet. But it’s an interesting comparison to the tweets from the Questioning Authority session, especially this one:

And in comparison to Henry Rollins’ mention of authority in his keynote (there were 5 tweets that referred to the thematic links he drew between Thomas Jefferson and punk rock):

And in comparison to the three tweets from the Feminist Pedagogy panel session on Sunday morning, especially:

Taken together, all of these tweets seem to point to a tension between librarians (and libraries) and our patrons, especially students. We have authority in the information realm, authority conferred by education, by experience, by knowledge. Is there a down side to having that authority? Can looking for ways to enable students and patrons to seize some of that authority enhance their learning? And are there reasons not to share or transfer that authority?

A couple of tweets from the libraries and publishing discussion at THATCamp ACRL hinted at the relationship between authority and prestige, a relationship which seems to be growing increasingly fraught as scholarly communications continue to shift and change.

Finally, three tweets discussed the nature of authority in our own library workplaces. Two were from the session “Think Like A Startup: Creating a Culture of Innovation, Inspiration, and Entrepreneurialism,” including one from my fellow ACRLogger Laura Braunstein:

Another seems to have been from the session “Curb Your Enthusiasm? Essential Guidance for Newbie Academic Librarians,” and pairs well with Laura’s tweet above:

I’ve found it interesting to see the various points of the conference where the topic of authority was discussed and considered. I confess that I’m not a big fan of the word authority. When I teach students about evaluating information I always use the term expertise, and in writing this post it’s been easy to see why: in looking through these tweets I’m struck by the underlying theme of power. Thinking on this more drove me to seek out some definitions. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary lists this as the first definition of authority:

an individual cited or appealed to as an expert

and this as the second:

power to influence or command thought, opinion, or behavior

which for me comes uncomfortably close to authoritarian:

1. of, relating to, or favoring blind submission to authority
2. of, relating to, or favoring a concentration of power in a leader or an elite not constitutionally responsible to the people

This as opposed to the more egalitarian nature of the term expertise, from expert:

having, involving, or displaying special skill or knowledge derived from training or experience

As librarians we aim to increase access to information, to share it, and ultimately to promote expertise among our patrons and students. The words we use when we describe our roles and relationships — both within and outside of the library — matter. When we use the term authority, is it possible to get away from power? And do we want to? After all, power can be used for good as well as for ill. Do we lose anything by shifting our use to expertise instead of authority?

Just Thinking: Starting and Failing

It’s hard for me to believe that this time last year I had just completed the on-campus interview for my current job, and then a few days later walked in my masters graduation ceremony. As my first year as a librarian winds down and the adrenaline rush of the academic schedule starts to wane, I find myself feeling… reflective and rather tired. Last week, it was a nice surprise to find several ideas circulating around the web to boost my energy and my spirit to push through the end of the semester and maintain momentum to plan summer projects.

“Start small… but start.”

While attending ACRL 2013, I was blown away by the awesome, inspiring, and interesting work my colleagues across the profession are producing. But at the same time, I couldn’t help but feel a bit like a “little fish in the big ocean,” surrounded by those more experienced and more successful than me. Although I enjoyed the opportunity to co-facilitate a roundtable discussion, I couldn’t help but wonder when I’ll move on to bigger opportunities and when my CV will start to look less like a new librarian’s, and more like a tenure-track professional’s.

And then this week two of my favorite library blogs reminded that life sans banana slicer (or other badge of honor) is still pretty darn good, and that striving for success in my daily work is valuable as I continue to take small steps working towards larger goals. I also attended Maryland’s Council of Academic Library Directors meeting, where Debra Gilchrist reminded librarians that it’s better to “start small, but start” than to never start important, potentially daunting, projects at all.

Upon closer examination, I can already look back to see several instances where starting small has begun to pay off. For instance, while I’ve lept at the opportunity to apply my undergraduate degree, previous work experience, and natural interests to my duties as the Psychology department liaison, it’s been more difficult to get “into” the department than I originally imagined.  Last December I was allowed five minutes at the beginning of a Psychology department meeting to introduce myself to the faculty (and then I was promptly asked to leave). Though I was skeptical five minutes would make any sort of a difference, right after the meeting I received two quick email questions from psychology faculty members. And the following semester, two faculty members I had not personally met contacted me to help find and recommend resources to be used in a Psych 101 course redesign. A small, but growing start.

“Failing forward.”

Of course, there are several instances where “starting” something does not lead to completely positive results. I don’t personally care for the word “fail” (for me, it carries a negative connotation of dejection), but failure is a natural part of risk taking. The problem is we like to focus so much on success I think we brush aside that most learning comes from failure. And this year as I’ve happily watched my colleagues present papers, give lectures, win scholarships, lead professional associations, and achieve promotion, it’s been equally helpful to talk with them about what has not gone so well. The classes that fell apart. The requests that were denied. The proposals that were not accepted. Because, quite frankly, working through problems and disappointments with successful people that I admire reminds me that success if often the product of perseverance through, and learning from, failure.

This idea was summed up nicely last week when a tweet appeared in my Twitter stream reminding me to “fail forward.” How can learning from failure propel you forward?

While I was catching up with a graduate school friend at ACRL, I learned that a paper we submitted with fellow graduate school colleagues had been reviewed and rejected for potential publication. Although this was not entirely unexpected, the news still stung. A few days later, my friend sent along the reviewers’ comments and in the 10 or so minutes I spent taking a preliminary pass at the mostly constructive criticism, I learned more about the practicalities of the peer review process than I have in any single sitting since my undergraduate years when I learned about peer review for the first time. And now, as we pick through the comments and strategize options for moving the project forward (or not), I’m learning about picking priorities in my work – which parts of the project are worth further time, and which are simply no longer a priority for me. And while “failure” stings, I now feel more prepared to anticipate some previously overlooked research pitfalls as I turn my attention to new endeavors.

Looking forward to Summer

So, as classes wind down and my summer rapidly fills up with those projects that get neglected or pushed off in the heat of the semester, many of which have no clear starting point or are the result of a previously failed attempt, I am re-energized through recommitting to these two goals – start small, and fail forward.