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.

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.

The Beginning of the Middle

Today is the 5th anniversary of my job as an information literacy librarian, my first full-time library position. Five years: while it’s not all that long — certainly many of my colleagues have much more experience than I do — it seems momentous in some ways. In my previous two careers I had serious reservations about whether to continue down each path by the five year mark, and it’s wonderful to have none of those doubts this time around. Instead this seems like the very beginning of the middle of my career, and feels like a good time for reflection, for both looking back and projecting forward.

The past five years have flown by as I’ve worked on and learned about information literacy and library instruction, my library and institution, the research expectations for the tenure track, and service at my college, university, and beyond. In my first couple of years I spent lots of time engaging with new faculty at my college and new library faculty across my university, and I have to admit that I sort of miss it. I was in a meeting the other day with a Biologist in her first year at the college and her energy and enthusiasm was infectious (pun intended). I see announcements posted about meetings for new or junior faculty and realize somewhat wistfully that’s not me anymore, as I was (happily!) promoted last September.

While I’m a bit nostalgic for the strong camaraderie of the newbie experience, I’ve enjoyed transitioning into the role of a more knowledgeable colleague who (I hope) can offer support. The first few times I was asked for advice by colleagues it was genuinely surprising to me, but it’s less unexpected and more comfortable now. I’m also just about at the halfway mark in a leadership role in a large faculty development grant at my college. I’ve had the opportunity to work with new and seasoned faculty from across the college, and that’s definitely had an impact on my knowledge and self-perception.

This Spring both the college and the library where I work are creating five-year strategic plans. For me the immediate future seems fairly clear: I have two more years until I go up for tenure, I’m in the midst of writing up a big research project, our library instruction team is starting to pilot strategies we hope will help us reach more students with more relevant information literacy instruction. But farther out than that seems less certain. One aspect of being a faculty member that I’m very grateful for is that I have some freedom in considering projects to work on, especially in my own research but also as a librarian. And libraries and higher education are in a constant state of flux, from the introduction of new technologies and tools to the fact that the population we serve is ever-changing as students enter college and progress through their degrees, so certainty may be elusive.

If you’re at the beginning of the middle, do you have a five-year plan for yourself? Have you taken on new responsibilities as you’ve become a more experienced librarian? Share your thoughts in the comments!

3-D Printers

One aspect of being a new librarian is the feeling of having arrived late to a party where everyone is already deep in conversation. You lurk with your drink and canapés hoping to hear something that resonates on which you can say something intelligent. Or perhaps you just blurt out what you’re thinking to the delight or horror of your new peers.

So I hear things about 3-D printers and think I have something to add. My gig before science librarian was equipment manager for a Cell & Developmental Biology department. So I have some years of experience evaluating, purchasing and subsequently training people on highly technical equipment. The value of centrally funded equipment is fairly clear to me, and you can see cool examples of how a 3-D printer might save money in lab. But this single blog post gets trotted out too frequently as a justification for 3-D printers. There’s been some pushback on 3-D printers – Hugh Rundle and Jacob Berg both come to mind. And they make good points – like you may have way more important things to do with your time, or maybe the main library isn’t the best place for these things. But they also reference “technolust” (Rundle) and “wish fulfillment” (Berg) as a dig at the motivations for getting a 3-D printer. Fair enough, but I think a library is a pretty good place for these things if they are coming to your campus, unfortunately you probably don’t have the time to make them really useful.

Most lab equipment is poorly utilized. Very few pieces of equipment get used daily in a lab, – pH meter, spectrophotometer, benchtop centrifuges, and thermocyclers (perhaps) all get regular use. But there probably isn’t enough demand for a single lab or most departments to own a 3-D printer and use it to capacity. In the cost saving link above, the author made some electrophoresis combs – that can probably be used for years. I’ve closed out a lot of labs, and there are multitudinous gel combs and molds floating around, you’re just not going to be cranking them out daily. Having access to a 3-D printer is a potentially huge benefit to scientists trying to replace a small plastic bit of a machine (cost $50-75 from manufacturer) or to engineering students working on something like a robotics project. However, not many lab groups would be using them daily, so sticking them at the individual lab seems like a waste.

Even if an individual lab can justify the time and space, individual labs are often terrible, and I mean truly awful, at sharing. Dispositions run the gamut, but my memories of negotiating for access to a piece of equipment reminds me of baksheesh.  Having a place where scholars can go, get training, and not get entangled by reciprocity has a lot of time saving value. The grapevine is also a poor way to inform a community of new technology.

Scientists (and I imagine other scholars) like to see things in action before purchase. Scientists generally ask their peers and poke around before purchase, so getting a 3-D printer could also serve as a proof of concept to the community. Most will probably conclude they don’t need one for themselves. But the thing about 3-D printers is labs are only the most obvious users, and if a printer is put there they will most likely be the only users. Off the top of my head, 3-D printers have applications for art, education, and archaeology in addition to STEM fields.

All that said, I’m a bit leery of bringing 3-D printers into the library because they squirt hot polymer compound through tiny holes. Entropy is a tremendous enemy of devices like this and I fear they would be rapidly beaten into uselessness in a shared use environment. I’m sure they are well engineered and easy to clean (down sales reps, down) but … hot plastic, tiny tubes. Also, even if they are plug and play, designing something cool must take some training – and who provides that time and expertise? That said, I’ll leave folks with some nuts and bolts questions to help them assess whether a 3-D printer is right for their library.

  1. How much is a service contract for this machine? If I don’t buy a contract, what are the hourly service rate, the travel allowance and per diem cost for a technician to visit? Alternately, do we send it in for repair? If so, what are the packing requirements and typical turnaround time?
  2. What is the consumable cost? How much time does it take to switch consumables (for example – plastic colors) and does that take special training? Do I have to purchase consumables from you or are there third party solutions? Consumables also include things like motors and belts – over time every moving part is a consumable.
  3. What routine maintenance is required? How long does cleaning take and how often must it be performed?
  4. What operating systems do you support? Do we get free updates to the software? How about the firmware? Do we get free upgrades to the software? Can you import schematics from other programs?
  5. What circumstances void the warranty and/or contract?

Any good rep should have this info off the top of their head or very quickly. 3-D printers are cool and relatively inexpensive. Given the range of applications, a library is a pretty good fit. But the time and energy they may require for user training and maintenance should be investigated pretty thoroughly before purchase.

Not as simple as “click-by-click”

One of the projects I inherited as emerging technologies librarian is managing our library’s collection of “help guides.” The online learning objects in this collection are designed to provide asynchronous guidance to students when completing research-related tasks. Over the last few months, my focus has been on updating existing guides to reflect website and database interface changes, as well ensuring compliance with federal accessibility standards. With those updates nearly complete, the next order of business is to work with our committee of research and instruction librarians to create new content. The most requested guide at the top of our list? How to use the library’s discovery service rolled out during the Fall 2012 semester.

Like many other libraries, we hope the discovery service will allow users to find more materials across the library’s collections and beyond. Previously, our library’s website featured a “Books” search box to search the catalog, as well as an “Articles” search box to search one of our interdisciplinary databases. To ease the transition to the discovery system, we opted to keep the “Books” and “Articles” search boxes, in addition to adding the “one search box to rule them all”; however, these format search boxes now search the discovery tool using the appropriate document type tag. Without going into the nitty gritty details, this method has created certain “quirks” in the system that can lead sub-optimal search results.

This back-story leads to my current question about creating instructional guides for our discovery system – how do we design screencasts to demonstrate simple searches by format?

So far, this has boiled down to two options:

  1. Address the way students are most likely to interact with our system. We know users are drawn to cues with high information scent to help them find what they need; if I’m looking for a book, I’m more likely to be drawn to anything explicitly labeled “Books.” We also know students “satisfice” when completing research tasks, and many are unfortunately unlikely to care if their searches do not retrieve all possible results. Additionally, whatever we put front-and-center on our homepage is, I think, a decision we need to support within our instructional objects.
  2. Provide instruction demonstrating the way the discovery system was designed to be used. If we know our system is set up in a less-than-optimal way, it’s better to steer students away from the more tempting path. In this case, searching the discovery system as a whole and demonstrating how to use the “Format” limiters to find a specific types of materials. While this option requires ignoring the additional search options on our website, it will also allow us to eventually phase out the “Books” and “Articles” search boxes on the website without significant updates to our screencasts.

While debating these options with my colleagues, it’s been interesting to consider how this decision reflects the complexities of creating  standalone digital learning objects. The challenge is that these materials are often designed without necessarily knowing how, when, or why they will be used; our job is to create objects that meet students at a variety of point-of-need moments. Given that objects like screencasts should be kept short and to-the-point, it’s also difficult to add context that explains why the viewer should complete activities as-shown. And library instruction are not usually designed to make our students “mini-librarians.” Our advanced training and interest in information systems means it is our job to be the experts, but our students to not necessarily need to obtain this same level of knowledge to be successful information consumers and creators.

Does this mean we also engage in a bit of “satisficing” to create instructional guides that are “good enough” but not, perhaps, what we know to be “best?” Or do we provide just enough context to help students follow us as we guide them click-by-click from point A to point B, while lacking the complete “big picture” required to understand why this is the best path? Do either of these options fulfill our goals toward helping students develop their own critical information skills?

No instruction interaction is ever perfect. In person or online, synchronous or asynchronous, we’re always making compromises to balance idealism with reality. And in the case of creating and managing a large collection of online learning objects, it’s been interesting to have conversations which demonstrate why good digital learning objects are not synonymous with “click-by-click” instructions. How do we extend what we know about good pedagogy to create better online learning guides?

 

Finding a Successful Work/Life Balance

When you work in academia, it can be very hard to find a good work/life balance. I’ve always considered myself pretty good at it—so it sort of took me by surprise when in the middle of December, I experienced a mild case of burnout. Burnout is defined as the experience of long-term exhaustion, which can have many causes. For me, I believe the cause was multifaceted and difficult to pinpoint, but in general I think I pushed myself too hard for too long. I also have a suspicion it may have been induced by my close proximity to stressed out college students. My creative juices went dry and things that I normally enjoy doing, such as blogging, felt like an insurmountable chore. Good news, such as finally publishing a research article, yielded apathy rather than joy and pride.

Fortunately, I had the foresight to take a couple extra days off before holiday break in hopes getting a lot of rest and giving myself the opportunity to recover. Thankfully I didn’t travel too much over winter break, so I was able to truly savor every minute. I’ve been back to work for a few days now and I’m feeling much better! I’m optimistic that I kicked this bout of burnout.

Based on my own minor experience with burnout and a bit of research I’ve done, here are a few of my survival tips on finding a successful work/life balance:

Disconnect: When you physically leave the library at the end of the day, make sure your mind leaves it, too. I’ll admit, I break this rule all the time—especially when I have a lot of instruction sessions to prepare for, when I’m working on a research article, or when I’m (ahem) working on a blog post. I have often found that disconnecting helps me find creative solutions to problems I couldn’t solve while sitting at my desk. Unless I’m expecting an important email or phone call, I try not to touch any work on the weekends.

Find another passion: While it is very important to be passionate about your profession, I also think it’s important to be passionate about something outside of librarianship. All the librarians I know have lots of interests and hobbies. Pick one and put some energy into it. Mine is yoga. If I’m not at work, I’m in the yoga studio. I take my yoga practice very seriously and I make sure to carve out time for it. My colleagues sometimes think I’m crazy for doing yoga upwards of 15 hours a week (–I don’t have children), but on the contrary, it actually keeps me sane.

Have compassion for yourself: When you’re not able to do things as quickly and as efficiently as you are used to, be easy on yourself. Be mindful enough to realize that the blockages you are encountering do not reflect your value as a librarian or a person. Know that with time and patience, this will pass. And if it doesn’t, then you need to seek help or make a change.

Do you have any tips on navigating the work/life balance?