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.

Breaking Through the Block

One of the reasons I like to blog is that it keeps me writing regularly. Like lots of academic librarians my job comes with expectations for research and scholarship, so I need to be able to write up the work that I do and get it published. Writing is hard — I think writing comes truly easily for only very few people. I’ve found that the more I write, the easier it is to write. Many books on writing suggest setting aside time for it every day, and while I can’t always preserve that time I do tend to write at least a little something more days than not.

But everyone has a bout of writer’s block at least occasionally, which is precisely the place I’m in right now. I think I know why: I’m in the midst of analyzing and writing up a big research project so it’s likely that most of my creative focus is occupied with that. Even so, I’ll be working on this big project for a while yet, and I need to figure out a way to move past the block and keep writing, especially as I work through the data analysis.

Thinking about writer’s block has me thinking about strategies for overcoming writer’s block. Here are some that have worked for me. If you’ve got a great tactic for breaking through the block, please share in the comments!

Schedule your writing (and thinking) time
In the past Steven’s written about finding a good time to write and creating a writing routine, and as I mentioned above I try and find the time to write at least a couple hundred words every day. The key for me is that this doesn’t have to be academic writing or even related to libraries: writing in my personal journal counts, as does writing quick blog posts for work or for some of my other interests. I use a spreadsheet to keep track of my daily word count, which gives me a nice motivational boost.

I also find that it’s helpful for me to occasionally schedule thinking time. Usually this is on my way to work in the morning, which is most productive on the days that I walk, though I imagine it would also work well if I drove to work. This intentional time to think about what I could write about doesn’t always result in an executable idea, but it definitely helps get the mental gears moving. I think it also puts me into a more receptive frame of mind, so that when I do come across something of interest I’m more likely to be able to write about it.

Keep track of your ideas in a file, and revisit that file often
I’ve mentioned before that I keep a text file of sources of inspiration for scholarly research, which of course can be just as readily used to gather ideas for blogging. During a period of writer’s block it’s easy for me to forget about that file, and as I went back into it recently I realized I hadn’t gone through it in a few months. I’m going to make the effort to check the file more often, clearing out ideas that have been turned into full-fledged pieces of writing and adding in new thoughts.

Read, read, read (or watch, attend, talk, etc.)
This is probably a no-brainer, but reading news and blogs about librarianship and academia can provide great fodder for both informal and formal writing. I’ve gravitated away from listservs in recent years in favor of RSS feeds, but if you’re a die-hard listserv reader those can be good sources. Ditto for conferences and other professional development opportunities, both live and on the internet. Even a chat with your colleagues around the proverbial water cooler can inspire writing thoughts. When I’m writer’s blocked it’s easy to feel stuck my own head, unable to move past what seem like the same old boring ideas. Exposing myself to information from a wide variety of outside influences can help me think (and write) about new topics.

Ask questions
Finally, here’s where I’ll practice what I preach: ACRLog readers, what would you like us to blog about? Are there any topics you’d like to see us cover? Let us know in the comments!

Digital Badges for Library Research?

The world of higher education has been abuzz this past year with the idea of digital badges. Many see digital badges as an alternative to higher education’s system of transcripts and post-secondary degrees, which are constantly being critically scrutinized for their value and ability demonstrate that students are ready for a competitive workforce. There have been several articles from the Chronicle of Higher Education discussing this educational trend. One such article is Kevin Carey’s “A Future Full of Badges,” published back in April. In it, Carey describes how UC Davis, a national leader in agriculture, is pioneering a digital open badge program.

UC Davis’s badge system was created specifically for undergraduate students majoring in Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems. Their innovative system was one of the winners of the Digital Media and Learning Competition (sponsored by Mozilla and the MacArthur Foundation). According to Carey,

Instead of being built around major requirements and grades in standard three-credit courses, the Davis badge system is based on the sustainable-agriculture program’s core competencies—”systems thinking,” for example. It is designed to organize evidence of both formal and informal learning, from within traditional higher education and without.

As opposed to a university transcript, digital badges could provide a well-rounded view of a student’s accomplishments because it could take into account things like conferences attended and specific skills learned. Clearly, we’re not talking about Girl Scout badges.

Carey seems confident that digital badges aren’t simply a higher education fad. He believes that that with time, these types of systems will grow and be recognized by employers. But I’m still a bit skeptical over whether this movement will gain enough momentum to last.

But just for a moment, let’s assume that this open badge system proves to be a fixture in the future of higher education. Does this mean someday a student could get a badge in various areas of library research, such as searching Lexis/Nexis, locating a book by its call number, or correctly citing a source within a paper? Many college and university librarians struggle with getting information competency skills inserted into the curriculum in terms of learning outcomes or core competencies. And even if they are in the curriculum, librarians often struggle when it comes to working with teaching faculty and students to ensure that these skills are effectively being taught and graded. Perhaps badges could be a way for librarians to play a significant role in the development and assessment student information competency skills.

Would potential employers or graduate school admissions departments be impressed with a set of library research badges on someone’s application? I have no idea. But I do know that as the amount of content available via the Internet continues to grow exponentially, the more important it is that students possess the critical thinking skills necessary to search, find, assess, and use information. If digital badges do indeed flourish within higher education, I hope that library research will be a vital part of the badge sash.

Reflections on Reflecting

As is custom around the end of May, the staff and faculty at my library are all working on our annual reviews.  Annual reviews can be a bit frustrating because they sometimes seem tedious and they’re not always the best tool for giving and receiving constructive feedback.  They are also intimidating political documents, which can dictate pay raises and other welcome or unwelcome changes.

I’m only on my second review at my institution, but I’ve already noticed a pattern while I write them—I vacillate between feeling completely overwhelmed to feeling cautiously optimistic.  I feel overwhelmed because I often struggle with clearly articulating my accomplishments.  Like many librarians, I’m not one to brag, but the annual review forces us to make a good argument for all that we did (or did not do).  After the initial struggle (and inevitable procrastination), the emotion of being overwhelmed dissipates and I begin to feel cautiously optimistic as I see all my accomplishments listed out in my Word document.

I think it is extremely important for us all to annually reflect on where we’ve come from, where we are now, where we would like to go in the future, and our impact on the organization.  Additionally, it’s a great opportunity to check and make sure we are actually doing what our job description says we should be doing. Nevertheless, I have mixed feelings when it comes to annual reviews.

My biggest frustration with annual reviews is that I believe there should be many more opportunities (informally and formally) for us to reflect.  Every month I take the time to jot down the highlights (and even low-lights) of the previous four weeks.  I find that taking the time to do a monthly reflection fosters an attitude of gratitude and perspective—especially when I’m feeling very stressed.  Additionally, looking back on my entries from the past year greatly helped me complete this year’s annual review.  If you’re interested in reflecting on a daily basis, the program iDoneThis might work for you (–it costs $3/month, but you can try it free for 30 days).  Every day it sends you an email asking what you accomplished that day.  After you reply, it dumps all the information into a calendar that you can login to look at whenever you like.  I gave this program on honest try.  It didn’t work for me, but I still think the concept is very cool.  My librarian idol, Char Booth, talked about using a three-question reflection after every teaching session in her ACRL keynote, “The Librarian as Situated Educator: Instructional Literacy and Participation in Communities of Practice.” Her three questions are,

  1. What went well?
  2. What did not go well?
  3. What is something that I should think about for next time?

I’m thinking about adopting this approach for the upcoming academic year.

Whether your style is to reflect daily, monthly, or after every teaching session, it is important to make it a regular practice so that when it comes time to do an annual review you armed with lots of things to say.

Do you have any tips or suggestions for reflecting on your professional work?

The Ebook of My Dreams

We all have our frustrations with ebooks. The problem isn’t just one of print vs electronic or Luddite vs early adopter. Even as I happily consume Kindle books on my iPad and the new Project Muse collection for work, I find that ebooks simply don’t do the things I want them to do – the things the electronic format seems to promise. In an ideal world, what would ebooks do that would make them not a substitute for print books, but better than print books? What features would make ebooks represent a true new step in the evolution of information delivery systems? Here’s what I’d like to see :

Interoperability: Ebooks need to take advantage of the spatial navigability of the electronic environment. For example, the index should not exist separately as an additional PDF file, as many ebook indexes do. Instead, I should be able to click on an entry in the index (say, “deckchairs, rearrangement of”) and be linked to the place(s) in the text where that topic is discussed. With endnotes, it’s frustrating to flip to the end, especially when it’s just a bibliographic citation. Can you give me the information without taking me away from the text? Can I mouse-over and get the information in a pop-up window? How much more work would it take to link up index entries and notes? How much more of an intellectual payoff would we get?

Intertextuality: Does the book cite other books? Journal articles? Blogs? Websites? Well, connect me – not just to bibliographic information that I can port into a link resolver and then cross my fingers. Take me there: right to the page that the author discusses. Make the connectivity that we expect on the web a standard feature of ebooks. Is there an allusion to some other text? Identify the allusion and give me the option of linking to it. But also give me the option of turning off all of the annotations — sometimes I just want to read without interruption. Especially if I’m reading James Joyce.

Sharing: Hey, I just read this great essay in that new collection – it would really help with that project we’re working on. Want to borrow my copy with all my notes?  Great, and you can add your annotations too. When we’re done with work, want to borrow this great new novel I just finished reading? Oh, sorry, I read it on my Kindle. You’ll have to pay $9.99 too.

Device Neutrality: You have a Nook instead of a Kindle? No problem! You don’t have a device at all and you need to borrow one? Sure! You need to put the book on reserve, or use it on your laptop? Be our guest! But most of all, you don’t want to have to download an app just to read a book. Well, neither do I, and in my flying-car, jet-pack, futuristic fantasy world of ebooks, we don’t need to.

Curating: As a bibliographer, I need to acquire for my library the information that will support the research and teaching needs of the faculty and students on my campus. I don’t want a package that has been created by a vendor speculating about the needs of liberal-arts college library collections. I want to buy ebooks for my library just like I buy print books — some on approval, some as firm orders, some through patron-driven acquisitions, some because a new professor has been hired in that subject area, and some because they belong in a collection of record. I don’t want to be told that I can’t have an ebook in my collection because my vendor’s conglomerate competes with its publisher’s conglomerate. If two print books sit happily next to each other on a physical shelf, why can’t they coexist on a virtual shelf?

Can we also decide: eBook? e-book? ebook?

Yes, some of these features do exist already, often as standalone apps. Many of these are features we’ve come to expect from ejournal (eJournal? e-journal?) environments. What ebook features do you dream about?

Digital Library, Virtual Place?

All of our academic library services and resources have their origins in the physical world, but many of them can be and are replicated online fairly easily. Access to collections in multiple formats (text, image, audio, video), reference services, and library and information literacy instruction all have digital variants, and examples of each are out there in the academic library universe (though not all libraries may implement an online version of every physical service or resource that they offer). Of course any service or resource can be improved, but there are lots of well-understood and tested models for moving these kinds of services and resources from the physical to the digital world.

But what about another important reason that students (and sometimes faculty) come to the library: a place for academic work and study? There’s lots of recent research on (and speculation on potential) student uses of the library as place. We all grapple with issues around these uses of our buildings: quiet vs. noise, group work vs. individual study, technology-enhanced workspaces, etc. If your college or university is seeing lots of growth in student enrollment the way mine is, you may be noticing some of these issues increasingly often.

The library is different from other spaces students might choose for study and academic work. In my own research I’ve often heard this from students: how they sometimes struggle to find a spot in the library with the ideal combination of light, sound, and space for them to work in, and that they find it challenging to create a space for study in areas outside of the library: at home, on the commute, etc. Some students describe specific college libraries in my university system as “serious” and prefer to work there rather than their enrolled college library. Space for academic work matters to our students, very much.

Is it possible (or even advisable) to replicate or provide an online alternative to the academic library as a place to study? As Laura’s recent post pointed out, our libraries can be spaces for all sorts of productive conversations and collaborations, both formal and informal. But I’m in a small library in a large commuter college, and on urban campuses like mine it can be difficult to find locations to expand our physical space. I tend to view adding online services and resources as a strategy we can try to address some of the limitations of the physical world.

Is there an analog to the library as place in the digital world? Should there be?