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.

The Unexpected Benefits of a Varied Life

This post originally was about using my liberal arts social science background as a physical science librarian. But a comment from “Bob” on my last post got to me when he mentioned some “dead ends” in his background. So here’s a roundup of ways I’ve tapped by wealth of experience to perhaps demonstrate the use of dead ends.

1) The history degree

My first tour of duty in academia was as a history major at a small liberal arts college and I wrote my thesis on Japanese militarism in China. Forward 18 years, I was asked to find an old Japanese patent that just didn’t come up in the Japanese Patent Database. But via a lovely non-linear insight, it struck me that there should be a year at the beginning of the patent application and it quickly clicked that the patent used the imperial calendar. The patent was retrieved quickly and the speed was due to this degree.

Also, I had a request for articles on Greek cultural life in America. Akron’s nursing program requires students to investigate an ethnic community and social sciences literature remains unfamiliar to most of the students. Although not as smooth as an actual specialist librarian, I at least knew to recommend an anthropology database and we found something a bit quicker than if I had not taken a few anthro classes.

2) Used Book Buying

For about five years. I worked as a book buyer at Powell’s Books and during that time purchased and priced around a million. From this job I was able to tell a coworker how to unslant a book’s spine and how to get out mildew smell. One of my liaison departments had a very nice book set donated to them and wanted an appraisal to decide if it was worth dealing with the administrative red tape to sell it (being useful is essential for liaison work).  Finally, dealing with customers at bookstore information shifts was solid preparation for reference shifts.

3) Janitorial

I can change toilet paper rolls like a champ.

4) Lab Work

My job as a research technician and lab manager has allowed me to talk shop with some of the students (giving advice on how to plate bacterial transforms is something of an eyebrow-raiser at the reference desk). Understanding lab group social structure and communication dynamics developed an understanding of the pressures facing my various user communities. Running a facility gave me experience in spending, budgeting and dealing with vendors. Also, being a former equipment manager certainly helps when the printers get jammed.

There’s more, but librarianship requires and rewards a broad skill set and may offer a chance to resurrect some of those career dead ends. That said, I’m not sad that my years of restaurant experience have lain dormant … oh, wait … I volunteered to help plan the holiday party.

But what about you? Please share your stories of unexpected value from allegedly unrelated fields, I’m really curious.

Making Things in Academic Libraries

The past few months have seen lots of discussion about makerspaces in libraries. What’s a makerspace? Buffy Hamilton’s great post over at the Unquiet Librarian has a couple of good definitions, but essentially it’s a place for folks to make things, perhaps writing and illustrating a zine, using the open source Arduino computing platform to program a robot, screenprinting, or creating model houses with a 3D printer. Makerspaces often include tools and equipment that are too expensive or specialized for most people to have in their homes, as well as provide a gathering place for like-minded hobbyists to create and collaborate.

Makerspaces seem like a great fit for public libraries, which often run programs designed to teach new skills and to create something, like an arts and crafts hour for kids. And indeed, some public libraries are experimenting with makerspaces, including Fayetteville Free Library in New York, Westport Public Library in Connecticut, and Cleveland Public Library in Ohio.

What could a makerspace look like in an academic library? What do we help our patrons make? We have computer labs, some more specialized and high-end than others, and we could add equipment like 3D printers. Of course, not every library will have the funding and staff to create tech-centered makerspaces. And faculty and departments may already have that equipment for students to use, especially those in engineering, computer science, and other technical majors.

For those colleges or universities that can’t create a physical makerspace, what are some other ways we can encourage the maker ethos in our libraries? When it comes to instruction and information literacy, I’ve definitely got a some ideas about how to make things with students in a semester-length course. We could produce a student journal or create a zine, and I have a colleague who asks students to create their own citation style. But I’m struggling with the idea of the one-shot instruction session as makerspace. What can students “make” in a one-shot? If we give them a worksheet to fill in or ask them to come away from the session with a specific number of sources to use for their assignment, have they made something?

Perhaps applying the makerspace concept to library instruction and information literacy really means expanding our own understanding of what we do when we work with students. We’re not just teaching them to find information — when we help them zero in on a source that really fits their needs, we’re supporting them as they make: make new knowledge for themselves, construct the outline for their assignment, build their ideas into an argument.

All the same, I’m interested to think about how we as academic librarians can take the concept of libraries as makerspaces even further, especially with students. We need to find ways to support creating, not just finding. The Student as Producer project at the University of Lincoln in the UK is an interesting model to consider. Undergraduates are deeply involved in research across the curriculum, and thus come to their college studies to actually create knowledge rather than passively consume it. Again, this is something that perhaps comes more easily to faculty teaching semester-length courses or doing lab research with their students.

How can academic librarians, our contact with students often limited to a few minutes at the Reference Desk or an hour or so in the classroom, become involved at the making, producer level with students?

Summer Projects

Ah, summer! A time when we all get to take a deep breath and work on all those things we put off during the school year. I’ve always thought that summer at an academic library is sort of a strange time. Even though it feels more relaxed in and around campus, we’re still  quite busy getting things ready before the students return. Last week when I realized that it was already August, I had to stifle a feeling of panic—the summer feels like its slipping away along with the time to work on all my projects.

Three projects that I’ve been working on over the summer include:

  • Reviewing the collection: Our library is doing a massive and much needed inventory and collection review project. This has involved the efforts of practically every person in the building. For my part, I’ve been looking at each of our music and theatre arts holdings and determining what could be withdrawn (–teaching faculty will get the final say). There have been endless book trucks coming in and out of my office. Nevertheless, it has been a great opportunity for me to see the strengths and weaknesses of the collection.
  • Processing opera scores: A few years ago my institution received a large donation of hundreds of music scores from the wife of a former opera professor. Most of these are opera scores. The collection has sat untouched awaiting cataloging and processing. Thankfully I was able to hire a music cataloger this summer and we are almost finished with cataloging the entire collection. Some items include incredibly rare 18th century first edition opera scores. In the future, I would like to apply for a grant to digitize some of these rare materials. But for now, I’ll just be relieved and satisfied once they officially join our collection.
  • Combining the Olympics and information literacy: While I am not a huge sports fan, whenever the Olympics roll around, I find myself glued to the television practically every night—especially for gymnastics, swimming, and track and field. Lately I’ve been thinking that there must be a way for me to incorporate some sort of Olympic-themed activity or research inquiry into one of my information literacy sessions this Fall. So far nothing has come to me, but I have had a lot of fun perusing the official website for the Olympics—including their photo gallery which contains over a hundred galleries based on year and sport.  The photos go as far back as the 1896 games in Athens.

What huge projects are you working on this summer and will you actually finish them?

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.