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.

Considering Conferences

This semester I went to two academic conferences that weren’t library conferences. While I’ve attended conferences outside of librarianship in the past, both before I was a librarian as well as more recently, this is the first time in my library career that I’ve intentionally gone to non-library conferences. At both conferences I was making a presentation, which of course was a major factor in my decision to attend. But I highly enjoyed them both, and was pleased to find much of relevance both to my interests in librarianship as well as in higher education and the disciplines.

The first conference I attended this semester, the MobilityShifts conference at the New School (about which I wrote a brief wrap-up here on ACRLog), broadly addressed issues in teaching and learning, and specifically focused on mobility and education. This was a busy conference that spanned multiple days, and though it meant for a breakneck schedule I was able to see lots of great sessions. While there were presentations by and for librarians, I was most interested in the sessions that addressed bigger pedagogical questions. In our day to day work it’s easy to think only of the library — after all, that’s the physical and mental space in which we likely spend most of our time. But I found it incredibly valuable to have the opportunity to step back and consider the library as it relates to the whole of the college while I listened to presentations by classroom faculty, researchers, students, and more.

I also went to a discipline-specific conference this fall, the American Anthropological Association Annual Meetings, where I was part of a session on library ethnographies. Unfortunately I didn’t have as much time to spend at the AAAs as I had at MobilityShifts, but I was able to catch a few other sessions and had the chance to browse the exhibits, who were mostly scholarly publishers. I work at a college library so I spend much of my time considering student use of the library, and it was interesting to see the ways that researchers embedded in their disciplines consider issues of interest to libraries, like academic publishing, open access, and digital scholarship.

In the future I’d like to try to continue to head out to non-library conferences on occasion. Of course, a major factor that impacts our ability to go to conferences in any discipline is cost. As travel budgets are often slashed along with other belt-tightening measures at colleges and universities, it may not be feasible to attend to both library and non-library conferences. But if it is possible, I highly recommend it as a way to keep up with academia beyond reading the higher ed news and blogs. If you’ve gone to academic conferences outside of librarianship, what are some of the benefits you’ve found? Would you ever substitute a non-library conference for one that caters solely to our profession?

If You Can’t Reach Everyone Aim For The Passionate Users

Does your town still have a video store? Most do not. I don’t mean a Blockbuster or some other big chain store. Those are getting harder to find too. I’m referring to a small, independent, niche type video rental store. I recall that when movies first became available on VHS the rental stores soon began popping up everywhere. At first they were all independent, like individual bookstores with unique personalities. Then a few local chains sprouted up. Then national mega-chains started to dominate the landscapte, and with their lower prices and quantity they pushed out many of the smaller independents who had no way to compete on price, selection or convenience. It is all reminiscent of the retail evolution from mom-and-pop grocery stores to Wal-Mart.

The independent stores were usually much beloved, and as when long-time bookstores finally close, it makes the news. No doubt, public libraries, with their free videos, help to put a nail in the coffin, but nothing comes close to the spike delivered by Netflix. As it masters the art of streaming video to all devices, Netflix tightens its grip on the video rental industry even as its recent price increase has customers griping loudly. As the dominant player in its industry, Netflix is now every competitor’s number one target.

Despite the overwhelming odds against success as an independent video store in 2011, a few are actually surviving if not exactly thriving. What these survivors are doing could provide a lesson for academic libraries that face similar challenges in a world where our target population can find information elsewhere with greater ease and convenience. In an NYT article titled “Video Stores, Reinvented by Necessity” we learn these strategies include participative film viewings, presentations by filmakers, film classes, trivia nights and yes, better facilities.

I especially like that the core of these strategies is based on trying to compete with giants like Netflix and Internet-delivered video by focusing on the community and the building of better relationships. As one store owner said “What we should be focusing on was community and people talking to each other,” Ms. Polinger said. “We just wanted to go the other extreme and be more interpersonal.” This resonates with me because I’ve been emphasizing the importance of relationship building to capitalize on an experience we can provide that our community members cannot get with those nameless-faceless-corporate Internet providers of information.

Another lesson to learn is that personalization makes a difference – and that being different is a competitive advantage. Another independent store owner proclaimed that “People who work in the video store are very knowledgeable about film. There’s always a conversation, not just a click. Those kinds of real experiences, you can’t really duplicate when you’re getting a movie out of a vending machine.” That sounds vaguely familiar to personal reference services in a library. What’s different is that academic librarians often approach these interactions as simple and forgetful transactions when they are opportunities for a conversation. Every academic librarian’s goal should be to provide a better experience based on personalizing each transaction. We do not help ourselves by simply pushing out more content – even if we allow our community members a more personal role in choosing it.

Another potential lesson is to concentrate our efforts on the segment of the population that has the capacity to become the passionate users. The video store owners are conceding the bulk of the community to Netflix. They changed their strategy to focus on the passionate users who need more than convenience – those who want the conversation. I think this is what Brian Mathews is getting at in this interview when he said:

“There are just some people who don’t use libraries, and so we can’t expect to reach them…I think there is potential to further educate current users. There is a population of people who just love books or love being in large computer labs or who just want to get away from the dorm and have a more ideal learning environment. This is our base. It’s these people who we want to focus on and expose to other things that we have to offer. In this regard, I think we can tip people along to other aspects of the library that they might not be aware of.”

Given the size of our staffs and number of potential users we’ll likely never have the capacity to reach all of them – and many of them are not interested in what we offer. That was a major lament expressed by Bohyun Kim in her ACRLog guest post when she wrote “users prefer not to be mediated by librarians in locating and using information and resources…So where do research libraries and librarians go from here?” While we would never want to intentionally abandon any segment of our communities and we will always promote our openness to all, the place to go, I think, is where we put our energy into connecting with the segment that has the capacity to become passionate about using the library. Create the programs, conduct the activities and build the relationships with those who do care about the library.

I’ll paraphrase what Simon Sinek says in his book Start With Why (and in his TED Talk): “The goal is not to push your services to everyone who potentially needs what you have – your goal should be to focus on the people who believe what you believe.” That, Sinek tells us, is how you build loyalty and increase the likelihood that your loyal customers will tell their friends how great the experience is at your library. That’s exactly what those remaining, surviving video stores are doing.

Just as with other industries that are being displaced or disintermediated by disruptive innovators, newspapers, travel agents, music delivery, bookstores, higher education, there are lessons that academic librarians can learn from those who survive when all others are becoming irrelevant, marginalized and obsolete. There’s only a crisis in academic librarianship if we let it happen.

Countdown to the Conference

I’ve found myself with less time than usual for blogging lately as I’ve been busy working on the poster I’m presenting with colleagues at the upcoming ACRL National Conference. In the handful of years since I’ve been a librarian I’ve been to many smaller conferences and symposia in and around New York City (where I live), but this will be my first time attending the national conference, and as the date draws closer I find that I’m really looking forward to it.

In my past life as an archaeologist I went to lots of scholarly conferences, though I imagine that National will be somewhat different. While I enjoyed hearing about the latest research in my field back then, it always seemed odd to me that the convention was for presenters to stand at a podium and read straight through their scholarly papers. Of course some people are better at public speaking than others, and archaeologists tend to illustrate their talks with lots of site photos, charts, and graphs. But I find the very formal presentation style to be a bit monotonous, and I vastly prefer the more interactive and conversational style that most librarians seem to use at conferences.

Another big difference from my prior experiences is that the ACRL Conference has several keynote speakers, which is not the usual fare at other scholarly conferences I’ve been to. I find this a bit confusing: though I know that keynotes are a standard feature of both ALA conferences, it’s not what I expected to travel to an academic librarianship conference and hear speakers who are not involved in academic librarianship. I have to admit that I’m less interested in the keynote speakers than in other parts of the conference, though I’ll be curious to hear how they relate to academic libraries in their presentations.

I’m lucky to have many events at which I can connect with colleagues from my university and across NYC, but as a still-somewhat-new librarian I haven’t had many opportunities to mingle with librarians from across the country. I’m most looking forward to the two things I remember fondly from the anthropology conferences I used to frequent (and I suspect this is true for many of us attending National):

1) the opportunity to share and discuss my and my colleagues’ work with others in our field, and

2) the opportunity to learn about research and practice in academic libraries from the other conference presenters and attendees

Conferences are a concentrated experience with no distractions — all academic librarianship all the time! — which I always find refreshing and invigorating (if sometimes exhausting). But I’ve got my reusable coffee cup, so I’m ready to go.

If you’re going to National, what are you most looking forward to?

Lifelong Learning? I Need A Real Job.

Academic librarians connect with students during their college years in different ways, but we often know little about what happens to them once they depart our halls of learning. Sometimes we do keep in touch with those we met as students, possibly just by being Facebook friends, or a stronger friendship develops. Perhaps you’ve had that experience more than I have, although even in my own big city I’ve run into students I’ve known, and it’s rewarding when I discover they are establishing themselves as working professionals in their chosen careers.

In one less fortunate situation I kept contact with an MBA student who helped the library with a focus group project. This student was bright, articulate and just the quintessential go getter. I thought for sure he would have no problems with career success. However, for at least the next year after he graduated I continued to run into him in the campus fitness center. Month after month he told me how frustrated he was with his job search, and how he even began to question whether pursuing the MBA was a good choice. It was equal parts sad, depressing and frustrating to see this once vibrant and energetic student in such a state. I have not seen that student for a few months now, and I hope that’s because he finally found a job – or it might be that his access to the campus fitness center expired and that he cannot afford the monthly alumni fee.

That’s why watching “A Generation Lost in Space” was a challenge to view all the way through. It really brought back memories of my own encounters, and raises questions about what we can do as academic librarians to help our students acquire the skills that will help them get that first big career opportunity.

A Generation Lost in Space: Overeducated and Underemployed in America from Nick Padiak on Vimeo.

I would imagine that many academic librarians are already doing what they can to provide their students with resources and assistance to help them as job seekers. Likely strategies could include:

* creating resource guides specific to using library research tools for job research

* collaborating with colleagues in the career center to make sure they are aware of all the great tools we have for competitive intelligence research – and knowing that they are pointing students to them

* organizing library sponsored workshops on doing company and industry research that is job oriented

* allowing alumni to access business research resources on site (when allowed by licenses)

* providing one-on-one career research consultations with students

These are tremendously challenging times – as the video documents – for students heading out into the job market, especially when the students are graduating with less marketable majors. As academic librarians we often state that our mission is to provide students with lifelong learning skills – and that is often found in our mission statements or our information literacy goals. Granted, lifelong learning skills should be about more than finding a job. Those are important skills that will help students when they inevitably do find a satisfying career in their desired profession, and it will help them to keep growing and preparing them for future careers – among other things – such as being effective and productive community members.

When I see a video like this one and through personal encounters with students, I cannot help but feel we need to be doing more than talking about delivering lifelong learning skills (which always strikes me as somewhat ambiguous and impossible to measure or evaluate), and figuring out what more we could be doing to help our students have the best possible edge in a highly competitive job market. We can say that our job is to help them succeed academically during their time in college. What happens after that is not our responsibility – and given the nature of our work I’d agree with you. I’m just asking if there is more we can do. I do know that when I encounter our graduates who are feeling overeducated and underemployed, I am not about to ask how those lifelong learning skills are working out for them.

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?