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.

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?

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.