Category Archives: Libraries and Learning

For postings about information literacy, learning commons, and the role of libraries in higher education.

Higher ‘Professional’ Ed, Lifelong Learning to Stay Employed, Quantified Self, and Libraries

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Bohyun Kim, Associate Director for Library Applications and Knowledge Systems at University of Maryland, Baltimore, Health Sciences and Human Services Library. This post was originally published on our sister blog, ALA TechConnect.

The 2014 Horizon Report is mostly a report on emerging technologies. Many academic librarians carefully read its Higher Ed edition issued every year to learn about the upcoming technology trends. But this year’s Horizon Report Higher Ed edition was interesting to me more in terms of how the current state of higher education is being reflected on the report than in terms of the technologies on the near-term (one-to-five year) horizon of adoption. Let’s take a look.

A. Higher Ed or Higher Professional Ed?

To me, the most useful section of this year’s Horizon Report was ‘Wicked Challenges.’ The significant backdrop behind the first challenge “Expanding Access” is the fact that the knowledge economy is making higher education more and more closely and directly serve the needs of the labor market. The report says, “a postsecondary education is becoming less of an option and more of an economic imperative. Universities that were once bastions for the elite need to re-examine their trajectories in light of these issues of access, and the concept of a credit-based degree is currently in question.” (p.30)

Many of today’s students enter colleges and universities with a clear goal, i.e. obtaining a competitive edge and a better earning potential in the labor market. The result that is already familiar to many of us is the grade and the degree inflation and the emergence of higher ed institutions that pursue profit over even education itself. When the acquisition of skills takes precedence to the intellectual inquiry for its own sake, higher education comes to resemble higher professional education or intensive vocational training. As the economy almost forces people to take up the practice of lifelong learning to simply stay employed, the friction between the traditional goal of higher education – intellectual pursuit for its own sake – and the changing expectation of higher education — creative, adaptable, and flexible workforce – will only become more prominent.

Naturally, this socioeconomic background behind the expansion of postsecondary education raises the question of where its value lies. This is the second wicked challenge listed in the report, i.e. “Keeping Education Relevant.” The report says, “As online learning and free educational content become more pervasive, institutional stakeholders must address the question of what universities can provide that other approaches cannot, and rethink the value of higher education from a student’s perspective.” (p.32)

B. Lifelong Learning to Stay Employed

Today’s economy and labor market strongly prefer employees who can be hired, retooled, or let go at the same pace with the changes in technology as technology becomes one of the greatest driving force of economy. Workers are expected to enter the job market with more complex skills than in the past, to be able to adjust themselves quickly as important skills at workplaces change, and increasingly to take the role of a creator/producer/entrepreneur in their thinking and work practices. Credit-based degree programs fall short in this regard. It is no surprise that the report selected “Agile Approaches to Change” and “Shift from Students as Consumers to Students as Creators” as two of the long-range and the mid-range key trends in the report.

A strong focus on creativity, productivity, entrepreneurship, and lifelong learning, however, puts a heavier burden on both sides of education, i.e. instructors and students (full-time, part-time, and professional). While positive in emphasizing students’ active learning, the Flipped Classroom model selected as one of the key trends in the Horizon report often means additional work for instructors. In this model, instructors not only have to prepare the study materials for students to go over before the class, such as lecture videos, but also need to plan active learning activities for students during the class time. The Flipped Classroom model also assumes that students should be able to invest enough time outside the classroom to study.

The unfortunate side effect or consequence of this is that those who cannot afford to do so – for example, those who have to work on multiple jobs or have many family obligations, etc. – will suffer and fall behind. Today’s students and workers are now being asked to demonstrate their competencies with what they can produce beyond simply presenting the credit hours that they spent in the classroom. Probably as a result of this, a clear demarcation between work, learning, and personal life seems to be disappearing. “The E-Learning Predictions for 2014 Report” from EdTech Europe predicts that ‘Learning Record Stores’, which track, record, and quantify an individual’s experiences and progress in both formal and informal learning, will be emerging in step with the need for continuous learning required for today’s job market. EdTech Europe also points out that learning is now being embedded in daily tasks and that we will see a significant increase in the availability and use of casual and informal learning apps both in education but also in the workplace.

C. Quantified Self and Learning Analytics

Among the six emerging technologies in the 2014 Horizon Report Higher Education edition, ‘Quantified Self’ is by far the most interesting new trend. (Other technologies should be pretty familiar to those who have been following the Horizon Report every year, except maybe the 4D printing mentioned in the 3D printing section. If you are looking for the emerging technologies that are on a farther horizon of adoption, check out this article from the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Emerging Technologies, which lists technologies such as screenless display and brain-computer interfaces.)

According to the report, “Quantified Self describes the phenomenon of consumers being able to closely track data that is relevant to their daily activities through the use of technology.” (ACRL TechConnect has covered personal data monitoring and action analytics previously.) Quantified self is enabled by the wearable technology devices, such as Fitbit or Google Glass, and the Mobile Web. Wearable technology devices automatically collect personal data. Fitbit, for example, keeps track of one’s own sleep patterns, steps taken, and calories burned. And the Mobile Web is the platform that can store and present such personal data directly transferred from those devices. Through these devices and the resulting personal data, we get to observe our own behavior in a much more extensive and detailed manner than ever before. Instead of deciding on which part of our life to keep record of, we can now let these devices collect about almost all types of data about ourselves and then see which data would be of any use for us and whether any pattern emerges that we can perhaps utilize for the purpose of self-improvement.

Quantified Self is a notable trend not because it involves an unprecedented technology but because it gives us a glimpse of what our daily lives will be like in the near future, in which many of the emerging technologies that we are just getting used to right now – the mobile, big data, wearable technology – will come together in full bloom. Learning Analytics,’ which the Horizon Report calls “the educational application of ‘big data’” (p.38) and can be thought of as the application of Quantified Self in education, has been making a significant progress already in higher education. By collecting and analyzing the data about student behavior in online courses, learning analytics aims at improving student engagement, providing more personalized learning experience, detecting learning issues, and determining the behavior variables that are the significant indicators of student performance.

While privacy is a natural concern for Quantified Self, it is to be noted that we ourselves often willingly participate in personal data monitoring through the gamified self-tracking apps that can be offensive in other contexts. In her article, “Gamifying the Quantified Self,” Jennifer Whitson writes:

Gamified self-tracking and participatory surveillance applications are seen and embraced as play because they are entered into freely, injecting the spirit of play into otherwise monotonous activities. These gamified self-improvement apps evoke a specific agency—that of an active subject choosing to expose and disclose their otherwise secret selves, selves that can only be made penetrable via the datastreams and algorithms which pin down and make this otherwise unreachable interiority amenable to being operated on and consciously manipulated by the user and shared with others. The fact that these tools are consumer monitoring devices run by corporations that create neoliberal, responsibilized subjectivities become less salient to the user because of this freedom to quit the game at any time. These gamified applications are playthings that can be abandoned at whim, especially if they fail to pleasure, entertain and amuse. In contrast, the case of gamified workplaces exemplifies an entirely different problematic. (p.173; emphasis my own and not by the author)

If libraries and higher education institutions becomes active in monitoring and collecting students’ learning behavior, the success of an endeavor of that kind will depend on how well it creates and provides the sense of play to students for their willing participation. It will be also important for such kind of learning analytics project to offer an opt-out at any time and to keep the private data confidential and anonymous as much as possible.

D. Back to Libraries

The changed format of this year’s Horizon Report with the ‘Key Trends’ and the ‘Significant Challenges’ has shown the forces in play behind the emerging technologies to look out for in higher education much more clearly. A big take-away from this report, I believe, is that in spite of the doubt about the unique value of higher education, the demand will be increasing due to the students’ need to obtain a competitive advantage in entering or re-entering the workforce. And that higher ed institutions will endeavor to create appropriate means and tools to satisfy students’ need of acquiring and demonstrating skills and experience in a way that is appealing to future employers beyond credit-hour based degrees, such as competency-based assessments and a badge system, is another one.

Considering that the pace of change at higher education tends to be slow, this can be an opportunity for academic libraries. Both instructors and students are under constant pressure to innovate and experiment in their teaching and learning processes. Instructors designing the Flipped Classroom model may require a studio where they can record and produce their lecture videos. Students may need to compile portfolios to demonstrate their knowledge and skills for job interviews. Returning adult students may need to acquire the habitual lifelong learning practices with the help from librarians. Local employers and students may mutually benefit from a place where certain co-projects can be tried. As a neutral player on the campus with tech-savvy librarians and knowledgeable staff, libraries can create a place where the most palpable student needs that are yet to be satisfied by individual academic departments or student services are directly addressed. Maker labs, gamified learning or self-tracking modules, and a competency dashboard are all such examples. From the emerging technology trends in higher ed, we see that the learning activities in higher education and academic libraries will be more and more closely tied to the economic imperative of constant innovation.

Academic libraries may even go further and take up the role of leading the changes in higher education. In his blog post for Inside Higher Ed, Joshua Kim suggests exactly this and also nicely sums up the challenges that today’s higher education faces:

  • How do we increase postsecondary productivity while guarding against commodification?
  • How do we increase quality while increasing access?
  • How do we leverage technologies without sacrificing the human element essential for authentic learning?

How will academic libraries be able to lead the changes necessary for higher education to successfully meet these challenges? It is a question that will stay with academic libraries for many years to come.

New at the DPLA: There’s an App for That

Like many librarians in all kinds of libraries I was delighted when the Digital Public Library of America launched last Spring. I’m probably not alone in having lost time searching through the content that the DPLA’s portal website provides access to, marveling at the images, objects, and information held by libraries, archives, and museums across the U.S. I’m still not exactly sure how I can intentionally use the DPLA in my practice as an instruction and reference librarian, but I’m continuing to think on the possibilities.

One of the great things about the DPLA is its API (application programming interface) that allows developers to access the metadata collected by the DPLA and create applications that use the DPLA’s searchable content. So far ten apps have been created — all are highlighted on the DPLA website. I’ve read a bit about (and played with) several that seem to have the potential for use in academic libraries:

WP DPLA Plugin
During this past June’s THATCamp at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (RRCHNM) at George Mason University, developer Boone Gorges won the Maker Challenge with this plugin for the WordPress blogging/website software. Once installed, the plugin uses the tags attached to a blog post to search for and display random items from collections available via the DPLA website. The resulting illustrations are fascinating, especially if the words used as tags have very different meanings. Boone is also the lead developer on a WordPress-based teaching and learning platform at my college, the City Tech OpenLab; my colleagues and I are looking forward to installing and playing with this plugin soon.

Serendipomatic
The most recently released DPLA app also seems to have lots of promise for use by academic librarians and researchers. Just three weeks ago the RRCHNM* held its National Endowment for the Humanities-funded One Week One Tool institute, in which twelve folks from academia, museums, and libraries came together to create a digital tool for research and teaching. The resulting website, Serendip-o-matic, strives to inject some serendipity into browsing digital collections. Simply paste text into the box on the website’s homepage and Serendip-o-matic returns items from collections at the DPLA as well as Flickr Commons, Europeana, and Australia’s Trove. Serendip-o-matic can also search tags from a Zotero account, which is pretty nifty. Here’s a snapshot of the results I got with some text about my research on undergraduate scholarly habits (click image to embiggen):

serendipomatic

DPLA Bot
Finally, just for fun (and because so many academic librarians use Twitter), who couldn’t love the DPLA Bot? Created by Davidson College professor of Digital Studies Mark Sample, DPLA Bot is a bot (short for web robot, an automated application that runs over the internet) that uses a random keyword to search the DPLA and tweets out a link to the result. The bot runs several times per day; here’s one of my favorite tweets from this week:

I can install a WordPress plugin and tweak HTML or CSS, but that’s about the extent of my programming chops these days. For those of us who are unlikely to create DPLA apps ourselves, how might we use the existing apps in our academic library work? What other kinds of apps could be developed for academic and research libraries to use with DPLA collections?

* If it seems like the RRCHMN and DPLA have close ties, there’s a good reason for that: DPLA Executive Director Dan Cohen was formerly the Director of the RRCHMN.

Flipping Out: Reflections Upon Landing

Last month, I shared my plans for creating “flipped” library instruction sessions. Now, after wrapping up my last flipped session, along with several conversations with my colleauges, and the opportunity to co-facilitate a “Flipped Classroom” faculty workshop, I am still digesting and evaluating all that I have learned. However, there are a few key takeaways that are bubbling to the forefront of my mind and actively shaping the rest of my instruction this semester.

“Did you know the whole section would be about my topic?”
Or – Understanding the flipped classroom as a vehicle for active learning

As I planned my flipped sessions, I struggled with understanding how flipped instruction is related to “active learning” and/or “problem-based learning. The library instruction program at my university already places a heavy emphasis on incorporating active learning exercises into our sessions, and we regularly attempt to tie library instruction directly to the course research assignments. This means that as I worked on my flipped session, I found myself modifying some existing in-class activities to promote deeper levels of understanding, rather than starting from scratch.

In one class, I had enough time to ask first-year students to search the catalog for a book about their research topic, go into the stacks to find their book, bring the book back to class, and then debrief about the experience with their classmates. It was much more effective, and quite frankly more fun, to talk about LC Classification and Subject Headings after one student spontaneously exclaimed – “I picked TWO books about my topic because I realized THE WHOLE SHELF was about sports technology!”

After this experience, I’ve come to understand my flipped classroom as a vehicle for creating additional space for active learning in the classroom. Of course, there is no such thing as “the” flipped classroom, and other interpretations of the flipped classroom abound. For me, the providing students with a pre-class “lecture” foundation on which they can build upon with active learning in the classroom was more successful than trying to cram both tasks into the regular class time.

“Oh… those videos before class weren’t optional?”
Or – Students might not complete the pre-class work. And that’s O.K.

Of course, this ideal “flipped classroom as a vehicle for active learning” assumes students come to class prepared. And a frequent concern about the flipped classroom is: “What if students don’t complete the pre-class work?” Unfortunately, there will always be students who come to class unprepared, and considering what the consequences will be for students if they don’t complete the pre-assigned work is important. Our students are smart – they learn quickly whether preparing for class is really necessary. Designing in-class assignments which require the prior knowledge gained through the pre-class homework is one way to show students it’s worth their while to come prepared.

In practice, other “consequences” for failing to complete pre-class work may mean students must complete the pre-class materials during in-class time before they are allowed to continue to the more interesting and challenging application exercises. We know some students may still struggle through class, since exposure to the pre-class activities does not necessarily guarantee students achieved any level of mastery with the material. In my sessions, I tried to purposefully use group activities in-class to emphasize peer learning, assuming students who completed and understood the material could be models for students who did not. Additionally, students were encouraged to review pre-class video materials if needed, and to ask questions as they worked through their activities.

The short quiz I paired with my pre-class material helped me monitor how many students completed pre-class work and how well they understood the material. In each of my flipped class sessions, over 3/4 of the students completed the work before class; I considered this to be a relatively high success rate. It was also helpful to go into the in-class session knowing the bulk of the class had at least attempted the pre-class work and where the problem areas we really needed to adress might be.

“But… aren’t you going to talk first?”
Or – Students are also curious about the lack of direct lecture in class.

Students often comment in their course evaluations or session feedback that library instruction should include more time for activities and less time devoted to lecture. As a new instructor, I struggle with this for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that creating active-learning based instruction that allows students to “discover” answers to questions or build their own skills is frequently harder than falling back into the “sage on the stage” routine. Of course, there is also no guarantee that students will use class time appropriately when given the requested discussion or problem-based activities. So I was extremely interested to find out how students would respond to the lack of direct, in-class instruction in the flipped sessions.

During my first flipped class, I decided to give a “quick” review of the pre-class material before students started on their activities. Big mistake, since the “review” quickly turned into a regular lecture. However, during my second flipped class I simply asked students to come in and get started on their activity, reminding them they should work together and review the video materials or ask questions, as necessary. At first, they were confused about not starting with a lecture, however they eventually dove into the activity with success. And encouraging students to first attempt the activity allowed me to eventually review only the concepts that the majority of the class was consistently struggling with (for instance, correctly combining both “ANDs” and “ORs” in a complex database search). Overall, this session was much more enjoyable for both myself and my students, and it was one of the few times I left our session confident that class time was used to its fullest advantage.

Talking about teaching has value.

My final point of reflection is not limited to “flipped instruction,” but has grown out of conversations with my colleagues inspired by our participation in the flipped project. Given heavy instruction loads, faculty or student expectations, and other pressing projects, it’s easy to fall back into comfortable patterns of the same ol’ library session. Sometimes, simply carving out the time to talk about teaching seems like a luxury we cannot necessarily afford. Given the increasing emphasis on instruction in academic libraries, our mission to arm students with multifaceted critical information skills, and the trend toward providing evidence that our instruction adds value to the library and our parent institutions, deeper discussions about teaching and pedagogy can’t just be a luxury – they should be the reality.

I am lucky to have a job where I am encouraged to think about teaching, talk about teaching, and take calculated risks to grow as an instructor. Incorporating new pedagogical strategies like the “flipped classroom” is just one example of how this might happen.

Building a Pedagogy

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about pedagogy. To tell you the truth, throughout graduate school I thought very infrequently about pedagogy, assuming that even as an instruction librarian, something as theoretical as pedagogy would be outside of my professional bounds. Though the instruction course offered at my university did touch on the aspects of designing an information literacy curriculum, it was a far cry from being a course in pedagogy. In fact, as librarians, we often become so overworked in our day-to-day tasks of making sure our resources and services are accessible, we can forget that first and foremost, we are educators. And like any highly skilled educators, having a strong grounding in pedagogy is essential to our job.

Pedagogy is, simply, the art of education. It is how we teach, how we connect students to the curriculum, and how we position students to be learners. Pedagogy is the beating heart of the teaching professions. I come from a strong social science background, particularly one poised to challenge and investigate systems of the status quo. I spent all of my undergraduate years studying the prison industrial complex from a gender perspective and my favorite courses in library school were on the politics of classification and knowledge production. Not surprisingly, then, I tend to frame my own librarian practice within a framework of social progress and have only recently begun to consider how to use this framework in library instruction. Yes, I want my students to be skilled in information seeking, but I also want them to be willing and able to think critically about information and the politics through which it’s produced. I take my pedagogy cues from the likes of Freire, hooks, Zinn – in other words, I want my students to be rabble rousers.

I am extremely lucky to be part of an institution with which I share these strong social convictions. My university’s commitment to social justice and radical learning is at the core of all it does, including its library instruction. I, along with the library director, have recently begun developing a comprehensive information literacy curriculum for the library. How can we reframe the ACRL Information Literacy Standards to a more critical perspective? We always have and will continue to have the one-shot in-class library workshops, but we are starting to strategically envision what skills and concepts we want to consistently deliver. In addition to the traditional keyword-forming, full-text finding skills, how can we give students the skills to think critically about the information they both find and can’t find? How can I open the discussion about the problematic nature of academic publishing? Where is the room for this agenda? It’s a lot to fit in the 50-minute one-shot.

I am in no way the first person to think about this. Many, many books have been published on this topic and continue to be published. And, indeed, many of the student-centered, critical strategies involve very few bells and whistles. A few ideas that have left me inspired:

  • include critical reading skills in every workshop. As simple as that! It is as important as knowing how to properly cite a resource or construct a search term.
  • Have students search for articles on a purposefully controversial topic, like the link between autism and vaccines. Have them note what information is in the peer-reviewed literature, what stance it tends to take, the methodologies it tends to employ, and where alternatives may exist.
  • Show students how to find and use open-access journals and repositories. The few times I’ve done this, I’ve vetted these sources to ensure they are of high quality and repute (and explain that I’ve done so, using which criteria).
  • Change the way I organize my lessons. Instead of PowerPoints, I try to structure the lesson according to student suggestions and examples.
  • Leave the more traditional information literacy skills to Lib Guides and other digital learning objects. I’d rather spend my precious face-to-face time on the more nuanced aspects of information seeking and point them to videos and other online resources to do the more mundane tasks, like how to find full-text.

Where do you draw your pedagogical inspiration? Does your library have an comprehensive information literacy curriculum? Share your thoughts, resources, and inspirations in the comments section, or tweet me @beccakatharine.

Enabling the Research ‘Flow’ and Serendipity in Today’s Digital Library Environment

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Bohyun Kim, the Digital Access Librarian at Florida International University Medical Library. She blogs at Library Hat (http://bohyunkim.net/blog) and can be found at @bohyunkim (http://twitter.com/bohyunkim) in Twitter. She also writes regularly on ACRL TechConnect blog.

Today’s library users do not carry pencils and notebooks to a library. They no longer want to be isolated to concentrate on deep study or contemplative reading when they are at a library. Rather, they have the dire need to be connected to the biggest library the human race ever had, the World Wide Web, always and even more so when they are at a library walking through the forest of fascinating knowledge and information. The traditional library space packed with stacks and carrels does not serve today’s library users well whether they are scholars, students, or the public visiting a library for research, study, or leisure reading. As more and more library resources are moved to the fast and convenient realm of the World Wide Web, libraries have been focusing on re-defining the library space. Now, many libraries boast attractive space almost comparable to trendy, comfortable, and vibrant coffee shops. The goal of these new library spaces are fostering communication, the exchange of ideas, and social learning.

How the loss of book stacks and carrels affects library patrons

However, some library patrons complain about this new and hip research and reading environment that libraries are creating. They do not experience comfort and excitement, which today’s libraries strive to provide in their new coffee-shop-or-makerspace-like library space. These patrons rather miss the old dusty moldy stacks packed with books, many of which were left untouched except by a handful of people for a very long time. They miss the quiet and secluded carrels often placed right outside of the stacks. They say that browsing a library’s physical collection in those stacks led them to many serendipitous discoveries and that in those tiny uncomfortable carrels, they were completely absorbed into their own thoughts reading away a pile of books and journals undisturbed by the worldly hustle and bustle.

This is an all-too-familiar story. The fast and convenient e-resources in library websites and the digital library collections seem to deprive us of something significant and important, that is, the secluded and sacred space for thought and contemplation and the experience of serendipitous discovery from browsing physical library collections. However, how much of this is our romantic illusion and how much of it is it a real fact?

How much of this environment made our research more productive in reality?

What we really love about browsing book stacks at a library

In the closing keynote of 2012 ACCESS Conference last Sunday, Bess Sadler, the application development manager at Standford University Libraries noted the phenomenon that library patrons often describe the experience of using the physical library collection in emotional terms such as ‘joyous,’ ‘immersive,’ and ‘beautiful’ characteristic to our right brain whereas they use non-emotional terms such as ‘fast’ and ‘efficient’ to describe their use of a library’s online/digital resources. The open question that she posed in her keynote was how to bring back those emotional responses associated with a library’s physical collection to a library’s digital collection and its interface. Those terms such as ‘joyous,’ ‘immersive,’ and ‘beautiful’ are often associated in a library user’s mind with their experience of serendipitous discovery which took place while they were browsing a library’s physical book stacks. Sadler further linked the concept of serendipitous discovery with the concept of ‘flow’ by Csikszentmihalyi and asked the audience how libraries can create such state of flow with their digital collections by improving their interfaces.

One of the slides from Bess Sadler’s Closing Keynote

This was a very interesting question to me because I have been mostly thinking about the concept of flow in the context of library services (and more specifically, gamification applied to libraries) and the usability of the systems that serve a library’s online resources.

The most annoying thing about the e-resources that today’s libraries offer is that the systems where these resources reside do not smoothly fit into anyone’s research workflow. How can you get into a zone when the database you are in keeps popping up a message asking if you want to renew the session or demands two or three different authentications for access? How can you feel the sense of smooth flow of thought in your head when you have to navigate from one system to another with puzzling and unwieldy interfaces in order to achieve simple tasks such as importing a few references or finding the full-text of the citation you found in an e-book or an online journal you were reading?

Today’s research environment that libraries offers with its electronic resources is riddled with so many irritating usability failures (often represented by too many options none of whose functions are clear) that we can almost safely say that it is designed anything but for the ‘flow’ experience. The fact that these resources’ interfaces are designed by library system vendors and light years outdated compared to the interfaces available for individual consumers and that librarians have little or no control over them only exacerbate the problem. So I always associated the concept of flow with usability in the library context. And considering how un-user-friendly the research environment offered by today’s libraries is overall, asking for ‘joyous,’ ‘immersive,’ or ‘beautiful’ appeared to me to be a pretty tall order.

But more importantly, the obstacles to the ‘flow’ experience are not unique to online resources or digital libraries. Similar problems do exist in the physical collections as well. When I was a grad student, the largest library collection in North America was available to me. But I hated lugging back and forth a dozen periodicals and monographs between my apartment and the university just to get them renewed. (This was the time before the online renewal!) After the delightful moment of finding out in the online catalog that those rare scholarly books that I want are indeed available somewhere in that large library system at Harvard, I grumbled at the prospect of either navigating the claustrophobic rows and rows of stacks at Widener Library in order to locate those precious copies or running to a different library on campus that is at least a half mile away. At those times, the pleasure of browsing the dusty stacks or the joy of a potential serendipitous discovery was the last thing that I cared for. I was very much into my research and exactly for that reason, if I could, I would have gladly selected the delivery option of those books that I wanted to save time and get into my research flow as soon as possible. And I did so as soon as my university library started moving many books to an off-site storage and delivering them on-demand next day at a circulation desk. I know that many faculty at academic institutions strongly protest against moving a library’s physical collection to an off-site storage. But I confess that many times when the library catalog showed the book I wanted as located on the stacks and not at the off-site storage, I groaned instead of being delighted. I won’t even discuss what it was like to me to study in a library carrel. As an idea, it is a beautiful one to be immersed in research readings in a carrel; in reality, the chair is too hard, the space is too dark and claustrophobic, the air is stale, and the coffee supply is, well, banned near the stacks where those carrels are. Enough said.

The point I am trying to make is that we often romanticize our interaction with the physical stacks in a library. The fact that we all love the library stacks and carrels doesn’t necessarily mean that we love them for the reasons we cite. More often than not, what we really like and miss about the library stacks and carrels is not their actual practical utility to our research process but the ambiance. Strand, the used bookstore in NYC is famous for its 18 miles of books. Would you walk along the 18 miles of books even if you know in advance that you are not going to make any serendipitous discovery nor find nothing directly useful for your research topic at hand? Yes you bet. Would you walk by the stacks in Trinity College Library in Dublin, UK even though you are not doing anything related to research? A very few of us would say ‘No’ to such an invitation.

Can you resist walking between these stacks? Our desire doesn’t always correspond to its practical utility.

But the fact that library stacks and browsing them may contribute very little to the actual research output doesn’t mean that the stack-browsing is therefore not useful. To borrow the words of Saint-Exupéry, something is truly useful because it is beautiful (The Little Prince, Ch. 14). Let me explain.

The library book stacks as high as the walls filling up the whole floor generate the sense of awe and adventure in us because it gives us the experience of ‘physically’ surrounded by knowledge. It is magical and magnificent. It is amazing and beautiful. This is where all those emotional adjectives originate. In the library stacks, we get to ‘see’ the knowledge that is much bigger than us, taller than us, and wider than us. (Think of ‘the sublime’ in Kantian aesthetics.) When our sensory organs are engaged this way, we do not experience the boredom and tediousness that we usually feel when we scroll up and down a very long list of databases and journals on a library web page. We pause, we admire, and we look up and down. We are engrossed by the physicality of the stacks and the books on them. And suddenly all our attention is present and focused on that physicality. So much so that we even forget that we were there to find a certain book or to work on a certain research topic. It is often at these moments that we serendipitously stumble upon something relevant to what we were looking for but have forgotten to do so. Between the magnificent tall stacks filled with books, you are distracted from your original mission (of locating a particular book) but are immersed in this new setting at the same time. The silence, the high ceiling, the Gothic architectural style of an old library building, and the stacks that seems to go on forever in front of us. These are all elements that can be conducive to a serendipitous discovery but “if and only if” we allow ourselves to be influenced by them. On the other hand, if you are zooming in on a specific book, all of this visual magnificence could be a nuisance and a bother. To a scholar who can’t wait to read all of the readings after physically collecting them first, the collection process is a chore at best. To this person, neither a serendipitous discovery nor the state of ‘flow’ would be no doubt more difficult to happen in between the stacks.

If this is a relatively accurate description of a serendipitous discovery that we experience while browsing the physical collection on library book-stacks, what we really miss about the traditional library space may well be the physicality of its collection, the physical embodiment of the abstract concept of knowledge and information in abundance, and its effect on our mental state, which renders our mind more susceptible to a serendipitous discovery. And what we are most unhappy about the digital form of knowledge and information offered by today’s libraries could be that it is not presented in the space and environment where we can easily tune our mind into the content of such digital knowledge and information. It is the same Classical Greek text that you see when you pull out an old copy of Plato’s Meno in the narrow passage between tall book-stacks at Widener and when you pull up the text on your computer screen from the Perseus Digital Library. It is our state of mind influenced by the surroundings and environment that is different. That state of mind that we miss is not entirely dictated but heavily influenced by the environment we are present. We become different people at different places, as Alain de Botton says in his book, The Architecture of Happiness (Ch 1). Who can blame a library user when s/he finds it hard to transform a computer screen (which takes her to many digital collections and online resources from a library as well as all sorts of other places for entertainment and distraction) into the secluded and sacred space for thought and contemplation?

Using Perseus Digital Library is way more efficient for research and study the classical Greek texts than using the physical collection on your stacks. However, we still miss and need the experience of browsing the physical collection on the stacks.

How to facilitate the ‘flow’ and serendipity in today’s libraries

The fact that today’s libraries no longer control the physical surroundings of a library patron who is making use of their resources doesn’t mean that there are nothing libraries can do to make the research environment facilitate serendipitous discoveries and the state of ‘flow’ in a researcher’s mind, however. Today’s libraries offer many different systems for library users to access their online resources. As I have mentioned above, the interfaces of these systems can use some vast improvement in usability. When there are as few hindrances as possible for a library patron to get to what s/he is looking for either online or at the physical library space, s/he would be able to concentrate on absorbing the content more easily instead of being bogged down with procedures. The seamless interoperability between different systems would be very much desirable for researchers. So, improving the usability of library systems will take library patrons one step closer to obtaining the flow state in their research while using library resources online.

As far as the physical space of a library is concerned, libraries need to pay more attention to how the space and the environment of a library emotionally affects library patrons. Not all research and study is best performed by group-study or active discussion. Baylor University Libraries, for example, designate three different zones in their space: Silent, Quiet, and Active. While libraries transform more of their traditional stack-and-carrel space into vibrant group study rooms and conversation-welcoming open spaces, they also need to preserve the sense of the physical environment and surroundings for library patrons, because after all, all of us desire the feeling of being in a sacred and dedicated space for contemplation and deep thoughts from time to time. Such space is becoming rarer and rarer nowadays. Where else would people look for such space if not a library, which the public often equate to a building that embodies the vast amount of knowledge and resources in the physical form.

Facilitating the serendipitous discovery in browsing a library collection in the digital environment is more tricky because of the limitation of the current display mechanisms for digital information. In emulating the experience of browsing books in the physical form on a computer screen, the Google WebGL Bookcase has made some progress. But it would be much more efficient combined with a large display mechanism that allows a user to control and manipulate information and resources with gestures and bodily movements, perhaps something similar to what we have seen in the movie, Minority Report. However, note that information does not have to be bound in the form of books in the digital environment and that digital books do not have to be represented as a book with pages to thumb through and the spine where its title is shown . If we set aside the psychological factors that contribute to the occurrence of a serendipitous discovery, what is essential to efficient browsing boils down to how easily (i) we can scan through many different books (or information units such as a report or an article) quickly and effectively and (ii) zoom in/out and switch between the macro level (subjects, data types, databases, journals, etc) and the micro level (individual books, articles, photographs, etc. and their content). If libraries can succeed in designing and offering such interfaces for digital information consumption and manipulation, the serendipitous discovery and the efficient browsing in the digital library environment can not only match but even exceed that in the physical library book-stacks.