Category Archives: Public Services

Perks and Quirks of a Single Service Point

In my last post I talked a little bit about the Learning Commons that opened in August at my library, a major renovation that brought exciting changes to the first floor of the Main Library. Although I wasn’t here to see the “before,” the “after” is bright, shiny, and new. It’s an appealing place with a lot more space for students to study and work: there are plenty of computer stations and a variety of flexible study spaces, including 16 group study rooms. Another major new feature of the Learning Commons? The Service Desk.

The Service Desk is a consolidation of what were previously separate service points for circulation and reference into a single service point. During the day, there is typically a mix of people at the desk: a circulation assistant, a librarian or another library assistant, and a few student workers. The librarian staffing the instant message service is also on back-up for the Service Desk, in case it gets particularly busy.

I don’t have any insight to the development of the Learning Commons or the Service Desk, the choices made, or future plans – especially as a relatively new employee (I’ve been in this position for four months, and have been doing shifts on the Service Desk for less than two months). I can only speak from my own experience at the desk, and as with most things, I see an upside and a downside.

Good news first: I really like being out on the desk! I enjoy interacting with people, seeing how patrons use the library’s space and services, and finding out firsthand the kinds of questions people are asking. Since I haven’t done much instruction yet, right now this is how I see students the most. I think that interactions at the Service Desk can also be used to inform what I include in instruction sessions. On top of all that, every time I’m at the desk is an opportunity to get to know other people who work in the same building as me every day, but who I otherwise wouldn’t see very much if at all.

A single service point can create a better experience for library users, eliminating any question or confusion over where to ask for help. At our Service Desk, patrons can check items in and out, pick up Interlibrary Loan material, course reserves, and holds, get basic technology help, and ask anything from “where’s the elevator” to an in-depth reference question. It’s great for our users that they can know “this is where I go to ask for help in the library.”

Now here’s the downside, at least as far as I’m concerned: with a greater variety of questions and interactions handled at one desk, and fewer hours spent staffing the desk for any given individual, it can become more difficult to help patrons efficiently. So far I have been on the Service Desk about once a week for a two-hour shift, and it is more often the circulation aspect that I run into trouble with (sidenote: I personally don’t mind handling circulation transactions, where librarians previously would not have done this at the reference desk). When something less common comes up – creating a community borrower card, for example – it may have been weeks or months since I have last done that process, if ever. With less hours spent at the desk, there is less hands-on practice performing circulation processes, which leads to me getting frustrated when I can’t remember how to do something.

I must say, this is not for lack of training: I have been trained on the circulation processes that I need to know, there are opportunities for additional training sessions, and instructional documents are easily accessible online. Also, because of the variety of employees that staff the desk, no matter what comes up, there is usually someone there that can handle it. If I don’t know the answer or don’t remember how to do something, someone else will, and I can use that as a learning opportunity for myself. However, that doesn’t make those situations any less frustrating for me when they do arise.

The consolidated service desk is new for everybody, so I’m sure that time and experience will work towards smoothing out bumps in the road. But I also have to remind myself that I’m still pretty new here and have less prior knowledge about the library and collections. I’m taking things in and learning about my new environment, and to be honest, there is a lot to learn and it can be difficult to remember even simple things! The other day, somebody asked me “what floor is this call number on?” and I had to check the floorplan to be sure – that’s totally fine, but I also wish I could remember more of those little things without having to check the website or ask someone else.

While out on the desk earlier this week, I came up with a way to work through the downsides I’ve encountered. Whenever I learned something new or something came up that I felt I needed a reminder on, I jotted down a quick note – starting with the call number range on each floor.

notes

To be clear, these notes are purely for my personal gain and not intended to be a record of any kind or contribute to our Service Desk stats. I’ve found in the past that I can remember something better once I’ve written it down, so by taking some quick notes when I’m at the Service Desk, I hope that these bits of information will stick in my mind better. If I had to create a community borrower card for somebody that day, I would have taken notes on that as well.

I like the fact that I learn something new whenever I staff the desk, whether it be about our online resources, common student needs, or how to troubleshoot technology (you may notice several points about a certain scanner in my notes above). I’ll continue to take these notes for now, in addition to reviewing the instructional documents for areas where I know I could use a refresher. I’m optimistic that this will help me retain more information as I continue to learn about my library, and assist patrons more efficiently and effectively.

Information Literacy at the Reference Desk

I’ve been lucky enough to find myself in a challenging and stimulating project: developing an information literacy curriculum for my campus.  If it seems like a long time coming–it is.  While my library has consistently been providing reference and instruction services to our students for a long time, its only been recently that we’ve had to develop a serious curriculum to justify our efforts.  As our university is busy with reaffirming of our accreditation and we’re faced with the usual budget crises, the time came to be able to legitimize our services and collections with an information literacy curriculum.

To articulate our mission, content, pedagogy, and assessment of our services and collections, we had to first take inventory.  To do this, we developed and implemented a citation analysis project.  First, we identified 3 sections of a required course in our most popular academic program.  For the face-to-face section of the course, we delivered a standard information literacy session that covered keywords, Boolean operators, and other database-specific skills.  For the online section, I developed an online guide that covered the same topics and I participated in a discussion forum where I answered specific questions.  THis section also, independently of our suggestion, required that each student meet with a librarian for a reference session.  The final section was our control group where no workshop was given.  We then analyzed the final papers of each section and applied a rubric that measured how well the students cited their sources and integrated them in their papers.

The results of our analysis gave us a lot of great insight into how we can improve our workshops, the topics the students need more help with, and how to better promote our collections.  The most interesting result, though, was the revelation that regardless of any other intervention, the students that came to meet with a librarian did better on their final paper than those who did not.  To put another way: reference interactions are just as an essential component to information literacy instruction as one-shot lessons.

I”m not sure why this surprised us so much, but it definitely did.  Perhaps because we unconsciously equate information literacy with in-class workshops, or because we’ve seen a steady decline in amount of reference transactions, or perhaps just because we weren’t the ones to suggest that students be required to see us, but in any event we learned an important lesson to consider our entire range of services when assessing information literacy.  I recently completed a Library Juice Academy course in critical pedagogy where we learned that information literacy instruction happens everywhere, in all aspects of our work.  We gave examples of how we practice a critical pedagogy in our collections, in our campus committee work, and, of course, in our classrooms.  But none of us considered how the work we do when a student comes to us with a reference question is essential to our pedagogy praxis.  Indeed, the kind of personalized attention we give a student during a reference interaction is the perfect time to bring that student a little closer to information literacy.

Now that we know the significance a personalized reference interaction makes, we’re brainstorming ways to systematically incorporate them into our work.  Perhaps we can suggest professors strongly encourage their students to bring their research topic to us as a requirement of the assignment.  Or, we could set up a discussion forum in our classroom management platforms for online or hybrid classes.  Finally, we could consider a roving reference program to meet students working around campus.  What has worked for your library?

When thinking about our work as librarians, it’s essential to consider all aspects of what we do and to start to engage with creative ways to promote information literacy.  The reference desk is an interesting place to start.  In what surprising locations does information literacy live in your library?  Leave a comment or tweet me @beccakatharine.

In the Wake of the Storm: How CUNY Libraries Adjusted After Hurricane Sandy

When Hurricane Sandy hit New York and New Jersey at the end of October, most of the twenty-three schools that make up the City University of New York were in the midst of midterm exams. With the devastation wrought by Sandy, the university was closed after the storm, as were many others in the area. CUNY is a public institution and many of the colleges provided shelter to displaced local residents during and after the storm. Some CUNY schools, both in Lower Manhattan and other parts of the city, were without power for the week (or even longer). The damage to mass transit systems on which so many New Yorkers depend made traveling throughout the city difficult for students, faculty, and staff.

Yet despite all of these challenges, overall most CUNY facilities escaped serious damage from the hurricane and were able to reopen to students on Friday, November 2. We all returned to a semester that looked different from the usual, and in some cases, very different. Here my colleagues and I share our post-hurricane adaptations in some of the libraries across the CUNY system.

New York City College of Technology, Brooklyn
Maura Smale, Information Literacy Librarian
At City Tech we were lucky to have no significant damage to our facilities and the library reopened on Thursday, November 1. I coordinate our information literacy and library instruction, so my main focus immediately after the hurricane was figuring out the impact on our teaching calendar. We typically offer over 200 instruction sessions during the fall semester; there were 11 sessions that had to be canceled while the college was closed. While it was a bit of a scramble to reschedule that many sessions just as we were heading into our busiest time for library instruction, thanks to the flexibility and patience of our instruction librarians and faculty colleagues we were able to find new times for all of the sessions that were missed.

One unexpected effect of the hurricane was the impact on library classes that did not have to be rescheduled. Our instruction sessions are highly assignment-driven, and I spend lots of time at the beginning of the semester working with faculty to ensure that their classes are scheduled to come to the library for instruction when it’s most useful for them. Because the hurricane closed school for several days most faculty had to revise their syllabi, which meant that we saw many more classes than usual in the library in which students did not have an assignment to work on. It wasn’t a huge issue, but it definitely kept us on our toes, and I’ll be interested to meet with the Instruction Team after the semester ends to discuss our lessons learned.

Medgar Evers College, Brooklyn
Benjamin Franz, Digital Reference Librarian
At Medgar Evers College we sustained no damage from the storm. After mass transit was brought back online, normal business resumed. The process was a little slow, but after a few days spent mass-processing information literacy one shots, the library was caught up.

Reference brought its own peculiarities: after the storm, attendance in the library was down. It gradually increased, but took until near the end of the semester to do so. Now with finals occurring, we are in full swing.

The impact came in the form of plans for the library renovation. Originally, the strategy was to cease loans on 11/30 and implement the move of the materials to the temporary locations in December. Hurricane Sandy slowed down this process. We have now met the movers, and they are busy labeling the shelves for moving. We will end all business and close the library December 23rd, as per the notice of our current Chief Librarian, Brian Lym. So Sandy delayed the full implementation of the move, but we progress well, if slowly, towards the renovation project.

Hunter College, Manhattan
Sarah Laleman Ward, Outreach Librarian
Hunter College has three campuses, with libraries at each location. Two of the campuses weathered the storm just fine. Our main campus at 68th Street and Lexington Avenue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side functioned as an emergency shelter during and after Hurricane Sandy, and the Wexler Library at that campus reopened on November 1. Our newest location in East Harlem, which houses the Schools and Library of Social Work and Public Health, also sustained no damage and was able to reopen when classes started up again on November 2.

Our Brookdale Campus was another story. Located on East 25th Street near Bellevue Hospital, the Brookdale Campus houses Hunter College’s School of the Health Professions and the Hunter-Bellevue School of Nursing. The Health Professions Library (HPL) is located on this campus, as are Hunter’s dorms. The campus sustained extensive damage from Hurricane Sandy and when classes resumed at the rest of Hunter, the faculty, staff and students from Brookdale had no place to return to.

Hunter’s Chief Librarian, Dan Cherubin, was asked to find space at the Wexler Library for those displaced from Brookdale as the extent of the damage was assessed and clean-up began. Although the 3rd Floor of Wexler is already off-limits due to ongoing renovations, the 5th Floor was quickly turned into temporary office and classroom space for the faculty, staff and students from Brookdale. Spaces within the library and in other campus locations were secured to house Brookdale’s classes, and the semester carried on. This impacted the Wexler instruction calendar as we shifted classes around to accommodate the Brookdale classes and also attempted to reschedule our own classes from the days we were closed. Additionally, we welcomed our colleagues from HPL at Wexler and found spaces for them to work until the library reopened. Over a month later, there are still members of the Brookdale community being housed on Wexler’s 5th floor although some programs have now been moved back to the 25th Street campus.

We’ve been happy to accommodate our displaced colleagues from Brookdale, and they have been excellent roommates. But at a busy, crowded urban campus like Hunter’s, the squeeze on already limited study space for students is still being felt by everyone, particularly because it’s final exam time.

Hostos Community College, Bronx
Kate Lyons, Reference & IT Librarian
When we reopened after three days of being closed, we discovered a huge opportunity awaiting. Our Office of Academic Affairs, after meeting with department chairs, decided not to add any days to the academic semester, and instead requested that all faculty make up lost class time by posting assignments on Blackboard, and taking advantage of other interactive online tools. Our Chief Librarian called on the library faculty and staff to help support this initiative.

Lisa Tappeiner and I (chosen primarily because are currently offering our library information literacy workshops via Blackboard, and because I am the Faculty Liaison to our EdTech Office) offered one-on-one drop-in support for faculty new to Blackboard, and our library provided more circulating laptops in anticipation of an increased demand from students for access to Blackboard.

As a result of this initiative (and Hurricane Sandy) and the subsequent spike in faculty using Blackboard, we’re revisiting how we in the library work with faculty who teach using Blackboard, and how we ourselves use Blackboard to offer asynchronous information literacy workshops. The storm provided us an opportunity to connect with faculty teaching online, and to think about how to better support our distance students.

Lehman College, Bronx
Jennifer Poggiali, Instructional Technologies Librarian
Robert Farrell, Coordinator of Information Literacy and Assessment

Like Hostos, our Bronx neighbor, Lehman College was fortunate to come through Hurricane Sandy relatively unscathed. Our administration also suggested that discipline faculty make up cancelled classes online. The instructional unit at Lehman’s Leonard Lief Library saw an opportunity to create a so-called win-win.

Before the hurricane, we were planning to use online writing assignments to assess the learning outcomes of our library web comics. The challenge we faced was finding professors willing to work the comics into their syllabi. When we returned to work a few days after the storm, Robert had an idea: we could offer instructors the comics and their accompanying writing assignments as a way for them to make up the time lost due to Sandy.

Four professors took us up on the offer, with three of them using our assignments in a total of seven classes (the fourth professor preferred to hold an in-class discussion on their content). We wrote instructions for the students, handled any questions or problems they had, collected the completed assignments through Google forms, and sent the results to faculty on prearranged dates.

We found that having the learning modules prepared–for a rainy day, so to speak–was a good investment of time and resources for the library and the campus.

John Jay College, Manhattan
Bonnie Nelson, Interim Chief Librarian
“The Library is closed due to the storm,” said the notice on the Library’s homepage on October 29-30, while the city was reeling from the effects of Hurricane Sandy. But by Halloween we realized how wrong we were, and changed the message to “The Lloyd Sealy Library is closed due to the storm, but electronic resources remain available.”

Of course, our students and faculty already knew that. Although the beautiful wood, carpet, and paper Lloyd Sealy Library was very much shuttered tight, the online library was wide open. 4,312 people visited the Library website from Monday to Wednesday of that week, viewing 9,240 web pages. During that same time there were 2,105 logins by students, faculty and staff members for remote use of our licensed electronic resources.

The Sealy Library is so busy during the course of a normal workday–with students studying in groups, reading, asking questions, or just chilling–that it is easy for us to forget how much of “library” work goes unseen. The subway may stop; the College may be closed; the Lloyd Sealy Library’s glass doors may be locked, but the Library is open.

Research Librarianship in Crisis: Mediate When, Where, and How?

This month’s post in our series of guest academic librarian bloggers is by Bohyun Kim, Digital Access Librarian, Florida International University Medical Library. She blogs at Library Hat.

The talk about the crisis of librarianship is nothing new. Most recently, back in May, Seth Godin, a marketing guru, has written on his blog a post about the future of libraries. Many librarians criticized that Godin failed to fully understand the value of librarians and libraries.  But his point that libraries and librarians may no longer be needed was not entirely without merit (See my post “Beyond the Middlemen and the Warehouse Business”). Whether we librarians like it or not, more and more library users are obtaining information without our help.

One may think academic research libraries are an exception from this. Unfortunately, the same trend prevails even at research libraries. In his guest editorial for the Journal of Academic Librarianship, “The Crisis in Research Librarianship (pre-print version)”, Rick Anderson makes the case that patrons are finding information effectively without librarians’ help, citing the drastic decline of reference transactions in Association of Research Libraries (ARL).  According the ARL statistics, the number of reference transactions went down by more than 50-60 % since 1995.

This is particularly worrisome considering that at research libraries, we tend to place reference and instruction services at the center of the library operation and services. These services delivered by physical or online contact are still deemed to be one of the most prominent and important parts of the academic library operation. But the actual user behavior shows that they can and do get their research done without much help from librarians.  To make matters worse, existing library functions and structures that we consider to be central appear to play only a marginal role in the real lives of academic library users.  Anderson states: “Virtually none of them begins a research project at the library’s website; the average student at a major research university has fewer than four interactions with a reference librarian in a year (and even fewer of those are substantive reference interviews); printed books circulate at lower and lower rates every year.”

We have heard this before. So why are we still going in the same direction as we were a decade ago? Could this be perhaps because we haven’t figured out yet what other than reference and instruction to place in the heart of the library services?

For almost three years, my library has been offering workshops for library users. Workshops are a precious opportunity for academic librarians to engage in instruction, the most highly regarded activity at an academic library. But our workshop attendance has been constantly low. Interestingly, however, those who attended always rated the workshops highly. So the low attendance wasn’t the result of the workshops being bad or not useful. Library users simply preferred to spend their time and attention on something other than library workshops.  I remember two things that brought out palpable appreciation from users during those workshops: how to get the full-text of an article immediately and how to use the library’s LibX toolbar to make that process even faster and shorter.

What users seemed to want to know most was how to get the tasks for their research done fast, and they preferred to do so by themselves. They appreciated any tools that help them to achieve this if the tools were easy to use.  But they were not interested in being mediated by a librarian.

What does this mean?  It means that those library services and programs that aim at increasing contact between librarians and patrons are likely to fail and to be received poorly by users. Not necessarily because those offerings are bad but because users prefer not to be mediated by librarians in locating and using information and resources.

This is a serious dilemma. Librarians exist to serve as a mediator between users and resources. We try to guide them to the best resources and help them to make the best use of those resources.  But the users consider our mediation as a speed bump rather than as value-added service. So where do research libraries and librarians go from here?

I think that librarians will still be needed for research in the digital era. However, the point at which librarians’ mediation is sought for and appreciated may vastly differ from that in the past when information was scarce and hard to obtain.  Users will no longer need nor desire human mediation in basic and simple tasks such as locating and accessing information. Most of them already have no patience to sit through a bibliographic instruction class and/or to read through a subject guide.

But users may appreciate and even seek for mediation in more complicated tasks such as creating a relevant and manageable data set for their research.  Users may welcome any tool that libraries offer that makes the process of research from the beginning to the final product easier and faster. They will want better user interfaces for library systems. They will appreciate better bridges that will connect them with non-library systems to make library resources more easily discoverable and retrievable.  They will want libraries to be an invisible interface that removes any barrier between them and information.  This type of mediation is new to librarians and libraries.  Is it possible that in the future the libraries and librarians’ work is deemed successful exactly in inverse proportion to how visible and noticeable their mediation is?

In his guest editorial, Anderson presents several scenarios of research libraries “going out of business.” Libraries being absorbed into an IT group; Libraries losing computer labs, thereby losing a source of transaction with users as laptops and handheld devices become widely adopted; Libraries budget taken away for better investments; Libraries’ roles and functions being eroded slowly by other units; Information resources that libraries provide being purchased directly by users.

So if a library comes to lose its facilities such as a computer lab, a reading room, carrels, and group study rooms, would there still remain the need for librarians? If a library ends up removing its reference desk, workshops, and other instruction classes, what would librarians be left to do?  If we consider the library space that can be offered and managed by any other unit on campus as the essential part of library services and operation, the answer to these questions would be negative.  As long as we consider reference and instruction – the direct contact with users to mediate between them and resources – as the primary purpose of a library, the answer to these questions would be negative.

Libraries may never lose their facilities, and the need for users to have a direct contact with librarians may never completely go away. But these questions are still worth for us to ponder if we do not want to build a library’s main mission upon something on which the library’s patrons do not place much value. The prospect for the future libraries and librarians may not necessarily be dreary. But we need to rethink where the heart of research librarianship should lie.

Don’t Make It Easy For Them

This month’s post in our series of guest academic librarian bloggers is from Andy Burkhardt, Emerging Technologies Librarian at Champlain College in Vermont. He also blogs at Information Tyrannosaur.

I love customer service in libraries. I love improving our systems and services so they are more user-friendly. I love helping students with their research and answering their questions. But I don’t want to make things easy for students. If I did, I wouldn’t be giving them what they want: an education.

In information literacy sessions, which of these two scenarios is easier for students: letting them sit there while you demo the catalog and a database or having them play with the search tools themselves and then explain to the rest of the class how they work? The first one is way easier. Students can sleep, text, or zone out without having to think or learn anything. The second situation is exceedingly more challenging. Students have to actually have hands on contact with the tools. They also have to learn them well enough to explain them to their classmates. They have to talk!

At the reference desk, what’s easier for a student: when a librarian searches the catalog for them and gives them a relevant book, or when the librarian asks them a bunch of questions, has them explain their topic clearly, and makes them search the catalog? Clearly the first one is nearly effortless for the student. Ask and they receive. The second one is significantly more demanding. After asking a question, the student is asked more questions back. They have to work to define and redefine their topic into something clear. And they have to try searching for a book themselves!

When an online student is looking for an article, should we just send a PDF or should we make a quick screencast about how to get to that article in our databases? Sending the PDF as an email attachment would be much easier for the student. It would also be much easier for the librarian. In fact, things that are easier for students are often easier for librarians too. It’s easy to send a PDF. It’s simple to go through the motions of demoing a database you have shown hundreds of times. It’s a cake-walk to give a student a book and send them on their way. But if we take the easy route, we’re failing them. Learning isn’t easy; it’s hard work. It can be interesting, challenging, confusing, overwhelming, engaging, scary and really fun, but not easy. It’s never easy. Part of our service to students is challenging them so they learn and grow.

I try to remember not to make it easy for students, but also not to make it easy for myself. If my job is starting to seem easy, I’m doing something wrong.