Category Archives: Public Services

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.

The Distributed Library: Our Two-Year Experiment

This month’s post in our series of guest academic librarian bloggers is from Erin Dorney, Outreach Librarian at Millersville University, Pennsylvania. She also blogs at Library Scenester.

Last week, a small fire* forced all faculty, staff, and library users out of our nine-floor building for about an hour. As I stood the requisite 50 feet away and watched four trucks full of firefighters lug fans, ladders and various pointed objects inside, my colleague posed an interesting question:

“Wow…where are all these students going to go during the renovation?”

As I looked around us at hundreds of students standing in the lawn – laptops unplugged but open in hand, juggling cups of coffee, fingers flying over cell phones and cameras snapping shots of the flashing red lights – I shivered with excitement. It was great to see a visual reminder of who my colleagues and I work to serve: the users. Okay, maybe excitement laced with fear as well, but the good kind of fear – the stuff that drives you forward.

I am about to embark on my first journey into a daunting academic library renovation project. When I interviewed for my position as Outreach Librarian at Millersville University during the spring of 2008 (straight out of graduate school from Syracuse University), the search committee asked me how I would design a marketing campaign to provide awareness to students and faculty before and during a renovation. Little did I know that those interview scenarios were true!

I tried to catch your attention with the fire opening (no one likes the idea of books burning, right?), but if that didn’t do the trick maybe this will: During our upcoming renovation, the majority of our 350,000 physical items will be going into storage. Offsite. With no retrieval. For a period of two years.

Are you listening now?

With a building that is over 40 years old, the Millersville University Library will be gutted and completely renovated starting in the fall of 2011. Everyone currently working in the building will be relocated to other spaces on campus (and we’ll be testing out embedding librarians in different academic buildings). As the role of academic libraries has changed significantly, our facilities are in dire need of a makeover. The new building will provide students with the staples of the academic library space: natural lighting, flexible furniture, secure spaces, programming areas, exhibit space, physical accessibility, ubiquitous technology, 24-hour public areas, a café and more. Thus far, no one has complained about what the new library will look like. Instead, I spend most of my time calming fears about the transition period – the two years when our current building will be under construction, with most of the print books boxed up and out of sight.

There are so many questions, and I’ll be the first to admit that we don’t have all of the answers about how this will play out. I can assure you that we are committed to meeting the research needs of current and future Millersville students. Over the past few years we have been building our electronic book collection and focusing on article databases that will make scholarship available to students no matter where they (or we) are located. Our mutual dependencies with other libraries for things like ILL will become more important. However, the services that we currently offer will continue to be offered during the construction period.

We are also committed to being as transparent as possible about our decision making process and have been inviting student feedback through our renovation website and the creation of a library student advisory board. My goal is no surprises… or, rather, only pleasant ones.

Beyond the impact on students, this renovation project has major implications for other institutions of higher education. What happens when the physical library goes away for a little while? Or, what happens when the library’s resources are distributed around the campus, or move towards electronic access more quickly than anyone anticipated? People have asked me if I’m afraid that this is the end of the academic library, wondering if we will become irrelevant during the two years we’re out of the building. My response? I guess it’s possible, but only if I sit on my hands for the next two years. Instead, I’ll be out integrating the library into campus, infiltrating academic buildings, increasing thought-provoking programming, and providing top-notch service to the campus community so that when we do come back into the new library, we bring everyone along with us. In my world, you can probably have a library without printed books. You can’t really have a library without people.

This is an opportunity for us to put libraries out there, to challenge ideas of what a library can and should be. If you are interested in learning more about the project, I invite you to visit our Renovation Website, where the most up-to-date information is posted. I welcome any comments and questions – have you dealt with a major library renovation? How is communication handled within your library? Tips or lessons learned?

* in a heating vent, no worries!

A Personal Touch

Earlier this week the Chron reported on the new Personal Librarian Program at Drexel University. Every incoming freshman student this year has been assigned an individual librarian, and students are encouraged to contact their personal librarians throughout the semester whenever they have questions about doing research or using the library. While Drexel is not the only academic library offering this service, the publicity around the Drexel program has inspired lots of conversation this week among librarians I know both in person and online via Twitter, Facebook, and blogs.

It definitely seems like there has been a rise in individual services to students at academic libraries over the past few years. Some libraries are experimenting with librarian office hours; sometimes they’re held in the library, and sometimes a subject librarian will offer consultations in an office in each discipline’s department. Many libraries promote individual consultations by appointment with reference librarians for students and faculty. We started offering this service at my library last semester and it’s working well. It’s been great to be able to offer more in-depth assistance to students without feeling the pressure of the busy reference desk.

As an instruction librarian I’m used to interacting with students in a class, but working with many students at once is very different from a one-on-one interaction with a student. Maybe it’s just in the air, but more and more often I find myself thinking about ways to work with individual students. I think these services are so attractive to me because it seems like they would encourage stronger student engagement with research and critical thinking. No matter how relevant (e.g., assignment-based), timely, interactive, or entertaining a classroom instruction session is, it can be difficult to fully engage every student in the room. But working with students one-on-one removes some of the obstacles–like fear of asking questions in front of the entire class–and lets us work at each individual student’s level of experience and need.

I have to admit that the numbers are a bit scary. The ratio of Personal Librarians to incoming freshmen at Drexel is about 1:100. How can academic libraries at colleges with a different ratio–say, 1:500 or even 1:1,000–offer these kinds of individual services? One thought is to start small, with students in a specific discipline or major, and I’m sure there are other groups of students that would work well for a personal librarian project pilot. And assessment should help us evaluate the impact of individual services as compared to group instruction, and help us decide whether to offer a personal librarian program. (Assessment is on my mind this week as I’ve been making my way through the new ACRL Value of Academic Libraries Report, but that’s a post for another day.)

If you’re experimenting with individual services in your library, what have your experiences been?