Category Archives: Simplicity vs. Complexity

Use this category for items that relate to an ongoing discussion of finding a balance between givin users simplicity or expecting them to deal with complexity.

“Just…why?”: Coming to terms with ambiguity, resilience, and acceptance

As a former electronic resources librarian, along with what I’ll call my own unique set of life experiences, I’ve found the practice of radical acceptance has served me well.  Acceptance as an ongoing practice is not optimism or permissiveness, but healthily recognizing how and when to let go, and knowing that acceptance is not the same as approval.  This practice comes in handy, especially in life’s lemon-giving moments. I’ve mentioned a few  from the technical side of library work in previous posts.  Certainly the current sociopolitical climate is not at a loss for examples of this either.

When these “Seriously?” moments occur in my job, I am reminded of another idea, comfort with ambiguity, which frequently appears as a desirable skill in job advertisements, along with its companion resilience.  Both have been on my mind since attending a recent ACRL presentation,  Resilience, Grit, and Other Lies: Academic Libraries and the Myth of Resiliency.  As ubiquitous as both ambiguity and resilience are in my field, this presentation reminded me how poorly defined, misunderstood, and problematic they are when idealized professionally.  So I was thinking about how to unpack this concept related to my own academic librarianship and how a personal practice of acceptance (without approval) might play a helpful role.

It seems in the everyday ambiguity, as well as ambivalent with the same root, often describe something squishier.  For example, ambivalent is often misused to describe someone who is passively undecided or not invested in a particular outcome, rather than actually feeling multiple different ways about a thing. Similarly, ambiguity is often synonymous with an amorphous state of confusion than specific set of circumstances that make a solution unclear.

While inexactness and its synonyms might reflect this murky spirit, isn’t ambiguity really only inexact because it can’t be just one thing?  The fact that it can still be exactly many things is what I find interesting and overlooked in the experience of ambiguity.  Recognizing the possibility of multiple interpretations as specific, distinct avenues for action is especially important for efficiency and service in e-resources management.

Here’s a very basic example working with and a technical problem solving of e-resource access, which I repeatedly encountered when working with publishers’ technical support:

Me: Hi, My name is [me] from [my institution]. We have a current subscription to [your journal] but we’re not able access content online.

Tech Support:  What’s your institution’s [subscriber number, IP address, and other details]?

Me: *gives details*

Tech Support:  OK, it should be working now.

And that was it.  No explanation, no assurance it would not happen again, no way to plan workflow to prevent this very regular disruption.  Good problem solvers who thrive on the details of the problems and the solutions will no doubt feel frustrated and confused by this.  But the situation is no more a mystery than it is comfortable.  There likely is an exact cause for this problem. It’s just the cause is likely multiplicitous, complex, and in most cases less important than the fact that the problem is now fixed. So we move on.  In responding to the given ambiguous situation, we must accept the priorities of the current moment rather than the past or future.  This mindfulness of the present moment is a key part of the practice of acceptance.

Change may the new normal, but comfortable with ambiguity?

I think these tendencies show up in e-resources librarianship in particular because positions of this type developed from those which focused on the exacting and predictable realm of attention to detail.  Certainly the evolution of libraries content and services necessitates characterizing those details as now really messy and inexact.  But position descriptions mistakenly place this ambiguity in the context of a personal quality when it is really a quality of the environment.  To use such a problematic word, and to prefer people who are comfortable in that state, doesn’t say anything about how people should actually respond in these situations.  Expecting comfort in ambiguity falsely sets people up to stay in that state longer than may be necessary.

And this is where the problem of resilience comes in.  As the ACRL presentation I mentioned notes, research shows resilience often normalizes oppression of marginalized groups.  Systemically, I wonder how resilience hinders innovation, preventing us from answering the question “what can we stop doing?”.


So since, as a colleague once reminded me, the privileged have to be uncomfortable to recognize oppression, it is useful to discard a preference for comfort in the face of ambiguity.  Resilience or grit may help us more than comfort, as long as it is focused in the direction of action.  It should not be the normal or preferred quality of an individual professionally.

The idea of resilience as oppression also reminded me of another “What fresh h*!! is this?” experience working as an elementary music teacher.  At one of the two inner-city schools I was assigned, the music room was the stage in the gym’s auditorium. A burlap-like stage curtain was the only barrier between my music classes and the screaming, sneaker-squeaking, ball-bouncing, whistle-blowing activity of PE.  I often preface my sharing of this experience with disbelief that this was a reality to describe – it seemed so obviously nonsensical and in need of a solution.  So, I once spent a week’s planning periods reworking the entire school schedule so that all teachers still got their planning period during elective classes, but in a way that PE and music didn’t overlap.  Working out those complexities was frustrating and certainly not comfortable.  At the same time, I was driven to resist normalizing the resilience expected of the situation.  I knew this was more than a personal preference of the [should-be librarian] music teacher than the institution was leading me to believe.  Before leaving this job, I don’t think I ever gave these alternatives to my principal, but succeeded in getting a new curtain for the stage. When I noted to the principal that the change didn’t block sound as I’d hoped, I’ll never forget her response.

“Why do you care, since you won’t be here any longer?”

On one hand her response demonstrated everything that’s wrong with institutional resiliency.  At the same time I can also see it as an honest statement of my own realm of control.  When work and life inevitably boil down to “Just…what? Why is this normal?”, a practice of acceptance means neither normalizing nor pursuing crazy to find resolution.

The circus has left town

Image CC BY 2.0 with attribution:  matthew_pennell “The circus has left town”

If there is a proactive path through ambiguity or resilience, then I believe the skill we’re really after is how to recognize, reassess, and negotiate our power to influence and control.  This requires a constant give and take of our experience of that control as anxiety or relief.  It means exactly both action and letting go and not necessarily having to choose between the two.  When requiring choice, it means knowing how not to wrestle very long in the choosing.

Embracing Discovery

This summer my library, like over 60 others, is implementing Summon. Serials Solutions’ discovery layer is meant to provide our users with that “one search solution” we’ve all been waiting for for so long by sucking all our resources (catalog records, local digital collections, and database content) into one central index that searches it all at once and links back to full text wherever it’s available.

So far, it’s kind of working that way – a tedious and detailed testing process is revealing big gaps in the index for us and more failures in linking than I’d like, but we are still very early in our implementation. (Whether these are Summon errors or local implementation errors is hard for me to tell, since there is not a transparent admin module to control the local index we’re building.) A built-in “database recommender” gives users additional options for finding resources based on their Summon search results – a feature I would like a great deal more if it didn’t provide such strange recommendations sometimes, like the humanities and social sciences index FRANCIS for the search “eating disorders.” (That technically works, but there are other places I’d probably try first.)

One very interesting side effect of our implementation is the conversations we’ve been having, both within my library and with other libraries in Ohio, about what we expect from Summon. Many people have expressed the idea that discovery layers will be something librarians promote to novice library users, but that we’ll still be directing users to our catalog for known-item and advanced searching, and to our existing database lists to choose advanced subject-specific resources. While I understand the impulse behind this idea (especially as I experience the limitations of the discovery layer during our testing), I am worried it is unrealistic in the short term and ultimately does our patrons a disservice over time.

On May 9 I spoke at a statewide electronic resources management forum in Ohio about usable database records and lists. Alan Boyd, Associate Director of Libraries at Oberlin College, asked me what I thought the future held for such lists. I said that in five years I expect our reliance on local A-Z lists and the like will be replaced by a more contextual and topic-driven solution, like Summon’s database recommender, within our discovery layers, and that we’ll be abandoning the format-specific information silos we currently maintain. This suggestion, however, was met with vigorous disagreement from some in the audience.

I see the point: discovery layers are very new. They don’t (and probably won’t) include everything we own, the indexing they provide is subject to the whims of the highly competitive publishing and library database industry, and they are not entirely successful yet at synthesizing detailed information in very disparate source formats (MARC, MeSH, Dublin Core, etc.). However, it is as naïve to assume we’ll continue to develop or even maintain the front ends of our ILS systems as it is to assume our users will want to seek out and learn how to use them. In a usability project we did last spring on the BGSU library’s website, we watched users struggle again and again to find known items in our OPAC, use our databases-by-subject lists to choose resources by topic, or navigate our e-journal portal to find the full text of an article from its citation. The reality is that the tools we have now don’t actually work that well without specialized knowledge: most users don’t know you have to search for the journal title and not the article title, or that catalog searches are messed up when you include punctuation, or that sometimes when you search without the subtitle you have more success – and why should they? When I was in library school I read Christine Borgman’s excellent article “Why are Online Catalogs Still Hard to Use?” It was published in 1996. Why are online catalogs still hard to use, even now, in 2011?

I hope we will be able to move beyond them. Perhaps discovery tools, like Summon, will be our vehicles for doing so (dozens of libraries are making that bet this summer, including my own). In the short term we’re going to be balancing the needs and knowledge of our current users with the limitations of our current tools, but we need to be ready to embrace a future in which powerful searching of vast repositories of content replaces navigation for both known items and discovery, and where we both build tools to support this new future of finding and are ready to abandon the old ones that never worked that well anyway.

Finishing Strong: Manage The Ending

When it comes to things like the reference transaction, library instruction or our personal presentations, we often are advised to get things off to a good start. Ask the right questions to quickly find out what the user really wants. Start with an attention grabber to draw in the learner. Make eye contact and be friendly improve one’s approachability. This is all good advice. Failure to capture attention or gain trust at the start of an interaction is sure to reduce the likelihood for a productive ending. However, we may focus too much of our energy on the beginning of the experiences we deliver to our community members and colleagues, and not enough on the ending. It may actually be more critical to finish strong as opposed to the big start.

I’m currently reading the book Living With Complexity by Don Norman. While we often hear that we need to improve our libraries by making them more simple to use (and that certainly applies to electronic resources), Norman does not necessarily agree. He acknowledges that in life we must deal with complexity – it is unavoidable. Research, for example, done well is by necessity complex in nature. Students, in seeking to avoid complexity, will do what they can to make it simple. We learned more about their strategies recently, and the challenges it presents to both writing instructors and librarians. Even the act of proper citation presents complexity. But Norman, who is often credited with coining the term “user experience” and champions human-centered design, does not advocate simplicity over complexity. He writes:

Complexity is part of the world and shouldn’t be puzzling: we can accept it if we believe this is the way things must be…But when complexity is random and arbitrary, then we have reason to be annoyed…Modern technology can be complex, but complexity by itself is neither good or bad; it is confusion that is bad.

According to Norman complexity is not the problem in our world. The problem is bad design that turns complexity into confusion, for which there is no excuse. Norman writes that “Good design can help tame complexity, not by making things less complex – for the complexity is required – but by managing the complexity”. That presents a challenge to us academic librarians. Rather than just asking how we make the complex more simple for our students, we might be better to ask how we can manage the complexity through better design.

That’s a challenge we may want to take up in future posts and conversations. In this post I want to bring your attention to one smaller concept within the book that relates more specifically to how people recall experiences, particularly ones that may include complexity – which could be considered unpleasant. We certainly would prefer that our community members recall their library experience as being pleasant rather than painful, boring or simply forgettable. Norman has a fascinating chapter dedicated entirely to the design of waiting. Waiting in lines is among the worst experiences we encounter. As Norman describes it a line is a “simple phenomenon…that can give rise to considerable complications.” Therefore, designing a better waiting experience can be crucial to the success of any business that requires people to wait. Norman gives multiple examples of organizations that turn waiting lines into assets through thoughtful design. In our academic libraries waiting is usually not a problem. There is rarely waiting in long lines to enter the building, we don’t find long queues at the reference desk these days, and if you need line management strategies for your instruction sessions, please let me know. So how does the design of waits relate to our work?

It’s all about memory because memory is more important than reality. We need to pay attention to this because it’s in our best interest as librarians to do everything we can to make sure the community members seek out our services in the future. Whether they do that or not is connected to each experience they have with us. Norman writes that “your future behavior will be controlled by your memories”. Think about that. We all make decisions about where we like to go and the things we want to do based on our past memories of the experiences we’ve had. You’re not likely to return to a restaurant where you recall the food or service as being unpleasant. The memory of that experience is likely not the same as the reality of that event, but rather a distorted version that exists only in your mind. Norman shares research that tells us that human memory is not a precise recall of things as they really happened but simply active reconstructions of an experience subject to revisionist history. That bad experience you recall may actually be some amalgamation of multiple bad experiences at different times that your brain is re-mixing into a newly manufactured memory that is by no means an accurate reflection of reality. And that’s why a big finish is all the more important for librarians.

Strong starts are still important because that’s your one shot at getting the audience to invest their time and interest in what you have to say. You still must deliver good content through the instruction session or presentation. It’s the middle where most of the complexity happens, and that’s the part of the experience that we want attendees to remember – but not unfavorably. What we can learn from the experts who design experiences is that the best way to get people to favorably recall those more unavoidable unpleasantries is to manage the ending so well that when the entire experience is recalled a pleasant, dynamic or unique ending may well be what is most remembered about the experience. It then makes the entire experience, even the complexion parts, seem better overall when it is remembered. Sequentially, the end is also easier for us to remember than the beginning given our short-term memories. A strong finish can overcome the pain derived from an encounter with complexity. That ending might be something powerful such as sharing a video with a strong message. It might be something as simple as handing out a memento (e.g., a pen) at the end of the session, or ending with a good story.

When you design your next instruction session or presentation, or in giving thought to how you end reference transactions or consultations, consider giving as much if not more thought to your finish as you do to your beginning. They say you only get one chance to make a first impression. But your first impression will likely be less well remembered than the one with which you choose to end. So design and manage that last impression well.

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.

Technical Drudgery Revisited

On October 7, NISO sponsored a workshop in Chicago called “E-Resource Management: From Start to Finish (and Back Again).” In the opening keynote, Norm Medeiros of the Tri-Colleges (Haverford, Bryn Mawr, and Swarthmore) asked what value electronic resource management (ERM) systems bring to libraries. His answer? Not much, yet.

If what your library needs most is a data warehouse for e-resources information, Medeiros said, you should not purchase an ERM. An Access database or other homegrown solution will work just as well, with less cost in both dollars and staff time and expertise for implementation. He said that libraries with large, distributed staffs, decentralized environments and the need to manage higher-level tasks or functions need these tools most – but that they are mostly failing at those very functions for those very libraries.

Medeiros listed functions he wanted ERMs to perform, most of which involve being able to re-use data with flexibility and fluidity to eliminate the need for duplicative systems and “technical drudgery”: he thinks ERMs should allow for global updating, incorporate a knowledgebase, be interoperable with other systems, and store data and generate reports. He stressed that managing workflow and communication are the biggest e-resource management challenges and no existing ERMs really meet them effectively.

For a while now I’ve thought that OCLC’s interlibrary loan software ILLiad would make a great model for an ERM. It combines a knowledgebase (patron data and lending library information as well as WorldCat bibliographic data) and data tracking and reporting (statistics about requests, patrons and expenditures) with a web-based workflow management portal that allows staff to see at a glance the status of all the library’s active borrowing and lending requests. Staff in different physical locations have access to all the data they need. Each task in the process – from the submission of a request, to searching, copyright clearance, requesting, re-requesting, and fulfillment or cancellation, with all the capability to communicate with patrons, staff and other libraries in between – is defined, and as one process is completed, the software automatically pushes the request on to the next step in the workflow. Libraries have ILL down to a science, and, even without ILLiad, libraries don’t lose requests, can be reasonably sure of responding to them within a certain time frame, and can measure and predict their costs and workloads with accuracy.

Why does interlibrary loan work so efficiently while electronic resources management is still such a mess? Are e-resources really that much more complicated? Think of all the variables involved in an interlibrary loan request – a patron, a source (database, bibliography), local ILS’s, borrowing libraries, lending libraries, student workers, consortia, scanning software, legal issues (copyright, licensing), the postal service, language barriers… And let’s not forget – much of the work now involves digital objects, not paper: interlibrary loan departments, while they still deal with physical objects, have successfully migrated to working in an electronic environment with electronic resources when possible. What have we figured out about ILL that we can’t seem to about databases?

I keep coming back to that idea of a knowledgebase. We have them for e-journals, but, for databases, every library is still creating its own. Vendor contact information (especially support websites and e mail addresses), information on where and how to download usage statistics, information about MARC record availability, customization options, etc., should come with the system – I shouldn’t have to enter it into my ERM the first place or update it ever. Such a knowledgebase should also include information about databases – titles, descriptions and urls. There should be no need for every library to separately maintain urls to all our EBSCO databases, for crying out loud. We don’t do this for e-journals – why are we doing it for databases?

The same thing goes for data sharing. This summer I looked at all the ARL libraries’ websites to find out how they were managing public displays of their databases (A-Z lists, subject lists, and full resource records). Most libraries use homegrown systems to generate the webpages that contain this information, not vendor-supplied ERMs, though many of the same libraries have purchased ERMs. Exporting data in a shareable format from most vendor software requires complicated workarounds which even then don’t guarantee it can be used where it’s needed. Most libraries maintain double sets of data about their e-resources because they lack systems that allow data to be used and re-used as necessary.

Why are we stuck in this place with e-resources management while resource sharing is light years ahead? Maybe because creating a patron- and library-ready knowledgebase of databases would require competing vendors to work together (gasp) when what they really want to do is each create their own products to get a piece of the library automation pie. Resource sharing works because libraries believe in working together. As long as libraries keep feeding Audrey II, we’re never going to get the collaboration from vendors we need. And even though OCLC has been accused of anticompetitive business practices, you still have to admit that the system libraries have created through OCLC for resource sharing is one of the best and most cooperative things we have.

Lately I’ve been engaging in a lot of the “technical drudgery” Medeiros decried, entering all the administrative information about our databases and their vendors into the data warehouse that is our ERM, mostly because I’ve discovered I’m spending way too much time trying to track this information down when I need it. I have admin info in there, stats info, vendor info, database info, tutorial info – you name it. I’d be happy to send it to anyone who wants to re-code it into XML so we can re-deploy it and everyone can use it. But you’d have to get it out of my ERM first.