Category Archives: Technology Issues

For posts about teaching technologies, library technology issues, new technology

Today’s Computer Commons is Tomorrow’s Card Catalog

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian at Temple University, and founding blogger at ACRLog.

Anyone who worked in an academic research library in the 1970s-1980s remembers the vast amount of library real estate devoted to the physical card catalog. For those newer-to-the-profession colleagues who are unable to picture this – and those who prefer to forget it – here’s a reminder:

duke university library card catalog
A typical research library catalog taking enormous amounts of floor space

As academic libraries of all sizes completed their migrations to online catalogs the librarians looked forward to the removal of the massive catalog furniture, and dwelled on how they would use all the space made available by the its departure. As timing would have it, the advent of the personal computer right around the same time the catalog went away made for an almost natural transition of the space from cards to computers. In my own place of work, where the catalog used to sit one now finds a field of personal computers – all of them hardwired desktops. One also finds printers, scanners and technology assistants to help keep it all running.

As my own library embarks on the planning process for a new building, one that will serve the institution throughout the 21st century, the future of desktop computer and whether tomorrow’s student will have any use for this technology is one of many questions related to technology planning. The current wisdom seems to be that undergraduates still prefer to have access to hardwired desktops – even though the vast majority of them own their own desktops or (increasingly) laptops.

It would be both questionable and considerably risky to plan for an academic library to open in 2017 without public desktop computing. Looking out into the not-too-distant future beyond that though, perhaps just another 10 years, I believe academic librarians will once again be in search of a purpose or application for all the space created by the removal of obsolete desktop computers. This technology will be just useful in 2027 as the physical card catalog was to the academic library by the time online catalogs were as common as desktop computers are today.

There’s no question that today’s college students still expect the library to offer them lots of desktop computers – as odd as that may seem when many of them own their own desktops, laptops or tablets. An article in the December 2012 issue of Information Technology and Libraries titled “Student Use of Library Computers: Are Desktop Computers Still Relevant In Today’s Libraries?” by Susan Thompson of CSU San Marcos, shares the results of two years’ worth of study into student use of the library’s desktop computers. According to Thompson, the students still preferred for the library to offer desktops for a number of reasons with which many of us are acquainted: faster connections; reliability when papers are due; access to onsite printers; preference for leaving laptops at home (this article focuses on a commuter institution); access to special software; fear of stolen/lost laptops; convenience. It’s a conclusion that many of us would expect.

But the data was collected in 2009 and 2010. That’s eons ago in the computer age. As I read it I wondered whether these findings would accurately reflect the technology habits of students of 2013 – and would they at all reflect the students of 2027? I know that as I walk through my own library almost every student who is not sitting at a desktop is using (or has nearby) a laptop, tablet or smartphone. Then again, at times of the day students are challenged to find a desktop when they want it.

I suspect that we will see some rapid change in student use of mobile computing and that it will, in time, chip away at the preferences identified by Thompson’s research. The future of institutionally supported desktop computing at colleges and universities is one that our IT colleagues continue to debate. Some institutions are abandoning desktops entirely while other swear on the value of offering acres of desktops and laptops to go. Factors such as residential vs. commuters, socio-economic status of the students or the local technology culture can all impact on the need for desktop computing. In an increasingly BYOE technology landscape, it seems inevitable that students will have no real need for a library provided desktop. That appears to be the thinking behind the planning of the Brody Learning Commons at Johns Hopkins University. It offers access to great study and learning spaces with technology support – but no computers are provided. Then again, they are nearby if needed in the familiar confines of the attached Eisenhower Library.

Perhaps the best thing we can do, in planning for onsite library computing today, is to aim for maximum flexibility. Students may express a demand for desktops today, but it’s hard to imagine that will be our future. When we gaze out upon our fields of computers we should, in our mind’s eye, envision it as a room that holds nothing but an enormous, as far-as-the-eye-can see card catalog. Because, ultimately, as the next generations of students make it to our doors, it is less likely they will expect us to provide them with computers, and it may be that they would consider such amenities laughable and a waste of their tuition dollars. It is a bit premature perhaps, but not unreasonable, for us to begin thinking about how we will use all the space currently devoted to desktop and laptop-loan computers. My crystal ball is less clear on this matter, although I suspect we can always improve things by expanding the café.

Photo courtesy of Duke University Archives

55 Years Old with a 33 Year Library Career

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Kathy Parsons, Associate Professor and Head, Stacks and Media Department at Iowa State University.

After reading the July 2012 Will’s World column “Your Mileage May Vary” in American Libraries, I found myself pondering library fatigue, retirement, and the value of my career. Was the librarian he described me? Did I need to retire? I sincerely hoped not but I saw a part of myself in his statements. Was library fatigue taking over? Could I rekindle the passion and joy for library work? But how do long-term librarians stay relevant, refreshed, and motivated? And if it was indeed time to make a career change what can I do with my experience? Were there others pondering the same questions?

I moderated a roundtable discussion at the 2013 National ACRL Conference in Indianapolis about issues facing long-term career librarians. I hoped that this session would be part counseling, part positive reinforcement, and part networking. It was just that and a bit more. While I used questions to guide the conversation, the answers were often elusive. Participants’ comments frequently redirected the conversation into areas I had not anticipated. The questions used were “How can librarians reinvent themselves and stay out of the rut? What other jobs can librarians do if they left the profession? How do you market your experience and skill sets for jobs outside of the library venue?”

During the discussions a couple of themes became evident. First, many of us expressed concerns about the reduction of staffing levels at our institutions. These reductions were the result of retirements, downsizing due to budget concerns, job changes, or even reallocation of staff. Coupled with this were the increasing expectations for new services while keeping the old. Rapid technological changes provided benefits but also added more stress. On top of this we needed to prove our value to our institution. Many of us sensed that we were just barely holding on; stretched thin with many responsibilities. We felt that we lost our passion and were unsure what to do. Some have thought about changing jobs but jobs are scarce. We talked about the shrinking job market and the unstable economy which was occurring at the same time of increased retirements of baby boomers. This was impacting long term employees wishing to change jobs and the younger colleague’s ability to move up. An article discussing the concept of “gray ceiling ” was mentioned that addressed the impact of delayed retirements has on younger workers.

Another theme that emerged was the generation gap. Some of us felt unappreciated by our younger (and sometimes new) colleagues especially if they were our supervisors. We thought we were seen as dinosaurs: not adaptable; technology deficient with little or with no social media skills including texting and blogging; slow learners living in the past. We realized that our chosen vocation has undergone tremendous change over the last decade or so but our longevity should count for something. We wondered if we needed to remind our younger colleagues of the advances our generation of librarians developed. Had we been so quiet about our “history” that the younger librarians do not know that we are the shoulders of change they are standing on? We developed online catalogs, integrated library management systems, and database searching; all these things and more paved the way for the support of open access, the use of social networking, cloud technology, and digitalization for library work. We wondered why the younger managers would not use our institutional memory as it could help prevent problems down the road. We recognized that there is a fine line between living in the past (refusing to adapt to changes) and sharing about the past (explanation of why something is the way it is). We, also, wondered if risk taking is hard as we age. Those of us who were middle managers felt especially conflicted by the generational gap as we may have both younger supervisees as well as younger supervisors. One person described us as being in the “bibliographic definition of hell.”

Woven throughout the conversation were ways of coping, recharging, and renewal. One way many of us “recharge” was attending conferences and workshops and volunteering with library associations. Universally we agreed that we returned to work after these activities motivated and refreshed but the feeling quickly disappeared as the normal workday intruded. We talked about the need to sustain and enlarge our professional contacts and network. Some found mentoring younger colleagues rewarding and in turn have been mentored by them. We brought to the relationship these strengths: navigating the ins and outs of serving our professional associations, assisting with research and publishing, and developing leadership skills. For us, the younger colleagues helped us hone our skills with social media and other technological advances. We concluded that this roundtable had great potential for a larger discussion and suggested that the topic be developed into a workshop or pre-conference at the 2015 National ACRL Conference in Portland. We need to continue this type of dialogue with ourselves and to include our younger colleagues. Most importantly, we walked away with new colleagues in our networks, not feeling so lost and alone, and later that night some found new dancing partners at the all-conference reception!

3-D Printers

One aspect of being a new librarian is the feeling of having arrived late to a party where everyone is already deep in conversation. You lurk with your drink and canapés hoping to hear something that resonates on which you can say something intelligent. Or perhaps you just blurt out what you’re thinking to the delight or horror of your new peers.

So I hear things about 3-D printers and think I have something to add. My gig before science librarian was equipment manager for a Cell & Developmental Biology department. So I have some years of experience evaluating, purchasing and subsequently training people on highly technical equipment. The value of centrally funded equipment is fairly clear to me, and you can see cool examples of how a 3-D printer might save money in lab. But this single blog post gets trotted out too frequently as a justification for 3-D printers. There’s been some pushback on 3-D printers – Hugh Rundle and Jacob Berg both come to mind. And they make good points – like you may have way more important things to do with your time, or maybe the main library isn’t the best place for these things. But they also reference “technolust” (Rundle) and “wish fulfillment” (Berg) as a dig at the motivations for getting a 3-D printer. Fair enough, but I think a library is a pretty good place for these things if they are coming to your campus, unfortunately you probably don’t have the time to make them really useful.

Most lab equipment is poorly utilized. Very few pieces of equipment get used daily in a lab, – pH meter, spectrophotometer, benchtop centrifuges, and thermocyclers (perhaps) all get regular use. But there probably isn’t enough demand for a single lab or most departments to own a 3-D printer and use it to capacity. In the cost saving link above, the author made some electrophoresis combs – that can probably be used for years. I’ve closed out a lot of labs, and there are multitudinous gel combs and molds floating around, you’re just not going to be cranking them out daily. Having access to a 3-D printer is a potentially huge benefit to scientists trying to replace a small plastic bit of a machine (cost $50-75 from manufacturer) or to engineering students working on something like a robotics project. However, not many lab groups would be using them daily, so sticking them at the individual lab seems like a waste.

Even if an individual lab can justify the time and space, individual labs are often terrible, and I mean truly awful, at sharing. Dispositions run the gamut, but my memories of negotiating for access to a piece of equipment reminds me of baksheesh.  Having a place where scholars can go, get training, and not get entangled by reciprocity has a lot of time saving value. The grapevine is also a poor way to inform a community of new technology.

Scientists (and I imagine other scholars) like to see things in action before purchase. Scientists generally ask their peers and poke around before purchase, so getting a 3-D printer could also serve as a proof of concept to the community. Most will probably conclude they don’t need one for themselves. But the thing about 3-D printers is labs are only the most obvious users, and if a printer is put there they will most likely be the only users. Off the top of my head, 3-D printers have applications for art, education, and archaeology in addition to STEM fields.

All that said, I’m a bit leery of bringing 3-D printers into the library because they squirt hot polymer compound through tiny holes. Entropy is a tremendous enemy of devices like this and I fear they would be rapidly beaten into uselessness in a shared use environment. I’m sure they are well engineered and easy to clean (down sales reps, down) but … hot plastic, tiny tubes. Also, even if they are plug and play, designing something cool must take some training – and who provides that time and expertise? That said, I’ll leave folks with some nuts and bolts questions to help them assess whether a 3-D printer is right for their library.

  1. How much is a service contract for this machine? If I don’t buy a contract, what are the hourly service rate, the travel allowance and per diem cost for a technician to visit? Alternately, do we send it in for repair? If so, what are the packing requirements and typical turnaround time?
  2. What is the consumable cost? How much time does it take to switch consumables (for example – plastic colors) and does that take special training? Do I have to purchase consumables from you or are there third party solutions? Consumables also include things like motors and belts – over time every moving part is a consumable.
  3. What routine maintenance is required? How long does cleaning take and how often must it be performed?
  4. What operating systems do you support? Do we get free updates to the software? How about the firmware? Do we get free upgrades to the software? Can you import schematics from other programs?
  5. What circumstances void the warranty and/or contract?

Any good rep should have this info off the top of their head or very quickly. 3-D printers are cool and relatively inexpensive. Given the range of applications, a library is a pretty good fit. But the time and energy they may require for user training and maintenance should be investigated pretty thoroughly before purchase.

Revising The Cephalonian Method

A couple weeks ago I had the opportunity to test out the Cephalonian Method in one of my library orientation sessions. The Cephalonian Method is an active learning technique developed by librarians at Cardiff University in 2002. The technique has been written about in several articles, which are listed on Cardiff’s “Official Cephalonian Method Page.” Allegedly, this is a technique used in Cefalonia, Greece in the tourism industry to keep tourists interested and engaged. I was introduced to the Cephalonian Method last year at the Music Library Association meeting at a presentation by Andrea Beckendorf from Luther College (my alma mater).

At the beginning of each session, students are given index cards containing a prepared question that they ask when the instructor requests it. At Cardiff, the librarians group their index cards by color (for example, blue is for basic introductory information) and each index card has a corresponding PowerPoint slide, which is revealed after the question is asked. Many of the questions and slides contain humor that helps to keep the students attentive, engaged, and will hopefully encourage them to remember the information later on. In addition, music is played at specific times before, during, and after the session to keep the environment feeling fun and relaxed.

My use of the Cephalonian Method was much simpler than Cardiff’s. My library orientation session was for 50 or so music majors (mostly first-year students) enrolled in a music history survey. In the past, the professor and I split this class into three different sections since that’s the only way we can fit everyone into our library classrooms. But this time, I got the opportunity to do one general library orientation during class time and then work with them in small groups the following week.

For the library orientation, I didn’t play any music because I was going to a classroom with technology I was unfamiliar with. Also, I didn’t use PowerPoint because I thought it would be too labor-intensive and I knew that I wanted to demonstrate a lot of database searching. I wrote questions on 15 or so index cards. I used three different colors for the index cards—one for each “scenario” that I cover:

  • Scenario I: Using the library catalog to find a score, CD, and book.
  • Scenario II: Finding background information and scholarly articles on a specific composer.
  • Scenario III: Finding online streaming music and downloadable scores when you’re away from the library.

I numbered each colored card and I would call out “Blue number three” and the person with the blue card that had the number three would recite their question. I incorporated a lot of quirky questions that I thought music majors would enjoy, such as “I really enjoy listening to Shostakovich symphonies at 3 am because they put me right to sleep. Are there any streaming music resources other than Pandora or Spotify that I can use?“ But I tried to ensure that none of the questions could potentially embarrass anyone.

While I didn’t get a chance to do a formal assessment of the Cephalonian Method, I think it was a huge success. The time flew by and the students asked really great questions at the end of the session. If I do this next time, I would like to make the questions even more humorous. But all in all, it was very quick and easy to pull off–plus it was a fun way to spice up my teaching!

Have you used the Cephalonian Method?

The Library is Open

For the past couple of years I’ve been wearing two main hats at my job: one as an information literacy librarian and the other as a lead on a collegewide pedagogical grant. I’ve had several opportunities to connect the two, which I think strengthens both my library and my grant work. This year the connection I’m working on most actively is between the library and a new digital platform that’s been developed via the grant: the City Tech OpenLab.

The OpenLab is a website that faculty and students can use in their work on courses, but it’s much more than a learning management system. The website also provides spaces for projects and clubs to collaborate and promote their work; it hosts our student eportfolios, too. As a commuter college we’re hopeful that the OpenLab will help strengthen the City Tech community by providing our students, faculty, and staff with a virtual space to connect and collaborate.

We built the OpenLab using the open source applications WordPress (blogging/sitebuilding software) and BuddyPress (social networking software), much like successful efforts at our university and others, including the CUNY Academic Commons and Blogs@Baruch, as well as the University of Mary Washington’s UMWBlogs. All of these platforms share a commitment to openness that’s missing in most conventional learning management systems (like Blackboard) and even open source systems like Moodle and Sakai: the ability for users to make their work publicly visible and to share it with the entire university and beyond.

Academic librarians have been successfully working with learning management systems for years now, and there are lots of articles, blog posts, and other sources to consult for ideas and strategies about how best to collaborate with faculty and connect with students as embedded librarians in these platforms. At City Tech our librarians do a bit of embedding in Blackboard, the LMS that our university uses, too. But the OpenLab is different: it’s not just for coursework, and the tools available on the platform — discussion boards, blogs, collaborative documents, and file storage — are available to any member, project, or club.

It definitely makes sense for the library to be involved in the OpenLab, and my colleagues and I have been grappling with the question of how our presence on the platform can complement and augment the other ways the library uses to reach students and faculty. It would be great to use an OpenLab space to answer questions from library users, to point them to resources and services, to share news, and to highlight librarian profiles. But we already have a library website, which includes one page for each of our library faculty, as well as a library news blog.

We might need to be careful about duplicating our efforts excessively in the two spaces. Will patrons be confused if some library content is available on the OpenLab and other just on the library website? We can presumably use RSS feeds to bring content over to the OpenLab from our blog, so we won’t need to reproduce that content in two places. And we don’t have an interactive area for patrons to ask questions on our website, just a suggestion form and email address, so it’ll be interesting to see if we can attract Q&A in a more synchronous way from students and faculty on the OpenLab.

We’re actively brainstorming other ways to take advantage of the opportunities that the OpenLab offers, and I’m eager to begin experimenting in this new pedagogical space. Have other academic libraries worked with students or faculty on open educational platforms? I’d be interested to hear about your experiences if so!