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Sudden Thoughts And Second Thoughts

How Usage Shapes Technology Application

Scanning the October 2010 issue of The Charleston Advisor I came across a review of the web-based movie making site called Xtranormal. Even if you didn’t know that name, you’d instantly recognize one of the movies created on the Xtranormal site. The review, by Ellen Metter is well done, and seriously considers the value of Xtranormal for instructional movie making by librarians. However, between now and when the review was submitted a few months ago, I wonder if any academic librarian is still seriously considering using Xtranormal to make a library-related video. The problem is that the software has become the leading contemporary technology for mocking, ridiculing or just plain bashing just about any topic you can imagine, from following printing instructions in libraries to tea party followers. It’s practically synonymous with sarcasm. You’ve probably seen most of the “So you want to be/go….” series – all incredibly sarcastic.

At this point I am wondering if any academic librarian would use Xtranormal to create an instructional video. If you did, would anyone take it seriously or would you be hoping that your target audience is woefully unaware of how Xtranormal is being used by the masses. What I find interesting is how the crowd is shaping the use of and perceptions surrounding this particular technology. I’m sure there are lots of well thought out Xtranormal instructional productions on there, but at this point would anyone take seriously these animated characters? I think not. What do you think? Still willing to use Xtranormal for serious learning or waiting for the next best thing?

No Library-Related Articles in The Chronicle’s Top Ten

Whenever there is a library-related article in the Chronicle I like to keep tabs on the “most read” and “most e-mailed” sections. To me it somewhat indicates the degree of interest in reading about library issues, and usually the library articles are highly read and e-mailed. Quite often these articles are at the top of the chart for several days. That’s why I was surprised to find that not a single article about academic librarianship made it to the top ten most read Chronicle articles for 2010. You academic librarians need to start reading the Chronicle a whole lot more.

Here’s How It Works People

I was amazed and astounded to learn that nearly 50% of the librarians who submitted proposals for the poster sessions at ACRL 2011 included information about their institution or library – and in some cases even named names – in the proposal. Over 400 proposals for posters were submitted and 160 were accepted. The selection committee members were puzzled by the unexpected high occurrence of librarians who didn’t appear to understand the concept of blind peer review. Yes, you do submit your contact information during the submission process, but that doesn’t mean you should include it again in your actual proposal. The two get kept separate so the reviewers won’t know who is submitting the proposal or where it’s coming from (and folks, we often know each other just by the names of our libraries). If there is any profession that should have a firm grasp of how blind peer review works, it ought to be us guys. Let’s see if we can do a better job in 2013. BTW, proposals were not eliminated or penalized for mentioning an institution or library. Next time, ACRL may not be so kind.

Wanted – Young Librarians Only

Perhaps you share my concerns about the future of professional library associations like ACRL. So any study that offers recommendations for how to retain existing members and recruit new ones should be of interest to us. So I was eager to read a new report from a group seeking to encourage member engagement. While this Task Force idea is a good one, I can’t say the same for the name. The ALA’s Young Librarians Task Force has issued the report that repeatedly refers to “young librarians” as it discusses ways to encourage them to become better advocates for ALA and the profession. There is one reference to “new/young” members, which to me is the sensible way to present this demographic. A case of ageism? Anyone who’s been teaching in an LIS program in the last few years knows that we still have a fairly sizable contingent of mid-life career changers entering this profession. To organize a Task Force around “young librarians” seems likely to dis-engage anyone over the age of 25. What age is young anyway? Can I be on the task force if I’m over 30? To be slightly cynical, I guess that if an association is going to throw time and effort into a recruiting campaign it is better to focus on young people because the older ones will die sooner – meaning less lifetime dues. If ALA signs up a 25 year old and retains them over 40 years – well that sure does add up. So perhaps I’m nitpicking a bit here, but in an organization that is perhaps the most politically correct on the planet, you have to be wondering why they decided on this name.

ACRL Update: Change Ahead

Before getting to the core of this column, how about a round of applause for the newest winners of ACRL’s top awards, Academic/Research Librarian of the Year and the Excellence in Academic Libraries Award. They are:

2011 Association of College and Research Libraries’ (ACRL) Academic/Research Librarian of the Year
Janice Welburn, dean of university libraries at Marquette University

2011 Excellence in Academic Libraries Award
Luria Library at Santa Barbara City College, Santa Barbara, Ca.
Grinnell College Libraries, Grinnell, Iowa
Z. Smith Reynolds Library at Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, N.C.

ACRLog congratulates all the winners on their amazing accomplishments.

When ACRL isn’t doling out awards, it’s busy trying to advance the association into the future. At ALA Midwinter I heard more about these initiatives, and now is the time for members to share their thoughts about two important developments. First is the new version of ACRL’s strategic plan, the Plan for Excellence. This plan is currently in draft format and input is being sought from the academic library community. The first thing you’ll notice about the Plan for Excellence is that it’s far shorter than its predecessor. Whereas the old plan had quite a few goals and multiple objectives – and went on for several pages – the new plan is streamlined. It consists of only three goals, and each goal has but four objectives. This is a welcome change, and our colleagues who developed the plan should be applauded for coming up with a document that will likely be more practical and realistic to implement.

I’m not going to rehash the goals and objectives here; you can link to the ACRL Plan for Excellence and look it over. In brief, the three goals are (1) Value of Academic Libraries (2) Student Learning and (3) Research and Scholarly Environment. I don’t think any ACRL member would argue with the importance of these goal areas. The related objectives leave plenty of room for innovative project development. Where I am somewhat disappointed is with dropping membership growth as an ACRL goal. What I heard is that membership and some other prior goals were dropped because they are now perceived as the routine work of ACRL, and are no longer considered truly strategic in nature – and that ACRL needs to have a manageable set of goals and objectives that are within the scope of what we can actually accomplish with our limited (and potentially decreasing) resources.

I agree that the association needs to be careful about how much it takes on, but you only need to take a look at pg. 633 in the December 2010 issue of College & Research Libraries News where you’ll see a chart in the ACRL Annual Report that shows the percent change in membership from 2009 to 2010. There are many more minus signs then I’d like to see. It’s true that total membership is only down a few hundred members but this is a trend we can’t afford to ignore by eliminating its strategic value. Retaining existing members and recruiting new ones is the lifeblood and future of ACRL. When you bring into this picture the reality that many newer-to-the-profession academic librarians can build their own professional support system through social networks or seek newer alternatives such as SLA’s new and growing Academic Libraries Division, it seems to me that we do need a strategic approach to growing ACRL’s membership. My suggestion is to add a new fourth goal called “Organizational Sustainability” with the following four objectives:

* increase the membership by 5% by 2014
* study association needs of academic librarians with fewer than five
years in the profession and identify strategies for developing next
generation leaders
* identify strategies to make association membership and conference
attendance more affordable for new members
* continue to build opportunities for virtual membership

By adding this fourth goal ACRL keeps the retention and recruitment of members firmly in its vision as a vital issue that does require a well thought out strategy.

And speaking of membership, the other big change being advanced by ACRL is a Bylaws revision that would change how a dues increase would occur. Currently, the timing and amount of a dues increase is somewhat arbitrary. Dues only change, typically upward, when the ACRL Board decides that it needs to and by what amount. Then the full membership must vote on that increase. The whole process is time consuming, and the increases are usually approved. As a result, the ACRL Board has only moved to increase dues, because of its unpopularity, sporadically and it results in less frequent but larger increases. For example, the last dues increase was in 2005. Dues went from $35 to $55 for a 57% increase which is pretty substantial. The new proposal seeks to eliminate this from happening again – and after five years we might be due for an increase – by shifting to having the Board consider a dues increase annually. The increase would be tied to the HEPI meaning that the Board could only increase dues by the percent amount increase in the HEPI. Over the last 20 years if ACRL dues had been tied to the HEPI the maximum annual increase would be $3 (and less in 2009 and 2010). That doesn’t mean the Board would increase dues annually. The revision would just give it the power to do so without a vote by the membership. A vote would be required only if the amount of the increase needed exceeded the HEPI. According to my calculations, between 2002 and 2008 the HEPI averaged 4%. The obvious advantage to the revision is that it will allow the Board much greater flexibility in increasing dues as needed so that we avoid these huge bumps every 5-7 years.

While I support this revision to the bylaws, my opinion is that we need to look at restructuring the dues all together. Right now we all pay the same, and this is true with ALA dues as well. This puzzles me because it would seem to make more sense to connect dues to salaries. This is the method used by most state library associations. Why am I paying, after 30+ years in the field, the same amount as the new academic librarian who is making far less than I am, and is no doubt loaded with student debt? For me, dues and membership are intertwined. If dues are keeping new-to-the-profession librarians from joining ALA and in turn ACRL, that ultimately weakens the organization and is threat to its future sustainability. There was a similar conversation recently concerning ALA conference attendance, and I made the point that I’d be willing to pay more so that attendance would be more affordable for our newer colleagues, especially those lacking employer support. By no means is this a simple issue, and I don’t doubt that even considering it would cause some organizational turmoil. It’s complicated by the fact that ACRL dues are connected to your ALA dues payment. But even a modest step in this direction would make a statement, and perhaps encourage current non-members to consider joining. Would a change in this direction be more likely to encourage you to join ACRL – or do you support the current dues structure?

Whatever direction the change in ACRL takes us, I hope that more of you ACRL readers will consider being a part of that change (if you are not already positioned to do so), by becoming an ACRL member and helping to guide the association into the future.

Going Corporate – Guilty As Charged

In his recent Chronicle essay titled “Library Inc.”, which was part of special Chronicle Review focusing on the corporatization of higher education, Daniel Goldstein takes academic librarianship to task for selling out to corporate America. Judging by the comments shared by readers the reaction to the essay is mixed; while some agree others take Goldstein to task for blaming librarians for a situation beyond their control. Goldstein focuses the essay on two areas where he sees commercialization of the library most evident. The first is collections, where Goldstein is critical of academic librarians for allowing corporate mega-publishers to take control of the academic journal publishing. If Publisher A buys out Publisher B, I’m not sure how that’s the fault of academic librarians. Maybe we didn’t work hard enough to fight these developments, although I recall a number of academic libraries that joined together to reject big packages and unjust price increases.

I’m not as interested in what Goldstein has to say about collections as I am about the second area where he claims our profession has gone astray – customer services. Far fewer commenters had anything to say about this part of the essay, yet that’s the area where, from my perspective, the arguments are particularly weak and unfounded. As I read the essay, the conclusion I draw is that if you believe there is value in delivering high quality customer services, if you and colleagues go out of your way to understand your user community and design services that meet their expectations, and if you – heaven forbid – believe there is something to the idea of creating a well thought out, holistic user experience for your user community, then you have somehow sold your soul to the corporate devil. Goldstein writes, “There are far-reaching implications to disregarding so much of what a library does in favor of an impoverished, customer-service-centric model.” Goldstein is entitled to his opinion but my response to it: what utter nonsense.

I realize this is a short Chronicle essay, so I won’t fault Goldstein for failing to provide some good examples of what these “far-reaching implications” are, but I think it has something to do with dumbing down a student’s research process so that they actually discover information with simple-to-use interfaces instead of facilitating thorough and precise “systematic research” that leads to the production of new knowledge. That sounds great, but I’m not sure Goldstein has worked with many underclassmen lately – the students who mostly never even bother using the library at all. Does he prefer that to better customer services designed to engage distracted students? Has he paid any attention to the Project Information Literacy reports that document what an unpleasant user experience our libraries can present to overwhelmed students who are greatly challenged to get started on the fundamental research paper? Goldstein waxes eloquently about the noble work of the academic librarian who shepherds students to produce new knowledge in response to “new and unusual” questions. The reality on the ground level is that academic librarians are typically confronted by confused undergraduates struggling with the same research project that’s been assigned to hundreds of other students before them. When you frame our challenging problem more realistically, going corporate – if that’s what you want to call it – looks more and more like a pretty good solution.

As I read Goldstein’s concerns about “a future when libraries look a lot like Google: a vast, undifferentiated mass of information queried by a simple search box”, it sounded vaguely familiar. It should. I wrote pretty much the same thing back in 2004 in a Chronicle essay titled “The Infodiet: How Libraries Can Offer An Appetizing Alternative to Google”. In it I raised similar concerns about how we observed students consuming a steady junk food diet of information rather than the high quality “nutritious” content our libraries offered. Since then I’ve come to worry less about this problem because I don’t think the answer is simply found in wishing for the good old days of…what…just exactly what is it that Goldstein is recommending we do other than “insist that scholarly requirements take precedence over commercial interests.” How exactly do we do that? By abandoning the core value of delivering good customer service in which we empathize with our community members and attempt to deliver a research environment that responds to their expectations?

I suppose the bottom line from my perspective is that there’s absolutely no evidence that establishing a culture of service diminishes an academic library’s ability to help students develop strong research skills. I would argue that if we want students to move beyond dumbed down research, junk food resources, and all that which Goldstein abhors, then the answer might be expanding and improving our services and user experience so that we do a much better job of building relationships with students. We can’t expect them to magically want to become the passionate researchers that Goldstein envisions unless we figure out how to create an emotional connection between them and our libraries – so that they actually perceive academic librarians as trusted sources of information. If we do this right, we’ll create the passionate users Goldstein visualizes, the ones who’ll come to us when they want to learn – not just when they’re forced to by their instructors.

Creating a passionate user is no random act; we need to be thoughtful in designing a holistic library experience that engages students and encourages them to pursue research interests. I believe that corporate America (think Starbucks, Amazon, Zappos, Apple, Ritz-Carlton, etc.) provides good ideas for how to design the right kind of experience for a specific community. That’s not saying our libraries are businesses, or should be run like business, but rather that corporations can offer ideas worth exploring. We need to discern the good ones from the bad ones, and then wisely implement the good ones to the benefit of our user community members.

So I may be a tool of corporate America, but I’m going to continue to advocate that there’s much we can learn from the companies that excel at designing great user experiences. Doing so doesn’t mean that you are commercializing the library. It means that you think there’s a better way to accomplish an outcome we all share. It’s great for Goldstein to share his noble aspirations with us, but it’s better to be realistic about what you can accomplish and how you can best go about getting it done. If you believe there’s value in exploring the business perspective on creativity, innovation, user experience – and all those other evil corporate machinations – come on over to Designing Better Libraries for a taste of the devil’s brew.

Planning Out Your Presentation

With June comes the ALA Conference (except for Chicago years), and when it ends that also signals a close what I would call the library “presentation season” for both academic librarians who present and those who attend. While there are programs throughout the year, I find that the months between April and June bring the heaviest concentration of programs. ACRL chapters are having their spring programs, information literacy conferences are being held, there are many library staff development programs and quite a few other regional and local conferences from which to choose.

It also means that many of us are experiencing our roles as presenters and attendees, where we prepare and deliver presentations or we are on the receiving end as attendees. Did we make the best of our opportunity to present, and what did we learn from the experience as a presenter or attendee? While I gave a few presentations, I was also learning from other presenters who demonstrated new ideas and new techniques with their programs. With the end of the presentation season just ahead, we will soon have time to reflect and think about what we can do better or differently to improve our presentations.

Some good advice comes from Dave Paradi, a blogger and author who specializes in consulting with others to improve their presentations, although he mostly concentrates on PowerPoint and using it for more effective communication. In a recent post he shared some ideas that made good sense. The gist of the post is that presenters start their preparation by creating the visuals that become their slide presentation. Once the presentation starts to take shape, the presenter becomes personally invested in slides and it becomes difficult to make changes, and almost impossible to scrap it and start again with a completely different approach. He writes:

Why the resistance? Because they are heavily invested emotionally in the slides they spent so much time creating. It is human nature to resist changing something that we put a lot of time and effort in to…there is no way we are just throwing it out and starting over again

Paradi’s advice for avoiding the emotional attachment trap is to adopt a different way of creating presentation visuals. He suggests that presenters start their presentation preparation away from the computer. He believes it is better to:

Start by thinking about the goal of the presentation – what do you want the audience to know at the end of the presentation…The structure of the presentation can be done on a whiteboard, pad of paper, or, my favorite, sticky notes so I can move them around

When beginning a new presentation I tend to follow Paradi’s suggestion to start away from the computer. I will either develop a rough script for my presentation or sketch out my ideas as a way of determining what the three or so main concepts or themes are. Then I’ll work on fleshing each of those out and building in more detail. Here’s an example of some rough sketches of new presentation on which I’m working.

sketch

You may argue that ultimately it is better to avoid using traditional slide presentations all together, and I would tend to agree. I’m not opposed to using PowerPoint. Despite some recent criticism , PPT is only software and it’s up to each presenter to use it to achieve the outcomes of the presentation in a way that makes for a good learning and program experience for the attendee. The best presentation advice I’ve heard is that you need to begin with a passion for the audience, and a desire to make the presentation about them. I’ve been experimenting with a variety of techniques, including storytelling (with mixed results), my own hand-drawn sketches (a love it or hate it proposition for some), video that I mix and then integrate into the slides, and more conversation with attendees when it fits. Between that variety of techniques I’m hoping each attendee will believe I’ve designed the presentation with their needs in mind.

One presentation I attended was a nice combination of using Prezi and hands-on activity. Another presentation I attended was based on the Garr Reynold’s style of using images alone or with a single word or short phrase. I’m sure you’ve seen many presentations in this style as it has grown in popularity in recent years. But other than a few clever photos, I found myself paying little attention to the slides at all, and instead found the speakers were doing quite well just sharing what they knew. For me, the images became a distraction and did little to communicate ideas or engage me. This was a case where no slides at all may have been better, but I suspect, as Paradi suggests, that the presenters were quite heavily invested in their slides and likely thought of them as absolutely necessary for the talk.

Whether you did the presenting or the attending, think about using the summer months to practice new presentation techniques or focus more on the preparation process. If you are heading to ALA, take special note of the presentation techniques and look for new ideas. If you see something of interest, take time to ask the presenter about their methods. The best way to become a better presenter, besides getting as much authentic practice as you can, remains observing others, spotting good technique, viewing videos of great presenters, and then learning how to adapt those techniques to create your own unique style of presenting.

One Idea Can Make A Difference

A few weeks ago I had the great honor of serving as the Emcee for the TEDxNJLibs conference held at the Princeton Public Library in New Jersey. You probably know all about TED and the famous talks. You may be less familiar with TEDx which seeks to replicate the vibe and excitement of the annual TED event. Putting on a TEDx conference in no easy undertaking. From finding the right speakers to planning out the one-day program, this is an enormous amount of work. The payoff is treating the attendees to a great day of inspiring and amazing speakers. The Library Garden gang did an amazing job organizing the event. Last year I attended their Pres4Lib unconference which was great, and I wondered if they could top it. Going for the TEDx was a brilliant move, and yes, they did top themselves.

The main thing you should know is that TEDxNJLibs was really not about librarianship. The theme was community and culture, and like all TED events it featured a diverse collection of speakers who brought different perspectives to the theme. And just like TED events, the speakers shared stories of courage, caring and inspiration. As a celebration of culture it also featured great music and good food. It was a really well-balanced program that got me thinking. One of the commonalities that ran through the talks was, for me at least, the idea of choosing to act to make a difference in the community and lives of others. Whether it was Sam Daley-Harris’ effort to use microfinance to eradicate world hunger and poverty, or Salman Ahmad’s mission to share music to promote peace, the speakers demonstrated that a single good idea, well executed, can make a difference.

I do want to share one illustrative story because it’s a good one, but also because it involved the community library. Mimi Omiecinski moved to Princeton, New Jersey in June 2006, with absolutely no plans to start a small business. But that’s exactly what she did. The epitome of the local entrepreneur, Mimi started a local walking tour company in Princeton, New Jersey. Mimi’s business, like any new one, was slow to catch on with the community and visitors. But then she had an idea – a great one. According to an interview with a local paper Mimi recalled:

A few years ago, I started my bike tour business, and I literally couldn’t even give away the bikes. So I started the walking tours (Princeton Tour Company), and figured I’d study up on Albert Einstein for a tour. So I Googled him, and found out he was born on March 14 — 3/14. Pi, of course, is 3.14159 … That was my “oh my god” moment.

Many of have that “oh my god” moment but we either let it drift off or perhaps we do make a note of it, but then we ultimately never get past the idea stage. But Mimi took hold of her idea and became its champion. Out of her “aha” moment grew Princeton Pi Day, celebrated of course on March 14. Taking personal responsibility for the idea, Mimi enlisted businesses and others in the community to participate with special events and items that would cost $3.14. A real stroke of genius was collaborating with the Princeton Public Library. The Library put together a mix of Einstein and Pi-related activities (Einstein look alike contest, contest to recall the most numbers in Pi, pie throwing, etc.), and funds raised by Mimi’s tours would be contributed to the Library. Mimi’s one simple idea and her commitment to it made all the difference for the community, its people, and the Library.

The “one idea can make a difference” is a theme that others have explored. Malcolm Gladwell discussed in his book The Tipping Point. He referred to it as “creating an epidemic”:

The virtue of an epidemic, after all, is that just a little input is enough to get it started, and it can spread very, very quickly. That makes it something of obvious and enormous interest to everyone from educators trying to reach students, to businesses trying to spread the word about their product, or for that matter to anyone who’s trying to create a change with limited resources.

Had I not been asked to emcee, I probably would still have attended TEDxNJLIBS. I knew it would be a fun and informative event, and one of the great things about TED is that is you can easily expose yourself to new ideas and new mysteries. Doing so is one way to keep learning and putting yourself in a position to get those ideas that can lead to innovations that make a difference. I learned one other important lesson from the TEDx speakers. Having a great idea is important, and coming up with a plan to implement it is the start to creating change. The other important ingredient is the “WHY”.

As in “why am I doing this?” I don’t doubt that Mimi wanted to jump start her tour business, but I think there was more to Pi Day than that. As I listened to her tell the story I sensed she really wanted to do something to bring the community together for a shared experience. She believed it would make the community a better place, and the community members believed in her – and shared the vision for what Pi Day could offer. The next time you have an idea try to do more than capture it on paper. Share it with colleagues. Play with it. Come up with some prototypes for it. If there’s a positive response, take it to the next level. But always keep the “why” question front and center. If you strongly believe in the WHY – if it is more about doing something for the community and is less about how it advances your career – then it should be easy to articulate for yourself and demonstrate to others the WHY behind your great idea. Start there and you will make a difference.

Addendum: You can view the video of Mimi’s TEDxNJLIBS presentation here.