A Reference Redo

Our reference desk is in an odd spot. Rather than describe the situation, I created the following hasty floor plan:

floorplan drawing of the SMCM Library's reference desk and circulation desk

When students enter the library they don’t see an actual person until they are well past the stairs to the second floor. The circulation desk dwarfs the reference desk, and the reference desk is obscured by a giant statue of a naked discus thrower. We’ve cut down on our reference desk hours due to staffing challenges, and historically reference shifts have been lower on the priority list for our librarians (falling behind teaching classes, college service work, and meetings). This has left us all feeling generally dissatisfied about our traditional reference set up. Stats are down (not surprisingly), students tend to go to the circulation desk first, some bypass circ and reference all together and just come straight to our offices for help (which are just around the corner from the reference desk), and reference shifts are inconsistently covered. The librarians have a good rapport with students and faculty, and hold multiple reference appointments (some scheduled, some impromptu) with both groups throughout the academic year, but they tend to happen in our offices rather than at the reference desk.

Instead of continuing on with business as usual, our library director gathered us together to discuss reference services at our library. It was an informal meeting, but I thought her discussion questions did a great job at getting to the core of why we provide reference services, what reference means to each of us, and how we could potentially be doing it differently. Here are the questions that guided our sharing:

  1. What is the purpose of reference services in the library?
  2. What are your frustrations with reference services? With the reference desk?
  3. If consultations with individual librarians are more popular, would an “office hour” or “by appointment” model work?
  4. What are our users’ requirements for research help?
  5. If the reference desk went away today, what would students do? What would faculty do? What would librarians do? 
  6. How can we improve reference? Can we?

The discussion was extremely productive, in large part because of the leading question: What is the purpose of reference? I would imagine that the answer would vary depending on the library and school, as we all serve unique populations. For our library reference service is about education, collaboration, listening, and sharing. There is (and will always be, I think) a transactional aspect to reference; students will always need help printing, finding their way to the stacks, or assistance with the new scanner. But reference presents a unique opportunity for librarians to build meaningful relationships with students. I get to know students much better one-on-one, while listening to their tales of research woe or triumph, than I do in the classroom. Sometimes a reference appointment isn’t even about locating information. I’ve met with students who just need to talk out an idea with someone who isn’t their instructor or research advisor. Reference services are a highly relational activity, but the model of reference we’ve been operating under until this point is a very transactional one.

One model I’ve been intrigued by recently is the notion recreating the reference desk into a  “beta space.” In the In the Library with the Lead Pipe article, Beta Spaces as a Model for Recontextualizing Reference Services in Libraries, Madelynn Dickerson proposes a beta space model for reference services that would replace a traditional reference desk/area with a collaborative research space. According to Dickerson, a “beta space is a prototyping space, but one that focuses more on ideas than technology.” It’s like a research incubator in the heart of the library. In this space  students and faculty could gather to work on research projects together, student work could be shared and displayed, and librarians could collaborate with students and faculty, offering one-on-one or small group research assistance. It’s essentially a learning and sharing lab that sits in a public space. What I love most about Dickerson’s idea is the openness and inclusivity it brings to reference services.  By creating a space that is warm and comfortable we’re setting the stage for collaboration rather than consultations or transactions. We’re saying, “Come in and stay a while.” Here’s a rough sketch of what this might look like:

Example drawing of a beta reference space

An artist and interior designer I am clearly not, but I think this gets the idea across. The space is built for discussion and collaboration. Where does the librarian sit, you might ask? My question would be: Does it matter? I ask that in all sincerity. Do we need to be at a desk with an air of place/authority, or can we float around a larger space instead? I like the idea of being visible, accessible, and sitting in a comfy sofa chair with a cup of coffee and my laptop, ready to dig into a complex research question with a student during an “office hour” or some equivalent to that in this space. I could see myself meeting with a professor’s undergraduate research group in the private collaboration space, going over the intricacies of their literature review strategy. I envision a lunchtime reception showcasing research from an environmental studies class project. I could also see a group of dedicated library peer mentors who could staff this space and provide much needed research help on evenings and weekends when librarians are unavailable.

As we begin the spring semester (tomorrow!) we’re going to study our reference services more closely, review alternative models to “the desk,” and talk to our students and faculty about how they prefer to gain assistance for their research. Of course I’d love to hear what model of reference you’ve adopted at your library in recent years.

Second Semesters: Meeting Expectations and Setting Goals

Classes started this week. Utah State University  seems to go back to school earlier than other institutions I’ve been associated with, whether this is a truth or just a feeling based on my always busy and never resting natural state I can’t know. As you might recall from my first post on ACRLog,  I felt the pressure of freedom hanging over my head as I approached my first tenure meetings and class sessions. As I look back on the goals I set, I can’t help but be a little disappointed that I didn’t get the large projects I had planned finished or even near completed. Sometimes I set the bar too high, and sometimes other priorities took important parts of my time. While I stressed about what I could do in the time I had, I didn’t know what it was like to work in this environment despite my degree.

Going with the flow is difficult when you feel the need to justify your existence. When I started, there was an urgency, self-imposed, on hitting the ground running. Freedom, as well as a new job, breeds deflated self-worth and a need to prove myself. I was lucky to start with two fantastic new librarians, who, much like me, felt a need to contribute and change the world in that first month. Our worth was already ( probably) proved and our anxieties over changing the world probably caused us too many sleepless nights in the first semester.

I often read  that employers “made the right choice” when they chose you. I never really believed it when it came to me, and that is why I set outrageous goals for my first 6 months many of which were impossible.

Hope springs eternal, and while a new semester means new challenges from our students it means a second chance for planning and goal setting. The key thing I learned in my first semester is that there will always be a second semester. I’m setting goals and expectations to reflect that, here is what I learned:

  1. I learned about writing and research goals.

I came to Utah State with four years of graduate school behind me. That means 8 semesters of seminar classes, with article length sojourns into the deepest recesses of popular cultural memory and library sciences. I spent much of the summer attempting to fit the projects I worked on in classes into what I needed for my tenure dossier. Try to change the world of libraries with a paper on paranormal manifestations of Abraham Lincoln and you’ll see what I’m talking about. I struggled to come up with new topics, in part because I didn’t want to abandon these ideas and papers. I talked to mentors about following these strings to their natural conclusions, but it seemed like more of an outside hobby than a true tenure quality research portfolio. These were the projects I had and I felt desperate to have logs in the fire.

Putting these projects on the shelf was one of the best decisions I’ve made. There might be a day when I can work on them again, but by taking a single breath and looking around me I found colleagues who were open to sharing their ideas and building projects together. By letting the research come to me in my day-to-day library world I found myself producing better research, thinking better ideas, and learning about new approaches to my work than I ever would have had I focused on what I had previously done. Everyone in academic libraries is intellectually curious, and as such, the job sparks interest in new approaches and problems. When I calmed down, research projects hit me directly in the face through the natural course of my work.

  1. I learned about learning goals.

Many new librarians complain about their library schools; “ I didn’t take the right classes” or “I didn’t learn how to do this” are common refrains on both twitter and in the real world. Nothing in library school can prepare you for the specific things required in your new job in your first year. We all come with either theoretical approaches or with experiences from our grad schools. While I have drawn from my experiences as a graduate assistant and as a student (especially in metadata and digital preservation classes), the real library is different from the one we apprentice in.

This isn’t to say that this isn’t valuable, or that library school is not something that helped me get to where I am, but believing that it was the end-all be-all of libraries and that graduating from the top library school in the country meant that I didn’t have anything to learn was a mistake. I basically had to re-learn everything. Learning is an expected part of our jobs and being ok with not knowing all the answers or solutions is ok.

Each library has its own politics and policies that hinder and promote our lives as librarians. Library school teaches us about the ideal library (a mixture of Ranganathan and Borges), but the library we work in, far from ideal, is the one we have to navigate. No class can teach you about what Utah State University Libraries needs today or tomorrow. But the people I work with are more than willing to welcome me into this world. I learned on the job, and I’m still learning on the job.

  1. There’s always room for saying no.

I came to Utah by myself and decided, socially at least, to say yes to everything. I’m an introvert and an only child as a result I like to be alone and by myself. But…I’ve been to Pioneer Day Parades, Porch Crawls, I’ve watched fireworks with families, I’ve hiked several mountain passes, I’ve driven to the lake 45 minutes away ( I don’t swim). I didn’t make a whole lot of friends in graduate school and I knew that this time needed to be different. Saying yes to everything worked socially, but I found very quickly that it didn’t work so well at work.

Along with my struggles to prove myself I wanted to be a “team player” and take whatever share of the load that was offered to me. I ignored warnings of burnouts and back aches as I took all that I could. Somewhat legendarily I took 7 freshmen orientation sessions this Fall (everyone else did no more than 3 and even that was a lot). You need someone on Saturday to give tours? I’ll be there. You need a desk shift covered? I got it.

I don’t’ regret doing these things, and I don’t think it was detrimental to my mental or physical health but saying no is as healthy as saying yes to social engagements. I learned that saying no today left a yes for tomorrow. My colleagues set boundaries for themselves primarily because our time is limited. Doing a dozen things half way isn’t helping anyone. Along with the research goals, there is always another day, week, or month to accomplish tasks. I don’t advocate putting important tasks off, but I truly believe that pacing myself is going to lead to more gains and more triumphs tomorrow than losing sleep tonight.

I’ll be the first to admit that I barely take this advice or have learned completely from these moments.  But second semesters are opportunities to start again and start fresh. I have a mountain of tasks ahead of me, classes to teach, and papers to present. I’m more comfortable today with the job ahead. All it took was time and another go around.

Meta Top Ten: An Infinitely Regressive New Year to You!

infinitergression_fractal_stuartpilbrow_flickr
stuartpilbrow CC BY-SA 2.0

One of my favorite things to do as a kid while my mother practiced the organ was play in the church’s bridal suite.  It had this closet of two large mirrored doors opening to a floor-to-ceiling mirror.  I’d close the mirrors on my leg or arm, slide around in there and watch my appendages travel into infinity.  As a librarian this has always been my go-to symbol of all things meta —  metadata and (my favorite) the you-don’t-know-what-you-don’t-know problem.  Answering the New Year’s call for reflection, I thought I’d put a meta twist on the top ten themes from my 2016 and some 2017 resolutions in response to the same.

10. Death – The 10 Best and Worst things to say to someone in grief

It feels like 2016 brought a lot of death.  Maybe I’m just becoming more aware of it as I age. Then again, the first of the year marks the death anniversary of a dear friend and my first experience of losing someone very close to me.  So, loss and grief have since then been particularly acute themes this time of year.  In 2016, I experienced death in my professional life as well. Navigating this brought to mind the list above and an American Libraries article on death cafes in libraries. Knowing firsthand the physical effect of stress on one’s health, and the reverse benefits of de-stressing, death can be a brutal reminder of the stakes involved.  So, I’ve resolved to relearn and practice coping skills for anxiety and stress at work this coming year.

9. Happiness 15 Things Incredibly Happy People Do

I first learned some of this list’s tips during my involvement in organizational and staff development work at my institution — #1 through Brene Brown’s vulnerability research and #3 through mindfulness.  I have since put many more to use during stresses like the tenure review process and reorganizations.  One of my 2016 resolutions was to do more perfectly reasonable travel (#4 on this list), which I did to two neighboring states this year. Less reasonably, I was even able to get all the way to Hawaii!  In 2017 my focus will be going offline, building relationships, and taking more chances, all helping me with meta list items 5, 3, and 2 below.

8. Reduce Stress De-Stress at Your Desk

After a back injury two years ago, I’ve made fits and starts at keeping up an exercise practice.  The stretches my chiropractor recommended were a lot like these, but not nearly as fashionable or fun.  This year I finally have a morning yoga routine down, and hope to kick it up a notch in 2017 by adding these moves back in during the day.

7.  Time Management How to Design Your Time Rather…

One of the professional colleagues who passed this year, Shane Lopez, was the author of Making Hope Happen.  His work is one among many built upon positivity research.  Similarly, this 5-minute read from Fast Company gives a positive strengths-based approach to time management.  But you should really check out the time research of Dawna Ballard who was the 2016 ER&L conference opening keynote speaker.

6. The Election Behind the Lens: 2016 in Photographs

The presidential election was certainly was a significant marker of 2016, and the issue of fake news cycles signaled renewed attention to digital information literacy for libraries.  White House photographer, Pete Souza, reflects on the Obama presidency in one of my favorite list mediums, a photo series.  And to healthy resolutions (laughter being the best medicine), I’ll just leave this bonus list right here.

5. TechnologyHere’s What Happens to Tech in 2017 (Unless 2016 Was All a Dream)

The election cycle had me enmeshed in social media, leading me to consider some serious de-teching resolutions in 2017. So far that’s meant removing Facebook from my phone and an online password management overhaul.  The former took two seconds, the latter the better part of an entire day.  This year also brought a number of new technologies to my work — VoIP phones, among others.  WIRED magazine is great for keeping up to date on such things, even if it does sometimes cause me existential dread.

4. DESJ Recommended Readings in Critical Librarianship

My university welcomed both a new dean of libraries and a new provost in 2016.  Both have shared a strong commitment to action on issues of diversity, equity, and social justice (DESJ).  My 2016 reading, limited as it was, occurred mostly in this vein.  Since exploring this in my first ACRLog post, I’ve been learning about the use of gender pronouns, my own biases, and microagressions.  My resolution in the new year is to facilitate conversations about how these issue play out beyond the service desk in our daily work.

3. More Reading and WritingThe Greatest Books of All Time, As Voted by 125 Famous Authors

Feeding my recurring resolution to read more, here’s another recommended reading list by one of my favorite sources. In 2016 I took to writing about the changes in my work for traditional publishing venues.  But joining the team of bloggers ACRLog in 2016 has been an amazing opportunity to learn from other academic librarians and (hopefully) become a better and more habitual writer in my profession.  Still a newbie, I confess that each post so far has been met with part inspired anticipation and part crippling anxiety.  I know reading and writing more are the surest ways to improve each skill.  Surely with such practice (and above lists 9, 8, 7) the intensity of it all will ease.

2. Ask for help5 Ways to Get Better at Asking for Help

I also know the benefits of asking for help.  Unfortunately this is also the hardest for me to put into to practice, so much so I considered leaving it off the meta list altogether!  Interestingly, these suggestions for improving that ask mirror some approaches I’d like to take in my research this year.  Ultimately, I want to take what the reference interview did for patrons asking librarians for research help at the desk and apply it in other, different kinds of information needs in the library.  How do patrons ask for help differently when troubleshooting access to digital resources?  How do we ask help of our colleagues when needing their assistance to change workflow? How do we ask for help when power dynamics change from patron and librarian to staff and supervisor?  A big resolution will be getting this research question out there (no, really, this time) and asking for help.

1. Cats The most popular cats on YouTube

Really nothing at all to do with the old or new year, but what library meta list would be complete without cats?

Do you have another list, resource, or comment to add on these themes?  Please share!

 

Goals for the New Year

I am sure people have said it, but the semester is over! The holiday’s are almost over, with New Years just around the corner. With that in mind, I thought I would make some goals for myself in regards to information literacy and my other job duties.

I have not done New Years resolutions in years, but felt that it was a good excuse for some goal setting and accountability.

This past semester, I have been working on improving my teaching. Whether via reflections, observations, or presentations, it has been a constant this semester. I firmly believe that you can always improve as an information literacy instructor, as a new librarian or even a seasoned one.

For next semester, I have a couple things in mind.

  1. Observation. This past semester, I observed a couple of librarians teach and reflected on their methods (blog post about that coming soon). I don’t know about you, but it terrifies me when people observe me teach. My face turns red, I get nervous, and makes me feel self conscious. So, this semester, I need to get past that fear and I am going to ask some fellow colleagues to observe me.
  2. Fear of failing. OK, this is not a goal, but it’s something I have and this sometimes prevents me from trying some experimental methods in the classroom. I have heard encouragement from other librarians about how it’s “Ok to fail,” but it’s easier said done. This coming semester, I hope to get past this fear.
  3. Integrating the framework more. Like a lot of librarians, I have been trying to implement some concepts into my library instruction sessions. One does not simply fit 6 concepts into one session, so it’s important to plan ahead. My goal is to include 2 concepts of the framework into each class and keep a log to mark my progress.
  4. As always, more assessment. This is not my most favorite topic, but it is an important one. As I started this semester, I will continue to do a post assessment for my library sessions. I would also like to implement more assessment throughout the class.

I wish you and your loved ones a Happy New Year! See you all in 2017.

Theory as a keel: Developing a critical framework for open education, Part 2

“If open is the answer, then what is the question?” was posed by educator and researcher Catherine Cronin (National University of Ireland, Galway) in her keynote address for the Open Education Conference 2016 in Edinburgh, UK last April. This question challenges our community to explore the why behind the how driving open education initiatives, and reveals the need for a body of critical research examining the same.

Jamison Miller, Ph.D. student in the School of Education at William & Mary, hopes to develop a framework that balances critical analysis with practical implementations, and provide the open education movement with the foundation to help move it forward in a socially responsible manner. He credits his affiliation with the Global OER Graduate Network (GO-GN) with providing an invaluable support network for doctoral students studying open education. The group helped bring Jamison to Krakow last spring for the OEGlobal Conference, and will be supporting a trip to Cape Town for this year’s conference in March.

Continue reading Theory as a keel: Developing a critical framework for open education, Part 2