Assessment as Care

water from watering can falling on small plants - Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

I’m in a weird head space at the moment. I attended the Critical Librarianship and Pedagogy Symposium (CLAPS) last month and am about to attend the Library Assessment Conference (LAC) later this week. Based on what I experienced at CLAPS and what I’ve read about LAC, the two conferences couldn’t feel more different.  I am very curious about how we continue to conceptualize and shape the idea of assessment in libraries.

At CLAPS, I had the pleasure of attending a workshop led by Anne Cong-Huyen, Digital Scholarship Strategist, and Kush Patel, Digital Pedagogy Librarian, at the University of Michigan. Their exploration of practicing digital pedagogy librarianship was a wonderful mix of writing, reflection, and discussion on the ways in which we can build critical and queer feminist communities in our classes. As part of the session, Anne and Kush asked participants to read five different excerpts of selected texts on care, praxis, technologies, design, and assessment, and then write our reflections on these excerpts as they apply to our own teaching and the learning we want to facilitate in our classes. (You can read the excerpts on the slides they’ve graciously shared online). The excerpt that resonated with me the most was from Critical Generosity by Jill Dolan, which illustrates a generous and caring approach to the criticism of dramatic performances and artists. It was presented as a model for assessment in teaching and learning, one that recast–in my mind, anyway–assessment as care and sustenance.

The current narrative of assessment in libraries is that of justification. We prove our value, show our impact, and demonstrate our connection to student learning and student success. I know we are working and teaching at a time when higher education funding and academic jobs are precarious and departments and faculty are constantly being asked to prove their worth. I am sympathetic to our attempts to demonstrate, through assessment, that our work in libraries is important. I’ve done and published this kind of assessment myself! But because our assessment is done with the intent to appease an external audience, we are constantly in a position to validate our own existence, rather than support the learning realities of our students and teaching librarians. Our assessment is an act of survival, in our minds, rather than something that enriches and feeds ourselves and our students. I’ve shared my professional angst about librarianship not having a seat at the academic table and the ways that influences interactions between librarians and faculty. Our library assessment culture reflects this reality, but it also continues the narrative that we need to prove ourselves worthy of trust and acceptance.

Dolan writes about her first encounter with “critical generosity” in David Roman’s book, Acts of Intervention. Roman describes caring for friends who were HIV positive during a showing of the famously long play, Angels in America. Throughout the performance he conducted frequent interpersonal assessments: Is everyone doing ok? Does someone need to take their medication? Is there enough food and water? Do people need a break/rest? The root and ongoing narrative of this assessment was care, sustenance, and really, love.

I recognize I’m asking for what many may view as a stretch: making a connection between the interpersonal care Roman and Dolan write about and institutional library assessment. But our teaching and learning in higher education and libraries is about the students we teach and the interpersonal connections we make everyday. So many of our attempts at assessment stay away from “messiness.” We want numbers that make good stories, and we want those good stories to make the library look good. But in staying away from messiness we are erasing the people at the center our work–their complications, needs, bodies, etc. In short, we’re staying away from the “gore” of learning. I don’t mean to be graphic, but I do think our proclivity for neatness is in direct conflict with the process of learning. In my own attempts at large-scale, summarize, value assessment, the best I’ve been able to show is that learning takes time, and our own work as teaching librarians is never-ending.

Yes, I know we have annual reports to write and numbers to share with our directors, deans, provosts, and presidents. I do too. But we have power within our profession with the papers we write, the kind of assessment we advocate for and practice, and the care that we exhibit within our work. What would it mean to embrace a critical practice of assessment? What could that look like?

 

Leisure reading collections in the academic library

Here’s my honest opinion: I wasn’t a big fan of collection development during graduate school. When I was supervising the residence halls libraries at Illinois, putting new books in my virtual cart was always at the bottom of my to-do list. I didn’t have a good system of finding new books and once I found something cool, usually one of my colleagues had it in their cart. For me, I was always more interested in using my time to support the student employees or plan programming with residence life than I was in spending my time building a collection. The work of collection development felt like a chore.

Needless to say I was jazzed when I started at Penn State and had zero collection development responsibilities. I could go back to just me requesting the books for myself I heard about on podcasts or read in the many email newsletters I subscribed to. I “escaped” collection development for two years and this fall, the Leisure Reading  collection in the Pattee & Paterno Libraries fell on to my plate of responsibilities.

Leisure reading collections (also known as recreational reading, browsing collection, or popular reading collections) were first started in academic libraries in the 1920s and 30s, when a core value of academic librarians was to promote reading. These collections became less prevalent in the 1940s and 50s, when war impacted library budgets and people found it less important to have these collections (Dewan, 2010). It wasn’t until the 1990s that academic libraries started to create leisure reading collections again and publish on the importance of these collections. These collections continue to get pushback from the academic library world; some consider the collection not within the mission of an academic library; others talk of tight budgets and space limitations (Alsop, 2007); there is even an assumption that faculty, staff, and students do not have or any interest in reading for leisure (Van Fleet, 2003). However, more recent studies have shown the benefits of reading for leisure, including a correlation with higher academic achievement (National Endowment for the Arts, 2004), promotion of critical thinking, and improvement of reading comprehension and developing one’s own writing voice (Rathe & Blankenship, 2006; Trott & Elliott, 2007). But just like anything done well, building this sort of collection takes time, energy, and resources.

The decision to put the Leisure Reading collection on my work plate was strategic — pivot the collection to take a student engagement approach, leverage the talents and energy of our student engagement intern and part time student employee to help with the vision and maintenance of the collection, and tie the collection more closely with our outreach work in order think about how we highlight and promote this collection. During the first few weeks where the collection was now “mine,” I drew inspiration from UCLA’s Powell Library, who worked with students and student clubs in a variety of ways to help build a student-driven collection (Glassman, Lee, Salomon, & Worsham, 2017). I felt like I was sort of stumbling through the dark those first few weeks, just trying to understand what the collection was, and where we could take it. Luckily, I wasn’t tackling this project alone — the Leisure Reading team is up to five: 3 full-time library employees, and two student employees.

I definitely took for granted the system that the residence halls libraries had set up for collection development. As a small system, we didn’t have too many other people to work with in order to keep the collection up and running. Here at Penn State, there’s 10+ people or groups interacting and supporting the Leisure Reading collection in some way. This meant that any changes we decided to make, had to be communicate clearly and often to all those involved. These folks also gave us some of the best feedback on the collection; their sometimes daily interaction really helped the new team wrap our heads around the current situation and see potential ways forward that would make the collection easier to find and use for both staff and patrons.

Our collection is mostly leased; something I hadn’t really considered before. In doing some research about recreational reading collections in academic libraries, I learned that academic libraries have been talking about leased collections since at least 1976 (Cushman) and people are interested in the pros and cons of having this type of collection, especially when considering if these popular books are “worthy” to keep for a long time (Odess-Harnish, 2002). Part of our lease agreement is that we get to keep a percentage of the books we lease, giving a new option to the research already out there about leased collections. Our monthly weeding gives us the chance to think about what we should keep and starts to give us a better sense of how our patrons are using this collection.

A big challenge that the Leisure Reading team tackled in the first few months was wayfinding and discoverability. Our collection is shelved in the Library of Congress classification, which can make it confusing to figure out where the new book by Phoebe Robinson or Tana French is going to be. As Pauline Dewan says so succinctly, “The Library of Congress classification is not an effective scheme for browsing fiction” (2010, p. 44). Our two student employees helping with the collection learned first hand how difficult the classification system can be when creating new signage to help people discover new items in this collection. But, we are working on it — trying things knowing they might fail and also trying to get as much feedback as we can from the people actively using the collection. The collection is constantly a work in progress.

As we look towards 2019, there are big plans on the horizon for this collection. Our spring will be devoted to tying the collection more closely to programming, making a stronger connection between our leisure reading and viewing (DVD) collection, and assessing if the things we are doing are actually impacting circulation and patrons who use the collection. The past several months, I’ve come to love this collection; it’s tough and challenging but it’s fun to collaborate with others and try to build a dynamic, usable, interesting collection.

Do you have a leisure reading collection in your library? Do you help maintain the collection? If you are in charge of this collection, what are some challenges you face and what are exciting elements of this sort of collection in an academic library?

References:

Alsop, J. (2007). Bridget Jones Meets Mr. Darcy: Challenges of Contemporary Fiction. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 33(5), 581–585. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.acalib.2007.05.004

Cushman, R. C. (1976). Lease Plans– A New Lease On Life For Libraries? Journal of Academic Librarianship, 2(1), 15–19.

Dewan, P. (2010). Why Your Academic Library Needs a Popular Reading Collection Now More Than Ever. College & Undergraduate Libraries, 17(1), 44–64. https://doi.org/10.1080/10691310903584775

Van Fleet, C. (2003). Popular Fiction Collections in Academic and Public Libraries. The Acquisitions Librarian, 15(29), 63–85. https://doi.org/10.1300/J101v15n29_07

Glassman, J., Lee, S., Salomon, D., & Worsham, D. (2017). Community Collections: Nurturing Student Curators. In S. Arnold-Garza & C. Tomlinson (Eds.), Students Lead the Library: The Importance of Student Contributions to the Academic Library (pp. 77–92). Chicago, IL: ACRL.

National Endowment for the Arts. (2004). Reading at risk: A survey of literacy reading in America. Retrieved from https://www.arts.gov/publications/reading-risk-survey-literary-reading-america-0

Odess-Harnish, K. (2002). Making Sense of Leased Popular Literature Collections. Collection Management, 27(2), 55–74. https://doi.org/10.1300/J105v27n02_06

Rathe, B., & Blankenship, L. (2006). Recreational Reading Collections in Academic Libraries. Collection Management, 30(2), 73–85. https://doi.org/10.1300/J105v30n02_06

Trott, B., & Elliott, J. (2007). Academic Libraries and Extracurricular Reading Promotion. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 46(3), 34–43. https://doi.org/10.5860/rusq.46n3.34

Thank You, Next? (Consortia Edition)

As November calls for an attitude of gratitude, I will try to frame this post accordingly despite my exhaustion from this past month’s activities.  I’m not, as you may expect, referring to Thanksgiving dinner, holiday travel, or family arguments, but to journal package renewals — a critical annual activity for acquisitions and collection management librarians, vendors, publishers, and (as concerns this post) library consortia.

What are consortia?
Consortia are member organizations that utilize the greater power of a collective body in order to influence more favorable outcomes than the individual bodies might be able to alone.  Consortia in libraries historically began as a means of sharing resources, such as books via interlibrary loan or labor resources via union cataloging.  Consortia services evolved along with library collections to include collective e-resources licensing, acquisition, and access to online resources.  As a librarian responsible for acquiring, licensing, and sharing collection resources, I appreciate the efficiency of labor that consortia offers these workflows.  In the shared purchasing realm, consortia facilitate a singular license negotiation process for its member libraries and negotiate unique pricing terms for content, often packaged in the form of so-called ‘Big Deals’.  Perhaps less often, but just as important, consortia use a collective influence to represent and voice members’ shared concerns.  This summer, I participated with consortia voicing opposition to an unfavorable publisher policy that would limit access to online content, which succeeded in winning a reversal from the publisher. 

To blave…
Now libraries have been questioning the value of the Big Deal, consortia or not, for some time. Yet many libraries continue to commit their budget dollars to it year after year, perpetuating its existence and the lack of any market alternatives.  Being up to my eyeballs in four simultaneous Big Deal analyses for the past year and a half, I’m so ready to call these deals’ bluff.

via GIPHY

To be clear, Big Deals are not exclusive to consortia arrangements. Many libraries subscribe and break from such deals all on their own, as this popular SPARC resource can affirm. https://sparcopen.org/our-work/big-deal-cancellation-tracking/ However, consortia arrangements of Big Deals cause big problems for libraries because in the process and effect of these arrangements, consortia don’t function as a consortia.  Here’s why.

The effect
Purchasing bulk packaged content like the Big Deal based on libraries’ historic spend, as opposed to publisher list price, does translate to a kind of library savings.  It also creates a predictable budget projection for libraries and a predictable profit for publishers due to fixed annual increases negotiated as part of these deals.  That’s pretty much it for the benefits, and even those don’t hold together.   Any consortia benefit from predictability in library budgets gets completely outweighed by the elimination of libraries’ flexibility to reduce spend when needed, as both commitment to spend and content are locked into these deals.  Likewise, the compounding cost of annual increases have a predictably deficit effect on library budgets.

CC-BY @atruthbrarian

This inflexibility also leads to homogenized library collection-building (Thomson, Peters, & Hulbert, 2002), as libraries share and provide access to the same scholarly content, rather than (as in traditional resource sharing) resources unique to their respective collections.  Also, a significant portion of Big Deal package content remains unused, falsely inflating its overall value and trapping libraries in multi-year agreements to buy what they don’t need and increasingly can’t afford. This kind of purchase means fewer library collection dollars spent on more diverse collection needs, whether because there are fewer such purchases that can be afforded, or even simply that these remain more possible to cancel.

The process
Quite basically, the normal expectation for a renewal process means library data gets analyzed by collection representatives in the spring for final decisions in the summer. Ideally, those decisions get communicated to acquisitions representatives, vendors, and/or consortia reps in the early fall.  Then consortia and e-resource librarians (plus respective general counsel) negotiate new contracts before the December expire.  The actual renewal process looks quite different. Since publishers don’t release current pricing until summer, consortia get offers out for its members’ collection representatives to analyze in early fall.  This compressed timeframe leaves little room for libraries making consortia purchase decisions to analyze anything, nor does it allow sufficient collaboration from all necessary stakeholders.

CC-BY @atruthbrarian

To share is the Latin root of ‘communication’.  Again, quite basically, the shared information concerning consortia ranges from books to labor to negotiating power.  But what works well for sharing books and its associated labor is quite different from sharing information related to negotiating power and the labor associated with managing online resources.  Besides the varying usage value of these purchases, the contract and term needs continue to vary from library to library.  Those needs can change more frequently each year for libraries than buying, sharing, and cataloging books ever has.  New formats beget new kinds of information, requiring new structures, methods, and individuals involved in the communicating.

From my vantage point — and, I grant you, there are many that I am missing here — libraries and consortia are falling short of what’s necessary to collectively communicate in ways that make consortia purchases beneficial to libraries.

The alternatives
Machovec (2017) sees two competing forces at stake for consortia and libraries: “the need to grow collaboration to more efficiently acquire products and services; and the need to cut programs and services that can no longer be funded” [emphasis mine]. To grow collaboration, as I interpret Machovec to suggest, means allowing more time to share, react, analyze, and compare collaboratively, not just the group individually.  I know it sounds counterintuitive that more communication would be necessary for efficiency.  But understand, efficiency doesn’t just deal in the currency of predictability.  The currency we should value is flexibility.

Currently, consortia purchasing models, while designed to save libraries money, still offer no comparable programs and service alternatives to address libraries’ collective declining funding.  I believe consortia have a role to play in negotiating favorable alternatives or so-called “exit terms” for its members, just as they may continue to offer well-negotiated Big Deals for members needing and willing to afford that kind of predictability.  I don’t believe these two interest necessarily conflict, considering how libraries have historically participated in consortia.  But having been part of a group of libraries working on that kind of proposal, I have greater appreciation for the complexity and skill involved and a new perspective on future possibilities.

For consortia to stay in the purchasing game, from which at least part of their operational funds rely, they will need to grow the facilitation and communication side of their business.  Investing in people, systems, skills, and new relationships will be key to negotiating different alternatives and to negotiating the complexity of members’ changing needs.

References

The title for this post inspired by the song by Ariana Grande, in case you wanna listen.

Thompson, J., Peters, T., & Hulbert, L. (2002). Library Consortia. The Serials Librarian, 42(3-4), 177-182.

Machovec, G. (2017). Trends in Higher Education and Library Consortia. Journal of Library Administration, 57(5), 577-584.

Finding my footing and imposter syndrome

Like Quetzalli, who started blogging for ACRLog a few years ago, I am dipping my toes into the world of academic libraries by starting with a residency position. While there is some discussion to be had on critiques of residencies and whether a residency is a good choice for any given individual, for my own part, I was drawn to a residency position because it offered me room to explore as well as a little more support. Luckily for me, my institution has also been very receptive about working with my interests and I have no regrets about choosing a residency.

That said, at almost exactly three months in, I am starting to take stock of what I have learned and accomplished so far. With the new semester fast approaching, I am also looking for ways to work better and to prioritize all the various projects that could take up my time. As a subject librarian, a large focus of my work is on liaisonship, which, it turns out, is something of a challenge for me.

As I see it, my challenges are twofold: getting my name out there and establishing myself as someone capable of and willing to work with faculty members. I’m in a new position, so faculty members and students in my subject areas aren’t necessarily primed to come looking for me. To combat this, I’ve sent the usual introductory emails and have been working on meeting faculty members when they’re interested and have the time. I’ve also attended as many events as possible, both to become more familiar with academic focuses on campus and to make sure I’m seen and can participate in informal conversations as they arise.

As for my second goal of demonstrating that I’m capable of the job I’m doing, this has come slower. I’m working as the liaison for Southeast Asian studies and South Asian studies, and my background is solely in Southeast Asian studies, which means I’m working to get up to speed on South Asia. Now, I know that to be an effective liaison you do not need to have extensive knowledge of your subject areas. This is true, too—I’ve successfully answered the South Asia reference questions that have come my way. All that said, I still find myself feeling inadequate, which leads me to an oft-discussed topic: imposter syndrome.

Erin has already written a great post about imposter syndrome, especially tied to comparing your CV to others’. I find myself performing a similar sort of comparison, looking at librarians in my institution and in similar positions beyond my institution and wondering how they do so much, how they are so involved. I know this is similar to Erin’s own struggle and that I’m only seeing things from the outside, but it’s one thing to know that and another to internalize it.

I brought up my position as a resident at the beginning of this post because I think it also plays a factor in this feeling of imposter syndrome. As a resident, maybe I am an imposter, or at the very least, maybe people see me as an imposter. But I know that this, too, is also just my insecurities talking. While it is true that residents (including myself) do have to explain their positions and do have to face skepticism, it is also true that residents are as qualified as any other new librarian. As Erin lays out in her post, it is perfectly acceptable to be a beginner. Luckily for me, I am part of an organization that supports me and all its new librarians and recognizes that we are all beginners in one way or another.

One of the support systems my library has in place is a new liaisons group that meets once a month. These meetings provide a place to discuss our work and formulate strategies to become more effective liaisons, as well as simply to discuss challenges we may be having. At a recent meeting, when I brought up how I sometimes feel nervous approaching faculty members, a more established librarian offered a piece of advice that really resonated with me: we are faculty members too, so there’s no reason to feel lesser. Now, librarians are not faculty members everywhere, but no matter the institution, we are professionals, and in liaison work as with librarianship in general, there is no reason to feel lesser, even if you are new. For now, I’m going to make an effort to understand that I am a beginner and to not apologize for it, while I continue to learn and grow and develop the relationships that will help me to become a better liaison.

What are some situations you’ve found yourself facing imposter syndrome? Do you have any tips to share that have worked for you?

Valuing Student Experience

Discussions surrounding student experiences and how to incorporate those experiences during library instruction have been a hot topic in library land and is something I’ve thought about as well. How can I best value student experiences and ensure that what I’m teaching is relevant to them? What do I need to do to make my teaching student-centered?  When I think about student experiences, I think about the unique backgrounds, perspectives, ideas, beliefs, identities, and skills that students bring into the classroom. I think about what I bring to the classroom as well and what all of this might mean for library instruction.

Student experience is at the forefront of my mind – now more than ever – because I work for a Jesuit university. Though Jesuit pedagogy is built on religious foundations, you don’t have to be religious to understand and adopt the pieces that work for your own teaching practice. Jesuit education is based on the Ignatian Pedagogical Paradigm (IPP). I’m not an expert on IPP since I was only introduced to the concept a few months ago, but there are a few things I’ve been able to take away from this approach to teaching. I’ve found it a useful framework when thinking about how to bring student experience into the library classroom, especially in a one-shot setting.

In IPP, experience is labelled as context. On page 10, section 35 of the IPP document, context is explained as this:

Since human experience, always the starting point in an Ignatian pedagogy, never occurs in a vacuum, we must know as much as we can about the actual context within which teaching and learning take place. As teachers, therefore, we need to understand the world of the student, including the ways in which family, friends, peers, youth culture and mores as well as social pressures, school life, politics, economics, religion, media, art, music, and other realities impact that world and affect the student for better or worse. Indeed, from time to time we should work seriously with students to reflect on the contextual realities of both our worlds. (IPP, p. 10)

Essentially, we need to understand the world surrounding students and how that world works for or against them. I don’t think there’s an easy, one-size fits all approach to doing this. If critically reflecting on and incorporating student experiences into library instruction were easy, everyone would do it right now; however, there are many ways we can value students. For me, the first step to valuing a student’s context is to not make assumptions about their world. I can’t assume that every student has the same educational background, cultural identity, socioeconomic status, experience with technology, or beliefs about a subject. If I do make those assumptions, I’m already de-valuing the experiences a student brings into my classroom; I’m forcing my own experiences and understandings of the world onto them. I have to actively practice this because I have my own implicit biases that affect my worldview and how I interact with students. Reshaping the way we think about students, what they bring to the classroom, and what we think they know is an active and ongoing process.

Since many librarians teach one-shots, or sessions that are shorter than the typical for-credit class, it can be difficult to really get to know the students in our classrooms. With these constraints, I really struggle with the question of how to build context with such little time because I want to build continuing relationships and strong connections, which are not possible in one, 75 minute class. I think context can be built in smaller ways. Conversations with faculty before library instruction help build context. We can understand the class students are in, the topics that they are studying, and the assignment that they are working on. We can also be aware of campus, state, country, and worldwide issues that affect student lives.

Within library instruction, there are ways that we can continue to value student experiences. One way to do this is with short questions at the beginning of class such as asking students if they’ve been to the library before, what their major is, or who they go to for research help. Any information about what students know and where they are coming from is useful. Using varied and inclusive examples can also ensure that multiple backgrounds are valued. I also try to make references students can connect to, and I’ll check in with students to make sure they are still relevant (Do you all use Twitter? Is SparkNotes still a thing?). I think it’s also important to connect new concepts or tools to things that students already know because that acknowledges their life outside the classroom. If students use Google, let’s talk about Google and how that relates to library research.

Thinking back to the context section of the Ignatian Pedagogical Paradigm, one thing I find helpful are the questions posed at the end of the paragraph such as, “How do world experiences affect the very way in which students learn, helping to mold their habitual patterns of thinking and acting?” Class discussions are a place where students can both share their own experiences and also critically reflect on how their own lives influence their understanding of information. This is, again, difficult in a one-shot setting because we have to take the time to build familiarity with students so they feel comfortable talking to and with us. Luckily, I had several opportunities to work with a class multiple times throughout the semester, which allowed for more open conversations surrounding power, belief systems, and how that relates to information. I hope multiple instruction sessions become more of a norm for libraries in the future.

The last idea surrounding student experiences that I’ve been thinking about is how context-building goes beyond a library instruction session. I struggled with how to check-in with students after instruction, and one of my colleagues mentioned that she offers a follow-up email later in the semester to any student who wants one. It’s a simple idea, and it works. At the end of instruction, I pass a sheet around for any student who wants to write down their email for a check-in. A week later, I’ll send them an email asking how they are doing and let them know that they can contact me at any time if they need help. Most students don’t reply, but I’m surprised by the amount that do (especially once assignments are due!). It allows an opportunity to continue working outside of the classroom, learn more about students, and engage one-on-one. Beyond email follow-ups, attending student presentations and speeches, events, and celebrations on campus show students that we care about their lives and experiences.

Students are at the center of our work in academic libraries, and we should value the different backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences that they bring into the classroom. There’s no singular way to build or establish context, which can feel daunting, but we can start with smaller ideas, both inside and outside the library.

How do you recognize student experiences in library instruction?