Monthly Archives: March 2006

More On Ethnographic Methods Webcast

Earlier this week I posted a summary of a webcast sponsored by the Blended Librarians Online Learning Community about “Ethnographic Methods and Participatory Design in an Academic Library”. As a followup, for those interested, Darlene Fichter attended the webcast and provided some fairly detailed notes on her blog. So if you couldn’t be there, you may wish to review Darlene’s report.

Bring “Helicopter Parents” In For A Landing @ Your Library

Today’s CHE provides a link to a Survey of Current College Parent Experiences (PDF), which, among other things, tells us that:

“Of the 839 parents surveyed, 74 percent communicated with their student two or three times a week and one in three did so at least once a day.”

This is consistent with what our Student Success people tell us here at Kansas and is one the the reasons why KU is one of the many institutions to have created a Parents’ Association, which begs the question: what are libraries doing for parents?

I first started to think about the significance of parent involvement a few years ago when the NSO staff at Washington State took the library off the standard summer orientation tour. I didn’t hear complaints about this from incoming students, but I did hear complaints from their parents who, for some odd reason, wanted their students to be oriented to academic resources as well as to social opportunities. That feedback helped with later NSO discussions. Here at Kansas, we have a very successful NSO workshop program, but the Parents’ Association is new and we’ll have to work to get involved. This would dovetail nicely with some development activities that we’ve pursued with parents of current students in partnership with the KU Endowment.

As the oft-cited-this-week Susan Gibbons mentioned in her presentation at the Taiga Forum, there is another dimension to “helicopter parenting,” as well. Her research showed that undergraduates are likely to consult parents during the research process and she concluded that effective ILI programming for parents could help direct their children back toward library resources and services during one of those weekly (or daily) phone calls.

So, another audience for our services and another opportunity to partner with our colleagues in Student Affairs!

Commission On Higher Ed Aims Sight On Accreditation

I hope ACRLog readers have been following the proceedings of the Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education over the last few months. Sometimes we are so focused on our libraries and institutions that we neglect to pay attention to the industry in which we work. I suppose that’s one reason I recently shared my higher education reading list. This morning the major higher education news outlets reported on a big development from the Commission, though I don’t think it was unexpected given its nature and the past work of its chairman.

Previously the Commission, which is focusing on how to create greater accountability for American IHEs, seemed to be concentrating on a national standards test for college students. Today they turn their attention to the regional accreditation process itself. In a issue paper released by the commission, they essentially question what in their view is:

a system that is created, maintained, paid for and governed by institutions is necessarily more likely to look out for institutional interests.

The Commission appears to have a number of problems with the current accreditation system beyond the fact that those being accredited create and support the system (I don’t think I’m stretching things by saying that the Commission is suggesting that because colleges and universities support the system, we go too easy on each other):
* accreditation standards between the regional agencies vary too widely
* specialized program accreditations are completely voluntary
* the quality of the higher education has fallen dramatically despite accreditation
* the current system if more focused on the needs of IHEs than the needs of the public
* the public has difficulty accessing accreditation data and reports

What is the solution to the problems of the existing accreditation system? More federal government oversight and involvement of course. The paper says the solution is:

A new organization could achieve the multiple needs for alignment. The Congress and the President could enact legislation creating The National Accreditation Foundation.

I believe it is Larry Hardesty who is fond of saying, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you” in referring to such proposals. Having just went through the self-study process at my own institution, and having recently returned from participating on a re-accreditation review team at another institution, I would agree that the regional accreditation system – a system in which we review ourselves – is going to have some weaknesses and challenges. However, it is a system that in the opinion of many academics works effectively to maintain the quality of higher education. It is true, as the issue paper points out, that very few institutions ever lose their accreditation, but those who have worked within the system know that accreditation teams do observe and identify serious accountability flaws within institutions that are then closely monitored by the accrediting bodies until they are corrected. The thought of the federal government, especially given the ineptitude of the current administration, taking over the responsibility for higher education accreditation certainly sends a chill up my spine.

Back from the Taiga

I’ve just returned from the first (annual?) Taiga Forum – a 2-day conference sponsored by Innovative Interfaces that brought together Assistant Directors (and others) from across the country to discuss the future of academic libraries and, specifically, the way in which a variety of traditional boundaries are dissolving across our emergent organizational structures.

The Forum Web site identifies IT changes as a primary driver, but, in fact, the discussion was more wide-ranging, including:

  • the boundaries between professional librarians and non-librarian professionals in the academic library (e.g., the anthropologist at the University of Rochester that Steven noted yesterday);
  • the boundaries between professional staff of all stripes and para-professional staff;
  • the boundaries between libraries and IT, and likewise between librarians and other campus professionals (e.g., instructional designers, institutional researchers);
  • the boundaries between traditional functional areas in the library (public services, technical services, IT, etc.) and the programs, initiatives, and strategic goals around which a librarian must exercise competencies across those traditional areas.

Speakers included Jim Neal (Columbia), who, among other things, returned to his discussion of feral professionals, Paul Duguid (Berkeley), who, among other things, took apart Wikipedia, and Lorcan Depsey (OCLC), who gave a great talk on how libraries need to work to “create gravitational pull” on the Web, but also in the increasingly crowded and competitive personal information environment(s) of our faculty and students.

Good as these presentations were, the real energy in the room came from participants engaging the basic idea that many of our most important initiatives (e.g., institutional repositories) require library leaders (at all levels) to master a wide array of skills and knowledge in order to build programs that bridge traditional boundaries in the profession and on campus.

I may blog additional Taiga-related throughts once the conference materials become available online, but, in short, this was an interesting new entry into leadership development and one that I think has a tremendous upside should it continue to be supported and if we can retain focus on the idea of developing library leaders who are accomplished boundary-spanners and who have thoughtfully engaged the question of how to initiate and sustain programs and professional development on their local campuses that brings this holistic approach to our work to librarians and staff throughout the organization.

Oh, and there were also some provocative statements (PDF) posted ahead of the conference meant to spur discussion. Here’s one that almost every small group chose to engage:

“Within the next five years, there will be no more librarians as we know them. Staff may have MBAs or be computer/data scientists. All library staff will need the technical skills equivalent to today’s systems and Web services personnel. The ever-increasing technology curve will precipitate a high turnover among traditional librarians; the average age of library staff will have dropped to 28.”

Being as I was one of the younger people in the room at (just-turned) 39, this turned into a wide-ranging and useful talk – even if we didn’t agree with all of the starting points!

There aren’t too many programs worth dealing with O’Hare International Airport (2 hour delay coming home, again, thank you!), but this was one of them. I hope it continues and I hope it spurs further discussion on individual campuses and in other consortia.

The More We Know The Better We Can Do

Over at the Blended Librarians Online Learning Community they sponsored a webcast today that offered information about a unique project. The presenters were Susan Gibbons, Associate Dean, Judi Briden, Digital Librarian for Public Services, and Nancy Foster, Lead Anthropologist and Co-Manager of the Digital Initiatives Unit. You read that correctly. Foster is an anthropologist working with the librarians to help them learn more about their user community. In this presentation, titled “Ethnographic Methods and Participatory Design In a University Library”, Gibbons, Briden, and Foster explained how they are using ethnographic methods to collect information about how students and faculty members do their research and use the library (or other non-library resources). The research is funded by an IMLS grant.

One of the things they do is have students draw diagrams that illustrate how they conduct their research process. We saw examples of drawings made by students (these use stick figures folks – the students aren’t expected to be artists) that show where they start and how they proceed through the research process. The research team members collect and analyze the drawings looking for patterns to provide more insight into student research methods. They also ask students to indicate on campus maps those buildings they use and what they do in those buildings. This can provide insight into which buildings the students feel most comfortable going to for their computing, research, and socialization. Students are given disposable cameras and are asked to take photos of their rooms, and their work materials. Research team members visit students in their dorm rooms and videotape them working on their computers. I guess ethnographic research can be a bit invasive at times. They described how they are using similar methods to better understand faculty use of institutional repositories, as they hope to learn more about ways to encourage faculty to make use of the repository.

The point of the webcast was to demonstrate how a user-centered design process can help librarians to better understand our user communities and how they do – and do not – use our physical and virtual resources. Design thinking suggests we can continuously improve our services by asking how our resources can better fill the users’ information needs. But if we fail to clearly understand those needs it’s not possible to design the approriate systems that best suit our students and faculty.

Perhaps the most salient point that I took away from the presentation is that the more we know about our user community – the more information we gather about their research workflows – the more things we will know that our information competitors can’t possibly grasp. That should position us to customize or frame services in ways that will deliver services to our users that should far exceed what they can obtain from generic search engines. Wishful thinking? I think not.

BTW, there are some sample documents used in the ethnographic research available within the University of Rochester’s institutional repository. They are pubicly accessible.

Sorry, but because of the confidential nature of some of the photos and illustrations shown in today’s webcast presentation, it was not possible to archive the program. But if you missed this today you should have opportunities to hear more about this exciting research program. The team members will be doing some conference presentations, and I hope they’ll publish some of their research and findings in the future.