Monthly Archives: January 2009

ProQuest Creates A Q&A Community For Grad Students

Most academic libraries target their information literacy efforts to the undergraduate population. There may be an assumption that graduate students are well equipped to meet the demands of their research assignments. But I suspect that most of us know, at least anecdotally, that graduate students need just as much help, and possibly more, than the average undergraduate. But given staffing constraints it can be a real challenge to meet the needs of graduate students who may be struggling with research and navigating the library’s e-resources.

Though it’s not specifically geared to research, a potential source of help may be a new online community for graduate students call GradShare (in beta of course). According to an interview with a GradShare spokesperson that appeared in the Wired Campus blog “Gradshare will become a way for graduate students to use peer mentoring to get answers to questions that they’re either not comfortable asking their advisors or unable to ask their advisors.”

What I found interesting is that GradShare is a creation of ProQuest. Given their role in the dissertation publishing process, it would seem ProQuest has a strong connection with graduate students. There is no advertising in this community which is good because it wouldn’t feel right if there were ads for ProQuest products all over the place. There is also an institutional tie in. A college or university can join the network and then make available its resources for their students. So far about 20 IHEs are listed as members. Grad students can select their institution, get access to dissertation guidelines for example, or see a list of their library’s databases on a particular subject area. As you might expect, ProQuest databases are prominently featured.

GradShare strikes me as a potential channel for academic librarians to further extend their reach into our students’ social network spaces. If GradShare takes off and achieves popularity, given that it’s a Q&A service first and foremost, I would hope that ProQuest would offer librarians more opportunity to get involved. Why not have academic librarians answering grad students’ questions about research? Why not allow the grads to access the name of their library’s subject specialist for their discipline? Take a look at GradShare to get a sense of how our community may be offer value in that social space. These days we need to take advantage of any and all opportunities to connect with our students wherever they may be going for research advice and assistance.

Congrats To Winners Of ACRL’s Big Awards

Two of ACRL’s biggest awards are the Academic/Research Librarian of the Year and the Excellence in Academic/Research Libraries Awards. We just learned who the latest winners of those awards are, and we wanted to extend our congratulations.

Congratulations to Gloriana St. Clair, dean of university libraries at Carnegie Mellon University. St. Clair is the 2009 ACRL Academic/Research Librarian of the Year. Anyone who has met Gloriana knows what an incredible person she is. I personally recall how willing she is to help colleagues. In the early days of portal, as editor, Gloriana would provide much encouragement to potential authors, providing mentoring and support. Here is what the official press release had to say:

“Gloriana St. Clair is deserving of this award on all counts. She epitomizes the Librarian-Leader-Scholar model through her long and notable career as an academic librarian, her contributions to ACRL and other professional organizations and in particular her record of scholarship and scholarly contributions with both national and international influence and impact,” said award committee Chair Robin Wagner, director of the Gettysburg College Library.

St. Clair has a distinguished record of service to the profession. She has contributed to the body of scholarship and scholarly communication by serving as editor of three prestigious journals – College & Research Libraries (1990-96), Journal of Academic Librarianship (1996-2000) and portal: Libraries and the Academy (2000-03). St. Clair has additionally contributed to the body of scholarship as the author or co-author of numerous articles.

In addition to her work as an author, editor, and scholar, St. Clair has served as director of the Universal Digital Library Project since 1999. A broad coalition of libraries and computer scientists in the United States, India and China, the project aims to digitize one million scholarly volumes and make them freely available online. She has contributed to the future of the profession by serving as an adjunct professor in the School of Library and Information Science at the University of Pittsburgh, teaching academic library management.

And it looks like we have another group of first-class academic libraries being added to the ranks of those recognized for their excellence. Here is the rundown on those three libraries from the official ACRL press release:

ACRL is pleased to announce the recipients of the 2009 Excellence in Academic Libraries Award – The Moraine Valley Community College Library, Palos Hills, Illinois; the Wyndham Robertson Library at Hollins University, Roanoke, Virgina; and the University of Minnesota Libraries – Twin Cities. Sponsored by ACRL and Blackwell’s Book Services, the award recognizes the staff of a college, university, and community college library for programs that deliver exemplary services and resources to further the educational mission of the institution.

The Moraine Valley Community College Library, winner of the community college category, was recognized for creating an environment that fosters numerous relationships with partners outside those traditionally associated with libraries.

The staff of the Wyndham Robertson Library at Hollins University, winner of the college category, impressed the selection committee with their “can do” attitude that has resulted in many innovative and creative programs.

The University of Minnesota Libraries, winner of the university category, was praised for developing excellent strategies to successfully transform and rebrand the libraries to secure a highly valued position on campus.

Again, congratulations to Gloriana St. Clair, and the staffs at all three Excellence in Academic Libraries award winners.

Too Much Presentation Pressure

The greatest presentation I’ve ever seen at a library conference was many years ago at an ALA conference in Chicago. It may come as no surprise that the presenter was not a librarian. It was Stephen Covey of “seven habits” fame. The presentation was a highly planned, coreographed mix of dazzling slides, dynamic presentation style and mind-blowing segments involving audience members that perfectly demonstrated everything Covey had to tell us about why we needed to join his tribe. It was exactly what I’d expect from Covey. So why should I expect great or even good presentations from academic librarians who are hardly professional presenters like Covey?

Within the last month or so there’s been a resurgence of discussion about librarian presenting skills and how to improve them. Presentation talk is something that comes around every so often. I’ve written about presentations and presenting skills a number of times over the last few years. Most recently several blog posts about presenting were summarized at the Palinet Leadership Network. I applaude the efforts of these bloggers to the raise the bar for our presentations, and for providing advice for better presentations.

I want to write about presentations because I sat in on a few just recently while attending a regional meeting of a national information technology association. Over the course of the day I was subjected to more than a few marginal slides and graphics. I came away thinking that none of the presenters put much effort into their slides, their style of presenting them or how would they engage the attendees (asking if anyone has questions after 40 minutes of talking is not an engagement technique). I did attend one session that examined the uses of storytelling for creating community. The first segment was straight slides and talk over slides. The second segment was an actual folk story told by a professional storyteller. Quite an experience. In the final segment we got into groups and identifed meaningful lessons in the story. The last two segments were much better than the first.

This got me to thinking about whether our profession puts more pressure on itself to strive for better presentations than do other professions. Perhaps we are an anomaly in this respect. Most academic librarians do not go to the conferences of their colleagues in the admissions, student life or counseling offices. Do you think these folks have high expectations for more than just powerpoint slides with someone talking over them? Is it their custom to get activated by presenters who thoroughly engage them? Or do they just expect the bare minimum – bullet points with a guiding voice? At the conferences of our faculty colleagues you’ll find presenters reading papers. Yes, that’s still considered the norm for how to present at some scholarly conferences. Academic librarianship, I think, is an overachiever when it comes to presentation expectations.

Perhaps we’d be better off to lower our expectations for our conference presenters. We absolutely have a right to good presentations, to be engaged, and to participate. We should be the recipients of well thought out, well planned and well coordinated speeches (I still recall a presenter who had five minutes of time left, was on slide 42 of 67 slides – we had a slide handout – and cheerfully mentioned it was his first time using PowerPoint and it looked like he wouldn’t finish all his slides – in a way a big relief). On the other hand, most academic librarians might do one or two presentations a year at most; many do less. Like so many other things developing as a great presenter requires practice. One or two presentations a year just won’t get you there. In his recent book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell estimates that to be successful at anything you need to invest 10,000 hours of practice. I doubt that even the best librarian presenters have done 1,000 hours worth of presentations. Doing regular instruction sessions may help to keep one comfortable with public speaking, but presenting to an audience of one’s peers requires a considerably different mentality and approach.

Is it asking too much of someone who rarely presents to whip up a highly creative, highly visual, highly interactive presentation for a one-shot deal? Sure, if someone does multiple keynotes a year and is getting a respectable honorarium then the expectations should be much higher. But for the average academic librarian presenter perhaps we can manage to sit through 45 minutes of bullet points and talk over slides. As long as we learn something new or useful or it leads to a good discussion, I think that’s what counts. If we don’t learn anything new or are at worst just befuddled by someone’s presentation, well, we know whose presentation we probably won’t attend again.

So with a presentation overachieving profession such as ours can we somehow achieve a balance between really great presentations that are far and few between and really bad presentations we all dread sitting through? ACRL has tried to work on this in the past. They would invite speakers who’d be presenting at the ACRL conference in the spring to attend a workshop on presenting skills at ALA midwinter. The workshop leader went over all the basic tips for how to make better use of slides, tips for organizing a presentation and ideas for engaging the audience. That ACRL doesn’t do this anymore probably tells you that it didn’t help all that much. And even though there is a mass of information available on the Internet on how to present better, video examples, blogger discussions, and more that should help presenters to do better, we still sit through the kinds of presentations I sat through just recently.

We have some choices:

First, as a profession we can decide to lower our expectations, acknowledge that there’s no reason to put pressure on librarians to make great presentations, and refrain from an endless cycle of criticizing the quality of librarian presentations and hoping that advice articles and blog posts will made a difference. Let’s face it, most of us are not and will never be Seth Godin, Sir Kenneth Robinson or Steve Jobs when it comes to presenting. This might be a good decision for improving our collective mental health.

Second, we can radically rethink our conference presentations. Formal conferences and unconferences have tried the lightning talk or pecha kucha style of presentation and while these methods have their drawbacks they do eliminate the problem of long, bullet-ridden slide talks. They also put more emphasis on audience reaction and participation. I think both methods require good moderators. We could decide to adopt these formats in a bigger way at association conferences.

Third, we can rethink what it means to deliver a library conference/program presentation. I’ve been thinking it should be more like blogging. Blog posts aren’t expected to be highly polished and edited forms of writing. They should be rough around the edges. It’s a way to get out ideas that are just forming, and to allow the community to react through commentary – which helps to better shape the ideas in the long run. Why can’t our presentations be somewhat the same. Let’s encourage librarians to focus on getting out the ideas, telling the story and getting audience reaction, rather than emphasizing the quality of the slides/visuals and presentation style. That, I think, would go a long way towards reducing presentation pressure. Of course, it might also lead to some bad presentations. But would we be any worse off than we are now?

Finally, if we are really serious about an effort to improve librarian presentations at all of our conferences, my modest proposal is that our profession as a whole needs to do a better job of helping all its members to improve their presentation skills. One way we could all work together to move in this direction would be for conference sponsors, such as ALA and ACRL, to offer post-conference web-based evaluations where candid and frank praise and criticism could be provided for conference presentations. Comments could be provided for slides/visuals, opening sequence (did it engage or bore), effectiveness of props if used, speaker enthusiasm, audience engagement and other dimensions of good presentations. If I could obtain honest feedback on my presentations it would be tremendously helpful – and anonymous criticism is fine as long as it’s professional. And I know that other presenters would benefit from reading it too. Think of it as a learning community for presenters.

But offering feedback and commentary on someone’s presentation takes time. We all have to commit to communally improving the quality of our profession’s presentations. If we really want better presentations it is up to us to make a difference.

Incivility In The Academic Library

When Chuck E. Cheese gets more calls for police assistance than the neighborhood beer-and-a-shot bar you know that things are looking bad for civil behavior. But that’s exactly what’s happening according to a recent Wall Street Journal article. The problem, it seems, is that some parents have taken to odd ways of dealing with the actions of other parents and their children when some minor offense, such as playing too long on a game, occurs. For example, punching out the other parent. How is it that you can’t even expect parents and their children to get along anymore? And more importantly, what does this have to do with some of the bad behavior and general incivility we see in our libraries?

That was the question explored when library workers from Temple University, Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania gathered for one of their biannual joint professional development programs. When we all realized we’re dealing with problems related to noise, cell phone disturbances, food and beverage messes, inappropriate use of computers and more it seemed like a natural topic for our discussion. To facilitate our conversation we invited Dr. Frank Farley, Chair of the Psychology Department at Temple University and former president of the American Psychological Association, to share his observations and information from the research on what has happened to civilized behavior in American culture. How did it ever get this way?

I think our speaker approached his presentation in a clever way. He said he would describe the crime, name the suspects, identify the motive and MO and then suggest a treatment. The crime is one with which we are all familiar. It is the loss of our privacy, the interruption of our behavior and tasks, the emotional stress we suffer, the psychic damage we incur and perhaps worst of all for libraries, the interference with our learning and thinking. Increasing levels of incivility are stealing from us our dignity, humanity and empathy.

Farley traces the roots of incivility to several societal changes. The suspects he named come under the umbrella of what he called the “Age of Extreme.” Put simply, no one wants to be average and everyone wants to be associated with some extreme activity or accomplishment. The truth is that most of us are average. So in the pursuit of the extreme we see some fairly bad behavior. We are also in a period of self-revelation. Farley pointed to the influence of reality shows in which the “really good parts” are when contestants reveal secrets about themselves and their intentions. Add to this our culture of complaint. Rather than accept things as they are we are encouraged, primarily by the media to argue and complain at every opportunity. And we can do all of these things as a “global me”. That means everyone now has a worldwide platform, the Internet, from which to brag about themselves, and telegraph their complaints and self-revelations to the planet. And with people so self-absorbed we have what Farley calls the “dis-inhibition process”, in which controls of the past that inhibited bad behavior are so far expanded that almost anything goes. Farley referred to this list of social ills as “the crime”.

Then he proceeded to describe the motives and their modus operandus. In other words, who or what is responsible for this mess. Reality television is certainly a culprit since the whole point of these programs is to promote revelation, humiliation and distrust in a setting where it is all about beating everyone else. Farley mentioned that our students are already quite stressed after years of achievement pressure; what they don’t need are messages that suggest only winning matters. Perhaps the classic culprit is what Farley terms “The Springer Effect”. Jerry Springer’s genius, said Farley, is that he gets people to reveal and act out in ways previously unknown. Daytime television is by nature overwhelmingly negative. And this negativity spills out onto the Internet in scary and threatening ways. Farley spoke of well known episodes of flaming on discussion boards and other outrageously negative behaviors. The Internet also gives a platform to the anonymous (or psuedononymous) blogger and commentor. When you take away someone’s name you take away personal responsibility and then, says Farley, the dark side appears – rage, hatred, jealousy, bitterness and other qualities that most people would never reveal. Add to this a level of failing family influence the likes of which this country has never experienced. And the cherry on the sundae is the proliferation of mobile technologies that allow nearly everyone to instantly and endlessly share all of the above – and broadcast it to all in the immediate vicinity.

So how is all this manifesting itself in our students? Farley covered several dimensions to the student behavior challenge. First, we live in a culture that celebrates risk taking. People are encouraged to break the rules because this is a way in which we express our creativity. It’s one of the things that makes America a uniquely innovative society. But the spillover effect is that this becomes an internalized behavior and soon no one is paying any attention to rules that help keep a commons a place where all can co-exist. Farley shared his experiences as an educator. He described research into the decline of classroom civility and courtesy that is overflowing into our libraries. The transgressions fall into one of four categories: annoyances; classroom terrorism; intimidation; and physical threats or attacks. Most of us need look no further than the weekly crime reports for our institutions to find ample evidence of all four types.

No one really knows quite how to tame societal incivility. All we know is that it’s unlikely we’ll ever see a return to the academic library that Farley called “the Walden Pond of the university.” He commended us to read the article “Civility in the College Classroom“ by Jennifer L. Schroeder and Harvetta Robertson (Association for Psychological Science, Vol. 21, No. 10, Nov. 2008). The article summarizes their research into student incivility and suggests possible interventions that could be adapted to our libraries:
Be proactive – establish guidelines and work with students to see that they are respected.
Be specific – give students concrete examples of what behaviors are and are not acceptable in the library.
Be a model – They learn from you. Otherwise it’s self-explanatory.
Ask why – talk to students in small groups to better understand unacceptable behaviors in your library; you may not like it but you may learn why it is happening.
Have a plan – think in advance about what actions you will take when confronted with incivility or worse; some of these situations may be completely out of your range of experience. What would you do if a student threw something at you or intentionally poured a drink on the reference desk?
Follow through – when needed take immediate action on your plan or you may lose control of the situation.
Be judicious in responding – understand the difference between when talking will work and when campus security needs to get involved.
Document incidents – if it really offends you and others then make sure you can provide the evidence.

It was engaging and a good opportunity for all the library workers in attendance to commiserate and share their own stories (we later joined together in roundtable discussions with names like “share your morning surprise”, “they ate what in the library”, “what are you doing on that computer” and “where is a guard when I need one”). Libraries are traditionally spaces of structured quiet and courteousness. It has all changed. Farley ended by contemplating the organic and evolving nature of our language. Language is not fixed. The meanings grow and evolve over time. In the absence of any likely return to a more genteel past, it may be that we need to adjust our perspective of and standards for library civility. Perhaps for our own well being and sanity we should work to communicate to our students that we accept that they have different standards of civility, but that we expect and hope they will take some personal responsibility and accountability for demonstrating more empathy and caring for their fellow students in the library. They can be more self-policing, showing the ability to tolerate each other’s behavior, and we can support their efforts to co-exist in a shifting landscape of ambiguous rules and new experiences.

ACRL Presidential Candidates Forum

Who doesn’t love presidential elections? Bet you didn’t get enough of the last one. If you find yourself still hungering to hear two presidential candidates have a go at each other in a lively Q&A format then stop by ACRL’s Presidential Candidates Forum at ALA Midwinter in lovely Denver.

Attend the ACRL Presidential Candidates Forum and luncheon at the ALA Midwinter Meeting on Sunday, January 25, 2009, from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at the Sheraton Denver Grand Ballroom I. Candidates Kelly Janousek, Librarian at the California State University, Long Beach, and Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe, Coordinator for Information Literacy Services at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, will share their views on academic and research libraries and ACRL. You will also have an opportunity to meet candidates for Director-at-Large of the ACRL Board.

And if you are just plain hungry do note that you get a free lunch at this program – sponsored by EBSCO no less. I’ll be there too. Yeah, I can’t resist the free lunch offer. Please stop by and say hello and share any thoughts about ACRLog. It’s always great to meet and chat with readers. I hope to see you there.