Monthly Archives: August 2009

Run Your Library Like A Circus

Maybe you think your academic library is already being run like a circus, especially the kind with crazy clowns running around spritzing everyone with seltzer bottles and lots of uncontrolled chaos on the side. If that’s the case, good luck. I’m going to bring a different circus to your attention in this post – the Cirque du Soleil. The Cirque du Soleil is as much about art and beauty as it is pure entertainment with some gifted individuals putting on an incredible show. But there are also some leadership lessons we can all learn from the world’s truly unique circus. I found these ideas worth sharing in an interview that world renowned designer David Rockwell conducted with Lyn Heward, creative director at Cirque du Soleil, for the magazine Contract.

The Show is the Star: You’ll never see a list of the individual performers on a Cirque du Soleil program. The performers have decided it is all about teamwork and collaboration. You’ve got to have incredibly talented individuals, but unless everyone agrees that the show is the star it all falls apart. Unless you’re a team player you don’t last long at this circus.

The Team Needs Visionary Leadership: The circus has players from all over the world; many different cultural backgrounds. There are also many supporting personnel, like set designers and prop makers, who must fit in the mix. What brings and holds all the differences together at the circus is a visionary director. The director conceives the overall show and shapes it by understanding who each person is and how each likes to work. A good director needs to be inspirational, but must be better at getting the artists to inspire each other.

Create the Right Environment: When you bring together creative people you need to give them a stimulating place to work. The environment should almost be playground like. An innovative circus grows out of a playful, spirited environment.

Staff Development Encourages Change: No one wants a stale circus; it has to constantly evolve and change. That depends on artists constantly pushing themselves to re-think their acts. At this circus the artists are sent to workshops. They listen to the audience feedback. They are encouraged to go out and try new things, and visit and study other shows and circus acts.

Feedback Improves the Circus: A circus can be a bit more unpredictable than a library but both are subject to unforeseen events and challenges, and both depend on technology that requires rapid adaptation. At Cirque du Soleil the team regularly meets to receive feedback from the director. Together they talk about the uncertainties and risks, and how, as a team, the circus must make sure the show always goes on.

The Circus is an Evolutionary Process: Every new season of the circus is invented from the ground up so there is enormous risk involved, but the entire operation is seen as one continuum. New shows evolve from the old ones so risk is mitigated. The circus spreads out risk over time, and when they do invent it always begins with solid research.

Let the Performers Lead the Way to the Future
: What keeps the circus exciting is the pressure to constantly diversify itself. Cirque isn’t static and it constantly thinks beyond the constraints of the traditional “big top” thinking about what a circus should be. What moves it into the future is encouraging and challenging the artists to take risks and develop new acts. As they say at Cirque “risk-taking is the sum total of the risk taken by the individuals on the team.”

So if your library seems to sometimes function more like a circus than a library, well, maybe that’s a good thing. But if you are going to emulate a circus as your organizational model, you may as well make it the Cirque do Soleil. After all, as Rockwell reminds the reader, many of us, at one time or another, wanted to grow up and run away with the circus.

Why Reinvent The Wheel

When we decided to redesign our old library homepage and create a new one, we talked about usability and design features quite a bit. But rather than exhaust considerable time conducting local studies to learn more about use of specific features or to identify potential design ideas we turned to the library literature. We found quite a few academic libraries sharing the outcomes of their usability, card sort and other studies of user experience and preferences for websites. For example, we were able to more efficiently identify appropriate terminologies for our tabs and links. Learning and adapting from existing usability studies can really pay off.

So I thought it would be worthwhile to take a closer look at the results of OCLC’s usability studies for Worldcat Local, especially since they provide some insights related to faculty and students. Here are a few of the highlights:

* Both undergraduate and graduate students highly value search systems that allow them to retrieve both books and journals. However, those who searched Worldcat Local wrongly assumed it contained all of their library’s journal content.

* Faculty praised it as “Googly.” Very few participants demonstrated any concern about whether surnames should precede forenames. Repeatedly, academic users expressed appreciation for a search box where they can “just type anything.”

* Only half of participants ever used the advanced search screen, and in fewer than half of the total searches—nine times in 66 searches.

* In this and other tests participants stated a preference for searching by author to avoid works about a person, or title to avoid finding common title words as subjects.

* Some language adjustments were made for academic users, saying “journal” instead of “serial, magazine, newspaper.”

* For both students and for scholars, in both the known item case and the topical search case, the expected and preferred order was relevance.

* Participants said and demonstrated that they noticed facets. They sometimes used facets, and facets generally worked as expected. However, facets were more often praised than used.

* In subject searching in particular, facets were not often used by undergraduate test participants.

* Navigation past the second or third page of search results did not happen often, even for scholars. Although participants did topical searches in their areas of expertise, we could not get them to look past the first two pages of search results.

Academic librarians thinking about ways to modify the search interface or results display of their online catalog may want to explore this study in greater depth. You may want to pay more attention to the need for a single search box. Using relevance as the default search technique seems to make good sense. But does it makes better sense to invest less time finessing the advance search if no one seems to use it much (unless we perceive advanced search as primarily a librarian’s tool). I think the main benefit of a study such as that reported here, is that it allows academic librarians to save time by drawing on the findings of someone else’s usability study. Why reinvent the wheel with a local usability study; it’s likely that our user populations, when it comes to using e-resources, have relatively similar expectations and search behaviors.

I recommend you take a look at this usability study. Compared to others I’ve seen this one is pretty readable.

I Never Fell Off The Turnip Wagon

It looks like my attempt at providing some humor here at ACRLog may have gone a bit awry. Last week I wrote a post that was clearly intended to mock a bogus web site listing a completely absurd list of so-called predictions about the future of higher education. I was totally aware that this site serves no purpose other than to get bloggers and others to create a link back to the post. True, I did in fact provide a link to the post – giving the site owners the link love they seek – but I guess I just couldn’t resist doing so purely for the entertainment factor. I got a few laughs just looking at the ridiculous predictions, and I thought you readers would too – and I hoped you would be further entertained by my effort at satire – probably not my strong point as a blogger. I wrote this being reasonably sure you all are well aware of the true intent behind these sites and their posts about “the top 50 colleges for sunbathers” and “25 foolproof tips for an exciting classroom”.

But apparently I came off appearing rather naive to at least two bloggers. Both Ellie Collier and Roy Tennant took my post as an opportunity to warn the librarian community about these sites which are little more than an effort to scam us into doing something that wastes our time and benefits the site owners. BTW, see my comment to Ellie’s post. Turns out that AL Direct picked up on my post and broadcast it out to the library community at large; that’s where Roy picked it up (gosh, I thought he was a regular ACRLog reader – now I find out he only reads it if AL Direct mentions it). Both Roy and Ellie explain these scam sites pretty well, so go read their posts if you want to understand it better.

I was actually a bit concerned that AL Direct did mention it – no, I never mind getting referrals from AL Direct – because just a few stories above that AL Direct was linking people to another bogus post from Learn-gasm on the “Top 100 blogs for library students” (Ok, I’m definitely NOT linking to that one. Doesn’t the site name “Learn-gasm” tip you off that something smells rotten). So I’m wondering if AL Direct realizes I’m not taking this stuff seriously. Anyway, speaking of that “top 100” blogs post, someone from ACRL wrote to me to complain that ACRLog wasn’t included on the list but that ACRL Insider was – clearly an act of injustice. My response was “pay it no mind” as I tried to explain why that post was nothing but a scam job – and there was no problem in being left off it. I’m pretty sure aspiring academic librarians know about or will learn about ACRLog without the help of an affiliate site.

So fellow bloggers, I appreciate your public service announcements about the dangers of going to or providing links to these scam sites. I do understand your intent, and this post is in no way critical of your reactions to my original post. If that post provided an opportunity to bring a much larger problem to the attention of the library community – that’s a good thing. But I can assure you I wasn’t fooled, duped or otherwise led astray by the 25 predictions post. If that was the case I’d be linking to these dumb sites all the time. I must get at least 5 or more e-mails a month telling me to go see and share these posts – and then there are the “freelance bloggers” who want to know if they can write a post for ACRLog. In fact, to an extent my attempt at ridiculing them was mostly a pent-up burst of “now I’m going to take you to the woodshed” in return for all the spam mail they send me. Maybe that was not a good idea, but I don’t regret the post. It was definitely a one-off mention of one of these sites and you definitely won’t see it happen again at ACRLog.

So in the end it’s good to know that you other bloggers are reading us here at ACRLog. Now, I have just two requests for you:

1) Please do get my name right – it’s STEVEN, not Stephen.

2) How about a post where you tell your readers about the great new columns from Barbara and STEVEN.

Finding Topics & Time for Scholarship

Laura’s recent post about faculty book projects has me thinking about writing. Even though I’ve been at my job for over a year, I still feel lucky to have landed a tenure track position at an academic library that I truly enjoy. During my hiatus from the academic world between my time as an archaeologist and when I started library school, I hadn’t realized how much I missed research, and even writing. So I’m pleased to have a job in which research and writing are required.

Of course, it’s one thing to be happy that scholarship is expected of me, and another to actually do the research and writing. When I first started at my job my biggest stumbling block was about the What. What topics could I write about? What could be a subject for a research project, big or small? What ideas were better suited to more informal writing?

Many librarians write about aspects of their jobs: projects and programming they’ve worked on, issues or problems they’ve addressed. So looking to my job responsibilities seemed like a good place to start. At various points over the past year I’ve made a list of everything I’ve worked on at my job and used the list to pick out possible writing topics. As an extra bonus, the lists came in handy when it was time for me to fill out my annual self-assessment a few months ago.

I also keep another list, one I call “research thoughts.” This one’s for ideas that come up as a result of something I’ve read, heard, or seen in the blogosphere, journal articles, conference presentations, email lists, podcasts, and casual conversation. Sometimes they’re directly related to my job, and sometimes they’re not — these ideas are usually not much more than half- (or even quarter-) baked. I check in with this list every so often, and it can provide a much-needed jolt of inspiration during a dry spell. In fact, my current research project started out as an entry on this list after attending a particularly interesting presentation at a conference two years ago.

The other big factor affecting my scholarly goals has to do with the When. When do I research and write? How can I make the time? As a junior faculty member I’m very lucky to have reassigned time during the early years of my tenure track, as do junior faculty in other departments at my college. So I do have some time specifically set aside for scholarship, which has been an enormous help in getting research and writing done this year.

Over this year I’ve found that, for me, frequency counts: I need to write often to be able to write often. This is certainly not unique — many librarians, academics, and writers offer this advice. But it’s a realization I’ve come to slowly as I’m unsure where to fit near-daily writing into the rest of my life. Some days I can grab time in the mornings (I am definitely a morning person), but some days I can’t. Figuring out how to make space for frequent writing is a major goal of mine for the near future.

If you’re a librarian-researcher and -writer, what are some of your best sources of inspiration? And how do you find time for scholarship?

Newsflash: Professor Visits Library

Thomas H. Benton, a.k.a. William Pannapacker, writes lyrically in the Chronicle about what the library meant to him as a student.

My undergraduate research projects were not particularly original, but I did learn that there was a continuing conversation on almost any subject that I could listen in on through books and—in those days—printed journals. The library taught me to take responsibility for my education and to question anyone who claimed to possess the one-and-only correct interpretation of any subject.

His students seem to take information too easily at its word as an unquestioned body of knowledge; he wants them to have the kind of experience he had. But he’s nervous that libraries may be considered by some administrators as a costly anachronism, so has some advice for strategic changes:

For undergraduate libraries, those changes might include, for example, offering even more online resources, providing more-flexible work spaces for students, offering more extensive digitization services, providing local expertise on copyright and intellectual property, training faculty members and students in the use of new media, and, perhaps, providing food services in a collegial atmosphere.

Experimenting with such changes does not mean that libraries need to capitulate to the worst tendencies of collegiate consumerism and techno-boosterism. None of those changes is inconsistent with the traditional mission of college libraries, and all of them can be done in the context of the preservation and study of books and other research materials. . . . There needs to be a stronger alliance between content experts and information managers, between the professors and the librarians, in order to achieve our allied goals in a rapidly changing technological, economic, and cultural context.

Well, amen to that, but I can’t help but wonder when he last visited his library. I’ve been there. The Van Wylen library at Hope College library is lovely, and the librarians there are already doing much of what he proposes – and have for years. In fact, ACRL’s award for Excellence in Academic Libraries was presented to Hope College in 2004 in part because of their collaboration with faculty to build a strong instruction program.

Benton does admit that “librarians are working hard to reach out to the campus community” and faculty haven’t always returned the favor, so he can understand why librarians retreat to their “fortresses of silence, order, and continuity.”

. . . Their what? Dude, you have to get out more. That’s not what libraries are like these days. And we wouldn’t go there, even if it existed.

Though I will give three cheers for his pledge to reach out and engage in collaboration.

[W]e as faculty members can work more effectively with librarians to design research projects and to develop collections that support the undergraduate curriculum. We can design assignments in consultation with librarians so it becomes impossible for students to pass through college without learning how to write a research paper, produce an educational video podcast, or accomplish any other goal that requires the critical evaluation of sources. If we can reconceptualize our teaching as collaborative research with students and librarians, then the library could become analogous to the laboratory in the sciences, and it would become impossible to imagine the future of any college without it.

By working more closely together, and responding to new technology while preserving the traditional culture of scholarship and books, I am convinced, professors and librarians can put the library back at the center of undergraduate education, where it belongs.

Welcome Back, Dr. Pannapacker. I look forward to reading your future columns. I’m just sorry that it’s taken you all this time to discover a place that I suspect Hope College students already call home.