Puzzles: A Problem-Solving Approach

I attended The Innovative Library Classroom (TILC) at William & Mary last week. It is my favorite conference, and I wanted to give it a shout-out just because it’s great (big enough to meet new people and get lots of new ideas, small enough that you can see everything you want to, the organizers are awesome, always great keynote speakers and presentations) but also because one of the lightning talks at the end of the day gave me an idea I wanted to explore some more.

The lightning talk was called “Reshuffling the Deck: Enlisting Students to Re-Envision an Active Learning Classroom.” (The presenters were Alyssa Archer, Charley Cosmato, and Susan Van Patten from Radford University, and Liz Bellamy from William & Mary.) They discussed getting a grant from Steelcase, creating an active learning centered classroom space, and how the librarians wound up finding a general-use layout of the furniture and kind of… leaving it that way. So they created little cutouts of the furniture available in the room and asked students to reconfigure it with different uses in mind. (It’s a really interesting process and if you get the chance to ask any of them about it, I recommend asking them for more detail than I’m reporting here.)

When I got back from the conference, I returned to my current project: redefining the reference schedule.To solve the math problem of fitting the number of librarians into the number of shifts, I’m considering lots of possible options, including reducing the number of hours covered during the day, changing the duration of each shift, making a two-week rotating schedule instead of the same schedule every week, and more creative (see: confusing; complicated) options.

At some point, I took a break to skim my conference notes (trying to take my own advice from several weeks ago) and I was thinking about this puzzle-like approach these librarians took with their space configuration question. Inspired, I cut up the schedule into different pieces and tried putting it back together. In doing so, I found a new way to break up the schedule that I’m going to put forth as our best choice.

I’ve actually explained my love of schedule-making by telling people “it’s like a puzzle made of time and people!” (which sounds fun to me, but earns me some weird looks, so maybe that isn’t a universal opinion) but I had always been envisioning more of a Sudoku puzzle (numbers to plug into boxes) than a jigsaw puzzle (physical pieces that can be reconfigured).

Now I’m finding other problems I can solve with this approach of “cut it up and put it back together.” I want to rearrange my desk to make it more reference-consultation-friendly, so I need to think about how I want to configure the things I use on my desk. (Come to think of it, my living room could probably benefit from this approach, too.) I’ve heard of doing a website analysis by cutting up a screenshot of the homepage, handing the pieces to potential users, and asking them how they would put them together in a logical way, much like the presenters at TILC did with their classroom. I’ve been trying to piece together a research agenda plan for a few months… maybe I’ll try treating that like a puzzle, too!

What problem do you have that needs a new problem-solving approach… and could treating it like a puzzle help?

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle: What to Do with Conference Notes & Handouts?

It’s conference season! So, I have a question you should consider before you leave for your next conference, workshop, professional development day, or seminar: What do you do with the notes and handouts you bring back?

Obviously, you’re going to a conference or other professional development event because you intend to learn something from it. Some people have the superpower to retain a lot of information without writing it down. Alas, I am of the forget-it-immediately-if-I-don’t-write-it-down school of conference attendance (and life in general). So, what can I do with my copious notes and the handouts that I cling to like a lifeline to information, once the conference is over and I’m back in my office?

Here’s my current method:T At the conference, take notes in a relevant space of the agenda or program. (Example: Notes about the keynote on the page where the speaker’s bio is.) This puts my notes in better context for later reading, and cuts down on extra pages.

Reduce:At the conference, take notes in a relevant space of the agenda or program. (Example: Notes about the keynote on the page where the speaker’s bio is.) This puts my notes in better context for later reading, and cuts down on extra pages.

Reuse: A few days after returning, I actually read the notes. I’ll also probably make a list of action items (reach out to a new contact, outline that idea for a new research project, add that book title to my TBR pile), and share any information I thought other colleagues might be interested in.

Recycle: Once I leave the conference, I won’t need maps, dine-around invitations, or pages thanking vendors (unless I used them for overflow notes). Into the recycle bin they go.

File them. Ideally, I would scan the useful notes/handouts and file them neatly in my Google Drive (and then recycle the originals), but I’m still a paper hoarder, so for now I still have an extra step: they go into neatly labelled paper folders so I can find them again if necessary.

But what works for me might not work for you! Here are some other ideas (some I’ve tried, some I haven’t):

  • Keep a dedicated notebook for conference notes. This one doesn’t work for me, because I never look at it again, much like the collection of takeout menus in my kitchen. For someone more diligent about revisiting the notebook, this might be a good choice.
  • Scan them immediately. You could skip straight to scanning the notes and saving them to Google Drive (or Box, Evernote, etc.) For some people, this would make it easier to read/edit your notes, and it would also make it easier to search them. It has the same danger of being ignored/forgotten as the physical notebook, though, and perhaps moreso, since there isn’t a physical object to catch your eye and remind you to open it from time to time.
  • Add to a professional reflective journal, bullet journal, work diary, etc. This would be my preferred method of conference note maintenance if I used a different type of notebook for my work journal. You can either take your original notes at the conference in your notebook, or summarize your notes in the notebook after you return, putting them in the context of the rest of your work at that time.
  • Add them to your professional reading TBR pile. For now, I can stay on top of my To Be Read pile of professional reading, both digitally and in print. You could slip your notes into the stack of reading so you revisit the notes and increase retention a few days or weeks after your return. Then you can pass them on or discard them (whatever you do with your in-print publications).
  • Papier-mache? I’m kidding, of course, but if you don’t do something useful with your notes and handouts, you might as well craft with them, for all the good they’re doing you.

Another consideration is whether your habits change for a paperless/green conference. If you get all your handouts and agendas on a flash drive or by email, do you still print them out and take notes on paper, or do you bring a laptop and type them? If your post-conference notes maintenance method is paper-based, do you print out your typed notes afterward, or save them differently from the rest of your notes? If you do the latter, they might be forgotten because they’re not consistent with everything else. Maybe, as you start to attend more paperless conferences, your methods will switch to a paperless filing system, and soon you’ll be taking all your conference notes on your laptop, even if you were originally a paperphile like myself.

What do you do with your notes and handouts? And, perhaps just as importantly, does your method work for you? I would love to hear your suggestions!

Student “Ownership” of the Library

You’ve met them: the students who feel more comfortable in the library than most. They walk in confidently, they know where to find amenities and the section that houses their favorite topic or author, and they have no qualms about approaching a service desk to ask for information or assistance. We love these students! Many of us were these students. What I want to discuss is how we might be able to get more of these students.

I think that these confident, comfortable students feel like they own a little piece of the library in one way or another. They know someone behind the desk, or they contributed in some way to how the library looks or functions, and they truly feel that it is their library. If more students had these opportunities for “ownership,” they would also feel good about using and being in the library.

Some examples of what I mean by “ownership” include but are in no way limited to: interactive displays that ask for input (via Post-It notes, whiteboards, or more digital means like hashtags); being invited to curate and manage displays themselves; comment boxes (in-person or online); student and faculty art galleries or murals; dynamic spaces where students can rearrange the furniture without fear of scolding; or having their input solicited (via social media, in-person ballot box, etc.) on library matters, like naming everything from the repository to the fish. Events, contests, and programming also make students feel more connected to the library; if they attend a casual, fun program in the library space, they will likely feel more comfortable using that space later when they need help with research or a place to study.

An interactive display at Tidewater Community College, soliciting students’ answers about sports. The display also includes a variety of circulating materials about various sports-related topics. Some students answer seriously; others inject a little humor into their responses. Other themes on this display in the past have been books you would recommend to others, favorite foods, and where you’d like to travel.

There is also an opportunity to give students ownership whenever they feel comfortable enough to reach out and make a specific request. If it is heeded, that is demonstrable proof that a student can have direct impact on the library. (For example, right now, I am working on fulfilling a request from a class representative to install hand sanitizer dispensers in our library. It’s a simple request, but it’s important to these students. When they see the dispensers installed, they will know that they had a direct hand in improving the library for everyone in some way.) Even if a request cannot be fulfilled, assuring the student that their request is being seriously considered and you appreciate their input can make them feel respected, heard, and more comfortable with the library in general.

Some of these examples are reactive, where the library waits for students to say that they want something and then gives it to them (or doesn’t), and some are proactive, seeking students’ input or participation. Both are valid and useful, and a combination of the two would be an ideal approach.

There is, of course, a downside to students feeling too much ownership of the library. For example, they might get territorial about a favorite study carrel or study room, vandalize furniture or other library property, feel too much “at home” and act inappropriately or leave a mess, or get too loud and interfere with others’ use of the space. It is important to maintain a balance where students feel like they belong in the library, but not like they are the only ones who belong there.

How do your students take ownership of your library? Do you actively encourage it? If so, how?

(Academic) Library of Things

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I get really excited when I see an article about “The Most Interesting Things You Didn’t Know You Could Check Out at Your Library,” or some similarly clickbaity title. It’s a sure way to get me to click on a link, if I’m being honest; Libraries of Things fascinate me. But these articles are always about public libraries.

Not that I mind terribly; I’m an avid user of public libraries, too. I just wish more academic libraries were hopping aboard this particular bandwagon.

That’s not to say that there are no academic libraries circulating anything “unusual” or interesting. At my library, we circulate headphones, four kinds of chargers, a compact video camera, packs of dry erase markers for our study room walls, board games, and bone boxes (I should take this opportunity to remind you that I’m at the College of Medicine, so that isn’t quite as weird as it sounds). Some of these things are fairly standard; many libraries circulate headphones, for example. There probably aren’t as many with banker’s boxes of numbered bones on the shelves, but I highly doubt we’re the only ones. Many college and university libraries circulate iPads, laptops, or Chromebooks, or audiovisual equipment (though sometimes this falls under the umbrella of an IT department or elsewhere).

The reasoning behind the Weird Things Your Library Circulates (or, more formally, the Library of Things) is to provide access to something that library users would not otherwise have access to… like we already do with books and DVDs and articles, but with physical objects. The “Things” in “Library of Things” are often a piece of technology (like video game consoles or telescopes) or a luxury that would be prohibitively expensive for a user to buy outright (like sporting equipment, museum passes, and musical instruments) or an item that is intended for infrequent or one-time use, and therefore not worth the money for an individual user to buy (like specialty cake pans, Santa suits, or prom dresses). With the popularity of living minimally and the KonMari method, the last thing most people – even the ones who can afford these items – want is a large, infrequently-used, expensive item taking up valuable real estate in their living room. Some of the more specialized “weird” collections include seed libraries (check out seeds, grow the plant, and bring back new seeds), art lending libraries (borrow wall art to hang up at home for the duration of the checkout period), and human or living libraries (borrow a person and have a conversation or hear their stories).

Some of the “unusual” things public libraries circulate would not make much sense in most academic libraries: American Girl dolls, for example, would likely not have a high circulation rate at your average university. Snow shovels and tools might not be as popular among a population of students living in dorms who don’t have to do their own maintenance work. But this brings me to two points: One, some of the things they circulate would likely be popular at the right college or university. (Video game consoles and board games immediately come to mind, but kitchen appliances where dorms have kitchenettes, musical instruments, and sports/recreation equipment or passes appropriate to the local area would also all have piqued my interest as a student, personally.) And two, we don’t have to circulate the same “unusual” stuff as public libraries (though, honestly, it’s getting hard to think of something they haven’t tried already).

So why don’t more college and university libraries circulate “unusual” items? I can’t answer for everyone, but I have some guesses. One big one (that seems to be behind the answers to most “why don’t we…?” questions) is probably budget. It might be hard to explain to students and faculty why they can check out a ukulele and a Rothko print for their wall when we don’t provide access to their very expensive math textbook, or a full classroom set of The Tempest. Another reason I find pretty likely is that most colleges and universities have other spaces that are intended to fill these kinds of roles for students: Student centers might have game rooms, event spaces, and clubs that can provide leisure activity items, the music department often provides lender instruments for their students, and the gym has exercise and recreation equipment, so for the library to do something similar might seem redundant or out of place. The student center at my previous institution loaned out board games to students, so if the library had started to loan out board games, it might have been confusing or unnecessary.

What does your library loan out that isn’t your run-of-the-mill library holdings? How do you feel about it? What do you wish your library loaned out (either for selfish reasons, or in the interest of your students)?

From MLA to MLA: Citing at Different Libraries

Alex Harrington has recently moved from her Reference & Instruction Librarian position at Tidewater Community College in Virginia Beach, VA, to take the position of Access Services & Instruction Librarian at Penn State University’s Harrell Health Sciences Library in Hershey, PA.

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Let’s talk about everyone’s favorite library activity: citing your sources!

Citation is woven throughout the Framework. “Information Has Value” reminds us to give credit to others for their original work and addresses other issues of information ownership. “Research as Inquiry” makes sure we know to “follow ethical and legal guidelines in gathering and using information.” “Scholarship as Conversation” starts by telling us to “cite the contributing work of others.” I’ve also used many of the Framework’s bullet points about credibility and authority to explain to students how to read citations in a way that helps them select more appropriate sources. So what I’m saying is, if we’re talking about information literacy with our students, we’re addressing citation in some way.

I joked with colleagues at my former library that I, a self-professed citation nerd, would forget all I knew about MLA and APA style, and have to learn AMA, and join the… well, MLA. What I didn’t realize at the time was that, no, I probably won’t really learn how to cite in AMA from scratch, because we use citation managers here.

It just so happened that, shortly after I started, the former liaison to one of the departments I was inheriting was going to speak to that department about citation management programs. I tagged along, of course. While waiting for the meeting to begin, the former liaison asked me about which citation management programs we typically used at the community college, and I just sort of shrugged: “We didn’t.” The students were taught to cite from scratch, or (more often) use the databases’ built-in citation builders, and double-check them when they copy/paste into Word. I told him that we never had students using citation managers. Then I started to think about why that was.

Part of it simply comes down to a question of volume. Teaching the community college students to set up and use EndNote would take more time and effort than it would be worth for the three to five citations they need in their paper.

The lack of longevity of the need for those citations is another point. The community college students are far less likely to need to keep track of citations of sources on the same or similar topic for a long period of time, whereas medical researchers will likely want to refer back to citations they’ve used before, or keep track of them over the course of months or years. Similarly, the medical researchers may be publishing, and in multiple places, so it would be very time-consuming to rewrite the citations for each style they need, when a citation manager does it in seconds. The community college students likely only need to cite a given source once, in one style, for one class. If they have to switch to another style, they probably won’t be using the same sources they cited in another style. (For example: their history paper in Chicago style and their biology paper in APA usually won’t have any sources in common.)

In my experience, at the community college, it was also important to explain to students why citation is necessary. Many of them seem to think of it as something between unnecessary busy work and torture invented by cruel teachers. So explaining the concepts of “Scholarship as Conversation” and “Information Has Value” in a context that is relevant to their work is needed. At the medical school, that doesn’t need to be addressed in much detail, if at all. Most of the people who are citing things here are trying to get published, and if “correct citation is necessary for publication” is all they know, it’s a good enough reason for them. (If nothing else, the majority of the students at the medical school already have other college degrees, and have been through the citation talk that the community college students are getting.)

I think the other big difference and its reasoning can be compared to math. In elementary school, you learn basic mathematical functions, like subtraction, where they tell you that you can’t take a bigger number from a smaller number. At some point in middle school, you find out that is possible, because negative numbers exist, but you can’t take the square root of them. But in high school, you discover that you can, because imaginary numbers exist. You get the point. I’m seeing citation the same way. My community college students were taught the parts of a citation to make sure they know the fundamentals (like what all the pieces of information are, and how to read some of the common abbreviations), and if they wind up in a more advanced academic situation like med school, they become the students I have now, who know what a citation should look like (so if EndNote spits out something that looks totally wrong, they can identify that).

So I’m curious to hear about your experiences with citation at the different types of academic libraries you’ve worked in. Are your students using citation management programs like EndNote, Mendeley, and Zotero? Are they expected to cite “from scratch”? What is the attitude toward copy/pasting the pre-built citations from databases that provide that tool?