The Organization of Information

My husband (a philosophy professor) and I (a librarian and former bookstore manager) just finished cataloging our entire book collection into LibraryThing.  You can only imagine the number of bookshelves in our house, right?  For Valentine’s Day I gave him an LT lifetime subscription and he gave me one of their CueCat scanners, and we spent several days scanning, adding, and tagging with reckless abandon.  (This really does relate, I promise!)  I’ve mentioned before that I work at a “one person library”, so even in the time between semesters I have to keep the library open, cooling my heels in a mostly empty building.  Sure, a few students come in to check email or Facebook, but in general the month of May is Very Slow, especially for someone who likes to stay busy.

By now I’ve caught up with all my work, and I’m starting to invent projects.  I’ve read several books that faculty have recommended to students, the better to talk about them when students have questions.  (I just finished 1776 by David McCullough, and am currently plodding my way through A History of the American Revolution by John Richard Alden.  McCullough is a much more entertaining read, if you’re curious.)  I’ve done some book shifting to make the shelves more balanced, in the hope that my miniscule book budget for next year will actually get passed.  I finished the dreaded Professional Development Plan.  I’m pondering articles I’d like to write but wonder if I can ever get them published.  Unfortunately though, since I work a ten-hour day, I run out of library-related projects fast.  So I’ve started to get creative.

The one thing my position doesn’t have me doing is the cataloging, which of course is what I *would* be doing in a perfect world.  So I came up with another great idea – not precisely work related but close enough for my purposes.  I decided to add Library of Congress call numbers to all of our books in LibraryThing.  I don’t have access here to OCLC’s Connexion or Cataloger’s Desktop, but what the heck.  There are plenty of free resources at my disposal.  And I do want to stay reasonably current with the cataloging trends, because someday, somewhere, I’d really like to get back into tech services full time.  My husband, who actually organizes his philosophy books by *author’s birthday*, thinks I’m nuts.  But I’ve actually been enjoying myself immensely.  It hones my research skills when I run across a title I’m not familiar with.  It encourages me to familiarize myself with the Library of Congress online catalog. It makes me want to take some of the cataloging seminars offered by Lyrasis!

So, two questions I’d like to offer up:
1) When you hit a down-time (if you ever hit a down-time), how do you keep yourself busy?
2) More importantly, how do you keep current in an area where you don’t spend your day-to-day time, but would if you had your choice?

Explaining Authority

One thing I have found difficult in my librarian-instructor capacity is how to impress students with the idea that some sources of information are better than others. We are all comfortable with the concept that value is subjective. But does this apply to information? (My own answer varies depending on what day it is.)

Of students I have interacted with, I have met some who have not thought about source authority at all, and some who suspect there is a good source for the information they need but do not know how to find or identify it (because they have never before been expected to justify their sources?). Perhaps of the students I do not interact with, 100 percent are fully competent when it comes to finding and using information. It is possible that the majority of college students have a perfect grasp of information and how it is generated and used. Most of the students I work with at the library, however, do not.

In any case, I do not want to be heavy-handed and say “X sources are good but Y sources are bad,” first because even I do not think it is so black and white (see recent Elsevier story & the story about cancer research), and second because I do not think students will accept that message. That is the old librarian-as-gatekeeper, top-down mentality, which is no longer realistic. So I have been envisioning a fancy presentation containing the various examples I have been collecting of how you would look foolish if you relied on sources such as wikipedia for all your information. Unfortunately I have not gotten around to creating it yet, and such a thing would go out of date so fast that I am not convinced it would be worth the effort. (Although I did link to Colbert’s wikiality speech on one of our LibGuides.) Besides, when am I, the librarian, given classroom time to do something like that?

So I do not really know what to do, except briefly repeat the same old message about how it is generally a good thing to use sources from the college’s library, about how these are the sources instructors expect students to use, and unless I am questioned not be too specific about if and why they are ‘better.’ I am not so far down the libraryland rabbit hole that I imagine I will get a round of applause if I say “You should use the library because the library is on your side. The college library wants to provide you with high quality sources for your research. Our agenda is clearly stated. We do our best to provide an additional level of editorial process by reading reviews and making informed decisions for what should be added to the collection, and beyond that we are trying to make as much of it as possible accessible from home.”

Big fricking woop. Now I’ll go back to answering questions about how to cite web sites.

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle-Stop Cafe

On top of everything else I have to do as a one-person library, I was recently emailed my blank “2009-2010 Professional Development Plan”.  It’s basically a job review for the last year, plus places where I need to list what I want to do this coming academic year.  I’m sure every college bureaucracy everywhere requires these, but I’m a bit put off by it.  I knew it was coming because my long-gone boss warned me to keep track of everything I did.  So at least I wasn’t racking my brain trying to remember what events I attended, and what wonderful contributions I’ve made to our institution.

Anyway, here are some of the questions for your perusal:

1.    Goals for higher educational level/certification/licensing/endorsements/courses (Pertaining to requirements and endorsement of current position)  What if you already have your terminal degree?
2.    Other relevant activities (including supervisory responsibilities, organization and facilitation responsibilities, and job complexity) I’ve actually come up with a strategy for this one… see below.
3.    Then of course they ask about workshops and conferences, what college committees you’ve served on, special projects, and so on.  At least these are easy – if you keep a calendar, anyway!

So how do you answer those annoying types of broad, over-generalized questions designed for ten dozen different job descriptions?  I could be brief under each section, and give bullet points like: “encouraged library use, taught instruction sessions, answered reference questions.”  That’s my tendency, to eschew obfuscation.  But I gather the typical response is slightly more verbose: for instance: “Though the creative use of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café in book display units, I not only encouraged reading skills but introduced new literary styles and venues.”

Of course I want to make sure I cover everything I do – in this day and age of budget cuts I’d hate for someone up the chain of command to think “Do we REALLY need someone full time at the new branch?”  My hate-to-talk-about-myself tendency lends itself to this unfortunately well, so I try to make sure I cover everything.  (Heck, do I put the fact that I’m an “official” First Year Blogger on the prestigous ACRLog??)

The last question (#2, above) is so broad I sat in stunned disbelief.  Finally I came up with a game plan. I’m currently a librarian in a paraprofessional body, so I decided to break out my list into three categories.  Librarian responsibilities.  Library Specialist responsibilities (my current classification).  Administrative responsibilities.  Hopefully, in one fell swoop, this will advertise my 1) hugely broad areas of responsibility, and 2) my wonderful creativity for thinking outside the (blanks and forms) box.  What do you think?  Am I crazy, or promotable??  (And does anyone else stress about these yearly events as much as I do?)

The Hardest Part of Being a Librarian

As the spring semester heads to a close, the amount of traffic at the library reference desk is picking up significantly. Students are needing last-minute help with papers and projects, trying to remember what their professors expect, and figuring out how they are going to complete everything by the due dates. Usually, students are lovely people to work with. Usually I really enjoy helping them, and usually I think they find my assistance very valuable.

Occasionally, though, I am reminded what the hardest part of being a librarian is for me. It’s not working with technology, it’s not having to constantly think on my feet, and it’s not the myriad other job duties: it’s working with difficult patrons. By “difficult,” I mean people who come to the library with chips on their shoulders, who are stressed because they are failing a class or have not gotten enough sleep, or who simply enjoy being in a power position and abusing whoever is sitting at the service desk. It is easy to blame superficial reasons for why people behave this way –- it’s the Millennials, the google mentality, etc. etc. — but I am sure there are studies linking stress and aggression and rudeness. The trick for the librarian is not to take it personally and not to redirect it at others.

I would not have become a librarian if I did not enjoy public services, but it is easy to forget how challenging it can be on the front lines every day. Librarians tend to be an introspective bunch, and the ability to remain calm and patient in every single situation is HARD, particularly if someone is deliberately trying to offend or antagonize you.

My point in writing this is not to complain about patrons but to give myself and all of us out there staffing service desks a little pep talk as the spring deluge hits the library. These are things I find helpful to remember:

1) No matter how rude or disrespectful a patron gets, there are always alternatives to losing your cool. If you feel yourself getting angry, take a step back, take a deep breath, and disengage yourself from the situation. Then figure out how to respond professionally.

2) Diffuse. Assist. Try and ignore tone. Focus on the problem that relates to the library, and do not feel responsible for the patron’s other problems. Be sympathetic, but do not join the student in badmouthing an assignment or instructor. Lead them in the direction of taking responsibility for themselves.

3) Go for a walk whenever you get a break. Listen to the birds. Listen to some music. Stare at something pretty. Whatever works.

4) If all else fails, call security. The presence of security personnel usually sobers people up. More importantly, keep in mind that you are not just one individual in a given situation — there are other people to back you up and support you.

Good luck, everybody!

5 Things I Didn’t Realize I’d Be Working on…

… When I Decided to Become a Librarian
(The alternate title for this was: Thank Goodness I Went to Syracuse’s iSchool)

For some time now there has been talk of how the roles of librarians are changing, and recently I find myself working on a variety of projects that I imagine are a bit removed from what librarians of yore might have been up to. Perhaps the fact that I find these projects 100 percent relevant to the academic library where I work, and am happy to take them on in my capacity as a reference and instruction librarian, further reflects the changes in the profession. So I thought I’d share some of those projects and see if anybody’s with me:

1. Authentication
Students log into programs (i.e. for course management, registration, email, etc.) run by their school, and then they need a separate authentication to access library resources? This actively discourages them from using the library. A single login is a usability priority. Once users are authenticated as enrolled, active students, they should be able to access all of the services the college provides to them — including all of the library resources and services.

2. Mobile Platforms
A few weeks ago I had my first patron complain about how she couldn’t connect to library databases with her Blackberry. (Our authentication system doesn’t allow it. See #1.) So now I am learning about mobile platforms. Luckily there are lots of librarians already working on this.

3. Course Management Systems
Online students may never come to the physical library building, but they can still benefit from the library’s array of online resources. Putting these online resources seamlessly into their classrooms is the next step. Students no longer have to go to the library for the materials needed for their classes — the library can come to them. We can put reserve materials, information literacy activities, catalog and database search boxes, etc. DIRECTLY into their class spaces. This is why instructional design is so important to me right now.

4. Unofficial Student Technical Support
Daily, I find myself solving common technical problems of students that are not just limited to printing and word processing. Even if I am not officially tech support, I am an adult sitting at a desk in a public space surrounded by computers, so guess what? I am going to answer a variety of computer questions. I know some librarians resent this, and I am never happy when a technical problem interrupts a research question, but most technical problems are things I have encountered myself and can solve quickly, or are ultimately relevant to my own computer use.

5. Making and Editing Videos
If we do not get to work with our students in person, we need to provide online help. And ultimately how would be best to do this? With fun and exciting video tutorials, naturally! Maybe I should have gone to film school after all. There is a lot of relatively inexpensive software available now to make and edit your own videos for the purpose of training. It is true that these can take a lot of time and thought, but when done well they can be extremely effective, provide help 24/7, and replace the need for repeated explanations of simple instructions from librarians.

I am sure there are plenty of other examples, but these are what I have for now. Please feel free to chime in!