A Night at the Museum

Suzanne Briet once posed the question, “Can an antelope be a document?” in her article/pamphlet called What is Documentation?. I won’t go into all the gory details, but that argument has stayed with me since I first read it. She is essentially stating that a document is evidence in support of a fact. Paul Otlet, writing slightly before Briet, said that you can have information (documentation) about objects, but the objects themselves also become documents if you are informed by observing them. So… if you have a map, can it be a document? (Yes.) If you have a photograph can it be a document? (Definitely.) If you have a dinosaur bone, is that a document… does that inform us? (Yes, ask any museum curator!) Well, if a dinosaur bone is a document, can an animal in a zoo, say… an antelope.. be one? (If the zoo = the museum, then doesn’t the antelope = the dinosaur bone?) If you’re really interested in this nerdy-cataloger-type stuff, I recommend Michael Buckland’s treatment of the argument here which he calls “information-as-thing.”

I find this incredibly intriguing, and for 1951, it was amazingly farsighted. We catalog things now that don’t even exist in the real “brick and mortar” world – electronic resources and video and all kinds of stuff. And we do that because we are informed by these bits and bytes that flash across our computer screen. So I was deeply reminded of Otlet’s and Briet’s arguments when I saw this story on Wired’s website: Browse the Artifacts of Geek History. There are books, of course, but they’re covered in precious gems. And there’s a Sputnik rocket. Dinosaur skeletons. An Enigma machine. Escher-like woodwork. A hand-painted book on dwarves, embellished with gold and silver. I could spend weeks in this library and never be bored!

But it got me thinking. In the library field, they’re known as “realia.” Which is quite a dry and dusty term for all these amazing objects that you can see and touch and manipulate. For Briet and Otlet, these items speak for themselves. We can have – and should have – books and papers telling us about each one (and many in this collection have just that!) I can read all about the Soviet Sputnik program, and how the Germans used the Enigma machine to send coded messages to their submarines in World War II. I can look at books of anatomy and physiology about dinosaurs and human brains. I can even read a book about rare books (doesn’t that seem like a contradiction?), hand painted and studded with jewels. But all of those bookish resources – although incredibly valuable – pale in comparison to being in a place where you can touch a skeleton. And hold a meteorite. And tap a code into a machine. And feel the rubies and brush strokes of a 16th century book on jousting.

So this is what I’m thinking, though I admit upfront that it’s completely impractical and implausible.  How cool would it be to COMBINE the idea of a museum and the idea of a library?  So for the folks studying WWII, they can go to the Ds and browse a vast array of books about the war.  And they can see an Enigma machine or other WWII artifacts.  For me at least, that would make the things I was studying more real, more physically present.  Sure you can look at images online, but that just can’t compare to a hands-on experience with a part of history.  Or Shakespeare folios and literature.  Or dinosaur bones and science.   Granted, this might work better in a liberal arts venue than my community college, but the idea deeply intrigues me.  (OK, now you know.  I am certifiably nuts!)

With a Tangled Skein

My library, and the branch campus where I work, is quite small and in a very rural part of Alabama.  We have about 250 students right now, though enrollment doubled since we opened the new building and we expect it to keep growing.  I’ve been quite busy the last few weeks with a new and rather odd trend, and I’m wondering if it’s demographically based or perhaps caused by a wierd atmospheric disturbance.  Students are coming to me to ask how to do assignments for other instructors.  I’ve gotten used to teaching basic computer literacy, “This is a mouse” or “this is how you print,” or “this is how you make Powerpoint print slides with six on a page.”  We are heavily invested in technology, and almost every class requires the students to do some work within our WebCT/Blackboard framework.  So of course I’m also answering a LOT of questions about how to attach documents and how to use the email system, but I expect that.  Recently, though, the threads of my library life have become a bit more knotty as it appears students are thinking I am nearly all-knowing.  Heh.

Two weeks ago I had a student come in and ask “I have this assignment due, can you tell me what I’m supposed to do?”  I said sure, assuming it was a research assignment and that she needed help with getting started.  Nope.  It was a math assignment.  And it wasn’t that she didn’t know how to print it out, or save it to her jump drive.  She wanted me to tell her how to do the math problems.  I was an English major in college and math is not so much my strong suit!  I recommended that she see her instructor.  She hemmed and hawed as though she thought I was holding back on her.  She was one of the students that I’d helped quite a bit with WebCT and Office 2007, so I suppose I can see why she thought I could be of assistance. Finally I explained that while I was quite capable as a librarian, her needs were of the kind that really should be addressed by her instructor.  She left, somewhat disgruntled, with a promise to me that she would talk to her teacher.

A few days later, I had a student ask me how to do a sociology assignment.  Not research, but answering technical questions about scatterplots and outliers.  ::she shivers::  Nursing students and bone structure, elementary education students and D’Nealian handwriting.  It keeps happening!  Today was the final straw – a student came in and wanted me to show her how to use a website that was required for an assignment.  The instructions were quite clear, and after just a moment I saw that it was a basic online survey to evaluate a student’s computer skills.  She seemed in a panic about what to do, and terrified that she would fail her computer class.  I had her read through the assignment out loud, making comments like “see, you go to this website” and “once you click on the link it takes you to a survey” and said that was really all I could do to help.  She really wanted me to stand there while she did it, but fortunately I had another student waiting at the desk which made for a convenient excuse.

I am fine with helping students navigate websites.  I am fine guiding them to information about D’Nealian handwriting, or telling them what reference book they can use to find a labeled skeleton or some statistical analysis definitions.  But where is the line to be drawn?  If I had walked her through using this website, I would’ve essentially DONE her assignment for her.  Whether by fate, luck, or blessing, I am not a nursing instructor, nor an early education instructor, and DEFINITELY not a math instructor.  But I am comfortable using computers and navigating online, so it’s harder for me to “say no” when students ask for help in those areas.  How do y’all handle students who want you to help them with everything – especially those things far outside your purview as a librarian – even when you may have some knowledge about the subject?

Greenhorn mistake #1: Feeling responsible for everything

Recently I was able to put into words a nagging feeling that I was taking interactions at the reference desk too personally. The moment of clarity came when a patron nearly chewed me out because the library copier only takes coins, while printing from the computers is a separate payment system. I caught myself on the verge of apologizing profusely, realized there is a distinct difference between sympathy and mea culpa, & resorted to re-stating the facts until he accepted them and walked away to stew privately. And now I’m writing this. (Later I did nicely mention to tech support the copier/printer situation.)

Here are some other things I’ve taken responsibility for at the reference desk, but probably shouldn’t have:

-Frozen computers
-Lack of a change machine in the library
-Miscellaneous office supplies desperately needed
-General MS2007 incompatibility
-Power surges
-Corrupted files
-Buggy flash drives

Now, as my boss wisely points out, librarians do not exist to get stepped on. We are all trying to provide the best library service possible, but we are not doormats. There exists a line between being helpful and allowing ourselves to be the targets of indiscriminate blame.

But it’s so easy for me to get lost in the ephemera of students’ needs! I find myself taking up their causes for a  number of reasons:

First, I’m convinced the library is great, & I’m constantly trying to infect others with my enthusiasm. I’ll admit it: I want them to get excited about research tools and information in general, and I do think it’s possible. Hey, it happened to me. (Or will I later be referring to this as Greenhorn Mistake #564?)

Also, I’m always thinking that if I save the day and fix their computers, they’ll realize I can help with other things, such as their research. This thought makes climbing down on my hands and knees to check cables and wires and locations of USB ports SO much easier.

Lastly, and maybe this makes me a bad librarian (?) I am genuinely interested in whatever problems students bring to me, whether it be personal, absurdly vague, or blatantly impossible to fix. In general I like people, and I usually like the students at the community college where I work. I like being their advocate and helping to fix their problems. I think sometimes they come to school with an “us and them” mentality, where us=students and them=teachers & administration, and maybe this is naive but I’d like to transcend that barrier.

I recently read that the difference between a good and a great computer programmer is knowing when to write original code versus reuse someone else’s. Something similar may be true for librarians, in that the best librarians probably know precisely when they can be helpful, and when someone else would be more so. Admitting that I haven’t been doing this may be a step in the right direction…

Life, the Universe, and Everything

 I am looking forward to the coming months in many ways:  I finally have an Academic Library Job, I get to do a little bit of everything, and I am honored to be able to blog about my experiences here on the ACRLog.  On the flip side, I am also filled with deep concern and trepidation about the coming months: I am a one-person-library at a new branch campus of a regional community college, the library director AND his assistant have both just left for other positions, and I don’t want my posts to make ACRLog readers groan and ask, “who gave this nutcase a login here?”

Hopefully I’ll be able to bring a little bit of all these things to the table, and perhaps add a perspective that’s a bit unusual in the world of academic librarianship.  My greatest concern these days is not that I don’t currently have a boss down at the main campus – or even an administrative assistant who knows probably more than the boss did.  It’s not that I’m working in the brand new building of the brand new campus, struggling with the typical “start-up” issues that any new school facility might face.  No, my biggest worry is the fact that I’m *it* – I’m the lone librarian covering all the hours, handling all the responsibilities, answering all the questions, making all the collection development decisions… everything except the actual cataloging, which is handled elsewhere.  (But that’s a whole other post by this wanna-be cataloger!) 

I wonder how many one-person-libraries are out there these days?  I suppose I really can’t claim to be running the show solo – I do have colleagues at the other branches, and my books arrive already catalogued.  So I don’t actually do everything, just ALMOST everything.  But it’s still a struggle, even two months into the first semester.  I have to close the library to teach an instruction session.  I spend equal amounts of time showing students how to print from Word 2007 and teaching them how to do an effective database search.   I live in fear of the student who might come in with a complicated research problem, requiring all my time and concentration, only to be interrupted over and over to check out books, take money for printing, and to point the way to the copier.

So I hope that my posts will give encouragement to those in similar places, amusement to those who will laugh with me, and relief to those who are in better-staffed situations.  For me personally, I hope that these brief forays into my off-center mind will remind me continually that I really do love my job!  My current situation is overwhelming for someone fresh out of library school, but I will count enthusiasm (though not youth) in my favor, which makes it easy to get things done which really should be quite implausible.

Must Teaching and Learning Research Skills be Boring?

Olivia Nellums blogs about her first year experience as a Reference and Instruction Librarian at Camden County College in New Jersey.

Even though I’m a young librarian, I can’t remember not knowing how to use the library. I learned gradually, through a process of trial and error, and then by going to library school.

This leaves me in a curious spot as an instruction librarian: A class comes to the library to learn how to do research for a particular assignment, and basically I communicate what I’ve learned so far about how to effectively use a library. Then, unless they find me later at the reference desk, I don’t see them again. Broadly speaking, library instruction seems to be regarded as skills-based: The librarian demonstrates the skills, and the students are supposed to absorb them in that traditional way that equates their brains with sponges. The library is relevant to them only in the context of their course, and I can tell they’d like me to hurry up and get it over with so they can get back to the competing concerns of their class.

So, as many instruction librarians before me, I’ve turned to learning theories for guidance. Here’s what I’m gathering:
-I should leave students wanting to strike out independently to learn more about information and information-gathering, but without omitting essential points in my lecture.
-I should encourage students to be curious about how to solve an information problem. Also I should nurture them into reconsidering what they think they know about information.
-I should assist with the above in a patient, encouraging, and overall enthusiastic manner.

Now, before I started this job my biggest worries were that I talk too fast and might be mistaken for a student rather than a librarian. On the bright side, I’m glad to see I can set aside those trivialities. I’m also glad that the ideas above are really part of information literacy, which seems to be getting an increasing amount of attention from the academy at large.

As for other past concerns – mainly that I’m in charge of helping students learn every little thing about the library, and that it’s a personal failure if they don’t get it – maybe what I ought to be supporting is a framework of information and the basics of how to find it. So, here’s my summary of that earlier list (borrowing slightly from Ken Bain‘s What the Best College Teachers Do):
-I should promote a natural critical learning environment where students can confront beautiful and intriguing information problems, yet not make it so theoretical that they throw rotten tomatoes at me.

I’m on it.