Searching For the Answers

An updated website is one of the most useful tools that academic libraries have to communicate with the students, faculty, and staff we serve at our colleges and universities. Our websites offer access to information sources, provide help with research, and list our policies and basic information about the library: where we’re located, when we’re open, how to get in touch with us. It’s 2013 — libraries (and colleges) have had websites for a long time, so surely our website is the first place to look to learn more about the library, right?

Maybe, but maybe not. While I always check the website when I need more information about a library, often arriving there via the college or university website, I’m not sure that all of our patrons do. More often than not I’d guess that they use a search engine to find the library website. Assuming that Google is the search engine of choice for most of our patrons, what do they see when they search for our libraries?

(Feel free to go ahead and try a Google search with your own college or university library. I’ll wait.)

I tend to search with Google, but I must not search that often for businesses or other specific locations on Google’s web search, because it took me a while to notice that Google had added a box on the right side of the search results page populated with details about a business or location. The box includes a photo, a map (which links to Google Maps for directions), and some basic information about the place: a description from Wikipedia (if one exists), the address, phone number, and hours. There’s also a space for people to rate and review the business or location, as well as links to other review websites. It seems that the information in the box is populated automatically by Google from the original websites.

This is great news, right? This Google feature can get the information our patrons need to them without having to click through to the library website. On the other hand, what happens when the information is wrong?

At my library we first learned about the Google info box last winter. A student approached the Reference Desk to verify the library’s opening hours. It seems that she’d found the library hours on Google, and was upset to learn that we’d extended our hours the prior semester. While there’s a happy ending to this story — it’s delightful when a student wants to come to the library earlier than she thinks she can! — this experience was frustrating for both of us. Since we hadn’t realized that Google added the info box to its search results, we didn’t know to check whether the information was correct. The student naturally assumed that we were in control of the information in that box, and was angry when it seemed that we hadn’t kept it up to date.

Just a month ago we encountered another issue with the Google info box for our library. I don’t know that I would expect there to be reviews of a college library on business or location review websites, but our library’s info box does have one review website listed under the Reviews heading. Following the link leads to a review that has nothing to do with the library (or the college), and is instead a post criticizing the city’s police department. While a bit jarring, it only takes a minute of reading the review site to realize that the review isn’t actually about the library, just a false hit on the review website.

While there are definitely advantages to having basic information about our library available quickly for our patrons, some aspects of the Google info box are troubling from a user experience perspective. It’s unclear how often Google updates the information in that box automatically — our experience with the incorrect library hours suggests that it’s not updated frequently. Also, it’s challenging to edit some of the information in this box. There’s a link for business owners to claim and edit their profile which does offer the opportunity to change some details displayed in the box. But we weren’t able to remove the erroneous review website from our listing; our only option was to use the Feedback link to request that the link be removed, and who knows how long that will take?

My biggest takeaway has been the reminder that we should periodically research our libraries as if we were patrons looking for information. Google offers search alerts, which can be helpful to learn when our libraries are being mentioned on other websites, but I don’t know that there’s any way to automatically learn what information has been added or changed in the Google info box. I’d be interested to know if anyone has figured out a quick and easy way to keep track of this sort of thing — please share your experiences in the comments!

New at the DPLA: There’s an App for That

Like many librarians in all kinds of libraries I was delighted when the Digital Public Library of America launched last Spring. I’m probably not alone in having lost time searching through the content that the DPLA’s portal website provides access to, marveling at the images, objects, and information held by libraries, archives, and museums across the U.S. I’m still not exactly sure how I can intentionally use the DPLA in my practice as an instruction and reference librarian, but I’m continuing to think on the possibilities.

One of the great things about the DPLA is its API (application programming interface) that allows developers to access the metadata collected by the DPLA and create applications that use the DPLA’s searchable content. So far ten apps have been created — all are highlighted on the DPLA website. I’ve read a bit about (and played with) several that seem to have the potential for use in academic libraries:

WP DPLA Plugin
During this past June’s THATCamp at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (RRCHNM) at George Mason University, developer Boone Gorges won the Maker Challenge with this plugin for the WordPress blogging/website software. Once installed, the plugin uses the tags attached to a blog post to search for and display random items from collections available via the DPLA website. The resulting illustrations are fascinating, especially if the words used as tags have very different meanings. Boone is also the lead developer on a WordPress-based teaching and learning platform at my college, the City Tech OpenLab; my colleagues and I are looking forward to installing and playing with this plugin soon.

The most recently released DPLA app also seems to have lots of promise for use by academic librarians and researchers. Just three weeks ago the RRCHNM* held its National Endowment for the Humanities-funded One Week One Tool institute, in which twelve folks from academia, museums, and libraries came together to create a digital tool for research and teaching. The resulting website, Serendip-o-matic, strives to inject some serendipity into browsing digital collections. Simply paste text into the box on the website’s homepage and Serendip-o-matic returns items from collections at the DPLA as well as Flickr Commons, Europeana, and Australia’s Trove. Serendip-o-matic can also search tags from a Zotero account, which is pretty nifty. Here’s a snapshot of the results I got with some text about my research on undergraduate scholarly habits (click image to embiggen):


Finally, just for fun (and because so many academic librarians use Twitter), who couldn’t love the DPLA Bot? Created by Davidson College professor of Digital Studies Mark Sample, DPLA Bot is a bot (short for web robot, an automated application that runs over the internet) that uses a random keyword to search the DPLA and tweets out a link to the result. The bot runs several times per day; here’s one of my favorite tweets from this week:

I can install a WordPress plugin and tweak HTML or CSS, but that’s about the extent of my programming chops these days. For those of us who are unlikely to create DPLA apps ourselves, how might we use the existing apps in our academic library work? What other kinds of apps could be developed for academic and research libraries to use with DPLA collections?

* If it seems like the RRCHMN and DPLA have close ties, there’s a good reason for that: DPLA Executive Director Dan Cohen was formerly the Director of the RRCHMN.

Promises, Promises

I’ve always been a big supporter of working with vendors. I love talking to my vendors, because I feel they know a lot about the industry and what other libraries are doing, and they get to talk to many librarians in my region more than I do. I always spend hours on the exhibit floor at ALA, meeting with my vendors and trying to learn more about the products we have or might acquire. I have always believed, on the advice of Lynn Wiley (my graduate assistant supervisor), that vendors are our partners – we can’t do what we do without the products and services they develop, and they can’t survive unless we are around to provide them with business and patrons.

But lately I’ve been feeling a little let down and, even, betrayed by my vendors, and am wondering if those who view vendors with mistrust and even as adversaries also have a point.

For example, the vendor of a product we just agreed to buy, partially because it would lock in pricing for a very desired development they told us was coming “later this year,” just told us that the development would not be available until next summer. A journal publisher recently raised the price of a package for our consortium by 1,900% (the consortium has let us know the state is dropping the package). We signed up for an ILS software upgrade which brought our entire ILS to a screeching halt for about a week when implemented and does not include some of the functionality we were promised (and partially bought it for). Functionality announced as approved for development in our ERM over two years ago has not even begun (at least, the beta, which was supposed to happen 18 months ago, has never been scheduled).

Our discovery system’s upgrade announced for this summer was delayed, then the preview was non-functional, and is now only partially functional; it will not be ready for implementation (in my mind) by the time fall semester starts due to a few serious design flaws, and is supposed to replace the old interface completely by January, forcing us into a mid-year change (which we try to avoid). Knowledgebase software upgrades by another vendor that were originally announced for June have been delayed to August and now, possibly, January, changing our review and potential adoption plans drastically, because we have decided that the way the product currently works is unacceptable and impossible for us to implement.

One vendor whose product we were trialing last fall pushed me too far and caused me to halt the trial. Another vendor, whose cold calls I had ignored (because we already had a similar product with lots of content overlap whose use was woefully low and which, indeed, we’ve cancelled), approached our university’s provost to sell the product instead. (I was going to chat with them about this at ALA this summer but, surprise, they weren’t even there.) I’ve asked direct questions of two other vendors repeatedly this summer (in person, in webinars, in email), been promised answers, have never received them (or only received partial answers), and have finally, months later, come to the conclusion I’ll never get them.

Perhaps I have been naïve and overly trusting of what my vendors tell me about development releases, when I should know to take them with a grain of salt. Perhaps I have put too much stock in what people in sales have said when I should know that developers and salespeople do not necessarily communicate closely or share information well. Perhaps some of these things are honest oversights rather than deliberate obfuscations – our vendors’ staff are overworked, just like I am, and their companies’ budgets are tight, just like my library’s. But I don’t feel like all of my vendors are partnering with me in good faith  – instead, I feel like some of them are just trying to sell me things.

What about you? Have any of you experienced similar situations recently with vendors? How did you handle them? Have you adopted any tactics to successfully ward off any of the experiences I’ve mentioned from occurring (or reoccurring)?

When we met with our ILS vendor about its upgrade (which we ended up purchasing more or less sight unseen, since no preview was available), the salesperson said, “It’s a trust relationship.” Really? Trust is earned. Some of my vendors are going to have to start working harder for mine.

Today’s Computer Commons is Tomorrow’s Card Catalog

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian at Temple University, and founding blogger at ACRLog.

Anyone who worked in an academic research library in the 1970s-1980s remembers the vast amount of library real estate devoted to the physical card catalog. For those newer-to-the-profession colleagues who are unable to picture this – and those who prefer to forget it – here’s a reminder:

duke university library card catalog
A typical research library catalog taking enormous amounts of floor space

As academic libraries of all sizes completed their migrations to online catalogs the librarians looked forward to the removal of the massive catalog furniture, and dwelled on how they would use all the space made available by the its departure. As timing would have it, the advent of the personal computer right around the same time the catalog went away made for an almost natural transition of the space from cards to computers. In my own place of work, where the catalog used to sit one now finds a field of personal computers – all of them hardwired desktops. One also finds printers, scanners and technology assistants to help keep it all running.

As my own library embarks on the planning process for a new building, one that will serve the institution throughout the 21st century, the future of desktop computer and whether tomorrow’s student will have any use for this technology is one of many questions related to technology planning. The current wisdom seems to be that undergraduates still prefer to have access to hardwired desktops – even though the vast majority of them own their own desktops or (increasingly) laptops.

It would be both questionable and considerably risky to plan for an academic library to open in 2017 without public desktop computing. Looking out into the not-too-distant future beyond that though, perhaps just another 10 years, I believe academic librarians will once again be in search of a purpose or application for all the space created by the removal of obsolete desktop computers. This technology will be just useful in 2027 as the physical card catalog was to the academic library by the time online catalogs were as common as desktop computers are today.

There’s no question that today’s college students still expect the library to offer them lots of desktop computers – as odd as that may seem when many of them own their own desktops, laptops or tablets. An article in the December 2012 issue of Information Technology and Libraries titled “Student Use of Library Computers: Are Desktop Computers Still Relevant In Today’s Libraries?” by Susan Thompson of CSU San Marcos, shares the results of two years’ worth of study into student use of the library’s desktop computers. According to Thompson, the students still preferred for the library to offer desktops for a number of reasons with which many of us are acquainted: faster connections; reliability when papers are due; access to onsite printers; preference for leaving laptops at home (this article focuses on a commuter institution); access to special software; fear of stolen/lost laptops; convenience. It’s a conclusion that many of us would expect.

But the data was collected in 2009 and 2010. That’s eons ago in the computer age. As I read it I wondered whether these findings would accurately reflect the technology habits of students of 2013 – and would they at all reflect the students of 2027? I know that as I walk through my own library almost every student who is not sitting at a desktop is using (or has nearby) a laptop, tablet or smartphone. Then again, at times of the day students are challenged to find a desktop when they want it.

I suspect that we will see some rapid change in student use of mobile computing and that it will, in time, chip away at the preferences identified by Thompson’s research. The future of institutionally supported desktop computing at colleges and universities is one that our IT colleagues continue to debate. Some institutions are abandoning desktops entirely while other swear on the value of offering acres of desktops and laptops to go. Factors such as residential vs. commuters, socio-economic status of the students or the local technology culture can all impact on the need for desktop computing. In an increasingly BYOE technology landscape, it seems inevitable that students will have no real need for a library provided desktop. That appears to be the thinking behind the planning of the Brody Learning Commons at Johns Hopkins University. It offers access to great study and learning spaces with technology support – but no computers are provided. Then again, they are nearby if needed in the familiar confines of the attached Eisenhower Library.

Perhaps the best thing we can do, in planning for onsite library computing today, is to aim for maximum flexibility. Students may express a demand for desktops today, but it’s hard to imagine that will be our future. When we gaze out upon our fields of computers we should, in our mind’s eye, envision it as a room that holds nothing but an enormous, as far-as-the-eye-can see card catalog. Because, ultimately, as the next generations of students make it to our doors, it is less likely they will expect us to provide them with computers, and it may be that they would consider such amenities laughable and a waste of their tuition dollars. It is a bit premature perhaps, but not unreasonable, for us to begin thinking about how we will use all the space currently devoted to desktop and laptop-loan computers. My crystal ball is less clear on this matter, although I suspect we can always improve things by expanding the café.

Photo courtesy of Duke University Archives

55 Years Old with a 33 Year Library Career

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Kathy Parsons, Associate Professor and Head, Stacks and Media Department at Iowa State University.

After reading the July 2012 Will’s World column “Your Mileage May Vary” in American Libraries, I found myself pondering library fatigue, retirement, and the value of my career. Was the librarian he described me? Did I need to retire? I sincerely hoped not but I saw a part of myself in his statements. Was library fatigue taking over? Could I rekindle the passion and joy for library work? But how do long-term librarians stay relevant, refreshed, and motivated? And if it was indeed time to make a career change what can I do with my experience? Were there others pondering the same questions?

I moderated a roundtable discussion at the 2013 National ACRL Conference in Indianapolis about issues facing long-term career librarians. I hoped that this session would be part counseling, part positive reinforcement, and part networking. It was just that and a bit more. While I used questions to guide the conversation, the answers were often elusive. Participants’ comments frequently redirected the conversation into areas I had not anticipated. The questions used were “How can librarians reinvent themselves and stay out of the rut? What other jobs can librarians do if they left the profession? How do you market your experience and skill sets for jobs outside of the library venue?”

During the discussions a couple of themes became evident. First, many of us expressed concerns about the reduction of staffing levels at our institutions. These reductions were the result of retirements, downsizing due to budget concerns, job changes, or even reallocation of staff. Coupled with this were the increasing expectations for new services while keeping the old. Rapid technological changes provided benefits but also added more stress. On top of this we needed to prove our value to our institution. Many of us sensed that we were just barely holding on; stretched thin with many responsibilities. We felt that we lost our passion and were unsure what to do. Some have thought about changing jobs but jobs are scarce. We talked about the shrinking job market and the unstable economy which was occurring at the same time of increased retirements of baby boomers. This was impacting long term employees wishing to change jobs and the younger colleague’s ability to move up. An article discussing the concept of “gray ceiling ” was mentioned that addressed the impact of delayed retirements has on younger workers.

Another theme that emerged was the generation gap. Some of us felt unappreciated by our younger (and sometimes new) colleagues especially if they were our supervisors. We thought we were seen as dinosaurs: not adaptable; technology deficient with little or with no social media skills including texting and blogging; slow learners living in the past. We realized that our chosen vocation has undergone tremendous change over the last decade or so but our longevity should count for something. We wondered if we needed to remind our younger colleagues of the advances our generation of librarians developed. Had we been so quiet about our “history” that the younger librarians do not know that we are the shoulders of change they are standing on? We developed online catalogs, integrated library management systems, and database searching; all these things and more paved the way for the support of open access, the use of social networking, cloud technology, and digitalization for library work. We wondered why the younger managers would not use our institutional memory as it could help prevent problems down the road. We recognized that there is a fine line between living in the past (refusing to adapt to changes) and sharing about the past (explanation of why something is the way it is). We, also, wondered if risk taking is hard as we age. Those of us who were middle managers felt especially conflicted by the generational gap as we may have both younger supervisees as well as younger supervisors. One person described us as being in the “bibliographic definition of hell.”

Woven throughout the conversation were ways of coping, recharging, and renewal. One way many of us “recharge” was attending conferences and workshops and volunteering with library associations. Universally we agreed that we returned to work after these activities motivated and refreshed but the feeling quickly disappeared as the normal workday intruded. We talked about the need to sustain and enlarge our professional contacts and network. Some found mentoring younger colleagues rewarding and in turn have been mentored by them. We brought to the relationship these strengths: navigating the ins and outs of serving our professional associations, assisting with research and publishing, and developing leadership skills. For us, the younger colleagues helped us hone our skills with social media and other technological advances. We concluded that this roundtable had great potential for a larger discussion and suggested that the topic be developed into a workshop or pre-conference at the 2015 National ACRL Conference in Portland. We need to continue this type of dialogue with ourselves and to include our younger colleagues. Most importantly, we walked away with new colleagues in our networks, not feeling so lost and alone, and later that night some found new dancing partners at the all-conference reception!