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!

Study Hacks and Student Survival

I know it’s not true, but I feel like one of the only academic librarians who didn’t make the trip to Ohio last weekend! I’m looking forward to my fellow ACRLog bloggers recapping what inspired them, and I thought in the meantime I’d share something I learned from a past ACRL paper that has changed the way I introduce students to scholarly articles.

Margy MacMillan and Stephanie Rosenblatt’s 2015 paper is called “They’ve Found It. Can They Read It? Adding Academic Reading Strategies to Your IL Toolkit,” and it brought my attention to something I’d never noticed before, or perhaps had just gotten used to: scholarly literature is difficult for the new researcher, and yet most research papers require the use of scholarly articles, sometimes as the only permitted source.

I’ve also seen faculty forbid the use of reference books, at least as a source they can formally cite in their papers. This is unfortunate, since a subject encyclopedia is often the perfect source for a research paper in a general education course; the language is not so technical that it alienates the student, and the overview format ensures that the student understands the context of a topic. Turned away from subject encyclopedias and discouraged from using Wikipedia, students will develop their own research survival skills.

This brings me to the concept of study hacks. Buzzfeed, YouTube, and Instagram are popular sources for college survival tips and tricks, especially targeted to Generation Z readers. It’s interesting to read articles like this one from Buzzfeed or this reporting on Instagram how-to threads from the Atlantic. By reading the solutions this young-scholar community shares, I begin to understand what problems they experience and that gets me thinking about how I could help.

For example, I see college students on Twitter sharing this “hack”: If you want an article that is behind a paywall, just email the author and ask for a personal PDF copy. And as this tweet suggests, this strategy does seem supported by Twitter academics. But I can’t help but think, “What about interlibrary loan?” Personally reaching out to an author seems like so much more work to me than filling out an ILL form, but if students don’t see the usefulness or ease of our services, they will find their own means. I’m not going to warn students away from study hacks, because that’s like telling them not to use Google for research. It’s not realistic, and I can see the usefulness of their habits. Instead I will endeavor to pitch library services as their own kind of study hack, especially emphasizing how they can save a student’s time and sanity.

In fact, our friendly neighborhood blog coordinator Maura Smale addressed this in her ACRL paper this year: “Their strategies for understanding included searching for summaries online or using study guide websites like SparkNotes because “they break it down in a simple way.” Other students reported searching on YouTube, Google, and Google Scholar, as well as online (and offline) dictionaries for help with challenging reading.” These web tools might not seem as vetted as peer-reviewed research, but isn’t it better than a student having no idea what they’re quoting? Instead of telling them how they “should” conduct their research (pristinely, using only library resources, taking diligent notes, and using Zotero for every project), we should meet them where they are, and share healthy study behaviors in the name of “saving the time of the reader,” as Maura says.

MacMillan and Rosenblatt make a strong case for teaching students reading strategies, not only because the average student is not reading at the college level, but also because we are uniquely positioned to guide and encourage students in this area:

Not only is incorporating instruction on reading scholarly material our responsibility, but librarians, in many ways, are the people best equipped to do this. More than most faculty, our work requires us to read materials in other disciplines, whether it is to understand a new liaison area, develop a class, or assess materials for a collection. We are practiced in reading in fields that are new to us and likely more comfortable and accepting of it than others. This experience has given us strategies that we can pass on to students— novices in their own disciplines—to help them understand new jargon and unfamiliar information structures. We may also feel freer to criticize discourse in a discipline and to advocate for students against the incomprehensibility of densely-written articles.

At the very least, thinking about all this has made me compassionate for the students I encounter. Sometimes in the classroom I’ll ask something like, “How has reading scholarly research been for you so far?” and get shy silence until I add, “A little intimidating? Kind of dense?” The tension in the room immediately relaxes; we’re on the same side. From there I emphasize two things: 1) that academic research is not written for students in mind (we’re basically eavesdropping on a conversation at this stage), but 2) this gets easier with practice. You will learn the language of your major, and in the meantime, I’m here to give you strategies to get through this semester.

If you’re wondering, here are the strategies I now recommend:

  1. Read the abstract and conclusion first (your chance to make a “spoiler alert” joke that will only make the instructor laugh).
  2. Take notes as you read, even if that just means underlining parts you might want to use later.
  3. And finally, try to ask yourself what you specifically want out of a source. Looking for pieces of evidence rather filling a “2-5 reliable sources” quota makes it easier to read strategically.

Should I recommend these methods as “study hacks,” or will I sound like Steve Buscemi in a backwards hat saying “How do you do, fellow kids”? I don’t know, but finding new ways to explain intimidating academic concepts will always keep my brain busy at the desk.

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?

#ACRL2019 reflection: My first, large conference

Last week, I attended ACRL 2019, which was my first, major conference. I prepared for the conference by selecting anything that looked interesting on the app (everything looked interesting. Woops), reading through posts like Hailley’s, and talking to my my ACRL buddy that I was paired with. I’m still thinking through the panels and sessions I attended, and I’m using this post as an opportunity to reflect on my experience and prepare for my next conference.

Meeting new people

For me, the highlight of ACRL was meeting so many cool people. I’ve admired people from afar on Twitter, and this was the first opportunity I’ve had to meet them in person or attend their talks. I was able to have lunch with many of the people who write for this blog (thanks for putting that together, Maura!), and it was nice to put names and faces together. There was a #libparlor meetup one night, the reception at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, vendor parties, and informal opportunities to meet and talk with people after the conference was done for the day. Socializing during and after the conference was as valuable as attending the conference itself.

I also mentioned above that I was partnered with a librarian, Emilie, who answered my questions before the conference and then met up with me during the actual conference to check in and chat. For anyone who is attending their first, large conference, I highly recommend taking advantage of buddy programs because you’ll be paired with someone who has experience attending that conference. Emilie had great advice about choosing sessions, using the app, and finding special events at the conference. It was also an easy way to meet someone new who had similar job duties and interests as myself, and I hope we stay in touch.

In addition to meeting new people, I was able to catch up with old friends. With everyone spread out around the country, this was one of the few opportunities I had to see everyone.

Attending conference sessions

The main, and most obvious, reason that I attended ACRL was to hear from colleagues. I’m anxiously waiting for the panels and sessions I missed to be uploaded because it was impossible to attend everything. I also plan to read through some of the papers and view the posters that I missed at the conference. I chose my sessions based on topics, but also based on the people I wanted to hear from. some of the time slots were a bit weird, so I had to be careful about choosing sessions that didn’t overlap. I realized later in the conference that some people attend multiple sessions in the same time slot. I won’t go into detail about every panel or session that I attended, but there was something to take away from every conversation that I was a part of. I’ve started creating a list of action items I want to tackle over summer (and in the future) based on the panels and talks I attended. Attending sessions also allowed me to reconnect with people I’ve met in the past, sparked new ideas for research, and helped me identify gaps in my thinking or understanding. I’m sharing out what I’ve learned with my workplace as well.

Presenting work

I had a lightning talk accepted, so on Friday during the conference, I had five minutes to talk about my topic. Five minutes, it turns out, is not a lot of minutes. I’d given two lightning talks before, but was given more time. I’m a fast talker as it is, so I had to be very cognizant not to jam too much stuff into five minutes. I discussed connecting athletics and libraries (and if you’re interested in working with student-athletes too, I’d love to chat with you about it!), and my first challenge was to decide the points that I wanted to make. We were then supposed to make 20 slides, with each slide transitioning every 15 seconds. I spent a few hours practicing the talk, switching slides around, and making sure that there wasn’t too much content on each slide. The day of the talk, I was very nervous and had consumed too much coffee; however, I am told that the talk went well. As I mentioned, five minutes goes by fast, and I definitely zoned out and don’t remember what happened. I am thankful for friends and colleagues who showed up to the talk because it was easy to focus on them and their encouragement. I’d love to expand this topic out for a longer panel or session in future conferences.

Next steps

ACRL 2021 is going to come around faster than I think. In preparation, I’d like to get some of my own research together so that I can submit proposals for panels or papers. To do this, I plan to connect with people who can help me make that happen. There are some projects that I can do on my own, but some things are easier and more complete with collaboration.

I’m considering what I’ve learned from this conference and how I can apply it to my own work and workplace. I think that there’s a lot of projects that I can start over summer that are inspired by what I heard from others at the conference. I’m also talking to others about what I attended, thinking about what can apply to my own teaching, and finding more to read so that I can keep on learning. The #acrl2019 hashtag is still live on Twitter, so I’ll continue going through that and finding recommendations and resources from others.

Overall, this conference was a positive, though overwhelming, experience. I think I greatly benefited by attending, and I can’t wait to attend more conferences in the future.

Desperately Seeking Sense-Making

If you know a little about me, you know my practice of librarianship — what I like to call truthbrarianship — desperately seeks to express a deeper connection to the communicative side of our profession, whether that’s information-seeking or information-management.  I’m still working on an alternative word for the latter, but my truth-seeking approach is inspired by Brenda Dervin’s sense-making methodology, work which most famously contributed to the practice of the reference interview.  Dervin also addressed sense-making in information systems and the impact on the democratic principles of librarianship, which are vulnerable to “unexamined assumptions about the nature of information and the nature of communication” (Dervin, 2003, p74).   To examine these assumptions means approaching communication differently than just an act of sending and receiving messages.  Since learning about this methodology in graduate school, I have been working to apply it to internal communication in library organizations.   

Communication theorists still debate whether organizational communication is best measured as a product of organizational structure, or whether communication itself leads to the formation of organizational structures.   Nevertheless, I observe people fairly consistently credit or blame organizational morale and culture on communication.  When/if communication is good, morale is high.  When/if communication is bad, morale is low.  However, this link between communication and culture doesn’t make a bit of sense to those who approach communication primarily as messages.  Because messages can be controlled, communication problems are easily addressed by increasing or better-targeting messages, right?  People who see communication as connection, on the other hand, would rarely get what they need from messages alone, no matter how abundantly or frequently messages are sent, or even if they were received. Since the target, if you will, is connection, its lack is perceived as a more fundamental organizational problem.    

In the absence of clear solutions, I’m left to make peace with perpetually seeking.  But a couple of workplace examples recently paved some hope on this path.   One is a wonderfully challenging development series I’ve started attending, called “Compassionate Communication”. Based on Michael Rosenberg’s book, Non-violent communication: a language of life, the introductory focus of this workshop intentionally distinguishes the use of judgement (problem-solving) and empathy (connection) when communicating, especially when communicating within conflict.  What I like most about the series so far is how it hasn’t discarded rational, judgement-based thinking in communication altogether.  Rather, it shows where this has value and where it doesn’t. With mindfulness and emotional intelligence, the Compassionate Communication: An Introduction course prescribes “translating judgments into observations, emphasizing needs instead of strategies, replacing thoughts with feelings, and changing demands into requests.” Like the reference interview compassionate communication considers that in situations people may not always know how to communicate their needs.  Dialogue offers a way to connect to needs and feelings in order to make meaningful requests.  So far (and I’m only two classes in) it promises to deliver what leaders sometimes struggle to accomplish with planning, hierarchy, and logic alone.

Another sense-making example took place in a recent email exchange about a new and somewhat contentious library policy.  In this scenario, most might have just chalked up the policy decision to “it’s complicated”, accepted it by virtue of hierarchy or expertise, and moved on.  Instead, this administrator and staff each made room to express and examine the different and often hidden circumstances at play.  I consider this kind of sense-making giving transparency to complexity. I have advocated and worked to develop this in my own communication and know the extra work it requires.  In my experience you can either pay the price of that work in confusion, frustration, and ongoing inefficiency, or in the work of communicating through those complexities.  I find only the latter builds trust, and I believe Dervin would say the act of building that trust is what matters most.  

Unfortunately, both approaches are still somewhat rare and sometimes discouraged in library leadership generally, despite similarities to LIS methodologies. Like Dervin’s sense-making, these two examples approach communication with questioning.  In compassionate communication, observations beyond the surface messages lead to more connected requests (aka questions) about what is needed. In the email exchange I observed, it was the willingness of this staff and administrator to first question whether they understood the whole picture and to thoroughly engage in seeking connections between those understandings.  Neutral questioning in the library reference interview demonstrates a shift in the balance of information power to create space for dialogue and understanding.  Shouldn’t that process, which translates to improved communication with users of library services and in the usability of library systems, also apply to our internal communication and information systems in a similar way?  Do we assume an expertise in sense-making with our users, and does this create an expectation that we can or should provide sense for our own needs?   

Left unexamined, such an assumption might result in providing our own messages and dialogues for ourselves. That seems both silly and irresponsible, especially as individuals and organizations seek truthfully to examine practices related to diversity and inclusion. This must mean understanding experiences beyond ourselves and our expertise as librarians. In the most basic sense, attending to these relational aspects of our work will require librarians to see each other as information seekers, balance informational power, and learn how to effectively ask questions of each other. Translating sense-making to organizations calls for us “to listen and to address differences and contests in human beings’ understandings and experiences” (Foreman-Wernet, 2003, p6).  The point is not understanding difference as characteristics or experiences that will define (read: label) how we interpret or listen in communication but connecting these differences toward understanding. Making sense of our internal information needs are necessary not just to solve collective problems, but for making sense of each other as human beings, our relationships in practices, and the ways in which these relationships are always changing.