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Month: November 2011

Co-Working in the Library

Co-Working in the Library

I read this great post about coworking in the library that recommends public libraries doling out space for freelancers who’d rather work somewhere other than home. People put out real dollars for coworking space; why not use the library? In place of cash, they could donate their time and skills.

I like this idea. I don’t work in a public library, so I got to thinking about the academic library equivalent: doling out office space in the library to faculty/postdocs/graduate students in exchange for their time and skills.

(Probably doctoral students. They’re the loneliest.)

In the article the focus was on educating the public via these coworkers. Our students generally already have access to the faculty and graduate students through courses and as TAs, but they might appreciate these folks for doing different kinds of work. Maybe very (very very) specific help, or a workshop or two, or something like that.

But what if these doctoral students could cowork in the library, working on their dissertations in the company of other doctoral students? A crowd noting when they’re missing, someone keeping tabs on them, a tribe looking out for them and bringing them a coffee every once in a while? And then, for a bit of time every term, they help us with library projects?

Say: help us learn R and see it applied? I know a doctoral student with some really fascinating work on power dynamics in the classroom, that could be extremely useful for our instruction librarians. Someone like that could help us rethink our teaching and training strategies. I’m sure there are some sociologists who wouldn’t mind hanging out with us for a term and examining the social capital under our roof. I’m sure there’s lots of interesting research going on that could improve the workings of a library, or help us see our work from a different angle. And doctoral students could form a little tribe and help each other get their dissertations done.

We could accept applications, and try to put a group together that had something to offer each other. Some odd connections, maybe. Or none at all, who knows.

Not that we have any office space to dole out at my place or work. We’re massively too full of that. But still. Neat idea.

Technology is (not) Special

Technology is (not) Special

The world believes that technology is special. Not all technology: not refrigerators, not hammers and nails, not paper and pencils. That stuff doesn’t need a users guide. Computers, though, do. Anything to do with computers, digital materials, online tools, that’s “technology”, and it’s different from everything else. Sometimes a lesser cousin (ebooks), and other times the superior advance (email). But different. It’s treated differently, it has new rules. In the world of libraries, that means that while books go in the catalogue, ebooks might not; since you can’t browse ejournals in the stacks, they go into some kind of special digital collections category, as if they are different and special.

I don’t think digital stuff is special at all.

I don’t think it’s a useful distinction, largely. Eventually digital materials will be like hammers and nails, like your refrigerator. It will be a thing that exists and provides a critical service, but not something you classify differently than other key household object. But I find myself on different sides of this argument a lot of times lately.

As long as technology is so special, it’s best left to the technology people, right? That’s the thing I run up against all the time. I know when it comes to work you have to build some walls around what you do, and sometimes those walls are arbitrary. You can’t do everything, so you need to hand of some stuff to another group of people. But it seems that all these great big huge projects involving some form of technology ends up in the hands of a tiny group of coders and tech support people to implement, innovate, program around, and communicate. And the people who are best at implementing changes, innovating, programming, and communicating to the public at large often think that because the project involves technology, it’s not their place to get involved, or they aren’t qualified, or it’s not their job. Technology is a black box to them, they can’t see through it, and have given up trying. This is a tragedy, I think, since most new technology is less a matter of actual technical knowledge and more a matter of metaphor-building, communication, and creative application. Not the stuff of databases and lines of code. In one fell swoop we devalue both ourselves and the technology tools. We dig in our heels and avoid being transformed by something new.

So on one hand I think we need to get rid of the distinctions around what involves tech and what doesn’t. When it comes to teaching and research tools, we need to bring the people with technical knowledge into the fold, let their expertise shape us, and support their projects with all the creativity we can muster. The introduction of a technological tool cannot happen in isolation, separated from all the “non-technical” people. We don’t have a department of pens and pencils, after all. Change is hard; a change in the tools we use is a communication project, a narrative-building project, not only a technical one.

But on the other hand, I’ve discovered that sinking the tech inside whatever it is we think is more valuable (pedagogy, teaching, communications, reference) is often a disaster. People whose expertise is technology seem to become easily ignored or shunted aside, as if what they bring is not as valuable as the higher goals of these great ideals. As much as I agree that technology in and of itself is not special, it still needs to be treated that way. Because otherwise it gets lost, abused, abandoned, or misunderstood. I guess we’re not at the pens and pencils stage with computing.

And quite the opposite, I’ve discovered that claiming the tech as the front runner and sinking all the other stuff, the big ideals, the real goals, behind it, is often more successful. I find this quite bizarre and counter-intuitive, really, but it’s true. For instance: say your goal is to help faculty to teach better, to have more engaging classes, and give students more opportunities to interact and learn in a constructivist manner. You can push out your pedagogy shingle and say, here, let me help you teach better, welcome a few keeners but largely watch the tumbleweeds roll by. Why isn’t this a sexier topic? I think in part because there’s a shame spiral involved. You’re meant to know how to teach by the time you’re teaching in a university setting! In my experience, the people who frequent the pedagogy shops are genuinely interested in learning and teaching better, and thus are already better teachers than the majority of the teaching population. Which is great, don’t get me wrong. But it’s not getting you to the greater goal of making the overall student experience better. Not really. You’re only improving on the already-improved.

But if you write TECH HELP on your shingle and push that out, but have the same goal, well, that’s a different thing altogether. Totally different direction. You deal with everyone, pretty much. Even the ones who understand the tech; they want to tell you how frustrated they are, or how things could be better. When people know you’re competent in technology, they will come ask you for help about all kinds of things. Many of those things relate to their teaching.

They don’t have to call it pedagogy. But when people come to you looking to get students more engaged, or want to try something new, or want help with a tool, or have questions about what other people do with discussion boards or virtual worlds, you have an open opportunity to change the way things happen in the average undergraduate class. Technology is the best disguise ever.

There is a shame spiral about not understanding technology, but it’s mostly reserved for the millenials. Millenials, the digital natives, they’re supposed to be experts on technology. Faculty nearing retirement are supposed to be technology dunces, right? So it’s okay. It’s okay to be the classics geek, or the chemistry wizard, or the close reading genius of the English department and not understand a bit of software. The self-image of the teaching faculty isn’t built on a knowledge of bizarre little bits of courseware or new-fangled collaboration software. Knowing how to set up a blog, or what a wiki does, or how to record an audio file with just a tin can and a laptop (you don’t actually need the tin can) isn’t a category in anyone’s performance or tenure review. We’ve made it okay to ask questions about technology, to seek help, to take advice. So the person with technology on their shingle, and the desire to make education better for students, is in a position to touch the educational experience of many.

And thus I have my crisis: I don’t think technology really warrants its own shingle, but it’s so effective to have one. I expect that someday it might look a little foolish, like anyone with paper and pencils on theirs. We don’t need you anymore, they’ll say. We’ve sorted that out. We keep it in a cabinet by the copier. But until that time, we still need someone to say, It’s okay. Let me help you. Would you like to see a better way to do that? Until no one needs to hear me say those things, I still have a million opportunities to make things better.

Impact: The Sidewalk that wasn’t, and now Is

Impact: The Sidewalk that wasn’t, and now Is

I take the bus to work every day. I noticed this year that there are A LOT more students taking the bus with me. It’s great! UTM has been pretty responsive to the changes in the bus schedules and routes that mean more students wait for and get off buses. We have a much bigger and better bus stop (now officially a layby) than we used to have. But then there was this:

This is what happened when students got off the bus and tried to walk across campus toward the library: they had to walk through what is part parking lot, part loading dock, and part kiss’n’ride. Some students were making a path on the grass to avoid the parking area, but there was no official walking path. This is largely due to the fact that our campus is growing and changing so rapidly; the official walking path is on the other side of the Kaneff building (on the right). In the original plan, I doubt too many people walked along this route at all. I never used to, not until the new library opened. Putting the library in what used to be a parking lot on the far end of campus is reorienting the whole place. Thus: this weird little gap in pedestrian traffic.

I raised the walkway/parking lot/loading dock issue as our college council meeting, and I sent on this video to explain the place I was talking about. I shot this video on October 14th.

Now, that same area today:

No one walks through the parking area anymore! Now, you’d think they can’t because of the safety railing there, but that’s only covering a bit that used to be grass, not the road. You could still walk across the parking lot/loading dock if you wanted to. But no one wants to. I can’t tell you how pleased I am about this. Not only because we solved a relatively minor but kind of serious safety problem on campus with a bit of sidewalk, but also because this campus is built by people who actually listen to ideas, consider what the daily life of a student is like, and act remarkably quickly.

Man, I love UTM.

You can still “Play Nice” as a Critical Thinker. Honest.

You can still “Play Nice” as a Critical Thinker. Honest.

I left a comment on the UT Librarians blog on Friday morning, and I think my comment must have gotten eaten by a spam filter or something, because it’s still awaiting moderation. As background, the UTLibrarians blog is the blog of the committee representing U of T Librarians within the faculty association. This is the post someone (the posts are anonymous) wrote a couple of weeks back:


[here’s the entire post, since I just snapped a pic of the top two paragraphs here.]

This sounds extremely familiar to me. The library where I work has brought in a vibrant and experienced consultant who talked with us about the definition of critical thinking, so I presume this might be about our library. (I could be wrong: it must be planning season in other libraries too, maybe everyone’s doing this. I don’t know.) But this post is so remarkably unrepresentative of my own experience of our planning process that I was sort of jolted by this post. I have replied in a comment on the site, and I hope that one day it will appear there. But until then, here’s my comment in response to this post:

I’m a bit surprised to see this here. Is there really any question about the definition of critical thinking? Critical thinking and criticizing is something we teach undergraduates to carefully differentiate as part of their studies, so I hope that academic librarians, with an interest in information literacy, have a firm handle on it. Criticism in the classical sense doesn’t mean negative comments about the status quo; it means thoughtful and deliberate analysis. That sort of analysis often uncovers holes, problems, and new directions…and that’s what strategic planning is for.

“Play ball nicely”: does that mean, “be collegial”, “don’t be a bully”, “listen to other people”? Because, if so, I’m personally quite in favour it. It’s important for everyone to retain compassion, work towards a co-operative environment, and to engage with our colleagues with respect and with an open mind. Strong negative voices who lead with criticism as you define it tend to shut down others in an organization, thereby silencing large swaths of new librarians and library staff in particular. Rather than open with “the status quo sucks,” how about “here’s how we can make things better”?

It’s very easy to get caught in a wheel of negativity, but it’s rarely productive. The most powerful agents of social change in our time have not been bundles of negative energy; they have been beams of light full of new ideas, peace-making, bridge-building, and productive discussion of new ideas and approaches. I’m not sure what strategic planning you are engaged in, anonymous-writer-of-this-post, but isn’t it great that you’re part of a process? Isn’t that how it should be?

I will continue to be hopeful that we librarians can work together productively and collaboratively rather than antagonistically. I know if I have to choose an environment in which to pour my creative energy, I will choose the collaborative one every time.