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#workatRCL

#workatRCL

#workatRCL

Until recently, I hadn’t had much need to think about recruiting. Suddenly, it’s critically important that I know how to do it well.

One of the things I’ve picked up is that often, particularly for leadership positions, the applicant you want won’t necessarily be looking at job ads or necessarily thinking about taking a step up on the career ladder. A person may be willing to make a move for the right opportunity, but in their day to day, they’re doing well, getting on with their jobs and their lives, and not spending their evenings cruising job boards. If you’ve got a role to fill, you have to go out and find the people you need.

So how do you do that? Pull a group of canny staff together to comb your networks and figure out who we know, dig into conference proceedings for rising stars, search Twitter for opinionated superheroes? (Done it; it was fun!) Cold call? (Hi there, you don’t know me, but WHY NOT WORK HERE, MY TALENTED FRIEND? HELLO? HELLO?)

What else can you?

I’m in the very interesting position of trying to recruit across sectors. I’m looking for a public librarian to potentially fill an academic position. How does someone deeply entrenched in the academic sector break out of a silo and get their job ad in front of a public librarian looking for a leadership opportunity? I can’t use our usual channels. I can’t just relax on this.

How about Twitter?

My colleague Lindsay Cronk (Mover and Shaker) and I hatched a plan; we’ll do what others before us have done: Twitter chat! Ask us anything! Let us tell you about our jobs! We’re hoping that answering questions on Twitter will help us find the people who might want to join us.

This is all a grand experiment for us. We haven’t really been active recruiters before. But we have some great jobs, and we’re looking for some great librarians. And we live in a great town that we love. And we have big, big plans to change the world, starting here, and we need co-conspirators.

So here we go: Monday, Sept 11, noon to 2pm EST, we’re hoping we can get the attention of some folks who might be interested in our jobs, or might know some people who might be interested in our jobs. Or might just want prod at us and help us understand how to be better recruiters. Which all of us are going to need to be.

See you there?

Leadership, Authority, Hierarchy, and Supervision

Leadership, Authority, Hierarchy, and Supervision

This is what I’ve learned: either you think library leadership roles must always come with direct supervisory responsibilities in order to be successful, or you think these two pieces can be disentangled. I fall into the latter category. I have recently encountered a number of people in the former category, and I am dismayed.

The general feeling seems to be that any “coordinator”-type role without a bunch of direct reports is a sign of bad management and the role is doomed to failure.

I suppose, if you imagine that a leader can only influence, direct, or lead the people they supervise, then sure, a role where a lot of leadership is expected but no dedicated staff might seem like it’s set up for failure. But that’s a very traditional view of library structure and library work, and I think we’ve moved past that. That doesn’t describe every workplace. I believe what must be missing from this picture is an understanding of how a project-based environment works.

In an organization that functions in projects, work is organized not around a supervisor and their team, but by cross-departmental, short-term projects with specific, time-limited goals. The leader of a project team doesn’t need to approve vacation time in order to function as a fully-fledged leader.

It’s true that, without the power of hierarchical authority, convincing your peers and others outside your department that your idea is good can be hard. It’s hard for a reason. Our peers have good ideas of their own, and experiences to drawn on, history with the subject matter, and judgement; if your ideas doesn’t have the legs to convince intelligent library staff to get on board, do you want the weight of authoritarian power to be there for you to silence objections? That feels good, but is it a good idea? Isn’t it healthier to hear the skepticism, take the feedback, and make the idea better? Isn’t that a better way to learn to be a leader? To learn to take feedback, to be collaborative, to develop good, functional ideas?

Leaders who rely on the power of their roles rather than the strength of their vision and their ideas concern me. If you don’t have the skills to manage work without that power, are you really a leader?

What does it mean for the profession if we link up hierarchical, supervisory power with leadership in this way? What kinds of opportunities do new professionals get to even discover if leadership is of interest to them? How do we give staff a safe, lower-risk opportunity in which to learn how to lead, where failure is absolutely an option to learn from?

There are only so many supervisory roles to go around, and not everyone gets one. But everyone in a library can be a leader. I feel strongly about this; why can’t we open up this black box and give other people a chance to put their fingerprint on the organization? This is what it comes down to for me. If we can’t decouple leadership and supervision, we shut down a lot of learning and opportunity. Giving staff project-based leadership is great training and frankly great, fun, effective and sustainable work. The risk is low and the reward is huge.

To me, the real skill-building in leadership is being a leader among your peers, a leader without the power of the performance review to fall back on. Can you construct a viable idea? Can you get buy in? Can you take on feedback make your idea better? Can you get a project off the ground, through planning, through implementation, and into something sustainable? This isn’t easy work, but it doesn’t require anyone to be a supervisor. And it is work you can learn over time. It’s forgiving work that lets you try, fail, and try again.

Project-based work lets you break down silos of your organization. It lets you bring together skills and talent that don’t sit right next to each other. It lets staff have a chance to spread their wings and try something new. It gives hungry staff real, valuable opportunities to show their stuff. How do you know if you want to take a supervisory role if you’ve never had a real chance to lead?

A project-based environment asks a lot of an organization. It requires libraries to give staff the opportunity to be on a diverse project team, to get to know staff they don’t work with every day, to see a idea take form and participate in its formation, to see things go wrong in a safe place that anticipates things going wrong. It gives staff a chance to chair a meeting without their supervisor in the room, to have a deadline and a responsibility of their own, to have their own team. Any member of staff can be the one who updates library leadership on the status of a project. Project-based work is a forgiving structure in which staff at any level can have the opportunity to learn how to lead.

As someone who writes job ads and chairs search committees, I think it’s important that we learn to recognize leadership outside of direct supervision and respect it for what it is. It’s not only the department heads who lead.

This is particularly important to me because I leapt into senior leadership without ever having been a department head. There are other paths, and if we don’t provide these opportunities, and understand what this kind of leadership means on a CV, we’re going to overlook people with really great skills who can be an asset to our organizations.

At my library, a position with leadership but no staff means a position that will lead all staff at one point or another. It means a project-based role that works with the hierarchy to set expectations for the entire organization. It means collaborating with supervisors and partnering with them in managing staff. It means leading across the organization. It means breaking barriers and doing conference-worthy work, and finding talent where we didn’t know it existed. It means experimentation and taking chances.

I think we need this. I think it’s important. Non-supervisory leadership is also leadership, and it has value.

Librarians and Code

Librarians and Code

New librarians, or librarians still in school, often ask me how they can get a job like mine. I think this is probably a question all librarians get, but mine comes with an extra question: “should I learn to code?”

My answer to this has always been something along the lines of: “Well, no.” I know many people would say the opposite.

I don’t think code is important to my job because I do not write code. I shouldn’t write code, actually…I have colleagues who are responsible for any code that might come near me. Code is not my territory. So no: you don’t need to code to be a librarian who works in tech. Content management systems handle the HTML. You won’t be the one messing around with CSS, probably. If you work in larger library, in any case. Librarians are usually not the best qualified people to tweak stylesheets or write software. Those things are halmarks of a whole other profession, actually. If you learned a tiny bit of code, the truth is, you’d be a terrible coder anyway.

But still: there’s something there. Lots of folks in my shoes would say the opposite: yes! Dear god, yes, please learn to code! I genuinely have no idea who’s right and who’s wrong here.

My feeling on this is that librarians who picked up code learned a lot by doing so, and think that others will learn the same things if they too pick up code. And that might be true. But in the end, the code isn’t the thing. The code is a catalyst for the thing that’s really valuable for a librarian. Somehow the process of learning even a tiny bit of code might be the easiest way to understand the basics of how the internet works, and that understanding helps you to ask better questions, form better plans, make more realistic requests, and integrate your services and your collection more thoughtfully into the wider digital world. But the code isn’t what does it: the code is just the catalyst. Right?

My fear, I suppose, is that in this drive to learn code, someone will actually just focus on the code and will miss the catalytic moment. Because we’re not being very clear about what we actually need you to learn. We haven’t specified. I’m not even sure I know how to articulate it all even now. We need you to understand what’s possible, and what’s impossible. How data travels and is taken up into new places. You need to know that it’s not magic, it’s just content drawn out and drawn upon. You need to really understand what “database-driven” means, and be able to apply that knowledge. You will probably get that from learning some code. But I think it might be more efficient to be clear about the kinds of lessons we need you to learn from it.

And I suspect it’s possible to learn those things without code specifically. I think learning by doing, by figuring things out, is probably going to work for most people, but what are you figuring out? It’s a set of problem-solving skills, it’s not a skill at coding, necessarily. And some people get that understanding it other ways altogether. I know several outstanding library leaders who never learned code at all, but can make rational, thoughtful decisions around tech. I think they just listen to the people they hire, to be honest. They trust the people who understand it better than they do.

But I suspect code will get the majority of folks where they need to be. I suspect that’s true. But it might be the hard way. I’m not sure. Either way, it’s true they need to get there, one way or another.

Maybe I’ve been giving bad advice all along. Or good advice. I have no idea.

Reading, Paper, and e-readers

Reading, Paper, and e-readers

I’m frustrated by the current state of research that claims that we read better and retain more from paper than from an ereader, and that this is because of the form, that somehow we need the permanency of paper in order to form memories of the plot of a novel. This makes zero sense to me, but I’ve heard this argument enough times at this point. Fortunately Spark did an episode that investigated this, and came to a better conclusion.

If you gave someone a short story and told them to read it in an empty library, you’d probably get a better result than taking someone to an empty carnival and telling them to read a short story there. Not because the empty library is quieter than the empty carnival, or because libraries are just naturally better places for reading. It would be because the person walking into a carnival isn’t prepared and primed for reading while the person walking into the library is. We already know this is true; this is why they tell you not to bring your computer to bed with you to finish up some work, because if you do work in bed on a regular basis, when you go to bed your head will be primed for work rather than sleep.

So I have doubts that these experiments with ereaders and books are telling anyone which form is better for the reading experience per se. It’s only telling us that people are currently primed to think of computers/tablets/screens as things to watch movies on, or play games on, or browse the internet on. Most people are not primed to consider a screen a reading surface.

But some people are. Some people read on screens all the time, for academic work or for fun. For books that don’t and won’t exist in paper, there are audiences who have already made the switch. They must have other cues that prime them for reading from the same screen they use for other tasks. Of course, readers of online books are always sitting in the bookstore as they read. If they don’t like the turn a story takes, I suspect they will back-button out quicker than a paper-book reader will give up on a book they’ve borrowed or purchased. With online novels, there is always a universe of other stories waiting if the current one doesn’t suit.

I would be interested to see studies like this done with more context. How do those who read fiction on a screen all the time fare against people who don’t? As ereaders get into the hands of more and more people and reading ebooks becomes just as common as reading any other kind of book, do the results change? If a person starts reading an ebook and has poorer comprehension results, do those results improve after a month of reading ebooks? A year?

I remember in the late nineties there was some discussion about how to talk about interaction with the internet. Browse won, but I remember someone on the news talking about “looking at the internet,” or “watching the internet.” As someone who was already far beyond “watching” or merely “looking” at digital material, I cringed. You can watch things online, that presenter wasn’t wrong. You do look at stuff on the internet. That guy saw a screen that looked a lot like a tv, and transferred the language and the modes of thinking to it. He was a passive viewer of internet content, and that’s how he framed his experience.

Ipads are not about being looked at, they’re about being interacted with. An ipad in particular is the first device to fit into that strange niche between smartphone and computer, a device driven entirely without a proxy roller ball or mouse or stylus or keyboard. You touch the content and it reacts. It’s an engagement device, not a device to be looked at or watched (though you can look at and watch things on ipads, too). It doesn’t really surprise me that giving a bunch of people ipads or ereaders doesn’t yet prime people to sink into deep contemplative thought. People are still primed to look at how their physical touch is interacting with digital activity.

Likewise, I wonder if anyone’s done any experiments on audiobooks. Read a page, hear a page: is one better than the other? I suspect it’s what you’re used to.

For many years I’ve been painfully aware of the anti-ebook league who are extremely keen to point out how inferior ebooks are. I know there was a similar group who objected to the written word in the first place (“if you don’t need to memorize it, everyone will become a gibbering idiot!”), and then to the printing press (“Bad! Cheap! Sloppy!”). While I still have a too-steady stream of paper books coming into my house, I’m glad books are going digital. To me, the story, the information, the content is the most important thing. Digital text isn’t limited by its font size. It can be read aloud by a screenreader. It can be translated by a braille display. I can twist it, add more notes to it than it contains in the first place. Like Dickens did it, it can be delivered serially. Digital text might mean more text, and to me that’s a plus.

Fear and Metaphors

Fear and Metaphors

Being the odd sort of academic librarian that I am, with no real connection to books, I end up spending perhaps more time than most thinking about what academic librarianship is at its core. I don’t have a lot to take for granted as markers of my librarianship (reference, collection development, instruction, for instance, none of those), but you can find the roots of the profession in what I’m doing nonetheless…as long as you’re prepared to let go of the obvious, and consider what the obvious actually means.

Early on I learned that academic librarians are, more often than not, the layer between the patron and the complicated, ever-changing tools and resources they have to wrestle with in order to get their work done. We stood as the interface for scholarship for a long time, the door through which any academic or student would need to pass through in order to find and use scholarly literature. We made it easier to sift though. We gave advice about sources and materials. We connected patrons with a need with the resource that would fill (or overflow!) it. When computing arrived on the scene, we were often the layer between the patron and the technology, too. Libraries (academic and public) have long been a sure place where patrons can get access to new technologies and get help using it.

I think that’s a really powerful way to view librarianship, and one that I find personally very inspiring. Librarianship if often the liquid that fills up the spaces between two things that need to fit together but often don’t quite do so as intended.

As a librarian who works exclusively with online tools as opposed to publishers or physical media, I’ve taken that idea to heart. Not only do I see myself as a kind of gateway between the wild world of collaborative and communication technologies and the faculty who need them, but I also see it as my role to give patrons the tools they need to approach that world and put its innovations to good use in their teaching and their research.

The natural answer to this problem is to provide training, but that’s not where I think this work starts. Jumping to training and writing instructions is skipping two fundamental steps along the way. If it’s my job to be the layer between online technologies and patrons who need them, to communicate between one and the other in the languages they both understand, I need to prepare both sides for each other, and I need to invent a language to help them understand each other. I need to create the circumstances that will foster effective innovation and meaningful change.

Is that training? Knowledge? To some degree, sure. But as I say, I think we’re making too many assumptions when we jump straight to training and skill-building, as if that’s the gap to fill.

The first real hurdle to overcome isn’t a lack of knowledge. It’s fear.

Tools designed to be used by the general population are, in general, not all that complicated. Anything can be difficult before you understand how it works, but none of it is really that hard, and i think everyone knows that. The difficulty of using tools isn’t the thing that prevents innovation and change. Fear is.

Fear of what? Of getting it wrong; of looking stupid; of making a mistake that breaks everything; of not knowing all the answers; of being embarrassed in front of colleagues, TAs, students; of not know how to help students use the tool you’ve asked them to use; of creating too much work for yourself; of failing to think through all the consequences of using a tool, and having to scrap months and months or work because you dug yourself into an impossible hole; of having to do it all over again; or it vanishing, crashing, falling off a table and bursting into flames. All kinds of things. This is low-level fear, a niggling kind of fear that, if spoken aloud, is often easily dismissed. But it doesn’t get spoken aloud, and instead it festers and prevents patrons from taking risks. We don’t talk about fear in the context of library services, and we don’t tend to think of ourselves as alleviating fear. Sometimes we do the work of fear reduction quite by accident, without realizing that that was the great value we offered. But other times we don’t address the fear at all, and often we make that fear worse.

There are any number of ways to reduce fear. What I’ve found in my own work is that if I demonstrate my competence with the tools in question (often just by seeming knowledgeable, or passing on information, or being helpful), by showing interest in and respect for their skills and knowledge, by not being judgmental, and then make sure patrons know that I am here to help them no matter what, that’s a good start. I tell them what they need to know when they need to know it instead of waiting for them to hit a bump in the road. I put up the signposts and draw them maps so they always feel sure when they put their feet down on the ground. And should the worst happen in spite of all our best efforts, I will personally dig them out of whatever kind of hole they manage to fall into. Knowing all this, and seeing that it’s all true,patrons will take risks. They will innovate, they will experiment. If they know the ground beneath their feet is solid, they will start to run.

I didn’t know I was in the fear reduction business until I started to really look hard at what was happening in my daily work. Where innovation is occurring on my watch, it isn’t always because the instructor now has better tech skills or more technical knowledge. But they certainly have more confidence in using the tools available. They are more willing stretch.

Reducing fear is critical; but the other piece of being the layer between the patron and the big complicated thing (whatever it is) is coming up with a language so that the patron can make sense of it. It’s a matter of making the affordances of a system or tool or technology plain. Again, the standard answer to this is often training and skill-building, but I’d hesitate. You can’t jump right to training, that’s not enough. I think the answer starts in metaphor.

If you don’t know what a tool thinks it is, you won’t know how to use it. Email is as successful as it is, I would argue, in large part because of it’s watertight metaphor. It’s just system messages sent to a particular registered user, but once you call it mail, everyone who’s ever seen a mailbox full of letters and newspapers knows what it does. You send it and receive it; you open it, you read it, you store it or throw it out. You can get packages that contain things. Your mailbox is only so big and can only fit so much stuff in it. Calling it mail provides an insight into the affordances of email, and helps everyone understand what it is and use it. I think this is why many people who are afraid of online technologies usually have no fear of their email. They tend to use their email for everything. You’ve met those folks who send themselves email as a kind of task list, right? They “read” each message when the task done. The people I know who do this don’t tend to be hugely tech savvy, but they understand how this one tool works, they get its metaphor, and they’re ready to twist it into any shape to suit their needs. That’s good innovation! But it only happens if the metaphor is solid.

Many of the tools and systems our patrons need to use don’t come along with such helpful metaphors. So part of the work of being the layer between them is to come up with the language for them so that patrons understand them and innovate their practice using them.

It’s like a giant whiteboard. It’s like a file folder. It’s like a rolodex. It’s a blank piece of paper you can pass around the room. What’s going to make sense to these people, in this place, with the backgrounds that they have? Librarianship has the capacity to be an incredibly creative profession if you take it as read that metaphor construction is a key part of the job. Our role is to help our patrons see the affordances of new tools, to help them find a way to be creative using them, and very often that requires a good, solid, relatable metaphor. If you know that a wiki is a blank note book anyone can write in, it’s much easier to imagine what you might use it for.

We used to be the layer that connected patrons with resources that would be impossible for them to find otherwise. Now we can be the layer that provides the metaphorical scaffolding that unlocks functionality for our patrons and allows them to be creative. While we used to hold the literal keys to resources, we can now unlock resources that are already available by housing them in a metaphorical framework that will make sense to our community. And by reassuring them that we’ve got their back.

360: Being Your Own Patron

360: Being Your Own Patron

As I’m easing back into daily work, I’m becoming increasingly conscious about looking at everything from both sides. It’s very easy to see work, services, decisions, all of that, from my own perspective as a librarian, a service provider, a troubleshooter and tech consultant. What would be easiest for me, what resonates with me, what falls in line with other decisions I’ve made? What processes can I put in place to make my life easier? I know I’m usually starting from there when I’m at work. A me-centred approach. I think most of us do that. It’s pretty natural.

But lately I’ve been thinking about my own process of doing a 360 whenever I’m making decisions. What does it feel like to be my own patron? I think about this a lot, and it’s occurred to me recently that that might not be as common as I thought it was.

The first time I was aware that this way of thinking might be a bit unusual was back in library school. I wrote a paper for a cataloguing class about the history of a classification decision, and what the changes in that classification would have meant for the patron browsing the shelves. This seemed like a natural leap to me, but the comment on my paper when I got it back especially lauded me for thinking about shelves and the patron experience. I couldn’t quite fathom what other way there was to think about it, frankly. I mean, that’s what classification is for in the end, isn’t it? Arranging information for a patron? So a patron can interact with it in a logical way? It’s hard for me to imagine losing sight of that.

But I keep being confronted with experiences where that 360 clearly didn’t happen. I filled out a form the other day, and got a receipt via email that started, “If you typed in your email, you’ll receive a message…” Well, yes. I did type in my email, obviously. And am reading a message. Since the system has just emailed me this one. I wondered if anyone thought about what it would be like to receive that email. It’s not a natural way of thinking, perhaps. Maybe it’s what happens once you get into a groove in your job, when you do things because that’s how they’re done. It must obscure the obvious question about what it would be like to experience from the other side as someone who has no idea what’s commonly done, let alone why, and hasn’t spent a second considering it.

In my spare time, I write fiction. It’s a hobby, I enjoy it. Usually I think this particular hobby has no real bearing on my life as a librarian (in spite of the fact that most people think librarians think about/read fiction all day). But as I’ve been thinking about this 360 process as part of my own decision-making, I’ve realized that it’s one area where fiction and my work life collide.

When I’m writing fiction, I work hard to think about the story as it appears to every character, not just the protagonist. I want every character to be a protagonist in their own unwritten story, with their own goals and perspectives present under the surface. I want every character to feel like a real person who sees the world through their own twisted lens, and thus naturally misunderstand things or make bad decisions from time to time. I want the reader to get the sense, as they run up against these various characters, that there are worlds inside them that we aren’t entering into. As if this story could be written from any one of their perspectives and be just as interesting, yet radically different. Every villain is a hero when they’re the one telling the story, right?

Thinking about being my own patron feels a bit similar to me. I want to stop seeing the world as I see it, and see it from the perspective of a student, or an instructor, or an exhausted sessional. What am I doing because it’s easier for me, or more natural to me, or because it’s always been that way, that would look mystifyingly inexplicable to those people? What would they look at and say, why are you making me do this? Why is this happening to me? When they get that email like I did, does it make sense? Does it tell them anything they care about? Does it seem as though I haven’t thought about what it will feel like for them?

I think this might be the actual definition of a bureaucracy: when we’ve spent all our time thinking about what we need from a patron in order to process a request successfully, we’ve created a service that will feel like an ordeal the patron has to survive rather than a service. You want a book/computer/access? Go over to that terminal, log in with this information, go over here, get this code, write it on a piece of paper, come back to me, and then I help you. We do this a lot. It’s good for our process, I suppose. it feels efficient, but not so fantastic for the patron, who becomes a momentary cog in a process they don’t understand. We insist that they become a minor character in the library’s story when we do that. It must feel like we’re asking them to support the machine we created. The patron knows for sure that whatever’s going on, it’s not them in the heart of it. I suppose sometimes that’s completely appropriate. But it’s the last kind of experience I want to create.

I consider librarianship a service profession. I know that’s a bit controversial in some places, because some consider service to be servile. I don’t feel that way. I think, at it’s very heart, librarianship is about the provision of information, tools, space, and support to patrons, and in that, it seems to be naturally rooted in the most altruistic of services. That’s my favourite part about librarianship, actually. I like helping people meet their goals. I like being part of their successes. I like making sure their successes are easier to achieve, and I absolutely love it when people can accomplish things they thought wouldn’t be possible through a little help and guidance from me. In order to provide a truly great service, I feel like it’s a requirement that I’m constantly questioning who the protagonist is in each interaction I engage in. I want the patron to be the protagonist. I want them to walk away feeling like what just happened was all about them.

What this results in, for me, is what we call paying the pickle man. Sometimes I will bend over backwards to do things that might seem trivial, but if I do those things, I know the patron experience will be effortless. For instance: if I know for a fact that every instructor on campus will need to, say, make their course available to students between Monday and Wednesday of the week after Labour Day, I could just wait for them to forget, and then have to call me to ask how to do it. Or I could just reach out and tell them how to do it before they realize they have to ask. I know their storyline, at least a little bit. I know where it needs a nudge. I’m don’t mind being a minor character if it means they don’t make a mistake or forget something.

This is something I wish I’d been taught in library school. I wish we’d had even just one lecture on it. What do you think you look like to your patrons? What do you want them to think when they’re interacting with you? I think everyone’s answer to this might be very different. Sometimes I think every controversy, every argument, every difference of opinion in librarianship comes down to conflicting answers to this question: what do you want the patron to feel when they’re dealing with you? To me, the answer to this question in any given situation is what dictates my decisions. And because what I want the patron to feel is heard, and understood, and important, 9 times out of 10 the solution that makes my life easier just won’t be good enough.

The Power of Data Visualization

The Power of Data Visualization

Today the UK officially observed Remembrance Day. As a Canadian, I’m very familiar with Remembrance Day. The ceremony itself is pretty much the same in the Commonwealth countries as it is here. As a Guelphite (Guelph being the birthplace of Lt. Col. John McCrae), I know In Flanders Fields off by heart, and have been part of an eery choir reciting it in unison. I’ve even once held a rifle on my shoulder pointed up into the air and fired it three times as part of a Remembrance Day ceremony when I was an army cadet (don’t ask, long story). I felt like I’d seen Remembrance Day from every possible angle.

Except for one.

Remembrance Day is all about veterans past and present. That I understand: I’ve always understood it that way. War is hell. I get it in that way that you do when you hope you never really get it, if you know what I mean. Canada lost 45,000 young lives to WWII alone. Worthy of noting, certainly. Worthy of the ceremony, I think. I understand why the UK and the rest of the Commonwealth mark Remembrance Day with so much solemnity.

But for Canada, the loss of those soldiers’ lives is the biggest and most devastating element of the World Wars. Not to say that life in Canada wasn’t impacted by the wars in many other ways, but by and large, honouring military personnel once a year to remember the wars makes sense. London had a very different experience.

Screen Shot 2013-11-10 at 4.25.20 PMThis is a map of London with a red pin marking the site of every bomb dropped on it during the Blitz.  I’m familiar with the history of World War II, of course. I knew London was bombed in a concerted manner over an extended period of time. It’s one thing to have that knowledge; it’s quite another, I find, to see it mapped out like this. It’s one thing to know exactly how many bombs were dropped on London, and know how many days of constant bombing there were, and quite another to see it like this.

I honestly find it strange to observe Remembrance Day in London without any mention the suffering this city endured. Not just civilian loss of life, though that’s hardly insignificant, but what was certainly civilian terror night after night, the loss of neighbourhoods, and the loss of a tremendous amount architectural history. On this map I discovered that a bomb landed across the street from me. (That, I assume, explains the one 1950s structure across the road in a sea of Victorian terraces.) It’s so close it would have shattered all our windows, at least. My bedroom window overlooks where that bomb must have fallen. I can’t imagine the terror of waiting, night after night, to see if a bomb is going to fall on your house, or your neighbours’. And you look at that map and realize that everyone in London would have had the experience of a hearing a bomb that was heading for them. It would be hard to not being within close proximity of the spot where one (or more) fell. I have now learned that I even on a very slow and lazy day, I pass at least 6 different bomb sites just walking to a tube station or sauntering down the street. But there’s no mention of that trauma in the ceremonies. “Stiff upper lip,” they tell me. “The soldiers had it worse.” Okay. Sure. Maybe. It’s not a zero sum game, though. Look at that map. There are so many pins in that map you can’t even tell what you’re looking at.

This is the power of data visualization. It allows a human brain to make sense of information in a very human way. In a very personal way, sometimes, as I’m experiencing it.

I’m finding it challenging to be in this city, and love this city as I am increasingly doing, and not have strong feelings about how terribly it’s suffered in the recent past. It suffered before that, of course. There’s the conquests, the plagues, the fires that intermittently burned the whole place down. It was abandoned at one point in it’s history, then later reclaimed and rebuilt. But there’s also this damage, the Blitz, mapped out and modern, inarguable. I’m having a retroactive emotional reaction to the Blitz, is what. As if it just happened. All because of well-presented information.

This image is a screenshot of a completely fascinating project called Bomb Sight. It merges the 1940-1941 bomb census held at the National Archives with geographical information in public view. It’s amazing how bringing streams of publicly available data together seems to add a whole other dimension; it’s as if there’s something new being stated, even though the components are all well-known. I’m not sure how to characterize that new dimension, exactly; in some ways it seems like well-illustrated context, but there’s got to be more to it than that. Maybe it’s just the act of letting you hold a large amount of information in your head at the same time, letting you get a bird’s eye view of it in a way you can’t without the help of an accurate visualization. A table of dates and locations wouldn’t explain itself as well as this map does. It lets you see the forest in spite of the trees. It lets you make sense of it all in a very visceral way. I can work with this information, I can apply it and use that knowledge immediately; maybe that’s the extra dimension. It’s allowing me to take the next step without as much labour. It makes the reality of that data easier to see.

This is a plug for big data, for providing access not just to streams of information, but to the tools that allow people to combine them and work with that data in ways that make sense, without having to be an expert on the systems. It’s also an acknowledgement that data can change the way you understand a place, or an idea, or a ceremony, in a very heartfelt and immediate way.

You are indomitable, London. We won’t forget that, either.

Navigation is Dead: Long Live Navigation

Navigation is Dead: Long Live Navigation

For the last year or so I’ve been toying with the idea that website navigation is basically dead. Not to say that it’s not still important, but I’ve come to think about a website’s internal navigation structure (by that I mean tabs and dropdown menus, side navigation, that sort of thing) as the absolute final, last ditch, if-all-else-fails means by which the average internet user will find content on your website.

It’s possible I’m jumping the gun, but here’s why I’m increasingly thinking this way.

When was the last time you went to the front page of a newspaper’s site? Most of us read articles from newspapers online, but I suspect most of us don’t do so by navigating to the front page of their site. The latest navigation for newspapers and news organizations generally is probably Facebook, Twitter, and/or Tumblr. You don’t visit the front page, you follow a link someone’s posted in your path that strikes you as interesting, and read it there. I’m not sure I’ve ever actually seen the front page of the Guardian, for example (I certainly can’t conjure up an image of it), but I read Guardian articles all the time. I go in through side doors that directs me exactly where I want to be.

When I come home from work, I catch up on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. They’re on too late for me to watch live, so I watch the online versions via the Comedy Network or CTV. I have never once gone to the Comedy Network or CTV’s main site to find them. It’s way too many clicks that way. I just type “Daily Show Canada” into my Google search box and it takes me right there. I don’t even care if I’m watching it via the Comedy Network or CTV’s interface; I just click one of the links and get the content I was looking for.

There are some sites that are staples of people’s every day, and in that case, there are things you want on the page that make it easy for you to navigate around. For instance, your email: I don’t want to have to use a Google search to find my inbox and my sent mail. I want links to those. Functional links to things I use every day. Likewise, Twitter needs to put up clear links to my @replies so I don’t struggle to find those. But that’s inching into application design decisions rather than strictly navigation, I’d argue. And applications I use all the time every day are different than websites I use from time to time for information when I need them.

When I’m looking for this Historical Studies department on the UTM website, I don’t go to the main UTM front page. I don’t, even though I work there. I look at a lot of sites every day, and there is no one true classification method we can use that will always be clear to everyone. Every site is different, every site uses different metaphors to organize their content; how can I be expected to remember how any site has decided to arrange content to make it easy for me to find? I don’t remember what navigation decisions UTM made in it’s site design. I could take a moment to look at the site, scan it’s existing top level nagivation terms, use my critical thinking skills to work out where the department might be, or I could just type “UTM historical studies” in my Google search box and be done with it. Type and enter, and click. That’s way easier on the brain than trying to understand someone’s thoughtfully-designed navigation structure.

When I say things like this, people remind me that I’m in the rarefied world of academia, for one (true), and that my job title includes the word “technologies” (also true), so my perspective on browsing the internet based on my own experience and habits is highly unlikely to be universal (absolutely true). However, let me show you some  statistics:

Three Years of Web Stats

This is a graph of web traffic for the months of August and September for one page on our library’s website (http://library.utm.utoronto.ca/faculty/blackboard). It’s the front page for frontline support for courseware for instructors at UTM, and the portal to all our how-tos and instructions on using all the courseware tools available to faculty at UTM. We are a busy service, and get lots of questions and phone calls, so we know our instructors want and need this information. There has always been clear navigation to arrive at this page. We printed it on brochures, inside documentation we handed out, had it on business cards, etc. That clear navigation’s utility can be seen as the blue line in that graph, which is our data for 2010. Very low traffic, in spite of the fact that it’s a busy service. Those are the stats when we just put good content up and wait for people to navigate to it if they need it.

The red line in that graph is our data from 2011. That’s the year we stopped expecting people to navigate to the site, and instead emailed out short messages (we call them “protips”) when the questions are likely to come in. For instance, instructors usually ask us how to add TAs to their course websites somewhere around 5 days before the first day of class, so 6 days before the first day of class we send out an email to this page with instructions on how to add TAs to a course website. For the last week in August and the first couple of weeks in September, we send out nearly one message a day, with a tiny amount of information in it, and a link to this page. See what happened? That’s something like an 8000% increase in web traffic. This page became the second or third most hit page on our site. The internal navigation was exactly the same.

The green line in the graph is our data for 2012, and we were extremely surprised to see another 50% increase from the year before. We learned from our faculty that some of them had started to forward our messages on to colleagues on other campuses, which might account for some of it.

It’s not a revelation to say that publicizing a web page gets you more traffic; it’s probably the most basic of basics from web communications 101. We pushed content, therefore we got traffic. But it made me realize that, like me, other people are much more likely to dive into the interior of a website from the outside (in this case, from email) rather than trying to navigate through from the front page. Being directed to the one thing you need is way more attractive than wading through lots of useful but not immediately needful things in order to find the one thing you want. Obviously the need for the content in question is there; if our instructors weren’t interested, they wouldn’t be clicking on the link in the first place. They would just delete the message and move on. So the interest is clearly there and our traffic is growing.

At this point I think I could probably remove this entire section of our website from the main navigation and see absolutely no dip in traffic. I’m tempted to do that as an experiment, to be honest. I have a feeling no one would even notice.

So I’ve started to really question the basic utility of top level navigation. In a pinch, if you’re really lost and don’t even know what’s available or where to start, I can see it being useful. But for our client base, people we know and we know how to contact, I don’t expect my thoughtful navigation decisions to ever even register. I am building navigation for them through a variety of media, not just through our website as we traditionally think of it. Their interface to our website happens to come through email messages; it’s current, topical, and ephemeral. Their interface, essentially, is us. We dole it out over time and place it in the places where their eyes already are, much like my librarian colleagues and friends do when they post messages on Twitter and I click on them.

glass whiteboard calendar

It’s a weird way to think, but it’s where I’m sitting just now. I don’t want web traffic for the sake of web traffic; I want our patrons to have this information when they need it, and I realize I can’t change their behaviour to make that happen. I can’t rely on their need to bring them to me and muddle through my navigation to find it.  I can’t sit behind a desk/website with all the good news and wait for them to come see me. I want to answer questions before they have to be asked; I want to be on the path of their success, and that’s something they define. So I find and build up the navigation that demonstrably works for them, even if it’s unorthodox. In this case, the navigation that appears to work best for this kind of information and for this kind of audience is us, outlook, and our calendar of needful topics, and a series of targeted email messages sent out like clockwork every year.

There are of course many such solutions; or me, the key part of this whole experience was rethinking what navigation is and what it means, and to stop thinking in such two-dimensional terms. As creatures of the internet, as the majority of us now are, we find information in a wide variety of ways; top level navigation has got to be somewhere down at the bottom of the list.

What I learned about Librarianship from the Signage on the Underground

What I learned about Librarianship from the Signage on the Underground

As a preface: I can get lost anywhere. I have no sense of cardinal points, I am a daydreamer and don’t pay attention to where I’m going most of the time, I can’t follow directions very well, and I struggle to make a visual connection between what I see on a map and what I see in front of me. I still regularly get lost in cities I’ve lived in for years. Being lost is a kind of default state for me. So, as you can imagine, visiting foreign city comes along with a bit anxiety for me. I know I will get lost. I do what I can ahead of time to avoid the worst of it, but it’s bound to happen. It always does.

So I was extremely surprised, and delighted, to discover that the one place I never once felt lost inside of was London’s underground transit system.

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The London Underground is a rabbit warren of tunnels, and not just the ones that carry the trains. Because each line was originally built privately by a separate company, designed to work independently and sometimes in competition with each other, they were never meant to interact particularly smoothly or efficiently. At points, switching from one line to another, you might walk 10-15 minutes underground, turning this way and that with the crowd, going up and down stairs, and generally getting utterly spun around. If I were to get lost and feel anxious anywhere, you would think, it would be there. But never: not even once.

The degree to which I felt no anxiety in a tube station became a notable thing. Once I saw the roundel of the Underground anywhere, I immediately relaxed, because I knew it would easily and gently take me where I meant to go. So I started to pay attention to why I felt so confident anywhere near the Tube.

It’s the signage.

This is what the experience is like: you walk into a station, and you make your first decision: which line are you looking for? My home station was Victoria, which has three lines to choose from. Left for the Victoria line, or right Circle or District? That’s the one bit that’s easy to remember! I want the Victoria line today, so I go left. I don’t pause to think about it; the directions are clear. A few feet down, I get a confirmation: yep, this is the right way to the Victoria line. Keep walking. And stick to the right if you’re not going stand on the escalator, btw. Phew! Great! I can do that! I didn’t take a wrong turn! At the bottom of the escalator, the signs continue to direct me: yep, this way to Victoria line. Great! Still not lost!

At this point, feeling confident about decision one, I start thinking about my next steps. I want to go north on the Victoria line. I want to go up to Euston to switch lines. I follow the signs up and down stairs. I follow the signs left and right. Do you want to go this way? the signs ask me. Then go left up here. Yes, there. Well done, you! Go left! Look at that, there’s Euston on the sign! I’m in the right place!

Once I’m on the platform, I can see from every direction that I’ve done everything right. Even though I’m a tourist with no sense of direction, and only the bare minimum of understanding where my journey will take me, I have managed to get from the front doors of the station all the way down to the platform without pausing to check a map, without stalling with hesitation or sudden panic that I’ve taken a wrong turn, and without making it obvious to anyone that I’ve never been inside this station before. The London Underground only gives you the information you need at any given point to make a single decision. It guides you all the way to your landing place so gently you barely notice it’s happening.

Arriving at a new stop on the Tube, they make the experience of getting out very, very simple.  The signage tells you there’s only one way out.

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This may or may not actually be the case, but having only one way out means you just follow the arrows. This way will take you out. Just follow me. It entire experience was so easy, so simple, so clear, it was practically instant: I was in love.

When I got home I looked up the documentation about Tube signage. Obviously nothing like that could happen by accident. Someone was doing this on purpose, they were pacing out these spaces, simplifying complicated underground walkways and intersections, and looking for points of confusion, then adding the signage required to keep people anxiety-free and moving forward. London Transport calls these “decision points”.

Decision points are the places inside the station where you need to decide what your next step in your journey needs to be. These decisions are so small and discreet, so absolute, that you can make while walking. London Tube stations are busy places, and people stopping to hesitate would create pedestrian traffic jams and angry commuters. They need passengers to make quick, accurate, confident decisions so that their journey is smooth and confusion-free. So they break down the process of the journey, and plot every decision required in every station and every corridor, tunnel, and stairwell, wonky passage, corner, and escalator, and then add the information to the walls to make those decisions happen quickly and easily. They are outrageously successful at this.

The Underground administrators have no idea what my journey is, but they know I have one, and that I need help along the way. Rather than try to give me advice about specifically how to get to Euston station, they just guide me there step by step, decision by decision.

Librarians have a tendency to behave as if patrons walk through the door needing to know practically everything about their journey before they take their first step. We haul out the maps, give advice about the weather and what footwear they need for the first half, and trace the entire experience out before they get past the turnstile. We may never see that patron again; we’d better make sure they’re well-prepared. For each and every leg of the journey. Then we leave them to their own devices, unless they want to seek us out again. What if we didn’t do that? What if we focused on reducing confusion and anxiety if all of our patron interactions by guiding their decisions in small pieces, manageable ones, rather than infodumping right at the start?

A research process is very much like a journey, with decision points along the way. What if all we focused on at any given point (on a website, in a reference interview, in a  physical library, inside a database) is getting to the next decision point? We don’t know what every research process is going to lead to, but everyone hits roughly the same points along the way, regardless of their final destination. If we hold back, and guide people through gently, one decision at a time, maybe patrons will look up at the end of the journey and say, “Well, that was easy.” That, it seems to me, would be ideal.