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Troublemakers

Troublemakers

One of the things I’ve come to recognize and embrace over time is my love for the (so-called) troublemakers. I know the issue with them is right there in the name, but I can’t deny my soft spot for them.

It’s not that I think a troublemaker is always right. A troublemaker is someone who is willing to put their necks on the line, risk a hit, or lose status because they believe in something strongly enough to speak out. 

A troublemaker has courage and passion. A troublemaker will push back, question any decision, question your grasp on a situation, question your very values or your sanity, demand better answers, and even foment revolution. When they’ve got the facts sideways or in half-measure, or when they value chaos, domination or revenge, they can cause destruction, woe, and havoc. But let’s be honest: any quality worth having is risky. Every strength is a weakness in some context. We can’t hold that against the troublemaker.  Heroes are villains too, when you tell the story from a different perspective.

One of the fundamental lessons I’ve learned about trying to make change, very big or very small, is that indifference is far more difficult to overcome than hostility is. I know many people disagree with me; if you dislike conflict and avoid it wherever possible, indifference must always be preferable to hostile disagreement. But in order to be hostile, you have to care. A lot. If no one cares about what you’e trying to do or change, you have a much tougher task in front of you, and you’re going to be doing it pretty much alone. If someone is fighting you and your work tooth and nail, they have energy, passion, and commitment. All you need to do is change their mind. You need to be absolutely ready to let them change yours. 

Like most of us, I have a long history of being wrong. I always start out assuming I understand a situation and know enough to have a perspective I can act on. And then I learn more, and realize I was wrong. Once in a while, I learn something that causes one of my core perspectives, one I’ve built a lifetime of decisions and actions on top of, to come tumbling down. Usually, it hurts. We weave our perspectives into ourselves so tightly that losing one of them is like coming unravelled, and it can seriously sting. But all learning is pain, and when you’re facing it, you can either cover over the hole and pretend nothing’s changed, or let that learning change you.

Troublemakers give me the hope that there’s a moment like that coming. Listening to their perspective unravels when I know and gives me the tools to knit together something more complicated and more true. So as often as they throw a spanner in the works, I think we’d all be poorer, and less, without them.

Here’s to the troublemakers among us. Never stop causing trouble.

To A Brand New Librarian, On The Occasion of Starting Their First Librarian Job

To A Brand New Librarian, On The Occasion of Starting Their First Librarian Job

Hello, there! Welcome to Librarianship! Congratulations on finishing your degree, and on landing your very first librarian gig. That’s no small feat, and you should be very proud of yourself.

We’re happy to meet you, and we’re looking forward to learning and growing with you. Year one on the job is a wild ride, and you’re going to feel new for a long time. We know this job can be tricky sometimes, and we know you can’t do it perfectly out of the gate. Heck, we’ve been at it for years and we’re still trying to figure out how to do it perfectly. Forget perfect! Let’s just aim high, do our best, keep pushing ourselves, and have fun with it. Librarianship has a lot of scope for creativity, and the more experimental you get, the more ideas you pour in, the more fun you’re going to have and the more creative you’re going to be. Dive in! Take a risk!

This job is going to teach you a lot, challenge you a lot, and change you; you’re going to have the same effect on your colleagues. We’re happy to be here to teach you, guide you, support you, learn from you, and be transformed by you and what you discover along the way. We’re looking forward to it!

Our work is important, and we are passionate about it, but it doesn’t deserve your tears. You’re new to this wild wooly world of ours, and so far you don’t yet know what’s normal or acceptable to suffer through as a librarian.

We all make mistakes, and we will talk about them. It will be hard sometimes; hard on the ego, hard on the self-confidence, hard on the feet sometimes, too. We will face failure with all the humility we can muster and learn from it. It hurts us to fail because we strive so hard to be good at what we do, but we’re human beings and we will get things wrong. That hurts sometimes. That is normal and acceptable. The pain of reaching for something and missing it is what makes us grow.

If anyone says something to you that hits you in your soul and leaves you feeling sad, hurt, heavy, demoralized, disrespected, humiliated, and lost, that is not normal or acceptable. That is not learning, it’s not growth, and it’s not okay. You are not expected to suffer through abusive, bullying behaviour in librarianship. It won’t be your job to buck up and deal with it; if someone makes you feel low and small like that, talk to someone you trust. Your supervisor, hopefully; if not, someone else in the leadership hierarchy, or a colleague who can hear you and help you. If that feels weird or dangerous but you’re really struggling with something that’s happened, talk to someone outside of your library system for a fresh perspective.

Talking to other professionals about serious challenges you don’t know how to deal with is not gossiping or telling tales. It’s is good professional practice to get advice on how to solve a problem that’s dragging you down, and it’s important. You’re new to this profession; you can’t always gauge what’s normal or what’s way out of line without touching base with someone else.

Sometimes it hurts because being new hurts, or receiving constructive feedback hurts, or getting something wrong hurts. Sometimes it’s genuinely hard to tell the difference, especially when you’re new and learning.  If you hurt, you need some help, and you should get it. That’s what we’re here for. It doesn’t mean you’re weak. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad librarian. It might mean you’re learning; it might be that someone else is behaving in a counterproductive way. One day it will be easy to spot the difference, but until it is, reach out for help.

I’m not telling you this because I think there are bullies around every corner and you should beware. I’m pretty sure you won’t experience anything like that here in our library, but I’m not prepared to risk your experience on my sense of certainty. It doesn’t matter what I think about our organizational culture; I’m in a different place in it. No matter what I think your experience will be, you still need to hear this from me. I’m telling you because every new librarian should hear this from someone in a position of leadership in their organization. They should know that you have permission to talk about these things. Talking about them is the only way through them.

Bullying make us less creative, less open to risk, less productive, less collaborative, and less happy. An organization that ignores bullying behaviour isn’t able to perform at its best. We want you to be happy, creative, and kicking butt. That’s how we meet our goals! When you feel respected by your colleagues and confident in your skin, we all benefit.

We are lucky that you chose to join us. We’re very much looking forward to working with you and growing with you. You are going to be amazing, and I can’t wait to watch you bloom!

Lanes and Meadows

Lanes and Meadows

I’ve been in my role at Rochester for just over two years now, and the nature of my portfolio has altered pretty significantly in that time. Initially the team comprised of the department heads for the Humanities and Social Science Librarians (and head of Outreach), the Science and Engineering Libraries, the Art/Music Library, and our public services unit. Now add to that the Directors of the Digital Scholarship Lab, Assessment, Research Initiatives, a terrific data analyst, and I have a connection to the Director of the iZone. It’s a pretty big group with a lot going on, but working with this particular mix of people gives me an opportunity to dive head first into developing and maintaining organizational harmony. Organizational gardening, as it were.

In the first few months of looking at where the obstacles and pain points were within this group, what emerged first was a need to understand lanes. A lane is a scope, where responsibility lies, where the organization is expecting your leadership and innovation. It also helps to define where you’re a consultant, collaborator or partner, a participant, or observer. Understanding your lane, and the lanes of your peers, means you have a good sense of where you can drive your creativity and innovation with wild abandon. It’s the space in which you can always expect to hear “yes”, the space where others will defer to your judgment, because it’s your responsibility and you know it best.

A shared understanding of lanes is critical to good collaboration. Everyone has to have a lane, even when they’re next to each other or merge a little here and there. If someone doesn’t have a lane, how do they understand their role in the organization? How do they derive a sense of the value they’re bringing? How do they know when they should jump in with both feet, or when they should proceed with some caution? How do they know when they’ve done what’s expected of them? How do they deploy their creativity in ways that they, and we, can all celebrate? And how do your collaborators know how to call on you if no one fully understands what lane you’re in?

And critically: if I as the AD for the portfolio don’t know how to articulate the lane someone’s in and how that lane intersects with others in the organization, am I not failing as a leader? Should I have a department or an individual in my portfolio if I don’t understand their lane?

So the first thing we did was look at job descriptions and talk about expectations, roles, and our relationships to each other. How do different units interact? How do we lead a cross-departmental project, how do lanes merge, and what do we do when that happens? How do we communicate across projects and departments? And we keep having those conversations as new projects and complications emerge, departments shift and grow, or as the departmental connections develop and change. What’s been super interesting is seeing how lanes that seemed very far from each other suddenly join up; Art and Data, for instance: data visualization as art is a theme we’re going to be following this year that I am so excited about. Metadata and faculty support, another spectacular one. Entrepreneurship and library service design. Getting good at making unexpected connections is critical for building flexible, responsive services and support to the university population. We need to know how to face ambiguity with confidence, and this is one of the ways we’re learning how to do that.

I wonder if my lanes conversation would be easier if everyone in the portfolio had an exactly equivalent role. We are a mix of department heads, service coordinators, functional experts, and new initiative leaders. Oftentimes, a project leader is directing the work of teams with several different direct supervisors. If everyone were a department head with direct reports, would it be simpler? Is this a situation demanding a re-org to make the lines of work clearer and simpler?

As much as you want to tend your organization to French topiary perfection, you’re pretty much always in the middle of a meadow full of wildflowers and former pet bunny rabbits instead. At a certain point messiness is probably a sign that something isn’t working, but I’m not sure all messiness is that sign. You can tidy the organization up to the point that each unit is completely autonomous and is completely clear about exactly what it needs to do, never needing to negotiate with another group or leader, but is that ideal? It’s cleaner for us, certainly, less confusing, but aren’t we missing some creative friction? If something is less confusing for us, is it more confusing for our patrons?

True collaboration is messy, and defies lanes and boundaries in the end, as it should. But I think you need both. You need a solid understanding of your lane to give you confidence and clarity in your work, to define your voice and your role, and I think you need the possibility of messiness to allow for growth, change, ambiguity, and something new.

The Legible Librarian

The Legible Librarian

One of the challenges I find myself facing is the push and pull between a traditional library hierarchy and the role of the functional expert. Most of my career to date has been in the latter category, which may account for the warmth I feel towards those roles, but I now find myself in the former category, and I can see how decisions at the AUL/AD level can either make the walls close in around a functional expert, or can help them to soar.

It is the role of upper level leadership to ensure that a librarian in a functional expert role (aka “coordinator”) is legible to the rest of the organization.

A functional expert can be utterly amazing in all that they do, with endless potential and skill, but if their peers and the rest of the library don’t see their work slotted into the overall work of the library, if they see them as other or external in some way, there will be an a hard limit on how much they can accomplish.

The usual model for functional expertise, as well as ambiguous, new or rapidly-shifting portfolios (technology librarians of all stripes, assessment librarians, data librarians, digital humanities librarians, entrepreneurship, schol comm too, I presume) is often framed in what I think of as a retainer model: we hire the expertise, and anyone in the organization can call on them when needed. The result more often than not is a supremely qualified and able librarian sitting in their office twiddling their thumbs, or constructing a magnificent portfolio of work driven by their own hands that the rest of the library may admire, but don’t see as related to themselves.

Making a functional expert legible often falls to the functional experts themselves. After being on both sides of this equation, I’ve come to the realization that this is impossible. The functional expert may be as eloquent as they come, but it’s all talk if the organization isn’t shifting to adjust and accept their work. Carving out the paths that allow new expertise to fully join the organization has to be the work of library leadership.

How do you make this happen? We have to accept that it’s not just one conversation, and it’s not just an announcement. We have to address these issues step by step and project by project.

I think the first structural piece is understanding that coordinators/functional experts are peers of department heads, but different from them in important ways. In my experience, it is critical to form a permanent team that includes both. It’s true that department heads have radically different work and issues to face. But to function well, department heads and functional experts need to understand each other as partners and collaborators as well as peers.

We can’t just code a functional expert as an independent department head of a department of one. That’s very isolating and archaic, and I think this is where we tend to get this wrong. If the expectation is that a technology librarian, or data librarian, or schol comm librarian is going to bring expertise that will touch the entire campus, for instance, then they need to team up with the department head(s) for liaison/outreach to bring that expertise into the hands on, on-the-ground work. They can’t recreate a liaison network on their own (well, they can, but that’s just creating internal competition and losing valuable opportunities for the liaison librarians, as well as lessening their own potential impact). If we don’t use the structures we already have, we might as well hand the functional expertise off to another unit altogether, because the effect is about the same.

I know the immediate response to the suggestion that functional experts become leaders in partnership with liaison department heads: liaison librarians are already overwhelmed, too busy, too many projects as it is, etc. We can’t have more bosses, it’s too much, it’s too confusing! Rather than give up in the face of this outcry, we need to reorient how we’re viewing the work of the functional expert, and understand that there are many ways to be a leader.

It’s not separate work, it’s not on top of everything else work; it’s got to be integrated into the work of a department. A department head is focused on the vision, on implementation of work and goals, and on monitoring performance; a functional expert has their eyes on one impactful realm of knowledge. Together, they create the work going forward. As a team, they are dynamite.

But a functional expert will struggle to launch if they aren’t understood by the department heads as a partner rather than a competitor or just as another, disconnected peer. So the AUL/AD needs to be clear about the relationships and dependencies between them so that they can see each other as they are and work together to support the work of the library.

Often, it’s the liaison librarians on whom this kind of campus impact work fundamentally depends. A functional expert might have a key understanding of what faculty need to know/do/think about in order to move forward and meet needs in an area, but it’s the department head who is best placed to shape that idea into real and doable work that supports the mission of the department, and it’s the liaison librarians who make those connections and get it done. That’s how a functional expert can end up leading entire departments and having massive impact fast; with the support of the department heads, who understand how to construct a project that supports the existing mission and work of the department. The department heads continue to monitor performance and shape work even if a functional expert designed the project. They are stronger for working together.

But the task of making a functional expert legible doesn’t end there; it’s also the role of the AUL/AD to ensure that their own peers understand how a new or changing portfolio affects their departments as well, when it does. The amazing thing about a coordinator role is that it’s unhooked from a specific department and can creep into work all over the place; that’s only a good experience if everyone involves sees it coming, understands its purpose, and respects it when it comes. It’s important not to expect a functional expert to be able to carve that path themselves. No matter how good they are, this is beyond their scope.

At the AUL/AD level, we can see where the crossover is about to happen, and that’s when we need to provide the context required for a potential collaborator to be prepared to welcome it.  Project by project, ambiguity by ambiguity, these conversations need to happen not just once, but many times, as they appear, to translate the goals of the functional expert at the earliest stage so that they have the support and collaboration that will make them successful.

I have seen many discussions in the profession about coordinator roles and how hopeless they are; I have been struggling to understand this perspective. In light of that, I have become very aware of day to day work I find myself doing to ensure that the functional experts in my portfolio are able to do their work well and successfully, fully and joyfully integrated into the daily life of the libraries. The skills they are building by designing and implementing projects in their areas of expertise, collaborating closely with department heads and adjusting their ideas to the goals and strengths of the department, pitching ideas and gaining support, leading staff without directly supervising them; these are some of the most valuable and necessary skills for future leadership, and I think it would be a tragedy to have fewer of these opportunities available in the profession because AULs/ADs don’t know how to manage them well.

My goal is to know how. I’m learning.

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.

Space and Audio

Space and Audio

I feel like this is a bit of a tangent, but I keep noticing these things, and I keep thinking they’re interesting. It’s my research leave, right? So I should investigate the things that strike me as worthy of observation, shouldn’t I?

The thing I keep noticing, and keep being intrigued by, is how various services and spaces make use of audio to provide  critical information.

As I’ve expressed before, I’m very impressed by the signage on the London Underground. I will have to delve into this again more thoroughly, because I still find it very inspiring. The thing I immediately liked best about it was that it delivers small pieces of information to patrons exactly when they need it, and not a second before. It also works to provide “confirmation” signage, the sole purpose of which is to reassure the patron that they’re in the right place. I’m generally excited to see any acknowledgment of the emotions associated with an experience built right into the placement and content of signage; fear is always a key factor, in public transit as in library services. With the pressure to keep people moving along platforms, through long tunnels and up stairs in crowded and busy tube stations, it makes sense that the London Underground would place so much emphasis on answering patron questions exactly in the places where those questions get asked so that no one has to stop, block traffic, and figure out whether to turn right or left.

That’s not the end of the information-giving. Once on the train itself, there are maps on the walls of the entire line, so you can watch your  progress. There are digital signs telling you where you are and where you’re going. This is surely enough, but on top of all this, there’s a voice that tells you where you are, which stop is next, where the train terminates, and, famously, to mind the gap.

It’s overkill, surely. I can see the map, I can see the station names on the walls of the stations as they appear, I can see it on the digital sign. Is it there purely for those with visual impairments? Possibly. But it also infuses the space with very reassuring information that’s frankly easy to ignore if you don’t need it, and easy to cling on to otherwise. Even if I know where I’m going, it marks my progress and punctuates a relatively dark journey with no real views (most of the time). It supports the written information and pins it not in space, but in time.

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I’m a fan of Westminster chimes. I grew up with them; my parents had (and still have) a mantel clock that chimes every fifteen minutes, day and night. Lots of people find that horrifying, but I don’t. It’s reassuring to me. I don’t especially trust my internal clock; sometimes three minutes feels like ten, and an hour feels like five minutes. When you wake up in the night you feel like you’ve been lying there awake for hours. But the Westminster chime grounds you in reality: I’ve only heard it go off once since I’ve been awake, so I’ve only been awake for fifteen minutes, tops. I like how the chime infuses space with the knowledge of how time is passing. The sound changes from chime to chime; you can tell from the chime which part of the hour you’re in. It’s an audio version of a physical object. It’s an ancient means of providing ambient information.

I think the voice on the tube is similar. It’s providing me with ambient knowledge that I can half ignore.

There was a documentary, or news piece some time ago, about the unlock sound on an iPhone. The sound is gone from OS7, but until recently, there was a very specific, very metallic sound always accompanied the action. You can’t feel it unlocking, since an iPhone uses only software keys. But there had to be a sound so we could understand what was happening, and to be assured the action was successful. In place of a sensation, a sound for reassurance. A sound to make a digital action feel real.

Libraries are generally aiming to be silent spaces. Having things announced is a nuisance to most people. I think it’s possible that audio cues have a place in the good functioning of a library; it’s just a matter of being supremely thoughtful about it and determining what kinds of ambient information is valuable to patrons, and what kinds of audio cues would be comforting rather than annoying. There’s also the question of placement; there are no voices telling me things when I’m walking through tunnels and following signs, but there are when I’m heading up an escalator, or sitting inside a train waiting for the right moment to head for the door.

My parents have been visiting me for the last few days, so we went on a few city tours on open-topped double-decker buses. I seem to recall seeing these kinds of buses drive past me, with a tour guide shouting into a microphone. Those days are gone. Now they give you cheap earphones, and you plug into the bus to hear a pre-recorded tour in the language of your choice.

photo 1

This struck me as kind of genius. The pre-recorded tour told me stories and history about the places I was looking at; it wasn’t ambient information, it was a packaged lecture based on my choice of language and volume, and the location of the vehicle I was sitting in. Initially I assumed it was hooked up with GPS so that it would play based very specifically on location, but I discovered when we got cold and came inside the bus that the driver was pressing a button to advance the script. I found that oddly disappointing. I liked the idea of a system tracking traffic and our location and giving me stories based on it. It’s a shared experience, but it’s personal. It’s utterly silent to the people around you, but immensely informative for the people listening. It’s carefully planned and thought out, and no piece of the story is forgotten. The recorded tour goes on all day, and you can jump on and off the bus where you like. That means you can listen to the tour over and over again and pick up the things you missed without asking a human tour guide to be at your disposal. That got me thinking too. How can we help pace information to keep it in line with the place a patron finds herself?

I’ve seen similar things on a different and more self-driven scale. The Murmur project in Toronto placed ear-shaped signs all over to Toronto with phone numbers on them which played stories about that spot to the caller. We can do better than that now with QR codes or just URLs, since smart phones have become so ubiquitous.

One of the very best examples of audio in libraries I’ve seen is the pre-recorded audio push-cubes in the Rama public library. You know those teddy bears with audio buttons in their hands? Or cards with audio that plays when you open them? You can buy those devices empty now, with 20 to 200 seconds of space for audio. They’re cheap, and they’re even reusable. In an effort to expose children to the Ojibwe language in order to preserve it, the brilliant Sherry Lawson of the Rama Nation uses the cubes to record words and phrases, and places them in relevant areas in her library. A patron can approach an object, see it’s written Ojibwe name, then press the cube to hear it spoken. She is providing ambient exposure to the children of the reservation by inserting her voice and her language in places where they can easily interact with it.

Perhaps it’s Mike Ridley’s fault for introducing me to the concept of a post-literate world, but there’s something about getting audio information in situ that really appeals to me.  Where it provides new information, I think it’s fascinating, letting people lift up the dog ear on a place and see a whole new world underneath. Where it focuses on reassurance, I think it provides a critical service in allowing people to feel found and safe. This is technology that isn’t infrastructure; it’s a bolt on, an ambient addition, and a simple and cheap one at that. Letting audio form a feeling: that’s the kicker, for me.

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.

Makey Makeys in the Library

Makey Makeys in the Library

We’ve been experimenting with moving into Maker territory, and wanted to start introducing library staff to some outside-the-box computing. We struggled a bit with how to accomplish that until we stumbled upon Makey Makey. Not as complicated as a straight up arduino, and not requiring any specialized equipment, we thought the Makey Makeys could help staff understand how flexible computing can be, and how we can turn anything into an interface. Including apples, pennies, and each other.

Some video from today’s staff session:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vE_GjFh_eTY]

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Of-BXaufojs]

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2i9OJX1EOOY&w=853&h=480]

Selling Identity: What Libraries Can Learn from Online Perfume Retailers

Selling Identity: What Libraries Can Learn from Online Perfume Retailers

I have never liked perfume. People tend to wear too much, it smells chemical and fake, and I figure we’re slathered in enough scent-bearing things (laundry detergents, shampoos, soaps, deodorants, moisturizers, and so forth) that I hardly needed to seek out another one. I mentioned this to a friend one day recently. I said, “I don’t like perfume.” And she said, “Really? I do.”

Not that I’m easily swayed or anything (I absolutely am), but I thought, huh. Have I considered this opinion in the last ten years? Maybe I should rethink my stance. I’ve been doing that a lot lately, rethinking my opinions of things.

It’s about this sabbatical I’m taking. (Seriously: it is.) I feel like my entire identity is up for grabs because of it. I mean, in part that’s the point. To look at everything with new eyes. Look at the world as if I’ve never seen it before. Question everything. My sabbatical involves spending three months living in London (not the one in Ontario). In order to live for three months in a foreign city, I’m going to need to pack my entire life into a suitcase, my entire identity, as it were, and go somewhere where almost no one knows me. I will be kickstarting myself. No expectations, no old rules. Everything I do will be deliberate. I’ve taken the concept of a sabbatical as a rarefied opportunity to start myself over, to decide afresh who I am and what my life is about. I know who I’ve been; without the comforting railings of the assumptions and judgements I’ve allowed to be built around me, who am I now?

The first thing I did was learn to make a soufflé. I know, I know. It’s odd. I’m just going with it.

So the question of perfume came up, and I decided to rethink my opinion. I did some research. I thought about it. I opted for oils over alcohol-based spray products. I discovered Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab.

Screen Shot 2013-03-07 at 10.35.24 PM

What’s interesting about BPAL is that what they’re doing is practically impossible. They have no bricks-and-mortar shop. They are entirely online, and they sell hand-blended, handcrafted perfume oils. How do they survive and be successful? How did something like this ever take off? How do you sell a smell over the internet?

But they do. That’s the interesting bit: they do. And I think the way they’ve managed to do it is an important lesson for librarians. (Bear with me here.)

BPAL makes and sells perfume oils, but they work only from very tight concepts. Their oils are in themes, and those themes resonate very deeply with their customer base. For instance: they have a series of perfume oils based on Alice in Wonderland and The Last Unicorn. These are the kinds of stories that we read when we were very young, when our senses were far more open; you read Alice in Wonderland and we can all but smell the mad tea party, the Red Queen, and the white rabbit. So BPAL creates scents in keeping with textual descriptions. The Bread-and-Butter Fly is made of thin slices of bread with butter, and it eats sugar and weak tea. (Guess what BPAL’s “Bread-and-Butter Fly” oil smells like?) They have another series called “Wanderlust,” and have created oils for a variety of cities, real and imagined. They have another series called “Sin and Salvation,” and have a perfume oil for each of the seven deadly sins. The concepts resonate, so people buy.  They created a catalogue of scents, but they also created a mirror; everyone searches through it looking for themselves. People want to find scents that mark them out as the people they feel they are (or want to be).

BPAL sells something ephemeral and incorporeal (scent) by tying it tightly to a strong concept, and we naturally seek out concepts that support our perceived (or aspirational) identities. I know it’s true for BPAL; you can read all the reviews of these unique scents, and lots of people will report liking the smell of one of them, but will say, “it’s not me.” They sell perfume oil, but what they’re really selling is identity markers. Identities.

They are hardly the first to do this, of course: most successful businesses apply something of this identity marketing. Starbucks clearly does; they sell an experience more than they sell coffee. They sell us the opportunity to be the sort of people who sit in a Starbucks with our laptops, thinking deep thoughts and staring out the window with a tall white paper cup in our hands. They have a tight concept, and either you buy in or you don’t. But it’s not about coffee, it’s about us.

There is a part of me that’s always thinking like a salesman. Not because I want to shill things, but because I see good things being misused and ignored out of habit. Things like library services, library spaces, and (let’s be honest) even librarians. They get taken for granted and misunderstood. Traditional library services, like reference, have been around for so long no one needs to justify its existence anymore. To its detriment, I feel. Good services that have a lot to offer need to be re-articulated from time to time to keep them valuable and visible. I think like a salesman in that I try to refashion the metaphors around good, solid, existing ideas in order to help people see them in new ways, and understand how to approach them. In order to help people understand how these services fit into their lives. So my fascination with selling a smell over the internet forces me to consider how what they’ve done applies to us.

Libraries build identities too, don’t they? Being the sort of person who goes to libraries, who supports libraries, who thinks big thoughts and knows how to seek help and get it. The sorts of people who spend their afternoons in the library, working hard. Working with others. Finding information. Getting a good grade. that’s an identity too. How can we let our patrons use us to define themselves? How can the process of our patrons relating us to their identities help them to understand our services better? A smell, in the end, is just a smell; the concept is only its carrier. What concept is carrying library services? Does that concept resonate on such a deep level that our patrons can’t help but understand how those services are relevant to them?

BPAL doesn’t cater to just one kind of person or personality. They have oils called “Old Demons of the First Class,” and “Hellfire.” In a section dedicated to fairy tales, they have one called “The Lights of Men’s Lives,” and smells like “the wax and smoke of millions upon millions of candles illuminating the walls of Death’s shadowy cave: some tall, straight, and strong, blazing with the fire of life, others dim and guttering.” They also have scents that smell like sheets hanging on a line in the sunshine. So many personalities can find their identity in that catalogue. Surely libraries are at least that rich.

Gamification and Education

Gamification and Education

I’ve been hovering on the edges of “gamification” in the realm of education for a while now, sort of constantly on the verge of deep diving into the literature and the projects, but then I seem to be constantly getting dragged away by a million other things. I’ve wanted to be able to say more about it, because it feels very close to my own drives when it comes to tech in higher ed, but it’s markedly different in interesting ways.

I’ve been of two minds about the gamification movement from the start, though I feel under-qualified to actually state an opinion. My feeling about it, from the casual reading I’ve done so far, is that the concept has its heart in the right place in trying to replicate the engagement games engender in a formal learning environment, but that I’m not convinced we’re entirely clear on why games engender that engagement the way they do, or even that it’s one single thing that’s the same factor from game to game. But what do I know; maybe I’m just over-complicating things. I’m not a gamer myself, really, but I’ve been engaged in a pretty significant number of online communities that also exhibit the level of determined commitment that gamers do. If you can remove the game and still see the same behaviour, maybe the key to what we’re looking for isn’t strictly inside the game.

Then I found this:

In a recent blog post speaking out against the term ‘gamification’, [Margaret] Robertson wrote, “What we’re currently terming gamification is in fact the process of taking that thing that is least essential to games and representing it as the core of the experience. Points and badges have no closer a relationship to games than they do to websites and fitness apps and loyalty cards. They’re great tools for communicating progress and acknowledging effort, but neither points nor badges in any way constitute a game.”

“Gamification is the wrong word for the right idea. The word for what’s happening at the moment is pointsification. There are things that should be pointsified. There are things that should be gamified. There are things that should be both. There are many, many things that should be neither.” Margaret Robertson

You may be tempted to jump on board and trade your grades in for badges and call it a game. But this simple act doesn’t dramatically change the learner’s experience. Take some time to really understand what makes a good game great. Create a compelling narrative to pull your students through the course. Set up mentoring and collaboration opportunities such as those you encounter in games to enable learners to share what they know. And frequently chime in with feedback. Use those badges to chart progress, but meaningful instructor feedback is what will truly propel the learner forward.

On some level, higher education is already a game. The points are grades, and students are expected to gain as many of them as they can to level up and win. Many games have elements of grinding (where you do dull and not very challenging or inspiring tasks over and over in order to gain a level, set of skills, or gold that will unlock the next segment of the game experience); I suspect grinding is the part of gaming we have most successfully adopted at this point. We give students lots of activities they aren’t particularly engaged in and expect performance on them. That’s how education has worked for a long tim. We have a general motivation problem.

We attribute that motivation problem to all kinds of things; the classes are too large, faculty teaching loads are too high, too many students enter higher education simply for the certification of it rather than any desire to learn. I’m sure all of these things are true, but there are assignments that work in spite of all that, and students who get engaged even if there are 1000 students in the class with them.

Any work in examining motivation in any learning environment, formal, informal, gaming, affinity group of any kind, is valuable in the end to the end, I think. I don’t think there’s one answer here; I suspect there are a million answers.

I should schedule that deep dive now, shouldn’t I.

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.

Of Horseless Carriages

Of Horseless Carriages

Tablets are interesting. I suspect they are an invention of a culture that thinks of itself as mobile but actually isn’t; North America is more of a walk-and-sit culture, which wants portable more than it wants truly mobile. But what’s especially interesting about tablets is how hard it is for us to shift away from thinking about them as computers (where  “computer” means a screen that sits in front of a keyboard on a table).

I’ve been experimenting with hooking up a bluetooth keyboard to my ipad. I’ve resisted doing that for the longest time, because I don’t like to fall into the horseless carriage chasm. I don’t want to think about a tablet as a computer; it’s a different beast. It’s not a mini workstation, and I don’t want to turn it into one. But because I’m leaving on holiday next week, and because I’m currently working on a writing-intensive project, I started thinking about how I could use my ipad as a real writing tool.

I think a software keyboard is fine most of the time. When I’m not doing serious writing (upwards of 2k in a sitting), I have no problem using a software keyboard exclusively. But a writing project is a writing project, and for that many words, I’m fastest and most comfortable with a keyboard. So I broke down and worked out how to connect a keyboard to the thing. I took it out for a spin one day, keyboard and ipad packed up in a purse, and set it up in a pub, in a coffee shop, and even on a bus. I absolutely loved it. I loved it more than I expected to. It was great. I’ve got the right apps to make it work, they all sync back up with my computer. It’s like a remote port of my computer; the whole project resides on my laptop, but I can take a comfortable keyboard and just the pieces I’m working on out with me into the world and work on them wherever I happen to be. Scene by scene, nothing else. It’s nice.

As I get closer to turning my ipad into a mini computer, I’m getting more sensitive about the differences between those two, conceptually. I don’t have a keyboard that’s part of an ipad case. My keyboard is a second thing I carry with me. That might seem awkward or odd, or at least less than ideal, I realize. But writing is a singular activity for me, and not one I’m always planning to do when I stick my ipad in my purse. I don’t want my ipad to always be connected to a keyboard; sometimes I just want to read on it. So I’d rather have a separate keyboard and keep the slim ipad case I’ve had since I first bought it. I noticed, when looking up reviews of ipad keyboards, that a separate keyboard is considered a disadvantage. Too much to carry, I guess, and it’s considered a problem that the keyboard doesn’t contain some kind of stand to make the ipad sit up like a proper screen.

That it’s not turning an ipad into a mini laptop.

Horseless carriage: there it is, isn’t it. If you’re going to have a keyboard, your ipad is automatically turning into a workstation. Why do we want an ipad to be a mini laptop? It’s not one. It doesn’t need to be one. A keyboard doesn’t need to turn it into one, either.

I tried working with my ipad up close to the keyboard, like a monitor, as if they were connected; it wasn’t very comfortable. So I moved it. I moved several inches back, where it’s easier to look at. I shifted it over to the left when my food arrived so I could read what I’d done over dinner. And then, finally, after far too long, I realized I could lay my ipad flat on the table, like a pad of paper, and type on my keyboard even though there was no screen in front of me. Because there doesn’t need to be one. I’m working with a device that’s more like a pad of paper than a laptop, and typing with the screen lying flat next to me actually works quite well.

Though I suspect it looks a bit strange to passersby if I’m sitting in a café typing furiously into a keyboard with no screen in front of me. But it feels great. And it made me realize that a keyboard isn’t the bottom half of a laptop. It’s just an input device I’ve come to feel very comfortable with. That’s all.

National Post Alters a Web Article…based on a Tweet

National Post Alters a Web Article…based on a Tweet

Well, this is the last thing I expected to happen today.

I read an article online from the National Post about Tom Gabel from the band Against Me! coming out as trans in Rolling Stone today. Unlike the Rolling Stone article, the National Post article kept the male pronouns. So I tweeted the writer. Here’s our exchange:

Not only was this not what I expected from a journalist, this isn’t what I expected from the National Post. I thought we’d end up having a snarky back and forth (like I did recently with @jessehirsh, who treated me like an idiot for raising a question with him about something he said on the radio), and everyone would end up feeling annoyed and wronged. But that’s not what happened.

Colour me impressed. Some random nobody on the interwebs tweets you and you actually alter content because they have a point? Thanks, man. Thanks for listening to me. Thanks for being willing to listen to me. Fantastic. That’s really not what I thought would happen.

I’m not sure what the lesson is here, but the bar has been raised. I will expect other content creators to follow suit now! My pesky tweets will never stop!

Question Everything: In class engagement

Question Everything: In class engagement

I’ve been interested for some time in how good it feels to teach. It feels really good, to the teacher, to hit every note, give out every bit of information, to give a good presentation of a set of information. It feels great. And that feeling surely colours our understanding of what a good job it is we’ve actually done.

From Joi Ito:

A single student’s brainwave activity over a week. Sitting in class is about on par with watching TV and sleeping. As Joi states, it’s just one student and it would be foolish to draw conclusions based on it, but it’s certainly interesting. Being in class, the way we’ve currently structured what “being in class” means, is a among the least engaging of this student’s week. Sleeping looks more engaging than class time does.

More research like this would probably make more people want to “flip” their classrooms.

The Information Literacy Agenda

The Information Literacy Agenda

Goal SettingEveryone has an agenda. We have official, institutional agendas that guide us and help those who hold the purse strings to determine where the money flows and where it doesn’t. I believe, in general, the overarching agenda of an academic library is to be indispensable to the university community. We will have an indispensable collection, an indispensable reference service, an indispensable staff, and indispensable librarians.

We also have personal agendas. Librarians want to do their job well, be well-regarded, and accomplish their goals. Faculty have research and publication goals, and largely want to get their work done as painlessly as possible. Each individual has their own agendas and needs; we spend most of our lives parsing each other’s agendas. They shift and change over time. Agendas are a fact of life.

I had the experience recently of being trained by someone with a very clear agenda. That agenda had nothing to do with me, my goals, or our library, but she was bound and determined to do what she was there to do. The experience was alienating, frustrating, annoying, boring, and frankly offensive. She might have had something to teach me in there, but I was so put-off by the approach I wasn’t ready to hear it. Rather than being a partner in learning and working with my goals, she was forcing me into her rigid expectations, which she clearly felt was for my own good. She knew what I need to know, and what I needed to do: she’s the trainer, I’m the trainee. She wasn’t interested in my agenda; she was going to follow her own come hell or high water.

That experience made me revisit pretty much everything I do. I don’t ever want anyone to see me as rigidly enforcing my own agenda upon them. That made me question our commitment to information literacy as a standards-driven, independent program. It frequently appears to be an agenda that bears no clear relationship to the agenda of the faculty or the students. It is a broad-based project with excellent goals that does little to make the right-now, hands-on experience of being a course instructor any less painful, which probably goes some way toward explaining why it so often fails. It might be as alienating and off-putting as that woman who trained me.

This is what I see: librarians ask faculty to give them a “library assignment”, where the librarian can work with the instructor to construct an assignment that will further the kind and human goal of making students one tiny step closer to being information literate, and to make them better citizens and better people. I have seen librarians successfully secure these assignments, only to have them taken away a year or two later when another, more pressing need appeared in the agenda of the instructor.

Charity enriched Lemon-AidThese concessions on behalf of the instructors read to me like charity. The instructors like and respect the librarian; when she asks for a slot in the syllabus, they want to give it to her. They can’t see the relationship between that assignment and their own immediate goals (other than building a smoother and better relationship with the librarian), but they’re willing to give up 5% of the final grade as an act of goodwill. Like all charity, that goodwill dries up when a more pressing need appears, or when the course changes hands. It’s not that the instructor doesn’t think information literacy is a good idea, or that they can’t get behind creating information literate citizens and life-long learners and all those great motherhood goals; it’s just that the specific goal doesn’t figure directly into their immediate, overriding agenda: it’s not contributing to making the process of teaching the course as painless as possible. No wonder so many faculty leave the room when library instruction is going on in their classrooms. They’re busy, and you’ve given them a break. The break is more important to them than the content is.

Information literacy, on its own, is too weak an agenda to hold its own on a daily basis without allies in a university environment. It gives librarians a potentially-alienating agenda separate from the mission of the students and the instructors.

It’s not that the ideas are necessarily bad (though I could go on a long screed about the absence of web literacy in the information literacy paradigm, but I’ll leave that for another day). It’s not a bad thing to be guided by ideas about exactly what kind of impact you want to have for the greater good. I believe in the civic responsibility of librarians. But in practical terms: we’re not sufficiently addressing the needs of our allies. Without their buy in, our agendas are meaningless.

I know there are some amazing information literacy librarians who do get buy in from faculty on information literacy issues and have successful programs. This is only praise for them. You, successful information literacy librarian, you are managing to reinterpret this rather painful and pedantic structure into something that fits into the goals and agenda of your university and your teaching faculty. A gold star to you: the standards don’t tell you how to do that. None of the workshops on information literacy that I’ve attended have come close to explaining how to do that. There seems to be a dearth of understanding about how important this is, and the fact that you’ve worked it out means you have excellent salesmanship skills. Probably far better than mine.

I’m advocating agendalessness here, but that’s a bit disingenuous. Let me explain.

I have an agenda of my own, as everyone does. But I have to tell you, I’m never going to lead with it. I’m not going to walk up to an instructor and say, “you know, I think your students are bored and motivationless. I find this profoundly sad. I think you need to redesign your course to make it more interactive and engaging. Remember your best educational moment, when you felt like you had something to contribute and you learned so much just sitting there with your classmates, wrestling through a problem? Why can’t the entire undergraduate experience be like that? It’s so much easier now, you know, look at all these tools. Why on earth are you choosing to use medieval teaching methods? Doesn’t that strike you as odd? You can do better than that. I can help!”

I’m never, never going to say that. That’s a terrifying amount of work I’m proposing there. That is the opposite of painless. But my real agenda is in there: I want the student experience to better than it currently is. The way I’m going about doing that is by helping faculty use technology better. That’s my piece of the pie. Once they understand that they have someone around to help them, they start to get really creative. The motherhood statement that is my actual agenda seems like something fulfillable once the supports are in place. They want the same things I want, in the end, but high on their agenda is to keep it painless. I can’t expect them to put my agenda first, ahead of theirs. My agenda is pretty painful. I have to help them get to painlessness first. That has to be my primary goal, because it’s how I keep my allies. Once we get that, then we can get creative.

I don’t bury my agenda entirely; it guides the decisions I make, the options I suggest, the places where I spend my time and energy. It is the basis for the consultation I give. It informs how I participate on committees. It guides me in how I think about and experiment with new tools. But I have to put other people’s agendas first if I want to be successful. Because I’m a librarian: I don’t have control over a course, or a program, or a division. I can’t dictate how things are done. Librarians are powerful in that we sit in the middle between staff and faculty, we aren’t beholden to the same things either group is. We have a lot of independence. But along with that comes a gap: we can’t do big things with big agendas without allies.

So librarians want to teach students to be information literate, and we can’t do that on our own.

We can’t impact students without buy-in from faculty. And why is that? It’s because of the student agenda: students have one too. They share the keep it painless agenda that the faculty have, but added to it: get the highest grade I can for the smallest amount of effort I’m willing to expend. No one likes this agenda. People criticize it all the time, but keep in mind: we constructed it. A grade is the only motivation we give them. We want them to be there because they want to learn, but that’s not good enough. Grades are the currency of undergraduate life, and until we reward anything other than grades, that’s the world we’ll live in.

So if we want to impact students, we need to either change the currency system (possible, but difficult), or we have to get into the existing currency stream. In either case, we need to work through faculty to accomplish anything with regards to students. (Or: through certificate programs run by departments. Those are an excellent example of providing an alternate currency for undergraduates, and it works.) Our motherhood statements are wonderful and well-meaning, but we need to make the connection to the individual faculty agenda in order to bring all that good knowledge and skill to the students. All librarians know this, but it’s not enough to just bring our agenda to faculty. We need to work with their agenda first. We need to be indispensable first. As indispensable allies, we have some leverage and influence.

We can’t be the terrible trainer who trained me. We can’t be rigid about what we want everyone to know, regardless of their own goals and circumstances. We can’t rely on charity and goodwill; we need to be indispensable. We need to understand the agendas of our allies, and tailor our services and goals to support them. That doesn’t mean information literacy goals can’t shape what we do, but I don’t believe we can lead with them. Information literacy can’t be an addition to an existing curriculum: it needs to be the solution to a clear problem presented by the instructor. It needs to be the solution that leads to painlessness. A painless solution isn’t one you let go.

This is my (perhaps mercenary) perspective. Information literacy is great as an internal mandate, but it’s a tough sell otherwise.

No one wants or needs to contend with another agenda.

Books vs. Screens: The Disingenuous Argument

Books vs. Screens: The Disingenuous Argument

The UT Librarians Blog posted another authorless post I have attempted to comment on; while they announced some time ago that the blog would no longer put comments in a moderation queue, I seem to be stuck in one. Again. And thus:

The post in question is a link to the Globe and Mail article entitled, “Books Vs. Screens: Which should Your Kids be Reading?” The article contains such wisdom as:

In Britain, University of Oxford neuroscientist and former Royal Institution director Susan Greenfield revealed a far different vision – one that could have come straight out of an Atwoodian dystopia – when she warned that Internet-driven “mind change” was comparable with climate change as a threat to the species, “skewing the brain” to operate in an infantalized mode and creating “a world in which we are all required to become autistic.”

Less dire but no less pointed warnings have come from Maryanne Wolf, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University in Massachusetts. “I do think something is going to be lost with the Twitter brain,” she said in an interview.

The UT Librarians (apparently collectively) said:

Is this something we should be thinking about? Deep Reading vs. Screen Reading? In today’s Globe & Mail, Dec. 12, 2011, John Barber, examines recent studies on screen reading vs. what is being called deep reading – something to consider as educators and leaders in our fields.

On the platform, reading

And now, finally, my reply from the moderation queue:

This is blatant scare-mongering, and disingenuous to boot. Comparing reading novels to reading tweets is like saying the card catalogue, with it’s tiny bits of information, was a threat to “deep thinking”.

There are many kinds of reading, and literate people engage in many of them, sometimes within the same afternoon. People who follow Margaret Atwood also, as a general rule, read novels. “Screen reading” pontificators need to spend some time looking at the actual reading (and writing) going on on the internet. Like BookCountry, from Penguin, which is practically brand new, and fictionpress. Look at all that reading and writing going on! Reading and writing of lengthy bits of writing, no less, and on screens! If you’re brave, look at Fanfiction.net (there are 56k stories on there about the television show Glee alone) or AO3 (which, for the record, has works over 100k words long with as many views and thousands of comments from readers). Lots of people read online, and form communities around texts. It might not be the kind of reading you want to see, but it’s sustained, lengthy, uninterrupted, and on screens.

We need to stop fixating on the form content takes. What the screen is providing is a platform for people who would never get their work passed through publishing houses and editors, and while you may scoff at that (because we all know money is the ultimate test of whether or not something has value, right?), there is more text to read and engage with now than ever before, and people are engaging. Young people are engaging. Some of that text is in short format (like twitter). Some of it is so long publishers would balk at the idea of trying to publish it in physical form. It doesn’t matter if it’s on a screen. Content in content. This new form has the potential to save the monograph, not just to kill it. The form of the novel, the short story, the extended series, the monograph are all alive and well and being published online.

I think, as librarians, we should be concerned with providing access to content, and, perhaps, providing platforms for content to be published, found, and engaged with on every level (deep or browse). Marrying ourselves to paper is the death knell of this profession.

Spooky and I enjoy the Nook--Daily Image 2011--October 2

The Technology Trifecta

The Technology Trifecta

I work with the soft side of technology. I don’t write code (I only have the tiniest bit of coding ability, and I haven’t used it in years), I don’t do hardware. I don’t monitor servers. The soft side of technology is all about working with the people trying to use it, and helping them to understand it. I’ve come to believe that there are three key things required to help other people use technology effectively. I’ve come to this realization as part of the rethink and reworking of our faculty training program this year, and it’s forced me to think about the whole experience from another angle.

Granted, my background in theological studies and my penchant for writing fiction in my spare time probably play a role in my perspective on this, but I’m going to run with it.

The (soft side) Technology Trifecta

1. A Good Metaphor

Metaphor

All technology requires a good metaphor, something people can seize onto. The wrong metaphor can leave a technology languishing for ages. Metaphor is how the brain learns what to do with a thing. When they called it “email” (a stroke of genius) everyone knew what they could do with this network messaging system: send and receive, store, forward, add attachments. That metaphor is what, I believe, makes email the most obvious and easiest-to-learn application we’ve got. Blogs had a good one with old school journaling and diaries (and explains why the first run of blogs were all intensely personal). Without decent metaphors, our patrons will struggle with the web. A good metaphor might take years to think up, and we might only come up with one really good metaphor in our lifetimes, but I think coming up with them is a worthy pursuit.

2. Faith

Faith Street

I had the experience recently of having to investigate something pretty dire, and then relay my findings back to a distressed and disconcerted instructor. He had to take my word for it that the thing he was afraid had happened had not in fact happened. I had to reassure him that he could still trust the system. If you don’t have faith in the system you’re using, if you think it’s possible that, without your knowledge or understanding, it’s revealing secrets or displaying your content to the world without your permission, your willingness to be creative with it will rapidly vanish.

There’s a difference, however, between selling someone a system and helping them to have faith in it. You don’t have to adore a bit of software in order to have faith in it. You need to know that when you trust it with information it will do what you expect it to with that information. Setting those expectations appropriately helps people develop faith in a system. I see my role not as making you love the institutional system, but to have faith in it.

The best gift I could receive in this situation is to have the instructor believe me when I explain what’s happened. I want him to have faith in me, too. (He did.)

3. A Mac Friend

Geek Squad to the Rescue

This one takes a bit of explaining. Back in the 90s when I first started using macs, I wasn’t comfortable making that decision on my own. Everyone I knew was a PC user: what if I ran into a problem? There were no mac stores then. I would have been on my own. I might not have stayed a mac user if it had not been for the one guy I knew who used macs. I had my mac friend, and I knew he could help me with the things I didn’t understand. Knowing I had a mac friend meant I could try things and feel comfortable knowing there was someone I could turn to.

In a meeting several months ago, a retiring librarian told me she wanted to switch to a mac but wasn’t sure she knew what she was doing. I said to her, “It’s okay. I’ll be your mac friend.” That was when I realized that I didn’t need a mac friend anymore. But I had become one for other people.

Of course, this is the genius of the apple genius bar: they sell mac friends.

I think every technology needs a mac friend, and that’s how I’m currently framing faculty technology support. They may not need you to walk them through every “click here” and array of options. They may just need your help to get them started, and your reassurance that you are there for them when they hit a wall. They have a mac friend; they can try things and not be afraid of having to dig themselves back out on their own. It’s like a safety net; personal, one-on-one, on call reassurance.

We’ve spent years focusing on the content of training when it comes to technology, not realizing that the most important thing we were doing while giving that training was just demonstrating that we know what we’re doing and we’re here to help.

So that’s what I’m focusing on now. I know what I’m doing, you can trust me. I’m here to help you, not just now, but all year long. See this thing? It thinks its an archive. Go play with it. If you run into trouble, I’m always here to help.

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.

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.

Giant QR codes: If Oreo can do it…

Giant QR codes: If Oreo can do it…

[vimeo http://www.vimeo.com/29436229 w=400&h=225]

QReo from redpepper on Vimeo.

It’s amazing how flexible QR codes and QR code readers are. We discovered this when putting squished or stretched ones on digital signage; QR code readers seem to be able to parse irregularities in them remarkably well. So I’m not entirely surprised that a QR code made of cookies actually works (it does; I tried it!).

If QR codes were more universally understood and used by our students, it would only be good for the library, from my perspective. I’d love to be able to use QR codes to allow students to navigate our website and digital resources by navigating the physical library. If you’re in women’s studies range in the stacks, shouldn’t you also be able to find the digital materials that fit in that range while you’re standing there? If you need to contact someone, shouldn’t you be able to scan a code on their door and email them? Innovative libraries like (all hail) NCSU have their study room booking system available on study room doors via QR code (as well they should).

QR codes don’t have to be the way we accomplish these kinds of ubiquitous computing goals, but they would be a dead-easy way to do it. I can see how we can get from here to there; not difficult! We can do that! Simple summer project! So I see education around QR codes as a reasonable goal for our library. So naturally I see a QR code made of Oreos and think, yeah, how can I do something like that?

Maybe I can do this with post-it notes.

I mean, it would be cool to do it with books, really, but it would be massive, wouldn’t it.

I say that like it’s a bad thing.

Maybe we should make a giant QR code with discarded journals. That would be kind of awesome, from a distance.

Training is Broken

Training is Broken

By training, I mean technology training. Instructional technology training for faculty in higher education, in particular. I’m not sure how this applies to other forms of training provided by librarians; I don’t do other forms of training, so I can’t really speak to that. But instructional technology training is definitely broken.

There are several competing factors in play when you sit down (or, more likely, get up in front of a podium) to teach a group of faculty how to do something (anything) with a computer. The first factor is that you want them to know how to use this tool so that they can teach (or research, I suppose) effectively. You want them to feel confident in their knowledge about this tool. In our dream world, they will grasp the basics and move on so that we can all get to the more interesting topics, like using this piece of software in new and interesting ways. But the first thing is always to just grasp the basics. Somehow, we end up just sticking to the basics for years (and years and years). Possibly that’s a giant, flashing sign pointing to our failure, and it should help us understand that our training program is broken.

The second competing factor that gets in the way of effective instructional technology training is the goals of the faculty; they want this silly process over with. They want to get their questions answered, but mostly they just want to get through this required practice as painlessly as possible and hope that something makes sense. Often the easiest way to get through it is just to sit still, listen, pick up any hand outs, and leave when the thing seems to be finished. What helps tremendously is if the thing is shaped like a class: there’s someone at the front giving a lecture of some kind, there is homework no one will ever check, and there is a definite, obvious moment when they’re allowed (and in fact expected) to leave.

A third competing factor: our own burning desire to tell this group of faculty everything they need to know to be successful, as if that will help them. We really, really want to do this. If only they would listen to us, all would be well! We recite The 15 steps they need to do, each subdivided into it’s own series of steps. Don’t forget to do this. Oh, did I mention you also need to do this. And this other thing. 15 times. There is a deep sense of satisfaction involved in getting up in front of a group of faculty and telling them everything they need to know. You did it; you imparted the information. It’s in their hands now. We can sleep well at night having done this needful job.

Too bad it doesn’t actually work.

I’ve been experimenting with training for a couple of years now, trying on different methods, trying to engage the faculty and not just lecture to them. The truth: I don’t want to spend my time pointing out where to click. I’m not a tip sheet. I’m not a list of bland instructions. I have spent the last six years observing, reading about, and experimenting with courseware so that I can help faculty to use technology effectively in their teaching, not so I could tell someone (once again) how to add a TA or make their course website available to students. Why would I deliberately bury my true value by spending an hour (or more) reciting how-tos that go in one ear and out the other?

So we’ve thrown all that out. We put all the instructions for how to do every blessed thing onto ipads. Want those instructions? Touch the document, press the button, email them to yourself. Done. You have them. Relax. Now, talk to us. What are you trying to accomplish? What’s giving you grief?

It doesn’t look like normal training. It doesn’t look like a classroom. It looks like a group of people talking and laughing. Yesterday, the faculty all gave us hugs when they left. It’s not about my burning desire to make sure you know which buttons to click; it’s about the individual needs of each of these people. It’s about helping them use the right tools to make their lives (and their students’ lives) easier. It’s helping them to use a tool to accomplish their teaching goals. They can refer to the instructions later. You know what they can’t get from a piece of paper, or from a website? One-on-one, personalized, interactive advice. That’s what my value is.

This is awkward a bit, at first, because the rules are different. Everyone feels comfortable when someone lectures in academia. We know what to do when someone lectures. It’s comfortable. But you can’t passively wait until it’s over when the whole point of a session is to talk about what you want to do, in very concrete terms. It’s impossible. You have to open up, talk about your experiences, the things you don’t understand. And I can listen to you, make suggestions, show you how to avoid that problems you run into. I can explain what’s coming. I can show you how to use the tools available to do the kinds of things you want to do. We just need to spend the time talking it out.

It’s great. I can’t tell you how great it is. It’s exhausting, of course. But I have never in my career gone to this kind of depth with our faculty. I’m recommending tools and those recommendations are embraced. I’m discovering new uses for tools I couldn’t have imagined before. We’re making collaborative timelines and providing students with a way to interact with each other. We’re thinking hard about what students need, working out plausible and functional means to communicate with them effectively. The revelation on the instructor’s faces when we explain that the best thing they can do for students is edit the course menu to reflect the language and content of the course; it’s the secret they’ve been waiting to hear. Everyone’s shoulders relax. This is what training is supposed to be.

Scratch that: it’s not training. Training is what you do to dogs and horses. I don’t train faculty. I support, advise, guide, and, on a good day when I’m really lucky, inspire them to try something new and unique. I help them to accomplish what it is they have been wanting to accomplish all along, but the tools kept getting in their way. I let them feel like someone’s got their back so they can reach out and do something innovative and extraordinary with something that looks mundane and dull.

Here’s what I’ve learned: get down from the podium. Put the powerpoint slides away. Sit down and talk to the people you’re trying to train. Show them how valuable your knowledge and experience actually is. It’s so much more fun.

And, if we’re lucky, more effective.

Retro Web Design

Retro Web Design

It happens in fashion, but I’ve never seen it happen in web design before. I guess the web is now officially old enough that old trends can make a return in a new way, because that’s exactly what’s happening.

Frames
Frames are generally a faux pas in web design. As we move into the semantic web where content lives in one place and is mashed together in another, it makes sense to use whatever options are available to push content around the web is as many ways as possible. We used to rely on the embed tag for this, but lately frames, or iframes, are making a return. But they’re not doing layout work anymore; now it’s just seamlessly bringing content from one place to another. Youtube is the big example of the return of frames: the new embed code you snag from youtube is actually just a frame.

This is one trend I’m particularly grateful for; I have a little project that involves pushing local campus content into the front page of our course management system using frames. We create tiny little web pages hosted locally, and frame them into the existing courseware system. The advantage of the frames is primarily that it keeps 100% control of the content in the hands of local content creators; no one needs admin access to the courseware system in order to update the content. No need to overhaul everything just to do one little thing. It’s just a matter of updating the tiny web page, and voila! Students get to see fresh content via a website they already log into every day. Win win win!


[from here]

Animated GIFs
This one took me by surprise. I’ve been paying more attention to tumblr lately, since it’s just such a radically different approach to online community and communication than I’m used to, and I keep seeing all these wicked animated gifs there. Animated gifs used to be the poor mans video, and the poor web designer’s idea of cute, interesting content, but these things are works of art. We can have video on demand whenever we want now, so this is more targeted, more subtle. Bringing a tiny bit of movement to an otherwise still picture, capturing a single moment in a still. We haven’t integrated this trend into the library yet, but I’m working on it. Simple, low key, and really cool. No more rotating mail or under construction signs, oh no. These are reminiscent of Harry Potter-esque moving images. A touch of motion in a still space. Amazing.

What’s the next thing to get an overhaul, cursor trails? MIDIs? Banner ads? What?

My Current Inspiration: Starbucks

My Current Inspiration: Starbucks

At the moment, the thing I’m drawing the most inspiration from is, oddly, Starbucks. Well, perhaps not oddly at all. Starbucks clearly puts a lot of effort into making their shops places people want to return to. That’s not really all that different from libraries, though the public relations and innovation budget Starbucks allocates to the process is far and away greater than any library’s. In fact, I’m not sure too many libraries would even set aside money or time to even think the way Starbucks does. A profit motive certainly alters the way you proceed. Generally that idea make me a bit queasy, but some of the things I see going on at Starbucks have forced me to put my anti-capitalist streak aside and really learn from what Starbucks is doing.

The core of what’s inspiring me is these cards. These “Pick of the Week” cards. Have you seen them? There’s a new one every Tuesday, sitting by the cash. They’re business-card sized, feature a band on the front, and instructions and an iTunes redeem code on the back. Each card equals an iTunes download. I’ve been picking them up for a few months now, and holding on to these cards thinking about what this means for libraries. It’s a genius thing they’re doing there: if they want me to drop in at least once a week, they’re doing a good job by tempting me with free music. I know every Tuesday I will find a new song, and I get to pick it up and stick it in my pocket. Something that lives exclusively digitally becomes something I can pick up and hold, study as I wait in line.

Of course, free music is not really free: someone’s paying for it, and I’m paying for it with my time and attention. I understand it, in principle: Starbucks is selling its atmosphere, not its coffee, and giving away music a team has vetted chosen, letting me take a bit of the Starbucks atmosphere with me, is smart. It’s constructing Starbucks locations not just as places to pick up a drink, but as hubs of a certain kind of culture and exchange. Starbucks is far deeper into the music business than seems rational on the surface, and I think that’s very interesting.

So my interest in these cards keeps growing. I love these bloody cards.

The manager at our library’s Starbucks tells me that at some locations, the wi-fi network is set up to let you download whatever music is currently playing. That is bloody genius. GENIUS.

Now: as an academic library with campus-wide wireless, and with material that we’ve already paid for, I’m intrigued. The problem we have currently isn’t getting things for students to access, it’s connecting students to the material we already have. That being true, we could presumably give stuff away with cards as well. Articles? E-books? Why not? E-book of the week? Article database of the week? Cool research highlight of the week? Faculty recommended articles, maybe, those articles that bend your brain? (Immediately I imagined a card for Joan Scott’s “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis”, or the preface to Edward Said’s Orientalism, among others. Maybe some citation guides? I dunno, the opportunities are endless.

That was one idea, but as I pick up these cards every Tuesday I keep thinking of new things I could do with these cards.

The other one intersects with something I’m planning to do this year: introduce cool web apps, software and tech tools to students. Tech Tip of the Week? Why not? Rather than a code, I could put up a URL and a QR code. Image on the front, name of the web app, some limited instructions on the back. Then I could link it to some more information about how/why the thing might be useful. Google Docs, Zoho, Mibbit, tinychat, that awesome new aim video chat (how ridiculously awesome is this?), Evernote, dropbox, aviary, the list goes on and on. Cool things students should know about. I can time them to come out when that particular web app will be most useful. Keep them in a neat little holder by the loans desk, or at the registrar’s office, or wherever. Distribute them to the departments. Something you can pick up, look at, hold in your hand, that expands online into a larger thing. Something that connects you to this tool that will be useful to you.

Still thinking about those cards.

We do a lot of faculty support for courseware (it’s kind of our bread and butter around here). Every year we look at what we’ve done before and throw most of it out, saving only the approaches and techniques that were the most useful. We threw out the lecture method; we threw out sitting in a lab. We threw out stacks of manuals. In our redesigned approach to teaching faculty how to use courseware, we’ve ended up with a more petting zoo style of experience, where instructors need to actively participate and make decisions about what they need. They talk to us. They move around the room, looking at different features. They talk to each other. Get ideas. We brought back a bit of paper with a one-page tip sheet per tool/function we were highlighting. These are extremely popular. People feel good walking away with something relevant, something they chose to pick up. But why a whole piece of paper? Maybe we can condense our tip sheets (how to do very very specific things) into cards. Beautiful design. Extremely short instructions on how to do this thing (3-5 steps), QR code, URL. We can hand them out when people ask us a question; you get an answer and something in hand. And we can distribute them to others to hand out. If you get it, you can pass it on when someone you know encounters the same question.

Cards. These simple little cards from Starbucks! It’s not the cards that are so sexy, really, it’s the idea that you get a bit of digital information, a gateway into something bigger, in something you can hold in your hand. Stick in your wallet. Stick in your pocket. A little thing, it makes it seem approachable. Simple. Not a sea of words of “click here” and “go there”. One, two, three, you’re done. Small space.

Starbucks and their cards. It started as a minor bit of musing, but now I can’t stop myself considering more possibilities every Tuesday when I pick up a new one.

Compassion

Compassion

I’m starting to think that compassion may be a learned skill rather than an innate trait. I know we like to think of all the best qualities of human beings as something we have intrinsically but society squeezes them out of us, but I suspect compassion may be more complicated.

Or maybe not. Maybe we just live in societies that make it harder to keep at the forefront.

What is it they say? That our societies have grown too big, and that’s why urban dwellers have all these ticks to help them avoid noticing that the herd they’re running in is far, far too large to fully comprehend? Ignoring strangers on the bus, keeping our eyes averted while walking on the sidewalk? Is the absence of compassion a result of all that?

I don’t know. But it seems to me that it’s work to remember that every human being has struggles of their own that you may not be able to read on their bodies and faces (if you bothered to read their bodies or their faces, that is). And I’ve decided that compassion is something I’m going to spend more time deliberately drawing out of myself. I shall consider it constantly.

I say all this because I’m increasingly aware of the absence of compassion we tend to show students. We so often seem to assume the worst of them. I don’t really know why; we were all students ourselves once. Why is it so easy for us to forget what it was like? Or are we actually contemptuous of our younger selves, the ones trying to sneak a better grade in any way possible, rejoicing at every holiday and snow day, sleeping through morning lectures and drinking into the wee hours? Is it a form of self-flagellation to assume that all students are lazy and need to be controlled through our obscure and pointless policies?

Or is it just that we get so used to answering the same questions over and over, or dealing with bad behaviour every day, that we assume everyone is stupid and/or malicious? Relentless familiarity? Do we see faces we classify as “students” so often that they all start to look the same, and become some giant annoying creature who just never learns? I guess that’s where my call for compassion comes in.

But then I’m an optimistic sort, I don’t tend to imagine the worst of people. Quite the opposite, I think everyone is basically good and wants to do the right thing. (I suppose this may not actually be true, but I struggle to completely accept that.) I don’t usually deal with the same questions every day, but when I do, I generally remember that this is the first time this particular person has asked that question. When I will try to remember is that if they’re asking this question at the very last possible minute, there may be for very good reasons for that which are none of my business.

So my word of the day/week/year is compassion. And I will go on trying to hone my skills in that department.