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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.

360: Being Your Own Patron

360: Being Your Own Patron

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Research Project Report

Research Project Report

Most of my thoughts and observations about what learned during my six month research leave (October-March) is contained here already, but below is the report I submitted, which is a general summary with links to various blog posts for more details, and minus all the pictures and hopefully minus at least most of the typos.

 

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.

Sabbatical Project: We and the Screen

Sabbatical Project: We and the Screen

I have been eligible to apply for a research leave for a little while, but I never saw the appeal. I’m the sort of person who prefers to be in the thick of it, dealing with problems and issues as they happen, and feeling like my daily work makes an impact on the people around me. The idea of stepping away from work I love ran counter to my recipe for a good work experience. I was a doctoral student before I went to library school, I know how I feel about scads of unstructured time.  (In a word: nervous.) So research leave really wasn’t in the cards.

But then three things happened: I got taken along for a site visit to North Carolina State, I did a workshop for Mozilla in there Toronto offices, and then I went on vacation.

Visiting a cutting edge, thoughtfully-designed and managed library like NCSU was very inspiring to me. Looking at how other people constructed their spaces, and how their services and spaces interacted, made a million new ideas burst from me. I saw how we could do things better, even simple things, and that services that seemed impossible weren’t. It was one of the most valuable things I’ve ever done.

When I visited Mozilla’s workshop space in Toronto with my colleague Lauren Di Monte, we observed that the way they laid out their furniture had a direct impact on the way we felt  sitting in their space. It changed how we interacted with technology, and made it easier for us to look at the same digital material with a group. I came back from Mozilla and reorganized my office to make a “display sharing” zone for faculty consultation. It’s been practically seamless for visitors, and 100% successful at letting us easily and simply consult with instructors over their course websites.

Screen Shot 2013-03-06 at 3.09.45 PM

Then, on my first ever solo vacation to London, I looked at the world with new eyes once again: I looked at the decisions people made about services, space, and technology, I thought about what they meant in the context of an academic library, and I took lessons that I then applied to my work. It reminded me that the solutions to the problems I see every day exist out there in the world, sometimes hiding as signage policies or creative uses of furniture and projection.

While stepping away from the daily grind made me feel like I would be less useful, I realized that in fact the opposite could very well be true.

Thus my sabbatical plan was born.

At the end of December I shopped around a proposal based on these three experiences; to visit places, look at how they do things, and think hard about how they apply in our library. I was met with much encouragement and enthusiasm from all corners, so I submitted it officially in January. (Actual proposal attached below.) A couple of weeks ago I got word that it had cleared all the hurdles, and I am now officially going off for a research leave staring October 1, 2013.

I have an outrageous amount of planning to do.

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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.

Image

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.

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.

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

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

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

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MUoBdQi7jj4?rel=0&w=640&h=360]

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

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

Now, that same area today:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UZM2gtiE6IA?rel=0&w=640&h=360]

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

Man, I love UTM.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

2515 Futurology: The Role of the Library in 500 years (according to me)

2515 Futurology: The Role of the Library in 500 years (according to me)

I’ve recently returned from Internet Librarian in Monterey, where one of the evening sessions had a series of prominent thinkers in librarianship considering what libraries will look like in 2515. Of course, it’s notoriously difficult to predict the future 5 years out let alone 500 years. 500 years is actually impossible. But I want to give it a try anyway.

500 years ago, the printing press was still revolutionizing Europe; we’re 7 years from the 500th anniversary of the year Martin Luther nailed his theses to the chapel door in Wittenberg, which started the first ideological revolution fueled by the European printing press. If we imagine we are at just such a point, where a piece of technology is going to start a cascade that impacts every element of our society and culture, it’s clear just how impossible it is to predict 500 years into the future. The people complaining about information overload because of the volume of new books being produced were probably not anticipating the internet. But I think we can nod in their direction and remember that the moral crises of the moment will probably sound ridiculous in 500 years.

The key part I felt was missing from the predictions at Internet Librarian was the absence of the impact of the inevitable environmental and economic apocalypse that would likely occur between then and now. In 500 years we will have no more fossil fuels and will probably have exhausted all the key precious metals currently employed in high-tech manufacturing, so a computing culture based on better plastics and faster chips is probably unlikely. In a world where the fossil fuel economy crashes, there are two options: either we swap out fossil fuels for something cheaper and better and life continues on largely the same way (seems unlikely, given how little progress anyone has made thus far), or lifestyles change radically.

In the crash, I would expect that we largely cease to travel nearly as much as we currently do. There is a movement now toward rehabilitating large suburban areas built based on a car culture into walkable, livable spaces. If we lose access to cheap fossil fuels, and then lose fossil fuel altogether, I would expect that movement to grow and fundamentally alter the way we relate to our neighbourhoods and regions. Perhaps our highways would turn into long strips of farms. More walking, more biking, better public transit, more focus on local communities and getting what you need within a smaller radius. I would expect (relatively) cheap and accessible air travel to end, at least temporarily. Potentially, the costs of personal communication technology might rise as well. Remember: no more easy plastics. Our current disposable computing culture is based on cheap, easy plastic. Presumably computing devices could be made from recycled materials, but I would expect the cost of the devices to rise in any case. Would this create a second digital divide?

Of course, if we go through any length of time fighting over the remaining fossil fuels, there will be bloodshed. I would expect key civilizations to fall. I don’t imagine the world 500 years from now would be dominated by the English and the Americans. England would probably be mostly if not entirely underwater, as would large swaths of the United States. Potentially, the west’s focus on desktop/laptop computing would make it less agile. Europe, Africa and Asia are far better placed with their mobile technologies. Most of Africa skipped the hardwired internet infrastructure and went straight to wireless mobile; does that make them better suited when the crash inevitably comes and our hardwired infrastructure fails? Along with a shift in the dominant global cultures will come new metaphors and means of making sense of the world. This will also alter the way we think about and use technologies, and libraries.

Our increasing resistance to antibiotics, not to mention the rise of nonsensical distrust of vaccinations in the western world, will likely mean the return of certain terrible illnesses. In the next 500 years, I would expect to see first world countries contend with diseases long thought cured, managed or gone. We are a culture obsessed with cleanliness to such a level that we have encouraged a number of autoimmune disorders that I expect will only get worse. Doubtless we will discover a way to create stronger antibiotics, but I think the turn in that tide will come when we return to a more symbiotic relationship with our internal parasites and stop thinking of ourselves as so set apart from the natural world. I probably don’t need to mention our frankly terrible food culture and heartless animal/fish farming. Hopefully the radical drop in our populations due to illness, war, famine and infection will allow us the space to rethink how we manage our food resources.

In spite all this devastation in the picture, I expect it will all be history in 500 years. 500 years is a pretty long time for humans, so I would expect that we’d found a way to work through it in that time, primarily through altered expectations, cultural shift, and technological advances.

If this is the backdrop, where do libraries fit in? Clearly, a changed focus on the local over the global, or neighbourhoods over suburbs, means the library becomes, as it once was, a staple in the community. What are they offering? Is it books? It might be. Paper books are a more renewable resource than the technology that supports ebooks, certainly. I don’t have any doubt that the book (the novel, let’s say, even the monograph) will still be around as a concept, regardless of its form. We like long form content, we have always liked long form content. I would expect to see books get a lot longer, too. 1000 page books might be the norm, easily. If you look around you’ll see precious few thin books on shelves at the bookstore. Word processing has made it easier to write really long books and still edit and share them prior to publication. I expect our interfaces will only get easier and easier to use, resulting in longer and longer novels. Human minds seem to be nourished on stories; that’s been true for longer than 500 years (more like 3000, identifiably), so I don’t imagine our need for stories will vanish. Maybe the need will only increase, particularly because I think a turn will come where the values built into the humanities will rise.

That sounds crazy, because right now no one wants to fund the humanities anymore. The sciences are where its at, right? The more seamless our technologies get, the more story and metaphor will become the crucial factor in adoption and use. That’s something I learned more about at Internet Librarian, and it’s something I’ve been thinking about for some time as well. You can have all the technology in the world, but until the imaginative capacity is there to alter your culture to account for its use, you don’t progress. Technology can be a kind of driver, but you need story-inclined minds to make sense of it enough for the culture to absorb it in a rational way. That tendency is getting more obvious now, but it will probably become even more clear. Thought-leaders (sense-makers) can have technical skills, of course, in the same way that dancers need to know how to walk. In 500 years, I would expect that we live in a more deliberately metaphorical and ideas-driven world. This science-focus is, in my opinion, a short-term blip spurred on by the long industrial revolution. It will have tapered off long before we reach 2515. That doesn’t mean that technological innovation stops; only that its dominance as the only thing worth funding will end.

If we see internet content creation as a base, I would expect in 500 years that everyone creates and consumes content. Everyone is an artist, a novelist, a creator of some kind. As the need for specific technical skills vanishes, more and more people can enter into artistic realms. For instance: it takes tremendous knowledge, skill and finances to build, say, a bridge or a building. With virtual tools, I can build a building or a bridge any time I want, using building blocks and expanses of virtual space. For someone with no skills in architecture, I can still spend hours creating buildings.

But the virtual is different, right? I would expect that divide to crumble, especially once we determine how to manage a sustainable computing culture. Without the plastics, maybe we would be forced to take the next step and leave these clunky interfaces altogether. At IL someone said we would be curators of screens; either we provide them or people bring their own. I think in 500 years there will be no more screens. There will only be content.

I don’t know how this happens. It’s hard to imagine and it sounds impossible, but put yourself in Gutenberg’s shoes or in Martin Luther’s and try to imagine the 21st century. I don’t know how we’ll do it, but I feel sure we probably will. I doubt it’s an implant, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we use our biological knowledge to create some sort of virus or bacteria that will turn our optical/sensory nervous system into a dumb terminal for the scads of data we create. I would expect our future to be overlaid not just with the kinds of information we now have access to, but with whole other levels of creation piled into the physical space itself. What we think of as “information overload” volumes of data will be laughably quaint. You can see the beginnings of how this would happen with collaborative geotagging and GPS and crowdsourcing. I think what we have now is the thinnest base level of where it will go.

There will be no more sitting at a desk in front of a computer. The idea of a computer will be something kids go to museums to understand. In the distant future, I would expect what we think of as the internet to be just part of the walls, the furniture, ourselves. It informs us instantly all the time. We communicate with it by shifting ourselves through the space, not by forcing ourselves into a place to use a set of tools. I imagine we would return to physical objects (like a telephone handset or a typewriter) as cues and indicators; touch this, hold it this way, and the system responds. The difference between software and physical objects becomes invisible; demonstrated intent is the way you launch an application. We have touchscreens; the future would have gestures writ large.

I would expect the publishing industry to collapse. There is too much creation, independent novels and artists, to sustain it in its present form. We don’t need a publishing industry to publish and distribute, so these would cease to be key elements of the industry. However, in spite of the fact that our cities are coated with graffiti, we still go to art galleries; the publishing industry will die but be reborn, potentially as a refining service, or as a referral and recommendation service. With all creation and all information so easy to generate and find, the value third parties like “publishers” can bring is with advice, support, networks, and recommendation. These are crucial and probably lucrative roles. It would be the publishing industry, but with the actual publishing part excised. It will probably become one of the strongest industries, employing a far larger proportion of the population than it does currently.

And this brings us back to libraries. If I’m right and we ensure a series of technological and economic blows, the library may indeed become the only place where most people can access information and communication tools. We would need to expand our roles as access providers, expanding our computing services rather than restricting them. If computers suddenly become insanely expensive, public libraries in particular will need to fill a need we haven’t had to fill in the west since the 80s and early 90s. If it goes the other way and computing becomes insanely cheap, possibly with biodegradable computers, we might do the opposite; reduce computing facilities, but provide tons of free and fast access with a focus on supporting user generated content. Maybe we provide tools for creation, storage of digital media, in general support the voices of our patrons on the world stage.

By the time we adjust to a world with different energy sources and radically different economic models, with massive user-generated content of all kinds, search is long dead; context is what people need. Libraries, then, can act as filters. In some ways I think libraries can become totally ubiquitous civic services, providing support to neighbourhoods by filtering content based on where their patrons are at any given time. Rather than typing a search term, you would shift your physical self into a space that indicates the content you’re looking for. For instance: in a university, you might go to the history department to begin a “search” for history material. You might move toward a particular office to get closer to certain kinds of information, and that information is constantly refined by the person behind that door. Better yet, we take that universe of information and put it in a room where your shifting motion helps flip between topics and refine your process. Once again the university library is a global playhouse granting patrons access to the entire world of information from the start to the present. We often talk about the value of place, the library as a place. I think, built well, the library as place would become the entryway to all information in one room. It would remain a valuable location not because its the only place to access that information, but because it’s the easiest way to do so.

Keyword searches are the mode of the day currently; but they aren’t easy, and with increasing forms of content, they will become rapidly unwieldy. This isn’t how people think, no matter how popular google is; everyone still prefers to get recommendations from people they know and trust than to perform a cold call search. Right now classification systems are antiquated and increasingly not useful; I would expect their usefulness to return in the future because where you go in the “stacks” would filter the content you see, would make it resolve into its context. Merge your catalogue with your physical space; we already do this. This is exactly what the library was meant to be; a single repository of all information, ordered in a way that makes sense. In this world, that single repository would be dynamic, fundamentally cloud-based and terminal-free. Book-free, probably. Virtual but highly physical.

Libraries would retain their role, not because it’s the only place to find the content, but its the only way it appears in a rational, browseable, clear way, with exactly the context each individual patron needs. A librarian would be a refiner of context rather than a content selector. We would create roles for our patrons the way we do for usability study, refine those roles based on a huge series of factors, and help individuals to create the library in the image they need, based on who they are today, and help that role to shift and change along with the patron. And we help take information about others (anonymized, or not; there is prestige in being a good filter) and apply it in interesting ways. We would be a constantly-shifting collection of contexts, switchable, alterable, reorderable on the fly. There would be much more information, created by many more people; but it would be so easy to sift through it that the idea of searching would almost unthinkable. Searching would again become a highly-prized skill, because most people will not be required to do it. At that point, librarians can make a bid win back search and be the go-to people when someone needs to actually search for something rather than just find it through thoughtful context. Reference desks would be beehives of activity. (Though: possibly bees would be extinct. Pity, that.)

In the days when long-distance travel becomes prohibitively expensive, we might make ourselves communication hubs, creating spaces where our patrons can interact with others at a distance but still have the feeling that they are sharing physical space. Maybe we will transform our spaces into conference areas. In academic context, this make perfect sense: we would become local venues for every academic conference of interest to our faculty and students. We would foster community both locally and globally. Our faculty would probably attend more conferences than ever before, interact more, share more. We would archive not just the papers but the experience of the conference for others to revisit. Hopefully we would take over the “publishing” side of academic communication altogether, fostering academic sharing in more ways than one. Once long-distance travel becomes easy again, many might prefer the library as a communication hub, and attending virtually might be the new old-school way to interact with a conference. They would become far more frequent. Conference papers might overtake journal articles, but we would present each of them as though they are individual items in our collection, with peer review and context (and a thousand other variables) modifying how prominent they are.

At Internet Librarian, most people seem to despair a bit at the idea of a long-term future for the library. I’m really not in that camp, obviously. I believe that the traditional role of the library is still very much up for grabs in the future, more so than this blip of time we’re currently occupying. But as long as librarians think of libraries primarily as information storehouses rather than context-generators, and as themselves as “human search engines” rather personal, thoughtful and tech-savvy guides through a sea of available information, we will struggle to remain relevant. If we consider our true mission, underneath the formats and methods, I think we’ll find that the world always needs libraries. We just need to keep altering ourselves so that we keep meeting the same needs as the world changes.

Orientation Video, 2010

Orientation Video, 2010

I’ve been making Blackboard orientation videos for first year students for several years now. The idea is actually to provide a bit of a service to the faculty; many instructors aren’t comfortable providing any “intro” for their students, so the first idea was to box up the sort of information I would give if I went into a class to help ease first year students into the system. The concept has clearly evolved since those early days.

Here’s our orientation video for this term, made using the stop motion function on our (relatively) new HD camera. All props to Lauren Di Monte for that fantastic idea! Complete with captions, thanks to our awesome student employee, Lorena. Go team Blackboard!

If you watch the right hand corner, you can see our mobile shelving doing its thing a couple of times.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RDZ6mLqzrWw&fs=1&hl=en_US&hd=1]

This video took about five hours to create, from start to finish. We did two takes; the first one took about 45 minutes and resulted in about a minute of video. The second took an hour and resulted in this minute and a half. We were entranced by how white chalk glowed on the chalkboard in the light of the projector.

Blackboard on a blackboard, eh? Aren’t we clever!

How Training without Lecturing breaks the fourth wall

How Training without Lecturing breaks the fourth wall

There is, I have discovered, an imaginary wall between the teacher and the taught, and you will feel it no more strongly than when you opt not to lecture.

What I have learned in the last five years of teaching faculty how to use courseware is that my grand ideas sound really good on paper, and sound good to the ears of chairs, administrators, and even instructors themselves, but they rarely work out as planned. My grand ideas have been these: don’t waste time with fake “training” courses, encourage instructors to use the time we’ve booked to actually build their own courses, with help on hand. If asked, any instructor will tell you that they have more important things to do than sit in a lab and listen to some instructional technologist or (in my case) librarian go on at great length about best practices or feedback we’ve heard from students. They have a deadline, and it’s usually something like tomorrow or the next day, to get this course ready and online. They are often annoyed that they system doesn’t work the way they want it to/hope it will/expect it will, and have exactly 12 seconds of attention to spare. This is why I thought my grand ideas would work out: I’m not going to ask you to sit and listen to me for an hour before you go home and build your course alone. I say: forget the first part, let’s jump to the second, but do it more efficiently. You work on your course: I’ll answer your questions as required. We can learn from each other’s questions. We’ll all walk away having accomplished something.

It never worked. First off, the labs where these training/work sessions happen are built like classrooms, with a podium and a screen and desks that usually face the front. The room itself tells everyone what they should be doing, and it’s not what they want to do or what I hope they will do. Second, no one’s ever ready. We do the training a week or two before classes start, and 9 times out of 10 the syllabus is still in progress, the documents are all over the instructor’s home computer (not in the lab with us), TAs haven’t been assigned, assignments are still being sorted out. So I can book a room to get the work done, but the content is rarely with us. So what happens instead is I (or one of my esteemed colleagues) gets in front of the room and lectures. We lecture about courseware. We point out where the tools are, we walk through the clicks. Here’s how you do it, guys. We pepper the lecture with experience, feedback from students, ideas we’ve seen work well, and those that don’t work so well. We end up serving up exactly what everyone would tell us they don’t want.

So this year, we decided to throw the whole process out and start again. As with any educational enterprise, we had to sit and think about where the value in our training lies. While I can talk at great length about all the tools and how best to use them, my experience is that little if any of my grand words sink in. Of course that’s how it works: the research clearly shows that training of this nature isn’t terribly effective, and I can vouch for that based on the phone calls I get. How often do we get questions from faculty where the answers were delivered in at training session several weeks (or days) prior? About 95% of the time, easily. It’s not that they’re not paying attention; our method just doesn’t work. They feel successful at the time; we have really good interactions with faculty, they clearly understand that we know what we’re talking about, they appreciate that it is our job to help them and we will pull out all the stops to do so. Everyone walks away happy. It’s just that our training objectives (giving instructors the tools to feel confident in creating an excellent, effective online course presence) are rarely met.

We distilled the positives of our current situation down to these: we need to continue to make sure instructors know that we’re friendly, helpful, and available for them on an on-going basis. If nothing else comes across, this has to. The thing we value the very most is our one-on-one discussions with instructors about their use of technology in their courses; we want to keep that. That interaction is valuable for both of us. Beyond that, everything was fair game.

So first, we decided to stop using classrooms to conduct training. The format is too familiar and too controlled. We don’t want everyone to take a seat and stick in it. We want them to move around. A moving body learns better than a stationary one. So no claiming seats. Next, we would not lecture. No lectures. The learning that was going to happen around us would be active, not passive. We’re not going to insert answers into your head. You’re going to have to forage for your answers.

We set up four zones in a room. At the front near the entrance we have a demonstration zone, with no seating, but one very large whiteboard, a projector, a wii remote, and a IR pen. In the demonstration zone you can use the IR pen to interact with a training shell. Here we demonstrate how tools are used, where to click, how to create elements, etc. based on the questions that are coming from faculty. It’s off-the-cuff and tailored to the instructor in front of us. The advantage of the large format is that other instructors see what’s being demonstrated from anywhere in the room and come forward to interact with it (and us) if they’re interested in the topic.

The second zone is simple a table. Here we encourage instructors with their own laptops to open them up and work with a familiar machine. On the table we have our “how to get your course into Blackboard in a hurry” document, which walks you through each of the basic, necessary steps.

The third zone is the Petting Zoo, which consists of six computers each displaying a different training course shell. They’re designed so that you can play with or look at the tool in action. If required there is a laptop sitting next to the computer with the student view of the same course shell, so you can set it up/create/add content as an instructor and then see what it looks like for a student. There are printed signs on each station advertising which tool is being displayed. On the desk at each station are post it notes with ideas on them for how and why to use this tool. Next to the monitor are printed sheets with step-by-step instructions on exactly how to set up and use this tool.

The fourth zone is simply two computers against the far wall where instructors can log into their own accounts and build their courses.

The basic plan was this: we knew everyone would be a bit uncomfortable at first, not knowing what to do, so we thought we’d start with a short lecturette about some concepts rather than tools. First: the idea that the “course menu” shouldn’t remain in its default state, but rather should be understood as a table of contents for the class. We’d give them a brief dissection of the main page, so they knew where the basic elements were. After that we’d introduce the areas to the instructors, including a brief introduction about each of the petting zoo stations. Point out the instruction sheets. Encourage them to ask their questions and check out whatever stations interest them. Then we let them go.

The very first time we did this, I shuddered a little about two beats after I stopped talking. You can feel the uncertainty, the tiny bit of panic, both on our side and theirs. They expect us to edutain them. There is a silence that needs to be filled, and it should be filled with my confident voice. They (and we) expect us to do the work, the song and dance, while they observe us. This is, at the heart of it, what “learning” looks like in higher ed, doesn’t it? We are so familiar with this set up that taking it away causes real insecurity for everyone involved. But within about four minutes we had faculty playing with tools at the petting zoo, getting questions answered at the demonstration area, and talking to each other at the workstations and around the table. Rather than spend all my time going through the basic rigmarole, I was answering specific questions and brainstorming creative ways to encourage student participation. How to get students to comment on each other’s blogs, which tool to pick for a specific task, how best to tackle groups within large classes. Rather than reciting the content of our tip sheets and how-to documents, we got to spend time using our imaginations and experience. It was exhilarating.

Not only that: most of the instructors stayed longer than the booked time, took more printed paper than usual, and actually (gasp) worked on their courses. I couldn’t believe it. When we give everyone their own computer to work on, no one wants to build their own courses. I think perhaps the fact that we spend most of the time lecturing has the effect of us claiming all the air in the room. When we stop, and force everyone to become an active participant in the training, there’s more autonomy to go around. Everyone seems to take charge of their situations a little more. When instructors have to choose their spot rather than having one essentially assigned, they seem far more willing to get to work. I felt like I did more, even though I was talking to the crowd so much less.

And all those basic questions? The paper does the talking. I don’t have to worry about forgetting to mention how to make your course available, or how to upload a document. There’s a simple set of instructions for that. People with experience and imagination are far more valuable sharing that rather than the basic how-tos.

Every time we run one of these training sessions, and we’ve done five of them so far, it starts out with the same tension; everyone in the room looks at us, a little nervous, wondering what they heck we expect from them. With the librarians, they all stood in an orderly row.

“I know this is uncomfortable at first,” I said as we started. “When we don’t lecture, it breaks the fourth wall.”

“There is no fourth wall,” one of the librarians protested, clearly uncomfortable with being put in this situation. (I can always count on librarians to voice what few others are willing to.)

I looked up at them, in a line, literally forming a wall themselves. “Yeah,” I said. “There really is.”

Within a few minutes, they were all hard at work, papers in hand, discussions on-going. The demonstration area was busy. All the petting zoo stations were occupied, mostly with a pair looking at the tools and discussing them. It’s not the trainers and the trainees anymore. It’s just us, together, learning.