Sunday, June 26, 2011

"C'est la vie say the old folks"

Helping my friend Carol, who is in her sixties, buy a computer, brought back memories of my boss, another sexagenarian, and assisting her to navigate her PC (this was back in the mid '90s.) What seemed for me then and now to involve quick mouse movements or keyboard macros to accomplish a task (cutting and pasting text, opening and closing an application, switching between windows on the desktop,) caused some degree of bewilderment to both women. Things I take for granted cause others anxiety and frustration.   I found it hard to explain what I was doing in simple steps.  In my friend's case we opted to buy a mouse since the touchpad on the laptop enervated her.  All she wants to do is write verse using a word processor, and perhaps send her literary output to her sister via email, while at the same time she does have some curiosity about the online world, particularly online music.  No simple machine, however, presented itself, and most everything we looked at required additional software or hardware to accomplish what she wants. 

Then there are many older people who have no problem with technology for a variety of reasons, many having acquired some facility through everyday professional use.  My mother, a career reference librarian is a great example, and in her early working years dumb terminals were just beginning to appear.  She has a wide knowledge of internet resources and curiosity about social media sites and tools.  And from what I see on Twitter and Facebook there are many like her. 

But what about the people coming to our libraries to use a computer for the first time to fill out a job application or a government form or set up an email account?  Maybe they get some assistance from us or they avail themselves of a class at a particular time, but what they encounter on the computer screen must make no sense at all, never mind small print and unfriendly web design and inexcusable information architecture (let's not get started down that road.)  Librarians who navigate internet sites on a daily basis take for granted what mystifies relative newcomers to say, Yahoo, for instance, trying to attach a Word file to an email or verify that something was saved or sent, all new and mysterious to one library user who I helped with his email account to accomplish similar tasks.

You may wonder, if our libraries provide the computers pretty much as is, and due to staffing limitations must ration support to patrons (and a recent survey indicates many rely on libraries for computer access, ) then what?  Maybe these technology "newbies" are doing and will continue to do just fine and don't need our help.  Maybe they have to do it our way or the way it is now and catch up and get with the program.  Granted, among our libraries there is so much variation, from resource-rich to comparatively resource-poor, well-funded to under-funded, busy and less personal to a small staff/patron ratio and more personal service.  Maybe we don't want to know what our patrons are doing online, maybe it's a question of privacy and allowing some space, or maybe I will be asked a question about some application I don't have experise with and feel stupid and exposed.  And yet I sense that our future may lie in facilitating patron use of technology, in ways we may not have even encountered.  This might not sit well with some of my colleagues who prefer to provide a comparatively wholesale rather than a retail service operation, from perhaps the concern that giving too much attention to any one patron will cause others to demand the same and overwhelm the staff.   However, if we don't help those in need, where will our advocates be when our funding and space are at stake and through lack of tears the atmosphere is arid and the silence high frequency?

Monday, June 13, 2011

Open to the unknown

 (Cross posted to Quit Taking It Personally. Sorry if anyone is offended by the duplication.)

Today's #Trust30 prompt by Jonathan Fields asks: “What alternative opportunities, interpretations and paths am I not seeing?” In a field facing potentially drastic changes, librarianship, this is extremely relevant for me. So rather than defining myself as a librarian or information specialist, person, whatever it is, I have to ask, what do I like to do, what am I good at, what new abilities might I want to acquire? Maybe I don't know the answers to any of these questions right now.

Take computing. I had great difficulty using a computer when I was younger, had to rely on help from my father to pass a math course, or from more skilled peers just to type a college essay into a word processor. I knew nothing of commands or programming, could barely play games even, and for me a computer was little more than a sophisticated typewriter.

This all changed with the world wide web, software developed to browse it and information placed on remote servers for me to find using these tools to help me in my library work and answer questions for the people I served as well as for my own personal interest. And all this was completely unknown to me several years before, I could not have conceived of it, even as others were working hard to turn it into reality. And what followed has been a long fascination with information discovery on the internet. Finding. I think of the Latin word invenio, I find, I come upon, from which comes our word "invent."

So the path for me in the future may or may not involve a library building. It may involve skills used in finding and organizing and presenting information, connecting people with people and information, or it may be something I haven't even thought or heard of. My colleague Bill Mayer is known to say that the distinction between the library and IT in organizations or the distinction between the library and the network is dissolving. In a place, be it a business, educational institution or municipality, where these things are conundrums, this can present an opportunity for someone interested in information and knowledge, making things accessible for people and putting them to use. And I once worked with a scientist who told me it was my job to make myself obsolete, and if I did, and did it well, there would potentially be other opportunities and rewarding work for me. I believe he is right.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Follow up on the video culture

Considering yesterday's hit and run post on video games and libraries, here are a few more thoughts (in another quick and dirty post).

I don't heed the studies that purport to show negative effects of video games on youths, that they become aggressive or socially isolated or addicted.  The studies seem to be inconclusive, contradictory, and one has to question the methods, the sample size, it may still be too early to know the effects.  I'm interested in Jane McGonical's point about World of Warcraft containing enough crowdsourced information to rival Wikipedia, as she describes in her TED talk.  How could we apply gaming principles or activities to resource creation and development on a similar level?  Maybe this has been attempted with Second LifeJenny blogged more about gaming and libraries fairly recently, also David Lee King. Other's thoughts?

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Likes games

Notice of an event at ALA, via 8bitlbrary, came through my  ews reader recently, describing best practices on video game collection. The emphasis is on public libraries but why not other kinds of libraries developing an interest in this phenomenon?  For example, check out the University of Illinois' Gaming Initiative, featuring material on gaming research, gaming resources and careers using gaming technology. Or consider the MASS Digital Games Institute, launching at Becker College and including a partnership with Massachusetts and companies from the game industry.  An article from earlier this year in Fast Company demonstrates how we're already playing video games with many of the apps we use for health and other information uses.  There's also a TED talk by Jane McGonical, Director of Game Research and Developement at the Institute for the Future,  discussing applications of games to real world problem solving.  What can we bring to the table?  Can we collaborate with gamers for library apps?  Provide information and data infrastructure?  Thoughts? 

Friday, June 10, 2011

Confession of a librarian

I have a confession to make, even as I'm a librarian with twenty years plus experience in the field.

I'm a terrible reader.

It takes me forever to finish a book.

And there are huge gaps in my learning, "classics" I've never read, contemporary works many of my colleagues and acquaintances know that I haven't cracked.  I look at my bookshelves (well all my books are in storage now) wistfully thinking there are many titles I may never read.  And I still buy a few more, but not like in my younger years when I would think this is something I will want to read, or this is something I should read, or get this edition before they muck it up with a barcode (imagine.)

And for the most part, I am not inconvenienced by not having a book at hand.  That's where libraries come in for me and it's astounding how much is available on the web from the Gutenberg Books Project to the Internet Archive to what's just been uploaded anyhow (especially poetry, can often find what I want on another person's blog.)  And I'm not ashamed to admit that I haven't read something.  I can learn from someone who has, or put it down to read for a later that may or may not arrive.

So it is with a little amusement that I read, via Alison A, on the WebJunction LinkedIn group, that an article was published in Wired pointing out the shortcomings of ebooks at the present time.   I admire ebook technology (even as I don't have an ereader myself, except for the free app that comes with the iPhone, which leaves something to be desired, but what do I know, really).  Being able to store a library of books in a device or even just a full number is cool.  But I don't even make time for print books (or dead tree books as I hear from Shirl and others.)  What would I do with it?   Carry around more books to not read?

At the same time, as a librarian pointing people to tools and information, it is incumbent upon me to learn as much as I can about ebooks and ereaders to provide access and solve problems.  It is an evolving technology.  (See the WebJunction group for a lively discussion of preferred ereaders, and Paula Hane's overview of free ebook and ereader software sources.)

And when I reflect on my reading life, the books that have stayed with me are few, that is I can recall much of what I read and certain phrases or incidents well, mostly through rereading.  And rereading again I surprise myself that the text is different from what was in my memory.  How little I know.  I think of Gombromowicz's Ferdydurke, his description in the fourth chapter of the author's toil and ultimately the reader's distraction: "Might not just a phone call, or a fly interrupt his reading precisely at the point where all individual parts unite in a dramatic resolution ... Is this why we construct a whole, so that a particle of a part of the reader will absorb a particle of a part of the work, and only partly at that?"  Yes, this rings true with me, who reads much online and scans mostly at that. Then there are the words of Ecclesiastes.

Nobody has to read anything, but if I do, and remember it, and even act on it, I can gain something and help others, potentially.  And as far as the technology, the gain and the loss, I think of a book I didn't read but saw the movie version, No Country for Old Men, the old sheriff tells Tommy Lee Jones, "You can't stop what's coming."  And I can't, can only make the best of the situation, today and in the future.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Librarians as thought leaders

Learned of an intriguing project, via Twitter?, today, TEDxLibrariansTO (as distinguished from TED, I'm told,") calling for videos to discuss the theme "Librarians as thought leaders."  The key word is inspiration.  So what breathes life into me and how can I breathe life into others?  And what's a thought leader? 

As a model,the site offers Library 101 video by David Lee King and Michael Stephens.  I have to admire these gentleman for putting it out there and availing themselves of rock, punk and rapper styles, rapid-fire imagery and polished production.  They tell us what libraries should have but not necessarily how to get it or incorporate it.  "We're still about books, meeting rooms and story hours," they sing (or something to that effect,) but incorporation of social tools and collaborative spaces are the direction they advocate.  How will this work?  I'm starting at a college where many students I'm told don't have smartphones, let alone laptops.  Getting more computers into library spaces is important, but what kind of machines, and for what use?  For this college, there has to be a larger conversation about technology.  Where do the faculty want to go with it.  How can the library facilitate learning and collaborative spaces such as have been created here and here and here and here and here.  I'm indebted to Bill Mayer for this information.)  All involve creative use of space for technology, "flexible" environments, places for teaching, for students to work together on projects, try out new or unfamiliar software, all connected somehow to the library where they may otherwise be disinclined to venture.

Does scholarship matter any more?  What is scholarship, other than asking appropriate questions to gain insight, and maybe even scholarship practice is evolving.  How to accommodate it and support it? 

Maybe there is no one right way, but many ways, many futures, many skills evolving into many abilities.  Know what I can do, know what I need to learn, know what I want, and reach out and accept help.

Maybe the thought leader intention is for librarians to direct the conversation, articulate values, rather than be subject to decisions of larger institutions, municipalities. Another aspect of adapting to the future?

Wednesday, June 8, 2011


A wonderful lunch with three wonderful librarians, two who work in major research libraries and one who has started her own information consulting business.  I've collaborated with all of them on social bookmarking and similar activities.  It was great being in their company.  One common theme we discussed is the evolution of the library, and our entrepreneurial friend has even gone as far to say something like librarians need to stop thinking of only libraries.  It reminded me a lot of Randy Hensley's talk from the other day, he was familiar to at least one of the participants.  The thinking that emerged was one of being less tied to specific positions and institutions and developing useful skills and abilities, even venturing into learning programming languages or about metadata and APIs. (Librarians venturing into similar areas has been discussed in a lively fashion elsewhere, though I believe my friends were talking about individual initiative rather than something mandated from above. )  It takes some persistence and courage and willingness to ask questions. Some online training was referenced.  I think back to my own early days and getting flumoxed trying to learn GoLive Cyberstudio in a training session, I just didn't have the graphical chops and cheated myself out of learning other software and infrastructure that might have led somewhere.  These librarians are willing.  I can learn from their example, especially one of the academic librarians who had an idea for tracking faculty influence on politics, although I am probably misrepresenting it.  And some great sites were shared.  And they wished me well in my new undertaking.  Thanks to all.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

"I haven't been following the affair"

As I've enjoyed this #blogeverydayinjune exercise, and participating in it has brought up many ideas (mostly what I'd like to do, what I've yet to put in play,) I'm regretting not reading the thoughts of other participants and the Twitter stream and responding to it.  I haven't been following the affair, I'm afraid, although probably not to as extreme an example as this.  May not get many chances to post but I will keep trying.  Appreciate the opportunity and thanks for your patience and readership.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Not in my job description

Looking over the current job descriptions for the staff I will be working with, thinking of questions such as how do you do this or do you still do this, the thought came to me, what are reasonable expectations.  In a small library (as few as one, sometimes two to five staff members,) cross-training and performing of multiple functions are part of the deal, being expected to check out a book, provide direction, troubleshoot with a patron using a resource on a computer, etc.  People have said to me make clearer distinctions so we're not tripping over one another.  I will need to work this out.

Nevertheless, the phrase "not in my job description" always comes up, to the point of cliche. However, I believe that to do meaningful work other librarians and I will have to seek out activities and opportunities that may not be described in our job descriptions.  At an institution I know of, many administrators wear many hats, admistrative, financial, and as one guy described it to me he is coordinating the college's new research initiative that features a partnership with the state and local businesses. Then I'm thinking if there are needs where one is, say a lack of computing and learning facilities, why can't the library play a role in that conversation.  Or the direction of the website.  Or an organization's institutional memory, from history to the knowledge of people walking out the door, as has been described elsewhere.  Or something along the lines of the Harvard Library Innovation Laboratory

And I think of my last place of employment and an administrator who came to work there at around the same time I did. When she started she was an assistant but gradually took on more work and revamped the entire budget system for the organization.  (She also became a notary public, seeing an opening there.)  What she did was not popular with some (" X took over P's job," one staff member groused to me,) but she is effective, took advantage of opportunities, she's still working there and I'm not.  I'm not suggesting aggressiveness, necessarily, or solely looking out for one's own interests.  However, I can see missed opportunities in my past.  What if I'd taken the initiative to set up an institutional repository?  Or some archive at an essentially ahistorical organization? Some learning, in the area of software, some collaborating and asking for help were necessary.  I didn't do it and it is part of the past and here's my opportunity to learn from it and do something different, redeem the past in a way.

It's a tricky thing.  On the one hand there is something about being clear what one does and what business one is in.  At the same time, we can adapt and evolve, as print books may be eclipsed by ebooks and other disruptive technologies appear on the scene.  Intriguing discussions of evolving library work can be read here and here

So I have to be willing to change, even gradually, thinking of Red Green: "I'm a man!  But I can change, if I have to, I guess."

Sunday, June 5, 2011


I've heard differing views on the concept of fun: fun in work, "if it isn't fun why do it," work as play.  Richard K. Irish, in one of his books (either Go Hire Yourself an Employer or the earlier If Things Don't Improve, I May Ask You to Fire Me,) crtiticized the "fun ethic," of the youth of the time, looking upon those who wouldn't work at a job if it wasn't "fun."  Maybe fun is a by-product of engaging and fulfilling work and discovery and engagement with customers and colleagues.  And then I saw this post from 8bitlibrary which puts things in another context. (I like his ideas, or why not something like this?  (Maybe not the shoes.))

8bit is talking about a dance party at the ALA annual (where I will not be), but what about bringing movement and a relaxing and free atmosphere to the library setting?  Happy and confident librarians serving and engaging with patrons who feel welcome and that there's a good reason for them to come in the door, e.g. fun. 

I don't know.  I'm an academic who's worked in solitude for the most part (although not entirely, and I have a little public library experience.)  Dealing with citations, bibliographic databases, open access, current awareness (finished yawning yet?)  Finding information, especially in unexpected places, offering a solution to someone, I find exciting, sort of like Marianne Moore found baseball and writing exciting (although I have no idea, really,) and there's blogging and Twitter, which I find exciting (the best promotion of Twitter I've encountered in my recent memory is this one.)  Even these are tied to the computer.

How to initiate fun?  David Lee King has some great ideas here and here, particularly involving technology, space, staff and technology.  "You have visitors now," he asks in one of his slides, what kind of experience are they having?" Among his other suggestions are listening to the community rather than trying to sell them just what we have, involving conversation, participation and connecting through stories.

And Bohyun Kim talks about the "infectious library," asking us to "dream" of what that would look like.  Two of her suggestions include "libraries as tech shops," places where patrons can learn about new cool and useful tools; content collaboration with users in academic and other settings, which could be especially interesting for coursework and unique community resources and special collections. (All Bohyun's suggestions are great, but these first two seemed in sync with what I highlighted from David and the general topic of fun.)

So we can bring something to the table.  Our customers may know what their goals are but not how we can welcome and support them, why they would want to come to us.  We may not know that yet either.

And whatever I do, I will relax.  It's just librarianship.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Three little words

I like the motto of the University of Vermont libraries: Ask. Discover. Create.  Beautifully and succinctly stated, flowing like an arrow through the research, knowledge process. 

UVM even initiated an outreach campaign with students as models to promote the first part.  (The youngsters in the last photo look a little disinterested, though. ;) )  Engaging students in library promotion, creating allies, suggests great potential. 

The "discover" part I like too, suggests an open process, including serendipity.  "Inventing is finding," I read somewhere.  But we don't stop there, do we? 

How do the libraries foster creation for their users.  A clue may be in the Center for Digital Initiatives. An email link is provided for someone in the community to suggest a new collection.  Elsewhere, the librarians state: "It is the UVM Libraries' goal that students, faculty, staff, scholars, and community members participate as users and creators of digital resources in an open, collaborative environment. The CDI works with users to integrate digital collections in their research, teaching, and learning strategies." The image archives they host are beautiful.  I would be interested to learn how such collections have been used in courses and study, with what outcomes.

Nice work, UVM!

Friday, June 3, 2011

Creativity in Instruction

Thoughts on the ACRL/NELIG program which I attended this morning, courtesy of one of my staff members who gave me her place since she was unable to go. Comments from other attendees can be read in the Twitter stream.  Slides from the presentations will eventually be available on the website.

The theme was creativity and the keynote by Randy Hensley involved  (well first he sang "I Remember You,") puzzles and group problem solving, working with images, senses and visualization. For example, we were asked, in teams, to describe a problem we might encounter teaching a library skills class to students (some of us went with the situation of not having enough computers for everyone to use.)  Then we were asked to report, what does the problem sound, smell, taste and feel like to the touch.  With the puzzles and these sensory stretches, Randy was engaging us at looking at what we do in novel ways.  One way he framed it was to bring the concept of "brain lateralization" to the discussion, asking us to consider how education starts us off with a more right-brained focus (emphasis on play,) and then moves, almost exclusively, to a left-brained focus (organizational and analytical,) with the result that when people try to do creative work, they haven't been educated or are out of practice.  So applying senses, images, memories can generate stories in our minds which are useful to apply to problem solving. 

Randy went on to introduce concepts from Daniel Pink's work (haven't read him,) who emphasizes that we are entering a kind of post-information age, "conceptual age," where the emphasis will be on collaborative work, creation and empathy.  Abilities will matter more than skills which will be regularly in flux for creative work we can only begin to imagine.  While I welcome this new world view, skeptically I think of the work of Matthew Fraser and his Throwing Sheep in the Boardroom which examines, for example, how companies are or are not adopting social media and a more open information sharing culture at their peril.  Matthew and I had a discussion about this a couple years ago and I asked him, among other things, about the flattening out of the corporate hierarchy that was talked about in the 90s, the horizontal organization.  Didn't happen, he told me, because people who have power do what they will to hold onto it.  Will a similar scenario prevail in the business and culture we know now and will see in the future?  Further more, if everybody's an entrepreneur or artist or creator, must we all buy from each other to survive? Or barter?

I think I see where Randy was headed as he left us with his models of learning and his emphasis on creating empathy with the students we want to engage and bring to our libraries (or bring the library to them but in whatever instance, have them see the library and its personnel as offering solutions.)  "Go to the place of empathy, " he said, and I've heard similar speech, the idea being rather than the library telling its user community what they offer and why they should want it, give them an image or a problem to solve, let them find the intrinsic meaning.

I saw an example of this in the next session I attended led by Andy Burkhardt and Sarah Cohen, who demonstrated an interesting exercise using polling software, asking a multiple choice question, for example ("what source do you use to get infomation?), having the students respond via text message,  and then displaying the results on the screen.  If the majority of the audience answers Google, it can become a discussion about that or the differences between search engines, the use of various social media sites, authority of sources.  This was novel since usually students are not encouraged to use cell phones in learning environments; evidently some colleges are moving to ban them.

The subsequent session featured the use of images to gather students' attention in information literacy sessions.  Alison Armstrong, working with Egyptian students, gave them icons from newspapers they would know and then instructed them to find articles on a topic.  She stressed the importance of being brief in an explanation of what they were going to do before the class.  Her co-presenter, Laurie Kutner, unveiled a graph showing comparative internet access in different regions of the world, also showing potential as a jumping off point for discussion, especially as one audience member pointed out, one can emphasize difficulties researching information about a country that has less technology infrastructure.  The discussion concluded with audience members talking about rethinking of standards for information literacy, such as those implemented by ACRL, along the lines of abilities rather than skills.  Alison alluded to a newly-adopted framework released by SCONUL, more cyclical, as one attendee commented.

A great day and thank you to the speakers and everyone involved with NELIG who made it possible.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Two worlds

I am starting a new position managing two college libraries on campuses twenty minutes apart from one another.  One is in a residential neighborhood in a sizable industrial city, surrounded by other colleges and similar institutions.  The other is about twenty minutes away in a rural community, up a hill, in something of a town square.  Interestingly, the future may point toward the latter, even though it is an old building with no air-conditioning and certainly not ADA-compliant.  Yet maybe the expansion is headed that way or did I misread the press releases.  I'm thinking a lot about library buildings and a larger conversation about technology. The libraries are equipped with computers, certainly not new and not numerous and the staff tell me when they are occupied the students walk away.  So I'm thinking of spaces where faculty can teach a class, where librarians can give instruction, where students can collaborate on creative work.  It may not be like many other colleges, I'm told, as many students come to school without their own computers.  Maybe they have smartphones and we should be looking at mobile services. 

My heart feels a little heavy.  In my previous position, my predecessor left me detailed notes, and I followed some of her suggestions (like creating current awareness alerts for the scientists,) while disregarding some others.  Nevertheless, she was very thorough.  My predecessor for where I am now, nothing, no trace, an empty office, only a few tabs on folders to indicate what went on before.  Old policies that I have yet to read that may not have been followed and that will need to be looked at anew. When I say old I mean a few years and everything's changed, libraries' use of metrics, constituents' use of the library, social media, smart phones, ebooks, data, the question of what a library and librarians are for. 

I know this.  I've inherited a superb staff who know as much as if not more about libraries than I do.  They don't want to make lattes, they want to deliver solutions and do meaningful work with students and faculty and others in their communities.  I want to help them make it possible.  I want it so badly, for all of us, not only for our sake, but for the best in each of us, why we do this work, to serve and connect with people and connect people with information and other people and tools that will help them achieve their objectives.

The collections are out of date. Thinking of the post from yesterday that mentioned PDA (Patron Driven Acquisition, and not public display of affection or personal digital assistant,) the libraries evidently have been doing that, but not anticipating needs. I believe the librarians are ready, and at the same time we need a broad knowledge of the teaching activities at the college and where things are headed to plan collections.  What's in the stacks is so out of date it makes one want to level the whole thing and start over.  There will be time, but not much. 

I think of the missed opportunities in my past.  Don't F it up, I say to myself.  I will make mistakes but I don't to make ones I've already made and create misery by not making decisions.  I've learned many things the hard way in my career.  What's the worst that can happen?  I go home.

Tomorrow I'm headed to a meeting at another institution to which I've never been to hear about trends in library instruction. It's been a long time.  At other campuses of this institution I heard about instruction tools and techniques but that was years ago, before libguides, before networked databases really, and yet librarians will still trying to get the attention of students and faculty.  Mostly it will be fun to be at a meeting with a role, and new colleagues and a smile.  I'm having fun and the days are flying by. 

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Give the people what they want?

It's a conundrum for libraries.  What is our role, as collectors, as curators, as stewards of information?

At the municipal libraries I've worked in, folks want Steig Larsson and there aren't enough copies to go around even in a well-funded, cooperative network.  And what's wrong with wanting to read Steig Larsson?  I can't say I have, although I enjoyed the Dragon Tattoo movie when I watched it with my niece and her partner last fall.  It's a riveting story.  So it may not be the zenith of literary accomplishment.

When I was a callow youth I worked in a bookstore in my home town, one which was owned by a national chain.  Of course the bestsellers of the day were prominently displayed, Judith Krantz's I'll Take Manhattan, the latest Danielle Steele, Robert Schuller's Be-Happy Attitudes, you get the idea.  The assistant manager, Jose, was fond of creating towering book displays which were referred to as "dumps."  But he would also get ideas from more literary bookstores near the colleges and universities in the cities, order them from the vendor, and they sold, he said.  Jose was giving customers choices of which they might not have been aware.  The same thinking is well described in a recent library blog post. Or, looking at it another way, patrons may not necessarily know what they need but a need exists and it's up to us to identify it, as this story illustrates.

I think of asking a researcher before I took on my previous position what he wanted from the library. "I don't know, Garrett," he answered with a sigh, and we were talking about table-of-contents journal alerting services, which he said overwhelmed his email box and consequently went unread.  (At the same time, as many journals went to e-only format or print subscriptions were discontinued, their needed, and still needs, to be a way to alert researchers of new material.)  I spent much subsequent time learning about this gentleman's research, trying to learn what keywords would pull out of database searches the articles he would want to read.  Much trial and error.  He gave me the word "clusters," talking about a concept in physics and chemistry, large aggregations of molecular material, specifically for him metal clusters in the gas phase, observed in a mass spectrometer or  with similar instrumentation.  But "clusters" pulled up computer clusters and galaxies.  The researcher laughed at me when I showed him the first search results, but I kept refining it and incorporating not only disparate literature databases but contents from the journals themselves, filtering, searching and researching, and keeping an eye on what the researcher's group was up to with regard to publishing and presenting results and new developments.  Even after all that, I don't have a magic formula, but the regular communication between us was positive for the library.  Some of my colleagues will object, probably, to paraphrase William James, wanting to do a wholesale rather than a retail basis, for efficiency's sake.  To my view, the information landscape is overwhelming and any kind of assistance we can provide these dealing with it will only increase our value.

Then today I was pointed to a posting on Patron-Driven Acquisition (PDA,) the thinking being that academic libraries with limited funds should not attempt to purchase widely or exhaustively in a subject but respond to purchase requests from their constituents.  This is what I did in my previous position, with some purchases for reference volumes and other materials of general interest at my discretion.  And I think librarians using model can maintain some middle ground and some level of participation.  Browse publisher's catalogs and also reviews in journals such as Nature, Scientific American, Physics Today, Science, Science News, American Scientist, and others.  Browse library catalogs of similar institutions and consider if your constituents need a particular title onsite or through the network. Know the activities of your institution, the current courses and assignments, the experiments going on in the laboratories and keep an eye out for publications in whatever format that will support these endeavors.  Dana Roth similarly suggests many of these ideas in his presentation on the future of science librarianship from last year's SLA meeting.

All of this is a roundabout way to say, yes, we can respond to patron wants while thinking creatively about delivering materials, services, environments, communities, opportunities, collections yet unasked for.  It's not an either/or.  It's a yes and.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011


Libraries are associated with quiet.  Even as recent as the last decade there was a library blog called Shush! (Can no longer find the site, although a Google search reveals the footprint.)  Quiet is good.  Silence is good.  The modern library, however, is not quiet.  People working together at computers, talking on cell phones, sharing media, perhaps a coexistence of quiet and activity, stillness and movement.

Personally I don't bat an eye (although sometimes I am a little jumpy) when someone's cell phone rings.  It's a fact of life today, common as dirt.  I swore I'd never be someone whose phone went off at an inappropriate time but that has happened.

Library users may want spaces where people can converse and engage and also spaces of quiet - when they want them.  How to create space for both?  The Librarian in Black pointed me to an interesting sign that might help library users modulate their sound contributions.

Monday, May 30, 2011

"Call It Anything"

I've accepted a job as director of libraries at a college that offers two and four year programs and enrolls some fifteen hundred students each year.  It's a forward thinking institution in a lovely residential setting, and the people I've met seem friendly, dedicated and not taking themselves too seriously, which is instructive for me. Why am I going there?  Why am I doing this?

I love service and I love meeting people and connecting them with other people and resources that will help them meet their goals.  I'm fascinated by literature, knowledge and internet.   I love libraries, even as the idea of what a library is and what it can become changes, whether or not it is called a library.

Demanding my attention from the start include the following:

How to make students feel welcome in the library.  A faculty member used the expression "library phobia" in a conversation we had.  Many students are the first in their family to attend college.  They may not have positive experiences with libraries or use one as their first resource (or at any time) to solve a problem.  (I may not have been comfortable using libraries until after several years of working in them plus graduate school.)  What do students want?  WIFI?  Places to congregate for group study, and then quiet study places when they need them?  I think of several transformational library settings shared with me by people I've met: a community college library that is now a community hub, featuring spaces for people to get together, work together, learning resources, technology resources, and cultural events; a university library that has successfully devoted its space to integrate technology more successfully within the library setting; and another university library that has devoted space to technologically-enhanced classrooms, quiet study spaces and collaborative work.  So what's possible and what's necessary for my new setting, questions that I can only answer with a better understanding of how work functions now.

Asking myself why I come to work and asking my colleagues what they like about their jobs, what they would change, what are their aspirations, what would success mean, listening more than I talk, being there, not necessarily having answers but having curiosity about this question and then taking steps to give staff members the resources to do their jobs and achieve their goals.  I'm fortunate to work with a lovely group of people, dedicated, professional, curious, friendly, couldn't say enough positive words about each one I've met.

What does the library own, subscribe to, provide access to and why?  What do we need that we do not have?  What could we get elsewhere or get by without?  What are the programs and the students we will support?  How much should we commit to eBooks and ejournals and databases? What about promoting unique collections in college departments, archival and historical materials, is there an opportunity for digitization, networking and sharing?  What about facilitating sharing of learning materials online for those who want to do so?

What are the best ways to approach faculty and other personnel?  What's worked, what's appropriate, what can I offer.  Current awareness tools and social bookmarking as ways to alleviate information overload?  Outreach to facilitate teaching and preparing library services to anticipate particular assignments?  One thing the faculty and staff I met with reinforced for me is, often when teaching library resources, students don't retain the knowledge of the tools unless there's an immediate use for it.  Perhaps using specific course assignment situations as learning opportunities to demonstrate useful library resources has potential.  On the other hand, students just may want the information quickly and be done with it.  Create learning modules that can be accessed online?  Instructional videos as have been used in other settings

Then there's the question of the online catalog.  What can that be, what should it be?  How can the catalog become more "social," integrated with other library, learning and online resources without sowing confusion?  What do library users want?  What features are available from vendors, or is a consortial catalog a possibility or even a solution? 

I'm asked what is the future of libraries and a response is "Libraries have many different futures."  The belief that all information that anyone could want is available online does not yet conform with present reality.  Darnton and others offer reasons for this, at the same time addressing why libraries need to consider providing patrons with ereaders and ebooks in a variety of settings.  I don't see libraries becoming obsolete but library personnel need to act.  I mean,  know the institutional context, know our customers, align our goals and objectives with theirs, seek out creative solutions that may not be associated with a "library."  This paper offers several examples tried in corporate settings that could be applied in a variety of library and information enterprises.  Maybe it will be called a library or something else.  I think of when Miles Davis's group was recorded at the Isle of Wight festival and Miles was asked the name of the tune.  "Call It Anything," was evidently his response.  So let's call it anything but let our focus be service freely given and the removal of information obstacles.

(I don't know, this may seem presumptuous, premature, pie in the sky, mushy, unspecific thinking; at any rate, these are some of my directions as I make this new beginning, drawing on experience and not knowing at the same time.) 

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The library of memory

It was the kind of library you would find in the center of any town, I suppose. I want to say the facade was stucco but maybe it was just dull grey cement.  There were the hands of a clock on the front above the doors, and there were ashtrays in the foyer, just like in the children's book Mike's House. And the children's room was inviting, and had books such as The Sneetches, and Who's a Pest, and the Sign on Rosie's Door, especially the latter.  As I grew older, the library was renovated and it was harder to find things.  There was supposed to be more space and light and probably there was but I preferred the way things were before.  At one point I discovered the 796 section or thereabouts for books on baseball.  But I could never find the Glory of Their Times, for which there was a catalog card, but was never on the shelf.  I may have asked about it at one point and received a postcard in the mail saying it was out of print.  I knew nothing about interlibrary loan, no one had told me.  One time I held onto a record album several weeks after its due date, but the library staff caught up with me, sending me a photocopy of my library card and the checkout card as evidence of my sin.  It would not be the first time I would fall foul of a library establishment, and one might remark the irony that I would go on to pay copious library fines despite being a librarian, but maybe it's just kind of boring.

Struggling to find information for a school paper, an article maybe, using the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature.  We had to request the back issues of the magazines from someone at a desk.  She handed the request form back to me, saying " Now what the hell does that say?" My handwriting was and continues to be a source of merriment for those around me, even though I know it is good manners to write clearly.  In my youth and adolescence, I didn't care.  And there were books that took too long to read or were too much trouble to find.  Only years later (maybe ten, fifteen,) when I was on the front lines in library service, trying to help customers decipher the arcane listings in the online catalog or the index books, did it start to make sense.  When I applied for my first library job I had no idea what I was getting into, and the director was telling me that everything was headed in the direction of technology.  Even he probably had scant concept of networked information or even such a thing as an ebook, though it's not out of the question, since Vannevar Bush had written As We May Think in 1945 and hypertext had been invented sometime during the 1960s and ARPAnet was nothing new, but I had never heard of any of it and had only used a word processor under duress to finish my senior exercise in college, a sorry excuse for a paper that featured - you guessed it - little in the way of research. 

I got off topic.  My default as a teenager was to go to the library and grab a book and lie prone in the stacks.  I looked at Jazz Is by Nat Hentoff again and again but I don't know if I finished it, and looked at other books that mentioned John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman.  Poetry books were a curiosity, especially the ones in French or in translation, but I don't remember which specifically, maybe I just liked glancing at them.  Drama too.  There were comfortable chairs, but mostly I sprawled in the stacks. 

My father is a mathematician. My mother is a reference librarian.  Ironically, I combined the two and became a science librarian.  "You really landed yourself, didn't you," someone remarked to me once.  I've seen changes but not as many as some.  I'm a consumer of technology rather than a developer or an innovator.  Not long ago I went back to the library of my youth.  It had changed dramatically.  Fine paneling.  Many computers.  Wide open spaces for people to gather.  And on the second floor, books, where there weren't offices, books, which had once occupied the lower level, books, in dignified rows, waiting to be discovered. Some that I might have read or touched back in the day were probably long gone, succeeded by fresher material.  Maybe there is a connection.  Maybe nothing is lost, and maybe it is all about loss.  I don't know.  I wasn't much of a reader actually then, struggled to finish a book then and that's true today.  Do a lot of reading online and more scanning, and a good thing about a book makes me stop and disconnect, and a library gives me pause by its solidity, by its having withstood time and change, though I live in a part of the country where municipal libraries are still relatively well supported, and even not that much if I look at the budgets (~ 1%.) 

Monday, January 31, 2011

Winston Churchill on libraries

“As you browse about, taking down book after book from the shelves and contemplating the vast, infinitely varied store of knowledge and wisdom which the human race has accumulated and preserved, pride, even in its most innocent forms, is chased from the heart by feelings of awe not untinged with sadness. As on surves the mighty array of sages, saints, historians, scientists, poets and philosophers whose treaures ne will never be able to admire — still less enjoy — the brief tenure of our existence here dominates mind and spirit.”  from Painting as a Pastime (via Mighty Girl)

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Getting social

I used the word "game changer" in my last post, and there were two others in my recent history.  One was the discovery of blogs and RSS feeds in 2003, which, when I learned about them at a conference, then I made a connection and saw the potential, and started a blog.  Also downloaded a feed reader and loaded so many feeds into it that finally it wouldn't load.  Yet a world had opened up and there were new discoveries to make each day.

 Slowly, I started making connections with other bloggers.  A woman at my university, whose work I admired, got in touch with me and let me know there was a blog group meeting on Thursday nights.  However, I didn't meet her until I attended a blogging conference that fall.  Then I joined the group.  It was fun to sit and learn about new aspects of blogging that seemed exciting, but which I never put into play: podcasts, OPML, to name some.  My friend and I met at library conferences and participated on several panels together, talking about how we used blogs for information management and why a librarian or library should start a blog. She always encouraged me and is a remarkable, insightful, hard-working individual, not just tech and job-savvy, but well-read, active, into knitting, clog-dancing and having fun. 

Those blog groups were fun, we'd talk technology and then go out to dinner and talk more technology.  It was a forum where many people learned about getting started with blogging and the range of things that could be done with blogs, sharing news, building communities (like one a woman made for her town and what was going on there,) politics, international issues, science and science librarianship in my case.  After I stopped attending regularly several years ago, the group had evolved into something that discussed all sorts of technologies, calling itself a blog and technology group.  I don't know what the current status is.

So I continued to read my feeds through Bloglines, which worked most of the time, and then a couple of years ago gave Twitter a look.  When I first heard of it, I didn't understand its use.  Microblogging?  Short snippets of nothing?  Then, when I realized it was another content sharing and distribution device, another game changer.  I tweeted whatever was interesting, built a following, made connections with people with similar interests (even met some at a conference that I learned about through Twitter,) and perhaps became overwhelmed as I had with blogs and RSS feeds.  Today I'm looking for an elusive balance and some sort of strategy.  I believe that libraries can use social media to good effect, but I have nothing to quantify it, only examples that I have seen here and there.  I don't know the best way to reach patrons who are not using these tools, is it just librarians speaking to one another, or is it as Aaron Tay puts it, a way not to think like a librarian, a way to expand my perspective? I don't know what's next or if these tools will soon seem antiquated like blinking 1990s websites with frames. 

Thursday, January 13, 2011


Maybe I was always going to be a librarian.  The summer I broke my foot (I was 8,) I organized my book shelf by title, put pockets and cards in them and checked them out to my friends.  There was one who would not return his books on time and I was strict with him.  "I've given you a lot of kindness," he said, referring to the fact that he'd visited me frequently.  I still wouldn't budge, which shows how flexible I was, where my mind was.  Throughout my childhood and younger years I gravitated toward the local public library, spending considerable time reading and browsing in the stacks.  However, when it came to write research papers, I had no idea, I was flummoxed, perhaps having ignored the librarian's useful instructions about the Reader's Guide and other resources.  Later, working with faculty and graduate students and seeing how they used databases, indexes and journals, gave me an understanding of how it can be done thoroughly.  The graduate students writing theses needed to read virtually everything on their topic, hence the search for obscure journals and interlibrary loan requests.

I went to a small liberal arts college in a midwestern state.  There is a path that runs through the middle of campus and at the time most of the humanities classes were held in the buildings on the left side of the path and the science classes were conducted in the buildings on the right.  I stuck to the left side of the path.  Could not decide on a major, make a choice, I wanted to study everything, as though there were infinite time to do so.  Finally I settled on religion, since I knew nothing about it, and my understanding told me that much of literature and art referenced the scriptures, so it was essential to learn.  I didn't want college to end, but end it did, and I was without a job, a plan, a clue. 

So I went home and applied at a large university, and surprisingly they hired me for an entry-level position in one of their libraries.  I had to file corporate report microfiche, keep track of government document receipts in an oppressive ledger, and fix the microfilm machines when they got jammed.  I moved up a position, shortly after, and then spent several years applying for higher-level jobs and getting turned down.  I did not have an MLS, although the situation certainly seemed to suggest getting one, as the tuition-reimbursement benefits offered by the university were quite generous. I saw other colleagues completing the process and leapfrogging me and I could not make a decision. 

What changed was the university went through a reorganization.  It was a nervous time and jobs were threatened, and I felt lucky to still be in a position.  However, professional positions (reference librarians, for example) in my unit were becoming vacant and not being filled.  The reference staff came up with an idea to train the support staff to back them on the reference desk.  I took the opportunity and soon discovered that I enjoyed interacting with patrons and had a wide knowledge of the library's resources.  My previous years had been behind the scenes in technical services.  As a result of this cross-training, I began to feel like I had a stake in the organization, or at least the work of my immediate unit.

Another opportunity arose, this time in a branch library within this same university's library system.  It was a two-person library, and I suppose I approached it to advance another level.  However, it dawned on me that someone in the process of getting an MLS might be hired for the job, someone showing a commitment to the profession.  Then I thought, why not, and I applied for the job and applied to library school.  I was accepted for both.  Got off to a shaky start at the new job, being thrust in the position of supervising the student workers, but after learning from my mistakes, whether they involved payroll or scheduling and logistics, it worked all right, and gradually I was able to approach every situation with confidence, using the experience and knowledge I had about libraries and being open to what I didn't know.

Library school was fun, although difficult to manage while working full time, and a slow progression, one course per semester.  But I delighted in applying what I learned.  About that time came the second game changer for me, the arrival of the world wide web into mass consciousness.  My computer knowledge was mediocre, I knew how to use a word processor or check email by telnetting to a mainframe, and had mostly used dumb terminals to access the library systems.  The web was the great equalizer.  When I saw how the browser could take me just about anywhere with a URL, I felt I had arrived, perhaps like "stout Cortez, as he stared at the Pacific") (Keats, Chapman's Homer.)  I even learned rudimentary HTML, although web techniques have long since eclipsed my skills (thank heaven for content management systems.)

After completing my degree, I looked for a position and after several months found something interesting on one of the professional websites.  It described an opening running a library at a scientific research institute wholly unknown to me, although it turned out to be in the same city where I was working, and in fact I had gone jogging past it on many occasions but never knew what it was.  Although I didn't know anything about the science going on there, I knew about the organization of scientific libraries, scientific literature and scientific databases.  So there I went.  It was a hard adjustment and I felt intimidated, being the only one who did what I did, a librarian in a sea of scientists.  However, I knew one thing - I had a habit of finding information, and little by slowly I learned about the research groups and what they did, found out where they published and who they read, went to their talks and gleaned what I could.  A scientist at the institute told me he felt he could either do his experiments or follow the literature, so I took on the latter and soon was supplying each scientist relevant papers and citations and stories and leads even before they were requested. 

Eventually the family that owned the institute made a gift of it to a large university.  In one sense, this gave the scientists and me access to resources such as electronic journals and databases that we couldn't have afforded otherwise.  At the same time, with so much available at their desktops, the scientists spent less and less time in the library.  I experimented with tools such as blogs, Twitter, and a weekly newsletter.  Having seen, however, how other librarians in similar positions took on new responsibilities to increase the value of their units, I know I could have done more.  At one point, through the blog and university news channels, I tried to be something of the institute's publicist.  Finally, at the end of 2009, I was informed that the institute had a choice between keeping me or funding more scientists and they had chosen the latter. 

I don't know what my next move is.  Logically, I could use my experience in another academic library setting.  At the same time, I have some experience in public libraries (having moonlighted at one and volunteered at another,) and would also consider working within a company that may not have a physical library but would need access to and organization and dissemination of information to meet their goals.  I still like the idea of libraries, visited my home town library recently and was awed by the beauty of the facility and the fullness of the book collections.  And yet, I might not advise an organization to create a library in the traditional sense.

Where I'm going and where libraries and information are going, I don't know, but I will consider these things in future posts.