Your guide to the 2012 CARL Unconference

The California Academic & Research Libraries (CARL) conference begins this Thursday in San Diego. The theme of this year’s events is ”Creativity and Sustainability: Fostering User-centered Innovation in Difficult Times.” What better way to foster innovation and inspire creativity than through an Unconference!

As Fortune would have it, I will be co-coordinating the Unconference with the inestimable and talented Young Lee. While the unconference events will be mostly standard fare (see below), the format is a bit unorthodox. Rather than having a multi-hour block of time set aside at the beginning of the conference, the unconference will be broken into five, 1.25 hour blocks that run over the course of two days.

Here is our game plan:

Friday 10:15 am – 11:30 am: Speed networking and DIY round-table

You only get one chance to make a first impression. Kick off your unconference experience by getting to know your fellow attendees and perfecting your “elevator pitch”! We’ll briefly discuss what makes the ideal first impression and work on refining our own responses to the perennial question “What do you do?” Share and repeat. DIY Roundtable: A classic staple of unconferences, the round table brings everyone together as a group to discuss topics chosen on the spot. Participants drive the conversation according to their concerns and by their contributions.

Friday 4:15 pm – 5:30 pm: Solve For U

Taking a cue from the tech sector, attendees will have the opportunity to apply “moonshot thinking” to tackling problems. Utilizing prior submissions and/or discussions from earlier in the day, participants will select a single problem to tackle and work in separate teams to formulate competing solutions. Show and tell to follow.

Saturday 8:30 am – 9:45 am: Round Table, Part Deux

A classic staple of unconferences, the round table brings everyone together as a group to discuss topics chosen on the spot. Participants drive the conversation according to their concerns and by their contributions.

Saturday 11:45 am – 1:00 pm: Crowd-sourced Boot Camp

Each attendee brings a unique set of skills and experiences with them. Why not leverage that expertise for the benefit of everyone? Participants themselves will educate, explain, or demonstrate how to accomplish a task, create an item, or understand a concept. Topics will be based on attendees’ knowledge and interests.

Saturday 2:30 pm – 3:45 pm: DIY Think Tanks

Attendees will brainstorm possible topics for discussion based on interests, current events, or conference proceedings, with topics ranging from “improving customer service through mobile media” to “future thinking in academic libraries” (and anything in between!). Participants will vote and select the most popular topics then divide into separate “think tanks” to discuss. At the end of the session, each think tank will share the results of their discussion

If you are planning to attend CARL, I hope you will consider joining us for one or more of the Unconference events. Because the discussion is driven entirely upon the interests of the attendees who show up, you never know where it will lead!

Nominate a librarian

I want to see more librarians on pedestals. I want to see them holding trophies, making speeches, and talking about their work on a global stage. I want the world to see the work we do and be glad we’re here.

There have been a number of grassroots initiatives to increase our visibility and highlight our skills. PC Sweeney created the Great Librarian Write-Out, which offers a cash incentive to librarians who write articles for non-librarian publications. Jenny Levine formed Library Boing-Boing, an effort to bring together librarians and the readers of the popular BB site to raise interest in libraries. Bill Pardue organized Slam the Boards, a monthly event (and habit) that organizes librarians to answer questions on sites like AskMetafilter and Yahoo Answers.

To add to this, I want to see individuals in the spotlight. I’ve written about this before in the context of academia. The goal is to change the way the world sees librarians through individual personalities: human platforms, if you like. To that end, I’m offering you a challenge:

Choose 1 colleague and nominate him/her for an award.

That means:

  1. Pick a colleague who you think ought to be recognized for their work.
  2. Find an appropriate award (see below).
  3. Start the application process.

You may need to get additional information from your nominee in order to fill out the application, but take it upon yourself to do the brunt of the work. This is your gift to them. It can be anonymous, if you like, but letting that person know how much you admire them and what they do rarely has ill effects.

As to choosing an award, here are some recommendations:

Local awards: Take a look at your community. What awards are handed out annually within your unit, your organization, or your city?

Regional awards: This includes state, national, and international awards. Look at your professional organizations, state agencies, federal agencies, consortia, etc.

Awards outside the profession: Don’t limit your search to organizations for librarians. In fact, the ultimate goal of my challenge is to raise awareness of the work librarians do so reaching beyond the profession is almost a requirement. Look at teaching organizations, technology groups, research foundations, non-profits, alumni associations, historical societies, private institutions, etc.

Bonus Level: Create your own award and recommend that a colleague be recognized for their work. This is actually much easier than it sounds as long as you contact the right administrator (i.e. one who has the time and attention to take your request with gravity). Or if you are an administrator: well, what’s stopping you?

So again, I challenge you to nominate 1 colleague for an award. Pledge yourself to do this before the end of the year. A simple goal, but one with benefits in spades for your colleague (recognition), for you (feel good), and for the profession (change the way the world sees us).

Go out into the world, dear reader, and spread the word.

Library instruction and reflection: feed your brain

I still consider myself a “newbie” at library instruction, so I make a point to set aside time following every class to reflect on what just happened. Through this, I’ve learned quite a bit about myself and my teaching. Here’s a quick rundown of the highlights:

1) Specific goals produce specific results.

For each instruction session, I create three expected learning outcomes (ELOs). I’ve found that the more specific these statement are, the easier they are to assess. I don’t always accomplish what I set out to do, but because I’ve drafted my ELOs in a “smart“ way, I know exactly where and how I missed the mark. For example, instead of saying “Help students define their research paper topic,” I say “Students will have a narrow view of their proposed topic and be able to state it clearly and concisely [before the end of class].” How do I know I achieved this? By having students brainstorm ideas (mind-mapping) in class and then using those ideas to write out a thesis statement a la Wayne Booth’s The Craft of Research.

2) You learn as much after the class as you do in it.

I’ve been reading Char Booth’s Reflective Teaching, Effective Learning recently and I’ve adopted her recommended practice of asking myself three questions after every session: What went well? What didn’t go well? and How can I make it better next time? For each session that I teach, I type up the responses from the surveys I give each student at the end of class (Top 3 things you learned; 2 questions or things unclear; one thing you will definitely use) and compare these to my ELOs. The entire process only takes 15-20 minutes but the benefits multiply exponentially. For example, I originally thought that having a rigidly structured class would produce the best results, i.e. student surveys would match up with ELOs. But in fact, after reviewing the last few courses I’ve taught, the classes that were more organic (more collaborative time, more Q&A, more impromptu) produced better outcomes, especially regarding student satisfaction with the course.

3) You can’t force students to ask questions.

I wanted so terribly to incorporate Poll Everywhere into my instruction. I thought it would be a way to encourage more open inquiry but in fact it did the exact opposite. It shut down the students’ desire to ask questions or give feedback. I may use PE for other purposes, but as an attempt to generate questions, it was doing more harm than good. Instead, I’ve been working to generate conversation, which inevitably seems to lead to questions. If I get the students talking, I know I’m in good shape.

4) Always have a backup plan.

I walked into a classroom yesterday only to discover that it didn’t have any whiteboard space. So my plan to have students create mind-maps on the board was crushed. Instead, I opened up Google Docs and Voila! Instant whiteboard.

5) I love Q&A time!

Even with all the planning I do for each class (2-3 hours), I still respond more articulately to unexpected questions. Yesterday, a student asked whether or not he could print off books from Google Books. This gave me the opportunity to talk about copyright and e-books. The student was crestfallen that he couldn’t print off everything he need from gBooks, but now he also knew where to go to find e-books in the library collection.

In all likelihood, it will be years before I even begin to consider myself “a good teacher,” In the meantime, I can be confident that I have a realistic (and data-supported) understanding of my abilities.

Twitter as inter-library loan

In my recent presentation on social networks for academics, I discussed the disintermediation of the library out of the scholarly communication process as social media tools make it easier for scholars to transfer and acquire information without consulting library services or staff. In today’s Chronicle, I came across an interesting example of this:

Thanks to Twitter, I have been sent copies of obscure articles much faster than I would have received them from an interlibrary loan. I just need to tweet “Does anyone have access to the Journal of X, 1972?” and within an hour someone will have e-mailed me the PDF. It’s tremendously useful.

A similar PDF exchange market exists on Reddit.

In some part, this relates to the concept of the “invisible college,” notably the part that encompasses the peer-to-peer transfer of research that has always existed and functioned outside library walls. In fact, I still have a drawer full of pre-prints and writer’s copies from scholars that I interacted with as part of my graduate work in medieval studies. If I needed a copy of research that my library couldn’t get due to copyright or availability (and electronic copies were not as pervasive then), I could usually contact a small handful of scholars (if not the author herself) and obtain a hard copy.

So how is this different? For one, it’s more efficient and, as the author points out, faster. But even more importantly, it reduces the need for ILL as long as (1) the need is for electronic material, (2) one’s social network includes enough cross-institutional coverage, and (3) one’s network includes at least one database-savvy person. I can only expect that these factors will increase over time thus creating an even richer environment for this type of exchange. So whither ILL?

Using social networks for research: an ebrary study

ebrary recently published the 2011 results of their second Global Student E-book Survey, which includes a special addendum on student use of social media in academic research. Of those who responded, 41.3% said they use social media for research or study purposes. When asked why not, students gave a variety of answers, including: social media is for fun; the information is unreliable; not applicable to non-group research; a distraction. Other interesting results:

    • Over 69% said they were “likely” or “very likely” to use social media it to connect with other students with similar academic interests.
    • More than half (57.1%) said they were ”likely” or “very likely” to pose research questions to peers, but fewer than half (33.1%) were ”likely” or “very likely” to pose research questions to librarians.
    • When asked about the use of social media sites for specific purposes (question 26), Facebook was used for most activities, except “pos[ing] a research question to your librarian.”

Question 28 is particularly illuminating (“What research capabilities would you like to see in a social media site?”) and provides some direction for IHEs developing or enhancing their course management systems. Based on my reading of the data (and in conjunction with results from question 25), here are four recommendations:

    1. Develop systems that allow students to create groups based on academic (or pseudo-academic) interests. (This can also be an opportunity for librarians to connect with students).
    2. Develop systems that allow students to pull data to/from other social networks but that keep those networks separate (e.g. share an article from CMS to Twitter or vice versa with showing my Twitter handle or CMS ID).
    3. Develop systems with a variety of collaboration tools, esp. file sharing and documents editing.
    4. Links to features in other electronic resources: e.g. TOC notifications, impact factors of articles, saved searches, bookmarks.

I’m not opposed to course management systems and, in fact, find them to be quite useful for organizing coursework and connecting users in a class. Given that the majority of research happens in digital spaces, it makes sense for IHEs to create platforms that allow seamless transitions between research and collaboration. ebrary’s survey seems to indicate that popular social networks fall short of providing users with collaborative research space. We have an opportunity, here, people.

A mistake worth making

This morning, I thought I would try something different in my “Using Library Resources” class. In the past, students seemed reluctant to ask questions. I had been told by my more experienced colleagues to expect this, but I’m just not convinced this is business-as-usual. Perhaps it’s me; perhaps it’s the fact that I only teach 9 am classes. Whatever the cause, I wanted to generate more inquiry.

So I decided to give PollEverywhere a try. I set up a poll that I kept live throughout the entire session where students could submit free-form questions. I gave the students the URL and told them to ask questions at any time. I planned to go over all of them at the end…

Except there were no questions.

So I moved on to my closing statements. At the end of class, after the students filled out the evaluation sheets (What did you learn? What are you still unsure about?), there were two very good questions. Why didn’t these students ask me about this before they left?

In retrospect, introducing the poll at the beginning of class was not the best approach. It gave the impression early on that we didn’t have time for questions (there was a lot to go over) and probably precluded the students’ impulse to ask me anything.  But through the evaluation, I learned that there were questions and aspects of library research that I didn’t explain clearly for at least two students.

Instead, I should have set aside 5 minutes at the end of class and then prompted the students to submit questions via the poll site. I could then quickly assess the most important topics and address them as time permitted. It would also have allowed me to clear up any misunderstanding before the students filled out the evaluation forms, rather than after.

So next time, I’ll try that instead. It was a mistake, but one worth making.

How do you define reference?

I’ve been thinking about the definition of reference. In fact, I was asked to define reference services at MPOW for a task force charged with determine ways to increase “discoverability” of library services. We ultimately defined reference as:

“mediated information seeking which
 utilizes the expertise of librarians to connect users with library 
resources. This includes both formal and informal reference transactions, especially those which teach users how to analyze and assess the value of 
information, its accuracy, and its appropriate use.”

This came out of various discussions about RUSA’s definition and one offered in Rosemarie Riechel’s book on youth reference services (I especially like the phrase “mediated seeking”). But why this particular definition? Why these choices of words?

I wanted to accomplish two things with this definition. First, I wanted to define reference services more holistically, not as a technical act but as a philosophy of service. To wit: providing reference should establish, build upon, and leverage the relationship between us and our users (“mediated information seeking”) and between our users and information (“connect users with library resources”).

Secondly, I wanted to highlight that reference requires unique skills and highlights the specialization of librarians (“expertise of librarians”): we are more than just “human googlers.” We learn to rely as much on non-verbal queues as verbal ones. We understand the nuances of human information behavior, especially in research environments, and we are able to respond with timely and appropriate resources.

As a task force, we struggled with defining the scope of reference. We considered everything from directional questions at the ref desk to curriculum-wide information literacy instruction. However, reference shouldn’t be equated with public services. It is an instructional activity, either formal or informal, that (ideally) teaches each user about the role of information in (1) her life; (2) her work; and (3) in society. Additionally, I intentionally left out any mention of technology or format (e.g. email, chat, phone, etc.). The definition is format agnostic and is applicable to any situation in which librarians, information, and users come together.

Admittedly, the definition’s scope is broad. Reference can occur anywhere within the library system, both physically and virtually. It is more than just the public face of the library: it is the personal face and the point at which human relationships develop. Accordingly, with the recommendations of the task force, I hope we can unify the libraries’ approach to reference through assessment, standardization, innovation, and leadership.

Though I won’t be present when our recs are presented to the administration, I’m looking forward to hearing the response.

Creating an alternative to the traditional textbook

It wasn’t so long ago that I was a college student, so when I read about ways that colleges are trying to overcome the woes of unwieldy (and often drab) textbooks, the student in me perks up. According to the Chronicle, Temple University is about to begin a second round of pilot testing digital alternatives to the traditional textbook:

The pilot project gave 11 faculty members $1,000 each to create a digital alternative to a traditional textbook. To enliven their students’ reading, the instructors pulled together primary-source documents and material culled from library archives. […] The Temple program mirrors a similar effort announced at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in December.

I don’t remember the details of a single textbook that I used as an undergrad, but I do remember the hand-curated course packets that a small handful of my profs put together. Not only do these leverage library resources (and with digitization, special collections), but they add a personal touch to instruction, as if to say, “What we read and discuss in this class is important to me so I’ve taken the time to pull this material together for you.”

You can find more info on the project at Temple’s website.

Why is a raven like a writing desk?

“Because it can produce a few notes, though they are very flat; and it is nevar put with the wrong end in front.”

“Preface” to the Eighty-Sixth Thousand of the 6/- Edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. Ed. Roger Lancelyn Green. New York: Oxford UP, 1971.