Month: April 2012

Get inspired! Creating third spaces for librarians

I’ve been reading Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer. In one chapter, he describes the campus layout of Pixar Animation Studios up north of Oakland. At the center of the facility is a vast, open space that Lehrer calls “the atrium.” It’s a place where employees come together on their way to coffee/lunch/bar/bathroom. Having the atrium (and all the connecting facilities) centrally located within the Pixar campus, employees encounter each other unexpectedly and often. As a result, these serendipitous encounters more often than not lead to creative thought and  innovative conversations (in other words, solutions).

The concept behind the atrium is related to the idea of “third space”: that place which is neither work nor home, but fluid, interactive, and energized (also, usually fueled by caffeine and alcohol; cf. the coffeehouses of France and the pubs of England in the eighteenth century). Lehrer cites the research of Tom Allen, professor of organization studies at MIT, who discovered that the highest-performing employees in an organization (i.e. “those with the most useful new ideas”) where those that had the most interactions with colleagues. Lehrer concludes:

This suggests that the most important place in every office is not the boardroom, or the lab, or the library. It’s the coffee machine.

As librarians, we know this. We’ve been talking for years about the importance of creating “third spaces,” especially in the form of Information Commons that inspire collaboration and help our users to seamlessly interact with information, technology, and each other.

But what about the librarians? Where are our third spaces?

I work for university library system that includes 14 distinct library buildings. Like many multi-branch university libraries, the division of our collections mirrors the academic structure of the university (e.g. the science library, the music library) and the needs of the collection (e.g. rare books, low-use materials, high-use materials). Accordingly, our staffing structure is predominantly based on these divisions, with some overlap for services like library IT and instruction.

Our collections (and the buildings that house them) are not going anywhere anytime soon. So where is our atrium? Where can we have the type of serendipitous run-ins that Pixar Studios has managed to facilitate? It takes me 15 minutes to walk to the closest branch from my library. I don’t exactly have the time to constantly be traveling across campus.

Nonetheless, I’ve been thinking about this for some time now. I’ve been wondering how it might be possible in a multi-branch system to get librarians to bump into each other on a daily basis with the intent that conversations will happen, ideas will get out into the open, and the organization can begin to transform itself into a more nimble, vibrant entity.

Here are a few suggestions:


1) Create a Virtual Water Cooler

Librarians spend much of their time in front of a computer. But despite how easy it is to have conversations online, most employees only communicate via email. Why not create an always-open virtual space for library employees similar to IRC chat, the online classroom, or a Facebook group? Furthermore, encourage employees to stay logged in as long as their “on the clock.” All conversation would be public and open to anyone who wanted to join in. Librarians could use the virtual space to ask for help, share news, invite colleagues to events, throw out ideas, or just shoot the breeze.

2) Schedule Weekly Mobile Coffee-Breaks

Every week, one library branch sponsors a coffee break and invites all librarians to attend. The cost of coffee is minimal and if there is a concern about desk coverage, well, then have the coffee set up at the reference desk. Who knows: you may even have some students join the conversation.

3) Start a Lunch-n-Learn Series

One a month, sponsor a 1-hour bring-your-own lunch event that allows librarians to share their experiences and ideas with their colleagues. This could be set up as a formal lecture or a round-table discussion. We recently started this at MPOW and it has been a huge success.

4) Break Down Those Cubicle/Office Walls

While I recognize the need for private meetings spaces, the structure of many offices makes it too easy for librarians to huddle in their offices/cubicles. Let’s take a cue from other creative industries (this and this and this and this) and open up our work spaces to light and conversation.


What you can do as individual librarians:


1) Take it outside

As a rule, I never eat lunch at my desk. If I have to work while I eat, I either take my laptop with me or print out what I need. Nine times out of ten, I’ll run into someone I work with and start having a conversation. This usually turns out to be more beneficial than working through my lunch. 😉

2) Make house calls

Once a week, visit a different colleague. Maybe there is someone you haven’t seen in a few days (weeks?). Maybe you heard that a colleague won an award or published a paper. Stop by just to say congrats. At worst, you’ll just be “that really nice guy who always stops by.”

3) Attend university events

Go listen to a lecture. Watch the marching band perform. Check out the unveiling of the new statue on campus. You never know who you might run into!


I could go on, but I want to hear from you, dear reader…

What do you do as a librarian to create spaces for conversation within your institutions? What barriers have you encountered?

What the Harvard letter to the faculty missed

The Faculty Advisory Council for the Libraries at Harvard recently sent out the following call to arms:

To: Faculty Members in all Schools, Faculties, and Units

RE: Periodical Subscriptions

We write to communicate an untenable situation facing the Harvard Library. Many large journal publishers have made the scholarly communication environment fiscally unsustainable and academically restrictive. This situation is exacerbated by efforts of certain publishers (called “providers”) to acquire, bundle, and increase the pricing on journals…

You can read the rest of the letter here, which concludes with nine propositions that the FAC asks faculty and librarians to “please consider,” including publishing in open-access journals, working with editorial boards, and making contract terms public. The FAC’s effort to inspire change is admirable and welcomed (albeit vaguely worded) but it fails to address two important players in the scholarly communication process: the role of tenure and the university administration.

To the latter, libraries and faculty need to urge university deans, presidents, and provosts to lead their institutions toward innovative and accessible models of scholarship that utilize the speed and efficiency of new technologies. To those leaders I say, “You have the opportunity and the leverage to change the status quo. Rise above the rest and make your institution a beacon of the future!” Don’t just encourage new models and expectations of scholarly communication: insist on them. Tie them into tenure process, if necessary, but then…

To the former, we must stop thinking of scholarship in terms of how it affects tenure. Specifically, as long as publishing in a high impact journal is still considered a “better” option than publishing research in an institutional repository, open-access journal, or a personal website, then journal publishers will always have the upper hand. After all, the ultimate aim of scholarship is to advance knowledge, not to publish it (which is only the means to an end) and as at least one recent study shows (Chen, C. et al., 2009), publishing on the open web increases the chances that a work will be cited. Moreover, faculty are freely giving away their time and attention to serve as peer-reviewers, writers, and editors for journals that turn around to charge unwarranted prices for access. To those faculty I say, “Why not freely give your time and attention to publishing platforms that, in the least, make your work accessible to the widest audience possible?”

The more I think about tenure, the scholarly publishing arena, and higher education in general, the more I come to believe that we are a bloated institution. The rising cost of tuition, the exorbitant amount of spending on new facilities and star faculty, combined with the lack of public trust and disillusionment with the efficacy of “going to college” to me all point to bubble about to burst. And burst hard.


Chen, C. et al (2009). The impact of internet resources on scholarly communication: A citation analysis. Scientometrics, 81(2), 459-474.

No one is forcing you to use it

From Facebook Isn’t Making Us Lonely:

“The real danger with Facebook is not that it allows us to isolate ourselves, but that by mixing our appetite for isolation with our vanity, it threatens to alter the very nature of solitude.” Facebook, [Marche] claims, has produced a “new isolation,” one that demands constant attention to the Internet and precludes any genuine retreat from the world. Facebook, he charges, “denies us a pleasure whose profundity we had underestimated: the chance to forget about ourselves for a while, the chance to disconnect.”

No one is forcing you to use Facebook. So earlier this week I deleted my account.

There is more I want to say about this, but I’m still thinking about it. I will say this: the profundity of the new solitude, one that can’t be interrupted with off-the-cuff status updates or meme trails (though I do miss that)… moreover, one that precludes the ability to post off-the-cuff status updates or memes, is indeed a pleasure.

But I do miss it. There is even a cognitive “twitch” that makes me unconsciously pull out my phone to check for new updates. And that is this most unsettling aspect of the experience thus far.

The faculty/staff divide: help or hindrance?

Many academic libraries in the United States have two groups of employees: faculty and staff. The dynamics of their relationship may vary from one institution to the next, depending on factors such as: (1) whether faculty have the option of tenure; (2) the disparity of wages; (3) whether faculty can become staff or vice versa if their position changes; (4) whether either group is unionized; and (5) what portion of each group is in management positions.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about the dynamics between these two groups (Full disclosure: I am staff.). There are certainly administrative reasons* for dividing library employees into faculty and staff, but is there justification to divide them functionally? That is, is it beneficial for the organization to say “the faculty are expected to perform all the functions listed in Group A and the staff, all the functions in Group B.”

For example, Group A might include (1) information science research; (2) department liaison work; (3) subject-based collection development or reference; (4) director-level responsibilities; (5) assessment. Group B might include (1) managing daily operations of staff and facilities; (2) student supervising; (3) paraprofessional work; (4) systems work; (5) communications and/or marketing.

I can understand that dividing faculty/staff along functional lines is beneficial to the individual: e.g. faculty can focus on areas of responsibility that help in gaining tenure; staff can focus on areas of responsibility that do not have that added pressure. But is it beneficial to the organization? Does it help us to be nimble? To be innovative? Does it help us get things done?

One might argue that we divide faculty and staff because their education and experience  tends to be significantly different. Most faculty jobs require an MLIS and some experience working within a subject field. But as the management qualities, technological skills, and outreach/programming needs of library organizations become  increasingly more complex, as it becomes easier for full-time employees to pursue an MLIS, and as the landscape of higher education changes each day (especially with regard to digital technologies), how can we expect that the needs and expectations of our organization will line up with skills of our employees as defined by the faculty/staff divide?

Thus, my proposition to you:

If the academic library continues to work within this construct, one that divides staff and faculty not only administratively but also conceptually, it will be unable to adapt, unable to move quickly in response to the needs of its students and faculty. Moreover, it will be unable to get ahead of the game and become a strategic leader on campus.



*”Faculty” often means the option of tenure. I am not arguing for or against tenure here. For a more complete discussion of tenure in academic libraries, I recommend John Budd’s The Changing Academic Library (Chicago: ACRL, 2005), especially p. 265-270.

Academic news roundup: assessment, active learning, and online ed

Derek Rodriguez, writing for In the Library with the Lead Pipe, reported on a 2011 study that utilized the Understanding Library Impacts (ULI) protocol, a method of studying and reporting the library’s impact on student learning.

Libraries need efficient methods for connecting student use of the library with the learning outcomes that matter most to faculty and stakeholders. Failure to do so leaves libraries out of important campus conversations about student learning. The ULI protocol is designed to meet this challenge.

Meredith Farkas, writing for American Library, talked about incorporating active learning into online instruction:

It’s one thing to tell someone how to do something, but to have them actually do it themselves, with expert guidance, makes it much more likely that they’ll be able to do it later on their own.

The New York Times reported on new initiatives to measure student learning:

The concern is less about measuring knowledge of chemistry or literature than about harder to define skills like critical thinking and problem-solving.

Special Note: Arum & Roksa’s Academically Adrift is mentioned. Everybody drink!

Finally, The Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed gave us inside information on two online learning platforms: 2tor and Udacity. 2tor is a platform used by Georgetown University, UNC Chapel Hill, and my place of work, the University of Southern California, to provide online instruction for graduate programs. On the flip side, Udacity is a platform for offering free college-level courses in computer science. Enjoy!

CARL 2012 Conference – Innovation at Pepperdine Libraries

Sally Bryant and Michelle Jacobs-Lustig, librarians at Pepperdine University in Malibu, exhibited a number of innovations at their library. As noted in their introduction, they’ve take a “perpetual beta” approach to library services and moved away from a one-size-fits-all model. As a result, here are some of their successes:

Library Ambassadors

Think of these as glorified student assistants. In addition to helping to maintain library operations, these students become service points. They are trained for more than just direction inquiries. Each student is expected to complete a weekly training assignment that may include “how to cite properly” or require them to write a review of a database. They also wear personalized (and vibrant!) name badges, inspiring both a sense of responsibility, improving performance, and [anecdotally] increasing positive feedback from users.


All the pamphlets, flyers, and announcements were removed from the reference desk and replaced with a single Mac, a huge light bulb lamp, and an LED keyboard (all bright, shiny, and flashing). The light bulb became the de facto mascot of the reference desk (I don’t have a photo, but it is CUTE!). According to Bryant and Jacobs-Lustig, this has helped them move “from reference to conversation.”

Improved Digital Signage and Wayfinding

Convoluted signs were simplified. The library added screens displaying library services. Many colorful arrows were employed to direct students. Never underestimate the power of colorful arrows (reminded me of the hallways from the Battle School in Ender’s Game)

Dead Week Detours

During the week before finals, the library offered a numbed of activities for students, including: build your own cupcakes, yoga and stretch classes, and holiday card design. The materials for these classes were purchased by the library (very inexpensive) and the popularity of these events was driven by word-of-mouth (esp. Facebook).

Other innovative ways of improving public services included:

    • Allowing students to create their own work schedules and swap when necessary
    • Redesigned website to include more action words (instead of “Research Guides”, “Start your research here!”)
    • Relied more on word-of-mouth and less on pushy marketing
    • Moved scheduling and statistics to LibCal and LibAnalytics by Springshare (there was a lot of Springshare love in the room!)
    • Created “shush” cards for students to hand out (above photo). Apparently, librarians don’t do enough shushing, but  the students were more than willing to take up the responsibility.

There are many exiting things happening at Pepperdine Libraries. Academic librarians, keep an eye on these folks!

CARL 2012 Conference – Jenica Rogers’s Keynote

Jenica Rogers, Director of Libraries at the State University of New York at Potsdam and blogger at Attempting Elegance, spoke to a packed room about killing fear, being a leader, and getting things done. She stated that libraries have always been changing and that that shouldn’t let us stop trying to predict the future and plan for it.  Generally, librarians react … and react poorly. Rogers offered eight tactics for new leadership and action:

  1. Stop defaulting to no and start saying yes. Ask yourself, “what’s the worst that could happen?”
  2. Be a leader and “be your own damn hero.” Stop waiting for someone to do it for you.
  3. Start paying attention. You no longer have an excuse not to know about Issue X in our field.
  4. Never forget that technology is just a tool. It’s only as good as its wielders. Also, to paraphrase Ani DiFranco, any tool can be a weapon if you hold it right.
  5. Rethink strategic planning. Our strategic planning is always tethered to the now, it should be tethered to our goals. Plan for it like you plan for an airplane flight (start in the future and work backwards).
  6. Examine your timidity. Rogers asked: “Why is telling the truth now a political act?” Also, know your tell! So you can react accordingly when it happens.
  7. Acknowledge your fears.
  8. Chase inspiration. What inspires you? Go there. Hangout.

I should also mention that there were multiple reference to geekdom, including Buffy, Dune, and Amanda Palmer. Be still my heart.

CARL 2012 Conference – Day 0

I’m in San Diego for the next two days for the California Academic & Research Libraries Conference. Day 0 was mostly preconferencing and connecting with colleagues.

Preconference #1 – Action research

The first preconference event was entitled, “Action Research: How to easily incorporate evidence-based research into your practice” and was presented by April Cunningham and Stephanie Rosenblatt. We began by defining action research and deliminating it from evidence-based research (i.e. action research is hyper-local and operates under different expectations of scholarship). You can learn more about action research at Stephanie and April’s blog, but here are a few takeaways that I found important:

    • With action research, your ultimate goal is not to publish, but to change or understand the efficacy of what you do, whether it’s reference, instruction, etc. Thus, the expectations (esp. as regards methodology and rigor) are not the same. This is not to say that the expectations are lower, but that you as a practitioner have more flexibility in your approach to assessment.
    • A mixed methods approach (qualitative plus quantitative) is the best approach. Moreover, you need to be aware of how one feeds or builds upon the other. For example, an “exploratory” approach would begin with qualitative analysis and use quantitative analysis to explain the results. An “explanatory” approach would do the opposite.
    • Understand your data before you begin your analysis. Depending on the type of data you have (nominal, ordinal, interval, ratio), there are good and not-so-good ways of analyzing that data. Case in point: if you only have nominal data, determining the average or standard deviation may be of little value to defining the data’s meaning.
    • Finally, we explored a number of different tools for analyzing data, including Tableau Public, LIWC, textstat, and a number of rubrics.

I do recommend asking Stephanie and April to speak about assessment at your institution. As a non-numbers librarian (read: humanities background), I found it to be a gentle introduction to data-based decision-making.

 Preconference #2 – Peer learning

This turned out to not be what I expected (I thought we would be discussing a particular digital platform), but I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed the session. First, I bit of background. During the economic downturn of the last few year, a group of University of California system AULs decided that they would begin to come together on a semi-regular basis to discuss their work environment. The design intent of these meetings was to understand each other’s leadership strengths and explore their shared leadership agenda. They asked of each other: what change do I want to see? to what level? and how?

One AUL listed the following as the benefits of the peer learning group:

    • sharing
    • creating a trusted peer group
    • accessing mutual strengths
    • having a mentor and being able to ask the essential questions

Another AUL listed the following as benefits:

    • the ability to reconnect
    • to retreat
    • to rethink & reflect
    • to access [human] resources
    • to finally tackle “that thorny problem”
    • being in a stress-free environment

Most of all, I was surprised at the level of “vulnerability” that was expressed. As an aspiring academic librarian, it was refreshing and empowering. We concluded the session with an open (but private) discussion about work/life balance, frustrations, and hopes about our current positions in academic librarianship.

The evening ended with friends, margaritas and Mexican food at a local restaurant. Day 0 = Success!

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!