“We must look with cold and hard-headed rationality at our current practices and ask ourselves not what value they offer, but rather what value our patrons believe they offer. If what we offer our patrons is not perceived as valuable by them, then we have two choices: change their minds, or redirect our resources. The former is virtually impossible; the latter is enormously painful. But the latter is possible, and if we do not undertake such a redirection ourselves, it will almost certainly be undertaken for us.”

The above quotation comes from an editorial in the July 2011 issue of The Journal of Academic Librarianship. In it, Rick Anderson, Associate Director for Scholarly Resources and Collections at the University of Utah’s Marriott Library, discusses the current plight of academic research libraries: that patrons’ perceptions of libraries, particularly their value and use, have moved beyond our organizational design and there is little we can do about it.

If you enjoy reading “future of libraries” talk with overtones of the apocalypse (see also Taiga), then Anderson’s article offers tasty hors d’oeuvres. He answers the question “Can the research library go out of business?” with a definitive “Yes” and goes on to describe what that might look like.

I recommend reading the article in full, but I want to touch upon one aspect. We’ve suspected for some time that reference transactions were declining (over 60% per FTE since 1995 according to one study Anderson cites), partly because more information is easily found online but also because students’ perceptions of their information searching skills are strengthening. They may indeed still need librarians in certain situations, but they don’t think they do.

Anderson doesn’t believe we can change this perception. I tend to agree. Rather, I think we should be working even harder to integrate our resources seamlessly into our students’ daily lives in ways that encourage [self-initiated] discovery: embedding resources in course pages, using search discovery layers, making ourselves available at the students’ point of need in both physical and virtual spaces (but mostly virtual), and building programs and projects that encourage complex human-information interactions. We can be leaders, but the kind of leaders that stay out of the way.

It isn’t important that students know librarians are behind it. Most probably don’t care if it’s us or our IT department or Google. They only care that it works and that it helps them get things done. Thoughts?



Anderson, R. (2011). The crisis in research librarianship. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 37(4), 289-290.

David Brooks wrote an op-ed for today’s New York Times where he talks about how we as an American society have failed the generation of college students about to enter the work force. Read the article at your leisure, but I’m planning to digress a bit from the topic. Brooks makes one comment that struck me as applicable to academic library work:

No one would design a system of extreme supervision to prepare people for a decade of extreme openness. But this is exactly what has emerged in modern America. College students are raised in an environment that demands one set of navigational skills, and they are then cast out into a different environment requiring a different set of skills, which they have to figure out on their own.

Academic librarians talk a lot about developing skills, most notably in the context of information literacy. We spend many waking hours and significant resources teaching students how to effectively research information for their coursework, how to analyze it, use it, and (if we’re lucky) how to develop lifelong learning habits that they can use beyond the classroom. But in the opinion of Brooks, we (as part of the system that builds up young learners) are letting our students down.

Granted, Brooks is speaking in terms of the entire educational system, both institutional and cultural. He isn’t focusing his comments directly at universities but also at K-12 schools, parents, and communities. Yet, I think his conclusion is a helpful reminder of why librarians do what they do: one that provides a broader context.

Yes, we ought to teach students how to choose appropriate databases and developing effective search strings, but, all the while, keeping in mind that this is a skill that may only be applicable to the students’ time at university. What is important is the application of learned skill to other life experiences.

To that end, I would advocate for academic librarians to engage more with students by helping them develop better “ground level” skills: learning to manage personal information, to research job opportunities, to stay politically or socially involved with their communities, to build up communities… activities they will continue to struggle with far beyond graduation. We should talk to our students; find out what they think their needs are (or will be), then develop programming around those needs.

What are your thoughts? Should academic libraries be concerned with non-research-related (but information-related) skills development? Have you been a part of a similar program at your institution? How did it go? Let me know in the comments!

And it’s at about 6 pages into this paper that I’m suddenly “not feeling it.” There is nothing worse than becoming utterly bored with a topic once you’ve passed the point of no return. I’m going to do my best to bring this to it’s so-predictable conclusion but am afraid the result will be absolute rubbish… sigh. Ok. Let’s do this.

People conducting research in libraries are less mobile than they once were. Not only do they have their papers, library items, and a coffee carefully positioned, they also often have a laptop, a phone, and a music device on display as well.” Aaron Schmidt, Revaming Reference – The User Experience.

When I read that sentence, I was struck dumb. Holy mother of Xenu! You’re right! When I’m at the reference desk or when I look around the reading room, I see nothing but students on laptops. It’s so normal that I never give it a second thought. So why should I think that these students are going to get up from their seat to spend 5-10 minutes with a librarian while their precious hardware is sitting unattended? NYTimes recently warned of the perils of leaving your tech unattended in public spaces and academic libraries are not immune to theft (as the campus police reports constantly remind me).

Ok. So I’ve finally realized something that is completely obvious. Schmidt goes on to talk about the social awareness needed to understand when a patron can be approached in the spirit of “proactive reference,” how reference desks can be reshaped and roaming models rethought. At one point, he quotes Martha Flotten, a Multnomah County librarian who claims to have “mind-blowing reference transactions weekly.”

Again, I was struck. I want this.

So let’s work this out. Embedded reference. Blended reference. Roaming reference. We’ve all heard these terms before. But what are the strategies that make these concepts work? Here are a few ideas:

  1. The Latte Librarian approach. Do you know where the engineering graduate students go for coffee between labs? Why not set up office hours there? Get in touch with the graduate coordinator for the department and make sure they pass the word along. See also Some Librarian.
  2. The Tablet Librarian approach. Get a tablet and roam the reading rooms,  study halls, and collaborative work spaces where students get things done. If you have to, wear a shirt that says “Free Librarian” (or wear a bow tie). Use your social insight to find students who need a helping hand. Great waiters/waitresses know when you need their help and when to leave you alone. Channel your inner waitress.
  3. The Celebrity Librarian approach. Build a brand around 1 or 2 of your most charismatic reference librarians. Set them up with Foursquare and location-based social programs and get the word out about their movements. Let students follow them. Make it game (I have a Waldo costume on stand-by). Patrons may be more inclined to seek out a librarian if they know one is nearby.
  4. The Student Librarian approach. Work with indiviudal students to create [paid] library ambassadors that extend reference services into particular dorms, schools, buildings, or other campus locales. Build in them strong research skills and train them how to teach these skills to others. MPOW will begin a similar program in the fall.
  5. The Librarian-For-Hire approach. Reach out to student government groups, Greek societies, and professional societies within the university system and offer your services. Go to their meetings and talk with the leaders of those organizations. I’m sure that the local political societies would love to have a seminar on finding resources for their various campaigns. It may require teaching some classes outside the normal hours, but it’s a connection to students who are really passionate about a subject.

The central theme of all these approaches is location. Meet the students where they are and stop expecting them to come to you. You can do this by making small changes. Instead of having office hours in your office, have them in a public space. Instead of standing behind the reference desk, stand/lean/walk-around in front of it. Visibly express your availability and eagerness. Stop being afraid of intruding.

These are just a few ideas for revamping your reference service and getting you out from behind the desk. Maybe they will work for. Maybe not. Maybe they will just be excuses for you to procure special project funding and find an excuse to drink more coffee (or buy an iPad). But the need for human mediation in the information search/evaluation/use process will never disappear, no matter what the deathers claim. We just need to be more proactive in finding gentler ways of making that first contact.

How has your library tried to revamp reference and reach out to students where they are? What has worked for you? What hasn’t worked?

This probably isn’t new to any librarian who’s been in collection development for some time, but it was new (and strange) to me. Last week, a discussion about student book requests erupted on the LES listserv (the Literatures in English section of ACRL). An academic librarian from a university in Illinois received a book purchase request from someone claiming to be a student. The email read as follows:

Dear [Librarian],

I am wondering: is there a way for students to request the acquisition of new books, or is this left entirely to the library staff (or faculty)? Specifically, I would like to know whether the library plans to order _Old Age, Masculinity, and Early Modern Drama: Comic Elders on the Italian and Shakespearean Stage_, by Anthony Ellis (Ashgate, ISBN 978-0-7546-6578-6).  I am interested in both Shakespeare/early drama and the study of old age. This book also appears to have a gender-studies focus, which could interest some people here as well. Thank you in advance for your time.



The requested book would not be an unusual purchase for an academic library collection. What is suspicious, to me, is the language of the email. The author uses the word “acquisitions” and differentiates between library staff and faculty, indicating that they are more familiar with academic libraries than the average student (undergrad or graduate). The student also mentions the publisher, something that, in my experience, rarely happens unless the user submits a book request through a web form. It’s all a bit too formulaic.

Well, as soon as this email went out over the LES listserv, other librarians immediately responded (on the weekend no less!) indicating that they had received an identical email (or a subtle variation) from someone claiming to be a student but using a non-university email address. Most decided not to purchase the item for that reason alone. Some librarians followed up with the student of the same name at their university. No surprise: the student didn’t know anything about the request.

Apparently, someone is grabbing a student’s name from a university directory, creating a bogus email address, and emailing librarians. But to what end? Not for money, I would think. Academic publishing is not a high profit enterprise for individual authors (unless it’s a textbook). For the prestige? But then what would it matter to a single author if X number of libraries purchased their book? There’s only a snowball’s chance in hell that someone will serendipitously come across it, unless it’s mentioned in the professional literature. Rather than scam acquisitions departments, it would make much more sense to scam book reviewers. Get the word out. Academic publishing is all about the conversation: if you want prestige, you have to get people to talk about your book, not just buy it.

Ashgate is a reputable publisher and it would seem beneath them to resort to these type of tactics. I know nothing of the author of this book. So I won’t make any assumptions about who is behind it, but it does bring up a few interesting reminders:

  1. University email addresses. While there has been some debate over whether university domain emails addresses should still be required for all students, this is one situation where having the @school.edu handle would cut down on fraud. (Though, the same could be accomplished with a university ID)
  2. Collection development policy. As I said, the book is not out of character for an academic library collection, but having a clearly defined collection development policy that outlines preferred subjects, publishers, vendors, and consortia agreements would help younger librarians decide whether or not to make a firm order.
  3. Collaboration. As a result of the Illinois librarian emailing the listserv (and others chiming in with similar data), other libraries are more informed about fraudulent (and let’s be honest, kinda sleazy) marketing practices. Including… [thumbs up to chest]… this guy. Some people are shocked when I tell them I participate in listservs (“the 90s called…”), but some continue to offer great resources and a tight community of librarians.

The lesson here, I think, is to make sure what you order for your collection is a good fit for your institution. And, if you want to get people to buy your book, bribe students to email librarians from their own .edu addresses. 😉

Some classmates and I spent the good part of last month working on a glossary for virtual worlds as part of our Resources for Digital Humanities course at San Jose State SLIS. Admittedly, I’m skeptical about the future of virtual worlds like Second Life, but I was fascinated to learn that virtual worlds, at least when talked about in critical works, include more than just the digital kind: print literature, theme parks, cosplay, fan culture, and religion can all be discussed using the theoretical terminology of virtual reality.

Our glossary contained terms like avatar, effectors, in-world, metaverse, synthetic economies, etc. Some terms were only relevant to digital virtual worlds (hover text), but many were applicable to any virtual reality (which was the route I chose to take). Here are some of the terms I contributed:

Cyberpunk: A conflation of the words cybernetics and punk, it typically refers to (1) a sub-species of science fiction popularized by author William Gibson, (2) a particular style of life, fashion, etc. that mimics cyberpunk fiction, or (3) a mischievous character in an online virtual world. Cyberpunk culture explores the conflict between hackers, artificial intelligence, and mega-corporations and, thus, provide a rich language for discussing virtual worlds. Virtual worlds, especially computer-mediated ones, are an essential characteristic of cyberpunk fiction.

Immersion: Defined three ways: (1) The extent to which the viewer or participant in a virtual world is no longer aware of the medium used to create the world, (2) The process by which a participate in a virtual world no longer recognizes his/her presence in their immediate, physical environment, or (3) The intentional blocking of physical stimuli in favor of digital stimuli.

Paratexts: The discussions about a virtual world that do not occur in-world. These may include blog posts, discussion forums, IM chats, etc. Typically, paratexts are created by participants of the virtual world, but also could include editorials, press releases, and reviews written by non-participants. In some ways, paratexts are an extension/expansion of the virtual world into non-world space, ultimately bringing that space in-world.

Skeuomorphs: An item manufactured in one material that evokes items regularly made in another material. In pottery, for example, the fabrication of weave patterns on to the surface of a ceramic vessel mimics a reed basket. In virtual worlds and game development, a skeuomorph is a design feature that refers to a previous feature that no longer exists or is no longer functional.

Telepresence: The extent to which a user feels present in a mediated environment. This environment can be temporally or spatially separate from the user’s immediate environment. It can also be mediated by computer software to produce an animated, simulated, or digital environment. A heightened awareness of telepresence is directly related to increased levels of immersion.

Skeuomorph is by far my favorite and now I look for any excuse to use it in a sentence. =)

… I will choose to believe in signs and portents, to acknowledge the existence of the mystical, to see meaning where none existed previously, and to read deeper into the fabric of time and space. Just for today…