Thursday, September 22, 2011

A thought about novice researchers

This is a post that has nothing to do with cataloging. I hope that you will read it anyway.

I don't spend a lot of time working with end users or doing instruction, but I do teach one library instruction session per semester to several sections of our Freshman Writing Seminar. And that experience has taught me a lot about how students handle research problems. When I pulled "'The Rolls Royce of the Library Reference Collection:' the subject encyclopedia in the age of Wikipedia" by John W. East out of my to-be-read pile, it opened an interesting rabbit hole down which I currently find myself.

The main assignment that our Freshman Writing Seminar students are given--the one that all of their small assignments build toward--is a final paper that analyzes a primary text through a discipline-specific lens (e.g., sociology).

One thing that has become painfully clear to me over time is that these novice researchers aren't often equipped to synthesize the discipline-specific material through which they are supposed to be viewing their primary text. The concepts and jargon are often unfamiliar to them and they are not always willing to do the leg work to figure out what they need to know.

Two important facts about the course:
1. It is required of all Freshmen
2. It cannot be tested out of.

Though the students (again...generally speaking) in these classes are conscientious learners and want to get good grades, the stakes simply aren't high enough to warrant a lot of extra work to understand the concepts.

The point of the course is to acclimate Freshmen to collegiate-level writing and the shift from regurgitation of facts to the synthesis of information. The research process does factor into this shift, but learning how to use the library is only one part of that process. I can show a class how to use an article database to find scholarly articles on a topic, but it is up to them to synthesize that material. And part of that synthesis process is understanding the concepts and terminology used in the articles.

In walks the subject encyclopedia, waving it's arms and yelling 'I can help! Hey...pick me!'

Subject encyclopedias are a great way to expose researchers to basic information about a concept. What's not to love? They cover all of the basics on a topic and provide a bibliography for finding more information.

But if I'm honest with myself, I realize that this isn't how I do research. I don't come across a concept I don't know and then refer to a subject encyclopedia to better understand it.

I go to Wikipedia.

East's article juxtaposes the quick-and-easy nature of finding information against the authority of the subject encyclopedia. And I think he makes a good point. Wikipedia is easy to access, but it isn't the most academic of sources. And he's right to point out that many instructors are nonplussed when their students cite Wikipedia as a source.

But if all a student needs is to quickly understand a concept, what's so wrong with offering Wikipedia as a way to do that?

As a librarian, I struggle with the answer to that question. I understand that you can't trust everything you find online. And I understand that the subject encyclopedia is probably better suited to give researchers the kind of support they need.

But for Freshman researchers who are often balancing a full course load against the challenges of navigating life away from home for the first time, the leg work it takes to find a subject encyclopedia to learn about a concept is often not worth the payoff they get.

I think that in this semester of Writing 1, I'm going to talk about subject encyclopedias. And I'll probably put links to a few of them on my course guide. But I also think that I'll be more conscious of telling students that context, wherever one finds it, is a valuable tool for researchers.

Be visible. Be proactive. Be awesome.

East, John W. "'The Rolls Royce of the Library Reference Collection:' the subject encyclopedia in the age of Wikipedia" Reference & User Services Quarterly 50.2 (2010): 162-169.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Fixing the PR problem

I tweeted this yesterday:
I've come to the conclusion that libraries, generally speaking, have a PR problem. We do a crap job of explaining to users the how and why.

The problem with our inability to explain the how and way leads to feedback from users that makes us feel especially uncomfortable. We react defensively or want to dismiss it and often our response is more ham-fisted than anything else.

There seem to be two kinds of feedback that we get that speak to this PR problem:
1. Users ask us to develop services we've already developed but haven't done a good job of marketing. Or, users ask us to better market something that we've been trying really hard (but failing) to connect with users on.

2. Users balk at a reality (usually a policy) that can't be changed because of the way we've negotiated a contract or a law that exists.

I think there are two ways to solve this problem.
1. Be transparent in all things--even the unpleasant ones.
Sometimes the response to the requests that your users make is not the one they want to hear. But, as a general rule, people want to be heard and they want to feel like their voice matters. Explain your policies clearly and without jargon. And when you have to say no, explain why in an empathetic way. Log the suggestions and complaints your users give you and respond to them in a public way. Don't make people feel ashamed to ask for what they want, even if you can't give it to them.

2. Be where your users are...not where you think they are.
If you're trying to promote a service, put up fliers in your students' dorms. If you're trying to get more people through the doors of your library, step outside your library and find out why more people aren't there. Or, even better, take your services on the road to where people do spend their time.

It's hard to get out of the echo chamber and learn to tell the stories of your users and their experiences. But part of fixing the PR problem is seeing your users face-to-face, listening to their feedback, and responding to it swiftly. Sometimes that response is a tweak to your services to make them easier to use, but sometimes the response is to explain those services (and their limitations) in language that your users can understand.

Be visible. Be proactive. Be awesome.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

What "fix the catalog" might really mean

I often wonder what users mean when they say that we should "fix" the library catalog.

I think that there are a lot of folks who find the catalog difficult to use. It is true that our catalogs have user un-friendly interfaces. It is true that our jargon makes the barrier to entry pretty steep.

These are real issues that require much consideration and better answers than the ones we've come up with so far.

But I have come to the conclusion that "fix the catalog" can also mean one of two things:
1. I don't know how to use the library catalog.
2. The library catalog gave me wrong information (e.g., that book was supposed to be on the shelf, but it's not there).

I feel like libraries confuse these two issues with the idea that people find the catalog difficult to use. They buy discovery layers and web-scale discovery systems. They design and re-design their websites. All of this time and money, and we still hear about how we need to "fix" the library catalog.

All of this has led me to two conclusions:

1. We need to educate our users on how to get from the catalog to the stacks and what to do if the information in the catalog isn't right. A reference librarian at MPOW had a brilliant idea--teach a workshop that is aimed at Freshmen about how to find a book in the catalog and then locate it on the shelves in the library. We've created many video tutorials on how to come up with keywords, how to search the catalog, and how to request books from other libraries. Make your users good at using your catalog is more difficult than buying a new ILS add-on to make your catalog user-friendly. But it also pays rich rewards.

2. Allocate more resources for circulation services like shelf-reading or circulation inventory. One of my first job duties as a library page in a public library was to shelf-read the sections that I was responsible for shelving. It was amazing how many books we had decided were lost that were actually hiding out in another area. When I worked at a middle school library, we did circulation inventory at the end of every school year. We found many books on the shelf that we'd either considered lost or still checked out.

I think that we need to be mindful of the ways in which our catalogs work. But I also think we need to listen to our users and really figure out what they're trying to tell us about our resources. It's wise to remember that the quickest (and easiest) fix isn't always the best one.

Be visible. Be proactive. Be awesome.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Organizing your time when everything seems urgent

In my current job, I work almost exclusively with electronic materials and it's caused a problem for me that I never had in my previous job where I worked almost exclusively with physical materials.

The problem stems from the fact that these materials often come to me in the form of an email from someone in our Acquisitions Unit. For some reason, these materials seem more urgent than a physical item that has been ordered and which goes into our backlog until someone has the time to catalog it.

In short, electronic materials can't be put on a truck to get to them as you have time. And when "ordering season" is in full-swing, I can get as many as 10 emails in a day.

I sometimes let ongoing projects or low-priority projects languish for weeks on end while I deal with these electronic materials, mostly because I give the electronic materials priority when they aren't materials that are urgently needed by users.

Luckily, this is merely frustrating and not terribly harmful to our users. I hate being a slave to my email. I want to get out of the I'll do it later mentality and work on the things that I really need to get done in any given day.

I've identified three things that can help me do this:
1. Use the "work offline" feature in Outlook if I need to be in my email, but don't want to see new messages. I often find myself stopping what I'm doing when getting new messages while working on a task that arose from an email. It's easy, I think,I'll just dash off a quick response. What I've learned, though, is that dashing off a response is rarely quick. I end up jumping down rabbit holes and before I know it, I've worked on a problem for much longer than I expected. Using the "work offline" feature lets me be in my email, but also lets me address new messages when I'm not distracted.

2. Evernote. Oh how I love thee, Evernote. I love how seemlessly it moves from my work computer to my iPhone to my netbook. I can keep track of everything I want to do, read, blog about, or listen to. For work, though, my favorite feature is how I can make Notes out of emails and flag them as to-dos or as things awaiting a response from other people.

3. My week-at-a-glance worksheet. I made this worksheet that has boxes for each day where I can record meetings or appointments and my "Most Important Thing." The MIT is the one task that I really want to get done and which takes priority over all other tasks. I ususally work on that after checking my email in the morning. I put all of the to-dos from the morning's email in a cleverly named "To do" folder in Outlook. I do my MIT and then go back and work on things in my "To do" folder.

3a. I've started giving each day of the week a designation.
Monday = Plan your week
Tuesday = Electronic stuff
Wednesday = Committee work (non-cataloging work that I need to do)
Thursday = Junky stuff (these are projects that have landed on my desk which are...messy)
Friday = Wrap-it-up day (wrap up projects, update Evernote, send emails, etc.)

These daily designations are on my worksheet and govern how I spend my afternoon. I usually spend the morning answering emails, doing my MIT, and working on some urgent-ish to-dos. So I spend the afternoon working on projects that correspond with my daily designation.

This 3-part system has made all the difference for me. I'm able to do the most urgent task for every day and make sure that no project languishes for more than a week. It's made me more productive and less stressed out.

I think that whatever organizational system you use, it's important to find one that works for you. Having an idea of how you want to spend your time means you're less tied to email and less busy doing work that is important to other people, but not urgent.

Be proactive. Be visible. Be awesome.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Patron-Driven Acquisition, MARC records, and you

I'm going to be all Ranty McRanty-Pants for just a minute. But I've got a point, so stay with me.

You know how Patron-Driven Acquisition is the Big Thing now in libraries? If you don't, check out this post from June 2010 at Go To Hellman's blog for a thorough, yet entertaining explanation of the situation.

Here's the thing:
In order for a Patron-Driven Acquisition program to be successful, the books have to be found in your catalog. If the MARC records aren't good, they become a barrier to findability.

Here's the other thing:
As far as I can tell, Vendors aren't invested in giving us good MARC records. For them, the records are like one of those gift-with-purchase makeup bags you get when you buy $50 worth of cosmetics at a department store. You pay for access to the e-books and get the records with them. And since the records themselves aren't worth a lot to the vendor, the quality of those records is sometimes sketchy.

The idea that we can put sketchy MARC records in our catalog and expect people to find the books in our Patron-Driven Acquisition program seems misguided at best and seriously problematic at worst. And as libraries are considering implementing Patron-Driven Acquisition programs as part of their collection development budget, it seems like this issue is coming to the proverbial tipping point.

Before you accuse me of wanting "perfect" records, let me be clear. I'm not advocating that vendors give us lovely, hand-crafted records. I'm merely advocating for things like correct titles, correctly formatted authority records for authors, and reasonable subject access.

I know that, in many people's eyes, days are numbered for our friend the OPAC. But for many users, the online catalog is an important tool for finding known items and discovering new resources. To rest an acquisitions model on the shoulders of records that aren't the main concern of the vendor selling them to you does your users a great disservice.

So what can you do? Two ideas:

1.) If your library has a team or committee overseeing the Patron-Driven Acquisition project, volunteer to be on it. Educate your colleagues (in a nice way, of course) about the importance of MARC records as an aid in findability.

2.) Going to a conference? Make time to talk to vendors about MARC records and make quality MARC records a must-have item in any Patron-Driven Acquisition project you pilot.

Be proactive. Be visible. Be awesome.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Great expectations

When I read Seth Godin's musings about how the space where you do "what you do" impacts what gets done, I immediately thought of the room at MPOW where we have nearly all of our meetings.

We have informational all-staff meetings there. We have committee meetings there. We have brainstorming sessions there. We have big meetings there. We have small meetings there. Basically, if it happens at MPOW, there's a good chance it's happening in this room.

If you ask me to describe this room, I would say this about it's physical attributes: it's well lit with sturdy tables and reasonably comfortable chairs. It has a pretty good AV setup: computer, overhead projector, screen. I would also say that it's also usually always cold.

In the closing lines of his post, Godin says "I think we can train ourselves to associate certain places with certain outcomes."

I think Godin's right. If I'm honest, I associate this particular room with certain outcomes and that colors how I feel when I go there.

An anecdote:
One of the meetings that I attend regularly has met in this particular room, or it's Far Campus equivalent, for as many years as I've been going to the meeting. One day, we when we tried to use the Far Campus room, we found that we had been displaced by another event. The meeting moved to a "lounge" that had no tables and couches and wing back chairs.

You would not be surprised to learn that the meeting had an entirely different feel.

Godin's nugget about places and outcomes made me think about how when we want to innovate, we shouldn't meet in the same room where ideas go to die by committee.

So try a new space or a new place. Or, maybe take a baby step and start by rearranging the furniture in your meeting space. Shake things up and, in the process, change people's expectations about what the outcome will be.

Be proactive. Be visible. Be awesome.