Friday, August 28, 2015

Friday jams (08/28/2015)

Friday! Jams! Friday jams!

It's not actually Rachel--it's Erin posting on Rachel's behalf. Rachel says "Because semester starts and you gotta be class."

Erin's editorial note: That whole Wondaland Presents: The Eephus EP is awesome and totally worth a listen.

I heard this song outside the student union this week and was reminded of how much I enjoy it.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Singing Sight Unseen

The Beloit Mindset List is perhaps the very best example of lazy and dangerous thinking that exists. I'm definitely not the first or the smartest person to comment on the issues with the list and I will leave all of that to those with more time and energy.  I will note, however, that The List has excellent SEO and news penetration, so you would be hard pressed to find the discussions about its issues. I direct you to this fine analysis of this year's list, the list in general, and compendium of other comments.  If you prefer your comments with a big yellow box at the top, here's a story about this year's list worth reading.

But I'm not here to talk about this year's list, I'm here to talk about people. The List manages to casually and jovially re-inforce the idea that each incoming group of first-year students is a uniform and distant unknowable group, and that on the other side we are a uniform group of professor tropes. I, personally, don't find stereotype confirmation a kind of humor that makes me laugh. Instead, it is a kind of humor that makes me angry. In Higher Ed, we want to encourage wider deeper thinking not actively work against it.

Let us turn then to what we can learn from the failings of The List.  Erin talked about the library's position between academics and student life, our institutional relationship with students. I want to talk about our individual relationship with students.  The List, at least to me, has a tone of "how can we even know these people?" based on life experiences. That's ridiculous on the face of it because you need know nothing about another person nor have any common experiences in order to have a valuable and productive interaction with that person. I cannot stress this enough.

What you do need to have in order to have a valuable and productive interaction with another person is respect. The List, through it's reinforcement of tropes of students and faculty is working against that respect by telling us that we know already these people by some set of facts. You can know one thing about by knowing that I am thirty-four years old, or by knowing that I am Jewish, or by knowing that I am queer. You can know either that you share this common trait with me (but not know that we are alike or different in any other way) or you can know that we do not share that common trait. No fact about me tells you about my lived experience. You don't know me. You don't know anyone, really. And that's fine.

But wait, let's think further. Not only do we not know students, we seem confused about how we do or do not know students. Our interactions with students are not making new friends at synagogue or inviting some folks over for a cook-out. We're not here to make friends with the students. Not that we don't want to have valuable and productive interactions that might lead to life-long relationships (professional relationships or friendships or both), but that's not what we're here for. Like Erin noted, when we engage with artifice, it comes off poorly.

There is a simple solution, you know. We can get comfortably uncomfortable and ask students what they want out of interactions with librarians and libraries. We can ask students what their ideal relationship with a librarian looks like throughout their college career. We can listen seriously to what they say, and try to be exactly who and what they need and want.

I'm guessing it's not a cool older friend who remembers when the Oilers were in Houston, though.

Keep Rockin'


I have to also note that my feelings about The List may be shaded by the fact that Beloit is a conference rival of my beloved alma mater, and man do I hate those guys I can't even explain it. Ugh and Lake Forest College. How can I even have opinions about those schools it doesn't make any sense.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Teach me how to unlearn a lesson

Rachel asked a question yesterday in reference to the Beloit College mindset list that got me thinking.

Academic libraries want very much to be seen as an integral part of the learning process and of the student experience. We take pride in our collections and in our services and we try very hard to. We devote resources to outreach and marking and administer surveys like LibQUAL+ to assess the areas in which we can improve service to attract more users. We send collections off site to make more room for collaborate work spaces. We use patron-drive acquisitions as a method for collection building in order to provide our users with exactly the material they need at exactly the time that they need it.

User engagement is important. And when those efforts succeed, we engage students in a meaningful way. But those efforts aren't authentic, we just end up talking past our users.

I think that part of being seen as an integral part of the learning process and of the student experience is to see our student users as an important constituency and to convey that to them by developing and implementing services and programs to help them succeed in the university environment. To that end, what would happen if we ran our libraries more like a student affairs division and less like an academic college?

Let's start by considering what we we mean when we talk about student affairs. Wikipedia's entry on student affairs breaks down student affairs into a few functional areas: academic services; admissions, financial aid, orientation; alumni and advancement/development; campus life; counseling, health, and wellness; diversity and inclusion; residence life; and sports and recreation. It then digs down into each of these functional areas like academic success skills and orientation.

When it comes to engaging students, academic libraries live at the intersection of academic services and campus life. We provide instruction and support to students that not only helps them navigate our collections, but also helps to make them information literate people in much the same way that an academic success skills program teaches students how to acquire study skills that help them succeed in college. I think that ACRL's movement from information standards and outcomes in the Information Literacy Competency Standards to frames and threshold concepts in the Framework for Information Literacy in Higher Education shows a movement toward developing information literacy skills that transfer far beyond finding articles in a database or a book in the catalog.

I think now is a good place to acknowledge that academic libraries are engaged in other activities than helping students develop information literacy. Traditionally, academic libraries have seen their purpose in the academic community as acquiring, describing, and making available to researchers items in our collection. This material covers a variety of subject matter in a variety of formats and lives on a continuum between unique and commonly held. And let's be clear, providing access unique collections is arguably the most important service an academic library provides to its users. But as more resources become available to a wider range of people, as as we reconsider what authority means when it comes to information, library staff grow less and less to be be the gatekeepers of information.

And I would be remiss if I didn't also acknowledge that undergraduate and graduate students are not the only user group an academic library serves. Academic libraries also work closely with faculty members, developing collections in their research areas and providing assistance with the management of research data. And those services definitely meet a need that can't be met anywhere on campus. But I sometimes worry that our need to be taken seriously by faculty and treated by equals means that we meet their needs in a way that doesn't reflect, percentage-wise, their impact as a user group.

I think that this circles back around to asking and answering the question that Rachel poses to us quite often: What are we trying to do here?

Acknowledging that it isn't practical to model all of our programs and services after those in student affairs, I do think we can learn a lot from our colleagues there when it comes to engaging and supporting undergraduate and graduate students by treating them as a valuable user group. It requires a shift in thinking, but I believe that the outcome is an authentic, meaningful relationship with our users that puts us squarely in the center of the student experience.

Stay positive,

Friday, August 14, 2015

Friday jams (08/14/2015)

Hello, friends of the Unified Library Scene! Have some jams!

I'm actually kind of surprised that I haven't put up a Run-D.M.C. jam before. But I haven't, so here we are. It is, in fact, tricky to rock a rhyme that's right on time.

Oh, jams?

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

In the spaces in between

I like to practice what I preach over here on the blog, so yesterday I attended a lunchtime program at my library about ACRL's Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education. I have become increasingly fascinated with the Framework and with understanding what the learning process looks like for our users. I grow more and more convinced that the key to effectively describing our collections and building our systems is to understand how our users approach the research process and are transformed by what they learn from our instruction-oriented colleagues.

But I digress. This post is not about that.

In preparation for that program, I read about threshold concepts. This primer on threshold concepts by Glynis Cousin was especially helpful for both explaining the concept of threshold concepts and grounding my understanding of the Framework. In this piece, Cousin explains that there is a space, the liminal state, between when a learner is introduced to a concept and when they master it. Cousin describes the concept of a liminal state as it relates to the mastery of threshold concepts, writing:
But once a learner enters this liminal space, she is engaged with the project of mastery unlike the learner who remains in a state of pre-liminality in which understandings are at best vague.
Cousin goes on to challenge those tasks with teaching by stating:
Teachers must demonstrate that they can tolerate learner confusion and can 'hold' their students through liminal states.
This idea of a liminal space and our responsibility to those in it stuck with me and made me think about how I approach working with people who are mastering new skills.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should say that I did not study education at any point in my undergraduate or graduate studies. Any understanding I have of how people learn things comes from teaching people things--both informally and in a classroom setting. My limited experience with library-related instruction comes in the form of one hour one-shot sessions that are meant to serve as an orientation to library resources. When I started doing these sessions, I would cram in as much information as I could for 50 minutes. Students saw a variety of resources being demonstrated, but they didn't necessarily come away from the class understanding how to use them or understanding any of the underlying concepts of information literacy.

Over time, I have changed my teaching style, after seeing what was successful and what wasn't and modifying my lesson plans accordingly. I have landed on teaching classes where I identify 1-2 concepts I want them to come away knowing and then building my activities and discussion around those. But after reading Cousin's discussion about the liminal space, I believe it is not enough for me to pare down my lesson plans. I also need to make room in any class I teach for those I'm teaching to sit in the liminal space. I need to stop filling the space with own thoughts and, instead, leave that space for learners to consider and master a particular threshold concept.

Making room for students to be in that liminal space is, admittedly, really tough. Once you've mastered a threshold concept, you can't un-master it. And it can be hard to allow yourself to feel how you felt when you lived in the liminal space: the fear, the frustration, the feeling of isolation. It requires an extraordinary amount of empathy to put yourself back in that space. But I would argue that it is necessary if you want to be a good teacher.

When I was taking cataloging, I really struggled. For about 3/4 of the semester, I didn't not not understand it at all and I was sure that I was going to fail. At some point cataloging "clicked" for me and, as they say, the rest is history. But I remember keenly that feeling of frustration over not understanding cataloging. I carry that feeling with me and I let it guide me in how I help others master cataloging concepts.

The bottom line, I think, is this: when we teach, we are responsible for creating a safe space for people to wrestle with the mastery of a threshold concept. Whether it's teaching a class of students or training our colleagues, it is our job as teachers to make room for the the liminal space. And, while we're at it, to fill that space with empathy and support. It takes time and practice to develop the capacity to do these things. But we owe it to the people we teach and, in the end, it's so rewarding.

Stay positive,

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

There's a ton of the twist, but we're fresh out of shout

Last week, Rachel wrote about what we're trying to do with the catalog. If you haven't read it, you should. Go ahead, I'll wait. Just remember to come back here when you're done.

Okay, I want to spend a little bit of time unpacking this bit that Rachel wrote about shared cataloging and whether or not it is helpful for library patrons. Rachel writes:

An important wrinkle in the story of the library catalog is shared cataloging. I would argue that shared cataloging helps library staff and communicating with other libraries, but is of questionable value to the library patron. After all, I really am not sure that a librarian at Harvard or Duke or even the Library of Congress knows best the description of the item that is both accurate and facilitates my users at Rural State University or Large Public Library or Tinest Library Ever looking for a thing. (this same discussion could be happening about subject cataloging, for instance).
So, in some ways shared cataloging is in our DNA as catalogers. If you pull records into your local catalog from a bibliographic utility you are taking advantage of shared cataloging. This type of shared work allows us to reuse records created by other libraries and saves us from having to create records from scratch for every item in our collection. There is a long tail in library collections, though, and your bibliographic utility of choice will probably not have records for everything in your collection. But by contributing and pulling down records for more commonly held items, your library's catalogers can focus on those unique items for which there is no copy.

Shared cataloging happens on the micro level as well. Consortium and university systems have long banded together to share cataloging resources among their membership. In 2014, the Committee on Institutional Cooperation conducted a cooperative cataloging pilot. The program was opt-in and participants assessed where their cataloging needs were and what they could offer in exchange. The pilot focused on both language and format expertise and helped reduce backlogs at participating institutions. The California Digital Library also has a shared cataloging program whose goal is to provide records for material licensed by the California Digital Library and to eliminate cataloging redundancy among libraries in the University of California campuses.

Shared cataloging is useful in my estimation because it allows libraries to work together to share expertise for certain formats and languages. It is a local solution for outsourcing a problematic backlog of specialized materials because it allows libraries to leverage their strengths to cover their weaknesses. Oh, you have a reading knowledge of Arabic? Great--I know a lot about serials cataloging! Let's work together to clear our respective backlogs! On the macro level, shared cataloging allows us to move widely held material through cataloging and processing to get them on the shelves and into the hands of our users. It also allows libraries to focus on their hidden collections of unique materials.

So, clearly shared cataloging provides value to libraries. But back to Rachel's point about the value of shared cataloging for patrons. Is the value of eliminating backlogs and uncovering hidden collections enough of a boon to users to justify our libraries' involvement in shared cataloging initiatives?

I do think Rachel is right about the fact that different user groups have different needs when it comes to description and access. I wrote earlier about the micromanagement of metadata and how we, as catalogers, need to learn to accept more metadata as-is. I should note that I don't think all local editing of records is bad. Sometimes we do need to augment records with data that will be useful to our users in the form of local notes or copy-specific information. Adding this information falls into the category of adding value to existing metadata. And shared cataloging doesn't mean that we have to leave our users high-and-dry when it comes to meeting their discovery and access needs. It just means that we have a place to start from.

So, no. I don't think that shared cataloging is a panacea for all of our metadata creation woes. We will probably always need to add value to records that reflect the needs of our users. But I do think that shared cataloging allows us to make material available more quickly to our users (always a good thing), and gives us the freedom to address the collections that are unique to our libraries.

Stay positive,