Monday, February 10, 2014

NOVA: A Parallel Universe Right Next to Ours

Now that the FYS Library Instruction Assessment Report is complete and the librarians have had ample opportunity to reflect on and discuss what the data showed, I'm finding myself down a different rabbit hole that concerns student information seeking/sharing on the web. Danah Boyd's It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens (2014), which I'm skim reading on Amazon until my copy arrives, advances the idea of "networked publics" (5). In essence, tweeting, posting, and tagging are features of a dispersed, imagined social space that is independent of geographical location where these actions bind nodes together through sharing/referral.

What strikes me about these activities in light of our ongoing dialogue in our working group is that students have a fairly fleshed out understanding of when and why we cite something when they participate in this social space Boyd describes. Exactly what they're doing and why they're doing it elude me (thus, the reason I'm reading the book); I suspect it has more to do with digital identity construction than I'll ever fathom. But the currency that they exchange in this environment is clear enough: hyperlinked information. Whether it's a tag, a shortened URL, or a thumbnail on a wall, the essential thing is that a reference is made to something else that matters to them. And this seems to me to be quite close to the reasons why we cite in the academy. Ideas matter to us; they help us to erect our own theoretical frameworks on which we hang our meaning.In this comparison, participating in social media is a very low threshold environment where students publish their thoughts, often in reference to others', and in so doing create a digital presence that at some point becomes an identity.

If these are as similar as I'm proposing, we should expect students to come to terms with the scholarly cycle relatively easily. And yet I'm still unable to overcome the fact that a number of our FYS students struggled with fundamental aspects of the research process, especially where locating and citing sources was concerned. Despite our best efforts to calibrate our instruction over two years and the FYS instructors' use in class of the handbook we wrote, it feels as if there's a roadblock that's preventing some students from experiencing the shift in perspective from a world of sharing to a world of citing.

Reading the characteristics that Boyd lists as common to networked publics is akin to listing many of the characteristics of scholarly citations in a web environment:

  • Persistence: the durability of online expressions and content;
  • Visibility: the potential audience who can bear witness;
  • Spreadability: the ease with which content can be shared; and
  • Searchability: the ability to find content. (11)
While equivalent, these characteristics don't stack up neatly with the citing and writing process and that may be where the problem begins. They're close enough to cause problems in applying one concept to another. From this view, information behind a pay wall or in a specialized database is tantamount to an "Error 404: Not Found." This type of information fails simply because it struggles to match the last two characteristics. We as librarians exist in part to help students overcome this but my sense is that personal mediation by an outsider like a librarian or parent has no place in a networked public. In this new paradigm, the librarian is a benign onlooker exhorting students to a model that may seem dated or needlessly complex when viewed from a teenager perspective where "a hyperlink has always been good enough. After all, I built my digital life that way."

If, as Boyd argues, teenagers exist in a social world that is removed from what previous generations knew, is it fair to ask whether they have mental models they have developed in their digital lives that are both parallel and contrary to the citing and synthesizing process? If so, could this antinomy between sharing/referring in social media and citing in the research process interfere in ways that prevent them from entering the scholarly cycle and finding their role in it?

I'm in no position at the moment to begin addressing these questions in this space, should they even be valid, but they leave me feeling somewhat unsettled nonetheless. On the one hand, digital identity formation feels important enough that we should be having a critical discourse about it as it relates to how students engage their world. I imagine that we will be soon as a whole in higher ed. And, on the other, what is needed is a transformation where 'the student experiences a total shift in perspective' but our strengths seem to lie in the realm of integration where we guide students down the path to "bring[ing] disparate concepts into a unified whole" ("The Future of the Standards"). The new model that I've attempted to elucidate above simply lacks room for a co-pilot from the student perspective so I'm left questioning what our place at the table might look like going forward.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Big Data's Promised Revolution and Collection Development

I'm currently halfway through Mayer-Schonberger and Cukier's Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think (2013).

A quick summary of the main ideas before I turn to collection development:
  • Sampling was the practice of data gatherers in a world where data was an expensive commodity. We now have access to massive quantities of data on the cheap.
  • With so much data, we can permit some inexactness in our data collection.
  • Causation is no longer the golden calf. Correlation is good enough and when it results from big data it can lead us to correct strategies to solve real world problems. Just let the data speak first.
On this last point, the author's make a very relevant observation as far as subject specialists and bibliographers are concerned. One of the implications of big data, according to the authors, is that "[t]he subject-area expert, the substantive specialist, will lose some of his or her luster compared with the statistician and data analyst, who are unfettered by the old ways of doing things and let the data speak" (141). If there is one area where we collectively have the potential to assemble big data within the profession, it is around collection development and usage patterns. And where our collections are concerned, we all rely in one way or another on the notion of expert subject-area book selection. But a recent development at Northwestern has me rethinking parts of our collection development strategies in relation to the authors' implication quoted above.

We will soon be piloting Purchase on Demand (POD) according to a number of metrics that we are currently ironing out. These include cost to purchase, number and timing of previous ILL requests for a given title, format, publication date, language, nature of work (e.g. academic titles, no picture books, etc.), and curricular fit. As we are piloting a very small percentage of our overall book funds (3-4% as an upfront allocation), I am inclined to take a risk and see whether set criteria based on a streamlined workflow can result in acceptable collection development after a given period of time. The goal is not to determine whether POD is a viable strategy without librarian oversight (although this is a determination that has to be made at some point) but if in fact the criteria of our choosing are even capable of resulting in purchases that are as likely or more likely to circulate as books purchased through the "subject-area expert"/librarian input model.

For reflection's sake, I think the operative assumptions in collection development have long been 1) that we should purchase something just in case it is needed but; 2) only after vetting it with expert input (e.g., faculty input, librarian suggestions/oversight). These are reconfigured when we introduce data on the front end: we are purchasing at the point of need and it is not necessarily being vetted prior to purchase but only afterwards (i.e., if and when it circulates enough times to justify its purchase cost). The research we have reviewed on POD suggests to me that librarians are deeply ambivalent about this model as most of their concerns are that it must be financially feasible within X number of circulations to purchase a given book. My perspective on this has changed as I'm beginning to question the golden standard that's tacitly implied in this critique: we should only purchase when we have expert input into the collection development process. For us, I feel reassured with the pilot because we are not only putting students and faculty in the driver's seat of our development practices, we are testing whether user-generated and automated input can lead to good output. Even though our pilot is a perfect example of small data and comes nowhere near big data, it is important for us to know whether new methods have value when we just let the data speak for itself.

When we give the data a voice, we are effectively saying that correlation can be good enough. If big data could be introduced in a way similar to what Amazon has done with its book recommendation, it could lead us to a much more complete picture of local collection development whose success we define differently (and who has lots of this data? OCLC, of course). Who cares that a book seems unrelated at first to our established collection if it is going to circulate frequently? And, frankly, many books ordered via ILL may at first glance appear tangential to what we are trying to achieve with our collection development efforts. But if such a process could lead us to significantly higher checkout rates, then we can demonstrate more value for our institutions' investment in us.

The upshot of the 'correlation is good enough' approach is that we eliminate causation from the picture. And causation, I suspect, was a tacit assumption behind our previous approach to collection development: if we buy books that we believe satisfy student need, those decisions will not only result in more checkouts but may cause students to check them out in the first place (perhaps this is a bit of a stretch but I'm just trying the idea out). For example, consider the overwhelming perception of intention and deliberation on librarians' parts when books are vetted for purchase (a good thing, after all). But Byrd, Thomas, and Hughes had concluded as long ago as 1982 that purchases made by subject specialists "are most effective in large libraries and do not systemically correlate new book purchases with the actual demands of users served" (

What this all leads me to believe is that we need a better view of exactly when the subject specialists are necessary and when they are not. Our paradigm of 'purchase just in case' is changing rapidly and having confidence and certainty of where data can make a difference and where it fails is crucial if we are to make wise use of our funds year in and year out. As Big Data demonstrates again and again, the more data you bring to a problem, the more clarity you achieve around the correlations that matter to you. While it does not bring you any closer to causation than the previous model did, it does put correlation at the center of success and, for me, that's good enough on most days.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Case for Tim Schlak's Candidacy to OCLC's Global Council

As a nominee for OCLC's Global Council, I'd like to provide a little more information about my candidacy and why I feel that I would make a great delegate. What follows is my attempt to make the case for why I would make an excellent member of this team:

My interest in representing OCLC members in the Americas grows out of three areas I feel very passionately about and that are strategic priorities for OCLC: collaboration among like institutions, cloud computing solutions, and the creation and sharing of unique digital content. Were I chosen to represent member libraries in the Americas, I would welcome the opportunity to contribute to efforts that ensure that OCLC members receive maximum value for the commitment they make to OCLC, particularly where these three issues are concerned. 

While the Global Council actively advocates for such directions as these in fulfillment of its goal of ensuring effective communication among all stakeholders, much of the Council’s conversation is driven by what appear to be similarities among members regarding the size, scope, nature, and available resources. And yet, as a representative of a private, liberal arts school associated with both the Iowa Private Academic Libraries consortium and the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), I find myself on occasion discussing OCLC policies, platforms, and programs with other IPAL and CCCU library directors from a standpoint where more inclusion in the dialogue and decision making process would be welcome. All the while, we share similar challenges with other smaller academic institutions and seek outcomes that are at times consistent in intent, if not scope, with larger academic libraries throughout the United States.  

It is not my intention to elevate the needs of smaller academic institutions above those of other OCLC members. Rather, I hope to ensure that these needs are understood in the larger context of all participating public and academic libraries across the Americas. If elected a member of the Global Council, I will seek to promote effective communication not only between the 34 IPAL and 118 CCCU members and other stakeholders but also on behalf of smaller, private liberal arts colleges like Northwestern College. 

And given that members to the council will work in a multicultural and "multi-american" setting, my decades-long experience learning about and living in other cultures and languages is an important asset that affords me a cross-cultural perspective and fluency that few librarians possess.

Relevant experience:
  • Iowa Private Academic Libraries Vice-Chair/Chair, 2012-13/2013-14.
  • Extensive undergraduate and graduate teaching experience in ESL, foreign language, literature, and culture, as well as Library and Information Science. 
  • Near fluency in Bulgarian and intermediate to advanced capabilities in Russian.
 For more information about me, please see my LinkedIn profile.

Monday, November 18, 2013

PALMM - A Model for Us All

I'm currently reviewing for CHOICE Reviews an impressive site that boasts a variety of collections of digital archives relating to the state of Florida. I've been very impressed with this site and the potential it offers institutions like us in local or regional consortia to publicize our local heritage and interest materials.

As we're all learning, one of the most important resources we all have is our local collections. PALMM: Publication of Archival, Library, & Museum Materials is a collaborative initiative sustained by the public university libraries of Florida. What I appreciate the most about this collection is the way it allows for grassroots involvement. The startup and maintenance costs of launching and offering a robust digital library are quite high, thus forcing many groups and institutions of all stripes with important and relevant collections that are in the public domain to keep their collections undigitized and thus unavailable. One concrete way for us to demonstrate value in this day and age is to make our collections as visible and available as possible. A problem further down the road is the proliferation of local content as each collection sits in a local silo. The public universities in Florida have taken a proactive step to resolving an issue that is certainly not going anywhere.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Update to IPAL Directors Discussion

The Information Literacy discussion among the directors was very engaging. It went over the scheduled 20 minutes by a good hour and a half. Here are the salient points that various directors raised:

  • As we don't have access to the final product (whatever is turned in), we don't have sufficient control in the process to ensure our outcomes are what they need to be. IL instruction is most effective when the librarian is involved in the grading process. 
  • Younger faculty members can be our best allies in this process. Yet they are also the ones most likely to think they are capable of teaching wise Information Retrieval habits when in fact they often replicate the same mistakes we see our freshmen making (e.g. relying solely on Google). 
  • ACRL's guidelines are too isolated from other relevant literacies (visual, media, and IT).
  • The guidelines are 13 years old and have not delivered us anywhere specifically (not that they were expected to do so). The call of IL needs to be cast as a journey centered on lifelong engagement with these issues. 
  • The guidelines don't reflect the degree to which the web landscape has changed. Do we even need to teach this anymore was a concern raised. A counterpoint I raised that this is exactly why we should teach this: I feel strongly that taking multiple and often conflicting sources of input and narrowing  that down to one point is a skill every college graduate should have begun to develop earnestly early in their studies. This is exactly what employers want to see our graduates doing and these are the types of things they can all be learning across the curriculum.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Old and in the Way: ACRL's IL Guidelines?

That's the gist of a discussion I'll be leading next week among IPAL consortium members at our fall directors meeting right here in our fabulous new facility. I won't use those terms exactly but here I'm hoping to use this post to sort through some of the issues that I want to bring before the group. In fairness to ACRL, they are updating their guidelines and should issue them before the academic year's end. I personally cannot wait as we are so focused on IL right now with our FYS instruction sessions coming up that the spring would be a great time to start redrawing the lines of our existing program.

Our own very talented Acquisitions and Serials Coordinator Heather Sas recently shared an article whose premise simply won't leave me alone: "we have adequate evidence to support the claim that our search and retrieval systems are too complex." As we prepare for our upcoming library instruction sessions for all freshmen enrolled in the First Year Seminar later this month and next, I can't avoid a feeling of unease that our systems simply are too complex. And they're complex all by themselves, one not even need reference Google for that to become clear. Last week I caught myself showing students how easy it is to use ILL because EBSCO and WorldCat auto populate the request form's fields. And they looked at me like I was crazy; how easy is clicking through five different pages (WorldCat search, WorldCat record, intermediary linking page, ILL sign in, and ILL submission form) easy? Later, I realized that the system is only easy when compared to the difficulty that a novice might encounter when searching inside an EBSCO database, or, gasp, Lexis Nexis! The ease of use I perceived was all in my head. This is not easy and that's why each freshmen must spend two hours with us going over the basics.

So perhaps my first point of contention with the existing guidelines is that they simply fail to account for the complexity of our systems. Or vice versa: we fail to account for it when we do instruction and often focus on the mechanics of our systems rather than the broad principles involved. The guidelines envision students moving from left to right or up to down as they work their way through the skills taxonomy. This is all well in an ordered and fairly simple world but, given the overwhelming specificity and insider knowledge that our systems require, how can we begin to ensure that these results are realizable across all of our systems? To put it slightly differently: we spend so much time teaching individual skills contextualized in specialized information resources that there's little time left to address the goals we strive for. We're teaching skills and confining our activities to skill-based exercises when information literacy is a "way of thinking" (Center for Intellectual Property in the Digital Environment, 2005). And this different way of conceiving IL as something other than a set of practices leads me to my next point.

Information Literacy is not some set of boxes that can be checked off after an instruction. Mapping it to a taxonomy is helpful but that suggests that there is some finite goal that students can achieve and be named informationally literate as if it's a badge that can be worn. Like lifelong learning, IL should be something that students begin acquiring when they begin their studies but it should never end. Knowledge isn't a commodity (at least in this instance) that's delivered from us to them in ways that help students progress from have-nots to haves. At its best, knowledge should be the reward for curiosity-fueled exploration that students engage in both while they are enrolled in studies and before and afterwards. IL should ideally be a way for students to take the keys to their own education.

An additional difficulty I have with the guidelines stems from the fact that we are some of the only ones talking about literacy in higher education when referring to undergraduates and beyond. While this is a weakness built into the guidelines from the start, we are simply speaking the wrong language in the world of higher education. Literacy implies remediation and that's seldom viewed as a good use of time on college campuses. The guidelines double down on this and, surprisingly, have been quite successful in making the case for why these skills matter. When spelled out, it's fairly obvious that many of these skills, were all our undergraduate students to demonstrate proficiency in them, would make the lives of faculty in the classroom so much easier and perhaps more enjoyable. Rather than focusing on how an argument could have been better researched, a writing instructor could emphasize ways in which the argument could have been better supported. In this sense, I appreciate CIC's use of the term "information fluency" and am slowly coming around to it.

The sad truth is that there's not a lot of good evidence that we're actually achieving the results we would like to see nationwide despite our best efforts. Turn to any recent edition of College & Research Libraries and you'll likely find an article or two on innovative ways that IL instructors have pioneered to address the fundamental problems that we are all dealing with. That's the best case scenario. You'll also find evidence that our instruction isn't always achieving what it's supposed, too. The optimist in me sees that this is both natural and good: natural in the sense that the IL guidelines perhaps have run their course and/or can be improved on and good in that we as a profession are ready for ACRL Guidelines 2.0, the participatory version. I would like to see guidelines that are extensible, freer in ways that point even more to lifelong learning, that include innovative ways of helping librarians teach critical reasoning skills over information retrieval skills that are database and collection bound, that favor connections over collections, and that allow us to contribute back to the larger professional dialogue in a meaningful fashion.

Apologies for the jargon-laden conclusion.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Three Things No One Ever Tells You about Library Building Projects

I'm currently shopping a variety piece on a dozen things no one ever tells you about library building projects around with American Libraries. Spending a few hours driving in the car yesterday, I realized there were a few more points to mention that I would still like to share (it was a neat dozen I was after in the article, not 15). To that end, here are three things that are not listed in my little article that I'd suggest to anyone going through a library move.
  • Library moves and major transitions are long, tiring processes that take everything you have. Plan for much-needed down time when the project is over. If that's not possible, as was the case for us (classes started immediately after the move was complete), don't begin some ambitious project right away such as migrating to a new ILS or strategic planning. You will be asking the best of yourself and those around you during the move; be kind to yourselves and give yourselves the chance to get acquainted with all the changes that you have just put into place before moving on to whatever is next. 
  • Know the warranty period on the FF&E (fixtures, furniture, and equipment) and on the construction work. A typical time frame is one year from the date of delivery or completion. Document any and all damage as the items are being delivered and communicate those problems to the responsible parties (rarely the installers).Within the year, speak now or forever hold your peace. 
  • Our library shelving vendor indicates that it typically takes three site visits by the installers to complete the job. While you might think two visits will do it, the third visit is often necessary because of delays caused by on-site problems that cannot be foreseen in advance. Library shelving, unlike movable furniture, has to go almost exactly where it is on the floor plans because of ADA and other compliancy issues that were planned for well in advance. Any problems, such as a light strobe in an unexpected place, a railing that protrudes farther than it does on the map, or a room that is smaller than it is supposed to be, mean that more shelving has to be custom made or customization done to the existing product. For whatever reason, this process takes longer than a furniture installation. We should have the last of our shelving delivered this week, 2.5 months after the initial shelving installation. 
Here's a link to the publication that finally came out: