Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Why Be a Scholar?

Lately I've taken to calling myself an accidental scholar. Scholarship wasn't ever something I really planned on, but the more of it I read in library school, the more I started to have my own ideas. Library science is often characterized as not particularly intellectually rigorous, and there's quite a bit of truth to that statement. I go back and forth on whether we really need to be, to be honest. A body of scholarly work is a nice thing, but do we need it to be good librarians?

In academia, at any rate, there's at least one reason to do it beyond mere interest, or membership in a scholarly community, or the requirements of faculty status.

That reason is simply this: we get a much better picture of our constituents' research experiences with our library.

Case in point. I'm currently revising an article for a scholarly publication. As part of the process, I've been hunting down some additional sources to address a few key points, and making extensive use of my own library's interlibrary loan service, since we don't own most of the materials that I'm finding. Our collection primarily supports the curriculum and student research, which means that we don't offer a whole lot in the particular area I'm working in (a thin intersection of information science and science fiction), and I'm having to supplement my searches in library databases with free online indexes and a lot of citation crawling.

One good way to maintain and improve services is to get as good an idea as you can of what your patron base does, and what they need to do it. There are plenty of ways to find this out, including asking them, but another really good way is to try using your library the way your patrons are using it. If you have scholars among the users of your library, try being a scholar yourself. (You can try being a student, too; take a class, and see how well the library serves the need of that class.) You might be surprised at what you learn.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Going Local

I had my first meeting with the ACRL-NW board this morning--I'm a new Member-at-Large--and I have to say, I'm pretty excited. Not only do I know a lot of the board members already (including a friend from my graduate program and one of my mentors from the UW Engineering Library, where I worked in grad school), but even though we were videoing in from four locations (it was my first videoconference!), it felt like we were all in the same room. This group has a really pleasant synergy and I'm looking forward to working with them.

Running for the regional chapter board was a deliberate attempt to get more local with my professional service, as is my volunteering with InfoCamp 2008 this fall. I'm wrapping up a stint on a national ACRL committee, and while it's been interesting work and I've learned a lot about how the organization does its business, when the call for nominations to ACRL-NW went out I realized that I wanted to concentrate my efforts more locally. Here's why:

I like working with people in person. This might seem odd to say, since my first board meeting was a videoconference, but the difficulty with national committees is that you see each other twice a year--and maybe not that often, if people don't show up. Then, depending on how active your committee is, you might not do anything between conferences, not even via e-mail.

I like contributing where I live and work. This informs my community volunteer work as well; I look for opportunities in my own neighborhood, where I can get to know the people and how the community functions. I don't think I'll go for national service again until I'm established enough in the profession to feel like the national organization is my community.

Environmental conscientiousness. It's another argument for allowing virtual committee participation: air travel is one of the most polluting forms of transportation out there. ALA conferences regularly attract 10,000 to 20,000 attendees. I'm not going to drop out of participating in ALA, nor of going to ALA conferences entirely, but required attendance at two conferences a year because of a committee appointment was starting to bother me.

Getting to know local professional colleagues--and future colleagues. This is a really active area for librarianship. We have a library school, dozens of universities, several public library systems, and an active information architecture/knowledge management community. With such a wealth of professional knowledge and expertise nearby, it's less necessary for me to go farther afield.

Between this, South Sound Librarians, and InfoCamp, I've got plenty to keep me busy on the local scene for awhile. And it feels like what I do will have a bigger impact. One might well accuse me of big fish, small pond syndrome, but small ponds are where you find some of the richest ecosystems. What's in your professional backyard?

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Five Reasons to Keep the Reference Desk

Reference sure is getting a lot of airtime these days. It was a topic of major discussion at Midwinter in Seattle, close to a year and a half ago; a profluence of reference service models continues to expand, so quickly that our patrons may at last be forgiven for not knowing where or how to find the reference librarian. And this summer, in Denver, we have the Reference Renaissance conference.

At my library, I sit shifts at the reference desk, take phone calls, do virtual reference via chat and follow-up e-mail, and e-mail back and forth with students. Occasionally a student even finds his or her way into my office to ask me a question in person. I've also taken a laptop to other locations on campus and done in-person reference there, a model that I think requires a ton more promotion than I've been able to give it thus far to really be successful.

The traditional reference desk is getting rather lost in all of this--either buried beneath a flurry of new service models, or disappearing entirely as libraries go to on-call, roaming, by appointment, or other options. In the midst of all of this, I'm reminded of this story about an experience in an Apple store. I'll quote the salient point here:

I'm sure that when the differently-thinking store designers at Apple started blowing each others' minds with their crazy new "store with no cashiers" idea it seemed like a very good idea. If you make every employee a cashier and every location a register, anyone can buy anything anywhere at any time. There's no lines at the cashier and more room to display products - big win all around. Unfortunately the scheduling problem was failing on the two most important counts: to ensure fairness and minimize resource starvation. Customers with a quick purchase aren't just stuck into the same queue as customers with a half hour of questions - they're competing with those customers to locate disguised queues (black-shirted geek: customer or employee?) and pick the right one.

What kind of crazy, outside-the-box solution would work even better here? Let me walk you through my reasoning. Since sales interactions are faster than support you'd probably want to leave one employee dedicated to sales all the time. And since as Apple's own user interface guidelines say, spatial user interfaces work best when they're predictable you'd probably want that employee to stand in a predictable location. Some specific place in the store. Maybe near a table that customers can place their purchases on while the transaction takes place. And since this special employee was performing a special purpose you'd probably want them to be visually distinctive. Maybe place something iconic on the table. Something that denotes "purchase transaction" in our cultural zeitgeist. Something like, oh I don't know, A CASH REGISTER.

The point here about a clearly designated service point is something that librarians ought to take into account as we decide how to provide reference service now and in the future. And, as old-fashioned and traditional as a DESK where one can find LIBRARIANS (to borrow tongodeon's style of emphasis) might be, here are five reasons to keep it:

  1. Visibility: a frequent complaint in this profession is that our patrons don't know who we are or what we do. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this isn't a new problem, and there's probably data somewhere to back it up. A downside of almost every reference service model I've heard tell of (roaming the library being a notable exception) is that librarians disappear: we're on the other end of a chat connection or sequestered in our offices. Making people go to additional effort to find us and find out about us does not strike me as a particularly good idea.
  2. Awareness of what's going on in the library: if you've never read John Seely Brown and Paul Deguid's The Social Life of Information, get your hands on it right now and at least skim the introduction. For all our wikis (which replaced intranets which replaced internal listservs which replaced bulletin boards), the primary way that everything from office gossip to important developments such as massive printer failures and workarounds when your link resolver fails to function as advertised is through people talking with each other. I get the most important information for my reference shift by talking to whoever I'm taking over from and the tech support staff who share our desk. Would that stuff still get passed in isolation? Maybe. If your communication systems are really good and you have a successful culture of using them. Or, you could use the system and culture you've already got.
  3. Step into my office: in my other life, I have occasion to buy boxing equipment. One of the suppliers I buy from sells a t-shirt with an image of a boxing ring and the caption, "Step into my office." The point being, the boxing coach's office isn't where he or she works. The ring is. Librarians don't just work in our offices, or online. We work in libraries, and libraries are still places, even though their collections and services are increasingly uncoupled from those places. One advantage a reference desk has over other models is that, if you put it in the right place, the entire library becomes your office. Which is as it should be.
  4. The best service is still in person. My first job out of college was answering customer service e-mails for Amazon.com. At that time, people were still sort of boggled at the idea of a store that had no physical storefront. "Are you sure there isn't somewhere we can come pick up orders?" they'd ask. Yes, we were. And most of the time, that was okay. Especially since Amazon's principal customers at the time were Web-savvy sorts who didn't need much help navigating the site. Most of the questions were about stock levels and credit card security. Then, one day, I got this question: "Hi. We just got our first computer and went online for the first time, and the only website address we knew was yours. How does this work?" It was a great conversation, actually, and when we hung up half an hour later those customers had successfully placed their first order and, if I had anything to do with it, came back to make many more purchases over the years. But oh, what I would've given to be able to show them how to do it in person. You can talk co-browse and webcam and videoconference all you want, and they often work well and sometimes they're your only option (when you're working primarily with distance learners, for example), but sometimes you, and your patron, just have to get together.
  5. Identifiable service point. Once again, this gets back to the excerpt posted above. This is related to, but distinct from, the point about visibility. Visibility increases people's awareness of you. An identifiable service point tells them where to go. Reference interviews are more analogous to support than sales, but the rest of the parable holds: if you want people to be able to find your reference service, it should be in a predictable location. Some specific place in the library, perhaps. Someplace visually distinctive. With something that denotes "reference" in our cultural zeitgeist.
But what denotes reference, particularly since a distressing number of people don't seem to know what reference is, while anyone old enough to have an allowance can identify a cash register?


Maybe that's the problem.

Open Access in the Humanities

We're used to thinking of open access as primarily an STM phenomenon: science, technology, and medicine. It makes sense, since researchers in this area seem to be more likely to embrace new channels of information dissemination, and new research in these fields can be so expensive to access; one of the principles behind the open access movement is to make published scholarship accessible to researchers who lack the financial resources to gain access to expensive scholarly publications.

The humanities, in contrast, are seen as still relying primarily on print, which in general I've found to be the case (JSTOR being a notable exception for many faculty).

Today, though, Inside Higher Ed reports on Open Humanities Press, a large new hat in the open access ring and notable precisely because it is dedicated to humanities scholarship, not STM. Even I've heard of some of the names on the advisory board, and with the exception of music, I don't spend much time with humanities literature.

There's been much discussion in librarianship as to if and when the humanities would jump on the e-scholarship and open access bandwagons (not the same things, not by a long shot, but they're in the same parade). This looks like it could be a significant step in that direction.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Neat Stuff from the Librarians' Internet Index

As I often tell my students, nobody can index the entire Internet--at least, not in the way that, say, a disciplinary index or database is organized. It's too big, too diverse, and too weird. Aboutness is much easier to determine from within a subject or disciplinary context, and even there it's problematic, as Patrick Wilson told us in Two Kinds of Power (which I recently re-read).

But that doesn't mean that there aren't useful portals out there for purposes of browse and discovery, and the Librarians' Internet Index is one such. You can even get their New This Week sent to your e-mail or RSS feed. That's how I discovered the following:

Friday, May 2, 2008

Wikipedia is the Kill Your Television of the 00s?

Clay Shirky's post on the death of the sitcom reminds me of a piece of advice I encountered in Stephen King's On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. To wit:

I am, when you stop to think of it, a member of a fairly select group: the final handful of American novelists who learned to read and write before they learned to eat a daily helping of video bullshit. This might not be important. On the other hand, if you're just starting out as a writer, you could do worse than strip your television's electric plug-wire, wrap a spike around it, and then stick it back into the wall. See what blows, and how far.

Just an idea.

King is basically saying "kill your television," but just because something's been said before doesn't necessarily mean that it doesn't need to be said again. Lately I've been in favor of killing the Internet as well, but Shirky points out an important difference between that and the TV: on the Internet, people can make their own contributions.

Okay, yeah, sure, the vast majority of those contributions are going to be nothing much; Sturgeon's Law had not, last I heard, been revoked, and an awful lot of Wikipedia's content is about TV, suggesting that if we all did as King suggested Wikipedia itself would be a lot poorer content-wise. On the other hand, a lot of them are going to be worthwhile, and some of them are going to be downright brilliant.

A friend of mine recently started a blog for photographers. Amateur photographers, specifically. Like herself. The point being, that one needn't be paid for something to be good at it (though it is one of the great satisfactions in life to be paid for something that you're not only good at, but that you would do whether someone was paying you for it or not. One of her entries reminded me of something that, as a lifelong French speaker, I ought to have remembered: the origin of "amateur" is "lover of".

Hear that, Andrew Keen? It's not enough that Cult of the Amateur gets a couple of pretty important facts wrong; it might well be that it's also mistaken in its conclusions.

Friday Food for Thought

From Inside Higher Ed:

The Next Market Bubble: Student Loans?

is it caturday yet?

I read ScienceBlogs to get the thoughts of people who do and/or think about science. Most popular science reporting is absolutely terrible, so ScienceBlogs are a breath of fresh air.

However, there are other benefits as well, including the occasional cute animals pic. And who doesn't like a cute animals pic, especially at 9:30 on a Friday morning?

So, here! Kittens!