Wednesday, March 25, 2009

New Jersey History Day

forsythia, just starting to bloom

And now for something completely different...

This past weekend I had the opportunity to be a judge for New Jersey History Day, at a regional competition leading up to National History Day. Information about the competition and events is on the websites, but I wanted to mention what an amazing opportunity this is for educators and students to not only become interested and involved in studying history, but to be able to express and share this interest. In addition, it's a great information literacy lesson.

The participants are in middle school or high school, and as a librarian I am impressed by and excited about the standards of information literacy they are held to. One of the requirements for the competition is to create an annotated bibliography with primary and secondary sources identified. Thorough comprehension of historical material is just the basis for a project -- students must understand historical context, relevance, abstract themes, and then be able to synthesize all of this into a product that displays their understanding.

A particularly gratifying aspect of the competition was that students seemed genuinely excited about their topics. (The 2008-2009 theme is "The Individual in History: Actions and Legacies.") Choosing a topic that interested them, studying it, becoming experts, and adhering to standards to communicate ideas to a large audience, led them to play out the steps in performing scholarly history research. I only wish more students went through this experience before coming to college.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The thing about using social networking sites professionally...

(skunk cabbage)
A few months ago I started experimenting with twitter. (I'm currently tweeting as @camdencclibrary.) I think as a tool it has enormous potential, but I'm becoming concerned about its deployment. The pattern I see with twitter, and basically most other social networking sites (which I'm going to lump together and call 'SNS' from here on), is that they are insular. What I mean by 'insular' is that these SNS are composed of groups of friends or people with common interests, and it's dang hard to claim you should join a group if in fact, you really do not know the people or share their interests. You risk being seen as irrelevant to the very people you may be trying to help, or, worse, completely inappropriate and intrusive and creepy.

So for example, librarians who use SNS end up joining groups related to books, information-science, education, technology, etc. -- groups that the average patron is not a part of. Librarians meet and befriend each other online, and not their patrons. The people I follow on twitter are related to libraryland, news, and other librarians. This seems very natural, but if we are trying to use SNS to reach our patrons online and provide services to them there, those efforts are failing.  

What should our online identities be? Are we going to be your friends and feed you all kinds of trivia about our personal opinions of Julia Roberts? Are we going to limit ourselves to dispatches, and feed you cut-and-dry information about news and activities? (I'm not convinced we need a twitter account for this. Or a facebook account.) Are we trying to push an agenda, attempting to educate students on how to use the library effectively? Should libraries be one of the third party entities that SNS seem to be increasingly embracing? 

One positive portrait I can imagine is a college or institution coordinating an official presence on SNS, so that students can publicly display their affiliation and be connected to the college this way. The relationship between the student and the institution would stay appropriate, but we would be able to reach them where they are. So far, that's all I've come up with...  

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

More about books. Yeah, I know.


But still -- I was pondering the car manual the other day, as I tried to figure out how to change the time my clock was displaying. And you know what? I'm really glad I had a manual ( = book), because the process was irritating enough that if I'd also had to wade through some cumbersome technological intermediaries (which I've written about previously on ACRLog), it would have been just that much more of a hassle. For the car manufacturer, a printed manual is the obvious choice.

What were the alternatives to the car manual? If I'd had a smart phone I could have connected to the manual online, searched by keyword for 'clock', and gotten the information that way. If I had been told the manual was online, and I didn't have a smart phone, I would have had to find a computer, print or write down the instructions, and been annoyed at the car manufacturer that the manual wasn't right where I needed it (i.e., in the car).

What if there was a network connection & monitor in the car? Seems like a pricey thing to have as a standard option...a distraction when driving...attractive to thieves...likely to fail during an emergency...No, short of expecting all car owners to have smart phones (and maybe they will in the future? What about in a parking garage where there's no connection, or when the phone battery is dead?) a manual was the best way to go. If the manual is online, that's the back-up version in case the one in the car goes missing.

So in this way -- when there's a time and a place for books -- they won't completely disappear. Yes electronic information is more convenient, portable, linkable, etc., but books can be cheaper for the user, are often easier, and don't require as much equipment.

I know things are always changing, and I know not everybody thinks about this as much as I do. Most people's behaviors mirror the most obvious and easy ways of doing things. But should the library continue to collect books? Should we be known for books? Should we provide print-on-demand kiosks? I recently helped a patron who was upset because the books she found were all e-books. (I think she didn't want to have to read the book online or be required to have an internet connection.) Later I helped a student who was thrilled she could connect to some of the library's books online. The library is trying to provide resources in the most convenient & accessible manner, and we can't please everyone without stretching ourselves pretty thin.

I've had a recurring worry that people will renew their appreciation for books, now that the economy is tanking and they can't afford internet access and/or current computers & software. I'm paranoid that nobody will be able to afford the equipment to use our online resources, and that library budgets will be cut so we'll lose our online access to resources anyway. Then patrons will come to the library asking "Where are all the books?" But this is ridiculous. Right?

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

excitement about the future of libraries

snow, melt

After last week's gloomy post, I'm now going to write about why it's an exciting time to be a librarian working in libraries. (Or an information professional working in a resource center. Or whatever the latest lingo is.)

-First of all, there is a LOT of noise and junk out there on the interweb. Librarians are some of the right people to be paying attention to it, keeping track of it, and trying to filter and make sense of it. They are ready and willing to sort and organize and prioritize it all. Librarians are happy to act as knowledgeable signposts, creating and evaluating new tools, calling a spade a spade independently of commercial interests. The role of 'assistant for finding stuff' is one we have had since the profession started. Just because a lot of the stuff is now online does not guarantee it's easy to find, and strong evaluation and critical thinking skills are crucial. (I'm appalled to notice that the latter are missing in a lot of current students.)

-Also, here are some positive library stories I've read recently:
Best Careers of 2009: Librarian from U.S. News and World Report
Bullet Point: “We live in Shakespearian Times” from Syracuse's School of Information Studies David Lankes.
29 Reports about the Future of Academic Libraries. OK to be honest I have not read each report, but it's a sign that academic libraries are being treated seriously...

-Instead of simply moving away from books and paper, I'm noticing that my relationship with them is changing. If something arrives on my desk as a paper product, I figure it must be important. So I've caught myself immediately and sometimes mistakenly assuming a book or a printed document is important. I mean, if it is NOT important, why bother with the printing process? Why bother turning it into a physical object? I know the web is not as ephemeral as it sometimes seems, but in terms of how I keep myself organized, I still hold books as the most durable, transferable medium. (And the most convenient, despite their inability to hyperlink without an technological intermediary.) If I'm going to have a long-term relationship with certain information, I want the book or a print-out. And yes, I do use zotero and delicious and a host of other online tools, but I still feel this way.

Again, most of what I'm saying here I heard in library school. I heard all about how the roles of libraries and librarians are changing so that they would not even be recognizable to librarians of the past. But you know what? I was excited about this challenge then, and I'm still excited.