Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Why Librarians Should Be Faculty: A Short List

Gray and rainy this week, leaves continuing to drop

Back in April, I wondered whether librarians should be classified as faculty or administrators, because in reality we are neither. Since then, I have formed the definite opinion that we should be faculty. Below are my reasons, briefly. While perhaps no one reason alone would be persuasive, taken collectively I believe there is a strong case for librarians having faculty status at a college or university.

#1: Librarians are part of an academic discipline. Some who see information sciences as a skills-based subject might turn their noses up at it, but I think most would at least agree that it's a relevant field in this age of ubiquitous technology. There are plenty of topics ripe for serious study due to all of the new types of data currently being generated, and this is research that practicing librarians are capable of and should be encouraged to do.

#2: In light of our discipline, when a course is proposed that involves some aspect of information literacy or information science, librarians should naturally be contributing to it. In New Jersey, for example, there exists a transferable General Education course involving information literacy. Information literacy is a topic that librarians have been championing for years. Yet, there is little obligation to consult librarians about the creation of such a course if the librarians do not have faculty status.

#3: When it comes to collaborating with faculty members, comparable status might get some measure of attention. If librarians are classified with the "blood-sucking overhead," that likelihood dims. (And yes, I have heard an administration referred to in this way, although not at my current institution.) This can make outreach work extremely difficult, as faculty are free to treat librarians more as servants than as equals.

#4: Many librarians are already teaching in the classroom, or have expertise in an additional subject besides information science, or both. And although the library as a department is beholden to the larger institution, many everyday duties of librarians directly involve teaching and learning in ways that the everyday duties of administrators do not. Thus, the concerns of librarians are more closely aligned with faculty.

This topic does not seem to be debated much, but I know where I stand the next time it comes up...

Friday, November 20, 2009

Fitting the Patron into the Organization

Bradford pears next to the science building (library obscured)

Listening to the radio on the way to work on a recent morning, I heard an advertisement for a bank (Ally Bank, if anyone is curious) promising service from "a real human." This implies a person answering the phone instead of an automated phone system. As a customer, this sounded attractive to me -- the very thought of an automated phone system makes me groan. It's an annoying process, but doubtless it saves the company money...

...And there are parallels with the reference desk. What I would love to do is automate the process of answering some of our most common questions. Mostly this is for selfish reasons related to the sense that I answer the same question 20 times per day. But by doing this we may not be best serving the students. They may instead groan because they have to read a sign explaining how to print instead of asking someone to show them quickly, for example.

Then again, what service are we at the college providing? While public libraries have public service as part of their core missions, at the college we are focused on education. We are trying to promote independent adult behavior and a desire to learn.

Our students come from a variety of backgrounds with a variety of expectations, and becoming an independent learner is not always at the top of their lists. Perhaps in the past the librarian looked up books for them, they were never expected to know how to handle malfunctioning computers, or they were never even allowed to work on a computer unsupervised. Now they are in college. Should we encourage students to work without mediation, or should we behave like a business and cater to their every whim?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

E-Textbooks for Libraries, Anyone?

Seed pods on leafless black locust tree

So last week in a meeting I proposed the idea of spending some of our reference budget on student textbooks available electronically. The library's policy of not purchasing textbooks was partly because they went missing all the time. E-books would not be at the same risk. Simple, right? I thought this would be an instance of the library being really helpful to students. Of course, when I suggested the idea I did not know what it would mean to accomplish it.

To figure out how to make this a reality, I went to the college book store and asked if they knew which of the current textbooks are available online. The book store representative gave me the web site they use and said the books were listed there ( So I called the customer support number on that page, and the support specialist directed me to the two vendors they use, CourseSmart and VitalSource. I called both of them, and at both the customer service representatives seemed surprised by the idea, took my information, and promised to get back to me.

Within 24 hours, I received a polite email from CourseSmart expressing pretty much what I expected: "Currently, our business rules only allow for individual accounts that assign responsibility to one individual rather than multiple users for the same account. The publishing companies that partner with CourseSmart determine these guidelines." The email did mention that they would keep me posted if a library use model is developed in the future, however.

Also within 24 hours, I got a voicemail from VitalSource saying they were confused about my message and would try and contact me later in the day. I have not heard from them again, and the representative, who described himself in the message as technical support, did not leave a number for me to call back.

So, fellow librarians, this is so far a bust. Has anyone else had any luck? I thought I had reason to hope due to things like the downloadable audio book program now in effect at the public libraries in New Jersey, and the Nook's ability to share e-books. But maybe the situation is exactly what D.J. Hoek describes when he discussed music collections in a lucid article recently in American Libraries: Libraries are not necessarily considered part of the market when it comes to digital content, because companies are typically licensing directly with individuals and are not encouraging sharing.

We can change this, right?

Thursday, November 5, 2009

E-Books: Are People are Finally Ready?

November sky, near the athletic fields on Wednesday

This is purely anecdotal, but -

I notice that e-books are suddenly being greeted with previously-unseen enthusiasm this semester. Is it due to kindles and nooks creeping into the popular mindset?

The change in attitude has been subtle and difficult to pinpoint, but it seems that instead of reacting with surprise/fear/ennui, the majority of students are now expecting e-books and sometimes even look forward to using them. Particularly in instruction sessions, I'm noticing a downright electricity in the room when I bring up e-books. The first time a student asked in class how to use the e-books I nearly fell off my computer stool in surprise, but now I anticipate the interest as a matter of course.

It's true that in other semesters I heard a few students singing the praises of e-books (as well as students looking for 'regular' books, and why are you showing me all this confusing computer stuff?), but it's as if all of a sudden the idea of an e-book is understood and is being taken more seriously. Perhaps the word has sunk in?

I'm waiting until the end of the semester to review usage statistics, but even faculty (sometimes the slowest adopters, alas) seem to be catching on. I've helped a number of professors on the phone recently as they navigate our e-books. I wonder what the tipping point was -- Barnes & Noble, the economy, some textbooks being offered electronically, a critical mass of preference for electronic resources? Perhaps in a small way, our library's outreach efforts? In any case, the future seems to be arriving here.