Sunday, June 27, 2010

How to Choose Projects

lily, in one of the beds near the library

The library is in the happy position of having a number of big projects on the horizon right now.

For example,
-There is increased attention being paid to teaching information literacy across academic disciplines, and the library will need to take an active role in any such endeavors.
-A brand new print-based collection is necessary for one of the academic programs to become accredited by its national organization.
-The textbook collection I've been working on for reserve at the library is a big time commitment, and I haven't even begun the process of making the college community aware of it yet.
-Another project, currently still in the fact-finding stage, would be important to the college and the community at large but might require diverting time and energy of staff currently committed elsewhere.
-We've made some progress toward putting the library into the college's online classes, but ongoing cooperation and regular communication with the distance education department is necessary to fully integrate the library's services and collections.

So, the question becomes which one(s) to tackle. Which ones can we reasonably hope to accomplish? I've learned the hard way that my native enthusiasm can lead me to overextend myself. Maybe it would help to examine whether each of these projects has a stated mission, or at least goals. Is there a visible path from Point A to Point B? While allowing flexibility for experimentation and complications, are there clear expectations for the library's role and time commitments?

It's possible we can accomplish all of the projects listed, and more. But it will require some thoughtful organization ahead of time. Maybe I can add the item "organize projects" to the top of the list, and that can be the starting point...

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Hats off to Will Manley this week

Poppies in bloom on campus

Recently I feel like I've been playing Whac-A-Mole at work, where every time I complete a task, some other thing pops up. Meanwhile there is a blog that has been producing some important content this week, Will Unwound. A few posts in particular caught my attention, but by the time I was able to formulate a response the conversation had moved on.

First were the posts "The Death of Library Schools" and "Angry Librarians are Angry ... Now What?". They address something I've caught myself wondering before: Is it my imagination, or is library work being de-professionalized while enrollments in library graduate programs continue to rise?

Is this happening in other fields? When a job can be done without a graduate degree, those managing budgets may choose not to make it a requirement, and who can blame them? Those who have the degree can appear irritatingly entitled in their expectation for employment that matches their qualifications*, but the personal and financial sacrifices that come with graduate school are very real, making their frustration understandable. Is a glut of people with advanced degrees even a new phenomenon? It seems as though everywhere I look there are new master's degree programs...are there truly jobs for all the graduates?

Then came the posts "Big Box Libraries" and "Who Cares about Service?", which touch on an issue very close to my heart -- public services and communities as they relate to libraries.

I'll skip putting it in generational terms, but I wonder whether in recent years customer service expectations have changed in the following way: There is a lot of assistance online now. There are a lot of online communities, composed of real people, who will gladly write reviews and answer questions about services, products, and companies (companies they don't even work for!) for free, seemingly because they like helping other people. (Granted, there may be other reasons too.) This may not be entirely responsible for the success of big box stores, but it is an important part of why they continue to flourish.

As is visible from comments on the blog, many people sincerely enjoy helping others. The audience of people to help on the internet is vastly larger than the people who are reachable at a single store in a single town. This is not to devalue solid in-person customer service, but customers frequently turn to the internet when looking for customer service that used to be provided locally in person. I suspect large corporations are aware of this abundance of free support online, and they might see cutting expertise in a store-front as a viable cost-saving method. In the context of libraries, yes, I think this trend does affect patron expectations at the reference desk, in that elsewhere it is now relatively uncommon to find a trained professional on the front lines of public service.

So, thanks to Will Unwound for providing thought-provoking contributions to libraryland -- I'll continue to be in the audience even when I'm not quick enough to be part of the conversation there.
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*I include myself in this category

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Forgetting What It's Like to Be a User

Hydrangea, in bloom near the criminal justice building

A few times on my commute recently, I noticed a construction sign that displayed the meaningless (though intriguing) message "Modem 9." This prompted me think about how easy it is to forget about the people who have to use the systems you design. We all specialize, and often we only work on small pieces of big projects. It's surprisingly easy to lose concern for the users.

How does this forgetting occur? For me, it goes something like this: (1) I encounter frustration with how a building was designed, or how a computer was administered, or where information is located on a web site, etc. (2) I struggle to fix the problem, or at least find a reason for why things are the way they are. Sometimes I succeed at making a change, but when I do not, (3) I become blind toward the problem. Frankly, this is probably so that I don't feel helpless. If I am unable to fix a problem, I resign myself to accepting it & creating a work-around.

As a public services librarian, however, I am frequently in the position of helping library users navigate the same frustrating obstacles, with full awareness of the design flaws and my own impotence. I would be willing to bet that the most intelligent organizations have procedures in place to combat the apathy that develops around poor design. This could be done by creating an avenue for users (including employees) to submit their ideas for improvements, or regularly scheduled reviews of processes and how things work in general.

Along these lines, I'm reading a really interesting book right now called Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, by Paco Underhill. (Try not to judge it by its packaging.) The author reports on studies performed for retailers on the behavior of shoppers, and he reveals many obvious components of functionality.

As is true for any service-oriented organization, academic libraries are responsible for evaluating whether their users are able to successfully navigate buildings and services. The trend in recent years of doing usability testing is a start, but I think there is still room to more fully integrate this type of thinking into our work.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Media, Access, and Libraries

Roses in bloom in front of the library

Isn't it weird that new media (blogs, digital downloads, etc) often seem to be striving for attention from old media? Bloggers frequently want to write books, for example. Musicians still crave record deals. People making home movies still dream of attracting the attention of studio executives. Sometimes I wonder if we're in a brave new world at all, or just in an expanded one, where the preeminence of certain institutions is as great as ever. It may be true that content creation and distribution have been radically democratized, but in many cases old media still choose when to allow mainstream recognition. Conversely, old media are feeling threatened by new media's effect on their bottom lines.

Relating this to libraries, an interesting tidbit I heard at the e-book symposium a few weeks ago is that when libraries provide access to e-books, their overall circulation of physical books increases as well. This is consistent with what I observed when I worked in a large interlibrary loan office -- interlibrary loan requests were increasing over the years, probably due to the internet enabling researchers to discover more sources than ever before. Maybe it's that long tail thing in action.

And I can't help but picture web-based forces, such as online social networks, creating a new channel into the world of serious scholarship and academic information. This sounds stunningly obvious when I put it this way, but the alternative view is that a widely accessible internet signals the demise of libraries. I disagree with the latter: Traditional institutions and old media are certainly changing, but when all is said and done they will continue to have a role, and they will have new media to thank.