Sunday, January 30, 2011

Fear of the Machine

Snowpocalypse, from Wednesday night

One thing I've noticed from observing students at the reference desk is a common apprehension surrounding interactions with computers. I say computers, but I'm thinking about the photocopier and the printer too. We gather internal statistics to count the number of times we are called upon to support these technologies, which is nice to know, but I wonder if this is common everywhere, or whether it's more typical at a community college where students are often coming from a lower-than-average socioeconomic background.

I'm not claiming to always be savvy when interacting with new technology (I'm quick to ask for help when the supermarket self-checkout machine fails, for example), but I watch students who are unwilling to take the first basic steps of interacting with the photocopier, and I can't help but wonder what's going on. 

It might be a combination of variables such as age, past experience with technology, and the appearance of a machine. But what is it that allows some people to be willing to walk up to certain technology, interact with it, and learn how to get it to work, while other people immediately look for a human to guide them? Even if personal assistance is not immediately available, some students will spend more time tracking down a library staff member than it would have taken them to figure out the machine. Does it come down mainly to personality? Some people seem to assume they need permission to use a machine and that they will be held responsible if it breaks; others just seem lazy. Some people seem unwilling or unable to read instructions; others seem to prefer a human connection as they accomplish their tasks.  

It gets more interesting when wondering whether this is even a technology question at all. Maybe some people automatically seek others to explain whatever system they are interacting with, regardless of the task they are trying to accomplish. Then again, I don't think so. I see far, far fewer people asking for help with how to take a book off the shelves. But there could be a scale of complexity, and certain people might be more likely to look for human assistance when the task reaches a certain point on that scale.

Oh, to be a researcher and have time to explore this.  

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Beginning of the Semester Busy-ness

More snow. Looks a lot like last week.

Through a combination of weather and being generally swamped at work during the first week of the semester, I seem to have dropped the ball on blogging this week. Here's what kept me from writing sooner:

  1. Reserves textbooks. With all due respect to its importance and popularity, this project seems never-ending. I'm trying to change the strategy this semester, to working with the academic departments rather than approaching the publishers' representatives. This is having degrees of success. It should be easier for everyone if the academic departments take more responsibility for providing a desk copy to the library for reserve, but convincing them of that is another matter. Also we're trying to expand the service to two other campus libraries, which adds another logistical challenge.  
  2. Preparing for instruction. Library instruction begins in earnest next week, and a new responsibility for me is to be in charge of scheduling and working with instructors on what they hope to accomplish.
  3. I finished editing and producing the spring issue of the library's faculty newsletter, and distributed it on campus. 
  4. Because classes were in session, we staffed the reference desk, and a lot of students needed orientation to the library.  
  5. Did I mention all the snow and ice we've been having? Good thing I don't mind shoveling...
I hope to be back and at 'em properly next week. In the meantime, I recommend reading Meredith Farkas's excellent piece on ebooks and libraries

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Big Picture Hand-Wringing

 The most recent snow, from Wednesday night

Maybe it's just been a cold and bleak January, but I feel like I've been encountering a lot of negativity about the profession recently. 

For example, Vice President for Information Services and University Librarian at Columbia University James G. Neal was the keynote speaker at the VALE conference and had a lot of criticism for libraries, from how we provide service to how we manage collections. (I don't have a transcript of his speech, but his Power Point, which conveys the gist of it, can be found on the VALE web site.)

And then there was the so-called Academic Library Autopsy Report, 2050 that appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education about a week ago.

In both cases, a lot of the points are well-taken. But being a younger librarian, and having had a pretty high-tech library school experience, I've found in my career so far that the often-maligned traditional aspects of the profession are not only relevant but useful on a daily basis. I'm also finding that a nuanced understanding of where the information world has been, as we anticipate where it's going, is essential. Which is partly how this turned into a rant:

-First, we librarians have niche expertise. When it comes to the information world, we know why things are the way they are, we know why systems were built the way they were, and we can usually figure out how to get a thing in the best format and in the most convenient manner. We're the ones who comprehend the big picture. But it's not as though we've just been standing around watching -- we've been in there with our sleeves rolled up, participating in much of the change everyone is experiencing. That's why I resent arguments that imply we're out of touch. Just because we may be slow to change, or reluctant to adopt the latest unproven gizmo in favor of something that has lasted 100+ years, does not automatically mean we're oblivious. We're supposed to be beating ourselves up because we're applying critical thinking skills to the continuous change that has occurred over the past 20 or so years? Please.

-Secondly, librarians are invariably useful people on a campus, and our usefulness extends beyond knowing where some book is. We have a user-centered feel for technology, we are whizzes with information, and we understand how information is structured in various specialized fields. Is there something wrong with the word 'librarian' -- do we need to stop calling ourselves librarians to give ourselves some credit and admit we are valuable? I'm not sure we've been merely caretakers of books for a very long time, if that's what librarian means.

-Further, despite globalization and the World Wide Web, much of working life does not take place on such a grand scale. Going back to James Neal, Columbia University is a player on a national and even international stage, but a good portion of us are at small institutions with limited geographical reach and resources. Frankly, most of our energies are directed locally. And rightly so -- while it's important to know what's going on outside of our particular localities, our primary mission is to best serve constituents at hand. How can we expect our institutions to commit resources to projects that may not even benefit them? 

-OK, I know I'm relatively young and supposed to be married to technology, but printed books are not dead. I would say this if I wasn't a librarian; unfortunately, because I am a librarian, saying it makes me seem old-fashioned and curmudgeonly. But printed books are still useful objects, despite whatever statistics Amazon publicizes about how many e-books it sold this month. Why is this so hard for some people to understand? Is the allure of empty shelves so strong that they are willing to be dismissive of reality? I'm not denying a preference for electronic access rather than print, but I'm annoyed when people see print as intrinsically not useful. Circulation of physical materials is not as uncommon as some seem to think. (See the previous point about everything being local.)

-One thing we do well as librarians is that we identify and recognize what is important. And I would argue that while archiving tweets is interesting in an anthropological way, and even in a historical-research way, I can't support the idea that we are letting down future generations by not preserving them properly. The web is ephemeral. A collection of web pages is like a collection of posters or post-it notes -- interesting, but of questionable necessity for posterity. I'm sure the world is rife with examples to contrary, but I feel comfortable believing that if something is considered important there will be people -- and not just librarians, and not just big corporations and/or governments -- worried about preserving it. If this blog didn't survive a nuclear apocalypse, I would not shed a tear. If all existing copies of the United States Constitution disappeared, I might. There is a vast difference between the two. Librarians at the very least should be confident in their abilities to tell the difference -- isn't that part of what information literacy is about? Admittedly, I'm speaking here as an academic librarian who does not work in a research library, and so I have little commitment to the idea of preserving everything humanly possible. But at the very least, librarians should see that any digital preservation effort is not their exclusive responsibility and requires other committed stakeholders.  

-In-person service still has a place. I'm happy to create as many technology-based avenues for connecting with the library as possible, but I'm not happy about the idea of throwing basic, face-to-face service out the window as if it's no longer useful because everyone has a laptop.

This concludes my rant. Thanks for hanging in there if you made it to the end.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

2011 VALE Conference

 Exiting the library on a cold winter evening...

On Wednesday I was able to attend New Jersey's VALE Conference, which as usual was a very rewarding experience professionally. More and more, I believe that nothing can fully replace in-person attendance at meetings like this, because there is so much fast, free-flowing dialogue. It's true that a person can grasp the content of what was presented by reviewing the materials afterward, but a good conference involves participation as much as absorption. Also, this is difficult to quantify but I always notice a certain energy in the room when librarians with a common mission are assembled together. Burnout is understandable in any profession, and an opportunity to collectively remember who we are and what we are doing is invaluable.  

In fact, the more I know about it the more I'm impressed that the academic library community in New Jersey is able to hold this conference every year. Registration is always free, and it's my understanding that it is organized entirely by volunteers. This speaks volumes about the commitment of those involved. The conference is deliberately scheduled at a time when classes are not yet in session, so that as many librarians from as many institutions as possible are able to attend and represent themselves and their specialties. The workshops and speakers are always highly relevant, and the opportunity for information-sharing is, again, invaluable. Although I didn't present this year, last year I displayed a poster, and the conference prior my boss was part of a presenter's panel. Over the course of a year, there is no other time the community comes together like this. As the web site explains, VALE is truly a grass roots organization, in that it is not dependent on the state government or on any one institution in particular, although some institutions do take on more responsibility than others. 

I wanted to say all this because when I review my notes from successful conferences like this one, in order to try and summarize for colleagues who weren't able to make it, they are inevitably inadequate. What I learned as an individual was likely different from what others would have learned, and due to multiple simultaneous sessions I was not able to attend everything. As much as possible, participation in this one-day event should be expected for academic librarians in New Jersey.