Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Twitter after a Year

parking lot cleared of Saturday's snow

I set up a twitter account for our library (@camdencclibrary) a little more than a year ago as a bit of an experiment, and 355 tweets later -- admittedly not much in the land of twitter -- I still think it's a good idea, and that it's important to be there.

First and perhaps foremost, the speed of the service is amazing. This can be invaluable for world, local, and professional news and information. Often when people are faced with the overwhelming information landscape, whatever they can access the quickest trumps all else, including quality. (I used to think this was laziness, but now I think of it more as a coping mechanism.) This makes twitter relevant to librarians as information providers, but it is also relevant to librarians as information consumers, because if your network is good enough any information you could want is at your finger tips in ways that can be smarter than google.

If you miss information in real time, a twitter search is also a valuable tool for asynchronous communication. If you are looking for solutions to technical problems, or synopses of conferences or events, it can be really useful to go back and see if anyone else is struggling with the same questions or is on the same wavelength.

The messages on twitter are continually being aggregated, and thanks to the large community of people using the service, this often reveals meaningful patterns. Even if it doesn't seem that anyone is reading your messages, the words you are using contribute to a rich network of trends.

Having said all this, I have some caveats:

Your twitter account is only as good as the people and organizations you are following, and those who are following you. If your contacts are the types of people who share the minutiae of every waking moment, your experience with twitter may be completely vapid.

And as is true for many endeavors, a twitter account requires maintenance. I have noticed that when I am extremely busy I allow other things to take precedence over it, and only when things slow down enough again do I go back to it. I don't think this is entirely bad, as it functions like any other online community in this way; never too far away, and always waiting for you.

Consistent with lots of things on the web, twitter is constantly changing. It can sometimes be hard to see through the hype, and who knows what clever uses people will come up with for it next, but as a tool for informal, flexible, and fast communication, it's pretty darn neat.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Why Outreach to Adjunct Instructors Is Important

sunset reflecting in the Madison building

A while ago I worked as an adjunct librarian, and I remember asking someone at the college what the word 'adjunct' meant. I know I sounded foolish -- I understood the basic definition (temporary and part time), but I was unclear about what the term meant to the wider academic community. I should have looked in the Oxford English Dictionary, whose definition refers to being joined, added, connected, annexed, subordinate, auxiliary, or dependent. In the field of logic, an adjunct is "Anything added to the essence of a thing; an accompanying quality or circumstance; a non-essential attribute."

Being a professor has achieved such status that many highly qualified instructors seem content with prolonged adjunct positions, despite the low pay and lack of benefits.* This may be why community college administrations in New Jersey employed 75 percent of their teachers as adjuncts in 2007.** This compares with 56 percent in higher education statewide. It is also a national trend, although again the word 'adjunct' is not used: The number of full time instructional faculty dropped from 78 percent to 52 percent from 1970 to 2007, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Like it or not, this contract model of employment seems to be here to stay, and there are plenty of reasons why libraries and librarians should be making an active effort to include adjunct instructor in any outreach efforts:

#1) I already mentioned there are more adjuncts than full-time instructors teaching in community colleges, but in addition adjuncts are often teaching the introductory courses where orientation to an academic library might be particularly valuable for students.

#2) Due to their liminal status, adjuncts need more guidance and orientation than other employees. Information about services and resources they can expect to find through the institution's library should be relevant wherever they ultimately end up.

#3) Many adjuncts return to the same institution year after year. Although it is not entirely dependable, what does the library have to lose by forming a relationship? Specialized work can often be recycled, and it improves the library's reputation as a welcoming, helpful place.

Fourth and finally, it is the right thing to do. Ideally, working in higher education means participating in an intellectual community with the shared goal of teaching and learning. Many instructors are so committed to teaching that they are willing to endure the various indignities that correspond with adjunct status. At the very least, their efforts warrant cooperation from full time staff, faculty, and librarians.

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*Or sometimes not -- see the recent stories in the Chronicle of Higher Education "Surge in Adjunct Activism Is Spurred by Bad Economy and Hungry Unions" and "'Chronicle' Survey Yields a Rare Look Into Adjuncts' Work Lives".
** I'm looking at New Jersey's Commission for Higher Education for these and other numbers, and I'm assuming that 'part-time' and 'adjunct' are interchangeable -- the number of full professors who only work part-time is probably negligible.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Testing Mobile Services on Faculty

Storm blowing through this week

Once again, we are reviewing the mobile landscape and wondering if it is time to dive in. Will our users take advantage of mobile library services if we provide them?

Recently I had three interactions with faculty members where email communication from them was sent from their mobile devices. It seems likely that professors at our college spend more time traveling to and teaching classes than in front of a computer, and so they might be the first to adopt mobile library services. In fact, faculty may demand more sophisticated applications from their phones than students, and they may be more inclined to think of them as productivity tools as much as social tools. They also may have more money to spend on a phone and a plan.

EBSCO recently announced they are providing a mobile platform, and so I'm trying to set that up and will then encourage faculty to test it out. We can gauge the usefulness and think about how to promote the service to students after that. (And then maybe we can also convince someone we need iii's airpac?)

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Reference Desk As Lifeline to the College

pine needles on sandy soil

In the past I have expressed ambivalence about working at the reference desk. Despite my best efforts to be helpful and kind, I still become frustrated and occasionally bored, and I catch myself hoping for work that is more challenging than answering directional and computer skills questions.

Having said that, there are a number of benefits to the desk that make me think we should not toss it out the window yet, at least at my current institution.

First of all, face time with students allows us a perspective on what is going on that we would not necessarily get otherwise. We can learn sometimes subtle things from observing. For example, this semester I helped a number of students who did not seem to understand the concept of library reserves but were assigned to use them. I interpreted this to mean that their instructors did not understand library reserves sufficiently either, and a logical response was to create and send a hand-out to certain faculty. The reaction was uniformly grateful.

Also, if faculty opt not to work with us, sometimes we only find out about a library-related assignment when a student appears at the reference desk. When a student has a positive experience with a helpful reference librarian, that information makes its way back to the professor and generates organic publicity for the library. It may even motivate the faculty to work more closely with us in the future.

Again, being stationed at the reference desk permits us get a direct look at what students are struggling with, what they do not understand, what information is missing from assignments, etc. Even if a population of students in the library is not representative of an entire class, the information is often useful.

All this translates into opportunities for us to get involved and broadcast the library's relevance. I cannot count the number of times a transaction at the desk has prompted greater involvement in the college or with faculty. I am not confident the same would have occurred if everything was automated, or if I sat in my office all day.

It can be a stretch for an organization to staff a service desk with professionals, and there are many indicators encouraging librarians to move away from this model. Local circumstances vary, obviously, and we should certainly be figuring out how to assist students who no longer come to the library. But as long as the college library has a building and supports academic work, it will be wise in the long-term to hang on to this tradition.