Thursday, December 30, 2010

What Do Our Patrons Need Us to Be?

the winter landscape right now

I think there are changes afoot at the library where I work. I'm pretty low on the organizational totem pole, but I sense it in the air.

I have been thinking about what we should do if we are given a directive to become a fully modern academic library, and recently I realized I've had my head in the clouds. I've been thinking about possible changes from the perspective of a librarian instead of as a library patron. This is a kind of professional blindness. Any big changes should be informed by our patrons.

So I've been thinking about what patrons have told me they need since I started working as a librarian, either by approaching me directly or by their actions. Here is my list so far, in no order:
  • Tutoring. We've got this one covered -- a full half of the library's 3rd floor is devoted to the Tutoring Department.
  • Computers. We've got this one too, for the most part. While some of our hardware could use updating, the other half of the library's 3rd floor hosts a computer lab, and more work stations are scattered through the building. There is also free wireless for those who bring laptops or smart devices. I have a long list of technologies that students request besides computers (fax machine, color printing, blue-tooth enabled printer, etc.), but they tend to vary semester by semester.
  • Textbooks and required readings. I got to check this one off the list this past semester, and even though the textbook collection promises to be a major headache to maintain it's been very worthwhile.
  • Quiet spaces. Neutral, productive places to read or study. In case this supports the library-downgraded-to-study-hall model, there are plenty of places on campus to study that are not the library. Studying at the library implies a seriousness of intention, and for all the talk of supporting group work, many students are still trying to find elusive quiet.
  • In the past, a core part of a library involved books, so for those who come looking for them I don't think it's time to throw them out the window yet. Is a library truly a library without printed books?
  • Support for off-campus access. Quite often, after coming to the library and learning about books and journals, patrons want to know what they can get to from home and how.    
  • Real, in-person help. Even with silly things. Whether we like it or not, library staff are ambassadors for the college, and it's in our public service mission to assist with all manner of unusual situations. 
  • A collection of relevant resources. We should try to have whatever academic material our patrons are looking for, and be pro-active when we don't have it. Students should be able to expect that if an instructor makes a reference, recommends material, or shows something in class, the library has it. This may be the most difficult item on this list to achieve, because of the cost.
  • Access to other collections. The more sophisticated patrons expect us to be plugged into the larger library world, which we currently are with our county-wide agreement and our interlibrary loan service. If we don't have an item they need, we should know how to find and get it.
If anyone has more ideas, please feel free to contribute!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Blogging: What Works

poinsettias, alla cell phone

Although it may not always be reflected in my entries, it takes a lot of time and energy to post here regularly. That it's so easy to produce and distribute content on a blog is great, but to create anything meaningful is still a lot of work. Which begs the question, why do it? What types of things are most effectively communicated in blog format? In reading other blogs, I've picked up a general sense of what works for this medium. To illustrate, here are three examples:

-The Bloggess: Profane and funny, the author writes with engaging wit about her everyday life. Most recently she has leveraged her popularity toward a great charitable cause.

-Design*Sponge: Frequently updated, this design site covers projects, highlights artists and designers, and is a wonderful representation of ideas about visual arts of many types.

-In the Library with the Lead Pipe: I have a lot of respect for the darling of the library world, even though I often end up only scanning the articles. The content is regularly intelligent and well-reasoned.

So ideally I should try to combine elements of these three -- entertainment, visual appeal, and careful consideration of the profession. I've got some work to do [I cringe looking at my photograph for the week], but it's good to have inspiration.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Three Things I'm Grateful for This Year

Freeze, thaw, repeat. (Illustrated by the pavement)

Not to get too sentimental, but now seems like a good time of year to mention my appreciation of certain job-related things. Here's what presently stands out, in no particular order:

(1) Work that seems useful and important. At times, I admit, I fantasize about pursuing a more lucrative profession, but I think my conscience would bother me if I wasn't doing something I felt was directly beneficial to the world at large, and I regularly feel this way at the community college. I say this in spite of some of the insurmountable obstacles that poverty and mis-education create. And yes, I'm aware of the 'greed is good' argument and how self-interest is the engine of capitalism etc. etc. etc. I'm saying it would be hard for me personally to get up every morning just to count my pile of gold.

(2) Community college students. This experience on Monday sums up what I mean: I was helping a student find out whether the library had a copy of her textbook on reserve, and we did not. I explained how we had been getting the textbooks through donations, and she offered to give her copy to the library after the semester was over. I reminded her that she could get some money back for reselling her book, but she said the amount was minimal. That it even occurred to her to do this made my day.

(3) Departmental and professional autonomy. Being trusted to make decisions is important. For example, I sincerely appreciate that our library instruction program -- and using the word 'program' elevates what is basically a grab-bag of inadequate one-shot sessions -- does not spend class time on assessment. How about this for assessment: When the session fails, we never hear from the instructor again. When it succeeds, the instructor returns and tells friends. Thank goodness we don't have to spend 30 minutes out of a mere 50 administering a pre-test and a post-test! I'm not saying all library instruction assessment is bad -- in many cases I'm certain it makes instruction programs stronger -- but in our specific case it would be more trouble than it would be worth. For all of the top-down administrative mandates out there, I'm glad that on some level our librarians and staff can rely upon their own judgments without excessive micromanagement.   

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Library Outreach to Students

Old wooden fencepost, in the woods

Recently, the library held a well-attended student advisory meeting. Led by a designated librarian, we all recruited students, sat them down in a conference room with an internet projector, and asked them questions about the college library. A point that came up repeatedly was that students did not know about many of the great services the library provides. Since then, I have been wondering how we could fix this.

Here are some of the obstacles:
  • There is currently no mandatory orientation to the college for incoming students. 
  • There is a constant influx of new students, and many enroll for only one semester.
  • The campus is not residential students must commute to classes.
  • The library does not have a spare staff member to devote full attention to outreach to students.
At present, when the library debuts a service or resource we try to publicize it as much as possible, but sustaining that level of energy to constant new batches of students is not feasible. Also, for many students each semester the entire library is new, and the point of a new library service is lost except on those returning. 

Here are some of ideas for what we could be doing:
  • Work more closely with the Student Activities office. For many of the same reasons mentioned above, however, there is usually a shortage of students participating in activities.
  • Try to use low-tech methods of communication as well as high-tech. The college has such a variety of students that in some cases it may be easier to reach students using bulletin boards and word of mouth than through anything involving a computer.
  • Create a packet of information explaining the library's student services. A librarian could be in charge of updating this once per year and distributing it to students. As a starting place we could send it to their college email, but it could also be available at service desks throughout the campus. In addition we could make it readily available to instructors so they could distribute it when needed. 
  • Perform further outreach to instructors? I wonder if in many cases the instructors are the only human interface students have at the college. There are a variety of factors that regularly make comprehensive outreach to instructors difficult, not least of which are the communication habits of the instructors and their feelings toward the college administration, which the library is part of according to the organizational chart. 
Although I'm not certain what has already been tried in the past, I think these ideas are worth pursuing if we're going to take student criticism seriously.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Unintended Consequences of Moving to E-Books

 Taft Hall, with a poster depicting the new science building (site to the right)

Recently I've noticed certain side effects of e-books, and I think these side effects are tied up with format. (The question of book format is currently viewed as either unimportant or all-important depending on whom you're listening to. I don't fall on either side but am going to discuss it anyway.) When I say book format, I mean the difference between a tangible physical object and a digital one. I can't think of another word besides format for this, where a thing having a presence and taking up real space might also exist entirely digitally. But here are some effects:

(1) Use / Access
At the college, we share a library system with the county, and we share our collections. It's very easy to search all collections simultaneously. This benefits the college students who can borrow books from the public library, and the public library patrons who can borrow academic titles from the college. While the college adds more e-books to its collection every day, however, our license agreement does not allow public library patrons to access our academic e-books.  Suddenly the public is denied access to titles they could recently route to their local branch with a click of a button. More broadly, something similar happens with interlibrary loan services. Interlibrary loan, for the uninitiated, is a commonly available service that allows a patron to request a book from another library located almost anywhere in the world, with some restrictions. Interlibrary loan becomes impossible if access agreements permit use of e-books by local patrons only.

(2) Re-use
Our library staff keeps a little internal lending library, mostly of paperbacks. The source for this collection is now drying up because the primary donor got a kindle. Along the same used-book lines, if textbooks go digital I suppose used textbooks will no longer be available. Students might be forced to pay top dollar for a single available digital edition, and there would be no competition in price. 

(3) Ownership
My own use of printed library books reflects less of an economic necessity than a desire to read something. I don't want to have to own it, and the library makes this very convenient. A library book allows me to fully test the thing before deciding whether or not I want to keep it forever. I have no plans to run out and buy an e-reader, but as we approach the holiday season, I wonder what would happen if I received one as a gift. It certainly is a convenient gadget, but to get books I would suddenly have to own them. I am a discriminating reader; I really don't want to own every book I read.