Speculative Cataloging

January 7, 2014 - 12:44 pm

It all started as a side joke by my boss during a meeting, and then turned into this tweet:

Which, in turn, sparked my natural librarian’s curiosity. There is no Journal of Speculative Cataloging, of course, but a journal of speculative … something? An intriguing name. A simple search of my library’s journal finder turned up the very real Journal of Speculative Philosophy, a venerable periodical first published in 1867.

Thanks to the open access to early journal content provided by JSTOR, I made a quick search of the early issues to see if questions about libraries were posed, and lo and behold, not only was there a library science focused article (probably from before the term “library science” was bandied about), it was very much a piece of speculative cataloging. Published in 1870, and nestled between articles titled “Göthe’s Social Romances,” “The Settlement for All Philosophical Disputes,” (that one sounds ambitious), and “The Immortality of the Soul,” (equally so), it is a humble submission titled “Book Classification,” uncredited to an author (the only identifying clues are that he refers to himself in the masculine, and mentions that his system of cataloging is being implemented at the Public School Library of St. Louis, a subscription library that was the forerunner to St. Louis’s public library).

It should be noted that this 1870 article predates both the Library of Congress (1897) and Dewey Decimal (1876) systems of cataloging and classification. As the public library movement swept the nation, developing systems of organization were likely the most vexing and complex issues facing this early generation of public librarians — as big a controversy as anything facing us today.

And what does our anonymous author propose? Why, naturally, something clear and easy to understand. Under the heading “The Scheme,” he explains:

It uses Bacon’s fundamental distinction (developed in De Augmentis Scientiarum, Book II. chap. I.) of the different faculties of the soul into Memory, Imagination, and Reason, from which proceed the three grand departments of human learning, to wit: History, Poetry, and Philosophy. Without particularly intending to classify books as such, Lord Bacon attempted rather to map out “human learning,” as he called it, and show its unity and the principle of development in the same. But his deep glance seized the formative idea which distinguishes different species of books (Book Classification, p. 115).

Most librarians have faced awkward small talk with folks from outside the profession: the half-hearted Dewey joke, the semi-earnest request for us to explain why libraries aren’t rendered obsolete by internet search, and so on. Imagine if this classification scheme had won out over Dewey’s…could you handle having to explain Francis Bacon, faculties of the soul, and the three grand departments of human learning to someone at a party? “Dewey Decimal” might have a funny ring to it, but I think we have it lucky.

From there our author argues against himself, detailing why Bacon’s work is an impractical system of classification (not surprisingly, since Sir Francis Bacon wasn’t writing about libraries at all). He reorders Bacon’s grand departments into a trio of classes: Science, Art (or Aesthetics), and History — although the 1870 definition of science is quite different from ours: “philosophy is the highest type of Science, and hence begins the catalogue” (p. 120); surely this pleased the publishers of the Journal of Speculative Philosophy.

Since he wants each class to segue into the next (he uses the term “unfolds”), the author places the “useful arts” at the end of the Sciences, so it transitions the browser from Science into Art, Fine Arts, and ultimately Poetry. Geography begins the History classification, which is ultimately not too far of from modern the Library of Congress system: Class C includes Geography, and therefore those works precede World History, Class D.

Just how influential this system was, and how long it persisted in St. Louis, I do not know. But while we modern librarians come to grips with change and grapple with technology, it’s worth remembering that change is nothing new to our profession. In the 1870s, they didn’t even have an agreed upon method for putting the books on the shelves (nor an expectation that every community even have a public library). We have answered hugely fundamental questions and challenges throughout our professional history: the one and only constant in our line of work is the constant change.

This anonymous article from the past is a reminder of those questions we’ve had to speculate upon…and the cataloging and classification system we might have ended up with, in an alternate universe.


Librarian Nicolette Warisse Sosulski has identified the author as St. Louis-based educator, philosopher, and all-around rockstar William Torrey Harris, founder of the Journal of Speculative Philosophy (which would explain why he didn’t credit himself as the author; as publisher, it must have been assumed.)

With his name, researching the influence of Harris’s system became a little easier: according to a 1945 article in the journal Library Quarterly, Dewey was directly influenced by Harris. Dewey once wrote that when developing his own classification system, “the inverted Baconian arrangement of the St. Louis Library has been followed.” Dewey even sent a letter to Harris asking for more details, referencing the article he had read in the Journal of Speculative Philosophy.

Nicolette passed along further links of interest: the Classified Catalog of the St. Louis Mercantile Library (Harris’s Inverted Baconian Classification in action) and a reposting of a 1959 article from Libri by Eugene Graziano that makes all the direct comparisons between Harris and Dewey, showing how the former clearly influenced the latter (and explains some of Dewey’s oddities).

The “Inverted Baconian Model” was not a failed experiment: it was the direct ancestor of our contemporary classification and cataloging.

An Atlas for Higher Ed: Curriculum Mapping and Library Instruction

November 27, 2013 - 3:03 pm

When I was a kid, I was obsessed with maps. I had maps on the walls of my bedroom and I would browse an atlas for fun (nerd alert!). When I started reading, I liked the books with maps in the front (still do). By middle school, I had descended into roleplaying games and would spend hours (poorly) drawing maps of my own fictitious world, a habit that lasted longer than I care to admit.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise when professional peers started talking about curriculum mapping, I got interested. My first exposure to the concept came during the CARL Conference 2012 during a keynote presented by Char Booth and Brian Mathews. Char was presenting the curriculum mapping work she was doing at Claremont Colleges through an IMLS grant.

Meanwhile, my colleague Nicole Branch was investigating curriculum mapping as well. She attended a curriculum mapping workshop at ACRL 2013, and brought back a number of templates and materials we could incorporate into our work.

The Scaffold

Scaffolding on the side of the Boston Public Library, used via Creative Commons license, courtesy Boston Public Library.

Nicole and I co-coordinate library instruction at our place of work. We are a small, private liberal arts university. We do not have a semester-long library skills course as some institutions do; information literacy instruction is a part of university learning outcomes and is intended to be integrated with regular course curriculum. Librarian-led instruction takes place in one-shot workshops, either initiated by the faculty or in conjunction with partnered academic programs.

As our program expanded and we received more faculty requests, Nicole and I ran into a problem that will be familiar to other instructional librarians: students who think (rightly or not) that they’ve “already had this workshop before.” As a small school, we do often see the same students in many of our different workshops. We needed to ensure we were delivering different presentations each time, not only to maintain student interest, but to actually address all five ACRL standards for information literacy instruction over the course of a student’s matriculation (which is plainly impossible in any single workshop).

Before we were “mapping,” we were already starting this coordination: sharing lesson plans with each other, identifying skills we wanted to address in one course vs. another, and working with academic departments to ensure that our instruction would be regular parts of course curriculum (our primary partners were our school’s freshmen composition classes and an interdisciplinary general education program attended by all undergraduates.) This “scaffolded” program of information literacy was the foundation of our curriculum map: the landmarks, as it were, to which we’d apply a roadmap.

Charting Our Program

The next phase in the development of our curriculum map was a response to an opportunity: our campus administration was starting to think about curriculum mapping as it relates to graduate and undergraduate programs, and our University Librarian suggested Nicole and I could present on the subject to our annual Dean’s Conference, an end-of-academic-year faculty meeting. Most faculty had only seen the portions of our information literacy instruction that related to their courses; this was a chance to unveil the comprehensiveness of our program and use it as an example when explaining how curriculum mapping worked.

One of the features of curriculum mapping is that it can be adapted to any level of instruction, whether it’s an individual workshop, a semester-long course, or an academic program, and the micro components can roll into the macro. You can start the process from scratch, or you can adapt existing learning outcomes and assessment models into the curriculum mapping format. It’s flexible.

Nicole Branch put together the backbone of our presentation. She adapted the materials distributed at the ACRL workshop, and also incorporated the approach developed at University of Hawaii, Manoa’s office of assessment. Our scaffolded series of workshops became this chart, showing which ACRL standards and university learning outcomes each of our workshops addressed. We didn’t input every detail of our workshop into this form; those existed in our detailed lesson plans, and didn’t need replication.

As the cherry on top, I adapted that chart into a mind map, which makes for a splashy visual presentation that faculty really responded to — the map in “curriculum mapping.”

For us, the completed curriculum map was transformative: we could see the big picture of how our program worked and the pedagogy we employed; it forced us to ask tough questions about our own assessment techniques; it allowed us to communicate our goals better with faculty; and we could identify which information literacy standards were inadequately addressed. It encouraged us to be reflective and we revised a number of our workshops as a result, a process that is still continuing as we strive to improve our program.

An Atlas for Higher Ed

The next chapter is unfolding right now. As a follow-up to the Dean’s Conference presentation, the administration has asked the library to work with various academic programs on their own curriculum mapping efforts. Nicole and I have developed a new presentation we’ve been delivering to different departments to assist them in their process. I am curious how each department will approach this differently, and what we will learn from them as a result. Together, we can produce a series of maps that intersect across university learning outcomes, academic majors, and general education requirements: an atlas for our model of higher education.

What to do with “databases and research options:” Making library instruction meaningful

November 12, 2013 - 11:35 am

I recently posted an anecdote on tumblr about the impact library instruction can have on a student. The post was well-received, but there was one commenter who made this very relevant point, that I wanted to address in full:

I get requests from teachers pretty frequently to talk about “databases and research options” without their students having anything specific and looming in mind to research. Maybe, *maybe*, those are students that will remember, weeks months years down the line, that the library offers something they need. That’s what I question the worth of.

That is the essential challenge of “one-shot” information literacy instruction. What is the best approach to this scenario? Remember that when you get a vague request like “databases and research options,” you have a lot of leeway: there’s a lot to information literacy outside database demonstrations, and “research options” gives you some freedom. It’s your responsibility as an instructional librarian to turn this vague premise into something meaningful for the students. Going through the motions of demonstrating a couple different scholarly article databases isn’t going to be enough (or even the right track at all).

The Information Need

I interned in the reference and instruction department at the University of San Francisco five years ago. Gleeson Library’s coordinator of instruction, the wonderful Joe Garity, made the point to me that a research workshop that’s not grounded in an information need — an assignment the students are working on — will rarely have a meaningful impact.

One of the workshops he brought me in to co-teach with him was a freshman year composition & rhetoric course. This was an archetypal example of a class where we were asked to present “databases and research options,” despite the fact that the students were not going to be writing research papers.

The year was 2008, a presidential election year (Obama vs. McCain) as well as the year California’s Prop 8 was on the ballot. Joe talked to the instructor and discovered that the students’ next assignment was to make persuasive, debate-style speeches on electoral ballot issues. We focused on that. No student — especially a freshman — was going to trawl Academic Search Premier for research studies in order to make a political argument (even our actual politicians don’t do that level of research!).

So what were the students likely to actually do instead? Turn to the internet. Searching the internet for political information is risky: is there a topic more rife with heavily biased, unsourced websites and faux-journalism than American politics? We started where the students were likely to start: Wikipedia and its strengths, weaknesses, and edit wars. Then we moved on to navigating California’s state electoral webpage, and then searching for reliable fact-checking political websites. Sometimes information literacy instruction isn’t about driving traffic to the library’s licensed content; if those resources aren’t the right tool to solve a student’s real-life information need, then the workshop won’t be productive.

Of course, sometimes the library’s licensed content is the right tool, and those resources are rightfully the focus. But the lesson plan should always be centered around solving a student need (represented in the form of an assessable learning outcome) that relates to a student’s academic assignments. Figuring out which classes call for which approach starts with working with your faculty. Hopefully, you have a constructive relationship with the teacher or professor. Start a dialogue with the instructor about their student’s information need. If the instructor isn’t forthcoming (remember, they are busy, just like you), you can ask for a syllabus, or look at the course description to get a better sense.

Curriculum Mapping

Ultimately, no one 50-minute workshop can hope to cover all five ACRL standards for information literacy. If you are trying to build an information literacy program, you will want to look at your school’s curriculum and the way students progress (which it should be noted can vary dramatically by major or program). If you can map that curriculum to your information literacy learning outcomes, so that each librarian interaction with a student (whether that’s in a workshop, embedded in a class, or in a librarian-led credit course) builds on previous interactions and on student coursework, you can ensure your institution is covering the full spectrum of information literacy skills. More on curriculum mapping, a project we’re working on right now at my place of work, in my next post.

LAUC-B Conference 2013: Counting on Libraries

October 25, 2013 - 8:13 pm

I spent Friday at the LAUC-B Conference 2013, which UC opened up to the wider librarian community. Titled Making it count: Opportunities and challenges for library assessment, it was tightly focused on the evaluation of library services.

The opening keynote was delivered by Steve Hiller, the Director of Assessment and Planning at the University of Washington Libraries. This served as the lit review of library assessment practices, providing a chronology of how evaluation has changed in the past century+ of academic library services, with case studies and the best practices of today mixed in. The vital takeaway is that the traditional statistics of library work (circulation stats, reference desk interactions, etc.) look backwards instead of forwards. They emphasize prescriptive, numerical measures instead of looking at outcomes, such as whether our customers — the university’s students, faculty, and administration — are achieving success.

“What is easy to measure is not necessarily desirable to measure.” – Martha Kyrillidou, 1998.

That leaves us with an obvious question: how can we measure outcomes, rather than usage? Hiller recommended the book How to Measure Anything by Douglas Hubbard. Hubbard suggests the following:

  • Our dilemmas are not unique. Others have struggled with the same issues.
  • You need less data/information than you think.
  • You have more data/information than you think.
  • There are useful measures that are much simpler thank you think.

Hiller has noticed some trends in library assessment: a greater reliance on external (campus-wide) measures aligned with university planning, the demonstration of library impact on individuals and communities, and outcomes-based assessment that make use of multiple measurement tools. Institutions are more interested in student learning outcomes and how the library contributes to overall student learning than in the traditional metrics.

“‘Not how good is this library.’ Rather, ‘How much good does it do?’” – R.H. Orr, 1973.

It is up to our customers to determine the quality of our libraries and library services. Hiller left us with four assessment questions:

  • What do we need to know about our communities and customers to make them successful?
  • Who are our partners in collaborative assessment?
  • How do we measure the effectiveness of our services, programs, and resources and how they contribute to user success?
  • What do our stakeholders need to know in order to provide the resources needed for a successful library?

The speakers that followed Hiller did their best to answer these questions.

“What do we want? Incremental change. When do we want it? In due time” – Lyn Paleo.

The next segment featured a trio of speakers on different topics: Joanne Miller of the California Digital Library spoke on what information and data the University of California keeps, Lyn Paleo shared what librarians need to know about the assessment/evaluation process, and OCLC’s Merrilee Proffitt discussed assessing special collections.

Lyn Paleo’s presentation was particularly fascinating. Paleo is not a librarian: she is a program evaluator and member of UC Berkeley’s faculty. She outlined some of the steps involved in assessment:

  • Problem or need;
  • Intervention (program, policy, service, institution, etc.);
  • Outcomes (from the perspective of the beneficiary);
  • Impact.

So how does this relate to libraries? Paleo explained that the academic library is a social human-service intervention to solve a problem. The problem libraries are meant to solve?

  • The student’s need for information.
  • The faculty’s need for research materials.
  • The college’s retention and graduation rates.

Paleo laid out how the library attempts to solve the problem. It provides access to information sources for academic work, in the form of books, journals, and online resources (in all their various permutations). It provides reference and instruction services, which teach students how to access and use those information resources. The library provides the space students need to complete both academic work and have downtime relaxation, with (hopefully), proper lighting, amenities, organization, comfortable seating, individual study areas, group study areas, and both noisy and quiet spaces.

All of those solutions are, in their own ways, measurable. Simple methods can be devised for tracking foot traffic in certain areas of the library, whether students are working in groups or alone, and then arranging the furniture in the appropriate ratios. Short surveys, presented in the moment, on a single iPad page, can determine what draws patrons to library events, and why they (sometimes) leave early.  Reference services can be assessed through post-interview observations of student search replication skills. These small research projects can lead to incremental improvements of service, even in lean budget times.

Lyn Paleo also had a few tips for data collection and management. Avoid convenience samples, when you only gather information from the most conveniently accessible patrons. That will skew results. A small representative sample is more effective for research than a large sample of convenience. When using Excel to track data, remember that every record requires its own row, and you’re better off putting all of the data on one spreadsheet using multiple tabs than having an endless series of files. You should also include a tab titled “About this data” explaining the contents of the spreadsheet in case it is inherited by future staff.

Above all, Paleo insisted, that when you are surveying a population, always announce what the study is, and what its intended use will be, to the people you are surveying. If they understand a survey’s importance, the answers will be more comprehensive and informative.

“Practitioner research should be messy.” – April Cunningham, Palomar College.

In the afternoon, I attended a breakout session led by Stephanie Rosenblatt of Cerritos College and April Cunningham of Palomar College. They focused on action research, an evolving form of participatory, solution-oriented research that is practitioner-led. In action research, the subject material is informed by real-world concerns (such as the librarian’s professional observations), rather than being dictated by literature review. It moves in a cycle of planning, action, reflection, and sharing, and involves a group of critical participants who help analyze data, discuss related material, and provide feedback to the lead researcher. Many of the details of their presentation are available online, and are worth exploring.

I actually had the opportunity to be a part of a Participatory Action Research group on the campus where I work. The lead researcher brought together participants from across many campus departments, including both staff and faculty, and we discussed whiteness and white privilege in higher education, and the ways in which it can be deconstructed. Taking part was one of the most informative experiences I’ve had as a professional, and I derived many lessons I can apply to my work to make education more inclusive and meaningful.

Rosenblatt and Cunningham encouraged the audience to think of something — anything — that bothers them in their professional experience, any aspect of library work. It got me thinking about the challenge of getting first-year undergraduates to focus and participate in class. I don’t know any instructional librarians who haven’t dealt at some point with uninterested, disconnected students.

Why not work with the students themselves, away from the classroom, in an action research group? Why not ask them what would make a library workshop compelling to them — in a safe environment that would encourage them to talk? If we could pull together a representative sample of undergraduate students, action research could generate some solutions to a problem that is a thorn in the side of instructional librarians everywhere. And by asking them in a non-judgmental forum, we might actually get some  good answers.

Rosenblatt and Cunningham also demonstrated some usable data analysis tools, from the simple and free, like Google Forms, to more specialized products like Tableau Public and LIWC. Their website has more comprehensive information on each.


The closing keynote was Stanford’s David Fetterman, discussing the work he does in empowerment evaluation. He also tipped the audience off on freemium infographics services like and to create powerful assessment reports. Something to explore further!

The Resignation of the Editorial Board of the JLA

March 23, 2013 - 8:59 pm

There’s a breaking story in the world of scholarly journals and library science that’s worth tuning into. It kicked off with a post by Brian Mathews on his Chronicle of Higher Education blog The Ubiquitous Librarian, in which he revealed that the entire editorial board of the prestigious Journal of Library Administration (or JLA) had resigned due to the publisher’s onerous author requirements regarding copyright and access.

Mathews is the Associate Dean for the Virginia Tech Libraries, and had been asked to serve as guest editor for a special, speculative issue of the journal on the academic library in fifteen years. This is how he described it:

  • “This special issue explores the possibilities of what libraries might become or cease to be. Experts from different sectors of academia, publishing, technology, and design will share their thoughts, dreams, fears, and hopes about the future. The intention is to produce insights that ignite the imagination — to leapfrog the adjacencies of the coming years and land on a strategic plateau of the near future. This is an opportunity to speculate on the arriving advances as well as to warn of potential loss due to these changes.”

Invited authors included not only academic librarians such as Kelly Miller (UCLA), Michael Levine-Clark (University of Denver), and Steven Bell (Temple), but also Google engineer and search educator Dan Russell, Lennie Scott-Webber, an educational environment expert at Steelcase Furniture, and two authors affiliated with electronic resource vendors. It’s a compelling mix, but with the resignation of the JLA’s board, it’s not going to happen — at least in that venue.

Mathews had also invited Jason Griffey to contribute, but in a move that anticipated the decision made by the editorial board, he declined participation due to the publisher’s restrictions. After Mathews broke the news, Griffey posted on the subject himself:

  • “On Feb 14, I got an intriguing email from Brian Matthews [sic] about a special edition of the Journal of Library Administration he was editing. It was a request for a chapter for an edition of the journal called Imagining the Future of Libraries, and the Brian’s pitch to me was enough to make me very interested: [Brian]: ‘I’d love for you to contribute an essay around the topic of technology. Beyond most digital collections. Beyond everyone and everything mobile— what unfolds then?’ I mean, if I have a specialty, this is it. I love nothing more than I love a good dose of futurism, and told him so. My one concern was the Journal’s publisher, Taylor & Francis, and the fact that I refuse to sign over my copyright on work I create. I’m happy to license it in any number of ways that gives the publisher the rights they need to distribute the work, but I won’t write something for someone else to own.”

The final post covering the story (so far; there will be more, I’m sure) is from Chris Bourg, who had recently joined the editorial board of the Journal of Academic Librarianship and resigned along with her colleagues. She describes the lengths editor Damon Jaggars had gone to convince the publisher to change its practices:

  • “In the meantime, Damon continued to try to convince Taylor & Francis (on behalf of the entire Editorial Board, and with our full support), that their licensing terms were too confusing and too restrictive. A big part of the argument is that the Taylor & Francis author agreement is a real turn-off for authors and was handicapping the Editorial Board’s ability to attract quality content to the journal. The best Taylor & Francis could come up with was a less restrictive license that would cost authors nearly $3000 per article. The Board agreed that this alternative was simply not tenable, so we collectively resigned.”

Look for more to emerge on this subject, as librarians start to assert their demand for change in the world of scholarly publishing. And hopefully, somewhere, Brian Mathews’ special issue will find a home — since it sounded fantastic.


This post has also been mirrored on my tumblr.

    Investigating Journals: An Information Literacy Workshop for Science Students

    February 25, 2013 - 5:56 pm

    Earlier this month I orchestrated an information literacy workshop for our senior capstone Biology colloquium. The students in this course are conducting field research on a local urban freshwater stream, and their professor hopes that the students will submit the data they are collecting to a scholarly journal. She mentioned that ambition when we discussed having a library workshop for her students, and it planted an idea that sprouted into a unique (to me) lesson plan that I felt was very successful.

    Since these students were seniors, they had already experienced at least some level of database interface instruction. I decided to skip that entirely. Instead, I wanted them to focus on journals, and the process a researcher might embark on individually if they were looking to publish in one.

    Investigating Journals

    After I launched the presentation with a short introduction, I broke the eleven students into three groups, and had each group research one (pre-selected) journal in freshwater biology (which, sadly, did not lead to a wave of hashtag enthusiasm. I was looking forward to #teamamericanmidlandnaturalist, #teamjournaloffreshwaterecology, and #teamfreshwaterbiology tweets). My institution subscribes to two of the three journals, and each of the journals is hosted on a different platform, published by a different organization, and they collectively span different levels of prestige — a perfect mix to show off the spectrum of published content.

    The teams had worksheets that directed them to look up certain things on their assigned journal’s author submission page (they looked for citation format, directions regarding headings, whether the author should supply keywords, whether there was a standardized dictionary, etc.) Directing the students to the journal’s webpage led to some interesting questions that have never come up in other workshops I’ve led. One student asked what an “impact factor” was, which sparked an interesting discussion of citations, notability, and other related metrics (and quickly got one group bragging about how their assigned journal had the highest of the three); the need for authors to submit keywords led to a discussion about database-driven article retrieval. Both of these are hard points to make as an instructor talking about database interfaces, but once these students saw the author submission pages, it really seemed to click for them — they could see the raw materials from which article databases are built.

    Investigating Articles

    After a short discussion period, where the groups announced their findings to the other students, we went into the next segment. The teams had to determine if our institution subscribes to their assigned journal, and download one article of their choice (I knew the one journal we didn’t subscribe to made a sample issue available on their website). This exercise got our students to use the journal finder feature on our website, another tool that students don’t always understand (undergrads frequently confuse article titles for journal titles, and using the former doesn’t work in a journal finder).

    Once each team had an article in hand, I had them outline their article’s section headings (to see to what degree they matched the posted author instructions, and hopefully give them some guidance for their proposed journal submission) and count the list of references (to give them a sense of the depth of research on published articles, and again, a better sense of the expectations for them). They also looked up their articles in Google Scholar to investigate the “cited by” feature — which circled back to our earlier conversation about impact factor and the notability of articles. The team whose journal had the lowest Impact Factor turned out to have the most cited article, which gave them a chance to brag in return (the camaraderie between the students was a lot of fun).

    We finished off the workshop by using Google Scholar to import their articles into a RefWorks account (our library is an institutional subscriber) and a brief overview of RefWorks use.

    Crossing the Threshold

    What struck me about the workshop — and part of why I felt it was so successful — was the curiosity it generated in the students. Students asked unprompted questions about not only Impact Factors, but open access journals, pay-to-publish journals, journal subscription fees, author reimbursement (or lack thereof), and tenure in academia. These are subjects that have almost never come up in my experience as an instructional librarian (with undergrads); the fact that these were student questions driven by their own investigative experience felt like a breakthrough, as if we crossed a threshold point in their understanding of scholarly resources. I feel like the minutiae of database search will now come more naturally to them despite the lack of any direct discussion of the subject — a win-win if there ever was one.

    Now, if this colloquium does indeed get published, I hope I get included in their acknowledgements — another subject that came up through student questions!

    Public Service Announcement

    January 29, 2013 - 10:40 pm

    Since last summer I’ve been using tumblr exclusively for my blogging. Generally speaking, it is easier to post to, and I have a wider readership on that platform than I did here. However, because tumblr is a mix of long and short posts, original content and “reblogs,” my longer posts can disappear quickly off of my front page.

    Therefore, I am going to re-post some of my longer content onto this site over the next few days, and going forward, I will mirror my more substantive blog posts on both platforms.

    Trip Report: CARL Conference 2012

    June 8, 2012 - 3:08 pm

    In April of 2012 I attended the biennial conference of California Academic and Research Libraries, the state affiliate of ACRL. The conference theme was “Creativity & Sustainability: Fostering User-Centered Innovation in Difficult Times.” The focus of the keynote presentations was the promotion of innovative leadership (or, in the cases of some institutions, how to overcome a lack of innovative leadership). The conference proceedings have now been published online:

    The opening keynote presentation was from Jenica Rogers, a library director at a university in upstate New York and a blogger at Attempting Elegance. In her presentation, she quoted some disturbing figures about how few library directors felt they had an innovative plan for the future. If institutional directors don’t feel they have a plan for the future, how must their staff feel? What does that say about the future of their libraries on campus? Rogers emphasized the easiest thing a director can do to foster innovation is to say “yes.” If you’ve hired a staff of motivated, creative librarians, saying “yes” will be the ticket to innovation and change.

    Another keynote was from co-presenters Char Booth, coordinator of instruction at Claremont Colleges, and Brian Mathews, an Assistant Dean of Library Services at Virgina Tech. There presentation focused on threshold concepts in education and using curriculum mapping to refine and improve campus-wide information literacy programs. Their invited paper is available online and I highly recommend reading it.

    I highlighted the following extract on tumblr:

    How does threshold concept theory apply to academic librarians? It can be argued that incorporating knowledge of threshold concepts into our instructional strategy enables us to be more effective and empathic – anticipating the challenges our learners face and intervening with insight into their disciplinary experience. This can impact not only what and how we teach, but also when is the right time to cover particular topics and skills. In short, it enables us to survey the entire learning landscape within a discipline and optimize the libraryʼs interaction. By understanding the common stumbling blocks, knowledge gaps, and frustration points within a given subject domain, as well as with particular courses and assignments, we can better position the library to become a strong instructional partner.

    As a liaison to my university’s nursing program, I feel it is incumbent upon me — even if the depth of my nursing expertise is limited — to investigate the relevant threshold concepts are in nursing practice so that I can deepen my work with the nursing students. I feel inadvertently stumbled into a threshold when I made a recent presentation on evidence-based nursing, a highly specific, clinical practice that involves using research to provide answers to clinical questions. Presenting on that specific a subject pushed me beyond the usual approach of ‘access the database here, use these search terms and limiters’ type of workshop. I had to get knowledgeable on realms beyond my experience — things like PICO questions, meta-analysis and systematic reviews — and relay the importance of these concepts to students who are still sometimes new to scholarly research. I came away from that presentation feeling like the formal process of creating a PICO question — and using that question to derive strong keyword search terms — transformed the students’ approach to scholarly search in ways that will benefit them beyond evidence-based practice. If they can master a high-level concept like PICO, the rest of their information seeking-skills will come to them more easily.

    A few other highlights from the conference:

    Predicting Innovation in Library Environments

    Michael Germano, CSU Los Angeles.

    CSU’s Michael Germano became a librarian after a career in tech entrepreneurship, and compared and contrasted elements of successful leadership with some of the bureaucratic elements he believes hinder libraries. One of his major points was that your internal culture affects your users. It has a significant impact, especially on existing, ongoing users and customer retention and loyalty.

    He described innovative climates as possessing the following traits:

    • Accountability
    • Assessment/Evidence Based
    • Change tolerant
    • Confident
    • Competitive
    • Fearless
    • Positive/Supportive
    • Reward Oriented
    • Vision Driven

    He asked how many of these traits are embodied by libraries?

    He described the following as values that drive innovative environments:

    • Risk tolerance
    • Flexibility
    • Boundarylessness
    • Customer Focus
    • Shared purpose
    • Value/Empower people
    • Results oriented
    • Sense of urgency
    • Low tolerance of repetition

    In contrast, he used the following attributes to describe existing library culture:

    • Organized and predictable
    • Permanency
    • Shared values

    He emphasized how leadership qualities can create an innovative environment. He characterized leadership as the process of influencing others to engage in a shared task or purpose — leading is not managing.

    Library instruction: information visualization and keyword searching

    Matt Conner & Melissa Browne, University of California, Davis

    This presentation was the culmination of a CARL-funded research study on the keyword searching techniques of college students and the effect of visual literacy tools on search success.

    The basic idea is that vision and cognition are fundamentally related. Representations of data with visual designs assist comprehension and insight. A popular example is the red state/blue state map that makes political affiliation so much easier to grasp than a series of charts that conveys the same information. Their survey used information-seeking tools that emphasize visual elements to see how it affected user behavior and success. Some of the tools they used were the now-defunct Google Wonder Wheel and EBSCOhost’s Visual Search.

    Known patterns in student search strategies are either single-word searches or long strings of natural language. Students tend to only skim search results. Students will give up quickly and assume there is nothing on their topic. These strategies don’t largely work using library resources. The researchers suggested that instructional librarians are not always giving students the best guidance for their topic searches. It’s really important to turn topic ideas into search keywords in a way that affects and strengthens search outcomes.

    The question the researchers tried to answer was whether visualization would help students formulate more systematic searches.  Could it improve efficiency and increase satisfaction? Results were inconclusive, though users did have some success improving their keywords after using EBSCOhost’s Visual Search.

    The research provided one surprise outcome: student behavior isn’t exclusively about searching and terms. There was a strong tendency towards link-following. They may start with one search in Google, but ultimately follow a series of links until satisfied, which partially explains the popularity of the hyperlink-rich Wikipedia.

    Transforming Research into Practice: Using Project Information Literacy Findings to Revitalize Instruction and Outreach

    Michele Van Hoeck, CSU Maritime; Ann Roselle, Phoenix College; Catherine Palmer, UC Irvine

    Each presenter gave a specific example of using Project Information Literacy (PIL) findings at their institutions. Each of the research reports referenced below can be found on the PIL Publications Page.

    First, some of the basics of PIL; it is an ongoing research project guided by Dr. Alison Head and Dr. Michael Eisenberg at University of Washington’s iSchool. It has surveyed 11,000 college students from 52 campuses across five studies.

    Michele Van Hoeck focused on incorporating ideas from 2010 PIL survey, “Truth be told: How college students evaluate and use information in the digital age.” The survey involved 8,353 students on asked about their course-related and everyday life research. It was an online survey with 22 questions.

    The first major finding of the survey was that students reported the most difficulty with getting started (84%), finding a topic (66%), and narrowing a topic (61%) – described as “failure to launch.” PIL conducted follow-up interviews with certain students. Students said it wasn’t a lack of ideas that made it hard to start, it was a fear of their idea failing them, and an inability to vet their topic. They were desperate for context and background, hence using Wikipedia very heavily.

    Based on these PIL findings, Van Hoeck developed new learning outcomes for her LIB100 course at CSU Maritime:

    • Develop methods for exploring and vetting new topics.
    • Gain awareness of sources for context & background.

    She suggested a couple methods of addressing these learning outcomes in a one-shot instructional session.

    • Infolit icebreaker: using Poll Everywhere to ask “What’s the worst thing about a research paper?”
    • Creating a Getting Started tab on a LibGuide (or other model of institutional research guide or pathfinder.)
    • Focus first session on getting started, devoted to sources for starting research.
    • Only demonstrating electronic sources and explicitly comparing them to Wikipedia.
    • Van Hoeck used libguide stats for assessment, looking at Fall 2010 vs. Fall 2011 usage. Paired with a new lesson plan, the LibGuide saw a tripling of link usage.

    Ann Roselle of Phoenix College looked at the 3rd PIL report, “Assigning inquiry: How handouts for research assignments guide today’s college students.” The survey looked at 191 research assignment handouts from 28 different institutions across disciplines. 83% of the surveyed handouts could be described as a “standard research handout” — that is to say, unexceptional and including several common weaknesses.

    The study compared the majority of research assignment handouts to city roadmaps with no street names included (because they did not specific which databases students should use.) Only 13% of handouts mentioned consulting librarians (or faculty). Only 18% mentioned plagiarism.

    The PIL report described these assignments as paying “more attention on the mechanics of preparing a research assignment” rather than getting started, defining the topic, or evaluating the information.

    As a response to these PIL findings, Ann Roselle hosted a workshop for faculty to give them a better idea of how to create a research assignment handout. She had faculty work in small groups. They worked through sources slowly and were given handouts to analyze. The selected handouts were a balanced mix good and bad to see how faculty would analyze them.

    Time was given at the end of the workshop to provide faculty a chance to consider how their own handouts work. When asked to describe one common pitfall of research handouts, faculty identified that “librarian not included” comes up a lot. Faculty were also advised also include actual links to specific databases.

    Feedback from faculty who have worked on improving their handouts includes, “I have noticed that students have less questions about how to do the assignment, and I am generally getting more college-approved sources.”

    Catherine Palmer adapted a St. Olaf College Research Practice survey into a PIL-inspired pre- and post-test assessment model for UC Irvine. One advantage of the open-source St. Olaf assessment was the ability to include open-ended questions on research practices. UC Irvine replaced Project SAILS with this approach.

    English Composition Students: How Are They Using Their Sources?

    Sharon Radcliff & Elise Wong, Saint Mary’s College Library

    This was an interesting presentation on a research project librarians at St. Mary’s conducted on the bibliographies of their freshmen composition papers. The pilot study included 25 papers in 2008. In 2010 they expanded the study to approximately 80 papers. 20 papers were not included in the 2010 study findings because they didn’t have bibliographies at all.

    Some of their findings from the second survey were on the types of sources used:

    • 44% websites
    • 30% magazines and journals
    • 22% books

    Regarding the citations, 58% were direct quotes, 42% were paraphrased. The faculty would prefer to see a higher percentage of paraphrasing in order to synthesize ideas, which is considered a stronger form of writing than a heavy reliance on direct quotations. About half of the quotes were introduced and analyzed. 20% had an introduction but no analysis. 14% analyzed afterwards with no introduction. 13% of quotes had no introduction and no analysis.

    As a outcome of this survey, faculty & librarians revisited their instructional design to account for shortcomings with the hope that composition faculty could consult with librarians in course design and embed library tutorials in class materials.

    There were some limitations of study. It was not a random sampling — the papers volunteered by English faculty. There was no discussion on the quality of the sources, and no association between un-cited information in the papers and plagiarism.

    For the future, the librarians would like to implement multiple instructional strategies, design a study to test these strategies, in order to compare their modified practices to a control group. They would like to add specialized instruction on citations to sections of first semester in English comp. They would also like to compare results with sections not receiving instruction at all, and determine means to track the progress of students over four years of education.

    One element the St. Mary’s librarians are adding to their freshmen year instruction is having the students actually find an article and identify the parts of a citation. They make sure the students at least write out one citation in class — have them have the experience of doing it themselves.

    Dewey + His Decimals: ALA in NOLA

    July 1, 2011 - 11:15 am

    This past week I got to attend my very first American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference, a dizzying gathering of over 20,000 librarians (a far cry from the 1876 inaugural event, with its paltry 103 attendees). I got to attend various professional presentations, meet online contacts and make friends in real life, explore New Orleans by foot, trolley, and ferry, and, much to my surprise, perform in the improvisational slideshow competition Battledecks.

    I have organized sessions I attended and events I participated around a couple of the most recurring themes.


    Cushing Library is currently implementing a new tool for our end users to use for search and retrieval of our items in our collection. This system, called WorldCat Local (WCL), finds and retrieves items be they print or online, and whether they are book, article, journal or other media. WCL and similar products are referred to as “Discovery” systems within the librarian profession.

    I attended several programs relating to the implementation of Discovery systems. Two directly related to the implementation of OCLC’s WCL technology, tasks I am involved in right now, and another on the rate of return various libraries have seen since their implementation of Summon, a competing but similar product to WCL offered by ProQuest. There is strong evidence, from both libraries operating WCL and from libraries utilizing Summon, that full-text article retrievals are up, most notably from smaller, more specialized sources. At WCL libraries, print circulation tends to rise post-WCL implementation as well.

    For example, the University of Idaho, which has implemented WorldCat Local, has seen usage over print materials rise 20%, interlibrary loan requests rise 34%, and a 78% increase in full text article downloads. Summon libraries, such as the University of Houston, saw a 50% rise in full text article retrieval. They have also found that the Summon search service is pushing users to finding underutilized resources, such as special collections and multimedia items, and that it favors direct journal services (such as Sage) over aggregators such as EBSCO.

    Information Literacy

    Part of my continuing duties at Holy Names University is my role as an instruction librarian. I provide information literacy education to students via workshops and research help sessions.

    One of the best instruction-related programs I attended was Making Information Literacy Instruction Meaningful through Creativity. The three speakers were current or former faculty for ACRL’s highly-regarded Immersion Program, a “boot camp” for instructional librarians, and the session reinforced many themes that are part of Immersion training — creative lesson planning; interactive, motivational presentation styles; and pedagogy grounded in research and assessment.

    In addition to these presentations, I also had chances to sit and talk shop with a good mix of other instructional librarians, such as Michelle Millet, Tiffini Travis, Lea Engle, and Nicholas Schiller. In Schiller’s case, I’ve been reading his articles and stealing his classroom ideas for a year so it was great to get a chance to admit that to him. He didn’t seem to mind.

    Out and About

    New Orleans: what a city. While I admit I’m not such a fan of colorful drinks in plastic cups — I’d rather have one well-crafted cocktail than a half dozen cups of syrup-flavored alcohol — I have to admit that New Orleans knows how to have a good time, and a good time I had, passing from place to place with a gang of roving librarians I befriended. It’s hot in New Orleans in June (that’s not a newsflash, I realize), but the heat and humidity didn’t keep me from walking continuously from the Garden District, to the Warehouse District, along the river and into the French Quarter, and back again throughout the conference. Café Du Monde was naturally a regular destination, both late at night and after lunch, and I was shocked that a plate of three beignets was only two dollars and change — here in San Francisco, our tourist traps won’t sell anything for less than five dollars.


    While I expected to meet hip, smart librarians from Brooklyn (and did) (stereotypes for the win!), there were smart, interesting people coming from all corners of the country — Indiana, Texas, Florida, and even Southern California. In between the beignets, coffee and occasional cocktails there was plenty of sharp chatter about information services, instructional technique, and emerging tech. All of it pointed to my original thesis in founding the Information Amateurs Social Club — that the best, most enlightening professional conversation happens in the informal air of casual conversation. Preferably with a drink in hand. Between the ALA Dance Party, the ALA Tweet-up, the ALA Facebook Afterparty, the Radical Reference Social, the HackLibSchool Social, and all of the more informal connecting in between (including a trip to the Voodoo Museum), I met many of my internet heroes and formed some genuine bonds of friendship I’m going to hang onto. And hopefully, someday, all of them will move to San Francisco. It’d be killer.

    IMG_3983That’s Lauren and Lea in the middle at the Radical Reference Social


    No report on the goings-on in New Orleans would be complete without mention of Battledecks, the competitive, improvisational battle of slideshow presentations that concluded the conference Monday night. My participation was not strictly speaking voluntary, but it was thrilling to speak right between Lisa Hinchliffe, President of ACRL, and widely known executive and public speaker Stephen Abram. However, I’m going to save my extended thoughts on that experience for a future post — once the videos have weaseled their way online and I can embed my performance right here on The Pinakes.



    April 9, 2011 - 12:33 pm

    Recently I went to Philadelphia for a four day library conference. This one is about my first day in Philly, before the conference started. The city was not what I expected.

    I arrived at the Philadelphia Airport Tuesday evening and hitched a ride into downtown Philly on their commuter rail. It took me directly into a subterranean stop that is now called Market East station, but is built under what had been the vast depot of the Reading Railroad (made famous by Monopoly). The massive pavilion above has now been converted into the Philadelphia Conference Center, where ACRL was to take place, and adjacent to and adjoining the hotel where I was staying. So I arrived at the station, walked up what seemed like two centuries of underground history, and directly into the hotel without feeling a hint of outside air. It was surreal, especially at night.

    Philadelphia Conference Center set for #ACRL2011One commenter on twitter called this shot of the conference hall at night a “steampunk wonderland”.

    I struck out on foot that night in search of my first Philly cheesesteak sandwich, or as they simply call them locally, a steak. I’d been told by a former Philly local to head to a place called Jim’s Steaks on South Street. It was a good chance to explore the city on foot and see how it actually lives and breathes. Philly was nothing like I expected — all blue collar, Santa-booing meatheads. Instead I saw the quotient of hipsters on fixies I expect to see here at home, plus a community garden, and an anarchist bookstore. Swap the steak shops for taquerías, you’d be in San Francisco’s Mission District; swap them for vegan bakeries, you’d be in Portland, Oregon.

    IMG_3133What you get in Philly you don’t get in SF: rowhouses of beautiful brick lining narrow streets.

    Jim’s Steaks was the antidote to this Hipsterdelphia. I walked up to the register to order, and the middle-aged local behind the counter (I’ll call him “Jim”) proceeded to ignore me while he finished a conversation with one of the other guys. Or, I thought I was just waiting until he finished what he was saying, but no. He just kept on talking, with me just a couple feet from him on the other side of the counter. Jim wouldn’t even turn his face my direction. He resolutely refused to acknowledge my existence. I should note that I’m the only customer in the store. This went on for more than one full, awkward minute. Now this is the Philly I had arrived expecting! Brusque assholes who wouldn’t give me the time of day. Here was authenticity. Thank you Jim.

    Eventually the fry cook took pity on me, and summoned me over with a finger (not that one). I was supposed to order with him, and in their assembly line, I’d get passed down to the drink guy and then to Jim at the register. Didn’t matter that no one else was there — I still had to follow procedure. Once I had done that (note: I was not allowed to touch my beer until I had paid, even though they placed it on my tray), Jim was willing to acknowledge my existence. No mention of the prior awkwardness.

    The steak, it should be said, was delish. I’d go back.

    The next day I had to myself until the conference started in the late afternoon. Again I set out on foot, first finding a comfy coffeehouse (the negative Yelp reviews are amusing; accusations of hipsterdom abound, as if posting reviews on Yelp about the quality of their vegan goods isn’t an enormously hipster thing to do). It’s in a corner brick Victorian rowhouse in Philly’s gay district (Philly has a gay district? More things I did not know). Here the staff was actually friendly. Probably not natives. They made a solid cappuccino.

    From there I was off to the ghastly but utterly fascinating Mütter Museum, a collection of human oddities (think strange skulls, deformed spines, babies in jars…) that was formed from the personal collection of 19th century physician Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter and has grown under the stewardship of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. I’d entertain you with a collection of gory photographs of leather made from human flesh, a modern mummy, 19th century medical tools and all manner of human parts except the museum strictly forbade photography (not that that has stopped others; there’s plenty on flickr).

    My museum trawling was not yet done; after that I walked to the Rosenbach Museum, on an elegant street of handsome rowhouses in the Rittenhouse Square district. The Rosenbachs were brothers engaged in the rare book trade in the first half of the twentieth century; they were extravagant bachelors, who entertained lavishly, enjoyed bourbon, pipes, and books, and made the savvy purchase of James Joyce’s handwritten Ulysses manuscript before the book became the icon it is today (amongst many other great purchases, including Herman Melville’s own bookcase, now filled with 1st edition copies of Moby Dick, on their ground floor). Their shops — in Philly and New York — were the locus of the American rare book trade for decades, and the collection of the Folger Library in Washington, DC and many other great private libraries were built by their acquisitions. The museum hosts hourly tours of their mansion and library, with exhibits on news coverage of the Civil War and Joyce’s years in Paris.

    My final Wednesday stop before the conference started was lunch with an internet friend, Molly from yon Falling Molly blog. She’s mutual friends with my pal Jenny and we met up so she could teach me about Philly’s other local sandwich, roast pork with broccoli rabe. Because of legacy Quaker liquor laws, most small shops can’t get a liquor license, so they just let you bring in your own beer. So Molly arrived six-pack in hand and we chowed down on these massive, greasy, vinegary sandwiches. It took a couple hours to polish those monsters off (and the six-pack). Molly is both smart and funny; if you’re looking for an entertaining internet friend, you couldn’t do better.

    IMG_3146It must be healthy because it’s covered in vegetables. Never mind the other stuff.

    After that I headed back to the conference for the opening keynote!