My year as a school library volunteer

Posted on March 26, 2014 at 3:59 pm in

I’ve spent the academic year volunteering in a public elementary school library. My weekly shifts coincided with a regular 4th grade class visit. My last shift of this academic year wrapped up this morning.

A few things I learned:

  • Calvin & Hobbes is still incredibly popular, even though Bill Watterson retired almost a decade before these kids were born.
  • 4th graders love graphic novels, especially Bone.
  • The vast majority of our circulation came from books in bins organized by series, and very little from off of the shelves. Easier to find, easier to grab, easier to beat the other kids to what you want.
  • It’s awkward being addressed as Mr. when you’re not used to it.
  • 4th grade boys will hit each other over a book.
  • Kids do a lot more reading than stereotypes suggest.
  • The school librarian teaches an amazing variety of things. I saw her teach using computers for research, understanding literary genres, fun poetry techniques, understanding protagonist point of view, and using reference works for research. Oh, and computer coding.
  • The school librarian is also a fabulous reader of stories and great at reader’s advisory for a six-year range of children and reading levels.
  • She’s also the point person for getting the students up to speed on the interface of the new, computer-based standardized tests that will be implemented next year as part of Common Core (and directly affect school funding). I wonder what schools without school librarians will do.
  • I am very grateful San Francisco voters passed a bond measure funding school librarians in every public school.
  • These kids will be more ready for college because of what they are learning right now as nine year olds from their school librarian.

I had fun working with the kids. And I learned a lot from the school librarian.

Post mirrored on tumblr.

On CCLI: A personal story of why to attend

Posted on March 12, 2014 at 4:12 pm in

Registration is now open for the California Conference on Library Instruction, the best little conference that could. It’s an annual, one-day conference focused on librarian-led instruction and information literacy.

CCLI played a critical role in my career. A couple months after graduating library school, while working part time in a temporary position, I attended CCLI. The keynote presenters that year were Nicholas Schiller, Char Booth, and Karen G. Schneider. I had (once) previously met Karen, but it was my first time seeing any of them speak.

Nicholas Schiller presented about engaging students by teaching Google search strategies, SEO, and how Google Search works under the hood. Char Booth presented topics from her (then) new book, Reflective Teaching, Effective Learning, including how to be a self-aware, reflective teacher. Karen Schneider spoke about incrementally transforming a small academic library. In addition to the keynote speakers, there was also a panel that featured Nicole Greenland discussing faculty outreach through technology training.

Nicholas’ presentation formed the nucleus of a freshman workshop I developed later that year, a workshop that has evolved but is still in use for our first-year English students. Char’s presentation gave me confidence and inspiration in finding my voice as a teacher, something that at the time I had very little experience with. Four years later, I’m happy that I can now say I am friends with both of them. But equally importantly, Nicholas and Char gave me ideas to use when discussing library instruction and librarianship during a job interview I had a month later. I was a green, inexperienced librarian, but I approached that interview like I knew what I was talking about. Thanks to CCLI.

That interview was with Karen and Nicole. They hired me into my first (and current) librarian position.

CCLI is small, and compared to national conferences, affordable. It’s only a one-day commitment, and I guarantee you will learn new things and come away with practical ideas. If you’re a northern California instruction librarian or MLIS student, it’s a great place to be.

Also: I’m also quite happy to say that this year I’ll be one of the panelists (alongside my great colleague and frequent co-presenter Nicole Branch.)

Post mirrored on tumblr.

Now trending: Staying on top of current trends

Posted on February 27, 2014 at 1:48 pm in

I got an anonymous question on Tumblr:

I’m really trying to stay on top of current trends in the academic library field without having a ton of money to go to national conferences…what are your favorite blogs, listservs, tumblarians, etc. to follow or even websites to get news from our community? I feel like I’m always behind…or following things that are more just noise than good sources of trends. When I was in library school it was easier but now not as much. Thank you so much!

This question may have been inspired by my last post, where I wrote “be able to name trends! Be able to discuss trends! I’ve seen candidates be confused about this question. How does that happen?

So — staying on top of trends. First, two pieces of advice before I recommend a few blogs:

  • There may be local conferences in your area that are more affordable than national conferences. For example, where I live, there’s an annual one-day conference on library instruction called CCLI. These types of local conferences — with no travel costs, hotel costs, and a lower registration fee — are more feasible for those with a limited budget, but still supply a ton of value. They connect you with local professionals, help you learn trends relevant to your area, and you often learn about forthcoming jobs before they hit national listservs. I don’t know if I’d have my present job if I hadn’t attended CCLI four years ago, when my (then-future, now-present) boss was a keynote speaker.
  • Find a local mentor you can sit down with, hopefully someone who doesn’t work at your institution (if you’re employed). Getting the perspective of someone who works in a different environment is a good way to learn what’s happening beyond your local silo. I had lunch yesterday with the librarian who mentored me when I was an intern and it was tremendous, and made me realize I should do that more often.

Reading is free

If you can’t afford conference travel (without the workplace support I get, I wouldn’t be able to either), the most affordable way to keep up on the profession is following smart, interesting bloggers (whether or not you always agree with their viewpoint). I’ve seen a few folks out there bemoaning the current state of library blogging, but I still find a lot of good ideas and information out there. Here are a few (not all) of the blogs that I follow:

Full disclosure: one of these is my boss. Some of the others are my friends. I am not bias-free. Who is?
Tumblr division, academic librarians (again, partial — I follow well over 500 total tumblrs):

Full disclosure: one of these is my boss. Some of the others are my friends. I am not bias-free. Who is?

Tumblr division

(again, partial — I follow well over 500 total tumblrs):

Some of these are professionally focused, some are not, but I enjoy following them all. I enjoy the mix of personal and professional on tumblr.

I also follow a lot of public librarians (you can good ideas to port over!), institutions, and submission blogs like Librarian Wardrobe. You can browse the tumblarian list for both institutions and individuals to follow.

You should also check in on C&RL, the open access journal of the ACRL, and C&RL News, its non-peer reviewed outlet.  I also like the OA Communications in Information Literacy. I prefer to support open access LIS journals, which are accessible to those who don’t have the advantage of institutional access.

This post originally appeared in shorter form on tumblr.

Hitting the softballs: Academic librarian job interview advice

Posted on February 26, 2014 at 10:36 am in
I’ve got an interview Friday for an academic librarian position (electronic serials). What was your hiring experience? Any interview prep you would suggest that is unique to the academic environment? Thanks! :)

I’ve got an interview Friday for an academic librarian position (electronic serials). What was your hiring experience? Any interview prep you would suggest that is unique to the academic environment? Thanks! :)librarian-wanderer

Hi! First of all, good luck!

Going into an interview, comfort and familiarity are your friends, from wardrobe choices to the topics that will be discussed. Look professional but don’t make yourself so uncomfortable that you squirm and sweat.

While there can be some unique questions and concerns that come up in an academic environment, you’ll also get many of the same boilerplate questions asked in every job interview everywhere. For me, when I’ve been on an interview panel and a candidate flubs one of these questions — which I consider softballs — they’re out.

  • “Describe [x]# of trends in [electronic serials/ERM/digitization/technical services/academic libraries/etc.]

Be able to name trends! Be able to discuss trends! I’ve seen candidates be confused about this question. How does that happen? If you asked me about trends in academic libraries, I could name 20 before I have to take a breath.

Yet I’ve seen candidates fumble around, mumble a short response, and look up hoping the question is over and we can move on. That was the softball! Hit it out of the park. If electronic serials aren’t actually your specialty, get to looking in a few journals, or find blogs written by electronic serials librarians. Get up to speed before the interview.

  • “Describe an situation in which you [did the wrong thing/failed/could not complete a project] and what you learned from it? Be specific.”

There’s always a question like this, and others that ask you to describe specific scenarios, positive or negative, from your past work life. Have a few anecdotes in mind going into the interview so you’re prepared for this. Candidates who don’t have examples in mind before the interview starts always get flustered at this point. Don’t be that candidate.

  • What makes you want to work at [University/College]?

This is the slowest pitch softball in the game. Heck, this is a swing at a t-ball. And yet…I’ve seen some of the vaguest answers to this question (which often comes first — and first impressions are important).

If you’re asked why you want to work there, and all you can say is that you need a job and your skills matched the job description, that’s not going to cut it.

Talk about the institution — why that particular institution is a perfect fit for you. That means doing a little research in advance. Know what that school is proud of. Look in every corner of their website. Walk around the campus if you can. Read the school’s mission statement, and if the library has one, read that too. Incorporate that vibe into your response. If nothing else, even the cynical panelist will respect that you did your research.

Doing your research

Speaking of doing research, use your investigative skills and go in knowing what types of library systems they use. If you’re savvy, you should be able to figure out what ILS they use, what ERM product they use, and whether they focus on “big deal” journal package purchases from publishers or on aggregation databases, just from looking at their website. That familiarity can then come in handy when you are talking to them (it’s always odd to me when a candidate doesn’t come in with a sense of how we operate).

Also be ready to talk about how the work of the electronic serials librarians can influence other aspects of the library’s work — this, of course, can apply to other specialties as well.

Finally, does the library director or any of the librarians at the institution blog about their work? That’s another way to come in with a sense of how they operate (although don’t spend the whole interview saying, “Well, I saw on your blog [this] and [that]” — use the blog as background research, don’t keep citing it in the interview! That comes off sycophantic.)

There will probably be some very specific technical discussions. But those revolve around things that can be learned. It’s when the candidates can’t even hit the softballs that I get worried.

Originally posted on tumblr, February 26, 2014. Comments are closed here but open on tumblr.

Midwinter’s night dream: My plan for ALA Midwinter 2014

Posted on January 22, 2014 at 2:58 pm in

Updated Jan. 22, 4:30 PST

I’m heading to the American Library Association’s Midwinter Conference 2014. I’ve been to two ALA Annual Conferences, but never to the Midwinter edition. This conference is largely focused on committee work, and less on public presentations, but I have been combing the scheduler to find the most interesting (to me) action going on. Here’s my plan.

Liberty Bell, flickr user Lee Bennett

Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell, courtesy Flickr user Lee Bennett

Thursday, January 23

I’ll get to Philly on Thursday afternoon, with time to check-in to the Holiday Inn and head directly to the ALATT’s “Council Meeting” at a local establishment called the Tattooed Mom. It’s open to everyone and many of the 2014 Emerging Leaders are planning to meet up there. You’ll find it on this handy map, along with all the other socials and conference hotels.

Friday, January 24

Why would I head to Philadelphia in the depth of winter, in the midst of a polar vortex? I’m a part of the 2014 edition of ALA’s Emerging Leaders program. I’m in “Team C.” Our task is to deliver a plan to ALCTS to amplify their social media outreach. Consequently, my first full day of the conference, Friday, will be taken up with Emerging Leaders activities: meeting from 8:15 to 4:00pm, followed by a Presidential Reception for this year’s class from 4-5:30pm, and a 7:00 social for EL participants and alums at the Field House. To top it off, Urban Librarians Unite is organizing a 9pm gathering in the same venue — perfect — I won’t have to head out into the cold.

Saturday, January 25

By Saturday, I get a little more Philadelphia freedom to pick my spots. My current plan (of course, all subject to change):

Sunday, January 26

Monday, January 27

After that, I’ll fly home in time to sleep in my own bed Monday night.

If we’ve never met, and you want to know how to recognize me, I’m 6′5″, bearded, and look a lot like this fellow. I’ll also be live-tweeting during the conference on the #alamw14 hashtag.

Let me know if I’m missing out on a Must-Do in the comments.

Speculative Cataloging

Posted on January 7, 2014 at 12:44 pm in

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

Posted on November 27, 2013 at 3:03 pm in

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

Posted on November 12, 2013 at 11:35 am in

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.

On Emerging Leaders 2014

Posted on November 6, 2013 at 11:50 am in

What I’ve known for a couple weeks now is finally official. I will be a part of the American Library Association’s 2014 class of Emerging Leaders. I’m very excited to take part in this program; some of the librarians I admire most are alums, and I count several friends among the 2014 class.

I’m also excited about the number of names I don’t recognize. There are a lot of great people doing great work around the country, and I look forward to making new connections and learning from what they’re doing, starting with the ALA Midwinter Conference in Philadelphia, a city I’m happy to go back to (although as a Californian I’m not quite sure how to deal with being back east in January. I literally have no “winter” clothes).

One of the exciting aspects of Emerging Leaders is that it takes a cross-section of the profession — public librarians, academic librarians, special librarians, and school librarians; information professionals of every stripe. I’m firmly in the academic librarian camp, but there is so much we can learn from what our colleagues from the other divisions are doing in terms of collections, outreach, marketing, and instruction. If we stick to our silo, there’s so much we miss out on.

Onward to Midwinter!

LAUC-B Conference 2013: Counting on Libraries

Posted on October 25, 2013 at 8:13 pm in

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!