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In my classroom...

Spreadsheets: my not-so-secret love affair

I’ve gotta admit. I love a good spreadsheet now and again. Maybe it’s because they aren’t the only thing I work with day in and day out, but I’m very much a fan of computers doing my grunt work for me, and spreadsheets are very much a part of that picture for me (right along with most of the other light-weight coding I’ve dabbled in).

I’m NOT a fan of using a spreadsheet just because it has columns and rows. Call me a software snob, but if all you need is a table in a document to keep a bunch of text in order, that’s not a spreadsheet. No sense using an extra tool. But if it can automate processes or do your error-checking for you — that my friends is workplace GOLD.

I’ve used spreadsheets to take conference session information as submitted by presenters and wrap each bit up in html, string the html together, and then paste the resulting html into a web page (hundreds of sessions processed in minimal time with minimal human error). I’ve used it to reconfigure 14 years of reference, instruction, and consultation statistics to make the data from various systems from our past match the needs of our new system, flipping people’s names, combining, splitting, reshuffling, and reformatting. The list goes on. If you can teach a computer a pattern, you can probably teach it to do your fiddly work for you.

Case in point: Libguides asset management.

Most of us librarians at this point use Libguides. One of its great strengths is that you can reuse “assets” (links, books, etc) from one guide to another. But over time, duplicate assets multiply like rabbits, and old unused assets clutter up your search results for that one asset you really want to reuse. So over time it becomes easier to make new assets rather than see if that asset already exists in the system. And then you end up in a vicious cycle the spirals your assets out of control and makes one of the great features of Libguides functionally useless.

So every summer I do a big ol’ asset clean-up project. I ask Springshare to delete our unused assets for me (we mere mortals can’t do bulk deletions), and then I work to knit back together all the unnecessarily duplicated assets that have spawned in the system when the librarians either make a new one that already exists or copy boxes or guides to new guides (which duplicates all the assets in the box or guide — asset management hell).

Screenshot of spreadsheet showing examples of normalized titles for alphabetization.

This is where the massive spreadsheet comes in. I need to find all the assets that are actually the same thing, and then map them back together so that they ARE the same thing. And the first part of this is to sort them by name. So I download a spreadsheet of all assets, plunk it into Google Sheets (easier to work on from multiple computers or share with others in the department), and alphabetize by title. But as you may know, neither Libguides nor any spreadsheet software I’m aware of is smart enough to alphabetize by the first “real” word, or to know that “US,” “USA,” “U.S.,” U. S.,” and “United States” are all the same thing. And anything with a quotation mark in front of it will go up into the non-alphabet part of the sort. And the list goes on. Alphabetizing just doesn’t cut it.

So in my google sheet, I add a column for Sort Title, and in the first cell of that column I use a formal to teach it all of the patterns that I know will be a problem with the titles in my asset list. Then I drag that formula down through all 7-9,000 asset records, and Ta-Da! Alphabetizable titles!

I’m a little nervous about sharing my formula for this because I’m a rank amateur and probably used a million IF statements where a simpler solution is possible. But hey, I’m also a rank amateur, so if you’ve never done this you can join me and then improve on what I’ve found! So… if you want to try this out, the basic pattern is “If at the left of the string in the title column you see x string, substitute x string with y string.” The other basic pattern is “If at the left of the string in the title column you see x string, delete it.” If your Title column is in column E, and you’re starting on row 2 (because row 2 is your header row). My current formula, which accounts for the patterns I’m currently seeing in my title list, looks like this:

=IF(LEFT(E2,2)="A ",RIGHT(E2,len(E2)-2),IF(LEFT(E2,3)="An ",RIGHT(E2,len(E2)-3),IF(LEFT(E2,4)="The ",RIGHT(E2,len(E2)-4),IF(LEFT(E2,6)=""",SUBSTITUTE(E2,""",""),IF(LEFT(E2,5)="U.S. ",SUBSTITUTE(E2,"U.S. ","US "),IF(LEFT(E2,14)="United States ",SUBSTITUTE(E2,"United States ","US "),IF(LEFT(E2,4)="USA ",SUBSTITUTE(E2,"USA ","US "),IF(LEFT(E2,6)="U. S. ",SUBSTITUTE(E2,"U. S. ","US "),IF(LEFT(E2,11)="University ", SUBSTITUTE(E2,"University ","U "),IF(LEFT(E2, 5)="U.K. ",SUBSTITUTE(E2,"U.K. ","UK "),IF(LEFT(E2, 5)="U.N. ",SUBSTITUTE(E2,"U.N. ","UN "),IF(LEFT(E2,15)="United Nations ",SUBSTITUTE(E2,"United Nations ","UN "),IF(LEFT(E2, 15)="United Kingdom ",SUBSTITUTE(E2,"United Kingdom ","UK "),E2)))))))))))))))))))))))

So, it’s IF(logical statement, result if true, result if false), and in the “result if false” section, that’s where I put the next IF statement. The very last “result if false” is just “show me the full title from the title column” because by that time the title is probably just fine without alteration. Each logical statement here tests the characters at the left of the title column, since that’s what I’ll be alphabetizing on. Then each “result if true” section tells it how to transform those left-hand characters so that they’ll alphabetize properly.

So that’s my spreadsheet love story of the week! I can’t believe that last year I sat there and used successive “find/replace” searches and thought I was being efficient. Live and learn!

Changing my approach

I went to a bunch of sessions at ACRL having to do with creating a welcoming space for all patrons, and a couple things stood out to me that are prompting me to change my everyday practice, particularly at the reference desk. The session reported preliminary findings of a qualitative research study of students of color and their experience with libraries and librarians prior to coming to college (conference paper here).

Over the years I’ve unconsciously developed a practice that, if I sat down and thought about it, I would say balances my twin goals of appearing welcoming while also not making patrons feel like I’m surveilling them. I know, for example, that it creeps me out when I’m buying groceries or whatever and the check-out person comments on my purchases, or especially if they mention remembering what I purchased last week. So at work I keep track of how people like me to interact with them, but I don’t notice or remember what they’re studying or checking out or looking at unless they open that conversational door themselves. Sometimes I joke that one of my superpowers is being able to help people with the copier without actually seeing what they’re copying.

And I realized while I was sitting in this session that I’ve adopted a similar practice when it comes to acknowledging people when they walk past me at the desk. If they make eye contact in a way that seems to invite interaction, I’ll smile and greet them. If they don’t, I assume they don’t want overt interaction for whatever reason, so I let them proceed on their way without interruption. Again, I didn’t shape this habit consciously — it just developed over time in response to my cumulative experiences on both sides of a service desk.

This approach comes from a genuine desire to put people at ease on their own terms, but the conference session made me realize that I’ve created another of those situations where good intentions can seriously backfire. There was a theme in the responses from the students of color that “the librarian smiled and greeted the white kid in front of me, but didn’t smile and greet me.” Thinking back to my own practice, I realized that of course if someone is unsure if they belong in the library they won’t initiate interaction with me. Duh. They’ll have their neutral face on, or possibly even a “don’t notice me too much” face on, and in response I’ll put my neutral face on. But here I’ll be valiantly “engaging with people on their own terms,” and they’ll be experiencing me disapproving of their presence in the library.

Clearly I’ve got to adjust my practice — a practice I didn’t even fully know I had until confronted with this mismatch in experiences. And of course there are ways to make people feel welcome without making them feel surveilled. Of course there are ways to be engage proactively without forcing similar engagement from the other person. So now my project is to make this new way of being as habitual as my old way of being was.

The Interstitial Curriculum

It occurred to me recently that we in higher education talk about the curriculum and the co-curriculum, and there are departments and offices and structures involved in making those parallel structures work (hopefully) to the benefit of our students. But there’s another curriculum at play as well — a curriculum that is every bit as fundamental to our institutional learning outcomes as the formal curriculum but that isn’t “owned” by any department and isn’t administered in any systematic way across the institution. I’ve started thinking of this as the “interstitial curriculum.”

The interstitial curriculum is where students learn the intellectual habits and skills that cut across curricular and co-curricular lines. It doesn’t have a home in the formal curriculum, and it can’t happen exclusively in the co-curriculum, either. Instead, it lives in the multiple and cumulative experiences that individual students have as they live out their college experiences through, among, and between the intertwinings of the curriculum and the co-curriculum. Depending on the institution, these are probably things like writing (never something that any single department can teach fully), metacognition, project management, time management, interpersonal “soft” skills, and yes, information literacy.

These are things that might even be named in mission statements or in institutional and departmental learning objectives, or that tons of faculty say are critical … but there’s often no course or formal home for them in the institutional structures that ensure other learning objectives. Everyone relies on students building these intellectual muscles by working with someone else somewhere else in the institution. They may not be sure who or where or when this work happens or should happen, but they really hope that does happen because otherwise their own goals for students in their courses or majors can’t happen, or can’t happen well.

In my own work, I live in the tension between the deeply rewarding, mission-critical work that I get to do with students every day, and the dismissal of some who assume that the work I want to do with their students has surely already been done by someone else at some other time — probably in their first year seminar. I live in a liminal space, where literally dozens of departments on campus list learning outcomes directly related to information literacy, the campus mission and learning goals invoke information literacy, and yet no department has a formal plan to ensure that their students get intentional, scaffolded practice with the intellectual habits of information literacy. And I’m not saying that this is a bad place to be! There are many good reasons at play in this state of affairs. But it does mean that my entire existence feels similar to the work of the fascia in the human body: necessary, often invisible, existing between the better-known structures of the body, not well understood, but instrumental in encouraging and even allowing the intellectual work of the disciplines. I live in the spaces between.

It’s a very, very interesting space to inhabit. Not easy, but interesting.

Wrestling with Reference

In the last few weeks I’ve been part of several conversations with other librarians about reference services. And now that I’m at an academic librarian conference (Hello ACRL!), I’m having even more of these conversations. Some people talk about moving away from the reference desk model entirely, others are conflicted, or shifting the service in various ways. All have very good reasons for making the decisions they’re making.

Like so many things in life, though, I find that there are a lot of unstated assumptions and values at play in these conversations. This morning I attended a great talk about navigating change, and one of the biggest assertions in that presentation was that we have to unpack the words we use when we state our values because our working definitions and the behaviors associated with those working definitions can vary significantly. People may think they’re talking about the same thing because they both say “Openness” or “Respect,” but they’re actually not. And if people think that there are gaps between their experience of your stated values and your working, behavioral definitions of those values, that’s when trust erodes.

This connected in my connection-seeking brain with all the librarian conversations where people decide what kind of librarian you are based on your stance on staffing models for reference desks. Are you That Kind of Librarian who wants to staff the desk “just in case” there are questions, or are you That Kind Of Librarian who “doesn’t value reference?” Whole identities can be decided in a moment on this one issue.

But here’s the thing, if we start to unpack what we actually mean when we talk about “the desk” — just like we use the reference interview to unpack patron needs — I think it uncovers a much more fundamental set of values. These values may or may not be served by a reference service at any given institution, but where a reference desk is not the option, these values still need to be enacted by some other service model somehow.

So here are three of the things that have bubbled to the surface during these conversations I’ve been having in the last few weeks. None of these were true 100% of the time at desks, of course, and none of them will be true 100% of the time in any model. But they are values that I think are key to building and sustaining a research/reference service.

Visible Demonstration of Function (Especially Interest)

Even if patrons aren’t actively seeking out the service or actively learning about support options, they should be able to see you being kind and welcoming and helpful and engaged and excited about other patrons’ information needs. Maybe your patrons will walk past you a million times on the way to and from the printers, or the bathrooms, or whatever, but they become passively aware of the service and its function. And they become passively aware that librarians love the act of information seeking, love the hunt, love the puzzle, and love more than anything else the opportunity to engage with people who are curious or confused and who will have their lives made easier by access to some information or a more nuanced ability to evaluate and use what they have found.

We’re nerds at heart, and pathologically helpful, and we find our reason for existing in the ability to both help people and geek out at the same time. But our “brand” on campus is often much blander than this – much more tied to the mechanics of access. And the only way to help people see that we’re good for more than “My professor said I needed 3 peer reviewed articles…” is for people to see that we’re broadly interested in information seeking and use, information-based rhetoric, and information structures. Without this, we run the real risk of having ever fewer questions, and then cutting services back further, and then having fewer questions… in a vicious cycle to oblivion. And all this not because we’re no longer relevant or whatever, but because people can’t see what we actually do and care about.

Low Barriers to Use

Barriers come in all shapes and sizes, of course, and different people find different things to be barriers. This is one reason to have multiple methods of getting and receiving help.

At least one of these methods should allow people to somewhat randomly get drop-in help without doing a lot of information seeking to find out how to get help or to formally schedule things. Predictable drop-in hours and locations (physical or virtual) that are well matched with people’s existing habits help tremendously with this. So does shared language and modes of engagement that match existing cultures and contexts.

For the librarians: Access to a broad cross-section of questions – especially “basic” questions

We know better what’s working and what’s not, what instruction worked and what didn’t, what tools work and what tools are confusing, etc, by being exposed to as many questions as possible from as broad a cross-section of a community as possible. The questions from just the people who know you already or just the people who specialize in the same things you do are good and important and useful, but more than that is even better.

In a lot of ways, the “easy” questions are more telling than the complex ones if your goal is to keep tabs on what your population finds easy or hard. These “basic” questions may be accommodated by a variety of service models, but they are decidedly not unimportant questions. If anything, they may be the most important questions — the questions that tell us valuable things about tools or services that we haven’t set up right. It’s not the patron’s fault for asking the “wrong” questions — The User Is Not Broken. It’s on us to make it so that, wherever possible, “easy” things are easy for our users, too. Or if we make the decision to opt for a set-up that isn’t strictly the easiest option, we should have well-considered reasons for this choice. In academic libraries, for example, there are times when the better solution is one that helps our students learn things even if it means an extra click or two. But these decisions should be weighed carefully, and monitoring the tenor of these most basic questions is one way of figuring out if you’ve struck the right balance for your context.


These are some of the things that I think lurk beneath the surface for people who “value the desk.” And for people who have moved away from the desk, these are some of things that they have to recreate in their new service models.

What else is lurking? What else do we value in a reference service, no matter that service’s model? What are effective modes of enacting those values so that they are apparent and transparent to our communities? Let’s build an actually articulated definition, and then test our services against that definition.