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Month: March 2008

On Trying New Things

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about an odd shift I’m seeing. It seems like a couple of years ago, there was a big push in my corner of libraryland to “try new things,” which was mostly code for “try a blog, try a wiki, try IM, try social bookmarking, try Flickr, try ANYTHING.! Please!!” It was pretty exciting to blog and read blogs during that time. I learned a lot from people who pointed to new extensions they were using, new social tools, new uses for “older” tools.

But recently I’ve felt (and I know others have felt) like there’s nothing more we can contribute to this discussion that’s really and truly new. We can go to conference sessions geared to introducing the newest of the new tools and already know about every single tool discussed and know a handful or even a fistful of libraries that are using them. We might even be using them ourselves.

The same can be said for “new” service models or collection changes or any number of other topics. Maybe it’s a function of my having been slightly too overextended in the last few months to have the energy to get excited about or imagine new implementations of the ideas I’ve heard about, but I know I’ve had the feeling recently that maybe there isn’t much more that’s new to learn about in my previous areas of interest right now. What’s more, I’ve heard a few other librarians say similar things. “I just can’t come up with anything that other libraries haven’t already tried. There’s just nothing actually new going on here.”

It’s almost like my whole corner of the library world took a collective sigh and realized we’re tired.

And maybe there’s truth in this feeling, though I doubt it. Maybe we’ve settled far enough into the social web or the fill-in-the-blank-new-Library2.0-service world that it’s no longer confusing enough to wonder about or new enough to get excited over. Or maybe we’re all just getting over the Long Winter (it’s snowing here today… seriously… maybe 8 inches by tomorrow morning). Or maybe there’s enough communication now that where we would previously have had a hard time knowing about what other libraries are up to, now it’s quite easy to skim a feed reader and get a quick run-down every single day. (If this is the case, I think it’s a wonderful development.)

But my hunch is that while we’re pretty much trained from college on upward that “original” is a synonym for “good,” and “derivative” is a synonym for “lazy,” it actually doesn’t work that way in real life. It doesn’t matter if 3/4 of the libraries you know about are implementing a new service or tool. Even if other libraries have tried whatever you’re trying, there’s still usually no way to adopt implementations wholesale. Almost always, you have to evaluate and tweak and shift and re-mix ideas to fit your own context and your own community.

And this leads me to believe that maybe the problem isn’t that there isn’t anything new happening; that the problem is with me. I’m the one sighing and acknowledging that I’m tired. I’m the one who’s been overextended just enough to shut off that creative part of me that used to read what people are doing and start scheming about how it would look at MY library. If this is the case, I sincerely hope that my trip to Computers in Libraries will jump start that portion of my brain and help me not just know but actually believe that it doesn’t matter that other people are doing cool things already. They’d still be new and cool to think about trying here. And these reports I’m reading and the others that I’m generating, and the lessons I’m learning from planning a conference, and the other lessons I’m learning from helping out with Print Management implementation?… Maybe these are still interesting and not just “the same thing that everyone else is doing, so why would they care.”

We’ll see. Here’s hoping.

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Spring… un-Break

Spring term starts on Monday after two full weeks of what most people choose to call “Spring Break.” Clearly, I must not understand the meaning of the word “break,” or else it means something other than it has meant for the rest of my life. This was not a break. In fact, it was probably at least as tiring as peek weeks of the term. Here’s a sample of what I’ve been up to for the past two weeks:

  • Helping to plan a conference.
    (This has been quite a learning experience, I must say. It’s fun to watch people who’ve done this before thing through possible scenarios, brainstorming, and problem solving. I don’t have any expertise beyond knowing what kinds of sessions I’d want to attend, but I do have a network, which I have exploited to the best of my ability. Thanks Twitter People!!!)
  • Interviewing librarians
  • Presenting to our college InfoServices group
    (I presented on things to think about when inhabiting online social networks.)
  • Dealing with preparations for the impending implementation of print management in the library and in all campus labs.
    (Unfortunately, this became inextricably entwined with a project to implement ID card access to printing and copying as our coin-operated copiers left us and as we tried to figure out how non-Carleton-affiliated people would be able to print once print management went live, and this is the part of the project that has taken the most work recently. This has been by far the most stressful part of the last few weeks, but I’ve learned some valuable lessons about working on projects that have crucial components parts grounded in various offices on campus. I’ve also worked to create policy and procedure documents, handouts, brochures, and anything else that’ll help people feel like this will work smoothly and be successful.)
  • Fixing dead links on my research guides
    (and realizing that a few of them will need major over-hauling as soon as I have the time for it.
  • Drafting a proposal to acquire and implement federated search.
    (This has also become a major project beyond what I’d imagined possible. I’ve had to be in contact with vendors to see what goes into actual implementation and what timelines are possible and gaze into my crystal ball to figure out exactly how people might use the tool and how much time librarians will spend making it work well. I tell you, it’ll take me longer to draft my portion of this proposal than it’ll take for me to learn and implement the tool itself.)
  • Scheduling classes for early Spring term.
    (And feeling guilty about not prepping for them now, before students start invading my office on a regular basis.)
  • Work with professors on their copyright questions as they prepare reading lists for their upcoming classes.
  • Troubleshooting Moodle issues.
    (Which reminds me… I was supposed to talk to our web dev people about something. I guess that’ll have to happen on Monday.)
  • Driving home to visit my family for Easter
    (and [sniff] leave Pippin with them for the next month or so to simplify life just a bit. By all reports, Pippin is having the time of his life. There are birds to watch at several bird feeders, and there’s a big and gentle dog to torment.)

I’m sure there was more, but those are the biggies. Can you see why I don’t think “break” adequately describes the last two weeks? (Of course, we won’t even mention how un-spring-like it is, still…)

And now may I please have a spring break?

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What are Reference Works Good for in the Google Age?

Over the last couple of years, my co-workers and I have noticed steady and possibly even increasing use of our reference collection by our students. And while I love this (I mean… obviously… cuz I’m a reference librarian), I’m also always just a little bit surprised by it. I mean, they’ve got Wikipedia and Google, and goodness knows they use them for everything. Hey, even I use them umpteen thousand times per day, so I certainly can’t fault anyone.

Well, we recently had a meeting of area librarians at which we discussed the future of reference collections. Will they go all electronic? Will they become obsolete altogether? And how will our physical spaces in the library change over time? And all this got me to thinking about what the actual value of a reference collection is these days.

With a few exceptions, I think the value of a reference collection is not in the ability to locate facts. That’s what it used to be good for, but unless I’m looking for pretty specialized facts that I don’t think would get published on the web, or that would be hard to digest on a screen, I generally go to my friend Google. And while I’m sure that reference collections were never just about finding facts, that was one of their key roles before, and continues to be their perceived function. But, for me the reference collection is valuable in a completely different way these days. It’s not about discrete facts; it’s about context. It’s not a place to find what you need; it’s a place to find a beginning and get help interpreting result lists.

Built in bibliographies
One of the things that seems to resonate well with students is that they don’t have to dive into topics and build initial bibliographies from scratch. Just like they can consult their professors for starting points, they can consult an expert by turning to a subject encyclopedia and gleaning citations from there. Scholarship is all about building on other people’s scholarship, so take advantage of it an jump in like the real scholars do.

Term harvesting
I’ve already talked about how terms are crucial to search. While encyclopedias and dictionaries can’t help every time, they can be treasure-troves of terms, and they can help students deploy new terms by providing some disciplinary context for each new concept.

Managing result lists
And this brings me to the way that reference works serve us in this online age: they provide context that can help students look at a database result list and pick out likely items to open and explore further. We’ve all seen students who get overwhelmed by massive result lists and either just scrap the whole effort, open random items, or start doggedly opening every single result. (We have growing numbers of students who simply will not search things like ProQuest or JSTOR because there are too many results.) Disciplinary experts, on the other hand, scan for likely looking results and only open those that are related or that they’re pretty sure will help them figure out how to tweak their search. And reference works can help students develop the capacity to inch toward a more intelligent interpretation of and navigation through result list.

What else? As we think about collections and information needs shifting, where do reference collections fit?


How Many Bagels?

How many bagels do you suppose it takes to stock a 2-hour study break in the library on the last day before finals at a college with just under 2000 students?

… Yes, I want you to guess…

… No really. Pick a number…

…Got one?…

Ok. Campus Activities bought 20 dozen, and it didn’t turn out to be way too many. TWENTY DOZEN.

Also, free massages, coffee, juice, and board games help make the event fun.