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Category: Libraries and Librarians

Preparing for Fall Term during Pandemic Times

Like everyone, I’m deep in the weeds of pandemic-era librarianship. Unlike lots of folks, my institution’s classes haven’t started yet. But because I’ll be teaching 100% remotely this Fall (even though some classes will have on-campus components) I’m basically doing a whole ton of my Fall instruction right now, at my dining table, while trying to keep my cat and my bird off camera and off mic.

I’ve been teaching for 15 years — longer if you count the years I spent as a dance teacher. There are parts of this gig that I can do in my sleep. There are moves I’ve learned to make in the classroom as naturally as breathing. Sure, I’m always learning and tweaking and generally feel like I’m not actually teaching as well as I’d like to be, but I’ve developed a style, a pace, a repertoire.

And right now it feels like everything I know how to do in the classroom is varying degrees of useless. I’m back to square 1. Or maybe square 2.

Here’s some of what I’m learning and thinking about right now.

  • Accessibility is hard
    The vast majority of my video production time goes to captioning, and for other online things I’m working really hard to make them fully accessible. In the face-to-face classroom these issues exist too, of course, but up till now most of my time was spent learning how to make accessible face-to-face encounters work out well for everyone. Now that’s all out the window and I’m spending hours upon hours editing and syncing up captions and click-through tables of contents and alt-text. Super important work, but extremely time-consuming.
  • Panopto (my campus’ main lecture capture tool) is both easy and hard
    I like that I can relatively quickly capture video of me talking while demonstrating or using a slide deck. I also really like that it produces videos in an interface that our students are becoming pretty used to, so I can more easily assume that they’ll know what to do when they land on a Panopto video page. And I like that as the faculty and I are all re-learning our jobs, it produces analytics that can help me figure out which approaches worked in which situations. (And yes, I always set it up for anonymous access – I don’t want or need individual student information.) So I’m planning to have all of my course-integrated videos served up via Panopto into Moodle. But I don’t like that I can’t do some of the video-clip combing that I want to do for a few modules, and editing the captions is an absolute bear (not only does it take forever for each change to save, but if your caption is timed to start within about a second of a cut the caption won’t show on the public side! Ack!! So much fiddly editing even beyond fixing “in utero” back to “in Zotero”). I also don’t like that I can’t figure out how to do good revisions in Panopto — if I have to change a small thing I have to re-record the video. And of course, then there’s the ominous name “Panopto”…
  • So then there’s more video production to learn
    Today I’ve been learning iMovie. And how to record my screen on my iPad in a way that allows me to draw things and then import those videos of me drawing things into my screencast. And how to record new snippets of audio to replace audio that I messed up in the original recording. And how to write timed closed caption files to upload to Panopto and YouTube whenever I upload a video.
  • Plus I now have a YouTube channel
    I was thinking about how to live in a world where help-seeking will look really different compared to the extremely in-person-based methods we generally use at my institution. I can’t rely on people happening to see me when they come to print their papers. I can’t rely on people wanting to email me rather than talking to me on the sidewalk. So in the spirit of “be where they are” I’m trying to be more in their Google results… hence my brand new YouTube channel. I’m planning to put all the videos I make (that aren’t super specific to a particular assignment or class) up on YouTube so that if students Google something research related they’re more likely to find me and then be reminded of the things I taught them in our library session. Right now, it’s home to a playlist I made for a French course on getting started with Zotero. (If you watch it, please look past my stumbles…)
  • Moodle Integration
    I worked with our Moodle person on campus to get the LibGuides LTI working, so now we can get appropriate guides sucked right into Moodle. I still wish that there was something easier than custom metadata that would allow this kind of interaction, but right now the fiddly custom metadata route is the price we’re paying for more seamless integration into what has become students’ primary classroom. Such is life.
  • More chat reference widgets
    I made a chat widget to integrate into several of our core database platforms, and our eResources person is working on getting those loaded.
  • Custom vs Generic
    One big thing I’m wrestling with right now is when to do highly customized instruction (which is our norm) and when to provide generic videos paired with assignments, guides, and/or Q&A sessions. Students here really respond to the personalized, custom, course-integrated work we generally do, and this funnels them into our liaison appointments quite nicely. But I simply can’t do that in the current environment 100% of the time. 6 short Zotero videos took me most of a week’s work… So which things need to be exactly how customized? For example, I have an upper level course in one department where I know students get very few opportunities for library instruction before their senior thesis, so even though they need a pretty generic thing from me, I decided it was important to have that thing delivered all in my own voice rather than in equally good (or better) videos made by my colleague. I want them to know that I’m their librarian. But then for a first year seminar I kind of want to find videos from my colleagues as much as possible so that they come away having learned that there’s a whole team of librarians at this library, all of whom are awesome and available to help students throughout their college careers.

So yeah, nothing earth shattering here, but that’s where my brain’s been for the last while, ricocheting wildly between big things and little things – solvable things and unsolvable things. And now I’m going to go back to story-boarding a couple of videos for core concepts that I teach ALL THE TIME, and that take 5 minutes or less in a classroom, but will probably take me several hours to put into video form… Wish me luck!

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Reimagining Primary Source Searching to Help Dismantle Institutional Racism

Primary source searching is hard. It has always been hard. First there was the problem of extremely limited access (unless you had travel funding and archives access). Then, after the digitization boom, there’s the new problem of helping students understand that they can’t search for topics or ideas; they have to search for concrete things from the source description or from the text already in the source. “Postcard” will likely be in the metadata about a postcard, but “depicting domesticity in the 18th century” is just not part of the metadata as a general rule. I tell students that they have to search for people, places, or things, not topics. And even then it won’t be comprehensive. And there’s literally no way to search for “paintings by women” or “novels by Black people.” That’s just not how the systems are set up, I say, over and over and over. You have to literally type in the letters-in-a-row that the original authors typed, or you have to know the name of the creator, I explain, over and over and over. If you want to find out how x group is referenced in newspapers, you have to OR together all the names and words that might have been associated with that group, I instruct, over and over and over.

And therein lies the rub. I am no longer willing to inflict on my students the trauma – the violence – of ORing together all the epithets that have been used in newspapers and legislation and editorial cartoons and broadsides to refer to minority groups. It’s one thing to be presented with these terms once you’ve gained access to a historical document. It’s quite another to have to use your imagination, creativity, and research skills to come up with these terms. And then after all that you have to actively recreate these epithets by typing these terms into a search box?? All neatly strung together with your fancy boolean operators?? No. Doing that myself is painful. Requiring students to do that in order to gain access to the historical record is horrible.

Going through and improving the metadata in our digital collections is going to be hard, expensive, and time consuming. The historic record is quite large, after all. But we and our vendors must do this work. It’s our ethical, moral, and social responsibility, and the technology exists to make it possible. We’ve been applying subject metadata to secondary and tertiary sources for years — for decades. And especially now that curricula have shifted toward teaching from primary sources more and more, we can’t hide behind the convenient excuse that “this is just the price you pay for studying history.” No. This is not a price we should have to pay. This is certainly not the price that my Black, Indigenous, LGBTQ, Latinx, and other historically marginalized students should have to pay in order to study history and culture.

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A Reference Librarian Working From Home

My “co-worker” keeps watch.

I’m currently in my 6th week of working primarily from home and my 4th week working entirely from home. Writing that sentence was an odd experience, actually. It’s the first time I’ve actually quantified my own pandemic self-isolation in that way, and I’m honestly having a hard time coming to terms with those concrete lengths of time. It feels like it’s been a long time, sure, but 6 weeks is far, far longer than I would have guessed. I guess Time has little of the same meaning now that it had in the Before Times.

There are all kinds of things I could write about how I’ve settled into my new work space and work habits here in my kitchen’s dining nook (not least of which is the extra care I have to give to ergonomics). And maybe I will write about some of those things some other time.

One thing that’s struck me, though, is how completely similar my work as a Reference Librarian During Pandemic Times is to my work as a Reference Librarian. I work with heavily text-based departments, and in fact a whole lot of what the researchers in my areas rely on has not been digitized. I’m not as physical-object-based as some others in our library, but I had kind of wondered what it would be like to support these departments without direct access to our physical materials.

And granted, the vast majority of my work in the Before Times involved in-person conversations, and a goodly proportion of those conversations took place in the stacks. And I’ve never enjoyed having to say that something is inaccessible, which now happens more often than it did before. So yes, my work is definitely different.

But what remains exactly the same is that one of the absolute core principles of my work is to help researchers define and scope their information needs within the practicalities of whatever circumstances they’re in. It’s not just, “What research question is manageable within a 10-page paper;” It’s also, “What research question is manageable given the evidence that’s accessible using available time and resources.” I talk about this pretty explicitly with upper level students, but it’s always an undercurrent in conversations with researchers of all levels.

Usually the things that aren’t available to us are physical things that are out of reach because the researcher doesn’t have money or time to travel to a particular archive or special collection. Or materials are inaccessible because they were never publicly available, or they’re classified, or they’re locked down because of privacy reasons… So much of the world’s information is impossible or impractical for use.

The difference is that now the impossible/impractical category has extended to include most of the world’s physical library collections. There’s a ton that’s been digitized, and between libraries working to license more and more of that content and vendors opening up temporary access there really is a lot out there. But of course it’s not everything. It will never be everything.

So then we’re back to the conversations that are actually familiar even while feeling strange — those reference interview questions that are intended to help you and the researcher figure out what the goals of the information need are, and whether those goals could be accomplished with materials that are accessible. And if not, what are some accessible materials that are sufficiently interesting and similar that if we adjust the goals slightly the researcher could have meaningful work to accomplish.

So yeah. Reference interviews can take longer these days, both because we can’t do them face to face and because there are proportionately more that require pretty creative thinking on both sides. But it’s still the good ol’ Reference Interview, and we’re good at that. And that’s comforting in a world that feels pretty chaotic and uncertain.


The User is Not Broken

Published on Upworthy

Every few years this picture makes the rounds on the internet, and every time it does the booksellers and librarians of the world nod in understanding. Public librarians and booksellers get this question day in and day out – academic librarians less so. (Most of our books in academic libraries don’t have their fancy covers on anymore, so this question would be pretty much impossible here anyway.)

Here’s the thing, though. It’s not that “people annoy us” with this question. It looks to me like there was some frustration behind this particular display, sure, and the result is wording that pokes fun at patrons in a way that makes me squirm, but that’s not the norm for people I’ve talked to. Most librarians and booksellers I’ve encountered are proud to know their collections and clients well enough to be able to match people with the books they want!

No, the thing that’s frustrating is that it’s hard for us when we can’t figure out the answer to the question (we’re very all-in on the identity of being able to answer questions), and our systems don’t let us search by cover design features. That mantra of librarianship, The User Is Not Broken, means that if we’re getting tons and tons of the same question, that means that the system isn’t set up right.

Of course, another piece of the frustration is that we often don’t have a ton of control over our search systems. Don’t get me started on the refrain from vendors about “what users want” that almost never matches what the people I work with every day ask me about… And, sure, often what people want and need aren’t technically feasible, or aren’t feasible within shrinking budgets, or aren’t feasible with reduced staff or with staff that gets less and less training.

But if we actually can’t change the systems, we can embrace the fact that we can foster humans who can say “Oh, maybe you’re thinking of this red book?” Humans are pretty incredible!

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