The Importance of Phrasing: Librarians as (Virtual) Community Builders

So my boss wrote a blog post. And I’m totally down with it.

In it he talks about “personalized virtual communities for teaching and research” and says:

I think we’re seeing a shift occur. In the past it was “how to use a blog in your course” and now it’s “how to build an online social learning environment for your specific needs.” These conversations are the result of faculty becoming more comfortable and sophisticated using the social web. I’m finding many who are eager to expand their platforms and try new things.

And I was struck by how useful the framing was. For years I worked on this type of project. I (along with collaborators) partnered with faculty to design rich online learning environments, but we didn’t think of them that way. We thought of it more from an instructional design perspective: What goals does the faculty member have? What tools might enable them to reach those goals? How can we design the information environment to utilize appropriate tools and help them meet their goals? But really, all of this was basically creating the “personalized virtual communities for teaching” that Brian describes.
Discussion at the table - Meeting over coffee

What does it look like, you might ask. (People often do.) It’s a lot of discussion, listening, and brainstorming with the faculty member about what they hope to do with their class. A few examples of things that came out of this process:

  • A wiki platform to create a dynamic, course created encyclopedia for a sociology class that could be built on semester after semester.
  • A highly customized blog theme to allow a french class to publish a journal for french readers (particularly high school french students).
  • An easy to use process for making videos and podcasts that we frequently introduced classes to (including accounting and education classes!).
  • A google doc systems for collaborative paper writing in LIB100.
  • A google site that surpassed what the available CMS could do for online learning.

It was good work to do.

And, in fact, I wonder if the “personalized virtual communities” framing will help libraries see this as a realm that makes sense to explore. In my old way of thinking of this work, it blurred the line with what a lot of Teaching and Learning Centers do. That was the lens we used when we decided to transition this type of work to the TLC in my previous experience. However, I have always seen it as an “information environment” issue that makes sense in libraries. Even more so when I think of the “personalized virtual communities” that not only require some instructional design skill, but also information architecture, usability, and other domains that are frequently part of library work. So now, it looks like I’m back to exploring that issue (which, in many ways, has its roots in Blended Librarianship).

The Library’s Role

A topic I was batting around with a friend the other day was kind of related to this. In his organization, the library provides blogs, but not much support beyond that. (This is related to the categories of support Brian outlined.) We were wondering where the line is. Should libraries leave blogs to IT? Automate the creation of whatever web system the class is using and accounts? Offer customizations to platforms? Partner with faculty to develop a system together?

We easily agreed that the power is in the partnering. It’s not scalable, but it can create a powerful experience. And it makes use of the information expertise we bring to the table. At my library we’re framing it as more of a “boutique” experience. That is where the most value add is.

My friend and I were talking about writing something on this. I’m feeling an even stronger pull to do it now. (Watch out, friend.)

Assessing the Work

As Brian pointed out, it’s a challenge to think about how to frame this for reporting, since it’s not in any of the standard information gathering forms we deal with, and isn’t something that’s necessarily quantifiable. You can say how many virtual environments you built, but not the depth of relationships that came from the experience or the difference it made in students’ perceptions of the course or materials. That’s apparent more in stories, and shifts of attitudes about the library in the long term.


Anyway, I’m very excited about the potential in building personalized virtual learning communities, and, if you add a software engineer to the mix, the possibilities become even more compelling. And today, in 2013, with Google Glass, new online platforms, and an increasingly rich world of digital materials to work with, it’s even more exciting. Here’s to a fun (and productive!) semester!


100 Days At a New Place

I thought I’d wrap this week’s posts up with a summary of the first 100 days on the job as Associate Director for Learning & Outreach at Virginia Tech Univeristy Libraries. For those who have been following along, I’ve taken this position after nine years at Wake Forest University as Head of Instruction, Instructional Design Librarian, and Microtext Specialist.

The two institutions are similar in terms of geography, but otherwise quite different. In a way, the point in time in which I joined both is similar: soon after I came to Wake we got a new dean, and not long after that a new president. I came to Virginia Tech just after a new dean, and soon after I got there we got the announcement our president is retiring.

I’ve been at Virginia Tech long enough now to have a sense of the place, understand the general culture of the library, and I’d say at this point I know maybe three fourths of the people who work in the library and a dozen or so who work in other units. That kind of statement would have been unthinkable at Wake. Within this time frame you would certainly know the entire library (it’s about a third the size) and many people outside the library as well (the university is about a fifth the size).

Realizing it was time for me to move on was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make. Yet at the same time, it was validated nearly immediately. It had taken me several years to get used to working at a small, private, teaching centered, liberal arts institution after attending a large, public, Research I, technical, land-grant university myself. That background served me well in this transition. As I told a colleague earlier today, on the very first day, when walking across campus, I was struck by how at home I felt.

Joining a place that is going through the early phases of change is very different from having some time on the ground before change happens. I was able to get to know the interests, motivations, wishes for the library of my colleagues at Wake before I ever imagined there would be a transformation. At Tech, I joined in once the changes were already happening, and it’s been harder to get to know how my colleagues feel about things. However, at Wake, on some level, I was always that kid right out of college, or a library school student, or that brand-spanking-new professional. Coming into Tech allowed me to shed that to some extent, and come in as someone with experience and professional reputation. Pros and cons to both those perspectives, I think.

The main thing that I’m still adjusting to at this point is missing the intimacy of working in a smaller library. Make no mistake: we were doing big things, and a lot of them, at Wake, but I was both positioned in such a way I at least knew what the big projects were, and so that I could seek out that information and get involved to whatever extent I thought made sense. Tech is so much bigger that you have to specialize (truly, a treat for me!) The size makes it impossible to keep track of everything going on in every part of the library. And with specialization comes a limitation to what you can get involved with. I know less of what’s going on in the library, but I have a much deeper knowledge of the part that I’m involved with.

As for the work? I had the luxury to focus on learning as much as I could about Virginia Tech and the University Libraries in my first few months. I spent a lot of time meeting people: going to lunch, and getting coffee. I read a lot of documents. I spent a lot of time on various websites. I attended a lot of meetings, as much to learn as to contribute. I’m involved in a handful of concrete projects that will have tangible outcomes as well as more heady, exploratory projects. We’re in the midst of hiring a few communication related positions and I’m extremely excited about that group spinning up.

My work largely focuses on the Learning & Outreach portion of the library’s work. I get to work closely with my boss and have a freedom to think about what we can be doing. I know in the next year we’ll spend a lot of time looking at pedagogies and literacies, and how the library can support the learning mission of the University in logical ways that we might not have traditionally considered. Renovations are underway. New services are starting up. It really feels like we’re inventing the future. And that is a very exciting thing, indeed.

You’ll note that I have completely left out the discussion of changing coworkers. Though I have gotten to know several awesome, smart, friendly, and supportive colleagues at Tech, and look forward to getting to know more of them, I also know I will continue to miss my ZSR friends and family as well. Luckily they’re only two hours away. :)