A Bit on Learning Environments

As is so often the case, a blog languishes when a lot is going on. Over the past year and a half a lot has been going on: a new job, family stuff, and most recently some new focuses at work.

It’s an exciting time to be at Tech. We’re aligning more closely with our strategic plan, we’re restructuring in ways that will enable better communication and collaboration, and generally it’s exciting to be positioning ourselves to meet our new mission, vision, and aspirational identity. Some of us are finding ourselves in new roles as a result of this focus, and on July 1, I’ll begin the role of Director for Learning Environments at Virginia Tech.

Today I had the opportunity to begin speaking publicly about what that means at an NLI workshop: Transforming research, teaching, and learning through the new University Libraries.  I suspect this is the first of many chances to hone the message around what “Learning Environments” are, but to briefly describe it, we’re framing Learning Environments as the environments in which learning takes place, as well as the services and partnerships that are situated in those environments.  In our thinking, this includes online learning environments, circulation, reference, point-of-need (roving assistance), spaces, and academic programming. Putting these units and services under one umbrella will allow for some really strong partnerships and collaborations within the library, as well as providing a context from which we can offer consistent learner experience and messages that reinforce one another.

The larger Learning Division also includes Learning Services, where a lot of traditional instruction falls. Learning Environments and Services will be close partners as we are both stakeholders in a number of overlapping areas (such as classrooms, online learning, etc).

If you’re interested in our first stabs at outlining this work, we posted a LibGuide for the workshop and I’ve posted my slides here. (I’m hoping by the third or fourth time I talk on this topic I can move the slides to something more typical of my presentation style. :) )

Lunch with Lynda (1/3): Reframing Reference

Today I had a delightful lunch with Lynda and we challenged each other to blog the conversation to see where our overlaps are for a potential future project. From my perspective, the conversation fell into three parts, so welcome to my three part series: Lunch with Lynda.

  1. Reframing Reference
  2. Librarians in the 21st Century
  3. Professional Personas

So today is….. Reframing Reference.

This is an idea I’ve been toying with for about two years. I need to carve out some time to do some serious work with it, because I think it could be a useful conversation to have amongst reference folks, but I need to do a bit more study and talking with faculty about their research approaches, etc.

ZSR Library Research Services

The idea stems from the fact that though I reside in a Reference and Instruction department, and though I think (and my evaluations would suggest) I am a very strong teacher, I do not think of myself as a reference librarian. I dread the desk. I never feel confident as a student approaches, I always doubt I provided the best answer, and I am haunted by the fact that there are other people who are really really good at reference (whereas my core competencies reside in other areas) and if we could just switch off the entire library would be in a better place. I’m doubly haunted by the knowledge that most every reference librarian I know loves the hunt. They love unusual questions, the look of delight when they can get a patron to the right information, and the challenges of unexpected topics. When I talk with reference folks about reference, I know I’m part of a different tribe.

In sharing some of these deep dark fears with colleagues in the profession (including Lynda) I am regularly reminded that if I am teaching information literacy well, then I’m doing reference, and those skills allow me to answer 99% of the questions I get. And that’s completely true. Every time I finish a shift I realize that there weren’t as many questions as I expected and that I answered them all well. So it’s all really an unfounded inferiority complex. (Though, I’d say there’s some personality traits at work here, which we’ll discuss in part three of this series.)

This inferiority complex has eaten away at me the entire time I’ve been on the reference department–since July when I started my new position. And as a person who tends toward reflection and “rational” approaches, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to pinpoint why I feel resistance. And as you might guess I have a theory.

Typically reference (in larger departments) is staffed by specialists. People might focus in on one or five disciplines and target those departments. Of course, a reference librarian has to be generalist enough to answer any question that comes to the desk, but specialize for upper-level questions. My departments, for example, are Philosophy and Women’s and Gender Studies.

When there are Philosophy reference questions, I can nail them every time. Philosophers use library resources in very specific ways, and typically very differently than other humanities. Philosophers won’t (unless they’re doing some very contemporary postmodern work) need biographies, primary sources,  histories, literary critiques, or any of the typical humanities sources. Philosophers need to know who else has written papers based on other’s work so that they can trace the line of argumentation around a certain philosophical stance. This is a very specific approach to research.

Reference Department When I get Women’s and Gender Studies questions, I feel good about them about 15% of the time. I (as you might guess) specialized in feminist theory in my undergraduate work. Feminist theory looks a lot like philosophy research. So if those come up, I can help quickly and effectively. If someone wants to know about a biography of a famous woman, I can typically hack it together, but that’s not something I’m very experienced in. If someone wants to do a social science approach to WGS (psychology, sociology, etc) I can do it, but I rely on skills I picked up as a Communication major and I know it’s not my strength. If someone wants to know how many women live in a specific area, what a target market of women is for a potential new business, or how women’s biology differs from men’s… then I’m of almost no help. (I say that, but really I do get them there. I just feel like it takes me longer than it should.)

Reflecting on this, it’s clear to me that I’m good at the research I was trained to do–which is philosophical research. I’ve observed colleagues who are amazing at the research they were trained to do–literary critiques, sciences, business, etc. For traditional disciplines I think this works really, really well. Especially if a department is large enough to pair people with the discipline they have training in. However I think the model breaks down a bit with interdisciplinary fields that utilize several different research methods.

So what I’d love to do is to try to figure out if there are certain “families” of research approaches. Maybe history and literature have more in common than history and music. Maybe some traditional groupings, social sciences, make a lot of sense the way they are. Maybe interdisciplinary reference work should be broken down beyond just a specific department. Maybe the only disciplines impacted by this are multidisciplinary ones (though I doubt it because I don’t think philosophy fits in with traditional humanities). I’d love to do a bit of exploring to see if there are “families” of research styles that don’t necessarily line up along disciplines or traditional groupings of disciplines.

If I ever find the time for it, I think the next step is to find out from faculty how they actually do their research–for real–in a number of fields. It’d be so useful to talk about the entire research process, and then specifically where the library fits into that for them. Then we could use that information to frame how we teach students to research in each discipline and we could use it to improve reference services. Of course, I know there are studies out there for specific fields and for some approaches, but I’m thinking something very systematically done. (Is anyone aware of anything out there like that?)

Then, I could imagine staffing built around common research practices and/or training built around them to help folks like me, who actually never did the more typical humanities style research, for example.

Of course, the easiest way to deal with this personally is to either work reference a lot more in order to get more comfortable with it, or work reference a lot less and focus on other areas of work. But the easiest path isn’t necessarily the most (theoretically–in that I actually really like theory) fun. :)

Okay, so that’s part one of today’s lunch discussion. I’m hoping I’ll be able to get to post two tomorrow. Until then…

Also, PS: Someone at Wake (we have no idea who) has made this amazing ZSR Ryan Gosling Tumblr. Check it out. We liked it so much we’re featuring it on the homepage.
My Awesome Library

QR Codes, Augmented Reality, and a LYRASIS presentation

Yesterday I participated in LYRASIS’ Ideas and Insights series. It was a really good event. The theme was Positioning Your Library in the Mobile Ecosystem: Content and Delivery. It was a rather small group, 25, but two were from out of the state, and for this time of year it wasn’t too bad.
I was honored to be on the speaker list along side Jason Casden, Tito Sierra, and Lori Reed. My talk was QR Codes, Location Based Services, & Augmented Reality for Libraries, which you can see here:

Since we had a smaller group I shifted from giving a talk to talking and facilitating discussion. There was some real enthusiasm for the topic, which was fun.

Jason Casden and Tito Sierra spoke on “Mobile Enhanced Access to Archives and Special Collections” and also gave tips for planning mobile initiatives. Their presentation was dense with really solid and interesting information. NCSU has been working in mobile since 2007 with their first mobile site, designed for classic mobile phones. They updated this to NCSU Libraries Mobile in 2010, the same year they came out with WolfWalk (the amazing, location aware web/iphone app that I’ve mentioned in the past). They’ve also worked to integrate QR codes into their exhibits to build rich online content that isn’t constrained by the physical limitations of space and link the two together. They showed a picture of a recent 4H exhibit and the corresponding smartphone screenshot.

The lessons learned were really interesting: first they pointed out the often skipped step of thinking about why an app should be mobile (and not something people would use a computer for or a kiosk) and that we need to rethink content for mobile devices. They discussed the differences (and how to choose) between web-based and device-based apps, but also pointed out that presence in the app market drives adoption. Finally, they had practical tips such as thinking of the robustness of the wireless connection in your building, think about how to deliver content in a way that doesn’t compromise the user experience, and preparing for the unexpected.

Finally, they had several really cool non-library specific things to discuss:

“You have to poke your finger at everything that is coming out to actually understand it. It goes back again to how you do things. If you are nimble, you should be able to test everything quickly and cheaply… That’s where you need to be.”

If you’re interested in their presentation, they also posted it to SlideShare and it is available here:

Next up, Peter Murray discussed LYRASIS support for technology. They’re about to do a push to support open-source. He also facilitated a discussion about mobile in libraries discussing topics from who is using it to the role of the library in mobile tech, to loaning out devices to patrons, to mass digitization. The group was small enough that everyone was able to participate, which was very nice.

Lori Reed was the final presenter and spoke on “e-change: creating a movement for patrons’ virtual 2 cents.” She told the story of Charlotte Mecklenburg Public Library budget cuts and discussed how the library used social media to get the word out. Before the budget cut, PLCMC was known to be one of the best systems in the country. They won numerous awards and individual staff members were nationally recognized. One year they faced significant budget cuts where all “low hanging fruit” were eliminated. The next year they were told to prepare for a 50% reduction. In response to this they were very intentional with creating accounts, using hashtags, scheduling tweets, and live tweeting board meetings. In parallel Lori set up savelibraries.org to help get the word out about any library being cut. The library did not come out of this unscathed, but came out better than expected. However, the core structure has changed and some units have been folded into the county (HR, tech, maintenance). Her presentation isn’t on SlideShare yet, but it probably will be.

The core message I took from Lori’s presentation was the importance of linking the library mission to the larger organization’s mission. When I first started library school, I didn’t understand that. I was a bit idealistic in my thoughts about libraries and how they could run. Then, as I learned from my library’s strategic planning process, our Dean’s leadership, and the way we work here I had fully bought into the idea of aligning missions. I still mostly felt that was important in an intuitive way, though. Lori’s talk gave me a practical example of why it’s important and a conceptual model to show the importance of explicitly proving relevance to the larger organization. It’s such a sad story, though. I hate that it has become an example in this way.

All in all, it was a great day with a strong series of talks. All just a little bit down the street. If you want to know more about any of the sessions, just let me know, and I’ll share my notes!

(Cross posted to the work blog.)