Search vs. Discovery

Search vs. discovery is a phrase seen often in library circles. I’m sure there have been hundreds of conference session, poster presentations and articles on the topic. I try to read widely and broadly to see where knowledge from other areas can creep into what I do in the library. One of the blogs I read for that purpose is Seth Godin’s blog, and he posted an entry with the same title at the beginning of the month. You should go read it, it’s short.

He ends with a challenge “Are you working to help your clients, patrons, customers and colleagues find what they already know what they want? Or teaching and encouraging them to find something they didn’t know they needed?”

This seems to be a key shift in our new information economy. Users think they can find what they need online, and often see libraries solely as storehouses or providers of online content (if that!). I think we have an opportunity to use this to our advantage and show our users how the library can enhance discovery. Many public and school libraries get to do exciting things like story time and makerspaces that cater to this role, but it can be trickier in academic libraries.

Academic libraries often have the mission of supporting the research needs of the university/college, and it can be hard to justify more creative ideas that are difficult to assess. I’m currently reading inGenius by Tina Seelig as an attempt to foster creativity both within and outside my library work. I think discovery is akin to a creative form of searching – we are still trying to meet an information need but may not have the words or tools to communicate that need.

Our most effective form of encouraging discovery is likely to happen when we are actively engaged with a user in a classroom, at the reference desk, in the stacks, or in communications online. I like to explain the LCC Classification system by selling students on how great it is that books on the same subject sit near each other on the shelf. I’ve found that at least half of my trips to the stacks with a student result in them checking out a book we didn’t start out looking for – either to fill the requirements of their expressed need or to fill a need they discovered when they saw that book on Buddhism or quitting smoking as they walked by.

This experience is hard to replicate online, but it is still doable. I am embedded in several Nursing research classes who have to find research for very specific questions with very specific requirements. I spend a lot of time crafting emails to students explaining the importance of going from broad to narrow and in being flexible with their queries. When I run into questions that aren’t being addressed in current nursing research I often point them to systematic reviews or articles from other fields to introduce citation searching. This kind of lateral discovery is often new to them and even if they don’t replicate my steps I know they at least have been exposed to a new way of solving their information need.

A library’s strongest selling point may be that it offers a central location for people to work alone or in groups in a space that is dedicated solely to assisting them. Libraries are not trying to sell anything or push an agenda. Libraries are simply dedicated to helping people meet their needs through whatever means we can reasonably provide. One way we can do this is to find those opportunities to foster discovery.

Customer Service

My first job after finishing my undergraduate degree was a customer service representative for a company that sells comic books and comic paraphernalia from the major publishers to the stores. Depending on your level of interest in comics, this may or may not sound like a great job. I have limited interest in that world (although I am glad now to have learned about the industry), and for me the job was pretty miserable. It was high pressure and there were a lot of silly corporate rules to follow.

It did teach me a lot about interacting with people and with making quick decisions about which tasks were a priority and which could be tabled for later. I made great friends and looking back I am glad for the experience. My next job was as a crisis coordinator for a domestic violence resource center. This job required a more intimate level of customer service, and took priority management to a new level. Working with people whose lives were literally in danger has permanently shifted my outlook on what defines a crisis.

These past lives have made an enormous impact on how I approach librarianship. In fact, I’m talking about this in an upcoming presentation at my institution for MLIS Information Day 2014. I think our ultimate goal as librarians is to meet the needs of our users. This is a simple statement but it can be applied to all libraries and all users. Their needs may have nothing to do with a traditional view of what a library does, but I think it’s our responsibility to provide users with information about how to meet their needs even if we are not the answer.

Aaron Schmidt wrote about a similar concept in his blog post this week titled “Earning Trust”. He discusses the premise that our users must develop a level of trust (that we can meet their needs) in order for us to be useful. He then discusses a few key areas in which we can make that happen. My goal is always to leave each person I interact with during my library hours with a sense that the library is a helpful place. If I can meet their actual need while they are there it’s icing on the cake. This translates well to online interactions and doesn’t change if I’m interacting with students, faculty or staff.

This doesn’t mean we always have to be sweet or go over the top, but simply that each person who comes to me feels like they could do so again. I watched the recording of a webinar from ASERL that took place on Tuesday called “Successful Faculty Outreach Strategies in ASERL Libraries“. The focus was on scholarly communication, but each example given by the panel was really about getting people comfortable with you and showing them how you can meet their needs. Many of the presenters viewed their success in terms of who reached out and how that initial meeting/workshop/interaction led to more of the same.

I feel more fulfilled when a student comes to find me after a workshop than when I get them to show up for extra credit. I recently had a faculty member send me a PowerPoint file to ask me how the authors put together their slides. This is something I’m fairly skilled in so I offered to sit down with her and show her how to do something similar. It may not be filling the traditional librarian role, but it’s meeting my goal of being helpful and providing excellent customer service. That interaction could easily lead to in class library instruction or an invitation to a faculty meeting.

Customer service is a term that’s been over used, but at its core it’s meeting people’s needs to the best of your ability for the context. It’s easy to forget how important the concepts of good customer service are within the library setting because they become automatic. I hope that as a profession we can continue to focus on helping our users and providing value to our communities because we wouldn’t exist without their trust and support.

Compound Effect

I recently read the book “The Compound Effect” by Darren Hardy. It was an easy read and most of it wasn’t new to me as I’ve been studying the topic of achievement and goal setting for a few years. The biggest takeaway I got from the book was that small changes can have huge effects when applied consistently over time. This is good when we have good habits, but terrible when we have destructive habits.

I relate everything to health and wellness, it’s my passion. A great example of the compound effect in terms of food is that one extra 150 calorie cookie a day means 54,750 calories added to your diet each year! In the library there are many ways we can make small extra efforts that could potentially yield big rewards. Something I think about often is what our users get out of their interactions with us and our services.

This morning when I was on the reference desk a student asked if I could help her find an article from a citation in the back of her Psychology textbook (everyone in her class is doing this right now). There are several ways I could have approached this:

1. Quickly pull it up on my own computer and send it to her.

2. Quickly pull it up on a student computer so she could print/email it.

3. Walk her through the process while I controlled the mouse/keyboard and print/email it for her.

4. Walk her through the process while she controlled the mouse/keyboard and have her print/email it.

5. Walk her through the process while she controlled the mouse/keyboard, help her print it so she wouldn’t print any extra pages and confirm that she could do it again if needed.

As you can see, each option takes an incrementally greater amount of effort but one could argue that those small improvements will drastically improve her experience at the desk. I estimate that option 1 would have taken about a minute depending on computer speed. What I actually did (option 5) took about 3 minutes. To me, the extra two minutes is worth it because I know that student had a positive experience. She found her article, learned a new skill, and saved 20 cents.

The reference desk is an easy target for this thought exercise because it provides multiple opportunities that have a direct impact on a person. This might be harder to see doing other tasks, but small efforts yield big rewards in most endeavors. It’s easy to get caught up in a routine when we complete our job tasks. We are usually either on autopilot (copier is that way) or focused on long term goals/projects. Spending a little bit of extra effort on the small tasks is a good way to mix things up and to eventually make big changes.

If you are a fan of personal development topics I’d like to suggest the School of Greatness podcast. The host, Lewis Howes, is a former pro athlete who is now a “lifestyle entrepreneur”. He interviews people from many different backgrounds, but asks each one for their definition of greatness. One of his recent guests, Josh Shipp, defined it as “intentional consistent incremental improvement”. Short and simple, but something we can all achieve. How will you make a small change today?

Spring Break + Social Capital

Last week was Spring Break for my institution and for the partner institution where I am physically located. This created an interesting situation: my institution requires me to work during this time, but my partner institution closes completely. Fortunately, there is an administrative office for my institution located in the same building as the library that is home to roughly ten staff and the faculty offices that was kept open during the break. This gave me a good opportunity to build relationships with the staff in that office (assistant director, office manager, front desk, faculty coordinator, IT, advisors, and student services).

I spent the week working on long term research projects, playing with data, catching up on professional development, and communicating with students and faculty online. On Monday I happened to read a post by my current favorite library blogger Sally at Librarian Hats titled “Cashing In: Social Capital and the Informationist”. The post was about how we can use social capital to build relationships between libraries and faculty. I found it to be a good reminder of one of the benefits of spending the week in an alternate location: strengthening my social capital.

I know I am fortunate to work with a small body of faculty within a much larger group. I have spent quite a bit of time in my first ten months here in building those relationships. I email about what I can do for them, what I can do for their students, and new resources in their discipline. I visit offices and classrooms to give them helpful materials and have short conversations about what issues they face with their students. I attend faculty meetings that are both social and productive in scope. Through all these interactions my goal is to listen to them first, and then try to identify a way that I or the library can solve their problems. I was glad to read about social capital because to me that sums up what I am doing.

I haven’t spent as much time working on my relationship with the staff members located at this campus. I feel that I’m well known to our faculty by now, and staff is my next focus area. They often see students who don’t come to the library, and building their knowledge about how I can help students will only encourage them to send students to me. Our faculty coordinator has become a good friend, and he fills me in on relevant conversations that happen so I can follow up with individual faculty.

In light of the new ACRL information literacy standards I discussed in my previous post, I wonder if we should begin to use social capital within our instruction and reference work with students. It’s always my goal to provide a long view of the skills I’m teaching, and I think it can be valuable to let students know that they will be regarded more highly in the workplace if they can apply information skills to their work and to building relationships that will lead to better opportunities.

Focus on Purpose

I’m overdue for a blog post. I have had some personal challenges this month that have made it difficult to feel productive and/or creative, both of which are necessary for writing blog posts! My big news of the day is that I’m officially registered for ALA Annual in Las Vegas this June. The registration rates increase next week so I bit the bullet today. I’m looking forward to my second ALA Annual experience. I am moderating a panel discussion and have several committees that will be meeting during the conference. I quite enjoy connecting and working with librarians from around the country, and ALA is the culmination of the virtual work I’ve been doing all year.

One of the big topics in academic library land has been the partial draft of the new ACRL Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education that will supplant the 2000 Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education. This is huge news for academic librarians as many of us plan our instruction and assessment around this document. I’m still digesting the new framework, but my initial impression is that it is an improvement to the former standards because it’s more encompassing of information use in the world as opposed to strictly within academic settings.

In my two and a half years in academia I’ve cemented an opinion that we should be preparing our students for their future work environments, and that only teaching them skills related to being an academic is doing them a disservice. I came across a great blog post last week titled “4 Ways To Keep Students From Giving Up Before They Even Begin”. It’s written in a tone that implies K-12 education, but I think the concepts apply to any situation where one person is teaching another.

I love the tips because they are both practical and grounded in theory. The first tip is to position each activity/lesson in the context of its purpose. I didn’t do this when I first started teaching library instruction. I had no coursework in instruction and mimicked what was being done at my first institution. I was so focused on teaching the mechanics of the varying databases that I (and my students) lost sight of the purpose beyond completing one assignment. I quickly realized that my students would exert more effort if they could connect what I was teaching with their real life needs and the meaning behind what they were being asked to do.

The other tips are great too, but this is the one that sticks out to me as the most important. The new IL framework is phenomenal in this regard because it addresses the knowledge, abilities, and dispositions necessary to successfully grasp each threshold concept. The framework provides sample assignments and assessments for each concept, and these seem to be focused on the information work students will do throughout their lives. My biggest criticism of the new framework is that it is dense and jargon heavy. It’s not as easy to pinpoint a logical progression through the concepts, but ultimately that’s fitting because that’s how the real world works.

For those looking to explore others’ reactions to the new framework I recommend Barbara Fister’s post “On the Draft Framework for Information Literacy” that also links to several other great posts on the topic.

Doing the Work

Seth Godin is likely a familiar name to many librarians. He’s the author of several books, has given many inspiring TED talks, and writes a great blog. I just started subscribing to his blog about a month ago. I love that his posts are short, varied, and contain out of the box ideas. Some of them apply to my work in libraries, some to my personal life, and some not at all (but reading them is still rewarding).

His post on January 24th of this year was titled “On doing the work” (yes, I ripped off the title). I won’t summarize it because it’s short and easy to read, but it got me thinking about where the motivation to really engage with something comes from. More specifically: how do I harness that motivation in myself, can I identify which activities are worth doing, and how can I get my users to do the work that comes along with libraries.

Part of my inspiration for thinking about these issues is the History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education MOOC I am taking. I find that I’m not as engaged or willing to do the work as I was in the Hyperlinked Libraries MOOC. I haven’t yet figured out why, although I can identify several factors that may contribute. The subject matter isn’t as directly applicable to my life, the format of the course assignments is more individual, the course has many more participants, and the course software isn’t as personal. This thought exercise has helped me understand some of my own preferences for learning experiences.

I am more motivated if I can identify a specific outcome of my learning relevant to my life. I feel more comfortable learning on my own or in small groups with an outlet to share what I am learning in my own way with my peers. I enjoy video lectures more than I would have thought (and wish I had more of them in graduate school!). Taking handwritten notes helps keep me focused on what I am doing, and typing those notes later is invaluable for processing the information I’ve learned. I am glad to have figured out these preferences, and wonder if higher education institutions provide the right environment for fostering this self-exploration in students.

I think higher ed is moving in the right direction but isn’t there yet. At my institution we offer classes in person, on video, split between online and in person, and fully online. Many seated classes now have an online space as well. I think this is good for students if implemented successfully. It would be nice for students to have the opportunity to experience each one of these modes of instruction early in their career to discover what suits their preferences. Librarians may not be able to directly impact a student in the way a faculty member can, but we can bridge the gap between the faculty, students, and administration. We can counsel students about their options and reassure them as they work through their adaptation to the college environment.

As I stated earlier, I have been pondering how to motivate students (and faculty) to do the work when it comes to their information needs. This is definitely an iterative process. I know that information sticks better when it’s repeated, when it’s relevant to an outcome in their life, and when it’s presented with humility. I try to keep these things in mind when I work with students at the reference desk or in the classroom. I taught a session this morning to a class where I am also embedded in their online space. I taught them how to cite articles and embed links in their discussion board. I made it clear that using library sources is easier for several reasons (credibility, citation generation, linking, sifting through results, etc.). I let them know that I can help them find articles if they are stuck.

I moved into a discussion on APA format by first talking about the reasons why citations are used in academia and in the workplace. I brought it back to their class assignments. I had them work together to complete a citation. I reinforced that I am around to help them with citations (or anything else they need). The professor also wanted me to discuss presentation skills. During this portion I discussed the skills in the context of their group assignment for the course, job interviews, and workplace presentations. Again, I reinforced how the library can be useful (research, study rooms for practice, etc.). I used humor as much as possible, and told personal stories of how these issues have impacted my work and that of colleagues and friends.

When I left their classroom I went online and posted links to the main resources I discussed in their online course space. I know that I won’t hear from most of them, but I know that I will hear from more of them than I would have if I’d not spent the time and effort to connect to their various motivations. I had two students (out of 23) find me at the end of class. One asked for where to go for resume help. Had I not connected presentations and research to the workplace, she may not have reached out. What this thought experiment has taught me is that as a librarian and educator I need to view each library user as uniquely motivated (or not motivated) to solve an information task, and that spending an extra minute or two figuring out the motivation will be invaluable.

Thank you to those of you who did the work to stick with this post! I wanted to also link out to an essay I wrote titled “Student Trends: Informing Library Practice” that appears in my library’s online newsletter for new faculty. It touches on several of the ideas I explored in this post.

MOOC-ing Again

I had such a good experience in my Hyperlinked Libraries MOOC that I decided to sign up for a MOOC offered by Duke University and Coursera called “History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education”. We started this week and I am enjoying it so far. It’s hard not to draw comparisons between the two. I don’t feel as connected to my classmates as I did in Hyperlinked, I think because the web platform is less customized. The video lectures in Hyperlinked were great but very informal, whereas the videos in Week One of History have a high production value and feel like an intimate lesson from a great mind rather than a conversation between like-minded professionals. They are both valuable experiences!

Our assignment this week was 500 words on “What is one thing–a pattern, habit, behavior–you have had to “unlearn” in your life in order to be able to learn something new? Please write a 500-word essay about what it was you had to unlearn, any challenges you encountered, and any successes you experienced.”

Here’s my response in full:

The majority of our early learning takes place in formal settings (like public schools) where we are taught based on the principle of right and wrong, of success and failure. This may be shifting, but when I began Kindergarten in 1989 we spent a lot of time being ranked and graded on our successes and failures. I was fortunate that I was a fast learner with a deep and easily retrieved memory, and I coasted through my K12 career with very little failure.

I picked a fairly selective college and set out with the (lack of) studying skills and habits I’d developed for a right/wrong world. I was quickly faced with a new reality, one in which there weren’t always right answers and where failure became something I had to face. I hear similar stories from other “smart kids” who arrived on college campuses with little practice in studying beyond easy memorization of concepts. I couldn’t handle the academic failures I experienced in that first semester, and eventually withdrew from school in the early Spring semester to regroup.

I started anew in the Fall at a community college where there was less pressure to succeed. I figured out how to study in a way that prepared me for deeper learning, and discovered how to use failure as a litmus test for my learning. Failure was not the end of the road anymore, it became a valuable tool for reflection. The skills I developed at community college helped me earn a 4.0 in my two years at a university without much stress or failure. Unfortunately, the message I’d internalized about failure didn’t stick as I made my first foray into the job market in a difficult academic environment.

I had to settle for a job as a customer service representative where my job performance was very much a success/fail endeavor with little room for growth, improvement or deep critical thinking skills. I eventually moved on to a job in my major and quickly realized I had chosen poorly. I again had to re-frame my learned notion of failure as being defeat to failure as being a learning opportunity. I took time to evaluate my academic career and look for a way to do what I loved as an undergraduate. This led me to earning a Master’s Degree in Library and Information Science and my current role as an academic librarian.

Graduate school was more difficult than any other academic experience I’d had, but I was able to find a level of success with which I was comfortable. I didn’t have too much trouble finding a job, and have used the small failures I encounter during my job performance as opportunities to hone my weaknesses and become a better librarian. Unlearning what failure meant has been key to my motivation to constantly be learning and improving in my professional and personal life.