from the Library of Maura

Space Matters

May 11th, 2013 · 3 Comments

One of my college experiences that I’m most grateful for is the opportunity I had to do my academic work in a wide variety of libraries and other spaces. These days my research and writing mostly happens in two locations: my office, sometimes before the library opens (though my office is in a very quiet part of the library, so even with the door open it’s never loud), or at home, where I have a laptop and vary my workspace slightly based on the time of day (mornings are sunny in the living/dining room, afternoons sunnier in the bedroom where my desk is). I know I can work in other places — my laptop is heavy, but not too heavy to take to a public library (we have so many wonderful library options in NYC), a coffee shop, etc. — but usually I don’t. Those places always seem so far away, and I have a hard time convincing myself to spend time and money commuting just to vary my study location, especially when I only have a few hours for that work.

But college was different. I was reminded of this not too long ago when I learned about a nifty libraries promo at the University of Chicago. They’ve made a set of small buttons with the name of each of the 6 libraries on campus. (Full disclosure: I had a radio show in college so these buttons also make me happy because they remind me of my youthful DJing and show-going days.)


I tweeted a photo of the buttons which sparked a quick conversation with friends and other alums about the places we studied. One of my favorites as an undergrad was Harper Library’s reading room, a very traditional space with high ceilings, tall narrow windows, dark wood tables, and bookshelf-lined walls. I loved Harper — it was the perfect environment for sustained reading and taking notes (from what I understand it’s now no longer a lending library but remains a study space). For more utilitarian, everyday schoolwork I went to the Regenstein, the main humanities/social sciences library on campus (also where my friends hung out). By third year I had a locker and a favorite carrel just adjacent; my then (and current) partner worked in the coffee shop on the lower level. If I had serious, uninterruptable work to do I’d sometimes go to Crerar, the science library. It was farther away from my dorm (and then apartment) than the other libraries, and it’s main advantages were that it was utterly silent and it was unlikely that any of my friends would be there, so I wouldn’t be tempted to socialize when I should be studying.

I’m a librarian so of course I love libraries, that’s no surprise. But as we’re heading into finals I’m reminded again about space: finding adequate space for academic work (and how lucky I was to have so many options). I walk through the library and students are everywhere. Every seat is filled, at carrels and tables, and students are even perched on kickstools in-between the stacks — though to be fair, many of them are seeking electrical outlets, which are occasionally located on pillars throughout the stacks. I love to see the library so full, but worry that we don’t have enough space for our students or enough different types of space.

Space is a luxury, it’s true, and City Tech has a small campus in a dense part of Brooklyn. What can we do in the libraries on our space-constrained campuses? Are there small steps we can take to ensure that students have the space they need to do their academic work? That’s one of the things my research partner and I are thinking about and grappling with right now as we write up our study of CUNY students’ scholarly habits. I’ve been cheered to read about a small academic library that established a silent study room — might there be space for something like that at our library? Could we rearrange or remove stacks to create quiet and less quiet zones? I’m looking forward to pulling together (and sharing!) these recommendations from our research.

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In the Library She’s a Tourist

July 29th, 2012 · 1 Comment

Library tourism! Do all librarians love it? I think signs (probably) point to yes.

Last month we took a quick vacation to visit family and friends in the Midwest and had the chance to indulge in some library tourism, too, in a visit to the new Joe and Rika Mansueto Library at the University of Chicago. Even if you’re not a library nerd you may have heard about Mansueto: last fall Wired ran a short piece about it last year when it opened.

Lots of large research libraries have run into trouble storing their collections in recent years as their available shelfspace has filled to capacity. Some of those libraries contract with offsite storage facilities, typically a good ways away from the campus, which deliver requested books daily. At the U of C they decided to turn the tennis courts next to the enormous Regenstein Library (the main non-science library on campus) into an onsite storage area…using the power of robots!

Mansueto is not tall aboveground but cuts an imposing figure nonetheless: a broad glass oval-shaped dome on the lawn. The dome encloses an incredibly quiet reading room and a preservation and conservation laboratory (very cool, like the visible science exhibits at natural history museums), divided in the middle by the circulation desk. But the real secret is below: a book storage system that reaches 50 feet down underground and uses robotic cranes to retrieve items requested by readers. The robot library of the future!

Unfortunately there weren’t any tours happening on the day we visited, so I can’t share any crazy robot photos with you, but there are some cool videos on the Mansueto website if you’d like to check out the robots.

I felt a little guilty even walking around the space — it was really quiet, and I think we got the stinkeye more than once as we tried to tiptoe around. The reading room has long tables with lighting and outlets and I could instantly see myself getting lots of work done in that kind of space. Have I mentioned how quiet it was?

There were also a few study rooms — essentially glass cubes with a desk and chair inside. They’re really beautiful.

It strikes me that these glass cubes might be a good solution for libraries that want to add study rooms in spots that weren’t originally designed for them. For example, at City Tech we have a 2-story library with one long wall of windows. We’ve been thinking of doing some rearranging so that we could accommodate more study rooms, but we probably don’t want to put them along the windows because that would restrict the amount of natural light that the rest of the library gets. A glass cube study room could go anywhere, even in the middle of a room. As @lwaltzer and the U of C responded to a tweet of mine, we could call them thinkquariums or think tanks!

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Library Day in the Life

January 28th, 2011 · No Comments

For the past 3 years librarians in many different libraries and countries around the world have collaborated on the Library Day in the Life project. Library workers blog, tweet, or post photos or videos to shine a light on what it is that we do all day. So far I’ve never participated — the project takes place in January and July, at times that aren’t during the regular CUNY semesters. I’ve always felt a little odd about joining in because I don’t really consider the days this week to be typical for me.

But I’ve been quiet on this blog lately, so I thought this might be a good year to jump in. My plan was to chronicle yesterday, but then we got 15″ (or was it 18?) of snow and the college closed (I took my kid to the park instead). So I’m going to try and reconstruct Wednesday’s work happenings.

I should note that most weeks during the semester I teach at least a few classes or workshops for students or faculty, though that varies from week to week. I also spend time at the Reference Desk, though not as much as I teach. And the meetings tied to the semester calendar haven’t started back up again yet either. So with that caveat…

On Wednesday I got into work at about 9:15, a little late for me (I had a routine doctor’s appt). Usually I try to get to the library by 8-8:30 and spend the time before I officially clock in working on research + writing. I’m most focused in the morning and I find that I’m most productive (especially with difficult tasks like writing) if I stick to this habit. Doesn’t always work out, but I’d say I keep to the plan more often than not.

Once my day officially started I triaged (answered, filed, deleted) email for about an hour. I also posted my handout on our staff wiki from the morning not-really-a-retreat we had in department the prior day. The theme of the non-retreat was productivity and connectivity, and we spent lots of time discussing email management techniques and how to use our new staff wiki for information we all need to access. I tried to use some of these email techniques this morning — while I’m not an inbox zero person I do try to keep my inbox relatively clear. I was bad about clearing out my sent mail folder last semester so I’m making a special effort to keep that manageable now.

Then I ran some errands around campus. First I went to media services to drop off a request for a media cart for our Web 2.0 Happy Hour faculty wine & cheese program in March. Next I took the handout and worksheet to the campus copy center to be copied for our English Composition I library instruction sessions, a required component of that course. Finally I headed to the grants office to pick up and drop off forms, and checked in to confirm that a grant I’m submitting is complete.

I don’t remember exactly when I had lunch, but it’s usually no later than noon. Most often I bring my lunch and eat at my desk (boring, I know). Probably did a quick email check and looked at my Google Reader briefly, too.

Next I spent some time crunching data from the surveys we ask students in our English Comp I sessions to fill out. Since we’ll be giving the survey to students during the Spring semester I didn’t spend too much time running the numbers now, but I like to take a look before the new semester begins to see if there are any unusual comments. This time a student requested additional materials for help with using the library from home, which dovetails nicely with our plans to create more online video tutorials and guidelines.

I also checked in on our faculty feedback form responses from last semester’s English Comp I sessions. Frustration in dealing with plagiarism was mentioned a couple of times. Unfortunately we don’t have time to discuss plagiarism thoroughly in our sessions (they’re only 75 minutes), so I emailed the instruction library faculty to pick our collective brains about strategies for helping to address the plagiarism issue.

After that I played around a bit with Zotero in advance of a faculty workshop I planned to co-teach this morning (but instead I was home with a sick kid — too much sledding?). I’m a bit sheepish that I haven’t used Zotero much in the past, and I’ve liked having an excuse to become familiar with it. I’m particularly excited about the collaborative features, which I think will come in handy for several projects I’m working on right now.

Next I made some coffee and prepped materials for our department curriculum committee to use to crossgrade student assignments as part of the collegewide assessment committee work I’m involved in. I’m on a few college and university committees and I genuinely enjoy most of my service work. It’s been a nice way to learn more about how things work and helps keep me thinking about how the library fits in with the broader institutional mission.

After putting in a request to CIS for student email addresses for a pilot program we’re trying this semester, it was back to email. I’ve been making the effort to keep my email to discrete chunks rather than checking constantly all day (I turned off notifications), but sometimes it’s difficult.

I headed out for home shortly after 5 today, when the library closed. During the semester we’re open later and I tend to stay a bit later, too. I try not to do too much work at home in the evenings, but I had a couple of time-sensitive things to get done this week. One of the students in my class last semester asked me for a recommendation so I wrote that up for her. I also did some formatting tweaking on the preliminary report of last year’s fieldwork that my research partner and I recently finished writing.

And that’s about it for this day. Next week this will all change, but I love the busy beginning of the semester after the (relative) quiet of January.

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New Look for a New Year

September 6th, 2010 · 1 Comment

It’s that time again — the new academic year has begun, and many of our libraries’ article databases have unveiled interface changes. There are usually a couple of these each fall, but I think this year is somewhat unusual in that three of the biggies have redesigned:

1. EBSCO, including Academic Search Complete
2. LexisNexis, the news and law database
3. JSTOR, the full-text database of scholarly journals across the arts and sciences

I’d wager that these three databases together probably capture the lion’s share of our undergraduates’ searches — if not in total then at least their first attempts at finding information on their research topics. I haven’t had time to fully explore the changes, though I did take a brief spin through each database.

At first glance the EBSCO changes look fairly minor. In their last redesign they added an incredibly useful feature — a pop-up bubble that displays an article’s abstract from the results list — so I’m predisposed to feel positive about this redesign.

On the results list, all of the options that can be used to refine results have been moved to the left side of the page (previously they were split between left and right columns). I’d guess this will make it much easier for students to use these options.

Another nice new feature is that once you click through to the article detail page, the links to use to print, save, email, etc. the article appear in the right column under the Tools menu.

Of course these are only a few of the changes, but I’d like to point out just one more that I like: in the top navigation bar the Thesaurus link now reads Subject Terms. The less time librarians have to spend explaining library jargon, the better (IMHO).

I’ve always disliked the LexisNexis interface so my hopes were not high for this redesign. So I was pleased to see that the changes have made LexisNexis much easier to use.

While the Easy Search page looks a bit busy, most students will probably get the most use out of the Search the News box. And the news search from this page is much, much better than it used to be. It’s streamlined, and with far fewer choices it is far less confusing. An advanced search with more fields and limiters is just one click away on the All News page.

Most importantly, the News search now defaults to all available dates. Previously the default date range was only the prior two months, and the dropdown menu to change this option was all the way at the bottom of the page and very easy to miss.

I’m still not a big fan of the LexisNexis results or article displays (why are the icon links for printing/saving/emailing so incredibly tiny?), but the search redesign is definitely a step in the right direction.

And then there’s JSTOR. JSTOR caused quite a stir late last month when their interface changes were unveiled. Briefly: when the redesign launched, the search results defaulted to displaying articles from all publications archived by JSTOR. While this doesn’t sound like a problem in theory, in practice not all libraries subscribe to all JSTOR collections. The kicker is that initially JSTOR didn’t enable OpenURL, which allows libraries to link between databases. This meant that search results were potentially returning lots of articles that could be available in another database, except there was no way to link over to them.

Lots of librarians cried foul when they realized the scope of these changes, and you may have seen the article at Inside Higher Ed and several blog posts (here and here, to name just two) about the kerfluffle. And luckily JSTOR responded pretty quickly, so OpenURL has been enabled.

Other than the linking issues, I think the JSTOR interface changes are great. Again, I’d never been fond of their previous interface – I found it deceptively simple with just the one field for search terms, and the Advanced Search always seemed overly confusing. The new interface still has just one field, but with the addition of Browse By Discipline links that make it easier to drill down to a specific journal or quickly scan the journals available in each subject.

The Advanced Search also seems streamlined and easier to use. Again there’s the option to limit by discipline or individual journal, which seems like it will be really useful for beginning students who may get far too many results if they search across all disciplines.

These redesigns will definitely change the way I teach students how to use EBSCO databases, LexisNexis and JSTOR. At City Tech our research and library instruction program starts up again tomorrow, and I’ll be interested to see how students react to the changes, too.

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Big News in Scholarly Publishing

June 11th, 2010 · No Comments

By now everyone’s probably heard about the storm a’brewing in scholarly publishing this week. I don’t want to repeat what’s been very ably said in many other spaces on the internets, but as an open access advocate I couldn’t let the week end without at least collecting together some of the high points of the discussion.

In brief, the University of California system libraries are resisting outrageous price increases for the Nature Publishing Group’s scholarly journals. This situation is, sadly, a familiar one for academic librarians, and this is not the first time that a large consortial group has pushed back. What’s new is the scope of the resistance: unless NPG comes down in price, U Cal faculty are being asked (among other things) to decline to peer review or submit articles to NPG journals.

This is huge, and a huge step in the right direction. As a librarian, a faculty member and a researcher I am absolutely thrilled to see this happening, and I’ll be following the situation closely as it evolves.

Here are some great places to go for more info:

  • The Chronicle of Higher Ed‘s article U. of California Tries Just Saying No to Rising Journal Costs provides a thorough introduction to the boycott.
  • Dorothea Salo, Institutional Repository Librarian at the University of Wisconsin who writes a fantastic blog about scholarly communication and open access (among other things) over at The Book of Trogool, has been covering the story since early in the week. (It was actually a tweet from Salo that first tipped me off to this situation late Tuesday night.)
  • Bethany Nowviskie, Director of Digital Research & Scholarship at the University of Virginia Library, wrote a great post called Fight Club Soap that, among other things, includes a powerful discussion of the relationship between scholarly journal pricing and scholarly monograph publication.

Good stuff, all. Go read it!

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This is Not a Library Skills Course

May 28th, 2010 · 9 Comments

The information landscape has changed dramatically in the past two decades. It sounds hackneyed and idealistic, but the ability to research and use information in a critical, well-considered way is a life skill that’s increasingly valuable. Our students need to be able to deal with these changes and navigate information resources, even (especially!) those students who aren’t going on to graduate school.

Information literacy is the term used by librarians and others in higher ed to describe these competencies. We teach information literacy to students in many different settings: at the Reference Desk, in one-on-one appointments, via online tutorials and guides, and in “one-shot” library workshops, to name just a few. While there is evidence that these instructional strategies are useful for students, many librarians feel frustrated that our interactions don’t afford us enough time to address much more than the most basic information skills.

There is another way: the information literacy course. With the luxury of a full semester of classes, instructors can work with students to explore the lifecycle of information in depth. Questions for framing the course might include:

  • Where does information come from, how is it produced, and by whom?
  • Why are some information sources privileged and respected while others are not?
  • How can we negotiate complex information issues like access, preservation, privacy, and ethical use?
  • How is information organized (and who does the organizing)?
  • How can we develop strategies for searching and finding relevant information?
  • Why do we evaluate the quality of information? Should we?
  • What are the reasons for documentation and dissemination of information?
  • What role does information play in our lives, in college and beyond?
  • What is the future of information?

This is not a library skills class. We do not spend 15 weeks teaching undergraduates how to act like librarians. Yes, we teach students how to use the online library catalog and databases, but that’s far from our primary goal. In these courses we have the time to encourage thoughtful engagement by students with a wide variety of information and media, as both content producers and consumers.

What could an information literacy course look like? I taught one recently, and during the course we:

– Contrasted publishing in traditional print media like newspapers, magazines, books and scholarly journals, with digital publishing in all forms, from text to audiovisual media.

– Examined and experimented with the opportunities and challenges of participatory media through our interactions both in class and on our course blog, which was openly available on the internet.

– Used our discussion of complex information issues to shape each student’s development of a topic to explore in depth via a research proposal, annotated bibliography, and research paper.

– Investigated the mechanics of information organization in print and digital media, both human-generated and machine-based systems, and experimented with tagging as a classification tool for our course content.

– Applied our knowledge of classification systems to create strategies for searching various information sources successfully. One student remarked that she knew she’d found the most appropriate keywords to use to search for information when she discovered an article on nearly her exact research topic.

– Obtained information on students’ research topics from scholarly, journalistic, and general internet sources, analyzed this information, and presented the results in a research paper.

– Collaborated in pairs to synthesize the results of each student’s research topic, and used an online publishing tool to share the findings. Students chose wikis and blogs for this project and used these spaces in ways that exceeded the requirements of the assignment, for example, to communicate with each other and share notes and resources while the project was in progress.

– Analyzed and documented the process of working on the collaborative project, and presented both the project and documentation to the rest of the class for discussion.

The library doesn’t hold a monopoly on information literacy, of course. Similar work to what’s covered in this course happens in other courses and other departments as well. But information literacy competencies must develop and strengthen over time, and a course can provide our students with a solid foundation on which to build. An information literacy course can help our students hack the new information landscape and prepare for the future.

(Submitted to Hacking the Academy.)

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Bad News and Good News

May 3rd, 2010 · 6 Comments

Lately I’ve been thinking about how students, faculty, and librarians use academic libraries. It all started last month after the latest Ithaka Faculty Survey results were released. Many survey responses seem to indicate that faculty use of academic libraries is decreasing. Of course there was much discussion of the report all over the higher ed (the Chronicle and IHE) and library (ACRLog and Library Journal) bloglands.

I read these articles with interest but not surprise. In my past life when I was in graduate school for archaeology I was a heavy library user, but it was while working with my advisor that I learned about the major scholars in my field of specialty. I mined the bibliographies of the articles and books assigned for my courses, searched the library catalog for books, and browsed the stacks in the call number ranges for the subjects I researched. I belonged to the scholarly societies for archaeology and anthropology (and got their journals), and sometimes I browsed the table of contents in other relevant journals in the library’s current periodicals section. To be honest, I don’t think I ever consulted with a librarian at my university’s library the entire time I was in graduate school.

I suspect that my process from many years ago is not all that different from the ways faculty and graduate students do informational research today. It’s so much easier to use online indexes that I’m sure researchers search their specialized databases, but they do so with preexisting knowledge of their field, both the vocabulary of their subject matter and the major players in their discipline. However, as others have noted (e.g., William Badke’s comment on IHE), students approach information-based research for their coursework very differently. They don’t usually have deep knowledge of the disciplines and topics that they’re researching, and they don’t know the prominent scholars or publications. Many students, especially freshmen, are also unfamiliar with library databases and even physical libraries.

Since the faculty research process doesn’t necessarily include librarians, that’s likely one reason why faculty see the library more as an information storehouse and less as a location for academic consultation. But our students really do need help to learn to make sense of the information landscape and do research successfully. It can be difficult for experienced researchers–both faculty and librarians–to put ourselves back into the novice researcher mindset of our students. Information literacy instruction can help students learn to do information-based research for their courses and to begin to evolve into more advanced researchers.

Of course, there’s a huge variety of academic institutions, and variety in their libraries as well. I’m at a college library and coordinate our instruction and information literacy program, so working with students is always on my mind. But there’s also some good news out there as a counterpoint to the Ithaka study. Barbara Fister just published the results of her survey of academic administrators and found that they all value the library for a wide variety of reasons. And while many mentioned that academic libraries will continue to change and evolve in the future, none envisioned them disappearing.

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Searching and Finding

October 3rd, 2009 · 2 Comments

Perhaps you saw the article in last week’s Chronicle of Higher Ed about the difficulties of searching library catalogs. No? Librarians have been chatting about it all week. I’ve been chewing over it too, and finally have time to get down some comments.

It’s true that many library catalogs and article databases have poorly-designed user interfaces, I absolutely won’t argue with that. And it’s very frustrating, both as a librarian and a user. However, the article seems to muddle a few different issues.

The article begins with the story of a graduate student who’s had trouble finding books on Thomas Jefferson. I have to admit that I’m a bit mystified by a few things:

1. Online library catalogs provide keyword searching, but they also allow searching by title, author, or subject. My guess is that if the student had searched for Jefferson by subject, her search would have been successful. Of course, with the ubiquity of the internet everyone has become more accustomed to keyword searching (including librarians). But, frankly, a keyword search of Thomas Jefferson on the internet also wouldn’t produce the results that this grad student needs (umm, Wikipedia?). As librarians, we need to remind our users that for simple questions, simple internet searches will usually suffice, but more complex information needs will require more complex search strategies.

2. Books in libraries are organized by subject, just as are books in bookstores. Of course librarians assign call numbers to books to catalog and organize them, but the call numbers are arranged by subject; thus library stacks can be browsed in the same way as at bookstores. Maybe we also need to remember to emphasize that to our users. At my library we have neat bookmarks with the Library of Congress call number ranges printed on them that we can pass these out to students at the reference desk — I need to remind myself to do that more often.

3. Article databases can be particularly difficult to use, especially for novice searchers. Database interfaces are complex, and it’s confusing to students that there are so many different interfaces to learn to use. This is a direct result of the economic and production history of scholarly journal publishing, but knowing this doesn’t make the reality of searching article databases any easier. Yes, new products can search across multiple databases and the library catalog at the same time (called federated searching), but they can be clunky to use. And they’re usually expensive, too.

I’m excited about new solutions coming down the pike, but (like some of the commenters on the Chron’s piece) I’m hesitant to believe that one, magical, Google-style search box should be the utopian goal for academic libraries. Scholarly information is complex. It’s text, images, data, audio, video, some “traditionally” published and some not so much, and it’s in all sorts of places on the internet: free, paid, and in-between. It would certainly save us a lot of time if we had a search engine sophisticated enough to find the scholarly info we need amongst all of the billions of pages non-scholarly content on the internet. But isn’t searching an important part of the scholarly process? Doesn’t it help us refine our questions and discover new areas of interest?

Or maybe it’s just that I like searching. Which, I suppose, is why I’m a librarian.

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