Wednesday, November 30, 2011

I Got Accepted to an MLIS Program. Now What? (Or, Advice on Picking Classes in Your Library Science Program.)

When I started my library science graduate program, I had an end goal of public librarianship. That lasted until until midway through my first semester, when I realized I really wanted to work in an academic library. My adviser had been assigned to me because she knew public libraries, so she didn't feel comfortable helping me with the change. However, I managed to track down another member of the faculty who helped me redesign my program so that it suited the needs of a future academic librarian. In addition to pointing out classes he thought would help prepare me for life as a librarian, he also gave me some good general advice.

While I'd never pretend that I can reproduce it word for word since that conversation was over ten years ago, I do remember general themes. Since for a lot of schools it's that special time in the semester when students have to start figuring out what they'll be taking next, I thought it an appropriate time to talk to you about how I think you should approach your MLIS program. (Caveat: I'm assuming that you already have an idea about public vs. academic vs. special vs. etc. and about public services vs. tech services. That's a decision you have to make for yourself.)

When thinking about classes, I suggest you...
  1. Look at some classified ads for the kind of library job you want. One thing that the professor who helped me pointed out was that a lot of academic library positions mentioned something about teaching. To better prepare, I took Bibliographic Instruction. More recently, I've seen many ads that include technology and that tells me coding might be a good skill to have.
  2. Work on your weaknesses. I've always known I wanted to be in public services, even when I thought I was going to end up at a public library. Because of that, the professor in question urged me to take some kind of advanced cataloging and/or technology class. That's why I took Subject Analysis - which ended up being one of my favorite classes, incidentally. If I'd been thinking tech services, I'm sure he would have encouraged me to take an extra public services oriented class. Having multiple skill sets is a good thing.
  3. Take at least one class that is just for you. For me, this meant taking a class about the first amendment. The professor of that class made a point of presenting multiple perspectives on each aspect of the class, both through readings and through guest speakers. It does relate to librarianship in a general way, but I took it because the description made the course sound fascinating and because that professor got fantastic evaluations every time he taught it.
It's a tough job market out there, so please don't read this post as the way to be sure to get a job. On the other hand, if you do take my advice, I know you'll get a lot out of your graduate program.

How about you? How did you pick (or how are you picking) the classes in your graduate program?

Monday, November 28, 2011

Dealing with Politicized Reference Questions, by Amanda Maddock

Since starting my current position a little over two years ago, I've found myself regularly faced with reference interactions where a patron is looking for sources to support a position for which there is a lack of academic support. Some of these "hot topic" issues have actually been barred as research topics by professors who feel like abortion, gun rights, and gay rights often produce limited and repetitive arguments in student papers. As a librarian, however, I do not have the luxury of telling a patron that their topic isn't going to work. I'm there to provide objective information access, even if the topic in question challenges my own ideas of what is objective.

My library science coursework prepared me with theories and methods for conducting reference interviews. We addressed how to provide access to information ethically and subjectively, but we never quite discussed how to serve a patron who needs scholarly resources on a politicized topic. Luckily, the teaching experience I gained while earning an m.a. in women's studies has helped me to create a framework for approaching this kind of reference interaction. Although there is much to be said about the politics of providing this type of information to students, this post focuses on how to guide students to scholarly resources that support their argument.  Since these issues vary in their degree of existing scholarly support, I use a tiered approach:

Level 1 :: These are the easiest politicized questions to answer, in that academic sources can be easily found to support a “pro” or “con” position. When a patron asks for help locating articles on a topic such as school uniforms, all they often need are some additional keywords to limit their search to the different for and against arguments (e.g. attitudes, social aspects, etc). This type of reference interaction is usually stress free as patrons are able to find what they are looking for with little difficulty.

Level 2 :: These types of questions are a little more difficult to answer, although supporting academic sources can be found. They typically require a more intensive reference interview as a patron usually has a definite opinion on the topic, but often lacks awareness of specific facts, data, or arguments. If someone asks for help finding articles against legalized gambling, I'll ask them why they are against it. If they are unable to express anything beyond a basic "anti" passion, I ask them questions--ones designed to get tangible answers--that pertain to the dominant discourses around the topic: what are the social affects of legalized gambling on a community? the economic? is there a correlation between high crime rates and legalized gambling?

Level 3 :: These types of questions are the most difficult to answer, as I find individuals who take an "anti" position often do so due to political rather than intellectual ideologies. This oftentimes results in the patron being unable to find any academic sources in support of their position. Sometimes this may be a result of them wanting the "perfect" article (i.e. one that says exactly what they want to say), but more often than not it is simply a result of little or no supporting scholarly research.

Regardless of whether or not you agree with the patron’s position, it is important to remain objective and explain their options to them. If there isn't much in the way of supportive material, suggest that they may want to read some of the article arguing against their position. Although this is almost always met with a wary look, it helps to explain that these types of articles often discuss both "pro" and "anti" discourses. Knowing what the "other side" thinks can also give someone a stronger place from which to make their own claims. If this doesn't seem to be grabbing them, I try to remind them that they are new scholars entering into an array of existing conversations and that, just because an article completely agreeing with them doesn't seem to exist, doesn't mean that their argument is wrong.

Failing each of these approaches, you can always turn to a co-worker if you aren't the only librarian. If you are a solo librarian like myself, turning to the librarian community at large (through blogs like this or other social media sources) may give you the answers you’re looking for.

Amanda Maddock is Reference & Instruction Librarian at a Big 10 regional campus. You can follow her on Twitter @infofeminist.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

It's a Small World After All: Librarians Around the World

I'll admit it: I was considering slacking off this week. Between the stressed out atmosphere on campus (because of the way our semester works - a 12 week session and a 3 week session - this was finals week) and the US holiday on Thursday, I thought I had good reason not to post an update. Then I was kindly reminded of the fact that, "It's not Thanksgiving in Canada or most other places in the world."

That got me thinking about librarianship in general. I know that my readership isn't restricted to the US, or even to Anglophone countries. I also know that, in some ways, I have more in common with librarians on the other side of the globe than I do with a high school teacher who lives in the same city as I do. Sure, it's true that individual libraries are a reflection of the local culture, whether that's a municipality, a business, an educational institution, or whatever. It's also true that the differences in laws governing what happens inside a library can be vast from country to country (copyright issues, anyone?). But libraries are more than just the locale and the laws.

According to the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA), "Culture is defined as the shared patterns of behaviors and interactions, cognitive constructs, and affective understanding that are learned through a process of socialization. These shared patterns identify the members of a culture group while also distinguishing those of another group." Sounds an awful lot like librarianship, doesn't it?

So what do you think? Is there a global culture of librarianship? Why do you feel the way you do?

Monday, November 21, 2011

Be Courageous; Ask For Help, by David Green

I love my job, but no, I don’t always feel I am doing a good job. I definitely don’t always create amazing programs. Sometimes I’m fairly sure they suck – judging by the zero people that turn up. I can’t always find the right book/answer/database/website/photocopying method for the right person. I once visited a childcare centre and read them a book I hadn’t bothered to pre-read. The part about the cool pirate’s prized parrot dying and being buried at sea kinda deflated my whole pirate theme. Especially given the centre’s pet bird had recently died. Really, it had. Likewise, begging 7 staff to resuscitate my un-rehearsed first attempt at fine-arts-degree-level sewing with primary school kids, was a learning experience, to put it mildly. I am constantly trying to create amazing programs and generally ace my job. The truth is, I never really feel completely on top of my workload. Sometimes it feels like I am treading water.

Don’t get me wrong, I have enjoyed some real successes and I know I have more in the pipeline. I’m not writing this to fish for compliments, I’m writing to offer some advice.

Congratulations and welcome to the profession. You’ve got (or are working on) the degree and hopefully a staff badge (glasses and cardigan optional) and now many people will expect you to know everything. More significantly, it is very likely you expect this of yourself too. Please know, you don’t know everything and you can’t do everything. At times you will feel like you are just barely keeping on top of things (in fact, sometimes you’ll feel behind). Your job will constantly keep expanding. After all, you have your to-do list but then you open the doors to the members of your community and their lists become your lists too. You will need to say no sometimes because you cannot do everything. Trust me, I’ve tried. So ask for help. Repeat: ask for help. You’re in the information industry - people that like, and are trained, to help, surround you. Also, when you know it’s appropriate, try delegating.

I have a theory that anyone drawn to the information industry is in varying degrees a ‘stickler for order’ (read: anal retentive). This doesn’t mean we all have tidy desks, alphabetise our spice racks, or genre and alpha-order our cds (although a lot of us do). But we do like to classify, to catalogue, to order things. We like to find things and we definitely like ‘to get things right’. So what I would most like to offer advice about is what I struggle with most: perfectionism. Beware perfectionism and the procrastination and self-doubt that it manifests. You will never know everything. There will not be enough time to do everything as expertly and thoroughly as you would like.

It will be hard for you but you must be prepared to pump work out and 'go live' with stuff that you are not 100% happy with. Because tomorrow, more work is going to come in. As my supervisor wisely tells me: “you can only get done what you can get done, and what you can’t will be there tomorrow”.

This week a calming confidant gave me a postcard because it made her think of me. It is called 10 Tips To Stress Less. She felt (polite speak for ‘she knew’) the first tip especially applied to me. Serendipitously, it is also my advice to you:

“Have the courage to be imperfect”.

You should write that on a post-it for yourself. And I’d add “make mistakes” to your to-do list. Because you will. But nobody will die, you will just learn more. By entering this profession you have made an excellent commitment to lifelong-learning. I don’t mean you are committed to making mistakes, just passionate about finding the best way to do things for yourselves and most importantly, for your clients.

Best of luck and remember we’re a friendly, helpful bunch so ask for help!

David Green is a proud Children’s and Youth Librarian in an Australian public library. He blogs about libraries and learning (and occasional other loves) at and is on twitter @dpgreen.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Change in Blog Schedule

For those of you who actually pay attention to the schedule on which I publish new posts, I want to let you know that I'm changing to Mondays for guest author posts. Thanks.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A Qualified Success: National Gaming Day

Humans vs. Zombies has spoiled me. The first time I ran it at my library, I had just under fifty students attend, and the second time I had sixty-four. This is on a campus that has roughly 1,200 students, too. I'm used to running gaming events that students love. So, when we only had eleven students show up at our National Gaming Day board game event this past weekend, I was underwhelmed.

My boss was there, and after he and I talked, I can guess at some of the factors that contributed to the smaller turn out:
  1. There was a football game happening on campus at the same time as our event. Further, it was the last game of the season.
  2. It was gorgeous outside. Sunny, a little breezy, and cool but not too cool. I'm not sure I would have been inside if I hadn't had this event to run.
  3. The event ran from 1 PM to 4 PM. When planning the event, I thought about whether or not college students are typically up before 1 PM on a Saturday. At this point, I think they're probably awake, but I don't know if they're out and about (unless there's football involved).
There are some other factors that may or may not have been involved, like where National Gaming Day fell in the course of the semester. For my institution, it fell between the second to last and the last week of the session (our semesters have a twelve week session and then a three week session). Also, it was an off weekend for our program that is geared towards non-traditional college students. Finally, maybe the choice of board games over console or live action role playing contributed.

Here's the thing: considering all we had going against us, we actually did fine. This was our first foray into National Gaming Day territory, and we learned a lot from the event. Also, the students who came to eat pizza and play Clue and Sorry and Uno and Scrabble had a great time. Finally, some of the students who came on Saturday have never been to an event I've run before.

I've decided to call this one a qualified success, and to apply what I learned this year to our event next year. Honestly, though, I missed the zombies.

How about you? What makes a library program successful in your opinion?

Friday, November 11, 2011

Doing Research Lets You Justify Why You’re Doing What You’re Doing, by Jacob Berg

In the course of doing your job, wherever and whatever that may be, you’ll be asked to justify why you’re doing what you’re doing. This justification can take many forms. Quantitative measurements like gate counts and qualitative feedback like comment boxes are simple ways of collecting data that can help provide justification for future actions. For example, the library where I work has used gate counts to alter hours and user statistics from databases as a factor in renewal decisions, among others. However, the vast majority of Library and Information Science programs have done us all a disservice by not offering courses on research methodologies, and by not making them compulsory. To those schools that do offer these courses (the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Clarion University, among others) or makes the class mandatory (San Jose State University, the University of Washington, and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, among too few others), take a bow. As for the rest of us, we have some catching up to do.

Why do we as librarians need to know research methodologies?
  • Because without them we don’t know how we know what we know. Behind every observation, every piece of data, is a method to how that data was collected. Did x number of patrons mention, even as an aside, y happening over a period of time z in a similar fashion? If x gets high enough in that time period, you’ve got something more than anecdotal evidence. Please act on it, or take this information to someone who can.
  • Because without them we don’t know what we know and because they help us make a stronger statement. Designing a survey? Conducting a focus group? The questions you ask the community you serve will influence the answers you get, which may bias the results, leading to
  • Because libraries struggle with funding, and a combination of data that is reliable, accessible, and replicable, along with emotional appeals from patrons and community members is an effective and proven way to advocate for an increase in resources.
  • Because your patrons are conducting research, whether it’s looking up ancestors or writing a book.
  • Because you, young librarian, may want to share (or have to share, if your position is tenure-track) your successes (and failures, which are more interesting anyway) with colleagues, in peer-reviewed journals, presentations, and poster sessions.
Wondering where to start? Odds are you’re not going back to library school, but if you’re an academic librarian, you may get free tuition at your institution. If your college or university offers an introductory course in research methods, I suggest you take it. Otherwise, the Library Research Service is your friend. There are other useful sites, and materials online as well. Best of luck, and heed the wise words of G.I. Joe, “Knowing is half the battle.”

Jacob Berg is library director at a small, academic library in Washington, DC. He blogs about libraries and beer, roughly in that order, at and is on twitter, @jacobsberg.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Learn From My Mistakes: Reference Interviews

Helping patrons at the reference desk is one of the hardest things I do as a librarian. I can locate pretty much any kind of information, but ferreting out a patron's actual information need is tricky. There's a whole verbal dance I do, trying to establish the context of the information need without being too nosy and asking process questions without sounding judgmental. Sure, I took a class in reference and information services in my graduate program, and that gave me some of the theory. [After feedback and discussions on Google+, I want to make something clear. We did role play in my class, but there was a big difference for me between what happened in that professor's classroom and what actually happens on the reference desk.] However, really learning how to conduct a reference interview didn't start until I had my first professional position.

I'll never forget one of the big mistakes I made early in my career. A college student came to me for help and I would have sworn I heard her ask for "information on zebra muscles." Earlier that day, I had seen a book about equine biology, so I was excited. I found her an article and then brought her up to the stacks to show her that perfect book. Then, about 10 or 15 minutes into our conversation, I noticed a look of confusion on her face. I think I said something really smart like, "This isn't what you need, is it?" She confirmed my suspicion that I was off base, so I asked her to tell me more about her topic. It turned out that she was writing a paper about an invasive species of bivalves; she wanted "information on zebra mussels." I felt really stupid, but I learned the value of the reference interview that day.

In the intervening years, I've made other mistakes but I've also gotten a lot better at helping people with their research. In the hopes of saving you some of the embarrassment I've experienced, here are some of the things I've learned to do when conducting reference interviews:
  1. Listen empathetically. If you've never heard of this concept, it's about showing the other person that you hear what he or she is saying. It isn't just parroting his/her words; it's showing your understanding of what was said. I've saved myself so much trouble since I started doing this. Here's an example: A student who came to the reference desk asked me for help finding a source about cultural differences in dining etiquette, and I responded, "So you need something that talks about the different kinds table manners people use in different cultures?"
  2. Look beyond the surface question. A graduate student who asked me where to find the New York Times online really needed movie reviews from the 1950s. An undergraduate who wanted to know where the poetry section was really looking for a feminist analysis of a specific famous poem. Part of looking beyond the question is figuring out the context of the information need. This can be hard in a public library context, but I think my technique might be applicable. I usually ask some version of, "Is this for a school assignment or for your own purposes?" If I'm told it's personal, I stop asking questions in that vein. If I'm told it's for school, I ask to see the assignment sheet.
  3. Ask process questions, but ask them in a way that puts people at ease. "Have you had a chance to look for this information yet? If so, can you tell me where? If not, it's not a problem." won't put someone on the defensive as readily as "Have you tried looking for it yet?" will. (You also want to ask how quickly the information is needed, but I've never had a patron get their back up over this kind of question.)
  4. Pay attention to body language and changes in expression. If the community member I'm helping starts to look confused, I know I'm off topic. On the other hand, if she walked up to the reference desk with her shoulders up near her ears and then she starts to look more relaxed as the conversation progresses, I know I'm on track.
  5. Remember this is a customer service interaction. Maybe I'm biased because I put myself through graduate school by waiting tables, but I think the customer service aspect is hugely important. I always ask questions like "Is this the kind of thing you need?" while I'm still in the reference interview. When we finish, I make sure to tell him or her how much longer I'll be on the reference desk, when I will be back, and how he or she can get help if I'm not available. Finally, if s/he stays in the library after we're done at the reference desk, I try to follow up with a simple "Did that work out?" after 10-15 minutes.
I'm a lot better than I was on the day of the zebra muscles/mussels debacle, but I'm still working towards that perfect reference interview technique. Nevertheless, this list represents a lot of hard learned lessons, so I'm hoping you'll read it and learn from my mistakes.

How about you? What have you learned so far about conducting reference interviews? Any mistakes you'd care to share?

Friday, November 4, 2011

First Friday's Just for Fun: Madame Pince

Sally Mortemore as Madam Irma Pince
Because I am unwilling to let go of Harry Potter just yet, I've been listening to the books on CD for the last couple of months' worth of commutes. I just started Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince a couple of days ago, so it won't be long before I will be Potter-less. However, I'm not as upset about this prospect as I thought I would have been.

You see, like a lot of people, I found the series engaging. I read the books multiple times. The same goes for the movies. Something's been different this time around, though. It's like I'm seeing the cracks in the facade. An example of this is that I've been a lot more aware of Madame Pince, Hogwart's librarian, and how she is described. I'm not sure why I'm more sensitive this time. Maybe it's the medium, after all audiobooks have a very different feel to them. Or perhaps I'm becoming more cynical as I get older, more curmudgeonly. Another possibility is that I didn't have my MLIS the first time I read the early books and wasn't quite as tuned into popular culture representations of librarians.

Regardless of what happened before, I'm aware now. And the main thing of which I'm aware is that J. K. Rowling doesn't like librarians. Oh, sure, in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, it is acknowledged that Harry, Ron, and Hermoine knew Madame Pince would be able to help them find the information they needed, but they didn't want her to know about what they were trying to learn. After that, though, Madame Pince is never mentioned without being shown as a harridan who is more concerned with the sanctity of her books than with anything else. She distrusts, and obviously dislikes, students. She even bewitches books to attack students when she catches them eating in the library.

The school librarians I know now are accessible, intelligent, and fun. Same goes for the children's and teen librarians in my acquaintance. They all seem to care about their patrons more than anything else. Of course, I mostly know librarians in North America, so it could be that ocean between us and the UK makes a difference, but I doubt it. I'd really like to know what the librarians that Rowling knew as a child did do to her that made her portray us in such a poor light.

What do you think? Outrageous overdue fees or an over-zealous shushing? If not those, then what?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Would a Database By Any Other Name Smell as Sweet?

Lately, I've been thinking and talking about library jargon a lot. You see, I'm part of the group that is getting ready to redesign the library's website. We had a meeting last week where we spent a lot of time talking about structure, but towards the end we touched on what kinds of language we want to use to label the structures. This isn't as easy as you might think. We want to make our website more accessible, more usable, more intuitive, but I keep asking myself one thing: who are we doing this for?

This thought was plaguing me well before I published Michael Steeleworthy's guest post, but his piece definitely intensified things for me. If I'm supposed to keep the students at my college in mind, we'll label things one way. If I'm designing for the faculty, it will happen another way. However, between Michael's piece and a couple of meetings I attended last week, my thinking on this subject is starting to clear up.

If members of the faculty at my college are indeed my main audience, I can keep a lot of the existing structure in place. These people have been part of academia for a long time and so have been inculcated to our ways of thinking and talking. These people call a database, "database," call a quarto, "quarto," and so on. If I follow this line of thought to its conclusion, it means I don't have to do much to the website other than prettying it up. What could be easier, right? Except we know that the status quo isn't working. Students don't come to library resources to start projects the way they used to do. Heck, sometimes they don't ever use our resources. 

Changing the current state of affairs means we have to start designing with the students in mind, and that's much harder. I'm not even 100% sure how students at my college talk about the resources we have at the library. I've heard them say things like "books" and "articles," but I'm not sure how many are distinguishing between electronic and print versions in those categories. I know some of them are making those distinctions, since their professors are, but I know some of our students don't differentiate. Also, how do differences like popular press vs. scholarly and primary/secondary/tertiary enter into how our students talk about information sources? Finally, how am I going to ask students to teach me their vocabulary without prejudicing their answers?

A colleague of mine said, in one of the meetings, something along the lines of: "It will be easier to get our faculty to come down a level in their language than to get the students to take a step up." I think he's right. Regardless, we've got a lot of work to do, but if we can build on what the students are already doing and show the faculty why this makes sense, it will be worth it.

What about you? How do you talk about library resources with your community members?