Thursday, September 27, 2012

On the Job Learning: We're Not Egg-laying, Wool-bearing, Milk-giving Sows, by Dale Askey


What's an egg-laying wool-bearing milk-giving sow and what's it got to do with libraries? It's German in origin: eierlegende Wollmilchsau. Germans toss this out octosyllabic gem whenever someone expresses the desire to have their cake and eat it, too, bitte schön. This mythical beast might seem familiar to anyone who has ever seen something like this under “required qualifications” for a librarian job:
  • expert in all traditional library work: reference, instruction, liaison, cataloguing;
  • expert with CSS, XSLT, HTML, XML, RDA, LOD etc.;
  • ability to code in common scripting languages, e.g.- Python, PHP;
  • demonstrated experience leading software implementation projects;
  • systems administration skills in Solaris/Linux/Windows environments;
  • ability to juggle while chewing gum, standing on one foot, and singing the national anthem of your ancestral forebears.

OK, fine, I threw that last one in just to enhance the absurdity, but all too often one sees such lists as part of advertisements for librarian jobs that are otherwise geared toward early-career librarians. Given that library schools aren't producing enough graduates with those hard technical skills to sate the demand, how does one get those skills? At this point one could also ask why libraries persist in thinking that it's OK to ask someone to be a typical “traditional” librarian, and a programmer and/or systems administrator to boot, as if those weren't, oh, separate career tracks. Sure, such librarians exist, but they are few and already have good jobs, so why would they lateral out to your library when it's clear to them they'll be flying solo with no support from a skilled team. But I digress.

So what to do when a job posting asks for the kitchen sink, and you've only got a random assortment of kitchen gadgets on your CV? For starters, accept the fact that you're not going to have everything they want. I know that many people giving job advice will say you're wasting the search committee's time if you apply and lack the required qualifications. That may be the case for an MLS degree—you either have it or you don't—but for other qualifications it is often a bit squishier. As a Canadian colleague recently aptly put it on Twitter: “I never understood postings requiring specific skills. I have never known how to do something before it was my job.” Exactly.

The trick becomes getting yourself in the door in the first place. The tactic I've used and that I'd endorse could be called “skill parlaying.” Rather than using a hypothetical example, here's how it actually went down for me. I made my first Web page in 1995 doing hand-coding on a greenscreen terminal (simultaneously enriching my ability to appreciate irony) while working as a library paraprofessional. Spent about a year doing that with progressively better tools on larger chunks of the site, and became proficient at hand-coded HTML (note for you young-uns: this was pre-WYSIWYG editors and CSS), and then applied for a job in an IT department at the institution's medical school. They hired me because I knew how to make Web pages—which used to be a marketable skill, however briefly—but I knew nothing about much of what they did. I was sure for a couple of months that they would discover my ignorance and fire me, although I had been open about my limitations. Far from it. They trained me, took me under their wings, and filled my head with copious knowledge, at least some of which is still useful 15 years on.

Not long after that, I got my first librarian job, and as I've moved around I generally trot out my steadily expanding IT skills to land a job, and then once in the job do what I said I could do and use the security and resources offered by that employment to build more skills. Colleagues taught me things, I went to seminars and training sessions, I taught myself still other things, and generally tinkered, hacked, and experimented when and where I could.

Fast forward a number of years, and I'm now in an IT leadership position, and the brutal truth is that I don't qualify—on a straight reading of the required qualifications—for some early career IT librarian jobs. On the one hand, that's a reflection of inherent limitations: no person can do everything, and in my case programming is my personal kryptonite. On the other, it's a reflection of how desperate many libraries are for technically proficient staff (so they want it all, and now, and in one salary), but also to no small degree of how little many library managers understand about what is reasonable to expect when offering an entry- or mid-level IT position. Far wiser is for employers to skip the laundry list of acronyms and IT skills du jour, and focus instead on aptitude and potential. We're hiring a couple of IT librarians at the moment, and I sincerely hope that that last bit came through in the postings.

The key advice here is just get yourself in the door. Don't misrepresent what you can do, but if you mostly meet the job requirements, throw your name in the hat. Tout what you can do, and how you want to grow and develop. A smart employer will also be considering your intangibles, and someone may well open the door. That's step one.

Step two is to become a habitual boundary-pusher. Get involved in projects, seek out talented colleagues, go to conferences where you are challenged not reaffirmed, and always push one step beyond what you know. Expert with HTML and CSS? Fine, now tackle XSLT. Bored with Windows? Ditch it, and wade into a Linux distro. Learn the joys and benefits of working from the command line. Install stuff on servers, pound on it until it breaks, and then figure out how to fix it. This can all be done for little real cost. Best time to start: yesterday.

The final step is to remember, once you've achieved status in a library, how little you knew about the job you're doing when you walked in the door. Let's start extending some ladders instead of building barricades.

Dale Askey is the Associate University Librarian, Library and Learning Technologies at McMaster University Library. He tweets @daskey and blogs at Bibliobrary.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Chat Reference is a Weird Beastie


We've had chat reference at my library for a while now, but I'm still getting used to it. Don't misunderstand me: I've read a bunch about best practices and good customer service. Also, I've been using chat clients personally for a long time, so I'm well aware of how to communicate in that way. I think I'm pretty good at transferring in person skills to online. Here are some of my personal best practices:
  1. No matter the venue, it is still a reference interview. Usually, I ask lots and lots and LOTS of questions before I get started answering them. The need for this approach is even stronger without visual cues and tone of voice to help me figure things out.
  2. Juggling between someone in person and someone online is difficult, but if I have to shift my attention from the person online, I always let them know. Same goes for the person standing in front of me.
  3. I try to have some personality, but remind myself that words are a ridiculously small percentage of communication. Without body language or tone, I can be misunderstood as easily as I can misunderstand. To address this, I use emoticons and such, but those only go so far. I could be more business like, but I really want to make sure that the person on the other end of the line knows they are dealing with a human being.
  4. As I do with any kind of teaching (and make no mistake: reference interactions are teaching), I give them a path back to the information. When it comes to chat reference, this means offering to email them a transcript of our conversation.
  5. Another part of the regular reference interview that is even more crucial online is making sure the patron has what s/he needs and feels the information need has been fulfilled.
It's that last practice that has me thinking enough to write a post, as it led to an interaction that reminded me of the importance of the "chat" part of chat reference. You see, I was done helping a student with whether or not we had access to the full text of a specific psychology journal, and this is what happened next:

     Me: Is there anything else I can help you with?

     Student: Actually, yes. Who would win in a fight? A bear or a tiger?

I could have laughed it off and ended the conversation right there, but I wasn't particularly busy. I decided to go with it. The Bear V. Tiger part of the conversation didn't last long, but it was fairly detailed. We established that it was a Kodiak Bear vs a Siberian Tiger, both had cubs to protect from the other, both were hungry enough to want to eat the other's babies, and they were fighting on the moon but suited in a way that didn't impair anyone's ability to use their natural defenses/offenses. After spending time establishing the parameters, I voted for the tiger, as any cat person might.

"Tiger 9" is a Creative Commons licensed picture by Bart Rousseau.

Here's the thing that has me still thinking about that interaction, even though it happened almost two weeks ago: how do I bring that sense of play and fun into chat reference more often? That means I have two questions for you this week: (1) Do you have anything to add to my personal best practices for chat reference?, and (2) How can we bring more personality to chat reference interactions? 

Thursday, September 20, 2012

A Librarian’s Guide to Webcast Wrangling, by Nikki Dettmar

"Cat Sat on Computer" is a Creative Commons licensed, Flickr picture by dougwoods.

You’ve already mastered The Seven Rules Of Avoiding Poutreach covered in John’s excellent guest post?  How about in online outreach and education, such as webcasts, where communication cues from your target audience are hard to come by?

Librarians don’t actually do webcasts as part of their jobs and only attend them for professional development, you say?

I started hosting (leading the technology of) and/or presenting (leading the content delivery of) a regular webcast series within months of starting my first library job in May 2008. To date in 2012 I am still doing webcasts at the same place and they haven’t fired me, so apparently something’s going well with them.

With the increase of both embedded librarianship and online education, especially in academia, chances are good you will be asked about presenting on a webcast at some point in your career. I am intentionally not covering specific webcast technology platforms in this post since they are changing as rapidly as chat reference tools (Meebo widget anyone?).

Here are some tips to help you not just prepare for but enjoy giving a webcast presentation:

Be SUCCES(s)ful – I highly recommend reading Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip and Dan Heath, where both great marketing ideas and the elements of SUCCES(s) are covered. Briefly, SUCCES(s) for webcasts translates to Simple (focus on a core message), Unexpected (get your audience’s attention and hold it! Example: try colorful Creative Commons licensed images for slides that enhance your ideas instead of 7 rows of bullet points and screenshots), Concrete (one memorable concept/idea per slide), Credible (you know the information resources you’re discussing are awesome – your inherent professionalism through solid content and delivery will convince your audience they are too), Emotional (think of your audience as individuals to connect with instead of a faceless crowd), and Stories (find ways to personalize, people always remember stories better than statistics).

Keys of Content - Write down the main and supporting concepts of what you want to say but not every.single.word. Your audience can hear the difference between reading from a script and presenting information that you are both knowledgeable and enthusiastic about. Using acronyms is fine after you first explain what they mean, ideally with both the full meaning & acronym written on your presentation slide, but jargon should be avoided since it tends to confuse rather than help people better understand what you have to say. Practice your presentation a few times but avoid the temptation to be ‘perfect’ – be yourself!  

Elements of Audio – Do you have chorus, drama, speech & debate, Toastmasters, or college DJ experience? The vocal delivery tips you’ve learned there are helpful to keep in mind when speaking in general, but especially on a webcast where the audience is reliant upon your voice for context and meaning. Having a vocal tone somewhere between the expressive emotion of motherese (AWWW! WHO is SUCH a caYUTE LITtle bayBEE?!) and the clarity of a dry staff meeting presentation (During the third quarter our reference questions increased by 15%) is just about right. Do some expert vocal research – “Morning Edition” on National Public Radio is well experienced in clearly delivering memorable news and information to commuters who may not yet be properly caffeinated.

Silence Disinterest – One of the most common mistakes webcast presenters make is either being nervous about audience silence and commenting about it, or assuming that a lack of verbal comments means the audience isn’t interested. Nothing could be further from the truth – the audience wouldn’t log in if they didn’t want to hear what you had to say, and they may not have a microphone available to use on their headset. Most webcast platforms have personal status icons (like ‘thumbs up’) that can be used in response to a yes/no question and multiple-choice polls. Try a question near the start of your webcast with clear directions on how to use these tools, and provide immediate feedback based on the audience response (i.e. “I see most of us have used PubMed before but there are also quite a few who haven’t. Thank you for participating and I’ll make sure to keep this in mind as I explain how to search”). Towards the end is an ideal time for a poll based on your content, which naturally leads to time for questions & answers as a conclusion.

For other librarians who present webcasts, what tips and strategies have you found helpful while developing or giving them? Please comment below and thanks for sharing!

Nikki Dettmar is the Education and Assessment Coordinator at the National Network of Libraries of Medicine, Pacific Northwest Region and @eagledawg on Twitter. When she’s not trying to keep up with her family, she encourages participation in Thursday evening Twitter chats about medical librarian topics ( and has a personal blog at

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

My Approach to Teaching

Creative Commons Licensed Picture from Todd Petrie

Had an involved conversation with a libr* friend about how I teach and realized I've never discussed my pedagogical philosophy here. Sure, I've discussed how my approach to librarianship is constantly evolving, but this is even more true of my approach to teaching. That recent conversation made me realize I've actually gotten my philosophy of teaching information literacy skills so refined that I can sum it up in five points, so here they are:
  1. Be yourself. For me, that mostly means letting my nerd flag fly and using humor in every session. (Here's a joke I've told frequently: How many librarians does it take to change a light bulb? I don't know, but I can help you look it up.) For you, that might mean talking about music or your dog or whatever. If you aren't comfortable with yourself in the classroom, the students won't be comfortable either.
  2. I believe in a constructivist theory of knowledge, and my teaching reflects this belief. Ascribing to this approach means I teach in a way that builds on my students' existing knowledge. For instance, when I teach students how to evaluate websites, I skip all the carefully constructed and clever acronyms that my libr* brothers and sisters have devised. Instead, I go with the 5 Ws (who, what, when, where, & why) since 99% of my students already have that mnemonic in their knowledge base.
  3. If it's at all possible, I make them use the skills/knowledge right away. Frequently, this can be done during the information literacy session. Here's a recent example: this semester, in our first semester FYE classes, we break the students up into small groups and have each group evaluate a website that comes up in a search for a keyword related to the class materials.
  4. Make it as real as possible. I talk about how I used the web to research the car I bought. I come up with papers I would want to write if I were in that class. When I teach web evaluation, I do a live, untested Google search. I do my best to make the context of my teaching reflect what they'll be facing when they use the skills and knowledge I'm presenting.
  5. Most importantly, I give them a path back to the new information and skills, since even the best and most attentive students will forget stuff. Although this idea shows itself in a lot of ways, the biggest thing I do to give them that path is to make them memorize my name. It helps them feel comfortable with me. Students can search for my email in a campus directory, stop by my office, or even stop me on campus to ask a question. Presenting myself as the path back has been incredibly successful.

What about you? How do you teach? (And if you work with the public at all, you teach. One on one instruction is even more important at times than classroom instruction.)

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Seven Rules of Avoiding Poutreach, by John Pappas

The author.

Poutreach: (n.) Where librarians grudgingly go out in public to sit behind a booth avoiding eye-contact with strangers.

I have come to the conclusion that most librarians undervalue outreach. Could be they are intimidated by professionally walking outside the library; frightened of opening themselves to the whole of the public, or are too busy. To the outreach librarian the job is defined by relationships - not by number of contacts, questions or size of our catalog. Relationships with civic organizations, chambers of commerce, governance, teachers, parents, businesses, higher education, professors, the homeless, students and the public at large. If it has a face, we want to listen to it. It is our bread and butter.

In my job, there is a certain amount of the unknown that goes into attending events. Farmer’s markets are loud and dirty. Job fairs are busy and stressful. University campuses can be rowdy and uncontrolled. Sometimes there are pirates or zombies. Librarians feel out of their element and with good reason.

When uncomfortable most people cocoon, but cocoons do not work at an outreach event. If there ever was a time for your forced extrovert to shine, it is then. I have seven rules to help make it easier. They are easy, practical, and you probably already know most of them.

1) Garner your goals: Research the crowd. Who is attending? How many? What are their expectations? Will people browse from booth to booth? Answering these questions help you set goals and expectations. For example: At a college event I was told to expect 800 attendees. The event was not mandatory so I figured half - 400. Even on my best day, 400 people in 5 hours is 80 people/hour which is more than one person per minute. The best I could do solo is 150-250. So that was my goal, really more of a floating target.

2) Modify your message: Do you focus on awareness of library services, library use/sign-up or public exposure for the library? All three are valid. All three are important. All three can include a toilet paper roll craft. Back to my example from number 1: These students are the proud recipients of a brand new joint library. They already have guaranteed access, so cards are out. This event was purely about awareness. Since it was a registration event, I assumed most students would want to be in and out without too much hassle. No time for conversation, Dr. Jones. I need a pitch. No wait....!

3) Practice your pitch: A pitch is hard. This is the part where I lose most librarians (I lose almost all of the rest at rule #5). Arrive early. Do not bring a book. Do not open your laptop. Look for early attendees, event-organizers, lost people. Whoever is there is there for you to practice. Eventually a person will find my booth and say those dreaded words...

“Oooo! So what is new at the library? Har. Har.”

I have found my first victim. I am going to talk your ears off and see what sticks, what falls away and what makes you respond. This is an art. Try it. Your pitch with refine itself over use. Make it simple. Make it memorable and make it quick. You don’t want people walking away with a "1000 points of light." You want them walking away with one message that blows them away that they will share with others. So your pitch should be three lines about 5-7 words each. No more and less would probably be better.   Your pitch is an idea, not a script. Modify as needed. My basic pitch for the college event - Your student ID is your public library card. Since most were heading to get their student ID card and had to wait in line, it was the perfect seed to plant with the material I had.

4) Remember your results: I tend to count the material I hand out to people. So I knew I had 150 small ebook business cards I would hand out with my pitch. Some people use a hand counter and others just wing it. Either way, you have a floating goal. Try to realize it but don’t be disappointed if you don’t. I assign myself a quota but quality of contact is just as important as quantity. SUCCESSFUL OUTREACH IS NOT MEASURED BY THE NUMBER OF CARDS SIGNED UP. Sorry about the all-caps, it won’t happen again.

5) Be proactive: For the love of all that is holy DO NOT JUST STAND BEHIND YOUR BOOTH! (I lied!) Talk to people. Make the first contact and most will stop to talk. I credit this to my dashing good looks, but it might be the swag[ger] I usually bring. Really, it is due to the social capital inherent in the library. People trust, like, and are willing to listen to librarians.

6) Be ready for anything: It is Thunderdome out there. Memorize your funding and be able to explain it quickly and know your selection policy. Be prepared for technophobes and techno-freaks of every variety. A few of my more interesting experiences:

  • ·   Gang of irate homeschooling moms at a street fair.
  • ·   Drunken business men at a Chamber of Commerce meeting.
  • ·   I’ve been converted, de-converted, re-converted and even once, perhaps, the victim of a drive-by baptism.
  • ·   A delightful Greek family once offered to take me in like an orphan.
  • ·   Harassed by drunken pirates!
  • ·   Chased zombies!
  • ·   Seated between the student LGBTQ student group and a Mormon group (The great mediator!).
  • ·   Asked to leave because the crowd around us was too loud (I appreciate the irony).
  • ·   Got to ride a police Segue with a semi-automatic rifle.
  • ·   Had my aura read?Spoke to a demon. (Allegedly a demon, as I couldn’t actually see it but it did find me hilarious). Can I get a library card with my married name?” Of course. “Good, because I changed my name and had $350 worth of fines on my old one.” You do realize that I work at the library, yes?

7) Try anything once: The event itself is an adventure. It is like a first date. Expect a handshake and maybe a peck on the cheek at the end. You may not get a second. You may get lucky but outreach relationships do run their course. Sometimes it is time to stop attending if one grows away from the other. Your time is still important.

8) Bring Duct-tape: No more explanation is needed. Always bring duct-tape.

9) Have something for everyone: Have a pitch for patrons, soon-to-be-patrons and those that are out of district. Always have something prepared for those that are not eligible for a card. It could be a web resource that you developed or public programming or an author event coming up. It includes people and those people talk. Who do they talk about? You.

10) Have fun: Be approachable. Smile. Laugh at jokes and make a few. Many groups are uncomfortable about library services. Some may not trust a government organization. Some are intimidated by the structure. You are an ambassador to those groups. Make it count.

John Pappas is the Outreach Services Coordinator at the Rapid City Public Library. He likes mammalian paleontology, Zen Buddhism, Norwegian Death Folk Fusion Metal and Power Yoga. Say hi on twitter @zendustzendirt or on Google +.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Shuffling Priorities, Or, How Will I Ever Get Everything Done?

Creative Commons licensed picture by hockadilly.

My personal life, off the 'net and outside of work, has taken up the majority of my attention and time lately. Now that things are returning back to normal [insert the superstitious gesture of your choice], I'm facing the daunting task of shuffling my priorities and getting my To Do list back to a manageable state. This reshuffling is made even more problematic because it's the beginning of the academic year, with all the attendant responsibilities this time brings. One further complicating issue is that I've renewed my commitment to keeping my stress low since part of what kept me out of work was a nasty strain of penicillin resistant strep throat - something that probably wouldn't have hit me as hard (if at all) if my stress levels & amount of sleep had been where they are supposed to be.

So, how am I going to manage all this? To be honest, I'm not 100% sure, but here are things I know will enter into it:

  • Hard deadlines will be considered first. Class sessions can't be reschedule just because I'm feeling overwhelmed and need a moment to catch up. Likewise with meetings where I'm on the agenda, but where I'm only one of a large group.
  • Projects that impact my community, particularly first semester freshmen, are also a high priority. Even ongoing projects that fall in this category will be placed higher on the list than most of what I have to do, since we are a teaching/student focused college. Things I'm doing that are for members of my faculty are also very important, since by supporting the faculty I am supporting the students.
  • Library-specific projects, things I've promised to my coworkers, will come next. It's okay to put some of these on the back burner, but I don't want projects like revamping maps of the different floors of the library to fall completely off the list.
  • Personal work projects will come last. That article I'm planning to write about the email focus groups I run? On hold for the foreseeable future. Same goes with catching up on my professional reading. I hate that these kinds of projects are always the first thing to be set aside when crunch time hits, but I have to leave something out for a while and the needs of my community have to come first.

So there's my basic approach, all spelled-out. I still have to go through the process of applying this plan, figuring out the specifics, but so long as I keep my higher-level priorities straight, I know the specifics will fall in line.

How about you? How do you set work/school priorities?

Thursday, September 6, 2012

First Thursday's Just For Fun: Crazy for Cross-Stitch

Because I am not enough of a walking/talking librarian stereotype, I have recently picked up a new hobby: crafting. More specifically, counted cross-stitch. I actually learned how to do cross-stitch when I was a teenager, but hadn't done more with the skill until fairly recently. But now? Now I've become obsessed. Here are my favorites of the projects I've completed:

This hummingbird was my gateway drug to an addiction that is only soothed with a trip to a craft store to purchase Aida cloth and embroidery thread:

Pretty, right?

I worked really hard to make the background of the next one look like a partly cloudy sky, so I'm extremely pleased with how it turned out.

This quote is from the sixth of the volumes that collected Neil Gaiman's "The Sandman" comics.

And this is the project I just finished. I don't remember where I first encountered this line from Lemony Snicket (a.k.a. Daniel Handler), but it tickled me so much that it quickly became a favorite. When I started this down the road to xstitch addiction, I knew I had to do something with this quote.

Sounds advice, especially considering the expression the Persian in the middle is wearing.

I just finished that last one, but I'm already planning my next project. It's more along the lines of what I did with the Neil Gaiman quote, but this time it's inspired by and features a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke.

So what about you? Are you a crafter? If so, what's your poison?

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

No Post This Week

For the first time since I started writing this blog, I won't be able to keep to my self-appointed schedule. Circumstances & events in my life off the web/internet had to take precedence.

All will return to normal with my First Thursday post this Thursday.