Monday, November 25, 2013

Gon Out Backson Bisy Backson: No Blog Posts This Week


Between a horrid cold and the upcoming holiday here in the States, I've decided to take the week off from blogging. In the mean time, here's the source of my title to tide you over.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Zen and the Art of the Conference Proposal, by Valerie Forrestal

Your first year as tenure-track faculty is an odd one. You’re not expected to publish right away, but it’s encouraged that you keep your CV active by adding to it in one way or another. Given the amount of time you spend acclimating to a new workplace during your first year (anywhere, not just in academia), you don’t necessarily have the time or the connections to do anything major. Often you’re expected to spend that first year choosing future research projects, and starting to design your research studies and maybe collect some data if you’re lucky. Sometimes, if you’re like me, you were hired to work on a specific project, and will spend much of your time tackling minor practicalities like building a website from scratch and migrating the entire former site’s content to it. Pish posh.

This forces you to be a bit creative with adding lines to your CV. I’ve looked for limited time and energy-commitment obligations, like less formal writing projects and talks at local chapter meetings. One opportunity I stumbled across on one of the CFP blogs I follow was a call for conference proposal reviewers. I’ve acted as a peer reviewer in the past, so it seemed like a good opportunity for some professional service.

About halfway through the 20-or-so proposals assigned to me for review, I realized that this was much more than just a line on my CV. I’ve submitted many conference proposals in the past (a handful of which were actually accepted,) but being on the other side of the submission process gave me some useful insights for the future. (For the record, the conference was not library-focused, and it was a blind review process, so I feel ok about talking about it publicly.)

First, I shouldn’t have to say this, but based on many of the submissions I reviewed it warrants a mention: Follow. The. Instructions. You’ll read this advice a lot in posts about applying for jobs, but it goes for pretty much any official process in the professional world. Sometimes you think can skip steps. Maybe you know someone. Maybe you’re a big name in the field. Maybe you presented last year. Well, I can’t see your name and I wasn’t at last year’s conference, so do us all a favor and complete all the fields in the form. If I don’t need a certain piece of information I’ll skim over it. Better safe than sorry.

Here’s another piece of advice that comes directly from job application best practices: customize, customize, customize. Maybe you’re submitting a similar proposal to several similar conferences. I don’t care. Take the time to tweak your proposal to at least touch upon this specific conference’s mission and theme. I know you have to put out a lot of proposals just to get a few acceptances, but try to make it feel like this conference is one you actually *want* to present at.

GradHacker recently did a post on Killer Conference Proposals, and while all their tips are good ones, I think their final tip is of particular importance: “Explicitly state an audience takeaway.” Of course *you* find your research interesting and relevant (or at least I hope so). But take a step back and think like a marketer. What are you offering presentation/panel attendees? So many proposals I reviewed talked exclusively about their own experience without in any way addressing why that experience should matter to anyone else. Is the technology you used attainably-priced? Are your assessment standards widely accepted? What kind of implementation time/resources did it take? I’ve sat through many presentations where the project discussed was fabulous, but I came away frustrated because the presenters made no effort to tell me how I could replicate all or part of it, or apply the knowledge elsewhere. Give me something I can use, or reserve this talk for a showcase or project update event.

My last piece of advice doesn’t really apply to a blind review, but I’ll mention it anyway. When I’m participating in an event, I make sure to publicize it throughout my own networks. I like to think this gives a person a reputation as someone who will actively work to help draw in attendees, and thus be an asset to future events.

If anyone else has been part of the conference proposal review process, please leave some tips in the comments! What causes you to reject a proposal outright? What puts a presenter on your good side right away?

Valerie Forrestal is the Web Services Librarian and an Assistant Professor at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York. Her education includes an MA in Media Production from Emerson College, an MLIS from Rutgers University, and an MS in Service-Oriented Computing from Stevens Institute of Technology. Valerie specializes in web development, social media, technology planning, and innovation in libraries and higher ed. You can find her online at,, or on Twitter @vforrestal.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Academic Freedom! Huh! What is It Good For?

There's an interesting conversation on Twitter lately about the role of tenure and academic freedom in academic librarianship. 
I've not yet put my oar in, so to speak, and it's because I've been formulating my thoughts on the topic. That embedded tweet up there really caught my attention, and it pushed me to write something finally. Fair warning, though: my thoughts are still a bit jumbled and they are 100% biased by my professional experiences.

You see, I've never had "academic freedom" in the form that tenure is supposed to provide. I've always worked at institutions where librarians were either seen as professional staff or staff/faculty hybrids, and as a result I've never even had the option of tenure nor that kind of academic freedom. I've thought a lot about it over the years, and my emotions are still somewhat mixed. Tenure has always seemed a double-edged sword because I don't have the golden ball-and-chain tying me to a job, but I do have to watch what I say.

Before you voice any doubt about me watching what I say, in light of how outspoken I can be, trust me when I tell you that I do filter. I filter a lot. For instance, there are certain trends in higher ed and in libraries in general that I think are complete bull poop, show poor pedagogy, and are tremendous wastes of money/time/effort, but I've not said anything because of self-censorship and circumspection. In addition to always having been professional staff or staff/faculty hybrid, I've also always worked as an "at-will employee." This means that the difference between me employed and me unemployed is the five minutes it would take the head of security to confiscate my keys and escort me to my car. Don't get me wrong: I do still shout pretty loudly about some things, and I don't let that "at-will" thing get me down too often. However, at a purposefully not described point during my ten years in higher ed, a colleague of mine in a different college department was let go pretty much because s/he had publicly disagreed with the institution's administration. That memory informs a lot of what I will and will not write on this blog.

Another piece of my jumbled thought process/experience is that I've never had tenure-driven academic freedom, but I have had tremendous professional freedom. This blog is one example of that. The whole purpose of this blog is basically to thumb my nose at the current state of affairs in MLIS education. Another example of professional freedom is how I've gotten to push my agenda in my work. But, if I'm going to be completely honest with you, there are some days when professional freedom feels like a consolation prize. I have so many things I would say if not for the self-censorship. If you think I'm opinionated here, just ask some of the people with whom I have deep librarian friendships what I'm like out of the public eye.

All of this goes to say that I see Chris Bourg's point in the tweet I shared above. I haven't yet added my voice to the conversation because I don't want people to think I'm making a broad generalization. I'm not. I see the blacks and the whites and the grays of this issue and of my brother and sister academic librarians. There are fierce tenured librarians out there fighting the good fight, but it seems like a small number. I really do feel that academic freedom for some tenured academic librarians is like youth being wasted on the young.

Again, I say: Chris is correct. Academic freedom! Huh! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing... unless it's used. So here's a piece of advise from someone who doesn't have it: academic freedom is a right/privilege, and you should exercise it if you do have it. Or, in Chris' words, "librarians who have [academic freedom should] wield it fiercely & often."

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Storytime: You Have to Play to Win, by Cory Eckert


In grad school, I was going to be a teen librarian. I had no questions about this; it was all I wanted to do. As a result of this absolute certainty, I paid no attention whatsoever to any avenue that might have taught me storytime skills. This meant that I arrived at my first job, serving 0-18 year olds, with a ton of ideas about what to do with the teen program and zero tools in my storytime toolkit. I don't think I had ever even seen a storytime. I had worked in a school library, and done a lot of read-alouds, but even kindergartners aren't that excited about shaking their sillies out in front of all their peers. I had never done a fingerplay, or integrated a puppet into a song. I had never even heard of a flannel board, much less a draw and tell story. One thing I sort of intuited from what I was reading on the internet, and that you may not know, is that storytime is not just reading books out loud.*

Beyond that, want to know what storytime really is? It is a non-stop workout that involves keeping the attention of 10-100 toddlers while integrating early childhood development material, language awareness, body movement, and music, all while making it seem like so much fun that kids don't notice they're learning. In the beginning, I did not do any of this. I just read books out loud and sang (stiltedly, self-consciously) a couple of songs. The songs had to be tied to the theme, and there had to be a booklist on a parent handout that showed what Every Child Ready to Read skill it all related back to, etc. Kids did not really have fun at those storytimes. Nor did I, nor the parents.

The turning point for me was when a mom told me that her daughter, who never participated in shaking her sillies out during storytime, sung the song to her baby sister at home. This is how I began to understand that the way in which kids are learning at storytime cannot be measured by the metrics I was trying to use. This gave me room to loosen up, stop taking myself so seriously, and get comfortable in my skin. This might seem counterintuitive coming from someone who is always on about how misunderstood youth services librarians are in the profession, and how we don't just play but instead work very hard. It's not really counterintuitive. Babies and toddlers learn by playing, so we have to play with them.

We're not school. Part of why kids and parents voluntarily come back again and again, and make connections with us personally and as an institution, and champion us in voter campaigns, and tell their friends how great we are, is precisely because we're not school. In order to teach during storytime, I had to give up on the whole teaching idea and embrace the idea that we are creating an experiential whole literacy time, where kids learn all kinds of physical and social skills by playing and doing, and I have to play and do to get them comfortable. This comes out in all sorts of ways: not reading a book all the way through (which teaches parents who might have limited literacy skills that talking about a book also builds print motivation), abandoning songs when kids aren't into them, singing to random strange kids in the grocery store line to learn to go outside my comfort zone, and more. This letting it all out in front of a crowd is a muscle I have to develop, even as an extrovert. It goes against everything we're socialized to do, as educators, as women, as grown-ups. As such, it's been really good for me. I credit three year olds with being my favorite life mentors (Also, my favorite humans. The feeling is mutual).

From Saroj Ghoting, “According to the National Institute of Child Health and Development, early literacy is defined as 'what children know about reading and writing before they actually learn to read and write. To clarify, early literacy is not the teaching of reading. It is building a foundation for reading so that when children are taught to read, they are ready.'” Of course we build this foundation deliberately, and want to be taken seriously within our profession for how much work goes into it. Of course we want parents (and other patrons) to know that we educate ourselves in this practice extensively, so that they don't think we can be replaced by volunteers. But our service population is toddlers, and toddlers literally are not developmentally able to learn without playing, so we must have fun. Bonus! We're teaching parents how to play with their kids once they get home, which is a key component in early literacy. Print motivation means that kids are motivated to want to read books. That means they have to think reading books is fun, which means you have to think reading books to them is fun! So, brand new children's librarians, have as much fun as humanly possible. After all, you have the best job ever invented, and your fun is changing lives.


*For some great reading on essential storytime skills, check out Melissa Depper's blog series on the subject:

Cory Eckert is the Youth Services Manager at the Octavia Fellin Public Library in Gallup, NM. She received her MLIS from the University of Arizona in 2010 and learned what a flannel board was in 2011. She is the idea girl behind Guerrilla Storytime. She tweets at @helenstwin and blogs at Storytime Underground.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

You Can't Get There From Here: Wayfinding in an Academic Library

Before I get into the meat of this post, there's a word up in the title that you may not recognize, so I want to define it. "Wayfinding" is how we use the physical space and the cues it provides to find our way around; it's also a term used to describe signage systems that help us do just that. And it's a big deal.

I'm sure you're now asking, "but what about the rest of the post's title?" Well... Growing up in Massachusetts, I often heard a joke about a clueless city dweller and a Maine farmer. The joke went something like this:
A Bostonian gets hopelessly lost on a back road in Maine, his map and the directions he was given completely useless. A little ways up the road he sees a farmer mending a fence, so the Bostonian stops to ask for directions.
The farmer stops what he's doing, thinks about it for a moment, then starts [and you have to tell this part in a thick Maine accent which I've left off to help clarity], "You go down this road till you get to the fork where they rebuilt that barn that burned down a couple of years ago, take the left... no, the right at that fork. Hmm, no, that won't work. Tell you what, you go back the way you came for about three miles and turn left at that intersection where they're talking about putting a gas station and... No, that won't work either."
The farmer pauses for a while longer, and then looks at the Bostonian, "You know what, now that I think of it, really, you can't get there from here."
I look at how freshmen interact with my current library, and this has been true of every library where I've ever worked, and it seems like the freshmen are the Bostonians and we - librarians, upperclassmen, etc. - are the Maine farmers. We're friendly and helpful, but sometimes we make things harder than they need to be. The thing is, even the simplest of academic libraries can be overwhelming to freshmen, so we need to do everything we can to make the library as welcoming as possible, including the signage. Redesigning the wayfinding system/signage is something I did at my last job, and something I have slated for the summer of 2014 for my new gig. I've been thinking about it a lot lately, so I thought I'd share.

Here are some things I did with that past project that I'll either apply the lessons I learned in Ohio or recreate here. (This list was gleaned from reading multiple works on the topic that were written by professional architects as well as a couple of articles in the libr* literature.)

  • I spent some time wandering around malls and hospitals. In malls, whether or not the business remains solvent depends on whether people can find their way around. In hospitals, people's lives depend on it. (Yes, this is another instance of me beating the "Get Out of Your Silo" drum.)
  • I also went to nearby libraries to see what they were doing. I wanted to see the kinds of terminology they were using, since a lot of our students were from the local area. I also wanted to see what they were doing right and wrong. There was one public library that had well-designed, sturdy signs, so I sought out the person who'd overseen the project. She gave me some great pointers and the name of their vendor. On the other hand, there was an academic library not too far away that had all sorts of jargony signs. Ick.
  • Since I have a background in disabilities, I knew to research the Americans with Disabilities Act and what it has to say about signage.
  • Something that isn't in ADA but that does relate to disabilities is font. I know from previous work and lots of reading on the topic, that sans serif fonts are legible to a broader spectrum of people. (I'm especially fond of Trebuchet MS, because the a and the o look very different, which is a good thing.) I know fancy fonts are all fancy, but legibility is key.
  • I knew I needed to test new ideas before putting money and effort into creating a final product. One example of this was how we created the new library directory. I would go up to students in different parts of the library and say things like, "I know this may seem like a silly question, but what would you call this room?" Then, when I had a good draft of the list we wanted to use, I did the opposite - asked patrons, "I'm testing something for a new directory. Where in the library would you find [fill in the blank]?" I also checked to make sure that the signs were legible from a variety of distances and angles. Again: test test test!

That list above isn't a cure-all, but it is a good place to start. The best advice I can give you about signage is to be careful, or else you could end up causing this level of confusion:


Thursday, November 7, 2013

First Thursday's Just For Fun: The Score is Still Q to 12

It seems strange, but for the longest time I thought I was in the minority with my unwavering allegiance to and reading of Calvin and Hobbes. I know now I'm not alone, that there are countless C&H fans out there and more being born every day. Even still, I would put myself up there as a top tier fan. One piece of proof: I quote this strip regularly - sometimes without even realizing it. True story: I had been saying "Careful. We don't want to learn from this," (or derivations thereof) for so long I'd forgotten the origin until Daily C&H Quote tweeted it recently.

Full disclosure: I don't own ALL THE books, but I do own all the strips (found a list somewhere that named the books you needed for this). I've read my C&H books many many times, and they look like it. I don't really have a favorite, but I do lean towards The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book, since Bill Watterson gave us wonderful background information about the characters and his creative process.

The thing is, there's so much to love about Calvin & Hobbes that I had a hard time even starting. So, in no particular order, here are some of my favorite things:

  • There's something for every kind of taste:
Verbing Weirds Language
Bubble Gum is DANGEROUS
  • The fantastic mashups:
I have this t-shirt:
I bought this shirt, designed by Chris Wahl, from RedBubble, but it's no longer for sale.
I'd been coveting this t-shirt for a while, but missed it. Hoping it gets resurrected soon:
By Karen Hallion. I own other t-shirts with her art.
  • The fandom:
I came across this little gem recently and have lost count of how many times I've watched it. (Check the comments to see how awesome these people are. Yes, I know comments are usually BAD. Not this time.)

And then there's this documentary that I simply must see. I'm even considering preordering the DVD now.

So how about you. I must assume that you love C&H, otherwise you wouldn't have made it down to the end of the column. What do you love about the boy and his stuffed (or is he stuffed?) tiger? Have a favorite strip?

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Why I Dressed Up for Halloween

I dressed up as Modern Medusa this year. I'll admit it's a recycled costume, but it was cheap (rubber snakes, a bit of fake hair, and snake earrings), easy to put together, and it's subtle enough that I get the most delightful double-takes when I wear it.

The problem is that, great as it looked, and as much as I enjoyed it, I almost didn't dress up this year. You see, even though Halloween is my most favoritest holiday, I wasn't sure about doing this at my still sort of new job. Being the director plus being among new people plus a budget strategy meeting on Thursday afternoon made me reconsider my normal approach to the day.

The pep talk I gave myself included a reminder of something a reader wrote me - about how I always advocate for people to be themselves. And it's true. In office decor, in how I teach, and so on, I try to bring my genuine self to the mix since I've always gotten better results that way. Heck, I've even had guest posts with similar advice.

Even still, it took me a bit to convince myself. I'm so glad I did, since it gave me not only the joy of the double-takes, but also the opportunity to make dumb jokes by giving the individual snakes names and saying things like "Oh, never mind Jasmine, she's a little hissy today." "Fred's trying to get away because he saw a tasty looking rubber rat."

I share this to remind you and me both to be yourself as much as you can, but also to let you know that it's still not always easy even for those of us who have been in the field for a while. It's true that dressing up might not fit with every community (which could be a municipality, a law firm, an institution of higher education, etc.), but trusting yourself and being yourself is always a good fit.