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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Technology in the library

This is a huge topic which includes everything from electricity and internet access, to computers, OPACs, databases, and even reprography. I spoke at length in my video podcasts about the various topics, so I’ll write about how I feel about technology in the library.

When I was little, I’ve been around for a long time, libraries contained no computers, but they did have electric lights. (Just a little humor here.) The technology that I saw consisted of typewriters, card catalogs with lots of drawers,  and the various methods of recording what patrons checked out of the library. Some libraries had you write your name on the check out card and they filed them away until the books were due. That was probably my school library if I think about it. At the public library there was a camera that took a snapshot of your library card and the book card or the book pocket. Again they probably took the cards out and filed them until the book was returned. It seems like a primitive system today, but it worked and still works for very small libraries.

In library school, oh so long ago, I learned to search OCLC and RLIN, Dialog and BRS using typewriters that served as computer input devices called deckwriters (I have no idea how to spell this piece of equipment). You typed onto green and white bar paper that fed through the roller of the keyboard. The keyboard was attached to a computer, one of the databases above, though the phone lines and an acoustic coupler at a very slow rate. The answers or the catalog record information was received through the phone line and printed out through the keyboard. It was slow and cumbersome by today’s standards, but it worked.

Over the years, communication speeds increased and terminals and computers became more sophisticated. Searching techniques have changed and yet still follow the same basic, logical rules, because computers are, after all, computational machines. As librarians and archivists, we have to work with varieties of computers, electronic devices, and databases. They are all different. While I call myself an analogue librarian and love paper based resources, I use electronic and digital resources all the time. I take advantage of the speed of communication and the interconnectivity of information and reference resources. When it comes right down to it, books are technological devices just as much as clocks are, and they fit seamlessly into our computerized, digital world. I do know that technology continues to improve and it constantly changes the way we seek and retrieve information. I just try not to let it rule my life.

If you want to read about the development of computers, just one form of technology that changes libraries, archives, and museums every day, here are two classic books about the origins of computers and the internet.

  • Dennis Shasha and Cathy Lazere, Out of their Minds: The Lives and Discoveries of 15 Great Computer Scientists (NY: Copernicus, imprint of Springer-Verlag, 1998)
  • Katie Hafner and Matthey Lyon, Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet ( NY: Touchstone Book / Simon & Schuster, 1996)

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Catalogs, databases, and search engines. What’s the difference?

Catalogs, databases, and search engines are great topics and you actively discussed them. I love the idea of professors using Amazon to find books for their students to read. My comps and dissertation advisor used Amazon all the time. He said it was faster than the catalog. Well, maybe. But remember Amazon serves a different purpose. It provides a list of what’s available on its website and through its vendors. Amazon is not a library catalog, it’s a giant searchable sales catalog.

The library’s catalog shows the user where the books are supposed to be located on the shelf and groups like books together. A library catalog (OPAC) is not a search engine. It only searches the materials in its universe, not the internet. Even the subject specific databases accessed through the library’s website are not the library catalog. The library provides a portal or pass-through to the databases which contain access points to their own small universes. Because of the complexity, and silo nature, of proprietary (fee-based) databases, many of our patrons don’t “bother” to use them. If we can reach the professors and the teachers, if we can reach the students, then we have a hope of getting them to use the proprietary databases. The Oxford Reference Shelf ( )[1] is a great example of a database that accesses multiple resources through one search box, or you can search each reference book separately.[2]

[1] According to the website, Oxford Reference Online will become, as of 12 April 2012 Oxford Quick Reference and Oxford Reference Library.
[2] Kent State students access the service through Reference (below the main search box), then Dictionaries and Thesauri; then Oxford Reference Online.

Monday, February 27, 2012

What’s on your minds this week

Between last week and this (weeks 6 & 7) there has been lots of discussion about reference, customer service, and library users. The most active discussions revolved around the catalog, classification, and how information or books are retrieved. You pose great questions and are definitely ruminating about the issues. The reflective journals echo these concerns as well as issues that jump out at you. I’d say Weigland’s article was the most popular and put reference, information seeking, and information needs into perspective. As I mentioned in my podcast, I didn’t see the benefit of the article originally, but after ruminating on the idea of how we make decisions, Weigland is right on target.

Some of you continue to write about reference interviews, giving information to patrons vs. teaching them to find it. It’s important to remember that although each reference encounter is a teachable moment, sometimes they just want that “factoid” and a quick, here’s the source. and the info may be good enough for the patron.

As the patron continues to return to the reference desk, you’ll get a sense that teaching them to find the information will be helpful and more rewarding. I’m thinking here of genealogy & local history, literary criticism, art history and school paper topics.

My favorite question used to be “Where can I find the Bible?” My response was, “What type and what language?” Sometimes that elicited a longer reference interview; sometimes I just took them to the 292’s and showed them how the Bibles and biblical commentaries were arranged. I always ended the discussion with “If you didn’t find what you want or need more, come back and I’ll help you find it.” Today I hear the refrain as “Did that answer your question completely?” If you remember that reference is a multi-step process, you’ll help the patron learn step-by-step.

Here’s another example of searching step by step, but not necessarily in a mediated manner. Look at what Ancestry is doing with their TV show “Who Do You Think You Are?”  They make genealogy research look really easy, just log on and put in your name, and voila, there’s a leaf and your family tree is growing. What you don’t see, unless you work in a genealogy or local history department, is how difficult it really is to use the database. When we examine the searching mechanisms at Ancestry we discover that, while their search engine pulls from their huge database of documents, it also provides imprecise answers and the searches are difficult to replicate. It is almost impossible to get the database to retrieve a specific item unless you save it. The imprecision and the huge number of hits, frustrates patrons. It just looks easy but it’s not that easy. I love searching Ancestry, and they have raised the publics’ awareness of the importance of libraries, archives, and museums and the vast collections housed within their walls. If you watch their show carefully, individuals seek assistance in their research from librarians, archivists, and historians. When it comes to searching for information, librarians and archivists are an essential part of the equation and solution. We, the librarians, help our patrons make sense of databases and information, so their search is successful or at least somewhat fruitful. [1]

As librarians and archivists, as professional researchers, it is important to take the time to learn how databases and search engines retrieve data and citations. What elements do they actually query? How do they rank or select the elements for each data set? How is the located data displayed? All these factors are important to consider as we explore resources, search catalogs and websites, and teach these reference tools to our patrons.

By the way, if you are interested in reading more about teaching at the reference desk and / or collaborative teaching, check out James K. Elmborg and Sheril Hook, Centers for Learning: Writing Centers and Libraries in Collaboration, Publications in Librarianship No. 58 (Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries, ALA, 2005).

[1] My comparison is a gross simplification of the differences between database search, retrieval, and output mechanisms.

Reviewing: books, articles, websites, exhibits, and presentations.

What’s the purpose of reviewing various media and presentations, physical and digital? For librarians and archivists, reviewing is a way to share our opinions about the content, authority, and importance of produced works. Those reviews are important for collection development, for making lists of “read-alikes” for readers’ advisory, or compiling subject bibliographies. We cannot read everything that comes into the library, nor can we even look at all the titles that are available for selection.  Even if we went to the bookstore every day, we would not be able to look through all the books that are published every month. It’s too big a job. On top of that, we are not all subject specialists. We must rely upon the expertise of subject specialists and scholars to review books for their content and their quality.  As librarians, we need to be able to write an abstract of a book or journal article, to review the same for their importance to the field, both librarianship and the academic field. To do that, we need to think about how each title fits within the field and helps shape the field.

One approach to reviewing is to put together a list of questions you would like to ask the author about what he or she wrote. I always imagine what the questions I would ask if we went for coffee and I wanted to get to know the author better through her book. Why did he approach the topic in this manner? What was missing or unclear? Did the conclusion make sense? There are so many excellent questions to ask. One thing to keep in mind while reviewing is that it’s the text the author wrote that you are considering, not what you wanted them to write. I always get stuck at this issue.

One thing to remember when you write review and analyze books and articles is to draw in other literature and authors to support your arguments. Don’t just comment based upon your own attitudes and feelings. Including other resources makes your arguments stronger and helps provide a context for the materials you review.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The hidden value of catalogs and indices

I’ve been doing more thinking about the value of catalogs and indices for librarians, archivists, and researchers. From a librarian’s perspective, these tools help us and researchers find what they are looking for. That sounds really simple and straight forward, except that it is easier said than done. I’ve written a little about how indices are put together, where journal articles and books covering the same subject areas are intellectually grouped into the same place, and, using call numbers, can be physically placed together on the shelf.

Books in series can be placed together or separated from one another, yet co-located in a catalog. Let me give you an example. There are books written in series called “monographic serials.” They are usually on a similar topic, say mapping, or urban studies. Now catalogers can select call numbers so they are shelved together one after the other allowing the researcher to just go to the shelf and find the topic of their choice within the series. Or they can be interspersed throughout the collection, depending upon their subject matter and only brought together by the “series” title. Every library varies in its treatment of these monographic serials, and LOC no longer provides guidance as to which way to catalog them. The cataloging and MARC record contains the information that allows us to find all the books in this series which could be scattered all over the library.

My favorite catalogs are the national union catalogs. The one for the United States is NUC pre-1956. It is a series of about 750 quarto (large) green volumes that are often hidden away in libraries and cataloging areas and are rarely used today. Examining the entries you can actually trace the history of cataloging and classification. Within the volumes are lists of an author’s works, major and minor, articles in journals that some library cataloged, and even pamphlets by ministers, scientists, and humanists alike. While the holdings information may be outdated, it is fifty-five years old after all, access to series and subject information is invaluable for historians, literary scholars, and historians of the book, to name a few.

When I was researching late nineteenth century archaeological reports from Near East excavations, all the preliminary research and findings were cataloged as separate items in the New York Public Library catalogs (pre-1972). Now I could have found some of the articles / pamphlets in journal indices, but many were not published in the US or were not included in standard indices. The catalog held the clues and opened up a world of research and exploration for me.

Many of these older book catalogs are still in use. The entries have never been converted to machine readable entries, and probably never will be. Some libraries have annotated their catalogs and cards with little notes that aid the researcher or are based on evidence found by researchers in the course of their studies. The same holds true of print indices, exhibition catalogs, and subject specific catalogs that provide access to older or specialized collections. These resources are invaluable to the researcher and scholar, to the librarian and archivist working in a special collection.

So how does this pertain to information scientists today? It is important to see where the idea of organizing our printed history comes from. And it is not just printed history. There are catalogs and organizational methods for photographs, sound recordings, and even objects. These items are often arranged in acquisition order that is, when they were acquired, or by type, with subject access through a catalog. The catalog is supposed to do all the work, through access points for title or descriptive phrase, author or creator or excavator, and by subject or classification.

I have been writing about tangible items. What about all the items, websites, and ideas on the Internet? Should we bother trying to create order out of all the chaos? That’s such a huge question, that it really belongs in a course by itself. My simple answer is that the search engines that go out to the web are our, societies’, feeble attempt to provide some order and control over a vast ocean of data and information. Some search engines to better jobs than others. None compare, yet, with the way print and online ‘card’ catalogs and indices provide access to books and journals.

Our job as librarians, archivists, and information scientists is to help retrieve materials for researchers using these catalogs, indices, and search engines. Our goal is to teach our patrons to navigate the disparate catalogs, indices, and databases to find what they seek. Knowing how they work and how to make they work is half the game, the other half is to understand what our researchers need and how they go about seeking that little bit of information, that little clue that completes their puzzle. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

TV and Google

One theme of this week's readings might be TV, Google, and Our Brains - how the media affects our understanding of the world around us. While there is lots of debate about what is an authoritative source of information, these authors mostly agree that books trump other forms of media. What do you think?

If you want to read more on the topic:

Citations for Neil Postman and other books on his topic of media, critical thinking, and authority.
Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death written in 1985. You might also check out his book Technopoly: the surrender of culture to technology. New York: Vintage Books, 1993.
Marie Winn The Plug-In Drug 1967
Nicholas Carr Is Google Making Us Stupid: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains” Atlantic Monthly (July/Aug 2008) which he expanded into a book length discussion The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains ..
Marchall McLuhan The Medium Is the Massage 1967
Walter Ong Orality and literacy: the Technologizing of the Word 1982

Monday, February 20, 2012

Organizing Information

There are three major themes for this week. There are classification schema, cataloging schema, and metadata and tagging for electronic and digital resources.  Since I got carried away with video podcasts you probably don’t want to read more about the topic this week.

Here are some different ways to think about the topic.
One is by pointing to the physical location of an item. Classification schema do this, and the location is called a call number or shelf mark number. These numbers aggregate items together by that particular, usually dominant subject.  Dewey Decimal Numbers, Cutter numbers, Library of Congress Call numbers, SuDoc (Superintendent of Documents) Call number (for gov docs) are just a few call number schema.

There are classification schema which provide access to subjects within books and journals. These subjects are designated using fixed or controlled vocabulary found in thesauri, in Sears Subject Headings, or Library of Congress Subject Headings. Tags are the natural language “equivalents” of subject headings where users use vocabulary that is not controlled and varies quite widely. The great thing about subject headings is that you can assign many to an item while it is located in just one location in the library.  See Dr. Rubin’s example about Darwin’s Origin of the Species in the chapter

Then there are the catalogs themselves. Books, archives, and some museum collections are catalogs using MARC (Machine Readable Cataloging). Each identifiable element of a book or object is typed into a specific field. The fields are then displayed by the catalog interface. There are more fields with data than are normally shown by the public access terminal or OPAC. Other catalog encoding systems include ARC and EAD. Dublin Core is a system that allows the use of natural language to identify the various objects cataloging or held within the database. Dublin Core usually, but not always, describes digital objects.

Metadata is compiled to describe the various features and attributes of digital objects and databases. It is actually data about data and is used for organizing and controlling or keeping track of digital resources, their methods of creation, and components.

Dr. Salaba referenced this link in her talk about metadata. It leads to a metadata standards map -

There are ways to provide access points to books, journals, and other sources of data. One is an index arranged by author, title, and various subject headings. We are all familiar with this form of access method. There are indices to journals in a subject area, where subject headings and subheadings provide access to various articles written that month, year, or even decade. These have evolved into proprietary or ‘domain dependent’ databases such as Library Literature Index. Even JSTOR might be considered such an index.

Since I spoke at length about these various topics in my video podcasts, I’ll limit my explanation to those above. Let me know if you have questions, which will undoubtedly be answered more fully when you take “Organization of Information” and “Cataloging”.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Observations of libraries – common features and comments

It was fascinating to read all your observations about a library near you.  Many of you went to your local library and systematically toured the building, looking at the various departments, layout, services, and staffing. In some cases, it was the first time you actually focused on the library & the services it provided. Children’s libraries were a big hit, as were computer labs. A few of you went to academic libraries. Alas, none of you observed the goings on at an historical society or a special library. I hope you will take the opportunity to interview a professional at an institution you don’t know well or in an aspect of the field that is foreign to you.

Few of you commented about librarian / patron interactions although some mentioned experiences at the circulation desk, with self-checkout machines, or registration for new cards. This is a great method to employ when contemplating how someone new to a community sees your institution. First impressions are so important. We almost never have the opportunity to correct poor impressions.

Lack of or poor signage seems to be a serious issue in almost all libraries. How are our patrons supposed to find anything when the stacks and areas are poorly labeled or there is not signage at all? What does it mean to a community when a library neglects signage? Or lets the website go out of date with stale links and year old events?

There were lots of summaries of activities and detailed tours of buildings and collections. Some of you were very creative asking questions and setting up scenarios as first time patron to get the feel for the culture of the library. Very commendable!

One of you talked about a “gadget” gallery, where the library had various e-book readers and electronic devices that patrons could try out. What a great idea! That combines ERI and serves the patrons who are curious about what to acquire or how to use a piece of technology.

What I found most lacking was a discussion of how the literature we have read so far, or listened to, helped you set the library into context in a community. A few of you brought in references to the literature, but a very few. Pulling in the literature was an integral part of the assignment. I expect you do to so for the journal article review and for the interview.

Think about how the readings provide background to the field, to the profession or specialty.
How does the institution you visited compare with what you read about? Is it typical or different? What is offered that was surprising or revolutionary?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Life in the trenches: Words from a new librarian

Hi all, Dr. Kahn has asked me to be a guest blogger for your Week 6 lessons.

I’m Lindsay and I’m a newly minted (December 2009) librarian from Kent SLIS, and I recently began my first professional librarian job.  Feel free to email me if you want to know more about my job searching adventures (which are book-worthy!).  I had the pleasure of having Miriam for two courses while in library school – Rare Book Librarianship in the fall of 2008 and Genealogy and Local History in the spring of 2009, and she also was an invaluable resource after I graduated.

A bit more about my background…I have a BS in Biology and worked several years in biomedical research before starting my MLIS, luckily realizing before getting too engrossed in a PhD program, that I needed to be in a field where I was able to regularly interact with people and not waste my life away taking care of mice!  I love biomedical research, I’m passionate about it, but I definitely didn’t like getting my hands dirty.  That and I found the career opportunities for PhD candidates in my field to be almost non-existent.  So it was the dissatisfaction with my current field that drew me into libraries in the first place – and I fell in love with working in reference and teaching, focusing my career in librarianship toward reference and teaching in academic health sciences libraries.

I’m sure many of you have similar stories, either as recent college graduates in an uncertain job market trying to find a broad encompassing degree that doesn’t lock you into a single thing, or long-standing college graduates looking for a career change.

While in SLIS I started working as a substitute reference assistant at Massillon Public Library, and I completed my practicum at Case Western Reserve University's Health Center Library.  So during my tenure in SLIS I had the opportunity to work in reference in both a public library as well as an academic health sciences library, which gave me a unique understanding to the similarities and differences in reference interactions between these two distinct library types.

Today I am a Reference and Instruction Librarian at Columbia University Medical Center’s Health Sciences Library in New York City - email me if you want to know more about what it's like to work in academia or to live and work in NYC!  On a daily basis, I work directly with faculty, students, and researchers from the five Columbia University programs affiliated with CUMC: the College of Physicians & Surgeons, the College of Nursing, the College of Dental Medicine, the School of Public Health, and the Graduate School of Basic Sciences; as well as clinicians and nurses from New York-Presbyterian Hospital.

I’m still a newbie here, only having started in November, and I am still learning the ropes, but I hope to give you all a taste of what it is like in the “real world” of librarianship, specifically what it’s like to be a new librarian working in the trenches.

So, I’m sure you’re all dying to know what it’s really like out there, and if what you’re learning in SLIS is of any measurable use as you begin to actually work in the field.  And I’m here to tell you the good, the bad, and the ugly.  I know Dr. Kahn has mentioned this to you, but I want to reiterate it.  Library school in general is heavily based in theory, some of which is nice to know, but most is not practical for librarians who actually work in libraries (librarians as scholars is a whole different ball game).

My advice about what to take from SLIS is this:  What you learn in many of your classes probably isn't what is going to help you in your job (understand it that most of what you will do as a professional librarian you will learn once you already have a job).  Do a practicum (especially if you do not currently already work in a library, or work in a different type of library than you want to work in).  Find a mentor (this can be a professor, a practicum supervisor, or a librarian at a local library, etc.).  Get experience (when you're in library school - many libraries hire LIS students as pages and assistants, this is a foot in the door and imperative to your success).  Find your niche (take advantage of your previous jobs and experiences, and find your "unique value contribution" that makes you stand out against every other candidate for a job).

Having experience in both public and academic libraries, I’ll try to give you a general sense of each, the pros and cons, and what it takes to work in each setting.

Reference Librarians – Public vs. Academic

Knowledge focus:
Public libraries: General information – must be knowledgeable in many areas (e.g. literature, genealogy, medicine, and car repair) and have the skills to quickly find information.  Must be adept at using many subject databases and public resources ('tis the season for!!).  Though often questions can be answered with a simple Google search or with that revered scholarly resource Wikipedia (I've located DOB's for celebrities many times, needless to say).  Users usually come to the reference desk to get concrete information.  Undergraduate degrees mean little as far as specialization, and focus is on previous experience.

Academic libraries: Specialized research and teaching – must be able to carry out in-depth research and teach users to use the resources themselves.  A smaller subset of databases are needed to be known, but you must know those databases inside and out because you will often be using many of them every day.  You must also be able to be able to explain, in layman's terms, how to use the databases in complex ways, such as using subject headings to target a search.  Users usually come to the reference desk to learn how to do something.  Often a specialized undergraduate background or subject Masters is required or expected after several years of service.

Public libraries: Anyone and everyone – from children, to the elderly, to the mentally unstable, public reference librarians must be able to field questions from users from vast educational and socio-economic levels, and depending on the location of the library (urban, rural, suburban) the frequency of problem patrons.

Academic libraries: Students, faculty and staff, and researchers from the university, and depending on the institution, visitors – depending on the type of institution, academic reference librarians may have a very specialized set of users or they might deal with every level (undergraduates, graduates, faculty, etc.), but each user group requires a different type of approach and often have different needs and schedules.

Typical work:
Public libraries: Long and busy desk shifts with occasional other duties – public reference librarians tend to spend a significant portion of their day (at least at the entry-level) sitting on the reference desk and assisting patrons.  Their shifts on the reference desk, usually from 4-8 hours at a time, are often a busy mix of in-person, phone, and email requests, so multi-tasking is imperative.  There will be times where you will find yourself with 3 patrons in front of you and the phone ringing off the hook (I’ve been there…multiple times!).  It’s a matter of being courteous and efficient, but at the same time knowing your own limits and spelling those out to your patrons.  If worse comes to worse let the answering machine pick up the phone calls!  Some reference librarians will be required to teach a class here or there, or even work at the circulation desk at times.

Academic libraries: Short and quiet desk shifts with significant other duties – academic reference librarians generally spend only a small portion of their day on the reference desk, perhaps only a couple hours a day or a couple days a week (I currently work on the desk for 2 hours twice a week, and then whenever a colleague might need someone to cover).  Reference desk shifts can, depending on the time of the semester be very hectic (around finals or when term papers are due), or unbearably silent (beginning of semesters, summer, etc.).  The rest of your day will likely be spend preparing for classes, teaching, and doing consultations with users.  And depending on the institution/library, some academic librarians are “embedded” meaning they work within the departments that they serve, directly interacting with their core users.  These types of librarians are typically are referred to as “liaisons”.  Regardless of the type of reference librarian you are, one of your primary duties will inevitably be marketing your library and your expertise to your users and your administration.

Types of questions:
Public libraries: Most questions are ready-reference, few teachable moments – the phone number to a local store, finding a specific book or DVD, facts and figures, or downloadable forms.  More in-depth questions may revolve around genealogy and local history, or help finding research information.  I found that I had many users who came from some of the local colleges/technical schools, and joked that I should get commission for directing many of their own students to their libraries!  Finding teachable moments in public libraries is sometimes a bit harder to come by.  It becomes a skill in reading a patron to determine if they can comprehend enough to actually learn the concept as well as if they have any desire at all to learn that skill.

Academic libraries: Most questions are in-depth, significant teachable moments - generally you may only have one or two reference transactions in a two-hour shift (and I’ve gone many a shifts with no questions at all!), but the transactions may take considerable times, as they often require in-depth searching or a complex problem.  In some of these transactions, teaching is highly effective.  A student or faculty member who is trying to find articles on a topic or comes in with a problem – this is where you can turn a reference question into a teachable moment and leave that user feeling more empowered to do their own research and appreciative of the knowledge and expertise that the librarian was able to provide for them.  Not only is teaching great because they learn something new, but it’s a valuable PSA in the worth and necessity of academic libraries in an era when administrations are trying to find places to cut funding.

In any case, public or academic libraries, you might find yourself in a position with a patron, where they are asking for something that is completely outside of your knowledge or expertise.  I had many questions while working at the public library, where patrons came in with questions about legal documents.  The plus was, once I learned what reference book there were copyable dissolution of marriage forms, I was pretty good, but nonetheless I still got questions that I either had no idea what the patron was talking about, or even if I did I ended up with the proverbial deer in the headlights reaction. The best thing to do is to stop, take a breath, and try to ask the patron more questions to get an idea what they're talking about.  In academic libraries, you might have a user who has a research question that is completely out of your repertoire.  And while often the searching skills are the same, often there are specific databases or jargon that is necessary.  Sometimes the best thing to do with academics is to ask them more questions about their research, and be honest that you don't have any expertise in that subject area but if they can inform you you can do the best to help them.

In both cases, often the biggest hurdle is that the patron really isn't sure what information or help they need.  Case-in-point...I was trying to help a graduate student and he came to me and gave me what appeared to be his unabridged defense and after suffering through what seemed like hours of incomprehensible gibberish, I asked a few seemingly simple questions, and it turned out that all he needed to know was how to change the style format of his references for his advisor, but when his advisor told him what he needed to do the advisor make it sound like he needed another PhD to accomplish it!  It's like playing telephone, only with academics.  If you can get to the bottom of what the user needs, why they need it, and what they intend to do with, you almost always can determine a course of action and find an answer or a solution.

These same questions are also what we can ask ourselves when we find that we are unsure what to do in a reference transaction.

If that doesn't work, sometimes the most effective solution is to ask.  You can't know everything, and no one expects a freshly new librarian to have all the answers, know every database, and be able to handle every question that comes their way.  Let your colleagues help you.  Learn from them, most librarians are eager to pass their knowledge onto new librarians both among their own co-workers as well as others in the field.  Often, it's the simplest most dull questions that trip you up.  I remember the first time someone asked where the restrooms were at CUMC and I froze!  We have staff restrooms in the back, but I was completely unaware as to where the public restrooms were!  Another example is I sit on Columbia University Libraries' Ask A Librarian chat reference desk for an hour a week.  It's fun, but can be quite exhausting at busy/peak times, and can make a new librarian feel very vulnerable.  First off, I work at the Health Sciences Library at the medical center, 52 blocks uptown from the main campus and only loosely connected to the rest of the CU campus.  I don't even know where all the different libraries at main campus are, let alone intimate knowledge about their collections and policies!  Second, I have no experience or knowledge of subject specific databases, like Bloomberg (a law database that is only available to law students).    Several times I've had to run out of my office to a colleagues' and quickly ask them the question!  Working on v-ref has literally been a crash course in Columbia University's libraries, collections, and policies, and has taught me many new things.

So that’s my “lesson” here in this guest post.  Now I’ll tell you a few anecdotes, to help give you a more real image of what we are actually doing out there.

Working in a public library you will quickly learn about “certain” patrons.  And while some are real problem patrons (I had the unfortunate experience of having my purse AND my car stolen by some young girls while at work at MPL...long story, and luckily something I can now laugh about!!), others are just quirky or more often than not, off their rockers.  There was one patron that was notorious at MPL, and during my first interaction with her my supervisor neglected to tell me her story.  I patiently assisted her in locating the phone number to the Monte Carlo Film Festival because she had heard that a certain member of the Royal Family was seen there…don’t ask how she was going to call Monaco, or why she was calling to talk to the Prince when according to the tabloid he had been there a week earlier.  And as I struggled to decipher French websites, keeping my frustrations and confusion at bay, I later learned (from an uncontrollably laughing supervisor) that this patron was infamous among the staff, harboring a stalking fixation on the British Throne and requested all sorts of bizarre information.  My later exchanges with this patron included reprimanding her for pushing me off my own reference desk because she refused to wait in line behind the other patrons, and reading through dozens of tabloids.  Needless to say, working in a public library is never a dull moment!

While at CWRU, my favorite student got that designation for a certain unique way of showing her appreciation for my help.  I always say, it’s nice when patrons’ thank you for helping them, but actions speak louder than words.  And this first-year medical student gave me the most memorable thank you.  The next time I was at my practicum she brought several of her friends and told them that I could help them with their research papers.  It’s moments like that when you realize what an impact you are making on your patrons.

All my life I have used Macs, and while in many aspects of your professional career this can be problematic, as most institutions work solely with PCs, in my case it turned out to be a hidden gem while at CUMC.  Even though it was not part of the job description or anything that even came up in any serious degree during my interviews, I stepped into a job where I was able to take up a role and a direction that was not imagined by the rest of the staff.  I have become the “Mac Guru”.  Which is a very necessary job title, as more and more of our users are toting their MacBooks, and iPads, and iPhones around, and wanting to use them to do their research and locate and store information.  As luck would have it, there was an unused Mac Mini that magically appeared on my office desk, so I had the bragging rights of two computers in my office!  But it was what I was able to do with that Mac that has made all the difference.  I have created classes specifically teaching resources using a Mac, and when our director purchased several iPads for staff use, I had constant knocks on my office door from colleagues unsure how to work the tablet and taught an impromptu lesson to several of the reference librarians during some down time at the desk on the basic functions of the iPad.

Your job is what you make it, and whether you're working as a para-professional in a library, doing a practicum, or working in your first professional position, you're going to have experiences that will easily lend themselves to learning and growing.  Make sure you do learn and grow from them, to make yourself a better librarian, a better provider of information, a better resource for your users.  Find opportunities to take a risk, step out of your comfort zone, and take on new tasks.  Get involved as students in professional organizations.  Network.  Learn.  Use the librarians you meet as a sounding board.  Ask them about their jobs, their experiences.  Ask them to critique your resumes/CVs.  Ask them to connect you to others.  Realize that every person you meet is going to give you more knowledge and experiences and ideas.

Well, that's all for now.  I'm happy to answer any questions from you guys and Dr. Kahn has my permission to forward any pertinent discussion onto me.  My email address is:, consider my inbox an open door invitation.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Reference and Outreach

First of all, I've asked a former student Lindsay Greenawalt to be a guest blogger this week. She's going to write about her new job as reference librarian. Feel free to post comments.

This week we are actually beginning to tackle some practical issues in library & information science. Outreach is so important for the longevity of cultural institutions. The web provides so many opportunities to provide outreach and I think libraries, archives, historical societies, and museums take advantage of the benefits of the web to make their collections available and accessible to a diverse audience. But outreach is more than that. It’s getting out into the community and learning what our patrons need and want. It’s helping the disadvantaged, homeless, and isolated individuals take advantage of what the library has and can offer to them. Ms Wong’s presentation was very inspiring.

Reference is near and dear to my heart and my love of librarianship. Reference is the aspect of librarianship that was the focus of my studies and continues to be an interest. While I may not be as interested in its philosophical underpinnings, I’ve seen them change and grow over the decades as reference morphed from print to digital and electronic. Evaluating reference tools, teaching reference sources, and understanding how they work is one of my true interests. In fact, I am even interested in how these major types of reference sources are created. Understanding how reference tools work, records are organized, and information is disseminated is so important. How does that database work? What does it search? How does it search? What types of answers are retrieved? How can I narrow or broaden my approach? All these are questions that you should be able to answer for yourself and your patron when you help them search for information. Learning how indices work and the types of information retrieved is part of the skills you should hone as you work at the reference desk, as you search a catalogue or database.

While I found all the readings interesting this week, Morris provides the philosophy, Weigand the story, and Elmborg brings it all together. Rubin will give you the underpinning as usual. Over and over, I kept asking myself, what’s changed over the years? Has anything changed? And how can we bridge that gap between what the articles teach us and the reality of 2012?

There are two main topics this week that fall under user services. The first is outreach to our patrons to help them see and use the benefits of the library, common examples being book mobiles and services to the visually handicapped, and literacy programs. The second is actually providing reference services at the desk in and through all types of cultural institutions.


The podcast by Wong does a great job of describing the programs her library instituted, in cooperation with other organizations, to bring literacy and libraries / books to the public. The lesson you want to take away from that talk is you need to get out into the community, learn what they need, and help provide those services. This form of outreach is so very important for keeping the library visible within communities and constituencies. What types of outreach programs does your library offer? What are some you think are missing?

Bell & Deane are two articles that also focus on bringing customer service to the user and making our services useful and useable to the public. Deane’s lesson is the same, that librarians need to get out of the library to learn what patrons want. Bell emphasizes working to open up the library to all users and serve their needs. Even more important, librarians and archivists need to stand on the ‘other side’ of the desk, on the patron side, as a patron doing research to see where service and access is lacking. As a librarian who engages in research for hire, I’m constantly on the user side of the reference desk. The quality of reference service really varies depending upon who is on the desk and the institution where you as the questions. Since there’s no “standard” except excellence, you, as budding librarians, need to be cognizant of the needs of your patrons and provide the best assistance possible. One question to keep in mind is “Why come to the library, real or virtual?” What do our patrons gain by asking questions of the librarian or using our resources? is an interesting, generic library outreach site. Does it work for your library and your community?

The other topic is reference and the rest of the articles really focus on a wide variety of aspects surrounding reference.

Morris’ article is the theoretical article that homes in on database design and asks “what types of researchers really need from this set of data or citations?” It is important to consider the needs of the user. The more you work with databases and search engines, the more you hone your ability to research using a wide variety of resources, the more you will understand how important that question is. Many databases were created for the librarian and the expert researcher with little concern for the skills and needs of the novice. This is particularly true of early databases, before the web was available to just about everyone. Yet, many databases are still difficult to use and master.

Some questions you should ask yourself while reading Morris are: how have databases and search capabilities changed in the past 15 years? How has the ability to search using natural language changed the types of results databases provide? Who are these databases created for? And how easily and comfortably do researchers find what they seek?

Kuhlthau’s various stages of research (Morris, 26 and Rubin, 278) should help the reference librarian understand the types of information researchers seek. As the research project progresses, the types of information sought are more refined, exacting, and often more difficult to locate. Asking good reference questions, conducting an effective reference interview is key to assisting the patron in their search, whether they want a good book or a specific piece of research, or an exact title.

Today we find that many of these questions are considered by practitioners of Information Architecture and Usability Studies. Of course, the design of websites and databases affect our ability to find information sought by ourselves and our users.

Morris and Rubin provide excellent examples of the types of reference questions do ask during an interview (Morris, 28 and Rubin, 276).

Elmborg’s article focuses on teaching at the reference, particularly in academic institutions, but these suggestions also apply to public libraries. His article talks about the two different philosophies of reference; doing the work for a patron and teaching a patron how to do the reference or search. The latter is the type of reference we should strive to provide.

His definition of different types of researchers / learning styles on pg 456 goes well with Weigand’s article. Can you think of other examples of learners? More importantly, what happens if we always provide the answer for our patrons instead of teaching them to be successful researchers? What are the exceptions to this philosophy of reference?

Friday, February 10, 2012

Censorship & Information

You all continue to ruminate about censorship, filtering the internet, and the meaning of information. Some of you actually come to a decision about how you feel about balanced collections, filtering the web, and limiting access.

I think by now you've realized that I believe in balanced collections, access to collections and materials, and few limitations to access. There are always reasons to limit access. Since I do a lot of my work in preservation and think lots about special collections, we often limit access to the physical object, because it's in poor or fragile shape, and give the user a facsimile or today point them toward digital facsimiles. Of course, researchers and patrons can always ask for the original, if the copy still exists in the system. 

Some of you asked about balanced collections, or collection development. I am assuming that you learn more about that in acquisitions and also in access?? There are books in the profession that provide lists of books for various subject areas, by Dewey or LC number. The books usually include Reference Tools, Basic or Care titles, and then Subject specific titles. Books for collection development help us create broad and deep collections, and make certain we aren't missing an important title. There are also collection development books for fiction and for various reading levels (Children's, YA, Hi/Low).  ALA and the other library science publishers publish these types of books.

Filtering is just too contentious to talk about here. I've made comments in your reflective journals. Suffice it to say, some filtering is tied to funding, others to CIPA and COPA laws. I'm not for it. I'm for using your own judgment and being respectful of other people. Enough said.

And Information, well, most of you tackled Debons and Buckland and have a better idea of how the theory works. 
Next week we'll tackle users. That's Monday for all of you reading this post tonight (Friday night).  I'm working on the video podcasts and my blog so they are ready for you on Sunday night.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Profession and its quirks

Week 5 – what’s on your minds?

I just took a quick peak at the discussion boards for this week. You’ll notice I posted some responses also, because I just had to chime in.  Here are the major themes of your queries this week; distance education and learning; continuing education and the LIS curriculum; technology; and the profession.

My response has to be that yes these are all serious issues to ruminate about, but don’t get stuck on the problems. There are many points of view in the profession. You can see it when you read Dr. Rubin and my comments. I’m certain they diverge, and will diverge from your other professors. The diversity is part of the beauty and challenge of this field, the smaller and broader aspects of the field.

As you continue to learn and apply what you learn, you’ll see that this is a never ending task. I learn from you every time I read a discussion thread and every time I tackle the readings. You will also learn from your colleagues, young and old, technologically challenged and experienced. Take advantage of the challenge to learn something new every day and you’ll flourish in this program and in the profession.

After re-reading this post, it seems a little thin. It must be my focus on next week's readings about user services by librarians. Get ready for more heady readings.

Okay, I’ll get off my soap box and go read reflective journals.

reactions to Week 4 discussion topics

I’m running late this week as I had to get my third course prepared.  Now I can focus on your concerns and issues. 

A major discussion point was censorship and filtering. We, librarians and archivists, walk a fine line between providing solid, reputable materials for our patrons and censorship. It is not easy to strike that balance, especially when you, personally, have strong feelings about a subject. There is literature in our profession that will help you select materials and even provide reference in those tricky subject areas. A well rounded collection serves our public and our basic mission as librarians.

Filtering is a lot more complicated. Some of it is invisible, handled by the IT people; some is obvious. Fortunately, some of the passion about filtering has died down. Again, the subject is touchy, especially as libraries are seen as safe havens and even in loco parentis, protecting children from the real world. I do not have a good answer for you about how to handle the subject except to say that it is out there and definitely contentious and controversial. When the internet was first introduced into libraries, some actually selected the sites their patrons could visit. I do not relish a return to those days.

Career as a librarian or archivist is also a topic you dwelt upon. It is good and appropriate to question your career choice. My advice is to become as well rounded as you can. I sound like a broken record, but that’s the truth. You wand to be able to handle jobs and responsibilities in addition to those specialties you’ve honed before you attain the MLIS or through your coursework. Take courses that are interesting to you and engage in the literature and the discussion. Participation is one way of engaging. Set up some meetings with others who live nearby. I’m always happy to have you come and see me.

At the same time, many of you raised questions about marketing the library, its place in the community and the role of libraries promoting education of some sort. These are great questions to ask and continue to ponder. Where do you see yourself in the picture? What type of energy do you expend promoting the library, taking advantage of those “teachable moments”? The profession has many roles and many faces. You will find your role within librarianship as you grow into your positions.

The final sticking point was “Information as Document,” that mind boggling article and video. It was a difficult article to understand and apply to your knowledge or skill set. A few of you had great explanations of how to break down the article. Thanks for sharing. The theoretical concepts within the article should make you ponder the nuances of word and their meanings within a discipline. I always err on the practical side and try to find simpler, more universal concepts to convey to patrons. Librarians and archivists use lots of jargon as do many other professionals. It is important to be able to explain what you mean without using jargon. Thanks again to the students who provided examples and explanations about information, data, and documents.

On to week 5!

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Reactions to reflective journals 2/2/2012

I just finished reading all your journals. You have such wonderful ideas and questions.
Overall, you were intrigued by special libraries, interested in my experiences as a librarian, thinking hard about what you want to do when you graduate.

I spent a lot more time writing personal answers back, trying to answer your questions.  
Lots of you were disappointed by Dr. Byerly’s talk about Special Librarians and his comment about needing additional degrees.  That’s a very generalized statement, and not all require more education. All libraries are different and have different requirements.

Since many of you are ruminating about what type of library you want to work in, take advantage of the two assignments #2 & 4 and observe one type and interview another. 

Visiting libraries is the best way to get to know what they have to offer you and their patrons. That’s the whole point of your observation and interview assignments. Think about how the library you visit is similar or different from those you are familiar with. The same will hold true of your interview with a librarian or information professional.

As to my background and opportunities, well I mentioned I’ve worked lots of places. Here’s what I wrote in response to one of you.
I was very lucky and had a broad set of experiences as a librarian.  When I was finishing my library degree, I was actually an intern at the college library. My mentor had me work for two weeks in each department. Then when I worked at NYPL, my supervisors moved us all around. We worked in the various departments, and even at different branches in our 6 region section. I even volunteered to go outside the region a few times.  Then at Mid-Manhattan (NYPL) my supervisor rotated all of us around in different jobs. He felt that every new librarian should have a broad set of experiences and be able to move on in 2 years to a new job. And I did just that.  I was very lucky. Not all supervisors were as broad minded. If you want a lot of experience, work in a large library system in a large city.

Oh how I wish this was an in person course, I’d love to take you all on field trips and introduce you to interesting libraries and librarians. I’ll have to see if I can find some virtual tours of libraries on YouTube.

Again, if you want to come see me, meet me in person, that's great. We can always talk over skype, phone or chat. 

Credentials for Librarians & more about varieties of libraries

PhD’s in Libraries
There is / was an interesting trend to hire 'scholar librarians' in academic libraries. The idea is to have PhD's who are active in their academic field (not LIS) working in the library and as liaisons with the academic department. The hope is the PhD will strengthen the rapport between the library and the department. At OSU the idea was hire a subject specialist, and if they don't have an MLS give them a few years to acquire the degree.  I don't know if it is still a trend after the economic downturn in 2008.

Multiple degrees – should not be a surprise – have an MLIS and a subject masters, just as school librarians need a teaching certificate. While academic libraries do not require a second degree (masters in a subject), they are either looking for one, or hope you'll get one. Some universities hire librarians with only one degree at a lower rank than if you have 2 degrees, so it may take longer to get promoted and tenure.  That said, it's not a hard and fast rule, it depends upon the institution.  Don't let that second degree stop you from applying for academic positions. What better way to get a second degree than to have the institution pay for it!

Archives / genealogy collections
Genealogy collections fit within archives and public libraries. You'll also find them in historical societies, which could be considered special libraries.  Mostly I see genealogy collections as special collections in public libraries.  There are large collections in the big public libraries, smaller ones in the rural communities. Some large genealogy collections in Ohio are at Cincinnati and Hamilton County Public Library, at Cleveland PL, Dayton Metro, Columbus Metro, Toledo PL, and Akron Summit County PL. The second largest in the country is in Fort Wayne, Indiana at the Allen County PL.

Archives are usually found in university libraries but you'll find them again in public libraries. In the case of the latter, the archives document the history of the library or the institution, and usually do not house the records of local businesses or organizations.

While the American Memory project has wonderful examples of materials found in the Library of Congress  so does the National Archive look at the collections under ARC (Archival Research Collection)
These are great examples of collections that were digitized and are now available for researchers, librarians, and teachers to use. There are images, documents, and audiovisual materials in these collections.

Archives is an excellent career for a librarian. Many archivists have a second degree or specialty in history, political science, or whatever the focus of the archives might be. Some archivists have PhDs; that depends upon the organization and the age of the professional. If you are interested in archives, there are two courses offered at Kent, and one on the Columbus campus, and you should probably take my genealogy course also.

Visiting libraries is the best way to get to know what they have to offer you and their patrons. That’s the whole point of your observation assignment. Think about how the library you visit is similar or different from those you are familiar with. The same will hold true of your interview with a librarian or information professional.