Monthly Archives: March 2013

Librarian Design Share Feature

Do you know Librarian Design Share? It’s a great project started by April Aultman Becker and Veronica Arellano Douglas which allows librarians to share designs, get feedback, and generally help each other out with the increasingly important design responsibilities in a modern library. I’m so excited that a project like this exists. Design matters, and Librarian Design Share provides a place where we can gain inspiration and have conversations about what’s working and what isn’t.

I’m even more excited that I’m featured on Librarian Design Share today! The design is a poster that I made to publicize our LibQUAL results and findings this fall. I talked briefly about my efforts to become a better designer here, and I’m very pleased with how this poster turned out. Find out more about the poster and give Librarian Design Share some love!

The Coding Debate

Last week, I read this post by Wayne Bivens-Tatum on why librarians don’t need to learn how to code, and I got a bit hot under the collar. Yesterday I read this excellent rebuttal by Lane Wilkinson on whether coding is an essential librarian skill. I agree on nearly all points with Lane’s argument, especially this part at the end:

Some librarians need to learn how to code and pick up one or more programming languages, but most librarians don’t. And while most librarians might not need to learn how to code, all librarians should understand the basic principles and foundations of coding, if only so that they can better communicate with those who do learn and apply programming languages.** Heck, even Wayne Bivens-Tatum’s dismissive attitude towards code is only possible because he has a basic understanding of code: the very ability to “steal the code I need to fix any problem I might encounter” requires some understanding of what coding problems look like, what correct code looks like, and so on.***

So, coding is a weakly essential skill in librarianship: all librarians need to know what a programming language is, how to talk about it, and what coding can and can’t do. But, then again, that’s how it is with every other skill in librarianship. The only things that are strongly essential in this profession are our values and principles; our theories and concepts. Show me a skill you think is strongly essential for librarianship, anything from coding to cataloging, and I’ll show you a great librarian who nonetheless lacks that skill. And the next time someone says that “all librarians must have skill X”, ask if they really mean “all libraries need someone with skill X.” I bet you’ll find they actually mean the latter.

** (And, from a pedagogical standpoint, it could be that teaching a programming language is the best way to teach the principles of coding. But, that’s a pedagogical tactic, not a tacit admission of strong essentialism. )

*** (Also, just to be clear, HTML is a markup language, not a Turing-complete programming language. So, strictly speaking, WBT’s position on HTML is irrelevant to the issue of coding in libraries. Still, the same “learn it on the fly” approach to programming languages is popular, so for my purposes it’s a distinction without a difference.)

I have two defined thoughts that go beyond Lane Wilkinson’s comments, which, once again, I think are excellent. The first thought is personal. I learned the very basics of coding in library school, as a person who was emphatically NOT A CODER. As a librarian working in a tiny library (which does employ a coding librarian, thankfully), I do need to be able to talk intelligently about code on a nearly daily basis. It allows me to build relationships with my co-workers, the IT department, and some faculty. And I did use my HTML skills last week when our ILL form broke (which, as Lane notes, is not coding). No, I was not responsible for fixing it, but scouring the code did allow us to talk to the web designer in a way was more intelligent than taking the car to the mechanic and saying, “It just won’t go.” This issue of communicating intelligently with people whose job it is to do the coding is essential, and it is ironically the cornerstone of Wayne Bivens-Tatum’s argument against coding.

The second thought has to do with the desperate need that libraries have for coders. Anyone who has used an ILS or library database can see that we need coders. And what we need is librarian coders. As a librarian who received a degree from an Information School, I was able to see on a daily basis exactly how intertwined our disciplines are. Librarians inform user experience designers who inform archivists. Our worlds overlap. It was incredibly frustrating to see the user experience designers, whose coding ability and frame of reference could make such a difference in modern libraries, take their talents to big information companies like Foresee and Google. I don’t blame them, really, but this exodus is notable.

We don’t all need to be coders. I’m a passable coder who could be better if I needed to be, but, like Lane Wilkinson, my talents and interests are in instruction and technology. The point is, we can’t educate librarians to be non-coders, because libraries need coders. And since traditionally educated coders don’t seem to be flocking to the less-than-Google-rate salaries available in libraries, what we need are librarian coders.

Do all librarians need to code? No. Do libraries need code? Yes. There is an obvious overlap here.

Recommended Reading

Can You See Me Now? by a4gpa, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  a4gpa 

This morning I took advantage of the last-day-of-class-before-Spring-Break quiet to read “How College Graduates Solve Information Problems Once They Join the Workplace,” a Project Information Literacy Research Report by Alison J. Head. The report was excellent. I highly recommend it for librarians and anyone in higher education with a particular interest in preparing students for the workplace.

I won’t give a complete summary here (because you’re going to go read it, right?) but I was struck by a couple of the findings:

  1. The most difficult challenge that graduates said they faced was a “setting that radiated urgency and pulsed with unrelenting deadlines.” This makes me question how students viewed deadlines in college, if workplace deadlines are so noticeably different. Are college deadlines soft?
  2. Students found the lack of instructions and directions for finding information to be “disorienting” and “scary.” They crave a right answer. Ambiguity in both the process and the result unsettles them. Our desire to provide students with the tools (instructions and rubrics) to be successful (perform to the parameters of the assignment) does not serve them well in the workplace. I really liked an assignment described by one the participants: In an upper level chemistry lab, the professor gave an assignment which left out the procedure necessary to solve the problem. The assignment was to solve the problem, not follow the steps. I’d love to do something like this someday.
  3. Students do not recognize that the world of information available to them extends far beyond the boundaries of Google. This goes past the “two journal articles and a book” research paper  prescriptions. They do not believe that there is important, worthwhile information that is not online. Their lack of understanding of how the internet works, and the motivations of the people and organizations who put stuff online fundamentally blinds them to the realities of the information landscape. I talked about this very briefly a while back on the blog, and it is also something that I have noticed among our students. This report specifically emphasizes “team communication strategies,” in other words, consulting co-workers, but I see this problem extending further. I work with many students on Capstone research, and they almost universally balk when I suggest that a particular piece of information is found best by talking to an expert in the field rather than fruitlessly combing endlessly unhelpful scholarly articles.

On a positive note, the graduates credit their college experiences for turning them into “critical evaluators of information.” Also, although the employers interviewed identified several areas of weakness in the information seeking behavior of recent graduates, they were not dissatisfied with their hires. They recognized that these new employees will grow into their positions.

The particular issue of understanding that all information has strengths and weaknesses – that there are reasons why it is nearly impossible to find examples of hotel crisis management plans in the scholarly literature – is one that I’m hoping to partially tackle as I redesign our English 101 library instruction.

Zotero is my superhero

It’s not really a secret that I love Zotero. It is incredibly useful for organizing research, whether you’re writing a paper or not. I put papers I want to read in it (along with a note that I haven’t read it yet), I use it for writing reflections on things I’ve read and their possible use in my library, I’ve used it for keeping track of photos that I’ve put in blog posts, and recently I started using it for collection development.

Now, I had a great collection development class. I worked hard, and my team and I put together a huge document full of analysis and recommendations for the Donald Hall Collection, which supports the U-M Screen Arts and Cultures Department. We had many guest speakers from all kinds of different libraries come to class and talk about their processes for collection development and managing budgets. And yet, our process for collection development here is still different from any of the processes we encountered in class.

Basically, our collection development was done by our library director, with the exception of the small (and relatively new) fiction collection, which is managed by me. It worked fine, and if any of us happened to run across something that looked interesting, we would pass it along to him. Done and done.

Only one tiny problem – our director is on sabbatical this semester, leaving two new librarians and one librarian experienced in many things that do not include collection development in a dark closet.

We divided subjects along rough lines, looked at circulation data and search queries logged by the catalog, made notes and observations, and headed to our respective offices to each wonder in private how the heck we were going to find the books.

So far, LibGuides from other libraries, Amazon searches, and searching other library catalogs seems to be the best way for me to locate books to support my assigned departments of culinary, hospitality, and recreation. After a bit of trial and error involving a very messy Google Doc, we’ve found the best way for us to save and share information is through Zotero. Amazon and most library catalogs work perfectly with Zotero. One click and all the important information is sucked into Zotero where I don’t have to worry about it. I create folders to represent each month. At the end of the month, select all the items in the folder. Right click and choose “Generate Report from Selected Items.”  A new window opens with all the available bibliographic data which can then be saved and emailed or printed.

zotero work around

This not only makes collection development easy for the librarians, but it also helps out the technician who does our ordering. This way she always knows exactly which edition we mean, and there are very few questions or worries about choosing the correct book, which has been a problem in the past.