Two tech stories

One of the things both academic and public libraries provide is internet access; it’s hard to carry this out of the building. A few library systems lend wifi hotspots but I recently looked into this and they are reliant on cell phone coverage since the cell providers offer the hotspots, and where there is poor coverage (outside of towns and cities), there is poor wifi. Nearly all the papers students write in high schools and colleges depend on their access to search engines of various kinds, whether databases their schools subscribe to or the ubiquitous giant search engine that starts with a G. Two stories caught my eye this week, related to the need for students to do online research and challenge of getting internet access to rural areas.

First, Pew Research Center studied public trust of algorithms. While their study focused on the kinds of algorithms that make decisions — like who should be hired (algorithms are used to screen resumes and applicants’ answers on job applications), be up for parole, or get certain financial perks — it also looked at attitudes towards the algorithms that decide what you see on social media. Majorities of people in the Pew study don’t trust algorithms, yet, whenever I teach an information literacy class, I have a hard time convincing students that the results they see when they search online are delivered to them not because they’re the best sources around but based on algorithms that calculate what they should see, based on what else they’ve seen and clicked on.

Similarly, many people I know seem to feel confident that while there are misleading or “bot” generated “news” stories online, they don’t see anything like that in their social media feeds. And yet, what we see on social media is also highly controlled by proprietary and opaque algorithms that are controlled by a handful of tech companies. While I don’t know any students who use those sources for their academic papers, I have started asking classes where they get news and stay current, and they nearly all say social media. So, I guess I need to keep talking about algorithms, because people seem to be properly cautious of those, even as they seem to trust the name brands that use algorithms to control the information they see.

The second story that I saw is about an obscure FCC rule that currently exacerbates unequal access to high speed internet access. Just under 1 in 5 students can’t get online at home in rural parts of America. But it turns out there is actually an “untapped spectrum” that due to this little known rule sits available for broadband right now, and the FCC will soon decide whether it can be licensed by school districts rather than sold to internet companies. Since this spectrum was originally “reserved for educational television broadcasts in the 1960s,” it makes sense that the FCC should license it to schools and help mitigate broadband inequality. States that are hoping for access to the spectrum have plans to “broadcast wirelessly into surrounding rural communities” from existing wired school internet networks.

Would that mean fewer people in the library? It would certainly mean fewer people in the parking lot and outside the front door trying to get on the wifi. And it might mean a new role for libraries, as partners in this kind of statewide broadband program, or maybe even more appreciation for school libraries (which have suffered cuts all over the U.S.), because librarians can play a key role in teaching students the information literacy skills they will need to be good researchers.

 

 

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What is nontraditional? Who is online?

Librarians aren’t the only ones who categorize information. Humans are really, really comfortable sticking with what we know, and rejecting whatever counters what we know. It’s all a part of our brain’s effort to defend us from the unknown — a phenomena known as confirmation bias.

For example, everyone knows that most college freshmen are 18-19 year olds whose parents pay for everything  right? Obviously not. But, I’ll bet that your brain was cozying up to at least one thing in that sentence: that college freshmen are 18-19. I have to admit, even though I am opposed to stereotypes and I work at a community college, where the population is diverse in many different ways, I fell for that part myself. I know not everyone in college today is fresh out of high school, but I would have said the majority of students are.

Wrong. I came across an article on NPR’s website about a researcher whose work is to study these demographics (Alexandria Walton Radford) and it turns out what college administrators and faculty call “nontraditional” students are actually the majority and have been for some time. You can see all the traits that are included in “nontraditional” in the article. Things like not being a recent high school grad (or not graduating from high school at all), having kids or caring for other family members, working full time, going to college part time, being on their own financially, etc. The article notes that according to Radford’s research, “close to 74 percent of undergrads” meet one of the criteria she uses to define nontraditional, and around 66% meet more than one.

Turns out FiveThirtyEight wrote about this two years ago. But the mainstream culture continues to hold onto the stereotype. Speaking of, another common stereotype our confirmation bias loves is “everyone” is online. Everyone has the internet in their pockets, right? We’re all zipping around shopping, playing games, and streaming movies wherever we go? That’s also wrong. As I recently noted, Pew Research Center reports that 1/3 of adults in America don’t have high speed internet access at home, and many of the have-nots are poor, older, rural, or minorities. Today I read that Pew delved deeper into this research and fully 58% of rural Americans feel their lack of broadband internet access is “a problem” (24% think it’s a major problem, and 34% say it’s a minor problem). Rural Americans are twice as likely as their urban counterparts to never go online at all — 22% don’t, which really shocked me. Only 66% have smartphones, versus 83% of city dwellers.

So, no everyone is online. And college students are much more diverse in age, experience, and financial standing than we think. All of this very much impacts academic library services because I think it’s safe to say our confirmation biases tell us that online resource and service are what “everyone” using our libraries wants or needs.  And we tell ourselves “everyone” can get to our services, especially since mobile access is often growing (possibly because our students can’t afford laptops, but that’s another blog post). But the conversation on my campus lately is that these assumptions are not only wrong, they are important for us to counter, because some of our students are simply not able to access what they need to for class because not everyone is online. I’ve looked into wifi hotspots, which some public libraries lend, but for students who live outside of areas with good cell coverage (I lose cell coverage between work and home frequently) this may not be a viable solution.

As librarians, we need to check our confirmation bias, examine who our patrons really are and what they need, and think about alternatives.

Community college librarians and student success

A study came out this week looking at community college libraries and student success.  This isn’t a new topic, but a new approach —  the authors asked college students to define success, and only touched a bit on libraries. They plan to use this information to design and test library services around these findings. Interestingly, while students cited things like passing required courses, improving grades, getting a degree, and increasing job prospects, they also mentioned more “intrinsic” goals – “those focused on advancing personal development” like gaining knowledge, finding community, and even things like “feeling a sense of accomplishment, bettering themselves, and being happy.”

How can libraries help with happiness, other than by bringing in therapy dogs, which I am psyched about, myself? Other studies have looked at traditional library work like collaborating with faculty, helping students learn to use resources, and teaching information literacy (the skills needed to seek, evaluate, and use information effectively and responsibly) — and have unsurprisingly found that both faculty and students perceive those as helpful. In a North Carolina community college study authors found student success improves with “embedded” librarianship, defined as “Librarians moving out of their libraries to create innovate ways of informing their clients” which in turn “makes the expertise of librarians more immediately available to those who need it by integrating librarians into instructional and administrative teams.” The authors further note that the benefits of this model are mutual — librarians become better acquainted with the needs of their clients and faculty and students receive more customized support. Makes sense.

One interesting point in this new study is that community college students often face a number of challenges in their lives and seek out the library for a very basic reason — they need a distraction free space to study. The authors caution against overly crowded or noisy libraries: “When these libraries are used for purposes beyond their remit, community colleges are at risk of not meeting student needs by failing to provide the quiet, distraction-free space that is so critical to students being able to complete their work.” It’s so true —  libraries are one of the few places you can count on to find at least some area that is silent. We need to preserve that.

Sadly, the new study also found that students did not seek out librarians and often relied on search engines rather than library resources to complete their assignments. They did, however, turn to faculty for help, which to me means that the model in the North Carolina study, where librarians are proactive partners collaborating with faculty to support students in their classes, is even more vital. If librarians can engage with students through their courses, rather than waiting for students to approach them for help, we’re much better positioned to help them succeed.

Fortunately at my community college, we have some strong faculty partnerships and are involved in instructional design in both the required college English course most students take and the “essentials” class — a one credit course designed to orient students to college and help them define their paths. We’ve written a LibGuide for the English course and a Canvas module for the essentials class. Last week I emailed all the faculty teaching this semester to make sure they know about library resources and services, are aware of us as potential partners, and know how to connect us with students. As we gear up for the new academic year, I’ll be thinking about how our students might define their own success and thinking about  what libraries should — and shouldn’t — do to support them. At our community college system’s annual symposium today I heard Dr. Kim Hunter Reed speak and she talked about her work in Colorado, where students cited knowing “somebody cares about me” as the key to success.

That, we can do.

The once and future library

I was fascinated by the various news stories about a Roman era library unearthed in Cologne, Germany recently.  It housed around 20,000 scrolls and was state run – although researchers aren’t sure whether access was restricted to more influential Roman citizens. The archeologist in Germany quoted in Alison Flood’s Guardian story, Dr. Dirk Schmitz, thinks it was public: “The building would have been used as a public library, Schmitz said. ‘It is in the middle of Cologne, in the marketplace, or forum: the public space in the city centre. It is built of very strong materials, and such buildings, because they are so huge, were public,’ he said.” It’s really remarkable to think that in only the second century, well before books as we think of them existed, there were libraries.

I have a soft spot for ancient libraries, because scholars believe they were, like today’s public libraries, much more than just repositories for important works. The Library of Hadrian in Athens (where my Twitter profile photo was taken) is about the same age as the newly discovered Cologne library, and is thought to have been an archive as well as a place for lectures and discussions. As Lonely Planet explains, “It essentially functioned as Athens’ civic centre in Roman times . . . .” Sounds a lot like public libraries today!

Last week after I heard about the Roman library in Cologne, a coworker called to let me know that while looking at colleges with her daughter, she heard about Temple University’s planned “robotic library,” which will open next spring. It turns out they are installing BookBot, a system is use at several other universities, including NC State. The idea is to use dense, space saving compact shelving with a robotic retrieval system, so more of the library’s public floorspace can be available for other uses, like meeting and collaborative spaces or performances. You can see how BookBot works in this video. I was glad to see that despite the robotic retrieval system, human library staff have an important role in using BookBot. I also wondered, as someone who seems to put in a LOT of IT tickets at my job, how often they have software or hardware issues!

Speaking of technology and the need for human librarians, today I came across a wonderful article at Atlas Obscura that speaks to the once and future power of good old fashioned librarianship. It’s about the NYPL librarians who help find books people only partially remember. This was one of my favorite activities at the public library: a patron calls or emails or comes in and says “I read this book x years ago, and it was about y and I know there was a z in it.” And you’re off.

As Jessica Leigh Hester explains in her story about NYPL’s “‘Title Quest’ hackathon,” despite the internet, librarians’ knowledge work is in demand: “they’re still experts at finding the answers to tricky questions.” And that is what stays the same, no matter how much technology evolves, or society changes. I’m guessing that in the second century, people in the Roman empire relied on librarians to find answers, and at libraries large (like NYPL, or the Temple and NC State libraries) or small (like my community college library, and the thousands of libraries in communities around the world), librarians are sleuthing their way to answers for people every day.

 

 

 

 

Full catastrophe living for libraries

Many years ago when I was first learning about mindfulness, I read John Kabat-Zinn’s Full Catastrophe Living. He writes about how mindfulness — in brief, being in the moment, observing and nonjudgementally letting go of thoughts not related to being present in the moment — can help us deal with the “full catastrophe” of contemporary life, from actual physical pain or illness to the anxiety, panic, fear, and other uncomfortable emotional states we might be in as a reaction to things beyond our control. As I read American Libraries Direct the past two weeks I realized libraries are kind of in a full catastrophe moment along with the rest of the world.

In those two issues alone, there are articles about about the American Library Association’s and children’s literature authors’ stands on family separation at the border, about library equity issues such as the threat to LGBTQ books in Hong Kong, freedom of access to information issues, the long history of pubic libraries advocating for the poor or marginalized, librarian’s in the Iowa trying to help those in Puerto Rico still reeling from last year’s the hurricanes, and a man from Alabama leading a drive for books for his school district’s library (which it can’t afford) by climbing Mt Kilimanjaro. Meanwhile in the everyday trenches libraries of all kinds are facing flat or reduced budgets, position cuts or reductions (even directors in my state are part time in smaller libraries), and loss of school or even public libraries, depending on the state or country. Many of these issues result in contentious disagreements among people — sadly, almost everything in our culture now seems to be fraught with that possibility.

The good news is we as a profession can get through all of it — the full catastrophe — the same way individuals can get through their own. We can be professionally mindful, present for and with the people in our libraries. We can be mindful of what libraries bring to people, and how we approach our work. We can let our anxieties and fears about the future of our workplaces and our profession go, and focus on what’s right here now, which in my experience makes us even more open to trying new things, rather than being afraid of change.  In doing that, I predict, we’ll be ready to meet any catastrophe, we’ll thrive where we are, and our libraries will benefit and be welcoming places that meet our patrons’ needs.

In 2014 in this space I wrote, “What we do is awesome. What we do is community-building. What we do is hope-fueled and potentially narrative-changing. What we do can fill in the broken spaces in our communities, in our lives and the lives of those we serve. What we do is empowering — people can learn and grow and be their best selves because of the books and services and programs and presence we offer. What we do is shepherd the most egalitarian places in America. Our libraries when they are at their best are the very best of what our society can be.”  I was writing about public libraries but this describes academic libraries just as well. It’s full catastrophe some days, but we can handle it

Woes and whys of weeding

I started at my new library as director this week, and one of the first things my small staff wanted to discuss is weeding. A recent assessment of our print collection revealed it’s not very up to date, and since we’re serving a community college, we want to be sure our students have access to relevant, which often means newer, material. But, print books don’t check out very much. But, maybe they don’t check out very much because they’re not as recent as digital library materials. And so it goes. The perpetual woes and whys of weeding, which every library faces.

We made a decision in our first staff meeting at the end of the week to pull books that are in bad condition, use terminology that is either dated or no longer appropriate, or is older than ten years old in STEM and health fields. Then we’ll review everything, and ask faculty for input. Of course the biggest fear is that our materials budget won’t allow us to update everything we need to pull, and that our shelves will look too empty. So, we’ll take it slowly and see what we find, before actually withdrawing titles.

Fortunately, we’re part of a system of community colleges across our state, and we can also get books from other academic and public libraries easily. But even with resource sharing and a good collection of e-resources, print weeding still seems to be painful for many libraries and librarians, and can sometimes be a public relations nightmare. I think the key is to know our goals and communicate them, which means we need to understand what our priorities are, and what our vision is. We’ll be drafting a collection development and management policy and thinking carefully about the college’s programs and the needs of our students and faculty.

Should be fun!

Failing forward

Failing Forward was the theme of the ACRL New England conference held last Friday. It’s an interesting idea for a conference, to celebrate failure as a catalyst for creativity and improvement. It’s tempting when people don’t use our resources or services to let them be quietly ignored or forgotten, not gone, quite, but left to wither. Or, to fall prey to the misconception that there must be a better way to market this really cool thing, because we know it’s cool and amazing and so library patrons just need to know this too and they’ll flock to it.

Neither approach necessarily works. Ignoring what isn’t going over well won’t help anyone — not the staff who tried it nor the patrons it was meant for. Believing that there is a magical marketing solution for something that’s not working sets staff up to be demoralized if in fact the real problem is that what you’re marketing isn’t what patrons need or want. So hearing from colleagues who made lemonade from their lemons was refreshing. There was definitely a strong sense of camaraderie at this conference — who doesn’t appreciate feeling they are not alone in making mistakes?

I learned about interesting ideas and met interesting people and reconnected with others. I even presented a lightning talk, “No Attendees, No Problem” about rethinking programming in college libraries. But mostly I just enjoyed being among my colleagues in an atmosphere where we could kick back and enjoy a laugh (almost all of us joked about our unfortunate failures) and then hear about turnarounds. Not miracles, just regular instances of people rolling up their sleeves and saying, “Ok, then. What can we do about this mess? Let’s see, shall we?”

By the way, if you have no attendees at your programs I have a suggestion: therapy dogs. This was the best slide in my presentation.

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Critical Information Literacy

I’ve been taking an online course from the ALA called Introduction to Critical Information Literacy: Promoting Social Justice Through Librarianship. It has been really interesting, and even though I had a basic understanding of critical information literacy, and have been interested in social justice all my life, the class discussions and assignments have opened my eyes to new ideas and possibilities.

The idea of critical info lit is to work with students to put research in context in terms of whose voices are included or excluded, what power structures prevent participation in or access to research, what inherent biases exist in publishing,  and in librarianship’s frameworks, like cataloging and classification, and so forth. Even though I do some cataloging, it’s mostly from existing records, not from scratch (also known as original), so I haven’t noticed that there are a lot of words missing from the Library of Congress Subject Headings — mass incarceration, for example, as I used The New Jim Crow in one of my assignments.

There’s been a lot of conversation online about whether libraries are neutral — they aren’t, of course. Nothing humans do is neutral, when you get down to it, which is ok, as long as we think about how we’re biased and who it’s impacting. For example, some core principles of librarianship are to make information and services available and accessible to all, and to welcome everyone — which are biases, even if they are well intended, and as public librarians know they sometimes upset patrons who wish “everyone” wasn’t quite so inclusive.

Since this was a class aimed at college and university librarians, we also looked at peer review, which as you know I have been looking at critically anyway (see my last post about Retraction Watch) at work and in my courses for the MSc in Science Communication & Public Engagement at University of Edinburgh. The more I learn about it, the more I wonder if it can be fixed, especially since people deeply involved in trying to make it better agree that it might not ever be.

We talked in this course about fake news as well, and interestingly, how our desire to teach students to question everything has led to more and more people questioning legitimate sources. I maintain that if the questioning is systematic and is meant as a way to test whether a source or an article has been produced in a way that strives to be factual, accurate, and clear, and isn’t a kind of ‘trust no one’ questioning, this won’t happen. I prefer to tell students to think carefully about everything — they’ll be able to tell whether something is unfair, misleading, inaccurate, or biased if they think.

And we talked about zines, something I hadn’t really thought about much. I know of them, but hadn’t thought of zines being in libraries, or turning up on works cited lists. But zines are, like letters, diaries, blogs, and other first person accounts, primary sources. They often tell stories that have been left out or haven’t yet been discovered by mainstream researchers. One of my classmates offers the option for students in a composition class to create a persuasive zine rather than an essay, using many of the same rhetorical techniques. That seems like a pretty creative idea to me. I like the fact that zines could be an entry point into scholarly conversation for people who don’t feel like they belong in that conversation.

For our final project, we had to create a zine about the class. Below is one of my pages.

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My heroes: Retraction Watch and the librarians who love them

I had the good fortune to hear Ivan Oransky, cofounder of Retraction Watch, at the Massachusetts Health Sciences Library Network (MAHSLIN) annual meeting on Friday. He talked about the groundbreaking and impactful work Retraction Watch is doing, and he praised librarians who helped create the Retraction Watch database.  He also pointed out they have a whopping 17,000 or so retractions listed, thousands more than any other such source, and they are the only ones (so far) tracking retractions from open access publications.

If you aren’t familiar with their work, check out what others have said — they’ve been featured in Le Monde, Wired, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and more. In a nutshell, they write about retractions of scientific papers — where they were published, who wrote them, if possible why they were retracted. They also keep a tally of the scientists and publications with the most retractions. All of this has contributed to improved public understanding of science publishing, scrutiny and reform of publishing practices such as allowing authors to recommend their own peer reviewers, and much needed discussion of retractions and how they are handled.

If you’re wondering why a person who examines publishers and researchers was speaking to librarians, Oransky noted we’re natural partners. Librarians are interested in helping people find accurate information, and it definitely alarms us that retracted articles still show up in discovery services (those all-in one search boxes on library websites meant to mimic a certain search box you probably use every day) because retractions are not removed or marked in different library resources the same way. As a profession, we have a tradition of exposing publishers who are unreliable — see Beall’s List, (created by academic librarian Jeffrey Beall) or those that profit from science research that is often publicly funded, or funded by the very institutions who then have to pay very high prices to subscribe to the journals that publish that research. Robert Darnton, former University Librarian at Harvard, helped bring that issue to light a few years ago.

People who are working on this are information heroes — shining light on misconduct, mistakes, and misleading research. Here’s to Retraction Watch and the librarians who love them.

College in the public library

An article caught my eye this week about a “microcollege” run by Bard College in the Brooklyn Public Library. it sounded intriguing, bringing college to people who otherwise might not have access to it, via a pubic service they already use. When I read the article, I learned that only 17 students are enrolled this year, although Bard plans to expand on that number. And one of the classes is an ethnomusicology course, which although it sounds interesting, didn’t strike me as necessarily something everyone would want to take.

Bard, of course, is a private liberal arts college where classes like that are probably commonplace. But the whole notion made me curious, and I wondered whether community or other public colleges and public libraries are pairing up anywhere? That led me to the utilitarian sounding Joint Use Library, which “is a unique collaboration between Tidewater Community College and the City of Virginia Beach to combine in a single, dynamic destination the collections, services, programs, and resources of an academic library and a public library to create a new model for lifelong learning and provide synergistic opportunities to enhance personal growth, academic achievement, and quality of life for the College community and for the residents of the City of Virginia Beach. ”

After a quick search, I couldn’t find any other public libraries offering actual credit-bearing college classes, although plenty offer information about MOOCs, continuing education in their community or through vendors they’ve contracted with (like Atomic, Lynda, or Recorded Books), etc. I did come across Life Skills Academy at San José Public Library, which is aimed at helping young adults with everything from “Your First College Class,” to how to find an apartment and how to “not get fired from your first job.” Huh. It seems packed with practical tips and refers readers to books and websites for more information.

I do recall that there is an MLS program that partners with libraries in New Hampshire (and probably elsewhere) offering future librarians a hybrid master’s degree program that takes place both online and in libraries. But I wasn’t able to find any other programs like Bard’s. Do you know of any college credit courses available to public library patrons? Leave a comment below.