On Google Scholar and Information Literacy

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the merits of Google Scholar on campus this past week.  Assignment due dates are inching closer and I’m getting the feeling that students are more than ever turning to Google Scholar as their first or as their main research tool. Many complaints I’m hearing from students who visit me at the desk are about not being able to locate sources for their assignments with Google or seemingly finding links but hitting a pay wall when they try to click through to the source; the majority of complaints are of the “I’ve searched everywhere but couldn’t find anything” variety, when the extent of their search is maybe Google’s advanced search screens.  These are teaching moments we know all too well.

There was a time when I used these teaching moments to caution students against using Google Scholar.  I’d rather see a student access our print and electronic sources than rely on whatever Google can offer them with its clean-looking search bar.  But somewhere along the way I realized that in spite of its warts (and it does have them, like privileging newer items and popular links), Google Scholar is a valuable tool and that by choosing not to teach it, librarians are willfully ignoring (if not creating) some of the poor search skills seen on campus today.

But ignoring a student’s poorly designed search skills won’t improve her research methods, and neither will a short lecture on why students shouldn’t use Google Scholar at all.  Instead of ignoring these methods, we need to be more proactive and think about why people use Google Scholar and what it can actually do well for them.  As Brad Matthies succinctly wrote, the predisposition among students to use Google Schools as their first research tool:

causes many professors and academic librarians to gasp in horror. Moreover, it also causes some of them to purposely make students use certain resources, while banning others. I’m not of the banning mentality. I see Google as just another tool, and, like any other tool it has positive and negative points.

You can use Google to find quality information that worthy of inclusion in research papers, presentations and other projects. Will it find all the needed information? Probably not. However, it’s a good place to start preliminary research and often leads to using subscription resources that the university or library offers. [link]

This librarian doesn't want to talk about Google Scholar

Our problem doesn’t lie so much with Google and Google Scholar so much as it does with our students’ information literacy levels.  Do they have a sense of their subject matter?  Do they have an understanding of the different places in which they can research?  Do they know how to brainstorm, how to tie loose ends together into an argument, and how and where to find evidence to support it?  If we decide to focus only on the students’ poor use of Google Scholar, then we’re treating the symptom as opposed to its cause, which are information seeking skills and research methods that haven’t been fully developed.  We shouldn’t blame the student if the only search strategy she’s ever known is to type a few key words into a Google search bar and then troll through results, because the difference between research and good research is instruction, practice, and experience.

Cutting Google Scholar shouldn’t be an option.  If a resource is being used poorly (instead of being used rarely), then it’s up to librarians to help students improve their skills with that tool.  If a student is misinterpreting socio-economic statistical data, then we help them locate the proper tables and learn how to analyze its survey methods.  And if a student is only skimming the surface with company reports in Lexis, then we show them how to dig deeper to locate the mergers and acquisitions they are looking for.  In these instances, we help our students learn how to use resources properly and efficiently, and the same should be said with Google Scholar.

I know I’m being rather general in this post, but most blog posts are.  My point is that like any other resource, Google Scholar requires instruction on how to use it well.  Of course we should promote our subject-specific resources to students, but we can’t pretend that they will never use Google again when researching a topic.  If there is ever a reason to teach Google Scholar, it is that this search engine will by and large become the best research tool most of our students will have access to when they graduate.  If “developing lifelong learners is central to the mission of higher education institutions” and if information literacy and the development of strong research skills are critical to this mission [cf. Standard Two], then we owe it to our students to show them how to research well with the tools available to them now and later.

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On information literacy, information-seeking, and microfilm

This is a narrative on microfilm followed by a thought-bubble on information literacy and information-seeking behavior.

This weekend, a student stopped by the reference desk for help locating film reviews in old newspapers. She was a little frantic and a little confused by her Theatre assignment’s requirement to use primary documents from the 1940s.  The 1940s!  She didn’t know how to search an electronic index on a computer let alone rifle through print indexes and then move to the microfilm.   Although she was a fairly smart student, this one was going to need some time.

The other librarian at the reference desk started things off by showing the student the New York Times Film Reviews, a print item that indexes film reviews by film name, actors, and perhaps directors; this text almost put the student in the right direction.  I say “almost” because like everyone’s first experiences with microform, the student was thrown off by the idea of handling film, using a giant metal reader possibly older than her parents, and working her biceps to wind through a reel from the 1940s.  There would be no mouse-clicks and no print-to-PDF options on this research assignment.

A New York Times print index: cryptic to the first-time researcher and to the seasoned librarian (Click for photo credit)

Eventually, the student located her references and could head to the film readers, but the shift in media from print to film frightened her, as it does for so many others, so she came back for help.  My colleague had left for the evening, so I took over by sitting down and explaining what the tiny codes she wrote down actually meant.  Our student was looking for film reviews about Mae West and transcribed  1950 Mr 16 : 18, 2.   I put her at ease once I explained that this was shorthand for “1950, March 16: Page 18, 2nd column”, but that lasted only until we began walking to the microfilm collection, which is located away from our learning commons.  I think we’re so used to clicking through to electronic resources that the idea of physically walking somewhere to find our reference can be unsettling.  Even though we had to walk no more than a minute and even though our reel was located on the first stack at the front of the room, she vacillated between confusion over the perceived difficulty of the task to annoyance that information discovery requires so much work.  The Internet really has altered everything we know about information discovery and information retrieval, it seems.

But this is where things change.

I can’t speak for all librarians, but it seems that every time I load a reel of film on a microfilm reader, the student immediately becomes curious about what’s going on.  This is more than a need to watch what I’m doing so they can hopefully reload the machine the next time they have a problem.  Instead, they become interested by how a small reel of film, only a couple inches in diameter, can contain the information they are looking for.  (Tonight, not only was this student interested by my handiwork; some other students studying in the room walked over to ask what I was doing and what the film stored.)  This is a newspaper reel: an archive of two weeks’ worth of news in 1940, waiting to be read by whoever needs to access it.  And unlike a digital archive, they have to manipulate the reel with their own hands.  Information has become a physical object which they can own for a moment or two.

Handling the reel turns the concept of “information” into a real, tangible thing.  To locate the information on the film we must handle the reel like a Rubik’s cube to ensure it is upright and then spin it through a reader, and then we must physically wind the reel to find 1950 Mr 16: 18, 2.  Information-seeking at this point becomes a physical exercise: our discovery leads us to the article we are looking for.  This is unlike query-based searching with databases, which might discover our article or instead return several similar articles for us to choose from (hopefully one or the other will meet our needs).

Microfilm looks daunting, but it shows us with our own eyes the amount of information available to us and how it is organized (Click for original photo)

Using microfilm, on the other hand, makes it easy for the user to see and understand the information architecture.  They can quickly learn how the information is stored (on reels), how it is located (with an index), and how to access it (with a reader).  Researching with microfilm is unlike using a search engine, which combines the steps in information retrieval into one act, thereby muddling our understanding of how the information is organized and how it can be retrieved.   Instead, researching with microfilm requires an understanding of the field’s controlled vocabulary, of the kind and amount of primary documents in the field, and the tools required to access them.  There is a little bit of work involved, but it makes the treasure to be located all the more valuable.

I’m not sure where to end with this narrative.  I don’t want to suggest that we should return to microfilm, and I don’t want to suggest that all students should take part in an IL class that requires the use of microfilm.  But it would be nice if we could help our users understand just How Much Information Is Out There in a way that using microfilm does so well.  Helping people to understand how the Internet has improved information access and retrieval, as well as helping them to see how this information is stored might improve information literacy rates.  When researching with electronic databases, we tend to think that “there’s an article for that” the same way that Apple has made us believe that “there’s an app for that.”  But information and knowledge doesn’t work this way.  If they did, then our information needs would be easily met by slotting some one else’s article or chapter (i.e. knowledge) into our information gap, and our problem would be solved.  However, information discovery, retrieval,and evaluation takes time, and patience.  If more users understood just how much knowledge is out there for them to use, it may help them understand the task they have ahead of themselves.

Photo Credit No. 1: New York Times Print Index  /  Andrew Whitis (CC)

Photo Credit No. 2: Microfilm  / anarchivist (CC)

Google v. Blekko v. The Librarian. (The librarian wins.)

In the past week I’ve heard three different librarians say something like, “We lost to Google years ago”.  We know that this sort of statement isn’t complete hyperbole.  When it comes to discovering or verifying quick facts, people turn to search engines faster than they ever turned to an encyclopedia at home or a reference collection at the library.  While there are many things librarians can do better than Google, like help people find the needle the information haystack, or teach people how to make wise, informed decisions when researching, when it comes to ready reference, most of the time Google has got us beat.

The big thing Librarians still have over Google, though, is criticism and control.  We not only know how to quickly manipulate Google’s search engine (and other companies’ engines) to discover decent results, but we are pretty good at separating the wheat from the chaff.  I notice this especially with government documents and government data on the web: people who visit me at the reference desk who are looking for government data have a hard time finding information and then being able to verify its authority.  There are no second readers on the web – people have to rely on their own experience and understanding of information organization and information architecture to locate documents, and then be willing to using them with confidence.  Librarians, however, can help people locate information sources, draw relationships between items, and determine the value of this knowledge to their own work.  For these reasons alone, we’re kind of a big deal and shouldn’t be afraid to say so.

Click through for a great example on why Google is *not* a good search engine.

 

Especially in this so-called digital age, our ability to help people choose information sources makes us essential to information management and research services.  For all of our complaints about people’s reliance on the Google search engine and index, we can at least take comfort knowing that our “editorial” function vis-a-vis the Internet is still necessary and valued.  What’s a curator but a selector of items of value?  I’m not saying that librarians curate the web, but on the whole, we certainly have a broad understanding of the tools and resources needed to help you find what data you’re looking or to take your work to the next level.

But now, Internet, Inc has developed the latest, greatest search engine that apparently should leave us shaking in our boots: BlekkoBlekko is receiving a lot of new-startup-PR this month because it is doing what librarians have done for ages (and what Google doesn’t bother to do) – it separates the good from the downright ugly on the Internet.  Although Blekko has indexed over 3 billion webpages, it lists only top results in order to cut down on website “pollution” from content farms and simple dirty spam.  I’ll let the New York Times take over from here:

People who search for a topic in one of seven categories that Blekko considers to be polluted with spamlike search results — health, recipes, autos, hotels, song lyrics, personal finance and colleges — automatically see edited results.

And furthermore, their comparative example:

In some cases, Blekko’s top results are different from Google’s and more useful. Search “pregnancy tips,” for instance, and only one of the top 10 results, cdc.gov, is the same on each site. Blekko’s top results showed government sites, a nonprofit group and well-known parenting sites while Google’s included OfficialDatingResource.com.

“Google has a hard time telling whether two articles on the same topic are written by Demand Media, which paid 50 cents for it, or whether a doctor wrote it,” said Tim Connors, founder of PivotNorth Capital and an investor in Blekko. “Humans are pretty good at that.”

Blekko's logo - featuring a real live person (a librarian, no doubt)

Blekko’s founders are basically looking Google in the eye and saying the Internet isn’t going to be a wild west any more, that editorial control (if not authority control, too?) is required to organize all the information available to anyone ready to jack in to the web.

This is verging on librarians’ territory.  Should we be concerned?  I don’t think so.  Should Blekko succeed at helping the entire world discern what is valuable and critical from what is a bottle of plonk on the Internet, then I think we’ve got a problem, but given the fact that information is synthesized into knowledge at the local level, I think we still have something on the these apparent new search engine masters.  And I don’t feel like I’m sticking my head in the sand by saying that, either.  Sure, the Internet can give us a run for our money at times, but if anything it’s made the work we do all the more important to the people we serve.  With so much information available to people since the development of the web, it’s useful to have other people (i.e., us) close at hand to help them determine their particular information needs and help them solve it.

Librarians - We are electronic performers (apologies to Air)

Blekko won’t know, for instance, what titles our local public library holds, and neither it will be certain which electronic databases our local universities subscribe to.  And I can pretty much guarantee it won’t have any Canadian socio-economic data (longform or no longform) and very few government documents.  This is where the person on the ground – the librarian – can step in and act as an intermediary between our patron and what the Internet has to offer.

Funny.  I nearly called the Internet an “Interblob” just now.  Because that’s what it is – a big doughy blob of information.  But because I’m a librarian, I can help you find what you’re looking for on it – Google or no Google, Blekko or no Blekko.

iPads in libraries: preparing for the critical mass

iPad Display Item
The iPad makes reading, carrying, and storing ebooks easy.

Is your library ready for the iPad?  Do you have patrons requesting ebooks for their tablet or asking for reference help on a question they’ve already started mapping out on their iPad instead of a workbook?

If you haven’t seen an iPad in your library yet, then get ready for them, because in No Time Flat we’re going to see these devices on a regular basis, and it won’t be very long before they become a dominant learning technology.  It may not be when classes return in September, but I’d venture that we’ll see iPads and other tablets on a regular basis in January (i.e., after the Christmas season), and by the 2011/2012 academic year they will become a viable study aid and learning tool for a plurality of students.

We know why the iPad will work so well in academics – because of all the reasons it works well in the real world, i.e., it is a small, portable device that is large enough to reproduce A4 and 8.5×11 sheets of paper on a comparable space.  It costs the same as as a netbook but has twice the viewing space and loads of different capabilities a netbook can’t even think of doing.  Add to the fact that the iPad is packed to the gills with communicative technologies seen in our smartphones and notebook computers, and it becomes a match made in heaven.

It’s not going to be long before tablets become ubiquitous on campus, so we need to get ready for them now in libraries.  This means that we must reconfigure our programming and our resources in a manner that makes the most out of the tools our students are using.  A couple things come to mind right off the bat.  We need to push our ebook vendors for decent mobile-configured platforms.  We need to ask ourselves how our websites and streaming tutorials appear on tablets, and how much bandwidth they consume (important to anyone on a 3G/4G wireless network).  We should be asking ourselves how we can communicate to our communities of users on the devices they will carry with them when conducting research with resources we maintain on their behalf.

So many of the opportunities that tablets offer librarians lie in their deign as a communications and information storage hub.   When the day comes that most students carry tablets, we’ll be able to offer tutorials and lectures that create instant, permanent links with our users.  The iPad can change the One-Shot Library Tutorial into a lesson that pushes library content directly onto the student’s own devices.  Imagine walking to a classroom and immediately transferring to students an application that opens your browser window on their tablets so they can follow along with their iPads as opposed to staring at images projected on a wall?  Or how about having several students reading and collaborating on the same digital document with tablets, which can faithfully mimic the form factor of print?    When I send students to EEBO, they must look at renderings of 300-year-old documents on screens that do nothing to mimic the shape of pamphlets, playbills, and books.  The iPad, however, turns the viewing screen on its end to become longer than it is wide; tie it in with the power of cloud computing and we can help students learn from the same digital object on different devices.  Electronic material has become the rule instead of the exception, so we shouldn’t be surprised when students to expect us to have means to advice them on digital objects with electronic tools.

Forgive me for this blue-sky brainstorming.  For several months now I’ve watched friends say, “I want an iPad and I want it now” (I say this myself all too often, too).   We need to go further, though, and prepare ourselves for the time when students use tablets as their main learning tool.  The iPad is an e-Reader, a communicative device, and a collaboration engine all rolled up in one little package.  And since student purchasing power is strongest in September and December/January, we should get ready now for what is to follow, because in a year or two the iPad and its competitors will be as necessary to learning as a pen and pencil.  Those of use who are in the business of helping people learn how to learn must have expertise with the tools these people use to actually learn things.  This means getting ready for the iPad, its apps, and the way it will complement electronic materials.

Elsewhere:

Camtasia vs. Captivate vs. the Organization

[Aug 22/2010: It would be awful if i didn’t mention the great work by TechSmith‘s support people.  They’ve happy to offer help through e-mail and Twitter to help improve my user experience when using Camtasia; Adobe isn’t so quick when it comes to building these relationships.  -ms]

Two of my major responsibilities at work is to create digital instructional materials and to support other librarians who want to create and use tutorials for their own subject-specific duties.  I have a lot of experience using Adobe Captivate to develop online tutorials and lectures, and I’m proficient with TechSmith’s Camtasia, as well.  Since starting in this new position earlier this month, however, I’ve become torn over what might be the best product out there.

Consider the merits of these software packages.  When it comes to Adobe Captivate, we’ve got:

  • A strong screen capturing system that records only screen movement.
    • This produces small, robust files that will not tax your web server.
  • A testing system that can send users to different parts of the tutorial.
    • Viewers become active participants since their answers can send them to the material they need the most.
  • An advanced suite of “extras”.
    • Zoom features, callouts, and link capabilities to different programs have been refined by years of Adobe’s in-house programming experience
  • A strong file management system and workflow.
    • Captivate makes it easy to organize, edit, and weed digital materials not needed in the tutorial.
Camtasia's Interface is user-friendly. Just like a Mac. +1

Camtasia has a similar list of benefits:

  • A strong “click-and-go” screen capture system.
    • Camtasia takes the rocket science out of recording.  Even an untrained monkey could record with Camtasia.
  • A professional-looking Zoom function.
    • Since Camtasia never stops recording, it’s “Zoom-and-Pan” function will not produce washed-out images when you magnify a section of the screen.
  • An affordable price.
    • Camtasia is cheap, dirt cheap.  A new version of Camtasia is less than half the price of a new version of Captivate.  This is a big issue for institutions that require many licenses.

All things being equal, if I were asked to choose between the two programs, I’d go with Adobe Captivate.  First, Adobe Captivate has a more refined suite of callouts, magnifications, and quizzing options, which gives us more opportunities to manipulate our projects.  More important, however, is Captivate’s highly efficient digital capturing techniques and file management system.  Adobe Captivate only records movement on the screen, e.g., entered text, mouse clicks, screen outputs (i.e., clicking on a new screen in a web browser).  This means you could press record, walk away from the computer for five minutes, press stop, and still have a small file because Captivate will not add new data during the time you’re away – it will only have taken one screen capture and then wait for the next thing to happen.  Captivate produces small data files that can be easily edited and will not crash your server. Camtasia, on the other hand, will record everything on your screen (and even burn the cursor into the file!).  Camtasia produces incredibly large files that put a lot of wear and tear on your computer when you are editing and on your servers when you are streaming.

Adobe Captivate has a top-rate workflow and file management system. +100

In a boxing match between Captivate and Camtasia, I’d throw my support to Captivate.  What happens when the organization comes into play, though?  My place of work has several Camtasia licenses and a fewer number of Captivate licenses spread across four different libraries.  Librarians use the package they prefer, but they generally prefer Camtasia.  I think I’d like to push the system to adopt Captivate, but in yet another period of tightened budgets, I’m not sure if it makes complete sense.  When Captivate’s cost is so high, when Camtasia “will do” in most circumstances, and when so many librarians are already proficient with Camtasia, I don’t know yet if promoting what is ideally best for the organization (i.e., using Captivate more often) is actually best for it in practice.

Do you use Camtasia or Captivate to produce online tutorials for your library?  Which one do you use, and is it different from what you prefer?


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Library Weeks (4-8 Jan 2010)

This past week, the first week in the winter term, had me digging for clues to a puzzle. Some faculty members at the university have a unique criminology research question and are pulling out all the stops to collect data and analysis. To help them locate literature on the subject, I had to consult abstracts that our library holds only in bound volumes.  For a number of reasons (most of which are financial), we still subscribe to Criminal Justice Abstracts in print only; it is only one of a few bound indexes which the library still holds, and it remains vital to the school’s scholarship in criminology and sociology.  Although the beginning of my work was psychologically draining – the thought of looking up CJA‘s cumulative subject index volume-by-volume was not good for the soul – I eventually caught on to a rhythm and was breezing through the years in no time at all.  I may be a big proponent for electronic resources in the library, but for a moment I appreciated being able to physically handle the volumes again: there was almost a meditative quality to flipping the pages to find what I was looking for.

What made this work so poignant wasn’t the physical work of moving from one volume to another, however, but the fact that I was forced to rely on abstracts to determine an article’s value to the subject matter.  Although I always emphasize to students the convenience and effectiveness of abstracts when working with electronic resources, like so many others I’ll sooner or later open a PDF and hope that an article’s full-text will help me quickly consider its worth to the subject.  But more often than not this slows us down and can lead us away from literature useful to the subject.  Perhaps when we’re at the reference desk and we’re helping a student, a part of us feels compelled to open the file and find a potential reward, as if the article contained in that PDF will speak to the student’s specific subject.  But speed and gratification can’t be our main concern when helping our patrons. I’m not suggesting that we ignore these issues entirely, because gratification is part of the human condition so we must be prepared to deal with people who want results if not soon, then immediately.  But we need to remember (if not reinforce the fact) that opening every single PDF we find can send a patron down many different rabbit holes, most of which would be peripheral to their work.  Locating scholarly literature by considering abstracts, making value-judgments and marking items, and then moving toward analysis and synthesis (i.e. first search, then read), is likely a more efficient and effective way to research a topic.

Part of me wonders if we should keep bound volumes of CJA close by the reference desk, or bring them along in our information literacy training sessions just to help students understand not only the massive amount of information available on the internet, but also the massive amount of organization that has been lost (or is regularly side-stepped) with the move to electronic access.  Yes, the internet can make data location and retrieval a fairly simply and routine task – I am not suggesting at all that we return to the days of print volumes, I promise.  But by putting all of eggs into one basket, or at least making it look that way to the end-user, we’re making it appear that the information is now easier to not only find, but also evaluate when it necessarily isn’t so.  Too often our students see abstracts in Academic Search Premier or in JSTOR as one extra screen to click through to get to the goods – the article’s full-text.  We need to spend more time helping students understand that the abstract screens aren’t an impediment to the end result but rather a useful tool to improve their searches by helping them separate what’s useful from what’s not in a timely manner.

Measure Twice, Cut Once

I’ve been working this summer on a student/intern contract at the Patrick Power Library at Saint Mary’s University, here in Halifax. I’ve joined the Information Literacy crew as well as the Research and Reference team, and right now I think it’s safe to say, “So far, so good”. I’ve met some good people, learned a few things, and shared a few others. I’m happy, and I think they’re happy, so we’re all smiles.

One project I have been working on extensively is the development of audio and video screencasts for the library. I’ve gotten my hands dirty by working with Adobe Captivate and one of my favourite pieces of GNU GPL software – Audacity. For the record, Audacity is a lean, mean, sound-engineering machine, but I find Captivate incredibly difficult to use. I’m a seasoned tech-geek veteran and can catch on to different pieces of software fairly quick, but all that I quickly learned about Captivate is that its functionality and GUI are finicky. I think the software needs a re-boot, but that’s a thought for some other post.

What I’ve quickly learned about screencasting, however, is that one should aim high but never aim for perfection when working with audio and video. There is no such thing as a perfect-10 when you’re developing screencasts that are primed for smart devices like iPhones or similar LG or RIM products. Although it’s easy to be critical of our own work, we need to stay focused on releasing a finished product in a timely manner. Always remember that most small glitches or hiccups are barely noticeable on small screens or will generally be overlooked in the grand scheme of things. That’s not to say that one should throw production value out the window so much as it is to suggest that it’s okay if the hex color code you though you wanted was one micro-shade lighter than you expected.

When it comes to screencasts, we need think “gestalt”. We need to think “big picture” and be focused on the aim of the product. Most screencasts are small 1-3 minute wayfinding guides, so it won’t be the end of the world if you mumble your way through “open access electronic databases” on every take when laying down your audio.

So whether or not you use Captivate, Camtasia, or even Wink (long live freeware!), try to keep the following ideas in mind. Aim for elegance, but also aim for efficiency:

1. Measure Twice, Cut Once.

We all may know this slogan from our own favourite home design shows, but its message is definitely applicable to screencasting. Before you capture screens, before you record your audio, and before you start toying with images in GIMP, make sure you’ve created a game plan. It doesn’t matter if you make a story board or a script or hash out a linear map of your slides – just make sure you’ve thought about the message you have to deliver as well as how you’re going to deliver it.

2. Kill your babies.

I cribbed this little saying from some journalist-friends. You will almost certainly fall in love with your subject matter and its delivery, especially in your first few attempts at its design. Now, be prepared to chop it into pieces. Your subject matter and the screencast itself will be worthless if you lose the interest of the user, so always think about how you can reduce your content without losing context. Remember: the revisions you make to the screencast will make it stronger and better. Have one point and one point alone, and keep to it.

3. You do not have a professionally trained voice.

Micromanaging audio will waste your day and delay the development of your next subject, so when it comes to audio, just make the cut and be done with it. Making five or six or even seven takes of one paragraph to make sure you sound “just right” is going waste your time. Instead, create a simple production key for each section of audio. First, take one or two practice runs of the section you’re recording just to be sure that the language is simple and that your pronunciation is on track. Then, make two – no more than three takes – of the section which are free of serious glitches. Don’t worry if you think you’ve paused too long between sentences or if your voice tailed off at a comma because in all likelihood you are the only person who will notice these minor infractions. Ultimately, all the takes are going to sound virtually the same to the first-time listener, so take the cut and move on.

Long live the screencast.

Captivate and Screencasting: Measure Twice, Cut Once

I’ve been working this summer on a student/intern contract at the Patrick Power Library at Saint Mary’s University, here in Halifax. I’ve joined the Information Literacy crew as well as the Research and Reference team, and right now I think it’s safe to say, “So far, so good”. I’ve met some good people, learned a few things, and shared a few others. I’m happy, and I think they’re happy, so we’re all smiles.

One project I have been working on extensively is the development of audio and video screencasts for the library. I’ve gotten my hands dirty by working with Adobe Captivate and one of my favourite pieces of GNU GPL software – Audacity. For the record, Audacity is a lean, mean, sound-engineering machine, but I find Captivate incredibly difficult to use. I’m a seasoned tech-geek veteran and can catch on to different pieces of software fairly quick, but all that I quickly learned about Captivate is that its functionality and GUI are finicky. I think the software needs a re-boot, but that’s a thought for some other post.

What I’ve quickly learned about screencasting, however, is that one should aim high but never aim for perfection when working with audio and video. There is no such thing as a perfect-10 when you’re developing screencasts that are primed for smart devices like iPhones or similar LG or RIM products. Although it’s easy to be critical of our own work, we need to stay focused on releasing a finished product in a timely manner. Always remember that most small glitches or hiccups are barely noticeable on small screens or will generally be overlooked in the grand scheme of things. That’s not to say that one should throw production value out the window so much as it is to suggest that it’s okay if the hex color code you though you wanted was one micro-shade lighter than you expected.

When it comes to screencasts, we need think “gestalt”. We need to think “big picture” and be focused on the aim of the product. Most screencasts are small 1-3 minute wayfinding guides, so it won’t be the end of the world if you mumble your way through “open access electronic databases” on every take when laying down your audio.

So whether or not you use Captivate, Camtasia, or even Wink (long live freeware!), try to keep the following ideas in mind. Aim for elegance, but also aim for efficiency:

1. Measure Twice, Cut Once.

We all may know this slogan from our own favourite home design shows, but its message is definitely applicable to screencasting. Before you capture screens, before you record your audio, and before you start toying with images in GIMP, make sure you’ve created a game plan. It doesn’t matter if you make a story board or a script or hash out a linear map of your slides – just make sure you’ve thought about the message you have to deliver as well as how you’re going to deliver it.

2. Kill your babies.

I cribbed this little saying from some journalist-friends. You will almost certainly fall in love with your subject matter and its delivery, especially in your first few attempts at its design. Now, be prepared to chop it into pieces. Your subject matter and the screencast itself will be worthless if you lose the interest of the user, so always think about how you can reduce your content without losing context. Remember: the revisions you make to the screencast will make it stronger and better. Have one point and one point alone, and keep to it.

3. You do not have a professionally trained voice.

Micromanaging audio will waste your day and delay the development of your next subject, so when it comes to audio, just make the cut and be done with it. Making five or six or even seven takes of one paragraph to make sure you sound “just right” is going waste your time. Instead, create a simple production key for each section of audio. First, take one or two practice runs of the section you’re recording just to be sure that the language is simple and that your pronunciation is on track. Then, make two – no more than three takes – of the section which are free of serious glitches. Don’t worry if you think you’ve paused too long between sentences or if your voice tailed off at a comma because in all likelihood you are the only person who will notice these minor infractions. Ultimately, all the takes are going to sound virtually the same to the first-time listener, so take the cut and move on.

Long live the screencast.

On the Job: Information Literacy and Promotion

After a short break from other courework and a small vacation, I started a summer contract in Information Literacy at the Saint Mary’s University Library, here in Halifax.

Regular readers (you may be dedicated, but you are few) will recall that I’ve worked at the library part-time this past year at the reference desk, but before that time I was a regular instructor and lecturer at the University’s Writing Centre.  Long ago, I was also a student at SMU graduated there with an honours arts degree.  Due to this long-standing relationship, I was initially apprehensive when the library offered me this summer position; in many ways I worried that much of my CV would be attached to one organization and therefore might raise questions when seen by future employers.  But after listening to a little advice from colleagues, I decided to take on the role since it is demonstrates in a positive light that an organization is pleased with my work and is excited to strengthen its relationship with me.  So we’ll see how all this pans out, but I’m confident it’ll be an exciting term.

But enough about me, and now more about the job.  This summer, I’m going to work with a small cadre of professional librarians in the information literacy department at Saint Mary’s.  Although IL at SMU is fairly small – there are only three staff members dedicated to the area (however, most librarians do take part in library and information instruction), they’ve got some great ideas kicking around that they’d like to put into action, especially since the library is finishing a physical expansion and the spirit of change is in the air. I’m going to have a big role in expanding the library’s use of LibGuides and will do a lot of work on web and document design. And this afternoon I started putting together some scripts and gathered the software needed to develop a bank of podcasts.  I may also broach the idea of developing and maintaining a Twitter account for the library, but this may be better served by their folk in promotional services, especially since my contract ends in September.

Anyway, as I walked home from my first day on the job, I began to think about how so many parts of information literacy has to do with promotions and outreach.  Of course, there is always the mundane taskwork to complete, from statistical analysis (this was also part of day one) to committee work to marking coursebooks.  Regardless, those of us (and dare I count myself as part of that ‘us’) in information literacy constantly have to promote ourselves and make ourselves known, not only to the students but to the faculty as well.  That’s not to say that we should give up the steak in favour of the sizzle, but it is to again put forward the need to have a least a small understanding of marketing if the library’s information literacy services to be rendered are ever to be found by the its market – the students.