Recently, I’ve joined a small project at my place of work that is considering our online instructional goals and our ability to meet them. The project isn’t large or groundbreaking: it’s an inward-looking analysis of our library’s use of online learning projects and the manner in which they meet the needs of our users, and it’s the sort of analysis that many of us have taken part in over the years. And while the project could more appropriately be considered a “task force” since we’re only a small group and our considerations (I hesitate to call them recommendations) will be written to stimulate debate instead of making transformational change, we’re still taking on the task knowing that our efforts today might facilitate new decisions and perspectives tomorrow.
At issue for me are three things in general: the nature of online instruction, our recent goals in this area, and governance. Our readings and discussion have helped us realize that for too long now, tech-savvy librarians (at libraries in the developed world, generally) have focused too much on the development of online instructional tools at the expense of figuring out how these tools can best work alongside “regular” instructional programming. And perhaps more important, we don’t give enough thought to where online instruction sits within our internal governance structures. In short, for the most part, we’ve built our own online instruction silo.
The academic literature and the blogs show this loud and clear: too much of our scholarships and too many of our conversations are based on “how to” make the greatest tutorial, “how to” use X, Y, or Z software, or “how to” attract our students’ attention by using a particular social tool. There is literature that moves beyond these topics, of course, but I’m not sure if there has been enough. I’d like us to think and debate more about the nature of online instruction and its tools, what it actually means for our users, and what online instruction’s long-term implications (positive and negative) are for libraries. (A good example of what I think we ought to be discussing can be found in this text, which Dean Giustini recent contributed to and mentioned in his blog.)
In the mean time, I’m putting forward 3 contentions about online instruction in academic libraries. They aren’t profound, but they are assertions, nonetheless. Answer them in response to this post or on your own blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and Plus streams. Let’s get a discussion going.
Steeleworthy’s Online Instruction Contentions for 2012:
1. There is no Online Instruction. There is only Instruction.
Online instruction’s tools, aims and media differ drastically from “traditional” instructional methods, but it is instruction nonetheless, and it should be afforded as much importance as all other kinds. It is fair to consider the differences between online instruction and classroom one-shots or integrated term-long coursework, but the time came long ago to normalize it and make it an equal partner in our information literacy programmes. No more adjectives and qualifiers: online instruction is instruction, plain and simple. It can’t only be a special project that is taken on by our adventurous colleagues or offered to our interns and junior librarians to explore. Instead, we must find efficient ways to reduce its learning curve, help train our colleauges, and make it a core part of our IL programming.
2. There can only one instructional group or committee.
This group develops instructional programmes and policies at the library, whether they are online or in print, in the classroom or in a virtual chat room. Let there be task forces devoted to online or classroom initiatives, but keep them part of the same governance structure. Let’s keep our focus on the means we have at our disposal to improve information literacy levels and critical thinking skills on campus by fully integrating online instruction into our existing instructional framework.
3. There must be an online instruction coordinator.
I may have just declared an end to adjectives and qualifiers in Contention No. 1, but on this point, I stand firm: an online instruction coordinator is needed in order for libraries stay ahead of the technological curve. So much about online work requires specific, technical knowledge and skill sets. Each library should have a coordinator who manages instructional content on the website, promotes web-based instructional tools, liases with university online learning services, and leads training programmes for new technology-based instructional tools. Let this person sit on instructional committees and web committees, and let this person work in concert with the web publisher to seamlessly integrate instructional content with the website’s directional and informational content.
Above all else, online instruction can no longer be the purview of only a few individuals in academic libraries. I speak these words to like-minded librarians who are already tech-savvy and willing to try new projects and ideas: it’s time that we shift our focus from integrating online instructional tools into our individual practice to blending them into the library ethos. We can do this by concentrating not on programmes and apps but on the people we work with and the people we serve. We must find the means to make online instruction accessible not only to our users, but to our fellow librarians and content producers. What is a technological challenge must have a people-driven solution.
I was talking to one of my friends the other day, who complimented my productivity at work. I like being complimented, so I felt a little fuzzy inside. But I started to wonder: why am I being productive? I spent the week thinking about it, and I have a theory. I want to play with that thought a little bit, and frame it within my pet subject – the military.
Strategy, tactics, and rapid cognition.
One of my favourite authors, Thomas E. Ricks, often talks about strategy and tactics. Ricks defines strategy as goal-setting – hopefully producing a clear definition of the results you’re trying to achieve. Tactics, on the other hand, are the tools you use to accomplish those goals. He stresses that with a good strategy, bad tactics will fix themselves because they produce results that undermine the goal. On the other hand, with bad strategy, even the best tactics can be refined forever, but they will ultimately remain unsuccessful, and bad things happen.
Last week, I talked a bit about my strategy at work. But what was I going to do about tactics? And then I remembered Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell, author of the revered work The Tipping Point, speaks at length of a wargame scenario in his bestselling work, Blink. In this scenario, a Red side fought a Blue side.
What the sides stood for isn’t really important – what is important is how they went about running their organizations. The Blue side had an enormous amount of computational power at its side. It had rubrics, metrics, standard operating procedures, spreadsheets, and meetings. Lots of meetings. It developed its own lingo of acronyms that was incomprehensible to any outsider. It believed it could ‘out-compute’ the opposition by taking the relevant issues and feeding them into a spreadsheet which in turn would tell them the proper course of action.
The Red side took a different approach. The commander of those forces decided to be ‘in command, and out of control’ – he gave his sub-commanders an objective (“attack the navy,” “maintain communications,” etc) but left it up to them about how they would accomplish their goals.
By the end of the first three days of the exercise, the Red team had completely routed the Blue.
Why did this happen?
Gladwell explains the Red team’s success as the theory of rapid cognition. By allowing the Red team commanders a large degree of personal freedom, they could trust their instincts and utilize their personal experience to inform their decisions. The result was that they made better decisions, faster, and more cheaply. They could react much more rapidly to changing conditions.
Alternatively, the Blue side was slowed down by meetings, spreadsheets, and other tools of management. The Blue commanders’ own reactions and intuitions became discounted by the system. The ultimate result was an overwhelming victory for the Red side, not because they possessed the better commanders or that they had the superior force – they didn’t – but because the management style allowed the Red commanders to make better use of what they did have.
So, back to my original question – what is allowing me to be productive?
Basically, I exist in a black hole of oversight. Basically, my boss is pretty laissez-faire. He (and my coworkers!) don’t care how I do anything, so long as the library is better for it. I don’t particularly care how I do anything,so long as it helps the library. Generally, my strategies are good, and my tactics will work themselves out. Justifying myself would slow down and muddle my thoughts. Will I make some mistakes? Darn tootin’. I spend most of my Thursdays fixing one. That’s ok, though. It won’t happen again and my intuition will become more attuned for the next time. But realistically, had I spent my time on the planning, justifying, and presenting, there’s no guarantee I would have done any better and it’s entirely possible I’d have done something worse. Strenuous planning doesn’t necessarily lead to success – just ask the Blue team.
Of course, taking it too far in the opposite direction would be disastrous. I get that. Nobody wants a commando cataloguer. But my point is this: don’t be afraid to shoot from the hip every now and again, maybe even as often as possible. As much as I like to complain about library school (and believe you me, I do like to complain), you do emerge from school with a notion of how things ought to be. We’ve got instincts. We know when we see an opportunity, or when something’s out of whack. Your first instinct is probably the right course of action. Don’t let it get lost in a bureaucratic shuffle.
What do you think? Would trusting your instincts be more advantageous and lead to more productive and happier librarians? Or, does the process of meetings, proposals and presentations provide a valuable safeguard against rogue librarians bent on bibliographic anarchy?
(A tender caveat: these opinions are only partly uninformed.)
I subscribe to a listserv for library managers, directors, and administrators, aptly called LibAdmin. I’m hardly a library manager, director or administrator, but I plan on being one soon, and the mailing list has afforded me the chance to be the fly on the wall and listen in conversations I’ll may get to take part in in the future.
I’ve noticed that every couple of months some one asks the LibAdmin crowd if it’s advisable to take a PhD in library and information science in order to advance their career in academic librarianship. The question is premised on the fact that university librarians are on the whole considered deans, and deans have PhDs; therefore it’s reasonable that (1) the peer group demands new members to be as qualified as they are, and (2), there will surely be candidates for any university librarian position who already have the PhD, so enrolling in one well ahead-of-time is just a wise career move for a potential applicant to make.
The discussion that ensues after this question is asked is interesting at the beginning, but not substantive in its follow-through. Although this is partly to do with the nature of e-mail listservs, it is most mostly owing to the diverse nature of the academic librarianship. Most respondents to the question answer by saying they have X, Y, or Z degree over and above the MLIS and that this degree either helped them or did not in their career. Developing anything close to a consensus in this argument is a bit of a fool’s game, not because the question or its answers are foolish, but because everyone’s got a story to tell and so many times these stories are struck from personal experience.
But is there anything that can be distilled from discussions about whether or a doctorate in LIS is necessary to secure a position as a university librarian in North America? It might be fair to say that many institutions expect their applications to have a PhD in hand even if the time spent attaining it might have been better served in the field or by doing graduate work in public or educational administration. It might also be fair to say that in spite of all the arguments which suggest that getting a PhD makes good business sense, many recent University Librarians do not have the degree and cannot be called “doctor” and yet maintain their budgets, explore avenues for institutional growth, and have the respect of their dean-level peer group. In the end, the situations are always going to be particular to the applicant and to the institution itself.
As for me (this is where the “partly uninformed” part comes in), if I had to come down with an opinion in this argument, I’d argue that it might be more important for an academic library director to be an expert in organizational management than to have spent 5-7 years researching X topic in LIS. The day-to-day affairs of a university librarian deal more with planning, projecting, and organizing than it does with breaking new ground in his or her particular field of research, be that field indigenous peoples and intellectual property or the digital divide as it exists in North America. That’s not to say that I have no care for the PhD in LIS. On the contrary, I constantly wrestle with the idea of conducting further research in the field (particularly in digital technologies and (inter-)national copyright reform or in civil rights, ethics, and LIS), but before doing so I’d like to first spend some time considering the organizational structure of libraries, archives, and museums. I think if I were to enroll in an MPA or an MBA, I might have a better opportunity to engage in critical and interdisciplinary work in library management, which might do me and my own little part in the profession a little bit of good.
What are you thoughts on the subject? How does the PhD in Library and Information Science fit within the profession of (academic) librarianship?
At the ETIG pre-conference camp at CLA 2009, a couple people suggested that what the library world needs right now is something like Google’s 80/20 time to kindle and kick-start all of our imaginations onto new and wonderful projects. It’s hard to be against such a proposal and frankly, I’d love to see it done in any workplace I do (or will) set foot in. 80/20 time would be a boon to any organization, be it library science or googlizing the world – sign me up and count me in.
I’ve been giving some thought to how 80/20 time could meaningfully work, though. A friend of mine works – in spirit, if not in hours – in an 80/20 labour situation. He decided to take on an MPA while holding down his full-time position. To facilitate this, he played around with the length of his lunches and the time that his days began in order to ensure he always had Friday off to get some school work done. Three years later, he finished a two-year degree with a thesis in hand. That took a lot of hard work on his part, but since his organization was willing to bend, he came away with a lot more practical knowledge that has been useful to the workplace since.
Whether any 80/20 time would be spent on professional development or on developing little side projects that might turn into bigger projects for the organization (e.g. like how the Gmail side-project turned Google from a simple search engine to a social gathering space), the logistics and the evaluation of the outcomes are outside the bounds of the everyday work experience. How does one plan for a certain number of individuals to accomplish new goals that on the surface might appear tertiary to the organization’s main focus, and then how does one judge the work when its complete? The former takes skills, knowledge, and experience in strategic planning and management, of course, but the latter requires faith on the part of leadership. Organizational leadership would have to sit back and understand that for the long-term health of the organization and its professionals that the side-projects would have to be allowed to both stumble and succeed over time. After all, one is going to get dirty when playing in a sandbox.
I don’t think a cynic could work with the concept of 80/20 time. If one is more likely to say “give a man an inch and he’ll take a mile” than, “teach a man to fish and you’ll feed him for life” (*), then the thought of giving staff time to work on their own projects might not ever work out. 80/20 – in any organization – requires a healthy dose of faith and optimism on the part of the leadership for it to succeed.
(* – I know the metaphors don’t match. My point is that for 80/20 to work, a certain amount of time and labour-hours must be freely given to the staff. There can’t be reservations about this, and it must be given with excitement for what the time might bring to all involved.)
Oh my, how has time passed. Like any good blog, this site has been built with one cup of best intentions and two cups of procrastination. The programme at SIM and life in general has kept me busier than I expected, so it has been difficult to do more than log in to check my site stats from time to time. The nasty throat infection and chest cold that attacked my person in late September did little to help the situation, I might add.
One month into the MLIS programme at Dal, I can perhaps look back and determine if there has been anything learned or confirmed about librarianship. This list is short and general in nature, but I’ve constructed it that way since, (1) shorter blog posts are more readable than longer posts, and (2), one month is hardly enough time to thoroughly analyze a brand new programme and culture, so it would be best to paint with broad strokes on this subject:
1. The study of management is vital to the future of librarianship.
This is a lesson which was learned within the first few days of the Fall term. Dalhousie offers its MLIS within the Faculty of Management, and there are several required courses that are firmly rooted in the cultural sphere of management instead of IS. The School of Information Management believes it has a duty to tutor its students on the importance of management and leadership, and I think it’s a wise policy. It’s safe to say that a plurality of this year’s new students have no schooling in management. It’s also safe to suggest that many people in the programme have more experience being managed as opposed to managing. Therefore, nearly one half of the courses that first year SIM students take in the first term deal with organizational behaviour and project management as opposed to cataloguing or reference work. This is not to suggest that traditional librarianship courses are given short shrift. Rather, there is a common understanding in SIM that its graduates, as professional librarians and information professionals, must be prepared to work with and lead others in projects, on budgets, and toward common goals or objectives. No man is an island, and no library or organization is devoid of people. Management is not a bad word, but a set of necessary skills everyone should be adept with.
(Interestingly, Meredith Farkas noted the same thing after considering the results of a recent survey on LIS schooling. The call for more management skills is hardly new, but it apparently continues to be given short shrift. I’m fairly happy, however, that my school responded to this issue long ago.)
2. Technology is vital, but technology does not trump service.
Library 2.0, Web 2.0, People 2.0, Two 2.0. We can ponder and praise the rise of interactive and user-friendly technologies such as blogging software, social networking tools, twitters, podcasts and whatever might come next, but none of these can replace the service aspect of the profession. The best part of my week doesn’t occur when I’m checking one of many portable devices for the most recent news, but instead when take my shift at my alma mater’s reference desk. A certain thrill that is equal parts fear of, excitement for, and anticipation of the unknown comes over me when a student asks for help acquiring information in a field I’m not familiar with. Librarianship service is a process, a discovery of information mediated through the librarian. Note that I am not saying “filtered” or “accessed” there. When I say “mediated”, I mean to suggest that we are there to guide some one toward the information they are looking for. There is no controlling of information or gatekeeping. Rather, we are there to show some one the route and help them get to where they’re going so that hopefully they can get there on their own in the future. This human component can’t ever be overlooked.
(This is a belief I’ve long held. All of my experience in academics long ago taught me the importance of leading the horse to drink, so to speak.)
3. Professional librarians and library technicians can, and should work together.
When I work at the reference desk, I sit as either an “MLIS student” or a “Professional Librarian in training”. I work alongside both professional librarians and library technicians at the desk, and they are both equally capable of being the mediatory I mentioned above. One month into my professional training, however, I’ve encountered both the understanding that professional librarians and library technicians can work together as well as the belief that “library technicians are similar but different”. Yes, a library technician may be “similar but different” (whatever that means), but that doesn’t mean they should be valued any less than any of our other colleagues. The library at Saint Mary’s University appears to break down these artificial barriers, and I hope most other organizations try to do the same. I’d prefer to work for an organization that values what differences in people, and works with them to make the most of their own skills and goals. Perhaps that’s wishful thinking. Or perhaps that’s a simple goal that could be put into place with relative ease elsewhere.