Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Entangled Technology and AAA2013, or, What I did on Friday

My AAA 2013 partners in crime this year were some people I have presented with before (and was delighted to have a chance to again: Andrew Asher, Maura Smale, Mariana Regalado), and some new-to-me colleagues I look forward to working with some more (Lori Jahnke and Lesley Gourlay).

Andrew brought the donuts. We managed to wait until after our session before eating them. That is some seriously professional self-control. Yes, that is bacon on four of the donuts, from Do-Rite Donuts. The other two were pistachio.

Never let it be said I don't blog about important things like donuts.

Our session, Embedded and Engaged In Higher Education: Researching Student Entanglements with Technology, (here's the link to the Prezi we used as a visual aid for the discussion) was a roundtable, where we presented and then connected the work we are engaged in, picking up on four main threads of discussion.

1) How institutional disconnect from student behavior and expectations affects access to education, to information, to what they need to engage with resources they need for their academic work, but also for the life they will build post-college.

Maura and Mariana's work at CUNY spoke most powerfully to the everyday details of this, but I think Lori's work text-mining IT and University strategic plans was equally important. The content of those strategic plans is just so strikingly distant from the priorities and realities of students and faculty members in higher education. We need to pay more attention to those sorts of documents, and in particular the urgency with which they need to be informed by social science research results.

2) How cultural, political, and social values are embedded not just in search, but in Higher Ed institutions generally. And again, the impact that has on #1

Andrew is doing such important work with this. Search is a cultural construction. Higher education is a cultural construction. Libraries are cultural constructions. They are not free from the values of wider society, and need to be observed critically if we are to truly concern ourselves with access to higher education, and the benefits, privileges, and problems inherent in the system.

3) The use of anthropological research to ground higher education policy (macro and micro) in the behavior of people, and the potential of the applied anthropological approach to improve outcomes of educational agendas broadly written, where ultimate goal of education is an engaged and informed citizenry.

I think this second theme is also linked to the underlying themes of the Liminality session that NAPA sponsored the previous day. My own work at UNC Charlotte is a nice example of what can happen when administrators are on board with a social science-informed policy perspective. Lesley is also trying through her work to effect change at the University of London.  But not all administrators are sympathetic. It can be challenging to inform policy beyond quantitative metrics, if qualitative approaches are not valued. Our challenge as anthropologists is to insert ourselves into institutional conversations, to become part of organizations that need more qualitative approaches, to provide perspectives that are currently all-too-scarce.

4) Our positions as professional outsiders in higher education contexts, but also as sort of native ethnographers, as we are all products of and participants in the kinds of systems we are studying.

My boss told me today that he values me at least in part because I am an outsider to the library. On the panel, our positions as people both within our institutions and tasked with thinking critically about those institutions can be personally and professionally challenging. And also, terrifically worthwhile.

Andrew, Maura and I live-tweeted this session, and I Storified it rather than put it here, because it's kind of long.

I also quite liked our session abstract, and since you can't see it without being a registered AAA member, I am going to reproduce it here:

Abstract:  Embedded and Engaged In Higher Education: Researching Student Entanglements with Technology

"In this roundtable we propose to explore our status, research, and findings as we work as interdisciplinary collaborators with non-anthropologists in academic settings. Our projects initiate and facilitate scholarly as well as policy discussions about the nature of information, the configuration of digital and physical spaces in academia, and the changing state of academic work and scholarly communication in the 21st century. Some of us, employed in academic libraries, are positioned as native ethnographers, as we are tasked with observing and analyzing the thoughts and behaviors of our own communities: the students, faculty, and staff in the practical, everyday spaces of academia. Our outside eye is valuable in pinpointing not just ways that academic institutions and libraries can reshape themselves for the 21st century, but also in illuminating the nature of scholarly work among our peers and the relationship of that work to the world outside of academia. This roundtable provides a forum for sharing our work and our perspectives on anthropology in higher education settings.

The panelists represent a variety of ways that anthropological knowledge and research are presented and conducted. Through a range of methods, including mapping, time logs, drawings, photo diaries, and research process interviews, we have examined how students and faculty engage with and are constrained by technology as they navigate the spaces and systems of academe. As researchers we are diversely engaged, bringing not only anthropological methods and theories to our projects but also the methods and theories of library and information science, science and technology studies, education, sociology, and user experience research.

Our research actively explores the role of technology for students in their academic work at colleges and universities. At this moment when educational technologies are very much a part of the broader, global conversation about the cost and value of higher education, we examine how these technologies constrain and enable students, and how they fit with the essential learning mission of college, especially in the academic library, a traditional locus of student use of information technology. As social scientists embedded in academia, we leverage our research to bring student voices to these discussions. Our studies produce data which may be brought to bear on policy decisions at the college and university, and which has the potential to positively impact student academic success.

As researchers who are well positioned to observe the complex interactions between digital technologies and the social organization and practices of students and faculty member, this roundtable will speak not only to how technologies are used within higher education, but also to broader cultural transformations within and outside the academy. For example, how do political and cultural values embodied in digital tools and technologies constrain or empower students? How do the social contexts of students’ communities and universities affect their technology use? By examining these questions, anthropologists working in higher education can contribute both to improving the learning environments of our universities, but also to better understandings of the meanings, effects, and lived experience of technologies and technological change. "

Liminality and Practicing Anthropology

The first session I attended at AAA2013 was the NAPA sponsored Liminality and Crossing Boundaries in Applied Anthropology.   My primary motive to attend was to see Nancy Fried Foster's paper on participatory design in libraries, but I was delighted that I had the chance to stay for all but the last 2 papers, because as a whole the panel was thought provoking and inspiring.

This is the big takeaway for me from the panel. That the work, and even just the presence of anthropologists in industry and institutional settings creates a liminal space, which in turn is an opportunity for change and innovation.  It's a powerful frame in which to see ourselves as professionals, and also one that requires responsible thought about what role anthropologists and anthropology should play in effecting institutional change.  Patricia was explicit about her hopes for social science (she was one of at least 2 panelists who pointed out "I am not an anthropologist") in institutional settings:

Maria's energetic presentation pointed even more strongly to the potential for innovation that comes out of persistent and embedded anthropological attention to technology and the processes involved in producing that technology. In particular, we can bring up to people like engineers points about technology and the digital that we, as social scientists, largely take for granted, but not everyone else does:

I single out these two papers in particular because I think the themes of the potential for change, and the importance of a consistent social science-informed perspective on the processes, technologies, and organizational structures coming from and constituting industry/institutions, is one that also resonated through my own panel.  That is post #3 (which, now that I have called it out, I hope I will actually write).

Monday, November 25, 2013

AAA 2013, Anthropology and Open Access

Just back from the American Anthropological Meetings in Chicago and I am so amazingly glad I went.  Library and IT conferences are a part of my professional rounds these days, but there is something so comforting about being surrounded by friends and colleagues to whom I don't have to explain myself.  We can just have conversations (so many conversations!) starting off from our common ground as anthropologists.  It's such a freeing feeling.  I am already looking forward to being in DC for AAA2014.

I was particularly energized by the panels I went to, and I will talk about the second one more in part because it was such a surprise to me.  When I saw the title, "The Future of Writing and Reading in The Digital and Open Access Eras," I was worried, because much of what I'd been hearing about Open Access from my colleagues in anthropology was full of worry and pessimism, not to mention themes that appeared to be straight out of some publishers' handbooks.  I had a pre-panel chat with my colleague Juliann Couture, who is the ACRL liaison to the AAAs as well as social science librarian at the University of  Colorado, Boulder.  We went over all of the things that we wished the panel would be about (but were afraid it would not be).  And then we went to the panel, and Tom Boellstorff from UC Irvine got up and said everything we had wished for.  I live-tweeted it.  I wanted to stand up at the end of his part of the panel and shout AMEN.

The above tweet gets at some of what we are starting to talk about in the Visitors and Residents 
 project, how online forms of communication, scholarly production, and community have the potential to fundamentally transform notions of where scholarly authority, trust, and value lie.  Where before it has been associated with institutions such as universities and publishers, altmetrics and social media give us the possibility of individuals as their own authoritative selves, independent of institutions.

The subsequent speakers were equally thoughtful, if a bit more cautious about some aspects of OA.  The fact that Gustavo Lins Ribeiro and  Giovanni Da Col are in university contexts outside of the US contributed a great deal to the critical eye they brought to the peculiarly market-driven narrative around OA in the US, and how problematic that is.

Discussant Alisse Waterston highlighted the questions that needed to be answered about OA for academic publishing and the production of other forms of scholarship, but also made the point that

During the discussion Juliann and I both pointed out the role that university libraries are playing in the OA discussion, and that some of the models that anthropologists and other scholars are searching for could be found collaboratively, working with people in other fields (such as Biology, which has a robust OA scholarly presence, as well as Library and Information Science), as well as elsewhere on their own campuses.

And the managing editor of Cultural Anthropology, Tim Elfenbein, contributed his thoughts from his experience in trying to figure out what OA might look like, and the energy required to think not just about publishing, but broadly about scholarship.

This circles back around to the idea broached in the early parts of the panel by Boellstorff, that new forms of scholarly production, including OA forms, do not mean the death of the article or of the book (I wonder if it might mean the death of the journal, as we know it).  These are not mutually exclusive forms, they can co-exist and work within a more rich, complex system of scholarship.

The point about the need for us to be open and transparent in our scholarship, not just to our colleagues, but to the people among whom we do our research, is also crucial.  OA is an important tool to use in our project of making anthropological knowledge accessible to wider publics, not just the public of our fellow anthropologists, or even just other academics.

The potential OA has to transform the processes of scholarship, to make clear how people write, and what is involved in creating manuscripts for books, articles, even blogposts and other experimental writing genres, is so exciting to me.  All of my work, now that I am in an academic library, is collaborative, and I have no choice but to share awful rough drafts with my collaborators.  It is liberating and satisfying to take nascent ideas, and really work with people from the first word to get our collective ideas shaped and temporarily fixed into what we want to say.  There will always be a time and a place for working alone, but working with other scholars is, I think, the best opportunity for truly new things to arise.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Playing with Cognitive Mapping

I am messing around with cognitive mapping instruments, stolen with Andrew Asher's blessing from the ERIAL toolkit (I know, I know, I don't need anyone's blessing because hey, that's what toolkits are for!  Especially those posted on the web).  I am doing this in part because photo diaries, while useful and capable of yielding rich information, are really really time consuming and difficult to get students to do.    I am still very much hoping to get back to University College, London, to continue the work I started there in 2011, and when I am there I'd like to use cognitive maps as well as structured interviews and immersive observations to get a sense of how and why various learning spaces are being used by UCL students and faculty.

So, I'm doing some here at UNC Charlotte.  At the very least, such an exploratory exercise can give us a sense of what our undergraduate and graduate students' spatial networks look like when they are written down.  The data I'm collecting can also begin to serve as a comparative set for the data that I hope to be able to collect in the UK.

I just want to put some of the maps here because I think they are really interesting.  I am of course far from the only one doing this--Lesley Gourlay at the IOE and her colleagues have done some mapping exercises, and of course there is the aformentioned ERIAL work, among other ethnographic projects in the US.  The students were given 6 minutes to complete each map, and were asked to map all of the places that they go to/inhabit in some way for their academic work.   I was specific in saying that the spaces could be on- or off-campus.    The maps posted here are undergraduate maps--I have maps from graduate students that we are still processing.  In general, undergraduate space maps indicate the need for them to be in places that make it easy for them to get to the other places they need to go to.  If they have class in a particular building, they are more likely to study in the Student Union than the library, because the former is closer.  If they live away from campus, they might be likely to have off-campus cafes, etc. on their maps as work spaces.  The choices they make about where to settle in to study are not made in a vacuum.  There is a similar diversity to the spaces they find themselves in, however, in part because undergraduate classes occur in a variety of buildings in different parts of campus, and are not necessarily taught in the building that house their major programs.  Graduate student maps (in process) have less diversity of spaces, because they are much more tied to the departmental labs and spaces of their degree programs.

The students worked for 2 minutes in each pen color, beginning with blue, moving to red, and then ending with black.  Some students finished before the 6 minute mark, resulting in some maps in just 2 colors (such as #7 shown here).

This undergraduate lives on campus, and has drawn straight lines connecting all of the places he needs to go.  The library is one place in a larger network, of course.  Several of these building are classroom spaces.  This senior lives in an on-campus dorm.  There are no off-campus spaces shown here.

This sophomore lives in an off-campus apartment relatively far from campus, but her boyfriend's apartment (the building in the upper left corner) is closer in.  She has mapped campus buildings such as the Student Union and various classroom buildings, but also included important spaces such as where her youth group meets, and the 24-hour cafe Amelie's.  The library does not figure in her mental map of learning spaces.

This student lives close to the South Carolina border, nearly a half an hour from campus.  She has included several cafe or bookstore spaces, all of which have free wi-fi, but not all of which are open 24 hours.  "School" is the university campus, and she has not differentiated places within the campus, because she has so many other places she inhabits.  The library on this map is the public library closest to the university.

This junior has sketched only the places within the library he inhabits on the left hand side of the drawing.  He has put in study rooms, and indicated where the study rooms are in the building by their proximity to round tables with computers on them (these are on the 1st floor).  His other learning spaces are in his close-to-campus apartment, on the right hand side.  He has sketched his living room furniture (comfortable chairs as well as desks), and his bedroom.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

EDUCAUSE 2013: Finding our Way in Anaheim

My second attendance at Educause, and this one was in Anaheim.

I had a full Wednesday of presentations.  One presentation was with my Visitors and Residents collaborators, Lynn Connaway and Erin Hood  from OCLC (but sans David White, who was with us in spirit even as he stayed in Oxford).  We talked about our analysis of the data we've been collecting since 2010 on modes of engagement with digital places, people, technology, and information.  I was gratified that the themes revealed in our work, and in particular our conclusions about how important people and relationships are to the choices people make when engaging with technology and the web, were so well represented in other presentations at Educause, including Sir Ken Robinson's keynote, and Mimi Ito's presentation on her work regarding Connected Learning.   As an anthropologist, I am of course a big fan of researchers (like fellow anthropologist Mimi Ito!) pointing out to Education Technology specialists like the ones who attend Educause that that they need to pay attention to people, their  behavior, and their motivations, and not get distracted by the specifics of the shiny tools that people are using at any given moment.

I also presented a poster session with my colleague Bob Price, Director of Digital Initiatives at UNC Charlotte. We were focusing on two primary things:  the wayfinding tool that our Digital Initiatives department built, and the research processes that helped inform why we wanted to build the tool (not just because it would be shiny!), and the plans we have for it going forward.

Here's our poster (in two parts, designed by our fantastic colleague and web graphic designer Maggie Ngo, click to see larger versions of each poster)

Click to see larger version of Posters 1 and 2

Click to see larger version of Posters 1 and 2

One thing we tried to emphasize in our discussions with the people who came by to see the poster (thanks to all who stopped by, the conversations were wonderful, and the interest in our work truly gratifying) was that this sort of project was inspired in part by the open-ended exploratory research I've been doing among our students.  The photo diaries I have been having undergraduates do for the last 3 or 4 semesters have been a way to evaluate and observe the habits of our students in terms of where and how they do their academic work, regardless of whether they are in the library or not.   Some of the prompts ask library-specific questions, and some ask much broader questions about their practices, without cues to talk about the library (I adapted the photo diary instrument from a similar one used by Nancy Fried Foster and her team, in her research at Rochester).  The photo diaries from our UNC Charlotte students revealed a deep level of ambivalence about some library spaces, in particular the stacks, and the corridors.  Valuable resources are in the stacks, and along the corridors--the latter is how you find study rooms, classrooms, and our reference librarians, in our physical building.

We saw leveraging digital tools to give students a way to become more familiar with our building as a way of encouraging them to become comfortable with the building before they even walk into it.  In the same way that people use Google Maps to figure out where they are going in an unfamiliar place, our students can use our digital wayfinder to plan their route, to see what lies where, and to generally get a feel for the physical spaces, before they are even there.

The campus population at UNC Charlotte has many first-generation college students, as well as transfer students who were accustomed to buildings and resources at their previous institution.  Even traditional first year full time freshmen might have mental barriers to entering a university library building, which can seem large and intimidating to someone not used to these sort of institutional spaces.  It is our responsibility to try to respond to the need for students to access our useful spaces (like libraries), by making them navigable, familiar, friendly.

In future iterations of our wayfinding tool, we hope to go beyond the physical building, which is just a part of what our library has to offer.  Linking our digital resources and spaces in with the wayfinder will give our patrons a more holistic vision of what we contain:  electronic resources, booking software that allows students to connect with each other in study groups, connections with liaisons via chat, text, and email, and other tools we haven't built yet.

We welcome comments, and those interested in collaborating with us on future versions of the Wayfinder.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Sleeping and Successful Library Spaces

So the article my colleague Bryony is referring to is this one : 

 Legerton, G. (January 01, 2013). Encouraging choice, serendipity and experimentation: experiences from Griffith University library (G11) extension and Gumurrii Centre. Journal of Interprofessional Care, 27, 51-62.

I am interested to read it further, but her tweet reminded me that I had never pointed out one of the fun facts uncovered by the behavior mapping that myarchitecture grad student, Alison Schaefer, carried out last semester.   First, I want to show you a typical circulation pattern through our ground floor collaborative space.  This map was generated not long after the space opened, but this primary pattern has yet to deviate substantially.   Then look at the next two maps, in black with beige highlights.

The dotted lines show the circulation paths.  This map was made on Jan 24th, representing the pattern at 12.40PM. 


Sleeping map, January 2013

Sleeping Map, April 2013

Notice, in the two maps above, where people were sleeping

While some of the sleeping is indeed happening away from the high traffic areas, some of it is certainly happening right in the middle of relatively noisy and active parts of the ground floor.  

Another thing to note is that these maps were not created during finals week, a time when it is assumed there will be lots of sleeping in the library, along with studying (and, avoiding studying).

In short, making assumptions about where students will sleep in the library based on a) where we think they should be sleeping, or b) where we would prefer to sleep, or even c) conventional wisdom about where students sleep, will not get you very far.

Our students sleep anywhere, as they need to.  They are working hard, and sometimes need to recharge.  If sleeping students are symptoms of successful spaces, then Atkins Library is doing very well indeed.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Visitors, Residents, Learners, Academics: ALA2013 and Communities of Practice

I was at ALA to help conduct participatory design sessions on behalf of the Visitors and Residents Project.  We are at the point in our long-term project that we're conducting expert sessions on modes of engagement with technology and information, where we'd like to produce resources that can help others think about and configure the things they are doing with a focus on what their patrons/users/constituencies need and want to do.

V and R map of a library professional, showing lots
 of Visitor mode and Institutional contexts (in these maps, the P-I axis is

To that end, we (where "we" = Lynn Sillipigni Connaway and Erin Hood from OCLC, David White from Oxford, and myself) convened 2 different sessions with library experts--leaders in their fields, in their libraries, in their departments.  We asked them to map themselves on the Visitors and Residents polechart that we've developed and have been using with librarians and educators (in the US and the UK) to discuss how individuals get information and engage with technology for their personal and professional/academic needs.

We then asked the participants to map their constituents. 

The same professional who produced the above map chose to map their perception
of Undergraduate engagement, with heavy emphasis on Resident-mode and Personal context.

And then we talked.

There was a lot of talk, and it was fantastic and constructive.  So now, we've got a great deal to process.  I have blogged before about where things like Facebook show up on V&R maps, and I have the persistent sense that what tool/digital space people are using/inhabiting is less important than what they are doing in that space/with that tool.  That is, as Dave pointed out during the session, it's not enough to count how many students are on Twitter, or FB, or whatever.  You have to do the qualitative work that tells you just what they are doing in these environments.  Some use FB to connect with people, but some connect with people only via direct messages, others post everything to their wall.  Some use FB as a clearinghouse for all of the events and organizations they want to track.  And so on.  Our analysis of what people are doing to engage with resources should ideally be tool-agnostic.  It is the same way that IT support should be device-agnostic; you should be able to do your work whether you walk into academic spaces carrying a Mac or a PC, a netbook or a phone, etc.

So, a media strategy that identifies FB as important, but fails to grasp the details of why, is not going to be a terribly successful one.

One of the other things I'm processing is something we've been talking about amongst ourselves in the V&R group for a while, because it's coming out of our data loud and clear.

This will surprise very few of you, I think:  There is a difference between Participating in Academia, and Learning.

Our interviewees reflect the tension between learning and academic practices every time some of the participants apologetically talk about how they use Wikipedia as a starting point to get themselves ready to dig deeper (or not) for the work they are doing.  Lower division undergraduates describe a process familiar to many a college instructor when they talk about constructing an argument for their essay first, and then going in to do quick searches so they can insert relevant references.  They are producing something for the academic process, but are not necessarily learning. 

We do see them talking about learning, when they are engaged with the material, or with the person teaching the material, or if there is so much at stake for them to learn it that they do it even if they are not really interested. 

This disconnect makes me think of the reading I've been doing in the Community of Practice literature, especially the work of Wenger and Lave and Rogoff (cites below).  My take away from reading this literature is that C of P theory is a really nice way of framing what happens when people learn how to be members of groups.  The literature describes a wide variety of groups, including vocational, educational, and recovery.   Central to Lave and Wenger's 1991 discussion of Cs of P is the idea of Legitimate Peripheral Participation.  I'm going to quote here:

"We intend for the concept to be taken as a whole.  Each of the aspects is indispensable in defining the others and cannot be considered in isolation...Thus, in the terms proposed here there may very well be no such thing as an 'illegitimate peripheral participant.'  The form that the legitimacy of participation takes is a defining characteristic of ways of belonging, and is therefore not only a crucial condition for learning, but a constitutive element of its content.  Similarly, with regard to 'peripherality' there may well be no such simple thing as 'central participation' in a community of practice.  Peripherality suggests that there are multiple, varied, more- or less- engaged and -inclusive ways of being located in the fields of participation defined by a community.  Peripheral participation is about being located in the social world.  Changing locations and perspectives are part of actors' learning trajectories, developing identities, and forms of membership (35-36)."

They further make the point that legitimate peripheral participation occurs within social structures, involving relations of power.  So, different power relations can serve as barriers to participation, or facilitate it.  There is no inevitable progress towards a "center" in this structure, but an attempt to give theoretical structure to a malleable manifestation in society.

They emphasize that it is not "itself an educational form, much less a pedagogical strategy or a teaching technique.  It is an analytical viewpoint on learning, a way of understanding learning. (40)"

I find it tremendously useful to have this in my head when I am thinking about the interview data we are collecting in the V&R project.  The practices they engage in are acquired in social matrices of friends, family, peers, teachers, co-workers, and supervisors.  The relationship our research participants have with the people from whom they learn practices, in turn, informs the relationship they have to the practices they acquire, the resources they choose to consult, or reject.

The confidence they have in the practices they acquire appears to be directly related to how connected they feel to the community they are participating in.  And that has less to do with abstract notions of best practices than it does with the familiar (not to be confused with convenient, although that comes into it as well), that which is engaged in by people whom they trust, with whom they already have relationships.

So, if we in libraries want to transform the ways that people are engaging in academic work, or at least, actively participate in the changes that are happening around us, we need to be fully embedded as community members.  Students will come to us and work with us when they recognize us as part of their network.  As faculty members, and/or people who work with faculty members, we in the library need not just to engage in the practices of academia, but advertise widely that we are engaged in such work, so that we are visible members of the community.  And when we recognize barriers to that participation, we need to work collectively to overcome them--such problems cannot be solved by individuals.

The beauty of the Legitimate Peripheral Participation idea is that there is no one "right" way to do any of this.  There are potentially many effective ways.

We also need to think about which community we are preparing our students to participate in as members.  Are we preparing them to be Academics?  Is that the best overall approach?  Or should we think about what to do to prepare an informed citizenry?  I really appreciate Barbara Fister's blogpost from today on this last point.  Our responsibility, in libraries and in education generally, is not, I think, to merely reproduce another generation of academics, but to send people out into the world better equipped than they were before for participating in civil society.



Lave, Jean, & Wenger, Etienne. (1991). Situated Learning:  Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Learning in Doing:  Social, Cognitive, and Computational Perspectives. Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press.
Rogoff, Barbara.  (1990).  Apprenticeship in Thinking:  Cognitive Development in Social Context.    Oxford:  Oxford University Press.
Wenger, Etienne. (1998).  Communities of Practice:  Learning, Meaning, and Identity.  Learning in Doing:  Social, Cognitive, and Computational Perspectives.  Cambridge:  University of Cambridge Press.

[with thanks to Lynn S. Connaway for editing suggestions, and Erin Hood for the V&R scans, and Dave White for saying things that I wanted to write down in this blogpost]

Friday, July 5, 2013

ALA 2013, Ethnography, Ethnology, and Libraries

So, Chicago.  Wow, eh?

Those of you who have been to ALA know what it's like.  Apparently the 2013 meetings were even more massive than usual.  So, I have lots of thoughts, and will attempt to get some of them in this blog, but not all at once.  That would be crazy.

The first thing at the top of my head is the panel I attended on social science practices in Libraries, sponsored by ANSS.  At this point, there is a thin but widespread tradition of doing ethnographic work in libraries to inform the design and deployment of spaces and services in libraries.  I think it's clear that it's another useful method for helping us figure out what to try and why it might or might not be working--for assessment, as well as planning.

But in the discussion after the panel, one question piqued concerns that I've had for a while--that there isn't enough work out there on the structural causes for what we see in libraries (in particular, academic libraries), and, importantly, the power relationships that are shot through how and why libraries look and work the way they do now.  I would love to see someone in ILS take this on as a PhD project.  Maybe someone already has?  I think that embedded in some of our worries about access, fluencies/literacies, and informed citizenry are class, race, and gender inequities that underlie all of our society, not just the one that erupts in libraries.  Explicitly connecting those could well facilitate getting closer to more effective information landscapes for everyone.

I also think that we anthropologists working with library folk need to do a better job of bringing up the importance of ethnology in the field--that is, comparative work, not just deeply descriptive work.  Both ethnology and ethnography are necessary for effective analysis--how can we know that a problem is unique, if we have never tried to see where else this might occur, how else it might look?  How can we talk about gender constructs, for example, if we only observe and describe them in one culture?  How can we talk about student work if we only observe it in our university?  How can we reimagine librarianship in the absence of comparative data?  There are comparative projects out there--ERIAL was one in that it was more than one university, and PIL is certainly trying, in a North American context.  There are international presentations in the ALA2013 program, discussions about issues in libraries in Africa, for example, and this poster session about librarianship in Germany.   (apologies to those for whom those links will not work--you might need an ALA password to see the program)

As anthropologists, each of us working in library-land need to encourage people engaging in qualitative work to look beyond the confines of their own institutions, and even borrow from insights gained in other research.  Ethnology helps us not just triangulate, sorting the unique from the widespread, the structural from the individual, it can also helps us realize (from a policy perspective) we are not alone, there are solutions and suggestions to be gathered from the experiences of other institutions.  My own small project at UCL's Institute of Archaeology was an attempt to try this, and I hope to continue.

That is, we don't need to encourage everyone to do their own full blown ethnography project.  We do need to try, those of us engaged in such work, to network and speak and collect our data and insights so that they can be considered, critiqued, added to, refined, and acted upon by a larger group.  I am frequently in the "better living through anthropology" camp, and this is no exception, but ethnography is not the same as anthropology.  It's one methodological piece, one analytical angle.  Library-land can benefit from borrowing much more.  We should encourage them to do so.  And support them as they do.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Look to the present of libraries to see the future

When I was doing research among children in Northern Ireland, one of my projects was to write against the notion that "children are the future."  Yes, children will live in the future, but they are also living in the present, and their behaviors need to be observed and interpreted as very much Of This Time.  We do them a disservice if we marginalize their importance to the world as it is now.

I feel that way about the recurring conversations about the Future of the Library (and in particular, "the death of the academic library").  There are things happening now in library-land that are important because they are happening now, not because of what they may or may not signal about the future.  And, if we speculate too much about "the future" we run the risk of missing important things that are happening now.

These thoughts are tied up with my lingering musings about ACRL 2013, and what I got from it.  The low-level hum of anxiety about relevance and engagement (between the academic library and the rest of the university) felt strange to me, given how engaged I see my colleagues at Atkins are in the current work of UNC Charlotte (and, how engaged many people at ACRL were in scholarship of their own).  It made me think of my colleagues in folklore and anthropology wondering why no one asked them for help/advice/expertise.  When the answer is, you don't wait around for them to ask.  You offer.  You act.  I see people offering and acting all the time.

In my experience and opinion (disclaimer:  I am not a librarian, even as I work in an academic library), libraries are far more than the resources we provide.  We who work in academic libraries are contract-negotiators, we are digital tool-wranglers.  We are fellow researchers with our own range of expertise, we are partners in the delivery of curriculum to our students.   We are not waiting around for someone to include us in their research project, or their classroom strategies.  We are doing our own research, and teaching in our own spheres of influence.  We are experts on how students and faculty do their work, and we are advocates for and providers of digital and physical spaces in which that can happen.  We are facilitators of interdisciplinary connections, we provide the places in which scholars encounter each other, work together, learn and explain old ideas, and brainstorm new ones.    We are champions of faculty and student copyright holders, and of open access and all that it can yield to the new landscape of scholarly production. We are humanists, we are scientists, we are social scientists.  We are the heart of the university.

If we continue to frame libraries as containing staff and resources that merely “help” the rest of the university, yes, we will marginalize libraries.  This is why it’s important to continue to advocate for faculty status of librarians, because it removes a perceived barrier between “faculty” and “Library.”  Academic librarians are doing faculty work, and are more properly conceived of as colleagues and partners in the university’s larger goals.   The question should not be, “what can I do for you?” but “What can we do together?” 

Friday, March 8, 2013

Field Trip! NC State Hunt Library and Spaces to Think With.

On Wednesday I visited not just NC State for the first time ever, but I got to have a comprehensive tour of the new James B. Hunt Library.  They had an open house yesterday, and the place was full of people who work in libraries (visitors came from all over the region, including out of state) being led around the amazing spaces.

There are pictures of the Hunt library all over the internet--I reproduce mine here not because they are fantastic photos, but because I took pictures of things that help me think about library spaces, and about what is possible in our own spaces at Atkins (which I've been uncharacteristically (for my blog) chatty about  recently).  It is an objectively spectacular space, and the fact that not everyone has the resources to create such a space should not deter people from going into what NCSU has created, learning from it, and dreaming big.   I intend here (and everywhere) not just to think about spaces, but to think with spaces, not just fancy ones like there are at Hunt, but in the more mundane everyday spaces in which our students and faculty find themselves.

The small 3-D printer that NCSU students
can use for prototypes for classes, or just having fun.
I am going to blog here mostly about space, although the tech stuff possible in the Hunt library is just as cool, and just as worthy of anyone's attention; for example, the fact that students and faculty now have 3-D printers at their disposal in the Hunt makerspaces. 

The Hunt library is, to my mind, the biggest branch library I have ever seen.  It is the library for the new Centennial Campus at State, which means its primary users are in Engineering, Textiles, and other science programs.  It is also envisioned as a "second main library" for the entire university, and I will be interested to see what other constituencies use the spaces in that building.  They are undeniably attractive.

Color has been used in simple but effective ways to mark places that students need to look for.

Yellow is for Stairs.

Blue is for Elevators.

                                                                                             Orange is for restrooms.

Red is for Asking for Help (as well as the Wolfpack).

All people going into and out of the library have to pass by the Ask Us station, which is not just an info point, but an all-services point, where students can go to for reference, technical, and circulation help.  In addition, workers can be deployed (via walkie talkie) to parts of the library where people need help (this is apparently very popular for IT type help).  Reference specialists can be called from other parts of the building if a question is particularly in-depth.  Books that are retrieved by the "Book Bot" are put in this space within five minutes of the request.

And hey, let's talk about that Book Bot.

Entering on the 1st floor of the Hunt Library gives you a great view of the "back" of the automated vertical storage unit, which holds 1.5 million volumes.  Books, folios, microfilm, and DVDs (among other things) once requested, can be made available for patrons in 5 minutes (and retrieved from the Ask Us station), or delivered to faculty offices.  They are sorted by size, and bar-coded for identification (although they are also RFID-ing each thing that is circulated, with the hope that at least the most circulated things will be RFID-tagged eventually, if not the entire Hunt collection). 

This is the "front" of the system, showing one of the robots that retrieves the books, with one of the bins, showing how the books are sorted. 

So, yeah, the system is cool, and really makes me think about the future of stacks maintenance, but what I was struck by was what NCSU's library IT has built to make it possible to browse closed shelving (it's currently in Beta).

They call it Virtual Browse, and it's a touch screen that is currently mounted on the 1st floor, before you enter the library proper, between the large windows that give you a view onto the back of the Book Bot. 

This allows for browsing the Hunt collection in a way that is simply not physically possible anymore, given that the books are all in the automated storage system, and that it was never possible to look at the physical collection and browse the electronic resources at the same time.  The Virtual Browse includes electronic resources as well as physical.  This exercise in stacks virtualization, I think, is not just useful for libraries with closed/automated/off-site collections, but for all of us.  In my experience, many of our patrons experience our stacks as "closed" even if they are technically open, because they don't know how to navigate or read the stacks.  This tool allows them to navigate the stacks and find things even if they don't understand the call number system, even if they aren't exactly sure where in the building those books are.   I think I'm more excited about the virtual browser than I am about the book-finding robot.

The collaborative work spaces in open parts of the Hunt library (spread across 3 floors) are colorful and configured in a variety of ways (with very attractive and fancy furniture). 

                                                                                                                                                                         Some booths.  This one has a view beyond to the Graduate Reading Room.

Some tables with task chairs, rolling whiteboards, stools.

Some bar-type computer banks.
 (the computers were Coming Soon).

And so on.

There are also spaces that evoke the design trope of the reading room, also spread across at least 3 floors of the Hunt Library.

I especially appreciated the simple trick of integrating physical books into spaces for effect.  The silent study reading room at one end of the main floor is lined on at least two sides with book shelving.

The rain garden reading room just before that integrates some of the reference collection, faculty book collection, and new books into the furniture arrangements.


What books do here is set expectations, they read "library" to people, and they say, without any signs of any kind , volumes (ha) about where people are once they walk into those spaces.  When we start downsizing our physical collections, I think we who work in libraries would do well to think about the other properties of books-- to think carefully about all the different ways that books speak to our communities, beyond the delivery of content.

And here's the thing:  we don't have to have all the resources in the world to engage in the kind of thinking that NCSU put into its Hunt Library spaces.  I think (to be utterly immodest) that we are trying to do that kind of thing in Atkins at UNCC, right now.  Every library should aspire to be:  clear about what is where, beautiful in its execution of design, deliberate in providing a variety of spaces, and thoughtful about how and where to deploy appropriate technology, and dedicated to the staffing levels that create seamless access to services and resources.  We need to think with the spaces we already have, pay attention to what is trying to be done in those spaces, and imagine beyond what is there now to what could be.