Twitter, Academic Conversation, and the Research Paper

I have been thinking a lot recently about the research paper as academic conversation. Conversation is where ideas form and are honed and exchanged–and this is what good academic research papers do. To me, this is both a very simple and very important concept necessary to academic pursuit as well as to life. I think it is an important thing to teach in our present (and hopefully future) climate of transliterate  library instruction, where many different types of media are used to not only join in on the conversation but to create conversational opportunities. But how do we teach it and its importance? Conversation and idea exchange can be such ephemeral concepts. Not only that, many students (and, let’s admit it, people in general) want the ultimate truth: the final, correct, black or white answer, not the greys of the back-and-forth of discourse. But sometimes this isn’t possible in academia. Isn’t this the whole point of academic research? To advance further? To keep questioning and “conversing” with the discoveries and ideas that have come before yours?

What began my train of thought on conversation? Twitter. Twitter itself can create a visual of conversation and that’s what it did for me. Last Fall there was a (admittedly small) firestorm of conversation on Twitter about Malcolm Gladwell’s article on social networking’s lack of effect on social justice. I know I saw plenty of response in mine. People were also posting response articles they had seen to the Gladwell such as Maria Popova’s. Perhaps, then, Twitter is one way to teach and describe academic conversation: the back and forth; point and counterpoint; original thought and “retweets”–aka the thoughts of others with credited attribution (and hopefully one’s own commentary to build upon others’ thoughts). It seems to me there’s something about Twitter and the way it’s used as conversation in text that could help librarians and other academics teach about academic conversation–but I’ve not yet worked out how. If anyone has any thoughts or current uses along these lines, I’d appreciate your comments!

Speaking of Twitter and conversation, you might also check out this excellent and insightful article about Twitter’s interesting mix of orality and literacy from “Technosociology” .

The “Creativity Crisis” and Library Instruction

I noticed a bit of Twitter buzz this week about a recent article on “The Creativity Crisis” in Newsweek. As so often happens, the article pulls you in with a scary research finding: “research shows that American creativity is declining”. (!!!) If that’s true, of course it’s unsettling, though one must always regard such research results with a critical eye. But what is more interesting to me about this article is what some educators are doing to nurture creativity. And, as I read the creativity-fostering examples in the article, I began to think about how library instructors, whether in K-12 schools or universities, might do the same.

For example, the European Union has apparently been trying to institute “problem-based learning programs—curricula driven by real-world inquiry—for both children and adults”. That phrase “real-world inquiry” particularly caught my eye. I realized such inquiry is as important to consider in library instruction (whether “formal” or at the reference desk) as it is anywhere else. It seems to me that our job as reference/library instructors is to guide patrons and/or students as they try to solve their “real-world inquiries”. And when a patron has a question they are personally invested in finding out the answer to, something that is really relevant to them, they are going to go to more lengths to find out the answer—and they might be open to creative ways of doing so. Therefore, it behooves us to connect our library instruction sessions to students’/patrons’ assignments or “real-world inquiries”—or at least as close as we can get to their “real-world inquiries”. Basically, this article reminded me of the importance of embedding library instruction in the school or university setting. Show the relevance of the research and information gathering process at the point of need and give students the tools, guidance, and skills they need to get creative in answering their research question or solving their problem. Yes, the research process can be quite creative! Perhaps we librarians should be sure to point that out and talk about the ways we’ve gotten creative in finding information for our own lines of inquiry.

I encourage you to read the article. Once you get past the fear-of-creativity-decline stuff, pay attention to those “real-world inquiry” curricula I mentioned earlier. I particularly loved the story about the “National Inventors Hall of Fame School” in Akron, OH. Notice that the first creative activity the fifth graders engage in is what creativity theorist Donald Treffinger calls “fact-finding”—sound familiar? It seems to me there might be a role for librarians in helping nuture creativity at all levels of the research process.

ALA 2010: My conference experience

It’s been about a week since the American Library Association’s annual conference in DC, so I thought it was about time I shared what I saw and learned. Here are some of my personal highlights:

  • I met so many interesting young librarians who have been out in the professional field for a few years now and are doing amazing, interesting, and cutting-edge research (and practice) in libraries. Having just graduated from library school, this was an inspiration. On Saturday, I wandered into a poster session down at the far end of the exhibit floor and ended up meeting librarians involved in building online community through a digital academic repository/clearinghouse and studying and promoting the use of ebooks and mobile devices (from Holly Tomren and Lisa Carlucci Thomas, who were both an absolute joy to meet). I have decided that poster sessions are excellent places to meet and connect with other innovative librarians and I would highly recommend that other newly-minted librarians (or, really, librarians at any stage!) do the same when attending conferences.
  • Listening to David Lee King, Bobbi Newman, Toby Greenwalt, and John Blyberg talk about “Designing Digital Experiences” for users was a treat (click the links for David, Bobbi or Toby to see some of the presentation material). It was also pretty exciting because I’d been hearing about all of them on Twitter or in my classes for quite a while! They all had thought-provoking things to say about creating a holistic user experience for library patrons from the website to the brick-and-mortar. I particularly liked what Toby Greenwalt said about making the digital experience more human by combining digital and human interaction at “pinch points” (aka providing service where things get difficult for patrons). At his library, there’s a chat window located on every page of their online catalog. He also talked about using QR (“Quick Response”) Codes (I heard a decent amount of buzz about these at this conference) as another way to marry the physical library to technology at a point of service. For instance, as part of a physical display for a teen photography contest at Greenwalt’s library, patrons could scan a QR Code with their smart phones and get a video interview relevant to the physical display they were standing right in front of. (Sidenote: It seems to me the creative possibilities for the use of QR Codes is endless).
  • I learned a lot about the importance of needs assessment in terms of information literacy instruction, especially at the ACRL Instruction Section’s session on Evidence Based Practice in information literacy instruction with Megan Oakleaf and Diana Wakimoto (read Diana’s blog post on ALA including her overview of the EBP session). They were both engaging and dynamic speakers who really brought home the importance of pre- and post-assessment for any library instruction endeavor. What does that mean? To me, it means that to guide your patrons/students in the best way possible, you must find out what they need to know and learn — really, that’s what assessment and evaluation is all about. Don’t just guess at what you think they need — find out! As Diana said, Evidence=Good, Anecdote=Bad, When in doubt, ask! Having grumbled my way through an evaluation and research class as part of my library degree, it was good to see the relevance and importance of needs assessment and evaluation in a part of librarianship I want to practice.
  • This post is getting quite long now, but I want to make a quick mention of two other highlights. The “Starting Out? Start With You!” session, with Lisa Carlucci Thomas and Karen Sobel gave some good advice to those of us starting out as librarians (e.g. Ask yourself these questions: Where are you now? Where do you want to be? What’s your expertise, talent, niche? Make it so — build your brand). And the “Yours, Mine, and Ours” session covered a hot information literacy topic that I’m particularly interested in: the transition from high school to college and how instruction librarians can help. I’m glad to see this topic receive more and more attention!

There were some things about the conference that could have been better. Mostly, I have to agree with Buffy Hamilton (who I am SO sorry I didn’t get to meet) that there could and should have been better spaces, both virtual and real, for social and professional networking and informal learning opportunities. I love what she says about crafting the conference experience to be closer to the three Ps to make it more portable, participatory, and personalized. Buffy has some great suggestions on how this could be done – like having a better-designed Networking Uncommons space (which didn’t seem very welcoming to me at this conference), space for division or topic-specific lounges for hot topics and emerging themes, and expanding the Unconference to more than one day. I would have loved to have more of a chance to participate in the Unconference, but I couldn’t be at ALA on Friday while it was happening.  And certainly, the ALA conference website could be better designed and more social-media friendly. Buffy mentions redesigning the site to pull together social media streams for the conference, which I think is an excellent idea. Twitter is just one of the places people seem to find out the most about what’s happening at the conference — surely the ALA website could make better use of that fact. And I think many of us can agree that HUGE telephone book of a conference program does not make life easier for anyone. I also think it makes those new to the conference experience feel more overwhelmed.

That’s my experience. I definitely encourage you to seek out posts from others who attended, too, since there’s no way one person can cover it all at a conference as big as this one. And please feel free to share your experience in the comments or in your own post!

Social Networking Policies, Vision, and Mission

One of my former classmates in Meredith Farkas’s class on Web 2.0 technology in libraries said that if there are to be social networking policies at a library, they should be less restrictive of speech. She wrote, “Libraries should keep in mind their role in promoting free and open access to information, opposition to censorship, and the commitment to intellectual freedom. Libraries should consider how ideals fit with social software policies and the tools themselves.” I completely agree. But might it also be possible to extend such a policy beyond restriction, or lack thereof, into future vision for use of these tools?

I think that libraries definitely need policies regarding the use of social networking tools. If your library’s new social networking tool is to have any staying power, you, your staff, and your patrons need to know why you are using it and how it is to be maintained and I think having a clearly written policy is an important part of this. But I think a policy could and maybe should be more than just a “do’s” and “don’ts” document that restricts. I wonder if it might be a good idea for libraries who are serious about implementing social networking technologies to have a policy that includes not only rules for implementation, interaction, maintenance, and patron guidelines, but also has policies for growth – a kind of vision and mission statement regarding the present and future of such technologies. I think “vision” and “mission” included with policy can perhaps help a library consider its ideals and commitment to open access, intellectual freedom, and etc. Moreover, I think a library’s maintenance and future planning for use of social networking technology could be greatly enhanced if the staff sat down and wrote down not only guidelines, but a larger vision and mission for the present and future of social networking and 2.0 technology in their library. It occurs to me it could even be done via wiki that could easily be added to and changed. I think having a plan and vision and letting patrons see that, even if they are not set in stone, along with the do’s and don’ts could help protect and enhance social networking initiatives.

Why shouldn’t we let patrons in on the grander vision behind what we are providing along with telling them how we expect them to behave?

Building Community Online

After doing some reading on what it takes to build community online, it seems like there is a pretty strong consensus on what works. Once I heard some of the “best practices” described, I realized there was a lot of common sense out there that may be worth considering for those trying to build an online community.

So many, including Nancy White and Martin Reed point to the fact that you need to ask the question: “Why do you want an online community?”. Both of them seemed to be saying you need to have a purpose for having your community online. Don’t just do it because everyone else is or because it seems “trendy”. This seems especially important when considering library communities. In one of my library classes, we talked about it over and over: make sure you’re considering your community of users before implementing technology. If they are not going to use it, it will be sitting out there on the web, dying and ghostlike, making your library look bad.

Another piece of “common sense” that I don’t think I fully realized was how much time and effort it takes to build, maintain, and moderate an online community. Nearly everyone across the board says this. As part of the same class I mention above, I had the opportunity to hear how much effort it took over seven years for something like WebJunction to get as far as it has. As Martin Reed says in his article, “Community building takes a lot of time and effort. Results take a long time to arrive – do you have the time, patience, commitment, spare time?”. Once again, the consideration of time and effort seems important for libraries looking to build online communities. With limited staff and budget, make sure your community building efforts are purposeful and necessary.

With all of that said, it seems to me that community building can be quite  fun even if it is hard work. Most of what I’ve read and heard has been inspiring. It’s especially inspiring to hear how the successful community builders really want to include the ideas and suggestions of their members. They seem to really remember that the community is about its members – and they practice what they preach. I had the privilege of hearing WebJunction’s Chrystie Hill tell a story about running into a member at a conference who had an idea for a forum. She said to this member: “That’s a great idea! Why don’t you set it up?”. I think we librarians know by now that our members, or patrons, are essential. Integrating these community building practices, online or otherwise, are vital to our success.

Users Creating for the Library AND Each Other

It is exciting to see all the ways libraries are collecting and utilizing content from users/patrons. When you think about it, gathering user-created content means that libraries are not only adding value and interest to their online presence and collection for themselves and their users, but the users are adding value for their fellows as well. In a lecture for the class I take from Meredith Farkas‘s, I learned about Penn Tags and how it can be used as a “treasure map” (Meredith’s term) for students doing research. If another student has already created a tagged, “annotated bibliography” on the same or a similar topic, there will be a beautifully laid out list of resources for them to start with and, perhaps, build upon. What an interesting way to help fill out the research guides reference librarians already create! I think it would be interesting to have students within a major or a specific class create subject guides for classmates or future students via wiki or Libguides. It would be a collaborative assignment that librarians and professors could put together as an ongoing user instruction/information literacy initiative. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are people already doing this, it’s not a terribly original idea, and it could be a fruitful undertaking if it were done right.

I also learned about what Danbury Library and Bedford Public Library did with their catalogs and LibraryThing. I linked here to the record in each for Margaret Atwood’s Year of the Flood. It’s interesting to see how patrons tagged them, and I really like that “similar books” are provided (I’m not completely sure these are generated by LibraryThing and, therefore, the “crowd” – anyone know?). It’s neat to see the published review blurbs on Bedford’s site as well, but it would be REALLY cool to see reviews from actual patrons of those libraries and to see what books those in your community would recommend having read that book – readers’ advisory from your users themselves! Again, I bet there are libraries doing this that I have missed. Certainly, other libraries have places on their sites where patrons can write reviews of books (e.g. Denver Public Library’s Evolver site’s reviews by teens). But it would be great to see reviews integrated into catalog records as well.

At Emerson College’s Library (full disclosure: I work there) they have started an outreach/marketing campaign for National Library Week so that people visiting the library’s website can submit their own stories on the subject “How the Library Saved My Life”. (Submission happens via LibGuide widget.) The stories will be moderated, similar to the way blog comments are moderated in that the story will need to be approved before it gets officially “published” – I think on the library website, but since it’s a new thing I’m not totally sure where it will be published yet. This is such an interesting way to get students to participate and “sell” the library to their peers. You might also enjoy checking out the superhero-style posters they’ve created in conjunction with this campaign introducing each librarian and their “lifesaving” superpower!

I realize some of my suggestions might be a bit technically naive if they haven’t been done already – maybe pie-in-the-sky. But it’s fun and interesting to think about the new and collaborative ways users can be induced to create content for the library and, ultimately, themselves and their fellow patrons. From what one is always reading about the characteristics of the Millennial generation, collaborative creation with the library could be on the upswing – or at least welcome.

Tweetlove: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Twitter

Social software tools have really surprised me. I have used a lot of them without thinking of them as social software over the years (email, Amazon, Yelp, etc). But I was a lot more indifferent to and suspicious of the more “obvious” examples of social software tools only a year and a half ago. I think of myself as a late adopter of Facebook (joined in 2008) and Twitter (joined in March 2009). But now I am incredibly enthusiastic and curious about these and other social software tools. I use them often and enjoy them immensely. It’s at the point where I want to explore their informational and educational use in a professional way.

My interest in social software blossomed when I joined Facebook, but it exploded when I joined Twitter. I loved how Facebook put me in better touch with far-away friends and connected me with people I hadn’t seen in a long time. It also was a place for fun and some light self-expression. This was great, but a very contained experience for me. It wasn’t really expanding my world much. The real expansion came with Twitter. This may sound over the top, but stay with me. I’ve found it to be fun, sure, but it’s also proving to be quite a professional development tool. There are SO many librarians, authors, writers, publishers, and other “book people” who participate and I’ve been able to communicate with and learn from so many of them. For instance, I’ve communicated frequently with a policy advisor for “technology enhanced learning” in the UK, the staff at American Public Media’s Speaking of Faith radio program (okay, not library-related but still pretty neat), and a celebrated librarian in genre fiction and reader’s advisory. I don’t know if I ever would have had easy access to such a range of interesting people otherwise and I know I’m more on top of what’s going on in the field because of it. It’s like a personal, human RSS feed. As long as I’m following people who post interesting articles and insights at least half the time and I’m doing the same, I think I get a lot out of it. Recently, I was following some librarians attending an EDUCAUSE conference event who were live tweeting what was happening in their sessions and I got very interested in what they were saying on the subject of their conference, natch,: “Learning Environments for a Web 2.0 World”. Speaking of conferences, I just read a great article from another librarian (P.C. Sweeney) proclaiming his love for Twitter, mainly by explaining how he’s gotten more out of conferences because of his Twitter participation and interaction.

Most people probably think I’m a little “off” when I tell them how much I’ve gotten out of Twitter. It might help to know that I can be a somewhat introverted person, so professional networking has sometimes been a challenge for me. Twitter is a place where I have managed to get over that and interact with people I might have been a bit nervous to approach in real life. And I find it to be particularly enriching when they interact back! Twitter may not be forever, as few applications are, but I feel it is a stepping stone that has helped me to get really comfortable with and interested in the social networking and applications universe. Twitter is a stream I can dip in and out of — or just let wash over me — to help keep me informed on what’s going on out there. It does take some cultivation of following “quality” feeds, but if you are interested (which I am) there are rewards to be reaped. It’s good professional development and also experiential research, in a way, since these are things we should be considering integrating into our practices for outreach and information access and dissemination.

It’s probably clear that I’m a little in love with Twitter since I’ve waxed rhapsodic here. But, truly, I joined knowing nothing about it, and it ended up exposing me to a lot once I threw myself in and participated. I feel I’m a better informed and connected librarian for it.

P.S. — If you’re new to Twitter or haven’t tried it yet, check out this great Slideshare tutorial created by my aforementioned librarian friend in the U.K. It’ll help you get started!