Whither the workshop?

Academic libraries have long provided workshops that focus on research skills and tools to the community. Topics often include citation software or specific database search strategies. Increasingly, however, libraries are offering workshops on topics that some may consider untraditional or outside the natural home of the library. These topics include using R and other analysis packages, data visualization software, and GIS technology training, to name a few. Librarians are becoming trained as Data and Software Carpentry instructors in order to pull from their established lesson plans and become part of a larger instructional community. Librarians are also partnering with non-profit groups like Mozilla’s Science Lab to facilitate research and learning communities.

Traditional workshops have generally been conceived and executed by librarians in the library. Collaborating with outside groups like Software Carpentry (SWC) and Mozilla is a relatively new endeavor. As an example, certified trainers from SWC can come to campus and teach a topic from their course portfolio (e.g. using SQL, Python, R, Git). These workshops may or may not have a cost associated with them and are generally open to the campus community. From what I know, the library is typically the lead organizer of these events. This shouldn’t be terribly surprising. Librarians are often very aware of the research hurdles that faculty encounter, or what research skills aren’t being taught in the classroom to students (more on this later).

Librarians are helpers. If you have some biology knowledge, I find it useful to think of librarians as chaperone proteins, proteins that help other proteins get into their functional conformational shape. Librarians act in the same way, guiding and helping people to be more prepared to do effective research. We may not be altering their DNA, but we are helping them bend in new ways and take on different perspectives. When we see a skills gap, we think about how we can help. But workshops don’t just *spring* into being. They take a huge amount of planning and coordination. Librarians, on top of all the other things we do, pitch the idea to administration and other stakeholders on campus, coordinate the space, timing, refreshments, travel for the instructors (if they aren’t available in-house), registration, and advocate for the funding to pay for the event in order to make it free to the community. A recent listserv discussion regarding hosting SWC workshops resulted in consensus around a recommended minimum six week lead time. The workshops have all been hugely successful at the institutions responding on the list and there are even plans for future Library Carpentry events.

A colleague once said that everything that librarians do in instruction are things that the disciplinary faculty should be doing in the classroom anyway. That is, the research skills workshops, the use of a reference manager, searching databases, the data management best practices are all appropriately – and possibly more appropriately – taught in the classroom by the professor for the subject. While he is completely correct, that is most certainly not happening. We know this because faculty send their students to the library for help. They do this because they lack curricular time to cover any of these topics in depth and they lack professional development time to keep abreast of changes in certain research methods and technologies. And because these are all things that librarians should have expertise in. The beauty of our profession is that information is the coin of the realm for us, regardless of its form or subject. With minimal effort, we should be able to navigate information sources with precision and accuracy. This is one of the reasons why, time and again, the library is considered the intellectual center, the hub, or the heart of the university. Have an information need? We got you. Whether those information sources are in GitHub as code, spreadsheets as data, or databases as article surrogates, we should be able to chaperone our user through that process.

All of this is to the good, as far as I am concerned. Yet, I have a persistent niggle at the back of my mind that libraries are too often taking a passive posture. [Sidebar: I fully admit that this post is written from a place of feeling, of suspicions and anecdotes, and not from empirical data. Therefore, I am both uncomfortable writing it, yet unable to turn away from it.] My concern is that as libraries extend to take on these workshops because there is a need on campus for discipline-agnostic learning experiences, we (as a community) do so without really fomenting what the expectations and compensations of an academic library are, or should be. This is a natural extension of the “what types of positions should libraries provide/support?” question that seems to persist. How much of this response is based on the work of individuals volunteering to meet needs, stretching the work to fit into a job description or existing work loads, and ultimately putting user needs ahead of organizational health? I am not advocating that we ignore these needs; rather I am advocating that we integrate the support for these initiatives within the organization, that we systematize it, and that we own our expertise in it.

This brings me back to the idea of workshops and how we claim ownership of them. Are libraries providing these workshops only because no one else on campus is meeting the need? Or are we asserting our expertise in the domain of information/data shepherding and producing these workshops because the library is the best home for them, not a home by default? And if we are making this assertion, then have we positioned our people to be supported in the continual professional development that this demands? Have we set up mechanisms within the library and within the university for this work to be appropriately rewarded? The end result may be the same – say, providing workshops on R – but the motivation and framing of the service is important.

Information is our domain. We navigate its currents and ride its waves. It is ever changing and evolving, as we must be. And while we must be agile and nimble, we must also be institutionally supported and rewarded. I wonder if libraries can table the self-reflection and self-doubt regarding the appropriateness of our services (see everything ever written regarding libraries and data, digital humanities, digital scholarship, altmetrics, etc.) and instead advocate for the resourcing and recognition that our expertise warrants.

Are Your LibGuides 2.0 (images, tables, & videos) mobile friendly? Maybe not, and here’s what you can do about it.

LibGuides version 2 was released in summer 2014, and built on Bootstrap 3. However, after examining my own institutions’ guides, and conducting a simple random sampling of academic libraries in the United States, I found that many LibGuides did not display well on phones or mobile devices when it came to images, videos, and tables. Springshare documentation stated that LibGuides version 2 is mobile friendly out of the box and no additional coding is necessary, however, I found this not to necessarily be accurate. While the responsive features are available, they aren’t presented clearly as options in the graphical interface and additional coding needs to be added using the HTML editor in order for mobile display to be truly responsive when it comes to images, videos, and tables.

At my institution, our LibGuides are reserved for our subject librarians to use for their research and course guides. We also use the A-Z database list and other modules. As the LibGuides administrator, I’d known since its version 2 release that the new system was built on Bootstrap, but I didn’t know enough about responsive design to do anything about it at the time. It wasn’t until this past October when I began redesigning our library’s website using Bootstrap as the framework that I delved into customizing our Springshare products utilizing what I had learned.

I have found while looking at our own guides individually, and speaking to the subject librarians about their process, that they have been creating and designing their guides by letting the default settings take over for images, tables, and videos.  As a result, several tables are running out of their boxes, images are getting distorted, and videos are stretched vertically and have large black top and bottom margins. This is because additional coding and/or tweaking is indeed necessary in most cases for these to display correctly on mobile.

I’m by no means a Bootstrap expert, but my findings have been verified with Springshare, and I was told by Springshare support that they will be looked at by the developers. Support indicated that there may be a good reason things work as they do, perhaps to give users flexibility in their decisions, or perhaps a technical reason. I’m not sure, but for now we have begun work on making the adjustments so they display correctly. I’d be interested to hear others’ experiences with these elements and what they have had to do, if anything to assure they are responsive.


Initially, as I learned how to use Bootstrap with the LibGuides system, I looked at my own library’s subject guides and testing the responsiveness and display. To start, I browsed through our guides with my Android phone. I then used Chrome and IE11 on desktop and resized the windows to see if the tables stayed within their boxes, and images respond appropriately. I peeked at the HTML and elements within LibGuides to see how the librarians had their items configured. Once I realized the issues were similar across all guides, I took my search further. Selfishly hoping it wasn’t just us, I used the LibGuides Community site where I sorted the list by libraries on version 2, then sorted by academic libraries. Each state’s list had to be looked at separately (you can’t sort by the whole United States). I placed all libraries from each state in a separate Excel sheet in alphabetical order. Using the random sort function, I examined two to three, sometimes five libraries per state (25 states viewed) by following the link provided in the community site list. I also inspected the elements of several LibGuides in my spreadsheet live in Chrome. I removed dimensions or styling to see how the pages responded since I don’t have admin access to any other universities guides. I created a demo guide for the purposes of testing where I inserted various tables, images and videos.

Some Things You Can Try

Even if you or your LibGuides authors may or may not be familiar with Bootstrap or fundamentals of responsive design, anyone should be able to design or update these guide elements using the instructions below; there is no serious Bootstrap knowledge needed for these solutions.


As we know, tables should not be used for layout. They are meant to display tabular data. This is another issue I came across in my investigation. Many librarians are using tables in this manner. Aside from being an outdated practice, this poses a more serious issue on a mobile device. Authors can learn how to float images, or create columns and rows right within the HTML Editor as an alternative. So for the purposes of this post, I’ll only be using a table in a tabular format.

When inserting a table using the table icon in the rich text editor you are asked typical table questions. How many rows? How many columns? In speaking with the librarians here at my institution, no one is really giving it much thought beyond this. They are filling in these blanks, inserting the table, and populating it. Or worse, copying and pasting a table created in Word. 

However, if you leave things as they are and the table has any width to it, this will be your result once minimized or viewed on mobile device:

Figure 1: Rows overflowing from table

Figure 1: LibGuides default table with no responsive class added

As you can see, the table runs out of the container (the box). To alleviate this, you will have to open the HTML Editor, find where the table begins, and wrap the table in the table-responsive class. The HTML Editor is available to all regular users, no administrative access is needed. If you aren’t familiar with adding classes, you will also need to close the tag after the last table code you see. The HTML looks something like this:

<div class="table-responsive">
    all the other elements go here

Below is the result of wrapping all table elements in the table-responsive class. As you can see it is cleaner, there is no run-off, and bootstrap added a horizontal scroll bar since the table is really too big for the box once it is resized. On a phone, you can now swipe sideways to scroll through the table.

Figure 3: Result of adding the responsive table class

Figure 2: Result of adding the responsive table class.

Springshare has also made the Bootstrap table styling classes available, which you can see in the editor dropdown as well. You can experiment with these to see which styling you prefer (borders, hover rows, striped rows…), but they don’t replace adding the table-responsive class to the table.


When inserting an image in a LibGuides box, the system brings the dimensions of the image with it into the Image Properties box by default. After various tests I found it best to match the image size to the layout/box prior to uploading, and then remove the dimensions altogether from within the Image Properties box (and don’t place it in an unresponsive table). This can easily be done right within the Image Properties box when the image is inserted. It can also be done in the HTML Editor afterwards.

Figure 4: Image dimensions can be removed in the Image Properties box

Figure 3: Image dimensions can be removed in the Image Properties box.


Image dimensions removed

On the left: dimensions in place. On the right: dimensions removed.

By removing the dimensions, the image is better able to resize accordingly, especially in IE which seems to be less forgiving than Chrome. Guide creators should also add descriptive Alternative Text while in the Image Properties box for accessibility purposes.

Some users may be tempted to resize large images by adjusting the dimensions right in the Properties box . However, doing this doesn’t actually decrease the size that gets passed to the user so it doesn’t help download speed. Substantial resizing needs to be done prior to upload. Springshare recommends adjustments of no more than 10-15%.1


There are a few things I tried while figuring the best way to embed a YouTube video:

    1.  Use the YouTube embed code as is. Which can result in a squished image, and a lot of black border in the top and bottom margins.

Default Youtube embed code

    1. Use the YouTube embed code but remove the iframe dimensions (width=”560″ height=”315″). Results in a small image that looks fine, but stays small regardless of the box size.
    2. Use the YouTube embed code, remove the iframe dimensions and add the embed-responsive class. In this case, 16by9. This results in a nice responsive display, with no black margins. Alternately, I discovered that leaving the iframe dimensions while adding the responsive class looks nearly the same.

Youtube embed code dimensions removed and responsive class added

It should also be noted that LibGuides creators and editors should manually add a “title” attribute to the embed code for accessibility.2 Neither LibGuides nor YouTube does this automatically, so it’s up to the guide creator to add it in the HTML Editor. In addition, the “frameborder=0” will be overwritten by Bootstrap, so you can remove it or leave, it’s up to you.

Considering Box Order/Stacking

The way boxes stack and order on smaller devices is also something LibGuides creators or editors should take into consideration. The layout is essentially comprised of columns, and in Bootstrap the columns stack a certain way depending on device size.

I’ve tested several guides and believe the following are representative of how boxes will stack on a phone, or small mobile device. However, it’s always best to test your layout to be sure. Test your own guides by minimizing and resizing your browser window and watch how they stack.

Box stacking order of a guide with no large top box and three columns.


Box stacking order of a guide with a large top box and two columns.



After looking at the number of libraries that have these same issues, it may be safe to say that our subject librarians are similar to others in regard to having limited HTML, CSS, or design skills. They rely on LibGuides easy to use interface and system to do most of the work as their time is limited, or they have no interest in learning these additional skills. Our librarians spend most of their teaching time in a classroom, using a podium and large screen, or at the reference desk on large screens. Because of this they are not highly attuned to the mobile user and how their guides display on other devices, even though their guides are being accessed by students on phones or tablets. We will be initiating a mobile reference service soon, perhaps this will help bring further awareness. For now, I recently taught an internal workshop in order demonstrate and share what I have learned in hopes of helping the librarians get these elements fixed. Helping ensure new guides will be created with mobile in mind is also a priority. To date, several librarians have gone through their guides and made the changes where necessary. Others have summer plans to update their guides and address these issues at the same time. I’m not aware of any way to make these changes in bulk, since they are very individual in nature.


Danielle Rosenthal is the Web Development & Design Librarian at Florida Gulf Coast University. She is responsible for the library’s web site and its applications in support of teaching, learning, and scholarship activities of the FGCU Library community. Her interests include user interface, responsive, and information design.



1 Maximizing your LibGuides for Mobile http://buzz.springshare.com/springynews/news-29/tips
2 http://acrl.ala.org/techconnect/post/accessibility-testing-libguides-2-0

The Library as Research Partner

As I typed the title for this post, I couldn’t help but think “Well, yeah. What else would the library be?” Instead of changing the title, however, I want to actually unpack what we mean when we say “research partner,” especially in the context of research data management support. In the most traditional sense, libraries provide materials and space that support the research endeavor, whether it be in the physical form (books, special collections materials, study carrels) or the virtual (digital collections, online exhibits, electronic resources). Moreover, librarians are frequently involved in aiding researchers as they navigate those spaces and materials. This aid is often at the information seeking stage, when researchers have difficulty tracking down references, or need expert help formulating search strategies. Libraries and librarians have less often been involved at the most upstream point in the research process: the start of the experimental design or research question. As one considers the role of the Library in the scholarly life-cycle, one should consider the ways in which the Library can be a partner with other stakeholders in that life-cycle. With respect to research data management, what is the appropriate role for the Library?

In order to achieve effective research data management (RDM), planning for the life-cycle of the data should occur before any data are actually collected. In circumstances where there is a grant application requirement that triggers a call to the Library for data management plan (DMP) assistance, this may be possible. But why are researchers calling the Library? Ostensibly, it is because the Library has marketed itself (read: its people) as an expert in the domain of data management. It has most likely done this in coordination with the Research Office on campus. Even more likely, it did this because no one else was. It may have done this as a response to the National Science Foundation (NSF) DMP requirement in 2011, or it may have just started doing this because of perceived need on campus, or because it seems like the thing to do (which can lead to poorly executed hiring practices). But unlike monographic collecting or electronic resource acquisition, comprehensive RDM requires much more coordination with partners outside the Library.

Steven Van Tuyl has written about the common coordination model of the Library, the Research Office, and Central Computing with respect to RDM services. The Research Office has expertise in compliance and Central Computing can provide technical infrastructure, but he posits that there could be more effective partners in the RDM game than the Library. That perhaps the Library is only there because no one else was stepping up when DMP mandates came down. Perhaps enough time has passed, and RDM and data services have evolved enough that the Library doesn’t have to fill that void any longer. Perhaps the Library is actually the *wrong* partner in the model. If we acknowledge that communities of practice drive change, and intentional RDM is a change for many of the researchers, then wouldn’t ceding this work to the communities of practice be the most effective way to stimulate long lasting change? The Library has planted some starter seeds within departments and now the departments could go forth and carry the practice forward, right?

Well, yes. That would be ideal for many aspects of RDM. I personally would very much like to see the intentional planning for, and management of, research data more seamlessly integrated into standard experimental methodology. But I don’t think that by accomplishing that, the Library should be removed as a research partner in the data services model. I say this for two reasons:

  1. The data/information landscape is still changing. In addition to the fact that more funders are requiring DMPs, more research can benefit from using openly available (and well described – please make it understandable) data. While researchers are experts in their domain, the Library is still the expert in the information game. At its simplest, data sources are another information source. The Library has always been there to help researchers find sources; this is another facet of that aid. More holistically, the Library is increasingly positioning itself to be an advocate for effective scholarly communication at all points of the scholarship life-cycle. This is a logical move as the products of scholarship take on more diverse and “nontraditional” forms.

Some may propose that librarians who have cultivated RDM expertise can still provide data seeking services, but perhaps they should not reside in the Library. Would it not be better to have them collocated with the researchers in the college or department? Truly embedded in the local environment? I think this is a very interesting model that I have heard some large institutions may want to explore more fully. But I think my second point is a reason to explore this option with some caution:

2. Preservation and access. Libraries are the experts in the preservation and access of materials. Central Computing is a critical institutional partner in terms of infrastructure and determining institutional needs for storage, porting, computing power, and bandwidth but – in my experience – are happy to let the long-term preservation and access service fall to another entity. Libraries (and archives) have been leading the development of digital preservation best practices for some time now, with keen attention to complex objects. While not all institutions can provide repository services for research data, the Library perspective and expertise is important to have at the table. Moreover, because the Library is a discipline-agnostic entity, librarians may be able to more easily imagine diverse interest in research data than the data producer. This can increase the potential vehicles for data sharing, depending on the discipline.

Yes, RDM and data services are reaching a place of maturity in academic institutions where many Libraries are evaluating, or re-evaluating, their role as a research partner. While many researchers and departments may be taking a more proactive or interested position with RDM, it is not appropriate for Libraries to be removed from the coordinated work that is required. Libraries should assert their expertise, while recognizing the expertise of other partners, in order to determine effective outreach strategies and resource needs. Above all, Libraries must set scope for this work. Do not be deterred by the increased interest from other campus entities to join in this work. Rather, embrace that interest and determine how we all can support and strengthen the partnerships that facilitate the innovative and exciting research and scholarship at an institution.

Data, data everywhere…but do we want to drink?

The role of data, digital curation, and scholarly communication in academic libraries.

Ask around and you’ll hear that data is the new bacon (or turkey bacon, in my case. Sorry, vegetarians). It’s the hot thing that everyone wants a piece of. It is another medium with which we interact and derive meaning from. It is information[1]; potentially valuable and abundant. But much like [turkey] bacon, un-moderated gorging, without balance or diversity of content, can raise blood pressure and give you a heart attack. To understand how best to interact with the data landscape, it is important to look beyond it.

What do academic libraries need to know about data? A lot, but in order to separate the signal from the noise, it is imperative to look at the entire environment. To do this, one can look to job postings as a measure of engagement. The data curation positions, research data services departments, and data management specializations focus almost exclusively on digital data. However, these positions, which are often catch-alls for many other things do not place the data management and curation activities within the larger frame of digital curation, let alone scholarly communication. Missing from job descriptions is an awareness of digital preservation or archival theory as it relates to data management or curation. In some cases, this omission could be because a fully staffed digital collections department has purview over these areas. Nonetheless, it is important to articulate the need to communicate with those stakeholders in the job description. It may be said that if the job ad discusses data curation, digital preservation should be an assumed skill, yet given the tendencies to have these positions “do-all-the-things” it is negligent not to explicitly mention it.

Digital curation is an area that has wide appeal for those working in academic and research libraries. The ACRL Digital Curation Interest Group (DCIG) has one of the largest memberships within ACRL, with 1075 members as of March 2015. The interest group was intentionally named “digital curation” rather than “data curation” because the founders (Patricia Hswe and Marisa Ramirez) understood the interconnectivity of the domains and that the work in one area, like archives, could influence the work in another, like data management. For example, the work from Digital POWRR can help inform digital collection platform decisions or workflows, including data repository concerns. This Big Tent philosophy can help frame the data conversations within libraries in a holistic, unified manner, where the various library stakeholders work collaboratively to meet the needs of the community.

The absence of a holistic approach to data can result in the propensity to separate data from the corpus of information for which librarians already provide stewardship. Academic libraries may recognize the need to provide leadership in the area of data management, but balk when asked to consider data a special collection or to ingest data into the institutional repository. While librarians should be working to help the campus community become critical users and responsible producers of data, the library institution must empower that work by recognizing this as an extension of the scholarly communication guidance currently in place. This means that academic libraries must incorporate the work of data information literacy into their existing information literacy and scholarly communication missions, else risk excluding these data librarian positions from the natural cohort of colleagues doing that work, or risk overextending the work of the library.

This overextension is most obvious in the positions that seek a librarian to do instruction in data management, reference, and outreach, and also provide expertise in all areas of data analysis, statistics, visualization, and other data manipulation. There are some academic libraries where this level of support is reasonable, given the mission, focus, and resourcing of the specific institution. However, considering the diversity of scope across academic libraries, I am skeptical that the prevalence of job ads that describe this suite of services is justified. Most “general” science librarians would scoff if a job ad asked for experience with interpreting spectra. The science librarian should know where to direct the person who needs help with reading the spectra, or finding comparative spectra, but it should not be a core competency to have expertise in that domain. Yet experience with SPSS, R, Python, statistics and statistical literacy, and/or data visualization software find their way into librarian position descriptions, some more specialized than others.

For some institutions this is not an overextension, but just an extension of the suite of specialized services offered, and that is well and good. My concern is that academic libraries, feeling the rush of an approved line for all things data, begin to think this is a normal role for a librarian. Do not mistake me, I do not write from the perspective that libraries should not evolve services or that librarians should not develop specialized areas of expertise. Rather, I raise a concern that too often these extensions are made without the strategic planning and commitment from the institution to fully support the work that this would entail.

Framing data management and curation within the construct of scholarly communication, and its intersections with information literacy, allows for the opportunity to build more of this content delivery across the organization, enfranchising all librarians in the conversation. A team approach can help with sustainability and message penetration, and moves the organization away from the single-position skill and knowledge-sink trap. Subject expertise is critical in the fast-moving realm of data management and curation, but it is an expertise that can be shared and that must be strategically supported. For example, with sufficient cross-training liaison librarians can work with their constituents to advise on meeting federal data sharing requirements, without requiring an immediate punt to the “data person” in the library (if such a person exists). In cases where there is no data point person, creating a data working group is a good approach to distribute across the organization both the knowledge and the responsibility for seeking out additional information.

Data specialization cuts across disciplinary bounds and concerns both public services and technical services. It is no easy task, but I posit that institutions must take a simultaneously expansive yet well-scoped approach to data engagement – mindful of the larger context of digital curation and scholarly communication, while limiting responsibilities to those most appropriate for a particular institution.

[1] Lest the “data-information-knowledge-wisdom” hierarchy (DIKW) torpedo the rest of this post, let me encourage readers to allow for an expansive definition of data. One that allows for the discrete bits of data that have no meaning without context, such as a series of numbers in a .csv file, and the data that is described and organized, such as those exact same numbers in a .csv file, but with column and row descriptors and perhaps an associated data dictionary file. Undoubtedly, the second .csv file is more useful and could be classified as information, but most people will continue to call it data.

Yasmeen Shorish is assistant professor and Physical & Life Sciences librarian at James Madison University. She is a past-convener for the ACRL Digital Curation Interest Group and her research focus is in the areas of data information literacy and scholarly communication.

Educating Your Campus about Predatory Publishers

The recent publication of Monica Berger and Jill Cirasella’s piece in College and Research Libraries News “Beyond Beall’s List: Better understanding predatory publishers” is a reminder that the issue of “predatory publishers” continues to require focus for those working in scholarly communication. Berger and Cirasella have done a exemplary job of laying out some of the issues with Beall’s list, and called on librarians to be able “to describe the beast, its implications, and its limitations—neither understating nor overstating its size and danger.”

At my institution academic deans have identified “predatory” journals as an area of concern, and I am sure similar conversations are happening at other institutions. Here’s how I’ve “described the beast” at my institution, and models for services we all can provide, whether subject librarian or scholarly communication librarian.

What is a Predatory Publisher? And Why Does the Dean Care?

The concept of predatory publishers became much more widely known in 2013 with a publication of an open access sting by John Bohannon in Science, which I covered in this post. As a recap, Bohannon created a fake but initially believable poor quality scientific article, and submitted it to open access journals. He found that the majority of journals accepted the poor quality paper, 45% of which were included in the Directory of Open Access Journals. At the time of publication in October 2013 the response to this article was explosive in the scholarly communications world. It seems that more than a year later the reaction continues to spread. Late in the fall semester of 2014, library administration asked me to prepare a guide about predatory publishers, due to concern among the deans that unscrupulous publishers might be taking advantage of faculty. This was a topic I’d been educating faculty about on an ad hoc basis for years, but I never realized we needed to address it more systematically. That all has changed, with senior library administration now doing regular presentations about predatory publishers to faculty.

If we are to be advocates of open access, we need to focus on the positive impact that open access has rather than dwell for too long on the bad sides of it. We also need faculty to be clear on their own goals for making their work open access so that they may make more informed choices. Librarians have limited faculty bandwidth on the topic, and so focusing on education about self-archiving articles (otherwise known as green open access) or choosing no-fee (also known as gold) open access journals is a better way to achieve advocacy goals than suggesting faculty choose only a certain set of gold open access journals. Unless we are offering money for paying article fees, we also don’t have much say about where faculty choose to publish. Education about how to choose a journal and a license responsibly is what we should focus on, even if it diverges from certain ideals (see Meredith Farkas on choosing creative commons licenses.)

Understanding the Needs and Preparing the Material

As I mentioned, my library administration asked for a guide that that they could use in presentations and share with faculty. In preparing this guide, I worked with our library’s Scholarly Communications committee (of which I am co-chair) to determine the format and content.

We decided that adding this material to our existing Open Access research guide would be the best move, since it was already up and we shared the URL widely already. We have a robust series of Open Access Week events (which I wrote about last fall) and this seemed to ideal place to continue engaging people. That said, we determined that the guide needed an overhaul to make it more clear that open access was an on-going area of concern, not a once a year event. Since faculty are not always immediately thinking of making work open access but of the mechanics of publishing, I preferred to start with the title “Publishing Your Own Work”.

To describe its features a bit more, I wanted to start from the mindset of self-archiving work to make it open access with a description of our repository and Peter Suber’s useful guide to making one’s own work open access. I then continued with an explanation of article publication fees, since I often get questions along those lines. They are not unique to open access journals, and don’t imply any fee to accept for publication, which was a fear that I heard more than once during Open Access Week last year. I only then discussed the concept of predatory journals, with the hope that a basic understanding of the process would allay fears. I then present a list of steps to research a journal. I thought these steps were more common sense than anything, but after conversations with faculty and administration, I realized that my intuition about what type of journal I am dealing with is obvious because I have daily practice and experience. For people new to the topic I tried to break down research into easy steps that help them to figure out where a journal is on the continuum from outright scams to legitimate but new or unusual journals. It was also important to me to emphasize self-archiving as a strategy no matter the journal publication model.

Lastly, while most academic libraries have a model of liaison librarians engaging in scholarly communications activities, the person who spends every day working on these issues is likely to be more versed in emerging trends. So it is important to work with liaisons to help them research journals and to identify quality open access journals in their disciplines. We plan to add this information to the guide in a future version.

Taking it on the Road

We felt that in-person instruction on these matters with faculty was a crucial next step, particularly for people who publish in traditional journals but want to make their work available. Traditional journals’ copyright transfer agreements can be predatory, even if we don’t think about it in those terms. Taking inspiration from the ACRL Scholarly Communications Roadshow I attended a few years ago, I decided to take the curriculum from that program and offer it to faculty and graduate students. We read through three publication agreements as a group, and then discussed how open the publishers were to reuse of material, or whether they mentioned it at all. We then included a section on addenda to contracts for negotiation about additional rights.

The first workshop received modest attendance, but included some thoughtful conversations, and we have promised to run it again. Some people may never have read their agreements closely, and never realized they were doing something illegal or not specifically allowed by, for instance, sharing an article they wrote with their students. That concrete realization is more likely to spur action than more abstract arguments about the benefits of open access.

Escaping the Predator Metaphor

If I could go back, I would get rid of the concept of “predator” attached to open access journals. Let’s call it instead unscrupulous entrants into an emerging business model. That’s not as catchy, but it explains why this has happened. I would argue, personally, that the hybrid gold journals by large publishers are just as predatory, as they capitalize on funding requirements to make articles open access with high fees. They too are trying new business models, and those may not be tenable either. As I said above, choosing a journal with eyes wide open and understanding all the ramifications of different publication models is the only way forward. To suggest that faculty are innocently waiting to be pounced on by predators is to deny their agency and their ability to make choices about their own work. There may be days where that metaphor seems apt, but I think overall this is a damaging mentality to librarians interested in promoting new models of scholarly communication. I hope we can provide better resources and programming to escape this, as well as to help administration to understand how to choose to fund open access initiatives.

In the comments I’d like to hear more suggestions about how to escape the “predator” metaphor, as well as your own techniques for educating faculty on your campus.

Trapped in the Glass Cage

Imagine this scenario: you don’t normally have a whole lot to do at your job. It’s a complex job, sure, but day-to-day you’re spending most of your time monitoring a computer and typing in data. But one day, something goes wrong. The computer fails. You are suddenly asked to perform basic job functions that the computer normally takes care of for you, and you don’t really remember well how to do them. In the mean time, the computer is screaming at you about an error, and asking for additional inputs. How well do you function?

The Glass Cage

In Nicholas Carr’s new book The Glass Cage, this scenario is the frightening result of malfunctions with airplanes, and in the cases he describes, result in crashes and massive loss of life. As librarians, we are thankfully not responsible on a daily basis for the lives of hundreds of people, but like pilots, we too have automated much of our work and depend on systems that we often have no control over. What happens when a database we rely on goes down–say, all OCLC services go down for a few hours in December when many students are trying to get a few last sources for their papers? Are we able to take over seamlessly from the machines in guiding students?

Carr is not against automation, nor indeed against technology in general, though this is a criticism frequently leveled at him. But he is against the uncritical abnegation of our faculties to technology companies. In his 2011 book The Shallows, he argues that offloading memory to the internet and apps makes us more shallow, distractable thinkers. While I didn’t buy all his arguments (after all, Socrates didn’t approve of off-loading memory to writing since it would make us all shallow, distractable thinkers), it was thought-provoking. In The Glass Cage, he focuses on automation specifically, using autopilot technologies as the focal point–“the glass cage” is the name pilots use for cockpits since they are surrounded by screens. Besides the danger of not knowing what to do when the automated systems fail, we create potentially more dangerous situations by not paying attention to what choices automated systems make. As Carr writes, “If we don’t understand the commercial, political, intellectual, and ethical motivations of the people writing our software, or the limitations inherent in automated data processing, we open ourselves to manipulation.” 1

We have automated many mundane functions of library operation that have no real effect, or a positive effect. For instance, no longer do students sign out books by writing their names on paper cards which are filed away in drawers. While some mourn for the lost history of who had out the book–or even the romance novel scenario of meeting the other person who checks out the same books–by tracking checkouts in a secure computerized system we can keep better track of where books are, as well as maintain privacy by not showing who has checked out each book. And when the checkout system goes down, it is easy to figure out how to keep things going in the interim. We can understand on an instinctual level how such a system works and what it does. Like a traditional computerized library catalog, we know more or less how data gets in the system, and how data gets out. We have more access points to the data, but it still follows its paper counterpart in creation and structure.

Over the past decade, however, we have moved away more and more from those traditional systems. We want to provide students with systems that align with their (and our) experience outside libraries. Discovery layers take traditional library data and transform it with indexes and algorithms to create a new, easier way to find research material. If traditional automated systems, like autopilot systems, removed the physical effort of moving between card catalogs, print indexes, and microfilm machines, these new systems remove much of the mental effort of determining where to search for that type of information and the particular skills needed to search the relevant database. That is a surely a useful and good development. When one is immersed in a research question, the system shouldn’t get in the way.

Dr. Screen

That said, the nearly wholesale adoption of discovery systems provided by vendors leaves academic librarians in an awkward position. We can find a parallel in medicine. Carr relates the rush into electronic medical records (EMR) starting in 2004 with the Heath Information Technology Adoption Initiative. This meant huge amounts of money available for digitizing records, as well as a huge windfall for health information companies. While an early study by the RAND corporation (funded in part by those health information companies) indicated enormous promise from electronic medical records to save money and improve care. 2 But in actual fact, these systems did not do everything they were supposed to do. All the data that was supposed to be easy to share between providers was locked up in proprietary systems. 3 In addition, other studies showed that these systems did not merely substitute automated record-keeping for manual, they changed the way medicine was practiced. 4 EMR systems provide additional functions beyond note-taking, such as checklists and prompts with suggestions for questions and tests, which in turn create additional and more costly bills, test requests, and prescriptions. 5 The EMR systems change the dynamic between doctor and patient as well. The systems encourage the use of boilerplate text that lacks the personalized story of an individual patient, and the inability to flip through pages tended to diminish the long view of a patient’s entire medical history. 6 The presence of the computer in the room and the constant multitasking of typing notes into a computer means that doctors cannot be fully present with the patient. 7 With the constant presence of the EMR and its checklists, warnings, and prompts, doctors lose the ability to gain intuition and new understandings that the EMR could never provide. 8

The reference librarian has an interaction with patrons that is not all that different from doctors with patients (though as with pilots, the stakes are usually quite different). We work one on one with people on problems that are often undefined or misunderstood at the beginning of the interaction, and work towards a solution through conversation and cursory examinations of resources. We either provide the resource that solves the problem (e.g. the prescription), or make sure the patron has the tools available to solve problem over time (e.g. diet and exercise recommendations). We need to use subtle queues of body language and tone of voice to see how things are going, and use instinctive knowledge to understand if there is a deeper but unexpressed problem. We need our tools at hand to work with patrons, but we need to be present and use our own experience and judgment in knowing the appropriate tool to use. That means that we have to understand how the tool we have works, and ideally have some way of controlling it. Unfortunately that has not always been the case with vendor discovery systems. We are at the mercy of the system, and reactions to this vary. Some people avoid using it at all costs and won’t teach using the discovery system, which means that students are even less likely to use it, preferring the easier to get to even if less robust Google search. Or, if students do use it, they may still be missing out on the benefits of having academic librarians available–people who have spent years developing domain knowledge and the best resources available at the library, which knowledge can’t be replaced by an algorithm. Furthermore, the vendor platforms and content only interoperate to the extent the vendors are willing to work together, for which many of them have a disincentive since they want their own index to come out on top.

Enter the ODI

Just as doctors may have given up some of their professional ability and autonomy to proprietary databases of patient information, academic librarians seem to have done something similar with discovery systems. But the NISO Open Discovery Initiative (ODI) has potential to make the black box more transparent. This group has been working for two years to develop a set of practices that aim to make some aspects of discovery even across providers, and so give customers and users more control in understanding what they are seeing and ensure that indexes are complete. The Recommended Practice addresses some (but not all) major concerns in discovery service platforms. Essentially it covers requirements for metadata that content providers must provide to discovery service providers and to libraries, as well as best practices for content providers and discovery service providers. The required core metadata is followed by the “enriched” content which is optional–keywords, abstract, and full text. (Though the ODI makes it clear that including these is important–one might argue that the abstract is essential). 9 Discovery service providers are in turn strongly encouraged to make the content their repositories hold clear to their customers, and the metadata required for this. Discovery service providers should follow suggested practices to ensure “fair linking”, specifically to not use business relationships as a ranking or ordering consideration, and allow libraries to set their own preferences about choice of providers and wording for links. ODI suggests a fairly simple set of usage statistics that should be provided and exactly what they should measure. 10

While this all sets a good baseline, what is out of scope for ODI is equally important. It “does not address issues related to performance or features of the discovery services, as these are inherently business and design decisions guided by competitive market forces.” 11 Performance and features includes the user interface and experience, the relevancy ranking algorithms, APIs, specific mechanisms for fair linking, and data exchange (which is covered by other protocols). The last section of the Recommended Practice covers some of those in “Recommended Next Steps”. One of those that jumps out is the “on-demand lookup by discovery service users” 12, which suggests that users should be able to query the discovery service to determine “…whether or not a particular collection, journal, or book is included in the indexed content”13–seemingly the very goal of discovery in the first place.

“Automation of Intellect”

We know that many users only look at the first page of results for the resource they want. If we don’t know what results should be there, or how they get there, we are leaving users at the mercy of the tool. Disclosure of relevancy rankings is a major piece of transparency that ODI leaves out, and without understanding or controlling that piece of discovery, I think academic librarians are still caught in the trap of the glass cage–or become the chauffeur in the age of the self-driving car. This has been happening in all professional fields as machine learning algorithms and processing power to crunch big data sets improve. Medicine, finance, law, business, and information technology itself have been increasingly automated as software can run algorithms to analyze scenarios that in the past would require a senior practitioner. 14 So what’s the problem with this? If humans are fallible (and research shows that experts are equally if not more fallible), why let them touch anything? Carr argues that “what makes us smart is not our ability to pull facts from documents.…It’s our ability to make sense of things…” 15 We can grow to trust the automated system’s algorithms beyond our own experience and judgment, and lose the possibility of novel insights. 16

This is not to say that discovery systems do not solve major problems or that libraries should not use them. They do, and as much as practical libraries should make discovery as easy as possible. But as this ODI Recommended Practice makes clear, much remains a secret business decision for discovery service vendors, and thus something over which academic librarian can exercise control only though their dollars in choosing a platform and their advocacy in working with vendors to ensure they understand the system and it does what they need.


  1. Nicholas Carr, The Glass Cage: Automation and Us (New York: Norton, 2014), 208.
  2. Carr, 93.
  3. Carr, 95.
  4. Carr, 97.
  5. Carr, 98.
  6. Carr, 101-102.
  7. Carr, 103.
  8. Carr, 105-106.
  9.  National Information Standards Organization (NISO) Open Discovery Initiative (ODI) Working Group, Open Discovery Initiative: Promoting Transparency in Discovery (Baltimore: NISO, 2014): 25-26.
  10. NISO ODI, 25-27.
  11. NISO ODI, 3.
  12. NISO ODI, 32.
  13. NISO ODI, 32.
  14. Carr, 115-117.
  15. Carr, 121.
  16. Carr, 124.

This Is How I (Attempt To) Work

Editor’s Note: ACRL TechConnect blog will run a series of posts by our regular and guest authors about The Setup of our work. The first post is by TechConnect alum Becky Yoose.

Ever wondered how several of your beloved TechConnect authors and alumni manage to Get Stuff Done? In conjunction with The Setup, this is the first post in a series of TechConnect authors, past and present, to show off what tools, tips, and tricks they use for work.

I have been tagged by @nnschiller in his “This is how I work” post. Normally, I just hide when these type of chain letter type events come along, but this time I’ll indulge everyone and dust off my blogging skills. I’m Becky Yoose, Discovery and Integrated Systems Librarian, and this is how I work.

Location: Grinnell, Iowa, United States

Current Gig: Assistant Professor, Discovery and Integrated Systems Librarian; Grinnell College

Current Mobile Device: Samsung Galaxy Note 3, outfitted with an OtterBox Defender cover. I still mourn the discontinuation of the Droid sliding keyboard models, but the oversized screen and stylus make up for the lack of tactile typing.

Current Computer:

Work: HP EliteBook 8460p (due to be replaced in 2015); boots Windows 7

Home: Betty, my first build; dual boots Windows 7 and Ubuntu 14.04 LTS

eeepc 901, currently b0rked due to misjudgement on my part about appropriate xubuntu distros.

Current Tablet: iPad 2, supplied by work.

One word that best describes how you work:


Don’t panic. Nothing to see here. Move along.

What apps/software/tools can’t you live without?

Essential work computer software and tools, in no particular order:

  • Outlook – email and meetings make up the majority of my daily interactions with people at work and since campus is a Microsoft shop…
  • Notepad++ – my Swiss army knife for text-based duties: scripts, notes, and everything in between.
  • PuTTY – Great SSH/Telnet client for Windows.
  • Marcedit – I work with library metadata, so Marcedit is essential on any of my work machines.
  • MacroExpress and AutoIt – Two different Windows automation apps: MacroExpress handles more simple automation (opening programs, templating/constant data, simple workflows involving multiple programs) while AutoIt gives you more flexibility and control in the automation process, including programming local functions and more complex decision-making processes.
  • Rainmeter and Rainlander – These two provide customized desktop skins that give you direct or quicker access to specific system information, functions, or in Rainlander’s case, application data.
  • Pidgin – MPOW uses both LibraryH3lp and AIM for instant messaging services, and I use IRC to keep in touch with #libtechwomen and #code4lib channels. Being able to do all three in one app saves time and effort.
  • Jing – while the Snipping Tool in Windows 7 is great for taking screenshots for emails, Jing has proven to be useful for both basic screenshots and screencasts for troubleshooting systems issues with staff and library users. The ability to save screencasts on screencast.com is also valuable when working with vendors in troubleshooting problems.
  • CCleaner – Not only does it empty your recycling bin and temporary files/caches, the various features available in one spot (program lists, registry fixes, startup program lists, etc.) make CCleaner an efficient way to do housekeeping on my machines.
  • Janetter (modified code for custom display of Twitter lists) – Twitter is my main information source for the library and technology fields. One feature I use extensively is the List feature, and Janetter’s plugin-friendly set up allows me to highly customize not only the display but what is displayed in the list feeds.
  • Firefox, including these plugins (not an exhaustive list):

For server apps, the main app (beyond putty or vSphere) that I need is Nagios to monitor the library virtual Linux server farm. I also am partial to nano, vim, and apt.

As one of the very few tech people on staff, I need a reliable system to track and communicate technical issues with both library users and staff. Currently the Libraries is piggybacking on ITS’ ticketing system KBOX. Despite being fit into a somewhat inflexible existing structure, it has worked well for us, and since we don’t have to maintain the system, all the better!

Web services: The Old Reader, Gmail, Google Drive, Skype, Twitter. I still mourn the loss of Google Reader.

For physical items, my tea mug. And my hat.

What’s your workspace like?

Take a concrete box, place it in the dead center of the library, cut out a door in one side, place the door opening three feet from the elevator door, cool it to a consistent 63-65 degrees F., and you have my office. Spending 10+ hours a day during the week in this office means a bit of modding is in order:

  • Computer workstation set up: two HP LA2205wg 22 inch monitors (set to appropriate ergonomic distances on desk), laptop docking station, ergonomic keyboard/mouse stand, ergonomic chair. Key word is “ergonomic”. I can’t stress this enough with folks; I’ve seen friends develop RSIs on the job years ago and they still struggle with them today. Don’t go down that path if you can help it; it’s not pretty.
  • Light source: four lamps of varying size, all with GE Daylight 6500K 15 watt light bulbs. I can’t do the overhead lights due to headaches and migraines, so these lamps and bulbs help make an otherwise dark concrete box a little brighter.
  • Three cephalopods, a starfish, a duck, a moomin, and cats of various materials and sizes
  • Well stocked snack/emergency meal/tea corner to fuel said 10+ hour work days
  • Blankets, cardigans, shawls, and heating pads to deal with the cold

When I work at home during weekends, I end up in the kitchen with the laptop on the island, giving me the option to sit on the high chair or stand. Either way, I have a window to look at when I need a few seconds to think. (If my boss is reading this – I want my office window back.)

What’s your best time-saving trick?

Do it right the first time. If you can’t do it right the first time, then make the path to make it right as efficient  and painless as you possibly can. Alternatively, build a time machine to prevent those disastrous metadata and systems decisions made in the past that you’re dealing with now.

What’s your favorite to-do list manager?

Post it notes on a wall

The Big Picture from 2012

I have tried to do online to-do list managers, such as Trello; however, I have found that physical managers work best for me. In my office I have a to-do management system that comprises of three types of lists:

  • The Big Picture List (2012 list pictured above)- four big post it sheets on my wall, labeled by season, divided by months in each sheet. Smaller post it notes are used to indicate which projects are going on in which months. This is a great way to get a quick visual as to what needs to be completed, what can be delayed, etc.
  • The Medium Picture List – a mounted whiteboard on the wall in front of my desk. Here specific projects are listed with one to three action items that need to be completed within a certain time, usually within one to two months.
  • The Small Picture List – written on discarded Choice review cards, the perfect size to quickly jot down things that need to be done either today or in the next few days.

Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without?

My wrist watch, set five minutes fast. I feel conscientious if I go out of the house without it.

What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else?

I’d like to think that I’m pretty good with adhering to Inbox Zero.

What are you currently reading?

The practice of system and network administration, 2nd edition. Part curiosity, part wanting to improve my sysadmin responsibilities, part wanting to be able to communicate better with my IT colleagues.

What do you listen to while you work?

It depends on what I am working on. I have various stations on Pandora One and a selection of iTunes playlists to choose from depending on the task on hand. The choices range from medieval chant (for long form writing) to thrash metal (XML troubleshooting).

Realistically, though, the sounds I hear most are email notifications, the operation of the elevator that is three feet from my door, and the occasional TMI conversation between students who think the hallway where my office and the elevator are located is deserted.

Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert?

An introvert blessed/cursed with her parents’ social skills.

What’s your sleep routine like?

I turn into a pumpkin at around 8:30 pm, sometimes earlier. I wake up around 4:30 am most days, though I do cheat and not get out of bed until around 5:15 am, checking email, news feeds, and looking at my calendar to prepare for the coming day.

Fill in the blank: I’d love to see _________ answer these same questions.

You. Also, my cats.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Not advice per se, but life experience. There are many things one learns when living on a farm, including responsibility, work ethic, and realistic optimism. You learn to integrate work and life since, on the farm, work is life. You work long hours, but you also have to rest whenever you can catch a moment.  If nothing else, living on a farm teaches you that no matter how long you put off doing something, it has to be done. The earlier, the better, especially when it comes with shoveling manure.

Advice on Being a Solo Library Technologist

I am an Emerging Technologies Librarian at a small library in the middle of a cornfield. There are three librarians on staff. The vast majority of our books fit on one floor of open stacks. Being so small can pose challenges to a technologist. When I’m banging my head trying to figure out what the heck “this” refers to in a particular JavaScript function, to whom do I turn? That’s but an example of a wide-ranging set of problems:

  • Lack of colleagues with similar skill sets. This has wide-ranging ill effects, from giving me no one to ask questions to or bounce ideas off of, to making it more difficult to sell my ideas.
  • Broad responsibilities that limit time spent on technology
  • Difficulty creating endurable projects that can be easily maintained
  • Difficulty determining which projects are appropriate to our scale

Though listservs and online sources alleviate some of these concerns, there’s a certain knack to be a library technologist at a small institution.[1] While I still have a lot to learn, I want to share some strategies that have helped me thus far.

Know Thy Allies

At my current position, it took me a long time to figure out how the college was structured. Who is responsible for managing the library’s public computers? Who develops the website? If I want some assessment data, where do I go? Knowing the responsibilities of your coworkers is vital and effective collaboration is a necessary element of being a technologist. I’ve been very fortunate to work with coworkers who are immensely helpful.

IT Support can help with both your personal workstation and the library’s setup. Remember that IT’s priorities are necessarily adverse to yours: they want to keep everything up and running, you want to experiment and kick the tires. When IT denies a request or takes ages to fix something that seems trivial to you, remember that they’re just as overburdened as you are. Their assistance in installing and troubleshooting software is invaluable. This is a two-way street: you often have valuable insight into how users behave and what setups are most beneficial. Try to give and take, asking for favors at the same time that you volunteer your services.

Institutional Research probably goes by a dozen different names at any given dozen institutions. These names may include “Assessment Office,” “Institutional Computing,” or even the fearsome “Institutional Review Board” of research universities. These are your data collection and management people and—whether you know it or not—they have some great stuff for you. It took me far too long to browse the IR folder on our shared drive which contains insightful survey data from the CCSSE and in-house reports. There’s a post-graduate survey which essentially says “the library here is awesome,” good to have when arguing for funding. But they also help the library work with the assessment data that our college gathers; we hope to identify struggling courses and offer our assistance.

The web designer should be an obvious contact point. Most technology is administered through the web these days—shocking, I know. The webmaster will not only be able to get you access to institutional servers but they may have learned valuable lessons from their own positions. They, too, struggle to complete a wide range of tasks. They have to negotiate many stakeholders who all want a slice of the vaunted homepage, often the subject of territorial battles. They may have a folder of good PR images or a style guide sitting around somewhere; at the very least, some O’Reilly books you want to borrow.

The Learning Management System administrator is similar to the webmaster. They probably have some coding skills and carry an immense, important burden. At my college, we have a slew of educational technologists who work in the “Faculty Development Center” and preside over the LMS. They’re not only technologically savvy, often introducing me to new tools or techniques, but they know how faculty structure their courses and have a handle on pedagogical theory. Their input can not only generate new ideas but help you ground your initiatives in a solid theoretical basis.

Finally, my list of allies is obviously biased towards academic libraries. But public librarians have similar resources available, they just go by different names. Your local government has many of these same positions: data management, web developer, technology guru. Find out who they are and reach out to them. Anyone can look for local hacker/makerspaces or meetups, which can be a great way not only to develop your skills but to meet people who may have brilliant ideas and insight.

Build Sustainably

Building projects that will last is my greatest struggle. It’s not so hard to produce an intricate, beautiful project if I pour months of work into it, but what happens the month after it’s “complete”? A shortage of ideas has never been my problem, it’s finding ones that are doable. Too often, I’ll get halfway into a project and realize there’s simply no way I can handle the upkeep on top of my usual responsibilities, which stubbornly do not diminish. I have to staff a reference desk, teach information literacy, and make purchases for our collection. Those are important responsibilities and they often provide a platform for experimentation, but they’re also stable obligations that cannot be shirked.

One of the best ways to determine if a project is feasible is to look around at what other libraries are doing. Is there an established project—for instance, a piece of open source software with a broad community base—which you can reuse? Or are other libraries devoting teams of librarians to similar tasks? If you’re seeing larger institutions struggle to perfect something, then maybe it’s best to wait until the technology is more mature. On the other hand, dipping your toe in the water can quickly give you a sense of how much time you’ll need to invest. Creating a prototype or bringing coworkers on board at early stages lets you see how much traction you have. If others are resistant or if your initial design is shown to have gaping flaws, perhaps another project is more worthy of your time. It’s an art but often saying no, dropping a difficult initiative, or recognizing that an experiment has failed is the right thing to do.

Documentation, Documentation, Documentation

One of the first items I accomplished on arrival at my current position was setting up a staff-side wiki on PBworks. While I’m still working on getting other staff members to contribute to it (approximately 90% of the edits are mine), it’s been an invaluable information-sharing resource. Part-time staff members in particular have noted how it’s nice to have one consistent place to look for updates and insider information.

How does this relate to technology? In the last couple years, my institution has added or redesigned dozens of major services. I was going to write a ludicrously long list but…just trust me, we’ve changed a lot of stuff. A new technology or service cannot succeed without buy-in, and you don’t get buy-in if no one knows how to use it. You need documentation: well-written, illustrative documentation. I try to keep things short and sweet, providing screencasts and annotated images to highlight important nuances. Beyond helping others, it’s been invaluable to me as well. Remember when I said I wasn’t so great at building sustainably? Well, I’ll admit that there are some workflows or code snippets that are Greek each time I revisit them. Without my own instructions or blocks of comments, I would have to reverse engineer the whole process before I could complete it again.

Furthermore, not all my fellow staff are on par with my technical skills. I’m comfortable logging into servers, running Drush commands, analyzing the statistics I collect. And that’s not an indictment of my coworkers; they shouldn’t need to do any of this stuff. But some of my projects are reliant on arcane data schemas or esoteric commands. If I were to win the lottery and promptly retire, sophisticated projects lacking documentation would grind to a halt. Instead, I try to write instructions such that anyone could login to Drupal and apply module updates, for instance, even if they were previously unfamiliar with the CMS. I feel a lot better knowing that my bus factor is a little lower and that I can perhaps even take a vacation without checking email, some day.

Choose Wisely

The honest truth is that smaller institutions cannot afford to invest in every new and shiny object that crosses their path. I see numerous awesome innovations at other libraries which simply are not wise investments for a college of our size. We don’t have the scale, skills, and budget for much of the technology out there. Even open source solutions are a challenge because they require skill to configure and maintain. Everything I wrote about sustainability and allies is trying to mitigate this lack of scale, but the truth is some things are just not right for us. It isn’t helpful to build projects that only you can continue, or develop ones which require so much attention that other fundamental responsibilities (doubtless less sexy—no less important) fall through the cracks.

I record my personal activities in Remember the Milk, tagging tasks according to topic. What do you think was the tag I used most last year? Makerspace? Linked data? APIs? Node.js? Nope, it was infolit. That is hardly an “emerging” field but it’s a vital aspect of my position nonetheless.

I find that the best way to select amongst initiatives is to work backwards: what is crucial to your library? What are the major challenges, obvious issues that you’re facing? While I would not abandon pet projects entirely, because sometimes they can have surprisingly wide-ranging effects, it helps to ground your priorities properly.[2] Working on a major issue virtually guarantees that your work will attract more support from your institution. You may find more allies willing to help, or at least coworkers who are sympathetic when you plead with them to cover a reference shift or swap an instruction session because you’re overwhelmed. The big issues themselves are easy to find: user experience, ebooks, discovery, digital preservation, {{insert library school course title here}}. At my college, developmental education and information literacy are huge. It’s not hard to align my priorities with the institution’s.

Enjoy Yourself

No doubt working on your own or with relatively little support is challenging and stressful. It can be disappointing to pass up new technologies because they’re too tough to implement, or when a project fails due to one of the bullet points listed above. But being a technologist should always be fun and bring feelings of accomplishment. Try to inject a little levity and experimentation into the places where it’s least expected; who knows, maybe you’ll strike a chord.

There are also at least a couple advantages to being at a smaller institution. For one, you often have greater freedom and less bureaucracy. What a single individual does on your campus may be done by a committee (or even—the horror—multiple committees) elsewhere. As such, building consensus or acquiring approval can be a much simplified process. A few informal conversations can substitute for mountains of policies, forms, meetings, and regulations.

Secondly, workers at smaller places are more likely to be jack-of-all trades librarians. While I’m a technologist, I wear plenty of more traditional librarian hats as well. On the one hand, that certainly means I have less time to devote to each responsibility than a specialist would; on the other, it gives me a uniquely holistic view of the library’s operations. I not only understand how the pieces fit together, but am better able to identify high-level problems affecting multiple areas of service.

I’m still working through a lot of these issues, on my own. How do you survive as a library technologist? Is it just as tough being a large institution? I’m all eyes.


[1]^ Here are a few of my favorite sources for being a technology librarian:

  • Listservs, particularly Code4Lib and Drupal4Lib. Drupal4Lib is a great place to be if you’re using Drupal and are running into issues, there are a lot of “why won’t this work” and “how do you do X at your library” threads and several helpful experts who hang around the list.
  • For professional journals, once again Code4Lib is very helpful. ITAL is also open access and periodically good tech tips appear in C&RL News or C&RL. Part of being at a small institution is being limited to open access journals; these are the ones I read most often.
  • Google. Google is great. For answering factual questions or figuring out what the most common tool is for a particular task, a quick search can almost always turn up the answer. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Google usually leads me to one of a couple excellent sources, like Stack Overflow or the Mozilla Developer Network.
  • Twitter. Twitter is great, too. I follow many innovative librarians but also leading figures in other fields.
  • GitHub. GitHub can help you find reusable code, but there’s also a librarian community and you can watch as they “star” projects and produce new repositories. I find GitHub useful as a set of instructive code; if I’m wondering how to accomplish a task, I can visit a repo that does something similar and learn from how better developers do it.

[2]^ We’ve covered managing side projects and work priorities previously in “From Cool to Useful: Incorporating hobby projects into library work.”

Taking a trek with SCVNGR: Developing asynchronous, mobile orientations and instruction for campus

Embedding the library in campus-wide orientations, as well as developing standalone library orientations, is often part of outreach and first year experience work. Reaching all students can be a challenge, so finding opportunities for better engaging campus helps to promote the library and increase student awareness. Using a mobile app for orientations can provide many benefits such as increasing interactivity and offering an asynchronous option for students to learn about the library on their own time. We have been trying out SCVNGR at the University of Arizona (UA) Libraries and are finding it is a more fun and engaging way to deliver orientations and instruction to students.

Why use game design for library orientations and instruction?

Game-based learning can be a good match for orientations, just as it can be for instruction (I have explored this before with ACRL TechConnect previously, looking at badges). Rather than just presenting a large amount of information to students or having them fill out a paper-based scavenger hunt activity, using something like SCVNGR can get students interacting more with the library in a way that offers more engagement in real time and with feedback. However, simply adding a layer of points and badges or other game mechanics to a non-game situation doesn’t automatically make it fun and engaging for students. In fact, doing this ineffectively can cause more harm than good (Nicholson, 2012). Finding a way to use the game design to motivate participants beyond simply acquiring points tends to be the common goal in using game design in orientations and instruction. Thinking of the WIIFM (What’s In It For Me) principle from a students’ perspective can help, and in the game design we used at the University of Arizona with SCVNGR for a class orientation, we created activities based on common questions and concerns of students.

scvngr home screen

scvngr home screen


SCVNGR is a mobile app game for iPhone and Android where players can complete challenges in specific locations. Rather than getting clues and hints like in a traditional scavenger hunt, this game is more focused on activities within a location instead of finding the location. Although this takes some of the mystery away, it works very well for simply informing people about locations that are new to them and having them interact with the space.

Students need to physically be in the location for the app to work, where they use the location to search for “challenges” (single activities to complete) or “treks” (a series of single activities that make up the full experience for a location), and then complete the challenges or treks to earn points, badges, and recognition.

Some libraries have made their own mobile scavenger hunt activities without the aid of a paid app. For example, North Carolina State University uses the NCSU Libraries’ Mobile Scavenger Hunt, which is a combination of students recording responses in Evernote, real time interaction, and tracking by librarians.  One of the reasons we went with SCVNGR, however, is because this sort of mobile orientation requires a good amount of librarian time and is synchronous, whereas SCVNGR does not require as much face-to-face librarian time and allows for asynchronous student participation. Although we do use more synchronous instruction for some of our classes, we also wanted to have the option for asynchronous activities, and in particular for the large-scale orientations where many different groups will come in at many different times. Although SCVNGR is not free for us, the app is free to students. They offer 24/7 support and other academic institutions offer insight and ideas in a community for universities.

Other academic libraries have used SCVNGR for orientations and even library instruction. A few examples are:


How did the UA Libraries use SCVNGR?

Because a lot of instruction has moved online and there are so many students to reach, we are working on SCVNGR treks for both instruction and basic orientations at the University of Arizona (UA). We are in the process of setting up treks for large-scale campus orientations (New Student Orientation, UA Up Close for both parents and students, etc.) that take place during the summer, and we have tested SCVNGR  out on a smaller scale as a pilot for individual classes. There tends to be greater success and engagement if the Trek is tied to something, such as a class assignment or a required portion of an orientation session that must be completed. One concern for an app-based activity is that not all students will have smartphones. This was alleviated by putting students into groups ahead of time, ensuring that at least one person in the group did have a device compatible to use SCVNGR. However, we do lend technology at the UA Libraries, and so if a group was without a smartphone or tablet, they would be able to check one out from the library.

trek page for ais197b at ua libraries

trek page for ais197b at ua libraries

We first piloted a trek on an American Indian Studies student success course (AIS197b). This course for freshmen introduces students to services on campus that will be useful to them while they are at the UA. Last year, we presented a quick information session on library services, and then had the students complete a scavenger hunt for a class grade (participation points) with pencil and paper throughout the library. Although they seemed glad to be able to get out and move around, it didn’t seem particularly fun and engaging. On top of that, every time the students got stuck or had a question, they had to come back to the main floor to find librarians and get help.  In contrast, when students get an answer wrong in SCVNGR, feedback is programmed in to guide them to the correct information. And, because they don’t need clues to make it to the next step (they just go back and select the next challenge in the trek), they are able to continue without one mistake preventing them from moving on to the next activity. This semester, we first presented a brief instruction session (approximately 15-20 min) and then let students get started on SCVNGR.

You can see in the screenshot below how question design works, where you can select the location, how many points count toward the activity, type of activity (taking a photo, answering with text, or scanning a QR code), and then providing feedback. If a student answers a question incorrectly, as I mention above, they will receive feedback to help them in figuring out the correct answer. I really like that when students get answers right, they know instantly. This is positive reinforcement for them to continue.

scvngr answer feedback

scvngr answer feedback

The activities designed for students in this class were focused on photo and text-based challenges. We stayed away from QR codes because they can be finicky with some phones, and simply taking a picture of the QR code meets the challenge requirement for that option of activity. Our challenges included:

  • Meet the reference desk (above): Students meet desk staff and ask how they can get in touch for reference assistance; answers are by text and students type in which method they think they would use the most: email, chat, phone, or in person.
  • Prints for a day: Students find out about printing (a frequent question of new students), and text in how to pay for printing after finding the information at the Express Documents Center.
  • Playing favorites: Students wander around the library and find their favorite study spot. Taking a picture completes the challenge, and all images are collected in the Trek’s statistics.
  • Found in the stacks: After learning how to use the catalog (we provided a brief instruction session to this class before setting them loose), students search the catalog for books on a topic they are interested in, then locate the book on the shelf and take a picture. One student used this time to find books for another class and was really glad he got some practice.
  • A room of one’s own: The UA Libraries implemented online study room reservations as of a year ago. In order to introduce this new option to students, this challenge had them use their smartphones to go to the mobile reservation page and find out what the maximum amount of hours study rooms can be reserved for and text that in.

SCVNGR worked great with this class for simple tasks, such as meeting people at the reference desk, finding a book, or taking a picture of a favorite study spot, but for tasks that might require more critical thinking or more intricate work, this would not be the best platform to use in that level of instruction. SCVNGR’s assessment options are limited for students to respond to questions or complete an activity. Texting in detailed answers or engaging in tasks like searching a database would be much harder to record. Likewise, because more instruction that is tied to critical thinking is not so much location-based (evaluating a source or exploring copyright issues, for example), and so it would be hard to tie these tasks and acquisition of skill to an actual location-based activity to track. One instance of this was with the Found in the Stacks challenge; students were supposed to search for a book in the catalog and then locate it on the shelf, but there would be nothing stopping them from just finding a random book on the shelf and taking a picture of it to complete the challenge. SCVNGR provides a style guide to help in game design, and the overall understanding from this document is that simplicity is most effective for this platform.

Another feature that works well is being able to choose if the Trek is competitive or not, and also use “SmartRoute,” which is the ability to have challenges show up for participants based on distance and least-crowded areas. This is wonderful, particularly as students get sort of congested at certain points in a scavenger hunt: they all crowd around the same materials or locations simultaneously because they’re making the same progress through the activity. We chose to use SmartRoute for this class so they would be spread out during the game.

scvngr trek settings

scvngr trek settings

When trying to assess student effort and impact of the trek, you can look at stats and rankings. It’s possible to view specific student progress, all activity by all participants, and rankings organized by points.

scvngr statistics

scvngr statistics

Another feature is the ability to collect items submitted for challenges (particularly pictures). One of our challenges is for students to find their favorite study spot in the library and take a picture of it. This should be fun for them to think about and is fairly easy, and it helps us do some space assessment. It’s then possible to collect pictures like the following (student’s privacy protected via purple blob).

student images of ua main library via scvngr

student images of ua main library via scvngr

On the topic of privacy, students enter in their name to set up an account, but only their first name and first initial of their last name appear as their username. Although last names are then hidden, SCVNGR data is viewable by anyone who is within the geographical range to access the challenge: it is not closed to an institution. If students choose to take pictures of themselves, their identity may be revealed, but it is possible to maintain some privacy by not sharing images of specific individuals or sharing any personal information through text responses. On the flip side of  not wanting to associate individual students with their specific activities, it gets trickier when an instructor plans to award points for student participation. In that case, it’s possible to request reports from SCVNGR for instructors so they can see how much and which students participated. In a large class of over 100 students, looking at the data can be messier, particularly if students have the same first name and last initial. Because of this issue, SCVNGR might be better used for large-scale orientations where participation does not need to be tracked, and small classes where instructors would be easily able to know who is who in the data for activity.

Lessons learned

Both student and instructor feedback was very positive. Students seemed to be having fun, laughing, and were not getting stuck nearly as much as the previous year’s pencil-and-paper hunt. The instructor noted it seemed a lot more streamlined and engaging for the class. When students checked in with us at the end before heading out, they said they enjoyed the activity and although there were a couple of hiccups with the software and/or how we designed the trek, they said it was a good experience and they felt more comfortable with using the library.

Next time, I would be more careful about using text responses. I had gone down to our printing center to tell the current student worker what answers students in the class would be looking for so she could answer it for them, but they wound up speaking with someone else and getting different answers. Otherwise, the level of questions seemed appropriate for this class and it was a good way to pilot how SCVNGR works, if students might like it, and how long different types of questions take for bringing this to campus on a larger scale. I would also be cautious about using SCVNGR too heavily for instruction, since it doesn’t seem to have capabilities for more complex tasks or a great deal of critical thinking. It is more suited to basic instruction and getting students more comfortable in using the library.


  • Ability to reach many students and asynchronously
  • Anyone can complete challenges and treks; this is great for prospective students and families, community groups, and any programs doing outreach or partnerships outside of campus since a university login is not required.
  • Can be coordinate with campus treks if other units have accounts or a university-wide license is purchased.
  • WYSIWYG interface, no programming skills necessary
  • Order of challenges in a trek can be assigned staggered so not everyone is competing for the same resources at the same time.
  • Can collect useful data through users submitting photos and comments (for example, we can examine library space and student use by seeing where students’ favorite spots to study are).


  • SCVNGR is not free to use, an annual fee applies (in the $900-range for a library-only license, which is not institution-wide).
  • Privacy is a concern since anyone can see activity in a location; it’s not possible to close this to campus.
  • When completing a trek, users do not get automatic prompts to proceed to the next challenge; instead, they must go back to the home location screen and choose the next challenge (this can get a little confusing for students).
  • SCVNGR is more difficult to use with instruction, especially when looking to incorporate critical thinking and more complex activities
  • Instructors might have a harder time figuring out how to grade participation because treks are open to anyone; only students’ first name and last initial appear, so if either a large class completes a trek for an assignment or if an orientation trek for the public is used, a special report must be requested from SCVNGR that the library could send to the instructor for grading purposes.



SCVNGR is a good way to increase awareness and get students and other groups comfortable in using the library. One of the main benefits is that it’s asynchronous, so a great deal of library staff time is not required to get people interacting with services, collections, and space. Although this platform is not perfect for more in-depth instruction, it does work at the basic orientation level, and students and the instructor in the course we piloted it on had a good experience.



Nicholson, S. (2012). A user-centered theoretical framework for meaningful gamification. Paper Presented at Games+Learning+Society 8.0, Madison, WI. Retrieved from http://scottnicholson.com/pubs/meaningfulframework.pdf.


About Our Guest Author: Nicole Pagowsky is an Instructional Services Librarian at the University of Arizona where she explores game-based learning, student retention, and UX. You can find her on Twitter, @pumpedlibrarian.