Category Archives: TTW Contributor Dr. Troy Swanson

Help Me Write a Job Description: Publisher of Community

For the past year, I have had a foggy notion for a new librarian position, but I can’t quite get my mind wrapped around it. So, I am turning to you, TTW community, to help.

Today, I am once again skimming through R. David Lankes’ amazing book The Atlas of New Librarianship. I am looking over page 67 at the idea of librarians as “Publisher of Community.” This may be the closest definition to what I have in mind. Lankes writes,

“I foresee the day in the near future when librarians spend the majority of their time working with community members and community organizations making their content accessible: where acquisitions is a matter of production, not purchasing. The future of libraries (and librarians) is in becoming publishers of the community.”

For me, this is another demonstration that the most powerful ideas are not new ideas. They are ideas you’ve already had but someone else expresses for you. In the future, I want all of the librarians at my library to be publishers of the community. We do this on a smaller scale now, but I would like to see this grow. The best way to make this happen is to devote a position to it so that there is a person taking on the responsibility and providing leadership.

But, what skills should this person develop? What responsibilities should this position carry forward? Considering our library’s organizational structure, this position would work best as an faculty librarian with public service & instructional responsibilities. On our campus, this would align the position with classroom faculty and build connections to the curriculum. Additionally, momentum is building on our campus around mobile technology, lecture capture, cloud-based solutions, and e-textbooks. The timing could be right.

With all of this in mind, I want to find someone who can:

  1. Capture content: I am thinking digitally (video, images, blog posts, etc), but I am not quite sure. This may also be more along the lines of publishing. But, I am not really thinking about an archivist. Maybe…
  2. Think like an activist: see my past TTW post
  3. Act with the sensibility of a journalist: I envision someone who can develop content following a process similar to that of a journalist developing a story. This is someone who can write (create?) information that engages the community in discussion around important issues facing our campus & region.
  4. Help instill meta-literacy skills in our information literacy program: We have built a solid information literacy program on our campus, but it is largely focused on traditional research skills. While this is still relevant, we have a need to expand our conceptualization of information literacy.
  5. Work with students and faculty within and outside of the classroom: Ideally, this person would be able to speak the language of the classroom, so she or he would understand assessment, classroom management, and the instructional design process.

I am not sure about a job title: Community Publishing Librarian, Meta-Literacy Librarian, Digital Content Librarian,???

Now, I turn to you TTW readers. I know that I have listed enough ideas here for about five positions, but in this budget environment, it may take several years of advocating before I get one (if any). So, I have to shoehorn these skills together as much as possible, get a job description together, and then start planning.

Maybe you know of job descriptions that could be helpful? Perhaps you can better define needed skills? What am I missing? What should I remove?

Focusing and defining this position will require specific knowledge of our campus and our library, so don’t stress about that. I’ll worry about that. I am looking for ideas, inspiration, and examples. I would love to hear what’s on your mind.


-Post by Troy Swanson, Tame the Web Contributor

Troy A. Swanson is Department Chair & Teaching & Learning Librarian at Moraine Valley Community College. You can follow him on Twitter at @t_swanson.
Two quick disclaimers: 1) This is an academic exercise focusing more on the evolution of librarians and is in no way part of my job responsibilities on my campus. No confidential or HR-related information has been shared in this post. 2) If you are a job seeker (and I know there are many out there), please do not send me your resume. As I mentioned above, we do not have a job opening and probably will not have a job opening in the near future.

Think Like an Activist

At several points in my life I have had the opportunity to work closely with activists. I have seen political, social, and union activists up close and in action. The true activist is a special breed who is in touch with a different reality that is just outside the reach of the present. They have been touched by a holy spirit of change that drives them forward. Librarians can learn a great deal from activists.

Activists do not just have energy and passion. They are absolutely goal focused. Ego is left behind. Partnerships are a necessity because resources are always lacking. Creativity is a requirement. Community education and constant outreach drive the agenda. Activists are not afraid to break the rules when the rules get in the way of the larger goals. They are willing to suffer the consequences. Activists do not fear work…very hard work. But, activists do not see their job as “work.” Activists do not see what they do as a job. It is always my hope that this is true for librarians. I like to think that it is true for me.

My wife always tells me that she has never seen anyone who loves his or her job more than me. She mostly says this when she’d rather have me focusing my attention away from work and toward other things like painting a bathroom or cleaning the garage. People always tell me, “you are not what I picture when I picture a librarian.” I hear this all the time. I heard this when I started my job. I hear this now when I meet new faculty members. I hear this when I am out in my home community. Mostly people say this because they are trying to pay me a compliment that I am not like other librarians, but I am never happy when given this “compliment.” To me, it partly demonstrates the lack of knowledge that people have about librarianship, and it partly demonstrates our profession’s inability to overcome this knowledge gap.

I think of Howard Zinn’s famous quote, “Civil disobedience is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience.” I don’t mean that libraries should practice civil disobedience. I mean that still, after all of these years, we spend too much time being obedient to the things that we have always done.

If you are reading this blog, you are aware that we are living through one of the greatest disruptions in the information ecosystem since the invention of the printing press. Journalist Jeff Jarvis reminds us that right now the Internet is somewhere around where the printing press was in 1472. The ways that we create and share information are being ripped apart, and the institutions built around information are transforming. When discussing the purpose of SOPA , Jarvis noted that “we can’t just protect the interest of legacy companies that are challenged by disruption and change…” He was talking about film and music companies, but when I heard him say this, I thought about libraries. (View interview here: DLD12 Interview Series: Jeff Jarvis). As long as we are obedient to the things we’ve always done, then we will continue to act like “legacy companies” fending off change.

R. David Lankes has challenged us to rethink libraries. In his ground-breaking book the Atlas of New Libraianship, he wrote, “The mission of librarians is to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities.” Many of us have already embraced the “knowledge creation” part of this definition, but I am not so sure we have thought deeply about the “improve society” part. We are quick to call our libraries open-learning centers, but how ready are we to call our libraries society-transformation centers? How ready are we to really engage our communities by connecting on the challenging issues we face? How ready are we to really think like activists?

Right now, the most important thing librarians can learn from activists is that the face-to-face world exists as a complement to the online world. Activists get this. In the past, protests, marches, and demonstrations were held to get attention from bystanders and (hopefully) catch the eye of journalists who may cover the event and help spread the word. This remains partly true, but today, protests, marches, and demonstrations are held for the online world as much as they are for the actual time and place. The video, images, and Tweets that flow from these events carry on long after the event has ended. Activists are about information and communication. (See CBS News: How the revolution became digitized.) It’s not so much that the face-to-face world doesn’t matter, but that it matters in ways that are deeply entwined with the online world.

As a profession, we are stressed out. The future is blurry. The threats to the good work we do are real. But if you reminisce about the good old days and dream of going back to a format-bound world of information delivery, then now is the time for you to leave libraries. Retire, go away, get out, because you’ve missed the entire point. Activists don’t think like this, and neither should we.

-Post by Troy Swanson, Tame the Web Contributor

Troy A. Swanson is Department Chair & Teaching & Learning Librarian at Moraine Valley Community College. You can follow him on Twitter at @t_swanson.

The Machine that is Replacing Me is Getting Cheaper Every Day – A TTW Guest Post by Dr. Troy Swanson

Two years ago, I had the painful pleasure of coauthoring a textbook with three other colleagues. This textbook was written for first-year writing students, and I wrote the sections of the book that focused on research and information literacy.

As we wrote the book, my thoughts went back to one of my former high school teachers, Michael McAvoy. This morning I learned through Facebook that he lost his battle with cancer. I have many memories of high school (most of them good), but out of all of them, Mr. McAvoy is the one person who rises above most of the others. As someone who works in education, I hope that I can have the same type of impact in my students.

“Swanson, the machine I am getting to replace you is getting cheaper every day.” Mr. McAvoy would typically say this after I made some sort of smart-ass remark in class. He would smirk, fold his arms, and rock forward on the balls of his feet with an air of mild humor mixed with pretend contempt.

There was a time when I was out sick, and I missed a couple of his classes.  When I returned, I saw him in the hallway, and I asked him whether he missed me.  He responded, “Well, Swanson, I wasn’t shooting. But if I was, I wouldn’t miss.” Then he continued on his way down the hall. He said that at a time when this type of remark did not cause alarm. It was a different time and place.

I remember that he was a Packer fan and a Dodger fan, which were always points of debate since we were in Bears and Cubs country. He only had three toes on one foot due to an unfortunate incident with a lawnmower when he was a kid. One time he participated in a fantasy basketball league with his students. His team name was The Seven-Toed Chest Kickers.

When I think of Mr. McAvoy, I know he was one of my best teachers. He was the reason that when I entered college I was a better writer than most of my classmates. But, I liked him for more reasons than the simple transfer of writing skills.  I remember him so fondly because of the way he engaged us as students. I can distinctly remember the class discussion we had about Julius Caesar getting stabbed to death in Shakespeare’s play, our discussion of the novel Lord of the Flies, and a paper I wrote about Hemingway’s novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. I remember being so amazed that these great works of literature could be understood by someone like me, who was just a high school kid. The thing with Mr. McAvoy’s classes was that these were not honors or advanced placement classes.  They were just regular English classes, and all of us were able to jump into this stuff.

In our public discourse online, on the media, and in debates at dinner parties, it is easy to cast our public schools as places that dampen creativity. Our education system is large and difficult to navigate, and I think that in some instances these systems get in the way of our larger goals. This is because we have an educational system. I would say that any time you have a group of people (so, more than one) who have to do something together you start to have a system. A system is a set of rules, processes, and procedures that explain how people interact with each other. For example, when you drive a car, you are participating in a system. Our society has put together a set of rules that help us work together so that we can efficiently drive at high speeds down our roads. If we had to make up our own rules or if we had to figure out the rules as we drove, then not only would driving be very inefficient, but it would also be very dangerous.

Systems do not really encourage us to be creative. Driving your car is not a time to decide to be creative. In fact, our rules of the road go out of the way to stamp out your creativity. Our police officers regularly give out tickets to “creative” drivers. For me, there are many times we criticize education when we are actually criticizing systems. Their purpose is to allow people to work together by creating solid rules where each person’s actions are predictable and standard. I think about all of the standardized tests I have ever taken. Not much room there for creativity, is there?

In the future, our students will spend a great deal of times within large systems. Our corporations, our governments, our charitable organizations, our religious organizations, and many other groups of people are essentially large systems. They all have rules so that people understand how to work together. But, these systems all suffer from the same problems.  First, how do you develop a system where everyone knows the rules but is also able to creatively come up with solutions to problems? Second, systems automatically include values and priorities that tend to benefit some groups of people over others. How do we create systems that are equitable and fair to everyone?  In high school, some of us found ways to be creative, and I would guess that many times it was our teachers were the ones who inspired us to be creative.

I think that there is a great deal of evidence to say that creativity can exist within systems, especially educational systems. It is my hope that college is a creative place. Yes, we are part of a very large system. Yes, at times, this system can hinder creativity. But, more importantly, for those of us who work in the system, creativity falls on our own shoulders.

I came from a small high school in rural Illinois. The college where I work is many times larger than my entire hometown. I know that many of us that came from there will remember our late teacher Mr. McAvoy. I have always made it my goal to follow his example and never forget that creativity does not come from our educational systems. It comes from educators.

Note: This essay is adapted from an essay in the book DeVillez, Eric, Tom Dow, Mike McGuire, and Troy Swanson (2010). Why White Rice?: Thinking Through Writing. Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt Publishing Company.


Troy A. Swanson is Department Chair & Teaching & Learning Librarian at Moraine Valley Community College. You can follow him on Twitter at @t_swanson.

Young Whipper Snapper No More – A TTW Guest Post by Dr. Troy Swanson

A few weeks ago, I was doing one of my weekly reference shifts. I went to our lower level to see if students using computers down there needed any help. As I was walking along, I thought to myself that it was great that we had these computers. They were added to help ease the demand for machines. I thought, these students should feel so fortunate that we worked this out with campus IT. What a great service improvement! Every computer was in use. Success!

Then, it occurred to me that we added these machines five years ago, and the machines were not exactly new then. Now, they crawl along straining to perform simple tasks like surfing the web and providing basic word processing. Students use them because they are the only option left. They are better than the old type writer we have on reserve. We have scheduled these computers to be replaced for the spring semester, so we will receive a needed upgrade. But, I can remember back to a time when we didn’t have any computer on our lower level at all.

When I reflect on this, I recognize that I’m no longer the young whipper snapper right out of library school. I am starting to feel like one of the old timers.  I remember when I walked into this library over a decade ago, and I quickly compiled a list of needs to address and some antiquated processes to update. I remember working with my senior colleagues. I couldn’t understand why they didn’t see things through my eyes.

Now, if you ask my colleagues, they’ll tell you that I am constantly pushing for improvements and driving for change. I want us to be as great as we can be, but I also recognize that I am not immune to remembering the bad-old-days. I remember the 1970s-era library that I entered as I look at our “freshly” remodeled library, even though the remodel took place in 2004. I look at our website, and I think of the two major usability studies and redesigns we conducted. I look at that the shelves of old microfilm, and I think of the weeding we did while fighting to get online access to historical databases. I remember how groundbreaking it felt to institute email reference in 2000. When I think about library instruction, I think how we have tripled our sessions over the last decade.

There is a lesson here for me, but also a lesson that today’s new, freshly graduated librarians should keep in mind.

For the new crop of young whipper snappers coming out of library school, remember that where you see needs, your senior colleagues see improvements. This isn’t to say that if you are new in a library that you should not be an advocate for change. In fact, those of us who have joined the ranks of the old timers need you. We need your fresh eyes and your drive for the future. Don’t be afraid to speak up, but also don’t forget that we don’t necessarily see things with the same eyes. It is easy when you are new, to see the need but not recognize the slow grind of progress.

Of course, I also recognize the lesson for myself in all of this. As I am moving from young whipper snapper into the realm of old timer, I need to remember that users should never feel fortunate about anything. They need to be successful, and it is our job to do our best to help. Improvements should not get in the way of success. I am reminded that it is okay to show off our improvements, but I should never feel satisfied that we are improved.

Troy A. Swanson is Department Chair & Teaching & Learning Librarian at Moraine Valley Community College. You can follow him on Twitter at @t_swanson.

What Pizarro and the Inca can Teach Librarians: Why Libraries Should Not Be Part of IT – A TTW Guest Post by Dr. Troy Swanson

Legend has it that In 1532, Pizarro overthrew the Inca Empire with 168 men. Librarians have much to learn from history.

I have been working my way through Charles Manns’ eye opening and complex book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. Mann challenges us to rethink what we know about Native American culture demonstrating that pre-Columbian American culture was just as “advanced” as European culture.

Mann also shows that the conquest of native society was made possible by many factors, especially the impact of disease. As you may have guessed, Pizarro did not overthrow the Inca Empire with 168 men. The Inca fell largely due to civil war. Mann shows a pattern in the Americas of native factions partnering with Europeans for short-term gains aiding in their long term demise. This happened many times including in the fall of the Aztecs and, notably, in the tolerance of the Pilgrims at Plymouth.  Continually, fringe groups of natives, usually those outcast by the dominant party, used the Europeans to upset the balance. In most cases, especially early on, this allowed meager, poorly- supplied bands of Europeans to gain a foothold and reinforce their numbers pushing existing native residents further and further west. Nearly 200 years after Pizarro, the Iroquois joined the British while the Algonquin joined the French in the French and Indian War.

I don’t mean to trivialize one of the tragedies of history that some people consider a genocide, but I also can’t help but think about libraries as I am reading such an engaging text as Mann’s 1491. Libraries should note the strategy and failings that Mann highlights: short-term gain, long term failure.

This hit me as I read Kevin Kiley’s article in Inside HigherEd “Integrated Solutions” (September, 23, 2011) that explored the merger of academic libraries and IT departments. This is a trend that has been discussed for many years, but one that I have about more often. To some, this really makes sense.

Kiley quotes Bob Johnson at Rhodes College as saying  “It’s increasingly difficult to see where the demarcations are between IT and library functions…Customers get better service when there aren’t artificial divisions, and you reduce the amount of internal competition and get better at providing services.”

To be frank, I don’t get it.

It’s not just that libraries and IT are different. Libraries and IT philosophically interface with the goals of colleges and universities in different ways. Libraries are more than just a support service. If libraries are successfully serving their communities, they must connect with their users at a content level, which in higher education means at a curricular and research level. They are not providing a content neutral infrastructure. They must make decisions about content. More importantly, they must recognize and be present at the points where knowledge creation occurs. They have to be a participant in that ultimately human, magic moment of discovery and creation. Libraries and librarians, when at their best, are not simply support services. They are active participants in the synergistic crossroads of knowledge.

From an organizational view, which is what this is all about, libraries live and operate on the academic side of the house. They must be present in discussions of curriculum. They must be a voice in the research agenda of the organization. They are not just database providers and book buyers. They are in classrooms. They are partners to researchers.

Librarians teach.

Anyone who has sat in budget meetings and battled for organizational support knows that technology is sexy and administrators love to throw money to IT. I can understand why library directors may want to report into IT to get a cut of the action. My fear is that librarians and the management of libraries are pulled away from the academic mission that decades from now libraries will be just seen as database providers and book buyers.

Remember Pizarro and the Inca 1532.

Troy A. Swanson is Department Chair & Teaching & Learning Librarian at Moraine Valley Community College. You can follow him on Twitter at @t_swanson.



Kevin Kiley  “Integrated Solutions” Inside HigherEd

When “Library” Is Not an Action but an Old Building – A TTW Guest Post by Dr. Troy Swanson

 I have heard reports of the demise of libraries and librarians since I first entered library school over thirteen years ago. I tend to not pay much attention to them, but in the last few months a couple articles followed by personal experiences have caused me a bit of concern. The first was Rick Anderson’s guest editorial in the Journal of Academic Librarianship (July 2011, 37:4) where he argued that we have valuable services, but students and faculty don’t really care. Second, was the blog post by Mike Shatzkin ( where he argues that big picture trends are going to push libraries and librarians out of existance. I do not necessarily buy his entire argument, but after that I was shocked to read that there are one third less librarians today than there were in 1990 (An analysis using 120 years of census data by Sydney Beveridge, Susan Weber and Andrew A. Beveridge, I was astounded by this. But, the icing on the cake was the conversations I had with a few friends.

The first conversation was with my former roommate’s father-in-law. We were in Oak Park (Illinois) celebrating the third birthday of my roommate’s son. It was a warm July day, and the father-in-law and I were hiding in the shade with cold drinks. He is a researcher at a medical school at a major research university in the Chicago-area. Even though he and I are in very different parts of higher education, we always enjoy talking shop—budgets, grants, students, publications, research—always interesting conversation.

Naturally, our conversation turned to libraries, and I have to say I was a bit surprised when he asked, “So, will there even be a need for libraries in the future?” He asked it in a way that assumed there would not be. My shock must have shown, because he fumbled a bit and tried to say something reassuring.

I asked him if he used his library, and he said to me that he couldn’t remember the last time he had actually been in a library on campus. I asked him if he had used the library’s website. He said, “Oh, yeah. All the time. I search it constantly. Probably once a week at least.” For him, it seemed that the building was something different than the website, which were both something different from librarians.

To answer his question, I assured him that libraries were stronger than ever, virtually and physically. I told him that the articles he accesses in his office did not just magically appear out of the ether, but that there were people who had to make tough decisions about what to purchase. I also promised him that there were absolutely librarians on his campus who were dying to give him more help than he could possibly imagine. One phone call, one email, one visit and he would find the best research partners imaginable. I told him that he just needed to take the Pepsi challenge and give his librarians a call. He chuckled at this, and I am sure that he has not contacted anyone from his campus libraries.

I have thought much about this conversation over the last month. I have played it back in my head.  I am struck by the apparent disconnect in his mind between physical space, website, and library services. To me, these things are all critically intertwined into an essential service at the heart of the academic machine. To him, these are loosely connected entities, most of which he did not need since he had the convenience of the PC in his office. He did admit to me that he preferred to research in his office as opposed to home because “things just seemed to run smoother on the campus network.”

A few weeks later, my family went camping with some friends. Two of whom are researchers. One is an economist fighting his way through the tenure process at a major research university in the St. Louis-area, and the other is an atmospheric chemist who is an independent contractor that works closely with several university researchers. I asked them about their library use. They both agreed that the information they access regularly is not available for free on the web and that libraries were absolutely vital to their work. In fact, the chemist sheepishly admitted to me that he gets campus log in information from friends so that he can still get to expensive databases for free. However, they both agreed that they hadn’t spoken with a librarian (besides me) since they first entered graduate school. They assumed that librarians were on campus to work with undergraduates. I told then that was only part of our work.

Now, I am sure that libraries are not going to close up shop anytime soon, but I do think that there is cause for concern by those of us who hope to work in this profession for the coming decades. This concern was captured by Rick Anderson in his editorial when he said, “Eventually the term ‘library’ becomes an honorific attached to a building, rather than a meaningful designation for what happens inside it” (p. 290) For us, we offer services that we believe complement each other and provide a range of support for researchers. But, our patrons do not necessarily see it this way. As Anderson also said, “Value that is not valued is not valuable” (p. 289). Obviously, it is on our shoulders to continue to advocate and reinvent libraries to better serve our users. But, frankly, that’s what I feel like I’ve been doing for the last decade.

(By the way, you can read Gary Price’s response to Mike Shtzkin here,


Troy A. Swanson is Teaching &Learning Librarian at Moraine Valley Community College. You can follow him on Twitter at @t_swanson.

Library Management and Entropy: The Information as Management Text –A TTW Guest Post by Dr. Troy Swanson

Library management is a battle against entropy. Those of us who remember our physics know that entropy is most famously captured in the second law of thermodynamics, but it may be easiest to think of entropy as the measurement of the dissipation of energy in a system. So, if hot water and cold water are poured into a bucket, the energy from the hot water will spread to the cold water until all of the water is the same temperature. The state of organization (hot vs cold)  will dissipate into a state of high entropy (disorder). To reorganize the water, a magical being (see Maxwell’s Demon’s_demon) would be required to sort out cold from hot and place the water molecules back into their respective glasses. In order to pull off this magical feat or sorting, an unattainable degree of information must be possessed in order which molecules must be returned to which state. Even if we could physically sort at the molecular level, we couldn’t know which molecule went into which glass. Thus, entropy is really a sorting problem, which is essentially an information problem.


In past writings, I have described libraries as loosely coupled system that faced problems of coordination in decision making (see Tame the Web and The Journal of Library Administration The challenge is to coordinate staff members to take similar actions when faced with similar situations even though the staff members may never see each other. Coordination problems are really problems of entropy.

Let’s pretend that our staff members came in to work tomorrow and were told that they were not allowed to communicate to each other. They could do their jobs and interact with patrons, but never talk, email, Facebook, or Tweet with other staff members. What would happen? As the outside environment around the library changed, existing policies, procedures, and norms would become disconnected from that environment. Slowly (or maybe quickly) our organizations would disorganize. Individuals might change their practices as they see needs arise, but it would not be possible to communicate these practices back across the organization for coordinated action. Overall, the system would increase in entropy resulting from the lack of communication (information) between organizational members.

Most of us can probably think of real examples within our own organizations that may be less extreme but may also illustrate the same point. Anyone who has tried to keep a policy manual updated can tell you how quickly practice and written policy diverge. Nothing is set in stone, which is great, because we should be reacting to the needs of our patrons. But, to do this well, our organizations must produce and capture information to coordinate our actions. If a procedure changes but is not effectively communicated, the old procedure will continue to live on. If a librarian answers a difficult question for a patron and that knowledge is not captured, the next librarian must do the same work to answer the question and risks getting the answer wrong. Battling entropy requires feedback (information) loops that not only produce and capture information from the environment, but also act on it.

My consideration of this topic came from reading Jame Gleick’s chapter, Entropy and Its Demons (Chapter 9) in his magnificent book, The Information: A Theory, A History, a Flood. This text should be required reading for all librarians. Not only is it full of great stories and ideas but it describes the air that we librarians breath. It describes the water (information) to the fish (us). The Information is itself an act against entropy bringing order to far flung and loosely connected theories. Gleick did not intend this book to be a management text but if entropy, as an information problem, is the battle of order vs chaos, I can’t read this book any other way. To me, management problems are often information problems.

Returning to the issue of management as a battle against entropy, Gleick reminds us that “information is not free.” He notes that in order for our magical being to separate the cold water from the hot water, there would be a cost to capturing that information. Interfering in the system interjects entropy. In other words, learning is a cost. To carry the analogy further, there is a cost to management. To capture information for our feedback loops there must be a commitment of time, effort and energy of staff members.


Troy A. Swanson is Teaching &Learning Librarian at Moraine Valley Community College. You can follow him on Twitter at @t_swanson.

Seduced by Google – A TTW Guest Post by Dr. Troy Swanson

When we initiated a new usability study of our library’s website, we reviewed close to 60 library websites. The one dominant trend  we observed was the placement of some sort of search functionality was present on the library’s homepage. Most libraries had tabbed search boxes that allowed users to click between tabs for searching the OPAC, periodical databases, and other types of information.

Our assumption was that we also should move our search functionality to our library’s homepage. We thought that search was the primary purpose of our website, but the results of our usability study caused us to rethink this assumption. We found that our existing library website where users must click to a separate “research tools” page, outperformed a mock up site with the search box on the homepage. Jeremy Green and I wrote about our usability study findings in the Journal of Academic Librarianship (“Why We Are Not Google,” JAL 37:3, May 2011,

In our article, Jeremy and I framed our usability study findings with Siva Vaidhyanathan’s critique of higher education as having been seduced by Google. We did this partly as a critique of ourselves, partly as our interpretation of our review of library websites, and partly as a rhetorical device to get you to read our article. We hoped that our article would be part of a larger debate about how librarians design websites to fulfill our missions. Are libraries trying to be Google and not be libraries?

Since the article was made available online and in print, I have had several librarians drop me notes about their own usability studies. While all of these notes were very professional and generally grateful for our article, they all presented evidence to support the usability of tabbed search boxes on their library homepages. I greatly enjoyed the exchanges I have had about our study’s findings, and I hope to broaden this conversation with this blog post.

For me, the bottom line remains the same. A mock up site with a tabbed search box on the homepage did not out perform our current website when it came to users actually answering the questions we presented them. Our study revealed many problems with our current site that we are addressing, but participants had very few problems navigating between search tools on our site. There was absolutely no evidence that clicking down one level to a page devoted to research was a hindrance to success. Additionally, there was evidence that not having a tabbed search box on the library’s homepage made the homepage cleaner and more usable.

One caveat that must be made is that we were testing a tabbed search box, because this would have been the most realistic option for our library. There are many options for federated searching, tabbed searching, and a new generation of discovery tools that may impact future results. We are a relatively small library that does not have programmers or systems support within the library, so our technology options are limited.

This leads to a second caveat, which is that context absolutely matters. A library’s homepage needs to make sense for the library. We expect our library’s homepage to be a gateway to all of our services, not just a search portal. Moving our search services to a secondary page allows us to build more context around searching.

A final caveat to our findings is that the participants of a usability study matter. There are some aspects of usability that are universal and there are some aspects that really do depend on your participants. The goal of any usability study should be to get behind the eyes of the user and get a feeling for how they see your website. In our case, we wanted to know about our students and our website, and our study has been very enlightening. At that outset of our study, I assumed that search should be front and center on our site. Now, I have abandoned that assumption. I was seduced by Google, but the seduction is over.

Part of the fun of an article like ours is that we have leveled a criticism against all libraries and higher education based on 16 students, but I haven’t lost sight of the fact that our findings are really only relevant for us. Yet, knowing how much work a full usability study takes and the prevalence of tabbed search boxes across library websites, I am curious how many libraries are really testing usability? Maybe everyone out there is testing? But, I am skeptical. I think that Google has done a sexy dance, and we have been charmed.

Troy A. Swanson is Teaching & Learning Librarian at Moraine Valley Community College. You can follow him on Twitter at @t_swanson.


Your “Library” Doesn’t Participate in Social Media, But Your People Do – A TTW Guest Post by Dr. Troy Swanson

Much discussion has been made about librarians reaching out through social media to our communities and our patrons and rightly so. But, we often overlook the role that social media offers for us internally as a means to strengthen our organizations.

One thing to remember is that libraries really do not participate in social networks. People do.

In fact, your “library” doesn’t exist. You may have a building. You may have items on your shelves. You may have people who show up to do work. But, there is no “library.” Often, we speak of our libraries as if they are these living entities outside of the people who make them up.

“The library prohibits the use of cell phones in all public areas.”

Actually, the library doesn’t prohibit anything. Only people can prohibit.

Our libraries are groups of people who come together to do a job. Together, we make rules, systems, policies, and procedures in order to coordinate our work. We need to understand how the individuals fit together to get a job done. We need some predictability. If we had to remake the rules everyday, we’d never accomplish anything.

There are two important challenges that come from this. First, it is easy to fall into a rut and make things so predictable that nothing ever changes. There are many people who talk about breaking out of ruts, so I am will not focus on this in this post.

The second challenge, which is my focus, is much more interesting. This is that it is impossible to create rules for most situations. Most of the time, when faced with a decision, organizational members take their understanding (based on past experience) and apply it as best as possible to the task at hand. Sometimes this is a very rote task, and other times, this is a once-in-a-career opportunity.  It can take months or years of working in an organization to really understand the unwritten participation rules. Empowering people to act can be even trickier.

In an ideal, magical world, all of our organizational members would know about all of the actions ever taken by our colleagues. We would build up our knowledge and have that in our heads. Then, when faced with a decision, we would have the ultimate point of reference to use in acting.

But, as we know, that’s not how the real world works. In the real world, we are always making and remaking meaning within our organizations. Each person has limited knowledge and imperfect information. We react to our environment, observe results, and decide if our actions worked. Importantly, we decide together. Sometimes this takes the form of formal policies, evaluations, or procedures. Sometimes, this happens more informally through friendships, gossip, and frowning faces. In all cases, organizational members are bumping around, making sense of the world. Together, we make meaning through doing work. Talking to someone about working is never the same as actually working with that person.

My library is open seven days a week, day and night. Our staff members are never all together at one time. There are many staff members who will never meet each other. Yet, we hope that our staff members will make similar decisions when presented with similar situations. But, there is no way we can capture every rule, every practice, or every approach. There is no handbook that will ever be complete. There is no workshop that will ever be long enough.

But, with social media, we can connect. We can share our days via Twitter or Facebook. We can document via shared wikis. We can demonstrate via YouTube. Of course, social media will not solve all problems, but they offer an affordable way to overcome space and time limitations. They are one more tool in our tool box. Most importantly, it offers an avenue to work together, which is the most powerful way to build meaning.

The question becomes how? First, those with knowledge must contribute. Some of the most vital organizational information will come from managers, so they must commit to using these tools. Simply put, organizational members will follow their organizational managers. If they put needed information and direction in these tools, then staff members will need to access these tools to do their jobs. Second, organizational members must understand how the tools are used and what they can do. Most importantly, they must understand how they should contribute and how their contribution will forward the goals of the organization. Finally, participation must become part of everyday work. It cannot be seen as an optional fun activity, but as actual work.

Troy A. Swanson is Teaching & Learning Librarian at Moraine Valley Community College. You can follow him on Twitter at @t_swanson.

Policies Don’t Do Work – A TTW Guest Post by Dr. Troy swanson

Many technology policies are created out of fear. They are created to protect the organization from its own members. They present a laundry list of illegal activities from copyright infringement, to libel, to harassment, to intellectual property theft, etc. They “protect” the library from lawbreakers and heart breakers.

Of course, policies have never done an hour’s worth of work…ever. Policies don’t do anything. People do things, and the best policies should offer guidance to the actions of organizational members. The goal of all policies should be to prevent problems before they occur, not act like “red light cameras” taking photos of you running a red ligth after the fact.

Policies that offer guidance should emphasize use. All policies will have gray areas, but when policies focus on use, they start to build a context for the organization. They should connect technology to the values and goals of the organization by defining ways the technology could be used.

So, how do we use policies to actually impact what we do? First and foremost, policies must arise from a collaborative process. Groups of people should work together to craft policies. This process should connect organizational values to the developing process. It should capture ideas, challenge organizational members to interact, and create meaning. Striving for true participation can be inefficient and even painful, but this is an important mechanism for making change through policy.

Once policies are in place, it takes leadership to not only keep them front and center, but to connect them to practice. There is a range of ways to do this. Leaders can bring staff together to workshop policies and run scenarios with staff to create shared meanings. Leaders can also highlight real-world successes by staff members who enact the policies. Social networking tools can be utilized to call attention to enacted policies highlighting success.

In any case, leaders must grant a degree of trust to organizational members. All situations are unique, and individuals must use their judgment to apply past practice and stated policy to a situation. Technology policies that focus on use, that have been developed collaboratively, and that are actively reviewed are policies that will offer guidance and actually impact decisions.

Troy A. Swanson is Teaching & Learning Librarian at Moraine Valley Community College. You can follow him on Twitter at @t_swanson.