Category Archives: TTW Contributor Dr. Troy Swanson

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 (http://www.idealog.com/blog/it-will-be-hard-to-find-a-public-library-15-years-from-now) 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, http://blog.oup.com/2011/06/librarian-census/). 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.

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(By the way, you can read Gary Price’s response to Mike Shtzkin here, http://infodocket.com/2011/04/07/the-globe-and-mail-mike-shatzkin-in-montreal-libraries-dont-make-sense-anymore/.)

 

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 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maxwell’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 http://tametheweb.com/2011/03/11/the-conundrums-of-control-and-adaptability-a-ttw-guest-post-by-dr-troy-swanson/ and The Journal of Library Administration http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~db=all~content=a936900658). 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, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.acalib.2011.02.014).

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.

 

The Conundrums of Control and Adaptability – A TTW Guest Post by Dr. Troy Swanson

Administrators face two conundrums with Web 2.0 tools. David Weinberger called the first a “conundrum of control” in his book Everything is Miscellaneous. This conundrum states that organizational leaders have an important interest in ensuring that 2.0 tools are used to further the organization’s mission. However, the more controls that they put in place (such as approval processes for blog posts) the less useful the 2.0 tools become.

The second conundrum is what I call a conundrum of adaptibility. This conundrum states that organizations with looser controls allow for more experimentation by individuals as they work to solve problems. However, organizations with tighter controls more easily communicate innovations across the organization. So, less control brings about innovation but may also mean that few people in the organization will actually learn about the innovation.

You can think of controls on a continuum of looseness and tightness.

Too Tight: Organizations with controls that are too tight lock down 2.0 tools to the point where they are too cumbersome to use. Tight controls do foster a shared vision of technologies and standardize use. However, tight controls prevent adaptability because users can not experiment and play with tools. Policies, approvals, resource limitations, and restrictive organizations can kill adaptations.

Too Loose: I used to assume that absolute freedom is an advantage because then staff members would widely adapt tools to solve problems. But, absolute freedom presents several problems that revolve around a lack of definition and context for 2.0 tools. Absolute freedom puts the individual and organization at risk for misuse of technology on a legal and political level. More importantly, this lack of definition prevents the adaptation of technology by not clarifying how tools can be used to solve problems and by not having structures in place to facilitate the diffusion of ideas across the organization. People are either not clear about how a tool can be useful, or they do not know about existing adaptations of technologies to problems.

Balance: When a system is in balance, there is enough freedom to experiment and adapt, but there is enough definition and connections that organizational members than utilize innovations. Sometimes this may mean that administrators and leaders step forward to promote and give a push to new innovations. Other times, it may mean that administrators stay out of the way as organizational members wrestle with the local problems facing their department or subunit.

Control and adaptability are clearly intertwined. Most technologies go through a “loose” period followed by a more defined “tight” period. In healthy situations, the pendulum will adjust itself as needed. In unhealthy situations, tools can be locked up or underutilized.

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

 

The Underground Economy of Innovation – A TTW Guest Post by Dr. Troy Swanson

There are costs to maintaining and fully supporting technologies. For every dollar of software or hardware that is purchased, there are additional dollars that must be committed to implementation and ongoing support. Most organizations have lists of “supported” technologies and much longer lists of “unsupported” technologies. Yet, we continue to innovate. We continue to utilize new tools to solve problems. I stumbled upon this blog post from Rosabeth Moss Kante about innovation in health care, which I think is applicable to innovation in general and libraries specifically:

“Innovations always sound good in retrospect, after they’ve worked, and in isolation, when all the surrounding barriers to change don’t have to be taken into account. Arguably, the main roadblock to innovation in health care is not the limits of human imagination and creativity; it is how a complex system has grown up in which most players have incentives for keeping their piece intact while hoping to seize a piece from someone else. Health establishments fight against germs and also against germs of ideas. It’s a classic change management problem…

“…Complex systems of multiple actors and interest groups rarely change by fiat; they are more likely to change because of the accumulation of many positive deviations from tradition that prove themselves and gain support. Each small innovation pushes at some aspect of the system and ends up triggering greater change…”   (Why Innovation Is So Hard in Health Care – and How to Do It Anyway by Rosabeth Moss Kante http://blogs.hbr.org/innovations-in-health-care/2011/02/why-innovation-is-so-hard-in-h.html)

When innovations take place, they do so because someone was willing to move beyond the roadblocks that exist. They were willing to break rules and operate in the underground economy of innovation.

In my research into the innovation and adaptation of blogs and Web 2.0 technologies, I have seen how the underground economy of ideas works. Single innovators can experiment, support, and diffuse ideas across organizations pushing the larger group in new directions.

It is not uncommon for pockets of innovations to exist that replicate all of the functions of an IT department offering trouble shooting support, implementation guidance, and even hardware maintenance. Of course, inefficiencies for the larger organization will start to arise as decentralized IT services pop up.

Organizational leaders have a delicate balancing act to perform as they seek to support both innovation and efficiency. Ideally, they should act to foster innovation, but also find ways to support it efficiently. At times, this is not an easy act to pull off. The currency for the underground economy of innovation is the informal recognition and satisfaction that comes with solving problems. Many courageous innovators thrive on stepping outside of the box and playing around. Administrators who do stamp out a new innovation because it is not officially supported risk doing far more damage to their organization than they may realize.

One thing that became clear to me in my research was that budget meetings were places where innovations went to die. The price tag is a significant factor in the diffusion of an idea. Since many Web 2.0 technologies are relatively cheap, they can easily fly below the radar as they move across organizations.

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

 

Please Welcome Dr. Troy Swanson!

Dr. Troy Swanson has agreed to share with TTW readers a series of four guest posts. I blogged about Troy’s research here: http://tametheweb.com/2011/02/22/interview-with-dr-try-swanson-community-college-blogging-research/

The first post – The Underground Economy of Innovation – will go up today!

Troy A. Swanson is Teaching & Learning Librarian at Moraine Valley Community College, where he teaches information literacy and coordinates the library’s online presence. Troy’s research interests include the epistemology of college students, Web site usability, and technology management. Troy’s PhD is in Community College leadership from Old Dominion University where he studied the management of 2.0 technologies. He holds a Master’s Degree in Library & Information Science from Dominican University. He is the coauthor of Why White Rice?: Thinking Through Writing (2010).