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On ACRL’s Environmental Scan 2013

July 23rd, 2013

After reading Environmental Scan 2013 prepared by ACRL, I have the following thoughts:

  • Demands on faculty time plus perceptions of information overload combine to create researcher demand for information tools that are adequate but not necessarily ideal by librarian standards. (p.11)
  • Convenience in access is critical and frequently the primary factor in determining the utility of available materials and resources. (p.11)

The two quotes above are important to remember as we offer our services to our user community. What is usable to our faculty and students are what they can access relatively easily and in a timely fashion. What is “usable” is what they have the background or prior knowledge to readily understand and consume, not something where they need to read another book for the background information.(1)

Information retrieval presents another problem we face. This is a continual problem inherent in the singularity of call numbers and subject heading that we assign as access points. Call numbers collocate materials in only one area even when the contents of the resource span several areas. While multiple subject headings may be assigned to a single resource, the relationship between subject headings is lost in available access points. This singularity affects both selection in collection development and access to those materials, particularly during the information discovery phase. The problem is to be recognized, but cannot be easily solved. Related to access and information overload is the ability to judge the quality of information being retrieved. The following quote describes the problem:

  • This research appears to support previous conclusions that wider access to more online materials has resulted in more superficial reading. Although abundant digital resources and ready access to online scholarship remain essential, researchers have found that personal connections are the foundation of scholarly productivity. (p.11)

This actually is related to something that I have found in my research. Information retrieval through the use of descriptors, keywords or other metadata schemes tends to miss the affective meaning of information. The relatedness among topics that establish a context is not usually retrievable. This is the aspect that resides below a “superficial reading.” And it is one area that is not well-addressed by information organization paradigms currently under wide use in libraries. Personal contact is where contextual issues get addressed.

In information retrieval, one concern is with the context within an area of a discipline. We also need to think about our institutional context in regard not only to the type and size but also our institutional culture. This is addressed in earlier parts of the environmental scan document where we, as the library in the institution, must be judged on our role in improving our institutional effectiveness. In this sense, assessment is for more than outcomes. One goal of library assessment is to discover for the purpose of innovation, and thus engaging in discontinuous change that may involve paradigm shifts. Another use for assessment is for accreditation. Here, the data being gathered must be congruent with academic program and institutional requirements.

1. See my letter to the editor in Library Journal (7/1/1990, Vol. 115 Issue 12, p8) for a discussion on the difference between “usable” and “useful.” Also “Reference Service and Bounded Rationality: Helping Students with Research” in College & Research Libraries (Sep94, Vol. 55 Issue 5, p457-461) for a discussing on a “satisticing,” or “good enough” answer to a reference query. Both of these are indexed in Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts.

Limits on intellectual freedom?

October 9th, 2012

I attended “Banned and Determined” on October 2, 2012. This is an annual event hosted by Western Illinois University Libraries during the ALA Banned Books Week that includes readings from censored, banned, and challenged books. In the discussion following the readings, some talked about personal experiences in censorship. I brought up whether there are practical limits to intellectual freedom and related actions. I cannot remember the exact circumstances, but either in library school or during the first few years of my career as a librarian, I had argued with Judy Krug who was the Director of the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom on whether there are limits to intellectual freedom.


As I remember, the scenario I painted involved reading about handguns, forming opinions and trying to act on those convictions that would impact intellectual freedom. Sometime after, in reference to an article on censorship in Library Journal, I sent in a letter to the editor that appeared in the January 1, 1980 issue. It was titled “Freedom to stagnate” by the editor. In that letter, I clarified my argument about guns and an issue of governance. I said if I blindly defend intellectual freedom, I may not be able to act on my beliefs, because my actions would limit freedom of access to information. As stated in the article that I referenced, we need to be more aware of implications with a better understanding of the greater context.


The scenario I raised at the October 2 event involved the implosion of the library building where I work. During the summer, one of the older residence halls on campus was imploded where the public was invited to witness the event. This event triggered my thoughts concerning intellectual freedom. Suppose I know of a document laying out the procedures for imploding my library building, should I, under the guise of freedom of access, help someone to access that piece of information? Would my hesitancy be interpreted as an act of censorship? This building is functional and visually appealing. There are no plans to destroy it, but only to improve it. If I do facilitate the access to that document on implosion, would I be abetting a crime? Do I want to destroy this building that helps define my career?


So what we need to do is reach a balance between totally free access and limits on access. That can only come from an awareness of implications of our actions and understanding of the local and global contexts.

Growing Libraries

November 22nd, 2011

In May 2007 Western Illinois University Libraries applied and received an LSTA Grant to collaborate with Alliance Library Systems (ALS), the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs (IIRA), and the Western Illinois Entrepreneurship Center (WIEC). The intent was to work with ten public libraries in rural areas in helping their local communities in economic development. In the initial conference, “economic gardening” was introduced as a focus where communities are encouraged to grow their own economy. This use of “gardening” gave rise to the idea of using “growing a library” as a metaphor to examine library collection and services. I examined the use of metaphoric analysis in libraries earlier (“Changing our tools: the use of metaphoric analysis,” Illinois Libraries 82 (2000): 273-275).


In fulfilling the intent of the rural libraries grant, “economic gardening” was used as the framework in understanding the nature of successful local economic development. If we apply the metaphor of “gardening” to libraries, we can see connections that may otherwise escape deliberative examination. In thinking about libraries as part of the information ecology, we can think about how the library as a garden may fit in a given ecology. This means, that unless completely sheltered, the library must interact with the environment in order to thrive. Unless self-sustaining, the library as garden will acquire resources and be tilled and maintained through resources and services acquired through the surrounding environment. In turn, library resources and services that we offer to our community of users must also fit into the local ecology. Changes within that ecology will also affect the library.


In concentrating on the “garden” in growing a library collection, one begins to think about preparing the bed for gardening. Foremost is preparing the soil and ensuring continuous supplies of water and other nutrients and herbicides. Thus the basic infrastructure such as allocation procedure of appropriated dollars to acquire resources, personnel to till the soil and to maintain the garden, and public services staff to interact with the user community must be in place. Given the local environment such as climate and soil, the type of plants or materials and services that can thrive is limited. Acquiring a collection based on that at another library may not work if it requires a different environment to flourish. One may then think about niche markets as those plants that will thrive in the local environment, provided it is not considered a “weed” in the marketplace.


Usability of the collection and other resources may then be viewed as establishing pathways among individual garden spots so that all parts may be reached and maintained. This is the infrastructure that supports public services. Adding to the collection to support a new academic program is like starting a new garden spot. Whoever is responsible must learn to prepare the soil and tend the garden so it becomes productive. Then someone must market the product; and someone must ensure that some resources are acquired or returned for the next growing cycle. The final point is to realize that the appearance and utility of the garden will change according to environmental changes.

library assessment

April 21st, 2011

In the last few weeks, several strands of information have come together to provide a framework for this proposal on library assessment. The sources are as follows:

1. In the NCA self-study for re-accreditation the library is mentioned many times. Particularly relevant is the statement that the library is the only entity among the colleges to have done a systematic assessment (p.136). This is a strength we want to keep up.

2. The draft of The Standards for Libraries in Higher Education (2011 edition) issued by ACRL states that the new standards differ from previous editions “by articulating expectations for library contributions to institutional effectiveness” (p.1). The focus of library assessment is then shifting from comparisons to other libraries to acting on behalf of institutional mission and fulfillment of institutional goals.

3. Recent publicly available information includes similar changes in focus such as a presentation putting library assessment within the context of the institution (David Shulenburger), and a presentation on space assessment (Danuta Nitecki) at the 2010 Library Assessment Conference. Both were invited presentations.

4. In the guidelines for the program review self-study on the WIU Provost site, there is a component about library support. Cyclic program reviews are required by IBHE for all academic programs being offered. (

5. In presentations and writings (six since 1999), I have talked about different aspects of assessment, particularly with reference to the institutional context and accreditation.


My rationale is that library assessment should cover every aspect of library operations and should be cyclic. When we present an integrated face to our users, we should also assess resources, services, and operations, particularly the infrastructure. At the same time, we need to pay attention to trends and the changing environment so that we can make necessary changes and other adjustments. In cyclic assessment we can then judge whether we have achieved our goals, should adjust our goals, or establish new goals, all in the direction of our mission and values. At this time, it may be more prudent to concentrate on those academic programs that are accredited by external organizations since they have stated criteria.


In the timeline provided by the Provost, preparations for the self-study (e.g. forming the self-study team) will take place prior to the fall semester of the year before accreditation review. The self-study is to be conducted during the fall semester. External review will take place the following spring. And the final document will be submitted to IBHE in August. So the whole process spans a year and half.

The schedule for program reviews and accreditation are given on one of the Provost web pages. Since data prepared for program accreditation may be used in program review, accreditation criteria may be a good place to start. The academic programs that are accredited here at Western Illinois University are as follows (from WIU web pages):

Accreditation Body: National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE)

Program:                    All Teacher Certification Programs

Accreditation Body: Council on Accreditation of Parks, Recreation, Tourism and Related Professions (COAPRT)

Program:                    B.S. in Recreation, Park and Tourism Administration

Accreditation Body: The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB)

Program:                    Bachelor of Business, M.B.A., M.Acct.

Accreditation Body: Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (AACN)

Program:                    Bachelor of Science in Nursing

Accreditation Body: National Association of Schools of Theatre  (NAST)

Program:                    B.A. in Theatre, M.F.A. in Theatre, B.F.A. in Musical Theatre

Accreditation Body: Commission on Accreditation for Dietetics Education  (CADE)

Program:                    B.S. in Family and Consumer Sciences–option in Dietetics

Accreditation Body: Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs  (CACREP)

Program:                    M.S.Ed. in Counseling

Accreditation Body: National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD)

Program:                    B.A. in Art, B.F.A. in Art, M.A. in Museum Studies

Accreditation Body: Council on Academic Accreditation in Audiology and Speech-Language Pathology (CAA)

Program:                    M.S. in Communication Sciences and Disorders–option in Speech-Language

Accreditation Body: National Association of Schools of Music (NASM)

Program:                    B.A in Music, B.M. in Music, M.M. in Music

Accreditation Body: Commission on English Language Program Accreditation (CEA)

Program:                    Western’s English as a Second Language Institute

Accreditation Body: Commission on Accreditation of Athletic Training Education  (CAATE)

Program:                    B.S. in Athletic Training

Accreditation Body: Association of Technology, Management, and Applied Engineering (ATMAE)

Program:                    B.S. in Engineering Technology

In reviewing academic program accreditation criteria, the role of libraries is often mentioned within the context of total resource base or support, from a few lines to several pages. For example, for counseling programs, the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) specifies that “Access to learning resources is appropriate for scholarly inquiry, study, and research by program faculty and students.” For athletic training through the Department of Kinesiology, the Commission on Accreditation of Athletic Training Education (CAATE) says thatStudents must have reasonable access to the information resources needed to adequately prepare them to be entry-level professionals.” For National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), the standards simply state that “Professional education faculty and candidates have access both to sufficient and current library and curricular resources and electronic information.” For business, AACSB standards say under Services: “Does the organization provide services (e.g., library, …..) necessary to sustain the activities of the applicant academic unit? Are the costs of those services charged back to the applicant academic unit?”

On the other hand, for National Association of Schools of Theatre (NAST) and National Association of Schools of Music (NASM), the library requirements took up several pages, listing standards for the collection, administration and personnel. However, the resources must be “of sufficient size and scope” and the library should have “qualified personnel sufficient to meet the various needs of the music unit.” Other needs include “an environment conducive to study.” So some professional organizations do recognize needs other than holdings and quantitative count of other resources. But all of these standards still need library and the academic department to collaboratively reach understandings of those hedge words. For the other programs such as dietetics, RPTA, social work, communication sciences and disorders, and ESL programs, the key phrase is again whether library resources are appropriate and sufficient to meet program missions and goals.

One of the core values of Western Illinois University is Academic Excellence. This is described as a “commitment to teaching, to the individual learner, and to active involvement in the teaching-learning process.” This gives a context within which to examine our library support. I started talking about program accreditation last spring in the library and started researching requirements of the various agencies. I initially met with an Assistant Dean in our College of Education and Human Services in August 2009 about the NCATE re-accreditation scheduled for 2011. The College had just put together a committee to conduct the self-study. The Assistant Dean for the College who oversees undergraduate and teacher education said that if this process is successful, perhaps we can establish a template to look at library support that can then be applied to other accredited programs in her college. Included are programs in counseling accredited by Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs (CACREP), dietetics accredited by American Dietetic Association, athletic training option in kinesiology accredited by Commission on Accreditation of Athletic Training Education (CAATE), recreation, park and tourism administration accredited by National Recreation and Park Association, and social work accredited by Council on Social Work Education (CSWE).

In reviewing the library and resource-related components of each set of criteria, I have created the following check list for library support.

Check List for Library Support

Introductory Statement

This is a general statement of library support drawing on the library mission and values, and relating them to the mission and values of the accrediting body. Most accrediting bodies have general statements about having library and information resources necessary to support its purpose and appropriate for its size and purpose, or sufficient and appropriate to achieve program mission and goals. Other words used in the different criteria include “comprehensive,” “sufficient to ensure quality,” “adequate,” “current,” and “fair and equitable.” The statements here should follow the vocabulary of the accreditation criteria.

Other components should include the following:

1. Governance and Administration

Several accrediting bodies call for clearly identifiable procedures and services that place library support within the framework of library administration and operations.

2. Collections (or Resources)

Some accrediting bodies call for clearly identifiable collections of “sufficient size and scope” and in all applicable formats. Other words used include “adequate,” “current” and “contemporary.” Indicators for these may be title count by call number and SD# ranges applicable to the discipline. Also to be mentioned would be consortial resources and ILL.

3. Access

This is an area we can refine. There is physical access to resources that we own and access to materials housed elsewhere, including electronic resources. One accrediting body wants access “appropriate for scholarly inquiry, study, and research by program faculty and students.” Another wants access regardless of the physical location of students. To these, we can refer to our support for distance education, proxy server, etc.

4. Personnel

There is a call for persons responsible for particular areas. We can make reference to the liaison program. Also to be mentioned are those responsible for instruction and public service areas. With regard to technology, we also have computer support.

5. Services

Many accrediting criteria call for reference and ILL, or other “appropriate” services. Also mentioned is reference.

6. Facilities

As described in some criteria, physical facilities include adequate study space and computer equipment that are “conducive” to studying.

7. Finances

Budgetary support for the library is mentioned in many sets of criteria. Most say “appropriate” or “sufficient.” But one calls for “equitable,” which we can re-frame as equitable opportunities. All academic departments have the opportunity to work with library liaisons.

8. Evaluation

Some call for evidence of continuous evaluation or procedures “addressed in the program strategic plan.” These may include LibQUAL+ surveys and bi-annual statistics that are submitted to various agencies. The other part would be this proposal for cyclic assessment.

9. Learning Outcome

While many talk about preparing students for appropriate use of library resources, one body states that “students are able to use current information technologies to locate and apply evidence-based guidelines and protocols” in classroom-related research that will enable continuation as practitioners. Reference should be made to our library instruction program.

Library Assessment

This checklist can be used to present comparable information to all departments. As necessary, the library may wish to re-frame accreditation requirement when the resources and services that we offer may be comparable to what the criteria call for. By interpreting the meaning of our information for academic departments, we can draw the focus to what we do and think are important. Since program reviews and program (re-)accreditation occur periodically and cover all academic programs offered by the university, with each cycle, the library can assess those resources, services, and facilities corresponding to support for the relevant academic programs. In each cycle of six to eight years, depending on institutional, discipline and IBHE requirements, every aspect of the library that supports the curriculum, either directly or indirectly, will have been assessed.

Methodologies are to be worked out. Since many outcomes or services cannot be measured directly, we need to find indirect indicators for evidence. However, care must be taken in assigning causal relationships. For example, at the 2010 Library Assessment Conference, while high correlations may facilitate prediction, some presenters tried inappropriately to assign causal relationships based only on high correlation. In some cases, the “evidence” that is called for in the criteria may simply be inclusion in the library’s strategic plan that an evaluation or another event will take place.

Since the review cycle for all academic programs spans eight years, the process for implementing this proposal will take that long. It may take a few years before we can benefit from this process of library assessment. However, strategically, it presents a viable and systematic process.

We will be coming up for institutional accreditation in ten years. Near the end of the program review cycle timeline as described above, we should pull all the pieces together in preparation for the next NCA accreditation. This will give us a chance to evaluate if there are any gaps, inconsistencies or methodological issues that need to be addressed for another cycle.

(3/14/2011, rev. 4/21/2011)

Commentary on ACRL’s Value of Academic Libraries

September 24th, 2010

In looking through the checklist accompanying the report, it is obvious that Western Illinois University Libraries have met or are in the process of meeting many of the items listed in the research agenda. In addition, we have started other projects not listed. The library started to draft a mission statement during 1997-1998 to be within the scope of the university mission statement. Since President Goldfarb came in 2002, the university has also been publishing a set of values. In the last few years, the library has refined its mission statement and written values within the scope of institutional values. Annual reports have reflected these and written in a common format as other colleges according to guidelines from the Provost Office. In addition, library accomplishments and outcomes are described in accordance with the previous year’s goals. Future goals are listed in a similar manner, in accordance with the goals listed by Academic Affairs. Library personnel have also started talking about and meeting with departments concerning library support for program accreditation by professional organizations such as NCATE and AACSB. This is one way of addressing departmental outcomes. Summer registrations for incoming freshmen also take place in the library. In addition to using library space and computer equipment, the new students also participate in library tours. All of these events are reported in similar manners that can easily be mapped to accreditation requirements. So using an institutional context for library outcomes has a history.

The current assessment effort has its genesis in 2006 after Dean Self came. The first major accomplishment was conducting the LibQUAL+ survey, analyzing the results and acting on them to improve the student learning environment within the context of the institutional mission. Data analysis was done through an ad hoc committee. This marked the beginning of an assessment cycle for improvement. While anticipating some needs, results of careful quantitative and qualitative data analysis drove the bulk of changes such as initiation of a faculty liaison program, installation of ILLiad to better manage interlibrary loan functions, and organizational changes to improve workflow and better space utilization. Finally another LibQUAL+ was carried out in 2009 to complete the cycle. The intent was to validate the changes that have taken place. Assessment for both improvement and accountability is a continuous process.

In comparison to the 2006 LibQUAL+ results, all nine questions in the service area showed statistically significant increases. Other areas showing significant improvement include access to electronic resources from office or home, amount and availability of electronic resources, newer equipment, and having the library as a “comfortable and inviting location.” As a group, undergraduate students are more concerned with service, graduate students with access and availability of resources, and faculty with physical facilities. In the written comments, issues regarding the lack of computer equipment, access to resources, lack of lounge area and coffee bar, and Interlibrary Loan procedures are no longer evident. Instead, the question is about the function of a university library—as a traditional academic space or as a vibrant social space. This moves the discussion up one level of abstraction, in the same sense as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. These survey results and comments (or lack of) validate the changes that have been put into place.

The librarian coordinating assessment activities has started talking to other units about data collection that may be used for assessment purposes. So a data audit is reasonable, but the process needs to be more rigorous. At this point, acquiring a data management system and populating it may be premature. With current interest in anthropological studies, particularly with the Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries (ERIAL) Project that is being carried out, an impact audit may be patterned on ERIAL, especially with regard to individuals as units of measurement. As mentioned previously, library outcomes are already being reported for institutional accountability. So presentations to stakeholders should not pose a problem.

While data concerning student recruitment, enrollment, achievement, retention and graduation rates, and job success may be available in many sources such as IPEDS and NSSE, drawing correlations to the role of the library is certainly possible. Those correlations may be used as predictors in similar environments to improve library services and availability of resources. But linking them to explain causal relationships may not be possible, even with longitudinal data. Explanation of causal relationships will likely have to come from qualitative research data. In the literature on higher education, the latent effects are realized only twenty or twenty-five years later. Thus the “impact” may be hard to measure. The bigger question not addressed by the report is whether higher education is about a product or a process. Do students learn a body of knowledge or do students learn the process to acquire knowledge?

The role of the library in faculty research and grant writing may also be problematic. While metrics such as citation analysis may give indirect indicators of the usefulness and usability of the library, data on the direct role of libraries may need to come from other sources. For teaching, our library has a robust program for library instruction. Some librarians also collaborate more directly with the teaching faculty. In addition, as the liaison program matures, other avenues may become open for collaboration. This process, however, is discipline depended. We have to make a distinction between students who are majoring in the discipline or taking service courses in that department. For example, 100-level courses in computer science are service courses taken by majors from other departments. The class credits do not count toward a department major. Based on personal experience (BA in computer science) and conversation with the Computer Science Department Chair, computer science majors, as a rule, do not use the library except for books such as software manuals.

For other aspects such as professional development and culture of assessment, we have taken advantage of opportunities not only to attend conferences but also making presentations and publishing. From those venues, existing skills have been sharpened. Many items on the research agenda of this report have been addressed. In addition, we are engaged in topics not listed in the research agenda, but are essential in our view. Conversations have been started concerning library support for academic programs such as teaching, dietetics and business. The intent is to address professional accreditation requirements concerning library support. Those range from mentions of “appropriate,” “fair and equitable” to “sufficient and current.” By reaching a mutually agreeable meaning with the departments, we show direct evidence of collaboration with teaching faculty in providing a rich learning environment. In the process of gaining accreditation or re-accreditation, we also help in both student and faculty recruitment, and job success for graduates. And with student success, we may indirectly support institutional prestige.

Functional Inaccessibility

January 11th, 2010

I re-read “Functional Inaccessibility in Libraries” by Sheila Intner (Technicalities, December 1989, 3-5). I was thinking in a similar vein back then and took a slightly different focus. Essentially, what she said is that due to cataloging rules and practices such as the use of abbreviations, unwritten rule of three subject tracings, and limitations imposed by rules and practices, the number of access points is artificially kept low, resulting in difficulties to access materials in a library. With the use of integrated computer systems, many of the limitations should no longer be relevant. However, a different set of problems are being introduced that are really harder to handle. So in effect, functional inaccessibility is still there.

With newer integrated systems, it is often possible to search for keywords not only in the traditional access fields such as author, title and added entries such as subject headings, but in any field in a cataloging record. As a cataloger, I also know that while older cataloging records may only have five or six MARC fields from which to construct access points, newer records can easily have four or five times the number of fields. So a lot more text may be used in the construction of access points. And there in lies additional limitations. Access points can only be constructed from the information in the cataloging records. The content of cataloging records are limited by a cataloger’s interpretation of the content of the piece being cataloged, limitations of local cataloging practices,  capability of the integrated computer system in use, and perhaps local workflow issues. Perhaps even more important is feedback from users, including other librarians and students. The feedback must be elicited in a form that can be interpreted for doable improvements. I discussed many of these points in an earlier paper (

One problem I see is that a search key will return too many hits than what most, if not all students will want to deal with. For example, if a student wants to research the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York City, and enters that string as keywords, the result is over 10,000 entries in our OPAC, a medium-sized academic library. While the default ranking is by relevance, which makes sense, the relevance ranking does not decrease until well after the 300th entry. If I follow up by looking at one of the highly relevant record and find out that the appropriate subject heading is “September 11 Terrorist Attacks, 2001″, and re-do my search, I will find that we have over 200 titles with that subject heading. That is not counting the rest of the entries with subdivisions such as “economic aspects” or “health aspects”, adding another 150 or so titles. If I were a power searcher and decide to use that phrase as keywords, I end up with 358 entries in a single list. Sorting the resulting list by author or title would not help unless I am looking for something specific. Since the event is fairly recent, sorting by date of publication probably would not add a great deal. So those titles that do not show near the top of the list in any attempt at sorting may remain “functionally inaccessible” unless the student is very persistent and looks through all 300+ entries. While it is possible to use additional keywords with other search strategies such as Boolean operators, a student must be warned on reaching a balance of filtering out relevant materials.

So in addition to what Sheila Intner listed, functional inaccessibility may be caused by a cataloger’s interpretation of the content, keywords not put into a record, sorting algorithms, or many other factors. One of these is the temporal meaning of keywords. While catalogers may do authority work on controlled vocabularies, keywords will remain in records unless they are changed on a case-by-case basis. One solution may be to encourage browsing in the stacks. While social tagging may be a solution, if too many records are tagged with the same word or phrase, functional inaccessibility remains. It is a problem we must recognize and just live with it.

On Sensemaking

December 24th, 2009

“Frames tend to be past moments of socialization and cues tend to be present moments of experience. If a person can construct a relation between these two moments, meaning is created. This means that the content of sensemaking is to be found in the frames and categories that summarize past experience, in the cues and labels that snare specifics of present experience, and in the ways that two settings of experience are connected.”

–from Sensemaking in Organizations by Karl Weick (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1995), p. 111.

It seems that sensemaking is a necessary component of decision making whenever we have to deal with unanticipated scenarios where the events fall outside of the box of expectations. Decision making pertains to administrative and operational issues at many levels. For example, on the operational side, many librarians think that some Web sites should be cataloged. But what if the site uses mashup software that is highly dynamic in nature? Given that the content presented to a user depends on how it is accessed and that the content may include links to other sites, organizations or people, how would the cataloging record describe this? And how would the cataloger deal with access points that may be dynamic in themselves? The existing framework (cataloging rules) does not adequately address this scenario. So sensemaking decisions may be made along the continuum that would move the library in the direction of its mission.

On the administrative side, needs such as marketing or assessment may come about in answer to institutional prerogatives that relate to statewide accountability initiatives. Again, there is no history to fall on. And again, the guiding principle is the set of library values crafted in the same direction as the institutional values.

So sensemaking is a necessary component of adapting to a continuously changing environment. It probably involves more the qualitative side of research rather than the quantitative side.

The Temporal Nature of Subject Access

December 23rd, 2009

As I updated subject headings in our catalog according to the most recent monthly changes of Library of Congress authority files, I started thinking again about the temporal nature of access points. I had first broached the topic several years ago in my paper on the social aspects of information. I had said that even when subject headings do not change, if the emphasis of the concept within the discipline changes or expands, the nature of materials cataloged at different times may shift. In other cases, one heading may become obsolete and replaced by two or more others. There are also cases where several narrower terms come into play. But except on a case-by-case basis, older materials are not re-cataloged to reflect these changes, but to accommodate the changes.

Several questions emerge from this. It is a given that catalogers keep up with changing cataloging rules. But how do they become aware of changes in the disciplines, especially when they do not have expertise in the discipline? Does changing the subject heading–the access point–reflect the content of older materials? All of these, of course, apply to access to materials through the library catalog.

When one talks about access to journal articles, are subject headings or descriptors updated from authority file changes? The bigger question is how aware are librarians about these matters? I know that subject headings are added as new concepts are developed and discussed, and some existing headings are discarded or replaced. But how is that information communicated to librarians and library users? Do bodies who produce indexes update existing records?

What many librarians and users don’t always keep in mind is that subject cataloging and indexing are behind the times and always trying to catch up to the present state of knowledge.  While one may make predictions based on knowing existing trends and directions of development, it is not something that catalogers would normally deal with, particularly in subject areas that are far from the core subject expertise of that person. A cataloger becomes aware of a new heading when a new physical or electronic entity needs to be cataloged, or is suggested by an external source.

Many of these changes take place with societal changes. One example is changing “handicapped” to “with disabilities.” Another is splitting “Airline police” into “Airline security personnel” and “Sky marshals” to reflect a need to make conceptual distinctions that came about after the terrorist attack in New York City. Others are changes simply to reflect current language usage such as the spelling, from “sulphur” to “sulfur.” Another big area involves the romanization of Chinese characters from Wade-Giles to pinyin. While functionally this may be considered a linguistic shift, is it driven by politics?

This is an area of study ripe for a doctoral dissertation. I hope someone picks up on it.


August 6th, 2009

So I followed up on another reference! I read Managing the Unexpected: Resilient Performance in an Age of Uncertainty by Karl Weick & Kathleen Sutcliffe (Wiley, 2007). They talk about “high reliability organizations” that are resilient in the face of changes that some may call chaotic. They track small failures so they can be informed and avoid big failures; they resist oversimplification and avoid neglecting details that do not fit into their existing frames of reference; they remain sensitive to operations and avoid trying to always return to business as usual; they stay resilient and not let obstacles stop them in their tracks; and they take advantage of expertise whereever it is available in the organization.

Since I have many years of experience in cataloging and oversaw two systems migrations, what particularly interests me is the idea of “containment” that deals with both resilience and locating expertise. In one of my early articles on evaluating systems librarians, I said it was a given that a computer system will go down, and of course at an unanticipated time for unknown reasons. At that point, the quality of library support is not necessarily in how quickly the problem gets solved but in how the library responds. Fleshing out that earlier idea, I would say that a good library response would be to “contain” the problems. By that I mean that the systems librarian must be able to assess possible strands that have caused the problem or have resulted from the crash. In the quick assessment, it may be possible to identify some results that amount to nuisance to be noted and dealt with at a later time. Others may be due to certain inputs that can be adjusted or stopped for the time being. Still others may be identified by “expertise” in other areas of the library. This process will allow some tasks to continue while the library as a whole seeks out possible solutions. I use the plural here because there are often multiple solutions that will impact different areas in different ways. This approach may be used in many instances where the process and the final outcome are ambiguous.

Often the “containment” has financial implications and requires improvisation. There was a time when computer workstations were “dumb” terminals made by a whole list of manufactures, each model with its own set of communications protocols. We had acquired several DEC terminals specified for one library computer system. That system was abandoned before we went live. In its native mode, the DEC terminals would not communicate with an IBM-based library system that was being used by the state-wide consortium. These were new terminals, and at several hundred dollars each, would cause a financial drain to the library if they were abandoned. At that time, I had moved to Reference. But I had the expertise to offer a work-around. Those DEC terminals were re-configured to emulate Hazeltine terminals whose communications protocols were acceptable to the IBM host.

Another example involves a project to apply barcodes to the entire book collection less Archives and Special Collections. We had purchased “smart” barcodes where existing circulation records were used as a basis to establish a link between a barcode number and the corresponding bibliographic record. Each barcode was printed with the corresponding title and call number so that the barcode can be attached to the correct physical volume. There would be no need to establish the link afterwards which would be very time-consuming. This was in the days of hardwired workstations where books would have to be brought to the workstation and then re-shelved. However, I did not specify nor was I alerted to the fact that for multivolume sets there was no information printed as to which barcode number corresponded to which volume. To “contain” the problem, I found a work-around that involved checking the original circulation records and penciling in the corresponding volume information. Although the proces took a little time, it allowed the project to continue.

So “containment” is an essential part of resiliency, particularly since many problems during implementation and operation of any sizable task cannot be anticipated where many variables retain their ambiguous nature because of changing environments. Some possible solutions are not forthcoming, but processes need to continue nonetheless.

Exploring the information landscape

July 9th, 2009

As has happened many times before, I followed up on a footnote. In a research project several years ago, I interviewed several of our tenured professors. The consensus is that after the initial years as doctoral students, one of the things they do in research is to chase footnotes first. They said that while indexes and abstracts may allow a subject access, they do not give a context. They use indexes afterwards to catch anything they may have missed. Now putting that aside, the reason I followed up on this article is because I know the type of treatment this author gives to a given topic, and the title is intriguing. The article is “Leadership as the Legitimation of Doubt” by Karl Weick (in The Future of Leadership). Particularly useful is the distinction Weick makes in using a compass and using a map.

If we think of the information landscape, a map is useful only if we try to cross the landscape that has been charted by someone. If we are in the wilderness, there is no map to guide us. We have to use a compass, guided by the lay of the land which forms the context. In the present environment of continuous change, many times with local constraints or needs, it becomes relatively hard to even follow a path that another library has charted because that path may no longer exist after the last storm. So we need to proceed by our knowledge of general landscape features. Sometimes we go in an apparent straight line only to find a cliff. But it is only from that vantage point we get an overview of how to cross a river or a ravine. Then our back-tracking becomes purposeful. We are not wandering in the wilderness. Instead we become improvisational in establishing a strategy to cross the next obstacle. Sometimes it is easier to just sit and wait out the next storm.

Back at the 2006 IACRL conference, Michael Jensen gave the keynote address where he spoke about the scholarly ecosystem. He showed two pictures in the presentation that encapsulate two basic worldviews that we face. One is the wilderness and the other is a manicured garden. (see my article in the Fall 2006 IACRL Newsletter at The manicured garden is the view that our OPACs and other access tools give where there are clearly delineated gardens of materials in the sciences, the humanities, etc., with well-established paths. But the wilderness is really closer to the view of the information landscape that we have to deal with. That is where we have to use a compass, our knowledge base, and our experiences to improvise a strategy for moving forward. Even if a path has been charted, it is only good before the next growing season, the next storm, or the next day. Therein lies the ambiguity of the information landscape!