I recently answered a few questions for a Viewpoint/Interview piece in the upcoming Reference Services Review (38/2), most of which is now available to subscribers in pre-print. The issue is devoted to mobile services in libraries and features some of the smartest content I’ve seen on the subject thus far. Several of the articles are co-authored by collaborators and all-around library favorites of mine Joan Lippincott, Lori Bell, and Kim Griggs, and also includes an article by Andy Burkhardt and Sarah Cohen on their Skype services to study abroad students pilot at Champlain College, which they generously shared with me in draft form so I could profile it in an upcoming Library Technology Report. Said LTR, which I am currently in the throes of editing for July publication, examines the library hype/innovation cycle through the lens of a mature technology (VoIP) in order to distill lessons for emerging service development (e.g., mobile x, y, and z).
I love recycling almost as much as I love open access, so the RSR editors have kindly given me permission to share the full q/a here:
RSR Vol 38 No 2
More than Tools: The Need for Support
Char Booth, E-Learning Librarian and Liaison to the School of Information, University of California at Berkeley
Michelle Jacobs, Emerging Technologies and Web Coordinator College Library, UCLA
The purpose of this piece is to look beyond the data and the current studies on the impact new services have on service needs and standards that are provided to users. Instructional design is a key component to almost all Library services. Char Booth, a 2007 ALA Emerging Leader and 2008 Library Journal Mover and Shaker, took some of her down time (actually up-time since she was on an airplane) to respond to questions that represent the trends featured in this special issue.
Keywords: technology, libraries, mobile devices, instructional design, instructional literacy
Char Booth advocates for the integration of pedagogical training in library education, informing user services through local research, creating library cultures of experimentation and assessment, and exploring open, accessible, and collaborative solutions to library sustainability. Booth is the E-Learning Librarian at the University of California at Berkeley, her passion for librarianship and technology have earned her a place as 2007 ALA Emerging Leader and 2008 Library Journal Mover and Shaker. Her publications are widely recognized as “essential reading” work in the field of library and information studies. Through ACRL’s press Booth published Informing Innovation: Tracking Student Interest in Emerging Library Technologies at Ohio University, A Research Report. (Available as free digital download at tinyurl.com/boothii accessed 14 February 2010). This report examines Ohio University’s efforts to move towards a “culture of assessment.” It includes the findings of an environmental scan conducted at the University, focusing on the needs of students, libraries, and how emerging information, communication, and academic tools can be integrated. Booth stresses that local user assessment is essential and offers practical research strategies and methods. It also includes a foreword by Dr. Joan K. Lippincott, Associate Executive Director, Coalition for Networked Information (CNI), who is also featured in this issue.
Her forthcoming book from ALA Editions, Reflective Teaching, Effective Learning: Instructional Literacy for Library Educators looks at how instruction is an essential component of all aspects of librarianship. Booth introduces a series of concepts based on the USER Method. The USER Method represents a step-by-step approach to creating learner-focused instruction, building the librarian’s confidence and providing them the essential tools for their role as designer and presenter. Booth also blogs about library futures, instructional design, and technology literacy at info-mational (infomational.com accessed 19 February 2010). Her expertise in instructional design and educational theory provides invaluable insight into where libraries are and where they hope to go and if mobile is going to get them there.
RSR: Information and knowledge are essential components of academic success. Given the ways in which access to information has changed, what do you think the best tool(s) for accessing this information is/are?
Booth: I feel like I first need to take this question apart a bit. Academic success is highly subjective, and access is only one aspect of the cycle of information discovery, synthesis, and transformation that eventually produces knowledge in one form or another. For example, succeeding in the academic sense looks different to an undergrad rushing to finish an assignment by citing three sources their instructors won’t reject out of hand than it does to an interdisciplinary PhD candidate trying to compile a bibliography to help them prepare for qualifying exams. By extension, the knowledge that comes from these two scenarios has different degrees of permanence – like success, satisfactory learning or knowledge building in these cases depends on the individual. For the qual-taker, knowledge is comprehensiveness, and success is the discovery and understanding of canonical texts and advancement to candidacy. For the first-year, success is the path of least resistance, and knowledge is the miraculous but fleeting discovery of JSTOR or Google Scholar. The root of this difference is motivation – how interested is a given library user in wrangling the different access tools we all offer? We observe that the personally interested devote more energy and persistence towards the research process, which is a natural consequence of the growing specialization and increasing focus that is ideally built throughout the process of higher education. Librarians support people as they discover this self-interest and specialization, yet at the same time we enable those who simply want to barrel through the process.
It goes without saying that those engaged in study and/or research have vastly different information and productivity needs, and by extension attempting to isolate specific best-case-scenario access tools is a misguided strategy. Any library should be equally usable for the easy in/easy out undergrad as the in-depth faculty member or post-doc researcher. A useful means for approaching this challenge is to think beyond tools and towards supporting “personal learning environments (PLEs),” or the combination of tools an individual uses in work, learning, communication, and productivity. How well a library is able to meaningfully provide options to support the PLEs of different types of users is what is truly important, which involves everything from self-education in current technology platforms to local user research. If we enable ourselves to determine what X, Y, and Z user needs are, we are better equipped to supply said access or knowledge through usable platforms via personalized, comprehensible messages that push the information fluency envelope. Because access and success is closely tied to education and information awareness, this invariably involves a librarian mediator either as information/instructional designer or as a direct reference or research consultant. In this way, while the “best” access tools differ by context, they can all be guided by certain principles and practices that shape the character of search, discovery, support, and educational initiatives. These include usability, accessibility, simplicity, transparency, and so forth.
RSR: How do you feel about the trend of mobile in libraries?
Booth: Terrible. No, seriously – I suppose that as in many other things technological I try to take a simultaneously realistic, creative, and user-focused approach to the trend, as well as to consider it one aspect of the fixed/mobile convergence that characterizes our current state of near-ubiquitous connectivity. Defining “mobility” is also a tricky issue – do you mean web access from a handheld device or smartphone, or ubiquitous wireless coverage that makes any portable device connective in a mobile sense? Many of us think almost exclusively about developing mobile sites and services, but there’s a lot to consider on the technical backend, as well. Bandwidth, connection speeds, and media built-ins for most smartphones are still not as robust as hard-wired and wireless voice/video over IP solutions. This means that to stably support rich communication options such as web videoconferencing via Skype or another service, wired or wireless access via a desktop, laptop, or notebook is still best at present (although wireless speeds and devices will continue to improve in coming years). In this sense, equipping yourself, your users, and your organization for a range of strong and interoperable connectivity options for fixed/mobile connectivity will stand you in good stead.
One aspect of this convergence is in the differing impact of mobile tools in the library-as-workplace. Increased mobility in communication and information access/discovery is already an ingrained reality among many library users, yet it is still largely an end-user phenomenon in terms of its impact on the daily work and productivity of the average librarian. Think about it: at our actual jobs, most of us are still tied to traditional desktop pcs and fixed-location computing, even if we a) spend all day at said computers recoding library pages to make sure they are mobile-friendly or b) also have access to tablets and laptops and smartphones in one capacity or another. This fixed-computing phenomenon is not isolated to libraries, but is evident throughout academe – a 2009 ECAR report identified that while a trend towards VoIP adoption is on solid ground among of higher education institutions, there is a noticeable lag around all things mobile. The report notes that most universities only subsidize mobile tools/coverage for some staff but rarely provide them outright, and that few institutions have developed comprehensive strategies or plans for deploying mobile content and services in the future.
Even if our employers are not pursuing mobile support on an institutional level, as an early-adopting set librarians are using mobile tools and devices to build professional community, stay connected, discreetly waste time in meetings, and so forth in and out of work, but largely on our dime (I don’t see many libraries planning to supply their staff with personal iPhones or Androids anytime soon, so we will likely continue to use our own). While the reality of the workplace is largely still based in fixed-location computing, we can recognize the mobile trend and build platforms and services that follow the shifting paradigm while and at the same time participating in the shift ourselves as information consumers and producers. There is a lot of evangelism going on about mobile etc. etc etc., which is fine, so long as we don’t lose collective site of the fact that it’s simply another in a long line of innovations that need to be observed objectively and strategically before being pounced upon. At my workplace we did not have a particularly successful run with a recent SMS reference pilot, whereas others certainly seem to have different experiences on that score. I always sing the library specific – you have to understand how your own community uses these platforms before you can ascertain how your services will be received via mobile apps or other service/access/ discovery initiatives.
In sum, I think that it all comes down to maintaining a graceful approach to convergence and interoperability, or the merging and symbiosis of different computing and communication platforms. Bringing together sites/systems/services that will serve users connected through different devices (or viewing things on different sized screens and/or using screen-reading software, for that matter), and learning the best ways to move from one platform to another through cloud-based computing and different connection platforms in order to facilitate seamless access when and where you want it.
Mobile devices have majestically enabled my own workaholism: take this interview, for example, which has had a totally converged life-cycle. RSR editors sent me these questions via email, which I first accessed on my iPhone. Using an app called “Documents to Go” I imported the text into a Word document, and, while on a plane from San Diego to Oakland, I drafted these answers typing on my phone while entirely offline. After landing I emailed the draft Word document to my Gmail account, which I then opened the next day at work as a Google Doc on my desktop pc, and finally sent to the editors via email. I could have done this a dozen different ways, and in terms of personal productivity and imaging mobile services it is this task-based insight into mobile research and workflows that is important to cultivate.
Finally, an example of a technology tool coming down the pike that could facilitate better convergence and interoperability between mobile and fixed devices in a library context is Blio (blioreader.com, accessed 14 February 2010), a free cross-platform eReading software product developed by Ray Kurzweil that could effectively give PDF a run for its money, which from an accessibility standpoint would be an excellent thing. If DRM (digital rights management) has been the driving force in the e-book revolution to date, Blio could shake this up significantly and allow more mobile devices provide a consistent and rich eReading experience.
RSR: In a perfect library what would your preferred portal to information be?
Booth: “Perfect library” – oh, the places I could go with that one. Again, look at it from the user perspective. Many faculty I know might say that their perfect portal would be totally invisible, comprised of unlimited resources that are extremely straightforward to access, and require no cutting of red tape. An honors thesis student who will probably end up going to library school after being thwarted on the post-graduation job market might actually want the same portal to feel like more of a learning experience (which is the way most “portals” function at present – it’s often a euphemism for “overly complicated library website”).
I think that the underlying foundation to any information portal should be that it is predicated on openness of one sort or another – code, source, access, criticism, revision, and so forth. In addition, I believe information search and discovery tools/services should be as personal and/or personalizable as the user requires. The value added of libraries is undeniably in our capacity to serve and support individuals: we are basically free research firms staffed by information altruists who care deeply about the interests of others. This is a vital, important, and absolutely unique service. Going back to the personal learning environment angle, I also think of and present myself as an academic and technology productivity consultant of sorts, as well as a resource on copyright, fair use, and accessibility – all essential points along the trajectory of learning and scholarship. The more of these topics librarians are conversant with, the better chance we have of covering the diverse needs/interests of campus constituencies in whatever portal we conceive.
RSR: Given the current budget situation at most academic institutions, where do you feel libraries are best served in relation to technology and technological developments?
Booth: We are best served by using two similar strategies to solve problems creatively and cheaply. Both are bent on using existing talent/output and building awareness of the strengths of one’s institutional and professional communities:
1) Crowdsourcing: leverage the local talent in your immediate context for everything from web design to marketing. Hire interns and accept volunteers from library schools, hold student contests for website or logo designs, go through student and faculty organizations to promote initiatives and learn about users.
2) Peersourcing: leverage organizational and professional talent in the field to build partnerships, collaborations, and social learning experiences that reduce the duplication of effort upon which library paradigms have long been built. There are many movements chipping away at the all-within-my-walls mentality that characterized librarianship through the 20th century – library-developed open source tools like Library a la Carte and the Social OPAC (SOPAC), organizations like Hathi Trust for shared preservation, and grassroots events and collectives such as Library Camps, Radical Reference, and unconferences – all bent on sharing experience and expertise.
 For one perspective and information on library camps and unconferences, see Steve Lawson’s book Library Camps and Unconferences (Neal-Schuman, 2010).
 For a history of the Radical Reference collective, see Morrone, Melissa and Friedman, Lia (2009) ‘Radical Reference: Socially Responsible Librarianship Collaborating with Community’, The Reference Librarian, 50: 4, 371 — 396.