project curve, part five: library on wheels.

It’s been a spell since I wrote for the project curve series, but not for lack of inspiration: my inaugural Fall semester at Claremont was an engaging blur of teaching, trying, making, and doing, leaving me for the first time in a long while with scarce time to write. Which leads me to compose

a CCLove note

heart on speeve graphic

I wanted to wind the first half-year at my new organization down with a salute to my fabulous new CCL colleagues, whom I have come to know (and love) over the past months. I work among dedicated/creative individuals who take a heart-on-sleeve approach to pretty much everything they do, which fosters an excellent level of service and a close and supportive community of endeavor.

Thank you all for your energy, dedication, and up-for-it attitude: I am proud of the work that we do, as should we all be. This feeling extends into the student, faculty, and staff community of the Claremont Colleges, where I have felt welcomed/included/ challenged: taking stock, I couldn’t feel more at home.

the mobile shift: not exactly news

Now, down to project business. Mobile platforms and services have become one of the most handily bandied-about concepts in libraryland over the last few years, and for very good reason. Recent research from ECAR, PIL (pdf), and Pew (among others) documents a mobile shift in personal and academic connectivity, communication, and access among learners. My own research for the Council of Chief Librarians of California Community Colleges in 2011 examined in part the receptivity of participants to mobile library functionality, which resoundingly confirmed mobile trends. Figure 27  shows mobile library interest among smartphone/web-enabled mobile device owners, which represented 56% (N=1,453) of our five-campus survey population (CCL LTES Final Report, p. 36).

Chart showing mobile device receptivity, CCL LTES 2011 Project report

In all categories, a majority of respondents indicated they were very or fairly likely to use mobile library content, research, and support options from their device, significantly higher than other technology applications such as location-based services and social media (with the exception of a Facebook and YouTube). See Figure 26 (ibid., p 34).

Chart showing receptivity to social, etc. library technology services, CCL LTES 2011 Report

the other mobile

While crucial to acknowledge growing patron demand for mobile access, it is also important to consider historic and more contemporary manifestations of mobile services, and the actionable attributes they share with the device trend (e.g., bookmobiles, Street Reference and other roving models, all of which call upon portability, flexibility, and a degree of informality).

One such example is the “Library on Wheels”, a recent slant on peripatetic librarianship that we’ve been experimenting with at CCL this term.

Picture of Sean Stone and library cart

The brainchild of Science Librarian Sean Stone (pictured), what began as a no-frills vendor pushcart has been transformed into the cheapest branch library there ever was. Ringing in at about $2500 (with shipping) from a company called Big Top Carts, a semi-hefty initial purchase has provided a priceless answer to our relatively unique problem of providing outreach and research services to seven contiguous campuses. Several of the Claremont Colleges are quite distanced from the physical Library – Harvey Mudd and Pitzer in particular – making the cart an excellent means of reaching students and faculty on their own turf. (It also helps that we are in Southern California, making outdoor outreach a year-long possibility.)

cart staffing

Librarians typically take the cart to a given campus for a shift of 1-2 hours during peak student foot traffic times, e.g., lunch or between classes. On a typical outing, the Mobile Library is loaded with everything from a laptop to water to flyers to buttons to other branding/marketing materials to craft supplies to free gift books, plus extra swag and edibles at special events. It’s heavy but by no means impossible to maneuver, providing (imho) an excellent quad/glut workout on hills. Timing and placement of the forays are key, so we are building a custom Google Map of cart locations and spots for flyering, etc. on each of the Claremont campuses as we discover them.

ccl cart outreach map

number/nature/quality of interactions

The cart is so garishly eye-catching (whether stationary or in motion) that it’s almost impossible to walk past without at least consciously attempting to ignore. In the first four months of Mobile Library activity, we have logged well over of two thousand cart-based interactions, both in typical “shifts” on the campuses as well as over the course special events (outreach gold mines that I’ll describe in greater detail below).

With a combined FTE of around 6,000 at the Colleges, I read this as a relatively incredible achievement in terms of raw community penetration. Using the cart this term has facilitated an untold number of new user impressions, shared Library messages, learned faces, and new connections. Sean and Natalie Tagge, Instruction Services colleagues, Mobile Libray program managers, and the most frequent cart wranglers, report anything from between 15-50 interactions in a typical one or two-hour shift, staffed solo or with a partner. At a recent event outside the dining hall at Scripps College, my colleague Sara Lowe logged over 130 interactions in a single hour.

students at library cartInvariably, interactions include significant reference or research-related queries. Ongoing transaction logs and statistics-tracking indicate that everything from friendly (or incredulous) interactions to informational queries to in-depth reference transactions with students/faculty/staff occur.

(service) personality shift

As Science Librarian, Sean in particular has observed that cart forays are an excellent way to build relationships with faculty and students who, though physically elusive, may be heavy digital users with important collection and service input. The Mobile Library provides a literal just-in-time resource, wherein students can stop by and ask a random question they may not have tracked us down for, but that materialized when the cart was spotted. These “drive-by’ interactions are infinitely more difficult to achieve when not pounding the pavement to the respective Colleges.

At the cart, my own service ethic changes: I have found that it is impossible to be passive. Not unlike a carnival barker, I find myself hollering, huckstering, beckoning, cajoling, and gesturing people over. Some approach out of curiosity, others out of recognition. At a desk, the atmosphere is far more internalized and quiet, more appropriate for a library but sometimes perpetuating the unapproachability complex that so many of us struggle with. In my experience, roving reference inside a library is sometimes met with incredulity – somehow, open-air approachability cuts down on the Library narc/hall monitor effect.

holiday/thematic shtick 

halloween cart posterThemed forays and cart-wheeling to special campus events are proving particularly useful, and there are no end to holiday-related ideas. The presence of the cart is far more visible than a simple table setup, hence more effective at attracting attention and sustaining presence. When we collectively staffed the 5-college “Turf Dinner”, an orientation gathering of student organizations early in the term, we made contact with over four hundred (mostly first-year) students, handing out information/swag and making sure they left with a clear Library impression of accessibly quirky and involved approachability.

sean in banana costumeA Halloween cart event was hugely successful, rolling to the five undergraduate colleges and handing out candy, etc. on an open sign-up basis for all Library staff, many in full costume. Over the course of the day, we interacted with upwards of seven hundred students, also succeeding in serious staff bonding.

Most recently, Natalie spearheaded mobile “Research Therapy” hours at each campus, providing last-minute support and sustenance to students during crunch-time, handing out free books, and accepting items as a mobile return system. Again, we reached over 300 across the campuses. At the wrong place at the wrong time, however, the numbers can be quite low – during a Research Therapy foray to the Claremont Graduate University (my first cart visit to that college) I only interacted with a handful of individuals over the space of an hour. That said, all engaged in long conversations, providing ready Library feedback, asking questions, and giving strategic insight about cart timing and placement.

research therapytriage & next steps

Aside from the fact that the plexi exoskeleton is in danger of chipping when you accidentally ram into something, the cart is working beautifully (that this is my only complaint speaks volumes). We recently held a Skillshare discussion in which we developed a daily cart outreach schedule to try on a more regular basis in Spring – Sean is developing a public Cart Calendar that will show hours and locations on a more permanent basis. Collective brainstorming produced simple ideas for improvement (such as a card rolodex on deck and a magnetic letterboard for changeable signage, among other small improvements). Eventually, we’re thinking of tagging the cart somehow and having it register on a dynamic location map – more on that in the future, I hope.

Final thought: Hats off to Sean, Natalie, Sara, and all others who have poured sweat and mashed toes into this experiment: big win for the home team.

Stay tuned to the next round of project curve, part seven: curriculum mapping, revisited/reflected.

4 thoughts on “project curve, part five: library on wheels.

Add yours

  1. I love my consortium so much and I’m glad you love it and it loves you, too 🙂 :).

    And I love the idea of research therapy. And visible library outreach at Mudd. (Really, going to Mudd with the cart and saying “hey, who wants to build a dynamic tagging & mapping thing for our cart?” would kill several bird with one stone, eh? 🙂 That sounds like an AWESOME way to procrastinate on CS60 homework…)

    1. amen to all of that, and i particularly love the Mudd ‘tag our cart’ idea… spring term cart ideas percolating madly, thanks for adding an awesome one to the mix.

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