dospuntocero: Five Years Old!

A fifth year anniversary is traditionally celebrated with wood. As the connotations of, err, the inflexible and coarse nature of lumber don’t seem to quite symbolize my aims for this column, I thought I would compromise and go with the symbol of the tree instead, which implies strength and age/wisdom. Trees also indicate permanence- but there again, maybe my metaphors aren’t quite right, as, with great sadness, I have decided to put the dospuntocero column on hiatus. This post marks my 30th column, and I’m finding that I have less and less time to write as I become more and more involved in other projects. However, the column won’t be shuttered completely. Instead I plan to leave this open, firstly in case anyone else would like to try their hand at writing a column that vaguely touches on Latin American librarianship and technology, and secondly, just in case I want to come back, in the spirit of all good superhero cartoons… So this final post will reflect on the past five years as well as trying to offer some thoughts about the next.

The column has taken on a variety of identities since its inception. Starting out in the print newsletter, migrating to the interim SALALM blog (remember that?!), before ending up on the new SALALM webpage where it was also tweeted and facebooked, I have, nonetheless, always tried to remain true to my primary aim, which was to take a huge pin to the bubble surrounding “web twopointopia”, saviour of All The Things in LibraryLand. From the very first column, I tried to present web 2.0 as so much more than a trend, or a tool that was limited to technology. Instead, as early posts demonstrated, I implored you all to think about web 2.0 as a state of mind as I looked at its early impacts on language learning, collection development and outreach, among other areas. In later columns, I started to examine web 2.0 within broader and emerging fields, such as digital scholarship, information literacy and professional development, while trying to also provide quick and simple introductions to these new worlds.

From my 2014 vantage point, the focus on web 2.0 now seems, well, a little quaint… In a few early columns, I’m definitely guilty of technological determinism (where technology drives society, rather than the other way round), there are a couple of “digital natives” thrown in there (AAGH!) and wow, apparently, judging by the fact that I dedicated not one but two 2010 columns to them, I apparently, once, really liked subject guides… On the plus side, at least I’ve remained steadfast in my dislike of Facebook… The column has also got a lot longer- it started off at a mere 600 words, and now regularly tops 1000, as well as way more delayed- having been known to be published over three weeks past my deadline… More seriously, I’d like to think the columns have got more critical, as we start to see the problems of using web 2.0 tools to outsource our work to unreliable vendors and third parties. Posts have definitely also become more process driven, and focused on the library’s role in education as I started to drink more and more of the information literacy kool-aid… Over all though, I stand by most of what I have written over the last five years, and hope that it has been of some interest to a variety of SALALMistas.

What does this mean for the future? So, firstly, I’d love to welcome anyone else  who would be interested in writing a column or two. It’s been a wonderful experience, and I’d like to thank past-editors Daisy and Nerea for taking a chance on the unknown British librarian who wrote to them asking if she could have a column in the newsletter. If you could be tempted, please let me know!

Secondly, even though the focus of my work has moved away from technology, and, yes, web 2.0 may be slightly old-fashioned, I’d like to hope that SALALMistas will keep thinking about technology in libraries with that same critical eye. While I don’t think (I hope!) we will ever revert back to the heady days when you literally couldn’t breathe without running into some egregious new act of web 2.0 evangelism, it’s certainly true that libraries still seem as threatened as they ever were- which runs the risk of technology being seen as the only way to make us relevant, hip and engaging. I’m no luddite- and past enthusiastic subject guide columns aside, nor am I recanting all my previous statements… However, while I encourage everyone to keep playing around with technologies, events of the past few months alone show how dangerous an unquestioning attitude to technology is. (NSA wiretaps, the Heartbleed virus, the internet as invisible sweatshop etc etc) That critical eye is more important than ever before, as privacy settings keep getting adjusted, technologies perpetuate tired old racial and gender stereotypes, and they just keep spying.

More importantly though, I hope that these events, as well as this reflection on how far we’ve come, will help us realise that technology is not the answer to our perceived irrelevance. We don’t need technology to be hip, cool, and down with the kids. We don’t need technology to engage and motivate. We don’t need technology to federate our interoperable, metric-driven, engagement centered, agile marketing for discoverability. Instead, we need to stand up and be louder than ever in defense of our unique values and much-needed skills, the original and best method of tackling our problems.

Thank you for all your support 🙂

Alison (@alisonhicks0)

University of Colorado, Boulder


Past Columns

April 2014: Digital Scholars?

February 2014: Working Out!

December 2013: Referencing the Greatest

October 2013: Push or Pull?

August 2013: Scrutinizing the Subject Guide

June 2013: Sombre but exciting

April 2013: Usable Usability

February 2013: Video Diaries, Mapping & Photo Elicitation

December 2012: Professional Development

October 2012: MOOC-ing it for all it’s worth

August 2012: Producing the goods

June 2012: How much is too much?

April 2012: REM and Impact Factors

February 2012: Plus ça change?

December 2011: A cite for sore eyes

October 2011: Bangers and Mashups

August 2011: Twitter: Beyond the Lunchbox

June 2011: Bar-coding the library’s future

April 2011: Mobile App-titude

February 2011: Mobile Libraries

December 2010: Express Yourselves: Simple Personal Websites

October 2010: Instruction 2.0 continued

August 2010: Instruction 2.0

June 2010: Screencasting, DIY visuals

April 2010: Subject Guides continued

February 2010: Subject Guides 2.0

December 2009: Language Learning 2.0

October 2009: Using RSS for Collection Development

August 2009: New Column!

Digital Scholars?

I ended the last column with some thoughts about subject specific information literacy- and whether we, as subject specialists, ought to be focusing on helping students with more universal information problems, such as information overload, productivity and keeping up in the field, as well as facilitating student engagement with Spanish/Portuguese tools and information practices. My research with bilingual Coloradans showed that, for the most part, people had come up with workable strategies to manage Spanish information challenges, but they really struggled with the process of working with information in the 21st century. Another group of people who often struggle with changing information landscapes are faculty. While they may be eminent researchers or well regarded teachers, many professors still stick to their own complex systems of citation storage or journal browsing, while also assuming that graduate students in the field will either just work it out, or were born knowing this type of thing (digital native, NOOO!) While, admittedly, learning to use a citation manager isn’t rocket science, I believe that digital scholarship capacities that graduate students and faculty will need in the future are important and go far beyond that. This column will explore some of these developments in an effort to think further about our role as subject specialists.

Like information literacy, “digital scholarship” is rapidly becoming one of those phrases that has multiple meanings and interpretations. Often encompassing digital humanities or big data, I’m using it in this context to mean the process of doing scholarship within today’s increasingly digital information landscapes. So, on a very basic level, this could cover using a citation manager such as Zotero or Mendeley; using RSS feeds to get Table of Contents; using productivity tools such as Evernote to keep track of your work; or perhaps using Twitter to build a network of colleagues, or a personal webpage to store open access journal articles. All of these are important tools that can make the process of scholarship more efficient, easier to manage, and you may already talk about them in your graduate seminars. More importantly, however, they make the process of scholarship more visible. On a practical level, this is another key reason why faculty and students might want to learn about these new tools, especially as research funding starts to be tied to scholar engagement and public impact, as happens in the UK and Australia.

However, this is a dospuntocero column- so, of course, it’s not just about the technology 🙂 Underneath all the new flashy import, share and collaborate functionality it is clear that there is a bit of a sea-change going on here- and what is most important is the change in scholars’ values and attitudes. So instead of thinking that scholarship should be shut off behind a paywall, researchers are starting to openly publish their work in Open Access (OA) journals or posting PDFs in repositories. Instead of making students purchase expensive textbooks, Open Educational Resources (OERs) and open courses such as MOOCs (well, ok, that could be contentious) are growing in number and usage. And finally, instead of closing scholarship off in an ivory tower, researchers are starting to develop places to debate research online, or create more of a “public intellectual” presence. So what, you may think. Well, take as a whole, these tendencies mean that digital scholarship is therefore becoming defined by “the open values, ideology and potential of technologies.” For many researchers, this is revolutionary- moving from secretive, individual scholarship, to public sharing and defending of your research and ideas. In addition, it requires a whole other set of literacies- from creating or nurturing an identity online to the ethics of digital participation to a critical consideration of tools and emerging trends. Again, maybe you are thinking, so what. Well, to my mind this is another opportunity for librarians- because it forms a key part of information literacy as well as our outreach and engagement with our liaison departments. In addition, no-one else is teaching this, and scholars are struggling with these concepts.

So, yet another question to think about- in particular, the shape and role and nature of our information literacy efforts. Combined with last column’s questions it adds another angle to the conundrum of how far should we, as subject specialists, be engaged in what could be classified as technically non- subject focused goals? If we don’t do this, who will? And while you may have a general library workshop series that looks at these questions, is there a way to capitalise better on the deep links we have with our departments? Of course, I have opinions (did you doubt that?!) but, recognising that many librarians and reorganizations have been trying to think longer and more broadly about these questions, no real clear headed answers as yet.

Alison Hicks


Working Out!

On my research leave, last March, I interviewed several bilingual Coloradan professionals in order to try and uncover how they used information in the workplace. My plan was then to use these findings to drive some of my classes. While the research uncovered some interesting and unique challenges for Spanish information seekers in the US (hopefully to be published soon!), I was more struck by the similarities that I noticed with English language workplace information practices. Call me daft, but I’m always been so focused on teaching students about the differences between English and Spanish research that I had completely forgotten to think about the broader picture. Sure, Spanish researchers may use different tools, and wow, you may want to consider all those regional variations of Spanish when you’re thinking about keywords, but, in essence, what the bilingual Coloradan professionals struggled the most with (even the experienced folk) was similar to English language professionals: information overload, keeping up in the field, and being organised. While I’m in no way negating the importance of Spanish focused instruction, and most importantly, trying to burst that filter bubble of English language privilege for at least 50 minutes, these results got me thinking. So, in the spirit of those unfinished and fairly woolly thoughts (!) this column will be dedicated to a recap and update about digital tools and strategies that could help address these more process oriented information problems.

Information Overload

By far the number one problem for the professionals I interviewed. This probably isn’t news to anyone, including myself since I wrote a column about it back in April 2012. While I still think that being ok with the idea that we’re never going to feel in control of all that information is a major step, it seems that most stress is linked to the need to keep up in the field, as well as being organised.

Keeping up in the field

As a whole, my friendly professionals really disliked trying to keep up, perhaps related to the thought that they felt that they would lose their edge in the market if they ignored it. Psychoanalysis aside, however, there are several tools that I haven’t mentioned before that could help make the process easier. In terms of keeping up with social media, Tweetdeck and Hootsuite are my new favourites. Tweetdeck is limited to Twitter (duh!) but is a simple to use program that lets you track hashtags as well as search words, people and anything else you do on Twitter. Hootsuite has a cute owl logo (what more could you want?!) but most importantly, allows you to keep track all of your social media sites from one place. I know, amazing. From Facebook to Linkedin to Twitter, you can track all updates in one easy to use interface, and it’s free for a basic account. There’s also been a bunch of new tools that allow you to keep track of RSS feeds, or blog updates since the demise of Google reader. Feedly is my current favourite- with a simple to use subscribe and read feature as well as an app.  The Old Reader is another good alternative though it is currently in beta testing.

Productivity tools for the workflow

The professionals I worked with were also fairly unorganised- yet didn’t feel they could take the time to try and work out the tools to help them. Like most of us, the situation was complicated by the fact that they had to be able to store or remember different formats of information- from emails to papers to web pages, as well as different types of information, including ideas, lesson plans and works in progress. Since writing the productivity tools column in August 2012, I’ve learned about various new softwares that could help. Scrivener is one of those. It’s been around since 2007 and is continuing to grow in popularity, especially as it combines a word processor with project management tools AND research material storage and organization. Wow. While there is an annual cost it’s super flexible and easy to use. DEVONthink is another one of those tools. While its emphasis is more on information management, rather than writing, like Scrivener, I’m kind of blown away at the different types of file formats that it will store, as well as the search and organization functionality. It’s only available on Mac, sadly, and there is a cost, but it’s an easy to use and very powerful organization tool. A final interesting alternative is Colwiz, a research management tool from the UK. One of the major attractions is the focus on enabling collaboration between researchers, combining project management functionality with research tools such as the ability to create bibliographies and organise PDFs. 2GB of storage is free, and it is available for Mac and PC.

Having said that…

Before you accuse me of just recycling and updating two columns, I think one of the biggest things I have learned from my interviews with professionals is the need to emphasise the process. No tool will solve all a researcher’s problems- and as librarians we need to focus on helping people critically examine their workflow and needs, as well as pushing the shiny technologies. These interviews raise other important questions for librarians too- hey, it wouldn’t be a proper dospuntocero column if I didn’t finish with at least one unanswered question (sorry, Jesus!) In this case, while these are important aspects of Spanish and Latin American professional information needs, how far should we be thinking about incorporating workplace information literacy into our academic programmes? Some of you may remind me that we have more immediate scholarly goals. Others may wonder if I am becoming a bit of a neoliberal in my old age, focusing on a very functional view of education for workforce readiness. But, I can’t help thinking about the Alexandria Proclamation that states that information literacy “lies at the core of lifelong learning.” In addition, all these points also raise the question about whether we as good SALALM-istas, with all the demands on our time, should be focusing on non-specifically Spanish and Latin American information needs, such as helping students combat information overload. As Mr Kipling said, that is another story- though it is one I shall try and write about in my next column 🙂
Alison Hicks

Referencing the greatest: reference services and web 2.0

Once a stalwart member of the holy trinity of public services librarianship, reference and the reference desk have, over the last few years, gradually become to be seen as an anachronistic relic of our past. Declining statistics and the idea that sitting “waiting for business” is inefficient and a waste of the professional librarian’s time seem to be the rationale behind many libraries’ decisions to shutter the desk. Yet, as the rise of the catchily named sites such as Quora, Reddit, ChaCha and Google helpouts demonstrate, the need for help or question and answer services has far from disappeared. In fact, as SALALMista, David Nolen points out in his 2010 article, even the anti reference desk movement doesn’t negate the value of human to human interaction. Accordingly, this column will look at some of these new web 2.0 reference type services to explore what makes these work, and how libraries can learn from their experiments.

Briefly, Quora, Reddit, ChaCha and Google helpouts provide different forms of online help. Quora is more of a standard Q&A service where users can pose text based questions, which are stored for future reference. Reddit is more like a cross between a social bookmarking service and news curation or aggregator where users can vote for the best links on a topic. ChaCha and Google helpouts offer more of a personal connection. Questions posed through ChaCha are answered by a series of guides who are paid for their work. Google Helpouts uses the power of video conference to connect students with teachers, who may charge for their services.

Different Formats

The first common feature of all these new services is that they are online and function through a mix of crowdsourcing and expertise. Quora and Reddit offer a searchable bulletin board format, while ChaCha is based around users texting in their questions. Google Helpouts uses video conferencing to connect teacher and student.  While, by and large, libraries moved beyond the traditional reference desk to embrace chat and text reference a long time ago, these have kind of been the limit of our online innovations. Various libraries have dabbled with alternatives such as Skype or LibAnswers, or Library DIY but overall our online approaches to reference are a bit clunky still, focused around the librarian as expert model and inversely proportional to the amount of research that happens online. Perhaps this doesn’t matter. Perhaps we want to focus on building our library as destination, and excellent new programs such as Office Hours or Jesus Alonso Regalado’s Librarian with a Latte are meeting our needs. But, judging by examples of people who are already answering each other’s research questions, for example on Foursquare, and the scalability that will probably be involved in educational initiatives of the future, maybe this is should something to which we should be paying more attention.


Another interesting aspect of these tools is their approach to trust and reliability. Quora makes people sign in with their real names (and has some mildly famous users) but people can vote for the answers that are the most helpful or useful. Reddit operates in a similar way though users can also gain link or comment karma for posting particularly popular links. In this way, these sites are reflecting our move from a paper to a networked society, and consequently bigger changes in how we establish authority in the world of Web 2.0. After all, as David Weinberger points out, why we should “trust what one person – with the best of intentions – insists is true when we instead could have a web of evidence, ideas, and argument?” So what has that got to do with librarians, I hear you cry! Surely we’re some of the most trustworthy people on the planet, right? Well yes, but the problem is that fewer and fewer students seem to enter university with a knowledge of what librarians do. In a way, perhaps this is where the biggest disconnect within research services lies. None of these new tools and techniques will help if students don’t trust us as valued members of their research or social networks or if they have no idea that librarians can help them with research questions. In this way, we need to earn the students’ confidence, whether it’s by breaking down barriers, explaining what we do, promoting our services, or wearing blue.

Critical Models

These are just two aspects of the new reference services that stand out to me- and that could affect library reference services. It will be interesting to see if any of these services takes off; ChaCha, especially, was launched to great fanfare, but has been far less visible since then. Most importantly, by highlighting these services I don’t mean to suggest that they form a model we should pursue uncritically. In fact these services may introduce other unknown dynamics, for example, Reddit and other sites which involve voting, have been shown to be far more attractive to male users. More worryingly, if we push to adopt these business models for our educational purposes we run the risk of deprofessionalizing the profession even further. Instead, critical analysis of technologies can help us think constructively about the goals and the future of our services, with no trendy rebrand required.
Alison Hicks
University of Colorado, Boulder

Push or Pull?: Tools for curating and promoting unique content

Content curation has become one of those annoying buzzwords that is always accompanied by excessive exclamation marks and in close proximity to eager business marketing types: “6 Easy Strategies to Add Value To Your Marketing Campaign!” Another sure sign of the commodification of the library and higher education, right? Or is it? Curation- isn’t that what we do? If you strip away all the hype (and punctuation), content curation involves “sorting through the vast amounts of content on the web and presenting it in a meaningful and organized way around a specific theme.” In fact, it suddenly becomes clear that content curation could be defined as One. Massive. LibGuide.- or at the very least, bearing a remarkable resemblance to the work of information professionals.

So what exactly is content curation, and why is it interesting? In a nutshell, tools such as HistoryPin, Scoop it, Storify or Pinterest allow you to gather images or content in one place- kind of like an online scrap board, which can also be shared. HistoryPin, for example, allows you to plot images from your Special Collections or Archives on a Google map- check out these old photos of the Riachuelo in Buenos Aires. Pinterest, on the other hand, allows you to promote historical and newer images, such as new book covers or reading lists, as well as local digital collections. Storify focuses on social media- interested in capturing tweets about your library, or relevant social media posts that accompanied a local demonstration or event? Storify can pull in and present a range of social media comments, particularly useful in the fast paced and ephemeral world of hashtags. Scoop-it will do the same for a variety of media- quickly and easily pull together articles, web pages, blog postings and more on a topic for a class, or to accompany an exhibit. In effect, these tools allow us to promote our content very efficiently- once you upload the files, content becomes far more visible on the web and through search engines. It also becomes far easier for others to share- allowing us to broaden access to our collections among a much wider audience. These tools enable us to extend the library beyond traditional geographic barriers and by repackaging library content in familiar online environments, it may also introduce library services to new groups of people.

So why am I so excited about content curation, after I spent the entire last column berating our profession for creating digital lists of topical content? Well, for a start, I’m slightly worried that you all might start to avoid me at the next SALALM conference, being pointed out as the crazy libguide woman who may corner you, mouth frothing, at the libreros’ reception. ( I won’t, I promise…) Secondly, that’s a very good question, and one that I’m having trouble answering. Maybe I’m dazzled by the shiny technology. But I recognize that these tools can be equally problematic in their own right- there are several steps, for example, to download or archive your content. Ultimately, I think that it boils down to the idea that I’m excited by the possibility to “push” our content into the ether. In traditional marketing of our content, services, librarians, etc, we had to hope that patrons would attend our orientations, pick up our flyers, or generally be interested enough to visit our building or webpage to see what we offer. This could be referred to as “pull”- we provide our sites and facilities, but it was up to the patrons to approach us. Web 2.0, however, has enabled us to “push” resources, services and assistance to our patrons via RSS or social media- allowing us to embed the library and the librarian in the user’s workflow, or as part of collaborative online scholarship networks. In addition, these tools help form an attractive link between our valuable physical resources and our online research prowess that helps to create a more enriching research experience. While again, that’s not seamless (hands up if anyone knows a researcher who does not suffer from information overload) it’s definitely an exciting new way to think about our services and collections- as well as a significant opportunity that we should be exploring further.
Alison Hicks
University of Colorado, Boulder

Scrutinizing the Subject Guide. Or, putting my money where my mouth is…

Things many librarians love: tea, cats, complaining about patrons, going on vacation to visit libraries, and of course, leftover food from panels… To which we must surely add our love of lists. Shelf lists, weeding lists, list of e-resources, listservs- the list (ahem) is endless. And if we throw in the list’s first cousins- the directory, the index and the register then I think it becomes pretty clear that our profession is probably one of the most unapologetic inventory makers out there. Which is great. But it does bother me when we try and impose our lists on our students. When we equate lists with a crash course on something of Great Significance. When the list is taken to promise instant knowledge. In short, when we make long lists of every potentially useful resource that ever existed on a topic, throw them up on a LibGuide and congratulate ourselves on Job Done. Yep, you guessed it. The time has finally come for me to put my money where my mouth is and explain my growing aversion to pathfinders, subject guides or research companions- and for you to persuade me that they still have value.

When you start to look for hidden pockets of research guide rage, complaints tend to centre around the lack of usability testing: the ugly, cluttered designs, 27 tab monster-guides and a frustrating number of broken links. Others complain about the growing system of parallel research guide websites, using software such as LibGuides to get round a lack of editing privileges on locked down library webpages. However, aesthetic sensibilities notwithstanding, this doesn’t get to what I think is the crux of the problem, which could be summed up as the disconnect between what librarians want to achieve with guides and what students get out of them. (And yes, this could apply to many library interactions, but I only have 600 words, so let’s focus…)

This disconnect is partly design related too. Research that my colleagues and I undertook showed that while most librarians organised guides by format (e.g. articles, books) most students preferred a design focused around help functions (e.g. where is the printer v how do I use the printer) or a specific research need (e.g. research an author). More recently, further research that we undertook on e-resources showed that students expect lists to offer guidance on where to start research. I suspect many current guides are merely alphabetical. These examples demonstrate that on the whole, librarians are designing guides for expert usage rather than the target student audience, which understandably causes certain problems. Aha, shout the subject guide supporters! So your antipathy can be explained by the fact that many librarians (and I include myself) merely use the tool badly? This doesn’t make the guide inherently evil, surely…

Well, no, but I still don’t think that gets at the heart of the matter. To my mind, it all gets back to conversations about the changing role of the librarian. Bear with me… When we started making pathfinders, these guides were shortcuts to the librarian’s brain; here are the key sources in the library on a topic. Inwardly digest and information nirvana will be yours. But nowadays, I find there’s quite a lot that’s awkward about that supposition. Firstly, the idea that we can represent all the sources in a field. We can’t. It’s very similar to the problems involved with our attempts to catalog the web- the lack of stability, the changing formats, the explosion of content mean that it’s just not going to happen.  Secondly, the idea that the research guide represents the totality of, well, research. It doesn’t. Research is a process; information practices, for example, rely heavily on physical and social sources as well as textual. We are selling students short when our guides focus exclusively on research as a bunch of stuff to be found. Thirdly, the idea that without these guides, students will never use anything but JSTOR ever again. Well, possibly. But we’re not the content police and there’s only so much we can do with poorly designed research assignments that focus on the end research product while skipping over all the intermediary and more nuanced research process steps. Lastly, the idea that our librarian knowledge can be condensed into bite sized pieces that can then be transferred to a student’s brain. And that is where I think I am most squeamish. By using these guides as lists of resources we’re dumbing down the complexity of research instead of teaching survival strategies for knowledge societies of the future. We’re representing knowledge as fixed and static rather than messy and changeable and open to questioning. And, most importantly, we’re saying that our librarian knowledge can be condensed into everything you need to know, all packaged in a neat five box format. We’re selling ourselves and our expertise short when it is more necessary than ever before.

Ok, Alison. Enough with the histrionics. Just tell me what a thwarted list-lovin’ librarian is to do… Well, I think it depends on what you are going for. If you’re designing a guide for a class, build it round the research process, add context, distinguish between learning and doing. And if you’re still not convinced, I would love to hear your defence of guides. We could even start a list 🙂

Alison Hicks

University of Colorado, Boulder


alison.hicks (at)


Sombre but promising: reflections on web 2.0

Since this column started, I’ve talked about a lot of web 2.0 tools that librarians can use in their everyday work. Recently though, I’ve been noticing a disturbing trend. Mendeley, the citation manager, has been sold to Elsevier. Google’s RSS Reader is being pulled in July. Jing screen capture is focusing on a paid model. Bloglines disappeared a long time ago. What does all of this mean? One interpretation could be that I am a terrible web 2.0 columnist, and you should take my recommendations with a pinch of salt. On that basis maybe you can feel less guilty about that LibGuide subscription… Another interpretation, however, could be that we’re reaching some kind of new stage in the evolution of the information landscape or infraestructure, and that these developments could be signposts or indicators of a need for reflection. In this column I will consider this theme further.

So I may be a terrible columnist, but from the very first, I did point out that web 2.0 was not just about the technology. Instead it was the social and philosophical change that was important; by and large, librarians saw that these new tools helped uncover opaque practices (such as informal scholarship habits- who knew Twitter would be so key for academic networking?) or enabled new teaching, learning and outreach opportunities (for example chat reference). As such, we were thrilled to be able to move our librarian mission into online spaces, seeing these tools as a way to expand our reach- for example, by integrating digital literacy into classes or providing access to materials in different formats and locations. We jumped on the web 2.0 bandwagon, and the enthusiasm of the tech startup evangelists perhaps matched the exhilarated relief that we felt at this reinvention of the library. We can connect with people! We’re relevant! We’re not screwed! It was exciting, especially because compared to the early LMS or clunky desktop products that we were used to, these new information tools seemed so open and liberating.

Except these tools actually weren’t that open. Ecosystems designed to lock us into proprietary systems grew faster than you can say interoperability. “Neutral” ranking algorithms perpetuated tired racial, cultural or gender stereotypes. Even worse, the new tools collected data on us. A lot of it. And they kept it for a long time. We moved from the “democratisation” of the information environment to becoming the product within a few short years. And libraries, as preservers of the cultural archive, to say nothing of champions for privacy and equal information access for all were suddenly looking a lot less resilient.

So what does this mean? Were all the nay-sayers actually right? Am I recommending that we hole up away from the digital world? Do we need to take a massive bite of that nasty tasting humble pie? Well, no; d) none of the above. To some extent, I think a lot of these changes are still just aftershocks from the collision between developing and established communication practices. However, I also believe that recent developments are a really loud wake up call to us as librarians. No longer can we sit back, enthralled at how web 2.0 has revitalised one part of our mission. These new information tools form a core part of the information environment. And scary developments like the loss of privacy and access are an unmistakable sign that we need to re-engage with that other aspect of our role as information professionals. That part where we analyze, study and assess the information environment. That part where we critically engage with the bias and costs of traditional or subscription information tools such as databases as well as new tools and practices such as Mendeley or GIS. That part where we ask and teach others to ask the hard questions, especially in relation to our core values of preservation, privacy and equal access. As Hugh Rundle says in his excellent “Technolust- the fifth column of the information counter-revolution” (read it!) “we are being distracted with baubles while we are shepherded away from the real action.” We are being distracted with how we can use Web 2.0 to expand our mission, while neglecting to examine “Who is setting the standards? Who determines the rules for access? Who is deciding how ideas can be shared, and by whom?” That is not to say that the baubles don’t have their benefits. Web 2.0 innovation has trampled all over traditional limited boundaries and has inspired so many positive changes. However, if our role is to manage and curate today’s information environment then we must also be asking important questions about privacy and control and authority in all aspects of new knowledge societies. These are the key questions that we are missing. More importantly, these are the key questions that are not being asked by many other people.

The digital world cannot be uninvented. Neither would I want it to be (What would I do without Twitter!); nor should librarians stop paying attention to how new tools and technologies can improve other aspects of our core mission. However, I would argue that we are failing in our job if we remain passive onlookers while the worlds of information are shaped around us. These are our natural habitats, and, unlike all these great new tools that I keep telling you about, it is clear that our library values are still rock solid.
Alison Hicks
University of Colorado, Boulder

Usable usability for everyone!

So what happens when all that ethnographic research you did points out that students have a terrible time navigating your web page? Well if it’s the catalog or the library home page, your student may be out of luck, sadly. But if you have even a tiny bit of control over a web page, whether it’s just the content, or the heading titles, or full administrative access, then the most basic of usability methodologies goes a long way. As Susan Dray said, “If the user can’t use it, it doesn’t work”. And, to my mind, it is essential for anyone who edits a libguide, a web page, a blog or any other online object.

Yet usability needn’t be scary. It’s not just for web professionals, or UX librarians, or techy sorts. The smallest change on a webpage is a design choice- and with a bit of testing this can be a good design choice. Because as Douglas Martin said, “the alternative to good design is bad design, not no design at all.” So this column aims to persuade you how easy usability is by highlighting a few basic tests below. This also replicates some of the work that the Communications Committee has been doing on the SALALM page. For further reading, try for more information and advice about conducting tests.

Are you worried about the organization or vocabulary used on your webpage?

Try a Card Sort. Used when you want to gather ideas for organization or navigation of a page, it can also be really useful to have a visual representation of all the content on a webpage-if it overwhelms you, think what your user may feel… Participants sort cards that represent potential elements on a page into categories that make sense to them. Card sorts can be open, whereupon the participant names the category, or closed where you ask participants to sort into predefined categories. You can also get useful feedback about naming conventions or incomprehensible content or titles, and superfluous materials.

Method: In paper or online using tools like

Do you have an idea to redesign your page?

Try Prototyping. It’s useful if you want to test at an early stage and before you go to the trouble of building a new page. You can get a general idea whether people understand the structure or design of the page. Participants demonstrate what they would do in a certain situation by pointing to where they would click. You could also ask what they would do in a certain situation, what they might expect to see if they clicked in a certain place, and what they liked and disliked about a model.

Method: Using a word doc, or even just paper and coloured pens.

Do you want to check how well your new or old page works for users?

Try some Usability Testing. This can be used to test how well participants can complete common tasks on your page. You can also see how people interact with the site, eg seeing the paths participants take to achieve key goals of your site. Make sure you know how to judge success or failure in advance- eg is the student successful if they take 5 clicks to get to the answer? Under 1 minute? You can also see if participants are happy or satisfied with the site, or their experience of it.

Method: Using a laptop and counting or timing the participant’s actions by hand; or by installing usability software like Morae:

Three important final usability considerations. Firstly, there are no right answers. Keep reminding people that. Participants often worry you are trying to trick them, or make them look stupid. Secondly, keep reminding people to think out loud as they complete their tasks. There’s often a lot of extra data in people’s verbal reactions. Thirdly, tests only need to recruit 5 people from each category you want to test, eg undergraduates. You are not looking for “definitive” evidence that 98% of participants selected x result, but looking for themes that you can analyze in the results, eg undergraduate students tended to group cards concerning keyword formulation and evaluation help together- could these be combined to create a sort of research process category? Lastly, if you want to be shocked, compare your students’ results to librarian results… There is often a world of difference- proof, if any was needed, that usability testing is essential in libraries today.

Alison Hicks

University of Colorado, Boulder

alison.hicks @

Video Diaries, Mapping and Photo Elicitation; Ethnographic Research-a-go-go!

What do LibGuides, ethnographic research and 3D printing have in common? To my mind, these are some of the latest crazes to sweep libraryland, and guaranteed to cause eye-rolling or cult-like following, depending on your point of view. Naturally, I have my own opinions about these trends (LibGuides, bleurgh; 3D printing, interesting!) but the one where I admit I am a fully hoodwinked, blinkered, paid up adherent and member of the cause, is ethnographic research. (Wait, come back, eye rollers!)  And just as my first column tried to emphasise that Web 2.0 is not about the shiny new technological tools, this column will explore how participatory design fits into web 2.0, and how we as subject specialists can use this in our liaison and outreach work, among other things.

Also known as participatory design, ethnographic research comes from the field of anthropology and sprung onto the library scene after the publication of Nancy Foster and Susan Gibbons’ “Studying Students” book in 2007. In a nutshell, ethnographic research aims to study and understand user behaviour and experience in a specific scenario, not only to understand how users interact with a system or situation, but also to try and gain insights into the meaning people may ascribe to that process. By understanding some of these contexts as well as mental models, libraries can try and address common obstacles or troublesome sticking points to create, ultimately, more user-centered services. This fits in perfectly with the Web 2.0 focus of letting go of control to collaborate with patrons and create more user-friendly spaces and processes that will work for your community (wow, alliteration a-go-go too!)

Most ethnographic research has focused on large scale design projects, for example for a learning commons. However, there are other ways that subject specialists can get involved and bring user-centered principles to liaison and outreach work as well.
For quick questions, you can’t beat the humble survey. Whether you want to know when or where to hold office hours, which core journals or magazines are valued most or what workshops students want to see, surveys can give you a quick idea of general feelings. These could obviously be done online using tools such as Survey Monkey or through social media such as Twtpoll or Facebook surveys. However if you have access to the department building, a surprisingly successful way to solicit feedback is to leave your questions on a clipboard or whiteboard for a couple of days and ask students to vote using stickers.
Focus Groups
For more complex or detailed questions, a focus group or group interview can provide a tonne of useful and insightful data. The group situation, especially when students are in the same department, can stimulate broad discussion and creative thinking, all of which provides valuable data on student needs and whether the library is meeting these goals. Some of the most useful questions could focus around current usage of the library, to help find out what is memorable or useful, as well as service gaps. Questions could also ask students to talk about current frustrations. This can often throw up interesting insights into the intersection of the library within the departmental or disciplinary culture. Future needs or how students see their information habits or practices changing is also helpful, especially to prioritize needs or understand where students see technology or research in their field going. Collected data can often indicate if there is a need to create more awareness of existing services, or possibilities for additional outreach opportunities, as well as information on how best to achieve this.
These ideas just scratch the surface, and for subject specialists who have their own library, the sky’s the limit! Papers such as Andrew Asher and Susan Miller’s “A Practical Guide to Ethnographic Research in Academic Libraries” can help the planning process. Ethnographic research can be very simple, doesn’t need a great deal of setup and students will often volunteer to improve “their” library without the offer of incentives. In return, you’ll not only gather insightful data but it’ll go a long way to improving community relations, with nary a LibGuide or a 3D printer in sight…

Alison Hicks
University of Colorado, Boulder

Professional development: capability, sophistication and productivity

    It’s the beginning of December, the traditional time for the ubiquitous and alliterative review article (“Top Ten Tech Trends of 2012!!!”) that always seem to be slightly too enthusiastic for the pale, twitching, shadow of our former selves that we have become by the end of another crazy year. But even Scrooge (topical seasonal joke high five!) would agree that there is some merit in reflecting, especially when it comes to thinking about learning. So, drawing on the idea of contemplating the old to welcome in the new, I thought I’d try and kickstart 2013 by reflecting on this year’s columns; a meta-column if you will (yep, I haven’t got out much recently…)

    So the last column of 2012 will be on professional development. Now wait. I’m envisaging half of you rolling your eyes because you now have 6,387 unread items in your Google Reader, and the other half of you laughing wryly about how you couldn’t even come to the SALALM conference last year. For those of you in the first group, I’m going to be pretty blunt. I know that life is crazy, that the instruction requests keep piling in, there is another weeding project and you’ve been appointed to a new taskforce. BUT this is the single most important thing that we can do as librarians. Just 10 minutes a day of reading or sharing, or heck, even skimming headlines or your RSS reader. That’s all it takes, I promise. For the second group, most of the ideas here are going to be free or low-cost, they just involve a bit of DIY savvy. Whichever group you’re in, it’s vital that we take time for our own lifelong learning. As John Naughton said, disruption is a feature, not a bug. That stable state of yesterday is never coming back, and lifelong learning is a way that we can enhance and adapt our personal and professional lives to meet whatever challenges are thrown at us.
In October I wrote about MOOCs and the role of librarians. The good news is that if there are hundreds of courses that you too can take for free. Some start on a specific date, others are more self-directed, but all offer traditional introductions to a broad range of topics. Looking to brush up on your Spanish? Try Spanish MOOC, starting in January. Carnegie Mellon offers French, MIT offers foreign language courses and there may be a Portuguese course too.  What about literature and culture? Coursera offers Fiction of Relationship (featuring Borges!) and Listening to World Music, (featuring the Buena Vista Social Club!) among others. There are thousands of technology based courses, from Udacity’s Intro to Statistics, to Udemy’s classes on Facebook, Photoshop or Excel.  Don’t forget the education classes too- try E-learning and digital cultures or Fundamentals of Online Education. More Spanish universities are getting involved too, watch out for offerings from Alicante to La Rioja. There are also several courses out there if you want a more library focused professional development. CPD23 is a UK based initiative that aims to introduce librarians to web 2.0 tools. While the course has finished for 2012, you can still complete the modules at your own pace.

    In June, I tried to reassure you about information overload, highlighting the need to rely more on friends and colleagues as recommender systems. This is known as your personal learning network (PLN), because we learn through forging connections and building networks between people and ideas. I won’t mention my number 1 tool for doing this, because you all laugh at my obsession with my blue avian friend whose name begins with T, but it’s a great way of meeting new people and encountering new ideas. Another option is Google communities, which brings us back to February’s column on Google Plus. Yes, Google + still lags behind Facebook, but Team Google is stealthily making it even easier to follow interests, experts and more, all of which are super valuable for maintaining your PLN. Other tips? Take your time, use the tools that work for you, don’t just follow people because everyone does, use the same username across different tools, share, comment and engage as well as lurking- and don’t forget to challenge yourself to think outside your field, which can resemble an echo chamber at times.

    Lastly, while I believe people are a key part of learning, productivity tools that help you keep track of literature and more keep getting easier to use. August’s column on productivity tools may help you decide which tools to use, as does the CPD23 programme mentioned above. (so much hyperlinked win in this column!) Other tools I really like are Journal TOCS; (they’ve actually gathered hundreds of new journal issue feeds in one place!) and several new mobile apps such as SoundNote (it records audio as well as your notetaking or drawings!) and Zite or Flipboard (create magazines out of your RSS feeds!).

So, professional development. In 2013 it’s all about the people, the free online courses, and the magic 10 minutes a day. I did fail to work April’s column about Impact Factors in. And there were quite a few exclamation marks. Nonetheless, I didn’t try and make some random and arbitrary predictions for 2013, another feature of end of year articles, so count yourself lucky 🙂 Happy Holidays!

 Alison Hicks
University of Colorado, Boulder
alison.hicks @