24 March 2015

Prioritzing Assignments

Sometimes librarians, especially if doing the job well, will have more work than time to do it. Here, we mean on-demand work, the research and reference services that are seen as “our jobs”, never mind the long-term projects and daily tasks that actually take most of our time. Those tasks can, and should, be set aside when a patron asks for help.

The problem, of course, is that providing good service creates demand for the service. It’s a nice problem.

Still, when request pile up, we need a way to get started, or the avalanche can become overwhelming. This could be as simple as starting with the question on top of the stack, and when finished with that, starting with the question now on top of the stack. That should, eventually, get to everyone. But it may also miss a tight deadline or leave easy questions unanswered for far too long.

There is a better way.

First, take a moment to consider what makes one request more important to you than another. How do you choose which of two questions to answer first?

I find three factors go into my decisions: the assignment deadline, the requestor’s perceived status, and the anticipated requirements or difficulty of the question. The last of these includes determining what, ultimately, the client needs: is it a fact, a quote, an article or case retrieval, editing assistance, help using a research tool... how complex is the project, and how long will it take to complete?

The deadline is obvious. If a brief is due before close of business, it cannot be left to work on tomorrow. Each project has a different deadline, and those can provide an organizing method. This shouldn't be the only consideration, though. Just because an answer is due sooner doesn't make that the first question you should answer.

Status is a galling factor, since we're supposed to live in an egalitarian society. The fact is, though, librarians are support staff; our clients are the talent, and we're here to make them look good. And some of those clients are more important among their peers than others. We may not agree with it, but we must recognize it and at least consider it when making decisions.

Of course, the time it will take to complete should probably be the main concern. Giving ourselves time to complete a task before it is due can be a real challenge.

Each of these factors is on a sliding scale, from “ignore” to “URGENT”, and the weight given each factor varies, as well. For instance, if a new associate and a senior partner make otherwise identical requests, pleasing the partner is probably a priority. If the partner’s request is difficult while the associate’s will only take a moment, on the other hand, perhaps it is better to deliver the easy win before settling into the more demanding work.

None of this split-second internal calculation is possible, though, without communication. Begin with the reference interview, even if that means responding to an email (it's always preferable to simply respond to an email question with the answer, if possible -- it's just not always possible). This interaction lets the client know you’re on top of the question, provides you detail on what is needed, and lets you set delivery expectations. Managing expectations from the start, by knowing what else is in the queue and where this request falls on that list, helps avoid angry calls later and makes sure all responses are delivered in an appropriate, timely fashion.

03 March 2015

Library User Instruction: Course Goals

The textbooks, with their emphasis on integrating activity, writing, and critical thinking into the course, begin to get at what I want to instill in future teachers. And since I have discovered a second listed course in the catalog also focused on information literacy, I can move away from that theme to look at the subject of teaching more broadly. My goals, really, are pretty simple.

First are things I want them to learn. I want them to come to see teaching as an integral aspect of librarianship, regardless of one’s specific role in the library. Reference is teaching. Instruction, obviously, is teaching. But so is cataloging. So is work on the OPAC. Every task in the library is intended to help users fill information needs -- to help them learn something.

Next, I want them to think about what makes instruction effective, considering educational theory, methods, and how these relate to their own teaching. Praxis, the reflective analysis of our own performance, is essential to improving, and a habit best learned early.

The remaining key ideas are about presentation and content, and teachers who plan around these ideas are likely to find success. The concept of learning outcomes is most important: what should the learner be able to do after the lesson? The answer here is essential: it is the entire purpose of the instruction. It guides both choice of material and of presentation methods. If you can’t answer it, just cancel the class. Three ideas that can help determine learning outcomes for a class are 1) what should they remember in ten years? 2) “less is more” --  we can only remember so much new material at once, and 3) that we all learn better when personally interested in the material.

Exposure to this set of ideas would have been a nice start for me, yet none of my education classes bothered to make those simple points.

Then there is what I want them to do, in service of instilling the ideas above. I want them to explore issues that teaching librarians encounter in the workplace, so they will know what sort of problems and controversies they might encounter. I want them to see librarians teaching in various situations and contexts -- not just the one-shot university bibliographic instruction session, but also computer training courses at the public library, historical tours at governmental libraries, reference interactions at special libraries, toddler story-times, and more. Finally, they will practice preparing and delivering material, including lesson planning, course design, and marketing. I want them to walk out of my class feeling ready to walk into their own classrooms.

I want to do all of this in an active-learning environment based on activity and discussion with minimal lecture time, that demonstrates the theories they are studying. These activities should provide realistic scenarios and address components of larger, long-term course assignments.

The assignments, then, are carrying a lot of the instructional value for my class. They require the students to develop practical instruction skills and reflect on their own teaching experiences. The most important of these is to develop an information literacy course, from the ground up, based on The Information Literacy User’s Guide. The assignment is a nod to the inherited emphasis on bibliographic instruction; the exercise is, of course, generalizable. Digesting a text, developing learning goals and instructional plans to deliver the material, evaluating results, and creating an audience are all necessary skills for teachers, no matter their subjects.

Exploring contemporary issues, controversies, and practices in the field, however, requires some sort of research. Previously, this was just an academic research paper, like any other class. That’s pretty boring, though, and of limited real-world use. Next time, we will use a better professional-development assignment: students will prepare a paper (as if) for presentation at the ALA / ACRL conference, following all guidelines for submission. They will then deliver the presentation to the class as a “rehearsal”, and provide one another with performance critiques.

Another part of this exploration is finding, presenting, and discussing relevant research articles for the class -- which also provides more time in front of the class for each student. Another practical exercise, developing a presentation targeting a specific research tool for presentation to a specific course audience (like presenting the JSTOR database to an upper-level humanities class), puts them in front of people yet again.

The final two assignments are intended to further expose the students to practical librarianship responsibilities and expectations. First, they will visit and evaluate at least two different types of library instruction. In most cases, this means visiting a campus bib-info session, then finding a public, government, or special library at which to observe  a different kind of teaching. This leads to a comparative paper, and one hopes, a better understanding of the differences between different types of library. Finally, they undertake a job market analysis in which they look at current openings. Here, the expectation is that seeing what is required for application and what is expected in various positions will allow a head start on finding work after graduation, and that preparing a teaching statement for class will make completing those applications a bit easier.

Finally, I intend to bring in help in making these points. In-class guests provide unique insight, and the students appreciate the opportunity to ask questions of successful professionals. I expect to have at least four: the library’s subject liaison to our school, to both demonstrate an upper-level in-class library session and to discuss what a liaison does; the library’s instruction coordinator, to discuss how the instruction program works, the hiring process, and expectations for new hires; a public or special librarian, to reinforce that teaching doesn’t just happen at university libraries, and a representative from the campus teaching center, to share about the additional opportunities to develop teaching skills they offer.