Why can’t databases be more user-friendly? A rant

I’m going to start with a warning here. This is a rant, and I will not even pretend to know all about this subject or that I intend to be all scientific and unbiased here. I’m not. This, mesdames et messieurs, is a rant from start to finish. You are hereby forewarned.

A big part of my job is to teach and tutor students and staff, and it is usually something like database searching, critical thinking, academic writing, systematic reviews, reference and ethical use of sources etc. I always try to teach the students the mindset behind the databases, not just where to click, because.. as we know.. things tend to move around anyway. I figure that if I try to focus more on the mindset and the methods for searching, it is easier to catch up when a database has a new interface etc. However, sometimes the databases in question are so little user-friendly that even people who teach how to use them (talking about myself here) are just dumbfounded. Seriously, why is that? Why do these companies make it so hard for us?

This week, I have been working on a systematic review with an associate professor at my university. We are writing an article together, and I am involved in every part, but the searches themselves naturally fall to me. I have been working on a concept map, I have had it peer-reviewed, I have done dozens of trials in various databases, and this week, the “real” job is being done. This should have been a pretty straight-forward job seeing as I have done detailed preparations etc. However, this is not the case at all. These are some of the things I have struggled with this week (and any other time I have done systematic reviews):

  • Different search mechanics in almost every database I use. This is not new, but seriously, can’t we all just agree on some basic rules here? Could we at least agree that ? is always used for masking, * is always used for truncation, truncation can be used in all databases, double quotation marks always signals a string and this works in every database. I mean.. just a thing like agreeing on some basic mechanics would be great.
  • Different thesauruses and taxonomies. MeSH for Ovid MEDLINE and Cochrane, Cinahl headings from CINAHL, Emtree for Embase, APA for PsycInfo, no thesaurus for Scopus etc. etc. I realise, being a librarian, that different content needs a compatible thesaurus, but seriously, the differences between some of these are just minimal, and it makes my job ten times harder.
  • Not enough functionality. When I started my current job many, many moons ago, my favourite database was ScienceDirect. Not that I liked Elsevier any better then than I do now, but it was easy to use for those who just wanted a simple search, and it still could cater to my more advanced needs because it also had an expert search functionality. Now, however, SD is about as useful to me as a violin is to a plummer. Honestly, their “advanced search” is an abomination. They sold us librarians down the river in order to make their product more like google. Seriously, I can now only use a few boolean operators, and there is no use in trying to search in chunks and use the search history to combine. Oh no, not even that. Sage journals online is just as bad. Why? Why not give the option for a simple “googlesque” search box AND an expert search. Seriously, why?
  • Cumbersome export. I had to take a break yesterday to cool down my frustration at CINAHL. I had something like 700 articles that I wanted to export to my reference manager so that I could get them into the pool of articles for the systematic review. 700 articles is not that unreasonable when dealing with systematic reviews, so I went on my way to export. Well, this database will only show you 50 article at the time on one page – AND it requires you to put everything in an export folder before you can get it to download. There is no checkbox to choose all, so you have to move 50 at the time into a folder before you can export the whole list. If you try to put the search expression into the folder (for instance S15 AND S25 AND S30, which would be the last line of your search), it only saves the search string itself, it does not move the results into the chapter. Honestly, CINAHL, what are you doing to us? I ended up making a special folder, moving 50 articles at the time and then exporting to EndNote. It took more time than putting the search in itself.
  • Finding saved searches. I do a lot of searching for staff members and PhD students, and of course, I like to save these searches so that I can easily get them back up if I need to help the same staff member again later. In Ovid MEDLINE, you have to log in (and when you are in, all you see in your screen is “modify account”, so I almost got a heart attack when I couldn’t see my saved searches), then click “My workspaces” in a tab, then click my saved searches. I mean.. was that really necessary, Ovid? It is even worse in CINAHL, where I actually had to google to find the right button to click. You have to click “Search history” underneath the search box to find it. Usually, Search history, signals the searches you have performed that session, and the Saved searches button is usually in the top right corner, so you know.. didn’t even think about it.

And these are just some of the issues. Is this as important as finding a cure for cancer, finding solutions for the climate crisis or making peace in the world? No, of course not. But.. I spend a significant portion of my day at work, and I try to work as efficiently and well as I can. Stupid things like bad interface or needlessly cumbersome search mechanics should be easy to solve. I am a librarian by trade, and I have worked with these and other databases for years, and I still find them little user-friendly. I can only guess at how an undergraduate student or a PhD student feels in this area. No wonder they call me, often almost in tears of frustration. All I can think is, if the databases are not made for me and not for the students – who are they for?

End of rant.

Now, a bit of ice tea to cool off both physically and mentally 🙂

ice tea on the veranda
Ice tea on the veranda

Vacation – here I come!

book and legs in a brightly coloured hammock
In my hammock..

July is here, and that means that my vacation is starting. I love my job, I really do, but I have to admit that I long for some vacation time this year. It has been a good semester in many ways. It felt just like “old times” (everything pre-pandemic is now “old times” in my book) with bachelor’s students lining up outside my office to get help with their academic writing, databases and reference lists – as well as some mental support in a stressful time. E-mails kept pouring in, messages on boards and Padlet kept popping up. I like a bit of action, and I love it when I can contribute to learning.

In other ways it has been a very stressful and difficult semester. The library has been through a full reorganisation, and I think that I can say (without being disloyal) that is has been a hard journey – and really, even though the formal stuff is over, it is now we really begin the work. From June 1st I got a new manager and a new section. The new manager has been the head of another section for many years, and she has broad and extensive experience in that role, so I am not at all worried on that score. However, it will be a change not to formally belong to the same section as the ones I work closely with. Trying to figure out all the new sections, teams, colleagues, leaders, mandates etc. is hard, and I cannot count how many pages of information I have tried to comb through in order to find answers that we may or may not have yet. Who knows, maybe the new organisation will work well? We don’t know yet. I am willing to put my best foot forward and do my best for it to succeed. What we do know, however, is that the decision to reorganise (yet again) is based on economics. I have been told over and over again that the library needs to save money. I have not really heard how this new organisation is supposed to save money, but there it is. There may of course be something buried in a report or in minutes from meetings somewhere, or maybe I’ll understand it better later. For now, I try to just flow along with the stream.

Speaking more generally, I worry about the strong presence of New Public Management (NPM) in universities and academic libraries. I subscribe to the idea that we should be doing Slow Librarianship, and that this would be the best way to serve our patrons and ourselves in the long run. I think of NPM as a management method to increase efficiency and reduce cost, and while I know this is oversimplifying things, it doesn’t really belong as a tool in academia. There is absolutely nothing wrong with using your resources well and to cut unnecessary services and redundant tasks when one can. What is problematic, however, is considering everything to be measurable and to assume that anything that cannot be measured is redundant. There are so many x factors in education, and I belive that to take a management methods made for factories and so on may not serve us well in the longer run. Libraries need funding, we need people, we need space, we need knowledge, we need time. I am not saying that we should never expect to be audited, but that sometimes things cost money and resources. On my best days as a teacher, I hope to inspire and to awaken curiosity for learning. It may take years for that idea to actually manifest itself. Does that mean we should not try for it at all? No. I can do as many assessments I want, I can post evaluations, I can work evidence-based (and I really try to) but it can never really measure the importance of my efforts. In the new organisation, I worry that NPM will drive all the efforts even more to the bone, and that we will be left with something that may be more efficient in an economic sense, but that no longer has deep and meaningful connections to the overall goal of any academic library.

So – that was that for this semester. Starting tomorrow, I will try to leave my librarian persona behind while I take some much needed vacation time with my family. Maybe I’ll see this more clearly after a few weeks off with some refill of energy and reflection.

Have a lovely summer!

Teacher or librarian?: what roles to play?

Illustration: colourbox.com

Am I primarily a teacher or a librarian? This is a recurring issue for me. My education is in library and information sciences, and I work as a research librarian at a university, which would put me squarely in the librarian field – however, my work is mainly focussed on teaching, tutoring and communication, which would put me more in the teacher field. In many ways, I feel like being in the middle of these two professions and traditions can be more interesting than belonging to just one, but in other ways it is challenging to have one foot in each camp, so to speak. The library is where I work and where I see my colleagues, and it is where I always feel comfortable, but I love teaching, and if I consider myself more of a teacher, and emphasize learning more in that field, that gives me opportunities to go beyond the library’s sphere and to interact in more diverse ways. Having the teacher identity can make it easier for other faculty members to collaborate with me. And then there is the power structures issue.. more on that in another post..

In a recent article by Lisa Becksford (2022), a brief overview of the history of this discussion (on whether we are librarians or teachers) is enough to understand that this is a case that goes way back. I am not going to summarize Becksford’s article, as it is well worth reading in its entirety, but one of the things I thought was interesting was that one of the main issues in whether we are considered teachers, or consider ourselves teachers, is whether (or how much) pedagogy training we have. This is not surprising in itself, but when the author asked the respondents to indicate what kind of pedagogy training and professional development they had done, most had taken some courses and/or done quite a few professional development activities. Some other interesting points from the study includes these issues:

  • Teaching, particularly one-shots and the repetative nature of regular library instruction sessions, increase the risk of burnout
  • Pedagogy training remains an issue and it not emphasised enough in library graduate education
  • The lack of time is a serious obstacle for professional development
  • Seeing yourself as a teacher increases agency and is associated with higher professional satisfaction

As mentioned, I see myself in the span between these two, but I do see myself as a teacher more and more. For years, I have tried to move away from the one-shot, and I now have more integrated courses and often more collaboration with the faculty staff than before, and I believe that this has changed the way I see my own practice, too. When I am in a class where I have been collaborating with their course teacher and we have planned it well, working toward understanding more than just where to click in the databases, I do feel like I am a teacher. I once asked the students, as part of a study I did, what they saw me as, and nearly all of the students saw me first and foremost as a teacher. They didn’t separate me from faculty members who were teaching the same course.

Being at the same time on the inside (teaching alongside other teachers, and being perceived as one) and on the outside (someone who has no power over their marks and their progress in their studies) has its value. I do believe that students often tell me things that they would be too afraid to tell their teachers (one example: a student in his third year “confessed” to me that he didn’t understand the difference between qualitative and quantitative research. I feel pretty certain that he wouldn’t have said that to his teacher), and that probably gives me a better insight in what the students are actually struggling with. That is something that I can use when I teach, as I can start with where they are at, not where they “should be”.

Being a teaching librarian means that I have to work more independently to develop as a teacher. It is not emphasised in my education, and it has not always been seen as really important by managers in libraries. I have still much to learn, and I try to learn new skills, find better ways of communicating and trying new methods as often as I can, but I would not have been where I am today without a great effort to learn and practice, without support from some wonderful managers I have had, without my lovely colleagues, and without the curiosity and interest that I believe my darling mum instilled in me. I am grateful for all of this.

In conclusion, I think I’ll say that there are days when I really reach the students and when we have connections and conversations that fill me with joy to be able to contribute to their learning (and my own), and there are days where it seems like no matter how I try, I cannot get the response I need to foster learning or reflective thinking. These kind of days are hard, but they have also proven to be educational for myself, and most days (the good and the bad) inspire me to try harder and the more I practice, the more I feel like a teacher.

Reference:

Becksford, L. (2022). Teacher, librarian, or both? A quantitative investigation of instruction librarians’ teacher identity. College & Research Libraries, 83(3), 372-392. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.5860/crl.83.3.372 

Suggested reading and listening on leadership, power relations and more

I have long been interested in work culture, power relations, communication and leadership in libraries, and there are so many good articles, podcasts and books that needs to be read that I cannot manage even a small percentage of everything that I should like to learn more about. However, I have been coming across some very useful and thought-provoking articles, podcasts and books lately that I thought I’d share here. Some concern themselves with libraries in particular while others are more general. Some of these, I have only skimmed through, while I have read/ listened to others more fully.

I enjoy most of the episodes on the “Dare to lead” podcast. It is led by Brené Brown, a researcher who is well-known for her research on shame and vulnerability. The podcast has had episodes that, although not particularly meant for libraries, have been very relevant for us librarians. Skewed power relations and toxic work cultures, but also employee activism and creative thinking + much more. I really loved these episodes:

  • How we return and why it matters (part 1 and 2)
  • Trust: Building, maintaining and restoring it
  • The dangers of toxic positivity
  • The Power of knowing what you don’t know
  • Inclusivity at work: the heart of hard conversations

Simon Sinek is well-known for his “Start with why” model. I haven’t had time to read his books yet, but I have browsed a little in both his “Start with why” and his “Leaders eat last” books, and while I don’t agree with everything, and he certainly seems to over-simplify matters, I also find some of his ideas pretty refreshing.

The book: “Speak up: say what needs to be said and hear what needs to be heard” by Reitz and Higgins is on my reading list, but not yet read. The book addresses culture at the workplace, and how leaders are encourage to say that they want open conversations without addressing the power inequality and culture issues. I’m thinking that while these issues have always been important, it is more important than ever. During the pandemic, many express that their relation to the workplace has weakened, and the statistics show that there has been a lot higher overturn in many companies. Conversations, the real ones, can rebuild some of the relationships and connections, but only if there is culture for it.

In this line of conversations, I would like to recommend Meredith Farkas’ blogpost on “listening theater”. It was a very sad, but important and well-written, story of how leaders can use “listening theater” with their employees and the almost inevitable result that can have. Farkas’ argument was that leaders might encourage feedback and conversations, but as long as none of your ideas or any of your arguments lead somewhere, you eventually give up and just realize that nothing you say make any kind of difference. Her blog post on “Slow librarianship” is also excellent.

Kaetrena Davis Kendrick showed up in a bibliography, and I was immediately interested because of this article: “Leaving the low morale experience: a qualitative study”, published in 2021. The study explores things like the role of the workplace abuse or neglect when it comes to leaving the organization, how the frameworks behind these roles are working, decision pathways during a low-moral episode and the long term effects after the person has left the workplace. The study is very interesting and particularly due to the qualitative narrative. I really think that we need to talk more about these issues in libraries.

My last reading suggestion for this post is the article “Toxic cultures are driving the great resignation” by Sull, Sull and Zweig. The authors have done extensive research on why people leave their workplaces, and found that the top 5 predictors of job attrition were: Toxic corporate culture, job insecurity and reorganization, high levels of innovation, failure to recognize employee performance and poor response to Covid-19. What I find extra fascinating about this is that most of these things could have been avoided if attention had been paid to them.

I am well aware that there are more leadership books than anyone can ever read in their lifetime, and I never meant this to be an exhaustive list. I just felt like sharing a few things I have been reading or thinking about lately. Happy reading/ listening!

Reference list:

Brown, B. (Host).(2022) Dare to lead [Audio podcast]. Spotify. https://brenebrown.com/podcast-show/dare-to-lead/

Farkas, M. (2021, 18 October). What is slow librarianship? Information wants to be free. https://meredith.wolfwater.com/wordpress/2021/10/18/what-is-slow-librarianship/

Farkas, M. (2021, 5 December). “Listening theater” and employee voice. Information wants to be free. https://meredith.wolfwater.com/wordpress/2021/12/05/listening-theater-and-employee-voice/

Kendrick, K. D. (2021). Leaving the low morale experience: a qualitative study. Alki, 37(2), p. 9-24. https://wala.memberclicks.net/assets/Alki/Alki_July2021_FINAL.pdf

Reitz, M., & Higgins, J. (2019). Speak up: say what needs to be said and hear what needs to be heard. FT Press. 

Sinek, S. (2011). Start with why : how great leaders inspire everyone to take action. Portfolio, Penguin.

Sull, D, Sull, C. & Zweig, B. (2022). Toxic culture is driving the great resignation. Retrieved 28 March, 2022 from: https://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/toxic-culture-is-driving-the-great-resignation/

The research minion

Rock & Roll Minions” by Daniel Y. Go is marked with CC BY-NC 2.0.

One of the most interesting things I do at work is research. Research can be frustrating, overwhelming, annoying, troublesome and tedious. However, it can also be elating, motivating, joyous and inspiring. The fact that it is so varying is almost the best part of it. It is, however, always time-consuming and a little draining (due to the level 2 thinking (Hello, Kahneman) involved).

When I do my own research projects, this is how the process usually goes:

  • Get an idea and think about turning it into a research project
  • Informal chat with colleagues
  • Forget about it for a while
  • Come back to the idea and try to find some studies or theory to gain more understanding
  • Thinking that my idea is a good one
  • Forget about it for a while – doing some everyday tasks instead because it’s hard to get to the next stage
  • Get my act together and set up a quick draft with some headings, start to write a little in the introduction and think about methods
  • Do some other stuff for a while
  • Drafting questionnaires/ interview questions and writing a little more
  • Reading some more and talking to colleagues
  • Doing some other stuff
  • Finally getting ready to collect data
  • Getting distracted by trying to find the right journal, changes to the methods..
  • etc etc

So – it’s not like I have a very linear process that follows the line charts in a methodology book. However, I am in (some) control over it. If I want to, I can ask for research time and lock myself in my office for a day without Teams, mail etc. As I have said before, research is an activity that must be supported throughout the organization and leaders cannot just decide that we should do more research without also making sure that there is culture for it and time for it.

The other kind of research projects I am involved in are where I am more of a secondary author – still with responsibility for the quality and real contribution (in accordance with the Vancouver rules), but without the control (and responsibility) of the first author. Usually, this is a role I have when I am writing with a faculty member. The involvement varies (within the scope of the aforementioned rules) from setting up searches and writing up this method as well as setting up inclusion/exclusion criteria etc. to being part of defining the question itself and writing the protocol (for reviews) and so on. I love this, too. Writing the protocol can be a little tedious, but I love working with faculty. I really do, and I feel like I push my knowledge and learn a lot, too. The thing I don’t love about this kind of involvement is the lack of control for the project. Yes, I can be a bit of a control freak, I’m not going to deny it, but in this case, no control means that I may have spent a lot of time and energy in to something that might never happen or can happen in so distant a future that it is hard to see the path forward. I am not blaming the faculty here, as some of the things that have happened in the past have also been beyond the faculty’s control. But here are some of the things that have happened:

  • a researcher broke her leg and was on sick leave for so long the project got dropped
  • the format the researchers had chosen were not eligible for the journal that they had chosen and the study therefore it was abandoned
  • the other authors got too busy with their other tasks that the part I was in charge of had to be done over again several times (literature searches are like perishables – they don’t just last for ever)
  • the researcher got sick and the project was handed over to someone else (beyond my reach)
  • the researcher got a new job

And then I feel like a minion. I’m like some trained monkey that knows how to use the databases. Every time something like this happens, I am thinking: “I said yes to the project, I delivered my content well within the time frame, I was prepared to move forward, but then something happened that just washed this down the drain”, which means that I have wasted valuable time and effort into something that may or may not ever come to anything. This has happened to me in my own research projects, too, of course. Sometimes I have discovered that a study already exists and that it’s not worth the time and effort to move ahead, or I may have found that the research method I need cannot be used without more resources than I have etc. But – at least I have some control over this. I get to pull the plug myself.

Again, I’m not going to blame faculty for this. After all, they have their own stuff that is beyond their control, and it must be as frustrating to them as it is to me, but still.. it is sometimes very apparent to me that there are power disparities between us, and that has a big influence on my work and my career.

The International Women’s Day

It’s the International Women’s Day, and I thought I’d pop on here and write a quick message. I am eternally grateful for all the men and women throughout history who has fought for women’s fundamental human rights, and I am fortunate to have strong, independent women in my life. I am particularly grateful to have been raised by one of the strongest, kindest, wisest and determined women I know. I never heard my mother call herself a feminist (she didn’t much like labels), but to my mind, she really was. She was a teacher and a farmer – the very definition of a hard worker, and she was all about getting the job done. She wouldn’t have cared whether my brother had washed the clothes and my father had made dinner while I drove the tractor and she milked the cows – as long as all the jobs got done. My mother was a strong advocate of education, curiosity, conversation and kindness, and she was a lot better at showing kindness towards those to whom she had nothing in common or even shared values with, than I am. Nobody is perfect (I mean, why would anyone want to be), and neither was my mother, but in many ways she set the tone for inclusiveness and generosity, and I strive to get there myself.

Throughout history, we have had difficult times, and I have just read a novel set in the time of the first world war that reminded me of the fact. However, seeing as most people alive in Norway today, have not experienced war or armed conflicts first hand, it is no wonder that we think of these days as some of the hardest in our own history. The unnecessary, unwarranted war in Ukraine – on top of this pandemic that just refuses to die out, is a heavy burden to bear. And while the men and boys of Ukraine have to fight and engage in acts that will follow them throughout life, I have to say that the women are doing a lot of heavy lifting here, too. I cannot imagine what they feel when they are fleeing their homes with children and babies in their arms, trying to get into an overfilled train and hitching rides to neighboring countries without knowing when, or even if, they can ever come back. It is heartbreaking. I know there isn’t much I can do, but I have made a small donation to the Red Cross, and I hope that you will make a donation to a charity you like, too.

A colleague of mine set up an exhibition in the library with books on women activists, the history of the fight for equality, women in occupations dominated by men etc. I found a book there that I have been wanting to read, and I finally checked it out. I have only been browsing so far, but my goodness, it is so good. I´ll include the reference here:

Criado-Perez, C. (2019). Invisible women : exposing data bias in a world designed for men. Chatto & Windus. 

In 2020, I took a course on how we communicate research in the media, and I wrote about medical journalism. As part of that essay, I came across this video from John Oliver (whom I greatly admire for his profound and funny way of communicating issues that few others deal with), and in honour of the day, I’ll be watching it again:

Bias in Medicine

Happy New Year!

Illustrasjon: colourbox.dk

It’s January, and I’ll be honest.. it is not my favorite time of year. I adore Christmas and all the preparations, the music, the movies, the “hygge” (as it is now ok to say, even in a post written in English), and the general slowness that sets in when all the bustle is over. Well, I love all of that. When January arrives the days slowly increase in length, and some days of glorious January sunshine feel good and fresh, but most of the time it is cold, dark and dreary. That is why I always try to start the year with a little reflection on the year that has passed and some hope for the new – just to start the year off on a bit of positivity.

Reflections on 2021

I posted only nine blog posts here last year, and of them, four were summaries of days at the digital LOEX conference. It is not ideal to follow a digital conference with a seven or eight hour time difference, even a wonderful conference like LOEX, and in addition to that, the conference partly overlapped with a public holiday here in Norway. Still, the lectures that I heard were excellent and they gave me some new energy and some much needed inspiration, too. Of the five other posts last year, one was about using polls (and therefore directly on the main theme of this blog) and four were more about administrative and work life issues, such as reorganization and exhaustion, power issues and disconnectedness. I think that sums up 2021 pretty well for me. It was, in many ways, a hard year. The reorganization that is underway has taken a lot of energy for me, even though I have not been directly involved. This, in addition to the “efficiency reform” (hah!) that the previous government landed on us means that we have to cut millions from our budgets, meaning that some staff members will not be replaced, we have to cut on resources while all the time being expected to run faster and do more without impaired quality, has made a huge impact.

After 1,5 years of working from home, I returned to campus in August 2021. It was a shock to get back to campus. My first workday on campus was the day of the matriculation. Oh boy! New students flooded into campus, and I, who had been at home for 18 months, was floored by the noise, the bustle and the general state of chaos. Before 2020, I wouldn’t even have noticed. It took me a good two or three weeks to really get into the flow on campus again. Weird.

Once I got back into the habit, working on campus was good. I got more energy back, it was easier to ask some questions, it was easier to get new ideas and while my wonderful colleagues and I had kept in touch on a daily basis while I was home (and therefore probably got through some of the troubles in 2021 better than in many other libraries), it was good to see them in person. I felt like we all got a little more of our groove back. On the other hand, when the society opened back up completely in the end of September, I got more isolated than ever. Suddenly, everyone was desperate to have physical meetings, and as I have to live more protected than others (immunosuppressed), I couldn’t go. As “everyone else” was going, there was no interest in setting up a digital link either.

After the omikron variant of the corona virus made its way to our shores, it was back to the home office for me, and I don’t know for how long. There are upsides to working from home, just as there are upsides to working from campus. I am grateful to have options, seeing as so many have jobs that require a physical presence.

The things I am most pleased about getting done in 2021 were getting a book chapter published and finishing an online course in library pedagogy. The chapter was called “The teaching tube: reflections on a journey” and was published in the book “Library pedagogies: Personal reflections from library practitioners” by Andrew Walsh and Sam Aston. Writing the chapter was an opportunity to look back on my journey as a teaching librarian and where I want to go next. The online course in library pedagogy was a project that I was asked to lead in 2020, and I had the good fortune to work with great teaching librarians from all over the country. These are people that I admire and respect, and I had a lot of fun (even though it was a lot (!) of work) making the course. It was published in the early autumn of 2021.

So – what about this year? What is on the horizon?

There are plenty of things to do this year. I am in the programme committee for two conferences this year; the EAHIL 2022 to be held in Rotterdam (hybrid) and the VIRAK conference to be held in Trondheim in June (seeing as it is a mostly national conference, it is probable that it will remain a physical conference, but of course the state of the pandemic later in the spring will have to be taken into account). I am also involved in a pretty large project on updating our website for academic writing.

There has been a constantly increasing interest in systematic reviews, and even though I have been teaching this for years, there are always new things to learn. Therefore, I might take a few more courses online to update my own knowledge and to see how others teach these things. I am involved in a couple of projects that might lead to publishing this year, too, and I can’t wait to get this done.

I think it will be a busy year. I know I am often frustrated by the power imbalance, the lack of proper involvement in decision-making and “big picture thinking” in libraries, but I love teaching – I really do. I love spending time with students and my lovely, talented colleagues. I do hope, therefore, that despite the continuing pandemic, general insecurity about the future and other resource- and energy-depleting activities that it will be a year of learning and connection, laughter and productive meetings, strong coffee and meaningful conversations. Happy new year!

Using polls in seminars and lectures

Illustration: colourbox.dk

Earlier this week, I attended a seminar online (c’mon people, let us ditch “webinar” from our vocabulary), and both main speakers used realtime polling (Mentimeter and some other, similar tool that I cannot remember the name of). The first speaker used it to ask questions like “how often do you use [database]” etc. to figure out how familiar the participants were with the resource he was talking about. However, even when it turned out that something like 70 percent said that they used the database very often, he continued with his presentation as he had planned, seemingly unmoved by the data he just had received. The second speaker used it differently. In his presentation, he startet to show a slide with the talking points he had prepared, but underlined that it was not an agenda. He then asked the participants to go to the polling and range the talking points by what we were most interested in. Based on that information he arranged the taking points in order by interest and started with what most people were most interested in – just to be sure that if he got short on time, at least he had talked about the most important thing. To me, this was very interesting.

Polling is seen as a way to engage the participants, or students as they most commonly are when I am teaching, as well as a way to break up the lecture and to gain some understanding of what the students are thinking and feeling about something. Polling, when used well, can also help with communication and to a small extent level out the power imbalance between the lecturer and the students. In the example I started with, I felt more engaged and empowered with the polling for the second speaker. Even though the subject that I was most interested in was not the one that most participants chose on top, it was among the ones that he managed to get through in the first 30 minutes.

The experience from this week made me think about how I use polls. It is something that I often use, particularly with bachelor’s students for some reason, and I have used it for years, in physical as well as online sessions. In the beginning, I used it more as an ice-breaker than anything else. It was a way to get the students warmed up and to sort of “set the tone” for the class. I still use it as that, but the questions I am using are somewhat different. In the beginning, it was more like “Have you ever taken courses at college/ university level before” (for first-year students) or “Have you hear of EndNote before?”. Then I started using it more to gauge their emotional state or feelings around academic writing, like “Write down the first three words you think about when you hear “academic essay”?” (or similar) and then the words they entered formed a word cloud. I felt like this gave the students an opportunity to maybe “vent” some frustration or be honest about the process. Usually it became quite clear that, even though words like “exiting” or “interesting” came up, the majority of words were like “stressful”, “laborious”, “difficult” and “exhausted”. The most recent polls I have used went a little further, and I asked questions like “What do you think will be the easiest of this assignment”, and I gave them options like “selecting the theme”, “formulating the research question”, “searching the databases”, “choosing the articles I want to use” etc. These polls were usually given at the start of the lecture, and in the most recent examples, I used the results to decide on what to use more time on. I didn’t rearrange the talking points, like the second speaker at the seminar this week did, because there is a certain sequence to my talking points and it will not make much sense if I jumbled it all up. However, I did tell the students that I would only lightly touch upon the things that they had not marked as challenging or difficult. I also used this with the word cloud. When I came to the points that were emphasised by the students I used more time on those, and I encouraged them to ask more questions or to post them on a Q&A- slide in the poll for those who did not want to ask in class (physical) or in the chat box (online).

While I think polling, as any other technique or method, has its limitation as to learning outcomes etc., I do think that it can be a useful tool to get the students more engaged. The lecture as a format has its faults, this has been established pretty conclusively, but seeing as it is often the only (or at least one of few) pragmatic option(s) when you have the sole responsibility for 150-200 students, I don’t think we’ll ever be able to drop them. I am still testing different ways to use polling, and I keep trying to come up with the good questions that give me information I can use. The two speakers at this week’s seminar chose to use polling in very different ways, and I believe only one of them worked well. I’ll keep that in mind for my next session.

A random thing

Blogging has played an important part of reflective practice for me. Usually when I blog, it is about something that I have been thinking about that I need to write in order to understand. This is not one of those posts. This is just a random post about something that just dropped into my inbox.

Usually, e-mails from the big publishers, like Elsevier, SAGE og Ebsco, go straight to my spam folder. I really have no interest in hearing about shiny new products or subscriptions that a) I have no control over anyway seeing as I am not in acquisition b) we do not have funds to buy and c) that just lines the pockets of wealthy businessmen and women on the backs of the universities at their mercy. (Wow – that sounded a little harsher than I had intended, but I have decided not to practice self-censorship here and I’ll just let it go.)

Today, however, one of these e-mails (I will not name the publisher), made its way to my inbox. It had been forwarded, and it said “FW” in the title, so I figured I’d just browse through to see what it was. It was just a reminder to check out some new journal package, and just when I was about to delete it, I noticed the following sentence, put in right before the end greetings:

“We know libraries have faced unforeseen challenges this year, and we’re here to help you every step of the way.”

I don’t know why this suddenly caught my interest, but I just wanted to hold this publisher upside down and give it a good shake to see if any loose change came out of its pockets. First of all, “unforeseen challenges”?? Is that what we call it? Is that what we call a pandemic (not really unforseen at all, when we think about it) that has taken millions of lives? Is that what we call a constantly understaffed, under-financed and under-appreciated (is that a word?) library sector? Is that what we call it when librarians in many countries have been forced to go back to universities and colleges, in the middle of surges of covid, just to offer services that are not even considered life-saving? Secondly, “here to help you”.. Right. Because we all want to be saved by the publishers that bleed us dry every year? The publishers who demand 6 percent increase in price every year for more or less the same content, ultimately forcing us to cut down on staff etc. just because they have us in their sweaty grip? (wow.. again.. didn’t know I was this annoyed. Checking blood sugar.. nope, I’m fine there.) I don’t think so, and it is insulting to even suggest that they are here to “help us”.

Well – the e-mail is in the spam folder where it belongs. The backdrop, however, is very much still in my mental inbox. Open Access (OA) week starts soon, and while I still applaud this initiative, and I believe that OA and Open Science is more necessary and important than ever, it is hard to get really excited about it as long as we are still so bound by the publishers. We cannot mess with researchers’ autonomy, but how I wish they would just collectively say: screw this! Let’s figure out something better than just pouring money out of here to get access to the research that WE DID ourselves.

Apologies for this random rant on a Friday. I’ll work on my blood pressure this weekend.

Happy weekend!

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Stamina and resilience for teaching librarians

[Preface: I have been thinking about this subject for a while, and I really want to dive into it, but I am struggling to find the right angle. I decided to just note down some random thoughts here on my blog and see if that helps. Apologies therefore, if this seems a little unorganized at the moment. ]

I think it is safe to say that the pandemic has given much food for thought and a steep learning curve, both professionally and personally. I count my blessings every day, and I am more grateful than ever to have a lovely family, a roof over my head, a job I love (that can be done from home) and that I live in a country that, for the most part, has been relatively safe and prosperous. There have been hardships for most people the last year, including myself, but still.. I have had many privileges, and I really do acknowledge that.

I read a blog post a while back (but unfortunately, I am having trouble finding it again) about a professor at a high profile university that had flung himself off the roof after experiencing new demands and reprimands from his manager about not meeting the deadline of feedback to students. This was the second suicide due to workload at the same university. The post detailed the extreme workload they had, how many hours they worked and the totally unreasonable expectations they met from management. I have been thinking a lot about this after I read it.

While I do not think that librarians and faculty members in Norway face the amount of pressure that a lot of people in prestigious universities abroad suffer under, there is absolutely cause for concern here, too. We are seeing record high numbers of people applying for college and universities in Norway while at the same time the government are cutting budgets for the institutions. Less people to teach and support more students than ever. Of course corners will be cut. Of course we’ll see more burnout and dropouts. It is just a matter of how much and how many. Educating more people for less WILL lead to less overall satisfaction and quality, and many will be caught between a rock and a hard place. I don’t like this path.

I have been working on an online course in pedagogy for librarians this past year, and I have an amazing team of contributors with me, but it has been hard to schedule meetings and to push everyone to deliver by deadline because I know how much they have to deal with. Some of the contributors had to take over duties from one or two other staff members at their libraries while these were on sick leave or in quarantine, others have had to deal with extreme workloads and huge portfolios while developing new lesson plans, delivering lectures online and dealing with children who had to stay at home due to a runny nose etc etc. How could I “pester” these contributors to deliver content on time – when I knew the situation? The long and short of it is – I couldn’t. The course was therefore delayed 6 months (but I am working on the finishing touches these days!).

I think I may have cited this essay by Julia Glassman before, but it is truly excellent. Glassman says that the Slow Movement (Slow food, Slow Education, Slow Reading.. ) has been on the rise, and that the overall goal has been to emphasise reflection, quality and sustainability. It could easily be “translated” to a library setting.

As a teaching librarian, I have seen a lot of students over the years. They are, of course, individuals with individual needs and as diverse as the rest of the population. Catering to their needs and supporting their efforts is hard at the best of times, and during a pandemic it is close to impossible.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines stamina as “the physical and/or mental strength to do something that might be difficult and will take a long time” and resilience as “the ability to be happy, successful etc. again after something difficult or bad has happened”. I think that a lot of teaching librarians around the world has shown good stamina this past year and a willingness to make the best of things. I am, however, concerned about the long term resilience. I fear that, not just due to the pandemic, but the years of underfunding libraries and the ever increasing size of portfolios and number of students, we will not be able to just bounce back this time. I fear that, as we approach a more “normal” situation, and more students and librarians are returning to campus, we’ll simply snap under the pressure, and not be able to get back on our feet. Or will we be able, yet again, to pull ourselves back up again? I wonder..