June 22, 2011

SLA Round-Up

I started my Philadelphia adventure with a trip to the Masonic Library and Museum of Pennsylvania, and I'm now enjoying a book about Masonic Washington, DC. The next day was the best part of the conference: GTRIC (the Government Transportation Research Information Committee), an all-day Sunday meeting of the Transportation Division. It was great to put faces with names I have seen on the list-serve for years, and to hear what is going on at many transportation libraries. We heard an excellent presentation about Minnesota DOT's Kindle program. We were also very fortunate to hear a presentation about Gift Management for Transportation Libraries, which is also an SLA award-winning paper by Northwestern University's Roberto Sarmiento. I was so impressed with the entire day's programming that I did not mind being in a windowless room for eight hours.

On Monday morning I attended Intentional Misinformation on the Internet. This helped me clarify some long-held ideas I have had about the internet writ large. I've long "threatened" to create a post entitled "The internet is paper" to drive home the notion that it is silly to ascribe to the internet any kind of innate qualities or moral deficiencies (it's really just people talking after all, and should not be thought of as authoritative in any sense). I still intend to write that post, but Anne Mintz challenged this idea in part by asserting, and providing persuasive evidence that, "Misinformation is not exclusively on the internet, but the internet makes it worse." I look forward to using her book Web of Deception for a presentation later this summer on cautions about online information sharing.

Masonic Library and Museum of Pennsylvania

Meeting with the Associations Caucus was a great opportunity to follow up with some contacts I had made last winter at one of our regional brown bag lunch gatherings, and to have a candid and focused discussion about the ethical dimensions of conference behavior when your employer is paying your way. Success Stories of Solos was a chance to share some of what I have learned in the last three and a half years, and to meet other solos, including the librarian at the World's Largest Carillon! Her description of her office 'over the river, through the woods, beyond the moat, at the top of the tower' intrigued us all.

I attended a session on how health care reform will change the nature of medical information and online marketing. It was a little out of my comfort zone, but it's tangentially related to some issues I need to be aware of, and I learned some new terms and buzzwords in the debate to keep in mind while searching.

The Solo Division luncheon and Transportation Division Reception were great events with real and enjoyable networking taking place (including ghost stories late into the night at the transportation reception). And as expected, the Decemberists concert Wednesday night at the Philadelphia Academy of Music, steps from my hotel, did not disappoint (and neither did walking past Colin Meloy on Locust Street Wednesday morning).

Rox in the Box, June 15, 2011

June 8, 2011

Web Reference Desk

The work of an association can be highly specialized. If your organization has an annual conference, it is probably a meeting place for people who have complex and specific information needs and challenges. The attendees are probably members from across the country, some of whom may not frequent your office or national headquarters. Others may be representatives of organizations who want to learn more about what your employer does--whether to catch them doing something right or to report back on what you could improve.

Where I work, we focus on bus drivers, bus riders, vehicles, and policy issues related to all of the above. I have struggled to find a place for myself in the conference in general, but specifically to find a contribution to our trade show floor, which is as big and busy as anything you'd find at ALA or SLA. As you can see in this picture, there are buses--lots of them! Our staff typically has an area where we set up shop and make ourselves available for questions. In the past, this area was flanked with print materials such as our trade magazines, most of which we end up shipping back on the last day of the conference.

This year I decided that the contribution I would make was something I called Web Reference Desk. Instead of showing off just our print resources (people do like "stuff" at conferences after all), I asked if I could have a high resolution monitor, internet connection, and desk chairs so I could show attendees what we spend most of our time developing when we are not at our conference: our electronic resources.

I got a lot of support from key staff members, and I ran the desk the whole time the trade show floor was open. This was a total of eight hours over three days. I am happy to say I had eight solid conversations with people--about our own publications and about online information sharing, social media, and other related topics. It was the closest I have come to working a "real" reference desk. I also experienced some small challenges I hear from reference librarians, such as being asked a lot of logistical questions. (The hopper for a massive raffle was right behind the Web Reference Desk, so people kept coming up to me to ask when the next drawing would be held.)

It was a huge success and I have already been asked to make it a tradition and start planning for next year. Stay tuned!

May 25, 2011

Organizing Multiple Twitter Feeds through HootSuite

For about a year I have been managing two professional Twitter feeds for work. This has become an increasingly important tool for me to identify and collect resources, promote our annual conference, and standardize how our own programs communicate. I've done a number of trainings on difference aspects of Twitter, and I am helping to run our Social Media Users Group, affectionately referred to as S.M.U.G.

Twitter has become an indispensable tool for our small organization, and we now boast eight official feeds, many of which run as news widgets on various program pages of our website. We are no longer at the stage of having to convince ourselves or anyone else that this tool is for us! Now we are entering the next generation: managing multiple Twitter feeds through a third-party application. We've chosen HootSuite for this. (And in case you're wondering Why not TweetDeck?--and I did try it--it's only because by the time I had six embeddable columns on HootSuite I had not made it past the TweetDeck CAPTCHA.)

HootSuite allows you to run multiple social media accounts and RSS feeds through one console, set up search terms to follow, give "team members" permissions through a centralized access point and, best of all, schedule tweets in advance. It was incredibly easy to set up. Most of the "tabs" and "streams" that I set up allow me to view lists and other configurations that I could make available in separate browser tabs, but HootSuite makes it easier to manage multiple views without overtaxing your browser or cluttering up your screen. Also, any column view or "stream" that you create--it can be a hashtag search, an individual Twitter user, a list, or up to three keywords in one column--any one of these can be displayed on your website by choosing "create embeddable column" from the control panel. This is handy if you want a widget that displays not just what you are tweeting, but all the results that are rolling in on, for example, commuter/commuters/commuting.

If Google Alerts revolutionized my work two years ago, HootSuite is my new best friend. I can have an "always on" stream on #LEED if I want to, side-by-side with a tab that displays my incoming feed, outgoing stream, mentions and direct messages. I can instantly add a tab to follow a conference hashtag for a while and then simply delete it when the conference is over. I no longer have to monkey around with logging out and logging in, or having multiple browsers open, just to manage two accounts. I can even tweet the same message from multiple accounts simultaneously.

The absolute best part is being able to schedule tweets for the future. The obvious use of this is to have your feed covered while you are away from work, but it is also a great tool for keeping one feed going with generic program tweets while you are at a conference using the other feed to capture key soundbites. The scheduled tweets line up in a list right next to your already-sent tweets--or anywhere you want to put this list, since all the columns you create can be dragged and dropped within the console to optimize your display. While I am still getting used to the HootSuite for Blackberry app, on my computer it's already become second-nature to use this great tool. Now I can literally tweet while I am sleeping!

May 11, 2011

Writing is Like.....Writing

Before he published Cognitive Surplus, Clay Shirky test-drove a lot of the ideas it contains in a presentation entitled It’s Not Information Overload; It’s Filter-Failure. It’s over three years old, but still highly relevant. I like to listen to it once a year to be reminded of the major themes, as well as the brilliant and concise way Shirky expresses himself.

In the presentation, Shirky tells the story (beginning around 15:15 of the video) of Chris Avenir, who was brought up on charges by Ryerson College for starting a study group on Facebook. Shirky uses this anecdote to drive home one of his key points (around 18:40 in the video), that “Facebook is a lot like Facebook,” and analogizing it too much to other media or means of communication is a dangerous game.

I love analogies. I think explaining something esoteric in terms of something more easily grasped is one of the best teaching tools around. There is always a limit, however, in terms of how one concept fits inside another or extends itself for pedagogical purposes. There is always a ceiling you bump into when extrapolating from one set of points to another, a gap you encounter when applying one set of principles to something a little bit (or a lot) different. Mind this gap.

Recently I finished a big writing project at work and was reminded of all the ways that writing is like other work, and all the ways that it is not. There is a slight paralysis that occurs in me near the beginning of a writing project (typically before much “writing” has occurred). I usually try applying all the analogies at my disposal to get myself going, sometimes thinking that writing is a lot like running, which in some ways it is. (Thinking about writing is like thinking about running: it's about 5% productive and 95% guilt). As it turns out, writing is a lot like writing, and must be understood in its own right.

Here are some things I have learned about getting myself to and through a writing project.

You have to court the muse. Writing is not natural. It’s natural to have ideas and want to write about them, but the actual process of writing is highly mechanical. One of the best ways to move through it is to tell yourself you’re just going to write a bad draft first. Beware of stalling and just begin. This could mean something as small as saving a blank document with the filename you are going to use, making a list of ideas, or pasting some links in an order that may later reveal an outline. Don’t overthink it. Gretchen Rubin has a technique she calls “suffer for 15 minutes” to get herself to chip away at a daunting task. Since an idea is just the beginning of a writing project, sit with it for 15 minutes (just make yourself) and then see where it gets you. (And don’t count all the minutes you’ve already spent agonizing over how to get the project started.)

Writing is rewriting. An idea is only going to get you so far; now it’s time to work with words. Write a bad sentence, but make sure it's a complete sentence. Then write another one, and another one. Get yourself a draft of bad sentences to work with, which is much easier to mark up and shape than a blank page. You may also consider writing something out of order if you are stalling on the beginning. Start in the middle or wherever you feel you can find a “point of entry.” Earlier this year I had the pleasure of meeting author Hannah Tinti, who spoke about how she started writing her novel The Good Thief in what ended up being the middle of the story. She began where she had something to work with, and moved from there.

Don't remediate paper and pencil--use a word processor for all it is worth. A word processor makes it very easy to write out of order, copy and paste with abandon, use strikethrough text, and have a passage in more than one place until you know what to do with it. Keep a file of cuts if you don’t know where to put something you’ve written, but can’t quite part with yet either. And you will have to cut something! I once took a course called Approaches to Teaching Writing in which the professor made repeated reference to Annie Dillard’s assertion that you have to "kill your darlings" to write well.

Put it aside for a while. Writing, like crossword puzzles, and many other things (analogy alert) is well-served by a pause, some oxygen, and a fresh perspective. If you get stuck, recognize that you are stuck and take a short break before coming back to your writing task. This is a bit contrary to the first point above, in that courting the muse is all about just sticking with something, but as Gretchen Rubin taught me, the opposite of a great truth is also a great truth.

And speaking of counterintuitions…

Give yourself enough time, and give yourself a time limit. These are both important for good writing, although they seem contradictory. Give yourself enough time so you can write and rewrite. But also--and this is most important with regard to a defined portion of the writing project--give yourself a time limit. Decide what small piece of the larger task you will accomplish before the clock strikes, and set an actual timer. I recently decided to write a song in a weekend. It did not come out right the first time, but by Sunday night I had something because I had a self-imposed deadline (and I had created accountability by telling someone I would have a song by Sunday, a trick I learned from Chris Guillebeau).

When you have a draft to work with, keep the following points in mind.

Read aloud. As my friend Zach says, “The spoken word hides nothing.” Repeated words, missing words, awkward phrasings, Freudian slips, and many other weaknesses lurking in a draft can be discovered when reading aloud.

If real estate is about Location, Location, Location, good writing is about Audience, Audience, Audience. Continually ask yourself who specifically will read this. What do they already know or assume going in? Use the specific audience to further refine your prose.

Expect more of yourself. Be your own ruthless editor and mark up the printed page of your draft. Do this as if you are editing someone else’s work. Make clear marks and thorough notes in the margin, and don’t hold back. Give yourself feedback as an editor, and then get back to work as a writer.

Make it so it lasts forever. This is not the same as spending forever on it, but work hard on your writing before releasing it. As much as you might like to hurry through something to post or publish it on a deadline, there is a high likelihood that you will never return to it to make corrections. Write it well before the first release. This is how you build up a body of work that will satisfy you and enrich others.

I’m reminded of a quote by JD Roth that I often use to recalibrate during a difficult week: “If there’s something you want to be or do, the best way to become that thing is to actually take steps toward it, to move in that direction. Don’t just talk about it, but do something. It doesn’t have to be a big thing. Just take a small step in the right direction every single day.” Maybe writing actually is like a lot of other things.

April 27, 2011

Lengthen Your Stride

In 2002 I trained for and ran the Chicago Marathon. (And although some find that wording pretentious, I always say I trained for and ran a marathon because the training was the bigger challenge by far.) I am eternally indebted to the excellent trainers and mentors I encountered through the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training program. They told me not to be intimidated when the faster runners passed me by, reminded me to keep my gloves on even when I had shed most of my other layers, and they encouraged me to leave something on the course at the place where I realized I would in fact finish the race.

Another bit of wisdom they drilled into me was that if I felt I was unraveling, it was probably time to lengthen my stride. This was counterintuitive: it essentially meant to slow down so I could speed up, or at least that’s how I remember processing it initially. It didn’t make any sense to me but it worked, undeniably. In Mile 8 of a 10-miler, or Mile 22 of the marathon for that matter, my technique was to start taking longer, more focused (and seemingly slower) strides just as the end-of-course pressure started to envelop me. It’s a counterintuition that, by analogy, has served me well in many situations.

I’m collecting examples of such counterintuitions: things that completely “flip” your understanding of a situation, and shake up your thinking at just the right time. Dan Pink has some great examples in his book A Whole New Mind. For example, he proposes that organ donation should be opt-out instead of opt-in to recruit more donors. This prompted a colleague of mine to posit that airlines should charge for carry-on bags as a disincentive, and then check baggage at no cost, in order to expedite boarding and deplaning.

Once you start looking, examples of counterintuitions abound. A recent post over at Get Rich Slowly explains why extended warranties are a lose-lose proposition. Gretchen Rubin has written about how reading boring articles improves a vacation, and also about how asking for a favor from someone can improve your relationship with that person. I once heard that peeling a banana is much easier if you start from the “other” end—the one we are less accustomed to starting with. And I’ve gotten much farther in the Sarah Vowell book I was trying (and failing) to speed through ever since I decided to read just one essay per week, but always on Sunday nights.

When I decided to do a Week of Extreme Slow as part of my Embedded Librarianship project, I had no idea how many happy returns there would be, and this far into the year. What I learned then is what is now enabling me to lengthen my stride and give time to the things that actually require more time and focus. Busywork tends to fall away during these periods of more intense focus, and you can actually eliminate a lot of little things that you realize may not need to be done after all. Sometimes we distract ourselves from our real work with things we like to think are real work when they are really just distractions.

This really came together for me as I was reading (and loving!) Sarah Glassmeyer’s essay The Bomb Under the Table, part of SLA’s Future Ready 365 blog project. In it she asks information professionals to consider this question, "How much do you change your life because you’re afraid of what might happen?” This, too, is one of those distractions. It’s like asking yourself at Mile 22, What if I don’t finish the race? Instead, maybe you need to just lengthen your stride. And keep running.

April 13, 2011

Fire and Watercoolers: My Charcoal Project

“You’re using words like tricky and weird, but this sounds strategic.” ~A colleague commenting on my Charcoal Project

We have a watercooler, an honest-to-goodness watercooler, in our office. I’m in earshot of it, so I happen to know that it functions as both an actual and a proverbial watercooler—serving as a gathering point for thirsty staff and, every once in a while, acting as the crucible wherein ideas are born. It’s not that there aren’t more formal opportunities for people to brainstorm and plan, but the fact of the watercooler is one of those laws you can either accept or break yourself against.

Another one of those laws is that you’re not always going to be told everything you need to know. While I don’t advocate eavesdropping, the embedded librarian still needs to find herself in a lot of right places at right times. And not only do you want to be at your own watercooler, you and your organization probably have a vested interest in overhearing what goes on at watercoolers throughout your network, and even slightly farther afield than that.

People always seem to want to know what partner organizations (or competitors) are working on before it is made public. This is how we know we are paying attention to our field and our customers. Some of this quest for nascent knowledge is experienced most painfully in the realm of shared calendar aspirations: that Sisyphean task of wanting to know what everyone else’s upcoming (and as yet unannounced) webinars will be before planning your own. Everywhere I turn there are unfulfilled ambitions of “picking the brain” of the other guys so we know what they are working on—not so much to get there first, but to avoid duplication.

This may be the real life version of an academic concept I learned in a much more clinical setting: grey literature, or as one library defines it, "that which is produced on all levels of government, academics, business and industry in print and electronic formats, but which is not controlled by commercial publishers." I like the added caveat in this definition that grey literature is produced by organizations “where publishing is not the primary business activity,” and in this one that it can be “difficult to locate and obtain.” What about grey literature that isn’t even literature yet, or isn’t even grey?

When I speak to students, I always include a slide about the “unit of analysis” and say something about how I am not cataloging monographs, I am keeping track of a lot of seemingly random wisps of information—events, tweets, names that come up in conversation but not necessarily in searches, and other miscellanea. Very often I sense the need to have a running list of other organizations' in-the-idea-stage projects. At some point I was asked to follow and report on “emerging research,” but specifically the kind that is not even formalized enough to be in Research-In-Progress-type databases yet. How do I get to all those watercoolers?

I struggled for months to devise a strategy to perform this important task. I wasn’t sure I even understood the task. We didn’t even know what to call it. Arcane and misfitting terms were bandied about until the “grey” theme morphed into color wheel jokes and we landed on “Charcoal.” It stuck.

Our federal funders wisely wrote into our workplan (in characteristically verbose but vague language) our requirement to collect and disseminate these random bits (Thing 1). Additionally, we are to document instances where one of these random bits develops into published research or some similarly tangible event or outcome (Thing 2). The challenge is how to do this in the first place, and then how to track and evaluate it. In my internal organizational system (and my Gmail tags!) these two respective Things are now lovingly referred to as “Charcoal Added” and “Charcoal Inflamed,” each of which is pegged to a numeric indicator in my quarterly progress report to the feds.

I find bits of charcoal from the hodgepodge of list-serves I’m on that target issues at the periphery of our work. I also receive dozens of small, specialized print publications on similarly dispersed issues that may or may not bear an obvious connection to any of the non-charcoal goals outlined in our workplan. By far, the greatest source of charcoal has been Twitter. After all, it’s a conversation, so it’s a great virtual approximation of the watercooler.

The “Charcoal Added” stats in my quarterly report were paltry at first, but this year I decided to do a content analysis of our program's Twitter feed from the first quarter in the hope of boosting our numbers. I was pleasantly surprised to find that of our 400+ tweets, roughly one quarter were related to the charcoal-like goings on of organizations in our immediate network of partners and various consortia we oversee; about 20% were promotional of our own events, ideas and resources; about 15% shared items of interest from our federal partners, and another 15% were about industry trends. The remaining quarter were a mixed bag of regional best practices and blog posts from policy think tanks. Taken together, the tweets provided a roadmap to show what we are already collecting and disseminating with regard to emerging research. We had much more charcoal than I thought.

The process is now somewhat automated, and some categories have been identified to help us even begin to talk about the Charcoal Project. This will help refine the information sources I seek out and evaluate. The next step is a “Research We’re Watching” collection that I will be curating. It will draw from the amassed charcoal, but will of course be more selective than what makes it into our quarterly reports. The whole endeavor has been encouraging for all those other unstructured, chaotic-seeming projects that sound good but have no concrete steps outlined to move them forward. As for this project that continues to come into focus for me, onward!

April 6, 2011

Scope Notes

A focused collection is an information service; an unfocused or overwhelming collection is a disservice to the user. ~James A. Jacobs, at ALA 2009’s Grassroots Program

I’ve been kicking around collegiate memory lane ever since the INTJ post. In addition to my major experiences with Myers and Briggs, I had a minor adventure in conflict resolution. The lessons drawn from that particular discipline—a lot of getting past no, getting to yes, and getting together—are important and lofty, but here is a simple slogan we used that has stayed with me: Don’t just do something. Stand there.

This is one of those universal truths that surfaces over and over again in myriad forms, some of which stick better than others. It also has an impressive array of applications besides reducing and resolving conflict. It’s a sure-fire method of finishing a tricky crossword puzzle. It’s how JD Roth and I learned to use our Amazon wishlists to mitigate impulsive spending on music. (It works sometimes.) It can even be used to promote lucid dreaming. And I think this counting-to-ten business should be part of the solo librarian’s toolkit. File under “Collection Development.”

There is a pathology in some organizations that I like to call “We have stuff. Let’s put it online.” It could easily be called “More is better,” as well. You know how it goes. Someone unearths a document and has a brainstorm that we could add it to our servers and then make a webpage about it and then tweet about the webpage. And no matter the contents of said document, it’s become an instant classic between sips of coffee. “We have stuff,” someone says. “That’s right,” someone else says. “Let’s put it online!”

I spend a lot of time trying to identify and communicate the difference between usable information and other information—the kind that is virtually unusable, or easy to misuse, when it is presented without proper context or no context at all. (Not to mention that if we put it online it has to be accessible, we have to maintain it, and we ought to promote it once it’s there.) Part of this process is very often saying a bad word: No.

Peter Drucker once said that people are effective because they say no, not because they say yes. (He actually said this of leaders, but as you know…) This is an important function, but it is very difficult to be the gatekeeper, to constantly be asking the questions What makes this collection special? and How do we keep it that way?

Just waiting a while can be surprisingly effective at getting people to more thoughtfully consider adding something to your online collection. Sometimes the urge to put something online is fleeting, and people quickly move on to something else. The “Don’t just do something. Stand there.” approach is a gentle tactic to keep in mind for your next scope emergency.

March 30, 2011

Not a Leader

My favorite course in library school was The History of the Book. In addition to having a brilliant and thoughtful professor, I had to do several class projects that actually mirrored modern-day workplace collaboration—even when our subject matter was ancient scrolls or movable type. These projects were accompanied by the dreaded reflection and self-assessment that made them less office-like and too touchy-feely for my taste. Nevertheless, it was in writing one of those streams of academic consciousness that I was able to resolve an old crisis of conscience: I am not a leader.

The last time I remember officially being in charge of something other than a discrete project or task was my senior year of college when I was elected President of our chapter of Psi Chi, the national honor society for students of psychology. If memory serves, I ran uncontested, so to say I was ‘elected’ is a bit of a fiction—one that is more telling now than I could have imagined in 1997.

I wouldn’t say that I failed, but rather that as President I accomplished nothing of consequence. I accepted the position because, at the time, I thought no one else wanted it. Fourteen years later I still think no one wanted that leadership position. Not even me.

Late last year I affirmed my long-held suspicion that I am in fact an introvert. This, combined with the deepening influence of Gretchen Rubin on my Embedded Librarianship Project, has helped me to come out as what I really am instead of what I thought I'd be (under the influence of other people’s expectations). Rubin emphasizes time and again that her first and most important commandment is to “Be Gretchen.” She bolsters this point with repeated references to Ray Bradbury’s “Love what YOU love” and W.H. Auden’s “Develop in your natural direction.” I am many things, some of them great, but I am not a leader.

I can hear it now (because I have heard it many times before by people I like and respect)... People think I am having an off day or a self-esteem crash, or in some other way they are comfortable with, they pretend they know me better than I know myself. Cheery voices crying “But you ARE a leader!” do nothing to dissuade me. What they do is reveal a collective assumption that one ought to be a leader.

Our vocabulary is impoverished when it comes to leadership and followership. (And there is a pallor surrounding the word ‘service’ now in the library context. Here is just one strongly-worded example.) This is changing though, in a welcome application of social media nomenclature to others parts of life. Online, people seek out enthusiastic, educated peers or ‘followers’ to mobilize a cause. It’s a kind of followership that’s not blind but illuminated. More street team-like than sheep-like.

People are needed at every level of engagement, and the truth is that some of us are just courageous, principled people with good ideas. That does not make us leaders. And what good are engaged leaders without engaged followers behind them--supporting them--and questioning them? Good followers are more important than ever.

March 23, 2011

Conference Prep

Perhaps I am overthinking things.....

I have a particular (if flawed) approach to planning for conferences I am going to attend. It has everything to do with how I approach conferences I am helping to staff or organize. I've been fortunate to be in meetings with great minds who are putting together huge national meetings on important issues. Sometimes the whole event has an arc or theme that we work hard to build deliberately--and convey effectively--to attendees. Part of the work is putting yourself in a conference-goer's shoes and hoping that you've created something useful and, while you're at it, a little bit entertaining.

As I am putting together my schedule for SLA 2011 I am keenly aware of my position on the other side of this equation. What does the annual conference have in store for me? How will all the moving parts come together? Will I make the most of my experience? There's a lot to think about and time's a-wastin'.

First, there is the big picture what-do-I-want-to-get-out-of-this-conference question. Do I want to 'Embrace Ambiguity and Curiosity' or do I need to get organized? (And how will I feel in mid-June?)

While browsing through session titles I oscillate wildly between "Ooh, here is one that would be easy to justify, and a cinch to explain to coworkers," and, "...but it's a skill I've already developed a fair amount and I should move outside my comfort zone." Then there is the cynical conference participant in me: "Is this session on social media or millennials really going to teach me something new, or will it be more of the same bland overstatements I am trying to debunk in my own organization?"

There are a number of time slots where I think it might be good to attend one of my division social activities, but if I am already going to the division business meeting (and I'm in more than one division), how do I strike the right balance?

I want conference equilibrium between big sessions and small ones, new contacts and people I know, learning as much as possible and not coming back exhausted, a good dose of both practical tips and lasting inspiration. I would also love to find a way to sneak into the Baseball Caucus meeting, and to spin a connection between my current work and an unrelated but fascinating-sounding session like 'Post-Recessionary Consumer Trends in America.'

Will I go to my friends' presentations to support them? And where will I be the slot before my own presentation and will I be able to concentrate? With almost two months left to plan, I should be able to sort it all out.

One of my guiding principles when I travel for a conference is to 'embrace place,' so I should also work in some brotherly love time. I've already got a date with The Decemberists June 15 at the Philadelphia Academy of Music. Care to join me?

March 16, 2011

Basic Instincts

This morning I was thinking about how much I love my commute, even the very busy transfer at the Gallery Place/Chinatown Metro station. If you're there at 8:30 any weekday morning, you know that it's crazy. It helps to choose a train car--and a seat for that matter--to achieve optimum platform placement when you disembark. This ensures a smooth flow from Green Line train to stairs to Red Line train, where I also want a particular car so that when I exit at Metro Center I am next to my preferred escalator.

I am not from here, and had to be told not to stand in front of the doors when I first rode Metro. That is to say, I had no DC Metro instincts six years ago when I arrived. Now I love my commute, not only because I am an expert on which stairs lead where, which of the five exits gets me closest to my office, and how to breeze through the stiles without even stopping. I also love it that I got to feel this transition happening in my adult life. I remember being an incompetent Metro rider, but now I could win a prize.

During my Peace Corps training in Guinea, we were subject to a model of cultural adaptation that was all about recognizing and honing instincts. (Crossing cultures is a great way to dismantle all your reflexes and then rebuild them.) The theory behind this particular training model holds that when arriving in a new setting where the rules and norms of behavior are vastly different from one's own, one goes through the following four stages of adaptation:
  1. Unconscious incompetence
  2. Conscious incompetence
  3. Conscious competence
  4. Unconscious competence
It's possible that I'm a bit too enamored of my current skill level on Metro, and that my extreme consciousness of it is holding me at Stage 3. Perhaps I will advance to Stage 4 soon and stop talking about it. What about my growth as an embedded librarian?

I absolutely operate on instinct. That said, I also try to document as much as possible. But essentially, even my collection development policy is a subtle, tricky thing--a delicate recipe of things added and things taken away. It's not written in stone, and can shift depending on legislative winds or organizational priorities. At times I completely miss the boat on what we're trying to accomplish and I find myself in Stage 2, painfully aware of my incompetence (though eager to learn).

Lately I have been checking my instincts with people about a lot of things, and generally the results are positive. I came in with the library skillset but have to constantly check my patchy, organic knowledge of our specialized content area. Having my instincts confirmed helps me stay in the Stage 3 happy place of conscious competence on most issues, while I'm sure I remain at Stage 1 on newer topics or technologies. Maybe one day I will be at Stage 4!

By the way, Peace Corps, which celebrates its 50th birthday this month, needs librarians. Check out this cool assignment in El Salvador.

March 9, 2011

Be Your Own Intern

So far, the hardest part of reading Gretchen Rubin’s book--part of my embedded librarianship project--has been a small section that spans pages 79-80 in which Rubin describes how she learned to “Enjoy the fun of failure.” This was difficult for a number of reasons, not the least of which was feeling bad that she felt some of her efforts were failures simply because they were not appreciated by someone else. It was also hard to read this part, which appears in the “Work” chapter for March, because it served as a wake-up call for me on one of my ongoing work projects.

I wanted an intern. And, miracle of miracles, the hardest part of the process was not (as I had expected it to be) convincing the powers that be that we (a) needed an intern or (b) could recruit one for no pay. Last fall we were thinking of starting a podcast series and I had written a brief proposal detailing what I thought our equipment, staff, and training needs would be. I did all this with virtually no knowledge of podcast production and only a minimal search to try to find similar proposals. It was aspirational writing, with an imagined magic intern as one of our required resources underlined and in boldface type.

After the holidays and assorted delays, we revisited the proposal and had a lengthy team discussion (sidelined by ample philosophical waxing on the definition of podcast) about whether and why we truly wanted to undertake this project. We did and do, and last month I did due diligence to craft the best podcast internship ad this side of Dyersville, Iowa. If you build it they will come, right?

I was wrong. The response to my ad was not sufficient for us to hire someone. And rather than revisit the outreach and marketing strategies I had used to promote the internship, I reread the ad itself and questioned whether I could be my own intern. The time required to orient my hypothetical helper was already allotted. I wondered aloud if I could perform the tasks I had enumerated so meticulously in the position description. Wondering something aloud, particularly in the presence of one’s supervisor, invites a worthy challenge--or maybe a foolhardy adventure--not to mention a healthy dose of accountability.

Here was a project I would have gladly taken on as a library school student. Yet, as professional staff, I felt I lacked the expertise or capacity to commit to making the project a success without guidance from the outside. I was stuck on the notion that what people really want is not to make a difference per se, but to be effective. How could I be an effective podcast intern with no experience?

I reached out to the various list-servs for advice, as well as the people behind any podcast series that were along the lines of what ours would be. I managed to collect a decent number of tips and suggestions, though many of them contradicted one another. “It’s more work than you think,” some said. “Just try one and then make a better one next time,” others chimed in.

In my zeal to avoid the worst case scenario of producing a less-than-excellent podcast, I overlooked the fact that that is not really a worst case scenario. What would be worse is letting the fear of failure paralyze me into avoiding the project altogether. I reread Rubin’s “have fun failing” passage and was struck by all the tasks she tried and “failed.” She had racked up a huge list of “tries” even though she also listed them as “failures.” I decided that I wanted to create a similar list.

As of today, I am my own intern on the podcast project and am happily filling in the “try” column. Stay tuned.

March 2, 2011

The Solo Librarian's Relationship Status: It's Complicated

Last Friday when I was presenting at my alma mater, I hit on an accidental and important theme while describing the success of our conference Twitter feed: collaboration. I hadn't intended to be obvious about it, but in reflecting on what made (and continues to make) our use of social media unique and effective, it's that not one of us is tweeting or blogging in an empty room. Instead, we're helping each other through the Internet wilderness. It's a complex chain of trial, error, feedback and trust, and it works.

At its inception, the idea behind this blog was to chronicle my adventures in the white spaces, a seemingly lonely place. Solo librarians need other solos to network with, bounce ideas off, and to generally know that we are not alone out here. The truth is, you are not alone in your organization. If you think you are, it must seem enormously difficult to get anything done.

The only task I truly do alone is cataloging, and too often I avoid it altogether in favor of my more collaborative responsibilities. Activities like SMUG would not see the light of day without teamwork and support among many staff members. And no matter how small your own role is in something like a social media users group or tweeting from your employer's trade show, you should try to get involved at some level in any area that could benefit from your skillset. Building relationships through the non-traditional stuff also makes a huge difference when you're sitting down to do a reference interview with someone.

I am greatly enriched by my colleagues in the DC Chapter of SLA, the Solo and Transportation Divisions, and the Associations caucus. Of equal influence are the subject matter experts who make up my customer base. I could not do my work without them because they're the ones I serve, and I have to anticipate their needs. Doing this effectively requires the sturdy structure of a good relationship. (Even better if you happen to like your colleagues and enjoy their company.) But, as I've said here before, these things take time. Nothing happens until we collaborate.

February 23, 2011

#Enough! My Twitter Style Guide

Image credit: Emilie OgezMy Power of the Hashtag training was such a success that I'm moving ahead with our first Twitter style guide. It's also a way for me to do something constructive with my observations instead of complaining. Here it is, an "organic" document at best, but I'm calling this Version 1, Release 1, with a decently sized smirk on my face.

Most tweets are meant to be read left to right, and as such, they still need to be processed as language (c.f. a tweet that is purely meant to get itself into a bunch of search results). Tweet your best using these simple guidelines:
  • Whatever you do, be consistent. I'm only half-joking when I say that in all things Twitter, consistent misuse of a character could easily start a new trend.
  • The @ symbol is an operator that activates the mention feature. Avoid using @ when you mean “at” unless you really need to save one character.
  • Use no more than one hashtag per clause. And you can generally fit no more than one clause in a tweet without a lot of abbreviations.
  • Use no more than one @mention per clause. See above.
  • Multiple hashtags and @mentions are acceptable when strung together at the end of a tweet, where they are not in context.
  • When mentioning several people in a row, as with the #FollowFriday hashtag, there is no need for commas. The names are already set off as links.
  • Avoid state name abbreviations in favor of mixed-case state names, such as #RhodeIsland instead of #RI. (I know that's a lot of characters; more on this issue later. It has generated so much discussion over here that I could do a whole post about it.)
  • If using a cryptic hashtag, as for a conference, put it at the end of the tweet--not the beginning--unless it is part of a clause. For example, use, “Jordan got OLD! I’m rockin’ out at #nkotb11.” or “Jordan got OLD! #nkotb11.” but not “#nkotb11 Jordan got OLD!”
  • Introduce a link with a colon unless your (English, or whatever language you're tweeting in) syntax indicates that a link follows. For example, "You can download my Twitter Style Guide at www.embeddedlibrarian.blogspot.com." However...
  • Text will not become a link on Twitter unless it is preceded by http://
  • Avoid abbreviations that are used in your field but may not be known by a wider audience (E.g. "pwd" is used in some circles for "people with disabilities" but makes a tweet hard to read and understand by others.)
  • Helpful abbreviations for you and your readers:
    w/: with
    ppl : people
    btw : between
    $ : money or funding
    & : and
(Believe it or not, many people forget they can shorten tweets by employing the handy ampersand. For that matter, most people do not derive nearly enough pleasure from writing or saying "Ampersand.")

Now I realize that these tips are less about "style" than they are boring proscriptions that will make an organization's Twitter feeds as unified and consistent as its print publications. But fret not! Version 2 will feature actual style tips, such as how to get your followers to catch on to new, obscure conventions, the diplomatic way to announce a feed's name change, and how to create and maintain identity and voice in your tweets without sounding unprofessional.

There is still a lot to learn, and the only way to do that on Twitter is to pay close attention and keep tweeting. As for referring to the medium itself, I think that the jury is still out with regard to "tweet" or "Tweet" as a noun, and as a verb, and for "ReTweet" versus "Retweet." What say you?

February 16, 2011

My Library Roots

I'm still following Gretchen Rubin as part of my embedded librarianship project. I find her more and more useful every day. (In March I plan to do a follow-up post about the "Work" section in her book, which is the March chapter.) She recently encouraged her blog readers to think about what we did for fun when we were 10 years old. As for me, I went to the library.

This post is part of the Library Roots/Routes project, celebrating the myriad paths we've all taken. They are seeking blog posts from librarians like you and me about how we got here and where we're going. It's been a nice opportunity for me to reflect on the role of the local public library during my formative years, even though the library I ended up working in bears little resemblance to that small but valuable institution in Cary, Illinois. (It's weird to me that they have a website--since they had only a couple of rooms when I was young--but they do.)

In grade school I was part of the Book It! program every summer. I would have to carefully write out my reading list on a sheet of construction paper on which I had drawn ruled lines, evenly spaced apart. For each book I finished--my all-time favorite was The Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright--I would get a gold star next to the title. Soon the gold stars would fill up the poster, which I proudly displayed next to my closet. If I read all my summer choices, I was treated to a pizza party at the local Pizza Hut. I'm amazed that this kind of food-incentivized reading program still exists, but I can't say enough about its role in my own reading, not to mention my library-awareness.

In high school I spent my afternoons and weekends in the reference room wrestling with huge, green volumes of the Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature. I would look up references to my favorite bands, and then meticulously fill out call slips and take them downstairs where the periodicals librarian would hand me copies of People or Rolling Stone that I would then pore over for hours, learning what Michael Stipe's college major was, or obsessing over what John Linnell's mother did for a living.

This all seems significant to me now, given that I blog weekly about librarianship and can hardly resist weaving in musical references. But at the time--and the importance of this cannot be underestimated--this was all just an afterthought. I grew up at the library. Books were like air. It did not occur to me to become a librarian.

Like many of us, I had other career ideas during college, and for a number of years afterward. I studied psychology and French, and then joined the Peace Corps as a Teacher of English as a Foreign Language. Even then I didn't see too many obvious connections with librarianship, but I did select as my "secondary" or summer project the daunting (and dirty) task of organizing my school's unused warehouse of books, "cataloging" them (before I had any sense of what that meant), and suggesting possible ways teachers could use them in their respective curricula. I was becoming a librarian.

Wara Middle School, Kankalabe, Guinea, West Africa

After a short but intense career in educational testing, I found that what I really enjoyed in the workplace was wrangling technology and training other people to do so. I was fresh out of graduate school in another discipline and the thought of going back, and taking on more educational debt, seemed crazy. Still, the field I was in was not a good fit for me. Something was missing. I wasn't sure if it was technology or people or both. Enter library school.

In retrospect, the library ethic and orientation were always in me, alive and well, if dormant for many years. For me, it took having a few different jobs to realize what I was and wasn't good at, and which of my interests were simply hobbies or intellectual curiosities, as opposed to the beginnings of a profession.

Go to now. I've found a way to combine my passion for language and literacy, my teaching background, my tech skills, my people skills, my service orientation, attention to detail, steel-trap memory, and most especially my love of reading, all in one satisfying career. Those are my library roots.

February 9, 2011

SMUG Part 2: Power of the Hashtag

In October I helped with the first gathering of our Social Media Users Group (SMUG). This was an effort to inventory our social media strategies, and to help each program team brainstorm original content in order to reduce duplication. Much of our conversation revolved around the eight feeds that now make up our organizational Twitter presence.

Those disparate bits of conversation--splayed across giant 3M flip-chart paper and taking up residence in my office--have finally been synthesized into a couple of documents. Tomorrow we'll take on the pieces that relate to what I'm calling the Power of the Hashtag.

Hashtags are user-created metadata; what's not to love? The librarians among you will get that joke.

I've seen some bad Tweets in my time, and some of the worst have come from people I encouraged to join me in the Land of @ and #. I feel more than responsible for showing them the way. And not only do I want standards for this metadata, I want us to harness its power for good, and not for confusion/obfuscation/obscenity/randomness/fill-in-the-blank. I've also seen the hashtag used excellently. It continues to evolve.

For our second SMUG gathering we'll have two main points of focus. One is declarative: TWITTER SYNTAX IS TRICKY; USE CAUTION. I have a juicy little "What's wrong with this Tweet?" worksheet for this part. The other is a question to get the discussion rolling, with some pre-supplied flip-chart-able answers: Why use a hashtag?
TO RESPOND to a conversation.
(To be ironic.)*
*We're going to strongly discourage this type of hashtagging at work.

I hope our guests walk away knowing that you should never # when you can @ unless... (I have a decision flow-chart for this one.) If time permits we will get into cryptic conference hashtags and conventions for state names--both in terms of #NY versus #NewYork, and the relative value of Tweeting about our work in #Nebraska if we run the risk of getting drowned out by #Cornhuskers results.

When people feel comfortable with the basics, we might get into sponsored hashtag results (still investigating this), and link truncation woes when using the Tweet button from within a website. (Beware automation!) And now that we know the shortened form of the "via" convention, we have two extra characters to put to work--a temptation best resisted.

P.S. Blogger's spellcheck doesn't like "metadata" or "hashtag".