Conference roundup: Electronic Resources & Libraries + Designing for Digital

Earlier this month, I attended a pair of conferences – Electronic Resources & Libraries (ER&L) + Designing for Digital (D4D) – in Austin TX.

ER&L is in its 11th year, and over that time has drawn an increasingly wide range of library attendees, from public, academic and special libraries, and from an array of job roles: electronic resources acquisitions & management folks, certainly, but also other technical services staff as well as public services librarians of all sorts including reference, collections, technology and user experience.

Designing for Digital started as a response to the growing interest in user experience programming at the ER&L conference and has now been an event in its own right for three years.

These are great conferences, with an excellent balance between focused programming and just enough new/different stuff to let you expand and explore a little bit; and the numbers are much more manageable than the larger conferences like ALA, so it allows for great connection-making with other like-minded folks. They also do some scholarship programs, so if this is something of interest put it on your radar for next year. Can I also mention the amazing wifi, coffee and snacks … just sayin’.

One very cool thing I’d like to highlight is that all of the keynote sessions for both conferences were livestreamed and are now archived and freely available at the conference schedule sites (or you can find the links in my posts below). All of the keynote talks were by industry leaders and each was really worthwhile for some new info and inspiration: Dawna Ballard, S. Craig Watkins, Jesse James Garrett (!), Michelle Ha Tucker (formerly of IDEO). Have a look!

My big three takeaways from these conferences:

  • Content matters, a lot. People read or don’t read our web sites based on how we structure and present the content. Let’s write so they read it.
  • “If you build it they will come” only works for ball fields in the movies. General rejection of this approach to library service or application development – go to the users, talk with them, build to bridge gaps and enhance strengths.
  • Productive collaborations across libraries are going to be key in building the kind of services and tools our users need in the future, at the scale at which they’ll need them.

I wrote up some observations on the content of each conference on my own blog, so feel free to have a look at those posts for more info:

The Times, They Are A-Changin’

As we prepare to evaluate our web content in connection with our migration to a Drupal platform, it’s astonishing to realize how much the landscape has changed in just the past few years. When our current site was designed and implemented, we thought of the website as more or less an adjunct to the library’s physical facility; of course people used the website when they were not in the library, and were able to get a good deal of research done without visiting the library, but we assumed that when students and faculty thought of “the library” they had a brick-and-mortar (well, limestone) building in mind. Also, we thought of the library website as the place where our subscription resources “lived,” along with some locally-created content such as pathfinders and research guides. If students and faculty wanted to access this information, we assumed they would find it easiest to come to the library website and start there.

But things have changed, and continue to change. The Wells Library building is, as it has been for years, a hub of activity for students; stroll through the Information Commons at 9 pm on a Monday night and you’ll find that it is very lively, full of students working in groups and individually. But the impending loss of most of our on-site parking  may make it more difficult for some of our patrons to visit us. I know that when I have a late shift on the reference desk and leave shortly after 9 pm, there is usually someone anxiously waiting to take my parking place as I pull out and several cars circling the lot in hopes of an opening. Will people be less likely to visit the library if they cannot park nearby? We can’t say for certain, but it seems likely. How does this affect the library website? Some thoughts:

  • Our “Ask a Librarian” services may become even more important. Sometimes, it’s true, nothing can replace an in-person reference interview. But chat reference, along with email and phone-call options, can go a long way towards helping researchers find the resources and information that they need and, perhaps most importantly, helping them feel that they are not stranded and alone in the midst of their work. (How else can we help our website users connect with their research community? Definitely something I’d like to explore going forward.)
  • “Save the time of the Reader” is one of Ranganathan’s principles of librarianship, and it’s as true as ever; people don’t want to go through the hassle of getting here if they’re afraid their time might be wasted. It will be even more important for us to offer easily findable, clear, correct, and up-to-date information about the on-site services we offer. “Do you have a public fax machine?” and “What time does the cafe close?” are common questions at the reference desk. Because some of our services are not actually managed by the Libraries but by our partners, such as UITS and RPS, it may be challenging to keep this information up-to-date. But library users shouldn’t need to know whether something is managed by the Libraries or by somebody else. If it happens inside the library, it’s perfectly reasonable for them to look for information about it on the library website. Currently, some of this information is difficult to find or unavailable on our site. It would be good to change this.
  • Information on library hours also needs to be clear, up-to-date, and prominent on the site. Nobody wants to come to the library only to find out that it’s not open, or that the particular services they’re looking for (e.g. reference assistance) aren’t available at that time. The University of Houston libraries have a nice hours module on their site which accommodates a variety of locations and exceptions; we plan to implement something similar.
  • And of course, our information on parking  – offered within the “Visitors” section of our website, targeted primarily to non-IUB-affiliated library users – should probably be updated. Sigh.
Image of badly parked car
We may need to “think outside the box” with regards to our parking woes…
(image credit: shawnmichael on flickr)

Another big landscape change is students’ increasing reliance on e-texts and Oncourse,  IU’s course management system. The Libraries are about to get out of the e-reserves business; when students access their class readings via Oncourse, will they have any kind of context for understanding these readings within the information landscape of their discipline, as they might if they encountered them via the library website?  Will they have the perspective to understand the difference between a journal article and, say, a random blog post about the topic of their paper? Of course, if students are using Oncourse regularly, our goal of making services and information available at the point of need means that we need to have a presence there. Currently, there is a “Library Resources” tool  available to instructors, which can lead either to a general subject guide  or a more specific class page. We need to understand how students use Oncourse in order to know how we can best offer help in this environment. We also need to stay abreast of changes to Oncourse and related developments on campus.

When we talk about reaching our users “where they are,” we don’t just mean getting library links included on the websites and apps that they use (Oncourse, social media, etc.). The mobile revolution has taken place since the last time we redesigned our site and we need to stay very aware of trends in this area. Our site needs to be usable on smartphones, tablets, touchscreens – whatever people are using when they are looking for the information we provide, and wherever they are located.

Speaking of location, increasing use of laptops and other personal devices on campus has led to an explosion of new and reassigned IP address ranges, which can make authentication to subscription resources tricky at times; most of these resources are IP-authenticated and our vendors cannot always keep up with the changes. User authentication can also become an issue when someone is affiliated with multiple campuses, which will happen more often as online courses become more common. Most of our subscription resources – databases and e-journals – are purchased by one or several IU campuses, but not all. Providing access to those who should have it while still abiding by the authentication requirements of our vendor licenses is a much greater challenge than it was just a few years ago.

And finally, classroom technology has grown by leaps and bounds. Check out this article about the new high-tech classrooms in the IU Southeast Graduate Center  for example. What does this tell us about how students – and faculty – are learning and researching nowadays? What implications might this have for how the Libraries offer information and services? Should our “class pages” be more interactive, serving as portals that can be used for in-class activities rather than static lists of relevant resources? Should we expect this sort of class to use the chat reference service to enhance in-class research and discussion, and if so, does that have implications for how we manage the service?

No, I don’t have a lot of answers here – but the important part is finding the right questions to ask, and designing a web presence flexible enough to embrace answers as we find them. Those of us responsible for the Libraries’ website need to maintain awareness of developments all over campus, everything from changes in parking to changes in teaching methods and research needs. The only thing we know for sure is that things will continue to change!

SOPA and Libraries

While it may seem the threat of SOPA and its ugly cousin PIPA are over, there is still a long road ahead.  While the media blitz that occurred around the end of January(which many major web companies such as Google, Reddit and Firefox were a part of) may have crippled the initiative, the push to have tighter control over digital copyrights is not over.

So what does this mean for libraries?  How would these bills, or ones like it, affect what libraries can offer their patrons?

Several librarians and library related organizations have written about the issue, generally in protest:

From a practical stand-point, SOPA could be, and probably would be, bad for libraries.  This is particularly true if libraries are dependent upon open educational resources.  These resources risk being shut down if they are thought to contain any material protected by copyright without the explicit consent of the author.

SOPA also poses a more theoretical, or even ideological risk to libraries.  As stated in the ALA code of ethics ( article II, librarians should “resist all efforts to censor library resources.”

The broad reach or SOPA and PIPA threaten libraries on both a practical and ethical level.  These are important factors to consider when determining what role libraries and librarians should take regarding this issue.