Posts in library

Free Primary Sources: dp.la, european.eu, and the Magic of Metadata Harvesters

This post is a summary of a presentation given at the 2015 ILAGO Summit in Hood River, Oregon.

DP.LA and Europeana.eu have become my go-to tools for primary source materials. Metadata harvesters (this is the fancy name for the kind of tool that dp.la and europeana.eu are) are amazingly useful, fun to explore, and rely on open content and sharing in a way that warms my cold librarian heart. I gave a presentation on these tools at the ILAGO (Information Literacy Group of Oregon) Summit and I wanted to share it with you all. Here is my slide deck, followed by a brief synopsis for my fellow preferrers of text.

I have three goals for this talk. First, I want all of you to be able to go back to your libraries and share how rich, deep, and amazing the content available through metadata harvesters is. That’s the key point: metadata harvesters are really freaking cool. Once we’ve established that, I want you all to be able to explain to your coworkers what underlying technologies and standards are behind the magic of metadata harvesters. Finally, I want to close on the question of how to integrate metadata harvesters into our existing suites of tools for discovery and reference.

Metadata harvesters are really freaking cool.

Showing off the dp.la and europeana.eu is easy. It’s pretty easy to manipulate the interfaces and both tools do an adequate job of helping novice searchers. Let’s use an example to see how searching metadata harvesters work. Here’s the scenario: a student comes to the library with an assignment to find primary source materials on a historical figure represented in current popular culture. This student is interested in the Cercei Lannister character on HBO’s Game of Thrones series, so we are looking for primary sources about her historical inspiration Margaret of Anjou. Searching for Margaret of Anjou, including alternate spellings, returns quite a few interesting primary and secondary sources in europeana.eu. My favorite is a letter she wrote using veiled language to threaten people who were molesting tenants under her protection. The ease of finding materials really shows off the power and usefulness of metadata harversters like europeana.eu and dp.la.

Standards and technologies behind the magic

Turning to the underlying technology & standards that enable metadata harvesters to work, we’ll see that Dublin Core, XML, and RDF are foundational technologies. Metadata harvesters like europeana.edu and dp.la rely on dublin core and rdf to build standards. The key concept is that the metadata harvesters publish a standard that digital archives can use. Digital archives that wish to share their metadata must publish their metadata using these standards. Then this metadata will harvested and become discoverable. It is important to note that the digital objects themselves are not harvested and remain on the hosting archives’ servers.

Integrating metadata harvesters into our discovery tools

How we can make the amazing sources and resources that are discoverable through metadata harvesters available to our library users? At WSU Vancouver, we make them available through a Libguide. Reflecting on this, I’m starting to be concerned how free sources are largely segregated (made available to students in a different place) from the sources we pay to get access to. Are there strategies we can use to close this gap? It may also be useful to discuss the similarities between library discovery layers and metadata harvesters. Both can make use of the same underlying technology, OAI-PMH, but in my limited experience, the tool built on open standards and sharing is much more successful at providing discovery than the proprietary solutions.

Library Instruction West 2014 Recap #liwest2014

tl;dr Library Instruction West is a Marvelous Conference.

My brain is still buzzing and feels pleasantly tingly from all of the good thoughts, emotions, and interactions I had at the Library Instruction West 2014 conference. I walked away energized by the people I met and by the content they shared. Portland State University was a fantastic host and the organizing committee, led by Joan Petit, did a lovely job bringing brilliant people with excellent content together in a well-run event. <tips cap>

Three things that made #liwest14 a special conference:

Beyond my general glowing endorsement, I want to highlight specific aspects that made Library Instruction West 2014 stand out from other library conferences. To start, this conference draws from a specific and well defined community of practice and these are my people. The conference also stands out because instruction librarians are skilled and engaging presenters; spending our careers speaking with groups of students pays off with impressive presentation skills. The rewards of attending are both practical and intellectual; I left with two ideas I’m already using in my instructional design and with big picture thoughts that I’ll be reflecting on for a while.

These are my people.

Library Instruction West is about library instruction and not really anything else. This means that sessions are targeted and participants have a lot of shared passions and interests. If you are an instruction librarian, this niche marketing makes Library Instruction West much more valuable in terms of content than larger national or regional conferences. I was taken aback by the emotional impact I experienced listening to lovely colleagues talk about inquiry-based-learning, nurturing curiosity in our students, using narrative methods in our instruction, teaching format-as-practice [1], teaching with digital badges, assessing game-based pedagogy, and clever teaching hacks for survey software.I’m a bit of a utility infielder in library work. I do systems stuff; I do some web stuff; I do some instruction stuff; I’m trying to learn how to do more metadata stuff. That said, I came into the field as an instruction librarian and no matter how far my curiosity takes me, my core values come from instruction. Of course, as with most good conferences, the best information is transferred informally between sessions, at meals, or socially. I got to meet a lot of folks in person I’ve come to respect and admire through Twitter. I was able to put faces to Twitter names and spend a couple of days with some truly lovely people. It’s nice to be surrounded by one’s people, to feel part of a tight-knit community of practice.

Instruction librarians are skilled and engaging presenters.

It is a real treat to watch experienced presenters who have a good body of practice work with an audience. In my two days at Library Instruction West I learned as much from watching how presenters interacted with their audiences as I did from the information being transferred. This is a rare treat. At other conferences, I’ve learned AMAZING THINGS from people whose job descriptions don’t include being interesting at the front of a room and I’ve also realized after a talk that the charming and engaging speaker really didn’t say anything profound or useful, but attending a conference full of engaging speakers who are intentional about their presentation style is WONDERFUL. It is also nice to have sessions where attention is paid to active learning, various learning preferences or styles, and non-traditional visual presentation techniques. I had the opportunity to observe small break-out sessions with group work, activities based on physical objects, self assessment exercises, and excellent question and answer sessions. I also got to learn from people giving very traditional talks using slide decks that were well designed and rich with information. Being able to see, hear, and interact with really talented colleagues practicing excellent pedagogy is a learning experience that I really can’t duplicate by reading about it. So if my effusive praise above hasn’t already convinced you to attend Library Instruction West 2016 in Salt Lake City, this may be the most appealing aspect: you’ll have the opportunity to experience experienced and skilled library instructors demonstrating what they do best first hand.

I left the conference with two ideas I’m already using in my instruction and with big picture thoughts that I’ll be reflecting on for a while.

Idea the first:

In Zoe Fisher’s session Live the Question, Love the Question: Inquiry-based learning in the one-shot she described a method of helping students craft rough topics into functional research questions. This is exactly what I need for a very large multi-section class I work with. Each semester the largest barrier I see to student success is the inability to see a topic, research question, and thesis as three separate things. Zoe used inquiry-based learning theory to design an exercise where the students explain what they know and then using that foundation to tease out interesting questions. My History faculty have already signed off on using the “what I know / what I want to know” table she described in their Fall classes. Hopefully, this will help us move from the first spark of student curiosity to potential research questions more smoothly and naturally.

sample table for what I know | what I want to know excercise
Sample “what I know | what I want to know” table. Click for larger view.

Idea the second:

In Kevin Seeber’s session Teaching “Format as Process” in an Era of Web-Scale Discovery he delivered a well-founded argument for a turn towards teaching process and away from teaching formats. Process being the critical thinking steps that make up scholarship and formats being the packages information is delivered in. He sums up his reasoning as: “the way we search is changing, we need to teach things that are constant” and “don’t teach the interface, teach the results.” His entire line of reasoning is a treat, so please don’t miss reading the whole presentation. Using what I learned from Kevin’s talk, I’m going to embrace the statement “Information literacy is not about knowing “how.” It’s about knowing “why.”” and do as much as I can to re-write the instructions for an assignment in the course mentioned above to explicitly refer to process instead of to formats. For example, there won’t be a “Finding Newspapers” section, but there will be a section that uses newspapers to “Find current information on your topic.” The reason for this shift is to reinforce the scaffolding in a semester-long assignment. Students are too often jumping through hoops to complete the assignment, I want to reinforce that the hoops are part of a method and not just arbitrary busy-work.

Big picture thoughts:

As I listened and interacted with the presenters and brilliant librarians around the event, I found my mind returning to a couple of big-picture concepts that I’m going to need some time to chew on. The first was the subject of Anne-Marie Deitering and Hannah Gascho Rempel’s talk, methods to engage student curiosity in research. Allie Flanary also had good things to say about curiosity in conversation between the sessions. She’s working on a sabbatical project on student curiosity, which I’m anticipating with great interest. Engaging curiosity is a big reason I’m a teacher and it’s the most rewarding aspect of the work. Seeing librarians identify curiosity as the keystone of our instruction work is inspiring and I want to explore where this line of thinking leads people.

A second big-picture thought that I came back to at several points during the conference is the impact of web-scale discovery tools on library instruction. This is a topic that I’ve been fixated on for a few years now. Search interfaces for web-scale discovery tools closely resemble search interfaces for single databases or catalogs even though the underlying architectures are very different. At what point should we teach students that this is a different kind of search? It’s not obvious, but it’s significant. The search we do now is increasingly different from searching a single index and the gap widens every day. For a great reading on this, see Aaron Tay’s excellent post Why Nested Boolean Search Statements May Not Work As Well As They Did. Even though search interfaces look the same, the underlying math is very different. Web search and discovery layers look more simple than a database search, but underneath they are MUCH more complicated. I realize not every student needs to be an expert in big data, but “How much does a competent searcher need to know about how these new tools work?” is a live and relevant question that we don’t have an answer to.

Wrapping up

Library Instruction West is a small, intimate conference focused on issues of library instruction, the librarians who do this work, and the students we work with. It is full of excellent content and is attended by fascinating librarians who are there to share the best work being done in the field today. If this sounds like your cup of tea, the 2016 edition will be hosted in Salt Lake City. I hope to see you all there.


Notes

[*] For what it’s worth, I thought the shiniest spark in a brilliant couple of days was Kevin’s presentation. (back)

A Message to White Librarians about the BCALA Statement on the 2016 ALA Conference Venue

Called Out

Today, the BCALA (Black Caucus of the American Library Association) protested the ALA’s decision not to move our annual conference from the already scheduled and booked venue in Orlando to a place where laws don’t protect white people who shoot black people for no greater reason than they are afraid of them. I’m trying to avoid sensationalism, but the legally sanctioned murders of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis deserve the attention they are getting.

The text of the BCALA statement was posted to the ALA ThinkTank’s facebook group. The BCALA site was down when I wrote this. I’ve also clipped the BCALA statement to my Evernote, in case a reader wants to read it but doesn’t want to use Facebook.

There are a lot of conversations that need to take place. I don’t think anyone has had a chance to formulate an appropriate response to this. However, as a white librarian, I do have some things that I really want my fellow privileged colleagues to say and there are some things that I really hope we don’t say. I want to lay out my hopes and fears for the future conversation here.

How I hope we (white librarians) respond to the BCALA statement

  1. Listen. First off, I really hope that we see and acknowledge that our colleagues in the Black Caucus have directly called us out on the ALA’s commitment to diversity and racial tolerance. This is a big deal. Our colleagues are doing us the favor of directly telling us that this is a very important issue to them and so far, our behavior has caused them to question our solidarity. I think we (white librarians) need to acknowledge this and listen very carefully to what we are being told. In this case, I think the specific details of the statement are less important than the fact that the Black Caucus of the ALA is telling us that we are failing in one of our primary values. Full stop. As an organization,  this deserves our full and undivided attention.
  2. Include. Second, I really hope the ALA leadership invites the BCALA to participate in finding a solution to the problem. I don’t know enough of the details or have enough experience to suggest which solution we pursue, but if we are truly listening, it’s appropriate to find a solution to this together. This goes double or triple if there isn’t a clear or easy option that will satisfy everyone. If the ALA is forced by circumstances beyond our control to continue to deny the BCALA’s request for a venue change, then I think it really is our responsibility to seek the best possible solution together.
  3. Accept. Third, I very much hope that the ALA membership will accept this strong rebuke. The BCALA has taken the time to send us a direct communication that says: “This is not right.” In a perfect world, the ALA’s membership will respond with some form of: “You are right, it is beyond unacceptable that some of our membership, or anyone for that matter, is put in the position of fearing for their lives and the lives of their loved ones. We were acting against our core values when we chose not to take action before, and we’ll do whatever is in our power to amend our poor decisions.”

How I fear we (white librarians) will screw up in responding to the BCALA statement

  1. Ignore. I’m afraid that ALA membership won’t listen to this complaint or at least I’m really hoping that we don’t make this mistake. There is a lot in the BCALA’s statement beyond the request to move the 2016 annual conference. I’m worried that the general response will be to see that request, conclude that moving the conference is impractical or impossible, and move on from the situation. If we do ignore the message we’ve been sent, then the BCALA will be right to question our commitment to our values. Not only should we not ignore the statement, but we should read it with an eye for what is unsaid. The statement includes what could be a suggestion of a compromise. The statement mentions the My Brother’s Keeper initiative from the White House. This appears to be a starting place for a compromise solution. We should read carefully and consider what is being offered here.
  2. ‘Splain. I’m legitimately worried that ALA members will attempt to ‘splain away the concerns listed in the BCALA statement. We should work very hard to avoid dismissing the concerns listed and explaining how moving the conference is impractical and questioning our commitment to values is mistaken or insulting. Note: I am not saying that we are not allowed to disagree with BCALA or that we must obey some unwritten code here. There is room for a diversity of opinion. I am saying that in this case white librarians need to be on our best behavior. Any scenario that involves white librarians explaining to our Black Caucus colleagues that we understand how to address racism better than they do should be rethought.
  3. Deny. The BCALA’s statement contains some politely worded, but very troubling content. It questions the ALA’s commitment to things we say are our core values. In not-so-many words it says we give diversity and tolerance lip-service and then take whichever action is most convenient for the white majority. Responses that take offense to these accusations, strike a defensive tone, or act as though speaking the truth about white supremacy laws is an insult to “good” white librarians are only going to make the matter worse. We live in a nation that gives tangible advantages to white people. We live in a nation that allows white people to literally get away with the murder of black people. If we deny these things, or worse, if we act as though these things aren’t problems that are worth taking a stand on, we’ve failed.

So these are my hopes and fears. I really hope that we listen, engage, and accept our responsibility. I really hope we can avoid ignoring, ‘splaning, and denying our privilege. I also hope that we, as an association, can see this moment as an opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to the values we claim.

[Edit: Originally I listed the name of Jordan Davis’ murderer by mistake. I apologize for that mistake.]