Having a spare moment, I decided for whatever reason to see what had been written about the use of ‘clickers’ in the classroom. Quite a bit, as it turns out, but most seems to focus on how to use them effectively, with little discussion about how they should be used at all.

I find that Leslie M-B’s post on the subject gives a balanced summary of the issue, so I’ll point you there if you want to get the gist of what is going on.

From what I can tell, the only place where I can see clickers being of use is in very large classes where any kind of interpersonal interaction is impossible. I’m referring to classes of 100+ students. According to the Globe, the average number of students in a first-year class at McGill is 243, which is above the average across Canadian universities (194).

243, 194… it’s all insane.

The adoptions of clickers is a symptom of overcrowded classrooms.

Overcrowded classrooms are a symptom of problems with the economics of the university.

Universities are not allocating sufficient physical (classrooms, etc) and human (teachers) resources (i.e. classrooms and teachers, esp teachers) to teach the volume of students attending university. Why? I’ll simplify (if only because I don’t have time to investigate the details) and suggest that universities don’t have the money to provide these resources.

Universities, at least here in Quebec, receive funding in part based on the number of students attending. They should be able to acquire additional resources to meet the demand, at least on paper. Why not? Possible explanations:

  • Funds recieved are sufficenct to cover incremental costs (ex hiring teachers), but do not allow for larger investments (i.e. new buildings, etc).
  • Funds recieved are insufficient to meet need
  • Funds recieved are not allocated to support teaching

I suspect that reality is some combination of these three factors.

This is what I think of every time I hear someone talking about clickers. In my opinion, trying to come up with ways to use clickers in the classroom is akin to rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic. We should instead be focusing on the fundamental problem, rather then accepting the cramming of a few hundred students into a classroom as the norm, and coming up with ways to make it tolerable.

V Mary Abraham has written about one of the challenges of being a librarian in a law firm. In an environment where time spent looking up information is billable, what is the benefit of a librarian that reduces the amount of time spent looking for information, and in doing so, reduces billable hours.

Abraham rejects this analysis, as do it. It reminds me of one a similar dynamic that exists in software companies that charge for support: what incentive does a software company have to produce software that works well, that has few defects, and is easy to use when they make money off of training and support?

I encourage you to read Abraham’s response to this challenge, and I would add that in addition to the personal interests and motivations of the people involved, these kinds of practices (i.e. working inefficiently to generate billable hours) will in the end only damage the organization’s brand, their customer relationships, and their overall reputation.

Software companies at least have the benefit of a certain degree of lock-in, making it difficult for customers to switch to another provider. I don’t know much about how law firms operate, but my guess is that a customer who grew tired of paying high bills for lawers looking up information would have an easier time switching to another firm.

A law librarian can therefore become a key strategic asset to a firm, enabling them to provide excellent, fairly-priced service to its clients. Efficient staff will be able to handle more work from more clients, allowing the law firm to grow and establish itself as a top-tier firm. The end result is not only a more stable customer base, but, you guessed it, more billable hours.

Chronicle of Higher Ed: Libraries Innovate to Counter Cuts

Few of the [Association of Research Libraries’] members hold out much hope that the outlook will improve anytime soon. “There’s already an expectation expressed that there will be more cuts during the current fiscal year, and a high expectation that they’ll continue into 2010-11. That’s scary,” says Mr. Lowry. “Maybe things will turn around, but right now the outlook is extremely pessimistic.”

Frankly, despite the headline, I don’t as see much innovation going on as librarians making do with less. Most of the article is along the same lines as the quote above, describing a rather dark situation for research libraries. Budgets are being cut, librarian positions being cut, empty positions left unfilled, with less money for collection development.

To deal with the collection development problem, libraries are shifting their perspective from individual collections to consortium collections. In other words, as long as one of the libraries in your consortium has a copy of the book, and you can get that book through ILL in a reasonable time frame, you don’t need to purchase the book for your library.

I think this renewed focus on collection development is a good thing. The problem is that you need librarians for it to work, and probably more then libraries have now.

Libraries can no longer rely on standing orders to fill their orders. Instead, they need to be much more thoughtful about how they spend their money. They need to think about what goes into the collection, what should be taken out, what can be called from other libraries on a just-in-time basis. You need librarians to be working closely with faculty to determine collection development policies and to purchase materials accordingly.

However, staffing budgets are being frozen and more likely cut during the very time when these librarians are needed. As a result, I believe that research library collections and services across the board are going to suffer. People will point to ‘the current economic climate’ as an excuse, but that won’t stop the damage being done. The greater risk is that people will take this new level of ‘service’ as being good enough, and budgets will never be readjusted to meet actual needs.

I commend all librarians who are working in reasearch libraries and libraries everywhere during this tough time. But to label what is happening as ‘innovating’ is to put a positive spin on an untenable situation. These librarians are not innovating: they are simply doing the best they can to continue deliver some level of service to their communities.

Updated thoughts on ASKP

I’ve posted an updated version of my earlier thoughts on the proposed name for the SLA over on the SLA Alignment Portal: Association of Strategic Knowledge Professionals is a poor choice of name.

If you are an SLA member and would like to share your opinion on the proposed name, I recommend heading over to the SLA Alignment Portal, creating an account, and posting your thoughts on the site.

Elaine Toms @ SIS

Last Friday afternoon I attended a talk by Elaine Toms titled Integrating Information Search into the Workflow Process.


Most search engines and information retrieval interfaces focus on helping the user to retrieve information from whatever collection they index. Attempts to improve these tools tend to focus on improving search algorithms or interface elements for specifying search queries, refining results, etc.

According to Toms, we need to broaden our perspective beyond the task of retrieving information and consider the larger task in which this search task is being conducted. For example, when students are looking up information, their broader tasks is often to write a paper for one of their courses. To support this UI designers need to understand the process of writing a paper, and design a search tool that supports that broader task (i.e. helping them to outline, to gather resources under topics and subtopics, to cite works, etc). Toms and her fellow researchers have started to look at this problem and have designed a prototype interface that they have been using to test supporting information retrieval from Wikipedia.

I’m still on the fence as to whether is the best approach to designing information retrieval interfaces. It isn’t surprising that most IR interfaces are designed to support the specific task of searching and not the broader task. This allows the search tool to be used in the widest number of contexts without having to develop and maintain different interfaces for different tasks.

At the same time, there is a real value to providing search tools tailored to a specific task. The example I thought of during the talk was screenwriting software. These are essentially word processors that have been designed to support the process of writing a screenplay. As opposed trying to improve upon the generic word processor (ex MS Word), the developers of these applications decided to add features that help the writer create documents that meet the specific format and structural needs of screenplays. The software doesn’t help the person create a great screenplay, but it does take care of the technical aspects of the writing, allowing the writer to focus their energies on the content itself.

The task-support interfaces being contemplated by Toms et al. run along similar lines. Understand the broader task that the user is trying to accomplish, then provide them with an excellent IR interface embedded in a toolset that helps them to retrieve and process information towards the ultimate goal of completing their broader task.

Even if we are not able to provide users with software that support their information-related tasks, the understanding this research will bring about can surely be used to improve the resources, services,and training provided by librarians to their clientele.

Yesterday the SLA announced that the proposed new name for the SLA is Association for Strategic Knowledge Professionals (ASKPro). There was some real member activity on the sla-dite mailing list this morning, so I thought I would take the time to write up my thoughts to add to the conversation. Below is the text of my contribution:

I have to say that when I read the editorial by Janice Lachance in the latest Information Outlook comparing promoting the association with selling fabric softener, I was worried. Now I see that I had every reason to be.

While I agree that the name change is necessary, and that it should not include references to librar* terms, Association of Strategic Knowledge Professionals is a poor choice for naming the association.

It is clear that the the terms were chosen (1) to use terms that test positively with decision-makers, and (2) form a nifty acronym. In other words, it was chosen to promote the SLA and the work of information professionals, and not to represent the membership.

“Strategic” appears to have been included to suggest value, but you can’t promote something as valuable by simply slapping a label on it (unless you are selling fabric softener). In our case, you need to demonstrate how the activities of information professionals contribute to the attainment of organization objectives. You need to demonstrate it effectively and repeatedly, and you need to consistently link that performance to whatever name you choose to call yourself. Simply including “strategic” in the association name is unlikely to improve the recognition of information professionals. What is more likely is that it will suggest to decision-makers that information professionals in fact have a rather misguided understanding of how branding works.

I can understand wanting to include “knowledge” in the name. “Information” isn’t seen to have much value to organizations. Despite having access to an abundance of information, they appear to be unable to derive much value from it. Just as data managers moved up the ladder to become information managers, we often see a movement from information up to knowledge. However, the fact remains that by and large what we work with is information. Yes, all librarians need to understand the role information plays in the creation, sharing, acquisition, and application of knowledge, but that does not make us knowledge professionals. That understanding is critical do providing information services to our clientele, but it does not define our area of expertise. We are information professionals, and there is nothing wrong with that! “Knowledge” as a concept is already overused and misused to such an extent that its effectiveness as a promotional tool is quite limited. It might have been effective a decade ago, but these days is more likely to be greeted with a raised, sceptical eyebrow than anything else.

As an acronym, ASKPro suggests a reference service or product, but not a professional association. It also suggests an association with libraries and librarians, something I though the SLA wants to move away from.

Association of Strategic Knowledge Professionals isn’t likely to mean much to business and industry. As a branding effort it is too transparent to be effective and it likely to be more of a detriment to the association’s alignment activities.

It is also questionable whether “strategic knowledge professional” will resonate with the SLA’s membership. As others have suggested, if the SLA has to explain to its own *members* what the term means, there is a problem.

I think the SLA executive have to go back to the drawing board on this one. I’m concerned, however, that this one was even made public and put forward to membership. Going forward with a name change for a membership organization is a huge risk, and it is my opinion that the SLA executive has fumbled the ball on this one. We’ll know for sure after the vote takes place.

While I will continue to support the SLA’s efforts to being about a name change, you can be sure that I for one will be voting against Association of Strategic Knowledge Professionals as the future name of the organization.

Dare I say it? “Say No to ASKPro!”


SLA is attempting to clarify their recent initiative to re-brand the association. A few notable points from the posting (which I recommend reading):

“[The SLA is] no longer an association of ‘special libraries’ as more than 50 percent of our members do not work in a ‘library.'”

Nothing about where members do work, and if it is a library under a different name, or really something else entirely. The only thing clear is that the SLA exec wants to move away from being associated with libraries.

” There is nothing wrong with being a librarian or working in a library but there are instances when it limits how we are perceived and what we have to offer.”

So: moving away from the term ‘librarian’ as well.

All librarians are info professionals, but not all info pros are librarians. Specialized libraries are information-providing units within an organization, but not all info-providing units are libraries. It means something more to be a librarian, and to work in a library.

“After an information professionals first job, the MLS is less emphasized. It is the experience and performance that is valued. The MLS degree is a means to an end and the credential to get one in the door. SLA realized this many years ago when they removed a professional library degree as a requirement for membership. And it has not hurt the association.”

No, because it broadens the potential (paying) membership of the organization. The SLA, which has recently raised membership rates to cover increasing costs, has no interest in restricting who can join, so there is no way they would re-introduce the MLIS as an entrance requirement.

But as someone whose job it is to help deliver an MLIS program, and to help students earn their MLIS degree, I have to wonder about the SLAs continuing and public devaluation of this degree.

It is clear that a focus on librarians, libraries, and the MLIS degree are not considered to be in the best interest of the SLA. They’ll gladly have librarians join, and even I think that librarians may benefit from membership in the SLA. But I don’t think that specialized librarians can look to the SLA to represent their best interests.

Given all this, I think that it would be in the best interest of all that the SLA change their name so that it no longer includes the terms ‘library’ or ‘librarian’, since this will more accurately represent the reality of the SLA today as well as the direction in which the organization appears to be going.

This leaves specialized librarians without a true professional association to assist and represent them. Could this be an opportunity for the ALA? Or time to consider something else?

Update: I’ve commented on the SLA’s original post, trying to be as constructive as possible. If you are an SLAer, I encourage you to do the same.


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