Friday, November 22, 2013

On Failure: “Elizabethtown: Embedded Librarianship as Overreach.”

The following is a web-based version of a presentation given at the Fall Program of the Association of College and Research Libraries, Maryland Chapter, at The Johns Hopkins University on Friday, November 15th, "Library Secrets: Confessions of Falling Flat and How to Get Right Back Up."
"As somebody once said: There's a difference between a failure and a fiasco. A failure is simply the nonpresence of success. Any fool can accomplish failure. But a feeassscoe, a fiasco is a disaster of mythic proportions. A fiasco is a folk tale told to others that makes other people feel more alive because. It. Didn't. Happen. To. Them." - Orlando Bloom, Elizabethtown
As a library director, I fail a lot, so it was really just a matter of which failure to present. I chose this one in part because I consider it our, my, most epic spectacular failure.

Our fair campus. All photos, charts, gifs, graphs,... from the slides.
We wanted to drive traffic to the library website and to the library building.

Main Reading Room, State Library of NSW, Sydney (NSW)
In the second semester in which faculty were supposed to use a learning management system (LMS), we in the library asked to be "embedded" in a few select courses. We gave students, faculty, and staff a semester to become familiar with the LMS, but we were still very new to the platform, and that's true of not only the students and faculty, but also library staff.

Drie pantertjes geboren in Artis, Nationaal Archief
By embedding ourselves in the LMS, students and faculty would get increased access to librarians and one-click library assistance, in addition to content tailored to their needs via our LibGuides, which are not actual LibGuides, but built out of WordPress. In turn, library staff would get increased access to students and faculty, allowing us to expand our digital presence and footprint. We would also have a better handle on student assignments because syllabi were all in the LMS. It was win-win.

Speaking the language of assessment, we came up with student learning outcomes as well.
  • become better and more rigorous researchers   
  • be assisted in developing better critical thinking skills in organizing and executing their research assignments become better academic writers to include more knowledgeable use of citations, references, and bibliographies 
  • become greater consumers of library services
Profit!,, Initial image via KSB Photos
However, moving from theory to practice, operationalizing, was tricky.

Theory v. Practice, Scott Brinker,
We started small on purpose, with a pilot program that was going to target three (3) courses. However, after an email was sent out to gauge faculty interest, the program expanded dramatically.... to sixty-three (63) courses.

Airplane! gif, From the film, via Giphy
Nonetheless, the eager library staff went into these courses, via the learning management system. We introduced ourselves, linked to relevant resources such as our research guides, and started discussion threads.

Spongebob, from the show, Reaction Gifs
Across sixty-three courses, guess how many interactions we had with students and faculty on these discussion boards.

Three! Three interactions!

McNulty, The Wire, Reaction Gifs
Again, three.

Three flamingos, Unknown 8-bit video game, via Giphy
We, the library staff, didn't understand. What was wrong with us? Why didn't people like us? Why didn't they use this platform to ask us questions, to get help, to interact?

Overly Attached Couple,  Patrick Gill and Laina Morris, Know Your Meme
 As you can see from the image below, people were interacting and participating, just not with us, the library staff. The dismal data we collected went into a file I named "Elizabethtown."

Why Elizabethtown? Because it is a movie about a disaster that is itself a disaster. Meta! In the film, Orlando Bloom plays a disgraced sneaker designer whose latest product has flopped. He comes home for his father's funeral.
"As somebody once said: There's a difference between a failure and a fiasco. A failure is simply the nonpresence of success. Any fool can accomplish failure. But a feeassscoe, a fiasco is a disaster of mythic proportions. A fiasco is a folk tale told to others that makes other people feel more alive because. It. Didn't. Happen. To. Them." - Orlando Bloom, Elizabethtown
Elizabethtown poster, Paramount Pictures,
IMP Awards
The film is also notable because it gives us the "manic pixie dream girl" trope. In The Onion AV Club article that contains that term, the film is called a "Bataan death march of whimsy."

Based on that horrible data, library staff pivoted to the autopsy.

Captain America Prop Auction - Iron Man 2 armor, Flickr user Doug Kline
We learned that some faculty never turned on the learning management system or built out courses therein, some faculty had no idea what to do with the LMS, the roles library staff would play in the LMS were too undefined for both students and faculty, and we library staff had overreached and overshot. The LMS was still too new; to the extent that there was an organizational culture around the LMS it was nascent.

Facepalm from The Naked Gun, Paramount Pictures, Reaction Gifs
We were so busy wallowing that we overlooked the good.

Dr. Who in the Rain, from the television show, Reaction Gifs 
This widget we created and put on every in-course LMS page did give us some good news.

As it turned out, our LMS was responsible for a non-trivial amount of traffic to our website.

While we cannot control for time, and there are certainly other factors at play, traffic is clearly up in the second semester of LMS use. It could be the case that students were getting used to the LMS in the second semester, and that they were using the library more as a result of our one-shot library instruction sessions and information literacy efforts, for example. We chose to interpret this data as even though the discussion boards and embedding were a disaster, there was a silver lining here.

That second link from our MLS to the library website is actually from the gradebook section. That is, students check their grades, then directly head to the library website. Pretty impressive.

So at the least, this aspect of embedding made us happy.

Happy Dog from Analog, Japanese game show, Reaction Gifs
We chose to draw a few lessons from this failure, chief among them that our users have a comfort level that we library staff need to be aware of.

Cornell West on Real Time with Bill Maher, HBO, Reaction Gifs
  • Library staff can’t be everywhere, all the time
  • There’s such a thing as being too “high-touch”
  • Trust your communities
Elsewhere on this site, explore the tag "failure."

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Failure, Organizational Culture, and Library Management

Image via Memecenter.
People fail, and they fail often. Failure is natural and organic. It happens. Organizations, however, are different. They are biased against failure to the point of denialism. Organizations are the proverbial ostrich with its head in the sand when it comes to failure: they don't want to hear it, and because of this, they don't prepare for it. These organizational biases against failure are themselves a form of failure.

The above was informed by Sharon Epps' closing presentation at the Maryland Chapter of the Association of College and Research Libraries day-long program on failure at The Johns Hopkins University on Friday, November 15th. Details about the program are here.

Can we make organizations a safe space for failure, for experimentation? If so, how?

As a library director, I fail on a regular basis. Armed with data, with the language used by our strategic plan, and with righteousness on my side I walk into a room and make my case. We need more full-time staff, more money for materials, and administrative rights on library computers, among other wants and needs... and I fail at all of these. To be a library director is to fail over and over and over again.

To the extent that I can change the organizational culture of my place of work to accept failure, and to encourage risk-taking, experimentation, and curiosity, I'll do so. I'm unsure of my abilities outside the library building, but inside
I called a meeting of all our full-time and part-time staff, and told them to treat the library like a laboratory. We’re going to try some things here. We will fail some of the time, but that’s life, and I’ll do my best to limit the damage. 
I'm grateful to ACRL MD for holding this program. I wish we in librarianship would not only talk more about failure, but encourage it. I hope this is a start. 

Source of the above offset is here: New Year, New Library (kind of)
Elsewhere on this site, explore the tag "failure." 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

My Bloody Valentine at The Electric Factory, Philadelphia, 11/9/13

It's difficult to assess something that shouldn't be. My Bloody Valentine hadn't released an album in over twenty years until earlier this year, when vocalist, guitarist, and bandleader Kevin Shields made m b v available late on a Saturday evening in February.

This album was a culmination of a recording process that started seventeen years ago, and the band's reunion tour was a first opportunity to hear them present the material, new or otherwise. Shields, however, had other ideas.

The concert, at Philadelphia's Electric Factory, began with three songs off their classic album Loveless. The low-end crunch of "Sometimes" sent rumbles of bass and distortion throughout the venue, overpowering the vocals from Bilinda Butcher. Then, after what was to be one of many false starts to a song, the band launched into "I Only Said." Colm Ó Cíosóig's crushing drums stood out above the wall of noise created by Butcher, Shields, bassist Debbie Googe. and Jen Marco, a touring guitarist and keyboardist. "When You Sleep" was an early standout; a Beach Boys song run through consecutive filters of C86-style jangle, John Hughes' films, and a punishing roar of guitar squalls. A wall of amplifiers dwarfed Shields, stage left, and early in the set he retreated into them as if they were a cocoon.

The mellow, for My Bloody Valentine, "New You" followed, the first song they played off the new album. Ó Cíosóig's Madchester-style breakbeat continued to serve a reminder that under the noise, the band has a diverse palette to draw from.

Yet Shields was unhappy with some of the technical aspects of the show, and it showed. He missed one of Cíosóig's drum counts. Googe's bass and Butcher's low-end D, A, and E notes made some of the vocals unintelligible, and during "Come In Alone" Shields stopped in the middle to change guitars. It is unclear whether this was an error on his part, or on one of the guitar techs. These mistakes rattled Shields, someone who is such a perfectionist that he waits twenty-two years between releasing albums. Whatever sounds he was making with his guitar and pedals, he made it clear that they were the wrong ones, confusing the audience.

The stage lighting was at times abrasive, forcing audience members to look down or to close their eyes. With a band like My Bloody Valentine, however, not looking may be an asset. There are few groups that can provoke feelings of synesthesia quite like MBV. Without the benefit of sight, Shields' guitar-based tone poems evoked both the color schemes of impressionism and app-based generative music. The presence of the band playing in the same room was enough of an experience, as waves of sound washed over the audience and Butcher cooed wordlessly through songs like "To Here Knows When."

The band is infamous for ending concerts with extended versions of songs, often exceeding the fifteen-minute mark. It was telling, then, that the closing song, "You Made Me Realise," lasted just under seven minutes.

Befitting the shoegaze moniker, the band members never interacted on stage, each one lost in their task, reinforcing the discomfort. Aside from thanking the audience and wishing them, us, goodnight, Shields' only stage banter was to apologize for the sound.


I Only Said
When You Sleep
New You
You Never Should
Honey Power
Cigarette in Your Bed
Only Tomorrow
Come in Alone
Only Shallow
Nothing Much to Lose
Who Sees You
To Here Knows When
Wonder 2
Feed Me With Your Kiss
You Made Me Realise

Note, this review is also posted on Midnight to Six.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Subtle Joys of Selecting on the Dependent Variable

Academic research in the social sciences has a variety of aims, but much of it seeks to explain or elucidate phenomena or condition(s) and the relationships therein. In research parlance, this phenomena or condition is the dependent variable. One should not select cases that satisfy the criteria of the dependent variable; doing so is called selection bias and can lead to incorrect conclusions.

To wit, here is an example of selection bias from my former field of study, political science.
Analysts trying to explain why some developing countries have grown so much more rapidly than others regularly select a few successful new industrializing countries (NICs) for study, most often Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, Brazil, and Mexico. In all these countries, during the periods of most rapid growth, governments exerted extensive controls over labor and prevented most expressions of worker discontent. Having noted this similarity, analysts argue that the repression, cooptation, discipline, or quiescence of labor contributes to high growth. (Geddes, 134 pdf)
If one were to make policy recommendations based off this research, one might advocate that developing countries repress labor unions in order to get economic growth, the dependent variable.

Reaction Gifs, as always. And Clueless. 
As it turns out, Alicia Silverstone is right to be skeptical about this claim.
In order to establish the plausibility of the claim that labor repression contributes to development, it is necessary to select a sample of cases without reference to their position on the dependent variable, rate each on its level of labor repression, and show that, on average, countries with higher levels of repression grow faster. 
The two tasks crucial to testing any hypothesis are to identify the universe of cases to which the hypothesis should apply, and to find or develop measures of the variables. A sample of cases to examine then needs to be selected from the universe in such a way as to insure that the criteria for selecting cases are uncorrelated with the placement of cases on the dependent variable.(Geddes, 134-5)
A random sample from a given universe is one such way to test a hypothesis or a relationship, but selection bias is not random, and when one does this, the research findings may be biased.

However, there is a flip-side to selecting on the dependent variable: the results are often not only relevant, but highly entertaining.

To wit, James Scott's Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed is, in my mind, a towering achievement and an immensely absorbing piece of research. Of course, he selects on the schemes that have failed.

Via Google Books
And that brings us to library and information science.

Stanford University's Jacqueline Hettel and Chris Bourg are conducting research on "assessing library impact by text mining acknowledgements" from Google Books (Source). It is an impressive and creative way to measure how libraries can positively affect scholars, and at present it is in the "proof of concept" stage, so it is still early. Information and early data on the project is available at the following links.

It seems that these scholars have a dependent variable robustly defined and measured in the form of acknowledgements that thank libraries and librarians for their help with research. While they have acknowledgements, proof of the impact of libraries, the dependent variable, they do not have the causes of these acknowledgements, and as a fellow librarian, the causes are what I am after. Those causes lead to a new metric of academic library success in scholarly communication. As of now, this work appears to be called "Measuring Thanks," a title that may hint at possible selection bias. I look forward to hearing more about the project, and I hope that they have not selected on the dependent variable by focusing on it at this early stage. As was the case above, a random sample of books, and the acknowledgements therein, is one way to avoid this bias.

Academic researchers are not supposed to select on the dependent variable, but doing so can lead to interesting and entertaining finds. More research that satisfies these latter conditions, please.