Friday, October 29, 2010

Teaching Research Skills – part 2

Teaching research skills is not easy. After I wrote part 1 I read a few questions on a librarian’s listserv that seem not very well thought out. They were asking for help for questions that they should have first done some searching. For example, “Do you have any articles on [fill in a topic]?” Sometimes the answer involved a quick search of a data base. Hardly anyone keeps such information at their desk or in a nearby article file. Another person asked, “Does anyone use OPAC in their library?” If I understand “OPAC” to mean online public access catalog, I would guess that anyone who uses a computerized library management system has an online public access interface to the catalog.

While we like to say that there are no “stupid” questions, the questions must be formulated so that an answer may be given. Also before asking a question is a public forum, the questions should show some understanding of the topic and if they are a librarian or scholar, they should indicate what has already been tried and did not give satisfactory results. The questions above do not show any this typ of preparation. The first question shows not only a lack of search skills, but laziness. If the question included what was already tried or some statement of understanding the topic, it would show a spark of wisdom. How can we teach that research takes hard work when we don’t do the preliminary investigations?

Librarian and teachers are skilled at helping people better formulate questions. Let’s use the I (issue) R (Research tools) A (Analysis ) C (Conclusion) methodology to analyze some questions.

Question: What kind of oven would one use to bake a batch of 24 loaves of bread at a time?

If this questioner came to you “off the street” a quick answer would be, “A big one.” The question does not state the size of the loaves. I happen to have special baking pans for small loaves. I can easily bake 48 loaves at a time in my home oven. First examine the background to the question. I’ll pretend that I interviewed this questioner and here is what I found— this questioner is an expert baker, who understands how to handle many kinds of dough and flour mixes containing white and whole wheat flour of several different hydrations. He wants to move away from commercial gas fired ovens and wants to explore use of wood burning ovens.

Then the answer is to direct him to sources of wood burning ovens both the kind that can be built and the commercial ones for purchase. There are many web sites with good information on wood burning stove. and are two examples. The questioner is now pointed in the right direction and the analysis and conclusion is in their court.

Question: A librarian looked in the data bases supplied by her library and found a citation and abstract, but the library didn’t have access to the full text of the article. The librarian asked her fellow librarians for help just in case they knew of another source or could help in searching.

The issue and research tools steps were completed by the librarian, but proved inadequate. After verifying that the citation and search were correct, I looked for other sources for the article. None existed in any library that I have access to. Interlibrary loan was the only other option. This librarian just needed a little help to make sure that what she did was correct.

Careful research takes time.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Teaching Research Skills

A few days ago a school librarian friend asked me for advice on teaching 6th graders research skills. The sixth grade teacher, who is new to the school, asked for help. Asking the librarian for help is a good sign because the librarian has tried since the beginning of the school year to interest the teachers in visiting the library for research help. The librarian told me on many occasions that the teachers complain that they have no time for the librarian to teach research or library skills. Yet, the teachers don't act as if they even know how to use the data bases or other library resources.

A long time ago when I was in library school if one needed to do an electronic search, one needed to make an appointment with the librarian. Before going to the computer terminal (no PCs in those days) the searcher discussed the search strategy. Since online time cost so much money, it was more cost effective to spend time thinking before searching. The librarians would help with the formulation of search and research questions. Online time to search could cost $50 or $100 per hour depending on the data base. Even at this price a search could save hours of tedious research in the paper indexes. Today one can performs hundreds of searches in an effort to find answers to research questions. However, because of all the information out there, one needs to learn to create an efficient search strategy and patiently search for answers. Research takes time; there are few instant answers to tough questions.

Computerized data bases (and yes data bases existed before computers) were the by-product of computerized typesetting used to print paper indexes. A data base is created by human beings, not automated computer searching. The indexer enters the author(s) title, subjects and other searchable fields. The indexer has to decide how to use the rules for entering names and the controlled vocabulary of subject headings. There is a reason that data bases cost a lot of money and search engine do not charge the public for their use. Search engines index based on algorithms; they can't manage ambiguity and conflicting information.

The sixth grade teacher had assigned them topics concerning countries, but the topics were very general. The student were told to investigate aspects such as food, art, geography, culture, and politics.

Use IRAC as a methodology or reminder for research steps.

I stands for Issue or Interest. Understanding the questions concerning the issue and background is the first step for the sixth graders' research project. In order to look up anything one needs to formulate the questions. What interests you (the researcher)? What aspect of the subject is interesting or what bothers you? Since the student does not know much about the subject, reading a general encyclopedia or text book is the way to start. Many teachers say, "Don't use the encyclopedia!" What they should be saying is "Let's learn how to properly use the encyclopedia as a valuable research tool." Students could read 2, 4 or 20 articles before learning enough to formulate useful research questions.

R stands for Research tools. What electronic or print resources are you going to use to find the answers? Librarians take courses in data base searching and reference to gain background to guide searches. Google, reference books, data bases are part of the tool set to find answers. What are their relative strengths and weaknesses?

A is for Analysis. After using the tools to find resources and reading the materials, how can you apply the information to solve the problem. If there are multiple issues, how can they be broken down before analyzing them? What kind of bias is present in a source? Triangulate resources to try for a more accurate picture of subject. If three sources point to the same answer, one can be more certain of the truth than when two sources disagree. Analysis is the reconciliation of the parts of the problem to enable one to understand the whole.

C is for Conclusion. The thesis states the problem and outlines the questions. Write your paper using the analysis of the facts and sources to support your thesis. The conclusion answers the question(s).

Versions of this research strategy are applicable to all academic levels and ages of students. The sources and the ability to analyze them vary with the student's age and academic ability. Thinking, confronting ambiguity, and analysis are part of the critical thinking skills that are required in all disciplines.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

New Rules for Communications Chapter 12 -- Appreciate Success

This morning quite without intention I attended an appreciation ceremony at the local Jewel supermarket. For the past few months (it seemed to take forever) the store has been getting a physical remodeling. New refrigeration units, new floors, new lights, new signs, and a rearrangement of merchandise were added. For many weeks the merchandise was moved around so much it was hard to find things or make a plan for navigating the store. I don’t visit every aisle.

As I was listening to the speeches I asked myself, “What can libraries learn?”

First, show appreciation to your staff, your readers, your administration, and your vendors. You are a team. Success means that you can work together. Lots of times we complain about administrations that don’t understand the role of libraries in the learning process, teachers who don’t ask for help, or readers who can’t formulate a question. Many times this morning, I heard people praise others for understanding the needs and processes within the store and its remodeling project. This store has a large kosher section. The corporate visionary of ethnic marketing wears a yarmulke and beard. He praised the store, the district and the corporate management for all their help and understanding. He called them his friends and colleagues. They thanked the food vendors because the mix of products sold changed. A representative of the city of Evanston was there to hear thanks to the city of Evanston. When people understand the common goals, the road to success is much smoother.

Yesterday I read a column about the repair process of an IT department. The process and the paperwork became more important than helping the customer. The author was teaching us that satisfactory results come from understanding common goals. Keep the goals in mind -- for a business more revenue; for a library helping people with their information needs.

When people do their jobs, thank them. When people work together for common goals, thank them more.

Second, the customer is a partner in the process. No library exists only for the staff. The staff serves the customer when there is only one customer or a whole city or country full of customers. Constant and continuous improvement depends on communications.

In my library we have been having problems with copiers and the process of getting them fixed for several years. The administrative “penny pinchers” treat the library copiers the same as departmental copiers. The library copiers are the only public access copiers on campus. They get more use by more people than copiers in academic departments. The library copiers break down almost daily because the machines get hot and can’t take the heavy volume of work. After years of frustration with an administration that won’t listen, the library prepared a survey to find out if the students are satisfied with the copier service. We started encouraging written feedback that we can present to the administration.

We also started to count the people who walk into the library. The security gates count who comes into the library, but before yesterday we didn’t keep track. In four hours the gates counted more than 400 entrances. Just by walking in the readers are giving us feedback.

Third, set good examples. This morning the speakers recognized the employees that greeted everyone with a smile and/or an offer for help. In this store, employees offer assistance at all times with and without a question from the customers. In libraries this is the same model to follow. Offer help. Yesterday I noticed someone looking perplexed. He couldn’t figure out how to print from the computer. I showed him how to print from the program and how to use the printer control program. Offer help before being asked. Smile and say hello as often as possible. Talk in soft, friendly, helpful tones. Be careful where and when you complain.

Fourth, manage your projects well. A store remodeling project takes lots people in lots of departments working together. Someone needed to create the vision. The first step to any project is to understand the goals and make sure your team is on the same page as the visionary. Getting everyone on board to work with the plan is no easy task.
The store required skilled tradesmen to install machines, devices, electrical connections, plumbing connections, etc. They needed vendors for all the new equipment and supplies. They needed changes with their food suppliers. All the timings of people and objects needed lots of project management. Don’t create a project without goals.

Fifth, keep people informed. For a remodeling project or any other major project, tell the public what to expect. Show the public that you are progressing and the end result will be worth the inconveniences. When the merchandise was being relocated, Jewel had people to help customers find the new places for the products. For a library project keep the people informed. Publicize the progress and the success. Refer back to my previous columns and use all the communications options that I mentioned.

Make great signs. The Jewel has signs that inform the public of the contents of each aisle. Last week I saw someone taking pictures of the picture on the wall above the Kosher Marketplace section. I thought the picture was well done and wondered why they wanted a picture. One of the pictured people was a relative.

However, be warned there are people who ignore signs. For security reasons the elevator in the library does not go to the first floor. Above the elevator call buttons is a clear sign telling the user that the elevator does not go to the first floor. People have to use the steps or the elevator outside of the security gates to go down. Even faculty members can’t seem to read signs. Despite this, yesterday I made new signs marking the exits.

Sixth, be happy. There are things that happen that no one could anticipate. Be happy that project is complete. One of the speakers kept saying, “Thank God.” The best plans, the best people, the best products, don’t come together by accident. There are forces that no one can control. Take time to thank God who made us all.

Monday, October 4, 2010

New Rules for Communications Chapter 11 – Building Your Plan

Does your library offer superior services? Have you paid attention to my previous ideas about how to tell the world about your services? Now is time to step back. Marketing is not just about your products and services it is about focusing on the needs of your readers, users and stakeholders. Many PR and people have a great difficulty stepping back and examining what the people you are reaching really need or want. (The difference between “needs” and “wants” is another topic for exploration. For now let’s assume they are the same.)

All of the Web 2.0 communications possibilities need to be used to listen and understand the needs of the library users. Attention to them will build long term relationships and get you closer to achieving your long term goals. As the needs of your users change, your goals should evolve to meet the needs. That is why communications is so important.

Think about coffee. You can buy beans and brew your own or you can have someone do it for you. You can go to Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, or Target for coffee and pay different prices. Each place may have a good product or a great product depending on what the marketer says or the consumer feels at the moment. The marketing that focuses only on the product tells you about one part of the business. What buyer problem does each place solve? Perhaps one wants a place to sip a cup of coffee while accessing a wi-fi connection? Perhaps one wants a drink during a shopping trip? Perhaps one wants a convenient place to meet a friend or client? Perhaps Starbucks saves you the time needed to prepare your own coffee? If you were marketing coffee, would you segment the marketing to appeal to different needs? Is the goal of Target to sell coffee or create a shopping experience? Is the goal of Starbucks to sell coffee or offer a place to enjoy a special coffee based beverage?

Now think about information. How do you want "information" to fit into the library's marketing plans? One can own a book or borrow one. One can get a new book from vendor or borrow a copy. One can get information from the open Web or use a data base (the hidden web) purchased by the library. Readers can sit in the library and do work or pay to sit in a coffee shop. Is the library a place for information or just a place to meet friends or quietly read? How do the goals address users' needs?

The approach of library marketing should also think of all the needs of the users. Multifaceted marketing requires a plan. Standard marketing education uses the four P’s – product, place, price, and promotion. That is nonsense for both businesses and libraries because it does not address the needs of the users. To succeed under the new rules for communication, focus on what the readers need. In a school or academic library the focus may be closer to what the readers need for their classes. In a public library the needs and wants may be intertwined. When you understand what the users need and want, create compelling programs with collections tuned to the present and future needs of readers and researchers. Put the organizational goals first and the best programs will follow. Market how the library will help the readers. Some readers need information, some recreation, and some need a place.

Marketing and PR people sometimes have difficulty making their goals sync with the rest of the company. When I was working for a state agency the marketing people promised bank customers a computer program to help them use some agency services. However, they neglected to tell anyone to create the program. Marketing wanted to solve a need, but forgot to work with other departments in the organization. This is a foolish waste of time and tarnishes the institution’s image. Think about the goals of pre-Web marketing departments – “Let’s run some ads, do a few trade shows, place some articles in the press, increase Web site traffic and that will generate leads for sales people.” These are not the goals of the organization.

Organizational goals should have ways to measure success. A goal for a library program may be to reach new readers or to introduce new ideas. Success may be the number of people participating in program or creating a change in one or two people. Businesses may focus on sales leads, number of visits, or numbers shipped, while they should focus on creating long term relationships and continuing revenue. Educators and librarians know that the effects they have students may take years to flower. Long term organizational goals of libraries are sometimes found in mission statements. Here is a sample of a generic message that can be edited for many kinds of libraries.
The mission of the Memorial Library is to provide materials and programming for the readers, staff, and community.
The Library collection will consist of materials in all media that will enable members to enhance their life experiences and provide the resources for study and recreational reading.
The Library strives to provide intellectual and social stimulation through a positive library experience that will further enhance each individual’s identification with life long education.
The library staff is committed to excellence in its service to all users.

A measure for success would measure if the provisions of the mission are fulfilled. Does the collection supply the reading needs of the students? Is the building adequate to fill the space needs of the readers and collections? Are all the actions of the library staff striving for excellence? Once you have the right goals, keep the marketing and PR activities focused on the goals by learning about your users and potential users and how to full their needs.

If we want success, we must examine what is failure. If a salesman makes ten customer calls and makes only one sale, has he failed nine times? If he made enough revenue for the company and compensation for himself with the one sale, a 10% sale rate is acceptable. If the salesman and the organization learned from the no-sale calls how to do better, they succeeded in moving toward a goal of creating long term revenue. If the salesman did not work hard or learn from the no-sale calls, he failed. A library must look at every program, product, and service and figure out what went right and where is the room for improvement. Failure occurs when the task is not completed or they do not learn from experience. Excellence comes from constant improvement based on experience, knowledge, investigation and communication.

Once you have a marketing plan that is based on institutional goals and communications with your stakeholders, stick to your plan. Many people will tell you that you are wrong. Many will fight your plans to communicate directly with your stakeholders. They will base their “advice” on what they learned in another time and place. They will tell you bloggers are geeks or crackpots who don’t know anything that matters. They will tell you to focus on the “four P’s.”

They are wrong. They are thinking about the wrong goals. They are mistaken about the power of the Web. Again, they are wrong.

You are reading this online, written by a librarian who grew up without a home computer. I graduated college before the personal computer existed. However, I bought a personal computer before IBM sold their first PC. I learned about the power of the computer for communication. I am not a geek. You can learn, too. You are what you publish. The Web is a powerful tool to spread your message.

With this article I am taking a break from writing about PR and marketing. Now is the time to turn the pixels over to you. Tell me what you want to learn about marketing. What is important about spreading the word about libraries and information systems in general and how can you turn the general into the specific for your library? What kind of topics should I cover in future columns? In the era of Web 2.0, information flows in two directions from the writer to the public and from the public to the writer. Please think of the principles of marketing and spread the word that libraries are the place.