Insert Synonym for “Update” Here

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I’ve been slowly plugging away at a few posts on my job hunt strategies. It may be a bit longer before I put them up here, simply because I have a lot of information to share and not a lot of spare energy to organize it in a meaningful fashion. So–maybe December, eh? Continue reading

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Seattle Public Library

The Future of Academic Libraries

The two library-related questions I hear most are:

1) Will ebooks replace print books in the near future?

2) How is the digital revolution changing the mission of libraries; what will academic libraries become in the future?

The first question frustrates me on a number of levels, primarily because I hear it so often. The question is asked either in a tone of horror at the thought that the Era of No More Print Books is imminent, or with a bit skeptical cynicism, wondering who would choose to be a librarian in an age when you might soon become “irrelevant” (sigh). My pat responses are: this shift isn’t happening as fast as originally anticipated, print books continue to have lasting power beyond device lifetime and software upgrades, and ultimately the ebook format isn’t killing literature, it’s simply another format in which to digest the content of books. Cultures originally related stories and information orally before turning to stone and scrolls, then becoming books. Books have remained in essentially the same form for centuries because they are cheap, portable, and when printed on quality materials can be preserved for eons. However, stories and information will last beyond the medium of the print book. This is simply a change in format: like VHS to DVD to Blu-ray. Yes, there are other issues inherent in this conversation (for instance, the relative cheapness of a paperback to buying an ereader), but that’s as far as I want to get into that issue now.

Mosaic of Libraries

The second question, what will academic libraries become in the future, is more interesting to me. This question is built on an assumption that libraries are currently defined by providing access to print books, that this mission is dying (see above), and that they must redefine themselves or risk losing cultural relevance.

I believe the issue comes down to: academic libraries have always supported the parent mission of their academic institutions. They will continue to do this. But there is no predictable all-encompassing “future of academic libraries” because there is no predictable “future of all higher education institutions.”

Let’s take this in stages. First is the misconception that there is broad commonality to institutions of higher education in the United States. The truth is that American higher education from colonial times onward has drawn from multiple models, including the German research university model, the liberal arts model (preparing “well-rounded” citizens), and the (more modern) home-grown U.S. model of community colleges with open access to all, regardless of academic preparedness. Aside from those and other broad models there are a multiplicity of institutional missions serving different student populations. Some institutions are supported by (continually dwindling) public funds, some are private. Some are backed and shaped by religious organizations. Some cater to young students living on-campus, while others primarily serve commuting professionals or “non-traditional” students returning to school after a long absence. Some were designed to serve specific ethnic or cultural groups. Some institutions focus on teaching undergraduates while others are havens of research that improves medical, technological, and other advances. Some institutions prepare individuals for specific careers by teaching practical professional or vocational skills, while others focus on broad concepts like critical thinking. This great variety is a strength of American higher education, providing an education as rich and varied as the needs of our diverse population. With all of this diversity of mission and execution of education, why would we expect that all academic libraries would evolve into similar organizations?

Second, higher education is shifting in unpredictable ways. The digital revolution isn’t just affecting academic libraries, it’s affecting educational practice. Online education is exploding as institutions continue to migrate or replicate face-to-face courses in online sections and as a variety of organizations and individuals offer MOOCs. Even traditional face-to-face courses often have technological components such as class websites for resources or discussion and technology-dependent assignments. And higher education is changing rapidly beyond technological considerations. Public institutions are scrambling for ways to keep tuition affordable even as state support for education crumbles, leaving them a far cry from the truly public-funded model upon which they were founded. Institutions and their academic libraries seek to supplement deflated budgets by increasing efforts in fund-raising, grant-writing, and seeking alternate methods of gaining revenue. Students and the public are up in arms about increased tuition costs and unsustainable student debt, demanding change. Companies argue that higher education must adapt to meet community employment needs, spurring arguments about the nature and purpose of undergraduate education in the U.S. Institutions react to these situations in a variety of ways, thus it stands to reason that their supporting libraries will similarly shift in different ways.

Third, academic libraries already exhibit different philosophies of service and purpose. If you walk into several different academic libraries across the nation right now, you will find that they can look very different from each other. Some libraries thrive in a traditional book-driven model, with formal reading rooms. They continue to see high student use of the physical building and high circulation of physical volumes. For the faculty and students at those institutions, this is an important and relevant way to interact with the information they need. Other libraries are minimizing or eliminating print collections and using their physical space for multimedia development and group study space, utilizing the “information commons” model or becoming a student union-like space. Public service librarians may continue to perform traditional reference activities at a reference desk, may use the “roving/roaming” model of seeking out patrons in need of help, or may only perform reference interviews upon individual appointment. Some librarians have become fulltime instructors or work on instruction teams with faculty members, spending their time teaching students how to use information. Some are highly trained to help students use advanced technologically saturated spaces to craft complex media presentations. Some librarians continue to provide traditional reference services, but completely via email, online chat, social media platforms, or text message. And some public services librarians have migrated to completely new kinds of positions at institutions, perhaps digitizing collections or working in assessment.

So the question of what academic libraries will become, what will be their new mission and services in an ever-evolving digital environment, doesn’t have a blanket answer. I do not believe we are facing the imminent death of academic libraries any more than I believe we are facing the imminent death of the book (print or otherwise). Yes, many libraries are under increased pressure to defend their relevancy to maintain their shrinking budgets. The real problem isn’t finding the magic answer of what all academic libraries should become, but discovering how each individual library can best meet the needs of its parent institution. That is the key to maintaining relevance, and always has been. It may be a more difficult problem than in the past, in the face of so many varied directions and potential services—but it is, as ever, a process of discovering what the libraries’ mission should be, and how to best align limited resources and services to serve it.

Under pressure from administration or peer institutions, too many libraries try to do everything and fail miserably. They try to juggle traditional reference, increase information literacy instruction, create new digital collections, engage with students on multiple social media platforms, develop rich print and electronic resources, renovate space for student use, and any number of other activities. This results in a budget and a staff stretched too thin over competing missions. It’s difficult to succeed when your energy, attention, and resources are running in multiple directions. In my opinion, the mantra “do more with less” is far too common in academic libraries, and instead of being a rallying cry; this can feel like a giant fist pounding staff into the ground. A realistic look at budget and resources that is carefully allocated over targeted strategies and limited to a clear mission will help a library evolve in a way that is meaningful and relevant to its parent institution.

So what will academic libraries become in the future? Academic libraries will evolve as an even more varied rainbow of organizations varied in physical space, collections, services, and staff, serving their institutions in increasingly creative and unique ways.

Easier Said Than Done: Dissertation to Article(s)

It’s been a busy couple of weeks (as evidenced by the crickets chirping on the blog / FB / twitter). I’ve been on the prowl for our next NYC apartment, which was such an unexpectedly complex process that it will merit a blog post on its own at some point. I was also briefly in Dallas to deal with our belongings (aka The Storage Unit of Doom) and house there–egads–and I’ve still got work on that end to accomplish. BUT. Here I am, back to academia and writing!

Writing1

I’ve been struggling for months now with how to turn my dissertation into articles. Part of the problem stems from the way that social sciences dissertations are divided by functional, rather than topical, chapters. My chapters are titled exactly the same as most dissertations in my field (and the wider social sciences): 1) Introduction, 2) Literature Review, 3) Methodology, 4) Results (the data), and 5) Discussion (or conclusions, implications). By contrast, my master’s thesis in art history was great fodder for insta-articles (ah, the humanities!) because the chapters were topical: 1) introduction, 2) history, 3) iconography, 4) locations/types of images, 5) image function in the Catholic Mass.

My dissertation was a big project, something that needs to be broken down into digest-able chunks to work as articles. However, since I didn’t have to divide up the project initially, conceptualizing this after the fact is difficult. The distilled version of my dissertation study is this: I studied the education and other preparatory methods experienced by academic library administrators, and looked at how valuable/relevant they perceived each method to be, related to their academic leadership as administrators. My initial thought was to write one literature review article and two data-driven empirical articles: one on educational background (degrees earned), and another on the five other preparatory methods. But as I delved into the data, I had trouble separating the educational results from the other methods and began to see that the mentoring preparation might merit an article of its own.

I’m going back to the beginning to re-evaluate my plans. For the education-focused article, I’m going to limit my focus based on results with the greatest potential interest for my audience and impact on the disciplines (of library science and higher education). I may decide the rest of the educational data merits a follow-up article, particularly since I think there would be value in my performing some additional statistical analysis on my existing data. But if I wait to write an article after I perform those analyses, I’ll be putting off publication by months and end up with far too much information for a single article.

Writing2

This blog post is sponsored by: Tiny Academic Batman!

I’m waiting to conceptualize the second article until I have a firm outline and draft for this first article. I’ve learned over and over that if I try too much at once, I can get overwhelmed and become completely un-scholarly-productive (a.k.a. “ALL THE THINGS“). Thus, I’m limiting my focus. I’m also dividing my writing time into handy 2-hour chunks, divided by scheduled time-slots for other tasks (including my academic reading–it’s so much easier to keep up with it if I schedule in a few hours a week). I’m planning on starting the literature review / meta-analysis article next, and may actually outline that while I’m working on the first article (after all, there will be some overlap).

I’m finding the most helpful tip to be starting with the abstract. I usually start with the general empirical article outline, which roughly follows the dissertation itself: introduction, lit review, methodology, results/findings, discussion/implications/future research ideas, and conclusion. However, starting with that outline has been frustrating for me this time around–for one, because those headings are so generic. By starting with the abstract, I’m creating a one-sentence summation of the specifics for each section (about five sentences total), which is a far better and more specific guide of what I plan to write.

The other key to my writing productivity is the concept of “draft vomit.” That is, I turn off my inner editorial voice that wants to edit sentences as I type, and simply try to write down ideas as quickly as they come. This is most easily done in short sprints, and it takes practice to loose your inhibitions and simply write. It’s tough enough to do that sort of thing in fiction, but in research, when we have an obligation to cite sources and explain research methods, it can feel flat-out wrong to write so freely. I must continually remind myself that producing content is the key, and that I’ll edit for sources and grammar and rational reasoning later.

Well. It’s a work in progress!

Finally, there’s my own past series on writing  journal articles (from scratch, not from dissertations–but still).

PhD Attrition and Success

One of the searches that bring people to my blog, again and again, is anything to do with PhDs and librarians and/or library science. I’ve written before about the pros and cons of getting a PhD and things to think about when considering a PhD program. I’m going to add a few more thoughts into the mix with a blog series on PhDs and librarians. Today, I’m going to talk about attrition rates and what it takes to get through a PhD program. (Note: Most of what I’m saying just as easily applies to an EdD. I’ll be talking a bit about PhDs vs. EdDs in a future post.)

Only 41% of doctoral students successfully complete their degree within 7 years.

Only 57% of doctoral students successfully complete their degree within 10 years. (That’s the typical max time you’re allowed to complete the degree.)

— Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) 2008, PhD Completion Project.

Consider these numbers seriously. Yes, you’ve always been academically successful before, you love to read, you’re a responsible student–guess what? Most doctoral candidates, including those who will remain ABD (“All But Dissertation”) for their lifetimes, are in the same boat. Graduate students, particularly those who have already successfully completed one graduate degree, have been bred to be academically successful. The PhD is a different animal from the master’s, particularly if you’re working full-time while completing it. In most cases it’s an exponential rise in length, rigor, and difficulty. If you embark on that journey, you will be faced with the possibility of defeat at some point. The fear of failure may be the only thing that gets you to not quit (that’s what moved me on more than once). You’ll have to fight and claw your way through it, sometimes. Take the time to absorb that, if that’s something you’re ready to face.

Now. To balance that, I must say that many librarians tend to sell themselves short. As a group, we’re often humble to a fault, don’t always celebrate our accomplishments, and probably don’t shout our value enough. So don’t talk yourself out of a PhD because of a false lack of confidence. Don’t assume you’ll fail, but look realistically at the determination and sacrifices it will take to succeed. Read blog posts and articles by grad students, think about what you want from a doctorate, and most of all talk to someone who’s been through it–preferably someone in a field similar to your interest and preferably someone still in the program (or a recent graduate). Here is a great post to read about what it will take to succeed: A Survival Guide to Starting and Finishing a PhD.

Here’s a bit about my experience.

PhDdecadeComic

It took me five years to get my PhD. That’s actually less than the six to seven years I’d anticipated, particularly surprising since I was working full-time for four of those years. Part of my speed is because I was fortunate to have an early idea related to my dissertation topic, and thus was reading for my literature review for four years.* Even then, earning my PhD was incredibly difficult. I’d already been in graduate school for eight consecutive years earning my master’s degrees. Coming home to homework for that many years was an exercise in discipline, delayed gratification, and an inactive social life. I read statistics textbooks at family gatherings. I put off travel. I gave up on art and just-for-fun reading for years. It strained my emotional and mental health to a nearly unsustainable point. (I should write a blog post about grad students and mental health, and how my learning community helped me survive.)

Still, getting through the coursework was the (relatively) easy part. The dissertation was something else again. I was fortunate to be able to work on my dissertation full-time, but even then it was difficult to constantly sustain all that effort. You have to plan, schedule, and execute the research itself while continually running into methodological issues, problems with the research questions, and having intense doubt about your work. All the while keeping up with the literature in that area and writing up what you’re doing. Then, once you actually have some data (hurrah!), crunching all the statistics, questioning your methods, looking up others, and re-crunching them. Then you spend a lot of time looking at that data. The euphoria of having results wears off once you realize you have to interpret it all and find some sort of meaning, and then write about it. And, well of course then there’s the experience of the dissertation defense itself.

But. Despite the battle it was at times, earning my PhD was one of the most intensely rewarding experiences of my life. I truly enjoyed both of my master’s degrees, but due to the nature of the disciplines, those degrees were more about acquiring knowledge than about constructing knowledge or solving problems. My doctoral coursework was full of debate and discussion and “ah-ha” moments that I hadn’t experienced since my undergraduate days. I bonded with classmates over our passion for higher education. There were huge amounts of reading, but it was fascinating. My brain was delighted to work so hard–it felt good, like an endorphin release from a good workout.

So. That was my experience. Talk to others, research graduate programs, and think early on about starting a support group with fellow classmates. Weigh the sacrifice and risk against the rewards. And best of luck, regardless of whether you enter a doctoral program or have enough sense to move on with your life! 🙂

Coming up in this blog post series:

  • Reasons (for academic librarians) to get a doctorate
  • Deciding the degree (PhD/EdD) and the field (Library science or…?)

Related (previous) posts:

*I highly recommend this strategy. Start your doctoral program with a potential topic in mind–it doesn’t have to be a research question, just a particular area of interest. Write each class assignment you can around that topic, keeping up with professional literature in that area. This is the grad student version of a faculty research plan.

On Academic Regalia

I debated long and hard before buying academic regalia for my doctoral graduation. Even the “cheap set” is expensive ($100) and is of particularly disappointing quality–my main problem with that being that it doesn’t photograph well, as discovered with the $50 I spent on the similarly-crummy master’s set. I also wasn’t sure if I’d need to wear it again regularly–that depending on the particular institution you work at, their faculty status (or lack thereof) for librarians, and how many of their ceremonies actually require regalia. I looked up regalia rental options in the Dallas area, but they all catered only to bachelor grads or to individual institutions–no all-around doctoral options. In the end I decided that my custom regalia was worth the investment (it can cost between $350 and $1000) to look nice and that it’s likely that during my academic career I’ll work at an institution where I attend commencement and other regalia-requiring ceremonies 2-6 times a year. (My custom regalia is in the photo at the end of this post.)

Since I’m a librarian, and therefore curious by nature, you might guess that I’ve nerded out on the question of how regalia came about, and what the colors mean.

Doctoral Regalia Comic

Why the fancy regalia? Back when universities started in the 12th and 13th centuries, they were often affiliated with religious institutions. In fact, many of the students had taken orders and were clerics. Clerics wore robes as daily wear, thus students wore robes–think of how the kids always wear robes in class in the earlier Harry Potter movies. In America, this is just something we do for fancy occasions now (sadly). The odd-shaped hoods were in fact originally hoods that covered the head.

Left: example of Harry Potter's school regalia--actually me in costume, wearing my master's robe. Right: an example of

Left: example of Harry Potter’s school regalia–actually me in costume, wearing my master’s robe. Right: an example of “alternative regalia,” the $2 Target tiara I wore after my dissertation defense. Considered wearing it to graduation, but decided to be serious (rats!).

Why do so many faculty members look different at commencement ceremonies for the same institution? This is because faculty wear the regalia from the institution from which they graduated. Therefore, some of them have specialty gowns (Oxford gowns are red, Yale are blue), and some of them have different hats (motarboards versus tams, which are the floppy velvet hats with 4, 6, or 8 corners). In addition, there are differences in velvet colors (and sometimes piping) due to degree types and fields. However, the university president usually wears a president-specific gown where the colors are unique to the institution and there are often four velvet chevrons on the sleeves (instead of the usual three). Also, doctorates of theology often get red gowns with black velvet.

So… what about the velvet? Typically, doctoral gowns have three velvet chevrons on the sleeves, and a velvet collar and stripe down the front of the gown. The hood (the funny thing hanging around the neck and down the back) has velvet as well. The velvet indicates the degree type: typically black or royal blue indicates PhD, or Doctor of Philosophy, regardless of the field in which that PhD was earned. Non-PhD doctorates have their own colors. For instance, EdD (Doctor of Education) has light blue velvet. Piping color (around the velvet) is typically an optional thing and thus up to each person–many choose gold to set off their black or blue PhD velvet. However, I chose light blue (signifying education, my field) to set off my PhD blue (for my degree type), to indicate that my PhD is in Higher Education.

Doesn’t anything show your institution’s color? Yep, the inside lining of the hood is satin, typically in your two school colors. Thus, mine is green and white for UNT.

Don’t master’s candidates have hoods, too? Yep. They get a gown that’s more similar to a typical black undergraduate gown (so no velvet), but with longer odd-shaped flaps coming down from the sleeves, and they wear a regular mortarboard. The hood is similar to that for the doctor, with the satin indicating school colors. However, the velvet always denotes field (there’s not a master’s velvet color analog to the PhD blue). My master’s hood velvets are white (Art History) and yellow (Library Science). The exception to this rule are masters that are terminal degrees, such as the MFA (Master of Fine Arts). These graduates may wear gowns and tams more similar to doctoral grads, since it’s a terminal degree in that field–there is no PhD in Fine Arts.

This photo shows my regalia (PhD blue velvet, light blue piping) and my advisor's regalia--custom with orange velvet for the University of Tennessee (light blue velvet for the EdD).

This photo shows my regalia (PhD blue velvet, light blue piping) and my advisor’s regalia–custom with orange velvet for the University of Tennessee (light blue velvet for the EdD). The purple streak in my hair has no symbolism other than rad coolness. …I’m not really sure what my fancy “graduation medal” was all about.

And that’s today’s lesson in extreme nerdery!