Some of you may know that I’m a potter by avocation. I’ve been making pottery longer than I’ve done anything else in my life, including my 20+ years as a librarian. While I occasionally hand-build—my real passion is throwing on the wheel. There is something soothing and Zen-like about turning a lump of clay into functional pieces for everyday use. Throwing on the wheel requires me to be present with the clay and the wheel and the tools. No matter how much effort I put into throwing a pot, if I don’t center the clay to begin with, there’s little chance I’ll end up with a finished piece I want to keep. The act of being focused on what I’m doing has a restorative effect in and of itself on my well-being, and in these trying times, I find I need that now more than ever.
Librarian vs. Entropy
Every year at this time I’m happy to be back at school with students after Winter Break. This year, however, I’m back but our students and faculty aren’t. Even though we did have a long Winter Break, somehow I feel more drained and less rested than before it started. I’m sure the fact that it’s lonely without our students, who won’t return to campus until the first week in February, doesn’t help. So my return to a mostly empty campus amid the more contagious variant of COVID-19 and the violent insurgence at our nation’s Capitol and the aftermath has made it difficult to focus on projects generally reserved for those times when students aren’t on campus. I’ll be spending the next month completing behind-the-scenes work necessary for the smooth running of any K-12 library—weeding, checking digital resources for currency and accuracy, reviewing lesson plans, and developing new instructional material for research classes. Necessary yes, but restorative? I’m not so sure. From my point of view, a majority of our time and energy as librarians is spent trying to counteract the effects of entropy—the tendency of systems to devolve into randomness and disorder. Take your eye off any part of your library for too long and things quickly fall apart.
LibGuides The first thing I tackled was checking and updating my guides with new information (when relevant). I just finished working with two of our APUSH classes on their long form research paper, so that guide is in good shape for the next classes I’ll work with during the remaining weeks of our Winter term. We have a new Black American Studies class so I’ve been working to add as many resources as possible to a new LibGuide to support the curriculum. Once I’ve finished that, I’ll check for broken links. Broken links can undermine a user’s confidence in the usefulness of your guides, so every few months I run a report through the Link Checker function. There are frequently a large percentage of false positives, but I don’t mind checking each link as it gives me a chance to review it for relevancy to the guide it’s on. This can be a time-consuming task so this is a good time to work through them. The most recent report had roughly100 broken links, the majority of those checked so far being false positives, so the guides will be in good shape once they’ve all been resolved.
Weeding is one of my least favorite tasks: it’s just so final. Before I started work on our reference collection, I reviewed the CREW manual from the Texas State Library and Archives Commission.
This manual was clearly written by working professionals and is full of helpful and down-to-earth advice to help you organize your thoughts and prioritize your goals for weeding. Your print reference collection may be similar to ours—taking up prime shelf space yet rarely, if ever, used. A decision was made to interfile these titles with the circulating collection, making this the ideal time to weed. Ultimately I used the following criteria as a guideline and eventually found I was able to get into the “weeding zone” where I wasn’t so stressed about what I was getting rid of, but instead focused on what remained and the value it added to our collection: 1. Age and condition of book 2. Is it relevant to the curriculum or our community? 3. Is it unique in any way? 4. Does it add to the diversity of the circulating collection? 5. Do we have other books on this topic/ subject area? 6. Do we have databases that provide tertiary/ reference information similar to this title?
This ultimately meant that a number of our general and subject-specific encyclopedias were removed from the collection and will find new homes if the information isn’t currently inaccurate (think science) or dated (think current history topics and the language of older publications). Since many of our faculty only allow the use of tertiary sources for background information when writing research papers and much of the general information provided in these sources can be found freely online or in our databases, these titles were easy to cull. You know when your Oxford Companion to (insert random topic here) was published 30 years ago but has an unbroken spine, it’s time for it to go. We are, however, going to keep a small ready reference collection at the front desk, although that’s more for our benefit than our students who rarely, if ever, consult handbooks, dictionaries, and almanacs in print.
In the next week, I will be turning my attention to our Professional Development section, one area I am looking forward to weeding and possibly organizing by topic in more of a bookstore format. I would really like to move the collection to an area with a bit of privacy and a comfy chair where faculty could put their feet up, relax, and browse a while. We’ll see how the weeding goes first, though.
Although I’m not sure I experience the same sense of Zen when working on these tasks that I experience when throwing on the wheel, I do feel that same sense of calm when I look at a well-organized shelf or visually pleasing LibGuide—the feeling of accomplishment for a job well-done. These are a few of the things that I hold onto in turbulent times and hope they’ll make a difference in some small way.
I had the good fortune to have a mother who was an excellent seamstress. She made most of the clothes my sister and I wore through middle school, back in the dark ages when girls were forbidden to wear pants to school (can you imagine!) and the length of your skirt was closely monitored. Lucky for me, my mom patiently taught me everything she knew about sewing. By the time I was in high school, dress codes eventually relaxed and I was soon making the obligatory dirndl skirt in Home Ec, but on my own time I also made mini skirts and granny gowns—quite the dichotomy—but that was the 70s for you. Exploring the internet in search of the perfect mask, I was thrilled to discover an amazing array of DIY mask tutorials from a wide array of sewists—including Marcy Harriell of Broadway fame who starred in In the Heights and Rent. Her tutorial on 3D masks is the uplifting video you didn’t know you needed.
My school requires everyone to wear masks all the time except when eating or in a dorm room (for students) or a private office (for faculty and staff). That means when it comes to masks, I’ve pretty much tried them all looking for a style that offers protection from COVID-19, doesn’t hinder my ability to breathe during normal activity, and allows others to understand me whether I’m teaching in front of a socially distanced classroom or helping a patron at the front desk. As our understanding of how the COVID-19 virus spreads has changed over time, I have found my requirements for my masks has changed with it. At the beginning of the year I felt fairly confident that sanitizing surfaces, washing my hands or using a hand-sanitizer religiously after touching any surface, and maintaining a social distance of six feet would keep me as safe as possible when we returned to on ground classes. I worked hard to keep my hands off my mask, remove it by the ear straps, and wash it as soon as I got home. I carried a couple spare masks and my biggest concern then was foggy glasses and a muffled voice.
Now that transmission of the virus through aerosols in closed spaces without adequate ventilation has been documented (see the recent editorial in The Lancet), I decided to see what I could do to improve or replace the masks I was using to protect myself from aerosol transmission. In the early months of mask wearing when we weren’t aware of this risk, I bought several brands trying to find the one that I could wear comfortably for a solid eight hours. Probably one of the biggest problems with trying out masks is that they understandably aren’t returnable—so I ultimately ended up buying quite a few that I never used and turned to sewing several different styles in my quest for the perfect fit: pleated, Olson, and 3D. I now wear all three and have found each has their positive points. And as with everything related to the pandemic, I try not to focus on the negative but look for solutions for the problem at hand.
For everyday wear, the pleated mask is my favorite: it’s comfortable, provides full coverage from the bridge of my nose to under my chin and most importantly, doesn’t slip as I talk, and can be sewn to include a filter pocket. A nose wire helps to secure the mask, but the real game changer is the addition of an inverted pleat at the top that makes foggy glasses a thing of the past. I came across this mask hack on UK artist Sophie Passmore’s YouTube channel and for those of you working with young children or others who need to lip read or see facial expressions, she has a tutorial for a fantastic 3D window mask. There are an unlimited number of mask tutorials on YouTube, you only have to search to find the one that suits your learning style. If you aren’t a sewist, there are also tutorials on sewing masks by hand, so don’t be deterred if you don’t have a sewing machine and are interested in creating your own.
Fit Over the Nose
Probably the most important thing I’m looking for is a secure fit of the mask around the bridge of my nose. I want a tight fit—the object being to block airborne particles. I find having an adjustable metal bar allows me to shape the mask to the contours of my face ensuring as snug a fit as possible. While I know this fit isn’t as secure as that of an N95 mask, I’m not working in a medical setting that requires an air-tight fit. Any flexible wire can be used, but I prefer to use aluminum nose wires that I purchase through Amazon. If you’re making your own mask, create a tube, insert the wire, then sew closed. I recommend using clips in place of pins to avoid making holes in your mask. You can also add nose wires to any masks you currently use as they have an adhesive back and will stick to your mask so you can get the fit you want.
The Olson mask was designed by Clayton Skousen & Rose Hedgesand, clinicians at Unity Point Health, and donated masks of this style are frequently used by hospital personnel as a protective barrier over their N95 masks. I usually need to make some adjustment to get this style pattern to fit properly as it doesn’t have the extra fabric afforded by the pleated style to accommodate variations in individual faces. The Olson mask is comfortable once you get the fit right (I added a side tuck) and is much easier to insert filters into than the pleated style.
If you teach or do any amount of public speaking, then you’re probably familiar with the sensation of eating the fabric of your face mask while gasping for air so you can project your muffled voice. Just think of all the new teaching skills we’ve learned in 2020! I tried various silicone mask brackets and they were effective at keeping the mask out of my mouth, but I found they made my voice sound even more muffled. Enter the 3D mask. This mask reminds me of origami in that the dimension is created by folding and sewing the fabric. I like this mask especially for teaching and found it the best one for creating some space between my mask and my face. But, it still wasn’t great and it moved in and out with each breath I took. Enter the 3D mask hack by Sophie Passmore. She posted a video using cable ties to create a permanent 3D area (see the link to her YouTube channel above). You create a channel at the top and bottom of the front of the mask and insert the cable tie. The tension on the ties results in them bowing out and is created when you fold the top and bottom to make the mask. It sounds more complicated than it is – watch the tutorial and see for yourself!
Filti Face Mask Filter
I came across the Filti site while looking for an an effective filter material to use that offered the best protection against aerosol transmission. Tests by an engineering team at Washington University found Filti to be 85% effective at filtering 300-nanometer particles. In comparison, N95 filters are 95% effective. I use Filti for the filters in my face masks and also make disposable-type masks for quick trips out using it in place of material. Instead of tossing it after use, I quarantine the filters and masks for seven days in a paper bag and reuse. After several uses, I also sterilize them in the oven following the instructions on the Filti site. I haven’t thrown any away yet, but when I do, I’ll remove the ear cords and reuse.
Stay Safe and Healthy
So whether you are a member of the DIY mask maker movement, support one of the many DIY mask makers on Etsy, or have found your perfect fit from a commercially made mask, stay safe and healthy, and please share your experience with masks as we’re all in this together and it looks like we’ll be wearing them for quite some time.
Saturday is the last day of fall term. I’m teaching two sections of New Student Seminar (NSS)—a semester-long signature program covering academic orientation and study and research skills here at Kent. Due to our new block rotation schedule, yesterday was the last day one of my classes met, and although I gave my students the option of going to the library and studying for finals or working on projects for other classes, all but one chose to stay in the classroom. We’re a cozy group—quite comfortable with each other. Like with most teens this age, quite a bit of joking and good-natured razzing goes on during unstructured (sometimes even structured) time. Today was no exception. Talk turned to travels home and the anticipation of life without masks, surrounded by family and friends most haven’t seen in person since school started due to COVID-19 restrictions.
I don’t know how it is for you, but I have a hard time letting go at the end of a term, especially with a class that clicks and is just genuinely fun to be around. So instead of getting melancholy, I’ll use the next few days to look over my curriculum and make notes on lessons I think I should expand upon, and those I should streamline or get rid of altogether. This year, with the move to a hybrid teaching model, just about every lesson incorporated an element to encourage engagement or reflection prior to practice and demonstration of mastery. I’ll save what I’d like to streamline for another time and focus on a few things that worked well this term.
Screencasting is Key to Remote Learning:
Repeat after me: “Screencasting is my friend!” Although I used the Swivl robot, iPad, laptop, Zoom combination every class, it mostly benefited my in-person and remote students joining synchronously so they could connect with me and each other. When reviewing the recordings, I often found conversations weren’t loud enough or clear enough for my asynchronous students to hear what was going on. When I asked my remote students, they shared that discussions were hard to understand, even when four remote mics were placed around the room. Following that feedback, I started importing the Zoom recording into iMovie and slogged through 45 minutes of video—an uplifting experience if ever there was one—increasing the volume of student comments and discussion. My voice was fine since I wore a mic, but even when I amplified students’ voices 400%, you could barely hear what was being said. The best solution I was able to come up with was to record a separate lesson using Screencastify to post on PowerSchool, our LMS. This was a much better solution and took less than half the time I spent editing the Zoom recording, especially after I made peace with imperfect videos. In addition to the overview screencasts, I created videos introducing each unit to explain what would be covered in the next few lessons. Tutorials were recorded to explain individual skills and paired with an activity to practice/ master the skill. Below you’ll see the unit introduction and a tutorial and activity for finding an eBook on EBSCO or ProQuest Ebook Central and adding it to NoodleTools.
Flipgrid for Engagement, Student Voice, and Assessment
Flipgrid is such a versatile tool that I found myself turning to it often as it is easy to use and gives students a number of options for recording responses that takes their personal comfort level into consideration. For my introductory lesson, I used one of the conversations in the Discovery section asking students to share five items that showcase who they are. This was a great icebreaker—not too intrusive—and was fun to see what items each person chose that reflected who they were. There was a dog pillow and Shakespeare, hockey and lax sticks, a digital camera and a cheeseburger, a copy of Catcher in the Rye and a pair of Vans to name just a few. I wish I could list everything because they’re completely smile-worthy.
When we started our unit on Growth Mindset, I asked my students to share something they worked really hard to master. Their responses were fascinating to watch as they shared everything from mastering Latin to a tennis backhand to performing card tricks and overcoming laziness. I loved that overcoming laziness was viewed as a skill that could be mastered—see, there is hope for all you parents with children with messy rooms! Nestled in their dorm rooms, my students shared their pride in an accomplishment—something they may not have felt comfortable doing in person or over Zoom. This platform also leveled the playing field and offered an equitable assignment for all of my students regardless of how they were attending class.
Finally, when I introduced NoodleTools and asked them to find a source and add it to their project, I used Flipgrid to assess their understanding of the process by asking them to use the screen share feature to record their screen and walk through the steps to find and add a source to NoodleTools. It was really interesting to see how each student interpreted the instructions – I got everything from students looking directly into the camera and telling me how they did it step-by-step, to the silent film version accompanied by exaggerated clicking to a tutorial that I would have been proud to claim as my own!
Padlet for Playlists, Brainstorming, Critical Thinking
Padlets are interactive bulletin boards that can be used for a variety of activities. I used them frequently as they are simple to create, encourage collaboration, and are easily embedded in my LMS. For my unit on time management, I created a playlist and students chose one video, one article written by a Kent graduate, and one additional article or video. I then asked them to add a discussion post with this prompt: Thinking about the articles/ blog post that you read and the video you watched, what are three things that impressed you or stood out about the author’s approach to time management and how might you work that into your own time management routine? For annotation and note taking, I provided samples and students were then asked to choose one system, use it for a week, and post a picture of their best work. Finally, when a college counselor visited to talk about the college application process, he brought along cards of the factors colleges use to evaluate applicants. Students then discussed and rank ordered them in terms of importance. Since my remote students wouldn’t be able to read the cards, I needed to ensure an equitable learning environment for them. I created a Padlet with the 13 items and shared my screen over Zoom so they were able to take part in the discussion as the cards were moved into the order discussed.
Our students are leaving campus on Monday and all of us are looking forward to a well-deserved rest. Following Thanksgiving Break, we enter our remote learning stretch, then break again and return to campus in early February, starting classes remotely until everyone quarantines to ensure a safe return to life on campus. During the remote period, I look forward to collaborating on research projects with our APUSH classes and an opportunity to work with students to hone their research skills. Whether we are planning lessons for remote, in-person, or asynchronous learning, the right tech tool for the right job increases the opportunity for engagement and gives students a platform to share their voice with others.
I recently came across the episode of I Love Lucy where she and Ethel have just gotten jobs in a chocolate factory. It seems simple enough—wrapping chocolates as they move past on a conveyor belt. The conveyor belt moves slowly at first, and Lucy and Ethel do a fine job of keeping up with the candy moving along in front of them, feeling quite pleased with themselves. Before long, however, the belt speeds up and things quickly go sideways, the chocolates speed by, and Ethel and Lucy are reduced to scooping them off the belt and stuffing them … well, you get the picture and if you’re in need of a good laugh these days, I highly recommend this clip.
At this point, you may be wondering what this has to do with online learning or even librarianship. A post on the AISL listserv recently asked the question, “What IS a school librarian?” For me, defining what it means to be a school librarian used to be easy. But with all the changes that COVID-19 has thrown at us and how quickly our lives have changed, it isn’t as clear-cut as it used to be. It still means having a physical presence in the library, providing readers’ advisory, designing LibGuides, keeping our library website current, and collaborating with faculty on research projects. But now, for me it also includes designing lessons and teaching based on the HyFlex model my school adopted for this year (and truth be told, probably parts of it for years to come).
It’s a Strange, New World
I have to say, Kent has done a remarkable job of creating as safe an environment as possible for faculty, staff, and students. We started bringing students back at the end of August to provide enough time for testing and quarantining to ensure we were creating a bubble that allowed us to start school September 9 with over 450 students boarding on campus. An additional 100+ students are attending class synchronously and/or asynchronously depending on time zone restrictions. I’m happy to say we’ve just successfully finished week three of our fall term and I know it’s because of all the ways COVID-19 protocol makes teaching and living harder: masks, de-densified classrooms, one-way traffic patterns, testing, staggered meals and outdoor dining, campus visitor restrictions, and social distancing to name but a few.
In addition to my regular duties as the research librarian, I teach two sections of New Student Seminar (NSS), a graduation requirement completed in a student’s third or fourth form year. NSS covers everything from active study and time management to information literacy and research skills. This year, both of my sections have 15 students total—12 and 13 students respectively boarding and attending class on campus and two-three remote students that join via Zoom, time zone differences permitting. Armed with two years of teaching the course under my belt and time spent this summer at Global Online Academy, in PD with Dr. Joshua Eyler on Resilient Pedagogy, collaborating on a Hybrid Learning Guide for our faculty, and re-designing my PowerSchool LMS pages, I felt pretty well-prepared and thought “I can handle this.” Well, to be honest, I really wasn’t prepared for how many things I did previously that now need adaptation: talking clearly with a mask so I can be understood, listening carefully to an answer so I don’t have to ask a shy student with a quiet voice behind a mask to repeat themselves, any pair-share or small group discussion that requires close contact—the list goes on. Here are some of the challenges so far teaching during COVID-19, opportunities they’ve provided for growth, and a few of the lessons I’ve learned.
Lesson 1 | Technology is My Frenemy
On any given day I might have thirteen students physically in the classroom face-to-face (F2F) and two students joining synchronously—OR—I might have twelve F2F students, two synchronous and one asynchronous student—OR—I might have seven F2F, and six synchronous and two asynchronous students—OR… You get the picture—the possibilities are endless depending on factors beyond my control that impact my classroom and my teaching. The Hyflex model is designed to allow you to quickly pivot from one mode of delivery to another with the least amount of friction. This model relies heavily on technology and right now I’m using a witches brew of hardware and software that frequently seems to have a mind of its own: a Swivl robot, an iPad, a laptop, and finally Zoom combined to create as close as possible a true classroom experience. Because one of my main goals for each class is that my students will be actively engaged with the lesson, I add live group discussion, large and small group discussion boards on our LMS, Padlets, and Zoom breakout rooms to the mix. I travel to my classroom with everything except the Swivl, so now in the ten minute break between the last person teaching and the start of my class I need to get the Swivl positioned in the room, turned on, the iPad inserted and connected, remember to take the marker that controls the Swivl out of the charger, put it in a lanyard that I wear on my lapel (and try not to leave the classroom with it still attached stranding the next person teaching), place four additional audio markers throughout the room to capture class discussions, return to my laptop and start a Zoom session, return to the Swivl and join the Zoom from the iPad that’s in the Swivl, place the audio markers around the room to capture class discussions, and begin recording the lesson all while students are wandering in and the bell to start the class is minutes away. Oh, did I mention I need to make sure I don’t forget about admitting my remote students in the Zoom waiting room? Or take attendance and submit it before class starts? Instead of starting class feeling centered and focused, those chocolates are already flying off the conveyor belt and I’m working as quickly as I can to wrap them all. Needless to say, three weeks in and it’s exhausting. I can see it on the faces of my colleagues and on my own. I mostly get it right, but I’ve made more mistakes than I like to admit, and many more than I’m comfortable with.
Lesson 2 | Watching Myself Make Mistakes is Humbling
On the plus side, watching the recordings that I will post for my asynchronous students and any students attending class who would like to review the day’s lesson has been a truly enlightening and humbling learning experience for me. Reviewing my classes has helped me identify mistakes I make most frequently and see first-hand how they impact the remote student experience. That’s the good news. No really, that’s as good as it gets watching yourself teach on Zoom. The bad news is there have been many cringe-worthy moments I’ve had to relive: listening to audio describing my projected screen when I actually forgot to share the screen with my remote students, watching video where I did successfully share my screen, yet my marker was placed in the lanyard in such a way that the audio was muffled—and so on. This experience has been humbling, but back to the plus side, it’s forced me to let go of my perfectionist tendencies and be kinder to myself. I’m making an effort to learn from my mistakes then let them go and really focus on my main goal—to plan lessons that allow my students to engage with the material and each other. It’s all a bit chaotic, but I’m making headway and every class runs smoother than the last, giving me lots of opportunities to practice my new mantra: Celebrate every success—even the smallest ones!
Lesson 3 | Keep Course Goals Front and Center
One of my main social/ emotional course goals is to help my students develop into a strong cohort group. Since all of my students are new to Kent, NSS provides a unique opportunity for them to develop a sense of belonging among a smaller group with the same shared experience. This is even more crucial for my remote students, many of whom will be joining us on campus when we return in January. I don’t want my remote students to have simply been observers of the shared experience of my F2F students—I want them to be actively engaged and involved with their classmates and to feel connected. This means everyone works together—in live group discussions when possible, in large and small group discussion threads, in small groups in Zoom breakout rooms, on collaborative digital platforms like Padlet, Google Slides, Adobe Spark, and through student-created videos. My goal is to incorporate interactive elements at least once a week when our time zones reasonably align, i.e. a student in China joins a 9:45AM class at 9:45PM. I admire the dedication and commitment my remote students make to show up, even when they could just as easily watch the recordings. This reinforces my belief that they value forming a strong cohort group as much as I do.
Lesson 4 | Slow Down Time
One way to think of last spring is that we all learned how slow learning really is. To address this new reality, our Scheduling Committee designed a new block schedule: within the weekly schedule each class meets three times (two 45 minute blocks and one 90 minute block) and within the daily schedule three classes meet Monday, Thursday, Saturday and four the remaining three days. This schedule slows down the student experience and removes much of the friction or stress of moving through eight class periods per day that we had in our schedule last year. The reality is that you will in no way have the same class time of previous years and something has to give.
Lesson 5 | Plan The Year: One Step At A Time
In our Hybrid Learning Guide, we recommended looking at your course in the following way:
1. Look at the course in its entirety:
2. Build your first unit (account for the spring+summer slide in cumulative disciplines):
3. Plan your lesson:
Following the above recommendations, this is my lesson on plagiarism in the planning stage:
How This Translates to My LMS:
The following images are from my LMS to give a sense of how the lesson plan above translates to my course site.
I make my learning outcomes visible to my students under Key Points:
I start by engaging my students in the first step of active learning, which is to identify prior knowledge. The Padlet allows all students, F2F, synchronous, and asynchronous, to engage with the prompt and to work on a common interactive element.
I make sure that quizzes and tests are low stakes. This activity is a structured pre-test and students are allowed to demonstrate mastery of the questions missed if they aren’t happy with their score. My goal is always mastery of the skill, not assessment based on a moment in time.
I provide relevant additional information for them to explore.
The engagement activity begins by dividing them into five groups of three. Each group has a private discussion thread where they will respond to the prompt and comment on each other’s posts around two academic integrity scenarios. The groups do this in a breakout room if a member is remote. Each group is tasked with creating a PSA slide or any other media they choose. Small groups allow my remote learners an opportunity to get to know classmates on an individual basis and foster stronger personal connections.
For an assessment, I provide a single point rubric and ask each student to evaluate their own PSA and the PSA of two other groups. I give them the option of doing a third group for extra credit.
Lesson 6 | Celebrate Every Success—Even the Smallest Ones!
As much as time slows down in learning, I feel like it speeds up in the planning stages. While we have only been back for three weeks, at times it feels like three months. That conveyor belt seems to be delivering my lessons at an accelerated speed. But there are hidden gems in all of this. A valuable one is it has leveled the playing field a bit between us and our students. It’s been an opportunity for them to watch us learn something new, something we struggle with daily and (hopefully) don’t give up on. It has been an opportunity for them to offer words of kindness and reassurance, “Don’t worry, that happens all the time in my other classes” and for us to be the grateful recipients—another reminder of what it feels like to be offered kindness in a difficult moment. So as I continue to adapt my lessons, I’m trying to keep in mind my new mantra: Celebrate every success—even the smallest ones!
I’ll admit, it’s been a struggle lately finding inspiration to write. I usually have a number of ideas floating around, but lately, nothing really came to mind. This did not bode well for getting this month’s post written. I’m beginning to wonder if lack of inspiration and inability to focus and finish projects is a COVID-19 social-distancing side effect. So when I opened my email this morning there was good news. Hold on, not just good news—GREAT NEWS—the kind of news that elicits joy from librarians that are, as Alyssa Mandel calls us on Twitter, BIBLIONERDS! In the time of COVID-19, when days seems to blend into each other, good news is often hard to come by—that is if you even know what day it is. So perhaps knowing what day it is (Friday) and getting a task completed even if it’s not your best work is enough for now. Here’s hoping it is.
In the summer of 2019, I was watching a NoodleTools webinar, and at the very end Damon Abilock shared that EBSCO was working on an export to NoodleTools feature that was planned to be integrated by November 2019. I waited patiently and shared with anyone in earshot that export to NoodleTools was coming in November. The months passed—November 2019, December 2019, January 2020, February 2020—well by then I had more important things on my mind (didn’t we all?) and had completely forgotten about the release. Which made the news this morning that it was finally here that much more exciting. I was looking forward to doing a couple searches to see if the export function worked as well as I hoped.
Information is Exported, NOT Copied
An important thing to keep in mind is that when a citation is exported into NoodleTools, it isn’t simply copied and pasted. The information that is imported into the sources page comes from a file that operates much like a spreadsheet with a tag (think named row) that then aligns with the same tag on the source page interface. So, even if the pre-formatted citation from a database is incorrect—and many are—the folks at NoodleTools are wizards on properly formatting MLA, APA, and Chicago style. I don’t generally trust pre-formatted database citations, but I DO trust the folks at NoodleTools to get it right. We all know that the end citation is only as good as the data provided, so as Alyssa Mandel stated in her comment, be aware that your students need to check citations and edit as needed. Following Alyssa’s comment and an email from another AISL librarian on this topic, I’ve added this section and thank both of them for the helpful feedback. Here’s an example of the edit interface for the citation imported from EBSCO—all of the information is in the corresponding field—not copied and pasted in whole.
To Export or Not to Export
Ask any group of librarians how they feel about students exporting citations and you’ll get varied responses ranging from the belief that students should be creating their citations manually so they really understand the source they are using (true) to others who couldn’t live without bibliographic software like NoodleTools because it allows students to properly cite sources with the least amount of friction (also true). I know that I appreciate having the time to teach students how to identify the parts of a citation, but that doesn’t always happen. I also appreciate having students respond in a positive, sometimes even cheerful way when they realize how easy it is to keep their sources organized and properly cited. It’s definitely a two-edged sword, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say for most research, I’m onboard with students exporting citations. I have limited time with students and would rather work with them on mastering higher order thinking skills such as lateral fact checking and understanding how to evaluate their sources and search results.
A Trial Run
I decided to try the export function to see if it was as seamless as the ones on Gale databases and JSTOR. I searched from our EBSCO EDS search box on our library website, and in keeping with most student search behavior, chose the first article in the results list, “New Investigation …” I opened the article and you can see it in PDF format viewed on EBSCO in the third slide below.`
The Export Function is Format Agnostic
This journal article had two options for viewing: HTML and PDF Full Text. When I clicked on the Export link on the right hand side, the option for Direct Export to NoodleTools was at the bottom of the options on the Export Manager for both formats. The first image is the PDF format. Scroll through the slides to see the progression from the Export Manager to the NoodleTools interface. As always on the NoodleTools interface, there is a text box where you can submit corrections to them if you find any errors. The final two slides in this section show the bibliographic citation and the footnote pop-up window. I did a test with the HTML format and found the export worked regardless of the format. So far, so good.
Database Export vs. EBSCO Export
Next I chose an article from JSTOR (first slide), which has its own citation export to NoodleTools (second slide). I wanted to see if the citations exported were identical and found there were two differences (third slide). The article exported from EBSCO did not list the primary author’s name in last name, first name order, while the citation from JSTOR only listed the first page in the page range. As an aside, JSTOR often exports the title in all caps, which can be avoided with an EBSCO export. I guess it’s a trade-off and you’ll have to make your own decision after trying it out. A note on the Detailed Record: there are thirteen (13) authors! This is probably one of those articles students would pass over when creating a citation manually.
Tracking Down Errors
In trying to figure out the EBSCO author/ name error, I found the answer by returning to the Detailed Record. Note on the Detailed Record (second slide) all of the authors are listed first name/ last name order. This isn’t a problem as long as the names have their own unique tag that will populate in the correct field when exporting. When I opened the JSTOR export citation, the author names were correctly listed (third slide). But when I opened the EBSCO export citation (fourth slide), I discovered the first name/ last name combination was in the last name text field, leading to the error. It was easily corrected (fifth slide), but I’m not sure our students would catch this without a checklist or prompting from us. Likewise, the page range can also be corrected from the edit page.
So, is it love at first site? Yes, mostly. I’ll need to do a bit more testing on our various databases including Gale that currently export to NoodleTools before I can make a truly informed decision. During the end of last school year, as we pivoted to emergency remote teaching, I found I was much more lenient with students when it came to creating citations manually. I made concessions in that I allowed and even encouraged them to copy and paste citations from databases and sites like the Digital Public Library of America when I knew they were close, but not 100% correct. Does that make me a bad librarian? I hope not. Based on the disruption my students were experiencing, the fidelity of citations seems not as important to me as it did when they were working on pre-COVID projects. As we move into a new school year that feels very tenuous and uncertain, I will be thinking hard about how to maintain the academic rigor our students deserve while keeping their social and emotional well-being a priority.
I read and fell in love with Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë when I was in seventh grade and it’s been one of those books I return to again and again. It seems there are many people who agree that “Reader, I married him” is one of the most satisfying quotes in the book—one has only to look to Twitter or Pinterest to find many threads dedicated to this very quote.
My goals this summer—after a hectic spring term and the stress and uncertainty of emergency remote learning—focused on self-care. I planned to take time to relax, spend more time in my pottery studio, garden, exercise.
If Jane Eyre were to evaluate how I’m doing, I’m sure she would say, “Reader, she failed.”
On my behalf, I will say that I have not failed completely. I’ve spent some time this summer fending off a family of groundhogs gardening, swimming, reading, watching our hummingbirds, and even getting back on the pottery wheel. What I have also done, though, is complete a week-long Global Online Academy Design Bootcamp course, serve on our Hybrid Learning Committee, and start to redesign the New Student Seminar (NSS) course I teach.
So at this point, it’s more a case of: “Reader, I married my work.”
REDESIGNING FOR HYBRID LEARNING
One of the highlights of my job as the research librarian at Kent School is the opportunity to teach two sections of NSS, a signature program required of all our new incoming 3rd and 4th formers. This fall will be my third year teaching the course, but since it is only offered in the fall term, it will be my first year teaching it in a hybrid setting. This means if I want to be ready for the fall term, I need to rework (or begin reworking) my course over the summer. I know from prior experience that designing and teaching a hybrid course is A LOT of work. Much as we need to recognize it will probably take our students two to three times as long to complete work in an online classroom, we also need to accept it will probably take us that long to create student-centered lessons that can quickly pivot from an on-ground to an online modality with the least amount of friction or disruption for our students.
In my work on the Hybrid Learning Committee (comprised of faculty, Department Chairs, the Director of Information Technology, and Director of Studies), the twelve of us have met weekly to create a framework for our teachers to address working with students who might be on ground or learning remotely, whether synchronous or asynchronously. One of the areas we discussed and worked on outside of our meetings and that will inform much of our teaching moving forward was to identify and expand on a set of guiding principles listed here:
Relationships are key to creating an equitable learning environment.
Process takes precedence over content.
Student agency and independent learning are central to engagement and a positive outcome in an online/ hybrid learning environment.
Flexibility and innovation are required for the creation and assessment of equitable learning experiences.
So my challenge this summer is to really think about how I might re-design my current course to:
Encourage the development of strong, positive relationships with my students and among my students.
Focus on the most important goals or competencies.
Provide opportunities for voice and choice in every lesson.
Incorporate what I’ve learned through professional development courses and reading.
WELCOME PAGE WITH BASIC ELEMENTS
I started by redesigning the welcome page on my LMS to set the tone for the course. Previously my landing page—not really a welcome page—consisted of an image. One of the challenges at the GOA Design Bootcamp was to create a welcome page that was, well, welcoming. Here are their criteria:
1. Create and Add Welcome Video This video was a quick introduction to the course—simple, informal, and personal. I talked about the course briefly, how much I was looking forward to meeting them, and that I would touch base with them prior to the start of the course. This last part of the message is especially important for our remote learners.
2. Add Contact Information Although I am basically camera shy, I did add a photo of myself and my contact information: email, Zoom room link, and link to my Calendly. In the spring when I was collaborating with other teachers, students loved that they could check my Calendly and see when I was free to meet and schedule a time to Zoom.
3. Add a Course Description I added a description of the course under Key Points and also a link to the syllabus in the right column.
4. Add Navigation Information PowerSchool isn’t the most user-friendly LMS—it’s actually quite clunky so a “How to Use PowerSchool” video that shows students where they will find lessons, assignments, and how to submit assignments will be especially helpful to my remote learners.
5. Add Information on Tasks to do Before Class Starts I let my students know I wanted them to read about the course and watch the navigation video prior to the first day of class.
WELCOME PAGE WITH OPTIONAL ELEMENTS
While the five elements above are the basics that GOA recommended, I ended up adding a couple of optional elements that would help my students navigate my course through visual thinking (course icons) and give them an opportunity to connect with their classmates before the start of school. Since my students are new 4th formers, it’s important for me to help them develop into a strong cohort group providing a supportive base from which they can join the larger school community. You’ll see descriptions for the elements I added on the right with corresponding numbers on the screenshot on the left.
Next on the agenda, redesigning Unit 1: Academic Orientation. Now, enough of work—I’m off to check on my groundhogs garden …
Over the past few months so much that has defined us as librarians has changed: we’re away from our beloved libraries and schools; we’ve been placed in awkward digital spaces with our students and faculty or we’ve struggled to even find a place in the academic life of our schools; we won’t be able to have all those small conversations with our seniors to wish them well as they graduate and move on. These are just a few of the changes—large and small—in our professional lives. Lately, I’ve been spending time thinking about what makes a librarian a librarian and what exactly is at the heart of librarianship. I’m not sure I would be where I am right now, trying to make the best of my professional life in the midst of a global pandemic, without the support of my fellow librarians. The blog posts, the tweets, the advice and support on the Listserv, the shared documents, shared links, shared resources—they have all made a difference. Each and every day I find something that I’m grateful for as my AISL friends and other librarians think deeply about our profession and so willingly share their thoughts.
I don’t know if it’s just me, but I’m feeling quite emotional and sentimental these days. I find myself thinking about mentors that I’ve had over the years that I want to reach out to and thank—not just for the practical skills I learned from them, but to let them know how important it was to me that they believed in me, and nurtured me, and inspired my own passion for the field of librarianship. In his acceptance speech for the 1997 Daytime Emmy Lifetime Achievement Award, Fred Rogers shared “All of us have special ones who have loved us into being.” These days I find myself thinking that we have all had those special people in our professional lives who have mentored us into being as librarians and for them, I am grateful.
In the first year of my MLS program at Southern Connecticut State University, Dr. Mary Brown and Debbie Herman, MLS were those people. In the mostly online program at Southern, Mary showed great compassion toward all of us and was one of the few faculty who took the time to make sure we understood program requirements. She stepped in as our de facto advisor—she just cared about us—and to say it made a difference would be an understatement. Many people in the program were able to walk at graduation because she posted deadlines on the Listserv reminding us to file paperwork and order our regalia. Even though we were all adults nearing graduation, I’m thankful someone more experienced was looking out for us, offering guidance, and making sure we made it to the finish line.
Mary did many small things that had a big impact on me as I juggled classes, a full-time job, and a family that included a college student and two high schoolers. She was an exacting professor who encouraged me to think about the courses in my plan of study, and when a paid internship to work with VOICES of 9/11 opened up, encouraged me to apply. She saw my interest in digital archiving and mentored me into positions that allowed me to grow personally and professionally. Most importantly, when an adjunct faculty position opened up to teach the Cultural Memorials and Digital Archives course, she was right there with a recommendation.
When I was looking for an independent study placement the first summer I was in the program, Debbie Herman, Head of Electronic Resources and Information Systems (ERIS) at Central Connecticut State University, took me onboard even though her work space was being renovated. The department offices were in various stages of reconstruction, but she made a space for me when she could just as easily have said no. She put me to work on the Veterans History Project, then encouraged me to pick a special project to work on. That project, digitizing CCSU’s earliest yearbooks, was the beginning of their archival yearbook collection and my passion for making archives accessible.
Debbie had the vision to see something in me and mentored me in experiences that nurtured those interests. She trusted me enough that over the course of the next year, I was able to work with Wit Meesangnil (currently Digital Services Manager at Fordham University and one of the architects of LibWizard v2!) redesigning and conducting usability testing on CCSU’s library website. I mention these projects not to draw attention to myself, but to stress how willing Mary and Debbie were to mentor me, to make space for me to work on real-life projects and to grow into the profession. I think back to how insecure I was around people who did their jobs with ease, about my own ability to do any of these jobs well, and how crucial their belief in me was to my development as a librarian: they mentored me into being the librarian I am today and I am thankful to them both.
So as this wild ride of a school year comes to a close, I hope we all take a few minutes to think of and perhaps reach out to those who have mentored us into being as librarians and to continue the wonderful work we all do as AISL librarians mentoring others.
Yesterday, my Sched app reminded me that I’d be presenting “Not Just Bells and Whistles: Ed Tech Tools that Really Work” at the AISL annual conference in Houston. I was saddened because connecting with everyone in person has become an important part for me of belonging to the AISL community. As busy as I was preparing for AISL—I was mostly looking forward to making connections with friends and colleagues with a shared passion for the field of librarianship.
When I think about what it means to be a librarian, I see our work as a series of small connections that we make every day: connections with our students, our coworkers, our faculty. We connect our students with a source they need for their paper, connect them with a good book, or provide them with a quiet place to work. We connect with colleagues, with books we love and want to share, with changes in our field. Most of these things we do quietly as we go about our day, small action upon small action that forms the foundation of our work. But what happens when things change almost overnight, as is the case with our current situation? Over the past few weeks, I’ve been struck by our ability as a profession to maintain and strengthen our connections to each other and our school communities. In the midst of these sweeping changes, I see people I admire and respect keep adapting to change and making changes, however small, that add up to our ability to address the real-world problem facing school libraries and librarians everywhere—how to support our communities as we transition to online learning.
Communication is Key
These past few weeks, it’s become increasingly clear that an effective communication channel is key when you can no longer answer a colleague’s question over lunch or help them when they drop by the library to run an idea by you. I’ve been asked questions as varied as who to contact for help with copyright questions or how to find an online version of a text being used. The library is often the informational hub of the school, so what can we do to let our community know that we’re still there for them aside from sending another email to an already overburdened account? Emails and newsletters are great for quickly getting the word out, but how often have you scrolled through your own email searching for a needed link that’s gotten buried in your inbox? Adopting a “show don’t tell” approach to school-wide communication can be that one small change we offer on our resources.
Highlight Your Most Valuable Resources
If you have LibGuides CMS, then your library website is probably on that platform. Our library team took a close look at our website to see what small changes we might make to support our newly-online learning community. Since finding out we would be moving our classes online, we created two LibGuides specifically for online learning: the first was structured with tutorials around the tools faculty would need to get started such as PowerSchool, Zoom, and Screencastify, while the second organized ed-tech tools by specific tasks. We wanted those guides and the one for our Academic Resource Center easily accessed, so we placed them front and center in our tabbed box. Although I’m a proponent of flat design, I used a drop shadow to make their appearance pop, along with a prompt to “Click” for each guide, again something not normally included—but these are not normal times. Prior to COVID-19 social distancing directives, educators had the option to use technology, or not. Now, there is no option; so our job as librarians, as I see it, is to do everything possible to make our resources user-friendly for every level of user. Since March 9th, the three featured guides have gotten a total of just under 3,000 hits. Small changes, big results.
Add Help at the Point of Need
If you’re like us, I imagine your community will be spending most of their time accessing content for courses through your school’s LMS, library website, and LibGuides. Common sense—and usability studies—tell us that help, like information, should be offered when and where it’s needed, in the format that’s most helpful to the user. Both of our new guides provide our teachers with the tools and information they need to create content and teach in ways that may be foreign or difficult. This transition is stressful enough; offering help on the three guides featured on the library website, in addition to the website itself, was another small change we could make that just made sense.
Enter LibWizard Lite, a LibGuides module that comes free with LibGuides CMS. Although it’s not as robust as the subscription level LibWizard Full, it allows you to create forms and surveys, which are a perfect way to increase your visibility and make it easy for your users to contact you at their point of need. Although I have been a LibGuides enthusiast for close to 15 years, I have never fully explored or mastered LibWizard. At a time when we are asking everyone to move out of their comfort zone and try something new, it made sense for me to do the same. So I watched a few tutorials, made a few test forms, and finally came up with a help desk tab that was added to both of the new online teaching guides, in addition to our library website and course guides with current research projects. The tab was styled bright red with all caps reading HELP DESK. We tried different wording but ultimately felt everyone was familiar with that term. When clicked, the pop-up window contained information on who to reach out to for specific questions and included links to our Calendly pages for scheduling appointments and email for simpler questions. Again, help was there where it was needed.
Small Changes, Big Results
I absolutely love this one small change we made to our guides which made a big difference for our users. The tab is anchored, visible on each page of the guide, and moves as the user scrolls. Excuse me while I geek out—but what is not to love about my new favorite tech tool? Below you can see some of the ways we customized the help desk pop-up depending on the purpose and audience for the guide.
Like LibGuides, the LibWizard module is pretty user-friendly on the backend. There are drag and drop options with fields that allow you to customize your form, as well as a question bank to save and reuse common fields. You’re able to gather the information that will allow you to better meet the need of your user. Simple to use, easy to duplicate, multi-use functions make using LibWizard a winning situation for our users and for us. Now excuse me while I find another guide that could use a help desk tab.
This week, our 5th formers will be completing their U.S. History research papers in lieu of a mid-term exam. As they scramble to finish their product—find one last piece of evidence to support a claim, format their manuscript in Chicago Style, insert footnotes, polish their thesis statement—I find myself with the opportunity to look back over these past two months and reflect on the process. While it takes a village to shepherd and support our students through the process, our work moves them toward what is ultimately a uniquely solitary activity, the act of putting pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, one that requires they bring together all of the skills and pieces of information covered over the course of this semester that hopefully will result in one cohesive work.
“It’s only a high school research paper.” —astute APUSH student
In much the same way my students need to grapple with and master the specific skills research requires of them, it’s also necessary for me to think about how I can help them with that process. As educators of secondary school students, I don’t think many of us are under the illusion that our students are truly finding a research gap and entering into the scholarly conversation in a way that will be acknowledged by the academic community at large. This is in no way discounting the fine work many of our students do in their research/writing, but as one of my APUSH students so aptly stated when a colleague was doing the classic deep dive we all do when creating a properly formatted citation, “it’s only a high school research paper.” Yes, yes it is. Somehow looking at it from that perspective has been wonderfully liberating. While my students may not have their work published in peer-reviewed journals (yet!), they do need to be able to read and think deeply and critically about any number of issues throughout their academic career and in their personal life. So, how do we maintain high standards yet keep the paper in its proper perspective and what exactly does keep me up at night thinking about all things research?
Make the Process Visible
Image Credit: University Library System, University of Pittsburgh
The Research Process is one that’s familiar to us all—an iterative process with students moving through the steps on the infographic above until they (finally!) reach the citing, reviewing, and editing finish line. If you’re like me, you probably see at least six or more points when it would be helpful to meet with a class to provide instruction. Depending on a myriad of factors unique to each school, we might have one “boot camp” style instructional session or we might be fortunate enough to meet on a regular basis with a given class.
Flip the Class
Regardless of how much instructional time we have with students, it’s never enough. Our general research LibGuide establishes a common language for students and faculty and provides a general overview of the research process. With links to available resources and the flexibility to embed these in our PowerSchool LMS, flipping lessons can make the instructional time I do have more productive.
The Class-Specific LibGuide
This year I worked with five sections of U.S. History and two sections of APUSH, all writing a long-form paper. My collaboration with these classes ranged from an average of two-three instructional sessions to a high of ten. While more is always better from my vantage point, I work hard to be flexible and adapt to the needs of each faculty. This means I have to plan well in advance to cover essential skills during my face-to-face instructional time. For each research project I collaborate on, I create a unique guide that serves as a home base for students and supports what I cover in class. The U.S. History guide has subject-specific curated resources for primary, secondary, and tertiary sources and additional information on writing process skills. I’m also working on an exciting new project with the AP AB Calculus class on symmetry in nature and their guide supports the exploration of academic as well as online sources. These guides make it possible to curate available resources that help our students develop familiarity with scholarly and trustworthy sources.
Embrace the Basics
Although our incoming 3rd and 4th formers take a semester-long New Student Seminar course which covers study and research skills, I find I still need to stress the basics to our 5th and 6th formers. What is a tertiary source and why can you use it for background information but not quote it or include it in the bibliography? How can a book and journal both be secondary sources, but only one is peer-reviewed? How do you use social media in a scholarly paper? How are we to think about an author’s bias/ point-of-view or their authority? I do use handouts that when finished resemble an annotated bibliography and find they help students record basic bibliographic information with space for relevant quotes and why they support their claims. I try to not overestimate their ability to locate and evaluate information and plan lessons that focus on meta-cognition—encouraging them to think about thinking.
Oh, where would we be without NoodleTools? Even my most reluctant students eventually come to see the benefit of organizing their research on this platform. The inbox feature allows me to have access to all my students’ projects and be able to work side-by-side with them as they add or evaluate sources. While students love the export to NoodleTools feature on most databases, I see great value in thinking about what goes into the creation of a citation: what type of source is it, where was it found, who is the author, what is the title of the journal, when was it published, etc.—all the questions students need to answer as they add sources manually. With the notecard feature, I see a range of requirements from faculty for students to create notecards on NoodleTools, but I find those students who use the notecard feature generally have a much easier time organizing their outline and keeping quotes and paraphrases attributed to the proper source. Whether required by their teacher or not, I encourage all my students to use the notecard and outline features.
Images showing a student’s exemplary use of the notecard feature
Make Personal Connections
One of the best changes to this year’s instruction has been the addition of conferencing thanks to two faculty who required their students meet with me to discuss their papers. To organize this as simply as possible, students signed up “old school” for a time to meet via a clipboard at the front desk. We have other sign-up clipboards, so this made the most sense for the sake of consistency. These reference interviews were an opportunity for me to connect with students on a personal basis, ask questions that encouraged critical thinking and helped them to clarify their topic or thesis. It was also a time to offer them support on anything they requested from finding sources to formatting their manuscript. Asking students how I might help them encourages them to think more critically about where they are in the process and identify what they need to move forward. I see these conversations as a way to model how they might enter into the larger research conversation.
The Research Process is Messy
Another benefit of these one-on-one sessions is for me to be able to share the messiness of the whole process. Whether searching for sources, developing a thesis, or finding that right piece of evidence to support a claim, my experience has been that students generally believe research is a librarian’s superpower, not something we ever fail at or struggle with. So when I meet with students, it’s not to impress them with finding the “just right” source, it’s to show them the search process can be totally frustrating and you constantly have to regroup and refine search terms. To help them develop their search muscle, we identify basic search terms together and then brainstorm how to expand or limit our search depending on the results. Because I have a large monitor, these one-on-one sessions allow students to easily see and follow along as we work through advanced search strategies – something not easily accomplished with group instruction. Since mid-December, I’ve had the opportunity to meet with over 70 students, many of those repeat visits with no mandate from the teacher. Connecting with students at this level has enriched my experience as their research librarian and I hope it has enriched their research experience, as well.
I was already in the process of writing my first blog post when I shared a bus ride at the AISL Conference in Boston with David Ring, Library Director at Pomfret School. He had attended Designing a User-Friendly Website session I presented at the 2017 NEAISL Conference at Cheshire Academy, and mentioned he made some changes to the design of his site, which now has his search box front and center. At conferences, as on this blog, you share your passions and hope that someone takes away something of value, so it was heartening to hear about David’s experience.
Designing or redesigning a library website can feel like a daunting task, especially if you are in the middle of a busy school year or have never tackled a project of this scope. Over the course of four months, starting in September 2018 and running through January 2019, I worked on the redesign for our library website here at Kent School. I was fortunate to work with a great team: Amy Voorhees, Library Director; Laura Zibro, Digital Resources Librarian; Rebecca Klingebiel, Asst. Cataloging Librarian; Joseph Russo, Asst. Circulation Librarian; and Bethany Booth, Director of the Academic Resource Center—all of whom gave invaluable feedback on the students and the school. The final result? Our new library website, which we officially launched March 26th of this year.
Whether you are looking to update your site to increase its usability or are creating one from the ground up, designing a user-friendly site begins with a focus on your users, why they come to your site, and then presenting it in a way they will actually find useful. It’s really all about the user-experience (UX). This post presents one way to think about that process and will walk you through five steps to follow, keeping usability and UX foremost in your planning and implementation.
Step One | Understand Your User
How well do you know the research habits and information needs of your students? The first step in creating a user-friendly website is knowing where your students go for their information and why. There are any number of ways to collect data. You may need to try more than one approach to get the information that will best help you in the design process. Here are a few I’ve used in the past.
Database Access If students are required to use databases, how do they access them? If you use a content management system like LibGuides as a jumping-off point for research projects, you can view usage statistics to see how your students access your guides i.e., the entry points.
Broad Surveys Surveys provide a wealth of information. Do your students know about all of your electronic resources, the equipment you loan, or citation management tools available? In the busy life of a student or faculty, it can be difficult getting them to respond to surveys, so including names in a raffle or offering a small reward when completed forms are turned in increases your chance of a higher response rate. Survey Monkey, Google Forms, or a simple paper survey are all formats you can use to collect data. Use what makes the most sense for you and your community.
Targeted Surveys Targeted surveys generally reach a smaller audience but can be just as valuable. Try having students complete a survey at the start or end of any instructional session offered through the library. An entrance or exit ticket works fine for this.
One-on-One Conversations Since we work in small institutions, take the time to speak with faculty and students about what they would like to see. I taught two semester-long New Student Seminar courses for new students this year and frequently talked with them about the challenges of finding library resources. This type of information is invaluable because it’s informal and there’s no pressure for them to “give the right answer.”
Your Own Experience Think about the information you use on a daily basis; if it would be helpful for you to have all those links in one place, it will probably be helpful for others. Are there questions students ask of you on a daily basis? For me, students frequently asked where books were located in the library (ours are spread across two floors), so I made sure to include a map of the library. It was a small addition with big impact. I noted the resources I bookmarked to add to the data. Asking others which resources they have bookmarked can also help you identify those used most often by your community.
Analyze Your Results Collate your results and use them to help define categories of information, resources, and services. If you plan to do a card sort later on, start by using these results and see how your users would organize them.
Be Open to Feedback Be open to what your users are trying to tell you. It’s easy to feel defensive if the feedback is less than positive, especially if you think your site is meeting your community’s needs. Try to remember, the feedback isn’t personal and will help as you move to Step Two.
Step Two | Form Follows Function
These three simple words will help you to distinguish between focusing on creating a visually attractive website and creating a purpose-driven website that is easy for users to navigate.
Define Your Goals The data gathered in Step One will help to inform your website design. Start with defining goals for your library website. What do you hope to accomplish? What are the information needs of your students? It’s natural to want to include everything and difficult to decide what to leave off. Your goals are something you can turn to when struggling to decide what makes the cut.
Categorize Your Data You will find there is more information than you can include links to, so try to define broad categories. This will help keep your navigation simple. Again, a card sort is a natural extension of this data organization.
Design for Your Audience Keep in mind an elementary or middle school website will look vastly different than a secondary school website. Likewise, if your school is project-based, your website just might differ from that of an International Baccalaureate school. Keep this in mind as you window shop.
Highlight Your Search Box Research shows most users come to the library website to do research. Put your search box front and center to make your site invaluable to your users. Need evidence? Check any college library website.
To Parallax or Not to Parallax Current website design trends employ the use of a single page and parallax scrolling of text over stunning graphics; gone is the homepage on most sites. Keep in mind this design may not be the best for your library website, which is really more a portal than a destination. Large graphics can be distracting and the endless scroll can be a difficult way for your user to find specific information or for you to include the numerous links you’ll probably need. If you’re set on following design trends, make sure you customize it to meet your users’ needs. Be willing to let go of a particular design if you find it’s just not working how you envisioned. Curious about parallax scrolling? Check out what the user experience gurus at the Nielson Norman Group have to say.
Adhere to Style Guidelines Check with your Communications Department for style guidelines – every school has them. While you may not choose to do so, I think it’s important to come up with a library brand, then keep your overall website design true to your school brand. My site has a classic, traditional look because my school website has a classic, traditional look. I want my users to know they’re on the John Gray Park ‘28 Library website, so I aimed to keep the essence of the school site, not necessarily mirror it.
Window Shop Get out there on the web and see how other schools in your demographic have organized their website. Check out university websites, as well. They need to organize exponentially greater amounts of information, but you can get a good idea of the overarching categories they use that may align with ones you’ve already identified.
Step Three | Create a Wireframe
Once you have defined the information needs of your users and the tasks they come to your site to perform, create a simple wireframe to help you visualize your site. A wireframe is a simple black and white drawing or schematic that focuses on navigation, placement of features, and page elements. This stage of the process doesn’t address the design, content, color scheme or typography – that will follow in the prototype design. Skip this step at your own peril.
Use a Flipchart I prefer to use a flip-chart to create a wireframe. The large size makes it easy to sketch my ideas quickly and I haven’t invested too much time if I decide to scrap it and start over. You can really use anything for this step, even a whiteboard as long as someone doesn’t come along and erase all your hard work! This is the final iteration of my flip-chart wireframe, but if you look closely at our website, you’ll see I eventually moved the EDS OneSearch to the second tab – here I have it on the last one.
Establish Navigation Once I have my first iteration of the design on paper, I explore navigation, content, and elements. Much like a research paper, creation of the wireframe is an iterative process. Because I prefer not to have additional navigation tabs on my portal, it was important for me to carefully organize the links within the portal itself. Using a card sort can be helpful at this point if you are starting from scratch because it gives you insight into how your users would categorize, or sort, information. Here is a great video to give you an idea of how to do this.
Create a Final Copy Once I’m happy with the wireframe, I’ll create an electronic copy. I use Google Slides which allows me to easily convert my scribbles to ordered boxes and text, but any tool you find helpful is fine. I find it much easier to share a wireframe slide than a paper one.
Look for Problems It’s much easier to find navigation and content issues at this stage and correct them before you go live. You don’t want to be trying to fix issues while the site is live—trust me, it’s stressful!
Take Your Time Those who know me know I love to work quickly to get something into the hands of my students and faculty. But … I have learned it can be a positive growth experience to take time before the release to look for weak areas and make small changes to avoid future problems. It is so important that your site be as well-functioning, intuitive, and as error-free as possible. It may sound trite, but first impressions do matter. Aim to have your users’ first experience with your new site be as positive as possible, because change. is. hard.
Step Four | Create Your Website Prototype
I’ve used everything from Adobe Dreamweaver to WordPress to LibGuides to create library websites. For the past nine years, LibGuides and LibGuides CMS has been my platform of choice; it’s designed for functionality and ease-of-use, plus allows for continuity with your current guides. Our students are familiar with using them for research, so designing the library site on the same platform was a no-brainer. Using my wireframe, I begin to build the site following these guidelines:
Keep it Simple Simplicity and usability go hand-in-hand. Follow your school’s Style Guide for color and text choices. Use a color palette that has no more than three or four colors. Use serif text for headings, but stick to sans-serif for the body text as it is much easier to read on screen. Our site is heavily customized using CSS, but that’s not necessary. If you are interested in customizing your site, you’ll find helpful videos on the Springshare site, and direct support through their helpdesk and the community of users on the Springshare Lounge.
Position Your Search Front and Center This is the primary reason users come to your library website. Make sure you only have one search engine visible at a time. Tabbed boxes work well if you want to make the best use of your prime area above the fold. We are currently doing a trial for EBSCO Discovery Service, so it was important to keep that accessible. Our Library Director wanted to see the research guides above the fold and I was having a hard time envisioning how to do that. I decided to try creating widgets and it’s turned out to be a great addition for our users. Without the widgets, folks would need to drill down to the guides landing page, then click on the subject and then on the specific guide. Now, they can choose the guide and in one click access the information needed. If you haven’t tried creating widgets for your LibGuides, put this on your to-do-now list! Remember: users also scan and skim in an F or E shape, so try to keep important content along those sight lines.
Tabbed Boxes to the Rescue Because I wanted to make the most of the top area of my main column, I used a tabbed box for the following: our OPAC search box, EDS search box, research guides, citation guide, and information on how to create an account for our NYT GroupPass and other major periodicals. That’s quite a lot of information sharing “prime real estate” on the portal.
Pare Down Your Navigation The more navigation tabs you have on your site, the less intuitive your site will be. The new Kent library website was designed as a single page, forgoing tabs. I prefer to have all of my links located on one page so my users will have fewer navigation decisions to make. Although it’s tempting to add as much information and links as will fit, this will overwhelm your user and can lead to cognitive overload, never a good state of mind. Choose five or six main categories to link out to. And avoid the endless scroll – it can be frustrating to scroll back and forth to find what you need. Above the fold is prime real estate, take advantage of that. I keep my search boxes and guide widgets front and center and then work out from there adding additional resources.
Do Include the Most Important Information Hours, early closings, room reservations, contact information, and news and events should be listed, if possible. Don’t overwhelm your site with lengthy descriptions. Keep them short and to-the-point. I have organized information about our library in one tabbed box: hours, staff, map, and a link to our Academic Resource Center. We don’t have online room reservations, but if we did, I would try to include it there. At some point common sense has to prevail. You will get lots of feedback about what should be on the site, so be prepared to give it your full consideration, but also be ready to exclude something if it falls outside the scope of your vision.
Tabbed Boxes to the Rescue, Again Again, the tabbed box in our left column let me fit four times the information in the same amount of space.
Avoid Jargon or “Librarian-speak” Boolean, full-text HTML, trade publications – this is confusing terminology for most users. I love to nerd out over jargon, but when possible, use informal and conversational language. Instead of ‘Catalog’ try ‘Find a Book’. Your usability study will help identify confusing and off-putting language.
Step Five | Test Early – Test Often
Finally, you have your prototype. At this point, the only way you will know if you hit the mark with your website is to conduct usability tests with your community. It takes a surprisingly small pool of users to find your website’s weak spots. It’s important to remember, usability testing isn’t a “one and you’re done” thing. You must “test early – test often” to find issues and improve the user-experience of your site. So how exactly does a usability test work?
Find a Handful of Users You don’t need to have dozens of users to test your site. Nielsen (2012) found that five users representing your user groups, i.e., faculty, students, etc. is enough to find the flaws. Give your testers small incentive items such as a gift card for Starbucks, your bookstore, etc. for taking the time to help you improve the library’s website.
Ask Them to Perform Typical Tasks First, identify three to five tasks your users do on a regular basis. These are called representative tasks and need to be realistic and actionable (Nielsen 2012). Create a scenario around the tasks (or activities) and ask users to complete them. Let your users know that you are testing the site and not them.
Have Users Talk Through the Task Don’t ask users to tell you what they would do, ask them to complete the task and talk through it out loud. For example: I need to find an article on the Revolutionary War. I’m looking for a place to do a search. I see the main search box for EBSCO, etc. Don’t give hints, clues, or suggestions. This is hard, especially if your user is struggling. Put a time-limit and if they can’t complete the task successfully, assure them it’s fine and have them move to the next task.
Measure the Percentage of Tasks Successfully Completed Figure out where most users had difficulty. Make small changes and test those changes. Have the process be iterative. The more tests you conduct with small groups, the greater the chance to find usability flaws and correct them.
Perform Your Own Usability Test Before you launch your site, have your staff and any other folks whose input you want use your prototype on a daily basis. If using LibGuides, publish it as private or wait to create a friendly URL – no one will find that wonky string of letters and numbers. You’ll know if your design is spot on – you’ll enjoy using it and want to share it with others right away! You also might find a design flaw you otherwise wouldn’t before the launch.
Prepare to Be Surprised by the Results The first time I did a usability test on LibGuides, I was truly shocked to discover both faculty and students thought the guide search box could be used to conduct a Google-type search. When they didn’t get the results they were expecting, most were stumped as to the next step to take. Maybe you wouldn’t make the same decision I did, but after seeing all the testers struggle, I removed the site search box from the guides and haven’t looked back or regretted it.
Launching Your New Site
Once you’ve completed your usability study, you’re sure your links* are going to the right destination, your search box and other widgets work, you’ve edited for typos, checked images, text, and color contrast for accessibility, you’ll want to roll-out your new site during a relatively quiet time of the year. Making a change during periods when people rely on your website can lead to a negative first impression, something you’ll want to avoid.
Start with a Soft Rollout
We planned to launch our new site after Spring Break as it’s a fairly quiet time before AP research paper season in May. Several weeks prior to March Break, we chose a soft rollout using a button on our then current site encouraging users to “Try the New Library Website” (above right on the image). We kept track of our usage statistics, which showed we had over 250 hits in the following weeks. Since we didn’t receive any negative comments, we felt fairly confident that the launch would go smoothly. We still use the Koha library catalog page you see, which was our library website before the redesign.
*A point about links I set my active links from the website to open in a new window so I don’t lose my users if they close the window instead of clicking the back arrow on the browser. On a regular guide, I have tabs open in the same window, and any external links open in a new one. You can set the default window target for links in the Admin System Settings.
Position Yourself for Success Finally, make sure you market your site once you roll it out. If possible, set the home screen on any library computers to your site and send a school-wide email to let your community know it’s live. You will need to continue marketing your site – I know it may come as a shock, but not everyone reads their emails!
Baby Steps As we all know, change doesn’t happen overnight. Even though we did a soft rollout, sent an all-school email with a link, set our library computers homepage to the website, we didn’t really know how it was being widely received. Cue research season: that wonderful time of the year when AP Exams are finished and students take part in the time-honored tradition of researching and writing the long-form research paper. A number of our AP U.S.History teachers have been bringing their classes to the library to work and for formal instruction, which has given me an opportunity to introduce our students to our new library website “in the field.” I’m happy to report “show, don’t tell” really does make a difference! Our final website has gotten quite a bit of use in the time since its rollout—just under 3600 views! We’re thrilled with how it’s turned out and think our community is, as well.
Final Thoughts | Your Website is a Living Organism If you’ve followed some version of these five steps, you really shouldn’t need to make any major changes to your site, but do expect to occasionally find small issues that need to be addressed. About a week into our site going live, I was obsessively checking links and found one for The New Yorker icon mis-directed to The New York Times. Keep in mind a small army of librarians reviewed the site and somehow that one slipped through. Things happen. It was a simple fix, but a good reminder that your site, like your library, is a living organism that needs regular attention to function at its best.