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Academically Adrift November 21, 2012

Posted by Christopher Lemery in Library Instruction, Uncategorized.
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I finally read Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa. It’s created quite the discussion about colleges since its release a couple of years ago. Using the results of a survey instrument called the Collegiate Learning Assessment, the authors conclude that college students don’t develop their critical thinking and writing skills very much during the course of their collegiate careers. The reasons for this are numerous and complex, but the authors largely blamed lack of rigor in college class work and assignments. I won’t get into the details of the book, but some excellent summaries and analyses can be found at Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Several things struck me about the book. For one, the growth in critical thinking skills appears to be greatly influenced by what school you attend. More selective colleges generally seem to foster greater growth in CLA scores. There’s also significant variation in CLA scores between majors, with Business and Education faring poorly. When I saw the disparity, my first thought is that maybe the survey instrument is just not capturing the different types of learning and instruction that occurs across majors. I’m not well versed in the methodology and analysis of the CLA, though, so I could be wrong about that. I found one of the more disheartening themes of the book to be that socioeconomic  and ethnic status has a big impact on CLA scores. If your parents are white, have advanced degrees and higher socioeconomic status, then you’re more likely to do well. This corresponds with other studies and commentaries I’ve read that argue college simply perpetuates class differences rather than eliminating them. Finally, I’d like to see a study that teases out the connection between tenure status, courseload and student performance. The authors argue that professors and instructors should expect more of students, but they don’t account for the increasing use of adjunct and untenured instructors whose individual workloads are increasing, mostly because it was beyond the scope of the study and the data available. I don’t have an opinion one way or another on that, but I’d like to know more about that.

How do these research findings affect libraries? Steven Bell has a few thoughts over at Library Journal. He asks how much impact we can have on students’ critical thinking skills when we don’t see them nearly as often as their professors, which is a good question. I have some other questions: how should these findings affect library instruction, if at all? What kinds of services can we offer to help facilitate learning? Arum and Roksa note that group projects and studying together were correlated with lower CLA scores than were individual writing and studying alone. How does this inform our responses to student requests for more group study rooms and open study spaces? I don’t have any answers to these questions, and many of the issues raised are highly complex and require thought across campuses and across the country. But this thought-provoking book provides a good place to start exploring them.


Juniata-Conemaugh Chapter and CRD Workshops June 5, 2012

Posted by Christopher Lemery in CRD, PaLA.
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The week of May 21st was a crazy busy week for me! I had not one, but two conferences of sorts. The 3-day weekend was much appreciated!

On Wednesday the 23rd, I had the PA Library Association (PaLA) Juniata-Conemaugh Spring Workshop at State College. In case you’re not familiar with PaLA, it’s divided into 8 geographic areas which are called chapters (see the PaLA map here). Each chapter has a one- or two-day workshop, which is usually constructed around a theme and features discussions and presentations around that theme. For the J-C Chapter, this is our biggest event of the year, and this year’s Workshop went spectacularly well.

I’m the 2012 Chapter Chair, so, along with vice chair Melanie Phillips, Sherry Roth, Paula Collins, Tracy Carey, and Diane Schmidt, we planned the workshop. Early on, it was clear that we should hold it in State College and center it around the Penn State Pattee Library Knowledge Commons, which now encompasses most of the Pattee’s first floor. The KC is straight-up awesome. It’s got great computers, multifunction group study rooms, a great Mac lab and a one-touch video recording studio. The KC was built in stages over several years and it’s made the Library 5 times better (though, of course, I liked it just fine before)! We wanted to give librarians from all over the opportunity to see the KC because it wasn’t complete in time for last October’s PaLA Annual conference in State College.

We named the Workshop Designing a Digital Media Lab: Low-Cost, Innovative Solutions for Every Library (see the brochure and schedule here). We had a big crowd of 45 people, including 25 or so academic librarians, which is unusual for our workshops, which tend to have more public library attendees. The workshop began with a tour of the KC in the morning, which was lead by KC Head Joe Fennewald. The tour went very well and it was very instructive for all the participants, who got a lot out of it. (By the way, if anyone’s interested in seeing the KC, contact Joe. He loves giving tours!)

The afternoon consisted of presentations about the PSU KC  and the knowledge commons concept  in the afternoon. Two of our presentations were from two public librarians from other states: Rose Faber from Barrington Area Library just outside of Chicago and Jesse Montero with Brooklyn Public Library in, um, Brooklyn. Rose and Jesse came to our attention via some articles on the “knowledge commons” concept and how it’s been used in public libraries. You may have noticed that both Rose and Jesse aren’t exactly next door. We decided to have them present via Skype because it’s easy and convenient. Also,we’d be demonstrating digital literacy, which is one of the pillars of the knowledge commons concept.

I admit I was nervous about using Skype for presentations. I haven’t used Skype much, and when I did it didn’t go smoothly. Therefore, I did an initial run-through with Jesse and Rose to iron out any problems. It’s a good thing I did so, because I discovered that we had connectivity problems and they couldn’t hear me. The connectivity problems stemmed from an outdated version of Skype on my end, which was resolved with some help from the IT department. I thought that would solve the microphone problems, but that was caused by thewebcam driver not being up to date, either. Once the updates were installed, the problems were fixed and, aside from a brief connectivity hiccup, the Skype presentations went very well and no one seemed to mind they were done via Skype.

Rose Faber’s Skype presentation at the Workshop

On Thursday May 24th, I went with Penn State Librarians Joe Fennewald and Emily Rimland to the PaLA College and Research Division Workshop at Bucks County Community College. It was a long haul, but it was definitely worth the trip! The  Workshop’s theme was “Digital Natives or Digitally Naive?: Lessons on Digital and Media Literacy.” The keynote speaker in the morning was Renee Hobbs of the University of Rhode Island’s Harrington School of Communication and Media. Her presentation (the slides for which are here) was very interesting and thought provoking. Here are some of her more interesting points and questions:

  • We’re torn between empowerment from technology and protecting our existing culture
  • Reading is shaped by the tech we read with
  • how will digital media reshape relationships?
  • How will digital media change our sense of identity and agency?
  • We have a “parasocial” relationship with media figures: we know them, but they don’t know us
  • Media literacy requires knowing the economics and politics of media
    • Why don’t English majors learn about the economics of publishing? (Great question!)
  • Messages are representations
  • Meaning is not in a text, it’s in our heads

Renee also defined the learning process (or cycle) of digital and media in these steps:

  1. access
  2. analyze
  3. create
  4. reflect
  5. act

She then had us work in groups to try and prioritize 4 different definitions of digital literacy:

  • Computer and Web access skills
    • Filling out forms on Web, navigation, etc.
  • Authorship
  • Issues of representation
    • How do we distinguish between a high quality and poor quality source?
    • Why do some stories get retold?
  • Online social responsibility

Of course, trying to prioritize these was an impossible task, which was the point. All these competing definitions are intertwined with one another and are used by different people and entities at different times.

I really appreciated Renee’s talk. It was clear that she comes from more of a media and communication theory perspective than I do. However, this was helpful, as it was a different and more critical perspective than I have on a daily basis. A lot of what she said meshes with articles that I’ve read defining and discussing critical information literacy, so it wasn’t entirely new. Her research areas and the Harrington School are interesting, so I’ll try and keep an eye on them.

The CRD afternoon session I attended was a presentation by Shelly McCoy and Hannah Lee of  The Student Multimedia Design Center at the University of Delaware Library. Their design center is located in a knowledge commons very much like Penn State’s. In fact, I later learned that UDel was one of the locations toured by the Penn State Knowledge Commons planning committee early in the design process! Shelly and Hanna’s presentation, “Multimedia Literacy: A Plan to Get Started,” was about their efforts to teach multimedia literacy and integrate it with the broader information literacy program.

One of the most interesting and surprising things I learned from the presentation is that some faculty are assigning multimedia projects with essentially no guidelines or rubrics for such projects! There are some departments that have mandated that at least one project in a department class have a multimedia component, so a few professors are tossing the component in without much thought. Some of them also assume that students know what they’re doing with multimedia, which is not the case with the more sophisticated programs and techniques. One of the main things Shelly and Hanna want to do is get acquainted with faculty and cooperate with them on designing assignments and due dates so they can try and regulate use of the Multimedia Design Center and its associated video cameras which are available for check out. I have heard many librarians talk about the holy grail of helping faculty with assignment design, and that cooperation seems to be very much needed when it comes to multimedia projects!

Review of “What Technology Wants” March 1, 2012

Posted by Christopher Lemery in Uncategorized.
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Review of What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly

In this ambitious, thought-provoking, and excellent book, Kelly, a senior editor at Wired magazine, uses the framework of what technology “wants” to explore the history and future of technology. While it initially sounds funny to ask what ostensibly impersonal, created artifacts such as computers and iPhones “want,” it makes sense in the context of the book. Kelly defines “technology” broadly, seeing it as the accumulation of millions of years of human evolution and experience to encompass science, math, manufacturing, and society. Kelly sees our computerized gadgets as an inevitable progression of cosmic evolution, tracing the course of biological evolution to make this argument. Our world of interconnected computerized technology, called the “technium,” is therefore argued to be a living organism in the broadest sense and the technium is both our offspring and an extension of our human selves. In many ways, this sounds plausible to me and is a useful framework to think about how technology is changing us.

The most interesting and useful parts of the book are the examination of how societies have adopted technology and how that adoption has changed them. I found the discussion of the Amish particularly interesting and instructive. Kelly also argues that Unabomber Ted Kazinski has created the most logical and accurate anti-technology manifesto; this argument is provocative yet surprisingly strong. Also useful is Kelly’s forecasting the direction of computerization, arguing it will be increasingly ubiquitous, highly specialized, and develop intelligence as we currently understand it.

Kelly does not get into specifics about where technology is going, which is smart because no one person can really know what technology will look like in even the short term. Since we don’t know where technology is going, Kelly argues that all technologies should be allowed and experimented with. Prohibition of things like human cloning or creation of sentient life is pointless, as past technologies have vitiated prohibitions because they’re just too useful. I think Kelly makes a strong case, but he gives short shrift to the legitimate ethical and political problems presented by a lassie faire attitude towards all technologies.

The concluding part of the book is the weakest and strangest. Kelly argues that technology will be a completely new form of life that will completely change the entire universe in the near future. In fact, the technium will bring about more change than biological evolution has seen in the past 4 billion years, which is a bold statement to say the least. We will, in essence, be God to these new organisms, which will completely upend our conception of religion. While I’ve thought about how our conceptions of religion could be changed by technology and scientific discoveries, our being God does seem farfetched to me. While Kelly has the courage of his convictions and follows his ideas to their natural conclusion, his pan-technium neo-religion is awkwardly placed and simply too “out there” to me.

Despite my criticisms, the book is quite good and I recommend that my library friends in particular pick it up.

Academic Libraries in For-Profit Schools of Higher Ed March 1, 2012

Posted by Christopher Lemery in Uncategorized.
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“Academic Libraries in For-Profit Schools of Higher Education” by Davis, Adams, & Hardesty from College & Research Libraries v.72 No.6, November 2011.

I really liked this article and learned a lot from it. I’ve been reading a bit lately about for-profit colleges since they’ve been in the news so much and I’m sure I’ve stumbled across other articles about them here and there. I generally have a pretty dim view of for-profits because of their very nature as profit-seeking institutions, meaning they’re organized and run very differently than traditional colleges. They’re also very expensive and their attendees default on their Pell grant loans in much higher proportions than traditional colleges do. I think it’s pretty shady that they try to “buy” accreditation by buying up a small, previously accredited college. I’ve read several articles about their shady student recruiting practices, too.

The authors also note that most for-profit administrators didn’t hold an advanced degree and a few didn’t even have an undergrad degree. I found this last fact incredible. There arguments about the tenure system and traditional colleges (and their libraries) have their own host of problems, but I can’t imagine running any kind of higher-ed institution without having at least some experience in academia. In sum, for-profits are obviously filling a need, but they need to be better regulated and scrutinized than they are now.

For-profit colleges’ library services are, in a word, awful. The authors report that the for-profit colleges’ libraries are small and poorly resourced and it sounds like they’re often afterthoughts in these institutions. That’s not surprising, seeing as how so many for-profits are online-only affairs and most do not even own their own buildings and don’t have campuses, per se. The article also notes that they don’t have full-time, professional librarians, which is a little surprising. Even with the limited libraries they have, it’s still a ton of work to put one together and run one, particularly in an academic setting. The authors clearly believe that this ultimately hurts the students, as the lack of a library “pro” leads to lack of standard services across institutions, hurts reference quality, and meant that “information literacy” was a foreign term.

It’s clear that for-profits will likely grow in size and reach for the foreseeable future, but there’s clearly a lot of room for improvement.

Welcome Back? October 16, 2011

Posted by Christopher Lemery in Library Instruction, PaLA.
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Hello again, everyone. You may have noticed that this blog went on a little six-month hiatus. It’s not the first time a blog has been “orphaned,” and it definitely won’t be the last. However, I will try and update the site more regularly from now on. I also hope to write about what’s been going on with me the past few months. For now however, I wanted to write about the Pennsylvania Library Association (PaLA) Annual Conference which was held here in State College from October 2-5.

First off, let me say how great it is to have a conference in your own town. It’s great to be able to roll out of your own bed and drive right to the conference. This is particularly nice when you get a nasty cold the day before the conference! The downside is that it didn’t “feel” like a conference in the way the past two PaLA Annual conferences did because I didn’t have to travel.

I went to a lot of good sessions, but I’ll highlight only a few here. Many of the session presentations and handouts can be found here at the PaLA website.

The first session I went to was “Assessment as a Collaborative Activity: Evaluating Faculty/Librarian Partnerships in the Development of Assessment Tools” by Larissa Gordon from Arcadia University. Larissa’s main theme was that planning an information literacy assessment program is messy and is cyclical rather than a one-time thing. Larissa said that a good assessment program involves 4 groups:

  1. instruction librarians
  2. classroom faculty
  3. teaching & learning center
  4. program coordinators

The term “program coordinator” was new to me, but Larissa explained that it is a full-time faculty member who oversees a program in a department. They’re not the same thing as a department head. They may be called something different depending on the school. My main takeaway from the session was Larissa’s broader view of assessment. I always thought about assessment as primarily involving the instruction librarians and faculty, but I now see the benefit of conceptualizing it as a continuous dialogue between these 4 groups. Larissa also pointed out that a new assessment program can build on already-existing efforts in a given department or college. She also noted that faculty and program coordinators may feel that they’re being judged when assessment is done and may push back against it. However, it’s key to emphasize that the assessment is of the information literacy the librarian is doing, not of the class or the professor.

I next went to by Calvin Wang, who’s also from Arcadia. Called “An End-Run down the Rights,” he discussed good instruction sessions and one-on-one consultations. He noted the importance of “rights” in a good instruction session and critical thinking activity:

  • the right activity
  • for the right knowledge
  • to the right population
  • at the right time
  • under the right circumstances

After looking at the confluence of “rights” that have to be in place, it’s no wonder that instruction sessions don’t always succeed!

One session that really opened my eyes was entitled “Demonstrating the Value of Academic Libraries: Three Perspectives.” Melissa Gold of Millersville U. talked about curriculum mapping, which is a graphical representation of the cirriculum. Its most common form is a grid you fill in with goals and ratings. Creating a curriculum map is time-consuming and it’s usually best viewed as a continuous process of improvement, but it can help other academic departments and university administration easily see how the library is doing.

Scott Anderson, of Millersville U. , had a presentation (the PPT file can be found here) about WeaveOnline, which is a really powerful (and expensive!) software package that helps with reporting and tracking of planning and assessment activities across the university campus. Scott said that in filling in its part in the program, the library can essentially “push” its reports and results into university-wide reports so their work shows up without having someone ask for it. Scott said they’ve also linked with information literacy components of academic departments’ assessments, which helps market the Library’s accomplishments and demonstrate value. Dick Swain from West Chester University discussed TracDat and LibPAS, two other assessment programs.

My takeaway from this session was that demonstrating value is a lot more than saying “look, we have x number of students using our library!” It’s becoming increasingly complex and time-consuming as assessment becomes more important at many institutions. If used well, however, these programs can really help market the library and show areas where improvement is necessary.

The final presentation I want to highlight is “Rethinking Information Literacy: Classroom Evidence for Incorporating Students’ Social Media Practices Into our Professional Understanding” by Donna Mazziotti and Teresa Grettano of the University of Scranton. Their excellent presentation (which is available on the PaLA Conference page I linked to at the beginning) was the most interesting and thought-provoking one I attended. Mazziotti is a Librarian and Grettano is an English professor. They teamed up to teach a rhetoric and social media class that used Facebook and incorporated many information literacy components. They highlighted some of the things they learned from the class, including:

  • information is now social
    • Facebook users notice who shared a story and the sharer’s comments before the original source and content of the story
  • things that aren’t free are viewed more skeptically
    • makes justifying library resources in paid databases tougher
  • passion and expertise are now conflated

Their presentation showed that social media and the social way information is sought and discovered will have significant implications for information literacy standards and instruction methods going forward. I’ll be interested to see how the ACRL information literacy standards change in the future!

Google Books “Science” Article February 26, 2011

Posted by Christopher Lemery in Google.
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A while back I read the much-discussed Science article entitled “Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books” (thanks to Librarian.net, you can read it here), which describes some lexicographic and cultural analysis  the authors performed on the Google Books database (or “corpus,” as the authors call it).  It was a really, really interesting article, and the graphs they provide are great. One graph in particular illustrates that, of their estimate of 1 million words in the English lexicon, only about half are in the Oxford English Dictionary. This reminded me how ridiculously time-consuming compiling a dictionary is (read the superb The Meaning of Everything for a good description of this) and of Erin McKean’s great TED talk about the evolution of the dictionary.  But I digress. In any event, the Science article illustrates once again how useful and potentially revolutionary Google Books is and I thought this field of “culturomics” could be earth-shattering.

As usual, the excellent Geoff Nunberg put the Science article into the proper perspective. In an article in the Chronicle Review (which I just got around to reading), Nunberg notes that quantitative methods have been around for a long time and this use of Google Books is just a jump in scale rather than kind from previous efforts. He also notes that the ways the data can be searched and manipulated leave a lot to be desired, particularly in comparison with similar tools such as the Corpus of Historical American English, which I’d never even heard of! Nunberg notes that culturomics will likely be subsumed into already-present fields and won’t replace the need for literature criticism or scholars to evaluate and understand the datasets that culturomics produces. I tend to agree with Nunberg’s conclusions, but it’s also true that there will be ways to use Google Books that we probably haven’t thought of yet, so the jury is still out on “culturomics.”

The Chronicle article also noted that metadata errors are a continuing problem with Google Books, again reminding me why the BIP project is so vital. As sophisticated as computers get, the maxim of “garbage in, garbage out” still holds and even Watson gets things really wrong!

Making the skills automatic February 17, 2011

Posted by Christopher Lemery in Library Instruction, Management, RUSA.
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I was recently struck by part of  an article in the most recent issue of Reference and User Services Quarterly. In an article entitled “Facilitating Students’ Intellectual Growth in Information Literacy Teaching” by K.W. Wong (read it here), the author cites D.N. Perkins, who says that there are 3 stages of learning process: 1) acquiring skills, 2) making the skills automatic, and 3) transferring the skills to other contexts. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about “making the skills automatic” in the context of my job. In training the folks I currently oversee, I’ve found that getting another person to make skills (or thought processes) automatic can be hard. While my team has done well and their addition has been a huge help, I’ve found the “automatic” hump to be trickier than I thought.

In my (admittedly limited) experience, I think a big part of the problem one faces in training others, whether they be colleagues or students, is to see things from the other person’s perspective. In my case, I’ve been working on the BIP team for so long that I’m way past the “automatic” point –I’m able to notice weird things in a catalog record on an almost subconscious level. How do I convey to another person what to look for when I don’t even have to think about it any more? Also, I’ve found that there is a downside to “being automatic” when doing cataloging work on a large journal run: zoning out. It’s easy to write down an incorrect volume number on a sheet or type the wrong publication year for an item when you’re doing hundreds of issues of a publication in a row. You just have to look at things with a critical eye to avoid making mistakes. Of course, that’s easier said than done–after a while everything starts to look exactly the same. That’s why coffee breaks were invented!

“Making skills automatic” is a very subtle process, and I’ve got a lot more to learn about it!

My Tenure with the BIP/Google Team February 10, 2011

Posted by Christopher Lemery in BIP, Google.
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I thought it would be a good idea to go into some detail about what my current position with the Penn State Libraries entails. I am currently the head of the Barcoding Inventory Project (BIP) Team. I began this position in January of 2009 serving under Jackie Dillon-Fast.  The Barcoding Inventory Project was started in 2005 with the goal of placing barcode labels on all items in the three Libraries Annex facilities that lacked labels. The vast majority of the monographs were already done, but the serials were almost entirely untouched. As you can imagine, this was a huge project. (You can find the presentation Jackie and I did in 2009 on the BIP project here.) By the time I arrived, the largest annex facility, Cato I, was done, thanks to Jackie’s hard work. When I started, work on the items in the Academic Activities Annex had just begun. And yes, “Academic Activities” is the single most generic name for a campus building ever. But we’re next to the building with a (really small) nuclear reactor, so maybe there’s a limit on the number of exciting buildings per block.

Anyway, the day-to-day work involves pulling serial titles off the shelves that need to be barcoded. We then place a label on each bound item in the series and then add the barcode number and item information for each item to the correct catalog record. The items then go back on the shelf. It’s not very exciting, but it is vital to Library users’ ability to find and use our collection. The job does provide a unique sense of accomplishment, though. It’s great to be able to fix really messed-up records and know that the fixes I’ve made will make things easier to find. It’s also nice to be able to know that a certain amount of physical material is done. Hard numbers make it easier to see how astonishing our progress has been.

The BIP project intersects with the CIC Google Books project in that we’ve had to process some stuff before it can go off to Google to be scanned. In fact, Google is sort of paying my salary, so they’re really integral to the BIP project. People ask me what types of things Google wants, but I never have a definite answer, because their stated answer to that question is “everything.” They seem to be doing a lot of grey literature (technical reports and such), though, so having that stuff out there will be a huge boon to researchers. Of course, there is also the occasional item that I can’t imagine anyone wanting to look at, but having it digitized is better than having it just sit there, too.

More than anything, my tenure has again reinforced how many vital behind-the-scenes jobs there are in libraries that no one knows about but without which libraries wouldn’t be nearly as cool as they are!

My foray into the Blogosphere January 27, 2011

Posted by Christopher Lemery in Uncategorized.
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Well, here it is-my professional blog! In the coming weeks and months, I hope to use this space to comment on library-related articles I’ve read, my current position, and where I see my career going.

This blog has its genesis in an excellent presentation on blogging given by Erin Dorney, Tara Murray, Amy Pajewski, and Peter Coyl at the Pennsylvania Library Association’s 2010 annual conference, which was held back in October 2010.  Part of the presentation can be found on Erin’s blog here. All 4 presenters talked about their experience using blogs and how they can help make you more visible in the library community. After the presentation, I was thinking that creating a blog would be a great idea and I’d get right on that!

Okay, so I didn’t get right on that, for a couple of reasons. First, I didn’t know what I’d write about, as my current position (about which I’ll say more in a future post) isn’t terribly exciting and is not a professional librarian job. It seems that most librarian bloggers have pretty interesting jobs and are pros. But I now realize that I read enough library-related journal and news articles and I have enough library-related thoughts that I think I could come up with plenty.

The bigger reason for the delay in the blog’s creation is a crisis of confidence about my career choice. My goal in getting into the library world was to be able to directly help people find information, preferably in a reference librarian position.  In deciding to go to library school, however, I bought into the “graying-profession-and-folks-will-retire” narrative, which I now realize is dubious at best. I’ve realized over the past couple of years that to be successful (or even stay afloat) in librarianship, you have to fight tooth-and-nail to get any job and have to fight tooth-and-nail to keep that job. I’m not a fighter by nature, so I really began to wonder whether I’d picked the right career field. I’ve arrived at an answer of “I think so” in the past few months. I’m really good with information, I love to help people, and a library-type environment is a good fit for me. So I decided to start the blog and give this career all I’ve got.

So it begins….