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Char Booth: A DIY Approach to Re-Imagining Libraries

Char Booth is an inspirational academic librarian at Claremont Colleges (CA), who integrates design, Web 2.0 learning technologies, and pedagogy and produces stand-up-and-take-notice results. We asked her about generating ideas for using new learning technologies for expanding students' access to information as users and contributors. (Interview posted: September 27, 2013)

Char is Head of Instruction Services and E-Learning Librarian at the Claremont Colleges Library, a cluster of seven colleges in Southern California. She is also a faculty member at the ACRL Information Immersion Institute.

char booth

A widely respected author, blogger, instructor, and library advocate, Char has been named a Library Journal “Mover and Shaker” (2008) and an ALA Emerging Leader (2007) and won the 2012 ACRL Ilene F. Rockman Award for Best Instructional Publication for her book Reflective Teaching, Effective Learning (2011). She's a frequent presenter to standing-room-only audiences at national library and technology conferences.

We interviewed Char in September 2013. We asked her about generating ideas for using new learning technologies for expanding students’ access to information as users and contributors. We also discussed ways for librarians to rejuvenate an age-old library narrative built on displacement and decline.

PIL: You are a fountain of creative ideas. You’ve developed innovative library tools and services like “Skype a Librarian” and the “Tech_Casting wiki” toward the beginning of your career, and more recently outreach iniatives like buttonmaking and "maker breaks." How did you come up with these different ideas? What makes a really good idea? How have you used the results from a successful innovation to further your library’s objectives?

Char: That’s a big, gracious question. Most of my professional ideas (good, bad, or both) have happened in organizations/contexts that had functional, collaborative cultures in which other people were also having ideas, talking about them, and helping the collective make things happen. I work in a place like this at present, in a kind of dream-team scenario with colleagues that are super creative and where we generally have enough bandwidth to pull things off. Each of us contributes to and advocates for one another’s initiatives, and we have a conscious ethic of giving credit where it’s due – I developed our buttonmaker project, my colleague Sean Stone created Claremont’s library cart, Natalie Tagge thought up re:book, and Alex Chappell is developing awesome approaches to embedded librarianship focused on faculty and administrative integration across the Colleges; these programs are complementary and forward the same goals of user engagement and redefining what our library does for our community. In this sense we enhance each other’s practice and work as a supportive unit, which helps all of our ideas flourish.

Ideation isn’t easy, so in any scenario I think it takes collegiality and confidence and creativity and knowing your community (or at least investigating it in good faith). When I’ve been in less supportive or collegial situations my and others’ ideas had a tendency not to work out so well, because it was difficult to build the momentum needed to create something sustainable and improve it based on feedback. This is a vicious cycle that negatively impacts all aspects of work in organizations: people start to think their good ideas are bad, or cease to have ideas at all, or try to steal each others’ ideas because working together is discouraged or toxic and stepping on necks is the only way to thrive. Small ideas can certainly happen in closed/individual cultures, but big ideas tend to thrive in open/social cultures. I’m not necessarily talking about an entire organization, mind you – a department, a team, a unit, even a pair of colleagues can cultivate this dynamic and do great things. On an individual level, loving what you do, cultivating practical project management skills, and maintaining a reserve of personal moxie (i.e., stubbornness mixed with equal parts charm/bravery) helps as well.

Another key aspect of ideation is adaptation. I can think of a dozen programs I and others at my organization have worked on recently that were borrowed from or influenced by other places, respectfully and with attribution (of course). For example, my colleague Dani Brecher recently spearheaded a Google map tracking the research of faculty teaching first-year seminar classes at several of the Claremont Colleges: we’re using it in instruction to discuss the “scholarly conversation” and try and connect students with their professors’ academic output in order to bridge the scholarship divide (if you will). The thing is, this wasn’t our idea. We borrowed it from the Oregon State University Libraries and the fab Anne-Marie Dietering and made tweaks to meet our needs. Another example are IL rubrics my department developed in tandem with our Assessment Librarian (Sara Lowe) that facilitated many successful evaluation projects and faculty collaborations. We adapted our original rubric from the awesome work of Iris Jastram and others at Carleton College. In my own work, I’m all about sharing templates, versioning, and communicating openly about successes and failures so others can run with things and fit them into their own cultures. I think it’s good practice and encourage everyone to cultivate a measure of productive transparency.

Beyond positive organizational culture and respectful stealing/sharing, I’m realizing as I respond to this that it’s challenging to explain how an idea originates – it’s kind of like seeing a gap and patching it with the most pleasant substance available. Something common to the examples I’ve listed is they were attempts to use simple resources (e.g., Skype, a hot dog cart, Google Maps, buttonmakers) to reach a new user or develop an interesting means of solving an organizational problem. The gaps were noticed because someone was paying attention – formally or informally, through observation, evaluation, needs assessment, or conversation – then figured out simple, useful, and/or interesting ways to patch them up. Come to think of it, simple/useful/interesting are go-to design principles, and design is basically a process of giving ideas form. Same goes for pedagogy and learning design – it’s all about sensitivity to learner needs and the selection of useful, simple strategies to help facilitate a change of some sort.

Also crucial is making sure an idea is scalable, feasible, and accessible. This is a fine line many of us walk in our jobs: we might produce endless creative and excellent notions, but unless the people we work with and those who engage with our resources/programs can see them being useful and executable on the ground, we’re looking at bad ideas. Knowing when to strategically perceive realizability and/or gracefully let something go when its utility is up (i.e., when it’s failed) is a skill I’ve definitely had to develop – still working on it, will always be working on it. The programs you list in the question highlight this process in my career. The early two projects were (shall we say) less focused on feasibility and ended up being more like proofs of concept (a graceful euphemism for a “successful” project that ends up being unscalable). For example, Skype a Librarian was an attempt to leverage an important emerging communication tool to connect with Ohio University’s considerable international student population, and we also developed a strange/awesome video kiosk. In practice both were seldom used, but working with a great team to create these services and then realizing mid-stream that the feasibility/scalability aspects of each were not attended to the extent that they should have been was a priceless learning experience.

Coming back to the report I published with ACRL in 2009 you link out in your question, maybe the simplest way to tilt the scales toward good ideas is by informing your practice (whatever it is) through inquiry. A more proof-of-concept/bandwagony attitude was often working back in the 2.0 experimentation era, which comes through in a Library Technology Report I wrote a few years back about my own experiences with innovation and the “hype cycle”. Even though our team was enjoying working on new things, we were definitely guilty of a try-it-and-see approach that didn’t focus enough on users and scalability at that point – not that trying to execute novel concepts is always bad by any means, but when working with scarce resources like almost all of us are these days it's very important to consider impact and ongoing costs (not just financial) before diving in. When I contrast our overly complicated and unsustainable video kiosk and other Skype-based services at Ohio University to the multiple, excellent uses wrangled from our button makers at Claremont, I see a very different picture. In the latter there were a few initial costs, but once we created templates and resources viable in different communities and scenarios we were golden… endless marketing fodder, crafting events excellent for decompression, students constantly using the presses for their own projects… simple/useful/interesting.

PIL: In the coming year, you will be working on yet another innovation. It’s a Visual Curriculum Mapping (VCM) Web-based application and it has been funded by a 2013 IMLS Sparks! Ignition Grant. What’s VCM? What value do you think your VCM will have for librarians, educators, and students?

Char: Higher ed is notorious for tunnel vision, and a library is often the only entity in a given organization that has a truly holistic view of a campus typically comprised of constituents focused on their own slice of pie. What the VCM project does is helps us paint a birds’ eye perspective of this pie to inform ourselves and help plot our own course (how’s that for mixed metaphors), and also to create unique resources for our communities.

The project originated as we tried to make sense of the very complex academic universe of the Claremont Colleges, seven institutions with highly distinct learner populations and program ranges all served by one library. Communicating with departments to understand developing programs, new courses, new faculty, requirements – these things are difficult anywhere, but vastly complicated by working in a seven-college system. There is no keeping up with the changes and complexity of this world, so this approach to mapping is a methodical and structured knowledge building exercise that, in essence, asks an individual to lay out their own picture of a learner community using the publicly available information about said community that is so frequently disjointed and/or linear.

The process of building a visual curriculum map is straightforward: in phase one a librarian uses concept mapping software to, in essence, visualize the component parts of the programs they liaise to, from faculty to degree requirements to courses to student groups to library resources. Phase two includes overlaying their information literacy instruction “intersections” across the curriculum from prior years and then setting future targets based on the most strategic points of intervention across a student’s degree path. Of course, not everyone has the same degree of facility with or love of the technology, so the grant helps us have the resources to provide map-building support for the individuals who require it and do the project on a large scale (it was a successful pilot between 2011-13 that captured about half of our subjects on an opt-in basis). We’ve created a template map for our librarians of each of their subjects and lead trainings, created documentation, and provided other mentorship opportunities to help with the process.

By way of an example of how VCM can play out, my colleague Sean Stone and I saw an amazing result when we mapped the Environmental Analysis curriculum across the five undergraduate Claremont Colleges (Claremont McKenna, Harvey Mudd, Pitzer, Pomona, and Scripps) – this was the first map we built and has been a model in terms of outcomes, which continue to this day. Beyond opening the door to many collaborative ventures with EA, it showed program faculty how their various majors had developed and overlapped in a way they otherwise wouldn’t have known.

A complex effort perhaps, but the end result is much more informed practitioners within subjects (people invariably learn many things they weren’t aware of), a knowledgebase useful for collection development, a perspective on the best curricular ‘fit’ for IL (information literacy) across the disciplines rather than scattered one-shots, and a set of unique cross-college maps that can be used to facilitate important conversations among faculty and students that may not collaborate or resource share to the extent that they might. When you create annual versions of the maps you see program evolution happening right before your eyes: very interesting.

PIL: In one post on your blog, info-mational, you coined the phrase “drive-by advocacy.” What do these phrases mean as far as how librarians market themselves? Could you give us one or two ideas about how librarians can reach educators and other campus stakeholders to communicate their expertise, rather than the services they provide?

Char: This one is simple. It’s about communicating the worth of what you do and why it matters, sincerely, and letting that guide your work (be it librarianship or something else) and interactions within your communities of practice. I’ve tried to reclaim the word ‘pollyanna’ in the past to get at what I mean by this – it’s essential to become someone who can put yourself out there wholeheartedly and actually care about your day-to-day efforts and their meaning within a larger system1.

In librarianship specifically, what we provide to people and society and culture is unique and important, so let every exchange possible advocate that value and your own heartfelt contribution to sustaining it. There is a majorly courageous vulnerability in believing in what you do and expressing it to others who may or may not care (yet), particularly in an age when the concept of libraries is shifting towards ‘outmoded’ in the minds of many. We’re reconceptualizing libraries not only in the programs we create and the way we share resources and run our organizations, but by taking the time to extend ourselves and our expertise in order to make meaning in our interactions with non-library folk. I cannot stress the importance of being a sensitive and perceptive communicator who can gauge how to translate a message to different audiences. This is what good teaching and marketing and public speaking and writing is about: if you can remember that you’re never talking only to yourself, you’re on the road to golden.

People build and revise their mental models based on the information they take in and the experiences they have, which is why ‘drive-by advocacy’ is so important. I had an interaction with a student the other week that helps me explain this – they were chatting with me in my office while making buttons for a sexual assault survivor advocacy group – and asked how long I’d been a librarian and how I came to the work. I explained my path and why I do what I do along the lines of what I’ve communicated in this interview. I was completely stoked by their response: “Right, totally. I think librarians are some of the best people in society. I talked with this public librarian at a party in Oakland once, and he was amazing.” I’ve lived in the Bay Area and asked if they remembered this amazing librarian’s name, and all I got was “he had a beard.” So hats off to this particular bearded librarian for helping my student form their positive concept of libraries and librarians… at a random party. That’s what it’s all about.

As for communicating to educators and other campus stakeholders, find out what their goals, values, research, and/or initiatives are and translate how you and your organization can support or enhance them using language they can relate to.

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1. A brief PSA: If anyone reading this response finds themselves scoffing even mildly, I encourage you to consider whether you’ve lost sight of the satisfaction that craft can bring – this happens to all of us and can totally be rewired. What it would mean to examine whatever negativity or ennui or cynicism is acting on you and whether you can change your relationship to your work? Pretty good chance you might be operating in one of the toxic organizations I described earlier – instead of withdrawing into yourself or surrendering, can you do something to shift the tide? If the answer is no, move on (and/or learn to meditate, which totally changed my life).

PIL: In your book, Reflective Teaching, Effective Learning (ALA, 2011) and also in your presentations, you’ve made an argument for rethinking how we teach today’s college students. You’ve mentioned the works of John Dewey, Paulo Freire, and Jack Mezirow. How have these authors and learning theory influenced your thoughts about library instruction and working with students? On many college campuses, PIL’s research—and other studies, like ERIAL—have found that few students consult librarians for help on their course-related research tasks. How can these ideas help librarians reframe their pedagogical practices?

Char: I also want to acknowledge the importance of feminist pedagogues like bell hooks in the list of theorists you reference here. At a theoretical and practical level, the 2000 ACRL information literacy standards need updating; this is not a revelation. A highly qualified ACRL task force is currently rethinking the standards, while many of us have been reinvisioning what IL means on the ground for some time, in our classrooms and in collaboration with faculty and other colleagues. One way this is happening is through theoretical lenses you lay out – critical pedagogy, feminist pedagogy, transformative learning – building allegiances with allied approaches that reflect the justice, access, transparency, and equilibrium that libraries have always embodied. This is an excellent way to contextualize IL and make it more relevant and urgent for students and faculty.

One classroom strategy I use that employs feminist and critical pedagogy is teaching research skills by engaging learners with open access publication in institutional repositories and Wikipedia, which helps them develop a voice that reaches more than their immediate peers and faculty. Another is the using ‘ collaboratage’ in skills and technology training, or building opportunities for learners to play and break things down when encountering something new.

I love to name drop on fabulous work being done in this area in the profession – Maria Accardi, Emily Drabinski, and Alana Kumbier are foremost among those I’d recommend for people who want to educate themselves on these ideas from a librarian perspective: they edited the influential volume Critical Library Instruction, and Maria recently Published Feminist Pedagogy for Library Instruction.

By way of a practical example, a critical/feminist concept that I often use to challenge students to understand different aspects of information literacy is information privilege – who are you, and what sources and information streams can you access as a result? Who gets access to what and why? What can’t you access? What happens when you graduate and move on? How much would it cost to find what you need? Who produces information, and to what end? What is the nature of bias and authority?

An example drawn from my own career that resonates well with my Environmental Analysis students when I teach is an individual I helped gain access to very esoteric research for several years. He lived in the middle of nowhere in Tennessee, with slim access to libraries or even internet connectivity. He was also a brilliant researcher and writer, a fermentation enthusiast who would travel the country giving hands-on workshops on making kraut and kimchee. He was off the academic grid but very much needed materials – I and a few other librarians helped him secure these through slightly creative and/or backdoor research methods. Several years later he brought an amazing best-selling book (The Art of Fermentation) into the world and acknowledged every last one of us who helped make it happen. When you dig one level deeper into something as seemingly mundane as the research process you can uncover interesting scenarios like this to illustrate the broader implications of the paywall and challenging it when it makes sense to. That’s what I mean by information privilege.

As to PIL and ERIAL research showing that direct librarian consultations are few: of course it’s only a small percentage of students; it’s always been a small percentage of students, and the numbers are declining based on a number of well-documented factors. Instead of lamenting this fact, it’s important to challenge why we’re still focusing on how many students come directly to us for consultations – I’m more interested in how we interpret this data in order to expand and transform the layers of collaboration and intervention we create over the course of the student experience, and, of utmost and related importance, the faculty experience. This also gets to the numbers that are increasing. Like, how many syllabi my colleagues and I have had a hand in shaping each year via faculty consultations, or how much student IL performance improved in a given class based on our interventions. At Claremont we have very exciting data on these two areas (we’re writing it up for publication at the moment so apologies that I can’t share a link). This kind of data matters to faculty and administrators, not to mention that it impacts far more students than voluntarily come to research appointments and services desks.

Using solely librarian-focused metrics is a sure path to missing the boat and wringing one’s hands: moreover it is only one small piece of the broader evidence-based picture that is the absolute trajectory of evaluation in higher education and libraries. We have to be more creative in the types of academic collaborations we’re creating in order to reach students and faculty in different ways – we can’t just keep shapeshifting traditional approaches (a popular pastime among librarians). When we focus on our communities and their outcomes, we naturally determine better and more interesting metrics for examining the efficacy of our extant approaches as well as identifying those elusive gaps that, when patched, can bring more students and faculty to our physical/digital doorsteps. It’s fabulous when students reach out for the types of support librarians can provide and we should open every opportunity for them to do so, but our efforts must be undergirded by the type of peer-based, substantive contributions to their curriculum that makes our institutions and us as individuals a seamless part of the learning experience. Both strategies – indirect and direct – should encourage student empowerment and facilitate an independence of mind/inquiry that doesn’t make librarian consultations some sort of given or dependency.

PIL: In a recent talk, you described an enduring library narrative that’s been grounded in “destruction, decline, and displacement.” You’ve argued that it is this narrative that has kept librarians “sharp” and, frankly, fulfilling a role that no other professional in society does. Librarians ought to be proud of it. Given this narrative, what is the biggest challenge you think libraries face today? Is there a fourth “D” in the library narrative we should expect in the coming years? What should librarians always keep in mind about their profession?

Char: Another massive one! Plus an alphabet challenge… let’s see, a fourth D for the library narrative… I’m thinking delamination or defenestration. Seriously though, how about development? Since when were libraries ever static, ever safe? There was no golden age, save perhaps the Carnegie/university boom decades that created such a massive library infrastructure in the United States and other hyper-developed societies. Much of our modern professional discourse is in terror of paradigm shifts that have always been the purview of libraries. I’m not downplaying the very real and very difficult cuts and layoffs and closures, but they aren’t new and they aren’t unique to us by a long shot. In other contexts, libraries are still being systematically burned, looted, and destroyed, or they never existed in the first place. Reflecting on this can remind those of us who work in places societies like the US of the extent of our privilege and the depth of our resources, and moreover of the incredibly creative motivation that can spring from operating under duress.

The biggest challenge we face is the challenge we’ve always faced: mattering to people on a practical and conceptual level. The pace of information and infrastructural change has certainly accelerated in the last few decades in a way that has provoked increasingly difficult questions about how and why we matter, which in itself is not unique in the history of libraries. To address the challenge it is important to reflect on what grounds our existence. Information shifts, societies shift, organizations shift, but the impulse to read and share and inquire openly – which is the essence, the basis of libraries – doesn’t shift: just look at any contemporary or historical culture that suppressed speech and you will find constant evidence of this impulse in spite of terrible consequences. The impulse does require cultivation and translation in different contexts, however. As individuals and as a collective, libraries/ians must figure out the most sustainable forms of these concepts on both a large and small scale relative to our environments and make sure we don’t throw out our foundational ballast in the process.

Finally, we shouldn’t be bashful about advocating like the activists we all are for the sustainability of these rights. I believe that librarianship is a practice of social justice, and I meet and mentor so many amazing people that are entering our field at this difficult moment for precisely this reason – they are going to help our organizations transform. Deciders of the library world, please do everything you can to make room for these individuals, even if it means making a hard decision or three.

This year, we selected Char Booth for our “Leading Librarian Smart Talk Interview.” (For 2012, PIL’s leading librarian interview was with Barbara Fister.)

In addition to her work at Claremont College Libraries, as an Instruction Services and E-Learning Librarian, Char is the author of Reflective Teaching, Effective Learning (ALA, 2011) and Informing Innovation: Tracking Student Interest in Emerging Technologies (ACRL, 2009; free download).

Smart Talks are informal conversations with leading thinkers about the challenges of educating and preparing college students to succeed in school and as lifelong learners in the digital age. The interviews are an occasional series, produced by Project Information Literacy (PIL).

PIL is an ongoing and national research study about how college students find and use information for courses and for use in their everyday lives. PIL is conducted in collaboration with the University of Washington’s Information School

Smart Talk interviews are open access and licensed by Creative Commons:

Creative Commons License

Char Booth: A DIY Approach to Re-Imagining Libraries (email interview), by Alison J. Head, Project Information Literacy, Smart Talk Interview, no. 16 (27 September 2013), is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.