Grant Funding for Libraries – Encouraging Innovation and Collaboration.

I have been responsible for fundraising at the Edmonton Public Library for the past nine years so I understand the importance grants have in supporting great work. It was only after reading Committing to Research: Librarians and Grantsmanship, (Arlitsch, 2013) that I realized how important grants have been to driving innovation in North America. Through his article, Dr. Arlitsch shows that “grants are the lifeblood of research in this country and they have supported the development of untold numbers of inventions and innovations” (Arlitsch, 2013). Given that federal grants provide 60% of the research funding in universities, this is no surprise (Arlitsch, 2013).

While there is no question that science and medical fields regularly apply for grant funding to further their research, libraries have been less inclined to pursue this support. Why? There are several potential reasons including the idea that libraries are less about research and more about service to other faculties and individuals, and that library staff are not skilled in research and therefore are not the best recipients of grant funding (Arlitsch, 2013). Through his own personal example, Arlitsch shows the fallacy of this case. Working on multi-discipline grants has many benefits including engaging different perspectives in important research, creating a team dynamic in the workplace and creating projects that would be impossible with only the perspectives of a single discipline. A successful example of this is AI lab at University of Rhode Island University (URI). By placing the lab in the library, the University hopes that “students majoring in different fields, from philosophy and ethics to computer science and biomedical engineering, will brainstorm about important social and ethical issues today and create cutting edge projects” (Massis, 2018). Similarly, the Edmonton Public Library in collaboration with inner city social service agencies, received $600,000 in provincial government funding to research the benefits of social workers working in public libraries. This collaborative effort was successful and resulted in three full-time social workers hired as permanent library staff.

While there are definitely many positive reasons libraries and librarians should explore grant funding as a way to fund research and experimentation, libraries should consider a few things. First, grants come with strings. Most funders require project proposals, detailed budgets and specific outcomes delivered at predetermined times. Libraries should consider if the efforts are worth the investment. Sometimes they are not. Second, funders may have interests and agendas they wish to fill. Libraries need to consider if the interests of the funder align with the interests of the library and if the funder expects to exert influence over a program or service the library will deliver. Even if it is subtle, funders may want the recipient to focus on a specific group, add a new service, research a specific area, purchase a new product and more. If it isn’t something the library would pursue without the available funding, they should seriously consider whether the interests of the funder should push them in that direction. Finally, organizations and individuals from all areas can be lured into chasing money. They may apply for available funding even if the work isn’t aligned with the values and interest of the organization or if pursuing this funding results in reducing services or work in another area. The Edmonton Public Library recently declined a $50,000 grant from a provincial government ministry because, after careful examination, the project itself was a low priority for us and the work required would be excessive. Not many organizations have the resolve to turn away that kind of funding.

Grants provide many opportunities for libraries to fund new projects and drive innovation. By approaching them with clear purpose and an understanding of the fit with libraries values, grants can be a great tool in the library funding and innovation toolkit.

References.

Kenning Arlitsch (2013). Committing to Research: Librarians and Grantsmanship. Journal of Library Administration, 53:5-6, 369-379, DOI:10.1080/01930826.2013.876828

Massis, Bruce (2018). Artificial intelligence arrives in the library. Information and Learning Science, Vol.119 Issue: 7/8: 456-459. https://doi.org/10.1108/ILS-02-2018-0011

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Usability Begins at the Beginning

I thought I had a good understanding of usability testing. I have been involved in it as part of my work at the Edmonton Public Library (EPL). I have implemented three website redesigns and usability testing was included throughout. However, my perspective on usability testing improved significantly after reading Lack’s (2007) overview of the subject, along with the practical implementation examples from the California Digital Library (CDL) project. Lack references Pearrow’s work in the Website Usability Handbook where he defines user centered design as “a philosophy and a methodology that advocates user involvement at all stages of product development – before, during, and afterwards” (Pearrow, 2000). With this in mind usability and usability testing begins at the beginning. When done well, it is not simply a review process done at the end of a project to tweak the work, or confirm that it meets users’ expectations.

Most of my experience with usability testing – particularly for websites – was much later in the development process. As we completed significant components of a website, we’d ask real users to review it and perform specific tasks. We would judge the usability success or failure depending on the user’s ability to complete the work. I appreciate Lack’s approach that is more comprehensive and the idea that testing starts with the user and developing “a deep understanding of their goals, environment and technical skill” (Lack, 2007). Lack also outlines the various ways we can test usability at various stages along the development path, outlining pros and cons of each approach. It is clear that focus groups, interviews, surveys and observation all have an important role to play in examining usability.

Another great insight from Lack is that usability testing does not test usefulness. You can create an extremely usable site that is not useful (Lack, 2007). This is an important truth for anyone creating usability tests. It is tempting to add questions to usability tests in an attempt to determine if the information is useful. This interferes with the actual usability testing. It is also tempting to equate usability to value; in other words, because a user can easily navigate a site, the site content must be good. This is not necessarily true.

The Edmonton Public Library undertook a comprehensive review of our customer experience leveraging several approaches outlined by Lack. MLIS research interns spent the most part of a year observing and speaking with customers and staff to develop both customer journey maps and service blue prints. (Mucz & Gareau-Brennan, 2018). By both interviewing and observing customers, the interns were able to identify areas of service excellence as well as pain points in need of improvement. Adding to Lack’s work, they identified the importance of also engaging staff to understand the context to processes, determining which ones could easily be changed, as well the processes that were required, even if customers didn’t like it. In the latter cases, we may not be able to resolve the pain point, but customer communication may help resolve the frustration.

There are many ways to test usability. The best approach is to begin when the project begins, allowing for user input and influence all along the way. The CDL example shows how usability testing informed the design of the site, and the EPL example shows how usability testing can influence user-centered process changes.

References

Lack, R. (2007). The Importance of User-Centered Design: Exploring Findings and Methods. Journal of Archival Organization. 4:1-2. 69-86

Mucz, D. & Gareau-Brennan, G. (2018, October). Mapping the Customer Journey. Engaging with Customers, Identifying Touch Points, and Developing Recommendations at a Public Library. Library Journal.

Pearrow, M. (2000) Web Site Usability Handbook. Rockland: MA: Charles River Media 15-16.

Quantity Trumps Quality

I have to admit it. I feel pretty stupid. I am one of the people who erroneously thought that much, or at least a lot, of the world’s content and history was digitized, or that some record was available electronically to point you to the print/physical piece. Clearly I had not thought about it until I read Erway & Schaffner’s OCLC report “Shifting Gears, Gearing up to get into the flow.” It was the first time I was confronted with how much of the world’s history and information was available only in physical form. It also spurred my thinking on the dynamic of access versus preservation and that one could be impeding the other.

Erway & Schaffner are clear in their perspective that quantity and access trump quality. I share this view. Primarily because the sheer volume of content that simply is not currently available in digital format, and the significant time it will take to digitize it, frightens me. Hafner (2007) outlines just a few examples of how much content we are talking about noting that “at the Library of Congress, for example, despite continuing and ambitious digitization efforts, perhaps only 10 percent of the 132 million objects held will be digitized in the foreseeable future” (Para 8). The author also highlights other important collections like the New York World-Telegram & Sun photo prints where only 5,407 of the 1 million photos have been digitized (Hafner, 2007).

Today’s amateur, and perhaps semi-advanced researcher thinks most of the research aides they need will be available electronically. However, it is actually just a small fraction. What are we missing? What lessons-learned will we continue to rehash because the historical documents related to the subject are no longer accessed or available? The semantic web promises to connect every piece of information to every other related piece of information. But what happens when most of the related information isn’t even available electronically?

Added to this is the risk of loss of physical items evidenced by the recent fire at the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro and the loss of millions of historic and unique artifacts (Yong, 2018). Not only do we need think about digitizing information for access and use, but also for preservation and retention. In my opinion, quantity does trump quality simply because of the time required to ensure quality. There is limited access to so much important, valuable and rare artifacts and information. And we risk the loss of this content. The quicker we can digitize it the better.

References

Erway, R. & Schaffner, J. (2007, October). Shifting gears: Getting up to get into the flow. OCLC Programs and Research. Retrieved from www.oclc.org/programs/publications/reports/2007-02.pdf

Hafner, K. (2007, March 10). History, Digitized (and Abridged). Your Money, The New York Times, Business section. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/10/business/yourmoney/11archive.html

Yong, E. (2018, Sept. 10). What Was Lost in Brazil’s Devastating Museum Fire. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/09/brazil-rio-de-janeiro-museum-fire/569299/