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Planning the Access Library Technology Conference

by Shannon Lucky,
Library Systems and Information Technology
University of Saskatchewan Library

In September the University Library at the U of S hosted the 25th Access Library Technology Conference. The core planning team (Jaclyn McLean, Craig Harkema, and myself) are still wrapping up the last loose ends and paying the last of the bills before we hand everything over to the next planning committee, but we have had time to reflect on the last year of planning and what made the event a success. The TL:DR is that smart delegating and asking for help saved our sanity and made Access a much better conference than we could have done on our own.

The longevity of the Access conference is remarkable – it is not led by an academic association and doesn’t have much of a formalized structure. It is supported by a community of library technology people dispersed across Canada who pass the organizing role from institution to institution each year. It had been 19 years since Access was last hosted in Saskatchewan (Access 1998!) and it felt like we were overdue for a return to the prairies.

Organizing a conference is one of those tasks that academics take on because someone has to do it, but it isn’t something library school prepares you for. In some ways, this makes Access a great conference to host, in other ways the lack of guidelines was daunting. There are so many ways to mess it up.

We were handed the keys to the conference – logins credentials, a comfortable budget (that we didn’t want to empty for future years), and documentation from previous years – and were told to start planning immediately. There are only a few traditions we were advised to continue: we should livestream the conference for free (which we did – recordings on the YouTube channel), keep it a single stream program, continue the Dave Binkley Memorial lecture, and make sure there are enough socializing opportunities (and enough refreshments).

Our core team was well balanced and it was a real pleasure working with Craig and Jaclyn, but we were appropriately intimidated by the amount of work that needed to be done in less than a year. In response, we delegated like crazy. This may be the most successful thing we did during the entire process. By dividing up tasks into discrete projects with well-defined time commitments and expectations we were able to approach colleagues and Access community members to pitch-in in ways that utilized their strengths and were (hopefully) professionally beneficial for them. Making targeted asks rather than a general call for volunteers also may have helped us solicit time from very talented and busy colleagues.

The major volunteer contributions that made this conference possible were:

  • The program committee (Charlene Sorensen, DeDe Dawson, Karim Tharani) who wrote and advertised the call for papers, coordinated the peer reviewers, and created the timetable. This felt like a gargantuan task, perhaps the biggest part of making the conference successful, and having this work happen smoothly while we dealt with more prosaic tasks was a big help.
  • Peer reviewers, mainly members of the Access community, who volunteered online to review proposals. We were impressed with the number of volunteers and their thoughtful feedback.
  • The diversity scholarship committee (Maha Kumaran, Naz Torabi, Ying Liu, Ray Fernandes). I could not be prouder of how well the diversity scholarship program worked this year. We were fortunate to have Maha, whose research involves diversity in libraries, agree to lead this committee who designed the application and adjudication process, spread the call for applicants well beyond the typical Access circles, and made their decision after reading many qualified applications. The excellent work of this committee made me feel confident in our process of awarding the scholarships and it is one of the top things I will recommend to future organizers.
  • Hackfest workshop leaders (Darryl Friesen, John Yobb, Curt Campbell, Donald Johnson, Andrew Nagy) who organized workshops on the first day of the conference including hauling gear and coordinating their groups of registrants.
  • Conveners (Megan Kennedy, Tim Hutchinson, Carolyn Doi, Danielle Bitz, Joel Salt) who coordinated, introduced, and moderated questions for each block of speakers.
  • Social events (Sarah Rutley) who managed to transform all of our crazy (and sometimes terrible) ideas into three days of great activities, coordinating multiple vendors, food allergies, and last minute changes.
  • Hotel logistics (Jen Murray) who was the central contact point between the committee and our venue – having one person focused on all the details around the space, food, and time schedules was a lifesaver, particularly when things went off the rails.

In other areas, we ponied up and paid for professional services including the venue, catering, AV support, live streaming, and registration system. All money well spent. The downside is that I know we had enthusiastic, talented members of our local library community who would have gladly volunteered and done a fantastic job. It’s almost a shame we didn’t have more work to do. Almost.

There are many more people who made this event successful including the support of the U of S Library and Dean Melissa Just, Virginia Wilson who gave us great advice based on her experience hosting the EBLIP7 conference, Carolyn Pytlyk who helped me write our SSHRC Connections grant, past Access organizers, and all of our sponsors. I also want to thank all of the attendees who were so engaged and enthusiastic about both the perogies and the conference program. The whole process was so much fun you can count me in to host again in 19 years – see you at Access 2036.

Access 2017 organizers and volunteers

Access 2017 organizers and volunteers celebrating a successful conference by throwing axes.

This article gives the views of the author and not necessarily the views the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.

Designing and Presenting Research Posters

By Shannon Lucky, Information Technology Librarian, University of Saskatchewan
Bernice Leyeza, Research Assistant, Department of Geography & Planning, University of Saskatchewan

This summer I have been fortunate to have Bernice working as a research assistant, partially funded by an undergraduate student research grant at our institution. Part of the grant program has the RAs participate in a research poster competition at the end of the summer. This sounded like the perfect opportunity to co-write a post about designing and presenting a research poster from our two different perspectives.

I love presenting research posters. I like having real, sometimes lengthy, conversations with people who are interested in my research. I have gotten new perspectives on my work and great suggestions for things to look at, particularly scholarship outside of my academic bubble, from conversations with one or two people in a hall full of posters. This has never happened to me during a standard paper Q&A. Conferences where the posters presentations happen in tandem with refreshments are also a bonus. I have long suspected that the insightful introverts in our communities are a little bolder during cocktail hour than during lecture hall panel discussions.

While presenting a poster might be my favourite part of the process, designing one has been a surprisingly useful scholarly activity. I can easily fill up a word count limit for a paper, but trying to essentialize down what I am really trying to say (conveyed in the right 30 pt. font verbiage) has challenged me to get real about what I am doing – not what I like to think I am doing, or what I want other academics to think I am doing. It is hard to hide behind academic-ese when you have 16 square inches to describe the significance of your project. You also need to actually use that elevator pitch I know I have been coerced into writing at more than one research workshop. This is all to say that it is hard to phone-in a decent poster. You need to know your question, data, and results inside and out; well enough to distill it down to the essential text, speak extemporaneously about it, and probably answer a few questions.

I was lucky to have Bernice as my RA for this project. Not only was she eager to take on the challenge of translating our early results into a poster, she also has design skills that far surpass my own. In planning for the poster we came up with four essential questions that we have done our best to answer from each of our perspectives. We hope that the following advice will be useful for veteran and rookie research poster presenters alike.

  1. What is the poster for and who is my audience?

“My first undergraduate degree required us to master our skills in producing different communication materials. I took a lab class where our weekly assignments were to translate a research article into a poster – good practice for designing your own.” (Bernice)

Whether your poster is for a class or a conference, focus on the most interesting and important information for that audience and what language will speak to them. This is a good time to note any restrictions on dimensions, digital file standards, and any design or content requirements provided by the event organizer. Is this the place to show your creativity, or is it expected that you use a standard template/layout? Look at other examples from researchers in your discipline online or ask colleagues/professors if they can share examples with you. Get an idea of the common practices within your discipline or at the event you will be presenting at.


  1. What comes first, the writing or the design?

The quality of your research and ability to communicate its value is first and foremost. You can’t have a successful poster without solid research to communicate. Having said that, there are different approaches to turning your literature review, hypothesis, data, and analysis into a cohesive poster design. Bernice prefers to write up a research article first which helps solidify the important details for the poster. As she transfers the writing into the poster layout she works to make it more concise – good practice for academic writing in general. If the poster is about new (unpublished) research, Shannon prefers to write some quick notes and start laying out the broad ideas on post-its or in the design software. Finessing the writing comes later. Both approaches work well, just make sure to avoid self-plagiarism if you are re-purposing text from your publications and grants to fill out the purpose/methods/relevance sections.


  1. What design program should I use?

Unless there is a standard required template, you can use whatever software you like. We recommend using what you are comfortable with so you don’t spend extra hours struggling with the software; there is enough work to do getting your content organised. You can use something as simple as PowerPoint, or as complicated as InDesign, both can give you a professional looking result.

Sometimes universities will have a standard template students and faculty can use. For Bernice’s poster, we wanted it to look like a poster from our institution, but not like all of the other posters in the competition. Instead of using the standard ppt file, Bernice chose to design her own layout in InDesign using the official university colours.


  1. How will you make your poster engaging and able to stand out in a hall full of other presenters?

This answer has two approaches: design and presentation.

Design – Use sound design rules for your poster. You can print out 4-6 paragraphs of text in 16 pt. font and call it a day, but taking some extra time to make your poster look approachable (as in, you can read it in less than 30 minutes) and visually appealing will make your research look more approachable and interesting. Using appropriate white space, limiting your colour pallet (and think about accessibility for colour blind readers), and using a legible font in an appropriate size will go a long way to making your poster stand out. A good font size guideline is 85 pt. for the title, 36 pt. for sub headings, 24 pt. for the body, and 18 pt. for captions and references. Using relevant images and diagrams is also a good idea.

Presentation – First and foremost, you want to be presentable. Wear comfortable shoes and clothes that are appropriate for the event. If you feel comfortable you will be more comfortable presenting. Have your elevator pitch memorised, but be ready to have a conversation about your project. Don’t stick to a formal script but if you get nervous you can prepare some talking points and write them down in bullet form. Try to engage with the audience around their interest in your research, not just your favourite ideas. This is a great way to find collaborators or get asked questions that may not come up in a formal conference Q&A. While you are standing by your poster waiting for someone to approach put your phone away, smile, and say hello. Don’t just talk to the people you know or people from your institution, you never know what kind of connections you will make.

This is a great networking opportunity, so make it easy for people to follow-up with you after the event. Include your email address, Twitter handle, or website URL directly on your poster and bring your business cards with you. If you won’t be standing next to your poster for the entire event, pin up a few cards next to your poster for people to take.

A few final tips:

  • If you are travelling to present at a conference, plan ahead to have your poster printed at your destination. Shannon has had good luck using hosting universities’ campus print shops, and Staples is always a quick and nearly universal option. This will save you having to carry on a poster tube or risking damaging or losing your poster en route.
  • Get the most mileage out of your poster. If your institution has an institutional repository, add your poster and some speaking notes to your profile. If you have a personal academic website, link to a pdf version of your poster there. Like any scholarly communication product, this may be useful to another researcher (if not for the subject matter, then certainly for your elegant design).

Research poster can be a little tricky, it may be easier to write about your research first or some people might find it easier to start with the layout. Practising how to write concise material is a useful exercise. If your information is well written, designing and presenting will come naturally. You don’t have to use complicated software to design your poster and can use the resources you have. Again, you are presenting your research and that’s the bulk of your poster. Make sure to follow the design rules of the conference and have your elevator pitch ready.

This article gives the views of the author and not necessarily the views the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.

Together at the Seams: Tim Sherratt and metaphors of access, C-EBLIP Journal Club May 11, 2017

By Craig Harkema
University Archives and Special Collections, University of Saskatchewan

Sherratt, T. (2017). Seams and edges: Dreams of aggregation, access & discovery in a broken world. [online] discontents. Available at: http://discontents.com.au/seams-and-edges-dreams-of-aggregation-access-discovery-in-a-broken-world/

As a librarian who has focused on digital initiatives over the course of the past 8 years or so, I’ve followed with great interest the many projects and programs that have emerged out of Australia during this time. I find myself regularly checking in on some of the incredible hackers, artists, culture curators, and innovators from Oz.  Their names – Tim Sherratt  (formerly at the Trove, currently at the University of Canberra), Sarah Kenderdine (University of New South Wales), Paula Bray (DX Lab, New South Wales), Mitchell Whitelaw (Australian National University) and Seb Chan (Australian Centre for the Moving Image), among others – continue to pop out of my mouth when discussing digital cultural collections with my colleagues.  So when asked to select and lead a discussion about an article of my choice for the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice (C-EBLIP) journal club, I knew I’d likely pick something from one of the above.

As it happens, three years ago I was lucky enough to be in Canberra and stop in to visit the good folks at the Trove.  Near the end of my time there, I had the chance to talk with Sherratt, standing out just a touch in his casual attire, wearing red Converse Chuck Taylors. Mostly we chatted about these sorts of initiatives as platforms for developing tools and about the possibilities for use and reuse of digital content found in places like the Trove, Europeana, DPLA, and, on a much smaller scale, Sask History Online (the project I was leading at the time). Later that week he presented a talk called “Seams and Edges: Dreams of Aggregation, Access, and Discovery in a Broken World” at the Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA) Conference.  I’ll get back to it in a bit, but I feel this particular talk/blog post is as good a place as any to begin learning what Sherratt’s work is about. I think the Trove itself is a great example of how these large initiatives can support a wide range of research and public interest objectives; objectives we as library people should be most interested in.

Although he has now moved on from the Trove, Sherratt’s influence on the program will undoubtedly be long lasting. As much as anything, he has advanced the concept of the Trove as a platform for building tools and collections through the API. Trove is much more than a search engine that delivers results instantaneously. I’m hopeful this will continue in his absence and in the wake of massive budget cuts from the Australian government. Not surprisingly then, part of the Trove’s mandate is to develop a systems infrastructure and community that encourages and enables folks to reuse content. For Sherratt, the Trove has been just that, a store of valuable, quirky, surprising, and baffling materials that can be pulled apart and woven back together. It’s clear that he has developed a multifaceted and multilevel scholarly practice over the past several years, one that follows from a concerted effort to take a different tack from many of his peers:

A scholarly practice that has room for the angry and the weird alongside the rigorous and detached. That sees in digital technologies not just the chance to crunch huge quantities of data, but the opportunity to tinker with our preconceptions, to be playful and political, to explore emotions as well as evidence, to create bots as well as books ( “#Borderfarce…”, September 2015).

He has long been illustrating how this can be done and, often using the Trove’s API, has developed several new approaches to exploring and interacting with the content.

One example of this is his Eyes on the Past project, an experimental interface built in a weekend – the quick agile development worth noting – using facial recognition software. Like his Faces project, it is meant to reinforce to users that history is made up of stories about real people. The interface allows users to navigate the collections by scanning the faces and/or eyes of the individuals who are featured in the textual content. As he says in “Seams and Edges”:

By focusing on the stylish minimalism of the search box, we discard opportunities for traversing relationships, for fostering serendipity, for seeing the big picture. By creating experimental interfaces, by playing around with our expectations, we can start to think differently — to develop new metaphors for our online experience that are not framed around technological conquest.

The ability to work with content in these ways enables Sherratt and others to develop news ways of engaging with culture and history. Which brings me around to one of the reasons Sherratt’s work is so interesting to me and, as it turns out, to the folks who showed up at the C-EBLIP journal club.  I think as 21st-century librarians and archivists we should consider more carefully the metaphors and jargon used by purveyors of systems and content providers, and indeed those used by ourselves.  As the title of the article suggests, Sherratt hones in on problems associated with the terms “seamlessness” and/or “seamless discovery” – metaphors matter. Pursuing “seamless discovery” in the wake of Google means engaging with questions of politics and power.” So what does it mean, for example, when Ex Libris promotes Primo (their discovery layer) as providing “users with a consistent discovery across devices, quick access to frequent actions, and seamless patron services – all from a single, intuitive web interface.”  More importantly, what are we giving up and what do our users need to know when using a system that promises seamlessness and quick access? As Sherratt suggests, “seams are not simply obstacles to a smooth user experience, they’re reminders that our online services are themselves constructed. There’s nothing natural or inevitable about a list of search results.” Do we consider this every time we perform a search? Do those we help work with these systems? And what role do we play in revealing seams and edges? Or in the development of systems, tools, and approaches that help us become aware of and engage with them?

I’m not sure Sherratt’s work is explicitly a call to action, but for me, his hacker ethos combined with critical approaches to historical research challenge me to consider the standard ways we do our work. The profession would be well served by challenging the status quo more often and by developing our own creative solutions to our own complex problems. By making room for the angry and weird, tinkering with our preconceptions, and developing new metaphors, we have the opportunity to make important changes to the way people interact with the information we help provide and preserve.


This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.

Reframing Instruction: Get Messy

By Tasha Maddison
Librarian, Saskatchewan Polytechnic

As an instructor, I endeavour to incorporate active learning techniques and rely on the constructivist theory for my pedagogy; yet inevitably I find myself devoting the first 5-10 minutes of any class period to live demonstrations. Before class, I spend a significant amount of time carefully developing search strategies. These perfect search strings are then used to illustrate how databases work or the features and benefits of a particular tool.  I am careful to include points from the students’ upcoming class assignment, along with the advanced search techniques that I feel are appropriate for their level.  Developing and trialing these searches provides me an opportunity to prep as I develop knowledge of my subject area and discover how the tools for that discipline work. Yet this seamless, rehearsed demonstration of search tools fails to acknowledge to students that library research is an interactive process, one that involves many stops and starts, and which may result in unsuccessful searches.  Sure, I always throw in a joke about librarians being magicians, but is this enough?

I recently came across a powerful article that has challenged the way that I think about information literacy instruction and, in particular, demonstration vs. the development of critical thinking skills.  The article suggests that instead of performing a perfectly crafted search, librarians should demonstrate the “messy process of research as exploration” which reveals to the student “some of the key dispositions required of novice (and experienced) researchers: resilience, curiosity, and persistence” (p. 4).  This idea is based upon the new ACRL Framework which reinforces the principles of lifelong learning and reiterates that successful information literacy instruction cannot be accomplished in a single transaction with students.  Burgess’ ‘messy research process’ and the Framework tie together well, but what happens when librarians only have one opportunity to work with a class and feel pressured to ‘cover it all’?

Recently, I had an opportunity to test out this process of exploration.  I had a structured lesson plan with a search example in mind, but I let my students decide what we were going to search for and how we were going to conduct the search.  Together we built a search string with multiple concepts and a variety of potential synonyms.  We decided on a database and which limiters we would apply.  The result: success through failure?  We found nothing.  This failure provided me with a great opportunity to discuss the research process, as well as the necessity of tweaking ideas and concepts to ensure that search results are meaningful and relevant.  I even mentioned Burgess’ theory.  One of my students piped up, “nice save”—and indeed it was!  More, it helped me to communicate that everyone—even advanced searchers—need to process information and adjust our methodology to accomplish a successful search.

When discussing the Framework, Burgess (2015) encourages librarians to “evolv[e] instruction from a point-and-click database demo style to an engaged and interactive IL discussion with students. The instructor occupies the role of coach, animator, or advisor leading the discussion, while encouraging students to become active agents in their own learning” (p, 2).  Librarians can integrate the principles of the Framework into their teaching by fostering open dialogue within their classrooms.  We can create safe environments that allow for questions but also nurture peer learning.  One great example that comes to mind is when a student presents a challenging question to the class.  The instructor can respond with, “that is an interesting situation, has anyone else come across that?” and “how did you resolve that issue?”  Rather than inspiring panic in the library instructor, such questions can instead offer rich opportunities for experiential learning experiences!


Burgess, C. (2015). Teaching students, not standards: The new ACRL information literacy framework and threshold crossings for instructors. Partnership: The Canadian Journal of Library and Information Practice and Research, 10(1), 1-6.  doi:10.21083/partnership.v10i1.3440

This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.

Balancing Needs and Resources in Developmental Offerings in an Academic Library

By Jill Crawley-Low
Science Librarian, University of Saskatchewan

The University Library at the University of Saskatchewan is fortunate among academic libraries in having had more than a decade of continual investment in training and development with active support from library leaders. About a decade ago, the Dean of the library recognized that sending people away to workshops did not result in expertise and skills returning to the organization in a sustainable and shareable way. Nor was leaving for external training possible for all employees. It became apparent that a new approach was needed. A variety of offerings delivered in-house and customized for library employees evolved into three different streams. Over time, the organizational culture shifted to one in which engaged employees expected to have access to continuing learning opportunities. Guided by the strategic plan, the library is preparing to review its existing training and development program with the goal of balancing the needs of employees with the resources that are available.

The University Library’s training and development offerings have evolved into three predominantly in-house streams. The first stream includes single-session offerings on a variety of topics. For example, the Learning and Development Committee annually develops a program of single sessions delivered over the course of a year.  Another example is Sustaining Leadership Learning designed to continue leadership learning with one-off sessions that complement the multi-part programs.

The second stream includes multi-part programs with a specific focus delivered over a period of weeks or months. An example is the Library Leadership Development Program, which consists of six components delivered over several months with a focus on leadership for self, team, and organization. The single-session and multi-part programs described above were developed in-house. An example of an externally developed multi-part program is Indigenous Voices, which seeks to share knowledge and experience in Aboriginal education with employees. Indigenous Voices is customized for employees of the University Library. These are just a few examples of the more established training and development opportunities available in the University Library.

The third stream of informal training and development opportunities has recently developed as an unexpected result of a change management initiative with a 3-5 year timeline. Teaching and learning; research support; and collections were identified as priority areas set to position the University Library to respond quickly to changes in the information landscape locally or in the profession. The third stream is evolving because each of the thematic plans includes action items to gather feedback from users and employees and, further, to share those learnings.

For example, the Research Support Plan, which includes activities to position the library as the definitive source of expertise and advocacy for open access on campus. The working group asked library employees for feedback on the usefulness of resources the group is creating on the concept of open access. Currently, the group is sharing knowledge about open access by presenting educational sessions, which all employees are encouraged to attend.

Library employees have become accustomed to easy access to sessions/programs on a variety of topics delivered in-house. The concept of improving oneself and contributing to the goals of the organization is firmly entrenched in the library’s culture. Attendance at training sessions is balanced with maintaining services objectives. Happily, quantitative evidence of the value of this sustained period of access to training and development opportunities appears in employee engagement scores rising from year to year. Anecdotal evidence includes reports from employees who enjoy building relationships at training sessions with colleagues from different work units. Employees who learn together are a tightly knit group, able to show resilience in the face of continual change in the academic sector. Newcomers to the organization take the development opportunities as a given, and expect to be included in the shared leadership/training experience.

With the plethora of training and development opportunities presented in a climate of reduced budgets, it is timely that the University Library is preparing to review its offerings in order to balance programming costs with the obvious developmental benefits. The shift in organizational culture has created ongoing demand for training and developmental opportunities for employees who are engaged in learning about themselves and their colleagues. By placing the review and coordination of programs in the strategic plan, library leaders are acknowledging the importance of training and development for employees and the organization.

This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.

Grey areas in research

by Christine Neilson, Knowledge Synthesis Librarian
Neil John Maclean Health Sciences Library
Centre for Healthcare Innovation
University of Manitoba

Through the course of my day-to-day duties, I came across an interesting article by Adams et al. about searching for “grey information” for the purposes of evidence synthesis in public health. For anyone who is unfamiliar with evidence synthesis, evidence synthesis is much more than a literature review. It involves identifying and tracking down all relevant evidence, evaluating it, extracting data, contacting authors to request additional data that is not included in a published article (where applicable), and using that larger pool of data to answer the question at hand. A thorough evidence synthesis includes grey literature – literature that is published by an entity that’s main business is something other than publishing – in an attempt to reduce bias. There can be some seriously heavy statistical analysis involved, and the entire process is a heck of a pile of work. Adams et al. took the idea of grey literature, extended it to other information that is difficult to get hold of, and provided a critical reflection of three separate projects where they relied heavily on “grey information”. When I read their article, I was struck by two things.

First, Adams and colleagues were interested in public health programs that came out of practice, rather than formal research. As they point out, “Interventions and evaluations that were primarily conducted as part of, or to inform, practice may be particularly unlikely to be described in peer-reviewed publications or even formally documented in reports available to others in electronic or hard copy. Information on these activities may, instead, be stored in more private or informal spaces such as meeting notes, emails, or even just in people’s memories.” To me, this statement applies as much to librarianship as it does to public health. I can’t imagine how many awesome library programs and practices we could learn from, except for the fact that few of us have heard about them.

The second thing that struck me as I read this article was that even though the authors conceded that their work was “verging” on primary research, they considered these projects to be evidence syntheses instead. But evidence synthesis relies on published information. Rather than ask for additional information to clarify the data they collected from a published source, the authors gathered new information by interviewing key informants, so to me, they were conducting primary research: full stop. The authors seemed to know what an evidence synthesis actually entails – not everyone can say the same – so I wonder: the work they did was a legitimate form of research so why would they label it as evidence synthesis? Are the lines between different forms of research really that blurry? Were they trying to avoid going through the REB process? Or were they concerned their work wouldn’t have the status associated with an evidence synthesis and so they named it to their liking?

I think that sometimes we don’t realize that library research has a lot in common with research in other fields. Like the field of public health, there is so much useful information about our practice that is not widely available or findable. I think we also have our go-to research methods, and opinions about what kinds of publications count… and what don’t. The “how we done it good” articles that simply describe a program or activity have gotten a bit of a bad rap in recent memory. I do agree with those who say that we need more rigorous, research-oriented library publications in general. But simply sharing what was done informs us of what is going on in library practice in a discoverable way. Perhaps we should not be so quick to discourage it.


Adams J et al. Searching and synthesising ‘grey literature’ and ‘grey information’ in public health: critical reflections on three case studies. Systematic Reviews. 2016;5(1):164.
Available online at: https://systematicreviewsjournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13643-016-0337-y

This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.

An Uneasy Cult(ure) of Stress in Academic Libraries

by Lise Doucette
Assistant Librarian, University of Western Ontario

Academic librarians’ stress levels are not unusual when compared to other types of workers employed in social services, healthcare, and information settings (Shupe et al., 2015) – but that doesn’t mean we should accept this status quo.  Shupe and her colleagues found that academic librarians’ stress is often due to ambiguity and overload in our roles.  How do these factors also affect our research practices and research productivity?

Hoffmann et al. (2014) performed a content analysis of 42 papers on research productivity, and found that one of the most prevalent factors was “time.”  In discussions at my university, librarians and archivists also identified “lack of time” as a barrier to research productivity.  I’ve heard myself and colleagues talk about cancelling pre-planned research time for professional practice work, to deal with never-ending emails, and to get started on new work we’ve volunteered for.

There are many ideas in popular science and psychology literature about solving these problems of uncertainty and overload.  At the root of some solutions is managing the uncertainty, and at the root of other solutions is accepting that uncertainty.

  • Time management systems and project management software abound, promising to make you productive and happy. The title of a recent blog post – The Perfect System – made my heart leap.  Finally!  The true solution!  Alas, the actual post pokes fun at my (and others’) quest for this ultimate system, and the uncertainty and fear that drives us to seek it out.  The answer, says the author, is acknowledging, becoming comfortable with, and even embracing the discomfort of uncertainty, while pushing yourself to do hard and important work.
  • Many time management systems are based on negative descriptions of time, like scarcity of time and time famine. There are also interesting physical descriptions of time – visualising time or talking about the volume of busyness or work, as if it’s a heavy, physical burden.  Other approaches to managing time and work use more expansive words like acceptance and mindfulness, and suggest building slack or a buffer in your schedule (see blog posts Why I’m Eliminating the Word ‘Busy’ From My Vocabulary or Why You Can’t Stop Being Busy Even If You Want To).
  • One approach recommended by Cal Newport, professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University and author of Deep Work, is blocking time for doing important thinking work (like research and writing) and developing the ability to concentrate without distraction. His book and blog talk about ways to achieve this.  A similar approach is identified in the book Essentialism by Greg McKeown – identifying the things that are essential and where you can contribute the most, and eliminating the rest (i.e., doing fewer things but doing them better).

We have the right and the responsibility to be deliberate and selective about our work, within the bounds of how workload is set at our institutions.  When reading Ryan and Koufogiannakis’ (2007) viewpoint ‘Librarianship and the Culture of Busy,’ I laughed out loud when I came to their tongue-in-cheek use of the term ‘busy excellence.’  They and others also identify the problems with busyness as a performance – whether to supervisors, colleagues, or oneself.  If we associate busyness and stress with productivity and recognition, we neglect to address the real physical and mental impacts of stress on individuals and groups, and we neglect to make and take time for the important and time-consuming (but not always urgent) parts of our roles, like research.

Books and articles:

Hoffmann, Kristin, Selinda Adelle Berg, and Denise Koufogiannakis.  (2014). Examining success: identifying factors that contribute to research productivity across librarianship and other disciplines.  Library and Information Research, 38(119), 13-28.  http://www.lirgjournal.org.uk/lir/ojs/index.php/lir/article/view/639

McKeown, Greg.  Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less.  New York: Crown Business, 2014.

Newport, Cal.  Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.  New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2016.

Ryan, Pam, and Denise Koufogiannakis.  (2007.) Librarianship and the Culture of Busy. Partnership, 2(1).  https://journal.lib.uoguelph.ca/index.php/perj/article/view/149/371#.WSxz_mgrKUk

Shupe, Ellen I., Stephanie K. Wambaugh, and Reed J. Bramble.  (2015). Role-related Stress Experienced by Academic Librarians.  The Journal of Academic Librarianship 41, 264-269.  doi.org/10.1016/j.acalib.2015.03.016

This article gives the views of the author and not necessarily the views the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.

In The End, It All Starts With Really Good Questions!

by Angie Gerrard, Student Learning Services, University of Saskatchewan

While attending an experiential learning showcase on my campus a few weeks ago, I was struck by a common theme mentioned by several faculty presenters. Faculty who work with students undertaking original research projects noted that a common challenge for students was identifying a research question. A particular faculty member surveyed her students on their experiences with the course research project and students reported that articulating a research question was the most difficult part of the entire research project. An interesting side note is that students reported that analyzing their data was the most valuable part of the process.

The challenge of formulating research questions piqued my interest as a librarian as we are often on the front lines assisting students with the evolution of their topic as the research process unfolds. We often help students navigate the iterative processes of exploring a topic, brainstorming potential avenues of research, asking different questions, undertaking initial searches in the literature, narrowing the scope of a question or alternatively broadening the scope, all the while tweaking the research question and trying to avoid the dreaded ‘maybe I should just switch my topic’.  I often wonder if there is an understanding of the time commitment and perseverance required for these initial, complex processes in the research cycle.  Clearly, students are struggling with this, as shown above; this challenge was echoed in Project Information Literacy’s findings where they asked students what was most difficult about research; 84% reported that getting started was the most challenging (Project Information Literacy, n.d.).

We know that students struggle with these initial stages of the research process, so what can librarians and faculty do to help students get past the hurdle of formulating good research questions? Here are a few suggestions.

Be explicit about the process. Research is iterative, messy, and time-consuming and often students who are new to academic research may arrive with a more linear mental model of the research process. To illustrate that research is a process, it is powerful to show students how to take broad course-related research topics, break them down into potential research questions, discuss how the questions evolve once one gets a taste of the literature and how further refinement of the question takes place as the process continues. By being explicit about the process, students have a better understanding that the broad topic they start with often evolves into something much more meaningful, unexpected, or interesting.

Encourage curiosity in the research process. At the campus event I alluded to, when I asked faculty how they dealt with students’ struggles with identifying research questions, they all reported the importance of students picking something that interests them, something they are curious about.  Anne-Marie Deitering and Hannah Gascho Rempel (2017), librarians at Oregon State University, recognized the overwhelming lack of curiosity expressed by students in their study, when these students were asked to reflect on their own research process. In response, the authors recommend “that as instruction librarians we needed to enter the process earlier, at the topic selection stage, and that we needed to think more intentionally about how to create an environment that encourages curiosity” (pg 3). In their awesome paper, the authors discuss different strategies they used with first-year students to encourage curiosity-driven research.

Start with a juicy source or artifact! Chat with faculty and ask them to recommend a subject-specific editorial, news article, blog posting, etc. that is controversial and/or thought provoking.  These sources can be old or new; the point is that students start with intriguing sources, not a pre-determined list of research topics. Students examine the sources then begin to develop various lines of inquiry, which evolve into research questions.

Use the Question Formulation Technique (QFT). Although this technique was developed for the K-12 environment, the approach can be adapted to higher education and beyond.  The QFT has six steps, as summarized in the Harvard Education Letter:

  • Step 1: Teachers Design a Question Focus. This question focus is a prompt in any form (visual, print, oral) that is meant to pique students’ interests and stimulate various questions.
  • Step 2: Students Produce Questions. Students note questions following a set of four rules: ask as many questions as you can; do not stop to discuss, judge, or answer any of the questions; write down every question exactly as it was stated; and change any statements into questions.
  • Step 3: Students Improve Their Questions. Students identify their questions are either open- or closed-ended and flip the questions into the alternative form.
  • Step 4: Students Prioritize Their Questions. With the assistance of the teacher, students sort and identify their top questions. Students move from divergent thinking (brainstorming) to convergent thinking (categorizing and prioritizing).
  • Step 5: Students and Teachers Decide on Next Steps. This stage is context specific where students and teachers discuss how they are going to use the identified questions.
  • Step 6: Students Reflect on What They Have Learned. This final step allows for students to develop their metacognitive / reflective thinking (Rothstein & Santana, 2011).

Rothstein and Santana (2011) note that “(w)hen students know how to ask their own questions, they take greater ownership of their learning, deepen comprehension, and make new connections and discoveries on their own. However, this skill is rarely, if ever, deliberately taught to students from kindergarten through high school. Typically, questions are seen as the province of teachers, who spend years figuring out how to craft questions and fine-tune them to stimulate students’ curiosity or engage them more effectively. We have found that teaching students to ask their own questions can accomplish these same goals while teaching a critical lifelong skill” (para. 3).

We know that formulating research questions can be a challenge for students. Being honest, explicit and transparent about this process may help students in tackling this challenge. I think we could all agree that encouraging curiosity in research and asking meaningful questions is not something that is confined to academia but rather are characteristics seen in lifelong learners.

In the end, it all starts with really good questions!


Deitering, A.-M., & Rempel, H. G. (2017, February 22). Sparking curiosity – librarians’ role in encouraging exploration. In the Library with the Lead Pipe. Retrieved from http://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2017/sparking-curiosity/

Project Information Literacy. (n.d.). Project Information Literacy: A national study about college students’ research habits [Infographic].  Retrieved from http://www.projectinfolit.org/uploads/2/7/5/4/27541717/pilresearchiglarge.png

Rothstein, D., & Santana, L. (2011). Teaching students to ask their own questions. Harvard Education Letter, 27(5). Retrieved from http://hepg.org/hel-home/issues/27_5/helarticle/teaching-students-to-ask-their-own-questions_507#home

This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.

Breaking Though the Bubble

By Frank Winter, Librarian Emeritus
University of Saskatchewan Library

A couple of years ago I attended a talk by the renowned Australian scientist Tim Flannery concerning various issues related to climate change. One of the panelists, frustrated by the narrow focus of remarks by the other panelists, urged the audience not to limit their thinking to Vancouver (the city). He exhorted us to “break through the bubble” and think about Vancouver (the region). His phrase stuck with me and I thought about what sort of bubbles I might unreflectively inhabit. By extension, is there a bubble entitled “the University Library” that Canadian university librarians inhabit? How might they try to break through it as they engage with the challenges and opportunities that face them today?

Can we start by acknowledging that Canadian university librarians in continuing positions in publicly funded institutions have terms and conditions of work that are good by any comparative or absolute standard? Gaining job security through tenure or some other continuing status is demonstrably achievable. Individual librarians at publicly funded Canadian universities exercise a good deal of control over how their work assignments are carried out without overly intrusive management oversight. There are always individual or group cases where the situation is perhaps not quite so rosy for whatever reasons but these are exceptions.

Does this relatively comfortable status encourage complacency and a professional culture that focuses largely on how we perceive ourselves and our work and from that standpoint, how our work can assist others in their work? In Lorcan Dempsey’s phrase, this is an inside-out perspective.[1]

What are some of the conceptual bubbles that we ought to be aware of?

One bubble is not acknowledging that success in our work depends heavily on campus services provided from outside of the library. University libraries have really good infrastructure support from the central campus services in areas such as information technology and networking, physical plant, human resources, finance and other functions that public libraries, for example, typically have to manage for themselves. Without superior on- and off-campus networks, for example, university libraries would be stymied in their ability to deliver information services. Without a good caretaking staff, the heavily used public areas of libraries soon turn into unpleasant pigsties. These support services cost money and a good library manager must be vigilant that these central services receive appropriate budgetary support.

Another bubble is the presumption that the local collection is the most important service that the library provides to the university community. The implications of the concept of a collective collection for a mindset that privileges the primacy of the local print collection are significant. There may be specific areas of activity within a library in which the local collection is the most important service provided to a user community but there are others in which it might not be. Although the trend seems clear, internalizing and then communicating the consequences of this change to users and to senior university managers is difficult. Different approaches will be needed for different communities of campus users.

Many new roles are suggested for university librarians and libraries from a service provider perspective. The recent External Review of the University of Saskatchewan Library contained a typical list of current candidates: “digital humanities, scholarly communication, copyright, research data management, data visualization, and other areas of current and emerging priorities in academic libraries.”[2] They could easily have mentioned research information management services as well.

Deciding which of these services, or parts of these services, the campus community is interested in receiving from the library is challenging. Successfully engaging in any of these services will require breaking through the bubble of treating “the University Library” as an undifferentiated whole and instead viewing it as a disaggregated set of different units working with different user communities on and off campus in different ways. Each of these services involves interacting with experts from outside the library. Negotiating a mutual understanding of how these different expertises can be meshed to achieve a common goal requires that librarians be able to reify their skillsets and mindsets in a manner that can be communicated to other experts so that they can understand what value librarians bring to the table. Conversely, librarians in these multi-disciplinary activities have to be able to understand and work with the often very different skillsets and mindsets of other professionals.

Competitors abound but the bubbles university librarians inhabit may make it difficult to perceive let alone respond effectively to these competitors. Roger Schonfeld has posted some interesting observations on the evolving strategies of commercial content providers such as Elsevier.[3] The motives of the users of the pirate site Sci-Hub have been the subject of innumerable articles and comments while Google Scholar continues its prominence in the activities of people seeking scholarly information. DeDe Dawson’s recent BrainWork post addresses the topic of information privilege from the perspective of Open Access and how undergraduates will be able to access scholarly information once they leave the university.[4] David Worlock’s blog is a good place for tracking developments in the information industry that has developed to serve users in for-profit sectors.[5] He discusses many services that never appear on the radar of university librarians. For me, the bubble here is workflow. Sci-Hub and Google Scholar mesh with users’ workflows while Elsevier, in particular, seems singularly focused on building complete ecosystems for researchers to manage their research workflow. Although most university librarians know the importance of understanding their users’ evolving workflow patterns, the options available to them, and the services they actually use, it remains very challenging to alter our existing models of service delivery.

There are issues of finding the appropriate scale to work at. There is also a non-trivial element of risk. Besides the risks involved in financial and human resource reallocation in breaking through the bubbles described above, there is also the risk of mismatches between the goals of library leaders and the expectations of senior university administrators and between the library and the varied user communities on campus.[6]

Concerns about individual workload abound, as documented in numerous studies.[7] There is, however, an evolving toolkit of organizational and personal responses to resolving workload concerns.[8] In the context of workload, the basic requirement to account for our time remains relevant. Bottom line: librarians are at the university to do work that the university needs to have done. If there were not work that needed to be done, or if that work disappears, there will be fewer jobs for librarians.[9] It is quite possible, at any particular institution and for local reasons, that the institution may not be receptive or interested in what librarians can contribute to the institution’s evolving priorities and activities. In such cases, it is perfectly logical that some resources formerly allocated to the library may be directed elsewhere on campus to higher priority activities and/ or to groups perceived to be better able to deliver the required service.

Communication is key to understanding and breaking through the bubbles we inhabit. Think about how many different people you interact with physically or virtually over the course of a typical day or week or month. If they are always the same few folks and especially if they are library folks, then you are not getting out enough. Librarianship is a contact sport.

[1] Dempsey, Lorcan. (2016). Library collections in the life of the user: two directions. LIBER Quarterly. 26(4),  pp.338–359. DOI: http://doi.org/10.18352/lq.10170 retrieved on May 15, 2017.

[2] University of Saskatchewan.  (2016). University Library:  External Review Report. (2016). Prepared by:  Gerald Beasley Joyce Garnett Elliott Shore, March 10, 2016, https://www.usask.ca/ipa/documents/Reviews%20-%20University%20of%20Saskatchewan%20Library%20External%20Review%20Report%202016-03-10.pdf retrieved on May 15, 2017.

[3] Schonfeld, Roger C. (2017). The strategic investments of content providers. Ithaka S+R [blog]. http://www.sr.ithaka.org/blog/the-strategic-investments-of-content-providers/retrieved on May 15, 2017.

[4] Dawson, DeDe. (2017). Information privilege and the undergraduate student. Brain-Work [blog]. https://words.usask.ca/ceblipblog/2017/05/02/info-privilege-undergrad/ retrieved on May 15, 2017.

[5] See http://www.davidworlock.com/category/blog/.

[6] Schonfeld, Roger C. (2017). The strategic direction of research library leaders: Findings from the latest Ithaka S+R survey. Scholarly Kitchen [blog]. https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2017/04/04/the-strategic-direction-of-research-library-leaders-findings-from-the-latest-ithaka-sr-survey/ retrieved on May 15, 2017.

[7] Delong, Kathleen, Sorensen, Marianne, Williamson, Vicki. (May 2015) 8Rs Redux: CARL Libraries Human Resources Study. Ottawa: Canadian Association of Research Libraries. http://www.ls.ualberta.ca/8rs/8rs-redux-final-report-2015.pdf retrieved on May 15, 2017; Fox, David. (2007). Finding time for scholarship: a survey of Canadian research university librarians. portal: Libraries and the Academy, 7(4), pp. 451-462, http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/portal_libraries_and_the_academy/v007/7.4fox.pdf retrieved onMay 17, 2017.

[8] See, for example, University of Saskatchewan Faculty Association. Fact Sheet: Assignment of Duties, http://www.usaskfaculty.ca/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Assignment-of-Duties-Fact-Sheet.pdf. The Library has its own detailed guidelines on the assignment of duties. See also, for example, Workload Policy – University of Toronto Library. (2012), https://www.utfa.org/sites/default/files/LibrarianWorkloadPolicyFinal2016.pdf retrieved on May 15, 2017.

[9] Winter, Frank. (2014). Traditionalists, Progressives and the Gone-Away World. Brain-Work [blog]. http://words.usask.ca/ceblipblog/2014/10/14/traditionalistsprogressives-and-the-gone-away-world/ retrieved on May 15, 2017.

This article gives the views of the author and not necessarily the views the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.

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