Monday, 22 September 2014

Low-Tech Information Literacy Training Sessions

I'm lucky to work in an institution that receive quite a diverse public. Actually, a lot of my students follow their courses part-time and have been working for several years.
With them, a problem I encounter quite often, is a weak computer literacy, which keeps them from using many of our resources. And since I don't have the possibility to up their level directly, I have to get creative...
Here are the methods and the tricks I use to take their needs into account during my training sessions, in seven points.

- Know who you're talking to. I systematically send a questionnaire the week before the training session, so as to ascertain the level of the students. I don't ask them what they know how to do (do you know ho to...? > yes / no / I'm not sure) but how confident they are regarding different tools (how do you feel about...? > very confident / confident / not really confident / what is that?).

- Create level groups. If possible, dividing the students in level groups is so much better!
I either ask them to sort themselves in different groups on their own (it does work quite well) or I divide them myself, based on their answers to my questionnaire.
Hence, I get to isolate the weakest students and I can spend some time, at the beginning of the session, to check that they do know how to use Firefox (yes, indeed...) and how to find the library's website before doing anything else.
With the other groups, I'm going to be able to go faster and see more things.

- Learning without the stress of the tool. The important bit that I'm trying to pass onto my students, is not how to use a particular tool (it's part of it, but it's definitely not the first point on my list), but the method behind it. This is where the transferable skills lay, that will enable them to use, not only this particular database, but all similar databases (for example).

So, if we're getting away from a particular tool to go towards the abstract concepts behind it, we can get away from the computers to play with more physical materials, like graphics, "hands on" activities or other pedagogical tools.
And that's really good when you're talking to people who get extremely stressed out when using computers. It enables us to talk calmly of a particular concept, to make sure that they understand the basics before going back to the computer to apply it.
Other use: to give a class in a room with no computer, where the students won't get a chance to try out the tool immediately. It allows us to make sure that they, at least, got the concepts.
And it works even with the most computer literates, who shouldn't need this crutch to understand how to write a search equation, for example. In my feedback survey, the hands-on activities I propose always are what the students liked best in the session.

So what does it look like? It can be worksheets such as the "Good Search / Bad Search" which I talked about in my post on active pedagogies.
It can also be real little board games created to illustrate a particular concept, group games, puzzles, do-it-yourself activities... I'm working on a number of them and I will present them here once they've been tested on my students.

- Take your time. According to my feedback surveys, even when I put a lot of simple activities in a session, the students tend to think that the lesson was at the right pace. So it's best to go as slowly as possible and let them play with the concepts during pedagogical activities rather than going as fast as possible to try and see as many things as possible in a record time: taking your time is never a bad thing.

- Finally going back to the computer. At one moment or another, you do need to let go of your little papers and go back to the computer screen.

If the group has a weak level and is fairly homogeneous, I'm going to go as slowly as possible and see very little things. The idea is not to overwhelm them, but to make sure that they get confident enough to be able to reproduce the simple steps that I'm going to show them.
I show each step one by one on the main screen and wait until everyone has been able to do the same on their computer before going to the next step, even for the most elementary things such as clicking a button...

If I wasn't able to divide the class in level groups, I ask a colleague to come and help me. She's going to check on the weakest ones and help them while I present more advanced functions to the others.

- Photocopies, photocopies everywhere. What's the use of having course materials online if the students have a hard time accessing them? For the computer literate students, the question is moot. But for the others I'm now systematically going for printed copies.
I always have better feedback when I give out old-fashioned paper handouts. Of course, I put everything online as well and send them an email with the links just after the session.

Other example: when my feedback survey was online, only 25% of the students answered it. Now that I give out printed copies for them to fill in before leaving the class, I have 100% responses!
Okay, it's bad for the trees... But I have yet to find a better alternative.

A last point:
- Training the teachers. I systematically ask the teachers to come to the training session with their students: more often than not, they need it more than them! It's particularly true of those who don't want to give me too much time with their classes: they often don't even know of all the knowledge and tools we can give them. And sometimes, their computer literacy is not very good either...
For those who can't come, I propose to go directly to their office to train them. I will get them all!

Creative Commons LicenseThe above picture is of Phil Gyford

It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic License.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

The London Library

This year, I've been visiting many libraries in London, partly to be able to add those visits to my Chartership portfolio, but mostly because some Cilip branches organise regular visits of very different libraries, allowing me to quench my library-curiosity very easily!
But among all of those that I have visited, the one that made the deepest impression on me has been the London Library. If you've got the occasion, try and go to one of the free tours they organise every Monday, it's really a sight to see!
But let's begin with the beginning...


The London Library was founded by Thomas Carlyle in 1841. He didn’t like the British Library, thinking it was too noisy and unliking having to ask librarians to access books. He decided to create a library that would feel more like a home library, or maybe like a club.

The issue desk in 1935. Photo Credit: Sylvia Lewes


The London Library’s collections count over a million books. None of them are weeded except for duplicates of non popular books. Around 70% of the collections have been entered in the OPAC but the rest still waits to be retrospectively catalogued and (hand-written or typewritten) paper cards still need to be used to search it.
The first librarian devised a classification system specific to the library. It is alphabetically classified by subject titles, which shall be easier for non-librarians to use and encourages serendipity by putting next to each other very different kinds of subjects.

The collections focus on humanities, especially literature, history and art. Collections in French, German, Italian, Spanish and Russian are particularly important.

The book collection includes books dating from the 16th to the 21st century. Approximately 8,000 new titles are added to the collections every year, requiring the Library to find a further half-a-mile of shelving every three years. This, combined to the lack of weeding, explains why the Library has had to expand a lot since its first days, to the point of occupying a whole block of buildings in central London. With the recent addition of the T.S. Eliot house, they estimate to have enough space for the next 25 years. After that, they might have to build extensions above their present buildings.

In its “Times room”, the London Library has collected all editions of The Times since its opening. Its current collection of periodicals exceeds 750 titles and back runs for over 2500 further titles many of which began in the 18th century. The Library also subscribes to over 200 online versions of its journals, augmented with access to JSTOR.

Acquisitions (for periodicals as well as for books) are made upon demand of the Library’s members and to complete gaps in the collections. The Library also receives numerous donations from living or deceased members.

Bookshelves in the oldest building.
Photo Credit: Christopher Simon Sykes


97% of the collections are in open access, which means that the innumerable floors and rooms of archives are freely accessible to members. All shelves are low enough to be accessed without help by most. An interesting particularity comes with the aeration system devised during the construction of the oldest Victorian building: to let the air flow freely, the archives floors are made of wrought iron with big gaps (you can see them on the picture above) which allows to see through the many floors of the building.

Desks and chairs are intersped around the library, but there are also specific study rooms, including a silent one where laptops are not allowed and strict silence must be respected at all times. Free Wi-Fi is provided throughout the library.
Many members use the library as their office, coming in everyday at fixed times and using always the same desk. Apparently, writers particularly enjoy to thus feel less alone in their solitary work.

One of the reading rooms. Photo Credit : Philip Vile
Members living within 20 miles can have on loan up to 10 volumes. If you live further away, you can have 15 volumes. It is possible to borrow a maximum of 40 volumes upon extra payment.
The normal load period is two months. Renewals are possible if the volumes are not requested by another member.

Bags measuring more than an A4 sheet of paper and the depth of a hardback book must be left in lockers provided in the Issue Hall. Clear plastic bags to carry your items are freely available at Reception.


Being completely independent, the London Library relies solely on membership, donations, fundraising and the prudent management of its capital resources. It receives no government or statutory funding.

The library has had a large number of famous members who have played a central role in the intellectual life of the nation (Agatha Christie, Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Arthur Conan Doyle, T.S. Eliot, Winston Churchill, …). For a long time, membership was only accessible to men but it now boasts that membership is open to everyone.

Individual annual membership is £475 pa. It is payable monthly and a 50% rate is accessible to 16 to 24 year-old. Prospective members unable to meet the full annual fee may be eligible for Carlyle Membership, where assistance can cover 30 to 60% of the annual fee.

A reader, in 1935. Photo Credit: Sylvia Lewes

My Opinion

The London Library presents itself like a wonderful study library, focused on its members' comfort (with its silent room, open access, extended loans). Its list of members and presidents is very impressive and the buildings do give off an historical and literary feel.

But as much as I would like to use it as a reader, some of its professional aspects do seem quite unappealing: I’m thinking in particular to the daunting prospect of the extensive retrospective cataloguing that has to be achieved, and to the policy of not weeding anything. If it pursues along this way, the London Library is bound to be confronted to structural issues due to sheer lack of space to welcome its ever growing collections.

All of the pictures in this blogpost come from the London Library website and are protected by copyright. You can find here the historical pictures and here the recent pictures.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Start-of-Term and Library Induction

It's back to school time! I don't know about you but I spent most of the summer preparing how we're going to welcome our new students when they will arrive mid-September. So it's the perfect time to go over the different methods we can use to pass on to our new readers the necessary information for them to use our services at the best of their abilities.

The guided tour still reigns

If you've got the human resources to do so, giving guided tours of the library on enrolment day is really ideal. It combines direct human contact (you talk with them, they can ask questions), and a context less favourable to mid-day naps than the conference in a lecture hall...
In my library, it's unfortunately impossible. First, our space is so small that giving tours wouldn't make much sense. Second, we just don't have enough woman power to deal both with registration and potential tours.
The problem is that tours are extremely time consuming and repetitive (the groups need to be small enough to be able to go around quickly and without too much noise, so you have to do it ten times a day). So it's not always possible to set up for librarians, nor to insert in the students' busy schedules.

The self-guided tour

It's been on my list for years, but I still haven't had the occasion to pull that up. It's great for quite big libraries and allows you to be really creative!
The idea is to give students some material (paper instructions, podcast, tablet app...) that will entice them to go around the library (you can use baits such as hidden chocolates in the stacks... and the visit becomes a treasure hunt!) and teaching them at the same time what they need to know about the premises (using panels, QR codes linking to short videos or audio files...).

I went to one of Phil Bradley's workshops this year and saw him demonstrate the augmented reality app Aurasma. When you capture a trigger image (for example an image set up in a strategic point of your library), it automatically opens a link or a file (a video for example). This would be ideal for this kind of self-guided tour, using tablets loaned by the library or the students' own smartphones (they would just have to download the app).

Class intervention

Another classic of the library induction is for a librarian to come to the lecture hall during enrolment day and give a short talk. The problem is that you usually only have a few minutes and that the students are so overwhelmed with information on that day that you can expect... that they won't remember anything.
Which is why we should try and make something a bit memorable so that, even if they don't remember our opening times or how many volumes they can borrow, they will have a positive vision of the library and its librarians, which will make them more susceptible to come to see us and ask us questions.

The cephalonian induction doesn't need to be presented anymore but I saw a presentation of a colleague who created a twist: instead of handing cards to students with questions on it, she created a big cardboard die for them to roll. They then have to read the question written on the top side. It's really playful and well received, even with adults. The only problem is that you can get the same side several times, so you have to roll the die again. And, if you don't want to spend hours on a geometry problem, you're going to have to limit yourself to six questions.

I personnally would like to play Library Bingo with my students. Two possibilities: you either give them bingo cards with, instead of numbers, logos related to the library. Then you get your presentation going (like this Prezi from Zoe Thomas) and the first one to get all the logos on her card wins.
Or you can ask students to create their own bingo card by writing down, for example, six resources they think they can find in the library. Then you show them your list of resources (starting with the hardest ones...) and the first one to get all of their resources mentioned wins.
In both cases, you explain as you go the significance of the logos / how to access the different resources. The material investment is minimal: you can print bingo cards yourself and you just need a PowerPoint presentation. And the public stays attentive as they want to see if the next item will be on their card. Apparently, it works even better if there's a little prize for the winner...

Online induction

A last possibility would be an online induction. It's a good way to reduce the anxiety of those intimidated at the idea of going to a library (yes, I hear they exist) and especially to reach out to those we wouldn't have the occasion to meet live, because of time constraints, of multiple campus complexities, long-distance learners or students with a disability.
It can be a virtual tour, using pictures or videos associated to different rooms a bit like this virtual visit of Gloucestershire university.
But more than places, we also need to present services. Here again, possibilities are infinite, from a nice prezi to induction videos. It would be great to be able to use different medias so that future readers could get the induction they would be the most comfortable with.
I'm personally working on some induction videos for the students I won't be able to see directly (some groups have a very tight schedule) while creating specific sections on our Moodle especially for them.

And you, how are you going to welcome new students this year?

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Active Learning in Libraries

Just as most librarians, I haven't received any initial training on teaching techniques. Nonetheless, particularly in Higher Education, many of us have to regularly give training sessions to students of various levels. In my case, this is my principal mission within my institution.
I see post-graduate students and people doing CPD, most of them for a one-shot session (though, I'm working to make that change...) during which I have to make sure that, from now on, they will be perfectly autonomous for their literature searches. It's ambitious. And there is really a lot to teach them in a few hours gleaned from the course of a kind tutor.

Self-train thyself on training others

So I'm trying to train myself as much as possible, through "train the trainer" courses or well-chosen readings. In particular, I went to an exciting workshop by Andrew Walsh on creating games to use in libraries. On this occasion, I discovered his book, Active Learning Techniques for Librarians (1), an incredible resource full of activities ideas to use when giving training sessions to students.

Active learning means involving the learner in her learning, giving her a more active role than the one she's usually given in conference-type courses. Now, that active dimension should allow the learner to retain information and skills better.
Since librarians usually give one-shot sessions and that we probably won't see those students ever again in training, it's all the more crucial to make sure that they actually remember what we're trying to teach them!

Moreover, active training allows us to assess the students' understanding during class, giving us the possibility to give them live feedback on their performance. For example, it's going to be much easier to identify people who haven't really understood a point, and to explain it again, differently, so that they can correct their mistakes.
Finally, a normal person being only able to really focus for a very short periods (usually, a few minutes), scattering a session with active learning activities allows for a change of rhythm, a sort of  break, to get back afterwards with more focus.

But what does it look like?

Andrew Walsh and Padma Inala recommend to use their activities all along a session. For example, we'll begin by breaking the ice with something a bit funny, allowing us in a same shot to send a message about what we expect from the group: don't get asleep, don't get scared, you're going to have to talk and draw and other stuff, but it all should be okay... During the session, we carry on with a few activities going over each point of the program. And we finish with a last activity allowing us to check on the knowledge of the students or to make them reflect about their new skills.

So, all of this is all very nice, but in reality, are we just reinventing the wheel, trying to give exercises and assessing learning? For sure, a little. But that can't be too bad, can it?
Above all, aren't we going to play the role of the annoying teacher wanting students to participate at all costs when they'd just like to sleep quietly? Danger is real. Personally, I was mainly scared of looking ridiculous with my kindergarten games.


But I tested for you active learning techniques on a class of eight PhD students last month. And they loved it. I made them laugh with my spoof activity and the feedback forms they filled in were full with positive comments. So, there is hope.
I'm going to keep testing those techniques with other classes and I'll keep you posted.

A few examples

Meanwhile, here are a few examples of activities I liked, from Walsh and Inala's book. I tested some of them and I will try out the others very soon.

"What's your favourite?"
Choose a question (for example, "what's your favourite database?") and put it up on a wall. Beneath, put up several papers corresponding to the different possible answers (one for each database your students can access for example). When the students enter the classroom, before they sit down, ask them to cast their vote by putting a sticky note beneath their answer. It's very visual and it's a good conversation starter.

"Make a Spoof"
Ask students to work on a spoof subject in groups. For example, I asked my PhD students to write down five things that would allow them to do the worst literature search ever...
Quite good as an introduction, so as to get them to start thinking about the topic of the course.

"Good Search, Bad Search"
After having shown students how to do a perfect literature search, give them an example of a "bad search" and have them discuss in pairs:
- How come this is a "bad search"?
- How could they make it better?

"I will do it"
At the end of the session, ask the students to write down what they're going to do in the coming weeks to put into practice what they learned. Have them write down their names and email addresses. Send them a scan of their form the next month, asking them if they actually did what they said they would and if you can help them achieving their goals.

(1) Walsh, Andrew and Inala, Padma (2010) Active Learning Techniques for Librarians: Practical Examples. Chandos, Cambridge. ISBN 9781843345923 

Photo : Brook Ward
This picture is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic License.

I translated this article from my French blog: Pédagogie active en bibliothèque.