What did I do this year? 2016-17 edition

word cloud prominently featuring refdesk, email, prep, chat, teaching, workshops

Every year, I take all of my “Done” tasks in my daily work log, normalize them, and run them through a word cloud visualizer to see what I’ve been spending my time doing. This helps me as I write my annual self-evaluation and generally reflect on how I should spend my time in the coming year. It doesn’t have a lot of nuance, though — things that repeat a lot are bigger, even if they don’t loom large in my head.

This year’s word cloud similar to last year’s in that I spent time on regularly occurring activities, such as staffing the Reference Desk and reference chat, being in meetings, emailing people, and teaching/prepping for teaching.

Things I focused on this year especially

  • researchleave — this was my first year on the tenure track, and I spent about 4 days a month on RL, which is granted to junior faculty members at CUNY. I spent most of that time gathering data for a web preservation survey project, learning new tech skills for use in an NLP project, writing my Internet Connection column, and writing proposals (my PSC-CUNY grant proposal was accepted!).
  • drupal, mockupupdate, usability, and webcommittee — our library website just underwent an interface update 7 months in the making. I chaired the library’s Web Committee, made mock-ups, gathered feedback, designed and moderated usability tests, and implemented UI/UX changes on our Drupal site. I also updated a lot of content and promotional materials on the website, a continuous job.
  • workshops — I’ve come to realize that running workshops is one of my favorite professional activities. Library basics, Python skills, teaching tips — I love it! I ran a handful of workshops this year aimed at students and at faculty, such as my very well-attended “Privacy tips & tools” workshop.
  • socialmedia — it’s extra-big in the cloud because I noted this whenever I made a post, which was more often than before. Several other librarians and I share the Twitter and Facebook accounts; I run our Instagram presence, which I’ve focused on growing. Though spotty over the summer, @johnjaylibrary on Instagram gained 112 new followers, and I created 87 posts over the year. (At first, most of our followers were other libraries. Now they seem to be mostly John Jay students!)
  • oer — I spent a fair amount of time this year reading up on Open Educational Resources, before and after attending OER17 in London.
  • teachingandlearningcenter — I was part of a year-long, very good “Online/digital teaching” seminar at John Jay’s TLC.

Things to do more of next year

In 2017-18, my intention is to use my research leave time better and more productively. I’ve gotten better at time management in the office (see: the rising prominence of “prep” in these annual word clouds), but I need to build up better habits on my own time, too, as I work on my solo projects. This might also point to a need to collaborate more with other scholars/practitioners — I’m at my best and most productive when working on a team.

Looking again at last year’s “What did I do this year?”, I see that I’d intended to carve out more time for reading. I did do some of that during my research leave, but I have to be a lot more intentional about it or I’ll just focus on hands-on activities.

I also plan to spend more time on professional development, such as improving my JavaScript skills and attending/presenting at more conferences. I think I got conference burn-out last year, but now I miss it. Time to jump back in.

To scope or not to scope?

Our library homepage‘s main search area currently looks like this:

Articles, Books, Media, Journals, OneSearch

The tab box has served us well for years, but it’s about time we upgraded to something simpler and easier to use. We plan to give our entire website a nice update over the summer, mostly subtle aesthetic changes, but with a big search box upgrade. We’re currently in a discussion about whether to keep the general idea of tabs (expecting users, mostly students, to know ahead of time whether they’re looking for articles or books) or to present one big OneSearch box (à la Google).

TL;DR: We plan to present the big-box search that students say they love, but include Article/Book/Media scopes as a didactic hint and visual cue. This post looks at how other libraries present scope options, if any.

Our website analytics tell us that students mostly use the scoped options. In the tab box, the 4 highest-use options, in order: database dropdown menu, OneSearch box scoped to articles, OneSearch box scoped to books, and OneSearch box non-scoped. This is strongly influenced by the options that we present to the user.

Do we keep these scopes in our redesign? Students compose most of our users. On the one hand, they’ll probably say they’d prefer a big search box, like Google and Amazon. On the other hand, when they approach the reference desk, they’ll usually say, “I’m looking for a book called…” or “I need to find articles on…” So what do we do?

Step 1: Let’s see what other libraries are doing.

Search UIs within CUNY

Just about every CUNY defaults to the same discovery layer, OneSearch (aka Primo, the web-scale discovery system from Ex Libris), along with offering a handful of databases and other resources that are campus-specific. OneSearch has the same scope options for every CUNY campus.

Define Your Search dropdown

The Newman Library at Baruch College requires the user to select a scope first before they can type in the search box. Some of these options are links (like Databases) rather than ways to scope the search.

Onesearch, Books, Databases, Journals

Hunter College Libraries default to OneSearch, but offers faded tabs for optional scoping. Media (videos, mostly) isn’t a scope they offer.

OneSearch, books, articles, journals, media

The College of Staten Island Library does the same as Hunter, but with vertical tabs.

OneSearch - everything, articles, books, books (print only), ebooks, media

The Schwerin Library at City Tech has a dropdown of scopes, but defaults to a non-scoped OneSearch. Interestingly, there are three options for books: print, ebooks, and both. (Here at John Jay, most students seem to prefer print books, so they’d probably appreciate this option.) Databases are linked outside of the tab box.

OneSearch - Search books, articles, media and more

Brooklyn College Library offers just one search box, for a non-scoped OneSearch search, but provides text links to CUNY+ and databases below.

In fact, all CUNY libraries’ approaches to OneSearch were tabulated and analyzed by Nora Almeida, Helen Georgas, and Alexandra Hamlett (all CUNY librarians) for their “The Cosmography of Discovery: Integration, Student Perceptions, and Information Design” presentation at the ER&L 2017 Conference. (If you/your institution has an ER&L Conference login, you can watch their presentation slides + audio — highly recommended!)

In looking at the above sampling, I also notice that John Jay is an outlier for offering a shortcut list of “popular” databases, rather than directing users to the full list of databases, which can number over 100. This campus is pretty tied to that list of popular databases, and I think it’s a good idea to keep that shortcut. (Even if it might diminish the use of the “non-popular” databases.)

Other interesting search UIs

Outside of CUNY, here are a few of my fave academic library websites:

Articles, Books and media, journals

The University of Illinois—Chicago Library search box is currently the above, but apparently they’ll soon be moving to a “Search Everything” bento-box search UI. (I wonder if it really is “everything”?)

The look of the tab box is very clean and technical, mirroring the look of the UIC site as a whole.

A 2017 Code4Lib article, “Participatory Design Methods for Collaboration and Communication,” by Tara M. Wood and Cate Kompare, goes behind the scenes for the UIC website redesign. It’s a fantastic article.

big search box + research guides, databases, journals, articles, etc

The BYU Library has an unlabeled search box for their discovery system (with an advanced search option subtly indicated), and includes lovely buttons below advertising specific resources and majorly highlighting their libguides.

big search

The library at my alma mater, Brown, just has one big search box in the middle of the screen. It’s actually unusual how prominently that box is placed. They’ve put other options below the fold:

search library resources list

Trying a new tab box

So it seems that most other libraries default to an “everything” search, but offer scope options. That seems like it might be a good solution for us, too, but John Jay students are a unique group. What will work for them?

Here at John Jay, I’m now playing with two mocked-up widget boxes. Here’s the first, strongly inspired by UIC:

Three main tabs: OneSearch, Databases, Journal Titles

Defaults to non-scoped OneSearch, as most other CUNYs seem to do, but gives the option for Articles (and peer-reviewed articles), Books, and Media. This, to me, seems like a natural next step: Presenting the big-box search that students say they love, but prominently displaying scope options as a didactic hint and visual cue. This gives the user a hint as to what OneSearch includes. Will students actually use these scopes? We’ll have to test to find out.

One big issue with the “peer-reviewed” checkbox is that OneSearch can only narrow results down to articles published in peer-reviewed journals, but not necessarily peer-reviewed articles, so reviews and columns will show up in the results. We discussed this in our Web Committee, and this is apparently a problem with pretty much all discovery systems, so… Oh, well, we’ll just live with that? I know many students will appreciate this kind of filter, even if it’s problematic. We can use explanatory hover text.

Another issue: “Articles” is distinct from “newspaper articles” as a scope in OneSearch. To sort-of-solve this, I put more explanatory hover text over Articles. (Technically, you can cobble together multiple after-search facets, which Baruch does, but then when the user changes their keywords and searches again, after-search facets disappear, which we didn’t like at John Jay. So we stick to pre-search scopes, which can’t be combined, but do stick around after a keyword revision.)

This tab box includes Databases as a top-level tab:

Databases tab: dropdown menu, Choose by title or subject, Find by citation

Database-specific searching is still how we teach some classes and how many students and faculty alike prefer to search. The tab includes the Popular Dropdown menu, which also directs users to browsing databases by title/subject (duplicating the links below the dropdown menu).

Another tab box I messed around with, more similar to our current one, and inspired by Baruch:

Articles / books / media / OneSearch, simple box

The dropdown menu opens to:Articles, Books, Media, OneSearch

Here, OneSearch is the default search for every tab, and only Articles has any other option. Inspired by Baruch, I faked parts of the dropdown menu — that is, clicking JSTOR won’t present a JSTOR-only search box, it will just open JSTOR as a link.

In a recent Web Committee meeting with other John Jay librarians, we agreed to pursue the first tab box, but perhaps with refinements. Next week, we’ll do some guerrilla usability testing outside the cafeteria so that we can see whether students find the new tab more or less usable. Stay tuned!

OER17 report-back: Four takeaways

OER17 the politics of openI attended the OER17 Conference in London, April 5–6, 2017, with my colleague Ellen Sexton and with support from the Teaching & Learning Center here at John Jay. Though I’m relatively new to the OER (open educational resources) conversation, issues of open access and open knowledge are dear to my heart.

Here are my 4 biggest takeaways from OER17.

Note: the R in OER typically stands for resources, plural, so much of the literature has phrases like “OER have the benefit of…” But that sounds so wacky to my American ears, so I’m just going to go with OERs (plural) and an OER (singular). Most of the time.

What is open? Is “open” actually open?

In the United States, the discussion of OERs is inseparable from the conversation around the sharply rising costs of college textbooks. OERs, like this textbook from OpenStax, are pitched as one solution to this problem, and (in my experience) that’s the bulk of the conversation around OERs. So at OER17, I was surprised and pleased to hear international perspectives on OERs well beyond college textbooks: the general focus was contributing to and reusing public knowledge and public resources. Many sessions centered on Wikipedia and Wikidata, and MOOCs were even mentioned.

The keynote speaker, Maha Bali, opened the conference with important critical questions regarding “open.” Though the intentions of creating open materials may be good, she said, the result can end up reflecting biases and inequities that already exist. Perhaps the biggest example is the clear Anglo-centrism of existing OERs. We must ask ourselves when creating or using OERs: whose content is privileged? What language is it in? Whose culture is reflected? What is being implicitly taught in the “hidden curriculum” (a new term to me)?

Unless we ask ourselves these questions, we will simply reproduce these biases. “Inclusion must be engineered,” Bali quotes Sherri Spelic’s Digital Pedagogy lab post.

Moreover, open ≠ free (or libre). OERs aren’t free to create. They aren’t free to distribute (e.g., all web domains are rented, not owned; plus, IMO, free services aren’t really free). And regarding living “in the open” online, Bali pointed out that we are not equally vulnerable to trolling, harassment, and surveillance.

Maha Bali’s excellent slides and the recording are online.

Read more

CollectiveAccess importing workflow

This step-by-step workflow illustrates how I import objects (metadata + files) into CollectiveAccess. I’m writing this post partly to give others an idea of how to import content into CollectiveAccess — but mainly it’s for my future self, who will likely have forgotten!

Caveats: Our CollectiveAccess instance is version 1.4, so some steps or options might not be the same for other versions. This is also just a record of what we at John Jay do when migrating/importing collections, so the steps might have to be different at your institution.

Refer to the official CollectiveAccess documentation for much more info: metadata importing and batch-uploading media. These are helpful and quite technical.

CollectiveAccess importing steps

Do all of these steps in a dev environment first to make sure everything is working, then do it for your live site.

  1. Create Excel spreadsheet of metadata to migrate
    • Here’s our example (.xlsx) from when we migrated some digitized photos from an old repo to CA
    • This can be organized however you want, though it may be easiest for each column to be a Dublin Core field. In ours, we have different fields for creators that are individuals vs. organizations.
  2. Create another Excel spreadsheet that will be the “mapping template” aka “importer”
    • Download the starter template (.xlsx) from CA wiki. This whole step is hard to understand, by the way, so set aside some time.
    • Here’s our example (.xlsx), which refers to the metadata spreadsheet above.
    • Every number in the “Source” column refers to the metadata spreadsheet: 1 is column A, 2 is B, …
    • Most of these will be Mapping rules, e.g. if Column A is the title of the object, the rule type would be Mapping, Source would be 1, and CA table element would be ca_objects.preferred_labels
      • Get the table elements from within CA (requires admin account): see Manage → Administration → User interfaces → Your Object Editor [click page icon] → Main Editor [click page icon] → Elements to display on this screen
      • Example row:
        Rule type Source CA table.element Options
        Mapping 9 ca_objects.lcsh {“delimiter”: “||”}
    • Don’t forget to fill out the Settings section below with importer title, etc.
  3. On your local machine, make a folder of the files you want to import
    • Filenames should be the same as identifiers in metadata sheet. This is how CA knows which files to attach to which metadata records
    • Only the primary media representations should be in this folder. Put secondary files (e.g., scan of the back of a photograph) should be in a different folder. These must be added manually, as far as I know.
  4. Upload the folder of items to import to pawtucket/admin/import.
    • Perform chmod 744 to all items inside the folder once you’ve done this, otherwise you’ll get an “unknown media type” error later.
  5. (Metadata import) In CA, go to Import → Data, upload the mapping template, and click the green arrow button. Select the metadata spreadsheet as the data format
    • “Dry run” may actually import (bug in v. 1.4, resolved in later version?). So again, try this in dev first.
    • Select “Debugging output” so if there’s an error, you’ll see what’s wrong
    • This step creates objects that have their metadata all filled out, but no media representations.
    • Imported successfully? Look everything over.
  6. (Connect uploaded media to metadata records) In CA, go to Import → Select the directory from step 5.
    • “Import all media, matching with existing records where possible.”
    • “Create set ____ with imported media.”
    • Put object status as inaccessible, media representation access as accessible — so that you have a chance to look everything over before it’s public. (As far as I know, it’s easy to batch-edit object access, but hard to batch-edit media access)
    • On the next screen, CA will slowly import your items. Guesstimate 1.5 minutes for every item. Don’t navigate away from this screen.
  7. Navigate to the set you just created and spot-check all items.
    • Batch-edit all objects to accessible to public when satisfied
  8. Add secondary representations manually where needed.

You may need to create multiple metadata spreadsheets and mapping templates if you’re importing a complex database. For instance, for trial transcripts that had multiple kinds of relationships with multiple entities, we just did 5 different metadata imports that tacked more metadata onto existing objects, rather than creating one monster metadata import.

You can switch steps 5 and 6 if you want, I believe, though since 5 is easy to look over and 6 takes a long time to do, I prefer my order.

Again, I urge you to try this on your dev instance of CA first (you should totally have a dev/test instance). And let me know if you want to know how to batch-delete items.

Good luck!

GoSoapbox for library class sessions

Snapshot of a poll: "What are you most excited to learn about today?" "How the library can save me money on textbooks, the quiet study area, and other options"
Screenshot of a GoSoapbox poll (results below)

I’ve spent the last year experimenting with incorporating active learning practices into my library “one-shot” sessions (so-called because you have one shot to cover all the library research basics college students will need for the next 4 years) (I am not throwing away my [one] shot). So far, my biggest success has been adapting Heads Up! for the classroom, which starts the class off with high energy and big laughs — plus totally connects to the concept of keywords. But it’s an activity for extroverts, so to balance it out, I went looking for a way to bring the introverts into participatory activities, too.

Classroom “clickers” are a solid way of encouraging participation from those who’d rather not speak up in class. Clickers are simple handheld devices that let students vote anonymously in polls whose results appear in real time on the screen. Big science classes often use them at my institution. Our library has a full set of clickers — but unfortunately, the PowerPoint plugin did not work on my Mac. Even if it had, it would have required a lot of setup.

Welcome! Please open two tabs: library website and gosoapbox.com, with code xxx-xxx-xxx. Use your real name or nickname
The slide on the screen when the class walks in

So I was super happy to find GoSoapbox, a web-based clicker alternative, plus more. It’s ideal for classroom labs, where every student is at their own computer. Free instructor accounts are limited to classes of 30 students or fewer. Instructors can make multiple classes (“events”). These events are saved under the instructor’s account and can be accessed again later.

See my slide to the right, which is on the board when students trickle in before class starts. They must sign in at gosoapbox.com with an access code, e.g., 438-623-406, and enter their name or nickname. (You can log into that event yourself to try out how it works from a student POV.) I also put login info in small text on students’ handouts for latecomers or those who closed their tab accidentally. Edit: there’s an even easier way to get students into the event. See Advanced Features at the bottom of this post.

Things you can do in a library class using GoSoapbox

Followed by actual results from my library one-shots


  • Multiple-choice questions (no multiple-answer selections)
  • Results displayed as bar or pie chart; optionally visible in aggregate to all students
  • Good way to open the session to get a reading of the class and what they expect from you/the library
  • Instructors can email results to themselves


  • Freeform text field visible to everybody in real-time
  • Useful for crowdsourcing keywords on a common research question; they can access this keyword list in class and afterward (put the URL on their handout)
  • My colleague, Marta, uses this as a knowledge checkpoint. For instance, she’ll put up an example research question and ask them what the keywords in the question are. They submit almost identical answers immediately, and she displays the results on the screen
  • Instructors can email results to themselves


  • Results visible individually to students, and in aggregate as an Excel download to instructor (results cannot be viewed in real-time by the instructor though, I think, weirdly)
  • I haven’t used this; I keep one up “locked” (hidden from view) but ready to go in case I miraculously have 10 extra minutes

Confusion barometer

  • Results are visible in real-time on instructor’s dashboard, e.g., 2 of 24 students are confused right now
  • I haven’t had any students actually use this, though

Social Q&A (off by default; turn on in Moderate This Event » Enable/Disable Features)

  • Students can ask and add answers to questions; they can also upvote questions they like
  • I haven’t used this yet

Psst… Save time

You can copy events — that is, you can copy over all the polls and discussion Qs into a new event for a fresh class.

Examples from my classes

Confusion barometer: I am getting it or I am not getting it. Polls: Question 1 and Question 2.
What students see when they log in (I gave my poll questions generic titles, but they don’t have be so bland)

Most students want to know how the library can save them money on textbooks. They also want to know about streaming movies, books to checkout, and a free NYT account
Poll results in response to the question: “What are you most excited to learn about today?” This lets me tailor what I cover, and it gives students a preview of the more exciting aspects of their college library.

59% a few times, 23% often, 18% never
Poll in response to the question, “How often do you use your local public library?” (n=22)

Discussion about a class research question that their prof emailed me ahead of time. This was a prelude to searching databases using a “mix and match” method utilizing compiled keywords. I gave this brilliant class 5 minutes, and their keyword lists were quite long and very good! I was blown away. (They each had their own take on the policy question, but it was still useful to them to think about concepts their classmates brought up.)

Edited August 31, 2016 to add…

Advanced features

Toggling display

Under Moderate This event » Enable and Disable Features, you have the option to turn on and off some things:

Some features are toggled: Barometer, Off. Names required, Off. Discussions, On.

I usually only turn on polls and discussions. I turn off Names Required so students feel freer to participate. And it’s a college class, so I turn off Profanity Filter, too, especially since some students are researching things like sex work policy.

Making access easier

Under Moderate This Event » Change Event Details, you can customize the access code:

Access code: "library love"

…But you can also do away with an access code altogether! The event URL, minus “/#!/dashboard”, gives anyone instant access to your event. So for instance, I could email students this URL:


Or I could post a shortlink on the board, like so:


Bitly lets you customize what comes after the slash, as long as it’s a URL that hasn’t been taken yet. I think this is the easiest way to pop students into your event, without having to fiddle with access codes and so on.

Do you use GoSoapbox? What are some other ways a library one-shot could use polls and discussions?