Oblique Strategies

I recently learned about Oblique Strategies from Tim Harford’s TED talk on “How frustration can make us more creative”

Link to Tim Harford's TED talk "How frustration can make us more creative"

A transcript is available – helpful if (like me) you prefer reading to watching a video.

Oblique Strategies is a deck of cards created by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt in 1975.  On each card is written a challenging constraint, and they are used to help artists (particularly musicians) to break creative blocks by encouraging lateral thinking.  There are a number of sites offering online versions of the card deck, such as this one and this one.

As I explored these sites, refreshing the pages to cycle through the different constraints, it struck me that many would be relevant in the library/university context, such as:

  • The most important thing is the thing most easily forgotten
  • Go to an extreme, move back to a more comfortable place
  • Work at a different speed
  • Faced with a choice, do both
  • Listen to the quiet voice
  • Discover the recipes you are using and abandon them
  • Who would make this really successful?
  • Ask people to work against their better judgement
  • Use an old idea
  • Shut the door and listen from outside

Learn more about Oblique Strategies in this article from The Guardian (2009) and Wikipedia’s Oblique Strategies page.

Scenario planning: the futures of Oxford’s libraries

Earlier this year, I took part in a scenario planning exercise which brought together a group of librarians from a number of Oxford libraries to consider the challenges that the future would bring and how we could best prepare for them.

Brainstorming factors affecting libraries in the future

We began by considering factors that could have an impact on our libraries in the future, and we came up with nearly 150 ideas.  Of this list, these were rated as being the most important and the most uncertain:

Factors affecting Oxford's libraries

“The right – the most robust – responses to these issues will have to take into account a wide variety of uncertainties – dynamics over which Oxford’s libraries have no control.”

Lawrence Wilkinson (facilitator)

These were further distilled to elicit that the two uncertainties that were the most important and the most uncertain – the dimensions in which the alternative futures are most different; and these were:

  • academia and the demand it serves – whose extremes are traditional and integrated vs reorganised, emergent communities
  • technology and content – whose extremes are closed, restricted and commercialised vs open and free

These two fundamental uncertainties are juxtaposed to create four divergent futures (or scenarios) for Oxford’s libraries.

Four alternative futures

The four divergent futures

  • “The Long and Winding Road” – a world with generally free and open access to information, and a familiar, traditional model of academic life.
  • “Magical Mystery Tour” – a world with generally free and open access to information, and academic life taking place in new kinds of communities
  • “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” – a world with generally closed and commercialised access to information, and academic life taking place in new kinds of communities
  • “A Hard Day’s Night” – a world with generally closed and commercialised access to information, and a familiar, traditional model of academic life

Examples of early players in each scenario

  • “The Long and Winding Road” – arXiv.org, MIT
  • “Magical Mystery Tour” – Google, Khan Academy
  • “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” – Kaplan, The Learning Academy
  • “A Hard Day’s Night” – Apple, CourseSmart

We then explored each possible future in more detail, and exploring what we would do if we knew this future were the most likely.

From theoretical actions to strategic steps

As the real future is likely to be a combination of the four scenarios, with a balance between them that changes over time, we considered the overall implications for our future.  We divided our (very long) lists of actions into strategic steps that would (a) work in all scenarios; and (b) be helpful in one future and neutral in another, and (c) be helpful in one future but harmful in another.  These actions covered every aspect of the libraries, including collection/service strategy, funding models, and physical plant (buildings).

The last stage of the process involved only colleagues from the Bodleian Libraries, who met one more time to consider how all of these ideas could contribute to the Bodleian Libraries’ new strategic plan, and translate them into action points for specific teams or departments.

My two cents’

As a college librarian, I was not involved in this last stage, but I was still thinking about how the libraries individually could respond to the challenges and opportunities that had been identified during the course of this work.  The main theme I kept returning to was the idea of a collaborative library strategy.  This is more difficult than it might first seem, because there are about 100 different academic libraries at the University of Oxford (the Bodleian Libraries group, college libraries, departmental/faculty libraries), and these groups are fully independent of each other (as are most of the individual libraries within each group).  Here they are on a map.

As a biologist, I like to think of the libraries as forming an ecosystem with a variety of niches and habitats.  However, without an over-arching plan, we may be competing for the same “market” (e.g. level of study; subject; resource type) and risk overlapping in some areas and missing others.  I’m wondering if it would be possible to define the niche of each library to help its staff and users to know what to expect from it, and to ensure that as a university, we’re providing as broad a range of resources and services as possible.

This could help avoid conflicting priorities about types of study space, by making different spaces available in different places, but accessible to all users.  Some libraries would focus on having lending collections to support taught courses, and others would specialise in research or special collections (thus focusing budgets in particular areas).  This already exists to some extent, but it’s not centrally agreed or managed.

I’ve done this at St Hugh’s College Library by introducing a collection management policy that states that we will:

Purchase/accept/retain primarily what can be identified as:

  1. Useful to an undergraduate/reference library, within the range of subjects taught;
  2. Interesting in terms of College History, Women’s Education and other research areas specifically connected with St Hugh’s;
  3. Contributing significantly to areas where the Library already has major strengths;
  4. Exceptionally rare or valuable.

and that

Duplication should be avoided, unless deemed desirable for study purposes.

This helps to inform my decisions about how to use the budget.  For example, most students’ book suggestions submitted via our online form are for books on reading lists, which matches this policy exactly = green light for purchasing.  However, if a DPhil candidate wants an unusual item for their research, I would direct them to their faculty/departmental library.  As well as focusing my book budget to support taught courses, it also avoids accumulating research materials in a college library which is a private library, rather than at a faculty/departmental library which usually has more generous access arrangements for non-college (not just non-University) members.

Because all of these libraries are independent, there can be no mandate from anyone to any of these libraries to force them to adopt such a strategy, but it may be that some of them opt to do it voluntarily.  Perhaps many of these libraries already have similar policies, but perhaps they are not formalised or publicly available.

Getting information literacy into your organisation’s strategy

From information literacy to informed learning: professional development for a learning organisation

Andrew (Drew) Whitworth, University of Manchester

Drew began his session with an everyday information need: how do we make a decision about where to go on holiday?  We applied the same process to considering how we meaure the effectiveness of an information literacy session.  These strands emerged:

  • Personal/subjective:  feeling
  • Generic/objective: grades, quality/number of citations, whole class/individual, ask the academics, use of a control group?
  • Collective/shared: subsequent interaction with librarians, group reflection among staff on what worked and why

Drew’s perspective is that he is not a librarian, and sees increasing collaboration with academics as a sign of success of such programmes.  Anything relating to promotion or tenure will get the academics’ attention!

Cervero & Wilson (1994) and others investigated how interested parties share decision-making in educational institutions.  What happens around ‘planning tables’?  Where do these tables reside and who can direct the negotiations?  ‘Planning table’ is a metaphor for how decisions are made – could be a formal meeting, informal discussion at work or after work, casual conversation…

Rarely are decisions made for ‘rational’ reasons.  Not analytical e.g. cost benefit analysis, or pedagogically effective.  Rather, we decide on the basis of what feels good, but this doesn’t make a good basis for a funding proposal!

Successes may not be ‘seen’ by other stakeholders of the university if their criteria of success are different from ours.  See also Drew’s paper, Invisible Success (2012).

Could this be an active application of the GCSE English task about writing for a specific audience and purpose?

In his essay Homo academicus, Bourdieu carries out a sociological study of universities (here is a commentary).  If information literacy advocates lack capital within the organisation, how can this be built up?

Drew asked whose institutions mentioned information literacy within their strategies.  Was this the result of the actions of an individual agitator?  Not many raised their hands, but such agitation only needs one person!

We can either develop ourselves professionally, or it will be done to us.

Need understanding of information literacy as:

  • Collective practice and shared responsibility- us, students, academics, management
  • A pedagogy
  • A political activity
  • An instrumental artefact [that is, something which helps the organisation to meet its goals such as good PISA scores]

Who is setting the criteria of success?

Round-up of Bodleian Libraries Digital Know-How Day #BODdkh1

Here’s my summary of 3 talks given as part of the first Bodleian Libraries’ Digital Know-How Day last week.

Alison Prince – Social media strategy

  • Impact assessment is a process aimed at guiding the development of projects… Knowing why you are doing it!
  • “You can’t manage what you can’t measure”
  • If you don’t know why you’re doing something, there’s a strong chance it might not be useful/important & chances of success lower
  • Balanced value model: 5 modes of cultural value for digital resources
  • Goal setting > performance measurement > performance diagnosis > corrective action > and back to the beginning
  • Performance management is ongoing – can’t just launch something and walk away
  • Communicate and report your analysis to make it known to a wider audience – senior and local teams. Share wisdom & insight
  • What do people in the business world use online analytics for? Econsultancy report
  • 4 key points: knowing why, can’t manage what you can’t measure, demonstrate value (showing better than saying), communicate wisdom

See also: Social media strategy

Eric T. Meyer – Impact as a process: considering the reach of resources from the start

  • “Users” is a bad word – implies passivity.  Don’t think of users as passive recipients of your content/activity
  • Don’t give your resource a cute name that is not sufficiently individual – will make it impossible to find in web search e.g. CATS
  • Use a survey running from your home domain URL if possible – not generic ones like SurveyMonkey- increases legitimacy
  • Users of digitised collections often cite references as if they had consulted the original print media.  They are aware from an early stage in their careers that there is prejudice against a bibliography that looks like they did all research from their laptop, even though content of digital and original archives is the same!
  • See Eric’s report: Collaborative yet independent: information practices in the physical sciences.  Most humanities scholars surveyed used Google (79%) or Google Scholar (66%) to find new info.  Many also use libraries, journals and peers.  Many good library services are almost invisible to users e.g. subscription resources
  • What is the value of value? Deeper impact on smaller community or broader, shallower reach? Which will appeal to donors/sponsors?

Johannes Neuer – Measuring and optimising social media at New York Public Library (NYPL).  This session was delivered using Skype!

  • Where do you want to go with social?  Start with SMART targets
  • Focus on outcomes: difficult to measure impact of social media on physical visits and readership, but easier to see impact of social media on website visits, brand mentions and downloads
  • Tools for collecting social data include HootSuite – columns for keyword searches, @ mentions, sent and scheduled tweets
  • TwitterCounter for competitive analysis
  • CrowdBooster to visualise retweets.  Offers data in a sortable table
  • TweetStats  and SocialFlow
  • Facebook Insights – data at page and post levels
  • Meltwater Buzz – mentions and spread
  • AddThis  – viral content
  • Google Analytics – use custom reports to unleash its full potential
  • Productivity – Excel, Evernote and Reminders
  • NYPL’s marketing dashboard: published monthly; focus on newsletters, Facebook and Twitter; six month overview
  • Optimising email with social media: at NYPL they tested blog content on social media to see which were most popular/engaging and used these results to decide which blog content to include in their email newsletter
  • Preparing a campaign for tracking: custom variables and events (track with GA); measure referrals
  • “The NYPL is pleased to provide you with wireless Internet access” – good to remind users of services provided by the library
  • “Protect your roots, support your branches” campaign to fight cuts at NYPL
  • All social media contributors at NYPL have to do a course in the use of social media. Thereafter, their updates do not need to be approved (but are still monitored)

Many thanks to Alison Prince for getting this event organised and hopefully there will be many more Digital Know-How Days in future!

Websites and weeding: I’m glad it’s not just me…

Take heart: you’re not the only one trying to make progress and feeling like you’re not getting anywhere fast.

I’ve just seen the following two blog posts that comforted me.

(1) Paul on overcoming library website despair

It ought to be easy for a group of “”information professionals” to keep a small-ish set of web pages up to date and intelligible, but it’s never really been something we’ve been able to do a good job of.

Deep breath; say it with me: “our library website sucks, and it’s our fault”.

Good web design looks simple, but it’s no simple task.  And it can be hard to convince senior colleagues with little experience of web design that (a) it requires time, (b) it often requires money and (c) technical expertise in usability and accessibility (rather than Prof X wants you to do it like this…) matters.  And just because a website was last overhauled in 2007 does not mean it is necessarily still fit for purpose – maintaining a web site is a bit like painting the Forth Bridge.

(2) My library hero Jenica on weeding

The question I find far more interesting than “should we keep it or should we discard it”, though, is how to compellingly present my argument about our collections, the idea that relevance and utility to today’s curriculum as demonstrated by active teaching strategies and student assignments is more important than the “classic” status of an unused work, to our faculty.

My library is one of nearly 100 libraries at the University of Oxford, and my aim is to ensure that we target our modest financial and space resources into providing a circulating collection of items on reading lists.  The faculty and departmental libraries are the place to go for more obscure, less well-used and research-related items, and yet I still have a tough time trying to reassure academics that if we weed the item from St Hugh’s College Library, the students will still be able to access it at the Bodleian.

I love the comment on Jenica’s post by Jason

In the case of weeding, our Dean said, very politely, to the faculty: “These books are not being used, and have not been used in 20 years. There are two possibilities… either students can’t find the things they need (in which case weeding makes good content more findable) OR teaching faculty aren’t teaching to a curriculum that includes the books you want to keep. We are dealing with the half of that equation we control.”


Keep fighting the good fight, y’all.

The Pyramid of Purpose

In an article I read recently, I learned about this tool for articulating your organisation’s strategy:

Pyramid of Purpose

 I liked how the process of constructing the pyramid led you through these key questions:

Question 1 – “why” – refers to your organization’s values, mission, and vision.
Question 2 – “what” – covers objectives and goals.
Question 3 – “how” – refers the actions needed to realize these goals.
Question 4 – “who” – refers to the people, systems and tools which deliver these.

I will definitely refer to this the next time I have to do a piece of work about library strategy.  You can read the complete article at Mindtools.com.

Knowledge management

Here is a summary of a recent Mind Tools article about knowledge management that I found interesting.

What is knowledge?

Data is a specific fact or figure, without any context; information is data that’s organized; knowledge builds on the information to give us context (remember this from library school?).

There are two different types of knowledge, explicit and tacit:

Explicit knowledge includes things that you can easily pass on to someone else by teaching it or writing it into a record. This kind of knowledge can be captured in a staff handbook or workflow.
Tacit knowledge is less concrete. It may relate to the best way to approach a certain person for their help or co-operation, or how to unjam the photocopier. This type of knowledge is usually acquired by experience.

Why is knowledge management important?

Sharing information within a team or department means that when a person is away on holiday or off sick, or moves to a new job, their knowledge persists in the organisation.
As well as time and cost savings, an environment which fosters the sharing of ideas can help increase innovation, build trust and improve relationships.

Implementing knowledge management

There are two different ways of managing knowledge: using technology-based systems, or using softer systems.
Examples of technology-based systems include a co-authored staff handbook or wiki. It is easy to access this information, but it takes effort to keep it up-to-date. Good for capturing explicit knowledge.
Examples of softer systems are shadowing or mentoring. Better for sharing tacit knowledge.
A successful knowledge management strategy should try to use both approaches.

Tips for implementing knowledge management systems

  • Identify tacit knowledge, then brainstorm ways of sharing it
  • Start with a small team to avoid information overload
  • Some people may feel uncomfortable about sharing their hard-won knowledge, so make knowledge exchange part of the organisational culture and find ways to reward people for sharing it freely
  • Make the processes of capture or sharing easy. Easier participation makes for increased involvement and success

Social media strategy

Following on from the success of 23 Things Oxford, a small group of us decided to run an short follow-up programme called 23 Things Summer Camp.  Summer Camp consisted of three sessions:

  1. Strategy
  2. Setup
  3. Synchronisation

Ox23 badge - Setup

All sessions are running twice this summer, in July and August.  The aim of Summer Camp is to act as a catalyst for library staff to build on what they learned in 23 Things by developing a social media presence for their libraries in time for the start of next term in October.

I co-ran the Strategy sessions with my colleague Alison Prince, and this post will be a summary of what we covered.

Ox23 badge - Synchronisation

The other two Summer Camp themes were Setup and Synchronisation.

The setup session was there to help people get started with their social media tools, and the Synchronisation slot showed people how to syndicate content and have, for example, a Twitter account feeding a Facebook page account, or display Flickr pictures on a blog sidebar.

Social media strategy

Whichever tools you use, start off with the following questions: who is your audience?  What will your content be? How will the tool be maintained? When will it be updated? Where will you focus your presence [which tools/sites will you use]? And why will you be doing it at all?

Ox23 badge - StrategyWhen considering how to approach a social media presence for your library, it is important to start by considering your strategy.  Many organisations are starting to use social media as a way of engaging and communicating with their users.  The key benefit of social media is communication: it gives an informal way of interacting with your users and allows both parties to contribute.  Some people worry that this will open the doors to a flood of complaints or otherwise unwelcome comments, but in fact it gives you a wonderful chance to reply to their concerns: they may be misconceptions which you can correct, or they might give you ideas for developing and improving your service.  You could also consider how using social media can help you support the strategic aims of your organisation.

Having considered why you are looking to begin this social media journey, let’s move on to considering the Who, What and Where: audience, content and tools.

Who – audience

Depending on your library, your audience may be large or small, homogenous or varied.  Your audience may consist of undergraduates, postgraduates, academic staff, alumni, library staff, external visitors, the media, tourists and a range of random other people.  These segments of your audience may be seeking different information from you.

What – content

In terms of content, here are some ideas for what you would like to publish:

  • Library location, opening times, lending rules, library guides
  • New titles acquired by the library
  • Events in the library
  • Changes to opening hours
  • Reminders e.g. return books before end of term
  • Changes to staffing or procedures
  • Advertising other events in your organization e.g. lectures, training, other news stories
  • Building/maintenance work, or other disruption to normal services
  • User education – include snippets of advice on info issues
  • Emergencies e.g. many libraries could not open as usual earlier this year because of snow- or ash cloud-related disruption.  These updates made it onto Twitter and Facebook much faster than onto official library webpages

You could run a series of posts e.g. tip of the week, staff book recommendations.  It helps to plan your content ahead of time so that even if it’s a slow week on the news front, you still have something to post about.

Where – tools

There are many social media tools available.  Some of the most well-known are Facebook, Twitter, blogging (e.g. Blogger, WordPress), Flickr, LibraryThing, social bookmarking (e.g. Delicious).

Next, you need to decide which social media sites work well for the content and audiences you have identified for your library.  For example, interactions on Facebook tend to be mutual, and are more intimate than those on Twitter.  For a college library like mine, where there is a strong sense of community, Facebook is likely to work well.  However, because Twitter is a more open community, it works well for reaching external users.  Regarding content, if you want to involve pictures in your strategy, Flickr will be much more useful to you than LibraryThing. But if you have a lot of links to share, a social bookmarking tool such as Delicious might be perfect for you.

Marketing and segmentation

Consider the outcome of these points above: hopefully you should now be able to identify which tools you will focus on, what content you will publish on them and which audiences you will be trying to attract.  You can also build this in to your library’s marketing materials by including ‘Find us on Facebook’, ‘Follow us on Twitter’ or similar signposting.  You could deliberately segment your approach by marketing one of your social media tools to your postgraduate audience and another to your undergraduates.  If some of them join in with both, it probably won’t matter, but you can use a different approach on the two tools which are geared to the needs of each group.

The management of your social media strategy

In order to give your plan the best chance of success, here are some points to consider before leaping in and building your online identity:

Admins and logons – keep these generic.  Use a library email address that is not specific to a person to set up your tools e.g. library@university.ac.uk.  Otherwise, once the person who set up the account moves on to another job, you may not be able to remove them as an admin.  Keep a record of usernames and passwords in your staff manual.

House style and editorial considerations – decide early on what standards you want to establish for tone/familiarity, spelling, brand identity (e.g. use of your organisation’s logo and approved font), proofreading, if any topics are off-limits.

Approval process – do posts need to be approved by a second person who will double-check the house style?  Approval from a senior person may be necessary for information which could be controversial or sensitive.

Day-to-day issues – how often will the content be updated?  By whom?  If someone comments on your page, it is important to reply promptly, so someone needs to monitor your sites daily to pick up and respond to feedback.  If any of the feedback is negative, a response may need to go through an approval process as outlined above.

Success measurement – how will you know if your efforts have been a success?  Decide on a trial period: perhaps a term, semester or other period of a few months.  Choose some targets.  Gaining 50 fans (people who have ‘Liked’ your page) on Facebook may be a modest target for some, and ambitious for others, so bear in mind the size of your potential audience and adjust your expectations accordingly.  Other things you could measure include: number of RSS subscribers (e.g. using Feedburner), number of followers, @ replies or mentions (Twitter), number of hits or page views (blogs, LibraryThing).  In addition or as an alternative, you could carry out a quick survey asking your users if they have used any of your social media tools, and whether they found them valuable.  After your trial period, review your targets and decide what to continue with from there.  You could try setting up a presence on many tools to begin with, then narrowing that down after your trial period when you can see which ones have been the most popular.

By now, you will have all you need to get set up and synchronised!

Closing thoughts…

I have found that many people expect building their social media presence to be time-consuming.  Of the list of content above, I hope you will agree that much of this content already exists (probably on the library’s official web page) and the rest is a good example of the type of information we should be communicating to our users.  So I would argue that building this presence will mostly involved doing what we are/should be already doing, and just putting this content in more places so that people can find it easily and interact with it.

Be bold: give social media a go, and whatever the outcome, it is good to have tried.  If you decide not to continue using a tool after the trial period, you don’t need to close it down, just add a last post saying that the site is no longer being updated.  See also: Risk, failure and success.

Good luck with your social media adventures!

Picture credits: Jane Rawson