In our latest 2015 In-Depth Interview with Library Journal Movers & Shakers from academic libraries, sponsored by SAGE, we spoke with Matthew Cook, emerging technology librarian at the University of Oklahoma (OU) Libraries, Norman, OK. Cook, who earned a Master of Arts in philosophy with a focus on cognition, has brought a level of outside-the-box thinking to his work in the library. Among other innovations, he implemented the digital Sparq Labyrinth, a walking meditation tool within the library that helps stressed students unwind and recharge at exam time, for which he won the University of Oklahoma Libraries Innovator’s Award in 2014. Currently, Cook is developing a campus-wide indoor navigation app and the O.V.A.L. (Oklahoma Virtual Academic Laboratory) virtual reality interactive teaching system.
LJ: How did you move from a philosophy major to a library science degree?
Matthew Cook: I had taken a full-time staff position at the library right around the same time I was writing my master’s thesis, and it became this cross-pollination of ideas. I started to look at ways to apply my research, which is [about] how environments basically can be used or seen as cognitive tools, cognitive enhancers. It seemed that the library was the perfect example of this. You walk inside the library as a student or a researcher, and all of a sudden your powers are magnified. You have access to information that gives you increased scholarly abilities. So the idea is, how do we maximize that? I approached it from that basic theoretical level, but then started developing nuts and bolts practical tools, including the Sparq Labyrinth. Now we’re in the process of ramping up the navigation app, which is a Bluetooth beacon turn-by-turn indoor GPS, and that’s now got a thousand users on campus as of last week.
In this interview series, sponsored by SAGE, LJ goes in depth with the 2015 Movers & Shakers from academic libraries, delving into just how and why they pulled off the projects that brought them recognition as innovators, change agents, and more. For a deeper dive into what made our 2014 Academic Movers so exceptional, download our 20-page collection of insightful interviews.
What else are you working on?
The virtual reality has been the primary focus. It’s a first-of-its kind system we’re building on top of video game development software. What this allows you to do is network next-generation VR headsets like the Oculus Rift to share a learning environment that the researcher or instructor can build or create from the ground up.
Our partnerships are quite widespread; we have numerous colleges on campus that are incorporating the system into their coursework. In the spring, for example, there’s a professor I’m working with now, Dr. Bill Endres. He does 3-D scans of ancient manuscripts and his goal is to showcase the importance of [their] physicality. The main one he’s been working on recently is the St. Chad gospels from the 700s. They’re on vellum and they’re extremely detailed, illustrated, pigmented artifacts that he’s scanned in minute detail, which you can now fly through and analyze in virtual reality, in real time, with anyone in the world. The cool thing is, this particular artifact has contours and ridges on its surface—the vellum has warped over the years—so we can actually take Bill and his students, put them in a virtual world, and he can guide them along the landscape of the page in virtual reality.
And that’s just one of the applications. We visualized some NASA data that simulates stellar wind interactions in a distant colliding binary star system. Any field with 3-D data or the potential to generate 3-D data, we can deploy it very quickly to this scalable system. You go into this customized learning environment with anyone, who could be located anywhere, and you can point stuff out and analyze models, and you can manipulate the models in real time using virtual onscreen controls. Imagine a VR classroom where we send a headset instead of a textbook to a person on the other side of the country or the world, and for the cost of a couple hundred dollars you could join your professor in this virtual world to explore 3-D content in real time.
The Sparq labyrinth involves an intersection of mindfulness and technology—how did you arrive there?
I think of it almost as an anti-technology, if that makes any sense. What I saw a lot of, anecdotally and in literature, was a level of distraction being experienced and exhibited by not only undergrads but all people. The experience of sitting in front of a screen for long periods can be contradictory to scholarship. So the idea is a break, a meditation technique for people who need five minutes away from their screen, but inside the [library]. This is the first of its kind with an iPad touchscreen; you can actually change the projected patterns. There are six different labyrinths representing six different cultures around the world, and you can then identify with one—say, if you’re Native American, you have that within the labyrinth selection tool on the iPad, and you can identify with that as a way to increase the gravity of your mindfulness experience. The literature suggests that you go back to your studies rejuvenated and refreshed.
Is the Sparq Labyrinth offered in connection with other mindfulness programs in the library?
Absolutely. We have a prayer room, a non-denominational study area, just a dark room with lights, that may be attractive to the secular user. During finals week, which is when the Sparq was originally deployed, we have therapy dogs and we have massage. [The Sparq] appeals to the type of person who perhaps can’t be sitting down all the time. It’s a walking meditation, a full-body meditation. I think it’s important to appeal to a wide variety of different people, and as I said, we have these different techniques that we’re employing at the library. There’s a culture of experimentation. I think that’s really positive.
How did you achieve buy-in for the Sparq project from the administration?
It was perhaps confusing to some of my chain of command, but ultimately at the administrative level it also made sense. I put this thing together in my back yard as a project. When the time came for finals week the data was there that I could point to and say, look, there is a documented decrease in blood pressure, for example, or an increase in quality of life or well-being associated with these techniques; it makes sense and it’s not expensive, and our students are obviously stressed out. They don’t need more Adderall, so let’s give them something else. Let’s give them an alternative. That’s what clicked.
That’s the hard part, also. The tool was fun to put together but ultimately we had to sell it, which is part of the whole thing that I’m still learning about—the politics of seeing these ideas come to life.
How do you assess the effectiveness of a tool like this?
We ran a pilot study the first time around based on a valid survey instrument generated by the [past president] of the labyrinth society, John Rhodes, whose survey we used as a template and built upon. It’s a scale of positive and negative affective states upon which they describe their before and after experiences. We’ve since published that data in an article in College & Research Library News and it’s pretty encouraging, the percentages of people who say that after walking the labyrinth they’re more relaxed or their anxiety has decreased. We haven’t gotten to the brain scan level of rigor, though in the future I don’t doubt that’s something that would be worth pursuing.
What advice would you give someone who wants to institute some form of alternative methods in their library and doesn’t have that kind of institutional support?
I would say, stick to the data, if you can. It’s not clear that all gatekeepers necessarily care, relate to, or can understand the data, but if you can, point to very specific quantitative data that says this makes sense and you can do it at relatively low cost. My strategy when it comes to these sorts of things is to make it as easy as possible for the person above you to say yes. Present them with a finished solution so they don’t have to do anything except okay the project because it makes sense in every way from the ground up, and it doesn’t cost them anything emotionally, strategically, or politically.
If you had to give three tips to someone in an academic library who’s interested in forward-thinking ideas, and who wants to lead, what would you tell them?
- Be persistent, because a good idea may not appear to those that are willing to endorse it the day that you come up with it.
- Look at the private sector for inspiration, because they’re moving extremely quickly.
- Be reckless, bold, etc.—without hurting anybody, obviously. It’s a very exciting time to be part of an academic library, where our mission statement is the most open-ended of any university department, where we can work with anyone or potentially do anything or develop any tool, because we’re on this cusp of traditional collections and technology focus. It’s the time to strike and redefine academic libraries, so be bold in your concepts and ideas.