February 16, 2018

Steven MacCall | LJ Teaching Award Winner 2010

An innovator who inspires in an engaged, synchronous online environment

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‘He transforms what could be a cold and impersonal experience into one that is filled with enthusiasm, humor, and intellectual rigor, possibly even transcending an on-campus experience.’ That description of Steven L. MacCall’s online teaching comes from the student nomination that earned him the 2010 LJ Teaching Award, sponsored by ProQuest.

An associate professor at the School of Library and Information Studies (SLIS) at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, MacCall was nominated by Kathie Popadin, known as ‘Kpop’ to the members of her cohort in the online MLIS program at SLIS. Sixteen of those students banded together to urge Kpop to write and submit the nomination. The contagious enthusiasm and pride of that squad, the fourth in the history of the SLIS online program, is strong evidence of the spirit MacCall imparted to its 40 members, who call themselves the Fantastic Fourth Regional Cohort.

Interaction essential and enthusiastic

As the distance education coordinator at SLIS, MacCall continues to refine the online program, which has just begun its sixth group. About a third of all SLIS students enroll in the distance program, an online, 36-credit curriculum that most students can complete in six semesters or two calendar years.

On the way, most participants will have taken at least two classes with MacCall. His teaching load is impressive, from the basic Organization of Information course to many others focused on metadata, health librarianship, and health ­informatics.

SLIS is proud of its program, which has unique features that are not shared by every LIS distance program. For instance, it is synchronous – with regular live class sessions online twice a week – and features a large component of actual online action in the larger Internet working world beyond SLIS.

‘I have classroom sessions in the sense that they are hearing my voice and seeing my demonstrations and Power Point frames just like they would in a physical classroom. They don’t see my face…but it is still essentially the same experience as a physical classroom,’ says MacCall.

‘What is most interesting is that they seem to sense the energy in my voice,’ MacCall adds. ‘They hear my joy and ­excitement.’

Touching the real library world

To enrich a course further, MacCall provides more than the usual readings and requires that students create blogs and post to them at least five times a week. Anyone who blogs knows this is a lot of work.

‘When [my students] get out into the blogosphere, people from all over the field, like [OCLC’s] Lorcan Dempsey, often come in with comments. While I wish it happened more, even now it gives students a public presence, helps them develop the thick skin they will need in their work,’ MacCall explains.

The blogs are identified as student blogs, and they are a part of the course, designed to get these individuals involved in the real work world of the new digital ecology. This creativity in building a rich and effective online learning experience is a major reason MacCall received this year’s award.

As challenging as 1876

Earlier in his career, MacCall did a lot of work developing a model to show what a future library can look like. He sees the current period as very similar to the landmark year 1876 and the beginnings of cooperative endeavors in our field. Our own era, he argues, portends a redefinition of the library and information institutions as great as that early time.

‘That time was not just about the catalog,’ says MacCall. ‘It was also about open access and browsing in the library…. It was about the organization of the library, not about searching.’

Now MacCall is working on what it would take to build a digital library network, an environment that is cooperatively organized and enables autonomous browsing of its assets by individuals, across all libraries. He says the model is ‘something close to being ready for prime time.’

MacCall recalls how it took the last quarter of the 19th century to get from the first meeting of the American Library Association to catalog card services and library networks. The current challenge, he says, is similar and still about autonomous library capabilities for everyone, but this time it is in a digital ecology that is not focused on physical objects or spaces.

‘We’ve managed to build a system of cooperating libraries across the countryside, and experienced users can use them autonomously,’ he asserts. ‘Although it appears that librarians have been dealing with physical resources, they are really working with the organization of ideas.’

A bridge called metadata

‘There is no guarantee of recognizable libraries in the future,’ MacCall says. ‘So the question becomes what professional identity librarians will assume going forward. As a recognizable publishing industry developed, the challenge became bibliographic, tracking published assets. We have the same problem now, but we’re shifting from print or physical assets to online or digital ones and tracking them in that new format. Now we are dealing with an online publishing platform.’

The challenge is to bridge that distinction, so we ‘can have a network of digital libraries that select, organize, collect, and provide backup services. In the print world you could confidently go to any community and use the local library. We can establish such a network in an online world. Metadata is the bridge,’ MacCall states.

‘With all the new standards like the Dublin core, we’re building records in a way that allows them to become union catalogs. We’ve created new protocols for metadata harvesting and new software that allows you to bring in records for image organizing,’ he asserts.

‘The real elephant in the room in dealing with digital materials is digital images – organizing assets that are born digital,’ MacCall says. ‘For example, we have football games every weekend here. Can we systematically collect resources generated by bands and other groups connected with that? What we’re missing now is a concerted systematic effort to collect and organize this kind of asset. The numbers are too great to create a record for every image.’

Sharing a vision

MacCall’s demanding and rigorous teaching aims to inspire students to take up these challenges, alerting them that as they go public with their ideas they will either be celebrated or vilified for what they propose. The willingness of the ‘fabulous fourth’ to tackle the challenges of defining and executing the transformation is evidence of MacCall’s genius.

A listing of his peer-reviewed publications reveals extensive research in digital libraries theory and practice and systems development. In fact, MacCall is one of a three-member team that holds a patent on a ‘system, method, and computer program product for managing access to and navigation through large-scale information spaces.’

His work has generated dozens of presentations at wide-ranging conferences. His presentations span the range from popularizations of his research on digital libraries to complex digital information systems in medicine and medical settings. He has also delivered original papers on the history of both librarianship and information science to professional bodies in both areas.

This creativity not only informs but inspires his teaching. That teaching is not limited to his online or classroom students at SLIS but reaches out to colleagues in local libraries and in national organizations. It is enriched by MacCall’s talent and ability to translate an illuminating set of theoretical insights into an inspired vision for their application in information practice. This produces graduates equipped to pursue careers in both directions.

To do all this online and still inspire students to enlist in careers where they will have to handle both the current practice of libraries and information agencies and the challenges of taking that practice to a future that is, at best, undefined, energized the fourth cohort to rally to celebrate Steven MacCall’s contribution.

Author Information
John N. Berry III is Editor at Large, LJ


This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

John N. Berry III About John N. Berry III

John N. Berry III (jberry@mediasourceinc.com) is Editor-at-Large, LJ. Berry joined the magazine in 1964 as Assistant Editor, becoming editor-in-Chief in 1969 and serving in that role until 2006.

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