March 17, 2018

ACRL 2015: A Breath of Fresh Air

2015-03-25 ACRL1The Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) 2015 Conference, held in Portland, OR, March 25–28, was by all accounts an upbeat event. Academic librarians may be thinking seriously about the future, but for a few temperate and surprisingly sunny days at the Oregon Convention Center—as well as online, for those taking advantage of the virtual conference—everyone involved seemed to be feeling positive about the present as well.

Some 3,390 registrants attended in person, plus more than 300 virtual conferencegoers, from all 50 states and 24 countries. A record-setting 1,250 of all registrants were first-time attendees. The conference offered some 500 panels, contributed papers, poster sessions, workshops, roundtable discussions, keynotes, and social events, and on the exhibit floor 245 vendors and companies showcased a wide variety of products and services.

Still, for a profession endlessly abuzz with change, the slightly analog feel of Portland was a breath of fresh air. Attendees were encouraged to sample Portland’s famous Voodoo Donuts and craft beer—“Of course,” cautioned ACRL conference chair Lori Goetsch, “you may want to do those on separate occasions”—and posters were rated by “putting a bird on it”—affixing bird stickers to favorites. In lieu of the common conference shuttle, everyone was issued a pass for Portland’s light rail and bus system for the duration of the event, allowing for easy exploration of the city—including Powell’s City of Books and, appropriately, the Multnomah Whiskey Library. Best of all, Portland’s ubiquitous gourmet food trucks made a showing outside the convention center at lunchtime, giving busy conferencegoers a chance to stretch out on the grass and talk about what they’d seen and learned. Here are a few of ACRL 2015’s offerings.

Keynotes set the stage

The conference’s inaugural keynote was given by writer and cartoonist G. Willow Wilson, who led off with a story of pulling her first Spiderwoman comic off the rack when she was ten years old. For a kid who felt different and alienated at school, discovering a character with similar trials was life-changing, she told the packed auditorium, and spoke to “the universal need to have stories that reflect us back at ourselves.” Her point, in no uncertain terms: “As librarians, we have the power to plant the seeds of dialog and understanding.” The stewardship of knowledge and identity politics, Wilson offered, are tightly intertwined, and she told of deconstructing the myth of Christopher Columbus post­–grade school, uncovering her own genealogical history, and the need for a new civil rights movement “concerned with the specificity of experience.” Academic librarians, she said, facilitate inquiry and are therefore part of the solution—a concept the audience responded to with wholehearted enthusiasm. She added, “History is a series of palimpsests. We all live on the same earth, but we do not all make the same maps.”

Jad Abumrad, founder and host of the popular public radio show Radiolab, gave the middle keynote to an even more ardent and densely packed audience. He recalled the early days of working on Radiolab with cofounder Robert Krulwich and praised the inspirational power of “gut churn”—the sensation of taking risks. “It wasn’t plans or strategies,” explained Abrumad, “it was gastric acid.” He mentioned a number of his radio heroes, invoking This American Life’s Ira Glass’s take on surviving one’s own bad work. “There are no shortcuts,” Abrumad explained. “You have to sit there in the emptiness and find your authenticity.” While he was talking about his own process of innovation, he also noted that his message applied just as well to the uncertainties that every librarian in the room faced: “You guys are in a thing right now, a transitional moment.”

The final keynote was presented by Lawrence Lessig, the Roy L. Furman Professor of Law and Leadership at Harvard Law School and director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University. Though perhaps best known to librarianship for his pioneering work founding Creative Commons and otherwise promoting open access, Lessig has largely moved on from this work to focus on net neutrality and more recently campaign finance reform. The essence of his presentation was that these three fights, though they may seem disparate, are essentially connected, in that all of them involve fighting for an equality that, by allowing broad democratic participation, makes “more.” Lessig made an emotional appeal to the memory of Aaron Swartz, who, he said, moved him to take up his latest cause. This message, delivered to a surprisingly packed auditorium for the very last event of the conference, was greeted with a standing ovation and questions from the audience that were focused more on how to achieve these goals and whether they could be successful than any debate over whether they should be attempted.

Though not formally a keynote, executive director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) Heather Joseph’s invited paper on Open Expansion: Connecting the Open Access, Open Data and OER Dots similarly forged a common framework among three separate but related phenomena—open access publishing, open data, and open educational resources (textbooks)—which are all designed to address existing systems with increasingly high costs and intermediaries who blunt cost sensitivity and which all use similar strategies: creating infrastructure, a legal framework, and sustainable business models.


Once the keynotes sketched in broad brushstrokes for the field to consider, many of the most notable presentations of the conference were far more specific, forging unusual connections, serving niche audiences, and presenting creative solutions to particular problems.

Some overarching threads ran through the program. Social media, for instance: In Libraries Using Twitter Better: Insights on Engagement from Food Trucks, Katie Emery, assistant librarian at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), and Todd Schifeling, PhD candidate from the University of Michigan, made a direct connection between the Twitter communities of academic libraries and gourmet food trucks. The project tracked reciprocal mentions among these two types of self-defined communities—perhaps unsurprisingly food truck networks were smaller but also denser, demonstrating stronger connections—and was able to draw some interesting conclusions about how academic libraries can potentially build interest and engagement by strengthening their own Twitter practices.

For their paper Bypassing Interlibrary Loan via Twitter: An Exploration of #icanhazpdf Requests, Carolyn Caffrey Gardner, information literacy and educational technology librarian at the University of Southern California, and Gabriel Gardner, librarian for romance, German, Russian languages and literatures at California State University, Long Beach, examined use of the Twitter hashtag #icanhazpdf to gain access to paywalled articles. Known as “dark social,” these illicit crowdsourced practices are, predictably, far more prevalent in STEM disciplines than arts and humanities. The Gardners captured more than 800 requests over a four-month period in 2014, largely from English-language academics and students, concluding that “#icanhazPDF is a symptom of a broken scholarly publishing system and of the complexity of many libraries’ interlibrary loan interfaces.”

Another recurring theme was tapping the resources of students to scale and support information goals. Ilana Stonebraker, assistant professor and business information specialist, and Tao Zhang, digital user experience specialist/assistant professor of library science, both of Purdue University, presented their study of Crowdsourcing Reference Help: Using Technology To Help Users Help Each Other. Their pilot web-based help system, “CrowdAsk,” let students ask and answer questions related to library resources and services in real time—not to replace librarians or the help desk, they emphasized, but to free them up to answer more in-depth questions. Results were largely positive, and they offered suggestions for other libraries interested in implementing a similar program, including pointing potential developers to the open source code at GitHub.

Meanwhile, three different poster sessions all explored the effectiveness of creating peer teaching and peer research assistance models. One of them, Out of the Library and into the Residence Halls: Providing Peer Research Assistance Where Students Live, presented by Benjamin Oberdick of Michigan State University, is situated at the intersection of two trends—taking services out of the library and into the residence halls was another trending topic, with sessions on “librarian house calls” and on creating ancillary, dorm-based popular collections to promote voluntary reading.


Not assuming that one size fits all, but tailoring library service models to specific student needs, was another trend visible among the panels and contributed papers. At Developing Best Practices for Serving Transgender Patrons at Academic Library Service Points, Rebecca Marrall, diversity and disability services librarian at Western Washington University Libraries, Bellingham, advised creating a preferred names and pronouns policy and placing it into library software, so frontline circulation personnel see it during each interaction, placing an inclusion statement on syllabi, and creating gender-neutral restrooms. These recommendations are part of a Best Practices document that the university plans to continue to assess, update, and share in the future.

To support veterans, in Beyond Service: New Outreach Strategies To Reach Student Veterans, Sarah LeMire, first-year experience and outreach librarian at Texas A&M University Libraries, advised being conscious that modern library space design, with its open floor plans and busier, noisier atmosphere, may be a poor fit for students with post-traumatic stress disorder. One library created a map of the library highlighting study spaces with low traffic in which veterans could sit with their backs to the wall; another repurposed a conference room that could not be opened for structural reasons as a space specifically for veterans, placing veteran resources on the computers as well as standard student fare. Presenters cautioned, however, that veterans don’t want to be seen as needier than their peers and suggested reaching out to vets for the educational value they can provide to other students as well, whether that means sharing photos for Veterans Day displays or—as one library did—collecting student work from a course on writing about war.


In We Have Only Scratched the Surface: The Role of Student Research in Institutional Repositories [IR], Danielle Barandiaran, IR coordinator; Becky Thoms, scholarly communication and copyright librarian; and Betty Rozum, associate dean of technical services, all of Utah State University, looked at the practice of archiving undergraduate research. They surveyed undergraduate research program directors and IR librarians to find out what best practices were involved and why student research should be archived in the first place. There are many reasons to do so, they found: archiving student work demonstrates which faculty members are engaged in undergraduate research, uncovers work that might be invisible otherwise, gives students the opportunity to see what their peers are doing and offers affirmation that their work is important, and allows faculty to demonstrate their value for evaluative purposes.

As grant funders start to require more data preservation and sharing, the library role is expanding to help faculty manage those new tasks as well. The University of Michigan’s Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR) offered an informative session titled From Data Sharing to Data Stewardship: Meeting Federal Data Sharing Requirements. ICPSR’s assistant director of collection delivery Linda Detterman and director of curation services Jared Lyle outlined a series of best practices for making the results of federally funded scientific research publicly available and accessible for the long term, particularly with regard to restricted-use data—material with disclosure risk or highly sensitive personal information (ICPSR stores and shares over 6,400 restricted-use datasets associated with over 2,000 active restricted data agreements). Detterman and Lyle addressed issues of sustainability, hosting, funding, and creating data management plans for grant applications, in the process exploring a number of different models that will allow researchers to meet the requirements of federal funding agencies as they are implemented.


In honor of its 75th Anniversary, ACRL commissioned a collection of essays from library leaders on New Roles for the Road Ahead. Contributors Steven Bell, associate university librarian at Temple University, Philadelphia; Lorcan Dempsey, VP of OCLC research and chief strategist; and Barbara Fister, professor and academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, joined Council on Library and Information Resources’ Chuck Henry for a thought-provoking standing-room-only panel to talk about the ideas behind the monograph—which Henry referred to as an “existential guidebook.” Each panelist weighed in on the changing landscape of academic librarianship, speaking of the need for collaboration, visibility, and technological agility. “Ever since I’ve been a librarian, I’ve been told we must embrace change,” said Fister, adding that while individual elements of higher education have changed the issues they are wrestling with—democracy, intellectual freedom, privacy, and the public good—have not. And though much of the discussion was value-oriented and aspirational, the panelists never veered far from practical concerns. “We know we do something really important,” said Bell. “We have to be smart about how we position ourselves as an organization and a service.” Added Dempsey, “Historically, the library has value in neutrality, which is not to be confused with anonymity.”

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  1. Ilana Stonebraker says:

    Thanks for the summary! One small change, both Tao and I are of Purdue not IUPUI