A late #AusLibChat

I missed the last AusLibChat for personal reasons. But I’d actually written out my answers beforehand. Rather than waste my answers, I thought I’d share them here.

The topic was Decoding Selection Criteria. You can read the other responses on Wakelet.

Question 1 – “A high level of digital literacy”. How would you demonstrate this requirement?

A1: Google the definition of digital literacy. Look at the skills listed. Write down work you’ve done that demonstrates those skills. Focus on examples that best show off what you’re capable of: blogs written, research conducted, online training delivered, etc.

Question 2 – “Awareness of emerging trends and issues in librarianship”. What trend/s would you discuss?

A2: Describe a change/improvement you’ve made to take advantage of a trend. List 2-3 key issues you think affect the library & role you’re applying for. Describe how you stay on top of industry trends: journals, conferences, groups.

Question 3 – “Willingness to participate in delivering programs to a broad range of audiences”. How would you describe your willingness for this responsibility?

A3: List the programs you’ve delivered to a broad range of audiences. 🙂  Describe the potential issues (level of technical knowledge, different goals).

Question 4 – “Experience in and knowledge of cataloguing”. How would you address this if you hadn’t previously worked as a cataloguer?

A4: Do some research. Read this: https://www.librarianshipstudies.com/2015/05/cataloging.html and https://publiclibrariesonline.org/2013/06/ten-essential-qualities-for-success-a-new-cataloging-librarians-guide-from-a-supervisers-perspective/ Admit your shortcomings, then list achievements that demonstrate you have the personal qualities of a good cataloguer: attention to detail, following procedures.

Question 5 – “Highly developed oral & written communication skills”. How would you relate this criterion to working in a library?

A5: List your best examples of communication. Have you written reports, documentation, LibGuides? Have you given conference presentations, delivered training, led projects?

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Applying for a job when you don’t meet all the requirements

OCLC’s Melbourne office are advertising for a Customer Project Manager to help implement their library management system.

Now, I used to work for OCLC, but I don’t any longer. So this is not an official statement.

But… now is an excellent time to apply for jobs you’re interested in, even if you don’t meet all the selection criteria.

Because employers are desperate. There’s a worker shortage. Employers aren’t getting the number of applicants for vacancies that they used to. They’re having to hire workers with less experience than they were looking for, and then train those workers up.

That’s hard for employers. But it’s a great opportunity for you.

Why you have a chance

Let me reiterate: I do not work for OCLC. I have no special insight into this vacancy.

But I’ve hired lots of people in past. And I recently was part of the interview panel for a vacancy at my current work place. And two things became very clear to me.

Firstly: there are not many qualified applicants for roles at the moment. That means iff you apply, there’s a good chance you will be interviewed.

Secondly: some of the applicants we did interview wrecked their chances because they couldn’t answer basic questions about the role, or their experience.

This sucks for the applicants, and is a waste of the employer’s time.

But it means that if you put some effort in and do some preparation, you can make your application really stand out, even if you don’t meet all the selection criteria.

So here’s my advice on how to improve your chances of landing a job when you don’t meet all the criteria. I’ve included examples in italics to help clarify what I’m saying.

Step 0: Think like an employer

Vacancies are a problem for employers. It means work isn’t getting done, or staff are having to work extra hard to cover the gap.

In their ideal world, they would hire someone who has the exact skillset they need, someone who can be plugged in and start doing the job straight away without any training or guidance.

But this is never going to happen.

The next best option is to hire someone who is motivated, enthusiastic, has at least some of the requried skills, and is willing to learn the rest.

Your job is to show the employer that that someone is you.

Step 1: Do your research

Employers want to know you actually understand and are interested in the job you’re applying for. Some basic research can help you demonstrate this.

Who is the organisation? Go to their website. Have a look at their products or services. Watch their videos. Look at who their customers are. How do those products make their customers lives better? Is there anything interesting or exciting about the organisation that grabs you?

What is the role? Google the job title to get an idea of the typic duties and responsibilities. How does it help the customers? How does it help the company? What sort of work is it?

EXAMPLE: Looking at OCLC’s website, I can see that…

  • OCLC is a global library organization that provides “shared technology services, original research, and community programs for its membership and the library community at large.” 
  • Their products include WorldShare Manaagement Services, EZproxy and GreenGlass
  • The benefit these products provide is to improve library efficiency
  • They’ve recenty released a new WorldCat.org. Clicking through to the information page tells me WorldCat.org is “the only site where anyone can explore billions of items from a global network of thousands of library locations in a single search.”

Doing some quick research on project management:

  • Project managers are responsible for ensuring all the tasks in a project are completed on time and to the approriate quality
  • They usually have to collaborate with a wide variety of other people, so good communication skills are important
  • There are two main methods of organising a project: the waterfall method, and Agile.

Step 2: Call the employer up

Most job ads include a contact phone number or email address in case you have questions. My experience is that it’s pretty rare for applicants to actually use this.

Which means if you do call them, the employer is more likely to remember your name.

Call them. Explain you’re interested in apply for the position. Ask them for more details about the role.

And then ask them if they’d consider your application even if you don’t meet all the selection criteria. Discuss with them how you might fill in those gaps in your skillset. Bring your ideas, and ask them for theirs.

Some example questions:

“Hi! I’m interested in applying for the Customer Project Manager position you’ve advertised. Can you tell me anything more about the duties of this role? Is there a guide to the implementation process that I could read, for example?”

“Would you consider my application even if I don’t meet all the selection criteria? I don’t have years of project managment experience. I’ve been doing some research and I think that’s something I could learn with some online training, and maybe some mentorship. What are your thought?”

Step 3: Write a strong cover letter

Your cover letter is your best chance to argue the case for them interviewing you. Keep it short. A good format is:

  • First paragraph: one sentence explaining which role you’re applying for, and where you saw the ad.
  • Second paragraph: one or two sentences explaining why you’re interested in this role.
  • Third paragraph: A sentence starting with “I can offer you…” followed by your best three or four qualifications for the role. (I usually put these as dot points, to make it easier for busy employers to read them.)
  • Fourth paragraph: a sentence or two acknowledging the areas where you don’t meet the critera, and explain how you’d overcome that if you got the job.
  • Fifth paragraph: wrap it up politely.

Example cover letter:

Dear OCLC,

I am writing to apply for the position of Customer Project Manager that was advertised on your website.

I am applying for this position because I believe libraries play an important role in sharing knowledge, and by helping libraries implement your products, I would be helping them become more efficient.

I can offer you:

  • A graduate diploma in library information science from Blatherburg University
  • Two years experience working in the Blatherburg Public Library as a junior systems librarian
  • Experience using and configuring library management systems such as Sierra
  • Experience running our recent project to implement a new self-check mobile phone app

I acknowledge that I do not have the years of experience in project management that you are looking for. But I believe that this is a skill I can acquire with a combination of online training and mentorship from experienced staff.

I hope to hear back from you soon.

Yours,

Hopeful Applicant.

Step 4: Prepare for the interview

There are some standard questions you should expect in an interview. So you can think about what your answers will be ahead of time.

Use examples of your past work in your answers. And use the biggest, most complex and most difficult tasks you’ve done as your examples. The employer is trying to judge your skill level, so talk about your best work.

And you can bring notes with you to the interview. Don’t read out prewritten answers, but having some dot points to help jog your memory is fine.

Common questions you can expect include:

Why are you interested in this job?

This is often a warm-up question. Answer with your personal qualities that match the requirements of the job, and a ‘big picture’ statement of the value that role provides.

“I enjoy detailed-focused work, and I enjoy helping libraries operate more efficiently.”

Can you tell us about a project you’ve managed?

Obviously, employers will only ask this question for project-related roles.

What they’re looking for is evidence that you understand the goal of the project, that you used a clear methodology to ensure the project stayed on track, that you used logical thinking to overcome any problems you encountered, and that ultimately the project was successful.

So make a note of the answers to these questions:

  • What was the goal of the project?
  • What methods did you use to ensure the project stayed on track?
  • What problems did you encounter? How did you solve them?
  • What was the outcome of the project?

And if you don’t have any experience running projects? Get thee to Google, and do some research. If nothing else, it will show you’re motivated enough to try and understand the position.

How do you communicate with people of different levels of technical knowledge?

Communicating with people is a big part of project management. And not everyone has a lot of technical knowledge.

If you have experience, make some notes about how you managed this, what worked well and what you’d do differently in the future.

If you don’t have experience, do some googling and at least understand the theory.

Do you have any questions for us?

Of course you do. Not only is this a chance for you to learn more about the job, it’s another chance to show that you’re genuinely interested in the position.

Some questions you could ask are:

  • What sort of training is available if I get the job?
  • What does a typical day in this role look like?
  • What are the big challenges facing this organisation?
  • What’s the best thing about working for this organisation?
  • How does this organisation help staff balance work and their personal lives?

Conclusion

This is a good time to be looking for work. There are a lot of vacancies, and not many applicants. Which means employers are considering applicants who may not have all the skills that employers were hoping for.

So it’s a good time to be looking for work, and a good time to apply for jobs that are the next step up for you in terms of duties and pay.

Finally I want to say: I used to work for OCLC, and I loved it there.

It was such a great learning experience to be part of an international company, and to work with such a wide variety of libraries. I only left because my career goal was alway to work in a library, not with them.

This Customer Project Manager role is a great opportunity for any aspiring systems librarian to learn a lot about how library managment systems work and are configured.

I hope this advice helps you find a job you love.

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Serendipity: a case study

I was trying to write a joke about astronomy yesterday, and ended up researching the ethics of marketing to teenagers.

In library science, this is called serendipity: the accidental discovery of useful information while you were searching for something else.

It’s when your searching the library shelf for a book on machine learning, and stumble over one on fuzzy sets, or when you look up the Australian Defence Force on Wikipedia and a few links later you’re reading about how we lost the Emu War.

Serendipity is the black magic of library science. There’s an element of luck, of stars aligning. You can encourage it, but you can never quite control it, or where it will lead.

It’s how I started out learning about time travel, and ended up learning about teenagers.

Consider this a case study. It’s a bit more interesting than a bunch of random links.

It started with time travel

It started with a video: Why Going Faster-Than-Light Leads to Time Paradoxes.

I read a bit of science fiction, and I’m pretty sure it was a Charles Stross book that introduced me to the idea that travelling faster than light means you can effectively go back in time and violate cause and effect. But I never really understood it.

Then this video showed up in my YouTube suggestions, and it’s the clearest explanation I’ve ever heard. It’s such a clear explanation, I shared it to Twitter.

And then I followed that tweet up with a joke.

My secret power

You see, the video is by David Kipping from the Cool Worlds Lab at Columbia University.

The Cool Worlds Lab researches exoplanets that are cool enough to support life. Hence the name. But I knew immediately that I had to make a joke playing off the difference between cool-as-in-temperature and cool-as-in-hip-and-fashionable.

The problem is I am a middle-aged librarian. I am not cool. I have no idea what people consider cool. I can do weird, or nerdy, but not cool.

Of course, being a librarian, I do have a secret power: I can look stuff up.

I pulled out the card catalogues. I dusted off my volumes of the Dewey Decimal Classification. I lit a candle to S. R. Ranganathan, and offered up prayers to the gods of WorldCat.

Then I did what everyone does, and googled it.

“What’s cool with gen z?”

I didn’t even have to refine my search terms. I was halfway through typing my first search phrase when Google suggested what’s cool with gen z?

There is a huge amout of material online that tries to answer that question.

Google have a Cool Book to summarise what teenagers think is cool. There’s nothing revelatory in it: teens like smartphones and sneakers and YouTube. Also Oreos, apparently. Also they think Google is fun and fuctional! Isn’t that lovely for Google?

Business Insider’s 2019 The State of Gen Z report that goes beyond just consumer preferences. It says:

  • Gen Z likes diversity: 48% are non-white. 62% see diversity as good for society. 35% know someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns.
  • 55% think America is going poorly. 54% think humans are causing climate change. The “overwhelming majority” think Donald Trump is the biggest issue facing America.
  • They really want to legalise weed.

There’s some brand stuff in there too: Gen Z like Nike and McDonalds and Amazon and Netflix.

Here’s another report, this time from a company called GWI: What Gen Z really think and why you should care

  • They’re stressed: 45% of Gen Z say they’re prone to anxiety compared to 25% of baby boomers.
  • They want to learn new skills (61%) and be successful (62%)
  • In the US, climate change is their biggest concern out of a list of 21 worries – something that’s overtaken concern about infectious diseases.
  • They’re becoming tired of picture-perfect content on social media – “Gen Z’s interest in celebrity news and influencers dropped by 26% and 15% respectively since Q2 2020”

As I said: none of this is revelatory. If you’re active online, you’ve probably picked up most of these trends just from the ambient culture.

Which makes me wonder: if you can pick most of this up just from being online, why are there so many surveys and reports about Gen Z?

Ethics

Because marketing. Because there’s money in teenagers and what they think is cool.

It makes my skin crawl.

Teenagers are a vulnerable population. They are still developing neurologically, psychologically and socially. And all of the reports I linked to above are essentially telling companies how to manipulate them into giving you money.

It’s unethical.

My only hope is we can use the tools of Capitalism against itself, that these reports can be used by teachers and youth librarians and YA writers to show teenagers how companies are trying to manipulate them, and to give them some weapons to defend themselves.

Conclusion

Ironically, none of these reports helped me write my joke. It took an ad on an unrelated to article to remind of one of the more popular young musicians out there.

Is that serendipity? Or just the random stuff of life on the internet? I don’t know. This whole post is, frankly, little more than a way to make some random links appear like a coherent set.

Anyway, here’s Wonderwall my tweet about the video:

And my joke:

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MIDYEAR MILESTONES

I set myself three goals at the start of the year:

  1. Finish my Master of Information Management degree
  2. Pass my probation at work
  3. A personal health-related goal, which I’m not posting here

I didn’t want to get too ambitious. The last two years have been draining, and I wanted to keep my goals for this year achievable.

Which was probably a good idea. I caught COVID in March, and four months later I still have some post-viral fatigue and trouble concentrating.

This has been – to put it mildly – inconvenient.

Writing assignments has been a struggle. Focusing on work has been a struggle. I lose track of what I’m doing. I forget things straight after I read them. I’m tired most of the time.

So I was a bit startled to find out this last fortnight that not only have I passed my probation at work, I scored a High Distinction for my final Masters subject.

Huh.

Finishing my Masters meant I had to choose whether I would graduate in absentia or in person. 

The last two years of lockdowns have not been great for celebrating milestones. I didn’t do anything to mark my 50th birthday. And my farewell when I left OCLC was just a Teams meeting. So it was tempting to graduate in person.

Two things put me off. First: the graduation ceremony isn’t until December. And secondly: COVID hasn’t gone away. I’ve been risking concerts and some art events, but I still wear a mask inside public buildings, and I still don’t really feel comfortable in a crowd.

So I decided to graduate in absentia. 5 years of work and growth and learning end with an email saying my testamur is being mailed to me. I tried to log onto my Uni email account this morning and found that they’d disabled it.

Oh well. Most of the lecturers I wanted to say thanks to have already left – RMIT is shutting down their Master of Information Management program.

Meanwhile, my work at La Trobe University Library has been great. 

I ended last year fretting about whether to apply for the Discovery Specialist position there, as it would mean a pay cut. That problem resolved itself within a month or so when I was promoted to Coordinator, Library Discovery Platforms on a salary slightly higher than what I was earning at OCLC.

My love of working at La Trobe is only slightly tempered by my frustration that this post-COVID brain fogginess has meant I haven’t gotten my head around their systems yet as much as I would like to. But even with my limitations, they seem very happy with my work, and my final probation review was mostly a formality.

So: that’s two out of three goals for the year achieved.

The health goal is still a work-in-progress. COVID has rather messed that one up. I’ll see how I go.

I’m not setting myself any extra goals for the rest of the year, other than building my knowledge of Alma and Primo and all the other systems we use in the Library.

There are some things I would like to do: make another zine, run some roleplaying, make a dent in my pile of unread books, maybe even start work on another novel.

But those are nice-to-haves. I’m going to be gentle on myself if they don’t happen.

Meanwhile: I have my LIS degree, and a job in an academic library.

I guess this means I’m a librarian now. 🙂

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How to begin well…

I’ve been at La Trobe University Library for three and half weeks now.

It’s been exciting, but also exhausting. There’s so much to learn, and there’s a backlog of tasks from since the previous incumbent left.

Which has meant I haven’t had a lot of spare brain capacity to step back and think about how i’m approaching my new job.

But it’s something I do want to think about.

My manager and I are both big fans of Alexandra Perkins’s talk ‘Making Yourself Redundant on Day One – Internal documentation to teach the next hire what you’ve learned‘. The gist of Perkin’s talk is: document what you learn when you start a new job, so it’s there for the next person in your role.

In that spirit, one of my probation tasks has been to document everything that I’ve needed as part of my onboarding: accounts I’ve needed created, systems I’ve needed to understand, processes I’ve needed to know.

Meanwhile, ALIA announced the next New Librarian’s Symposium will be on the week of 24 July 2023. I’d like to start giving talks at library conferences.

Given La Trobe is my first ever real job in a library, the most obvious topic would be: how do you make a good start at a new job?

What I’m trying to do:

  • Have clear probation goals. Get regular feedback whether you’re on track or not.
  • Know how you learn.
  • Document as you go.
  • Schedule time to revise what you’ve learnt.
  • Work with your manager to keep the workload reasonable.

Things I’m still working out:

  • Remembering everyone’s names, and what they do. (My last office had 20 people in it. My new workplace has 100.)

I’ll keep thinking about this…

ELSEWHERE

I finally caught up on the newCardigan cardiCast where Hugh Rundle interviews Auckland University of Technology Universtiy Librarian and excellent person Kim Tairi. They talk about learning to be a library leader, reconnecting with her Māori heritage, AUT embracing the open source library management system Koha, and some tips about personal branding, and Tairi engages with social media.

Also: Russian has invaded Ukraine. I have been doing a lot of doomscrolling, trying not just to understand what is happening but to find some glimmer of hope that this doesn’t end with Kyiv under a puppet governemnt and endless human rights violations as they try to quash any Ukranian resistance. The Guardian has a list of practical things Australians can do to support the people of Ukraine.

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New Year, New Job

After 4 years as Team Leader Customer Support for OCLC ANZ, I’ll be starting a new job in February.

The role is Discovery Specialist at La Trobe University Library. It’s exciting (new job! new opportunities! progress on my career goals) but also slightly terrifying – I’ll be supporting a system I have never supported before. So there will be a lot to learn.

Fortunately, Ex Libris have their Primo Adminstration course online. So I’ll be getting stuck into that in the new year.

Right now, I’m packing up my old job into tidy packages, ready to whoever takes over the role from me. It’s a slightly melencholy process. A lot has happened since I sidled up to a guest lecturer in my Masters degree and said “OCLC sounds like somewhere I’d like to work one day. Can I have a chat with you about what you’re looking for?”

I’ve loved working for OCLC. I’ve learnt a huge amount of what the theory I’ve been learning in my studies looks like in the real world. I’m met wonderful people. I’ve worked with colleagues around the world, and while I won’t miss the late night video meetings due to time zone differences, I will miss being flown to the UK, the Netherlands, and the United States to meet my colleagues.

In an ideal world, I’d be there another six months while I finish my Masters, and only then would I start looking for something new. But we take our opportunities when they present themselves.

One big change in the new role is that I won’t be a manager.

That’s fine. I’m happy to focus on building my technical skills for a while. But I am concerned that my managerial experience will slip further and further down my resume. I want to get back to managerial positions one day. I think I’m pretty good at it. (Also: the pay is better.)

In fact, I’m toying with creating a zine about it, a sort of Guide for New Managers. When I was first promoted from a technical role to management, I found I was really upset that my technical skills atrophied without me really understanding what new skills I was developing in their place.

Julia Evans has a great little zine called Help! I have a manager! about how to work productively with your manager. It would be nice to have something similar that looks at the nuts-and-bolts of management from the other side of the table.

The trick is keeping is small enough to be doable while being detailed enough to be useful.

I’ll keep thinking about it.

Meanwhile: happy new year!

A photo of me: a bald white man, with retro glasses and a short grey beard.
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Book Guardians

I had to intervene with an aggressive tram passenger last Saturday night. He was threatening to punch another passenger. I told him not to. It ended about as well as I could have hoped: no one got hurt, and the aggressor got off the tram.

Afterwards I did some reading about bystander intervention and de-escalation techniques. I was even thinking about writing a blog post about it. Library patrons can sometimes act up and be violent. I still remember seeing a patron at the State Library of Victoria swear, throw a chair across the public access computer desks, then sit down as if nothing had happened.

So intervening and de-escalation are good skills for librarians to have.

But… I just don’t have the heart in me to write about it now. The confrontation on Saturday left me sad and annoyed. I posted a big long rant about it on Facebook, and now I just want to not think about it for a while.

Maybe I’ll come back to it later. Or maybe I’ll get caught up in uni assignments and forget all about it.

In the meantime, have something utterly charming: a 20 minute documentary about the Reykjavík downtown library:

It’s made by by Jiaqian Chen, a Chinese national who vlogs about living in Iceland.

That library looks utterly gorgeous.

Also, it seems like every second person in Iceland is some sort of musician. One of my favourite bands in the world is Icelandic: Kaelan Mikla make excellent gothy synth-punk.

I guess I need to add Reykjavík to my list of cities I need to visit when international travel resumes.

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AI flashcard, robot bosses, and a museum in your home.

Some freeform blogging. Some bits and pieces, mostly.

I’m currently knee-deep in uni work and assignments.

I used to roll my eyes at RMIT’s Information Management course being part of their School of Business, and the business subjects that were compulsory because of that. So it’s a bit embarrassing to find myself using things I’m learning in my Business Analytics and Knowledge Management classes in my day job.

How to write a literature review… using AI flashcards!

One of my biggest frustrations with uni is constantly thinking “this topic is really interesting – I wish I had time to really learn it properly”. I’m two-thirds the way through a Masters degree and I still don’t understand how to write a proper literature review, let alone how to catalogue an item, or set up a digital repository.

So when I saw a video on how to write a literature review posted to Twitter, I made some time to watch it.

It’s presented by Scholarcy, which is a tool for using AI to parse and summarise research papers.

Again: that sounds really interesting. I wish I had time to learn about it properly. 😁

During the video, a slew of other interesting research tools get mentioned. I’m posting them here because they sound cool. I have most definitely NOT had time to look at them yet:

  • Connectedpapers.com shows relationships between academic papers in a visual graph
  • Scite.ai lets you check how a paper has been cited, and if it’s findings have been supported or contrasted by others
  • Semanticscholar.org applies artificial intelligence to extract the meaning from the scientific literature allowing scholars to navigate research much more efficiently than a traditional search engine
  • App.2dsearch.com – lets you search multiple databases using a visual query builder, instead of the traditional Boolean strings

AI in the library

There’s nothing like being busy to stimulate your mind with projects that you don’t have time for. I’ve been procrastinating from uni work by thinking it might be fun to write a summary of the way AI is being used in libraries.

This would be a really interesting project, and I absolutely do not have time for it.

So here’s a scrapbook of some things I’ve read when I should really be reading things for uni:

WHEN YOUR BOSS IS A ROBOT
Amazon doesn’t trust its self-driving cars to do their deliveries, but they’re happy to let their alogrthms schedule and monitor their huamn drivers. Hugh Rundle has annoted his readings on the way algorithms replacing middle management, monitoring workers performance and punishing them if they fall outside the parameters.

STOP CALLING EVERYTHING AI
Current “AI” can do basic pattern recognition, but is a long way from approaching human insight and creativity. This artilce is a profile if Professor Michael I. Jordan, a leading researcher in AI and machine learning at the University of California, Berkeley.

WHY COMPUTERS WON’T MAKE THEMSELVES SMARTER
Science fiction writer Ted Chiang on the logical flaw in thinking that an intelligent machine will be intelligent enough to make itself even more intelligent.

Museum at Home

I attended my first online #CardiPary tonight. The guest presented was Bridget Hanna from Melbourne Museum’s Learning Lab.

She talked about how the new interactive, multimedia Learning Lab opened in February 2020… and then had to close the next month as COVID restrictions came into force.

Rather than letting their educational and programs team go, as some other museums did, the Learning Lab team pivoted to presenting museum material online. This involved providing staff with over 20 sessions of digital literacy training, from video editing and animation to documentary filmmaking and how to present to camera.

The result was the Museum at Home program.

Now that things are reopening, the team is struggling to continue providing events and content both online and onsite. There’s a need for both, but they still only have the same resources and number of staff as before.

You can read my live-tweeting of the event on my Twitter.

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Emerging trends in academic libraries. By which I mean: puppies.

I’m back to my Masters degree in a couple of weeks, after taking a year off.

I didn’t plan to take a year off. Actually, I was planning to finish my Masters last year. After a rocky year in 2019 (my father passed away), I said in January 2020 that “finishing my Masters will be hard work, but do-able, provided nothing bad happens.”

Hm.

Anyway, I’m back at it come March the 1st.

I haven’t really been thinking about libraries for a while now. I mean, I work for a library software vendor, so obviously I have. But it’s been in a very narrow, focused-on-my-work way, not in a broad, high-level thinking-about-the-future-of-libraries-and-the-role-they-play-in-society way.

Then a friend asked on Twitter what the traditional and emerging areas of academic librarianship are, and suddenly I was off researching like a good little LIS student.

(I may also have been procrastinating during a long day at work.)

My first stop was ALIA’s list of competencies for their Research/Academic Specialisation (members-only link). It’s quite a long list, but a bit vague. I’d have to research what each of those competencies actually mean before I could actually set about acquiring the relevant skills.

ALIA also have their Future of the LIS Profession reports from 2013, with updates in 2017. A few themes still apply: the move to digital collections, the need for digital literacy, the importance of the library as a space for students rather than as a place to store books.

I didn’t find a nice, neat report from CAUL (the Council of Australian University Librarians). But reading over their communities of practice gives an idea of what their members are thinking about: digital dexterity, research support & repositories, and library value & impact.

But the best article I found was this one: a summary by ACRL (the Association of College & Research Libraries) on 2020 top trends in academic libraries.

You should read the whole thing. It’s short and clear. But as a summary, the trends they identify are:

  • Change management – the role of libraries is changing rapidly, and librarians need to the skills to manage that process.
  • Evolving integrated library systems – big software vendors continue to buy up smaller vendors, leading to fears that customers will get locked into vendor-specific platforms. Open source solutions like FOLIO may be a way forward.
  • Learning analytics – collecting data about how students learn (such as how they use libraries) could help improve the quality of teaching, but raises ethical concerns about collecting such personal data.
  • Machine learning and AI – AI opens the possibility of fast, automated analysis and cataloguing of collections. But AI has a history of perpetuating biases.
  • Open access – universities are pushing back against the high prices charged by eJournal vendors, and looking at more equitable and open ways to publish research
  • Research Data Services (RDS) – the movement towards FAIR (findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable) data is gaining support, but there is still work to do in establishing the skills and systems needed.
  • Social justice, critical librarianship, and critical digital pedagogy – the need for libraries and librarians to examine the way our work reproduces bias and excludes marginalised groups continues. LIS schools
  • Streaming media – as streaming media plays a larger role in university courses, academic libraries need to manage the costs and accessibility of such material
  • Student wellbeing – as students become more stressed and burdened with problems, libraries are creating spaces where students can relax, learn stress management techniques, and pat some therapy dogs.
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RUNNING ZERO-PREP RPG SESSIONS

I haven’t updated this blog since February. And this post has nothing to do with libraries.

2020 was not a good year. 

I spent most of it in lockdown because of the pandemic. I was separated from my partner for 8 months because of travel restrictions. Two people I cared about passed away. And I took a leave of absence from my Masters degree because I just couldn’t concentrate.

Roleplaying was one of the few bright points in a crap year. 

Despite everything that was happening, I still managed to run more roleplaying sessions this year than in the previous 3 years combined.

Partly that was just logistical: with Melbourne in lockdown, my friends were more available.

Partly that was technological: roleplaying works pretty well over Discord, I discovered.

But mostly it was a big shift in how I prepare for roleplaying sessions. My brain just wasn’t up to writing the level of detailed notes and handouts I normally do. So I embraced that, and practiced no-prep GMing.

How I got started

A friend ran some Call of Cthulhu over Discord, which got me thinking about running some roleplaying of my own on that service. But when I sat down to write something, I found it too hard to focus.

And then my copy of Wolfspell arrived in the mail.

It’s a game about people who turn themselves into wolves to complete some dire quest. But the nature of that quest is determined during character creation. Which means you can’t write the scenario ahead of play.

My big insight was that I didn’t have to. 

I’d been using the Hollow Woods cards as a creative writing exercise: draw three cards, one each for the beginning, middle and end. 

I realised that I could do something similar for Wolfspell: the first scene of the game would obviously be them turning into wolves. Then I could draw three cards for what obstacles they encounter on their way to complete the quest, with the final scene being the climactic confrontation.

It worked. It worked well enough that I decided to run more one-shot games using this sort of structure. I ended up ditching the cards and relying more on the setting to decide the encounters. 

Tip 1: Set a clear goal

A clear goal gives the game direction and excitement. 

If players are interested in achieving the goal, they’ll overlook a flubbed scene or the occasional plot hole, provided the adventure is driving them towards the big climax.

A clear goal also gives you, the GM, the information you need to start extrapolating the scenario. What’s the setting? Who is the main bad guy? Where is their base? What do the characters have to do to reach that base?

Most of the games that I ran were one-page RPGs that had the goal baked-in to the design:

  • In The Witch is Dead, a witch’s familiars try to sneak into a nearby village to hunt down the Witch Hunter who killed their mistress, and pluck out his eyes to bring her back to life.
  • In Sepulchure, a band of thieves try to sneak into the mansions of the rich high elves that rule the city to steal powerful magic relics.
  • In Lasers & Feelings, the crew of the scout ship Raptor try to defend the Consortium of Planets against dangers from space.

But here’s some general goals if you need help setting one yourself:

  1. Assassinate the enemy general
  2. Defend the outpost against invaders
  3. Destroy the cursed artefact before the evil sorcerer can use it
  4. Reclaim your ancestral treasure from marauders 
  5. Rescue the kidnapped princess/heiress/senator
  6. Stop cultists from performing the evil ritual

Tip 2: Use a five-scene structure

This is the core of my approach to zero-prep gaming. Once we have the goal and the setting, I slot in the appropriate elements for each of the five scenes below.

The idea is that each scene should take about half an hour to play through. It may vary depending on your group.

  1. Set up: Introduce the setting, the bad guys, and the goal.
  2. Travel through the wilderness: encounter a setting-appropriate obstacle
  3. Approaching the enemy base: How will the characters get past the antagonist’s minions?
  4. Climax: Confront the bad guy. Complete the quest.
  5. Outcome: What happens now that the characters succeeded or failed?

Tip 3: Slather on the aesthetic

Every setting has its own set of tropes and clichés. If you were making high art, you’d want to avoid or subvert them. But this is roleplaying. Embrace them! They will help orient your players to the setting and the genre expectations, and they’ll provide you with a list of locations and encounters to use.

Don’t forget the atmospherics, too: mentioning the woad on a Celtic warrior or the smoke circling in a jazz club help make the setting feel vivid and alive.

(Unfortunately, a lot of settings and genres have their share of racist, sexist or homophobic clichés. Skip those.)

It’s not strictly zero-prep, but I found it useful to write down a list of setting elements that I could throw in as needed. Here are some examples:

  • Siege of Stalingrad: Russians versus Nazis, ruined buildings, military camps, barbed wire, snipers, hunger, snow.
  • Hadrian’s Wall: Picts versus Romans, stone circles, Roman forts, ancient gods, battlefields, woad, ravens
  • Gothic Horror: innocents versus the depraved, creaking stairs, locked rooms, creepy servants, ghosts, candelabras, mist.
  • Space Opera: peacekeepers versus space tyrants, space stations, lost planets, starfighters, alien monsters, high technology, ancient alien artefacts
  • Pirates: pirates versus the Royal Navy, wild seas, desert islands, storms, sea monsters, treasure maps, skulls.
  • Noir: criminals versus the police, seedy bars, back alleys, car chases, betrayals, trench coats, jazz.
  • High Fantasy: Good versus Evil, forests, castles, magic swords, dragons, prophecies, elves
  • Weird Fantasy: the poor versus the rich, factories, temples, tentacles, crime, masks, masks, decay.

Tip 4: Set up an memorable bad guy

This is really an extension of Tip 3. But a striking, well-defined antagonist makes the game exciting and perhaps even meaningful.

One of the mistakes I made with that first Wolfspell game was that I didn’t introduce the antagonist until the climatic scene at the end, so the players didn’t really feel a connection with him. Now I try to have them appear in the first scene, as per Tip 2 above, so that the players know who they’re up against.

Need some help creating a memorable bad guy? Pick a Style and a Goal from the tables below.

Style:

  1. Rigid and military – military uniform, lack of emotion
  2. Decadent and extravagant – jewellery, ornate clothing/armour/spacesuit, exotic pet
  3. Suave and scholarly – dark suit, goatee, glasses, book
  4. Savage and angry – muscles, leather, tattoos, chains
  5. Disturbingly kind and polite – white clothes, broad smile, a cup of tea
  6. Strange and inhuman – face hidden by scarf or mask, tentacles, cyborg*

* Avoid the James Bond/Star Wars cliché of having deformity = evil

Goal:

  1. Amusement – they think bloodshed and slaughter is entertaining
  2. Civilisation – they want to impose law and order on the rabble and barbarians
  3. Despair – they are so heartbroken they want to destroy the entire world
  4. Envy – they want something that someone else has (a throne, a treasure, a love…)
  5. Faith – they want the world to worship their One True Faith
  6. Glory – they want to history to remember their deeds
  7. Greed – they want wealth and power
  8. Revenge – they want vengeance on someone who wronged them

Tip 5: Make the player’s choices matter

The five-scene structure could be pretty railroad-y if you’re not careful. Here’s three ways I introduced some choice for the players.

Which path do they take?

Give players the choice of which path they take through the wilderness in Scene 2. 

To cross the dark forest, do they follow the paved road (which might be watched), or do they follow the river (where they might get lost)? 

Do they fly their spaceship straight at the enemy space station, or do they try and sneak up on it through the asteroid belt?

How do they deal with danger?

Generally, there’s four ways characters can handle the dangers they encounter: talk, sneak, fight or run away. Let them choose and roll the dice.

I like to give out bonuses to dice rolls if the players take the time to describe how they rig the situation in their favour. “I throw sand in his eyes, and stab him while he’s distracted!” “I swing on the chandeliers to escape!”

I also play it that failing a skill roll means the situation gets worse, rather than an absolute failure: they try to sneak past the guard dogs but they step on a squeaky floorboard, or they try to shoot down the alien space fighters but the force field generator overloads. I let players choose if they want to try again, usually with some penalty, or quit and get the hell out of there.

The final decision: which side are they on?

The climax should be more than a big fight with the bad guy. Have the antagonist explain the conflict from their point of view, and make the players decide if they want to stick to the original mission or change sides.

Some examples:

  • The invading general explains the benefits that his civilisation can provide, such as medicine, clean water and education. Do the characters assassinate him, or join him?
  • The cult leader gives the characters a glimpse of the bliss and peace that her gods provide. Do they join the cult, or eliminate it?
  • The bandit king tells the character that their tribal elders killed his family. Will they join him in extracting revenge, or finish the job the elders started?
  • The ancient evil artefact offers unlimited powers. Do the characters destroy it, or use its powers for themselves?
  • The princess wasn’t kidnapped by the prince of the rival kingdom, she eloped. Do the characters bring her back against her will, or let love go free?

The limits of these techniques

These techniques work best with quest-style adventures. I haven’t tried running a zero-prep mystery game like Call of Cthulhu, for example. I’m sure there’s ways to do it, I just haven’t thought of them.

I also focused on games that were meant to be played in a single session. Some games ended up running for two sessions, usually because players got tired before we reached the climax.

Our Sepulchre game ran for 4 sessions, and grew from a simple fantasy heist to the epic return of an ancient nautilus god. I ended up doing some prep for that game, but it was usually half an hour before the session started, frantically scribbling notes and leaning heavily on the aesthetic to make the session come alive.

If you want more…

If you’re interested in more advice on running zero-prep games, take a look at The Prepless Game Master by Paul Camp.

I mostly ran one-page RPGs this year, because I feel very strongly that you shouldn’t spend more time reading rules than you do actually playing the game.

Most of the games I ran were by Grant Howitt and are available on his itch.io site, but we also squeezed in some Lasers & Feelings.

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