Educators That Rock!: Michael Stephens

Photo courtesy of Michael Casey.

Last week, findingEducation spoke with Michael Stephens, an assistant professor at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Dominican University in River Forest, Ill. As the 2009 CAVAL Visiting Scholar in Australia, Stephens spent five weeks of his fall semester riding camels on the beach, as well as lecturing and researching the impact of the Learning 2.0 self-directed technology program.

Stephens coauthored a column in Library Journal for more than two years. He recently shared a column in Digitale Bibliotheek, a Dutch library journal, with Jan Klerk, and engages with readers on his blog, Tame The Web. In 2001, he published a book, “The Library Internet Trainer’s Toolkit, and between 2006 and 2007, wrote two library technology reports on Web 2.0.

fE: What made you choose to teach library science and why technology skills, specifically?

MS: I spent 15 years working in the public library setting. In 1995, the library that I was in was the second in the world to have a Web page. This was at St. Joseph County Public Library in South Bend, Ind. Some of the jobs that I had there revolved around teaching staff what the Internet was, and what we might do with it. I started doing public classes and found that I liked to introduce people to technology.

I got my Master of Library Science in 1995. I started teaching as an adjunct for Illinois University, and realized that this was something I wanted to pursue more. Luckily an announcement about the program funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) at the University of North Texas came into my inbox with a couple weeks left to apply. They funded 10 people to get a doctorate in information science, so they could go into teaching positions in library schools. I applied and got in!

fE: What can you tell me about the Learning 2.0 Program and your research in Australia?

MS: The research is ongoing. We’re prepping the paper for a conference in Australia in February and a couple of articles to follow.

Learning 2.0 came about in August 2006. I was glad to see your interview with Helene Blowers, who created the program. What she conceived was a program for library staff to experience blogs and podcasts and all these new technologies through self-directed learning. She asked me and my colleague, Michael Casey, to come to Charlotte (to her library) and talk with the staff as a way to launch the program. Since then I’ve ran my mouth a little bit telling librarians at conferences, “This is something you need to do.”

The program has been replicated at hundreds of libraries all over the world. And the research seeks to measure the actual impact of the program on Australian libraries that have done it.

This past fall, when I was doing the research project, I was talking to the head librarian at the Yarra Plenty Library and I said, “You were the very first library in the world to do this, after Helene launched her program and made it free and open to use in other libraries. Why did you do that?” She said, “I read about it on your blog.” I was very flattered.

fE: Can you tell us what you learned from your research on Learning 2.0’s impact on libraries in Australia?

MS: We talked to almost 400 library staff via a Web-based survey. We found the number one impact that respondents perceived was “Increased awareness of Web 2.0 tools and a more inclusive feeling for the staff.” That was 30 percent of the 380 people we talked to. And 21 percent of the respondents said, “We are using tools more for services and getting work done in the library.” It’s very interesting to also note that 20 percent said that they saw “No impact.”

About sixty people reported in the survey that they did not complete the program. When we asked why not, the number one answer that 74 percent gave was “No time. Too busy.”

So that says to me that if a library is going to offer this all-inclusive program, they need to get behind it and make sure that time is given to work on the learning modules. One of the deliverables for this research project is going to be a list of exemplary practice or guidelines to do it, and to do it well. That bit about offering time will be in that list for sure.

fE: As someone that does a lot of research, do you have any tips for students and Web users that get search engine fatigue?

MS: Number one: Talk to a librarian. But if you’re at home, look at some of the other search engines, some engines that search the news specifically or blogs, like Technorati. That type of thing may help you find more than Google blog search. Also use the databases your library offers to get to things not available on the open Web.

For students, in general, I would urge them to read stuff, to follow their curiosity. To read everything that interests them … because that’s one way we learn.

fE: You’ve written a lot about Starbucks trying to make their store the “third place,” after work and home. What can libraries do to become that third place?

MS: Libraries are doing some really exciting things to position themselves as that place where people want to gather. I always like to remind the librarians who come to my presentations: What we should do is we should encourage the heart, in every way possible, from the building, to the signage on the walls, to the way our staff interacts with library users, to how friendly and useful our Web sites are.

fE: What are some examples of things that the best libraries are doing right?

MS: There’s a wonderful library in Delft, Holland, called DOK, which a lot of people are talking about. They are launching an initiative where library users can share their stories and their histories, and this becomes stored data of the library; that absolutely fascinates me.

I recently spent a day at the Darien Public library in Darien, Conn. One of the staff told a great story about their philosophy of customer service: A patron needed a book desperately, and it was checked out and overdue. They just ordered an extra copy of the book on Amazon, and had it mailed directly to the patron’s house, and said, “When you’re done with the book, just bring it in and we’ll add it to the collection.” That patron will remember that interaction forever.

fE: How important is branding to libraries? And what do things like blogs and wikis have to do with stewardship?

MS: I think branding is important. I like seeing librarians who are actively engaging with users, via Facebook, via Twitter, and identifying themselves as a librarian or staff member at the library. I think that really helps carry the brand and mission of the library.

The library brand is also created by library users. That’s why things like tapping into review sites, finding what users are saying, allowing comments to post, and having that back and forth are very important.

I see stewardship alive and well in the new social spaces like Flickr, where a library can share a digital image collection and ask for user input on tags, comments, notes, etcetera–all enhancing the collection. That’s a beautiful combination of one of our foundational values (stewardship) meeting an emerging, collaborative sharing tool. The best use of social tools in libraries will be the ones that tap into our core duties and responsibilities as librarians.

fE: In one of your presentations, “The Hyperlinked Library,” you talked about libraries letting go of control, because it helps level the playing field. Can you explain what makes this true?

MS: Where I live in Indiana, for about a year, my public library blocked all access to Facebook and MySpace and other social networks. There are probably young people in this town that don’t have a computer at home, or Wi-Fi or an iPhone. They hear about Facebook, but they don’t have any experience. To me, the library is a perfect place to help break down those barriers.

Also, things like getting to put your hands on an iPod touch or a flip video camera, as part of a teen program, are so important because not every teen is growing up with technology.

fE: How do you meet the needs of different generations of patrons, particularly older ones?

MS: For one thing, you ask them. You tap into what their interests are. They may want the tried and true library things: bestsellers, magazines to peruse, movies, games and whatever else.

Also, the Groundswell blog from Forrester Research shows us there are Creators, Critics, Collectors, Joiners and Spectators using the changing Web and Inactives not using it. The good thing is that Inactive demographic is shrinking. Statistics on their site show that the biggest number of folks joining Facebook is skewing older.

So we might get the teen group and the senior citizens together and do something where they might record the histories of the town. And give them other learning opportunities as well, related to sites like Facebook.

fE: You once described yourself relaxing by a lake and tweeting. Due to a location-sensitive application, you could see that there was someone across the lake that was also tweeting. Is there ever a point where you say, “This has to stop. I need to unplug.”

MS: Location-aware applications are going to really change the way we interact with the world and with people we know and trust. I think it will be another big gamechanger for how people find and use information. But at the lake that night, I realized it also might be time to disconnect. I’ve long advocated for having that balance; it helps us recharge when we come back to our work.

Towards the end of the trip to Australia, we visited Magnetic Island, just off the coast of Queensland. We had no cell phone coverage, and no Wi-Fi, because I didn’t pay for it. It was just being on an island, hiking, getting in the water, kayaking. It was perfect.

Michael Stephens’ Favorite Sites:

Librarian in Black
Seth’s Blog
Logic + Emotion
JOHO the Blog

Related Link Resources
Learning 2.0
YouTube: Michael Stephens
ALA Tech Source: Web 2.0 and Libraries Part 2: Trends & Technologies
ALA Tech Source: Web 2.0 and Libraries: Best Practices for Social Software Library Technology Reports (42:4): Web 2.0 and Libraries
2009 Charleston Conference: Issues in Book and Serial Acquisition: Hyperlinked Library Service: Trends, Tools, Transparency