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Tools of the trade: A librarian lens on academic technology

Power to the Librarian: Exploring the impact of the 21st Century librarian

July 01, 2012

Jenn Stringer
The Power to the Librarian project illuminates the experiences of exceptional library professionals who are empowering their users to achieve great success. These experiences are explored in a series of case studies available here: Power to the Librarian case studies. - See more at: https://libraryconnect.elsevier.com/articles/supporting-users-organizati...
The Power to the Librarian project illuminates the experiences of exceptional library professionals who are empowering their users to achieve great success. These experiences are explored in a series of case studies available here: Power to the Librarian case studies. - See more at: https://libraryconnect.elsevier.com/articles/supporting-users-organizati...

The Power to the Librarian project illuminates the experiences of exceptional library professionals who are empowering their users to achieve great success. These experiences are explored in a series of case studies available here: Power to the Librarian case studies.


Given the dramatic effect that information technology has had on libraries in recent years it is not surprising that many who trained as librarians find themselves enmeshed in the IT departments of academic institutions.

Jenn Stringer, Director of Academic Technology Services at New York University (NYU), is a typical example. Her primary degree was in librarianship and she has “reported in and out of libraries” throughout her career. Now she finds herself in a key information technology role at a major university with a student population of 43,000. Her library background gives her some special insights into how information technology can be deployed to enhance and support the learning process.

We have to think about how we surface that content and make it accessible for the people who need it. The librarian’s lens is all about metadata. It’s about understanding how people think about how to find what they’re looking for.

“I look at things with the lens of a librarian,” she says. “That background helps me recognize some of the strengths and pitfalls of new tools that folks coming from a traditional IT background might not see.”

An example is the deployment of the Google suite of applications that is supported by the Shared Academic Services unit, which Stringer manages. She works with faculty members to help them deploy tools such as Google Documents, Calendar and e-mail to support teaching and learning, a standard IT support role. But her librarian’s insight lets her see the potential of Google Documents as a document repository as well as a collaborative editing tool. So now NYU is exploring how Google Documents may be used as a repository for storing academic content.

The key focus of Stringer’s librarian’s lens is content, whether it is teaching and learning material, or faculty-created content that goes into the learning management system or content that students create. All of that material now sits in a number of different systems.

“We have to think about how we surface that content and make it accessible for the people who need it,” she says. “The librarian’s lens is all about metadata. It’s about understanding how people think about how to find what they’re looking for.”

Two strategic considerations for Stringer in NYU are the need to support content on mobile devices and a project that promises a radical new approach to using a learning management system. “We can’t think of mobile as an afterthought,” she says. “Like saying: ‘We have this great website; how can we make it accessible on a mobile device?’ We have to think about mobile first and consider just how people are going to use such devices.”

The potential for mobile devices in a university environment is enormous. Students are using them to gather information during field work, or to look up material while in class. Among the challenges for Stringer and her team are how to put meta data around material collected in the field to make it more useful and accessible, and how to make use of context-aware technologies, more commonly found on phones than PCs, in an education environment.

The SAKAI Open Academic Environment (OAE) is a new learning management system which is the result of a collaborative development project involving several universities. SAKAI OAE allows all content including documents, images and video clips, to be tagged with meta data and made available across a network of people. Stringer is excited by its potential to make material generated by the university more easily searchable and accessible.

“A lot of the ideas behind how they built it came from that information science perspective,” says Stringer, “from the perspective of sharing content and realizing that there were better ways of doing it.”

The synergy between those with library or informationmanagement skills and IT professionals is marked. Although now firmly in an IT services role at NYU, Stringer has no fewer than three colleagues in the IT department with library qualifications, each of whom uses them in different ways.

“People who come out of library and information schools now have a number of career path opportunities available to them outside the traditional librarian role,” she says.

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