Don’s Conference Notes: The 2015 ACRL Conference

by | Jul 1, 2015 | 0 comments

Creating Sustainable Community

By Donald T. Hawkins, Freelance Conference Reporter and Blogger  

Note: A summary of this article appeared in the June 2015 issue of Against The Grain, v27 #3, on page XX.

acrl-1The 2015 conference of the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) on March 25-28 drew 3,400 attendees to the beautiful city of Portland, Oregon. It was the largest ACRL conference ever.  It also marked the 75th anniversary of the founding of ACRL, and a number of commemorative events were on the program, including cake in the exhibit hall one afternoon.

ACRL Attendees Countries of Origin

The attendees came from every state in the Union and 25 countries; about 1,250 of them (including me) were attending their first ACRL conference.  Many of the sessions were recorded and live streamed as a virtual conference which was viewed by about 300 virtual attendees. The program featured nearly 500 sessions, a busy exhibit hall with about 200 exhibitors, about 200 poster sessions, three keynote addresses, a special 75th anniversary panel discussion, many roundtable discussions on a wide variety of subjects, and an evening reception at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI). Obviously, with such an overwhelming number of activities, this article can only scratch the surface of the proceedings; fortunately, the conference website has recordings of many of the sessions as well as access to the virtual conference (which will be available for a year; registered attendees will receive free access).


Keynote Addresses

G. Willow Wilson


G. Willow Wilson

The opening keynote was by G. Willow Wilson, a comic book writer whose “Ms.Marvel” series about a young female superhero has been widely acclaimed and has been reprinted six times. Wilson is also a journalist and graphic novelist; as a part-time resident of Egypt, she has written about issues relating to the Middle East for several prestigious publications.

In her keynote address, Wilson described the present as an era of tumultuous change in which young Millennials, the most diverse audience in American history, are reinvestigating history and are becoming skeptical about many formerly widely accepted narratives. She said that history often begins with people who look like us, and that is what we look for unless we are presented with an alternative history. The political has become personal; words and terminology matter.

In spite of skepticism, it is important to preserve our historical narratives, even if we question them. Our culture values exploration and innovation; through new narratives of the past, we can become fuller and richer about the human experience. The best thing to do in a time of great change is to listen because new technologies force us to come into proximity with people who may not be like us. How we interact with one another is intricate and personal. Librarians, and especially academic librarians, are in a position to shape these conversations because they facilitate access to knowledge.

Jad Abumrad

Jad Abrumrad

Jad Abrumrad

Jad Abrumrad is the creator and host of Radiolab, a public radio program that is broadcast on over 500 radio stations and is also available as a podcast. Abrumrad is the lead producer, composer, and managing editor of the program.  He is known for combining music, voice, and sound effects into compelling programs.

Abrumrad discussed the difficulties of working with voice; how should it sound and what does it tell us about the life of the person? He noted that radio gives us the ability to connect with people across space and time.  You can be with people even though you are by yourself in the studio.  Your voice is unique to you, and you must find your authenticity when you sit in front of the microphone.

Sound is touch at a distance.  How can one create a sense of a physical connection, even at a distance?  Every Radiolab story starts with a seed of an idea that expands as it is developed.  Frequently, the process stalls, and the story gets stuck.  Some ideas break through as they are pursued, and the story finishes.  Others never break through and are discarded.  The story structure for Radiolab is a mirror of this process, and it happens over and over. There is usually about a 25% probability of a story being satisfactory for the show, so many ideas must be considered (usually about 15) to get enough for a complete show.

Lawrence Lessig

Lawrence Lessig

Lawrence Lessig

Lawrence Lessig, Professor of Law and Leadership and Director of the Safra Center of Ethics at Harvard Law School and founder of Rootstrikers, a network of activists leading the fight against government corruption, concluded the conference with an insightful, challenging, and thought-provoking keynote address in which he examined three principles having a significant effect on academic libraries. He began by noting that there is a common value in many projects, and we need to understand the value of equality and embrace it in the work we do. It is important to understand that equality and freedom are necessarily in tension with each other. From this beginning, Lessig addressed three issues of significant concern in America today.

  1. Corruption in government funding. In the U.S., election campaigns are privately funded, especially at the primary stage. Thus, primaries are mainly influenced by money which has a major effect on Congressional representatives: because of large donations from a small number of donors, elections inevitably become biased. The consequence is a democracy dominated by the funders, and the preferences of the average American have a near zero impact on public policy.
  2. Net neutrality. The internet was designed with a simple architecture which enabled it to foster innovation. Many of the innovations we take for granted today were developed by individuals working in the proverbial garage, who were able produce their innovations because the initial architecture of the internet was one of freedom. No permission to access it was required, which is the basic principle of net neutrality. For example, when an appliance is plugged in to the electrical power network, it is not asked a question to determine the quality of service it receives because plugs cannot discriminate between one appliance and another. However, the code of the internet has changed to make such control possible. The current fight for network neutrality is one to preserve equality and an equal right to innovate. The danger is that the architecture of the internet could be changed to become one of control by businesses and governments.
  3. Open Access. Some copyright laws do not serve their original purpose, which was to create incentives for authors and creators to publish their works. They were not enacted to serve the interests of publishers. For example, when JSTOR was launched, it was called brilliant because of the widespread access that it provided to scholarly journals. But recently JSTOR has been criticized because of its charging practices that limit or prevent access to people not affiliated with universities that subscribe to it.  People often say that everything they need is now on the internet, but this is true only if you are at a top school.  The academics built the world of the internet, but they did not make sure that everything was available to everyone.  Such restrictions serve no copyright purposes of the authors, make no sense, and hinder people around the world from being creative.

Lessig illustrated a tragedy of the lack of open access with an emotional story of Aaron Schwartz, who crusaded for equal access to knowledge. Schwartz was accused of breaking and entering an unlocked wiring closet at MIT and downloading a large portion of the JSTOR database.  The pressure that ensued eventually caused him to commit suicide at the age of 26.

In Lessig’s opinion, equality does not mean the end of big companies or a lack of quality.  It does mean equal access to a platform of equality and skepticism about power and how it is exercised.  He said that we must remember and relearn what role equality plays and how it relates directly to us and suggested reading Our Declaration (Norton, 2014) by Danielle Allen. As scholars and librarians, we have a moral obligation to preserve knowledge the way it was promised–as universally accessible as possible.

75th Anniversary Panel: New Roles for the Road Ahead

A panel of three experts: Steven Bell from Temple University, Lorcan Dempsey from OCLC Research, and Barbara Fister from Gustavus Adolphus College, discussed New Roles for the Road Ahead, a report containing essays they wrote to mark ACRL’s 75th anniversary. Each panelist began by describing what they like to write about:

  • Bell: The intersection of higher education and libraries and how we integrate our work into the community around us.
  • Dempsey: Technology, which we think of as something to be managed and taken care of, and citation management, which has moved from a paper-based to a networked environment, resulting in the development of specific programs such as Zotero and Mendeley and the emergence of a social element.  The article is becoming a social environment around which recommendations can grow.
  • Fister: Information literacy, including students and our relationship with them; how we can collaborate with other units on campus and contribute to public knowledge. We are at a critical point now and must embrace open access and give it resources, or it will become just another business model.

Chuck Henry, president of the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR), who moderated the panel, noted that the information profession used to be an environment of transactions, but it has moved on from that and is now living and breathing.  The two contexts discussed in the report are higher education and how we need to work together to solve issues, and how librarians are involved in the organization of knowledge, data collection, and managing scholarly communications.  The panelists identified collaboration, the perception of the library as a supporter of research, visibility, privacy, and change in higher education as issues that need to be addressed.

Libraries and Food Trucks

acrl-6What do food trucks have to do with a library conference besides providing an attractive and convenient source of food?  As it turns out, a lot, as a fascinating study by Kate Emery (IUPUI) and Todd Schifeling (University of Michigan) showed.  Twitter has become a cultural movement; libraries and food trucks both use it heavily to market to their clienteles. Some of the conclusions of the study, which provide many lessons for libraries, are:

  • Twitter has become part of the business model for food trucks.
  • The majority of libraries do not do any reciprocal tweeting, but food trucks do. The figure below shows the significant difference in Tweeting patterns between libraries and food trucks.
  • Academic libraries have been on Twitter longer than food trucks have, but trucks tweet much more than libraries.
  • Trucks engage with their users more than libraries do; libraries’ Twitter usage is more like a newsletter.
  • Libraries tweet more URLs and link to external content more than trucks do, but the trucks engage more with their community.


Reference Services


Crowdsourcing is not merely another engagement opportunity; it also provides a means to solve requesters’ problems. In the reference environment, crowdsourcing is an opportunity to encourage reciprocity among communities of students because it optimizes librarians’ workflow, permits access to expertise not available locally, and leverages the skills of online communities. The Purdue University library has developed CrowdAsk, an FAQ system where any user can ask and respond to questions. It has a system of points and badges to encourage usage; higher level users receive privileges like editing and prominent featuring of their questions.  The system does not replace librarians, but it helps them by eliminating repetition of lower-level questions. A demonstration site is available at http://crowdaskdemo.lib/

Bypassing ILL

#icanhazpdf allows users to use Twitter to ask others to send them copies of articles directly, thus bypassing an interlibrary loan (ILL) process (see the web version at  A recent study found that its largest user groups are academics and students, and 90% of the requests are for journal articles (the top journals requested were Nature and Science and the top subject area was life sciences and biomedicine). The most popular publication date of the requested articles was 2014, which suggests that some users may be using the system to get embargoed material. Most users have made only one request.  Some people use this site because they do not approve of current copyright laws and usage restrictions; others think it is a violation of copyright (for example, one recent Tweet called it “a guerilla open access approach to scientific publishing”).

Relevancy and Search Failures in Discovery Services

Discovery services continue to be widely used, but do they retrieve relevant results? A study by librarians at the University of Southern California libraries of users of Summon, Google Scholar, and Google found that 76% of the results retrieved from Summon were considered relevant by requesters, compared with 79% from Google Scholar and 91% from Google.  Most of the searches were for titles.  Users tended not to use quotes in their queries and simply typed in fragments of titles. Librarians can help students improve their searching by explaining why searches fail or return unexpected results by teaching them to be more strategic searchers, explaining the “why” of searching, not just the “how” and providing troubleshooting tips. Vendors should be urged to improve relevancy, improve “do you mean” suggestions, and provide query reformulation tips.

A similar study from Rider University found that students did not know what to do with keywords, even if they had been taught about them.  Most searchers use words from titles; few of them use terms in subject headings and abstracts.  Many students do not know what they are looking at when the full text is on the screen or when they see a link to a link resolver, and they fail to pursue the articles by using the citations.

New Researcher Tools

A study by SAGE Publishing of 226 doctoral student researchers’ use of tools such as Google Scholar, Mendeley, EndNote, and Zotero found that 19% of them did not use any tools, but of those that did, 85% used more than one.  They view tools as part of their workflow and research lifecycle, using them for managing citations and organizing and storing documents to create a personal library.  Tools were used to save time and money.  Portability and increased file storage capabilities are important requirements for many students.  No single tool met all of their needs. Libraries can help their users by making them aware of the tools that are available, and steering them towards those that will make their research life easier.

Demand-Driven Acquisitions (DDA)

DDA programs allow libraries to offer a wide range of content to their users but buy only the items that will be actually used.  It has been hailed as a savior of budgets but condemned as reducing the librarian’s role in selection. Jane Schmidt from the Ryerson University Library said that DDA programs are not “one size fits all”, but they can help librarians refocus their attention on the user.  Although important, usage is not the only metric to be considered; the user can offer a valuable contribution to selection process.  Fears that DDA will result in skewed collections are largely unfounded because librarians are still selecting.  The parameters of DDA must be defined by the library. We need to look beyond our own ideas in collection development.  The selection of collections is not a good use of the librarian’s time; they can forge connections with the faculty instead of just buying content.


Search and discovery have recently become prominent, resulting in a tendency to reject browsing as an effective retrieval technique.  But browsing is an important research behavior, especially now that large image databases have become widespread. It provides more opportunities for serendipity in discovery, and recent focus group participants have expressed a desire for browse options.  Browsing is a means to develop taste; today we can see things in a new way because of technology (see E-browsing requires good data and can be combined with searching.  For example, the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) found that the most important thing that users wanted was to browse topics in depth and get access to the actual content, not just metadata and tiny thumbnails.

Gregg Gordon, President of the Social Science Research Network (SSRN), an aggregator of social science content, wondered what we must do to make serendipitous discovery work.  For the articles in its database, SSRN provides hyperlinks to original references in lists of citations, which allow perusing the literature seamlessly.  He noted that the first retrieved article may not be the one that the user needs, but one that influenced it. Browsing allows the searcher to understand how articles are related.  We need to remove ontological constraints and make things easy to understand.

Self-publishing and Academic Libraries

Robert Holley, Professor at Wayne State University, said that now over 50% of the titles published in the U.S. are self-published—a phenomenal growth. Libraries are not well equipped to deal with these materials because of quality issues, lack of metadata, and fewer reviews.  The Library of Congress acquires few self-published items, and vendors have not figured out how to handle them.  Many self-published titles are fiction, so public libraries know how to handle them better than academic libraries.  They tend to document popular culture and are therefore a window on hidden parts of American culture. Academic scholars tend to like to self-publish because they have complete control over the content and format and do not need to change it to improve a publisher’s marketability. And some self-published textbooks may be inexpensive enough for libraries to purchase—an initiative that is being supported by Amazon.  Self-publishing is still in its infancy, but it is experiencing strong growth.  Academic libraries will need to address its implications in the future.

The Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) and Academic Libraries

The vision for DPLA, a national comprehensive network of online resources, emerged in 2010, and it has become a portal that aggregates content, a platform for users to use content in new ways, and a public advocate for expanding our cultural commons. DPLA is a portal to a larger network of library resources and is a model of how we can scale a library infrastructure in the digital age by providing our users with new tools and new ways of engaging with resources.

Jonas Lamb from the University of Alaska Southeast noted that DPLA contains over 6,000 items with Alaska location data, but none of them were contributed by Alaska-based institutions. So he is reaching out to the Alaska Library Association and other Alaska-based organizations to promote DPLA as a teaching and learning tool.

Kristen Yarmey, the Pennsylvania representative to DPLA is working on building a hub because they create large increases in usage.  The DPLA platform can digitally reunite physically fragmented collections, but primary sources introduce complex information literacy challenges.  The DPLA provokes discussions about rights and access to knowledge; Yarmey wondered if the DPLA’s platform could play a role in the dissemination of scholarship by cutting through institutional repository silos and help academics reconnect with the public.

Kathryn Shaughnessy from St. John’s University said that people help make the DPLA work.  Librarians have excellent networks and can contribute to professional development of users.  They are also part of campus interest groups which fosters collaboration.  Many small collections are in the DPLA, which is an opportunity for academic librarians to work with public libraries.

Emily Gore, DPLA’s Director of Content, reported on DPLA’s strategic plan for 2015 through 2017. DPLA’s 13 service hubs and 9 content hubs are located across the nation comprise its 1,350 partners; these numbers are growing. Major contributors are university libraries, public libraries, museums, and historical societies. Service hubs are aggregators that bring content in to DPLA; content hubs are large institutions with large databases that they share with DPLA.  Most objects have obscure rights statements; very few have creative commons licenses.  The DPLA has a library from which several apps have been created and are available for downloading.

Open Access (OA) and Open Educational Resources (OERs)

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) continue to draw attention, and not only in the education field.  Gene Springs, Business Librarian at Ohio State University, took a calculus MOOC course (its textbook was called “The mooculus textbook”) and noted that reading a math book requires working alongside of the text, in contrast to simply reading it.  He then did a massive study of MOOC course materials, registering for 114 (!) courses hosted on the Coursera platform, recording the course information, and analyzing the materials. He was interested in whether they were freely available or required payment, and if something was free, was it open. He found that 31 courses had no materials, 28 had materials requiring payment, 22 had free materials, and 33 had a combination of pay and free. For librarians the low adoption of OA and OER content means that they must continue their efforts to educate faculty, be OA advocates on their campuses, support open publishing, and optimize the discovery of OA content and OERs.  He concluded that MOOCs are not the disrupter that they were originally forecast to be.

Brian Young, Reference Librarian at the University of Mississippi, got a grant to assess faculty perceptions of OERs and found the following:

  • It is difficult to obtain contemporary or modern open textbooks; some faculty said that they had few OERs to review.
  • There is an ingrained process for selection of textbooks, which is difficult to overcome.
  • Some faculty members using OERs have had to change their expectations of students and redesign class processes because they expect students to have their materials with them in class.
  • Better marketing for library-licensed and purchased resources is needed. (The University of North Carolina, Charlotte has a database of books that can be used with multi-user licenses.)
  • Most barriers to OERs are caused by difficulties in finding appropriate materials.

Phil Roche and Steven Irving from Southern Utah University said that students love alternative textbooks because they do not have to spend money on them, and faculty like them because they can use very current information.  OERs are a good way for the library to promote collaboration and position itself as an education center on the campus


E-books continue to be a popular subject on many conference programs, and ACRL was no exception. The first presentation in its session featured three librarians from Yale University and was entitled “Ebrary on the Radar: Some Unexpected Truths about Usage”.  Ebrary’s Academic Complete product was chosen by the Yale Library because it was both loved and loathed; collection stability, the user interface, and deleted titles all had an impact.  By studying usage reports, a wealth of data was obtained, including cost/use (which was less than $0.03 per page view), top LC classes in the collection by title and number of uses (led by social sciences and language and literature), top publishers by title count (John Wiley and Oxford University Press led the list), and publishers by usage frequency (Cambridge University Press was the leader). Performance measures were calculated using a formula published in an article in Electronic Resources and Libraries in 2014. Low usage titles are deleted twice a year by Ebrary because of its contracts with publishers; when a title deleted by Ebrary has high usage at Yale, they try to get it from another source, such as Safari Books or Books 24×7.

Ann Agee and Christina Mune from San Jose State University Library evaluated e-book accessibility and features of 16 platforms from a user perspective. They found that many librarians and faculty members are concerned about spending funds on hard to use and inaccessible e-books.  They often compare bookstore lists with e-book collections and find some overlaps; sometimes they buy electronic textbooks.  Results of the study showed a wide variation in features: only half of the platforms allow a user to jump to a specific page; five allow note-taking; very few publishers offer text-to-speech output, only one (Springer) allows printing of the entire book, and some allow printing or downloading of a single chapter or specific page ranges. Content is most frequently displayed in PDF or HTML format. Single publisher platforms offer more capability and flexibility than those of aggregators; some of them provide extra features to users who are willing to create personal accounts.  The complete study results are available at

Kendall Hobbs and Diane Klare from Wesleyan University reported on their study of student e-book experiences. More students are using more e-books but almost everybody reads academic e-books on a laptop because that is where they are doing their work; 86% said they prefer printed books because they are used to them and because they like the physical experience of reading. When students were asked to find a preselected e-book, several went to Google Books instead of the library catalog. When they use a book to write a paper, they generally look at the Table of Contents, then the index, and find relevant passages with points they need in their paper.  Most issues had to with controlling or manipulating the text; students want to control the text like they do with printed books, but after they got used to e-books, they became more selective in what they printed. The main reason students choose an e-book is to get the interactivity not found in printed books. Their ideal e-book would have better emulation of print, more intuitive interfaces, more consistencies across platforms, virtual workspaces, and embedded audio and video.

Makerspaces in Academic Libraries

John Burke, Library Director at Miami University of Ohio, presented a list of questions and considerations to be thought about in the decision to install a makerspace in a library:

Makerspace questions

  • Clean, dirty, or both?
  • An open lab or classes/workshops?
  • Staffed, or checked and maintained?
  • Will it be noisy? Smelly?
  • Will dedicated space be used?
  • Will all making be done in-house, or will the technology be circulated (checked out)?
  • Funding by library, fees, and grants?
  • Are there any liability issues?

Why consider a makerspace?

  • Will it fit into the library’s mission?
  • Is it an answer to community’s needs?
  • Will it provide access to services/materials/skills?
  • What are the possible funding sources?
  • Is the staff interested in having a makerspace?

acrl-8Megan Lotts described a fascinating playing station that she installed at the Rutgers University Art Library using Lego blocks. (Lego blocks? What application could they have in an academic library?) At the I2C2 (innovation, inspiration, and creativity conference) held in March 2014 in Manchester, UK, a Lego Serious Play workshop was held at which participants used Lego blocks to build models about the work and the challenges faced in making libraries more innovative. Lotts brought idea back to Rutgers and installed a Lego play area at a table in the Art Library. A “block party” was held; people were asked to make things or models of an ideal library. The party was a success; some of the students who came had never been in the library before, and some stayed to play for 2 hours. Faculty and staff began to use the Lego station for team building and hands-on exercises and to stimulate thinking about better ways to use library resources and spaces. Lotts said that she leaves some of the models up for several days after they are made; photos of the table are taken daily and made available on social media platforms.

The Lego activities were important because:

  • We are more likely to learn and return again if we have fun.
  • Making and engagement with others help to build critical thinking skills that are applicable in library research.
  • Making models with others can be inspiring and create community.
  • All people have a voice and want to be heard; this activity gives them an opportunity.
  • Lego blocks use hands-on active learning to communicate and build critical thinking skills, and they are an activity that makes people happy.

A Lego Playing Station is a low cost activity; all that is needed are the Lego blocks and a table. Marketing and outreach are important; incentives can help. The Playing Station has been a catalyst for building bridges between faculty and staff on the Rutgers campuses as well as for making connections with students. It has led to a greater understanding of how the act of making and implementing a culture of creativity can influence library users. Lotts concluded with the observation that one of the most interesting parts of this project has been coming into the library every day and seeing what has happened at the table.  On some days, it looks like a group of grubby young children has been let loose, and Lego blocks are strewn everywhere including on the floor. On other days, elaborate models have been made that tell stories about the students, their lives, imaginations, and dreams.

The next ACRL conference will be held March 22-25, 2017 in Baltimore, MD with the theme “At the Helm: Leading Transformation”.

Hawkins-150x148Donald T. Hawkins is an information industry freelance writer based in Pennsylvania. In addition to blogging and writing about conferences for Against the Grain, he blogs the Computers in Libraries and Internet Librarian conferences for Information Today, Inc. (ITI) and maintains the Conference Calendar on the ITI website. He recently contributed a chapter to the book Special Libraries: A Survival Guide (ABC-Clio, 2013) and is the Editor of Personal Archiving, (Information Today, 2013). He is currently editing a book on public knowledge which will be published by ITI in early 2016. He holds a Ph.D. degree from the University of California, Berkeley and has worked in the online information industry for over 40 years.


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