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10 Questions With...

April 17, 2007 at 2:57 pm

...Sam Demas, College Librarian

Today we're introducing a new feature in Shout, called "Ten Questions With..." Every month, we will be conducting a 10-question interview with a member of the Carleton faculty or administration, and presenting the transcript for your reading enjoyment.

Our first interview is with Sam Demas, the college librarian. Okay, it ran a little over ten questions, but it should still be interesting reading.

1. What do you do day to day?

Day to day I talk to lots of people, I have lots of meetings, I try to determine what the needs of our faculty, students, and staff are, for information resources and services, and think about how our programs are meeting those needs. I communicate with my staff all the time about what they’re doing, and try to find the resources to ensure that Carleton has a library and a set of services befitting its academic inquiry and mission.

2. Do you think the Carleton library is fulfilling its mission well?

I do. I do. I believe we are, and we have actually undergone a departmental review. It was about two years ago now. Every ten years each department in the library is reviewed by itself. We do a self-study internally by a committee of people from the campus, and by an external committee. So confirmation of the fact that we’re performing our mission came from those three studies. They all pointed out things that we’re doing very well, and they all pointed out areas that we should be paying attention to. But the overwhelming consensus is that the library is performing its mission quite well.

3. What would you do to improve how the library’s doing its job?

I would say that we’re possibly working to improve our services by trying to get a better sense of exactly how people are going about finding information. That is an activity that is changing in this world. With the availability of so many resources on the Internet, the patterns of information seeking and research behavior are changing, and so we’re trying to figure out how to really understand what it is people are doing and what they need. One thing we’re doing is developing some assessment tools, to get a sense of what students know when they come to Carleton, about how to find information, and using the results of that to tweak what we do.

Another thing we’re doing to improve our services is adopting new technology. For example, we have begun to use some software called D-space, which is called “institutional repository software.” It’s designed to do for the campus’s digital output what the Archives downstairs does for the campus’s paper output, which is to capture some small fraction of it that documents the history of the institution. Currently, an awful lot of work that people do at Carleton is documented digitally, but it exists on people’s hard drives, and on CDs, and departmental servers all over campus. What’s needed is to organize an effort to identify that part of it that we really ought to keep for the future, and to put it into a digital archive. That’s what the liberal arts scholarly repository does.

Another example of what we’re doing to improve our services is working with the faculty on information literacy. But I think you have another question on that topic.

4. How are these digital efforts related to the library’s effort to promote information literacy?

They do, and I would say that that’s one of the key aspects of our mission, is to ensure that students are able to find information on any topic that they wish to, and able to evaluate the quality of that information, and able to store it away, and then retrieve it later, so that they build their own personal information systems. These we believe are critical skills for a liberally educated person. They can move over time from one knowledge base to another, and master new areas of knowledge, knowing how to move into an area, figure out what’s known, figure out what the issues and the questions are, what the important sources of information are, and then begin to the extent that they wish to to build their own personal information system, whether it be in file cabinets, or a personal database, a note-taking system, an elaborate system of bookmarks, Web resources... There are many different ways of organizing your information. These are all parts of what we do, in information literacy.

The reference librarians have written up a brief position paper on information literacy. This was developed through discussions with the library committee and given to the Dean of the College as a contribution to the curriculum review, which is currently underway within the college. It’s the first time in I think it’s fifty or sixty years that the curriculum of the college has been reviewed. We put this very brief statement together in hopes of stimulating some discussion as to how faculty can integrate these information finding and evaluation and organization skills into the curriculum of the college, into the assignments in particular courses, and so on.

5. What are some of the things that the library does particularly well?

I would say that it does a very good job of serving students in terms of helping them finding information. We have the Research/IT desk here, and I think when students come to the desk to get some help in finding something, they get consistently excellent help, whether it be from the reference librarians or from the SCIC students who work there, whether they’re asking a technology question or an information question, and often they’re related.

I think we do a very good job of surveying the universe of information resources that are out there, determining what subset we need to have available to people at Carleton, acquiring or licensing that, organizing it, and making it accessible. I think we’ve done a very good job of improving our Web site in recent years. It’s more navigable, more intuitive, and I think that the friendliness as well as the professionalism of the service that the students get is one quality of the library. All of that that I just mentioned is really what the staff of the library does. It’s because we have such an excellent staff that I believe we do a good job in those areas.

We also take good care of our physical collection. The print collection is very well maintained in terms of the condition of the collection as a whole, the state of repair of the individual volumes, the maintenance of the collections in the book stacks. They’re neat and orderly, they’re dusted regularly. One area that we don’t do a very good job in is ensuring the longevity of the collection through good stewardship practices in terms of food and beverages in the library.

6. What is your opinion on the Integrated Pest Management Program?

I think maybe the right question is what about our food and beverage policy and its overall enforcement. We do have something of an Integrated Pest Management Program in that we try to ensure through a variety of strategies that the collection will not be subject to damage, in this case through insects. That’s a matter of excluding food from the library, at least from most parts of the library. It’s a matter of ensuring that there aren’t beverages spilled in certain parts of the library, and that we don’t get the residues of particularly sticky sweet beverages in the trash cans around the library. So we’re not doing too well on that, because it’s really a drag to enforce the policy.

7a. I heard that the policy is coming under review. Is that true?


7b. What changes might the library consider making?

I would just say that we’re open to all kinds of changes. We’re really at this point in a listening mode. We want to hear what people in the community have to say. There is a survey that will be done by the students on the library committee on the student body. The library staff has asked the library committee for its advice on our policy. The library committee has in turn asked the two students on the committee to poll the student body and bring a sense of the students’ opinions to this conversation.

We’re open to anything from leaving it the same with greater enforcement, or liberalizing the policy, or potentially tightening the policy further, although that seems to be out of step with the times, when everybody expects to be able to eat and drink in copious quantities any time and anywhere they want. We’re willing to consider having coffee and beverages in the library. But all of that is against the backdrop of not abdicating our responsibility for stewardship of the collection. It is essentially a communal resource, the collection of the library. It doesn’t belong to the library, doesn’t belong to any segment of the campus, it belongs to everyone. We happen to be its custodians, here in the early part of the twenty-first century. This collection will be here one hundred years from now. Two hundred years from now. We have to ensure that we do our part to keep it.

8. How can students have input on this issue?

We’re hoping that the survey will be done by Survey Monkey [an online survey tool], and all students will receive it in their e-mail. They’re still working on that. There’s a possibility that it will be administered in paper form in the library, but our preference is that it be done via e-mail. Either way, every student who wishes will have the opportunity to register. But students don’t have to wait for a survey. They also could let members of the library staff know what their thoughts are.

9. What do you see as the goal of Carleton College?

Carleton’s goal is to deliver a top-quality liberal education, to ensure that students go out into the world with a greal liberal-arts education and the ability to continue to learn throughout a lifetime.

10. How does the library relate to that goal?

Well, we provide access to the record of human knowledge, for people to use in the course of their inquiry, whether it’s to do class assignments, or to conduct more in-depth research for comps, writing a paper, preparing a presentation. We try to provide the resources and a lot of the tools necessary to find and use and present information as part of the education process.

A big part of what libraries do is to serve as a sort of collective buying agency for information. It’s been shown over time that it’s actually much more cost-effective for a community to devise a neutral ecumenical organization called a library that buys information on behalf of every one rather than have each member of the community have to pay for the books, the journals, the databases, the e-journals, the datasets, whatever, on their own, because what happens then is that those people who have money are able to secure more information, or information more readily, than those who don’t have money. We are trying to provide a level playing field for this learning community so that everyone, regardless of their income, their socioeconomic background, the popularity or the unpopularity of their topic of inquiry, they all have equal access to information.

11. How do you approach your job?

I hope with vigor and passion and enthusiasm. How do I approach it? I talk to people a lot. I learn a tremendous amount from talking to people about what their needs are, what their interests are, what seems to work for them, what doesn’t, whether there’s external audiences. I talk to faculty and students a lot, I talk to my own staff. I go out into the world to conferences and meetings to interact with people in the library community, in the IT community, and in the publishing community, to try to ensure that Carleton is represented in those conversations, regionally and nationally, and that Carleton is well aware of what’s going on out there in the world of information. And I try to get the resources from the college to ensure that the library staff is also out and about in the world, doing a constant sort of environmental scan of what’s happening in the world of scholarly communication, what tools are available, and how we can best utilize those tools and those resources on behalf of faculty and students here.

12. What’s your favorite book?

That’s a hard one. Can I list more than one? One book that I read about a year ago that I’m still very much in love with is Michael Pollan The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which I think is a really important critique of the American food system. I’m a big fan of his writing generally, and he’s written two other books that I like very much. One of them is called The Botany of Desire and the other one is called Second Nature. He’s kind of a science journalist. And I have a favorite book in the architecture arena called Pattern Language, by Christopher Alexander, which if you’ve never looked at, it’s a wonderful compendium of ideas and types in architecture and design.

In the fiction arena, I like the works of Wallace Stegner, in particular a novel called An Angle of Repose. I love a book by Gabriel Garcia Marquez called Love in the Time of Cholera, a beautiful love story. Another book I read in the last year or so that I’ve really enjoyed is called The Wisdom of Crowds. I don’t know if you’ve ever read that. It’s by James Surowiecki. It’s actually about economics and game theory, which I don’t know very much about, but it’s written for lay people. It’s a wonderful disquisition on how there’s tremendous knowledge and wisdom out there in the world, and how you can go about tapping into it.

Those are some of the books that I hold dear. I’m actually very interested right now in reading more about yoga. There’s a book called The Heart of Yoga that I’m enjoying, and one called The Anatomy of Hatha Yoga that is like a textbook that I dip into.