Oh Zotero

Transitioning to a new job is fun and leads to a whole lot of reflection on the differences between institutions:  values, teaching practices, culture, etc.  One thing I’ve noticed about instruction at my new job is that I’m asked to teach students how to use Zotero with much more frequency (and I’ve only been here a few weeks!).

If you don’t know what Zotero is: STOP.  This tool will change your research life.  If you do know what Zotero is: skip the next paragraph.  (I used to love choose your own adventure books.)

Zotero is a free citation management tool that will help you collect, organize, and cite information resources and collaborate with other researchers.  The application can be downloaded on any device, but is a web-based platform and so you can continue your work independent of a particular device.  I can’t emphasize enough how much Zotero has helped sustain my professional growth and has led to a reduction of repeated labor.  I don’t lose information, I can return to resources and notes easily, I can collaborate with friends from afar.  I wish I used Zotero in school and most of the students I introduce it to wish they had known about it earlier in their academic careers.

In the past, I’ve created videos showing the citation magic that Zotero provides so that students have some incentive to go through the download process.  I share it here because I think it’s an alright example of a quick video that can be used for outreach or at the beginning of an instruction session.  It is far from perfect.

Downloading Zotero is a struggle.  I tell students to use the web browser that they use to search most frequently, but Zotero is easiest to download when using Google Chrome.  I send download instructions to the professor and students before class so that we can jump right into all of the cool features after (inevitably) troubleshooting issues.  An important step I’ll highlight here is syncing the standalone (device-specific) version with the browser-based version and changing the preferences to sync “as needed.”

Here are the features I always highlight:

  • Making individual folders, including subfolders. Sharing organizational strategies is fun!
  • Making group folders
  • Getting items into folders in Zotero, both automatically (clicking on the browser extension) and manually (populating the fields in a new record)
  • Using notes – asking students how they take notes. Close reading and strategic organization can help with recall and incorporating information into your work!
  • Using tags – I like tagging books as “done” that I’ve finished in my “Books to read” folder. I don’t take them out of the folder because I like seeing what books I’ve added over time via the timeline tool.screenshot
  • Saving searches. Creating folders that automatically populate based on rules that you set up is really fun.  I have a saved search right now that collects items that have the keyword “information literacy” and are published after 2010.  This was probably an example for class that I’ve kept and find interesting.
  • Using the timeline tool, which allows you to visualize entire folders by publication date or date added to the folder.
  • Getting citations into your paper and changing the citation styles. Again, one caveat is that this works best in Microsoft Word, there is not plugin for Google Docs or Pages.  However, the ability to put in parenthetical citations and click a button to have your entire list of used references automatically appear is really cool.  Students that don’t have Word can always drag and drop resources from Zotero to their reference page.

Many instructors at Muhlenberg seem to ask for Zotero instruction for their seniors, prior to a major capstone project.  At DeSales, a few English composition instructors thought Zotero was exciting and would ask for it to be introduced during their students’ first or second semester of school.  It seems to me that seniors are more interested in the tool because they have experienced that organization and citation problems that frequently occur during large research endeavors.  However, I have never refused a Zotero session – I think its value is immense and relevant to everyone.

Zotero brings power to the researcher.  Corporations know that collecting data on what users do is useful over time.  Take that idea and flip it– collect data on your own scholarly endeavors over time.  Organize your work and keep it.  Return to it.  Analyze yourself and identify connections between articles in the variety of disciplines you’ve collected over time.  You’ll likely find new ideas and might even learn about yourself.

I would love to hear about your experiences with Zotero.  Is there interest on your campus?  Is there a particular time or class that requires Zotero instruction?  Do you use it personally?  Do you have any creative methods of teaching Zotero?

If you’re diving into the world of Zotero now you know who you can ask questions!

The Dark Days of Information Retrieval

On November 20th, 2016 I revealed my professional purpose to my family in a way I had never done before. I posted the following on Facebook:

As a librarian, I am constantly asking students to read and ask questions about the purpose, point of view, and credibility of resources before they use them to inform their own opinions. This article helps to reveal the information structures that exist within social media. Algorithms already manipulate what news you see, whose posts you read, and who sees the things you post. Encouraging awareness of information structures and power dynamics is also part of my job.

When I first accepted my job as a Public Services Librarian I was repeatedly asked what my job responsibilities were – do you think I’ll continue receiving these questions? Before this post, I had never before formed such a statement of self-purpose. But, I’ve been told that I am increasingly relevant and that my friends and family take great pride in my job, and so I should feel confident to assert my professional endeavors everywhere, not just on campus.

The Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education states that “Information creation is a process.” Generally, this frame is the foundation to discussions about peer-reviewed journals and social media posts, or, recently, fake news. However, as I hinted above, I’ve been thinking much more about the algorithms that alter the way we connect with information.

Algorithms are the method that any search engine, feed reader, or social media platform use to deliver content to you. Companies do not publicize the logic, or priorities, that structure the way content is delivered, though web developers and marketing professionals do work hard to manipulate the code so that their content is delivered first. In a world of increasing reliance upon digital delivery of information I think we should call for transparency in algorithm development!

For now, we are on defense – we learn how these algorithms affect our lives after the fact. For example, Dylann Roof’s radicalization story is closely tied to the algorithm that automatically completes Google search terms. An NPR article  reports on Roof’s information search:

[Roof] said that after hearing about [Trayvon] Martin’s death he had “decided to look his name up. Type him into Google, you know what I’m saying?” Roof told investigators that he had read the Wikipedia article for Martin, and then “for some reason after I read that, I,” he paused before continuing, “I typed in – for some reason it made me type in the words black on white crime.”

This same article reveals that by typing “black on” the autocomplete function suggests “black on white crime.” By typing “white on” the autocomplete function suggests “white on white crime.” We don’t know why, but the important thing to know is that these algorithms are written by people and so they can be changed (which Google has done with some inflammatory search terms) and can contain bias. The algorithm development is a process too!

The algorithm that Facebook uses to get posts to user’s feed has also been under scrutiny for creating filter bubbles, the name given to the echo chamber that is created by an algorithm that prioritizes showing users posts from their friends, people who agree with their ideological views. Filter bubbles help in the spread and acceptance of fake news, which was prolific on Facebook during the presidential campaign. Since then, Facebook has voiced a desire to decrease the spread of fake news in the future. How? By becoming a media company or, at least, starting a “journalism project.” According to another NPR report, Facebook will be hiring engineers to make Facebook a better platform for news distribution. One of the initiatives of the Facebook Journalism Project is to “invest(ing) in research and projects that promote ‘news literacy.’” How will the company increase its user’s critical evaluation of the news? A great place to start would be to reveal the structures that get the news to their feed. Will they do that? Probably not.

It’s hard to teach others about the bias, power dynamics, and social structures written into algorithms that fuel our information retrieval online when they are the property of corporations who gain from their private nature. However, the Framework outlines a good place to start: “accept[ing] the ambiguity surrounding the potential value of information creation expressed in emerging formats or modes.” We need to be vigilant about identifying the value, authority, and purpose of information that circulates in our social media and populates our search rankings. And let’s call for more information and transparency surrounding the structures that get information into our digital hands and reasoned minds today!

The One Button Studio: Pushing a button has never harder

One of the newest tools housed within the Trexler Library is our One Button Studio.  The One Button Studio is a video recording platform created by Penn State University that allows students to easily record videos.  And it is VERY EASY.  So much so that our biggest problem is that students are trying to over-complicate the recording process.

Here is how it goes:

  1.  Student books the room, checks out key to room (security precautions), and enters room.
  2. Student puts FAT formatted flash drive into a USB slot. Studio lighting and camera flash to life.
  3. Student hits a button and the countdown begins… 5,4,3,2,1… record!
  4. Student records video.
  5. Student hits button and the recording stops.
  6. Recording is formatted in a few seconds.
  7. Student takes flash drive with correctly formatted video presentation to class.

This tool is streamlined to be easy and to provide a simple service.  However, students were constantly zooming the camera in and out, making it in need of frequent librarian repair.

We decided to make a poster.  one button studio

We are a Catholic University, so we thought that this was an appropriate means of conveying best practices for the One Button Studio.  Since it has been up, we haven’t had one instance of students changing the settings of the camera.