Chris Zammarelli

The Sounds of Library Science

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We Want Qualitative Information

I am quite desperate for a way to manage and analyse qualitative data.

My main job task at work is managing quantitative data. If it’s a number we can plug into a spreadsheet, I know how to collect it. There is plenty of room for improvement and, to be honest, I am cursing the fact that I didn’t pay more attention in my Access class in grad school. But generally speaking, I have a good handle on the types of quantitative data we collect, the flaws and the needed improvements to our processes and to our datasets, and the ways we can use that data to tell our story to whoever asks.

But we have access to all sorts of qualitative data as well. For example:

  • Reports from foreign service officers;
  • Cables from posts;
  • Reports submitted to an internal reporting system;
  • Posts in the community forum on our website;
  • Posts in our Facebook group;
  • Newsletters and other activity reports that are either sent to us directly or shared via our email lists.

All of this is spread out over a variety of disconnected locations. We have troves of information stashed in mattresses all over our house and seemingly no good way to tie it all together.

So that is my holy quest: to research and compile ideas for managing qualitative data and figure out how best to implement those ideas. I am told that it better not just result in a word cloud.

Promise Me No Promises

If there is one thing I’ve learned, it’s that I shouldn’t write mission statements or apologies or anything when I inevitably try to revive my blog. I’ve got almost 20 years of broken promises cluttering up my website.

I am aware that I am 44 words into my first blog post in just over six months and I am already drowning in self-loathing. It’s a thing that I do.

The thing is, this week is LIS Mental Health Week, and that is what inspired me to pick up the blog up again. I am working on managing my anxiety, so I would like to share a checklist that I devised to help me out.

  • Determine and prioritize goals
  • Block out time in a calendar to work on tasks
  • Make a daily mood check to assess how I am feeling
  • Write a daily diary entries or other forms of writing (blog posts, poems, etc.)
  • Do something enjoyable
  • Beware of the drink when stressed or depressed
  • No devices at bedtime
  • Deep breathing when struggling to fall asleep
  • Doodle more
  • Separate what you can control from what you cannot control

It’s not perfect and I am not perfect at sticking to it. (Boy, do I ignore that “no devices at bedtime” suggestion.) But frequently re-reading the list has been helping me get through my daily grind.

I have also taken to heart something I read by Tammi Kollinger on the Bullet Journal blog: “Humans are messy and make mistakes.” In my mind, it is a corollary of the Cult of Done Manifesto. I should tape it to the wall and re-read it every time my creative destruction tendencies creep up again.

Scrawled Down On a Cocktail Napkin

I am going through old notes, long-deleted blog posts, and various weirdly-titled docs on my hard drive to generate ideas for the blog, for work, and for whatever else may come my way. I’m a habitual note-taker, so I figure I have a lot of stuff to write about if I can just extract it from my notebooks. And also read my own writing.

I’m just getting started, but I wanted to share a couple of things I scrawled down during the 2016 Computers In Libraries conference. These are both good guiding credos for this site moving forward.

1. Always communicate your value. It is not self-evident.

I had a colleague once complain to me that I shouldn’t have to justify the costs of research databases in our budget because everyone knows how important they are. But that’s not true. Every librarian knows that, but we are not everyone. We are not our users and we are not our stakeholders. We cannot assume that everyone values what we do, so we need to explain our importance in a succinct and memorable way.

2. Keep it clean and make it findable.

If there is any sort of sweeping, broad statement that we can make about our users, it is that they just want to know where they need to go to accomplish what they want to do. It is our job to make that as easy as possible. And they will expect that from us, because we communicated our value to them.

A Post About Slack That Isn’t Really About Slack

There used to be a website called Meebo. It was a web-based instant messaging system that could be integrated with AIM, Yahoo! Messenger, Google Talk, and other IM systems. Users had the option to create their own rooms, which allowed groups of folks to chat in one place at the same time.

Meebo was a terrific little website. Then one day in 2012, Google bought it. Google integrated the Meebo team with its Google+ team, then quietly closed Meebo up.

There also used to be a website called FriendFeed. You could hook it up to all of your various social media accounts and blogs and so forth and all those accounts would feed into your FriendFeed account. You and your friends would be able to see and comment on everything you were populating the web with.

Over time, the function of collecting posts from your sundries became less important than just posting stuff directly into FriendFeed and talking with your friends and followers about it.

FriendFeed was a terrific little website. Then one day in 2009, Facebook bought it. Facebook took whatever code it needed for its Newsfeed feature and… well, let FriendFeed continue to exist. Gradually, FriendFeed began to deteriorate: features would stop working and the site would sometimes go down for awhile. For six years, FriendFeed users felt like it was not long for the world, but it only closed up shop in 2015.

Which brings me to Slack. The bureau I work for licensed Slack a couple of years ago with an eye towards improving telework. The idea our Bureau’s leadership had was that we would use Slack to get quick responses to short questions and to converse with coworkers about projects rather than bogging down inboxes with emailed conversations or interrupting a telework day with unnecessary phone calls.

At first, I didn’t really get it. I have been teleworking regularly for years, so I already had a routine down. (In other words, I’m a bit stubborn.)

And then light dawned on Marblehead: Slack is like a combination of Meebo and FriendFeed, except for work. It takes a lot of what I liked about Meebo (channels here instead of rooms) and a lot of what I liked about FriendFeed (integration with other resources, private group discussions and archived direct messaging) and packages it up for a work environment.

Granted, it lacks things I liked about Meebo and especially FriendFeed: for example, the threaded conversations in FriendFeed were unique in a way that even Slack’s threads don’t quite capture. But once I made the connections between resources I had used before to this resource, I could start to think about ways I could work it into my job.

The lesson here is that everything you have learned informs everything that you are going to learn. Just making some simple parallels can be the cognitive breakthrough you need to understand how something works and how it can work for you.

Things That Might Go Click With Me

I have to admit that my mind is a bit of a swirl right now. It’s hard to explain why yet, but perhaps I am dropping hints below. Or I am just summarizing three interesting reading materials that I recently pored through.

Tanya Golash-Boza. “Writing a Literature Review: Six Steps to Get You from Start to FinishWiley Exchanges (2015).

Golash-Boza lists steps to help dissertation writers organize and write their literature reviews. The post summarizes the literature review section of Sonja Foss and William Walters’ book Destination Dissertation: A Traveler’s Guide to a Done Dissertation.

Katherine Brown and Chris Hensman (editors). “Data Driven Public Diplomacy: Progress Towards Measuring the Impact of Public Diplomacy and International Broadcasting Activities (PDF)” U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy: Reports (2014).

The U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy report names five areas of public diplomacy evaluation at the U.S. Department of State and the Broadcasting Board of Governors that need to be changed and makes recommendations on how to modernize and systemize evaluation in those areas.

Kylie Hutchinson. “The Demise of the Lengthy Report.” AEA365 (2017).

Hutchinson describes how “layering” (her term) data into different types of reporting formats, such as newsletters, infographics, presentations, et cetera, can expland the value of data, extend its reach, and replace an ominous final report. The post is a bit of a promo of Hutchinson’s new book, but it also succinctly encourages you to think about different ways to present your data to different audiences.

Where Do I Begin?

Here is as clear a mission statement for this blog as you are going to get:

This blog will explore how librarians use data to understand audiences and improve services.

What does that specifically mean? I don’t know. We’ll see.

To start, I’ve written brief summaries of a few articles and reports that have been influential in my work over the past six months or so.

Pip Christie. “Are Librarians Becoming Data Analysts?Vable (2016).

Christie points to potential opportunities librarians have to market themselves as data analysts and discusses ways to use data analysis tools to one’s advantage. Useful from the perspective of identifying ways librarians can put their skills to use in new ways.

Mahesh Kelkar, et al. “Data-driven Decision Making In Government.” Deloitte Center for Government Insights (2016).

A team from Deloitte Center for Government Insights describes best practices in U.S. government data-driven decision-making and outlines techniques government offices can use to improve their analytics capabilities. Really nice report that offers a thoughtful road map for building program evaluation capacity.

Bill Pardi. “If You Want to Be Creative, Don’t Be Data Driven.” Microsoft Design (2017).

Pardi discusses potential problems with being too reliant on data to drive decision-making. Reminiscent of Darrell Huff’s “How to Lie with Statistics.”

One Little Room & the Biggest of Plans

My duties at work have shifted a bit recently. I still have my old duties for now; I’m supposed to be handing them off, but so far I have been pretty terrible at delegation.

Anyway, I’ve been trying to wrap my ahead around what is now on my plate. I have a big project on my hands, and at first glance, I thought my main task would be to tie together seemingly disparate resources. Because of that, I got bogged down in a lot of legacy details and I gave myself a headache trying to sort them all out.

At some point this morning, though, I got fed up with looking at all the minutiae and went for a walk. I wanted to just go outside and dream for awhile. And also buy a crepe.

When I got back to the office, I wrote up a few paragraphs describing the ideal result of the project. I probably missed a few details here and there, but I figure my colleagues will fill them in for me. The point is, I got something down on paper to get the ball rolling and now my path is a bit more clear.

For a long time, I had the Cult of Done Manifesto pinned to a wall in my cube. I took it down because I’ve moved a couple of times in the last few months. I feel like it’s a good time to put it back up.

6. The point of being done is not to finish but
to get other things done.

Crochet that on a pillow.

Out of the Ashes

When I began graduate school 10 years ago (‽‽), I started a blog to track my progress. It became a useful tool when I was working on my graduate thesis and when I participated in a tour of German federal and state libraries.

After I graduated, I didn’t do a particularly good job of maintaining the blog. Without anything specific to focus on, I wrote in fits and starts. I tore up pages and then taped them back together (metaphorically speaking). I laded myself with whims and side projects that were merely annoyances and distractions instead of fully realized concepts. I obsessively reviewed posts I wrote in the past, desperately trying to generate new ideas.

Basically, I was carrying a lot of baggage that I didn’t need to lug around anymore.

So I stashed everything I had written before into one location and locked it up (again, metaphorically speaking). Then I started a new blog!

To be honest, I am looking to my old stuff for one last idea: you see, I have a lot of work and a lot of research to do in the coming months, and I want to track my progress. I hope this blog will be useful.

I Don’t Even Think to Make Corrections

I’ve been driving down this road holding a map to the beach. It seemed like a straightforward route and at a certain point, I hit a stretch of the road where I stopped consulting the map.

So I didn’t notice that the highway divided and I ended up on a parallel route. I can still see the road I intended to be on, but I can also see in the distance that the two roads are going to diverge and I will be heading away from the beach and towards the mountains instead.

I pull over. I check the map to figure out how to get to the beach from where I am. I spend a lot of time staring at that map. Then I look up and I see the mountains on the horizon. As I stare at them, I realize that I ended up on the right path despite myself.

Now I am trying to figure out how to get to where I want to go. I was packed for the beach, so I need provisions and sundries for the mountains. Really, though, the first thing I need is a map.

Oh No, Got to Write a Little Later

One of the things that I have always known about myself is that I don’t have a good grasp on time management. It has never really come back to bite me in my career, but as I take on more duties at work, I can see that I am in real danger of dropping balls if I don’t get a handle on that.

I use time management as a blanket term to mean productivity and personal organization and all sorts of other jargon like that. I don’t really mean that I am trying to transform myself into a slick engine of productive output. I’m just trying to manage tasks so that I am not feeling overwhelmed when I look at everything on my plate.

Here are three broad items that I am working on:

I use day-to-day tasks as an excuse to procrastinate on broader tasks.

In other words, I can’t work on this big project because I have all these little things that I’ve decided are more pressing.

I jump from task to task too quickly

Rather than completing or reaching a good stopping point on one task before moving onto the next, I work on three or four at the same time, bouncing between each.

I spread my to do lists across too many platforms.

Self-explanatory.

So I am experimenting with a few different techniques and tools to improve my skills. I am starting small, making adjustments rather than going on a crash diet. This way whatever positive changes I make will more likely to be permanent.

Also, while I may post progress reports here, I’m not planning to write some sort of “10 Time Management Tips That Will Completely Change Your Life and Make You the Most Important Person at Your Place of Work and They Will Buy You Stuff” article. I’m just trying to figure out what works for me. Your mileage may vary.

Now… got to find a piece of paper.

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