Jan 02 2008

How to Sip from the Firehose

Published by rachel at 8:44 am under keeping up

by Genevieve Williams

My story might seem familiar. One of the blogs I read regularly is Read/WriteWeb, a web technology blog. (One of he best ways, not just to keep up, but also get ahead of what’s going on in the library and information world is to read outside the field.) I soon felt swamped — a perfect example of that oft-touted metaphor for today’s information environment: keeping up with Read/WriteWeb really was like trying to drink from a firehose. And, that was just one blog, albeit a frequently-updated one.

So, I won’t focus here on specific keeping-up resources, though I’ll mention a few. It’s more important to decide which resources to use, why, and when. Perhaps equally important, I’ll talk about how to know how much is enough.

Tips for sipping

Skim the cream. You don’t have to read everything. (You can’t, anyway; there’s too much of it!) But it’s a good idea to have a sense of what’s going on in your area of the profession: what people are talking about, what the latest developments are, what research is being done. If your job involves website design, incorporation of Web technologies or social software, or digitization projects, Read/WriteWeb is an excellent blog to track. If you’re in academia, ACRLog is de rigueur. It’s possible to assemble a bigger reading list than you can manage just by dropping into one of the best-known library blogs and following your nose (or your mouse).

This isn’t just about blogs, though. Professional newsletters and research journals can be something of a crapshoot, but the best ones can keep you at the forefront of developments in the profession, give you ideas for projects, and even spur your own research. The important thing is not to get overwhelmed. Skim around until you find the best one or two newsletters, trade publications, or research journals for what you’re doing (or want to be doing) and read those. It’s a bonus if they’re open access or low cost.

Focus on relevance. It’s better to get to the meat of one or two articles a week than to knock yourself out trying to get through the entirety of (in my case) C&RL, C&RL News, the Journal of Academic Librarianship, and American Libraries every month. You’ve already found the best publications for your professional interest, so now it’s just a matter of picking out what’s most relevant to you, based on your area of subject specialization, your primary job duties, or that new skill or responsibility you’re looking to acquire. Don’t forget that the publication most relevant and useful to you might not even be a journal specifically focused on librarianship, knowledge management, or information science.

Talk, talk, talk… and listen. Feeling overwhelmed yet? There are a ton of lists for every kind of library and information work you can think of, and some that you probably can’t. Business librarian or researcher? BUSLIB-L might be for you. New to the field? NEWLIB-L and NexGenLib have plenty of ongoing discussion.

In addition to online forums of all kinds, from lists to message boards to the comments sections of blogs, don’t forget the opportunities for in-person discussion. Your colleagues at your workplace can be a good start, but what if you’re a solo librarian or an independent consultant, or your colleagues’ jobs are so different from yours that you can’t find common ground? What if you’re the trendsetter, or your workplace environment isn’t conducive to discussion, for whatever reason?

Discussion and idea exchange are the real reason to attend conferences. If you can’t swing ALA, ACRL, or whatever national conference for your particular area of specialization, look into local organizations, local chapters, local informal discussion groups, or virtual conferences. The latter are becoming increasingly popular in this era of high-speed access, restricted travel budgets, and travel insanity, and are often cheap or even free. (Heck, get together with a few like-minded colleagues and start your own!)

Avoid pitfalls and tilt-a-whirls. With all this information coming at you, it’s easy to succumb to the same dangers of information overload that plague so many of our users. Filtering is an increasingly important part of keeping up. Once you’re skimming,
reading deeply, and chatting with others about what you’ve found and what you’re up to, how do you keep all of these channels of communication from taking over your life, or at least your workday? On top of all of this, you do have a job to do!

One major temptation, particularly when it comes to new technology tools, is to adopt a solution and then go looking for a problem. Don’t be afraid to try things out, especially web-based widgets that you can fiddle with on your own before turning them into resources, but don’t try to make every new thing that comes down the Read/WriteWeb or TechEssence.Info pike fit in your own parking lot. At the same time, do be aware of your
organizational or personal working needs. If you find a great application, resource, or information source for keeping current, give it a test drive.

If you’re becoming overwhelmed, or your keeping up actively interferes with your productivity, take a deep breath and cut back. This will help you refocus on what you want to know and what your needs are.

Finally, don’t ignore the trees around you while exploring a completely different virtual forest. It’s fun to have new ideas and to come up with novel ways you and your organization can get your work done, but a lot of the information out there just won’t be applicable or relevant to what you’re doing. Remember that everything you read — including this — is being written by someone working in another context and setting than yourself, and adjust your perceptions accordingly.

Genevieve Williams
is Undergraduate Research Librarian at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, WA. Her irregularly updated blog is titled At Play in the Fields of Ideas.

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