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Bringing archives into the undergraduate classroom

February 26, 2018
A letter written by a soldier in World War II.

Image courtesy Jessica Showalter

A partnership between Penn State Altoona Library Director Bonnie Imler and history instructor Jared Frederick is giving undergraduate students hands-on experience working with historical archives. Their experience offers some strategies for librarians seeking to bring archives into the undergraduate classroom.

Students in Frederick’s fall 2017 HIST 112 course examined some of the library’s over 500 WWII-era letters as part of their introduction to public history, which Frederick describes as “the concept of sharing culture and the past through programming and techniques at historic sites, museums, libraries, and parks.” Each student chose one letter-writer and then followed him or her through the war. Later, they wrote biographical essays about their chosen letter-writer.

Imler says, “Many of these students had never worked with archives before. Connecting them with these primary documents lets the students be historians and do original research. Plus, since the letters were written by correspondents who were former Penn State Altoona students themselves, reading them helps today’s students engage with our university history and makes it personal.”

The Collection

Assorted World War II items from the Robert E. Eiche Collection.

Image courtesy Jessica Showalter

The letters are part of the library’s Robert E. Eiche collection. Eiche, for whom the library is named, served as Penn State Altoona’s first campus director from its founding in 1939 until 1968. When many of the campus’s students and faculty enlisted in the military during WWII, Eiche kept up correspondence with them. Their letters describe their training, deployment all over the world, and their struggles to reintegrate when they returned home after the war. Many of the letters express gratitude for Eiche’s continued correspondence and news from home throughout the war.

Imler worked with the Penn State Libraries Preservation, Conservation, and Digitization department to get the letters de-acidified and catalogued. Former student Kallie Sheets and current staff member Jessica Showalter entered metadata about the letters into a database, recording information such as the letter’s author, the author’s military affiliation, the letter’s place of origin, and an abstract of its contents. The database allows researchers to quickly search the hundreds of letters.

Hands-on research

Students visited the Historical Archives room and examined the letters as well as related ephemera including V-mail, Christmas cards, and photographs. Most of the letters are hand-written, so Frederick’s students had the opportunity to decipher and transcribe the manuscripts.

Imler says, “They learned some strategies for handling and interpreting physical materials, and they got a feel for the environment of a reading room.” Frederick praised the physical space. He says, “The recent creation of our archive room in the library provided a wonderful work space ideal for concentration and research.”

Using digital archives

Imler also taught the students how to track down more information about the letter-writers using several of the library’s databases of digitized archival materials. Frederick says, “Many library databases were of immeasurable assistance. Newspaper Archives provided much material regarding the personal, local details of service members researched by my students, including some other notes they sent home. offered the more bureaucratic perspective of the war, giving enlistment information, pension benefits, burial details, and the occasional photograph.”

Making student research visible

The biographical essays written by Frederick’s students are now part of the Eiche WWII Letters collection. Imler says, “Including the biographical essays with the letters will serve as a valuable resource for researchers in the future. Plus, it gave these students an opportunity to write for an audience beyond the classroom and to contribute to our university’s legacy.”

Looking forward

Imler and Frederick’s partnership is ongoing. Frederick is planning to use reproductions of the letters in an upcoming exhibit to commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day in 2019, which Imler will promote with an interactive display in the library. Imler’s display will allow patrons to examine physical copies of the letters as well as explore a digital exhibit that will be customized to the patron’s interests.

Looking forward, Frederick adds, “Ideally, I would like to see the letters in some book form–either transcriptions or converted into a narrative. I also think the story of the letters would make for a compelling documentary, which I think WPSU could and should produce.”


Building a Virtual Reality Lab

February 26, 2018
Penn State's Immersive Experiences (IMEX) Lab

Penn State’s IMEX Lab (Image courtesy Jessica Showalter)

I was floored when I experienced Virtual Reality for the first time at Penn State’s new IMEX (Immersive Experiences) Lab. And I almost ended up on the floor—thankfully, IMEX Media Consultant Dan Getz was there acting as a spotter so I did not dive into the desk in front of me. The lab, which was created and funded by Teaching and Learning with Technology (a Unit of Enterprise IT), offers some useful lessons for libraries considering making space for a VR lab.

More and more researchers are using VR in fields including health care, engineering, travel, training, design, gaming, and storytelling, and libraries are seeking to keep up with the trend. According to the American Library Association’s new initiative, the Center for the Future of Libraries, “Libraries have long served as points for the public’s first exposure to new technologies, and they could again play that role with virtual reality . . . There is a significant push to bring virtual reality to education with many innovators focusing on two of the key services of libraries—collections and spaces.”

A range of equipment

Libraries planning to incorporate VR may be interested in the inventory of a space like the IMEX Lab. The lab offers equipment ranging from inexpensive Google Cardboard headsets, to mid-range 360-degree cameras that capture views in every direction simultaneously, to high-end Oculus Rift VR headsets and high-powered computers with video cards fast enough to run the VR equipment. It also has a soundbooth, a 2-monitor curved display allowing for multiple viewers of the same video, and six iMacs loaded with Adobe Premiere for 360-degree video editing.

A dedicated space

While lending equipment at a circulation desk is one possibility for libraries considering VR, having a dedicated space is important. First, the space offers access to specialized equipment and software. On top of that, it means expert help is always available (Getz’s office is integrated into the lab). It also gives users the ability to move around in VR environments safely.

“Once you are immersed in VR, you forget your physical surroundings,” Getz said. “We came up with several design strategies to keep viewers safe and comfortable while they are in VR. Our pinwheel design [pictured above] for our viewing pods features chairs with very heavy bases so they don’t tip over if viewers lean, and the chairs are also dual-pivot so that viewers can spin to explore their 360-degree videos. The tall walls of the pinwheel give viewers a sense of privacy so they don’t feel self-conscious.” Plus, as mentioned earlier, Getz can serve as a guide and spotter when someone is using one of the taped-off areas designated for the two Oculus Rift stations in the lab.

A service model

Development of the IMEX lab is ongoing. Getz explained, “The lab is less than a year old, and we are still trying to scale the service model.” Currently, the service model includes working with faculty to design assignments and then supporting them with workshops that introduce 360-degree video, teach the basics of using the cameras, and teach how to edit the videos in Adobe Premiere.

Getz also described how the IMEX lab works in concert with other units, including the Media Commons and the Maker Commons. For example, Getz explained, “Using Blocks by Google, a student can design a 3D model in VR, download the design, and send it over to our 3D printers in the Maker Commons to have it printed.”

Getz added that he and his colleagues are working to develop an app that would sync videos being watched by multiple viewers. “If an instructor is teaching with a 360-degree video, it could create confusion because students wearing headsets can look in any direction they wish and have individualized paths. With this app, the instructor could pause the video with a control device and project a specific moment and direction on a screen so that multiple viewers could discuss the same thing.”

The opportunities created by VR are exciting, but the new technology could present some barriers to entry. With this in mind, the ALA Center for the Future of Libraries emphasizes the importance of VR being accessible and affordable for all. According to the Center, “Even as VR helps provide more equitable access to content, it could also become the next realm of exclusive content . . . [which] could provide challenges to libraries’ mission toward equitable access as well as concerns for cataloguing and organizing these exclusives.”

Social Listening By Committee

February 22, 2018

sociallisteningby committeeAs Access Services Librarian, I manage circulation, interlibrary loan, and the college archives. I supervise twenty student workers, two interns, and three staff members. I’m involved with instruction, as an embedded librarian in history classes held in the archives and as a first-year experience instructor. While marketing and social media are my passion, they are not always my priority.

My library added our social media channels late in comparison to our peer institutions. Our Instagram started in Sept. 2015, Facebook followed in June 2016 (showcasing our recent renovation), Twitter was next in February 2017 and Tumblr in June 2017 (capitalizing on the college’s wonderful and often unseen archival collection).

With the creation of our Facebook account, I was asked to establish a social media committee. It included another librarian, a part-time staff member, plus four savvy student workers. We met weekly and the feedback the students gave was critical. It was also really important to me, considering all my responsibilities, to carve out time for social media.

Often times I didn’t agree with or understand the students’ comments, suggestions, and feedback, but I really listened and thought critically about what they had to say. Many times they had very thoughtful and insightful ideas and suggestions and contributed at a high level. The committee’s feedback was and still is invaluable. The majority of what the students shared about their expectations of social media and specifically the library’s social media was echoed in more formal educational conferences and workshops that I have attended in the last few years.

The students also encouraged the committee to engage in what I later discovered to be “social listening” or monitoring digital conversations to gain insights about our followers. And while I interpreted it at first as “creeping,” I found value in understanding our social media audience.

While I’m sure no one really wants another meeting to attend or committee to join, I encourage you to carve time out of your busy schedules to listen to your audience in person and online. Once you have feedback, truly listen and act on suggestions when appropriate. This gen-Xer doesn’t always get it, but I haven’t stopped trying to understand and neither should you.

(Photo credit: Lebanon Valley College Archives, “Readers Club,” Quittapahilla yearbook, Internet Archive, 1930,

Collection Assessment & Faculty

February 21, 2018

Does the title of this blog post strike fear in your heart? It worried me a little (OK maybe a lot) as I looked down the project timeline for a much-needed library renovation that is happening at W&J. The size of our library is not changing in this renovation but we are adding more open/collaborative study space. Therefore, we have been working on an extensive collection assessment project focused on reducing the size of our collection. Speaking with one of our senior faculty members she believes it may have been 20 years or more since a project like this was undertaken.

Going into this project all the librarians felt that the only way for this to be successful was for the library to be very transparent and inclusive in our decision-making. Throughout the fall semester, each liaison librarian reached out to their departments and asked for a chance to attend a department meeting. These meetings yielded really good conversations with the faculty about what resources they’re asking their students to use, what criteria might suggest a resource is no longer relevant to their field, and how the library, in its new space, can work with them to better serve our students. While not everyone is enthusiastic about reducing the size of the collection, I think that through this open dialog they at least feel that their concerns have been heard and that we are willing to work with them to make sure we aren’t removing anything that is a core resource.

Based on the criteria determined by each department we used purple dots to mark the spines of books that met those criteria. Now we are in the phase where faculty members are coming to the library to review the dotted items. They have the option to save dotted items and dot other items for removal. Feedback from the faculty who have come in so far has been really positive. They said they were dreading reviewing the books on the shelf, however, they found value in really taking time to look at their collection as a whole, rather than just locating the one book they needed and grabbing it from the shelf. Some faculty have indicated finding gems that they didn’t know we had in our collection. One faculty member is meeting with students from his class, in the library stacks, to look on the shelves for book resources that pertain to their research topics.

So while this aspect of the renovation was something I was initially fearful about, I think it has been a huge opportunity for us to forge better relationships with the faculty, particularly in departments that haven’t traditionally been big library users. We look forward to working with faculty to acquire resources that fill identified gaps in our collection and we plan to implement a schedule for collection assessment where we will invite departments to come in every 3 or 4 years for a happy hour in the stacks.

If you’re interested you can follow along with our renovation project here,

Has anyone else had experience with this type of large-scale collection assessment? I’d love to hear your experience.

I Wanna Market Libraries When I Grow Up

February 20, 2018

I wanna market libraries when I grow upWhen I was an undergrad, like many students I teach now, I couldn’t put a name to what I wanted to “do with my life.” I liked customer service, art, writing, graphic design, and I also loved libraries and the freedom they embody, so I became an English Communications major.

Right out of college, I was lucky to get a job in a library and obtained my MLS while working there. Since then I have worked in public, community college and four-year college academic libraries. In these libraries, I have created, organized, designed, and contributed content to newsletters, flyers, blogs, websites, social media channels, etc. all while juggling other more important or pressing job responsibilities.

Last fall I attended the Library Marketing and Communications Conference. For the first time after many years of doing this work, I got to step back and consider how much these “other duties” impact libraries and how much this work meant to me.

Inspired by my students and this conference, I realized how marketing libraries is a culmination of my education and work experience. I came back almost feeling “called” to promote libraries and I had the drive to learn more about the subject. 

Therefore, my future blog posts will have a practical focus on social media marketing of small academic libraries. Again I am not an expert, but an interested practitioner who hopes by sharing my knowledge, success and failures we can all do better.

(Photo credit: Lebanon Valley College Archives, “Maureen E. Anderson,” Quittapahilla yearbook, Internet Archive, 2000,

On the Spot: Why I value chat reference services

February 19, 2018

The first rule of reference? Be visible and approachable (see RUSA Guidelines for Behavioral Performance of Reference and Information Service Providers).

On a reference desk, this is somewhat easy to do. Desks are typically located in a visible, (hopefully) high-traffic area. The staff member at the desk then tries his or her best to be “approachable” – your mileage may vary; bright yellow PLEASE INTERRUPT ME buttons are still common conference giveaways. But the desk is there, in sight for anyone who would come to your library to visit it.

So the desk is visible, but is it always approachable? You may say, yes, as long as a student is on campus, they can approach us. But what if their campus isn’t physical? At Penn State, we serve more than 18,000 online students through World Campus. They deserve equitable access to library resources that their on-campus counterparts receive (see ACRL Standards for Distance Learning Library Services). In my experience, World Campus students make up a large component of those I assist through chat reference, though I do also assist students from all of our campuses.

Chat reference is stressful. You don’t always know the answer, and it may be hard to quickly find someone who has the right answer or expertise to help with a highly specific research question. You may be bombarded with question after question. And yet, I volunteer for shift after shift, along with a large number of my colleagues. I often think of the students, especially those at a distance, who may be equally frustrated that they cannot physically walk into their campus library and request help. It is crucial that they have the opportunity to seek and receive research help, making chat reference a vital library service.

Think pieces and social media comments often bemoan the anonymity of the internet. People can be more awful to each other because it is easy to forget that there is a real person behind a screen name. Though sometimes I will receive spam chats, they are not very common. I think that the anonymity of chat reference can be freeing for students, who may be afraid they are asking a “stupid” question, or may feel overwhelmed by their assignment.

Consider a very visible reference desk. It may be approachable in terms of location – but if a student can easily see you, then it means that everyone else can easily see them when they ask for help. That visibility may be a struggle for some. Perhaps speaking is difficult for them.

But in a chat reference situation, there is no one behind a big desk to intimidate. There’s a chat box for you take your time and type out your question. If you’re nowhere near a campus, help is still available. If you’re on campus, but can’t (for whatever reason) visit a desk, help is a click away.

More than half of my reference transactions take place via chat reference – though I spend about equal amounts of time per week on chat reference and a traditional reference desk. I am always working to improve my chat references interactions, and encourage my fellow librarians to become more involved with our chat reference services. It can be a lot of work sometimes, but there are immediate outcomes, especially for students who have pressing information needs. And if you like being in the hot seat, there are always plenty of questions for you!

Connect & Communicate Series: IF I APPLY video ready

February 19, 2018

Thank you to everyone who attended our Zoom session, IF I APPLY, held on Friday, Feb 16, 2018. You will need a password to watch it. Session will be available for 30 days.

Video Link is here: IF I APPLY Zoom Session

Access Password: palacrd

Thank you Kat Phillips, Eryn Roles, and Sabrina Thomas for this excellent update to the CRAAP method for evaluating resources. Many of our attendees were excited to see and hear about this new method.

Thank you to Sara Pike for doing our closed captions, and Amanda Avery for moderating.

Kat, Eryn and Sabrina have kindly shared their PowerPoint: IF I APPLY Updated CRAAP Test for Evaluating Sources Webinar, handout:IF I APPLY SOURCE EVALUATION, and LibGuide.

If you participated in this session, please fill out the evaluation form here.