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A day in the life of the Library

Take a tour through the library of the 21st century
By: Will Sloan
March 15, 2018

Photos: Students in the Ronald D. Besse Information and Learning Commons; Research help desk; Librarians Cecile Farnum and Don Kinder; The Geospatial Map & Data Centre; Archives and Special Collections librarian Alison Skyrme; books from the Children's Literature Archive in Archives and Special Collections; part of the Kodak collection in Archives and Special Collections; the Isaac Olowolafe Jr. Digital Media Experience (DME) Lab; experimenting with technology in the DME Lab. Photos by Ryan Walker. 

It’s 10 a.m. at the Ryerson University Library and Archives (RULA), and the Research Help Desk is open for service, with librarian Don Kinder on hand to answer any questions. “This is a walk-in service,” he says. “Students just walk up to the desk, and we get every type of question under the sun. There’s only one Library at Ryerson, so we will have an engineering question one minute, the next minute it might be business, it might be nursing. So, you have to be constantly on the ball.”

Ryerson’s 11-storey Library tower opened in 1974, and expanded in 2015 with the opening of the Student Learning Centre (SLC). For as long as RULA has existed, there has always been a Research Help Desk. Now it is located at the intersection where the Library meets the SLC. Librarians have specific areas of expertise (Kinder is the liaison librarian for nursing and midwifery, and other librarians have expertise in nutrition, business, engineering, and other subjects), but all have a general knowledge of the curriculum. Most of the questions are research-focused, and many of them are about peer-reviewed academic articles (What are they? Where can they be found? How do you navigate the online databases? Why is “peer-reviewed” necessary?).

The desk is not just a place where a Librarian finds you an article, says Kinder. “We’re here to teach students information literacy skills: how to find the information effectively and efficiently; how to evaluate the information; how to use that information ethically and legally; and to make them aware that they’re part of the information-producing process.”

“Students are consumers of information, but they’re also producers, and they often don’t realize that. In writing their essays, they are creating new information. Their blogs, their tweets, their Facebook posts—that’s the new 21st century reality. We are all producers of information, but with that comes certain responsibilities and a need to be aware of what’s out there. That’s what information literacy tries to address.”

How do you teach that in under 20 minutes? “We ask questions,” says Kinder. “What type of information do you need for your paper?  Who wrote this article? What are their credentials? Why did they write it? If it’s from a Google search, is there an institution affiliated with it? Is there bias? What does that mean?  Who does that author of that health science article work for—is it a pharmaceutical company?  A hospital? Our role is to teach students about information, its numerous sources and multiple forms, to ask questions and think critically about it. It’s also the Library’s contribution to help fight “fake news” and other misinformation.”


“A multimodal approach”

Kinder has been at Ryerson since 1991, when “everything was card-catalogued.” Much has changed since then. In librarian Cecile Farnum’s office, a chat window opens on her computer screen:

"hi.. i am doing an assignment for my elective and i am having difficulties in finding peer reviewed journals - can you please help?"

This morning, Farnum is staffing Ask a Librarian, the virtual service through which students on- or off- campus can communicate with librarians. “We try to have a multimodal approach to research help: in-person services, bookable appointments, and free workshops throughout the term,” says Farnum. “But increasingly, what libraries are doing is virtual reference support. That’s supporting people where they are working.”

She continues typing…

Librarian: ok, let me give you a few suggestions…which course is this assignment for?

Patron: Sociology

Librarian: There is a libguide for Sociology, which will give you suggestions on Library databases to use for your search:

Librarian – These databases can often find you articles you may not see in Google Scholar…would you like to try searching one of these?

Patron – Ok… I scrolled down a bit and selected Sociological Abstracts

Librarian – Great! Once you’ve logged into the database with your my.ryerson account, we can try some keywords

RULA was one of the first to introduce a virtual chat system in 2001 with a handful of other universities. The systems have changed, but the structure has remained similar. “Ask a Librarian is supported by a number of universities in the province,” Farnum adds. “We use a common software, and we all contribute staff hours based on the number of students—the bigger universities contribute more hours than the smaller ones—and we all collaborate to run this service together.”

Patron – ok…hang on…ok, I’m logged in

Librarian – wonderful…in the basic search option, you can type in your keywords: gender, representations, advertising

Patron – ok, I did that…but there are too many results and none of them seem to relate to what I want to talk about

Librarian -  Ok...that’s quite common…one of the things you can do is create a more focused search, for example, are you interested in a particular kind of advertising? Magazines? Television?

Patron – television

Librarian – if we add in television as an additional keyword, you will get more specific results.  You can also limit by year of publication, and look only at peer-reviewed content – look at the limits on the left

Patron – oohh!! Ok, I get it now…

“If you think of the average undergrad, they’ve grown up in a digital world,” says Farnum. “They often don’t know the difference between the content we have access to versus the content they can find easily on the web. Someone might be stunned that they can get access to information through the Library that they can’t find on a Google search.

“I think that’s the biggest surprise: the concept that paid content is still a thing!”


“When I started here, that lab was mostly paper maps”

Located on the Library’s main floor in the Ronald D. Besse Information and Learning Commons, the Geospatial Map & Data Centre (GMDC) serves a broad range of Ryerson students. How broad? In his office, data and GIS technician Noel Damba runs through some of the frequent visitors.

Architecture students? “They’ll be given a site in Toronto, and their assignment will be to draw a new building. These buildings obviously don’t come up in a vacuum: they need the context of the surrounding area. I help these students access road data, property data, elevation, drainage…”

Urban planners? “An assignment might be: this is the site; how can we rezone it to maximize use. I might help them with land-use data and some demographic data.”

Business students? “They might have an assignment where they want to know where a good location would be for a new high-end dealership. One of the criteria might be high average household income. I would help them find demographic data that would point them to an area that has a high average household income.”

If you want to see how libraries have changed, you couldn’t ask for a better case-study than the GMDC. The information—and the students using it—may be the same, but the way it’s disseminated isn’t. “When I started here in 2005, that lab over there was mostly paper maps, and we had four computers,” said map/GIS librarian Dan Jakubek. “Fast forward: paper maps dwindled based on use.” Those four computers turned into a teaching lab with 16, and the last decade has also seen huge changes in the way data has been made discoverable, accessible and downloadable.

“We’re moving almost completely to a central, consortial Scholars GeoPortal, which we built in conjunction with 21 other university libraries. So, even the way we’re making data available is becoming much more centralized, and we’re finding as a result that we can spend more time supporting our users in workshops.”


“We always have a backlog”

The holdings at the Library’s Archives and Special Collections are as vast as they are unique. Where else would you find the Kodak Canada Corporate Archives, photographs from Fraggle Rock, Second World War-era Canadian comic books… or, if you’re interested in Ryerson history: yearbooks, photographs, the taxidermied and mounted heads of several of Ryerson's former live ram mascots and collections of the complete run of student newspapers from this institution we call home?

Archives and Special Collections is currently exhibiting a collection of hand-painted, lithographic, and photographic lantern slides (a pre-cinematic form of projection), that was donated by a Toronto-based collector. Other recent donations include the McGraw-Hill Ryerson Press Collection of approximately 3,000 books and accompanying archival records dating from 1862 to 1970, including first-edition works by Alice Munro, Lucy Maud Montgomery, Al Purdy, and Norval Morrisseau, as well as a recently donated archival collection from the Hot Docs film festival.

“The way paper was made was different then,” says special collections librarian Alison Skyrme. “It was cotton-based instead of wood pulp-based. The problems we come across are that children’s books were often made cheaply, because they weren’t as valued. Some of the cheaper books are in much worse condition, but in the case of the bound books, the paper is often in very good condition.”

“Our team is always moving to catalogue our incoming collections,” says archivist Curtis Sassur. “Some of the collections that we mentioned are in the process of being finalized and not quite done. We always have a backlog of material to add to the database.”

As the day winds down, Sassur and Skyrme work on the never-ending process of digitizing the collection. “Digital photographs, digital audio/visual items… those workflows are ongoing,” says Sassur.


“We don’t just say, ‘Okay, come on in, we’ll do the 3D printing for you’”

It’s evening at the Library’s Isaac Olowolafe Jr. Digital Media Experience Lab (DME), a digital learning hub that came into existence with the opening of the SLC . A library is a place to access and create information and learn, but that can happen in many forms. It can come from books and peer-reviewed articles, but it can also come through interdisciplinary collaboration, workshops, and resource- and knowledge-sharing. Few spaces exemplify this better than the DME.

The DME allows students from all disciplines to experiment with new technology (3D printing, Oculus Rift, Hololens), use multimedia workstations, or enrol in tutorials. “We have set tutorials every day,” says Namir Ahmed, DME co-ordinator. “We do anything from 3D printing to fashion technology—knitting, Photoshop, how to use a camera, how to work with physical computing, how to build a quadcopter…”

“There are other labs on campus that do similar things, but not everybody has access to those labs,” he adds. “We serve those students that don’t have access to these types of facilities.”

The DME is on the third-floor of the SLC, and in both design and spirit, illustrates how it has fostered a free-flowing collaboration among students and faculty across campus. “We work closely with the Collaboratory,” says Ahmed. “We’re in and out of both spaces all the time, because if you’re a faculty researcher and you need students with technical expertise, where are you going to get them from? We’ve trained them, for example, in how to use 3D printers, so if you need a student who has some 3D printing experience, looking around the DME is a great place to start.”

As with other library sectors, the experience is educational. “We don’t just say, ‘Okay, come on in, we’ll do the 3D printing for you,’” says Ahmed. “Students have to go through a one-hour tutorial that we do every day, then go through a certification. Once they have a handle on the theoretical side, we help them with their first print.”

“For us, it’s not about, ‘What are you printing?’ It’s the education. It’s learning how the process works. When should you use a 3D printer? When shouldn’t you? When is it easier to just go buy a cell phone case from the Eaton Centre instead of just printing one out?”

The Digital Media Experience Lab

Photo by Ryan Walker.

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