A Makerspace of Need

I’ve been struggling to write out a clear and concise vision of the ThinkLab. Every attempt has been thwarted by my attempt to explain all the details that have led me to the conclusions that I have come to. As you can imagine this does not make for clear and concise writing. So, instead of writing one blog post that works through everything that I’ve been thinking about over the past year I’m writing a series of posts that will help clarify my thinking around different areas. I hope bounding my posts to particular aspects will help me hit that publish button and get me to a point where I can say “This is what I want to come out of this space”.

Blinking LED photo gif taken by Shannon Hauser

When it comes to the most recent explosion of interest in making and DIY  (what has been called the “maker movement’) there have been certain kinds of making that have been more heavily focused on. Activities such as 3D printing, robotics, microcontrollers, drones, etc are the types of making that have been prominently featured as representative of the maker movement. Libraries and schools everywhere started buying 3D printers and little programmable boards. There were clearly defined consumable products that were considered important to have in a makerspace. Currently the makerspace I manage has many of these things (3D printers, 3D scanners, arduinos, robotics kits), but we also have sewing machines, e-textiles, and crafting materials.

3D printed articulating fish photo taken by Shannon Hauser

It isn’t hard to see what happens once you start to privilege certain things as “making” inside a movement. A quick google search will easily turn up criticism that details the problematic nature of this privileging in major publications like Make or at Maker Faires. To be fair Make magazine has done a bit better over the last couple years of being more inclusive of what counts as making. Yet, there is a persistent idea that a particular kind of making happens in makerspaces.

A while back I read this excellent post by  Kim Jaxon titled “Connecting Making, Designing and Composing” that really helped me connect the pieces on things I felt were problematic about teaching making. In the piece she notes that the recent trend in teaching people “design thinking” or the skill of “making” has the same pitfalls as assuming that the freshman comp class teaches students how to be writers. As if the skill of writing, once learned, was something that you had and can be used in any situation. Anyone who is trained in a discipline will have developed a certain way of writing that is appropriate for their field. What works for a creative fiction piece is not the same thing that works for a research biology paper, or, “writing is not writing is not writing”. A quote:

…my concern is that we are about to follow the same path with design and making as we have with the teaching of writing: we talk about introducing “design thinking” and “making” to students in general, instead of asking what it means to design like an engineer or use design like a graphic designer or ask what design problems look like to a physicist, all of whom talk about design, and the role of design in meaning making, differently in their respective fields.


While there can be a lot of overlap in approaches between disciplines to design problems there is still the reality that these approaches are emergent from the discipline and aren’t some rules handed down from above. There is no, “Though shall empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test.” written in stone to be obeyed by all (although it is a pretty good guideline for a lot of things). It seemed presumptuous to me that I could come in to a discipline’s space bearing arduinos, sewing machines, and 3D prints telling them how they would all become makers now. No, I was introducing them to a particular kind of making, which, could be useful to them, but was certainly a paradigm of making that comes with a set of underlying assumptions.

Soldering Away photo taken by Shannon Hauser

Obviously, at some point in forming a makerspace you have to define a scope of services because a space can’t be all things to all people, but in making these decisions about the space I have to acknowledge that there is a whole world of possibility and I am choosing particular kinds of making. I want to make sure that the choices I make are thoughtful and aren’t necessarily driven by what the maker movement thinks is the important tech to have. So, how is one to decide what kinds of making to support? And then how does one go about learning to be a maker in all these disciplines? Another quote from the piece:

Like many of you, I will continue to be a champion for doing, making, tinkering, and composing ideas and artifacts. At the end of the day, design and making could be exactly the trojan horse we need to infuse constructivist pedagogies in teaching and learning. An affordance of a maker space is also its potential for breaking down disciplinary silos: a maker space can bring together a variety of disciplines and make explicit the kinds of problems various disciplines can solve, and more importantly, highlight the interdisciplinary approaches to meaning making and problem solving. As we take this step toward design and making in schools, my hope is that we keep an eye on the messy, recursive, and disciplinary ways we make and design.

I’m firmly of the mind that making and makerspaces can be as wide ranging as one can imagine. Therefore a makerspace should work with people in the community they serve to figure out where there are unmet needs around making and consider whether it can help support those kinds of making. It can be an in depth as working with a faculty member to learn how to take arduinos to the next level and training up tutors to help students complete complex projects that require numerous sensors and lots of coding. Or it can be as simple as noticing that you have an activist student body that often goes out to protest so maybe it would be beneficial to them to keep a stash of poster board, stencils, and paints on hand so they can make their signs. Is that not making? And imagine the conversations that could happen in a space where students are creating protest sign. Being open to possibilities in the space can mean that different kinds of makers will cross paths and who knows what might come out of that kind of cross-disciplinary interaction? I’m still working out how one manages something that can be so wide open and how to prepare student tutors to help others in this kind of space, but I think it is possible. There will be times I have to say no to things, but I want to say no for the right reasons. It is my hope that I run a makerspace that will do it’s best to find ways to help people make things or if I can’t help them point them to the places that can.

Painting Blues photo taken by Shannon Hauser.

What To Support When You Are Making It Up As You Go Along?

Cleaning up the 3D printer. CC-BY Shannon Hauser

One of the many questions I continue to struggle with when trying to figure out where to navigate the ThinkLab is what kinds of things should we support and at what level should we support those things? There are already some things that the ThinkLab is known for, 3D design and printing, that we’ll continue to do but many things are undecided at this point. In looking at other makerspaces I realized there is so much variety. Being housed in the library this thought keeps running through my head — we wouldn’t fill our stacks with the same books as Virginia Tech so why would our makerspace have the same tools and technology as theirs? How does a makerspace meet the curricular needs of a public liberal arts institution? How does a makerspace reach out to disciplines that don’t typically associate themselves with spaces that are like makerspaces? I find myself worrying about becoming pigeon-holed as a space. I worry that as the ThinkLab’s exposure increases we’ll fall in to a cycle of supporting a very narrow area to the expense of exploring possibilities. I don’t want to hear, “Only [fill in the blank] majors use the ThinkLab”. Much like our library supports a wide variety of disciplines I want the ThinkLab to support a varied student population. And just as the library makes strategic investments about what curricular needs it can support (no, we can’t buy that niche $1000 encyclopedia set, sorry) I want to make sure I don’t over commit to some disciplines. Sure we’ll show you some basic 3D modelling software, but you’ll have to figure out that advanced 3D modelling software for yourself. But am I placing limits in ways that are thoughtful of what is sustainable or am I placing limits because I fear what I do not know? (And I certainly don’t know a whole lot). I’m constantly thinking about what we currently have to offer and what I think we should offer and and the balance between what I know at the moment and what I think would be possible. I worry about offering to support something only to later realize that it is going to be beyond what we could sustainably support.

Luckily in the fall every single faculty member I worked with was willing to take risks with me to see what the limits of space may be and the semester went off fairly well. I am very lucky to have hired student aides that brought in their own background knowledge in areas that I don’t know a whole lot about who were able to pull off projects I wouldn’t have been able to do myself. There were times though that I asked my student aides to stretch in ways that may have been taking advantage of their general excitement to be working in the space. Over the course of the semester it became quite clear I needed to establish some solid structure about what we could definitely support and what would be experimental. I have spent a bit of the winter break working on actual tutorials that I can expect my student aides to take students through as well as rolling out an online scheduling tool. This has alleviated some of my worry about providing sustainable support, but I know there is more work to be done.

In writing this post I realize I don’t hate all these tensions, but they make  me uncomfortable (uncomfortable, but not paralyzed). There is no one right way to have a makerspace (despite the commodification of the maker movement). This is both liberating and terrifying. At times I wish I could stick my head in the sand and copy what so many other spaces do, but that wouldn’t make the space meaningful and useful to anyone in the long run. I want the ThinkLab to evolve with the needs of the school, but also be a source of inspiration that points in a direction. It is in this tension where people are working together and even disagreeing that some of the best stuff appears. I have a vision for the ThinkLab (maybe I should blog that one day?), but I know that some faculty member is going to show up one day and go, “I have an idea for a class” or a student is going to come in and say, “There is no place on campus that supports this, do you think the ThinkLab could?” and I’m going to be blown away and do everything I can to try and support that despite all my thinking about sustainable practices. I’ve already seen it start to happen.

How does one support wildly brilliant ideas?



I wonder if I could make it myself…

I’ve been trying to find a way to begin to talk about my latest job change in the library. I have this ongoing problem of wanting to write all encompassing narratives (it all started when I was 5 and I fixed my mom’s stapler) that ultimately prove to be too overwhelming to finish writing.

So, in my attempt to keep it simple I want to tell you I recently finished making something for my cat.

More specifically I made a cat scratcher pad. One of those cardboard things you can buy at the pet store that encourages your cats to claw it rather than your lovely furniture. I’ve bought a couple in the past and it always seemed to me that it consisted of cardboard pieces glued together and wrapped in some paper. It didn’t seem too complicated and one day I thought, “I wonder if I could make it myself?”. I brought my cardboard to our makerspace, the ThinkLab, and utilized a box cutter, a hot glue gun and some duct tape and out came this:

The things I do for my cat...

It didn’t turn out as neat and even as one I’d buy at the store, but it seems fairly solid. I’ll be taking it home later today to see what the cat thinks of it. The cat scratcher pad isn’t anything that complicated or elaborate but in attempting to craft my own I had to think through the process of cutting and gluing it together and as I went along what might make it more structurally sound. I’m sure you are wondering why am I talking about this and what does it have to do with my new job?

Well, in the library we’ve had a makerspace since about 2012 and in that time it has fluctuated in its use and has been making its way along with support from outside faculty and staff as well as the head of the library and library staff. It has lacked a sense of continuity though, as any space would that was being supported by people who had other jobs they had to do, and in the past years has struggled to be a place we kept staffed on a regular basis. Earlier this semester several library staff came together for a meeting and out of that came the decision that I would spend a percentage of my time managing the ThinkLab. I’m grateful to colleagues in the library who have willingly taken on pieces of my old job so that I’d actually have the time to give the ThinkLab a shot.

Now that you have that background back to the cat scratcher pad. Why do I use this as an example of something I created in the ThinkLab? Well, besides being humorous it gets to the heart of what I see the ThinkLab being and it all starts with the simple idea, “I want to try and make that”. Your project doesn’t have to be complicated or even work in the end. The important thing is that you start taking the thoughts in your head and making them in to something real. What excites me most about the space is not the 3D printers, or the robotics kits, or the sewing machines (although all of that is great) it is the opportunity to make something and probably even more importantly break something (the head of the library, Rosemary, is fond of saying that our tagline should be “We’ll help you break things creatively!”). I’m lucky that I work at a university that places great value in our students being creators of all kinds and I’m looking forward to the ThinkLab contributing to the mission of our institution in creating students that think thoughtfully about the things they produce and about the importance of being actively engaged in the world. There is more I can unpack about the pedagogy of makerspaces and certainly I plan to write more about it as I work on programming for the space over the summer, but for now I have to head home and see what my cat thinks of my handy work.

On Learning In and Out of College

This post is for the younger version of myself who struggled to care about schooling and to the the current students who feel the same way. It is no solution, but perhaps some consolation.

One of my biggest struggles as a student was sustaining the energy to learn something through an entire semester. I would start out most semesters with great gusto, but a few weeks in to the semester my enthusiasm for the topic  would wane and I’d inevitably fall in to the disillusioned questioning of, “Why am I learning this? Why does it matter? What is the point of learning this stuff?”. I distinctly remember during my sophomore year reading Yeats under a tree outside my dorm instead of doing work for a class. If my memory is correct  my attempt to decipher “Among School Children” was inspired in some way by Gardner. It may seem overwrought to say, but in that moment reading Yeats was the most important thing I could be doing because I had a sense that it would mean more to my life here on earth than working on the school assignment.

A Serene Scene

For a long time I’ve felt guilty over how poorly I performed at times during my academic career. There are times when I still feel that way, but I know that I can’t live with that regret forever.  I wasn’t very good at achieving decent grades in college, but it doesn’t mean I’m a failure. The structure that schools use to set up a curriculum, dividing things up in to disciplines and semesters,  is one approach for making sure that society as a whole has a similar baseline of knowledge. It isn’t the end all be all of educating. I’ve known this all for a long time, but it wasn’t until fairly recently I felt it to be true.

I’ve been out of college for almost 5 years now and I’ve continued to grow and learn new things since then. I recently read some older entries in a journal I sporadically keep and it was rewarding to see that many of the things I wanted to accomplish and learn about I’ve managed to do in two years since the date of the entry. The enthusiasm I have for learning is still there and I can come at topics with great fervor and deeply involve myself in an idea. The upside is that when my momentum begins to fade there is usually no major consequence to laying that topic to rest for awhile. I can pick up the idea a day, a week, or many months later. Nothing prevents me from going back to that topic when I’m ready to dive in again. Iteration. The time scale at which I learn things in is much longer than the semester. In fact it seems that there is no discrete unit of time to learn things. How freeing!

I will admit there is value in sustaining focus on a topic even after the initial enthusiasm begins to fade. There is something about pushing past “getting stuck” (or is that “uncomfortable, but not paralyzed”?) that is really good for the brain. I’m definitely not advocating for avoiding the hard things, but  in college many classes and many semesters felt like pushing past a wall of boredom not because a class was hard but because my brain was just done thinking about the topic. I found it incredibly frustrating to not have control over my head space at times. During my post college life I’ve discovered that there are times when I need to push past the “stuck” when I don’t have the energy, but for the most part I’ve found that I have the time and space to allow an idea to breathe. Sometimes all I need is a week off from thinking about something. A week is something not afforded to most college students. If you get a week behind in college it tends to snowball out of control until you limp across the semester finish line hoping the avalanche doesn’t outpace you.


Now that I’ve had time outside of college to learn and grow I’ve noticed that besides some content sticking with me a lot of what has stuck with me are the soft skills that are so hard to quantify: critical thinking, how to break down difficult ideas, write about ideas, talk about ideas, be curious about the world, and so much more. I know how to learn and teach myself things and I’m always learning how to get better at that too. I’ve found so much joy in learning post college and I’m learning all the time. I’m lucky to have a job that gives me the freedom to challenge myself to learn new things and try out new ideas.

I’m not sure what the future holds for me (besides the terrible feeling that I’ll be going back to school sometime in the future), but I have confidence in my ability to learn and grow. Heck, who knows, maybe by the time I need that masters I might find I enjoy being in school again…or maybe not 🙂



Thanks, For Everything

I’ve been struggling to write this post over the last five weeks. It was originally going to be part history and part “thank you”, but I had trouble writing a post about Andy and Jim that didn’t also include talking about Jerry and Martha. These four people (and the families they represent) go far beyond being DTLT to me. So, I dropped the history part (that was taking way too long) and made it strictly a thank you post to Andy, Jim, Jerry, and Martha.So really, this post isn’t for anyone but me and the four of them.


A Look Down Campus Walk
Photo credit to shauser

It is hard to believe that 2006, the year I started at Mary Washington as a freshman, is nearly ten years ago now. I’m sure 18 year old me would be surprised to find out that ten years down the line she’d still be in the same town because she found family here.

If I were to write a book about my journey over the last ten years it would be impossible to not talk about a few members of DTLT and their families because they are so thoroughly intertwined in my life’s story. There are so many moments that I could talk about I don’t know how I could recount them all in a single post. And how can I ever express enough gratitude for helping me get to where I am today and for all the wonderful memories? This post won’t do it justice, but it as an attempt to say a few words of thanks. For your consideration, both serious and silly thank yous.

Magic Bottle
Photo credit to cogdog

First of all thank you for hiring me as a student aide all those years ago. I didn’t know what I was getting in to, but thanks for seeing something in the quiet and timid freshman student.

Thank you for bringing me in to the conversation. Sitting around the bullpen in DTLT allowed me to hear some of the smartest people I know talk about big ideas.

Thanks for being there for me through my darkest college days.

Thanks for the hundreds of meals you have fed me over the years. Whether it was taking me out to lunch or having me in your home for dinner. I owe more meals than I can ever repay. I plan on paying them forward.

Thank you all for letting me get to know your children. It has been an honor for me to watch them grow up. I know many of you think you aren’t perfect parents, and you’re not, but the secret is no one is, and as it turns out you are still great parents without being perfect.

Thanks for all the blog comments.

Thanks for inviting me to your kid’s shows, to outings near and far, to family gatherings, birthday parties, mother’s day and father’s day celebrations, and even family vacations. I always felt like I was part of the family when I came along.

Thanks for all the moments I laughed so hard I cried. There were many of them.

Thanks for letting me sit in DTLT at all hours of the day as a student aide. Being there often meant more to me than you knew. Although I think the times when I came in and promptly put my head on the desk was probably a sign.

Thank you for listening to my story.

Thank you for sharing your stories with me. You all come from different places and hearing your stories about where life has taken you (both the good and the bad) taught me there are many paths to fulfillment and happiness.

Thank you for all the patience you’ve shown me over the years.

Thanks for all the drinks: beer, wine, but mostly the marthinis. Okay, this is really a thank you to Martha for educating me on the superiority of gin.

Thanks for all the times you pushed me to reach further than I thought I could.

Thank you for being a friend.

Thanks for helping me through my mistakes and failures. Especially when those failures felt like the end of the world. You all reminded me life goes on and the best thing to do is learn from my mistakes.

Thanks for helping me after I graduated. Whether it was helping me edit a resume, listening to my fears over what comes next, or even convincing your spouse to let me work at her clinic 😉

Thanks for setting the bar so high.

Thanks for being the biggest influences on my young adult life. I am so incredibly blessed to have had so many amazing people in my life over the last ten years. I think I won the mentor lottery when I came to Mary Washington.

Thanks for probably be unsurprised that this blog post has taken so long to write. Hey, at least I finished it before Jim left!

Thank you. I love you all.




Mucking about in databases and giving it all over to google

Shelves and Book Cart_9556678137_l

As mentioned in my previous post one of the projects I wanted to complete over last summer was digitizing as many of the paper processes that I could. One of the largest challenges was finding a way to digitize a major task my student supervisor performs. In the library the student supervisor takes time each week to spot check some of the shelving of the previous week. In order to do this the paper process was as follows:

  •  When a student assembled a “ready to be shelved” cart they filled out a slip of paper and wrote down 6 random call numbers that appear on the cart. This slip of paper went in to a bin near the computer workstation.
  • They would also write their name, date, time and cart number on another slip of paper. This slip stayed with the cart until the cart was completely shelved. Each student who worked on a cart would write down their name on the slip of paper. If one student shelved the entirety of the cart they only had to write their name at the bottom. If multiple people worked on a cart there was a field to indicate where they stopped on the cart.
  • Each time a student would head up to the Stacks to shelve they had to fill out their name, date, time and, cart number on a log also kept by the computer workstation.
  • The student supervisor would have to match up the the various pieces of paper to figure out who shelved what and then they’d take the slip of paper with the 6 call numbers and go do the spot check. During the spot check they’d write down anything that was out of order and if they did find an error they’d put the slip of paper in a binder that had the various student aides names so they could go back and correct their mistakes.

How do you even begin to digitize this process?

During my first year I had been introduced to Navicat which is piece of database management software (like Microsoft Access). My supervisor had shown me some queries she had built because the reporting tool that comes with our ILS (Integrated Library System) is not very robust. So, while I was thinking about ways to digitize the process it occurred to me I probably could put together a report of some sort. Every time a cart is assembled by a student the cart gets a second check-in. This ensures that all things have been checked-in and catches other statuses a book may be on that need to come off before they head back to the Stacks. Knowing that all these second check-ins were being recorded by the system I was able to build a query based on the items checked-in, the computer they were checked-in on and, a date range. Now, a lot more than just carts get checked in on the computer in the back so I needed a way for the student supervisor to sift through the items relatively easily. I created a google form for my students to fill out:

This form gives the student supervisor the barcode information they need to easily find the carts that have been made. In, addition I’ve made my students scan a barcode before and after they check-in a cart.  This helps speed up my student supervisor’s process even more by giving them an easily identifiable number to search for in the report that is generated. After the student finish shelving they also fill out an after-shelving form:

The input from these forms gets dumped in to google spreadsheets that both my student supervisor and I have access to. My student supervisor then has to match up the corresponding information.  They look at when carts were made and choose the date range for the query (which they are able to run themselves using some nice and free software that allows you to run basic queries) and then they run the report. They then take the database query output and import it in to our shared google drive folder where they can identify all the carts that are made based on the information in the “Assembled Carts” spreadsheet. After they have identified carts they pull up the “After Shelving” spreadsheet to see who shelved the cart and write their names down. For this last part I let my supervisor choose how they wanted to format things so that when they went spot check it made sense to them. My student supervisor this year color coded the spreadsheet and came up with a system of naming when identifying errors and that seemed to work for them. All that was left to do was grab a tablet (or their phone) and go upstairs and spot check. An, additional advantage to this system of spot checking was the student supervisor now has a complete list of everything on the cart. Rather than leave it up to person assembling the cart to pick 6 random call numbers the student supervisor can be more targeted in their checking. We know certain areas of the Stacks have more problems than others so it makes sense to check those places more often.

In order to get the information back to the student aides about what errors they need to correct  I gave them all individual pages on umwstacks.org (which are hidden behind a login) and on each page is an editable spreadsheet so that not only can my student supervisor record the errors, but my student aides could grab tablets and head up in to the Stacks to correct their errors and mark that they fixed them while they are up there. Many opt to write down call numbers still, but quite a few adopted picking up the tablet and heading upstairs to check. This is one part of the process I’m trying to figure out how to make more easily accessible so that more student feel inclined to pick up the device rather than write down a bunch of call numbers on a piece of paper.

We’ve done this new way of spot checking for one academic year and the experiment has been very successful and few fun side benefits have come out of digitizing this process. My student supervisor now spends half the time doing the spot checking that it used to take and now I have the opportunity to expand out that positions task to include more variety and higher-level activities. One of the more fun side benefits that I had not given much thought to is the massive data collection that is a by-product of this process. I now know on average how many carts each week get shelved, when are our busiest weeks, how many items have been shelved, who had the highest accuracy (did I mention my student supervisor was keeping an on-going spreadsheet of student aides accuracy rates?). It was very cool to tell my student during the last week of school that they had shelved over 12,000 items during the semester.

Now that I have all this data it has my brain going about a new approach to student supervisor spot checking and on an even larger scale it has me thinking about the best use of student aide time while they work. I’m going to spend the summer sifting through the data a bit and spend time thinking about better ways to record statistics, do proper analysis (finding rates of accuracy on uneven sample sizes? Got to figure that out) and figure out what data is meaningful to keep recording. I’m excited that the experiment went so well and hopefully with a few more tweaks the system will be even better for this upcoming academic year.

Just the start of things

Sayers Books 2

I’ve been working at the Simpson Library for almost two years now and I have tried several times to blog about the work I’ve been doing, but for several reasons I haven’t been able to bring myself to share what I am doing. I won’t say that this post is going to be a trend, but I’d like to talk through what I’ve been doing a bit more and try to let go of some of the fears that have held me back from writing.

When I hit my one year anniversary mark at the University it was summer and I took the opportunity of the summer time lull to revamp the procedures of my job. The biggest goal was to digitize as many aspects of the job as I could to not only reduce the amount of paper waste, but to also streamline the process and perhaps have a better way to collect data of what is going on.

Many of the digitization tasks were fairly straight forward. I wanted to put the handbooks and student aide training material online. I had been inspired by the work done by DTLT where they used a combination of GitHub and DokuWiki as the hub of the documentation for Domain of One’s Own. I liked this framework because content re-use is very easy in the wiki. If I have a set of procedures on a page and those procedures are used in multiple project instructions I’d only have to write the procedures once and easily embed them in other parts of the site. Additionally, if I had to update the procedures because they changed I would only need to change the original source of the procedures and that would get pushed to everyplace I had embedded those procedures. I also imagined if my wiki experiments were a success that this could extend to other departments within the library. If we shared a collective wiki we could all be on the same page for the various procedures. I ended up not using GitHub as the backbone because between all the things I wanted to accomplish over the summer I thought learning how the heck to use GitHub would take up more time than I wanted, plus I figured at this point I’d be the only one needing to update the content so the power of forking my content wasn’t necessary.

I had a volunteer (a student aide that had just graduated) take the Collection Maintenance Handbook and format it to work within the wiki markup. It was also a good opportunity for the two of us to update the manual to reflect current practices (wow, did I really change that many things in my first year?). The volunteer also helped put the training guide together and to help me think through what items I wanted to include on an introductory questionnaire. Traditionally student aides receive a training guide pamphlet that they go through with the supervisor each time they  work a shift until they are fully trained. Going from paper to electronic format made me rethink how I even wanted to approach student aide training which has led to lots of different experiments (a blog post for another day).  Additionally, if I was going to use parts of the Collection Maintenance Handbook in the training guide I had to make sure the handbook was broken up in ways that I could use those pieces in the training guide and that they were written in a way that would explain enough to student aides how the task is accomplished. It mostly came together, but it was a bit messy.

This summer I’ll be spending time looking at how well the digitization process of handbooks and training manuals went to figure out how I can tweak it further to make more sense to my students. I’ve also been doing plenty of reading on managing student aides in an academic setting and plan on taking some of the ideas and implementing them in training.

This is only the tip of the iceberg of what I’ve been doing and it didn’t even cover the biggest and most challenging digitization of the shelf checking that my student supervisor does. I’ll leave that for another post.

Finding The Tool That Brings It All Together

One of the hardest parts of the Digital Media Commons Initiative (DMCI) project has been finding the right tool for the job. I had a hard time creating a narrative when I didn’t have the tool that would help me imagine a framework that I needed to build within.

When I first started this project I was looking at Open Exhibits as an authoring tool, but not long after I started playing with it they were bought out by another company and it seems that support for the tool went away. The tool was also buggy and instead of spending time dealing with it I left it behind.

Around that time I was still struggling to come up with what the content would be and what story I wanted to tell. I knew I wanted to do something involving Mary Washington history, possibly utilizing a map, and using items from the Library’s Digital Collections to create an end product that could be displayed in the Convergence Gallery. So, for awhile I put away the worry about how I’d build it and I figured I’d spend some time delving in to learning more about Mary Washington history and spending time in the Digital Collections to see if anything grabbed my attention. I read through the majority of Edward Alvey’s History of Mary Washington College, 1908-1972 and also read a good portion of William Crawley’s University of Mary Washington: A Centennial History 1908-2008. During this time you’ll see I stumbled across cool things like Faulkner visiting Mary Washington. I also spent a fair amount of time looking at the Centennial Image Collection finding shots that caught my eye or made me wonder, “where was that?”. I still seem to be terrible at taking notes, but at least I wrote down citations so I could go back and find things later.

After accumulating lots of interesting facts in my head I became obsessed with the idea of building a BuzzFeed style quiz about “What Era of Mary Washington Do You Belong In?”. I figure it’d be fun to capture some of the excitement and hype of the ridiculous quizzes and I had quite a bit of Mary Washington information in my head. There is no real good free tool out there that helps you design personality quizzes, but I found a plugin for WordPress that could possibly play the role. I started building a spreadsheet, collecting images, and playing with the plugin, but once again I was not over-joyed by the tool. So, I put that half done project down and once again struggled with “what is the story?”.

Next I went on to the idea that using my knowledge in Mary Washington history I’d write an interactive fiction using Twine as a framework to tell story. The story was going to take you back in time to a day in Mary Washington and you’d be able to, through a narrative, get to learn about what life was like at Mary Washington. Once again I started in, writing, collecting images, mapping out the path. I quickly became frustrated by what would essentially be a text driven story. I love interactive fictions, but a builder of compelling fictional narratives I am not. Frustrated by my own inability to be a creative writer I put away that project too.

Sidenote: Is it a wonder I struggled so much with academics? So many half-done papers and projects haunt me.

After many failed grandiose ideas and feelings of disappointment I circled back around to the original idea of a map. This time, taking a concept from the interactive fiction iteration of the project, I’d build a map of Mary Washington as it would have been seen in 1957. I decided to build it in Prezi because it allows you to move through a visual space and I knew that Prezi works with our kiosks. I started collecting images, writing blurbs of content and piecing it together in Prezi. It happened again though. I did not like the way the story looked in Prezi. Would I ever find the tool? Would I just have to accept good enough? (ah, the joys of being a perfectionist).

Cut to last week: I shuffled in to DTLT, looking for inspiration and to vent my frustration of not finding the “right” tool. I described to Andy what I was trying to do and why I just didn’t like the way Prezi was handling it. He thought for a moment and said he might know of a tool that could be the thing I am looking for. Enter stage left:


I went through the live demo and was immediately entranced by the possibilities. It is an incredibly extensible presentation tool and it doesn’t require anything fancy to run (HTML framework, baby!). There is even a website that utilizes the reveal.js framework called Slides so you easily build presentations without knowing any code. What really caught my eye was the ability to add depth to a linear narrative. In each slide you have the ability to add nested slides. So you can have a fairly simple narrative that goes left to right, but if you want to give people the option to spend time getting in to more detail they could delve deeper by going down a level. It also has lots of little features (like native support of gifs) that are nice to see and could be used in fun ways.

So, what now?

I think since I am so close to summer I might as well take the time to learn reveal.js instead of using slides.com (although it is very slick and has great features on the free level). How do I know this isn’t going to lead to another dead-end? Well, I can’t really know for sure, but at this point I think I’ve really exhausted all possibilities (and I’m exhausted by the constant thinking and rethinking). I’m going to spend the summer learning how to program reveal.js so I can tell the story of the Sights at Mary Washington in 1957. Hopefully, if this tool is as cool as I think it is, I can easily create other projects in the future using it.

The Bullpen Experience

Ever since Martha wrote about the bullpen model that DTLT uses I’ve had this post in the back of my head. I’ve tried many times to come up with a way to talk about the influence of DTLT on my life, but I don’t think it could ever be encapsulated in one post. So, this is one attempt to talk about their influence of my life as a student and why I wish every student could get some time in a “bullpen” while they are in college.

I started working as a student aide for DTLT as a sophomore in fall of 2007 and it wasn’t hard to see right away the impact of the bullpen. From Martha’s post:

There is almost constant conversation, and, as a result, there is almost constant collaboration. It’s an incredibly dynamic, intense way to work. We see each other at our best and at our worst. We have argued around these desks; we have each at one point or another needed to leave the room because we needed to take a breather.

Sitting around the bullpen alongside the members of DTLT and watching them argue and discuss ideas helped me realize that learning is not only done in a solitude. I saw how hashing out ideas led to the creation of projects, initiatives and change. I learned many lessons in how to think and question ideas in productive ways. At some point I had that “aha!” moment where I realized, “Ah, this is how people learn to be great thinkers. They talk to each other and push each other and aren’t afraid to take positions.” It demonstrated to me that it really is okay that people have different ideas, even on the rare occasion when things get so incredibly heated someone has to leave the room, it is still okay (there is also a lesson in forgiveness and understanding in all this too).

It may seem obvious, but this was honestly a mind-blowing experience to me as a student. I vividly remember there being times when I felt true awe (a sort of brain high) after a particularly thoughtful and intense discussion. I can only speak from my experience, but the majority of my academic life up until college was spent being a passive receiver of knowledge. When I was sitting in the bullpen they demonstrated to me every day through their work and their conversations how the “life of the mind” happens. I look back on it now and think of it as form of apprenticeship. What better way to learn how to think critically about ideas and to put those ideas in to motion than to watch and interact with those who are already really good at it?

These types of interactions can’t be quantified and graded, but they are absolutely essential to becoming a well rounded individual. I wouldn’t be who I am today if I hadn’t worked for DTLT, but I can’t fit the entirety of that experience in one line on a resume. Instead their influence is seen in the ideas and the projects I come up with now. When I challenge myself and others around me to think and to try new ideas that is the influence of the bullpen shining through. So here’s to the bullpen and the myriad of people at the University who gathered in that space and transformed my life by giving me the opportunity to be a part of the conversation.

Faulkner, MWC, and Digitization

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

As part of my DMCI project (which has totally changed directions, but that is for another blog post) I have been reading through the histories of Mary Washington. Today, as I was reading through I gasped when I saw the heading, “Faulkner Speaks”. William Faulkner, one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century, here at little old Mary Washington (College). I could not believe it. I fell in love with Faulkner when I took a seminar on him and Toni Morrison in 2008. At the time, I was learning to think like a historian (or really just learning to think, thanks liberal arts degree!) through my various classes at Mary Washington and the deep connection between literature and history kept my brain constantly on fire with “wow” moments. History is a story we tell ourselves about the past. Literature can also tell a story about our past. Through the creation of fictional narratives and characters whose experiences and personalities embodied the Southern myth (story/concept/idea/theme/history?) Faulkner was able take on the post-Civil War South in ways a straight-forward history book cannot.  There aren’t many historical “facts” in his stories, but there are a lot of truths.

The blurb in the book about Faulkner is short, but there was a footnote at the bottom identifying the school’s newspaper (The Bullet) as the source. Lucky for me most of The Bullet editions have been digitized and are up on the Internet Archive. Shockingly, Faulkner’s visit was not enough to make the first page. I guess he hadn’t quite reached legendary status in 1957.

Click the image to see it in more detail at the Internet Archive.

According to the paper Faulkner spent some time as the writer-in-residence at the University of Virginia. During this time Mary Washington was affiliated with the University of Virginia as the liberal arts college for women. Curious to see if there were any more details I could find out about Faulkner’s visit I did a quick search and found the Faulkner at Virginia: An Audio Archive. It is a treasure-trove of Faulkner audio that I had never seen before! It appears this went up in 2010, which explains why I did not come across it during the seminar I took in 2008. I scrolled through the collection, giddy with excitement, and found the audio of Faulkner’s visit to Mary Washington broken up in to two parts. The page with the audio and the transcript for tape 1 can be found here and the audio and the transcript for tape 2 can be found here. I could not get the audio on the tape 2 page to work, but I managed to find it buried in the site (yes, I’ve contacted someone about the problem). It already appears to be fixed. That was quite fast, so thanks to whoever at U of VA got right on it!

Below are direct links to both the first and second audio tapes.

At MWC Tape 1 – April 25th, 1957

At MWC Tape 2 – April 25th, 1957

They are worth a listen both for Faulkner’s reading of “Shingles of the Lord” and the Q&A at the end.

Just six years ago, when I took the Faulkner seminar, neither The Bullet newspaper nor the Faulkner audio archive were available freely online. What was previously buried is now more easily discovered and shared. Faulkner’s visit to Mary Washington is no longer just a blurb in a book on our shelves. Sure, maybe all these pieces could have been brought together many years ago by going to the physical archives and scanning and transcribing. But to think in 2014 I can sit at my computer and within ten minutes I had it all. How cool is that?