April 13, 2011

Fire and Watercoolers: My Charcoal Project

“You’re using words like tricky and weird, but this sounds strategic.” ~A colleague commenting on my Charcoal Project

We have a watercooler, an honest-to-goodness watercooler, in our office. I’m in earshot of it, so I happen to know that it functions as both an actual and a proverbial watercooler—serving as a gathering point for thirsty staff and, every once in a while, acting as the crucible wherein ideas are born. It’s not that there aren’t more formal opportunities for people to brainstorm and plan, but the fact of the watercooler is one of those laws you can either accept or break yourself against.

Another one of those laws is that you’re not always going to be told everything you need to know. While I don’t advocate eavesdropping, the embedded librarian still needs to find herself in a lot of right places at right times. And not only do you want to be at your own watercooler, you and your organization probably have a vested interest in overhearing what goes on at watercoolers throughout your network, and even slightly farther afield than that.

People always seem to want to know what partner organizations (or competitors) are working on before it is made public. This is how we know we are paying attention to our field and our customers. Some of this quest for nascent knowledge is experienced most painfully in the realm of shared calendar aspirations: that Sisyphean task of wanting to know what everyone else’s upcoming (and as yet unannounced) webinars will be before planning your own. Everywhere I turn there are unfulfilled ambitions of “picking the brain” of the other guys so we know what they are working on—not so much to get there first, but to avoid duplication.

This may be the real life version of an academic concept I learned in a much more clinical setting: grey literature, or as one library defines it, "that which is produced on all levels of government, academics, business and industry in print and electronic formats, but which is not controlled by commercial publishers." I like the added caveat in this definition that grey literature is produced by organizations “where publishing is not the primary business activity,” and in this one that it can be “difficult to locate and obtain.” What about grey literature that isn’t even literature yet, or isn’t even grey?

When I speak to students, I always include a slide about the “unit of analysis” and say something about how I am not cataloging monographs, I am keeping track of a lot of seemingly random wisps of information—events, tweets, names that come up in conversation but not necessarily in searches, and other miscellanea. Very often I sense the need to have a running list of other organizations' in-the-idea-stage projects. At some point I was asked to follow and report on “emerging research,” but specifically the kind that is not even formalized enough to be in Research-In-Progress-type databases yet. How do I get to all those watercoolers?

I struggled for months to devise a strategy to perform this important task. I wasn’t sure I even understood the task. We didn’t even know what to call it. Arcane and misfitting terms were bandied about until the “grey” theme morphed into color wheel jokes and we landed on “Charcoal.” It stuck.

Our federal funders wisely wrote into our workplan (in characteristically verbose but vague language) our requirement to collect and disseminate these random bits (Thing 1). Additionally, we are to document instances where one of these random bits develops into published research or some similarly tangible event or outcome (Thing 2). The challenge is how to do this in the first place, and then how to track and evaluate it. In my internal organizational system (and my Gmail tags!) these two respective Things are now lovingly referred to as “Charcoal Added” and “Charcoal Inflamed,” each of which is pegged to a numeric indicator in my quarterly progress report to the feds.

I find bits of charcoal from the hodgepodge of list-serves I’m on that target issues at the periphery of our work. I also receive dozens of small, specialized print publications on similarly dispersed issues that may or may not bear an obvious connection to any of the non-charcoal goals outlined in our workplan. By far, the greatest source of charcoal has been Twitter. After all, it’s a conversation, so it’s a great virtual approximation of the watercooler.

The “Charcoal Added” stats in my quarterly report were paltry at first, but this year I decided to do a content analysis of our program's Twitter feed from the first quarter in the hope of boosting our numbers. I was pleasantly surprised to find that of our 400+ tweets, roughly one quarter were related to the charcoal-like goings on of organizations in our immediate network of partners and various consortia we oversee; about 20% were promotional of our own events, ideas and resources; about 15% shared items of interest from our federal partners, and another 15% were about industry trends. The remaining quarter were a mixed bag of regional best practices and blog posts from policy think tanks. Taken together, the tweets provided a roadmap to show what we are already collecting and disseminating with regard to emerging research. We had much more charcoal than I thought.

The process is now somewhat automated, and some categories have been identified to help us even begin to talk about the Charcoal Project. This will help refine the information sources I seek out and evaluate. The next step is a “Research We’re Watching” collection that I will be curating. It will draw from the amassed charcoal, but will of course be more selective than what makes it into our quarterly reports. The whole endeavor has been encouraging for all those other unstructured, chaotic-seeming projects that sound good but have no concrete steps outlined to move them forward. As for this project that continues to come into focus for me, onward!

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