We continue our “Get to Know a SIG / Get to Know a Chapter” post series today with an interview with the Catholic University of America ASIS&T Student Chapter (CUA-ASIS&T). Located in Washington, DC, CUA-ASIS&T “provides an opportunity for its [student] members to share their special concerns and present programs which cater to specific interests … [and their] career goals as information science professionals.” I interviewed outgoing CUA-ASIS&T President Colin McLaren, a recent graduate of CUA’s MLIS program, about the chapter. CUA-ASIS&T won first place in last year’s ASIS&T Student Chapter Growth Awards, so has a history of high activity and engagement levels. This was a topic I explored with Colin, along with the overall activities, benefits, and collaborations of the chapter. We hope the interview helps you learn about one of our more active Student Chapters and, quite possibly, interests you in becoming involved with a Chapter at your institution or in your area!
Chapter Focus and Activities
Adam: I’ll start with this question: Obviously the Catholic University of America (CUA) Student Chapter focuses on the students at Catholic University. Would you say you focus more on practice, on research, or a combination of those?
Colin: We probably don’t focus much on the research aspect. It’s more about practice. We have a couple of courses at Catholic that point towards integrating technology. I’m in the school library track, and so we have some design and production courses for multimedia that I’ve gone through, or media integration into the curriculum. It’s a pretty wide spectrum; they try to incorporate technology into lesson plans so that we become familiar with it. So it’s not as foreign when we are introduced. There’s a lot of practice within the coursework itself.
Adam: Sure, and that extends to the activities that the Student Chapter gets involved with as well, correct?
Colin: It does, yes. The majority of what we do are volunteer events, trying to connect with underserved libraries. I’m not sure if you or others saw, but there was a Washington Post article back in March — “Unequal shelves in D.C. school libraries benefit wealthier students” — about the standing of DC school public libraries. They’re all over the place; there are some that average maybe 2-3 books per student, whereas others are close to 50. And they’re working to balance that in the coming school year with an initiative specifically for library funding, for books and technology. It has a way to go to bridge the gap, so we try to offer our skills as students through volunteer efforts at various schools within Washington DC.
Last year we tried to get off the ground, but haven’t gone too far with it, an initiative with the Library of Congress, to try to develop pamphlets and information sheets so that visitors to the Library of Congress Young Readers Room—not just children but also adults—will have information if they need assistive services. So we were looking at different applications they could use on smartphones or computers that are available; screen readers, magnification software, things like that. We were pulling together and trying to get those prepared for the Library of Congress, so that they would have takeaways for visitors.
Those are really the big initiatives we’ve had. I have an idea that I’m trying to get started where I would love to have more collaboration with other programs within Catholic. We also have a health and medical track that students can follow. With that I had the idea that, if we could reach out to some of the large organizations, like maybe the Red Cross with their blood drives, and see how they use information. Not looking necessarily at personal information, like where does my blood go if they draw it, but just at the big picture: how do they manage the different types of blood, the different regions, how do they check it? And I was hoping that we could connect with the nursing program that we have at Catholic. But hopefully the chapter can run with that in the coming school year.
Adam: Besides those volunteer activities — which are great and I certainly commend you for doing that — do you have any meetings, any guest speakers, any other things that happen? You mentioned some events?
We have a day-long symposium that the department puts on … it allows students to present, but it also keeps our alumni engaged. We get alumni and students and faculty all coming together, and it’s a fun day.
Colin: We have a day-long symposium that the department puts on. Last year it was “Bridging the Spectrum.” The symposium is great; it allows students to present, but it also keeps our alumni engaged. We get alumni and students and faculty all coming together, and it’s a fun day. That’s usually in the spring semester, so it gives people new to the department in the fall time to think about what they might be interested in. They can provide a wishlist, of sorts, of topics they would like to see covered during the symposium. Then the faculty can reach out to people, to their contacts in the field, and hopefully link that all up together.
We also try to partner with our Special Libraries Association chapter on campus, when they go tour various facilities. It’s just amazing being in DC, the places we can get to; they toured the Pentagon and National Archives, so it’s pretty neat to see all of that.
Adam: You yourself are graduating soon, I get the impression, then?
Colin: Yep. All signs point to finishing up this summer, so in the next couple of weeks. Put a nice bow on it. [Both laugh.] So we’re looking for a couple of officers to step in and fill some upcoming vacancies. I’ve been talking with our academic advisor, and we think that will probably happen during the new student orientation. We like to—it sounds really bad [chuckle], but—we like to “season” people. So rather than just turning over the whole pile, we like to bring in a couple of officers for Vice President or Secretary, so they can get a feel for how we function and get to make a few contacts. So our Vice President will hopefully become our President—well, unless there’s a challenge, who knows [laugh]—and then get a few officers, you know. We don’t want to just give away positions, but… [laughs]
Adam: Right! Wel,l it’s all about having a good transition plan, right? And it sounds like the chapter has got that figured out fairly well. How big would you say the membership is of the CUA Student Chapter?
Colin: I’d say we’re probably—of those who are involved—a solid 15, give or take a few. What I find pretty amazing is the community, or the network, that we have within the DC area. It’s phenomenal. People turn out for our volunteer events, and I ask, “Well, how did you find out?” And they’re like, “Well, you know, one of the alumni…” Either they’re alumni themselves and they’re on our department listserv, or they found out through another listserv because one of our alumni posted it there. So it’s pretty amazing how we can engage those in the profession, and get them in to help us.
Adam: And so you’re saying that 15 is those that are active members, who are active in volunteering in some of the programs and activities that you mentioned?
Colin: Correct, yes. We probably have some more; the year before, the 2013-2014 chapter, the one where I believe we got the largest increase in membership…
Adam: Yes, congratulations!
Colin: Thank you, thank you! So I actually came in that year, and I think it was a much larger enrollment within the department. Then this past year, the ’14-’15 year, we didn’t have as many students enter the program. I’m not sure what that falls to, but we just had substantial enrollment over the fall of ’13 and the spring of ’14, so the ’13-’14 year, a huge influx within our program. That was really fun; we had a lot of people turn out for our events then.
Adam: And obviously the idea is just to, whatever the level of activity is in the program in terms of incoming students and alumni and things like that, the job of a Student Chapter is just to keep the activity level reasonably high, right? Some years, as you say, there’s not going to be as many incoming students, or it’s just going to work out that way. It sounds like you’re at least doing your best to keep the activity levels high, right?
Colin: Oh yes. For our events, we usually send out maybe five emails over the course of a couple of months to just get it on people’s radar. We show up at the new student orientations and we try to be as visible as possible within the community. I served as an alternate Senator for our graduate student association, hopefully so we could be visible there. Overall I think our department has decreased, I guess, as a percentage of the graduate students; we have other programs that have just phenomenal enrollment, which is great for them. We’re just trying to be mindful of where we are within the DC community, but also very much within the CUA community.
So if we can reach out to other departments and create relationships or possible collaborations and partnerships there, I think we’ll be on a stronger footing. I really think that’s the key. And I see this a little bit with our other student groups. There are only so many people who are interested in a leadership position for a student group, and I feel we’re all trying to reach for those, the same pool of people. But if we can expand a bit… Because information really covers so many aspects. I feel every department at CUA would benefit from teaming up with our LIS department. We might not know the information, but we know how we could find it [chuckle]. Just creating that awareness, I think, would be really helpful. I took a couple of one-off library courses in my undergrad, and they just helped me immensely. I would like to see more collaboration at that level, and hopefully we could generate some of that within the CUA community, perhaps if we reached out to high schools or middle schools.
So if we can reach out to other departments and create relationships or possible collaborations and partnerships there, I think we’ll be on a stronger footing. I really think that’s the key. … We might not know the information, but we know how we could find it [chuckle]. Just creating that awareness, I think, would be really helpful.
But for now we’re just lending a hand where we can, because we don’t want to stretch ourselves too thin. I’ve found many in our program are doing it part-time, trying to fit it into their free time, so we try to be mindful of that as much as we can.
Benefits and Collaboration
Adam: What do you feel — shifting gears just a little bit here — is the most important benefit members of the Student Chapter receive by becoming involved in the Chapter’s activities and by engaging with the Chapter?
Colin: I find that it really helps my professional network. I’m coming to it from more of a… well, I wasn’t really in the field really when I entered, I was in the tourism business. So just finding people, and then being able to pick the collective memory of those who come. I live vicariously through their experiences; I’m like, “Oh, well that didn’t work well for you.” So if I ever reach that in the future, maybe I can call on that memory. I find it also helps narrow down an interest; just the additional exposure. There were things that I hadn’t really even considered when I entered the department, things like information architecture and how we structure metadata; I knew it was there, I just hadn’t thought of so many ways of putting it all together. So that, and just really the network, and the experience you gain from it, it really helps. It’s helped me to determine the path I hope to take once I graduate.
Adam: Cool! Do you get involved with the main ASIS&T organization in any way, even just as being members and taking advantage of some of the benefits that are provided there? Or is it mostly stuff within CUA and the Student Chapter that is the benefit here?
Colin: Well, from my experience it’s mostly the CUA Chapter. Working full-time and then being a student part-time, I just couldn’t attend any of the conferences or the meetings. But knowing that they’re there is phenomenal. The department is willing to help us with association fees and those things, which is a great help. As students we need a little help here and there [laugh], so, just knowing that the support is there, and the structure is there, and hopefully becoming part of the larger community once we step away from CUA, from Catholic.
Adam: Sure. And I would say, as someone who has been more on the research side of things as a PhD student and now as a faculty member, the main ASIS&T conference, the Annual Meeting, is a bit more research oriented, but there are sometimes some practitioners, particularly more in the information architecture, knowledge management, and metadata tracks, that will go to that conference. And then there’s also the IA Summit, which is all about information architecture, but is very practice-focused. So if there’s people at CUA in the Student Chapter who are interested more in those sorts of directions; maybe not for your own interests in school libraries, but then it depends what you want to do with that, right?
Colin: Yes. I was naïve before my practicum, or really getting into the classes, thinking that, “Oh, you’re a school librarian and you’re at your library, and it is your library, and you get to make the calls.” And during my practicum and course discussion, there’s been a lot of, “Well, you’re at the district level,” and you have people making a call of how to handle information, books, and resources for maybe a hundred schools, depending on how big the school district is. So, I think a lot of it is applicable. And they might do a little bit more research at the district level, to make sure that what they are getting will function in practice, and also at the individual library level, finding out, maybe this doesn’t work so well? So it’s almost like they’re a test lab, each library is, because you never know what students will do. For instance, I did my practicum in Arlington, VA, where they just rolled out a one-to-one initiative, and the kids worked out how to bypass the wireless network filters! [chuckle]
Adam: Of course they did! [laugh]
Colin: So then, we and IT had to figure out how we could close that gap and work through that. Then you also have, I think it was a couple of years ago, the Arlington schools were connected to the public library, they used the same systems. And it just wasn’t working for the public schools. So they decided that they were going to branch off. That was their call, because in practice it just wasn’t feasible for them.
Adam: And it’s all about bringing research and practice together, and I know that’s something that ASIS&T is striving to do a bit more of. And that’s one reason why we’re talking to the Special Interest Groups, which tend to be more research focused, but also to the Chapters, which have a variety of focuses; some are more practice oriented, but some do have more research discussion. So it just depends on the specific needs of the situation. And what we’re trying to do here is expose prospective and current members to all of that, and this interview is part of that and thank you for that, for sure!
… it’s amazing the speed at which technology changes and evolves, and it’s too much, I think, for one person to stay current. Having an organization like ASIS&T just really helps to find out what’s available, and it certainly informs my decisions.
Colin: So I was at a conference back in the spring, and it seemed like everyone wanted to talk about Wolfram Alpha. And it was the first I’d heard about it, and I was like, “What is this amazing thing? Now I have to go research it!” So it’s amazing the speed at which technology changes and evolves, and it’s too much, I think, for one person to stay current. Having an organization like ASIS&T just really helps to find out what’s available, and it certainly informs my decisions.
Adam: What about online? What online or social media venues does the Student Chapter offer? What can members find you posting there? And how successful do you feel like that’s engaging with members of the Chapter?
Colin: We have a Facebook page, but I feel it’s really underutilized. We have an employee of the department who we send posts to; when we have events to go out we send them to them, and it’s always checked off at the department level. So I completely get that, and I really don’t have too many qualms about it, other than sometimes you just see an article and think, “Man, this would be great to share!” But then you think, is it worth writing up an email to send, to get the post up? And that’s my own personal hang-up and I do need to move beyond that, but… It’s not as easy. Because if you’re on your personal account, there’s already the Facebook or Twitter, or if you’re on Google Plus or whatnot, the share icon there, so it’s just click and share; it’s so easy, straight from your browser. But the extra steps of sending it on and waiting for them to post it, it’s a little bit of a barrier that I’m sure they could give a little leeway on. But I haven’t had the time to pursue that, and I’m not trying to step on any toes… but while I’m thinking about it, I’m going to pass that on…
Adam: …to the next group, right!
Colin: To next year, yes, absolutely.
Adam: What’s it like being an officer of the Student Chapter?
Colin: It’s fun! [laugh] I love talking to people about it. But it’s more responsibility than I thought I was prepared for, so there was definitely an adjustment with all of that. Being the liaison between the students and the faculty, who will have their ideas of what they’d like to do. Our faculty advisor is phenomenal, Dr. Sung Un Kim, she’s great; she listens to all of our ideas. She also has her network that’s easy to reach out to, so that’s a benefit.
Adam: Yeah, that’s big.
Colin: But just the, not really being the face but being the one to make decisions for the students, with the other officers, I was like, “Wait a minute, did I really sign up for this?” [chuckle] I’m like, “I think this is a great idea, but I don’t know if anyone else will think this is a great idea!” But it’s been good; certainly a learning experience, and one that I would choose to do again if given the opportunity.
Adam: That’s always great to hear at the end of it, right? That you still feel that way! Would you encourage others to volunteer, either with the CUA Student Chapter if they’re at CUA or with other Student Chapters wherever they may be?
Colin: Oh absolutely! It’s experience that I would not get in the classroom. Being able to meet people, either at the volunteer events or at the symposium, it’s much different than having a guest speaker come into class and say, “This is what I do,” and then your entire class is ready to pounce on them to vie for their attention. Whereas the group events, you know what they come for and they know why you’re there. And it helps to break the ice, and you can dialog, and bounce ideas back and forth, to just get that exposure that the classroom doesn’t necessarily provide.
It’s experience that I would not get in the classroom. Being able to meet people, either at the volunteer events or at the symposium, it’s much different than having a guest speaker come into class … it helps to break the ice, and you can dialog, and bounce ideas back and forth, to just get that exposure that the classroom doesn’t necessarily provide.
Collaboration and Community
Adam: Finally, you mentioned some of the collaborations with other student groups at CUA, like you mentioned the SLA Student Chapter, right?
Colin: Correct, yes.
Adam: Are there other groups that you’ve collaborated with? Particularly, are there other groups within ASIS&T, like other Student Chapters, or Regional Chapters, or perhaps even the main organization in some way, that you’ve worked with?
Colin: No, unfortunately we haven’t reached out too much. I know during my first year we reached out to the Maryland Chapter. They was a meeting they were having close by. Living in Virginia I couldn’t make it. But when they’re close, it’s definitely presented to the students as an option, and they have all the information. I think some people will offer to carpool, and they’ll meet at Catholic or some other place, and they’ll make it easier for them to get there.
We also have a pretty strong online and weekend learning program, where people come on various Saturdays throughout the semester for class. And so while we can be scattered across the area, I find that students want to connect. If the Student Chapter is fantastic, we just hope that they reach out to the parent organization as much as possible.
On campus we also have AGLISS — our Association of Graduate LIS Students — they’re really big, and they’re the ones that really facilitate back-and-forth with our GSA, Graduate Student Association, at Catholic. The GSA are the gatekeepers to the funding, the money. But we always make sure that’s a good relationship. We work probably the closest with AGLISS on campus, and when possible we reach out to other ASIS&T chapters, or make it known what they’re up to.
… we’re hopefully there to — we’re not the table of contents, I’ll let the department be that, but — we’re the foreword or the introduction, saying how awesome the LIS community is and hopefully connecting them to the book itself and to the larger community.
Adam: Definitely! And I’d encourage you to keep doing that, for sure!
“We’re the Foreword”
Adam: I lied, actually, there’s one more final question, a very important question: If your chapter was a book chapter, where would we find it?
Colin: I like to think we would be like the foreword or the introduction. So you pick up the book and the book is a degree in library and information science. And we’re hopefully there to — we’re not the table of contents, I’ll let the department be that, but — we’re the foreword or the introduction, saying how awesome the LIS community is and hopefully connecting them to the book itself and to the larger community. We’re not the index!
Adam: That’s a great answer, I think! And thank you for the interview again, and congratulations, definitely, on the award-winning in the past. Hopefully more award-winning to come, right, for the Chapter?
Colin: Yeah, we do what we can. If we get awards that’s fantastic; if we help the students, even better!
Thanks again to the CUA-ASIS&T Student Chapter and to Colin for being willing to take part in this interview! If this post has raised your interest in the Catholic Student Chapter or in ASIS&T’s other Student and Regional Chapters, we encourage you to engage with us in the comment section below and to get involved at your institution or in your region. We also, as always, welcome your feedback and thoughts on our “Get To Know” post series via the comments.