The Chronicle of Higher Education published this succinct editorial by Robert Darnton, noted defender of the book and of libraries, titled, 5 Myths About the “Information Age.” Nicely, this is freely available on the web, not just for people whose institutions have access to the Chronicle. You might know Robert Darnton for his The Case for Books, which was based on a series of essays he did for the New York Review of Books (correct me if my memory is misleading me). This editorial in the Chronicle encapsulates some important points.
From Litwin Books, LLC
As an academic publisher, we understand our role in the information ecology, and respect the roles of academics and librarians in the same ecological system. To clarify our understanding of our place in that system, we offer the following pledge to the library community:
1. We recognize the free speech rights of librarians, and respect the fact that criticizing a publisher is sometimes part of a librarian’s professional duty. We will not sue librarians for criticizing us.
2. We will attempt to make money by selling books, not by charging authors fees to publish.
3. We will price our titles reasonably, so that individuals as well as institutions can afford to buy them.
4. We will always use acid-free, sustainably-sourced paper.
5. Our books will include bibliographic references and indexes where appropriate.
6. Contributors of chapters in edited volumes will maintain all their rights (the rights we license from them will be non-exclusive).
7. We pledge to balance timeliness, quality, and “timelessness” in our choice of book projects and our processes for bringing them to publication.
8. We pledge to make our full backlist available as DRM-free PDF files to personal and institutional members of Library Juice.
9. We will explore e-book publishing models with a creative approach and an effort to respond to the new logics of changing media, with the interests of scholars and librarians in mind.
Litwin Books is an independent academic publisher of books about media, communication and the cultural record. We are interdisciplinary in scope and intention, and gather together works from a range of disciplines, including media studies, communication studies, cultural studies, information studies, philosophy of technology, archival studies, communications history, history of archives and libraries, and related fields. Our independence from larger institutions gives us the freedom to offer critical perspectives that cut against the grain, as well as occasionally to give a scholar free rein with a work that is outside his or her usual publishing stream.
With our Library Juice Press imprint we follow the same philosophy, publishing books that examine theoretical and practical issues in librarianship from a critical perspective, for an audience of professional librarians and students of library science.
Auslander & Fox is our new imprint for general readers, featuring books characterized by originality, wit, and perspective.
I’m working on a “Publisher’s Pledge to the Library Community” that we will release soon. I’ve put out some feelers regarding what people want to see in this pledge, and one concern came up that I feel is too complex in its implications to respond to in a bullet point on the pledge, and that is “timeliness of publication.” It turned out that this question was coming from an author’s perspective, which is fairly valid for the purposes of a pledge to the library community, since most book authors in the professional literature are librarians and many librarians have publishing expectations as a part of their job responsibilities. The question of timeliness is also relevant to collection development and acquisitions librarians, both in terms of the timeliness of the content of a book in the context of its use and in terms of organizing the process of buying books based on publishers’ advertised publication dates. In terms of advertised publication dates, I will readily admit that Litwin Books and Library Juice Press have not always published our books by the advertised publication dates, and can say in our defense only that it is difficult to work on that kind of a schedule when much of the work is subject to factors we can’t control. Among these factors may be other responsibilities of contractors to whom we send production work, permissions issues, and the ability of editors of collections to submit their manuscripts on time (given that they too have issues beyond their control that can affect their schedules, especially for work that is not their primary responsibility in life). So there are factors that are difficult or impossible to control that can affect how long it takes to bring a work to publication once we have announced it and set an expected publication date. As a result I have begun to build in a longer period of time for the expected publication date, for the sake of truth in advertising.
There is always the possibility of cutting corners to make the work go faster, and we avoid doing this, because quality has a different balance point with timeliness in book publishing than it does with faster forms of publishing in the information ecology. Often, I feel that an expectation of “timeliness” of topics is a little misplaced with regard to books. The long form and permanent nature of the book format gives room for the long view as an intellectual approach. I think the perspective of time is one of the contributions that book publishing has made culturally, and not only because we have a lot of old books around. The format encourages work that takes a long time to write, work that is the product of reflection over greater spans of time. Not all forms of book publishing are like this or should be like this. Software manuals, for example, become useless quickly. In academic subjects, the intellectual duration of long-form works can vary by discipline and sub-discipline. My feeling as a book publisher, though, is that if people are less interested in books than they used to be and read fewer of them (which may or may not be true, if you want to be inclusive of e-books, and we are), then the importance of long-form publishing for creating a space for intellectual culture has only increased. Compromises with faster forms of publishing represent compromises with the long view. Timeleness isn’t exactly irrelevant, but I want it to be in balance with quality, and with something that with some exaggeration I will call “timelessness,” by which I mean that I want to publish books that will be of interest to people in ten or twenty years and not just next year, and a few books that will be of interest for much longer than that.
So that is what I bring with me to conversations with impatient authors or contributors to edited volumes. Often, their impatience is based in part on a lack of understanding of all that is involved in the publication process. We had a problem with a book recently that was held up for a long period because the editors had personal issues to deal with, but because they didn’t communicate about this with contributors, we as a publishing house took the heat (and it had to do with people’s tenure portfolios, among other things). So I have experience with authors who have had serious issues regarding timeliness of publication. But because it is not always possible to make people happy regarding their expectations of timeliness, I don’t feel it’s possible to make “timeliness of publication” a promise in our pledge to the library community.
What about the option of saying that we will “make every effort to ensure timeliness of publication,” as was suggested to me by the person who brought this up? That would allow us to avoid promising what ends up being impossible. The problem I have with that option, though, is that it places too much stress on the value of timeliness in a form of publishing that is less about timeliness than other forms. So I have arrived at this:
“We pledge to balance timeliness, quality, and ‘timelessness’ in our choice of book projects and our processes for bringing them to publication.”
I’m interested in readers’ feedback on this.
Late Night Library One for the Books Campaign
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
A PLEDGE CAMPAIGN SUPPORTING INDEPENDENT BOOKSELLERS AND PUBLISHERS
PORTLAND, OR, October 22, 2012—Responding to the US Department of Justice vs. Apple case set to go to trial in June of 2013, Late Night Library has announced the One for the Books! campaign in support of independent booksellers and independent publishers.
One for the Books! is a pledge drive not requiring a monetary pledge. It offers four levels of participation:
Late Night Reader: Anyone who pledges to purchase books from independent booksellers and independent publishers.
Late Night Author: Published authors of any genre who on their website includes links to independent retailers or IndieBound rather than retailers engaged in predatory pricing.
Late Night Publisher: Independent publishers who do not feature links to corporate retailers who predatory price on their official websites.
Late Night Brick & Mortar: Independently-owned physical bookstores supporting independent publishers by offering multiple independent titles on their bookshelves and providing a pick-up or delivery service for community-based readers.
To participate in One for the Books! is simple. E-mail email@example.com and Late Night Library will add your name or business to the appropriate pledge level. We will publish the results on our website in April.
LATE NIGHT LIBRARY is a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting talented writers early in their careers. To make a donation to Late Night Library, please visit www.latenightlibrary.org and click Give. All donations will be applied directly to program services.
I recently encountered some interesting data on the academic book market, in an article in the most recent issue of the Journal of Scholarly Publishing, by Albert N. Greco, Robert, M. Wharton, and Falguni Sen, titled, “The Price of University Press Books: 2009-2011.”
According to data from YBP, in 2011, the total number of books published by university presses was 12,104, and the number published by commercial scholarly and professional publishers was 52,148. I was interested to see that commercial scholarly presses were a much bigger part of the market for scholarly books than university presses. Included in the category of commercial scholarly book publishers are big ones like Routledge and SAGE on down to small ones like Parlor Press and Litwin Books. (Since Litwin Books is on the YBP core list of publishers, we were counted in these stats.)
Also interesting to see in this data were the average prices per title charged by university presses and commercial presses. In 2011, the average price of a book from a university press was $61.04, and the average price from a commercial scholarly and professional publisher was $85.17. The authors of the article state that they assume there is no qualitative difference between titles published in the two categories.
At Litwin Books and Library Juice Press we have been pricing our books much lower, with the idea of making them affordable to individuals and not just institutions. The average price of a book from Library Juice Press is $24.80, and the average price of a Litwin Books title is $26.86. While it might seem that our prices are ridiculously cheap for the market that we are in, it has to be stated we are only publishing paperbacks thus far, and the data I saw did not separate prices for hardcover versus paperback editions. Paperback editions from other scholarly publishers, though usually higher than ours, are mostly in the same range. (It’s my personal opinion that hardcover pricing for libraries is a scam, gaming on the fact that many years ago, when library collection policies were set, paperback books were manufactured poorly and hardover books lasted much longer. With current manufacturing techniques, quality paperbacks are just as durable as hardcover books, with the exception of those with sewn bindings, which are far from the norm.)
Phil Davis writes in The Scholarly Kitchen about “The Secret Life of Retracted Articles.” Scientific papers are frequently retracted, officially, by the journal’s publishers and editors if it is found that data was faked or for other reasons that invalidate the article’s conclusions. The problem is that the articles stay around, in libraries, on websites, and in other places, with no indication that they have been retracted.
Big news in publishing: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Files for Bankruptcy. This doesn’t mean they are going out of business, but it does mean their business and ownership may radically change, and it is a big bellwether for the publishing industry…
Excerpted from Barney Rosset’s obituary:
By Elaine Woo, Los Angeles Times
February 23, 2012
Barney Rosset, the renegade founder of Grove Press who fought groundbreaking legal battles against censorship and introduced American readers to such provocative writers as Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco and Jean Genet, died Tuesday in New York City. He was 89.
His daughter, Tansey Rosset, said he died after undergoing surgery to replace a heart valve.
In 1951 Rosset bought tiny Grove Press, named after the Greenwich Village street where it was located, and turned it into one of the most influential publishing companies of its time. It championed the writings of a political and literary vanguard that included Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Tom Stoppard, Octavio Paz, Marguerite Duras, Che Guevara and Malcolm X.
I’m talking with Jennifer Szunko, Clarion Services Director. Jennifer offered to be interviewed for Library Juice to talk about Clarion’s services in doing paid reviews for authors and publishers.
Thanks for being willing to do this interview. Jennifer, can you explain a bit about what you do at Clarion, and how it is different from Foreword Magazine, which I understand is the parent company?
Thank you for inviting me.
For the past 14 years ForeWord Reviews has offered pre-publication reviews of good books from independent publishers in our print magazine. Like most magazines, it is supported by advertising. Ten years ago, librarians were asking for more reviews than what we could accommodate in the magazine and with the explosion of books being published we were receiving hundreds of books each month that we just could not fit into the magazine–the Clarion Review fee-based service was born. I manage the orders that come in for books to be reviewed for a fee and work with the same pool of reviewers as we use in the magazine.
The reviews in our magazine are all pre-publication and are all for good books–those reviews are all very positive. But there are millions of authors that would still want a review but their books just didn’t qualify–either due to the publication date or the editorial content didn’t align with the magazine’s calendar, or the book just hasn’t captured the attention of an editor. That is when the author will order a Clarion Review.
Thanks for that description. Just to clarify, when Foreword Magazine was new and before Clarion Review was started, did Foreword Magazine offer paid reviews?
No, we have never charged for reviews that appear in the magazine. We only started the fee-based review service to accommodate the “overflow” of requests from authors to get their book reviewed. And it offers librarians many more reviews–all of which are archived with Bowker’s Books-In-Print online, Baker & Taylor’s Titlesource 3, and Ingram’s iPage, in addition to Google Books and the Foreword Reviews Website.
Interesting. Where else might librarians or readers encounter the reviews?
The authors will also use the review (if its a positive review) in the marketing of their book, on the back cover, or on their own Website. All of our reviews reflect an honest and unbiased look at a book, however, we only publish reviews of the best books in the magazine. You will find everything from a one star to a five star review on our website. The difference between the reviews in the magazine and a Clarion Review is that the Clarion Review gives a critical analysis of the book–useful information for librarians and booksellers.
So it is possible for a paid review to receive a one-star rating? I can imagine that that would result in some unhappy customers.
I recently pulled a report of all of our reviews and found an almost perfect bell curve. We have mostly three-star reviews but we about the same amount of one-star reviews as five-star reviews. And the two and four star reviews are balanced, too. Its never easy delivering a negative report to an author but more often than not they appreciate the honesty. With digital technology, it’s easy to implement many of the changes that are mentioned in the review; so the author ends up producing a better book. So everyone wins!
Thanks for the info on stats. That is reassuring. About how many paid reviews do you publish a month? And just to clarify, you’re talking about paid reviews there, right?
Yes, the Clarion Reviews are purchased by the author and those are the only reviews that receive the star rating. We publish about 70-90 reviews on our website each month and share those with the licensees I mentioned earlier. We do give the author the opportunity to “kill” their review if they feel it is too negative. Most recognize the value of a professional review so they don’t go that route.
Even though the highest proportion get only three out of five stars. That is a more credible system than I thought, I have to admit.
I think it’s to Foreword’s credit that Clarion Review is open about selling paid reviews. However, I wonder if there is any disclaimer to that effect in the reviews that are published through these licensees, and whether at least Clarion is identified as the source.
Clarion is identified as the source on all the reviews that we write for a fee. Our integrity is extremely important and if anyone thought the reviews were somehow compromised because of the fee, we wouldn’t have survived this long. All of our reviews are objective opinions about a book, and there has been some reticence by a few publishers or authors who prefer to do business using an outdated business model, one that can no longer support itself due to declining advertising dollars. I don’t know any librarians who criticize the paid review service. Librarians are the reason we added the additional review service; they want as many quality reviews as they can get and look to us as a trusted resource. Our brand speaks quality and they can depend on us, and they are the biggest users of subscription services at our licensing partners…who are also dying for all the reviews we can provide them–regardless of whether the funding comes from ad dollars or a straight up fee.
Are you familiar with the review service BookNews?
BookNews also produces brief reviews that are published by book jobbers for the benefit of collection development librarians, though I suppose they may focus on the academic market. Their reviews are all solicited; as a publisher I receive requests for titles from them for review. I believe their source of funding is the book vendors themselves. I don’t know about the quantity of reviews that they publish, but I do know that they select the books that they choose to review.
Interestingly, ForeWord was the first to offer a fee-based review service and took a great deal of grief for it for several years but now we are one of many. To get around the stigma of a “fee-based review” other companies call it a publicity fee or a marketing fee but when you get to the bottom of it –we are all offering a professional service and professionals are paid to deliver a professional product. The BookNews model sounds more like the model for our magazine–our editor solicits for books based on our editorial calendar.
Regarding the question of the disclaimer… While Clarion Review is out there advertising paid reviews, do you think that most librarians or readers will be clued into that fact when a review is credited as coming from Clarion? I think this is an important point, because even if the highest proportion of reviews are mediocre, there has to be a market effect on the reviews Clarion gives in order for the service to be financially successful. Yes, authors want credible reviews, but they also want reviews that will lead to sales, which is the purpose of it from their point of view. Normally, or at least in the “outdated business model,” the appearance of a review usually constitutes a recommendation in and of itself. If it weren’t for the fact that so many of the paid reviews come from self-published authors, I think the bell curve you cite would be less troubling. I do find it a little hard to believe that given the nature of the customer base that so many books would be judged as being basically pretty good.
That’s an interesting position. Its not an argument that I have come up against. If you look up the word review, I think you will find it to say something like a critical analysis and not a recommendation. So maybe that is where the distinction lies. Clarion reviews reflect strict editorial standards and positive consideration is given to well-written and produced books–anything less than that must be mentioned in our reviews. It probably helps that there is at least a one person buffer between the reviewer and the author–the reviewer has no emotional stake in the transaction. We don’t hesitate to have a reviewer rewrite a review that sounds too much like an attempt to sell the book–we exist to provide honest information on books. That doesn’t always make us popular with authors or publishers.
What is the profile of the authors and publishers who use the paid review service? Do well-known publishers use them? What is the proportion of self-published authors using the service, as far as you know?
And regarding the judgment of quality, it is a relative thing. It just seems to me that in a paid review situation, if there are a lot of self-published authors, in order to maintain a bell curve the standards are going to have to be lower than they would be in a selective review source.
Good point about the self-published author as a big part of our client base. We have seen a tremendous improvement in the quality of the books from self-published authors in the past two years (and we have been doing this for ten). Remember that we do offer the option to “kill” the review and it is more likely that a one-star review will be put to death than a five-star review; the numbers do skew a bit in that sense.
How many reviews get killed relative to the 70 to 90 published a month?
ForeWord has always only reviewed books from independent publishers. We have not reviewed books from any of the Big Six or their imprints.
What about the proportion of reviews going to self-published authors versus books published by small publishing houses? (Small publishing houses being selective by necessity.)
I have not tracked the number of reviews that are “killed” each month but I would guess more than half of the one and two star reviews do not survive. So, yes we do actually write many more negative reviews than five-star.
Of the one-star reviews that do not survive, are you counting them in the bell-curve cited earlier or not?
Reaching the small press market with the Clarion product may well be our biggest challenge but we have kept very busy with self-published authors which make up about three-quarters of our fee-for-review service. The landscape is changing quickly and with the exponential growth in book production–authors and publishers are looking for ways to get noticed. That is true for self-published authors and those that have a contract with a small publishing house.
The bell curve that I mentioned earlier is only the reviews that are actually posted on our website.
Regarding the stats on the one-star reviews, that is encouraging from my point of view.
I have something to disclose that leads me to a question. About ten years ago I was very active in the group Alternatives in Print, which was a part of the Social Responsibilities Round Table of ALA. A major focus for us was advocating alternative press publishers, which for us meant small publishers publishing books that we felt were kept out of the mainstream market because of their political viewpoints. A big part of what we wanted was for books from these publishers to be more widely reviewed, and we were looking for ways to accomplish that. We were often asked for advice by these small publishing houses about how they could get their books into libraries, and reviews were a part of the answer. I think it was in that context that I first had contact with someone at Foreword Magazine, so I believe that I am probably one of the librarians you’re counting as asking for more reviews from these hidden sources. From my point of view, however, what Clarion is doing is not exactly what I was asking for (just to speak for myself), in that what I was talking about then had to do with the commercial nature of publishing, and the role of money in the marketing of books to libraries. What we were advocating in AIP was for a more non-commercial review sector that would compensate for the advantage that major publishers have in getting reviewed, by virtue of their economic power. The publishers we tended to advocate were publishing a lot of anti-capitalist books, and to them I think something like a paid review service would be anathema. Our analysis about the distortion in the market had to do with the political nature of the books we wanted to advocate, whereas for you I would imagine it has to do with the place of the little guy in the overall scheme. How would you approach small press publishers who may have a bias against something like paid reviews for these kind of idealistic reasons? I mean, to someone with that kind of a point of view, it smacks of the Better Business Bureau pay to play scandal.
I do think we are on the same page in the end–librarians want to be notified of the true contents in books and authors want visibility and an honest evaluation. This is true for all publishers, but you’re right: the bigger budgets get the bigger splash. Foreword is about the little guy and bringing attention to good books. My question would be…how would a small business owner support their staff if all of their product was offered at no charge? In the ideal world we could charge an extremely high rate to our 15,000 librarian subscribers for the privilege of reading our reviews–in reality, we would not survive. Instead we choose a per piece model so we can offer the quality we demand at a fair price to our customer. Every Clarion Review is worked on by four editors before it is returned to the publisher or author–that type of commitment to quality comes at a price. We never set out to be all things to all people but we do have a growing body of publishers and authors that value our service. There are non-commercial review sources but they are inconsistent and their quality is questionable–they don’t have anything to lose. We guarantee our quality and stand behind our reviewers opinions.
I disagree that non-commercial sources of reviews tend to be unreliable. Being in academia, where all the reviews are produced non-commercially, from my perspective the situation is the reverse of what you say. As a librarian who has worked in all types of libraries, I would just offer that in my opinion there is no demand for reviews of a great number of self-published books. I see nothing wrong with a business model that requires reviewers to be more selective; including more small press titles can easily fall within that framework if there were stronger regulations against the kind of pay to play practices that result in reviews not being given in sources like PW or LJ where the publisher doesn’t purchase ad space. I have never seen a need for the reviews that result from a pay to play review service. But I can only speak for myself – obviously you have access to more objective information about the market for reviews.
So, I have offered my opinion now. Before we say goodbye is there anything else you’d like to add?
Just that I have enjoyed our discussion and its a very exciting time in the publishing industry and we are thrilled to be a part of it all.
I want to thank you for all the information you provided about Clarion Review. I learned a lot from our conversation and enjoyed it as well.
Julie Bosman writes in the New York Times about a logical new development in book publishing: finer quality, fancy print books to compete with e-books. What is not expected about this, to me, is that major publishers are moving in this direction, rather than boutique houses that specialize in it.
We’re intimately familiar with the pressures on public libraries, and worried about closures and reductions of service. Independent bookstores have it worse, for a number of reasons. Indie bookstores’ fortunes decline as online retailers thrive, and as people move from print books to e-readers and non-literary, screen-based reading in general, while public libraries are able to adapt to these changes to an extent, by providing electronic services. There is a romantic attachment to indie bookstores just as there is to libraries, perhaps even moreso because they are more threatened. I have some comments to make about this, prompted by a brief article appearing on Salon.com today, titled, “Support your local indie bookstore!”
First, if something like indie bookstores, a traditional form or cultural touchstone, needs an appeal for support based on what it represents, then it may be a sign that it isn’t needed the way its supporters wish; otherwise the need for it in itself would lend the support. The article in Salon claims that most people simply don’t realize the role that indie bookstores play in shaping reading tastes, in bringing the good books to the market, but no evidence is supplied to support this claim, and I don’t really believe it. If a high proportion of book sales were through independent bookstores, then this claim would make some sense, although it would still be necessary to sort out whether booksellers market the books that they do based primarily on their own judgment or based on reviews and publicity (and I suspect that reviews and publicity have a more important role).
Is it a sad thing that independent bookstores are dying? Yes, of course. But as a niche publisher, I have a role in killing them, alongside Amazon and e-readers, because I am not able to be profitable and support indie bookstores at the same time. Independent bookstores, and larger brick-and-mortar bookstores for that matter, are based on a business model that is at odds with the growing sector of the publishing industry which is composed of smaller publishers who are focused on topical or geographic niches. In trade publishing, that is, the bigger part of the publishing industry that is based on books for general readers that are sold in bookstores, certain market structures prevail that allow bookstores to be profitable. Among these are a discount rate of 40 to 45 percent off the retail price and the expectation that bookstores will return a high proportion of copies to the publisher for a full refund. Additionally, bookstores and publishers depend on distributors, who generally take an additional 15% off the cover price. Publishers are able to be profitable under these conditions only through high sales volumes. That means that niche publishers, who by nature are going to have very low sales volumes by comparison, cannot afford the prevailing 60% discount or the high rates of returns, at least not without setting retail prices that readers are unlikely to pay. On the other hand, niche publishers are able to sell on Amazon and other online book retailers and give a discount to the retailer of as little as 20%, and can refuse to accept returns altogether as well. Those conditions allow niche publishers to be profitable. And in fact, at present it is niche publishing that is the profitable part of the trade market.
So, with much sadness, I say to indie bookstores that I am sorry to see them go, but I cannot sell to them on their current terms and have a viable publishing operation, and so far I have not found that I need their marketing in order to sell books.
Thoughts on this? I really do wish I could afford to sell to indie bookstores, but I can’t.
Essay by Lincoln Cushing in Peace Press Graphics 1967-1987: Art in the Pursuit of Social Change, Catalog for a 2011 exhibition at the University Art Museum, California State University, Long Beach. Exhibition curated by Ilee Kaplan and Carol A. Wells, Center for the Study of Political Graphics.
This article is a brief historical overview, with illustrations, of some of the print shops that were associated with the New Left in the United States. Like a lot of historical writing about the 60s, it’s both nostalgic and indirectly instructive, for people who might want to do analogous projects now. Lincoln is an important and knowledgeable writer in the history of left political printing and graphic design in the 60s, 70s, 80s, and since.
Not exactly a library issue, but one which rests on the same ideals.
It seems urgent to me that we legalize making video recordings of on-duty police officers. (Only illegal in some states.)
Librarians have responded to the internet and other technologies that have reduced people’s demand for our services in a couple of complementary ways over the past 20 years or so (or more). On the one hand, we have pointed out all of the reasons that libraries are still needed and still heavily used, and on the other hand we have embraced new roles as information technology designers. These strategies have worked fairly well for libraries as institutions, but not for all specializations in library work. At the reference desk (my own encampment), we have seen steadily declining interest in the service we offer, because most of the simple factual questions that people used to come to us with are now more easily answered via the web. When people do come to us with simple, factual questions, we often have a sense that these questions don’t demand much of our expertise as reference librarians, and could easily be handled by other staff or by student workers with a little training. Yes, there are times when the reference interview reveals that the real question is somewhat different than what we have been presented with, or that behind the question there are important considerations that we are able to help the patron incorporate. But most of the time, the simple, factual questions that people present make us feel as redundant as we are said to be.
In academic libraries, we are often called on to do a little bit more, to engage with students in a learning process that has to do with helping them become competent in their new intellectual world. That is one avenue for expanding the role of reference librarians – to become more integrated into the teaching mission of the institution as educators. But I will leave that aside for now to talk about a different potential direction for reference librarians that can exist outside of educational settings, one that could involve provision of a new kind of public service.
I got the germ of the idea at a job I once had at a government special library. In the California State Library, a unit called the California Research Bureau provides reference service to the State Assembly and the Governor’s Office according to the model set by the Library of Congress’s Congressional Research Service. At the California example, librarians, and other employees with the job title of “researcher” (mostly with masters degrees in public policy), respond to requests from the offices of Assembly members. Reference questions typically had a turn-around time of one to two days, and the response, rather than a suggestion of some resources that the user might consult, was a packet of printed-out documents containing the information that the requester wanted. We selected documents with a high degree of attention to relevance, knowing that our users did not have time to wade through irrelevant matter. We used Lexis-Nexis, the physical collections of the State Library, policy papers that we found online or requested directly from research organizations, or other materials. The research we did for patrons – as reference librarians – often involved telephoning potential sources of relevant information and asking if they would share it with us. The jobs of the Researchers (the non-librarians) at the CRB was different. They were assigned research projects that took weeks or months to complete, according to the needs of legislators who wanted to write good policy, and they used social science methodologies. They did original research. Among the researchers there were people with backgrounds in different areas of policy, as specializations on top of their masters degrees. The reference librarians supported their research in addition to providing reference service directly to legislators. This organization worked with efficiency and smarts (and still does, I’m sure, I am just no longer there), constantly proving its worth to the legislature that was responsible for renewing its funding.
Since leaving there in the early 2000’s I have often felt dismay that the same degree of interest in good research to inform policy is not a part of the American political culture in general, especially in the news media. When political questions are debated it often occurs to me how good it would be to have certain relevant data, in order to check the assumptions that are in play (often contradictory assumptions). And when people toss numbers or other factoids into a discussion without knowing where they came from or how they are arrived at, without the slightest worry that they may be bunk, I feel that the services of reference librarians are very much in need, and painfully in need, but that few realize it. I think this is true with respect to many topics that interest people, whether they are policy questions or not.
So why not set up, as part of a public library organization, a “Public Library Reference Bureau,” that gathers up, sorts through and compiles already-published data in the service of clarifying the questions of the day? I will not worry here about the logistical issues around how to determine what questions are researched and for whom, except to say that one option could even be to develop the questions internally with the idea of sharing the results with the news media.
Let me provide some examples of the kind of research I think would be appropriate for this type of a service.
Regarding “Freedom” as a distinctive American value, distinguishing us from other societies, are there ways of measuring the degree of freedom that we enjoy in comparison to other countries? One possibility would be to gather information on how many activities in the United States require a license (with a fee, or a test, or both), whether granted federally, at the state level, or locally, as compared to other countries (e.g. Mexico). Another example would be a more micro-level analysis that researches all of the steps that a person would have to go through, and the severity of each barrier to entry along the way, in order to start a business doing a particular thing (e.g. selling fresh-squeezed juices) in a number of different countries. Parallel to this research would be to find information on the effectiveness of each of the regulations and license requirements that account for various barriers in terms of achieving their policy aims.
So that’s one example.
Another would be to find data relevant to the idea of domestic and foreign auto makers. We have an idea that may or may not still be valid that certain car manufacturers are American and certain others are foreign. Ford and General Motors are American companies, Toyota is a Japanese company, etc. But what do we mean when we say this? In fact, shares of large publicly traded companies are owned by international investment banks and by various equity funds that are located all over the world. Cars tend to be manufactured in factories that are as close as possible to the markets for those cars, meaning “foreign” cars are manufactured in U.S. factories by U.S. workers. Many “foreign” cars are also designed in the United States. And Americans are not always aware of the extent to which Ford and General Motors have a presence in other countries not as a foreign car manufacturer but as a domestic car manufacturer (especially Ford, but also General Motors brands like Vauxhall and Opel). Many cars are the product of joint ventures between companies that are based on different countries, or are licensed to be “badged” with the brand of a car company that had nothing to do with designing it or manufacturing it. Often an auto maker will own a large percentage of shares in another car company in another country. All of this isn’t to argue that there is no such thing as a foreign versus a domestic auto maker, but to say that we could use some data to find out to what extent that idea still makes sense. The data could be along the lines of the question: for each of the top ten global auto makers, what proportion of the workers doing manufacturing, engineering, design, marketing and management are located in what nations (and how much of the stock is held in what nations)? The numbers are out there for librarians to find and compile, and only by doing that can we get an accurate sense of what is a foreign or domestic automaker. (By the way, are the Big Three now Ford, General Motors, and Fiat?)
Another example is a very practical area for compiling information for the public: the hot policy issue of immigration and immigration reform. So many people have strong opinions with little to no awareness of the relevant numbers, just some basic “pro-” or “anti-” passions. But there are so many relevant questions to which answers already exist. How many non-citizens are there in the U.S.? How many are here legally on visas? On green cards? How many are here on overstayed visas? How many of those who are on overstayed visas are here because of paperwork delays at the INS, and how many of them are deliberately avoiding the INS? How many are here without visas at all? With all of those questions, from what countries? What are the existing immigration quotas, in terms of visas (and types of visas), green cards, and citizenship, by nation of origin? What is the history of those quotas, and their rationales? What is the history of amnesty? What are the types of amnesty? What are the policies in place that effect people who are here illegally? How much do illegal immigrants pay in taxes? (Not just whether they pay taxes.) What are illegal immigrants paid versus legal workers at the same jobs? How risky is it, in terms of the actual enforcement of the law, for employers to hire undocumented workers in various sectors and regions? What determines the policies on enforcement of the laws affecting employers versus immigrants? What rights do undocumented workers have or not have in the workplace, de facto and de jure? What is their contribution to the economy? How are they included or not included in economic statistics? What were the conditions of undocumented workers in their countries of origin, in terms of wages, rights, conditions? Etcetera. Personally, not knowing objective answers to these questions, I feel that I can have very little to say about immigration policy. (I do often say an aspect of immigration policy, broadly considered, is the de facto maintenance of an unenfranchised population who are here by choice; but I can’t say as much about that idea as I would like without having this kind of data.)
How nice it would be if reference librarians were given the role of finding, compiling, and critically presenting existing data as it relates to questions like these. It would be a way of putting our skills to work that is more efficient in terms of what we get out of it as a society. As a reference librarian, I may enjoy those times when someone comes to the desk with a question that is unusually challenging and meaningful, but how many people are helped by the research that we do together? Unless the patron is a researcher whose work is going somewhere, perhaps only the two of us. So wouldn’t it be good to find a way to leverage the higher-level work that we are able to do in such a way that many people can benefit from it? We could not only help individuals who came to the desk, but perhaps through some kind of media channel we could reach the public. Maybe some creative TV producer needs to help us out with this….
I was in Cambridge, MA last weekend for MiT7: unstable platforms: the promise and peril of transition. This conference is put on every two years jointly by MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program and the MIT Communication Forum.
The conference is concerned with new media and new communication technologies and their broad implications. Presenters came to the conference with a multitude of disciplinary and methodological perspectives, but most are working in communications, media studies, or digital humanities. There were a number of librarians and archivists present (and presenting), but not everyone who spoke about libraries or archives had a library or archival studies background, which was refreshing and interesting.
The first of four plenary sessions in an auditorium started the conference, and it featured Joshua Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard; Kathleen Fitzpatrick of Pomona College (with a book coming out soon on scholarly communication); Mark Leccese, a former journalist now teaching at Emerson College; and Klaus Peter Muller, of Johannes Gutenberg University in Germany. These four addressed questions on the fate of narrative and the shape of the public sphere in the new media environment, and were asked to give visions for the future. The introduction of the subject of narrative at the start of the conference was very interesting; at all of the sessions I attended, people drew ties between what was being discussed and questions of narrative and narrativity. I guess it must be common to talk about narrative among scholars who regularly attend MLA, but I think it is really great to introduce or invoke ideas about narrative in a setting that has a lot of social scientists as well. To me it seems that there is a lot still to be gained from studying narrative (or narrative theory or narratology) and its role outside of the usual literary contexts where it is talked about (film, literature, etc.).
Regarding narrative, the discussion seemed to show that the public at large is more aware of narrative structures in the media they consume than they possibly were in the past, as a result of the participatory online culture, fan culture, etcetera. Joshua Benton noted that “ancillary objects” surrounding news stories (i.e. links and commentary) affect the narrative by providing additional perspectives (alternate narratives) and additional entry and exit points. This makes it seem possible (to me) that people could be growing sharper about how narratives are used to manipulate them and might be becoming empowered by an enhanced ability to see through manipulative narratives (political, commercial, etc.). There doesn’t seem to be a lot of evidence for this that I can see though, considering how the masses (forgive me for using the term straightforwardly) continue to be moved by narratives that arise out of the facts but don’t do them justice. As refreshing as it was to me to find questions of narrative addressed throughout the conference, I would have been happier to see connections drawn between narratives and narrativity and social influence and control. That these connections weren’t drawn probably has to do with the fact that narrative is mostly a topic of discussion in the humanities rather than in the social sciences. (Please comment if you have something to suggest in this connection.)
There were two sessions following the opening plenary session on the first day. In the first I heard papers on the media and the Space Race of the 1960s, the 19th century telegraph system as a new communications medium, 19th century fan fic, and late 19th century American literature evidencing responses to media shift. In the second I heard papers on a discourse analysis of internet RFC’s to look for the history of information policies (Sandra Braman); Bill Gates’ “Open Letter to Hobbyists”; and the influence of the Interop conferences on the development of the internet. These two sessions were not the only ones where the point was made that “it was ever thus” or “this is not the first time” that we have been anxious and excited about the impact of new media technologies. I particularly like the insights that can be derived from historical studies such as these, and I began speaking with a couple of presenters about a possible series for Litwin Books in this area.
The conference went on to have three more plenary sessions and five more call sessions, in which I attended panels called Reading and Writing; Legal and Social Links; Classrooms and Libraries in Transition; Capital, Time and Media Bias; and Publishing in Transition. Highlights were talks by librarian Margaret Heller and her collaborator Nell Taylor, Paul van den Hoven, Bob Hanke, Paulina Mickiewicz, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, and Karen Hellekson.
Margaret Heller and Nell Taylor talked about an interesting, informal community-based library project that is building a collection of locally-published materials representing the diverse communities of Chicago and putting the catalog online in a social-media-rich way. It seems to be a very successful project, which, frankly, is unusual for things that are that innovative.
Paul van den Hoven does media studies of the legal system in Holland, and talked about the way the expanding, democratized media environment has outstripped the judicial system’s ability to handle the proliferation of narratives surrounding cases that have a public nature. His discussion helped me focus my own thinking about the current trend toward democratization of media and the de-authorization of institutions, in the sense that in the context of the law it is clear, to me anyway, how top-down institutions can protect people from the consequences of an irrational, narrative-driven public. Sandra Braman could certainly explain to me why my sense of security in feeling protected by the judicial system is a false one; nevertheless, there is still more to be said than we usually hear, it seems to me, about the dangers of de-authorizing institutions and empowering the masses (again, apologies for using the term in a straightforward manner).
Bob Hanke read a difficult paper (that he was kind enough to send me so that I could study it) addressing the technologization of the university and the changes that have emerged through the process. His paper was political, and addressed “media effects” (a term he avoided) of technology from a Canadian, media-studies point of view, but incorporating a political-economic structural viewpoint as well. Now having read his paper I am afraid to say I still find it difficult to understand in parts; but perhaps I just need to read some of the people he is citing.
Paulina Mickiewicz read a very interesting paper (with slides) about a major work of public architecture and its connection to the media environment: the Grande Bibliothèque du Québec. Mickiewicz’s background is in media studies, and her reading has so far not included much from the library literature. Her focus is on the architect’s thinking in designing the building, and how architectural decisions in building this and other innovative libraries define, or at least aim to define, the meaning of the library as an information place for the community. I will be interested to see her work as it progresses.
Kathleen Fitzpatrick and Karen Hellekson both gave papers in the Publishing in Transition session, and both were fascinating and informative, on the subjects of trade book publishing and scholarly journal publishing respectively.
It was a very good conference. In addition to the people mentioned above, I felt fortunate to hear papers and comments by William Uricchio, Kelley Kreitz, Heidi Gautschi, Andrew Feldstein, Julia Noordegraaf, and Goran Bolin.
Finally, I want to give a shout-out to a couple of librarians from MIT libraries who were present: Patsy Baudoin and Marlene Manoff. I look forward to seeing them again in 2013 if not sooner.