April 28, 2013
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 she was asking the question 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.
April 3, 2013
In the Library with the Lead Pipe published an interesting editorial this morning titled, “DIY Library Culture and the Academy,” though editorial may not be exactly the right word for it, because mostly it is a call for discussion of the ideas it presents. Library Juice Press is mentioned as an example of a DIY project, and so as you might guess I have some comments.
Lead Pipe editors Emily Ford and Micah Vandergrift both refer to the history of DIY, Emily stating that it is (in a way) what academic librarians have been doing all along, and Micah calling on the specific meaning of DIY in punk culture as a standard we should be keeping in mind. I would like to talk about it in terms of something that happened in the 60s and 70s that was called the “new careers movement,” and what sociologists of the professions at the time were calling “the revolt of the client,” because it was an important DIY moment that relates to this one. I am drawing these comments largely from a couple of papers written by sociologist Marie Haug: her 1969 paper with Marvin Sussman titled, “Professional Autonomy and the Revolt of the Client,” in Social Problems 17.2, and her 1975 paper titled, “The Deprofessionalization of Everyone?,” in Sociological Focus 8.3, which was a response to an influential paper by Harold Wilensky in 1964 titled, “The Professionalization of Everyone?”
Marie Haug developed a concept of deprofessionalization in response to the idea first proposed by Daniel Bell (famous for the term “the information society”), that the rapid proliferation of knowledge and technology would give more power to professionals and would also increase the share of knowledge-work as part of the economy, as machines would gradually take over all of the less-skilled work. Haug thought about this idea in terms of something that had begun happening in the late sixties, which sociologists termed “the revolt of the client.” What this referred to was the way “the person on the street” had started to feel alienated by the authority of professionals of whom they were clients, started to see them as “The Man” and started demanding the right to take care of needs that the professions had a monopoly over fulfilling, at the street level. Simultaneous to this revolt against the authority of the professions were some other social changes that had begun to enable non-professionals to perform some of these roles. Haug focuses on the medical profession, but we can see how the same changes gave power to people working in paraprofessional or non-professional roles in various institutions or outside of institutions completely. Haug observed that the professions’ monopoly on knowledge was being eroded by the general increased level of schooling, and also by the rise of computers, since data-driven software allowed for professional knowledge to be codified for access by non-professionals (essentially what happened later with desktop publishing software). So Haug argued that contrary to the main stream of the sociology of the professions at the time, these factors would lead to a loss of autonomy for professionals, who had previously enjoyed a strong monopoly on the knowledge on which their practice was based. In medicine specifically, the “new careers movement” was the beginning of the trend of giving nurses and nurse practitioners more of the privileges of MD’s in terms of basic medical practice. There was a gender element to the new careers movement and the revolt of the client in addition to a class element. So, I think that moment is important to think about in the context of DIY, because it links what are now a couple of separate meanings that DIY may have – the punk idea that Micah Vandergrift evokes in order to talk about the political reasons behind DIY, and on the other hand the power that desktop software gives people to do a lot of things pretty well that formerly required a professional (like desktop publishing). At the time of the “new careers movement,” the social trend toward deprofessionalization that Haug saw just beginning was motivated at one level by the desire for a sort of revolution in a political sense, and was enabled at another level by mass education and computerization.
While the rise of the new careers movement and the erosion of the professions’ monopoly on knowledge might seem simply like something to celebrate, Haug was concerned that it would lead to an increase of power for the bureaucrats who worked in professional institutions, resulting in less autonomy for professionals. This does seem to have happened and seems still to be happening (and in an ironic way may be part of the impetus for DIY practice among professionals now). At the same time, she acknowledged that people did become empowered outside of the professions in meeting needs formerly in the total purview of the professions. There is a certain way, however, I think, in which changes that enable DIY and sub-institutional work can redistribute and veil professional control as much as they can undo it. The reason for this is way software that makes use of professional knowledge in a codified form has decisions embedded into it, so that what for the professional may be questions of judgment to apply in various different contexts become software limitations of which users may not be aware, not having the background of a professional who can articulate the questions that the software has already answered for the user. Software that empowers us also makes decisions for us, decisions that are by nature outside of our focus as we are using it. (This is part of the argument for open source software.)
As librarians, we occupy an ambiguous position in the space defined by these changes. We claim an area of professional expertise but do not claim a monopoly over it; in fact, our professional ideology goes against the monopoly of knowledge on which professions are traditionally based. Our self-defined role is to empower people with knowledge, yet we try to protect our status as a profession as having a unique ability to do it. We also occupy an ambiguous position as designers of systems at the same time we are users of systems in which professional knowledge is embedded that we don’t necessarily have access to (think about the opacity of function of next-generation discovery tools). This may mean, in Haug’s terms, that we function both as professionals, with authority over a knowledge domain and a need to protect our autonomy from encroachment by the bureaucracies of our institutions, and as allies of clients who want solutions outside of the professions, in pursuit of an opening-up of professional privileges (though copyright battles, through access to medical and legal knowledge that we can share, etc.). In light of this, I think DIY work can accomplish a number of goals. First, it can enable us to do things that our bureaucracies have made difficult for us to do, despite the fact that we are ostensibly the professionals in our organizations. Second, it can demonstrate for our users that we are their allies who work in the same “DIY consumer space,” meaning that we understand the limitations they confront or feel that they confront. Third, DIY tools that are sold to consumers can afford us the benefits of professional knowledge outside our own fields without the cost of high-level business-to-business deployment, which we can’t control as individuals anyway.
I think there is also a dark side to observe, as well as a danger in attempting to understand DIY entirely through a historical lens, and that is that the kind of DIY affordances we are talking about are a part of a major economic shift that has taken place over the last half-century, away from Fordist production toward more software-driven, small-scale, customizable production and the different economic relations (and subjectivities) that Post-Fordism entails. There is a lot written about these changes in the field of political economy, but I would like to mention one article that relates to DIY specifically: Yiannis Mylonas’ article in Triple C, titled, “Amateur Creation and Entrepreneurialism: A Critical Study of Artistic Production in Post-Fordist Structures.” (Full disclosure: Mylonas has a chapter in the upcoming Litwin Books title, Piracy: Leakages from Modernity, edited by Martin Fredriksson and James Arvanitakis.) Mylonas suggests that the DIY orientation is a part of the transformation of everybody into an entrepreneur, i.e. the spread of neoliberal subjectivity. So, I am careful about getting behind it as a “cause,” though I like to take part. Furthermore, I can admit to having the ambition to bridge the gap between DIY voice and institutional voice, and to cross that bridge, as entrepreneurs generally do.
- Rory Litwin was an academic librarian prior to working full time as a small press academic publisher and continuing education provider with Litwin Books, Library Juice Press and Library Juice Academy.
December 16, 2012
We haven’t done this in the past, but I think I would like to begin a tradition of sending a “year-end update” to friends and customers. Why now? Probably because 2012 was a year that saw a lot of changes, and we are planning for 2013 to be a big year as well.
To begin with our major news of 2012, we started Library Juice Academy, which offers online courses to librarians and library workers for continuing education. We started lining up instructors in July and August, and started offering online classes beginning in October. We have a nice, diverse range of courses offered. These classes are skills-oriented, so that librarians can feel justified in asking for professional development funds to pay for them. It has been very exciting getting Library Juice Academy off the ground, and it has been successful so far. We are always looking for new instructors to offer online classes of two- or four-weeks in duration, so if there is something you would like to teach then please go ahead and contact us.
There is another activity into which to enlist your help regarding Library Juice Academy. In just the past few days we have launched the Sponsor a Librarian program, which is intended to help unemployed librarians pay for their continuing education, in order to keep their skill set fresh. Details about this are on the Library Juice Academy website, but to summarize, the way it works is that unemployed or underemployed librarians can create profiles on the Sponsor a Librarian site indicating what classes they want to take, and other librarians, or friends or family, can donate funds to pay for these classes. It’s premised on the sense that the library profession is a community that helps its members. You can participate in this by creating a profile, if you are unemployed, or by donating funds to sponsor an unemployed librarian to take classes (once the profiles have been posted to the site, which should be soon). We hope that this proves to be a helpful service.
In other Library Juice Academy news, soon into the new year we hope to begin offering one or more webinar series, the nature of which is currently under wraps. You can keep up to date on Library Juice Academy news by following the twitter feed mentioned later, or by subscribing to email updates on the website.
Also happening now are the last weeks and days of our campaign to “unglue” Lauren Pressley’s book, So You Want To Be a Librarian. We are working with Unglue.it to crowd-fund a creative-commons licensing of the ebook version of Lauren’s book, so that it can be freely accessible to college students, recent grads, and career-changers who are considering going into librarianship. Our goal for the campaign is to raise $9000, and we are only about 22% of the way there with a deadline of December 31st. That doesn’t seem very good, but this kind of campaign often has the bulk of its donations in the home stretch. We hope you will consider donating to this campaign. Donations will be acknowledged in the new e-version of the book, with generous donations earning more verbose and prominent thanks in the new acknowledgments section. Donating on behalf of someone else or on behalf of a cause that will be acknowledged might make a good holiday gift.
On the publishing side, an accomplishment in 2012 that we want to highlight is the long-awaited release of the electronic version of Alternative Publishers of Books in North America (APBNA), compiled by Byron Anderson. The book’s seven prior editions have been published by a number of publishing houses, including ours for the sixth edition. Many people who saw the book had the same question to ask: Why isn’t this on the web? In response to that question, we started working with Byron, and also with the Alternative Press Center, to create a new electronic resource. The Alternative Press Center (APC), cooperating with the Independent Press Association, published three editions of Annotations: A Guide to the Independent, Critical Press. Annotations was a guide to periodicals in the same way that APBNA was a guide to book publishers. Working with Byron Anderson and with Chuck D’Adamo of APC, we combined the two resources into a searchable database that lives on the Library Juice Press website, with the new title, Alternatives in Print. The database will be updated regularly by Byron and the APC, when we get the editing interface done (it is in the works, as I keep promising them). This is a very useful free resource, for collection development or for shopping your work if you are an author. We think you should list it in your catalog for your patrons to find.
2012 was relatively slow for releasing new titles, but the titles we did release were good ones. On the Library Juice Press imprint, we released Greening Libraries, which is a guide to green and sustainable practices in libraries, edited by Monika Antonelli and Mark McCullough. We also released Wayne Bivens-Tatum’s Libraries and the Enlightenment, which is an enlightening read, if I may say, about the history of libraries and the ideas surrounding their development, primarily in the 18th century.
Bivens-Tatum’s book is now under contract to be translated into Japanese and published by the Kyoto Institute for Library and Information Science. 2012 saw two other new translation agreements, both with Brazilian publishers and both on archival-studies topics. John Ridener’s From Polders to Postmodernism: A Concise History of Archival Theory, published by Litwin Books, is being translated into Brazilian Portuguese for publication by Editora da UFF, a university press. Richard J. Cox’s Personal Archives and a New Archival Calling: Readings, Reflections and Ruminations, also published by Litwin Books, is under contract to be translated into Portuguese by Brazilian university press Editora UFMG.
The Litwin Books imprint also released two new titles in 2012. Prophets of the Fourth Estate: Broadsides by Press Critics of the Progressive Era, by Amy Reynolds and Gary Hicks, was released at the beginning of the year. Make Your Own History: Documenting Feminist and Queer Activism in the 21st Century, edited by Lyz Bly and Kelly Wooten, was published mid-year, as the second entry in the Series on Gender and Sexuality in Information Studies, with Emily Drabinski as series editor. A third Litwin Books title was canceled, unfortunately after we announced its publication. Richard Cox’s collection of essays about Lester J. Cappon will be published as separate articles in archival studies journals. Dr. Cox’s Series on Archives, Archivists, and Society has not suffered as a result of this, however, and planned titles within it are moving along well.
2012 also saw the launch of our imprint for general readers, Auslander & Fox, with the publication of two titles, the children’s book Allie and the Monster Who Said Blah Blah Blah, and the novella by Ian Stoba, titled, Walt.
Between these three imprints, we presently have 23 projects under contract at various stages of development, including a handful with expected release dates in the first half of 2013. These can be mentioned here, since they should be available fairly soon. We are republishing H. Curtis Wright’s biography of Jesse Shera, which I personally love and which I can say serves me as a personal touchstone. Also on the Library Juice Press imprint we will soon be publishing Information Literacy and Social Justice: Radical Professional Praxis, edited by Shana Higgins and Lua Gregory, and Informed Agitation: Library and Information Skills in Social Justice Movements and Beyond, edited by Melissa Morrone. The most significant title to date from Library Juice Press may also reach press by mid year, a reference book titled, The Library Juice Press Handbook of Intellectual Freedom: Concepts, Cases and Theories, edited by Mark Alfino and Laura Koltutsky. This book has been years in the works and is nearing completion. On the Litwin Books imprint we are also expecting titles in the first half of 2013. Also several years in the works is The Feminist and Queer Information Studies Reader, edited by Patrick Keilty and Rebecca Dean. This will be a major work that we think will serve as a point of reference for the field. Also in the first half of the new year will be Piracy: Leakages from Modernity, edited by Martin Fredriksson and James Arvanitakis; Queers Online: LGBT Digital Practices in Libraries, Archives, and Museums, edited by Rachel Wexelbaum; Ephemeral Material: Queering the Archive, by Alana Kumbier; and Digital Identity Narratives, by Stacey Koosel. In the works on the Auslander & Fox imprint are a coffeetable/reference book about secessionist and nationalist separatist movements by Chris Roth, and a new translation of Voltaire’s play, Fanaticism, or Mahomet the Prophet, which we expect to be controversial and a conversation-starter.
As always, we invite book proposals and manuscript submissions within our editorial scope.
2012 saw another development that we did not announce to the extent that it warranted. We enlisted Alison Lewis as Chief Acquisitions Editor for the Library Juice Press imprint. We work closely with Alison regarding many aspects of the business, as well as with two others who deserve mention, Emily Drabinski and Martin Wallace.
As a final bit of news, we now have someone handline Twitter posts. We had not been participating on Twitter the way a lot of librarians and academics like to do, and decided to rectify that. So, now we are twittering, with the help of Halsted Bernard, who is known to many on the librarian’s internet as “Cygnoir.” Halsted has run the “Library Lovers” Livejournal for over ten years, and has been following Library Juice and Library Juice Press throughout that time, so she is well placed to do this for us. We are using the @litwinbooks handle for the Litwin Books imprint now, instead of for everything, and we have added the handles @LibJuicePress and @LibJuiceAcademy in addition, so add those to your feed if you would like to be kept up to date in this way.
Some of you know that I started Library Juice Press and Litwin Books while I was working as a librarian at the University of Minnesota Duluth, and continued it as I entered the doctoral program in information studies at UCLA in the Fall of 2011. A major development in 2012, in my life anyway, has been that I left the phd program in order to devote all of my time to Litwin Books, Library Juice Press, and related endeavors. This was a difficult decision but in retrospect rather an obvious one, given the demands of the months ahead on the publishing front and with Library Juice Academy.
Watch our blog for news about a party in Chicago during ALA Annual, and stop by and say hello.
President, Litwin Books, LLC
November 30, 2012
I HATE the slogan, “Librarian: The Original Search Engine.” It is on a coffee mug that was given to me as a gift by a family member, and it seems to appear in my Facebook news feed every month or so. I find it problematic as an attempt to promote the services of librarians or the value of the library profession, and I don’t know why more people don’t see this.
To say that “librarians are the original search engine” is to concede that search engines do what librarians do, which would be another way of saying that there is no reason to talk to a reference librarian if you can just Google it. While it is true that before the internet, many people relied on reference librarians as a source of factual information that is now readily available through a search engine, it is a sad thing to see librarians tacitly accept the idea that this kind of provision of simple factual information adequately describes what it is we do by sharing this slogan.. A better slogan would be designed to get at what librarians can do that search engines don’t know how to do, and would communicate something of the way a librarian’s general knowledge and understanding of people gives her the ability to translate a user’s question into a search of resources (including Google) that will actually help. Very often, library users come to the reference desk after having hit a wall searching Google because of something specific that they do not know or do not understand about their subject of inquiry or the nature of the resources that will help them. Given that kind of knowledge gap, Google alone can only take them part of the way, and what they need is the consultation of an educated and understanding human being. Google, Microsoft, and others are investing a lot into research that will allow their search engines to take steps in the direction of interpretation and guidance, but AI researchers almost always underestimate the breadth and creativity of human intelligence as they seek to imitate it. So if we say that librarians are like search engines at all, we are misunderstanding our own skills, role, and social contribution, and in the process failing to see what we need to do to expand our expertise or train future generations for the profession. If you want a slogan for a coffee mug, I would prefer to see one with an SAT-style analogy, like, “Librarians are to search engines as astronomers are to telescopes.” People who don’t know much about astronomy can get some use from a telescope, but we understand that with an astronomer’s knowledge it can become much more powerful as a tool for discovery. We would not say, “Astronomers: The original telescope,” and we wouldn’t think for a second that that a slogan like that would be flattering to astronomers or supportive of the astronomy profession.
The other problem with the slogan is that it only has in mind the librarian at the reference desk, who is the tip of the iceberg of the library profession. Users talk directly to reference librarians, and as a former reference librarian I would never want to understate the breadth and depth of the skills involved in helping people find information in that role (retrieval and access). However, a good slogan for the library profession should also encompass the other roles that librarians play in their institutions, as selectors, organizers, and preservers of information resources who have their communities in mind, and as the creators and maintainers of the systems and intellectual infrastructures that facilitate the connections between them.
In conclusion, please don’t buy a librarian a coffee mug or other item that says, “Librarians: The Original Search Engine.” What to do if one is given to you is a more complicated question.
March 4, 2012
Librarianship as a profession is, as we all know, threatened. The threat can be identified most directly as a reduction in public support for government institutions, especially those institutions or their components considered “less essential.” Where librarians feel that our jobs, or our job prospects in the case of new librarians, are threatened, we have a personal stake in the fate of libraries, which in our discourse with the public can put the taint of self-interest on our arguments for the value of what we do. But for most of us, it is not so much a matter of protecting our jobs but protecting our ability to do the kind of work that we believe in. That passion for the profession serves us well in making the case to the public about our role, where our personal stake may not.
In terms of the question of public support for libraries, our belief in the values of the profession is an essential rhetorical tool. However, it is only one piece. The other piece is professional expertise. Our expertise as librarians is part of a dynamic where the threat to libraries is being felt in a less direct and less noticeable way, which is the process of deprofessionalization.
Library administrators and funding institutions have an interest in the deprofessionalization of librarianship in two ways – economic efficiency and control. Library support staff, who are being trained up to take on most responsibilities now handled by professional librarians, cost libraries less in wages. Because they are not a part of a profession that makes a claim to autonomy in the workplace, and not guided by a professional code as well as by management directives, they are more subject to direct management by their supervisors. That is to say, they are workers with bosses where librarians tend not to have bosses in the same way, tending rather to occupy roles in their organization where management is partly a collegial process. It goes without saying that library administrators want the ability to determine what happens in the libraries for which they are responsible, and therefore have interests that are in tension with those of their professionals on the staff.
In order to make a claim to professional autonomy, librarians need more than a set of admirable values to justify it. They need a body of professional expertise that is incontrovertible, made up of knowledge and skills that others recognize required extensive education to gain. They need to be able to make the case that what they offer as professionals is something that other people cannot do nearly as well. They need to show that what they do is not only interesting and admirable and important, but that doing it takes expertise, and that they possess that expertise. The importance of the professional status of librarians was first recognized in the 1920s in the famous Williamson Report, which led directly to the establishment of graduate level education as a prerequisite for employment as a librarian. The reason for the masters in librarianship has a lot to do with the importance of professional autonomy for the pursuit of the honorable goals of librarianship as a profession, which are not necessarily the direct priority of institutions. That autonomy is just as important as the fact of our employment, if our employment is to have any meaning in a social sense.
Part of the process of deprofessionalization, somewhat ironically, has been a move among library management thinkers toward a reconception of the professional librarian as primarily a supervisor of front line staff. This pattern first appeared in the area of technical services, as a result of the advent of shared cataloging, but it has begun to spread to other areas of library work as well, with the move toward cross-training support staff in formerly-professional work roles.
(Readers who are interested in the issue of the deprofessionalization of librarianship may be interested in a paper I wrote about it for Progressive Librarian a couple of years ago.)
Making the case for the importance of maintaining our presence in libraries as professionals is, as I mentioned, dependent on being able to claim an area of indisputable expertise. This expertise should be understood as constituting what it means to be a librarian. The knowledge and skills that make up this expertise, and the work that goes into advancing that knowledge and those skills, should be our primary concern as librarians, and should be the main content of our communication with each other as librarians, especially where that communication is before the public.
This is where I find the library blogosphere to be a problem, and to be a contributor to the deprofessionalization of librarianship. I realize that this is a controversial statement to make and not likely to be popular, so let me qualify it a bit before making my case. It’s important to say that there actually is substantial amount of discussion in the library blogosphere about real professional issues, exploring new problems and advancing the profession’s knowledge and expertise. This can take the form of intelligent essays like those that appear in Lead Pipe, and can also be found in the more personal musings of typical library blogs, from time to time.
My concern is that this kind of communication that serves to advance our knowledge and skills does not make up the majority of what counts as the professional communication of librarians in the Web 2.0 era. What I mostly see in the library blogosphere is a mix of celebration of our professional values in a less-than-substantial way; celebration of our pop culture presence; demonstration of our interest in pop culture; a rather immature obsession with our image in the culture; and general personal blogging under the heading of “librarian.” Because the library blogosphere has nearly replaced the reading of journals for most younger librarians, this content has to be seen as the material that now constitutes the self-conception of librarianship for the librarians who read it, education and work responsibilities aside, for ourselves and before the public. As a result of the interests of library bloggers, in a postmodern transformation, the profession of librarianship is being replaced by the signifier of librarianship. The implication for the problem of deprofessionalization is that the library blogosphere is unwittingly abetting it. The claim to professional expertise is slipping through our fingers, replaced by a mere claim to a cultural identity. A claim to a cultural identity doesn’t constitute a claim to professional autonomy, and professional autonomy is what is needed in order to advance the goals of the profession that we all celebrate.
So, for the sake of our ability to make an indisputable claim to professional expertise, please start using the blogosphere for the kind of communication that advances the knowledge base of the profession. Read the journals, and blog about the articles that you read there. That means not American Libraries and Library Journal, but Library Quarterly, Reference Services Review, and JASIS, and journals is related fields, like Reading Research Quarterly and Media, Culture, and Society. These are just a few of hundred of journals with research that is relevant to building up the foundations of our field. That research is extremely interesting and useful for our work, especially as we respond to the changes around us. We should be reading from these journals and communicating about what we read in our professional blogging. Our blogs should demonstrate our personal interest in the elements of our own expertise. If we don’t share and advance the knowledge base of our profession in this way, our claim to professional status will continue to weaken, and our professional identity, the subject of so much direct concern, will be reduced to a style that anyone can wear, regardless of social role and life commitment.
I hope this message is taken in the spirit of a shared concern for the profession that we all believe in.
[Note added two days later... Reactions to this post so far are making me feel it was a mistake to talk about the scholarly literature as the solution to what is wrong with the library blogosphere. This idea seems to have created a distraction from my main point, which was about what is wrong with the library blogosphere and the effect it is having on the profession. Paying more attention to the scholarly literature is just one thing bloggers might do to improve the library blogosphere. I was not intending to say that the lack of attention to the library literature in the blogosphere is what constitutes the problem. It's not that at all. It's just the personal, trivial nature of most of the blogging that goes under the "librarian" heading. Blogging about scholarly and professional literature is just one of many things library bloggers could do to use the blogosphere in a way that does more to advance the profession and show that the "librarian identity" is a matter of expertise rather than something to do with Catwoman.]
February 15, 2012
The latest issue of InterActions: UCLA Journal of Education and Information Studies (Volume 8, Issue 1) is available at interactions.gseis.ucla.edu.
Table of Contents:
Stop Speaking For Us: Women-of-Color Bloggers, White Appropriation, and What Librarians Can Do About It
By Julia Glassman
How Much Knowledge Can They Gain? Women’s Information Behavior on Government Health Websites in the Context of HIV/AIDS Prevention
By Jing Chong
The Making of Violent Masculinities: Exploring the Intersections of Cultural, Structural and Direct Violence in Schools
By Shenila S. Khoja-Moolji
An Examination of Institutional Factors Related to the Use of Fees at Public Four-Year Universities
By Alaine Arnott
Book Review of “Gifted and Advanced Black Students in School: An Anthology of Critical Works”
By James M. DeVita
Book Review: Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle
By Patricia Garcia
Book Review: Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century by John B. Thompson
By Rory Litwin
Book Review: Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics, and the Limits of Law by Dean Spade
By Z Nicolazzo
Book Review: The Fourth Paradigm by Tony Hey, Stewart Tansley, and Kristin Tolle
By Clinton Joseph Regan
January 13, 2012
Arthur Brisbane is New York Times Public Editor, a position outside the regular editorial team that is supposed to act as the reader’s representative. Followers of this blog have probably already heard about his recent post, “Should the Times be a Truth Vigilante?, which many readers found maddeningly stupid. Brisbane was asking whether NYT reporters should challenge statements by journalistic subjects that the journalists know to be untrue. Brisbane was responding to broad public discussion about “He Said/She Said” reporting, in which the truth tends to get lost, although he seemed not to realize that this was the context of his post when he followed up on it yesterday. (Ostensibly, he was responding to an op-ed by Paul Krugman published in December, but he must know that the discussion about this problem has been much broader and been going on for a long time.) An informative early response to his initial post was from the tireless watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). (I will also point to a useful note from FAIR about “both sides are right” presumptions at PolitiFact, the political fact-checking blog.) What is so maddening about Brisbane’s question to readers is that it verges on questioning a fundamental principle of the fourth estate as the supporter of the public sphere – to be an independent monitor of power. At a time when traditional journalism is in a crisis for reasons beyond its control, it is difficult to comprehend why the public editor of America’s paper of record would flirt so explicitly with the idea of giving up on that principle that is the source of journalism’s enduring value to people. What it seems to me that he was doing in asking that question was asking the public to validate a journalistic trend that has been in progress for some time, that seems to be born of a failure to stand up to political pressure. The public hates He Said/She Said reporting. I think Brisbane simply miscalculated in his hope that the public would take the paper off the hook by providing a number of useful responses supporting this sorry trend.
I have said in the Library Juice blogging pledge that we won’t write about news topics that other people are writing a lot about unless we have something new to add, so let me attempt to add another angle to the discussion. What I would say it’s worth considering in light of this debate is that issues like this one have been debated from the beginning of modern journalism, and those earlier discussions can offer much to us now. Some recommendations along those lines. First, an article in Acadame, the AAUP’s journal, by Eric Alternman, summarizing the 1920s debate between Walter Lippmann and John Dewey over a broader question about the way journalism works in relation to democracy. Lippmann held that (even at the time) real policy issues were too complex for the public to understand through a simple presentation of accurate information, and that the main service of journalism is to provide the basis for conversation rather than information, and that this conversation is the real basis of democracy. In the time I spent as a reference librarian at the California Research Bureau providing service to policy analysts and legislative staffers, I came to sympathize strongly with this kind of view, because I saw that in fact public debate was highly simplified and dramatized versus the more sober and technical discussions that go on in the policy sphere, and this was partly because of the orientation of the public toward issues. Dewey’s side of the debate was more idealistic. It may be that journalism’s insiders see this problem partly from the perspective of the policy sphere about which they are charged with reporting to the public, with the result that in the process of negotiating the level of technical detail versus drama that they provide in news, they also negotiate with the level of truth.
An answer to this apology for compromised journalism could be found in many sources, and I will cite a couple of them. First, a book that is dated in its examples but not in its overall thrust: The Experts Speak: The Definitive Compendium of Authoritative Misinformation, by Christopher Cerf and Victor Navasky. This book provides thorough evidence of the the kind of positive falsehoods, as opposed to oversimplifications, often offered by experts and reported unquestioningly by journalists. It is dated, but to the point.
More important, however, is the rich area of work surrounding the effects of the capitalist organization of the institutions that give us the news. From the most recent past era, a cornerstone work is Ben Bagdikian’s The Media Monopoly. Though it is from before the internet era, I think it is still essential reading for anyone wanting to understand the core problem behind “He Said/She Said” journalism and related failures (such as that steady stream of PR that makes up so much of what is presented as news). There are other important works related to Bagdikian’s from the same era, including Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s Manufacturing Consent and works by Robert McChesney. Not long ago these books were essential starting points for anyone wanting to think progressively about journalism, but new issues are causing them to fade into the background. It’s time for new to works deal with the same issues in the new media context. But these works and older ones are still important. For an understanding of how far back these market effects on journalism have been a problem, books worth consulting would be Upton Sinclair’s 1919 The Brass Check, which is freely available in various forms; a compilation of media criticism edited by Robert McChesney and Ben Scott, titled Our Unfree Press: 100 Years of Media Criticism; and a new book out by Amy Reynolds and Gary Hicks, Prophets of the Fourth Estate: Press Critics of the Progressive Era. (Full disclosure: Litwin Books is the publisher of the latter one).
I think the historical and political-economic context Brisbane’s question to readers is worth understanding better through some reading beyond the blogosphere, where past work is easily forgotten.
September 20, 2011
Given Google’s dominance in search and the scope and integration of their Google Books product (hate to use the word product, but libraries have been converted into product here), we should be especially aware of their policies regarding what they will permit and what they will not permit in terms of inclusion in their full text digital library of eBooks for sale.
Call it censorship or call it collection maintenance criteria, but Google has a a set of Content Policies governing what kinds of materials publishers are allowed to include in the Google eBooks database. I have no criticism of these policies or the fact that they have them. Given the complexity of speech law and their legitimate interest in avoiding legal liability, they have no option but to have these policies in effect and to design them according to their lawyers’ most diligent work.
What I would argue is that because Google’s dominance of the market in certain respects gives them a degree of monopoly power, these policies are to an extent public policies and should be discussed in public fora, under the assumption that Google should be held, to a degree, publicly accountable for these policies, and conversely, that if the public has a role in shaping these policies, that the public itself also share a degree of accountability for their consequences.
The categories of Google’s Content Policies are: spam and malware; violent, threatening or disgusting materials; hate speech; sexually explicit material; child safety; Personal and Confidential information; Illegal activities; and Copyright. Note that these are categories for which they have designed some succinctly stated rules. Users can “Report Abuse” to cause an eBook to be reviewed according to these policies, and then somewhere in the Google offices they make a decision regarding the item according to their interpretation of the policies.
Vendors – bookstores, etc. – have always had policies regarding what they will stock and present to customers, but Google’s status as a total search utility with an overwhelmingly dominant position makes the situation different, to the extent that I think we need to look at these policies in light of intellectual freedom concerns.
August 28, 2011
Some of my colleagues in the Progressive Librarians Guild used to complain that Banned Books Week was an unfortunate distraction from the greater problem of a propagandistic media system. I shared that view and still do, but it is not the objection that I want to explain today.
My problem with Banned Books Week is one that is probably shared by some conservatives, and it has to do with the loose definition of what a “banned book” is, and what a “challenged book” is. Over time, as I have come to understand my own politics better, I have realized that what I care about is rational discourse as the basis for a democratic society. In rational discourse, as I see it, it is important to be clear about what you are actually saying, to ask critical questions with a patience for detail, and to reject strategic communication and to minimize rhetoric. The Banned Books Week project, well-intended as it may be, is a propaganda exercise that fails to model good standards for democratic communication.
Here is what I mean.
The history of book banning is a history of inspiring stories, stories of mass suppression of ideas, copies of books collected so that they can be burned, publishers incarcerated, often ultimately to no avail as the power of an idea proved greater than the power of the state or of a fascistic party. Book banning, good people agree, should be fought against, and is a source of inspiration to fight for what is right. Banned Books Week taps into people’s response to these historical narratives and aims to prevent the suppression of ideas from recurring. A noble intention and a narrative resource.
The problem that I see with Banned Books Week is that what counts as a “banned book” is actually a “challenged book,” and what counts as a challenged book is something quite different from an effort to prevent a book from being published, sold, or even made available in a library. Most of the cases of challenged books that are reported as a part of Banned Books Week are cases where a parent of a child objects to a book being a part of their child’s school curriculum, or at other times in the school’s library, on the grounds of “age appropriateness.” Defenders of intellectual freedom, to my dismay, have an unwritten policy of never addressing the question of age appropriateness, leaving it as an unstated assumption that anything selected for the curriculum by educators as opposed to by parents is automatically age-appropriate, as though educators are incapable of error.
School districts have policies in place for reviewing challenges to books on the basis of age-appropriateness. Challenged books are reviewed and evaluated by committees that are charged with that responsibility, and then the school district makes an official decision regarding the book. Regardless of what the school’s decision turns out to be, regardless of its reasonableness or unreasonableness, and regardless of the objectivity or bias within the decision-making process in a specific case, all challenges to a book by a parent get counted as an attempt at book banning.
Personally, I agree with intellectual freedom orthodoxy that says that one family should not have the right to determine what other students are taught, and this is part of what public education is. But when a book is challenged and reviewed on the grounds of age-appropriateness, it is ultimately not the family that brought the challenge that makes the decision. The decision is made by the educational institution itself. We can hope that more often than not these decisions are well-informed and based more on educational psychology than they are on pressure from an ideological community group. They may not always be. But the decision about whether a book should remain a part of the curriculum or not is ultimately made by the public institution that put the book in the curriculum in the first place, which means that book challenges happen as a part of a process that the institution puts in place in order to get feedback from the community on the curriculum. (In some other areas, we on the left are fighting for more opportunities to influence local policies to meet local needs.)
What I want to emphasize about this is that the “book banning” that is the subject of Banned Books Week is not book banning as we understand it historically but part of the cultural fight over the school curriculum. Now, I am prepared to fight hard to keep rationality and science and humanism in the school curriculum, against the theocrats who seem to be making incredible progress in rolling back not only 20th century liberalism but the values behind the Constitution itself (i.e. secular democracy). But in fighting that fight over the curriculum, what I am ultimately fighting for is rational discourse as opposed to irrationality. If I give up basic standards of rational discourse and resort to strategic communication and propaganda… well, as we said about Al Qaida during the debate over the PATRIOT Act: “They have won.”
May 27, 2011
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….
February 26, 2011
The use of certain library statistics, mainly related to circulation and its electronic semi-equivalents, has taken on a high degree of importance in library management since 1979, when Charlie Robinson introduced the “give ‘em what they want” philosophy of collection development at Baltimore County Public Library. Circulation statistics provide an easy way present an argument to higher level administrators that you are moving in the right direction, if you can take steps to increase them. But there are a number of problems in the way that we often use these statistics. I would like to talk briefly about some of the problems that I have observed in an academic library setting.
1. A download does not imply relevance.
From the perspective of a reference librarian who works with students and faculty who are conducting various types of research, it is important to keep in mind that the circulation of a book or the download of an article is not the end point of our concern. Especially in an educational institution, it is important not only that the resources the students walk away with will help satisfy the formal requirements of their assignment (which may include instructions to “use five articles from scholarly journals”), but that they will help them learn. Sometimes students who haven’t yet figured out how to weed through search results to find what is relevant to the needs of their argument will download numerous articles that they will not read. That boosts circulation stats, but also represents a failure on our part. Policies that are geared toward boosting stats will not address that problem and will not promote learning.
2. Some usage counts for more than other usage.
While it may go against the grain for many democratic-minded librarians, not all usage of library materials is equal. When a lower division undergraduate reads a book that introduces them to a topic, their use of that book is very different from the way a professional scholar uses a book in her own field. This is not to say that the scholar’s use should count for more, necessarily, but to acknowledge that it counts differently and may be more expensive due to being specialized. It is a difference that should affect our use of statistics to draw conclusions. Some might look at patterns of use and argue that resources should be shifted toward whatever is used more. It is important to see that if a library goes in that direction, it is not simply a shift of resources toward “what users want,” but a shift of resources toward what one group of users want (lower division undergrads) and away from what another group of users want (researchers). The proportion of the budgets for resources in each of these areas should be determined differently at each institution according to its own educational policies and the type of place that it is, rather according to a simple market calculus that says “give ‘em what they want,” which would tend automatically to hurt users of more specialized resources.
3. Incompatible data.
Because of the perceived need for statistics in reporting to entities outside the library, it is tempting to compare data that is collected differently or simply represents different things. A play of a track in a music database does not represent the same thing as a download of an article in JSTOR, yet they are stats that exist side-by-side in the context of electronic resource statistics. While a person will likely leaf through a book in the stacks before deciding to check it out, an electronic book needs to be “checked out” (counted as a circulation) in order to leaf through it to decide whether or not to use it, yet these stats exist side-by-side in the context of circulation statistics. COUNTER-complaint statistics aim to solve this problem, but they still only measure interactions with the interface rather than use of the material. (If we were to gather information about actual use of our information resources, there could be multiple dimensions to the data.)
4. Patterns of use differ across scholarly communities.
The ways that people use information resources in different disciplines and sub-disciplines, and for different purposes in general, can create distortions in our interpretation of the data if the potential for these differences is not kept in mind. We may calculate a “cost per download” for a given database and compare it to the cost per download for a database used by another department, in order to determine where our money is being spent most effectively, without realizing that a single download of an article may be more or less significant as a part of the overall research for a given project. One scholar may need to download 50 “articles” (which, according to what resource is being used, may not be an actual journal article) in order to get 50 facts, while a researcher in another discipline will download a few texts for the purpose of close reading. The first database might seem to have a much lower “cost per download” than the second (if these scholars’ use of the resource was typical) while the “cost per project” or “cost per research hour” may be the same.
5. The problem of accurately identifying causes of change over time.
The answer to many of these sorts of objections is sometimes to say, “We can still use these stats to identify changes over time,” and that is true, but drawing operational conclusions from those observations requires correctly identifying the causes. For example, when undergraduates began turning to Google to do research for writing assignments, librarians and vendors concluded that in order to compete with Google they needed to implement simplified, Google-like search interfaces to multiple databases. But these simple-to-use federated search products have not done anything to boost download statistics in full text databases of scholarly articles. This means the reason for students’ preference for Google may have been something else. I think it may have been because lower division undergraduates found more content that they could make sense of through Google than in the high-level original research in scholarly journals (which librarians, most of the time, to our great discredit, described to them simply as “more reliable”). If that turned out to be the true cause, the implications for planning would be different (not to mention not automatically clear).
To take another example, I think it’s not uncommon for library administrators to have the attitude that declining book circulation stats indicate a need to shift funds to electronic resources, while declining download stats indicate underutilization and a need to better promote those resources. The unstated assumptions are with respect to the cause of the change in the numbers – on the one hand obsolescence of the format and on the other hand insufficient publicity. It is important to realize that while the stats (these hypothetical ones) give us some information, they do not tell us that this common interpretation of the data is correct. Another possible explanation could be a decline in the amount of reading done by students, regardless of format.
6. Even if the cause of a change in the statistics is correctly understood, the response may be a question of philosophy and little else.
Let’s say that through some research done internally at a university, it is learned that undergraduates are arriving as first year students less well prepared, are spending less time studying, and have fewer and easier writing assignments than ten years ago, and faculty have less time to carefully evaluate their work. That finding would provide a good explanation for a decline in overall circulation. And let’s say that a healthy demand for DVDs for entertainment purposes had grown, that service to university staff members had increased as a proportion of the total, and that students viewed the library increasingly as a study space and decreasingly as an information resource. Is an obvious response implicit in these findings? I think not. I think there are many ways that a library administrator could respond to these changes, and the response would depend greatly on his own philosophy and the prevailing philosophy at the university. The data provide essential information, but they do not say a) it is imperative that the library boost circulation, or that b) circulation should be boosted by following a particular strategy.
7. Steps taken to boost statistics may have unintended pedagogical consequences.
A further potential error in the thinking that says that every use of a resource is equivalent lies in the potential pedagogical effects as well as the potential content implications of formats. If we shift funding from monographs to academic journals or from physical to electronic formats on the basis of perceived demand or future demand, we should not do it without acknowledging that the choice may have an impact beyond “serving more users” (assuming that we are even correct about the direction of demand). There are general differences in the content of monographs and academic journals, and collection development should attend to the question of what those formats contain in relation to the curriculum, aside from what may be suggested by data about use patterns. (It is commonly said that students “want articles that they can use from home and that aren’t too lengthy to deal with,” but seldom acknowledged that the original research in scholarly journals is mostly out of reach of lower division undergrads in terms of the expected background knowledge. One of the most common requests at academic library reference desks is for a “scholarly journal article” that provides an introductory overview to a major topic; such things are rare.) Likewise, as EDUCAUSE recognizes but tells us not to worry about, technologies affect the way that people learn, and these effects should be considered in terms of the educational objectives of the institution, and not taken for granted or taken as a market imperative.
8. Inherent conflict between pedagogy and markets.
The use of circulation and download statistics to guide decision making in libraries reflects a broader trend in higher education and in public institutions to orient themselves as a part of the market economy. (See John E. Buschman’s Dismantling the Public Sphere: Situating and Sustaining Librarianship in the Age of the New Public Philosophy for a thorough treatment of this problem.) In higher education in particular, there is a sharpening conflict between the logic of the market (what students demand) and pedagogical needs that stem from the institution’s desired educational outcomes. Simply stated, the conflict is brought to us by students whose educational aims only somewhat overlap their teachers’. Educators can rightly say that students don’t yet know enough to direct the curriculum (and in a very relevant sense, in terms of information literacy, our own bailiwick, they do not yet know how to separate themselves from the influence of advertising and commercial propaganda, which to a great extent shapes their demand for our resources). And students can rightly say that their tuition is paying for most of the show, and that the piper has a right to call the tune.
In real terms, the economic shift away from subsidized higher education to a more tuition-based model puts educators in a weaker position in terms of the conflict between pedagogy and markets. But it does not change the fact that the conflict is inherent to the educational project as long as professors profess to have something to teach and students have their own reasons for going to college, which are more and more about class anxiety. (Collection development librarians, to the extent that we claim relevant expertise, are caught in the same conflict between pedagogy and markets.)
9. Internal qualitative research.
A way forward for administrators who are stuck in a market situation may be to use more internal qualitative research about library users and use. In-depth profiles of a variety of users and focus groups designed to elicit unanticipated information are approaches to qualitative research that can provide both ideas for new directions for growth and useful talking points for reporting purposes. These techniques allow data collection to preserve important differences among types of use and types of users, and also allow for the generation of insights regarding the causes of change over time that circulation and download statistics are not able to do. Some qualitative data is already collected as part of many libraries’ assessment programs. What I am advocating here is a shift of emphasis, as a way of better capturing the connection between library collections and services and the mission of the university.
My philosophy about this.
Regarding the role of philosophy in interpreting library statistics and acting on them, I will be up-front and say that I favor an an alternative to chasing after the majority of users or potential users. I start with the assumption that educators are not there to educate students (transitive verb), but to to provide opportunities and assistance to students who want to educate themselves. If I worry about all of the students who don’t use the library or who use it poorly, I will die of depression, because the more we dumb down the collection or our interaction with our users, the more we will find ourselves competition with mass media. I prefer to make a range of serious resources available to students who have the motivation to make use of them. Their numbers may be small at times, but when a student who is motivated downloads an article from one of our databases and actually reads it and thinks about it, that download is worth immeasurably more to me, as a librarian, than the more numerous downloads of articles by uninterested students who are doing the minimum amount of work required to pass a class. The university is responsible to provide the best educational opportunities possible to its students, but students are responsible for their own education. Our use of circulation statistics should consider the fact that what we provide are opportunities for intellectual growth. The students have to meet us halfway.
February 12, 2011
A bit of satire in response to the question, “How many control freaks does it take to screw in a light bulb?” Any resemblance to organizations you may have heard of is completely coincidental.
To the Control Freak Light Bulb Screwing-In Community:
A friendly member of our committee has asked a question of us, which members have every right to do, and we will give him the benefit of the doubt as to the constructive intentions behind it. The question is, “How many control freaks does it take to screw in a light bulb?” After conferring in an exemplary way with a minimum of bristling and rancor, we of the informal leadership group have decided that this is an opportune time to share with the Committee the Committee’s guidelines, which have been changed by us only slightly since the last time they were shared. We believe that our friendly member’s question is answered as well as possible by the guidelines, which follow:
CONTROL FREAK LIGHT BULB SCREWING-IN COMMITTEE GUIDELINES
ARTICLE I: NAME
The name of this committee shall be the Control Freak Light Bulb Screwing-In Committee.
ARTICLE II: PURPOSE
The purpose of the Control Freak Light Bulb Screwing-In Committee shall be to shed light on the complex realities of social life, political conflict, and objects in rooms by screwing in light bulbs when requested by authorized persons.
ARTICLE III: MOTTO
The motto of the Control Freak Light Bulb Screwing-In Committee shall be, “Please Stand Aside So That We Can Bring Light out of Darkness.”
ARTICLE IV: DEFINITIONS
a). “We” (or “Us,” or “Our”) has a two-fold meaning. In the first sense, it refers not to the committee as a whole nor to the governing subcommittee but to an undefined group of leaders (“The Leadership”), some of whom, at any given time, are original founders of the committee. The Leadership have a deep understanding of the committee’s reason for being and are driven by a total commitment to its purpose. The term “inner circle” is not an approved term, and those who use it are to be considered ideologically questionable, at best, and are to be shunned (mandatory). In the second sense, the word “We” refers warmly and generously to the control freak lightbulb screwing-in community as a whole insofar as it is composed of people who recognize the Leadership and our deep understanding of light bulb screwing-in in its political and social context. The committee as defined by its official membership may or may not be congruent to this larger sense of “We,” depending on the situation at hand.
b). “Light” may seem to the uninitiated to be a term with an obvious meaning that need not be defined here. However, the centrality of Light to our mission has required us to investigate its social underpinnings and subject it to analysis. The paradox that “turns the bulb,” as it were, lies in the fact that while light is irreducibly ideological, it is also required for seeing (at least for those who have not fully purged themselves of ideology, which is the accomplishment that allows us, the leadership, to see in the dark when others cannot). Because of the inherent ideological structure of light, and by extension any light-emitting devices such as light bulbs, the seriousness of our mission and its dire importance to society should be self-evident. The analysis of the social structuration of light and light bulbs is a complex matter requiring a hard-won consciousness of the electromagnetic spectrum, and may be explained to members from time to time as we find it necessary (in terms relative to the Leadership agenda).
c). “Guidelines” is a term with a deliberately different meaning from “Bylaws,” and our choice to use the word “Guidelines” rather than “Bylaws” stems from our commitment to democracy and informality. The term “Guidelines” has a looser meaning, which shows that we are relaxed, hip, and informal. It also implies flexibility, which we favor, because rules, as we know, are imposed undemocratically. Because we have guidelines rather than rules, we have some “wiggle room” that we might need at times when things are tricky. As a result, accountability is informal, which is appropriate among friends like us. Disagreements are resolved with reference to our vague defining principles, about which the Leadership has the final say. (To complain about this is unfriendly and inappropriate in an informal, friendly group such as ours.) We are proud to provide the wider world with such an example of democratic self-government, since democracy is in such short supply outside of our own committee.
d). “Control Freak” is a derisive term which we have re-appropriated to emphasize our dedication to a mission and a set of values. This mission and values-set is one that others may not understand or may lack the ethical commitment to prioritize over expediency and bourgeois comforts. Accordingly, it is also a mission and values-set that we are generally unable to explain to others to their satisfaction. But the ignorant remain ignorant by their own choice, and this is the basis for our entitlement to control in the crucial area of light bulb-screwing-in.
ARTICLE V: [REDACTED]
ARTICLE VI: MEMBERSHIP
a). Composition. [Nota bene, inquirer.] The Light Bulb Screwing In Committee is composed of an even number of elected control freaks, including the chair, serving in three year terms, elected in a staggered sequence (see ARTICLE VII: ELECTIONS). The number of members is variable and must equal either seven or a one-twentieth portion of the represented stakeholders (voting constituency) (rounded up) needing light at nightfall thirty days before the election, whichever is greater. This formulation was arrived at through a process of spirited discussion spanning several years, and is an “unfinished work,” meaning that it is subject to change at the discretion of the Committee.
b). New Members. The Leadership encourages – IN THE STRONGEST TERMS POSSIBLE – new people to stand for election to the committee. We recognize the importance of new ideas for adapting to changing circumstances. New ideas are good. We are not afraid of them, and we are not afraid of new people. We are not opposed to change. Change is needed at times. New ideas are needed at times. Our ideas were new once and in some senses remain new and always will be new. However, many people who show an interest in participating in our light bulb screwing-in project have not yet learned to see light bulbs in the full scope of their social and historical context, and to understand the political nature of every turn in the screwing-in process. The bulbs, the ladders, the technique – all exist within a network of actions in a utopian political context and cannot properly be understood apart from their sorry history. Sometimes there is corrosion. Do you know what to do about corrosion? We, you see, know what to do about corrosion. You may have read something about toothbrushes and baking soda. But potential problems with that technique – not to mention its factional origins – have been pointed out. It is complicated. But, as we say, we encourage new people to join us and we encourage new ideas. People wanting to stand for election to the committee are advised to first find a sponsor on the committee, which will ensure publication of their standing for election in the newsletter prior to the election. New committee members wishing to propose a new idea are invited to submit their idea to the chair for review. Upon review, the idea will be shared with the rest of the committee with the endorsement of the chair. New ideas distributed to the committee without first being submitted to the chair will be regarded as an attempt to undermine the solidarity of the group. We appreciate having everyone on the same page and committed to the same mission. It would be one thing if we were just a debating society. But we are organized for an active purpose, and for that purpose to be accomplished, sometimes lines need to be drawn. We do this – and how regrettable it is that it needs to be said at all – in order to fully realize our commitment to a democratic society, which is what lightbulb screwing-in is all about.
c). Purgation, Blacklisting, and Threats Thereof. This section of ARTICLE VI is in order to make it clear that no members of the Control Freak Light Bulb Screwing-In Committee have ever been purged or ever will be purged, nor has any community member been blacklisted nor will be blacklisted, nor have any threats related to such political tactics been made or will be made. Some former committee members, with motivations about which we will nobly refrain from speculating, have told false tales of purgation, blacklisting, or threats. As a group that prizes democracy in all of our processes, we are above such tactics, and do not take kindly to their suggestion. Those who have spread such rumors have gone on to regret it.
d). Chair. After each election a member of the committee shall be chosen by the committee to serve as its chair. The committee member selected will serve as chair over the course of the following year. Everyone seems to be happy with me in the position of chair, however, so until there is evidence to the contrary, we will proceed informally and forgo a formal selection process.
ARTICLE VII: ELECTIONS
ARTICLE VIII: FINANCES
In keeping with Gandhi’s exhortation to “be the change you wish to see in the world” (because we are such followers of Gandhi and his peaceful ways), we have a policy of ignoring money issues for as long as possible and only dealing with them when someone else steps in and starts dealing with them for us. This policy has worked out for us pretty well so far, so we’ll just stick to it. Thank you, Gandhi, for your moral example, the claiming of which seems to entitle us to all kinds of bailouts from our parent organizations. “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” and we don’t mean nickels and dimes. And be sure to look for those subsidized compact flourescents when available. A dollar for a twenty-watter is a good deal, and those twenty-watters shed a lot more light than they seem to, when their lumens are measured using the proper equipment. Leaving financial matters to someone else may not seem like control freak behavior, but like most passive-aggressive strategies, part of its value lies in its deflection of non-utopian reality.
ARTICLE IX: AMENDMENTS
ARTICLE X: CERTIFICATION
These bylaws were approved by a meeting of the ad hoc governing subcommittee by a unanimous vote on February 15, 2010.
October 11, 2010
I am very serious in the view that we should not be trying to increase voter turnout, in this or any election. Let me explain why.
Most of us have the idea that voter turnout rates are a measure of the success of our democracy. If people are “participating,” by voting, then the will of the people will really be reflected in the outcome of the election. That is an idea shared by most Americans who care about democracy, with the result that it’s accepted as a given that more voting is good and that it is important to “get out the vote.” But the idea needs to be examined in light of the basic civic responsibility of self-education and critical thinking.
For democracy to function (as we all acknowledge before moving on) the public needs to have critical thinking skills and needs to have an understanding of the issues that is not completely shallow. Yet, when is the last time you have seen a public campaign for self-education or critical thinking skills? When do you see it acknowledged that Americans tend to be relatively ignorant about the issues that affect them, and that they sometimes get fired up about? Rather than promoting self-education and critical thinking skills to a high standard, it seems that most civic-minded people would prefer to use propaganda to get people to vote a certain way, lacking an understanding of what they are doing. I find that unethical (or at least anti-democratic), regardless of the intended outcome.
Think about the voting public for a moment. Studies have arrived at the following disturbing findings about them. One fifth of them believe that Obama is a Muslim, and only 34% of them know that he is a Christian (PEW Center poll). Half of Americans aged 18 to 24 can’t find New York on a map (2006 National Geographic study). 42% of Americans don’t accept the theory of evolution (PEW Center poll). 26% of Americans don’t know what country the United States declared its independence from (Marist poll). 75% of Americans believe that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin (Barna Group). We’ve all heard these kinds of scary poll results showing the ignorance of Americans, and yet we persist in blindly encouraging people to vote without any concern for their level of knowledge or ability to think rationally about the candidates and issues they’re voting on.
I value the right of every American to vote and oppose things like a literacy requirement or other gatekeeping methods. But I oppose the practice of encouraging everyone to vote or talking about voting as though it is a civic duty. The basic civic duty is not to vote. The basic civic duties are learning and critical thinking. Regarding voting, we should impress upon people that if they do choose to vote they are assuming a grave responsibility that requires careful study and patient, self-questioning thought.
The culture we have around democratic participation currently is not working.
September 30, 2010
I am always on the lookout for reviews of books that we have published, and am usually gratified to read them. If there is a complaint in the review, it is most often that the book has typos or needed better copy editing. One recent review of one of our books, and I will not name its author, stated that the book “appeared to have been put together quickly.” I have a comment about that judgment, in that particular review and possibly in others.
First, that reviewer wrote the review already aware that the book was published by my press and that I operate my business as a sideline to my job as a librarian. Other reviewers, though they may not know that I am a librarian, know that Library Juice Press and Litwin Books are very small and new imprints. It strikes me that with this in mind, these reviewers are inspecting the books for signs that they were put together quickly, with less attention to detail than a dedicated publishing house would give it. I suspect this because I happen to know that in the publishing industry as a whole, publishers have cut back their expenses wherever possible and are attempting to reduce their overhead in order to stay alive, and as a result are now allowing typos and proofreading errors to reach the final published editions of their books. Anyone who reads new books is aware of this. Yet reviews of books from major publishers that suffer the same imperfections seldom mention it. It seems to me that reviewers are assuming that I am rushing books to press much faster than a traditional publisher, and that I should therefore not be given a “pass” when it comes to typos. I think it is selective scrutiny.
The error is in the assumption that I am rushing books to press faster than a traditional publisher. I know some things about one academic publisher in particular, whom I will not name, because he has given me a lot of very helpful information and advice. They are publishing approximately 300 books per year, with an editorial staff of nine. That works out to 33 books per year per editor. I think that kind of a ratio between the number of books published annually and the editorial staff may be representative of the industry. I am publishing between five and ten books per year, admittedly on top of a full time job as a librarian. Those numbers indicate that despite operating with a lower overhead, I am not rushing books to press faster than a traditional publisher. In fact, some authors have been disappointed with the fact that the process of getting their book to press has taken such a long time. (One of the reasons it takes a long time is that the books are copy-edited multiple times.)
So, what I am asserting is that the reason a reviewer says one of our books “appears to have been put together quickly” has more to do with a desire to indicate our shoe-string nature than it is a fair judgment in relative terms. Though there may be typographical errors, reviewers should show an awareness of current industry standards if they choose to focus on them in a review of a book published by an upstart press. In fact, a book that it is claimed “appears to have been put together quickly” might not strike a reader that way if she is not already motivated to draw that conclusion. (I think the book reviewed in this particular case looks very good.)
September 26, 2010
I am not going to spend a lot of time on this, but I want to point out an inaccuracy in an article on the Adbuster’s website (and maybe in the magazine as well, I can’t tell) titled, “Google’s Flaw,” written by Micah White. I’m not unsympathetic with White’s point about Google, but I have to come to the defense of Sanford Berman and the “leftist librarians of the 70s.” What he wrote will be quite funny who know the people he is talking about:
The idea that search engines can, or should, be neutral can be traced back to a movement of leftist librarians in the 1970s. Led by Sanford Berman, one of the first to bring social rebellion into the library, radical librarians argued that the system used to organize books was inherently biased and racist because it reflected a Western perspective. At that time, and to this day in nearly all public and academic libraries, books were organized in subject hierarchies. Berman believed that this system was deeply problematic. He wrote that, “western chauvinism permeates the [library's organizational] scheme”. And called for a “disinterested scheme for the arrangement of books and knowledge”. In so doing, he paved the way for search engines.
Berman, and his generation of radical librarians, placed their faith in technology. They assumed that the automation of indexing, what we now call search engines, would provide a “disinterested scheme”. And we see today in the actions of the Texas attorney general, the same flawed assumption that search engines can be “neutral” or “disinterested”.
What Micah doesn’t realize is that in his concern over the commercialization of knowledge he is writing in the same tradition as the radical librarians who first set to work in the late 60s. Yes, Berman was concerned about the bias in Library of Congress Subject Headings, but his position was not to reject controlled subject vocabularies across the board. He was a cataloger, not a computer scientist, and spent his career cataloging books according to a hierarchical subject headings list that was an improvement upon LC, according to his views. Berman and others’ criticism of the idea of neutrality in LC subject headings eventually extended to a criticism of the possibility of neutrality in any system, including libraries as institutions, and supposedly neutral systems such as the Google search engine. What search engines as neutral tools can be traced back to is the positivist basis of information science itself, which had its birth during WWII and continued to be developed within a corporate/government setting. This history couldn’t be more thoroughly documented. Berman and his fellow radical librarians did not, as Micah has it, place their faith in technology (aside from a few). On the contrary, their group has been the group within librarianship that since the 1980s has offered the criticisms of our over-reliance on technology that Micah White ought to familiarize himself with, often with a focus on the problem of positivistic assumptions underlying our use of technological tools. To assert that not only were they, as a group, supportive of the technological methods that led to systems like Google but that they were the originators of those systems flies in the face of a whole body of work on the history of technology. Yes, it is true that many in the 60s generation were enthusiastic about technology, and went on to found The Well and such, but it was also obvious – at that time – that computer technology was a part of the military industrial complex and that the push for automation in libraries had a huge amount of government funding behind it. If Micah White wants to maintain his claim, he is going to have to supply a lot of evidence, because he is going against a large body of historical work.
I am posting this after contacting White and receiving a reply in which he stuck to his guns about Sandy Berman et al. being the origin of search engines as neutral tools. Perhaps it would be better for me to ignore this, but Adbuster’s is a magazine that I have always enjoyed. I subscribed to it in the 90s and still find their project interesting. But I found their anti-leftist turn less than half-baked when it originally appeared, and still do. This article distorts history in order to take a cheap shot at the library left.