December 6, 2014

Inland Editions

Inland Editions is a new publisher out of London that is particularly interested in libraries. They are preparing to publish their first book, which appears to be a beautifully designed art book primarily about library architecture. It’s called Bookspace, and they are running a Kickstarter campaign to fund its production. That seems a little bit hinky to me if they are a commercial publisher, but okay, they need capital because it appears to be a book that will be expensive to produce. The expected publication date is February 2015, coming right up. Inland Editions also has a blog that focuses on libraries and is quite different from the usual library-related fare, as they are not librarians but artists and intellectuals of various stripes.

August 4, 2012

Barbara Fister on the “End of the Twilight of Doom”

Barbara Fister expresses a welcome dissenting view regarding the death of libraries and reading in the current Inside Higher Ed: “The End of the Twilight of Doom.” I agree with what she says, especially regarding the problem of high level administrators believing the hype about the death of reading, and the danger that it poses to library budgets.

November 30, 2011

Occupying the First Amendment

The recent assaults by the police on various Occupy movement encampments highlight the tenuousness of our right to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances. Certainly, there is good reason for municipal ordinances against permanently occupying public spaces. Under many circumstances, this would amount to appropriating public spaces for private use, but the Occupy encampments do not fit these circumstances. The Occupy encampments are of a kind with the recent and ongoing occupations of Tahrir Square in Cairo, the 1989 occupation of Tiananmen Square in Beijing, and the occupation of the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk in 1980. All of them are or were peaceful efforts to confront a nation’s political power structure and to rally fellow citizens to oppose corruption, abuse, and undemocratic institutions. President Obama has condemned state violence against Egyptian protesters, but it is no surprise that he and his administration remain silent when the right to assemble for political expression is denied in U.S. cities. The impulse to silence dissent (or to allow dissidents to be silenced) is strong among those in power.

Apologists for police repression in the U.S. point out that the crackdowns in Egypt, China, and Poland were far more brutal and of a greater scale than what is happening in our cities; however, the violation of our first amendment rights is no less a violation simply because less violent tactics are employed against smaller demonstrations. The ostensible reason for destroying the encampments is to protect public health, but it would be quite easy to work with the protesters to address any issues related to sanitation and public health, while respecting the right to assemble and petition the government for redress.

Beyond the right of the people to peaceably assemble, the freedoms of speech and of the press are also under attack. This has been made evident by the reported arrests of and assaults on journalists and the restrictions placed on them by police at encampments. It also has been dramatized recently by the confiscation and destruction of the People’s Library during an attack on the Occupy Wall Street encampment in Zuccotti Park. The People’s Library contained over 6,000 volumes. Its destruction by the police illustrates the disregard that the New York Police Department and Mayor Bloomberg have for political expression. City officials are more concerned with fostering a certain image of the city and protecting Wall Street than they are with our constitutional rights. They are using City ordinances to crush political dissent.

Some might attempt to excuse the destruction of the People’s Library on the grounds that much of the collection was not unique and that it might have appeared to the police to be an ad hoc, ephemeral assortment of books and not a “real” library. It might have been seen as one of many things to be cleared from the park. However, American Library Association President Molly Raphael correctly observed that “the very existence of the People’s Library demonstrates that libraries are an organic part of all communities. Libraries serve the needs of community members and preserve the record of community history. In the case of the People’s Library, this included irreplaceable records and material related to the occupation movement and the temporary community that it represented.” She went on to express support for the librarians and volunteers working to reestablish the People’s Library. Roughly discarding tents and sleeping bags is one thing, but destroying the media of public discourse is a direct assault on democracy.

It is clear that the real intent of these police actions is simply to suppress political dissent. This serves no good purpose. Indeed, allowing the protest to continue would be of great benefit to everyone – both those who are sympathetic to the protest and to those who are not. It would allow the public and politicians to understand the depth of support for the Occupy movement. Without police interference, the size and longevity of the protest would be proportional to the indignation felt by the protesters and the popularity of their cause. If the grievances are trivial, the protest would soon evaporate. If they are serious, the growth and staying power of the encampments would make this known to everyone. Destroying the encampments merely obscures the issue, while it makes a mockery of our most prized civil liberties. It has, however, demonstrated the narrow boundaries of acceptable political dissent in the U.S. We owe great thanks to the occupiers for the sacrifices they are making to push back those boundaries and enlarge our freedom.

October 30, 2011

Students at the University of Denver Want Books

Here is a guest post from Julie Teglovic, an MLIS student at the University of Denver, where students have been protesting a decision regarding the library…


Library as Space: University Students Want Books

This April, the paper books at the University of Denver’s Penrose Library began a move into a storage facility 10 miles away in preparation for the library’s gutting and renovation. I, like most students not hearing otherwise, assumed that the move would be temporary, until I happened across the “Keep the Penrose Library Book Collection on Campus” Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/savethestacks) in early May. According to this page, secret dealings had been made “behind closed doors and at the last minute” by the university Chancellor and Board of Trustees, culminating in a decision to retain 80% of the books at the storage center and return 20% to campus after the renovation.

About six students and a few faculty members, led by undergraduate English and Psychology major Brandon Reich-Sweet, united to disseminate information through the Facebook page and a website (www.savepenrose.com). They distributed online and paper petitions, contacted news outlets and university officials, made t-shirts and signs, and organized check-out/sit-in protests in and around the library. Because of these efforts, as of right now, university administration has agreed to return 50% of the books to campus (this is according to library faculty and student organizers; no official communication to students has been released).

Concerns over environmental sustainability and transparency were important to the group’s arguments (books will be driven by truck to and from the storage facility indefinitely, and neither students nor library staff were asked for input on the initial decision), but perhaps more interesting here are this group of non-librarians’ deep concerns about the library, its space, and its purpose.

I’ve read a lot in library school thus far about adapting to survive, about the need to see the library as community space, meeting space, and cutting-edge technology space. As gaming space, video-editing space, music-recording space. I’ve taken classes on ebooks and seen the skills requirements for programming languages and systems analysis on academic librarian job descriptions. Librarians want to redefine their collective image, to be tech-savvy and rethink education; we champion webinars and iSchools and digital repositories as solutions. Penrose is certainly not the first academic library to move a large number of books off-campus. Some students supported the Chancellor’s original decision and spoke out in the student newspaper The Clarion, asking why a book that’s never been circulated should gather dust. They argue that the way students learn has fundamentally changed in the last 20 years, and by designing a library with more collaborative learning space, the university is responding to this change.

Yet the (mostly undergraduate) students protesting—the library users, not the librarians—organized this movement and voiced—loudly—a different opinion: they want the books. As symbols of academic rigor, as visible history, as an elegant reminder of long-form reality itself to Brandon—the pages mean something to them. The millennials we jump to categorize as attention-deficient and gadget-crazed are perhaps more attuned to the emotional, existential, and intellectual redemption that a brick of words, a collection not on a screen, can provide than we as a profession would like to acknowledge. “The decision by a group of number-obsessed business-types to remove almost all of the books from a LIBRARY was really just a small symbol of a broader cultural trend,” Brandon says in an editorial for the Clarion. He writes about “Things without meaning…the terrible anxiety that comes standard with existence in modern human society…The victory of the Save Penrose movement then is not only one of logistics but one of meanings.”

-Julie Teglovic

October 7, 2011

Beyond Access

I was honored when Rory Litwin asked me to write for Library Juice. I have followed the blog for some time now and have always found it a source of interest. As this is my first post, I thought I’d write on an issue that I find to be central to librarianship, namely, the tension between our role to provide general access to information and our roles as reference librarians or research assistants. Historically, librarians were responsible for relatively discrete collections about which few people had much knowledge. Consequently, the main service that librarians provided was to help patrons find resources — particularly the best resources — available in their collections. Furthermore, there wasn’t much chance of accessing holdings outside of those collections, so when librarians could acquire more resources, they needed to be very sure that the new acquisitions were the best that were available. Librarians were constantly making judgments about the quality of the resources that they were providing to their patrons.

To some extent this is still true, but during the past half century or so, our profession has concentrated on expanding access. Our roles as reader advisors, research assistants, and collection curators have declined, and our role in linking our patrons to vast storehouses of information through interlibrary loan systems, aggregated databases, and automated search tools has expanded. In many circles, arranging access seems to be taken to be the whole of librarianship. It isn’t surprising, then, that the success of Google and other popular search engines has caused such anxiety among librarians. If access is our sole reason for being, then what do we do when our “competitors” can satisfy our patrons’ needs more quickly, easily, and effectively?

Recently, I’ve come to think that we should remember that providing access is only one of our professional responsibilities, and that it probably has become overemphasized. We need to reengage in the activities we left behind when we turned our efforts so much to providing access. In a time when information availability is exploding, we should remember that our patrons need guidance through the morass of data that lurks behind every poorly constructed search. We can do this, not just by “going to where they are” and offering to do their searches for them, but by seeking out the best resources and making those particular resources more readily available.

Practically speaking, this means that librarians must begin to de-emphasize the value of access in general and re-emphasize their role as research assistants. We need to provide our patrons with the reader advisory services that were once a core element of our work. In academic libraries, this can be done most readily by creating guides to the literature, but those guides need to go far beyond what we see in most guides.  They need to be more than simply lists of useful databases and video tutorials on using various search tools.  They need to do such things as introduce patrons to the nature of the field of study, provide a history of its devepment, and identify its most important figures, and its classic and important current works.  Library administrations will need  to hire subject specialists with significant expertise,  who are potentially capable of teaching courses in the departments they serve. 

Of course, this presents a challenge to our desire to remain “neutral” or “unbiased” with regard to the subject matter that we make available, but we need not shy away from the challenge. We must conscientiously identify the information that we judge to be most worthwhile, while remaining reasonably humble about our abilities to discriminate the wheat from the chaff.  We need to exercise our  right to the freedoms that our teaching colleagues have in expressing our views about our fields of expertise.  We owe it to our patrons to apply our professional judgment about the value of the resources available to them and not simply serve as human cogs in an access providing machine.

September 20, 2011

What Google permits and does not permit in Google eBooks

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.

February 26, 2011

Some objections to our use of library statistics

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.

November 17, 2010

Terrorists meeting at the Capitol Building today? Government information and alternative media

I was discussing the free press with a Russian friend once, and she told me that the main difference between Soviet Russia and the contemporary USA was that Russians knew they were being lied to, while Americans have naively believed that what the news says is the truth. Amusingly, right wing skeptics are presently doubting the US military line regarding the missile sighting on the California coast, as though today’s Pentagon is a different Pentagon from the one they backed and trusted during the Bush administration. At any rate, it does look as though Americans are in a mood to doubt the honesty of the government.

But what about the news media? If the news media were a branch of government, obviously Americans would doubt it in much the same way that Soviet Russians doubted Pravda. Paradoxically, the American news media has become less reliable at the same time that it has become popularized. News organizations are being squeezed by declining revenues and shareholder demands for higher profit margins, and consequently are weaker in the newsroom than they have been in a long time, less capable of solid investigative journalism. The result is that the news media has to trust and rely more than in the past on the products of public relations people, working for both corporations and government. PR firms and the PR departments of government are responsible for most of what we read as “news” (even more than in the past). The news media is more propagandized and filtered than in the 20th century, while at the same time more “popular” in tone, to appeal to a customer base that increasingly distrusts “elites.” New media, blogs, etc., are often cited as representing a hope for greater democracy, but when democracy means channeling corporate and government propaganda, that hope is rather pale.

That said, the diversity of new media has to be recognized, and the importance of a free press, whether it is relevant to the average person or not, is something that we become cynical about at our peril. Case in point, a post from yesterday’s Machetera blog regarding a meeting at the Capitol building today. The meeting is called “Anger in the Andes: Threats to Democracy, Human Rights and Inter-American Security.” I am not sure whether the meeting will be open to the public or whether proceedings will be publicly available, or not. The blog post talks about players from the Latin American right wing who are scheduled to be present at the meeting. I recognized some of the names and am aware of some of the historical events that others are associated with. (I blogged about a couple of them last month.) The list has quite a few known terrorists, and other baddies involved in right wing coups d’etat and assassinations. For all the Tea Partiers’ assertions that the Obama Administration is socialist, it seems our government has maintained its ties with fascist elements in Latin America. But to say that because of that (or because of the Democrats, which it regrettably needs to be objected) we are a fascist state would be to take for granted the press freedoms that allow the Machetera blog to share this news with us without fear of (ahem) surveillance or harassment. (That statement might need to be qualified, however – you can read the blog to see why. To say that we have a free press that is overwhelmed by propaganda would be to oversimplify things a bit, when American dissidents (radical or perhaps not) sometimes face consequences that don’t make news.)

October 28, 2010

Institutions are switching to Gmail, but are they discussing the fine print?

Many large institutions, such as universities, are beginning to contract their email services out to Google. At the university where I work, we are in the process of switching our accounts over to Google now. All of our students, faculty, and staff will access their university email accounts through a Google interface. In order to do the switchover, which is required of us by the institution, we each individually have to accept Google’s fine print terms of use, which include the following:

Google reserves the right, but shall have no obligation, to pre-screen, flag, filter, refuse, modify or move any Content available via Google services.

The context of that statement has to do with obscene materials, but the statement itself does not limit Google to filtering for any particular stated reasons, and shows that there is no provision for a review of a user’s claim that material that might be deemed obscene by some people was necessary to their work.

It is our policy to respond to notices of alleged infringement that comply with the United States’ Digital Millennium Copyright Act or other applicable law and to terminating the accounts of repeat infringers.

Note that in the above, all that is required for Google to take action is that a person be accused of infringement (presumably by corporate lawyers) and then to refuse to comply with an order that they may not agree is legitimate. No determination of an actual infringement seems to be required, just an accusation.

The privacy terms are not bad. However, there is this:

You agree that Google may provide you with notices, including those regarding changes to the Terms, by email, regular mail, or postings on Google services.

They are free to change their privacy policies at any time.

Google is offering a great deal to institutions in terms of the cost of the service they are provided, as compared to competing providers of email service. However, I’m not sure that institutions account for the non-monetary cost that makes up the difference, which is Google’s opportunity to present users with advertisements. (As a cost, it is paid by employees rather than by the institution.) At our institution, as far as I know, there has been no discussion of the fact that now that we will be using Gmail for our email, we will all be presented with commercial advertising in the context of our relationship to the university as employees or students.

[Note in response to first comment: Google is writing “no ad” contracts with institutions. However, the fine print in the terms of use still requires users to agree to be shown ads.]

I find all of this problematic. But nothing beats Google these days.

October 25, 2010

The underlying reason that the American Right will always be irrational, and a couple of ideas as to why the problem is presently so acute

As the more civic-minded among us have observed, the American Right has mostly rejected rational discourse in favor of strategic communication. There is a reason for it that has to do with more than a calculation of what will be most effective, or a fear that rational discourse will “prove them wrong,” though that is a risk for them. The reason lies in a conflict between conservatism (which I am not going to say is a bad thing altogether) and the original formation of the United States as an experiment in liberal Enlightenment ideas that had never been tried before, paired with the related development of the growth of an economic system that finally overturned all traditional values: capitalism.

By definition, conservatives are suspicious of political changes that threaten to destabilize the world as they have known it, and are often pushing to bring things “back to the way they were,” to go “back to basics,” restore things to “the way God intended them,” to save society from the arrogance, folly, and hubris of liberal humanists who believe that we have the ability to reshape things to the benefit of humankind, according to human values rather than divine ones. Conservatives tend to believe that attempts to change things deeply will only result in problems, because at root the nature of things is unchangeable (owing to God). The tendency has historically led to support for authority, strong leaders, and strong states as the forces that can promise a “return to stability.”

But, frustratingly enough for conservatives, and as Heraclitus wrote in the 5th century BC, “the only thing constant is change.” The problem for conservatives in power has always been in how to construct a reliable past that can serve as a touchstone and source of energy in opposition to those who attempt to modify the social order. Over the centuries, that problem has been solved in literature and art that put forth new founding myths and told new stories about the past (as well as through the destruction of the literature and art that carried the older ones). No great new order has been innocent of that kind of mythmaking and myth destruction. But creative falsification of the past is not as easy to accomplish in the modern world, built as it is on an epistemology of objectivity and the practical application of documented facts, which tend to hang around in a society built on a framework of documentation.

But in the United States, I would like to say, the problems conservatives face in constructing a traditional past are special, because the origins of our nation themselves imply that there is nothing traditional to go back to. Conservatives have understandable difficulty in acknowledging that the United States represents the triumph of liberal humanists who accomplished something unprecedented, bold, and liberal: the creation of a new country founded in Enlightenment ideas and the rejection of monarchy. As Charles Francis Adams wrote, “The American experiment is the most tremendous and far reaching engine of social change which has ever either blessed or cursed mankind.” What American conservatives call “traditional values” tend to be an awkward mix of social structures and practices that were the product of the industrial revolution (e.g. “traditional marriage” as we know it) and Enlightenment humanist values that trace back to the Age of Reason (i.e. individualism, capitalism), animated by religious self-certainty and fear. (If you want to look for real American traditional values that are actually consistent and coherent, by the way, look for them in Native American spirituality.)

Some conservative intellectuals try to piece together a concept of “republicanism” that conflates Republican Party values with historically recurring efforts at self-government in the form of a republic, but they ignore the fact that the republican form of government has always been tied to liberal Enlightenment phases in culture, whose political manifestation was to kick out the monarchs and overturn tradition in favor of an experimental system based on rational discourse among a civic public. The First Republic of France and the United States of America are perfect examples. The fact that there were earlier republics does not change the fact that those republics were tied to Enlightenment cultural phases, i.e., were liberal. “Republicanism” when it is intended to invoke both conservatism as we think of it in America today and the historically recurring creation of republican governments is simply an incoherent concept.

The ideas that motivate American conservatives do not cohere well in rational terms (especially as they move rightward along the spectrum), but because they carry the emotional charge of ‘absolute truth,’ ‘that which is beyond question,’ and self-evidency to anyone who fears God, they generate the kind of certainty and motivation that comes from spiritual devotion. Therefore, American conservatism can make questions of policy as difficult to discuss rationally as questions of religion.

But why does it seem so difficult to engage the right in rational discourse in these times as opposed to other times? The problem I am describing is as old as the nation, so what is happening right now that seems to be bringing this problem to the foreground? I think the answer is simply that social change has become more rapid recently, and perhaps also because some unintended consequences, not to mention failures, of late 20th century efforts at progress have begun to be realized distinctly. The difficult reality that there is no stable or legitimately desirable past to go back to only makes the problem of irrationality, emotion, and confusion in discourse more intense, as those who desperately need such a past are unable to find one that can be grounded in the kind of facts that can serve as fixed elements in a rational discussion. The result are spectacles like popular candidates for public office who angrily defend the Constitution against liberal ‘assault’ one minute and the next minute display a shocking lack of knowledge of what the Constitution actually says, and then argue that the Constitution should be changed to more purely represent traditional American values. Some on the right are calling for theocracy, claiming that it would be a fulfillment of the founders’ intentions. It is an acute problem, even if its roots are in the nature of the United States’ origins themselves.

I can think of a second reason that the problem I have described seems particularly acute, and that is the apparent failure of the Obama administration to turn things around as many had hoped. President Obama was elected on the hope that rational policy experts who are smarter than the average Joe (and had a sophisticated understanding of things that was superior to common sense) were what the country needed in a time of multiple and overwhelming perils. The Obama administration has so far failed to bring the country back to the impossible level stability and prosperity of the Great Moderation. That, I am afraid, has turned out to be the country’s unrealistic measure of the Administration’s success. Now that the President, whose election right wing conservatives dreaded, has “failed” (despite his administration’s probably saving the economy from something much worse than we have experienced), Republicans who can claim to have gone along with liberal certainties about race and good government for years feel confident in calling for white conservatives to “take our country back.” Or, as Christine O’Donnell put it, “We’re not taking our country back; We ARE our country!”

I am hoping not. I am hoping that this country’s roots in the Enlightenment are secure enough that Americans will remember that liberalism is our own deepest tradition, that the Right will lose its credibility in its claim to being ‘more American than thou,’ as people remember that America’s traditional value above all others is to break with tradition and to self-govern with rational intent.

October 11, 2010

Get out the books, not the vote

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.

August 18, 2010

Our niche and how to get back into it

More and more, I find that the library profession’s efforts to stay relevant in the age of information technology are in fact eroding our relevance. As a result of these efforts, it is becoming less and less clear what we offer that is different from what everybody else offers in the information economy. The reason is that our response to change around us has mostly been to repress those aspects of librarianship that are not directly reflected in new technological tools that other people claim as their domain more securely than we do. We keep saying that as librarians we are web designers, information architects, web searchers, information scientists, user experience experts, and on and on, when each of those things is already a profession filled with people who make a stronger claim to it than we do. What we can claim is librarianship, yet most people – not only outside but within the profession – have forgotten what that consists of other than “books.”

In ALA, accreditation standards for masters degree programs in library science still refer to areas of competency that can be taken to define the profession. Yet in nearly all other ways, ALA is attempting to sell libraries and librarians on the basis of skills that everybody knows other people offer more distinctly, and so, it seems, are most library bloggers and magazine commentators.

Despite the relative consistency in accreditation standards over time, it is presently a challenge to point to practicing librarians in order to demonstrate to people what it is that librarians do that others can’t do so well, simply because, and I hate to say it, most of us are not so exemplary. There has been intense pressure on librarians for decades to focus on technology at the expense of something that is now difficult even to remember, that being a set of intellectual components to what we do that concern our knowledge of what is IN our libraries (physical and digital) and a well-practiced insight regarding the connections to be made between that information and our users.

Consider the great and not-so-great librarians you have known. In my experience, the great ones are great (I am thinking about reference librarians here, just to be clear, because that is who I have worked with) because of a combination of an enthusiastic desire to help, good communication skills, insight, general knowledge (not to be underestimated in its importance), and a compound of skills at connecting the dots between the particularities of users, their needs, the clues, the relevant bits of knowledge in memory, the access points, the information structure, and the hermeneutics and heuristics of helping. A library school curriculum providing a mix of traditional librarianship and intellectually challenging multidisciplinary studies (instead of the busywork that is challenging mainly for the physical stamina it requires) can support these defining skills. (Even if there is no strong case to be made for the existence of a tested knowledge base that we can called “library science,” it is still necessary to support the work of librarians on the basis of relevant theory and research, and to teach it in master’s degree programs. Because of librarianship’s theoretical foundations, multidisciplinary though they may be, we are able to make a claim to professional status, and we are able to claim a degree of autonomy in institutions that allows us to do work that matters.)

Now, we all have good days and bad days, but how many of us know as much as we really should to be good at the “librarian” part of our jobs? I have a good idea of how I use my knowledge of our resources, and I know that I wish I knew more. I don’t wish I knew more about our search tools – those are designed to be easy to use for librarians and the public alike, and I don’t regard our ability to use them as anything special. Where I feel that greater knowledge would help me to be a better librarian is across the board – within my assigned subject areas, yes, but in all subjects, and particularly about things like scholarly communities, the research into reading behavior, learning theory, media studies, and all of those fields that are connected to what we do. I think that improving my general knowledge and working to improve my insight into people are the most effective ways I can work to become a better librarian.

The place I return to for an idea of librarianship that is singular yet multidisciplinary, and humanistic yet technological, is Jesse Shera’s work in the field, specifically his text from the early 70s, The Foundations of Education for Librarianship. Shera had his greatest impact as an early developer of library automation systems in the 50s and 60s, but following that he worked to define librarianship per se in its new technological context. His view of librarianship was in part based on the idea that automation should give librarians time to focus our attention on the problems of communities and their information needs, and how to connect to them, freeing us from technical busywork. He lived long enough, however, to see the profession become machine-oriented and dedicated to refining these tools of efficiency. As he wrote in the decade before his death, “Librarians would do well to remember Moses or Pieta and think somewhat less frequently of Shannon and Weaver,” and “Librarians persist in sublimating librarianship to the lure of the machine.” (From “Librarianship and Information Science,” in The Study of Information: Interdisciplinary Messages, ed. by Fritz Machlup and Una Mansfield. Published by Wiley, 1983.)

There is no Jesse Shera for our time, but I can echo Juris Dilevko’s call to “re-intellectualize the profession” (The Politics of Professionalism: A Retro-Progressive Proposal for Librarianship) and recommend Richard J. Cox’s thorough diagnosis of contemporary library education (The Demise of the Library School: Personal Reflections on Professional Education in the Modern Corporate University). I recognize that librarianship should be different from what it used to be, but I think it ought to be more than what it has recently become.

May 26, 2010

Knowing how to find out

Many librarians, when asked what is involved in being a librarian besides checking out books, will say something to the effect of, “I don’t know the answers, but I know how to look them up.” Where a doctor has knowledge of medicine, a librarian has knowledge of how to find out knowledge of medicine. (Or how to organize and store knowledge of medicine for later retrieval, and how to connect people with the medical knowledge they need.)

An overarching problem in LIS, as I’ve said before in different ways, is that we have confused “knowing how to look it up” with technical knowledge of tools.

Knowledge of the tools is important, but is worth nothing without knowledge of the materials on which the tools operate. By analogy, knowing how to drive a car is of little value when you don’t know where you are and have no map and don’t know how to read one anyway, and you’re late to an appointment. To extend the analogy, it solves nothing in that situation to make technical improvements to the car, regardless of how fast you can make it go.

We are making vast technical improvements to the tools we use to find things, making them more powerful (in some respects) and easier to use. At the same time, however, we are gradually forgetting – by way of de-emphasis and de-prioritization – the general knowledge and domain-specific knowledge that enables us to do what we do at the reference desk.

If you’re a reference librarian, consider the thought-processes that are involved in answering a challenging reference question. Knowing the tools is helpful, obviously. But knowing what to do with them, based on your knowledge of the question’s subject area, is what gives you abilities that your patrons couldn’t pick up so easily. The knowledge that enables us to find things is knowledge of what Paul Otlet theorized as “the biblion,” the bibliographically interconnected world of information in documents and books. (The knowledge that enables us to interpret users’ information needs hermeneutically is another kind of knowledge altogether, but I won’t go into it here.) We can start with a couple of clues, infer a couple of different clues, and move from there into a rich inroad of relevant material, because we have knowledge of the field and the historical and conceptual relationships within it.

Actually, the initial exposition of the idea of knowledge of something versus knowledge of how to find something out, or at least the one our tradition goes back to, had nothing to do with knowledge of tools and was all about bibliographic knowledge, the ability to follow a thread from one place to another in the web of science and culture. It was a conversation between Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in 1775. As well as we know it, it went like this:

“No sooner,” says Boswell, “had we made our bow to Mr. Cambridge, in his library, than Johnson ran eagerly to one side of the room, intent on poring over the backs of the books. Sir Joshua observed (aside) ‘He runs to the books, as I do to the pictures; but I have the advantage. I can see much more of the pictures than he can of the books.’ Mr. Cambridge, upon this, politely said, ‘Dr. Johnson, I am going, with your pardon, to accuse myself, for I have the same custom which I perceive you have. But it seems odd that one should have such a desire to look at the backs of books.’ Johnson, ever ready for contest, instantly started from his reverie, wheeled about, and answered, ‘Sir, the reason is very plain. Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it. When we enquire into any subject, the first thing we have to do is to know what books have treated of it.”

(This conversation was quoted by Andrew Keogh in his address to the American Library Association Annual Conference in Asheville, North Carolina, in 1907, and is reprinted in Speaking of Information: The Library Juice Quotation Book.)

I have an ambition to do some research that lays out the thought processes involved in answering complex reference questions, the knowledge and creativity that we bring to the table, over and above our understanding of search interfaces and index structures. If you would be interested in helping with research along these lines, please let me know.

May 7, 2010

Motives in the conception of the “user” in user-centered service design

The big theme in the current era of librarianship is to be user-centered. Being user centered is the key to maintaining relevance, changing with the times, and erasing the barriers to access that turn many people off to libraries. In the background of the idea of user-centeredness are two parallel but very different theories: critical pedagogy and market-based democracy. The theory that underlies a call to user-centeredness is often obscure or not worked out fully. The difference between the two theoretical foundations concerns, among other things, conceptions of the user and of the user’s surrounding structures – what is to be taken as a given.

There are a number of different theoretical problems underlying the idea of user-centeredness, but I want to make note of an idea concerning just one of them, and that is the way assumptions about who the user is serve to determine the conclusions about what will work best in “user-centered design.”

Take the new “next generation catalogs,” for example. They are designed to work better for “the user,” and librarians who find it more difficult to do the things we are used to doing in a catalog are told to keep in mind that the catalog is serving our users better than the old one. These catalogs have discovery tools built into them that enable undergraduate students to find resources on their topics without having to mess with subject headings or reason from a known lead to a title or an author. What reference librarians are good at is less relevant in the environment of the next-generation catalog, because it has the smarts to make it easy for students to “find stuff” on their own.

The success of these catalogs in “finding stuff” for users can only be measured against an idea of what the users are looking for and what kind of research they are doing. The research that supports these new catalogs tends to assume a user base of millennial undergrads, rather than non-traditional students, faculty members, grad students, or librarian intermediaries. This research tends to gloss over rather than justify the choice to focus on a subset of users in creating a more “user-centered” service design. Therefore, it seems that the definition of a user profile that gets applied in a “user centered” redesign can be a way of achieving goals of the designers that aren’t necessarily related to serving users better. In this case, one outcome of the “next gen” catalogs is to increasingly bypass the mediation of a librarian. This means that the market for a next gen catalog is shifting from the librarian to the undergraduate student, which is as a group is going to be less critical and “more available” in terms of the effectiveness of branding, advertising, alternative business models, etc. If vendors’ products are going to be built increasingly on open standards, as promised, then librarians and other researchers should be able to hack together new tools that will allow us to do the kinds of power searching we have always done in OPAC’s; however, it is important to keep in mind how we are being cut out of the loop in the name of “user centered” design.

I think most librarians can count a number of occasions when vendors or administrators have told them about changes that are based on “what users want” where the idea presented to us of “what users want” is contrary to our own experience with students. When we offer our own insights about users they tend to be discounted as moldy preconceptions rather than authoritative information about the users at our own institutions. I think there are a lot of reasons to be skeptical, critical, and inquisitive about the way the user is defined and characterized in “user centered” solutions that we don’t create ourselves.

This is a new idea for me that I plan to write about at length later. If you find it interesting and want to help, please comment with useful citations or concepts. Thanks!

April 26, 2010

The “assessment piece” and reference strategy

I want to suggest a possible strategy for reference departments in academic libraries.

I think a lot of library administrators who have an eye on the future see less of a role for reference, at least in the way we currently understand it. As they see it, it seems to me, it’s a waste of money to have someone with a graduate degree sitting at a reference desk helping only a few people throughout the day. And as they see it, the demand for reference service is declining. They’re ready to staff the desk with paraprofessionals or students, and they’re ready to outsource much of collection development and consolidate that function to a smaller group of staff members. There is a vague idea of deploying MLIS holding librarians in new ways, but also a sense that they can save a lot of money by employing fewer of us. As I see it, that puts reference librarians in the position of having to strategize a future path and determine a role for ourselves that we actually want and that is suited to our particular expertise as the library’s connection to faculty and students.

At the same time that we are facing that challenge, there is a trend in higher ed that I think we can use as an opportunity. It’s the emphasis on assessment. It is an opportunity because the assessment mandate gets worked out to favor activities that have measurable learning outcomes and disfavor those that don’t. An accreditation body visits a university and asks them to improve its assessment practices. The university responds by asking units – academic departments and others – to develop their own assessment plans based on a list of educational objectives. The template for the assessment plan is designed with academic units in mind, and non-academic units may complain a little and treat the requirement as a bureaucratic hassle and a meaningless task, since they are not directly involved in producing educational outcomes the way academic departments are.

The opportunity for reference, and for the library as a whole, is to use the new assessment plan to secure a role where information literacy objectives (or related objectives) are emphasized. We can elaborate on what it is we teach in classrooms and while we are helping students at the desk or in our offices in order to create assessment measures that support what we want to do.

We can describe research skills that are not taught outside the library. ACRL’s information literacy standards talk about them in very general ways. I like to think about how we help students understand aspects of the bibliographic landscape of a field. Teaching them to make sense of their search results in the context of their own research problems is important educational work. The assessment piece gives us the opportunity to tell campus administration that we want them to hold us accountable for teaching students how to do research. The process tends to be designed to allow us to set our own objectives, so it gives us an opening and an opportunity to be proactive about our future in our institutions. We can take the bull by the horns.