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 20, 2010

A note on the Library Juice Press pricing philosophy

The publishing industry has some very separate parts to it. Trade publishing is the biggest, and is what most people think of when they think of “book publishing.” In the trade book market, quantity is everything. The price point for a book is low and the profit margins are very small. Publishers often pay authors large advances, try to sell a lot of copies in bookstores, and spend a lot on advertising. It is a big business and one that has not been faring well of late, as competition for readers’ eyeballs has been increasing. (I am not looking at ebooks as a separate sector in competition with trade books, but as a part of the publishing industry in each of its sectors.)

Scholarly and professional publishing is a bit different. Quantities of books sold are much lower. Where a trade book may need to sell 10,000 copies to be worth the publisher’s time, academic publishers use a business model wherein sales of 500 copies are often sufficient for profitability. That means that prices are much higher. Usually, scholarly books are priced for a customer base of libraries rather than individuals. The same is true for professional books published by the likes of Neal-Schuman. Where a trade book can be had for $12, a scholarly or professional book is going to cost $50 to $100 in hardcover, and $30 to $60 in paperback. With such small and specialized audiences, those kind of prices are a necessity for most scholarly publishers. Some university presses have begun publishing trade-like titles in order to reach out to a bigger market, and set prices closer to trade book prices for the paperback editions of those titles, but seldom less than $25. Another aspect of the difference between trade publishing and scholarly publishing is that bookstores typically get a discount from publishers of 45%, where vendors of scholarly books typically only get a 20% discount.

At Litwin Books and Library Juice Press we are publishing scholarly and professional books, but we’re doing it with a low overhead in our operations, which enables us to set prices that are affordable to individuals, and not just libraries. In this way we are mirroring what Scarecrow Press did in their early days. Our prices are not as low as trade book prices, and we are not spending money on a lot of advertising or giving big discounts in the hope of bookstore sales, so our business model is more like that of other academic publishers. But we want our titles to be titles that you can go and buy. All of our books have been paperbacks so far, with prices ranging from $12 for our tiniest book to $45 for the longest one.

We change our pricing policy a bit for ebook titles sold to libraries through ebrary. Those books are for a library market only, so the prices reflect what the hardcover prices would be if we published hardcover editions. In the future we will also be offering ebooks to consumers on a number of platforms. We anticipate that the prices of those ebooks will be lower than our current paper book prices.

We are having a busy Spring, getting a handfull of books ready for publication. Take a look at our books on offer to see what we have been doing.

May 17, 2010

Library Juice Press / APC Reception at ALA in Washington DC

For your ALA Annual Conference calendar:

Library Juice Press and the Alternative Press Center are going to have a reception and party on Saturday night, June 26th, 7pm.

Location: 21M Lounge at the M Street Bar & Grill, 2033 M Street, Washington, DC
Time: 7pm ’till close, Saturday, June 26th
Refreshments: Cash bar and service from the restaurant
Hosts: Library Juice Press and the Alternative Press Center

Directions: From the Dupont Circle metro stop, take New Hampshire NW southwest to M street (three blocks).

Library Juice Press will have enough books to show, but not really enough to sell, except perhaps at the end of the night, when they will go at a discount. We are planning to bring a printed 2010 catalog.

APC will have copies of their index and will show some of the periodicals that they cover, and will be there to talk about their work.

I have just learned that the event will be watched over by a giant picture of Marilyn Monroe. Be warned that this image may cause temporary blondeness.

There is a Facebook page for the event.

May 14, 2010

Wayne Bivens-Tatum on Librarians and “Traditional Cultural Expressions”

There is a hot issue in librarianship that I think has great significance in terms of how society and the institution of libraries is changing. The issue is how the profession will deal with claims by native cultural groups who desire that their cultural works, documents, and artifacts be kept in public libraries, but with special access restrictions that respect their cultural traditions. ALA Council is presently debating a policy document on these “traditional cultural expressions” (TCE’s), but the topic needs attention from theorists who can see the issue for what it is: a site of postmodern, multicultural challenge to to the European Enlightenment foundations of librarianship and, and the changing reality of the public sphere.

I asked Wayne Bivens-Tatum, who is working on a book for Library Juice Press about the Enlightenment foundations of librarianship, for his take on the ALA’s draft TCE document, and he posted his thoughts on it today.

The Great Depression: Its Impact on Forty-Six Large American Public Libraries

The Great Depression: Its Impact on Forty-Six Large American Public Libraries, an Analysis of Published Writings of Their Directors

The Great Depression: Its Impact on Forty-Six Large American Public Libraries, an Analysis of Published Writings of Their Directors

Author: Robert Scott Kramp
Price: $18.00
Published: May 2010
ISBN: 978-1-936117-02-4
Printed on acid-free paper

This 1975 dissertation used content analysis to study the impact of the Great Depression on large American public libraries from 1930 to 1940. Areas studied were the depression’s effect on library internal operations, library services, and library directors’ attitudes toward the libraries and the public. Particular attention is paid to the depression-related ideas of the thirteen directors who contributed the largest amount of material to the universe.

In general, the study found that (1) the depression affected library services, operations, and policies; (2) library directors adjusted services, operations, and policies to meet changing conditions and adapt to fluctuating revenues; and (3) to a limited extent, that library-oriented activities of the state and federal governments elicited director reactions.

The study concluded that measurable relationships could be found between economic data, library statistics, and director discussions.

May 7, 2010

Goodman vs. St. Paul

Lawsuit Challenges Police and Secret Service Crackdown on Journalists Covering Protests at Republican National Convention


May 5, 2010, Minnesota and St. Paul, MN —Today, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) with co-counsel De Leon & Nestor and Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP, filed a federal lawsuit against the Minneapolis and St. Paul police departments and officers, the municipalities, the Ramsey County Sheriff and unidentified Secret Service personnel. The lawsuit challenges the policies and conduct of law enforcement during the Republican National Convention (RNC) in 2008 that resulted in the unlawful arrests and unreasonable use of force against the plaintiffs, three Democracy Now! journalists: Amy Goodman, Sharif Abdel Kouddous and Nicole Salazar.

Said award-winning journalist and plaintiff Amy Goodman: “We shouldn’t have to get a record to put things on the record. This is not only a violation of freedom of the press but a violation of the public’s right to know. When journalists are arrested, that has a chilling effect on the functioning of a democratic society.”

Goodman v. St. Paul seeks compensation and an injunction against law enforcement’s unjustified encroachment on First Amendment rights, including freedom of the press and the independence of the media. Attorneys say the government cannot limit journalists’ right to cover matters of public concern by requiring that they present a particular perspective; for instance, the government cannot require journalists to “embed” with state authorities. Goodman further asserts that the government cannot, in the name of security, limit the flow of information by acting unwarrantedly against journalists who report on speech protected by the First Amendment, such as dissent, and the public acts of law enforcement.

“The media are the eyes and ears of the American people—that is why there are laws to protect them,” said CCR attorney Anjana Samant. “Law enforcement and Secret Service agents are not exempt from those laws in their dealings with un-embedded journalists who are documenting peaceful protestors or law enforcement’s use of force and violence against those protestors.”

“The protests on the streets outside the convention center are just as important to the democratic process as the official party proceedings inside,” said journalist and plaintiff Sharif Abdel Kouddous. “Journalists should not have to risk being arrested, brutalized or intimidated by the police in order to perform their duties, exercise their First Amendment rights and facilitate the rights of others to freedom of speech and assembly.”

“The video of my arrest and of Amy’s mobilized an overwhelming public response,” said journalist Nicole Salazar. “The public has both an interest and a right to know how law enforcement officials are acting on their behalf. We should ask ourselves what kind of accountability exists when there is no coverage of police brutality and intimidation.”

For more information on the case, visit CCR’s legal case page.

The Center for Constitutional Rights is dedicated to advancing and protecting the rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Founded in 1966 by attorneys who represented civil rights movements in the South, CCR is a non-profit legal and educational organization committed to the creative use of law as a positive force for social change.

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!

New York event

LACUNY is sponsoring an event tomorrow on Critical Library Instruction at the Brooklyn College Library. The organizers are Alycia Sellie and Jonathan Cope. Ira Shor will be the featured speaker. Wish I could go…

May 2, 2010

New group blog on critical information theory

Arcades Collaborative is a new academic group blog, started by Patrick Keilty, on what could be called critical information theory. Ron Day and a number of really sharp doc students (and a couple of sharp practitioners) are applying critical social theory and philosophy to questions in information studies (or more accurately, using theory to raise new questions in information studies).

Here is the blog’s introductory statement:

Welcome to Arcades Collaborative, a group blog that examines and critiques social and cultural information issues.

The authors of this blog are scholars of information studies and related fields.

As critical researchers, we aim to change society as a whole by raising awareness and promoting alternative and liberatory visions, particularly with regard to social and political inequalities.

Our research attempts to understand the structures, functions, habits, norms, and practices of information and its attendant networks of communication within our society and culture.

We rely on a broad range of scholarship, including philosophy, cultural studies, science and technology studies, communication, library science, museology, archival studies, design, law, sociology, anthropology, computer science, and economics.

This blog provides a forum for scholars to highlight critical information issues and serves as a resource for scholarly communication.

We welcome all comments and look forward to a dynamic exchange of ideas.

I hope to publish work coming out of the Arcades Collaborative, but I know I will have competition.

May 1, 2010

What ails SRRT: a diagnosis

The Social Responsibilities Round Table (SRRT) was the permanent structure formed out of progressive political organizing in the American Library Association during the revolutionary time of the late 60’s. (For a good history of SRRT’s beginnings, see Toni Samek’s Intellectual Freedom and Social Responsibility in American Librarianship, 1967-1974 (McFarland, 2003). Since then it has served as the political “conscience of the association,” applying internal pressure from an egalitarian moral and political point of view (e.g. opposing ties to corporate America) and taking a public stand on many issues not directly related to librarianship. When I was in library school in the late 90s, SRRT’s existence and the passion of the people who worked within its structure were deeply encouraging, because it affirmed what I saw as an important tie between librarianship and broader social concerns. I was energized by SRRT and became active within it. It was my primary place of activity in the profession outside of my job over the next decade, and I met most of the people I know in librarianship in the process of contributing energy to SRRT. I owe a tremendous amount to SRRT, so it is with a sense of, I don’t know, guilt actually, that I say what I am going to say.

SRRT has run into a wall.

What do I mean? SRRT is the largest round table in ALA (or it was the last time I checked), with over 2000 members. The leadership of SRRT, that is, the people who are active in SRRT discussions, run for and are elected to office, attend regular meetings and make the decisions, are dedicated and passionate people, with strong politics that stem from a sense of moral responsibility. For the most part, they have been involved in SRRT for a long time, some from its very beginning. They are activists, and pursue activist goals within the framework of SRRT, as it was created for. That SRRT is and should be an activist group has never seriously been questioned, but in fact that isn’t what it is for the majority of its members. For the majority of its members, SRRT is something to join in order to support the activities of this activist group and to show ones identification with the idea of the importance of social concerns within the profession.

Only a handful of SRRT members are interested in using SRRT for activist goals. That group is mostly older SRRT members whose idea of activism comes from the era in which SRRT was formed. Their political priorities, assumptions about the way things are, and modes of acting come from that era. There are some younger SRRT members among the activist group – people in their 30s and 40s – but in my experience we have not been able to change the round table’s direction or ways of doing things, due to the strength and entrenchment of the long-time leaders. That is one reason (of several reasons) that I am no longer active in SRRT.

The past few decades have not been friendly to activists of the SRRT stripe. I think that makes it remarkable that SRRT is still around, and as the largest round table at that. SRRT members should be proud that we have not been beaten down by the forces we’re up against as the country has shifted rightward. But it also has to be acknowledged that those forces have had an impact on SRRT, often making it a place of shared frustration for the activists who keep it alive. Many of the difficulties that SRRT has encountered have amounted to an ongoing clash with a worsening reality, a clash made more painful by the obsolete assumptions on which our actions were often based.

I think that SRRT is now in a period of protracted crisis based on a conflict between the activists at its core and the majority of its membership, who have grown less interested in seeing SRRT pursue activist goals over time. This crisis has been precipitated by the issue of the Cuban “independent librarians.”

I have given up discussing the Cuba issue, because I found that no matter how well I explained SRRT’s position, people would inevitably say they understood it and had heard it before but would not be able to explain the argument if asked, let alone answer it, and seemed to remain unaware of the reasoning that led the SRRT leadership to its conclusions. Because of that, I will not rehash the debate, but will only comment on it to point out a few small things. First, it must be appreciated that there are many possible positions to take on the issue, something people often don’t realize. I can discuss a variety of positions on this issue privately with people who are interested (contact me privately if you want). Second, the ideological nature of the debate has led to such a feeling of disgust, among both participants and observers, that issues surrounding the debate have a bad feeling to them and are more difficult to work out. Third, while I feel that SRRT members’ arguments were often more insightful and fair to the real situation, it also has to be stated that they were often fueled by loyalty to the Cuban revolution as a real, successful socialist revolution, which the majority of SRRT members cannot be expected to appreciate or care about.

To report a bit about my experience serving on SRRT Action Council, when the Cuba issue and other contentious issues came up in our discussions, someone would often suggest that we don’t know what the majority of our members think. The idea of polling the membership would sometimes be raised for the purpose of saying that we shouldn’t do it, the reason being that people who don’t know or care much about an issue are happy to idly fill out a poll and have their vote determine something. Instead, this conversation would always conclude, we need to do a better job educating our members about what we are doing and the reasoning behind our position. Action Council has never been interested in knowing what its members think, even during times when membership was declining. (When membership was declining, there were logical reasons to cite that had nothing to do with what SRRT Action Council was doing or saying.)

I don’t know where SRRT’s membership stands on the issues that SRRT has taken up; I imagine that its views are varied (much more so than the core group, I would think). It does seem clear to me, though, that the majority of SRRT’s members are not activists and don’t view SRRT as an activist organization, while its core members do. And, over time, the awareness of an activist orientation for SRRT and support for that orientation have declined, so that for most SRRT members, SRRT is like other round tables, meaning that it is a place to associate with librarians with a shared interests. Still, the official statements of SRRT and its other activities are known, and the leadership is right to assume implicit support for those statements and actions in members’ ongoing membership. While members are free to join the SRRTAC-L listserv and share their opinions, I can tell you that the leadership for the most part has little interest in what those opinions are. Part of the reason for that is that it is rare for a member who is unknown to the leadership to step up and start talking. When one does, the question in the leaders’ minds is normally, “Who is this person?” and not so much, “How big a part of the membership does this person in effect represent?”

I call this gap between the membership and the leadership a “protracted crisis,” but there are more acute crises from time to time that SRRT deals with, or if not crises, then at least problems. The most current one involves all of these issues, and it is over control of the SRRT Newsletter. The SRRT Newsletter has a new editor, Myka Kennedy Stephens, who is not in the activist mold. It seems to me (and I should probably talk to her before writing this) that she is in SRRT because it is the place where her professional ideals are most alive in the association, but not as an opportunity to be a political activist. The core group in SRRT feels that it goes without saying that being active in SRRT (e.g. newsletter editor) means being a political activist. So, when the Myka decided to run an article by Steve Marquardt, who opposes SRRT on the Cuba question, to use a cliché, “all hell broke loose.” As the newsletter editorial board, the newsletter editor, and Action Council have been trying to work this problem out (read “new rules”), there has been a certain amount of misunderstanding between the newsletter editor and others stemming from these different basic assumptions about what SRRT is and what it means to be involved in it.

So, now it seems that SRRT is facing a question. Is there support among the membership to continue it’s 60s-style activist work within the association? Or do members want SRRT to be more like other round tables? Does the SRRT leadership want to know the answer? Or would it prefer to ask another question, such as, “How can we better sell what we are doing to our members?”

I used to feel that this kind of thing should stay in SRRT, but I no longer feel that way. I think it is good to talk openly about what is happening in SRRT and in other groups that we care about.

Regarding Cuba: I know some readers are going to post about Cuba in response to this, but I would ask that if you do, please don’t ignore what I have written on it in the past. The arguments I have made have been responded to many times but never answered, and I am too tired of the discussion to continue in that manner. Posts concerning Cuba in response to this are off-topic, and I might decide not to approve them if they don’t add anything new.