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.

February 18, 2011

Selection from Philippe Breton, relating to Wikileaks

Litwin Books will soon be publishing an English translation of Philippe Breton’s 2000 book, Le culte de l’Internet: Une menace pour le lien social?, under the English title: The Culture of the Internet and the Internet as Cult: Social Fears and Religious Fantasies. Here is a bit from Chapter Four that comes to mind for me in relation to the Wikileaks discussion:

In the world of the new information technologies, the theme of “transparence” frequently returns under forms more or less vulgarized. Transparence is at work from the beginning: computers, then the networks, the new magic wands, are supposed to make transparent whatever they touch. One often hears it said, for example, that informatics and now the networks are capable of “making government transparent.” For a long time the same thing has been said in reference to business. The Internet thus presents itself as a tool enabling the struggle against “opacity,” the key anti-value of that universe.

That value has also erupted in the world of politics. Thus, the Prime Minister of France, Lionel Jospin, at the inauguration of the 19th Summer University of Communications on the 25th of August 1998 declared that “the entry of our country into the information society” corresponded to “more access to knowledge and culture, more employment and growth, more public service and transparence, more democracy and liberty.” Here transparency is put on the same level as these other values judged to be fundamental. Transparence is an ideal that serves to exalt, but also, above all, to exclude: what is transparent is, by nature, more evolved, more advanced. “Power,” because it is assumed to be the retention of information, is on the side of the dark and the old. “Cooperation,” a notion even much more abstract, is on the side of light. “Start-ups” are presented as models of non-hierarchical societies where everything is transparent in every respect. On the side of power, law is more and more presented as an obstacle to putting in place a global information society. In cyberspace, one hears repeated in unison that there is no need for law, least of all national or international laws.

In order to carry out their mission, which is to support the light, information systems themselves must be transparent. From this perspective, all desire to separate systems, to protect them from “external intrusion,” is therefore considered antinomian. A good system should be open, transparent. The new religiosity is profoundly antagonistic to the constraints and necessities of what the professionals call “information security,” which is simply a variation of the security of goods and persons.

As one can see from some of the examples cited, the pursuit of an ideal of transparence implies the negative equalification of everything which is secret, of the hidden, the private, the intimate, the profound, the non-visible. The actual annihilation of the “non-visible,” deemed opaque, cannot help but be an attack on barriers, frontiers, on all separations which impede the flow of information, the “generalized interconnection” and the final transparence of the world.

Many of these barriers would be particularly valuable to target and become the object of a will to subversion, as for example, to take the most important of these, that which separates public from private life, law and juridical norms, all the norms which would impede the “free circulation” of information on the network, and finally, last but not least, the embodiment of speech as an obstacle to free communication. The ideal of transparence above all takes the form of a war against opacity and obscurity. The new religiosity takes us into a new time through a binary vision of the world. On the one side, information, openness, light; on the other, closure, entropy, disorder, Evil. In one case, a “solar” mode (the planet described by Asimov was aptly named “Solaria”), in the other, shadows.

The struggle against shadows is a real fight, step by step, even if the participants do not always discern the scope and the stakes of the battle. Some are often more concerned with the abolition of the “insupportable frontiers” between the private and the public, others more motivated by the desire to make a leap over all the barriers to access to different parts of the great information network, while, finally, still others are particularly indignant at the restraints to the free circulation of ideas which are national laws, the institution of the rights of the author, or, in another area, the presence of numerous middle-men (teachers, businesspeople, journalists) who “interpose” themselves between producers and consumers.

Watch for this book this Spring.

Good summary of librarians’ discussion of Wikileaks to date

I recommend a post by James Jacobs on the freegovinfo.info site and the comments following it for a good summary of the debate over Wikileaks within the library community.

February 14, 2011

Adam Gopnik on books about the internet age

Adam Gopnik, frequent contributor to the New Yorker, has an article in the new issue called, “The Information: How the Internet Gets Inside Us.” It’s actually a really good bibliographic essay to recommend to someone wanting an overview of this literature.

The scale of the transformation is such that an ever-expanding literature has emerged to censure or celebrate it. A series of books explaining why books no longer matter is a paradox that Chesterton would have found implausible, yet there they are, and they come in the typical flavors: the eulogistic, the alarmed, the sober, and the gleeful. When the electric toaster was invented, there were, no doubt, books that said that the toaster would open up horizons for breakfast undreamed of in the days of burning bread over an open flame; books that told you that the toaster would bring an end to the days of creative breakfast, since our children, growing up with uniformly sliced bread, made to fit a single opening, would never know what a loaf of their own was like; and books that told you that sometimes the toaster would make breakfast better and sometimes it would make breakfast worse, and that the cost for finding this out would be the price of the book you’d just bought.

All three kinds appear among the new books about the Internet: call them the Never-Betters, the Better-Nevers, and the Ever-Wasers. The Never-Betters believe that we’re on the brink of a new utopia, where information will be free and democratic, news will be made from the bottom up, love will reign, and cookies will bake themselves. The Better-Nevers think that we would have been better off if the whole thing had never happened, that the world that is coming to an end is superior to the one that is taking its place, and that, at a minimum, books and magazines create private space for minds in ways that twenty-second bursts of information don’t. The Ever-Wasers insist that at any moment in modernity something like this is going on, and that a new way of organizing data and connecting users is always thrilling to some and chilling to others—that something like this is going on is exactly what makes it a modern moment. One’s hopes rest with the Never-Betters; one’s head with the Ever-Wasers; and one’s heart? Well, twenty or so books in, one’s heart tends to move toward the Better-Nevers, and then bounce back toward someplace that looks more like home.

February 12, 2011

How many control freaks does it take to screw in a light bulb?

A bit of satire in response to the question, “How many control freaks does it take to screw in a light bulb?” Any resemblance to organizations you may have heard of is completely coincidental.

—————-

To the Control Freak Light Bulb Screwing-In Community:

A friendly member of our committee has asked a question of us, which members have every right to do, and we will give him the benefit of the doubt as to the constructive intentions behind it. The question is, “How many control freaks does it take to screw in a light bulb?” After conferring in an exemplary way with a minimum of bristling and rancor, we of the informal leadership group have decided that this is an opportune time to share with the Committee the Committee’s guidelines, which have been changed by us only slightly since the last time they were shared. We believe that our friendly member’s question is answered as well as possible by the guidelines, which follow:

CONTROL FREAK LIGHT BULB SCREWING-IN COMMITTEE GUIDELINES

ARTICLE I: NAME

The name of this committee shall be the Control Freak Light Bulb Screwing-In Committee.

ARTICLE II: PURPOSE

The purpose of the Control Freak Light Bulb Screwing-In Committee shall be to shed light on the complex realities of social life, political conflict, and objects in rooms by screwing in light bulbs when requested by authorized persons.

ARTICLE III: MOTTO

The motto of the Control Freak Light Bulb Screwing-In Committee shall be, “Please Stand Aside So That We Can Bring Light out of Darkness.”

ARTICLE IV: DEFINITIONS

a). “We” (or “Us,” or “Our”) has a two-fold meaning. In the first sense, it refers not to the committee as a whole nor to the governing subcommittee but to an undefined group of leaders (“The Leadership”), some of whom, at any given time, are original founders of the committee. The Leadership have a deep understanding of the committee’s reason for being and are driven by a total commitment to its purpose. The term “inner circle” is not an approved term, and those who use it are to be considered ideologically questionable, at best, and are to be shunned (mandatory). In the second sense, the word “We” refers warmly and generously to the control freak lightbulb screwing-in community as a whole insofar as it is composed of people who recognize the Leadership and our deep understanding of light bulb screwing-in in its political and social context. The committee as defined by its official membership may or may not be congruent to this larger sense of “We,” depending on the situation at hand.

b). “Light” may seem to the uninitiated to be a term with an obvious meaning that need not be defined here. However, the centrality of Light to our mission has required us to investigate its social underpinnings and subject it to analysis. The paradox that “turns the bulb,” as it were, lies in the fact that while light is irreducibly ideological, it is also required for seeing (at least for those who have not fully purged themselves of ideology, which is the accomplishment that allows us, the leadership, to see in the dark when others cannot). Because of the inherent ideological structure of light, and by extension any light-emitting devices such as light bulbs, the seriousness of our mission and its dire importance to society should be self-evident. The analysis of the social structuration of light and light bulbs is a complex matter requiring a hard-won consciousness of the electromagnetic spectrum, and may be explained to members from time to time as we find it necessary (in terms relative to the Leadership agenda).

c). “Guidelines” is a term with a deliberately different meaning from “Bylaws,” and our choice to use the word “Guidelines” rather than “Bylaws” stems from our commitment to democracy and informality. The term “Guidelines” has a looser meaning, which shows that we are relaxed, hip, and informal. It also implies flexibility, which we favor, because rules, as we know, are imposed undemocratically. Because we have guidelines rather than rules, we have some “wiggle room” that we might need at times when things are tricky. As a result, accountability is informal, which is appropriate among friends like us. Disagreements are resolved with reference to our vague defining principles, about which the Leadership has the final say. (To complain about this is unfriendly and inappropriate in an informal, friendly group such as ours.) We are proud to provide the wider world with such an example of democratic self-government, since democracy is in such short supply outside of our own committee.

d). “Control Freak” is a derisive term which we have re-appropriated to emphasize our dedication to a mission and a set of values. This mission and values-set is one that others may not understand or may lack the ethical commitment to prioritize over expediency and bourgeois comforts. Accordingly, it is also a mission and values-set that we are generally unable to explain to others to their satisfaction. But the ignorant remain ignorant by their own choice, and this is the basis for our entitlement to control in the crucial area of light bulb-screwing-in.

ARTICLE V: [REDACTED]

ARTICLE VI: MEMBERSHIP

a). Composition. [Nota bene, inquirer.] The Light Bulb Screwing In Committee is composed of an even number of elected control freaks, including the chair, serving in three year terms, elected in a staggered sequence (see ARTICLE VII: ELECTIONS). The number of members is variable and must equal either seven or a one-twentieth portion of the represented stakeholders (voting constituency) (rounded up) needing light at nightfall thirty days before the election, whichever is greater. This formulation was arrived at through a process of spirited discussion spanning several years, and is an “unfinished work,” meaning that it is subject to change at the discretion of the Committee.

b). New Members. The Leadership encourages – IN THE STRONGEST TERMS POSSIBLE – new people to stand for election to the committee. We recognize the importance of new ideas for adapting to changing circumstances. New ideas are good. We are not afraid of them, and we are not afraid of new people. We are not opposed to change. Change is needed at times. New ideas are needed at times. Our ideas were new once and in some senses remain new and always will be new. However, many people who show an interest in participating in our light bulb screwing-in project have not yet learned to see light bulbs in the full scope of their social and historical context, and to understand the political nature of every turn in the screwing-in process. The bulbs, the ladders, the technique – all exist within a network of actions in a utopian political context and cannot properly be understood apart from their sorry history. Sometimes there is corrosion. Do you know what to do about corrosion? We, you see, know what to do about corrosion. You may have read something about toothbrushes and baking soda. But potential problems with that technique – not to mention its factional origins – have been pointed out. It is complicated. But, as we say, we encourage new people to join us and we encourage new ideas. People wanting to stand for election to the committee are advised to first find a sponsor on the committee, which will ensure publication of their standing for election in the newsletter prior to the election. New committee members wishing to propose a new idea are invited to submit their idea to the chair for review. Upon review, the idea will be shared with the rest of the committee with the endorsement of the chair. New ideas distributed to the committee without first being submitted to the chair will be regarded as an attempt to undermine the solidarity of the group. We appreciate having everyone on the same page and committed to the same mission. It would be one thing if we were just a debating society. But we are organized for an active purpose, and for that purpose to be accomplished, sometimes lines need to be drawn. We do this – and how regrettable it is that it needs to be said at all – in order to fully realize our commitment to a democratic society, which is what lightbulb screwing-in is all about.

c). Purgation, Blacklisting, and Threats Thereof. This section of ARTICLE VI is in order to make it clear that no members of the Control Freak Light Bulb Screwing-In Committee have ever been purged or ever will be purged, nor has any community member been blacklisted nor will be blacklisted, nor have any threats related to such political tactics been made or will be made. Some former committee members, with motivations about which we will nobly refrain from speculating, have told false tales of purgation, blacklisting, or threats. As a group that prizes democracy in all of our processes, we are above such tactics, and do not take kindly to their suggestion. Those who have spread such rumors have gone on to regret it.

d). Chair. After each election a member of the committee shall be chosen by the committee to serve as its chair. The committee member selected will serve as chair over the course of the following year. Everyone seems to be happy with me in the position of chair, however, so until there is evidence to the contrary, we will proceed informally and forgo a formal selection process.

ARTICLE VII: ELECTIONS

TBA

ARTICLE VIII: FINANCES

In keeping with Gandhi’s exhortation to “be the change you wish to see in the world” (because we are such followers of Gandhi and his peaceful ways), we have a policy of ignoring money issues for as long as possible and only dealing with them when someone else steps in and starts dealing with them for us. This policy has worked out for us pretty well so far, so we’ll just stick to it. Thank you, Gandhi, for your moral example, the claiming of which seems to entitle us to all kinds of bailouts from our parent organizations. “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” and we don’t mean nickels and dimes. And be sure to look for those subsidized compact flourescents when available. A dollar for a twenty-watter is a good deal, and those twenty-watters shed a lot more light than they seem to, when their lumens are measured using the proper equipment. Leaving financial matters to someone else may not seem like control freak behavior, but like most passive-aggressive strategies, part of its value lies in its deflection of non-utopian reality.

ARTICLE IX: AMENDMENTS

TBA

ARTICLE X: CERTIFICATION

These bylaws were approved by a meeting of the ad hoc governing subcommittee by a unanimous vote on February 15, 2010.

February 8, 2011

Call for entries (artwork) – Library Thoughts – Gondolatok a könyvtárban

“The HMC announces an open call for entries to exhibit at Raday Konyveshaz & Gallery, Budapest, exhibition opening on August 24, 2011. … Submission deadline is March 15.”

How influenced the digitalized area the traditional reading culture? Is it finished the Gutenberg area? We are waiting artist books, artworks on or of paper may be any size, but MUST fit in a 9 X 12 (22.9X30.5cm) envelope. Unmatted, unframed photography, drawing, painting, printmaking, collage, mixed media, cast or folded paper, multimedia or digital prints.