Monday, December 15, 2008

Conference themes

What sort of theme would you like a small-ish, regional, academic library conference to have?

No reason. :)

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Broader Question

I'm late to this particular party, which might be the closest thing to an unforgivable sin in the blogosphere (god, what a horrible word). But sometimes being late to the party has certain advantages.

Perspective, for one. Reflection, for another. Context, for a third.

So by now everybody who could possibly care one way or the other knows that the Journal of Access Services ran an issue that consisted entirely of articles by the Annoyed Librarian. Hilarity ensued, and you wouldn't have needed a Magic 8-Ball to predict exactly how: it's the death of peer review! OMG, how can anyone take the Journal of Access Services seriously now?! Or library science scholarship for that matter?? How will I explain this to my students? What were the editors thinking?? (It turns out the editors didn't even know--how's that for setting the dog among the pigeons?)

Let me advance this thought: if the state of scholarly publishing in our field is so perilous that a joke issue of a journal (something not unheard of in other disciplines, including ones with a much longer and more substantive history of scholarship than ours, which is most of them--the British Medical Journal's Christmas issues come to mind, or the Annals of Improbable Research) is capable of destroying it, then we have much, much bigger problems than the Annoyed Librarian.

Assuming that you think the Annoyed Librarian is a problem.

I'm not here to accuse those who think so of having no sense of humor. I personally find the AL's schtick pretty one-note; this profession has plenty of sacred cows, but once you've shot them, is it necessary to come back around and beat up on the carcass? Maybe the AL agreed, and decided to do this as a way of following his or her own act. I don't know, and it doesn't really matter. Because if this stunt and the response to it generates an examination of library science scholarship, and particularly its flaws, then it will have served a useful purpose.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Reading the Research: Journal of Academic Librarianship

Tidbits from volume 34, issue 6.

Toolkit Approach To Integrating Library Resources Into The Learning Management System:
Regardless of what librarians choose to label the various ways of doing this, articles like this one are among my favorite examples of why "How we done it good"-style reports are worthwhile. Course management systems are just one way that online library services, like online services of other kinds, are becoming distributed--in both senses of the term.

The Value of LIS Schools’ Research Topics to Library Authors’ Professional Work
This title almost seems to be begging the question, but perhaps I'm jaded--after recent conversations with professionals in various social sciences, which is where library science has borrowed its research methodology, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that LIS courses in research methods would be valuable if students gained firmer grounding in how to actually do research. In fact, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, I'd like to see library schools farm this one out to the nearest social science program.

There's also the assumption that all research in the library science field ought to follow a particular methodology. Personally, my favorite scholar in the field from whom I've gained the most professional benefit is Patrick Wilson...

Do clickers improve library instruction? Lock in your answers now
This one interests me because I've actually used clickers in a classroom setting recently. Leaving aside the much bigger and thornier question of how one actually teaches people to use the library and conduct literature searching (the two are not equivalent, if in fact they ever were), the question of retention is a good one and I'm not surprised to learn that the answer seems to be no. It's not that the things don't work, but a quick quiz at the end of a session (which is how I've used them) doesn't tell you anything about how students will actually use what you teach them. In my library we try to time library instruction for as immediate applicability as possible because really, the only way you're going to remember how to do this stuff is if you use it.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Clicking in the classroom

Today's Inside Higher Ed has a brief article on the use of click-response technology in the classroom.

I've used them once, during a recent guest presentation to a general chemistry class of 140 students, most of whom did show up in class that day. I'm still ambivalent about them--the clickers, not the students--because I'm not sure they're as useful as their proponents claim. I do have to say, though, that they provided a pretty good snapshot of whether students got what I was talking about. What they didn't tell me, since I hadn't tested student understanding prior to the presentation, was how many students came in already knowing what I was talking about. That, unfortunately, would have taken more time than was available.

We're also working on a project on my campus that uses clickers in a plagiarism prevention workshop, adapted from such a workshop developed and presented elsewhere. We haven't piloted it yet, though.

My tentative conclusion is that they're useful but not revolutionary, and by themselves simply present another option. I prefer more hands-on and less lecture in my workshops, and class discussion when I can get it. I can see clickers' applicability for some types of library instruction, though.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Another shift in the sea: CS Monitor going online

In a way, I'm surprised it took this long for a major newspaper to shift to primarily online. Even when I was getting a printed paper, I typically took the weekly one because I haven't had time to read a paper every day for years (whereas it's easy to dip into a news site for a few minutes in a break from work or during lunch). And I've been seeing this shift with research journals, too; it's been going on for years, of course, but for more and more publications, scholarly and non, online is becoming the principal rather than the alternative publishing venue. (In the case of scholarship, often with prices to match. Unfortunately.)

I'm sure that all the national dailies are trending this way. I'm also sure that none of them wanted to be the first to jump. I find it interesting that even the Monitor is saying that it basically has to do this:

"Changes in the industry - changes in the concept of news and the economics underlying the industry - hit the Monitor first," given its relatively small size and the complex logistics required for national distribution, Mr. Wells said. "We are sometimes forced to be an early change agent."

And so it goes...

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

On the road again

Today, I am off to the ACRL-Oregon fall conference. I've gone to the Washington one the last few years, but this will be my first time going to Oregon. (For the conference, anyway; I've been to the state several times.) I'm going down early because ACRL-WA has a board meeting this afternoon. And before I go, the car needs servicing, so I get to spend my morning in the shop. Thank goodness for mobile technologies, or I'd have to tell you all about that afterward.

Er. Maybe that's not a good example.

Anyway, I'm developing a fondness for local and regional conferences. I'd started to draw back my emphasis from national events even before the latest economic downturn started to make that an eminently sensible move; although I still have a commitment that will likely take me to ALA this year, I wouldn't be going to ACRL if it weren't in Seattle already.

What I'm finding, though, is that a lot of really interesting stuff happens at these smaller-scale conferences. For me, "really interesting" means stuff I can take back to my job and almost immediately apply. I don't get the occasional derogatory comment about "how we done it good" kinds of presentations; personally, those are the ones I find most useful. Maybe I'll feel differently after a few more years in this profession.

Anyway, I'm looking forward to going for a run at Menucha. It looks beautiful.

I've been a little "eh" about the conference theme--the once and future catalog? Really?--but I think I get what they're getting at. The way we almost inevitably end up designing library websites constitutes, to me, an inherent failure of the OPAC. Maybe it's because I used to work for and have seen how this can be done well--there, the website and the catalog are so thoroughly integrated that nobody thinks of them as separate entities. And yet libraries almost have to do this, because catalogs handle so much so poorly.

I'm going to a users-group meeting on Voyager next month, and hoping afterward to brush up my somewhat rusty XML skills and really do some cool things with my library's website.

It's also been awhile since my last road trip. I've laid in a good supply of music, and downloaded the free portion of this audiobook. If I like the story (I expect I will, I like Jay Lake's work), I'll be buying the rest.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

On another note

It's Open Access Day! Which I didn't know until this morning, or there'd be something more here, since there's a blogging competition going on.

Oh, well, maybe next year. Meanwhile, follow the link to learn about OA and read what other people (librarians, scholars, and more) are writing.

Sometimes, it's still about the books

I came to librarianship from previous professions in e-commerce, PR, and freelance writing. Those things, particularly the e-commerce part (put it this way, I worked for when books were all they sold) have impacted how I work: in front of the computer, for the most part. The subject areas I work with in my job, mainly business and the natural sciences, also impact how I work. The scholarly record in those areas is increasingly born digital, and that's how people access it. (Insert yet another reference to that Ithaka study from a couple of years ago here.)

Yesterday, though, I was doing some research on a matter of personal interest after my workday was done. Most of the material my library has on the subject is in print: in books, not to put too fine a point on it. (Although Google Scholar had done well by me, too, including turning up a translation of an Old Irish poem that I was curious about. Since I don't read Old Irish, finding an article that contained a translation and extensive commentary was gold, especially since, in my cursory search, it was the only extant modern English translation available either online or in print.)

So I spent about half an hour wandering the stacks, looking up call numbers, skimming back-of-the-book indexes. These aren't things that I or the students I work with do much anymore. Online searching is so much faster and more efficient, even though a lot of the bibliographic research tools available to us...well, suck, to be blunt.

The librarian who loves to read is a stereotype, one that a lot of my friends in my profession eschew. The reading I do on the job certainly isn't the kind of reading I'd prefer to spend my time on, professional or scholarly research notwithstanding.

And yet, if it holds true in my case, what's so bad about that? One major difference that I find between going to the stacks and going online is that the latter often has an illusory sense of urgency. There's always more to discover and it can feel overwhelming.

There's always more to discover in the stacks, too. But there's something patient about a physical library, and that's a characteristic that the Internet lacks.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Fair Copyright in Research Works Act neither fair nor encouraging of research, film at 11

Yes, it's been awhile. The semester started, and that means I've been embroiled in the sorts of things one does in the library when the semester starts: library research instruction, juggling serial subscription renewals, and trying to keep the mail from overtaking both my inbox and my desk. (My mailbox is rather small, so I can only ignore it for so long.)

But while the public's attention is fixed (not without reason) on bailouts and elections, a post at Au Courant brings the Fair Copyright in Research Works Act to my attention. Really, once the open access movement started to gain a bit of traction, this sort of thing was only a matter of time. And one thing you can bet on: any piece of legislation that uses both the words "fair" and "copyright" in its title isn't going to be fair at all.

The proposed act is an amendment to Title 17 which, as most anyone reading this probably already knows, is the part of the U.S. Code that pertains to copyright. Specifically, it proposes to amend Section 201, which pertains to ownership of copyright.

What it does is add new limitations on the federal government. Now most people I know, regardless of their political affiliations, have no objection to this, especially considering the bloat of the current administration. But let's take a look at the language.

The amendment specifically pertains to "extrinsic works". What's an extrinsic work? Glad you asked. It's defined in paragraph 3 of the proposed amendment, as follows:

(A) EXTRINSIC WORK- The term 'extrinsic work' means any work, other than a work of the United States Government, that is based upon, derived from, or related to, a funding agreement and--

So this refers to a work that is funded, but not created, by a Federal agency; "funding agreement" is defined later in the act. What's under discussion here is, in essence, federally funded research: meaning, for instance, biomedical research funded through NIH grants.

'(i) is also funded in substantial part by one or more other entities, other than a Federal agency, that are not a party to the funding agreement or acting on behalf of such a party; or'

The work, therefore, is being funded by other entities in addition to the Federal agency. This is hardly unusual, especially in STM (science, technology, and medicine) research; few grants are big enough to fund what constitutes a major research project these days.

'(ii) represents, reflects, or results from a meaningful added value or process contributed by one or more other entities, other than a Federal agency, that are not a party to the funding agreement or acting on behalf of such a party.

This is where, in my opinion, the language starts to hedge. So it's not necessary to actually be receiving funding from another entity, as long as that other entity is adding meaningful value or process to the work.

Such as, for instance, publishing it. Remember that we're in Title 17, here.

Okay, so that's an extrinsic work. What are the limitations so imposed? Here's the first part of paragraph 1 of the proposed amendment:

(1) LIMITATIONS REGARDING FUNDING AGREEMENTS- No Federal agency may, in connection with a funding agreement--
        `(A) impose or cause the imposition of any term or condition that--
          `(i) requires the transfer or license to or for a Federal agency of--
            `(I) any right provided under paragraph (3), (4) or (5) of section 106 in an extrinsic work; or
This is pretty clear. It says that the funding agreement can't stipulate the transfer of rights provided under paragraphs 3, 4, or 5 of section 106. These are, briefly put, the right to distribute copies, to perform works publicly, and to display works publicly. In other words, the rights by which copyright holders enable the sale of books and magazines, the staging of theatrical productions, the showing of movies, and so forth.

In other words, this goes directly to the open access mandate which went into effect in April 2008, which stipulates that all NIH-funded research must be made available to the public via PubMedCentral within 12 months of its publication.

Don't think so? Take a gander at this next bit:

`(II) any right provided under paragraph (1) or (2) of section 106 in an extrinsic work, to the extent that, solely for purposes of this subsection, such right involves the availability to the public of that work; or

Availability to the public. Paragraphs 1 and 2 pertain to making copies and producing derivative works. This act wouldn't touch any of that--except insofar as it involves making the work available to the public.

`(ii) requires the absence or abandonment of any right described in subclause (I) or (II) of clause (i) in an extrinsic work;

This just means that in addition to transferring these rights, the agreement also can't require these rights to be nonexistent or abandoned.

`(B) impose or cause the imposition of, as a condition of a funding agreement, the waiver of, or assent to, any prohibition under subparagraph (A); or

In addition, the prohibitions previously described can't be a condition of receiving funding in the first place.

`(C) assert any rights under this title in material developed under any funding agreement that restrain or limit the acquisition or exercise of rights under this title in an extrinsic work.

This wording is a bit confusing, but essentially what it boils down to is that the Federal agency can't assert Title 17 rights over existing material where the funding agreement has already restricted those rights--thereby, it seems to me, covering work released between April 2008 and whenever this act, should it pass, goes into effect.

Any term, condition, or assertion prohibited under subparagraph (A), (B), or (C) shall be given no effect under this title or otherwise.

Now I find this bit pretty alarming. It seems to be saying that if there's anything anywhere in Title 17, now or in the future, that contradicts A, B, or C, it is now void. I can see that having an ill effect for libraries.

On to paragraph 2:
      `(A) CERTAIN OTHER RIGHTS NOT LIMITED- Nothing in paragraph (1)(A)(i)(II) shall be construed to limit the rights provided to the copyright owner under paragraphs (1) and (2) of section 106.
So the copyright owner can still do what he/she likes with regard to copying and derivative work. No surprises there.

`(B) NO NEW COPYRIGHT PROTECTION CREATED- Nothing in this subsection provides copyright protection to any subject matter that is not protected under section 102.

Section 102, for any of you who aren't aware, defines what can be copyrighted. Again, no surprises there.

The next bits come from paragraph 3, where extrinsic works are also defined:

`(B) FEDERAL AGENCY- The term `Federal agency' means any department, agency, or instrumentality of the United States Government.

`(C) FUNDING AGREEMENT- The term `funding agreement' means any contract, grant, or other agreement entered into between a Federal agency and any person under which funds are provided by a Federal agency, in whole or in part, for the performance of experimental, developmental, or research activities.'.

Prescient of them. Yes, right now the only Federal open access mandate applies to NIH-funded works. This proposed act applies to any works funded by any Federal agency. Such as, for example, the NEA. Or the NSF. Or any other Federal agency you can think of that funds research. The Federal government is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, source of research and grant funding in this country. Think about what this means for public access to Federally-funded material.

(b) Applicability- The amendment made by subsection (a) applies to any funding agreement that is entered into on or after the date of the enactment of this Act.

Of course. You can't make it retroactive--although it seems to me that paragraph 1, subsection C sort of does.

(c) Report to Congressional Committees- Not later than the date that is 5 years after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Register of Copyrights shall, after consulting with the Comptroller General and with Federal agencies that provide funding under funding agreements and with publishers in the private sector, review and submit to the appropriate congressional committees a report on the Register's views on section 201(f) of title 17, United States Code, as added by subsection (a) of this section, taking into account the development of and access to extrinsic works and materials developed under funding agreements, including the role played by publishers in the private sector and others.

I have to admit, I'm having difficulty reining in my snark at this point. It isn't at all surprising that publishers want to control access to material that they publish; this entire proposal is just another salvo in a long-running battle.

I also have to admit, however, that it positively blows my mind that publishers honestly seem to think that they have this much authority to control access to research that they had no part in funding. Well, you could argue, but they control access to research funded from other sources, right?

Yes, they do. And isn't it interesting that their role has shifted from publishing--which is, fundamentally, about making information available--to controlling access to that information.

The difference is, that's not taxpayer-funded research. If something is made possible through a grant from NIH, NSF, NEA, or another Federal agency, then you paid for it. You ought to have access to it.

You can read more about this at Peter Suber's blog (which I recommend reading generally), and follow the links there to further commentary. In particular, also look here, where much more detailed analysis than my novice's take is available, including considerable discussion of why this is just bad law.

Congress reconvenes in January. At some point after that, the bill may come out of committee--or sail through attached to another bill, as so often happens.

If open access matters to you--and if you pay taxes, it should--contact your Congresscritters. Many of them have no idea why this is important, for reasons that Suber describes. Enlighten them.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

How Green was My Library?

Moving from print to online resources makes a huge amount of sense for a whole host of reasons, from usage to accessibility, but one reason I've always quibbled with is that going online makes better environmental sense.

Does it really? I think the jury's still way out on that. Because while paper manufacture and recycling is at least pretty well understood, the disposal of obsolete electronics--from the computers made available for patrons to access resources, to the servers that enable that access--is a great big ball of ugly (that's a technical term, of course).

Today's Washington Post has an article that is just the latest in a series of recent scathing indictments of how electronic waste is dealt with. The news of note here is that the Government Accountability Office is reporting on all the ways that the EPA is failing to deal with the problem. Much electronic waste--computers, cell phones, and all the other devices increasingly indispensable to daily life--is shipped overseas, where it's disassembled and recycled under appalling conditions.

My personal favorite bit is the note that 43 U.S. recyclers have flat-out lied about how they dispose of electronic waste.

Read the report here.

In other depressing news, the North Pole is ever closer to having no ice.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

News I'm Reading

Any librarian, particularly a public librarian, could have told U.S. airlines that as soon as they started offering in-air wi-fi, they'd have to deal with porn. I wouldn't expect American Airlines flight attendants to be any happier about it than librarians are.

Here's a great example business librarians can use on vetting information: an old story on the Sun-Sentinel website got picked up by Google News as fresh, triggering a massive sell-off of United stock. It occurs to me that a particular piece of metadata--the story's date of publication--would have prevented this, if news articles had such metadata attached and news aggregators such as Google News looked for such metadata as a matter of course. More coverage here and here. (One wonders if any canny investors realized what was happening and scooped up some of the stock on the cheap...)

Speaking of Google...microfilm is a valuable medium for storage and preservation, but using it is a total pain. Now, you might not have to: Google is digitizing newspaper archives, including those stored on microfilm. Some of the same concerns and questions are being raised here as by the Google Books project, but at first blush, this is way cool, and a boon for research involving newspapers.

Something I'd like to read: American Widow, a new graphic-novel memoir by a woman who lost her husband in 9/11. (I'd definitely prefer to read that over some of today's news coverage.)

Speaking of books, The Jewel of Medina has found a new publisher. To be honest, it took longer than I thought it would.

Reference publishers should take note of this analysis of Wikipedia entries showing up on Google search results pages, while they dither about following JSTOR's lead and at least exposing their citations to search engines. I find myself increasingly frustrated by reference publishers. They've got the good information, but it's harder to find and use than it needs to be.

Esquire will publish its 75th anniversary issue with an e-paper cover enabling moving images. Life imitates Harry Potter.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Way to Preserve Knowledge is to Use It.

I know, not exactly a new observation. But I was thinking it again this morning, while reading a historical survey on the topic of homosexuality and civilization (see booklist to the right).

The book's a survey, of course, and a secondary source by definition, but it draws on a lot of primary sources: letters, legislation, Church documents, and especially trial records. One point that comes up over and over again is how many gaps there are in the record, because the primary documents upon which the author must draw to make his case are lost or destroyed. (In the latter case, sometimes deliberately so--and even being able to find out that much is telling.)

At my library, our emphasis is on use. Our budget and our physical facilities are simply too small for us to have the kind of large research collection of, say, the big state university up the road. When I'm weeding the collection, of course I'll keep the classics, as well as the heavily-used materials (not always the same thing, you'll note). And of course the main thing is that the information is available somewhere.

But using recorded knowledge is about more than keeping favorite materials in the library collection. It's also about keeping knowledge as part of the current understanding about the world, its circumstances, and the people in it.

Historians probably think this way all the time, but it's a rather new perspective on the preservation issue for me.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Working the Information Ground

For the past six years, I've seen in autumn by working at Bumbershoot, Seattle's music and arts festival. I manage an information booth, which resembles working a library reference desk more than a little. My standard observation is that it's just like a reference desk, only noisier and with more drunk people (some of my public library colleagues may, at this point, be saying, "Oh? How so?").

It's also busier than most reference desks, these days. An estimated 50,000 people come to Bumbershoot each day; of those, a certain number can be guaranteed to a) not have read any of the website or printed literature beforehand, b) be from outside the area and unfamiliar with the layout of Seattle Center (or be from Seattle and still not know how to find a particular building or stage; Seattle Center's grounds can be confusing to the uninitiated), c) require something that only an information booth can provide (i.e., a Mainstage pass or, this year, a Comedy pass), d) have a complaint that they wish to pass on to the festival's most visible representatives, or e) desirous to know if Elephant Ears are available from any of the food vendors this year.

I'm sure someone from the information science end of my profession has already done a study on this, but Bumbershoot always makes me think of information dissemination, customer service, and how to get a bit of that festival vibe into libraries. To wit:

  • It's a perfect example of teach someone something, then get them to teach it. Every year I wrangle a team of volunteers, anywhere from two to seven at any given time. They get, on average, 5-10 minutes of training, then learn the rest of what they need to know by example (both from yours truly and from each other). It's amazing how well it works, in spite of, or perhaps because of, the pressure cooker that is information booth work.
  • We only wish our reference desks were as busy as Bumbershoot information booths. Part of the reason the booths are so busy is that they're perfectly placed to provide point of need assistance. As we redesign our libraries into information commons, the placement of service points, including reference desks, ought to be done with this in mind.
  • You know what customer service means when you have two people asking you questions simultaneously, plus a radio blaring in your ear, and you must address all three in the next thirty seconds. In that context, the combination of receptivity and assertiveness that superior service requires gets a real workout.
  • The reference interview model exports very well. There are many studies in libraryland of patrons who come to the desk with so little notion of what they're after that they don't even know how to phrase the question; the well-known "information gap". The same thing happens at Bumbershoot. For example, there was the guy who came up to me on Monday afternoon and announced, "I'm confused." Using reference interview techniques, I determined the source of his confusion, helped him resolve it, and sent him on his merry way. My point here is that the reference interview really works, in contexts beyond the library reference desk.
The thing I always come away thinking about, though, is how the booth is no barrier to inquiry. We have tables with our programs, schedule grids, and other paraphenalia. They're just those long folding tables you find in classrooms, meeting rooms, and cafeterias everywhere. People don't hesitate to approach them, because their need outweighs any ambivalence they might have.

Recently there's been a lot of discussion in the library world about making reference desks less intimidating and more receptive. While there's some merit to this discussion (I have an ongoing issue with my own reference desk in this respect) and I'm a big fan of conscientious design of the built environment, it's not the only factor worth considering. I run across a lot of references to bringing customer service principles into the reference environment, as though this were some sort of revolutionary idea. It ought to be par for the course.

Friday, August 29, 2008

WaPo's TMI Editorial, Part 2

Yesterday's post only got us halfway through this recent editorial in the Washington Post (a news source I'm having increasing trouble taking seriously, even though it's my hometown paper), so let's continue with this little gem:

The opportunity to educate millions of citizens, so essential to significant movements of the past, has dwindled. In the early New Deal era, the Roman Catholic "radio priest" Father Charles Coughlin promoted ideas for economic reform to a weekly audience estimated at 40 million, which helped pressure President Franklin D. Roosevelt to enact Social Security, the Works Progress Administration and other programs. Today's top talk-radio host, Rush Limbaugh, reaches only about 14 million people per week.

This comes after some more extensive comment on media fragmentation. I mention the context because one might well be moved to wonder how, in an age of information ubiquity, the opportunity for education has dwindled at all. But what Horwitt is really talking about is claiming and holding people's attention. Librarians are familiar with this problem, to be sure. On the other hand, here as elsewhere Horwitt's real complaint seems to be that journalists no longer have a monopoly on sharing, interpreting, and explicating current events.

Speaking as an information professional, I have two things to say on that: 1) it's not clear that journalists ever did have such a monopoly, and 2) get over it.

And Father Charles Coughlin? Really? Horwitt's idea of a good supporting example is a notorious anti-Semite who's better known for being against the New Deal than for it? Horwitt isn't a journalist, but if this is his idea of journalism, maybe that's a good thing.

It is true that Coughlin was one of the first to harness the power of radio for political ends. He certainly wasn't the last, though. And if Limbaugh only reaches 14 million people per week, I have trouble seeing that as a bad thing. That's a qualitative judgment on my part, but in a way, that's my point, and the biggest problem I have with Horwitt's argument: he's making a case for a situation that disallows and silences heterogeneous points of view. It's hard to see how such a situation can possibly further the cause of a democratic society.

Moving on:

Without broad media coverage, the civil rights movement might never have succeeded. In 1965, front-page newspaper coverage of the bloody march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., helped push Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act, write journalists Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff in their 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "The Race Beat." Even the Fairbanks Alaska News-Miner carried the story on the front page for 10 straight days.

Fair enough. In fact, journalism today could draw a lesson or two here, and arguably has, if the State of the News Media report's content analysis of newspaper coverage in 2007 is anything to go by. Newspapers seem to have figured out that their reports aren't first on the scene anymore; where they continue to excel is in in-depth analysis.

But if Horwitt is arguing that such coverage no longer exists, that doesn't follow from his previous points. He goes on to say that in the wake of declining newspaper coverage, "other news outlets aren't picking up the slack", and for evidence cites the declining audiences of major television news--as though no other news outlets exist. Considering his earlier statements about radio, one wonders why he doesn't mention this news outlet that he clearly values. Could it be because listenership is largely holding steady, which appears to counter his argument?

He's right that TV news audiences have been on the decline for years, though. On the other hand, one wishes that he'd looked at which online news sites overall (instead of just blogs) get the most traffic. CNN and MSNBC may not have figured out how to make money with their online channels, but that doesn't mean they aren't attracting large audiences.

Anyway, while the editorial thus far is vague as to its point, weakly argued, and cites poor examples (it'd make a great example of what not to do in an information literacy workshop), the foregoing is as nothing compared to what Horwitt recommends to ameliorate this state of affairs. To wit:

Rather than call for government regulation of technology itself, perhaps the best way to limit the avalanche is to make the technologies that overproduce information more expensive and less widespread. It could be done via a progressive energy tax designed to keep energy prices at a consistently high level (while providing assistance to lower- and middle-income Americans).

At this point, what capacity for commentary I possess fails me. Horwitt is actually arguing that the best way to preserve democracy is to reduce access to information.


I found myself wanting to look behind the curtain, to see if perhaps Horwitt was making a play for Jonathan Swift-style satire. He writes social commentary disguised as country music and impersonates Bill Clinton; this suggests he has some sort of sense of humor, however unrefined.

Others elsewhere have pointed out why Horwitt's comparison to the cost of shipping (which is still, despite the skyrocketing cost of fuel, a relatively small portion of the overall cost of manufacture, delivery, and retail) isn't really germane, and his quote about computers being "the most energy-intensive of home devices" comes from a paper on the energy intensity of computer manufacturing, leads one to conclude that he's advocating reducing the information glut by taxing computer makers.

At this point, I'd like to know whether Horwitt drives a car manufactured in the past decade, uses a bank or credit union, or shops in a grocery store. For someone who claims to specialize in studying energy consumption, he doesn't appear to understand the implications of what he's advocating.

Or maybe he does. After all, he argues that "an energy tax, by making some computers, Web sites, blogs and perhaps cable TV channels too costly to maintain, could reduce the supply of information" (emphasis added). How on Earth could this be achieved, without also driving up the costs of banking, store supply management, and automotive onboard electronics, unless you're taxing energy use based on the use being made of that energy?

Horwitt is starting to sound like those people who advocate closing all the libraries and replacing them with a personal computer for every family, people who have clearly never observed neophytes in public libraries attempting to use the Internet. And as the new media landscape evolves, it's also starting to look like he's complaining about a nonexistent problem. Consider the introduction to the Project for Excellence in Journalism's State of the News Media 2008 report, particularly this quote:

Looking closely, a clear case for democratization is harder to make. Even with so many new sources, more people now consume what old media newsrooms produce, particularly from print, than before. Online, for instance, the top 10 news Web sites, drawing mostly from old brands, are more of an oligarchy, commanding a larger share of audience, than in the legacy media. The verdict on citizen media for now suggests limitations. And research shows blogs and public affairs Web sites attract a smaller audience than expected and are produced by people with even more elite backgrounds than journalists.

By Horwitt's definition, it appears that democracy is safe. By my own, I'm reminded of a song by The Who. The one that goes, "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss." Yeah. That one.

I was going to end there, but I can't resist poking a little more, at this:

A reduced supply of information technology might at least gradually cause us to gravitate toward community-centered media such as local newspapers instead of the hyper-individualistic outlets we have now.

If Horwitt cared to look, he might see that this is already happening. In my own community, a diverse area encompassing multiple neighborhoods, languages, cultures of origin, and socio-economic conditions, we have a news resource that concentrates on news within the community. It's already been credited with helping to solve several burglaries, to bring traffic to new businesses, and has been cited by citywide media on issues of interest.

It also just happens to be a blog.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Oh, WaPo, We Knew You When

I've been thinking a lot lately about information quality, and information evaluation, and other such good and crunchy things that concern librarians. (Well, all right. I took some time off from thinking about these things to get married, hence the recent radio silence here.)

The Washington Post ran a...I guess it's an editorial, judging by the tone, on information overload. Except that what it really is is a thinly-veiled screed decrying the decline of information quality in the age of information profusion, complete with a eulogy for the selfless newspapers that still provide good, hearty information to the soup of public opinion. (Or should that be stew, or something even less savory?)

My first thought is that Dusty Horwitt should read some history. Specifically, of newspapers and journalism. Particularly of the 19th century.

My second is that Horwitt's piece is pretty profuse, itself. You can throw as many statistics on the printed page, or the computer screen for that matter, as you want, but by themselves they don't add up to an argument.

In fact, let's unpack this piece a little, titled: "If Everyone's Talking, Who Will Listen?"

Let's start with this little tidbit:

In August 2007, there were about 100 million blogs. Of those that reached 100,000 people or more in a month, only about 20 focused on news or politics, according to ComScore Media Metrix, a company that measures Internet traffic.

Why is this bad? If the point is that the profusion of information channels fragments audiences--and we see throughout the piece that this is Horwitt's point--then shouldn't we be pleased at that relatively low number? And notice, Horwitt doesn't tell us how many of those 100 million blogs actually do reach 100,000 people or more in a month. We can't find out from ComScore, either, since their data is proprietary, and Horwitt's article doesn't link to any citations. (In itself, very common in newspapers, even online ones, even those reporting on scientific research studies which are themselves available online in open access publications. Tell me how the Internet doesn't help spread information, again?)

Then there's this:

According to Nielsen Online, the average visitor to newspaper Web sites stops by for just 1.5 minutes per day on average. By contrast, the average print newspaper reader spends 40 minutes with each day's edition, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

That does suggest fragmented attention spans, if not necessarily fragmented audiences. On the other hand, it really doesn't tell the whole story. Among its unanswered questions are the following: how much overlap exists between online and print newspaper readers? (Not a lot, as it turns out, but Horwitt doesn't even address the question.) Also--and this is a glaring omission--newspaper website are not the only source of news online. Even newspapers and blogs (Horwitt's targeted bugaboo) together are not the only sources of news online. Horwitt completely fails to mention television and radio channels which operate websites, not to mention news sites which aren't tied to printed newspapers at all.

Also not addressed is how many different newspaper websites that average visitor may visit in a day. I don't have data on this, but on an average day I'll visit at least two national newspaper websites, two city newspaper websites, anywhere from one to six regional newspaper websites, and a local blog operated by a couple of local media veterans who understand that beat reporting techniques do just fine in the blog format. Add it all up and I'd guess I spend more than 40 minutes a day reading the news, and that doesn't even account for the news radio I listen to on my commute.

Maybe I'm exceptional. Could be. But the State of the News Media 2008 report (which is, by the way, a product of the Project for Excellence in Journalism) suggests that if you take print and online newspaper readership numbers together, newspaper readership is growing, not shrinking. So what's the problem here?

Maybe it's this:

The overload siphons audiences and revenue from newspapers such as The Post and other outlets that can spread important information, forcing these media to shrink and to rely increasingly on advertising to stay afloat.

It's true enough that lower readership of print newspapers in particular means that print advertising is less effective. On the other hand, to suggest that newspapers have not historically had to rely on advertising to stay afloat is disingenuous at best. The real problem is that the print advertising format does not translate well to the way that people read news online: what's more, as the State of the Media report points out, newspapers have been losing classified advertising revenue for years. It's not a new problem, and it's only indirectly related to the proliferation of online information sources. Sure, Monster and Craigslist do provide information, but nobody would call their content news.

And we're only halfway through this editorial. More unpacking to come, hopefully tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Three Questions to Ask Your Search Engine

I'm in a rush to wrap up the end of my day, but wanted to pass along this article from Slate, on how to test and compare search engines. More later, perhaps.

Jamie LaRue asks an excellent question.

We already think that Jamie LaRue is awesome for the letter he wrote in response to a patron complaint about the book Uncle Bobby's Wedding. But I have to say that I like the excellent question he poses in his column for the Douglas County News-Press even more. To wit: if we really should run a public service (i.e., a library) like a business, then shouldn't successful libraries attract more investment?

As anyone who pays attention to public funding knows, it typically doesn't work that way. When times are lean, it's hard to get funding because there isn't any. When times are flush, it's hard to get funding because, hey, things are clearly going great at current levels, so why does the library need more? (I've never met an overfunded library. Just sayin'.)

But, if you're an investor (and I am), you know that one common approach to long-term investing is: when an investment demonstrates value (which may or may not be correlated by price), you add money to it.

The thing is, though, "run your public service like a business" is really a euphemism for "do what you're doing with less money", under the tacit assumption that public service providers, even the good ones, must be bloated examples of waste. Such do exist, of course, but in my personal experience the problem most public service providers have is trying to do an increasing amount with less and less. They can't do it all and wind up looking ineffectual.

How about giving Douglas County Libraries, boasting numbers any business would be thrilled to have, more money, and see what happens. Particularly now, when a lean economy has sent library usage soaring nationwide?

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Just in Time Requires Just in Case

I forget where I read the foregoing--some other library blog, perhaps--but I've been thinking about it a lot this morning, because I think it's true.

In my pre-library life, I worked for This was in the company's very early days: a single warehouse in Seattle's SoDo district, a customer service department that sometimes went to help pack book orders (and only book orders, in those days) when things were slow, Jeff Bezos's famous laugh echoing down the stairs from his crow's nest of an office. At the time, people didn't know what to make of a company that didn't even have a storefront, let alone any stock.

And here's how they did it: they relied extensively on distributors, especially Ingram, which has an enormous warehouse along I-5 in central Oregon, to deliver books every morning based on orders that had been placed over the previous few days. In other words, anything that was in's warehouse was there because there was already an order for it. This was quite a change from traditional bookselling, and not just because orders were only placed online (people were surprised that there was no print catalog, either); brick-and-mortar retailers place orders based on what they think will sell, not what has actually sold.

So that's cool. But in order for it to work, there needed to be a distribution network that could deliver books to's warehouse quickly, so that from the customer's perspective,'s service was in turn rapid and efficient.

What does this mean for libraries?

There's been a lot of discussion in recent years about resource sharing, moving beyond the basic ILL scheme to consortial agreements, alliance arrangements to speed up interlibrary lending, and so on. As library resources (particularly journals) get more and more expensive, it makes more and more sense to not buy something if the library down the road, with which you have an arrangement, has bought it.

But, that does require that other library to own, or have access to, that resource. Without that, you can't do your just-in-time delivery.

My library's ILL service is the fastest I've ever encountered. I've placed an article request in the morning and received it by the afternoon. Book delivery is necessarily slower but I still typically get my requests inside of a week. Our own collection is relatively small and curriculum-oriented, which means that, like most other faculty, when I'm doing my own research I make extensive use of ILL.

But in order for it to be as fast as it is, we need the access that we have: to an extensive regional network of academic and public libraries which includes a major Research I university with an award-winning library system, as well as one of the most highly regarded public library systems in the country.

It seems to me, then, that what just-in-time really does is push the just-in-case further back along the supply chain. There are advantages to this from the supplier perspective; publishers have just as much trouble figuring out how many books to print as booksellers have figuring out how many books to buy. And as long as there are libraries with a mandate to preserve as well as to provide access, as that Research I up the road has, then libraries like mine, where access is the main guiding principle, can continue to provide quality service even as the resources get more and more expensive.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

LCSH of the day

"Sun-tzu, 6th cent. B.C.--Views on management"

It's a perfectly valid subject heading, of course, and describes the subject of the book under which I found it about as well as one could expect.

Still, there are times when I think that folksonomy isn't such a bad alternative.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Midsummer Project Update

This blog's been quiet for awhile, for quite a few reasons.

You see, one of the downsides of having a largely self-directed workday, at least if you're me, is that you tend to take on too many projects. In my case, whether I take on a project has to do with whether a) I'm interested in it, b) I can see how it furthers the library's mission, c) I can see how it furthers the division's mission, d) I can see how it furthers the university's mission, and d) whether it's really within the scope of my position. That last one can be tricky, since I have tenure and promotion requirements to meet as well as professional ones. These do overlap most of the time, but it still means two sets of requirements to consider.

Anyway, here's what I'm working on now:
  • News portal project, complete with a meeting this morning with one of the digital media team to get this project moving to the next stage.
  • A possible article on, broadly speaking, the subject of cognitive authority. I don't think the article will be written this summer, but I've done a fair bit of reading and am starting to develop one or two possible lines of argument.
  • Crash course in copyright law as it applies to the library, which is mostly telling me what I already knew: copyright law is incredibly complicated and I should probably call my brother (who is an attorney specializing in intellectual property) more often. Take a look at this article by Peter Hirtle if you don't believe me.
  • A presentation for the faculty fall conference, on the changing library research landscape. the usual reference, collection development, instruction, and other duties as assigned.

How's your summer going?

Thursday, July 10, 2008

A media-literacy tool for the digital age

In the past week, two of my friends have called my attention to the PhotoShop Disasters blog.

We've all seen them: pictures that are funny, or just plain peculiar, and obviously--or sometimes not so obviously--improbable. Is it real life, or is it PhotoShop? Sometimes the illusion is so well done that it's difficult to tell.

Sometimes the results are funny. Sometimes, well, not so much.

Doctoring photos is nothing new; we can point to plenty of examples similar to the above in media from around the world, the U.S. included. PhotoShop, though, makes photo doctoring easier to do--though if the person doing the work isn't particularly accomplished at it, it can also be easier to spot.

When does such modification improve or clarify, and when does it deceive?

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

What's a gate count worth?

Today's Inside Higher Ed reports on an NCES report on academic libraries, specifically the news that library gate counts are holding steady.

The immediate question that springs to mind is one that a couple of commenters on this item have already asked: with so much information online, including library holdings, are gate counts still relevant?

I'd argue that they are--as part of a composite picture that should also include usage statistics for online resources, tallies of online reference transactions as well as those at the desk, and library instruction wherever it takes place. If the use of library space is changing, which it undoubtedly is, it's also worth knowing whether that change is successful.

The library on my campus is morphing into a multi-use learning space. It's the primary computer center on campus, a preferred study and group work space for many students, and a home for related services, such as tutoring and digital media. If we were offering all of that and people weren't coming in, that would be important, if disappointing, to know. So gate counts do still matter--because while the library is online, it's also (still) a building, and a building that people use.

Especially during finals, according to our gate counts.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The most important part of proper citation: read the article

If you're an academic librarian, chances are you teach--IL courses, research workshops, whatever. And chances are, somewhere in your lesson plan, there's some content on proper citation: not just how (with increasing options in citation export and management, many of which are free or come bundled with a particular database package, this is arguably becoming less important), but when. I've worked with students who understand the context of proper citation perfectly well, and students who just didn't get it, and every level of awareness and good practice in between.

As it turns out, misinterpreting, misrepresenting, or even failing to read cited research isn't a phenomenon restricted to students. Leaving aside for the moment whether the authors chiefly concerned here are being misinterpreted, or just don't like the way their work is being used, I have to say that anecdotally speaking, incorrect or misprinted citations are one of the things that keeps me in business. I recall a particularly egregious example when I was still in library school: an engineering paper someone brought to me for help tracking down the citations in its reference list. Several of the citations on the list were incorrect in their details; date of publication, page numbering, volume numbering, and so forth. I draw no conclusions as to whether the paper's author was being misleading, or just sloppy, but considering the importance of citation chaining to researchers--I'd argue that it's at least as important as searching a bibliographic database, especially when working across disciplinary lines--it's inexcusable either way.

More recently, a paper I wrote passed peer review with recommendations for revision. One of the recommendations was that I incorporate more work by other researchers into my own paper, both to provide context for the subject under discussion and to show my awareness of recent scholarship. I did, reading, digesting, and incorporating at least half a dozen articles and book chapters as appropriate. I can't claim that my understanding of these scholars' work was 100% correct--who could? Though of course I did my best. I can claim, however, that I read everything cited in my paper from beginning to end, and more than once at that.

If professors are going to demand proper citation practice from their students--and they should--it behooves them to practice the same themselves. It's just good scholarship--and if that weren't enough, the increased transparency bestowed by the Internet makes doing otherwise less and less feasible as time goes on.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Conference Venue as Place

I'd complain about ALA being held in Anaheim this year, but the Annoyed Librarian already did it--and quite well, I have to say. I wonder if we found the same local Mexican restaurant; it was in a sort of strip mall halfway between the budget hotels and the conference center, and was by far the cheapest and the best food I had the entire weekend. I think I wound up eating there three times, all three of which taken together were STILL cheaper than one dinner in Downtown Disney.

I have to agree with AL on the general pedestrian-unfriendliness of Anaheim, especially since I had recently returned from Greece, where the drivers are far more aggressive but there are entire neighborhoods off-limits to them and the city blocks are reasonably short, dating as they do from an era long before the car. This was the first ALA where I made extensive use of the shuttle-bus system; previously, I've always walked or relied on public transit.

I don't think AL went to Disneyland itself, where not only are there no decent bars, but as far as I can tell, there are no bars at all. (On the other hand, the Indiana Jones ride is fun. That by itself, however, is not sufficient reason to go to Disneyland.)

On the other hand, the conference center itself is one of the better ones I've been to; everything was much easier to find than at conferences past (though I've only been going to ALA for a few years at this point). I wish now that I had checked out public transportation options more thoroughly before I went, so that I could have explored some of the areas farther away from Disney.

Some notes on actual conference content will come later.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Signs of the Times

Back from ALA and blogging again...

This is getting to be a common story around these parts, and probably where you live too: demand outstripping supply at food banks. A few weeks ago I saw a similar story on the West Seattle Blog, which is my main source for neighborhood news. There are two food banks near me, one for West Seattle and one for White Center, the unincorporated area to the south of my neighborhood. Both are feeling the pinch. Rising food prices and rising fuel prices together are making life difficult at the margins, and as those prices continue to go up, those margins will include more and more people.

Meanwhile, the auto industry's attempt to gut California's emissions standards is dead. I can't say that I'm surprised or sorry. Like many of you, I was just in Anaheim, and even with the toughest emissions standards in the country the air quality was poor. (Not as bad as Athens, where I was a few weeks ago, but definitely eye-watering.)

In reading about the 8 different proposals for replacing the viaduct that runs above the downtown Seattle waterfront, I can't help but think of Dan Ariely's talk at the ACRL's president's program. Ariely is the author of Predictably Irrational, a book I added to the to-read pile after hearing part of his presentation. I had to leave before he was done, but garnered implications for everything from how I teach information literacy to alterations to my library's website.

Anyway, one of Ariely's points is that too many options tend to stymie people and decrease the possibility that they'll make the best choice. None of the P-I's readers appear to like any of the options, but I'm moved to wonder whether that's because none of them are viable, or because there are too many from which to choose.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Not dead, just on vacation

I tell you, I had reams of brilliance lined up to put on paper (well, on screen), and then I went on vacation for two weeks. Honestly, if you had to choose between Greece and blogging, what would you pick? Yeah, I thought so.

Anyway! I returned to the Northwest to the news that Iowa was underwater, you shouldn't eat tomatoes, and gas had well over topped $4 a gallon. That latter bit is the focus of a number of articles in this week's Sightline Dailies, a newsletter from a think tank in these parts.

Anyone might have predicted some of these outcomes from rising fuel prices: people want to live closer to where they work (including yours truly, though since I drive a Prius the Seattle to Tacoma commute is still more expensive in terms of time than of money), and they're taking out their grief about gas prices on convenient targets (for those of you outside the Northwest: in Oregon, by law a gas station attendant must pump your gas--you'd think this would make things more expensive, but on my last trip through Oregon gas was still cheaper there than in Washington or California). At long last, Americans are driving less.

Having just returned from a city with a well-functioning transit system (Athens, despite its many and storied inefficiencies, has a lovely subway that will take you to the nearest major port AND to the airport, and our troubles with its bus system were purely our own), I have to wonder if Seattle will ever be able to say the same.

In the meantime, I'm just glad that when the time came to buy a new car, I got a hybrid. I'll be even happier when I'm living walking distance from work again, as I was during the first several years of my professional life.

That's what really interests me about this: that the cold hard reality of money, not the harder to define but arguably more important quality of life issues inherent in spending a good chunk of the day in our cars, is what is making people rethink where we work, how we get around, and how we live.

Just don't abuse the pump jockeys. It's not their fault. (I'm not convinced it's the Bush administration's, either, but that's another post.)

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Why Be a Scholar?

Lately I've taken to calling myself an accidental scholar. Scholarship wasn't ever something I really planned on, but the more of it I read in library school, the more I started to have my own ideas. Library science is often characterized as not particularly intellectually rigorous, and there's quite a bit of truth to that statement. I go back and forth on whether we really need to be, to be honest. A body of scholarly work is a nice thing, but do we need it to be good librarians?

In academia, at any rate, there's at least one reason to do it beyond mere interest, or membership in a scholarly community, or the requirements of faculty status.

That reason is simply this: we get a much better picture of our constituents' research experiences with our library.

Case in point. I'm currently revising an article for a scholarly publication. As part of the process, I've been hunting down some additional sources to address a few key points, and making extensive use of my own library's interlibrary loan service, since we don't own most of the materials that I'm finding. Our collection primarily supports the curriculum and student research, which means that we don't offer a whole lot in the particular area I'm working in (a thin intersection of information science and science fiction), and I'm having to supplement my searches in library databases with free online indexes and a lot of citation crawling.

One good way to maintain and improve services is to get as good an idea as you can of what your patron base does, and what they need to do it. There are plenty of ways to find this out, including asking them, but another really good way is to try using your library the way your patrons are using it. If you have scholars among the users of your library, try being a scholar yourself. (You can try being a student, too; take a class, and see how well the library serves the need of that class.) You might be surprised at what you learn.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Going Local

I had my first meeting with the ACRL-NW board this morning--I'm a new Member-at-Large--and I have to say, I'm pretty excited. Not only do I know a lot of the board members already (including a friend from my graduate program and one of my mentors from the UW Engineering Library, where I worked in grad school), but even though we were videoing in from four locations (it was my first videoconference!), it felt like we were all in the same room. This group has a really pleasant synergy and I'm looking forward to working with them.

Running for the regional chapter board was a deliberate attempt to get more local with my professional service, as is my volunteering with InfoCamp 2008 this fall. I'm wrapping up a stint on a national ACRL committee, and while it's been interesting work and I've learned a lot about how the organization does its business, when the call for nominations to ACRL-NW went out I realized that I wanted to concentrate my efforts more locally. Here's why:

I like working with people in person. This might seem odd to say, since my first board meeting was a videoconference, but the difficulty with national committees is that you see each other twice a year--and maybe not that often, if people don't show up. Then, depending on how active your committee is, you might not do anything between conferences, not even via e-mail.

I like contributing where I live and work. This informs my community volunteer work as well; I look for opportunities in my own neighborhood, where I can get to know the people and how the community functions. I don't think I'll go for national service again until I'm established enough in the profession to feel like the national organization is my community.

Environmental conscientiousness. It's another argument for allowing virtual committee participation: air travel is one of the most polluting forms of transportation out there. ALA conferences regularly attract 10,000 to 20,000 attendees. I'm not going to drop out of participating in ALA, nor of going to ALA conferences entirely, but required attendance at two conferences a year because of a committee appointment was starting to bother me.

Getting to know local professional colleagues--and future colleagues. This is a really active area for librarianship. We have a library school, dozens of universities, several public library systems, and an active information architecture/knowledge management community. With such a wealth of professional knowledge and expertise nearby, it's less necessary for me to go farther afield.

Between this, South Sound Librarians, and InfoCamp, I've got plenty to keep me busy on the local scene for awhile. And it feels like what I do will have a bigger impact. One might well accuse me of big fish, small pond syndrome, but small ponds are where you find some of the richest ecosystems. What's in your professional backyard?

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Five Reasons to Keep the Reference Desk

Reference sure is getting a lot of airtime these days. It was a topic of major discussion at Midwinter in Seattle, close to a year and a half ago; a profluence of reference service models continues to expand, so quickly that our patrons may at last be forgiven for not knowing where or how to find the reference librarian. And this summer, in Denver, we have the Reference Renaissance conference.

At my library, I sit shifts at the reference desk, take phone calls, do virtual reference via chat and follow-up e-mail, and e-mail back and forth with students. Occasionally a student even finds his or her way into my office to ask me a question in person. I've also taken a laptop to other locations on campus and done in-person reference there, a model that I think requires a ton more promotion than I've been able to give it thus far to really be successful.

The traditional reference desk is getting rather lost in all of this--either buried beneath a flurry of new service models, or disappearing entirely as libraries go to on-call, roaming, by appointment, or other options. In the midst of all of this, I'm reminded of this story about an experience in an Apple store. I'll quote the salient point here:

I'm sure that when the differently-thinking store designers at Apple started blowing each others' minds with their crazy new "store with no cashiers" idea it seemed like a very good idea. If you make every employee a cashier and every location a register, anyone can buy anything anywhere at any time. There's no lines at the cashier and more room to display products - big win all around. Unfortunately the scheduling problem was failing on the two most important counts: to ensure fairness and minimize resource starvation. Customers with a quick purchase aren't just stuck into the same queue as customers with a half hour of questions - they're competing with those customers to locate disguised queues (black-shirted geek: customer or employee?) and pick the right one.

What kind of crazy, outside-the-box solution would work even better here? Let me walk you through my reasoning. Since sales interactions are faster than support you'd probably want to leave one employee dedicated to sales all the time. And since as Apple's own user interface guidelines say, spatial user interfaces work best when they're predictable you'd probably want that employee to stand in a predictable location. Some specific place in the store. Maybe near a table that customers can place their purchases on while the transaction takes place. And since this special employee was performing a special purpose you'd probably want them to be visually distinctive. Maybe place something iconic on the table. Something that denotes "purchase transaction" in our cultural zeitgeist. Something like, oh I don't know, A CASH REGISTER.

The point here about a clearly designated service point is something that librarians ought to take into account as we decide how to provide reference service now and in the future. And, as old-fashioned and traditional as a DESK where one can find LIBRARIANS (to borrow tongodeon's style of emphasis) might be, here are five reasons to keep it:

  1. Visibility: a frequent complaint in this profession is that our patrons don't know who we are or what we do. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this isn't a new problem, and there's probably data somewhere to back it up. A downside of almost every reference service model I've heard tell of (roaming the library being a notable exception) is that librarians disappear: we're on the other end of a chat connection or sequestered in our offices. Making people go to additional effort to find us and find out about us does not strike me as a particularly good idea.
  2. Awareness of what's going on in the library: if you've never read John Seely Brown and Paul Deguid's The Social Life of Information, get your hands on it right now and at least skim the introduction. For all our wikis (which replaced intranets which replaced internal listservs which replaced bulletin boards), the primary way that everything from office gossip to important developments such as massive printer failures and workarounds when your link resolver fails to function as advertised is through people talking with each other. I get the most important information for my reference shift by talking to whoever I'm taking over from and the tech support staff who share our desk. Would that stuff still get passed in isolation? Maybe. If your communication systems are really good and you have a successful culture of using them. Or, you could use the system and culture you've already got.
  3. Step into my office: in my other life, I have occasion to buy boxing equipment. One of the suppliers I buy from sells a t-shirt with an image of a boxing ring and the caption, "Step into my office." The point being, the boxing coach's office isn't where he or she works. The ring is. Librarians don't just work in our offices, or online. We work in libraries, and libraries are still places, even though their collections and services are increasingly uncoupled from those places. One advantage a reference desk has over other models is that, if you put it in the right place, the entire library becomes your office. Which is as it should be.
  4. The best service is still in person. My first job out of college was answering customer service e-mails for At that time, people were still sort of boggled at the idea of a store that had no physical storefront. "Are you sure there isn't somewhere we can come pick up orders?" they'd ask. Yes, we were. And most of the time, that was okay. Especially since Amazon's principal customers at the time were Web-savvy sorts who didn't need much help navigating the site. Most of the questions were about stock levels and credit card security. Then, one day, I got this question: "Hi. We just got our first computer and went online for the first time, and the only website address we knew was yours. How does this work?" It was a great conversation, actually, and when we hung up half an hour later those customers had successfully placed their first order and, if I had anything to do with it, came back to make many more purchases over the years. But oh, what I would've given to be able to show them how to do it in person. You can talk co-browse and webcam and videoconference all you want, and they often work well and sometimes they're your only option (when you're working primarily with distance learners, for example), but sometimes you, and your patron, just have to get together.
  5. Identifiable service point. Once again, this gets back to the excerpt posted above. This is related to, but distinct from, the point about visibility. Visibility increases people's awareness of you. An identifiable service point tells them where to go. Reference interviews are more analogous to support than sales, but the rest of the parable holds: if you want people to be able to find your reference service, it should be in a predictable location. Some specific place in the library, perhaps. Someplace visually distinctive. With something that denotes "reference" in our cultural zeitgeist.
But what denotes reference, particularly since a distressing number of people don't seem to know what reference is, while anyone old enough to have an allowance can identify a cash register?


Maybe that's the problem.

Open Access in the Humanities

We're used to thinking of open access as primarily an STM phenomenon: science, technology, and medicine. It makes sense, since researchers in this area seem to be more likely to embrace new channels of information dissemination, and new research in these fields can be so expensive to access; one of the principles behind the open access movement is to make published scholarship accessible to researchers who lack the financial resources to gain access to expensive scholarly publications.

The humanities, in contrast, are seen as still relying primarily on print, which in general I've found to be the case (JSTOR being a notable exception for many faculty).

Today, though, Inside Higher Ed reports on Open Humanities Press, a large new hat in the open access ring and notable precisely because it is dedicated to humanities scholarship, not STM. Even I've heard of some of the names on the advisory board, and with the exception of music, I don't spend much time with humanities literature.

There's been much discussion in librarianship as to if and when the humanities would jump on the e-scholarship and open access bandwagons (not the same things, not by a long shot, but they're in the same parade). This looks like it could be a significant step in that direction.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Neat Stuff from the Librarians' Internet Index

As I often tell my students, nobody can index the entire Internet--at least, not in the way that, say, a disciplinary index or database is organized. It's too big, too diverse, and too weird. Aboutness is much easier to determine from within a subject or disciplinary context, and even there it's problematic, as Patrick Wilson told us in Two Kinds of Power (which I recently re-read).

But that doesn't mean that there aren't useful portals out there for purposes of browse and discovery, and the Librarians' Internet Index is one such. You can even get their New This Week sent to your e-mail or RSS feed. That's how I discovered the following:

Friday, May 2, 2008

Wikipedia is the Kill Your Television of the 00s?

Clay Shirky's post on the death of the sitcom reminds me of a piece of advice I encountered in Stephen King's On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. To wit:

I am, when you stop to think of it, a member of a fairly select group: the final handful of American novelists who learned to read and write before they learned to eat a daily helping of video bullshit. This might not be important. On the other hand, if you're just starting out as a writer, you could do worse than strip your television's electric plug-wire, wrap a spike around it, and then stick it back into the wall. See what blows, and how far.

Just an idea.

King is basically saying "kill your television," but just because something's been said before doesn't necessarily mean that it doesn't need to be said again. Lately I've been in favor of killing the Internet as well, but Shirky points out an important difference between that and the TV: on the Internet, people can make their own contributions.

Okay, yeah, sure, the vast majority of those contributions are going to be nothing much; Sturgeon's Law had not, last I heard, been revoked, and an awful lot of Wikipedia's content is about TV, suggesting that if we all did as King suggested Wikipedia itself would be a lot poorer content-wise. On the other hand, a lot of them are going to be worthwhile, and some of them are going to be downright brilliant.

A friend of mine recently started a blog for photographers. Amateur photographers, specifically. Like herself. The point being, that one needn't be paid for something to be good at it (though it is one of the great satisfactions in life to be paid for something that you're not only good at, but that you would do whether someone was paying you for it or not. One of her entries reminded me of something that, as a lifelong French speaker, I ought to have remembered: the origin of "amateur" is "lover of".

Hear that, Andrew Keen? It's not enough that Cult of the Amateur gets a couple of pretty important facts wrong; it might well be that it's also mistaken in its conclusions.

Friday Food for Thought

From Inside Higher Ed:

The Next Market Bubble: Student Loans?

is it caturday yet?

I read ScienceBlogs to get the thoughts of people who do and/or think about science. Most popular science reporting is absolutely terrible, so ScienceBlogs are a breath of fresh air.

However, there are other benefits as well, including the occasional cute animals pic. And who doesn't like a cute animals pic, especially at 9:30 on a Friday morning?

So, here! Kittens!

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Merging Subject Guides into Subject Pages

If yours is like a lot of academic libraries, somewhere in it there's a shelf, or a twirly rack, or a set of letterboxes, in which you keep your subject-based research guides.

Those guides might have lists of databases or citation indexes, or reference books (complete with call numbers and/or URLS), or Boolean search tips. Chances are you haven't updated them in awhile. There are always so many other things to do. And if you're me, when you make a research guide these days, you tailor it to a particular class, even a particular assignment.

Research guides make a lot of sense. They probably made more when most library research tools were paper-based. But these days, that's no longer the case for most of us.

At Online Northwest this year, I was impressed by the Course Assignment Guides developed by the OSU Libraries. These are the next step beyond class- or assignment-specific guides such as we use at my library: research tools fully integrated with help in using them, dynamically generated according to the librarian's specifications.

So why not organize subject resources this way? So many subject pages (including ours, I admit) are just lists of resources with hyperlinks. There's not much there to guide students. Sure, if students comes to the reference desk or to a class, we can teach them to use these things (and they should do that anyway), but for those who don't, a few tips, pointers, and ways to get help can go a long way.

Some people will still want a printed handout or research guide, but if you're using a content management system to generate your website, or even just know a bit of CSS, you can create an integrated guide/subject page that has a print-friendly exemplar for whoever wants one.

We're looking at revamping subject guides at my library; most of ours are out of date and refer to resources we no longer have or have access to. Instead of just generating a new handout, I'm advocating taking this integrated approach.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Handy (and Short) Explanation of NIH Open Access Mandate

In the latest issue of Open Medicine, Peter Suber gives a rundown of the NIH's new open access mandate. I could not get the table included in the article to appear, but Coturnix's post on ScienceBlogs provides an image: a handy list of misconceptions about the mandate, countered by the actual facts. Take a look.

More on the Georgia State lawsuit

...from today's Inside Higher Ed.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Latest Battle in the Copyright Wars: Digital Course Packs

From today's New York Times, "Publishers Sue Georgia State on Digital Reading Matter":

In a complaint filed Tuesday in United States District Court in Atlanta, the publishers — Cambridge University Press, Oxford University Press and Sage Publications — sued four university officials, asserting “systematic, widespread and unauthorized copying and distribution of a vast amount of copyrighted works” by Georgia State, which the university distributes through its Web site.

Varying models exist for securing copyright clearance for coursepacks, electronic reserves, and other materials that inhabit the vaguely defined territory between the course textbook and the library collection. Some institutions leave it up to individual faculty, some have a copyright clearance center, some do it through the library. What does seem fairly clear, though, is that as the situation surrounding digital materials and DRM evolves, we'll see more cases like this one.

Professor Crawford's point about disaggregation is interesting, since at least one e-book provider out there--Safari--allows you to do exactly that. Of course, Safari includes more than one publisher, providing (depending on your subscription) comprehensive coverage of its particular subject area. Disaggregation within a single publisher's list might be of limited utility.

As anyone who deals with issues of fair use knows, it's a murky subject, and a common understanding of what it means in an educational context--that it's okay as long as the material is being used for an educational purpose--isn't exactly how it always works out in practice. Charging rights fees for materials used in course packs could well have the effect of determining course pack content; if something is out of copyright, or cheap, or easy to secure the rights to, it'll be more likely to be used, even if it's not necessarily what the professor would prefer.

A copy of the suit (in PDF) is available from the Association of American Publishers. The Association of American University Presses has also posted a copy on their website, along with a press release supporting the complaint. Plaintiffs are Cambridge University Press, Oxford University Press, and SAGE Publications.

The relevance to libraries here should be obvious, regardless of whether a particular university's library plays any role in securing copyright clearance for course packs or reserves. The suit claims that Georgia State exceeded fair use in its provision of copyrighted material (with a side comment that at one point, materials meant for use within individual courses were accessible to the general public, not just to students in those courses), and mentions specifically that making the material available digitally, rather than through printed course packs available through a copy shop (which has presumably paid the requisite licensing fees), has deprived these publishers of revenue.

It also sounds like the suit is specifically regarding materials that have been digitized, as opposed to materials that were owned in digital format in the first place and then made available through a hyperlink to a research database or e-book. These are, presumably, materials that previously would have been made available in printed course packs by either the university bookstore, or by a copy shop, which would have paid the requisite licensing fees. So the claim here is that publishers are losing revenue because the e-reserves setup at Georgia State does not ensure that they receive licensing fees.

As of this writing, Georgia State has not responded.

This is one to watch.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Resource Update

Here at PLU, biochemistry students make use of the RCSB Protein Data Bank for their research projects. It is "the single worldwide depository of information about the three-dimensional structures of large biological molecules, including proteins and nucleic acids." Students select molecules from the data bank to research, reporting on their structure and function.

Today, ScienceDaily reports that the PDB has added its 50,000th structure. (It began in 1971, with seven structures. What a difference 36 years makes!) And the nice thing, from a library resource as well as research perspective, is that all of this data is available to whoever wants to use it, free of charge.

Of course, someone has to pay for its upkeep, and actively maintain it, for it to remain a useful resource (currently, that's the job of the Research Collaboratory for Structural Bioinformatics). The Web is full of such resources, from large, government-funded databases to pet projects put together and supported by just a few people.

As I told a class of freshman writing students last week, you've got to look in more than one place to get your information: library research databases, but the open Web as well. The PDB is an example of how high-quality, up to date, useful information can be free--to its users, at any rate.