Daily Archives: January 10, 2008

ts;db

I’ve noticed that several of my favorite writers have resolved to post more frequently in 2008. Dear favorite writers: at the risk of sounding ungrateful, would you be terribly offended if I begged you not to follow through on this resolution? The odds are, I like your writing because:

  • You publish relatively infrequently. I think you’re great, which is why I read your writing, but I don’t want to know everything that’s on your mind. Generally, somewhere between once a week to once a month is fine by me.
  • Your pieces tend to take me at least five minutes to read, though ideally you’ll allow me the privilege of spending 15-50 minutes on ideas that have taken you several hours to put into words.
  • You publish almost nothing that’s off-topic, in particular almost nothing that’s both off-topic and solely about you. Once or twice a year, at most, going off-topic or writing about yourself is actually endearing. And it can be useful in our post-postmodern world if you acknowledge personal reasons for your opinions. But I’m reading your writing in order to learn about the topic of your blog. Abandon that topic too often and I’ll mostly likely unsubscribe from your feed.

The above criteria were the “ah ha” I got from Steve Yegge’s “Blogging Theory 201: Size Does Matter,” in which he suggests that his website, Stevey’s Blog Rants, is popular not in spite of the fact that he posts long pieces more or less monthly, but because he does.

Let’s start with the obvious. People expect blogs to be short – at least, shorter than mine. They expect that because it’s pretty much how everyone does it. Short entries, and frequent. Here’s my cat today. Doesn’t he look sooo different from yesterday? No wonder so many people hate bloggers.

When I write my long blogs, I’m bucking established social convention, so it’s natural that some people will whine that they’re too long.

Well, how far off cultural expectations am I? Doing a quick print preview in my browser shows that my last entry, formatted at about 14 words per line (typical for a printed book) weighs in at about ten pages. So it’s roughly essay-sized. I’m not talking about those toy five-paragraph essays they made you write in high school. I’m talking about real-life essays by real-life essayists. Real essays can range from three pages to 30 or more, but ten pages is not an unusual length.

If I were attempting to publish these entries as books, publishers would laugh at me. They’re way too short to be books. Sure, I could bundle them, but that’s beside the point. The fact is, two different real-world audiences have entirely incompatible views on what the proper length for my writing should be.

Yegge’s interpretation of online publishing convention is how the notion of length in particular (and essays in general) relates to academic librarians. Steven Bell has written recently on ACRLog and (with David Murray) in College & Research Library News about faculty members who publish online and the importance of our reading their work. As a new academic librarian, this is the sort of idea that is both challenging (Where will I find the time?) and welcome (Cool! More great stuff to read!). He’s also written recently about the idea of tenure for librarians, which, naturally, leads back to what tenure is really all about, on what basis it should be awarded, and whether anyone should have it. Of course, this is interesting on a theoretical level for librarians who have cleared the tenure hurdle or amassed a body of work that would allow them to do so relatively easily if they end up working at an institution where librarians have faculty standing. For those of us new to the profession, discussions about tenure elicit somewhat more practical concerns.

My reading of these discussions is that it comes down to publishing: are we giving back to the profession, and to society, by publishing valuable new ideas and discoveries? Does the protection afforded by tenure foster more valuable writing? For some, peer review is the starting point in determining value, especially for tenure committees, which are often made up of faculty from many departments. Reading standard tenure candidate portfolios is arduous enough; expecting committee members to read the contents of a web-based archive could be interpreted as asking for trouble. After all, how much value could there be in something that was posted online, for free, without the benefit of a formal review process? It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to to notice the difference between the sort of entires you’re likely to find in someone’s LiveJournal and the investigations published in Nature.

Of course, if all non-peer-reviewed online writing were the academic equivalent of I Can Has Cheezburger or Alan Sokal’s parody, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” then Steven’s posts probably would not have elicited the responses that they did. But we know better.

WordPress, MoveableType, and other software packages, by making it easy for people to publish their ideas, have helped create an Internet awash with mundane posts. But widespread use of these software packages by highly esteemed writers has also helped create not only an expectation that the best writers will make their ideas available online, but also an expectation that, with a little legwork, we’ll be able to find their work online for free.

That last part—the notion that non-digital or firewalled writing doesn’t exist—is beyond the scope of this piece. By way of extricating myself from that briar patch, I’ll invite you to imagine a world in which we could download podcasts of the “A Room of One’s Own” lectures Virginia Woolf gave at Cambridge in 1928, or subscribe to feeds of Dorothy Parker’s “Constant Reader” articles or Pauline Kael’s essays on cinema. Once you’re finished imagining that, I suggest that you subscribe to book reviews by Salon’s Laura Miller, Judith Martin’s Miss Manners column, and to join me in counting the minutes until someone offers an Alice Munro feed. Certainly, given the present state of copyright and OCR technology, we may be farther from a fully Googleable world than some of our constituents would like to believe. But we’re also a lot closer than some of our colleagues seem willing to acknowledge (e.g. Laura Miller, Judith Martin, and hundreds or thousands of other brilliant writers making some of all of their best work available not only for free, but via feeds). I think it would be great if we as academic librarians committed to doing our part to bringing a freer, more searchable online world closer and to making it better. One way to do it would be to sacrifice quantity in order to increase quality, at least in the work we’re sharing with peers.

Here’s the first point I’m trying to make: good, thoughtful prose is valuable no matter where or how it’s published. Grigor Perelman posted his groundbreaking work on the Poincaré Conjecture on the free, web-based arXiv.org in November 2002, March 2003, and July 2003, a repository that at the time was considerably easier to post to than ACRLog is now. Even though it has since introduced an endorsement system, arXiv.org remains close to barrier free—and full of indisputably valuable work. Committee members making tenure decisions, just like scientists making arXiv.org endorsements or mathematicians awarding the Fields Medal, are cheating everyone when they take shortcuts in deciding whether someone’s work has value. Peer review plays an important role in numerous situations, but there are times it is neither necessary, as with Perelman, nor sufficient, as with Sokal’s “Transgressing the Boundaries.” At the same time, you may be cheating yourself and your readers if you reserve your best work for peer-reviewed, subscription-only journals. Eventually, people will be rewarded for publishing good work online, and not just with popularity badges.

Here’s the second point I’m trying to make: good, thoughtful prose generally takes more than a few minutes a day to write and more than a couple of hundred words to express. I don’t think it’s a bad thing when people dismiss longer pieces with tl;dr (too long, didn’t read). Certainly, when we’re writing for undergraduates or Pierre Bayard, we need to take that wholly defensible sensibility into account. But if you’re writing for me, and for many other academic librarians, please understand that we’re likely to dismiss light, quick, frequent posts with ts;db: “Too short, didn’t bother.”