Monthly Archives: February 2008

Academic Librarianship’s Future Strengths?

In my first job after college, as a manager at a small nonprofit, I was taught to use the euphemism “future strengths.” For instance, when I conducted performance reviews, my colleagues would often mention punctuality as one of their future strengths. We also used dozens of other terms that ate at my newly minted English-major heart. And yet they seemed to work. People who went out of their way to rationalize tardiness when they thought it was being met with disappointment seemed eager—albeit in a jaded, we-both-know-what-this-means way—to claim punctuality as a future strength.

That’s one danger in talking about disappointment: people sometimes take it the wrong way, as attack rather than encouragement. A second danger is that people might think you’re down on them or the topic at hand—that when I talk about the areas of academic librarianship I wish were different, people will think I’m down on libraries or librarians, which couldn’t be further from the truth. I think we’re great, and I think we have the motivation and the resources to address every item on the following list, provided enough of us agree that they should be addressed.

My greatest concern in listing future strengths is that it’s often seen as presumptuous. Please understand that I don’t want academic librarianship to conform to my grand vision (I don’t have one) and I don’t believe the people responsible for the status quo made mistakes (I’m sure they made rational decisions based on what they knew at the time). I’m publishing my list of future strengths not because I have evidence that sharing them will be useful, but because I haven’t yet found any evidence that it won’t be. Sometimes you put something out there not because you know you’re right, but because it’s a good way to find out that you’re not.

I suspect that many of you will react to my disappointments and my ideas for turning them into future strength with some variant of, “Well, it’s a little more complicated than that.” Maybe it is. Then again, perhaps for one or two of them, it doesn’t have to be.

We don’t own our serial collections

Not owning our serials, all on its own, would be enough to qualify as my number one disappointment. Even though I’m developing a better grasp of the financial considerations involved, it’s still pretty hard for me to believe that we don’t own such important components of our collection. What’s even harder to believe is that we don’t control our own indexes. But the most troubling aspect of all is that we appear to be dead set on repeating this process with our books. While Peter Brantley has said it better than I can (see “Google and the Books” and “Google Books: A Reprise with Clarity”), he seems to be more circumspect than I am regarding the secrecy that every “Google Library” has agreed to maintain. If your library is legally enjoined from divulging which books it has digitized, or the financial details of its Google contract, or anything else at all about its involvement with this project, then your library is “corrupt” in the sense that Lawrence Lessig has begun using the term.

Fortunately, we appear to be making progress. Harvard’s recent announcement was encouraging, Peter Suber’s Open Access News seems to document a dozen small victories daily, Brewster Kahle is fighting the power, and it’s not as if our profession is indifferent to the situation in scholarly communications. And yet, well, let me put it this way: how many of us still read and publish in journals that lock away our ideas like so many Rapunzels?

We don’t know our own history

I’ve already devoted one ACRLog post to this topic and it will likely be the topic of a future post as well, so instead of belaboring the point, I’ll give you an anecdote and a pretty picture. From Edward A. Goedeken:

Like the farmer in the movie Field of Dreams, Louis Shores always believed that if he could build it, they would come—and they did. In 1961, little more than a decade after Shores, Wayne Shirley, and Carl Milam founded the American Library History Round Table (ALHRT) in 1947, the indefatigable Shores was ready to host the first Library History Seminar at Florida State University. From that humble beginning (only sixteen library historians attended the 1961 meeting), the seminars have flourished. Over the years the number of attendees has steadily increased, with recent seminars attracting scholars from all corners of the globe to share their affection for library history.

We are now up to eleven seminars and 199 presentations. Five of these presentations have been about academic librarianship.

Presentations at Library History Seminars grouped by subject

Sources: Library History Seminars I-IX compiled by Goedeken and presented in tabular form. I categorized presentations from the following two seminars on my own and offer no assurance that my decisions match Goedeken’s scheme. Here are the lists of presentations at Library History Seminar X and Library History Seminary XI (see also: Library Trends, Volume 55, Number 3, Winter 2007).

The OPAC…

While it’s still enough of a future strength to make the list, I’m optimistic about the OPAC. NC State, Koha, Evergreen, VuFind, Fac-Back-OPAC, WorldCat, LibraryThing, Aquabrowser, the Open Library, and the last proprietary ILS vendors standing, are making inroads. That said, your OPAC is broken if it:

  • Doesn’t offer faceted browsing;
  • Doesn’t include federated search that retrieves relevant results from your entire collection (e.g. monographs, serials, other media, special collections);
  • Doesn’t have a permanent, clean URL for every item in your collection;
  • Doesn’t produce that URL in a way that shows up in Google/Yahoo/MSN/Ask, etc.;
  • Doesn’t offer useful feeds (e.g. new material, sorted by subject);
  • Requires that your constituents get trained in order to use it effectively.

Citations are at the slide rule stage

I’m still surprised by how many software programs there are for organizing references. Some are open source and some are proprietary, some work directly with the ILS and some live within the browser. All of them do their best to work with the major citation styles, and a few try to work with others.

I suppose it’s nice to have a lot of options, but I’d feel better about the situation if I thought I was making a choice among citation systems that work really well. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s the case, though I don’t blame the software. I think the fault lies in the specifications, which still seem to reflect pre-digital thinking not just in their formatting, but in their licensing and distribution: at the libraries where I work, I share citation specifications with one student at a time in book form. How nice would it be if we had a single, open specification that was developed specifically to help us automate the citation process?

I have more to say about the potential uses for a human and machine-readable, open citation format, but I’ll save these thoughts for another post. For now, I’ll end with my suggestion for what an open citation format might be called: Op. cit.

Think you know Wikipedia? You might… or you might just think you do

Up until about two weeks ago, I was a Wikipedia snob. I thought that I knew what it was and how it worked. I had looked at the site, browsed through a few entries, and edited a couple of test pages anonymously to see how easy it was to screw with the entries. I had read a few articles & blog posts (including in ACRLog) that were skeptical about the site. I would say things like, “Sure, Wikipedia has its place. Just leave it at home.” In my opinion, Wikipedia was a project of the unwashed masses who had no idea what real information was.

I thought I could sum up the complex creature called Wikipedia in a few dismissive phrases, but I was wrong. I think differently now.

After sitting in on a workshop with an inspiring colleague — Glenda Phipps from the Miami Dade College Libraries — I find myself actually excited about Wikipedia. Better late than never, thank you Glenda. As she worked through her informative talk about the site, I surfed. I hit the “Random Article” link over and over again just to see what would come up. And after a while, dense as I am, it began to dawn on me: this thing is incredible. The energy and care and passion that have gone, and continue to go, into creating this open, free, public encyclopedia… wow. I mean, where else can you find so many people who are so passionate about knowledge? (A library, perhaps?)

True, it is not an authoritative resource. There will always be a debate about its reliability, and it is my prediction that no one will ever solve that problem with Wikipedia. So don’t think of it that way. Think of it as an ever-evolving massive collection of popular knowledge. And give it a chance.

It might help if I mention here a few things I have recently learned about Wikipedia that helped to change my opinion:

1. Anyone who creates an account can also create a “watch list” of entries that you have created or otherwise feel some ownership of. So if somebody makes a change to one of those entries, you’ll get an alert.

2. Those who have (like me and Alexander M.C. Halavais) tested the system by purposefully adding misinformation have found that our planted errors are corrected quickly.

3. It’s fun! Go ahead, try it. Search for an entry on something you care about. If it already exists, add your knowledge. If it doesn’t, create it. Then see what you think about Wikipedia.

We Are Now WWW.ACRLOG.ORG

When ACRLog first appeared one of the most frequent questions put to blog team members was “Why is your URL www.acrlblog.org instead of www.acrlog.org?” Uhh…great question. The answer…”Because it is.”

Well, we finally got around to making that adjustment, just a mere 2 years and 4 months after we blogged our first post. Now, www.acrlog.org is our new URL. We’re all about change here at ACRLog.

If you have the old link bookmarked or sitting on a page, no need to rush to update it. We have a redirect that will get you to the new URL. But our URL is so easy to remember now, you won’t even need them.

Open Access to History @ Columbia UP

Who knew? Columbia made a previously subscription-only history book project open access. Maybe Harvard’s news, and the press it generated, led them to tell us about it. From today’s Chron (subscription required, no pun intended):

Without much fanfare, Columbia University Press has radically restructured Gutenberg-e, its high-profile experiment with digital history monographs, from a subscription-only series to an open-access model. The 36 titles will also be available—in somewhat different form, and enhanced with related scholarship—through Humanities E-Book, a subscription-only collection of digital versions of humanities monographs administered by the American Council of Learned Societies, or ACLS.

The Columbia press has been quietly making the monographs freely available since late fall, but the association announced the news on its blog only this month. Gutenberg-e’s switch to open access highlights some of the financial and logistical difficulties that can hamper attempts to establish a viable e-monograph series in the humanities—not that many have yet tried.

Turns out making enhanced digital versions cost quite a bit of money, and those expenses were not made up for by savings in traditional printing and shipping. Scholars, too, preferred to shop their projects for publication as books. Permissions and marketing also have different challenges – securing permission to reproduce an image or passage in a book is much easier than for digital distribution.

There will still be an enhanced subscription-based version of the books. I don’t know the details of this, but I’m growing a little weary of libraries paying for special versions while the great unwashed who aren’t affiliated with an institution that can afford it are stuck with a free budget version. Why the duplication of effort? We’re deliberately creating our own digital divide. But that’s the subject of another post.

Are You Reading These Journals

The other day I came across a review of a book I co-authored with a colleague. The review appeared in the latest issue of one of the top scholarly academic librarianship journals. Well that’s nice, I thought. But then I wondered to myself, is anyone actually going to read this review? I’m sure someone will, but I suspect the number of people who read it anytime soon is going to represent just a tiny segment of our profession. But I might be wrong. Perhaps more of you are reading these journals than I suspect.

So to get a better grasp of the situation I created a survey that may provide some insight. I’d appreciate it if you’d take just one or two minutes to respond. There are only four questions – and a fifth if you want to add additional information. I’ll report the results in two weeks or so in another blog post. Go to the survey now!