Monthly Archives: March 2009

Ideas For The Suggestion Box

Our current challenging economic conditions have higher education institutions searching far and wide for ways to cut costs and stretch every dollar. The old “do more with less” philosophy is back with a vengeance. Lost state revenues have been absorbed by every unit at my institution, but the administration wanted to know how it could save even more budget dollars. Lo and behold we now have a web page where anyone can submit a suggestion for how the university could save money or gain efficiency. Even though no incentives were offered hundreds of ideas poured forth from the masses.

I submitted some ideas the first day the box was available. I had just come back from my morning workout at the campus gym and I was brimming with observations on how to cut waste at the fitness center. One towel to a person. That would cut laundry costs. Eliminate the piped in music. Everyone’s got earphones attached to their skulls. Shut down the television monitors in the weight room. Guys and gals pumping iron aren’t interested in what Oprah has to say. Do we really need liquid soap dispensers in the showers? Even college kids can afford bars of soap, and most of the ones I observe opt for a total body spray of AXE rather than a shower (if that sounds disgusting it smells much worse). A good start I thought, but wondered if I could come up with something a bit more profound.

It never occurred to me that I was missing something totally obvious for a librarian until I read a post written by WIRED magazine’s creative guru, Kevin Kelley at his “The Technium” blog. Kelley wrote an intriguing post about ownership vs. access – and he concludes that ownership is a concept that has run its course. Then it came to me. Why should anyone on our campus have the institution pay for a personal subscription to any print newspaper, magazine or journal if the library subscribes to an e-version of that publication? Here’s how Kelley sees it:

Suddenly ownership is not so important. Why own, when you can get the same utility from renting, leasing, licensing and sharing? But more importantly why even possess it? Why take charge of it at all if you have instant, constant, durable, full access to it?…Access is so superior to ownership, or possession, that it will drive the emerging intangible economy. The trend is clear: access trumps possession. Access is better than ownership.

It struck me that all libraries are built on the premise of giving everyone equal access to a commons of information, and that in turn can collectively save the community money. People have depended on libraries for access rather than ownership for generations. Kelley even points out that libraries share the qualities of the web and public roads in that they offer a social common good.

Here was my simple suggestion for saving institutional dollars. The university should no longer pay for a subscription for any publication to which the library already provides an electronic version. I gave two examples of how this can benefit the university. First, the obvious one – cost cutting. Consider the Chronicle of Higher Education. The Library has a site license that makes it accessible to anyone with a university network account. I imagine our various administrative and academic departments hold dozens of subscriptions to the Chronicle. If we dropped them all that would contribute to hundreds or thousands of dollars in savings. Add in the cost of any scholarly journals and you could be talking real money. And over time it would really start to add up. But could people live without their print publications? We may not have a choice.

I admit that I like to read the paper version of the Chronicle, but in the year since we added the site license I increasingly find myself saying “read that one already this week” since I’m reading more online. And I’ve never had a paper copy of Inside Higher Ed and I can’t even imagine needing it in that format. The second benefit is that eliminating all this paper makes us a greener campus. My institution has committed to achieving sustainability via green campus initiatives. I imagine any number of these paper copies end up in trash bins. Eliminating paper subscriptions eliminates paper waste. A less obvious benefit is that it capitalizes on the significant institutional investment in electronic publications…and an even less obvious benefit is that it drives more campus community members to our academic library resources. Better for us.

I finished my suggestion with the bold statement that our university president should publicly commit to sacrificing her paper subscription to the Chronicle, and indicate that others should follow her lead by using the Library’s site license to access all the electronic content. While good ideas can emerge from anywhere in the organization, bold initiatives that save dollars and help make us greener need the very obvious support of the institution’s top leaders. We the employees need to know that our leaders are making the same sacrifices they ask us to endure.

Non-rival is non-relevant

I’m glad that Elisabeth Jones wrote to our tip page about her post–Fighting for non-rival pudding–because I’ve been wanting to spout off about non-rivalness for a while now.

Anytime you hear someone talk about intellectual property you are going to wind up hearing the phrase “non-rival.” The idea is that information or knowledge is a non-rival good. What this means is that when one person consumes information, it does not prevent another person from consuming it. So information or knowledge is not like land or pudding, which are “used up” when other people consume them. Ok, fine.

But from this idea many people quickly get to conclusions like: information just wants to be free; intellectual property is evil; DRM is the devil; and the Kindle is a giant threat to intellectual freedom. Maybe all those things are true, but I don’t think you can get there from the claim that information is non-rival.

First, I’m not even sure that information is non-rival. What about a juicy piece of gossip? The more people hear about it, the less juicy it becomes, the more it is “used up.” Or what about the secret to a magic trick? Or an insider stock tip? Or a trade secret? Or any information that gives someone a competitive advantage?

But even assuming that information is non-rival, nothing follows from this about intellectual property rights. Information and knowledge should be widely distributed because everyone in society will be better off (not because they are non-rival). But that doesn’t mean information has no value, or that the creators of information can’t charge for it, or put restrictions on who uses it and what they can do with it (within reason).

And even assuming that information is non-rival, that does not mean that books as containers of information are non-rival. In fact books are not non-rival in all respects, as anyone who goes to a library and finds the book they want “checked out” knows. If someone is using a book, someone else cannot simultaneously use it, hence it is not non-rival. Oh unless it’s an electronic book, with the right kind of DRM set up.

In her post, Jones jumps from the idea that information is non-rival to the idea that the Amazon Kindle will do “monumental and egregious harm…to intellectual freedom and the maintenance of an informed populace” because a person cannot take their Kindle book content to a used bookstore or donate it to a library like one could with a physical book. Jones claims that books are like bottomless cups of pudding because others can consume their contents hundreds or thousands more times.

This is going too far. It’s an open question whether Kindle will lead to a more or less informed populace. Kindle books are less expensive (after you shell out for the device) than physical books. Kindle makes it easier to carry more books at one time on a train or a plane. Perhaps for these reasons, Kindle will lead to a more informed populace, not less. As for not being able to sell or give away Kindle books, that is a disadvantage, but if people could give away digital books there’s a good argument that that activity would undermine the whole market because sharing networks would be set up. We may like that, but I don’t think there’s an inherent right to it simply because information is non-rival or because information is a public good. Physical books are not, as Jones claims, bottomless cups of pudding. Eventually they wear out, especially if the first owner treats them roughly or writes in them. The more they are used, the more they are used up. As far as I know there is nothing stopping someone from loading up a Kindle and selling it or giving it away, or even lending it out, as some libraries have done.

The debate of ownership vs. access for libraries is not a simple one, and it’s quite a stretch to blame the current economic meltdown on access over ownership. Intellectual goods may be non-rival, but physical books are not. Something follows from the fact that information is non-rival, but I’m not sure what and I’m not sure it’s interesting. Whatever it is I don’t think it has anything to do with intellectual property rights, the debate between ownership versus access in libraries, or if the Kindle is a boon or threat to intellectual culture.

Academic Librarians Are Not Salespeople – But They Should Be

Have you seen the latest set of “Provocative Statements“ from the 2009 Taiga Forum yet? The statements were released a few weeks ago, and I think there’s been little discussion about them thus far. By contrast the first set of provocative statements generated in 2006 created a great deal of discussion. So far I think only this blogger has discussed the statements, and the lack of attention strikes me as odd. Perhaps this year’s crop of statements are just a bit less controversial than the ones produced in 2006. For example, one of the most provocative of the 2006 batch stated:

there will be no more librarians as we know them. Staff may have MBAs or be computer/data scientists. All library staff will need the technical skills equivalent to today’s systems and web services personnel. The ever increasing technology curve will precipitate a high turnover among traditional librarians; the average age of library staff will have dropped to 28.

Compare that to one of the 2009 provocative statements:

libraries will provide no in-person services. All services (reference, circulation, instruction, etc.) will be unmediated and supported by technology.

Keep in mind that all those statements are prefaced with “within the next 5 years”. Even looking back to 2006 it’s highly unlikely any academic librarians believed we’d all be gone by 2011. But the value of Taiga’s provocative statements isn’t their predictive value. Rather it’s in their ability to get librarians thinking about and discussing how it is possible we can even be making such suggestions, and what it is we need to do to shape our own preferred future rather than submit to the outcomes the statements suggest. I can recall several regional conferences that based some sort of activity or discussion on the 2006 statements. I doubt that will repeat for the 2009 statements. I’m not sure why. The 2009 statements are worthy of discussion, but perhaps in our current state of financial crisis academic librarians are simply fixated with budgetary issues.

So what does any of this have to do with this post’s title? Well I participated in this year’s forum (now that I”m an AUL I’m a member of the tribe), and with colleagues I helped to shape the statements. Somewhere during the discussions one of the participants said something along the lines of “Academic librarians are not good salespeople.” I can’t quite recall how that came up but it struck a chord with me because I’ve thought the same exact thing for quite a few years. Frontline librarians need to do more than just respond when the end users are looking for information. They’ve got to be out in the field spreading the word, and making the sales pitch for why the library’s resources are vitally important to the teaching and learning process.

Here’s an example. I was at a meeting last week of our Distance Learning Advisory Group. Our leader asked me to say a few words about how the Library supports online learners – and where we need to improve. As I finished one faculty member blurted out “I had no idea I could do at that with your resources.” How many times does that happen? Too many. We’re also doing LibQual+ and there are far too many comments with suggestions for what the library should be offering – that we’ve already been offering for two or more years. They don’t know it. There’s a disconnect. On the other hand we’ve got 35,000 students, over 1,000 faculty and 12 reference librarians. That’s a whole lot of sales calls for everyone. So we’ve got to figure out how to be a truly effective salesforce. Maybe this new book will give me some ideas for better marketing and promotion methods.

To tell the truth the best library salesperson I ever worked with wasn’t a librarian. At a prior job the instructional technologist who helped our faculty learn the courseware system and other learning tools was far more effective than any librarian at getting our faculty to integrate the library into their courses. He’d be telling them about all the technology tools, and then he’d slip in “Well you are going to integrate the library databases in here, right?” And from there he just did a good sales pitch and then the librarians took over and closed the deal (it’s as simple as ABC – Always Be Closing!). Maybe the next set of Taiga provocative statements will include “Within the next 5 years all librarians will work strictly on commission earning revenue everytime one of their clients searches a database, acquires an article through interlibrary loan, or requests an instruction session.” With the way our economy is going, who knows.

I hope you’ll take a look at the 2009 statements and share your thoughts. As an added bonus you can see some of the slides used for the 5-minute lightning round presentations made at the forum (each statement was presented by a forum attendee). I presented for statement #5 and the slides are there.

Green Conference Bag Is A Letdown

I’m all for a green conference – save energy, water, re-usable materials – but I have to say that the conference bag was just not up to past standards. In a way I feel bad for all those first-time attendees because they will never know the golden years of ACRL conference bags. Here’s what we got in Seattle:

ACRL2009 Conference Bag
ACRL2009 Conference Bag

This bag is described as being made from 51% recycled material. I’m all for recycled material. This bag might work for a fast 15-items or less trip to the grocery store, but it fails to meet the needs of a hard-driving conference attendee. No zippers. No internal pockets. No key holder. No back pocket for papers and maps. No cool internal hidden pocket where you’ll leave something and forget it until the next conference (Oh wow – so that’s where I put that). No water bottle holder (plastic BPA free re-usable bottle of course). In all, it just doesn’t cut it as a conference bag.

Lest I sound ungrateful or anti-green movement please know that I’m an outstanding recycler of past conference bags. In fact, I only need one good one and I’ll just keep using it over and over again. In fact I went to Seattle with my ACRL 10th National Conference bag which I think is the all-time hands-down champion of ACRL conference bags (see the photo in the post).

Here’s my suggestion for how we can really save money and resources at the 15th National Conference. Provide an option on the registration form where attendees can indicate if they want a bag or not (e.g., Option 1 – I must have an environmentally-friendly bag; Option 2 – Never mind – I’ll bring my own). That way ACRL knows exactly how many bags to produce and bring and only those who want it get one (easily noted on their badge). End result – no wasted bags that end up in the trash.

ACRL provided two other environmentally-friendly supplies for conference goers. One was a mug made of corn plastic. I guess that will eventually find its way into the jungle of unused mugs in one of my kitchen cabinets. The other one is already a permanent fixture in my shower. ACRL provided a nifty little shower timer that lets you know when four minutes have expired.

ACRL2009 Shower Timer
ACRL2009 Shower Timer

According to Mary Ellen Davis, ACRL Executive Director, the average American takes an eight-minute shower. So we were given a tool to help save Seattle a whole lot of water during the conference. I used it everyday and never spent more than 3 minutes showering. I thought the thing wasn’t working right so I timed it with a stopwatch when I got home. It’s exactly 4 minutes. The real test will be when the kids come home for visits. If I can get them to take 4-minute showers I will be forever in debt to ACRL.

And even if you didn’t use the ACRL bag or the ACRL shower timer you still could eat an ACRL cookie:

ACRL2009 Cookie from the All Conference Reception

Open Access – Just When We Need It

I’m sure many of us are in the same dismal place – trying to find ways to cope with flat or reduced budgets when costs of journals and electronic resources stubbornly rise year after year. The one bright spot that cheers me up is the steady march of open access initiatives. Boston University faculty voted to support the idea not long ago. More faculties at Harvard have joined forces with their groundbreaking Arts & Sciences faculty. Now MITunanimously. Immediately. Wow!

So what is our role in all this? Clearly, we’re part of the infrastructure for making the case and providing the place for these materials to be made public. But – how often have you heard about an intriguing paper, published by an academic librarian in a journal that allows self-archiving (such as ACRL publications, portal, and Journal of Academic Librarianship) and been unable to find a copy online? How often have you wondered why librarians sign contracts with publishers who assume all rights and don’t allow for self-archiving? Why can’t we walk the walk?

That’s why I was so cheered to see at Infofetishist that Oregon State University librarians have adopted OA for themselves. Peter Suber thinks this is a good idea. It’s an important symbol to the rest of the academic community. It says to the world, we can do this.

What about you? Would you support an open access mandate in your library?