Monthly Archives: August 2009

Balancing Act

I’m kind of in the pickle that Maura describes – subscribed to too many sources of information that I would read if I weren’t so busy keeping up with the stream of new information. But Current Cites is always a good ‘un for finding a cross-section of interesting new stuff and this week it pointed me to a twig I must have missed in the current. Sometimes it’s only when you see it the second time, maybe just as you’re pouring a second cup of coffee int he morning, that it catches your eye.

First Mondays (an excellent and long-established open access journal) has an article by Brian Whitworth and Rob Friedman on “Reinventing Academic Publishing Online.” In a nutshell, it examines the fact that the “top” academic journals remain vested in a traditional system in which maintaining barriers and exclusivity because their exclusivity is perceived as rigor and therefore value. The higher your rejection rate, the prouder you are. But there are two mistakes academic publishing can make: publishing stuff that isn’t any good and not publishing stuff that turns out to be good. It’s the cost of the latter – failing to publish something innovative and challenging for fear it might be wrong – that these authors feel is left out of the equation.

These error types trade off, so reducing one increases the other, e.g., a journal can reduce Type I errors to 0 percent by rejecting all submissions, but this also raises Type II errors to 100 percent as nothing useful is published. The commonsense principle is that to win a lottery (get value) you must buy a ticket (take risk). In academic publishing the rigor problem occurs when reducing Type I error increases Type II error more . . . Pursuing rigor alone produces rigor mortis in the theory leg of scientific progress.

The authors point to the fact that the publishing industry essentially determines who is hired and fired in universities, which flies in the face of the mission we are supposedly on and the intellectual freedom that should enable our work.

When a system becomes the mechanism for power, profit and control, idealized goals like the search for truth can easily take a back seat. Authors may not personally want their work locked away in expensive journals that only endowed western universities can afford, but business exclusivity requires it. Authors may personally see others as colleagues in a cooperative research journey, but the system frames them as competition for jobs and grants. As academia becomes a business, new ideas become threats to power rather than opportunities for knowledge growth. Journals become the gatekeepers of academic power rather than cultivators of knowledge, and theories battle weapons in promotion arenas, rather than plows in knowledge fields.

The authors suggest that under the color of “rigor” this model sustains a system in which cross-disciplinary and innovative research is unwelcome. “As more rigorous and exclusive ‘specialties’ emerge, the expected trend is an academic publishing system that produces more and more about less and less.” (And hey, it’ll make the Big Bundle even bigger and more expensive, therefore more profitable.) They think instead technology could offer ways to facilitate information exchange rather than creation of further citadels of isolated specialization. Paying more attention to the mistake of failing to publish something that turns out to be worthwhile will require the creation of a democratic open knowledge exchange which can better balance the equation.

The funny thing is that this tension has existed for a long time. Well before the Internet enabled the opportunity for fundamental change in the way we share research, both Michael Polanyi and Thomas Kuhn described the delicate tension between maintaining an agreed-upon understanding by fending off crackpot theories and the need to allow something new to challenge the dominant paradigm. Both self interest and a more idealized notion of rigor conspire against innovation. What I find interesting about this First Monday article is the idea that our current dominant publishing model has let self-interest reign supreme, and that a new open model could let the more idealized urge to preserve that which is solid and true duke it out with ideas that challenge it. It could balance the risk/reward tradeoff involved in choosing what to publish and which questions to pursue.

By the way, what is your library planning to do for Open Access Week?

(Photo courtesy of rptnorris.)

Damming the Information Streams

It’s incredible how fast the library gets busy again once the semester starts. This week started out quiet as I caught up on email after returning from vacation, but by the end I was spending my days attending several meetings and in the thick of scheduling classes. I generally prefer to be busier than not, so I’ve been happy for the increase in activity in the library and on campus.

But as my workdays fill up I’ve begun to worry that my strategies for keeping up with library and higher education news and scholarship are wearing thin. It’s so much easier during the summer. Not only is there more time to breathe at work – fewer meetings and classes, quieter reference desk – but there’s also less to read. The publication pace of everything seems to slow down, especially online information sources. My summertime RSS feeds are well-mannered and easy to control, my email inbox usually hovers near zero.

Now that the new academic year has started, there’s much more to read and browse. Items linger in my feed reader for days at a time and emailed table of contents alerts from library databases pile up. On my desk there’s a stack of articles I’d planned to read over the summer, and several books I requested from other libraries at my university have come in all at once. This week I realized that I’m suddenly swamped by my information streams.

Clearly this calls for a new strategy. This week I re-read Sarah Houghton-Jan’s excellent article on information overload published in Ariadne last year, which offers loads of good advice for keeping up and staying sane. Encouraged by her suggestions, I headed to my RSS reader and weeded feeds mercilessly. I also reorganized them by priority into several folders—critical, desirable, and optional—which I hope will make it easier for me to ignore less important items until there’s time to read them.

I also plan to cull many of my table of contents alerts, as I’ve found them to be something of a double-edged sword. It’s important to me to keep up with what’s new in the library literature, but ultimately I’ve printed more articles than I’ve had time to read (which accounts for the pile on my desk). So I’m going to cancel several of my alerts and let myself off the hook with the journals that remain. If an article catches my eye, I’ll try to take the time to scan through it before adding it to my To Read folder. I’m hopeful that this will help shrink my current stack of articles, and maybe facilitate more thorough reading of the articles I do print out.

Finally, I’m going to try and build intentional time for reading into my schedule. For many of us this time is built into the daily commute. That won’t work for me, but I still think I can carve some time out of my daily schedule to devote to reading. Once I’ve made all of these changes I’m not sure if I’ll end up reading more than I do now, or less. But if these strategies help me read more thoughtfully and feel less buried, then that’s a worthwhile trade.

The Real-Time Library

Librarians across all sectors of the profession have spent considerable time discussing and analyzing the impact of Web 2.0 and what it means to have a Web 2.0 influenced library. Here at ACRLog we first acknowledged Web 2.0 in December 2005. Since then we’ve offered a number of posts about academic libraries using 2.0 technologies to enable more user participation, to reach out to users in the spaces they prefer to be, and even to stress the need for a more user-engaged instruction session. But as with all technology trends this one is evolving too.

A few weeks ago my Temple University colleagues and I traveled to Princeton University for a joint staff development program on digital reference. Stephen Francouer did a fine job of leading us through the evolution of digital reference, and shared his thoughts on where the technology and service is headed. Francouer summarized the key points of his talk in a post at his blog if you want to read what he had to say. There was no lack of excited conversation about the different appoaches our libraries were taking with chat and text reference. The discussion focused on using these technologies to connect with users and extend our traditional services in ways that better serve the user community.

What if the program theme had been tagging or podcasting or blogging or facebook profiles or any of the other 2.0 technologies academic libraries have adopted? I think the character of the conversations would have been far less dynamic with much less enthusiasm for where we are headed. It was as if we were talking about the next frontier – even though digital reference is hardly new. But digital reference is emerging as the library service – and technology – that best moves us into the next Web revolution.

According to BusinessWeek, that revolution is the “real-time web” which it describes as:

the exploding number of live social activities online, from tweets to status updates on Facebook to the sharing of news, Web links and videos on myriad other sites. It’s a whole new layer of innovation that’s opening up on the Web.

Academic libraries always had elements of Web 2.0 to them, but without the 2.0 technology. Much the same, the exchange of information in real-time (think phone and F2F reference) is not new to libraries, but now we have the convenience, immediacy and community presence of the real-time web world. We are poised to move there.

What are some characteristics of the real-time library?

* The real-time library is socially networked but it’s about more than just owning social network accounts; the real-time library has an active presence and shares information in real time.

* The real-time library updates its status regularly.

* The real-time library offers targeted services to the networked community.

* The real-time library is accessible on real-time communication devices.

* The real-time library is ready and waiting – all the time – to deliver information services.

* The real-time library monitors the multitude of emerging real-time web services and experiments to find those with the potential to enhance service in real-time mode.

* The real-time library designs information services specifically for delivery and use on the real-time web.

* Real-time librarians are adept at creating relationships with real-time library users.

At our program we explored the opportunities opening up to academic librarians connected to the real-time web – although “real-time web” was not a part of our terminology. But much of the conversation was about providing services in real time, and how to do that successfully. There was some talk of the Google’s Wave product. It will be a few months before we fully grasp the details, but the early announcements suggest it may offer a platform for real-time libraries that want to move even further into new communication and information exchange environments with their users. In real-time environments we may be able to work more collaboratively with each other and our users – even to the point of seeing the words of the other person’s messages as they are typed.

For now, don’t expect a set of principles for real-time librarians, the Real-Time Librarian blog or real-time library manifestos. This is all part of the user-generated/user-participation web evolution. As our users – our next generation of students – develop new behaviors and expectations for how they acquire and use information it is important that we pay attention to it, understand it and design it into the services we deliver.

Sudden Thoughts And Second Thoughts

No, Everyone Really DOES Like to Search

I admit to, at one time, having had a slight problem with Roy Tennant’s statement from 2001 that “Only librarians like to search; everyone else likes to find”. Admittedly it is a cleverly stated and catchy phrase. It’s no surprise it caught on with any librarian giving a talk or writing a paper who wanted to make a sound-bite observation about students gravitating to Google rather than using a library search system. I pointed out that while it sounds good and is catchy, it may not make all that much sense. After all, can anyone find anything without doing some sort of search? You might say that librarians like the challenge of searching more than non-librarians. On the other hand, the reason I prefer to search native language DIALOG is precisely because I find what I need really fast and can report it out in exactly the way I want it. As a librarian I don’t want to spend any more time searching than I absolutely need. But I’d never try to convince the layperson to try using DIALOG.

So I found it really interesting to discover this article about how much people – not just librarians – really do like to search. In fact, according to this article “Seeking: How the brain hard-wires us to love Google, Twitter, and texting” from Slate “when we get thrilled about the world of ideas, about making intellectual connections, about divining meaning, it is the seeking circuits that are firing.” Apparently searching for information fulfills some primordial need to hunt and find – and that doing so may actually create a sense of arousal in humans. That may explain why you can’t stop yourself from constantly checking your social network accounts to see if there’s anything new and interesting there. Roy gave our profession a thought provoking phrase, and it definitely struck a chord with us. But given this new research it may be time to update it to “Everyone likes to search, but librarians like to do it better”.

Good Advice on Being a Good Colleague

This blog post over at Center of Gravitas is geared to faculty but I thought there were some insightful observations about what it means to be a good colleague – and what it means to be a jerk. Go read it. You may think you don’t need to be reminded about being a good colleague, but take my word for it – we all need to be reminded about this on a regular basis.

Some Librarians Still Don’t Get Blogging

I came across Thomas Leonhardt’s column in the June 2009 issue of Against the Grain (sorry – not available in full-text) in which he explains “Why I Don’t Blog”. While it’s not as anti-blogging as the infamous Michael Gorman Library Journal column, it too mistakenly uses generalizations that illustrate a lack of understanding about the benefits many blogs provide to the library community. Problematic generalization number one. Leonhardt gets things off to a bad start by implying that all bloggers have big egos. Sure, some librarian bloggers do like to brag about shamelessly promote their latest article or an offer to present at a conference, but that’s hardly a reason to write off librarian blogs. If anything, Leonhardt reveals that he doesn’t get that self-promotion is an accepted practice among the newer generation of librarians. He may find it unsettling (I did too at one time) but it’s not about big egos. Problematic generalization number two. Leonhardt uses the Annoyed Librarian as an example of the typical librarian blog, and he makes no secret of his dislike for what he finds there. But he uses this one blog to justify his “I won’t be back to this site or any other blog site” mentality. That doesn’t seem particularly open minded for a librarian. If I read one book I didn’t like, would it then make sense to conclude that I should never read a book again?

Leonhardt then veers off into conflating blogging with communicating with family and friends. Most librarian bloggers are dealing with issues, not personal communications with friends. This failed observation gets back to the lesson we should have learned from Gorman’s column. Don’t criticize blogging if you haven’t taken time to really get to know different librarian blogs. Base your opinions on experience (and not just a single blog) rather than what you’ve heard or read elsewhere. So if you are a regular reader of ATG – and I hope you are – just ignore Leonhardt’s advice when he cautions against blogging. If you have something to say, consider blogging about it. There are loads of librarian blogs, but I imagine there are still plenty of ideas out there just waiting for a good blogger to come along and share. Here’s what I find especially ironic. ATG promotes blogging by its regular columnists by offering them blogging space. Perhaps Leonhardt ought to begin a serious exploration of librarian blogging by reading the ones written by his fellow ATG columnists. Then again, maybe he’s already moved on to writing his column explaining why he doesn’t have a Twitter account.

There’s Something About Mary George

. . . that you should know. She’s just started blogging for Inside Higher Ed. Woo hoo! She has an almost Dickensian flair for description (“that murky blob marked library on your campus map . . . the Great Grimpen Mire of academe”), but she also has a purpose in mind. She wants to help faculty set up more successful learning opportunities for their students by trouble shooting unanticipated failures encountered with student researchers.

Teaching faculty have immense persuasive power; we librarians do not. What we do have are sweeping views of what scholars are up to, a grasp of how researchers do their business and what evidence ensues, and a knack for identifying and locating that evidence. By and large faculty and academic librarians respect one another’s expertise and collaborate happily. But where and how do our apprentices—either undergraduates or graduate students — learn the process and logic of source seeking? That is the question that haunts me and inspires this blog.

The nexus of knowledge transmission, of teaching, is the assignment, the place where faculty intent becomes student incentive. One thing I hope to do in this blog is to suggest ways to invigorate library research assignments that don’t seem to be working.

Whether faculty will be willing to share their challenging moments, even anonymously, is an open question. It’s much easier to get people to share what has worked for them than what hasn’t. But let’s hope she’s able to coax some conversation out of faculty whose students get stuck in the Grimpen Mire.

In case you don’t know Mary, she’s a librarian at Princeton who is the author of The Elements of Library Research.