Monthly Archives: July 2011

Do You Have The Tao In Your Toolkit?

In his blog post, The Tao of Librarianship, Andy Burkhardt reminds us how we can apply the ancient wisdom of Taoism to library policies and services. Burkhardt addresses library food policies, space design, planned abandonment of outdated formats and services, and adapting to change through the lens of Taoist philosophy, which he summarizes as, “instead of struggling against everything all the time, Taoism states that humans should try to see how things actually are and live in harmony with them.”

Another more colloquial way of stating this is the expression, “go with the flow.” Going with the flow is more commonly associated with surfers and hippies than librarians. Traditionally as a profession we tend toward rules, policies, standards. We prefer to “get things under (bibliographic) control.” A tweet at a program at ACRL 2011 put it this way: “Control freak streak runs in the profession. Sadly, yes. #lettinggo #acrl2011.”

Burkhardt is right to suggest that Taoist principles could help us more effectively deal with the change in our world and in our libraries. In addition to the areas that Andy brings up, Taoist ideas can also be useful when it comes to collaboration within and outside the academic library. In their ACRL 2011 program, Letting Go: Giving Up Control to Improve First-year Information Literacy Programs, librarians Meghan Sitar, Cindy Fisher, Michele Ostrow, of the University of Texas Libraries explain the difficulties they faced and the concepts they had to embrace in order to give up control and collaborate with other faculty and professionals on campus.

One of the more beautiful metaphors in Taoism is the admonition that we should be like water, fluid and responsive (Tao 8). Is your library frozen like a glacier or flowing like a mountain stream? Are you part of the ice jam or part of the break up? Have you come to terms with your inner control freak? As a profession, how can we become less controlling, and what should we let go? Can the principles of Taoism help us?

There are many translations of the Tao Te Ching. An interesting one is The Tao of Leadership by John Heider.

Are You Thinking About Going Corporate

I had two jobs before I started my first academic library position. Going through library school I was thinking special libraries. I never really thought much about academic librarianship as a career option. The prospects of working on more in depth research projects for others appealed to me. One of the special library jobs was in a nonprofit, but the other was corporate. Both were good jobs where I learned lots of useful skills, and worked with exactly no other librarians – but many other interesting colleagues with diverse professional backgrounds.

As I became more professionally active in local associations I got to know a few academic librarians. I really liked the ideas they were sharing and the work they were doing. It became more clear in my mind that working in a one-person library setting was inhibiting my professional growth – I wasn’t learning from library colleagues nor was there any advancement opportunity. The possibilities of being engaged in the teaching and learning process began to carry greater appeal than performing the research for other professionals, however challenging it was. I started applying for academic library positions, and was frequently rejected. I had absolutely no experience working in an academic library. Eventually, thanks to the business research skills I developed in my corporate special library job, I was able to make the transition to a business library at a research university. I’ve never looked back.

What about going in the opposite direction? I actually cannot recall even a single academic librarian who has left academia to transition to a position in a corporate library. I’m sure it happens more often than we know. An academic librarian could get burnt out on dealing with students and faculty. He or she might decide to get off the tenure track, or tire of dealing with library co-workers. A forced relocation may take someone to a town where the only opportunity is in the corporate sector. And yes, corporate/special library positions often have higher salaries. There are any number of reasons why an academic librarian might want to go corporate.

That was the topic of a thread at the BUSLIB-L discussion list where there are many corporate and academic librarians exchanging information and advice. The conversation was started by an academic librarian who inquired about the possibilities for going corporate. Wondering whether it was time to pursue opportunities outside of higher education, this academic librarian asked others to share the pros and cons of their jobs in academic or corporate libraries. The conversation generated quite a few responses, and here is a summarized list of the pros and cons for each type of library position:

PROS – Corporate Librarianship

* Less of the committee work that often comes with academic librarianship, and less need to juggle multiple opinions and multiple constituencies, so to speak
* More opportunities to be an independent operator; self-starters would find the corporate environment stimulating
* No publishing requirements
* Focused, directed work process aimed at a specific outcome; less of the “fuzzy” goals that sometimes characterize academia
* research and analysis-driven, rather than teaching-oriented

PROS – Academic Librarianship

* Work in a highly collaborative environment
* Persons around to back you up and mentor you if/when needed
* Opportunities to teach and nurture students and library patrons
* You show people how to research, rather than doing all the research yourself
* A more laid-back environment than corporate; can wear jeans to work

CONS: Corporate Librarianship

* A driven, hectic pace; work must be completed speedily and efficiently with little space for lengthy rumination; “pressure cooker” environment
* Corporate librarians are often solo operators; no-one to back you up when you’re sick or need to take time away from work
* Constant need to reaffirm your worth to the corporation (that’s worth in monetary terms); corporate librarians are easily laid off in bad economies
* Must constantly network and liaise with persons within and without the company

CONS: Academic Librarianship

- The requirement to solicit and consider opinions from many persons and many different bailiwicks prior to making decisions; the collaborative environment is not always the most efficient
- “Publish or perish;” tenure/continuing status pressures
- Generally lower salaries

As with most lists of pros and cons, someone’s “pro” is another person’s “con”. I don’t see the need to publish as a drawback in academic librarianship. If you like to research and write, share your ideas, enjoy the rewards of publications, etc., it’s great to be in an environment that supports and potentially expects you to publish (bear in mind that approximately half of all academic libraries have no tenure or publishing requirements, so if you don’t like the publish or perish environment it can be avoided). The work environment also comes up here. Do you like to work with other librarians or would you rather be a one-person librarian? No one mentioned the potential advantages of working with a group of non-librarians. I always learned a great deal from the social workers, fundraisers, planners, marketers, tech wizards and other non-librarians I worked with – and in academic librarianship we get to work with many non-librarian colleagues in student services, residential life or administrative services.

What would I add? For me a pro of academic librarianship is tuition remission and access to further education. I would never have earned my doctorate had I stayed in the corporate world. Not only did I have access to a program right on my own campus, but the bulk of the tuition was covered. Corporate librarians could counter that by suggesting one doesn’t necessarily need advanced degrees in their world (although a business librarian in the corporate sector can certainly appreciate having an MBA). And let’s not forget tuition benefits for children and other family members. With the cost of college today, tuition support for family members is a fantastic benefit, and almost worth putting up with any “con” of academic librarianship. I am aware that many corporations do offer tuition reimbursement to their employees, but I suspect the number that help pay for dependents’ education is quite small.

Although this conversation focused primarily on going from academia to the corporate world, I’d suggest that academic librarians seeking to transition out of higher education think of it as academic versus special. Most of the “pros” for corporate librarianship apply to nonprofit sector special library positions. This is a good option for those who might want a one-person library position that doesn’t require going corporate – or the need for business librarianship skills. Of course, I hope academic librarians will always seek to stay committed to a career in higher education, but personal goals change and sometimes life’s circumstances require us to shift career paths when we least expect it.

So what pro or con would you add to these lists? And just for the record – I have never worn jeans to work.

Stranger Than Fiction

My head’s been buzzing since I first read yesterday on the New York Times Bits Blog that coder and activist Aaron Swartz was indicted under federal hacking laws for illegally downloading millions of articles from JSTOR (the full text of the indictment is embedded at the bottom of the post). Since then I’ve read through lots of articles and tweets, news about the case having all but taken over my Twitter stream, including a more in-depth story in today’s Times. And I’m finding that with every article I read I have more questions than answers.

Why’d he do it? Swartz is well known as an information activist and open access advocate, so this question’s not hard to answer. I’d hazard that it’s also not a stretch for many librarians to sympathize with Swartz at least a little bit. After all, we spend our days helping people find information, and we know all too well the frustrations of not being able to access the information we and our patrons need. I’ve read that Swartz wanted to use the data for research, but as JSTOR points out in the official statement, there are procedures in place for scholars who want to use large parts of JSTOR’s database for research.

What, exactly, did he do? This has been difficult to tease out, and the information in the many articles around the internet is highly varied. The indictment accuses Swartz of installing a laptop in a wiring closet at MIT to download large portions of JSTOR’s content. But it’s interesting to see terms like “hacking” and “stealing” used as synonyms with “illegal downloading” and “violating license terms” in many articles describing the case. As noted in an article in Wired:

Swartz used guest accounts to access the network and is not accused of finding a security hole to slip through or using stolen credentials, as hacking is typically defined.

On the other hand, Demand Progress, the progressive political organization founded by Swartz, has compared Swartz’s actions to “allegedly checking too many books out of the library” (a quote that’s been heavily retweeted). Of course, this analogy doesn’t really hold up, since books and databases operate under very different ownership models.

Why JSTOR? I’d guess that this is a question only a librarian would have, but I can’t help wondering why JSTOR? Why didn’t Swartz pick on one of the giant scholarly journal publishers with well-publicized huge profit margins? Perhaps JSTOR was easiest for him to access? Or maybe, because JSTOR isn’t one of the biggies, he suspected that if he got caught they wouldn’t press charges? It’s been reported that JSTOR secured the return of the downloaded content and did not press charges; the case is being brought by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

What does this mean for libraries? And for the open access movement? As I was sitting down to finish writing this my CUNY colleague Stephen Francoeur sent out a link to this post on the Forbes blog that terms Swartz’s actions “reckless and counterproductive.” The post gets at something that’s been nagging at me since yesterday: it points out the possibility that the reputation of the open access movement could be damaged by association. And I’m still not sure how exactly to articulate it, but I worry that there may be fallout from this event that could have a negative effect on academic libraries, too.

Who Reads and How?

Barry Cull, Information Services Librarian at the University of New Brunswick, Canada, has written Reading Revolutions: Online digital text and implications for reading in academe, a valuable review article on reading research that investigates important questions and provides a corrective to the idea (we’re looking at you NEA and Steve Jobs) that “no one reads anymore.”

Cull defines reading in a way that is useful for academic librarians. He includes not only leisure or literary reading, but also reading done for study and work, such as reading done by students and academics. Thank you Barry Cull! This is the main type of reading that our users do and one of the main reasons that academic libraries exist. When we look at studies on reading, we need to remember to focus on this type of reading and not simply literary or leisure reading.

As far as who reads, Cull quotes sociologist Wendy Griswold, who notes that we shouldn’t expect a majority of people to be readers anyway. In fact throughout history and across cultures reading has always been the practice of a minority. Griswold:

Only in a small portion of the world (northwest Europe, North America, and — somewhat later — Japan) and only for a brief period of time (mid–nineteenth to mid–twentieth century) was reading the standard pastime for the middle–class majority. The more typical situation is the one that is increasingly the case today: readers are an elite group that holds disproportionate political, economic, and cultural power. To recognize this as a fact is neither to decry the elitism nor to celebrate the avidity of committed readers, but it is to gain a clearer sense of where the practice of reading stands now and in the foreseeable future.

Cull makes a distinction between sustained in-depth reading such as following a narrative or closely analyzing a text, and cursory reading such as reading traffic signs or news Web sites or e–mail messages or tweets or text messages. Cull states that although in–depth reading can take place with either printed or digital text, in reviewing the research he finds it to be “a contemplative cognitive activity somewhat at odds with the Internet’s zeitgeist of immediacy.” Meaning, it can be really hard to focus on reading that scholarly monograph or research article when the tempting distractions of email, facebook, twitter etc. are constantly available in the next window.

Is facilitating sustained in-depth reading the core mission of academic libraries? Do we need to help students be aware that some electronic media often get in the way of that mission? Will there always be a minority “reading class” that reads voraciously and omnivorously, regardless of hardware or format? Do they in fact have disproportionate power? How is the activity of reading different in print and electronic formats and what implications are there for how we design our spaces and services?

(Unbeknownst to Steve Jobs, I read Cull’s article on an iPod touch.)

Thinking About ‘The Filter Bubble’

This month’s post in our series of guest academic librarian bloggers is by Jessica Hagman, Reference and Instruction Librarian at Ohio University. She blogs at Jess in Ohio.

Last fall, I taught a one-credit learning community seminar. During the week where we discussed research and library resources, I showed the class this video from Google, describing how the search engine works. I suspected that most students had no idea how links come to the top of a Google search results page and no basis on which to begin evaluating the results beyond page rank, a suspicion confirmed by research from the Web Use Project (previously discussed here on ACRLog).

Yet, when I asked whether the video surprised them or if the search engine process was different than they had previously thought, I heard the proverbial crickets. Finally, one student spoke up with a shrug, “I guess I’ve just never thought about it before.” While I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that few students spent time thinking about the mechanics of Google, it was startling to hear it stated so clearly.

I thought about this comment again a few weeks ago when I ran across a link to Eli Pariser’s TED Talk “Beware Online Filter Bubbles.” In the talk and his new book elaborating on the subject Pariser argues that companies like Facebook and Google use the data we share online to build a personalized bubble around each person in which they only encounter information, news and links that confirm their already established world view and assumptions. And while the bubble is pervasive, it is mostly invisible.

After watching the talk, my thoughts turned to the undergraduate researcher writing about a contentious social issue like gun control or abortion whose browser history limits the scope of the results they see on Google. I’ve discussed Google searching in many library instruction sessions, but it’s usually been to point out the poor quality of some of the search results and to encourage students to look beyond the first link. Starting in the fall, I will mention the personalization of search results as well, so that students are at least aware that their search results reflect more than just the keywords they searched.

The implications of the filter bubble may go beyond the research for a freshman composition paper, however. In the later chapters of his book, Pariser argues that the pervasiveness of filter bubbles may hinder learning, creativity, innovation, political dialogue, and even make us more susceptible to manipulative advertising. It’s difficult to discuss these consequences in a one-shot library instruction session, but to know that the bubble exists is a powerful first step to escaping it when necessary.

I will be teaching the learning community seminar again this fall, and this year I will show them Pariser’s talk. While I think it’s important that they be aware of personalized search and its potential implications, I’m also very curious to hear what students think about personalized search and a world of filtered information. While they may not have spent much time thinking about Google in the past, I hope that seeing the video will encourage them to think about how their own search history and browsing data affect what see – or do not see – online.