All posts by Barbara Fister

About Barbara Fister

I'm an academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. Like all librarians at our small, liberal arts institution I am involved in reference, collection development, and shared management of the library. My area of specialization is instruction, with research interests also in media literacy, popular literacy, publishing, and assessment.

Not a Crisis, a Transition

Chronicle staffer Jennifer Howard reported from the annual meeting of the Association of American University Presses, where the incoming president, Richard Brown of Georgetown University Press, challenged the idea that scholarly publishing is in crisis. A crisis, when it isn’t resolved for decades, becomes a way of life, and his preferred description for that way of life is “perpetual transition.”

That should resonate with librarians. Welcome to the club!

Even better, he plans to make improving communication with librarians, who he calls a “kindred community,” a priority this coming year. He recognizes how we are dependent on one another, and points out that open access isn’t free; it takes money to select, organize, make editorial improvements, and make scholarly work discoverable. (Doesn’t most of that sound eerily familiar?) Though some discussion at the conference focused on joining forces to make e-books available to libraries, it seems as if we’re still seen as a revenue source, as customers, not as partners in publishing. I’d much rather invest my money in books that my students and faculty can use without the hassle of DRM, that won’t disappear if I have a bad budget year and have to cancel a subscription, and that are available to everyone in the world. Chances are I’d still buy some of the books in print – for those that will be read closely, not just harvested for quotes, the cost of printing a copy is worth it. I just don’t want to invest in collections of e-books nobody uses. (I know some libraries have had success with e-books; most of our students don’t like reading anything longer than a paragraph unless it’s on paper or can be printed. No, I don’t want to pay for a database and pay a second time for printing. Google, I’m looking at you.) And until e-readers are affordable, platform-agnostic, and embraced by our students and faculty, I don’t see them as significant change agents; in any case, they’re design is based on the consumer market, not on the kinds of sharing and sampling that scholars need to be able to do.

The reason we need university presses is because they put their books through a far more rigorous peer review process than trade publishers and so have earned enormous prestige among scholars. They also publish research that may seem entirely without value to commercial publishers, to whom the only value is market value. For university presses, their work is a mission, not just a business, but it’s work that needs funding. We need to be more than customers; we need to be working together, making the best use of our pooled resources.

Jennifer Howard (she has been busy lately) also recently wrote a long piece about institutional repositories. It’s fascinating reading, and suggests that various models are meeting with some success, if libraries are willing to put a lot of time and energy into it. But while IRs are great for local materials, niche information (test reports on tractors – who knew how many people were eager to get their hands on that!) and gray literature, they are not the fix for the scholarly communication crisis, no matter how many institutions adopt open access mandates.

Rather than have university presses look for lessons from trade publishing while we try to coax faculty into using open access platforms, I’d like to see librarians sit down with university presses and talk about where our missions and our skills align, figure out how to fund publishing of quality scholarship, and embrace open access.

Is that so hard? Don’t answer that question.

type at the press at Colorado College

Breakfast of Librarians

I feel guilty that I haven’t posted in a while. Weekly deadlines for Library Journal columns have kept me hopping. I should take notes on how Steven Bell manages his deadlines. He’s the ultimate kept-up librarian.

But I thought I’d share something fun we’ve been doing this spring at my library – we started a journal club. A couple of times a month, we gather for breakfast in the college cafeteria on a Friday morning to discuss a common reading chosen by one of us. These include preprints of College and Research Libraries articles, articles from Communications in Information Literacy, or (most recently) the Taiga Provocative Statements coupled with the Darien Statements.

We’ve been joined by an intern, who brings a fresh perspective from a student who is about to go to library school but is still close to the undergraduate experience. (Maura, we’ll miss you when your internship is over!) We also have recently-hatched MLS who has a sharp mind and has been an excellent sabbatical replacement. (Anyone looking for a top-notch young librarian? Let me know.)

These have been such fun conversations, and they have been productive, too. Out of one of these informal get-togethers, we come up with a plan to hire and train some peer tutors to work at the reference desk between ten pm and midnight. Because we’ve had a lot of interest from students in doing internships, and we have a good example of peer tutoring in our Writing Center, we think we adapt some of our materials for interns into training, and provide some reference service at a time when the librarians are ready to call it a night but our students are finally getting a stretch of time when they can concentrate on their research.

Our journal club has proven to be a low-stakes, simple, and fun way to do a bit of professional development. Are there things you do at your library to foster good discussions among the librarians or share new ideas? Do tell.

(photo courtesy of arvindgrover)

One Search Box to Rule Them All

This guest post by Amy Fry, Electronic Resources Coordinator at Bowling Green State University’s Jerome Library, is a timely reflection on Midwinter and on current events that have us all wondering how to strike a balance between convenient access and dependence on a few powerful vendors.
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Discovery services, as you can imagine, were a big topic at ALA Midwinter this year. EBSCO discussed their new product at both the LITA Electronic Resources Management Interest Group on Friday night and at their own Academic Lunch on Saturday; Cal State Web Services Librarian David Walker discussed them at the LITA Top Tech Trends forum on Sunday, and my own ALA committee, the RUSA MARS Local Systems & Services Committee, hosted a discussion forum about them on Sunday afternoon.

These services were born in response to librarians’ exasperation with isolated content and disappointment with federated search technology, as well as the continued realization that our students want the library to work like Google. But according to Senator Joe Lieberman, libraries are not alone: the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs not only recognizes a similar problem in intelligence databases, but is saying the same thing: Why doesn’t it work like Google?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010, on NPR’s Morning Edition, Lieberman told Renee Montagne what librarians have been telling each other about students for years. “I’m concerned that they [employees of the National Counterterrorism Center, in this case] don’t have the easy ability to draw linkages between the various databases.” He continued: “when we go into Google…Google immediately searches an enormous number of databases. It’s not clear to me that, at the National Counter Terrorism Center today, if you put in the name ‘Umar Farouk’ or even Nigerian it will automatically cross-search all the intelligence and law enforcement databases it has. I want to find out whether that exists, and I’m afraid that it doesn’t.”

Montagne couched this as a “computers” problem. “Is that computers?” she asked. “Is that, literally, you cannot go in there and put ‘Abdul Farouk, Nigerian, Yemen’ and…bring everything together?” Of course, saying it’s a problem of computers, or even one of search, simplifies it greatly. It’s a problem of not only bringing together, but accurately searching, de-duping and ranking results from databases designed on different platforms using different descriptive standards (from bare-bones MARC to full-text and everything in between) to fulfill very different information needs (think MEDLINE versus Web of Science versus MLA). It’s also a problem of getting information providers to agree to work together, especially when doing so potentially violates their core business, which is to provide value-added, premium information at a price. EBSCO’s Sam Brooks described the problem well when discussing vendor efforts to get indexing services to agree to let products like EBSCO Discovery Service and Summon (Serials Solutions) search their full files, not just the top layer of metadata. His description (which ended with, of course, his telling us how using EBSCO solves this problem) brought home the complexity of this endeavor and how far, with so many information providers working at cross purposes for profit, we probably still truly are from that one Google-like search box, despite all vendor claims.

So far, I haven’t heard anything negative from libraries about discovery services, and user testing at the University of Minnesota, the University of Chicago, and Dartmouth College (as described by our panelists, Cody Hanson, Frances McNamara and Barbara DeFelice) was, also, largely positive (while pointing towards directions for refinement). David Walker cautioned that the true measure of these products remains to be taken, but I am cautiously optimistic and very excited – as long as libraries and vendors (like our law enforcement agencies) can keep our shared goals in view.

In this respect the even more recent fallout between EBSCO and Gale over mainstream magazines is disheartening: with each telling such different stories I fear that we will never learn the whole truth. Will “one search box to rule them all” become “one vendor to rule them all”? It seems contrary to the spirit of cooperation that the library community has fostered since books were unchained centuries ago, but the true measure of this possibility, like that of discovery services, remains to be taken.

Amy Fry

What Can We Learn from “Lessons Learned”?

It has taken me way too long to get around to reading Project Information Literacy‘s progress report, “Lessons Learned: How College Students Seek Information in a Digital Age.” Some of the key findings from their survey of over 2,000 students:

–They spend a lot of time getting a grasp of context: the big picture, the words being used to describe what they’re investigating, what they’re supposed to produce as a finished product. (This, it seems to me, is particularly true of novice researchers – or any researcher who is investigating something they know little about.)

–They don’t report using searching Google as their first step in starting a research project; they consult course readings to get their grounding. (Google and Wikipedia come first for non-classroom research needs.)

–Most of them don’t seek help from librarians. They seek it from their professors. Only about 20% consult librarians, and that is most often for help with search terms and with finding full text sources already identified.

–They consistently use a limited number of sources and strategies based on what has worked before. In large part their problem isn’t finding sources, it’s limiting the number of sources available so they can complete a project.

–putting off research because of “library anxiety” seems to have been replaced by confident procrastination.

–In addition to Google, almost all students report using library databases. Databases are useful for locating credible sources, and credibility matters to them (though brevity is also appreciated); Google is helpful in understanding context and figuring out what those sources mean.

–Most students also consult the catalog as part of their research process.

–The traditional “research strategy” still found on some library websites – moving from general to specific by means of reference books, then books, then articles,then the web – bears no relationship to student research practices. (I can’t resist adding that I thought that “research strategy” was bogus twenty years ago.)

The authors raise some thought-provoking conclusions which mirror some of my concerns. Does the kind of work these students do using library resources contribute to life-long learning, or are they preforming tasks that will get them through college and then be abandoned? If they are taking their cues from faculty, shouldn’t we be sending cues to faculty? Maybe rather than providing library services most students find unimportant to them, we should spend more time working with their research mentors: their teachers.

More will be coming from this project – including an analysis of instructor assignments. Which reminds me – I’ll bet faculty would be interested in the findings of this survey. See if you can use a few nuggets from it to start a conversation.

photo courtesy of oceandesetoile and the Flickr Creative Commons pool.

Impact Factors Adjusted for Reality

An interesting study forthcoming in the September issue of C&RL tackles the question of how our scholarship is evaluated by tenure and promotion committees. As a tenured librarian in a department in which half of the faculty are currently working toward tenure, this question intrigues me. Fortunately, my non-librarian colleagues at my institution do not take a bean-counter approach to assessing scholarship. I’ve served on the committee and have seen first-hand that there’s no talk of “impact factor” and having published a book is not a mechanical substitute for evaluating the significance of a faculty member’s intellectual work and potential for future engagement with ideas.

The authors describe the way Oregon State University has adopted Boyer’s definition of scholarship – which embraces not just discovery of new knowledge, but application, teaching, and integration. After examining what librarians have been doing, they concluded the problem isn’t being productive, it’s explaining the “breadth and impact” of librarians’ scholarly work. This includes not only traditionally-published research, but additional modes of communicating ideas.

Blogs are vehicles to teach and communicate to both broad and specific audiences. Their format precludes them being taken seriously as scholarship in current tenure review processes, but their content often demonstrates engagement and suggests impact in ways rarely seen in the print library journal. This raises questions about the concept of format and vehicle. Expanding acceptance of new forms of communication along with reconsidering what constitutes scholarship will benefit librarianship as a whole. A first step is accepting open-access, peer reviewed journals as outlets of high impact and validity. The next step will be integrating non-traditional peer reviewed work such as blogs that have an active readership and generate comments and commentary.

The outsourcing of faculty evaluation by peers – relying on university presses and journal rankings to determine whether a colleague is worthy or not – has contributed to the problem libraries find themselves in: having to somehow fund access to a bloated body of research, much of which is only produced to gain job security. (Two years ago an MLA survey found a third of institutions required progress toward publishing a second book. This, when libraries’ budgets can’t keep up with bare necessities.)

Maybe in a backhanded way the work we do, documented in a way that people in other disciplines can understand, could provide a model for sanity.

CC-licensed image courtesy of Kristina B.