All posts by Brett Bonfield

A Surprise Ending

At ACRLog, I try to write about the biggest issues I can wrap my head around, and I try to write primarily for librarians who are new to the profession, especially those who are only a year or two into school or who have recently graduated. I think of this as following the imperative to “write what you know.” Since I don’t know any less about the biggest issues than I do about the smallest, I stick to the biggies, and since I enrolled in my first library class just eighteen months ago, having never worked in a library, I write mostly for my peers.

It’s been a fantastic eighteen months, perhaps the best eighteen months of my life: if you had told me then that I’d be where I am now, I would have thought you were crazy. Meredith Farkas has just published real advice on how to achieve real success, and I suppose I’ve managed to do some of the things she wrote about, though for me it’s mostly been a matter of stumbling uninvited into committee meetings and writing about things that interest me.

Fortunately, that seems to have been enough. While getting your first full-time library job can be tough, other sorts of opportunities seem all but limitless, even for new librarians. I’ve had a chance to meet dozens of people I consider role models, and probably hundreds more I admire. Incredible people have agreed to let me visit their libraries, allowed me to publish and make presentations, invited me to join them on committees and boards, and have agreed to work on thorny, long-term projects with me.

Which is a long way of not writing that a funny thing happened on my way to my first full-time job at an academic library: as of May 1, I’ll be director of the Collingswood (NJ) Public Library. It’s a wonderful library, with a fantastic staff and board and friends group, and I’m incredibly excited about working for my neighbors. I’ll really miss academic librarianship, but some opportunities are too good to pass up. Though the specifics will change, I hope to find similar opportunities in PLA, NJLA, and LAMA.

As for ACRLog, this is it for me. As much as I’m dying to publish it, I can’t imagine that anyone would read 2,000 words on how bibliometric analysis of every student paper, thesis, and dissertation, and every faculty article and book, is not only technically possible, morally defensible, and cost effective, but may be the most relevant assessment tool for academic libraries. And not just for its traditional use, evaluating collections, but also for measuring how effective we are as educators: if reference interactions and instruction sessions don’t lead to scholarly citations, then how useful can they possibly be? Given the possibilities created by expanding the scope and importance of automated bibliometric assessment, now seems like an ideal time to work with scholars to standardize on a single, simple, open citation format. It would also be a good time to study academic libraries’ annual reports, codify best practices, and develop a data specification that facilitates quick and accurate benchmarking.

Which is to say, thank you for reading. And be sure to look me up next time you’re in Collingswood.

Telling Our Story

When I look at other academic professions, it seems that most practitioners have a good sense of their own history. For instance, even undergraduate physics majors seem able to speak knowledgeably about Bohr, Curie, Einstein, Fermi and dozens of others who have made notable contributions to the field.

I don’t see that in librarianship, especially academic librarianship. The development of modern physics aligns roughly with the development of modern librarianship, but how many of us know as much about our intellectual predecessors as physicists do about theirs? How would you do on a quiz about Cutter, Dewey, Lubetzky, Otlet, Panizzi, Ranganathan, and Verona? How about one on the fifteen “leaders in academic librarianship” I touched on in “Reflections on Leadership“?

The Great Man Trap

One reason we might not do well on this quiz is that many of us aren’t comfortable with the idea of the leader/great man of history. Barbara Fister, in particular, does a wonderful job of explaining this view. Here’s one example (from her comment on “Reflections on Leadership”):

“(T)here are all kinds of people who make things work well in libraries and never get the credit for it because they’re not in a position of power or inclined to promote themselves or, in fact, may be more interested in the work they do than in building their careers. Too often people in libraries have to do that work in subversive ways because they are presumed to be drones who report to more important people who supposedly are paid to make the decisions but are mostly just paid more.”

I agree with this point completely, but for me there are mitigating factors. As I responded:

“It’s important to be aware of the “Great Man” trap, but I suspect that I’m not the only person who has a difficult time making sense of data and theories without an accompanying story. And, for me, the most interesting stories are about people.

For instance, in my opinion, what makes Stephanie Nolen’s 28 Stories of AIDS in Africa so effective is that she seems to get all three elements right: the data seems comprehensive and accurate, the theories seem to explain the data, and the stories complement both…. (E)ven stories about traditional leaders—e.g. Nelson Mandela or Robert B. Downs—are hard to tell accurately without also talking about the people whose work they are often given credit (or blame) for—their colleagues who may not be in a position of power or who are not inclined to promote themselves or build their own careers. These peoples’ contributions are undoubtedly important, but I’m more likely to learn about them if someone points me to Mandela or Downs than if I have to somehow learn about them without first researching the people who are traditionally thought of as leaders.”

Do I Get Partial Credit for Knowing the History of Physics?

As Wayne Bivens-Tatum pointed out to me, another reason academic librarians may not know about the history of their own profession is that many of us identify more closely with our specializations: the subjects we collect, the departments for which we have liaison responsibilities, the areas we studied as undergraduates or in earning non-MLS graduate degrees. Like Barbara Fister’s objection, I think this makes sense as an explanation, but not as a defense of the status quo. Of course we should learn as much as we can about our subject responsibilities, but we should learn as much as we can about academic librarianship as well. At the very least, shouldn’t we learn how others did what we do? It’s amazing what we can forget by not paying attention. There’s no glory in reinventing the wheel or recoining a term.

There Must Be a Tail Here Somewhere

I think the third reason we don’t see our history discussed all that much is self-perpetuating. There simply hasn’t been much of a discussion to join, especially recently. If you’ve followed the mainstream media’s extensive coverage of The Long Tail, you’ve been exposed to the idea that sometimes all it takes is a small group to sustain a movement. Unfortunately, for the time being, that group doesn’t seem to exist. As I mentioned in “Academic Librarianship’s Future Strengths,” even at the Library History Round Table the history of academic librarianship doesn’t seem to come up all that much.

Back in 1976, College & Research Libraries celebrated the ALA centennial by devoting the entire year to academic library history (published in book form the next year as Libraries for Teaching, Libraries for Research). In 1981, Arthur T. Hamlin published The University Library in the United States and Orvin Lee Shiflett published Origins of American Academic Librarianship, and 1983 brought the Wayne Wiegand-edited Leaders in American Academic Librarianship. Other books have covered elements of our history, such as academic library buildings, pre-Victorian libraries and librarianship, the Carnegie Corporation’s influence in shaping librarianship, and the contributions of the Graduate Library School at Chicago, but in the past twenty-five years, the most notable general study on American academic librarianship seems to be Sharon Gray Weiner’s good but short 2005 article, “The History of Academic Libraries in the United States: a Review of the Literature.”

Making History

As academic librarians, we tend to get a very short introduction to our history in school, pick up a bit from journals or blogs, and perhaps learn a little something from colleagues. But we tend to miss a great deal more than we’re exposed to: since entering library school eighteen months ago, I’ve probably read or heard at least three dozen academic librarians discuss Facebook at length, but my first and only exposure to Robert Downs was when I read Leaders in American Academic Librarianship a couple of months back. That seems out of whack to me. And it feels like, without that knowledge—without a sense of our history—we’re in danger of paying too little attention to the people, organizations, and movements that are doing historically significant work and too much attention to ideas that have the historical earmarks of faddishness.

In “Reflections on Leadership” I asked who should be getting our attention now: Who has emerged, or seems to be emerging, as our more notable leaders and role models? Barbara Fister and Scott Walter were kind and brave enough to volunteer a few names each. I got in touch with some of the librarians on these lists and asked them to write about one of their academic librarian role models and how that person influenced one of their most important projects. Ray English, Christine Pawley, and ShinJoung Yeo agreed to participate, and responded with stories that are at once moving and inspiring. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.

Ray English

Ray English, Ph.D., is the Azariah Smith Root Director of Libraries at Oberlin College. He wrote:

My primary mentor in academic librarianship was the late William A. Moffett, who was Director of Libraries at Oberlin from 1979 to 1990. I worked closely with Bill for 11 years. He made extraordinary improvements in the Oberlin College Library and he also created national headlines by championing the cause of collection security following the capture in Oberlin of an infamous book thief. He left Oberlin to become librarian at the Huntington and achieved international fame by opening up access the Dead Sea Scrolls. He’s the only librarian I know whose picture appeared on the front page of the New York Times. He was elected president of ACRL and was also received the ACRL Academic Research Librarian of the Year award.

Bill and I were very different personalities. He loved the media limelight and did not shy away from confrontation. I’ve never really sought—or even liked—public attention. I have over the years learned how to be a public figure, but only because I had to. I’ve always been more comfortable with facilitation and the behind the scenes processes of getting things done. I love to think of ways to move complex issues forward, taking into account to the extent possible the various factors involved.

Despite our different approaches, Bill showed me in numerous ways what a library director can accomplish when he or she thinks big and is willing to take on important issues. If it had not been for Bill, I doubt that I would ever have worked to establish the ACRL scholarly communications program or become active in SPARC. I was actually attracted to scholarly communications issues because they are big and complex. I felt I had a sense of what might be needed to bring about transformative systemic change. I never thought that I could accomplish that much on my own, but I was quite confident that I could be a leader in engaging the academic library community on these issues. That was in part because of what I saw Bill accomplish.

One of the things that I admired deeply about Bill was his unswerving dedication. He was totally committed to his work and it was evident to everyone that he loved what he was doing. I have been very fortunate in the same way. I work hard—often for more hours than anyone rightfully should—but I also know that I am fighting for causes that are fundamentally good. That makes the work a lot of fun a lot of the time—and even when it is not that much fun, it is rewarding.

If I had any advice for those who want to be leaders in the profession today, it would be to find and engage important issues that they care about in their guts, issues that become their fundamental passions. Those who do that will find the journey to be very worthwhile, no matter what successes they achieve.

Christine Pawley

Christine Pawley, Ph.D., is a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Library and Information Studies and director of its Center for the History of Print Culture in Modern America. She wrote:

I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that the librarian (now educator) who has had most influence on my own work is Wayne Wiegand. Wayne taught the first class I took in library school (about twenty years ago): collection development. This was unlike any other collection development course you have ever heard of. He linked collection development to the sociology of knowledge of Berger and Luckmann, the reader response theories of Iser and Jauss, and the speech code theory of Basil Bernstein. Wayne had not yet discovered Gramsci, Foucault, and Habermas, otherwise we would doubtless have had the neo-Marxian, post-modern, and critical theory angle on collection development, too. I loved it all. I was just taking this one class to see if librarianship was for me. I eagerly signed up for more classes the following semester, assuming that all SLIS classes would be taught in the same vein. Well, no, I soon discovered. Other classes were instructive, but social theory—no, not so much.

When I signed on for the long haul and became a doctoral student, it was the Wayne vision for LIS that I had in mind, though I wasn’t too sure how this would work out in practice. Luckily for me, Wayne and Jim Danky were collaborating to found the Center for the History of Print Culture. Print Culture, Wayne believed, was the siege engine that would break down the defensive walls surrounding and isolating LIS, and that would allow the liberating ideas of other disciplines—history, literary criticism, cultural studies and sociology—to release the inmates from their self-incarceration. Luckily for me, too, Wayne located just the primary source for my PhD study—a set of circulation and accessions records from some tiny town in Iowa. “Put these together with census data,” he said, “and you’ve got yourself a dissertation.”

I was amazed at his generosity in passing this “find” on to a student. Yet I recognized that he wasn’t doing this just to help me out. Wayne was always working on a strategy for libraries and history; always thinking up new ways to make the rest of us think in new ways. When—as often happened—he passed on to his students a publishing or speaking opportunity, or involved us in one of his many projects, it was, of course, incredibly helpful of him. But it was also part of his troop deployment, sending us off to do battle with what we learned to think of as the forces of complacency. And even though we knew we figured in some small way in Wayne’s grand schemes, he was never manipulative. He came up with ideas, yet emphasized that these were indeed only suggestions. And it was indeed fine to take the bits that you felt would work, and leave other bits aside.
Through his writing and teaching, Wayne has had an extraordinary influence over hundreds of practitioners and educators. I feel so fortunate to be one of them.

ShinJoung Yeo

ShinJoung Yeo is the Coordinator for Reference and Outreach Services and Bibliographer for Communication at Cecil H. Green Library, Stanford University. She wrote:

I always feel some uneasiness about naming particular people who’ve influenced me in my views of librarianship and especially its connections to social justice. Social justice is rarely brought about by one individual’s actions but rather many people committed to the cause. Despite this uneasiness, I can say that librarians like E.J. Josey, Eric Moon, Juliette Hampton Morgan, Anita Schiller, Kathleen de la Peña McCook, and Clara Chu demonstrate what librarianship is all about— liberatory education, equality and justice.

The common thread between these librarians is that they all questioned social norms, were able to see injustice, had courage to challenge that injustice and were/are committed to serving their communities. E.J. Josey, Eric Moon, Juliette Hampton Morgan and many other librarians participated in the civil rights movement, challenged racial segregation within ALA and the library community, and called for justice in their workplaces. They weren’t silent and didn’t accept “the social norm” which caused unequal access to knowledge, tremendous pain and oppression to people of color. In 1968, Anita Schiller, in her study entitled, “Characteristics of Professional Personnel in College and Research Libraries,” first documented the gender inequality prevalent within the library profession. Kathleen de la Peña McCook and Clara Chu have been devoted to teaching the next generation of librarians about the library as a place where democratic ideals can flourish. I became a librarian with little knowledge about the history of librarianship, but these librarians opened my eyes, taught me how radical is librarianship as a profession. Their courage continues to inspire me.

I still consider myself to be a novice librarian but I have been fortunate to be part of several projects that carry on the tradition of library activism. I have had the opportunity, in collaboration with many librarians, to be part of radical reference. Radical Reference is a group of over 300 librarians who have supported the information needs of activists and independent journalists since it was launched in 2004. More recently and closer to home, I helped to found the Stanford Open Source Lab to promote free/open software on campus. The ideals of open source software closely align with the ideals of libraries—access to and sharing of information, collaboration, and communities. This is a just start but I hope to continue to contribute to the field in the years to come.

I am incredibly grateful to Ray English, Christine Pawley, and ShinJoung Yeo for sharing their stories and for furthering my understanding and appreciation of our profession. I’m also grateful to Barbara Fister and Scott Walter for mentioning their admiration for these librarians’ work.

I hope you will use our comments section to mention others whose stories should be told and to tell your own story. I feel certain I’m not the only one who would love to read it.

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.

ts;db

I’ve noticed that several of my favorite writers have resolved to post more frequently in 2008. Dear favorite writers: at the risk of sounding ungrateful, would you be terribly offended if I begged you not to follow through on this resolution? The odds are, I like your writing because:

  • You publish relatively infrequently. I think you’re great, which is why I read your writing, but I don’t want to know everything that’s on your mind. Generally, somewhere between once a week to once a month is fine by me.
  • Your pieces tend to take me at least five minutes to read, though ideally you’ll allow me the privilege of spending 15-50 minutes on ideas that have taken you several hours to put into words.
  • You publish almost nothing that’s off-topic, in particular almost nothing that’s both off-topic and solely about you. Once or twice a year, at most, going off-topic or writing about yourself is actually endearing. And it can be useful in our post-postmodern world if you acknowledge personal reasons for your opinions. But I’m reading your writing in order to learn about the topic of your blog. Abandon that topic too often and I’ll mostly likely unsubscribe from your feed.

The above criteria were the “ah ha” I got from Steve Yegge’s “Blogging Theory 201: Size Does Matter,” in which he suggests that his website, Stevey’s Blog Rants, is popular not in spite of the fact that he posts long pieces more or less monthly, but because he does.

Let’s start with the obvious. People expect blogs to be short – at least, shorter than mine. They expect that because it’s pretty much how everyone does it. Short entries, and frequent. Here’s my cat today. Doesn’t he look sooo different from yesterday? No wonder so many people hate bloggers.

When I write my long blogs, I’m bucking established social convention, so it’s natural that some people will whine that they’re too long.

Well, how far off cultural expectations am I? Doing a quick print preview in my browser shows that my last entry, formatted at about 14 words per line (typical for a printed book) weighs in at about ten pages. So it’s roughly essay-sized. I’m not talking about those toy five-paragraph essays they made you write in high school. I’m talking about real-life essays by real-life essayists. Real essays can range from three pages to 30 or more, but ten pages is not an unusual length.

If I were attempting to publish these entries as books, publishers would laugh at me. They’re way too short to be books. Sure, I could bundle them, but that’s beside the point. The fact is, two different real-world audiences have entirely incompatible views on what the proper length for my writing should be.

Yegge’s interpretation of online publishing convention is how the notion of length in particular (and essays in general) relates to academic librarians. Steven Bell has written recently on ACRLog and (with David Murray) in College & Research Library News about faculty members who publish online and the importance of our reading their work. As a new academic librarian, this is the sort of idea that is both challenging (Where will I find the time?) and welcome (Cool! More great stuff to read!). He’s also written recently about the idea of tenure for librarians, which, naturally, leads back to what tenure is really all about, on what basis it should be awarded, and whether anyone should have it. Of course, this is interesting on a theoretical level for librarians who have cleared the tenure hurdle or amassed a body of work that would allow them to do so relatively easily if they end up working at an institution where librarians have faculty standing. For those of us new to the profession, discussions about tenure elicit somewhat more practical concerns.

My reading of these discussions is that it comes down to publishing: are we giving back to the profession, and to society, by publishing valuable new ideas and discoveries? Does the protection afforded by tenure foster more valuable writing? For some, peer review is the starting point in determining value, especially for tenure committees, which are often made up of faculty from many departments. Reading standard tenure candidate portfolios is arduous enough; expecting committee members to read the contents of a web-based archive could be interpreted as asking for trouble. After all, how much value could there be in something that was posted online, for free, without the benefit of a formal review process? It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to to notice the difference between the sort of entires you’re likely to find in someone’s LiveJournal and the investigations published in Nature.

Of course, if all non-peer-reviewed online writing were the academic equivalent of I Can Has Cheezburger or Alan Sokal’s parody, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” then Steven’s posts probably would not have elicited the responses that they did. But we know better.

WordPress, MoveableType, and other software packages, by making it easy for people to publish their ideas, have helped create an Internet awash with mundane posts. But widespread use of these software packages by highly esteemed writers has also helped create not only an expectation that the best writers will make their ideas available online, but also an expectation that, with a little legwork, we’ll be able to find their work online for free.

That last part—the notion that non-digital or firewalled writing doesn’t exist—is beyond the scope of this piece. By way of extricating myself from that briar patch, I’ll invite you to imagine a world in which we could download podcasts of the “A Room of One’s Own” lectures Virginia Woolf gave at Cambridge in 1928, or subscribe to feeds of Dorothy Parker’s “Constant Reader” articles or Pauline Kael’s essays on cinema. Once you’re finished imagining that, I suggest that you subscribe to book reviews by Salon’s Laura Miller, Judith Martin’s Miss Manners column, and to join me in counting the minutes until someone offers an Alice Munro feed. Certainly, given the present state of copyright and OCR technology, we may be farther from a fully Googleable world than some of our constituents would like to believe. But we’re also a lot closer than some of our colleagues seem willing to acknowledge (e.g. Laura Miller, Judith Martin, and hundreds or thousands of other brilliant writers making some of all of their best work available not only for free, but via feeds). I think it would be great if we as academic librarians committed to doing our part to bringing a freer, more searchable online world closer and to making it better. One way to do it would be to sacrifice quantity in order to increase quality, at least in the work we’re sharing with peers.

Here’s the first point I’m trying to make: good, thoughtful prose is valuable no matter where or how it’s published. Grigor Perelman posted his groundbreaking work on the Poincaré Conjecture on the free, web-based arXiv.org in November 2002, March 2003, and July 2003, a repository that at the time was considerably easier to post to than ACRLog is now. Even though it has since introduced an endorsement system, arXiv.org remains close to barrier free—and full of indisputably valuable work. Committee members making tenure decisions, just like scientists making arXiv.org endorsements or mathematicians awarding the Fields Medal, are cheating everyone when they take shortcuts in deciding whether someone’s work has value. Peer review plays an important role in numerous situations, but there are times it is neither necessary, as with Perelman, nor sufficient, as with Sokal’s “Transgressing the Boundaries.” At the same time, you may be cheating yourself and your readers if you reserve your best work for peer-reviewed, subscription-only journals. Eventually, people will be rewarded for publishing good work online, and not just with popularity badges.

Here’s the second point I’m trying to make: good, thoughtful prose generally takes more than a few minutes a day to write and more than a couple of hundred words to express. I don’t think it’s a bad thing when people dismiss longer pieces with tl;dr (too long, didn’t read). Certainly, when we’re writing for undergraduates or Pierre Bayard, we need to take that wholly defensible sensibility into account. But if you’re writing for me, and for many other academic librarians, please understand that we’re likely to dismiss light, quick, frequent posts with ts;db: “Too short, didn’t bother.”

Reflections on Leadership

In 1979, Wayne A. Wiegand assembled an advisory board and asked them to identify the most prominent academic library leaders for the previous half-century. They eventually agreed on fifteen librarians, whose biographies were published in 1983 as a chapbook entitled Leaders in American Academic Librarianship: 1925-1975.

The book serves as a great reminder that issues we’re tempted to think of as unique to us and our time period are often echoes of longstanding debates: libraries have always been underfunded; there was never a time when undergraduates knew how to use libraries or were information literate; nor was there ever a time in which faculty members truly appreciated our role in educating students. However, the fifteen librarian leaders excelled at working through these and other obstacles.

Here’s the complete list of leaders, their birth and death years, the years of their ALA and ACRL presidencies, and the year in which they were made ALA Honorary Members.


In addition to providing a historical context, this book also gives us an opportunity to reconsider history. Thirty-five years have passed since its publication, meaning it may now be appropriate to ask:

  • If Wiegand assembled an advisory board now, and looked at the same time period, who would make the cut? How have our criteria changed?
  • Who were the fifteen most notable leaders for the half-century spanning 1950-2000? How do their accomplishments compare to those of the leaders from a generation earlier?
  • Which leaders are making a good case for the half-century from 1975-2025? And for 2000-2050?

Leadership has become a recurrent theme here on ACRLog, one Steven Bell addressed directly on November 7 and November 26, and acknowledged indirectly in his superb autobiographical post on December 5. That last post, in particular, had an encouraging message, but on another level it was terrifying, because it was inspired by a librarian with a few years more experience than I have, someone whose work I admire. If that person feels less than secure, how should I feel?

I experienced that same “professional terror” when I read Meredith Farkas’s recent post, Darn that Dream. She’s only three years removed from library school, but has already published a book, teaches at San Jose State, writes and gives presentations all over the place, etc. I realize that Meredith is just one NexGen librarian getting discouraged from applying for one job at one university, but it was hard not to react to that post with fear and trembling. It only seems natural to get a sinking feeling when Movers & Shakers are uncertain about their decisions and prospects.

Reading about the librarians profiled in Leaders in American Academic Librarianship has been a useful way to counter that sort of emotional reaction. These librarians made incremental moves early in their careers, often in ways that seemed orthogonal to directing a major academic library. Their fifteen stories have some similarities, but also strong differences, suggesting that there is no correct or obvious path to becoming a leader. What they had in common was an ability to inspire people to believe in them, and when given an opportunity, their actions justified that belief. As long as we can do that—as individuals and as a profession—we’re bound to succeed.