All posts by Laura Braunstein

A Librarian at the MLA

I recently attended the Modern Language Association’s annual convention. The theme of the conference, “Avenues of Access,” encouraged reflection on how scholars, students, and publics access the humanities within institutions and on their margins. What does access mean for students when many American universities are eliminating humanities departments and programs? What does access mean for scholars when, according to the MLA’s own statistics, only about half of all doctorates in languages and literatures ever receive tenure-track positions?

As librarians, we might think of “Avenues of Access” in a different way – libraries are the central physical and digital avenues of access to the humanities on many campuses. How can attending MLA and other disciplinary conferences help us do our jobs better as librarians? Among the panels I attended, three stood out in offering ideas.

The roundtable “Theories and Practices of the Literary Lab” (abstracts) brought together six panelists discussing literary labs as campus centers for research, teaching, and discussion. Literary labs are spaces for distant (as opposed to close) reading, quantitative textual research, and collaborative projects open to experimentation and failure. As one panelist argued, book history and bibliography are often missing from the conversation (there were no librarians on the panel). How can librarians use our expertise to enhance literary lab scholarship? When I asked the group this question, the general consensus was just as faculty culture had to change to accept and nurture new kinds of literary research, library culture had to change – in particular, to be less proprietary about data – in order to participate.

The session “How Many Copies Is Enough? Libraries and Shared Monograph Archives,” arranged by the MLA’s Discussion Group on Libraries and Research in Language and Literature, asked “As libraries rely increasingly on digitized texts and on partnerships for archiving print volumes, how do libraries and scholars cooperate to ensure preservation of copies with artifactual value for scholarly purposes?” (abstracts and bibliography) Some questions from the discussion: How do consortial agreements about legacy collections affect bibliographers’ decision-making about current acquisitions? How can we add value to catalog records to identify print copies with artifactual value? How do we adapt the serendipity of browsing in the stacks to browsing in the digital environment? What criteria do we use to define “unique” in terms of a print copy? (A sidebar: We learned at this session that the MLA is revisiting the 1995 Statement on the Significance of Primary Records and the subsequent 1999 report Preserving Research Collections: A Collaboration Between Librarians and Scholars.)

My favorite session, overall, convened by the MLA’s president, Michael Bérubé, was “Avenues of Access: Digital Humanities and the Future of Scholarly Communication.” Inspired by the advent of MLACommons, a new social media platform for members, Matthew Kirschenbaum performed an archeology of his own digital presence, excavating material from Usenet, listservs, and early 1990s websites (complete with flashing graphics on the Geocities platform). He made three assertions about access. Access engenders power, he argued, in patterns of contact acceptance in social media platforms that parallel in-person networks in scholarly institutions like the MLA. Access entails risk: as a doctoral student, he posted drafts of his dissertation on his website, writing in the agora, hiding his ideas, like Poe’s purloined letter, in plain sight. And access requires time: we might envision a future where tenure and promotion are based on “cycles of attention” – the “likes” and retweets that make up the bibliometrics of social media. On the same panel, Bethany Nowviskie used William Morris’s statement that “you can’t have art without resistance in the materials” to make a case for the productive resistance on the margins of the profession. Those in adjunct positions and the alternative-academic movement, as well as librarians and technologists, are the translators and intermediaries, the generators of ideas and pedagogy in the digital humanities. By being generalists – jacks of all trades and masters of none – we enable the work of specialists and ensure access to scholarly communication for all.

One final note – as at most professional conferences, the MLA’s Twitter backchannel was a rich resource for commentary and discussion. Check it out at #mla13, and see my own comments at @laurabrarian

The end of the book as we know it, and I feel (mostly) fine.

I’m packing for an upcoming vacation and assembling my reading material. In addition to a backlog of unread New Yorkers, I’ll bring novels (mostly new fantasy and speculative fiction) that will keep me company in airports and at the lake. I’m trying to spend as little money as possible, and so I’m gathering Kindle books borrowed from friends, Kindle and ePub books borrowed from our local public library, and one eagerly awaited 561-page print book from my library’s collection.

As a librarian, I’m comfortable navigating the library eBook universe (or is it a minefield? asteroid belt? black hole?) for personal reading. Not all of our patrons find it easy, and not all libraries can make eBooks available to the extent that they would like. The subject inspires great pride in libraries, prejudice against publishers, common sense, and passionate sensibility –

  • In June, the Pew Internet and American Life Project reported that 12% of Americans who read (and what percentage of all Americans is that?) have borrowed ebooks from their public libraries, but half of those surveyed didn’t know that libraries offered that service. Those who do borrow ebooks from public libraries report frustration – with limited selection, long waits, and incompatible formats. If more patrons are going to use ebook lending services, we’ll have to have better relationships with publishers, and more titles and formats available.
  • New York Times financial columnist Ann Carrns describes her experience trying to save money by borrowing ebooks from her local library. She reports many of the same frustrations as the subjects in the Pew survey, but had more success when she stopped searching her library’s ebook collection for known items and instead browsed what titles were available. (I have also found this a great way to discover new authors, if you have patience to wade through the dross.)
  • Patrons are frustrated because, according to Barbara Fister, “large trade publishers think sharing is a bug, not a feature.” Ebook publishing models don’t value the culture of collaboration and cooperation that libraries are built upon. Academic libraries may have a slight advantage here, since we tend to work with academic and nonprofit publishers, who, like scholars, “think sharing is pretty much the point of publishing.”
  • Are we better off with ebooks or without them? Librarian in Black thinks we should break up with ebooks, because they are a bad boyfriend: “Libraries and eBooks aren’t shacking up anytime soon, not for real…not as long as publishers continue to falsely view us as a threat instead of a partner.” In contrast, Steven Harris argues that our relationship with print books is just as dysfunctional and codependent.
  • Is this the end of the book as we know it? Or do ebooks represent reading’s future? Speculative fiction has always contemplated the death of the book, according to English professor Leah Price, but “what [writers] never seem to have imagined was that the libraries housing those dying volumes might themselves disappear.” Let’s hope they’re right.

Responding to Change

Recently I had the pleasure of hearing Paul Courant, Dean of Libraries at the University of Michigan, and John Unsworth, vice provost for Library and Technology Services at Brandeis University, speak on The Hathi Trust, Google Books, and the Future of Research. The event was the part of the BNN Symposium on the Future of the Academy sponsored by the NorthEast Regional Computing Program (NERCOMP), the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE), and the Boston Library Consortium (BLC).

The theme of the day was institutional responses to technological change: how do we keep libraries relevant in supporting research? How can emerging technologies enable new kinds of research using traditional materials? How can we take advantage of changing technologies while preserving our values and services? This event was a great opportunity for thinking about these questions from a big-picture perspective.

Courant had a few central messages to his talk, which I summarize and comment on below. His words, paraphrased, are in italics, and my thoughts and questions follow.

  • Technology is a set of mechanisms that get you from input to output. Libraries produce value by making things reusable and sharing them; that’s a technology. We’re all using technology; there’s no such thing as a “technophobe.” Hardware and software, devices and databases, are all tools that function within this technology. Books are a technology: they move ideas along, from authorial input to reader output.
  • In a disrupted world, build things to see what works. Don’t wait for all the ducks to line up in a row. Dedicate time and energy for new initiatives, but don’t require that they be perfect, or have buy-in from an entire organization. Create and support spaces that enable experimental projects. (Is the Harvard Library Lab still operational? Are there others?) Learn from the things that don’t work.
  • The old system doesn’t tell you what to build. What do we do because we’ve always done it? Are there traditions (services, functions, processes) that we preserve for their own sake? What is worth preserving and what can we leave behind?
  • Look to purposes, not to things, although things can be the only way to some purposes. Is a traditional reference desk the only way to provide drop-in research help? What are other ways that we can provide time-of-need assistance? Must we be in the physical space of the library to provide this kind of help? Or does having a physical service desk in the centralized public space of the reading room encourage patrons to use librarians’ services? Does the presence of a reference desk enable user interactions that wouldn’t happen otherwise?
  • The library isn’t there for itself; it’s there to enable scholarship and learning. This is one of the “no-brainers” that I forget sometimes, especially with collection development. Creating an ideal collection with its own integrity can be very rewarding, but so can assembling connections to materials that enable and enrich research, teaching, and learning.
  • Preserve outcomes, not business models. Use the language of learning outcomes to help shape the direction of new projects. What do we want users to be able to do as a result of this service or product? What do users want to be able to do? How can we meet those needs using the resources we have?

The Ebook of My Dreams

We all have our frustrations with ebooks. The problem isn’t just one of print vs electronic or Luddite vs early adopter. Even as I happily consume Kindle books on my iPad and the new Project Muse collection for work, I find that ebooks simply don’t do the things I want them to do – the things the electronic format seems to promise. In an ideal world, what would ebooks do that would make them not a substitute for print books, but better than print books? What features would make ebooks represent a true new step in the evolution of information delivery systems? Here’s what I’d like to see :

Interoperability: Ebooks need to take advantage of the spatial navigability of the electronic environment. For example, the index should not exist separately as an additional PDF file, as many ebook indexes do. Instead, I should be able to click on an entry in the index (say, “deckchairs, rearrangement of”) and be linked to the place(s) in the text where that topic is discussed. With endnotes, it’s frustrating to flip to the end, especially when it’s just a bibliographic citation. Can you give me the information without taking me away from the text? Can I mouse-over and get the information in a pop-up window? How much more work would it take to link up index entries and notes? How much more of an intellectual payoff would we get?

Intertextuality: Does the book cite other books? Journal articles? Blogs? Websites? Well, connect me – not just to bibliographic information that I can port into a link resolver and then cross my fingers. Take me there: right to the page that the author discusses. Make the connectivity that we expect on the web a standard feature of ebooks. Is there an allusion to some other text? Identify the allusion and give me the option of linking to it. But also give me the option of turning off all of the annotations — sometimes I just want to read without interruption. Especially if I’m reading James Joyce.

Sharing: Hey, I just read this great essay in that new collection – it would really help with that project we’re working on. Want to borrow my copy with all my notes?  Great, and you can add your annotations too. When we’re done with work, want to borrow this great new novel I just finished reading? Oh, sorry, I read it on my Kindle. You’ll have to pay $9.99 too.

Device Neutrality: You have a Nook instead of a Kindle? No problem! You don’t have a device at all and you need to borrow one? Sure! You need to put the book on reserve, or use it on your laptop? Be our guest! But most of all, you don’t want to have to download an app just to read a book. Well, neither do I, and in my flying-car, jet-pack, futuristic fantasy world of ebooks, we don’t need to.

Curating: As a bibliographer, I need to acquire for my library the information that will support the research and teaching needs of the faculty and students on my campus. I don’t want a package that has been created by a vendor speculating about the needs of liberal-arts college library collections. I want to buy ebooks for my library just like I buy print books — some on approval, some as firm orders, some through patron-driven acquisitions, some because a new professor has been hired in that subject area, and some because they belong in a collection of record. I don’t want to be told that I can’t have an ebook in my collection because my vendor’s conglomerate competes with its publisher’s conglomerate. If two print books sit happily next to each other on a physical shelf, why can’t they coexist on a virtual shelf?

Can we also decide: eBook? e-book? ebook?

Yes, some of these features do exist already, often as standalone apps. Many of these are features we’ve come to expect from ejournal (eJournal? e-journal?) environments. What ebook features do you dream about?

Three Cheers and Two Questions for the DPLA

Robert Darnton gave a talk at my institution last week about the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA). He presented a progress report, the details of which he has outlined in the New York Review of Books. The first prototype of the DPLA, using technology developed in the project’s “Beta Sprint” competition, should be released in April 2013.

Darnton’s inspiration is familiar to most academic librarians: publisher greed has turned the public good of knowledge into a private commodity. Rising subscription prices have created an enclosure movement whereby the knowledge commons has become a gated community. The DPLA is envisioned as a “mega-meta-macro library” that would harness the technology of the internet to disseminate and preserve the world’s information for all, and for the ages.

I was encouraged and inspired by Darnton’s talk. As the project moves forward, I have two questions, both relating to possible unintended effects of the DPLA on long-term preservation of library materials.

Darnton described how the DPLA would employ a “moving wall” model of access to collections. Much like JSTOR’s archives of journal articles, the DPLA’s holdings would ideally lag three to five years behind currently released material (once some very thorny copyright issues have been untangled). Local institutions – public and academic libraries – would complement the DPLA by continuing to provide access to newly published books. The DPLA’s “opening day” collection would aggregate existing digital projects, such as the Hathi Trust and Internet Archive, enhanced by unique digital collections from rare book and special collections libraries.

My first question is: to what extent would this moving wall disincentivize academic and public libraries to maintain and preserve their own print collections, once the DPLA’s materials are available? My institution, like many, has deaccessioned back runs of JSTOR journals. With pressure on our libraries to reappropriate shelf space, will we see the same trend with book collections? Will public libraries lose support from their communities if “everything” indeed becomes available on the internet?

Second – and I must credit one of our library’s interns for this question – since the DPLA will aggregate many different digital collections, how confident are we that digitization standards will be consistent? Darnton admitted after the lecture that provided certain baseline standards are met, the project may have little control over quality. Individual institutions do such a nice job in digitizing their own materials, he suggested, that they could be models for the rest of the project. But given the amount of material targeted for inclusion, and the unlikelihood of reprocessing millions of pages of material already digitized, we can probably expect a wide variation in standards. How important is this, to us and to users?

Before the lecture, I joked to a friend that we were about to watch an episode of “Darnton Abbey.” Librarians in Darnton Abbey will be both upstairs and downstairs – we should labor to support the project, but we, like all users, will also greatly benefit. In the face of trends that threaten to enclose information in an estate of privilege, the DPLA aims to democratize knowledge for all.