Category Archives: Books

On users, now and future

Almost every morning I come in the west side of the building, the original entrance for Mullins Library. On the way to my office, I pass a travelling exhibition that is here for the spring semester – a display of books from the Remnant Trust. As a part of my service activities for the library, I volunteer to lend a hand when needed with the collection. There are several times during the week that patrons can request to see and handle the books, which is always a delight for me.

As I am a cataloger, my office is in an area that is generally off-limits to most library patrons: technical services. The term off-limits makes me cringe a bit, but there is very little of interest to most patrons in the technical services area – lots of cubicles, dot-matrix printers, and the occasional typewriter (including the one in my office). Oh, and several shelves full of bibliographies and cataloging reference books. The utilitarian look of this area is in contrast to the more welcoming look of the patron-centered areas, and so we see very few patrons amidst our technological antiquities.

Working with the patrons who request to see the Remnant Trust materials has been a welcome change for me. These patrons are a reminder to me that everyone in the library, even we metadata wizards in technical services, works to serve the needs of our users. For me, it’s an easy point to forget about, or neglect; so working with patrons from time to time has been a welcome change and reminder of the service-centric nature of our profession. Indeed, as a cataloger, working with and listening to patrons makes my work better as the metadata I create and use can be better tailored to our patrons based on their feedback.

Of course, the reference librarians and staff are the first point of contact for many library patrons. Their mastery of the resources in their libraries and collections makes them well-suited to serve users. Those of us behind the scenes serve users with the work we do in describing resources, acquiring new items, and providing access to items in our collections. However, librarians are also charged with the responsibility of providing for future patrons – collecting and preserving those things that might have significance for those that come after us. This can take many forms, but the books in the Remnant Trust exhibit would not exist if it were not for forward-thinking collectors and librarians.

In this spirit, I would like to leave you with a quote about the Boston Athenaeum, one that highlights our place in the continuum of the printed and written word:

I decided to make a last stop at the Boston Athenaeum, one of America’s great book places and home of a magnificent research library that itself has been a work in progress since 1807.

There, I not only turned up the three elegantly printed volumes on a remote shelf in a basement storeroom, but found them in remarkably pristine condition, with pages that had remained uncut, and presumably unread, after all this time. As I was signing the books out at the front desk – the Athenaeum did not yet use a scanning device to record loans to its members, although that quaint practice was about to change as well – I confirmed by the blank cards tucked inside the rear pastedowns my assumption that they were, in fact, leaving the library for the first time. “Eighty-one years,” I said aloud, shaking my head with amused gratitude. “You wonder who they bought these books for anyway.” James P. Feeney, the silver-haired circulation librarian who was checking me out, paused momentarily and fastened his unblinking eyes on mine. “We got them for you, Mr. Basbanes,” he replied evenly, and resumed his work.

There, I not only turned up the three elegantly printed volumes on a remote shelf in a basement storeroom, but found them in remarkably pristine condition, with pages that had remained uncut, and presumably unread, after all this time. As I was signing the books out at the front desk – the Athenaeum did not yet use a scanning device to record loans to its members, although that quaint practice was about to change as well – I confirmed by the blank cards tucked inside the rear pastedowns my assumption that they were, in fact, leaving the library for the first time. “Eighty-one years,” I said aloud, shaking my head with amused gratitude. “You wonder who they bought these books for anyway.” James P. Feeney, the silver-haired circulation librarian who was checking me out, paused momentarily and fastened his unblinking eyes on mine. “We got them for you, Mr. Basbanes,” he replied evenly, and resumed his work.

What Feeney did not say – what he did not have to say – was that the books had been set aside by his predecessors for the better part of a century on the off chance that one day somebody in need might want to see them. Fortunately, the fact that nobody had requested the titles before me was not considered sufficient grounds for discarding them, a practice employed by so many other libraries in these days of reduced storage space, stretched operating budgets, and shifting paradigms. It was as if the collective hands of Aristophanes of Byzantium, Petrarch, Robert Cotton, Christina of Sweden, Thomas Jefferson, Arthur Alfonso Schomburg – every temporary custodian of the world’s gathered wisdom – had reached out through the swirling eddy of the ages and places in my hands the precious gift of a book. It was an act of faith fulfilled, and we, their heirs, owe no less a compact to the readers of the third millennium.1

It is this faith that we take part in as librarians in any and all parts of the library: reference, administration, technical services, inter-library loan, and many others. The faith that we will do our utmost to serve our patrons both now and in centuries hence.

  1. Basbanes, Nicholas A. Patience & Fortitude: A Roving Chronicle of Book People, Book Places, and Book Culture. New York: HarperCollins, 2001, p. 8-9. []

Use it or lose it

I’d never even heard of a Math Emporium until six months ago.

For those of you in a similar boat, a Math Emporium is a large computer lab with associated tutoring and supplemental instruction space used to offer remedial and lower-level math instruction via online, self-paced modules. I am not qualified to speak to its pedagogical merits but have reason to believe it is less faculty-intensive than traditional face-to-face classroom math instruction (these reasons include the fact that, during the most recent round of non-tenure-track faculty layoffs at BGSU, the department that took the biggest hit was Math).

If a Math Emporium is less faculty-intensive than traditional face-to-face classroom math instruction, it is more space-intensive. We have been told BGSU’s developing Math Emporium requires a space large enough for a 180-seat computer lab dedicated for 13 hours a day to math instruction. Following the lead of the universities that have gone before us (including our neighbors at Kent and Cleveland State), the best space for such a facility is, naturally…library collection space.

We welcomed a Learning Commons into our library building two years ago, significantly cutting down space devoted to reference, periodicals and government documents. The partnership is imperfect: the Learning Commons group study spaces are not available to librarians or walk-in users, and no one can sit in their area without swiping their ID card and recording their activity in the space – a policy which, as it violates my professional ethics, prevented me from holding my office hours there this fall. I have collaborated with the Learning Commons, however. I have referred students to their writing tutors and taught joint instruction sessions with them. Their writing tutors also refer students to librarians at our reference desk.

I have trouble imagining the same kind of thing happening with the Math Emporium. I do not understand what connection remedial math instruction has to any part of the library’s mission as an academic unit – and I honestly don’t think anyone is prepared to pretend that there is one. The library is seen as a convenient place to house this kind of facility because, frankly, the people who make these decisions see most of our building as empty space. To them, space housing physical collections is space that is not being used.

During the summer, BGSU sets up incoming student advising in the library, and a group of student workers sits by the front entrance to direct traffic. I once overheard a parent ask one of them, “Is this entire floor of the library the learning commons?” He said, “Yes. Well, pretty much. The learning commons is most of this part over here; that part over there is just library storage.”

Just library storage? I told the student, “No – those are our books – all the materials we collect and make available for people to use to complete their coursework and research!” He clearly felt bad, and he quickly apologized and told me he loved libraries. But it seems like he thought the same thing our administrators do – that everything is online, our stacks are full of things no one uses, and if we cut the library’s footprint for physical collections in half, no one will miss the thousands of volumes that will, almost certainly, just be thrown away.

I bet that to many, and even to many of you, I sound like a Luddite, not wanting to get rid of “legacy print collections.” It’s not that I’m opposed to doing that. (I’m an e-resources librarian – remember that!) I would be especially willing to do that if that work was going to result in spaces that would support the programmatic needs of the library and that would showcase our remaining collections. If it would allow us to create the kind of student and faculty space that makes people want to discover and create knowledge. The kind of space where students could work with our collections (curate, engage, create). But we never made that investment in our own space. We don’t have any processes in place to support those kinds of uses. We’ve just been doing the same things with our collections for years and years and years, crowding more and more volumes into a smaller and smaller space, keeping things for posterity while ignoring the present, and now both are threatened.

I believe we should both try to manage legacy print collections in a way that makes space for new priorities as well as in a way that leverages their use in the broadest possible way. This is going to require a little more nimbleness on our part – more proactivity, more willingness to adopt non-normal procedures, more cooperation, and more imagination. A year ago, a new professor in the School of Art approached me about our library’s space: she wanted her students to engage with our collections, but our collection spaces were “so uninviting.” Nothing about how our books were shelved or presented encouraged the kind of engagement she envisioned. As reimagining our first floor space was under discussion even then, I suggested we pilot something with the School of Art. My dean said she would talk with Capital Planning “when they get to the point of imagining the new spaces on the first floor…I imagine it would involve a lot of stacks shifting to create what we would really like.”

I don’t think a large computer lab for remedial math instruction is what she had in mind when she mentioned creating “what we would really like,” but it looks like that’s what we well may end up with. Regardless, earlier this week, the library faculty passed a resolution stating that we believed the Math Emporium was a “bad fit for the academic mission of the library, and therefore a bad fit for the Jerome Library building.” We’ll see what happens. I think part of the problem was we let Capital Planning imagine new spaces on the first floor of the library instead of going ahead and doing it ourselves. If our collection spaces are not especially inviting, I don’t expect replacing them with a Math Emporium will make them more so. Not for people who need to engage, curate, discover and imagine. Not for anyone except a couple hundred students taking low-level math, and not, perhaps, even for them.

 

Curiouser and Curiouser: Guiding Students through the Information Wonderland

This week I taught a research instruction session for a learning community that pairs an introductory English Composition course with a Speech course. I love teaching this class because I get to work with colleagues in our English and Humanities Departments with whom I’ve long collaborated; we have a good rapport in the classroom and the students always seem to get a lot out of the class. Because the library session runs for twice as long as usual — we use the class periods for both classes — we always have lots of time for students to practice doing research. Because the students are usually more engaged in learning communities and there are 3 instructors in the classroom, we also typically get into discussions about topics in information literacy that we often don’t have room for in the other sessions I teach.

This time around we found something very interesting. The students were researching the Brooklyn Theater Fire, an infamous late 19th-century disaster that happened just steps from our college’s campus. We’d been using the library catalog to look for books on Brooklyn and New York City history, talking about the kinds of keywords that work best for broad or narrow topics, the usual. Recently I’ve noticed that during the internet research part of my instruction sessions students sometimes find books on commercial sites like Amazon, so I’ve started to suggest that students note down the author and title of books they find on those sites and search for them in the library catalog. I recommended that to this class, too, and a student called me over to help him do the search in our library’s catalog for a book he found on Barnes & Noble.

The student was trying to search by ISBN in the keyword search field, but that wasn’t really the problem. The problem was that our library (and our university system) doesn’t own the book. And, actually, we’ll never own the book, because the book he was looking for was a book of Brooklyn historical information pulled directly from Wikipedia. It took a few minutes of poking around on the B&N website to figure that out, and then we all (as a class) found a long list of books “published” by the company LLC Books:

llcbooks

(Hey, at least they’re relatively inexpensive, right?)

This phenomenon is not new, nor is it restricted to Wikipedia content — I remember hearing a few years ago about a similar “publisher” printing up and selling dissertations without their authors’ knowledge. And it’s pretty easy for us to discard these kinds of books from our own searches online. The listing the student found actually cites Source: Wikipedia as the author, but even those that don’t are highly suspicious: they’re on a huge variety of topics with very similar covers each with an image of a flower on it which is not at all relevant to the book’s content. Red flags everywhere, right?

But first year undergraduates are not librarians, and the student I worked with was, I think, legitimately confused by this book, especially seeing it in a set of search results that included traditionally published, “real” books. We ended up having a great conversation with the entire class about who owns the content on Wikipedia (and an introduction to open access and Creative Commons-licensed content), how print-on-demand publishing technology is changing information production, and why it’s important to evaluate information in all formats, not just online.

It was a great class; I left happy that we’d been able to cover such complex topics and hopeful that the students will continue to think critically about information the way they did in the class. However, I worry about other students, the ones in all of the classes that don’t have an extra-long library session, in which we don’t have time to get to print-on-demand Wikipedia scam books as well as everything else we need to cover. While not about library sources, I think this is important content that’s well worth discussing in our classes. But it’s tricky to accommodate all of the nuances of the information landscape in our instruction, especially when it’s both/and: real books both in print and electronic (both in the library and on the internet), and fake books, and… How do you incorporate new (and evolving) information literacy issues into your instruction?

Monograph Musings

As the scholarly communications landscape shifts and changes, what’s the role of traditional academic monograph publishing? That’s a question much on my mind of late for a number of reasons. About a week and a half ago was the American Association of University Press’s annual meeting, which filled my Twitter stream with the hashtag #aaup13. With the slower summer days I’ve been making time for weeding at work, considering which books should stay and which should go, and beginning to plan for purchasing new books starting in the fall. And I’m also thinking about academic books from the perspective of an author, as my research partner and I finish the draft of the book we’re writing and have sent out proposals to a couple of university presses.

Books are for reading — presumably anyone who writes a book feels that their book offers useful and insightful information that they want to share widely with others. But there are lots of possibilities for sharing our work, even a piece that’s as long as a monograph (rather than short like an article). There are websites and blogs, relatively easy to use tools for creating and formatting text into ereader- and print-friendly formats. Add in print on demand, and it’s easy to wonder about the role of scholarly presses. Having worked in publishing for a few years before I was a librarian I’m familiar with the huge amount of work that goes into preparing books for publication (not to mention publishing them). Academic presses definitely add value to monographs, from copy editing to layout and beyond. Scholarly books are also often peer reviewed, which for a book manuscript is a non-trivial undertaking, much more labor-intensive than for an article. I’m a firm believer in peer review — when done well, the resulting publication is much stronger for it.

But academic publishing, especially at university presses, has become more challenging — costs keep rising, and sales (to academic libraries and others) aren’t as strong as they once were. Jennifer Howard at the Chronicle of Higher Education wrote two good overviews of the AAUP meetings, in which presses discussed strategies for ensuring their survival in a time of lean budgets while expanding into new formats and modes of publishing. Facilitated by the meetings’ active Twitter presence, Ian Bogost, professor of Media Studies at Georgia Institute of Technology, who was not actually at the meetings, tweeted a 10 point “microrant” about academic publishing. Among other things, Bogost notes that publishers might put more resources into editorial development for their authors, because scholars are not necessarily the best writers. Bogost also points out that university presses could help fill the gap between highly scholarly works and popular publications.

The relationship between academic libraries and presses is changing, too. Collaborations are on the rise, as was discussed at the AAUP meetings, which has been exciting to watch — I think there are lots of natural affinities between the two. But as the scholarly book landscape changes I can’t help but think about my library, and the college and university we belong to. There’s no university press at the large, public institution my college is part of. I’m at a technical college that offers associates and baccalaureate degrees, and there’s also not a huge market for many of the more traditional university press publications at my college, the highly scholarly monographs. Not that university presses publish the works of their own faculty (though perhaps they should?), but of course we have faculty who write academic books at my college, too, as do faculty at lots of colleges that are unlikely to have presses, like community colleges.

Where does my college fit as scholarly monograph publishing evolves? I think the students I work with are a perfect audience for books that fill the gap that Bogost pointed out — academic works written without highly specialized language that are accessible to novices, something smarter and more interesting than a textbook, an overview that includes enough detail to be useful for the typical undergraduate research project. But what about getting into publishing ourselves? It’s easy to think of the differences in collections between large research university libraries and college libraries like where I work: they have more stuff (books, journals, etc.), and there are ways for us to get the stuff we don’t have if we need it. If university publishing and academic libraries become more closely tied together, where will that leave those universities and colleges without presses? And will that impact the opportunities that our faculty have for publication?

Ebooks Are not Electronic Journals

As a physical science librarian I know journals are the primary form of scholarly communication in the sciences. While the particle physicists have arXiv and some of the cool-kids will tout non-traditional knowledge transfer though social media, my chemists use journals and are pretty comfortable with that. Of course, electronic journals are greatly preferred – it’s easy to print and you can grab articles off the web and file them away for the rest of your career. No photocopying or waiting – and your graduate students can practically live in the lab.

This shouldn’t be news to any academic librarian (really, it shouldn’t be). But what might be news is the same scientists are not nearly as interested in ebooks. Ebooks take a text, put it online and allow scientists to access the information utilizing an Internet browser. So why have I had users asking me to purchase physical copies of ebooks in our collection?

Some of the problem is platform – by which I mean Ebrary. Most scientists don’t read articles online; they download them, print them, and then read. Most of the science monographs I purchase are edited works on a topic and each chapter is, effectively, like a journal article in terms of length and topic coverage. Ebrary presents the electronic text as a book and only allows users to download 60 pages as a PDF. This is a problem if you want a large review article or more than one chapter; then the ebook is suddenly less useful then a print book, because you can’t even copy it. When I polled my faculty earlier this year, some said they always prefer ebooks. But among those who conditionally preferred an ebook, all of them preferred chapters arranged as PDFs with unlimited downloads. The actual ebook – an electronic text meant to be viewed only on a screen – has very little support. So Ebrary is the main option I have for purchasing ebooks, but my patrons like Ebrary’s model the least.

Another platform problem is viewing platform; not everyone has a dedicated electronic reader to make ebooks pleasant and even if you have one, it may be a hassle to view. Ebrary for Kindles and iPads require additional software, but hey – it’s only a 14-16 step process. Without a tablet of some sort, you’re stuck with a laptop screen that cannot comfortably view a whole page at once or a desktop monitor that may be ill suited to reading. My real issue with the variety of experience ebooks provide is it makes your collection decisions inherently classist – your patrons with the wealth to afford a nice tablet have a better experience than your less privileged patrons. Print books have downsides, but using them doesn’t inherently reinforce inequality.

So as beloved as electronic journal are, I just cannot say the same for the ebook. And until the vendor platform offers ebooks my patrons want, I can’t say I’ll be buying many.