Category Archives: Books

Who Reads and How?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Selective Perceptions (on Ebooks and the New Resource Management)

I went to a packed panel at Midwinter sponsored by the ALCTS Collection Management and Development Section called “Is Selection Dead?” Rick Anderson (University of Utah), Steve Bosch (University of Arizona), Nancy Gibbs (Duke University) and Reeta Sinha (YBP) all concluded (with varying levels of acceptance) that, yeah, it is. (For an excellent summary of their comments and the Q&A that followed, see Josh Hadro’s report in Library Journal.) They confronted the audience with the big issues, but the audience’s questions reflected where we’re at on the ground – our discomfort with leaving preservation to vendors and Google, our frustration with changing patterns of research, our unwillingness to discard our professional traditions, and our enduring belief in that perfect source.

Anderson pointed out that now, between Google Books and HathiTrust and other, similar megasites dedicated to digitized content, we’re getting closer and closer to what he’s defined as libraries’ “unattainable ideal” – to make it possible for patrons to find every piece of information and be able to obtain it right when they find it. There’s no need to select when it’s so easy to access and append content, and when information about content (as well as harvesting and ingesting that information) is cheap or free.

Besides, no one thinks about starting information searches with local library collections anymore. Cathy De Rosa emphasized this in her presentation of the 2010 OCLC Perceptions survey at Midwinter on Saturday. Instead, we start with Google or something like it – something global, sometimes (but not necessarily) focused on a particular facet of the world of information (, IMDB, Wikipedia). Bosch called this “network level discovery,” and showed us a graph of the top-used internet sites: no .edu or library-related site (including even comes close to the network traffic of sites like Google and Yahoo!.

I do this, too: when I’m looking for something, my first action is to open a browser and do a keyword search of a huge, free database of information. Then I drill down to specific items I want to locate: things in my local library, or in a database which requires me to authenticate if I want access. I do this both because it’s easy and because it works: if I started with my library catalog I’d be confronted with arcane database software that fails miserably when asked to provide reasonable results for known items and topical searches alike.

If this makes us uncomfortable, we should remember that we as librarians have had a somewhat schizophrenic relationship with local collections for years now: we have advocated for bigger and more from database vendors (Gilbert 2010) and encouraged our users to go beyond our local collections with statewide resource sharing and interlibrary loan (“fuzzy walls,” Anderson called them). Many of us have started cutting local collecting to rely on shared content when possible, too.

There are good economic reasons behind this, and not just related to the skyrocketing costs of materials. Cut budgets mean less for books but less for people, too. Sinha pointed out that librarians who do collection development are often assigned half a dozen or more departments, some in which they have no expertise whatever, on top of being expected to work reference, do instruction, and, in many academic libraries, pursue their own research agendas. Such librarians are merely guessing what to buy, said Anderson, and, in many cases, guessing wrong. Big deals and approval plans began the end of selection, Bosch said; patron-driven acquisitions and print-on-demand will kill it entirely.

Anderson, Bosch and Gibbs said they still do some kind of collection gatekeeping, where librarians choose subject areas and other parameters for ebook metadata, create approval plan profiles, and evaluate packages even if they don’t evaluate individual titles (Nancy Gibbs called this “pre-selection”). So selection isn’t completely dead, but only areas like Special Collections will continue to engage in traditional selection, according to Gibbs.

One of the big surprises from this panel for me was that the big research libraries have already embraced electronic as the preferred format not just for journals, now, but for books. Meaning if a faculty member or selector asks that a title be added to the library’s collection, these libraries automatically buy the ebook if that format is available, unless the print book is specifically requested. Some libraries even require selectors to submit written justifications if they request a title in print.

The 2010 OCLC Perceptions survey shows that even more people equate libraries with books now than in 2005, and I asked the panelists what implications this has for our transition to primarily electronic content. I was told that “Ebooks are books, too” and that students don’t really read books anyway – they “interrogate” them, like databases, so having them electronically is actually better. The only way to do a full-text search of a print book is to read the whole thing, Bosch said. Anderson, in his presentation, said that we need to move towards ebooks as quickly as possible, despite their drawbacks. In response to my question, he said that the Perceptions survey was recording exactly that – perceptions. People want to see books when they walk in to libraries, but a lot of the volumes they see are reference books and bound journals, not the kind of books they might actually use.

So instead of selection or collection we’re moving to what Bosch called “resource management” – managing metadata and authentication for delivery at the point of discovery. After the panel, a colleague pointed out that this approach to library collections really only works for certain kinds of institutions and certain kinds of library users. I suspect she’s right – that it only works for people with a certain type of academic information need who are used to formulating sophisticated searches for specific information. Others still need physical browsing and the safeguards against information overload that local collecting can provide.

When I got back from Midwinter I talked to a friend of mine, a graduate student, about the shift to ebooks. His response was, hey, I love books, but things change. Books haven’t been around forever. He’s right: the idea that we can’t adapt to ebooks or that something inherent will be lost without physical volumes is absurd. But he doesn’t have an ereader and has no intention of buying one. The reality is that for most people, for most collections, the infrastructure simply doesn’t exist to support the wholesale transition to ebooks, “resource management” and delivery at the point of discovery. Our catalogs don’t adequately support online browsing, and ebook platforms don’t support the kind of engagement with texts that people need: the ability to annotate, share, and hoard or the ability to print when it’s desired. Keyword searching is not the same as skimming or flipping. And sometimes when I have a book I don’t want to interrogate it – I simply want to read.

Experience vs. Reality

Last week I was at the ARLIS/NA Midstates Chapter fall meeting, graciously hosted by Chapter president Rebecca Price and the University of Michigan Libraries. In a panel discussion, Ray Silverman (director of the Museum Studies program at the University of Michigan) and Jennifer Gustafson (Practicum Coordinator for the School of Library & Information Science at Wayne State University) talked about the relationship between the digital and the real and its impact on museums as well as libraries.

Museums, they said, are getting away from the object and moving towards the experience, and they discussed The Henry Ford (no longer the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village) as an example. There, a $32 admission fee provides access to a range of experiences, from riding in a Model T to playing historic baseball.

Libraries, however, are also moving this direction. A great divestiture of physical collections is underway in the wake of our shift to the electronic and in preparation for – what? Several librarians at the conference discussed the wholesale de-accessioning of visual resources collections, something that has been underway for years now. Tony White, director of the Fine Arts Library at Indiana University, talked about the demise of the branch library and how he fears his library (now that it has absorbed the Visual Resources Center) may not be freestanding for much longer. Price brought up the de-duping proposal being discussed by the CICs: it begins with journals, but ends, we imagine, with thinner and more mobile physical collections, cooperatively owned, and research libraries whose floors of stacks have been transformed into flexible learning commons designed to hold the experiences of different audiences – first-year students, graduate students, faculty.

This is not only going on in the ARL libraries of the world – in my own mid-sized academic library we recently closed a branch (our science library) and have undertaken, along with other Ohio academic libraries, a massive deduping project, beginning with journals.

And what about roles? Silverman pointed out that as museums shift to providing experiences, curators actually become more like librarians, who have traditionally been less focused on collecting objects (though collect we do) and more on helping people. And White predicts that librarians’ roles as collection specialists will become a thing of the past as consolidated collections require less distributed expertise. Several weeks ago I blogged about this very future for electronic resources, though the reality on the ground right now makes it seem rather distant.

Ironically, Silverman predicted a “re-discovery of the real” – that the object itself will become more important than it’s ever been. But “the books are going,” as Price said. For libraries, what form will that object take when the books are gone? Will we create experiences with our special collections? Prize the digital object instead of the physical? Remember, for many, libraries’ brand is still books, and some people still want them, just like some museum-goers still want art. It would be awful to re-discover this reality only after the books are gone.

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

Designing A Library For Learning

We would all agree that learning takes place in an academic library – and other library buildings too. When members of the user community are at our libraries using a computer to find information it can result in learning. When student groups prepare for an assignment in a library study room it can facilitate learning. When they sit in a quiet space and contemplate reading material students will engage in learning. Then again, if learning is defined as a permanent change in behavior, we really never know if any actual learning happens in the library. But what if we could design the library building environment that facilitates “intentional” learning and brings people together in new types of communities for education and relationship building? We’d want to do that, right?

I recently had the good fortune to attend a presentation by Scott Bennett on the topic “Libraries and Learning: A History of Paradigm Change”. You may know Bennett as a library space planning consulting and Librarian Emeritus of Yale University. I was somewhat familiar with the topic because it is based on Bennett’s article in the April 2009 issue of portal:Libraries and the Academy [note: portal is now providing public access to forthcoming articles but has not yet done the same for the back files]. In the presentation Bennett explained the three paradigms, reading, books and learning. Early academic libraries were reading centered and featured grand reading rooms, such as the University of Washington’s Suzzallo Library Reading Room. That’s a well known example of a library space intended to offer the community a place for contemplative reading. The next great academic library paradigm was book centered. My own research library, built in 1964, is a good example as the design is cleared intended to maximize book storage and browsing over the needs of people using the library and those who work there; the two are kept apart.

Bennett spent the bulk of his talk on achieving the new learning paradigm. There’s been some evolution here. The Levy Library at USC. The growth of the information commons. The hallmark of this paradigm is greater proactivity about creating spaces where intentional learning happens. Bennett was quite adamant that we needed to design spaces for intentional learning, not simply adding cafes and lounges because it is trendy but because the design will be learning centered – and we’ll think in advance about the purpose of each space and how it can contribute to learning. But what do we mean by intentional learning and how would spaces make it happen – what about librarians? Our job is to think more like educators than service providers. In closing Bennett showed us a chart based on his many studies of library building programs on which there are just two columns. The left represents resources dedicated to “library mission” and the other represents learning mission. It’s clear that the library mission – resources dedicated to providing services – is much greater than the learning mission.

So how do you design a building that supports intentional, or what I might call, authentic learning? We may have to wait until Bennett shares news from his next exploration project in which he’ll identify 12 behaviors that contribute to intentional learning – and how the library’s design can stimulate and support those behaviors. The more we know about what helps students learn and what’s important to them, the better able we are to design the space to support it. To my way of thinking Bennett struck me as a constructivist who would have students spend more time in study rooms learning on their own or from each other. But after some discussion we found common ground on connectivism where the learning is achieved through relationships and community. Students also learn when they create, and libraries designed for intentional learning should offer spaces where students synthesize existing information to create new ideas and course projects.

After hearing Bennett I am cautiously optimistic that it is indeed possible to design a library building that promotes intentional learning. That said, for a new library building it is also possible and even desirable to evoke the past with an eye-catching reading room – or some modern variation on it – and blend that with some book-centered spaces. A library for the 21st century can blend the two paradigms of the past with Bennett’s new one for the modern library.