Category Archives: Books

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.

Sudden Thoughts And Second Thoughts

Have Your Librarian Buy My Outrageously Expensive Book

It was quite considerate of this blogger to share with his readers news of his soon-to-be-available book, and to show deep concern and remorse for their inability to purchase it because a print copy for individuals costs a mere $180. Not to worry if you can’t afford it he tells his readers. He even suggests they’d be crazy to buy a copy at that price. But there’s an easy solution to this problem. It’s found right in the title of the blog post: Tell Your Librarian. That’s right folks. Just march on over to the library and tell your friendly neighborhood librarian to purchase a copy today. But wait. There’s more. Your librarians will be overjoyed to learn that my publisher actually has multiple pricing schemes for my outrageously expensive book, meaning they can spend even more of the limited book budget to add it to their collection. Just take a look at these bargains:

Sure looks like a bargain to me

Sure looks like a bargain to me


Fantastic. Let’s buy two of them.

The moral of this story: Everyone knows that academic libraries have deep, deep pockets, and they can be readily exploited by authors and publishers who will encourage faculty to demand ridiculously expensive books based on a pricing model that makes absolutely no sense. It may be that this book is the best in its field. I don’t know. But at this price can we afford to find out? Talk about a broken system.

Only Ten Minutes a Day?

I’ve always thought that if the academic library profession had a younger age demographic (the average age is just shy of 50) we’d have more readership at ACRLog. Just based on anecdotal evidence, many of the senior librarians I speak with are not ACRLog readers. They don’t have something against ACRLog. They just never got into the habit of reading librarian blogs. Print publications were always good enough for them. Now we may have some evidence that there’s some truth to this. According to a recent Primary Research Group study that surveyed 555 full-time academic librarians, they average only 10 minutes of blog reading a day. And the older a librarian is (I’m just basing this on what I read about the study – no way did I consider buying a copy – it’s not that important) the more likely he or she spends the bulk of their “keeping up” time with print publications. The demographics of ACRL aside (average member age is about 50), I’d like to think that we’ve been able to reach a good number of the younger demographic of our profession, the ones who are less likely to be ACRL members.

But my overall reaction to reading about this study was “you have to be kidding me”. Am I the only one who spends about 90 minutes a day with blogs, listservs, email newsletter, twitter feeds, etc., all in an effort to stay alert to what’s happening in and beyond our profession? If there was ever a time to be spending more time on keeping up, this is it.

What Do You Want Me To Write About Anyway?

I can’t even remember how long it’s been since we last did a survey to find out what you ACRLog readers really want us to write about. You no doubt gave us some good ideas which we most likely completely ignored. Write more about information literacy! What do you think this is? A library journal? Write more about tenure and titles for academic librarians! Yes, I want people intensely hating on me for the next month. Write about yourself Steven! Talk about a boring topic, and besides, other bloggers have this territory covered quite well. The problem of trying to figure out what ACRLog readers want us to write about may be solved by software – from our friends at IBM. You see, IBM had a problem. They had all these blogs for their employees to use to share important ideas about IBM. But hardly anyone was blogging and when they did hardly anyone was reading what they wrote – sounds like most blogs. As their guru put it:

The writers surveyed often weren’t sure how to interest readers, and many of their posts got little to no response. Readers, on the other hand, couldn’t find blogs on the topics they wanted to read about.

That’s a great problem find – how do you match what the readers what to read with the bloggers who are writing about that stuff – or put another way – how do you create the blogs that have the stuff the readers want. Being IBM, they created some new software to solve the problem.

So Geyer and his colleagues built a widget to bring these two halves of the problem closer together. Readers use the widget to suggest topics they want to read about, and they can vote in support of existing suggestions. Those suggestions then get sent to possible writers, matching topics to writers by analyzing his social network connections and areas of expertise. The researchers found that writers were most likely to post on a topic suggested by a sizeable audience, and that audience members followed up by read posts on requested topics.

I really like this idea. So much so that I just submitted a request to ACRL for funds to buy it from IBM. While I’m waiting for approval on that request, I guess we’ll just continue to write about whatever we want. But if you do have a good idea for a topic or you want to write a guest post for us – just use “Story Idea” link on our home page to let us know the blogging topics you’d like your favorite bloggers to blog about.

Browsing, Searching and Finding

January always brings lots of discussion about the future, and probably even more so this year now that we’re a decade into the second millennium. Collections are central in much talk about the future of academic libraries, which naturally leads me to thoughts about browsing.

I have a confession to make: I don’t browse through academic library stacks much anymore. There seem to be a few reasons for this:

  • I work at a small college library which is part of a larger university system that includes over 20 schools, each with its own library. Many of the books I need I borrow from the other colleges in the system via our shared catalog.
  • The discovery methods I use have shifted away from browsing. Typically I learn about new books through association news, ads in library science journals and magazines, or via blogs, Twitter or other internet sources. (It’s hard to say whether there’s a feedback loop here: if I worked in a larger library would I browse more?)
  • I also read across a wider range of disciplines than I did before I was a librarian. When I was an archaeologist there were a couple of call number ranges in close proximity to each other that I’d occasionally browse through (good old CC and GN), but if I tried that now I’d be all over the library.
  • And, I sheepishly admit to a bit of browsing fear: I always seem to have plenty to read, from journal articles to the biblioblogosphere to the three work-related books sitting on my desk right now. So I’m somewhat scared to spend time browsing in case I find more than I have time to read.

Though they definitely use the library, I don’t typically see faculty at my college browsing our stacks, either (maybe their reasons are similar to mine?). But I have noticed that students often want to browse in the library. Many students, especially those new to the college, stop by the reference desk and ask “Where’s the psychology section?” or “I need to look at the architecture books.” It’s easy to forget how opaque an academic library, even a small one, can seem to undergraduates. Last semester a student said to me, in an awed whisper, “the library is so big.”

All of this leads me to wonder about the future of collections at my library. If faculty don’t browse much anymore, how would they feel if we were to propose moving some of the lesser-used materials to off-campus storage? Though common at many college and university libraries, faculty may not agree with this strategy, as we saw late last year with the faculty protest at Syracuse University.

On the other hand, if students are still browsing, how can we make it easier for them? We have those nifty bookmarks from ALA with the Library of Congress call number ranges printed on them, and I like to pass those out to students who ask about broad subject areas. Would it be helpful to students if we added signage that displayed the subject names next to the call number range signs on our shelves?

Whatever happens, I’m sure that the next decade will bring lots of change for our collections, and I’m eager to see what’s in store for the future.

My College Advice? Learn How To Do Research

The New York Times recently asked 7 academics to offer advice to students entering college. If they had asked me, my advice would have been to learn how to do research, to practice it, and get really good at it.

Of course, as an academic librarian, I may be biased. But as someone whose academic interests tilted toward some not so obviously useful humanities disciplines, the one practical life skill I’m supremely grateful to have is the ability to find and use information. Try going on a job interview without researching the employer and you will not get the job. Try buying a house or a used car without doing research and you will pay more than you should. Try raising a child without being able to research everything from health issues to schools and you’ll be even more lost than most parents. In almost everything I do, I continue to be surprised at how crucial information is to getting a good outcome. If you spend the time and have the patience to ferret out a small but crucial bit of information, you will often find that you will get the job, get a better price, and have better experiences.

Having access to a college or university library is a great privilege; its power has changed many lives. When I was 18 I thought I knew everything. Then I walked into my university library and looked up. “Oh my god, I don’t know anything!” I realized. I’ve been trying to catch up ever since.

Or, as a poster to McSweeney’s puts it: Dudes! Did You See The Library They’ve Got Here?

I tell you what, though, dudes—you only get a chance like this while you’re in college. After we graduate, we’ll have to figure out how to fit studying into our work schedules, make time to get to the city library branch and its crappy little collection. Yeah, while I’m here on campus, my life is totally going to revolve around that library.