Category Archives: Idiocy

The Grossly Exaggerated Death of the Library, or Why I Don’t Discourage Students from Attending Library School.

What do you say to the next generation of Librarians? Since I’m a First-Year Academic Librarian Experience I would assume the “next generation” is probably me, and it is a little too soon to play the grizzled older “in my day” type librarian. Because I work in a University Library, I know students finishing their undergraduate degrees considering graduate school or library school. They ask me if library school is a good idea and what a person like them should do if they’re interested in the humanities. I suspect that because I’m so close to having finished school I am sensitive to those questions. After my own negative experiences in undergraduate and graduate school, I have decided that I will not discourage anyone from the path that I succeeded on. I ask those who tell students not to pursue librarianship where else these students should focus their energies?

Libraries have a real crisis of confidence. Google “don’t go to library school” (I took a screen shot so you don’t actually have to google it) and you’ll see the kind of pessimism that plagues our students. The result of this is that students have a clear and unhealthy obsession (see any /r/Librarians Reddit posts), in some ways encouraged by current librarians, about whether or not they’ll get a job at the end of school. It doesn’t help that resources like Hiring Librarians, while a great source of information, often publishes the most pessimistic and disheartening interviews with “hiring” managers. Librarianship is dying, everyone abandon ship.

Don't google this
Don’t google this

As a student, I wrote extensively about this phenomena and how it breeds insecurity and negativity in already stressful student lives. Now that I’m a professional I see that this insecurity and negativity then leads to an undervaluing of the work that we do on college campuses. Many of us had formative experiences working closely with librarians in University Libraries and wanted to “pay it forward” by being part of the library-industrial-complex. When we tell students not to pursue what we have succeeded at we tell them that they are not as good, elite, or lucky as we are.

Judging from my friends and colleagues, I know that these concerns are not limited to librarianship. Anxiety over jobs and the economy is one of many issues that drove voters to the polls seeking “change” a month ago. Many of you will say “but librarianship is special because it is really dying!” Much of this is predicated on a longstanding prophecy of the death of print and of the book itself (after all what is a library if not a place for books). Whether or not this death comes from technology or from a deep-seated American anti-intellectualism, the threat to learning and reading impacts directly on our profession. Ongoing austerity movements in government challenge librarians to justify their own existence. But our “worth” is transcendent as J. Stephen Town writes “relying on a shared belief that there is an impact through higher education on individuals and society, and beyond that there is a value arising from being educated, which relates in a fundamental way to human flourishing.”(112) While “human flourishing” is difficult to measure it is unlikely our society will totally move past an expectation of education and learning as a hallmark of growth. But if we cannot measure the impact of the library, how do we know that it isn’t dying?

In anticipation of the death of libraries, there are two paths that librarians and scholars have taken. One has been toward change and innovation (or as a pessimist might say bargaining) where we change what we do and how we measure it to prove our worth and the other toward resignation and defeatism, where we tell people the library is dead and not to join our funeral parade. There is a great article that counters this pessimism entitled “The Library is Dead, Long Live the Library!” where the authors acknowledge that the academic library faces competition in the digital world as we are no longer the chief source of information for students and the public while positing the changes we need to make to ensure our own survival.(Ross 146) The “information fog,” as William Badke calls, makes us all lost and librarians are those who can leads us through the murk.

Interestingly, the rise of the anti-intellectual is often attributed as either the result or the cause of the libraries downfall. The ongoing and well publicized struggles with “fake news” are seen as either calls to arms for librarians or defeated examples of the long decline of the library in American life. Either way, the importance of librarians is still central to the teaching of information efficacy and theory, and, if the present crises in media confidence shows, we will always be needed. The library is not dying, it is changing. This is not outside of our own history nor is it something about which we should be afraid. Students should be aware of that change and the challenges of the future but never discouraged by it.  If we believe that the current and future work is worth doing then we should encourage those likeminded students to continue our cause.

I do not want to downplay the struggles of unemployed or underemployed librarians, and I don’t ascribe to the ongoing and troublesome myth that librarians will be retiring and we’ll all get nice paychecks when that happens. I also do not want to paint a rosier picture than exists for new graduates. There are real struggles for people wanting to get into librarianship, but we should never discourage those that are interested in our work from getting involved. If every Library student listened to their faculty mentors about not applying to graduate school we’d have no graduate students next year, and no new librarians in two years, and our universities would collapse along with society. This is an exaggeration, but if I was discouraged from reading about how librarianship was dying, I wouldn’t have the job that I enjoy so much. I expect that many of you had that same discussion and warning prior to enrolling in school. Losing people like us is the danger in telling students not to pursue the work that we love.

 

References:

Badke, William. Research strategies. iUniverse: New York, 2004.

Town, J. Stephen. “Value, Impact, and the Transcendent Library: Progress and Pressures in Performance Measurement and Evaluation.” The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy 81, no. 1 (2011): 111-25. doi:10.1086/657445.

Ross, Lyman, and Pongracz Sennyey. “The library is dead, long live the library! The practice of academic librarianship and the digital revolution.” The Journal of Academic Librarianship 34, no. 2 (2008): 145-152.

 

 

 

 

Is A Response Even Worth Our Time

A Facebook friend messaged me to say “ACRLog needs to take this on”, in reference to this comment associated with a Slate piece on why tenure should be abolished. Andrew Sullivan who blogs for The Atlantic shared a few paragraphs from the Slate piece with his readers. It generated a fair number of comments in favor of and against tenure. No one in the academic librarian community seemed to care much about the original piece or the bulk of the comments until one of them attacked our right to have tenure.

My personal inclination is to ignore this comment completely. What I would like to take on is why academic librarians get their panties in such a twist so worked up about this sort of thing? This is an off-the-cuff comment to an opinion piece. It’s not like it’s a well researched, well thought out essay in The Chronicle that might actually dignify a response. For all we know the comment is from a disgruntled librarian who got turned down for tenure and now holds a grudge against librarians who have tenure. Are we so insecure about our professional status and our right to claim tenure status that we have to defend it against every feeble critique. And what’s the point of doing so anyway? Is there anything any of us could write that would change the commenter’s mind – or the mind of anyone who’s against tenure? We’ve all seen dozens of impassioned arguments for and against tenure. Have you ever read a single response or comment along the lines of “What you had to say actually made me change my mind on this issue”? I sure haven’t.

You answer, “but Steven, we should respond not to change this writer’s mind, but to make sure that all the other people who read it know that tenure for librarians is a good thing – and that we conduct really valuable research and that we are really, really busy helping faculty and students and that we really deserve tenure – and that if nothing else we have to correct misstatements and attack outright lies”. I understand that argument – we want the truth to be known. But who is it that we are so worried will read this tripe and believe it? Our faculty colleagues? Our academic administrators? Do we have so little faith in their ability to think critically about the issues that we feel the overwhelming urge to offer up a counter-argument? Do you think your provost will be swayed by this comment’s exquisite logic and well documented arguments? “Hmm, according to this anonymous comment, our librarians don’t have anything to do now that all research can be done with Google. Why did we let them have tenure in the first place? Maybe we should rethink that.” I’m sure that’s how it’s going to go down. Didn’t this article convince us that our academic administrators really do like us and that they have our backs – or are we going to let our inferiority complex get the best of us once again?

My preference is to just ignore this negativity all together. Rather than taking the time to write an impassioned essay defending an academic librarian’s right to tenure (which has already been done anyway) or justifying why we deserve to have our jobs, I suggest we all put our effort into doing what we do well every opportunity we have which is making a difference in our academic communities in service to our students, faculty and staff. If we do that well I think we’ll have no reason at all to constantly allow ignorant fools to push our buttons and manipulate us into responding just the way they know we will. So get your panties untwisted take a moment to think about this and then get back to work.

Manual Labor

As if health care reform, the mess in Afghanistan, and H1N1 weren’t enough to ruin your day, having to cope with new editions of two major style manuals (neither of which actually keeps up with new information formats because they keep changing) is one of those “in the cosmic scale of thing it’s really incredibly trivial but ARRRGGGGHHHHH!!!!!” events.

MLA has finally decided it doesn’t matter what library you were in when retrieved an article or what “service” happens to be selling your library a particular database this contract year. Ten points for the rationality team. But leaving out URLs because anyone can do a search and find a website? One with no discernible author and several phrases at the top of the page, any of which might be the title – or the site name – or the sponsor? All of which are commonplace phrases that retrieve 5 million possible URLs? Okaaaay…. Deduct five points and go stand in the corner.

But it’s undeniably APA that has won the World Series of Stupid Style Manual Changes. DOIs? Not a bad idea. Citing the web site of the journal? Bad idea. Issuing seven pages of corrections and making excuses by saying they are “nonsignificant” errors?

Priceless.

This could be the tipping point. The time has come for faculty and librarians working with undergraduates to loosen up. In the cosmic scale of things, this manual labor really is trivial, but it carries a huge carbon footprint. For every hour spent writing a paper, at least an equivalent hour is spent trying to figure out whether you need a comma or a period here, which city out of the six on the title page is the one to use, what database you printed that article out of, or trying to identify the website of a journal for an article published in 1986 that you printed off JSTOR, given the publication changed titles three times and switched publishers five time since then. As this activity always happens in the wee hours of the morning on the day the paper is due, lights and computers have to be running, so we’re talking about a major energy drain. That’s not counting the environmental damage caused while creating and shipping the large amounts of carbonated caffienated beverages consumed in the process. Or the evening hours of the professors who are doing much the same while marking papers. Or the librarians trying to update their websites, guides, and class materials.

And what exactly are the learning outcomes of creating an error-free list of references? You learn that research is a pain in the butt. You learn that it’s really, really important to follow pointless rules with utter scrupulousness. You learn that, at the end of the day, you’ll get points off because you didn’t follow the pointless rules – unless, of course, you’re making a bundle off book sales, in which case “nonsignificant” is a valid defense.

I recommend that librarians stop teaching citation styles. (Why did we get stuck with that job, anyway?) That professors stop spending hours trying to correct student work using new style manuals as unfamiliar to them as to their students and go play with the baby or take a walk instead. That students are told “the reason we cite sources is because they serve as your expert witnesses; people need to know who these witnesses are, so provide their credentials, ones that readers can use to find the sources themselves, because they may want to learn more about the subject. That’s why we cite things. Oh, and to give credit where it’s due and avoid a plagiarism rap. That’s important, too.”

As for all those arcane rules? “Don’t worry about it. They’re nonsignificant. Just give me the information I need to find the source, and make it easy to read. That’s all I ask.”

We might not save the planet, but we would save a lot of pointless aggravation. Not to mention a few bucks buying updated style manuals.

CC-licensed photo courtesy of Jonno Witts; part of the Writer’s Block set.

I’ll Take the Humanities for Ten Thousand

Jennifer Howard of the Chron (subscription required) offers a preview of a study commissioned by the National Humanities Alliance and funded by Mellon which looked at the back office costs of flagship journals published by scholarly societies (many of them in the social sciences, oddly) and concluded that they actually cost more than STM journals. Articles are longer, and rejection rates in these disciplines is higher, meaning more costs for handling the gatekeeping functions.

This does not surprise me given that STM authors often pay page charges, and they pay on the other end, too; one biologist recently told me that she had to pay $250 to a publisher get a .pdf of an article she’d written. She was surprised to learn that this isn’t standard practice in other fields. The full-color and expensive paper often used in STM journals isn’t as common in humanities and social sciences journals, but those journals also don’t get significant ad revenue from corporations published on glossy full-color pages.

And the fact is, there’s a lot of money sloshing around STM research that hyperinflates its prices. Grants fund research, and so can also fund publications bills. (Your tax dollars at work!) And STM information has a “street value” that doesn’t exist for the humanities or for most social science research. The people with deep pockets in medical, engineering, and other applied science fields don’t buy or publish in journals that discuss Latin American history, theological views on compassion, or examinations of the effectiveness of mixed-income housing replacements for public housing projects.

What does surprise me is the cost of producing these flagship journals. According to the study:

It cost an average of $9,994 in 2007 to publish an article in one of the eight journals analyzed, compared with an average of $2,670 for STM journal articles.

Frankly, I’m dumbfounded. Are they are figuring in the salaries of the faculty who do all the free work? That’s the only way I can come up with that math. The report isn’t on their Web site as of this writing, but I’ll be looking for it.

I’ll also be looking for its recommendations, since the author-pays model will not work for these disciplines (your tax dollars not at work!) and clearly something here is badly broken.

And maybe this number should be discussed by every tenure and promotion committee in the country. Couldn’t we make our decisions based on quality and significance rather than on quantity? What we’re doing now is hopelessly wasteful in every possible way.

This Journal Brought to You By . . .

It was shocking at the end of April when The Scientist reported that Elsevier had published a scholarly-journal-like series that was actually advertising paid for by Merck. The peer-reviewed-like articles in the journal-like object were either reprints or summaries of articles that reported results favorable to Merck drugs. There were also “review” articles that had only a couple of references. Reviewed that. Merck good. Go prescribe.

Now it turns out this wasn’t an embarrassing one-off. Elsevier published at least six fake journals – er, sorry, got my terminology wrong: “sponsored article publications.” (The Scientist article is free, but requires registration.)

Mistakes were made. Elsevier officials regret the error. The nasty people who did that left the company long ago. Besides, it was in Australia. The CEO of Elsevier’s Heath Sciences division says it’s going to be looked into, but he’s sure it’s not ever going to happen again. “I can assure all that the integrity of Elsevier’s publications and business practices remains intact.”

Um, isn’t that up to us to say? Seems to me Elsevier’s integrity was in question even before this disgraceful and embarrassing revelation.

Anne-Marie posted some thoughtful comments about this issue at Info-fetishist – particularly the implications for information literacy.

Maybe we can’t talk about peer review at all anymore without talking about the future of a system of knowledge reporting that is almost entirely dependent upon on the volunteer efforts of scholars and researchers, almost entirely dependent upon their professionalism and commitment to the quality of their disciplines, in a world where ultimate control is passing away from those scholars’ and researchers’ professional societies and into the hands of corporate entities whose decisions are driven not by commitment to quality, knowledge creation or disciplinary integrity.

We’ve been focusing on “why pay attention to scholarly work and conversations going on on the participatory web” mostly in terms of how these things help us give our students access to scholarly material, how they help our students contextualize and understand scholarly debates, how they lay bare the processes of knowledge creation that lie under the surface of the perfect, final-product article you see in scholarly journals. And all of those things are important. But I think we’re going to have to add that “whistleblower” aspect — we need to pay attention to scholars on the participatory web so they can point out where the traditional processes are corrupt, and where the gatekeepers are making decisions that aren’t in the interests of the rest of us.

Excellent food for thought.

Another approach to the news popped up at the LSW room at FriendFeed where Steve Lawson proposed “the LSW needs to get Elsevier to publish the Australasian Journal of Library Science.” And in the over 80 responses you can find helpful suggestions like “your article will be reviewed by a panel of representatives from library vendors,” “there should be one issue deliberately missing. Supplements should be completely unavailable electronically,” and “it’s only available on one computer on campus. There is a login & password if you want off-campus access, but you can’t share it with ANYONE. … and we’ll publish 4 issues per year. But if we can’t come up with enough content for 4 issues a year, we can just combine them, like 1/2 or 1-2-3 or 2-4 or whatever.” See how productive pent-up rage can be? Thanks to all the brilliance behind this thread for the best serials humor ever.

Amongst all the giddiness some commenters pointed out a previous little scandal involving a high-impact journal that got its high impact by having one allegedly “crackpot” author publish multiple papers., as many as five in a single issue, all of them citing himself. The publisher? You guessed it – Elsevier.

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photo courtesy of London Permaculture