Category Archives: information industries

An instruction librarian, a digital scholarship librarian, and a scientist enter a Twitter chat…

A quick note to preface this post: Thank you, Dylan Burns. After reading your post–What We Know and What They Know: Scholarly Communication, Usability, and Un-Usability–I can’t stop thinking about this weird nebula of article access, entitlement, ignorance, and resistance. Your blog post has done what every good blog post should do: Make me think. If you haven’t read Dylan’s post yet, stop, go back, and read. You’ll be better for it. I promise.

I am an instruction librarian, so everything that I read and learn about within the world of library and information science is filtered through a lens of education and pedagogy. This includes things like Dylan Burns’ latest blog post on access to scholarship, #TwitterLibraryLoan, and other not-so-legal means of obtaining academic works. He argues that faculty who use platforms like #Icanhazpdf or SciHub are not “willfully ignorant or disloyal to their institutions, libraries, or librarians. They just want what they want, when they want it,” and that “We as librarians shouldn’t  ‘teach’ our patrons to adapt to our obtuse and oftentimes difficult systems but libraries should adapt to the needs of our patrons.”

My initial reaction was YES, BUT…which means I’m trying to think of a polite way to express dissent. Thankfully, Dylan’s always up for a good Twitter discussion, so here’s what ensued:

My gut reaction to libraries giving people “what they want, when they want it” is always going to be non-committal. I’ve never been one to subscribe to what a colleague a long time ago referred to as “eat your peas librarianship” (credit: Michelle Boulé). I don’t think things should be difficult just for the sake of being difficult because things were hard for me, and you youngin’s should have to face hardships too! But I am also enough of a parent to know that giving people what they want when they want it without telling them how it got there is going to cause a lot of problems (and possibly temper-tantrums) later on. Here’s where the education librarian in me emerges: I don’t want scholars to just be able to get what they want when they need/want it without understanding the deeper problems within the arguably broken scholarly publishing model. In other words, I want to advocate for Lydia Thorne’s model of educating scholars about scholarly publishing problems. To which Dylan responds:

To which I can only respond:

Point: Dylan. Those of us who teach have all had the experience of trying to turn an experience into a teaching moment, only to be met by rolling eyes, blank stares, sighs, huffs, etc. Is the scholarly publishing system so broken that even knowing about the problems with platforms like SciHub, scholars will still engage in the piracy of academic works because, well, it’s all a part of the game they need to play? Is this even an issue of usability then? Creating extremely user-friendly library systems won’t change the fact that some libraries simply can’t afford the resources their community wants/needs, but those scholars still need to engage in the system that produces that resources. Is it always going to be a lose-lose for libraries?

At this point a friend of mine enters the Twitter discussion. Jonathan Jackson is an instructor of neurology and researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital:

Prior to this conversation I’d not thought about #TwitterLibraryLoan and similar efforts at not-so-legal access to scholarship as acts of resistance, but Jonathan’s entrance into the discussion forced me to think about the power of publicly asking for pdfs. I’ll admit that part of me skeptical that all researchers are as politically conscious as Jonathan and his colleagues. I’m sure there are some folks who just need that article asap and don’t care how they get it. But there is power in calling out that one publisher or that one journal again and again on #ICanHazPDF because your library will never be able to afford that subscription.

I’ll admit that the whole Twitter exchange made me second guess motivations all around, which is what a good discussion should do, right?

Promises, Promises

I’ve always been a big supporter of working with vendors. I love talking to my vendors, because I feel they know a lot about the industry and what other libraries are doing, and they get to talk to many librarians in my region more than I do. I always spend hours on the exhibit floor at ALA, meeting with my vendors and trying to learn more about the products we have or might acquire. I have always believed, on the advice of Lynn Wiley (my graduate assistant supervisor), that vendors are our partners – we can’t do what we do without the products and services they develop, and they can’t survive unless we are around to provide them with business and patrons.

But lately I’ve been feeling a little let down and, even, betrayed by my vendors, and am wondering if those who view vendors with mistrust and even as adversaries also have a point.

For example, the vendor of a product we just agreed to buy, partially because it would lock in pricing for a very desired development they told us was coming “later this year,” just told us that the development would not be available until next summer. A journal publisher recently raised the price of a package for our consortium by 1,900% (the consortium has let us know the state is dropping the package). We signed up for an ILS software upgrade which brought our entire ILS to a screeching halt for about a week when implemented and does not include some of the functionality we were promised (and partially bought it for). Functionality announced as approved for development in our ERM over two years ago has not even begun (at least, the beta, which was supposed to happen 18 months ago, has never been scheduled).

Our discovery system’s upgrade announced for this summer was delayed, then the preview was non-functional, and is now only partially functional; it will not be ready for implementation (in my mind) by the time fall semester starts due to a few serious design flaws, and is supposed to replace the old interface completely by January, forcing us into a mid-year change (which we try to avoid). Knowledgebase software upgrades by another vendor that were originally announced for June have been delayed to August and now, possibly, January, changing our review and potential adoption plans drastically, because we have decided that the way the product currently works is unacceptable and impossible for us to implement.

One vendor whose product we were trialing last fall pushed me too far and caused me to halt the trial. Another vendor, whose cold calls I had ignored (because we already had a similar product with lots of content overlap whose use was woefully low and which, indeed, we’ve cancelled), approached our university’s provost to sell the product instead. (I was going to chat with them about this at ALA this summer but, surprise, they weren’t even there.) I’ve asked direct questions of two other vendors repeatedly this summer (in person, in webinars, in email), been promised answers, have never received them (or only received partial answers), and have finally, months later, come to the conclusion I’ll never get them.

Perhaps I have been naïve and overly trusting of what my vendors tell me about development releases, when I should know to take them with a grain of salt. Perhaps I have put too much stock in what people in sales have said when I should know that developers and salespeople do not necessarily communicate closely or share information well. Perhaps some of these things are honest oversights rather than deliberate obfuscations – our vendors’ staff are overworked, just like I am, and their companies’ budgets are tight, just like my library’s. But I don’t feel like all of my vendors are partnering with me in good faith  – instead, I feel like some of them are just trying to sell me things.

What about you? Have any of you experienced similar situations recently with vendors? How did you handle them? Have you adopted any tactics to successfully ward off any of the experiences I’ve mentioned from occurring (or reoccurring)?

When we met with our ILS vendor about its upgrade (which we ended up purchasing more or less sight unseen, since no preview was available), the salesperson said, “It’s a trust relationship.” Really? Trust is earned. Some of my vendors are going to have to start working harder for mine.

Change–The Encyclopedia Britannica Editors Say “It’s Okay”

If you were saving some of your budget to purchase the next print edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, I have some bad news for you. Yesterday the editors announced that after 244 years of publication, they are going to stop printing bound volumes and instead will focus on digital editions. This decision is not altogether unexpected, given that most reference sources are going digital, but it remains somewhat surprising to those of us who are used to the 30+ volume set gathering dust on the ready reference shelf.

I found Encyclopedia Britannica’s blog post on this announcement very interesting. I was expecting something nostalgic, mournful, or even bitter. Instead, with the title of “Change: It’s Okay. Really,” it sounds as if they’re ready to move on. The Britannica Editors write:

A momentous event? In some ways, yes; the set is, after all, nearly a quarter of a millennium old. But in a larger sense this is just another historical data point in the evolution of human knowledge.

Unlike the blog post, the comments below the post are more melancholic. For example, one person says, “It’s a sad, sad day. I need no internet, no electrical outlet, and no batteries to read print.”

I vividly remember using the Encyclopedia Britannica in the children’s section of my public library in order to complete various homework assignments from elementary through high school. These are good memories, but will I miss the hardbound monolith? About as much as I miss the television show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I’m serious—Buffy was a historical data point (at least in my own evolution) and this amazing show as well as the Encyclopedia Britannica helped me survive high school.  And now I believe that the time has come for us to let go.

At a recent EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative meeting, one of the presenters asked the audience if anyone had used the Encyclopedia Britannica within the past 12 months. Only one woman raised her hand and she explained that she used it to show a child how we used to look up information without computers or the Internet. This is how the Encyclopedia Britannica will continue to live on: as a symbol of how we used to gather and find information.

Poignantly, about 30 minutes after reading a news article about this announcement, I witnessed a pair of students pull one volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica off the shelf. Now, this is literally the first time I have ever seen a students use this resource in my library since I arrived here a year and a half ago. I couldn’t help but wonder—why didn’t they just Google the information they were looking for? Or use one of our online encyclopedias? My guess is either their professor asked them to consult to it or perhaps they learned how to use the print volumes at their public library just as I did. Nevertheless, it made me smile.

Please feel free to share your memories of the Encyclopedia Britannica (or Buffy for that matter) in the comments below.

Working Together: Tips for Vendors

When I was in library school, Lynn Wiley (who was at that time head of interlibrary loan at UIUC) said something about library vendors that made a big impression on me. She said that vendors are our partners – we could not do what we do without the content and service products they provide, and they could not do what they do without us, either – we provide an audience, an infrastructure, and end-user education for them. Throughout my career, first as an interlibrary loan librarian and now as an electronic resources librarian, I have let this idea be a guiding principle for me. I sincerely try to take time to talk to my sales and service reps and respond when they contact me, and one of the major reasons I never miss an ALA is because I feel like it’s essential for me to spend time on the exhibit floor touching base with vendors and publishers to learn what’s new. I easily get 100 e mails a day because I try to sign up for every vendor update list I can – it’s my job to know about database upgrades, downtime, content changes, etc., and I try to be conscientious about passing that information on to my colleagues. I have learned so much about what’s going on in the information services industry, and – just as importantly – what’s going on with other libraries in my region and in the country from my vendor contacts, and I truly value my relationships with them.

I don’t know how many librarians approach their relationships with vendors this way, but I imagine lots of us do. However, some vendors make my job easier – others don’t. I try to remind myself that sales reps are working in the business world, not the world of academia, and they have MBAs and quotas and deadlines that are probably getting harder to meet as our budgets shrink. I try to be forgiving when I feel like they’re pestering me, and remind myself they’re just doing their jobs. But a recent trial has produced a sales rep who’s really trying my patience by calling once a week, pressuring me for a decision, and sending “follow-up” e mails to my department chair and even dean. I have tried to respond to her queries with helpful information about our process and where we are in it, but I’m finding myself hoping sincerely our collections librarians decide not to buy this product because I don’t want to end up in a long-term relationship with this vendor at all.

So as spring trial season begins, I would like to offer some tips for vendors who want to partner with librarians and make our jobs easier, because making my job easier is the best way to ensure my long-term good will and a mutually beneficial relationship.

  1. E mail is the best way to reach me. I have probably been sitting at my desk in my office by my phone less than a dozen hours in the last two weeks. Instead of in my office, I have been at the reference desk, in a million meetings, and doing research for a conference paper I’m presenting this month. In those dozen hours at my desk I was working hard in software I can’t access wirelessly or from home. Getting a phone call during that time from a vendor who wants to sell me something is just poor timing for the vendor. A lot of times when I’m at my desk I don’t even answer the phone unless the call is coming from someone on campus for this very reason. E mail me. I hate the phone, it’s a terrible way to reach me, I don’t necessarily get to check my voice mail every day, and I will respond to your e mail.
  2. Libraries are on an annual budget cycle. That’s right. We usually make major purchasing decisions twice a year – once at the end of the calendar year (because we love those end-of-the-year deals vendors offer) and once in the spring, before the fiscal year begins in July. We may trial your product at any time, but we are only likely to make a purchasing decision one of those two times. Thus, while vendors may feel pressure to get us to make a decision, we feel no pressure at all, because we know the money doesn’t exist until the new budget cycle starts and now, with all the cuts going on, budgets never even come out on schedule, so we’re always behind. Therefore the decision process is long, is often delayed, and will not happen until the last possible moment. I do not tell my colleagues in reference and collection development when we need to get something. They tell me. They set the schedule. No matter how often you call (or, preferably, e mail), that schedule will never be in my hands.
  3. Make sure I get information I need. I think vendors should start combining sales and service. Maybe some do. But I feel like sales reps who want to sell me something are always figuring out how to contact me, while service information like database updates or downtime or content changes – vitally important information that I need to receive – often doesn’t get to me, or isn’t released in a timely manner. I have signed up for every e mail list I can, and every time we purchase something new I make a point of contacting the vendor and asking to be added to the list of people to receive technical and content updates, but I still feel like I have trouble getting that information. Vendors: libraries are truly interested in service and content. If you provide me with great information about that in a timely way, I am way more likely to listen when you have something new to sell.
  4. Make my job easier. I want to promote your products. There is nothing I would like to see more than our usage statistics for databases rise. Send me posters, pens, binder clips. The latest update to the OCLC Perceptions survey tells us patrons notice in-library flyers and promotions. If you send them, I’ll put them up. If you send me information in e mail, I’ll forward it to my subject liaison colleagues. If we buy something new, offer an in-person training or webinar for our librarians – I’m likely to take advantage of it.
  5. Inform me! I want to know what other libraries are doing, and I want to know where you think information services are going. What trends are you noticing in use statistics, in patron queries, in research patterns? Vendors have rich data and wide contacts. If you share that kind of information with me, I’ll eat it up, I promise, and I’ll listen to you when you have something to tell me.

If any vendors are reading this they might be thinking, well, what’s in it for me? I hope they think that my good will and influence with my students and colleagues is reward enough, because I certainly don’t have direct purchasing decision-making and I am not a subject liaison and I can’t guarantee we’ll have any money any time soon. Which is another problem, perhaps, with the way e-resources librarians’ jobs are structured, and perhaps a topic for another post.

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