Category Archives: Research Issues

Use this category for posts related to research projects, research conducted by librarians, the need for certain types of research, research in higher education

Thinking Tenure Thoughts

Last week Meredith Farkas wrote a thoughtful post on her blog, Information Wants to Be Free, about tenure status for academic librarians. Spirited discussion ensued in Meredith’s blog comments and on libraryland Twitter (much of which Meredith Storified) which has continued to today. The conversation has included many varied perspectives on the advantages and disadvantages of tenure for academic librarians, including preparation for research and scholarship in graduate library programs, the perceptions of status and equality between academic librarians and faculty in other departments, salary parity, academic freedom, and the usefulness and rigor of the library literature.

I support tenure for academic librarians as I do for faculty in other departments primarily because I believe that tenure ensures academic freedom, which is as important in the library as it is in other disciplines. I also have concerns about the tenure system more generally, concerns that many academics in libraries and other departments also voice. One of my big concerns is that the pressure to publish can result in quantity over quality.

This conundrum was raised during the Twitter discussion of Meredith’s post and had me nodding vigorously as I read. I am absolutely in agreement that the tenure system as it currently stands has encouraged the publication of large amounts of scholarship that ranges from the excellent and thought-provoking, to the interesting if somewhat obvious, to the just not very good, to the occasionally completely wrong. Of course, this is a problem not just in academic librarianship but in other disciplines as well. The avalanche of scholarship resulting from the pressures to publish to gain tenure affects libraries and the broader academic enterprise in a variety of ways.

It takes time to write and publish, and time spent on that is less time to spend on doing research or reading the research that others have published, research that might be useful in our jobs as well as our own research. You might remember the article in the Guardian late last year in which Nobel Prize-winning physicist Peter Higgs suggested that he’d be unlikely to get tenure in today’s academic climate because he hasn’t published enough. I try to stay current on what’s being published in a handful of library journals, but like many of us my interests are interdisciplinary and there is no way I can read even a fraction of what’s relevant to my scholarly interests. And the more that’s published, the more difficult it can become to find the good stuff — something we see when we teach students to evaluate sources, but something that can stymie more experienced researchers as well.

There’s also a direct connection between the ever-increasing publication for tenure needs and academic library budgets. Those articles need to go somewhere, and journal publishers have been more than willing to create new journals to fill up with reports of academic research and sell back to libraries. Publishing in open access journals can help, as others including Barbara Fister have suggested.

But I think academic librarians with tenure can make an impact on the quality versus quantity problem, both in the library literature and in scholarly communication more widely. I’m coming up for tenure in the fall, and while I’ve published my research open access, it’s also true that I’ve submitted most of my work for publication in peer reviewed journals, primarily because that’s what “counts” most. I don’t know that I’ve written anything in the past 6 years that I wouldn’t have otherwise, but as Meredith and others noted in the Twitter conversation, without worries about what counts I probably wouldn’t have felt as much pressure to write as much as I have for peer reviewed journals, and might have spread my efforts more evenly between blogging or other forms of publication as well. I’ve also felt torn spending time on other work that I know isn’t as highly regarded as traditional scholarly publishing — work like conference organizing and article reviewing and blogging, for example.

I’m looking forward to coming up for tenure in part because I’d like to help work toward expanding the definition of scholarly productivity to include alternatives to peer-reviewed publication in journals, and to focus on quality over quantity. Some of this is work that librarians are already doing — work in promoting open access, for example, among faculty in other departments who may not realize that there are peer-reviewed, highly-regarded OA journals. As academic librarians we have a view of the scholarly publishing landscape that other faculty may not share, and I hope we can use this position to advocate for tenure requirements that take into account more of the possibilities for contributing to the creation and propagation of knowledge than peer review and impact factor alone.

Library Research and the IRB: Is It Generalizable?

By Nicole Pagowsky and Maura Smale

There are generally two types of research that take place in the LIS field, one is more rare and is capital-R-Research, typically evidence or theory-based and generalizable; the other, more prevalent, is lowercase-r-research, typically anecdotal, immediate, and written in the style of “how we did it good.” The latter has historically been a defining quality of LIS research and receives much criticism, but as librarianship is a professional field, both theory and practice require documentation. Gorman (2004) notes how value and need have contributed to a mismatch in what is published, “[leading to] a gap in the library journal literature between arid and inaccessible reports of pure research and naive ‘how we did it good’ reports.” There are implications for these concerns both within and outside of the field: first, those within the field place less value on LIS research and might have lower confidence and higher anxiety when it comes to publishing, and second, those outside the field might take LIS research and librarians less seriously when we work to attain greater equality with faculty on campus. Understanding these implications and how human subjects research and the Institutional Review Board (IRB) fit into social sciences research can help frame our own perceptions of what we do in LIS research.

What is the IRB? The IRB regulations developed in the wake of the revelation of Nazi experimentation on humans during WWII, as well as the U.S. government’s infamous Tuskegee study in which black men with syphilis were allowed to go untreated so that researchers could examine the progression of the disease. All U.S. academic and research institutions that receive federal funding for research must convene an IRB to review and monitor research on human subjects and ensure that it remains ethical with no undue risk to participants. There are three levels of IRB approval — exempt, expedited, and full; a project is assigned its level of review based on the amount of risk to the subject and the types of data collected (informational, biological, etc.) (Smale 2010). For example, a project involving the need to draw blood from participants who are under 18 would probably be assigned a full review, while one featuring an anonymous online survey asking adults about their preferences for mobile communications devices would likely be exempt. It’s worth noting that many of the guidelines for IRB review are more relevant to biomedical and behavioral science research than humanities and social science research (for more discussion of these issues, see George Mason University History professor Zachary Schrag’s fascinating Institutional Review Blog).

Practically speaking, what is the process of going through IRB approval like for LIS researchers? We’ve both been through the process — here’s what we’ve learned.

Maura’s Experience

I’ve gone through IRB approval for three projects during my time as a library faculty member at New York City College of Technology (at City University of New York). My first experience was the most complex of the three, when my research partner and I sought IRB approval for a multiyear study of the scholarly habits of undergraduates. Our project involved interviews with students and faculty at six CUNY campuses about how students do their academic work, all of which were recorded and transcribed. We also asked students to photograph and draw objects, locations, and processes related to their academic work. While we did collect personal information from our participants, we’re committed to keeping our participants anonymous, and the risk involved for participants in our study was deemed low. Our research was classified by the IRB as expedited, which requires an application for continuing review each year that we were actively collecting data. Once we finished with interviews and moved to analysis (and writing) only, we were able secure an exempt approval, which lasts for three years before it must be renewed.

The other two projects I’ve sought IRB approval for — one a solo project and one with a colleague — were both survey-based. One involved a web-based survey of members of a university committee my colleague and I co-chaired, and the other a paper survey of students in several English classes in which I’d used a game for library instruction. Participation in the surveys was voluntary and respondents were anonymous. Both surveys were classified exempt by the IRB — the information we collected in both cases were participants’ opinions, and little risk was found in each study.

Comparing my experiences with IRB approval to those I’ve heard about at other colleges and universities, my impression is that my university’s approach to the IRB requirement is fairly strict. It seems that any study or project that is undertaken with the intent to publish is considered capital-R-research, and that the process of publishing the work confers on it the status of generalizable knowledge. Last year a few colleagues and I met with the Chair of the college’s IRB committee to seek clarification, and we learned that interviews and surveys of library patrons solely for the purpose of program improvement does not require IRB approval, as it’s not considered to be generalizable knowledge. However, the IRB committee frowns on requests for retroactive IRB approval, which could put us in a bind if we ever decide that results of a program improvement initiative might be worth publishing.

Nicole’s Experience

At the University of Arizona (UA), I am in the process of researching the impact of digital badges on student motivation for learning information literacy skills in a one-credit course offered by the library. I detailed the most recent meeting with our representative from IRB on my blog, where after officially filing for IRB approval and having much back-and-forth over a few months, it was clarified that we in fact did not exactly need IRB approval in the first place. As mentioned above, each institution’s IRB policies and procedures are different. According to the acting director of the UA’s IRB office, our university is on the more progressive end of interpreting research and its federal definition. Previous directors were more in line with the rest of the country in being very strict, where if a researcher was just talking with a student, IRB approval should be obtained. Because their office is constantly inundated with research studies, a majority of which would be considered exempt or even little-r research, it is a misuse of their time to oversee studies where there is essentially no risk. A new trend is burgeoning to develop a board comprised of representatives from different departments to oversee their own exempt studies; when the acting director met with library faculty recently, she suggested we nominate two librarians to serve on this board so that we would have jurisdiction over our own exempt research to benefit all parties.

Initially, because the research study I am engaging in would be examining student success in the course through grades and assessments, as well as students’ own evaluation of their motivation and achievement, we had understood that to be able to publish these findings, we would be required to obtain IRB approval since we are working with human subjects. Our IRB application was approved and we were ranked as exempt. This means our study is so low-risk that we require very little oversight. All we would need to do is follow guidelines for students to opt-in to our study (not opt-out), obtain consent for looking at FERPA-related and personally identifiable information, and update the Board if we modify any research instruments (surveys, assessments, communications to students about the study). We found out, however, that we actually did not even need to apply for IRB in the first place because we are not necessarily setting out to produce generalizable knowledge. This is where “research” and “Research” come into play. We are in fact doing “research” where we are studying our own program (our class) for program evaluation. Because we are not saying that our findings apply to all information literacy courses across the country, for example, we are not producing generalizable “Research.” As our rep clarified, this does not imply that our research is not real, it just means that according to the federal definition (which oversees all Institutional Review Boards), we are not within their jurisdiction. Another way to look at this is to consider if the research is replicable; because our study is specific to the UA and this specific course, if another librarian at another university attempted to replicate the study, it’s not guaranteed that results will be the same.

With our revised status we can go more in depth in our study and do better research. What does “better” mean though? In this sense, it could be contending with fewer restrictions in looking for trends. If we are doing program evaluation in our own class, we don’t need to anonymize data, request opt-ins, or submit revised research instruments for approval before proceeding because the intent of the research is to improve/evaluate the course (which in turn improves the institution). Essentially, according to our rep, we can really do whatever we want however we want so long as it’s ethical. Although we would not be implying our research is generalizable, readers of our potentially published research would still be able to consider how this information might apply to them. The research might have implications for others’ work, but because it is so specific, it doesn’t provide replicable data that cuts across the board.

LIS Research: Revisiting Our Role

As both of our experiences suggest, the IRB requirement for human subjects research can be far from straightforward. Before the review process has even begun, most institutions require researchers to complete a training course that can take as long as 10 hours. Add in the complexity of the IRB application, and the length of time that approval can take (especially when revisions are needed), and many librarians may hesitate to engage in research involving human subjects because they are reluctant to go through the IRB process. Likewise, librarians might be overzealous in applying for IRB when it is not even needed. With the perceived lower respect that comes in publishing program evaluation or research skewed toward anecdotal evidence, LIS researchers might attempt big-R Research when it does not fit with the actual data they are assessing.

What implications can this have for librarians, particularly on the tenure track? The expectation in LIS is to move away from little-r research and be on the same level as other faculty on campus engaging in big-R Research, but this might not be possible. If other IRB offices follow the trend of the more-progressive UA, many more departments (not just the library) may not need IRB oversight, or will be overseeing themselves on a campus-based board reviewing exempt studies. As the acting IRB director at the UA pointed out to library faculty, publication should not be the criterion for assuming generalizability and attempting IRB approval, but rather intent: what are you trying to learn or prove? If it’s to compare/contrast your program with others, suggest improvements across the board, or make broad statements, then yes, your study would be generalizable, replicable, and is considered human subjects research. If, on the other hand, you are improving your own library services or evaluating a library-based credit course, these results are local to your institution and will vary if replicated. Just because one does not need IRB approval for a study does not mean it is any less important, it simply does not fall under the federal definition of research. Evidence-based research should be the goal rather than only striving for research generalizable to all, and anecdotal research has its place in exploring new ideas and experimental processes. Perhaps instead of focusing on anxiety over how our research is classified, we need to re-evaluate our understanding of IRB and our profession’s self-confidence overall in our role as researchers.

Tl;dr — The Pros and Cons of IRB for Library Research

Pros: allows researchers to make generalizable statements about their findings; bases are covered if moving from program evaluation to generalizable research at a later stage; seems to be more prestige in engaging in big-R research; journals might have a greater desire for big-R research and could pressure researchers for generalizable findings

Cons: limits researchers’ abilities to drill down in data without written consent from all subjects involved (can be difficult with an opt-in procedure in a class); can be extremely time-intensive to complete training and paperwork required to obtain approval; required to regularly update IRB with any modifications to research design or measurement instruments

What Do You Think?

References

Gorman, M. (2004). Special feature: Whither library education? New Library World, 105(9), 376-380.

Smale, M. A. (2010). Demystifying the IRB: Human subjects research in academic libraries. portal: Libraries and the Academy, 10(3), 309-321.

Other Resources / Further Reading

Examples of activities that may or may not be human research (University of Texas at Austin)
Lib(rary) Performance blog
Working successfully with your institutional review board, by Robert V. Labaree

Nicole Pagowsky is an Instructional Services Librarian at the University of Arizona, and Tweets @pumpedlibrarian.

ACS Solutions: The Sturm und Drang

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Sue Wiegand, Periodicals Librarian at St. Mary’s College in Notre Dame, IN.

A chemical storm recently blew up across the blogosphere, involving the American Chemical Society journals, the serials crisis of unsustainably high prices, and one brave librarian, Jenica Rogers at SUNY Potsdam, who said “Enough!” The atmospheric conditions that caused this storm: high journal prices, clashing with low library budgets. Not a surprise, as these storms blow up frequently before subsiding, but the response to Jenica’s blog post thundered through the online community of librarians and scholars. Why? Because she implemented an unusual solution. She cancelled the high-priced “Big Deal” ACS package, after consultation with their Chemistry Department. Others have cancelled Big Deals, but Jenica cancelled ACS journals, when ACS is also the accreditor for Chemistry. She made sure SUNY Potsdam Chemistry scholars and students would still get access to the research they needed, they would just get it in different ways. Controversy swirled like the winds of change.

Other “serials crisis” storms have come and gone over the years: in 2010, the University of California threatened to not renew Nature Publishing Group journals; in 2012, thousands of scholars and librarians signed a petition to boycott Elsevier. Going back further, decades of complaint from librarians resulted in, well, even higher prices. So, cancelling is the direct approach—the action alternative to what hasn’t worked.

As both Periodicals Librarian and liaison to the Chemistry Department, I knew that the answer at SUNY Potsdam would be different from what we could do with the resources we have available here at Saint Mary’s College. Our consortial arrangements are different, our mission is different—we’re a small liberal arts college, not part of a state-wide system. A suggestion from others here was to try to persuade the Chemistry Department to give up their ACS accreditation, but I didn’t want to do that. I’ve worked closely with Chemistry faculty, not only in collection development for their journals, but on college-wide committees—I know they are reasonable people, and they are also shocked at unsustainably high pricing for scholarly articles. I reckoned the department and the library could work together to figure something out. The other librarians agreed: the time was right. Discussion ensued.

Some history: way back in 2002, after an interesting discussion of the new digital era for journals, a senior Chemistry professor came to me with a scenario based on what I’d told him was possible if he wanted to make a deal: cancel some Chemistry journals to use the money available to get SciFinder Scholar, the indexing and abstracting database. ACS was offering a deal: a “3 for 2″ split with 2 similar institutions, so we could pay 1/3 of the cost of the SciFinder index. So we worked out which journals to cancel, which to keep, and we added SciFinder, a client-server product at that time, while keeping the necessary number of print ACS journals to keep our accreditation. The scenario accomplished this at no cost increase because we cancelled some print titles they didn’t want as much as they wanted the comprehensive, discipline-specific indexing.

Soon after, our state consortium offered an ACS “Big Deal” package: convert our ACS journals from print to online at the same price we were paying for print (the “historical spend”) and get many more journals for every library in the consortium. We converted. As with all Big Deals in the beginning, we marveled that we could get so many online journals at the same price we had been paying for our print subscriptions. I configured SciFinder to link our new titles, closed the catalog holdings, and shelved the print on the lower level, with signs on the Current Periodicals shelves: “This title is now online!” We added links. For Chemistry journals and indexing, at least, we were set for the brave new millennium.

Every year, the consortium negotiated small price increases, and more journals were added. Every year our budget stayed stagnant or went down while, subscription prices to other periodicals also went up. Faculty members in Chemistry were happy with the access they could get to the high-quality ACS journals, and frequently told me soWhen SciFinder became a web product, replacing the client-server model—even better (I was happy about that, too, in spite of the hassle with passwords and creating accounts that it entailed.) But the librarians thought the cost per use was too high for our small Chemistry Department. Then came Jenica’s blog post.

At Potsdam, librarians and Chemistry faculty decided to continue the ACS Legacy Archive, plus use Interlibrary Loan, add journals from the Royal Society (the Royal Society Gold package), and continue both STNEasy and Elsevier’s ScienceDirect database, which we don’t have at Saint Mary’s. Our mix is slightly different—after much discussion with Chemistry faculty and my librarian colleagues, we kept only the subscription to Journal of Chemical Education from ACS. We renewed the ACS Legacy Archive, and also kept our one Royal Society title (Chemical Society Reviews). The department agreed to use Interlibrary Loan when needed (as Jenica notes, ILL is also not free, but it is doable). We had post-cancellation access rights to 10 years of ACS content (next year, we must subscribe to another ACS title or pay an access fee to continue that).

We also kept SciFinder Scholar, still the single most important element to our faculty in Chemistry—they made this very clear from the first meeting I had with them. SciFinder is the indexing piece of the puzzle—it searches the Chemistry literature as a whole, not just the ACS journals, so it’s one place for them to search, and they like that. They already get non-ACS, non-subscribed journals from ILL, and they know it works well. We also, as did Jenica and the SUNY Potsdam librarians, encouraged faculty to use their ACS membership titles first for needed full-text found via SciFinder, and to consider having students also become members, since Society membership includes 25 “free” ACS articles, and student memberships are inexpensive.

The other solution I explored to complete the picture for us was to try using a document delivery service called FIZ AutoDoc, from FIZ Karlsruhe. FIZ (Fachinformationszentrum) is a not-for-profit German company that partners with the ACS, provides their document delivery, and also provides the STN databases. Implementation of the FIZ AutoDoc service required an incredible amount of mind-boggling documentation-reading, collaboration, copious emails, technical discussions, a webinar demo, a trial, and much angst. The sturm und drang, was not FIZ’s fault—they were extremely easy to work with, even though based far away in Germany. We just needed to figure out what we wanted and how to configure it to work with SFX, our link resolver, and our ideas about how to do this—how our workflow should go, who should do what, should it be mediated or unmediated, how it would look to the end-user—required much discussion. Eventually, we thought we had it—mediated by ILL would be best. No, wait! Maybe there is another way… The debate raged.

Ultimately, we did go with mediated by ILL, with the SFX link also in SciFinder. We added an SFX note about using free ACS membership articles if possible, and provided a list of ACS titles for use by ILL student workers. The account was set up with 2 passwords so the ILL Department can experiment with unmediated seamless access through SFX, so there is room for further improvement when the technical details are worked out. Meanwhile, requests for ACS articles are passed through to the ILL form, which is handily pre-populated by SFX from wherever they originate (since some ACS titles are also indexed in Academic Search Premier). ILL takes it from there in their usual efficient way.

So where do the philosophical questions come in? Is it ok for a library to purchase an article for just one person? What about sharing library resources? What about Fair Use? What about Open Access?

I have to say, I love the idea of Open Access, always have. I told the Chemistry Department that chemists everywhere should get together and start a subject repository like arXiv for Physics—this was quite humorous, apparently. In 2010, the University of Prince Edward Island’s library director, wanting to cancel Web of Science because of the high price, proposed an even more radical idea: librarians collaborating to build an index to scholarly literature that would be free and maintained by librarians. We all know the scholarly communication story by now. No one should be constrained from scholarly work by lack of resources wherever they are or what resources are available. Libraries are about sharing, at no cost to the users. Scholarly collaboration and library sharing shouldn’t have to be in competition, with large amounts of money at stake for access to published research. Yet, those devilish arguments go on.

Meanwhile, the ACS says it wants to work with researchers: “In the future… publishers will deal more directly with contributors and rely less on libraries as middlemen.” They have introduced ACS ChemWorx for research, collaboration, and reference management. In another example from a scholarly society, the Modern Language Association (MLA) is also working with researchers, but by making their author agreements more friendly to authors’ rights to self-archive, and by developing a platform for sharing: “members join the association less in order to receive its communications than to participate in them, to be part of the conversation, and to have their work circulated with the work being done in their community of practice.” They plan to emphasize their society role in “validation and credentialing”, developing new forms of peer review and scholarship in the MLA Commons.

This is the kind of action we can endorse and applaud. As librarians, let’s encourage scholarly societies to share scholarly work as the communities of practice they are at their best. Other collaborative platforms in various stages of adaptation include Zotero, Mendeley, Academia.edu, ResearchGate.org. There are also repositories, institutional and subject-based. The world is converging toward networking and collaborative research all in one place. I would like the library to be the free platform that brings all the others together.

Coming full circle, my vision is that when researchers want to work on their research, they will log on to the library and find all they need—discovering research ideas, the ability for seamless literature searching, accessing and saving citations for books and articles of interest in one place, downloading what they need, finding research collaborators through a network of scholars all over the world with similar interests, finding project management, having the ability to write and cite their research in a seamless way, sharing it informally, having it peer reviewed then formally published in a archived scholarly version of record, having it showcased and celebrated at each institution, then preserved for future scholars to discover and continue to build on. Walk in or log on, we could say to scholars and students alike—the library is the one place that has all you need to get your scholarly work done.

Let’s all, like Jenica, say enough with the old way! Let’s try some new ways and keep trying until we find or create something that works. This storm could help clear the air.

Waiting on Wikipedia

Recently while I was teaching a class the instructor asked me whether I thought that Wikipedia would ever come to be considered a generally trustworthy, credible source. I always talk about Wikipedia in my one-shot instruction sessions, especially with first year students, but this was the first time I’d ever gotten a question along those lines. And I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

In my classes I point out to students that most of us — students, faculty, librarians, everyone — use Wikipedia all the time. My usual strategy for talking about Wikipedia in library instruction is likely similar to many librarians: I show students how to use it for brainstorming and background information, suggest that they mine the references, and point out the View history link to show them how the entry has changed. I end by noting that Wikipedia is a great place to start but that students shouldn’t cite it in their assignments because it’s much too general, just as they wouldn’t cite a general print encyclopedia. Instead, they should use Wikipedia to point them to other resources that are more appropriate for use in college work.

But I do wonder when Wikipedia will cross the line into acceptable-for-use-as-a-cited-source territory. Will it ever? Has it already?

Full disclosure: I cited Wikipedia in a scholarly journal article I wrote last year. I had what I thought were (and still think are) good reasons. I was writing about using games in information literacy instruction, and I used Wikipedia to define several specific genres of videogames. I felt that the Wikipedia definitions for those types of games were more current and accurate than definitions I found in other published sources. In this case the fluidity and impermanence of Wikipedia were assets. Genres and micro-genres can evolve and change quickly, and I think that most Wikipedia entries on popular culture (in which I’d include videogames) are probably written and edited by fans of those topics. There’s an argument to be made that those fans are the subject experts, so it’s the information they’ve put together that I was most confident in citing. While one of the peer reviewers did note the Wikipedia citations, the journal editor and I discussed it and agreed to keep them.

Of course, Wikipedia won’t always be the best source. Right now I’m working on writing up the results of a project and needed to find the construction dates for campus buildings at one of my research sites. After scouring the college’s website with no luck, I stumbled upon the information in Wikipedia only to come up against a dilemma I’m sure our students face all the time: the information seems true, it’s not blatantly, obviously false, but there’s no citation for it. In this case I didn’t feel comfortable citing Wikipedia so I emailed the college archivist for more information, which she quickly and graciously provided. But what do our students do in a situation like this? There won’t always be a readily identifiable person or source to check with for more information.

According to this recent article in the Atlantic, Wikipedia seems to be moving into a more mature phase. The rate at which Wikipedia articles are edited is decreasing, as is the rate for adding new articles. What does this slowdown mean for Wikipedia? Is it really “nearing completion,” as the article suggests? And when Wikipedia is finished, will it then become a citable source?

Enabling the Research ‘Flow’ and Serendipity in Today’s Digital Library Environment

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Bohyun Kim, the Digital Access Librarian at Florida International University Medical Library. She blogs at Library Hat (http://bohyunkim.net/blog) and can be found at @bohyunkim (http://twitter.com/bohyunkim) in Twitter. She also writes regularly on ACRL TechConnect blog.

Today’s library users do not carry pencils and notebooks to a library. They no longer want to be isolated to concentrate on deep study or contemplative reading when they are at a library. Rather, they have the dire need to be connected to the biggest library the human race ever had, the World Wide Web, always and even more so when they are at a library walking through the forest of fascinating knowledge and information. The traditional library space packed with stacks and carrels does not serve today’s library users well whether they are scholars, students, or the public visiting a library for research, study, or leisure reading. As more and more library resources are moved to the fast and convenient realm of the World Wide Web, libraries have been focusing on re-defining the library space. Now, many libraries boast attractive space almost comparable to trendy, comfortable, and vibrant coffee shops. The goal of these new library spaces are fostering communication, the exchange of ideas, and social learning.

How the loss of book stacks and carrels affects library patrons

However, some library patrons complain about this new and hip research and reading environment that libraries are creating. They do not experience comfort and excitement, which today’s libraries strive to provide in their new coffee-shop-or-makerspace-like library space. These patrons rather miss the old dusty moldy stacks packed with books, many of which were left untouched except by a handful of people for a very long time. They miss the quiet and secluded carrels often placed right outside of the stacks. They say that browsing a library’s physical collection in those stacks led them to many serendipitous discoveries and that in those tiny uncomfortable carrels, they were completely absorbed into their own thoughts reading away a pile of books and journals undisturbed by the worldly hustle and bustle.

This is an all-too-familiar story. The fast and convenient e-resources in library websites and the digital library collections seem to deprive us of something significant and important, that is, the secluded and sacred space for thought and contemplation and the experience of serendipitous discovery from browsing physical library collections. However, how much of this is our romantic illusion and how much of it is it a real fact?

How much of this environment made our research more productive in reality?

What we really love about browsing book stacks at a library

In the closing keynote of 2012 ACCESS Conference last Sunday, Bess Sadler, the application development manager at Standford University Libraries noted the phenomenon that library patrons often describe the experience of using the physical library collection in emotional terms such as ‘joyous,’ ‘immersive,’ and ‘beautiful’ characteristic to our right brain whereas they use non-emotional terms such as ‘fast’ and ‘efficient’ to describe their use of a library’s online/digital resources. The open question that she posed in her keynote was how to bring back those emotional responses associated with a library’s physical collection to a library’s digital collection and its interface. Those terms such as ‘joyous,’ ‘immersive,’ and ‘beautiful’ are often associated in a library user’s mind with their experience of serendipitous discovery which took place while they were browsing a library’s physical book stacks. Sadler further linked the concept of serendipitous discovery with the concept of ‘flow’ by Csikszentmihalyi and asked the audience how libraries can create such state of flow with their digital collections by improving their interfaces.

One of the slides from Bess Sadler’s Closing Keynote

This was a very interesting question to me because I have been mostly thinking about the concept of flow in the context of library services (and more specifically, gamification applied to libraries) and the usability of the systems that serve a library’s online resources.

The most annoying thing about the e-resources that today’s libraries offer is that the systems where these resources reside do not smoothly fit into anyone’s research workflow. How can you get into a zone when the database you are in keeps popping up a message asking if you want to renew the session or demands two or three different authentications for access? How can you feel the sense of smooth flow of thought in your head when you have to navigate from one system to another with puzzling and unwieldy interfaces in order to achieve simple tasks such as importing a few references or finding the full-text of the citation you found in an e-book or an online journal you were reading?

Today’s research environment that libraries offers with its electronic resources is riddled with so many irritating usability failures (often represented by too many options none of whose functions are clear) that we can almost safely say that it is designed anything but for the ‘flow’ experience. The fact that these resources’ interfaces are designed by library system vendors and light years outdated compared to the interfaces available for individual consumers and that librarians have little or no control over them only exacerbate the problem. So I always associated the concept of flow with usability in the library context. And considering how un-user-friendly the research environment offered by today’s libraries is overall, asking for ‘joyous,’ ‘immersive,’ or ‘beautiful’ appeared to me to be a pretty tall order.

But more importantly, the obstacles to the ‘flow’ experience are not unique to online resources or digital libraries. Similar problems do exist in the physical collections as well. When I was a grad student, the largest library collection in North America was available to me. But I hated lugging back and forth a dozen periodicals and monographs between my apartment and the university just to get them renewed. (This was the time before the online renewal!) After the delightful moment of finding out in the online catalog that those rare scholarly books that I want are indeed available somewhere in that large library system at Harvard, I grumbled at the prospect of either navigating the claustrophobic rows and rows of stacks at Widener Library in order to locate those precious copies or running to a different library on campus that is at least a half mile away. At those times, the pleasure of browsing the dusty stacks or the joy of a potential serendipitous discovery was the last thing that I cared for. I was very much into my research and exactly for that reason, if I could, I would have gladly selected the delivery option of those books that I wanted to save time and get into my research flow as soon as possible. And I did so as soon as my university library started moving many books to an off-site storage and delivering them on-demand next day at a circulation desk. I know that many faculty at academic institutions strongly protest against moving a library’s physical collection to an off-site storage. But I confess that many times when the library catalog showed the book I wanted as located on the stacks and not at the off-site storage, I groaned instead of being delighted. I won’t even discuss what it was like to me to study in a library carrel. As an idea, it is a beautiful one to be immersed in research readings in a carrel; in reality, the chair is too hard, the space is too dark and claustrophobic, the air is stale, and the coffee supply is, well, banned near the stacks where those carrels are. Enough said.

The point I am trying to make is that we often romanticize our interaction with the physical stacks in a library. The fact that we all love the library stacks and carrels doesn’t necessarily mean that we love them for the reasons we cite. More often than not, what we really like and miss about the library stacks and carrels is not their actual practical utility to our research process but the ambiance. Strand, the used bookstore in NYC is famous for its 18 miles of books. Would you walk along the 18 miles of books even if you know in advance that you are not going to make any serendipitous discovery nor find nothing directly useful for your research topic at hand? Yes you bet. Would you walk by the stacks in Trinity College Library in Dublin, UK even though you are not doing anything related to research? A very few of us would say ‘No’ to such an invitation.

Can you resist walking between these stacks? Our desire doesn’t always correspond to its practical utility.

But the fact that library stacks and browsing them may contribute very little to the actual research output doesn’t mean that the stack-browsing is therefore not useful. To borrow the words of Saint-Exupéry, something is truly useful because it is beautiful (The Little Prince, Ch. 14). Let me explain.

The library book stacks as high as the walls filling up the whole floor generate the sense of awe and adventure in us because it gives us the experience of ‘physically’ surrounded by knowledge. It is magical and magnificent. It is amazing and beautiful. This is where all those emotional adjectives originate. In the library stacks, we get to ‘see’ the knowledge that is much bigger than us, taller than us, and wider than us. (Think of ‘the sublime’ in Kantian aesthetics.) When our sensory organs are engaged this way, we do not experience the boredom and tediousness that we usually feel when we scroll up and down a very long list of databases and journals on a library web page. We pause, we admire, and we look up and down. We are engrossed by the physicality of the stacks and the books on them. And suddenly all our attention is present and focused on that physicality. So much so that we even forget that we were there to find a certain book or to work on a certain research topic. It is often at these moments that we serendipitously stumble upon something relevant to what we were looking for but have forgotten to do so. Between the magnificent tall stacks filled with books, you are distracted from your original mission (of locating a particular book) but are immersed in this new setting at the same time. The silence, the high ceiling, the Gothic architectural style of an old library building, and the stacks that seems to go on forever in front of us. These are all elements that can be conducive to a serendipitous discovery but “if and only if” we allow ourselves to be influenced by them. On the other hand, if you are zooming in on a specific book, all of this visual magnificence could be a nuisance and a bother. To a scholar who can’t wait to read all of the readings after physically collecting them first, the collection process is a chore at best. To this person, neither a serendipitous discovery nor the state of ‘flow’ would be no doubt more difficult to happen in between the stacks.

If this is a relatively accurate description of a serendipitous discovery that we experience while browsing the physical collection on library book-stacks, what we really miss about the traditional library space may well be the physicality of its collection, the physical embodiment of the abstract concept of knowledge and information in abundance, and its effect on our mental state, which renders our mind more susceptible to a serendipitous discovery. And what we are most unhappy about the digital form of knowledge and information offered by today’s libraries could be that it is not presented in the space and environment where we can easily tune our mind into the content of such digital knowledge and information. It is the same Classical Greek text that you see when you pull out an old copy of Plato’s Meno in the narrow passage between tall book-stacks at Widener and when you pull up the text on your computer screen from the Perseus Digital Library. It is our state of mind influenced by the surroundings and environment that is different. That state of mind that we miss is not entirely dictated but heavily influenced by the environment we are present. We become different people at different places, as Alain de Botton says in his book, The Architecture of Happiness (Ch 1). Who can blame a library user when s/he finds it hard to transform a computer screen (which takes her to many digital collections and online resources from a library as well as all sorts of other places for entertainment and distraction) into the secluded and sacred space for thought and contemplation?

Using Perseus Digital Library is way more efficient for research and study the classical Greek texts than using the physical collection on your stacks. However, we still miss and need the experience of browsing the physical collection on the stacks.

How to facilitate the ‘flow’ and serendipity in today’s libraries

The fact that today’s libraries no longer control the physical surroundings of a library patron who is making use of their resources doesn’t mean that there are nothing libraries can do to make the research environment facilitate serendipitous discoveries and the state of ‘flow’ in a researcher’s mind, however. Today’s libraries offer many different systems for library users to access their online resources. As I have mentioned above, the interfaces of these systems can use some vast improvement in usability. When there are as few hindrances as possible for a library patron to get to what s/he is looking for either online or at the physical library space, s/he would be able to concentrate on absorbing the content more easily instead of being bogged down with procedures. The seamless interoperability between different systems would be very much desirable for researchers. So, improving the usability of library systems will take library patrons one step closer to obtaining the flow state in their research while using library resources online.

As far as the physical space of a library is concerned, libraries need to pay more attention to how the space and the environment of a library emotionally affects library patrons. Not all research and study is best performed by group-study or active discussion. Baylor University Libraries, for example, designate three different zones in their space: Silent, Quiet, and Active. While libraries transform more of their traditional stack-and-carrel space into vibrant group study rooms and conversation-welcoming open spaces, they also need to preserve the sense of the physical environment and surroundings for library patrons, because after all, all of us desire the feeling of being in a sacred and dedicated space for contemplation and deep thoughts from time to time. Such space is becoming rarer and rarer nowadays. Where else would people look for such space if not a library, which the public often equate to a building that embodies the vast amount of knowledge and resources in the physical form.

Facilitating the serendipitous discovery in browsing a library collection in the digital environment is more tricky because of the limitation of the current display mechanisms for digital information. In emulating the experience of browsing books in the physical form on a computer screen, the Google WebGL Bookcase has made some progress. But it would be much more efficient combined with a large display mechanism that allows a user to control and manipulate information and resources with gestures and bodily movements, perhaps something similar to what we have seen in the movie, Minority Report. However, note that information does not have to be bound in the form of books in the digital environment and that digital books do not have to be represented as a book with pages to thumb through and the spine where its title is shown . If we set aside the psychological factors that contribute to the occurrence of a serendipitous discovery, what is essential to efficient browsing boils down to how easily (i) we can scan through many different books (or information units such as a report or an article) quickly and effectively and (ii) zoom in/out and switch between the macro level (subjects, data types, databases, journals, etc) and the micro level (individual books, articles, photographs, etc. and their content). If libraries can succeed in designing and offering such interfaces for digital information consumption and manipulation, the serendipitous discovery and the efficient browsing in the digital library environment can not only match but even exceed that in the physical library book-stacks.