Category Archives: Worth Reading

For postings that mention a good article, book, study, etc.

Maintaining in Academic Libraries

The spring conference season is in full swing, and one weekend earlier this month it seemed like there were conferences of interest to me all over the place, judging from the hashtags in my Twitter timeline: #PLA2016, #SAA2016 (Society of American Archaeologists), #OAH2016 (Organization of American Historians), #DifferentGames2016, and #AERA16 (American Educational Research Association), just to name (more than) a few.

But of all of those great-looking events, most of my conference envy (and associated hashtag-following) was reserved for #maintainers, hashtag for The Maintainers: A Conference, at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ. From the description on the conference website:

Many groups and individuals today celebrate “innovation.” The notion is influential not only in engineering and business, but also in the social sciences, arts, and humanities. For example, “innovation” has become a staple of analysis in popular histories – such as Walter Isaacson’s recent book, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution.

This conference takes a different approach, one whose conceptual starting point was a playful proposal for a counter-volume to Isaacson’s that could be titled The Maintainers: How a Group of Bureaucrats, Standards Engineers, and Introverts Made Technologies That Kind of Work Most of the Time.

From the tweets I caught this conference looked fascinating, and you can read more about it in the shared conference notes doc (with many links to full papers) as well as in the essay Hail the Maintainers published in Aeon by conference organizers Lee Vinsel and Andrew Russell the day before the conference. And since the conference I’ve been mulling over this tension of maintenance vs. innovation, and how it might be expressed in academic libraries.

Like our transit infrastructure, libraries require maintenance work to function, work that touches every part of our libraries: facilities, resources, services (in alphabetical order, not necessarily order of importance). This maintenance work, while crucial, sometimes seems easy to forget, especially as annual reporting season rolls around each year. Do we report the maintenance work we do? If we don’t report it, administrators, faculty, staff, and students outside the library might not know it’s happening, so I would argue that yes, we should report it.

But maintenance can’t be the only thing happening in academic libraries — as technology, access to information, and higher education more generally go through changes, libraries do as well. One danger of focusing only on maintenance is that it might prevent us from trying something new that could bring real benefits to us as workers or to the communities we serve. Adding new (or making changes to existing) facilities, resources, and services can also bring new requirements for maintenance. Perhaps there’s legacy maintenance that’s no longer needed, allowing us to balance between continuing and new efforts within the constraints of our time and budgets?

I bristle when I read the phrase “do more with less” because I want to resist the overwork and burnout that can happen to all of us, especially when necessary maintenance work can seem invisible or underappreciated. And I think that innovation as a buzzword can sometimes be used to encourage us to do more with less, to believe that innovation alone will overcome the limitations of funding and time. But I also don’t think that flat or declining budgets mean that we shouldn’t change — I think it’s worth our efforts to figure out if there is maintenance work that we can stop doing that can allow us to try something new (which, if successful, will of course require maintenance of its own).

Is maintenance the opposite of innovation in academic libraries? Can we do both? Must we do both? To be honest, I’m still puzzling through my thoughts about this, and I’m interested to hear your thoughts in the comments.

The end of the book as we know it, and I feel (mostly) fine.

I’m packing for an upcoming vacation and assembling my reading material. In addition to a backlog of unread New Yorkers, I’ll bring novels (mostly new fantasy and speculative fiction) that will keep me company in airports and at the lake. I’m trying to spend as little money as possible, and so I’m gathering Kindle books borrowed from friends, Kindle and ePub books borrowed from our local public library, and one eagerly awaited 561-page print book from my library’s collection.

As a librarian, I’m comfortable navigating the library eBook universe (or is it a minefield? asteroid belt? black hole?) for personal reading. Not all of our patrons find it easy, and not all libraries can make eBooks available to the extent that they would like. The subject inspires great pride in libraries, prejudice against publishers, common sense, and passionate sensibility –

  • In June, the Pew Internet and American Life Project reported that 12% of Americans who read (and what percentage of all Americans is that?) have borrowed ebooks from their public libraries, but half of those surveyed didn’t know that libraries offered that service. Those who do borrow ebooks from public libraries report frustration – with limited selection, long waits, and incompatible formats. If more patrons are going to use ebook lending services, we’ll have to have better relationships with publishers, and more titles and formats available.
  • New York Times financial columnist Ann Carrns describes her experience trying to save money by borrowing ebooks from her local library. She reports many of the same frustrations as the subjects in the Pew survey, but had more success when she stopped searching her library’s ebook collection for known items and instead browsed what titles were available. (I have also found this a great way to discover new authors, if you have patience to wade through the dross.)
  • Patrons are frustrated because, according to Barbara Fister, “large trade publishers think sharing is a bug, not a feature.” Ebook publishing models don’t value the culture of collaboration and cooperation that libraries are built upon. Academic libraries may have a slight advantage here, since we tend to work with academic and nonprofit publishers, who, like scholars, “think sharing is pretty much the point of publishing.”
  • Are we better off with ebooks or without them? Librarian in Black thinks we should break up with ebooks, because they are a bad boyfriend: “Libraries and eBooks aren’t shacking up anytime soon, not for real…not as long as publishers continue to falsely view us as a threat instead of a partner.” In contrast, Steven Harris argues that our relationship with print books is just as dysfunctional and codependent.
  • Is this the end of the book as we know it? Or do ebooks represent reading’s future? Speculative fiction has always contemplated the death of the book, according to English professor Leah Price, but “what [writers] never seem to have imagined was that the libraries housing those dying volumes might themselves disappear.” Let’s hope they’re right.

No Sentimental Farewells From This Blogger

Going back to March 15, it was a really busy time for me between then and ALA Annual. Here’s a rundown to give you a better picture:

  • Presentations to students, faculty and library staff at the LIS schools at the University of Missouri and IUPUI
  • At the end of March, a paper and CZS presentation (see “Five Quick Tips for Your Flip”) at ACRL
  • In early April I visited Rice University in Houston and then went to Austin to present at the Texas Library Association
  • A mid-April keynote for the annual meeting of the Maryland Congress of Academic Library Directors
  • A closing keynote for the Michigan Library Association‘s Academic Division the first week of May
  • Mid-month I gave the closing keynote for the Amigos Virtual Conference 2011 – no travel involved
  • Later in the month I visited the libraries at Duke and UNC, and then gave the I.T. Littleton Lecture at NCSU the next day
  • Moving into June I spoke at the SLA annual conference, delivering at one of their “spotlight sessions”
  • With ALA coming up I shifted gears to finish up preparations for a full-day workshop on “presence” that I co-delivered with Brian Mathews
  • I finished up the spring (now summer) presentation schedule with a talk at the AALL Annual Conference (like SLA – also in Philadelphia)
  • Somewhere in there I managed to write my weekly “From the Bell Tower” columns, and on occasion post to various other blogs. With no let up in my regular job duties, I greatly appreciate having supportive colleagues who make it possible for me to occasionally maintain a hectic professional speaking schedule.

    If you’re a regular reader of ACRLog you know it’s generally not my style to go on about myself, my work or professional activity. Whether it’s this blog, Facebook, Twitter or Friendfeed, you generally won’t find me suffering from BTY Syndrome. But this is one time when I do want to share that I can get myself into a fair amount of work. Now, it’s likely to get busier. That means some change is in the picture.

    What else happened? I was elected vice-president/president-elect of the Association of College & Research Libraries. It was a great thrill to learn I had won the election, and I’m looking forward with great enthusiasm to contributing to ACRL’s future in this new leadership role. As with any association leadership position, it requires a significant time commitment. I’m already involved in recruiting colleagues to lead or serve on committees, reviewing the work plans of the multiple committees for whom I serve as the ACRL liaison, and contributing to the agenda for ACRL’s fall planning meeting. I believe that ACRL is the professional family for academic librarians, and it’s a family where I belong.

    I’ve been asked more than a few times how this new responsibility affects my role as an ACRLog blogger. Put simply, I’ll be winding it down over the next few months. Not only will I have less time for blogging (and I do want to try keeping up my other blogs as much as possible), but I want to be even more clear about the division between my role as an ACRL board member and an ACRLog blogger. Even though ACRLog has the obligatory disclaimer, I want to eliminate any possibility that what I write as a blogger and vice-president/president-elect would be interpreted as ACRL’s position or policy. Since I started writing here at ACRLog, only once has someone suggested that a post was a statement of ACRL’s policy concerning an issue. With over 500 posts in those years, most of you ACRLog readers clearly understood that my views and opinions were mine and mine alone – no reflection on ACRL. That’s good, but now it has to be even better. And the best way to achieve that is to take a hiatus from blogging at ACRLog during my three-year term.

    Will I be signing off with a sentimental farewell of a post? Probably not. You’ll just be seeing less and less of me here, until some future date when I’d hope to contribute a blog post or two again – and I imagine a break between us won’t be such a bad thing. After over 500 posts you are probably getting a little tired of what I have to say anyway. On the other hand, you know it’s hard for me to shut up. If I’m blogging about academic librarianship it will likely be in the role of ACRL vice-president/president-elect, with a new blog or at an existing ACRL communication vehicle. The good news is that ACRLog has a good core of bloggers, and we’ve probably done a better job than any other blog of inviting guest bloggers to participate with ACRLog. I know that ACRLog will continue to be one of the best blogs focusing on academic librarianship. That said, I’d love to see a new blogger or two join ACRLog, and help to sustain it. If you think you have what it takes, can post on a fairly regular basis (two to four times a month) and are willing to share your opinions and ideas – this might be the blog for you. If you are interested, you know where to reach me. Maura Smale, who has been contributing regularly to ACRLog for a while now, and who has done a great job with our guest series highlighting academic librarian bloggers, will take over some of the occasional coordinating responsibilities here at ACRLog.

    Helping to start ACRLog and working to sustain it since October 2005 has been one of the highlights of my professional career. It will be tough to walk away from it…wait a minute…no sentimental farewells. Heck, you know what I mean.

    Do You Have The Tao In Your Toolkit?

    In his blog post, The Tao of Librarianship, Andy Burkhardt reminds us how we can apply the ancient wisdom of Taoism to library policies and services. Burkhardt addresses library food policies, space design, planned abandonment of outdated formats and services, and adapting to change through the lens of Taoist philosophy, which he summarizes as, “instead of struggling against everything all the time, Taoism states that humans should try to see how things actually are and live in harmony with them.”

    Another more colloquial way of stating this is the expression, “go with the flow.” Going with the flow is more commonly associated with surfers and hippies than librarians. Traditionally as a profession we tend toward rules, policies, standards. We prefer to “get things under (bibliographic) control.” A tweet at a program at ACRL 2011 put it this way: “Control freak streak runs in the profession. Sadly, yes. #lettinggo #acrl2011.”

    Burkhardt is right to suggest that Taoist principles could help us more effectively deal with the change in our world and in our libraries. In addition to the areas that Andy brings up, Taoist ideas can also be useful when it comes to collaboration within and outside the academic library. In their ACRL 2011 program, Letting Go: Giving Up Control to Improve First-year Information Literacy Programs, librarians Meghan Sitar, Cindy Fisher, Michele Ostrow, of the University of Texas Libraries explain the difficulties they faced and the concepts they had to embrace in order to give up control and collaborate with other faculty and professionals on campus.

    One of the more beautiful metaphors in Taoism is the admonition that we should be like water, fluid and responsive (Tao 8). Is your library frozen like a glacier or flowing like a mountain stream? Are you part of the ice jam or part of the break up? Have you come to terms with your inner control freak? As a profession, how can we become less controlling, and what should we let go? Can the principles of Taoism help us?

    There are many translations of the Tao Te Ching. An interesting one is The Tao of Leadership by John Heider.

    Who Reads and How?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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