The Importance of Community

As everyone knows, library land is small. Having a profession where we all know each other or know of each other, can be a plus (but also has its drawbacks). This allows us to form our own smaller networks and build our own community. Being an early career librarian, I have quickly realized that while I have treated librarianship as a profession where one works alone, librarianship is in fact a team sport.

This past week, I had the opportunity to attend a conference-like event for my residency program. As most of you are familiar by now, I am part of the Diversity Alliance residency cohort. We have these conferences/gatherings about once a year. This year, we had a dual conference between Virginia Tech and American University.

The program included workshops, guest speakers, presentations and group dinners. Most importantly, all the residents were able to see each other again. While we occasionally see each other at conferences, these diversity alliance gatherings are an opportunity for the residents to catch up. We are able to talk about our jobs, our lives, any updates, and it’s a chance to catch up and learn about the exciting things that the residents are doing at their institutions.

I have been a librarian for only two years, but have realized the importance of having your own cohort. It does not necessarily mean that the people in this cohort are your best friends in the whole wide world. It might be a group of people who are not only your colleagues, but those who are able to be honest and frank with you. This is the group of people that you ask for advice, whether it’s library world or personal life. Above all, they are a support team. They support and mentor you–and you support and mentor them.

I would really encourage other librarians to think about the people they surround themselves with. I was basically put in a cohort as a diversity alliance resident, but after we all met, it just felt natural. We had shared experiences that brought us closer together and built a trust that you just can’t get out of thin air. I was lucky enough to be placed in a cohort, but I have also taken some time to slowly form other cohorts I want to be part of. I try not to force it, so I ask the readers, what is your advice to finding, forming, and nurturing groups like these?

Here We Go Again: Net Neutrality

With so much in the news since the new federal administration took office earlier this year it’s easy to be overwhelmed — I certainly have been, especially in recent weeks. So you might have missed the announcement that the Federal Communications Committee has proposed to repeal regulations on commercial internet providers that guarantee net neutrality. Net neutrality is an admittedly somewhat clunky term that requires companies that sell internet access to treat all content equally. As a concept it’s a bit easier to explain using the negative example: if net neutrality ended, companies like Verizon and Comcast could force consumers to pay different rates for different kinds of content, for example, high-bandwidth content like streaming video (think YouTube or Netflix) could be more expensive than content that doesn’t require as much bandwidth. Rolling back net neutrality could make it much more challenging for many of us to access the internet.

The FCC last proposed changing these regulations in 2014, at which point John Jackson wrote a concise overview — Keeping Up With…Net Neutrality — on ACRL’s website, which is a good place to start to learn more. Margaret Heller’s thorough post on the ACRL TechConnect blog is also a great read; in What Should Academic Librarians Know about Net Neutrality? she offers a clear explanation of how content gets from content providers via internet service providers to us as consumers. And how does this affect us as librarians? Content that our communities need could be made more difficult and expensive to access, costs that neither our communities nor our libraries may be able to bear. Even more troubling to consider are possible effects on information freedom and free speech, since as Jackson notes

The loss of net neutrality would add additional layers of economic influence on the structure of the web.

The FCC’s previous efforts to roll back net neutrality were met with a strong campaign from consumers and content providers that was ultimately successful. Both ALA and ACRL issued a statement late last month opposing the FCC’s plans. The FCC was accepting public comments on the proposal, which is scheduled to be reviewed at its open meeting on May 18th, but as of May 12th has entered a “sunshine agenda period” and is not currently accepting comments. But don’t despair — the good folks at the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) are making it easy for you to register your opinions about net neutrality. Visit their Dear FCC site to add your comment, which will be submitted by the EFF when the comment period reopens.

Invisibility and Ubiquitousness: How Digital Libraries Should Tell Their Story.

Under pressure from the presumed loss of influence, the contemporary academic library is often in the business of staking claims on campus. We see new technology or innovations as opportunities to ingrained ourselves deeper in the future of the institution. Partially, this is a reaction to the change in the world and a move away from books but also a survival strategy in declining budgets. As the Ithaka survey on “Library Leadership for the Digital Age” last spring told us “All libraries are now digital….  Users think libraries are—or at least should be—digital.” As someone who left the print world for the digital, I can say within my own experience this is true.

What I am finding, though, as a new digital librarian, that our work is still ignorable and invisible. The reasons for this might seem contradictory. One, the digital library is not traditional library work and is seen as outside of the realm of the library’s scope. On the other hand, the internet and technology is ubiquitous which makes the behind the scenes work expected and ingrained with very little work assumed, with high levels of integration and low levels of recognition. Ubiquity, while central to our digital lives, is, perhaps, the most difficult thing to overcome. When user expect things to be there, or that the digital world should just exist around them, it is difficult to ask for their patience or their work in helping build the digital world in the library.

Abbot and Costello Meet the Invisible Man
Abbot and Costello Meet the Invisible Man Wikimedia Commons

And yet we need their input and their work to makes ours possible.

This tug and pull, the pressure to remain a stable part of the institution’s traditional academic world, maintaining print collections and special collections materials and being part of the on campus classroom, while being forced to compete with the google and the always on internet is difficult for our libraries to prosper. The ironic thing being: the better we do at our jobs the less visible we are and vice versa.

Take it from this excellent Futurama episode “Godfellas” 2002 where “the God Entity” explains the realities of omnipresence to Bender:

While the trend towards digital helps libraries stay relevant in this age the difficulty remains in how this information is presented. The same Ithaka report from above continues that, “Libraries are also challenged in a dramatic way to deal with the demands of our users as technology allows them to gain access to information directly rather than without any intermediation from us.”

Unfortunately, intermediation is the only way we are visible to some, and often that comes at the expense of our users. Users want the system to be there without having to feel like they are using the system. Because of google, our faculty and student expect that our services to be available always with little thought to the infrastructures that make it possible. Only when the curtain is pulled back is the process unveiled, usually with disastrous consequences.

If the institutional repository, the center of my work, works as it should, where materials are preserved and promoted with little to zero effort given on the part of individual faculty there is no one to complain or question its existence. This requires the input and the collaboration with faculty across the university. Proving that their buy in is difficult when some search engines make visibility so seamless. As a result, I often tout the visibility of the Institutional Repository in search engines like Google Scholar to show that it is “working.” The same thing exists on the technical end, if our online catalog bridges the gap seamlessly between physical location and online direction, then no one chats to complain they can’t find a book. That book, found via the Online Catalog, is retrieved with very little noise aside from the ding of the barcode scanner.

Only when things are visibly broken does our work become a point of either discussion or contention.But how then do we talk about our roles in the larger campus community if our work is largely behind the scenes?

In someways, we are forced to tell our stories to our Deans and Provosts about what we do for the library and the institution. This can be done in a number of ways, and best practices have yet to be fully established. The Digital Library Federation’s Assessment Interest group is focused on how we can assess the work that we do.

We can count the amount of money that we bring in during digitization projects or we can measure the encounters and shares as part of larger schemas of impact for promotion and tenure purposes. There are  great guides to Google Analytics and Altmetrics through the DLF assessment, but this is reactive instead of proactive. And requires us to justify our existence through outside tools and after things have been posted, not to prove why the initial work is necessary.

Just as the traditional library has been praised for its collections used to foster learning and scholarship, the digital library must be used to show its importance to the larger campus. This goes beyond showing the web analytical impact, but by showing the use of the materials by people on campus. As I wrote in my piece on the library as more than a mausoleum, it is the use of materials that will save us from irrelevancy and invisibility.

There is no simple solution, but a first step is often telling our own story apart from the rest of the library. Perhaps we should be making the case in a way that shows the seams that hold the digital library together with the campus is the way to go. We should use opportunities where ubiquity gives our campus partners feelings that we’ll always be there to tell our story and look for partners. Our seams show not where we are stretched to the limit or where we lack; but where our institutional and collaborative partners can build a larger and better digital community.

We will never have ALL the answers to what our community will need tomorrow  In our stories we should acknowledge both our failures and our successes and what we need to prosper in addition to build on our successes. We should show the people behind the curtain that make the easy to use interfaces and search functions work well, and increase the stake that our users play in decisions.  

Digital collections are unique in our library world. Outreach, like social media or regular media, can put objects at the forefront of the infrastructure and makes it all the more likely for our users to think of us when they think about the library, but it is the structure itself that often needs visibility and part of the narrative. Without this narrative, without selling the good that we do behind the scenes, our value is lost in a sea of other sources of information. The resources do not just appear because there is work done to make them available. It is time that we start making that visible.

“Just…why?”: Coming to terms with ambiguity, resilience, and acceptance

As a former electronic resources librarian, along with what I’ll call my own unique set of life experiences, I’ve found the practice of radical acceptance has served me well.  Acceptance as an ongoing practice is not optimism or permissiveness, but healthily recognizing how and when to let go, and knowing that acceptance is not the same as approval.  This practice comes in handy, especially in life’s lemon-giving moments. I’ve mentioned a few  from the technical side of library work in previous posts.  Certainly the current sociopolitical climate is not at a loss for examples of this either.

When these “Seriously?” moments occur in my job, I am reminded of another idea, comfort with ambiguity, which frequently appears as a desirable skill in job advertisements, along with its companion resilience.  Both have been on my mind since attending a recent ACRL presentation,  Resilience, Grit, and Other Lies: Academic Libraries and the Myth of Resiliency.  As ubiquitous as both ambiguity and resilience are in my field, this presentation reminded me how poorly defined, misunderstood, and problematic they are when idealized professionally.  So I was thinking about how to unpack this concept related to my own academic librarianship and how a personal practice of acceptance (without approval) might play a helpful role.

It seems in the everyday ambiguity, as well as ambivalent with the same root, often describe something squishier.  For example, ambivalent is often misused to describe someone who is passively undecided or not invested in a particular outcome, rather than actually feeling multiple different ways about a thing. Similarly, ambiguity is often synonymous with an amorphous state of confusion than specific set of circumstances that make a solution unclear.

While inexactness and its synonyms might reflect this murky spirit, isn’t ambiguity really only inexact because it can’t be just one thing?  The fact that it can still be exactly many things is what I find interesting and overlooked in the experience of ambiguity.  Recognizing the possibility of multiple interpretations as specific, distinct avenues for action is especially important for efficiency and service in e-resources management.

Here’s a very basic example working with and a technical problem solving of e-resource access, which I repeatedly encountered when working with publishers’ technical support:

Me: Hi, My name is [me] from [my institution]. We have a current subscription to [your journal] but we’re not able access content online.

Tech Support:  What’s your institution’s [subscriber number, IP address, and other details]?

Me: *gives details*

Tech Support:  OK, it should be working now.

And that was it.  No explanation, no assurance it would not happen again, no way to plan workflow to prevent this very regular disruption.  Good problem solvers who thrive on the details of the problems and the solutions will no doubt feel frustrated and confused by this.  But the situation is no more a mystery than it is comfortable.  There likely is an exact cause for this problem. It’s just the cause is likely multiplicitous, complex, and in most cases less important than the fact that the problem is now fixed. So we move on.  In responding to the given ambiguous situation, we must accept the priorities of the current moment rather than the past or future.  This mindfulness of the present moment is a key part of the practice of acceptance.

Change may the new normal, but comfortable with ambiguity?

I think these tendencies show up in e-resources librarianship in particular because positions of this type developed from those which focused on the exacting and predictable realm of attention to detail.  Certainly the evolution of libraries content and services necessitates characterizing those details as now really messy and inexact.  But position descriptions mistakenly place this ambiguity in the context of a personal quality when it is really a quality of the environment.  To use such a problematic word, and to prefer people who are comfortable in that state, doesn’t say anything about how people should actually respond in these situations.  Expecting comfort in ambiguity falsely sets people up to stay in that state longer than may be necessary.

And this is where the problem of resilience comes in.  As the ACRL presentation I mentioned notes, research shows resilience often normalizes oppression of marginalized groups.  Systemically, I wonder how resilience hinders innovation, preventing us from answering the question “what can we stop doing?”.


So since, as a colleague once reminded me, the privileged have to be uncomfortable to recognize oppression, it is useful to discard a preference for comfort in the face of ambiguity.  Resilience or grit may help us more than comfort, as long as it is focused in the direction of action.  It should not be the normal or preferred quality of an individual professionally.

The idea of resilience as oppression also reminded me of another “What fresh h*!! is this?” experience working as an elementary music teacher.  At one of the two inner-city schools I was assigned, the music room was the stage in the gym’s auditorium. A burlap-like stage curtain was the only barrier between my music classes and the screaming, sneaker-squeaking, ball-bouncing, whistle-blowing activity of PE.  I often preface my sharing of this experience with disbelief that this was a reality to describe – it seemed so obviously nonsensical and in need of a solution.  So, I once spent a week’s planning periods reworking the entire school schedule so that all teachers still got their planning period during elective classes, but in a way that PE and music didn’t overlap.  Working out those complexities was frustrating and certainly not comfortable.  At the same time, I was driven to resist normalizing the resilience expected of the situation.  I knew this was more than a personal preference of the [should-be librarian] music teacher than the institution was leading me to believe.  Before leaving this job, I don’t think I ever gave these alternatives to my principal, but succeeded in getting a new curtain for the stage. When I noted to the principal that the change didn’t block sound as I’d hoped, I’ll never forget her response.

“Why do you care, since you won’t be here any longer?”

On one hand her response demonstrated everything that’s wrong with institutional resiliency.  At the same time I can also see it as an honest statement of my own realm of control.  When work and life inevitably boil down to “Just…what? Why is this normal?”, a practice of acceptance means neither normalizing nor pursuing crazy to find resolution.

The circus has left town

Image CC BY 2.0 with attribution:  matthew_pennell “The circus has left town”

If there is a proactive path through ambiguity or resilience, then I believe the skill we’re really after is how to recognize, reassess, and negotiate our power to influence and control.  This requires a constant give and take of our experience of that control as anxiety or relief.  It means exactly both action and letting go and not necessarily having to choose between the two.  When requiring choice, it means knowing how not to wrestle very long in the choosing.

Privacy and Academic Libraries Right Now

I have a kid in high school whom I’ve often jokingly referred to as my in-house research subject. I’ve been interested to observe and think about the ways that he accesses information for school and non-school reasons, especially as he gets closer to the age of many of the students who use the library where I work. When he started high school I was initially surprised by the number of educational technology products he was required to use. Much of my grumbling around these systems stems from my concern that some of his classmates likely don’t have good access to computers or the internet at home, and that use of these systems puts a strain on some kids to find time to use the school or public libraries to do their homework. But lately I’ve also been concerned about the number of products my kid has to use, which is only growing. Beyond the very real password management considerations, I’m also increasingly uncomfortable with the amount of information these systems collect about him.

That’s one reason I’m looking forward to digging in to the new EFF report Spying on Students: School-Issued Devices and Student Privacy. From the executive summary of the report:

Throughout EFF’s investigation over the past two years, we have found that educational technology services often collect far more information on kids than is necessary and store this information indefinitely. This privacy-implicating information goes beyond personally identifying information (PII) like name and date of birth, and can include browsing history, search terms, location data, contact lists, and behavioral information. Some programs upload this student data to the cloud automatically and by default. All of this often happens without the awareness or consent of students and their families.

Yes, this report covers only K-12 schooling, but it’s of relevance to us in college and university libraries, too, and not only because we’ll be seeing many of those students at our institutions soon. The proliferation of learning analytics across campuses has been fueled by their highly-touted potential for using institutional student data to help them stay on track, ultimately increasing student retention and graduation rates. Libraries (and the vendors we do business with) have data about our patrons, too — how can we ensure that students’ privacy is protected when we (or other college offices) use that data?

A recent preprint of an article by Kyle M. L. Jones and Dorothea Salo — Learning Analytics and the Academic Library: Professional Ethics Commitments at a Crossroads — does a fantastic, thorough job of walking us through these issues. From the abstract:

[T]he authors address how learning analytics implicates professional commitments to promote intellectual freedom; protect patron privacy and confidentiality; and balance intellectual property interests between library users, their institution, and content creators and vendors. The authors recommend that librarians should embed their ethical positions in technological designs, practices, and governance mechanisms.

Beyond reading this report and preprint, what can we do to learn more and help protect our patrons’ privacy (and our own)? Keeping up with these issues is a good first step. For starters, I recommend the terrific work of education technology journalist Audrey Watters published on her Hack Education blog. Her longer pieces and transripts of her presentations go in depth on many privacy-related topics, and her Hack Education Weekly News tracks edtech across a huge range of publications and outlets.

We can also work to audit our own internal library systems and practices, and to push the vendors we work with to protect patron privacy. Further, we can increase digital privacy awareness among ourselves, our coworkers, and our patrons. At the library where I work we hosted a data privacy training for all library faculty and staff a few months ago, run by some of the smart folks from the Data Privacy Project. They covered digital privacy protection for us as technology users as well as ways that we can shore up privacy protections in the library. Their presentation materials are all available on their website, too, for any library to use to offer digital privacy workshops for their community; my college’s library is running one next week during Choose Privacy Week.