Tag Archives: access

The Limits of Mobility

Some interesting articles about mobile technology caught my eye last week as I was finishing up the leftover turkey. Apple has come under fire for the reported inability of Siri, the voice recognition application on the new iPhone 4S, to find abortion clinics. As reported by CNN, quoting the American Civil Liberties Union:

“Although it isn’t clear that Apple is intentionally trying to promote an anti-choice agenda, it is distressing that Siri can point you to Viagra, but not the Pill, or help you find an escort, but not an abortion clinic,” the group wrote in a blog post Wednesday.

A spokesperson for Apple responded quickly:

“These are not intentional omissions meant to offend anyone. It simply means that as we bring Siri from beta to a final product, we find places where we can do better and we will in the coming weeks.”

This is but one example of problematic access and information issues with our mobile devices, a topic that was explored in more detail last week by Harvard professor Jonathan Zittrain in MIT’s Technology Review in his provocatively-titled article The Personal Computer is Dead. Zittrain begins by asserting that:

Rising numbers of mobile, lightweight, cloud-centric devices don’t merely represent a change in form factor. Rather, we’re seeing an unprecedented shift of power from end users and software developers on the one hand, to operating system vendors on the other—and even those who keep their PCs are being swept along. This is a little for the better, and much for the worse.

Zittrain continues with an analysis of the state of mobile software development for Apple and Android devices, and the restrictions this development operates within. In Apple’s case users are limited to the software available in the company’s commercial space: the App Store (unless the device is jailbroken). Android apps are potentially available outside of the Android Marketplace, though I wonder whether many users go to the extra effort to locate and download those apps. In both cases developers are tied to the operating system of the device which dictates the parameters of the software. Perhaps most distressingly, there are hints that a similar environment for software development may soon be prevalent even on the PC: Apple has already introduced its App Store for Mac.

How does this aspect of mobile computing affect us as academic librarians? While we still have a sizable number of students without smartphones on our campuses on average,* there’s no question that smartphone and tablet usage is on the rise overall. What challenges will we face that accompany the increasing reliance on mobile devices? Certainly library database vendors are rushing to develop apps for these devices — how will we promote these apps to our users and integrate their use with the library website and other existing services? And while many libraries are also developing apps, that strategy may not be feasible for smaller libraries that already feel stretched by the efforts to provide digital library services.

Access to information — an aspect of information literacy — may also be affected by these restrictions around mobile devices. We’ve already read about the possibility of a filter bubble that impacts Google search results. With the increasing move to an app-driven environment, could an internet search provider’s app restrict or shape search results even further?

What should academic libraries be considering as we adapt to an information landscape that’s increasingly mediated by mobile technologies? How can we help our students, faculty, and other library patrons with their information needs while ensuring that they’re aware of the strengths and limitations that these technologies have to offer?

* The latest survey results from the Pew Internet Project show that the vast majority of undergrads have a cellphone (between 94-96%), and about 44% of 18-24 year olds own smartphones.

The Age of Big Access

This month marks the second in our new series of guest posts from academic librarians around the biblioblogosphere. October’s post is from Iris Jastram, the Reference & Instruction Librarian for Languages and Literature at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. She also blogs at Pegasus Librarian.

While we were all busy wondering what it means to be a librarian in the Age of Google, we got flanked. This is not the Age of Google after all. That was just a distraction — a clever and dazzling light show. Meanwhile, behind the curtain, a totally different age was gathering itself: The Age of Big Access.

We saw and were outraged by Elsevier’s extortionist tactics. You know the story: our scholarly communities can’t function without these journals. We needed to provide access, Elsevier knows we needed to provide access, and so we have no leverage. The part of our librarianly DNA that is hardwired to provide access and further scholarly pursuits kicks in and overrides everything else.

We saw and were outraged by OCLC’s revised Use and Transfer guidelines. Sure, we could decide not to hand the record over to OCLC, but then the other systems that we really do need (such as ILL) wouldn’t work as well. We couldn’t lend our items, which means we couldn’t build up credits, which means that we couldn’t afford to borrow as much. Our scholarly community would suffer. We need to provide access, OCLC knows we need to provide access, and so we have no leverage. That librarianly DNA kicks in again.

We saw and were outraged by EBSCO’s increasing holdings of exclusive rights to periodicals, often offered through increasingly obscure EBSCO aggregators. But we need to provide access, the journals know it, they contract with EBSCO to get as much out of EBSCO as they can, we have no leverage. That blasted librarianly DNA keeps kicking in.

We saw and were outraged by Nature Publishing Group’s price hikes, made public by the University of California system when that system announced a boycott (PDF) of all of Nature’s periodicals and Nature-related activities. How dare Nature sell our own work back to us at such a price, we asked. Because we need to provide access to these things, Nature knows it, and so we have no leverage. Is there any way to amputate DNA?

We saw and were outraged by OCLC yet again when a lawsuit reminded us just how often we have no choice of vendor now that OCLC controls our cataloging, ILL, and to a lesser but growing extent, our catalogs. Apparently librarianly DNA loves these parasitic relationships around providing access.

And weren’t we just talking about how we’re no longer gatekeepers now that there’s so much free information out there? What about information overload and result fatigue? Have we wondered and worried about our futures so long that the future got written by big corporations in the business of selling us access, and selling it to us again, and then selling it to us again?

As usual, Barbara Fister is way ahead of me with her Liberation Bibliography manifesto. But what about me? I don’t have an activist bone in my body, but surely recognizing that I’m living the wrong future must have some effect. Surely there’s a place for instruction librarians in this alternate future.

I was pretty comfortable with my role as an instruction librarian in the Age of Google. I’m totally at sea trying to figure out my role as an instruction librarian in the Age of Big Access.

Ideas For The Suggestion Box

Our current challenging economic conditions have higher education institutions searching far and wide for ways to cut costs and stretch every dollar. The old “do more with less” philosophy is back with a vengeance. Lost state revenues have been absorbed by every unit at my institution, but the administration wanted to know how it could save even more budget dollars. Lo and behold we now have a web page where anyone can submit a suggestion for how the university could save money or gain efficiency. Even though no incentives were offered hundreds of ideas poured forth from the masses.

I submitted some ideas the first day the box was available. I had just come back from my morning workout at the campus gym and I was brimming with observations on how to cut waste at the fitness center. One towel to a person. That would cut laundry costs. Eliminate the piped in music. Everyone’s got earphones attached to their skulls. Shut down the television monitors in the weight room. Guys and gals pumping iron aren’t interested in what Oprah has to say. Do we really need liquid soap dispensers in the showers? Even college kids can afford bars of soap, and most of the ones I observe opt for a total body spray of AXE rather than a shower (if that sounds disgusting it smells much worse). A good start I thought, but wondered if I could come up with something a bit more profound.

It never occurred to me that I was missing something totally obvious for a librarian until I read a post written by WIRED magazine’s creative guru, Kevin Kelley at his “The Technium” blog. Kelley wrote an intriguing post about ownership vs. access – and he concludes that ownership is a concept that has run its course. Then it came to me. Why should anyone on our campus have the institution pay for a personal subscription to any print newspaper, magazine or journal if the library subscribes to an e-version of that publication? Here’s how Kelley sees it:

Suddenly ownership is not so important. Why own, when you can get the same utility from renting, leasing, licensing and sharing? But more importantly why even possess it? Why take charge of it at all if you have instant, constant, durable, full access to it?…Access is so superior to ownership, or possession, that it will drive the emerging intangible economy. The trend is clear: access trumps possession. Access is better than ownership.

It struck me that all libraries are built on the premise of giving everyone equal access to a commons of information, and that in turn can collectively save the community money. People have depended on libraries for access rather than ownership for generations. Kelley even points out that libraries share the qualities of the web and public roads in that they offer a social common good.

Here was my simple suggestion for saving institutional dollars. The university should no longer pay for a subscription for any publication to which the library already provides an electronic version. I gave two examples of how this can benefit the university. First, the obvious one – cost cutting. Consider the Chronicle of Higher Education. The Library has a site license that makes it accessible to anyone with a university network account. I imagine our various administrative and academic departments hold dozens of subscriptions to the Chronicle. If we dropped them all that would contribute to hundreds or thousands of dollars in savings. Add in the cost of any scholarly journals and you could be talking real money. And over time it would really start to add up. But could people live without their print publications? We may not have a choice.

I admit that I like to read the paper version of the Chronicle, but in the year since we added the site license I increasingly find myself saying “read that one already this week” since I’m reading more online. And I’ve never had a paper copy of Inside Higher Ed and I can’t even imagine needing it in that format. The second benefit is that eliminating all this paper makes us a greener campus. My institution has committed to achieving sustainability via green campus initiatives. I imagine any number of these paper copies end up in trash bins. Eliminating paper subscriptions eliminates paper waste. A less obvious benefit is that it capitalizes on the significant institutional investment in electronic publications…and an even less obvious benefit is that it drives more campus community members to our academic library resources. Better for us.

I finished my suggestion with the bold statement that our university president should publicly commit to sacrificing her paper subscription to the Chronicle, and indicate that others should follow her lead by using the Library’s site license to access all the electronic content. While good ideas can emerge from anywhere in the organization, bold initiatives that save dollars and help make us greener need the very obvious support of the institution’s top leaders. We the employees need to know that our leaders are making the same sacrifices they ask us to endure.