Monthly Archives: February 2007

The New Hidden Influencers

Although they are referred to in this article as “a new kind of web site”, most academic librarians have used or are familiar with social bookmarking sites – or those that combine social bookmarking and social networking. What is a hidden influencer? Someone whose contributions to sites such as Digg,, Reddit or StumbleUpon (see the article for more information) gather so much buzz that they gain the power to influence others or cause them to take action. This applies somewhat more to any site where individuals vote to determine which stories rise to the top of the heap. On Reddit, one of the most influential users is a 12-year-old who submitted stories that discussed Microsoft Vista’s security flaws and price tag, which attracted approving votes from more than 500 users.

Influencers can impact on others in different ways. Last week the popular YouTube video on Web 2.0 no doubt influenced hundreds of thousands of indivduals to think about Web 2.0. This may be one reason why academic libraries should be doing more serious exploration of localized social sites that allow the user community to share news and information about the library, its resources or perhaps campus issues as well. Rather than our own often unsatisfactory efforts to influence users to take advantage of library resources and services, perhaps we need to tap into the powers of hidden influencers. Imagine the power of a hidden influencer recommending the library for a particular type of research or sharing news about a beneficial service the library offers. If an English teacher’s mention of an arts and crafts project on Digg could cause a Web site selling some of the ingredients needed for the project to rapidly sell out, imagine the impact influencers could have on promoting the academic library.

Library Porn And The Inevitable Future?

The pseudonymous Thomas H. Benton has written another personal essay for the Chronicle about books and libraries, this one titled Red-Hot Library Porn. Benton, an associate professor of English, reminds us that academic library users also include non-millenials who get their jollies more from dusty old tomes than the latest electronic gadgets. After a literate review of some sumptuous sounding books about the world’s grand libraries, Benton goes all inevitable on us and indulges in the idea that the inevitable future is one of libraries without books.

In 20 years, college students will regard books the way they now regard 33 RPM records: a quaint technology, warmer perhaps, but ultimately the province of musty antiquarians.

Although I forgive Benton, most of us know that to casually toss off the idea that technology will soon render books obsolete is a simple mistake that is made over and over again by people who focus solely on technology but ignore the economic and social systems in which books are embedded. As Priscilla Murphy, who traces this thinking back to 1894, puts it in Books Are Dead, Long Live Books:

Looking at the technological possibilities is not the same as identifying corporate priorities, school board politics, teenagers’ habits, or advertisers whims. Books are, finally, intricately interrelated to the rest of the media system – economically, socially, intellectually, even symbolically; and those who have envisioned or feared their wholesale removal from the system have generally underestimated that involvement.

And yet. And yet, after ten or twenty years of the Google Library Project, will academic library interiors indeed begin to resemble minimalist art installations, as Benton suggests?

I taught a library session recently for a class on American Empire in Latin America. A student wanted to research the history of tourism, specifically the history of cruises. I did a search in Google books on “crusing history” and partly by accident stumbled upon an 1895 imprint of Cruising among the Caribees from Stanford University Libraries. Compared to NetLibary or Gutenberg electronic books, this digitized book is very easy to read and “navigate.” The digitization includes the cover and the giftbook plate. Chapter 3 includes information about the cruise ship: its name, its history, and the company that ran it, all nice little leads for a student beginning research and inquiry into the cruise industry and how it fit into the global economy of the early 1900s:

The steamship Madiana lay wrapped in a fleecy mantle beside the wharf. She is large and handsome, a powerful and well-appointed vessel of 3,050 tons, orginally built for English service to the Cape of Good Hope and specially adapted for cruising in hot latitudes. In 1893 she was refitted for the service of the Quebec Steamship Company between New York and the Windward Islands. What tales these ships could tell!

What tales indeed. And now you don’t have to be at Stanford to read about them. Perhaps this is the great promise of the Google Library Project, and the promise that the academic library of the future, although holding fewer physical volumes, will not be souless after all.

Serendipity And The Digital Library

It’s great that our academic libraries can provide the community with local and remote access to vast amounts of digital content. But in doing so, do our OPACs and aggregator databases eliminate the benefits of the serendipitous discovery of information? We’ve probably all had the experience of coming across an article or book while wandering the stacks or periodicals area. I’ve discovered a good many articles in the education technology literature just from browsing a journal cover that was left by the photocopy machine or waiting to be reshelved. With structured searches in electronic resources we may find what we seek, but the opportunities to come across something in a random way are fairly rare.

I hadn’t thought much about the loss of the serendipity effect until I came across an article titled “In Search of Serendipity” published in the Wall Street Journal. This article also caught my eye because it’s based on the newspaper industry, of interest owing to some of the Internet Age struggles that it shares with the library. According to the author, claims that online newspapers lack serendipity are just not true. With a print newspaper it’s not uncommon to spot an article of interest that you might not normally read. But how can that happen in an online newspaper environment? The author points to a feature of online newspapers that’s becoming more common. The “Most Popular” or “Most Viewed” list. I know I’ve discovered more than a few articles I would have never searched for from these lists.

I got to thinking that this could be a desirable feature for OPACs and aggregator databases that could return an element of serendipity to the library research experience. Why not have a box that appears in your search screen that identifies the top ten articles or books retrieved by similar searches to the one being conducted. That’s not quite like the “more like this” function in library databses which is just another, but somewhat more refined, search. Instead it would draw upon what others have searched recently that is similar in nature to your own search – and quite possibly just show what others found interested to actually view. Perhaps the box would simply show the ten most recently viewed articles from the past 24 hours. The author does note some differences between “most popular” and “most e-mailed” articles for delivering serendipity online.

As our academic libraries grow increasingly digital we will be removing opportunities for old-style serendipity. Now is a good time to start thinking about ways in which we can inject the value of serendipitous discovery into our research resources.

More From The Candidates For VP/President-Elect Of ACRL

As previously promised ACRLog is now proudly brings to you, from the candidate’s forum at ALA midwinter, the responses to the forum questions by this year’s candidates for the position of ACRL Vice-President/President-Elect, Erika Linke of Carnegie Mellon University and Scott Walter of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Both candidates have graciously offered their notes to ACRLog, and we make the text available here. We hope this helps ACRL members to get to know the candidates even better.

Refresh Your Knowledge Of Academic Freedom

Many of us become academic librarians without much prior knowledge of the structure or practices of higher education. In time we become familiar with phrases and terms such as academic freedom, tenure, shared governance and others. In some cases we have just a surface understanding of these concepts, or we may have studied them in some depth. Whichever may be the case for you here is an opportunity to either refresh your knowledge of academic freedom or develop it further.

Tomorrow’s Professor Blog is featuring a chapter on “The Tenure System” by Matthew W. Finkin. This chapter is from the book, The Academic’s Handbook, edited by A. Leigh Deneef and Craufurd D. Goodwin (Duke University Press 2007). The chapter provides a historical perspective of academic freedom, as the progression of the system is described. It explains how academic freedom applies to faculty research and teaching, and the connection between tenure and academic freedom (“What is needed, in order to protect the exercise of academic freedom, is the insulation of the individual from that risk: whence tenure”.)

And what about academic freedom and tenure for academic librarians? It’s likely we’ll continue to debate whether we fall into the same class as faculty and therefore are in need of the same protections. If at the heart of academic freedom (and tenure) is a system “to reduce the penalties on unpopular unorthodoxy or on unfashionable orthodoxy and to encourage scholars to say whatever they feel that they have to say” are academic librarians in need of the same level of protection as a faculty member that is conducting research on a controversial topic or discussing it in the classroom? I tend to think not because academic librarians rarely, if ever, engage in research about or discuss controversial issues during the course of their work. Yes, it may happen, but few academic librarians can identify specific examples.

I know that some colleagues will argue that it’s unwise to make such a general statement because there is no predicting all the possible issues and situations that may cause an academic librarian to engage with a controversial topic and then be in need of academic freedom’s protections. While such instances are rare I suppose I can’t say it never happens. I would like to think that many of us work in forward thinking institutions that promote our intellectual curiosity and give us the freedom to express our thoughts in writing and speech. No matter which side of this debate a librarian chooses to support, it strikes me that it benefits all academic librarians to have a deeper understanding of academic freedom and tenure so that we are all better informed when we engage in discourse about this topic . The Finkin chapter is a good place to start.