Peering at the Library from the Outside

[Note: I am pleased to introduce Lanny Arvan, my colleague at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who sometimes comments on ACRLog and who is always one of my top choices for a Friday afternoon coffee to explore issues related to higher education, libraries, education technologies, campus politics, and other important topics. We shared the experience of the Frye Leadership Institute in 2003. We don’t always agree – but that doesn’t worry us much. I hope ACRLog readers are as challenged by Lanny’s perspective as I am. Lisa Hinchliffe]

Peering at the Library from the Outside
Lanny Arvan

An economist is a surgeon with an excellent scalpel and a rough-edged lancet, who operates beautifully on the dead and tortures the living.
Nicholas Chamfort (1741 – 1794)

I’m an economist. I’m also a learning technologist. This bit is about how I see the Library dilemma. In my learning technology role I’ve been on a variety of committees with Librarians and have participated with them in writing several different white papers on new Library services and on new partnerships where the Library is a player. I know our world views are far apart. Perhaps we can bring our perspectives closer together.

Economists maintain two different approaches in thinking about dynamics. One is Hysterisis – the entire time path until the present matters. The other is Markovian; all that matters is the current state. From what I know about Librarians, the vast majority of them both believe in and practice seriously hysterisis about their Library work. The rest of us, however, are Markovians, particularly with regard to our own publishing and information needs.

This post was motivated by another, written by Dorothea on talking about institutional repositories and that they are broken. I served on a committee for my campus institutional repository before the project got off the ground and during the gestation of the then fledgling pilot. I can report faithfully that all the Librarians in the group had what seemed – to me at least – a bizarre fascination with preservation. That was their raison d’être and how they saw what the repository brought to the table regarding digital publishing.

As a sometime creator of digital information, my interest is elsewhere – on discovery. I want others to find my stuff and then I want them to think it is important – but I do recognize the later is my problem as the writer/creator. Should it also be my problem to become expert on making my stuff discoverable? Why can’t I get consultation from Librarians on a do-it-right approach to getting others to find my stuff? Specifically focusing on repositories, do they help with that and in a way that’s obvious to me?

My current understanding of the discovery issue is that it is complex and idiosyncratic to the particular researcher/creator. There is not a one-size-fits-all solution, even if there are guidelines for good practice. Metaphorically, consultation of the type I have in mind means the Librarian comes to me. That is what I need. For it to occur more broadly, with my need simply as a way to introduce the broader concern, we should have Librarians as consultants acting in a distributed manner across the disciplines. The Librarians would work as collaborators with the researcher/creators on the end-to-end strategy for managing their personal collections. Making the content discoverable would be a big part of the strategy.

Instead, in what I read about where Libraries should be heading, in writings by Librarians themselves, there is, first, the discussion of the Library as a place within which scholars accumulate and, second, the discussion of the importance of the digital collections Libraries provide. My needs as creator of information aren’t really addressed with either of those. Why not address the need to make my work discoverable? Indeed, why not make that the centerpiece of what the Library does?

So, Librarians, consider yourselves lanced. I hope it isn’t too painful and further that the outside in view helps inform where indeed you do head.

Author: Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe

Lisa is Head, Undergraduate Library, Coordinator for Information Literacy Services and Instruction, Office of Services, and Associate Professor, Library Administration at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

7 thoughts on “Peering at the Library from the Outside”

  1. Thanks for the perspective. Our library hasn’t embarked on any project like this, being small and overstretched. But when I bump into repositories I often think “wow, this looks like a LOT of work. And okay, where do I click to actually get this paper?”

    Maybe our discussions about the purpose of such efforts should consider adapting Ranganathan’s laws.

    -Scholarship is for use.

    -Every researcher, the sources he or she needs.

    -Every source, the audience that might be interested.

    -Save the time of the scholar.

    -Scholarship is a growing organism.

    While preservation may be an important issue (though, given the shelf-life of much scholarship, I sometimes wonder), this post has clarified my sense that in many ways we’re putting the emphasis in the wrong place.

    Of course, given the expertise in discoverability that we demonstrate in our OPACs, maybe the dirty secret is that we are better at searching than we are making things findable.

    Before I retire to my bomb shelter, let me reiterate I’m no expert on depositories and will be happy to be proven wrong.

  2. Thanks for sharing your perspective – we need to hear more from our faculty colleagues. I don’t know if it quite meets the need you express, but what you describe sounds a bit to me like the exiting librarian liaison system that is frequently in use at academic libraries. But instead of just addressing collection building and the occasional need for research advice, clearly we need to talk more about how we can help to make your content easier for the world to discover. I think that a number of academic libraries are providing evidence that the work of their faculty that has been deposited into repositories is being cited at higher rates than works that have not. Shouldn’t data of that sort convince you and others that open repositories (the library’s or the disciplines) are giving the works discoverability.

    But I agree that with IRs many libraries put the cart before the horse with a “build it and they will come” vision. Having recently attended the ARL SC Institute, it’s pretty clear that first you need to work with faculty to create awareness about scholarly communication issues, and develop a foundation that faculty can buy into with respect to why it’s of value to them, the institution and their discipline to deposit their scholarly writings into repositories. Then, with faculty supporting the concept, they are likely to be more open to supporting the building of the repository.

    I also recall research by the librarians at the U of Rochester that supports your observations. Well known for their anthropological research methods, their work with faculty brought to light that the number one concern of faculty was discoverability – not preservation. Though preservation is important – we cannot overlook the WIIFM factor. If we do, we’ll probably fail. But you can’t ascertain what the WIIFM factor if you don’t first involve the faculty as partners in the process.

  3. Thank you both for your responses. I enjoyed reading them. Ranganathan’s Laws sound excellent to me, with only the further point that how you best operationalize them is likely quite different for printed books and digital content distributed over the Internet. And on the point about first discussing scholarly communication with faculty, from the parallel about conversations regarding teaching with technology, the discussion needs to move from the concrete to the more general. There is learning by doing in this and it is doubtful that faculty can articulate a mature view of what they want until they’ve tried some things and found them wanting in certain way.

  4. This discussion suggests a need to examine the term “scholarly communication.” Perhaps this will be a way into the more general discussion Lanny suggests.

    As I recall, another finding of the U of Rochester study was that faculty were interested in tools to support creating their work—for example, sharing and tracking versions as they write, particularly when they work collaboratively. Research from UC Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Higher Education on scholarly communication values among faculty and administration found that what mattered most is peer review. Together with Lanny’s emphasis on discovery, these appear to be the basic elements of scholarly communication from the faculty perspective: creating, improving, evaluating, validating, and sharing their work. And to do all this they also need access to other scholarly work.

    Many librarians have a quite different array of issues packed into the term. In our parlance, scholarly communication is associated with the high price of serials, the fear that we will no longer be able to provide the collections our users need, the recognition that when we license digital content we don’t own it, and the wish that faculty would manage their intellectual property in such a way that we didn’t have to buy it back from commercial publishers at exorbitant rates. For libraries, scholarly communication is mainly about copyright, access, and preservation.

    The main overlap between these perspectives is access, but even there we should distinguish between faculty and library concerns. Scholars want access, quickly and efficiently, whereas we worry about continuing to provide it. In periodic moments of crisis (facing large serial cancellations) we come together around this. But let’s acknowledge that, particularly at larger research institutions with good collections of online journals, most faculty can find and share research more easily now than ever before.

    My point? Institutional repositories, especially to the extent that they focus on collecting copies of published articles, appear to address librarians’ concerns about scholarly communication, but do not work so well for scholars’ meanings of that term.

    IRs are not a method for helping scholars create, improve, and evaluate their work in a way that helps them get tenure or promotion. That is what publishers do—well and poorly, via open access, to break even, or for profit. So I understand why faculty may be perplexed at our “bizarre fascination” with repositories as a digital publishing/scholarly communications solution.

    In short, IRs may be a solution to a set of problems that our faculty do not find pressing. If librarians want to collaborate with scholars in creating new, sustainable forms of scholarly communication, we need to take their meanings of that term into account. Solutions that arise from a shared understanding are more likely to find traction with faculty, I suspect, than IRs have so far done.

  5. What I particularly like about Dr. Arvan’s post is the focus on Librarians rather than the Library. As I have argued in a number of posts and in many presentations over the past year or so, librarians tend to be so focused on the role of “the library” that they seem to forget that it is librarians that faculty interact with. There is a terrific future for librarians if they can envision themselves as the sort of consultants and collaborators that Dr. Arvan describes, and, indeed, nearly begs for.

    Certainly we have a critical social role to play in preservation and certainly the function of our libraries as public and academic spaces is an important issue that requires considerable discussion and thought — but it is our role as librarians, engaged in helping scholars with the process of discovery and learning that should be our first and foremost priority. To do that, we need to be getting out of the library (not just virtually, but physically) and engaged with faculty in the places where they are doing their work.

  6. Thanks for the nod, Dr. Arvan.

    Your thoughtful piece points up a severe problem I have as a repository manager. I am one librarian. ONE. I serve twenty-six campuses with hundreds of faculty each. With the best will in the world, I CANNOT make the individual connections Dr. Arvan wants with every single faculty member I am supposed to serve.

    Yet most of my librarian colleagues have no idea what I do, no idea that I need their help to do it, and worse, no interest in being the connection between me and the many Dr. Arvans I could help. In a word — I’m stuck. I don’t know how to get unstuck.

  7. Dorothea – there is much irony in what you write. I’d wager that many Academic Librarians are fearful for their long term job prospects due to competition from Google and Web publishing more broadly. But, clearly, there is insufficient supply at present to meet the demand I articulated.

    As an economist I can assure you that the market will sort these things out. Unfortunately, I have no idea how long that will take and I’d guess there are very few others who can give a sharper forecast.

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