Academic Librarianship’s Future Strengths?

In my first job after college, as a manager at a small nonprofit, I was taught to use the euphemism “future strengths.” For instance, when I conducted performance reviews, my colleagues would often mention punctuality as one of their future strengths. We also used dozens of other terms that ate at my newly minted English-major heart. And yet they seemed to work. People who went out of their way to rationalize tardiness when they thought it was being met with disappointment seemed eager—albeit in a jaded, we-both-know-what-this-means way—to claim punctuality as a future strength.

That’s one danger in talking about disappointment: people sometimes take it the wrong way, as attack rather than encouragement. A second danger is that people might think you’re down on them or the topic at hand—that when I talk about the areas of academic librarianship I wish were different, people will think I’m down on libraries or librarians, which couldn’t be further from the truth. I think we’re great, and I think we have the motivation and the resources to address every item on the following list, provided enough of us agree that they should be addressed.

My greatest concern in listing future strengths is that it’s often seen as presumptuous. Please understand that I don’t want academic librarianship to conform to my grand vision (I don’t have one) and I don’t believe the people responsible for the status quo made mistakes (I’m sure they made rational decisions based on what they knew at the time). I’m publishing my list of future strengths not because I have evidence that sharing them will be useful, but because I haven’t yet found any evidence that it won’t be. Sometimes you put something out there not because you know you’re right, but because it’s a good way to find out that you’re not.

I suspect that many of you will react to my disappointments and my ideas for turning them into future strength with some variant of, “Well, it’s a little more complicated than that.” Maybe it is. Then again, perhaps for one or two of them, it doesn’t have to be.

We don’t own our serial collections

Not owning our serials, all on its own, would be enough to qualify as my number one disappointment. Even though I’m developing a better grasp of the financial considerations involved, it’s still pretty hard for me to believe that we don’t own such important components of our collection. What’s even harder to believe is that we don’t control our own indexes. But the most troubling aspect of all is that we appear to be dead set on repeating this process with our books. While Peter Brantley has said it better than I can (see “Google and the Books” and “Google Books: A Reprise with Clarity”), he seems to be more circumspect than I am regarding the secrecy that every “Google Library” has agreed to maintain. If your library is legally enjoined from divulging which books it has digitized, or the financial details of its Google contract, or anything else at all about its involvement with this project, then your library is “corrupt” in the sense that Lawrence Lessig has begun using the term.

Fortunately, we appear to be making progress. Harvard’s recent announcement was encouraging, Peter Suber’s Open Access News seems to document a dozen small victories daily, Brewster Kahle is fighting the power, and it’s not as if our profession is indifferent to the situation in scholarly communications. And yet, well, let me put it this way: how many of us still read and publish in journals that lock away our ideas like so many Rapunzels?

We don’t know our own history

I’ve already devoted one ACRLog post to this topic and it will likely be the topic of a future post as well, so instead of belaboring the point, I’ll give you an anecdote and a pretty picture. From Edward A. Goedeken:

Like the farmer in the movie Field of Dreams, Louis Shores always believed that if he could build it, they would come—and they did. In 1961, little more than a decade after Shores, Wayne Shirley, and Carl Milam founded the American Library History Round Table (ALHRT) in 1947, the indefatigable Shores was ready to host the first Library History Seminar at Florida State University. From that humble beginning (only sixteen library historians attended the 1961 meeting), the seminars have flourished. Over the years the number of attendees has steadily increased, with recent seminars attracting scholars from all corners of the globe to share their affection for library history.

We are now up to eleven seminars and 199 presentations. Five of these presentations have been about academic librarianship.

Presentations at Library History Seminars grouped by subject

Sources: Library History Seminars I-IX compiled by Goedeken and presented in tabular form. I categorized presentations from the following two seminars on my own and offer no assurance that my decisions match Goedeken’s scheme. Here are the lists of presentations at Library History Seminar X and Library History Seminary XI (see also: Library Trends, Volume 55, Number 3, Winter 2007).


While it’s still enough of a future strength to make the list, I’m optimistic about the OPAC. NC State, Koha, Evergreen, VuFind, Fac-Back-OPAC, WorldCat, LibraryThing, Aquabrowser, the Open Library, and the last proprietary ILS vendors standing, are making inroads. That said, your OPAC is broken if it:

  • Doesn’t offer faceted browsing;
  • Doesn’t include federated search that retrieves relevant results from your entire collection (e.g. monographs, serials, other media, special collections);
  • Doesn’t have a permanent, clean URL for every item in your collection;
  • Doesn’t produce that URL in a way that shows up in Google/Yahoo/MSN/Ask, etc.;
  • Doesn’t offer useful feeds (e.g. new material, sorted by subject);
  • Requires that your constituents get trained in order to use it effectively.

Citations are at the slide rule stage

I’m still surprised by how many software programs there are for organizing references. Some are open source and some are proprietary, some work directly with the ILS and some live within the browser. All of them do their best to work with the major citation styles, and a few try to work with others.

I suppose it’s nice to have a lot of options, but I’d feel better about the situation if I thought I was making a choice among citation systems that work really well. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s the case, though I don’t blame the software. I think the fault lies in the specifications, which still seem to reflect pre-digital thinking not just in their formatting, but in their licensing and distribution: at the libraries where I work, I share citation specifications with one student at a time in book form. How nice would it be if we had a single, open specification that was developed specifically to help us automate the citation process?

I have more to say about the potential uses for a human and machine-readable, open citation format, but I’ll save these thoughts for another post. For now, I’ll end with my suggestion for what an open citation format might be called: Op. cit.

4 thoughts on “Academic Librarianship’s Future Strengths?”

  1. Is the OPAC broken? By whose standards? Seth Godin has a great video presentation from GEL 2006 where he riffs on “It’s Broken” and the first thing he says is “for anything someone says ‘is broken’, someone else will say ‘I don’t think it’s broken’ “- and he makes a great point. It really depends who’s using the OPAC. For the 80% of our users who just want to type an author’s name or a book title, they find what they want and go to the shelf and (hopefully) get it. For those folks, the OPAC is not broken. Sure, some will disregard screen information about a book having a due date or “missing” status. Can those messages be made any more obvious? I don’t know. Do they need a faceted search or feeds? No. I’ve gone on record previously to say we do need to improve the OPAC by giving users a powerful, functional discovery tool – which your vision of the OPAC would provide – but that for the majority of the users, we just need to keep it basic.

    Where is the OPAC really broken? Good luck if you need to find journal issues and there is even the slightest complication. But you make a good point. If we are the ones saying “It’s not broken” without really understand what the users want to do when it comes to searching for books, journals, etc – we do so at our own peril. On the other hand, if we say “this is what an OPAC needs to deliver a great user experience every time” – and we do so without really understand what the users want – that might be just as shortsighted.

    And as far as citation madness goes I refer you and others to this WSJ article “Bibliography Mess: The Internet Wreaks Havoc With the Form — How Do You Cite a Web Page? That’s a Matter of Debate; Arguing Over a Period” (5/2/02). If we could just agree on one simple citation style for each different format we might not even need all these different pieces of software. I don’t foresee an end to the mess anytime soon, much to the detriment of – well, everyone. This stuff is really broken.

  2. Interesting comment, Steven – given your interest in “simplicity v. complexity” issues.

    The OPAC is not terribly broken for the expert who already has identified a source by other means and simply needs to know if it’s owned and if so, where it is. But … isn’t a huge point of the OPAC that it should help us identify books we don’t know about? The OPAC that works would be one that helps people do that without making them learn the secret handshake and today’s colors. The perfect OPAC would make complex searching simple. Not cluttering things up with “here are more bells to ring if you know how, more whistles to blow if you have lots of time to try them all out” but responding to a “simple” request with a well-organized set of options.

    The complexity should be at our end, not the users’.

  3. I think your citation observation is spot on; personally I’m also hopeful that our definition of a citation becomes a lot broader, and will do media formats just as well as it will do book and journal references. It might even become tough to distinguish between a citation management tool and a personal (digital) information management tool.

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