Monthly Archives: March 2008

There’s More To “Finding” Than We Thought

A Pew Internet & American Life Project study about search engine users indicated that the vast majority of them expressed satisfaction with their search skills. According to the study, 92% of those who use search engines say they are confident about their searching and 87% of searchers say they have successful search experiences most of the time, including some 17% of users who say they always find the information for which they are looking. Now if most Americans are using Google to find the latest information on Paris Hilton or the Academy Awards ceremony, I imagine they find what they need. But in the event they don’t immediately and easily find what they seek, some poor search behavior is likely to emerge.

In his Alertbox newsletter, Jakob Nielsen shared the results of research that indicated that while search users have better skills now than they did five years ago, when their first efforts fail most searchers are incredibly bad at finding, and that’s typically because they don’t know how to search. According to Nielsen, users face three problems:

* Inability to retarget queries to a different search strategy (i.e., revise the strategy)
* Inability to understand the search results and properly evaluate each destination site’s likely usefullness
* Inability to sort through the SERP’s polluted mass of poor results, to really address whether a site meets the user’s problem (SERP=Search Engine Results Page).

As academic librarians we assumed that end-users only had trouble with our catalogs and library databases because they were oriented to librarian-style searching (which only appeals to librarians), and that making all library databases more like search engines in order to facilitate finding (which is what everyone else wants to do) would bring about a new golden age of end-user information retrieval. I see two significant flaws in that vision. First, end-users clearly have a hard time finding information on ultra-findable Google if their first effort fails, and second, the solution to the first problem is better search skills – the type of skills that librarians use to find information. Neilsen refers to current end-user search behavior as Goggle Gullibility because:

many users are at the search engine’s mercy and mainly click the top links. Sadly, while these top links are often not what they really need, users don’t know how to do better.

And while finding processes can sometimes be simple, at other times they are, according to Louis Rosenfeld, quite circuitous, iterative and surprising. In other words, finding involves a fair amount of searching. In fact, Rosenfield’s finding formula is “browse + search + ask = find”. That’s why we need to develop search systems based on the knowledge that there “is more than meets the eye when it comes to the process of finding” and not simply on an assumption that finding is simple, intuitive and completely different from searching. Searching is an integral part of finding. Searching involves decision making, and so does finding. Searching does assume more of a plan of attack, while finding suggests a more carefree and random approach. But as Rosenfield points out, “most of the systems we design don’t really support finding.” I’ll take that to mean both web search engines and commercial library databases.

Finding, as Rosenfield puts it, “is arguably at the center of all user experiences.” I agree. Everyone wants to find, both end users and librarians. But until systems better integrate browse, search and ask functions it’s highly unlikely that finding will be the simple, mindless task we think is an end-user’s version of search. Rosenfield thinks the answer to better finding is web design based on analytics. Studying users’ behavior and understanding what they are trying to accomplish is a well traveled path to creating better user experiences. The more we know about our users’ behavior when they search our systems, the better we can do at anticipating their needs and structuring search systems that facilitate their finding. This is especially true for our complex library websites where enabling finding is a challenge. As I’ve written previously, I think what we all want is to “create,” and both searching and finding are means to that end. I prefer “search first, find, and then create.”

An Overlooked Benefit Of Academic Librarianship

Aside from being passionate about academic librarianship, higher education and all the associated activities (reference, instruction, collaborating with faculty, working with students, paperwork (not)), the other reason I’d always want to work in higher education is the access to exercise facilities. Where you have students, you have sports teams, and where you have teams you have athletic facilities. Typically these facilities have an array of exercise and recreational facilities, including workout centers, indoor tracks, pools, basketball and tennis courts, dance studios and more. Even without the presence of teams, in the competition to attract potential students, any higher education institution without a good workout center is at a real disadvantage. I consider having access to my campus recreational and exercise facilities one of my top benefits. With so many academic librarians having easy access to exercise facilities, how many of them actually take advantage of the benefit to stay in shape? As you’d expect, it’s hardly the majority. How do I know?

ALA recently released the results of its 2007 Library Workplace Wellness online survey which established a link between availability of and employee participation in workplace wellness initiatives. According to the analysis of the results, the greater the number of programs an employer offers, the greater the number of programs in which employees participate. I was particularly interested in knowing how academic librarians are doing when it comes to using employer-provided fitness benefits to stay in shape. I’m not saying we’re in terrible physical shape, but we all could make a greater effort to improve our physical well being. Yes, exercising at work takes time and we are all so busy. And it’s a hassle to get changed, take a shower, etc. But there’s no denying the benefits of exercise, and let’s face it, people who don’t work at higher education institutions rarely have on-site exercise options. So in this respect, we’ve got it good.

Of the 2,524 respondents, 976 work in academic libraries, 1,316 work in public, 79 work in special libraries and 148 work in other. Here’s what the academic librarians reported:

On-site Exercise Classes
Offered by 275 Employers
87 Respondents Participated (32% participation rate)
On-site Exercise Facilities
Offered by 392 Employers
123 Respondents Participated (32% participation rate)
Gym Membership Discounts
Offered by 237 Employers
73 Responsdents Participated (31% participation rate)

Those are pretty good numbers. I don’t have national participation rates to compare with, but if 30% of academic librarians are exercising regulary courtesy of their institutions, that’s great news. Could it be better? Of course. Now of surprise to me is the low number of employers offering these benefits. I would think that most academic institutions would offer some sort of gym or exercise facility for faculty, students and staff. So while classes and discounts my be less common, employer-provided exercise facilities should be much higher – more like 800 than 392. Still, other types of libraries don’t even come close. Of the public library respondents, only 22 employers offer an on-site exercise facility, although many more (265) offer gym discounts. If staying fit and exercising regularly are important to your lifestyle, it pays to be an academic librarian. If this is one of the benefits you have as an academic librarian, give some thought to putting it to good use.

Note to all you working parents with young children. This ALA report also contains data on the frequency of employer-provided benefits for on-site child care and child care subsidies.

Telling Our Story

When I look at other academic professions, it seems that most practitioners have a good sense of their own history. For instance, even undergraduate physics majors seem able to speak knowledgeably about Bohr, Curie, Einstein, Fermi and dozens of others who have made notable contributions to the field.

I don’t see that in librarianship, especially academic librarianship. The development of modern physics aligns roughly with the development of modern librarianship, but how many of us know as much about our intellectual predecessors as physicists do about theirs? How would you do on a quiz about Cutter, Dewey, Lubetzky, Otlet, Panizzi, Ranganathan, and Verona? How about one on the fifteen “leaders in academic librarianship” I touched on in “Reflections on Leadership“?

The Great Man Trap

One reason we might not do well on this quiz is that many of us aren’t comfortable with the idea of the leader/great man of history. Barbara Fister, in particular, does a wonderful job of explaining this view. Here’s one example (from her comment on “Reflections on Leadership”):

“(T)here are all kinds of people who make things work well in libraries and never get the credit for it because they’re not in a position of power or inclined to promote themselves or, in fact, may be more interested in the work they do than in building their careers. Too often people in libraries have to do that work in subversive ways because they are presumed to be drones who report to more important people who supposedly are paid to make the decisions but are mostly just paid more.”

I agree with this point completely, but for me there are mitigating factors. As I responded:

“It’s important to be aware of the “Great Man” trap, but I suspect that I’m not the only person who has a difficult time making sense of data and theories without an accompanying story. And, for me, the most interesting stories are about people.

For instance, in my opinion, what makes Stephanie Nolen’s 28 Stories of AIDS in Africa so effective is that she seems to get all three elements right: the data seems comprehensive and accurate, the theories seem to explain the data, and the stories complement both…. (E)ven stories about traditional leaders—e.g. Nelson Mandela or Robert B. Downs—are hard to tell accurately without also talking about the people whose work they are often given credit (or blame) for—their colleagues who may not be in a position of power or who are not inclined to promote themselves or build their own careers. These peoples’ contributions are undoubtedly important, but I’m more likely to learn about them if someone points me to Mandela or Downs than if I have to somehow learn about them without first researching the people who are traditionally thought of as leaders.”

Do I Get Partial Credit for Knowing the History of Physics?

As Wayne Bivens-Tatum pointed out to me, another reason academic librarians may not know about the history of their own profession is that many of us identify more closely with our specializations: the subjects we collect, the departments for which we have liaison responsibilities, the areas we studied as undergraduates or in earning non-MLS graduate degrees. Like Barbara Fister’s objection, I think this makes sense as an explanation, but not as a defense of the status quo. Of course we should learn as much as we can about our subject responsibilities, but we should learn as much as we can about academic librarianship as well. At the very least, shouldn’t we learn how others did what we do? It’s amazing what we can forget by not paying attention. There’s no glory in reinventing the wheel or recoining a term.

There Must Be a Tail Here Somewhere

I think the third reason we don’t see our history discussed all that much is self-perpetuating. There simply hasn’t been much of a discussion to join, especially recently. If you’ve followed the mainstream media’s extensive coverage of The Long Tail, you’ve been exposed to the idea that sometimes all it takes is a small group to sustain a movement. Unfortunately, for the time being, that group doesn’t seem to exist. As I mentioned in “Academic Librarianship’s Future Strengths,” even at the Library History Round Table the history of academic librarianship doesn’t seem to come up all that much.

Back in 1976, College & Research Libraries celebrated the ALA centennial by devoting the entire year to academic library history (published in book form the next year as Libraries for Teaching, Libraries for Research). In 1981, Arthur T. Hamlin published The University Library in the United States and Orvin Lee Shiflett published Origins of American Academic Librarianship, and 1983 brought the Wayne Wiegand-edited Leaders in American Academic Librarianship. Other books have covered elements of our history, such as academic library buildings, pre-Victorian libraries and librarianship, the Carnegie Corporation’s influence in shaping librarianship, and the contributions of the Graduate Library School at Chicago, but in the past twenty-five years, the most notable general study on American academic librarianship seems to be Sharon Gray Weiner’s good but short 2005 article, “The History of Academic Libraries in the United States: a Review of the Literature.”

Making History

As academic librarians, we tend to get a very short introduction to our history in school, pick up a bit from journals or blogs, and perhaps learn a little something from colleagues. But we tend to miss a great deal more than we’re exposed to: since entering library school eighteen months ago, I’ve probably read or heard at least three dozen academic librarians discuss Facebook at length, but my first and only exposure to Robert Downs was when I read Leaders in American Academic Librarianship a couple of months back. That seems out of whack to me. And it feels like, without that knowledge—without a sense of our history—we’re in danger of paying too little attention to the people, organizations, and movements that are doing historically significant work and too much attention to ideas that have the historical earmarks of faddishness.

In “Reflections on Leadership” I asked who should be getting our attention now: Who has emerged, or seems to be emerging, as our more notable leaders and role models? Barbara Fister and Scott Walter were kind and brave enough to volunteer a few names each. I got in touch with some of the librarians on these lists and asked them to write about one of their academic librarian role models and how that person influenced one of their most important projects. Ray English, Christine Pawley, and ShinJoung Yeo agreed to participate, and responded with stories that are at once moving and inspiring. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.

Ray English

Ray English, Ph.D., is the Azariah Smith Root Director of Libraries at Oberlin College. He wrote:

My primary mentor in academic librarianship was the late William A. Moffett, who was Director of Libraries at Oberlin from 1979 to 1990. I worked closely with Bill for 11 years. He made extraordinary improvements in the Oberlin College Library and he also created national headlines by championing the cause of collection security following the capture in Oberlin of an infamous book thief. He left Oberlin to become librarian at the Huntington and achieved international fame by opening up access the Dead Sea Scrolls. He’s the only librarian I know whose picture appeared on the front page of the New York Times. He was elected president of ACRL and was also received the ACRL Academic Research Librarian of the Year award.

Bill and I were very different personalities. He loved the media limelight and did not shy away from confrontation. I’ve never really sought—or even liked—public attention. I have over the years learned how to be a public figure, but only because I had to. I’ve always been more comfortable with facilitation and the behind the scenes processes of getting things done. I love to think of ways to move complex issues forward, taking into account to the extent possible the various factors involved.

Despite our different approaches, Bill showed me in numerous ways what a library director can accomplish when he or she thinks big and is willing to take on important issues. If it had not been for Bill, I doubt that I would ever have worked to establish the ACRL scholarly communications program or become active in SPARC. I was actually attracted to scholarly communications issues because they are big and complex. I felt I had a sense of what might be needed to bring about transformative systemic change. I never thought that I could accomplish that much on my own, but I was quite confident that I could be a leader in engaging the academic library community on these issues. That was in part because of what I saw Bill accomplish.

One of the things that I admired deeply about Bill was his unswerving dedication. He was totally committed to his work and it was evident to everyone that he loved what he was doing. I have been very fortunate in the same way. I work hard—often for more hours than anyone rightfully should—but I also know that I am fighting for causes that are fundamentally good. That makes the work a lot of fun a lot of the time—and even when it is not that much fun, it is rewarding.

If I had any advice for those who want to be leaders in the profession today, it would be to find and engage important issues that they care about in their guts, issues that become their fundamental passions. Those who do that will find the journey to be very worthwhile, no matter what successes they achieve.

Christine Pawley

Christine Pawley, Ph.D., is a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Library and Information Studies and director of its Center for the History of Print Culture in Modern America. She wrote:

I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that the librarian (now educator) who has had most influence on my own work is Wayne Wiegand. Wayne taught the first class I took in library school (about twenty years ago): collection development. This was unlike any other collection development course you have ever heard of. He linked collection development to the sociology of knowledge of Berger and Luckmann, the reader response theories of Iser and Jauss, and the speech code theory of Basil Bernstein. Wayne had not yet discovered Gramsci, Foucault, and Habermas, otherwise we would doubtless have had the neo-Marxian, post-modern, and critical theory angle on collection development, too. I loved it all. I was just taking this one class to see if librarianship was for me. I eagerly signed up for more classes the following semester, assuming that all SLIS classes would be taught in the same vein. Well, no, I soon discovered. Other classes were instructive, but social theory—no, not so much.

When I signed on for the long haul and became a doctoral student, it was the Wayne vision for LIS that I had in mind, though I wasn’t too sure how this would work out in practice. Luckily for me, Wayne and Jim Danky were collaborating to found the Center for the History of Print Culture. Print Culture, Wayne believed, was the siege engine that would break down the defensive walls surrounding and isolating LIS, and that would allow the liberating ideas of other disciplines—history, literary criticism, cultural studies and sociology—to release the inmates from their self-incarceration. Luckily for me, too, Wayne located just the primary source for my PhD study—a set of circulation and accessions records from some tiny town in Iowa. “Put these together with census data,” he said, “and you’ve got yourself a dissertation.”

I was amazed at his generosity in passing this “find” on to a student. Yet I recognized that he wasn’t doing this just to help me out. Wayne was always working on a strategy for libraries and history; always thinking up new ways to make the rest of us think in new ways. When—as often happened—he passed on to his students a publishing or speaking opportunity, or involved us in one of his many projects, it was, of course, incredibly helpful of him. But it was also part of his troop deployment, sending us off to do battle with what we learned to think of as the forces of complacency. And even though we knew we figured in some small way in Wayne’s grand schemes, he was never manipulative. He came up with ideas, yet emphasized that these were indeed only suggestions. And it was indeed fine to take the bits that you felt would work, and leave other bits aside.
Through his writing and teaching, Wayne has had an extraordinary influence over hundreds of practitioners and educators. I feel so fortunate to be one of them.

ShinJoung Yeo

ShinJoung Yeo is the Coordinator for Reference and Outreach Services and Bibliographer for Communication at Cecil H. Green Library, Stanford University. She wrote:

I always feel some uneasiness about naming particular people who’ve influenced me in my views of librarianship and especially its connections to social justice. Social justice is rarely brought about by one individual’s actions but rather many people committed to the cause. Despite this uneasiness, I can say that librarians like E.J. Josey, Eric Moon, Juliette Hampton Morgan, Anita Schiller, Kathleen de la Peña McCook, and Clara Chu demonstrate what librarianship is all about— liberatory education, equality and justice.

The common thread between these librarians is that they all questioned social norms, were able to see injustice, had courage to challenge that injustice and were/are committed to serving their communities. E.J. Josey, Eric Moon, Juliette Hampton Morgan and many other librarians participated in the civil rights movement, challenged racial segregation within ALA and the library community, and called for justice in their workplaces. They weren’t silent and didn’t accept “the social norm” which caused unequal access to knowledge, tremendous pain and oppression to people of color. In 1968, Anita Schiller, in her study entitled, “Characteristics of Professional Personnel in College and Research Libraries,” first documented the gender inequality prevalent within the library profession. Kathleen de la Peña McCook and Clara Chu have been devoted to teaching the next generation of librarians about the library as a place where democratic ideals can flourish. I became a librarian with little knowledge about the history of librarianship, but these librarians opened my eyes, taught me how radical is librarianship as a profession. Their courage continues to inspire me.

I still consider myself to be a novice librarian but I have been fortunate to be part of several projects that carry on the tradition of library activism. I have had the opportunity, in collaboration with many librarians, to be part of radical reference. Radical Reference is a group of over 300 librarians who have supported the information needs of activists and independent journalists since it was launched in 2004. More recently and closer to home, I helped to found the Stanford Open Source Lab to promote free/open software on campus. The ideals of open source software closely align with the ideals of libraries—access to and sharing of information, collaboration, and communities. This is a just start but I hope to continue to contribute to the field in the years to come.

I am incredibly grateful to Ray English, Christine Pawley, and ShinJoung Yeo for sharing their stories and for furthering my understanding and appreciation of our profession. I’m also grateful to Barbara Fister and Scott Walter for mentioning their admiration for these librarians’ work.

I hope you will use our comments section to mention others whose stories should be told and to tell your own story. I feel certain I’m not the only one who would love to read it.

You Do Read Some Of Those Journals

Thanks to everyone who took 2 minutes or so to complete the completely unscientific survey instrument I created to capture some information about your reading habits when it comes to scholarly journals targeted to academic librarians. I learned that some of you do read these journals. Given the number of ACRLog’s overall readers the number of responses seem on the paltry side (about 250), but let me share what the readers had to say.

One thing I can gather is that the majority of the respondents are ACRL members. College & Research Libraries is the most read of the three scholarly journals that focus on academic librarianship with 215 responses, and I suspect most of those folks get the issues with their membership. Journal of Academic Librarianship clocked in with 114 readers and portal came last with 89 readers. Twenty-six brave souls admitted they hadn’t read any of the three in six months or more. Respondents added a list of 25 or so other journals they read.

Paper is still pretty popular as the medium for reading the journals. Just over 200 respondents indicated they either get a personal copy (again I imagine many of these are ACRL members who get the C&RL issues) or read a library copy. But a good number use electronic methods as well because 94 indicated they use TOC alerts to be notified when new issues are available. Another 26 depend on their colleagues to alert them to worthy articles, but that’s far fewer than the 41 who depend on bloggers to let them know of articles worth reading. More than a few folks indicated that they use their own library’s e-journal collection to tap into the journals, but there are still a few traditionalists who reported browsing the periodicals stacks as their approach to reading the journals.

Most of you, if the respondents are a representative group, read your issues within the first month you receive it: 24% read it within one week of receipt and 37% read it within one month. Another 21% manage to get to it within 6 months, but 6% admitted they still have 2006 issues sitting in their inbox. The rest of the batch seemed to pick up the journal when they got it, but just to scan the contents. Then they might read an article or just toss it aside if there was nothing of interest. I know what they mean.

So what do academic librarians actually do with these journals when they get them? Well the vast majority (133) say they just read the full text of one or two articles. That seems reasonable. No one reads every article in these journals cover-to-cover. Many (81) do print out or copy articles to read them later on, but nearly as many (75) indicate they just scan and rarely read any of the articles. Many fewer (36) report reading the complete text of more than two articles, and yet others (23) scan a few of the articles they copy or print and then file them away neatly just in case they should be needed in the future.

No survey would be complete without that final open ended question. The responses seemed to fall into these general categories:

* the articles in these journals provide strong evidence that tenure for librarians leads to a glut of unnecessary or pointless scholarly articles (our discipline isn’t the only one)
* the respondents depend on their rss feeds and blogs for news and readable content – not these journals
* librarians open the journals quickly to see who published and to look at job ads – and it’s downhill after that
* despite all of the above it’s still important to read these journals

While I don’t think this survey is going to garner as much attention as a survey about blogging librarians and the blogs they read and blog about, I found this an informative exercise. I’m glad I took the time to put this together, and I really appreciate the time you took to respond. It’s good to see that academic librarians are reading the scholarly journals after all – or at least scanning the contents. Hey, one person even admitted to reading the book reviews. Now I’m satisfied.

Free Culture Clash

Libraries think it makes sense to digitize theses and dissertations and have them web-searchable rather than have to rely on UMI publishing them. Having a few print copies on the shelf means hardly anyone will find that scholarship, and why would anyone go to the trouble to write all that if they don’t want it read?

Well, to get a credential, for one, and for another, to prepare for a life that involves publishing books – books that are a marketable commodity, not given away for free.

Several universities have fallen afoul of graduate students who fear their first book – the one that gets them tenure – will be unpublishable if the dissertation its based on is open access. The University of Iowa is now finding itself in the middle of an unanticipated firestorm when they decided deposited electronic theses would be open access and, eventually, print theses would be, too. According to the Chron:

At the center of the conflict is a routine form that students and their faculty advisers sign for depositing students’ theses with the Graduate College. Language added to the form this semester says that the University of Iowa Library will scan hard-copy theses and “make them open-access documents,” which it defines as freely available over the Internet and retrievable “via search engines such as Google.” It is not clear who authorized that clause.

Students can request to have Internet publishing delayed for two years, the form states, but it adds that the default assumption is that students want their theses disseminated online. All graduate students must sign the form, due in early April, in order to graduate.

To some this is a Trojan horse – a university taking control of students’ intellectual property without discussion; for others it’s outright theft. For many students in the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop it’s an inexplicable lapse of common sense. After all, these are students who are in school to learn how to write publishable work. They see this action as a high-handed move to take away their creative work and make it unpublishable.

The language in the “first deposit checklist” states the library plans to make electronic deposits open access and to digitize print ones, rather than have them published via UMI. The library has tried to clarify its role in this issue, as reported in EarthGoat.

But clearly, there are some very sticky issues here that open access supporters (including many critics of this new policy) need to untangle.

Addendum: Peter Suber has, as usual, words of wisdom. The only disagreement I would have with him is that two years’ embargo is okay for literary works. It takes a year, at a minimum, to publish a book the traditional way, and trade publishers would not be happy with any open access that wasn’t under their control, ever. Backlist is gold to them, and a lot of books retain their market value even when they’re years old. (I do find myself wondering whether UMI publication has ever interfered with signing a contract for an MFA-originated project – but that’s a rabbit hole we don’t need to go down.)

UPDATE: The university (not surprisingly) said whoops and the language on the policy was changed (and that link will no longer work). Chances are, this could have been resolved in-house without any friction, but because there was a deadline involved, the issue didn’t seem resolvable quickly, and word spread across the internet much faster, it became a bit of a public relations disaster. If nothing else, it suggest rolling out any new open access initiative needs to be an opportunity to discuss what open access is all about.