Where’s The Real Discussion On Our Discussion Lists

Though they may seem a bit behind the times, e-mail discussion lists (since “listserv” is a registered name the proper generic term is “discussion list” – it’s like using “xerox” instead of “photocopy”) are still important to academic librarians. In his Chronicle article about the status of discussion lists, Jeffrey Young writes that “the time of scholarly e-mail lists has passed, meaningful posts slowing to a trickle as professors migrate to blogs, wikis, Twitter, and social networks like Facebook.”

I would agree with the academic librarians quoted in the article who express their ongoing interest in and dependence on the discussion list. On the other hand I’d agree with Young that they are no longer a forum for scholarly exchange. But were the discussion lists of academic librarianship ever about exchanging scholarly ideas? I don’t think so. Take Collib-L for example. You may disagree, but I never saw it as platform for the exchange of scholarly ideas. But I can recall, prior to the advent of blogs, more discussions about philosophical topics and more responses to postings that raised questions about what we ought to be doing as academic librarians about different issues in higher education. Think back, for example, to Chronicle articles such as Carlson’s piece on the deserted library or Wilder’s essay on information literacy. In the aftermath of those posts there were some great exchanges on Collib-L with much back and forth conversation, good debate on the issues, and folks from many different institutions joining the discussion. It was quite lively.

Most of that discussion has, I think, migrated to blogs and the comments to blog posts. Now, the real value in Collib-L is as an exchange for what works and what doesn’t work. Need to know how to get involved in Facebook? Ask on Collib-L. Need to know if you should convert that remaining Dewey Decimal collection to Library of Congress? Ask on Collib-L. Wondering how you can get your provost to look more favorably on tenure for librarians? Ask on Collib-L. What people to take your survey? Ask on Collib-L. And it seems that the more mundane the topic, the greater the number of responses to it. But these days it seems the more challenging and thoughtful questions, the ones that could lead to a debate and the exchange of many different views, are the ones that die a quick death with little response.

When Bernie Sloane recently pointed to a new Chronicle study that stated “There is very little that students cannot find on their own if they are inspired to do so” he asked Collib-L subscribers what they thought of that statement. Did they find it a “kinda scary contention from a librarian’s perspective, especially since it’s in a research report from the Chronicle of Higher Education.” There were all of two responses (and another one or two “I agree with what he said” posts) to Sloan’s post to the list, and yet this was a fairly thought provoking question that should have elicited a good many responses and perspectives. Why so little response? Are list subscribers just too busy to think about their response to a question like this one? Are they thinking “That’s an interesting question but I’ll leave it to the bloggers and Twitter crowd to deal with that one.” It certainly is easier and less time consuming to rattle off a response to a concrete “how do you do it at your library” question.

I’m not suggesting there is anything wrong with the exchange of such grounded, day-to-day practice questions. Collib-L remains a thriving community of academic librarians who are there to help each other do a better job; the sharing of information is great. Well, when you get to the 20th or 30th response to a question about whether you stamp your library’s name in the front or back of the book, maybe it’s not so great. But I can’t help but feel academic librarianship suffers a loss of some sort when our discussion lists become void of real discussion and devolve into forums for the most practical types of information. If this is what the e-mail discussion list has come to perhaps Young is correct when he says they need to “change or die”.

3 thoughts on “Where’s The Real Discussion On Our Discussion Lists”

  1. These are interesting points. I’m an active reader of blogs and participate in other social networks, but I have a real fondness for email lists and would miss them if they disappeared entirely. I like having some of the information I’m interested in pushed to me, rather than my having to go get it. And I do find it easier to track a conversation on an email list than on a blog, probably (again) because I don’t have to go retrieve it.

    I will admit that I definitely suffer from the perception (and sometimes the reality!) that I don’t have time to comment on a discussion topic. But that afflicts me regardless of whether the discussion happens on a blog or an email list. In that respect something like Twitter or Facebook is a bit easier, since the posts are so small, but their everchanging nature makes it more difficult to follow a thread.

  2. Actually, I wrote a Letter to the Editor of the Chronicle that hasn’t been (and may not be) published dealing with this issue. I’ll go ahead a put it here.

    To the Editor:

    The executive summary of the Chronicle’s research report, “The College of 2020” (available at: http://research.chronicle.com/asset/TheCollegeof2020ExecutiveSummary.pdf?utm_source=at&utm_medium=en). discusses various changes in colleges. On page 2 they write:
    “Colleges must be ready to offer all those options. The challenge will be to provide them simultaneously and be flexible enough to change the methods as the market changes. Faculty members must be flexible, too. The Internet has made most information available to everyone, and faculty members must take that into consideration when teaching. There is very little that students cannot find on their own if they are inspired to do so. And many of them will be surfing the Net in class. The faculty member, therefore, may become less an oracle and more an organizer and guide, someone who adds perspective and context, finds the best articles and research, and sweeps away misconceptions and bad information.”

    There is quite a bit that is noteworthy in this statement, but as a librarian, I find especially interesting, “There is very little that students cannot find on their own if they are inspired to do so,” something that is certainly outside the experience of many librarians. While students may be highly adept at entertaining themselves by killing Orcs in World of Warcraft or downloading music, they often face severe problems when they use the web to do their real work When they discover that their reliance on Google’s “relevance ranking” can be simply insufficient, they often are completely helpless and don’t have any idea how to continue. Librarians realize that the use of digital tools has made many tasks in research much simpler, but other tasks are perhaps far more difficult than ever, especially when new tools with new idiosyncracies pop-up almost every other week.

    Linking “inspiration” to “finding” seems a bit out of place as well. While inspiration is a wonderful personal and emotional experience, it can’t help anyone when they are finding information. Instead, people need knowledge and skills: they need to know the strengths and weaknesses of the tools at their disposal and how to use those tools effectively. These are areas that have not been the responsibility of the faculty, but have traditionally belonged to the librarian, whose job it is to keep up with innovations in “information access and retrieval,” an area of almost unbelievable development today when compared to 25 years ago. In fact, in the scenario made by the Chronicle’s report, there seems to be no place at all for the librarian. Faculty normally know the collection and resources within their areas of specialization quite well, but it is the librarian who specializes in maintaining and searching materials in the collection as a whole.

    I admit that it may not be fair to criticize a report only through the executive summary (although that is all most people will read anyway, especially when you have to pay $75 or more for the full report), so I am sure I am missing some vital information.

    James L. Weinheimer
    Director of Library and Information Services
    The American University of Rome
    Rome, Italy

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