Monthly Archives: September 2009

The Future of Peer Review?

It’s still a few weeks until Open Access Week, but starting now you can help reimagine what scholarly publishing might look like in the future. Media Studies scholar Kathleen Fitzpatrick has made her new book manuscript available online for open peer review. While Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy will go through the traditional blind review process (it’s slated to be published in print next year by NYU Press), Fitzpatrick also plans to incorporate reader comments from the online manuscript into her revisions, asserting that “peer review will be a more productive, more helpful, more transparent, and more effective process if conducted in the open.”

The beginning of open peer review for Planned Obsolescence also marks the launch of MediaCommons Press, the latest project from MediaCommons (which Barbara first alerted us to a couple of years ago). MediaCommons uses the CommentPress theme for the popular, open source WordPress blogging platform. Manuscript text is displayed side-by-side with reader comments, facilitating paragraph-level discussion of the book.

Of course this isn’t the first experiment with open peer review of scholarly works. Fitzpatrick published an article about CommentPress in the Journal of Scholarly Publishing in 2007, and also made it available online for comments. Noah Wardrip-Fruin opened up the manuscript for his book Expressive Processing to “blog-based peer review” on the group blog Grand Text Auto; it also went through the traditional peer review process before being published by MIT Press this year.

What’s most interesting to me about the Planned Obsolescence project is that the book itself discusses the process of peer review and scholarly publishing. Browsing the chapter titles and subtitles there looks to be lots of interest to academic librarians: discussions of authority, intellectual property, preservation, and the sustainability of university presses. I haven’t had a chance to read more than the first few pages yet, but I’m looking forward to continuing (and commenting, too).

The Involved Academic Library Administrator

Becoming an academic library administrator brings many changes to one’s career. It typically means leaving behind old job responsibilities while adopting a new set of challenges. For many of us who’ve moved into administration from a public services position that typically means giving up the reference desk and classroom for planning, budgeting and other management and leadership responsibilities. But what if you really enjoy working at the reference desk or helping educate students to become better researchers? That is often why we were drawn to academic librarianship in the first place. Does moving into an administrative position mean the end of those opportunities? Not always. It is, as they say, situational.

If you choose to become the director at a college or small university library, particularly one with a small professional staff, it’s quite likely that you will not only have the opportunity to continue performing in public services, but it will most probably be required. Any significant outreach effort involving active liaison duties, embedded librarianship, a proactive library instruction program and other efforts to extend beyond the walls of the library can be hard on a small staff. The library director can’t afford to sit behind a desk in their corner office – and why would he or she want to? More meetings and administrative tasks means less time for public service, but the college library director that wants to continue being involved should have ample opportunities.

The other common administrative track is the assistant director or associate university librarian in a larger university setting. In this situation, it’s more likely the library has a well-staffed reference and instruction department capable of meeting the demand. Though the situation might not necessitate administrator involvement, I’d advocate for library administrators to seek out a weekly shift on the reference desk and to take on a few instruction sessions each semester. Here’s why. First, if it’s something you really enjoy, having the opportunity to participate on the front line will make the job that much more satisfying. Second, if public services are part of your portfolio, serving the public will make you a better informed and more effective administrator. How can you make good decisions that impact the staff and user community if you are out of touch with the delivery of public service? Third, keeping connected to the work of reference librarians and instructors enables you to better understand the day-to-day challenges that front-line professionals face. When they express frustrations about a clumsy printer setup or an inadequate training room, you are much better prepared to understand the situation and act decisively on it if you have experienced it firsthand. Nothing frustrates a front-line librarian more than an administrator who pooh-poohs a dilemma without really understanding its complexities. Being involved has its advantages, but be careful not to micromanage the situation or use your administrative power to gain leverage over others. That can be equally frustrating or downright annoying. Fourth, if reference and instruction activity really picks up, it may actually overwhelm the staff. An involved academic library administrator can help meet the demand or fill in for front-line librarians who are stretched thin.

I’m not sure where my career is headed next, but whatever administrative position I might hold in the future I will most likely want to continue to retain some involvement in direct public service. I’ve found that a regular shift at the reference desk and a few instruction sessions each semester, in addition to allowing me an opportunity to keep practicing what I really enjoy, does enable me to keep my reference and instruction skills somewhat sharp. Fortunately, I’ve not found myself in a situation where the front-line staff prefers the administrator to stay off the front line and in their office. That’s another situation all together, and one that a good library administrator should be able to decipher and manage.

As I’ve said before, one of the best reasons to become a library administrator is to have the golden opportunity to bring your personal vision of what an academic library can be to an institution, and to work with a dedicated and passionate staff to bring that vision to fruition. Doing so will mean making sacrifices, like giving up daily interaction with library users at public service desks or leaving behind all those instruction sessions. Well, for some that might not be a sacrifice but rather a much appreciated change. After twenty years of 40 to 50 instruction sessions a semester, an administrative position might seem like a nice break. But I think a good academic library administrator is an involved, engaged and participative library administrator.

Not About Technology, Not About Teaching

Sometimes things I’m reading via RSS feeds evaporate as soon as I’ve read them. Others linger a while, and sometimes they strike up conversations with each other.

Not long ago, a columnist at AAC&U’s Leap project blog, liberal.eduation nation, complained about the increasing crowd of literacies clamoring for our attention and suggesting that apart from the problem of all the newcomers – digital media literacy, spacial literacy, diaspora literacy – most new kinds of literacy have a short shelf life.

The “literacy” that seems most to vex educators and students alike is the one that takes aim at the moving target of technology. Indeed, the very terms used to name this elusive yet much-coveted literacy—computer literacy, information literacy, technological literacy, digital literacy, etc., etc.—are no more stable than the knowledge, skills, competencies they’re meant to describe.

Er, but . . . this seems to me to confuse information with information technology, learning how to think with learning how to use tools. Sadly, the only reference to an exploration of what we mean when we use the term “information literacy” is Stanley Wilder’s complaint that it is useless and misses the point. (ACRLog included the storm of debate it kicked up as a top story of 2005.) Given that most of us involved in teaching and learning in libraries thought Wilder didn’t actually grasp the concept he was criticizing, it’s kind of sad to see an organization that mostly wants to do what we are trying to do give him the last word.

The other big problem is linking information literacy with technology. Somehow once the techies took on the name “information technology” people forgot that information also resides in technologies that are centuries old. And they lose sight of the fact that it’s not about technology, it’s about what the student does with what he or she encounters. True, we get sucked into explaining how the library works, but the ultimate aim is to get students working in the library so that they can become part of the process of making knowledge, not just absorbing it as a finished product.

This morning I read Robert J. Nash’s essay in Inside Higher Ed, “Resist the Pedagogical Far Right” where he argues (as does AAC&U and as do most libraries serving a student population) that our focus should be on learning, not teaching, and on how the student can learn to as her own questions and solve problems rather than be exposed to a body of core knowledge in the hope some of it sticks. I’m not entirely sure why he characterizes this as a “far right” pedagogy – unless he’s thinking of ACTA, which, among other things, wants to return to basics and defend students from David Horowitz’s dangerous academics.He also seems to be taking a dig at those who feel youth have had their brains stolen by Web 2.0 and turned into ignorant and shallow-minded zombies. Or perhaps he’s thinking of the funding cuts and business strategies that have turned the professoriate into work-for-hire temps paid by the course. Whatever he means, he doesn’t really make a strong case for why this has a left-right dimension. What he says afterward, though, is a good defense of liberal (as in “liberating”) learning that focuses on the student.

The key is to remember that the most important part of the word evaluation is value. The best way to evaluate the outcomes of meaning-making learning is to ask students themselves what the value of their experience has been. According to [Ken] Bain’s research, the best evaluation stresses learning rather than performance. Performance means living up to others’ expectations and requirements. Learning means that students take full responsibility for their own intellectual, emotional, kinesthetic, and personal development. Performance is mainly about acquisition, storing information, and taking tests. Learning is developmental and an end in itself. . . .

So much of what I’ve learned about teaching in the academy for over four decades can be summarized in this way: often when I teach less, I find that I actually teach more. I call this a “pedagogy of ironic minimalism.” Whenever I take the time to call forth what it is my students actually know, and whenever I intentionally minimize the “endless breadth and depth” of my own “vast wisdom and knowledge,” then my students learn the most. This, dear readers, is why I keep coming back to the classroom — for lo these many years.

I think that’s actually our best argument for academic libraries and for giving students a chance to learn in them. Not learn about them, not learn how to manipulate the tools, but to be actively seeking, sorting, sifting, and making meaning as a central part of their education. If we want to define information literacy, we need to make it clear that practicing it – exploring ideas independently – is a big part of the high-impact practices that we know make learning stick.

And in the meantime, maybe we can also reflect on our own teaching practices. Can we teach less to make more room for learning? Do we do some of the things that Stanley Wilder believes is information literacy (information-seeking training done exclusively by librarians)? Can we put the focus on not just learning how the library works but learning where knowledge comes form and how it’s made? Can we work with faculty to make this happen more often?

Maybe if we can do that, Stanley Wilder will figure out what we mean when we talk about information literacy as a critical habit of mind and the AAC&U will realize it’s not about technology that will change next week.

A Dozen Newspaper Survival Tips For Academic Librarians

The newspaper industry has become a case study of sorts for what not to do to evolve in the Internet Age. Having waited too long to adapt to the Internet’s unique ability to broadcast real-time news, newspapers now find themselves struggling to survive, and in the past year several failed to do so. Given that both newspapers and libraries serve as mediators of information in an age when individuals can go directly to the Internet to obtain news and information, it’s reasonable to draw parallels between the two. Here at ACRLog we have posted before on that exact topic.

So given the similarities it is likewise reasonable to question if academic libraries will survive. What do we need to do to make sure that happens? Newspapers are getting lots of advice for what they need to do to survive in the 21st century. How well might that advice work for academic libraries? I wanted to put that question to the test, and had a good opportunity to do so when Vadim Lavrusik, a new media student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, posted an essay on the “12 Things Newspapers Should Do to Survive” at So let’s take them one at a time and consider how well academic libraries could implement these recommendations, or whether we are already successfully evolving in the Internet Age.

1. Put the Web First: Translated to libraries this point suggests we should emphasize connecting with our user community via the Web, and de-emphasize more traditional means. Reporters are still hired to emphasize reporting in print. Academic librarians appear well adapted to working with both electronic and print media. We seem to have already caught on to the importance of operating effectively across multiple platforms and media – we’re not hanging on to print as the holy grail. Then again, we don’t depend on print advertising as our main revenue stream.

2. Go Niche: Newspapers can’t be all things to all people, and neither can your academic library. Our advantage is that we know the specialists in our communities. It allows us to target the niche groups within our institutions, and deliver personalized services to them. This strategy may work better at smaller institutions, just as a community paper can go niche more so than a large metro daily.

3. Offer Unique Content in Print: Has the time come to stop collecting the most common content in print? Why are we still putting so much effort into collecting that which is easily accessible online? Newspapers are realizing that offering the same information available everywhere else is a losing proposition. It may be time to emphasize and promote those print collections not easily accessible elsewhere – and leverage them globally through resource sharing networks. Granted, newspapers are businesses and libraries are not. Should we stop subscribing to the local paper because it’s online and print copies are available for purchase everywhere? People expect their library to have a copy of the local paper. It’s a tough call, but tradeoffs may be necessary.

4. Librarians as Curators and Contextualizers: It was interesting to see the recommendation that newspapers should “verify what is real and what is not from all the information out there”. Isn’t that what we claim to help library users do? If that’s a survival strategy we need to get better at promoting what we offer. Newspapers are finding it tough to compete with the convenience and timeliness of online news sources – and the free factor. But newspapers still continue to excel in analysis and helping to understand a situation. Librarians can’t compete with the ease, speed, convenience and cost of the web as an information source. Like newspapers we have to capitalize on our ability to get people beneath the surface of any issue.

5. Real-Time Reporting Integration: Newspapers need to move more aggressively into real-time reporting because everyone can now report and produce news as it happens. Academic libraries need to integrate into real-time information exchanges and real-time networks to establish a presence and lay the groundwork for connecting with members of the user community – and many academic libraries are already moving into the Real-Time Web.

6. Start-up vs. Corporate: Is organizational bureaucracy overwhelming your ability to innovate? If so, you have something in common with newspapers. In the corporate model bureaucratic requirements make it difficult to be agile and able to shift rapidly to meet changing expectations. Like newspapers, if we expect to have a future, we need a cultural shift so we operate more like start-ups do.

7. Encourage Innovation: That goes hand-in-hand with adopting a start-up culture. Academic libraries need to create the workplace environment that encourages innovative thinking and action. Newspapers were slow to innovate and look where it got them.

8. Charging for quotes: This really doesn’t apply to academic libraries but I thought I’d throw it in the mix because this is a strategy that might bring in some additional revenue for newspapers, but ultimately could backfire and cause a real backlash in the global web community. It’s important to innovate and try new things, but we need to be mindful of how it impacts on the user community. The last thing we want to do is alienate them.

9. Invest in Mobile Technology: Newspapers are looking at how they can increase readership by getting their content on all mobile devices. Newspaper subscriptions via e-readers is one example of that strategy. No surprises here for academic libraries. We simply can’t ignore the importance of having a mobile presence.

10. Communicate with Readers: Newspapers that want to survive are doing all they can to allow readers to get involved and interact with journalists. The online New York Times prominently features selected reader comments. This is an ongoing challenge for all libraries. We have yet to find something truly compelling for our communities that engages them and encourages their online participation. Fortunately we do have other channels of communication to reach our user communities, and perhaps those will offer some opportunities for new forms of engagement.

11. Building Community: Newspapers are realizing it takes more than quality content. By creating real communities of engaged readers they build loyal relationships. That approach should pay off for academic libraries too. We need to continue to develop and maintain our physical communities and find ways to leverage technology to extend those communities into virtual spaces.

12. Pay Wall or No Pay Wall: This is the biggest issue confronting newspapers. Should they freely give away their content or put it behind subscriber-only walls. This is less of an issue for academic libraries. We’ve already put all of our valuable content behind walls that are for affiliates only. There are issues. Is the walled garden approach sustainable? What happens as more of our subscription content becomes freely available? Will we be pressured to accept advertising as a tradeoff for keeping subscription costs manageable? Like newspapers, we may have some real dilemmas to confront in the not-too-distant future.

While the comparison between the newspaper industry and the academic library is occasionally a less than perfect match, there are definitely some areas where we face similar challenges and opportunities. That means we can find good lessons to learn and work from as we try to re-think our services and resources to meet new expectations and user behaviors. Are there other industries we should be observing and seeking new ideas from which we can improve our own practices? I believe there are, and as I come across them I’ll continue to share what I learn here at ACRLog – but I hope you will help by bringing what you learn about them to our attention.

For the Hacker in You

Last week was the official launch of Prof Hacker, a new website devoted to productivity, technology, and pedagogy in higher education. A link to this group blog first popped up in my Twitterstream a couple of months ago and I immediately became a regular reader. While the main audience for Prof Hacker is college and university faculty teaching semester-length courses, there’s also lots here for academic librarians. (And of course we sometimes teach credit-bearing courses, too.)

Prof Hacker publishes at least one new post every weekday featuring news, advice, and how-tos. Posts are short and accessible, and cover a wide range of topics. Some of my favorites so far include:

  • A couple of posts about using and managing course blogs, including a review of the pros and cons of group vs. individual blogs and thoughtful discussion on evaluating and grading blog posts. Great comments, too.
  • A timely entry on managing stress over the course of semester (timely for me, at least, since it was published on the first day of classes at my college). Great advice that’s worth saving to reread on the first week of every semester.
  • One professor’s report on using iPod Touches in a class he taught over the summer. This one seems especially relevant for librarians as we investigate ebooks and the various ways that they (and other library resources) can be accessed by students.
  • And if you miss something and need to catch up, each week there’s a handy week in review post drawing together all of the previous week’s entries (the week I link to was particularly full of great posts).

Definitely a valuable addition to my feedreader. What blogs/sites are you reading this semester?