All posts by Dylan Burns

HLS/ACRLog: Academic Librarianship: alt-ac and plan A, all in one

Today we welcome a post by Ian Harmon as part of our collaboration with Hack Library School . Ian Harmon is an MSLIS student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a Graduate Assistant in the Scholarly Commons, the University Library’s digital scholarship center. Prior to entering library school, he earned a PhD in Philosophy at Illinois and taught philosophy at Rice University. Ian is interested in digital humanities and scholarly communication, specifically the ways in which technology impacts research and the dissemination of scholarship. He enjoys teaching, and hopes to work in an academic setting that will allow him to work directly with students and other researchers. Ian is also passionate about the role that libraries serve as central institutions of the public sphere and supporters of the common good.

 

The easy way to describe my pursuit of a career in academic librarianship would be as a Plan B. Nevertheless, I avoid describing it as such because the expression suggests that it’s my second choice, or that I’m settling for something less. This couldn’t be further from the truth. As I begin the second year of my LIS program, I’m more confident that I’m on the right path than I ever was while following my “Plan A.” And when I find myself thinking that I should have considered a career in libraries earlier on, I remind myself that, had I not taken my long path to librarianship, I might never have gotten on the path at all.

 

My Plan A was to be a philosophy professor. I became a philosophy major my sophomore year of college, after having taken a couple of electives in the field during my freshman year. As a 20 year old, I wasn’t concerned with things like making money, finding a job, or learning “practical skills.” Rather, I was interested in doing something I enjoyed, and I assumed that everything else would take care of itself. But even though I was a philosophy major for the majority of my college career, I never really thought about what I was going to do after graduation. By the time I was a senior, I supposed that I should probably go to graduate school (what else was I going to do with a philosophy degree?), and then become a professor.

 

I didn’t have a clue what I was doing as I applied to grad school, but I was fortunate enough to wind up at a strong MA program at the University of Wyoming. There, I really began to learn about philosophy the profession, as opposed to the field of study. While I wouldn’t admit it at the time, the more I learned about the philosophy profession, the less sure I felt that I was pursuing a path that would lead me to a career that I would enjoy. The warnings about the competitive nature of the field had been too abstract for me to take seriously as an undergrad. But things became more concrete during my Master’s, as I applied to PhD programs and received rejection after rejection.

 

Looking back, it stands out that I never once considered exploring other careers. I felt too far invested in philosophy to make a change, and the thought of doing so seemed like it would be an admission of failure. So I pushed on, completed my thesis and was eventually accepted to the PhD program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (where I am now an MSLIS student). It felt like I had made it past an important milestone, but this would only serve to foster the development of some major imposter syndrome as I began my new program. My insecurities aside, I continued to do well, and started to think that maybe I was doing the right thing after all. Moreover, I started thinking I would be one of the fortunate few who would actually get a tenure-track job after graduation.

 

Despite my success within the PhD program, the job market proved to be the nightmare that had always been promised to me. But as fate would have it, I was able to put off considerations of an alternative to philosophy for a bit longer, as in April of my final year I was offered a one year position in the Philosophy Department at Rice University. No, it wasn’t a tenure track job, but surely, I thought, it would serve as a great springboard for more permanent opportunities.

 

I enjoyed my time at Rice, but I began to feel a sense of isolation that I hadn’t encountered as a graduate student. Outside of my teaching duties, most of my work hours were spent alone in my office, or surrounded by strangers at a coffee shop. These experiences helped me to discover that what I enjoyed the most about academia was interacting with other people, whether through teaching or conversing with colleagues or fellow grad students.

 

Meanwhile I wasn’t having any luck on the tenure-track job market, and early in the Spring semester of my year in Houston I decided it was time to make a change. I started exploring alternative careers, but initially, I just needed some way to pay the bills. Unfortunately, nothing really jumped out at me. Libraries finally entered the picture when my aunt, a public librarian, suggested that I consider pursuing an MSLIS. The idea of working at a library appealed to me, but I was hesitant to go back to school, having spent less than a year of my adult life as a non-student. But my aunt had planted the seed of an idea in my head that would continue to grow.

 

After finishing the year at Rice, I moved back to Champaign, Illinois, where I had a support network of friends (and a fiancee who is now my wife), and began looking for work. I spent the summer as a meat clerk at a grocery store, when my mom mentioned a position she’d seen at the University Library that she thought I should apply for. This would prove to be the break I needed, as I was fortunate enough to land the job and become the Office Manager of the Scholarly Commons, the U of I Library’s digital scholarship center. Needless to say, I loved the job. I loved the collegiality throughout the library and the collaborative nature of the work. I loved the fact that I was learning new things everyday, and most importantly, that the main purpose of my job was to help other people.

 

Long story short, I’m finally on the career path that’s right for me. I have to admit that, at times, it feels like I wasted a lot of time during my short lived philosophy career. But ultimately, I have no regrets. I won’t be a philosophy professor, and that’s okay because I don’t want to be a philosophy professor. Contrary to what someone once told me, if I was offered such a job, I wouldn’t take it, because that’s not my Plan A.

 

Academic librarianship is my Plan A. It’s not what I thought my Plan A was for a long time, and it’s a lengthier plan that I realized. But it’s mine, and I stand by it.

Conscientious Engagement and the Framework for Information Literacy

In April 2017, an article written by Geographers Carrie Mott and Daniel Cockayne was published in Gender, Place & Culture entitled “Citation matters: mobilizing the politics of citation toward a practice of ‘conscientious engagement’” (http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0966369X.2017.1339022?journalCode=cgpc20)  Mott and Cockayne problematized the ways in which certain voices are privileged in scholarly circles. As with many other feminist academic polemics this article drew the ire of many conservative outlets, including the National Review which alerted its readers that “Feminist Geographers Warn Against Citing Too Many White Men in Scholarly Articles”

While yes, technically, the article does talk about moving away from dominant white male voices in Geography; the National Review, and many others, miss the point entirely. Mott and Cockayne investigate what they term the “politics of citation,” which “contributes” to, the authors explain, an “uneven reproduction of academic and disciplinary geographic knowledge.” (Mott and Cockayne 2) As the authors see it, “performativity of citations,” borrowing from Judith Butler and J.L Austin, leads to a place where “well-cited scholars have authority precisely because they are well-cited.” (Mott and Cockayne 13) Certain kinds of scholars, perched upon hegemonic forces, are better represented because of the echo-chamber-like machinations of contemporary scholarship. Mott and Cockayne conclude by suggesting that authors “carefully read through and count the citations in their list of references prior to submitting papers as a way to self-consciously draw attention to whose work is being reproduced.”( Mott and Cockayne 13) This has direct ties to how we approach information literacy, and, more directly in the scholarly communication field, how we measure the use and quality of materials.

With an eye toward students, the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education maintains the distinctions between novice learners and seasoned scholars in its “Scholarship as Conversation” section. It states that students should be able to “contribute to scholarly conversations at an appropriate level, such as local online community, guided discussion, undergraduate research journal…” while acknowledging that “systems privilege authorities and that not having a fluency in the language and process of a discipline disempowers their ability to participate and engage.” (Framework 8) Part of this though plays on the fears that Mott and Cockayne are exploring; namely, that fluency is required to gain access to the academe.  Fluency in what? Acknowledging that students must be fluent in the authorities of fields (somewhat contradictorily) reinforces the barriers that the Framework attempts to disrupt, and echoes discussions in the literary world over canons and canonicity. In some ways, this is how it is, and our part as librarians is to prepare students for the academic worlds they inhabit and the games that have to play. While I do not want to retread old discussions and debates over library neutrality, fluency as a requirement for contribution is not a neutral act as its neutrality reinforces the hegemonic forces that dominate academia.

This is not to say that the Framework is silent on the hegemonic forces behind standardization in academia as it explicitly names biases in the way that authority is constructed and contextual (Framework 4). However, I wonder whether or not “authority” is always somewhat limiting in the way in which we approach new concepts. Authority is nearly always, even in fields traditionally and statistically female like librarianship, heavily skewed toward dominant (male, white, heterosexual, cisgendered, Western) voices. Even if we name authority as contextual or constructed do we not give in to that construction when we teach to the standards and fluency in dominant paradigms?

This hegemonic echo-chamber is even more visible in scholarly communication. As long as the citation is still the lead indicator of influence for tenure track faculty it will represent a have and have-not situation for our newest faculty. The most-cited articles will be the most authoritative and therefore cited more often. On a practical level, this makes things difficult for new or outsider voices to be heard and/or respected. By encouraging “conscientious engagement” with sources and sourcing, we might be able to spread influence beyond the greatest hits of a genre and beyond the old, white, male, heterosexual forces that have defined authority for centuries. In so doing we could work to further include younger faculty and historically disenfranchised faculty in the larger conversations, which could greatly benefit the future of individual fields as well as individual tenure cases on a more pragmatic level.

What should a librarian do who is interested in conscientious engagement? I, for one, am going to start demoing and suggesting sources to my students outside of the cultural hegemony. While these sources may not be the “greatest hits,” this small(ish) action will promote larger engagement with new and challenging ideas. In my own work, I will also strive to cite voices outside of the dominant hegemony, and use my status to promote work that is challenging to the status quo. Is there a way to preserve the hallmarks of a field while encouraging new voices? I believe so.  I think there could be a middle ground, where disciplinary fluency is possible without the parroting of white male voices only. By being conscientious about who we cite and who we read, we can build a larger and more diverse set of authorities.

Given the outcry on the right over the mere suggestion that we cite non-dominant voices in scholarship, it is difficult to see this a quick and easy transition. Yet, if we take Mott and Cockayne’s piece beyond the scope of Geography and let it influence our own approaches to research and information literacy, it will benefit many of our stakeholders. On one hand, it will increase exposure for those faculty on the outside of the cultural hegemony, and, on the other, it will encourage diversity of thought and action for our students. Part of encouraging critical thinking should be encouraging conscientious engagement.

Failure is an Option or When Things Go Wrong

Several times I thought about writing about my experiences as a first-year librarian at ACRL in Baltimore, but many others wrote about the controversies, the twitter fights, and the OA panel better than I could have. Zoe Fisher’s post about the twitter fiasco is a must read as well as Veronica’s post on ACRL.

As a new librarian, something stuck with me though, and that is the idea of failure and works in progress at the conference. A conversation with Katlyn Griffin, a fellow new librarian,  and I had via twitter and in person about the idea of “works in progress” or even “failed projects” as learning opportunities at conferences. ACRL, as I’m sure many of you know, isn’t the venue for unfinished or failed products.

As a field that feels on the brink, it is difficult to talk about projects that fall flat. No one, least of all me, wants to broadcast failures. Unfortunately, if you’re a new person, it is often the failed projects or the work-in-progress projects are all that you have to contribute. I think there is a difference between work-in-progress and failures, but they exist at this periphery of prepared and completed national conference level discussion. I presented a work-in-progress at ACRL and it actually went very well; I learned a lot about the process and it helped me move towards a conclusion, and I believe that conferences should encourage unfinished work outside of the lightning rounds where the blur makes the projects blend in with the background. But where does failure stand?

Scenes from NASA

“Failure is Not an Option” Gene Kranz, Flight Director of Apollo 13

It is difficult to broadcast or talk about failing, especially in competitive circles, but I am a product of failure.

Prior to library school I was on a traditional academic path. I interviewed at PRESTIGIOUS UNIVERSITY for a PhD program in Media Studies. After three days of being wined and/or dined, tours of campus, meetings with students and faculty, talking about my future there, I was not given a spot in the program. I felt rejected, like all that I had been working toward was squashed on the whims of a committee. I thought a lot about why I was drawn to the field and where I was the happiest when I was a student. That place for me was the library. I was interested in memory and media but more than that I was interested in knowledge as an academic field.

Ultimately, the library was the better and wiser choice for me. I am thankful that prestigious university did not pick me for their PhD program, as much as it hurt at the time.  I’m able to write and publish about topics I feel passionate about, teach and work with students, support faculty, and I’m extremely happy to be where I am. Libraries are my home, but still I felt like it was a “plan b.” I’m certain that I’m not the only one out there in our field who has a similar story.

Even writing this paragraph was difficult because failures, or the perceptions of failure or disappointment, are difficult to talk about.  It would be even more difficult to stand in front of an audience of colleagues and say “this is what went wrong.” Imagine that during a staff meeting… now imagine it during a National conference.

Given the response that accompanied the polished, but controversial, papers presented at ACRL, I wonder what the response would be if a paper concluded with “this project failed.” Would it be seen as a waste of time? Would the twitter-sphere explode in rage at the failed project? Currently, we all struggle silently alone.

In the past year I’ve had a few projects go awry. I had our Research Week Student Research Symposium hosted entirely by our Institutional Repository, it did not go well. In the end, our research office decided to go another direction but will now require students to deposit their materials. This was my first professional set back, but it allowed me to grow and see where the edges were in our partnerships across campus. I worked extremely hard on getting this to work, and in the end it just could not do what our research office wanted. Does this reflect poorly on me as a librarian? I thought so at the time. When I took a step back and thought about it, I really began to believe that this was a bump on a long road. Sharing this experience with the other librarians and saying “here is what didn’t work,” allowed all of us to learn from this experience. Getting all of the student projects deposited in the IR after the fact is all that I wanted in the first place, so this failure ended up as a slight win.

Projects fail. We do not know when that they will fail when we start them, if we did we probably wouldn’t repeat the mistakes that caused the problems, but these are valuable opportunities to learn about the process and the problems we all share. If creativity and experimentation are valued in our field then there should be expectations of failure and we should talk about them openly. I firmly believe that opening forums like ACRL or ALA to “failure talks” could be a great asset for new and old librarians. Talking frankly about what went wrong instead of sweeping it under the rug should be a goal of the larger library community.

More importantly, we fail. Failure has formed me as a librarian. We sometimes do not get the jobs we desperately wanted, or the promotion, or the book chapter. Right now the culture tells us to be quiet about these instances and shames; because being a sore loser or being upset about losing out on a fellowship or project is unbecoming and might jeopardize our future goals. I don’t agree with this because I think as a field we should grow to a place where we are not ashamed of our baggage and our failures and drop the feelings of animosity and competition. Especially for new librarians where the road upwards is the most difficult, letting  individual failures be known is a powerful reminder of what we have to gain and lose as a field. Ultimately, this means that successful librarians must lift up those around us when projects or goals fail. We should be open about our failures to serve as a guide to those who will follow, and lift up those who are not as lucky as we. 

 

Invisibility and Ubiquitousness: How Digital Libraries Should Tell Their Story.

Under pressure from the presumed loss of influence, the contemporary academic library is often in the business of staking claims on campus. We see new technology or innovations as opportunities to ingrained ourselves deeper in the future of the institution. Partially, this is a reaction to the change in the world and a move away from books but also a survival strategy in declining budgets. As the Ithaka survey on “Library Leadership for the Digital Age” last spring told us “All libraries are now digital….  Users think libraries are—or at least should be—digital.” As someone who left the print world for the digital, I can say within my own experience this is true.

What I am finding, though, as a new digital librarian, that our work is still ignorable and invisible. The reasons for this might seem contradictory. One, the digital library is not traditional library work and is seen as outside of the realm of the library’s scope. On the other hand, the internet and technology is ubiquitous which makes the behind the scenes work expected and ingrained with very little work assumed, with high levels of integration and low levels of recognition. Ubiquity, while central to our digital lives, is, perhaps, the most difficult thing to overcome. When user expect things to be there, or that the digital world should just exist around them, it is difficult to ask for their patience or their work in helping build the digital world in the library.

Abbot and Costello Meet the Invisible Man
Abbot and Costello Meet the Invisible Man Wikimedia Commons

And yet we need their input and their work to makes ours possible.

This tug and pull, the pressure to remain a stable part of the institution’s traditional academic world, maintaining print collections and special collections materials and being part of the on campus classroom, while being forced to compete with the google and the always on internet is difficult for our libraries to prosper. The ironic thing being: the better we do at our jobs the less visible we are and vice versa.

Take it from this excellent Futurama episode “Godfellas” 2002 where “the God Entity” explains the realities of omnipresence to Bender:

While the trend towards digital helps libraries stay relevant in this age the difficulty remains in how this information is presented. The same Ithaka report from above continues that, “Libraries are also challenged in a dramatic way to deal with the demands of our users as technology allows them to gain access to information directly rather than without any intermediation from us.”

Unfortunately, intermediation is the only way we are visible to some, and often that comes at the expense of our users. Users want the system to be there without having to feel like they are using the system. Because of google, our faculty and student expect that our services to be available always with little thought to the infrastructures that make it possible. Only when the curtain is pulled back is the process unveiled, usually with disastrous consequences.

If the institutional repository, the center of my work, works as it should, where materials are preserved and promoted with little to zero effort given on the part of individual faculty there is no one to complain or question its existence. This requires the input and the collaboration with faculty across the university. Proving that their buy in is difficult when some search engines make visibility so seamless. As a result, I often tout the visibility of the Institutional Repository in search engines like Google Scholar to show that it is “working.” The same thing exists on the technical end, if our online catalog bridges the gap seamlessly between physical location and online direction, then no one chats to complain they can’t find a book. That book, found via the Online Catalog, is retrieved with very little noise aside from the ding of the barcode scanner.

Only when things are visibly broken does our work become a point of either discussion or contention.But how then do we talk about our roles in the larger campus community if our work is largely behind the scenes?

In someways, we are forced to tell our stories to our Deans and Provosts about what we do for the library and the institution. This can be done in a number of ways, and best practices have yet to be fully established. The Digital Library Federation’s Assessment Interest group is focused on how we can assess the work that we do.

We can count the amount of money that we bring in during digitization projects or we can measure the encounters and shares as part of larger schemas of impact for promotion and tenure purposes. There are  great guides to Google Analytics and Altmetrics through the DLF assessment, but this is reactive instead of proactive. And requires us to justify our existence through outside tools and after things have been posted, not to prove why the initial work is necessary.

Just as the traditional library has been praised for its collections used to foster learning and scholarship, the digital library must be used to show its importance to the larger campus. This goes beyond showing the web analytical impact, but by showing the use of the materials by people on campus. As I wrote in my piece on the library as more than a mausoleum, it is the use of materials that will save us from irrelevancy and invisibility.

There is no simple solution, but a first step is often telling our own story apart from the rest of the library. Perhaps we should be making the case in a way that shows the seams that hold the digital library together with the campus is the way to go. We should use opportunities where ubiquity gives our campus partners feelings that we’ll always be there to tell our story and look for partners. Our seams show not where we are stretched to the limit or where we lack; but where our institutional and collaborative partners can build a larger and better digital community.

We will never have ALL the answers to what our community will need tomorrow  In our stories we should acknowledge both our failures and our successes and what we need to prosper in addition to build on our successes. We should show the people behind the curtain that make the easy to use interfaces and search functions work well, and increase the stake that our users play in decisions.  

Digital collections are unique in our library world. Outreach, like social media or regular media, can put objects at the forefront of the infrastructure and makes it all the more likely for our users to think of us when they think about the library, but it is the structure itself that often needs visibility and part of the narrative. Without this narrative, without selling the good that we do behind the scenes, our value is lost in a sea of other sources of information. The resources do not just appear because there is work done to make them available. It is time that we start making that visible.

Indies, Vanity, and Predators: Helping Faculty and Students Find Publishers

How many times have you or your faculty received this message?

Dear Dr. Colleague,

We at Intellectual and Smart Publishers would love to talk to you about publishing “INSERT PAPER TITLE HERE” in our issue of Smart Things in Science. We offer expedited review!

So and So, 

Intellectual and Smart Publishers

When the Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education approached “Authority is constructed” little did we know the importance that our work would play in ongoing discussions on the national level about “fake news.” But the contextual and constructed nature of information was given a deeper hold within our field with news of the shut down of notorious Beall’s List.  The list, which black-listed publishers deemed by Beall as predatory, was a tool which I used (with a necessary grain of salt) to counsel faculty and student interested in publishing their work. Beall’s enemies, and there were many, celebrated while his supporters, again many, wondered about how libraries and librarians will spread the news about the predators in our wake without his list.

How do we define predatory publishers? Predatory publishers (or vanity publishers as they were once known) are publishers with very little, if any, editing or peer review process. Maura Smale wrote a piece several years ago responding to an uptick of press about predatory open access publishers. Any presenter at any national conference will know these predators as their form letters seek to publish your presentations often without knowledge of what you even spoke about. They tout “expedited publishing process” and high impact values, while giving very little in return for your investment of dollars for publishing. Slate writer Joseph Stromberg has an excellent piece on publishing his thesis with a notorious publisher.

Writing in 1958, Howard A Sullivan explained that “the very use of the term vanity publishing implies contempt for the book produced and a judgement on the author and publisher—on the former because he has chosen an unorthodox way of attempting to achieve a recognition his talent does not merit, and on the latter because he has pandered to another’s weakness for his own profit.” (Sullivan, Howard A. “Vanity press publishing.” Library Trends 7, no. 1 (1958): 105-115. )

Weakness is an incredibly loaded term, but we are naturally suspicious of the merit of books published under such circumstances and of the scholar themselves for their unwillingness to be judged by a jury of their peers. Would books published this way merit publishing through traditional processes? Perhaps but also perhaps not.

Overwhelmingly, these predatory publishers target our most vulnerable university community members, who are driven to “publish or perish” to continue the cliché. (Lud?k Brož, Tereza Stöckelová, Filip Vostal do a nice overview of “bloodsuckers” in publishing) Students and new faculty are often pressured to publish at any cost and these emails fill that need to publish anywhere and everywhere. Yet, we know that Howard Sullivan’s view is the norm rather than an exception; the scholar caught publishing without peer-review is scorned in the university community.

A quick search online for “vanity press” or “predatory publisher” and “tenure” see many a frustrated new academic weighing the decisions between not publishing and publishing with a less desirable press. Karen Kelsky, the “professor is in” advice columnist, has approached this topic several times. Summing up that “Putting a book out with an obscure press is not much different than having no book out at all, in terms of gaining a tenure track job or tenure.” (http://theprofessorisin.com/2012/09/21/does-the-status-of-the-press-matter/) While not specifically talking about vanity presses, but merely unknown presses, it is clear that the quality of the press is a significant focus of tenure committees and the angst of new professors.

So, what can Libraries do?

If anything, this is an information literacy issue. Determining which presses are worthy of your work is something that should be taught in new faculty seminars by librarians whose expertise in the fields of publishing should help guide those led astray. Just as how we feel condescending when we teach searching to our students, it will feel just the same, if not worse, when teaching faculty where to publish. Teaching how we determine the value of information (another hallmark of the 2016 framework) will help our faculty in choosing where to publish, and in the end make them more successful in their career. Even if we assume that our colleagues in faculty positions are experts in their fields and highly educated, the intersection of need to publish and the predatory nature of these publishers “tricks” even the most brilliant into giving their work to them. But the researcher is not the only one tricked by these publishers.

The other thing we should consider is who buys these materials. I’m sorry to say that the primary purchasers of these books are libraries, given their price and often microscopic academic viewpoints. We might be the only institutions or persons capable of purchasing such expensive books. We must make an effort from a collection development standpoint to not purchase these books for our collections. In the past month or so I’ve worked with our collection development experts to create policies to prevent Utah State University from purchasing books from suspected predators.

There is a huge problem in proclamations like this because the disgust over predatory publishers and vanity presses bleeds into ongoing discussions over the merits of indie publishers and self-publishing. Self-publishing and indie publishing are not straight line indications of lower quality or predatory materials, but it is often difficult to see the differences. In an account of self-publishing in OCLC records, Juris Dilevko and Keren Dali write, “as large mainstream publishers become focused on profit-and-loss statistics (Schiffrin, 2000) and as the demands of bookstores stoke the corporate emphasis on bestsellers (Epstein, 2001), librarians should remember that self-publishers often release titles that would not typically find a home with a profit-oriented publisher. Self-publishers may be one of the last frontiers of true independent publishing.” (Dilevko, Juris, and Keren Dali. “The self-publishing phenomenon and libraries.” Library & information science research 28, no. 2 (2006): 208-234.)  This complicates an already muddled picture of what a library should collect; where questions of authority and how to deem a book worthy of our dwindling dollars, are becoming more and more difficult.

If faculty ask students to use peer-reviewed sources, should we not ask the same for the books we purchase? The end result would be a world devoid of the divergent voices that appear in indie and self publishing, yet save us from the troubles caused by predatory and vanity presses. A policy, perhaps, where fiction from self-publishing is acceptable but non-fiction is unacceptable? A change in how we value information and published works is in order, yet who will lead that charge?

There are no concrete solutions to these issues, but I know if I need to publish on it I’ve already got several offers.