BlackBerry in the Liberry

Dan Overfield, Business Librarian at Villanova University, told us about a pilot project in which 3 librarians traded their office phones for BlackBerry mobile devices.

ACRLog – How did this pilot project come about?

Overfield – The primary reason was that we employ a satellite research office model where subject librarians, in this case in business and the sciences, operate from the library as well in various buildings across campus. Our remote locations, combined with our other obligations, made communication difficult.

ACRLog – Do you know of any other libraries using BlackBerries?

Overfield – I am not aware of specific cases that feature the dedicated use of mobile technology by academic librarians, though I have heard discussions about text reference via cell phone. I am certain that others must, or soon will, be following the same model. Our research support team shares a cell phone but it is only used whenever someone is both “on call” for research support backup and simultaneously not able to remain in their offices.

ACRLog – What were some of the reservations people had?

Overfield – One clear factor was cost and that limited us to three devices in the pilot. At this moment I have asked our telecommunications office to compare the annual costs of the BlackBerry and the desk phone because our wholesale adaptation of this idea will need to consider the bottom line as well as other factors. The other concern was that the participants would find themselves receiving and answering calls and emails all night, everynight, over holidays, and on vacation. I am also personally concerned with the possibility of losing the device. Desk phones are low risk and it is very difficult to misplace one.

ACRLog – Well, what about answering questions at all times of the day and night?

Overfield – The BlackBerry allows me to easily keep up with patrons. When I am unable or unwilling to make replies I simply leave them for my next opportunity. Everyone wants to be as available to students as possible, and the blackberry does accomplish this very well. The main thing is that it is very simple to read and reply to email, even at odd hours, because you can check your messages by pressing a single button. Laptops require an internet connection, a power supply, passwords, and time to load the applications. I have installed onto the BlackBerry and it is quite painless to cut and paste links into emails to students. Two of us in the pilot commute to campus using public transportation and we are normally able to read and respond to emails before we arrive at work.

ACRLog – What are the benefits of using a BlackBerry?

Overfield – Students, faculty, and colleagues can reach me at one telephone number, or via email, at any time, regardless of which building I am in, or whether or not I am even on campus. With emerging technology like Twitter I can make updates to my websites by simply texting them to my account. Students can also subscribe to “follow” my updates via text or email, so with the blackberry there is the potential to communicate with patrons without anyone having to be at a desk or in front of a computer.

I have dramatically reduced my response time to student questions. In cases were I cannot reply in an appropriately complete manner I am, at least, able to forward the email to someone who may be on campus or inside the library. My entire address book is loaded in the device so it is easy to reach any of my colleagues at any time. Again, response time is something we are very pleased with, and students have frequently been impressed with our shortened response times this semester.

ACRLog – The drawbacks?

Overfield – It is first and foremost a new technology for my colleagues and I, and we have had to spend ample time learning to use the device efficiently. I was confident with the device after a few weeks though I am still learning tricks after several months.

It is also very hard to type using the BlackBerry. Stated simply, the keys are small and our thumbs are large. The other significant draw back is that many websites are not optimized for mobile viewing. I have noticed that some academic libraries have developed a mobile version of their sites, but this adaptation ends when a user follows a link to a different website or database. The web browsing capability of the iPhone seems like it would be much better, and my hope is that other devices will soon catch up.

ACRLog – What’s the next step?

Our panel will meet to discuss our individual experiences using the device. We plan to review all of the pros and cons and will then report our findings back to our colleagues. At that point, if our experience has proven to be positive, we will conduct a cost benefit analysis to see whether or not the mobile phone, with its many abilities, is a viable alternative to sitting at one’s desk, next to one’s phone, in case it should ring.

It should be noted that our project would not have been possible without the endorsement of Joseph Lucia, University Librarian, and the participation and efforts of Linda Hauck, Research Support Librarian, and Alfred Fry, our Science Librarian.

Truth, Information and Knowledge: u r boring me

A funny and ultimately disheartening? article in the Washington Post portrays librarians as the last defenders of truth in a decadent culture consumed with trivia and superficialities, even going so far as to describe librarians as “trench warriors for truth.” Here’s a dramatic excerpt from a chat reference service:

“We’re losing him! We’re going to lose him!” Chad Stark frantically clicks back and forth between two windows on his computer screen.

Stark is the sweater vest-wearing, 30-something Hyattsville librarian currently manning AskUsNow, a 24/7 online chat open to Maryland residents who need research help.

AskUsNow, developed four years ago, helps patrons find accurate online information so they don’t have to fumble blindly in Google. Librarians: reliably on the front lines of truth protection.

Stark types that he’d be happy to help, but he’s not fast enough for the user:

“dude u r boring me.”

Librarians have been known to stand for many noble things, reading, learning, free speech, and now truth! Although it may feel like we are the orchestra that supposedly played on while the Titanic was sinking, there are worse ways to go down. I wrote about librarians and truth in a book review here; for more on librarians and truth see Don Fallis’s work on social epistemology.

The article goes on to raise the issue of the distinction between information and knowledge, which I have always found more puzzling than helpful. The most useful discussion of this I’ve read recently is in Dominique Foray’s Economics of Knowledge. Foray points out that the main distinction between information and knowledge is that knowledge depends on human cognition, whereas information can simply be words on a page. Information can be reproduced quickly and cheaply with a copy machine, but reproducing knowledge is far more expensive and time consuming because, well, teaching others is hard. Here’s Foray:

These means of reproducing knowledge may remain at the heart of many professions and traditions, but they can easily fail to operate when social ties unravel, when contact is broken between older and younger generations, and when professional communities lose their capacity in stabilizing, preserving, and transmitting knowledge. In such cases, reproduction grinds to a halt and the knowledge in question is in imminent danger of being lost and forgotten.

Can we use the distinction between information and knowledge to articulate a role for libraries and librarians in the digital age? Although information is bountiful and some of it seemingly cheap, tons of knowledge is being lost and forgotten everyday. Academic libraries and librarians are part of institutions that help to stabilize, preserve, and transmit knowledge as opposed to information. Hmm, how’s that? Good start, maybe, but needs work.

The article goes on to raise disturbing questions about the psychology of knowledge acquisition, noting that even when people are told repeatedly that something is false, the fact that they have heard it somewhere makes them think it is true. Politics immediately comes to mind here, but this raises a serious concern with all the new media that allow for the rapid reproduction of bits of information.

Quite thought provoking for a newspaper article, but once again reading the news gives me the feeling that we are doomed.

Web 2.0 and Open Science

Drexel University Libraries’ annual Scholarly Communication Symposium focused on web 2.0 in general and open science in particular. This is fast becoming my favorite conference: I can walk there; it’s free; it’s well organized; everyone there is smart, friendly and from diverse backgrounds; you get to eat a great lunch and it’s all over by 1:30!

Keynoter Jean-Claude Bradley (Chemistry) described UsefulChem and his mash-up of technologies for disseminating his work. I was struck by his pragmatic approach–some articles are better suited for peer-reviewed journals, some items better suited for blog posts or wikis, some items for mailing lists. He described what he called “open science” which is making your lab notebooks and all data available to anyone who would like to look at it. He claimed the old way to evaluate information was to see if it was peer-reviewed, the new way is to make all the data available and let everyone look at it to see if they can find any problems.

A questioner in the Q and A asked about patents and giving up the power to exclude. Bradley responded, “if you are trying to get a patent, I wouldn’t recommend this approach. But if you have a project in which you don’t care about a patent, it’s a great way to find collaborators.” The costs of 2.0 may include giving up the power to exclude, but in return you often get feedback on your work where previously you wouldn’t get any and you get found more.

Bradley struck me as an example of the kind of scholar who has figured out how to mix the new tools with the old and use them both to advance his own work and to advance his field. Whether he has any life outside his work and posting to his blogs and wikis is harder to say.

He mentioned a few tools I hadn’t heard of. He described Friendfinder as some kind of friend feed app that informs you what your friends are doing, who finds you interesting, who finds you boring. (At this point an old Blondie song jumped to mind–once had friends it was a gas/ soon turned out/ to be a pain in the ass…) The point was this is how he keeps up with new information, through his social network. ChemSpider is a free hosting service of 20 million molecules, JSpecView allows people to look at fine details of your spectra, which is apparently very important in chemistry; and something in Google called InChiKey, again having to do with molecules. The overall idea was how the web was able to provide more detail that was formerly not available with just the peer reviewed journal article.

When asked if 2.0 is truly transformative, he said, “collaboration is not necessarily new or different, but now you can do it faster and with people all over the world. In a large enterprise like science this can make a big difference.” Well put.

Two other points. Bradley predicted open science would lead to the day when computers could do the number of experiments that took his students a year to do in one weekend; and when asked if he worried about the archiving of his work he said he tried to take care of this through 1. redundancy, and b. that in 5-10 years all his work will be obsolete anyway. (!)

The panelists and my roundtable were full of engaged people with lots to contribute. Banu Onaral, in particular, raised some provocative issues, including the idea that Asia will lead the way in the new certification of academic credentials, and she asked the question, what happens when another country (e.g. China?) that maybe doesn’t share our values buys up these formerly free hosting services (e.g. Google etc?) and they decide to restrict them and we trusted them with our collective genius?

Thanks to Drexel University Libraries for another stimulating scholarly communication symposium.

Open and Closed Questions

Another way to introduce students to the idea of complexity in the research process is through open and closed questions. In Second-hand Knowledge: An Inquiry into Cognitive Authority, Patrick Wilson describes closed questions as matters which (for now) have been settled beyond practical doubt and open questions as questions on which doubt remains.

I suggest to my students that one way to focus their research is to pay attention to clues that suggest where the open questions are and to concentrate their efforts there. Wilson points out that previously closed questions can become open when new information comes to light. In class, you can illustrate this and attempt some humor with the line, “when I was your age, Pluto was a planet!” Then proceed to explain how the planetary status of Pluto became an open question with the discovery of the Trans-Neptunian objects Quaor, Sedna, and Eris. Then follow this up with an example of an open question in the subject matter of the class you are teaching.

The term “research” is ambiguous. For some it means consulting some oracle–the Internet, the Library, the encyclopedia–finding out what some authority has said on a topic and then reporting on it. Fine, sometimes that’s what research is. That kind of research can be interesting, but it can also be pretty boring. What makes higher education thrilling is discovering live controversies and trying to make progress on them. Academic libraries are not only storehouses of established wisdom, they also reflect ongoing debates on questions that are unsettled, in dispute, very open, and very much alive.

You mean I can’t throw these out?

James Cortada, a historian of computing who works for IBM, has a nice screed (Save the Books!) over at the American Historical Association that heaps a bit of anger on us lil’ old academic librarians.

Fresh from reading Nicholson Baker and full of Google digitization anxiety, Cortada charges that a new spectre is haunting libraries: heartless librarians ruthlessly discarding old PC-DOS manuals. (Wah! I had to scrounge second hand bookstores to write my 3 volume history of computing! Bad librarians! Them not book people!) Apparently no one told Cortada that when librarians discard books it’s called deselection, and we have rigorous protocols in place for that kind of thing.

Kidding aside, I agree with much of what Cortada has written and don’t think librarians and historians are as far apart on the issue as he claims. The future of print collections in light of the Google digitization project is a serious issue that is seeing ongoing discussion by librarians. In New Jersey, academic librarians gathered at Fairleigh Dickinson University for a one day symposium on the Future of Print in the Academic Library that included suggestions for collaborative solutions. Obviously, all libraries can’t and shouldn’t be holding on to everything, therefore choices must be made as to who saves what.

IUPUI Library Dean David Lewis demonstrates a nuanced understanding of the issues in his recent “Strategy for Academic Libraries in the First Quarter of the 21st Century.” In his section on “retire legacy print collections” Lewis talks about regional collection management and the use of OCLC’s WorldCat as a tool for this purpose. He writes perceptively:

Whether it will be possible to build a national consensus and to implement a concerted program of action or whether a laissez-faire approach will be adequate is unclear. Until one approach or the other is proven to work, individual libraries will either have to delay decisions or make them on faith. Neither choice will be attractive to tradition-minded librarians who do not wish to antagonize faculty who value proximity to “their” books.

That sounds familiar, as I’ve been purposely procrastinating on a project of sending more of our history collection to remote storage for a while now. I’ve knocked off some low hanging fruit, like multi-volume outdated reference books in foreign languages, but more difficult decisions loom. Historians do tend to feel that the library should buy everything and hold on to it forever. Cortada’s piece can be a jumping off point for communication between librarians and historians. If librarians can understand more about the importance of holding on to ephemera (and non ephemera) for future historical writing, historians can understand more about the realities and economics of space planning. Beginning the conversation early is better than doing the evil mad laugh while running from the dumpster.