ts;db

I’ve noticed that several of my favorite writers have resolved to post more frequently in 2008. Dear favorite writers: at the risk of sounding ungrateful, would you be terribly offended if I begged you not to follow through on this resolution? The odds are, I like your writing because:

  • You publish relatively infrequently. I think you’re great, which is why I read your writing, but I don’t want to know everything that’s on your mind. Generally, somewhere between once a week to once a month is fine by me.
  • Your pieces tend to take me at least five minutes to read, though ideally you’ll allow me the privilege of spending 15-50 minutes on ideas that have taken you several hours to put into words.
  • You publish almost nothing that’s off-topic, in particular almost nothing that’s both off-topic and solely about you. Once or twice a year, at most, going off-topic or writing about yourself is actually endearing. And it can be useful in our post-postmodern world if you acknowledge personal reasons for your opinions. But I’m reading your writing in order to learn about the topic of your blog. Abandon that topic too often and I’ll mostly likely unsubscribe from your feed.

The above criteria were the “ah ha” I got from Steve Yegge’s “Blogging Theory 201: Size Does Matter,” in which he suggests that his website, Stevey’s Blog Rants, is popular not in spite of the fact that he posts long pieces more or less monthly, but because he does.

Let’s start with the obvious. People expect blogs to be short – at least, shorter than mine. They expect that because it’s pretty much how everyone does it. Short entries, and frequent. Here’s my cat today. Doesn’t he look sooo different from yesterday? No wonder so many people hate bloggers.

When I write my long blogs, I’m bucking established social convention, so it’s natural that some people will whine that they’re too long.

Well, how far off cultural expectations am I? Doing a quick print preview in my browser shows that my last entry, formatted at about 14 words per line (typical for a printed book) weighs in at about ten pages. So it’s roughly essay-sized. I’m not talking about those toy five-paragraph essays they made you write in high school. I’m talking about real-life essays by real-life essayists. Real essays can range from three pages to 30 or more, but ten pages is not an unusual length.

If I were attempting to publish these entries as books, publishers would laugh at me. They’re way too short to be books. Sure, I could bundle them, but that’s beside the point. The fact is, two different real-world audiences have entirely incompatible views on what the proper length for my writing should be.

Yegge’s interpretation of online publishing convention is how the notion of length in particular (and essays in general) relates to academic librarians. Steven Bell has written recently on ACRLog and (with David Murray) in College & Research Library News about faculty members who publish online and the importance of our reading their work. As a new academic librarian, this is the sort of idea that is both challenging (Where will I find the time?) and welcome (Cool! More great stuff to read!). He’s also written recently about the idea of tenure for librarians, which, naturally, leads back to what tenure is really all about, on what basis it should be awarded, and whether anyone should have it. Of course, this is interesting on a theoretical level for librarians who have cleared the tenure hurdle or amassed a body of work that would allow them to do so relatively easily if they end up working at an institution where librarians have faculty standing. For those of us new to the profession, discussions about tenure elicit somewhat more practical concerns.

My reading of these discussions is that it comes down to publishing: are we giving back to the profession, and to society, by publishing valuable new ideas and discoveries? Does the protection afforded by tenure foster more valuable writing? For some, peer review is the starting point in determining value, especially for tenure committees, which are often made up of faculty from many departments. Reading standard tenure candidate portfolios is arduous enough; expecting committee members to read the contents of a web-based archive could be interpreted as asking for trouble. After all, how much value could there be in something that was posted online, for free, without the benefit of a formal review process? It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to to notice the difference between the sort of entires you’re likely to find in someone’s LiveJournal and the investigations published in Nature.

Of course, if all non-peer-reviewed online writing were the academic equivalent of I Can Has Cheezburger or Alan Sokal’s parody, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” then Steven’s posts probably would not have elicited the responses that they did. But we know better.

WordPress, MoveableType, and other software packages, by making it easy for people to publish their ideas, have helped create an Internet awash with mundane posts. But widespread use of these software packages by highly esteemed writers has also helped create not only an expectation that the best writers will make their ideas available online, but also an expectation that, with a little legwork, we’ll be able to find their work online for free.

That last part—the notion that non-digital or firewalled writing doesn’t exist—is beyond the scope of this piece. By way of extricating myself from that briar patch, I’ll invite you to imagine a world in which we could download podcasts of the “A Room of One’s Own” lectures Virginia Woolf gave at Cambridge in 1928, or subscribe to feeds of Dorothy Parker’s “Constant Reader” articles or Pauline Kael’s essays on cinema. Once you’re finished imagining that, I suggest that you subscribe to book reviews by Salon’s Laura Miller, Judith Martin’s Miss Manners column, and to join me in counting the minutes until someone offers an Alice Munro feed. Certainly, given the present state of copyright and OCR technology, we may be farther from a fully Googleable world than some of our constituents would like to believe. But we’re also a lot closer than some of our colleagues seem willing to acknowledge (e.g. Laura Miller, Judith Martin, and hundreds or thousands of other brilliant writers making some of all of their best work available not only for free, but via feeds). I think it would be great if we as academic librarians committed to doing our part to bringing a freer, more searchable online world closer and to making it better. One way to do it would be to sacrifice quantity in order to increase quality, at least in the work we’re sharing with peers.

Here’s the first point I’m trying to make: good, thoughtful prose is valuable no matter where or how it’s published. Grigor Perelman posted his groundbreaking work on the Poincaré Conjecture on the free, web-based arXiv.org in November 2002, March 2003, and July 2003, a repository that at the time was considerably easier to post to than ACRLog is now. Even though it has since introduced an endorsement system, arXiv.org remains close to barrier free—and full of indisputably valuable work. Committee members making tenure decisions, just like scientists making arXiv.org endorsements or mathematicians awarding the Fields Medal, are cheating everyone when they take shortcuts in deciding whether someone’s work has value. Peer review plays an important role in numerous situations, but there are times it is neither necessary, as with Perelman, nor sufficient, as with Sokal’s “Transgressing the Boundaries.” At the same time, you may be cheating yourself and your readers if you reserve your best work for peer-reviewed, subscription-only journals. Eventually, people will be rewarded for publishing good work online, and not just with popularity badges.

Here’s the second point I’m trying to make: good, thoughtful prose generally takes more than a few minutes a day to write and more than a couple of hundred words to express. I don’t think it’s a bad thing when people dismiss longer pieces with tl;dr (too long, didn’t read). Certainly, when we’re writing for undergraduates or Pierre Bayard, we need to take that wholly defensible sensibility into account. But if you’re writing for me, and for many other academic librarians, please understand that we’re likely to dismiss light, quick, frequent posts with ts;db: “Too short, didn’t bother.”

Good OA Cheer for the New Year

Congratulations to all the open access activists and to everyone who contacted their congressional representatives in support of the NIH’s plan to archive published research funded by NIH grants. We won!

As one commenter at a lively thread over at Slashdot said, ever so wisely, “All your research are belong to allofus.”

Out of Control, Into the Future

There are some interesting responses showing up to LC’s draft report on the future of bibliographic control. Karen Schneider, Roy Tennant, and (in great depth) Diane Hillmann have weighed in. So has Tim Spaulding of LibraryThing, who urges the Library of Congress – and libraries generally – to make bibliographic records open for reuse. He points to a petition that argues for the virtues of open records.

Bibliographic records are a key part of our shared cultural heritage. They too should therefore be made available to the public for access and re-use without restriction. Not only will this allow libraries to share records more efficiently and improve quality more rapidly through better, easier feedback, but will also make possible more advanced online sites for book-lovers, easier analysis by social scientists, interesting visualizations and summary statistics by journalists and others, as well as many other possibilities we cannot predict in advance.

Government agencies and public institutions are increasingly making data open. We strongly encourage the Library of Congress to join this movement by recommending that more bibliographic data is made available for access, re-use and re-distribution without restriction.

I’d love to hear what academic librarians say about all this. I’d especially love to hear from academic libraries that are using LibraryThing for Libraries. What have been the benefits? How have people responded?

A lot of us think the NIH is right to open up federally-funded research. Is open the way to go for LC, too?

Open Access Passes in the Senate

I’ve become a little cynical about politics of late, but the recent Senate vote for an appropriations bill that includes mandatory deposit of publications resulting from NIH-funded research has cheered me up.

As I mentioned earlier, Senator James Inhofe (who famously called global warming a “hoax” and is currently celebrating the failure of the Dream Act) tried to derail it with a couple of amendments, but in the end he withdrew them and the bill passed by a whopping 75 – 19 margin. This doesn’t mean it’s veto-proof; as Peter Suber has pointed out, the House vote was less decisive and the two bills need to be reconciled – and Inhofe hasn’t given up yet. Still, it’s a positive step forward. We could have a law by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, Charles Bailey did some sleuthing and uncovered the fact that Inhofe has been getting some nice support from Reed Elsevier, which in 2006 spent over $3 million on lobbying. Salon picked up the story. (Hat tip to Scott Walter!)

HRN Joins SSRN

First – if you support the NIH plan to make tax-funded research publicly available, take a minute to call your senators. Right now. There are some amendments to be voted on today that could gut the NIH proposal. Tell them to vote no on Senator James Inhofe’s amendments #3416 and #3417 to the 2008 Labor-HHS-Education bill.

Okay – are you done? Good.

Now, here’s some other news about access to research. The Chronicle reports that humanists will have a place to share their work in progress just as scholars in the social sciences have done for over ten years. This site for sharing documents is something between informal blogging and formal publication – more like a conference presentation without the hotel bill or airfare to pay for. The social sciences have had such an Internet forum since the SSRN was founded in 1994. There, some 131,000 papers have had over 4 million downloads in the past year. These are clustered into “networks” – rather like conferences – where people working in related areas can share their work. If you look toward the bottom of the page, classics, US and British literature, and philosophy have new networks. It looks as if these will be spun off into a new HRN – Humanities Research Network.

I’m not that familiar with how SSRN works and would be interested in hearing from anyone who has an insider’s view. All I know is that I’ve downloaded a lot of good articles from there, so I’m happy to see it expand into new fields.