Another Academic Library Joins Google Book Project

If you are keeping count, as of today there are now eight academic libraries that are members of the Google Book Project. The latest academic library to join the project is the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The 7.2 million holdings UW-M will add includes the content of the Wisconsin Historical Society.

Who’s next?

Are Web Searchers Getting Better

Some new research coming out of the University of Indiana in Bloomington suggests that search engine users are improving their results as evidenced by their use of more search terms. This would seem to contradict earlier research that indicates that 6 out of 10 search engine users never use more than one word in their searches. This new study was designed to determine if a true “Googlearchy” exists. This refers to a popular notion that engines that rank results by the popularity of sites provide inherently unfair results because they favor the most popular sites and help them to grow even more popular, which may prevent far better sites from being retrieved in search results.

So the researchers set up a study where they examined the results obtained by two different types of searchers, those who only used search engines and those who browsed without search engines, instead following links from one page to another. So what happened?

[The researchers] expected the real-world data to fall somewhere between the two extremes: targeted searching and haphazard surfing. Instead, it turned out that typical Web use — presumably a combination of searching and surfing — concentrated less on popular Web sites than either model had predicted. In other words, real-world Web searching does not fuel the Googlearchy nor does it keep less-popular sites from being found.

The researchers said the outcome appears to be based on the trend that:

more and more people are searching for more specific information. If someone submits a general query, say, “bird flu,” the results at the top of a search-engine’s results page will indeed list high-traffic websites, for example, the Centers for Disease Control site. And that site’s popularity will be reinforced. But Web searches are becoming increasingly more complex, according to Menczer. A search for “bird flu Turkey 2005” will bring up far fewer results, and lead to more obscure pages.

So I’m questioning if searchers really are getting more sophisticated in the way they do their searches? I still tend to see many of our students using just one word or typing in rather long, formally structured sentences (usually something taken right out of an assignment). Of course, other researchers questioned the results of the Indiana studying, suggesting there were some issues with the data used and whether the searchers in the study really represented average Internet searchers. Those issues aside, as academic librarians we should be eager to promote the gist of the research findings. As one of the researchers put it, “the message here is that as soon as you become a slightly more sophisticated searcher, then you’re breaking the spell of the Web,” meaning that when you take the time to develop a more thoughtful search strategy you take greater control over the search results rather than just settling for the most popular sites that an engine like Google spits back. And even if we can convince students about the benefits of using a more sophisticated search (i.e., more than one word), we still need to contend with earlier studies that indicate only 3% of searchers tie words together with quote marks, and a mere 1% use other advanced search techniques to get better results. Just another reason why a little user education could go a long way towards helping our user communities get better, less biased search results.

Wikipedia going down the youtube?

I used to be mostly amused by Wikipedia, but now I’m getting more and more disgusted. We all know that Wikipedia has its pros (freely accessible, wide ranging, democratic) and cons (questionable accuracy, poor writing, democratic) but the recent New Yorker article told me more than I wanted to know about the sausage making process. From the article one gets the impression that the average contributor is a male computer programmer with some kind of obsessive compulsive disorder, and that edit wars, vandalism, and abuse are all too common. Here’s some quotes that stuck out:

“Pettiness, idiocy, and vulgarity are regular features of the site.”

“Nothing about high-minded collaboration guarantees accuracy, and open editing invites abuse.”

“For all its protocol, Wikipedia’s bureaucracy doesn’t necessarily favor truth.”

The author poses the question,

“What can be said for an encyclopedia that is sometimes right, sometimes wrong, and sometimes illiterate?”

I know that all sources have errors, but the arbitrariness of the accuracy in Wikipedia combined with the poor writing has me leaning toward the answer that such an encyclopedia has no place in an academic information landscape. Unless there are changes, academic librarians should be discouraging its use and working toward building and promoting higher quality collections.

Will students listen to us if we discourage Wikipedia? Probably not, but they may listen to
Stephen Colbert.

For more see Wikimania 2006, The International Wikimedia Conference which is this weekend, August 4-6 in Cambridge, Mass., and of course you can participate on-line. See also Filipino Librarian.

Tenure-Driven Publication And Presenting Need Not Be A Grind

I was inspired to write about publishing and presenting by academic librarians on the tenure track by a post on this topic over at Wandering Eyre . Jane relates how she feels like a “lady of the night” because she is obligated to give away her research to professional conferences if she is to achieve tenure. While her post is itself a continuation of a thread about gratis presentations versus paid ones, I sensed more angst about the “publish or perish” pressure felt by academic librarians on the tenure track.

I’m not on the tenure track – never have been – so it may be difficult to put myself in the place of someone who is feeling the strain of seeking to get selected to speak at a prestige conference event, or feeling the need to sacrifice the opportunity to accept a good honorarium at a lesser prestige conference because accepting might reflect badly on one’s perceived commitment to achieving tenure. I’ve also had the good fortune to publish where I wish or present where I want without needing to worry if it will impress a tenure review committee – and perhaps that degree of freedom helps to promote writing and presenting productivity.

But after reading an account like the one at Wandering Eyre I have to ask what this profession needs to do to work towards (acknowledging that the tenure process is not under the control of librarians alone at any institution) a more holistic tenure process. What do we gain by putting our young or new professionals through a process that leaves them feeling drained and uninspired, believing that what you really have to communicate – and how you choose to communicate it – isn’t as important as where you write or speak it. Admittedly, the tenure track and its associated pressures are all about weeding out under performers to create an academic organization that benefits from having the best of the best. But what can be done to allow those on the tenure track to enjoy the process of research and publication, the way it was meant to be be experienced, without being made to feel as if they are on a vicious treadmill. Here are a few suggestions that might help tenure-track librarians avoid that “senseless grind” feeling.

  • Allow new librarians a year or two to get their feet wet before starting the tenure track countdown clock. Since librarians come out of library school far from being finished products they have a lot to learn. It is not the same as a faculty member that has come out of a Ph.D. program where he or she has done extensive research and writing – and usually just continues that same research in year one on the job. Let’s not add to the new librarian’s pressure by requiring research right from the get go. Heck, it can take a few years in the field to figure what one’s research interests are. Others have suggested making the tenure track longer for similar reasons. Giving librarians more time to discover their true research interests will make conducting research feel more intrinsically rewarding and less like forced labor.
  • Allow librarians to make their research more of a learning experience by turning research into an opportunity to master new skills. Allow tenure-track librarians to build a research portfolio that reflects a subject skill or a technology focus. A business librarian’s research could consist of articles about advanced techniques in specialized databases. Another librarian might choose to focus on library applications of web-based software.
  • Let collaborative efforts weigh more heavily than they may count now. One of the best ways to get on the road to publication and presentating is to co-author with more experienced colleagues. Give more weight to being a third author or a panel discussion member, especially in years one through four. As librarians get more experience they’ll begin to take the lead and move into those first author spots.
  • As next-gen librarians more frequently come to the profession with blogs, more of them will gain a following and develop some degree of notoriety. Rather than seeking to quash that with standard tenure procedures, allow these blogging librarians to flourish by giving them some credit for their work and allow them to accept some of those offers to present even if it’s not the ACRL National Conference.
  • The future of professional development is virtual conferencing/workshops and webcasting. Are tenure committees paying attention to this? It’s time to allow participation in virtual programs to count as a form of scholarship. And for those librarians who build virtual communities like Web Junction, OPAL, or Blended Librarians, as members of boards or contributors, they should be getting plenty of recognition and credit for tenure.

    Do I expect tenure-track academic libraries to make these sort of changes? Well, I would hope the more progressive ones can give it some thought. Why not attempt to transcend some of the likely opposition (I did it this way, so should others; Faculty won’t treat us as equals if our tenure process isn’t the same as theirs; Some of these new methods are not peer reviewd, etc.) and be among the first to create new avenues for scholarship. There is significant discussion about this profession’s need to recognize that our user communities are changing and that our libraries need to change to accomodate those users. If this profession can’t even recognize that its members and what drives their research interests are changing – and that it is time for new accomodations – then we may be truly challenged to meet the needs of our user communities.

  • And Speaking Of Citations And Citing

    I applaud the Chronicle of Higher Education for their article in this week’s issue about citation (personal bibliographic management (PBM)) software because I think it will help to make more faculty aware of these products and their availability from the campus library. In turn, the more that faculty are aware of products such as EndNote and RefWorks (both mentioned prominently in the article) the better they can communicate their availability to students. I think the academic library community knows how much time PBM software can save our faculty and students, but because they require a bit of a learning curve (much less so for the very basic features of RW) EndNote and RefWorks can be a bit of a hard sell. This article, even though it offers some negative reactions to PBM software, will likely help to promote usage among our communities.

    That said I would have liked to seen the following points made or issues raised in the same article:

  • It’s an unfortunate omission to not point out that quite a few library aggregator databases allow PBM software users to directly (with a click or two) export their citations. This saves enormous time in not having to retype citations, not to mention that the records can then be easily edited to include additional content.
  • The issue of whether or not PBM is overkill for undergraduates is raised. I tend to agree that it is likely to be overkill for most undergrads, with the possible exception of an honors student that is likely to be spending more extensive time on a thesis paper. Most undergrads jump from topic to topic with their papers, using few citations in most, so having the database functionality of PBM software is hardly of use to them. It’s unlikely they’ll need to accumulate a large number of citations on any one topic, and the ability to store, search, and retrieve citations as needed is certainly a powerful feature of PBM software.
  • With respect to undergrads the article could have asked an academic librarian to point out that aggregator databases (e.g., ProQuest and EBSCO) now offer the ability to cite references retreived in the databases in one of several major formats. Knowing how to format citations in these databases, and having faculty who can show students how it is done, would likely meet the needs of most undergrads.
  • Finally, related to any discussion of PBM is the issue of whether academic librarians should be spending time teaching students the arcane rules of and inconsistencies among formatting styles, or just be getting them to use the tools that will format the citations for them. I definitely favor just showing students how to use the formatting tools, but there are those that argue that learning how to format citations from scratch is good for undergrads because it will help them to avoid plagiarism, better understand the components of a citation, and make them upstanding citizens. It certainly would have been interesting to add this perspective to the discussion, but perhaps it deserves its own article.