Analyzing Authority @ the ACRL Conference

On the last morning of my last day at the ACRL Conference I tweeted out a quick observation:

I got a couple of retweets and even started up a Twitter conversation with @nancyeadams, who shared a preprint of an article she’s written that discusses authority (among other topics), which I’m looking forward to reading this summer. But then it was time to head home.

I’ve never done any textmining before, so I tried to dip my toe in the pool by using Storify to pull together tweets that included the word “authority” and the hashtag #acrl2013. But I was tired after the conference and somewhat impatient. I couldn’t get Storify to simultaneously display tweets with the other hashtag (#acrl13) I saw being used occasionally, so I gave up pretty quickly; it also seemed like Storify wasn’t pulling in every single tweet from Twitter. I tried using Zach Coble’s fascinating ACRL Conference social media archive, but I couldn’t manipulate the tweet text all at once. I was also worried that as the conference receded into the past, tweets would become more difficult to find. So I went for the bash-it-with-a-rock strategy: I did a search in Twitter for each of the two hashtags, then I cut and pasted all of the tweets into a text file.

And there the text file sat until Memorial Day weekend, when the semester had ended and I finally had a chance to get back to it. I should stress that this is (still) a fairly basic analysis — I’ve gone through the text of tweets from the beginning of the conference to the end to find all instances of the word “authority” to see whether anything particularly interesting stood out. I’m certain that there are better tools to use for this task, but I’m (still) impatient so I’m plowing ahead with my rocks. (If you’ve used any tools that seem like they’d be useful in this context, please let me know in the comments!)

So, what did I find? I pulled 8,393 tweets (including retweets) with the hashtags #acrl2013 and #acrl13 dating from April 3 through April 16 at around 10:30pm. There were 60 occurrences of the word “authority” in the tweets I pulled.

Some of the patterns are easy enough to see and explain. First thing Thursday morning was the panel session “Questioning Authority: Standard Three and the Critical Classroom” with Jenna Freedman, Emily Drabinski, and Lia Friedman. This session had its own hashtag — #qacrlauthority — which made the tweets even easier to spot (and which I really appreciated since the wicked weather made me miss the session). There were 41 occurrences of the word “authority” in the tweets and retweets from this session. Laura O’Brien created a Storify of the panel which looks to have captured the session well. As librarians we should examine the authority embedded in controlled vocabularies, sources, and other library systems we use, and consider the ways we can empower students as authorities.

Chronologically, the next mention of authority was a tweet from Alison Head’s invited paper on Project Information Literacy, a multi-year, multi-institution study of college students’ information seeking and use. They have a nifty infographic created from their data on how college students seek information.

I missed that presentation (and haven’t read the paper yet) so I can’t offer any extra context around this tweet. But it’s an interesting comparison to the tweets from the Questioning Authority session, especially this one:

And in comparison to Henry Rollins’ mention of authority in his keynote (there were 5 tweets that referred to the thematic links he drew between Thomas Jefferson and punk rock):

And in comparison to the three tweets from the Feminist Pedagogy panel session on Sunday morning, especially:

Taken together, all of these tweets seem to point to a tension between librarians (and libraries) and our patrons, especially students. We have authority in the information realm, authority conferred by education, by experience, by knowledge. Is there a down side to having that authority? Can looking for ways to enable students and patrons to seize some of that authority enhance their learning? And are there reasons not to share or transfer that authority?

A couple of tweets from the libraries and publishing discussion at THATCamp ACRL hinted at the relationship between authority and prestige, a relationship which seems to be growing increasingly fraught as scholarly communications continue to shift and change.

Finally, three tweets discussed the nature of authority in our own library workplaces. Two were from the session “Think Like A Startup: Creating a Culture of Innovation, Inspiration, and Entrepreneurialism,” including one from my fellow ACRLogger Laura Braunstein:

Another seems to have been from the session “Curb Your Enthusiasm? Essential Guidance for Newbie Academic Librarians,” and pairs well with Laura’s tweet above:

I’ve found it interesting to see the various points of the conference where the topic of authority was discussed and considered. I confess that I’m not a big fan of the word authority. When I teach students about evaluating information I always use the term expertise, and in writing this post it’s been easy to see why: in looking through these tweets I’m struck by the underlying theme of power. Thinking on this more drove me to seek out some definitions. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary lists this as the first definition of authority:

an individual cited or appealed to as an expert

and this as the second:

power to influence or command thought, opinion, or behavior

which for me comes uncomfortably close to authoritarian:

1. of, relating to, or favoring blind submission to authority
2. of, relating to, or favoring a concentration of power in a leader or an elite not constitutionally responsible to the people

This as opposed to the more egalitarian nature of the term expertise, from expert:

having, involving, or displaying special skill or knowledge derived from training or experience

As librarians we aim to increase access to information, to share it, and ultimately to promote expertise among our patrons and students. The words we use when we describe our roles and relationships — both within and outside of the library — matter. When we use the term authority, is it possible to get away from power? And do we want to? After all, power can be used for good as well as for ill. Do we lose anything by shifting our use to expertise instead of authority?

Paper Or Poster Session At ACRL: Making The Choice

Given a choice between preparing and submitting a proposal for a contributed paper or a poster session at ACRL’s 2011(15th) national conference, which do you think most academic librarians would choose. I need less than 2 seconds to think about this one. It’s the paper.

When it comes to ACRL’s national conference my take is that most academic librarians will prefer to submit a proposal for a contributed paper. This post is inspired by two things. First, like me, you’ve probably been thinking about the 2011 conference and potential ideas to turn into proposals. That means considering whether the idea works best as a paper or panel, or perhaps a Cyber Zed Shed presentation – or even a poster. Second, I enjoyed reading Female Science Professor’s Chronicle essay about the pros and cons of paper presentations and posters for scientists. I’m hardly familiar with scientific conferences, but I gather from the essay that papers and posters are thought of quite differently from the ACRL conference. For the scientist it seems that paper and poster are on near equal footing. For academic librarians, the posters are akin to a runner-up prize. I’d like to see that change.

Having had papers, panels and one poster accepted at ACRL here are some thoughts on the relative merits and challenges of each, using FSP’s framework for the comparison.

Stress Level:This one goes to the contributed paper. If you are fortunate enough to get it accepted (and more will this year because each session will now have three – not two – paper presentations – but each gets less time), then you need to write up a paper on a deadline. Presenting a poster is fairly informal; little preparation for the actual poster session is needed. The same cannot be said for a formal paper presentation.

Work Level: Once you have the basic idea for the poster worked out, and you know what’s going on it, the poster presents a reasonable amount of work – and let’s face it – you can put as much or as little effort into it as you like. We’ve all seen some pretty ratty posters. Then again, I’ve seen some posters where the reaction is “Damn, how did they do that?”. It’s that good. I took the middle road, and used to create my poster. That made it even less work – and they shipped the thing right to my hotel. You don’t even have to schlep a poster through the airport anymore. You can’t really fake the paper. Not only do you have to write it, but if you haven’t put the work into it you’ll look like an ass at the presentation. No librarian wants to look like an ass. This round goes to the paper.

DIfficulty Level: Putting together a good poster is not easy. Compared to a paper the constraints are much greater. With limited space, what do you choose to include and omit. That’s the hard part – and getting it to fit and look good. Sure, the paper presents some of the same challenges, but we all know few folks are ever going to read the paper. If you slack a bit on it no ones going to raise a fuss. But a lot is riding on the poster’s organization and appearance. If it’s lousy you can pretty much forget anyone coming over to talk to you. I’m going with the poster on this one.

Prestige Level: Hands down – the paper. Just consider the acceptance rate as a factor. Most of the posters are the rejected papers being recycled as poster presentations. But you can be different. Make the poster session your first choice.

Fun Level: Hands down – the poster. At ACRL 15th each paper presenter will get all of 12 minutes to present – and then 8 minutes for Q & A. All the hard work will be over in a flash, but you will be able to add a nice notch to your CV. With a poster you get the hold the floor for nearly an hour. Paper sessions can be pretty stodgy and formal. Over in the poster session area it’s a good time with lots of informal conversation. People are walking around doing their people watching. Yes, you can add the poster session to your CV, but it just won’t carry the same weight. I’m not saying that’s right. It’s just the way it is.

Let me just throw out an idea here. What if ACRL offered a version of early admissions for the conference. That is, you could submit a poster session proposal that would be given priority consideration, and by doing so you would agree not to submit the same proposal as a contributed paper. That would probably reduce the number of paper proposals and perhaps increase the quality of what is contributed because only those who felt they had a very strong shot would be likely to submit while those less certain of their chances would go for the more sure thing – the poster session. But does that then relegate the poster to lower status. Well, I think it already is lower status at our conference because the general deal is that many rejected papers become the posters. The only way we could boost the status of the poster session would be to reduce the number accepted. If there were only 50 slots for posters instead of 150, the acceptance rate would be far lower and it would be considered more on par with getting a paper accepted. Without data I can’t say for sure, but perhaps that is the case with science conferences.

So what will it be? A contributed paper or a poster session? Personally, I prefer the panel session. I think it offer a nice balance between the paper and the poster in terms of prestige, pressure, difficulty (not so much if you choose the right people) and fun. Whichever option you choose, good luck with your proposal.