Where’s The Real Discussion On Our Discussion Lists

Though they may seem a bit behind the times, e-mail discussion lists (since “listserv” is a registered name the proper generic term is “discussion list” – it’s like using “xerox” instead of “photocopy”) are still important to academic librarians. In his Chronicle article about the status of discussion lists, Jeffrey Young writes that “the time of scholarly e-mail lists has passed, meaningful posts slowing to a trickle as professors migrate to blogs, wikis, Twitter, and social networks like Facebook.”

I would agree with the academic librarians quoted in the article who express their ongoing interest in and dependence on the discussion list. On the other hand I’d agree with Young that they are no longer a forum for scholarly exchange. But were the discussion lists of academic librarianship ever about exchanging scholarly ideas? I don’t think so. Take Collib-L for example. You may disagree, but I never saw it as platform for the exchange of scholarly ideas. But I can recall, prior to the advent of blogs, more discussions about philosophical topics and more responses to postings that raised questions about what we ought to be doing as academic librarians about different issues in higher education. Think back, for example, to Chronicle articles such as Carlson’s piece on the deserted library or Wilder’s essay on information literacy. In the aftermath of those posts there were some great exchanges on Collib-L with much back and forth conversation, good debate on the issues, and folks from many different institutions joining the discussion. It was quite lively.

Most of that discussion has, I think, migrated to blogs and the comments to blog posts. Now, the real value in Collib-L is as an exchange for what works and what doesn’t work. Need to know how to get involved in Facebook? Ask on Collib-L. Need to know if you should convert that remaining Dewey Decimal collection to Library of Congress? Ask on Collib-L. Wondering how you can get your provost to look more favorably on tenure for librarians? Ask on Collib-L. What people to take your survey? Ask on Collib-L. And it seems that the more mundane the topic, the greater the number of responses to it. But these days it seems the more challenging and thoughtful questions, the ones that could lead to a debate and the exchange of many different views, are the ones that die a quick death with little response.

When Bernie Sloane recently pointed to a new Chronicle study that stated “There is very little that students cannot find on their own if they are inspired to do so” he asked Collib-L subscribers what they thought of that statement. Did they find it a “kinda scary contention from a librarian’s perspective, especially since it’s in a research report from the Chronicle of Higher Education.” There were all of two responses (and another one or two “I agree with what he said” posts) to Sloan’s post to the list, and yet this was a fairly thought provoking question that should have elicited a good many responses and perspectives. Why so little response? Are list subscribers just too busy to think about their response to a question like this one? Are they thinking “That’s an interesting question but I’ll leave it to the bloggers and Twitter crowd to deal with that one.” It certainly is easier and less time consuming to rattle off a response to a concrete “how do you do it at your library” question.

I’m not suggesting there is anything wrong with the exchange of such grounded, day-to-day practice questions. Collib-L remains a thriving community of academic librarians who are there to help each other do a better job; the sharing of information is great. Well, when you get to the 20th or 30th response to a question about whether you stamp your library’s name in the front or back of the book, maybe it’s not so great. But I can’t help but feel academic librarianship suffers a loss of some sort when our discussion lists become void of real discussion and devolve into forums for the most practical types of information. If this is what the e-mail discussion list has come to perhaps Young is correct when he says they need to “change or die”.