A college librarian's take on technology

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A college librarian's take on technology

By Barbara Fister October 21, 2011 1:30 am UTC

Among the recurring images from Occupy Wall Street demonstrations are the signs held by young people tallying their college debt. They’ve been jeered at for wanting their loans forgiven, but deep in debt and without a job is a terrible way to start your adult life. I didn’t have to take out loans. I was able to pay my tuition bills, and I only had to work part time while taking classes; tuition was that cheap. Once we thought an educated populace was a good thing to have. But we no longer believe in education as a public good. Goods cannot be public these days. We're more likely to hear "it's an investment" - just like those houses that were supposed to keep going up in value.

What is it we are getting in exchange for all that accumulated student debt? Well, we have more knowledge than ever, but that’s a chimera, too. We academics don’t actually own the knowledge we create, we only license it. Faculty are too busy producing new scholarship to think much about changing the system, because productivity is measured in publications. Publishers confer prestige, and scholars have to trade their work for bits of that prestige in order to stay in the game. Those who question the rules of the game are quickly reminded that they are lucky to have jobs, that a majority of academic laborers are not so fortunate. (This is not unlike what students hear: look at you, you own a phone! How dare you complain about your student loans!)

All that productivity does not necessarily extend knowledge, or rather it does—but only for those who can afford it. Libraries were once a monument to the wisdom that comes of sharing of knowledge, but now libraries only foot the bill for temporary access to information, and only for their campus community.

A fair amount of basic science is still funded with tax dollars, but that’s because the private sector needs massive public investment into fundamental scientific knowledge. That stuff’s expensive! But the results of that tax funded basic science are not available to just anyone. The reports of research become the property of publishing corporations, including corporations run by scholarly societies such as the American Psychological Association and the American Chemical Society. These societies benefit from being tax exempt, but they actively lobby against open access. An editor of one of the American Chemical Society’s publications once characterized the (so far unsuccessful) legislative attempts to require that recipients of federal funds make their publicly funded research results public as socialized science. (Funding the science is apparently a wise investment of tax dollars, but letting people read the results—socialism!)

Here's my version of an Occupy Wall Street cardboard sign. At my library, we’ve been seeing big price increases in two big journal packages that we really need. Again. This is what we’re paying for American Chemical Society journals

  • 2010 - $29,705
  • 2011 - $34,337
  • 2012 - $41,741

This is what we’re paying for SAGE journals

  • 2010 – $39,105
  • 2011 - $41,442
  • 2012 - $52,500

Look, don't get me wrong: these are great publications. I don’t personally use the chemistry collection, but I know it’s excellent stuff and that our students and faculty really need it. I do search SAGE quite often for my own research. Where else will I find such robust research on things like social inequality and gentrification? I'm not just being snarky; I know this kind of high-quality publishing costs money. Fine. I know that faculty are producing more research and presumably somebody's got to publish it. But the only way I can afford to keep these journals (and I can't afford not to) is to cut other things. Smaller societies, university presses? Sorry - you'll be getting less of my money. I’ll do this because I have to, but dammit – this is so wrong.

Our budget has been flat for a few years. I don’t fault our administration for that. A lot of our acquisitions funding comes from endowment, and we lost a lot of ground in the financial crisis. The administration has had to scramble to make up the loss in endowment to keep our budget from shrinking. What are they supposed to do to fund these price hikes, raise tuition? Our students can’t afford that. I don’t want that.

I’m not upset that my budget isn’t growing. I’m upset that scholarly publishers think these price hikes are okay, that they can keep adding new journals to their title lists with the expectation that I will pay for them. I'm upset that big scholarly publishing is being run like a protection racket, and that both I and the faculty I serve are pawns in this game.

Are you seeing price hikes like these? Tell the world. Tweet it, post it to Facebook, get the word out. Next week is Open Access Week. If you, too, think there’s something wrong with this picture, it's time to raise some hell.

By Barbara Fister October 14, 2011 2:15 am UTC

Another fascinating report has just come out from Project Information Literacy, a source of many fascinating reports. This one focuses on how students use technology during the busiest time of the semester. I love what these researchers are doing—actually talking to undergraduates about how they do research (what a concept!) rather than making assumptions. Often, when I read their reports I think to myself “yes, that sounds exactly like our students; no surprises here.” But then I realize how much their findings challenge the latest library craze and am grateful to have real data to back up my impressions.

Take ebooks. Librarians currently seem to think we should be investing in massive numbers of ebooks, and the rationale often given is “students live on the Internet. If it’s not online, it doesn’t exist to them. We need to meet them where they are.” In a stronger form this is worded as “EVOLVE OR DIE!!” But if you point out that the students you talk to don’t like to read anything on the screen, you’ll probably hear “oh, we just need a better marketing campaign. They don’t know what they’re missing.”

This is fresh in my mind because I just attended an interesting day-long virtual conference on ebooks in libraries. In fact, I was a panelist for a session on marketing ebooks to students in academic libraries. Sadly, what I had to say probably wasn’t what the audience came for. Our students aren’t interested in ebooks, so we aren’t buying lots of them and thus have nothing to market. Frankly, I would much rather see libraries fund the production costs of open access monographs, the way the University of Michigan is doing with their Digital Culture imprint or what the National Academies Press has been doing for years, rather than become the open wallet used to fund another digital transition.

One indicator of how well this open-wallet-approach has worked so far is to see how much a single journal article will cost you. If you could buy journal articles the way we buy iTunes music, then we’d really have a digital revolution--but libraries would then stop spending tens of thousands of dollars for highly specialized publications that mostly go unread but are occasionally essential, and then where would we be? If the only future for scholarly monographs is for libraries to switch to electronic subscriptions and fund access to $69.00 books in large numbers, we’re funding a transition that preserves a pretty dysfunctional status quo.

There are compelling reasons to add a lot of ebooks to your library collection. You can instantly have a tens of thousands of ebooks available, but only pay for the ones your patrons actually use. That purchase isn’t cheap; one of the presenters showed that from a potential pool of over 60,000 books, their library users only opened and read substantial portions from a little over 300, which the library then purchased. Each purchased book cost a bit more than $69.00; they averaged around $75.00 per digital file, er, ebook. The library also had funded “short term loans” of several thousand ebooks. A book rental (a use of a book that was something over 5 minutes, but no more than 24 hours) cost the library on average $13.60 per use. That’s much cheaper than buying and shelving a book that might never be used, but this library spent $50,000 on access to digital books that people used for less than a day. Is this really the best we can do with our funding?

I keep thinking we’re creating a new system where books will be as scarce as ever for those who can’t pay while, for those who have money, there will be an all-you-can-eat banquet that can’t be shared with the starving. After a transition like this, will we be any better off?

I don’t know what students make of all this, but one thing that Project Information Literacy discovered in their latest study is that students are not as excited about gadgetry and electronic sources as we tend to assume. When project teams interviewed 560 undergraduates studying in libraries at ten institutions, they found students were keeping it simple. Most of them had only one or two electronic devices with them: a phone and a laptop. Most of them were focused on getting an assignment done or were studying for a class. Most of them had only a couple of webpages open in a browser, and they weren’t the same websites; they were browsing all over the place. Only a small percentage were on familiar sites like Facebook or Wikipedia. Few of the students interviewed (11%) had used a library databases in the previous hour and even fewer (9%) had used library books. Many of them were keeping an eye on text messages, email, and Facebook, but only when taking a break from their work. They weren’t multitasking in that legendary fashion we expect of this generation, nor were they enamored of trendy new digital devices. Only seven of the 560 students was using an iPad or other tablet device. Only three had a Kindle or other e-reader.

I can’t say that buying $69.00 books and putting them on shelves to gather dust is a good use of our limited money. I’m not convinced that spending $13.60 every time a student browses a book for more than five minutes is a better use of money. I’m not sure how we'll get there, but I’m pinning my hopes on open access. If we can find a way to fund publishing so that scholarship is available to all rather than rented to libraries at a high cost—sign me up. That's a library future that makes sense to me.

And I have feeling it will make a lot more sense to our students than what we're doing right now.

By Barbara Fister October 5, 2011 1:15 pm UTC

Last week, I riffed on a controversy over a library organization restructuring that led to new positions being created, old positions being eliminated, and a handful of long-time library staff members being out of a job. Since I don’t know the details of that particular library, I made some general remarks about the need for library organizations to be designed for change and toward that end, to treat staff as professionals who can and do learn rather than as parts that are discarded and replaced when the library needs new skills.

There were a lot of interesting comments on that post, and I’ve been thinking about them ever since. My argument did not address a common situation: what do you do if you are new to an organization that needs change but the staff don’t want it? It takes time and patience to change a culture, and the years it takes to nurture new attitudes could easily occupy the entire college experience of many students. Sometimes you have no responsible choice except to go with the total upheaval option. Nobody at the CAO level should let a library get to this point. Sadly, it happens - a lot.

There are administrations that have ignored the library for years but suddenly realize, often thanks to a director’s retirement, that the world has changed but their library hasn’t. They may want change right away, but without upsetting anyone. That puts a new library director hired to usher in change in an impossible position. I mulled that over at Library Journal last week, imagining a parallel universe in which a college administrator puts in a call to the Change Agency to get some help and finds out it’s not so easy to get the budget-neutral, non-controversial, instant library makeover he wants.

These conundrums will sound familiar to a lot of faculty. Many new hires find themselves in the dicey position of bringing new areas of research and new courses to a department full of near-retirement faculty who are ambivalent or even hostile to those new forms of scholarship and who feel compelled to defend their expertise by disparaging the new. It’s a miserable situation for the new kid on the block.

Technology adds another kind of competitive anxiety that may also sound familiar to faculty. Either you’re technologically adept, but feel what you do is not valued by your elders, or you’re bad at it and have a strong suspicion all those youngsters are laughing behind your back. In libraries, learning new technology is inescapable, but that doesn’t stop some librarians and library staff from trying.

So we library folk have the usual forms of friction, but there are a couple of things that make libraries different than other academic departments. First, though librarians will defend intellectual freedom to the death, they don’t seem to expect it in their own places of work. Organization charts may flatten and include more teams, but most academic libraries remain stubbornly hierarchical and much more managerial in their design than faculty relationships, which are based on apprenticeship-based confidence in and respect for one another's expertise. Librarians new to the field who want to do things get frustrated when they find out they have to first ask the boss for permission and then have their idea worked on by a committee. For months. It’s infantilizing and frustrating – and unnecessary.

Second, a library staff has different classes of workers with different levels of pay and prestige, but with plenty of insecurity to go around. In the past there were two major categories – librarians and support staff. Over the past fifty years, there has been a blurring of roles between these categories, and that has caused friction: why does she get paid twice as much as I do when we both perform critical functions? Why is it that decisions that affect my area are made by librarians without even consulting me?

Hierarchical structures based on preserving status don’t adjust well to change. There’s little incentive to take on new roles when you have a fossilized job grade and pay scale. On the other hand, there are also jobs that once were critical to a library’s functioning that are less necessary or time-consuming now, but still exist, while new tasks – such as creating and populating digital collections or data curation – that are embraced by library leadership as a badge of innovation, but then starved of resources. People asked to take on these tasks may well wonder why there isn’t more resource reallocation, but that requires that decision-makers to do some scary things, like explaining to people who doesn’t want to hear it that the work they do is no longer as demanding or important as it once was, and they will need to do other things now. HR processes often make this difficult – like insisting that if the duties change, that job has to be advertised. That’s a great way to make people fear change: you have to learn new things. Oh, and you have to compete for your job, since your position just became a new position.

Added to the old class system is a new kind of class conflict has been introduced as PhDs are hired to do professional work in libraries. Before we had a hashtag for this kind of #alt-ac worker, James Neal called them “feral librarians.” More recently, Jeff Trzeciak, library director at McMasters University, said he would henceforth hire postdocs and IT professionals instead of librarians, a statement many librarians took as vote of no confidence in their profession; in the backlash, highly-qualified folks working in libraries without the traditional credentials felt a bit cornered and devalued. In short, there’s no shortage of umbrage to go around – trapped inside a traditional organizational structure that doesn’t have change in mind.

People who work in libraries need to become skilled at reorganizing, taking on new roles, learning new skills, and letting go of things that are no longer needed. It's not healthy when the only way to do these things is to wait for retirements -- or put people out of work. What libraries need is shared governance. The caveat is that it needs to be shared governance that actually works.

As a colleague and I wrote in a conference paper some years ago:

The self-regulating, selforganizing, dynamic collegial model of peers working together, sharing their expertise, balancing individual curiosity with a common goal of advancing knowledge provides a rich blueprint for library organizational architecture. And it is one uniquely suited to what libraries do: sustain and enrich the ongoing conversation that creates new knowledge.

The curious thing is that many libraries already operate this way in spite of bureaucratic and unhelpful organizational structures. They simply ignore the hierarchy, find work-arounds, or create unofficial structures that work better—a marketplace of ideas that is more or less a functional black market. It is the nature of those who work in libraries to serve, to share, to innovate. Our culture is already collaborative and responsive to our users. We have nothing to lose but our chains of authority.

By Barbara Fister September 28, 2011 1:15 am UTC

When I read “Library Limbo,” a news story about library staff members being laid off the University of San Diego, I had to resist adding a comment because I needed what preschools sometimes call a “time out.” My first responses were strong, but not measured, and in stories like this there are always layers of complexity that the best journalist in the world cannot represent. Rarely are personnel decisions of any kind easy to describe, and some of the key information is usually not publicly available. Often what is described as the elimination of a position becomes suddenly not discussable because it’s a personnel matter. A personnel matter that can’t be discussed is not about a change in a position but about the performance of the person in the position, which is a different . . . hang on, I apparently need to go sit quietly in the corner for a few more minutes . . .

Okay. So let's not talk about that particular situation at the University of San Diego because I don't know enough about it to comment meaningfully. Instead I want to propose a few general things about libraries, change, and organizations.

If we had to hire new people in libraries because job descriptions changed, we'd be hiring an entirely new staff every six months or so. Our jobs change; that's probably the only thing that is not going to change in libraries. The good news is that people change, too. They learn. People working in academic institutions should have faith in this principle and live by it.

If your library has inflexible job descriptions and structures that box people in, you either have a failure on your hands or an optical illusion. Quite often job descriptions and organization charts are boxy and limiting, but they don’t describe what actually happens day to day; the library functions in ad hoc ways without observing the official boundaries and constraints. If you work in a library and happen across your job description, chances are it will seem like an artifact from a time capsule, quaint and amusing. Wow, was I really doing that last year? Mostly, they don’t get looked at unless someone new is being hired, at which point, after some hilarity, they are rewritten. On the job, people figure out what needs doing and they do it.

Libraries only work if there is a lot of learning going on among the staff, and that learning needs to be supported with continuing education opportunities, both formal and informal (e.g.what I come across on Twitter and FriendFeed is a huge portion of my professional reading). It requires free time and rewards for risk-taking and growth. Given the inflexible nature of salary pools and job grades and whatever constraints obtain, the rewards are not likely to be measured in increased wages. An unfortunate feature of the way most library staff positions are structured is that there is no career path within a given role. You only move up if you move out - by taking a different job. So the rewards for growing in place have to come in a different currency: being part of an organization that is doing interesting things, feeling personally effective in your work, having the opportunity to make change.

Of course if learning is a requirement of the job and an employee refuses to do it or does it only under such duress that it’s more work than it’s worth to coax them to learn something new, that's a significant problem. I can imagine a situation in which such a conflict becomes so intractable that the only solution is for the staff member to leave the organization. But frankly, it’s rare for things to be that bad.

Usually when there are problems, there’s something missing, something overlooked. A staff member hired to do a job many years ago really should be doing a different job but hasn’t been encouraged or even given permission to do so. People in that kind of stagnant situation are often anxious as the work they once did withers away, and that anxiety may make them insistent that the work they do is really, really important, even as the volume of the work dwindles. But given the opportunity and the right conditions, they might be perfectly able and willing to do the new work that needs doing. That’s the thing about humans: they can learn.

In fact I would argue most people who work in libraries want to learn. They know things are changing and they want to be involved in making the decisions that affect their working lives and they mostly are quite capable of being involved in those decisions. If people working in a library have utterly opposed ideas about what libraries are for, those decisions will be tricky to make jointly. But in reality most people who work in libraries don’t have wildly different definitions of what libraries are for. They only disagree about the details. And those disagreements are the stuff of working together.In fact, it's the fun part.

If your institution needs to lay people off because there's no money to pay their wages anymore, or someone higher up wants to allocate those wages to people in another part of the institution, that’s a shame, but so it goes. What I cannot accept is the idea that it’s perfectly all right for a library worker to be turned out of a job because the job they once did is no longer needed. When did that job stop being worth doing? Yesterday? Probably not. Who’s fault is it that a long-time employee has been suddenly discovered to be doing unnecessary work? Why has it only now been noticed and why wasn't that person given a chance to do something more meaningful before it got to this point of no return?

HR practices may perpetuate the notion that an organization is a structure made of positions assembled like Tinker Toys, and the people in them are parts that are popped into place and, if the position changes shape, popped out so that a differently-shaped piece can be inserted. Library leadership often treats reorganization the same way, as a structure that needs to be taken apart and rebuilt in a different shape and with different pieces. In reality, library positions are not boxed sets of tasks. They are a set of interconnected and flexible responsibilities woven together to meet the library’s goals. The tasks involved in meeting those responsibilities will change constantly. And so will the people with those responsibilities – given the opportunity.

There's another dimension of complexity here that is much more significant in libraries than in other parts of academia - the distinctions made between librarians (who may have faculty status or an administrative appointment or some kind of "academic professional" identity and who typically must have advanced degree credentials of some kind) and staff (who may be hourly employees or administrators and who do not need advanced degrees, though they may have them). But -

. . . wait, did you hear that? What is that strange . . . cricckcricckcricckWHOOSH . . . ah yes, the sound of a can of worms being opened. I think I'd better leave that discussion for another day. It's a doozie.


By Barbara Fister September 22, 2011 10:30 pm UTC

I’m getting ready to be a panelist for Library Journal’s second virtual summit on ebooks. I have ten minutes to present some thoughts on marketing ebook collections in academic libraries. My fellow panelists will have lots to say in their ten minutes. One of the panelists is from a library that offers over a million ebooks, and we’re not talking free public domain titles. The other panelist will discuss how to cope with the various formats and digital rights management hurdles. When these panelists speak, they'll provide a lot of useful information, and I predict the audience will be furiously taking notes. I think with me, they’ll merely be furious.

It’s partly a function of the kind of library I work at—undergraduate, residential, small—and partly my skeptical nature, but I still am not convinced we should invest in vast collections of books we don’t choose and don’t really own. So before I market something, I need to be persuaded my community needs it. And so far, there’s no demand.

This is a common technology paradox. Until people have been exposed to something, they don't know what they’re missing. Twenty years ago, would they have begged for electronic journals? No. But if we unplugged the ones we subscribe to today, they’d be distraught. That said, we made some terrible mistakes along the way to a digital journal future. I don’t want to repeat them with books.

So far our library’s only serious flirtation with ebooks, apart from some online reference sources, has been with netLibrary in its previous incarnations, and it would be unfair to make choices based entirely on that miserable experience,like choosing celibacy after a disastrous blind date. I talked to the originators of netLibrary when it first launched, in the late 1990s. They found gaining the trust of publishers far harder than the technological challenges, and restrictions publishers insisted on—no printing, no cutting and pasting, one user at a time—were limits that made no sense to students. Why have a book that's so hard to use? Again and again, students would encounter these books in the catalog, utter a few choice words, and then ask if we could get them a real book.

So before I redirect our dollars, I need to think about a few things.

  • Will our students like using ebooks - at least as much as print?
  • Will we be able to choose books that fit our curriculum, or will we have to pay for books that are of no interest to us?
  • Do our students really want lots and lots of books, or would they rather we do some thoughtful curation on their behalf?
  • Will they be able to use the ebooks the way they want to? This would include easy access without having to download software or remember passwords and the ability to print select pages.
  • Will the books be accessible to people with limited vision?
  • Will they be platform-agnostic?
  • Will libraries be able to share these books the ways they previously did, through interlibrary loan?
  • Will the vendors who supply these ebooks protect them from censorship and guard patron privacy? Will they preserve these books for future generations or allow someone else to do so?

These issues are probably fresh in my mind because we recently got word that the cost of our SAGE journal collection is jumping in price enormously as the publisher adds journals that we didn’t ask for and don’t want. The last time this happened, we asked what it would cost to subscribe to just the handful of journals we really need, and the quote they gave us was higher than the whole bundle. Between this abrupt price increase and a huge jump in prices for the American Chemical Society journals—another offer we can’t refuse—our budget has taken a big hit, and since we’ve been through three journal cancelations in the past decade and have little left to cut, our book budget will likely take the hit. It’s not surprising that book publishers want in on this racket.

But books are not like journal articles. Book publishers (understandably) will resist giving people a print option, whereas printing out an entire journal article is a common and accepted practice. Skimming a fifteen page article online is a lot easier than skimming a 300 page book, and reading closely—I'm guessing our students will prefer print, hands down.

Given that survey after survey has found students reluctant to buy into e-textbooks with limited rights, I’m wary of assuming they’ll embrace ebooks in the library. And while I can see why a research library would find ebook bundles attractive, undergraduates are not eager to have access to everything; in fact, Project Information Literacy found undergraduates use a variety of strategies to actively narrow the range of possibilities because they are overwhelmed by the options. Browsing the shelves of a small collection of hand-picked books works better than searching a database with a million books in it.

All this said, building a book collection, book by book, is not only hard work, it’s an uncertain art. The number of hand-chosen books that are never checked out in any academic library is disheartening, and students who are used to searching full text find library catalogs and their taxonomies frustrating to use. Locating books on the shelf can be a daunting stumbling block, too, particularly when papers are written at 3 a.m. the night before they are due. And then there’s the space books take up. It costs a lot to house books, and social learning spaces are in high demand.

So I’m not sure what I’ll say on this panel. I’ll probably raise a few questions, propose what I would like to see on offer, suggest (once again) that we’d be much better off investing in open access to academic knowledge - including academic books - than in licensing bundles that we cannot share, preserve, or control, and then cede my time to my fellow panelists who have more useful and practical matters to discuss.

By Barbara Fister September 13, 2011 1:00 am UTC

The book based on the Hacking the Academy project is now online and soon will be available in print from Digital Culture Books, the innovative open access imprint of the University of Michigan Press - also known as MPub. This publishing enterprise, integrated into the library and beyond, is where you should look if you want to know what the open future could look like.

It’s marvelous that this book is coming out just as Joshua Kim is wondering why a university press book he would like to read is priced at $69.50. (It’s a delicious irony that the book is on how university management has led to a drift away from the academy’s true purpose.) Essentially, Hacking the Academy demonstrates how new technologies and new attitudes can revolutionize the creation and distribution of scholarship. It also demonstrates that it’s not as easy as it looks. More about that later.

The book is a collection of intelligently-articulated and provocative ideas submitted via Twitter within a single week on the subject of how we can rethink the academy – teaching, learning, scholarship, libraries, and everything related to what we do. I have harvested a few provocative points to give a sense of the flavor of the book.

Tad Suiter asks “Why ‘Hacking’? and explains “a hacker is a person who looks at systemic knowledge structures and learns about them from making or doing.” This is exactly how I envision the library being used by students - when it's working. I hope students will become hackers in this sense of making and doing. Suiter points out that play is also part of the hacker ethos. As I’ve said elsewhere, the OED offers multiple definitions of the word "play": freedom of movement, a performance of music or theatre, mimetic representation, a setting of one thing against another. Sadly, “engaging in an activity for enjoyment and diversion,” the OED adds, is “now chiefly used of children or young animals.”

What, we can't enjoy ourselves while engaging in free movement and performance?

In the section on hacking teaching, Jeff Jarvis says (in his title) “Lectures are Bullshit” and compares shifts academics must make to shifts happening in his field of journalism. “Life,” he writes, “is a perpetual beta.” We need to help students learn to deal with that fact. Michael Wesch contributes “From Knowledgeable to Knowledge-able” pointing out that our academic architecture and course structures are designed for acquiring knowledge, but they work against creating and sharing it. He writes, “our old assumption that information is hard to find, is trumped by the realization that if we set up our hyper-personalized digital network effectively, information can find us.”

That's worth thinking about. For the experienced scholar it does find us. We know who’s doing what, where the frontiers lie, what the next big thing is. How can we help students develop their own sense of what’s happening and what’s possible? And how can they simultaneously study the unfamiliar landscape of the academy to figure out its terrain while managing the massive amounts of information for which they have few filters? This is a great zen koan for librarians.

Other contributions in this section that I want to read more closely contrast digital storytelling versus to the traditional essay and Larry Cebula’s recipe for “how to read a book in one hour.” (It includes Miller Time.)

There’s lots of interesting stuff in the section on hacking scholarship. Jason Baird Jackson opens it up with five easy steps to get yourself out of the business of publishing – which, given you are not employed by corporate publishers seems wise. The prestige that these publishers control makes these steps a bit tricky. But hey, Open Folklore shows it can be done with panache.David Parry offers another koan for scholars and librarians. “If you publish in a journal which charges for access, you are not published, you are private-ed. To publish means to make public.” He has some incendiary ideas about how to change the system.

Parry also reflects on an essay and response by Brian Coxall who had a proxy present a paper at MLA about why he, as an adjunct, could not present papers at expensive conferences. The paper he didn’t present went viral and had a far greater influence than conference papers generally have. “Brian has a lot of ‘coin’ in the realm of network capital,” Perry writes, “but this hasn’t yielded any ‘coin’ in the realm of bricks and mortar institutions. If we were really seeing the rise of the digital humanities someone like Brian wouldn’t be without a job, and the fact that he published his paper online wouldn’t be such an oddity, it would be standard practice.” My response: it’s unfathomable that one would write a paper and not post it online, unless you really don't want people to read it. The old expensive conference circuit is an incredibly inefficient way to share knowledge. Isn’t sharing our research exactly what we should be doing – and what we should be rewarding?

And there’s more food for thought. Why are we replicating online the constraints of print, disabling the ability to share, link, compare collections, assemble, disassemble, and recombine? Why do we still limit vetting to two or three readers when many peers can review? Why is Twitter banned at some conferences? Why not replace conferences with unconferences?

As for libraries, Andrew Ashton’s essay, “The Entropic Library” does a nifty job of encapsulating a significant shift. He writes that the entropic library’s “first concern is not to get digital things into the library as new collections, but to get the library to where the digital things are being used, and make them accessible and sustainable.” There’s more on archives, on disciplinary silos, on . . . well, you go read it. It won’t cost you a dime.

But there is an interesting lesson, one Dan Cohen describes in a blog post. It only took a week to get submissions. The surprise was that there were over 300 of them.

In order to turn them into a book, it took months to read and rank all the submissions and decide which to include (and why – developing a “why” also took time). The editors had to squeeze that work in while already busy with other things. The old-fashioned concept of permissions took up loads of time simply because not everyone granted it in a formally articulated way. And the way copyright works (or fails to work), you have to know where you stand legally.

A lot of hours went into taking an online collection of stuff and doing what publishers do: acquire, edit, organize, and edit again. It took time and hard work for all the good reasons that publishing is not without cost.

So that's the last koan to contemplate: how much does free cost? However that paradox is worked out, it's worth the price.

By Barbara Fister September 9, 2011 1:15 am UTC

In the wake of Aaron Swartz's indictment for downloading a few million articles from JSTOR in an unauthorized manner and Greg Maxwell’s gesture of solidarity – uploading old Royal Society articles no longer covered by copyright to Pirate Bay – JSTOR made a surprise announcement this week that articles they have digitized that are indisputably in the public domain will now be accessible without cost to readers or libraries.

But JSTOR was quick to dampen the celebrations by saying “we’re not going to make a habit of this.” As their FAQ put it:
There are costs associated with selection, digitization, access provision, preservation, and a wide variety of services that are necessary for content to reach those who need it. We have determined that we can sustain free access and meet our preservation obligations for this particular set of content for individuals as part of our overall activities undertaken in pursuit of our mission.

So don’t get too excited, people.

This is a move in the right direction, but it seems to be a move that has had all momentum surgically removed to avoid . . . what, exactly? I don’t really expect JSTOR’s servers to be overwhelmed because reading 1920s PMLA articles goes viral. I can’t imagine any library saying “terrific, we can drop JSTOR now. Who needs the new stuff?” Is it because it’s making their publishing partners baulk? If so, what are the publishers afraid of, losing some hypothetical revenue stream they haven't found yet?

JSTOR is a very cool project that was revolutionary in its day. What happened to the bold thinking that launched the huge task of persuading academic publishers that digitization would help them accomplish their scholarly mission better? Admittedly, it was still an expensive proposition for libraries. It took a tornado, a major loss of bound journals, and an insurance settlement for my library to be able to afford the startup price. But the magic of making that scholarly content come alive through a searchable digital archive - truly amazing in its time - has lost some of its gee-wizardry. What would be transformative today?

I find myself returning to the modest proposal I made after Swartz was indicted for (of all things) wire fraud. Why don’t libraries band together, with the support of academics and their disciplinary societies, and set this stuff free?

In the comment stream following that proposal, a lot of good ideas came out, and it prompted me to do a little digging so I could compare JSTOR's funding with the way Wikipedia’s funding is organized. I added in a comment:

If you compare the 990 forms for Ithaka and Wikimedia Foundation, there are some interesting differences. Ithaka (parent organization of JSTOR) has 211 employees versus Wikimedia's 36 (Wikimedia is the parent of Wikipedia); Ithaka has over 64 million in net assets; Wikimedia has 14.5 million in assets. Wikimedia estimates 100,000 volunteers; Ithaka - zero. The people who donate their time to write and review the content and edit the journals that end up in JSTOR aren't part of the equation. Global impact? I guess you could argue it one way or another, but I know how I'd answer that.

If the actual cost of disseminating scholarly research – not the revenue streams lost if the model changed, but the actual cost of doing it another way – is less than or equal to what we are collectively spending now, then I think we need to figure out if what those current revenue streams support (e.g. society activities, the traditional means of distribution, or whatever the heck we need that money for) are more important than the broad dissemination of research. And of course we’d have to figure out a way to protect the budget dollars libraries are now using to get information to a few instead of to all - and keep the funding flowing.

But it doesn’t seem impossible.

An old King James Bible line just came to me, which happens if you're old enough and were taught by nuns: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Turns out there’s another piece to that proverb that complicates the meaning a bit: “but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.” (Proverbs, 29:18) It doesn’t sound as classy in the NRSV: “Where there is no prophecy, the people cast off restraint, but happy are those who keep the law.”

It seems to me the law we should follow is that old fashioned notion that the truth will set us free, and our job as scholars is to seek the truth and share it as widely as we can. We’re letting self-interest - in furthering our careers, boosting our institutional reputations, and protecting our disciplinary territory – divert us from that fundamental law. And I, for one, am not happy.

It’ll cost money. It’ll take some serious work to hammer out the agreements, just as it took a lot of work for JSTOR to get publishers on board in the first place. But we need to do more for the world than tend our little walled gardens. We can do better. Where's that visionary thinking that started the whole thing?

By Barbara Fister August 30, 2011 1:46 am UTC

An issue currently highlighted in the New York TimesRoom for Debate feature is on whether research papers are a "waste of time" and no longer “justifiable as a means of grading a college student's performance.” As regular Babel Fish readers will know, I am not a huge fan of teaching the research paper as a generic form in the first year of college, but I have never thought research papers were a means of demonstrating performance; I thought they attempted to encourage critical reading and clear, organized writing in an academic mode. I also have never heard the argument made that “it is outdated because the Internet has made sources so readily accessible” or that it promotes “deference to conventional opinions.”

Let’s take a closer look at these claims.

The debate takes for its text an opinion piece by Thomas Bertonneau published by the John William Pope Center for Higher Education, which promotes “the principles that have traditionally guided public policy in the United States: limits on government; freedom to pursue goals through voluntary means, both for-profit and nonprofit; accountability through private property rights; and the belief that competition is an excellent regulating force.” Bertonneau has taught literature at a number of institutions and his writing credits include a book analyzing the Christian subtext of science fiction television classics and a study of the declining standards at Michigan’s public universities sponsored by the Mackinac Center, a think tank that, according to its IRS 990 form, “is committed to providing the free-market perspective” and recommend “approaches to public policy issues consistent with the traditional American values of free markets, limited government, and respect for private property.” Yes, there's a theme her.

Bertonneau argues that research papers teach students to be too deferential to authority, neglecting their own intuition while promoting “the prevailing relativism of the professorial mentality and campus culture.” Further, he claims using the Internet leads to an atrophy of intuition that physically retrieving print sources somehow promoted. It is much too easy, he argues, to find and copy sources, now. Also, students instead should write essays modeled on classics, because if they’re given contemporary models, their teachers will provide “utterly predictable declarations of the victimological dogmas so dear to the Left.” Students instead should study and write essays about timeless topics following great examples from the past. Research papers, he believes, are an artifact of Germanic ideas about education. Not so the well-wrought essay on timeless topics. “The essay is central to the West. It is how the West thinks.” Apparently, English educators had a better grasp of the Western tradition than those research-obsessed Germans.

I agree with the author that the research paper as a genre taught in composition courses is often too deferential to authority – in that students often are led to believe the purpose is to collect and organize quotations from authoritative scholarly sources rather than use those texts to develop ideas of their own. This, by the way, is not a problem created by the Internet; books also lend themselves to uncritical transcription, and I’m old enough to remember that students often did just that. Students also tend (like too many news editors) to feel they should give both sides equal time, even when there are more than two sides or when some positions hold compelling evidence against them in contempt, so should not be taken seriously as legitimate positions. It's understandable. Learning to critique and reject arguments that fail to present compelling evidence in their support is asking a lot of inexperienced 18 year olds, but developing those skills comes with time and practice. The relativism that takes every opinion on its face is often a developmental phase that people grow out of - but that's not really the kind of relativism the author objects to.

The claim that relativism is a moral failing of the Left seems curiously blind to the simultaneous insistence on “intellectual diversity” that argues evolution, fundamental to biology and other sciences, should be optional for those who choose to believe otherwise and that courses should allow overlooking compelling evidence so that students may believe human activities have no proven effect on the climate out of personal conviction. But I digress.

Respondents to the essay are not fully in support of the traditional research paper, or at least in support of the way it has been characterized and is often practiced by unengaged students, but they defend the usefulness of asking students to write about self-selected sources as a vehicle for learning to read and write clearly and practice information skills that will remain useful after college. Mark Bauerlein concurs with Bertonneau in part and dissents in part, saying digital research is anti-intellectual, but properly conducted in the face of student resistance, it can have its pedagogical uses.

I still have my reservations about the research paper as a generic exercise taught outside disciplinary content and conventions. They just aren't the objections that Bertonneau has. He has opened my eyes to a whole new set of criticisms that I fear could equally apply to libraries. I mean, we have a lot of books on our shelves that offer conflicting opinions and focus on current issues. I am sure libraries, given they resist offering the answer, but rather provide lots of answers that squabble with each other, could also be accused of promoting relativism. And lord knows we have a lot of digital content and do our best to make research convenient.But we are probably safe because the Internet is an easier target for those who want us to return to tradition, even if the tradition we are urged to return to only exists in a mythical golden age.

By Barbara Fister August 26, 2011 1:31 am UTC

I just checked the definition of syllabus in the Oxford English Dictionary. It states what I used to assume it meant: “a statement of the subjects covered by a course of instruction or by an examination, in a school, college, etc.; a programme of study.” The oldest quotation using the word is from 1656, when it meant something more along the lines of a table of contents or concordance. The best quote, though, is from 1939 and is taken from W. H. Auden’s “Commentary” in Journey to War:

“... the young emerging from the closed parental circle, to whose uncertainty the certain years present their syllabus of limitless anxiety and labour.”

But I think we may be a little too fond of limiting and certainty. These days syllabi are looking more and more like those Terms of Service that pop up when we use software. You know, the long documents in fine print with a scrollbar that we click through so we can move on. I thought nobody read them, but it turns out the excellent people at the Electronic Frontier Foundation actually track changes to them for us. (The EFF points out that these documents have a sinister side. They are contracts that we can’t negotiate, and they contain provisions we might not agree to, if we understood what they actually meant.) But the most striking thing about TOS is that they are full of rules – and very few people read them. So maybe they’re not the best model for the syllabus.

And yet … each year our provost’s office sends out language that should be in every syllabus. It’s important information, but in addition to half a page of boilerplate paragraphs about the academic honesty policy and how those who have a documented disability can request accommodations, instructors feel they must include more and more language about what behaviors are expected or unwelcome in the classroom. It’s as if every potential problem has to be spelled out because it’s some kind of contract with the student that has to cover everything. I mean, what if students started trimming their toenails in public? That would be gross. Better make sure it's covered.

When you add all those rules to the traditional stuff - course description, the list of assigned texts, the class-by-class schedule, and information about major assignments - these documents get incredibly long and complex. I once saw on that was - I am not making this up – fifty pages long. (The teacher loaded it into the course management system; it would have exhausted the department’s copying budget before the first day of the term if she had handed it out. Students weren’t too happy, though, to be told they should print out a copy and bring it to class.) We traditionally go over syllabi on the first day of class, and then we’re annoyed when students miss an assignment or fail to adhere to a rule because “it was in the syllabus.”

Yeah, and you read those TOS closely, do you?

The trouble is the syllabus-as-contract is not only tiresome to read, it’s not inspiring. You must, you can’t, you ought – that’s not an itinerary for a trip to someplace new and exciting. And are those behaviors really the point of the course? In this course, you will learn to turn off your cell phone when instructed to do so. You will learn to show up on time. Not that these habits aren’t useful, but … really? Is that what the course is about?

I was struck by what the curious folks behind the Project Information Literacy project noticed when they gathered and examined research assignment prompts. These documents were well intentioned, but they were all about what the final product should look like: page length, number of sources, width of margins. They were almost entirely silent about how students should proceed, what tools would be particularly useful or even why it was worth doing. Though teachers covered those things in class, the prompts unintentionally enforced the notion that students all too often have: that their task is to produce a certain number of pages citing a required number of sources by a particular date.

Classes haven’t started yet at the Little College on the Prairie. In the upper Midwest we adhere to an ancient agricultural calendar and first must partake of ritual food on a stick at the annual fair honoring the harvest of soybeans, the other white meat, and dairy products. But I know from experience that there will be a flurry of syllabus-construction a day or two before students report to the classroom, and I will get lots of panicked requests for library workshop dates. It will be a little too late to suggest that assignment prompts might describe the process rather than the product, or that a syllabus might show how research will be part of the course experience rather than a due date. Maybe next year.

By Barbara Fister August 18, 2011 1:45 am UTC

I’m always interested in what Project Information Literacy is up to. This week they have posted an interview with Sandra Jamieson and Rebecca Moore Howard, the researchers behind the Citation Project, an effort to measure the extent to which first year college writers use various strategies for writing from sources (as previously reported here).

Many readers of college student prose will not be surprised to learn that students don’t summarize sources – that would require reading and understanding them well enough to sum them up in a sentence or two. In fact, when Jamieson and Howard examined the way sources were used in 174 papers, only 6% were summarized; all the rest were paraphrases or quotations of specific sentences. For the most part, students harvest chunks of information from their sources and patch it together. Often they paraphrase too closely. (I suspect many students would define “paraphrase” as “change a few words so you aren’t plagiarizing.” This misunderstanding can get them in trouble.) Perhaps more troubling, but less frequently a source of mass anxiety than plagiarism, is the fact that students often don’t understand the sources they are citing. In many cases, it’s likely they haven’t even read them. They’ve simply found some money quotes they can use.

This leads me to wonder (again) why we ask first year students to make their paper look sort of like a JSTOR article instead of sort of like a story in the New York Times Magazine. When we tell them “in order to write about ideas, you need to find good sources and cite them accurately,” finding and citing becomes the task; ideas are contained in the sources cited and only make an appearance through those sources. By making it sound as if the point of the paper is to find and use sources, we’re practically begging them to patchwrite.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to say something like this:

For this assignment, you're going to write about ideas, but you aren’t going to be doing original research – that would require a lot of time and training - so before you decide what to say about your topic, you’ll need to find out what other people have learned about it. There’s a lot of stuff out there, and deciding who to pay attention to is important. You’ll want to focus on sources that do more than just tell you things about your topic, you want to find the people who are an important part of the story – researchers, public figures, government officials ... people who really know their stuff or have been involved in the issue in some significant way. Since your reader will want to know who those people are, be sure to tell them where your information comes from and make it clear why you believe this source is worth your reader’s attention. Please don’t include a bibliography. Everything the reader needs to know about your sources should be worked into your essay.

That would, at least, make it somewhat clearer that when you say "use five sources" you mean "use five strategically selected sources." Presumably the student will have to do a lot of reading before they can figure out which sources are really important, but that reading needn't be documented. What falls into the category of "common knowledge" is often news to first year college students, yet we tend to frighten them into citing practically everything they've looked at to avoid being accused of plagiarism.

When you get right down to it, we assign the research paper to first year students for a variety of reasons:

  • We want them to learn how to write clearly.
  • We want them to grasp how to organize ideas in writing.
  • We want them to value evidence as an important part of how we know what to believe.
  • We want to help them succeed in college by giving them experience writing in an academic voice and documenting sources using academic rules.

The first three goals are not easy, but are absolutely key to the fourth. Yet the fourth goal almost always undermines the first three because as soon as a new college student is asked to write in an unfamiliar genre while mimicking an unfamiliar voice, clarity and organization become primarily a matter of patching sources together in a sensible order and smoothing out the places where they bump into each other, reserving enough time to pore over the rulebook and code the list of sources correctly. This is not research. I’m not even sure it’s writing. It’s more or less organized transcription. It's kind of like remix, kind of like mashup, only without being transformative.

What’s to stop us from concentrating on the first three goals in the first year and leaving the fourth for later? Only tradition and the expectations of other faculty who want their students trained in a certain kind of college writing and – perhaps? – the fact that teaching students how to quote from and cite a source is a lot easier than teaching them how to draw on sources in their writing to make meaning.




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