This is a longer read than usual, but here is the text and some of the images from the keynote address I gave at The Acquisitions Institute 2013. The slides are available too (PPT download), but aren’t very informative without the text.
When I asked Stacey and the rest of the planning committee what I should talk about, they assured me that I didn’t need to talk specifically about acquisitions, which is good since I’ve never been an acquisitions librarian. In fact, in my first job as a subject librarian for social sciences, I got in trouble with the acquisitions department because I was a complete slacker about reviewing the books on my approval shelf.
So anyway, the planning committee suggested that I talk about the big picture, the library landscape in general, maybe addressing key trends affecting libraries. And that is what most conference keynotes do these days — they talk about changes, in higher education, in the expectations of patrons, in teaching, learning, research; and then lay out some ideas about how we should respond. But I know that Susan Gibbons, the University Librarian at Yale already covered that ground in what looks like an excellent keynote here last year; so it seemed risky to try to follow that.
Now, I also talked to some key informants, folks who are veterans of the Acquisitions Institute, and they told me that this is actually a very, very practical group. They warned me not to get too theoretical or abstract, since you all actually really like to hear very practical talks, with real concrete ideas you can take back home. I was told I should keep things pretty real if I wanted to keep your attention. I was kind of hoping great slides with awesome images would do the trick, but apparently y’all expect some substance too. Good for you.
But practical — well I appreciate that, and I suspect that many of my colleagues and friends would say I am a very practical, task oriented, no-nonsense kind of person… but I have to be honest with you that the issues I’ve been thinking about the most, and that I think libraries and librarians need to think about more, are pretty theoretical. In fact, I may as well admit up front that a not so subtle sub-theme running throughout this talk is the fact that I think libraries could use a little more idealism right now. So, if you will indulge me in a bit of lofty idealism, I promise some pretty good images, a cat reference, some zombies, and even a few practical ideas towards the end.
So let me give you a little roadmap of what I intend to talk about:
Beyond measure: this will be a central theme running through my talk, so I figure I should explain what I mean by it right up front. I believe that the value of libraries is beyond measure in the sense that the impact of our collections, our services, and our people — and in fact, the impact of the very existence of libraries — is very real and is also very, very, very hard to measure.
I also think recent trends towards measuring everything and relying on metrics (usually business metrics) to defend our value is actually likely to contribute to a further diminishing of our true value to our institutions and to society in the long-term. I am worried that some of what we are doing now to try to measure and/or increase the value of our own individual libraries may actually contribute to a devaluing of libraries writ large.
What do I mean then, by Valuing Libraries? I want to use the phrase “valuing libraries” to mean 3 things:
- The first way I mean it is as an encouragement to libraries and librarians to assert the core values of librarianship and the valuable role of library in democratic society. This theme is about story telling and about taking charge of our own image and message; and it is about being willing to be idealistic in our attitudes, our actions, and our messages.
- A second meaning for me of the phrase valuing libraries is the way in which we express those core library values in the work we do and in how we do it. It is about highlighting the ways in which our values animate our work and the choices we make; and it is about a call to re-inject the core values of libraries and of our parent institutions into our work and our decision-making. It is also about making sure our core values inform our approaches and responses to changes in higher education and to new kinds of teaching and new forms of research and publication.
- Finally, I’m going to talk about valuing libraries in the sense of assessing the value of libraries; And while I just said that I think it is nearly impossible to measure our true value and impact, I’ll share with you a couple of ideas we are playing with at Stanford that I think could be pretty cool.
How are libraries valued, and what can we do about it? It is a peculiar time for libraries right now with respect to our social image. On the one hand, all sorts of smart and cool and famous people are willing to publicly proclaim their love of libraries — usually expressed as a love of books, or of quiet spaces, or of magical reference librarians; while on the other hand, plenty of folks are privately or publicly wondering whether we really need libraries anymore.
An example of this is the recent op-ed piece by Michael Rosemblum where he basically trashes libraries in the Huffington Post, saying he doesn’t need libraries anymore. But a counter to that is the fact that within 24 hours some energetic librarians set up a tumblr account in response to Rosemblum’s nastygram, where people are sharing stories of how libraries changed their lives.
A few months ago, Joyce Carol Oates declared her preference for print books on Twitter by claiming that “ebooks are to actual books as pictures of cats are to actual cats curled & purring in your lap as you read”. That tweet was retweeted wildly by librarians across the twitterverse, who I think saw it as a sort of rallying cry for the value of libraries as the last bastions of a print culture holding out against the onslaught of inferior digital texts.
And then there is the oft-repeated quote from award-winning author Neil Gaiman proclaiming that our value lies in being better than Google because we always get the right answer — frankly an impossible standard and a compliment that I fear does libraries more harm than good.
I’m afraid that relying on a positive social image based on the idea that print books are better than ebooks and reference libraries are infallible is not only doomed to failure; but also grossly undersells the vast array of things libraries do to bring value to our communities and to future generations. This is one of those “with friends like these …” kinds of situations
Speaking of friends — how many of you have friends who make comments or ask questions about libraries or librarians that make you cringe?
These are some of my favorites:
- Now that everything is online, do we really need libraries?
- I’d love to be a librarian … you must get to read all day, right?
- What do you talk about at a library conference? The Dewey Decimal System?
Like I said, it is a weird time for libraries right now in terms of our social image. While I think that most people have an overall positive impression of librarians and fond, perhaps nostalgic feelings about libraries; there is a profound lack of understanding about the range of what libraries and librarians really do. And since libraries rely on others for our funding, that is a precarious position for us to be in. Like I said, we have an image problem, and I think it would behoove us to take charge of our own message. I also think it would be wise for us to resist the urge to couch our message in the easy metric of value — i.e. libraries are such a great value — and instead to develop messages that connect the values of libraries and librarianship to ideals that resonate with our publics.
How many of you were at ACRL and heard the keynote by punk icon Henry Rollins? Rollins, was the lead singer in an influential early punk-rock band, he is an activist, an actor, a radio host, and an author. He also describes himself as “rabid collector of other people’s stuff” — in other words, he’s an amateur archivist. In the early days of the punk rock movement, he collected and saved copies of flyers, and posters and recordings because he knew no one was saving this stuff and he wanted to ensure the cultural record contained an accurate accounting of this chapter in music and social history. In many ways he gets the value of libraries and archives. At ACRL, Rollins spoke passionately about the role of libraries in ensuring that people have access to information because information allows individuals to make good decisions and to do good things. And then he told this audience of librarians and archivists that “What you do is the definition of good. It’s very noble and you are very brave.” I would like to encourage us to take that as both a compliment and as a challenge. A compliment to the work we do and are doing, and a challenge to continue to conceive of and to talk about our work in terms of brave, noble acts that contribute to the common good.
I love that Rollins is defending libraries not because he loves the smell of old books, or because a school librarian taught him a love of reading when he was a young lad — not that there’s anything wrong with that. But what I love is that he is defending and celebrating libraries because he thinks libraries play a vital role in a democratic society. That is exactly the kind of value-laden story we need to be telling.
We are all on the hook to persuade others to continue supporting libraries — libraries as a concept worthy of support, and libraries as individual entities providing specific, unique, valued kinds of support in communities they serve.
In other words, I am calling for us all to engage in more ideological rhetoric and to tell stories about not just our value but also our values.
And I use the term story purposefully. Because slogans are great, and data is fantastic; but there is ample evidence to suggest that storytelling is the path to persuasion.
If we are going to tell value-laden stories, we have to be clear what our values are. This is where ALA comes to the rescue.
ALA adopted 11 Core Values of Librarianship in 2004. I promise I’m not going to talk about all 11. In fact, my original intention when I outlined this talk was to talk about 3 of them –Diversity, Preservation and Social Responsibility. I spent some time at West Point, where the values of Duty, Honor, Country are kind of drilled into you; so I was looking for a nice triplet of values that would resonate in a similar way.
So anyway, I really did intend to talk about 3 of our values, but as I kept working on the talk, it kept being mostly about Diversity. So that’s the value I’ll focus on — in part because it is one that resonates with me, and in part because I hope that talking about diversity in terms of acquisitions and collection development highlights an area where libraries and librarians have the unique capacity and the unique responsibility to embody Rollins’ challenge to be brave and noble and to do good in the world.
ALA describes our core value of Diversity thus: “We value our nation’s diversity and strive to reflect that diversity by providing a full spectrum of resources and services to the communities we serve.”
So here is where I’m switching to the 2nd meaning of Valuing Libraries — the idea that the work we do is or should be driven by our values, consciously and aggressively — In this case the value of reflecting diversity in our resources and services.
There are many ways in which the value of diversity is relevant to the work we do, but for this audience, seems appropriate to talk about how our acquisitions and our collection development policies and practices can and should be leveraged to reflect, promote and embody the value of diversity.
My central question here is -What would a collection development program that was brave and noble and based on a deep commitment to diversity look like? I can tell you what I don’t think it would look like – I don’t think it would be based on popularity, I don’t think it would eschew books on obscure topics written for niche audiences, and I don’t think it would relegate the least used items to off-site storage.
Selecting based on use strikes me as an essential passive collection development philosophy. It is ceding our role in promoting diversity, and it is saying that we are OK with the scholarly and cultural heritage we preserve being decided by popularity contest.
And not just because any individual library doesn’t collect the rare, the obscure, and the small market stuff. Because I know many of you believe that someone (and by someone, most librarians mean the big libraries like Stanford, Yale, Harvard, Michigan, etc.) will collect it and through the magic of shared print agreements and InterLibrary Loan, every book will somehow find at least one home and be preserved and available to all.
But we also have to think about the opportunity costs of libraries no longer buying niche titles. Opportunity cost is a term from micro-economics that refers to the costs of choices we don’t make. In the days when library budgets were a bit fatter, and academic libraries were ranked almost entirely based on the number of volumes on shelves, there was a sort of collections arms race that ensured that there was a reasonably healthy market for most scholarly publications. But if libraries commit to only buying those titles likely to be most popular, then we eliminate the market for less popular books. We need to be very cognizant of the fact that we are not passive players in the publishing ecosystem. We can’t just sit back and buy books based on popularity or presumed popularity and pretend that those decisions don’t affect the kinds of books that get published, the kinds of topics that get studied, and the kinds of authors that get book contracts. I’m not an economist, but it is clear to me that shared collecting programs will limit demand in a way that it is bound to effect supply. If publishers know that only books destined for heavy use are likely to be purchased by more than a handful of libraries that is absolutely going to affect what they are willing to publish.
I’m arguing then, that we need to aggressively collect diverse literatures, on niche topics and by authors from underrepresented groups, not just so that our individual collections reflect our stated commitment to diversity; but to ensure that diverse voices get published and are heard and have an enduring place in the scholarly record.
As a sociologist, I just know too much about the role biases and stereotypes play in a wide range of decisions to trust that a free market approach to collection development will result in that full spectrum of resources we say we value. One of the most consistent and conclusive findings in the field of social psychology over decades of research is that stereotypes and biases affect our perceptions and evaluations of others (often unconsciously) in a incredibly wide variety of settings. I have no doubt that those biases creep into not just our selection decisions, but the reading decisions of our patrons as well.
Because let’s just be very, very blunt here — when we talk about not “wasting our money and our space” on obscure books no one will read, we’re not just talking about books on minute aspects of ancient Sumerian culture. No, we often use examples like “poetry by Irish-Puerto Rican lesbians” or “studies of hegemonic masculinity in Hawaiian cock-fighting”. I get to use examples like these because my wife is a proud Irish-Puerto Rican and I’m mentoring a PhD student whose research is, in fact, a study of hegemonic masculinity in Hawaiian cock-fighting culture. My point here is that focusing on what is popular and heavily used almost always means leaving out works by people of color, by indigenous peoples, by women, by queer people, and just generally by people who are not like us.
But this isn’t about calling for a kind of affirmative action plan for collections development; it is really about recognizing and embracing our role in representing and shaping the scholarly conversation — now and for future generations.
In response to a draft of this talk that I shared with her, my colleague Bess Sadler called my attention to the Catch-22 happening with Wikipedia right now, where a group of people who care about inclusiveness are trying to ensure that women scientists are represented in Wikipedia. There is a well-documented problem of female scientists being overlooked in science reporting, so a set of folks are trying to turn this around by writing Wikipedia entries on female scientists. But the articles keep getting deleted because the scientists in question aren’t considered “significant” enough. Why aren’t they considered significant? Because women scientists are often overlooked in science reporting and writing — because they are considered insignificant! It really is an insidious cycle.
Bess goes on to lament that “The majority-rules structure of wikipedia editorial policy makes me despair of ever seeing this resolved.” But then she actually poses a way out, when she went on to write: “It seems to me that libraries, where we have the option of doing conscious collection development, are an opportunity to broaden the voices that get recorded in the historical record.”
This is one of those places where I can brag about the fact that Stanford Libraries are trying to do something about this.
We recently completed a multi-year international collaboration on a project to produce a digital version of the archive of eighteenth-century Italian scientist, Laura Bassi. Making these archives available on the open web, to researchers across the globe helps insure that her accomplishments are documented and that her contributions to physics and other scientific fields are not overlooked. What we chose to collect, and what we chose to digitize has consequences for how fields of scholarship are represented and understand by today’s scholars.
Another story on this point comes from a forum I attended in November on the Global Dimensions of scholarship and Research Libraries, Laurie Patton, Dean of Arts and Sciences at Duke University and a scholar of South Asian history, culture, and religion, gave a talk titled “If my library had the book, sir …” The title comes from an incredibly compelling story that illustrates another part of my point. The story goes like this:
At a conference on South Asian history and culture, a Hindu scholar from a small college in India gave a paper on family relationships in Vedic texts. At the end of her talk, she was criticized by a western scholar for not referencing the most recent publication from America on her topic. The Hindu woman explained calmly that her College’s library could not afford to buy the book saying “if my library had the book, sir … i would have cited it. But that book would have represented too high a percentage of my library’s budget”.
In telling the story, Patton concludes that “The imbalance of intellectual resources is endless, partly because libraries in Europe and America have not bought Indian vernacular language works, and partly because libraries in India cannot afford to buy books produced in the West. “
But the story actually has a sort of happy ending — the Hindu scholar eventually published a book on her topic, in which she carefully explained how western scholarship on the subject was lacking because it failed to account for all the research coming out of non-western countries.
Scholarship and research have the power to advance our knowledge and understanding of the world, but any given scholar can only build on the information and prior research that is available to her. This means the role of the library is pivotal.
We have enormous power over the direction scholarship takes by selecting whose shoulders future scholars will stand on. And not to get too Spiderman on you, but with that power comes responsibility. Responsibility to live up to our values, and resist the urge to let use and popularity drive all of our collection decisions.
So what and how we collect affects what gets published and therefore what gets collected and preserved. Our decisions have consequences beyond our local collections and our local communities, and we are not passive players in the eco-system of academic publishing.
If we just give the patrons what they ask for, we are not only abdicating our professional judgment, but we are also, in my opinion, missing a really important opportunity to enact our stated values.
As we think about ensuring a diverse collection, it is also critical that we recognize that books are not just for reading anymore. The rise in digital humanities and text mining research means that books and the words within the books (and the words in journals and newspapers and all kinds of text-based forms) are now being used as data by scholars. The best scholarship is done when the corpus of data being used is as representative and complete as possible.
The kinds of research questions that can be asked by today’s scholars because the words in the books have now become data, can only be answered because of the sheer size and comprehensiveness of the corpus.
For example, there is a graduate student at Stanford who is using a dataset of Portuguese language publications in the public domain from Google Books and from HathiTrust as a means of tracing the evolution of Brazilian Portuguese, and therefore contributing to our understanding of how languages change and evolve. I suspect many of the books that are part of his dataset have rather dismal circulation histories. Frankly, our old Portuguese language books have never really been our hottest sellers.
But the point is this — If libraries like Stanford had only collected and preserved books with immediate and measurable use, the ever growing corpus of digitized texts would be even more skewed and biased than it already is.
Another way we need to be sure we enact our values is in the agreements we sign for digital content. The content we acquire is for research, and today’s research methods include text-mining and other digital humanities methodologies. We absolutely have to negotiate contracts that include the right for libraries to download content and make it available for scholars to text mine. A colleague of mine pointed out to me just this week that unless you are willing to walk away, you’re not negotiating, you’re simply having a discussion. The willingness to walk away from a contract is what makes it a negotiation. A willingness to do so in defense of values of access, diversity, preservation, and social responsibility would also make it very brave.
There are other ways we can influence how our collections get used, and what circulates. Again, we are not passive players here — we have the ability and the responsibility to influence the outcomes.
For example, at Stanford, and at many of our peer institutions, we are running out of space for collections on campus and are wrestling with developing guidelines for what stays on campus as part of our core campus collection and what gets sent to off-site storage, where items are usually available for paging only, but not for physical browsing or for immediate access. As far as I can tell, almost every major library is using circulation as their main criteria, meaning that the books that have low circulation stats are sent to storage, while more heavily used books get the prime on-campus real estate.
I wonder if we might have that backwards.
Now I know it is not very cool anymore to talk about browsing and serendipity, but I’m going to talk about it anyway. I often hear people say they don’t believe in serendipity, which I find sort of puzzling. Serendipity is not like Big Foot. Accounts of serendipity are verifiable and well-documented. You can’t really not believe in it. Serendipity actually exists and actually happens. People really and truly do find unexpected books by browsing in book stores and in library stacks. But I will admit that serendipity is probably not how people find the most popular, most heavily used books — those are the books people already know about. So why not use that prime browsable real estate for books that would most benefit from browsing? What if we let patrons request the heavily used books online — and let them discover the hidden, underused treasures in our collections by wandering the stacks?
There are other ways we could encourage and influence broader, more diverse use of our collections.
For example, we do a small topical book display at our main library every month. We give this display a prime location on the 1st floor, very close to the entrance. We pick a topic and pull about 30 books from the stacks to put on display. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure how the topics or the titles are selected for display — I suspect it is highly idiosyncratic based on the tastes and sensibilities of the librarian in charge of that month’s display.
This past month, our display was all about Zombies! I decided to look at some circulation statistics to see whether our display affects circulation. Of the 28 zombie books on our display table, 18 of them were checked out during the month they were there. That’s a 65% circulation rate. In 1 month. Now, I know you’re thinking, well sure … everyone loves zombie books. But another key stat here is that 8 of those 18 titles that circulated had never circulated before. And some of them have been sitting on the shelves for over 10 years without circulating.
So here’s an idea — what if we selected some titles to put on display precisely because they never circulated? Imagine a display that combined popular titles with low use titles? I’m thinking we could call it Hot Titles and Hidden Gems — because who doesn’t like finding a hidden gem? We are going to try that back at Stanford soon, so stay tuned to see how it works.
But, as I emphasized earlier, I’m not sure use alone — especially of zombie books — is such a great way to measure the value and impact of our collections.
When we look at Stanford Libraries’ circulation numbers, the Lord of the Rings DVD set would seem to yield the highest return on our collection investments – since it is our most heavily circulated item in the last 5 years. But one clear pitfall of using circulation as a key measure of value is that such an approach would lead us to overvalue Lord of the Rings and undervalue collections like our historical newspapers or our various microfilm collections. But I think we need to consider not just raw use, but the impact of use.
If we care about actual impact on research, we might want to look at historian Richard White’s recent book Railroaded, a Pulitzer finalist book described as “A myth-shattering book that shows how reckless but influential railroad corporations in the late 19th century often profited by failure as well as success.” Many reviewers also note that White’s careful analysis of this historical period holds some valuable lessons for our current economic times.
White relied heavily on archival materials rarely used by others, and on dusty reels on microfilm that he may well have been the first to pull out of the file cabinets. The centrality of the archives to White’s research is acknowledged, quite literally, in the beginning of the book where he thanks Stanford University Archivist Maggie Kimball, and the head of our Media Microtext Center, Jim Kent.
White goes on to note that “a great part of the pleasure of writing this book has been the time it allowed me to spend in the archives. The paradox of archives is that there, among the relics of the dead, the past seems most vital and alive.” And this was way before our Zombie exhibit!
I love that this example also highlights the long-term nature of library-related research, and the often delayed impact of our efforts.Books take a long time to write and the delay between research and eventual publication is usually many years. In this case, Maggie and Jim, the librarians acknowledged in this Pulitzer finalist book, had both long since retired before the publication of Railroaded.
This example also hints at an alternate measure of the value of libraries and librarians. I would argue –actually, I have often argued — that acknowledgments of libraries and librarians in published materials constitute one of the most powerful and direct measures of our impact on scholarship. And I’ve been thinking for a while that it is something we should try to figure out how to do.
So, in preparation for this talk, I asked one of our awesome new librarians, Jacque Hettel, how she thought we might be able to do something like this.
And as a proof of concept, she came up with this comparison of mentions of Stanford Libraries vs mentions of UC Berkeley Libraries in book acknowledgments over the last 10 years, based on searches in Google books and Google Scholar. Now Stanford v. Cal is kind of a big rivalry, so I’ll be honest that I was hoping the data would show a more profound Stanford advantage, but that’s OK. There are all kinds of caveats to this data. Two of the most obvious are that Google is not a comprehensive dataset, and that the search terms we used probably didn’t capture every mention of either library and certainly didn’t capture every mention of librarians from each school.
None the less, I think there is considerable potential here in developing an alternate metric for assessing value and certainly for telling stories about our value and even our values.
And there is so much more we could do with a dataset of acknowledgements — one of the things I noticed in reading through the Stanford acknowledgements was that some authors acknowledge just the library, while others, like White, acknowledge librarians by name. I wonder whether there are certain disciplines more likely to benefit from personal interaction with librarians than others? We could certainly compare the content of acknowledgments by subject as one way to learn more about that.
The other thing that stood out to me in the text of the acknowledgements was the number of times multiple libraries are acknowledged, and the number of times InterLibrary Loan departments and staff are thanked. Jacque is already talking about gathering this kind of data for a larger set of libraries and developing a network diagram to visualize relationships between libraries, authors and subjects. And then of course, there is the fact that these acknowledgements tell true stories about the value of libraries to scholarship — I suspect we are likely to find a way to incorporate these true stories into our website and other outreach materials.
Here’s the part where I promised I would throw in a practical idea or two, so here they are:
- Consider keeping your low use books on campus, and highlighting them as Hidden Gems to see if they find users
- Collect and analyze your library’s acknowledgements, and use them in outreach and public relations efforts – I promise you that you will find some great stories.
Speaking of acknowledgements, let me finish up by acknowledging the colleagues who helped me put together this talk. I’m fortunate to work with a whole team of rock stars back at Stanford, and these particular stars deserve special recognition for their help with this presentation:
Let me also acknowledge that it is clear from the talk titles on the agenda for this conference that some of what I have said would fall under the category of preaching to the choir. It is clear that many of you are thinking about some of the same issues I’ve talked about and are looking for new ways of asserting and measuring our value. I’m really very excited to hear the rest of the presentations, and expect that there are some great conversations to be had.
Finally – I will admit to being especially intrigued by the Angry Birds presentation coming next and also happy that I got to go first — who wants to follow a presentation on Angry Birds? But, I do want to offer a response to the question “Should we collect Angry Birds?”
A medieval studies scholar at Stanford recently tweeted this gorgeous image from a manuscript in our collection, with the note “this is the original Angry Bird”. So my response to Should we collect Angry Birds? is Of course we should — we always have!