Search Results for 'serendipity'

An adventure in blended serendipity

I subscribe to over 60 blogs via Google Reader, and I try to scan through the headlines a few times a day. Dan Cohen’s blog is one I almost always stop to read in full. Yesterday, I read his post Reading and Believing, and immediately went searching for the 2 books he mentions: The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction and Thinking, Fast and Slow.

My first stop was SearchWorks, where I found an available copy of The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction in the stacks just two floors up from my office. (Alas, Thinking, Fast and Slow is on reserve at the Law Library, and on order for the Business Library, so I might decide to download the Kindle edition).

I texted myself the call number from SearchWorks, and headed upstairs to get my book and start reading. As I was heading back down to my office, I start to skim the Introduction (only later realizing that reading and walking at the same time — on stairs no less — could have ended badly).

Right there on the first page, Jacobs mentions the Mortimer Adler classic How to Read a Book. I haven’t read Adler since my first year of teaching at USMA in 1994, so I immediately decided I wanted to re-read it.

iStanford results for How to Read

SearchWorks results on iPhone

I stopped halfway down the stairs, pulled out my iPhone, opened up iStanford, clicked on the Library app, found the record for How to Read a Book, and headed back to the stacks to retrieve it.

I was not planning on checking out any books yesterday, but a combination of RSS feeds, blogs, iPhone apps, and words in a printed book led me to two books to take home, and one to download.

For me, yesterday’s adventure in blended serendipity is a very good reminder not to get sucked into the either/or debates about serendipity and online vs. physical browsing/discovery. It doesn’t have to be just one or the other … in this case a nice combination of tools and methods worked just fine.

Toward a theory of Serendipity

What follows are some of my developing ideas on browsing and serendipity. I’m not really convinced of any of it, but it helps my own thinking to write it down, and hopefully get feedback …

The OED defines serendipity as “The faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident. Also, the fact or an instance of such a discovery.”

To me, this implies that instances of serendipity vary along at least 2 dimensions — How happy they make you, and how unexpected they are. If we limit the discussion to serendipity in the service of research, then we can think of “how happy they make you” as “how useful they are.” So, two essential qualities of serendipity are usefulness and unexpectedness. The holy grail of serendipity is the essential, but wholly unexpected discovery. Most of our serendipitous discoveries fall somewhere short of that on one or both dimensions.

Since social scientists love 2 x 2 tables, I think one is called for here:

Dimensions of Serendipity
Low Usefulness High Usefulness
Low Unexpectedness Why Bother? Only slightly off the beaten path but essential to your research agenda
High Unexpectedness Nice reference to show you are thinking broadly, but not essential to your main research agenda Holy Grail of Serendipity

Thinking about serendipity in this way helps me get past the simplistic debate over whether print browsing or online browsing is better for serendipity.
The more interesting question for me is: What conditions are likely to produce what kinds of serendipity?
If we think about the relationship between browsing and serendipity, one reasonable set of hypotheses might be:

H1: The larger the body of materials being browsed, the higher the degree of unexpectedness.
H2: The more ordered/organized the body of materials being browsed, the lower the degree of unexpectedness.
H3: The larger the body of materials being browsed, the higher the likelihood of discoveries with low usefulness.
H4: The more ordered/organized the body of materials being browsed, the higher the likelihood of discoveries with high usefulness.

I also think that organization trumps size, in that organization can mitigate the effect of size on degree of usefulness. Thus, browsing a very large, highly organized collection is likely to produce highly unexpected and highly useful serendipity.

Of course, another critical part of the relationship between browsing and serendipity is the browser herself. As Pasteur said “In the field of observation, chance favours only the prepared mind.”

Based on what I said above, I might expand/revise this to say: “Serendipity favors a highly prepared mind, browsing a large, well-ordered collection.”

Stay tuned … more later.

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More on serendipity and browsing

If serendipity really is about finding the unexpected, then online browsing might be more likely to facilitate the truly unlikely findings than print browsing, simply because the set of possible discoveries is much less limited in the online world than in the physical. If I am browsing in a library or a bookstore, I am limited to what is in the physical building. If I am browsing through a physical newspaper, I can only discover what is in the issue I happen to have at hand. When I am browsing online, I frequently end up far afield from where I started.

The xkcd folks illustrate this best:

My personal experience is that I am much more likely to make fruitful, serendipitous discoveries through online browsing and social media connections than I am when I browse print materials or collections. I “wander” more when I am online, willingly following links that lead me in unexpected directions. I am a bit less likely to wander around bookstores or libraries, and I often recycle certain sections of the newspaper without even looking at them. I am much less patient and less adventurous in the print/physical world. Perhaps it is because the effort involved in following a link seems to be much lower than in wandering down the next aisle in a bookstore, or even flipping through a usually neglected section of the paper. Abbot argues that efficiency is the enemy of serendipity, but I am not convinced. YMMV, but I stick by my assertion that serendipity can and does occur in online environments.

And another thing-since I am online nearly 24/7, with Tweetdeck open and checking Google Reader and Facebook frequently, I am browsing and discovering new information constantly in the online world. In the physical world, I browse the newspaper once a day, and browse in a library or bookstore once a week or less.

Couching a defense of print collections on a fear of losing serendipity just doesn’t strike me as a very convincing argument. Serendipity happens online. If there is a particular kind or quality of serendipity that happens only in the print world, we need to be specific about it so we can either replicate (or even enhance it) online, or so that we at least know what it is we might be losing.

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Print has no monopoly on serendipity

Lot of folks claim that serendipity will be one of the casualties of the coming digital library–where more and more content is available online, and print collections are moved to non-browsable, off-site storage facilities. In The Traditional Future (PDF), Andrew Abbott goes so far as to argue that “browsing and the consequent production of serendipitous insight are a constant presence in library work, not an exceptional one.” Abbott goes on to argue that the “technologization of library practices are either neutral or harmful to the enterprise as it has been conducted” (emphasis mine).

The problem with these arguments is that they assume that serendipitous discovery happens only in print, and will be eliminated, or greatly reduced in an online environment. That has certainly not been my experience. The joys of online serendipity are described well in the New York magazine article, In Defense of Distraction.

Abbott argues that the value of physically browsing the stacks is in finding items one wasn’t looking for in the first place; which perfectly describes most of my online browsing. Or, as the author of In Defense of Distraction notes, “Isn’t blowing a couple of hours on the Internet, in the end, just another way of following your attention? My life would be immeasurably poorer if I hadn’t stumbled a few weeks ago across the Boston Molasses Disaster.”

There is no doubt that serendipity is an important and a fun part of research and scholarship. But it is not limited to print materials. As Steven Bell notes in Serendipity and the Digital Library, we just need to make sure we “inject the value of serendipitous discovery into our research resources” as we develop the tools and environments of the future library. And as @jmiles notes, we also need to ensure that we teach the next generation of scholars the art of digital browsing.

As a postscript, the motivation for this post came about through a classic case of online browsing and serendipity. Like most cases of serendipity, I don’t recall all the details of the trail I followed, but it went something like this — Someone I follow on Twitter retweeted something interesting with a hashtag for #calicon09. I decided to follow the conference tweets, and stumbled on (and joined in on) a mini-discussion of #serendipity.

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The Neoliberal Library: Resistance is not futile

Here is the text of the talk I gave at Duke University Libraries on January 14. As usual, the questions & discussion were better than the talk. Also, please check out the partial list of sources for this talk.

 

As a Duke alum, I really wish I could ease into this talk with tales of roaming the stacks in Perkins way back when.  But unfortunately, they would be just tales … and rather tall ones at that. I have to admit that I just didn’t spend much time in the library as an undergrad. I just wasn’t that kind of student.

I was here from 1983-1987, or as my classmates and I refer to it – the time of Johnny Dawkins, Jay Bilas, Mark Alarie, Tommy Ammaker and Danny Ferry. I spent way more time in Cameron and in Krzyzewskiville than in Perkins.  I guess I’m just a late bloomer when it comes to my love of libraries.

The first Krzyzewskiville, 1986. From Kimberly Reed's Krzyzewskiville Collection

The first Krzyzewskiville,
1986. From Kimberly Reed’s Krzyzewskiville Collection

I actually thought about using this talk as a way to share some ideas about how academic libraries could reach students like me … but I’m not sure I have any ideas that Duke isn’t already implementing. I love the Crazy Smart campaign, the Library Party, and the awesome study breaks you all host.

So I really don’t have anything to say to y’all about how to get students like me to use the library.  I’m certain that if I got a second chance to be a Duke undergrad, I would hang out at the library all the time – heck, I want to hang out here all the time now. And just in case there is anyone here who was part of the library back in the 1980’s, trust me when I say it was me, not you.

So I know the topic is “Research Libraries and different clientele”, but I hope you will indulge me as I take this topic in a perhaps unexpected direction. In some ways it would be easy to use the topic to talk about how we ought to design our services and collections to serve the different needs of undergraduates, graduate students, faculty — even alumni and donors and the general public.

Another obvious direction for this talk, especially given my interest in diversity and social justice, would be to talk about different clientele in terms of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender and other forms of social difference. After all, librarianship remains nearly 90% white and over 80% female; while the projected college student population for 2021 is expected to be 58% white, and 58% female , with 17% of students being African American, 17% Hispanic, & 7% Asian/Pacific Islander.

So it might be easy to talk about how librarianship needs to address it’s own lack of diversity if we want to have any hope of reflecting and serving an increasingly diverse clientele.

But I decided to take the topic in a perhaps unexpected & decidedly more theoretical direction, because I think the future of research libraries depends on librarians making conscious choices about what a library is and who and what we serve.

So let’s talk first a bit about the whole notion that libraries, and universities, have clients – a concept I am frankly not very comfortable with and would like to challenge a bit.

It is true that our students, and their parents, are in fact increasingly approaching college with the expectation of gaining the marketable skills and credentials they need to compete in the job market.  Faculty mostly see us as their buying agent – they want us to provide access to the research materials they need for their research and they then want us to buy their books and the journals they publish in.  The university administration wants us to run ourselves more efficiently (“like a business”), and in some cases want us to find ways to turn some of our services into cost-recovery or profit centers.

The current reality for many research libraries certainly lends itself to thinking of our users and stakeholders as clients or even customers. We have the goods and services they need, and the whole system works best when we find the most efficient way to deliver those goods & services. And, of course, since everyone knows that academia is hopelessly inefficient; we must look to the business world for models of how to best serve our customers and to the “start-up” culture of silicon valley to learn how to innovate.

Shenanigans

Shenanigans, by flickr user binkmeisterrick

Well, if you have read any of my previous writings, you know how I feel about that.  I call shenanigans on that approach to libraries and the future of libraries. It is a philosophy that is (sometimes consciously, sometimes unwittingly) steeped in neoliberalism, and it embodies a definition of libraries that is at odds with my understanding of the core values of our profession – values like Democracy, Diversity, the Public Good, and Social Responsibility.

So what I really want to talk about is my belief that Neoliberalism is toxic for higher education, but research libraries can & should be sites of resistance.

To do that, it would probably be good to define neoliberalism. What is neoliberalism?

There are plenty of definitions – but I like this one from Daniel Saunders, who defines neoliberalism as “a varied collection of ideas, practices, policies and discursive representations … united by three broad beliefs: the benevolence of the free market, minimal state intervention and regulation of the economy, and the individual as a rational economic actor.”

Neoliberal thinking emphasizes individual competition, and places primary value on “employability” and therefore on an individual’s accumulation of human capital and marketable skills.

A key feature of neoliberalism is the extension of market logic into previously non-economic realms – in particular into key social, political and cultural institutions.

We can see this when political candidates promote their experience running a successful business as a reason to vote for them, and in the way market language and metaphors have seeped into so many social and cultural realms.

For example, Neoliberalism is what leads us to talk about things like “the knowledge economy”, where we start to think of knowledge not as a process but as a kind of capital that an individual can acquire so that she then can sell that value to the market.

This is where I pause to ask if you have heard the joke about the Marxist and the Neoliberal? The Marxist laments that all a worker has to sell is his labor power. The Neoliberal offers courses on marketing your labor power.

The Neoliberal joke

The joke about the Marxist & the Neoliberal

So OK, Neoliberalism is a thing, a pervasive thing, and it includes the extension of market language, metaphors, and logic into non-economic realms – of special concern to us is the extension of neoliberal market frameworks into higher education and into libraries.

And it is really important to remember that one of the really insidious things about ideologies as pervasive as neoliberalism is that we barely notice them – they become taken for granted the way a fish doesn’t know it is in water, or the way many of us Dukies assume an obsession with college basketball is normal.

Obviously, I think this is a bad thing – not the obsession w/ college basketball, of course — but  the neoliberal encroachment on education.

I am one of those hopeless idealists who still believes that education is – or should be – a social and public good rather than a private one, and that the goal of higher education should be to promote a healthy democracy and an informed citizenry. And I believe libraries play a critical role in contributing to that public good of an informed citizenry.

So the fact that the neoliberal turn in education over the last several decades has led to a de-emphasis on education as a public good and an emphasis on education as a private good, to be acquired by individuals to further their own goals is of particular concern to me.

In the neoliberal university, students are individual customers, looking to acquire marketable skills. Universities (and teachers and libraries) are evaluated on clearly defined outcomes, and on how efficiently they achieve those outcomes.  Sound familiar?

We can find evidence of this neoliberal approach in plenty of recent trends in higher education – which are almost shocking in how blatantly they rely on a market model of education. The penetration of neoliberal thinking in higher education is so pervasive that it is no longer just market metaphors – colleges recruit students with blatant appeals to their economic self-interest and the mainstream argument for a strong education system is that it is an economic imperative – that we, as a nation, must invest in education in order to compete as a nation in the global economy.

As an example – This very recent article on fastcompany.com – Does Ikea hold the secret to the future of college? – reads almost like a parody of an unabashed, uncritical, unselfconscious neoliberal approach to higher education.

In discussing his enthusiasm for bringing his special brand of for-profit eduction to Africa, one educational entrepreneur explains, “There are a lot of young people in Africa who could be Steve Jobs”.  It is no mistake that the justification for bringing “higher education” to Africa rests on the image of one of the richest & whitest men in America — someone who also happens to be a college drop-out, by the way.

In the article, the founder of First Atlantic University freely admits that he started this for-profit, blended learning institution in Africa as a solution to the hiring problems that his microelectronics firm is having. The real problem here is not that this dude has created a for-profit job training program that provides not only direct financial benefit to him but also provides a pipeline of future employees trained to meet his company’s labor needs … the problem is in calling that education instead of job training.

But it isn’t only the new for-profit universities that privilege corporate interests and the production of new workers.

All across the spectrum of higher education, including at institutions like ours, resources are shifting towards standardized market-driven curricula and programs and towards producing not the next generation of critically engaged citizens but rather the next generation of entrepreneurs.

Research libraries are, of course, not immune to the effects of neoliberal thinking and policies. I see it seeping into just about everything we do, and I hope we can talk about where you all see it (or not) and what we might do to resist it.

So, let me seed the conversation with a few of my own observations about the neoliberal influence on various areas of research libraries.

In terms of instruction & reference, neoliberal thinking tells us that information literacy provides students with a discrete set of skills (which we can easily measure and assess) that will help them on the job market.

Neoliberal thinking tells us a successful reference “transaction” provides the patron with the most efficient answer to their immediate information need. Neoliberal thinking mocks the idea that library instruction and reference might be about encouraging students to think critically not only about their own information consumption but also about the whole system of knowledge creation & access, and about who controls how we search and what we find. Neoliberalism scoffs at the idea that librarians ought to encourage browsing and serendipity and other forms of “inefficient” research and learning.

Neoliberalism frames this as a contrast between giving patrons what they want vs what giving them what we think they need. That formulation is a rhetorical strategy that makes librarians sound like condescending bunheads who aren’t hip to what the kids need.

What I want to suggest is that we can and should resist that rhetoric – both because it is incredibly sexist and ageist and because the tension is not between what our patrons ask for and what we want to give them; the tension is between a neoliberal, transaction model of library services and a model based on the mission of promoting critical thinking and equipping students to interrogate power and authority.

Neoliberalism has also really seeped into the way we think about collection development. We have become obsessed with measuring the value (defined almost always in terms of use only) of every item in our collection so that we can pare down our collection to its leanest, most efficient form. We are assigning actual dollar values to how much it costs to keep a book on a shelf, so that we can prove how much money our shared print storage programs save us … with no real consideration given to the non-monetary benefits of having large world-class print collections, on many topics and in many languages, in one location.

In many cases, we’ve also turned over collection development to the market by signing on to Patron Driven Acquisitions programs that essentially signal that we trust the free market to build our collections.

Neoliberalism has affected library staffing models as well. Whatever you think of faculty status for librarians (and my thoughts on that issue are constantly evolving), there is no denying that the erosion of faculty status and job security for librarians is tied to the same neoliberal emphasis on cost-cutting that is leading to the adjunct crisis across higher education.

Finally there is our obsession with assessment, and with justifying everything based on statistics and ROI or Return on Investment. I actually have a whole talk on why the ROI paradigm is a bad fit for libraries, so let me just say that it isn’t assessment per se that is a problem in libraries – it is the fact that we rarely measure things that actually matter (or should matter to us), and we rarely know how much of what we are measuring we are looking for.

But I guess the real question is Where should we go from here?

Dog in truck asks Where now?

Where now? Photo credit Katie Young & Liz Gaudet

I’m not entirely sure, but like any good entrepreneur, I have a 3 step plan to get us started.

The first step is awareness. I urge librarians to critically examine the philosophical underpinnings of our own policies and programs. Read the works of critical scholars who call attention to the “scourge of neoliberalism” affecting higher education and ask yourselves where is that manifest in my own work?

Where is it manifest in the work of the thought leaders of librarianship – those who offer roadmaps for the future of academic libraries that involve thinking like start-ups and ceding responsibilities for general collections to the marketplace?

Step 2, if you agree that the values of librarianship compel us to resist the corporatization of libraries, is to find allies – amongst our own profession and across the academy. This is both harder and easier than one might think. Quite frankly, precious few of the dominant voices in academic librarianship speak from a progressive, critical, radical stance. I suppose in some ways that is to be expected – voices of resistances rarely emanate from the center. But once you decide to actively seek those voices, it doesn’t take any exceptional library sleuthing skills to find them. You can quite literally google “progressive librarian” and you can find both a journal and a tumblr by that name. “Radical librarians” turns up some great stuff too. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Library Juice Press, which is publishing top-quality work by and for librarians who want to engage in a more critical analysis of our profession and our institution, and who want to engage in a radical praxis of librarianship based on commitment to democracy, social justice, diversity and social responsibility.

Step 3: Do something. Collect archives simply because inclusion and social justice demands that works and archives of marginalized peoples are just as important (perhaps more so) as those of prominent, mainstream men and organizations. Sneak a little critical thinking into your information literacy sessions or reference encounters. Try something wildly inefficient and with no clear economic benefit.

In other words Resist – It is not futile!

Jean-Luc Picard as Locutus after Borg assimilation.

Jean-Luc Picard as Locutus after Borg assimilation, from Wikipedia article on Borg (Star Trek)

So to try to tie this all back to the original topic – Research Libraries and different clientele – I guess my whole point is really that we ought to
reconceive of our clients as not simply the undergraduates, graduate students, or faculty around us. Let’s start thinking about social justice as our client, or democracy, or an informed citizenry; and then let’s consider how our priorities and way of working might change as a result of that kind of thinking.

Beyond measure: Valuing libraries

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:

Slide01

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Slide04

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.

Slide06

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.

Slide09

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.

acknowledgements

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:

  1. Consider keeping your low use books on campus, and highlighting them as Hidden Gems to see if they find users
  2. 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!

Slide22

A feminist defense of browsing

I’ve thought and written about browsing before, but ever since reading Bess Sadler’s Brain Injuries, Science Fiction, and Library Discovery talk, I’ve been thinking about browsing from a feminist perspective. My thoughts are nascent and scattered at this point — in other words, perfect blogging fodder.

In Bess’ fantastic talk she talks about the emotional aspect of physical browsing and wonders how we might recreate the joy of browsing and serendipity in our online discovery environments. I wrote about that once, but far less thoughtfully, and certainly not as eloquently.

When I read Bess’ talk, I immediately wrote to tell her how great it was, and that I thought there was room to move some of the underlying feminist epistemology of it to the foreground. I sent her a copy of Jagger’s 1989 article “Love and knowledge: Emotion in feminist epistemology” (pay wall, sorry). Next thing I know she’s reading Women’s ways of Knowing, and I’m seeing gender everywhere (like I used to, before the everyday work of managing smudged my theoretical lens).

There is something about the way feminist epistemology debunks the myth of dispassionate rationality and highlights the crucial role of emotion in the pursuit and construction of knowledge that is very relevant to the work we are all doing in building new discovery environments (heck, as we build new libraries writ large). It might be as simple as remembering to build joy (or at least the opportunities for joy and delight) into our environments, but I think it is more than that.

woman browsing stacks

Browsing: Not just for women!
(Courtesy of bighappyfunhouse, Creative Commons License 2.5)

The same week that Bess and I were exchanging emails about this, I ran into a female faculty member in the library. I’m a lousy conversationalist, so I said something stupid like “What brings you in here?” And this brilliant, confident, accomplished humanities faculty member sheepishly replied “I was actually checking out a real book.” She went on to apologize for her love of physical books. I reassured her that I loved print books too, and that there was nothing to be ashamed of. We then had a good chat about how much you can learn, quickly (dare I say – efficiently), from browsing within a print book.

I have no data except my own observations, but it sure seems to me that there is a real gender difference in how scholars talk about physical browsing and the value of print collections — especially among those who defend it. It is my observation that men tend to defend physical browsing in terms of its utility, usually based on some interplay between the arrangements of collections and their own knowledge and ability to make connections. My favorite example of this comes from Andrew Abbott’s article The Traditional Future: A computational theory of library research. Abbott argues that traditional library research is “actually a quite high-tech computational architecture that relies quite heavily on well-trained individuals.” It is as if (some) men must defend their reliance on physical browsing by constructing arguments about how it really is a “technological” approach to research. In other words, using the library is just as “manly” as using technology.

Women, on the other hand, seem much more willing to talk about how they feel about physical browsing and print books — but only after apologizing in some way, as if they know that browsing is sort of old-fashioned. Women tend to talk about the joys of browsing, the pleasure in the feel of physical books, and the delight in finding unexpected treasures in the stacks.

All of this has me troubled by our tendency (yep, I’ve been guilty myself) to dismiss talk about the value of physical browsing as merely wistful or nostalgic. There is something very real and important there, and I think shining a feminist lens on the issues is likely to help us see what it is, so that the libraries we are building for the future are inclusive of all kinds of learners, scholars, and readers; and so that our discovery environments (online and physical) are built to accommodate not just efficiency, but also joy.

(Note: And once I get around to reading it, I feel pretty certain that J. Halberstam’s Queer Art of Failure will have some insights relevant to what libraries are trying to do. I’m just hoping people smarter than me will take up the cause of writing and propagating a queer, feminist theory of libraries.)

How ROI killed the academic library

Edited to add: @jacobsberg makes the excellent point that this talk might better be titled “How ROI fails the academic library”. Despite the fact that it means giving up the allusion to this classic, I think he’s right.

I gave this talk at the ABLD/EBSLG/APBSLG Joint Meeting at Stanford University back in April and wrote about it in I think I’ve become a Feral Humanist. The theme of that conference was “Business Library ROI: Measuring Usage and Identifying Value”, so I gave an opening talk called “How ROI killed the academic library: A cautionary tale.” Barbara Fister’s recent column Let’s (Not) Do the Numbers inspired me to publish the text of the talk here. I think it is important that we take a serious, critical look at the movement towards reducing the value of academic libraries (and higher education, more generally) to a numbers game.
The talk was about 30 minutes long, so I’ve cut some stuff here; including the part where I explain why a Stanford librarian goes by “mchris4duke” on twitter.

How ROI killed the academic library: A cautionary tale

My current job with the Stanford libraries is Assistant University Librarian for Public Services – I am responsible for all the Social Sciences & Humanities libraries and librarians and for our Special Collections and University Archives. Let me tell you – that’s a lot of humanities responsibilities for a Sociologist. Especially a Sociologist from from one of the most quantitatively rigorous sociology programs in the nation at that. What I have learned from my amazing colleagues about the humanities, about humanities research, and about library support for the humanities has very much informed my evolving perspective on the future of academic libraries.

So, as you might gather from the title of my presentation, I want to talk today about my concerns about the ROI (Return on Investment) framework – especially as it applies to large academic libraries like Stanford.
For me, an ROI framework is dangerous for academic libraries for 2 big reasons:

  1. ROI tends to focus on the short-term & quantitative; and real impact of academic libraries tends to be long-term & qualitative.
  2. An ROI framework doesn’t account very well for “rare events”. And I think Academic Libraries are about, at least in part, facilitating rare events.

Let’s start with the short-term versus long-term tension.  When we talk about ROI for higher education, especially for research universities, we really aren’t talking about economic returns – at least not in any straightforward money-in, money-out kind of way– at least I hope we aren’t. Academic Libraries in the US are non-profits, so strict financial returns are not really our thing.  To understand and assess the value academic libraries bring to universities, I think you have to look at the mission of the university– which is not about making money.

Let’s look at Stanford’s mission – with the caveat that Stanford doesn’t actually have a current, officially labeled Mission Statement document. So we have to do a little archival research and look at our Founding Grant:

Founding Grant, Stanford University

Founding Grant, Stanford University

From our Founding Grant 1891, we get this nugget about the original mission of Stanford University:

Its object, to qualify its students for personal success, and direct usefulness in life;

And its purposes, to promote the public welfare by exercising an influence in behalf of humanity and civilization, teaching the blessings of liberty regulated by law, and inculcating love and reverence for the great principles of government as derived from the inalienable rights of man to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Well that should be fairly straightforward to measure, right? We just need to see if the investments we make in library services are contributing to students’ “personal success and usefulness” and whether our collection development work and our digital library infrastructure development “promote public welfare”.  That sounds easy enough, right?

I’m clearly being more than a bit facetious, but the truth is that deep down I do think that the investments we are making – in research services to students and scholars, in building deep collections, and in the development of next generation digital library tools and infrastructure do advance those original aims of the university, just not necessarily in tidy yearly increments that can be measured and reported as metrics used to gauge Return on our Investments.

But let’s see if we can find something more recent, to see if the current university administration here at Stanford give us some more measurable goals to work toward.  In kicking off the recently concluded Stanford Challenge, Pres. Hennessey articulated some goals:

“Our goal for The Stanford Challenge is nothing short of building a university for the 21st century and beyond: A university that will better serve the world through the quality, impact, and vision of its research, and through the new generation of leaders it will produce.”

We’re still talking about some really long-term and lofty goals here. Basically, we want to produce great leaders, and solve world problems. Stanford’s true purpose (and I would argue the purpose of most major research universities) is not higher graduation rates, good retention rates, or even higher employment rates for our graduates. So the returns on Stanford’s investments, or even the return on any given students’ investment in Stanford, can’t be measured that way.  Those measures won’t tell you much about how well we accomplish our actual goals – which are lofty and inspiring and long-term.

So you see, I have concerns about the ROI focus on higher education generally as well.  And as I said, a big part of my concern about the increased emphasis on ROI and Assessment in higher education is that an ROI framework tends to encourage a focus on short-term outcomes, when higher education in general; and academic libraries specifically, are in the business of pursuing and producing long-term outcomes.

That doesn’t mean that we don’t expect a return on our investment – only that it may take a very long time for those returns to be realized; and those that want us to prove our value by showing adequate returns on their/our investments must be very patient.

Academic libraries, of course, exist to further the goals of their parent institutions.  At Stanford Libraries, we support Stanford’s goals and missions by doing what libraries do – we collect, describe, interpret, share, and preserve information.

We do that in all the old traditional ways — for example, we still purchase about 120,000 physical books each year; and we logged over 628 thousand circulation transactions last year. We answer nearly 154 thousand reference questions and conduct 1000 workshops every year.

We also protect, collect and provide access to information in many new ways; as information production, discovery, use, re-use and consumption is happening in all kinds of new and innovative ways. Ways that our traditional measures of usage may not capture very well.

One example of Stanford Libraries’ innovative spirit is our involvement in the Google Books project. In 2005, we took a leap of faith as one of the original 5 libraries, agreeing to let Google digitize our collections. We did this in the hopes that getting the words inside our books indexed and therefore searchable would enhance discovery and would open up the treasures of our collection to a broader audience.  While we are disappointed in the lack of a settlement agreement, we remain pleased at the positive impact the Google Books project has had on discoverability and use of collections.

It is important to remember that the text-mining research made possible because of the enormous corpus of digital texts depended on us collecting and retaining a whole lot of books over time — and lots of those books never circulated.  Many of the kinds of research questions that can now be asked 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 here at Stanford using both Google Books and HathiTrust files of Portugese language publications as a means of tracing the evolution of Brazilian Portugese.  I suspect many of the books that make up the data for this project  have rather dismal circulation histories.  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.

In addition, I’m certain that the librarians who selected the titles that are now part of this scholar’s data never anticipated this sort of use for their selections. We need to be very cognizant of the fact that the objects we collect today (physical or digital) will almost certainly be used in ways we cannot yet anticipate. Or, as Rufus Pollock of the Open Knowledge Foundation says “The coolest thing to do with your data will be thought of by someone else” Or, as Dan Cohen, Director of the Center for History & New Media at George Mason University likes to say: “scholars have uses for archives that archivists cannot anticipate.”

OK – so any assessment of the ROI on the collections of a large academic library has to account for long-term impacts. Perhaps that is not particularly controversial to this audience, but I do hope you are all preaching this story to your university administrators.

What about library services? Surely we can apply ROI to assess the effectiveness of our reference and instruction efforts. Of course we can, but again I caution against relying on simple use statistics and short-term returns.

That said, I have already bragged about the fact that we continue to answer over 150 thousand reference questions a year, and that number is actually up from last year. But before you let me celebrate that figure – and believe me I want to and I have – let’s stop and think about what it really means?

How do the number of reference questions asked and answered help us understand our impact? Is the number of reference questions a good proxy for the effectiveness of our reference program at contributing to teaching, learning and research at Stanford? Probably a better measure than some, but still not a very direct measure. After all – one could argue that lots of reference questions just means our online tools are too confusing (they are), that our website is not particularly user-centered (it is now) or that it is hard to negotiate our stacks (it is).

Instruction is an area where I think we are doing a pretty good job at assessing our effectiveness. Here at Stanford, we have partnered closely with the Freshman writing program for many, many years – providing a designated librarian and a library tour & workshop for every first year  writing class.

When I first took responsibility for the instruction program, our only assessment of this rather significant investment of librarian time was a survey we asked the students to complete at the end of their workshop. Those surveys were nice – we usually got high marks, and most of the  librarians could use the results to learn how to improve their presentation styles (lots of us talk too fast, apparently); but those surveys told us nothing about how the workshops, and the availability of an assigned librarian, contributed to the goals of the first year writing program, or to our goals of developing students’ enthusiasm for and skill in finding and using scholarly resources.

So, we added a survey at the end of each quarter, after students have submitted their research papers. And the results are quite encouraging:

  • 99% of students use the library catalog; and although we don’t have any comparative data – we don’t withhold the workshop from a random sample of students in order to have a control group – I feel pretty confident that 99% is a much higher percentage than we would get w/o our workshops
  • The Library catalog and the Library databases were rated most useful (ahead of Google and Wikipedia)
  • Nearly 40% of students consulted a librarian about their research paper
  • Students who consulted a librarian were more likely to use Library databases and the online Research Guides, and rated the Library databases more useful than those who did not consult a librarian

To my mind, this is good data to show that our investment in instruction is paying off in terms of use of library resources and an appreciation of the value of library resources – including the librarians themselves.

The next logical step for us would be to conduct even longer term assessments – it would be great to know if the work we are doing with the freshman pays off throughout four years and beyond.

So, by now you can see that I’m not categorically opposed to library assessment or to the practice of calculating the returns on our investment. I am merely cautious about it, especially when an ROI approach leads us to focus on short-term outcomes that might be very far removed from the long-term goals we have of supporting research and learning in the service of developing educated citizens who will solve world problems. I think we need to really think carefully about the statistics that we collect and the metrics that we use, lest we start to mistake circulation or reference traffic as the goals.

This is the philosophy, in part, that drives our investments in areas like digital preservation, Digital Forensics and web archiving.

This is long-term stuff … where we are preserving and collecting “just in case”.  Digital forensics and web archiving are exercises in both digital collecting and digital preservation – both of which are long-term investments.  An example is our web archiving of Middle Eastern political sites and Iranian blogs – we happen to have researchers at Stanford using these now; but even if we didn’t, we still think there is long-term value in archiving these bits of world history.

As we continue to collect archival materials – based on our judgment about what and whose archives will have long-term value to scholars and to society – we are increasingly collecting items that are born-digital.  Email archives and drafts of articles and papers often come to the archives on hard drives or computer discs only.  And here is the key difference in investment in digital archiving and paper archiving – with fairly minimal intervention, we can take a box of letters or paper manuscripts and put them in appropriate storage conditions and trust that when we get around to processing them, they will still be usable.  This is sometimes referred to as preservation by benign neglect.

Digital preservation is hard

Digital preservation is hard

Not so with digital archives – those floppy discs we got from a Nobel laureate in physics that contain his email archives and some other “stuff” he assures us might be interesting, have to be dealt with quickly, before the data deteriorates to an unusable state. A coffee stain on a paper manuscript is unfortunate, but with the right treatment, the manuscript is still “available”, and still readable. In the case of bit rot on a digital manuscript –we are often looking at complete file loss.  So the investment in extracting, preserving, and reformatting born digital materials is often considerable.

And for much of what we collect and preserve, that investment represents a leap of faith. We are making our best guesses (as librarians and archivists always have) at what is valuable to scholars today and what will be valuable to future generations. And in the case of digital preservation, we are making our best guesses at what formats will work in the future, with the full realization that continual integrity checking and reformatting are part of the new responsibilities of digital archivists.

In addition to a willingness to patiently focus on long-term returns when assessing value of academic libraries investments, I would argue that we also need to recognize the qualitative rather than merely the quantitative nature of our contributions.

Circulation is one of the quantitative measures that I fear is way over-emphasized in many libraries and by many university administrators.

Lord of the Rings trilogy

Lord of the Rings trilogy

When we look at Stanford Libraries’ circulation numbers, the Lord of the Rings DVDs would seem to yield the highest return on our collection investments – since it is our most heavily circulated item in the last 5 years.  Now, as perhaps the only American librarian who has actually never seen nor read Lord of the Rings; I feel that I must pause here and note that I am not saying we shouldn’t have the  Lord of the Rings DVD, or that we shouldn’t be quite happy that it circulates.  I’m sure it is a fine movie,with considerable academic value. But I do have an issue with using circulation as a key measure of value, if for no other reason than it would lead us to over-value  Lord of the Rings and undervalue collections like our historical newspapers. After all,  Lord of the Rings is our most heavily circulated item, and the microfilm reels that contain the text and images from 100s of years of historic US newspapers are much less frequently used.

Railroaded by Richard White

Railroaded by Richard White

But if we care about actual impact on research, we might want to look at historian Richard White’s recent book Railroaded, which provides a new and controversial vision of the so-called Gilded Age in the US, and the impact of the Transcontinental railroads on the making of modern America.  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 acknowledgements section:

“the legendary Margaret Kimball helped me go through the holdings and find what I needed. Jim Kent, who runs the media and microfilm room at Green Library, and his staff helped me in ways probably best kept between us…”

I like this example for at least 2 other reasons:

  1. It highlights again the long-term nature of library work – as we all know, books take a long time to write. The time between research and eventual publication is usually many years. In this case, the librarians Richard White acknowledges had both long since retired before the publication of Railroaded.
  2. I think acknowledgments of libraries, archives, librarians, and archivists in published materials constitute a direct and real measure of our impact on scholarship. I don’t know of any academic library that measures and tracks acknowledgements systematically; and I’m not even sure how it might be done. But I think it is an idea with considerable potential. Of course, it works best for book based disciplines, as journal authors rarely acknowledge the library work involved in providing them access to all those prior works they read and cited.
Books still matter

Books still matter

I also want to emphasize the value of simply having a large collection of books—even if some, maybe many of them, don’t circulate.  Students and scholars benefit from being surrounded by lots of books.  Writer, editor, book reviewer Kristy Logan wrote recently about the impact of the 800 unread books on her shelves:

Sometimes I hold these books in my hands and imagine what I will learn from them. These books have affected my writing, and I haven’t even read them. Maybe we can learn as much from our expectations of a story as we can from the actual words on the page.

In the chapter titled “Library Life” in the book “Stop what you’re doing and Read this”, Zadie Smith writes of the the influential role studying in her local library had on her development as a scholar:

It was a community of individuals, working to individual goals, in a public space. It’s short-sighted to think all our goals were bookish ones. I happened to be in the library in the hope it would lead to me to other libraries, but my fellow students were seeking all kinds of futures: in dentistry, in social work, in education, in catering, in engineering, in management. We all learned a lot of things in Willesden Green Library, and we learned how to learn things, which is more important…
But I know I never would have seen a single university library if I had not grown up living a hundred yards from that library in Willesden Green.

Let me stop here and say that if you have not yet read “Stop what your’re doing and read this”, well … you should stop what you’re doing and read it.

And if these qualitative testaments don’t convince you, there is data!

The results of a 2010 cross-national study of family scholarly culture and children’s educational attainment showed that:
“Children growing up in homes with many books get 3 years more schooling than children from bookless homes, independent of their parents’ education, occupation, and class.”

My point is this – there is value to libraries and to collections that are no less real and no less impactful for the fact that they can’t really be measured. That is a hard truth for a quantitatively trained sociologist to admit, but I have come to believe it. So, yes, we should practice continual assessment and we should gather as much evidence as we can that shows the impact of our collections and services on the goals of our institutions – but we should do so with an eye towards the long-term and the big picture; lest we fall prey to measuring (and therefore doing and funding) only what is quick and easy.

So now let me turn to my real, real concern with ROI –which is that quantitative assessments will always miss one of the most important functions of an academic library – which is to facilitate the rare event. Yes, I know, how novel—a librarian talking about serendipity. But remember, I’m not a real librarian, and my belief in serendipity has developed slowly and skeptically – but I am a convert. I have come to believe that it is absolutely the responsibility of libraries to encourage, support and in all ways make possible the unanticipated discoveries that lead to new knowledge, new ways of thinking and new contributions to the cultural and scholarly record. In fact, I think providing the context in which new, unanticipated, unique discoveries, thoughts, connections, and inspirations are sparked may be the most important value-added contribution that libraries make.

Allow me to share a couple of fairly recent examples of the kind of serendipity made possible by the careful work of libraries.

In 1989, in honor of Condoleeza Rice, Walter Hewlett gifted to Stanford an autographed fragment of a musical score from German composer Robert Schumman. Some 20 years later, Frederick Moyer, a concert pianist, and his uncle, Paul Green, an engineer; tracked the score down in the Stanford Libraries, requested and received via InterLibrary Borrowing a digital scan of the score, and created the first ever playable version of Robert Schumman’s hitherto unfinished 4th sonata.

In 2010, two Harvard professors “discovered”, by scouring newspaper microfilm in the basement of the Widener Library at Harvard, two new short stories by famed Harlem Renaissance author Zora Neale Hurston. These two stories were never listed in any of the published collected works of Hurston and had not yet been studied or analyzed by other scholars.

US release date for Super Mario Bros. remains a mystery

US release date for Super Mario Bros. remains a mystery

And here’s an example of the failure of the archives (archives writ large, not any particular archive). One of the great unknowns in video game history is the U.S. release date for Super Mario Brothers. We take video game history rather seriously here at Stanford, in fact we hold one of the largest historical collections of video games in the world. The lack of careful documentation and archiving of that documentation actually represents a fairly substantial gap in the history of video gaming, as Super Mario Brothers is one of the most successful, iconic and influential video games in the history of the industry. But it is hard to confidently trace its influence on the development of the industry when historians can’t yet agree even on the year of its US release.

I’m sure many of you could provide other powerful examples of the same sorts of serendipitous discoveries of and rare uses of materials hiding in libraries. Or of missing archives that hinder scholarly progress.

And yet — in the back of my head (and perhaps in the mutterings of this very audience), I hear a little voice reminding me that “the plural of anecdote is not data”.
But let’s all remember that the fact that these accounts are merely anecdotal does not render them any less true. These stories, and countless others, represent real contributions to scholarship and to our understanding and appreciation of the world.

Serendipity by definition is a rare, unexpected, and unanticipated occurrence. But it is still real. One of the most well-known quotes about serendipity comes from the French scientist Louis Pasteur, who claimed that “in the field of observation, chance favors the prepared mind”. Surely that is true — but allow me to offer the librarian addendum that “chance also favors those with access to great libraries.”

Perhaps I have presented an overly romantic, even mystical portrait of academic libraries – and at a time when libraries and higher education are under the gun to get practical. But I guess what I am suggesting is that if we don’t defend the hard to define and even harder to measure qualitative importance of libraries, who will?

And, I suspect that many of you probably agree with me, at least in principle, that universities ought to have great libraries, with expert staff and large collections and a range of services in support of teaching and research. But of course, we all face constraints in the forms of budgets, space, and competing priorities.

So, yes, by all means find good ways to measure our contributions to the aims of higher education. But also, please, take opportunities to evangelize on behalf of the non-measurable impact of libraries – make sure your administration knows that there is value in books that aren’t read, in data that hasn’t been used yet, in archives yet to be discovered, and in the mere fact of great libraries.

My final slide. Pretty hokey, huh?

My final slide. Pretty hokey, huh?

Oldies but goodies from 2008

In honor of the four year anniversary of Feral Librarian, I’m recycling some of my favorite posts from that first summer of blogging. Turns out I was most interested in browsing, Google, and other random stuff in those early days. Turns out I still agree with some, but not all, of what my younger self blogged back then. In library-years, four years is a long time …happy to see that some of what I said stands the test of time. Happier still that my thinking continues to evolve.

What is Browsing:

So, what exactly is “browsing”? The colloquial definition seems to be about “serendipity” and finding things we weren’t looking for and didn’t know we wanted. This happens because items are ordered or grouped in some logical way…So what browsing advantages are lost in the online environment?

Browsing isn’t Random:

Because academic browsing is so selective, browsing the stacks of a large research library strikes me as a pretty inefficient way of finding items of interest. LC call # order is a lousy approximation of the kinds of similarities or relatedness that I am looking for when I browse. It seems unlikely to me that scholars find much useful material by browsing the stacks.

Google is not making us stupid, and Google still not making us stupid:

Writers have always taken extraordinary measures to separate themselves from the distractions of regular life so that they could concentrate on writing.
I will concede that it does seem to take an extra dose of self-discipline to really “unplug” for the kind of sustained concentration needed to write. Since most of us write on our laptops, the lure of online distractions is right there. But that challenge is not the same as Carr’s assertion that excessive “Googling” rewires our brains, rendering us incapable of sustained concentration.

Google did not punk us:

Apparently, by neglecting the Google Librarian Central blog, Google failed to live up to their side of the deal. And, apparently, the Google libraries were really punked, and now have some kind of obligation to the rest of the library community to call Google out on this.

Citation non-proliferation:

An old grad school classmate, James Evans, has published an article in Science that is getting a bit of attention. In Electronic Publication and the Narrowing of Science and Scholarship, Evans finds:

that as more journal issues came online, the articles referenced tended to be more recent, fewer journals and articles were cited, and more of those citations were to fewer journals and articles.

A gate with no fence:

My question is: Why do libraries want to be gateways?
A gateway implies that there is a fence, and that the gate is the only way to get through the fence to the other side.
Folks—there is no fence!

Libraries in Music:

The new My Morning Jacket CD (Evil Urges) contains a great little song called Librarian, all about unrequited love for “the sexiest librarian”. Turns out Green Day has a catchy tune called At the Library, also about unrequited love. Jimmy Buffet has a song called Love in the Library.

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