Posts Tagged 'future of libraries'

Working on the “pipeline problem” in librarianship

The lack of diversity in librarianship is stark and well-documented. Before speculating on how to change things, it seems wise to document efforts already in place. Below are some of the efforts I know of to increase diversity in MLS/MLIS programs – in other words, efforts to deal with the “pipeline problem”:

Project IDOL (Increasing Diversity of Librarians):

a collaboration between the Wayne State University School of Library and Information Science and theHistorically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) Library AllianceWSU SLIS and the HBCU Library Alliance have received funding from the IMLS Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Program to increase the diversity of the library profession.  In this 3-year project, the two partner organizations will recruit, mentor, and provide an online Master of Library and Information Science degree to 10 students from historically underrepresented groups in order to achieve greater diversity among practicing library professionals. SLIS will provide the education with its online MLIS format and the HBCU library alliance will assist with recruitment and retention through mentorship of the selected students by library professionals with senior level experience and prior mentorship training.

LAMP (LIS Access Midwest Program):

The LIS Access Midwest Program (LAMP) is a regional network ofacademic libraries and information science schools dedicated to promoting careers within the field of library and information science (LIS). The program accomplishes this goal by encouraging promising under-graduate and incoming graduate students to participate in activities and events designed to increase their awareness of the profession and provide support for subsequent graduate studies in library and information science. LAMP specifically seeks to encourage the participation of students from statistically and historically underrepresented populations in LIS.

i3 (iSchool Inclusion Initiative):

The iSchool Inclusion Institute (i3) is an undergraduate research and leadership development program that prepares students from underrepresented populations for graduate study and careers in the information sciences. Each year 20 undergraduate students from across the country are selected to become i3 Scholars. Those students undertake a year-long experience that includes two summer institutes held at the University of Pittsburgh and a year-long team research project. Although an intensive and challenging program, i3 prepares students for the rigor of graduate study and research in the information sciences. The U.S.-based iSchools value the preparation provided by i3 and actively recruit i3 Scholars to their graduate programs.

Knowledge River:

Knowledge River is a Tucson-based educational experience within the School of information Resources and Library Science (SIRLS) that focuses on educating information professionals who have experience with and are committed to Latino and Native American populations. Knowledge River also fosters understanding of library and information issues from the perspectives of Latino and Native Americans and advocates for culturally sensitive library and information services to these communities.  Since its inception, Knowledge River has become the foremost graduate program for training librarians and information specialists with a focus on Latino and Native American cultural issues. To date, over 145 scholars have graduated from this program. This was and still is a nationally unprecedented milestone that can be attributed to the outstanding support that scholars are provided with.

I’m still pretty new to looking at, writing about, and trying to work on diversity and social justice issues in/of/for libraries, and I confess that I didn’t know about these programs until recently. I thank my twitter colleagues for keeping me honest and informed. If there are programs designed to recruit, retain, and support librarians from underrepresented groups that I’ve left out, please let me know.

I also have to add that although these programs all sound fantastic and deserve support, even combined they barely make a dent in the overall whiteness of librarianship. Also, most of these programs are grant-funded. What would it take to get permanent funding for a really big, consequential diversity initiative in librarianship? I guess that is the big question.

Sitting and thinking: Some post #libtechgender panel thoughts

Born, Julius. [Portrait of Baby Sitting in Chair],  University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History; crediting River Valley Pioneer Museum, Canadian, Texas.

Born, Julius. [Portrait of Baby Sitting in Chair], University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, crediting River Valley Pioneer Museum, Canadian, Texas.

I’ve been trying to gather my thoughts in the aftermath of the #libtechgender panel at ALA Midwinter, and I’m still not sure if it is time for me to write yet. Part of me wonders if maybe I need to “sit and sit and sit and think” a bit more. Privilege and marginalization are complicated things. Trying to be a decent ally, for me at least, means never being quite sure if/when I should speak up and when I should shut up. All I can do is hope that when I speak and I should have shut up, or when I’m silent and I should have spoken up, someone will call me on it and I’ll have the humility and decency to listen and to try to make it right. So here goes …

On the one hand, I’m thrilled that there was talk of structural oppression, of white privilege, of the dangers of essentializing womanhood, and of not just gender and technology but of the gendered and racist nature of technology itself. My co-panelists Myrna Morales and Cecily Walker spoke with eloquence and passion about the kinds of substantive issues that we have to grapple with if we hope to make any headway on inequalities of and in technology and librarianship. And Myrna reminded us all that there are people and organizations (like the Community Change, Inc. and the South End Press) that have been doing movement work for a while now and that we need to learn from. Like I said in my remarks, I will never fully understand how much courage and commitment it took to be the only people of color on that panel. My love and respect and gratitude for Myrna and Cecily is endless.

On the other hand, it sucks that the threads about intersectionality and structural oppression kept just floating out there and dying, and the conversation kept veering back to personal stories and simple solutions about how individuals can behave in less sexist, racist, homophobic ways. Of course it is good for people to learn how to be less personally sexist, racist, and homophobic (oh — and also to be less freaking clueless about non normative gender presentations); but we have to move beyond that. We have to. If we don’t figure out how to tackle the structural issues that create and sustain white supremacy and heteronormative patriarchy, we will never see any real progress.

And on that whole issue of storytelling …

Like I said at the panel, and like others have said, storytelling has its place and can be a tool for healing and teaching. But enough is enough. The marginalized folks on that panel, and on twitter afterwards, made impassioned pleas for us to please move beyond the storytelling in sessions like these. And here’s what I don’t get – most of the well-meaning straight white ciswomen I know actually do want women of color, trans women, queer women, and other marginalized people to participate in these discussions and feel welcome. So I cannot fathom why when the marginalized people in the conversation say “let’s move beyond storytelling”, those same well-meaning straight white ciswomen would respond with “but I like storytelling. Please let me keep the storytelling.” Fuck that.* That right there was your chance to “sit and sit and sit and think”. And I know that smacks of silencing – but it is a different kind of thing when my silence is sometimes what is needed to try to reduce the harm done to those without the privileges I enjoy. Being silent so my sisters of color, my trans sisters, my disabled sisters, can have a voice is damn sure OK with me. In fact, I know it is something I need to practice more often.

And finally there is the whole issue of how respectfully the panelists were when we disagreed with each other. Yes, we were respectful. And for some of us, that came at a pretty high cost. I know I’m personally wondering whether I’m willing to bite my tongue so often next time. Sitting silently while others talk about gender in ways that exclude me and my sisters of color and my trans sisters is a soul-sucking experience. My hesitancy to call anyone out personally and publicly lest I look like a bully (angry dyke or mean AUL, picking on junior librarians), bumps right up against my intolerance for heteronormative, racist crap being promulgated as feminism.

To try to end on a nicer note (gender socialization is strong), I want to say how much I appreciate those straight white cisgendered women and men who are “sitting and sitting and sitting and thinking”. I’m not going to name names, because I know I’ll leave someone out by accident. I hope you know who you are. Your willingness to be humble and vulnerable, and to do your own homework, is cool; and helps me remember to do the same.

* Sorry about the language. I really am trying, but I just haven’t come up with a good clean substitute for “Fuck that” yet. I’m open to suggestions.

Gender issues panel

So I agreed to be on this panel about Challenges of gender issues in library technology that is happening in an hour or so. To be honest, I’m more than a little nervous about it. In between the time I said yes to the panel and now, ALA issued a Code of Conduct (Yay!), and there were some reactions. I really hope the panel doesn’t end up being just a big debate about the Code of Conduct. The challenges facing libraries in terms of sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and a whole host of other problems that are cause and consequence of a profession that is nearly 90% white and over 80% female are complex and go way beyond codes of conduct. I hope the conversation is as complex and wide-ranging as the issues are. The structure of the panel is such that each of the panel members gets 3-5 minutes to say something about the issues, then we open up for questions. Since I have been known to ad-lib a bit, here’s what I intend to say:

I come at this topic from a slightly different angle – I’ve never worked directly in library technology (or technology at all for that matter); but I did spend 10 years in the Army before my library career, so I do know something about working in a male dominated profession with a distinct kind of masculine culture. In addition, much of my PhD work in sociology centered on gender and sexuality, and I’ve done a bit of research on leadership and organizational diversity. Finally, I’m a senior leader at a pretty big research library – where we consider ourselves leaders in digital library innovation and where we aspire to leadership in terms of promoting gender equity in library technology.  I’m proud to say that we are working towards creating an organizational environment where everyone can thrive both personally and professionally. We aren’t there yet, I doubt we or anyone else will ever get there, but we have done some effective things that I’m rather proud of.

As many of you know, the Stanford University Libraries issued a statement last year encouraging our staff to attend only those professional conferences that had anti-harassment policies or codes of conduct. More importantly, we encouraged our staff to exercise leadership in their professional organizations by advocating for and helping create codes of conduct for conferences that did not yet have one. The story of our stance is a deceptively simple one – it started when I asked some of the women who work in library technology jobs at Stanford what the leadership team at Stanford could do to support them. One of the first and most consistent things these folks suggested leaders could do was to support codes of conduct so that all people might feel safer and more welcome when attending important professional development events. So that’s what we did.

And again, I’m incredibly proud of the stance we took, and of the fact that Stanford librarians have indeed been instrumental in promoting codes of conduct for several library & library-related conferences.

But as important as codes of conduct are, they are only one piece of what needs to be a persistent, multi-faceted approach to ensuring that not only white women and women of color, but also all people of color, trans people, queer people and other marginalized and under-represented people are recruited, mentored, retained, and supported in our profession.

We are a painfully homogenous profession – librarianship is overwhelmingly white and female, and library technology is overwhelmingly white and male. Gender bias and imbalance is a problem; but so too is racial underrepresentation. Librarianship didn’t just end up so white by accident, and it won’t change without radical and active interventions.  And I think we need to stop throwing our hands up and declaring it a “pipe-line” problem, and we need to throw our collective professional weight and expertise behind addressing those structural pipe-line problems.

And no, I don’t have specifics right now; but I know that there are people who have been working on this and who have experience and expertise to share, but whose voices we have not prioritized or amplified.  We need to do our research and we need to listen and learn.  And I trust that if we made social justice a true priority of librarianship – and not just one of our core values that we trot out from time to time – we could make some headway on creating & sustaining a more diverse workforce across libraries and library technology. But honestly, at some point we probably need to stop talking about it, and start listening and then start doing.

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.

Reading list on neoliberalism, higher education and libraries

A partial list (in no particular order) of sources I used for the talk I’m giving tomorrow at Duke on neoliberalism and research libraries (I’ll post the talk soon). Enjoy.
Anyone have other relevant readings to suggest?

Initial thoughts and feels from #taiga9

Well, that was intense; and I am exhausted.

I’m actually writing this on the plane on the way home to my wife, my kid, and my dog; and I may well decide to publish without editing as a way of capturing my own immediate, raw thoughts and feels about the Taiga Forum we just had. These are going to be my personal opinions, and I have no idea whether others on the Taiga Steering Committee share them — which is why I’m posting them here and not at Gentle Disturbances. We will be posting the notes and speaker slides and stuff over at Gentle Disturbances in the coming days.

In many ways, I’m feeling pretty proud of the work my colleagues and I did in planning and hosting the Taiga 9 Forum on Diversity in Academic Libraries. Our speakers were fantastic – I have nothing but love for Christine Williams, Courtney Young, and Mark Puente.  Ditto for Dale Askey and Jenn Riley for joining me on our morning panel; and for Amy Kautzman for kicking things off and Susan Parker for being our facilitator.

The overall discussions throughout the day were good, and I was especially impressed with the honesty and humility displayed by many who spoke up. I am especially happy and deeply grateful for the fact that the event brought people together in a room for a day who might not otherwise have connected. I have personally already reaped many benefits from new connections with some incredible people – many of whom have restored shored up my faith in the future of libraries & librarianship as radical forces for social justice.

All of the above is true; and at the same time, there are plenty of things I’ll want to do differently next time:

  • I think calling the forum Diversity in Academic Libraries contributed to a struggle I had (and many shared) with the fact that our conversations tended to stay at the personal level and we had a very hard time acknowledging and talking about systemic, structural inequalities. I’m thinking a title like “Social Justice & Libraries” would be better. Suggestions welcome. Note that I don’t think the title of the forum was the only thing that kept us from tackling structural inequality and privilege, but it didn’t help.
  • The physical set-up of the room was not good for group discussion. We had rows of chairs and a packed room. Next time, we need more space, probably tables for small groups, and structured opportunities for people to talk in smaller groups.
  • I really wish I had come to the event much more solidly prepared with some ideas for concrete action that might come out of the event. I wanted to be open-minded about that part; but truthfully that is no excuse for not having done some hard thinking ahead of time on tangible outcomes.
  • We had a keynote speaker and two panels. While we had decent diversity amongst those on the stage (a few too many of us white women, IMO), what I didn’t realize (but should have) until someone pointed it out, was that the keynote speaker and the morning panel were all white, and our only speakers of color constituted the afternoon panel. Yep – I put together an agenda on diversity that had segregated speaker panels. WTF was I thinking? That damn sure won’t happen again.
  • I’m still wrestling with the frustration voiced in Eternally at the Starting Line #taiga9. I think the gist of the frustration is captured by the question “How effective or useful is a forum on diversity if most/many participants do not have a basic grounding on the relevant topics?” I actually have no idea how many of our participants have a basic grounding in the topics, but I didn’t think that the conversations we had were dominated by the kind of counter-productive “stopping so privileged people can get educated on racism, sexism, ableism, classism, etc.” dynamic that often accompanies these topics. That crept in, but I don’t think it was pervasive.  But of course, that’s just my perspective; and it is a biased and privileged one. Others may well have experienced it differently and that’s valid.
  • It is no surprise that people came to the discussion with different levels of prior engagement with the issues, and that makes these conversations difficult and understandably frustrating for many. There absolutely are people who are still at the starting line, but/and I truly believe they want to move forward.  And I think it is important to provide spaces for them to do so (we’re librarians – we want to encourage learning, right?).  But no forum or event can simultaneously be a “Privilege & Inequality 101” classroom, and a space for organizing and acting. In hindsight, a clearer articulation of the goals of the forum might have helped with this. I wanted to do ALL THE THINGS, I guess.
  • I think I’m going to want to send out a list of readings ahead of time if/when I plan another event on these (or maybe any) topics. Better yet, start a list and ask those who are coming to the event (and others) to help build it (turns out I don’t know all the answers – or all the research).
  • Finally, next time I’ll stop saying “I’m not a hugger” every damn time I hug someone. I think if you hug more than 5 people in a day, you might be a hugger. I blame @tressiemcphd.

There’s probably lots more, but these are the thoughts and feels that are on this plane with me right now.

(Note: If anyone thinks this is me beating myself up, don’t. This is just me trying, ever so imperfectly, to learn out loud.)

Curiouser and curiouser: Librarianship in Wonderland

I was invited to give a talk to the Education and Outreach librarians at Dartmouth College in honor of the 10 year anniversary of their Education and Outreach Program.  Text and some of the slides from the talk are below:

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Laura asked me to talk today about how librarians need to position themselves in the evolving landscape of higher education. What a great topic — broad enough that I get to be a bit creative, but specific enough that to ensure that I focus.  Best of all, it is an important topic and is an issue I spend considerable time thinking about.  I appreciate the opportunity to try out some ideas about the enduring role of librarians in a rabidly changing world, and see what resonates.

The landscape of higher education is certainly evolving – at what can sometimes feel like a dizzying pace. It seems as if we just got used to the impact of the internet, when along came mobile & cloud computing, the open access movement, big data, and MOOCs.

There have been too many major changes in higher education that have affected libraries and librarians to list them all — but there are certain signals of change that stick with me as watershed moments.
Slide02

For example, when Google Books released its mobile app in 2010, we at the Stanford Libraries were pretty happy to see that our 1920 edition of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was 1 of the 3 sample books that readers received automatically when they downloaded the app. This book was scanned by Google as part of the audacious mass scanning project we embarked on with Google and 4 other libraries back in 2005.  And now this classic piece of literature was available to everyone, for free, to read on their cell phones. In many ways, this milestone represented a real triumph for the classic mission of libraries – providing access to information to as many people as possible. But it also marked another chapter in librarianships’ own adventure into a future that can seem  curiouser and curiouser by the day.

Lately, I find myself sympathetic to Alice’s bewilderment at the wholly unfamiliar antics and abilities of otherwise familiar things — Cheshire cats, talking playing cards tasked with painting rose bushes, and of course, that talking rabbit who’s constantly checking the time.

I also find it rather too easy to relate to Alice’s consternation at her own constantly shifting size in relation to her surroundings.

If we go back just 15 years to the birth of Google itself, it sometimes feels like we’ve been falling quickly down a rabbit hole, where suddenly libraries are bookless, classes don’t require classrooms, and students are running around – White Rabbit-like – reading books on their phones.

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And the role of the librarian in this wonderland of higher education can sometimes seem outsized and radically more important than ever before, while at other times we seem in danger of shrinking from view so dramatically that we may fade from the scene altogether.

Now, I don’t want to imply that librarians are scared little girls overwhelmed by an unfamiliar landscape they don’t understand and can’t control. That is far too gendered for my political tastes, and a far more passive view of librarianship than the one I embrace. But I do think there are some lessons for us (and for our patrons) in how Alice navigates the strange world she finds herself in.

Alice’s experiences are curiouser and curiouser to her, but she herself also becomes curiouser and curiouser throughout the story – trying new things, asking plenty of questions, and maintaining a healthy skepticism when things get especially absurd or unjust.

For most of the story, Alice is actually directing much of her own adventure and controlling her own size by choosing when and what to eat and drink and by learning through trial and error what works – a drink of potion to shrink, a bite of cake to grow, and a bit of both sides of the mushroom to get to just the right size.

Alice asks for help from others she encounters on her adventure, willing to learn from a talking mouse and a hookah-smoking caterpillar.

She gamely joins the Queen’s croquet match—even though it features flamingos for mallets, live hedgehogs for balls, and doubled-over soldiers as wickets.

Alice more than holds her own throughout the adventure.  Even in this strange world she shows the courage to call things as she sees them—declaring the mad-hatters tea party “the stupidest tea-party ever”, and standing up to a Queen intent of chopping off heads for any reason at all.

Like Alice, I believe that librarians are more than capable of navigating this new and changing and sometimes unfamiliar landscape; and that we can and do figure out how to be the right size depending on the context and the task at hand. We do this by embracing the adventure and by remaining curious.

And by curious I mean to invoke both senses of the word – curious as in eager to learn, and curious as in unusual or unexpected.

Before I go too far down the rabbit hole with this analogy, let me just make my point as plainly as I can:

In the evolving landscape of higher education, I believe the enduring mission and role of librarians is to remain curious and to inspire and facilitate curiosity in others.

I will freely admit that this is hardly an original thought. Those of you who read library blogs might be familiar with a blogger who goes by the pseudonym, the Library Loon. The Loon teaches in an MLS program, and in a recent blog post titled “The one skill”, she declares curiosity and the ability to satisfy that curiosity as the essential skill that all information professionals ought to possess.

More specifically, she talks of actionable curiosity in the face of novelty – that combination of desire and ability to respond to new things and to changes in the landscape with an open and teachable attitude.

Not unlike Alice’s attitude as she wandered through Wonderland, talking to animals, having tea with rabbits, gamely trying to solve unsolvable riddles, and playing croquet with playing cards.

I love this direct privileging of curiosity as the essential trait for librarianship.  The context of our work both within libraries and within higher education has changed dramatically over just the last 15-20 years, and the pace of change shows no signs of slowing down. It is hard to argue that the one enduring skill that will serve librarians well in the face of constant change is an eagerness to learn.

And, I want to take it a bit further, and suggest that for librarians who work directly with patrons, especially with students, it is not enough to possess this trait ourselves – I think it is our calling and perhaps our unique duty to model intellectual curiosity and to actively seek to pass it on to the students we encounter.

This emphasis on curiosity matches well the philosophy that guides much of what we do at Stanford – when asked in an interview for the Discovery Channel’s Curiosity project to define a Great Library, my boss, University Librarian Michael Keller noted that a great library is not necessarily one with a great big collection, but is one that stimulates curiosity and inspires the imagination.  Each library, he says is an opening point to a vast literature which is (hopefully) available somewhere. It is the librarian’s duty to open the doors to that vast world of information for those who seek it.  It is also our privilege to inspire in others the desire to seek and explore the world of resources provided by the vast network of libraries across the globe.

Let me pause here and acknowledgement that this whole talk may be an exercise in preaching to the choir.

Obviously, the importance of intellectual curiosity is already part of your culture here at Dartmouth – I love the fact that your website declares that the library is where intellectual curiosity is rewarded. And I love that part of your library vision statement is to inspire personal transformation.

Although Dartmouth and the library here are undoubtedly special, you are not unique in a focus on the importance of intellectual curiosity.  Many selective schools, like Dartmouth and Stanford, look for signs of intellectual curiosity during the admissions process. Many more include promoting intellectual curiosity as one of their goals – usually alongside other grand overarching and  transformative goals such as encouraging open-mindedness & an appreciate for diversity, fostering critical thinking skills, and developing the ability to communicate clearly and persuasively.

The bad news part of this story is that there is plenty of research suggesting that colleges are actually not doing a very good job at accomplishing any of these goals.  In the 2011 book Academically Adrift, the authors present fairly compelling evidence that most students show little to no gain in critical thinking, complex reasoning or written communication skills during college. Former Harvard President Derek Bok made similar claims in his 2007 book Our Underachieving Colleges, and again in his newest book Higher Education in America.  Although he doesn’t specifically address curiosity, Bok notes that undergraduates are not learning as much as most people think they are, and that students are making only modest progress in acquiring the key intellectual skills of critical thinking, writing, and analysis of problems.

Moreover, most students approach college as a primarily social rather than academic experience; while many of their parents and much of the American public see college as primarily serving a more narrow credentialing or job training function, rather than an expansive intellectual one. Increasingly, what students want from their undergraduate experience is marketable skills and the credentials they need to secure a decent job in today’s economy. And who can blame them?

So, in some ways, attempting to inspire intellectual curiosity in our students might seem like a fool’s errand. They aren’t really looking to be inspired; perhaps especially by librarians of all people; and even when we try, the likelihood that we would truly spark the intellectual imagination of any given student is pretty low.

Maybe I’m an idealist (actually, there’s no maybe about it, I am on record as a hopeless idealist), but I‘m arguing that we should do it anyway. We all know that it does actually work sometimes.  Many of us can perhaps point to a particularly compelling past experience with a library or librarian as part of what inspired us to careers in librarianship.  And I’m pretty confident that we all have at least one story from a student who was truly inspired by their encounter with a librarian.

I suspect I’m not the only one who prints out and keeps emails from students like this one:

I especially want to thank you for introducing me to the wonders of the library. Seriously, I never realized ever in my life how satisfying and fun it could be to do research. I would look for one book and end up coming out with five every time I went to the library. Thanks for helping me develop the skills I need for research in the future.

I don’t really believe it is a fool’s errand to seek to inspire intellectual curiosity and excitement about learning in our students. I do believe it is hard, and I suspect we succeed less often than we want to, but more often than we know.

So how do we do that? How do we inspire and facilitate curiosity in our education and outreach efforts with students?

First, I think we need to nurture and cultivate and indulge our own curiosity. And of course, that is one of the things that I love about librarians – they are some of the most curious people I know. But/and, like the Library Loon says, we have to be willing to enact that curiosity in the face of new and novel ideas and technologies. Like Alice, we need to react to a world that will continue to become curiouser and curiouser with the spirit of an adventurer.

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It might be a good time to point out that Alice willingly followed the rabbit down the hole because she was getting restless sitting on the bank with her sister. She tried reading over her sister’s shoulder but found a plain old print book to be a bit boring. She imagined that a book that was more than just words on pages might be more engaging.  Then she sees a talking rabbit with a pocket-watch, and she follows after him with “a burning curiosity”.

I think some of the best things librarians can do for the profession and for our patrons is to stay a bit restless, to imagine new modes of conveying information, and to pursue new ideas, new technologies, new ways of teaching, and new forms of scholarship with a “burning curiosity”.  I’m not suggesting we follow every new trend in higher education blindly – for me, curiosity is most effective when tempered with a healthy dose of skepticism. An eagerness to learn about something new doesn’t have to imply an eagerness to adopt it.

So the first step in inspiring curiosity is to stay curious ourselves.

The second step is to be explicit about communicating to students how much fun research and learning can be.  I’d like to encourage us to be unabashedly enthusiastic about what we do and about the joy and delight that often accompanies the pursuit of an intellectual question.  Many of today’s students may not want to hear it; some of them may think we’re crazy or giant nerds or both; but some of them will be inspired.  Teach to them. Focus on those students – the ones open to inspiration. And realize that we can’t know ahead of time which students will be the ones.  Show all of them through your own honest enthusiasm how exhilarating it can be to start with an idea or a question and to develop strategies to discover and evaluate information pertinent to that question.  Demonstrate curiosity.  When a student asks a tough reference question; or even one of those impossible ones where they believe in the existence of some data or resource that we know doesn’t exist, respond with “Well that’s an interesting question – tell me more about why you’re curious about that?”

A few months ago, my colleague Kelly Miller at UCLA shared with me a handwritten thank you note she received this June from a graduating senior who wrote “you were the first person to show a real interest in my research question and you made me believe it was important.”  Again, I know it doesn’t happen often (especially the handwritten note part!), but we can and do inspire students to indulge their curiosity. And I believe that the more explicitly we make that our intent, the more often it will happen.

So, to wrap it up – how should librarians position themselves in the evolving landscape of higher education? My own curious dream is that we position ourselves as champions of curiosity.
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Thing called Love: Further thoughts on #lovegate

I wasn’t planning on writing anything else about #lovegate, but then others chimed in (publicly and privately) with their concerns about Ithaka writer Rick Anderson’s proposal in Can’t Buy Us Love.  Some voiced reluctance to engage publicly due to the tone of some of the comments on both James Jacobs’ blog post and on Barbara Fister’s column.  Since Rick’s paper offers a proposal for a radical shift in focus for academic libraries, I think it deserves wide and open discussion. I think it is particularly important that librarians who are not (perhaps yet) in positions of senior leadership feel free to chime in on the issues addressed. As one more junior librarian expressed to me: “questions about the ‘future of libraries’ directly impact us–we’re just starting. We are the future.” I think it is important that many visions of the future of libraries are publicly discussed, in open and respectful ways.

First, I encourage everyone to read Can’t Buy Us Love for themselves. As Rick has taken pains to point out, it is quite possible that those of us who aren’t persuaded by Rick’s proposal simply don’t understand the nuances of his argument. Please read the whole paper (several times, if you need to), and don’t rely on mine or anyone else’s summary.  Note especially that although Rick uses the term “radical shift” to describe his proposal that libraries “shift our focus from the collection of what we might call ‘commodity’ documents (especially in physical formats) to … the gathering and curating of rare and unique documents, including primary-source materials”, he includes plenty of caveats at the end of his paper, including the admonition that libraries must strike the right balance for their own institution, and that for many libraries the radical shift ought to be done gradually.

Here are my thoughts on some of the issues Rick raises.

On the impact of a more efficient marketplace for “commodity” books, and how libraries ought to respond:

I agree with Rick that the market for “commodity” books has become much more efficient. The likelihood that many people can now easily find a relatively cheap copy of any given book may indeed be quite high. I don’t think, however, that this trend means “that the library’s patrons simply no longer depend on the library for access to that book in the way they once did.” I suspect our disagreement lies with who we consider “the library’s patrons”, and with just how much more efficient (and for how many people) the commodity market needs to be before libraries ought to cut back on their role in providing free access to commodity books.

James describes well  one of my primary concerns here:

“Yes, I can get “East of Eden” on amazon for a few dollars, but can I also afford to get East of Eden PLUS the various critical analyses of Steinbeck shelved (or cataloged) nearby PLUS the journal literature about Steinbeck? Can the vast majority of readers?”

 There are plenty of people for whom even a buck a book is a prohibitive enough price to discourage broad, eclectic reading.  The fact that circulation statistics are declining does not mean that there aren’t sill people who depend on the library for access to books  – and I consider those people “my library’s patrons” too. For the record, all the circulating copies of East of Eden available from Stanford Libraries are currently checked out, so apparently some patrons still rely on libraries for access to that book.

Even those of us who might theoretically have the means to purchase our own copies of all the books we might want to read are still likely to exercise considerably more frugality in what we read if less material is available via the library, and if we therefore have to base our reading decisions on financial considerations.  The fact that libraries collect, preserve, and provide access to commodity books means that the ideal of equal access to information still exists. The degree to which libraries divert resources from commodity collections is the degree to which they contribute to increasing educational inequality, as individual access to information will become more dependent on individual financial means.

Even for those of us who seemingly have the means to obtain the commodity books we might want to consult, we would likely read less broadly were fewer of those items available from libraries. I currently have 19 books checked out of Stanford Libraries. Of those 19, there are only a few that I would have purchased (even for a few bucks) if they had not been available to me through a library. I am absolutely convinced that the thinking and writing I am trying to do on a queer & feminist agenda for libraries is better because I am reading more broadly on the topic than I would if I had to pay for every book and article I have looked at.

I don’t want anyone’s research agenda or learning to be restricted because libraries prematurely decided that the market for commodity documents has become efficient enough that we can all fend for ourselves.

On opting out (or sidestepping) the scholarly communication wars:

In a section of the paper titled “Opting out of the scholarly communication wars”, Rick asserts that “A library that shifts a portion of its budget and staff time in the direction of making noncommercial documents more findable and accessible is neither undermining the existing scholarly communication system (except to the extent that it pulls collection money away from commercial purchases) nor supporting it”. For those us who had trouble understanding this argument, Rick helpfully clarified a bit in his comments at IHE:

“when I say that my proposed “shift in focus… allows us to sidestep the whole Open-Access-versus-toll-access controversy,” I’m saying that we are able to sidestep it (or “opt out” of it) to the degree that our focus shifts.”

While the resources we put towards noncommercial collections might be orthogonal to our involvement in the scholarly communication wars, I don’t really see this issue as a zero-sum game. To my mind, libraries are by definition involved in the scholarly communication debates, and attempts to quantify the degree to which a library is involved strike me as pointless. And even if the degree to which a library is involved in these debates were a meaningful measure of something, I’m not clear on how exactly that would be measured. Is it by total budget dedicated to commercial collecting, or by proportion? Is a library with a very large budget that devotes only 50% of that budget to commercial documents more or less involved in the scholarly communication wars than a small library that devotes 100% of its budget to commodity collecting? And what exactly would that tell us?

The scholarly communication wars are about access to scholarly information. Unless libraries completely abandon the brokerage and management of commodity documents — which Rick is very clear he is NOT advocating — they are involved in the scholarly communication debates. I guess I see involvement in the scholarly communication wars as like being pregnant — you can’t be just a little bit involved.

Moreover, where Rick sees decreased attention by libraries to the debates over the future of scholarly communication as a benefit, I would see it as an abdication of a major social responsibility of libraries. Perhaps others are persuaded that side-stepping the scholarly communication debates would be a benefit of shifting focus away from commodity collections, but I am not convinced that it would either have that effect or that the effect would be a positive one if it did. Room for debate, I suppose.

General thoughts on The Library as an ideal:

Shifting resources from commodity documents to special collecting certainly seems like a rational way for libraries to prioritize limited resources in such a way as to enhance their own unique contributions to both local communities and to the public good. After all, maintaining large collections of commodity documents (especially in print) when fewer items are being checked out by fewer patrons is horribly inefficient. But I would argue that the fact that the provision of public goods is rarely efficient renders them no less important. In my opinion, a true radical shift would be for library leaders to focus more on promoting the value of libraries as a public good, essential to a healthy democracy and to promoting equal access to information, and less on seeking efficiencies as a way to save ourselves. It’s a thing called love … love of democracy, equality, community, and the ideal that public goods still matter.

Looking for love in all the wrong places

My colleague James R. Jacobs recently posted a response to the Ithaka S&R issue brief  Can’t Buy us Love, by Rick Anderson.  Barbara Fister then chimed in with What Are Libraries, Anyway?  All 3 pieces cover important ground, and I commend Rick for eventually agreeing to comment on James’ post — although his initial reaction left me scratching my head:

Screen shot 2013-09-06 at 11.31.28 AM

As I see it, Rick put some ideas out in writing. James responded in writing, then Rick challenged him to a public duel debate, saying a written format is too unwieldy. Huh?

But Rick did respond (I’m hoping it was my “pretty please” tweet that persuaded him), and I appreciate that he took the time to continue the debate in public instead of waiting for a live event that would likely have a more limited audience and shelf-life.

One thing that stands out to me in Rick’s original piece and in his comments on James’ post is how much of what libraries are and what libraries do (or could/should do) is “out of scope”.  In a paper that proposes an answer to the question of what significant roles remain for libraries, I find it strange that government documents, patron-driven acquisitions, and the role of subject specialists are explicitly out of scope. The role of libraries in the long-term preservation of what Rick refers to as “commodity documents” (and I call “a big honking part of the scholarly record”) also seems to be out of scope.  Rick also appears to be declaring “the scholarly communication wars” out of scope by noting that his approach “allows us to sidestep the whole Open-Access-versus-toll-access controversy”.

I think Barbara Fister has it exactly right when she notes that Rick’s piece, and James’ rebuttal are really about the existential question of What are Libraries, Anyway?  I am skeptical of any proposal for the future of libraries that insists on focusing on one issue at a time. To my mind, the future of collections and collection development cannot be separated from a discussion of the role of subject specialists (that stuff doesn’t collect itself, last I checked), or of who ought to drive acquisition decisions. Likewise, any discussion of the role of libraries in “enriching the scholarly environment” that explicitly sidesteps the role of libraries in engaging in the “scholarly communication wars” seems to me to be missing a big chunk of the picture.

I’m also concerned that too much of what we talk about and what gets proposed as a way forward for libraries is too focused on saving individual libraries, rather than on defending, promoting, and articulating the value of The Library as a social institution.   Instead of trying to defend our worth on an individual basis, and thus risking dying the death of a thousand cuts, I’d love to see more libraries and library directors talking about the value to scholarship of having a network of great libraries across the nation and across the world. But that issue probably deserves its own post someday, so I leave you with this classic from Urban Cowboy:

▶ JOHNNY LEE ~ LOOKING FOR LOVE [LYRICS] – YouTube.

I dreamed of a book …

A few weeks ago, I woke up with the idea for a book. The idea was literally the stuff of dreams. In my dream, it was an edited volume with Bess Sadler and I as co-editors. The book’s title was A Radical Agenda for America’s* Libraries.

Today, Bess and I scribbled out a preliminary list of chapters. I’m starting to really think that this book needs to happen. It isn’t hard to think of the perfect authors for some of these chapters:

  1. Radical professional education
  2. Radical collecting
  3. Radical reference
  4. Radical archives
  5. Radical preservation
  6. Radical publishing
  7. Radical leadership
  8. Radical metadata
  9. Radical access
  10. Radical technology
  11. Radical services
  12. Radical collaborations
  13. Radical funding
  14. Radical outreach
  15. Radical spaces

(* Why “America’s”? Partly because American libraries are what I know, partly because I think national context matters significantly, and partly because it was a dream, and my dream life is apparently very ethnocentric.)


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