Infrastructure and Culture: A job talk

Below is the text, with some of the slides, from the job talk I gave as part of the interview process for my current job as Director of Libraries at MIT. I have shared it with a few folks who seem to have found it helpful in preparing for similar job talks, so I hope that sharing it here is helpful to others. I also have found it helpful to look back at it myself from time to time – I see it as sort of the “platform I ran on”, and I want to make sure I honor the commitments made herein.

Shaping scholarly communication: Infrastructure and Culture

Shaping scholarly communication: Infrastructure and Culture

Good morning and thank you all for coming out this morning to hear my talk. It is a tremendous honor to be here and to be in consideration for the job of Director of the MIT Libraries.

As I think you know, I have been asked to talk about the future of scholarly communication and generally how I would see myself influencing that future as part of the MIT community. But since this may be the only chance some of you will have to meet me in the day and a half that I am here, I wanted to fill in some of the details about who I am and how and why I ended up here this morning.

You know from my CV (pdf) that I am currently the AUL for Public Services for Stanford Libraries, responsible for the humanities, social science, and area studies libraries, plus special collections, plus direct user support in digital humanities and social science data. Those of you who paid close attention to my CV will have noticed that my path to a career in academic libraries has been a bit unconventional.

Because I paid for college with an ROTC scholarship, my first job after graduation was as an active duty army office. I was stationed in Germany during the tail-end of the Cold War and it was during that time that I gained invaluable experience as a leader, especially during my time as a company commander. At the end of my tour in Germany, I applied for and was accepted into an Army program that sends selected army officers to graduate school in exchange for a commitment to teach at West Point. So I got a master’s degree in Sociology from the University of Maryland, then spent 3 years teaching leadership and sociology to cadets at the US Military Academy. By the time those 3 years were up, it was clear to me that a career in higher education was going to be a better fit for me than an Army career; so I resigned from the military and began a PhD program in Sociology at Stanford. As a graduate student at Stanford, I worked part-time in the library in the Social Science Data center. During that time I came to really see the critical role that the library and librarians played in the research and teaching life of the campus; and I very much enjoyed being a part of that.

While I was in the final stages of writing my dissertation – and therefore spending even more time in the library — several of my librarian colleagues encouraged me to apply for the Social Sciences Librarian position that was open at Stanford at the time. By then I had learned enough about libraries and librarianship, that it was clear to me that a career in academic libraries would be an extraordinarily good fit for my combination of leadership experience and scholarly training. More importantly, I believed that the work I could accomplish within research libraries would likely have a greater impact on the future of scholarship than the work I might have accomplished as an individual scholar.

That has absolutely turned out to be true for me. My career at Stanford has allowed me to assume positions of increasing responsibility since that first library job as well as the opportunity to participate in the profession at a national level. A job as director of libraries at a major research university like MIT is very appealing to me as a next step in my career and as an opportunity to continue to influence the future of libraries and scholarly communication at what I consider a crucially important time for both.

I am convinced that the decisions that are made now, and the directions we take, especially at institutions like MIT, will have profound implications for the future of scholarly communication and therefore on the influence that scholars and scholarship can have on addressing the world’s greatest challenges.
Which brings us to the substantive portion of my talk.

I’ve been asked to talk about the role research institutions like MIT have in shaping the future of scholarly communication, with an emphasis on how I might influence local and national discourse, and how I might lead the libraries and the press to have maximum impact. And, I’ve been asked to do that in 30 minutes.
It is a big topic, or set of topics, and I certainly have more than 30 minutes worth of thoughts on it. Some of what I want to say will necessarily be at a fairly abstract level, but I will try to provide some examples which I am happy to address in more detail during the Q&A time.

Frankly, I’m also hesitant to offer detailed plans for MIT because I believe that a new leader should spend a considerable amount of time learning about a new organization, its culture, its strengths and aspirations before initiating any specific strategies for that organization. There are also a number of topics that I think are crucial to the future of libraries and scholarly communication, but that I won’t address directly in the scope of this talk – I hope you will feel free to ask me about my thoughts on learning spaces, MOOCs, information literacy, big data, shared print collections, the role of social media in marketing the library and the press, and any of the other topics that I don’t directly highlight in the next 30 minutes or so.

What I will talk about is how institutions like MIT, and specifically the MIT Libraries and the MIT Press, play key roles in shaping the future of scholarly communication by providing an infrastructure and a culture that supports the creation, dissemination and preservation of knowledge.

My plan is to explain what I mean by infrastructure and culture, explain where and how I think choices about infrastructure and/or culture, particularly in the context of libraries and university presses, affect scholarship and the future of scholarly publishing, and provide examples of ways I have tried, and would continue to try, to influence discourse and organizational effectiveness via infrastructure and culture.

When I talk about infrastructure, I’m referring to not only physical settings but also to the digital infrastructures that are increasingly important to research and learning. And when I talk about culture, I’m primarily talking about organizational culture – the assumptions, values, and norms that make up an organization’s personality and that guide (or should guide) the decisions an organization makes – not just about what to do, but also how work is accomplished and by whom.

Bikes outside Green Library, Stanford

Bikes outside Green Library, Stanford

As a sociologist I see infrastructure and culture as not separate domains, but as very much interrelated. For example, Stanford is a biking campus, not just because we are in California, with its culture of healthy living and environmental consciousness, but also because we have a very large sprawling campus and we enjoy generally excellent weather all year round.

Infrastructure and culture are mutually reinforcing aspects of a healthy, effective organization. And as a leader, ensuring that infrastructures are reflective of and supportive of a clearly articulated culture is one of my key responsibilities.

I also think it is important to note at the outset that I do not believe that libraries have ever been merely neutral repositories of information; nor do I think they should be. Great libraries are always more than infrastructure, they are more than warehouses they are definitely more than merely a Netflix for books.
Great libraries embody the cultural values of their communities and their parent organizations; and they promote the values of democracy, diversity, openness, and the idea that education is a public and social good.

MIT strikes me as a place that openly strives to create infrastructures that match your particular culture and values; and as a place where the libraries and the press are expected to play leading roles in advocating for change in scholarly publishing practices and higher education consistent with MIT values. That is one of the key factors that makes this opportunity so attractive to me.

For example, it is no coincidence that DSpace – an infrastructure designed to promote the preservation and open dissemination of scholarship, was developed at MIT – an institution with a culture that promotes open access to the scholarly record and that includes preservation as part of its mission. I won’t name names, but many institutions lag behind MIT in providing access to the research they produce. In some cases, it is because they have the cultural will, but lack the infrastructure; at other universities, the infrastructure exists, but the institution lacks a shared cultural imperative. It seems clear to me that the tight coupling of culture and infrastructure has been a key factor in MIT’s unique and early success in disseminating its research and teaching to the world.

DSpace at MIT

DSpace at MIT

MIT established itself as a bold and effective leader in the open access movement when it developed DSpace over a decade ago, and again when faculty passed an Open Access policy in 2009.
(Let me note here that I am aware that within the broad support for open access as a concept there are valid concerns across campus about how to balance openness with current realities of tenure and promotion and the pressure on humanities graduates especially to revise their dissertations into a first book that university presses will be wiling to publish.)

It is clear to me that the MIT Libraries and the MIT Press play a vital role in providing the kinds of physical and digital infrastructures that facilitate world-class scholarship and teaching and that encourage and support innovations in research and pedagogy.

The next leader of the MIT libraries and the MIT press will clearly have a unique opportunity and responsibility to continue the legacy of leadership and excellence, and to influence the discourse on open access – both locally and nationally.

My sense of the open access landscape is that the movement has reached the point where it is time to take stock of the many innovations, experiments, successes, and failures in this space. MIT strikes me as especially well-positioned to lead such a conversation.

Open Access: What's next?

Open Access: What’s next?

Developing sustainable models for open access publishing requires an understanding of the complex interactions between the ways scholarship is produced, reviewed, published, rewarded, marketed and disseminated – and the ways all of those things are changing.
Essentially, I see this as a sort of systems engineering puzzle – the exact kind of problem that folks from MIT are especially well qualified to solve.
It is time to pull together all the key players – scholarly associations, librarians, publishers, funding agencies, and scholars – to develop a systematic inventory of what we know about open access efforts to date, and what remains to be learned. I would love to see MIT host a set of productive conversations on open access, with the explicit goal of chronicling what we know so far, and charting a direction for continued development of infrastructures, policies and practices based on documented successes and best practices.

Moving from experimentation to sustainable models for Open Access, especially models that move beyond journals to include monographs as well as new forms of interactive, multimedia narratives, will require steady and coordinated change across all parts of the scholarly communication system.

Change in this space will also require new radically collaborative funding models – such as the model suggested by a recent white paper produced by K|N Consultants that calls for all higher education institutions to contribute to a centrally managed fund that would be used to support partnerships among scholarly societies, research libraries, and other institutional players for the production, access and long-term preservation of new and evolving forms of research output. Full disclosure, I am was a member of the Board of Directors of K|N consultants – in part because I think bold strategies like the one they propose need to be part of the conversation.

Encouraging and hosting a systematic and collaborative meta-analysis of what we currently know about open access is one specific way I would want to leverage the expertise, culture, and reputation of MIT to influence discourse and progress in shaping the future of scholarly communication. In other words, lets gather the available data, from all parts of the ecosystem, and analyze it so we can make smart decisions about how to move forward.

Finding ways to promote and sustain open access to and broad dissemination of scholarly research is not only consistent with the core values of librarianship and with the mission of MIT, but it also conveniently has the potential to offer some relief from the very real budget pressures most academic libraries and their host institutions are all too familiar with. Flat or declining collection budgets, combined with rising serials costs – especially in the sciences – have driven most libraries to look very carefully at the value of their collections and to focus on maximizing the return on investment on the materials we acquire.

Journals, photo by Wayne Vanderkuil

Journals, photo by Wayne Vanderkuil

Now, while I am very much in favor of maximizing the use and impact of our collections, I am also an advocate for explicit efforts to ensure that use and popularity are not the sole determinants of what sorts of materials libraries collect. I believe that libraries need to collect and university presses need to publish diverse literatures, on niche topics and by authors from underrepresented groups not just so that our individual collections reflect a stated commitment to diversity; but also to ensure that diverse voices get published and are therefore available as part of the collective scholarly record we leave to future students and scholars.

I also think it is important to recognize that the books we collected in the past, and kept, preserved, and digitized are now available for innovative new kinds of research – such as this project on the evolution of Brazilian Portuguese.

Graph of evolution of Brazilian Portuguese, courtesy of Cuauhtémoc García-García

Graph of evolution of Brazilian Portuguese, courtesy of Cuauhtémoc García-García

The data for this research – provided to the Stanford research team by Stanford librarians — consists of the digitized texts of Portuguese language books in HathiTrust & Google Books –from our own collections and those of our peers. Here’s the thing — Our pre-colonial Brazilian literature doesn’t really get much use, and it is a good bet that the majority of the tens of thousands of texts that make up the data for this study have less than impressive circulation records. For me this project, and other examples of research that depend on rarely used materials, stand as cautionary tales about relying too heavily on use statistics and narrowly defined return on investment metrics for decision-making and assessment. We have to be cognizant of the fact that current and future scholars will make use of our archives, our collections, and our data in ways we cannot now imagine.

Creating a culture that values diversity and the long-term value of library collections and services requires new and innovative ways of assessing and demonstrating impact. With this in mind, I started a pilot project last year, with one of our digital humanities librarians, to investigate an alternate way of assessing the value of libraries and librarians. In this project, we used text-mining techniques to quantify and analyze mentions of Stanford libraries and librarians in the acknowledgements sections of published monographs. We have dubbed this our “measuring thanks” project, and our early findings are quite encouraging and informative. For example, we have found that the two library services most often mentioned by name in acknowledgements are special collections and interlibrary borrowing. We have also found that the majority of authors who acknowledge a library actually acknowledge more than 1 library or collection—pointing to the importance of creating collaborative collections and discovery environments to make access to dispersed but related collections even easier for future scholars.

Developing new ways of demonstrating the impact of our services and collections is a way of promoting a culture that values assessment, but also recognizes that the true impact of libraries and librarians is often delayed and too idiosyncratic to show up in most of the standard ROI style assessment tools currently in use.
So while I am a fan of assessment and data-driven decision-making, I think it is critically important that we make sure the data we are using captures the full story of our impact. As a social scientist with experience teaching and consulting on statistics and research methods, I’m committed to making sure that the assessment tools we use in libraries are the right ones, that the data we collect measures what really matters, and that we use methods appropriate to the decisions we want to make.

In addition to providing an alternate, potentially more meaningful benchmark for library impact and value, one of the other things I love about the “Measuring thanks” project is that it has provided us with true stories that help us connect the work we do with actual scholarly products.

Ensuring that all members of our staff understand how their own work and the work of their colleagues contributes to the research and teaching missions of the university is one of the main goals of the Library Concierge Program – a project I developed for Stanford Libraries in 2012.

Stanford Libraries Concierge Program, with feedback

Stanford Libraries Concierge Program, with feedback

The Concierge Program ensures that all our library staff have a good understanding of the array of resources and services we have to offer – from print and digital collections across many disciplines, to multi-media training, to digital humanities support, to data management planning and more. The Program consists of structured opportunities for all library staff – from subject liaisons to cataloguers to shelves, even many of our long-term student workers – to learn about what their colleagues in other parts of the organization are doing, so that we could all act as ambassadors – or concierges – for the full range of resources, services and expertise the libraries have to offer. The program is explicitly designed to break down the silos across the library, the university press, and our academic computing services and to promote more open exchange of information and expertise among all members of the libraries.

I’m happy to say that the program has been a huge success – I offer these 2 quotes as partial evidence, supporting by a more quantitative evaluation reported in a case study published in the open access Journal of Creative Library Practice. As the quotes suggest, library staff report that they have a better understanding of the bigger organization and how & where their particular job fits in the big picture. And ultimately, the success of the program is revealed through the impact on scholars, who, as the 2nd quote illustrates, are able to make more productive and efficient use of the resources we make available to them.

The final topic I want to touch on is the work I have done as an advocate for increased diversity and inclusion in the library profession generally, and specifically in library technology.

As some of you know, I am active on social media – I’ve used twitter and my blog, as well as various speaking opportunities to try to raise awareness about the lack of diversity in librarianship and I have played a leading role in two major recent events – a day-long forum on diversity in academic libraries at the Digital Library Federation Fall forum, and a 2-day summit on Leadership, Technology, and Gender in April of this year.

And last summer, I asked our university librarian to issue a public statement in support of anti-harassment policies (or codes of conduct) at library, technology, and higher education conferences. Together, we encouraged our staff to participate only in those conferences that had clear and public anti-harassment policies and to advocate for the adoption of such policies at conferences in which they participate. As a result, Stanford librarians, backed by the strong public stance made by the library leadership, played key roles in the adoption of codes of conduct by several major national and international organizations, including the Association of Digital Humanities Organizations, the Music Library Association, and the Association of Slavic Eastern European & European Studies. I am told that the Coalition of Networked Information is working on such a policy, in response, at least partially, to advocacy from Stanford. I am proud to have played a key role in ensuring that these spaces are safer and more accessible to those who may have otherwise felt less welcome.
OK – to summarize, I was asked to talk about the future of scholarly communication and how I might influence discourse about that future, and how I would lead the MIT Libraries and Press. I hope that what I have shared about the work I have done and the values and passions that motivate me have made it clear what kind of leader I have been thus far and how I would seek to lead if given the opportunity here at MIT.

I believe that scholarship is ultimately a conversation, and my vision of libraries and university presses, is that they are natural hosts for those conversations – creating spaces — virtual, physical, & cultural spaces –where those conversations are facilitated, recorded, published and made available to be used and revised and expanded in ways we can’t yet anticipate; but which we none-the-less must aspire to capture and preserve for future generations.

Infrastructure + Culture = Conversations

Infrastructure + Culture = Conversations

I’m proud of the work my colleagues and I have accomplished at Stanford, and of the influence I have had on broader conversations about issues of importance to the library profession and to the future of scholarly communication.

And … I am ready and eager to assume a more active and a more prominent role in leading and influencing the future of libraries and of scholarly publishing. I am attracted to MIT because of its unique blend of values, scholarly intensity, and commitment to solving real world problems.

By all accounts, the MIT Libraries and the MIT Press are poised to meet the emerging challenges presented by new methods of research, new forms of publication, and changing expectations for access to information. MIT strikes me as a place where people see challenges as opportunities, and where faculty, students and staff alike seek to leverage the full force of MIT’s intellectual resources toward finding solutions to real problems. MIT has already taken a lead in addressing the very real and pressing challenge of finding sustainable models of providing open, equitable & meaningful access to the growing flood of scholarly information, data, and technologies. I would welcome the opportunity to build on MIT’s legacy of strong and principled leadership on these issues as a member of this community and as director of the MIT Libraries.

Thank you for the opportunity to talk to you and I very much welcome your questions.

5 Responses to “Infrastructure and Culture: A job talk”


  1. 1 John Corcelli July 16, 2015 at 12:42 pm

    Hi Chris: Your “talk” has been linked to our library at CBC in Toronto. While not everything you talk about is applicable to our media company, I was struck by your connection of infrastructure and culture within Stanford U. Quite the observation, I must say. The two aren’t mutually exclusive; ask any designer or architect. As for CBC our real estate division seems to be leading the way regarding our massive collection of recordings, periodicals, books, video and music. Our criteria for maintaining a collection is based on use and storage space. The CBC has serious financial struggles with a goal to reduce its footprint in every region across Canada. This means the elimination of hard copies after digitization and/or storing masters in public archives.

    What are your thoughts regarding the digitization of our cultural artefacts?

    Do media outlets, especially public broadcasters have a duty to preserve programs, recordings et al for future generations?

    Like

  2. 2 Jennifer July 13, 2015 at 8:36 pm

    Thanks for sharing this, Chris. Can you also tell us HOW you gave the talk? Did you read it, memorize and recit it, speak semi-extemporaneously from note cards, other? What is your preferred speaking method that allows you to stay on point when you’re giving a high-pressure presentation?

    Like

    • 3 Chris Bourg July 14, 2015 at 5:31 am

      for this talk, and for most of my keynotes, I have the talk completely written, and I “read” it. If I finish writing the talk far enough in advance, I do enough run throughs (usually out loud in empty room) that the reading seems to come off as natural. For talks like this, the words and phrasing matters – I think hard about every sentence, and sometimes every word, and I want to get it right. I am able to read and make eye-contact; so I’m told it doesn’t seem like I’m really reading it. I ad-lib throughout, if/when I’m comfortable and I can read the audience (the BLC keynote is an example where I read my text and ad-libbed frequently).

      Like

      • 4 Anonymous July 14, 2015 at 5:59 am

        That’s how I try to do my talks too, especially job talks. I practice A LOT so it (hopefully) sounds natural.
        The thought of only working from notes and ad libbing is terrifying to me and I’m sure I’d end up on tangents and skipping large portions of my talk.

        Thank you for sharing. We hardly ever talk about the techniques of presenting.

        Like


  1. 1 The case against (only) using metrics for collection management | Stacy Konkiel Trackback on July 14, 2015 at 8:45 am

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