Posts Tagged 'collections'

Discussing RBMS 2015

I blog almost all of my talks, but had not planned on blogging my remarks from RBMS 2015 this summer because I was just the discussant; I didn’t give a talk talk. But the organizers told me they like having something to link to, so here’s my best recreation of what I said, based on pretty good notes.

This is my first RBMS, and I have a few confessions to make:

My first confession is that I honestly would rather be with my wife right now than with you all. No offense really, but our marriage just became legal in all 50 states and I want to celebrate with her. It is cool though, that I could drive from here in Oakland back to my wife in our new hometown of Cambridge, Massachusetts and our marriage would remain valid the whole way for the first time in history. So, that isn’t the confession I was planning on making today, but it is true and it is heartfelt.

My real first confession is that I’m not an archivist, I’m not a rare books librarian, I’m not a manuscripts librarian. I’m not even a humanities scholar or faculty member or any kind. Heck, I’m not even really a librarian according to some definitions.

I’m just a library director … which means I do none of the actual work that ensures that rare books and manuscripts are collected, preserved and made accessible; but I do control lots of resources that make the work possible; and I care deeply about that work.

My second confession is that I’m actually more comfortable in the audience than on the stage – when I’m in the audience, I can do what I do best – snark on twitter about the presentations. Honestly, that’s kinda my thing – I go to conferences and I get snarky on twitter. My favorite snark topics – and most conference presentations provide plenty of fodder for these – are lack of diversity on speaking panels or in collections, uncritical adherence to neo-liberal thinking in library “innovations”, and a general lack of attention to issues of power, privilege, and positionality. I have to say thus far, RBMS has given me very very little to snark about. It’s a bit disorienting.

In all seriousness, lets give it up for the program committee
Y’all did a tremendous job in putting together a great set of speakers who prodded me, and I hope some of you, to think critically about the work we do and its meanings in and to the communities we serve and represent. And it is no small thing that this program was definitely not the usual cast of white dudes talking about the collections and archives of other white dudes. Well done!

Some of the big themes I’ve heard thus far I think will also be reflected in this plenary. We’ve talked a lot about “amateurism” and volunteer labor — this idea, perhaps we could call it a trend, of people who are not professionally trained archivists or librarians doing the work of building, organizing, and providing access to archives. Our two closing plenary speakers this afternoon are not archivists, but have built and are building archives of real significance to the broader research community. They are also leveraging technology and new ways of collecting and organizing materials in concert with traditional archival materials and methods.

Other themes I’ve heard include the tension between slow, caring work with and for archives; and the need for speed and efficiencies. Themes of passion versus the illusion of neutrality have likewise emerged. I’m sure there are other themes that will come out and that will produce a great final discussion.

Our speakers for this closing plenary include a Stanford professor who I know fairly well, and whose project was the inspiration for the Library Concierge Program I started while I was with the Stanford Lbiraries; and a fellow “outside librarian” whose work I have long admired and who I am delighted to finally meet in person.
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Then I introduced Gordon Chang and Rick Prelinger. They both gave great talks. The discussion was also lively and thoughtful, and included what I am told was the first RBMS instance of panelists live-tweeting each other during a session and then expanding on the twitter conversation from the stage. A true multi-modal and multi-media plenary session.

So, that’s it – my first, but I hope not my last, RBMS.

Lack of diversity by the numbers in librarianship and in book stuff

When we talk about diversity and social justice in libraries and librarianship, it is good to know exactly what we are dealing with:

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.

A queer, feminist agenda for libraries: Significance, relevance and power

Bess Sadler and I are slated to present a paper on Feminism and the Future of Library Discovery at the Feminisms and Rhetorics conference here at Stanford next month. It has been really interesting to think about how to present these ideas to a primarily non-librarian crowd. Bess is doing most of the real work, but I promised to try my hand at providing some context in an introduction. This is super drafty, so comments very welcome.

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Libraries have never been neutral repositories of knowledge. This will likely strike many, particularly scholars working in feminist and/or queer theory traditions, as a not particularly novel or insightful claim. I expect that most will readily concede that libraries surely reflect the inequalities, biases, ethnocentrism, and power imbalances that exist throughout the academic enterprise. What may not be as obvious is the degree to which libraries contribute to bias and inequality in scholarship; and conversely the amount of power and responsibility libraries and librarians have to promote a more inclusive version of the scholarly record.

Libraries exercise considerable influence over the diversity (or lack thereof) of scholarship primarily through choices we make in fulfilling our primary missions of collecting, preserving, and providing access to information.

Collection development decisions have profound impacts on who and what is represented in the scholarly and cultural record. The decisions we make about whose archives to collect and preserve, and what books and journals to buy, are inevitably biased, based as they are on some combination of the judgements and interests of individual libraries and librarians, and on those same librarians’ sense of the tastes and needs of our patrons. Besides the obvious impact on the kinds of resources available to current scholars, our collection development decisions also impact the marketplace for scholarly publications. Libraries have historically represented a significant market for scholarly books coming out of university and academic presses, so budget-based decisions that reduce the numbers and types of monographs we purchase are likely to influence the kinds of authors and topics that presses are willing to publish.

Libraries collect — and therefore publishers publish — books by authors and about topics that are deemed to be novel and important, and that are expected to be heavily used by others. But those evaluations don’t happen in a vacuum. Like nearly every evaluative decision humans make, decisions about the quality and value of research and writing are riddled with biases and are made through lenses of power. These decisions then become self-perpetuating through a vicious cycle by which publications are judged by the reputation of the publisher and by how many major research libraries hold a copy of the publication. But conscious attention to collecting more diverse literatures, authors, topics and archives will only get us so far towards a more inclusive and feminist agenda for libraries.

As Hope Olsen’s work on critical feminist approaches to knowledge organization demonstrates, libraries also exert tremendous control over how books and other scholarly items are organized and therefore how, when, and by whom they are discoverable. As an example, librarians determine the primary subject classification of a book, which in turn determines the book’s call number and physical placement in the library stacks. Hierarchical classification schemas marginalize certain kinds of knowledge and certain topics by creating separate sub-classifications for topics such as “women and computers” or “black literature”.

books on gays in military

Shelved together in Green Library. One of these things is not like the others

The power of library classification systems is such that a scholar browsing the shelves for books on military history is unlikely to encounter Randy Shilts’ seminal work Conduct Unbecoming: Gays & Lesbians in the US Military, because that book is sub-classified under the subject “Minorities, women, etc. in armed forces”.  In my own library, that means the definitive work on the history of gays and lesbians serving in the armed forces is literally shelved between Secrets of a Gay Marine Porn Star and Military Trade, “an edgy, enlightening, and richly entertaining collection of voices with a passion for servicemen”.  Over in the military history section of the stacks, you won’t find any books devoted to the service of gays and lesbians. You will however, find exactly 4 pages on “gays in the military” in A People’s History of the U.S. Military: Ordinary Soldiers Reflect on Their Experience of War, from the American Revolution to Afghanistan (emphasis mine). The scant 4 pages on gay military service literally starts at 1993, as if gays didn’t serve until Bill Clinton noticed them.

In our presentation, we argue that without an explicit feminist and queer agenda, these same processes of exclusion and marginalization will play out in our digital library and online discovery environments.   A queer feminist rhetoric and agenda for the future of library discovery would leverage technology to promote the feminist and queer values of plurality, participation, advocacy, ecology, embodiment, and self-disclosure. These qualities are described in Shaowen Bardzell’s “Feminist HCI: Taking Stock and Outlining an Agenda for Design”.
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This is where Bess will take over and actually talk about things like hacker rhetoric, online archives and discovery tools, assumptions of neutrality in relevance algorithms, the importance of having diversity in the coding community, etc.

Sometimes scholars do tell us how the library impacted their work

Thank you

If only scholars thanked those who contributed to their work …(Thank you by Avard Woolaver)

Like all of higher education, libraries are under increasing pressure to demonstrate their value by showing how our collections and services impact the teaching and research missions of our institutions. I have argued before that a Return on Investment approach is a bad idea, and that the value of libraries is both very real and very hard to measure. And more recently I put out a plea for us to stop equating frequency of use with importance when it comes to library resources.

One major problem with almost all of the ways we try to measure the impact of our resources is that our measures are poor proxies for what we are really trying to assess.  Even citation analyses aimed at measuring how much of our holdings are cited in dissertations and faculty publications produces a sloppy and imprecise measure of actual impact. Putting aside the issues of drive-by citations, coercive citations, and negative citations; it is also the case that scholars get materials from many sources besides the library. A citation to something in our collection is not a reliable indicator that the scholar used our copy of the item in their research.  So, citation analyses are likely to overestimate the impact of our collections. Moreover, citation analyses provide no means of assessing the impact of our staff and our services.

Wouldn’t it be great if scholars would just tell us straight up when our collections, services, and staff contributed in tangible ways to their research? I mean, what if they just outright said things like:

The friendly staffs at Green Library, Crown Law Library, and Cubberley Education Library were also invaluable.

~Richard Cottle in Stanford Street Names, 2005

Many, many thanks for the guidance and invaluable resources provided by Maggie Kimball, Stanford University archivist, Dennis Copeland, director of the California Collection at the Monterey Public Library, … Joe Wible, head librarian at Hopkins Marine Station’s Miller Library; Neal Hotelling at the Pebble Beach archive …

~Susan Shillinglaw in A Journey into Steinbeck’s California, 2006

Obviously scholars do acknowledge the impact of libraries on their work — they do so in the acknowledgements sections of their books. In my opinion, acknowledgements provide the most direct measure of the impact of library collections and services on research.

If you want to hear more about how the amazing Jacque Hettel and I are analyzing acknowledgement data, come hear our snapshot talk at DLF.   Jacque has created a text corpus of acknowledgements of Stanford libraries from books published over the past 10 years. We are busy analyzing those acknowledgements to understand which library departments get the most shout-outs (hint: Special Collections and InterLibrary Borrowing are in the lead) and whether there are disciplinary differences in whether scholars acknowledge the library generally and/or whether they single out specific individuals. We also plan to explore those acknowledgements that mention multiple libraries as a way to visualize networks of libraries across disciplines.

If we really want to know how our libraries impact scholarship, we should be paying careful attention to what scholars actually say about us when they are acknowledging those people and resources that contributed to their research.

How much is enough?

How many times does a scholar have to browse the stacks for us to believe her when she says browsing is important to her? Is once a quarter enough? Once a month? Or must a scholar browse daily for us to believe her when she says being able to browse physical stacks is important to her research?

How many physical books does a scholar have to check out from the library for us to believer him when he says having books on campus matters to him?

How many in-person questions do our reference staff have to answer for us to consider staffing reference desks important?

How much content has to be deposited into our IRs for us to consider them a success?

How many times does a box of manuscripts have to be paged for us to consider it important enough to keep?

How many people have to use our Makerspaces to actually make something for us to consider it a good investment?

I’m not sure we (the royal we) have any fricking idea.

And yet I constantly hear some version of “scholars say ______ is important to them, but our data shows otherwise.”  And most of the time, the data is on frequency of some activity.  But frequency =/= importance.

I get it that we have hard decisions to make about priorities in the face of limited space and limited budgets, and we may well have to make decisions based on how often various services and resources actually get used.

But can we please stop saying something isn’t really important to scholars (even though they say it is, poor deluded souls) because they don’t do it often enough to meet our unspoken and shifting definition of what enough is? Pretty please?

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.

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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

The Road & Track acquisition: The rest of the story

Experimental Lincoln from Ford Motor Company, Road & Track Archives. Courtesy Stanford University Libraries.

Experimental Lincoln from Ford Motor Company, Road & Track Archives. Courtesy Stanford University Libraries.

I love that the New York Times ran a story on Stanford’s acquisition of the archives of Road & Track magazine. The fact that this important acquisition is getting good publicity is fantastic, but the article missed a big chunk of the story. To my mind, the Times missed the opportunity to highlight this acquisition as an example of the enduring role of libraries and librarians in acquiring, preserving, and providing access to our cultural heritage. Frankly, the NY Times article implies that the library’s only role is to “house” the collection, a gross mischaracterization of the library’s much larger role. The implication that the libraries are simply the warehouse for this collection — an idea perpetuated by the accompanying photo of boxes being carried off a truck at our loading dock — is especially troubling to me. The Times article under-represents the role of the library and — more importantly– the vast amount of real intellectual work and expertise that our staff contributed to this acquisition and will continue to contribute to making this collection available for research.

Henry Lowood, our awesome curator for the history of science and technology, did an enormous amount of work in assessing and evaluating the collection, and in negotiating the terms of the acquisition. Plenty of other folks in our Special Collections unit, our Preservation department, and two senior library administrators likewise played a huge role in bringing this acquisition into our collections.

In this as-yet-unpublished letter to the editor at the New York Times, my boss does a wonderful job of pointing out the importance of telling “the rest of the story”:

To the editor,
While I applaud your publication of Rob Sass’ article regarding the Road & Track archive coming to Stanford University, I wish to point out the role of  the Stanford Libraries throughout the acquisition. While our partner, the Revs Program at Stanford, was certainly the catalyst that made it plausible for the Road & Track archive to come to this campus, the Libraries have been, and remain, the primary agency for the transfer of this important research collection. In short, we do the heavy lifting in acquiring, describing, preserving, and providing access to the material, while scholars with the Revs Program and other scholars over time will reap the research benefit. I point this out to highlight the vital, continuing role of libraries as essential agents in the research enterprise of great universities.
Michael A. Keller
University Librarian

For more complete coverage of the Road & Track acquisition, see our own ReMix article or the REVs program blog post.


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