Posts Tagged 'collections'



How ROI killed the academic library

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

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

How ROI killed the academic library: A cautionary tale

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

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

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

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

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

Founding Grant, Stanford University

Founding Grant, Stanford University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is important to remember that the text-mining research made possible because of the enormous corpus of digital texts depended on us collecting and retaining a whole lot of books over time — and lots of those books never circulated.  Many of the kinds of research questions that can now be asked because the words in the books have now become data, can only be answered because of the sheer size and comprehensiveness of the corpus.

For example, there is a graduate student here at Stanford using both Google Books and HathiTrust files of Portugese language publications as a means of tracing the evolution of Brazilian Portugese.  I suspect many of the books that make up the data for this project  have rather dismal circulation histories.  If libraries like Stanford had only collected and preserved books with immediate and measurable use, the ever growing corpus of digitized texts would be even more skewed and biased than it already is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Digital preservation is hard

Digital preservation is hard

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

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

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

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

Lord of the Rings trilogy

Lord of the Rings trilogy

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

Railroaded by Richard White

Railroaded by Richard White

But if we care about actual impact on research, we might want to look at historian Richard White’s recent book Railroaded, which provides a new and controversial vision of the so-called Gilded Age in the US, and the impact of the Transcontinental railroads on the making of modern America.  White relied heavily on archival materials rarely used by others, and on dusty reels on microfilm that he may well have been the first to pull out of the file cabinets.   The centrality of the archives to White’s research is acknowledged, quite literally, in the acknowledgements section:

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

I like this example for at least 2 other reasons:

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

Books still matter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

US release date for Super Mario Bros. remains a mystery

US release date for Super Mario Bros. remains a mystery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My final slide. Pretty hokey, huh?

My final slide. Pretty hokey, huh?

Collections still matter

Young man playing Space Invaders

Space Invaders. Photo by Ira Nowinski, courtesy of Stanford University Libraries

At a time when many libraries are moving away from building deep collections in favor of patron-driven acquisition and just-in-case models of collection development, the Stanford University Libraries continue to identify, select, and acquire important and unique collections. Our collection development is focused not only on supporting current scholarship, but also on supporting and inspiring future research.

Some examples of recent awesome collections we have acquired:

Stanford already thinks like a startup

On Saturday morning, I’ll be part of a panel discussion at ALA discussing Brian Mathews’ white paper “Think like a Startup: A white paper to inspire library entrepreneurialism.” (pdf) It’s a very good paper, full of fresh thinking and great ideas and examples about how to encourage innovation in libraries. I decided to jot my pre-discussion notes down here.

My first thought (and I’ve struggled with how to say this without sounding like an arrogant jerk), was “Great ideas .. but we’ve been thinking like a startup here at Stanford for years now.” My second thought was that I’m proud to work at a university described as “the germplasm for innovation”, and in a library described as having been “a juggernaut of innovation over the last 20 years”. So I’ve decided that I can take the panel as an opportunity to share with others what has worked for us at Stanford and what lessons we have learned along the way; and hopefully I won’t sound like an arrogant jerk while doing so.

I think Stanford’s success in producing innovation is a great example of Mathews’ assertion that real innovation requires a “strategic culture instead of a strategic plan”. Mathews rightly emphasizes the role of library administrators in fostering and inspiring an entrepreneurial spirit. I would add to that the fact that the Stanford Libraries have benefitted from a university administration and a general university culture that encourages and supports strategic innovation.

One major factor that supports innovative thinking and action at Stanford is the fact that we have the resources to innovate while also maintaining excellence in core services and resources. For example, although we deployed SearchWorks, our next generation discovery environment based on the open-source platform Blacklight out of UVa, in Fall of 2009; we have continued to maintain our legacy catalog, Socrates. Because we have the resources to maintain both systems, we can add innovative features (like the ability to load non-MARC metadata for digital objects and an image view for example) more quickly in SearchWorks, while not worrying (yet) about making sure that SearchWorks replicates essential functionality in Socrates.

Another lesson we have learned is that innovation has to be context-specific. For example, Stanford isn’t likely to adopt demand-driven acquisition models anytime soon (if ever); not because we aren’t innovative, but because we’re committed to collecting and preserving the scholarly record as broadly and deeply as possible. And 3d Printing isn’t something we are likely to start doing at the library, because Stanford has an innovative Product Realization Lab that has that covered. On the other hand, we’ve been doing visualization services for a while now, in part because we have faculty across many disciplines doing ground-breaking research with visual components.

I like what my boss says in the American Libraries article about why we innovate:

“The big idea isn’t innovation for its own sake, but rather, the question that we ask ourselves everyday is: ‘What opportunities and assets do we have that can make scholarship and learning better?’”

The focus on leveraging our assets is really key. When we make choices about what ideas to pursue, we look for places where we have unique talents and resources to offer. Rather than shifting away from what we have always done well, we build and expand on our traditional strengths in ways that support new research efforts. The Super Enlightenment Project is a great example of an innovative project that tapped curatorial expertise, traditional collections, technical expertise, and faculty interest.

When you have been thinking (and acting) like a start-up for as long as we have, you also have to find ways to sustain those innovations that continue to support research and teaching. One key aspect to that is making sure that our efforts are integrated, coordinated, and complementary. We are a big complex organization, with innovations happening in all corners, so making sure we build on each others’ successes rather than reinventing wheels is important. Making sure that we innovate openly helps, and our Library Concierge Project is definitely designed to promote collaborative innovation across the organization.

Hope to see y’all at the Think like a startup panel.

Report from Libraries Rebound

Stanford Rebounds. Credit: flickr user Han Shot First


As with most conferences and events, the best part of the OCLC Libraries Rebound event was meeting new colleagues and reconnecting with others. The event was live-cast and had a surprisingly active twitter stream (#LibRebound).

My official role at the event was as a reactor to the panel on Directly Supporting Researchers. Three others gave prepared presentations, and then three of us reacted. I rather liked the format, and the three of us who reacted agreed a few minutes before we started that we would each try to be interactive and at least mildly controversial in our reactions — with the goal of spurring a conversation with the larger group. I’m pretty pleased with how well that worked. I tried (and mostly succeeded) to stir up some conversation by asserting that subject librarians in research libraries need an advanced degree in the discipline (or a closely related one) that they support. Another comment I made that picked up some traffic on twitter was that we need to stop worrying about saving libraries and focus instead on supporting research (a theme I have surfaced here before).

The other fun debate that sprung up was around the notion that the value of Special Collections rests on their use. While I am sympathetic to the fact that we all face resource constraints and in some cases pressure to justify our very existence, I want more of us to stand our ground on the idea that libraries (especially research libraries) must collect for not just current scholars, but for the future. As I tweeted, if our predecessors collected only stuff that was of interest to scholars of their time, then our archives of women’s history, african american history, queer history, etc. would be even sparser than they are now. If we believe that history remains a relevant discipline, then we owe it to future scholars to collect more widely than current use would dictate.

Once I catch up on my real job, I hope to return to some of these topics more fully here — especially the idea that subject librarians ought to have advanced disciplinary degrees. Until then, let me just say that Libraries Rebound was a great event — well organized, good topics, fantastic discussions. Thanks to the folks at OCLC RLP for pulling it together.

I think I’ve become a Feral Humanist

This morning, I had the pleasure of giving the opening talk at the ABLD/EBSLG/APBSLG Joint Meeting being hosted here at Stanford. I don’t often get the chance to give a “think piece” sort of talk, so it was actually both challenging and loads of fun to prepare for. The theme of the conference was Business Library ROI: Measuring Usage and Identifying Value, so I decided to talk about my concerns with the ROI framework, calling my talk How ROI Killed the Academic Library: A Cautionary Tale.

My final slide. Pretty hokey, huh?

A funny thing happened as I wrote the talk … I realized that I very well may have become a Feral Humanist. I ended up talking about books, and archives, and even serendipity. I blame my humanities colleagues, at Stanford and on-line. You know who you are. Feel free to read the full talk and judge for yourself. Or, just take a look at my concluding remarks:

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

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

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

Thoughts from Charleston Conference

This was my second Charleston Conference, and I have some thoughts, in no particular order:

Publisher presence: One obvious strength of the Charleston Conference is the integration of vendors and publishers as collaborators with librarians, rather than merely as sales folks in a huge exhibit hall. Hearing publishers give substantive talks and engage in thoughtful dialogue with us about the current and future state of libraries, publishing and higher education is refreshing.

I stayed at a lovely Inn, but was a little unnerved by the painting of doleful bunnies in the bathroom


Diversity of libraries present: I really, really want to count this as a strength of the conference, but I’m not so sure. It seems to me that the differences between large research libraries and smaller libraries are becoming more pronounced. This parallels the well-established trend that the gap between rich and poor increases in times of economic scarcity. I just wonder if our shared challenges and opportunities are maybe not so shared after all. Frankly, sessions on Speed Weeding, Serials Gone Wild, and all kinds of patron-driven and/or just-in-time instead of just-in-case acquisition models are just not that relevant for the Stanford Libraries. Sure, we are selecting items for off-campus storage, but we aren’t de-accessioning anything, and we aren’t really cutting back on our commitment to deep and wide collection building. I wonder if the plenary talks on the need for Linked Open Data, collecting and preserving Data Papers, and exposing Hidden Collections (all of which require significant resources) seemed just as irrelevant to my colleagues at smaller institutions. I fear this all sounds really elitist, and I certainly don’t mean it that way. I was just really struck by the very different perspectives across kinds and sizes of libraries. I guess I don’t see it as much at conferences like ALA, because I tend to self-select into sessions and meetings focused on large research libraries.

Long Arm of the Law: I loved it last year, and am very glad it got an encore this year. What I would love to see next year is a panel with both University Counsel and Library administrators. Let’s have a dialogue about what librarians need to know about copyright. Let’s find out how University administrators, especially University Librarians, make decisions about when to play it safe, and when to move ahead with projects that put their institutions at risk of being sued.
Tweeting Charleston: The Charleston twittersphere got awfully lonely at times! Despite having a pre-designated hashtag, the percentage of active tweeters seemed pretty low to me. Clearly there were plenty of lurkers though, as several folks either DM’d me or told me in the hallway (apparently my avatar photo actually looks like me) that they enjoyed my tweets. Actually, some people just said they were reading my tweets, without noting whether they liked them or not … I think I might be too snarky for some tastes. Several of the speakers mentioned things they saw on the tweet stream, and I overheard conference organizers talking about what they saw there. As one of the more active tweeters at the conference, I have to say I wish the lurkers had chimed in. I really enjoyed the online dialogue with those who did engage, and would have enjoyed it more if more folks shared their thoughts, questions, lunch recommendations, style critiques, etc.

Size and identity: The Charleston Conference strikes me as a medium-to-large sized conference that still thinks of itself as a small, intimate gathering. I think it’s cool that there is a cadre of folks who have been to Charleston every year for 31 years. I have to assume that it is those bonds that inspire all the inside jokes, personal references, singing and skits. But, those same things which make Charleston feel personal for some, can feel cliquish and alienating to newbies. And some of us just aren’t that into skits and sing-alongs.

Browsing as scholarly version of gambling

Gambling Women, Trade Centre / Finland, Kotka / Flickr user flydime

I think and write about browsing and serendipity from time to time, and my perspective continues to evolve. I’m a big fan of online browsing possibilities, and firmly believe that serendipity can happen in online and physical environments. But, as I become more involved with humanities colleagues, I’m increasingly concerned about the potential loss of physical browsing and serendipity as libraries respond to budget and space pressures by gutting their collections.
Do scholars really browse physical collections? Do they really make great scholarly discoveries while browsing? Yep — sometimes they do.
The act of browsing libraries with the hope of finding a key unexpected resource is a kind of scholarly gambling. Although ground-breaking serendipitous findings are rare, they happen just often enough that the psychological appeal of variable rewards kicks in. And like gambling, big payoffs in serendipity are fairly widely publicized and rewarded (Da Vinci manuscript found, Jefferson book turns up). Just as lottery ticket sales tend to increase after a big win, stories and examples of scholarly serendipity serve to encourage new scholars to view libraries as deep mines, where they can dig around until they find some previously undiscovered jewels.

Another way that scholarly browsing is like gambling is that “winning” is not purely random. Just as “chance favours … the prepared mind”, there are countless ways to improve your chances at winning gambling games.

Scholars, like gamblers, are drawn to the idea of the big win, the possibility that this time they will find something awesome, unique, ground-breaking — that they will hit the jackpot. And the jackpot for scholars is usually something no one else has found or used. Which means that every low-use item we remove from our browsable collections — either for off-site storage, shared print repositories, or (gasp!) deaccessioning — reduces the odds of any given scholar hitting a big jackpot. By removing low-use items from our collections, we may be increasing the chances for small and medium payoffs, but we are drastically reducing the opportunities for big winners. By keeping only the stuff that is already being used, we are creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. In fact, we may very well be reducing the opportunities for truly innovative and original research.

Notes from HathiTrust Constitutional Convention

Ballot proposals, amendments (friendly and otherwise), coalition building, lobbying, weighted voting formulas, and roll-call votes are not usual features of librarian gatherings. But HathiTrust is no ordinary library collaboration, so the first HathiTrust Constitutional Convention was bound to be unusual as well.

General information about the Constitutional Convention (including original ballot proposals, agenda, and delegates list) was made available and open to the public for quite some time in advance of the convention. In another nod to transparency, facilitator extraordinaire Abby Smith Rumsey, put no restrictions of blogging, tweeting, or otherwise broadcasting the proceedings, except to encourage us to “Tweet Responsibly.” Although there were only a few of us who took her up on the challenge, you can check out the hashtag #htcc to see how well we did.

So, what actually happened at the HTCC, and what does it mean?

The scorecard:
Proposals 1, 2, 3, 4, & 7 passed
Proposal 5 was tabled
Proposal 6 failed

Amendments made it into most of the proposals (with Jeremy York doing an incredible job of editing on the fly); but my recollection is that few of the amendments changed anything substantial about the intent of the proposals. Given how awesomely open Hathi has been about everything to date, I expect the amended proposals will be available soon.

My thoughts and observations:

Proposal 1, Print Archive:
In passing this proposal, HathiTrust members agreed that HathiTrust will “establish a distributed print monograph archiving program among HathiTrust member libraries.”
I actually expected much more discussion and pushback on this amendment, but it sailed through fairly smoothly. The comments during the pre-vote discussion centered around whether tackling print archiving would detract from the core mission and how much compensation would be provided to institutions that agreed to provide the archival home for selected titles. The answer on compensation for archive holders is that compensation will be partial (token?) only – under the wise assumption that institutions and storage facilities that make preservation commitments would be preserving that content anyway.
Stanford is a non-contributing member of HathiTrust right now, so we respectfully abstained from this vote.

Proposal 2, Development Initiative Review Approval Process:
As far as I recall this passed with little debate, save the general warnings and concerns over allowing HathiTrust to become overly-beauracratized.
Stanford voted Yes.

Proposal 3, Governance:
Because it concerned future governance, Proposal 3 was actually the first one we tackled. It was amended to increase from 3 to 5 years the terms for the Board of Governors, and passed rather easily. Of note is that while the Board of Governors includes 5 members elected at-large, the election for Board members will be conducted using the weighted voting formula based on investments and contributions. I expect it would be nearly impossible for anyone not from one of the consortial members (CIC and the UCs) to get elected, unless the “independents” do some organized coalition building and agree to back a single candidate to represent their common interests. That could be really interesting, as the list of institutions with Single digit votes includes a pretty diverse mix of large & small, publics & privates. It will be interesting to see if that diverse group can find enough common ground to form an effective coalition to represent their interests (assuming we even have collective interests with respect to HathiTrust).
Stanford voted Yes.

Proposal 4, U.S. Federal Documents:
Here is where we started to get bogged down in some wordsmithing, finally agreeing to substitute “publications” for “documents” (with “publications” being considered the more inclusive term); and adding language that expanded the proposal to include born-digital Federal Publications. In principle, I’m in favor of just about any efforts at preserving, inventorying, cataloging and providing improved access to Federal Documents/Publications, and I think that HathiTrust putting resources into this is a good thing. I do hope, that those guiding this effort on behalf of the HathiTrust membership will rise above the current ASERL v GPO controversy, so that HathiTrust can work effectively with the GPO for the common good. I also hope that HathiTrust will leverage the terrific work already done by my colleagues at LOCKSS in providing distributed preservation of born-digital documents.
Stanford voted Yes.

Proposal 5, Mission & Goals:
Things really got interesting once we started talking about whether HathiTrust should expand its mission and focus from digitized print materials to include digital assets of all formats. Essentially, the proposal was to allow HathiTrust to expand to include the ingest and archiving of all kinds of digital stuff – “audio and video files, art slides, research data, museum specimens, born-digital files, etc.”
This is where the concerns over Mission Creep got pretty serious – with one delegate declaring this a case of not just Mission Creep, but Mission Leap. One of my favorite moments of the convention was when someone suggested that now may be exactly the time when we need not just Mission Creep, but Mission Leap. It was a great moment not because I necessarily agree, but because I think it brought the conversation to a level we needed it at, and because I think we need more moments that acknowledge the major philosophical approaches that sometimes divide us.

After lots of amemdments and wordsmithing, someone finally proposed that we table this proposal. The motion to table the proposal and refer the issue of mission to the incoming Board of Governors passed unanimously.
Stanford voted Yes to tabling the proposal.

Proposal 6, Implementation Review Committee:
Although the intent of this proposal was to complement Proposal 2, the general consensus in the room seemed to be that it was redundant to Proposal 2. Moreover, some delegates thought that the Board of Governors established in Proposal 3 would be empowered to develop processes to address the kinds of concerns that prompted this proposal. The proposal failed.
Stanford voted No.

Proposal 7, Fee for service, Content Deposit:
This proposal allows HathiTrust to develop and vet a process that would allow institutions to pay to deposit content in Hathi for preservation, but not become members of HathiTrust (and therefore not partake in the benefits of membership). It passed unanimously, and with little debate.
Stanford voted Yes.

I hope my fellow delegates will correct anything I got wrong above, and add anything I forgot. With the exception of the fact that the hotel served Pepsi products rather than Coke, I found the proceedings to be exceptionally well-run, important, and interesting. Kudos to all the folks involved in the planning and execution.

 

(Updated Oct 12, 2011 to add some links and correct some grammar.)

Jazzed about new acquisitions at Stanford

The Stanford University Libraries have picked up 2 truly awesome new collections recently:

What I love about both these collections and our plans for them is that they reflect our dual commitment to continuing to build world-class physical collections, while aggressively exploiting digital technologies to provide enhanced access to the collections we acquire. We kinda rock!


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