Posts Tagged 'inequality'

Never neutral: Libraries, technology, and inclusion

Below is the text from the OLITA Spotlight talk I gave at the OLA Super Conference (#olasc15).

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I want to acknowledge from the outset that this talk has been heavily influenced by a number of people who have shared their work and their thoughts with me over the years. I’ve been privileged to learn from them, in some cases formally through their publications and in some cases through conversations on twitter or even in person. These aren’t the only folks whose work and thinking influences me, but they are the key people I think of when I think of critical work on the intersections of libraries, technology, higher education and social justice.  These are their names – a mix of students, librarians, scholars, and technologists. Again, this is not a comprehensive list of the people whose work inspires me, but they are my top 7 right now on these topics.

Let me also acknowledge that I’m well aware that the fact that I am a white woman working at an elite private US university gives me access to a platform like this one to talk about issues of bias and exclusion in libraries and technology. But there are plenty of folks who have been and continue to talk about and write about these issues, with far more insight and eloquence than I can, but who don’t get invitations like this for a variety of reasons. And the sad truth is that what I say, as an associate director at Stanford Libraries or as Director of MIT Libraries, often gets more attention than it deserves because of my title; while folks with less impressive titles and less privilege have been talking & thinking about some of these issues for longer than me and have insights that we all need to hear.

So next time you are looking for a speaker, please consider one of the names listed above.

If you read the blurb describing this talk, you know that a fundamental tenet that undergirds this talk, and frankly undergirds much of the work I have done in and for libraries, is the simple assertion that libraries are not now nor have they ever been merely neutral repositories of information. In fact, I’m personally not sure “neutral” is really possible in any of our social institutions … I think of neutral as really nothing more than a gear in your car.

Title slide for Never Neutral talk

Title slide for Never Neutral talk

But what I mean when I say libraries are not neutral is not just that that libraries absorb and reflect the inequalities, biases, ethnocentrism, and power imbalances that exist throughout our host societies and (for those of us who work in academic libraries) within higher education.

I mean that libraries are not neutral in a more direct and active way.

For an exceptionally compelling take on libraries as not just not neutral, but as instruments themselves of institutional oppression, please read “Locating the Library in Institutional Oppression” by my friend and colleague nina de jesus.

nina argues that “Libraries as institutions were created not only for a specific ideological purpose, but for an ideology that is fundamentally oppressive in nature.” It is a bold argument, convincingly made; and I urge you to read it. As a bonus, the article itself is Open Access and nina elected to use only Open Access sources in writing it.

So I start with the premise that it isn’t just that libraries aren’t perfectly equitable or neutral because we live in a society that still suffers from racism, sexism. ableism, transphobia and other forms of bias and inequity; but libraries also fail to achieve any mythical state of neutrality because we contribute to bias and inequality in scholarship, and publishing, and information access.

Let me step back for a minute and own up to a few of my own biases – my library career thus far has been solely and squarely within large academic libraries; so my perspective, my examples, and my concerns come out of that experience and are likely most relevant to that sector of libraries. But, I hope we can have a conversation at the end of my talk about what the differences and similarities might be between the way these issues play out in large academic libraries and the way they play out in all kinds and sizes of libraries. I’m also definitely speaking from an American perspective, and I look forward to hearing where and how cultural differences intersect with the ideas I’ll talk about.

OK – so libraries are not neutral because we exist within societies and systems that are not neutral. But above and beyond that, libraries also contribute to certain kinds of inequalities because of the way in which we exercise influence over the diversity (or lack thereof) of information we make available to our communities and the methods by which we provide access to that information.

I have a whole other talk that I’ve given on how the collection development decisions we make impact not just how inclusive or not our own collections are, but also what kinds of books and authors and topics get published. The short version of that talk is that when we base our purchasing decisions on circulation and popularity, we eliminate a big part of the market for niche topics and underrepresented authors. That is bad for libraries, bad for publishing, and bad for society. But that’s another talk. This talk is about library technologies.

But before we get into technology per se., I think a word about our classification systems is necessary, because the choices we make about how our technologies handle metadata and catalog records have consequences for how existing biases and exclusions get perpetuated from our traditional library systems into our new digital libraries.

Many of you are likely well aware of the biases present in library classification systems.
Hope Olson – one of the heroes of feminist and critical thinking in library science – has done considerable work on applying critical feminist approaches to knowledge organization to demonstrate the ways in which libraries exert control over how books and other scholarly items are organized and therefore how, when, and by whom they are discoverable.

Our classification schemes — whether Dewey Decimal  or Library of Congress — are hierarchical, which leads to the marginalization of certain kinds of knowledge and certain topics by creating separate sub-classifications for topics such as “women and computers” or “black literature”.

Let me give a couple of examples of the effects of this.

3 books about gays in military

Call numbers matter

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 has been given a call number corresponding to “Minorities, women, etc. in armed forces”.  In my own library at Stanford University, 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 — a collection of stories by people with a passion for military men.  Now I’m not saying we shouldn’t have books about gay military porn stars or about those who love men in uniform. I am saying that there is nothing neutral about the fact that the history of gay & lesbian service members is categorized alongside these titles, while the history of “ordinary soldiers” (that’s from an actual book title) is shelved under “United States, History – Military.”

Another example is one I learned of from my friend and colleague Myrna Morales, and you can read about it in an article I co-authored with her and Em Claire Knowles. In that article, Myrna writes about her experience doing research for her undergraduate thesis on the Puerto Rican political activism that took place in NYC in the 1960s, with a special interest in the Young Lords Party.

Here is how Myrna described her experience:

I first searched for the YLP with the subject heading “organizations,” subheading “political organization,” in the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature. Here I found no mention of the YLP. I was surprised, as I had known the YLP to be a prominent political organization—one that addressed political disenfranchisement, government neglect, and poverty. A (twisted) gut feeling told me to look under the subject heading of “gangs.” There it was—Young Lords Party. This experience changed my view of the library system, from one impervious to subjectivity and oppression to one that hid within the rhetoric of neutrality while continuing to uphold systemic injustices.

I suspect that this kind of experience is all too common for people of color and other marginalized people who attempt to use the resources we provide. I’ll go so far as to wonder if these sorts of experiences aren’t at least partially responsible for the incredibly low proportion of people of color who pursue careers in librarianship.

So our traditional practices and technologies are not neutral, and without active intervention we end up with collections that lack diversity and we end up classifying and arranging our content in ways that further marginalizes works by and about people of color, queer people, indigenous peoples, and others who don’t fit neatly into a classification system that sets the default as the as western, white, straight, and male.

Of course, the promise of technology is that we no longer need rely on arcane cataloging rules and browsing real library stacks to discover and access relevant information. With the advent of online catalogs and search engines, books and other information items can occupy multiple “places” in a library or collection.

But despite the democratizing promise of technology, our digital libraries are no more capable of neutrality than our traditional libraries; and the digital tools we build and provide are likely to reflect and perpetuate stereotypes, biases, and inequalities unless we engage in conscious acts of resistance.

Now when most people talk about bias in tech generally or in library technology, we talk about either the dismal demographics that show that white women and people of color are way underrepresented in technology, or we talk about the generally misogynistic and racist and homophobic culture of technology; or we talk about both demographics and culture and how they are mutually reinforcing. What we talk about less often is this notion that the technology itself is biased – often gendered and/or racist, frequently ableist, and almost always developed with built in assumptions about binary gender categories.

For some folks, the idea that technologies themselves can be gendered, or can reflect racially based and/or other forms of bias is pretty abstract. So let me give a few examples.

Most librarians will agree that commercial search engines are not “neutral” in the sense that commercial interests and promoted content can and do impact relevancy. Or, as my colleague Bess Sadler says, the idea of neutral relevance is an oxymoron.

Safiya Noble’s work demonstrates how the non-neutrality of commercial search engines reinforce and perpetuate stereotypes, despite the fact that many assume the “algorithm” is neutral.

What Noble’s analysis of Google shows us is that Google’s algorithm reinforces the sexualization of women, especially black and Latina women. Because of Google’s “neutral” reliance on popularity, page rank, and promoted content, the results for searches for information on black girls or Latina girls are dominated by links to pornography and other sexualized content. Noble suggests that users “Try Google searches on every variation you can think of for women’s and girls’ identities and you will see many of the ways in which commercial interests have subverted a diverse (or realistic) range of representations.”

Search technologies are not neutral – just as basing collection development decisions on popularity ensures that our collections reflect existing biases and inequalities, so too does basing relevancy ranking within our search products on popularity ensure the same biases persist in an online environment.

But it isn’t just search engines. In an article called “Teaching the Camera to see my skin”, photographer Syreeta McFadden describes how color film and other photographic technologies were developed around trying to measure the image against white skin. Because the default settings for everything from film stock to lighting to shutter speed were and are designed to best capture white faces; it is difficult to take photos of non-white faces that will be accurately rendered without performing post-image adjustments that sacrifice the sharpness and glossy polish that is readily apparent in photos of white faces.

Teaching the camera to see my skin

Teaching the camera to see my skin

Finally, in an example of a technology that betrays its lack of neutrality by what it ignores, Apple’s recently released health app allows users to track a seemingly endless array of health and fitness related information on their iPhone. But strangely, Apple’s health app did not include a feature for tracking menstrual cycles – an important piece of health data for a huge percentage of the population. As one critic noted, Apple insists that all iPhone uses have an app to track Stock prices – you can’t delete that one from your phone — but fails to provide an option for tracking menstrual cycles in its “comprehensive” health tracking application.

I hope these examples demonstrate that technology does not exist as neutral artifacts and tools that might sometimes get used in oppressive and exclusionary ways. Rather, technology itself has baked-in biases that perpetuate existing inequalities and exclusions, and that reinforce stereotypes.

So how do we intervene, how do we engage in acts of resistance to create more inclusive, less biased technologies?

Note that I don’t think we can make completely neutral technologies … but I do think we can do better.

One way we might do better is simply by being aware and by asking the questions that the great black feminist thinkers taught us to ask:

Who is missing?

Whose experience is being centered?

Many, many folks argued – rather convincingly to my mind – that the dearth of women working at Apple may have contributed to the company’s ability to overlook the need for menstrual cycle tracking in its health app.

So we might also work on recruiting and retaining more white women and people of color into library technology teams and jobs. There is much good work being done on trying to increase the diversity of the pipeline of people coming into technology – Black Girls Code and the Ada Initiative are examples of excellent work of this type.

I also think the adoption of strong codes of conduct at conferences like this one and other library and technology events make professional development opportunities more welcoming and potentially safer for all – and I think those are important steps in the right direction.

But in the end, one of the biggest issues we need to address if we truly want a more diverse set of people developing the technologies we use is the existence of a prevailing stereotype about who the typical tech worker is.

I want to turn now to some research on how stereotypes about who does technology, and who is good at it, affect how interested different kinds of people are in pursuing technology related fields of study, how well people expect they will perform at tech tasks, and how well people already working in tech feel they fit in, and how likely they are to stay in tech fields.

First a definition – Stereotypes are widely shared cultural beliefs about categories of people and social roles. The insidious thing about stereotypes is that even if we personally don’t subscribe to a particular stereotype, just knowing that a stereotype exists can affect our behavior.

Second, a caution – much of this research focuses on gender, to the exclusion of intersecting social identities such as race, sexuality, or gender identity. The research that talks about “women’s” behavior and attitudes towards technology is usually based on straight white women .. so keep that in mind, and recognize that much more research is needed to capture the full range of experiences that marginalized people have with and in technology.

That said, there is a huge body of research documenting the effect of negative stereotypes about women’s math and science abilities. These kinds of stereotypes lead to discriminatory decision making that obstructs women’s entry into and advancement in science and technology jobs. Moreover, negative stereotypes about women and math affects women’s own self-assessment of their skill level, interest, and suitability for science and technology jobs.

Barbie "Math is hard"

Barbie “Math is hard”

In a not yet published research study of men and women working in Silicon Valley technology firms, Stanford sociologists Alison Wynn and Shelley Correll looked at the impact of how well tech workers felt they matched the cultural traits of a successful tech worker on a number of outcomes.

First they developed a composite scale based on how tech employees, men and women, described successful tech workers. The stereotype that emerged was masculine, obsessive, assertive, cool, geeky, young, and working long hours.

Their data show that women tech workers are significantly less likely than their male counterparts to view themselves as fitting the cultural image of a successful tech worker.  While that may not be a surprising finding, their research goes on to show that the sense of not fitting the cultural image has consequences.

Because women are less likely to feel they fit the image of a successful tech worker, they are less likely to identify with the tech field, more likely to consider leaving the tech field for another career, and less likely to report positive treatment from their supervisors.

The bottom line is that cultural fit matters – not just in the pipeline, as women decide whether to major in STEM fields or to pursue tech jobs – but also among women who are currently working in technology. In other words, stereotypes about tech work and tech workers continue to hinder women even after they have entered tech careers. If we want to ensure that our technologies are built by diverse and inclusive groups of people, we have to find ways to break down the stereotypes and cultural images associated with tech work.

How do we do that?

If we want to look to success stories, Carnegie Mellon University is a good example. At Carnegie Mellon they increased the percentage of women majoring in computer science from 7% in 1995 to 42% in 2000 by explicitly trying to change the cultural image of computer scientists. Faculty were encouraged to discuss multiple ways to be a computer scientist and to emphasize the real world applications of computer science and how computer science connects to other disciplines. They also offered computer science classes that explicitly stated that no prerequisites in math or computer science were required.

For libraries, we can talk about multiple ways to be a library technologist, and we can emphasize the value of a wide variety of skills in working on library tech projects – metadata skills, user experience skills, design skills. We can provide staff with opportunities to gain tech skills in low-threat environments and in environments where white women and people of color are less likely to feel culturally alienated.

RailsBridge workshops and AdaCamps seem like good fits here, and I’d like to see more library administrators encouraging staff from across their org’s to attend such training. At Stanford, my colleagues Bess Sadler and Cathy Aster started basic tech training workshops for women on the digital libraries’ staff who were doing tech work like scanning, but who didn’t see themselves as tech workers. Providing the opportunity to learn and ask questions, in a safe environment away from their supervisors and male co-workers gave these women skills and confidence that enhanced their work and the work of their groups.

Another simple way we can make progress within our own organizations is to pay attention to the physical markers of culture.

In a fascinating experimental study, psychologist Sapna Cheryan and colleagues found that women who enter a computer science environment that is decorated with objects stereotypically associated with the field – such as Star Trek posters — are less likely to consider pursuing computer science than women who enter a computer science environment with non-stereotypical objects — such as nature or travel posters. These results held even when the proportion of women in the environment was equal across the two differently decorated settings.

We need to pay attention to the computer labs and maker spaces in our libraries, and we need to pay attention to physical work environments our technical staff work in. By simply ensuring that these environments aren’t plastered with images and objects associated with the stereotypes about “tech guys”, we will remove one of the impediments to women’s sense of cultural fit.

So let me try to sum up here.

I’ve argued that like libraries, technology is never neutral. I’ve offered examples from search engines to photography to Apple’s health tracking app.

I’ve talked about how the pervasive stereotypes about who does tech work limit women’s participation in tech fields, through both supply and demand side mechanisms.

The stereotypes about tech workers also contain assumptions about race and sexuality in the US context, in that the stereotypical tech guy is white (or Asian) and straight. Sadly, there is significantly less research on the effect of those stereotypes on black and Latino men and women and queer people who are also vastly underrepresented in technology work.

Let me offer some parting thoughts on how we might make progress.

To borrow from the conference theme, we need to think and we need to do.

We need to think about the technology we use in our libraries, and ask where and how it falls short of being inclusive. Whose experiences and preferences are privileged in the user design? Whose experiences are marginalized? Then we need to do what we can to push for more inclusive technology experiences. We likewise need to be transparent with our patrons about how the technology works and where and how the biases built into that technology might affect their experience. The folks who do work in critical information literacy provide great models for this.

We should think about how libraries and library staff reinforces stereotypes about technology and technology work. Subtle changes can make a difference. We should drop the term “tech guy” from our vocabulary and we should ditch the Star Trek posters. I’d like to see more libraries provide training and multiple paths for staff to develop tech skills and to become involved in technology projects. We need to pay attention to the demographics and to the culture – and remember that they are mutually reinforcing.

We also need to remember that we aren’t striving for neutral, and we aren’t aiming for perfectly equitable and inclusive technology.

While neutral technologies are not possible – or necessarily desirable – I believe that an awareness of the ways in which technology embodies and perpetuates existing biases and inequalities will help us make changes that move us towards more inclusive and equitable technologies.

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:

Access to information and socio-economic status

In Online Information, Ebooks, and Moral Panic, Rick Anderson asks:

What percentage of poor children has access to a decent public library collection, as compared to the percentage that has access to the Internet?

It is a very important question and gets at the kind of information librarians need as we make decisions about how to provide the best possible access to information to the widest possible set of people.

Some time ago, I joked on twitter “Never ask a librarian a hypothetical question … you are likely to get a real answer … with citations.” I guess I should amend that to “Never ask a hypothetical question on a library blog … you’re likely to get a real answer …with data.”

So yes, let’s see if we can answer that question. First, we need to operationalize our concepts in ways that render them measurable. Easier said than done, it turns out; but let’s give it a go.

If the point of the question is to determine whether an ebook or other online information is more accessible to low-income patrons than print, then I think it is fair to operationalize “access to the Internet” as “access to the Internet at home”. In my opinion that is a rather conservative measure of access to the Internet, since many people (especially kids) in low-income families share computers, making it more difficult to read long-form information than for those who own their own computer or e-reader. But let’s go with “access to the Internet at home” as our measure of access to e-books and other online information.

According to a June 2013 report prepared by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the Economics and Statistics Administration, and the US Department of Commerce: “Just under half (46 percent) of households with incomes of less than $25,000 access the Internet at home.”

Operationalizing “access to a decent public library collection” is even more difficult. In theory, everyone has access to public libraries, right? But meaningful access really means a library that can be accessed via a reasonable commute – preferably walking or safe, affordable public transportation. Good luck finding a measure of that. On the other hand, it seems safe to assume that visiting a public library indicates access to a public library. In fact, using “visited a public library” as a measure of access is likely to grossly underestimate access — surely we can agree that more people have access to a public library than actually visits one, right? But let’s play it safe and go with actually visiting a public library as our measure of “access to a public library”.

Since I couldn’t find any articles or reports containing statistics about public library access or use, I decided to use the SDA: Survey Documentation and Analysis site from UC Berkeley to do some quick and dirty analysis of the General Social Survey data. A quick cross-tab tells us that in 2008 65% of respondents in households with household incomes under $25,000/year visited a public library at least once in the past year. In 2012, 64% of such respondents visited a public library at least once. I used the VISLIB variable (asked in 2008 & 2012 only) and the INCOME variable, recoding them both into dichotomous variables for simplicity’s sake. Please feel free to do your own analysis.

“What percentage of poor children has access to a decent public library collection?”
At least 65%.
“…as compared to the percentage that has access to the Internet?”
No more than 46%.

Online information is less accessible than printed information in a public library to the 54% of poor kids who do not have home internet access. Sure, those kids can access online information at their public library, but unlike the printed books, they can’t check that online information out and take it home with them. Any assertion that online information is radically more accessible than print ignores the reality that online information is radically inaccessible to over half of our poorest citizens. Note also that only 57% of African-American households and 58% of Hispanic households have home internet access (pg. 26, Exploring the Digital Divide), so ebooks and other online information is pretty inaccessible to over 40% of African-Americans & Hispanics too.

Another question Anderson poses is “If you really want to get a book into the hands of a maximum-possible number of poor kids, is encoding it into a physical document (rather than, say, making it available via cellphone) really the best way to do it?”

Considering that even among low-income individuals who own a cell phone, only 55% of them use their phones to go online (Cell Internet Use 2013, from Pew), making information available via cellphone may not get that info into more poor kids’ hands than having it available in a public library (where 65% of low-income kids will visit in a year).

Another bit of data from the Pew Internet report on e-book reading is suggestive of whether print books or ebooks are more accessible to poor kids. According to the Pew data, 19% of people with household incomes below $30,000/year read at least 1 ebook in 2012, compared to 44% at the highest income levels. E-book reading is growing across all income categories, but at a much slower rate among low-income individuals than among higher-income readers.

The difference in reading between income levels shrinks considerably when you look at reading on all platforms (print and electronic), with 66% of those in the lowest income bracket reading at least 1 book, compared to 84% in the highest income bracket. Moreover, there is little difference between the mean number of books read by low-income readers (14), and the mean number read by high-income readers (15). Actual behavior would seem to indicate that being in a low-income household has a stronger negative impact on ebook reading than on reading across all platforms.

I long for the day when technology really does fulfill the promise of enabling equal access to all kinds of information for all kinds of people. But the data I can find sure seem to indicate that we simply are not there yet, and I believe that “solutions” that ignore that reality are likely to increase rather than mitigate current inequalities.

Final note: I would love to be wrong about this. If anyone has different data and/or does a more careful analysis of the GSS data and proves me wrong, bring it.

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.


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