Posts Tagged 'information literacy'

The Neoliberal Library: Resistance is not futile

Here is the text of the talk I gave at Duke University Libraries on January 14. As usual, the questions & discussion were better than the talk. Also, please check out the partial list of sources for this talk.

 

As a Duke alum, I really wish I could ease into this talk with tales of roaming the stacks in Perkins way back when.  But unfortunately, they would be just tales … and rather tall ones at that. I have to admit that I just didn’t spend much time in the library as an undergrad. I just wasn’t that kind of student.

I was here from 1983-1987, or as my classmates and I refer to it – the time of Johnny Dawkins, Jay Bilas, Mark Alarie, Tommy Ammaker and Danny Ferry. I spent way more time in Cameron and in Krzyzewskiville than in Perkins.  I guess I’m just a late bloomer when it comes to my love of libraries.

The first Krzyzewskiville, 1986. From Kimberly Reed's Krzyzewskiville Collection

The first Krzyzewskiville,
1986. From Kimberly Reed’s Krzyzewskiville Collection

I actually thought about using this talk as a way to share some ideas about how academic libraries could reach students like me … but I’m not sure I have any ideas that Duke isn’t already implementing. I love the Crazy Smart campaign, the Library Party, and the awesome study breaks you all host.

So I really don’t have anything to say to y’all about how to get students like me to use the library.  I’m certain that if I got a second chance to be a Duke undergrad, I would hang out at the library all the time – heck, I want to hang out here all the time now. And just in case there is anyone here who was part of the library back in the 1980’s, trust me when I say it was me, not you.

So I know the topic is “Research Libraries and different clientele”, but I hope you will indulge me as I take this topic in a perhaps unexpected direction. In some ways it would be easy to use the topic to talk about how we ought to design our services and collections to serve the different needs of undergraduates, graduate students, faculty — even alumni and donors and the general public.

Another obvious direction for this talk, especially given my interest in diversity and social justice, would be to talk about different clientele in terms of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender and other forms of social difference. After all, librarianship remains nearly 90% white and over 80% female; while the projected college student population for 2021 is expected to be 58% white, and 58% female , with 17% of students being African American, 17% Hispanic, & 7% Asian/Pacific Islander.

So it might be easy to talk about how librarianship needs to address it’s own lack of diversity if we want to have any hope of reflecting and serving an increasingly diverse clientele.

But I decided to take the topic in a perhaps unexpected & decidedly more theoretical direction, because I think the future of research libraries depends on librarians making conscious choices about what a library is and who and what we serve.

So let’s talk first a bit about the whole notion that libraries, and universities, have clients – a concept I am frankly not very comfortable with and would like to challenge a bit.

It is true that our students, and their parents, are in fact increasingly approaching college with the expectation of gaining the marketable skills and credentials they need to compete in the job market.  Faculty mostly see us as their buying agent – they want us to provide access to the research materials they need for their research and they then want us to buy their books and the journals they publish in.  The university administration wants us to run ourselves more efficiently (“like a business”), and in some cases want us to find ways to turn some of our services into cost-recovery or profit centers.

The current reality for many research libraries certainly lends itself to thinking of our users and stakeholders as clients or even customers. We have the goods and services they need, and the whole system works best when we find the most efficient way to deliver those goods & services. And, of course, since everyone knows that academia is hopelessly inefficient; we must look to the business world for models of how to best serve our customers and to the “start-up” culture of silicon valley to learn how to innovate.

Shenanigans

Shenanigans, by flickr user binkmeisterrick

Well, if you have read any of my previous writings, you know how I feel about that.  I call shenanigans on that approach to libraries and the future of libraries. It is a philosophy that is (sometimes consciously, sometimes unwittingly) steeped in neoliberalism, and it embodies a definition of libraries that is at odds with my understanding of the core values of our profession – values like Democracy, Diversity, the Public Good, and Social Responsibility.

So what I really want to talk about is my belief that Neoliberalism is toxic for higher education, but research libraries can & should be sites of resistance.

To do that, it would probably be good to define neoliberalism. What is neoliberalism?

There are plenty of definitions – but I like this one from Daniel Saunders, who defines neoliberalism as “a varied collection of ideas, practices, policies and discursive representations … united by three broad beliefs: the benevolence of the free market, minimal state intervention and regulation of the economy, and the individual as a rational economic actor.”

Neoliberal thinking emphasizes individual competition, and places primary value on “employability” and therefore on an individual’s accumulation of human capital and marketable skills.

A key feature of neoliberalism is the extension of market logic into previously non-economic realms – in particular into key social, political and cultural institutions.

We can see this when political candidates promote their experience running a successful business as a reason to vote for them, and in the way market language and metaphors have seeped into so many social and cultural realms.

For example, Neoliberalism is what leads us to talk about things like “the knowledge economy”, where we start to think of knowledge not as a process but as a kind of capital that an individual can acquire so that she then can sell that value to the market.

This is where I pause to ask if you have heard the joke about the Marxist and the Neoliberal? The Marxist laments that all a worker has to sell is his labor power. The Neoliberal offers courses on marketing your labor power.

The Neoliberal joke

The joke about the Marxist & the Neoliberal

So OK, Neoliberalism is a thing, a pervasive thing, and it includes the extension of market language, metaphors, and logic into non-economic realms – of special concern to us is the extension of neoliberal market frameworks into higher education and into libraries.

And it is really important to remember that one of the really insidious things about ideologies as pervasive as neoliberalism is that we barely notice them – they become taken for granted the way a fish doesn’t know it is in water, or the way many of us Dukies assume an obsession with college basketball is normal.

Obviously, I think this is a bad thing – not the obsession w/ college basketball, of course — but  the neoliberal encroachment on education.

I am one of those hopeless idealists who still believes that education is – or should be – a social and public good rather than a private one, and that the goal of higher education should be to promote a healthy democracy and an informed citizenry. And I believe libraries play a critical role in contributing to that public good of an informed citizenry.

So the fact that the neoliberal turn in education over the last several decades has led to a de-emphasis on education as a public good and an emphasis on education as a private good, to be acquired by individuals to further their own goals is of particular concern to me.

In the neoliberal university, students are individual customers, looking to acquire marketable skills. Universities (and teachers and libraries) are evaluated on clearly defined outcomes, and on how efficiently they achieve those outcomes.  Sound familiar?

We can find evidence of this neoliberal approach in plenty of recent trends in higher education – which are almost shocking in how blatantly they rely on a market model of education. The penetration of neoliberal thinking in higher education is so pervasive that it is no longer just market metaphors – colleges recruit students with blatant appeals to their economic self-interest and the mainstream argument for a strong education system is that it is an economic imperative – that we, as a nation, must invest in education in order to compete as a nation in the global economy.

As an example – This very recent article on fastcompany.com – Does Ikea hold the secret to the future of college? – reads almost like a parody of an unabashed, uncritical, unselfconscious neoliberal approach to higher education.

In discussing his enthusiasm for bringing his special brand of for-profit eduction to Africa, one educational entrepreneur explains, “There are a lot of young people in Africa who could be Steve Jobs”.  It is no mistake that the justification for bringing “higher education” to Africa rests on the image of one of the richest & whitest men in America — someone who also happens to be a college drop-out, by the way.

In the article, the founder of First Atlantic University freely admits that he started this for-profit, blended learning institution in Africa as a solution to the hiring problems that his microelectronics firm is having. The real problem here is not that this dude has created a for-profit job training program that provides not only direct financial benefit to him but also provides a pipeline of future employees trained to meet his company’s labor needs … the problem is in calling that education instead of job training.

But it isn’t only the new for-profit universities that privilege corporate interests and the production of new workers.

All across the spectrum of higher education, including at institutions like ours, resources are shifting towards standardized market-driven curricula and programs and towards producing not the next generation of critically engaged citizens but rather the next generation of entrepreneurs.

Research libraries are, of course, not immune to the effects of neoliberal thinking and policies. I see it seeping into just about everything we do, and I hope we can talk about where you all see it (or not) and what we might do to resist it.

So, let me seed the conversation with a few of my own observations about the neoliberal influence on various areas of research libraries.

In terms of instruction & reference, neoliberal thinking tells us that information literacy provides students with a discrete set of skills (which we can easily measure and assess) that will help them on the job market.

Neoliberal thinking tells us a successful reference “transaction” provides the patron with the most efficient answer to their immediate information need. Neoliberal thinking mocks the idea that library instruction and reference might be about encouraging students to think critically not only about their own information consumption but also about the whole system of knowledge creation & access, and about who controls how we search and what we find. Neoliberalism scoffs at the idea that librarians ought to encourage browsing and serendipity and other forms of “inefficient” research and learning.

Neoliberalism frames this as a contrast between giving patrons what they want vs what giving them what we think they need. That formulation is a rhetorical strategy that makes librarians sound like condescending bunheads who aren’t hip to what the kids need.

What I want to suggest is that we can and should resist that rhetoric – both because it is incredibly sexist and ageist and because the tension is not between what our patrons ask for and what we want to give them; the tension is between a neoliberal, transaction model of library services and a model based on the mission of promoting critical thinking and equipping students to interrogate power and authority.

Neoliberalism has also really seeped into the way we think about collection development. We have become obsessed with measuring the value (defined almost always in terms of use only) of every item in our collection so that we can pare down our collection to its leanest, most efficient form. We are assigning actual dollar values to how much it costs to keep a book on a shelf, so that we can prove how much money our shared print storage programs save us … with no real consideration given to the non-monetary benefits of having large world-class print collections, on many topics and in many languages, in one location.

In many cases, we’ve also turned over collection development to the market by signing on to Patron Driven Acquisitions programs that essentially signal that we trust the free market to build our collections.

Neoliberalism has affected library staffing models as well. Whatever you think of faculty status for librarians (and my thoughts on that issue are constantly evolving), there is no denying that the erosion of faculty status and job security for librarians is tied to the same neoliberal emphasis on cost-cutting that is leading to the adjunct crisis across higher education.

Finally there is our obsession with assessment, and with justifying everything based on statistics and ROI or Return on Investment. I actually have a whole talk on why the ROI paradigm is a bad fit for libraries, so let me just say that it isn’t assessment per se that is a problem in libraries – it is the fact that we rarely measure things that actually matter (or should matter to us), and we rarely know how much of what we are measuring we are looking for.

But I guess the real question is Where should we go from here?

Dog in truck asks Where now?

Where now? Photo credit Katie Young & Liz Gaudet

I’m not entirely sure, but like any good entrepreneur, I have a 3 step plan to get us started.

The first step is awareness. I urge librarians to critically examine the philosophical underpinnings of our own policies and programs. Read the works of critical scholars who call attention to the “scourge of neoliberalism” affecting higher education and ask yourselves where is that manifest in my own work?

Where is it manifest in the work of the thought leaders of librarianship – those who offer roadmaps for the future of academic libraries that involve thinking like start-ups and ceding responsibilities for general collections to the marketplace?

Step 2, if you agree that the values of librarianship compel us to resist the corporatization of libraries, is to find allies – amongst our own profession and across the academy. This is both harder and easier than one might think. Quite frankly, precious few of the dominant voices in academic librarianship speak from a progressive, critical, radical stance. I suppose in some ways that is to be expected – voices of resistances rarely emanate from the center. But once you decide to actively seek those voices, it doesn’t take any exceptional library sleuthing skills to find them. You can quite literally google “progressive librarian” and you can find both a journal and a tumblr by that name. “Radical librarians” turns up some great stuff too. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Library Juice Press, which is publishing top-quality work by and for librarians who want to engage in a more critical analysis of our profession and our institution, and who want to engage in a radical praxis of librarianship based on commitment to democracy, social justice, diversity and social responsibility.

Step 3: Do something. Collect archives simply because inclusion and social justice demands that works and archives of marginalized peoples are just as important (perhaps more so) as those of prominent, mainstream men and organizations. Sneak a little critical thinking into your information literacy sessions or reference encounters. Try something wildly inefficient and with no clear economic benefit.

In other words Resist – It is not futile!

Jean-Luc Picard as Locutus after Borg assimilation.

Jean-Luc Picard as Locutus after Borg assimilation, from Wikipedia article on Borg (Star Trek)

So to try to tie this all back to the original topic – Research Libraries and different clientele – I guess my whole point is really that we ought to
reconceive of our clients as not simply the undergraduates, graduate students, or faculty around us. Let’s start thinking about social justice as our client, or democracy, or an informed citizenry; and then let’s consider how our priorities and way of working might change as a result of that kind of thinking.

Curiouser and curiouser: Librarianship in Wonderland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slide06

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slide16

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

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

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

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

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

So, to wrap it up – how should librarians position themselves in the evolving landscape of higher education? My own curious dream is that we position ourselves as champions of curiosity.
Slide17

Defining Public Services for large research libraries

For the meeting of the ACRL Public Services Directors of Large Research Libraries Discussion Group at ALA Annual this year, I volunteered to kick off a discussion on how we define “public services”. The topic got listed on our agenda as “Defining Public Service in Large ARL Libraries”, which makes it that much more interesting for someone from Stanford to lead the discussion ;-).

Here are my notes so far (meeting starts in 3 hours):

How should we define Public Services for ARL institutions?

While I’m not one to avoid controversy, as the only non-ARL institution in the group, it would take far more hubris than even I can conjure up for me to suggest how public services ought to be defined for the rest of you. So what I will do instead is talk about what I want out of this group, in the hopes that enough of us have similar aspirations for this group that we can reach some consensus on our boundaries and our value to one another.

There are literally hundreds of conversations, meetings, presentations, discussion groups at every ALA convention related to public services, so the big question for me is what is the unique value of gathering as Heads of Public Services at Large Research libraries? Or what could be our unique value?

For me, the unique value is in talking to peers – peers in terms of kinds of institutions (research libraries — very, very large research libraries), and peers in terms of scope of responsibilities.

With that in mind, I think for large research libraries public services are research services; and as AULs, or directors, or whatever our titles are, we should be talking at the strategic level

Rusty spoon

Rusty spoon from Flickr user Quasimondo

What does that mean? One thing it means, is I don’t want to spend an hour talking about laptop lending policies – which is what happened at my 1st one of these, and I wanted to gouge my eyes out with a rusty spoon. I don’t want to talk about course reserves, or how to staff the reference desk, or text-a-librarian services. And, yes, I’ll say it — I don’t particularly want to talk about undergraduates — not in this group. Again, there are hundreds of other groups and places where we can talk about library services for undergraduates. But this is the only group with a focus on publics services for research.

Some things I do want to talk about:

  • Digital humanities support—what are you doing, where in the organization does it happen, how are you coordinating it and sustaining it?
  • What skills, education, knowledge do you expect from your subject librarians and how is that reflected in hiring, professional development, etc.?
  • Data support – not just data management plans, but actual data acquisition, management, analysis, publishing/sharing, and preservation.  Big data. Confidential data. Proprietary data.
  • What is the changing (or not) relationship between collection development and research support at your institution?
  • GIS support, visualization tools, the creation of online exhibits and archives, online collaborative research environments
  • Support for creating digital data – how do you support faculty who want to do text-mining on set of print materials not yet digitized? What is the service model? What is your funding model?
  • What is your experience in negotiating with vendors to give researchers specialized access to data?
  • What are you doing about providing information and options/platforms for alternative publishing models for scholars?
  • What are some successful models for providing reference and instruction for graduate students? How many of you have subject librarians teaching or co-teaching in methods classes (in humanities and social sciences especially)?

Bottom line is I want this group to focus its discussions and sharing on our unique challenges as AULs at research-intensive universities – which as far as I can tell is RESEARCH SUPPORT. There are hundreds of other groups and sessions and sets of people I can talk to about teaching, about information commons, and reference, and course reserves, and all manner of support for undergraduates. And god forbid I even need to talk to someone about laptop lending policies, it doesn’t have to be someone at a research library. But, this is the only group that shares my focus on supporting scholarly research.  For me personally, I need that kind of group – I need a place I can go where we can wrestle together with the changing nature of research and the role libraries and librarians can play.

Lots of great job openings at Stanford Libraries

We are in a veritable hiring frenzy right now at the Stanford Libraries and HighWire Press.  There are lots of very cool job opportunities at different levels and in different areas of libraries, publishing, and academic computing. To see a full list, just go the Stanford Jobs site, and select University Libraries under Location.

Some of my personal favorites include:

The Stanford Libraries are truly an awesome place to work — we are Juggernauts of Innovation, and we aren’t like other libraries. Drop me a line or a comment if you want more information about working here or about any particular job.

Research is like Cooking video

A couple of years ago I posted about a Powerpoint slidedeck I had been using in Information Literacy classes comparing the research process to cooking. With the help of some awesome colleagues, I updated the slides, did a voice-over, and turned it into a video called Research is Like Cooking.
Sometimes I use it in workshops, for a little break from me talking. This week, I’m sending it out as homework before the library workshop. I’m hoping the kids will spend the 5 minutes watching it before the workshop, so we have a common metaphor to use throughout the workshop.
I slapped a CC-BY license on it, so use it if you like it.

Street Fighting Research

altered book cover for street fighting mathematics
I think it is time for us to develop a Street Fighting approach to information literacy. From the preface to Street Fighting Mathematics: The Art of Educated Guessing and Opportunistic Problem Solving:

Too much mathematical rigor teaches rigor mortis: the fear of making an unjustified leap even when it lands on the correct result. Instead of paralysis, have courage–shoot first and ask questions later. . . . Educated guessing and opportunistic problem solving requires a toolbox. A tool, to paraphrase George Polya, is a trick I use twice.

And from the back cover of the same book:

In problem solving, as in street fighting, rules are for fools: do whatever works–don’t just stand there. . . Traditional mathematics teaching is largely about solving exactly stated problems exactly, yet life often hands us partly defined problems needing only moderately accurate solutions.

I think there is enormous potential in taking a Street Fighting approach to our traditional Information Literacy and Library Research Methods programs. I like the idea of empowering and equipping patrons with the tools and the confidence to try whatever works for a given research question.

For the vast majority of library research tasks, there are likely to be any number of paths that will get someone to a perfectly acceptable resolution.

At the risk of extending the analogy too far, my fear is that we are intent on teaching kids the formal Queensberry Rules of Boxing when they really need to be prepared for something more like an anything-goes Mixed Martial Arts cage-match. The information context in which scholars must operate today is messy and getting messier. We need to help them develop attitudes and instincts that serve them in that environment. We have to teach them to fight dirty. Sometimes that means using Google to jumpstart a search, sometimes it might mean culling blog posts and Twitter archives, and it often means combining many strategies and sources to address a given research question.

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Experts agree Google not making us stupid

According to a new report out of the Pew Internet and American Life Project:

76% of the experts agreed with the statement, “By 2020, people’s use of the internet has enhanced human intelligence; as people are allowed unprecedented access to more information they become smarter and make better choices. Nicholas Carr was wrong: Google does not make us stupid.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Nicolas Carr, of course, agrees with himself, and argues:

What the Net does is shift the emphasis of our intelligence, away from what might be called a meditative or contemplative intelligence and more toward what might be called a utilitarian intelligence. The price of zipping among lots of bits of information is a loss of depth in our thinking.”

The Google employees among the experts naturally defend the impact of Google (and the web generally) as the facilitator of new kinds of knowledge and thinking, and of increased access to information across the world’s population.

The rest of the respondents present compelling and nuanced responses that are well worth reading. Many of them expound on the basic premise that “The question is flawed: Google will make intelligence different.”

The major themes identified by Pew among their respondents are:

  • The resources of the internet and search engines will shift cognitive capacities.
  • We won’t have to remember as much, but we’ll have to think harder and have better critical thinking and analytical skills. Less time devoted to memorization gives people more time to master those new skills.
  • Technology isn’t the problem here. It is people’s inherent character traits. The internet and search engines just enable people to be more of what they already are. If they are motivated to learn and shrewd, they will use new tools to explore in exciting new ways. If they are lazy or incapable of concentrating, they will find new ways to be distracted and goof off.
  • It’s not Google’s fault if users create stupid queries.
  • The big struggle is over what kind of information Google and other search engines kick back to users. In the age of social media where users can be their own content creators it might get harder and harder to separate high-quality material from junk.
  • Literary intelligence is very much under threat.
  • New literacies will be required to function in this world. In fact, the internet might change the very notion of what it means to be smart. Retrieval of good information will be prized. Maybe a race of “extreme Googlers” will come into being.
  • One new “literacy” that might help is the capacity to build and use social networks to help people solve problems.
  • Nothing can be bad that delivers more information to people, more efficiently. It might be that some people lose their way in this world, but overall, societies will be substantially smarter.
  • Google itself and other search technologies will get better over time and that will help solve problems created by too-much-information and too-much-distraction.
  • The more we use the internet and search, the more dependent on it we will become.
  • Even in little ways, including in dinner table chitchat, Google can make people smarter.
  • ‘We know more than ever, and this makes us crazy.’
  • A final thought: Maybe Google won’t make us more stupid, but it should make us more modest.

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Who should do reference?

The first topic of discussion at the ALA Heads of Public Services Discussion Group at the Midwinter conference was: “how many of you have eliminated librarians . . . at the reference desk?” While no one admitted to completely eliminating librarians at the reference desk, there is a definite trend towards using paraprofessionals and/or students to handle front-line reference. Lots of folks talked about this as a resource decision, in the sense that with tighter budgets and leaner staffs, we need to free up librarians (and their salaries) for “higher level” work. No one actually said that we shouldn’t be wasting librarians’ time sitting behind a desk and telling kids where the bathroom is; but that felt like the unspoken sentiment of many in the room.

Later, at dinner with Frye friends, we talked about our experiences with subject librarians who are intimidated at the thought of doing general reference. We all had examples of librarians who are uncomfortable on the reference desk because they think they are not qualified to answer questions outside their areas of expertise.
So which is it? Is reference so easy that we shouldn’t be wasting librarian time on it; or is it so hard that we even our subject librarians don’t feel qualified?
Of course, if our own subject specialists lack confidence in helping students with unfamiliar areas, that may say more about our own organizations than about reference. It seems to me that a subject librarian ought to be able to navigate a decently organized library website well enough to help most patrons find the resources they need in any subject area. If our own librarians are too intimidated to venture outside their area of expertise, imagine how daunting the task must feel for our patrons.

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Support for Research: An Academic Library Manifesto

Support for the Research Process: An Academic Library Manifesto has just been published. This brief call to action document represents the collaborative work of the RLG Research Information Management Roadmap Working Group.
The goal of the document is to set forth a “top 10” list of action items for Academic Libraries to focus on in the face of a rapidly changing scholarly research landscape.
Much of what is currently written about the future of libraries focuses on how to save libraries, or on whether we even still need libraries. In this document, we tried instead to focus on what academic libraries can and should do to ensure that “current and future researchers will have the support they need to navigate and exploit the full potential of evolving digital scholarship.”
One potential follow-up to this document would be for members of the academic library community to take each of the action items and develop examples, use cases, and best practices:

1. Commit to continual study of the ever-changing work patterns and needs of researchers; with particular attention to disciplinary and generational differences in adoption of new modes of research and publication.
2. Design flexible new services around those parts of the research process that cause researchers the most frustration and difficulty.
3. Embed library content, services, and staff within researchers’ regular workflows; integrating with services others provide (whether on campus, at other universities, or by commercial entities) where such integration serves the needs of the researcher.
4. Embrace the role of expert information navigators and redefine reference as research consultation instead of fact-finding.
5. Reassess all library job descriptions and qualifications to ensure that training and hiring encompass the skills, education, and experience needed to support new modes of research.
6. Recognize that discovery of content will happen outside of libraries—but that libraries are uniquely suited to providing the organization and metadata that make content discoverable.
7. Embrace opportunities to focus on unique, core services and resources; while seeking collaborative partnerships to streamline common services and resources.
8. Find ways to demonstrate to senior university administrators, accreditors, and auditors the value of library services and resources to scholarship; while providing services that may seem invisible and seamless to researchers.
9. Engage researchers in the identification of primary research data sets that merit long-term preservation and access.
10. Offer alternative scholarly publishing and dissemination platforms that are integrated with appropriate repositories and preservation services.

As Ricky Erway at hangingtogether says:

You don’t need to nail it to your library’s door, but you might want to think about how many of these things you currently do, how many you could do, and what you could stop doing (or streamline) so that you can better support your institution’s research mission.

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Students who consult librarian more likely to use Library databases

Highlights from our end-of-quarter survey of 1st year Stanford students in Program in Writing and Rhetoric (PWR) courses. The Program in Writing and Rhetoric is Stanford’s version of freshman writing, and 90% of Stanford freshmen take one of these courses in their 1st year:

  • 99% of students used the Library catalog
  • 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
  • The more useful students find Library databases, the less useful they find Google.

On to the details:
Stanford Libraries’ Information Center staff provide dedicated support to every PWR class in the form of an assigned librarian, an online class research guide, and a library workshop. We surveyed students at the end of each quarter this year, after they finished their final assignment, a Research Based Argument (RBA)–essentially a research paper.

We had a response rate of over 30%, for a total of 423 respondents.

Percent of students who used the following research tools to find resources for their RBA
99% Socrates (Stanford Library catalog)
93% Library Databases
93% Google
73% Wikipedia
71% Online Class Research Guide
67% Bibliography, Works Cited, or notes page of a journal article or book
57% Google Book Search
51% Google Scholar
25% PWR Boost display books (a special table we set up w/ relevant reference books)

How useful were the following research tools for finding resources for your RBA? (1=Not very useful, 2=A little useful, 3=Useful, 4=Very useful

Socrates (Stanford Library catalog) = 3.3
Library Databases = 3.3
Google = 3.1
Google Scholar = 2.9
Google Book Search = 2.8
Online Class Research Guide = 2.7
Wikipedia = 2.4
PWR Boost display books = 2.0

Consulting a librarian for help

39% Consulted a librarian (any means)
25% Visited Reference Desk in person
14% Consulted assigned librarian directly
6% Used IM to consult librarian
3% Sent email to generic library/reference email

More findings (only statistically significant results reported):

  • Students who consulted a librarian were more likely to use Library Databases (96%) than students who did not consult a librarian (91%).
  • Students who consulted a librarian were more likely to use Online Class Research Guide (77%) than students who did not consult a librarian (68%).
  • Students who consulted a librarian rated Library Databases more useful (3.44) than students who did not consult a librarian (3.22).
  • Students who consulted a librarian rated Class Research Guide more useful (2.8) than students who did not consult a librarian (2.65).
  • Student ratings of the usefulness of Google are positively correlated with their ratings of the usefulness of Wikipedia and Google Scholar. In other words, the more useful a student found Google to be, the more useful they also found Wikipedia and Google Scholar.
  • Student ratings of the usefulness of Library Databases are positively correlated with their ratings of the usefulness of the Library Catalog, Online Class Research Guides, and Google Book Search. In other words, the more useful they found Library Databases, the more useful they also found the Library Catalog, Online Class Research Guides, and Google Book Search.
  • And my favorite finding–the more useful they found Library Databases, the less useful they found Google. Google is useful, until they find something (like Library Databases!) that is more useful.

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