Posts Tagged '#lovegate'

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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