Posts Tagged 'serendipity'

Serendipity as prick

(How’s that for a click-baity headline? Am I doing it right?)

This is just some fleshed out notes from a short talk I gave to kick off the Codex Hackathon at MIT this weekend. My instructions were to get folks excited about the theme of Serendipity (not coincidentally, a favorite topic of mine).

I’m obsessed with serendipity.

Serendipity gets a bad rap sometimes, and is often associated with some pretty sexist and ageist stereotypes about bun-headed, pearl-clutching librarians who cling to their books and their browsing just in case someone might discover some unfinished, never before played sonata by German Composer Robert Shummann; or some unknown, uncatalogued, forgotten short stories by Zora Neale Hurston.

Those kinds of things actually do happen — those actual examples happened.

But Serendipity – at least the kind I am obsessed with is about so much more than just stumbling on some unexpected treasure in the bowels of libraries or archives … Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

I hope we can all think expansively and creatively about serendipity – about what it is, why it ought to be encouraged and facilitated (especially now), and how we might leverage technology to democratize access to serendipitous encounters.

The OED says Serendipity is a happy, unexpected, accidental encounter with new information (paywall, so no link. But trust me).

I think of Serendipity as exposure to ideas, people, perspectives that we didn’t know we wanted to or needed to be exposed to.

And lately, I’ve been thinking of Serendipity as a pin prick that might burst our filter bubbles.

The most famous quote about serendipity is attributed to Louis Pasteur, who is said to have said “Serendipity favors the prepared mind” — which if you ask me is a little elitist.

In a print-based world, scholarly serendipity certainly favors a well-connected and well-placed mind.  In the print-based world; happy, unexpected, accidental discoveries of ideas, and knowledge and perspectives is only possible for those with access to the people and the books and libraries and archives where those ideas reside. And that access has always been limited to elite communities.

The internet and the growth of digital libraries holds the promise of democratizing access not just to knowledge, but to the opportunities to discover things you didn’t know you wanted to discover.

In my ideal world, the likelihood  of a serendipitous discovery is limited only by our openness to the possibility.

We need serendipity now more than ever – and we need it for as many people as possible. Because encountering new, unexpected ideas and information – being exposed to data, arguments, concepts – through books, for example — that we didn’t know existed, just might be the key to helping us all think in new ways, see the world through a different lens, and see new ways to solve old and sticky problems.

So my hope for this weekend is that you hack with an eye to using the tools, the data, and talent assembled here to promote more accessible and equitable forms of serendipity.  I think our democracy, our world, could really use it right now.

 

 

 

 

lots of folks like to discover

Modified Text of talk I gave at Ivy Plus Discovery Day at MIT. 

(Note that I tidied up this text while watching the DNC last night, so blame Pat Spearman, the Collins brothers, and Michelle Obama for any errors.)

Slide01

I love that this gathering is Discovery Day, not search day, and not find day. Because, to paraphrase that sort of famous Roy Tennant quote from way back in 2001 “Only librarians like to search, everyone else likes to find … and lots of folks like to discover”.

And that’s where the title for this talk comes from, so thanks Roy!

Lots of folks like especially to discover things they didn’t know they were searching for and didn’t know they wanted to find.

I know it isn’t cool for librarians to talk about serendipity anymore; but I think it might be time for librarians to make serendipity cool again. More importantly, I think it is time for librarians to take serendipity seriously.

I want us to take serendipity seriously for at least 3 reasons:

  1. Because some scholars really think it is important to their work
  2. Because facilitating real serendipity through and in our discovery environments, is one way we could actually contributing to more equitable and open access to information and to learning and research
  3. Because serendipity is fun

Slide02

Some other time, I’ll unpack and explain what I mean about # 2 there – the equitable open access part of discovery.  For this talk, I want to concentrate on the  that discovery and serendipity are important and fun.

I’m going to assume you know what fun is, and what important means,  and what discovery is; but let’s define serendipity, or better yet, let’s just let the OED do so (I would link, but paywall):

From Oxford English Dictionary: Serendipity = The faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident. Also, the fact or an instance of such a discovery.

Slide03

And of course, you can’t talk about serendipity without talking about browsing. Over and over, we hear faculty –usually but not always, humanities faculty — talk about the importance of browsing precisely because of the sense that browsing facilitates serendipity. Often these defenses of browsing and serendipity seem to be part and parcel of a concern over the loss of space for physical collections and the lamentable fact that on every college and university campus I know of, a higher percentage of physical library collections are in off-campus, non-browsable storage every year.

But I find that when we really listen to faculty talk about the value of serendipity and browsing to their work, it really is not just nostalgic luddite longing for a mythically comprehensive physical library of yore.

What I’m increasingly hearing, especially here at MIT and in the context of the conversations we have had as part of our Task Force on the Future of Libraries, is an excitement about and a yearning for a new kind of online discovery environment that does more than replicate physical browsing but actually capitalizes on the promises and affordances of technology to facilitate even greater serendipity and to make browsing even more productive and even more fun.

[Interesting side-note: the faculty I’m hearing from at MIT don’t actually use the terms browsing or serendipity. They talk instead very explicitly about wanting tools that will point them to things they don’t know that they don’t know.]

What we are hearing are scholars who want us to build tools, or facilitate the building or deployment of tools, that will allow them to see connections to their work and their teaching and their interests that they cannot see now. They want to discover articles and books and data and images and maps and primary sources and teaching objects and people on the fringes of their own areas of focus, but that are otherwise kind of in their blindspots. They want to make happy & unexpected discoveries; and they want it not to be by accident, but to be because the library has provided the tools, the data, and the metadata to make it so. [One of the many things I love about MIT is how many faculty and students really do seem to get the important role the libraries play in creating and maintaining metadata and infrastructures to provide discovery and access to content.]

And it is important to note, that these are faculty and researchers at MIT we are hearing from; and they are mostly NOT humanists – they are primarily engineers and scientists.

I don’t know about you, but the idea of developing and/or deploying and supporting discovery environments and tools that create and inspire entirely new kinds of serendipity and browsing sounds pretty exciting and fun.

And, it sometimes feels like it is way past time to do it.
When I talked about this to a group of women alumni from MIT, one woman in the audience was quick to tell me about work done 20 years ago at MIT on this very topic. (Yes, that was a bit of serendipity for me, brought about not by technology but by in person interaction.)

In 1994, the famed designer and scholar of design Muriel Cooper, who founded the MIT Media Lab’s Visual Language Workshop, gave a presentation at something called TED5 – which may have been the precursor to what we now know as TED talks, I haven’t verified that yet – but anyway at this talk in 1994, Muriel Cooper wowed the audience with her concept of “information landscapes”.

And here I’ll quote from a 2007 text titled “This stands as a sketch for the future: MURIEL COOPER and the VISIBLE LANGUAGE WORKSHOP”.

In that text, David Reinfurt describes Cooper’s information landscapes as

immersive three-dimensional environments populated not by buildings but by information… In an information landscape, the user appears to fly effortlessly through the infinite zoom of a textual space, reading along the way, creating connections and making meaning.

Unfortunately, there is no video of the 1994 talk, but after Cooper’s death some of her students made a video about the Information Landscapes concept, and I want to show you a bit of it.

(I only showed a few minutes of the video at the talk – I started it at about the 5:00 mark. You should watch the whole thing, and definitely stick around to the very end for a delightful bit of Muriel herself).

I love the contrast between the dated feel and sound of the voiceover and the truly prescient ideas about a 3-D information space full of advanced, user-controlled data visualizations and multiple ways to link and organize concepts. Muriel Cooper sadly passed away less than a year after presenting these ideas at TED5 in Monterey; and while her students and others have continued to do amazing work on immersive technology and data visualizations, Muriel’s vision of an information landscape hasn’t really penetrated the way we search for, find, and discover information and knowledge.
I have to say it is a little sad to me that 2 decades later, our best library search environments look like this:


The rest of the search world, even best in class like Google and Amazon, aren’t really that different:

 

 

The library search community went through its phase of trying to be more like Google and Amazon – for good reasons, our patrons wondered impatiently why we weren’t more like them– and now I’d say we are mostly pretty close.  At least in all the basic structural and conceptual ways:

  • one search box to rule them all
  • results displayed in a linear list that is ranked on some meaningful dimension
  • the goal is to find items, 1 at a time; not concepts, not relationships

Why is that? Why are we still searching in 2-D, linear interfaces for items rather than for concepts?

I think a big part of the reason is because it works well enough. And in fact, it works really well for finding stuff we know we want.

And here is where it is really important to point out that what the Task Force on the Future of Libraries heard from library staff about discovery was very different from what faculty and students told us. The MIT Libraries staff made it abundantly clear that the most common struggle our patrons have is with finding a known item – that is the most common kind of question we get and I’m pretty sure it is what our data tell us is the most common kind of search in our catalog.

So how do we reconcile this seeming contradiction?

People want to find what they want and they expect library search tools to be just as good as Google at helping them do that.

But/and, when asked to describe an ideal discovery environment of the future, scholars – at least the MIT folks we have heard from (and folks I talked to while I was at Stanford) – imagine something much more exploratory, more relational, more immersive, more inspiring, and more playful than what any of us have right now. It is as if they trust that the tools that allow them to find what they know they want are good enough and will always be good enough; so when they think of a future they want something they can’t do now (to be fair, that is what we asked them to think about).

To be clear, I don’t think they want this hypothetical immersive and playful and serendipitious environment to completely replace the utilitarian search tools they have at their disposal right now. They are happy to keep using the combination of tools they use now when they need to find what they need to find.

But that means that we in libraries have I think felt kind of compelled to keep trying to give them what they want right now, while not really having the resources to try to develop the kind of information landscapes Muriel Cooper imagined more than 20 years ago.

It is a difficult dilemma, with no easy answers. And it is even more complicated by the fact that the corpus of stuff we in academic libraries are trying to help people discover and access is part of a scholarly communication landscape that is far more complicated than it needs to be and that is, in large, shaped the way it is because so much of it is controlled and disseminated by commercial players whose interest aren’t always aligned with the mission-driven interests of academia (I digress — that’s actually a whole other talk I should give sometime).

And to highlight something we all know — we in academia and in libraries don’t have unlimited resources. So I think we need to be smart about partnering with those commercial players whose visions do align with ours and whose resources and partnerships can help us move closer to a new kind of discovery without having to abandon what works well enough right now.

Back in the early 2000s, I was involved in a project at Stanford Libraries, where we partnered with a start-up called Groxis on developing a visual search tool called Grokker.

It was a really fun project and a promising tool that generated a fair amount of buzz in the library world and in the search world. Grokker basically organized your search results into circles or bubbles by concept; so if you searched for “jaguar”, for example, you would get a bubble with items about the luxury car; another bubble with items related to the animal; and another with stuff related to the English heavy metal band Jaguar – which is a great example of how tools like this can help you discover things you didn’t know you didn’t know. I had never heard of the heavy metal band Jaguar until I got involved with the Grokker project.

Slide09.jpg

Unfortunately, this is the best image for Grokker I can find – from a 2004 Stanford Libraries newsletter. And I can’t demo it; because the company and the product pretty much disappeared after a hostile take over of the board by members who apparently wanted the company to abandon the education market in favor of a seemingly more lucrative corporate focus. That didn’t work out so well for them, and searching for any evidence of Grokker or Groxis now leads to a few articles and blog posts (mostly by librarians) and lots of dead links.

But – working on Grokker and testing it with faculty and students at Stanford gave us/me a sense of the possibilities of new ways to search. There were, of course, the usual concerns with new things like this – if the content included isn’t “comprehensive” in a way that matches the user’s expectations, then they tend to think it doesn’t work.

BUT – lo these many years later, I still remember that nearly every person I talked to who tried Grokker described it as fun and spent considerable time playing with it.

Fast forward over a decade later, and we at MIT Libraries are poised to give our community the chance to play with something that looks a bit like Grokker but is actually even more intriguing – and that’s Yewno.

Yewno’s ‘search’ is powered by machine learning, computational linguistics, and semantic analysis; and its interface combines data visualization and concepts from neural networks to create a discovery experience that is closer than most to the way the human mind actually works. It doesn’t quite achieve the fully immersion landscape feel of Muriel Cooper’s vision, but it goes beyond what Grokker did to provide a more interactive visual journey through information about a concept. At the risk of sounding like a Yewno commercial, I’ll quote from their promotional material:

Unlike traditional search, which strives to provide the singular correct answer as quickly as possible, Yewno enables the connection of multiple concepts and information.

This is a tool that aims not to be better at search, or to help people find what they are looking for more efficiently. This is an environment that aims to help people discover and to learn about what they don’t know they want to learn.

I think we will learn a lot about discovery and about new ways of navigating information from Yewno. My secret hope is that some really brilliant MIT student or faculty member will play with Yewno, be captivated by the idea, decide that the interface is lame, and build something based on the same idea but better.

My dream discovery environment is one that provides the experience of browsing and interacting with books and articles in print and online simultaneously – I don’t know what it looks like exactly, but I imagine a virtual or augmented reality environment that simulates the best tactile (and emotional) experiences of browsing in a physical library with the vast resources and accessibility of digital resources and the efficiency of online browsing. Imagine if you really could browse the collections of all the great libraries at once  – their physical books, their electronic resources, even the books that are currently checked out – from wherever you are; and your mind and body would feel like you were “in a library”.

And my dream discovery environment is playful and fun. Discovering something you didn’t know you wanted is fun. Finding what we are looking for is certainly satisfying (and not finding it is frustrating), but realizing some new connection you hadn’t thought to eplore, stumbling on some piece of information that adds a new dimension to your research or takes you down an unplanned but totally productive path – those kinds of discoveries are fun. There is joy in that kind of learning while researching.

I guess the big take away for me is that what I have heard from our community compels me to try to shift my focus from satisfying immediate user needs by continually improving the tools at hand to making progress and supporting progress towards a discovery environment we can’t yet imagine (because most of us are not Muriel Cooper) but which provides fun, intuitive, maybe immersive opportunities for discovery.

Some closing provocations:

Let’s consider what we might do, even in and with our current tools, if we took seriously the faculty who say they want to make happy and unexpected discoveries in the library – even, especially, in a library that is primarily digital.

What if we decided that the set of current tools for searching and finding are just fine, and we freed ourselves up to work on discovery?

Are there ways we can do that by promoting and supporting and partnering with organizations and people who are trying to create entirely new information systems and landscapes?

Are there ways we can do it by promoting fun and serendipity in our own existing tools and environments?

What can we do to learn more about what works and to spur our own and our communities’ collective imaginations about what discovery could be?

Beyond measure: Valuing libraries

This is a longer read than usual, but here is the text and some of the images from the keynote address I gave at The Acquisitions Institute 2013.  The slides are available too (PPT download), but aren’t very informative without the text.

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

When I asked Stacey and the rest of the planning committee what I should talk about, they assured me that I didn’t need to talk specifically about acquisitions, which is good since I’ve never been an acquisitions librarian.  In fact, in my first job as a subject librarian for social sciences, I got in trouble with the acquisitions department because I was a complete slacker about reviewing the books on my approval shelf.

So anyway, the planning committee suggested that I talk about the big picture, the library landscape in general, maybe addressing key trends affecting libraries.  And that is what most conference keynotes do these days — they talk about changes, in higher education, in the expectations of patrons, in teaching, learning, research; and then lay out some ideas about how we should respond.  But I know that Susan Gibbons, the University Librarian at Yale already covered that ground in what looks like an excellent keynote here last year; so it seemed risky to try to follow that.

Now, I also talked to some key informants, folks who are veterans of the Acquisitions Institute, and they told me that this is actually a very, very practical group. They warned me not to get too theoretical or abstract, since you all actually really like to hear very practical talks, with real concrete ideas you can take back home. I was told I should keep things pretty real if I wanted to keep your attention.  I was kind of hoping great slides with awesome images would do the trick, but apparently y’all expect some substance too. Good for you.

But practical — well I appreciate that, and I suspect that many of my colleagues and friends would say I am a very practical, task oriented, no-nonsense kind of person… but I have to be honest with you that the issues I’ve been thinking about the most, and that I think libraries and librarians need to think about more, are pretty theoretical. In fact, I may as well admit up front that a not so subtle sub-theme running throughout this talk is the fact that I think libraries could use a little more idealism right now. So, if you will indulge me in a bit of lofty idealism, I promise some pretty good images, a cat reference, some zombies, and even a few practical ideas towards the end.

So let me give you a little roadmap of what I intend to talk about:

Slide01

Beyond measure: this will be a central theme running through my talk, so I figure I should explain what I mean by it right up front. I believe that the value of libraries is beyond measure in the sense that the impact of our collections, our services, and our people — and in fact, the impact of the very existence of libraries — is very real and is also very, very, very hard to measure.

I also think recent trends towards measuring everything and relying on metrics (usually business metrics) to defend our value is actually likely to contribute to a further diminishing of our true value to our institutions and to society in the long-term.  I am worried that some of what we are doing now to try to measure and/or increase the value of our own individual libraries may actually contribute to a devaluing of libraries writ large.

What do I mean then, by Valuing Libraries? I want to use the phrase “valuing libraries” to mean 3 things:

  1. The first way I mean it is as an encouragement to libraries and librarians to assert the core values of librarianship and the valuable role of library in democratic society.  This theme is about story telling and about taking charge of our own image and message; and it is about being willing to be idealistic in our attitudes, our actions, and our messages.
  2. A second meaning for me of the phrase valuing libraries is the way in which we express those core library values in the work we do and in how we do it.  It is about highlighting the ways in which our values animate our work and the choices we make; and it is about a call to re-inject the core values of libraries and of our parent institutions into our work and our decision-making. It is also about making sure our core values inform our approaches and responses to changes in higher education and to new kinds of teaching and new forms of research and publication.
  3. Finally, I’m going to talk about valuing libraries in the sense of assessing the value of libraries; And while I just said that I think it is nearly impossible to measure our true value and impact, I’ll share with you a couple of ideas we are playing with at Stanford that I think could be pretty cool.

How are libraries valued, and what can we do about it?
It is a peculiar time for libraries right now with respect to our social image. On the one hand, all sorts of smart and cool and famous people are willing to publicly proclaim their love of libraries — usually expressed as a love of books, or of quiet spaces, or of magical reference librarians; while on the other hand, plenty of folks are privately or publicly wondering whether we really need libraries anymore.

An example of this is the recent op-ed piece by Michael Rosemblum where he basically trashes libraries in the Huffington Post, saying he doesn’t need libraries anymore. But a counter to that is the fact that within 24 hours some energetic librarians set up a tumblr account in response to Rosemblum’s nastygram, where people are sharing stories of how libraries changed their lives.

A few months ago, Joyce Carol Oates declared her preference for print books on Twitter by claiming that “ebooks are to actual books as pictures of cats are to actual cats curled & purring in your lap as you read”.  That tweet was retweeted wildly by librarians across the twitterverse, who I think saw it as a sort of rallying cry for the value of libraries as the last bastions of a print culture holding out against the onslaught of inferior digital texts.

And then there is the oft-repeated quote from award-winning author Neil Gaiman proclaiming that our value lies in being better than Google because we always get the right answer — frankly an impossible standard and a compliment that I fear does libraries more harm than good.

Slide04

I’m afraid that relying on a positive social image based on the idea that print books are better than ebooks and reference libraries are infallible is not only doomed to failure; but also grossly undersells the vast array of things libraries do to bring value to our communities and to future generations. This is one of those “with friends like these  …” kinds of situations

Speaking of friends — how many of you have friends who make comments or ask questions about libraries or librarians that make you cringe?

These are some of my favorites:

  • Now that everything is online, do we really need libraries?
  • I’d love to be a librarian … you must get to read all day, right?
  • What do you talk about at a library conference? The Dewey Decimal System?

Like I said, it is a weird time for libraries right now in terms of our social image. While I think that most people have an overall positive impression of librarians and fond, perhaps nostalgic feelings about libraries; there is a profound lack of understanding about the range of what libraries and librarians really do. And since libraries rely on others for our funding, that is a precarious position for us to be in. Like I said, we have an image problem, and I think it would behoove us to take charge of our own message.  I also think it would be wise for us to resist the urge to couch our message in the easy metric of value — i.e. libraries are such a great value — and instead to develop messages that connect the values of libraries and librarianship to ideals that resonate with our publics.

How many of you were at ACRL and heard the keynote by punk icon Henry Rollins?  Rollins, was the lead singer in an influential early punk-rock band, he is an activist, an actor, a radio host, and an author.  He also describes himself as “rabid collector of other people’s stuff” — in other words, he’s an amateur archivist.  In the early days of the punk rock movement, he collected and saved copies of flyers, and posters and recordings because he knew no one was saving this stuff and he wanted to ensure the cultural record contained an accurate accounting of this chapter in music and social history.  In many ways he gets the value of libraries and archives.  At ACRL,  Rollins spoke passionately about the role of libraries in ensuring that people have access to information because information allows individuals to make good decisions and to do good things.  And then he told this audience of librarians and archivists that “What you do is the definition of good. It’s very noble and you are very brave.” I would like to encourage us to take that as both a compliment and as a challenge. A compliment to the work we do and are doing, and a challenge to continue to conceive of and to talk about our work in terms of brave, noble acts that contribute to the common good.

Slide06

I love that Rollins is defending libraries not because he loves the smell of old books, or because a school librarian taught him a love of reading when he was a young lad — not that there’s anything wrong with that. But what I love is that he is defending and celebrating libraries because he thinks libraries play a vital role in a democratic society. That is exactly the kind of value-laden story we need to be telling.

We are all on the hook to persuade others to continue supporting libraries — libraries as a concept worthy of support, and libraries as individual entities providing specific, unique, valued kinds of support in communities they serve.

In other words, I am calling for us all to engage in more ideological rhetoric and to tell stories about not just our value but also our values.

And I use the term story purposefully.  Because slogans are great, and data is fantastic; but there is ample evidence to suggest that storytelling is the path to persuasion.

If we are going to tell value-laden stories, we have to be clear what our values are. This is where ALA comes to the rescue.

ALA adopted 11 Core Values of Librarianship  in 2004. 
I promise I’m not going to talk about all 11. In fact, my original intention when I outlined this talk was to talk about 3 of them –Diversity, Preservation and Social Responsibility.  I spent some time at West Point, where the values of Duty, Honor, Country are kind of drilled into you; so I was looking for a nice triplet of values that would resonate in a similar way.

So anyway, I really did intend to talk about 3 of our values, but as I kept working on the talk, it kept being mostly about Diversity. So that’s the value I’ll focus on — in part because it is one that resonates with me, and in part because I hope that talking about diversity in terms of acquisitions and collection development highlights an area where libraries and librarians have the unique capacity and the unique responsibility to embody Rollins’ challenge to be brave and noble and to do good in the world.

ALA describes our core value of Diversity thus: “We value our nation’s diversity and strive to reflect that diversity by providing a full spectrum of resources and services to the communities we serve.”

So here is where I’m switching to the 2nd meaning of Valuing Libraries — the idea that the work we do is or should be driven by our values, consciously and aggressively — In this case the value of reflecting diversity in our resources and services.

There are many ways in which the value of diversity is relevant to the work we do, but for
 this audience, seems appropriate to talk about how our acquisitions and our collection development policies and practices can and should be leveraged to reflect, promote and embody the value of diversity.

My central question here is -What would a collection development program that was brave and noble and based on a deep commitment to diversity look like? 
I can tell you what I don’t think it would look like –
I don’t think it would be based on popularity, I don’t think it would eschew books on obscure topics written for niche audiences, and I don’t think it would relegate the least used items to off-site storage.

Slide09

Selecting based on use strikes me as an essential passive collection development philosophy.  It is ceding our role in promoting diversity, and it is saying that we are OK with the scholarly and cultural heritage we preserve being decided by popularity contest.

And not just because any individual library doesn’t collect the rare, the obscure, and the small market stuff.  Because I know many of you believe that someone (and by someone, most librarians mean the big libraries like Stanford, Yale, Harvard, Michigan, etc.) will collect it and through the magic of  shared print agreements and InterLibrary Loan, every book will somehow find at least one home and be preserved and available to all.

But we also have to think about the opportunity costs of libraries no longer buying niche titles. Opportunity cost is a term from micro-economics that refers to the costs of choices we don’t make.  In the days when library budgets were a bit fatter, and academic libraries were ranked almost entirely based on the number of volumes on shelves, there was a sort of collections arms race that ensured that there was a reasonably healthy market for most scholarly publications. But if libraries commit to only buying those titles likely to be most popular, then we eliminate the market for less popular books. We need to be very cognizant of the fact that we are not passive players in the publishing ecosystem. We can’t just sit back and buy books based on popularity or presumed popularity and pretend that those decisions don’t affect the kinds of books that get published, the kinds of topics that get studied, and the kinds of authors that get book contracts. I’m not an economist, but it is clear to me that shared collecting programs will limit demand in a way that it is bound to effect supply. If publishers know that only books destined for heavy use are likely to be purchased by more than a handful of libraries that is absolutely going to affect what they are willing to publish.

I’m arguing then, that we need to aggressively collect diverse literatures, on niche topics and by authors from underrepresented groups, not just so that our individual collections reflect our stated commitment to diversity; but to ensure that diverse voices get published and are heard and have an enduring place in the scholarly record.

As a sociologist, I just know too much about the role biases and stereotypes play in a wide range of decisions to trust that a free market approach to collection development will result in that full spectrum of resources we say we value. One of the most consistent and conclusive findings in the field of social psychology over decades of research is that stereotypes and biases affect our perceptions and evaluations of others (often unconsciously) in a incredibly wide variety of settings. I have no doubt that those biases creep into not just our selection decisions, but the reading decisions of our patrons as well.

Because let’s just be very, very blunt here — when we talk about not “wasting our money and our space” on obscure books no one will read, we’re not just talking about books on minute aspects of ancient Sumerian culture. No, we often use examples like “poetry by Irish-Puerto Rican lesbians” or “studies of hegemonic masculinity in Hawaiian cock-fighting”. I get to use examples like these because my wife is a proud Irish-Puerto Rican and I’m mentoring a PhD student whose research is, in fact, a study of hegemonic masculinity in Hawaiian cock-fighting culture. My point here is that focusing on what is popular and heavily used almost always means leaving out works by people of color, by indigenous peoples, by women, by queer people, and just generally by people who are not like us.

But this isn’t about calling for a kind of affirmative action plan for collections development; it is really about recognizing and embracing our role in representing and shaping the scholarly conversation — now and for future generations.

In response to a draft of this talk that I shared with her, my colleague Bess Sadler called my attention to the Catch-22 happening with Wikipedia right now, where a group of people who care about inclusiveness are trying to ensure that women scientists are represented in Wikipedia. There is a well-documented problem of female scientists being overlooked in science reporting, so a set of folks are trying to turn this around by writing Wikipedia entries on female scientists. But the articles keep getting deleted because the scientists in question aren’t considered “significant” enough. Why aren’t they considered significant? Because women scientists are often overlooked in science reporting and writing — because they are considered insignificant!  It really is an insidious cycle.

Bess goes on to lament that “The majority-rules structure of wikipedia editorial policy makes me despair of ever seeing this resolved.”  But then she actually poses a way out, when she went on to write: “It seems to me that libraries, where we have the option of doing conscious collection development, are an opportunity to broaden the voices that get recorded in the historical record.”

This is one of those places where I can brag about the fact that Stanford Libraries are trying to do something about this.

We recently completed a multi-year international collaboration on a project  to produce a digital version of the archive of eighteenth-century Italian scientist, Laura Bassi. Making these archives available on the open web, to researchers across the globe helps insure that her accomplishments are documented and that her contributions to physics and other scientific fields are not overlooked. What we chose to collect, and what we chose to digitize has consequences for how fields of scholarship are represented and understand by today’s scholars.

Another story on this point comes from a forum I attended in November on the Global Dimensions of scholarship and Research Libraries, 
Laurie Patton, Dean of Arts and Sciences at Duke University and a scholar of South Asian history, culture, and religion, gave a talk titled “If my library had the book, sir …”  The title comes from an incredibly compelling story that  illustrates another part of my point. The story goes like this:

At a conference on South Asian history and culture, a Hindu scholar from a small college in India gave a paper on family relationships in Vedic texts. At the end of her talk, she was criticized by a western scholar for not referencing the most recent publication from America on her topic.  The Hindu woman explained calmly that her College’s library could not afford to buy the book saying “if my library had the book, sir … i would have cited it. But that book would have represented too high a percentage of my library’s budget”.

In telling the story, Patton concludes that  “The imbalance of intellectual resources is endless, partly because libraries in Europe and America have not bought Indian vernacular language works, and partly because libraries in India cannot afford to buy books produced in the West. ”

But the story actually has a sort of happy ending — the Hindu scholar eventually published a book on her topic, in which she carefully explained how western scholarship on the subject was lacking because it failed to account for all the research coming out of non-western countries.

Scholarship and research have the power to advance our knowledge and understanding of the world, but any given scholar can only build on the information and prior research that is available to her. This means the role of the library is pivotal.

We have enormous power over the direction scholarship takes by selecting whose shoulders future scholars will stand on. And not to get too Spiderman on you, but with that power comes responsibility. Responsibility to live up to our values, and resist the urge to let use and popularity drive all of our collection decisions.

So what and how we collect affects what gets published and therefore what gets collected and preserved. Our decisions have consequences beyond our local collections and our local communities, and we are not passive players in the eco-system of academic publishing.

If we just give the patrons what they ask for, we are not only abdicating our professional judgment, but we are also, in my opinion, missing a really important opportunity to enact our stated values.

As we think about ensuring a diverse collection, it is also critical that we recognize that books are not just for reading anymore. The rise in digital humanities and text mining research means that books and the words within the books (and the words in journals and newspapers and all kinds of text-based forms) are now being used as data by scholars. The best scholarship is done when the corpus of data being used  is as representative and complete as possible.

The kinds of research questions that can be asked by today’s scholars because the words in the books have now become data, can only be answered because of the sheer size and comprehensiveness of the corpus.

For example, there is a graduate student at Stanford who is using a dataset of Portuguese language publications in the public domain from Google Books and from HathiTrust as a means of tracing the evolution of Brazilian Portuguese, and therefore contributing to our understanding of how languages change and evolve.  I suspect many of the books that are part of his dataset have rather dismal circulation histories.  Frankly, our old Portuguese language books have never really been our hottest sellers.

But the point is this — If libraries like Stanford had only collected and preserved books with immediate and measurable use, the ever growing corpus of digitized texts would be even more skewed and biased than it already is.

Another way we need to be sure we enact our values is in the agreements we sign for digital content. The content we acquire is for research, and today’s research methods include text-mining and other digital humanities methodologies. We absolutely have to negotiate contracts that include the right for libraries to download content and make it available for scholars to text mine.  A colleague of mine pointed out to me just this week that unless you are willing to walk away, you’re not negotiating, you’re simply having a discussion. The willingness to walk away from a contract is what makes it a negotiation. A willingness to do so in defense of values of access, diversity, preservation, and social responsibility would also make it very brave.

There are other ways we can influence how our collections get used, and what circulates. 
Again, we are not passive players here — we have the ability and the responsibility to influence the outcomes.

For example, at Stanford, and at many of our peer institutions, we are running out of space for collections on campus and are wrestling with developing guidelines for what stays on campus as part of our core campus collection and what gets sent to off-site storage, where items are usually available for paging only, but not for physical browsing or for immediate access. As far as I can tell, almost every major library is using circulation as their main criteria, meaning that the books that have low circulation stats are sent to storage, while more heavily used books get the prime on-campus real estate.

I wonder if we might have that backwards.

Now I know it is not very cool anymore to talk about browsing and serendipity, but I’m going to talk about it anyway. I often hear people say they don’t believe in serendipity, which I find sort of puzzling.  Serendipity is not like Big Foot. Accounts of serendipity are verifiable and well-documented.  You can’t really not believe in it. Serendipity actually exists and actually happens. People really and truly do find unexpected books by browsing in book stores and in library stacks. But I will admit that serendipity is probably not how people find the most popular, most heavily used books — those are the books people already know about. So why not use that prime browsable real estate for books that would most benefit from browsing? What if we let patrons request the heavily used books online — and let them discover the hidden, underused treasures in our collections by wandering the stacks?

There are other ways we could encourage and influence broader, more diverse use of our collections.

For example, we do a small topical book display at our main library every month. We give this display a prime location on the 1st floor, very close to the entrance. We pick a topic and pull about 30 books from the stacks to put on display. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure how the topics or the titles are selected for display — I suspect it is highly idiosyncratic based on the tastes and sensibilities of the librarian in charge of that month’s display.

This past month, our display was all about Zombies!  I decided to look at some circulation statistics to see whether our display affects circulation. Of the 28 zombie books on our display table, 18 of them were checked out during the month they were there. That’s a 65% circulation rate. In 1 month. Now, I know you’re thinking, well sure … everyone loves zombie books.  But another key stat here is that 8 of those 18 titles that circulated had never circulated before.  And some of them have been sitting on the shelves for over 10 years without circulating.

So here’s an idea — what if we selected some titles to put on display precisely because they never circulated? Imagine a display  that combined popular titles with low use titles? I’m thinking we could call it Hot Titles and Hidden Gems — because who doesn’t like finding a hidden gem?  We are going to try that back at Stanford soon, so stay tuned to see how it works.


But, as I emphasized earlier, I’m not sure use alone — especially of zombie books — is such a great way to measure the value and impact of our collections.

When we look at Stanford Libraries’ circulation numbers, the Lord of the Rings DVD set would seem to yield the highest return on our collection investments – since it is our most heavily circulated item in the last 5 years.  But one clear pitfall of using circulation as a key measure of value is that such an approach would lead us to overvalue Lord of the Rings and undervalue collections like our historical newspapers or our various microfilm collections. But I think we need to consider not just raw use, but the impact of use.

If we care about actual impact on research, we might want to look at historian Richard White’s  recent book Railroaded, a Pulitzer finalist book described as “A myth-shattering book that shows how reckless but influential railroad corporations in the late 19th century often profited by failure as well as success.”  Many reviewers also note that White’s careful analysis of this historical period holds some valuable lessons for our current economic times.

White relied heavily on archival materials rarely used by others, and on dusty reels on microfilm that he may well have been the first to pull out of the file cabinets.   The centrality of the archives to White’s research is acknowledged, quite literally, in the beginning of the book where he thanks Stanford University Archivist Maggie Kimball, and the head of our Media Microtext Center, Jim Kent.

White goes on to note that “a great part of the pleasure of writing this book has been the time it allowed me to spend in the archives. The paradox of archives is that there, among the relics of the dead, the past seems most vital and alive.”  And this was way before our Zombie exhibit!

I love that this example also highlights the long-term nature of library-related research, and the often delayed impact of our efforts.Books take a long time to write and the delay between research and eventual publication is usually many years. In this case, Maggie and Jim, the librarians acknowledged in this Pulitzer finalist book, had both long since retired before the publication of Railroaded.

This example also hints at an alternate measure of the value of libraries and librarians.
 I would argue –actually, I have often argued — that acknowledgments of libraries and librarians in published materials constitute one of the most powerful and direct measures of our impact on scholarship.  And I’ve been thinking for a while that it is something we should try to figure out how to do.

So, in preparation for this talk, I asked one of our awesome new librarians, Jacque Hettel, how she thought we might be able to do something like this.

acknowledgements

And as a proof of concept, she came up with this comparison of mentions of Stanford Libraries vs mentions of UC Berkeley Libraries in book acknowledgments over the last 10 years, based on searches in Google books and Google Scholar.  Now Stanford v. Cal is kind of a big rivalry, so I’ll be honest that I was hoping the data would show a more profound Stanford advantage, but that’s OK. 
There are all kinds of caveats to this data.  Two of the most obvious are that Google is not a comprehensive dataset, and that the search terms we used probably didn’t capture every mention of either library and certainly didn’t capture every mention of librarians from each school.

None the less, I think there is considerable potential here in developing an alternate metric for assessing value and certainly for telling stories about our value and even our values.

And there is so much more we could do with a dataset of acknowledgements — one of the things I noticed in reading through the Stanford acknowledgements was that some authors acknowledge just the library, while others, like White, acknowledge librarians by name. I wonder whether there are certain disciplines more likely to benefit from personal interaction with librarians than others?  We could certainly compare the content of acknowledgments by subject as one way to learn more about that.

The other thing that stood out to me in the text of the acknowledgements was the number of times multiple libraries are acknowledged, and the number of times InterLibrary Loan departments and staff are thanked.  Jacque is already talking about gathering this kind of data for a larger set of libraries and developing a network diagram to visualize relationships between libraries, authors and subjects.
And then of course, there is the fact that these acknowledgements tell true stories about the value of libraries to scholarship — I suspect we are likely to find a way to incorporate these true stories into our website and other outreach materials.

Here’s the part where I promised I would throw in a practical idea or two, so here they are:

  1. Consider keeping your low use books on campus, and highlighting them as Hidden Gems to see if they find users
  2. Collect and analyze your library’s acknowledgements, and use them in outreach and public relations efforts – I promise you that you will find some great stories.

Speaking of acknowledgements, let me finish up by acknowledging the colleagues who helped me put together this talk.  I’m fortunate to work with a whole team of rock stars back at Stanford, and these particular stars deserve special recognition for their help with this presentation:

Let me also acknowledge that it is clear from the talk titles on the agenda for this conference that some of what I have said would fall under the category of preaching to the choir. It is clear that many of you are thinking about some of the same issues I’ve talked about and are looking for new ways of asserting and measuring our value.  I’m really very excited to hear the  rest of the presentations, and expect that there are some great conversations to be had.

Finally – I will admit to being especially intrigued by the Angry Birds presentation coming next and also happy that I got to go first — who wants to follow a presentation on Angry Birds?  But, I do want to offer a response to the question “Should we collect Angry Birds?”

A medieval studies scholar at Stanford recently tweeted this gorgeous image from a manuscript in our collection, with the note “this is the original Angry Bird”. So my response to Should we collect Angry Birds? is Of course we should — we always have!

Slide22

A feminist defense of browsing

I’ve thought and written about browsing before, but ever since reading Bess Sadler’s Brain Injuries, Science Fiction, and Library Discovery talk, I’ve been thinking about browsing from a feminist perspective. My thoughts are nascent and scattered at this point — in other words, perfect blogging fodder.

In Bess’ fantastic talk she talks about the emotional aspect of physical browsing and wonders how we might recreate the joy of browsing and serendipity in our online discovery environments. I wrote about that once, but far less thoughtfully, and certainly not as eloquently.

When I read Bess’ talk, I immediately wrote to tell her how great it was, and that I thought there was room to move some of the underlying feminist epistemology of it to the foreground. I sent her a copy of Jagger’s 1989 article “Love and knowledge: Emotion in feminist epistemology” (pay wall, sorry). Next thing I know she’s reading Women’s ways of Knowing, and I’m seeing gender everywhere (like I used to, before the everyday work of managing smudged my theoretical lens).

There is something about the way feminist epistemology debunks the myth of dispassionate rationality and highlights the crucial role of emotion in the pursuit and construction of knowledge that is very relevant to the work we are all doing in building new discovery environments (heck, as we build new libraries writ large). It might be as simple as remembering to build joy (or at least the opportunities for joy and delight) into our environments, but I think it is more than that.

woman browsing stacks

Browsing: Not just for women!
(Courtesy of bighappyfunhouse, Creative Commons License 2.5)

The same week that Bess and I were exchanging emails about this, I ran into a female faculty member in the library. I’m a lousy conversationalist, so I said something stupid like “What brings you in here?” And this brilliant, confident, accomplished humanities faculty member sheepishly replied “I was actually checking out a real book.” She went on to apologize for her love of physical books. I reassured her that I loved print books too, and that there was nothing to be ashamed of. We then had a good chat about how much you can learn, quickly (dare I say – efficiently), from browsing within a print book.

I have no data except my own observations, but it sure seems to me that there is a real gender difference in how scholars talk about physical browsing and the value of print collections — especially among those who defend it. It is my observation that men tend to defend physical browsing in terms of its utility, usually based on some interplay between the arrangements of collections and their own knowledge and ability to make connections. My favorite example of this comes from Andrew Abbott’s article The Traditional Future: A computational theory of library research. Abbott argues that traditional library research is “actually a quite high-tech computational architecture that relies quite heavily on well-trained individuals.” It is as if (some) men must defend their reliance on physical browsing by constructing arguments about how it really is a “technological” approach to research. In other words, using the library is just as “manly” as using technology.

Women, on the other hand, seem much more willing to talk about how they feel about physical browsing and print books — but only after apologizing in some way, as if they know that browsing is sort of old-fashioned. Women tend to talk about the joys of browsing, the pleasure in the feel of physical books, and the delight in finding unexpected treasures in the stacks.

All of this has me troubled by our tendency (yep, I’ve been guilty myself) to dismiss talk about the value of physical browsing as merely wistful or nostalgic. There is something very real and important there, and I think shining a feminist lens on the issues is likely to help us see what it is, so that the libraries we are building for the future are inclusive of all kinds of learners, scholars, and readers; and so that our discovery environments (online and physical) are built to accommodate not just efficiency, but also joy.

(Note: And once I get around to reading it, I feel pretty certain that J. Halberstam’s Queer Art of Failure will have some insights relevant to what libraries are trying to do. I’m just hoping people smarter than me will take up the cause of writing and propagating a queer, feminist theory of libraries.)

How ROI killed the academic library

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

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

How ROI killed the academic library: A cautionary tale

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

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

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

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

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

Founding Grant, Stanford University

Founding Grant, Stanford University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Digital preservation is hard

Digital preservation is hard

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

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

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

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

Lord of the Rings trilogy

Lord of the Rings trilogy

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

Railroaded by Richard White

Railroaded by Richard White

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

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

I like this example for at least 2 other reasons:

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

Books still matter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

US release date for Super Mario Bros. remains a mystery

US release date for Super Mario Bros. remains a mystery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My final slide. Pretty hokey, huh?

My final slide. Pretty hokey, huh?

I think I’ve become a Feral Humanist

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

My final slide. Pretty hokey, huh?

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

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

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

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

An adventure in blended serendipity

I subscribe to over 60 blogs via Google Reader, and I try to scan through the headlines a few times a day. Dan Cohen’s blog is one I almost always stop to read in full. Yesterday, I read his post Reading and Believing, and immediately went searching for the 2 books he mentions: The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction and Thinking, Fast and Slow.

My first stop was SearchWorks, where I found an available copy of The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction in the stacks just two floors up from my office. (Alas, Thinking, Fast and Slow is on reserve at the Law Library, and on order for the Business Library, so I might decide to download the Kindle edition).

I texted myself the call number from SearchWorks, and headed upstairs to get my book and start reading. As I was heading back down to my office, I start to skim the Introduction (only later realizing that reading and walking at the same time — on stairs no less — could have ended badly).

Right there on the first page, Jacobs mentions the Mortimer Adler classic How to Read a Book. I haven’t read Adler since my first year of teaching at USMA in 1994, so I immediately decided I wanted to re-read it.

iStanford results for How to Read

SearchWorks results on iPhone

I stopped halfway down the stairs, pulled out my iPhone, opened up iStanford, clicked on the Library app, found the record for How to Read a Book, and headed back to the stacks to retrieve it.

I was not planning on checking out any books yesterday, but a combination of RSS feeds, blogs, iPhone apps, and words in a printed book led me to two books to take home, and one to download.

For me, yesterday’s adventure in blended serendipity is a very good reminder not to get sucked into the either/or debates about serendipity and online vs. physical browsing/discovery. It doesn’t have to be just one or the other … in this case a nice combination of tools and methods worked just fine.

Confessions of a book-lover

At Stanford’s New Faculty Orientation lunch today, I had a lovely chat with one of our new faculty members in the social sciences. She told me that she has only been to Green Library once since she arrived on campus; and then “confessed” that she was actually just looking for a novel to read. I assured her that we expect faculty and students to use our resources for all kinds of reasons, including leisure reading, and I even made sure she knew about our extensive video collection.
She then talked about what a beautiful building it is, and how she enjoyed wandering around the stacks. Then, again in a confessional tone, she talked about how she really is a fan of physical browsing. She reassured me that she loves the ease of e-journals and other online content, but that she thinks physically wandering the aisles of the library helps her find the “hidden gems” and make unexpected connections (sounds like The Library as Mine). She said she thinks she actually used to read more broadly when she received journal issues in physical form, rather than an emailed table of contents.
None of what she said struck me a particularly novel (no pun intended); but what surprised me was how embarrassed she seemed to be to admit to a love of the physical book and the physical library. She went to great lengths to tell me how much she loved ejournals and doing online searching and research, as if to reassure me that her love of browsing and of physical books didn’t make her a luddite.
Had it really become socially embarrassing to be a book-lover? Even on a college campus?

Library as mine

Mines of Moria by flickr user TheRogue

I began this post about a year ago and just rediscovered it … like a jewel in a mine! I have lots more to say about the strategies and philosophies we ought to be employing in decisions about on- vs off-campus collections, but this is a start.

From All you need is love at Arcade: a Digital Salon:

I’m an English Prof. who was trained at the height of New Historicism, which meant that you had to run to the library every couple of hours to read a few hundred more books and pamphlets. It felt like being a dwarf in the mines of Moria. The object of the exercise if you’re a historian is to get a big grant, go to some mine (library) that no one looks at very much, and find some unknown stuff, then bring it back and show everyone your jewels. It’s kind of lonely–ironically, because history is supposed to be about society and all.

This struck me as a pretty evocative description of the traditionalist view of libraries — especially for those who think of libraries as browsable collections that facilitate browsing and serendipity.

Is this the kind of activity we (the Royal we, meaning the vast majority of libraries across the country/world) should be trying to preserve as we are forced by space and funding constraints to reduce the size of our on-campus print collections?
If so, then perhaps we ought to be keeping the items with the lowest use in browsable stacks on campus, and sending the high-circulation stuff off-campus. I’m pretty sure most of us are doing exactly the opposite.



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