Library On/Library Off

Nicolibrarian explores the secret life of information

The Scholarly Record becomes The Scholarly MP3

with 2 comments

When I decided I wanted to be a “librarian,” I got a lot of “Oh? You have to go to graduate school for that?” and “Why would you want to shelve books all day?” One friend teased me by looking over his glasses and saying, in a husky voice, “Your books are very overdue,” a line that will still, all these years later, elicit a good chase around the room. Before I veer too far into the naughty librarian stereotype, it’s worth noting that this default image of the public’s experience of the public library is a powerful archetype. I’d even suggest that I fall prey to it, as do my fellow LIS students, and professors, too. We’re all prone to it from time to time, but LIS-land is a vast and varied country, marked by many tribes speaking many languages and inhabiting a variety of environments. I’ve recently felt like I’ve been studying abroad in the (foreign-to-me) Lands of Academic Librarianship, most specifically in the Nation of Scholarly Communication. And you gotta come vacation here, because it is a rich culture with a warm people and a helluva lot of problems and opportunities to explore. (You’d even be surprised at the native dress, which I’ll happily tell you, is becoming hipper by the day. And, if you don’t mind a few roaches, I can recommend a great place to stay with a charming Innkeeper: The Salo Inn.)

So –  I’ve been thinking a lot about the production of scholarship these days, despite my native tendency to think about the library as a circulator of already-produced material.  Librarians would be remiss as professionals if we did not involve ourselves in a deep way in understanding how scholarship is produced, quality-checked, and disseminated – or, somewhat more interestingly, not disseminated. This duty to understand scholarly practice runs deep: as collectors and keepers of information, scholars are our customers; as researchers ourselves, scholars are our peers; as teachers, we are tasked to seek out truth and encourage critical thinking and analysis in students; and as budgeted departments of institutions, we must decide what scholarship to acquire and keep, and at what cost.

This last point and the day-to-day questions that arise from it – what do we buy? For how much? To satisfy whom? And how long do we keep it? – are at the heart of Collection Development. So what do we do when this first question is irrelevant, such as in the case of “gray literature” that is freely available on the Internet, when there is no publisher to buy from, to publish catalogs from which we choose material? How do we respond to the part of “to satisfy whom” when our patrons are no longer limited to our institutional users – the students, professors, staff and others in our physical environs?

I’ll tether these ideas down with the specific example of Open Notebook Science, as written about in the article Chemistry Crowdsourcing Using Open Notebook Science by Bradley, et al. In the work outlined in their article, the researchers advocate for and propose “exposing a researcher’s complete record of progress to the public in near real time” using “free hosted services using general blog and wiki functions to facilitate replication across any scientific domains.” Neat, right? Interesting for the practice of Science, right? Kudos for collaboration, right? Three cheers for evolving the practice of Science to embrace modern technology, right?

But hold the phone…you’re the librarian at an institution where researchers are engaging in Open Notebook Science.  Data and analysis of important research is going out on a WordPress-hosted blog, and a free PBWiki. Do you freak out? Do you feel you (and your library) are even obligated to save this stuff? How do you handle the undergraduates three years from now who come in with questions about this project? Do you shake your fist ruefully at the wacky professors and their graduate assistant drones who don’t think about preservation? Do you shrug it off and be glad it’s not your job to deal with this stuff; wish you could help but point to your lack of skills and budget as excuses for your inability to act; or get all in a huff and demand that policies must be put in place to prevent this sort of thing?

These are all interesting and likely all very real possibilities, and in many ways, I’m not the person to be answering such questions. (Are you? Please leave a comment on this post…I’d love to hear your perspective.) Yet as a librarian-in-training and someone who has entered the field with an excitement for the evolution of librarianship, scholarly communication, and use of communications technology, I believe the following:

  • Making data new again - flickr photo from @pigdump

    Making data new again - flickr photo from @pigdump

    As librarians, we are obligated to preserve the scholarly record in all of its forms, be they new or old. So what if the comfortable institutional frameworks we’ve know for so long may be becoming outdated? So what if the world of research moves faster than we’d like? So what if the scholarly record has become the scholarly MP3, and our buildings are outfitted with record players? So what if we don’t feel we know how to start saving stuff like Open Notebook Science, because we don’t have the skills, policies, budgets or technology? We are leaders and as such are called to develop solutions and find our way around problems. Maybe those solutions aren’t technological – perhaps we need to be training our Chemists to be good data managers and digital preservationists. Perhaps we need to build inter-faculty, inter-institution partnerships to address these problems. Maybe we need to fire staff unwilling to change with the times, and maybe we need to raise some hell to get adequate funding. We need to talk often, and loudly about these issues of change.

  • We are likewise called to innovate in how we serve our patrons. The above obligations and potentially necessary hell-raising that accompanies it is not merely on behalf of our professional obligation to the scholarly record. It is on behalf of our patrons, users, and customers, both current and in the future. Will future researchers need to look at what past researchers thought, and thought online? Yes. And we can provide meaningful service to researchers by not only being at the end of the slide to pick up and keep their published research, but by being at the top of the slide and helping them manage their data along the way, or even before they get to the playground, in order that we might help them prepare adequately for what’s ahead.

So how can we start? Good question. At the institutional level I don’t know. Yet I do know what I’m doing on a personal level, as an LIS student, to get ready to answer these questions:

  • I’m learning new skills. Do I necessarily WANT to be a computer programmer? Nope! But I’m learning Python and XML anyway, and keep my eyes open for opportunities to get outside my comfort zone and learn new things.
  • I’m reading blogs on scholarly communication, data curation, digital preservation, and talking about these areas of the field with not only my like-minded fellow students, but those who may not understand or be interested in such subjects. My aim is less to proselytize and more to invite conversation.
  • I ask questions. A lot of them. All the time. Not only do I learn, but my hope is that others will, too.

So – what do you think? What are our obligations to the scholarly record, to patron service, and how can we begin and continue to change, both as individual librarians and as institutions?


Written by nicolibrarian

April 1, 2010 at 6:36 pm

2 Responses

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  1. […] I jump in to  the imaginarium, a brief bit about scholarly communication. I’ve written about it before, but it is a complex system with vagaries of all sorts, especially variable from discipline to […]

  2. Admiring the time and effort you put into your blog and in depth information you present.
    It’s nice to come across a blog every once in a while that isn’t the same old rehashed material.
    Wonderful read! I’ve saved your site and I’m adding your RSS feeds to my Google account.


    January 31, 2014 at 5:23 pm

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