Library On/Library Off

Nicolibrarian explores the secret life of information

Scholarly publishing: what would a do-over look like?

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There to here


In the January 2009 Atul Gawande wrote Getting There from Here, a piece in the New Yorker about health care reform. In it, he explored how “path-dependence,” in the social science sense, makes reform harder. Despite our most idealized visions of a health care system we could build, had we only a clean slate, what has happened in the past so tethers us down that it becomes hard to see how to get from here (a broken system) to there (that shiny utopian system). It seems so obvious and stupid sounding at first: “the past impacts the present,” but whenever I am frustrated with an old system, it does me good to remember Gawande’s analysis, and path dependence. I find this paradigm shockingly relevant in several areas – old friendships, website redesign, or pondering the craziness that is scholarly communication. There is value in envisioning an idealized new system; but once those ideal plans are drafted, one has to in some ways let go, step back, and try to think about how to get there from here.

In my current issues in collection development class, we were challenged to think about scholarly communication.  Let’s pretend we were unencumbered by history, and Universities and research was just starting up today: how would scholarly communication be changed?

Before 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 discipline. If you happen to be an academic and feel so moved to tell us about how scholarly communication works in your part of the world, please leave a comment. (The comment link is at the top of this post, not the bottom.) I’d also like to acknowledge the 2007 Ithaka report University Publishing in the Digital Age by Laura Brown, Rebecca Griffiths and Matthew Rascoff, a far better written, researched, and more authoritative rendering than I can do here.

If scholarly communication were starting today, it would be able to take into account contemporary information communications technology, like blogs, wikis, open notebook science, social networking, and functionality like rating, commenting, and group editing (such as you  might find on a comment page in Wikipedia). Instead of print journals and their concomicant, long timelines from solicitation, through peer review, to publication, scholars could publish independently on blogs. In the prestige economy, however, there would likely still be a desire for editorial control and peer review. Processes could be managed entirely online: authors upoload content, editors review, publishing staff send electronic invitations to reviewers, reviewers remarks are saved and viewed by the original author who makes changes, publication happens online. This builds off today’s model of scholarly communication, only mediated by CMS or other publishing technology.

More interestingly, technology could enable different and transformed kinds of scholarly communication. The process of peer review could be opened up entirely, where “preprints” (which would need to be renamed, obviously) could be published and then articles both ranked and commented upon; author revisions could then be “finalized” and the process archived like a Wikipedia talk page (can you tell I like that example?). And yet this still doesn’t go far enough – what if technology was moved “upstream” in the scholarly process, where scholars were collaborating in wikis and other computer-supported collaborative environments? Would the concept of the journal article even continue to persist?

The practice of scholarly communication, were it to be built over, would have to take into account not only scholarly process but the tenure review processes that reward scholars, and what counts as “work,” and how those committees know that said “work” is valuable. And goodness, that’s enough right there to make anyone’s head spin…

What do you think? What would you change, imagine, or hope for if the world got one big “do over” when it comes to scholarly communication?


Written by nicolibrarian

May 6, 2010 at 7:42 am

What is a library without books? A true story in two acts.

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ACT ONE – Wherein the merits of book-less libraries are discussed

Scene: apartment occupied by two grad students; living room in mild, nearing-end-of-semester disarray. It is late, dark outside. The weather is cold and rainy, and a cat purrs in the corner. LIS Grad Student lounges on a couch, reading from a laptop. Enter Fine Art Grad Student, tired, smelling of lithography, but only slightly inky.

LIS student: “Oh, hey. I just read about a high school Library in Massachusetts that got rid of all its books.”

Fine Arts student, indignant: “What the hell? I think that’s wrong.”

LS: “Oh yeah? Why’s that?”

FAS: “Well, libraries are supposed to be full of books, right? I mean, what is this school doing in the library if not reading?”

LS: “They’ve got meeting spaces, a cafe, and three flat screen TVs. Squishy chairs, and the students all get laptops upon entering school. Oh, and they circulate e-reader devices, too. Obviously a private school.”

FAS: “Doesn’t sound like my high school…come to think of it, I don’t even remember if my high school had a library. Still, why even bother to call it a library? What do you think – is a library a library without books?”

LS: “Well, I know it would probably get my ALA card revoked, but I don’t have such a strong, negative reaction to it. I mean, look at use. What good is a library if nobody uses it? You don’t even remember yours. I know my high school had a library, but I was only ever in it to sit and talk with my friends; what studying I did away from home was at the public library. And not like the school library was great – it was tiny and the books all seemed really old and out of date. And as a library worker, I know school libraries often only have a handful of staff, one or two librarians, maybe – and it must be an insane amount of work to purchase, shelve, manage circulation – not to mention being an effective instructional partner for teachers, working with IT, managing database subscriptions, making the case to your administration for your existence, you know… ”

FAS: “But what about kids who don’t learn well from e-reading? I hate reading on my computer.”

LS: “Sure. Just because the library doesn’t have books doesn’t mean kids won’t still read them, and have to read them.  Our books for English class were always kept by the English teacher, anyway…they weren’t even run through the library as far as I know. In fact, when we had textbooks that were given to us for a class, it was always the teacher who checked them out to us, and they didn’t have library call numbers on them. Not to mention I had to buy my books myself for my AP classes.”

FAS: “Don’t kids need a quiet place to study?”

LS: “But during the school day when the school is open, how much time are you even open to study? Aren’t most kids by-and-large in class? And do you need books surrounding you to study? What good is a library at providing study space if it isn’t open after school building hours anyway?”

FAS: “Good points. And I guess if the point is to get kids into the library, it might make more sense to make it appealing…”

LS: “And I see that, you know, the user isn’t always right. I mean, we could get kids into libraries by providing them beer and video games, but it’s not always in their best interests to just give them what they want. And yet it’s not like this new kind of library isn’t supporting learning –  it sounds like college to me, a little – you know, like a dorm lounge or something. You have groups meeting for classes, kids reading, kids watching TV, and someone snoring in the corner.”

FAS: “Yeah…but even in college when you had the lounge, there was still a big quiet library to go hide in and get your work done.”

LS: “True. Good point.”


ACT TWO, Wherein the author abandons the dialog and gets back to normal blogging voice

I had the above conversation (more or less) with my husband the other night after reading and thinking about e-books, libraries without books,Barnes&Noble’s provision of free e-books within their stores on Nook readers (of course), and privacy issues surrounding e-books. It all got me wondering if e-books are disruptive to libraries, in the sense of disruptive innovations (see both Clay Christensen and Innovation Zen for more on this concept).

If we consider that disruptive innovations take two forms, per Innovation Zen:

“A sustaining innovation hardly results in the downfall of established companies because it improves the performance of existing products along the dimensions that mainstream customers value.

Disruptive innovation, on the other hand, will often have characteristics that traditional customer segments may not want, at least initially. Such innovations will appear as cheaper, simpler and even with inferior quality if compared to existing products, but some marginal or new segment will value it.”

I’ll start off with a few disclaimers, because I believe Christensen’s original theory has a lot to do with economics, and the tangle of libraries and economics is messy: publisher sells to library, library “sells” to an administration/government (insofar as it is funded by the administration of a college, or a government, in the case of public libraries), and yet libraries also “sell” themselves to their patrons. (This is a slippery mess for traditional economic theory, and don’t get me started on issues of library administration, accountability, demonstrating value, marketing…)

Disclaimers aside, when it comes to the library – patron relationship, or even the book – reader relationship, e-books may be considered sustaining innovations in that they add value (you can now read your book without visiting the library – simply download it! You can also now “search” your book in a digital way. AND you can get a whole lot of books on your e-reader, an added value in that you’re not lugging physical copies around). Is this a stretch when it comes to this being “along the dimensions mainstream customers value” – perhaps. I believe the above argument makes sense, but find the “added value” a stretch – is an e-book an added value or an entirely new product? I am inclined to say they are indeed new products- and if they are, then they could fall more soundly in the area of being a disruptive innovation.

E-books look like disruptive innovations in that they (especially initially, in the last 10 – 15 years) have not been something the patron has, by and large, wanted. Surely e-books appear inferior – even with all the innovations of the Kindle and now iPad, issues of readability, ability to annotate (see the Princeton study on e-readers in the college classroom), and even the issue of comfortability (feel of books, ability to flip through them, books-as-treasured-objects, books as scholarly output in the Humanities, et al). And yet is demand beginning to grow and change? The growth of the e-reader market may seem to indicate yes. And to continue following the above description, e-books would indeed (at least appear) cheaper, simpler, and of inferior quality; though for libraries, e-books are not per se cheaper nor simpler given our current systems (i.e. no “First Sale” with e-books, and libraries often have to rely on vendors to deliver e-book content.) To finish going through the definition of disruptive innovation, “some marginal or new segment will value” e-books – that marginal and new segment being those who use e-book readers, those who are affluent enough to have such technologies at hand, and even, some might say, tech-forward folks looking to explore the new ways of reading and interacting with information.

So what? What do we do if e-books are disruptive technologies for the printed book, and therefore for the library? Why does this matter?

  1. First and foremost, I say librarians, readers, and book-lovers ought not panic. If e-books can expand access to information, help make reading easier or more appealing, and potentially save books from the (often more FUD than truth) assertions that books are less and less popular and that they can only be preserved digitally, hooray! Then we should embrace e-books and explore their possibilities. AND, we can relax a little – the rise of the e-book does not necessarily mean the disappearance forever of the printed book.
  2. This matters for librarians and consumers because we want to keep books and their content affordable and as accessible as possible. If we truly believe in e-books as disruptors, then we need to be fighting like hell for accessibility and funding so that the benefits of “First Sale” are not lost to history. What happens to ILL in a world of e-books? How do libraries begin to circulate e-book readers? Should libraries have a hand in, or even start developing our own readers? Should libraries be in the business of publishing with more earnestness, if the Serials Crisis will spill over into an E-books Crisis?

What do you think? How could e-books as disruptors affect libraries, books, reading, publishing, and the future?

Written by nicolibrarian

April 26, 2010 at 7:09 am

Monetize community participation?

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I signed up for the community at yesterday – and was interested in their opportunity for community members to “monetize” their participation (through their Google AdSense accounts):

Konigi community signup - monetize

Konigi community signup - monetize

I’m not yet familiar enough with this community to know if this actually works – I’m going to suspect nobody is raking in the cash here – but thought it an interesting concept, audience appropriate. Are other web designer, ux, or other communities doing this so far as you know?

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April 23, 2010 at 12:01 am

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I’d Paint Three of Those Murals for Some of That Data (Visualization)

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I like pretty things. I like pretty things even more when they’re communicating complex information effectively. Did I mention I’m in library school?

I find myself reading more blogs on data visualization these days, and spending more time oogling pretty pictures with Tufte on my mind. I even went so far as to momentarily think about taking another course in Statistics – thankfully that madness passed quickly. I thought I’d list out some of the blogs I’m following, some tools I think are sexy, and then ask you, dear reader, to leave comments on your own fav visualization blogs/tools/rants.

(Oh – and the quick disclaimer – I know there are a lot of terms for what I am here lumping as “data visualization” – see the Periodic Table of Visualization Methods. I’ve been trained to think of data as broadly writ – “alleged evidence,” not just quantitative/stacks of numbers – hence my use of the DV term. Please, do not make me get all Allen Renear on you…I’ve done it before and I’ll do it again!)

Planes or Volcano (corrected) from Information is Beautiful

Planes or Volcano (corrected) from Information is Beautiful

Data Visualization (related) blogs and other sites:

And some tools – I’d particularly love your resources in this area, especially those not related to a single platform (i.e. Digg, Twitter,, Delicious, et al):

  • Crazy Egg heatmaps – a tool for creating heatmaps, useful for web design (and re-design). This one’s not free, but it’s pretty low-cost. If you’re sure you know how to interpret the data, it can be a powerful way to use data in design.
  • Many Eyes – well-known tool, developed by IBM.
  • Quintura – a sort of semi-visual search engine, that gives you tag-cloud-like visualizations on the left, traditional search results on the right. I find it clunky, frankly, but visualization-y nonetheless.
  • Wordle – a way to make tag/word clouds. Perhaps a simple tool, but I like to think of it as personal visual concordance generator.

And you? Do you like data visualization too? What neat resources do you have to give me?

(P.S. Yes, I was listening to Check Your Head as I wrote this blog post; so the title is indeed the Professor Booty sample from Wild Style. I never say no to inspiration, even if that inspiration is from 1983.)

Written by nicolibrarian

April 22, 2010 at 8:03 pm

Quick additions to the blog – email + blogroll

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At a reader request, I’ve now added the subscribe-by-email widget. Be careful, you might just get what you ask for.

I’ve also added a blogroll (right had nav, few widgets down). It’s hard to choose what to include, but it is a work in progress. For now, I’ve included some of the standouts from my RSS reader:

Got a blog you think I should include? A link or two you think I and your fellow Lw/oW readers might enjoy? Comment away!

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April 21, 2010 at 6:37 pm

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Leighton Christiansen – Profiles in Awesome

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What do digital poetry and truck driving have in common? How about union organizing and digital preservation? All are things my friend Leighton Christiansen could tell you a lot about. Leighton is one of my colleagues at GSLIS, a skilled tech-tamer, and the story of his path to library-land seems to span nearly the million miles he logged as a trucker. AND his initials are LC…coincidence? You decide.

Nicole Forsythe: Tell me about your background and current work.


The Other LC

Leighton Christiansen: I grew up in Iowa, graduating from Betttendorf High in 1986, and starting my BA in English at the University of Iowa that Fall. I graduated with a BA English major and Informatics minor in May 2009. In the 23 years in between, I did some carpentry, delivered pizza and newspapers, drove a school bus, wrote radical journalism, learned newspaper and magazine layout, worked as a household goods mover, drove a truck, worked in campus IT at Iowa, organized and participated in hundreds of rallies and pickets, and was a member of three labor unions: the Chicago Truck Drivers’ Union, The National Writers’ Union, and the Teamsters. I started my MLIS at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in August 2009. I hold a Graduate Assistantship in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science (GSLIS’) Instructional Technology and Design area, working to keep our 40 to 50 distance LIS classes on the air every day. And after serving as the GSLIS steward for the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) and on the GEO strike committee in November, I have been recently elected as a GEO Officer-at-Large.

NF: How did you get from being a truck driver, carpenter, et al, to library school?

In 2002, after truck driving for 9 years, I realized that was not going to be a good long-term career choice. I moved back to Iowa with the idea of picking up my unfinished BA. I had always been a big library user and had thought about being a librarian at various times. I was not actually able to restart my education until 2006. I took 20 asynchronous distance-education hours at Kirkwood Community College in 2006 & 2007, often doing my homework in the cab, or sleep, of the truck while I was waiting to be loaded or unloaded. I took a poetry survey class with Marianne Taylor. Marianne introduced us to digital poetry, especially the work at I had finally, after starting my English major 20 years earlier, found the kind of poetry I was most interested in.

While studying digital poetry and coming across dead links and obsolete players and software, I began to worry about who and how these poems and art objects were being preserved for future study. I graduated with my AA in Spring 2007, knowing that when I started at Iowa in the fall, I was going to study new media poetry and go on to library school, with the goal of preserving digital poetry. I continued to drive truck full time through the end of my junior year, when I got a job in campus IT. And after three attempts to retire from truck driving, I was finally successful. 

Fortunately, I was able to pair my course work with my IT job. I picked up an Informatics minor at Iowa, because I needed to learn a whole new technology. At Iowa I was part of the SITA (Student Instructional Technology Assistants) program. Our job was to help instructors introduce new technologies into their teaching. This included web site publishing, podcasting, blogging, building wikis, and integrating and exploring virtual worlds, just to name a few. I got to work with faculty one on one or in small groups, and was often asked to come into classrooms to introduce the new technology to the students. The final three years of my 23-year-BA odyssey were fabulous, and I think made me attractive to the LIS schools I applied to, including UW Seattle, UNC Chapel-Hill, and UIUC.

NF: What do you want to be when you grow up and how do you see an MLIS getting you there?

LC: My current area of study at GSLIS is a Masters in Data Curation, with my intention to stay and pursue a Certificate of Advanced Study (CAS) in Digital Preservation. Once I get out of school and back to the work world (and I am in no hurry), I see myself working at a digital archive or at a museum that preserves new media poetry and cyber-fiction. Hopefully, the day job will allow me to continue my own content creation that I began while at Iowa. The MLIS and CAS are key to attaining the technical skills and theoretical background I need to become a serious humanities preservationist. I have a lot of technology to learn, and many specialized data standards to learn. I think the MLIS is the best way for me to start exploring and attaining the many new skills I will need.

NF: You do a lot of work with helping online education at GSLIS go smoothly. What are some of the benefits and limitations of online ed, as far as you can see?

LC: I am a huge fan distance and online education. Over my undergrad career I attended three different community colleges and universities. More than half my AA credits at Kirkwood were from distance ed classes. In the early 1990s, these classes where synchronous distributed courses, with an instructor and camera at one site, and with students at up to seven remote sites, with cameras and mics of their own. The asynchronous credits I took in 2006 and 2007 were Internet-based courses, using the Blackboard course management tool. Online ed meant I was able to complete my AA while still working a very irregular truck-driving schedule.

My current work at GSLIS ITD is in support of other students who are working full time in other cities, in other states, on other continents. The difference for GSLIS LEEP (the distance education scheduling option) classes is that we use Elluminate software, which creates virtual synchronous classrooms, allowing students to interact with instructors and other students without having to be in the same physical location. 

The main benefits of distance ed are the freedom and access students have. Students can learn from great instructors, and collaborate with excellent students, based in universities and colleges all over the world. Students with crazy schedules and family lives, or other restrictions, can gain life-changing education. For students, I don’t really see a downside.

Some are concerned that maybe that there is not enough interaction with instructors or students. Students do need to be pro-active about contacting instructors and staying on track. But I can tell you, in the GSLIS LEEP program, which requires students in the program to spend a few days each year on campus, that students can create a tight group identity. GSLIS LEEP students tend to use our course management chat and discussion tools more than on-campus students. GSLIS LEEP students also graduate at the same rate as our on-campus students. 

The limitations on on-line ed come mostly from the institutional side. Institutions with the attitude that Internet-based classes will just bring in the money, and they don’t have to do anything, will soon find the program will fail from lack of interest. Colleges and universities have to understand that distance students have different needs and you have to dedicate the resources these students need. Having been on both sides of distance ed now, I am excited to be registered for the course E-learning at GSLIS in Fall 2010. It will add some depth to conclusions I have drawn from my experiences.

NF: What are some of the issues in LIS right now that you’re most passionate about? If you could proffer advice to the field on these issues, what would it be?

LC: The biggest issue in LIS right now is the big issue in higher public education everywhere: the corporatization of education. Over the past 30 years more and more tax dollars that are supposed to go to education have been diverted into the bank accounts of private companies. Jobs have been privatized and given to private bidders. More and more administrators are from the corporate realm, not academia. The ideology they bring to the job requires that university departments show a profit, or bring in more grant money, or garner publicity for research that is then given away to businesses for free. Many LIS schools have responded to this cultural change by de-emphasizing library education and emphasizing information science, especially in the area of organizing information for private corporations.

Education should not be about the bottom line. And it does not have to be.

We in LIS, and across the academy, need to fight back against the education-for-profit model that is sucking the life out of education– that is trying to tailor education to the needs of corporations rather than the needs of people. Of course this would have an impact on jobs after MLIS. Public librarian jobs should be highly-paid State jobs. These jobs should not be cut just at the time when more people need access to information and service that libraries provide. Library utilization increases in times of recession and depression. Academic librarians and institutional archivists aid life-saving research and preserve culture. They cannot be cut without negative impacts on science and humanities: benefits will go undiscovered; culture will be lost. Some services have intrinsic value that cannot be measured on a spreadsheet.

If you are in a LIS school, fight back against budget cuts. If you are faculty, organize or join a union. Are you a working librarian? Organize and fight cuts that affect your patrons; get them involved. Societies and cultures change all the time — we can affect that change. And we must affect that change if we are to have the greater say, as library and information professionals, in what information and services are available in the future. If we don’t, everything will only be measured by how it benefits some business’ bottom line.

NF: Anything else you’d like to say to library-land?

LC: We go to LIS schools to learn how to shepherd and preserve information and entertainment in its many forms. The thing we have to remember is that besides living on our shelves and in our computers, information lives in a larger environment that surrounds our libraries and archives. Just as we try to control the internal library environment–adjusting temperature, humidity, and light–we need to try to shape the cultural and economic environment that information lives in; to shape the cultural and economic environment that we study and work in. We want to create an environment more hospitable to information and culture, to the people we serve, to the people with whom we work. Some of that work must take place in our schools and libraries; some of it must take place outside.


Are you interested in being profiled in “Profiles in Awesome” or know someone you’d like to see here? Have a good idea for a question to ask? Email me at nicolibrarian{at} gmail {dot}com.

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April 15, 2010 at 6:54 am

Library of Congress gets Twitter archive

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I so look forward to seeing how this all shakes out over time, how the archive is made accessible, and all the gritty details, but I did want to shout it out that at least somebody has the archive, and that somebody is a library (yippee!). And while the LoC has had a flag staked in the digital preservation claim for a long time, here it is loud and clear:

“In other words, if you’re looking for a place where important historical and other information in digital form should be preserved for the long haul, we’re it!” From

Here’s hoping next semester’s Digital Preservation class will get to tear into it. Yum!

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April 14, 2010 at 8:05 pm