Library On/Library Off

Nicolibrarian explores the secret life of information

Posts Tagged ‘academic librarianship

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 And not like the school library was great – it was tiny and the books all seemed really old and out of date.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

What makes special collections so special, anyway?

The Iowa Ad Herrenium, from their digitized collection

I’ve been hanging out at the University of Iowa’s Special Collections department lately. My husband is doing research on a copy of the Rhetorica ad Herennium dating from 1340 CE, and I often find myself tagging along. The Iowa Ad Herennium is a beautiful thing, and there’s something magical and transfixing about being able to hold anything, especially a book, that’s nearly 700 years old. I must admit that being in the Special Collections space brings to mind specifically rare books and manuscripts and a sense of luddite-ism. You check your bag, pens, and liquids before you enter – only laptops and pencils allowed. Special Collections is an especially quiet place in the library, complete with an air of I-know-something-special-because-I’m-in-here, that certain smell of old (really old) books, and an affable dowdiness found only in certain deep reaches of academia.

As a Library and Information Science (LIS) student and a data curation fellow, I must confess I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about special collections, or rare books and manuscripts. It is part of my field that, for better or worse, I just don’t have much interaction with at this point, not unlike my colleagues who are training to be K-12 librarians. I’m friendly to their work, and recognize it as sibling to my own. I just happen to find myself awash in the digital, enamored with things like user experience, interface design, metadata, and systems analysis.

A Mac Performa

A Mac Performa

So I was interested this week when the New York Times did a story on Emory University’s preservation and presentation of their collection of Salman Rushdie’s archives – not only his papers, but his digital files, and his actual computers. In fact, you can see an emulated environment of his first computer, his Macintosh Performa 5400 at a researchers workstation at Emory. (Read the NYT article, and watch the excellent NYT video with screencasts from the emulator.)  And where’s this collection housed? The Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library (MARBL) – in special collections.

It might seem odd that such highly digital, tech-forward work is being done in an area of libraries that – to be frank – would seem to prefer the physicality of paper and the cult of the tangible over bits, bytes, data and devices. But if being in library school has taught me anything, it’s that librarians and information scientists are often not what they seem, stereotypes be damned. According to the bloggers from OCLC Research, the debate over if special collections is the place for digital “stuff” is certainly not new. Last October, the Association of Research Libraries hosted a conference in D.C., An Age of Discovery: Distinctive Collections in the Digital Age. In his remarks there, Clifford Lynch summed up the tensions between the special collections and digital worlds:

“For cultural memory organizations, these stewardship obligations are paramount—and make no mistake: now that the technology is available and increasingly affordable and well understood, the creation and geographically distributed replication of digital representations of unique treasures is fast becoming an obligation of good and responsible stewardship.”

So let’s assume this divide and debate is passe, that all special collections departments are digital friendly, and that they’re training and staffing themselves for a robust technological future. (Shall I say “Yeah, right?” Down, Cynicism! Down!)  How might the increasing ability of scholars and the public to discover materials formerly limited to physical-only entities, stored in esoteric special collections, affect information behavior? The hope would seem obvious: that scholars, researchers, and other interested parties will find material more easily without expending as much effort. These knowledge seekers will no longer have to travel to musty nooks far and wide for primary and secondary documents. These seekers will also be able to know and share information about the holdings of libraries, and research topics and questions will be sparked and ignited by this knowledge of collections. This great flowering of availability will in turn result in a great flowering of important, stimulating scholarship, a more in-depth understanding of our history and world, and special collections departments will be funded adequately by their institutions because their value is recognized, appreciated, and supported. The manna rains from heaven and we all dance naked, filled with joy and love!

Or wait. Maybe we should do the dancing clothed.

It is hard to say if increased digitization and the possibility of increased access and easier discovery will be, or if it is currently, that big of a deal. After all, scholars have been finding what they need for a long time, through printed indexes of holdings and information-sharing scholarly networks.  Just because you put something online doesn’t mean it is findable – if you build it, they will not necessarily come. Is your digitized collection’s interface easy to use, and if you are digitizing text, is it actually helpful and usable?  (e.g. How accurate is the Optical Character Recognition (OCR) and what are the ramifications for searching as discussed here?) Is your collection’s metadata being harvested and aggregated elsewhere, or is it just on your site, a meek satellite with no force amplification? Are you tracking, analyzing, and reviewing metrics on the use of your digital collection and using that data to further bolster use, discoverability, and usability?

By way of demonstration, I propose a challenge. Without using the above link, find the digitized copy of the Iowa Ad Herennium. Quickly. Go. (Leave a comment and let me know how fast this was for you.)

Now how likely was it that as a scholar you were able to find that volume without knowing it was there, and digitized? And how likely is it that you know the digitized copy is not in the order of the physical item (as my husband’s research has found)? If you were doing in-depth research, attaching your name and scholarly reputation to said research, would you be likely to come and see the real thing? Methinks in certain fields that yes, you would need to.

I don’t mean to sound skeptical or against the digitization of works in special collections; and I do suspect that making online copies available will be helpful and very useful over time. I also believe that there will always be a need for the original object, and that they will be worth saving and using. The challenges will be to make collections quality, highly usable and interoperable, be able to demonstrate the value of both the digital and physical to host institutions, and the ability to market and promote resources (something I worry libraries, not to mention special collections, are not as good at as they need to be.)

So what do you think? What barriers exist now, and into the future, for both bridging the special collections stereotype to the digital future? Will there be a need for physical objects in an digitized future? How will information behavior change going forward? Other thoughts?


This post is, as so many of my other posts are, indebted to my colleagues in LIS590CDO, taught by Dorotha Salo, who is mentioned so often in this blog I’m considering renaming Libraries with/out Walls to “A Drooling Fangirl of Salo Rants On and On,” or perhaps “Dorothea Salo is My Hero.” Of particular note among my classmates is one Trevor Muñoz, co-author of the above-linked OCR paper, and who pointed out that the Rushdie and Updike papers mentioned in the Times article all fall under the purview of special collections. As always, a tip of the hat to you, good sir, and thank you.

Written by nicolibrarian

March 18, 2010 at 7:45 pm

Beth Andrews – Profiles in Awesome

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Confession: I have not always thought inter-library loan (ILL, in industry speak) seemed all that exciting. In fact, the few times I had dealings with the back-end of the processes of ILL, I was mostly just worried to mess up what seemed a really complicated system with a lot of moving parts. And then I met Beth Andrews, who not only loves ILL, but has an infectious positive attitude about this part of the LIS field. Beth and I are colleagues in the University of Illinois’ GSLIS program. She has changed my mind about being afraid of ILL and so it is my pleasure to introduce her to you:

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

Elizabeth (Beth) Andrews

Beth Andrews: I currently work in the Interlibrary Loan department at Loyola University Chicago; specifically, I run the lending side of things, which means responding to requests from other institutions that want to borrow our materials. I really, really love ILL — I run across awesome books every day, I get to communicate with libraries around the globe, and I like that I’m helping people with their research. I’m also lucky enough to work at a library that gives me lots of professional development opportunities; I’ve sat on two job search committees, worked on a Strategic Planning task force, and currently serve on the Public Relations and Outreach committee. I highly recommend working somewhere that lets you see and contribute to the big picture, because you learn a lot and get a break from your daily routine.

My background: I have a BA in both French and SCMC (Studies in Cinema & Media Culture) from the University of Minnesota, and I also completed the University of Chicago’s Master of Arts Program in the Humanities with a concentration in Cinema & Media Studies.  Clearly, I love film, but also television, literature, dance, music — any mode of self-expression that inspires and brings people together. My original plan was to get a PhD in film studies, but I think library science is a much better fit for me. I love that I’m constantly surrounded by books and ideas, but also get to do practical, tangible work that helps people. Librarianship is very much a helping profession and I’m very interested in that aspect of the job.

NF: What made you want to go to library school?

BA: My mom has worked in a public library since I was a kid, so I spent a lot of time there in the summers and have always loved the environment. I worked at various university libraries for six years as a student employee and truly enjoyed it, but I never thought of becoming a librarian because I was so focused on becoming an academic. Working full time at Loyola exposed me to librarianship as a career — I never realized how many different kinds of librarians there were, and how many different things you could do with the degree.  Getting the MLIS seems like a natural next step, as I want to move forward, have more responsibility, and be involved in decision making processes.

NF: What do you hope to do with an MLIS?

BA: Broadly, I want to work with people and improve ease of access.  The specifics of that will vary depending on the setting, but the impulse behind it is this: we are currently surrounded by an astonishing amount of constantly shifting information, and if we’re overwhelmed by this as information professionals, how must the patrons feel?  I think libraries can provide a lot of solutions to problems of organization and access, and I’d like to be part of that discussion.  (I’m not tech-savvy, though, so don’t expect me to design the Great American OPAC or anything.)  Though I’ve been an introvert all my life, I’ve found that I genuinely like working with people, including patrons, co-workers, or colleagues from other libraries.  I have a great respect for knowledge and education, and love to see what students are working on and help them get the resources they need.  If I stay in the academic environment, I’d love to work in a film or performing arts library.

NF: What do you see as a big issue in the world relating to LIS – challenges for the field itself, info challenges for the rest of the world, or challenges for individuals?

BA: There are way too many answers to this question, so I’ll go with a topic that doesn’t get enough attention: marketing.  Libraries don’t always know how to market themselves, which is a shame, because we have so much to offer our communities.  Libraries worry about how to compete with Amazon and Google, but I think we’ve got an automatic advantage: the ability to forge personal connections.  I don’t necessarily mean that in a warm-and-fuzzy way, though many patrons do like that.  Google is very easy to search, but it can’t help you interpret the results, or teach you how to choose the best search terms, or remember that you’re writing a paper on André Bazin and e-mail you a week later with a list of potentially helpful resources.  Our patrons love technology, but they don’t always know how to harness it to their best advantage, and they don’t realize that we’re here to help alleviate their frustrations.  Hence the need for good marketing!

NF: What might “information leadership” mean to you?

BA: In regard to our patrons, we need to step in and teach them not only how to find and use information, but how to evaluate its veracity, relevance, and credibility. As a whole, we need to remind our non-library colleagues that as we all adapt to the new information environment, librarians have been tackling issues of organization and access for over a hundred years, and we will continue to make our voice heard and work as hard as we can to provide solutions and meet our patrons’ needs.   We don’t need to be defensive or proprietary, but we also shouldn’t take a back seat and let other information providers make all the decisions.  The idea of partnering with these companies to problem-solve and create new information technologies is pretty exciting.

NF: Where do you get information to stay on top of LIS issues, or issues in a sub-field you’re into?

BA: ALA’s weekly American Libraries Direct e-mail is a good for general news items.  Otherwise, I’m a big fan of blogs (like this one!) because RSS feeds make keeping up on them outlandishly easy, and I enjoy the mix of news, opinion, and discussion.  In terms of Interlibrary Loan, there are actually a couple of old school listservs that are massively helpful (and often quite entertaining). I also find that my fellow GSLIS students are really good about sharing information via Twitter, Facebook, or class forums.  Hopefully we can maintain these connections after graduation, because we’ve got a good network going!

NF: Is there anything else you’d like to say?

I’m super flattered that you wanted to interview me!  It will be really interesting to read this in a year or two and see how my thinking has changed.  I’m totally overwhelmed (in a good way) by everything I’m learning in school and excited to see where my career takes me.


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.

Written by nicolibrarian

February 14, 2010 at 8:32 pm

Profiles in Awesome – Amy Slowik

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I first met Amy Slowik when I was visiting the University of Iowa to look at their MLIS program, since I knew it was likely I’d be moving to Iowa City with my husband. At a lecture I attended, Amy introduced herself, and has since provided me with invaluable advice about library school and Iowa City. Amy has just started a new job as the Electronic Resources Librarian/Assistant Professor at Western Kentucky University, and shares information on her trajectory through academe and library school below. You can also learn more about Amy at her blog, Dark Archivist, or follow her on Twitter.

Nicole Forsythe:  Tell us about your background, current work, what made you want to go to library school, and what you hope to do with your MLIS.

The one and only Amy Slowik

Amy Slowik: In 2000, I graduated from DePauw University with a double major in art history and English Literature. Though I was considering getting a PhD in either field, I wanted a career that would allow me to work with both fields and also in publishing. In high school I served as Editor-in-Chief my school’s literary magazine for three years, and I knew that I loved editing, writing, and leading people. I continued through college to work on my publishing skills: I edited and wrote for two campus newspapers and a social justice journal, as well as publishing my own term paper in DePauw’s research journal and editing/researching my adviser’s book with an FDIC summer grant. That same adviser suggested that I become an art librarian or academic librarian.

Immediately after graduating from college, I entered the Master’s Program in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. Though admitted into the art history track, I also took literature courses. The program allowed me to gain a subject master’s in art history, which I knew to be a keen advantage (if not outright requirement now) for either the art librarian or academic librarian career paths. At that point I wasn’t sure that I wanted to be a librarian, which is why I earned the subject master’s first. That same master’s allowed me to be hired as an editor in Iowa City when I followed my husband there for his PhD in Film Studies at the University of Iowa.

While working as an editor, I worked closely with the art/permissions librarian at my company. That combined with my former interest in librarianship and research into the field (including informational interviews) made me decide to apply for a master’s in library science. The University of Iowa had a library science program, and just happened to be admitting students for the final cohort of a Digital Library Fellowship. I knew that modern librarianship—particularly art librarianship, which is going more and more into online catalogs and galleries—more and more deeply becomes entwined with digital initiatives and that the fellowship would be both a free ride and a great idea. I won the fellowship and graduated in December of 2009.

In January of 2010, I started a job as Electronic Resources Librarian/Assistant Professor at Western Kentucky University. It’s my job to manage the electronic resources and their systems for the university. The position requires a subject master’s and a great deal of knowledge/training about library technologies and intellectual property. I serve as a subject liaison and a reference/instruction librarian. Because I am 10-month tenure track, I am required to publish in order to gain tenure.

NF: What do you see as a big issue in the world relating to LIS – challenges for the field itself, info challenges for the rest of the world, or challenges for individuals?

AS: It’s hard to narrow my answer down to just one issue. One big issue (and the root of many other issues) is the same issue that America faces on the whole: uneven distribution of wealth, including capitalism’s degrading influence on the country’s already dangerous economic polarization. This is a big problem for librarians on two fronts: the library’s inability to function because of an increasing lack of funds, and the vast differences in users’ abilities due to uneven educations and families of origin. But both fronts have the same cause: our country continues to pull money away from education. This is exactly the opposite of what the country needs to do to stay competitive in the global market. If America continues to do this, our power as a nation will continue to dwindle. Guns do not determine power in the 21st century, economics do. And the smarter a nation, the better its economics and therefore its influence and quality of life. That’s a proven fact.

NF: What might “information leadership” mean to you?

I think the whole purpose of a librarian is to be an “information leader”. In the 21st century and Web 2.0, patrons are users of technology as much as librarians. More and more of our information goes through new channels to reach users. It is our job to not just gate keep but guide users in using information. We must lead them into ever-evolving ways of accessing and using information. We cannot just sit a book in front of them and tell them to read. That model does not work for the modern user. I consider us to be teachers, counselors, and enablers—all of which requires leadership. If you want to be a librarian who sits in a small room by yourself and never interacts or changes, forget it. That doesn’t happen anymore.

NF:  Where do you get information to stay on top of LIS issues, or issues in a sub-field you’re into?

AS: I use a combination of listservs, publications, networking, and conferences to stay abreast of issues. You cannot rely on any one or two of these. Library science evolves so fast that publications cannot keep up for much of us. But listservs and networking cannot be relied upon fully as they rely upon individuals in a casual setting who are thus prone to error and bias. Conferences are also flawed: they occur only annually, so the information they present is often outdated. Also, many professionals who present at conferences do so because required, not because they actually have anything valuable to say or are experts of their fields. Thus, staying in touch with LIS requires a great deal of balance, time, and energy. But don’t do this all in your own free time: keeping updated should be just as much a part of your daily work hours as meetings or deadlines.


Don’t forget: Keep up with Amy at her blog, Dark Archivist, or follow her on Twitter.

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.

Written by nicolibrarian

January 24, 2010 at 5:43 am