How Libraries Work: a Request

Two months away, and my first post back is going to be a request, since I’m too swamped to write up my hostile thoughts on the Authors’ Guild irritating lawsuit against Michigan et al. For the curious, I did manage to finish my book on libraries and the Enlightenment, and I’m working on editorial revision suggestions at the moment. So no blogging, but I’ve done a bunch of writing in the last two months and I’ll be plugging it like crazy once it’s published.

To the request. Last spring, our library conducted a wide-ranging survey of faculty and students that got a lot of feedback. As I was reading through the hundreds of written comments, I kept thinking that the frustrations some scholars have might be lessened if they knew more about scholarly publishing in general and how research libraries work. I don’t mean how scholars use them, but what goes on in the background, all the messy stuff we often try to hide from library users behind a seamless facade.

It might still annoy someone that X journal isn’t available online for the last year or Y ebook is the only version we have when they really want the print or that what they want is in offsite storage and they have to wait a day to get it, but at least they’d understand why. As a departmental liaison, I especially want people to understand that it’s not my fault, or the library’s fault, and that the best intentioned librarians still have to work within a system they don’t control. I also want to present this as information, not advocacy, so I won’t be talking up open access or pillorying publishers.

As a consequence, I’m putting together a presentation for grad students and faculty about how libraries work, especially large research libraries, and the initial group I pitched it to seemed interested. Here’s a list of topics I’ve thought about so far, loosely divided into content and process/policy:

  • Scholarly information universe: it’s complicated
  • Copyright
  • Approval plans/ firm orders
  • Ebooks
  • Ejournals/ Big Package
  • Archives/ Gray literature/ Unusual stuff
  • Library Cooperation: PTS/BD/ILL/ARL/CRL (PTS and BD are local concerns)
  • Digital Preservation: Hathi Trust/ LOCKSS/ Portico

  • How we get stuff
  • What stuff we get
  • Why we get, or don’t get, stuff
  • Why that stuff is, or is not, online
  • Why some stuff is harder to get than other stuff
  • Why the stuff is, or is not, in the main library building
  • Why the stuff is organized like it is

I’m hoping to fit that all together into a somewhat coherent 30-45 minutes. I have two requests, since I know a lot of my readers probably have similar issues.

1) have any of you done similar presentations for faculty or students, and if so could you share what you covered with me?

And 2) do any of you have other suggestions for general information about how libraries work that I’m missing, but that might be useful for scholars to know?

You can leave a comment, or just email me at I would appreciate any advice people have to offer.

Thanks in advance.

4 thoughts on “How Libraries Work: a Request

  1. Perhaps this is too basic for your scholars, or too offtopic to be part of your presentation, but it seems like there could be a valid side process (or intertwined process):
    – how you get stuff from us
    – what stuff you (and your students!) can get from us
    – why you can get some stuff from us but not other stuff

    and so on.
    As a circulation coordinator at a small school, I find that new professors (who are very often fresh PhDs from large research universities) have sometimes been so deeply immersed in their extremely specific corner of the world for the past several years that they really aren’t sure how to help their undergraduates use the library in an undergraduate fashion, how reserves work, how to go about making a purchase request for materials, etc… not just in our specific context, but in any context.

  2. Thanks, Marianne. I think these are definitely related, and one thing I definitely want to get across is the WHY they can, or can’t, get stuff, because I think that frustrates a lot of people, and understandably so.

  3. You may be including this in the “how we get stuff” part, but giving the actual prices of stuff–particularly databases and journals–is something that always catches people’s attention.

  4. A very good suggestion, and something I’d considered. I’ll be doing this for humanities scholars, so the prices won’t be quite as shocking as if I were talking to scientists, but I suspect they might be surprised how much things cost.

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