My latest contribution to the Library Journal Peer to Peer Review column is here if you’re interested. It’s a response to the In the Library with the Lead Pipe article on calling for a philosophy of librarianship, so if you haven’t read that you might want to start there.
I’m going to be one of the speakers at the NFAIS Humanities Roundtable on Monday, October 1. I’m going to be talking about library instruction in the humanities along with someone from ProQuest. There’s a virtual and onsite registration if you’re interested. If you’re there, feel free to say hello.
I haven’t completely planned the talk yet, which is supposed to be 20 minutes covering the whole area. Right now, I think I’m going to talk about four modes of library instruction (or information literacy if you must): online learning objects, the one-shot, the flipped class, and research consultations, and how they vary depending on several factors, including the librarian-student ratio. Also, I think I’m going to talk about instruction in research concepts, types of information, and active learning more than on specific tools. For you humanities instruction folks, if that seems way off base from what you do, I’d love to hear from you in the comments or by email.
In a July 1945 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, Vannevar Bush, then Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development for the United States government, published As We May Think, in which he laid out the plans for a machine he dubbed the Memex. The Memex was what we would now think of as a computer-like apparatus, a large desk with both a viewing screen and a screen for writing with a stylus. The insides would hold thousands of reels of microfilm, and researchers using the Memex could read the microfilm on the viewing screen and both annotate and make connections between microfilm pages (similar to hyperlinking). The Memex has been hailed as thought precursor to the personal computer, and in Libraries and the Enlightenment (a perfect holiday gift for the librarian in your life!) I discuss it as an example of a universal library scheme, that is, a way to make all the world’s information accessible to humans. However (and I also mention this in the book), one interesting thing about Bush’s conception of the Memex for librarians is the insight it gives into the academic mind and its relationship to information.
In “As We May Think,” Bush worries about the “growing mountain of research” and the danger that researchers were “being bogged down today as specialization extends.“The investigator,” he writes, “is staggered by the findings and conclusions of thousands of other workers—conclusions which he cannot find time to grasp, much less to remember, as they appear. Yet specialization becomes increasingly necessary for progress, and the effort to bridge between disciplines is correspondingly superficial.” Bush noted that “our methods of transmitting and reviewing the results of research are generations old and by now are totally inadequate for their purpose” and that “that publication has been extended far beyond our present ability to make real use of the record.” The Memex was intended to help solve that problem.
In a later 1959 essay, “Memex II,” he goes on about the ease of actually acquiring material for research: “Professional societies will no longer print papers. Instead they will send him lists of titles with brief abstracts. And he can then order individual papers of sets to come on tape, complete, of course, with photographs and diagrams” (172). Still later, in “Memex Revisited” (1965), he exhibited the practical thinking of the scientist in terms of materials, but not other costs. He noted that the “material for a microfilm private library might cost a nickel, and it could be mailed anywhere for a few cents.… The entire material of a private library in reduced film form would go on ten eight-and-one-half-by-eleven-inch sheets. Once that was available, with the reproduction methods now available, duplicates in large quantities could probably be turned out for a few cents apiece beyond the cost of materials” (208). As with the current debate about ebook pricing, Bush implies that the cost of information lay primarily in its medium, ignoring the costs of the information production itself. Microfilm is cheaper than print, so information will be cheaper, as people resist paying as much for ebooks today as they do for print books. If the cost of information were correlated with the cost of the medium of distribution, then digital books and articles would be nearly free, which of course they are not. 
Many professional societies indeed no longer print papers, but the bulk of publishing, at least in the sciences, is done by commercial publishers who certainly wouldn’t just send researchers scholarly articles for a few cents each. However, the expectation that Bush has is typically academic, even today. Information just appears, either as soon as we want it or a few days later. Barriers to information are either nonexistent or irrelevant. The question is whether this is a naive expectation or not.
Some librarians would certainly consider it naive. We know better than anyone the cost of knowledge. Information doesn’t just appear. We make it appear, if we can. So the expectation that barriers to information are nonexistent is a bit naive. But what about whether barriers to information are irrelevant? I think this is less naive, and in fact I think this expectation drives the entire academic research enterprise, including that of academic libraries. Librarians have spent decades building research collections and resource-sharing networks to make it seem like information just appears for researchers. Recent polls suggest that this is the primary function of the library for researchers: we buy stuff. And with information technology far more advanced than what Bush could conceive of with his Memex, the technological barriers to information have almost completely been eliminated. For Bush, getting the information organized and hyperlinked was the real problem, but that problem has been solved.
The only thing beginning to change, and possibly for the better, is that some researchers are becoming more aware of the economic and legal barriers to information. The Elsevier boycott has spread the word some. Elsevier trying to block U.S. efforts to make publicly funded research available to the public were a public relations disaster. Lawsuits against universities to stop professors sharing articles with their students as they see fit have gained some negative publicity. And the rise of gold-open access journals is starting to clue some researchers in to the cost of publication. Even modest out-of-pocket expenses for OA journals can cause controversy, as evidenced by the long discussion here when the OA journal Philosopher’s Imprint decided to implement a $20 charge to submit articles (since revised to a request for a donation). Ignoring the question of whether charging a submission fee is morally permissible, you can get a sense from the discussion that a lot of people who benefit from OA journals (i.e., everyone not affiliated with a university) were the ones most opposed to even a small submission charge. Nevertheless, there’s still the expectation that information should just be provided, even for the non-academically affiliated. It’s an expectation many of us have because it underlies the entire ethos of scholarship. All scholars should have access to relevant scholarship, even if they don’t work for a rich university.
I’m not one to make predictions (well, except that Twitter and Facebook have already called the 2012 Presidential elections), but if I had to make one I would predict that eventually even the economic and legal barriers to scholarly information will be reduced enough to make access broader and more sustainable. For information seekers outside academia, I’m less sanguine, although I would love to see an extremely robust Digital Public Library of America succeed, more OA scholarly journals, and current copyright laws restricted to at least pre-1992 levels. But even some of this might be achievable for scholarly information. In other words, I believe the academic information expectation will somehow overcome the commercial information exploitation. Something has to give, and I don’t see it being the centuries-old expectations of publishing researchers who expect access to all other published research. Or perhaps I’m wrong, and we’ll enter even more of a black market culture where scholars at better funded institutions send copies of articles to less well off scholars.
That’s not the same thing as saying information, even scholarly information, will be free, which is impossible. Only that the costs of that information will not be significantly more than is necessary to sustain it and the profits won’t be squeezed from researchers providing the information and editing for free while restricting access for researchers whose libraries can’t afford exorbitant costs. Commercial publishers expect to make a profit; researchers expect universal access to scholarship. Somewhere there’s a middle ground. At least I hope there is.
 I couldn’t find either “Memex 2″ or “Memex Revisited” online or even in microfilm to feed into my Memex. However, both are collected in the following volume: Bush, Vannevar, and James M. Nyce. From Memex to Hypertext : Vannevar Bush and the Mind’s Machine. Boston: Academic Press, 1991. The page numbers refer to this volume.
 Portions of the last two paragraphs are taken from: Bivens-Tatum, Wayne. Libraries and the Enlightenment. Los Angeles, CA: Library Juice Press, 2012.
My latest Library Journal column is Assisting Research Versus Research Assistance if you’re interested.
This blog turned five years old last month and I didn’t even celebrate. I considered buying it a little cupcake and putting on a few candles, but I didn’t. I’m not much of a social planner. Even though I felt like a latecomer to library blogging, five years seems like a long time somehow, like fifteen years in blog years. Since I started writing, a lot of short-form library bloggers have moved on to Twitter and several other library essayists have started to blog. I think I prefer essayist to blogger, because while numerous essayists blog, lots of bloggers rarely write anything longer than a paragraph. Although I write various kinds of post, I think of my typical posts as short essays that happen to be appearing on a blog. In the Library with the Lead Pipe, Library Babelfish, Peer to Peer Review, Sense and Reference, Agnostic Maybe, and Hack Library School have all begun since I started writing here and all present essays that happen to be published in blogs. It’s like a little renaissance of library essay writing, especially among academic librarians. Plus there are all the strong voices from a few years ago still going.
When I started the blog, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. It was an experiment, and I wasn’t sure I had the time or inclination to write much about libraries. I had published a few short articles before then, but most of my writing was for myself, usually fiction I wrote just for fun. What I discovered as I went along was that the more I wrote about libraries, the more I read and thought about libraries, and the more I read and thought about libraries the more I had to write. Looking back, I can see my posts getting longer and more analytical as the blog matured. The one thing I did know was that this was going to be mostly a professional blog covering my various areas of interest, and thus it wasn’t going to present me so much as my better self, my ethos rather than my character. A little self-analysis perhaps, but no confessional posts.
A few years ago I met a library writer who had been acquainted with me only through the blog. That person compared me to another library writer we both knew, commenting that while the other writer seemed arrogant in print and not so in person (to which I agree), I seemed to be the other way around. I don’t think I’m so much arrogant as supremely self-confident when stating my opinions, but that’s probably the kind of thing arrogant people say about themselves. In person, I probably do come across as arrogant because I’m happy to argue a position forcefully. It probably doesn’t help that I’m usually equally willing to argue the opposite of that position forcefully as well, just for the sheer joy of dialectic. That’s a common habit of philosophy majors. In person, I can be, but am not always, intense, and have even been told that I sometimes seem aggressive, not at work so much as in personal situations. Of course, I’ve also been told I seem like a flirt, but maybe those comments come from different people.
But in writing I want to create a better self. My better self is willing to argue forcefully, but doesn’t want to seem aggressive. Threat hinders communication. My better self has a version of what Keats called negative capability, “that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Or maybe it’s cognitive dissonance. Regardless, my better self believes I’m always right but acknowledges that I could always be wrong. I used to think everyone believed they were always right, but after long discussions with friends I realized a lot of people act with no confidence that they are right, and obviously plenty of people believe they’re absolutely right without ever acknowledging they could be wrong about anything. Just read the comments to any political article online to see numerous examples of that. The better self is a more academic self. It’s part of the model of academic writing. Assert and defend a position and acknowledge counterarguments even when you can’t refute them. I don’t always follow the model, but it’s a good model. Spend time with me in person and you’ll slowly get to know my character, for better or worse. Read what I write and you’ll see my ethos. One great thing about writing is that I can take my normal flawed self and try to make it seem a little closer to the self I’d like to be all the time if I were capable.
Anyway, it’s been an interesting five years. Thanks for joining me along the way.
A few weeks ago I mentioned to a friend of mine that I use an MS Word macro to remove the weird line breaks that sometimes occur when I copy text from a PDF and paste it into Word. If you use PDFs as sources in your writing, you’ve probably run across this problem before. I thought other people might be curious as well, so I’ll share two different ways to deal with this problem.
Method 1: Textfixer
Method 2: the MS Word Macro
I mentioned in the post on organizing my research life that I prefer Word to Google Docs because it’s more robust. Macros are part of that robustness. I’ve been using this one a long time, so I prefer it to Textfixer out of habit. From a 1997 article in PC World* (available via Proquest), here’s how to create a Cleanup macro in Word:
1. Open the document you want to reformat, then start recording your macro: Select Tools:Macro, type a name for your macro, such as Cleanup, click Record, and in the Record Macro dialog box, click OK.
2. Select Edit:Replace, type ^p (a caret and a p) in the Find What box, and type a ~ (a tilde) in the Replace With box. Click Replace All to replace all hard returns with tildes. Click OK at the prompt. The document will look strange, but don’t worry about it.
3. While the Replace dialog box is still on screen, type ~~ in the Find What box, and type ^p in the Replace With box. Click Replace All to replace all the double hard returns (the normal break between paragraphs in text files) with a single hard return. Click OK at the prompt.
4. Type ~ in the Find What box, and type a single space in the Replace With box. Click Replace All to replace what was the single hard return at the end of a line with a space character to separate words. Click OK at the prompt, then click Close.
5. Click the Macro Stop button to turn off the macro recording. You may still have to do some minor editing to finish cleaning up the document, but most of your work will be done.
The only drawback I’ve found is that you can’t run the macro on only a selected portion of text, which means you need to have a separate Word window open to drop in the PDF quote, run the Cleanup macro, then copy the clean text and paste it where you want it.Of course, if you use Textfixer you have to keep that open as well. On the other hand, I can use it even when I don’t have an Internet connection. I hope this helps someone. It’s saved me a lot of time over the years.
Appendix on Organizing Quotations
Which reminds me of something I meant to mention in the post on organizing my research life. One reason I don’t use Mendeley much, despite its quality, is that I use another program to organize PDFs and other efiles (Calibre) and I don’t annotate PDFs very often (and when I do, I use PDF Xchange Viewer). However, I pull a lot of quotations out of PDFs and print sources and organize them all in a Word file, beginning with the citation and then every quote from that source organized by page number. I then make the citation a “Heading 2,” and use the Document Map to view and navigate among them. (No Document Map feature on Google Docs, btw.) For the book, I then organized the quotes in the order I dealt with the sources. What works better for me than annotation is to have the main parts of everything I’m analyzing laid out in order, so that I can take snippets of quotes when I need them and already have them formatted the same way as my manuscript. It also helps me remember the gist of a book or article by skimming through key quotes. Since the book had many historical primary sources, I did this a lot. Accompanying my 200-page manuscript was another 125-page document of nothing but quotations from about 70 different sources. (On a side note, when I couldn’t copy and paste, I would type from print sources, which ended up being a good way to get my fingers moving on days when I struggled to start writing.)
*Campbell, George. “Make Word 97 Easier on Your Eyes.” PC World 15:10 (Oct 1997), p. 344.
[This post is more personal and doesn’t really concern libraries, so be warned and feel free to skip. Just stuff I’ve been thinking about.]
Princeton students sometimes talk about something they call the Orange Bubble. Though not as restricted from the surrounding communities as the students often are, I seem to be living in a bubble myself, but what kind? You’re probably familiar with the concept of the Daily Me and possibly of some of the criticism aimed at the phenomenon, especially political criticism of the echo chamber effect that comes from being able to filter out of your information feed anything that you don’t already agree with. I agree with the political criticism, and am willing to believe that the increasing polarization of the American electorate over the last decade or so has partially been caused by this effect, and that the polarization is a bad thing. I’m just not sure what I’d be willing to do about it.
I had a similar concern about myself years ago and fought against the echo chamber. When I was in grad school in the mid-90s, I grew frustrated that the majority of my vaguely leftish friends and I could talk a good game about Marx or Gramsci but knew almost nothing about mainstream political thought, much less any politics to the right of Raymond Williams. I set about remedying this ignorance with a multi-year reading project, starting with fascism and working my way left. I also practice a sympathetic hermeneutic, which means that the first time I read something, especially something I’m likely to disagree with, I read it as sympathetically as possible, then again critically. What I learned along the way was that there’s something sympathetic about most political positions depending on your point of view and historical circumstances, and that people who radically disagree with you aren’t necessarily stupid, irrational, or evil (though they very well may be). I read a number of worthwhile writers who are part of the conservative intellectual tradition, such as Edmund Burke, Irving Babbitt, Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, Michael Oakeshott, and Friedrich Hayek. Oakeshott and Hayek in particular had a profound effect on my thinking.
The conservative intellectual tradition, such as it is, is in pretty dire straits these days. After all, you don’t need intellect if your solution to every political problem is to eliminate the government. I can only imagine what the thoughtful and cautious Richard Weaver would think of some of the buffoons currently writing and speaking about something they’re calling conservatism. The kind of Bircher craziness that was part of the lunatic fringe in the 1960s has gone mainstream. Nevertheless, despite the Rush Limbaughs and the Glenn Becks there are intelligent and thoughtful conservative writers, and I read them. I’m particularly fond of Theodore Dalrymple and Roger Scruton, whose senses of cultural despair and nostalgia (respectively) I don’t share, but whose writing I usually enjoy. Their versions of conservatism aren’t especially American, but of living Americans I’d also include Roger Kimball (his cultural criticism in The New Criterion, not the shrill protests against academia that first made him famous). And thanks to Arts & Letters Daily and the Bookforum Omnivore, I’m as likely to run across interesting essays from The New Criterion or City Journal as from Nation or Dissent.
After all that, I thought I was safe from the political isolation of the Daily Me, at least until a traumatic incident in a dentist’s waiting room last week made me question myself. Because I couldn’t escape from the blaring television, I encountered something that I later learned was The Five, which Wikipedia calls an “American talk show” but I can only describe as a shouting roundelay of idiocy. The idiots weren’t just shouting their baseless opinions at each other; they were also yelling about and disputing completely factual questions. “The Bush tax cuts were passed at this time!.… No, they were passed at another time!” My god, people, stop the show and do a bit of research. I’d never seen anything quite like it before, and I was literally cringing every moment while the people around me passively consumed it. How could anyone tolerate that stupid junk? That’s when it hit me. I was the odd man out. I’m in a bubble, sort of a smart bubble. It turns out I’ve almost completely removed stupid from my life. Generally, I think that’s good for my happiness and sanity, but are there negative consequences?
First are the people. I rarely interact with stupid people. It helps that I work where I do. My colleagues are generally pretty smart. And the students are smart. And the professors are smart. Basically, in my working life, I have no significant interactions with anyone who isn’t intelligent and educated. It’s nice. Then I get home to my wife and daughter. They’re both pretty smart, too. Maybe it’s genetics. The family members I interact with the most are my in-laws, retired college professors in the sciences, and they’re also pretty smart. Then there are my friends. I don’t have many close friends, but the ones I have are smart. Come to think of it, so are my less than close friends.
Also, I haven’t watched commercial television for 25 years, which has eliminated all manner of stupid. After a childhood of voracious TV consumption, I fell out of the habit for a few months after high school and after that couldn’t abide commercials interrupting the narrative flow of anything. In my adult life, the only television newscasts or political talk shows I’ve seen have been fake ones in movies, which I mistakenly thought were parodies until I saw The Five. For a few years, I still had cable and just watched movie channels, but I haven’t had cable TV for about 20 years either. That means that all those dumb TV shows and reality TV and garbage people watch just because it’s on and they’re tired I’ve never seen. If I don’t get it through Netflix, I never see it. After a 20 year hiatus, I’ve discovered some really smart TV, but I’m always a season behind at least, and I don’t have to watch commercials. I know some really stupid shows exist because occasionally they rise up to the mainstream news from the celebrity gossip, which I never read. Living in New Jersey, I’m aware there is a show called Jersey Shore, but I’ve never seen it. It sounds stupid. A friend told me he turned on his TV one day while cleaning and working around the house, and later realized he’d inadvertently watched eight hours of some dumb fashion model reality show. That can’t happen to me.
My anticommercialism extends to radio as well. I’m not sure I’ve listened to an explicitly commercial radio station since high school. In college, I usually listened to my university’s radio station. In grad school, I started listening to a lot of classical music after I had a roommate with a great classical collection and a willingness to share. Other than NPR and the BBC World Service, I usually listen to classical radio at work and in the car. I also listen to other kinds of music, but that’s what iPods are for. So the shock jocks and the morning DJ shows and the stupid commercials that I know exist because I’ve sometimes been forced into proximity to them in public are almost completely absent from my life. It’s very calming.
As for reading, my tastes since my freshman year in college have been relatively serious. I read a lot of literature in college and grad school, but these days I mostly read essays and books on history, philosophy, or politics. Recently someone saw me reading this book about Nietzsche with my lunch and said, “a little light reading, huh?” I never know how to respond to that without sounding condescending, which I don’t mean to be. The honest answer is that for me, yeah, that’s sort of light reading because I’ve been reading books like that for 20 years. If not light, it’s certainly pleasurable or I probably wouldn’t read it. It’s not heavy reading by any means. Of the topics I actually know something about (and thus can understand the books at all), my heavy reading would probably be books with both complex ideas and tedious writing, books by people like John Rawls, which I very much appreciate having read, and which I’ve also taught, but to which I rarely turn for pleasure reading. My political views have been influenced by Rawls, but leisure reading over lunch? I don’t think so. Then there’s all the reading that’s so heavy I can’t even lift it, like anything dominated by equations.
It sounds like I’ve deliberately removed the majority of pop culture from my life, but it was more accidental in my quest to eliminate stupid distractions. It means I’ve removed a lot of stupid, but also that I’ve divorced myself from my culture enough that I wonder if I even understand what’s going on anymore. In all honesty, my knowledge about a lot of pop culture is based on what I read at Cracked. How could someone watch The Five or Jersey Shore? I just don’t get it. Add to that all the other things I don’t really get that I don’t equate with stupid, like sports fandom, and I’m seriously out of touch with something, but I’m not sure if it’s something worth touching. Am I as naive and uninformed as the people who get their news only from Fox News or from their carefully selected friends on Facebook? Probably not. But am I guilty of the same insularity that I would normally criticize? If I am, that wouldn’t make me unusual. Hypocrisy, or at the very least a serious lack of self-awareness, is hardly unique in the human condition.
If I have a saving grace in this regard, it might be movies. Though I’ve enjoyed numerous highbrow movies over the years, I’d usually rather watch Die Hard or Anchorman for the 10th time than the latest indie art house film. Some of my very favorite movies like Casablanca might be old, or even “classics,” but they’re not particularly highbrow. Casablanca is schmaltz from beginning to end. Yet I’m right there tearing up when Rick gives his speeches to Ilsa and Laszlo at the end, laughing when Ron Burgundy plays jazz flute, and cheering John McClane when he puts a bullet in Hans Gruber. I’m not sure if my cinematic philistinism counts as stupid, though. John McClane might be a mouthbreather, but Hans Gruber?
Is this enough to avoid the possible negative effects of the Daily Me, especially the political ones? Is avoiding stupid morally equivalent to, say, avoiding even the mention of any political view you don’t like, or never encountering people not of your “class”? I’d like to think not, but then again of course I would. That’s exactly the sort of moral high ground I enjoy standing on. Nevertheless, my bubble is similar in some ways to the class bubble that Charles Murray wrote about last year, especially in my lifestyle habits. He argues that a class bubble is tearing apart white America. (He learned to avoid talking about black America after The Bell Curve.) You can take his quiz on how thick your class bubble is. I scored 34 points (out of 100, the higher the score the lower the class), 22 of which came from the first four questions about my Life History. When it comes to People Who Have Been Part of Your Life; Sports, Pastimes, and Consumer Preferences; Some American Institutions; and Media and Popular Culture, my bubble is pretty darn thick, despite my taste in movies. For Life History, even though I had a lot of crappy manual labor jobs when younger, I had to answer no to #6 because I’ve never had a job where something hurt at the end of the day, unless “my soul” counts as an answer.
Based on my score, Murray predicts I’m a “ﬁrst-generation upper-middle-class person with middle-class parents.” Technically, according to Wikipedia, I am upper-middle-class based on my work, my wife’s work, and our household income, but that’s very recent in my life and came about as I was avoiding stupid, not cultivating upper-middle-classness, whatever that is. (It also ignores wealth, debt, and the NJ cost of living, but whatever.) My parents for a time achieved (barely) lower-middle and went downhill from there. So I think I escape Murray’s class bubble even as I technically have similar habits. He’s talking about the people increasingly born that way, who go to Ivy League universities, marry fellow Ivy League graduates, work in high prestige professions, and live in exclusive and wealthy parts of the country. But that’s not me. I went to a middling state university in the south, work in a middling prestige profession, married a Seven Sister grad, and live in Trenton, NJ (just not the part where people shoot each other). And that’s totally different, sort of.
I don’t see my bubble as a class bubble so much as an anti-stupid bubble. If my bubble resembles Murray’s, it’s because many years ago I decided I’d rather be an impoverished scholar than a rich anything else and had the luck not to end up destitute. Does that make me the part of class divide? Am I the part of the upper-middle-class isolating itself from the masses with no understanding of how most people live, and thus, presumably, lacking any sympathy for or understanding of their lives? I still don’t think so. After all, I’m pretty much the same intellectual snob with exactly the same habits now as when I was a grad student living on $12K a year.
Instead of upper-middle, I’d prefer to be part of what the late Paul Fussell called “category X” in his amusing survey of the American class system. He believed that academics and intellectuals and artists sort of opt out of the class system because they care more about ideas and creativity than about social status as such. (And by his Living Room Scale, I barely make it into the middle class.) According to Fussell, you are born into a social class, but “you become an X person, or to put it more bluntly, you earn X-personhood by a strenuous effort of discovery in which curiosity and originality are indispensable. And in discovering that you can become an X person you find the only escape from class.”
That sounds appealing to me. I want to be an X person living in an X bubble, isolating myself from stupid rather than from other classes. However, I might be fooling myself. Isolation is isolation, perhaps. If I can’t watch The Five without cringing, am I missing something important about contemporary America? If, as a friend of mine commented, that’s what passes for political debate these days, should I be concerned that I’ll have none of it? It doesn’t matter much anyway, because I’m as unlikely to change my ways at this point as the anti-me, whoever that might be. I’m thinking one of the Jersey Shore people, maybe that guy “The Predicament” or whatever his name is, but even my concern over the insularity of the Daily Me won’t make me watch that show, so I’ll never know.
One of the projects I’ve set for myself this summer is weeding serials with no online equivalents from the open stacks for offsite storage. I’ve done a lot of weeding over the past decade, but usually with books. Serials present harder choices. Firestone, our main library for the humanities and social sciences, is packed, and for the last decade we’ve had to ship out an item for every item brought in. And while there might be some withdrawals, especially of duplicate items, most of the weeding is for the ReCAP facility we share with Columbia and the NYPL. It’s a grueling process, but oddly enough one of the activities in which it’s necessary to theorize about if you’re going to do it well.
For books, it’s relatively easy. I factor in the age of the book, how long (if ever) since it has circulated, and its relative importance based on my own knowledge of either the author or subject in question and the language in which it’s written. Regardless of the complexities of languages and relative importance of given authors, books are always easier to deal with. By the time they make it to ReCAP, every book is completely cataloged and identified. This isn’t always true of books in open stacks. Yesterday, for example, I ran across a book that had been bound about 50 years ago with the wrong title and author on the spine. It wasn’t in our system, and according to WorldCat only three libraries have copies. Stuff happens. Anyway, since it’s cataloged and identifiable, it can always be retrieved and if necessary returned to the main stacks. If I make a mistake sending a book our two out, I can have them sent right back if anyone complains, not that anyone does. But with serials it’s a completely different story. If I send a hundred years of Rivista di Filosofia offsite, it’s probably not coming back, because I wouldn’t have anywhere to put it.
For the purposes of weeding for offsite storage, we divide the print serial titles into two types, those with online equivalents and those without, or, in the parlance of the database we use to manage this process, “B range with SFX targets” and “B range without SFX targets,” with SFX being the popular link resolver. Last year I went through 650-odd titles “with SFX targets,” and realized that while SFX is pretty good, it’s only as good as the data it gets, and it gets data from a lot of sources, not all of which are reliable. I encountered dozens of instances where we had more online that SFX indicated, and a few where we had less. Every title had to be checked. When I do projects like this, I document everything from my rationale to individual problems. I could post my nine-page, 2000-word report documenting that process, because that would be some exciting reading.
The biggest questions for me were, did we really have this online and is it from a stable source? The first was tedious but conceptually easy to answer, the second required some thought. What is a stable source? I first went the opposite route and identified unstable sources–aggregators like ProQuest, for example. ProQuest is great, but they just license their content, and some of their online journals go away. I considered JSTOR, MUSE, and anything direct from the publisher to be relatively stable, and shipped out most of those titles. (Plea to JSTOR: digitize more non-English language titles! I have a dozen suggestions to start with if you’re interested.) I also discovered that publisher backfiles for some otherwise expensive journals were pretty cheap, so I filled in some online gaps.
Some of you who have sent your JSTOR titles out years ago (i.e., some of my colleagues) might ask what took me so long with this. Mostly it was about practical space planning. Partly it’s because I really don’t like sending serials offsite, even ones we have online. That attitude is changing slowly as the technology improves, but it’s still true that there are some serials for which the online equivalent isn’t really equivalent at all. It’s slow and clunky, and browsing the print is easier and faster. I ran across a couple of French examples recently that were so clunky I yearned to have the printed journal in my hand. But space is tight, and I have close to a thousand print-only serial titles sitting on the shelves that are potential candidates for offsite storage.
“Space is tight” has to compete with another policy to save the time of the reader. What, if possible, is the best arrangement for scholars using the collection, not easiest for librarians? Sending out titles en masse is easy for librarians, but not always best for library users. Deciding that is difficult, and required (by me at least) a title by title decision in many cases. Deciding that for print-only serials, many of which aren’t indexed anywhere or at least anywhere you’d think to look, is the toughest of the weeding decisions. You can’t go by circulation data and you can’t go by age.
Even going by whether something is indexed is questionable. Okay, the Philosopher’s Index covers the last 30 years of this 60-year-old title. If the last thirty years were online, I might send out the online and keep the print in the stacks. However, of the first 250 titles I’ve dealt with, only three had any extensive indexing, and never for the complete run of the journal. And is indexing enough? Can it be browsed? An indexed journal can be “browsed” through the index, but it’s sometimes clunky. We subscribe to the major indexes in my area from Ebsco, and they do a pretty good job, but it’s hard to replicate the experience of browsing print journals. Regardless, the bulk of the titles reviewed so far have been non-English titles that standard subject indexes haven’t covered.
Some people might think that just because it’s old or a dead serial, it can go, but that’s not true, either. Sometimes, readers really need large print runs, especially if there is no online equivalent. Cultural historians might find a lot of interesting material in looking at 40 years of Life magazine, but if their best access was through an index or offsite storage then the project becomes much more difficult. Every search, every article request takes a bit more time. Most people might just want to access a particular article, but that’s not the only way people use journals.
Access to historical periodicals is sometimes crucial for a research project. For example, while working in the stacks I ran into a scholar working with a number of English, French, and German philosophy journals from 1910–1940. He’s tracing the influence and growth of phenomenology through Thomistic and neo-scholastic philosophers in the early twentieth century, and the only way to do it is to slog through decades of journals. These aren’t online. They’re not indexed anywhere. But they are sitting on the shelves in Firestone. He spends his days walking back and forth from the stacks to the desk he’s using to work, reading a bit, finding a trace, grabbing another journal volume, and so on. Imagine how difficult that work would be if it all had to be done by recalling journals from offsite, or worse, strictly via ILL. It would be almost impossible, and extremely time consuming. Technically, it’s possible to view materials at ReCAP, but there would still be the issue of reduced hours and access, as well as the problems of recalling 30 years of eight different journals to sit in the reading room. (I’m not even sure if that’s doable, but I assume it is. It’s a pretty slick operation.) The thing about a large research collection is that you never know how someone will be using that collection, or what scholarly projects might happen sixty years down the line that are possible only because of your wise decisions now. And if you’re thinking “who cares about such projects,” the answer is easy. The scholars who work on them care, and that’s who the library is supposed to serve. Scholarly needs should determine the collections and their accessibility as much as possible.
So far, I’m still working out the rationale. Partly, I’m making assumptions. For example, I’m assuming that no one will serendipitously discover the existence of a historical journal relevant to their research just by browsing the stacks. If you’re looking for a journal volume from 1920, for example, you probably either know what journal you’re interested in (like the scholar mentioned above) or you have a citation found in some source. This could be used to justify sending just about everything offsite, including the non-indexed content, and if I’m still doing this in twenty years and need the space, then it just might. However, there is also an assumption about what will save the time of the reader. What about the scholars who need long runs of journals, especially multiple journals? I’ve run into two instances of that this year alone, and the history of scholarship in various fields isn’t an especially unusual topic. Using imagination and sympathy, I put myself into the place of those scholars (plus I asked some). If I were using the collection for research, what would be a minor inconvenience, and what would derail my project?
A minor inconvenience might be recalling just a few volumes from offsite storage, whereas having to recall multiple volumes of multiple serials and finding a place to store and work with them would be very difficult and time-consuming. Assuming the first, short runs (10 or fewer volumes) of dead print journals can safely go. We have a lot of those from the 19th and 20th centuries. Recalling the entire six-volume run of a Russian philosophy journal and handling it is easy. Recalling decades of one or more serials and handling them isn’t. Thus, for now, long runs stay, especially long runs of live journals. Another assumption is that long runs are some indication of the relative (perhaps historical) importance of the journal. If a journal published for seventy years, it obviously had an audience of some kind. It’s historically important, and historians might be interested. Length is merely one measure, though, since there are, for example, numerous little magazines from the Modernist era that had short runs but significant cultural importance (Blast Magazine would be a good example). But in the history of scholarship, long runs are a good sign. Look how many journals in JSTOR run back into the 19th century.
I’m still working out the kinks, and there are still exceptions. Nevertheless, trying to balance the need for space with the possibility of supporting certain kinds of research is one of the trickier practical problems I’ve encountered. The complexities are partly the result of having a lot of stuff, which is what scholars want us to have. Purely patron driven acquisitions or completely online collections are only possible if you ignore the vast majority of material published before this century and outside this country. I suspect this will change over the next 50 years, but I have no way of knowing the rate of digitization of non-American materials, the intellectual property rights that might be invoked, and the affordability of that material for American research libraries. I’m trying to save space and the time of the reader. And if it turns out I’m too cautious, some successor can happily toss out the whole collection.
There’s an interesting post at Jenica Rogers’ Attempting Elegance blog entitled Killing Fear part 1: The Problem, in which the problem seems to be that “there’s a contradiction between these faculty expectations and emergent and clearly evident trends in information, libraries, and our future. This particular stakeholder group seems to want the very traditional services and roles that others are pointing out are now part of a legacy model.” The “faculty expectations” are that the most important role libraries play is to purchase and archive stuff, with research support, teaching support, and being gateways to information being strong but distant goals. The “clearly evident” trend is that “Information literacy is our future; anyone who’s paying attention to accrediting bodies, professional organizations, and where our professional excitement is positioned knows we staked the farm on it.” So the problem is that there’s a contradiction between how faculty view, and presumably use, libraries, and how we believe they should view and use libraries. I agree that there’s a contradiction between how faculty view libraries and how some librarians believe faculty should view libraries, but that’s a different contradiction than presented in the blog post, and it’s not a problem with reality so much as with the expectations of some librarians.
We can look at this contradiction and its alleged problem in a couple of different ways. First, there’s the issue of librarian expectations versus faculty reality. Second, there’s the differences between libraries designed to support teaching and libraries designed to support research.
For the first, believing that it’s wrong for faculty to believe that the chief, but far from only, function of libraries is to buy and archive stuff is to misunderstand the role of the library in the life of the professional researcher. By the time people have finished their PhDs and gotten jobs at colleges and universities that require research and publication for tenure, they hardly need librarians to teach them how to do research, which is why they rarely ask for research help, and almost never within their fields of expertise. They don’t need “information literacy,” they need stuff. It would be a little arrogant to claim that librarians know better than researching and publishing faculty how they should be using the library. The proof is in the publication. Librarians treating faculty as if they had the same needs as undergraduate researchers is an inappropriate strategy for understanding what libraries are for. The question is, if faculty perceptions of the library are discordant with the perceptions of librarians, why would it make sense to assume the faculty are wrong? Libraries are there to serve researchers, not the other way around. If our professional organizations and our professional excitement aren’t about supporting faculty research, then perhaps we’re excited about the wrong things.
Second, there’s a question of the size of the library and the institution it serves. In bigger libraries, the amount of stuff available is more important than in smaller libraries, and that benefits everyone. One conclusion of a study she quotes says that collection size is rapidly losing importance. Well, maybe for a lot of libraries, but certainly not for all. Rogers explains her perspective: “I freely acknowledge that my reactions to this data are certainly based in my small liberal arts college experiences.” I understand that perspective. I worked for two years as a reference librarians and subject liaison for a small liberal arts college. Compared to a large research library, we didn’t have much stuff, so the stuff didn’t matter much. When faculty wanted really expensive material for research, we had to send them elsewhere. However, I spent several years as a student, instructor, and library GA at a huge research library, and having lots of stuff mattered. I’ve now worked for over ten years as a subject selector for a another large research library, and from that perspective I also have to say that collection size matters.
Since I can’t find the information online, I assume our acquisitions budget isn’t public. [Correction: a friend sent me the link to the info at ARL (tab eexp1 of the spreadsheet), which should have been the first place I looked. Princeton spent close to $23 million in whatever year is being measured. By rough count it looks like there are about 60 libraries on the list with eight-figure acquisitions budgets in the ARL. That’s a lot of money to spend.] We buy a lot of stuff, and it’s not just ebooks and ejournals. In addition to the digital collections, which probably account for most of the current scholarly journal collections, we still collect over 100,000 physical items each year.
Some might argue that all that stuff can’t possibly get used, that we’re collecting on the “just in case” not “just in time” philosophy. There are a couple of responses to that. First, if your library’s mission is purely to support the current curriculum, then “just in time” makes sense. That’s great teaching support, but it’s not great research support because there are some things that can’t be gotten “just in time.” After a certain point, they’re gone. If a library didn’t collect and archive them, you won’t get them. That might not be true in some distant future if everything is digitized, available, and affordable, but it’s true now. In the humanities and social sciences, researchers need collections. The way the current higher education system works creates a cruel irony for many faculty at smaller institutions. They’re still expected to do research, but their libraries aren’t funded accordingly. ILL and visiting larger research libraries can help mitigate that problem, but it’s still a problem that surprises some professors as they move from the R1 university where they completed their PhD to a small college.
However, and here’s the second response, even though they’re not adequately funded to support advanced research, there is a system of academic libraries to rely upon. Research libraries are never collecting just for their own institutions, which is why the stuff they buy helps serve all researchers, including ones at other research universities. The stuff my library buys helps researchers at lots of other institutions, and vice versa. My library lends a lot of items to other libraries, but the faculty and students here also request a lot of items. While services are important, so it stuff. We don’t need to ask faculty whether collections matter, because they’ve spoken in the survey quoted in the blog post. They speak in the amount of material they borrow from their library or request from other libraries. So collections might not be of central importance in your library, but they’re important to your faculty. Fortunately, collectively, we do a pretty good job of supplying them, too.
Sympathy and the “Academic” in Academic Librarian is my latest contribution to the Library Journal Peer to Peer Review Column.