Organizing My Research Life [Updated]

[The following is an updated version of this blog post. Since that one gets a couple hundred hits a month, I figure someone somewhere must find it useful, and since I've changed a few things within the last year--especially by using a nifty new syncing feature in Zotero--I thought I'd update.]

This is the latest configuration in my quest to find, store, organize, and access scholarly information in the safest and most efficient way possible. I’ll focus on four productivity tools: the LibX toolbar, DropboxCalibre, and Zotero (the reason for this order will be more obvious below). Plus there’s an addendum on Evernote and Evernote Clearly.

LibX allows libraries to build a customized library application that runs as an extension in Google Chrome or an add-on in Mozilla Firefox. It allows users to do various searches directly from the application. Some of the obvious searches are for a library catalog, WorldCat, Web of Science, or large aggregator databases, but other searches can be set up. For example, as you can see in the image below of the Princeton University Library version, users can search for databases by title or search for ejournals by title. The links can be to whatever you want, and our version has links to the library home page, ILL, reserves, and our reference chat service among other things.


Once I started using this, I have almost no need to ever go to the library website anymore. (Which is a pity, because we’re releasing a new website this summer. I was on the redesign committee, and we stole every good idea any library had and put them together pretty smoothly as far as I’m concerned.)

Once you find stuff, you have to store it somewhere, and after experimenting with multiple syncing applications I’ve finally settled on Dropbox exclusively. The free storage is 2GB (although with accepted referrals you can get that up to 18GB). I went with the Pro option of 100GB option for $99/year. Right now I use about 30GB on average, but the Pro option allows uploading of unlimited file sizes, so I can transfer video files or large numbers of music files among computers easily. For impecunious grad students (or even impecunious librarians), I might suggest a cheaper option, but it’s worth the $99/year for my peace of mind. Also, I’ve used Dropbox on multiple devices and operating systems and it’s never failed me. Now everything I have is backed up in the cloud and on every computer that I use, so there’s little chance of losing anything.  [For cheaper options, Google Drive offers 25GB for $30/year and SugarSync offers 60GB for $75/year. Or you could set up 32 separate email accounts and send yourself Dropbox referrals to get the 18GB. I realize Google Drive offers 100GB for only $60/year, but I'm doing my best to spread my electronic eggs into as many baskets as possible rather than rely on Google for everything.]

Once you have Dropbox or some other syncing application set up, it’s time to think about managing edocuments. I use Calibre Ebook Management. I call it an edocument manager because it  allows you to import ebub, mobi, PDF, Doc, DocX, Txt, and just about any other text based document. Once documents are imported, you can edit the metadata, tag them by subject, add notes, and even convert them among formats.( Got an epub you want to read on a Kindle? This is the program for you.) Calibre makes it very easy to organize and find documents.

The other nice thing is the way it imports them. Instead of just importing the metadata while still pointing to the original folder where you had the file, Calibre imports the entire file into a folder called by default “Calibre Library.” By going to the Preferences and choosing “Run Welcome Wizard,” you can specify where the folder should be. Here’s what it looks like for me:

Calibre Settings

Notice that I keep my Calibre Library in Dropbox. What that means is that every document I import to Calibre is now synced in the cloud and on every other computer I have Dropbox on. If I’m at work using Calibre on my office desktop, files imported and synced through Dropbox will show up exactly the same on my laptop at home provided I have the Calibre settings the same.

The same thing works for the newest version of Zotero (4.0), released last month. Zotero is a relatively simple and easy to use bibliographic citation manager that imports citations from library catalogs and databases. The citations can then be organized by folder or tagged and searched. It’s very easy to generate bibliographies in multiple formats and to add citations to things you’re writing with the MS Word plugin. It started as a Firefox add-on, but these days I use Zotero Standalone, which has connectors for Chrome, Safari, and Firefox.

It also allows you to attach a link to a file, so that if you have a citation to an article and the article stored on your computer, you can right-click the citation, choose Add Attachment, then Attach Link to File, and the linked article will appear with the citation. Then you can just click within Zotero to open the document. With version 4.0, Zotero has made a big improvement. You can now choose the “base directory” where Zotero links to the attached files. Before, you had to do it in the default directory, or attach the file itself and pay for more storage at Zotero. Not anymore. Since you can choose anywhere as the base directory, I chose my Calibre Library on Dropbox. The preferences look like this:

Zotero settings

Once Zotero is set up like this on computers you use, the attached links to files sync when Zotero syncs, because the underlying Dropbox folder structure synchronizes across devices as well. Obviously, this could be done without using Calibre. Everything could be managed through Zotero alone, and some other Dropbox folder synced instead. But Zotero is most useful for managing citations, whereas I have lots of edocuments that I want to read and manage, but would never want to cite. By separating out the functions and using separate programs, I can get precisely what I need at any given time. Besides, files can be imported to Calibre and edited in bulk, while attaching links to files in Zotero is a slower process.

So that’s what I’m recommending as a great way to keep scholarly citations and documents stored, organized, and accessible for research.

Addendum on Evernote and Evernote Clearly

I’ve also been using the note-syncing application Evernote a lot, although I haven’t come up with any uses that are especially focused on research. You could use it for notes and quotes about sources you’re reading, but that wouldn’t be my first choice. (I use MS Word for that, and put every quote and note I have about a given source organized by title. Then I turn the title into a Heading and use the Document Map feature to easily navigate between sources.)  I’ve been experimenting using it in student research consultations, where I will put the source we searched, a suggested search strategy, and maybe a citation or two, and then use the sharing feature to email the note to the student. While not scholarly, the feature that allows you to add check boxes to lists sure improved by grocery shopping. Mostly I use it to clip articles from the Internet that I want to save to read later.

Once I go read the article, I use another Evernote application called Evernote Clearly which really has to be seen to be believed. If you do a lot of online reading as I do, you should give this application a try. It’s a browser extension that reformats an online article into a pleasant, clutter-free reading experience. Plus, for a lot of articles that span multiple pages, it will reformat them all into the same page. Really, try it. Install the browser button, then navigate to this article on being an Evernote power user. Click the Clearly button and watch all the annoying clutter disappear. Your online reading experience will never be the same again.

Walt Crawford’s Big Deal and the Damage Done

I bought an ebook copy of Walt Crawford’s new book The Big Deal and the Damage Done and have read or skimmed it all. It analyzes serials and monograph spending from all types of academic libraries every which way. Chart after chart demonstrates the dramatic restructuring of library budgets most likely because of one relatively recent publishing model, the Big Deal. It lends some quantitative support to my contention that Big Deals screw the humanities, and really anything else that isn’t a STEM ejournal. The final paragraph:

What I do believe: If things continue along the same line as they have from 2000 to 2010, the damage done may become irreparable, as a growing number of academic libraries become little more than subsidized article transfer mechanisms. That would be a shame.

If you’re at all interested in the issue, definitely get a copy. I’ll be writing more about it in my Academic Newswire column for next week, so I won’t say more about it now.

Unlikely Conversations and Improbable Sources

Recently I’ve been getting some requests for what I have called The Improbable Source.  An improbable source is some source students hope to find that is exactly on the topic of their research essay, especially when that topic is somewhat obscure. The example I used then that still stands out as the top of this category is “scholarly books and articles on email as a form of civic friendship.” You can double check the philosophical literature if you like, or you can take my word for it that nobody has ever published a scholarly book or article on this topic. When I first identified the existence of the improbable source, I suggested that the problem “is that they want sources that already do their work for them.” To some extent, that’s true. Almost always, the improbable source students desire is one that already supports the exact thesis they hope to argue. If they found the source, then they’d have to change their thesis. However, I now think the problem is larger than that. It’s not just about a hunt for improbable sources, but also about a hunt for unlikely conversations.

“Scholarly conversation” is a phrase that librarians and writing instructors often use. It’s an apt metaphor for what scholars do, and most scholarly work is in a conversation of some sort with previous scholarship, whether arguing with it, building upon it, or whatever. There’s nothing controversial about either that claim or the use of the phrase itself as far as I can tell. However, it’s very difficult to teach a first-year student who has never participated in such a conversation or engaged in any actual research to understand what’s going on.

I’ve worked with students who are looking for scholarly conversations on topics that are highly unlikely to be conversed upon by scholars. We can stick with the “email as civic friendship” topic. It’s not just the source that’s improbable. It’s the entire conversation that’s unlikely to exist. And if there weren’t a conversation, there wouldn’t be the improbable source, because the scholarly sources often respond to previous research. Students have been taught that scholarly conversations exist. They are perhaps engaged in class readings that demonstrate a scholarly conversation in action. Then they pick a topic and go out to find the conversation that likely doesn’t exist.

So that’s what is happening. But why is it happening? There could be many reasons, but I suspect the main reason is the backwards approach to research the students are taking. Instead of reading around broadly in an area of scholarship and looking for the conversations that emerge, students are choosing and even narrowing topics at random and then trying to find the scholarly conversation. Librarians have strategies for helping students find the conversations, but they only work if the original topic is pretty broad. Students might make the leap into a conversation about email as civic friendship because they’ve read an article on civic friendship and need to write about a form of communication as civic friendship, but that’s obviously a scholarly conversation that didn’t emerge from anything scholarship they’d actually been reading. Another approach is students having to relate some event or thing to two different scholarly disciplines. That can be a very fruitful assignment, but students sometimes have problems figuring out exactly what they should be researching in the disciplines, because it’s usually not the thing or event itself. Thus, their initial searches aren’t emerging from the scholarly conversations within a discipline. They’re hoping to find that conversation based on what they think is interesting about the thing or event, and sometimes it just doesn’t exist.

Anyway, I think those are reasons why, but even if not there’s still the question of what to do about it. The first response I usually offer is one of assurance, because often enough the student has tried to find the improbable source or the unlikely conversation and failed. That’s when I practice reference as therapy, and assure students they’re not finding it because it likely doesn’t exist.

Then, we analyze, which etymologically means to break something down into its elements. Email and civic friendship has two elements, both of which could be researched separately. However, that topic is really what writing instructors call a “lens essay,” which means the student should be examining email through the lens of a theory of civic friendship. Thus, really the topic is email and whether or not it fits the criteria for civic friendship. But other topics that combine two or three areas together are ripe for analysis and research on the separate areas, but even then it might be hard to figure out specifically what to look for sources on without having read a lot. and that’s the students’ job, not mine. Comparing disciplinary approaches to something can work as well, but again it’s usually something that requires more reading by the student than searching with the librarian.

That’s where my final advice comes. Sometimes even as I’m meeting with students I realize they don’t really need me at all. They don’t need to find more sources; they just need to start reading and figuring things out from there, and the only thing I’m good for is to tell them that. So maybe I was right before and the hunt for improbable sources and unlikely conversations is motivated by the hope that someone out there has done all their reading, analysis, and synthesis for them, because that, not library research, is the hardest part of writing a research essay.


Libraries and the Enlightenment Now Available in Japanese

Around this time last year Library Juice Press released my book Libraries and the Enlightenment, which, by the way, not nearly enough of you have purchased. It’s had some good reviews, although it hasn’t exactly been a runaway bestseller. Perhaps the reason is because people were waiting for it to come out in Japanese translation. Now it has, from the Kyoto Library and Information Science Research Society. You can purchase it here for 3500 yen.

I’ve never been translated before that I know of, so it’s kind of cool, even if I can’t read the language. According to Google Translate, the title translates as Enlightenment and Library. That seems close enough to me. If it turns out to be a big hit in Japan, maybe I’ll follow Jimmy James’ lead and have it translated back into English and republished. If you don’t know what I mean, find a copy of Super Karate Monkey Death Car, a very funny episode from season 4 of NewsRadio. Jimmy James is the executive in charge of everything, and his Jimmy James: Capitalist Lion Tamer was unsuccessful in the U.S., but became a huge hit in Japan. So it was retranslated from the Japanese into Jimmy James: Macho Business Donkey Wrestler. The best line from the book at his book reading: “Glorious sunset of my heart was fading. Soon the super karate monkey death car would park in my space. But Jimmy has fancy plans, and pants to match.”


I just received the ALA Annual meeting list with location information. The ACRL Philosophy, Religion, & Theology Discussion Group meeting info:

Sunday, June 30
04:30 pm to 05:30 pm 
HYATT-Soldier Field

The proposed topic of discussion is:

Are publishers suing or threatening to sue libraries or librarians threats to academic freedom for librarians?

All are welcome.

Smart People Doing Foolish Things

Many of you probably saw the article in Slate a couple of weeks ago arguing passionately that nobody should go to graduate school to study literature. The author’s experience is typical for most people who graduate with PhDs in literature in that she hasn’t gotten a tenure-track job. She earned her PhD in German literature in 2010, so she might some day find that elusive TT job, but it doesn’t sound like she’s planning to stick around academia working for below minimum wage as an adjunct instructor. And good for her. The week after brought this insightful analysis at Aljazeera of the “adjunct crisis,” from another recent PhD who also can’t find a TT job. It’s much more analytical and less emotionally wrought than the Slate article, including speculation (and that seems to be all that’s available on the subject) of why presumably intelligent and well educated people would submit themselves to adjunct conditions.

One political scientist argues that it’s “path dependence and sunk costs.” Once people have spent so much their lives and money aiming for the TT job, it’s apparently hard to realize that you rolled the academic dice and came up craps and should just move on. Indeed, that analogy is rather poor, because if the 6% chance of finding a TT job in literature that the Slate article estimates is correct, you’ve a far better chance of beating the house at craps than you do of getting that job.

The Slate author provides a psychologically devastating alternative to relying on statistics:

During graduate school, you will be broken down and reconfigured in the image of the academy. By the time you finish—if you even do—your academic self will be the culmination of your entire self, and thus you will believe, incomprehensibly, that not having a tenure-track job makes you worthless. You will believe this so strongly that when you do not land a job, it will destroy you, and nobody outside of academia will understand why.

My only criticism of the statement is that I believe she put in the second person what was obviously a personal experience. I’ve known people with PhDs and no TT jobs and none of them thought themselves worthless, regardless of whatever bitterness they might have had about the experience. Several of them were philosophers, so maybe that makes a difference.

Based on a lot of people I’ve met, it’s not that they view themselves as worthless; it’s that they view any other work than traditional professorial work as worthless, or at least beneath them. This attitude shows up occasionally in librarianship, where people with PhDs who will never get TT teaching jobs sometimes decide to “settle” for librarianship. One person told me to my face that with his PhD in philosophy he couldn’t get a decent teaching job, but since he was willing to settle for being a philosophy librarian he wanted my advice on getting one of those jobs. Talk about rhetorically challenged. I didn’t feel particularly resentful, because I have a great job and he doesn’t. I told him there really weren’t many jobs for philosophy librarians as such, and I probably should have added that with that attitude he probably wouldn’t get any available ones anyway.  Tens of thousands of highly educated people with that attitude would rather work for low wages and no benefits than do anything else.

That attitude puzzles me, but then again I never had the sense of entitlement some people seem to have about graduate school. It’s that entitlement that provides me with brief moments of irritation in what is generally a sympathetic assessment of the plight of adjuncts and what their plight says about higher education, namely that it’s being priced out of the market for the vast majority of Americans while its quality is being reduced by reliance upon poorly paid contingent instructors the universities view as disposable. If there’s an economic term for something that’s increasing in price while decreasing in quality I’d use it, but I don’t know what it is, unless it’s “scam.” Or, more likely, “bubble.” Regardless, it’s hard to feel sympathy for someone so obviously intelligent and well educated who then whines and complains about how much worse her life is for pursuing that education.

It’s also difficult to understand how someone could have begun a PhD in 2005 without knowing what was going on in higher education, but that seems to have happened. It puzzles me that so many people finish humanities PhDs and only then realize they won’t get jobs, because people not getting jobs was the most obvious part of my graduate school experience. I started grad school at a top-20 English department in 1992. By 1994 two things were obvious to me: first, I found the study of literature increasingly boring, and second, that even if I finished a PhD I almost certainly wouldn’t find a good TT job. I didn’t have William Pannapacker around to clue me in. All I had to do was look at the jobs people in my department were getting, or not getting. One year the best job someone acquired was in Arlington,Texas. There’s nothing inherently wrong with Arlington as far as I know, except that it’s hot as blazes down there in the summer and I’d left the south partly to get away from the excruciating summer heat. But when you’re on the academic job market, you don’t get to think about things like that. You go wherever you’re fortunate enough to land a job. Another person got a job teaching a 5/4 load at a regional university in a much cooler state. I wouldn’t have minded at all going to that university, but a 5/4 load? That’s brutal, especially when every class is going to have 25 or more students. No, thanks. And most of the people weren’t getting TT jobs at all.

This wasn’t some hidden conspiracy. Everyone knew about it early on in their graduate school career. Is that not the case now? Heck, my first year in grad school the department had a meeting of faculty and grad students just to talk about the problem. (Besides the general sense of malaise, the only thing I remember clearly about that meeting is that some sexagenarian associate professor hired in the 1960s complained that new assistant professors were making more than he was. He didn’t get a very sympathetic hearing.) Given that a lot of programs don’t publicly give out their placement statistics, it might be understandable that someone would start a program with a naive hope for the perfect TT job, but once you’re in a program all you have to do is look around. Are people getting jobs or not? It’s an easy question to answer, and your likely fate should be pretty clear. Someone should do a study on why so many people continue while knowing the odds are against them rather than just speculate.

It was very clear that my chances of getting a job I’d want in a place I wouldn’t mind living were almost nil. So I desultorily finished my MA work and started teaching rhetoric as an adjunct while also working halftime at the local public library as a circulation clerk. I didn’t feel bad about myself, or feel that it was somehow beneath me to have an MA and be checking out videos for $10/hour alongside people with high school educations. A job’s a job. I also didn’t resent the department I left. They let in a lot of grad students every year to teach first-year courses, many more than could ever find TT jobs. It was a bit of a racket. On the other hand, I got a lot of good teaching experience and a few years free to read a lot. I didn’t make much money, but then again I didn’t need much money. I’d never had any money anyway. And it certainly never occurred to me to be resentful of the system as such, even though it puzzled me why so many people stayed the course, finished their PhDs, and then stayed there teaching as adjuncts making the same thing I made teaching as an adjunct, all the while complaining about not getting a job.

There was possibly no resentment because I didn’t bother finishing a PhD and didn’t “settle” on being a librarian. I just sort of stumbled into it since Illinois’ library school seems to suck in a lot of humanities grad students looking for something to do. The years I spent teaching and studying have been highly useful for my library career, so it would be foolish to resent the fact that while I at one point wanted to be a professor, and still think I would have made a pretty good one, academia didn’t owe me a TT job. Graduate school turned out rather well for me. I had no money when I graduated college, and neither did my parents. I was able to go to school for free, get some experience, find a wife, make some friends, and get paid $10K a year to teach four courses. It seems like a pittance, even though 20 years later it’s still what a lot of adjuncts make who aren’t in their early twenties as I was. Because of that opportunity and the ways I’ve exploited it, I’m a first generation college student from a poor family in the south who works at an Ivy League university library. My wife, an ABD dropout from the same program, now works as a test developer for ETS. There are worse fates. Almost up until she died, my mother would ask me whether I thought grad school in English was a waste of time. My answer was always definitely not, even during the time I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do with the rest of my life. Education is always good. You just have to know what to do with it.

So all this overheated rhetoric about how foolish it is to go to graduate school doesn’t do much for me. By smart people doing foolish things, I don’t mean that the foolish thing is to go to grad school or even earn a PhD in a field without jobs, but to feel sorry for yourself and complain about it afterward. To turn the historically rare privilege of advanced education into an excuse to complain shows a lot of arrogance but not much perspective. A couple of years ago someone was asking around for advice about her daughter going to grad school in some humanities field. My advice: if she’s interested in the subject, the school supports her with a stipend or assistantship, and she can get a degree without going into debt, go, but assume that a tenure-track teaching job is not going to happen and plan accordingly. Graduate school is only a negative experience if your expectations for where it leads differ from the well known statistical likelihood that you won’t get a TT job, and even humanities grad students should have a basic grasp of statistics. There might be social, ethical, and political issues with the increasing use of contingent adjuncts in higher education, but seeing grad school education itself as the problem is a personal issue. I never thought I’d say this, but going to grad school in English was one of the best decisions I ever made.

On Big Name Librarians

While catching up with my RSS feeds after ACRL and trying to avoid all the horrible news being reported this week I ran across a post by Jessica Olin at Letters to a Young Librarian about Cults of Librarian Personalities. It addresses “the Rock Star Librarian / Cults of Librarian Personalities phenomenon.” Apparently, there was a Rock Star Librarian who spoke at ACRL and I didn’t even realize it, or at least someone Jessica considers a “Big Name in Libraries, a Rock Star Librarian, an inspiration for a Cult of Librarian Personality.” I took a quick look through the conference program to try to figure out who she means, but since she also thinks the person is an “utter tool,” it’s probably best not to speculate, at least in public.

The thing is, I have different reactions to such people depending on whether we think of them as Big Names in Libraries, Rock Star Librarians, or the leader of a Cult of Librarian Personality. The phrase “rock star” applied to any librarians has always struck me as sort of funny. In the big scheme of things, librarians are such relatively marginal professionals that to think of any of them being actually famous is strange. What librarian could say, echoing Jon Bon Jovi, “I’ve seen a millions faces, and I’ve provided information to them all!” A cult of librarian personality is maybe even stranger. Do librarians have groupies? Or dedicated groups of admirers? Fan clubs? Or even people who dote on their every word? I’m not aware of any who do. Or is the suggestion that there are some librarians who would like a cult of personality to form around them? That might be true, if a bit creepy. Maybe the problem some people have isn’t with Rock Star Librarians as such, but with librarians who are deliberately seeking to be Rock Stars. On the other hand, groupies would be nice, if for no other reason than carrying my stuff around for me at conferences.

Then there’s the Big Name in Libraries designation, which seems to me much less loaded a phrase. But what makes a Big Name in Libraries? The Big Name at ACRL apparently writes articles, blog posts, and books, and also obviously speaks at conferences. Is that what makes someone a big name? I do that kind of thing but wouldn’t consider myself a Big Name. Maybe the Big Name has to be somebody on the conference circuit. I’ve done some speaking at conferences, and am slated to do some more (ALA Annual 2014 about library values; put it on your calendar!), but I don’t try hard to get speaking gigs. In fact, I rarely speak unless invited, and I’m just not invited that much. So the Big Names are probably those who you can’t go to a conference without escaping, whereas I am imminently escapable. Everyone can just not read a blog, but if you go to ALA or ACRL, there are names it’s hard to avoid seeing if you look through the conference programs, even if you never go hear those people speak. Those are the people I usually think of as Big Names. But are they Big Names because they’re speaking all over the place, or are they speaking all over the place because they’re Big Names?

Or is it the people who have a “brand”? I’ve written before about fame and hedgehog librarians, the librarians who know One Big Thing (or rather, are publicly known for knowing One Big Thing). Sometimes these librarians seem to spring from nowhere to librarian fame quickly and almost without effort. They do just the right thing at the right time, and suddenly everyone wants to hear from them. And sometimes these librarians are just persistent, even if ultimately no one cares about their One Big Thing. Persistence counts for a lot. If you have a coherent message and write enough and apply to speak at conferences enough, eventually you’ll be heard, or at least seen. You’ll at least be “famous” as that librarian who always speaks and writes about that One Big Thing. That post was written almost five years ago, and back then I opined that I’d never be librarian famous because I couldn’t stick to One Big Thing. Even though since then I’ve managed to write a book about libraries, and have even identified a couple of areas I could make into One Big Things if I chose, I think that analysis probably still holds up. I don’t have the concentration for the One Big Thing, but I do think that’s what helps make Big Name Librarians.

Jessica asks in her conclusion, “What do you all think of this phenomenon? Do you avoid Big Name Librarians at all cost? Seek them out because you love to hate them? Have a true fondness for one or more of them?”

I think it’s less of an issue than some librarians might, and I tend to see the so-called Big Name Librarians as people passing through the limelight on the way back to relative obscurity. Sure, some will stay well known throughout their careers, but even in my brief time in the profession (if 13 years can be considered brief), I’ve already seen some stars shoot and then fade away. Plus, in the end they’re still librarians going back to their libraries and doing the same sort of jobs we all do. I definitely don’t think about Big Names enough to avoid or hate them. It wouldn’t occur to me to like or dislike someone for being popular at the moment, although I might avoid them because advocates of One Big Thing tend to grow stale after a while.

I need to reorganize my home library soon. Now I’m thinking librarian groupies would be perfect to help with that. Maybe I should reconsider the librarian fame game.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Ithaka Survey

The Ithaka US Faculty Survey 2012 is out, possibly making some librarians who read it fret that the library isn’t the center of the faculty universe and librarians are hovering on the margins of that universe. Given that “the role of the library” occupies eight pages of a 79-page document, that’s hardly surprising. This year they asked a new question apparently designed to make librarians feel bad about themselves. Here’s the summary of the question and response:

Finally, we asked scholars to rate how important it was to them that “the library helps undergraduates develop research, critical analysis, and information literacy skills.” In the Ithaka S+R Library Survey 2010 of deans and directors, when this role was first introduced into this module, it was rated as very important by virtually all of the library leaders who responded. Among faculty, however, only slightly over half rated this role as very important…. In general, a substantially smaller share of faculty members rated each role as very important than did library deans and directors; the only role on which there was agreement was the library’s buyer role.

“Virtually all of the library leaders” thought this was important but “slightly over half” of professors. I’d be curious whether the response would change if “critical analysis” and “information literacy” were dropped, the former because librarians play relatively little role in this compared to coursework and the latter because nobody besides librarians knows what the heck information literacy is. Would “librarians help students do library research” have gotten a better response?

Not that there was a lot of response, as Barbara Fister points out in A Surfeit of Surveys and Three Short Questions. A 3.5% response rate. Is that good? I’m no social science expert, so I turned to Wikipedia, which tells me that while a higher response rate used to be considered a sign of higher accuracy, “such studies have finally been conducted in recent years, and they are challenging the presumption that a lower response rate means lower survey accuracy.” Here’s the supporting evidence:

One early example of a finding was reported by Visser, Krosnick, Marquette and Curtin (1996) who showed that surveys with lower response rates (near 20%) yielded more accurate measurements than did surveys with higher response rates (near 60 or 70%).[2] In another study, Keeter et al. (2006) compared results of a 5-day survey employing the Pew Research Center’s usual methodology (with a 25% response rate) with results from a more rigorous survey conducted over a much longer field period and achieving a higher response rate of 50%. In 77 out of 84 comparisons, the two surveys yielded results that were statistically indistinguishable. Among the items that manifested significant differences across the two surveys, the differences in proportions of people giving a particular answer ranged from 4 percentage points to 8 percentage points.[3]

So if response rates near 20% were more accurate than response rates near 60-70%, does that mean a response rate near 3% is even more accurate? I guess by the time you get down to just calling that one professor you met that time and asking questions the accuracy should be just about perfect. It’s just possible that this report has no scientific or even social scientific validity. The other issue with reports like this is that they never tell you anything specific or applicable to your own campus. Thus, it could be that the survey isn’t valid and it has nothing to say about your campus.

Fister suggests that since so many faculty believe that librarians have no role in student learning librarians “should stop writing so many articles about information literacy for other librarians and think about reaching the faculty. Just a thought.” Someone commenting on her post agrees:

You offer a suggestion that I’d like to pick up on – that librarians should be writing about information literacy to professors, not to fellow librarians. Agreed, but the fact is that there is no market for it. Higher education journals rarely include anything on information literacy. I tried to sell a book manuscript on information literacy to a higher education publisher whose products are low-cost and accessible. The publisher’s senior higher education editor described my manuscript as “impressive and significant” and then turned it down. Why? Because “there’s no market for information literacy books among educators.” I later published the book with a library-oriented publisher, hoping (and having some success at it) that professors will read it.

What we could take away from this is that no educators care about the things librarians do, hence the lack of a market. Or, and here’s the more optimistic interpretation, there’s no market for books about information literacy among educators because it’s librarian jargon nobody else uses. To take a phrase only librarians use and then complain that nonlibrarians aren’t interested in it is frustrating and counterproductive. What about books on things other academics think they know about? Library research skills, perhaps. There seems to be a market somewhere for books like that. OUP published Thomas Mann’s Library Research Models and Princeton University Press published my colleague Mary George’s The Elements of Library Research. Neither are exactly bestsellers, but they’re both still in print and they belie the claim that there’s no market among educators for works about what librarians do. Some instructors assign Mary’s book to students, so some educators must know about it. Maybe the problem isn’t the content, but the phrasing. Unless librarians learn to talk like other academics, they will be much less likely to be listened to.

Nevertheless, librarians might find other reasons to fret. The situation reminds me of Nietzsche’s analysis of nihilism, because why not. In section 12 of The Will to Power (or 11 [99] if you have a copy of the Writings from the Late Notebooks handy], Nietzsche describes what he believes are causes of nihilism. First, “nihilism as a psychological state will have to be reached, first, when we have sought a ‘meaning’ in all events that is not there: so the seeker eventually becomes discouraged.” Nietzsche was talking about meaning in the large sense, the meaning of life, the universe, etc. If we believe that the meaning of life is to dedicate ourselves to doing good works to please the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and we find that Pastafarianism is in fact false, we might become discouraged. The second form of nihilism comes when we believe the world has value because of some unifying source out there, like if we thought the world was worthwhile because we could become one with the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Then we find out there’s no such thing, and believe life and the world are valueless. First we might come to believe the world has no overarching goal for human beings, and then that there is “no grand unity in which the individual could immerse himself completely as in an element of supreme value.” If we believe that life has meaning only because of something we no longer believe exists, or that life is only bearable if there is a supreme being for us to immerse ourselves in but then we cease to believe in that supreme being, then we might be frustrated.

Okay, so what does this have to do with librarians, information literacy, or the Ithaka Survey? Let’s think about the frustrations of librarians with libraries, the academy, or even the world as they find them. Frustration often occurs because of a difference between our expectations about the world and the world as we find it. We base our value and meaning on something we expect or hope to find in the world; we don’t find that thing; so we begin to doubt ourselves.

Librarians are sometimes frustrated that faculty don’t use librarians as much as librarians would like to be used; that faculty don’t see a value in information literacy; and that faculty think of the library as a place that buys stuff and makes it available, not as a place where librarians are supposedly just as engaged in the teaching and learning enterprise as they are. (Obviously by faculty I mean those members of the faculty who are not librarians. That’s a different thorny issue I’ve been staying away from.) Often enough the response is sheer surprise. “But I do so much!” Yes, you do a lot. Sometimes the reaction is a pledge to do more outreach to make the faculty aware of what librarians can do. All well and good.

But what if we acknowledge that the faculty, such that are left, know what they’re doing and know what they need from the library. Let’s look at it from their perspective. They have PhDs, have completed dissertations, published articles and books, are either on the tenure track working like crazy for tenure or else contingent faculty teaching like crazy for food and rent. They’ve been using libraries successfully for a long time. Who are we to tell them they don’t know better? They don’t want services, they want stuff. That’s just the way it is. They don’t need you like you want them to think they do.

And their perceptions of what librarians can do for students? So half of the survey respondents think that librarians have no role to play? Well, that’s just the way it is, too. Professors aren’t  there when the befuddled student wanders up to the reference desk to ask a question. They’re not with librarians engaging in research consultations trying to reconcile a class assignment with a doable research strategy. They’re not there when a consultation turns into an advising session on the topic of the essay that really the instructor should be doing.

Or there’s the frustration that professors won’t let librarians into their classrooms. This is pretty common. Even one of my former library school students who was himself a professor admitted he didn’t let librarians in the classroom. Why is that, we might wonder? Well, based on my experience and a brief analysis of courses in the humanities where I work, the reason might be that most courses don’t really have a library research component. A lot of undergraduate classes don’t require research essays as such. They require essays, but the point of the essay is to show that students have mastered a certain amount of material and can write critically about it analyzing and synthesizing as appropriate. That’s why if they need sources, they tend to ask their professor or use course readings. A recent Educause study on undergraduates and information technology claimed that, “it is interesting to note that when students were asked ‘When it comes to your success as an undergraduate, what is the one website or online resource you couldn’t live without?’ the most frequently cited sources were Google (33%) and Blackboard (16%); both of these significantly outranked students’ citing the college or university library website (5%).” It’s only interesting to note if you’re not a student and everything you need to know to complete all your courses isn’t on Blackboard. Librarians want every course to require library research, but library research as such is a small portion of what students are expected to learn in four years.

There are areas where libraries and librarians can demonstrate their value, but being highly thought of as information literacy providers or educators by most of the faculty isn’t one of those areas. If we assume that libraries aren’t the center of the faculty universe and that librarians are never going to be generally seen as equal partners in the educational enterprise, then the sort of results we find in the Ithaka and similar reports provides us no basis for concern. If those sorts of results upset you at all, the problem could very well be with your expectations about the world, not the world itself. So even if the survey was statistically valid, which it probably isn’t, or said something specifically applicable about your campus, which it probably doesn’t, there’s really no reason to worry.

Reflections on ACRL 2013

Last week I attended the ACRL conference in Indianapolis and have had a lot of thoughts rambling around in my mind since then.

The reception was at the Indiana State Museum. There I discovered that Indiana state history is about as interesting as the history of any other individual state–not very. However, I learned a lot about how state history museums put together exhibits from a librarian who used to work for one. It was very educational. Thanks, Josh!

At the reception, I met two different people whom I had apparently met before and didn’t remember. (Technically three, but one of them didn’t remember meeting me, either.) Saying “I’m bad with faces” might be a reason, but it’s not an excuse. Some people develop techniques for remembering the faces and names of people they meet in passing at conferences and such. I should do that. Anyway, if you’re reading this, sorry about that, and it won’t happen again. At least for you two.

I met someone who introduced herself as a “fan” of this blog. I don’t get that much, and it was rather enjoyable. All writers like to hear from people who like their work. Maybe if I posted a photo of myself on the blog more people who like the blog would see me and say hello. But then there might also be people who see me and say, “So you’re the jerk who said librarians should never learn to code!” [Note: I never said that.]

Hotel bars in Indianapolis don’t seem to stay open past 11pm. For a city hosting a conference of librarians, that just seems wrong.

I kept hearing accents in restaurants and hotels that sounded southern, but I couldn’t place them. Was I encountering southerners who lacked a distinctive regional accent, or is there an Indiana accent that sounds kind of southern? (And for non-southerners who think southerners all sound the same, we/they don’t. Not that I have many remnants of a southern accent. When people find out I’m from Louisiana and ask why I don’t have an accent, I tell them that everyone in Louisiana sounds like me.)

The most poorly represented track was probably Collections. You couldn’t do a whole day going to sessions on collections, whereas you could easily do that for Teaching and Learning. Since faculty and students routinely value the stuff libraries provides over the services they provide, it’s curious that librarians routinely reverse that emphasis. I think I know why it happens. Of course, the ACRL conference doesn’t have to emphasize everything. For librarians interested in collections, there’s always the Charleston Conference.

MOOCs came up a bit, always in a neutral tone. Some librarians are trying to find ways to integrate librarians into MOOCs. I don’t think there’s much future for that, mostly because of licensed content and the sheer scale, but good luck to them. Hopeful academic trendspotters think MOOCs are the higher education of the future. I doubt that. Instead I think MOOCs might be the last semblance of higher education in the future for those below the upper-middle and upper classes who are being steadily priced out of traditional higher education as state governments decide it’s better to slash taxes than educate their citizens. The liberal education necessary to provide free and critical citizens capable of lifelong learning is expensive, and what politician wants free and critical citizens? When we see the children of the rich relying on MOOCs and distance education degrees with no professors and no classes instead of heading to Ivy League universities, I’ll have been proven wrong.

Of the presentations I saw, only one got me thinking, “WTF? They rejected my contributed paper proposal for that?” That’s not too bad a ratio, I suppose. If people are going to get a line on their CV from presenting at ACRL, the least they could do is a little preparation so they don’t offend their audience. After looking through all the presentation descriptions, I also figure that my chances of being accepted would improve if I did something practical and related to information literacy. But everyone else does that, so what’s the point.

One of the more interesting presentations was by Brian Mathews, the Ubiquitous Librarian, who did indeed seem ubiquitous on the program. His talk on The Art of Problem Discovery (longer version here) was thought-provoking. I especially liked that he addressed technological and other disruptions to academic libraries and higher education while avoiding focus on specific trends, skills, tools, etc. Instead, he discussed broader approaches such as ways of thinking about problems, which in the longer article he terms “thinking lenses”: e.g., systems, integrative, design, lateral, agile, and computational thinking. This sort of approach seems much more productive in the long run than getting trapped into specific tools, trends, or skills. Perhaps I find the approach more compelling because I was promoting the same broadness myself when I argued that rhetoric and philosophy were more important “skills” for librarians than many others. In a discussion not about skills, I would instead have talked about rhetorical thinking or philosophical thinking. Indeed, in discussing how to make contacts with units outside the library and persuade people of the value the library can bring to them, Brian was engaging in some rhetorical thinking himself, and it sounds like the “problem literature” is mostly philosophical in nature. Now I’m thinking that if I were more focused and more ambitious, maybe they’d invite me to speak at ACRL. Probably not going to happen.

I didn’t attend the DIY panel, although I have read Brian Mathews’ comparison of DIY with Startup thinking (which was another panel I didn’t attend). Maybe it’s because I was put off by part of the In the Library with the Lead Pipe blog post announcing the topic, particularly this bit (which Brian quotes in the comparison “Survival vs. Reshaping”):

DIY activities are always creative by nature, but DIY culture in libraries is less about creativity and more about basic survival. A traditional library is a dead library. We know this: if libraries don’t change they will fade away, eclipsed by the free, the instant, and the easy. The mantra of twenty-first century librarianship is and must be: change, change, and more change.

DIY might be the latest movement for librarians to get excited about, but two parts of that statement bother me. First is the assertion, “We know this: a traditional library is a dead library” (my emphasis). Do we really know this? How do we know this? Can you prove it? It sounds more like an affirmation of faith than a reflective statement about the future of academic libraries. I gather from a tweet about the panel that someone said: “Academics critically reflect–DIYers don’t. They whack it up into shape, fix it, or move on.” I think I’ll stick with critical reflection.

The second part that bothered me was this statement: “The mantra of twenty-first century librarianship is and must be: change, change, and more change.” I’ve nothing against mantras as such; they can be very soothing. However, the repetitive insistence on “change” is both vague and ahistorical. Everyone seems to think nobody before them had to deal with change. John Cotton Dana published an essay called “Librarians Should Respond to the Changes that Time Brings.” That’s solid advice…from 1925. I realize that responding to the changes that time brings could be considered reactive. How about librarians being “change agents”? That phrase has been in the library literature since at least 1968. Here’s another great reminder that libraries need to change or die:

Any institution which does not change too, adapt itself to the times, and become part of the onward “drive of change,” will be pushed aside to be left perhaps for a time to make a harmless life of its own.

That’s from a 1934 Library Quarterly article. (There’s more of the quote and some writing about libraries and change rhetoric in my post Libraries Never Change.) Believing the claim that libraries are obsolete or dying or whatever is a matter of faith, not reason or evidence. If anything, the lesson of library history shows us that libraries do adapt and change. We can be optimistic about changes in libraries or apocalyptic about the future, but I’m not sure we can do both. I guess apocalypse sells.

ACRL Philosophy, Religion, & Theology Discussion Group Update

Apparently my attempt at a provocative proposal for a discussion topic was a bit too provocative for ACRL, and I’ve been asked to change it for reasons I understand. Thus, this update.

Although I don’t have the room information yet, the Philosophy, Religion, and Theology Discussion Group will be meeting on Sunday, June 30th from 4:50–5:30pm at ALA Annual in Chicago. The new proposed topic for discussion is:

Are publishers suing or threatening to sue libraries or librarians threats to academic freedom for librarians?

The ACRL PR&T DG has a Facebook page here: I’ll be posting updates and announcements there, so “like” us if you’re interested in hearing more from the group.