Cleaning House

Suddenly I’ve been crazy busy. During the long summer when time seemed to stretch forever and I had plenty of time to do what I needed to do, I would think, boy, I can’t wait for fall to come. The students come back. The weather cools. I start teaching again. Now I’m thinking, boy, this place sure was less hectic without all these classes going on. I’ve been meaning to write here for the past week, but never seemed to find the time. Eventually, I want to write about the Ithaka report on the future of research libraries and a few other things I’ve been reading, but it will have to wait.

I even missed lighter things. For example, I wanted to write about the Ivygateblog’s “Hottest Librarian in the Ivy League” contest. Not that I thought anyone would enter me into the contest, despite my height and good hair. I might stand a chance in an “Ivy League Librarian who doesn’t look too bad in dark clothes and a dim light” contest, but even then I’m not so sure. The contest seems to have been inspired by someone who compared Sarah Palin’s supposed makeover to the “hot librarian effect.” Considering what I’ve been reading about Palin and libraries, it probably wouldn’t please a lot of librarians–hot or otherwise–to be compared to her. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t win the contest. However, though she’s undeniably very attractive, I’m not sure the winner is really a librarian. The whole contest has a whiff of scandal about it, if you ask me.

The Ivies, or at least one Ivy, came up in another post last week I wanted to write about. Over at ACRLog, Steven Bell was exhibiting what looked to me like resentment against Harvard. Resentment is never pretty. He begins, “Does the name Robert Darnton ring a bell? No?” Actually, the name Robert Darnton did mean something to me. He’s a prominent historian of, among other things, publishing and the book, and a Princeton professor emeritus who’s now the director of the Harvard libraries. Bell takes issue with something Darnton wrote about Harvard:

Lesser libraries may rely on Google, JSTOR, and whatever they can harvest from the Internet, but Harvard has a responsibility to keep up with the production of scholarship by increasing its acquisitions of books-old-fashioned books, print on paper…No other university library has contracted such a heavy obligation, because none can compare with Harvard in the depth and breadth of its collections.

It really shouldn’t come as a surprise to any academic librarian that when we talk about library collections, there’s big and then there’s Harvard big. I’ve argued before that the largest and richest libraries have an obligation to collect the human and scholarly record as completely as possible because if they don’t do it, no one will. They have an obligation that transcends their individual institutions and extends to the entire scholarly world. When I wrote that, I was thinking primarily about Harvard, though I’d include a handful of the other largest libraries. The purpose of a research library is to collect as much as possible and make it accessible. Librarians can provide all the great public service they want, but if the collections aren’t there to support research then the library has failed in an important mission. Bell’s response: “Well I’ll certainly sleep more soundly at night knowing that the future of civilization is safe as long as Harvard continues to amass its huge collections.” Frankly, the response astounds me. I’m not sure it affects my sleep at all, but as a librarian and a human being with an interest in preserving human culture, I am reassured knowing that some library somewhere is amassing this sort of collection so that it will be available for future generations. The time frame of a research library, and especially of one like Harvard, is large. Research libraries aren’t just about helping current undergraduates make it through college. They also have to collect and preserve as much as they can for scholars decades hence. To dismiss a serious scholar like Darnton who has a deep understanding and abiding concern for the mission of a great research library with a snide, resentful remark seems inappropriate to me.

Last week, I heard about a discussion among some academics and some academic librarians over who should teach citation skills to students. An “academic” (as it was put to me) thought the teachers should teach the citation skills, because they were the scholars who cited things. Others thought the librarians should continue to teach such skills because they always had. Is this a controversy anywhere? When I started teaching, it never occurred to me to ask a librarian to teach about citation. Guides to MLA, APA, and Chicago styles are in just about every writing handbook around, and since I was usually teaching academic research and writing, it made sense to teach citation format as well. As a librarian, nobody has ever asked me to teach citation styles in the classroom, though I’ve gotten some reference questions over the years. However, our library does provide workshops on Endnote and Refworks, and we’re all expected to be familiar with these tools and with citation styles in general. I just thought it seemed odd that anyone would care enough to argue that either professors or librarians would be the “best” group to teach citation, as if both aren’t equally familiar with them. Even the argument that the academics are the ones publishing is weak, since obviously lots of academic librarians do publish. The library literature isn’t especially great, but it’s not because the citations are incorrect.

Okay, my house is clean now.

2 thoughts on “Cleaning House

  1. Yeah, Steven’s comment was pretty snarky (and he usually gets on ME for the snark, lol), but then again, the statement “lesser libraries may rely on Google, JSTOR, and whatever they can harvest from the Internet” is pretty darn condescending. I think Darnton could have spoken about Harvard’s mission to collect the written scholarly record without putting down us “lesser libraries”, don’t you? When one sees something that starts with such a condescending tone, there is the tendency to tune out everything else that is written, regardless of what merit it may have.

  2. I came over to comment and realized that Meredith had pretty much said what I was going to, though admittedly I haven’t read Steven’s post in full yet.
    My library is small, our budget is (relatively) small, and our mission is specifically to support the curriculum. Usage is a major criterion for retaining materials because we just don’t have the space to keep things that aren’t being used. Services like JSTOR are godsends. Knowing that the large research university up the road does have preservation of the scholarly record as part of its mandate really does make my job easier.
    That said, Darnton’s comment probably could’ve been better phrased.

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