Timing of the Research Question

There’s a good article in the latest portal that should be interesting to any librarians who provide research instruction for first-year writing students:

Nutefall, Jennifer E. and Phyllis Mentzell Ryder. “The Timing of the Research Question: First-Year Writing Faculty and Instruction Librarians’ Differing Perspectives.” portal: Libraries and the Academy 10 (4), October 2010: 437-449. [Librarians with access to Project Muse can click through.]

The literature review alone is an excellent quick overview of what some librarians and writing instructors have written about the research question. The study itself was of librarians and writing instructors at George Washington University. At GWU, the writing courses are topic-based and capped at 15 students (which is similar to the model at Princeton).  The authors compared the attitudes of librarians and writing instructors toward the research question. Librarians and faculty agreed that good research questions should be complex, worth answering, and interesting to the student. But they disagreed on the timing of the research question. Librarians tended to want students to have clearly formulated questions early in the process, while faculty tended to think that focused research questions come late in the process after a lot of exploratory reading has been done.

The authors speculate that this divide might be caused by the different research methods of librarians and writing faculty.

the research projects the librarians described are more focused on particular audience needs. For example, they investigate and share better pedagogical techniques for library instruction with other librarians. For the most part, librarians seemed to prefer a more structured research process in their own work and prefer to teach a more methodical approach to research to first-year students. For faculty in the UWP, the majority of their projects study how people and cultures exchange knowledge. When faculty describe their own research process it is similar to those documented in other studies as typical for “expert” researchers.Their methods rely on prior knowledge and celebrate serendipitous encounters. (445-46)

The implicit claim that librarians aren’t “expert” researchers would certainly explain a large portion of the library literature. Based on the library literature I’ve read, librarians aren’t typically expert researchers in the sense that they rely on prior knowledge and celebrate serendipitous encounters. There’s a whole sub-genre of library literature that requires knowledge of nothing more than how to send out an online survey and how to report results. 

There’s definitely a disciplinary distinction in play. Even the best of the library literature tends to work under social science models, where research questions are often formulated more specifically than in the humanities, especially compared to literary and cultural studies in which a disproportionate number of writing faculty are trained. However, I suspect that disciplinarity is only part of the disjunction. The differing functions of the librarians and faculty, or at least how many view those functions, could account for some of it. Having taught a few hundred writing students of my own, and provided library research assistance in some form or other for more students than I can remember, this is the distinction that makes the most sense for me.

Librarians want early, clearly formulated research questions, preferably with good keywords, because it’s at that point that librarians can be most useful, or at least when many librarians feel most useful. Often enough, librarians are helping students find information on topics the librarians know even less about than the students if the students have done any preliminary reading at all. And the help often provided will be with some sort of literature search in one of the library databases. Those librarians need focused topics so they’ll know which databases to search, which keywords to use, and which results to examine in more detail when they find some. It’s the level at which a well-trained reference librarian with an adequate collection of resources can help just about any researcher. The great thing about the methods librarians use is that they work, almost all the time. The difficulty comes when they don’t work because researchers aren’t clear and specific enough in their goals.

For writing instructors, on the hand, “research” in the sense of finding concrete sources about a given topic isn’t the most important thing, because their function is quite different. Whereas librarians often enough get students with at least some focus, writing instructors usually begin with the chaos that is most student writing in the early stages of a first-year writing class. It’s the function of the writing instructor to teach students to form this chaos, to shape it, discipline it, focus it, and just when the students have mastered one skill, it’s time for the writing instructor to push them further into the unknown with the research essay assignment. A writing class is always in some stage of managed chaos, and the writing instructor is always helping students find their way. It’s not that librarians are afraid of the chaos. It’s just that there’s not as much for them to do. Focus can also come through the writing process, so that students with only a vague idea of what they want to argue develop their best ideas only after they start writing. One of the librarians studied likes students to envision their entire project, what they want to do, the types of sources they’ll need, etc. Librarian nirvana. The problem is, this isn’t how beginning researchers work, and it’s not really how a lot of experienced researchers in the humanities work. The actual library searching portion of most student research essays is a small part of what they’re learning to do, and not the most important part.

The authors of the study suggest that librarians and writing faculty should work closely together and be clear about their expectations and when research is appropriate. I agree completely. But another possibility is for librarians who feel comfortable enough to step out of their usual function of helping students find information only after they know what they want. At my library, this is more typically done with advanced undergraduates. Often enough, research consultations fluctuate between what I typically think of as a library research consultation and what I typically think of as a writing consultation session. The line between those two is easy to cross, if it exists at all. When I was in library school, I worked both at the information desk in the main library and as a writing consultant in the writing clinic on campus, and it was interesting how frequently what I did for students was the same. That’s because the writing and research process are inextricably intertwined, but the organization of universities means that the two functions are split between the library and some other department.

I’ve met with many students where I helped them figure out what they were really trying to research. We might discuss possible topic options and limitations, or how books and articles can be used to develop and narrow ideas, or how some strategies will work better than others, or how they can use sources as models and not just support, or how they can link disparate strands of research to develop a question, or how various sources might function in their essays. These are all research issues and also the sort of thing covered in writing courses. I’ve had numerous students ask me what I thought about their topic, or whether they should change it. Through in-depth interviews held during lunch with at least three other librarians here, I confirmed that the practice isn’t just confined to me. Librarians do this sort of thing all the time, even if they don’t realize it.

As Nutefall and Ryder imply, we should be aware of our disciplinary boundaries and blindnesses when working with writing students and instructors. But if we’re not already, we should also be willing to to do more with students than just help them search for topics they’ve already narrowed down. The research process is far more than searching, which is easy for us to forget sometimes since we often see just that part when working with students. We should be comfortable working with the chaos of the vague topic and the inchoate research question, because we often have a lot to offer students throughout the research process.

The Future and/of the Research Library

In my last post, I presented what I consider a likely scenario for the future of research universities and their libraries. Eventually, most of them could either go away or devolve into focused research institutions, but will cease to be “research universities” in the sense we have used that term for the past century or so. They won’t attempt to cover the universe of knowledge, and their libraries–if such still exist–could become information centers focused exclusively on the needs of the moment with no regard for the future. A true research library cannot take into account merely the desiderata of current researchers who happen to be working or teaching at a given moment on a given campus, but must instead consider what’s important to save in the world and preserve that heritage for future generations who will be doing their own historical research. Along with the treasures, research libraries must also collect a lot of trash, because trash and treasure are curiously shifting terms, and historical researchers often discover hidden treasures in what people at the time would have considered unimportant ephemera.

The problem with doing this is the cost. Collecting material from all over the world and cataloging and preserving it is a very expensive endeavor, which is why relatively few such libraries might still be around in a few decades. The model of the research library collecting broadly and deeply spread during the middle decades of the 20th century, when material was relatively inexpensive. This was the period when state universities started to become research universities and began to build very impressive collections, collections, I should add, that allow current researchers to do research they never could have done otherwise, and that preserved our and others’ cultural heritages for future generations to discover. This model is sustainable only if there is concern for the future. However, a large amount of library funding, especially in many public universities, is at the whim of people who notoriously have no consideration of the future beyond their next election. Because politicians usually have no concern for future generations, they cut funding of the tools and institutions we need to build a better future and preserve our world heritage. Thus, when state budgets get tight, they cut educational funding, and this has been going on steadily for several decades. The recent recession just caused a more rapid drop in higher education funding than usual.

In an era of declining funding for higher education and a lack of concern for the future, including future research, we will probably be seeing more things like the “patron-driven acquisition” model discussed in this article. The article profiles a librarian who is supposedly “part of a wave of librarians testing a different and, they say, more efficient mechanism for purchasing library materials: patron-driven acquisition. The idea is that the library users help determine what to buy. For instance, a purchase decision might be based on how many times an e-book is accessed via an online catalog.” This is allegedly “a fundamentally rational method of acquisition” because it doesn’t use resources to purchase and preserve material nobody uses. As the librarian notes, “A big reason for [more libraries exploring this option ] is we’ve all experienced pretty significant budget cuts, and when the money gets tighter, it gets harder and harder to justify spending money on materials nobody wants.” The question not even considered is, how will we know what users 50 years from now will want from the collections we’re building now? That’s the sort of question that research libraries have to consider.

Depending on how extensive patron-driven acquisition is, it seems to me like a good idea. According to the article, Purdue has such a system, but only devotes a small percentage of their funding for it. “Purdue now spends 5 to 7 percent of its book-buying money this way, she says, and expects to increase that to 10 to 15 percent.” For getting contemporary scholars some of the material they need for their research, the method no doubt works quite well. However, if such an acquisitions model were extended to a significant portion of the budget, or even all the budget, and material acquisition was determined solely by current research needs and then discarded when their use drops, it would be difficult to consider such a library a research library because of a complete lack of regard for the needs of future researchers of the now discarded past. They will have to rely on the few strong research libraries left.

There are potential developments that would render this problem irrelevant. For example, the United States could develop a national digital library, as recently called for by Robert Darnton. The ideal digital library would be the universal library that scholars have been dreaming of for centuries. If every document contained in American libraries were digitized and fully available, there would be little need for research libraries of the sort we have now. In Darton’s words, “We can equip the smallest junior college in Alabama and the remotest high school in North Dakota with the greatest library the world has ever known.” This is remarkably similar rhetoric to H.G. Wells’ 1938 World Brain, in which, buoyed by a giddiness about the latest information technology, he predicted “microscopic libraries of record, in which a photograph of every important book and document in the world will be stowed away and made easily available for the inspection of the student….  The time is close at hand when any student, in any part of the world, will be able to sit with his projector in his own study at his or her convenience to examine any book, any document, in an exact replica” (54).

The irony of his prediction should be clear to any librarian. Because of copyright laws, we are not even allowed to microfilm or digitize his 60-year-old book and make it freely accessible to the world. Allowing the Alabama junior college student and the high school student in remote North Dakota to search inside books they can never read isn’t much help. There is good reason to speculate that we’ll have a national digital library with significant accessibility of content created within the last century when Disney decides Mickey Mouse is no longer profitable. Right now, even successful preservation efforts like Hathi, LOCKSS, and Portico can acquire and preserve digital content that will only be accessible after some rather unlikely trigger events.

Or there is the chance that the future will be the rather fanciful one conceived in this article: The User-Driven Purchase Give Away Library: A Thought Experiment, which takes patron-driven acquisition even further. The vision is that libraries buy only the books patrons want and then give them to the patrons. It’s predicated on the assumption that Google Books and the Hathi Trust will have most books digitized and preserved, and that everything else will be digitized and available at least as a license.

Possibly for the most popular content, but it seems unlikely that all the collections of major research libraries will be digitized in a decade, as this thought experiment envisions, unless we’re just talking about monographs published in the United States. If current trends persist, documents formerly printed on paper and sold to libraries could become digital content licensed and controlled in ways that will make it impossible to preserve for future research, whether by a research library or a national digital library. And even if Google Books and the Hathi trust have digital copies of most books, and even if those books are preserved, they will still not be accessible to many unless libraries can purchase and control them. And even if, somehow, the licensing agreements work out well for libraries and long term preservation as well as short term access are achieved, this is still only a portion of what research libraries actually collect.

Sustainable cooperative collection development would also mitigate the problem. Research libraries collect all sorts of material from all over the world, including parts of the world where print publishing is still the norm and might well be for decades. However, by divvying up the world and working collectively, consortia of research libraries could collect and preserve just about everything anyone in the future could possibly want. I suspect regional cooperative collection would be the best alternative, because access to much of this material would probably be restricted to a physical location for a long time to come. The ability to participate in these projects would distinguish the research libraries from others, but the great thing about this model is that regional consortia of even poorly funded research libraries could still develop a robust and diverse regional university library system upon which scholars everywhere in the region could depend.

These are all possible futures for research libraries, and not necessarily dark ones. I believe the ultimate goal of American libraries, as a system, is a universal library accessible to all, and to some extent we have achieved that for academic libraries through resource-sharing. While I hold out little hope for an Infotopia in which such a library exists digitally for everyone, it is still worth working towards, and ultimately is a measure of the success of all libraries, but especially research libraries. Nevertheless, the future of research libraries depends on the relationship between the future and research libraries. Research libraries that cease now to think about the needs of the future will cease to be research libraries in that future. Creating a national digital library, or a universal library of any sort, would be an appropriate goal for libraries collectively, and especially for research libraries collectively, but it requires thinking beyond the needs of the moment. It requires us to think about what scholars and students decades from now will either be thankful for what we have done, or regret what we failed to do.

Resource Sharing and the Republic of Letters

At the risk of creating an infinite blog post regression, I’ve been wanting to write about this post at ACRLog by Steven Bell, and this post partially responding to Bell’s post by Barbara Fister on her Library Babel Fish blog. Bell responded to the Netflix-in-libraries debate by pointing to a scholar who didn’t understand why he couldn’t get JSTOR access from a university he no longer attended, and the apparent willingness of the scholar and his commenters to share resources illegally if necessary to get what they need for their research. Fister added into the mix an article from The Scientist in which a scientist realized (better late than never!) that if libraries can’t afford scientific journals then the progress of scientific research will be retarded, as well as the recognition that outside of R1 universities access to scholarly resources is often severely limited.

The discussions, as usual, are well worth reading in their entirety, but I’ve been thinking mostly about the willingness of scholars to share articles and books amongst themselves, even if that sharing is technically illegal. This doesn’t surprise me at all, nor does it alarm me. Instead, it confirms my hypothesis about the mission and ethic of scholars, research universities, and their libraries. Last post, I speculated that the mission of research universities is to create new knowledge and disseminate it through publication. That creation and dissemination are not confined to institutions. The mission isn’t just that of a university or a library, but of every individual scholar.
For my purposes, I will give you an oversimplified and bastardized history of the Republic of Letters and its relationship to current scholarship. In the 17th century, an international network of scholars developed who shared their works and ideas with each other, often through letters (hence the phrase). In the late 17th to the 19th century, the Republic of Letters metamorphosed into a network of scholarly journals, where scholars both independent and institutionalized published their work for the benefit of themselves and the public. The purpose of organized research since the Enlightenment has been to create knowledge and disseminate it for the public good. Before research universities were even founded, scholars considered it their duty to share their work and their ideas with other scholars. This freedom of publication was difficult in countries and principalities with censorship policies, and sometimes scholars had to publish anonymously or underground, but the ideal and goal of sharing was always present. 
Fast forward to today. Early 21st century America is a very different place from 17th century England or 18th century France, but the scholarly ideal of the Republic of Letters remains strong. It’s only natural, since academia is by its nature conservative and traditional, with generation upon generation of scholars training other scholars in the theory and practice of research. Scholars in universities have been organizing and training their predecessors in remarkably similar ways since the 12th century. Some believe this tradition has no place in the contemporary world. I tend to think that this ideal of knowledge creation and dissemination are shining lights of intellectual virtue in a sea of compromise.
Though I’m oversimplifying my history for brevity’s sake, I don’t think it’s mistaken, and if true it would explain the willingness of scholars to this day to share scholarly articles among themselves, even if such sharing is prohibited by licensing agreements and copyright. The ethics of scholarship require that scholarly resources be made available to other scholars, period. Laws and contracts created centuries after the formation of this ethical code are irrelevant. Pay-walls might keep an individual scholar from an individual article or database, but they are merely an inconvenience for the dedicated scholar, not a moral encumbrance. Such is evident from practice.
When that happens, when a law or regulation is widely flouted without compunction or guilt, what do we normally say about it? Recall Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” He draws upon Christian and Jewish sources to argue that positive laws (the laws on the books) that don’t adhere to the natural law are unjust laws, and that unjust laws are not laws at all. Legislators can pass any laws they want, but that doesn’t necessarily make them just.
There are numerous laws that the vast majority of us consider unjust, and thus ignore. I argue that scholars believe severe copyright restrictions, or restrictions on sharing of scholarly resources, are inherently unjust, and thus not worth abiding by. Scholars operate under an ethic of sharing several hundred years old.
Granted, the history of scholarly publishing has demonstrated that scholars aren’t very good at living up to their ideals, often because they pay no attention to how the real world of publishing works.  They do their research, and work for free for publishers who then charge their universities outlandish prices for their journals. That after almost a generation of library advocacy, a scientist is just now discovering that the rising cost of journals might endanger research is a case in point. 
Also, since the emergence of what William James called the “PhD Octopus,” scholarly journals have become not just media to distribute scholarly research, but status markers in a competitive profession. However, I would argue that such developments are the result of incentives created by administrators and non-scholars rather than the natural development of the modern scholarly ethic. Scholars participate in this system because they ignore its legal and economic restrictions, quite possibly because they believe that those restrictions don’t apply to them.
How does this relate to libraries? I’m not entirely sure. I’m not arguing that libraries should disobey the law or violate licenses. Even if it weren’t illegal to argue that, it would be impolitic. I merely point out why scholars pay no attention to copyright or license agreements, why they freely share resources, why they post copyrighted content to their open course websites, and and why they have no ethical qualms about such actions. Understanding this helps us understand the ethos of the profession academic librarians support.
But I also wonder about the clash here between the scholarly ethic and the laws regarding copyright and licenses. Can we make a right choice here? It seems an impossible dilemma. The positive law requires us to enforce copyright and licensing agreements, but the positive law conflicts with the centuries-old ethic of scholarship as well as the freedom of information that librarians champion. What would the natural law be in this situation? Wouldn’t it be that the results of research freely provided, and often even publicly funded, should be free to the world? That open access to scholarly publications is part of the natural order of scholarship? If that’s true, then what are we to make of copyright laws or licensing agreements that are designed to benefit the publishers and not the public? How can we believe that the most stringent of current copyright laws are just laws at all? It seems all we can do is advocate change and hope for the best, neither of which has helped much so far.

The Mission of Research Libraries

AL Direct linked today to a blog post I hadn’t yet read at the Book of Trogool blog. In that post, and in another linked from it, Dorothea Salo responds to a challenging question she received at a meeting at UCLA:
“How do libraries justify spending on open access–making local materials available to the world–if our guiding mission is to buy appropriate materials specifically on behalf of our patron base?”
Her answers were that promoting open access is better for us financially in the long term, and that unless we achieve a “collective openness,” libraries will die as their and the publishers’ business model dies. These are good answers, but not the ones I would give.
Instead, I would choose to challenge the original assumption, that the guiding mission of research libraries (and I’m assuming research libraries only, which UCLA has) is to buy appropriate materials for local (and presumably currently existing) patrons. That’s not now, nor has it ever been, the guiding mission of research libraries, or in the interest of the research institutions they support. The guiding mission of research libraries is to collect the human record in its totality and make it accessible for study by all scholars. We have not yet achieved a “collective openness,” but we’ve achieved a remarkable amount of collective organization.
Salo is primarily concerned with journal publishers and open access, but considering other areas will help us understand this mission. Archives and special collections exist at every research library, and yet in my experience archives and special collections aren’t funded specifically because the local patrons want to use them. The purpose of archives is to collectively preserve the human record. Visiting scholars are as common in many archives as local scholars. Special collections exist because someone somewhere may want to study them because they are important. If local scholars study them, so much the better. And libraries are increasingly digitizing these archives because the mission of the library is to disseminate as well as collect and preserve human knowledge. Scholars everywhere benefit from the preservation or digitization of knowledge by libraries at institutions they don’t work for. 
Another way libraries try to fulfill this mission is through interlibrary loan and other forms of resource sharing and cooperation. No library is an island, and librarians have worked very hard for several decades to build up networks to share resources and information. Stand outside the profession for a moment and think how amazing it is that thousands of libraries are connected through OCLC and other organizations, and that a scholar in Florida who needs a book available only at libraries in Oregon and Alaska could probably get the book in a few days without traveling. 
The interconnectedness of libraries today is no trivial fact. And the more that libraries cooperate and share and digitize and allow open access, the greater the totality of resources available to all scholars. It’s the totality and access that are important. Scholar A at University B also benefits when University C digitizes content or shares it through ILL or an institutional repository, and all scholars and librarians should remember that.
Research libraries are not like, say, community college libraries, because the driving goal for every purchase isn’t that a resource fills an immediate curricular need. Research libraries also buy materials for immediate need, but they have to consider the needs of scholarship in general, both now and decades from now. A lot of scholars are able to do their work now because some librarian some time in the past collected material just for the sake of collecting it, and the same will be true of scholars in the future. Or it won’t be true, depending on whether research libraries live up to their mission. Research libraries that purchase only what is absolutely necessary for their current local patrons fail in their mission.
The mission of research libraries is motivated by the mission of research universities, which were founded to create new knowledge and disseminate it through publication. Sometimes this new knowledge has practical and commercial applications, and so often receives more funding, but that’s not necessarily the case. The mission to create new knowledge extends to every area of human experience, from the mundane and practical to the esoteric and purely abstract. Knowledge creation in history, literature, philosophy, or even higher mathematics doesn’t lead to startling commercial products, but still research universities support this work to the extent they fulfill their mission. Unlike undergraduate teaching, which until recently was necessarily confined to local classrooms, the research mission of universities and the community of scholars have always been international in scope. 
Thus, an answer as to why research libraries should spend money promoting open access publications is because open access publications perfectly fit in with the mission of research libraries to collect the human record in its totality and make it as accessible as possible to all scholars. While the bean counters at every university may think only of short term expenses and gains, librarians and the current and future scholars they serve have an obligation to think globally and collectively. Research libraries and research universities are all part of a vast network to create, preserve, and disseminate human knowledge, and while they have many challengers with less pure motives, and are far from perfect in fulfilling their mission, it’s still astounding how much they have accomplished. Whether they can better accomplish this mission in the future considering the current economics of information is still an open question, but that they should do what they can to accomplish the mission should not be in question at all. Instead of being contrary to the mission of libraries, open access to the results of scholarship would be the ultimate fulfillment of the mission of research libraries and universities.

Updating My Status, or, A Blog Post is a 1,000 Word Tweet

I read John Dupuis’s response to my last blog post, as well as the comments generated by his post  Someone actually suggested regarding Twitter that I should try it before I say I won’t like it. Instead, I say, give it to Mikey. He’ll try anything.

The "don’t knock it ’til you try it response" is problematic for many reasons (not that I was knocking anything). To echo one person who commented on my blog, I haven’t tried cannibalism or genital piercing either, but I don’t want to. The response also smacks of an irritating paternalism, as if a grown man who’s reasonably bright and educated is like a child who needs to be told to eat his vegetables. "How do you know you don’t like cauliflower until you’ve tried it?" Not being a child, but instead a rather large man, there’s a temptation to suggest the inquisitor take the cauliflower and insert it somewhere very uncomfortable, like the back seat of a Volkswagen. Mostly, though, the response is flawed because it assumes that any given social software application is somehow sui generis, when in fact they are all just variations on a theme. Twitter, for example, is analogous to all sorts of other things, and even if it weren’t it’s not like it’s some difficult concept to understand.

There is in fact an analogous service I have tried: Facebook. I’ve been on for two or three years and find myself going to it less and less frequently. It’s been okay, but nothing especially life-changing. I’ve been in contact with people I haven’t seen since high school, which has been pleasant. I’ve played a few games of Scrabble. I know some people use Twitter and their Facebook status update the same way, and one thing I’ve never done is update my status. I’ve never told people what I was having for lunch, or posted a Youtube video of some funny antic, or tried to come up with a clever epigram or aphorism to show people how interesting I am.

Why? Mainly because I don’t think anyone would care, just as I’m interested in very few of other people’s postings. On a moment to moment basis, I, like most people, am just not very interesting. I’m not necessarily boring, and I do think I have my good qualities, but I really can’t figure out what I could say in a few characters that would be worth reading. Writing nothing worth reading may not bother most people, but I try to keep an audience in mind and not bore you too much.

However, I’m going to give this "status updating" thing a try. Would you really like to know what I’m thinking about right now? If not, stop reading! But if so, I’ll tell you.

I’m teaching another writing seminar in the fall, and I’m changing the topic to "justice" instead of "liberalism" and revamping the readings. For the past few weeks I’ve been trying to figure out how to present a coherent story about the extremely active philosophical discussion about justice since Rawls’ Theory of Justice in the equivalent of about 8-10 essays. Keep in mind, the goal of this course isn’t to teach philosophy, but academic research and writing. It’s just that to write anything worth reading, students need something to write about.

As a research project, it’s been an adventure. Building upon my previous knowledge, I’ve been using encyclopedias, anthologies, surveys, reviews, articles, bibliographies, footnotes, and even Google Scholar to develop the reading list. (I’ve been using the "cited by" feature in Google Scholar, not the discovery feature so much.) The goal is to give students a general overview of the subject using only primary texts while tracing a scholarly conversation over the course of four decades. I think I have a good list. The students will read excerpts or full essays by some heavy hitters, and in one unit every source we read will cite all of the previous sources we’ve read, in order to show how a scholarly conversation develops over time. A seminar should tell a story about the topic. This is naturally only one story among many possible ones, and I make that clear, but in the summation at the end of the semester it should be obvious that we’ve outlined an important and engaging dialog about the topic.

In addition, the readings have to lend themselves to the teaching of writing and research. I’ve also been thinking about that topic, and have formed some rough opinions. These classes are supposed to teach argumentative academic writing. Thus the best sources provoke argument. Often writing/ composition/ rhetoric is taught in English departments, and just as often the courses are focused on interpreting literature. In a course like that, the students get a novel/ poem/ play/ film to discuss and write about. There is a clear difference between primary and secondary texts, and the students are writing secondary works while studying primary works, for the most part.

It seems easier to me to teach primary sources that are themselves examples of argumentative writing, and political philosophy works very well in this regard. Philosophers are trained to argue, not interpret. And political topics tend to be engaging to a lot of people simply because they’re an inescapable part of life. So in my class the students are reading the sorts of essays they’re writing. There’s not much of a distinction between a primary and a secondary source. If everything works well, the whole course coheres. My goal is the perfect writing seminar, in the sense that A argues in Kierkegaard’s Either/Or that Don Giovanni is the perfect work of music because it best exemplifies what makes a classic work of art: an absolute correlation of form and content. Every text we read in class is both something to write about and an example of how one should write argumentative academic prose, and they’re all arguing with each other.

Is this interesting to you? It’s more about writing pedagogy than librarianship, but I can see where it might be. Teaching writing and research has certainly made me a better librarian. The skills I’ve gained carry over into research consultations and instruction sessions all the time. Thinking about the nature of scholarly exchange in an academic discipline is the sort of thing lots of academic librarians do.

This is just the merest summary of activity, though I’ve been considering further developing some of these rough thoughts into posts or articles. What’s here says little of substance, and yet I still can’t figure out how to condense it to 140 characters. To be clear yet again, I’m not knocking any of this, even if I haven’t tried it. I just know what I want to read and how I want to spend my time and interact with others.  Maybe instead of macro-tweeting, I should just write:

Wayne Bivens-Tatum just dropped in to see what condition his condition was in.


English Only, Please

A couple of weeks ago my colleague Mary George published an article in Inside Higher Education about student confessions related to what they didn’t know about research. (For the record, I am not the "Academic librarian" in the comments section.) Some of these are typical missteps many of us probably see with students all the time. They try to find periodical articles in the OPAC, or believe (or maybe just hope or even pretend to believe) that if an article isn’t digitized they won’t be able to get it. It’s a good list of some of those tidbits of knowledge both professors and librarians might take for granted, but that somehow never got passed on to the students.

This could signal many things, such as a breakdown in communication or instruction or a failure to integrate research skills into the curriculum. I suspect as much as anything it signals our inability to unlearn and get back into the mindset of a novice researcher, especially one used to Google or Yahoo who suddenly encounters the sometimes unnecessarily complicated world of the academic library. (I mean unnecessarily complicated in a theoretical sense, because after all why shouldn’t students search for periodical articles in the OPAC; had librarians begun indexing a century ago instead of relying upon commercial indexes, how different the library world might be.)

One topic that didn’t make it onto Mary’s short list of misunderstandings is language, but it’s one I’ve seen many times. We’ve all encountered the students who believe that everything is online, whether it’s a recent article from the New York Times or a church bulletin from a small parish in England in the late nineteenth century. In some ways this doesn’t surprise me as much as the double assumption that everything will be both online and in English, no matter what it is or when or where it was published. Long after I’ve gotten used to the misconceptions related specifically to library research, I have to admit this one still astounds me.

I know I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, there’s the old joke: "What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual. Two languages: Bilingual. One language: American." Still, I am surprised, not because students seem to have no familiarity with any foreign languages. I think I’m more surprised by the assumption that there’s some organization somewhere that takes every document created anywhere in the world at any time and immediately translates it for American college students. The Babelfish Institute does this for everything, regardless of the origin or likelihood of being used.

The reasons for the misunderstanding seems to vary. One I heard recently made at least some sense to me. Someone had seen citations from a conference proceeding and wanted to track down the articles. The proceeding was from a technical conference in Germany in 2007. According to Worldcat, only two libraries held the proceedings, both in Germany. It looked like they were available from the institute that hosted the conference, and had time not been a factor I would have suggested requesting we purchase them since they weren’t expensive. Then I discovered the student didn’t read any German, but thought that since some American scholars had cited them maybe they had been translated. This definitely shows a misunderstanding of the world of scholarship, but I could sort of see the logic in this, because often scholars not writing in English have to be translated to make an impact in America. In all seriousness, how much of an impact would existentialism or poststructuralism or other French philosophy have made in America had not Sartre or Derrida or Foucault or Lyotard been translated into English?

Sometimes the assumption seems considerably less grounded even than this. "I’m looking for primary documents in Soviet archives written by Russian spies." "Do you read Russian?" "No. Would I need to?" "I want to study the local French response to riots in the banlieues of Paris." "Do you read French?" "I need newspaper editorials from Mexican newspapers about the drug wars." "Do you read Spanish?" I think you get the idea. In some cases, the fact of sources being in English or even translated into English would seem inplicit in the request. Russian spies wrote in Russian. The French respond to things in French. Etc. If we find news articles from Djibouti in English, they’re probably from the BBC World Service.

So many questions suggest themselves to us that probably don’t occur to students. Why would this particular document have been translated into English? Who would have translated it? The same questions apply to digitization. Who would have taken the trouble to digitize this obscure document from this relatively poor part of the world? Do students have any sense of the time and effort that goes into digitization or translation, how many people have to work together to get something digitized or translated, how much funding would be involved, or how that typically there has to be some commercial benefit or assumption of broad appeal before such projects are launched? Of course they don’t, and there’s no reason they should have thought about this. I’m not ridiculing the students, but only pointing out another area of understandable ignorance that has to be dealt with.

Thus when I work with students, I’ve learned to counsel them about a neglected rule of scholarship. if you’re going to work on historical or cutural topics about some other place in the world, you need to learn the language. If you don’t know the language, either learn it or change your topic. I try not to make it a harsh lesson, but somewhere along the way students have to learn that despite the popularity of English, most people in the world are not communicating in English in their local communities, and that a lot of people even in the United States don’t communicate in English in their local communities. People in non-English speaking countries are involved in living their lives and being in their worlds, and never pause to think that some American college student might want to study them for a research essay.

This lesson might be hard to communicate to most students. It might be easier to just digitize every document in the entire world and have it translated into English. Maybe Google can take care of that for us.

The End of the Research Process

I’ve been reading and commenting upon drafts of research essays the past couple of days. It’s the time of the semester when I get to see what I usually don’t get to see as a librarian: the end of the research process. Recently I heard a talk about embedded librarians. All the writing seminars have a librarian assigned to them, but since I act as my own librarian I’m about as embedded as it gets. Unfortunately, I don’t have anyone to blame when something goes wrong.

Fortunately, nothing serious has gone wrong, and the results aren’t at all unpleasing. Obviously a lot of the students understood the research process, and it was very easy to see who took shortcuts that generally didn’t work.

All those rules of thumb we have about research seem to work. For example, I usually warn students in library instruction sessions that they’ll have to read (or at least skim) more sources than they actually use, not just enough but more than enough. They can’t just do a search, take the first five items that come up, and write a research paper. Before they can figure out what there might be to say, they’ve got to do a lot of exploration. In the end result, I can tell who ignored this advice. It’s easy to spot the problem just by glancing at a bibliography.

Then there’s the variety of resources that librarians sometimes mention and instructors often require. Books, journal articles, newspaper articles, websites, etc. It’s good to have a range. Why, we don’t always explain, which is why it’s more a rule of thumb. But the answer is clear when research essays depend too heavily on one particular format. Lots of books in the bibliography are typically a problem, for example, because it means that students haven’t explored the article literature, which is often richer for specific topics. Just glancing at a bibliography shows a heavy reliance upon books, but reading the essay shows why this can be a problem.

I’ve written a couple of times about the improbable source, but finding the improbable source is just as problematic. The improbable source would do the intellectual work for the students. But students—and this is completely understandable—also have trouble resisting sources that do the work for them. It seems especially difficult for students to interrogate sources critically when they’re reasonably well written and in peer-reviewed journals.

This makes perfect sense, because students are new to the conversation, and other than providing the criticism myself I’m not sure how this skill can be developed without more reading and practice. In my class, it’s often a secondary source interpreting John Rawls in some applied way. The description of one of them seemed so bizarre I assumed the student had it wrong so I followed up and read the article. Nope. The student had done an excellent analysis. It’s just that the article based an entire philosophical argument on a dubious metaphor. Anything for tenure, I suppose. Just telling students to challenge authority doesn’t help, because they don’t have the tools yet, though I do try to explain why “peer-reviewed” doesn’t mean “right.”

However, this is another case where more than enough of a variety of sources helps. They need to get the sources arguing with each other. As librarians, we can’t always know which sources are best and don’t always see the end result of the research, but the rules of thumb help out, I suppose. I can certainly glance at what students have found and say, not more than enough and not enough variety. The great thing as a writing teacher is that I get to explain why in detail. Or maybe that’s the tedious thing. I’ll be able to tell after my brain unfries.

Notes on Sources and Library Instruction

I wanted this post to be about "the space between the sources," but after writing it I see I’ve meandered. Maybe I’m groggy from overwork this week, which would also explain why I keep looking at the word meander and think how silly it sounds. Still, I’m putting out the notes, because I’m trying to think through the issue to perhaps write something more substantial later. Please forgive the meandering. In fact, you might want to just stop while you’re ahead.

I’ve been encountering more students who seem to be disappointed that when doing research for an essay can’t find secondary sources that already do their work for them. Or, as they put it to me, "I want to write on this topic but can’t find any sources!" So, for example, if a student wants to write an ideological analysis of a cultural object, they want sources that already ideologically analyze that cultural object, or at least one pretty close to it. It’s a version of the improbable source I keep being asked for, and it’s endemic to a certain kind of course, typically those involving some kind of contemporary cultural studies.

Even after discussion, it doesn’t always seem to be clear to the student what sorts of sources might inform their research if no one has written on this exact topic before, and to get them to understand that in many ways it’s a good thing that no one has already written their essay. Perhaps they want an authoritative source to have already done what they’re doing so they know they’re doing it right. But they want to ride on the sources rather than inserting themselves into the space between the sources.

We had a class today where we did some sample searching around a specific painting and modeled the way one can build a topic out of many different pieces: an exibition catalog, a work of history, a study of an art movement, etc., but it still wasn’t apparent to everyone. It comes up enough in the library instruction I do that I’d like to create some kind of guide, but I’m not sure what the best way to present the information. Perhaps some sort of map.

In some ways, this is the appropriate role of the writing instructors, and I know they already address the issue in class, but I meet with enough students who still want me to find them the source that does their work for them that my research sessions sometimes go back and forth between discussing library research and writing strategy.

I’m curious if this happens with other librarians. I do a lot of work with our freshman writing students, and I’ve been teaching freshman writing for longer than I’ve been a librarian. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell when I’m responding as a librarian and when as a writing teacher. (The distinction even blurs for the students sometimes, as I discovered when someone else’s student was asking me for permission write on X topic.)

Based on the many library research guides I’ve looked at over the years, this doesn’t seem to be the kind of thing librarians address much. Though not written by librarians, books such as The Modern Researcher or The Craft of Research address the use of sources somewhat, but most library guides naturally focus strictly on the finding of sources rather than how they’ll be used. This makes sense, as technique and an understanding of the geography of information are necessary and complicated in themselves. Yet it seems natural to think about how the sources will be used  or the types of sources one needs before one even knows what to look for.

Type of source might even be the wrong terminology, because I’m not thinking about books, articles, or encyclopedia entries. Perhaps the role of sources is better. What are they doing for the essay, or what do the students need them to do? These seem essential questions when teaching students about research, but they’re more complex questions beyond the "Find Background Information – Search for Books – Search for Articles" approach that is the necessary but perhaps too easy road we’re often forced to take because of time constraints.

Research Libraries Support Research

I’ve long thought that the concept of “library” isn’t a very coherent one. The small town (pop. 300 or so) public library that serves my grandmother and the very large research library I work in are both called libraries, and yet their staff, collections, and mission couldn’t be more different. There are also often large differences in outlook even among academic librarians. Sometimes this is a teaching versus research difference, and sometimes a service versus collections difference. Few librarians seem to move completely to one side or another, and I certainly don’t, but the tensions are undoubtedly there in the profession, and often in the same library.

I’m thinking about this because of the juxtaposition of topics I’ve encountered so far today. This morning I attended a presentation by Bernard Reilly, President of the Center for Research Libraries. He discussed a lot of the initiatives currently underway at CRL, including a number of their digitization projects. One of them involves Latin American newspapers, and as part of an effort to make the materials more useful to the libraries in the region digital copies will be made available to those libraries as well as to CRL libraries, though not freely on the Internet. My favorite quote was that this project is “built on the assumption that an Internet cafe is not a library.” Though the CRL hopes to digitize a lot of material in the coming years, I seriously doubt that everything they have will ever be digitized. I wasn’t aware until today of how much of it isn’t even cataloged yet.

To the undigitized, and possibly never digitized collections of CRL, add the archives scattered across the globe. Then the book collections that aren’t now, and may never be digitized. That’s a lot of material that will never be freely available from an Internet cafe or your laptop, or even your university should they have the money to pay for such things.

Now let us turn to a blog post at ACRLog I read just after the presentation–Library as Place–For Air Conditioning Books. In it Steven Bell comments on a presentation by Adrian Sannier, Chief Technology Officer at Arizona State University. Bell excerpts a couple of tasty quotes. Here’s part of one:

If you were starting [an educational institution] today, how many books would you have? I know what I would do. I’d have none. I’d have zero. Well that would change my cost picture relevant to you and that would make my university’s knowledge so much more accessible to you both when you’re there and when you weren’t there. That kind of reinvention is what we’re talking about.

About that, I’m not sure what to say, except it wouldn’t be much of an educational institution, but more on that later.

Here’s part of another juicy one:

Burn down the library. C’mon, all the books in the world are already digitized….Stop air conditioning the books. Enough already. None of us has the Alexandria Library. Michigan, Stanford, Oxford, Indiana. Those guys have digitized their collections. What have you got that they haven’t got? Why are you buying a new book? Buy digitial….How many people are using the indicies we’re all paying so much for….

Bell certainly realizes how ignorant (or perhaps deliberately provocative) Sannier is about book digitization and higher education, though he opines that maybe some IT people have it in for us librarians. Bell’s response is that If “academic libraries are being dismissed as one big book air conditioner then we better start doing some of our own transforming to make sure our operations are lean yet productive, and that we have the data to prove to the top administrators that our libraries deliver the best service for the tuition dollar. It must be shown that academic libraries directly contribute to students achieving learning outcomes and persistence to graduation.” That’s certainly a sensible approach, but there are other considerations to make about Sannier’s poorly informed presentation.

First of all, I find it difficult to take even remotely seriously. Dr. Sannier is no doubt a bright and competent man. He has a PhD in computer science, and before going to ASU worked with computer systems both in academia and private industry, according to his bio. My assertion isn’t that I don’t take him seriously as a professional, only that I can’t take him seriously as an expert on university research or teaching more broadly, that is, outside of the technological and digital portions of it. Obviously Google has not digitized all the books in the Google Book project libraries, and just as obviously the copyrighted ones they have digitized are not freely available online. Obviously also, as Bell note, curricula differ widely among educational institutions, and it’s not at all clear that even the complete collections available freely online at some of these libraries would satisfy all comers, which of course we know isn’t going to happen anyway.

I’d like to watch the entire presentation, but unfortunately right now I have a spreadsheet of 38,000 nondigitized book titles I have to go through line by line to make location decisions, plus I’m going on vacation next week, so I can barely break away to blog. Perhaps next time I have a free moment, which at this point will probably be New Year’s Day. Still, based on the excerpts as well as Bell’s reaction, neither of them are necessarily taking into account the larger mission of the research library. Bell’s response is to recommend that libraries make the case that tuition dollars are used wisely and student learning outcomes are met and they graduate. That’s all good stuff, and I think natural from a public services AUL at an urban state university.

But teaching students is but one mission of a research university, and not necessarily the most important one, if we judge by what professors get the most rewards for. The purpose of a research university is to research, to create knowledge, to contribute to the scholarly record, etc. This differs by field, naturally. In the sciences, engineering, computer science, and other areas, this may not require anything that can’t be accessed by a computer. In the humanities, area studies, and some of the social sciences, it does, and it most likely will for decades to come, if not forever. Yes, it’s possible that eventually every archive and book collection in the world will be digitized and available to researchers, even if not for free, like some of the collections coming out of the CRL are now available to research libraries. It’s possible, but it doesn’t seem very likely.

Another possibility is that enough material will be digitized that future researchers will just be content with what is digitally available and not worry about the rest. That’s pretty sloppy research, but as we know everyone, scholars included, prefer the good but easily available to the best but difficult to obtain. This could happen, but it wouldn’t negate the ideal of the research university or research library; it would just cheapen it.

It’s this perspective that makes it difficult for research libraries. Sannier rightly notes that no library is a universal library. No one has everything. That’s been the case for decades, though. The CRL, for example, was founded in 1949 to address this issue. That’s why we have cooperative agreements with other libraries. This is not even remotely a new issue. It might seem like a new issue now only if you think everything is digitized. Since most books, archives, etc., aren’t digitized, there’s nothing new being said about the issue. Just claiming it’s true doesn’t make it so.

I don’t think every institution of higher education should be a research university or every library a research library. I also don’t think that large libraries are necessary for most undergraduate education. It’s clear some fields hardly need library resources. Despite its dependence on monographs, a strong liberal arts education could probably be supported by a library of 10,000 books or so, if they were, for example, the 10,000 or so that Peter Briscoe in Reading the Map of Knowledge considers the “core.” And perhaps all those books would be digitally available to a new college today, or at least relatively soon. So, if we’re talking about starting up a new community college, or business school, or liberal arts college, this get-rid-of-the-print-books approach has at least a chance of working, though what liberal arts college would feel satisfied with a library so small I don’t know. Thomas Aquinas College, perhaps. But still, if one wanted to trim the collection to the absolute minimum necessary for a decent liberal arts college, it just might be barely possible. (That’s a lot of qualification, I know).

However, once we turn away from undergraduate education, the whole notion breaks down completely, and for any research university worth the name such a scheme is unthinkable if the library is actually designed to support any research. And the argument that no library is universal only goes so far. No library is a universal library, but it seems clear to me that the top 25 libraries or so plus places like CRL together constitute about as universal library as we are about to get. We can measure “top” anyway we please, whether it’s the number of items, amount of digital content, or financial resources. Regardless, there have to be a number of libraries that do their best to build just-in-case research collections for some fields so that we can all satisfy our otherwise insatiable just-in-time research needs.

A “research library” without print materials and climate control to protect them is an oxymoron. That might not always be the case, and I wouldn’t feel at all bad if the situation went away, but it’s here to stay for a long time to come. Print materials are still needed for research, and the purpose of a research library is to support research. I suppose some would consider me an excessive technophobe or bibliophile for saying that, but such is far from the case. I just want to protect research libraries and the universities they support from the excessive technophiles and bibliophobes that could destroy them if given a chance.

Limits to Instruction

I’m in the midst of the library instruction silly season, and because we’re slightly short-handed I’m teaching more sessions than I usually do. When I was in library school and tried to explain to non-library grad students what I was training to do, I used to say that reference was something like research without the writing and teaching without the grading. Later it became increasingly clear that it was also teaching without developing longer relationships with students or engaging in intellectual discussion about topics of mutual interest, but that’s neither here nor there. Of course, library instruction is more like training than teaching in ordinary academic senses. As time passes and I learn more, I’m also increasingly aware that the initial training must of necessity cover less ground, only because the ground to cover has grown so much.

Let me explain a bit. The sessions I typically do this time of year are for freshmen in the writing program. The Princeton Writing Program is a great model for such a program. The classes are all focused around an academic topic and students can choose their topic for the most part, the class size is limited to twelve students, and every class is assigned a librarian usually conversant with the general area of the topic (so humanities librarians do humanities topics, science librarians science topics, etc.). When I teach a writing seminar, I’m my own librarian, but I also act as the librarian for several other writing seminars.

The problem comes with the variety of topics and approaches. If there were, for example, a purely literary seminar, the instruction is somewhat easy. Search the catalog, search MLA, read your text closely. The typical instruction session lends itself easily to that general format: finding books and articles. But as we all know that’s just the beginning, and not necessarily even an appropriate beginning for some areas. For historical topics, it might be best to start with an archive somewhere and work outwards from that, but these students typically don’t have that opportunity. Because of the compressed timeline of their projects, they also typically wouldn’t have the time, for example, to page through year after year of print indexes of old newspapers, which they might then have to acquire on microfilm through ILL, especially if this is only a portion of their research. Our effort here is to prepare them for their junior and senior years, when most of the students will be doing sustained independent work for junior papers and senior theses. In these seminars we can only show them bits and pieces.

Another challenge is the multidisciplinary nature of many of the seminars, at least the ones I tend to get. There’s no one model of library research that will benefit everyone. In some of the classes, one person will be working on 17th century English political history while another will be working on contemporary media treatments of terrorist acts (this happened in a session last night). Great beginnings, perhaps, but in one session it’s tough to cover enough general information to start working on both of these topics, so all I can do is show a few tips and techniques and try to provide some general theorizing on how to proceed. After that, I try to work on a student by student basis. I can show everyone how to search WorldCat and Proquest, but with several hundred databases to choose from, showing new students how to begin navigating just our online resources is tricky, not to mention various print sources and archives and free online sources.

The most frequent request I get when working with these students is for books or articles already doing what they propose to do. “Can you help me find articles on how email is a form of civic friendship?” is one of my favorites from a couple of years ago. To which I can only answer, well, no, because there are no such articles (at least there weren’t then). We have to get the students to understand that it’s their job to bring together a variety of theories and facts and interpretations into a coherent argument.

If we add in the further challenge of trying to get the students to get out of the reporting mindset, the obstacles grow even more. There’s the “I need five articles to support X topic.” I don’t get this as much here as I did in previous libraries, but there is still sometimes the belief that you can choose a topic, find the required number of sources quickly, read them, then write an essay, rather than reading a lot before they can even begin to think about a thesis. Instead, we have to argue and sometimes demonstrate that scholarship rarely happens in a vacuum. Scholars have conversations with each other, sometimes over centuries or even millennia. In the humanities, these conversations take place in texts; books respond to books, articles to articles, but always one scholar responding to one or more other scholars discussing a problem. So we have to get the students looking for these conversations and finding a place to insert themselves, to know that they need to find a clearing in the forest of scholarship to build their own shanty of argument. (I think I’ll use that metaphor with the students just to sound obscurantist.)

Another way to think of this problem is through the rhetorical concept of kairos. Kairos is the rhetorical situation, the proper moment to speak or write. Part of kairos is the exigence, the crisis that calls forth rhetoric. How can we show students how to use library research and engagement with sources to find their own kairos? What crisis do they discover that calls forth their rhetoric? What clearing in the conversation can allow them to emerge? And how can library research help that?

And finally, how can all this be started effectively within an hour?