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.

LibX

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.

Why I Ignore Gurus, Sherpas, Ninjas, Mavens, and Other Sages

I read Roy Tennant’s recent post on why you shouldn’t learn HTML with some amusement, since I would have given the same advice in the late 1990s when I was starting library school and Tennant was writing his book on helping librarians learn HTML. When I was in library school, there were advocates, possibly inspired by Tennant’s example, who were pretty sure that we’d never be successful librarians without knowing HTML, which at the time wasn’t the quaint idea that it seems now. With reluctance and curiosity, I attended a couple of workshops that were going to teach me HTML and provide me with the necessary skills to become the successful professional librarian I hoped to be. I even have a book on the shelves in my office on HTML, acquired during library school and quite possibly unopened until this day. My HTML knowledge then and now consists of being able to steal the code I need to fix any problem I might encounter with a web editor or content management system. I can’t remember the last time I needed even that much knowledge.

The advice to learn HTML (or CSS, or [insert the code du jour here]) is well meant, and possibly well taken. Every once in a while I get the urge to pick up a new skill and give it a try. Last January I signed up for one of those learn-to-code websites (Codeacademy, I think), and I went through the first few lessons before I assured myself that a) it bored me and thus held no inherent interest, and b) I don’t need to learn it because I don’t see a need for it. I don’t need to learn it, and I didn’t need to learn it 15 years ago, because there are other people and other tools that learned it for me. I didn’t need to learn much HTML because I had Netscape Navigator, with its combination browser, email client, and HTML editor (for you younger librarians who might never have used Netscape Navigator, you can try SeaMonkey to see what it was like. It’s a continuation of the Netscape project and gives that old school Navigator feel). Then I had Dreamweaver. Now I have LibGuides or Google Sites or SeaMonkey.

I also ignore the advice of the gurus et al. because I knew early on that if people had to learn how to code to use computers, the personal computer business would never have been successful. I can even roughly determine when I came to this realization: the fall of 1985, during which I was enrolled in my high school’s mandatory computer science course. It was also just after I had been given my first personal computer, the pitifully weak but durable Apple IIc (discontinued by Apple in August 1988, but discontinued by me at the end of my first year of grad school in August 1993, when it was replaced by the boxy little Apple Color Classic that carried me through 1997).

The teacher assured us that the class was necessary so we could learn about computers so we could get good jobs someday, because computers were the future. Something or other is always the future. In order to guarantee our place in the competitive future, we learned to program in BASIC and FORTRAN. No, I shouldn’t say that. We were taught to program, but we didn’t all learn. I learned important skills, like getting really cute girls who were into computer programming to help me with my homework, but I can’t say I learned to program very much. I learned how to tell my computer to stream “HELLO” across the screen, which is pretty much the extent of what I learned to do during last year’s brief excursion into codeland. Back then, I knew what I needed a computer for, mostly writing, trying (and failing) to play text-based computer games, and viewing the most ridiculous pornography I’ve ever seen (and that includes the kind with people dressed up like animals or superheroes). None of those things required me to learn to code, just like none of the things I do with computers now–which is a lot–requires it.

If I’m a heavy computer user who doesn’t need to know that stuff, and most people who use computers don’t know or need to know how to code or even have extensive computer knowledge, why are there always people telling us that we do? It’s the same reason why social media “gurus” or “sherpas” tell us that we need to embrace some new social media site or risk…really, I don’t know what we might risk, but it’s supposedly something dire. I guess we’ll risk not being “with it” or “happening” or whatever the current slang is to describe people desperate to seem acceptable to some in-crowd or another. The reason isn’t because we need to learn how to code or embrace Twitter or whatever. It’s not that we need to learn something; it’s that they need to say something.

Sometimes this thing they say is instructive, insightful, and honestly felt. I can’t find it now, but before I tried my last coding jaunt I read a great article by someone who pointed to all sorts of practical uses he had for his coding knowledge. Some program wouldn’t work, he would work around it. He had some tech problem? He would code his way to a solution. I was impressed, and thought, yeah, that sounds really smart. And after a few lessons I realized he was a man with a hammer to whom everything looks like a nail. He solved problems with code because he had code in his toolbox. He probably solved problems I would never realize I had, because he could. This isn’t to take away from his knowledge and skill. I was impressed by both that and his argument. It’s just that I don’t have those problems, and if I do I’d solve them some other way.

Based on my experience, I know the gurus’ giving advice about things I must learn is wrong. I can learn those things, and I might even benefit from that learning, but I don’t have to and will probably do just fine without learning them. I don’t follow sherpas and gurus because I prefer to go my own way. Leaders need followers, but I’m not much of either. I’ve found that it’s much easier to develop skills as I need them than to be told that some skill will benefit me because the teller has the skill and reaps benefits. If I had needed to learn to code for work, I’d have done it. The thing is, that’s true for most skills. I can’t code worth a damn, but I write pretty well and am a tolerable public speaker. Yet I would never tell people that unless you learn to crank out a coherent thousand-word essay quickly or give a good impromptu talk, you’ll never be much of a communicator and thus not much of a librarian. It’s important, because communication is the future.

Communication is the future. That sounds pretty catchy. Maybe I should try this guru thing after all.

Organizing My Research Life

[Here is an updated version of this post.]

I often write about things I don’t like or think are hyped (at least in regards to library usefulness). My instinctive antipathy to the library equivalent of what someone recently termed the “breathless bullshit industry,” and the sheer amount of that breathless bullshit, means that I’m more often in critique mode than celebration mode. On the other hand, there are products and services more or less directly related to library research that I like, that I use, and that I heartily recommend to any faculty or students who might be interested. I’ve even started what I hope will be an annual presentation to faculty and students in my liaison areas about such research tools for scholars. The best way to know what tools are good and useful is to use them, so I’m going to discuss what tools I use and why to organize my research life. I definitely recommend you try them if you haven’t.

First is the LibX Toolbar. (Here’s a link to a description of the Princeton version if you’re unfamiliar with it). It’s a toolbar that can be adapted to search your library’s various databases and provide quick links to important resources. If your library doesn’t have one, build one. If it has one, use it and promote it. The PUL LibX toolbar is now my main portal to library resources, and all the feedback I’ve gotten on it is positive. It’s available for Firefox, Chrome, and IE. I’d created a library toolbar a few years before LibX came along, but LibX is so good I immediately abandoned it. It’s the best library search tool I’ve found, and with it I find I rarely need to go to the library website at all.

Once I’ve found books and articles through the LibX toolbar, it’s time to put them in a citation management system. Far and away my favorite citation organization program is Zotero. The library subscribes to Refworks, so I have to maintain some facility with that, and Mendeley has its charms. But Zotero is so easy to set up and use, especially as a Firefox plugin, that I see no reason to use another program. The Word plugin works well, too. Lately, I’ve been using the group libraries part as well, both at work for sharing citations and in the LIS class I teach for an assignment. And unlike Refworks, I don’t have to be signed onto the campus network or put in a special code. If I’m browsing the web and want to grab a citation, one click is usually enough. I’ve used the standalone version with Google Chrome, but there are some things it doesn’t do as well as the Firefox plugin.

Besides organizing citations, the most important thing is for me to have access to everything I’m writing and every digital document I might want to read from any computer with an Internet connection. I also never want to lose a document. For my writing, I put everything in Dropbox, because of the several programs I’ve tried (including Sugarsync, Google Drive, ADrive, Asus Webstorage, CX Storage, and Live Mesh) it’s the most reliable for syncing across computers and operating systems. I use it on two Windows 7 laptops, an iMac, two Android devices, and very occasionally a Linux netbook and it’s never let me down. I also rely significantly on Sugarsync, but the Magic Briefcase doesn’t want to sync reliably with the Mac, or knowing Apple, the Mac doesn’t want to sync reliably with Sugarsync.

Everything goes into Dropbox, but for live writing projects I do further backup. For the book, I had all my writings and readings in a Dropbox folder, but I also used Sugarsync to backup the Dropbox folder. Unlike Dropbox or Google Drive, Sugarsync will allow you to not only create a sync folder (the Magic Briefcase), but backup any other folder on your hard drive to the cloud. Thus, for an important folder, I’ve got a copy on in the Dropbox folder on my hard drive, which is synced with any computer I use in addition to the cloud, plus I have the same folder synced to the cloud with Sugarsync. Only in the event of some global catastrophe would my work be lost, and by that time I probably wouldn’t have time to worry about it. A lot of people use Google Docs exclusively for their writing, and they have to rely completely on Google, or go through bothersome exports. I use either MS Word (which is much more robust than Google Docs anyway) or Scrivener, which means the files I create in a synced drive can be accessed without an Internet connection on my regular computers or with one from anywhere. (If I didn’t get MS Office free from my university, I’d use Open Office the same way, which is also more robust than Google Docs.)

Then, the reading. I could just dump all my digital readings into Dropbox as well, but that’s not a particularly good way to organize hundreds of files. For a while I tried Mendeley, which I liked, but it only works with PDFs. Eventually I settled on Calibre, which handles PDF, mobi, and epub formats among others and also allows for conversion among them. Got a PDF or epub you want to convert to mobi to read on your Kindle? Or to epub to read on something besides the slow-loading Kindle app (I use Aldiko on Android)? Calibre’s great for that. There are even plugins available that let you do interesting things with DRM, but I won’t talk about that. Unlike Mendeley, when you import a file into Calibre, it doesn’t just add the metadata and point to the original folder. Calibre instead imports the file into a separate Calibre folder, which I then back up with Sugarsync. Like Mendeley, it lets you alter the metadata and add tags. Most of my hardcore reading and writing is done on one laptop, but if I want access to those files from another computer, I can just log into Sugarsync, download them, and even import them into Calibre on that computer. And, as with writing, for current vital readings on a given project, I usually add them to Dropbox as well for easy syncing, knowing that I have a well organized and searchable version in Calibre.

So that’s it. Armed with the LibX toolbar, Zotero, Calibre, Dropbox, and Sugarsync, I can pretty much guarantee that finding library materials, organizing citations, organizing readings, and backing up everything is easier than ever. If you want to describe alternate strategies that work well for you, please do.

Libraries and the Commodification of Culture

The shift from markets to networks and from ownership to access, the marginalization of physical property and the ascendance of intellectual property, and the increasing commodification of human relationships are slowly leading us out of an era in which the exchange of property is the critical function of the economy into a new world in which the purchase of lived experiences becomes the consummate commodity.

–Jeremy Rifkin, The Age of Access

 

Neoliberalism is in the first instance a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade. The role of the state is to create and preserve an institutional framework appropriate to such practices. The state has to guarantee, for example, the quality and integrity of money. It must also set up those military, defence, police, and legal structures and functions required to secure private property rights and to guarantee, by force if need be, the proper functioning of markets. Furthermore, if markets do not exist (in areas such as land, water, education, health care, social security, or environmental pollution) then they must be created, by state action if necessary. But beyond these tasks the state should not venture. State interventions in markets (once created) must be kept to a bare minimum because, according to the theory, the state cannot possibly possess enough information to second-guess market signals (prices) and because powerful interest groups will inevitably distort and bias state interventions (particularly in democracies) for their own benefit. 

–David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism

 

A society in which every transaction must be mediated by the market, in which everything is privately owned and strictly controlled, will come to resemble a medieval society—a world of balkanized fiefdoms in which every minor grandee demands tribute for the right to cross his land or ford his streams. The flow of commerce and ideas—and the sustainability of innovation and democratic culture—will be serious impeded. Furthermore, such a market-dominated society is not likely to cultivate the sense of trust and shared commitments that any functioning society must have….

    The truth is, we are living in the midst of a massive business-led enclosure movement that hides itself in plain sight.

–David Bollier, Silent Theft

I read John DuPuis’ post Penguin ebooks & The Research Works Act: Publishers gain, communities lose with great interest. I’d already been thinking about his tweet from last week (that I caught on Facebook): “Publishers want to monetize all reading and sharing transactions. Are publishers basically saying that they are opposed to the core values that libraries represent?” The final question is one I’ve been thinking about lately, and I believe the answer is, yes, they are saying that. Publishers are indeed opposed to the core values of libraries. However, it’s more than that. Corporations are opposed to the core values public goods, public space, and and other values that resist commercialization and commodification. Libraries are merely part of an international trend in contemporary capitalism and are just starting to feel the impact of trends that have been building for the past forty years or so.

I don’t have a full blown thesis at the moment, and am using this post to sketch out the broad outline of what might be my next research project (my research agenda seems to be to take whatever I happen to be reading about at the moment and stick “Libraries and…” in front of it). There has been a movement afoot to commodify every aspect of human life, to make every human exchange a market transaction, and to reduce every domain outside the market as much as possible. Call the movement what you will–neoliberalism, market fundamentalism, the monetarization of reading transactions, or the commodification of culture–but the dominant belief is a faith that private property and markets are always good and everything outside those markets is bad, or at the very least that everything outside those markets is inefficient, and inefficiency is in itself always evil. The most important thing is the protection of capital and ensuring its free movement, regardless of any other values that might interfere with that goal: human rights, popular sovereignty, a social safety net, or free access to information by citizens of a (nominally?) democratic republic.

This ideology can play itself out on an international scale, such as the power debtor nations might cede to the World Bank or the IMF, or on a national scale, such as when financial institutions “too big to fail” are bailed out by the government but not, say, homeowners duped into buying mortgages they could really never afford. It ranges from Margaret Thatcher saying there’s no such thing as society to Elsevier paying members of Congress to support the Research Works Act. Privatizing public schools, eliminating public funding for higher education, or defunding libraries are some ways that governments acquiesce to the neoliberal dogma that the private sector always knows best. Private-sector corporations act rationally and merely do their best to ensure that governments institute laws favorable to corporations, even if at the expense of the public good.

I’m not saying anything particularly new. Included below are a few books I’m currently reading that touch on these issues. The “commodification of human culture,” as Jeremy Rifkin calls it, isn’t a new trend; nor is it yet complete. There are still spaces of resistance within commercialized culture, spaces motivated by noncommercial values. I say “noncommercial” deliberately, rather than anticommercial. As David Bollier notes in Silent Theft, “the issue is not market versus commons. The issue is how to set equitable and appropriate boundaries between the two realms—semi-permeable membranes—so that the market and the commons can each retain integrity while invigorating that other. That equilibrium is now out of balance as businesses try to exploit all available resources, including those that everyone owns and uses in common.” Libraries are examples of spaces dominated by noncommercial values, a semi-permeable membrane between the market for books and the democratic need for a knowledge commons. A noncommercial ethic can coexist alongside markets, and all can thrive. But public goods and noncommercial spaces can’t coexist with a market fundamentalism that believes all public goods and noncommercial spaces are evil, at least not if that market fundamentalism controls the laws. The more or less successful drive to extend intellectual property rights into perpetuity and to wither the public domain into nonexistence is a good indication that the ethic motivating libraries isn’t winning many political battles.

In his post, John is right that “private interests are attacking the public good.” They always have been, but at the moment their power is increasing because of legal and technological changes seemingly beyond our control, as well as the successful ideological campaign to persuade people that freedom means the freedom to engage in commercial transactions but not the freedom to read. Can the public good or noncommodified culture be saved? I have no idea. The problem is so much larger than libraries or open access scholarship or ebooks or any of the specific issues we address piecemeal. The best I can hope for is that we think globally and act locally, which requires understanding the larger context behind the specific challenges to the public good while doing what we can to fight against those challenges. This is the briefest of sketches because I’m still trying to understand that larger context.

Further reading:

Bollier, David. 2002. Silent Theft: The Private Plunder of Our Common Wealth. New York: Routledge.
———. 2005. Brand Name Bullies: The Quest to Own and Control Culture. Hoboken, N.J.: J. Wiley.
Harvey, David. 2005. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.
Hess, Charlotte. 2007. Understanding Knowledge as a Commons: From Theory to Practice / Ostrom, Elinor. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Kallhoff, Angela. 2011. Why Democracy Needs Public Goods. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books.
Miller, Laura J. 2006. Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Rifkin, Jeremy. 2000. The Age of Access: The New Culture of Hypercapitalism, Where All of Life Is a Paid-for Experience. New York: J.P. Tarcher/Putnam.
Saad-Filho, Alfredo. 2005. Neoliberalism: A Critical Reader / Johnston, Deborah. London ; Ann Arbor, MI: Pluto Press.

The Codex is Dead; Long Live the Codex

ACRLog had a post last week about humanists wanting print books rather than ebooks. Here’s a key passage:

Ebooks seem like sweet low-hanging fruit – they have enhanced searchability, accessibility at any time or place, and reduced storage and preservation costs. What’s not to love? Ebooks seem to make our students very happy. Often they don’t want to read a book cover to cover (although their professors might wish they would), and searching for relevant passages seems to satisfy their needs for many assignments. And journal literature seems exempt from the preference for print – I haven’t heard many complaints about deaccessioning back runs of print journals represented in JSTOR’s collections, for instance.

When thinking of humanities scholars and their books, I don’t see how it matters if most students don’t want to read their books all the way through or want to treat scholarly monographs the way they treat encyclopedias, as collections of information tidbits to pick and choose among. The scholarly monograph in the humanities isn’t designed to be read that way. It’s not a report of research results, but the result of research, and the analyses and arguments develop throughout the book or at least throughout the chapters. And what’s more, scholars don’t just dip into one book at a time to get some useful fact; they immerse themselves in books and frequently move among many different books while working.

The writer notes that the same faculty who demand print books for their work are happy to read novels on their ebook readers while relaxing or traveling. “It’s one thing, they tell us, to read for pleasure on a screen – but it’s quite another to read for understanding, for critique, for engaging in the scholarly conversation. And this isn’t a generational matter – some of the faculty I know who seem most committed to print are younger than forty.” I don’t know why this would surprise any librarians who work in the humanities. It’s easy to forget amidst the technological splendor that the codex is an extremely useful tool. Humanists often work on research projects that involve examining multiple texts and comparing them, sometimes moving from book to book and sometimes from passage to passage within those books. Spreading several books on a desk and flipping back and forth between passages is relatively easy, and much easier than trying to do the same thing on any current ebook reader. Annotating a book with pencil in hand is also faster and easier than doing it on any ebook readers I’ve yet seen. It’s easy enough for me to think of examples from my own work. This summer I was writing a book chapter that was more or less intellectual history. The bulk of the chapter focused on four or five primary texts as well as a handful of secondary sources. I was trying both to analyze specific arguments occurring throughout the primary texts as well as compare the arguments to those in the other primary texts. The easiest way for me to do this was to have the books spread out around me, so that I could quickly put down one and pick up another or flip back and forth between several relevant passages in the same book.

Working with printed books is at the moment the fastest and easiest way to do this, which is probably why the scholars who do this sort of work the most like printed books. Everything else is clunky by comparison, especially ebook readers. This kind of work explains why humanists like ebook readers for casual reading but not for scholarly work. Leaving aside the DRM restrictions that make getting and reading ebooks so irritating at times, the ebook reader technology just isn’t sophisticated enough for widespread humanistic scholarly use yet. When it’s possible to flip instantly among several books and between passages on a device that’s easy on the eyes and allows annotation as quick as a pencil, this might change. Indeed, I was unsurprised by the Ebrary ebook survey that showed “The vast majority of students would choose electronic over print if it were available and if better tools along with fewer restrictions were offered.” To that I would add two caveats: first, better tools with fewer restrictions aren’t being offered, and second, the majority of students aren’t humanities scholars. My library did a large campus survey of faculty and students last year. 92% of humanists viewed print books as “essential.” This will change when the new tools become as adequate and easy to use as the old tools.

Sure, there might be ways around this, assuming one can get all the necessary books in digital format. (For the project I was working on this summer, I used books that were print-only and hard to get because few libraries held them, and they weren’t for sale or I would have purchased them for my own library. So much for PDA-only libraries relying on used-book dealers to meet their retrospective collection development needs.) But assuming I could, what current technology would suffice to replicate the ease of moving among books and passages of books? Maybe having six tablet computers would work. They would have to be devices that displayed PDFs well, too, so that the secondary journal literature could also easily be read. That sort of defeats the purpose of ebooks, because if I had to carry around, much less purchase, a handful of ebook readers the main purpose of having an ebook reader is eliminated.

I think this is an example where breathless ebook prophets are pushing a format that for now remains an inadequate tool for humanistic scholarly research, and I suspect they’re doing so because they never do any of that type of research, so they either don’t know or don’t care about the inadequate tools. Technology that doesn’t make work easier is bad technology, no matter how much some people might like it for their casual reading. When the tools improve, no one will be protesting the demise of the codex. The ideal might be one of those virtual reality gesture-input computers like in Minority Report. All it might take is a computer that could simultaneous project multiple, easily manipulated texts in the space surrounding a scholar, texts that could be read, highlighted, annotated, and flipped through as easily as printed books. Making copying and pasting of quotations easily into whatever passes for a virtual reality word processor would be a boon as well. When that technology is as ubiquitous in academia as printed books, then the problem will be solved and humanists might abandon the codex. And if they don’t, that’s the time to start chastising them for their reactionary views, because it’s not reactionary to resist technology that makes one’s life more difficult.

The immediate future will be considerably more banal, but I can see the trend with both the new Ebrary ebook downloads and the new ebook platform on the new Project Muse beta site. Both allow quick and easy downloading of portions of books into PDF format, and the entire book if you don’t mind it being broken up into sections or chapters. This mimics the availability of scholarly articles through many databases, and everyone admits that even humanist scholars have no problem with electronic articles, just electronic books. That’s because most of them print the articles out and read them on paper, which they will now be able to do with lots of future ebooks. I’d rather have the virtual reality library, but until that happens PDF printouts might be as close to an ebook-only future as most humanists are likely to get. Libraries might stop buying printed books some day. The codex is dead. Scholars will then print out their PDF ebooks to make reading and research easier. Love live the codex.

 

Ebrary Ebook Downloads: the First Time

Ebrary now allows users to download ebooks to devices. Ebrary users can download up to 60 pages of a book into a permanent PDF file or an entire ebook using Adobe Digital Editions, which seems to load onto every ebook reader except the one I own (the Kindle). Ebrary has always had an ebook model similar to the ejournal model we’re all familiar with, where multiple users can access the same item just as they can with journal articles. Reading on the computer screen isn’t great, but having the searchable full text of the ebook is great. The ebook download is a bit trickier than downloading an article from ProQuest or Ebsco, though. Here’s what it’s like the first time:

1. Once you choose your ebook, click the “Download Button.” 


 

2. In order to download a book, you have to create an Ebrary account, which you don’t need just to view the books online. I had an old one, but couldn’t remember my password.

 

 

3. Once you create the account, you have to sign in, of course. From now on, you’ll be prompted to sign in when you want to download.

 

 

4. You’re not quite done. Getting the partial ebook on PDF is easy, but to get the entire book you have to download Adobe Digital Editions. If you miss the tiny print, you won’t be able to read your book.

 

 

5. At the Adobe Digital Editions site, you have to click “Install.”

 

 

6. After you click “Install,” you get another screen, where you have to click “Install” again.

 

 

7. Adobe needs you to be really, really sure you want this and that you’re not just toying with their affections, so after clicking “Install” twice, you have to click “Yes” to actually download Digital Editions.

 

 

8. Then the setup begins.

 

 

9. And another step.

 

 

10. One more click and we’re done!

 

 

11.Well, almost. You still have to agree to the license terms that you’re almost certainly not going to read, hoping as with all software installations there isn’t something tucked away about you owing anyone the souls of your unborn children.

 

 

12. Oh, and you still have a little setting up to do.

 

 

13. It turns out you can’t download the ebook without creating accounts with both Ebrary and Adobe. So it’s time to do that.

 

 

14. Fill in all that information and “Join Adobe.” Now’s the time to start getting excited about reading that book, because there are only four steps left to go.

 

 

15. Success! Adobe Digital Editions activated.

 

 

16. Only you don’t have any books yet. So go back to the Ebrary download page and click “OK.”

 

 

17. Now you’ll get a prompt to download the ebook into Adobe Digital Editions. If you’re still going at that point, click “OK.”

 

 

18. And now we have our book. Through Adobe Digital Editions, it can be moved to various ebook readers and devices. Unfortunately, despite having accounts with both Ebrary and Adobe at this point, it doesn’t sync across computers. So if you download a book onto one computer using Adobe Digital Editions, you won’t be able to log into Adobe from another computer and access the book, which is functionality I expect at this point.

 

 

So, there you have it. How to download your Ebrary ebook for the first time, in 18 easy steps. It’s not quite as seamless a process as downloading an article from JSTOR, but Ebrary is doing the best it can with what it has. As with a lot of things, the first time is the hardest, and the download process is much smoother once you have the right accounts and software downloaded. I just wonder how many people will get through that first time.

Tools, not Trends

I’ve been writing lately about “keeping up.” An important part of keeping up is knowing what tools and technologies you absolutely need to use, and what you can ignore for the time being. In academic libraries, it means knowing the tools that students really want and use versus the tools that trendwatching librarians claim they should be wanting and using. You can see some of of those tools in the Educause Center for Applied Research National Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology 2011. It’s worth skimming to get an idea of what technology students use and how they use it. Those who believe that students avidly adopt every information technology and social media trend–and who tell us this is essential for librarians to do as well–might get a few surprises.

For example, “one consistent finding is that e-mail remains a potent form of communication, both widely and frequently used—and the tool students most wish instructors would use more often” (5). That’s right, boring old email. Students possibly want the instructors to use it more often because they think instructors don’t communicate enough, but they’re not begging their instructors to tweet them. Also, “Virtually all students (99 percent) use e-mail—and virtually all (97 percent) use it at least a few times a week and most students (75 percent) use it several times a day” (13). If 99% of the students are using email and it remains a potent form of communication, then I think it’s safe to say that librarians shouldn’t feel outdated using it in lieu of some trendier but significantly less adopted social media tool. Though it’s easy to let it get out of control, email is still a remarkably useful communication tool, and one of the best for reflective, in-depth exchanges among people. That’s why 99% of college students use it.

Of course, email wasn’t the only popular medium of communication. “93 percent of students use text messaging, 90 percent use Facebook, and 81 percent use instant messaging” (13). So on the off chance your library hasn’t yet adopted some sort of IM reference service (perhaps with SMS integrated), you’re definitely behind the times, but that doesn’t mean that the more traditional email still isn’t viable and necessary. The study found that while students used Facebook a lot, the desire to interact on Facebook with instructors, and thus presumably librarians, wasn’t great. Ninety percent of students use Facebook, but only “Twelve percent of students say Facebook is ‘extremely valuable’ to their academic success—and one in four students (25 percent) consider it ‘valuable’ or ‘extremely valuable.’ On the other hand, more than half of students (53 percent) think its academic value is limited or nonexistent” (26). If your library has a Facebook page, great. It’s an easy way to make announcements for students who like their information that way, but it’s obviously not an academic necessity.

As for the most hyped social media tool of the moment, Twitter, the student use is much lower. 37% of students use Twitter, but only 11% are “frequent users” (14). Not that those 11% aren’t a vocal minority. The study quotes a “student voice”: “My generation is a social networking generation. We devote most of our time to Tweeting and or reading tweets, it would help if we could communicate with our professors in this way because most of us aren’t able to contact them during their office hours” (26). I don’t know quite what to make of this. If the students are devoting “most of their time to Tweeting and or reading tweets,” then their scholastic success is far from assured anyway. Maybe the student is one of those business majors who don’t work very hard. I can understand an instructor communicating with students through Twitter easily enough if the instructor is already a Twitter user. Set up an account for questions, problems, links to assignments, news relevant to the course topic, etc. But for the rest, that’s maybe a lot of work for the 11% of frequent Twitter users. Instructors also have higher priorities than following all their students’ tweets as well.

For iPad lovers, there might be another surprise in the study: most students aren’t iPad lovers. They prefer more conventional technology. According to the study, “A majority of students own a laptop (87 percent), a USB thumb drive (70 percent), an iPod (62 percent), a smartphone (55 percent), a digital camera (55 percent), and a webcam (55 percent)….Fewer students (11 percent) own a netbook or an iPad (8 percent) or another tablet (2 percent)” (7). I now have a study confirming what I see around me on campus. Most of the time I see students in the library, they’re reading books or articles they printed out on paper (I’ve yet to encounter a student who prefers reading a scholarly book or article any way but on paper), or hunched over a laptop writing papers or crunching numbers. For scholars having to do research and write essays, the affordable laptop computer is a truly revolutionary technology in numerous ways. It changes everything from the discovery of information to its creation. Tablet computers are great for lots of things, but they’re not as useful as laptops for research and writing.

Sometimes the conclusions of the study seem to surprise the writers themselves. We are told that, “students are still attached to ‘standard issue’ technology. A majority of students own a printer (81 percent), a DVD player (75 percent), a stationary gaming device (66 percent), an HDTV (56 percent), and a desktop computer (53 percent)” (9). Anyway, the “still attached” sounds to me like surprise. I’m not sure why anyone would be surprised that students are “still attached” to really useful technologies. Possibly it’s a contrast between the expectations of the authors and the banal reality of students’ real technology use. Even the gaming is conventional. I don’t play a lot of videogames, but I have done enough to know that they’re usually more enjoyable on my big HDTV than on my smartphone.

As with the surprise, the study recommendations sometimes push against the grain of the findings. On a list of generally excellent technology recommendations, they recommend that instructors “Make more and better use of technologies that students value—and that are easily integrated into learning experiences in the shared environments in higher education (e.g., tablets, smartphones, student response systems or clickers) )” (32). However, since we know that only 10% of the students own an iPad or other tablet, compared to 87% with a laptop, why would instructors use valuable time to “make more and better uses” of tablets? Would that be a good use of their time? I just can’t see why tablet computers keep making an appearance when so far they’re not widely adopted among students, except that someone really wants students to use iPads.

Of the technologies seen by students as “extremely valuable” for academic success, here’s a breakdown: Laptop 81%, WiFi 78%, Smartphone 33%, iPad 24% (16). It reflects the reality that a laptop with an Internet connection is a powerful academic tool. An iPad is more of an academic luxury, and with college costing what it does these days, it’s a luxury that most students do without. Everything else pales in comparison. It could just be that students don’t realize how useful these tools are, but that’s for a different blog post. What seems to be the case now is that chasing technology trends isn’t something college students are very interested in, which makes them very different from some of the infotech-savvy librarians interacting with them, including to a great extent me.

The first recommendation of the study is excellent advice: “Investigate your students’ technology needs and preferences and create an action plan to better integrate technology into courses and help students access institutional and academic information from their many and diverse devices and platforms” (32). When dealing with technology, that’s the important thing to remember. What are your students actually using, compared to what some pundit claims they’re using? We’ve all read numerous hyperbolic and poorly supported manifestos about digital natives and millennials and such, but we should ignore them in favor of what we experience on the ground working with students. Recently, I had an interaction with a very bright 20-year-old Princeton student who asked me to slow down on something I was showing her because she “wasn’t good with computers.” Out of curiosity, I asked her if she was familiar with the phrase “digital native.” She wasn’t.

The Lesson of Library History

Some librarians seem to be obsessed with technology and its relation to  their own obsolescence, maybe because they falsely believe that librarians are slow to adapt to technological change. In the counterfactual world of luddite librarians, perhaps libraries would become obsolete. But we’re not living in that world.

Last week I was complaining about the hyperbolic and apocalyptic rhetoric emerging from so many librarians, and it was somehow interpreted as a commentary on libraries and emerging technologies or a response to Library 2.0, leading to this hyperbolic and apocalyptic comment: “If libraries are slow to adopt ‘faddish’ technologies (whether or not they fade in a few months) they will quickly become obsolete (in the view of patrons) in this on-demand age.” I have a feeling most of this rhetoric isn’t motivated by a fear that libraries will become obsolete as by a fear that librarians will, but that would have to be the topic of another blog post. Regardless, I wasn’t talking then about technology and libraries, but about hyperbole. Now I’m talking about technology and libraries.

First, I just don’t understand this fear of obsolescence. What is this fear based on? My commenter seems actually to think that if all libraries are slow to adopt whatever technology is hot at the moment, then people won’t use libraries. There’s no evidence or argument to support such a hyperbolic statement. Would anyone these days claim that a library is going to become “obsolete” because it’s not represented in Second LIfe? This view also offers an extremely reductionist account of what libraries do for people. (Note: though I know my posts sometimes get traction in the library world at large, it should be clear from the title of the blog I’m talking about academic libraries). As long as scholars are doing academic research, libraries will not become obsolete. Will libraries change? Definitely. Will things be vastly different in 20 years? Probably. But the future of academic libraries is as dependent upon the future of higher education and the commercialization of scholarship as it is on instant adoption of any given communication technology.

Just as I don’t understand why anyone would think libraries are becoming “obsolete,” I also don’t understand the assumption that libraries are slow to adapt to technology. It seems to me librarians have long been adapting to technological change and using technology to improve library services. This article by Robert M. Hayes from the Encyclopedia of Library and Information Sciences on the history of library automation should dispel any notion of librarians as musty luddites. (The article is behind a pay wall.) MARC, DIALOG, OCLC, RLIN–all created in the late 1960s! Libraries were creating OPACs in the 1970s. How many department stores had online searchable catalogs in the 1970s? From microfilm to digitization, from punch cards to OPACs, from the telephone to IM, librarians have been adopting new information technologies for decades to provide library users with improved access to information. Far from lagging behind, they’ve been pushing the technology to its limits in their search for improved library services.

The article is a reminder that technological change has been ongoing in libraries for decades and that there are information and technical services components of such change. It’s easy to focus on popular fads like Facebook while forgetting that some of the most exciting and useful technological change in libraries is behind the scenes. The entire technical infrastructure of libraries is still evolving, and some of the most important technological innovations that benefit library users are invisible to them. Users of academic libraries gain a much greater benefit from a link resolver than from Twitter.

Sure, there has always been resistance. The article has a great quote from a 1971 College & Research Libraries issue: “In sum, our experience with the computer in library operations has been one more replay of The Emperor’s New Clothes, and what we were led to believe were distant mountains laden with gold, available merely by boring a drift in the slope, turn out, upon close inspection, to be the hairy buttocks of the well-fed computer industry. And from such a source we have gotten exactly what we should expect.” But what should be clear is that while there are obvious dead ends (such as library catalogs based on IBM punch cards in the 1950s) to feed such resistance, the resisters in the aggregate always lose.

They always lose because they’re always in the minority and in general they’re always wrong. The early adopters are also in the minority, and they’re often wrong in the particulars, but error spurs innovation as surely as success. Technological innovation doesn’t hit every library equally, making nonsense of claims about “libraries” becoming obsolete if “they” don’t adopt some change wholesale. There aren’t universal solutions to universal problems. What we have, and what we’ve always had in librarianship, are librarians working away in various places experimenting and exploring, trying to figure out if some new technology will improve library services. When they show that it can, word gets around, the idea spreads, and other librarians give it a try regardless of the resistance. “We’ve never done things this way” loses force against “This worked at other places, and there’s no reason it shouldn’t work here.”

One relatively recent example is chat reference. By the mid-90s, IM was starting to become much more popular. The technology was starting to improve. By the late 1990s, libraries were experimenting with it. It was all the rage at conferences 10 years ago, and a dead topic 4 years later because it was the norm. Now it seems odd if an academic library doesn’t have some form of chat reference. When it comes to other social media, we’ll see the same thing. If something is proven successful elsewhere, librarians at other places will adopt it quickly, just like they’ve always been doing with technological innovations. And these days the return on investment on many projects is much clearer and more immediate than 40 years ago. It’s a lot easier to adopt virtual reference solutions or create a library Facebook page than it is to retrospectively convert your card catalog. On the other hand, it’s difficult to create major digitization projects, but libraries are creating them anyway.

Hayes also addresses those who say libraries will become obsolete. Here’s his take:

There are persons who forecast their demise, in the perception that they will be replaced by the wealth of resources becoming available through the information technologies; such voices have been heard for at least the past three to four decades….

The likely picture, though, is very different from that of those who wish to get rid of libraries. Libraries are essential and will continue to be so in the foreseeable future. Instead of being overwhelmed by technologies,they have absorbed them, made them economic and effective, and served as the basis for testing and proving them. It is also a fact that the effect of electronic information resources was to increase not decrease the use of the library. The various forms of publication are complementary and mutually supportive rather than being substitutes for each other. The use of any of them leads to increased use of the others, and the library serves as the agency for access to all of them.

Libraries are not going to become obsolete. That statement is more provable than its contradiction, because at least I have precedent on my side. The claim that libraries will become obsolete for whatever reason has nothing to support it, and certainly not the false belief that librarians don’t adapt well to technology. They’ve been doing it for decades and doing it successfully. If you wa
nt to see how librarians will adapt to technology in the future, just see how they adapted in the past. The lesson of library history tells us to expect adaptation, innovation, improvement, resilience, and endurance. I find that a more positive and more believable statement than any amount of panicky hyperbole.

Preaching and Persuading

My last post generated considerably more interest than usual, and I’m not entirely sure why. it’s possible there were some alleged potential reactionaries. The possibility of such is implied in Tim Spalding’s commentary on his blog::

I expect your post will get wide circulation. It says something that hasn’t been said before as well. But if it prompts librarians to dismiss technology’s impact on the future of libraries, it will do great harm. Instead, I hope people use your essay as a way to "kick it up a notch" intellectually, get past the small stuff and confront the very real changes ahead.

What puzzles me was how anything I’ve written could prompt "librarians to dismiss technology’s impact on the future of libraries." I’m not even sure how anyone could do that. My point was more that no one technology is going to be the future.

My approach and those of the librarians I’ve critiqued might be formulated as one between preaching and persuading. There’s an evangelical tone distinctly present in some of this. It’s always a stark dichotomy. Do what I tell you the future is or libraries will die! It’s so hyperbolic it’s hard to take seriously. I, for the most part, am the converted, and I still find the preaching grates on me.

One contrast would be the way other librarians approach futurizing. For example, I’m thinking of Steven Bell’s and John Shank’s "blended librarians" initiative. I’m not sure I agree with that approach, but what I like about it is that instead of going gaga over whatever trend, he presents serious criticisms and reasons to change in particular ways. He has an understanding of the ways academic librarians could lose relevance and suggestions for ways in which they can create a future where they have more relevance. There’s nothing apocalyptic or hyperbolic, but neither is there any attempt to avoid serious thinking on the problems we face if we don’t make some serious changes.

Preaching just isn’t effective in the workplace, where reasoned analysis and a feeling for workplace politics is necessary. If I started signing my emails with "The Future is X" my colleagues would think I was putting them on. If I went to a meeting and tried to implement a change based on the claim that "this is the future!", there would be some eye rolling but not much support.

A couple of posts ago I put my approach to change. Changes have to be specific and they need reasons based on a common mission. What are we supposed to be doing and how can we do that better? Will this new tool or organizational change help us accomplish our mission? How? If people are agreed on what the goal should be, and it’s clear how introducing change X will accomplish that goal more effectively without creating havoc, they’ll be more likely to accept it. Politics is about compromise and progress often consists of gradual but constant change.

If you want to lower morale and create chaos, by all means come storming into your workplace with sweeping revolutionary changes that upset everyone and try to implement them because this is the "future." To discuss contentious issues of change and try to move forward, hype doesn’t help. Hype hurts. Hype alienates as much as reaction.

And then there are the reactionaries. I doubt they’ll find much support in my writing, but I’ll say what I think about them. Andy Woodworth put in a different way one implication of my position. My opposition is to all future hyperbole and all reactionary stances. The radical and the reactionary have very similar mindsets, both uncompromising. Andy phrased the ends of the spectrum as "We are okay as we are" and "We need to change now!" None of our libraries are perfectly okay as they are, and none need to change everything immediately.

I think about my library and its services. One thing I can’t help but notice is that there are some things we do exceptionally well, partly because we have the resources and support we need. There’s a lot of individual and focused research support for the students, for example. It would be difficult to improve this part of our work. As a librarian here, I would resist changes that would take time away from that, especially if the reasoning was based on "we have to change now!" That wouldn’t make me a reactionary. That would just make me sensible.

Other things could definitely be improved. I would like to see us take advantage of newer technology for search and discovery, and I think we’re moving in that direction. Just because of the size of our collections, we have a lot of great resources that are hard to find, or that aren’t findable from one place, such as an OPAC. But information technology is getting to the point where it can help make more of our collection more findable by library users. Regardless of the time, effort, and coordination it would take to implement such changes, they would be worthwhile. If we can improve this without making something else worse, then we will have implemented a useful change that would greatly benefit our users. I would be critical of any attempts to resist a positive change because we’re okay the way we are. I can point to specific problems library users including me have, and what’s more I can point to solutions.

Change isn’t made by a blog or from a conference podium. Changes are made in offices and conference rooms, in whispered hallway conversations and lunchtime banter.People are persuaded less by bold proclamations than by calm conversations and careful evidence. But the people doing the persuading need to think concretely and strategically. The moral support they might get from true believers is useful in its place, but more useful are arguments, evidence, and strategies of persuasion.

And these arguments and evidence must be particular to a given library. Nothing is the future for libraries because libraries are all different. The pressing changes needed in my library are not the same as the ones needed at the public library down the street. Futures have to be envisioned in particular places to solve particular problems and negotiated with particular audiences, but it’s hard to make a big name for yourself with that sort of thinking.

Nothing is the Future

Prognostication isn’t something librarians tend to be good at, just prone to. We often have to hear about the future of libraries from people who aren’t, it turns out, from the future. (Or at least I don’t think they are). The future of libraries is Second Life. Wait, I mean Facebook. Or maybe it’s Twitter. It’s librarians in pods. Etc.The beauty of talking about the future is that it never happens.

Because someone has chosen to bombard RUSA listservs with notices of new iPhone apps and the like, I’ve been forced to see more statements about "the future" recently. Apparently, "the future is mobile." No doubt it will also be "fast paced" and "challenging" and "constantly changing" as well. It’ll probably be an exciting place where we’ll all have to adapt quickly or else die off, but also a place where savvy librarians won’t see problems, only opportunities for solutions. And there’ll be flying cars.

The kindest interpretation of statements like "the future is mobile" or "the future of reference is SMS" or "the future is librarians in pods" or whatever is that the librarians are trying to create that future by speaking it. The incantation will somehow make it so. At the very least, perhaps everyone will believe it’s true, even if it’s not, and that’s good for speaking invitations. After all, the future never arrives, so it’s not like we can verify it.

The less kind interpretation is that the authors of such statements are reductionist promoters, reducing a complex field to whatever marginal utility they’re focused on and claiming that this is the future, while simultaneously promoting themselves as seers. They’re hedgehogs with their one big thing, but perhaps aren’t aware it’s their big thing, not the big thing. I suppose it’s all part of "branding" themselves. I should be jealous. I don’t think I have a brand.

The obvious and most likely statement is that nothing is the future, as in no thing is the future, period. Anyone who tells you different is just plain wrong. With technology, it should be clear to anyone who bothers to see past their obsessions that formats and tools die hard. Some people like to imply that if librarians don’t take up every new trend they’ll become like buggy whip makers. I should point out that there are still people who make buggy whips. Buggy whips aren’t as popular as they once were, but they’re still around. There are even buggies to accompany them.

Communications technology seems to drive speculation on the future of libraries. There’s some new tool–Facebook, IM, Second Life, the telephone, cable television, etc.–and it’s going to revolutionize libraries. Except it doesn’t. If the new technology succeeds at all in libraries, it will join most of the older technologies rather than replace them.

What older communication technologies have gone away completely? The oldest is probably the letter, but libraries still get letters. Real letters, on paper and everything. Some of them are even handwritten. They’re not as popular as they used to be, but that’s only because we now have an electronic equivalent. I don’t know if the telegraph was ever a way for patrons to communicate with libraries. I doubt it, but if so I guess that one’s dead. The telephone is probably next. People still call libraries. A century and more after it became popular, and people are still making phone calls. Amazing, but true!

They still email, too, even the young ones. Just letters in another form. I’ve heard some vague claims that these kids today are doing nothing but texting, and they don’t use email. Maybe that’s true in high school, but it’s not true in college. Students email me all the time for help. It’s a reliable medium where significant questions can be asked. A student just emailed me to set up a research consultation. She sent a 254 word email that included a two-page attachment. It’s difficult to ask serious research questions in a text message. I have no problem with SMS reference, and I think we’ll be adding it soon. But if there are students for whom a library without SMS reference is invisible, they probably aren’t very good students anyway and no amount of reference will help them succeed.

What’s next? Maybe those static query boxes on websites. Our library has several of those, and they’re used by all sorts of people, from students to scholars in foreign countries. They’re probably not going away. Then there’s chat reference, which I find a bit unwieldy for some types of questions, but ideal for others. That one’s still pretty new in the scheme of things, though, so it will probably be a long time before librarians pretend that some new technology revolution has killed it.

If librarians still interact with their users through letter, telephone, and email, there sure seems to be a lot of past in this future. There’s always a lot of past in any future. We are living in the past’s future, and we still have most of it with us. What is the chance that our future will somehow be different?

I’ve used "mobile" just as one example. The same could be said of various service or organization models. You can plug in any term you want, and know that when anyone tells you that thing is "the future," they’re wrong. And to be clear, my criticism isn’t of any particular services or trends. If there’s a new, popular way for librarians to communicate with or reach out to library users, by all means librarians should adopt it, or at least experiment with it. My criticism is the hype and the reductionism, and the implied claim that some librarians really know what the future holds, and that it just happens to be centered around whatever they happen to like at the moment. Maybe they’re convincing themselves, but they’re not convincing me.