Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Lawsuit-proof citation software

The recent kerfuffle over EndNote-to-Zotero got me thinking:

Is there any way to convert MARC records directly into a BibTeX file en masse? So that a researcher could just download a master BibTeX file with all of a library's holdings (monograph holdings, anyway) already entered?

On the one hand, that sounds like it would be a huge file; on the other hand, it's just text. You could segment it by call number or LCSH, so that researchers only download the records in their fields.

I just think we need to be thinking in terms of pure open source solutions where we can (I know most literature faculty are not going to use LaTeX anytime soon, but data-heavy sociologists might be persuadable).

Edited to Add: I just went to a training session on our new state-wide OPAC. It has a built in feature to export any item to EndNote or RefWorks, but not to BibTeX. :( And when I asked about it, no one in the room had ever heard of BibTeX or LaTeX - at the Bio/Medical Library! This may be a pipe dream for now.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Born Analog

Siva Vaidhyanathan writes in the Chronicle of Higher Ed to gently but firmly disabuse us of the notion of the digital generation, on two counts. 1) They're not all digital, whether due to lack of access or interest; and 2) "generation" is a fairly empty concept anyway.

The article is a good reminder to be thoughtful about which new technologies we adopt in our libraries, and how we do it. Students aren't all demanding them as fast as we think.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Faculty status is about freedom.

ACRLog has a recent post on the old chestnut of whether academic librarians are or should be "real faculty." This go-round was prompted by Daphnee Rentfrow's essay "Groundskeepers, Gatekeepers, and Guides: How to Change Faculty Perceptions of Librarians and Ensure the Future of the Research Library" in the new report No Brief Candle: Reconceiving Research Libraries for the 21st Century. Rentfrow argues that misperception by faculty is the biggest challenge facing research libraries, and that MLIS programs aren't helping to meet it.

StevenB at ACRLog takes Rentfrow to task for providing solutions that are unoriginal and vague, and he's right that she doesn't provide a lot of actionable steps to take - it's hard to be concrete in combating a vague sense of disdain.

On the other hand, StevenB misses the mark entirely. He argues that we need to prove our faculty status by buckling down and getting on with instruction. In my R1 experience, those faculty that look down on librarians look down on teaching equally: teaching is for grad students and adjuncts. (Note that both adjunct lecturers and librarians are disproportionately likely to be women.)

I propose a different logic about why academic librarians need faculty status:
1. The purpose of faculty status is tenure.
2. The purpose of tenure is to protect academic freedom.
3. Librarians need academic freedom protections.

The commitment to intellectual and academic freedom is in our professional DNA. The ALA Code of Ethics binds us to "uphold the principles of intellectual freedom and resist all efforts to censor library resources." Librarians were willing to risk jail time to oppose sections of the Patriot Act. And I think that an argument that the people developing and preserving your research collections need political cover to include unpopular ideas can appeal to even some of the most inflated egos among the research faculty.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Laptop Security

Lifehacker has a set of useful tips about how users can secure their laptops from theft when they're out in public. Since the library is one place on campus where laptops are often left unattended, what can we as librarians do to help students hang on to one of their most valuable possessions?

First of all, I think we should promote laptop locks. (Both Lifehacker and one of the commenters endorse this Kensington lock.) If the library has an affiliated bookstore or coffee shop, why not sell the locks there?

Secondly, we should coordinate with campus security. Many campuses offer, for example, laptop engraving, so owners can put their initials or ID number on the computer. (Here's an example, of the services offered by the University of Missouri-Columbia police department.)

Finally, we need to do outreach and reminders on these options. Not just during orientation, when students are overwhelmed, but as ongoing concern. How about adding these reminders to the bottom of webpages and handouts that tell students how to set up proxy servers or VPNs? Those are guaranteed to reach new computer owners.

Libraries should be a source of all kinds of useful information - and we want to be associated with good memories, not "where stuff gets stolen." Let's just help make these precautions things routine and easy.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Free money to good home

The MacArthur Foundation is offering grants up to $250,000 for projects in digital media that enhance participatory learning. Not only are libraries eligible, there's a separate Young Innovators competition for people 18-25 (like students).

Hat tip to Eszter Hargittai at Crooked Timber.

Thursday, August 21, 2008


There's a lengthy discussion at friendfeed - which kicked off another lengthy discussion at ACRLog - about if and when librarians should add "MLIS" or "MLS" after their names. No real consensus has emerged. Academic and special librarians seem to use the degree (and related titles) more often than public librarians. In general, there does seem to be a sense that it makes more sense to emphasize the credential when communicating with faculty, donors, or other outsiders, but that it's unnecessary with other librarians and downright divisive with paraprofessionals.

A number of people have said that librarians need to stand up for ourselves as a profession, and while I agree with the sentiment, I'm not sure this is the place to make the stand. After all, lawyers aren't hurting, but I'd look askance at any lawyer who signed off as John or Jane Doe, Esq. They're technically entitled to it, but it sure looks obnoxious.

I have a Ph.D. in political science, and I'm not sure how to deal with that, let alone the looming MLIS. I know that one big part of what I need to do in library school is acquire a whole new set of norms about professionalism. (Librarians, for the record, are waaay nicer than political scientists, so please excuse me while I exorcise the residual bitchiness inculcated in my doctoral program. Trust me, I'm much happier to be here.) Unfortunately for me, there doesn't seem to be a strong universal norm for me to follow, and that's made me uncomfortable so far.

Edited to add - Well, my personal experience has just confirmed StevenB's wisdom. I had added my PhD to my email sig file when I was corresponding with some folks at the Social Sciences Research Network, where I needed the credential and was directly leaning on the connections from my dissertation advisor. But when a classmate in the MLIS program addressed me as "Dr.", it's gotta go.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The decline and fall of everything, again

"The democratic youth ... lives along day by day, gratifying the desire that occurs to him, at one time drinking and listening to the flute, at another downing water and reducing, now practicing gymnastic, and again idling and neglecting everything..." -
Plato, The Republic

Nicolas Carr, in The Atlantic this month, asks "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" For those who want more anecdotes and photographs of privileged children to accompany this query, we have a spin-off piece in the New York Times.

Both of these pieces, although they muddle the issue, are concerned about a transition from knowledge to information. Carr even implies, citing Socrates, that the invention of writing may have moved us from wisdom to knowledge, and that our decline has been on an even longer trajectory. Now, for both of these articles, the central concern is that the Web (including search engines, fanfic, and social networking sites) has shortened our attention spans at a fundamental cognitive level.

I'm not that worried. There are two potential trends that I think these pieces skip over, both of which I think librarians can help move in a positive direction.

My first unaddressed concern - and here I do in part agree with the narrative of decline - is the pervasive commercialism that comes with getting all of one's information online. Carr does talk about the incentives Google has for getting us to visit as many different sites as possible, but neither article addresses the omnipresence of advertising on most websites.
One of the huge advantages of real books, and of the libraries that contain them, is that they are one of the few places left in America where no one is trying to get us to buy anything - persuade us of an idea, perhaps, but not actually to acquire consumer goods for cash (or credit). Librarians do our best to build collections that are free from a commercial agenda, and so libraries are a wonderful example of the "third place," and the books in them are a medium that is purely about content - the information, argument, and art. This might be a point of outreach.

As a counter to the narrative of decline, there's a technological hope for long-form reading - the Kindle. I haven't gotten a chance to experiment with one yet, but this is its primary selling point - an ability, unique among electronic devices, to induce "ludic reading." Some people have asked why we need a fancy, expensive device when paper and ink do this perfectly well, but maybe the answer is that it will draw in new readers who are simply used to screens. Technology might be shifting our emphasis to one kind of thinking, but the Kindle is a new technology that might shift it back.

Friday, July 25, 2008

librarian = l33t

For months, whenever someone has asked me what Second Life is, I've replied, "It's like World of Warcraft, only you don't get to kill people."

But now, librarians can join an immersive world worthy of the name. Catalog that, n00bs!

In all seriousness, I genuinely don't understand the appeal of Second Life, and Google's new Lively looks even worse. Without some kind of narrative or shared understanding of the virtual world, as WoW has, it just seems mundane, and therefore pointless. San Jose State, for example, has an SL campus, but I don't see what advantage that has over class videoconferencing in something like OPAL or Elluminate. Why would I use a fanciful avatar to communicate professionally? If I'm indulging in fantasy, I want high fantasy. Props to Libraryman for bringing it.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

"Reading on a Dream"

Personally, I blame this on "Once More with Feeling."

What I'd like to know is - how the heck do you get so many students to use the library???

(According to the YouTube commentariat, this was filmed in Columbia's Butler Library, so the answer might be "Be in the Ivy League.")

Preserving Scholarship

Campus Technology has a great interview with Michael Keller of Stanford University Libraries on archival digital librarianship - how libraries can and must preserve the past by both creating digital copies of historical documents and by maintaining born-digital documents.

It's that second category that has a lot of really interesting possibilities. I wonder if one possibility for outreach by academic libraries is to graduate students and faculty on how to back-up and archive their own work, possibly in conjunction with IT departments. I know, for example, that my own dissertation data is in data analysis program format that's already one release behind.

And it's data we should be worried about archiving and releasing. While faculty may have mixed reactions about releasing their articles as open access, there are strong, important scientific norms about providing access to data sets, so it's relatively easy to start with them - but it's also more important. Anyone can just save their article as a .txt file and preserve the sense of it in a universally readable format. (Math-heavy articles are an exception, but those scholars have largely made the move to open source LaTex, which I expect will be accessible for years to come.) Datasets, however, need special handling to be usable into the future, and the files can get much, much larger, making them challenging. They seem like a good starting place for institutional repositories when faculty are reluctant.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Books vs. Journals in Academic Collections

William H. Walters has an intriguing new article forthcoming in the November 2008 College & Research Libraries entitled Journal Prices, Book Acquisitions, and Sustainable College Library Collections. His thesis is that academic libraries, at least smaller ones or ones that cater to undergraduates, should largely abandon serials in favor of actual books. This is simultaneously provocative and conservative, and I think it's worth seriously considering.

A puzzling piece for his argument is e-books. Walters is no Luddite; he casually yet approvingly cites the use of e-books by science and engineering majors and the inclusion of e-books in Choice's annual list of top books. I take this to mean that he proposes that e-books are part of the solution for college libraries. But one of Walters's major concerns is with "sustainable access" - the ability of libraries to retain rights to previously purchased intellectual property even if they let a subscription lapse. Full fair use and ongoing access through format changes has been major concerns with e-books, so such off-the-cuff promotion of e-books seems at odds with the argument against journals from sustainable access grounds. Open source format e-books are an important resolution to this tension - if you keep your e-books in something simple like .pdf or even .txt format, then this is a lot less of a concern.

I think Walters's inherent conservatism is causing him to miss out on the future of Open Access scholarly research distribution. A good friend of mine who's a physicist in string theory has told me that all the top researchers in physics barely read journals at all any more; they're just there for external validation. All the real physics research is done through the arXiv. (The X is a Greek letter "chi" - get it?) The Social Science Research Network is taking off, now joined by a Humanities Research Network.
On the one hand, Walters argues that librarians must assume "that technological advances, however impressive, will not alter the basic economic, cultural, and legal underpinnings of the current system" - an assumption I think is already false. On the other hand, if we base our budgets on this assumption, but then find ways to add a bunch of free (as in both speech and beer) content, then we come out ahead - lots of books, plus journal-like content.

In the end, I buy much of Walters's argument. There's no need for undergraduate libraries to have every minor journal; the top three or four in each field are probably plenty, with the rest supplemented with ILL and consortia. If this boycott forces database marketers to un-bundle the high-impact from the obscure, all the better.

But I think Walters is grossly overselling college students' preference for books. He says that students see books as more authoritative and resulting in better work than other sources, and that they use those other sources only when they're pressed for time. Newsflash - they're always pressed for time. As Alison J. Head argues in another forthcoming paper, procrastination is ubiquitous on college campuses. Even if you keep the library open 24/7 during finals week, the students will still rely on electronic resources at 2AM the night before the paper is due. This might bring us back to e-books, but I think it's also a powerful argument that online journals are vitally important, because they can be accessed from a dorm room at midnight and at least they're an improvement on Wikipedia.

To sum up, I think that Walters is right that college libraries should probably shift much more of their budgets back to books - not because we can abandon electronic content, but because I think we can use a combination of (as he suggests) market power and (as I and many others suggest) open source and open access to bring the price of journals and other serial content back down.
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Libri & Libertas: Books & Freedom in a Web 2.0 World by Laura H. Wimberley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution - Noncommercial - Share Alike 3.0 United States License.