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Archive for the ‘LIS’ Category

While voting for ALA Council this weekend, I came up with five positive characteristics in a nominee:

  1. Longer than five years’ membership in ALA. Fresh voices on Council are good (see below), but please take a few season cycles to learn from the inside how ALA works before asking to join “the governing body of ALA”.
  2. Service on either an ALA Committee or a division board of directors. Serving one level below ALA Council provides an opportunity to better understand what Council does and can do.
  3. They now work in a library. The voices of people with current and ongoing first-hand experience with the work of libraries should be the predominant voices on ALA Council.
  4. Never served on ALA Council. Fresh ideas come from fresh voices. I would support a term limit of three 3-year terms for ALA Council.
  5. Admirable record of work. From the current roster, I voted for Ciszek, Clasper, Comito, Findley, Gooch, Pace, Pressley, and Zabriskie for at-large Council seats in part because I had heard of their projects or papers.

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My German friends at Ohio State laughed to hear that I had ancestors named Biedermann. To be a “Biedermann,” in German slang, is to be someone narrow and strict, someone who merely follows orders.

That joshing came to mind while reading Rick Anderson’s recent article, in which he divides fellow librarians into two groups: those who lean towards being dutiful “soldiers” and those who lean towards being willful “revolutionaries.” While weighing the relative merits of the two groups, Anderson lays a heavy thumb on the “soldiers” side of the scale. My thumb lays on the other side.

(Where Anderson applies his thumb hardest is with the bullet points in the “Soldiers and revolutionaries” section, which are practically parody. So be it, though…as we’ll soon see, what Anderson can do, I can do, too…)

Rather than use Anderson’s “soldiers” and “revolutionaries,” let’s honor the recent Fourth of July by describing the two sides as, respectively, “Tories” and “Patriots.”

Those with a predominantly Tory mindset:

  • accept the status quo
  • go along to get along
  • reliably defer to authority
  • do the work that someone else puts in front of them

Those with a predominantly Patriot mindset:

  • ask searching questions
  • challenge received assumptions
  • work independently when needed
  • build far-flung collegial relationships
  • try new things to meet new needs

To paraphrase Anderson, hardly any individual librarian can be characterized as either a pure Tory or a pure Patriot. But which mindset would you want characterizing your library in these days of transformational change?

As Anderson notes, “tightening budgets increasingly force us to choose between worthy programs and projects.” Publishers have steadily cut into library purchasing power for decades by raising their subscription rates far faster than the rate of inflation.

The traditional Tory passivity of all too many librarians–the Biedermann mentality that meekly accepts the status quo–serves students and faculty unusually poorly as we struggle with an unaffordable system of scholarly communication created by publishers for publishers.

How, then, can libraries break out of that dead-end system? They can do it by drawing on Patriot courage, leadership, and innovation.

Anderson ends his article with a heavy-handed reminder that libraries are “ethically obligated to support the mission” of their funders. Anderson implies that only “revolutionaries” will find themselves in that sort of ethical difficulty, and, as a result, risk ending up as unemployed “freelancers.”

Charming.

Back in the real world…

When a librarian timidly does what he’s always done because he lacks the courage or imagination to change, is that fulfilling an ethical obligation to the library’s funders?

When a librarian just wants to write the same (if ever-larger) checks to the same publishers in the same process because that’s his comfort zone, is that fulfilling an ethical obligation to the library’s funders?

Are those Tory-style lapses in meeting ethical obligations so improbable that they were not even worth mentioning?

And if they’re not so improbable, why didn’t Anderson bother to mention them?

That imbalance is the fatal weakness of his article.

Maybe he would have benefited from having some Biedermann ancestors.

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(Previous posts: #1, #2, #3)

After 20 years of steady but containable erosion of the library’s customary position as an institution that controlled everything within itself, the final (and ultimately fatal) blow came in the mid-1990’s: The World Wide Web.

As the Web grew from a promising novelty into an ubiquitous part of American life, the traditional structure of the American library made less and less sense:

  • Libraries no longer selected all of the content that patrons came to the library to use, and the content they did select was steadily becoming a smaller part of what patrons were coming there to use.
  • The content that patrons used within the library could change or disappear without librarians knowing or being able to bring it back.
  • The main finding aid for this information was no longer provided by librarians, but by search engines. Attempts to stretch the library catalog to include Internet content had only minor successes.
  • Patrons could use library-provided content without ever setting foot in the library.
  • The case for intellectual freedom became more complicated as libraries had to move from defending the rights of patrons to access materials selected by trained librarians to defending the right of patrons to access any legal material on the Internet.

In short, patrons were more and more going through the library rather than going to the library. The days of the self-contained and self-controlled library are over. What can replace it? And who can make that replacement succeed?

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(Previous posts: #1, #2)

The second crack in the century-long stability of American libraries began to arrive in the 1980s: Online databases.

These databases vastly expanded patron access to periodicals without requiring an equally vast building program. The percentage of library collection budgets spent on these databases has steadily increased during the last 30 years.

They also continued the breakup of the old, stable model of how libraries worked:

  • Databases did not remain as physical items housed within and controlled by the library (remember CD-ROM towers?). To access most databases, patrons no longer even have to go to the library.
  • Databases were not stable. Vendors often added and dropped titles, complicating efforts to maintain the accuracy of the catalog.
  • Libraries did not control database finding aids. Each database had its own interface and thesaurus (and interfaces sometimes changed). Librarians had trouble maintaining mastery of all of them (if they had achieved that mastery to begin with).

Automated card catalogs and online databases were two notable cracks in the old library bottom line: That the library controlled everything within the library. The third and final crack, though, would be the one that finally brought the structure down.

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In my last post, I described the characteristics of libraries during the century before 1975. During that century, libraries faced no fundamental changes and were fully in control of how they presented themselves to patrons. That stability and control have now been shattered. Why?

The first crack came with the automation of library card catalogs in the 1970s and 1980s. Though a positive change on the whole, automation had three negative effects on libraries:

  • Most libraries no longer maintained their own finding aid, the catalog. They continued to provide the content, but the actual software was bought from vendors.
  • Most libraries no longer maintained the interface to their finding aid, the OPAC; that, too, was bought from vendors, most of which did not allow libraries sufficient ability to customize their OPACs.
  • The new OPACs did not work well with the old subject headings, which had been designed to be browsed in a card catalog. Even after 30 years of development, OPACs do not enable patrons to easily browse traditional subject headings, thus crippling one of librarianship’s three canonical means of bibliographic access (those being: by author, by title, by subject).

Automation of the card catalog had great benefits for libraries, but it was also the first crack in their century-old enjoyment of stability and control. There would soon be others.

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The old library

Until recently the online catalog continued to contain records only for items physically held by the library system. As libraries have entered into cooperative relationships, this principle of telling “what the library has” has eroded. In union catalogs that contain records from libraries of more than one institution, the concept was expanded to “what at least one of the cooperating libraries has.” More recently, the addition of Internet records has meant that a number of catalogs now contain records for “what the library can give access to,” including “what the library has.”

— Arlene G. Taylor, The Organization of Information (Westport, Conn. : Libraries Unlimited, 2004), pg. 8-9.

 
The library of (let’s say) 1875 to 1975 looked like this:

  • The library would buy discrete and unchanging physical items to become part of a coherent collection.
  • The library would catalog those items to identify their physical and intellectual characteristics and determine what library patrons would want from them.
  • The library maintained a finding aid for those items (the card catalog) and the interface to that finding aid (the layout of a catalog card).
  • The library would select every item in the library and controlled access to those items.

The bottom line for the libraries of 1875 to 1975:

  • THE LIBRARY CONTROLLED EVERYTHING WITHIN THE LIBRARY.

That would change.

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[W]e have all kinds of tools that are organized to aid in the process of finding information that we need: telephone books, directories, dictionaries, encyclopedias, bibliographies, indexes, catalogs, museum registers, archival finding aids, and databases, among others.

— Arlene G. Taylor, The Organization of Information (Westport, Conn. : Libraries Unlimited, 2004), pg. 2.

 
Before reading this passage, I had never thought about how little of the organization in your average library is done in-house. Most of the information resources we provide have been structured by other people. The overall classification of the books comes from
OCLC or the Library of Congress. The records for the titles we buy are usually provided by OCLC or a vendor, and then edited to match local standards. The article and citation databases we subscribe to are designed by their vendors. Libraries do have some leeway to arrange their fiction and non-book collections, and can sometimes get creative with their websites, but the core of the organizing is brought in from somewhere else.

Libraries: The original mashups.

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Why we organize

We organize because we need to retrieve.

— Arlene G. Taylor, The Organization of Information (Westport, Conn. : Libraries Unlimited, 2004), pg. 1.

 
Leaving aside the folks who organize because of OCD

Is there a good study out there about the range of ways that library patrons use to retrieve? Librarians organize for patrons, yet it seems to me that we rarely talk about how those patrons approach the task of retrieving, and whether our methods of organizing serve their ways of retrieving.

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Ian F. McNeely and Lisa Wolverton note how the development by the Greeks of libraries, as storehouses of the written word, changed the possibilities of knowledge from what they had been in a purely oral society:

Every library comfortably contains writings and juxtaposes ideas that, if they were represented by their proponents in the flesh, might contrast violently with one another. Yet there they sit, on shelves, awaiting such scholars as may chance upon them to confront their latent contradictions. Libraries […] [construct] a well-made intellectual edifice where every doctrine has its proper place. Where schools [of philosophy] fade or fragment, libraries persist; where schools [of philosophy] sustain fixed arguments and preserve intellectual lineages, libraries absorb new knowledge and accommodate newcomers to learning. This made Greek learning, incubated by oral competition, newly portable to non-Greek landscapes. Abroad, for the first time, writing enabled the accumulation not just of philosophical perspectives but of knowledge of the world more generally.

Reinventing Knowledge: From Alexandria to the Internet (New York: W.W. Norton, 2008), page 13.

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James Evans, a sociologist at the University of Chicago, writes about his research into the costs of having more research materials available online.

The benefits of having the materials online are obvious: Ease of finding, ease of searching, ease of printing.

Evans wondered whether there were costs along with those benefits. He found that the ease of using online research materials seems to make scholars less likely to use print materials—even ones that are not replicated online—and thus more likely to narrow the scope of their research to materials from the Internet Age and materials from “high-status” journals, each of which is more likely to be available online.

My summary does not do justice to Carr’s blog post, much less his actual article, which I…um, have not yet read because it is not available to me online (but what do you expect from a superficial cat?). If the subject interests you, then go read the post.

(H/t to Nick Carr.)

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The good old ALA

On July 20, I renewed my membership in the American Library Association online, and had that renewal confirmed by e-mail.

On August 11, I got a letter and a renewal form from the ALA, urging me to renew my membership soon. The letter asks me to “renew online…and save the stamp”.

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Ways of knowing

A paraphrase of something I wrote in 1997:

Human societies have two ways of storing knowledge: Written down in libraries, archives, etc.; and memorized in people’s minds.

The amount of knowledge that is written down is ever-increasing, but the amount that an individual can memorize is biologically limited.

Managing that growing disparity will require better searching and cataloging methods to help transfer knowledge from where it is stored to where it is needed.

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“Bookhunter” interview

My friend and co-worker Laural Winter interviews Jason Shiga, the author of Bookhunter, my favorite graphic novel.

Bookhunter is the story of how the Oakland Public Library’s detective squad and SWAT team cracked a 1973 book theft case. If you find the idea of a public library having a detective squad and a SWAT team intriguing, then you might like this book. If you think public libraries should have had a detective squad and a SWAT team a long damn time ago, then you will love this book. Plus, it’s funny, it’s smart, and the plot works.

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Demonstrating commitment

A point often made in defense of the requirement that librarians get a master’s degree in library science and the recommendation that they remain current members of the American Library Association is that these two acts “demonstrate commitment” to the profession.

If demonstrating commitment is the important thing, then permit me to make this modest proposal: Allow prospective librarians to bypass the MLS and get a lifetime ALA membership in exchange for having a large tattoo of Melvil Dewey etched onto their forearms. (Those who want to become academic librarians would also have to get a second tattoo—a subject tattoo, if you will—etched on their other forearm.) Commitment demonstrated, $30,000 and two years saved—everyone wins!

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