Robert Darnton weighs in on libraries, books, and the information age.

After my last post, I was encouraged and pleased to see this piece in the Chronicle by Robert Darnton, Harvard’s university librarian.*  Darnton says a lot of things that I think are absolutely true for many libraries these days.  We’re busy, our chairs are full, we’re more involved in our institutions and communities than ever.  Books aren’t going away anytime soon, though the digital world is on the rise.  The two can coexist.  A very small percentage of what’s published and used for research is available online. Librarians help people find what is there, just as we’ve always helped people find what’s in print.  (We still do that too.)

Or as Darnton puts it (more eloquently than I just did):

A more nuanced view would reject the common notion that old books and e-books occupy opposite and antagonistic extremes on a technological spectrum. Old books and e-books should be thought of as allies, not enemies.

Bottom line:  if a library is getting cut, it’s not because its fundamental services aren’t needed anymore.  The world of information didn’t start suddenly researching and interpreting itself, and delivering itself to untrained searchers in a comprehensible format.  People didn’t wake up knowing how to find census data and copyright-free images.  The need for a space to study, a networked computer, a self-help book, an answer to a question, a kids’ summer reading program–none of that went away.  And chances are very good that nobody else is supplying those needs.

Library for the blind, New York Public Library

*  Thanks to Sarah McDaniel, most awesome Coordinator of Library & Information Literacy Instruction at University of Wisconsin, Madison for sharing this with me.  On Facebook, of course.


Professional future tense.

It’s been a controversial week or two for academic libraries–at least in the American blogosphere.  Here in Oregon, Mount Hood Community College just pink-slipped all three of its full-time faculty librarians, in the midst of a budget crisis and possible faculty strike.  Elsewhere, McMaster University’s chief librarian, Jeff Trzeciak, gave a presentation at Penn State that suggested he won’t be hiring many librarians in future.  Instead, he’ll be looking for people with subject PhDs and technology training–and will be taking librarians out of undergraduate classrooms and supervisory positions, to focus their attention on faculty research consultations.  This has ruffled some feathers in lots of places.

These two things raise important issues with immediate implications for our profession (and in some cases, our livelihoods.)  They bear your consideration–you librarians, you library students.  This is our shared corner of the world, and there’s no question that it’s changing around us.

I think we can agree that we aren’t served by nostalgizing our bygone professional past — maintaining that because once we learned library penmanship and catalog card stitching and print index consultation, that we must continue to learn and teach and do those things  Of course not, right?  No one would suggest such a thing.  The world has changed.  We don’t have any of that stuff anymore.

But neither is it useful to nostalgize our immediate professional past — to maintain that because academic librarians have for many years served at reference desks, that we must continue to do so in the same way.  Or that because we’ve taught one-shot research methods classes for years, that we should continue to do so, absent a demonstrated need.  That might be a little harder to swallow, because those things are closer to where we live now.  Many of us started out in jobs that included those kinds of responsibilities, and many of our jobs still do include them.

That’s fine if our institutions work that way–if we have a busy reference desk and instructors asking for us to teach.  In many places, we do.  In those places, the model of the immediate professional past is still working fine.  It’s the model of the professional present, and probably the model of the future, at least for a while.

In other places that model is faltering, because the traffic at our reference desk is slowing down or instructors aren’t asking for our help, or some other factor is affecting how we do our business.  Those are the places where our future is really starting to blossom.  That’s where we need our leaders to think carefully and humanely about the best disbursement of the vast financial, social, and intellectual investment we’ve made in our libraries over the last hundred years or so.

I respect Jeff Trzeciak’s spirit of innovation, and his willingness to dig in and do the hard work of changing academic libraries.  I don’t entirely share his vision — at least, what I know of it.  I don’t know what to say about the situation at Mount Hood Community College, because I don’t know the behind-the-scenes, but I can hardly imagine a scenario that justifies the sudden firing of an entire professional library staff.

I do think we’re becoming a more digital institution, in a more digital society.  I don’t think we should cut people loose (students, staff, or faculty) on the way to getting there.  I think major upheavals take their toll on organizations–on morale, productivity, even direction.  I think sometimes, in some ways, they’re still warranted.  I think they should be balanced with a plan for more gradual change that takes into account human nature and the persistence of habits and ideas — our own and our patrons’. I think that’s what we might call wisdom, and it balances what we might call energy.

I think change will look different in every library, and that’s a good thing.  A diverse ecosystem is a healthy, resilient ecosystem.  I think the future of our profession, and of the informed and responsible citizenry it supports, is literally in our hands.  I think we should be paying attention and talking to each other, across all barriers and divides.  What do you think?

Crossposted at Re: Generation.

HarperCollins does pretty much what we expected.

Claire Dannenbaum recently sent me this link to a summary of what’s going down with e-books at HarperCollins:  essentially, they’ve placed a 26-loan limit on their ebooks.  After a library lends an HC ebook 26 times, they have to pay for it again–at a reduced cost, but still.  They pay for the title they’ve already paid for.

HC helpfully estimates that 26 loans should provide about a year’s worth of use for a given title, and they note that they aim to charge less for ebooks than paper books.  But there are a lot of problems with this model, from my point of view.  (And from the point of view of lots of other librarians.)  As I wrote to Claire:

This further undermines the rights we’ve come to expect from owning content—the rights of first purchase.  Instead of owning e-books, libraries will effectively be leasing them, without ever having an option to buy (as I understand it.)  I find it hard to believe that 26 circs of a print copy would put it out of circulation at a public library—I suspect that print lasts a lot longer than a year and 26 readers.  And none of this even touches on the rights to share, photocopy portions, etc.  All gone with the doctrine of first purchase, replaced by perpetual recharge for “access” to content.

And I suspect there’s an additional hidden cost to libraries in this new model—tracking on whether the access we’re supposed to have is really there, contacting publishers to restore it if it isn’t, managing our own records and explaining this all to our users.

I should say, I’m not clear on whether the 26-loan renewal policy repeats, or is one-time only:  if you have a hit book that circulates hundreds of times, will you have to pay for it five, six, or ten times over?

The HC boycott is an interesting response, but it makes me wonder whether there’s any other appropriate response for this.  HC has a legal right to set the terms of their sales, I guess–and customers have a legal right to boycott.  But I wonder if the brave new world of access vs. ownership opens up legal issues over what constitutes a “sale,” and whether  companies writing their own licensing terms carte blanche (at a disadvantage to their customers) merits further legal discussion.

Fourteen simple steps to getting hired. (Or, have mercy on the mere mortals running your search.)

If you’re new to academic librarianship–or to librarianship in general–you may be gearing up for a job search in the near(ish) future.  There are lots of terrific guides out there to help you write your resume, prepare for your interview, and follow up afterward, and yes, you should do all of those things.

But it may also help you to know some of what goes on behind the scenes in an academic library position search.  If nothing else, it may help to explain why searches take so long, and why they can move along so…unpredictably, shall we say?  Here are some notes from my own experience of being on the hiring side in an academic librarian search.

Caveat:  I’ve worked in academic libraries for nine years, been on many search committees, and hired lots of people.  Still, Your (Institution’s) Mileage May Vary.  Local hiring practices are different everywhere, I’m not an HR specialist, and I’m not trying to be completist here.  These are notes on what I’ve seen to be usual practices for an entry- or mid-level academic librarian hire–a subject specialist position, say, or a systems job.  Upper level administration is different, as are union or student positions.  So take everything I say with a grain of salt, and use your common sense.

Step One: A position becomes vacant.  Someone leaves a job, or a new job is created.  If someone leaves a job, there’s no guarantee that the institution will rehire the same position, or that they’ll rehire at all.  Institutions often take advantage of the opportunity created by a vacancy to re-examine workflow, departmental structure, and staffing levels.  If budget is tight, the core duties of a vacant position may be distributed to other staff, and the position may go unfilled.  But sometimes the job does get filled, either with the same duties or new ones.  And sometimes a new job gets created.  Hooray!

Step Two: After administration approves a recruitment, a job description is written up.  This may be drafted by the position’s supervisor, redrafted by upper administrators, returned to the supervisor for edits, passed by the position’s work colleagues for their feedback, returned to administration…you get the picture.  When it’s as good as it can be, it’s usually sent up the line to campus administration for review by multiple sets of eyes–affirmative action/equal opportunity, academic affairs, etc.  That can take some time.

Step Three: After everyone agrees on the job description, the job is posted.  Usually the institution’s HR office does this.  Jobs may go out on discussion lists, websites, in print and online publications, and so on.  Often institutions have requirements for the minimum amount of time that a position may be posted.  This could be two weeks, three weeks, a month…you’re starting to see why this process takes some time, right?

Step Three A: The institution usually appoints a search committee to start preparing to review applications.  Usually the position’s supervisor is on the committee (often as chair.)  The committee often also has someone from outside the position’s direct department, and someone from outside units that would work closely with the position.  This can make for interesting scheduling challenges, especially if there’s a teaching faculty member in the group.  If the chair is lucky, s/he has some administrative help.  If not, it’s Doodle Tetris, and a lot of emails.

Step Four: Applications come in!  The search committee starts reviewing them, using whatever file sharing process the institution has to offer.  Again, if the committee includes someone from outside the direct hiring unit (the library, in this case) file sharing can get tricky.  A full-time tenure-track position posting can generate hundreds of applications, and they all have to be reviewed by the whole committee.  (Here’s where you should be reading those guides to writing up your cover letter and CV, because you want to be one of the few that make it to the top of the pile.)

Step Four A: The committee needs some way to review all these applications fairly.  This means a rubric of some kind–something that helps them “grade” each application according to how well it fits with the position’s required and desired qualifications.  At some institutions this may be created and provided by HR; in my experience, it’s the lucky chair who gets to write up a rubric, distribute it to all the committee members, and ask everyone to keep score as they review.  All.  Those.  Applications.

Step Five: Application reviewing.  It’s extremely rare for members of a search committee to get release time from other responsibilities to do the work of the search.  So…it takes time.

Step Six: The committee meets to discuss, in epic roundtable fashion, the applications.  Often there will be a fair number of applications that clearly don’t meet the bar–the wishful thinkers, the fundamentally unqualified, the radically out of touch.  Then there will be a few golden applications–people who have all the qualifications, who have excellent cover letters and clear, straightforward, relevant resumes.  In between are the tricky ones–the folks who have potential, but don’t quite meet the standard for “golden.”  The committee will spend one or two (or more) meetings hashing all this out, until they have a ranking.

Step Seven: The committee starts crafting interview questions and schedules for the candidates.  Often there are a few questions for phone interviews, and more for in-person interviews–not usually the same set.  (So, two sets.)  For in-person interviews, candidates often visit the campus for somewhere between half a day and two days.  A schedule is drafted in rough, including presentations, sit-down interviews, tours, introductions to other staff, face time with administrators, etc.

Step Eight: The committee may seek administrative confirmation or approval of their picks, or they may go ahead and conduct phone interviews at this point.  Often more people are interviewed by phone than in person.  Phone interviews may be done by a solo committee member or a few on conference call.  (More scheduling!)  Notes are taken.  Another meeting is scheduled to discuss the outcomes of the phone interviews.

Step Nine: The committee narrows the list to (usually no more than three) final candidates who will come for an in-person interview.  This list may be sent to administration for review, or the committee may steam ahead.  Often with help from HR, arrangements are made for the candidates’ travel and lodging, meals, and sometimes a few friendly social opportunities, like a tour of the city.  (Remember, if you’re the applicant, you’re still interviewing during this time.)

Step Ten: Interviews!  Usually the institution tries to group all candidates close together, for the fastest and fairest process.  After each candidate interviews, the committee solicits feedback from everyone who had contact with the candidate.  There’s often a window of opportunity for others in the library to send feedback to HR or the search committee about the candidate’s presentation, small-group interviews, resume, etc.

Step Eleven: The committee meets to discuss all candidates.  If they’re lucky, there’s a stand-out leader who’s a good fit for the institution.  If not, they talk it through and make the best choice possible.  Usually they call references around this time, too.  This takes time as well, since referee schedules /=/ committee schedules.

Step Twelve: The committee forwards a recommendation to the institutional administration.  The administration reviews it, and either approves or doesn’t.  If the recommendation is approved, an offer is made to the candidate.  The candidate should be appropriately excited and delighted, but should also take some time to think it over and probably come back with some negotiation points.  (A side note for job seekers reading this.  Ahem.)  The administration returns with their own negotiation…and so on until an agreement is reached.  (Unless it’s not reached, in which case the committee goes back to their final pool and makes another recommendation.)

Step Thirteen: You thought we were done, didn’t you?  No!  Hiring creates a lot of paperwork.  A contract is written and sent out.  The administration sets a start date with the candidate, and HR starts setting up payroll, benefits, start-up training, etc.  The campus or library creates user accounts for the new employee–email, phone, computer systems, ID number and photo, key cards, etc.  A work station is set up, if it doesn’t already exist.  Accounts are created on servers, with the correct permissions.  And so on, and so on.

Step Fourteen: The search committee winds down its activity with more documentation.  Members must show why they declined all the applications that were not selected, and how they ranked applicants.  Notes from all stages of the process may be sent to HR for retention.  The search committee chair typically composes a document that summarizes the process for administration.  If there’s ever any question about how the search was conducted, or–heavens forbid–if the selected candidate doesn’t work out or declines the job at the last moment or moves to to the Mongolian Altai, the paper trail will be vital.  Even though, of course, the search will be officially closed by that time…and will have to start over again.

In short, have patience during the search process.  A long search doesn’t mean the committee doesn’t like you, or that they’re incompetent.  Chances are they’re doing the best they can to move things along as quickly as possible.  There are all kinds of other things that can cause searches to slow down, stall out, or even close–and they’re frustrating for everyone.

Remember that however the search finally pans out, the application process is an opportunity to make a good impression on these folks.  Libraries are a small world, so even if you don’t get the job, that’s still a valuable thing.


Pop-up library in Mexico

My good friend Juanita Benedicto, librarian extraordinaire, has been living in Mexico for the last year or two, working remotely and helping out at a convent, orphanage, and women’s shelter.  She blogs about life in Mexico from time to time, and today’s post was pretty amazing and inspiring.

Once a week, a young couple—he is sitting on the bench, she’s on the curb and they’re both reading to a child—fills a suitcase full of books and  rolls it out to the plaza in Mexiamora. They set the books out and children come to read the books, some with their parents. In a Country where wages are low and book prices are high, books are a luxury. Especially children’s books. I think it’s incredibly forward-thinking for this couple to create their own book mobile and dedicate an afternoon every week to give their neighbors the satisfaction of reading and being read to.

The plazas that fill Guanajuato unite neighbors and create friends. Every evening, this one is filled with people sitting and talking, kids playing, and sometimes, impromptu dog parks….How wonderful that these spaces can become homes to portable libraries as well.

Photo credit (Original photo is at Juanita’s blog.)

Juanita also coordinates donations to help build library donations for the convent, Buen Pastor.  If you’re interested in sending money or Spanish children’s books her way to help out, you can find out more here.

Blogging Online Northwest: Search engine optimization

The first principles of web search:  a primer on search engine optimization
Nicholas Schiller, Washington State University

Schiller taught SEO as both a means to understand how web search can be “gamed,” and also, incidentally, to help students understand underlying principles of web design & searching.

Consider the DIALOG blue sheet:  old-school way of making sure your expensive data search worked, before you did it and were charged on a per-minute basis.  Sheets showed what fields you could search, etc.  Honed librarian search skills.

Principles of SEO are a blue sheet for the Web.  Not as controlled b/c the overall environment isn’t as controlled.  But has listing of fields to search by, description of language to use, understanding of how the tool we’re interacting with works.

First principle:  Google isn’t magic.  Google & web search are often denigrated as quick, easy, type in search to get subpar results.  Want users to be empowered and engaged users of the tool.  Want us to remember this too.  Best way to show this is to reveal the architecture underneath.

Second principle:  bits & atoms behave differently.  Digital objects obey different rules than physical objects.  Libraries are designed around the rules of physical objects.

Third principle:  Google tries hard to impersonate a database.  In fact a very heterogeneous collection of items online; opposite of a database.  Google tries to emulate the things that let us search a database with precision and clarity.

Fourth principle:  Google leverages the capabilities of digital objects.  Not forced to reduce relationships between digital items, can do many things with digital that don’t work with print.

Short video by Matt Cutts, about how Google search works, which helps dispel some of the “Google is magic” mindset:

The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine, by Sergey Brin & Larry Page, explains the steps that Google uses to search.

Users often want “Google-type” searches, so we create keyword searching options–but in fact keyword-matching search isn’t very efficient.  (And libraries have been able to do it for a very long time.)  Google isn’t just based on matching words, but on ranking results.  What users want isn’t matching, but ranking.  Google does very well at results ranking.

1.  They create externalized metadata, because they can’t get good metadata off most Websites.

2.  They also do page ranking, inspired by academic citation analysis–deciding importance based on how many others are using a work.  Incoming links become significant data.

3.  Tags and text!  Anchor text:  the description text for a link (the word itself, usually blue and underlined on the web page that’s linked from.)  Anchor text is basically volunteer cataloging that describes the nature of the thing being linked to.  (This is why Google bombing works.)  Information in a URL is more significant than information used elsewhere in a page.  Title text is also vital information, that’s weighted highly.  Meta name tag is also weighted highly:  the text in the <meta name=”description”> field is what is displayed in the Google search results.  Basically serves as an abstract, which means it’s more important than data in the body of the text.  Heading tags <h1> <2> etc.  are also implied important.

Understanding these things helps explain why search results are arrayed/ranked as they are.  Google isn’t just retrieving everything on a topic; it’s giving specific hits based on predictable rules.

Using search operators like site: and allinurl: help reveal the underpinnings too.

There’s more and this is great, but my laptop battery is dyyyyiiiiiinnnnnggggg…

Blogging Online Northwest: Image-seeking undergrads

Image-seeking preferences & behavior of undergraduates:  A study to understand what they want, how they do it, and how we can help
Laurie Bridges & Tiah Edmunson-Morton, Oregon State Universities

Bridges & Edmunson-Morton did a study on image-seeking preferences of undergrads at OSU.  Noticed undergrads using their phones a lot, heard from students that they tried to start research, didn’t find anything, assumed nothing was there.  Anecdotally:  Google is main starting point, and students expect library websites to work like Google.  Archives/libraries start wondering: how are students using mobiles or even laptops with Google going to find anything?

Assumption:  students blindly accepting what they’re given.  Not true; they’re smart about searching, use Google, but have good sense of what they’re getting.  Problem is ability to establish context; they’re cherry-picking.  Doesn’t work in archival research.

2009, OSU Archives started using Flickr account to show public programming images with digital images.  Wanted to walk people through using microfilm machines (most people don’t like using them, including many librarians.)

Started using Flickr Commons: project started by Library of Congress and Flickr for copyright-free image sharing from LoC.  Multiple institutions applied to join.  OSU was first university in Flickr Commons.

Since then, Yahoo bought Flickr, layoffs everywhere.  High hopes for Flickr/Commons as research tool and interaction with users as well as fun image-sharing tool.  Not necessarily borne out.  People are using OSU images on Flickr Commons (especially after a recent post on Etsy about them) but it’s not ‘academicy’.  Not really meeting users where they are, because they’re not using Flickr Commons for research.  They are using Google, though, and Google gets them to Flickr.

women dancing with veils

Women dancing with veils at the May Day Pageant, from the OSU Flickr Commons collection.

OSU images in Flickr do get hit a lot more than images only in OSU digital collections, though…

Adobe recently commissioned The Visual Literacy White Paper, which discusses visual literacy as seeing in your mind, merging language with the visual, interpreting what’s in images.  Discussing visual literacy with undergrads can be easier than “information literacy,” bibliographies, finding aids, etc.

Are faculty assigning work to students that requires visual literacy?  Talked to faculty:  one faculty member said even if he didn’t tell students to use images, they would.  There is very little research on digital image use or visual literacy in instruction.  Anecdotally, class syllibi didn’t tell students where to get images or how to cite them, etc.  Students tending to use them as “add-on” to the assignment.

Tiah and Laura hired OSU survey research center to help conduct statistical survey.  One substantive question:  students were asked to imagine being asked to find images of people logging in Oregon in the 1930s or 1940s, and explain their search process for finding a picture.

women with garden hoes from osu archives

Coeds with hoes, from the OSU Flickr Commons collection


Audience at Online Northwest session was given the same survey, asked to fill it out, and discuss:  how much information about images do you want/need?  where do you find images?  were you ever taught to read images?  if so, where/when/how?

Of 61 student respondents to the survey:

  • 21 students only mentioned Google (nothing else)
  • 6 went to books (after Google)
  • one student went to a friend, then to the library (after Google)
  • one person went to a stock photo site (after Google)
  • 11 went to library/librarian (after Google)  Of these, 7 specified they’d go to the library to get a book.
  • 5 went to books/library first (before Google)
  • 1 person would ask photographer (before Google)
  • 1 person would ask his grandfather (before Google)
  • 1 person would look in own photos (before Google)
  • 1 person would look in book, then archives, then online
  • 1 person would start in PV (forestry building on OSU campus) then Internet, then library
  • 1 person said no idea how to look

Students were told that the survey came from the library:  some book-centric/library-centric responses may be “pleaser” responses.  However, may also be sense of validity to images in books.  Student texts etc. are image-heavy, students are used to this.  Some students may think that archives are bound in books, essentially = books.  (Conjecture.)

Books were usually the last step of a multi-step process.  So were librarians.

So…most students used Google, and many stopped there.  No student mentioned any concern about copyright.  No students discussed how they would evaluate the image (except for 2 who specified “a credible picture.”)  Over half of students said they’d used Wikipedia for an assignment in the past, but none mentioned Wikipedia in this response.  Most students didn’t know what archives were.  Many students think that archival holdings are all/mostly online.


japanese american woman image from osu archives

Portrait of a Japanese American woman from the OSU Flickr Commons collection.


So…librarians should consider adding visual literacy instruction to info lit instruction.  Finding images, citing images, copyright, etc.

Computer programmers and analysts should work to raise the rankings of library collection images in Google and Google Images.  One method is to put them into Flickr; these rank higher than contentDM images in Google.