Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Confessions of a Book Killer

Gather round, and I'll tell you a story.

In 2001 I worked for a large Midwestern research university on a grant from the National Science Foundation. I was tasked with digitizing a collection of books on non-Euclidian geometry.

Hang on. I'll wait here.

You were going to go to this page anyway, right? 

Do you have any questions?

Via Reddit.
Didn't think so.

Some of the books were old, dating back to the seventeenth century. Most were published in the nineteenth century, when non-Euclidian geometry was first recognized as a field worthy of study in Europe.

Back in those heady days, digitization was also called "digital conversion" or "digital preservation," though how these texts were preserved made those phrases sound rather Orwellian. I separated content from container, meaning, I took the books apart. I removed the pages from the covers and spine, and then I took the pages over to a book guillotine, which is exactly what you think it is.

Something like this, via Reddit's r/oddlysatisfying
When the blade of a book guillotine presses down the middle pages of a book sometimes bulge out, and text too close to the spine can be lost, so I often had to break up the books into more manageable batches of pages, which I learned the hard way. Text literally cut off by the guillotine had to be obtained via interlibrary loan.

After cutting, I shrinkwrapped the pages, and shipped them to Nogales, Arizona. Then they were trucked across the border to a land that labor and environmental standards forgot, the "other" Nogales in Sonora, Mexico.

Weeks later, I'd get the pages back, along with a CD-ROM full of .tiff (Tagged Image File Format) files. One page per tiff, as you might imagine. Sometimes there was enough room between the text of the cut pages and the spine to rebind the books, but not always. And not usually. And once some of the mathematics faculty found out, they were concerned.

I would perform quality control on these tiff files, making sure they were legible and level, which sometimes included holding a protractor up to a computer monitor. Really. From there, I sent the tiffs to colleagues who ran optical character recognition (OCR) on them, making them text-searchable, or, in today's parlance, discoverable. It took multiple passes through OCR to turn these files into text-searchable files, and the process was fraught with errors. Umlauts, for example, turned any letter below them into two "i"s. Other accent marks turned "e"s into "6"s. It wasn't always pretty. And once some of the mathematics faculty found out, they were even more concerned.

However, no one was as concerned as Nicholson Baker, who was so concerned he wrote a book about the seemingly haphazard ways in which libraries digitized material without regard for the source. Baker's book, Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper, was published as I was chopping up these texts. In Double Fold, Baker cited my boss' boss multiple times, often, according to my boss' boss, out of context. Have a look.

Baker's book sparked a firestorm in the library and information science fields, culminating in an appearance at the American Libraries Association Annual Meeting in San Francisco that June. It was the first ALA Annual I attended.

Anyway, if you come across some nineteenth century non-Euclidian material in a database, that was probably me. You're welcome.

Where are they now?
  • My then-boss' boss is now head of the preservation department at the University of Maryland. 
  • It later came out that Baker was storing archival materials in a high-humidity environment, a you-store-it warehouse site next to a river in New Hampshire. According to one library listserv, he also used Post-It Notes as bookmarks. He also wrote a book on pacifism and World War II, Human Smoke, that was widely criticized. The Association of Research Libraries website maintains a page on preservation that is, in large part, because of Baker. 
  • I felt bad about cutting up some of the books, so I put several third edition texts by Isaac Newton and a first edition Gottfreid Wilhelm von Leibnitz aside. 
  • Technological advances: the spread of sophisticated book mounts and cameras, and declining costs associated with them, have limited the above practices.

Elsewhere on this site:

Friday, April 11, 2014

Computers in Libraries Day 3: Ebooks and Content Management

While my first day at Computers in Libraries had the discrete theme of discovery, and I returned to the library to get some work done on day two, day three was spent bouncing around between tracks.

I attended Jennifer Waller's presentation on Google Glass. I'm a noted skeptic, for reasons that are hard to articulate. I find wearable technology with a built in camera creepy (and I'm not alone in that; a search for "google glass is creepy" in that search engine is chalk full of the same sentiment), yet at the same time I understand that in the past peoples' reactions to then-new-now-ubiquitous technology mirror my reaction to Google Glass. Wearable tech may be a bridge too far for me (us?) at present, or, as Polly-Alida Farrington put it

I appreciate that the Glass is an ice breaker, a conversation starter, something that gets a community excited about a library, and even a tool to start discussions of privacy, but I'm not sure if these benefits outweigh the risks. Does using the Glass to teach privacy subvert Google or further empower it? There are some tough conversations to be had concerning giving a community what it wants when technology like this comes into play, and I appreciate that Waller not only raised these questions, but engaged them. I suspect I'll have more to say about Google Glass later.*

Miami's excellent Shelvar application also made an appearance. It has the potential to liberate our student workers from shelf-reading.

I jumped over to Track C for a discussion of students' use of ebooks. This presentation had an impressive amount of quantitative data that corroborates the qualitative data I've seen: students do not like ebooks. They'll use them if they have to, and some will use them if they deem it convenient. Purchasing both an electronic copy and a physical copy of the book is, based on the data presented, a waste of money.

Survey results from Delaware County Community College (PA), however, countered the first half of the presentation. Even though DCCC's students often use mobile technologies, they prefer either print or a choice between print and electronic. Im sum, different communities have different wants and needs, and it's important that we library staff ask and listen.

At the 1:30 session for Track C I (re)learned that what we ask ourselves and faculty to do in order to embed or link content to within a Course Management or Learning Manage System (CMS or LMS) is nothing short of sadistic, wrought with friction.

I grabbed two cookies on the way out and went back to work.

Elsewhere on this site:
Computers in Libraries Day 1: Discovery
The BeerBrarian's Guide to Computers in Libraries

* Full disclosure, Waller and I are friends and she bought me lunch. I owe her at least a beer.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Computers in Libraries Day 1: Discovery Track

For the first day of Computers in Libraries, I attended presentations on discovery services. (I also presented a modified version of this in the expo hall between sessions.)

Mary Ellen Bates' "Super Searching" kicked off the discovery track, which was a slightly awkward fit. Bates presents this every year, and I try to go at least every other year to see what's out there in terms of tricks and tips that I don't know about topass along to students, faculty and staff. She's helpfully posted her slide deck online

Some takeaways from that session: has servers based in Germany, away from the prying eyes of the National Security Agency and Google. It also has robust search functionalities for twitter. is potentially useful for searching social media. 

There's more that wasn't new to me, but may be new to you. It's worth a look, especially if you spend time on the reference or circulation desks. 

Marshall Breeding plugged the Open Discovery Initiative, which is worth keeping an eye on as it promotes transparency, and presented survey data that showed discrepancies between how discovery systems are viewed as effective, yet at the same time seen as biased. Given the data, a non-trivial number of librarians seem to think that effectiveness and bias are not mutually exclusive. 

In the first post-lunch session, Summon's Eddie Neuwirth presented data that shows how their product is used. In sum, that looks a lot like Google, complete with natural language searches, 45% of which are three words or less. Other search engine-esque uses of Summon include users not looking beyond the second page of results and typing typos when searching.

What's next for Discovery? Letting members of our community personalize and customize 

For more "future of discovery" fun, I took a pic of a slide from the next presentation, because I am "that guy." 

And then there was food. And beer. And more food. And beer. 

Crabcake, pretzel, decent beer? That'll do. 

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Third Time's a Charm: The BeerBrarian's Guide to Computers in Libraries 2014

Since I live in DC, I thought an insider's perspective might be useful for the upcoming Computers in Libraries 2014 conference, which meets at the Hilton just north of Dupont Circle.

I'll be speaking about discovery services, vendor relations, and open access in the Expo Hall on Monday, April 7th, from 11-11:15am. It's a modified version of From Here to Discovery. Come say hi.

A brief word about the guide:
With a few exceptions, anything posted below have been vetted by me. These are places I frequent, or at least have been in. Not mentioned is that west of the conference there are many embassies, which would be a nice walk during breaks, or after the sessions have ended for the day.

There are some dine arounds, but they're at very pedestrian restaurants, though I've heard good things about Banana Leaves and Sette Osteria. I understand the distinction between a good meal and good food, so if you're doing one of these, it's for networking and the company, and not what's on your plate.

The Washington Post's Going Out Guide is a bit unwieldy, but comprehensive.

I write for on the side. Here's their guide to beer in the area.

If you're familiar with Dupont Circle and think I missed anything, please let me know.

View Computers in Libraries in a larger map

For the second year in a row, the conference is supposed to coincide with the cherry blossom bloom. The Washington Post has information on the peak of the blossoms, April 8th to 12th, and a map, but note that the excellent Capital Weather Gang puts the peak a few days after the conference.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Credentialing and Devaluation: More on 'Who's a Librarian?'

If the Masters of Library and Information Science is in large part a credentialing regime that separates librarians from non-librarians, paraprofessionals, it is a regime based on time and money rather than on proficiency.

If you think the MLIS is primarily a credential for librarianship, and you think, as I do, that MLIS programs are "easy to get into, easy to get out of," then we should reexamine that role of the degree.

The barriers are cost and time, not expertise. I've yet to meet anyone who dropped out of an MLIS program because it was so challenging. If you know of anyone, please let me know (this post from Hack Library School, and its comments, comes close). My place of employment has more or less open enrollment, but it does not have open graduation. The same should be true of MLIS programs.

Rather, I know people who couldn't afford it, and/or couldn't make the time for it. Often, people in this category are paraprofessionals with many years of library experience, trying to level up, gaining access to more jobs in galleries, libraries, archives, and museums. Many of these paraprofessionals are also people of color.
The big tent version of librarianship I espouse does not devalue librarianship so much as it puts the MLIS in its proper context. After all, rare is the hiring manager who lauds MLIS holders with no library experience. The myriad interviews with Hiring Librarians bear this out. Feel free to ignore each of those data points, calling them anecdotal. At some point, a group of trees becomes a forest.

Instead, librarianship is devalued because of institutional sexism; it is viewed as "women's work" based on the history of the profession and current demographics.

It is devalued because of the roles of librarians in popular culture. Your Dewey Decimal System jokes? I've heard them all, please stop!

It is devalued because of the relative ease of MLIS programs.

It is devalued because at least one major political party in the United States, along with many corporate partners of both major parties, is afraid of knowledge, information, and the power of citizens.

It is devalued because of neoliberal policies and budgets that reflect antipathy towards public goods and the public good.

It is devalued because of book-centricity, presently embodied by the "little free libraries" trend, which are collections of books in public areas that are free to use. If I were to put a first aid kit on my corner, first come and first served, nobody would call it a "little free hospital" or even a "little free clinic," would they?

If your analogy is to compare librarianship to medicine, I wish you'd reconsider. Librarianship is not medical school. There is no legal need for a credentialing body. There is no library equivalent of malpractice insurance and there's (mercifully) comparatively little life and death in libraries. The people who leave library school aren't becoming whatever you think are the library version of dentists, podiatrists, nurses, and osteopathic doctors. Instead, they're remaining paraprofessionals.

Further, people's interactions with the health care system, speaking from a United States' perspective, often aren't with doctors. Much more face time for patients comes from nurses and technicians. For the far majority of people, a doctor, or a dentist, comes into a room for a brief period of time, compared to a much longer one with a non-doctor.

These non-doctors are as important to the health care system in the United States as the doctors. In some places more so. And so it is for paraprofessionals working in library and information science.

Again, the MLIS
is a "union card" for many jobs. 
socializes you into the discipline.   
offers you some theory that informs our practices.    
provides a cohort, which might prove useful in many ways.    
helps you get the word "librarian" into your job title.   
signals that you are very interested in librarianship, so interested that you might go into debt for it.  
gives you GLAM career options and helps you narrow them.

Elsewhere on this site, not linked above:
Making Masters of Library and Information Science Programs More Rigorous
Who's a Librarian?

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Who's a Librarian?

A librarian is someone who works in a library, provided a library is a collection of information that is organized in some systematic fashion. The collection can be physical. The collection can be digital. Do you teach people how to use that collection, or help them use it? Congratulations! You're a librarian.

"You get a librarian! And you get a librarian!" via Gifsoup.

"Bu bu but," you stammer, "I don't have 'the degree!'" That's okay. Librarianship is a mindset. You work in a library? You help people, either directly or indirectly? You're a librarian. 

You hold a PhD, but no Masters of Library and Information Science, and work in a library? You're a librarian.

Plenty of people with "the degree" consider themselves "alt-ac," too, including the author of this post, who got through comps, defended a prospectus, and took a long, hard look at the job market for political scientists, deciding to go right back into librarianship.

You have the degree? A Masters of Library and Information Science?
And you want to work with information? Even if you are unemployed or under-employed in another field? 
You worked with information, but are in another field now? 
Congrats! Even if you are now a consultant, or work for a vendor. You're also all librarians. (Even if I use that designation reluctantly because you tell me how to run a library even though you haven't worked in one in years.)

You teach librarians, either in MLIS or PhD programs or elsewhere? You are a librarian. 

You have the word "librarian" in your job title? You are a librarian.

Even if you are a journalist friend/political connection of/to the Governor of California who appointed you to be the state librarian because he wanted to reward that relationship. So congrats to Greg Lucas, former reporter and political blogger, the next State Librarian of California.

Per the Los Angeles Times, Lucas will be taking LIS classes at San Jose State University, in part because California requires that the person holding this position “shall be a technically trained librarian.”

Let's welcome Lucas into the fold, fellow librarians, as we've done for Dan Cohen at the Digital Public Library of America, as we've done for Daniel Boorstin at the Library of Congress.* He's going to need a lot of help.

Do you have an MLIS, but don't use it? You might not be a librarian. Why? Because while the MLIS is nice, it's neither sufficient nor necessary to be a librarian. But it does help.
It socializes you into the discipline.  
It offers you some theory that informs our practices.  
It provides a cohort, which might prove useful in many ways.  
It helps you get the word "librarian" into your job title. 
It signals that you are very interested in librarianship, so interested that you might go into debt for it. 
And hey, we employers and hiring managers often ask for it as a requirement as opposed to a preferred qualification.


* Why yes, all these people who don't hold MLISs and are in important positions in librarianship are white males. Isn't that "interesting?" Thanks for noticing.

UPDATE: A follow-up post, Credentialing and Devaluation: More on 'Who's a Librarian?'

Friday, February 28, 2014

The Draft Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education: Survey Feedback

The survey requesting feedback on the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) Draft Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education contains a series of opened-ended comment boxes. Here are the questions posed by the survey, and how I answered them.

My thoughts on the Framework are here. Please take the survey to leave your thoughts here.

Q2. In what ways will the focus on threshold concepts help you to generate conversations with other campus stakeholders (such as disciplinary faculty partners, members of the general education curriculum committee, and academic support services staff)?

In the Feb draft, threshold concepts aren't really fleshed out. However, I already see a tension between these concepts, which are bounded in disciplines, and the Framework's discussion of transdisciplinarity. The role of discipline-specific faculty will be very important here. Please expand on the relationship between students who are metaliterate, who think critically across disciplines and boundaries, and threshold concepts that (and faculty who) reify those boundaries.*

Q3. How do the sections for knowledge practices and assignments/assessments provide helpful guidance when considering implementing the new Framework? What else would you want to see in these sections?

I thought the Feb draft of the Framework was strong here.

Q4. We plan to include additional materials in a subsequent phase (described in the welcome message). What other elements would you find helpful that aren’t mentioned in our plans?

As presently constructed, metaliteracy is both an "anchoring element" and a desired outcome, which makes it both an independent and dependent variable. This is a tautology. Metaliteracy cannot beget metaliterate students. Please elaborate on what metaliteracy is, how it differs from "critical thinking," or "transliteracy," or just "information literacy," and place the concept in a content that is bounded by the rules of logic.

Q5. Is there anything else you would like for us to know?

The phrase "ethical participation" comes up in the Framework's definition of information literacy. As you envision it, what is ethical participation, and why?

Q6. Please share any additional information about your work that would help us in understanding your perspective on the proposed Framework.

This draft places much emphasis on collaboration between the library and its staff and other academic units. I hope your experiences in outreach to these academic units is the norm, while my experiences are those of a minority.

* People who have more knowledge of threshold concepts than I should really take their time on this question. Who determines what is a threshold concept in a given discipline? How? Why?