Tuesday, March 22, 2011

What We Mean When We Talk About Measurements and Metrics: CIL Day One

I’m on record as complaining that library schools and MLS/MLIS programs aren’t rigorous enough. It seems that anyone can get in, GRE scores aren’t required for most programs, and once you’re in, it’s hard to get less than a B (or 3.0) average. This has real world consequences.
First, much like other post-graduate programs that involve education and teaching, there’s a lack of respect when it comes to libraries and librarians that stem, in part, from this lack of rigor. We’re easy to pick on and an easy target.
A second consequence was on display at the first day of the Computers in Libraries conference, here in Washington, DC. Both sessions I attended were marred by a lack of measurement, or by a lack of anything resembling social science, in its many forms. Of the 62 ALA-accredited schools that grant MLS/MLIS degrees none require a research methodology course. Zero. None. (UPDATE on 7/6/11: take a bow, University of Washington! You require methodology coursework.) The end result is that we graduate without knowing how to know. Assuming that there is a knowable world out there, a positivist conceit on my part throughout this post, I’m dismayed by how much librarians don’t know about designing experiments and measuring their results.
Take social media as a hypothetical example. Prior to implementing a social media strategy, one should take the current state of affairs as a baseline. There are many ways to measure this, and, in fact, it should be measured in many ways because most things out there are multifaceted. So, how many unique hits does your website get per month? How about overall visitors? Are programs at the building well-attended? What qualifies as well-attended in the first place? Are patrons satisfied, based on conversations with them (something like a focus group) or surveys? This isn’t exciting, but it’s important. Next, what does success look like? We ask this question regarding Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Libya, and it should be asked for less serious matters as well. Once you implement a program, what do you expect to happen, and why?
Are your users on Facebook, Twitter, both, something else? Do they express a desire to “tag” the catalog via LibraryThing or something similar? How do they want to interact with your library? Implement your program based off what you've found, and compare data with the previous state of affairs. That's science.
Every single one of our daily interactions in a library is a data point. It’s a piece of information that tells us something. Leverage that. It doesn’t have to be a number. I know that math, and statistics, can be scary sometimes, and that ethnographic research can be nuanced and illuminating. There are many roads to Damascus.
So if your library wasn’t on Facebook and now it is, tell me what changed, and why. Did you get more visitors, both virtual and physical? Are the patrons more satisfied, as measured somehow? That’s science, and it’s time library schools put it back in “Library and Information Science.” It’s also time that conferences asked presenters for some rigor and analysis, instead of just telling stories (Update: I'm not anti-story; stories are emotional, I mean this in a good way, and help us connect to patrons, donors, and the outside world. They're great in annual reports, as are metrics. Stories with data are the best of both worlds). Although we’re not all academic librarians, being a librarian is an academic enterprise. Isn’t it time we acted like that?

UPDATE: 3/9/12 - a new post on a related topic, the rigor of MLIS programs.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

#hcod and Academic Libraries

The main source of outrage over HarperCollins decision to limit e-book checkouts came from public libraries and their staff, which makes sense since the market for circulating e-books comes more from their neck of the woods than mine. However, it's not difficult to envision a scenario in which academic libraries, even ones that don't loan e-books, are affected. That's one reason why I was surprised to see this post from the Annoyed Librarian, which challenges the big tent that is the American Library Association. I'm not going to get into the commonalities that all librarians share, mostly because Andy Woodworth does a good job with that, but also because I can see both sides of this debate. I think that the Annoyed Librarian's piece makes some good points about what separates academic, public, school, and special librarians, among others from archivists, and I saw these divisions from the start of my MLIS program, which were reified in the courses offered. So the following is done in the spirit of "If you tolerate this, then your children will be next."

The library where I work, the library that I now run, I guess, doesn't really do the book thing. We've got books, but they're books from the 70s, when the core of the school was arts and sciences. In the last fifteen years, four of which involve me, the school has expanded, moving from a college to a university with several professional schools. For a variety of reasons, all of them depressing, the library did not keep up. As a result, we've got a great collection of Victorian literature... and nobody to teach about it. We've got books in French and German... languages no longer offered. You get the idea. We're getting better, more current, but we've got a ways to go. We're starting a distance-learning, online-only program in the fall, and we push patrons towards electronic and digital resources because we think that's where the world's headed... but this make us more vulnerable. We provide access to information, to knowledge, that we don't own. E-books are different from books that way; we don't lease any physical copies of books, although students can do that through the campus bookstore.

What if the next move of other, more academic, publishers is to limit access to e-books in a way similar to HarperCollins? What if an e-book could be accessed or viewed, analogous to circulating, as I see it, 26 times? What would happen to our distance learning program then? What about e-books placed on reserve to be accessed via course management software? A class of 20 students wouldn't last half a semester under that regime, and thus the library's budget wouldn't, either. So you see, Annoyed Librarian, we're all in this together, we're not so dissimilar. Let's hang together instead of separately on this issue.

New York Times enacts pay-per-view

I got this in my inbox a minute ago. Yeah, on St. Patrick's Day, on the first day of March Madness, perhaps when the NYTimes thinks we won't be paying attention. Well, are we?

An important announcement from
the publisher of The New York Times

Dear New York Times Reader,

Today marks a significant transition for The New York Times as we introduce digital subscriptions. It’s an important step that we hope you will see as an investment in The Times, one that will strengthen our ability to provide high-quality journalism to readers around the world and on any platform. The change will primarily affect those who are heavy consumers of the content on our Web site and on mobile applications.

This change comes in two stages. Today, we are rolling out digital subscriptions to our readers in Canada, which will enable us to fine-tune the customer experience before our global launch. On March 28, we will begin offering digital subscriptions in the U.S. and the rest of the world.

If you are a home delivery subscriber of The New York Times, you will continue to have full and free access to our news, information, opinion and the rest of our rich offerings on your computer, smartphone and tablet. International Herald Tribune subscribers will also receive free access to NYTimes.com.

If you are not a home delivery subscriber, you will have free access up to a defined reading limit. If you exceed that limit, you will be asked to become a digital subscriber.

This is how it will work, and what it means for you:

  • On NYTimes.com, you can view 20 articles each month at no charge (including slide shows, videos and other features). After 20 articles, we will ask you to become a digital subscriber, with full access to our site.
  • On our smartphone and tablet apps, the Top News section will remain free of charge. For access to all other sections within the apps, we will ask you to become a digital subscriber.
  • The Times is offering three digital subscription packages that allow you to choose from a variety of devices (computer, smartphone, tablet). More information about these plans is available at nytimes.com/access.
  • Again, all New York Times home delivery subscribers will receive free access to NYTimes.com and to all content on our apps. If you are a home delivery subscriber, go tohomedelivery.nytimes.com to sign up for free access.
  • Readers who come to Times articles through links from search, blogs and social media like Facebook and Twitter will be able to read those articles, even if they have reached their monthly reading limit. For some search engines, users will have a daily limit of free links to Times articles.
  • The home page at NYTimes.com and all section fronts will remain free to browse for all users at all times.
For more information, go to nytimes.com/digitalfaq.

Thank you for reading The New York Times, in all its forms.


Arthur Sulzberger Jr.
Publisher, The New York Times
Chairman, The New York Times Company

As a loyal reader of NYTimes.com, you will receive a special offer to save on our new digital subscriptions. We will e-mail this special offer starting on March 28, the day we begin charging for unlimited access to our Web site and mobile apps*. We truly value your readership and look forward to bringing you the world’s finest journalism every day.

*Mobile apps are not supported on all devices. Does not include e-reader editions, Premium Crosswords or The New York Times Crosswords apps. Other restrictions apply.

This message was sent to inform you about an important change to our Web site and NYTimes applications. Please note, if you have chosen not to receive marketing messages from The New York Times, that choice applies only to promotional messages. You will continue to receive important notifications that are legally required or could affect your service.

To review our Privacy Policy, please go to:

© 2011 The New York Times Company / 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, NY 10018

Monday, March 7, 2011

Who's a Bully? A reply to Martin Taylor and more on #hcod

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the HarperCollins affair has lead to a wider discussion about e-books in libraries, access versus ownership, and the role that DRM plays in our lives. After all, HarperCollins decision wasn’t made in a vacuum; they have interests to protect and those interests aren’t relevant to just HarperCollins, but to all publishers, especially the Big Six, and to authors as well, who deserve to be compensated for their work.

Librarians, for their part, have advocated resistance (I assume that there’s also a silent majority or plurality out there that’s going to carry on as they did before HarperCollins decision), ranging from a boycott of DRM, a boycott of all of HarperCollins, a boycott of just HarperCollins e-books, to lobbying. But we haven’t heard much from HarperCollins or their supporters… until now.

Martin Taylor is the managing director of Addenda Publishing in New Zealand and has long had an interest in digital publishing. He founded the Digital Publishing Forum and claims both authors and publishers as shareholders and works with the New Zealand copyright regime.

No surprise, then, that Mr. Taylor writes

In spite of the heat HarperCollins can expect to receive from its library customers, I hope they stand their ground. Librarians need to shift their thinking as digitisation transforms the reading landscape. They are doing authors, publishers and ultimately themselves and their patrons no favours by this stance.

The fact is that rightsholders do have serious concerns and librarians have not managed to address them… In the face of rightsholders’ concerns, librarians must listen not bully, and they should be willing to experiment with new models that will ensure libraries and other channels can co-exist in the emerging, all-pervasive digital world. No-one has all the answers yet but we won’t solve this issue by denying the existence of the problem and closing off avenues for fresh thinking.

There are some good points made in his article, and I think that librarians need to hear alternative perspectives, away from the #hcod echo chamber, but to this reader two words jump out, “rightsholders” and “bully.” Let’s take these in turn.

Taylor is, I think, absolutely correct about the difference between print and electronic books, and what this difference means for the relationship between libraries and publishers, “the potential ease with which borrowers can get a free ebook is a quantum shift, not merely an incremental change” (italics in original). He also points out that it is print copies of books that sell when libraries circulate e-books, and publishers would like library patrons to buy e-books as well as print. Fair enough. But the distribution model for e-books and e-book publishers compared to print is also a quantum shift, one that is not addressed here. I may as well start with the inflammatory statement and proceed from there, so here goes: who needs publishers anymore?

We’ve seen traditional distribution channels circumvented in music publishing and distribution for some time now. Radiohead, a popular and critical success, has managed to make millions by selling mp3/wav file downloads directly to consumers, and then partnering with publishers to sell traditional materials. Hundreds of other bands don’t get rich using this model, but they make a living, and maybe even a career out of it, which in the end is their goal. I like to think that most authors don’t dream of millions of dollars, but of millions of people discussing their works and their ideas therein. Maybe that’s overly romantic of me, and so be it, but then again, I know a lot of writers, and I don’t think any of them would trade places with a cash-obsessed hack (no need to name names, insert your tastes here). Authors can sell e-books via Amazon’s Kindle store, something less than a publisher, something more than the Radiohead model. It’s already happening. And it's not entirely a good thing. Look at Borders.

Taylor's use of “rightsholders” is telling. Publishers create nothing; they share the rights with authors because of their ability to distribute and promote, and increasingly, authors can self-publish (many have self-promoted for eons). Taken in this context #hcod seems like the last gasp of a dying industry, doesn’t it? Publishers last comparative advantage is separating the signals from the noise since there are so many potential self-published and -distributed creators. Being published by a firm is a stamp of approval to the rest of the world. But outside of that (admittedly powerful) normative and intersubjective milieu, HarperCollins and other publishers will be left behind.

Now, this is the extreme, not very nuanced position. But tell me I’m wrong. Use the comments below, or use an excerpt on your blog and let’s have a conversation on the middle ground.

As for bullying, we didn’t land on #hcod, Mr. Taylor. #hcod landed on us. Librarians are not the bullies here. Bullies pick on the weak, using positions of strength to force their terms on others. HarperCollins capricious and arbitrary decision to limit check outs of e-books to 26 times was unilaterally imposed on libraries, without consultation or negotiation. Who’s the bully here?

In the end, however, I think the author and I agree on how this is going to end for many public library systems, at least in the short-term: some of the costs of e-books are going to be passed along to patrons. Librarians don’t like charging for services, but given the budget cuts, it’s going to happen. Right now most e-reader owners are affluent and can afford these costs. As e-readers' costs approach $0, though (and that’s going to happen soon), more people at all income levels will have them, at which point lending e-books for a fee may be a only temporary fix.

Maybe by the time we revisit this conversation, there won't be a Big Six, and that's what HarperCollins decision is all about.