Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Ask a Question, Get an Answer

I'm not sure who put this sticky note on a picture in the basement of our library sometime between 11am and 2pm on Monday, March 11th, but they'd be better served by asking someone, maybe a librarian, about it. We handle a lot of questions that one might consider embarrassing on a daily basis, and we're happy to answer them.

"WHY?" is an interesting question. Why did someone donate these? Better yet, why display them? I tried to answer both those questions in a manner just as passive-aggressive as the question.

On Sunday, March 17th, someone took down my sign, but added this.

YOLO, indeed.

Here's a closer look at the plaque that explains the existence of this artwork.

Hey, ask a question, get an answer. But next time, please ask in person, or on the phone, or via email, and not in a way that puts sticky notes on items in the library. Items can be damaged by such notes, and we don't want that. Thank you.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Dear Aspiring Librarians (On MLIS Program Rankings)

Every so often, someone comes across this space because they are interested in learning more about graduate programs in library and information science. Recent searches that led to this blog include "mlis jobs," "job market mlis," "mlis entrance essay," and "mlis graduate admissions essay," and that's just in the last week.

With that in mind, US News and World Report has released their 2013 rankings of the best programs for graduate study in library and information science. Here are the top fifteen programs:

Screenshot from here.
I'm number ten!

How did US News and World Report get these rankings? Did they toss a bunch of papers in the air and then pick them up in this order? Did they conduct a rigorous, scientific study taking into account curricula, graduation rates, job placement (wouldn't it be nice if the American Library Association made MLIS programs release those rates?), and reputation? Sadly, it appears to be the former.
The library and information studies specialty ratings are based solely on the nominations of program deans, program directors, and a senior faculty member at each program. They were asked to choose up to 10 programs noted for excellence in each specialty area. Those with the most votes are listed. (Source)
Um, yeah. That is poor social science. What we have here is a lazy, crude metric that attempts to get at something like "reputation," but the magazine's staff doesn't know how and doesn't care to know how to really do it. Those numbers on the right-hand side of the table above are based on a "peer assessment score," with 5.0 being the highest; the numerical result of asking the aforementioned small, incestuous sample. Just one more reason why there's a Wikipedia section devoted to this magazine's rankings.
Sportsball analogy alert: these rankings are to library and information science what the USA Today Coaches Poll is to college football.

You don't know about this series?  Bad librarian! Bad!
Through analyzing a Coach’s Difference Score (CDS), we found that coaches had a positive bias towards their own team. That is, they vote their own team higher than their peers. We also discovered that coaches tend to vote schools from their own conference higher than do coaches from outside that conference. Finally, we concluded that coaches from the six Automatically Qualifying (AQ) conferences were biased against schools from the smaller N-AQ conferences. (Source)
If you're going to choose an MLIS program based on these rankings, please reconsider. Don't do it. Look at course catalogs. Talk to faculty in the program. Talk to deans and administrators. Ask them about job placement rates and opportunities for real world experience in a variety of settings. Are there opportunities to publish and present at conferences? To learn marketable skills? Talk to librarians. We're a friendly bunch. Talk to students in these programs. They're training to be a friendly bunch. Find programs that feel right, that have a "fit." And take a course or two in research methodology, so you don't graduate and then publish misleading, faux-authoritative rankings like this one.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Scotch Whiskey Barrel Aging and Beer

That picture on the left is of Schlafly Beer's Single Malt Scottish Style Ale. From the brewery's description:

"brewed with a single variety of barley, Optic, from the Cook family farm in Scotland (owned by our co-founder’s in-laws). The flavor of the Optic is balanced by British hops for bitterness and a UK yeast strain for a fresh, bready flavor. We age the beer in freshly-emptied Highland Scotch Whisky barrels from the Glen Garioch Distillery only 10 miles from the farm where the barley was grown."

It is also one of a few beers I know of that's been aged in Scotch whisk(e)y barrels. Why so few? Two reasons, as I see it.

The first is that barrel-aging is a "crime of opportunity." Scotch barrels are harder to come by than bourbon or rye barrels, at least for US brewers. There are distilling operations in Virginia (Wasmund's Whiskey, from Copper Fox Distillery) and Oregon (McCarthy's Oregon Single Malt Whiskey from Clear Creek Distillery), among others, making something like Scotch-style whiskey, but it is much easier to get a bourbon or rye barrel in the US, because those two types of whiskey are more prevalent.

The second is flavor profile. Scotch, like beer, starts with malted barley. But many Scotches are peat-malted, meaning that the malted barley is smoked over peat moss, imparting a (drum roll!) smokey flavor. Anything aged in a Scotch barrel that held peat-malted barley thus becomes smokey. There is a family of beers called "rauchbier," based in and around Bamberg, Germany, and indeed, Schalfly makes an excellent one of these, but smoke beers are not very popular, so it may be harder to market and sell these kinds of beer, or at least harder to match up with what one normally expects from beer. Bourbon, on the other hand, might add vanilla, caramel, and/or toffee flavors that complement a wider array of beer styles. Those flavors are present in many Scotches, too, but are often less noticeable.

UPDATE: Bartender extraordinaire and homebrewer of some note Erich Streckfuss points out a third reason: Bourbon barrels can only be used once in the production of bourbon, after which they are "retired." Scotch barrels can used over and over again, further limiting the supply.

Still, if the result is going to taste anything like this, more brewers need to do it. A smokey, meaty flavor is present, but so are notes of figs, golden raisins, and maybe even coffee, mixing sweet and savory. It's a sublime beer. Last night I paired it with lamb sliders and grilled vegetables marinated in Greek yogurt and onions. Cheers!

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Open Access: A World Without Database Vendors?

As a thought experiment, let's say we "win." Professional and academic associations go open access, as much of physics has. The Directory of Open Access Journals is able to capture the far majority of these newly free works, and in turn these are snapped up by library catalogs thanks to link resolvers and discovery services. The same happens with the Directory of Open Access Books with regards to chapters in edited volumes.

But there's a catch: DOAJ's search function is not, to put it politely, robust. And there's a larger problem behind search functionality thanks to incomplete metadata. Link resolvers and discovery services that pull from that search, culling that metadata, will lead to frustrated end users who cannot access and discover what they're looking for.

In addition, the DOAJ is overrun with new items to catalog in this scenario, creating a backlog of epic proportions.
Stack Of Books
This is not my desk, but it feels like it sometimes. 
There are roles for vendors in this universe: generating better metadata for these newly open access items; designing stronger, more relevant search functionalities; and creating attractive and user-friendly platforms; among others.

There's a less maximalist, more realistic, "winning" option here, too: more journals, and more publishers, allow for pre-prints to be housed in institutional repositories, which are cataloged by member institutions, and perhaps shared via consortia, and with a wider audience via interlibrary loan.

However, these repositories do not solve access problems, in fact, they exacerbate them by creating not only a patchwork network of databases, but also at least two discrete classes of items: pre-prints and final products, each with a different symbolic value attached to them despite containing the same information. Vendors can solve the first of these, a coordination game, by designing, creating, and implementing databases that allow access to the pre-prints among and between libraries, including negotiating licenses and usage rights with publishers. Only vendors have, as of now, been able to create inter-library databases with robust network effects and positive externalities. That is, the more libraries, the more repositories, that join an inter-library database containing items that might otherwise only be found in a repository, the stronger, the more useful said database is. Some of those vendors in our current information ecosystem were founded by libraries, such as OhioLink, JSTOR, and OCLC, as well as The Digital Public Library of America (perhaps), though they have now taken on lives of their own.

As for the latter, pre-prints versus final products, I have no solutions other than to hope that academics "get over it" by incentivizing open access. Giving preferences to OA publications as part of tenure and promotion, for example, would be an important and powerful signal.

Thus, academics hold their chains in their hands, but there are no worlds, no futures, without database vendors. I write this not only to reassure vendors, but also to argue that we librarians are inexorably tied to vendors, even knowing that vendors do not always behave as we wish them to.