Thursday, October 31, 2013

Data and the Surveillance State: Toward a New Ecology of Libraries

Image from the film The Lives of Others. It's excellent. Go see it
Years from now, we're going to need someone to help us make some sense of the surveillance state (b. 2001), which collects vast amounts of our data, which begets more data about that data.

In short, we're going to need librarians and archivists.

The data that the state collects can and will be used against it later. History has borne this out. Truth and Reconciliation commissions, court cases, oral histories... archives are sites of contestation, of resistance. Archives are an opportunity to build new power structures, to speak truth to official versions of events.

And to ensure that future generations have access to this data, we'll need librarians and archivists right now, too. Privacy is now a good, a commodity, and it's one that information professionals can offer.

Last year I visited the Baltimore Aquarium and was impressed with how conservation was embedded into the building. It's not just a place to see fish, but a place to learn about how to keep those fish around. We need to do this for privacy, for sensible copyright law, and for open access materials, among others.

The ecology of libraries should look more like that of the aquarium.
  • Secure browsers, search engines and email platforms, to the extent that these are possible.
  • In library instruction "one-shot" sessions, educate patrons not just on how to select sources for a particular task, because: 
our teaching must go beyond tools and skills, so that we can help students understand how information fundamentally works. This means exploring the moral, economic, and political context within which we create and share ideas. Access to information, she writes, is not enough. Our students need to see themselves in the context of "individuals and groups of people actively shaping the world as knowledge producers in a way that renders the consumer-producer dichotomy irrelevant." (The incomparable Barbara Fister quoting Christine Pawley)
  • Discovery platforms that take open access, embargoes, and paywalls into account; educating people while they search.
  • Notifications in the stacks and the catalog concerning
  • banned and challenged books, and 
  • items that are affected by copyright extensions.
  • Organizations and member institutions that fight for privacy, like the American Library Association (ALA) and the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA). 
Source is the above link. Glorious, isn't it? 
And more.

We're going to need to, sometime in the future, remind us how and when we lost our damn minds. Let's build for this now.

Elsewhere on this site, related:
The Library as Aquarium, or, The SOPA Post

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Dear Aspiring Librarians (On MLIS Program Placement and Salaries)

Let's revisit the US News and World Report rankings for Masters of Library and Information Science programs.

The rankings:
Source is a screencap from here
How they got this information:
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)
In sum, these rankings are useless. If the above paragraph doesn't convince you of that, here's more.

Luckily, Library Journal has some useful data on MLIS programs. In particular, they list placement rates and salaries by type of library/organization as well as a breakdown by geography.

For discussion:
  • MLIS programs are a very gendered experience. Only two SUNYs (State Universities of New York), Albany and Buffalo, and the University of Michigan have programs in which the male to female ratio is under 1:2.5.
  • The ratio of employed male to female 2012 graduates is worse, across the board, than 1:2.5, in many cases it's more like 1:4 or 1:5. 
  • Long Island University graduated 163 people. Two report employment. Yikes. 
  • San Jose State University and the University of North Texas graduate a lot of librarians. Maybe too many. Neither school, no school, really, is under any obligation to limit the number of enrolled students, but the sheer numbers of graduates these schools send into the workforce concerns me. And as it turns out, I'm not alone.
Q: "Are there any library schools whose alumni you would be reluctant to hire?"
A: "San Jose State." (Hiring Librarians)

Though men are employed at a lower rate than women upon MLIS completion, their salaries tend to be higher, which both reflects and propagates a gender pay gap.

These salaries are probably not enough to help you pay off your student loans. You may have loans from undergraduate programs and then take additional loans for an MLIS program. Please forgive me for what I'm about to say, which comes from a privileged position, which I acknowledge:
Think long and hard about whether or not you want this degree. Do you really really really want it? Because you could be paying off loans for a long long time upon completion of an MLIS program. Ramen doesn't taste that good.

There are very few people in librarianship for the money. That being said, money is nice. So if you're on the fence about what to specialize in, perhaps this table, in conjunction with professors, coursework, peers, and librarians, can help you make up your mind.
  • Automation/System, Government Document, and Knowledge Management (corporate buzzword alert!) librarian jobs have higher low end salaries than other kinds of library jobs. This is also reflected in the median salaries by position.  
  • Usability/UX, and Emerging and Information Technologies also seem like good bets, though there may be elements of what The Library Loon terms "new hire messianism," in which it is the responsibility of newly hired librarians, often in new positions, to advance "change" and have these skillsets ex officio, without being given the tools to institutionally succeed (it is more complex than this, please read the link above).
  • Interlibrary Loan, Circulation, and Children's/Young Adult librarians continue to not pay as well. I suspect that there is more than a little "women's work" going on here, especially in the latter two positions, whereas some of the higher-salaried jobs reflect the gender pay gap we saw in Table 4, and/or code as being more "masculine." Further study is warranted. Also, because we continue to not properly fund and allocate resources towards children and young adults, which is unfortunate and maddening. 
None of this is to say that you should pick an MLIS track that will make you more money. Rather, please pick a focus that you like and that makes you happy.

  • Be prepared to move. 
  • Placement by gender again... wow.
Do not choose MLIS programs based on the US News and World Report rankings. Though the MLIS program you graduate from may matter to some people, see Hiring Librarians, above, it may not matter to many others. As a librarian who hires people, I am not terribly interested in where you went and why you went there. It is more important, from where I sit, that you
  • learned things
  • know theories of information and librarianship because these theories inform practice
  • took courses that can help you in the positions that you apply for
  • show initiative
  • are curious
This means that you should have a plan going into an MLIS program, because while the program may not matter to me, those first three bullet points above sure do, and choosing a school in which you can accomplish those things, via the transitive property, can help both of us. Also, not to beat a dead loon, but you should read this, too.

Good luck.

Source for all tables: Maatta, S. (2013) Placements & Salaries 2013: Explore All The Data, Library Journal, 17 October 2013,

Elsewhere on this site and related: Dear Aspiring Librarians (On MLIS Program Rankings)

Friday, October 18, 2013

Your Special Collections Won't Save You

There are people who need a unique item to do research, but those people won't save your library. The same is true of your special collections, your unique items.

Here's how this will go down: The far majority of researchers who use your special collections are going to publish in their niche subjects, read by a handful of their peers, mostly likely in closed access journals. No fame. No fortune. The same old, same old.

All libraries, regardless of who they serve, have to prioritize. No doubt every patron is valuable. Are the above patrons the most valuable in an academic library? I'm skeptical.

Why is this the case? Because those collections are special for a variety of reasons, which cut both ways. There are reasons an item you have is the only copy; often the demand isn't there for more of them. Can we librarians and archivists drive demand? To some extent, yes. To the extent that special collections are what makes an specific academic library desirable for large segments of the communities we serve? Again, I'm skeptical. But hey, try it, because the following scenario might happen.
Special collections moved to an area of prominence, no longer behind closed doors. Unique books and manuscripts were of immense interest, a catalyst for research, integration into the curriculum, student internships, and user-driven content. (Source)
Yes, a modern-day Alexanderia, where people come from miles around to use your special collections and your expertise. Except there's this thing called satisficing, where researchers find items and sources that are "good enough," (pdf) as opposed to the perfect item, which may be tucked away in an archive or special collection. And yes, even tenured faculty practice this behavior at times. And because those special collections are special to us, but maybe not to our communities.

At my place of work (MPOW), we're using Omeka to help us digitize some of our unique collections. We're not doing it because we think doing so will boost our dwindling circulation or use of the library's physical items. We're doing it because we want to preserve our past, our heritage, who we are, for the future. That is part of our mission within our community. We have these resources, and we want to make them discoverable. However, it has never been our top priority, nor do I foresee a time or situation in which that will be the case. We spend far more time, more productive time, "buying love," as Rick Anderson might say.

What I'm particularly concerned about here is that, per usual, discussions of what R1 institutions should do are driving discourse in academic librarianship. Why is this? The far majority of academic librarians don't work at an institution with multiple Associate University Librarians, yet those places seem to dominate the conversation around what academic libraries should be doing. Much of this is because R1 libraries have the staff and budgets that, in theory, allow them to not only have these conversations, but to implement them. The money is necessary, but not sufficient, perhaps. And yes, I'm jealous of those staffs and budgets.

I'm not saying special collections are worthless. I'm saying they're worth less than you think they are and less than the current literature says they are. I'm saying that this probably isn't the hill you want to die on. Go look someplace else. At MPOW, we'll be looking to aquariums and zoos for inspiration.

My favorite response to Rick Anderson's "Can't Buy Us Love" is from Steven Harris.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The End of "The End of Libraries"

On Sunday, October 14th, yet another "End of Libraries" piece appeared. Per usual, it was written by a white male with no use for libraries, because every single time this trope appears, that's part of the author's demographic background. Beyond that, it's a crucial part of the author's background. It is overwhelmingly affluent white men* who argue that because they do not use something, it has no value for anyone. Libraries. The Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program. Affordable health care. It's the same argument.
It’s hard for me to even remember the last time I was in a library. I was definitely in one this past summer in Europe — on a historical tour. Before that, I think it was when I was in college. But even then, ten years ago, the internet was replacing the need to go to a library. And now, with e-books, I’m guessing the main reason to go to a library on a college campus is simply because it’s a quiet place to study. (Source)
Every single one of these articles has a version of that paragraph in it, right down to the part where the author admits he hasn't been in a library recently and makes "guesses."
The people who write these posts will never stoop to doing actual research about library usage. Even when they work for Google, as the most recent author does, they'll never use a search engine to make their argument. They'll just talk and talk and talk. Libraries don't factor into their lives, and since being a (straight) white male is the default setting for life, libraries don't factor into anyone's life. Privilege is nice, isn't it?

As such, what follows isn't for the authors of these pieces. It's for fellow librarians, who will be rebutting if they so choose. Think of it as a clearinghouse of elevator speeches, if you will. And if a white man happens to do some actual research before writing yet another "Death of Libraries" piece and stumbles across this, all the better.

Andy Woodworth starts us off. You should follow him on twitter and read his blog.

Pew has done some excellent work on this topic, too, and has data in easy to use formats.
Wikipedia's page on "Trends in Library Usage" is also well done.
The New York Public Library system's 2012 Annual Report is chock full of data about how its libraries are thriving.
If you prefer information in infographic form, we have that, too.

Fully 91% of Americans ages 16 and older say public libraries are important to their communities; and 76% say libraries are important to them and their families. (Pew)

The notion that libraries are in decline is a fundamental misunderstanding of what a library is. As physical institutions, libraries have been with us for over nine thousand years now, dating back to Ashurbanipal. When people write about the decline, end, or death of libraries, they are instead writing about a historic blip in the concept of libraries: the Carnegie-founded public library, which is less than one hundred and fifty years old. And as one can see from the links above, they aren't dying, either, though it would be nice if we voted for people to fund them.

Also well said on the topic: this.
Elsewhere on this site, relevant to the "death of libraries."

I'll leave you with some food for thought:
* The author of this post is, for the time being, a financially secure white male.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Don't Say it With Flowers...

This is how libraries die, not by fire or flood, but by neglect. Long slow deaths.
The ancient world's greatest library didn't die in battle — it died from thousands of little cuts, over centuries, that reduced this great institution of knowledge to a shadow of its former self.
What made the Museum and its daughter branch great were its scholars. And when the Emperor abolished their stipends, and forbade foreign scholars from coming to the library, he effectively shut down operations. Those scrolls and books were nothing without people to care for them, study them, and share what they learned far and wide. (Source)
Even then, the scholars, the staff, in a way, made the library as much as collections did.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Atoms for Peace at the Patriot Center, Fairfax, VA, 9/30/13

Every so often I like to play music blogger and I'm lucky I have some friends who will indulge me. On Monday I attended an Atoms for Peace concert and I've written it up for a friend's site. Here's a taste:
I’ve never seen Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke happier than he was on Monday night, dancing with reckless abandon around the stage while his Atoms for Peace bandmates found grooves reminiscent of both West African percussion, thanks to Joey Waronker and Maura Refosco, and Krautrock, thanks to Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, who here plays guitar and keyboards. It also makes perfect sense that Flea would be the bassist for this group. After all, his life seems like one long bass drop, and he also pogoed around the stage like a theater geek’s take on someone with a deficit disorder.

The setlist focused on Yorke’s solo record, The Eraser, for which Atoms for Peace formed, and the band’s first record, Amok, released earlier this year. The majority of the three-quarters full arena seemed to be there out of curiosity and respect for Yorke, and true to DC’s reputation, did the “standing still” for most of the concert as the band filled the venue with brittle funk. Yorke completists got to hear U.N.K.L.E.’s “Rabbit in Your Headlights” reworked by the band, though sadly the drumming on Massive Attack’s propulsive, big beat Underdog remix did not make an appearance. Of the newer material, “Ingenue” was a rare moment of relative quiet, Yorke on piano, Godrich plinking away on a synthesizer, and culminating in a drum and bass breakdown in which Refosco played a bucket. The two standout songs came from The Eraser. “Cymbal Rush” closed the first part of the set with Yorke on piano singing one of his more lucid songs while the dual drumming of Waronker and Refosco clattered around him. The high hats and Brazilian percussion entered, increasing the beats per minute as Godrich and Flea created a wall of noise. And then, silence. The Eraser’s title track opened the first encore, with a melody so slinky and seductive I half expected Prince to come out and duet (side note to the Purple One, please cover this).  
None of this is to say that Yorke seems unhappy with Radiohead, who he’s dragged closer and closer to something like Atoms for Peace over the last two records, shedding three-guitar rock and then Brian Eno-esque ambient soundscapes for more beat-driven adventures, but as of this moment, Atoms for Peace feels like his band, and more importantly for the audience, they feel like a band, not a side project.
The full review and setlist is here.