Monday, April 16, 2007

Ly Berry 2.0

We need not to be let alone. We need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were really bothered? About something important, about something real?

Ray Bradbury (1920 - ), Fahrenheit 451, 1953

I woke up at about 2 AM early Saturday morning and couldn’t get back to sleep. I was stressed out by some work stuff. A talk I gave hadn’t gone to my liking. I could see some of the plans I had unraveling and I was trying to force them back into my mental container, but struggling on whether they’d stay there. I looked for some distraction. It was cold and rainy outside – Saturday ended up being quite a dreary day. There was already a West Wing DVD in the player. For my birthday I had received the boxed set and the evening before I had watched a few episodes from the first season. Early Saturday morning I would watch several more.

Three or four years earlier I had gotten hooked on West Wing reruns on the Bravo Network. A little later on I got my wife hooked too, and then my older son. For me the stories had interest not just because of the multiple threads, quick dialog, and political setting, but also because there were parallels to decision making within the IT organization that I was then part of. If there weren’t outright lessons learned, there still might be a sense of uplift because on the show they were able to conquer an issue and move passed it. One of the signpost’s of the show is the President saying, “What’s next?”

As it turns out, my memory is sufficiently bad these days that while I do recall isolated incidents of the shows, mostly the stories seem new to me on this DVD viewing, so they are still fun to watch. The best episode that morning was Let Bartlet be Bartlet. This episode originally aired more than a year before 9/11, but the Stock Market bubble had burst by then and I believe many people had the feeling that the air had been let out of the balloon. The storyline behind the show was that at core instinct Bartlet was a die hard liberal with strong beliefs on a variety of issues and indeed that was why he had won the election and energized his talented staff. But once in office he had become much more of a regular pol who through the give and take of negotiating with Congress went for incremental improvement and mostly for upholding the status quo. The staff started to feel the blahs because they weren’t doing anything with passion and for the “right reasons.” The President felt the same.

Near the end of the show the President returns to his roots and in so doing lifts the spirits of his troops. They were going to fight the good fight and to hell with whether that made sense according to the political calculations. Through their energy and the natural appeal of their message they’d prevail, even if they’d get bloody in some of their battles. This is a nice metaphor, one that informs the rest of this post.

* * * * *

At a more reasonable hour Saturday morning, but still early in the day, JoAnn Jacoby forwarded this link to an ACRL Report from a Summit held the prior November. Along with JoAnn and several others, I’m a member of the Integrative Research Services (IRS) group, a committee whose purpose is to investigate a “Scholarly Commons” and to recommend next generation services from the Library in support of research on Campus. (Today being Tax Day, you’d think the IRS acronym might be trademarked and that our group might be named differently as a consequence. Hmm.)

I started to read the report soon after JoAnn’s message arrived in my Inbox. I was struck by the totally passive way that the core questions were posed:

Will technology finally spur a recasting of how colleges and universities produce and disseminate knowledge? If such a merging of interests takes place, what impact will that have on academic libraries? Or conversely, if there is not a merging of these two agendas, will academic libraries be caught in the middle of an increasingly difficult competition for institutional resources?
I was tempted to write a post then and there to the effect that – come on guys, don’t act as if all the forces in play now will shape your destiny; get into the game and shape it for yourself. But I was sleep deprived and when I’m that way I tend to be angry. It’s not really a great idea to write blog posts in that circumstance. And I shouldn’t shoot off my mouth half cocked. I hadn’t read the full piece yet and here I was ready to give a response. As it turns out I wouldn’t read the full piece until Sunday. So instead I started to do my internal analysis. On the economic front it seemed to me that Academic Libraries are the unwitting agents of the Journal Publishers and part of the trap we’re in is that in their effort to preserve their status on campus Libraries are inadvertently promoting an institutional arrangement that they should be trying hard to defeat. I’ll illuminate below.

First some caveats. We Arvans, at least the Champaign branch of the family, are pretty cowardly. My wife and I joke about that on occasion, with so many memories of scared behavior that really, it’s not funny. I can’t deal with violence at all and even an aggressive dog gives me the willies on occasion. I know its not shrewd to throw stones in a glass house, but I will do my own barking in this post. Also, in case this isn’t obvious, I’m not a Librarian and I don’t even play one on TV. I have some good friends who are Librarians and many colleagues in that category, at Illinois through IRS, some committee work on our Institutional Repository Project, and our fledgling Learning Commons, and through the Frye Leadership Institute and some CIC activities I’ve gotten to know Librarians at many other campuses. I can talk with Librarians, but for the most part I don’t believe they think like me.

The main point of this post is to deliver a simple message – Hey Librarians, stop being a wimp. And hey ACRL, you stop being a wimp too. Your message needs to be clearer and more radical and you need to be seen as really going for it. But beyond that I want to be constructive in the criticism and do so by giving the argument my framing. One central idea, whether the rest of my argument is accepted or not, is to embrace thinking and new activity that is coming from outside the Library, especially where that ties into the Library Agenda. There is some of that in the ACRL report. There could be a lot more.

A good place to start is The Ecstasy of Influence by Jonathan Lethem, an elegant defense of the Intellectual Commons, a notion more fundamental than Copyright. This could serve as the Library’s call to arms, its manifesto – scholarly information should be open. Couple that with the salient fact that digital information distributed over the Internet is fundamentally a public good – it takes extra effort and cost to restrict access – and you have the mantra for the Library. Scholarly information in digital form should be open.

The problem, of course, is history. History matters. Books, and here I mean books in print rather than books online, are private good. If I’m reading a book, you can’t be reading it at a same time. You need another copy and that has a significant incremental cost. The institutional arrangements that Libraries had with Publishers of scholarly books and periodicals made sense when print was the primary medium. The Library could then purchase copies of the printed material and via the Right of First Sale, loan the materials out for use. The model makes little or no sense, however, with digital content for scholarly use. Indeed, copyright itself makes little or no sense in this context, since authors are not motivated by royalty streams in creating the scholarly material. Their rewards come in other ways, from the recognition of the work and as a credential for P&T.

That University Libraries serve as gateways to electronic content, in stand alone eJournals or databases with scholarly journal content is an affirmation that at present we have a private goods model being applied to what should be a public good. People want that content and providing it in the current way makes Academic Libraries seem important to the University mission. The Libraries themselves may not want to undermine this arrangement, because it would cut into their importance in the overall mission or their respective campuses. But that is what they should do because scholarly information in digital form being open is more fundamental than that Libraries are critical to the mission of Campuses.

How might we get there? I see at least three distinct paths, some of which have been ventured down, but not far enough or fast enough. There may be other paths as well. First, there are alternative forms to scholarly publication that should be embraced. Invariably, this first path leads to mention of the work of Paul Ginsparg. But, to my knowledge, it has not led to parallel developments in the Social Sciences or Humanities. I don’t know why. Pushing for that should be high on the ACRL agenda in my view. Second, there needs to be serious effort on consolidating the buyers on the licensing of electronic materials. To date those efforts have focused on price. They need to focus on access as well.

If one goes to Google Scholar now from a computer not on a Campus network and finds a reference to an article in JSTOR, for example, one gets this not so delightful rejoinder.

The material you requested is included in JSTOR, an online journal archive made available to researchers through participating libraries and institutions.

Authorized users may be required to log in via their library website. For more information about obtaining the complete article, please see Access Options. The citation, abstract, and first page are available below.

This is absurd. The arrangement exists because Publishers and Libraries operate in a world of licensing fees. Licensing fees are not the way to fund public goods. Public goods should be funded by taxes. ACRL should advance an agenda where on an interim basis Research Libraries agree to be taxed in exchange for open access to content such as JSTOR. On a longer terms basis it should be the Federal Government that pays for such access, and ACRL should be the lobbying agent to move us to that world. If JSTOR were openly available, instead of via restricted gateways, then our alumni would benefit, as would the rest of the public. There is pablum in the ACRL report about alumni portals. If the Library wanted to do something of substance for alumni, it would make scholarly information available to them. Doing so by expanding the scope of current Campus licenses is not feasible. That’s too expensive. Making the content openly available is a better solution. JSTOR is a good place to start with this because by its design it doesn’t include the most recent publications. So one might make some progress while deferring the question about open access to all publications until the collective mood and mindset is ready for the argument.

The third area of focus is Copyright Law itself. Copyright Law doesn’t serve well the communication of scholarly information. Government publications are in the public domain de jure. Scholarly work, part of the contributions to the Intellectual Commons that Lethem describes, should be in the public domain as well. It is quite clear who would stand to lose by changing the law in this way, especially if the law applied retrospectively. So there are economic and therefore political reasons to sustain the status quo. And given the effort more broadly by MPAA, RIAA and others on copyright to expand the influence of Copyright, one should be under no delusion that it would be easy to make such a change. But by concentrating narrowly on scholarly work and not trying to apply the change in the Law to a more encompassing notion of the intellectual commons – for example, authors of great fiction clearly enhance our culture and intellectual life, but those authors do make their livelihoods based on the sale of their works – one should be able to maintain the high ground in the argument.

Open access to scholarly information in electronic form requires one Library in total – that’s for the entire globe. There is a huge amount of wasteful duplication now as each University Library provides in essence the same service. The service that needs to be provided locally, giving access to the private good content that is in the Library collection, will continue indefinitely, but as the report points out there is likely a narrow constituency for that service and that constituency is likely to dwindle in the future. If the Library is to endure as a centerpiece of campus culture and scholarly life, it needs to find a different raison d’etre than as the store of information and gateway to resources. That may be a tough pill to swallow and why the report seems so lukewarm. But to me the conclusion is inescapable.

* * * * *

The irony here, in my view, is that there is a huge need not yet being filled. The need is not for Libraries, but for Librarians. To understand the need one has to go outside the Library to observe other discussions that are going on now about how the Internet is changing the nature of learning itself. For example, consider this interview about the nature of informal learning. Those of us who have been playing with Web 2.0 technologies in our teaching have been trying to understand how to blend informal learning with formal classroom instruction. It would do well for Librarians to pay attention to those conversations. The goal in those conversations is to find ways to make the learning more real for the students. In turn, the Library needs to be having conversations about how to make the Library part of the real learning of its users. In the IRS taskforce we’re beginning to talk this way, but we’re only scratching the surface. Consider this reframing of the issues based on the analogy between informal learning and formal learning on the one hand and formative assessment and summative assessment on the other.

Now tie that analogy once more to the developments with the technology. Informal learning is manifest in the writing one sees in blogs and wikis. This writing is not peer reviewed and it is published very soon after it has been created. Traditional scholarly work has been peer reviewed and appears for publication with some substantial lag after it has been created. There has always been informal writing, sketches of the thinking, rough drafts of the work, but until recently with the cost of publication substantial most of that work never saw the light of day. All of that stands to change.

For example, at present blogging is accessible to just about anyone as an activity and it is possible for a scholar to lead a “dual life,” to make overt through blogging or other means much of the formative work that goes into the creation of a more formal work that will be prepared for publication that is peer reviewed, as well as informal work that is important but only tangentially related to that goal. Indeed, in my day job I’ve been trying to encourage faculty to start operating in these dual worlds. It has been a tough sell, mostly because the faculty have no time to try new things and if they are to experiment with something new they’d like to see something with more immediate payoff. Neither of these mean the idea is bad; rather it means that in the absence of doing this type of activity, getting established faculty to form the habit is difficult.

Where I’ve heard this work, and I’ve got several anecdotes of good outcomes in this domain, is with graduate students at the dissertation writing stage who have set up a blog to document their current findings, their formative view of the literature, and as a way to build a social network around the issues of their research. This is a great way for the students to market themselves before their dissertation is completed and it is a way to sustain themselves intellectually during the these writing process, traditionally an isolating and harrowing experience. To me this is a natural place for Librarians to intercede as information professionals, in the formative (and possibly ephemeral) collection building that is coincident with this type of research.

What would Librarians contribute to this type of work? While I do think the focus now should be on grad students at the dissertation stage, let me talk about my own information needs created from writing this blog, because that’s what I know best. I’ve been at it for more than two years now. And since it is mostly text, it gets the full index treatment from Google. Most of my hits arise from Google searches. And with that, the unit of measurement is the post or the blog itself. A Google image search returns a different unit of measurement, and ditto for a video search. These are not seemingly tied together in any way. A little while ago I made a post with lots of images to show fundamental principles of learning – one of which is “Monkey See, Monkey Do,” implying that a good instructor should model whatever the instructors wants the students to do. In the process of doing that I had a photo of Jane Goodall and got a lot of hits for it although the picture actually resides on somebody else site and while I mentioned her name it was in the context of my message, likely not what people were looking for when they did the Google search.

That my site gets a fair number of hits via false positive responses to Google searches suggests to me that it also misses hits from false negatives – my site is relevant but folks don’t come and look. In the particular case of my blog, that’s not a big deal. For a student writing a dissertation whose collection building might become an important scholarly resource down the road, it very well could be a big deal. Everything I do in this vein is a kludge. My linked files are all over the place, on multiple possible servers and within a folder structure that emphasizes immediate convenience in putting up the content but with little or no other logic for rediscovery of the items at a later date. Ditto for my naming conventions of the items themselves Further, the need for a coherent structure evolves as I persist in the blogging activity and create more linked content within a certain genre of work (like screen movies for a Tablet PC). I don’t know how to accommodate that evolution and plan best for it. So I have a hodgepodge.

The Librarian as educator and collaborator on addressing these very real information issues seem to me where the focus needs to be. Graduate students rather than old farts like me should be the focus because they represent the next generation of scholars and if there is to be change in how all of academia is to conceive of the Library, affecting the view of the next generation is the right place to start. Further, graduate students typically lead a more hermitic existence abd that would likely make them more receptive to assistance on the documentation and archiving of their informal learning than more mature scholars are apt to be.

Libraries have gotten their noses bloodied with the scholarly work of graduate students regarding the archiving of dissertations. That may further the reluctance in moving toward a focus on the formative work that scholars do. Further, as the report does mention, to the extent that there is perceived value in supporting this type of informal learning, the academic units themselves may try to provide that value. And in some instances one might guess that disciplinary knowledge will trump Library wisdom to address these information needs in context. But in the main I believe this cuts the other way, because the temptation to kludge is huge and a more systematic approach coupled with a big picture view of what is at stake is needed. Who else but Librarians will have that knowledge?

* * * * *

The ACRL report touches on these ideas of new service offerings but it is not front and center. The report does provide an analysis of the political economy issues, both about current and future constituencies as well as differences among Librarians in satisfying those varying needs, and gives more depth to that analysis than to what practices should emerge out the other end of the tunnel. An embrace of scholarship at its formative stages would be a Bartlet for Bartlet approach. Go for it.

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