A specialist profession, or a profession of specialists?

“Librarian,” like “doctor,” should be understood to mean: an expert with strengths in a particular field within the profession. —Stanford Friedman on Twitter, quoted with permission

A few years ago I went to my optometrist, who made standard what-do-you-do small talk as we waited for the eye-dilation drops to kick in. On hearing I was a librarian, she asked me a fiction reader’s-advisory question, with complete faith that I would have an immediate and useful answer.

Of course, I’m not a public librarian and never have been. I’m not a reference librarian either; I’ve never worked a desk in my life. The sum total of my resources for answering reader’s-advisory questions when I can’t even see straight, much less look anything up, is my personal probably-dubious literary taste. Rather than try to explain that to my optometrist, however, I went along with her stereotyped assumptions about what librarians do by recommending a recent read.

I’m not laughing at my optometrist. I can’t afford to; I’ve had too many librarians tell me, covertly or even aloud, that I’m not actually a librarian because I’ve never worked a desk or cataloged a book. I’ve heard plenty from my students about working librarians hassling them over learning digital-librarianship skills. It isn’t just optometrists who have narrow notions of what this field encompasses; too often our own notions are barely any broader. This worries me, not least because it doesn’t reflect the variety and opportunity I see in the information professions. A few weeks ago I had the chance to talk at length with the CEO of a local competitive-intelligence firm. Do competitive intelligencers do information work? They surely do! Does it resemble any information work I’ve ever done? Not one bit! Does it resemble reference-desk work or reader’s advisory? Not in the slightest! Am I bothered that competitive intelligencers claim the title “librarian” despite doing work entirely unlike mine? No, I’m not; the shape of opportunity and growth is precisely work that is different from work we’re used to. I’m happy to call competitive intelligencers librarians and welcome them among us. I firmly believe librarianship would be stronger if it welcomed every information-related specialty in sight, instead of repelling them and their practitioners, or banishing them to an outer darkness far from the supposed “core of the profession.”

In fairness, our tendency to see a “core of the profession” when there may well not be one can be traced to a cognitive peculiarity common to us all. Just as you’ll think of a robin before a penguin or ostrich if I ask you to think of a kind of bird, my optometrist heard “librarian” and thought “public-library reference librarian,” the kind of librarian most resembling her internal model of what a librarian is. If I ask you to think of a kind of academic librarian, you’ll probably think of reference librarians or catalogers before you think of institutional-repository managers. In any linguistic category, humans choose favorites—paradigm examples—based on assumptions about what common characteristics of the category are. Notably, the assumptions don’t need to be true universally or even at all for them to inform choice of a paradigm example! True or false, though, academic librarians who take paradigm examples too seriously ostracize specialists who don’t fit the paradigm. I certainly spent most of my librarian career feeling excluded on this basis.

The perennial squabbles over what topics library schools should require of students are a microcosm of the choice between a single specialist profession and a profession harboring many sorts of specialists. I’m not even touching that question here. I just want to draw attention to the assumption underlying the squabbling: that the universe of information jobs is still so internally cohesive that there exist topics relevant to every single future information-profession jobseeker. If I ever believed this—and if I did, my belief was not strong, since I existed well outside librarianship’s paradigm examples even as a student—teaching has thoroughly humbled me. I’ve had to scramble to assimilate material relevant to youth services, records management, medical librarianship, and acquisitions, just to name a few perfectly legitimate information specialties that are not remotely mine. Even limiting scope to academic librarianship, I have no trouble imagining two librarians with next to nothing in common: a MARC cataloger and a science-data librarian, say. Putting the MARC cataloger in my Digital Curation class is probably a waste of time for both of us, as is making the data librarian sit through a full course in MARC cataloging. In both cases, there’s precious little time to waste; master’s programs are painfully short.

In my outsider’s experience, librarians who resemble librarianship’s paradigm examples closely are often proud of believing themselves the center of the profession. This can make them decidedly touchy about anything that might decenter them, whether it’s a new non-paradigm position or service in their library or a library school’s decision to remove a course in their specialty from its requirements. Indeed, the longstanding, still-noisy furor over removing “library” from the titles of quite a few schools with American Library Association (ALA) accredited degree programs is classic resistance to decentering. So is much resistance to non-MARC bibliographic description. So is practically every “library schools have to teach everybody this thing!” complaint I’ve ever seen—funny how “this thing” so often turns out to be something fundamental to the complainant’s own specialty, which turns the complaint into “everyone must know how to do what I do!” If that’s you, please repeat after me: what many other librarians do is entirely unlike what you do, and that is entirely as it should be. If the issue instead is that library-school coursework does not delve deeply enough into particular specialties, please understand that every specialty in every information profession everywhere is beating down our doors demanding that we teach their specialty in depth to every single one of our students! This is so manifestly impossible that I have completely stopped listening to or even acknowledging such demands. Even adding depth, a notion I like while acknowledging its practical logistical difficulties, is impossible if we educators are forced into a too-close orbit around a starkly-limited “core of the profession.”

Likewise, library-degree accreditation standards still assume a single specialist profession, not a profession of many sorts of specialists. Since my workplace just completed an accreditation cycle during which I was responsible for compiling and editing our self-study, I have been thoroughly steeped in the Standards and how they are applied in practice. While I am sympathetic to some of Texas iSchool dean Andrew Dillon’s critique of the accreditation process, my concerns with the Standards run deeper than process. How does making, enforcing, and assessing a single set of “student learning outcomes” (Standard I.2), one example of the Standards assuming a single specialist profession, make sense if what programs are really doing—and this is what I believe the best of us are indeed doing—is helping students choose and achieve diverse sets of outcomes, sometimes overlapping, often not?

I suspect, unfortunately, that any school seeking accreditation would find itself in serious difficulties if it tried to make the above case before ALA’s Committee on Accreditation, which wants what it wants—and what it presently wants is program-level learning outcomes straitly tied to the fixed topic and competency lists in sections I.2 and to a lesser extent II.2 of the Standards. How can an accredited degree program, especially in a relatively small department such as the one I teach in, build new specialties under so much pressure to stay as close as possible to the Standards’ fixed lists, as well as an inertia-weighted set of student learning outcomes? What I see schools doing instead is building separate specialized degree programs that do not seek ALA accreditation. Since ALA accredits specific degree programs, not schools or departments, such a separate degree program lets schools work around the Standards’ fixed lists, heeding instead modern professional realities in libraries generally and academic libraries particularly, as well as outside libraries altogether.

I would not be surprised if the eventual endgame—this process will be slow—for some schools building new non-accredited programs is the shuttering of their ALA-accredited programs. Perhaps this is a consummation devoutly to be wished given the library job market. I am not so sure, though. The schools lost to ALA’s regime will be the explorers and specialist-producers. The remaining ALA-accredited programs will be precisely those hewing closest to the already-oversupplied “core of the profession.” Students interested in types of work outside that core will have plenty of non-accredited programs to consider attending, and a decent panoply of jobs in workplaces that don’t care about ALA accreditation waiting for them when they finish. That being the case, where will academic libraries find the various kinds of specialists they are noisily demanding, allergic as they tend to be to retraining their existing workforce?

This doesn’t have to be the endgame, though. ALA can think through how to accredit schools that choose to specialize; indeed, if it does not do so I fear it may gradually lose considerable influence among degree-granting information schools. Accommodating specialist education will be politically unpalatable to librarians wishing to believe themselves the center of the library universe, but so be it; ALA’s alternative seems worse. Academic librarianship can reconsider its allegiance to the notion of a single specialist profession, consciously deciding at last to welcome and value those of us further from the paradigm example. I understand that being decentered is scary, but no one is demanding that reference librarians and catalogers leave the profession! I am only asking that they willingly expand their consciousness of the profession’s boundaries to encompass more types of professionals.

A living, growing, changing, welcoming profession of specialists, even with amorphous boundaries and no clear center, seems far more attractive to me than a fearful, resentful, straitly-bounded specialist profession. The profession of specialists is well within our reach, if we decide to reach for it.

Note: This post is copyright 2013 by Library Journal. Reposted under the terms of my author’s agreement, which permits me to “reuse the work in whole or in part in your own professional activities and subsequent writings.”

MARC, linked data, and human-computer asymmetry

I had to put together the introductory lecture for my “XML and Linked Data” course early this time around, because I’ll be out of town for the first class meeting owing to a service obligation. Since I’m starting with linked data instead of XML this time, I found myself having to think harder about the question nearly every student carries into nearly every first-class meeting: “why should I be here?” Why, among all the umpty-billion things a library school could be teaching, teach linked data? Why does it matter?

Now, I think “because it’s part of librarianship!” is a cop-out, and I try to avoid relying on it when I explain to students why we teach what we do. (It isn’t always evitable; professional socialization is real, and important, and genuinely the only reason a few things remain in the library-school curriculum.) That means that a good answer to the “why should I be here?” question with respect to linked data explains why not only libraries, but not-inconsiderable swathes of the larger information world, find linked data a useful construct.

This question has extant answers, quite a few of them. I started to make slides summarizing them—the “MARC must die!” answer and the “Be of the web, not just on it!” answer, and the “Lose the silos!” answer—and then I said something decidedly family-unfriendly and deleted the slides. I don’t like those answers. They won’t convince a skeptical student. They won’t even convince an open-minded one. They’re too exhortatory, too condescending, too insider-baseball. I needed a simpler, more fundamental explanation, one that took into account not only the purported benefits of linked data, but the very real issues with existing data structures and systems.

To arrive at that explanation, I found myself thinking about the exact design problem on Henriette Avram’s plate when she invented MARC. That design problem was “let computers print catalog cards.” Avram was not asked to design a computer-optimized data structure for information about library materials, so naturally enough, that is not what MARC is at heart. Avram was asked solely to make computers print a record intended purely for human consumption according to best card-construction practices of the 1960s. She did that, brilliantly.

Unfortunately, that turned out to be the wrong thing to ask her to do. At the time, of course, Avram could not realistically have known that. At the time, libraries themselves could not have known that! In the decades since, however, just about everyone has discovered and rediscovered that designing data based solely on how it should look for human beings, without considering how computers may need to manipulate it, leads inexorably to ruinously messy, inconsistent data and tremendous retooling costs—exactly the challenges libraries face now.

Book and journal publishers discovered this when their carefully-typeset page-layout files turned out all but useless to them for many forms of electronic distribution. Back in the dot-com boom, I watched several publishers struggle, and it seemed to me the hardest problem they faced was making themselves step back from the human-readable look of print so that they could see texts in other ways. Learning-object developers have learned the same harsh lesson more recently, as the Flash technology many learning objects were built with obsolesces. I hate to think how much effort (not to mention money) in the mid-to-late-2000s was poured into Flash objects that cannot be used on smartphones and tablets, and whose component parts (out of which something more modern might be built) were thrown away because no one saw a need to keep them. Finally, not a few of the problems the “big data” movement is trying to solve arise from needing to force computers to make sense of material designed only for humans.

The base human-computer asymmetry fueling these problems is not hard to articulate, and is in fact what ended up on my class slide as the “why” of linked data. Given computer-friendly data, humans can instruct computers to produce human-friendly data displays, in addition to doing all the fascinating behind-the-scenes manipulation that fuels useful applications from search indexing to text mining. Given displays friendly only to humans, however, computers cannot easily break the displayed materials down into computer-manipulable data. Sometimes it can be done, but only at great cost in time and effort; sometimes it is outright impossible. Even when retooling human displays as data is possible, the additional effort is weakly justifiable at best, given the relative ease of going in the other direction.

Worse still, freezing one form of human-readable display into a data structure assumes that what is ideally human-readable now will remain so indefinitely. The brief history of design for the web, not to mention the emergence of entire information specialties in usability, user-experience design, and (more broadly) human-computer intraction, shouts otherwise. So does the story of MARC, for that matter; who would go back to 1960s-formatted catalog cards today? Thinking about the data separately from its display defends against stale design by keeping display-design options open.

Now, I’ve pulled a fast one on you all—did you notice? I’ve been treating the idea of “designing data for computers” as though it were all one thing. It isn’t. If it were, I wouldn’t have to teach one entire library-school course on relational-database design, another on XML and linked data, and a third on digital curation. Reasonable (and not-so-reasonable) people disagree on the best way to design data structures that accommodate computer manipulation while providing the best available grist for human-friendly design. I’m not sure it’s always possible to judge in advance, even; sometimes there isn’t a feasible shortcut past the hundred ways it won’t work. Context matters too; one of the awkward things about teaching XML and linked data together is that XML was really designed for a document context, not so much for the data often captured in it.

I get a sense from many frustrated bystanders watching the move away from MARC that they want to be told the one true answer, the ultimate data structure that solves every metadata problem libraries have or ever will have. I’m afraid this quest is doomed to failure; nothing is so elegant that it can never be improved upon, nothing so universal that the world will not change out from under it. In other words, we shouldn’t feel bad about needing to migrate from MARC. It’s all right that FRBR didn’t turn out to be the be-all and end-all, that RDA had to go a few rounds of redesigns, that several European libraries have decidedly different linked-data models for their bibliographic data. That’s normal theoretical and experience-based churn.

That said, I think there are a few readily-grasped principles that distinguish data structures that computers work well with from data structures that only work for humans. I don’t know that I have the perfect list of those principles, but here are the ones I start with in all my data-structures classes:

  • Atomicity, also known as granularity. Essentially this means saying only one thing at a time, and clearly (and only once) separating each thing from every other thing. Computers can build up from granular pieces of data, but they’re surprisingly bad at breaking compound, complex, or ambiguous statements into their component parts.
  • Consistency. This means saying the same thing the same way every single time it’s said. Computers absolutely thrive on consistency; unfortunately, human brains often don’t need it, so displays designed solely for humans don’t tend to feature it. MARC data particularly is absolutely notorious for inconsistency.
  • Reliable, unchanging identifiers. You think you’re bad with names? Computers are worse. All the various numbers and labels that sometimes seem to define our lives—credit-card numbers, account numbers, usernames—exist because computers cannot reliably pull together information based on human-assigned names. The resulting indirection in computer-friendly data structures is legitimately annoying, especially at first, but it’s necessary.

Following those principles won’t guarantee a perfect data structure because there’s no such thing, but these principles do lead to flexible data structures with escape hatches. Just as book and journal publishers who bit the bullet and bet on SGML had a much easier time when the web and ebooks came along than did publishers who relied solely on page-layout files, libraries that work toward more atomic, consistent, and identifier-laden data will be safer not only in today’s information world, but in whatever succeeds it.

Note: This post is copyright 2015 by Library Journal. Reposted under the terms of my author’s agreement, which permits me to “reuse the work in whole or in part in your own professional activities and subsequent writings.”

Beaten before we start

I don’t call myself a futurist, though I do find enjoyment and sometimes enlightenment in watching what’s going on in the world and trying to extrapolate toward what academic libraries might want to do about it. I also harbor a strong love for examples of novel services and fresh ideas about longstanding services, though I’m old and scarred enough not to take them quite at face value—there’s almost always struggle and conflict behind the scenes that does not get aired in order to keep the peace among librarian colleagues.

I often pull these extrapolations and examples into my classroom. Most of my students love them, finding them thought-provoking and energizing. Indeed, I must sometimes remind them as gently as I can about the amount of time, work, risk (individual as well as organizational), and workplace politics that go into every new thing, lest they take their immense creative energies into the world hoping for welcome and support and find alienation and antagonism instead. I try to remember to end my admonishments on a rosier note: “this will be hard, no lie, but it will also be worth the effort.” They accept that. I have to hope it’s true.

A few of my students respond differently, though, and I lately realized that their response resembles the dominant response I get from academic librarians when I talk with them about new ideas, new services, and libraries that are implementing same. Too many times, the conversation goes like this:

Me: Here’s something that’s happening, and here’s how we could respond to it.

Librarian: Are any other libraries doing that?

Me: As a matter of fact, yes! The Research Library of Gondor is—

Librarian: Well, we can’t do it, then, because RLG is huge and we’re not.

Me: Well, perhaps you’ve heard about the Rivendell College Library’s program to—

Librarian: Oh, Rivendell College. We can’t do what they do, because they’ve got an endowment and we don’t.

Me: I heard that Laketown Community College Library—

Librarian: Community college. Hmph.

(I don’t even know what to think about that last one—my sister works as a community-college librarian, and I am in complete awe of what these librarians accomplish for their faculty and students. All I can say is that I’ve heard academic librarians dismiss them, I wish I hadn’t, and I never want to hear it again.)

I’ve been intentionally vague about the novel ideas or services under discussion, not least because I’ve rung variations on this conversation about nearly everything imaginable. I also do not want to give the impression that only academic librarians at smaller institutions talk like this. If anything, I hear it even more often from librarians at immense research libraries. (Selection bias may well be at fault there, as the types of work I do and teach about tend to appear in research libraries presently.) What I want to focus on is not the novelties but the discourse pattern:

  1. Hear about novelty.
  2. Demand example of novelty
  3. Immediately latch onto any local difference from the example given, to declare why the novelty cannot happen locally.

In a nutshell, it’s asking how We are different from Them, not to adjust our tactics to local realities, but to insist that We are incapable of whatever They did. Because I can’t… Because we can’t… Because we won’t… Because they won’t… Because, because, because. There’s always one more defeatist “because,” it seems. How often do we declare ourselves beaten before we even start? How much are we not doing for our patrons that they would appreciate because we talk ourselves out of trying? Why do we do this to ourselves? How much organizational decay in libraries is caused or worsened by this habit of thought?

I’m certainly not innocent, sad to say. I just didn’t quite realize how pervasive this dismissive pattern was in academic librarianship until recently. I want to train myself out of it—call it my New Year’s resolution for 2015—and I share my plans in hope of encouraging others to do the same.

In a nutshell, I want to stop asking myself “why can’t I do what they did?” That question automatically puts them (whoever they are) on a pedestal above me, which isn’t fair to either of us, and I certainly don’t want the answer to be “because they didn’t talk themselves out of trying, the way I’m doing now.” Instead, I want to ask myself a series of questions:

  • “Do I want their outcome to happen here?” This one is simple. If the answer is “no” for whatever reasonable reason, I’m done. I don’t need to envy or emulate that library for doing something I see no point in or even oppose.
  • “What did they actually do? How long did it take?” To rise above discouragement, I need to remind myself that there are no magic wands. Journal articles and conference presentations tend to condense a lot of details and elide a lot of work and struggle; I’ve seen that lead to unrealistic expectations and eventual disillusionment. If I can probe for a more realistic description of their process, I can prepare myself better to see a similar process through where I am.
  • “Why did what they did work?” Local conditions can’t be ignored; they just shouldn’t become excuses. Figuring out cause-and-effect is not straightforward, of course, especially at a remove from the action, but it’s an important element in building a testable, revisable theory of change.
  • “What would I have to change about their process, given local conditions here, to achieve their outcome?” This follows on naturally from the last.

It’s not that every idea will fly if we just find the right way to go about implementing it. Nobody is that much of a Pollyanna, least of all me. It’s that immediately dismissing ideas that might actually fly is risky to the long-term health of our libraries. It’s that closing our eyes to the experience of others vitiates our adaptability as librarians. It’s that sometimes there are viable answers, if we are open enough to want them and disciplined enough to seek them!

I’ve noticed already that it’s easier to reach a workable answer I can be satisfied with when I have more than one example to triangulate from. Naturally, it’s also easier when innovators talk and write honestly about challenges, failures, and retrenchments, though I do understand that public honesty is inordinately difficult in highly-politicized library environments.

I’ve also noticed one factor in success that I don’t often see explicitly emphasized: serendipity. A striking number of success stories I hear contain a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it “And then I just happened to meet this person who immediately took an interest, and…” moment. I find myself wondering whether this points to a weakness in common conceptualizations of service outreach and popularization, how academic libraries recruit stakeholder buy-in and engage users. Strategies that connect us with one or two people we hope to turn into prime movers necessarily differ from marketing strategies designed to engage broad audiences.

This struck home for me at the recent Association for Information Science and Technology (ASIST) conference. I’ve been asking myself for years whether the approach I took to helping launch a research-data management service, broadly marketing a help desk for National Science Foundation data-management plans, was the right one, as I don’t have the successes to recount that places like Purdue and Penn State do. At ASIST, I heard David Minor of the University of California at San Diego (UCSD) library talk about their introduction of research-data management services. Like Purdue in its data-curation pioneering days, Minor and UCSD consciously started small, partnering successfully with serendipitously-encountered individual researchers and labs before making any effort to connect more broadly across campus. I am now convinced that the start-small approach is more effective—see? I used the questioning process I just described and found an actual answer!—but clearly, making it work takes serendipity engineering instead of standard marketing.

The need to leave ourselves open to serendipity might be the most important reason not to dismiss possibilities out of hand because they seem challenging. At minimum, it never hurts to keep our ears open for chances to be useful. At best, though, when we keep ideas in the back of our heads alongside specific barriers we know we need to overcome to make them work, we’ll have an easier time recognizing and capitalizing on opportunity when it speeds by.

I wish us all a safe, joyous holiday season. May we all return in 2015 with fresh determination to give new ideas a fair shake!

Note: This post is copyright 2014 by Library Journal. Reposted under the terms of my author’s agreement, which permits me to “reuse the work in whole or in part in your own professional activities and subsequent writings.”

A love note to keynotes

Once toward the start of my librarian career I set three different alarms so I wouldn’t miss an early-morning conference keynote. I sense I should be embarrassed by this, as keynotes and keynoters are now spoken of with the genteelly horrified disdain Wodehousian elders reserved for unmarried chorines, but it’s still true, and I am not ashamed.

The conference was Texas Library Association’s annual gathering, the keynoter was the phenomenal Isabel Allende, and I didn’t want to miss a single syllable. Allende’s dauntless talk surpassed expectation. By turns wistful, raunchy, and full of raw pain, her words forced me out of my ordinary workaday perspectives into a broader, scarier world that through her verbal alchemy was entirely recognizable as the world we have created with our common humanity and our all-too-common inhumanity. Not to mince words, Allende’s was a perfect keynote.

Well before joining librarianship’s ranks, I heard C.M. Sperberg McQueen deliver another brilliant keynote at Markup Technologies ’99. Called “Extensible stability, open standards, and other cameleopards,” the talk drew on its audience’s shared experiences with standards development and use to drag well-known frustrations and thorny dilemmas out of the shadows for public consideration. In a minor miracle, McQueen aired standards bodies’ dirty laundry without causing bitter offense—indeed, his openly satirical framing and wry delivery repeatedly dissolved the entire auditorium in noisy laughter. I remember that feat so well that I tried to emulate it myself. I don’t think I succeeded, but I also don’t think I could have survived publication of that article if I hadn’t tried.

If only every keynote were that good! I’d settle for my own keynotes being a small fraction of that good, for that matter. Yes, I am one of those vile unspeakable creatures known as “keynoters;” I’ve given three conference keynotes in the last year, and I have another already scheduled for 2015. To make matters worse, I’ve helped out with conference planning, including keynoter selection, and will do so again in 2015–16. So I have been thinking quite a bit about what keynotes are for and about keynoter selection processes lately. I’ll share what I know and what I suspect, hoping for better keynotes everywhere.

Conferences are a competitive industry. A conference that can’t attract attendees and sponsors is a conference that won’t survive long. This unpalatable anxiety looms especially large over keynoter selection, since keynote titles and keynoter names figure heavily in conference marketing. The odd thing about this is that the quality of any potential keynoter’s public speaking is the least salient selection criterion from a conference-marketing perspective. Will this person, or the topics this person is known to speak about, attract registrants? Then that’s a hot prospect, even if the person is a crashing bore—or worse.

Conferences concerned about keeping their base of regular attendees often rely—in my opinion, too heavily—on reliable known quantities. Some such conferences invite the same people year after year. Why not stay with a winner, after all? Any alternative can feel risky. At all costs, these conferences must avoid a keynoter who alienates their base—there is always another conference to attend! Sadly, that too encourages playing it safe, especially for conferences whose regular attendees are known not to be terribly openminded or amenable to challenge or change. The larger the conference, too, the larger the temptation to stay on the safe side of the podium.

One of my dearest hopes for the relatively recent wave of discourse around how to make library conferences more welcoming to diverse participants is that it will jump-start diversification at the speaker’s podium. My speaking career will not benefit particularly, as I’m the practically-paradigmatic middle-aged white straight cis-female abled-for-now librarian, but if I lose speaking gigs to those who are different from me on any or all of those axes, that’s exactly as it should be. I will have this hope firmly in mind as I start on my next conference-planning duties, and I exhort all conference planners to do likewise. The status quo is a style of “safe” librarianship cannot afford and must not continue to tolerate.

Can too-safe conference keynoter selections be changed? Yes, but only from within, which is the rub. Conference attendees can exercise voice via those annoying “how did we do?” surveys, and if they speak up in sufficient numbers and with sufficient vehemence they will be heeded, because the conference can’t afford to lose them. How likely is that? Well, I have to admit, I haven’t yet heard of it seriously tried, much less working. The other fix-from-within is volunteering to organize the conference, which presumes an awful lot of spare time and energy. Some corporate or privately-managed conferences do not even make this possible, which in my book is reason to eye them with some suspicion.

Small conferences, as well as conferences of any size that are fishing for new audiences, are likelier to take a chance, either on an unknown or on someone edgy. Part of this is that mainstream speakers courted by large conferences are liable to be too expensive for small conferences. Part of it is that small conferences market largely through word of mouth, so taking a risk on someone who turns out to be both unusual and memorable means an extra-large benefit to the conference. The small-to-midsize conference taking a chance on “edgy but memorable” has been my own niche as long as I’ve been keynoting, and I am probably too risky and unpredictable a speaker to leave it, which is fine by me.

So if listening to keynotes hasn’t been as satisfying for you as it mostly has for me—I admit, I too will forever remember one or two keynotes I’ve seen for their stunning awfulness, but in general, I enjoy both giving and watching keynotes—it may pay to look at which conferences you’re going to, how big they are, how and by whom they’re organized, and the predictability and homogeneity of their previous speaker slates. If you don’t like what you see, pick another conference: vote with your wallet and your feet. The good keynoters, the keynoters who make you laugh, who draw you out of yourself, who force you to think, I believe they’re out there. Find them and reward the conferences that invite them, and there will likely be more of them.

Note: This post is copyright 2014 by Library Journal. Reposted under the terms of my author’s agreement, which permits me to “reuse the work in whole or in part in your own professional activities and subsequent writings.”

Ego non te absolvo

Lifelong learning isn’t only for other people

I found myself drawn into odd conversations with librarians, archivists, and other information professionals soon after I started teaching library school. Not the conversations about how terrible I am and how bad I am at what I do and how whatever I’m doing in the classroom is automatically the wrong thing—those conversations are standard, and I am as inured to that angry dismissiveness as anyone can be. No, the odd conversations I landed in over and over again went something like this:

“Oh, you teach at SLIS! What do you teach?”

(I give a précis of my course list.)

“Oh.” Pause. “You know, I never learned practically anything you teach.” Expectant, lingering pause.

Once early on I innocently took that as professional curiosity, a cue to offer a casual but practical suggestion about where to learn something I happen to know that would likely be useful in my interlocutor’s job. When I say I don’t know something, after all, that’s the response I’m hoping for. (I have galloped back to my hotel room from any number of conference receptions to subscribe to a recommended weblog before I forget its name. Perhaps now that I have finally bought myself a tablet computer, I can keep it with me to subscribe on the spot!) My position also gives me plenty of advance word about worthwhile learning opportunities, so why wouldn’t I pass them along? As it happened, though, my interlocutor’s immediate recoil told me my response had missed its aim by a country mile. I stammered, caught myself, and changed the subject with an audible wrench, as conversational suavity has never been a distinguishing characteristic of mine.

I learned to dread repetitions of that conversation because I couldn’t avoid them, yet I never came closer to understanding what the desired response was. One or two interlocutors even embroidered on their knowledge gaps at some length, obviously hoping for a specific response I couldn’t work out how to give as I stood there feeling more maladroit by the millisecond. These were nice people, I should mention, and progressive professionals to a one. They were not trying to undercut my work with the assertion that because they hadn’t learned what I teach, what I teach doesn’t matter and I shouldn’t be teaching it. I know that style of passive aggression entirely too well, as often as I see it, and these conversations were not that.

What on earth did these pleasant, progressive professionals want me to say, then? I let that question stew quietly away in the back of my head for a long time.

After the latest such conversation, some time ago, light dawned at last. My interlocutors felt guilty, inadequate, even sinful, for not knowing what I teach! How sad and awful, and what kind of monster am I not to have immediately reassured them? Nobody needs to feel that way; it is a short but perilously rocky road from there to full-blown Impostor Syndrome. Librarianship is learned, not innate, and I cheerfully grant that learning it takes a good deal longer than the two years that we who teach library school have to boost people to librarianship’s barest threshold. Learning librarianship takes a whole career, in fact, especially considering its rate of change and breadth of collective expertise. So there’s no shame in needing to learn. How can there be?

I felt enlightened for all of fifteen seconds until the obvious hole in my new understanding demanded filling: if the problem was lack of learning, why was offering learning opportunities unwelcome? What was the desired response, if it wasn’t that? An answer presented itself quickly: my interlocutors wanted reassurance, even absolution. They wanted me to say “Oh, it’s all right, nothing I teach really matters to you or anybody else, you’re absolutely fine without it. Ego te absolvo!” In other words, they wanted permission not to learn.

This answer horrifies me and I want it to be wrong, though to date it is the only answer I have that fits all the facts. It’s not even the implied insult to the utility of what I know and teach, though I am human enough to resent that a bit; I don’t teach anything I consider wholly useless or unnecessary, and if asked to do so, I have the professional autonomy to refuse and would absolutely use it. Moreover, I happily hold up my end of conversations about matching a given learner with a career-appropriate topic or working out where to start with something complex or difficult, because not every topic is equally useful or accessible to every learner and librarianship’s directions to its own lifelong learners are overwhelming and punitive. As I replay the many odd conversations I’ve had, though, I sense that my interlocutors weren’t any more interested in potential topics to learn about than they were in potential learning opportunities. They truly wanted to be told—by an educator, no less—that it was fine not to learn, even to refuse learning outright.

I cannot give that answer. I just can’t. It is not fine for a librarian to refuse learning; it is, in fact, wholly unacceptable in any information profession. Ego ergo non te absolvo. The ALA Code of Ethics backs me up in Article VIII: “We strive for excellence in the profession by maintaining and enhancing our own knowledge and skills, by encouraging the professional development of co-workers, and by fostering the aspirations of potential members of the profession.” I am grateful for and believe in ALA’s strong stance on this, but I don’t need it to bolster my own personal resolve; I recoil at the very idea of members of the information professions alleging that lifelong learning is only for other people. We are better than that, and it is for us (if not us, who?) to set the example for our patrons.

So if you happen across me at a conference or at random, please do not hold this particular conversation with me. It will only end in tears, probably mine. Ego non possum te absolvere; instead, I stand with St. Augustine’s “tolle, lege,” and the more who stand with me, the better for librarianship.

Note: This post is copyright 2014 by Library Journal. Reposted under the terms of my author’s agreement, which permits me to “reuse the work in whole or in part in your own professional activities and subsequent writings.”

Theory of Change

Foiling librarianship’s Underpants Gnomes

The animated television show South Park made a business of touching nerves, but even its creators reportedly did not expect the furor that roared forth over their Underpants Gnomes episode satirizing common workplace beliefs and practices. The Underpants Gnomes’ business plan lives on (slightly altered) in web culture as a shorthand for inadequate, failure-prone product or service planning:

  1. Do something!
  2. ??????
  3. Profit!

I spent my entire library career wallowing in Step 2. Open access, campus copyright, research-data management, digital preservation—no matter the phenomenon my employer threw me at or I myself decided to tackle, the experience invariably boiled down to:

  1. Hire someone! or Form a committee! or Launch a website! or Marketing!
  2. ??????
  3. Profit!

This is certainly nothing I’m proud of. I’ve spent plenty of time in the three years since my library career ended ruminating on how I might have hauled myself out of the quicksand. Worse still, I was hardly the only librarian stuck. If I had been, I could simply have learned from more profitable examples, or retreated into a corner wearing a dunce cap to lick my wounds with all my self-blame circuits engaged. I know from talking to colleagues and former students, though, that wallowing in Step 2 is the rule, not the exception, for novel academic-library services, particularly those aimed at creating non-trivial change in the external environment.

Why is that? Can’t we do something about it?

I have long been convinced that vagueness in Step 3 prevents better articulation of Step 2. “Profit!” may appear in many guises, such that planning processes must decide on its desired form lest programs flail directionlessly. Take institutional repositories (please). Probably the best-known formulation of Step 3 for institutional repositories is Cliff Lynch’s “a set of services that a university offers to the members of its community for the management and dissemination of digital materials created by the institution and its community members.” This Step 3 begs vital questions that the rest of Lynch’s discussion never answers:

  • Is it the university or the library that offers the service?
  • Which community members does it serve? (“All of them” is very likely the wrong answer.)
  • Which digital materials count? (Ditto.)
  • What exactly does the “institution” create, anyway? (Records, certainly, but using institutional repositories for records is usually a bad idea.)

Lynch might well have had a clear ideal end state in mind that he desired the implementation of institutional repositories to lead to, but his definition did not specify it. How were institutional repositories supposed to get there, as software or as services, if nobody could figure out where exactly “there” was?

Raym Crow’s Step 3 supplements Lynch’s by articulating a clear ideal end state, in which institutional repositories “provide a critical component in reforming the system of scholarly communication” and “serve as tangible indicators of a university’s quality.” Unfortunately, Crow’s piece leaves us mired in Step 2, completely at sea about how exactly institutional repositories are supposed to accomplish these profligately ambitious goals. A clearly-articulated ideal end state is undeniably helpful—without it, libraries planning new services resemble lemmings rushing one after another off cliffs—but it too is not enough.

A recent blog post from Wikimedian Sumana Harihareswara introduced me to the “theory of change” framework. Keeping in mind that I am still in the honeymoon phase of excitedly learning everything I can about theory of change so that I can refashion my mental furniture around it, I do believe it to be a planning, assessment, and re-planning modality capable of foiling librarianship’s diabolically vague Underpants Gnomes.

The central method of theory-of-change analysis is simple: work out the desired end state, then work backwards through intermediate states and the actions required to reach them until arriving at the current state. For institutional repositories, then, we might start from either of Crow’s end states (though both require clearer articulation; what exactly does a reformed scholarly-communication system look like?) and step backward to the present dismal situation. Steps should not be wild stabs in the dark; they should be plausible and plausibly ordered, feasible, and testable. Requiring feasibility should help libraries prevent the all-too-common staffing anti-pattern in which monumental change is the sole responsibility of one brand-new hire. Requiring testability organically includes assessment in the planning process. It also acknowledges that what seems plausible in the moment may turn out not to be, avoiding the anti-pattern in which a program or service that everyone knows is not working is neither rethought nor killed off.

Working backward from the goal will surface a lot of workflow, communication, and technological complexity that standard strategic-planning methods often ignore. Working backward grounds rootless pundits and overenthusiastic idealists (at any level of the org chart) in workplace realities. Rather than the common strategic-planning “so-thats”—we’ll have an institutional repository so that we fix scholarly communication!—that gloss over the journey between plan and goal, working backward designs a step-by-step map to the desired destination, a map that can be revisited and changed as the terrain changes or assumptions turn out to be incorrect. Having that map simplifies assessment considerably: are current efforts leading to the intermediate goals posited on the map? If so, wonderful. If not, it becomes time to rethink the map, the efforts, or both.

Best of all, theory of change lets librarianship take back the reins of change management from tired old futurist punditry, the endless frustrating rounds of “Future of X” and “Where is X going?” pontification that library Twitter rightfully delights in mocking. Pondering possible futures should not be separated from actions librarianship can take to bring about desired futures, as though librarians had neither power nor influence. As for good old X, it is going nowhere (for any value of X) unless librarianship actively shepherds it there. Theory of change brings human agency—librarian agency, though not exclusively librarian agency—explicitly back into library planning. No more sitting passively around waiting for “the future” to get here. No more frantic reactions to phenomena we should have anticipated. We will instead have the futures we make.

I am sure that theory of change can be abused, like any tool, or honored more in the breach than the observance. I do think it has more built-in safeguards against common planning and implementation pitfalls than other problem-solving methods I have seen and used in libraries. I mean to bring it into my next year’s service work, which as it happens will include at least one gigantic and one smaller-scope planning initiative. Ask me in a year how well they turned out!

Note: This post is copyright 2014 by Library Journal. Reposted under the terms of my author’s agreement, which permits me to “reuse the work in whole or in part in your own professional activities and subsequent writings.”

CALI Author and open education

Last month I enjoyed the distinct privilege of keynoting the Conference for Law School Computing (also known as “CALIcon”), a gathering of legal educators, law librarians, and IT professionals in law put together by the Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction (CALI). I can’t say enough in praise of the everpresent spirit of sly spirited fun at this conference, from the tour de force session organized by pulling topics from a hat to the giant remote-controlled shark-shaped helium balloon (lawyers, sharks, get it?) swimming through the air at the final plenary. It’s so much easier to tackle hard challenges honestly in a relaxed, genial atmosphere.

I learned a lot about law librarianship and legal education at CALIcon that will serve me well as I teach my library-school students. Even more importantly, though, I learned about CALI and some of its entrepreneurial endeavors. One in particular, CALI Author, caught my attention for its clever handling of common challenges in the creation, use, reuse, and revision of open educational resources (OER) such as open textbooks and learning objects.

Despite the relatively recent uptick in OER news, OER are not at all new, neither conceptually nor in execution. The learning-object aggregator called MERLOT has been around in some form since 1997, and the National Science Digital Library effort in the 2000s was in large part an experiment in OER aggregation. For all their proponents’ idealism, OERs have yet to take higher education by storm. The reasons tend to be rooted in the stubborn individualism of the teaching endeavor:

  • There is always too much to teach, such that instructors prefer highly-targeted, highly-contextualized learning objects to teach with. Just a tiny bit too far off the mark, and a learning object is useless to an instructor as-is.
  • Almost all OER have been readymade and non-customizable, such that they are neither highly targeted nor highly contextualized, nor can an instructor tweak them to suit.
  • Too many OER are not appropriately licensed for reuse, much less modification. No instructor wants to teach with the threat of a copyright lawsuit dangling overhead.
  • OER revision and updating has been solely at the whim of the original creator. Outdated learning objects persist, to the reputational detriment of OER generally.
  • Career-aiding credit for OER creation and updating has been hard to come by.
  • Too many OER have been built on fragile technologies, Macromedia Flash especially.

Though some of these problems are beyond the capacity of any authoring platform to address, CALI Author does a rather remarkable job of minimizing them. By concentrating on text-heavy casebooks and insisting on separate multimedia files rather than mashed-up Flash, the platform both delays its lessons’ technological obsolescence and eases modification and revision processes. The platform allows, even helps and encourages, an instructor who is not the original lesson author to modify the lesson for different classroom circumstances. Lesson authors are clearly credited on lesson pages, and the CALI Reviser Project reduces the quantity of orphaned lessons.

CALI Author finesses the tricky balance between authors’ proprietary feelings about their lessons and instructors’ need to modify them by controlling redistribution of modified lessons. This is not the happiest compromise I can imagine, but I understand it. It certainly does not mean that CALI eschews open education; the impressive array of open casebooks and other educational materials that CALI funds, licenses for open distribution via Creative Commons, and distributes through the eLangdell project attests to the strength of its belief in openness.

I could easily have started this column with classically librarian-style carping about how OER haven’t worked yet so they obviously won’t work now no matter how loudly they are promoted. I’m much happier to describe CALI Author instead, and suggest that libraries interested in helping create, manage, and preserve OER seriously evaluate it, thoughtfully inspecting the design decisions made in its construction that have served its instructor and student users well. Barriers and design challenges don’t have to be insurmountable; novelty doesn’t have to fail. In this moment of inflection around classroom material, let academic libraries learn from examples that work.

Note: This post is copyright 2013 by Library Journal. Reposted under the terms of my author’s agreement, which permits me to “reuse the work in whole or in part in your own professional activities and subsequent writings.”

Is there a serials crisis yet?

Between Chicken Little and the Grasshopper

Summer lets me teach my favorite course, the run-down of what’s going on with several publishing industries and how libraries are riding the rapids. (It’s actually a course in environmental awareness and handling change, but such skills are much easier to teach given a concrete context in which to exercise them.) As I tore through syllabus and lecture revisions earlier this month to clear time for other necessary work, I found a few spare milliseconds to wonder whether the serials crisis, which hasn’t felt like an immediate all-hands-on-deck crisis in some time, might finally be heating up into one. Into many, really; the localized nature of serials pricing means that crises hit consortia and individual libraries at varying times, not all of academic librarianship at once.

Before I bring forward the evidence I’m seeing, the word “crisis” needs a definition. Rather than resort to the decontextualized dictionary, I’ll suggest that the situation with serials has at last reached crisis for a particular library or consortium when two things happen:

  • libraries and publishers can no longer conceal the damage from faculty and institutional/consortial administration, and
  • the broad base of faculty can no longer ignore it.

Neither is sufficient alone. Some libraries have already been sending frantic signals to administration (less often to faculty), only to have apathy block concerted action. In the meantime, such libraries have had little choice but to paper over the cracks as best they can through consortial purchasing and raiding other parts of the materials budget. Some faculty, too, are working hard at this challenge, but they are still too isolated to make much headway against their colleagues and the library status quo.

Publishers aren’t escaping unscathed either. I have been seeing a great deal more coverage of serials pricing and related questions of access and copyright-transfer terms in the higher-education trade press in the last year or so than previously. At least one major publisher is so spooked by this as to try to stifle the discussion in one of its own journals. The broad retweeting inside and outside library Twitter of Bergstrom et al.’s PNAS paper on the cost-effectiveness of Big Deal bundles speaks to me of considerable awakened or reawakened interest in serials challenges.

My sense is that papering over the cracks will stop working very soon for many libraries, if it hasn’t already. Most recently, the University of Konstanz and the Université de Montréal have terminated bundled serials contracts. Rather than doing so silently and shamefacedly, little more than a cancellation list buried deep in the library website to mark the event, they explained their action with press releases and showed their work. A few libraries whose budgets haven’t yet hit the wall, libraries of every size, have likewise chosen to signal publicly in the last couple of years that trouble is near or already here: Harvard has, Cornell has, SUNY-Potsdam of course has, and there are doubtless more I don’t recall offhand.

I don’t think publicly throwing up our hands over serials prices is defeatist or irresponsible; I think it’s no more than smart public relations. If there’s a single academic library that won’t hit the wall in the next five years (barring miracles), I don’t know which it might be, unless it’s a library whose faculty’s expectations are already so low that they don’t even expect more than a trickle of serials access. Once a library hits that wall, it seems to me that the first question faculty are likely to ask is “Why didn’t you warn us?” The best answer available is “We did.”

Picking the right time to communicate, never mind the right tone, is tricky. Too soon, and the library becomes Chicken Little yelling about a sky that never seems to fall. Too late, and the library looks as foolish as Aesop’s Grasshopper—“how could you not have seen this coming?” faculty can say with perfect hindsight—or unacceptably secretive. Communication will therefore take careful planning and scheduling. Perhaps the luckiest libraries are those like the University of California that have already fought several skirmishes and come out with their shields rather than on them, and with increased faculty awareness of the serials crisis and increased faculty support for library responses to it.

For libraries who haven’t had to fight such fights, the desire to avoid them and the difficult faculty-communication challenge they present is perfectly understandable. Where librarians fear faculty backlash, it’s generally for a reason! Considering the likelihood that many more libraries will soon hit the budget wall and reach full-blown crisis, however, I worry that academic librarianship doesn’t yet have its serials story straight, much less offer any tangible advice or help to libraries who need to get in front of a looming local serials crisis fast.

Our profession-wide scholarly-communication infrastructure seems the likeliest starting place. I absolutely understand the desire to focus on moving open access forward; developments there are tremendously exciting. Even library open-access efforts could find themselves assailed by angry faculty, though, at institutions where serials become a crisis flashpoint and the library isn’t ready for it, or doesn’t have sufficient support to cope. Perhaps, as I often hear from faculty, “open access isn’t about serials prices.” Perhaps so, though quite a few of the faculty I hear this from often use it as an excuse to belittle and ignore libraries and librarians. I still don’t see any reason library-based scholarly-communication organizations such as SPARC can’t lend libraries a helping hand with crisis communication about serials. Coping with serials prices isn’t just about open access, either.

We have an opportunity here to reassert ourselves with our faculty as California’s state-university libraries have, even to cast ourselves as the hero of the story, if we move deliberately and intelligently. Let’s put our collective heads together and work out how to do that.

Note: This post is copyright 2013 by Library Journal. Reposted under the terms of my author’s agreement, which permits me to “reuse the work in whole or in part in your own professional activities and subsequent writings.”

Competency lists considered harmful

Can we rethink them?

Could we talk about skill and competency lists, please? They’re everywhere, inescapable as change. Professional organizations have made dozens. Dozens more come from the LIS literature as content analyses of collections of job ads or position descriptions. Whatever job you do or want to do in libraries, someone’s made a list of the skills you must supposedly have mastered.

I’m not convinced these lists are as useful as they could be. I’m completely convinced they do a lot of unnecessary harm. If we must have them, we could stand to rethink how we make and present them.

I avoid showing competency lists to my students because they reliably freak out over list length and complexity, never mind the highly prescriptive, even accusatory, tone in which the list’s surrounding text is often written. The more conscientious the students are, the worse they panic. Worse yet, I’ve seen their panic send them into Impostor Syndrome tailspins that sap their curiosity as well as their willingness to tackle exactly the new and growing areas where academic libraries most need them. I do my best to talk them down, but it doesn’t always work. Sadly, it’s commonly the brightest, most promising students who retreat fastest and furthest, afraid they’re in for nothing but harsh judgment and failure if they pursue jobs described in these lists. Frankly, I think these lists too often provide workplace grist for exactly the harsh judgments my students are desperate to avoid. Skill lists unaccompanied by information about available resources and job context make it easy to subscribe to the fundamental attribution error when something goes wrong, blaming a student or working librarian for not having enough (or the right) skills instead of doing the broad honest analysis of the situation that might implicate the library in some or all of the difficulty.

A number of competency-list interventions, some easier to implement than others, could stem the unproductive panic. Some sense of priority, some ranking by centrality to the job or association with specific job tasks, would be an enormous relief. A roadmap would be even better: “start here, expand into this, eventually pick up that, but only the die-hards find that other thing useful.” My students experience lengthy, unranked, unprioritized laundry lists of skills as accusations that they can never learn enough or be good enough, or even subtextual gloating that they’ll never win jobs. Understandably wanting to dump the stress, they turn furiously on us instructors for yet another tired round of the theory-praxis wars. This is neither necessary nor useful. No one really expects students to pick up a lengthy career’s worth of knowledge in a mere twelve to fourteen three-credit courses! How tremendously insulting to longtime professionals such an expectation would be. The problem is that laundry lists of unranked skills imply precisely that expectation.

Another useful change, then, though it would take real research, would be an indication of how, and roughly when in their careers, practitioners acquire job-related skills and knowledge. Taking scholarly communication as an example, I learned to read journal-publication contracts by experience on the job, and I strongly doubt I’m alone among scholarly-communication specialists in that. The same goes for any number of technical chores, too numerous and boring to list, specific to the various roles I’ve undertaken. Not only would a sense of timing, optionality, and learning modality relieve my students’ (and consequently my) stress, it would also help librarians who need to update their skills, cross-train in something new to them, or change their specialty. It doesn’t always make sense to try to learn some things in classrooms, much less learn everything right away. It’d be awfully nice to know which skills belong where and when.

It doesn’t help that competency lists are written from the point of view of some sort of neo-Platonic universal library that does everything imaginable in-house and is simultaneously tiny, gigantic, and every size in between. In real academic libraries, the skills needed for what is nominally the same job are partial, context-based subsets of the whole. A library whose institutional repository runs on open-source software managed in-house will need different skills in its institutional-repository manager from a library that pays for a vendor’s software-as-a-service offering. A library working toward a campus open-access policy needs different people skills from one whose faculty have already implemented such a policy. When competency lists do not clearly tie listed skills to real-world tasks and situations, they fail to heed the contexts that shape need for certain skills, much less help list users winnow the list wisely in accordance with their local context.

Distinguishing between a skill or knowledge that must be always at the librarian’s fingertips and one that can be looked up as needed would be nice. “Publisher self-archiving policies” often appear on scholarly-communication competency lists. Nobody in the field would ever go about memorizing them all, though, not least because they change on a whim. Looking them up as needed is what SHERPA/RoMEO is for, and when that service doesn’t come through, librarians investigate publisher websites or read example contracts at time of need. My students don’t know that, though, and it’s impossible for the inexperienced to tell the difference from the competency lists. The lack of differentiation between “know this” and “know where to look this up” doesn’t just panic my students, of course; library managers and search committees can be forgiven for letting competency lists send them on wild-goose chases for employees with encyclopedic knowledge on a topic that practitioners in the field actually just look up.

That leads me to job-ad content analyses in the LIS literature, a genre I honestly find exasperating. My problem isn’t so much with content-analysis technique as with the uncritical acceptance of job ads as realistic guides to employee skills. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a search-committee chair sends out a plea to librarian friends on social media, “We’re hiring a Library Shininess Specialist, which we’ve never had before. Somebody please tell me what I should put in the job ad!” Or this one: the skills and responsibilities sections of a job ad are nothing but giant laundry lists compiled from other job ads and content analyses from the LIS literature, coupled with stingy or even absent discussion of what resources the library will provide to whoever wins the job. When I see these social-media requests and patchwork ads, I make a mental note to warn my students against applying to the job. These ads come from libraries that have not thought hard enough about their context and their milestones, much less what a new Library Shininess Specialist needs from their library employer in order to succeed. I don’t want my new graduates to burn out and leave.

In other words, too many job ads are pure wishlists. Some are even wishlists patched together from other wishlists! Unfortunately, the cost of an unrealistic, naively-compiled laundry list of a job ad does not become evident until a search fails or a hire doesn’t work out, which is not enough to keep bad ads from being written and published in the first place. If the LIS literature has any way to tell the difference between a thoughtful, carefully-crafted job ad and a hasty sloppy patchwork wishlist, I have yet to see it; bad ads are analyzed as though equivalent to excellent ones. Nor does the job-ad analysis literature assess job-ad outcomes. This is understandable, as gathering data would be fraught with human-resource confidentiality pitfalls, but the unfortunate result is that no one actually knows how well job ads do at attracting viable candidates, much less achieving successful hires. Why, then, do we grant job-ad analyses so much credence? In addition to feeding back into more bad job ads, these analyses also fuel competency lists, which is nothing if not troubling; a realistic competency list cannot be grounded in untested, assessment-free wishlists. In LIS education, these content analyses and the resulting competency lists become sticks to beat educators with, fueling staggeringly impractical expectations from students and practitioners about what a two-year master’s curriculum can realistically accomplish. Garbage in, garbage out, garbage everywhere!

I like the idea of competency lists, just not their present construction. In an ideal world, these lists would reduce anxiety in library-school students and practitioners committed to lifelong learning, channelling their energy productively by breaking down jargon-laden job titles into a sensible succession of digestible pieces. Properly coupled with task analysis, competency lists could also be useful professional advocacy tools, expressing clearly what librarians really do with their days. Finally, competency lists ought to be much better tools than they are for libraries and librarians working out how to implement new initiatives. If we reconceive these lists as tools to help librarians and library-school students plan their learning, and libraries plan their evolution, we can perhaps escape the anxiety, censorious finger-pointing, and poor planning such lists far too often incite today.

Note: This post is copyright 2014 by Library Journal. Reposted under the terms of my author’s agreement, which permits me to “reuse the work in whole or in part in your own professional activities and subsequent writings.”

Behavior data vs. patron privacy

Productive discomfort

Someone is gathering every crumb you drop / These mindless decisions and moments you long forgot / Keep them all!
—Vienna Teng, “The Hymn of Acxiom

I’ve finally dumped GMail forever.

Though the process took quite some time—moving mailing-list subscriptions, changing profiles on websites that knew me by my GMail address, extracting the messages I needed to keep, and similar chores—the relief of a little more freedom from Google’s privacy-invasive data mining has been well worth the trouble for me. I want as little as possible to do with a company that allegedly thinks trawling and keeping behavior-profile data from college students’ school-mandated, school-purchased email accounts without notice or consent is in some way ethical.

I bring this up because of a strong tension I noticed at the recent Library Technology Conference between library notions of privacy and academic libraries’ salutary desire to use various forms of patron behavior data to improve websites and other services. How much are we willing to snoop to get better at what we do? How do we gauge potential (not actual, let us pray) harm to patrons? When we do decide that snooping is worth the risks, how do we protect our patrons from data breaches (making the news at too many higher-education institutions of late) and reidentification attacks? How do we avoid participating in today’s sinister commercial and political nightmare of greedy, thoughtless, not-always-disclosed physical and digital surveillance? Does performing surveillance in our much-trusted libraries not legitimize the other surveillance regimes?

We cannot assume that the data we could and sometimes do gather about our patrons would be of no interest to the powerful or punitive. We know better, so we protect circulation records and computer-use histories as best we know how, and interpose our proxy servers and sign-in pages between snoopy electronic publishers and our patrons’ identities. We saw last year in the Aaron Swartz case the worst that can happen when we decline to interpose ourselves, and we also have good reason to be wary of privacy violations by providers of electronic content. An odd twist in the Georgia State e-reserves opinion lends point: some of the infringement claims were dismissed by the judge because access logs showed none of the students had actually downloaded the allegedly infringed-upon material. If this segment of the opinion holds up on appeal, it would seem to offer publishers holding copyrights in works used in higher-education classrooms tremendous incentive to examine data on student reading, and demand that institutions and their libraries gather and keep that data for them, in order to find grounds to sue us more.

At the same time, I certainly don’t want to paint data-gathering librarians with the same brush as Google, much less monumental consumer-behavior profiler Acxiom. Librarianship already has professional-ethics commitments regarding privacy that apply to data, which is a good start. I’m fond of principles III and VI of the Code of Ethics of the American Library Association, myself. Our data-collection motives are also rather purer, our data easier to tie to obvious patron benefits: sets of aggregate data, from COUNTER usage statistics to website access logs, are profoundly helpful for service refinement, website usability improvement, and collection development. Academic librarians don’t share these data (except distilled into harmless charts or tables), or aggregate them with other libraries’ data (except very carefully indeed), or mine them for individual identities, or keep them forever just in case, or willingly turn them over to businesses or government. If only other data-gatherers regularly behaved like libraries!

What we don’t seem to have yet is a profession-wide sense of how to apply our ethical commitment to privacy to digital information-behavior data, such as we can gather from website access logs, proxy-server logs, or web trackers placed in our websites or OPACs. We don’t to my knowledge have best-practice documents, charts and checklists, sample policies, or the rest of the mundane apparatus that helps us navigate other ethics questions without stopping in the middle of our busy days for ponderous pondering. (If I’m wrong about this, I would love to know more; please leave a comment correcting me.) I can only begin to imagine what this apparatus will come to look like, and I certainly can’t prescribe it from on high. It needs to be the fruit of a collective discussion. Fortunately, events like Library Technology Conference are starting that discussion.

At lunch on the second day of the conference, after my session on patron-computer privacy, a student at the library school where I teach asked me whether I approved of the systematic catalog usage tracking one presenter discussed at a session we had both attended. A level, don’t-you-dare-equivocate stare accompanied the question, an expression I dearly love to see on student faces because it demonstrates so clearly their willingness and ability to think critically about anything I or anyone else tells them. I sighed and said, “I wish they weren’t using Google Analytics.” That was easy to say; Google has repeatedly shown with Google Buzz, Google Plus, and various of its data-mining efforts that its notion of privacy does not measure up to library standards, so convenient though its tools undoubtedly are, privacy-conscious academic libraries should avoid them. (In my session, an attendee pointed out Piwik as a self-hosted and therefore less invasive Google Analytics alternative. Businesses and consortia that host library websites as a service would do well to offer Piwik to their clients.)

After that, though, I had to stop and think. I eventually said, “With the way they’re scrubbing data, it seems mostly okay to me, but I’d want to know more about their data-disposal schedule, and… I’d want them to feel uncomfortable about holding that data.”

It’s the last piece of that answer that I still stand behind. I want academic librarianship to feel uncomfortable about accumulating patron information-behavior data, even anonymized, even in aggregate. I want that discomfort to cause us not to collect patron information-behavior data at all without a clear need for it, to collect the scantiest data possible when it is needed, to guard that data well, and to throw it away like a hot potato as quickly as feasible to keep ourselves and others from the temptation to abuse it. I want us to endure the uncomfortable process of writing data-retention and data-privacy policies that treat patron privacy as a dominant concern. Data discomfort is productive, just as the tension at Library Technology Conference was. Productive data discomfort will help libraries remain an excellent example of consciously ethical privacy practices… an example much of the rest of society desperately needs just now.

This doesn’t mean we won’t ever collect data. This doesn’t mean we won’t ever keep data. This doesn’t mean we won’t ever use data. With luck, it means we will be careful enough about data collection, retention, and use to protect our patrons and keep their trust in us intact. No library patron should have to walk away from a library for the same reason I walked away from GMail.

I also believe that as privacy watchdogs within our institutions, academic librarianship needs to cast a critical, privacy-minded eye over the student-analytics movement. InBloom, a would-be K-12 student profiler/tracker whose products and services I find decidedly creepy and intrusive, has been defeated for now by teachers, parents, and librarians, but I am still seeing course-management systems and student-records systems in higher education discussing or even implementing tracking measures without much heed paid to student privacy. That such dubious features may not presently work well and can be ignored—I saw no use whatever in the so-called analytics that turned up in the most recent upgrade of my campus’s course-management system—does not exempt us from questioning the collection and retention of student behavior data. Ideally, we should do so before tools based on that data develop enough to be both seductive and dangerous.

Oh, and because quite a few people ask whenever I tweet about leaving GMail: I’ve moved my professional non-work email (mailing lists and so on) to an email account on my own web domain; the actual mailserver is managed by the company I pay to host that domain. It’s working great so far.

Note: This post is copyright 2014 by Library Journal. Reposted under the terms of my author’s agreement, which permits me to “reuse the work in whole or in part in your own professional activities and subsequent writings.”