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An Integrated Life

Pat S. was giving me a talking to at the party last night about the adverse health effects of getting overextended.  "You've got to learn to say 'no' more often...  You've got to be careful about how much you take on..."   I've gotten that message from a couple of other quarters in recent weeks and it's true that I did become stretched a little thin this spring.  But it's all been interesting and worthwhile.   (Like I was going to say "No" when Tone gave me the opportunity to go talk to the Elsevier managers?  Or I was going to turn Bonnie MacEwan down when she asked me to come to her library and be the speaker for her Library Week celebration?)

As I told Pat, I always try to be sure that I build in recharging time.  It's been years since I thought of myself as having a "work-week" that ran for a contiguous nine or ten hours a day five days a week.  Now I make use of the entire 24x7.  But this doesn't mean that I work any more hours, I think, than somebody in my position might have twenty-five years ago.  I just spread those hours around differently.  The technology makes it possible.  So, for example, when I went to DC for the new director's seminar, I went in a day early, and took Monday to go see the Hokusai show, and revisit Cezanne and Dada at the NGA, and linger with those marvelous little Whistlers at the Freer.   During breaks in the meetings, and late in the evenings, on the following days, I kept up with email and a couple of other projects as well.

As wireless becomes increasingly ubiquitous, I can do much of what I need to do from wherever I am.  And the multi-tasking that is supposedly the hallmark of the millennial kids has been second nature as long as I can remember (my favorite current example being at the NLM planning panel meeting awhile back when MJ and I, sitting at opposite ends of the long conference table, were actively participating in the discussion at hand, while also emailing each other about some of the AAHSL committee work that we're engaged in).

On Tuesday, Lynn and I will drive to Savannah.  The Bearded Pigs are providing the pre- and post-banquet entertainment at the Off Campus Library Services conference (which has a great program, by the way).  I'll bring the laptop and work happily for several hours each day from the hotel room.  We'll take a little time to explore some of Savannah.  And I'll spend several hours playing music with friends.

We talk about "work-life balance" as if these are competing interests.  But what we really need is a fully integrated life.  I was talking with one of the seminar attendees about this.  There is always more work to do and if you're not careful, you can burn yourself out.  So you have to be disciplined about building in the time for those things that revivify you.   Some people need to get completely away -- take a few days off from email and phone calls and work worries -- to recharge.   That's never been my style.  The library is never far from my thoughts, and I like it that way.  At some level I'm always trying to figure out the next step or resolve some dilemma or see my way to some creative way of addressing the next challenge.   What keeps me fresh is the variety -- to explore a new city for a couple of hours, or pop into a splendid museum, or see a great unknown local punk band in some dive -- and then get back to the laptop, the email, the projects at hand.

A few months after my dad died, my Mom came to St. Louis to stay for a few weeks.  She came to the library to see where I worked and what I did there, and she came to the Venice Cafe when I was playing music, and she walked along with the crew in the Soulard Mardi Gras parade.  Near the end of the trip she said that the different parts of my life made sense to her now, that she hadn't quite been able to see, from a distance, how it all fit together, but that watching me day to day, in all of my various aspects, she could see how it all worked.

Which doesn't mean, of course, that it's not still a challenge to avoid getting overextended, and I am determined to lighten up the travel schedule some in the coming months.  Maybe I can spend more time just tackling three things at once rather than four...

If It's Spring, I Must Be Heading To MLA

By the time I get to Phoenix...  I'll be checking in for my twenty-third MLA annual meeting.    This is the first year that the local arrangements committee has set up a blog, and it's been extremely helpful.   They've been posting something every couple of days, ranging from what to expect from the weather to why you might want to rent a car to where the cool clubs are.  (I'm trying to figure out when we might make a side trip to Taliesen West, myself).   Anybody who is planning on attending the meeting should be reading this regularly (and be sure to read the comments, which reveal that opinions on all issues are not unanimous among the members of the LAC!)

For my part, I'm anticipating a somewhat more relaxed meeting than I've had in several years, now that I'm no longer editing the JMLA.   I see that the editorial board has gone back to an early morning meeting (8:00 on Sunday) and I certainly don't miss getting ready for that (although I will miss hanging out with some of the most interesting folks it's been my good fortune to get to know).  I'll be attending the MLA Board meetings, but since I don't officially start on that until the end of the meeting I don't really have any responsibilities yet.

There's lots of great stuff on the program, and I'm looking forward to Gawande's talk in particular -- I've been an admirer ever since I first read one of his essays several years ago.    As usual, I expect the meeting will be intense and hectic and I'll learn some things and hang out with friends and meet some new people and generally have a great time.

Oh, and there'll be the Bearded Pigs rehearsal on Sunday night, of course.   Plans for that are coming along nicely and I expect we'll have a typically raucous and chaotic night.  Thicket Society membership is rolling along.  We're going to put in the t-shirt order on Monday, so anybody who wants to pick theirs up in Phoenix will need to join by then.  Fortunately, SG got the paypal thing going so it's a snap to join at the website.

Professional networking at its finest.

Where Does The Money Come From?

In his comment to my note on Marty Frank's NEJM editorial, Marcus points to what he sees as the major flaw in Marty's argument -- that publication shouldn't be seen as something separate from the overall research process.  I think he's on the right track, although I'd give it a slightly different focus.

Marty questions the wisdom of diverting NIH funding from research grants to support the author-pays model of open access funding, and suggests the amount could be around $200 million.  Marcus responds that this is a false separation and diverting a "relatively small amount" of funding for publication should be seen as part of the same overall research process rather than a separate project altogether.

I tend to agree with Marcus in the abstract.   I find an appealing symmetry in the notion that the same sources that pay for the test tubes and reagents and animals and research assistants should pay for the dissemination of the results.  And on a per grant basis, the additional costs are indeed relatively small.

But then I think about the practicality of discussing these issues with the key decision makers at my institution -- one that is very focused on NIH-funded research and extremely concerned about the flattening of the NIH budget.    Even if Marty is only half right and it would only take $100 million to fund publication, I can see the faces of my VP for Research or Dean of Medicine getting more pinched.  They're thinking of the young investigators who are submitting their first renewal, or even their first grant as PI, and worrying about what's going to happen in the face of increasing competition for a shrinking pool of funds.  Why should those promising careers be jeopardized in pursuit of an open access goal that they're not convinced is warranted?  Marcus is right about the need to make hard choices.

Many librarians, on the other hand, have become very dismissive of the Biomed Central membership model.  They don't like the idea that the funding should come out of their budgets.  "It's nothing more than another subscription!"  Since few librarians are competing for NIH grants, the notion of taking a percent or two out of that pool to fund publication is eminently sensible.   But taking it out of library budgets is just wrong.

Peter Suber, in his comment on Marty's editorial, dismisses the Cornell study as "discredited".  I think that's a little harsh.  Whether one agrees with the specific numbers in the Cornell model or not, it seems pretty clear to me that an institution like mine, given the number of articles we publish each year, would pay more in publication costs, if it had to fund them, than it currently pays in subscriptions (or license fees) through the libraries.   The money has to come from somewhere.   

I tend to think that Marty exaggerates the negative impact of using NIH funds to cover publication costs.  But I also think that it's quite reasonable (again, in the abstract) for an institution to divert funds from library acquisitions budgets to cover those costs.  In fact, from an institutional standpoint, it probably makes more sense to do that.  After all, if an institution has been spending a million or three from the library to fund publication via subscriptions, why doesn't it make sense to use that same money to fund publication directly via open access?

Librarians who think that open access is intended to reduce the pressure on their budgets won't like that, of course. 

Josie's Easter Weekend

Pulling Josie in her red wagon past the rhinos and the elephant at the Birmingham zoo I found myself drifting back in memory to a day when I was very small and standing at the fence looking Dsc01551in wonder at the little faun at the Plamann Park zoo.   Josie may be too young for memories of days like this to stick other than in her dreams, but she drank everything in with those great big eyes.

We stopped at the Botanical Garden first so that Marian & Lynn could get some pictures of her in her Easter dress.    With both of them shooting and me coaxing, they were able to get some good shots.   Her adorable quotientDsc00995 remains high.

As I was walking back to the Tabard Inn from the Hilton with Wayne the other day, he was being amused at the way I've responded to all of this.  "If somebody's told me that you, of all people, would be completely into the little kid thing, I'd've said they were crazy."  I agree Dsc01521completely. 

When we got home Marian was asking what we thought she liked the best.  Probably the monkeys, we agreed, although she was pretty fascinated with the elephant as well.  It's hard to tell what she actually sees.    If there isn't movement to catch her eye, can she separate something so unfamiliar out of the general background of what's before her?   

I'm fascinated watching as she develops, and full of admiration for how Marian cares for her.  She's a very happy, very well behaved little person.  When I last saw her two weeks ago she was walking wobbly, but would still fall to a crawl when she wanted to get someplace fast.  This weekend she's crawling hardly at all. 

And she's got real language now.  Just some individual words, it's true, Dsc01553but she's starting to make sense.   Given how fast the past year has gone, it's going to be the blink of an eye before we start having real conversations.



The Arrogance of Conquerors

I'm babbling into my phone as I practically stagger down the street...  "I'd say it was one of the best that I've ever seen...  Except that they've each been one of the best I've ever seen..."

Lynn is laughing as she listens to my exuberance, "You always say that..."

I've just left the Shakespeare Theater Company's performance of The Persians, and, as is always the case when I walk out of the Lansburgh Theater I'm feeling quite overwhelmed by what I've just been a part of.

I've never been much of a theater goer.  Because of Marian's love for Broadway musicals, I've seen quite a few of those in the last decade (both in New York and on the road).  On the few occasions when I've seen a "straight" play, done professionally, I've enjoyed it tremendously, but it's just not something that I generally make time for, or even think much about when I'm travelling and looking for things to do.  But a couple of years ago, as I was getting out of the shower, there was a story on NPR about a new production of Cyrano de Bergerac.  I first saw a tv version of the play when I was in my early teens and it had a profound effect on me.  I've seen every version I could (including Steve Martin's marvelous Roxanne), and read it several times.   So I perked up at the radio story and was thrilled to find, at the end of it, that they were talking about a production that was about to open in DC and that it would be playing while I was there on my next trip.  I immediately got online and ordered a ticket.

It was one of the deepest, richest artistic experiences I've ever had -- right up there with seeing Branford and Ellis at Blues Alley, or walking out of the Whistler retrospective a changed man...  Since then, whenever I'm going to be in DC I look to see if there's something playing at the Shakespeare Theater, and if so, I get a ticket.  Doesn't matter what the show is. 

So this time it was The Persians.  The very beginning of the western theater tradition.  2500 years old.  And absolutely contemporary.  Bob Mondello has an excellent review in the DC City Paper that really gets into the details of the production.   I was too busy being dazzled by the theatrical effects to be as analytical about it as Mondello, so I'm grateful to him for explaining some of the stagecraft that was being used to pound me into emotional submission.  When I read his description of that final heartbreaking moment between Xerxes and his mother I wept all over again.

The play is only 75 minutes long, without intermission.  So there's none of the build & release of tension that one expects in a modern play.  It's just build.  As I practically stumbled out of the theater wiping the tears from my face, I wasn't even sure why I was crying.  They sure weren't the sentimental movie tears that Lynn & Marian tease me about -- this was something much deeper, a complexity of emotions mixing sorrow and anger and fear and astonishment and empathy and horror.  Maybe standing up on my theater seat and howling would have been a more accurate expression of the pounding in my brain & chest. 

This production would be as powerful and moving even if we weren't seeing it played out in front of us in the news every day.  The parallels between the arrogance of the Persians and the blind hubris of my president and his crew of blinkered fanatics couldn't be clearer.  2500 years.  Our politicians learn nothing.

The scholars have a few theories on what Aeschylus was trying to do with this play -- risky business to do something like this in front of the Athenians only a few years after the real events took place.  The one I find most compelling is that Aeschylus was beginning to see in the Athenians the same arrogance to power & grandeur that had led Xerxes to overreach.  It was a warning.  He won first prize in the competition.  And the end of Athens played out just as he might have foretold.

I try to listen to the little imp on my shoulder who tugs at my ear and warns me of my own hubris.  I've learned to be grateful to it -- saved my ass more than once.  I might have to ask sometime if it knows whatever happened to W's imp.  Did he never get one, or did it just give up a long time ago?  When the hubris imps gather in the Cloud 9 bar on their days off, do they look down at W & Condi & Rumsfeld & Cheney and shake their little impish heads in wonder?  And maybe there's even a bit of admiration at how willfully blind & foolish those humans can be, even with all of the horrifying examples of their history laid out before them.

What Does Open Access Cost?

In January of 2004, I drove over to Emory University for a seminar on Open Access.    One of the speakers was Harold Varmus, former NIH director and one of the primary drivers behind the Public Library of SciencePLoS Biology had finally been launched just a few months before and, while I was pretty familiar with what Varmus had to say in print, I was curious to see what his presentation would be like in person.

He started out, in standard fashion, listing the points he was going to cover.   Among them, he said that he would address the issue of the scholarly societies and how PLoS might be able to help them make the transition to open access publishing.  I perked up at this, because we were thick into the initial mudslinging between PLoS and the scholarly societies, and this sounded like it might be a move in a more positive direction.

However, when Varmus got to that point in his talk, the substance of it was that PLoS could serve as an example for what all of the scholarly societies ought to be doing.  That was it.  No practical advice.  No reaching out.   His discussion of funding issues was vague and disappointing.  I left the auditorium thinking that if this had been a roomful of venture capitalists that Varmus was trying to seduce into investing in his project, they would have shut him down after ten minutes and told him to come back when he had something that actually approached a business plan.

It was discouraging because I do believe that the elimination of subscription barriers to scholarly research would definitely be a public good.  But I also understand that publishing costs money and that there are very many different economic models among the myriad of publishers and that, for some of them, figuring out how to change the economics to reduce or eliminate their dependence on subscription revenue is a formidable task indeed.  The tone of moral superiority adopted by Varmus and some of the other open access partisans has not helped the situation at all.

The economic issues and the risk of unintended consequences are what Marty Frank addresses in his editorial in NEJM this week.  (Frank M.  Access to the scientific literature -- a difficult balance.  N Engl J Med 2006 Apr 13;354(15):1552:5).    Marty is the executive director of the American Physiological Society and much of his focus in his many years in that role has been to promote and develop the publishing program of the APS, and to keep it within the scientific community.  He has always resisted offers from the commercial publishers to buy him out, despite the potential financial windfall for the society, and in doing so has thought of himself as one of the "good guys" of scientific publishing.  Imagine his surprise (and his annoyance) to find himself, and his colleagues among the society publishers, castigated for being on the wrong side of the march of history.  His response was to found the DC Principles coalition and he has been, perhaps, the most vocal critic of open access and, in particular during the last year or so, of the NIH Public Access policy.   

Marty and I may disagree on many of the specific points in the debate, but we share a commitment to the basic principle of making the scholarly literature as widely accessible as possible.  Our differences may turn on the implications of what is actually "possible".  In his well-reasoned editorial, Marty raises a number of questions about the choices that face the scientific community as we try to address the challenges and opportunities that we're faced with.  They're the right questions.  He and I (and many of the others involved in the debate) may come up with different answers, but the questions cannot be ignored.  For that reason alone, his editorial is a valuable and important contribution to the discussion.  The open access partisans will do their cause no good if they simply dismiss it out of hand.

Interesting Rooms

Lonnie and I were talking the other night about conference hotels.  "The rooms are so sterile!" he said. 

There's a certain comfort in conference hotels -- it was probably my third or fourth MLA convention when, upon arriving in a new city at a new hotel, I realized I knew roughly where everything probably was -- I could find conference registration, and there'd be a ballroom, and a corridor with the smaller meeting rooms, and probably those would be on the 2nd or 3rd floor.  The designers of those hotels try to make them distinctive, of course -- just not too distinctive.  And while the guest rooms are, indeed, sterile and boring, there's a consistency to what you can expect.

But for some time now, I've tried to seek out the smaller, quirky, more interesting hotels.  I may not be spending a lot of time in the room, but I still want to wake up in a space that isn't completely bland.

You could hardly find anything less bland than the Tabard Inn, where I stayed last week.  I've been curious about it for years, but always ended up staying someplace else when I'm in DC.    I probably wouldn't have stayed there this trip either, if it weren't for the fact that the hotel rates everyplace else were highly inflated due to it being cherry blossom festival time and the end of a legislative session.    I'm a fan of the Kimpton Hotels (Helix is probably my favorite of the DC Kimptons), but those rooms were running over $300/night (I've stayed at Helix for as little as $119 depending on the season).  Wayne had mentioned that he was staying at the Tabard, so I thought I'd give it a try.

My room was huge -- two beds, a couch, several chairs, a fireplace, an antique desk (in fact, I don't think there was a stick of furniture in the place that was younger than I am).  Nothing particularly matched, and at least one drawer in the dresser had no bottom.  The effect was as if some Disney designers had been asked to create the hotel that time forgot, and had gone over the top with the assignment.  But this was the real thing.

No television and no clock (I used my iPod for an alarm in the mornings).  One old black telephone.  No coffee-maker (I brought a french press).  Tiny, european style sink in the huge bathroom.  Great shower.  My favorite feature was  the floor to ceiling windows that opened onto a small balcony at the front of the building.  Unlike the convention and chain hotels where you can typically open the window no more than an inch or two (if that), these windows opened all the way, and it was easy to step out onto the balcony -- if you were inclined to trust it.  The weather was quite beautiful in DC last week, so I was able to sleep with the windows open.

There are no elevators in the building.  I had two flights of stairs to climb to my room.  Not a big deal (although hauling the suitcase up on the first day was a pain).   The hotel would certainly not be to everyone's taste (after the group dinner, which was in the hotel's highly regarded restaurant, several people came up to "tour" my room -- it was easy to tell from the facial expressions who might be booking a room on their next trip and who would consider being stuck in such a room the vacation from hell...), but it certainly suited mine.

For my next few trips (Savannah, Denver, Phoenix), I'll be in standard conference hotels, but I'll make up for it in July.  I'm planning a driving trip out west, where I'll alternate camping with staying in interesting hotels.  I've booked nights at the Shackup Inn, the Hotel Paisano, and the St. Francis.     Nothing bland and sterile there!

Librarians Unnumbered

I found myself wishing that some of the Library 2.0 crowd could be listening in at the AAHSL New Director's Seminar last week.  A dozen participants, appointed to their first director's job between 6 and 36 months ago, and four of us old guys trying to talk about what we've learned in our combined century+ of experience.

On buildings & technology:  "I had lunch with the new director of the campus library and told her that I wasn't interested in helping fund a new ILS -- I don't even need the one I've got...   We're doing journal check-in at the circ desk now -- we don't get that many journals and since we've got to have someone at the service points they may as well do check-in while they're sitting there.  The people in the back are assigning metadata to the objects in our institutional repository...  That's where we think the future is..."

On budgets:  "There is always money...  it's a matter of building alliances and making choices...  A budget is just a way of planning and describing your priorities...  You need to understand the system, and then be very creative in making it do what you want..."

On human resources:  "It is essential to be developing and grooming staff at all levels all of the time...  Every open position is an opportunity to re-think how you're doing things...   The quality of the person, the energy and excitement that they bring to a position, are generally more important than any particular set of previous experiences..."

On the library's position within the organization:  "Relationships are the key -- you've got to be constantly thinking about what the community's goals are and how you can help move the organization forward...  Sometimes that means doing traditional library stuff, but often it will mean doing things that nobody ever thought to ask the library to do...  That's how you come to be seen as essential..."

I don't mean to suggest that the four of us (or any other random handful of our colleagues) have figured it all out, but whenever I hear the denizens of the biblioblogosphere proclaiming that we need to figure out how to embrace change and use technology effectively and engage our users in new ways, etc., etc., as if these are startling new ideas, I'm left scratching my head.  For many of us, this is what librarianship has always been about.

Excess of Democracy?

By tradition, the Lister Hill Library is a member of every MLA Section.   I know how difficult it can be to get feedback from section members, so I try to make sure that I vote every time a vote is called for (even for the single-slate elections -- it's a bunch of work to get those things together and it's depressing to do all of that and then watch a 10% or 15% response rate come in).  When a matter is coming before Section Council, and the council rep polls the membership for their thoughts on the issue, I usually try to respond.

Just recently though, I've noticed a trend that gives me pause.  MLA has a very convoluted process for determining the members of the nominating committee.  Sections and chapters hold elections for potential nominees, and then the councils select from those people the nominees who will actually appear on the ballot.  This year (and I think this is the first time I've seen this), several section council reps have sent to the section discussion lists the list of potential nominees and have asked for feedback on who they should vote for.   In some cases this has been very explicitly a ballot that presumably the rep will tally and then use to determine their vote.  I don't think this is a good idea.

It's reasonable for the rep to solicit feedback.  But the rep's job is, fundamentally, to use their own judgment in addressing the interests of their section.  If every issue that they're supposed to vote on is rolled back to the membership, what's the point of having a rep?  More troubling, given the very low response rates to these, the results are very likely to be skewed -- as often as not, the rep is not going to be voting the interests of the section as a whole, but the preferences of the small minority that bothered to return the pseudo-ballot.

In the big picture, there's no harm done.  Virtually anyone who gets elected at the section or chapter level is probably reasonably qualified to serve on the nominating committee.  But it seems to be a perversion of the process, in the quest for more perfect democracy. 

It seems perfectly appropriate to me when a message comes out from the rep saying, "There's a proposal before Section Council to create a new SIG.  Here's the background information and I'd appreciate your thoughts on the matter."  Presumably that gives the rep some useful information to consider in determining their vote.  Too often, however, I've seen messages back to the list soliciting more feedback:  "So far, the vote is five in favor of and three opposed..."  But my comments weren't intended as a vote -- that was my thinking on the issue and the rep is perfectly free to disagree.  Should five out of eight hastily composed responses be what determines the Section's vote? 

It'd be a different thing if the rep sent out the list of potential nominees and said, "Here's the list I'll be voting on.  If you know any of these people or think any of them would be particularly good, please let me know."  In that case, the rep is gathering additional information that they can use in fashioning their vote.  But to turn it into a ballot process comes close to abdicating their responsibility as rep.  When I vote for section council rep, I'm not voting for someone who will serve simply as a go-between from the membership to Section Council -- I'm voting in favor of their judgment, and indicating that I trust them to use it well.