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Debating FRPAA

There's been some chatter among my colleagues in the past week about a letter opposing FRPAA that is being circulated among the senior leadership of some of the research institutions in search of signatories.   This is clearly in response to the supporting letters signed by provosts from around the country urging passage of the act.   (The DC Principles coalition is behind the letter -- earlier versions can be found on their website).

The most recent draft that I've seen has seven signatures (including the dean of my own school of medicine), but I'm sure it will have more by the time it is sent to Senator Cornyn and made public.  Some of my colleagues have expressed surprise that senior academic officers would take the side of the publishers in this debate. 

I'm not the least bit surprised.   There's no neat divide between academia on one side and publishing on the other, particularly when you're dealing with the society publishers .   At my institution, for example, at least sixteen individuals in the medical school alone (including the dean and several department chairs) hold senior editorial positions for major scientific periodicals.    Our chair of physiology and biophysics is the current chair president of the American Physiological Society, and we have consistently had people in senior elected positions with the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.     We are not particularly unique in this regard.

Here's the deal:  I know many of these people.  I've worked with them.  I've talked about these issues with them.  They are principled, thoughtful people who have dedicated their lives to education and research and making their institutions stronger.   They sincerely believe that FRPAA threatens the health of the societies to which they have devoted a significant portion of their attention and time throughout their careers.  They are not wrong to be concerned.

In just about every issue of Rolling Stone, in the news section, there's a squib about the dire state of the record business.  CD sales continue to plummet.  There's usually a quote from some record company exec expressing hope that this is just a temporary downturn and because so-and-so's record is out next month and is sure to be a big seller, it's going to put a halt to the slide and get things back on track.   I shake my head and think, "Poor guy.  It ain't gonna happen."

Within a page of two of that story, there'll be something about the astonishing amounts of money being raked in for ringtones, or the phenomenal rise in the number of downloads from iTunes or some of the other paid services.  It's not that recorded music isn't making money or that people aren't listening -- but the business has been turned upside down by the changes in technology.

This is what's happening with scholarly publishing.   The terrain is being transformed and that's not going to stop.  Some journals are, indeed, going to fold, and it is disingenuous of open access partisans to argue that FRPAA and related efforts don't represent a serious threat.   The signatories of the DC Principles letter are right to be worried.    But they can't turn back the tide.  Whether FRPAA or something like it passes or not, traditional subscription-based publishing is on the wane, and societies whose economy is based on it are going to have to make radical changes in how they operate in order to survive.

Academic librarians should be worried too.  The societies play an extremely important role in the overall research and education enterprise, and we need them to weather this transition successfully.   I disagree with the signatories of the DC Principles letter in their opposition to FRPAA.  I have urged my Provost to sign the letter supporting it (not likely, but I gave it my best shot).  But in their concern over the well-being of the societies that they lead and participate in, I am firmly on their side and in their camp.  Yes, we need open access; but we need strong, vibrant and effective scholarly societies, playing a critical and key role in managing the scholarly communication enterprise.   


What's Fair About Confidential Pricing?

The latest version of the Nature license has generated another round of discussion about the pros and cons of confidentiality clauses (see Section 8.5 of the Terms for the offending passage).   The topic pops up from time to time on liblicense-l, and the positions of the disputants are pretty well staked out.   What caught my attention in particular this time was Sally Morris's comment that "making the price actually negotiated would be most unfair to the vendor, wouldn't it?"

I'm generally sceptical when people start talking about what's fair or not.  Librarians do this all the time, complaining that it is unfair for Elsevier (for example) to charge the prices that they do.  I've never been able to figure out how "fairness" plays into this.  Mostly it seems to me that when librarians complain about "unfair pricing" they mean "prices that I don't want to pay."   I'm sympathetic to the frustration of the librarians, but I don't see what is unfair about the pricing.

I feel similarly about Sally's comment -- I can understand why publishers/vendors think it may be to their advantage to keep the terms of negotiated agreements confidential.  They would like all of their customers to believe that they're getting the best possible deal, and if I find out that the university down the road appears to have gotten better pricing, that's going to make me push harder on my end (or make me resentful if I've already sealed my deal).    So it could be that more transparency about pricing would make negotiations more difficult for publishers in some circumstances.  But why is that unfair?

In the liblicense discussions, several issues seem to get muddled together -- differential pricing, negotiated pricing, and confidentiality.  Some of the proponents of confidentiality argue that without it, differential and negotiated pricing would not be possible (to the detriment of the publisher), and yet that's clearly not the case.  Many publishers use tiered pricing based on fte or type of institution and publish those prices.

It may be more of an issue with negotiated pricing, but again, I don't see this as a matter of "fairness".     It would require publishers to be more consistent, perhaps, with the elements that they use in determining a negotiated price.  It could make them less willing, on occasion, to drop the price as far as they might for a particular customer because they're leery of setting a precedent.  It might require them to spend more time explaining why one customer got a deal that they're not willing to give you.   It could lead some publishers to give up negotiated pricing altogether and rely on various differential formulas.

I don't expect publishers who rely on negotiated pricing to bend much on confidentiality as long as they believe it is in their best interest.  But it's a business decision.  It's got nothing to do with fairness.


People Come and Go

Nancy and BJ had some fifty years of accumulated experience at the library between the two of them, so their retirements over the summer have had a huge impact.   In general, I believe in the old saw about no one being irreplaceable -- nonetheless, when you have people who have been in senior positions for a long time (Nancy was deputy director; BJ, associate director for planning and assessment), they carry experience and organizational history that really can't be duplicated. 

I've heard it said that the most important things an executive does is hire and fire people.  I'm still not sure that I agree with that completely, but certainly for the last six months, those personnel issues have occupied the major portion of my attention.  It's not just key people leaving, of course; the daunting thing is the prospect of bringing in new people, and watching the new relationships form.

Given my own early mentoring by people like Bob Braude and Judy Messerle, I've always believed that getting the right person is more important than hiring for a particular skill set.  Of course, that's the kind of blanket statement that is subject to a thousand nuances in any particular situation, but, in general it is still true that as we've gone through many interviews over the past two years, of candidates for various positions in the library, I'm always more concerned with how this person will fit, and what they will bring to the relationship mix, than I am with the particular skill set.  If somebody is going to be here five years, they're going to learn a whole new skill set anyway -- so are they the kind of person who learns things quickly, who is highly adaptable, who is comfortable with ambiguity and eager to try some new things?  Do they have a perspective or a way of looking at things that is different from what we've got in the library now?  We need people who will be able to get along and engage effectively with a wide variety of personality types, but we also want people who bring divergent opinions and ways of looking at the opportunities before us.   "Fit" doesn't necessarily mean finding somebody that everybody is comfortable with -- sometimes what we need is a little shaking up, and the right person, with different ideas and ways of approaching problems, can be just the thing. 

I'm optimistic.   The people who have been working on our search committees have been doing an excellent job, and we've been seeing some good candidates (one of the hard things is turning down someone who has many of the qualities that we're looking for, but who, for one reason or another, doesn't meet that elusive "fit").  Over the next several months, we'll be bringing in a number of new people, and, inevitably, that'll mean significant changes in work relationships.  I think we're well prepared for it, but probably everybody is a little nervous.  I think that's a sensible attitude.


Trust in the Social Library

Given the people involved, the Five Weeks to a Social Library course that is currently a-borning promises to be a great experience.   Of the topics listed, the one that I'm most interested in is "Selling Social Software @ Your Library."  (And I'm curious as hell as to why that's the only one annotated: "no live Webcasts on this topic.")

The implications of making extensive use of social software within the library are profound -- at best, they seriously rattle general assumptions about hierarchy and information sharing.   I recall the presentation on social software that I saw at the NASIG meeting early in the summer.  While the librarians in the audience were clearly intrigued, the suggestion that anyone in the library could contribute to the draft of a policy & procedure manual (for example) was pretty difficult for some people to get their minds around.  ("But who's in control?"  Exactly the point.)

People are naturally suspicious of hierarchies on the job, and yet, they're protected by them as well.    It's a commonplace that when you control the flow of information in the workplace, you control the most important resource.  What many managers fail to understand, however, is that you don't ever actually control the flow of information -- you only think that you do.  The more you try to keep things confidential, the more energy you give to the rumor mill.   I've always believed that you're better off getting as much real information out as you can, even when things are seriously in the half-baked state.   My policy for many years has been that I'm happy to share information about anything that's going on in the library, or that I'm involved in within the university, except for individual personnel issues, or cases in which the Provost (my boss) has specifically requested that something be kept confidential for a time (and that's only happened a very few times in the decade that I've been here).   

Wikis and blogs are great for that, but they can be scary for a lot of people -- at all levels of the hierarchy (and do I need to mention that this is not a generational issue?)   There's risk involved in putting your own ideas out for all to see.   We work hard when dealing with group dynamics to lay ground rules that try to make it safe for people to speak up in meetings -- but it can be even more difficult when you're committing those words to the screen.  If you're going to build a truly social library, there needs to be a deep culture of trust within the organization.  Depending on where your organization is right now, that might take more than five weeks.   

I suspect that most of the people taking the course will be somewhere mid-hierarchy, which means that part of the "selling" will be to their bosses.  They'll have to be able to persuade those at the top of the hierarchy that the loss of (the illusion of) control is going to result in a stronger, more proactive, more effective organization.  And those of us who are higher up in the hierarchy are going to have to convince people that when we say that all opinions and views are welcomed and encouraged, we really mean it.



Josie Loves Barney -- Matthew Barney

I've read about a researcher who did a series of experiments to determine how long it takes for your eyes to adjust to a Rothko painting -- 35 seconds minimum, which is actually a long time for the typical museum goer to stand in front of a piece.  But if you get up fairly close to one of those magnificent late fifties or early sixties pictures, so that it encompasses your entire field of vision, and gaze at it, the colors begin to unfold and ripple in an amazingly sensual way.  What might appear, from a casual glance, as flat sheets of color, become deep and luminous and rich. 

So when I saw one of those big pictures at SFMOMA, I rolled Josie up to it in her stroller and crouched down next to her to tell her some stories about the magnificent Mark Rothko.  She pointed into it, in the way that she does when she's intrigued with something, and grinned.  Dimly, I heard a voice chattering about Rothko's early years and his lessons with Albers, and gradually realized that the docent had brought the tour group up behind us and was just off to my left continuing with her tour, while the group was arranged semi-circularly around Josie and I.  We moved on.

I wasn't at all sure how Josephine would take to the museum.  When we've been out walking the streets (her in her stroller), she takes everything in very seriously and will then see something that makes her point and laugh and kick her legs with delight.  Whether she'd see things that affected her that way in the museum, I didn't know, but I want her to grow up feeling that going to museums and looking at unfamiliar things and finding out what intrigues and inspires you about them is just a very normal thing for people to do, in the same way that reading books and listening to music and behaving well in restaurants are already part of her daily experience.

She liked the Rothko, and a few others of the big expressionist paintings on the 2nd floor, but what really set her off was when we went up to the 4th floor for the big Matthew Barney exhibit.   I was carrying her at this point so that she'd have a better view, and as soon as we came around the corner from the elevators to see the first of the large sculptures that comprise Drawing Restraint 9 she started pointing and squirming and squealing with delight.  I let her lead us through the rooms by her pointing, and we spent quite a bit of time there.  I have no idea what she found so intriguing in those big shapes, but she was quite clear about which ones she liked.

Today I think we'll walk over to North Beach.  I want to stop by the City Lights Bookstore and let her pick out something.  We've been to the farmer's market at the Ferry building, and seen the sea lions (which she loves to imitate).  Friday evening we'll do an Alcatraz tour.   I suppose it's doubtful that she'll actually remember any of this as she gets older, but we're still trying to give her the full San Francisco experience.


Travelling Under Code Orange

My mother called just as I was getting into my car to head to the airport.  She knew I was travelling today and was concerned about what delays or problems I might run into (I like that she'll never stop worrying about how her little boy is faring). 

I told her that I wasn't expecting any problems in Birmingham, although I was leaving for the airport an hour earlier than I usually would in anticipation of long security lines.   I'd checked on how the earlier BHM/ATL flights were faring.  There have been five so far today and they'd all left pretty much on time, so I was optimistic. 

Atlanta may be a different story, since Delta delays anywhere else will ripple through there, but I don't have to go through security in Atlanta and I'll just head to the Crown Room and wait it out.  Sooner or later my flight will leave.  In the meantime, I've got my laptop, and plenty of stuff to read.

I like travelling.  I'm always interested in watching the people and I've learned how to make things pretty stress-free for myself.  I've learned a lot from Lynn -- although my amount of travelling has actually surpassed hers in the last couple of years, when we first got together she had far more travel experience than I did, and she followed just a few simple rules to make it easier.    The first of them is to remember that there's always another plane.

Practical experience has shown me that I almost never miss the connecting flight, and since there's always another plane, there's never any point in worrying about it.  Getting delayed may occasionally be disappointing, but it is very rare that it has any real negative consequence.  I've usually got work with me, and I always have something to read, so if I end up sitting in an airport, doing the things that I enjoy doing, what's the problem?

Anyway, the Birmingham airport turned out to have no lines at security beyond the normal.  So I was sitting here at this Wall Street Deli ordering lunch a full two hours before my flight is scheduled to leave.  I've got free wireless and a new iPod.  I don't know how much time I'll spend in Atlanta, but I'm planning on thoroughly enjoying my day.


Defending Against DOPA

I can't place it now, but in a discussion thread a few days ago, a woman from Canada wrote, "But if DOPA saves even one child from being molested, isn't it worth it?"  The response pointed out that we could ban children from riding in cars or planes, which would undoubtedly save many from an untimely death.  Of course, the woman from Canada was not persuaded.

I'm not unsympathetic to her concern.  It's a scary and dangerous world out there (actually it's also a brilliant and beautiful world, full of kind and generous people, but we'll stick with the dark side for now...) and we do seem to be at a point in our nation's history where the fear of child sexploitation has taken on a hysterical tinge.

Later today, I'll be recording another Talis podcast with the "Library 2.0 Gang", and DOPA is the theme.   (Details on DOPA (the Deleting Online Predators Act) can be found here.)  In short, it seeks to deny e-rate funding to libraries and schools that do not block access to "commercial Web sites that let users create Web pages or profiles or offer communication with other users via forums, chat rooms, e-mail or instant messaging."

Providing access to these sites and tools has been a major part of the outreach strategy for many libraries, so the law is a matter of grave concern.  It's only passed the House so far, and it is unclear what might happen in the Senate, but even if the law doesn't pass, or doesn't pass in this form, it is an indicator of a substantial level of concern that many people have about what their children are up to.  I'm less concerned with this particular piece of poorly written legislation than I am with the larger issues that it points to.

I think it's useful to keep that Canadian mom in mind.  She's not ignorant, or hysterical.  She doesn't come across as a knee-jerk turn-the-clocks-back luddite.  She's trying to find the right balance in what her kids are exposed to and when. 

I'm persuaded that the benefits and the positive uses of social networking sites far outweigh the dangers -- but that doesn't mean that there aren't dangers.  So how do I develop a rhetorical strategy that can persuade the Canadian mom?  And are there some ways that librarians can meet these concerned parents part way and convince them that we're not just plopping their kids down in front of computers full of porn and predators and walking away?

Perhaps something along these lines:  The evidence is clear that pre-teens and teens across all social classes are drawn to the social networking sites and that IM is rapidly outpacing email as the preferred form of online communication.  We know (we should know from personal experience at the very least, if we can remember back that far) that kids are far more clever at doing things that their parents disapprove of than their parents typically suspect.   And we also know that the more we portray MySpace, etc., as dangerous places, the greater will be the desire to explore them.

As a consequence, if we prevent kids from getting to these sites in school and public libraries, they'll find other places -- places with less adult supervision.  They'll find friends whose parents don't monitor their online use, or they'll take laptops to Starbucks (all freshmen at one of the local high schools are getting laptops this year).  In other words, DOPA will not prevent kids from using these sites -- it'll only make them more tempting and, because the message we're giving is that these sites are bad, kids will naturally try to keep their activity a secret from their parents.

So suppose that what librarians do to counter this is to aggressively develop best practices and work with kids on understanding the pros and cons of these sites and the risks associated with various behaviors.   Despite the fact that the MSM has been full, lately, of reports about the really stupid things that some people do with their Facebook accounts, most teens are actually pretty responsible, understand the boundaries, are willing to do a little role-playing, but exercise reasonable caution.  (They'll take some risks, but they have to -- that's part of learning how to be an adult).  Enlist some of these bright kids, who are already leaders in their peer groups, to be the role models for developing responsible online behaviors.

The message to the Canadian mom is that no one can prevent your child from accessing these sites, but we can manage our library programs in such a way that you should want your child to be using our computers for these purposes because that's the best way for them to develop behaviors that will enable them to keep themselves safe.

The ALA strategy so far seems to be to emphasize the positive aspects of social networking sites and to encourage people to call their legislators to try to block DOPA.   That's important, but it may not be sufficient in the larger arena.   The ALA Resolution on Social Networking points out that learning to use the online environment safely is an essential component of education.  Maybe what's needed next is for ALA to take the lead in developing some guidelines for programs that libraries can use in making that learning a reality.


Decision Making

I'd been the director at St. Louis for about six months and found myself talking with Wayne at an MCMLA meeting.  He was asking me how it was going, and I said that at least I no longer felt everyday that the whole place was going to fall apart like sand running through my fingers, but I still really hated it when I had to do something that made somebody have a bad day.  He grinned and said, "Scott, sometimes it's your job to make them have a bad day."

I've told this story many times -- several times with Wayne in the room, and while he shakes his head when I tell it, he's never disavowed it.  When I took on the director's job, I was very inexperienced and the transition was pretty tough.  I had this notion that I had a dual responsibility -- to the institution of which the library was a part, and to the people who worked in the library.  I was determined that the decisions that I made would be equally good for both.

I found out soon enough that this view was terribly naive.  The two come in conflict.  All too often, the decision that is not only best, but necessary for the organization is going to have a negative impact on somebody.  Sometimes it's a matter of scheduling that is going to disrupt somebody's life.  Sometimes it's giving an opportunity to someone when there's someone else in the library who really wanted it.  On rare occasions it is as serious as taking someone's job away.   I cringe when I hear someone who aspires to a director's job say they don't like dealing with personnel issues, but they guess they could put up with it.   If that's the attitude, you're going to have a very difficult time being happy in the job, much less successful.

For the last year or so, we've been having monthly meetings of all of the supervisors.  Sometimes the discussion is on very practical things, like the revision to the supervisor's manual.  But sometimes the discussion gets into the really difficult parts of supervising, like how do you handle the situation where you've got to confront someone with performance or behavior problems.  "It can get really uncomfortable," someone said. 

"It should be," I interjected.  The further you rise in the organization, the more impact your decisions have on more people.  If that doesn't give you pause, if that doesn't make your stomach churn a little bit, then you're not paying enough attention to the human side of what you're doing.   You have to learn how to think those decisions through very carefully, considering every option, considering every impact, being very aware of how it may negatively impact somebody, of how it may be criticized and misunderstood, and then, with your stomach churning, go ahead and do what you believe is the right thing to do.

And you should assume that every decision will be criticized and misunderstood.  This is an aspect of change management that I haven't seen discussed much in the libraryland blogs.   I believe in having as open, transparent and participative a decision-making process as possible.  I believe in consensus building.  But "consensus" doesn't imply unanimity of opinion.  The quest for complete agreement, the desire to adjust to everybody's concerns in making decisions can paralyze an organization.   

Figuring this out on a day-to-day basis is an art.  It's never clearcut.  I almost never know for certain that the decision that I'm making at any point in time is absolutely the right one.  I rely on my own experience, on the advice of people that I've learned to trust, on the instincts that have developed over time.  On the good days, I look at what we're accomplishing and I'm proud of the part that I get to play.  On the other days, I put my head in my hands, grimacing at the bone-headed things that I've done.  I have more good days than bad, which, I suppose, is what keeps me coming back.

I'm thinking about all of this in the context of some of the frustrations that I see expressed in the blogs from people who are trying to create change in their organizations, but don't have enough authority to make the decisions that will get them to where they want to go.   A phrase I often use when talking about how to identify opportunities within the larger organization is "Find out what keeps the decision makers awake at night."   Whether it is the president of a university, or the CEO of a hospital, or the mayor of a small town, the people who have the authority to make the decisions that affect your library are going to have a small number of really key issues or problems that they are most concerned with.  If you can figure out how to present your idea as a solution to one those problems, your chances of getting the decision made in your favor are greatly increased.

The same, I think, is true within the library.  If you can figure out what the problems are that your library director or your supervisor considers most important, and couch your innovative idea in terms of solutions to one of those problems, you're likely to be more successful.  Part of doing that  is being able to see the situation from their point of view, and getting a sense of what they're trying to balance in making those decisions.  The more that you can do that, the better you'll be at persuading people to your point of view, and the better a decision maker you'll become as well.