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August 2007
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October 2007

Finding the Evidence That We Want

I've seen quite a bit of chatter along the lines of this post on LISNews celebrating the demise of Times Select:  "The message many companies are learning?  People expect the Web to be free."

Quite exhilarating for those who (like Chuck, the commenter on that post) who "have been in the free information business all along."  Pity that it's the wrong message.

Those who actually bother to read the article announcing the change will see that, in fact, a third of the Times' online subscribers, nearly a quarter of a million people, were willing to pay for that content.  Times Select didn't fail because people expect the web to be free.  It didn't fail at all.

People have short memories.  It was only a few years ago that it was a truism that "nobody has figured out how to make money off the internet except for Amazon and the porn producers."  Lots of people were trying to figure out how to make advertising work on the web and nobody was making much money from it.

Google changed that.  Somebody finally figured out how to make, not just some money, but a ton of money from online advertising.  Ad people are smart and quick, and they've been learning fast.  The NYT didn't pull the plug on Times Select because it was a failure -- they did it because the terrain has changed and online advertising models have matured to the point where they now have confidence that they can make a lot more money by selling ads than by selling the content directly.

This has nothing to do with some idealistic belief that "people expect the web to be free."  (Except, of course, in the trivial sense that all people always would rather get things free than pay for them -- but this has nothing to do with the web.)

What fascinates me is that none of this will change the minds of those who believe that it "was a loser of a strategy to begin with."  It doesn't matter if Times Select was successful according to the measures set by those who ran it.  To those who believed that it was antithetical to their view of how the web works it was a failure of an idea to being with, it would always be a failure (no matter how much money it pulled in), and the fact that the Times has made this change is clear evidence that it was a bad idea and that they were right all along.  (And I guess those 227,000 subscribers are weird abberations who simply are not behaving the way people are supposed to behave...  on the web.)

For the record, I was really disappointed when Times Select was introduced.  I thought it was a bad idea, I didn't think it would work, I never signed up and I'm surprised at how good the final numbers turned out to be.  I'm glad they've made the change. I just don't think it proves that information must be free, and that people won't pay for content.  I think it proves that I was wrong.   

But I am starting to get pretty annoyed at that full page American Express ad that I have to wade through now, every time I want to check the news.



Valuing Librarians

I was on the phone with a colleague.  She's been doing some consulting at a local hospital, and was getting ready to make a pitch to some of the senior administrators to try to persuade them that they needed to hire a full-time librarian.  But she's trying to figure out how to make sense of the rapid changes that are happening all around. 

"Should I tell them about this open source publishing?  What is the impact of that going to be?"

"Open access," I gently correct her.  "Open source relates to software development.  'Open access' is an umbrella term for a wide variety of experiments having to do with making scholarly content available without a subscription.  You're not going to be able to explain it to these administrators in five minutes.  Just tell them that the situation continues to be extremely complex and that most high-quality information continues to be very expensive."

"And what about publishers shifting to relying on advertising?  Is that the way things are going?"  She's referring to Elsevier's experiment with OncologyStat.

"Another experiment.  Certain segments of publishing have always relied heavily on advertising revenue, " I remind her.  "I suspect that this will be effective in some disciplines and genres.   But whether it  represents a major trend remains to be seen."

But she keeps asking,  "Where is this all going?" 

Damned if I know.

"Here's what I would tell them, if I were in your place,"  I say.  "Tell them that the publishing landscape is more complex than it has ever been before.  Tell them that increasingly there is good quality information that their health professionals need that is available for free, but it is mixed up on the internet with tons of junk.  Tell them that most of what they need is still expensive and it is not at all clear how quickly that's going to change.  Point out that there has been an explosion of different types of resources -- point of care tools, online textbooks, evidence-based databases -- that we're not just talking about online journals.  Tell them that if they're going to make cost-effective use of the time and energy and talents of their health professionals, that now, more than ever, they need a professional librarian to help make sense of this increasingly complex information space.  They don't need somebody to manage the library -- they need someone to help make sure that their health professionals have the best information available, in the right place, at the right time, in the most cost-efficient way.  Tell them that in this highly competitive health industry that they're operating in, they can't afford not to have that kind of a person on their team."

The demise of Times-Select is leading librarians to ask similar questions to that of my colleague.  Over on liblicense, Bernie Sloan says, "...if this sort of trend continues will it gradually begin to marginalize the library, bit by bit? In other words, if more information becomes available freely will that lead people to think they need the library less?"

Of course it will.  But that's been happening bit by bit for years now.  People do need "the library" less. 

But they need librarians more than ever. 

One of my gripes with the Library 2.0 crowd is that they're not radical enough.  For all of the chatter about embracing change and embracing the users and becoming more participative and making use of social software and social networks -- all of which I entirely agree with, by the way -- the focus is still firmly on the success of "the library."  How do we make the library relevant, how do we make it a cool destination, how do we make sure that people are using those resources, etc., etc., etc....   If we were really focused on what the people in our communities need, we'd quit talking about "the library" altogether.

At my institution, we're going to spend some $5 million in the upcoming fiscal year on library resources (all formats), so I don't mean to suggest that collection development isn't still a core part of our mission.  We're getting ready to spend some $8 million renovating the general campus library, so I don't mean to suggest that the building, and the services, are unimportant.  But they are clearly less important than they used to be.

One of the most intriguing things that we're doing here is helping to revise the medical school curriculum.  One of our associate directors is leading the development of the information management theme, where topics ranging from how best to use pubmed, to properly analyzing evidence-based medicine resources, to evaluating what you find with a Google or Ask.com search, to finding the best consumer-oriented information for your patients, will be tightly integrated throughout all four years of medical school.  It's the most extensive involvement of librarians with overall med school curriculum development that I'm aware of.   And, I should mention, that activity doesn't take place in our building -- our librarians are over in the medical school, participating in curriculum meetings, teaching in the lecture halls, holding office hours in the student lounges.  That's where we belong.

Physicians are drowning in information.  A recent post at Shelved in the W's highlights the dire situation that they're in.  While librarians worry about the health of their libraries, I'm worrying about the health of the patients that are being served by physicians who have only the faintest notion of how to construct even the simplest search. 

I don't give a damn what our medical students think about "the library," but I sure as hell think it's our responsibility to get them out of med school with a decent set of information management skills.

As I was talking to my colleague on the phone about the advice she should give to those hospital administrators, and was describing the kind of dynamic savvy librarian that would really make a difference over there, I was also offering up a silent prayer that they could find somebody like that.  Oh, they're out there -- but we don't have nearly enough of them to tackle the job at hand.

We need better librarians, not better libraries.



A Radical Critique of "Diversity"

All too rarely do I take advantage of the fact that, as a member of a university community, there is a stunning array of lectures and performances and programs available to me nearly every day.  I focus on doing my job and meeting my responsibilities and look wistfully at the events calendar at all of the marvelous stuff that I'm missing.  But I made an extra effort last night to stay late at the office so that I could go hear Angela Davis speak.  (I've been a member of the university Lecture Series Committee, one of the sponsors, for many years, so I got to sit in the reserved section up front, although, frankly, I had nothing whatsoever to do with arranging this particular lecture).

It was pretty stunning.  Davis was an icon of my youth.   She's a decade older than I am, so when I was in my mid-teens, struggling to find my own way to a sense of social justice and the true meaning of democracy and what I thought it really meant to love my country, she was a freshly-minted radical philosopher being pushed out of a teaching job by Gov. Ronald Reagan (who vowed that she would never teach in a California college), pursued by the FBI (on their 10 most wanted list), tossed into prison for 16 months (before being acquitted), unbowed and uniquely articulate in her passionate critique of the state of America.

I hadn't realized, until we started getting the lecture organized, that she was born & raised in Birmingham.  So among the 1300+ people packed into the hall last night, a fine mix of students and members of the community, were many luminaries of the civil rights movement, who had known her and her family back when she was a little girl and they were quite thrilled to be welcoming her back home as a tenured professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, as unbowed and impassioned as ever, a woman who has been called one of the most important public intellectuals in the United States.

She was fine and funny and laughed easily, but I was very struck by how evident it was that we were listening to someone whose early academic training was in philosophy -- someone who had learned the rigor of serious thought, of making connections between events, of putting facts and events into a broader conceptual framework so that you could try to get a global sense of the situation that you were dealing with.  She touched on many things over the course of the hour and a quarter that she spoke (although her work on prisons was the central metaphor for her larger discussion of "Leadership and Democracy" -- the title of her talk), but they were all embedded in a deeply thought out conceptual framework of what democracy and social justice could -- and should -- really mean for people.

I was particularly struck by her comments on "diversity."  She said she was troubled by much of the emphasis that she saw on diversity for its own sake, as if difference for the sake of difference made any difference to anybody at all; as if just making sure that you had a mix of racial/ethnic/gender types around was an end in itself.  She spoke of how that kind of diversity "provincializes" our relationship with the world; that it can actually increase our sense of separateness.   She pointed out that the current administration was the most "diverse" our country had ever seen -- and that in itself ought to remind us that diversity for its own sake is no guarantee of progress.  (Which led her to muse on the case of another, unnamed, person in the current administration who was also from Birmingham, and who had a very similar personal narrative to her own, who had been through many of the same formative experiences, but who had ended up taking a very different path into adulthood...)

But "diversity" could  be a important force, she said, if we think carefully about who is supposed to benefit from it, and how, and if that focus on diversity is used as a spark for creativity and learning and challenging the ideologies that we all find ourselves wrapped up in.  If diversity is a tool for promoting community and social justice, then it can be a powerful thing.

During the Q&A, there was one question, from a man perhaps my age, who spoke wistfully about the struggles of the sixties and seventies, when college students marched and mobilized; he wondered what could be done to motivate today's students to similar actions. 

"Today's students are doing wonderful things," she said.  "They're just not doing them the way that we did.  And that's the way that it should be.  It's easy to get nostalgic when you get old, to talk about 'the good old days', but things change, and everyone has to find their own way.  What kids today are doing in music and art and culture is great and transformative.  The great thing about being in a university is that I've been able to watch generations of young people rise to these challenges, but always changing how they deal with them."

I do an injustice to the depth of her thought and the delight of her presentation by trying to sketch it out this way.  But she was inspiring.  The eyes of the students in the audience were shining with a sense of possibility.


Once Again In Omaha

Our wedding anniversary will be late this year.

Oh, there's a calendar date that doesn't change -- the day we actually signed the license, and we always celebrate on that date, wherever we happen to be.  But the real anniversary is always on the day of the welcome reception for the Midcontinental Chapter's annual meeting.  In 1995, in Kansas City, that was on September 26.  This year, it won't happen until October 13, when MCMLA's joint meeting with Midwest opens in Omaha.

Omaha itself is pretty special for us.  It was at the MCMLA meeting there two years previous that our relationship began to change, to shift from a friendly relationship between colleagues, to something deeper.   In the early spring of  1992 we had met for the first time, when she invited me to be a speaker at a seminar she was hosting in Birmingham.  For the next year and a half, we ran into each other several times at meetings and we'd chat a little bit and she'd invite me out to dinner (since that's pretty much what she was doing for a living) but I'd always decline because I'd made plans with friends of one sort or another and as intriguing as I found Lynn to be, I didn't particularly want to give up an evening to chit-chat about the serials business.

But that fall in Omaha, I found myself with a free evening and, feeling a bit guilty about having turned her down several times already, I accepted her invitation thinking, "Well, she seems to be a pretty smart, witty woman who laughs easily and is quite fine to look at, so how bad can it be?"  We had a wonderful time.  It was still some months after that before we realized that we had fallen in love (as is often the case, a number of my friends had figured it out well before we did), but that dinner, at Vivace, marks the beginning.

By the summer of 1995 we were making wedding plans.  The challenge was that we were still living in separate cities and didn't know when that might change.  Most of our friends were library colleagues, scattered all across the country.  Our families lived elsewhere, so the parents would have to travel no matter where the wedding was.  We settled on the Midcontinental meeting.  It was in Kansas City that year, which meant that we could arrange to get the license in St. Louis within the appropriate window of time.   We'd get married at the courthouse the day after the meeting ended and put on a party at the hotel that evening.  We'd let our friends in the chapter know, and maybe some of them would decide to stay over for an extra day and join us.  And my band (Liquid Prairie) could come over from St. Louis and play for the party.

I didn't want to offend the conference planners, however.   (Conference planners can get awfully twitchy about things).  So I called a friend of mine who was on the committee and laid out the plan.  "Do you think that's going to upset anybody?  We don't want to take anything away from the meeting itself."  He said he didn't think it'd be a problem but there was a meeting of the committee the next day and, just to be sure, he'd bring it up.

I got a call from him early the following week.  "The committee thinks it's great that you want to get married in Kansas City, but why bother with the courthouse?  We've already booked a house for the welcome reception that a lot of people use for weddings.  Why don't you get married then?  We've already ordered the food.  Bring champagne and a wedding cake and you'll be all set."

It was just across the street from the conference hotel -- one of those old, grand houses, that had been turned into an event venue.   The reception started at 6:00, so at 6:30 we trooped across, with Kenny O playing his clarinet, leading us through the crowd, out into the garden in the back.  The ceremony itself didn't last more than fifteen minutes, and then we uncorked the champagne and dug into the wedding cheesecakes.  It was an official conference event, listed in the program.

So this year, we'll be celebrating our anniversary at the reception at the McGoogan Library (where, coincidentally, I first found out that I wanted to be an academic medical librarian during a week-long practicum in 1984).   They've got a fine event planned, and lots of our friends will be there.

And some people wonder why to bother going to conferences!

 


Roomful of Whistlers

I had enough time between working in the hotel room in the morning and the start of the MLA Board meeting in the afternoon to walk down to the Art Institute for lunch.  The last several times I've been they've had one small room in the Rice building devoted to his work.   Yesterday it contained an excellent cross-section of etchings and paintings from across his career -- if you knew nothing at all about Whistler, spending an hour in there would give you a very good notion of his evolution as an artist and the principle themes of his work.  Whoever is curating that room is doing a superb job -- although I still get annoyed at the obsessive emphasis by art historians on his "art for art's sake" esthetic.  (The descriptive panels at the Freer and NGA annoy me in the same way).   All one needs to do is spend a little time studying the faces in some of his portraits and etchings to see that he was interested in much more than just harmonious arrangements of line and color.  For all of his idiosyncratic posturing and prickliness as a person, he is one of the most utterly humane and sensitive artists of the last two centuries.

The board meeting is off to a good start.  I think there is a good bit of excitement among the board members about the prospects for doing more with the new technology tools.  The MLANET redesign is up, the social networking taskforce is off and running, and there are some intriguing ideas in the works for making annual meeting participation available to members remotely.   During the discussion of the business plan (i.e., what can we actually afford to get done), Mark (MLA pres) said, "my ambitions for this stuff are limitless."  I think most of us feel that way, but we are always hampered by being a small association with a modest budget.  Nonetheless, the will on the part of the board and headquarters staff is clearly there, so I'm optimistic that we'll make some useful steps this year.


Solitude in the City

I'm typically quite eager to get on the plane headed to wherever.  Even in these days when the papers are full of complaints about overcrowded skies and delayed flights I'm happy to be traveling.  So I was a little surprised yesterday to be feeling so blue as I drove out to the airport for my flight to Chicago -- particularly since Chicago is one of my very favorite cities.

It's largely because this time Lynn isn't going to come up to join me.  Back when she was on the MLA Board, I would come to Chicago following the February & September board meetings.  We'd stay until Sunday and go to museums & galleries, out to a show, try out new restaurants.  When I was elected to the Board, we set up the same pattern, and so she was initially planning to join me tomorrow.   But then, with all of the chaos surrounding the opening of Gymboree, she thought better of that plan and decided to skip this one.  I don't disagree with her decision at all, but it just doesn't feel right to be up here without her.

My reaction is particularly unexpected because generally I relish solitary travel.  I like being able to explore cities, to get lost in them, to find my way into unexpected places, on my own schedule, without having to deal with the long list of compromises that are usually part of the experience of traveling with someone.  But then, compatibility in traveling is one of the hallmarks of my relationship with Lynn.  I remember, very early on, during one of the first trips we took together, we were walking along having such a good time, and I blurted out, "Being with you is almost as good as being alone!"  As soon as the words were out of my mouth I was aghast, because it sounded horrible, but she just laughed and knew exactly what I meant. 

So I should have been glad for the chance to have an extra day on my own in Chicago, but the fact is that I identify this city so much with her now.  It's where our romance began, although neither of us knew it at the time.

I felt better once we landed and I was in the cab heading to the hotel.   The weather was ugly -- drizzly and hot and very humid, but weather never makes a huge difference to me.    It's the energy of the city, that particular informal, brash confidence that Chicago has no matter what the weather, that I admire.  This is a place where people are used to coping with months of those icy winds blowing in off Lake Michigan -- they're not about to be slowed down by a little late summer heat & rain.

Before I left home, I'd picked out the restaurant that I wanted to go to for dinner.   I've been to Bistro Zinc several times and only taken Lynn there once, but I've written letters to her there, written in my journal about her there, so I associate her with it even so.  It's the perfect type of a French bistro that I seek out in whatever city I find myself.

I get a table by the window and look out over the bustle of State Street.  I write for a bit, sip my wine, and feel myself relax.  I've brought along MFK Fisher's The Gastronomical Me to read while I eat -- what can be better than reading superb prose about great food while I'm sitting in a favorite restaurant having an excellent meal of my own!  It's almost as good as being with Lynn.

I call home as I walk back to the hotel.  "Did I have a good time?" Lynn laughs.  Oh yes, I say, and tell her what we had to eat.  I'm feeling much better now.  I'll read for a bit more before sleep, and in the morning I'll work for a few hours.  The magic of modern travel is that I can get just about as much done from my hotel room as I can from my office.  Then in the afternoon the board meeting starts and for the next two days I'll be too busy and occupied to miss her too much.    Come Saturday afternoon, when the meeting is done, I'll seek out a restaurant for lunch that I think she'd like.  I'll take out fountain pen and stationery to write her a letter.  Years from now, when I remember the afternoon, I'm sure I'll see her sitting right across from me.