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September 2008

Libraries or Librarians (Redux)

Awhile back, I was sitting with a group of library directors discussing strategies for dealing with the difficult budget situations that we all find ourselves in this year.  I was struck with how focused the rest of the folks in the room were on protecting the collections budget at all costs.   It is emotional for them in a way that it isn't for me.

I certainly don't mean to suggest that I'm not worried about the impact of the cuts that we're going to make this year -- it's going to be substantial and it is going to have a serious impact on the community that I serve.    But I am much more focused on the variety of services that we provide and making sure that we meet our commitment to getting people to the information that they need while helping them make appropriate and efficient use of it.  This'll mean making greater use of ILL and being cleverer about taking advantage of the rapidly increasing amount of information that is freely available.  I see no reason to shed tears over that.

But then, for me, the focus has always been on what librarians do, not what the library is.

In a way, the Ithaka report that is getting some attention in the blogosphere the last week or so makes the same point.    The report points to a dramatic drop in the perception of faculty of the library's role as portal or gatekeeper between  2003 and 2006.      In his comments on the report, Steven Bell asks, "But why are we only considering the role of the academic library as gateway, archive and buyer?"    The answer seems pretty obvious to me -- it's because too many academic librarians are so focused on "the library" that they can't clear their thinking to see how our skills as information managers are becoming increasingly vital in helping people sort through this maddeningly complex information world in which we now live.  As I've been saying for years the library is becoming less relevant, and no amount of hand-wringing over what we can do to get people to use the library more is going to change that.  But librarians are more relevant than ever, if only we can disengage ourselves from privileging our buildings and collections the way that we do and utilizing our individual skills in more effective and relevant ways.

My institution was recently awarded a CTSA grant.   This is an essential program for any institution that expects to be in the top tier of biomedical research in the future.  As our Dean of Medicine expressed it, it clearly divides the biomedical research world into haves and have-nots.   There is no more critical grant program for us right now.  When the award was announced, a couple of our librarians went to talk to the PI to see what we can do to help.  They didn't spend a lot time talking about the size of our collections.  They talked about what we can do to help with the training of junior faculty, with efficiently connecting researchers to the latest sources of information, about helping to develop a robust, integrated informatics infrastructure.  The PI did a presentation to the Deans council last week providing a full overview of the program and three times highlighted the fact that the libraries are involved, mentioning the librarians by name.

Yesterday I had a meeting with the Associate Provost for Undergraduate Programs and  one of the senior faculty in our sociology department who works extensively with studying homeless populations.  I'm interested in expanding some of our community engagement activities and seeing how we can get undergraduates more involved.  By the time we finished the meeting we had the outlines of a couple of projects, one of which would involve getting some of the students from his medical sociology class looking at our GoLocal installation to help assess whether we are identifying the right resources and describing them in the ways that are most effective in connecting the homeless with the services that they need.

I could go on.  The key here is that these are activities that are very high priority for my institution and what I am continually looking for are opportunities for us to apply our skills to help move those priorities forward.  I've been saying it for so long now, it sounds trite to me, but our job is NOT to build a better library.

A number of years ago, at the Charleston Conference, I was having a conversation with a few very smart, very seasoned librarians.  They were fussing about the future and worrying about what it would mean for them in a world where open access really does become predominant and traditional collection development is increasingly irrelevant.   Their outlook was pretty bleak because, as one of them said, "Building collections is what librarians are all about!"

"No," I said.  "Librarians are about getting people to the information they need in the most effective and efficient way possible.  Building collections was just the means that we used to do that given the constraints of the print world."

The way I see it, the mission of librarians hasn't changed at all.  But we're not going to fulfill it if we keep worrying about the future of libraries.  There's way too much interesting and fun work to do to waste time on that.


You Only Regret What You Let Pass By

When Lonnie called me a couple of weeks ago to tell me that the Venice was celebrating its twentieth anniversary and that there'd be a Liquid Prairie reunion, I knew that I wanted to be there, but that I probably wouldn't be able to make it.  And I was okay with that.  Lynn and I talked about it some and agreed that it just wasn't workable given everything else that is going on.  I emailed the rest of the band to wish them the best and to have a wonderful time.

Then, a week and a half ago, I was driving home from a late lunch, listening to the new James McMurtry album.  And as I listened to the lines from the title song, it washed over me that I was making a terrible mistake, that if I wasn't in St. Louis on that Saturday I'd always regret it.   I made some scheduling adjustments.

I'm going to drive up on Friday.  This is partly practical and partly sentimental.  The practical part is that I can bring the telecaster that Lynn bought from Ferd, along with some of my other gear.  The sentimental part is just remembering all of the time I spent on those highways during the two years that I was going back and forth between St. Louis and Birmingham before we finally got married and I moved down here. 

I'm coming back on Sunday, so there's not much time.  But I'll get over to the Missouri Botanical Garden (and I see that the Japanese festival is going on this weekend),  and maybe to the Pulitzer or the Art Museum.

I still remember clearly that Christmas party in 1992 when I borrowed somebody's guitar and croaked out a few songs.    At that point, I hadn't played in public in 13 years and I believed that music was just something I'd done in college.  Liquid Prairie gave me a second chance.  I've played a lot of music in a lot of amazing places in these past sixteen years.  It never would've happened if it hadn't been for the people that became Liquid Prairie taking me in.

Why in the world did I think even for a minute that I was not going to go?





MLA Connections Blog

Among the items in the MLA-Focus email newsletter that went out last night is one announcing the upcoming debut of the MLA Connections Blog.  As the announcement says, rather than having a President's blog as we did last year, this year we'll spread responsibility for posting among all the Board members and headquarters staff.  This should insure that there will be frequent posting from a variety of perspectives, and we're hoping that this will generate more discussion, via the comments, with MLA members (and non-members, for that matter -- it'll be an open blog).

It's another experiment in trying to make the organization more open and transparent.  The key, of course, will be the degree to which the members participate.  Years ago, when the internet was relatively new, there was a good bit of utopian talk about how the ability for everyone to participate in conversations was going to result in a more informed citizenry, better democracy, less disenfranchisement, etc., etc.  A pretty rosy vision, indeed.

The reality has certainly been a lot messier (take a look at the comment threads on the Annoyed Librarian's blog if you want to get really depressed about the quality of the "conversation.")   Nobody anticipated the trolls.

But I'm hopeful (if not optimistic).  The commitment on the part of the Board to open up the workings of the organization and to provide more opportunities for participation is very clear.  I hope the members step up and take advantage of it.


Can You Hear Me Now?

Diplomacy in those days moved extremely slowly.  Muscovite embassies took anything between six months and four years to return and report from foreign countries; and ambassadors often found on arrival that the situation no longer matched their instructions.

This, from Norman Davies' galloping and entertaining Europe: A History.  More than anything, as I've been making my way through this brisk survey, I'm struck by the impact of the differences in communication speeds.  Out of sight, out of reach -- and often for months or years at a time.  When your sons went off on the Crusades, you wouldn't know for years what had happened to them.  If your merchant husband made the tortuous journey to a city 100 miles away to try to strike a deal, you wouldn't even be likely to know when he expected to be back, much less when he might actually make it.  Time itself was a much fuzzier concept than it is now, with domestic clocks only arriving in the 15th century and watches in the 16th.  Think of the impact that this has on planning, on collaboration, on familial relationships, on one's own sense of one's place in the world and in the community.  What would your days be like if the only way that you could communicate with your sister who had moved to the next village over was by getting somebody to take her a letter (assuming you were both literate)?   A good friend of mine who lives on the Gulf of Mexico talks with her sister in Chicago by phone at least once a day.

Several years ago, when I was running an honors seminar on intellectual property and the Internet, I brought to class my Thomas Jefferson pen.  This is a replica of Jefferson's favorite pen, which he had sent over from the states when he was ambassador to France (and no, he wasn't able to put in the  order on his laptop one morning and have it delivered by FedEx the next day).  It's a dip pen, and a fine instrument it is, indeed.  I brought with me a bottle of ink and a couple of pieces of fine stationery and passed them around the table, asking the students to try writing with them.  They were entranced.  Then I held up my LoA edition of Jefferson's selected writings -- 1500 pages.  "And he wrote all of this and more with that level of technology.    What would that do to the way that you think about composing a letter?..."

Lynn's parents, from time to time, when we're traveling to a city where they know someone or have a relative will say, "Oh, as long as you're going to be there, you should give so-and-so a call."   When we were growing up, you saved long-distance calls for very special occasions because of the expense.  A call to my grandmother who lived 25 miles away was long-distance.   So if you happened to be in the city where someone you knew lived, it might be worth taking the opportunity to make a local call.

This morning, in my email, is a message from Bruce, in London.  There's another message from a guy whose daughter is planning on going to UAB and he's been asking me some questions -- I actually don't even know where he is, because it hasn't been relevant to my conversations with him.  Lynn has copied me on a message she's sent to Mark over in Beijing.  The assumption is that all of these will be answered within the course of my day. 

When Sherlock Holmes wanted to find out what was happening on the other side of London, he'd send one of his Baker Street Irregulars and maybe have some news in a few hours.  Find out what was happening in the midlands?  Have to take a train.

I picture my twittering friends walking down the street with a cloud of gnat-like strings of text buzzing endlessly around their heads.

Technology (and I am not using the word here as shorthand for information technology) is generally neutral in terms of its advantages and disadvantages.  Humans are extremely adaptable and what we do with the technologies we develop can bring us good or ill.  But I have no patience for those who chatter on about the impact of these technologies on our lives when they display no awareness of the long rolling curves of historical change.  If you're going to say something useful about the way the world is changing here in the 21st century, you'd better be able to empathize with the young woman who is seeing her husband off at the dock as he clambers excitedly up the gangplank to the deck of the Pinta, while she wonders when or if she'll ever hear from him again.



Tinkering School

I pulled into the parking lot and then sat, listening, until the NPR story about the Tinkering School was finished.  "That'd be perfect for Josie!" I thought, as I left the car and headed into the grocery store.   According to the story, the impetus for the Tinkering School came when Tulley was talking with a friend one day.  Suddenly she leaped up to yell out to her kid who was playing in the yard.  He'd picked up a stick, and the rule was, "no playing with sticks."  At that moment, Tulley says, he began to feel that the boundaries of safety that people were trying to create around their kids had gotten too expansive.  It was interfering with their growing and learning.  And he decided to do something about it.

So at the Tinkering School, kids (ages 7-17) use real tools to build real things -- bridges and boats, for example.  And that means doing things that are "dangerous."  I was amused at the kid who, after bumping or bruising herself on something says, "Oh, there's the injury of the day."  The correspondent says, "What's the injury of the day?" and the girl says, "You're only supposed to have one injury a day.  Yesterday I had three..."

Josie's Mom says she's going through a growth spurt, since she's been klutzier than usual the last few days.   She's lost track of her body's boundaries again.  When I picked her up on Saturday morning, she had her knees skinned in three places, had bounced something on one big toe hard enough that she'll probably lose the nail, and I didn't even bother to check her hands and arms.  She points to her injuries and says, ruefully,  "I'm the boo-boo queen."

When we were getting ready to leave for lunch, she couldn't decide at first if she was riding with us or with her Mom.  She started to get into my car, changed her mind and dashed in the other direction, tripped, and went sprawling across the sidewalk.  Since she was intent on catching up with her Mom, it didn't faze her the least bit.  Just a little more skin to regrow.

The desire to keep one's kids safe is intense, as it ought to be.  But the fact is, you can't keep them safe.  You can give them some protection, and try to teach them good sense.  And then figure out how to live with your own fear, and not let it get in the way of their becoming the bold and creative people that they have the capacity to be.

At the Tinkering School, they're not reckless, but they're willing to take some risks.  We talk all the time about the importance of teaching kids to become innovative risk-takers.  That's where success lies, we think.  But taking risks means that you will fail, and you will fall.  The lesson is in getting up and going on.


Campaigning in Alabama

It's going to be a long three months.  As I approached the ramp to the interstate this morning I was behind a big white pickup truck that had a very large sign plastered on the tailgate:

Obama promises to raise your taxes, limit our oil supply, and appoint liberal activist judges.  Vote John McCain

There's a bit of truth to the first charge, if it's me or somebody in my tax bracket who is reading the sign.  But it's not me that the sign is directed to -- most of the people in Alabama who read that sign would actually have their taxes cut under Obama's current plans.  I'm not sure where the charge about oil comes from and of course he certainly hasn't "promised to appoint liberal activist judges."  What I'm always curious about when I see things like this is whether or not the driver of the truck knows that these are lies or has been hoaxed into believing that they are true.  Or whether or not he cares.

And Dick Cheney is in town today for some kind of top secret fund raiser.

I hope there's a martini in my future.