Halfway Round the World

Alas, when people gather to share stories about the horrors of airplane travel, we'll have nothing to share about our flight home from Brisbane.   Everything was on time, all of the gate agents and flight attendants were friendly and good natured.  Economy class on V Australia turned out to be every bit as comfortable as advertised, and Lynn had some fun conversation with the guy sitting next to her, who was on his way to LA to meet, for the first time in person, his internet girlfriend of nine months.  We watched movies, had some pretty good food, slept for a bit.  I did a lot of writing.

We breezed through immigration and customs and transferred our luggage.  Stopped for a cappuccino, and then on to the Sky Club to check email and have a bloody mary.  It was early morning in LA, and just after midnight in Brisbane (our flight left Brisbane at 11:00am on Sunday and arrived in LA at 6:45am on Sunday.  I love that.)

I'd already upgraded us to first class for the flight from LAX to Atlanta, so we had lunch on the plane.  More reading and writing and another hour long nap.  A short layover in Atlanta, then home.

Halfway around the world in 24 hours. 

I was trying to explain to someone who'd not been to an ICML conference before what was different about this gathering from other meetings of librarians.  I said that, first of all, the people who came to this meeting had a shared concern for global health issues and, in particular, the challenges of getting good health information to people in developing countries. They have an expansive view of the role of librarians.  And secondly, the people who came to this meeting really wanted to be here, and most of them had gone to some personal expense and trouble to be able to make it.  Even with the global economy in the state that it is, there were some 500 delegates from 45 countries gathered.  So it's very different from the typical domestic regional or even national meeting where many of the people are there just out of habit -- they go every year and are mostly interested in seeing their friends and checking out the local restaurants.  Of course, seeing friends and checking out local restaurants was a very important part of this meeting as well.  As was finding new friends. 

The meeting was incredibly well organized.  The keynote sessions were uniformly excellent, from Jeff Drazen doing a brilliant kickoff that provided considerable insight into the challenges of putting out a top-tier journal, to Ian Frazer on the critical role that librarians have to play in addressing health challenges in developing countries, to Brian Fitzgerald, at the session that I chaired, doing a rapid-fire overview of the intellectual property issues swirling around open access, the Google book settlement, patents in the digital world, and the opportunities for collaborative drug development.   The contributed papers & posters covered an extensive array of subjects, and I have to give particular credit to the presenters for whom delivering a paper in English was a considerable challenge and who had the courage to rise to meet it.

Conference support was superb.  The Bearded Pigs even had a professional sound & light crew for our performance at the gala dinner.  With Malcolm up in the rafters monitoring everything, I'm sure we have never sounded as good (and likely never will again).  There were still a half dozen dancers on the floor when we finally wrapped it up at 11:30.

Oh, I suppose we'll tell the story about one suitcase being delayed for a day on our way in, and the tale of our poor lost cab driver who took two hours to get us to our hotel from the airport (typically a twenty minute drive) will be good for the telling.  But right now, after getting a good seven and a half hours of sleep and waking up at my normal time on a Monday morning, I've got nothing but good things to say about international travel.    Americans really ought to do more of it.





Value and Librarian Decision-Making

I was on the phone with  my Elsevier rep last year.  He was giving me the standard spiel about the tremendous value that ScienceDirect was bringing to my institution, in an attempt to talk me out of stepping away from the big deal.  Finally, I interrupted.  "It's not that you're wrong," I said.  "It's just that this isn't relevant to the situation I'm in."

"Look," I continued.  "If  Lynn and I go down to Jim & Nick's for dinner, we might spend $50 and have a really good meal.  If we go to Hot n' Hot, I might spend $200 for an exceptional experience.  I might feel that the $200 actually represents a better value overall, but if all I've got to spend on dinner is $20, the comparison is irrelevant.   The point is, I'm just not willing to spend what you're asking, no matter how valuable you tell me the content is."

He still seemed pretty surprised some weeks later when he finally got our order and we'd done exactly what we said we were going to do. 

Librarians in general have not been terribly good negotiators.  Too often, what passes for negotiating is to plead poverty and beg for the percentage increase to come down a couple of points.  A good sales rep knows this, and past evidence demonstrates that, with very few exceptions,  librarians will always plead that they can't afford it,  but somehow they always come up with the money. 

This year, in the face of an economic downturn more severe than working librarians have ever known, the pleas of poverty have gotten louder.  And some publishers have responded by announcing price freezes.  Whether or not those publishers hope to be able to recoup in future years by instituting compensating price increases remains unknown.

Librarians have expressed gratitude to those publishers, but an exchange on liblicense-l this week highlights the question of the degree to which that gratitude will be translated into action.  Will librarians "reward" publishers that freeze their prices and "punish" those that come up with price increases, even if those increases stay within the normal ranges that we've come to expect?  Or will librarians do what they've always done and eventually make their decisions based on what they believe they can't do without, regardless of the pricing structure?  Joe Esposito speculates that if the latter is true,

it may be in the interests of a publisher of the higher quality publications to raise prices even in desperate economic times, as such a publisher is protected by the armor of outstanding editorial content and can stand by and watch as the weaker editorial products get cancelled, despite the generous trading practices of those unfortunate publishers.


So if I'm a gutsy publisher, who believes that my content is the stuff that libraries can't do without, this may be a golden opportunity to further weaken the competition.

Whether that turns out to be a good gamble or not depends on what librarians do over the next couple of months as they make decisions for 2010.  The major commercial publishers have done a very good job of betting that when push comes to shove, librarians will always come around, no matter how much they fuss.

As far back as my first AAHSL meeting in 1987, I've been listening to librarians say that publishers have got to change their pricing practices because the current system is simply not sustainable.  And yet, librarians have done a very good job of sustaining it.

I wonder if that will turn out to be the case again this year.


Getting things done

Rod asks perceptive questions.  We've been having a good time.  He's been here this week for his second site visit as part of our participation in the NLM/AAHSL Leadership Fellows program.  During his first week, back in April, we tried to structure the week to give him a broad overview of the library and its relationships to the rest of the university.  This week we've been digging in more depth into how the library itself runs, so we've had long and intense discussions about budget and personnel issues and strategic planning and all of the things involved in moving the organization forward.

"Don't let perfection or 'better' be the enemy of good."  My colleague, Jim Shedlock, uses this phrase as the tagline on his sig file.  It indicates a theme that Rod and I have returned to many times this week. 

I'm often grateful that I'm not a perfectionist.  Like the quest for perfect information in decision making, the impulse towards getting things exactly right can be paralyzing.  Or at the very least, time wasting.

We've been talking about how to achieve that delicate balance of engaging all of the members in a group, getting all of the opinions and issues on the table, and then deciding which to take into account and which not, in order to keep things moving.  Time and again I've seen situations where, in the quest for perfect consensus, the desire to accommodate the opinions or concerns of a single member of the group end up either derailing the process altogether or, at best, resulting in a solution which is actually not as effective as it might have been, had it not been for the desire to adjust the result for that single individual.

It's a very difficult judgment call on the part of the leader.  If you don't accommodate every objection or issue, you run the risk of having members of the group feel that their views are being insufficiently respected, and that can sabotage your group process altogether.  And sometimes, the views of that outlier might be exactly the brilliant idea that is needed.  On the other hand, trying to come to perfect consensus all too often leads to the result found when trying to "write by committee."  By the time everybody's edits have been incorporated, the document is a stilted, bloated, caricature of what might have been.

There's no magic formula that tells you (the leader) what to do in these cases.  You rely on experience, good listening, asking the right questions, and an intuition for when it's the right time to pull the plug and move on.   You hope that you'll get it right more often than not, but the fact is you're going to get it wrong sometimes too. 

Fortunately for me, I'm comfortable with that.  It's good enough.

It'd kill a perfectionist.


The Future Is A Playground

I have this vague memory that it was Peter Drucker who said something to the effect that, "Planning is an exercise in predicting the future.  The odds are you're going to be wrong more than half the time."

I find that to be extremely comforting. 

What paralyzes a lot of people is that they find it terrifying.  It could be a simple test for one's fitness as a library director (particularly in the first decade of the 21st century).   What's your immediate visceral reaction to that statement?  If you're dismayed, you'd best look for a different line of work.  If it relaxes and invigorates you, then dive right in.  You can't predict the future, says Drucker.  So see if you can create it.

We're on an October 1 fiscal year, so July is always the crux of budget and annual planning.  The budget model needs to be finalized by the end of the month and sometime in late July or early August I have my annual planning meeting with the President and the Provost where we sit down and review the past year and try to plot out the key objectives for the next one.  This year, the planning meeting was yesterday afternoon.  I'll finalize the budget model when I get in to the office this morning.

I've got about $4.2 million to play with.   Over half of that goes to salaries & benefits.  Another quarter million keeps the lights on -- phones, office supplies, computer support contract, copier leases & maintenance, postage & delivery charges.  All the mundane costs that are fairly fixed.  So the choices really come down to how to spend that last $1.3/1.4 million.  How much do I need to set aside for upgrading the ILS?  Can I squeeze out another librarian position?  What do we need for computer upgrades, for sending people to conferences?  And with what's left can we buy enough content to meet our commitments to the university community?

And then, given the current economic climate, how much should I hold in reserve in case the governor decides to declare proration and take some of what I think I have back two months into the fiscal year?  And how much do I need to save to cover what the budget cuts for the next year might be?

Of all of the Star Trek movies, my favorite is The Voyage Home.  And my favorite moment in the film comes near the end, when Spock is trying to calculate the speed and trajectory that will get the ship around the sun at the right angle to swing them back into their own time.  He doesn't have all of the information he needs to get the calculations exactly right.  McCoy tells him he'll have to guess.  Spock says, "Then I will try to make the best guess I can."

Story of my life. 



Thanks be for Jay Daly

Medical libraryland is mourning the loss of Jay Daly, who passed away last week.  Can there be a medical librarian who hasn't heard his name?  And can there be anyone who managed to spend some time with him who wasn't better off for the experience?  I didn't know him at all well -- only chatted on a couple of occasions -- but just that much improved my life.  And, he was a member of the Thicket Society.

I can scarcely imagine what the loss must be like for those who were close to him.

Marc Laroque does a fine job with the obit in today's Globe.  Read it, and pledge to Jay's memory that you're going to be a better, kinder person from now on.







Open forum on the ethics task force at the MLA annual meeting

I volunteered to be the note taker for the open forum on ethics that was held at the MLA annual meeting in Hawaii a couple of weeks ago.  Those notes are now up on the MLA Connections blog.  Rachel's notes, which include tweets from the session, can be found on the Official MLA meeting blog.

Earlier today I spoke with Lucretia about how we're going to proceed.  There are four broad areas:

  • Potential revisions to the MLA Code of Ethics itself
  • Potential revisions to MLA Disclosure of Conflicts of Interest policy
  • Review of MLA Business Practices pertaining to relationships with vendors
  • Draft of "preferred practices" for vendors in their marketing & advertising efforts, particularly in relation to activities at the annual meeting

We hope to have a final set of recommendations ready to go to the Board of Directors by mid-August so that they can be considered at the Board's September meeting.

I thought the discussion at the open forum was very good, and we will be incorporating many of the ideas that came up as we prepare our final report.  We would still like to get additional ideas and feedback, however, so I'd welcome any additional comments or questions here, or on the posts at the Connections blog or the MLA meeting blog.



Too Predictable to be Annoying

In the waning days of the Clinton administration, when many of my friends who'd had such high hopes when Bill was first elected were down in the dumps over the unsavory aspects of his character and the failures of some of their most cherished initiatives, I was fond of saying, "Bill Clinton has never disappointed me."  I rather liked Bill, happily voted for him twice, and think that, all things considered, he had a pretty good presidency.  But I never had illusions about his ego, his excesses, and his feet of clay.  Much as I wish he hadn't been an idiot, I never felt personally betrayed.

I feel the same way watching the flurry of dismay being expressed over the latest issue of The Journal of Access Services, which is apparently a collection of edited blog posts from the Annoyed Librarian.  I'm not disappointed that this appeared in a Haworth journal because, with very few exceptions, I don't have much respect for Haworth as a journal publisher.

I hasten to add that there are very many fine librarians working on Haworth journals as editors and editorial board members and some good material has shown up in the pages of some of those journals.  Medical Reference Services Quarterly has distinguished itself over the years as a pretty useful journal.  But, particularly in the last decade or so, Haworth's approach has been to come up with smaller and smaller niches, and then rope in a bunch of librarians to serve as editors and editorial board members, feeling fairly confident that they'll be able to eke out just enough subscriptions to make the journal marginally profitable.  They exercise little, if any, quality control and clearly provide little support and guidance to their editors.  Most of the journals, particularly the newer ones, are obviously starved for quality manuscripts, so it's not as if they're really filling a need.   Librarians complain about the excesses of commercial publishers, and proclaim the ethical superiority of open access, but when offered the ego stroke of their name on a masthead, appear to be happy enough to work their asses off to enable a two-bit publisher to make some money.   I remain hopeful that the Taylor & Francis acquisition will result in some judicious pruning of the title list, but that remains to be seen.

Personally, I enjoy the Annoyed Librarian.  The kerfuffle over her column in LJ seemed to me a pretty sad example of how librarians (like anybody else, I guess) can quickly lose their senses of humor when the satirical knife gets a little too close to home.  As AL herself has said, the silliest thing anyone can do is to take the Annoyed Librarian seriously.  (And I'm definitely on the side of those who think there is a world of difference between a pseudonymous blogger and an anonymous one). 

But while I think it's fine for Library Journal to pick her up as a columnist, to devote an issue of a supposedly peer-reviewed scholarly journal to a series of edited blog postings that are meant to be nothing more than light entertainment in the first place is pretty reprehensible.  I haven't seen the physical issue (and, of course, it goes without saying that this is not an open access journal) so I don't know how the editor justifies it -- but I'd be hard-pressed to come up with a valid justification.

To those librarians who say, "That's it, I am never going to submit to another Haworth journal again!" I say, "Good for you and it's about time."

But as far as being disappointed by Haworth?  Nope.  Not surprised at all.




The Myth of Digital Democracy?

Yes, we're disappointed.  When the MLA Board of Directors held its fall meeting in Chicago a few weeks ago, one of the major agenda items was to begin the process of updating the associatioin's strategic plan.  We started talking about it, and about how to get member input, and somebody suggested that we put it up on the new Connections blog and let people react.  Excellent idea, we agreed.  Rather than a dozen people holed up in a meeting room deciding on the direction of the association, let's get the membership involved right from the very beginning.

So MLA President Mary Ryan put up the post a couple of weeks ago, asking for feedback by the end of the month.   Krafty picked up on it the next day and put up a post encouraging people to get involved.

Since then, nothing.  Not a comment.  I know that it can't be because people don't care about the priorities and goals of the association.  We have a pretty good level of involvement (as measured by the number of people on committees and task forces and serving as officers in sections) for a volunteer association.  And from time to time there's a flurry of comment on MEDLIB-L suggesting that MLA should do this or do that.  So here's an easy opportunity for people to provide their thoughts about the direction that the association should take and no one is taking advantage of it.  Why is that?

Personally, although I am disappointed, I'm not very surprised.  I've always been skeptical about the promise of online communication.  Many years ago, when the type of ubiquitous communication that we have now was still just a vision, the most optimistic futurists would write in glowing terms about the dawning of a new age of participative democracy, a leveling of the playing field, the ability for everyone to have their say on any issue of importance.   The elites would lose their grip on power and communities would come together to have more fruitful discussions and to make better decisions.  The reality, of course, particularly as demonstrated in this election year, has been pretty ugly.

When Mark Funk chose "Only Connect" as his presidential theme, it signaled a commitment on the part of the board of directors and headquarters staff to use the new communication tools to create a broader connection among the members, and to provide opportunities for involvement at a level that we haven't had before.  I think we've had some real successes, particularly among members of committees and task forces.  But we're not engaging the broader membership yet the way that we'd like to.  The intention of the Connections blog is to provide a forum where anybody can get their two or three cents worth in.

We're doing our part.  But if the members aren't willing to take the time to participate, then what's the point?  Are we just fooling ourselves?  What do we need to do to make the potential of those connections a reality?


Evidence Based Librarianship?

I have this naive, idealistic notion that librarians, moreso than the members of most other professions, should be particularly scrupulous about facts.  My idealism is often tested.  The latest disappointment comes from the rising tide of hysteria in the biblioblogosphere over Sarah Palin's attempts to ban books when she was mayor of Wasilla and for trying to fire the city librarian for failing to do so.  But a careful reading of the facts reveals no evidence for either of these charges.

The fullest account that I'm aware of is in the Anchorage Daily News, but even a careful reading of the Time magazine article, which appears to be where most people picked up the charge, gives a subtly different picture.

Palin clearly inquired of the librarian, at least three times, what her position would be if she were asked to censor books.  The librarian was aghast at the very suggestion.  Given Palin's background, I think it is reasonable to assume that if a case had arisen where a citizen wanted something removed from the library, Palin would have supported it.  My guess is that her questions to the librarian were intended, at least in part, to get an idea of how big a fight she'd put up and what kind of process was in place.   But there is no indication that an attempt to ban or censor anything ever actually occurred.

Palin definitely tried to fire the librarian, as she did other city officials.  She did fire the police chief.  Both the librarian and the police chief had publicly supported her opponent in the mayoral election.  The police chief had nothing to do with banning books, and Palin backed down on firing the librarian.  Did the librarian's response to the inquiries about banning books add to Palin's concerns about her "loyalty"?  It certainly didn't do her any good.  But there isn't any evidence that it was the primary cause for the attempted firing.

Palin's speech on Wednesday was a breathtakingly cynical array of exaggerations, misleading statements and outright lies.  There are lots of good reasons to be opposed to her election as Vice-President, and I would not want to be misinterpreted as trying to defend her.  But I suffer from this quaint devotion to the facts and it's hard for me to see how claiming that Palin attempted to ban books and then tried to fire the librarian for failing to do so is any different than claiming the Michelle Obama hates America or that Barack is going to raise everybody's taxes or any of the other ridiculous claims that set democratic supporters frothing over the terrible misdeeds of Republicans.

If those who support Obama can't do any better than that, one could almost be forgiven for sitting this election out.  I won't, because I think the issues are too important, but I'm often not much happier with those who are supposedly on "my side" than I am with those on the other.


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.