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.

Impact Factors For Library Literature

Notwithstanding all of the usual caveats about the misuse of impact factors, I'm pleased to see the numbers that have just been released for the Journal of the Medical Library Association.   It now stands at #14 out of the 56 journals included in this year's "Information Science & Library Science" category.   The thirteen journals that have higher impact factors tend to be more "information science," so it's not surprising to me that many of them would have higher IFs.  Of the more library oriented journals, Portal comes in next at #20, College & Research Libraries is #22, Library Quarterly is #32, and the Journal of Academic Librarianship is #33.

During the time that I was the editor, I viewed the scope of the JMLA as very broad, and we often published articles that would be relevant to the general library and information science community.  The numbers would indicate that this trend has continued under the current editorial team, and I hope that it will progress even further as Susan Starr transitions into her role as the new editor. 

Open Access 2.0

In general, when Joe Esposito posts to the liblicense-l list, I find that I agree with him about 65% to 70% of the time (a high percentage for me, I hasten to add).  But in his new article in the Journal of Electronic Publishing, "Open Access 2.0: Access to Scholarly Publications Moves to a New Phase," his percentage has definitely moved up a notch.

He does an excellent job of describing the broad functions of publishing that I was clumsily alluding to in my post this morning (had I read his article sooner I could've saved myself some typing and just linked to it there).  Part of what he describes so well, and which I wish that my librarian colleagues would get a better handle on, is just how various publishing is -- how different publishers can be from one another in their intent and their reach and their audience and their services, and how, as a consequence, whenever we make blanket statements about publishers they are invariably wrong or trivial.

His "nautilus model" for scholarly communication is, I have to say (just having returned from a trip to the UK), brilliant.  It's clear, accurate, and provides a wonderful template for a much more nicely nuanced discussion of open access than we usually see.  What is so refreshing about Esposito's discussion is that he clearly doesn't have an evangelical axe to grind either way -- he's just trying to figure out where open access might fit within the very broad spectrum of scholarly communication.

Do I agree with 100% of what he says in the article?  Of course not.  But hell, on any given day, I don't agree with myself 100%.

The Instability of Information

In the second part of Darnton's essay in the New York Review of Books, he makes a strong case for the continuing importance of large academic research libraries.  As a self-described "Google enthusiast," he believes that "Google Book Search really will make book learning accessible on a new, worldwide scale, despite the great digital divide that separates the poor from the computerized."  But he goes on to argue eloquently that not only will this mass digitization not make research libraries obsolete, it will make them more important than ever.  I think his arguments are compelling, although they will not come as any surprise to librarians who have been thinking clearly about the issues.

It's the first part of his essay that I found particularly illuminating.  Darnton argues that, contrary to the "common view that we have just entered a new era, the information age," which he sees as rooted in the long-term view of technological transformations, "every age was an age of information, each in its own way, and that information has always been unstable."

As a cultural historian with an outstanding reputation, he is well-suited to making this claim.  Years ago I was fascinated by his book, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History, in which he shows how our understanding of history is shaped and molded by the ways in which unstable information is passed on and examined.  In the NYRB essay, he has a couple of excellent examples to make the case that "news has always been an artifact and that it never corresponded exactly to what actually happened. ...  News is not what happened, but a story about what happened."

The common wisdom here in the internet age is that things are radically different from the way they've been before.  This is the point of view that I criticized in my comments on Everything is Miscellaneous in response to Rothman's question about what I didn't like about the book.  This predilection to see the present as radically discontinuous from the past isn't new, of course, and it isn't restricted to views about information.  My peers and I in the late 60s believed that our generation represented a radical break, not just with our parents', but with every generation that had gone before.  We were foolish in this belief because we were ignorant of history.

The point is not that things aren't changing, or that the world isn't different today from what it was a couple of decades ago.  The point is that this has always been the case, and our tendency to think that the world of our predecessors had a kind of stability that is lacking in the present world is an illusion.  Change is continuous and incremental and multivariate and beautifully complex.  When we look at the past, or try to understand the present, we break things up into epochs and ages for convenience sake.  We label the decades and try to pin them like butterflies to a display board.  We categorize and classify time just as we do everything else.  But that's just a way for us to abstract things so that we can find ways to understand and talk about them.   Realities are far more complex.

Faulkner said it best:  The past is never dead.  It's not even past.

It's Not The Future Anymore

We have a post-meeting meeting over lunch on Wednesday.  We've been in Chicago for a week and we're all pretty wired and exhausted.  But we're giddy and happy.  There is general agreement among the members of the MLA Board of Directors that this has been one of the best MLA meetings ever.  Carla talks about the incredible energy that seemed to swirl through the conference.

We know why.  It's these guys.  Not just the four on the stage, of course (although that's a damned impressive quartet right there), but what they represent -- so many amazing librarians who've come into the profession in the last few years with a degree of passion, smarts, wit, exuberance, and joy that absolutely thrills me.   They were all over the place this year.

I think it was Bart, in that last plenary (although in the whirl of trying to remember everything that's happened over the last week I could easily be wrong), who said that we need to become familiar with the tools and the social networks and all the stuff because "that's where our future is."  I'll quibble with that a bit.  It's not where the future is.  It's where now is.  I feel like we've spent the last decade or two as librarians trying to catch up to the future.  It's time to quit running after it and just dig in and have fun with what's going on all around us right now.  No fear.

I ran myself ragged, of course, and didn't get to half of what I thought I was going to try.  But we had the bloggers this year, and that helped.  I checked in with 'em every night and morning, and they did a great job (despite the infrastructure issues that Krafty talks about).   I hope that as they get home and get rested, they'll each put up a few more posts before we all get on with our lives next week and the memories of this exhilarating week start to fade.

I've enjoyed every one of the twenty-five MLA meetings I've been to, but I don't think I've ever come home feeling quite so much that this year marked the turning of a page.  Mark (no relation to Carla) Funk gets huge amounts of credit, of course, but he'd be the first to point to all of the other people -- past presidents, board members, incredible headquarters staff, and all of the people who participate in sections & committees & task forces and all that stuff.  But he had the wit and foresight to seize this particular moment in time and demand that we live up to the opportunities facing us on all sides.  The right president at the right time (may the nation be so lucky, come November).

As Rothman quite rightly points out (and as Mark described in his inaugural speech last year), the point of the conference is the people you spend time with.    And even more than with most meetings, that's what I'm going to remember about this one.  There are still those in libraryland who will whine endlessly about the imminent demise of libraries and beat the doom drum that says we're all going to be obsolete in just a few years.  Fine.  If that's what makes you feel better, go ahead.  For my part,  I'm not worried.  You can't spend time around these people without getting excited about what's going on now and tomorrow and next year and the decades after that. 

I've been saying for years that it's a fabulous time to be a librarian.  It just keeps getting better.

My favorite single moment?  Monday night, late.  I felt honored.

Lurching Toward Transparency

At yesterday's MLA Board of Director's meeting, Mark presented his update on his presidential priorities.   The essence of his presidential theme ("Only Connect") has been to encourage the association to make more use of the new communication technologies to create a more vibrant, more transparent organization that more effectively embraces all of the association's members.  We're not close to where we'd like to be yet, but we've made substantial progress in the past year.   Blogs & wikis are proliferating throughout the association's units.  The plenary session on Wednesday will be webcast live.  There are ten official conference bloggers who are having their wifi paid by the association. 

Most important for the long run, the Board of Directors and the Headquarters staff are solidly behind these efforts.   Mark has done a superb job during his presidential year of inspiring all of us to be more experimental, to stop worrying about getting it "right", and to try to foster a spirit of innovation in our association and in our own libraries.

The pace starts picking up today.  The board meeting starts up in another hour.  At 5:00 I'll go to the NLM/AAHSL Fellows & Mentors reunion, and after that I've got a three hour credentialing committee meeting.  I don't expect to get much rest between now and next Friday.

But it's great, as always, to be in Chicago.  I stopped at Andy's on Wednesday evening to hear some excellent music, and walked over to the Museum of Contemporary Art yesterday morning for an hour browsing some of the highlights of their permanent collection.  To my delight I found that they were also featuring one of William Kentridge's classic films.  An hour or two in a great museum is just the thing I need to store up energy for the week to come.


When I leave for Chicago tomorrow, it'll be to attend my 25th annual meeting of the Medical Library Association.   It'll be the third I've been to in Chicago, and the previous ones were memorable.  In '93 the meeting was at the Palmer House.  I remember seeing Jackie McLean at the Jazz Showcase and sitting up late talking with the guys in his band.  I remember sitting in the lobby of the Palmer House at dawn, with a companion, watching the hotel come alive for the day's meetings.  Most significantly I remember accepting Lynn's late invitation to join a group that she was taking to the Parthenon for dinner.   And later that night, she showed up at Excalibur where I'd gone to meet some of the Dakotans (a reunion that, alas, no longer takes place).  I remember stopping on the Michigan Avenue bridge that night as I walked back to the Blackstone and looking down into the water, seeing all of the twists and turns my life had taken in the past few years and wondering what would happen next.  I had no idea...

By '99, MLA had outgrown the Palmer House and the meeting had moved to the Hyatt.  I was on the National Program Committee that year (the only year for which I can actually recall the theme -- "Present Tense -- Future Perfect?").    Lynn and I were married, and for her birthday I rented a limo and we drove along the lake on a beautiful sunlit evening, drinking champagne, before being dropped off at Charlie Trotter's for dinner.  That was the year that I applied to be the editor of the JMLA.  I had no idea...

When I was an NLM Associate in 1984, it was simply assumed that one of the things one did was to join MLA and go to the annual meeting.  I was a sponge in that year, and if my mentors told me that one of my responsibilities as a medical librarian was to become involved in MLA, who was I to question it?  So my attitude is a little different from that of some of my colleagues who think carefully about whether or not association involvement is worthwhile for them.  I do it because contributing is one of the things I'm supposed to do.  I get an awful lot out of it, of course, but I've remained involved and active because I believe it's part of my responsibility to the profession.  It's one of the ways that I try to pay back all of the people who have mentored and helped me along the way.  It's a debt that I don't ever expect to fully discharge.

This is something that we take seriously at my library as well (and that was the case long before I got there).  There will be ten of us at MLA this year -- three are section chairs (current or incoming), there's a committee chair, a SIG convenor, several people doing posters or moderating panels.  One's a member of this year's NPC and somebody else is teaching a CE course.   I'm quite proud of them.

As for me, it'll be long and busy.   It's not as hectic as the years when I was JMLA editor, but I've got a very tight schedule -- the MLA board meets Thursday afternoon and all day Friday.  I'll be at all the plenaries, of course, and attending several section & committee meetings on behalf of the board.  There are a handful of other meetings that I've set up to talk with people about various projects and there are even a few papers that I'd like to get in to see.  Of course there's the Bearded Pigs event on Sunday and the flurry of logistics surrounding that.  The evenings are lined up with receptions or dinners.

To finish it off, on Wednesday I'll move over to the O'Hare Hilton for the Joint AAHSL/Publisher Task Force meeting that will take place all day on Thursday.  By then I'll have been gone more than a week, but I'm really looking forward to that session.  And then I get home very late that night.

I'm eager to dive into it.  I know I'll get a lot done and I'm sure I'll have a fine time.  And what will be the singular memories that'll rise to the fore when I look back at this Chicago meeting years from now?  I have no idea...


I forgot to tell my mother I was going to Scotland.  Things have been a little hectic lately.  (And now I'm wondering if we remembered to tell Marian!!)

The Scotland trip feels as if it's a long way off, but in fact, we leave just three weeks from tomorrow.  But MLA in Chicago is between now and then, and that looms much larger.

My ostensible purpose in going to the CILIPS conference in Peebles is to deliver a talk on how librarians are delivering health information to their communities.  There's been a tremendous shift over the past quarter century in the focus that medical librarians have had and it's going to be great fun to go over some of those issues and talk about some of the things that MLA and NLM are doing, as well as some of the things that are happening locally.  I haven't actually started to put the talk together (it's still three and a half weeks away, for heaven's sake!), but I've been thinking about it in spare moments and I think I've got a good handle on how I want to approach it.

The real reason they want me there, though, is so The Bearded Pigs can play at the awards banquet.  We won't quite have the whole band -- Cogman, SG & Russell can't make it.  But the nice thing about having an eight piece band is that there are many subsets of the whole group that can perform as The Bearded Pigs (or The Nucleus).   We'll have a ringer for a  bass player -- a local librarian.  We've corresponded just a bit by email and he seems unfazed by the prospect of sitting in and playing with people he's never met on songs that he's never heard.  Sounds like our kind of guy.

So on the Tuesday evening, I'll play guitar and sing my heart out, and on Wednesday afternoon (thank god it's not the first thing in the morning!) I'll spend an hour or so talking about health information and the impact that we can have on the communities that we're a part of.   

There's been some chatter lately about the perennial work/life balance issue.   These discussions often emphasize the importance of having a "life outside of work."  I resolved that for myself a long time ago.

I don't have a "life outside of work."  I have a life.  It's comprised of many things -- many responsibilities, many joys, a handful of deep sorrows, a continual sense of wonderment as the days unfold.  I never stop being the library director, but I never stop being the musician, friend, grandfather, lover, writer, or endlessly curious little boy, either.

When a "job" is what you go to for eight hours a day, five days a week, within rigid time & place boundaries, I suppose it makes psychological sense to think of "work" and "life" as two separate things.  But in the networked world in which we now live, for many people that time & space separation simply doesn't exist.  It certainly doesn't for me.    When I go to Peebles, whether I'm playing guitar or talking about health information, I'll just be living my life as best I can.

Blogging MLA in Chicago

The Local Arrangements Committee is advertising for "Official MLA Conference Bloggers."  Selected bloggers "will receive wireless Internet access for the duration of the Annual Conference AND MLA will acknowledge your contribution to the membership on the MLA Conference pages. All Official Conference Blogs will be listed on the Blog Roll at the MLA Conference Wiki."   There's an application form, and a panel of judges will make the selections.  (I don't know who is on the panel, although I suppose I could find out.)  And I certainly hope that someone will blog the Bearded Pigs gig on Sunday night!

It's an experiment.  One of the things that makes me grateful that I ended up in medical libraries is that the notion of experimentation seems to come more easily to us than to our colleagues in academic or public libraries, particularly in regard to IT.  When I first entered librarianship in 1983, I realized fairly quickly that medical libraries were ten to fifteen years ahead of general academic libraries in their adoption of new technologies (quite unevenly distributed, of course, as the future always is).  And there was a very clear reason for that -- the Medical Library Assistance Act, inspired by Dr. Michael DeBakey, and muscled through Congress by Senator Lister Hill, namesake of my library, (with the overt and covert assistance of many others) was passed in 1965, leading to the establishment of the Regional Medical Library program and a tremendous infusion of money and technical expertise and experimentation to libraries throughout the country.  By the time I came into the profession, it was fifteen years since NLM had launched the world's first publicly available online bibliographic database, had provided funding for one of the first integrated library systems, and had sown the seeds for the developing field of medical informatics.  One of my projects as an NLM Associate in 1984 was to write (under the guidance of the inestimable Gale Dutcher) the initial users' manual for DOCLINE, an issue-based online ILL routing system that was many years in advance of anything available to libraries outside of the health sciences community.  It was simply assumed that a savvy medical librarian was technically astute and making use of the latest information technology available.

Which explains, of course, my impatience with those of my 2.0 colleagues who sometimes sound as if they think the innovative use of information technology was only discovered by librarians in 2004.   But I should be more generous.  I'd thought that by the end of the nineties, the general academic library world had caught up -- certainly there have been many pockets of innovation and excellence among ARL and ACRL libraries.  But when I read the blogs of my impatient young colleagues I have to think that maybe there still is a gap.  I sometimes feel that I'm already living in the library world they're struggling so hard to create.

No matter.  Along with signing up bloggers for the MLA Conference, I wish we'd arrange for Cindiann to come and take photos.   Last night I was browsing her stunning portraits of some of the cool kids at this week's Computers in Libraries Conference in DC.  Fabulous photos.  They give a great sense of the personalities and energy and delight that these folks have in what they're doing.  Sure, I may get impatient sometimes with their impatience, but I defy anyone to look at those faces and read what they write and follow what they're doing in their libraries and not believe that the future of librarianship is very bright indeed.

A Moment's Thought...

On Monday I'll be doing a talk for the annual meeting of the Association of Subscription Agents in London.  I last spoke to that group four years ago and quite enjoyed it, so I'm looking forward to seeing them again.   The audience is a mix of people who work for agents and people who work in publishing and, unlike some of my more rabid colleagues, I find that most of those folks are fine, dedicated people who believe that they're working for a social good.  This is even the case with those who (gasp!) are opposed to open access (or rather, opposed to some of the mandates or to the moralistic tone of much of the debate -- I've actually met no one in publishing who is opposed, on principle, to the notion of providing broader and easier access to scholarly material).

But then, that's part of the issue, isn't it?  I spend time actually talking with them and trying to get to know them as people.  It's much harder to demonize someone after spending an evening in the pub with them.  You may still disagree vociferously, and you don't necessarily personally like each and every one of them, but you may find that the disagreements are honest and they aren't the evil, lying, money-grubbing bastards that they're portrayed to be.  This doesn't mean that you can't still sincerely believe them to be wrong.

My disgust with the open access movement came about when the level of rhetoric on the blogs reached such a pitch that people were making crude and utterly unfair accusations about the moral character of people that I happen to know.  The self-righteousness of many of the open access advocates, who seemed completely unaware of their own rhetorical spins and flourishes was a real disappointment, even though in my idealism I still share many of the goals.

But the problem, I'm afraid, is inherent in the nature of internet communication.  It is so easy (and emotionally satisfying, apparently) to accuse a whole group of being rotten liars when you can do so from the solitude of your own computer and never really be called to account for what you say.   Unlike my friend Marcus, I don't believe that there's much chance of developing mechanisms for strong and effective conversation on blogs (although I do admire his idealism).  The noise ratio will always be too high.  Substantive conversation requires actually listening, paying attention to the arguments of the other, bringing real facts into play, and always being aware of the possibility that you yourself may be wrong.  As my friend Lonnie used to say (paraphrasing Housman), "A moment's thought would have shown him the error of his ways, but thought is difficult, and a moment is a long time."   I'm not saying that I think it never happens -- but pick any 100 comment threads at random and you're not going to find very much of it.

Nonetheless, I'm happy to see the blogging guidelines that have been developed by MLA's Task Force on Social Networking.    The principles are pretty straightforward and commonsense -- but then, what one might think of as "common sense" is sometimes in pretty short supply.

If I was writing guidelines (which I'm not) I'd add one:  when you're getting ready to unleash the full force of your rhetorical armamentarium against someone or some group, ask yourself if you'd be willing to say the same thing to that someone's face.

But oh, how boring the blogosphere would become...