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.


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.



Saying What You Mean

I'm not quite as concerned about the impending demise of the sentence as James Billington seems to be in this article from last Sunday's Washington Post, but the "creeping inarticulateness" that he speaks of is certainly apparent everywhere.   I confess that I still find it shocking that in the early discussions of the definition of "Library 2.0" there were many proponents of the term who argued that it didn't matter, or that it was even preferable, that we not have a clear definition of the term, that it's very vagueness was actually an advantage.   That librarians, society's guardians of knowledge, were saying this, still depresses me.

One sees a similar attitude among some bloggers who describe their posts as "just getting my thoughts out", or "trying out ideas", or "just doing rough drafts" -- as if ideas and the language they're expressed in are somehow separable. 

I first began to appreciate the beauty and critical importance of sentences from reading the great short story artist Harold Brodkey, who was absolutely manic and obsessive in his devotion to getting each sentence right -- the right words, the right tone, the right balance, the right music.  All of those carry meaning, and if one element is off, the writing fails.

As an editor, one of my roles was to pay a lot of attention to sentences.  I recall many instances where I would spend a considerable amount of time on a single paragraph, going over it again and again, trying to sort out exactly what the author was really trying to say.  The challenge then was to come up with alternatives that maintained the tone and voice of the author, while clarifying and conveying the actual meaning.   It would be easy enough to rewrite it to sound like me -- but I always wanted it to sound like the original writer.  That's what makes an editor.

Those who see "publishing" as simply a matter of doing some kind of peer review, clarifying some of the facts & conclusions, and then putting things up on a website, miss the importance of that kind of editing.   A well edited article carries the reader along -- it feels effortless.  Without it, reading becomes a chore.  How many ideas never get the distribution that they deserve because the prose they're encased in makes reading just too damn much work?

Language is dynamic, of course, and I don't consider the shorthands and emoticons that are used in chats and tweets and texts to be evidence of the degradation of the written language.  They're useful and often quite clever ways to convey simple meanings within certain technological constraints.  But they're a  very thin thread to hang complex meaning on.

As I grow older, the notion of "story" becomes increasingly important to me.   I was talking to someone about the presentation that I was working on for Scotland.  "I've got the arc of the story figured out, now it's just a matter of pulling together the images that I want to illustrate it, and making sure the transitions work the way that I want them to."  I always think of a presentation as telling a story, as having a plot, as requiring a certain flow to take the listener from beginning to end. The Post writer makes the point, "The sentence itself is a story, with a beginning, a middle, and an end.  Something happens in a sentence."

I often get compliments on my writing, and I'm grateful for that.  But it's quite simple, really.  The first thing I try to do is write good sentences.


The invisible parts of publishing

Amongst all the prognosticating about the future of publishing, Sara Lloyd's manifesto is one of the best things I've seen.   It's nicely balanced (e.g. while she understands the potentials for networked books, she also understands that not all books will need to be networked.)  She digs into the complexities of publishing to seek out those areas of expertise that will continue to be needed as we move into a more porous world.  I was particularly struck by this passage:

In this scenario publishers would need to move back further into the territory of filter and editorial consultant and to refocus energies on their (oft forsaken) role as career nurturers for authors (a space currently shared at least by agents in the trade space). They would also need to develop brands...

We often have a tendency to glibly think (in the world of scholarly publishing, at least) that nothing of significance happens between the completion of peer review and the appearance of the published version (whether that be in print or digital form).  Some of the ire directed against publishers (in the vein of, "the authors don't get compensated, the editors and peer reviewers work for free, and then you have the audacity to charge me for the final product?") stems from this fundamental misunderstanding.  But, as Tom Richardson pointed out in his presentation at CILIPS last week, at the New England Journal of Medicine (along with most other publishers), there is an army of copy-editors and illustrators and fact-checkers who come into play after the article has been accepted, all of whose skills are needed to put that article into final form and make sure that the authors' intent is conveyed in the very best way possible.  You can't do that kind of work with volunteers.

And then there's the matter of getting somebody's attention.  Take any article from the latest issue of NEJM, Nature, or JAMA.  Do you really think that if you posted it on a website and invited comments (even in some mediated way so that it approximated serious peer review), and used those comments to modify and further develop the piece, it would get anywhere near the attention that it would get from having been published in one of the high-profile journals?  We have a tendency to ignore the critical importance of brand in helping people make their way through the morass of content that is available.

And the necessity for developing these sorts of brands is only going to grow.  As articles become disaggregated from journals, it becomes increasingly difficult to figure out what's worth reading.  Social networks will help (although there is always the worry that they tend to favor the popular over the critically valuable.)  But I think we will find that we increasingly rely on the critical (and largely invisible, it seems) expertise that people from the publishing community bring.

Lloyd is focusing on book publishing, but the issues she's wrestling with cross all publishing sectors.  And just as librarians need to change almost everything they do in order to remain true to the core of what they are, publishers need to "break their traditional boundaries" and make "a step change in their form, culture and approach."

Publishers will need to view themselves as shapers and enablers rather than producers and distributors, to take a project rather than a product approach and to embrace their position as merely a component element in a reader, writer, publisher circularity.

It's worth noting that while Lloyd's manifesto is clearly directed to her colleagues in publishing, it will be appearing in Library Trends.  Let's hope that my colleagues read it, learn from it, and take it to heart.  You can't be a good librarian anymore if you don't make a place for yourself in this conversation.







Attention

I've been keeping a journal since my early teens.  It was erratic and inconsistent at first, and I might go weeks, and on one or two occasions, even months, without writing, but by my early twenties it had settled into a daily occurrence, and now there are not more than half a dozen days a year that I don't start out by putting at least a few lines into a notebook.

Around 1990 I started keeping the journal on my computer.  I liked the fact that I could go faster on the keyboard than with a pen (although I had enjoyed the tactility of writing with a pen).  It seemed that I could more easily keep up with my thoughts.  In the years before Lynn and I got married, I wrote to her everyday (with a fountain pen on fine stationery), but afterwards, when the letters became more rare (although I still write to her on occasion), it was not uncommon for me to go weeks without picking up a pen for anything other than scribbling a grocery list or signing my name to something at work.

A couple of years after we got married, feeling somewhat bored with the keyboard and in need of something to spark the journal writing, I picked up a pen again and found that writing by hand had become very difficult.  I thought that perhaps I had actually lost the facility.  My penmanship has never been good, but the sentences that I was scratching out now were almost painful to write and certainly indecipherable.  But I wanted that tactile feeling back, and I felt the need for the enforced slowing down of thought that handwriting requires, so I pushed myself to continue.  It didn't take too long for the comfort level to return and ever since then I do my daily journal writing in a good notebook with nice paper using one of the many fountain pens I have scattered around my study.

I was thinking about this yesterday while I was reading Nicholas Carr's essay, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" in the Atlantic Monthly.   "I'm not thinking the way I used to think," says Carr.  "Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. ... That's rarely the case anymore.  Now my concentration often starts to drift..."

It's a good essay.  He quotes others who are experiencing a similar discomfort, notes that the emergence of writing, and then the emergence of printing raised similar cautions in their day.   But the most compelling point he makes is near the end of the essay where he refers to the work of the developmental psychologist Maryanne Wolf, who argues that deep reading is indistinguishable from deep thinking.   Says Carr,

The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author's words but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds. ...  If we lose those quiet spaces, or fill them up with "content," we will sacrifice something important not only in our selves but in our culture.

David M. Levy makes similar points in his article, "No time to think: reflections on information technology and reflective scholarship."  He points out (referring back to the work of Josef Pieper) that there are two distinct modes of thinking, the analytical and the reflective, and that in the information overloaded world in which we increasingly operate, we are in danger of losing the mental space that allows for the reflective and creative kind of thinking that is as essential as the processing of content.

I'm not sure, as Carr suggests, if the kind of skimming and browsing that we typically do on the internet is actually "re-wiring" our brains, making us incapable of immersing ourselves in deep reading or deep thinking, but certainly we are losing the habit.  Humans are lazy creatures.   If we're becoming stupid, it isn't Google that's doing it -- it's our own tendency to follow the path of least resistance.

Librarians used to make fun of those medical students or young researchers who acted as if they believed that medical research began in 1966 -- originally, that was as far back as Medline went, and if they couldn't find a citation in Medline, they didn't bother to look any further.  But these days I read many comments from librarian bloggers who say they don't bother to read the library literature, or much of anything in print.  They say that everything they really need to know they can get from other blogs.  They're idiots -- or well on their way to becoming idiots.

I think Carr's on to something in his essay, but he misidentifies the culprit.

Even when I'm not working,  I'm as likely as not to be foraging in the Web's info-thickets -- reading and writing e-mails, scanning headlines and blog posts, watching videos and listening to podcasts, or just tripping from link to link to link.

But Nicholas, Google isn't forcing you to do that.  Go pick up a book.  It'll be like me getting back to my fountain pen -- it'll be a little tough for awhile, but you'll get the hang of it again and you'll feel better for it.


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.


Online Life

During that splendid dinner at Aria, the woman sitting next to me asked, "But how does it feel to expose so much of yourself on your blog, and know that you're sharing all of that with hundreds of people that you don't know?"  It's the kind of question that pops up periodically when bloggers get self-reflective.  They ask, "Am I 'oversharing?'"

Since I consider myself to be a fairly private person, there's an apparent paradox here.  But as I pointed out to my dinner companion, "There is so much more about my life that I don't reveal, that it really doesn't seem to me that I'm revealing very much."  It's an illusion.  I try to write with an intimate tone.  There are rhetorical tricks.  I almost never address the audience directly.   There is no hint that I even think that I have "readers," much less that I'm writing for them.  The effect is that each reader feels as if they're being let into a very private rumination on whatever I'm musing about on that particular morning.  It's an illusion.

Someone who read the blog regularly and studied it would be able to put together a handful of facts.  They'd know where I work and what my job is, but next to nothing about what I actually do in my job on a day to day basis.  They'd deduce that my mother is still living and that we're close, and that my father died some time ago, but nothing about my siblings or my relationships to them.  They'd know some stories about Lynn and I, but none that I haven't told a dozen times in social settings.  They'd know I'm bonkers about my granddaughter and that I take my role as an amateur musician pretty seriously.  They'd get a pretty good idea about what I think about the present & future of my profession and maybe a little bit about my political views.

There is so much that they wouldn't know.  The image that they might construct of me would be a caricature at best.  And I like it that way.   I never write anything here that I don't believe to be true, but in the very act of carefully choosing what to reveal, I protect the things I wish to keep most private.

It is striking how often bloggers, coming home from a conference, write about how great it was to finally meet, in person, people that they've come to know online, sometimes for many years.  And I love the pictures that get posted, the grins on the faces of people in bars & restaurants, laughing and joking with people they've known, but haven't really known.

In Mark's inaugural address last year (Mark -- would you put that up on youtube?  Would you mind if I did?), he spoke eloquently and very perceptively about why we continue to meet in person when we have this growing armamentarium of tools that enable us to communicate and work effectively from the comfort and privacy of our own rooms.  The simple answer is that we gain things from that in person contact that none of the other modes provide.  Second life is no substitute for first life.

However, as he pointed out in his presidential address this year and in his farewell post yesterday, the tools give us the opportunity -- indeed, the responsibility -- to transform how we spend our time when we get together.  We should not be wasting time in committee meetings delivering reports that should have been electronically distributed in advance -- we should be taking that time to argue and discuss the implications of some of those reports.    Rather than spending fifteen minutes listening to someone present their ideas and then not have enough time for discussion because we've got to get on to the next paper, we need to figure out how to restructure our meetings so that we're distributing the information ahead of time and taking advantage of the time together to interact.

LiB writes about her frustration at not being allowed to participate in some ALA activities because they require in person attendance at both ALA meetings every year.   I'm sympathetic to her frustration, but only to a point.  The MLA Board of Directors does an increasing amount of its work at a distance, and it certainly makes us more efficient and effective.  But I can't imagine the Board being as productive as it is if we didn't come together three times a year and spend a day and a half in the same room getting to know each other and each other's views.  There are discussions that you can only have when you've got the full range of in person communication elements at play.  Similarly, the group of librarians and publishers that met at the O'Hare Hilton on Thursday could not possibly have come to the end of that day feeling as bonded and exhilarated as we all did if we hadn't spent all of that time physically in the same space.   The wine at dinner the night before was important, too.   Associations shouldn't reflexively require in person attendance just because it's always been that way, but there are circumstances where it is still essential.  Figuring out which is which is the challenge.

Lynn and I fell in love via email.  If it hadn't been for that primitive tool (we're talking 1993), we never would have gotten together.  The transformative power of all of these communication media is fabulous and allows us to develop friendships and working relationships that would never have come about before.  In our working lives (and, specifically for me, within the Medical Library Association) we have to experiment and play and see what we can do to take the utmost advantage of the opportunities provided to be more inclusive and to make more and better connections (to echo Mark's theme).  But the energy and excitement that pervaded the Hyatt as people who knew each other only online were able to spend time in each other's company is persuasive proof of the critical importance of spending time face-to-face and hand-in-hand.  We're humans.  Even a nonsocial guy like me knows how badly we need it.


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.


How Social Should I Be?

MacCall's last question gave me pause.  We were at the end of my last online lecture for his health librarianship class, and I'd been answering questions on a wide variety of topics having to do with academic medical libraries in particular, and librarianship in general.  I think this was the sixth one of these I've done using Wimba -- the students and I can hear each other, they can see my powerpoint, we can do chat, we just can't see each other.  A little awkward at first, but I've become quite comfortable with it, and the students are great.

MacCall does an excellent job of incorporating the various "new tools" into his courses.  The students all keep blogs, they use del.icio.us to track the stuff they're reading.   He doesn't "teach" the tools -- he just makes sure that everybody uses them.

We were just about at the end of our allotted time, and I asked if he had a last question.  It turned out to be, "What social networking or web 2.0 tools do you use in your non-work life?"

"Non-work life"?  That's not a clear concept for me anymore.  It was many years ago that I realized I no longer thought of my life as being divided between "work" and "non-work" in anything like the traditional sense.    The boundaries are porous.

I don't mean to imply that I am "always working".  I've said before that I probably don't put in more hours per week than a good library director did twenty-five years ago.  It's just that those hours are spread across the 24/7 continuum in a less structured way.  Case in point -- Mr. Tomcat was in town the last couple of days for a meeting at EBSCO.  He stopped by the library on Tuesday for a tour, and Lynn and I had dinner with him last night.  Conversation topics ranged easily across issues related to journal licensing, the value of archived backfiles, the economic challenges of open access, the new Fishman acoustic guitar amp, changes to the setlist for the May Pigs gig, and what fun it would be to get his daughter together with Josie.    Was this my work life or my non-work life?

Take any typical day when I'm not traveling.  I'm up before 6:00, writing in my journal.  Some of that writing is very personal and some of it is planning for the things I'm going to be doing that day.  I'll take a break and catch up on email, most of which (although not all) is work-related.  Maybe I'll write a blog post, which may or may not have to do with libraries.  I'll spend most of the day at the university, although depending on what's going on I may have errands to run or other obligations that intrude.  I don't keep regular office hours.  In the evening, I may spend more time working on projects, catching up with email -- or not.  The technology gives me the flexibility to tend to things when it is convenient for me.  I'm not locked into an artificial time schedule.  My "worklife" and "non-worklife" flow easily into one another.  The range of topics on my blog is a reflection of that.

Still, I could see what MacCall was driving at.  The irony for me as someone who believes strongly in the importance of all of these social networking tools and, in particular, their application to library practice, is that I'm not a very sociable guy myself.  Never have been.  I've got minimal profiles on facebook, myspace and linkedin, and I'll generally accept friend requests for these.  But I've never asked anybody to be a friend on any of them and I hardly use them for communicating with anybody.  I've only posted two or three pictures to Flickr and it's highly unlikely that I'll ever send anything to YouTube.  I have no interest in exploring Second Life.  I use IM extensively at work and with a couple of friend/colleagues outside the library, but that's it.  I don't have a blackberry or other smart phone.  (I do have three iPods --four if you count the dead one -- and I'm pretty intrigued by the iPhone, but I don't have one yet). 

My online life is simply a reflection of the rest of my life.   The social networking tools haven't had much impact on me because I've never been that interested in doing a lot of social networking, whether online or in person.

From a professional standpoint, I think it is critically important to understand all of these tools, how they work and how they might be used to advantage.  But personally?  I'm just as happy sitting up in my study with my guitar, a couple of good books, a hardbound journal, and a really nice fountain pen.

 


Pushing Back at Cognitive Overload

The best session at the recent Wiley-Blackwell executive seminar was not the panel on institutional repositories that I shared with Ann Okerson and Ellen Finnie Duranceau.    Oh, I think we did a fine job, and I was pleased at how we reinforced each other's messages while still presenting our own individual slants on the topic.  I think it was good for the assembled publishers to hear, from three librarians, that while IRs are definitely playing a role in the transformation of the scholarly publishing landscape, there is no evidence that they present some sort of open access panacea and challenge to traditional journals.  (This is not to say that traditional journals aren't at great risk, just that IRs are not the silver bullet that's going to do them in).

All of the presentations were good, but the one that made the biggest impact on me was David M. Levy's talk on Information Overload.    He presented a brief historical tour of the information overload problem, going back to Vannevar Bush's seminal 1945 article.  Levy suggests that what we've witnessed since then are several peaks of information overload, each accompanied by technological solutions that promised to provide us with a greater ability to manage that overload, but which inevitably ended up exacerbating it.  And he thinks that we're at that point again, as we suffer under the vast weight of email (which we allow to interrupt us continuously, as if the most important thing at any moment is the random email message that has just landed in our inbox), and the overwhelming variety of information sources that flow over us continuously.

What we have lost in all of this is time for contemplation, time to think.  And he believes that turning to technology to provide us a solution is the wrong strategy.  We need to correct the balance by changing the way that we do things and the way that we respond to the world around us.  To the assembled publishers he said we need to publish less -- which requires changing the academic reward structure to privilege quality over quantity. 

We were talking a bit between sessions and I mentioned the importance to me of my own morning routine -- the hour or so that I take at the start of every day to write, which is my way of having some protected time to think, to let my thoughts roam.  When the travel schedule or work pressures deny me that time, I feel it in the added stress of the day.

Coincidentally, as I was flying home from DC, I was finishing Alain de Botton's The Art of Travel.  In the penultimate chapter, de Botton invokes Ruskin and his years spent as a drawing teacher.  Ruskin taught drawing not because he hoped to turn every student into a master draftsman, but because he believed that drawing helped one to see and to find the beauty that is inherent in all things.  It requires patience, it requires one to slow down, it requires one to really look into things and not just past them.  It seemed to me that de Botton's message and Levy's were addressing the same need.

It's been a particularly hectic and intense fall, so it's a message that I need to hear.  Levy's got a couple of recent articles on the topic that I want to look up -- and read slowly.  Things are winding down at the library -- I've got a few meetings this week, but nothing too pressing.  And then I'm taking two weeks off.  And I'm not making any plans.