Why I’m Still In SLA: Big tents and hive minds

flickr photo shared by brizzle born and bred under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-SA ) license

I feel bad about using a pic of Teddies when I have always leant to the Mods, but I think this is a good pic of group cohesion and defiance.

This week the results of the SLA elections were announced this week; Dee Magnoni will be SLA President in 2017. Congratulations to Dee and all the other winners. Commiserations and thanks to all the also rans. Tucked at the end of the official announcement of the election results was a restructuring of the dues structure. The synopsis is that student member dues increase from $40 to $50, retired member dues increase from $40 to $100 (unless you’ve been a continuous member for 45 years), and the new rate of $100 for unemployed members will only be for a year. Members can read a more detailed explanation.

People have reached out to me over email and Twitter to express their concern about the new dues structure, the process, and the future of SLA. I kind of have that feeling of inevitability about it all. We knew dues had to increase because we’re broke, we just didn’t know what it would look like. Now we do. I’m not going to nitpick the changes because I’m not qualified to really speak on association finances and that ship has sailed. These are part of the approved roadmap, so the process has already been set. If anything, I expect more changes like this down the pike. Bitter pills to swallow as we have to adapt to get through this really hard time or fall apart.

One of my good SLA chums who’s still a member (not one of of my good SLA chums who already jumped ship) asked me why I’m still involved with SLA. I’ll admit it’s hard to answer when I don’t agree with the board or many other members of the association. Honestly, in many ways the situation reminds me of Social Security – we pay into it, and try to support it, but those ahead of us in power are making it go bust and there’s not much we can do about it. It is frustrating that many members who likely had the best of intentions couldn’t give up notions of 1995 quickly enough and now SLA is deep in a hole and the path out sucks. Whatever, it’s happened.

So why am I still a member today? The same reason John Cotton Dana organized a group of special librarians – this is the group where I can meet and work with librarians in similar positions and organizations. As a soon-to-be solo librarian in a research library who has to do everything, it’s an obvious fit. I think the reason I still see the value is that I ascribe to a very big tent idea of the profession. You work with information and metadata? DAMS? Whatever you call yourself, you’re probably librarian enough for SLA. I try to look beyond the specifics of my particular situation to learn from everybody, and SLA is the best group I know of for that. It’s the wisdom of the hive mind.

That’s just me though.

To people dropping out, I understand. The value is hard to justify and it does take effort to engage with members (inside or outside your units). I really want to make more ad hoc groups within SLA, but that takes energy and is hard to organize. I do think we, SLA members, can do some great stuff organically. We don’t need to wait for the Board of Directors or HQ to bless it. Members working with members. That’s networking and that’s relatively cheap.

The other thing that concerns me about this is egos. Like the Beach Boys sang on Pet Sounds, “Hang on to your ego.” What do I mean by that? Let stuff go. I think lots of people want similar things for SLA, but we’re focused on details which often sound like another song, Nirvana’s  “Territorial Pissings.” We need to innovate, try things, break things, experiment! That means we need to get over ourselves and any feelings of ownership that are throwing up barriers.

So people who want to change stuff, let’s try and fail and try again and eventually succeed. I know that’s valuable professional development right there.

Open Textbooks Playlist

Publishing too much (transport) research?

flickr photo shared by jambina under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC ) license

Today I stumbled across an editorial by the esteemed transport economist Kenneth Button in Transport Reviews that articulates a lot of ideas I’ve been working on the past few years. The editorial is titled, “Publishing Transport Research: Are We Learning Much of Use?”  In it, Button criticises the current trends that stress quantity and quantification of scholarly output, sacrificing quality and more “verbal” presentations of ideas. There are many reasons for this: the need for us to quantify everything, it’s easier to ‘show the work’ with math than it is to explain the ideas behind it, the whole publish or perish paradigm, and the struggle to retain qualified reviewers.  Button does make note of the increase in paper submissions from Asia, which has overall increased the demand for reviewers. He also highlights problems in the editorial process which hinders publication, such as requiring authors to suggest reviewers or citation stacking.

Button closes the editorial with his concern that without a step back and focus on quality, that transport journals may “sink to the level of junk bonds.” He closes it by encouraging people just blog.

This reminded me of another Transport Reviews editorial about the proliferation of transport journals by David Banister. Banister discusses the now many entry points of publishing that’s often daunting for authors to know where to submit a paper. He also notes the reliance on easily quantifiable metrics, such as impact factor and citation rates.

These problems aren’t really news and it’s obvious. From a librarian’s view, this makes collection development difficult since it seems like there’s a new journal we might need to subscribe to founded every few months. We can’t afford them all, so the need to tease out quality is important but how? It’s also hard to navigate which journals we should recommend people publish in based on copyright policies, review turnaround, and subject matter. Given that transportation is such an interdisciplinary field, it’s hard to guess which editors will take a narrow view of their subject and which will not.

As to Button’s argument that the increase in quality means a decrease in quality of thoughts, I would need to see some data. I do see that there are more things being published and I have concerns (see my crude analysis of published TRB conference papers in the last decade), but it’s also true that technology has opened up the process to more people. I think it can be a great thing, but we need to balance quantity with quality, and I don’t know how the current peer-review system is handling it. Button’s resignation that we should all just blog isn’t a bad idea, because it does provide a public feedback mechanism. Maybe open access, open data, and open blogging can be a way forward? Will that be enough to push big ideas forward and make people step back and look at the landscape?

Basically, go read Button’s editorial.

Look to the future and say, “Why yes!”

flickr photo shared by Reuben Whitehouse under a Creative Commons ( BY-ND ) license

I’ve been thinking a lot about the future of libraries (and my library in particular) lately. What will we be doing? What will we look like? Where will the funding come? To that end I read John Palfrey’s new book BiblioTech to help me frame discussions with our institute director about the library. You should make your boss (or your boss’ boss) read it. For the most part I’d say I’ve been pragmatically upbeat.

This morning I sat in on a discussion of my colleagues before a meeting, and the focus was on falling staffing rates. The student to librarian ratio has lept through attrition, budget cuts, and increased enrollment to try and generate for money. It’s a common tale across the country and it sucks. In the middle of this fairly regular and well worn discussion I wrote down, “stop talking about cuts look for growth.”

In the meeting the discussion of cuts and the tight budgets came up again, and again I thought “ok, so what?” A number did try to steer the conversation to new opportunities and the future but we seemed somewhat mired in the muck of loss. Of course this makes sense – losing resources, staff, and space is traumatic for libraries. It forces the mission to change and it’s uncomfortable to deal with. I’ll also go a little generational here — for people who have spent most of their careers with fairly stable library situations where the stakeholders understand the function and mission, the current situation can be trying on the nerves. For others who are newer to the profession, who pretty much only know instability and chaos, this is just how things are. It’s not just age and experience, it’s also a mindset.

So here’s my public proclamation to keep myself honest: We need to stop focusing on the loss, and look to the new. We say we’re doing it, but are we really? Lots of discussions about potential new services or approaches often turn into historically minded gripe sessions about what we used to be. No more. Yes, understand the constraints and do not minimize them, but also offer up something different. We used to do a bunch of things we don’t do now because we laid off all the staff. That’s a bummer. It’s also a different time and now we can do different things. The mission doesn’t change much, but our mindset has to.

So as these discussions continue over the year, I’m going to embrace the opportunities for new things and say, “Why, yes!” I will not talk about the good old days and rue all that we’ve lost.

Let’s do this.

Walled Gardens: Business as usual with proprietary platforms

flickr photo shared by János Balázs under a Creative Commons ( BY-SA ) license

During this week in 1961 construction on the Berlin Wall began. It was of the most famous walls in history, though know the construction boom in Berlin is helping its scar fade. (The wall interrupted filming of Billy Wilder’s One Two Three, which took place in Berlin at the time. It flopped because critics felt it was too soon to mock BDR/DDR relations in the aftermath of the wall, though it’s now something of a cult favourite in Germany. It’s probably my favourite Wilder film.)

I use this strained metaphor to talk about one of my favourite soapboxes – walled gardens of proprietary platforms. The more we (libraries, organizations, people) opt for licensing software and content rather than purchasing, the more we’re at the mercy of vendors and their ecosystems. It’s a cost of doing business.

This issue was a topic of discussion at a recent training I went to about EBSCO’s discovery service (EDS), which we’re rolling out on Monday. The pair in charge of implementation reminded everybody that not everything will be in EDS most notably stuff from ProQuest. Integrating different platforms from different vendors into a discovery layer has been a competition issue for a while, so I assumed many of my colleagues knew that EBSCO and ProQuest (who have their own discovery service) didn’t play well together. It was a not so friendly reminder for those who aren’t entrenched in digital licensing that vendors do things like this. It was also a good reminder that we license the content, we don’t own it.

“But they won’t even share the metadata?”

No, they won’t necessarily share the metadata. It’s valuable and they know it! Some publishers value sharing their metadata to make their content easily found, but then they catch you when you try to access a paper. For others, like EBSCO and ProQuest, their business is the service of aggregation and access so the incentive to share isn’t as great. Why help the competition? So they have their walled gardens, and we have to know when to move from one to another. In a way it’s job security?

But this is something we should all be familiar with. Often the platform dictates the content. I was an early subscriber to MOG because I liked their library more than other options (it’s also why I never used Pandora much), and it’s one of the big concerns about Tidal. This is also why Netflix and Hulu are getting into original content – because then we’re stuck subscribing to their services. The biggest example of course is Apple. They are nothing but a giant, walled ecosystem.

So what’s the point? This is pretty normal now and you should probably assume unless you physically (or digitally) store it yourself, you don’t actually own it. If you’re licensing it, you’re playing in a company’s walled garden which may or may not have gates to connect you to other gardens.