Open and the Public Good: More on open data and open access

flickr photo shared by Boston Public Library under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-ND ) license

I’ve been thinking about issues surrounding open data and open access quite a bit since I blogged about it the other day. Some of it has been general existential thoughts about what it means to be a library or librarian in the 21st Century, but I’ll probably save those thoughts for later.

I really need to thank Andrew Owen and Kevin Webb for making excellent points and giving me lots to think about. The state of transportation data has been shaped by government’s lack of ability to fund and regulate. This creates room for market-based solutions to become the only viable game in town, which is where we are now. It be wonderful if there would be more regulation, but we barely fund the the current physical infrastructure as it is. There just isn’t the political will to fund the required administration and research surrounding transportation, just things you can cut ribbons for (highways), so it’s data programs are unfunded mandates. We all know this though.

I have been getting these same feelings when well intentioned colleagues (none of whom are librarians or in positions to act on these ideas) suggest revenue generating ideas for our library that really go against the central philosophy of a library. We should charge for people to use our space. We can charge for research assistance. We could charge people to keep their research. I give them credit for thinking outside the box and trying to help. I also understand why they think this way; Since the economic crash we’ve focused on nickel and dime ways to stay afloat, lacking long term vision and often selling out the past and the future to survive today. It’s been a survival tactic and I think we all accept this reality to some degree.

I think we have given up on demanding “public good” and resigned to seeing it only as an ideal we can’t afford. Nowadays often the “public good” feels antiquated like a Rockwellian vision of the past with kids running in public parks and such. It’s not something you can readily contract or outsource, it’s the combination of civic responsibility and social conscious that is hard to market, but I think it used to be more understood and accepted. Libraries work because we have that long vision both forwards and backwards. Not that it should mean us being tied to the past or future proofing unrealistically. We can’t collect everything and we can’t be the library of record, but we can consider the risks and the outcomes. This is why so many librarians are so vocal about issues around transparency, access, privacy. Either we’re drawn to the profession for these noble ideals of fostering the public good, or we know we have to protect them.

The problem, other than the core American (and now global) value of “fuck you, I’ve got mine,”, is that sometimes the public good is in direct opposition to the free market, and usually the market wins. This is happening with scholarly publishing, it’s happening with telecoms, and it’s been happening with transportation. Regulation in theory protects the public interests while still leaving room for private enterprise.

So I guess this all can be summed up in the obvious: I care about the public good and I wish my fellow Americans and the government actually did as well, but this is the world we live in.

The Long Road To Open: On Access and Licensing

flickr photo shared by Todd Huffman under a Creative Commons ( BY ) license

Yesterday during a meeting I thought about how far we’ve come (and not) with open data in transportation research. In one respect we’ve come far enough that people just assume it’s happening and understand it’s a good thing. But there’s still so much work to be done and I don’t get a sense the research community really understands or cares. I think this has to do with the usual issues;  Researchers aren’t the policy makers driving the open data/open access mandates. Current funding models rarely account for funding access to research and data when the project is done.

The biggest issue I see with open data in transportation is that more organizations are licensing commercial data instead of generating it themselves. It’s part of the outsourcing trend, where people pay for the data services because it’s more efficient. But of course, now only researchers with the money to pay have access, which leaves many out in the cold. Never mind the lack of public access for data about public utilities, such as traffic on the roads. As we’ve seen with Uber in Los Angeles, regulation doesn’t really get you that far if people aren’t ready to fight for it. Researchers don’t want to cut off potential funding sources and partners, so the system stands as is.

Then today I saw some people talking about the TRB license for their annual meeting paper submission, whereby they receive exclusive licenses to papers accepted for publication worldwide in perpetuity. (This was after some pushback from faculty complaining they received exclusive license to papers not accepted for publication.) TRB’s license is not that unique, but given that most authors’ research is funded by a government agency in some way, and that many of them are from universities with open access mandates of some kind, it seems odd that TRB doesn’t address significant recent changes in the field of scholarly communications.

It’s been 2 1/2 years since the White House OSTP memo and it doesn’t really seem like much progress has been made. Some of this is the length of the rulemaking process, but I think some of this goes beyond inertia. Those who care thought the rule changes would make it so, but for many publishers it’s business as usual and will continue to be so until they have to change. In the case of TRB, that probably means federal agencies and faculty from the big universities pushing on them to change their policies to be more open. (Which probably will increase their citation rates and impact factors, but that’s a different issue.)

For access to data, that will be a much harder fight because I fear we’ve already ceded too much ground to commercial interests. In this area we shouldn’t look to web/commercial data enterprises as the model for how to do big data for transportation because the goals are often different. Public infrastructure is still considered a public good (for now), which requires it to be inclusive.

This is all just to say, we’re going to have to keep pushing for openness for the public good and reminded partners of those public mandates. Many people agree with the idea that publicly funded research and data should be accessible to the public, we need to follow through and make it happen. So I will continue to raise the issues and look for partners, but everybody has to do their part, whether it’s negotiate for better contracts, self-archive publications, or only publish in scholarly venues that allow open access.

The Evolution of Libraries: Ack! Change is hard.

flickr photo shared by Tom Simpson under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-ND ) license

This week the internet is going mad for the revival of Bloom County, which reminds me that the more things change, the more they stay the same. People like the familiar and they love nostalgia. I would be a hypocrite if I didn’t acknowledge it given my record collecting habits. But that’s an aesthetic preference, which is not the same thing as library operations.

I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a library and librarian a lot lately given some of my discussions about weeding, the future of the profession, and whether or not you need to be a librarian as the University Librarian.

For me I guess it comes down to the fundamental question – what’s a library? Its collections or its services?

For a lot of people, collections define the library which is why weeding is so traumatic. This view also supposes all services are related to the physical collection. Librarians get their degrees to be expert keepers of the tomes. OK, it’s hyperbole but it definitely seems that way at times. They’re so married to preserving the status quo, which isn’t always a bad thing, that sometimes they’re so change averse it’s stifling. And sometimes change has to happen fast and change is messy, especially when reality forces it. (Like vastly shrunken budgets.)

For those who define libraries by their services, there might be a tendency to adopt the new shiny technologies and not be as concerned with the past, which can also be problematic. I fall into this camp though through a mix of pragmatism and optimism. For centuries our services focused around the physical collection. Hell, that was the service! It’s not the only thing now, and we have to expand our thinking to bring those services to other realms. This seems very painfully obvious to me, but it’s not.

When I have these discussions with some of my friends and colleagues I really worry I sound like Mr. Toad from The Wind in the Willows – always looking for the next great new thing and leaving a path of destruction in my wake. I also feel like sometimes I get reaction from those slow (and uneasy) to change that looks like Jerry Lewis in the picture about (riding Mr. Toads Wild Ride at Disneyland).

Going forward I’m trying to assume nothing but good intentions, but also question assumptions that I don’t understand. What’s wrong with this weeding project beyond the obvious getting rid of books? Why are librarians most qualified to run libraries? What value can librarians provide without a physical collection? These aren’t meant to be rhetorical questions, but entry points to conversations which should help foster understanding among the community. I didn’t say it would be easy.

Thoughts on the Revised SLA Recommendations

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Nothing says “Friday afternoon in July” like an email from SLA about the Revised Recommendations and the proposed Roadmap for the Future of SLA. (You’ll need to login to access the documents.)

So I read them and I’m still not really happy or comfortable with the recommendations. The revisions make them more coherent and easier to understand, but I’m still not agreement with the tenor or direction entirely. I understand the association’s in a tough place, and I agree that we need to move quick and show value to members to survive. I still feel like the Recommendations skew corporate and focus on the value SLA can provide for members in service. The Recommended Strategy in 3.2 is a good example of the language that makes me uneasy: “A viable niche for SLA in the marketplace of associations for information professionals is created by defining SLA as being the place for individuals who care about their professionalism.” First, the overuse of professional does seem like an acrobatic stunt to avoid saying “librarian” which really only shows up in the section comparing SLA to other associations, which in turn sounds like buzzwords. Second, and more importantly, what does focusing on “professionalism” actually mean? Is it about my ability to be a nimble information professional in a changing landscape? Is it about my ability to operate in an antiseptic corporate world? I don’t know but it gives me the visions of people in business suits. Am I not an information professional when I’m wearing faded jeans and a t-shirt?

But that’s kind of nit picking. Really, the main concerns I had are still there. I don’t agree with the language to “adopt a competency based board” (7.1.e) because it implied the Nominating Committee doesn’t currently do that, which is insulting. I also have reservations about giving weight to self-nominations, but that’s because I fear we’ll be an association of thought leaders. I also don’t like the parts about “business partners” because the relationship still seems one sided. My reservations about the conference planning also remain and educational offerings, but some of that has to do with do with the mechanics given resource constraints.

So basically go read my other blog posts for that.

The Roadmap however is a much more interesting read and somewhat more reassuring. I like that it proposes assessment of what we have to see where the gaps are. Do we have the resources to get there (right now? probably not), do we have the skills? If not, what steps need to be taken. Let’s have contingency plans. That’s realistic.

So I guess overall, I still have major concerns but the roadmap gives me an idea of how it’s going to play out. I still do not want SLA to be an organization focused on passive learning. I am a member for the community and I want that community to thrive and interact and learn from one another. I still worry the emphasis on formal offerings and programs from HQ might be stifling and not what I need, but I sort of hope that it might support the rest of SLA to do cool things together.


Libraries and Weeding: Balancing the visceral and the necessary

flickr photo shared by That Guy DouG under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC ) license

This week my local public library is in the news about its new weeding project. The director has tried to explain the project in another local website, but it’s the sort of thing that’s hard to do. Weeding is one of those library functions that’s necessary for a good collection, though seemingly at odds with a library’s mission, and attracts such ire people don’t want to publicize it. Just last year another local public library received public outrage when they weeded their collection. This happens all over frequently because people aren’t memorizing ALA’s guidelines for weeding, and I don’t really expect my library’s users or my friends and neighbors to do so. This means we, the weeders, need to do better.

Better how? Well, I think we need to walk the balance of transparency, honesty, and getting the work done. This means the process will be more involved, internally and externally, but the outcomes will engender less ill will. This is something I wish we did a better job of when I had to single handedly weed our collection by 20-30%. Faculty and students were understandably upset by the sight of recycling bins full of books and empty shelves, but our collection had never been weeded and I took time to talk to them about why we had to do it (losing half our space) and how I decided what to toss (has it been used? does it fit with our collections scope?). This means you have to articulate what kind of library you are and what the collection is for. I tossed Fortran books because nobody uses it anymore and I know a library collecting on computer science history should keep it. In 20 years somebody will probably weed the handful of Python books we have, as they should.

Transparency going forward means making your weeding guidelines publicly available. It means having the data available. How many books are being weeded? What percentage of the collection is that? How were the weeding lists generated? That was one of the most frustrating things about our weeding project; because we didn’t have an ILS until 2009 we didn’t really have the data to make these decisions. The project did help us finish barcoding the collection, which was a feat.

People, library staff and library users, will probably still be unhappy about weeding because it just sucks. People like libraries because we keep material and knowledge safe and accessible, and weeding it makes that particular item less accessible despite making the collection as a whole better. Some understanding that people will be upset and giving them that space but still progressing is probably a good way forward. Hiding the process and not letting people know what’s going on or be involved will only make them more upset and escalate the reaction, which is a pretty common story.

Any thoughts on how to make weeding more palatable?