A Clean House at the Directory of Open Access Journals

The Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) is an international directory of journals and index of articles that are available open access. Dating back to 2003, the DOAJ was at the center of a controversy surrounding the “sting” conducted by John Bohannon in Science, which I covered in 2013. Essentially Bohannon used journals listed in DOAJ to try to find journals that would publish an article of poor quality as long as authors paid a fee. At the time many suggested that a crowdsourced journal reviewing platform might be the way to resolve the problem if DOAJ wasn’t a good source. While such a platform might still be a good idea, the simpler and more obvious solution is the one that seems to have happened: for DOAJ to be more strict with publishers about requirements for inclusion in the directory. 1.

The process of cleaning up the DOAJ has been going on for some time and is getting close to an important milestone. All the 10,000+ journals listed in DOAJ were required to reapply for inclusion, and the deadline for that is December 30, 2015. After that time, any journals that haven’t reapplied will be removed from the DOAJ.

“Proactive Not Reactive”

Contrary to popular belief, the process for this started well before the Bohannon piece was published 2. In December 2012 an organization called Infrastructure Services for Open Access (IS4OA)  (founded by Alma Swan and Caroline Sutton) took over DOAJ from Lund University, and announced several initiatives, including a new platform, distributed editorial help, and improved criteria for inclusion. 3 Because DOAJ grew to be an important piece of the scholarly communications infrastructure it was inevitable that they would have to take such a step sooner or later. With nearly 10,000 journals and only a small team of editors it wouldn’t have been sustainable over time, and to lose the DOAJ would have been a blow to the open access community.

One of the remarkable things about the revitalization of the DOAJ is the transparency of the process. The DOAJ News Service blog has been detailing the behind the scenes processes in detail since May 2014. One of the most useful things is a list of journals who have claimed to be listed in DOAJ but are not. Another important piece of information is the 2015-2016 development roadmap. There is a lot going on with the DOAJ update, however, so below I will pick out what I think is most important to know.

The New DOAJ

In March 2014, the DOAJ created a new application form with much higher standards for inclusion. Previously the form for inclusion was only 6 questions, but after working with the community they changed the application to require 58 questions. The requirements are detailed on a page for publishers, and the new application form is available as a spreadsheet.

While 58 questions seems like a lot, it is important to note that journals need not fulfill every single requirement, other than the basic requirements for inclusion. The idea is that journal publishers must be transparent about the structure and funding of the journal, and that journals explicitly labeled as open access meet some basic theoretical components of open access. For instance, one of the  basic requirements is that  “the full text of ALL content must be available for free and be Open Access without delay”. Certain other pieces are strong suggestions, but not meeting them will not reject a journal. For instance, the DOAJ takes a strong stand against impact factors and suggests that they not be presented on journal websites at all 4.

To highlight journals that have extremely high standards for “accessibility, openness, discoverability reuse and author rights”, the DOAJ has developed a “Seal” that is awarded to journals who answer “yes” to the following questions (taken from the DOAJ application form):

have an archival arrangement in place with an external party (Question 25). ‘No policy in place’ does not qualify for the Seal.

provide permanent identifiers in the papers published (Question 28). ‘None’ does not qualify for the Seal.

provide article level metadata to DOAJ (Question 29). ‘No’ or failure to provide metadata within 3 months do not qualify for the Seal.

embed machine-readable CC licensing information in article level metadata (Question 45). ‘No’ does not qualify for the Seal.

allow reuse and remixing of content in accordance with a CC BY, CC BY-SA or CC BY-NC license (Question 47). If CC BY-ND, CC BY-NC-ND, ‘No’ or ‘Other’ is selected the journal will not qualify for the Seal.

have a deposit policy registered in a deposit policy directory. (Question 51) ‘No’ does not qualify for the Seal.

allow the author to hold the copyright without restrictions. (Question 52) ‘No’ does not qualify for the Seal.

Part of the appeal of the Seal is that it focuses on the good things about open access journals rather than the questionable practices. Having a whitelist is much more appealing for people doing open access outreach than a blacklist. Journals with the Seal are available in a facet on the new DOAJ interface.

Getting In and Out of the DOAJ

Part of the reworking of the DOAJ was the requirementand required all currently listed journals to reapply–as of November 19 just over 1,700 journals had been accepted under the new criteria, and just over 800 had been removed (you can follow the list yourself here). For now you can find journals that have reapplied with a green check mark (what DOAJ calls The Tick!). That means that about 85% of journals that were previously listed either have not reapplied, or are still in the verification pipeline 5. While DOAJ does not discuss specific reasons a journal or publisher is removed, they do give a general category for removal. I did some analysis of the data provided in the added/removed/rejected spreadsheet.

At the time of analysis, there were 1776 journals on the accepted list. 20% of these were added since September, and with the deadline looming this number is sure to grow. Around 8% of the accepted journals have the DOAJ Seal.

There were 809 journals removed from the DOAJ, and the reasons fell into the following general categories. I manually checked some of the journals with only 1 or 2 titles, and suspect that some of these may be reinstated if the publisher chooses to reapply. Note that well over half the removed journals weren’t related to misconduct but were ceased or otherwise unavailable.

Inactive (has not published in the last calender year) 233
Suspected editorial misconduct by publisher 229
Website URL no longer works 124
Ceased publishing 108
Journal not adhering to Best Practice 62
Journal is no longer Open Access 45
Has not published enough articles this calendar year 2
Wrong ISSN 2
Other; delayed open access 1
Other; no content 1
Other; taken offline 1
Removed at publisher’s request 1

The spreadsheet lists 26 journals that were rejected. Rejected journals will know the specific reasons why their applications were rejected, but those specific reasons are not made public. Journals may reapply after 6 months once they have had an opportunity to amend the issues. 6  The general stated reasons were as follows:

Unknown 19
Has not published enough articles 2
Journal website lacks necessary information 2
Not an academic/scholarly journal 1
Only Abstracts 1
Web site URL doesn’t work 1

The work that DOAJ is doing to improve transparency and the screening process is very important for open access advocates, who will soon have a tool that they can trust to provide much more complete information for scholars and librarians. For too long we have been forced to use the concept of a list of “questionable” or even “predatory” journals. A directory of journals with robust standards and easy to understand interface will be a fresh start for the rhetoric of open access journals.

Are you the editor of an open access journal? What do you think of the new application process? Leave your thoughts in the comments (anonymously if you like).

Taking a Deep Breath after a Systems Migration

I have been mostly absent from ACRL Tech Connect this year because the last nine months have been spent migrating to a new library systems platform and discovery layer. As one of the key members of the implementation team, I have devoted more time to meetings, planning, development, more meetings, and more planning than any other part of my job has required thus far. We have just completed the official implementation project and are regular old customers by now. At this point I finally feel I can take a deep breath and step back to think about the past nine months in a holistic manner to glean some lessons learned from this incredible professional opportunity that was also incredibly challenging at times.

In this post I won’t go into the details of exactly which system we implemented and how, since it’s irrelevant to the larger discussion. Rather I’d like to stay at a high level to think about what working on such a project is like for a professional working with others on a team and as an individual trying to make things happen. For those who are curious about the details of the project, including management and process, those will be detailed in a forthcoming book chapter in Exploring Discovery (ALA Editions) edited by Ken Varnum. I will also be participating in an AL Live episode on this topic on October 8.

A project like this doesn’t come as a surprise. My library had been planning a move to a new platform for a number of years, and had an extremely inclusive selection process when selecting a new platform. When we found out that we would be able to go ahead with the implementation process I knew that I would have the opportunity to lead the implementation of the new discovery layer on the technical side, as well as coordinate much of the effort on the user outreach and education side. That was an exciting and terrifying role, since while it was far less challenging technically to my mind than working on the data migration, it would be the most public piece of the project. In addition it quickly became clear that our multi-campus situation wasn’t going to fit exactly into line with the built in solutions in the products, which required a great deal of additional work to understand the interoperability of the products and how they interacted with other systems. Ultimately it was a great education, but in the thick of it seemed to have no end in sight.

To that end, I wanted to share some of the lessons I learned from this process both as a leader and a member of a team. Of course, many of these are widely applicable to any project, whether it’s in a library systems department or any work place.

Someone has to say the obvious thing

One of the joys of doing something that is new to everyone is that the dread of impostor syndrome is diminished. If no one knows the answer, then no one can look like an idiot for not knowing, after all. Yet that is not always clear to everyone working on the project, and as the leader it’s useful to make it clear you have no idea how something works when you don’t, or if something is “simple” to you to still to say exactly how it works to make sure everyone understands. There’s a point at which assuming others do know the obvious thing is forgetting your own path to learning, in which it’s helpful to hear the simple thing stated clearly, which may take several attempts. Besides the obvious implications of people not understanding how something works, it robs them of a chance to investigate something of interest and become a real contributor. Try to not make other people have to admit they have no idea what you’re talking about, whether or not you think they should have known it. This also forces you to actually know what you’re talking about. Teaching something is, after all, the best way to learn it.

Don’t answer questions all the time

Human brains can be rather pathetic moment to moment even if they do all right in the end. A service mentality leads (or in some cases requires) us to answer questions as fast as we can, but it’s better to give the correct answer or the well-considered answer a little later than answer something in haste and get the answer wrong or say something in a poor manner. If you are trying to figure out things as you go along, there’s no reason for you to know anything off the top of your head. If you get a question in a meeting and need to double check, no one would be surprised. If you get an email at 5:13 PM after a long day and need to postpone even thinking about the answer until the following day, that is the best thing for your sanity and for the success of the project both.

Keep the end goal in mind, and know when to abandon pieces

This is an obvious insight, but crucial to feeling like you’ve got some control of the process. We tend to think of way more than we can possibly accomplish in a timeframe, and continual re-prioritization is essential. Some features you were sold on in the sales demo end up being lackluster, and other features you didn’t know existed will end up thrilling you. Competing opportunities and priorities will always exist. Good project management can account for those variables and still keep the core goals central and happening on time. But that said…

Project management is not a panacea

The whole past nine months I’ve had a vision that with perfect project management everything could go perfectly. This has crept into all areas of my life and made me imagine that I could project manage my way to perfection in my life with a toddler (way too many variables) or my house (110 year old houses are nearly as tricky as toddlers). We had excellent project management support from the vendor as well as internally, but I kept seeing room for improvement in everything. “If only we had foreseen that, we could have avoided this.” “If only I had communicated the action items more clearly after that meeting, we wouldn’t be so behind.” We actually learned very late in our project that other libraries undertaking similar projects hired a consultant to do nothing but project management on the library side which seemed like a very good idea–though we managed all right without one. In any event, a project manager wouldn’t have changed some of the most challenging issues, which didn’t have anything to do with timelines or resources but with differences in approach and values between departments and libraries. Everyone wants the “best” for the users, but the “best” for one person doesn’t work at all for another. Coming to a compromise is the right way to handle this, there’s no way to avoid conflict and the resulting change in the plan.

Hopefully we all get to experience projects in our careers of this magnitude, whether technical or not. Anything that shifts an institution to something new that touches everyone is something to take very seriously. It’s time-consuming and stressful because it should be! Nevertheless, managing time and stress is key to ensure that you view the work as thrilling rather than diminishing.

Removing the Truthiness from Google

A decade ago, Stephen Colbert introduced the concept of “truthiness”, or a fact that was so because it felt right “from the gut.” When we search for information online, we are always up against the risk that the creator of a page is someone who, like Stephen Colbert’s character doesn’t trust books, because “they’re all fact, no heart.”1 Since sites with questionable or outright false facts that “feel right” often end up at the top of Google search results, librarians teach students how to evaluate online sources for accuracy, relevancy, and so on rather than just trusting the top result. But what if there were a way to ensure that truthiness was removed, and only sites with true information appeared at the top of the results?

This idea is what underlies a new Google algorithm called Knowledge-Based Trust(KBT)2. Google’s original founding principles and the PageRank algorithm were based on academic citation practices–loosely summarized, pages linked to by a number of other pages are more likely to be useful than those with fewer links. The content of the page, while it needs to match the search query, is less crucial to its ranking than outside factors, which is otherwise known as an exogenous model. The KBT, by contrast, is an endogenous model relying on the actual content of the page. Ranking is based on the probability that the page is accurate, and therefore more trustworthy. This is designed to address the problem of sites with high PageRank scores that aren’t accurate, either because their truthiness quotient is high, or because they have gamed the system by scraping content and applying misleading SEO. On the other side, pages with great information that aren’t very popular may be buried.

“Wait a second,” you are now asking yourself, “Google now determines what is true?” The answer is: sort of, but of course it’s not as simple as that. Let’s look at the paper in detail, and then come back to the philosophical questions.

Digging Into the KBT

First, this paper is technical, but the basic information is fairly straightforward. This model is based on extracting facts from a web source, evaluating whether those facts are true or not, and then whether a source is accurate or not. This leads to a determination that the facts are correct in an iterative process. Of course, verifying that determination is essential to ensuring that all the algorithms are working correctly, and this paper describes ways of checking the extracted facts for accuracy.

The extractors are described more fully in an earlier version of this work, Knowledge Vault (KV), which was designed to fill in large-scale knowledge bases such as Freebase by extracting facts from a web source using techniques like Natural Language Processing of text files followed by machine learning, HTML DOM trees, HTML tables, and human processed pages with schema.org metadata. The extractors themselves can perform poorly in creating these triples, however, and this is more common than the facts being wrong, and so sites may be unfairly flagged as inaccurate. The KBT project aims to introduce an algorithm for determining what type of error is present, as well as how to judge sites with many or few facts accurately, and lastly to test their assumptions using real world data against known facts.

The specific example given in the paper is the birthplace of President Barack Obama. The extractor would determine a predicate, subject, object triple from a web source and match these strings to Freebase (for example). This can lead to a number of errors–there is a huge problem in computationally determining the truth even when the semantics are straightforward (which we all know it rarely is). For this example, it’s possible to check data from the web against the known value in Freebase, and so if that extractor works set an option to 1 (for yes) and 0 (for no). Then this can be charted in a two-dimensional or three-dimensional matrix that helps show the probability of a given extractor working, as well as whether the value pulled by the extractor was true or not.

They go on to examine two models for computing the data, single-layer and multi-layer. The single-layer model, which looks at each web source and its facts separately, is easier to work with using standard techniques but is limited because it doesn’t take into account extraction errors. The multi-layer model is more complex to analyze, but takes the extraction errors into account along with the truth errors. I am not qualified to comment on the algorithm math in detail, but essentially it computes probability of accuracy for each variable in turn, ultimately arriving at an equation that estimates how accurate a source is, weighted by the likelihood that source contains those facts. There are additional considerations for precision and recall, as well as confidence levels returned by extractors.

Lastly, they consider how to split up large sources to avoid computational bottlenecks, as well as to merge sources with few facts in order to not penalize them but not accidentally combine unrelated sources. Their experimental results determined that generally PageRank and KBT are orthogonal, but with a few outliers. In some cases, the site has a low PageRank but a high KBT. They manually verified the top three predicates with high extraction accuracy scores for web sources with a high KBT to check what was happening. 85% of these sources were trustworthy without extraction errors and with predicates related to the topic of the page, but only 23% of these sources had PageRank scores over 0.5. In other cases, sources had a low KBT but high PageRank, which included sites such as celebrity gossip sites and forums such as Yahoo Answers. Yes, indeed, Google computer scientists finally have definitive proof that Yahoo Answers tends to be inaccurate.

The conclusion of the article with future improvements reads like the learning outcomes for any basic information literacy workshop. First, the algorithm would need to be able to tell the main topic of the website and filter out unrelated facts, to understand which triples are trivial, to have better comprehension of what is a fact, and to correctly remove sites with data scraped from other sources. That said, for what it does, this is a much more sophisticated model than anything else out there, and at least proves that there is a possibility to computationally determine the accuracy of a web source.

What is Truth, Anyway?

Despite the promise of this model there are clearly many potential problems, of which I’ll mention just a few. The source for this exercise, Freebase, is currently in read-only mode as its data migrates to Wikidata. Google is apparently dropping Freebase to focus on their Open Knowledge Graph, which is partially Freebase/Wikidata content and partially schema.org data 3. One interesting wrinkle is that much of Freebase content cites Wikipedia as a source, which means there are currently recursive citations that must be properly cited before they will be accepted as facts. We already know that Wikipedia suffers from a lack of diversity in contributors and topic coverage, so a focus on content from Wikipedia has the danger of reducing the sources of information from which the KBT could check triples.

That said, most of human knowledge and understanding is difficult to fit into triples. While surely no one would search Google for “What is love?” or similar and expect to get a factual answer, there are plenty of less extreme examples that are unclear. For instance, how does this account for controversial topics? I.e. “anthropogenic global warming is real” vs. “global warming is real, but it’s not anthropogenic.” 97% of scientists agree to the former, but what if you are looking for what the 3% are saying?

And we might question whether it’s a good idea to trust an algorithm’s definition of what is true. As Bess Sadler and Chris Bourg remind us, algorithms are not neutral, and may ignore large parts of human experience, particularly from groups underrepresented in computer science and technology. Librarians should have a role in reducing that ignorance by supporting “inclusion, plurality, participation and transparency.” 4 Given the limitations of what is available to the KBT it seems unlikely that this algorithm would markedly reduce this inequity, though I could see how it could be possible if Wikidata could be seeded with more information about diverse groups.

Librarians take note, this algorithm is still under development, and most likely won’t be appearing in our Google results any time in the near future. And even once it does, we need to ensure that we are still paying attention to nuance, edge cases, and our own sense of truthiness–and more importantly, truth–as we evaluate web sources.

  1. http://thecolbertreport.cc.com/videos/63ite2/the-word—truthiness.
  2. Dong, X. et al. “Knowledge-Based Trust: Estimating the Trustworthiness of Web Sources”. Proceedings of the VLDB Endowment, 2015. Retrieved from http://arxiv.org/abs/1502.03519
  3. https://www.wikidata.org/wiki/Help:FAQ/Freebase
  4. Sadler, Bess and Chris Bourg, “Feminism and the Future of Library Discovery.” Code4Lib Journal 28, April 2015.

Educating Your Campus about Predatory Publishers

The recent publication of Monica Berger and Jill Cirasella’s piece in College and Research Libraries News “Beyond Beall’s List: Better understanding predatory publishers” is a reminder that the issue of “predatory publishers” continues to require focus for those working in scholarly communication. Berger and Cirasella have done a exemplary job of laying out some of the issues with Beall’s list, and called on librarians to be able “to describe the beast, its implications, and its limitations—neither understating nor overstating its size and danger.”

At my institution academic deans have identified “predatory” journals as an area of concern, and I am sure similar conversations are happening at other institutions. Here’s how I’ve “described the beast” at my institution, and models for services we all can provide, whether subject librarian or scholarly communication librarian.

What is a Predatory Publisher? And Why Does the Dean Care?

The concept of predatory publishers became much more widely known in 2013 with a publication of an open access sting by John Bohannon in Science, which I covered in this post. As a recap, Bohannon created a fake but initially believable poor quality scientific article, and submitted it to open access journals. He found that the majority of journals accepted the poor quality paper, 45% of which were included in the Directory of Open Access Journals. At the time of publication in October 2013 the response to this article was explosive in the scholarly communications world. It seems that more than a year later the reaction continues to spread. Late in the fall semester of 2014, library administration asked me to prepare a guide about predatory publishers, due to concern among the deans that unscrupulous publishers might be taking advantage of faculty. This was a topic I’d been educating faculty about on an ad hoc basis for years, but I never realized we needed to address it more systematically. That all has changed, with senior library administration now doing regular presentations about predatory publishers to faculty.

If we are to be advocates of open access, we need to focus on the positive impact that open access has rather than dwell for too long on the bad sides of it. We also need faculty to be clear on their own goals for making their work open access so that they may make more informed choices. Librarians have limited faculty bandwidth on the topic, and so focusing on education about self-archiving articles (otherwise known as green open access) or choosing no-fee (also known as gold) open access journals is a better way to achieve advocacy goals than suggesting faculty choose only a certain set of gold open access journals. Unless we are offering money for paying article fees, we also don’t have much say about where faculty choose to publish. Education about how to choose a journal and a license responsibly is what we should focus on, even if it diverges from certain ideals (see Meredith Farkas on choosing creative commons licenses.)

Understanding the Needs and Preparing the Material

As I mentioned, my library administration asked for a guide that that they could use in presentations and share with faculty. In preparing this guide, I worked with our library’s Scholarly Communications committee (of which I am co-chair) to determine the format and content.

We decided that adding this material to our existing Open Access research guide would be the best move, since it was already up and we shared the URL widely already. We have a robust series of Open Access Week events (which I wrote about last fall) and this seemed to ideal place to continue engaging people. That said, we determined that the guide needed an overhaul to make it more clear that open access was an on-going area of concern, not a once a year event. Since faculty are not always immediately thinking of making work open access but of the mechanics of publishing, I preferred to start with the title “Publishing Your Own Work”.

To describe its features a bit more, I wanted to start from the mindset of self-archiving work to make it open access with a description of our repository and Peter Suber’s useful guide to making one’s own work open access. I then continued with an explanation of article publication fees, since I often get questions along those lines. They are not unique to open access journals, and don’t imply any fee to accept for publication, which was a fear that I heard more than once during Open Access Week last year. I only then discussed the concept of predatory journals, with the hope that a basic understanding of the process would allay fears. I then present a list of steps to research a journal. I thought these steps were more common sense than anything, but after conversations with faculty and administration, I realized that my intuition about what type of journal I am dealing with is obvious because I have daily practice and experience. For people new to the topic I tried to break down research into easy steps that help them to figure out where a journal is on the continuum from outright scams to legitimate but new or unusual journals. It was also important to me to emphasize self-archiving as a strategy no matter the journal publication model.

Lastly, while most academic libraries have a model of liaison librarians engaging in scholarly communications activities, the person who spends every day working on these issues is likely to be more versed in emerging trends. So it is important to work with liaisons to help them research journals and to identify quality open access journals in their disciplines. We plan to add this information to the guide in a future version.

Taking it on the Road

We felt that in-person instruction on these matters with faculty was a crucial next step, particularly for people who publish in traditional journals but want to make their work available. Traditional journals’ copyright transfer agreements can be predatory, even if we don’t think about it in those terms. Taking inspiration from the ACRL Scholarly Communications Roadshow I attended a few years ago, I decided to take the curriculum from that program and offer it to faculty and graduate students. We read through three publication agreements as a group, and then discussed how open the publishers were to reuse of material, or whether they mentioned it at all. We then included a section on addenda to contracts for negotiation about additional rights.

The first workshop received modest attendance, but included some thoughtful conversations, and we have promised to run it again. Some people may never have read their agreements closely, and never realized they were doing something illegal or not specifically allowed by, for instance, sharing an article they wrote with their students. That concrete realization is more likely to spur action than more abstract arguments about the benefits of open access.

Escaping the Predator Metaphor

If I could go back, I would get rid of the concept of “predator” attached to open access journals. Let’s call it instead unscrupulous entrants into an emerging business model. That’s not as catchy, but it explains why this has happened. I would argue, personally, that the hybrid gold journals by large publishers are just as predatory, as they capitalize on funding requirements to make articles open access with high fees. They too are trying new business models, and those may not be tenable either. As I said above, choosing a journal with eyes wide open and understanding all the ramifications of different publication models is the only way forward. To suggest that faculty are innocently waiting to be pounced on by predators is to deny their agency and their ability to make choices about their own work. There may be days where that metaphor seems apt, but I think overall this is a damaging mentality to librarians interested in promoting new models of scholarly communication. I hope we can provide better resources and programming to escape this, as well as to help administration to understand how to choose to fund open access initiatives.

In the comments I’d like to hear more suggestions about how to escape the “predator” metaphor, as well as your own techniques for educating faculty on your campus.

Trapped in the Glass Cage

Imagine this scenario: you don’t normally have a whole lot to do at your job. It’s a complex job, sure, but day-to-day you’re spending most of your time monitoring a computer and typing in data. But one day, something goes wrong. The computer fails. You are suddenly asked to perform basic job functions that the computer normally takes care of for you, and you don’t really remember well how to do them. In the mean time, the computer is screaming at you about an error, and asking for additional inputs. How well do you function?

The Glass Cage

In Nicholas Carr’s new book The Glass Cage, this scenario is the frightening result of malfunctions with airplanes, and in the cases he describes, result in crashes and massive loss of life. As librarians, we are thankfully not responsible on a daily basis for the lives of hundreds of people, but like pilots, we too have automated much of our work and depend on systems that we often have no control over. What happens when a database we rely on goes down–say, all OCLC services go down for a few hours in December when many students are trying to get a few last sources for their papers? Are we able to take over seamlessly from the machines in guiding students?

Carr is not against automation, nor indeed against technology in general, though this is a criticism frequently leveled at him. But he is against the uncritical abnegation of our faculties to technology companies. In his 2011 book The Shallows, he argues that offloading memory to the internet and apps makes us more shallow, distractable thinkers. While I didn’t buy all his arguments (after all, Socrates didn’t approve of off-loading memory to writing since it would make us all shallow, distractable thinkers), it was thought-provoking. In The Glass Cage, he focuses on automation specifically, using autopilot technologies as the focal point–“the glass cage” is the name pilots use for cockpits since they are surrounded by screens. Besides the danger of not knowing what to do when the automated systems fail, we create potentially more dangerous situations by not paying attention to what choices automated systems make. As Carr writes, “If we don’t understand the commercial, political, intellectual, and ethical motivations of the people writing our software, or the limitations inherent in automated data processing, we open ourselves to manipulation.” 1

We have automated many mundane functions of library operation that have no real effect, or a positive effect. For instance, no longer do students sign out books by writing their names on paper cards which are filed away in drawers. While some mourn for the lost history of who had out the book–or even the romance novel scenario of meeting the other person who checks out the same books–by tracking checkouts in a secure computerized system we can keep better track of where books are, as well as maintain privacy by not showing who has checked out each book. And when the checkout system goes down, it is easy to figure out how to keep things going in the interim. We can understand on an instinctual level how such a system works and what it does. Like a traditional computerized library catalog, we know more or less how data gets in the system, and how data gets out. We have more access points to the data, but it still follows its paper counterpart in creation and structure.

Over the past decade, however, we have moved away more and more from those traditional systems. We want to provide students with systems that align with their (and our) experience outside libraries. Discovery layers take traditional library data and transform it with indexes and algorithms to create a new, easier way to find research material. If traditional automated systems, like autopilot systems, removed the physical effort of moving between card catalogs, print indexes, and microfilm machines, these new systems remove much of the mental effort of determining where to search for that type of information and the particular skills needed to search the relevant database. That is a surely a useful and good development. When one is immersed in a research question, the system shouldn’t get in the way.

Dr. Screen

That said, the nearly wholesale adoption of discovery systems provided by vendors leaves academic librarians in an awkward position. We can find a parallel in medicine. Carr relates the rush into electronic medical records (EMR) starting in 2004 with the Heath Information Technology Adoption Initiative. This meant huge amounts of money available for digitizing records, as well as a huge windfall for health information companies. While an early study by the RAND corporation (funded in part by those health information companies) indicated enormous promise from electronic medical records to save money and improve care. 2 But in actual fact, these systems did not do everything they were supposed to do. All the data that was supposed to be easy to share between providers was locked up in proprietary systems. 3 In addition, other studies showed that these systems did not merely substitute automated record-keeping for manual, they changed the way medicine was practiced. 4 EMR systems provide additional functions beyond note-taking, such as checklists and prompts with suggestions for questions and tests, which in turn create additional and more costly bills, test requests, and prescriptions. 5 The EMR systems change the dynamic between doctor and patient as well. The systems encourage the use of boilerplate text that lacks the personalized story of an individual patient, and the inability to flip through pages tended to diminish the long view of a patient’s entire medical history. 6 The presence of the computer in the room and the constant multitasking of typing notes into a computer means that doctors cannot be fully present with the patient. 7 With the constant presence of the EMR and its checklists, warnings, and prompts, doctors lose the ability to gain intuition and new understandings that the EMR could never provide. 8

The reference librarian has an interaction with patrons that is not all that different from doctors with patients (though as with pilots, the stakes are usually quite different). We work one on one with people on problems that are often undefined or misunderstood at the beginning of the interaction, and work towards a solution through conversation and cursory examinations of resources. We either provide the resource that solves the problem (e.g. the prescription), or make sure the patron has the tools available to solve problem over time (e.g. diet and exercise recommendations). We need to use subtle queues of body language and tone of voice to see how things are going, and use instinctive knowledge to understand if there is a deeper but unexpressed problem. We need our tools at hand to work with patrons, but we need to be present and use our own experience and judgment in knowing the appropriate tool to use. That means that we have to understand how the tool we have works, and ideally have some way of controlling it. Unfortunately that has not always been the case with vendor discovery systems. We are at the mercy of the system, and reactions to this vary. Some people avoid using it at all costs and won’t teach using the discovery system, which means that students are even less likely to use it, preferring the easier to get to even if less robust Google search. Or, if students do use it, they may still be missing out on the benefits of having academic librarians available–people who have spent years developing domain knowledge and the best resources available at the library, which knowledge can’t be replaced by an algorithm. Furthermore, the vendor platforms and content only interoperate to the extent the vendors are willing to work together, for which many of them have a disincentive since they want their own index to come out on top.

Enter the ODI

Just as doctors may have given up some of their professional ability and autonomy to proprietary databases of patient information, academic librarians seem to have done something similar with discovery systems. But the NISO Open Discovery Initiative (ODI) has potential to make the black box more transparent. This group has been working for two years to develop a set of practices that aim to make some aspects of discovery even across providers, and so give customers and users more control in understanding what they are seeing and ensure that indexes are complete. The Recommended Practice addresses some (but not all) major concerns in discovery service platforms. Essentially it covers requirements for metadata that content providers must provide to discovery service providers and to libraries, as well as best practices for content providers and discovery service providers. The required core metadata is followed by the “enriched” content which is optional–keywords, abstract, and full text. (Though the ODI makes it clear that including these is important–one might argue that the abstract is essential). 9 Discovery service providers are in turn strongly encouraged to make the content their repositories hold clear to their customers, and the metadata required for this. Discovery service providers should follow suggested practices to ensure “fair linking”, specifically to not use business relationships as a ranking or ordering consideration, and allow libraries to set their own preferences about choice of providers and wording for links. ODI suggests a fairly simple set of usage statistics that should be provided and exactly what they should measure. 10

While this all sets a good baseline, what is out of scope for ODI is equally important. It “does not address issues related to performance or features of the discovery services, as these are inherently business and design decisions guided by competitive market forces.” 11 Performance and features includes the user interface and experience, the relevancy ranking algorithms, APIs, specific mechanisms for fair linking, and data exchange (which is covered by other protocols). The last section of the Recommended Practice covers some of those in “Recommended Next Steps”. One of those that jumps out is the “on-demand lookup by discovery service users” 12, which suggests that users should be able to query the discovery service to determine “…whether or not a particular collection, journal, or book is included in the indexed content”13–seemingly the very goal of discovery in the first place.

“Automation of Intellect”

We know that many users only look at the first page of results for the resource they want. If we don’t know what results should be there, or how they get there, we are leaving users at the mercy of the tool. Disclosure of relevancy rankings is a major piece of transparency that ODI leaves out, and without understanding or controlling that piece of discovery, I think academic librarians are still caught in the trap of the glass cage–or become the chauffeur in the age of the self-driving car. This has been happening in all professional fields as machine learning algorithms and processing power to crunch big data sets improve. Medicine, finance, law, business, and information technology itself have been increasingly automated as software can run algorithms to analyze scenarios that in the past would require a senior practitioner. 14 So what’s the problem with this? If humans are fallible (and research shows that experts are equally if not more fallible), why let them touch anything? Carr argues that “what makes us smart is not our ability to pull facts from documents.…It’s our ability to make sense of things…” 15 We can grow to trust the automated system’s algorithms beyond our own experience and judgment, and lose the possibility of novel insights. 16

This is not to say that discovery systems do not solve major problems or that libraries should not use them. They do, and as much as practical libraries should make discovery as easy as possible. But as this ODI Recommended Practice makes clear, much remains a secret business decision for discovery service vendors, and thus something over which academic librarian can exercise control only though their dollars in choosing a platform and their advocacy in working with vendors to ensure they understand the system and it does what they need.


  1. Nicholas Carr, The Glass Cage: Automation and Us (New York: Norton, 2014), 208.
  2. Carr, 93.
  3. Carr, 95.
  4. Carr, 97.
  5. Carr, 98.
  6. Carr, 101-102.
  7. Carr, 103.
  8. Carr, 105-106.
  9.  National Information Standards Organization (NISO) Open Discovery Initiative (ODI) Working Group, Open Discovery Initiative: Promoting Transparency in Discovery (Baltimore: NISO, 2014): 25-26.
  10. NISO ODI, 25-27.
  11. NISO ODI, 3.
  12. NISO ODI, 32.
  13. NISO ODI, 32.
  14. Carr, 115-117.
  15. Carr, 121.
  16. Carr, 124.

How I Work (Margaret Heller)

Editor’s Note: This post is part of ACRL TechConnect’s series by our regular and guest authors about The Setup of our work.


Margaret Heller, @margaret_heller

Location: Chicago, IL

Current Gig: Digital Services Librarian, Loyola University Chicago

Current Mobile Device: iPhone 5s. It took me years and years of thinking to finally buy a smart phone, and I did it mainly because my iPod Touch and slightly smart phone were both dying so it could replace both.

Current Computer:

Work: Standard issue Dell running Windows 7, with two monitors.

Home: Home built running Windows 7, in need of an upgrade that I will get around to someday.

Current Tablet: iPad 3, which I use constantly. One useful tip is that I have the Adobe Connect, GoToMeeting, Google Hangout, and Lync apps which really help with participating in video calls and webinars from anywhere.

One word that best describes how you work: Tenaciously

What apps/software/tools can’t you live without?

Outlook and Lync are my main methods of communicating with other library staff. I love working at a place where IMing people is the norm. I use these both on desktop and on my phone and tablet. I love that a recent upgrade means that we can listen to voice mails in our email.

Firefox is my normal work web browser. I tend to use Chrome at home. The main reason for the difference is synced bookmarks. I have moved my bookmarks between browsers so many times that I have some of the original sites I bookmarked when I first used Netscape in the late 90s. Needless to say, very few of the sites still exist, but it reminds me of old hobbies and interests. I also don’t need the login to stream shows from my DVR at in my bookmark toolbar at work.

Evernote I use for taking meeting notes, conference notes, recipes, etc. I usually have it open all day at work.

Notepad++ is where I do most of my code writing.

OpenRefine is my favored tool for bulk editing metadata, closely aligned with Excel since I need Excel to get data into our institutional repository.

Filezilla is my favored FTP client.

WriteMonkey is the distraction free writing environment I use on my desktop computer (and how I am writing this post). I use Editorial on my iPad.

Spotify and iTunes for music and podcasts.

RescueTime for staying on track with work–I get an email every Sunday night so I can swear off social media for the next week. (It lasts about a day).

FocusBooster makes a great Pomodoro timer.

Zotero is my constant lifesaver when I can’t remember how to cite something, and the only way I stay on track with writing posts for ACRL TechConnect.

Feedly is my RSS reader, and most of the time I stay on top of it.

Instapaper is key to actually reading rather than skimming articles, though of course I am always behind on it.

Box (and Box Sync) is our institutional cloud file storage service, and I use it extensively for all my collaborative projects.

Asana is how we keep track of ongoing projects in the department, and I use it for prioritizing personal projects as well.

What’s your workspace like? :A large room in the basement with two people full time, and assorted student workers working on the scanner. We have pieces of computers sitting around, though moved out an old server rack that was taking up space. (Servers are no longer located in the library but in the campus data centers). My favorite feature is the white board wall behind my desk, which provides enough space to sketch out ideas in progress.

I have a few personal items in the office: a tea towel from the Bodleian Library in Oxford, a reproduction of an antique map of France, Belgium, & Holland, a photo of a fiddlehead fern opening, and small stone frogs to rearrange while I am talking on the phone. I also have a photo of my baby looking at a book, though he’s so much bigger now I need to add additional photos of him. My desk has in tray, out tray, and a book cart shaped business card holder I got at a long ago ALA conference. I am a big proponent of a clean desk, though the later in the semester it gets the more likely I am to have extra papers, but it’s important to my focus to have an empty desk.

There’s usually a lot going on in here and no natural light, so I go outside to work in the summer, or sometimes just to another floor in the building to enjoy the lake view and think through problems.

What’s your best time-saving trick?: Document and schedule routine tasks so I don’t forget steps or when to take care of them. I also have a lot of rules and shortcuts set up in my email so I can process email very quickly and not work out of my inbox. Learn the keyboard shortcuts! I can mainly get through Gmail without touching the mouse and it’s great.

What’s your favorite to-do list manager?: Remember the Milk is how I manage tasks. I’ve been using it for years for Getting Things Done. I pay for it, and so currently have access to the new version which is amazing, but I am sworn to secrecy about its appearance or features. I have a Google Doc presentation I use for Getting Things Done weekly reviews, but just started using an Asana project to track all my ongoing projects in one place without overwhelming Remember the Milk or the Google Doc. It tells me I currently have 74 projects. A few more have come in that I haven’t added yet either.

Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without?: For a few more weeks, my breast pump, which I am not crazy about, but it makes the hard choices of parenting a little bit easier. I used to not be able to live without my Nook until I cut my commute from an hour on the train to a 20 minute walk, so now I need earbuds for the walk. I am partial to Pilot G2 pens, which I use all the time for writing ideas on scrap paper.

What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else?: Keeping my senses of humor and perspective available for problem solving.

What are you currently reading?: How to be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman (among other things). So far I have learned how Victorians washed themselves, and it makes me grateful for central heating.

What do you listen to while you work?: Podcasts (Roderick on the Line is required listening), mainly when I am doing work that doesn’t require a lot of focus. I listen mostly to full albums on Spotify (I have a paid account), though occasionally will try a playlist if I can’t decide what to listen to. But I much prefer complete albums, and try to stay on top of new releases as well as old favorites.

Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert?: A shy extrovert, though I think I should be an introvert based on the popular perception. I do genuinely like seeing other people, and get restless if I am alone for too long.

What’s your sleep routine like?: I try hard to get in bed at 9:30, but by 10 at the latest. Or ok, maybe 10:15. Awake at 6 or whenever the baby wakes up. (He mostly sleeps through the night, but sometimes I am up with him at 4 until he falls asleep again). I do love sleeping though, so chances to sleep in are always welcome.

Fill in the blank: I’d love to see _________ answer these same questions. Occasional guest author Andromeda Yelton.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?: You are only asked to be yourself. Figure out how you can best help the world, and work towards that rather than comparing yourself to others. People can adjust to nearly any circumstance, so don’t be afraid to try new things.

Making Open Access Everyone’s Business

Librarians should have a role in promoting open access content. The best methods and whether they are successful is a matter of heated debate. Take for an example a recent post by Micah Vandergrift on the ACRL Scholarly Communications mailing list, calling on librarians to stage a publishing walkout and only publish in open access library and information science journals. Many have already done so. Others, like myself, have published in traditional journals (only once in my case) but make a point of making their work available in institutional repositories. I personally would not publish in a journal that did not allow such use of my work, and I know many who feel the same way. 1 The point is, of course, to ensure that librarians are not be hypocritical in their own publishing and their use of repositories to provide open access–a long-standing problem pointed out by Dorothea Salo 2, among others3 We know that many of the reasons that faculty may hesitate to participate in open access publishing relate to promotion and tenure requirements, which generally are more flexible for academic librarians (though not in all cases–see Abigail Goben’s open access tenure experiment). I suspect that many of the reasons librarians aren’t participating more in open access has partly to do with more mundane reasons of forgetting to do so, or fearing that work is not good enough to make public.

But it shouldn’t be only staunch advocates of open access, open peer review, or new digital models for work and publishing who are participating. We have to find ways to advocate and educate in a gentle but vigorous manner, and reach out to new faculty and graduate students who need to start participating now if the future will be different. Enter Open Access Week, a now eight-year-old celebration of open access organized by SPARC. Just as Black Friday is the day that retailers hope to be in the black, Open Access Week has become an occasion to organize around and finally share our message with willing ears. Right?

It can be, but it requires a good deal of institutional dedication to make it happen. At my institution, Open Access Week is a big deal. I am co-chair of a new Scholarly Communications committee which is now responsible for planning the week (the committee used to just plan the week, but the scope has been extended). The committee has representation from Systems, Reference, Access Services, and the Information Commons, and so we are able to touch on all aspects of open access. Last year we had events five days out of five; this year we are having events four days out of five. Here are some of the approaches we are taking to creating successful conversations around open access.

    • Focus on the successes and the impact of your faculty, whether or not they are publishing in open access journals.

The annual Celebration of Faculty Scholarship takes place during Open Access Week, and brings together physical material published by all faculty at a cocktail reception. We obtain copies of articles and purchase books written by faculty, and set up laptops to display digital projects. This is a great opportunity to find out exactly what our faculty are working on, and get a sense of them as researchers that we may normally lack. It’s also a great opportunity to introduce the concept of open access and recruit participants to the institutional repository.

    • Highlight the particular achievements of faculty who are participating in open access.

We place stickers on materials at the Celebration that are included in the repository or are published in open access journals. This year we held a panel with faculty and graduate students who participate in open access publishing to discuss their experiences, both positive and negative.

  • Demonstrate the value the library adds to open access initiatives.

Recently bepress (which creates the Digital Commons repositories on which ours runs) introduced a real time map of repositories downloads that was a huge hit this year. It was a compelling visual illustration of the global impact of work in the repository. Faculty were thrilled to see their work being read across the world, and it helped to solve the problem of invisible impact. We also highlighted our impact with a new handout that lists key metrics around our repository, including hosting a new open access journal.

  • Talk about the hard issues in open access and the controversies surrounding it, for instance, CC-BY vs. CC-NC-ND licenses.

It’s important to not sugarcoat or spin challenging issues in open access. It’s important to include multiple perspectives and invite difficult conversations. Show scholars the evidence and let them draw their own conclusions, though make sure to step in and correct misunderstandings.

  • Educate about copyright and fair use, over and over again.

These issues are complicated even for people who work on them every day, and are constantly changing. Workshops, handouts, and consultation on copyright and fair use can help people feel more comfortable in the classroom and participating in open access.

  • Make it easy.

Examine what you are asking people to do to participate in open access. Rearrange workflows, cut red tape, and improve interfaces. Open Access Week is a good time to introduce new ideas, but this should be happening all year long.

We can’t expect revolutions in policy and and practice to happen overnight, or without some  sacrifice. Whether you choose to make your stand to only publish in open access journals or some other path, make your stand and help others who wish to do the same.

  1. Publishers have caught on to this tendency in librarians. For instance, Taylor and Francis has 12-18 month repository embargoes for all its journals except LIS journals. Whether this is because of the good work we have done in advocacy or a conciliatory gesture remains up for debate.
  2. Salo, Dorothea. “Innkeeper at the Roach Motel,” December 11, 2007. http://digital.library.wisc.edu/1793/22088.
  3. Xia, Jingfeng, Sara Kay Wilhoite, and Rebekah Lynette Myers. “A ‘librarian-LIS Faculty’ Divide in Open Access Practice.” Journal of Documentation 67, no. 5 (September 6, 2011): 791–805. doi:10.1108/00220411111164673.

Migrating to LibGuides 2.0

This summer Springshare released LibGuides 2.0, which is a complete revamp of the LibGuides system. Many libraries use LibGuides, either as course/research guides or in some cases as the entire library website, and so this is something that’s been on the mind of many librarians this summer, whichever side of LibGuides they usually see. The process of migrating is not too difficult, but the choices you make in planning the new interface can be challenging. As the librarians responsible for the migration, we will discuss our experience of planning and implementing the new LibGuides platform.

Making the Decision to Migrate

While migrating this summer was optional, Springshare will probably only support LibGuides 1 for another two years, and at Loyola we felt it was better to move sooner rather than later. Over the past few years there were perpetual LibGuides cleanup projects, and this seemed to be a good opportunity to finalize that work. At the same time, we wanted to experiment with new designs for the library’s website that would bring it in closer alignment with the university’s new brand as well as make the site responsive, and LibGuides seemed like the ideal place to experiment with some of those ideas. Several new features, revealed on Springshare’s blog, resonated with subject-area specialists which was another reason to push for a migration sooner than later. We also wanted to have it in place before the first day of classes, which gave us a few months to experiment.

The Reference and Electronic Resources librarian, Will Kent, as well as the Head of Reference, Niamh McGuigan, and the Digital Services Librarian, Margaret Heller, worked in concert to make decisions, as well as inviting all the other reference and instruction librarians (as well as anyone else who was interested) to participate in the process. There were a few ground rules the core team went by, however: we were migrating and the process was iterative, i.e. we weren’t waiting for perfection to launch.

Planning the Migration

During the migration planning process, the small team of three librarians worked together to create a timeline, report to the library staff on progress, solicit feedback on the system, and update the LibGuide policies to reflect the new changes and functions. As far as front-end migration went, we addressed large staff-wide meetings, provided updates, polled subject specialists on the progress, prepared our 400 databases for conversion to the new A-Z list, and demonstrated new features, and opened changes that they should be aware of. We would relay updates from Springshare and handle any troubleshooting questions as they happened.

Given the new features – new categories, new ways of searching, the A-Z database list, and other features, it was important for us to sit down, discuss standards, and update our content policies. The good news was that most of our content was in good shape for the migration. The process was swift and barring inevitable, tiny bugs went smoothly.

Our original timeline was to present the migration steps at our June monthly joint meeting of collections and reference staff, and give a timeline one month until the July meeting to complete the work. For various reasons this ended up stretching until mid-August, but we still launched the day before classes began. We are constantly in the process of updating guide types, adding new resources, and re-classifying boxes to adhere to our new policies.

Working on the Design

LibGuides 2.0 provides two basic templates, a left navigation menu and a top tabbed menu that looks similar to the original LibGuides (additional templates are available with the LibGuides CMS product). We had originally discussed using the left navigation box template and originally began a design based on this, but ultimately people felt more comfortable with the tabbed navigation. Whiteboard sketch of the LibGuides UI

For the initial prototype, Margaret worked off a template that we’d used before for Omeka. This mirrors the Loyola University Chicago template very closely. We kept all of the LibGuides standard template–i.e. 1-3 columns with the number of columns and sections within the column determined by the page creator, but added a few additional pieces in the header and footer, as well as making big changes to the tabs.

The first step in planning the design was to understand what customization happened in the template, and which in the header and footer which are entered separately in the admin UI. Margaret sketched out our vision for the site on the whiteboard wall to determine existing selectors and those that would need to be added, as well as get a sense of whether we would need to change the content section at all. In the interests of completing the project in a timely fashion, we determined that the bare minimum of customization to unify the research guides with the rest of the university websites would be the first priority.

For those still planning a redesign, the Code4Lib community has many suggestions on what to consider. The main thing to consider is that LibGuides 2.0 is based on the Bootstrap 3.0 framework, which Michael Schofield recently implored us to use responsibly. Other important considerations are the accessibility of the solution you pick, and use of white space.

LibGuides Look & Feel UI tabs The Look & Feel section under ‘Admin’ has several tabs with sections for Header and Footer, Custom CSS/JS, and layout of pages–Guide Pages Layout is the most relevant for this post.

Just as in the previous version of LibGuides, one can enter custom code for the header and footer (which in this case is almost the same as the regular library website), as well link to a custom CSS file (we did not include any custom Javascript here, but did include several Google Fonts and our custom icon). The Guide Pages Layout is new, and this is where one can edit the actual template that creates each page. We didn’t make any large changes here, but were still able to achieve a unique look with custom CSS.

The new LibGuides platform is responsive, but we needed to account for several items we added to the interface. We added a search box that would allow users to search the entire university website, as well as several new logos, so Margaret added a few media queries to adjust these features on a phone or tablet, as well as adjust the spacing of the custom footer.

Improving the Design

Our first design was ready to present to the subject librarians a month after the migration process started. It was based on the principle of matching the luc.edu pages closely (example), in which the navigation tabs across the top have unusual cutouts, and section titles are very large. No one was very happy with this result, however, as it made the typical LibGuides layout with multiple sections on a page unusable and the tabs not visible enough. While one approach would have been to change the navigation to left navigation menu and limit the number of sections, the majority of the subject librarians preferred to keep things closer to what they had been, with a view to moving toward a potential new layout in the future.

Once we determined a literal interpretation of the university website was not usable for our content, we found inspiration for the template body from another section of the university website that was aimed at presenting a lot of dynamic content with multiple sections, but kept the standard luc.edu header. This allowed us to create a page that was recognizably part of Loyola, but presented our LibGuides content in a much more usable form.

Sticky Tabs

Sticky Tabs

The other piece we borrowed from the university website was sticky tabs. This was an attempt to make the tabs more visible and usable based on what we knew from usability testing on the old platform and what users would already know from the university site. Because LibGuides is based on the Bootstrap framework, it was easy to drop this in using the Affix plugin (tutorial on how to use this)1. The tabs are translucent so they don’t obscure content as one scrolls down.

Our final result was much more popular with everyone. It has a subtle background color and border around each box with a section header that stands out but doesn’t overwhelm the content. The tabs are not at all like traditional LibGuides tabs, functioning somewhat more like regular header links.


Final result.

Next Steps

Over the summer we were not able to conduct usability testing on the new interface due to the tight timeline, so the first step this fall is to integrate it into our regular usability testing schedule to make iterative changes based on user feedback. We also need to continue to audit the page to improve accessibility.

The research guides are one of the most used links on our website (anywhere between 10,000 and 20,000 visits per month), so our top priority was to make sure the migration did not interfere with use – both in terms of patron access and content creation by the subject-area librarians. Thanks to our feedback sessions, good communication with Springshare, and reliable new platform, the migration went smoothly without interruption.

About our guest author: Will Kent is Reference/Instruction and Electronic Resources Librarian and subject specialist for Nursing and Chemistry at Loyola University Chicago. He received his MSLIS from University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in 2011 with a certificate in Community Informatics.

  1. You may remember that in the Bootstrap Responsibly post Michael suggested it wasn’t necessary to use this, but it is the most straightforward way in LibGuides 2.0

A Short and Irreverently Non-Expert Guide to CSS Preprocessors and Frameworks

It took me a long time to wrap my head around what a CSS preproccessor was and why you might want to use one. I knew everyone was doing it, but for the amount of CSS I was doing, it seemed like overkill. And one more thing to learn! When you are a solo web developer/librarian, it’s always easier to clutch desperately at the things you know well and not try to add more complexity. So this post is for those of you are in my old position. If you’re already an expert, you can skip the post and go straight to the comments to sell us on your own favorite tools.

The idea, by the way, is that you will be able to get one of these up and running today. I promise it’s that easy (assuming you have access to install software on your computer).

Ok, So Why Should I Learn This?

Creating a modern and responsive website requires endless calculations, CSS adjustments, and other considerations that it’s not really possible to do it (especially when you are a solo web developer) without building on work that lots of other people have done. Even if you aren’t doing anything all that sophisticated in your web design, you probably want at minimum to have a nicely proportioned columnar layout with colors and typefaces that are easy to adapt as needed. Bonus points if your site is responsive so it looks good on tablets and phones. All of that takes a lot of math and careful planning to accomplish, and requires much attention to documentation if you want others to be able to maintain the site.

Frameworks and preprocessors take care of many development challenges. They do things like provide responsive columnar layouts that are customizable to your design needs, provide “mixins” of code others have written, allow you to nest elements rather than writing CSS with selectors piled on selectors, and create variables for any elements you might repeat such as typefaces and colors. Once you figure it out, it’s pretty addictive to figure out where you can be more efficient in your CSS. Then if your institution switches the shade of red used for active links, H1s, and footer text, you only have to change one variable to update this rather than trying to find all the places that color appears in your stylesheets.

What You Should Learn

If I’ve convinced you this is something worth putting time into, now you have to figure out where you should spend that time.This post will outline one set of choices, but you don’t need to stick with this if you want to get more involved in learning more.

Sometimes these choices are made for you by whatever language or content management system you are using, and usually one will dictate another. For instance, if you choose a framework that uses Sass, you should probably learn Sass. If the theme you’ve chosen for your content management system already includes preprocessor files, you’ll save yourself lots of time just by going with what that theme has chosen. It’s also important to note that you can use a preprocessor with any project, even just a series of flat HTML files, and in that case definitely use whatever you prefer.

I’m going to point out just a few of each here, since this is basically what I’ve used with which I am familiar. There are lots and lots of all of these things out there, and I would welcome people with specific experience to describe it in the comments.

Before you get too scared about the languages these tools use, it’s really only relevant to beginners insofar as you have to have one of these languages installed on your system to compile your Sass or Less files into CSS.


Sass was developed in 2006. It can be written with Sass or SCSS syntax. Sass runs on Ruby.

Less was developed in 2009. It was originally written in Ruby, but now is in Javascript.

A Completely Non-Comprehensive List of CSS Frameworks

Note! You don’t have to use a framework for every project. If you have a two column layout with a simple breakpoint and don’t need all the overhead, feel free to not use one. But for most projects, frameworks provide things like responsive layouts and useful features (for instance tabs, menus, image galleries, and various CSS tricks) you might want to build in your site without a lot of thought.

  • Compass (runs on Sass)
  • Bootstrap (runs on Less)
  • Foundation (runs on Sass)
  • There are a million other ones out there too. Google search for css frameworks gets “About 4,860,000 results”. So I’m not kidding about needing to figure it out based on the needs of your project and what preprocessor you prefer.
A Quick and Dirty Tutorial for Getting These Up and Running

Let’s try out Sass and Compass. I started working with them when I was theming Omeka, and I run them on my standard issue work Windows PC, so I know you can do it too!


Stir to combine.

Ok it’s not quite that easy. But it’s not a lot harder.

  1. Sass has great installation instructions. I’ve always run it from the command line without a fuss, and I don’t even particularly care for the command line. So feel free to follow those instructions.
  2. If you don’t have Ruby installed already (likely on a standard issue work Windows PC–it is already installed on Macs), install it. Sass suggests RubyInstaller, and I second that suggestion. There are some potential confusing or annoying things about doing it this way, but don’t worry about it until one pops up.
  3. If you are on Windows, open up a new command line window by typing cmd in your start search bar. If you are on a Mac, open up your Terminal app.
  4. Now all you have to do is install Sass with one line of code in your command line client/terminal window: gem install sass. If you are on a Mac, you might get an error message and  have to use the command sudo gem install sass.
  5. Next install Compass. You’ve got it, just type gem install compass.
  6. Read through this tutorial on Getting Started with Sass and Compass. It’s basically what I just said, but will link you out to a bunch of useful tutorials.
  7. If you decide the command line isn’t for you, you might want to look into other options for installing and compiling your files. The Sass installation instructions linked above give a few suggestions.
Working on a Project With These Tools

When you start a project, Compass will create a series of files Sass/SCSS files (you choose which syntax) that you will edit and then compile into CSS files. The easiest way to get started is to head over to the Compass installation page and use their menu to generate the command line text you’ll need to get started.

For this example, I’ll create a new project called acrltest by typing compass create acrltest. In the image below you’ll see what this looks like. This text also provides some information about what to do next, so you may want to copy it to save it for later.


You’ll now have a new directory with several recommended SCSS files, but you are by no means limited to these files. Sass provides the @import command, which imports additional SCSS files, which can either be full CSS files, or “partials”, which allow you to define styles without creating an additional CSS file. Partials start with an underscore. The normal practice is to have a partial _base.scss file, where you identify base styles. You will then import these to your screen.scss file to use whatever you have in that file.

Here’s what this looks like.

On _base.scss, I’ve created two variables.

$headings: #345fff;
$links: #c5ff34;

Now on my screen.scss file, I’ve imported my file and can use these variables.

@import "base";

a {
    color: $links;

 h1 {
    color: $headings;

Now this doesn’t do anything yet since there are no CSS files that you can use on the web. Here’s how you actually make the CSS files.

Open up your command prompt or terminal window and change to the directory your Compass project is in. Then type compass watch, and Compass will compile your SCSS files to CSS. Everytime you save your work, the CSS will be updated, which is very handy.


Now you’ll have something like this in the screen.css file in the stylesheets directory:


/* line 9, ../sass/screen.scss */
a {
  color: #c5ff34;

/* line 13, ../sass/screen.scss */
h1 {
  color: #345fff;

Note that you will have comments inserted telling you where this all came from.

Next Steps

This was an extremely basic overview, and there’s a lot more I didn’t cover–one of the major things being all the possibilities that frameworks provide. But I hope you start to get why this can ultimately make your life easier.

If you have a little experience with this stuff, please share it in the comments.

What Should Academic Librarians Know about Net Neutrality?

John Oliver describes net neutrality as the most boring important issue. More than that, it’s a complex idea that can be difficult to understand without a strong grasp of the architecture of the internet, which is not at all intuitive. An additional barrier to having a measured response is that most of the public discussions about net neutrality conflate it with negotiations over peering agreements (more on that later) and ultimately rest in contracts with unknown terms. The hyperbole surrounding net neutrality may be useful in riling up public sentiment, but the truth seems far more subtle. I want to approach a definition and an understanding of the issues surrounding net neutrality, but this post will only scratch the surface. Despite the technical and legal complexities, this is something worth understanding, since as academic librarians our daily lives and work revolve around internet access for us and for our students.

The most current public debate about net neutrality surrounds the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) ability to regulate internet service providers after a January 2014 court decision struck down the FCC’s 2010 Open Internet Order (PDF). The FCC is currently in an open comment period on a new plan to promote and protect the open internet.

The Communications Act of 1934 (PDF) created the FCC to regulate wire and radio communication. This classified phone companies and similar services as “common carriers”, which means that they are open to all equally. If internet service providers are classified in the same way, this ensures equal access, but for various reasons they are not considered common carriers, which was affirmed by the Supreme Court in 2005. The FCC is now seeking to use section 706 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act (PDF) to regulate internet service providers. Section 706 gave the FCC regulatory authority to expand broadband access, particularly to elementary and high schools, and this piece of it is included in the current rulemaking process.

The legal part of this is confusing to everyone, not least the FCC. We’ll return to that later. But for now, let’s turn our attention to the technical part of net neutrality, starting with one of the most visible spats.

A Tour Through the Internet

I am a Comcast customer for my home internet. Let’s say I want to watch Netflix. How do I get there from my home computer? First comes the traceroute that shows how the request from my computer travels over the physical lines that make up the internet.


C:\Users\MargaretEveryday>tracert netflix.com

Tracing route to netflix.com 1
over a maximum of 30 hops:

  1     1 ms    <1 ms    <1 ms
  2    24 ms    30 ms    37 ms
  3    43 ms    40 ms    29 ms  te-0-4-0-17-sur04.chicago302.il.chicago.comcast.
net 2
  4    20 ms    32 ms    36 ms  te-2-6-0-11-ar01.area4.il.chicago.comcast.net [6]
  5    33 ms    30 ms    37 ms  he-3-14-0-0-cr01.350ecermak.il.ibone.comcast.net
  6    27 ms    34 ms    30 ms  pos-1-4-0-0-pe01.350ecermak.il.ibone.comcast.net
  7    30 ms    41 ms    54 ms  chp-edge-01.inet.qwest.net 5
  8     *        *        *     Request timed out.
  9    73 ms    69 ms    69 ms
 10    65 ms    77 ms    96 ms  te1-8.csrt-agg01.prod1.netflix.com 6

 11    80 ms    81 ms    74 ms  www.netflix.com 1

Trace complete.

Step 1. My computer sends data to this wireless router, which is hooked to my cable modem, which is wired out to the telephone pole in front of my apartment.











2. The cables travel through the city underground, accessed through manholes like this one.

2-4. The cables travel through the city underground, accessed through manholes like this one.














5- . Eventually my request to go to Netflix makes it to 350 E. Cermak, which is a major collocation and internet exchange site. If you've ever taken the shuttle bus at ALA in Chicago, you've gone right past this building.

5- 6. Eventually my request to go to Netflix makes it to 350 E. Cermak, which is a major collocation and internet exchange site. If you’ve ever taken the shuttle bus at ALA in Chicago, you’ve gone right past this building. Image © 2014 Google.












7-9. Now the request leaves Comcast, and goes out to a Tier 1 internet provider, which owns cables that cross the country. In this case, the cables belong to CenturyLink (which recently purchased Qwest).

10. My request has now made it to Grand Forks, ND, where Netflix buys space from Amazon Web Services.

10. My request has now made it to Grand Forks, ND, where Netflix buys space from Amazon Web Services. All this happened in less than a second. Image © 2014 Google.











Why should Comcast ask Netflix to pay to transmit their data over Comcast’s networks? Understanding this requires a few additional concepts.


Peering is an important concept in the structure of the internet. Peering is a physical link of hardware to hardware between networks in internet exchanges, which are (as pictured above) huge buildings filled with routers connected to each other. 8.  Facebook Peering is an example of a very open peering policy. Companies and internet service providers can use internet exchange centers to plug their equipment together directly, and so make their connections faster and more reliable. For websites such as Facebook which have an enormous amount of upload and download traffic, it’s well worth the effort for a small internet service provider to peer with Facebook 9.

Peering relies on some equality of traffic, as the name implies. The various tiers of internet service providers you may have heard of are based on with whom they “peer”. Tier 1 ISPs are large enough that they all peer with each other, and thus form what is usually called the backbone of the internet.

Academic institutions created the internet originally–computer science departments at major universities literally had the switches in their buildings. In the US this was ARPANET, but a variety of networks at academic institutions existed throughout the world. Groups such as Internet2 allow educational, research, and government networks to connect and peer with each other and commercial entities (including Facebook, if the traceroute from my workstation is any indication). Smaller or isolated institutions may rely on a consumer ISP, and what bandwidth is available to them may be limited by geography.

The Last Mile

Consumers, by contrast, are really at the mercy of whatever company dominates in their neighborhoods. Consumers obviously do not have the resources to lay their own fiber optic cables directly to all the websites they use most frequently. They rely on an internet service provider to do the heavy lifting, just as most of us rely on utility companies to get electricity, water, and sewage service (though of course it’s quite possible to live off the grid to a certain extent on all those services depending on where you live). We also don’t build our own roads, and we expect that certain spaces are open for traveling through by anyone. This idea of roads open for all to get from the wider world to arterial streets to local neighborhoods is thus used as an analogy for the internet–if internet service providers (like phone companies) must be common carriers, this ensures the middle and last miles aren’t jammed.

When Peering Goes Bad

Think about how peering works–it requires a roughly equal amount of traffic being sent and received through peered networks, or at least an amount of traffic to which both parties can agree. This is the problem with Netflix. Unlike big companies such as Facebook, and especially Google, Netflix is not trying to build its own network. It relies on content delivery services and internet backbone providers to get content from its servers (all hosted on Amazon Web Services) to consumers. But Netflix only sends traffic, it doesn’t take traffic, and this is the basis of most of the legal battles going on with internet service providers that service the “last mile”.

The Netflix/Comcast trouble started in 2010, when Netflix contracted with Level 3 for content delivery. Comcast claimed that Level 3 was relying on a peering relationship that was no longer valid with this increase in traffic, no matter who was sending it. (See this article for complete details.) Level 3, incidentally, accused another Tier 1 provider, Cogent, of overstepping their settlement-free peering agreement back in 2005, and cut them off for a short time, which cut pieces of the internet off from each other.

Netflix tried various arrangements, but ultimately negotiated with Comcast to pay for direct access to their last mile networks through internet exchanges, one of which is illustrated above in steps 4-6. This seems to be the most reasonable course of action for Netflix to get their outbound content over networks, since they really don’t have the ability to do settlement-free peering. Of course, Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix, didn’t see it that way. But for most cases, settlement-free peering is still the only way the internet can actually work, and while we may not see the agreements that make this happen, it won’t be going anywhere. In this case, Comcast was not offering Netflix paid prioritization of its content, it was negotiating for delivery of the content at all. This might seem equally wrong, but someone has to pay for the bandwidth, and why shouldn’t Netflix pay for it?

What Should We Do?

If companies want to connect with each other or build their own network connections, they can do under whatever terms work best for them. The problem would be if certain companies were using the same lines that everyone was using but their packets got preferential treatment. The imperfect road analogy works well enough for these purposes. When a firetruck, police car, and ambulance are racing through traffic with sirens blazing, we are usually ok with the resulting traffic jam since we can see this requires that speed for an emergency situation. But how do we feel when we suspect a single police car has turned on a siren just to cut in line to get to lunch faster? Or a funeral procession blocks traffic? Or an elected official has a motorcade? Or a block party? These situations are regulated by government authorities, but we may or may not like that these uses of public ways are being allowed and causing our own travel to slow down. Going further, it is clearly illegal for a private company to block a public road and charge a high rate for faster travel, but imagine if no governmental agency had the power to regulate this? The FCC is attempting to make sure they have those regulatory powers.

That said it doesn’t seem like anyone is actually planning to offer paid prioritization. Even Comcast claims “no company has had a stronger commitment to openness of the Internet…” and that they have no plans of offering such a service . I find it unlikely that we will face a situation that Barbara Stripling describes as “prioritizing Mickey Mouse and Jennifer Lawrence over William Shakespeare and Teddy Roosevelt.”

I certainly won’t advocate against treating ISPs as common carriers–my impression is that this is what the 1996 Telecommunications Act was trying to get at, though the legal issues are confounding. However, a larger problem facing libraries (not so much large academics, but smaller academics and publics) is the digital divide. If there’s no fiber optic line to a town, there isn’t going to be broadband access, and an internet service provider has no business incentive to create a line for a small town that may not generate a lot of revenue. I think we need to remain vigilant about ensuring that everyone has access to the internet at all or at a fast speed, and not get too sidetracked about theoretical future possible malfeasance by internet service providers. These points are included in the FCC’s proposal, but are not receiving most of the attention, despite the fact that they are given explicit regulatory authority to do this.

Public comments are open at the FCC’s website until July 15, so take the opportunity to leave a comment about Protecting and Promoting the Open Internet, and also consider comments on E-rate and broadband access, which is another topic the FCC is currently considering. (You can read ALA’s proposal about this here (PDF).)

  1. 53.236.17
  2. 86.115.41
  3. 86.94.125
  4. 86.86.162
  5. 207.8.189
  6. 53.225.6
  7. 53.236.17
  8. Blum, Andrew. Tubes: a Journey to the Center of the Internet. New York: Ecco, 2012, 80.
  9. Blum, 125-126.