A while ago I stumbled onto the post “Falsehoods Programmers Believe About Names” and was stunned. Personal names are one of the most deceptively difficult forms of data to work with and this article touched on so many common but unaddressed problems. Assumptions like “people have exactly one canonical name” and “My system will never have to deal with names from China/Japan/Korea” were apparent everywhere. I consider myself a fairly critical and studious person, I devote time to thinking about the consequences of design decisions and carefully attempt to avoid poor assumptions. But I’ve repeatedly run into trouble when handling personal names as data. There is a cognitive dissonance surrounding names; we treat them as rigid identifiers when they’re anything but. We acknowledge their importance but struggle to take them as seriously.
Names change. They change due to marriage, divorce, child custody, adoption, gender identity, religious devotion, performance art, witness protection, or none of these at all. Sometimes people just want a new name. And none of these reasons for change are more or less valid than others, though our legal system doesn’t always treat them equally. We have students who change their legal name, which is often something systems expect, but then they have the audacity to want to change their username, too! And that works less often because all sorts of system integrations expect usernames to be persistent.
Names do not have a universal structure. There is no set quantity of components in a name nor an established order to those components. At my college, we have students without surnames. In almost all our systems, surname is a required field, so we put a period “.” there to satisfy that requirement. Then, on displays in our digital repository where surnames are assumed, we end up with bolded section headers like “., Johnathan” which look awkward.
Many Western names might follow a [Given name] – [Middle name] – [Surname] structure and an unfortunate number of the systems I have to deal with assume all names share this structure. It’s easy to see how this yields problematic results. For instance, if you want to a see a sorted list of users, you probably want to sort by family name, but many systems sort by the name in the last position causing, for instance, Chinese names 1 to be handled differently from Western ones. 2 But it’s not only that someone might not have a middle name, or might have two middle names, or might have a family name in the first position—no, even that would be too simple! Some name components defy simple classifications. I once met a person named “Bus Stop”. “Stop” is clearly not a family affiliation, despite coming in the final position of the name. Sometimes the second component of a tripartite Western name isn’t a middle name at all, but a maiden name or the second word of a two-word first name (e.g. “Mary Anne” or “Lady Bird”)! One cannot even determine by looking at a familiar structure the roles of all of a name’s pieces!
Names are also contextual. One’s name with family, with legal institutions, and with classmates can all differ. Many of our international students have alternative Westernized first names. Their family may call them Qiáng but they introduce themselves as Brian in class. We ask for a “preferred name” in a lot of systems, which is a nice step forward, but don’t ask when it’s preferred. Names might be meant for different situations. We have no system remotely ready for this, despite the personalization that’s been seeping into web platforms for decades.
So if names are such a trouble, why not do our best and move on? Aren’t these fringe cases that don’t affect the vast majority of our users? These issues simply cannot be ignored because names are vital. What one is called, even if it’s not a stable identifier, has great effects on one’s life. It’s dispiriting to witness one’s name misspelled, mispronounced, treated as an inconvenience, botched at every turn. A system that won’t adapt to suit a name delegitimizes the name. It says, “oh that’s not your real name” as if names had differing degrees of reality. But a person may have multiple names—or many overlapping names over time—and while one may be more institutionally recognized at a given time, none are less real than the others. If even a single student a year is affected, it’s the absolute least amount of respect we can show to affirm their name(s).
So what do we to do? Endless enumerations of the difficulties of working with names does little but paralyze us. Honestly, when I consider about the best implementation of personal names, the MODS metadata schema comes to mind. Having a <name> element with any number of <namePart> children is the best model available. The <namePart>s can be ordered in particular ways, a “@type” attribute can define a part’s function 3, a record can include multiple names referencing the same person, multiple names with distinct parts can be linked to the same authority record, etc. MODS has a flexible and comprehensive treatment of name data. Unfortunately, returning to “Falsehoods Programmers Believe”, none of the library systems I administer do anywhere near as good a job as this metadata schema. Nor is it necessarily a problem with Western bias—even the Chinese government can’t develop computer systems to accurately represent the names of people in the country, or even agree on what the legal character set should be! 4 It seems that programmers start their apps by creating a “users” database table with columns for unique identifier, username, “firstname”/”lastname” [sic], and work from there. On the bright side, the name isn’t used as the identifier at least! We all learned that in databases class but we didn’t learn to make “names” a separate table linked to “users” in our relational databases.
In my day-to-day work, the best I’ve done is to be sensitive to the importance of names changes specifically and how our systems handle them. After a few meetings with a cross-departmental team, we developed a name change process at our college. System administrators from across the institution are on a shared listserv where name changes are announced. In the libraries, I spoke with our frontline service staff about assisting with name changes. Our people at the circulation desk know to notice name discrepancies—sometimes a name badge has been updated but not our catalog records, we can offer to make them match—but also to guide students who may need to contact the registrar or other departments on campus to initiate the top-down name change process. While most of our the library’s systems don’t easily accommodate username changes, I can write administrative scripts for our institutional repository that alter the ownership of a set of items from an old username to a new one. I think it’s important to remember that we’re inconveniencing the user with the work of implementing their name change and not the other way around. So taking whatever extra steps we can do on our own, without pushing labor onto our students and staff, is the best way we can mitigate how poorly our tools are able to support the protean nature of personal names.
Chinese names typically have the surname first, followed by the given name. ↩
Another poor implementation can be seen in The Chicago Manual of Style‘s indexing instructions, which has an extensive list of exceptions to the Western norm and how to handle them. But CMoS provides no guidance on how one would go about identifying a name’s cultural background or, for instance, identifying a compound surname. ↩
Although the MODS user guidelines sadly limit the use of the type attribute to a fixed list of values which includes “family” and “given”, rendering it subject to most of the critiques in this post. Substantially expanding this list with “maiden”, “patronymic/matronymic” (names based on a parental given name, e.g. Mikhailovich), and more, as well as some sort of open-ended “other” option, would be a great improvement. ↩
This year’s election result has presented a huge challenge to all of us who work in higher education and libraries. Usually, libraries, universities, and colleges do not comment on presidential election result and we refrain from talking about politics at work. But these are not usual times that we are living in.
Libraries and educational institutions exist because we value knowledge and science. Knowledge and science do not discriminate. They grow across all different races, ethnicities, religions, nationalities, sexual identities, and disabilities. Libraries and educational institutions exist to enable and empower people to freely explore, investigate, and harness different ideas and thoughts. They support, serve, and belong to ‘all’ who seek knowledge. No matter how naive it may sound, they are essential to the betterment of human lives, and they do so by creating strength from all our differences, not likeness. This is why diversity, equity, inclusion are non-negotiable and irrevocable values in libraries and educational institutions.
How do we reconcile these values with the president-elect who openly dismissed and expressed hostility towards them? His campaign made remarks and promises that can be interpreted as nothing but the most blatant expressions of racism, sexism, intolerance, bigotry, harassment, and violence. What will we do to address the concerns of our students, staff, and faculty about their physical safety on campus due to their differences in race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, gender, and sexual identity? How do we assure them that we will continue to uphold these values and support everyone regardless of what they look like, how they identify their gender, what their faiths are, what disabilities they may have, who they love, where they come from, what languages they speak, or where they live? How?
If you think that your organization is already very much pro-diversity that there is no need to confirm or reaffirm diversity, you can’t be farther from the everyday life minorities experience. Sometimes, saying isn’t much. But right now, saying it out loud can mean everything. If you support those who belong to minority groups but don’t say it out loud, how would they know it? Right now, nothing is obvious other than there is a lot of hate and violence towards minorities.
The entire week after the election, I agonized about what to say to my small team of IT people whom I supervise at work. As a manager, I felt that it was my responsibility to address the anxiety and uncertainty that some of my staff – particularly those in minority groups – would be experiencing due to the election result. I also needed to ensure that whatever dialogue takes place regarding the differences of opinions between those who were pleased and those who were distressed with the election result, those dialogues remain civil and respectful.
Crafting an appropriate message was much more challenging than I anticipated. I felt very strongly about the need to re-affirm the unwavering support and commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion particularly in relation to libraries and higher education, no matter how obvious it may seem. I also felt the need to establish (within the bounds of my limited authority) that we will continue to respect, value, and celebrate diversity in interacting with library users as well as other library and university staff members. Employees are held to the standard expectations of their institutions, such as diversity, equity, inclusion, tolerance, civil dialogue, and no harassment or violence towards minorities, even if their private opinions conflict with them. At the same time, I wanted to strike a measured tone and neither scare nor upset anyone, whichever side they were on in the election. As a manager, I have to acknowledge that everyone is entitled to their private opinions as long as they do not harm others.
I suspect that many of us – either a manager or not – want to say something similar about the election result. Not so much about who was and should have been as about what we are going to do now in the face of these public incidences of anger, hatred, harassment, violence, and bigotry directed at minority groups, which are coming out at an alarming pace because it affects all of us, not just minorities.
Finding the right words, however, is difficult. You have to carefully consider your role, audience, and the message you want to convey. The official public statement from a university president is going to take a tone vastly different from an informal private message a supervisor sends out to a few members of his or her team. A library director’s message to library patrons assuring the continued service for all groups of users with no discrimination will likely to be quite different from the one she sends to her library staff to assuage their anxiety and fear.
For such difficulty not to delay and stop us from what we have to and want to say to everyone we work with and care for, I am sharing the short message that I sent out to my team last Friday, 3 days after the election. (N.B. ‘CATS’ stands for ‘Computing and Technology Services’ and UMB refers to ‘University of Maryland, Baltimore.’) This is a customized message to address my own team. I am sharing this as a potential template for you to craft your own message. I would like to see more messages that reaffirm diversity, equity, and inclusion as non-negotiable values, explicitly state that we will not step backwards, and make a commitment to continued unwavering support for them.
This year’s close and divisive election left a certain level of anxiety and uncertainty in many of us. I am sure that we will hear from President Perman and the university leadership soon.
In the meantime, I want to remind you of something I believe to be very important. We are all here – just as we have been all along – to provide the most excellent service to our users regardless of what they look like, what their faiths are, where they come from, what languages they speak, where they live, and who they love. A library is a powerful place where people transform themselves through learning, critical thinking, and reflection. A library’s doors have been kept open to anyone who wants to freely explore the world of ideas and pursue knowledge. Libraries are here to empower people to create a better future. A library is a place for mutual education through respectful and open-minded dialogues. And, we, the library staff and faculty, make that happen. We get to make sure that people’s ethnicity, race, gender, disability, socio-economic backgrounds, political views, or religious beliefs do not become an obstacle to that pursuit. We have a truly awesome responsibility. And I don’t have to tell you how vital our role is as a CATS member in our library’s fulfilling that responsibility.
Whichever side we stood on in this election, let’s not forget to treat each other with respect and dignity. Let’s use this as an opportunity to renew our commitment to diversity, one of the UMB’s core values. Inclusive excellence is one of the themes of the UMB 2017-2021 Strategic Plan. Each and every one of us has a contribution to make because we are stronger for our differences.
We have much work ahead of us! I am out today, but expect lots of donuts Monday.
Have a great weekend,
Monday, I brought in donuts of many different kinds and told everyone they were ‘diversity donuts.’ Try it. I believe it was successful in easing some stress and tension that was palpable in my team after the election.
Before crafting your own message, I recommend re-reading your institution’s core values, mission and vision statements, and the most recent strategic plan. Most universities, colleges, and libraries include diversity, equity, inclusion, or something equivalent to these somewhere. Also review all public statements or internal messages that came from your institution that reaffirms diversity, equity, and inclusion. You can easily incorporate those into your own message. Make sure to clearly state your (and your institution’s) continued commitment to and unwavering support for diversity and inclusion and explicitly oppose bigotry, intolerance, harassment, and acts of violence. Encourage civil discourse and mutual respect. It is very important to reaffirm the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion ‘before’ listing any resources and help that employees or students may seek in case of harassment or assault. Without the assurance from the institution that it indeed upholds those values and will firmly stand by them, those resources and help mean little.
Below I have also listed messages, notes, and statements sent out by library directors, managers, librarians, and university presidents that reaffirm the full support for and commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. I hope to see more of these come out. If you have already received or sent out such a message, I invite you to share in the comments. If you have not, I suggest doing so as soon as possible. Send out a message if you are in a position where doing so is appropriate. Don’t forget to ask for a message addressing those values if you have not received any from your organization.
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.
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.
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. ↩
Salo, Dorothea. “Innkeeper at the Roach Motel,” December 11, 2007. http://digital.library.wisc.edu/1793/22088. ↩
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. ↩
Yes, that was that controversial Summit that was much talked about on Twitter with the #libfuturesummit hashtag. This Summit and other summits with a similar theme close to one another in timing – “The Future of Libraries Survival Summit” hosted by Information Today Inc. and “The Future of Libraries: Do We Have Five Years to Live?” hosted by Ken Heycock Associates Inc. and Dysart & Jones Associates – seemed to have brought out the sentiment that Andy Woodworth aptly named ‘Library Future Fatigue.’ It was impressive experience to see how active librarians – both ALA members and non-members – were in providing real-time comments and feedback about these summits while I was at one of those in person. I thought ALA is lucky to have such engaged members and librarians to work with.
A few days ago, ALA released the official Summit report.1 The report captured all the talks and many table discussions in great detail. In this post, I will focus on some of my thoughts and take-aways prompted by the talks and the table discussion at the Summit.
A. The Draw
Here is an interesting fact. The invitation to this Summit sat in my Inbox for over a month because from the email subject I thought it was just another advertisement for a fee-based webinar or workshop. It was only after I had gotten another email from the ALA office asking about the previous e-mail that I realized that it was something different.
What drew me to this Summit were: (a) I have never been at a formal event organized just for a discussion about the future of libraries, (b) the event were to include a good number of people outside of the libraries, and (c) the overall size of the Summit would be kept relatively small.
For those curious, the Summit had 51 attendees plus 6 speakers, a dozen discussion table facilitators, all of whom fit into the Members’ Room in the Library of Congress. Out of those 51 attendees, 9 of them were from the non-library sector such as Knight Foundation, PBS, Rosen Publishing, and Aspen Institute. 33 attendees ranged from academic librarians to public, school, federal, corporate librarians, library consultants, museum and archive folks, an LIS professor, and library vendors. And then there were 3 ALA presidents (current, past, and president-elect) and 6 officers from ALA. You can see the list of participants here.
B. Two Words (or Phrases)
At the beginning of the Summit, the participants were asked to come up with two words or short phrases that capture what they think about libraries “from now on.” We wrote these on the ribbons and put right under our name tags. Then we were encouraged to keep or change them as we move through the Summit.
Other phrases and words I saw from other participants included “From infrastructure to engagement,” “Sanctuary for learning,” “Universally accessible,” “Nimble and Flexible,” “From Missionary to Mercenary,” “Ideas into Action,” and “Here, Now.” The official report also lists some of the words that were most used by participants. If you choose your two words or phrases that capture what you think about libraries “from now on,” what would those be?
C. The Set-up
The Summit organizers have filled the room with multiple round tables, and the first day morning, afternoon, and the second day morning, participants sat at the table according to the table number assigned on the back of their name badges. This was a good method that enabled participants to have discussion with different groups of people throughout the Summit.
As the Summit agenda shows, the Summit program started with a talk by a speaker. After that, participants were asked to personally reflect on the talk and then have a table discussion. This discussion was captured on the large poster-size papers by facilitators and collected by the event organizers. The papers on which we were asked to write our personal reflections were also collected in the same way along with all our ribbons on which we wrote those two words or phrases. These were probably used to produce the official Summit report.
One thing I liked about the set-up was that every participant sat at a round table including speakers and all three ALA presidents (past, president, president-elect). Throughout the Summit, I had a chance to talk to Lorcan Dempsey from OCLC, Corinne Hill, the director of Chattanooga Public Library, Courtney Young, the ALA president-elect, and Thomas Frey, a well-known futurist at DaVinci Institute, which was neat.
Also, what struck me most during the Summit was that those who were outside of the library took the guiding questions and the following discussion much more seriously than those of us who are inside the library world. Maybe indeed we librarians are suffering from ‘library future fatigue.’ And/or maybe outsiders have more trust in libraries as institutions than we librarians do because they are less familiar with our daily struggles and challenges in the library operation. Either way, the Summit seemed to have given them an opportunity to seriously consider the future of libraries. The desired impact of this would be more policymakers, thought leaders, and industry leaders who are well informed about today’s libraries and will articulate, support, and promote the significant work libraries do to the benefit of the society in their own areas.
D. Talks, Table Discussion, and Some of My Thoughts and Take-aways
These were the talks given during the two days of the Summit:
“How to Think Like a Freak” – Stephen Dubner, Journalist
“What Are Libraries Good For?” – Joel Garreau, Journalist
“Education in the Future: Anywhere, Anytime” – Dr. Renu Khator, Chancellor and President at the University of Houston
“From an Internet of Things to a Library of Things” – Thomas Frey, Futurist
A Table Discussion of Choice:
Open – group decides the topic to discuss
Empowering individuals and families
Promoting literacy, particularly in children and youth
Building communities the library serves
Protecting and empowering access to information
Advancing research and scholarship at all levels
Preserving and/or creating cultural heritage
Supporting economic development and good government
“What Happened at the Summit?” – Joan Frye Williams, Library consultant
(0) Official Report, Liveblogging Posts, and Tweets
The most fascinating story in the talk by Dubner was Kobe, the hot dog eating contest champion from Japan. The secret of his success in the eating contest was rethinking the accepted but unchallenged artificial limits and redefining the problem, said Dubner. In Kobe’s case, he redefined the problem from ‘How can I eat more hotdogs?’ to ‘How can I eat one hotdog faster?’ and then removed artificial limits – widely accepted but unchallenged conventions – such as when you eat a hot dog you hold it in the hand and eat it from the top to the bottom. He experimented with breaking the hotdog into two pieces to feed himself faster with two hands. He further refined his technique by eating the frankfurter and the bun separately to make the eating even speedier.
So where can libraries apply this lesson? One thing I can think of is the problem of the low attendance of some library programs. What if we ask what barriers we can remove instead of asking what kind of program will draw more people? Chattanooga Public Library did exactly this. Recently, they targeted the parents who would want to attend the library’s author talk and created an event that would specifically address the child care issue. The library scheduled a evening story time for kids and fun activities for tween and teens at the same time as the author talk. Then they asked parents to come to the library with the children, have their children participate in the library’s children’s programs, and enjoy themselves at the library’s author talk without worrying about the children.
Another library service that I came to learn about at my table was the Zip Books service by the Yolo county library in California. What if libraries ask what the fastest to way to deliver a book that the library doesn’t have to a patron’s door would be instead of asking how quickly the cataloging department can catalog a newly acquired book to get it ready for circulation? The Yolo county library Zip Books service came from that kind of redefinition of a problem. When a library user requests a book the library doesn’t have but meets certain requirements, the Yolo County Library purchases the book from a bookseller and have it shipped directly to the patron’s home without processing the book. Cataloging and processing is done when the book is returned to the library after the first use.
(2) What Can Happen to Higher Education
My favorite talk during the Summit was by Dr. Khator because she had deep insight in higher education and I have been working at university libraries for a long time. The two most interesting observations she made were the possibility of (a) the decoupling of the content development and the content delivery and (b) the decoupling of teaching and credentialing in higher education.
The upside of (a) is that some wonderful class a world-class scholar created may be taught by other instructors at places where the person who originally developed the class is not available. The downside of (a) is, of course, the possibility of it being used as the cookie-cutter type lowest baseline for quality control in higher education – University of Phoenix mentioned as an example of this by one of the participants at my table – instead of college and university students being exposed to the classes developed and taught by their institutions’ own individual faculty members.
I have to admit that (b) was a completely mind-blowing idea to me. Imagine colleges and universities with no credentialing authority. Your degree will no longer be tied to a particular institution to which you were admitted and graduate from. Just consider the impact of what this may entail if it ever becomes realized. If both (a) and (b) take place at the same time, the impact would be even more significant. What kind of role could an academic library play in such a scenario?
(3) Futurizing Libraries
Joe Garreau observed that nowadays what drives the need for a physical trip is more and more a face-to-face contact than anything else. Then he pointed out that as technology allows more people to tele-work, people are flocking to smaller cities where they can have a more meaningful contact with the community. If this is indeed the case, libraries that make their space a catalyst for a face-to-face contact in a community will prosper. Last speaker, Thomas Frey, spoke mostly about the Internet of Things (IoT).
While I think that IoT is an important trend to note, for sure, what I most liked about Frey’s talk was his statement that the vision of future we have today will change the decisions we make (towards that future). After the talk by Garreau, I had a chance to ask him a question about his somewhat idealized vision of the future, in which people live and work in a small but closely connected community in a society that is highly technological and collaborative. He called this ‘human evolution’.
But in my opinion, the reality that we see today in my opinion is not so idyllic.3 The current economy is highly volatile. It no longer offers job security, consistently reduces the number of jobs, and returns either stagnant or decreasing amount of income for those whose skills are not in high demand in the era of digital revolution.4 As a result, today’s college students, who are preparing to become tomorrow’s knowledge workers, are perceiving their education and their lives after quite differently than their parents did.5
Garreau’s answer to my question was that this concern of mine may be coming from a kind of techno-determinism. While this may be a fair critique, I felt that his portrayal of the human evolution may be just as techno-deterministic. (To be fair, he mentioned that he does not make predictions and this is one of the future scenarios he sees.)
Regarding the topic of the Internet of Things (IoT), which was the main topic of Frey’s talk, the privacy and the proper protection of the massive amount of data – which will result from the very many sensors that makes IoT possible – will be the real barrier to implementing the IoT on a large scale. After his talk, I had a chance to briefly chat with him about this. (There was no Q&A because Frey’s talk went over the time allotted). He mentioned the possibility of some kind of an international gathering similar to the scale of the Geneva Conventions to address the issue. While the likelihood of that is hard to assess, the idea seemed appropriate to the problem in question.
(4) What If…?
Some of the shiny things shown at the talk, whose value for library users may appear dubious and distant, however, prompted Eli Neiburger at Ann Arbor District Library to question which useful service libraries can offer to provide the public with significant benefit now. He wondered what it would be like if many libraries ran a Tor exit node to help the privacy and anonymity of the web traffic, for example.
Just pause a minute and imagine what kind of impact such a project by libraries may have to the privacy of the public. What if?
(5) Leadership and Sustainability
For the “Table Discussion of Choice” session, I opted for the “Open” table because I was curious in what other topics people were interested. Two discussions at this session were most memorable to me. One was the great advice I got from Corinne Hill regarding leading people. A while ago, I read her interview, in which she commented that “the staff are just getting comfortable with making decisions.” In my role as a relatively new manager, I also found empowering my team members to be more autonomous decision makers a challenge. Corinne particularly cautioned that leaders should be very careful about not being over-critical when the staff takes an initiative but makes a bad decision. Being over-critical in that case can discourage the staff from trying to make their own decisions in their expertise areas, she said. Hearing her description of how she relies on the different types of strengths in her staff to move her library in the direction of innovation was also illuminating to me. (Lorcan Dempsey who was also at our table mentioned “Birkman Quadrants” in relation to Corinne’s description, a set of useful theoretical constructs. He also brought up the term ‘Normcore’ at another session. I forgot the exact context of that term, but the term was interesting that I wrote it down.) We also talked for a while about the current LIS education and how it is not sufficiently aligned with the skills needed in everyday library operation.
The other interesting discussion started with the question about the sustainability of the future libraries by Amy Garmer from Aspen Institute. (She has been working on a library-related project with various policy makers, and PLA has a program related to this project at the upcoming 2014 ALA Annual Conference if you are interested.) One thought that always comes to my mind whenever I think about the future of libraries is that while in the past the difference between small and large libraries was mostly quantitative in terms of how many books and other resources were available, in the present and future, the difference is and will be more qualitative. What New York Public Libraries offers for their patrons, a whole suite of digital library products from the NYPL Labs for example, cannot be easily replicated by a small rural library. Needless to say, this has a significant implication for the core mission of the library, which is equalizing the public’s access to information and knowledge. What can we do to close that gap? Or perhaps will different types of libraries have different strategies for the future, as Lorcan Dempsey asked at our table discussion? These two things are not incompatible to be worked out at the same time.
(6) Nimble and Media-Savvy
In her Summit summary, Joanne Frye Williams, who moved around to observe discussions at all tables during the Summit, mentioned that one of the themes that surfaced was thinking about a library as a developing enterprise rather than a stable organization. This means that the modus operandi of a library should become more nimble and flexible to keep the library in the same pace of the change that its community goes through.
Another thread of discussion among the Summit participants was that not all library supporters have to be the active users of the library services. As long as those supporters know that the presence and the service of libraries makes their communities strong, libraries are in a good place. Often libraries make the mistake of trying to reach all of their potential patrons to convert them into active library users. While this is admirable, it is not always practical or beneficial to the library operation. More needed and useful is a well-managed strategic media relations that will effectively publicize the library’s services and programs and its benefits and impact to its community. (On a related note, one journalist who was at the Summit mentioned how she noticed the recent coverage about libraries changing its direction from “Are libraries going to be extinct?” to “No, libraries are not going to be extinct. And do you know libraries offer way more than books such as … ?”, which is fantastic.)
E. What Now? Library Futurizing vs. Library Grounding
What all the discussion at the Summit reminded me was that ultimately the time and efforts we spend on trying to foresee what the future holds for us and on raising concerns about the future may be better directed at refining the positive vision for the desirable future for libraries and taking well-calculated and decisive actions towards the realization of that vision.
Technology is just a tool. It can be used to free people to engage in more meaningful work and creative pursuits. Or it can be used to generate a large number of the unemployed, who have to struggle to make the ends meet and to retool themselves with fast-changing skills that the labor market demands, along with those in the top 1 or 0.1 % of very rich people. And we have the power to influence and determine which path we should and would be on by what we do now.
Certainly, there are trends that we need to heed. For example, the shift of the economy that places a bigger role on entrepreneurship than ever before requires more education and support for entrepreneurship for students at universities and colleges. The growing tendency of the businesses looking for potential employees based upon their specific skill sets rather than their majors and grades has lead universities and colleges to adopt a digital badging system (such as Purdue’s Passport) or other ways for their students to record and prove the job-related skills obtained during their study.
But when we talk about the future, many of us tend to assume that there are some kind of inevitable trends that we either get or miss and that those trends will determine what our future will be. We forget that not some trends but (i) what we intend to achieve in the future and (ii) today’s actions we take to realize that intention are really what determines our future. (Also always critically reflect on whatever is trendy; you may be in for a surprise.7) The fact that people will no longer need to physically visit a library to check out books or access library resources does not automatically mean that the library in the future will cease to have a building. The question is whether we will let that be the case. Suppose we decide that we want the library to be and stay as the vibrant hub for a community’s freedom of inquiry and right to access human knowledge, no matter how much change takes place in the society. Realizing this vision ‘IS’ within our power. We only reach the future by walking through the present.
For a short but well-written clear description of this phenomenon, see Brynjolfsson, Erik, and Andrew McAfee. Race against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution Is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy. Lexington: Digital Frontier Press, 2012. ↩
* The ≈ symbol indicates that the two items are similar, but not equal, to each other.
Hacker is a disputed term. The word hacker is so often mis-applied to describe law breaking, information theft, privacy violation, and other black-hat activities that the mistake has become permanently installed in our lexicon. I am not using hacker in this sense of the word. To be clear: when I use the word hacker and when I write about hacker values, I am not referring to computer criminals and their sketchy value systems. Instead, I am using hacker in its original meaning: a person who makes clever use of technology and information to solve practical problems.
With the current popularity of hackerspaces and makerspaces in libraries, library hack-a-thons, and hacking projects for librarians; it is clear that library culture is warming to the hacker ethic. This is a highly positive trend and one that I encourage more librarians to participate in. The reason I am so excited to see libraries encourage adoption of the hacker ethic is that hackers share several core values with libraries. Working together we can serve our communities more effectively. This may appear to be counter-intuitive, especially due to a very common public misconception that hacker is just another word for computer-criminal. In this post I want to correct this error, explain the values behind the hacker movement, and show how librarians and hackers share core values. It is my hope that this opens the door for more librarians to get started in productive and positive library hackery.
First, a working definition: hackers are people who empower themselves with information in order to modify their environment and make the world a better place. That’s it. Hacking doesn’t require intruding into computer security settings. There’s no imperative that hackers have to work with code, computers, or technology–although many do. Besides the traditional computer software hacker, there are many kinds of crafters, tinkerers, and makers that share core the hacker values. These makers all share knowledge about their world and engage in hands-on modification of it in order to make it a better place.
For a richer and more detailed look into the hacker ethic than provided by my simplified definition I recommend three books. First try Corey Doctorow’s young adult novel, Little Brother1. This novel highlights the hacker values of self-empowerment with information, hands-on hacking, and acting for the public good. Little Brother is not only an award-winning story, but it also comes with a bibliography that is one of the best introductions to hacking available. Next, check out Steven Levy’s classic book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution2. Levy details the history of hackers in the early 1980s and explains the values that drove the movement. Third, try Chris Anderson’s Makers: The New Industrial Revolution3. Anderson tells the story of the contemporary maker movement and the way it is combining the values of the traditional do-it-yourself (DIY) movement with the values of the computer hacker community to spark a vibrant and powerful creative movement across the world.
In the preface to Hackers: Heroes of the Computer revolution, Levy observed a common philosophy that the hackers shared:
It was a philosophy of sharing, openness, decentralization, and getting your hands on machines at any cost to improve the machines and improve the world.
These values are also restated and expanded on in another Wikipedia article on Hacker Ethics. Each of these articulations of hacker values differs subtly, yet while they differ they reinforce the central idea that there are core hacker values and that the conception of hacker as computer criminal is misinformed and inaccurate. (While there clearly are computer criminals, the error lies in labeling these people as hackers. These criminals violate hacker values as much as they violate personal privacy and the law.)
Once we understand that hacking is rooted in the core values of sharing, openness, collaboration, and hands-on activity; we can begin to see that hackers and librarians share several core values and that there is a rich environment for developing synergies and collaborative projects between the two groups. If we can identify and isolate the core values that librarians share with hackers, we will be well on our way to identifying areas for productive collaboration and cross-pollination of ideas between our cultures.
If we are going to compare hacker values with library values, an excellent starting point is the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights. I recently had the pleasure of attending a keynote presentation by Char Booth who made this point most persuasively. She spoke eloquently and developed a nuanced argument on the topic of the narratives we use to describe our libraries. She encouraged us to look beyond the tired narratives of library-as-container-of-information or library-as-content-repository and instead create new narratives that describe the enduring concept of the library. This concept of library captures the values and services libraries provide without being inextricably linked to the information containers and technologies that libraries have historically used.
As she developed this argument, Char encouraged us to look to library history and extract the core values that will continue to apply as our collections and services adapt and change. As an example, she displayed the 1948 Library Bill of Rights and extracted out of each paragraph a core value. Her lesson: these are still our core values, even if the way we serve our patrons has radically changed.
Char distilled the Library Bill of Rights into five core values: access, freedom, advocacy, inquiry, and openness. If we compare these values with the hacker values from above: sharing, openness, collaboration, and the hands-on-imperative, we’ll see that at least in terms of access to information, public openness, freedom, sharing, and collaboration libraries and hackers are on the same page. There are many things that hackers and libraries can do together that further these shared values and goals.
It should be noted that hackers have a traditionally anti-authoritarian bent and unlike libraries, their value of open access to information often trumps their civic duty to respect license agreements and copyright law. Without trivializing this difference, there are many projects that libraries and hackers can do together that honor our shared values and do not violate the core principles of either partner. After all, libraries have a lot of experience doing business with partners who do not share or honor the core library values of freedom, openness, and access to information. If we can maintain productive relationships with certain parties that reject values close to the heart of libraries and librarians, it stands to reason that we can also pursue and maintain relationships with other groups that respect these core values, even as we differ in others.
At the end of the day, library values and hacker values are more alike than different. Especially in the areas of library work that involve advocacy for freedom, openness, and access to information we have allies and potential partners who share core values with us.
If my argument about library values and hacker values has been at all persuasive, it raises the question: what do hacker/library partnerships look like? Some of the answers to this have been hinted at above. They look like Jason Griffey’s LibraryBox project. This wonderful project involves hacking on multiple levels. On one level, it provides the information needed for libraries to modify (hack) a portable wifi router into a public distribution hub for public domain, open access, and creative-commons licensed books and media. LibraryBoxes can bring digital media to locations that are off the net. On another level, it is a hack of an existing hacker project PirateBox. PirateBox is a private portable network designed to provide untraceable local file-sharing. Griffey hacked the hack in order to create a project more in-line with library values and mission.
These partnerships can also look like the Washington DC public library’s Accessibility Hack-a-Thon, an ongoing project that brings together, civic, library, and hacker groups to collaborate on hacking projects that advance the public good in their city. Another great example of bringing hacker ethics into the library can be found in TechConnect’s own Bohyun Kim’s posts on AJAX and APIs. Using APIs to customize web services is a perfect example of a library hack: it leverages our understanding of technology and empowers us to customize and perfect our environment. With an injection of hacker values into library services, we no longer have to remain at the mercy of the default setting. We can empower ourselves to hack our way to better tools, a better library, and a better world.
An excellent example of hackery from outside the library community is Audrey Watters’ Hack Education and Hack [Higher] Education blogs. Just as computer hackers use their inside information of computer systems to remake the environment, Audrey users her inside knowledge of education systems to make positive changes to the system.
Cultivating Change in the Academy: 50+ Stories from the Digital Frontlines
This is a review of the ebook Cultivating Change in the Academy: 50+ Stories from the Digital Frontlines and also of the larger project that collected the stories that became the content of the ebook. The project collects discussions about how technology can be used to improve student success. Fifty practical examples of successful projects are the result. Academic librarians will find the book to be a highly useful addition to our reference or professional development collections. The stories collected in the ebook are valuable examples of innovative pedagogy and administration and are useful resources to librarians and faculty looking for technological innovations in the classroom. Even more valuable than the collected examples may be the model used to collect and publish them. Cultivating Change, especially in its introduction and epilogue, offers a model for getting like minds together on our campuses and sharing experiences from a diversity of campus perspectives. The results of interdisciplinary cooperation around technology and success make for interesting reading, but we can also follow their model to create our own interdisciplinary collaborations at home on our campuses. More details about the ongoing project are available on their community site. The ebook is available as a blog with comments and also as an .epub, .mobi, or .pdf file from the University of Minnesota Digital Conservancy.
Cultivating Change in the Academy: 50+ Stories from the Digital Frontlines1
The stories that make up the ebook have been peer reviewed and organized into chapters on the following topics: Changing Pedagogies (teaching using the affordances of today’s technology), Creating Solutions (technology applied to specific problems), Providing Direction (technology applied to leadership and administration), and Extending Reach (technology employed to reach expanded audiences.) The stories follow a semi-standard format that clearly lays out each project, including the problem addressed, methodology, results, and conclusions.
Section One: Changing Pedagogies
The opening chapter focuses on applications of academic technology in the classroom that specifically address issues of moving instruction from memorization to problem solving and interactive coaching. These efforts are often described by the term “digital pedagogy” (For an explanation of digital pedagogy, see Brian Croxall’s elegant definition.2) I’m often critical of digital pedagogy efforts because they can confuse priorities and focus on the digital at the expense of the pedagogy. The stories in this section do not make this mistake and correctly focus on harnessing the affordances of technology (the things we can do now that were not previously possible) to achieve student-success and foster learning.
One particularly impressive story, Web-Based Problem-Solving Coaches for Physics Students, explained how a physics course used digital tools to enable more detailed feedback to student work using the cognitive apprenticeship model. This solution encouraged the development of problem-solving skills and has to potential to scale better than classical lecture/lab course structures.
Section Two: Creating Solutions
This section focuses on using digital technology to present content to students outside of the classroom. Technology is extending the reach of the University beyond the limits of our campus spaces, this section address how innovations can make distance education more effective. A common theme here is the concept of the flipped classroom. (See Salmam Khan’s TED talk for a good description of flipping the classroom. 3) In a flipped classroom the traditional structure of content being presented to students in lectures during class time and creative work being assigned as homework is flipped. Content is presented outside the classroom and instructors lead students in creative projects during class time. Solutions listed in this section include podcasts, video podcasts, and screencasts. They also address synchronous and asynchronous methods of distance education and some theoretical approaches for instructors to employ as they transition from primarily face to face instruction to more blended instruction environments.
Of special note is the story Creating Productive Presence: A Narrative in which the instructor assesses the steps taken to provide a distance cohort with the appropriate levels of instructor intervention and student freedom. In face-to-face instruction, students have body-language and other non-verbal cues to read on the instructor. Distance students, without these familiar cues, experienced anxiety in a text-only communication environment. Using delegates from student group projects and focus groups, the instructor was able to find an appropriate classroom presence balanced between cold distance and micro-management of the group projects.
Section Three: Providing Direction
The focus of this section is on innovative new tools for administration and leadership and how administration can provide leadership and support for the embrace of disruptive technologies on campus. The stories here tie the overall effort to use technology to advance student success to accreditation, often a necessary step to motivate any campus to make uncomfortable changes. Data archives, the institutional repository, clickers (class polling systems), and project management tools fall under this general category.
The final section discusses ways technology can enable the university to reach wider audiences. Examples include moving courseware content to mobile platforms, using SMS messaging to gather research data, and using mobile devices to scale the collection of oral histories. Digital objects scale in ways that physical objects cannot and these projects take advantage of this scale to expand the reach of the university.
The stories and practical experiences recorded in Cultivating Change in the Academy are valuable in their own right. It is a great resource for ideas and shared experience for anyone looking for creative ways to leverage technology to achieve educational goals. For this reader though, the real value of this project is the format used to create it. The book is full of valuable and interesting content. However, in the digital world, content isn’t king. As Corey Doctorow tells us:
Content isn’t king. If I sent you to a desert island and gave you the choice of taking your friends or your movies, you’d choose your friends — if you chose the movies, we’d call you a sociopath. Conversation is king. Content is just something to talk about.4
The process the University of Minnesota followed to generate conversation around technology and student success is detailed in a white paper. 5 After reading some of the stories in Cultivating Change, if you find yourself wishing similar conversations could take place on your campus, this is the road-map the University of Minnesota followed. Before they were able to publish their stories, the University of Minnesota had to bring together their faculty, staff, and administration to talk about employing innovative technological solutions to the project of increasing student success. In a time when conversation trumps content, a successful model for creating these kinds of conversations on our own campuses will also trump the written record of other’s conversations.
Two years after the initial meeting for the Digital Public Library of America, another major planning and update meeting took place in Chicago at DPLA Midwest. At this meeting the steering committee handed the project over to the inaugural board and everyone who has been working on the project talked about what had happened over the past few years and the ambitious timetable to launch in April 2013.
In August I wrote about the DPLA and had many unanswered questioned. Luckily I had the opportunity to attend the meeting and participate heavily in the backchanel (both virtual and physical). This post is a report of what happened at the general meeting (I was not able to attend the workstream meetings the day before). This is a followup to my last post about the Digital Public Library of America–then I felt like an observer, but the great thing about this project is how easy it is to become a participant.
Looking Back and Ahead
The day started with a welcome from John Palfrey, who reported that through the livestream and mailing lists there were over a thousand active participants in the process. The project seemed two years ago (and still does) seem to him “completely ambitious and almost crazy,” but actually is working out. He emphasized that everything is still “wet clay” and a participatory process, but everything is headed to April 2013 for the public launch with initial version of the service and a fair amount of content being available. We will come back a bit later to exactly what that content is and from what sources it will come.
In this welcome, Palfrey introduced several themes that the day revolved around–that the project is still moldable despite the structure that seems to be there (the “wet clay”), and that it is still completely participatory even though the project will recruit an Executive Director and has a new board. One of the roles of the board will be to ensure that participation remains broad. The credentials of the board and the steering committee are impressive; but they cannot get the project going without a lot of additional support, both financial and otherwise.
The rest of the day was organized to talk about supporting the DPLA, reporting on several of the “hubs” that will make up the first part of the content available, the inaugural board, and the technical and platform components of the DPLA. The complete day, including tweets and photos was captured in a live blog. While much of interest took place that day, I want to focus on the content and the technical implementation as described during the day.
Content: What will be in the DPLA?
Emily Gore started in September of this year as the Director of Content, and has been working since then to get the plans in motion for the initial content in the DPLA. She has been working with seven exisiting state or regional digital libraries as so-called “Service Hubs” and “Content Hubs” to take the steps to begin aggregating metadata that will be harvested for the DPLA and get people to the content. The April 2013 launch will feature exhibits showcasing some of this content–topics include civil rights, prohibition, Native Americans, and a joint presentation with Europeana about immigration.
The idea of these “hubs” is that there are already many large digital libraries with material, staff, and expertise available–as Gore put it, we all have our metadata geeks already who love massaging metadata to make it work together. Dan Cohen (director of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University) gave the analogy in his blog of the local institutions having ponds of content, which then are fed into the lake of the service hubs, and then finally into the ocean of the DPLA. The service hubs will offer a full menu of standardized digital services to local institutions, including digitization, metadata consultation, data aggregation, storage services, community outreach, and exhibit building. These collaborations are crucial for several reasons. First, they mean that great content that is already available will finally be widely accessible to the country at large–it’s on the web, but often not findable or portable. Regional content hubs will be able to work with their regions more effectively than any central DPLA staff, which simply will not have the staff to deal with one-to-one relationships with all the potential institutions who have content. The pilot service hubs are Mountain West, Massachusetts, Digital Library of Georgia, Kentucky, Minnesota, Oregon, and South Carolina. The digital hubs project has a two year timeline and $1 million in funding, but for next April they will prepare metadata and content previews for harvest, harvest existing metadata to make it available for launch, and develop exhibitions. After that, the project will move on to new digitization and metadata, aggregation, new services, new partners, and targeted community engagement.
Representatives from two of the service hubs spoke about the projects and collections, which was the best view into what types of content we can expect to see next April. Mary Molinaro from Kentucky gave a presentation called “Kentucky Digital Library: More than just tobacco, bourbon, and horse racing.” She described their earliest digitization efforts as “very boutique–every pixel was perfect”, but it wasn’t cost effective or scalable. They then moved on to a system of mass digitization through automating everything they could and tweaking workflows for volume. Their developers met with developers from Florida and ended up using DAITSS and Blacklight to manage the repository. They are now at the point where they were able to scan 300,000 pages in the last year, and are reaching out to other libraries and archives around the state to offer them “the on-ramp to the DPLA”. She also highlighted what they are doing with oral history search and transcription with the Oral History Metadata Synchronizer and showed some historical newspapers.
Jim Butler from the Minnesota Digital Library spoke about the content in that collection from an educational and outreach point of view. They do a lot of outreach to to local historical societies and libraries and other cultural organizations to find out what collections they have and digitize them, which is the model that all the service hubs will follow. One of the important projects that he highlighted was an effort to create curricular guides to facilitate educator use of the material–the example he showed was A Foot in Two Worlds: Indian Boarding Schools in Minnesota, which has modules to be used in K-12 education. He showed many other examples of material that would be available through the DPLA, including Native American history and cultural materials and images of small town life in 19th and 20th century Minnesota. Their next steps are to work on state/region wide digital library metadata aggregation, major new digitization efforts, and community-sourced digital documentation, particularly in terms of Somali and Hmong communities self-documentation.
Followup comments during the question portion of these presentations emphasized that the goal of having big pockets of content is to work with those smaller pockets of content. This is a pilot business model test case to see how aggregating all these types of content together actually works. It is important to remember that for now, the DPLA is not ingesting any content, only metadata. All the content will remain in the repositories at each content hubs.
An additional component is that all the metadata in the DPLA will be licensed with a CC0 (public domain) license only. This will set the tone that the DPLA is for sharing and reusing metadata and content. It is owned by everyone. This generated some discussion over lunch and via Twitter about what that actually would mean for libraries and if it would cause tension to release material under a public domain license that for-profit entities could repackage and sell back to libraries and schools. Most people that I spoke to felt this was a risk worth taking. Of course, future content in the DPLA will be there under whatever copyright or license terms the rightsholder allows. Presumably most if not all of it will be material in the public domain, but it was suggested, for instance, that authors could bequeath their copyrights to the DPLA or set up a public domain license through something like unglue.it. Either way, libraries and educators should share all the materials they create around DPLA content, and by doing so will mean less duplicate effort.
Technology: How will the DPLA work?
Jeff Licht, a member of the technical development advisory board, spoke about the technical side of the DPLA. The architecture for the system (PDF overview) will have at its core a metadata repository aggregated from various sources described above. An ingester will bring in the metadata in usable form from the service hubs that will have already cleaned up the data, and then an API will expose the content and allow access to front ends or apps. There will also be functions to export the metadata for analysis that cannot easily be done through the API. The metadata schema (PDF) types that they collect will be item, collection, contributor, event.
One of the important points that raised a lot of discussion was that while they have contracted with iFactory to have a front end available by April, this front end doesn’t have more priority or access to the API than something developed by someone else. In fact, while someone could go to dp.la to access content, the planners right now see the DPLA “brand” as sublimated to other points of access such as local public libraries or apps using the content. Again, the CC0 license makes this possible.
The initial front end prototype is due for December, and the new API is due in early November for the Appfest (see below for details). There will be an iterative process between the API and front end between December and March before the April launch, with of course lots of other technical details to sort out. One of the things they need to work on is a good method for sharing contributed modules and code, which hopefully will be done in the next few weeks.
John Palfrey closed the day with reminding everyone that April is just the start, and not to be disappointed with what they see then. If April delivers everything promised during the DPLA Midwest meeting, then it will be a remarkable achievement–but as Doran Weber from the Sloan Foundation pointed out, the DPLA has so far met every one of its milestones on time and on budget.
I found the meeting to be inspirational about the future for libraries to cross boundaries and build exciting new collections. I still have many unanswered questions, but as everyone throughout the day understands, this will be a platform on which we can build and imagine.
Open access publication makes access to research free for the end reader, but in many fields it is not free for the author of the article. When I told a friend in a scientific field I was working on this article, he replied “Open access is something you can only do if you have a grant.” PeerJ, a scholarly publishing venture that started up over the summer, aims to change this and make open access publication much easier for everyone involved.
While the first publication isn’t expected until December, in this post I want to examine in greater detail the variation on the “gold” open-access business model that PeerJ states will make it financially viable 1, and the open peer review that will drive it. Both of these models are still very new in the world of scholarly publishing, and require new mindsets for everyone involved. Because PeerJ comes out of funding and leadership from Silicon Valley, it can more easily break from traditional scholarly publishing and experiment with innovative practices. 2
PeerJ is a platform that will host a scholarly journal called PeerJ and a pre-print server (similar to arXiv) that will publish biological and medical scientific research. Its founders are Peter Binfield (formerly of PLoS ONE) and Jason Hoyt (formerly of Mendeley), both of whom are familiar with disruptive models in academic publishing. While the “J” in the title stands for Journal, Jason Hoyt explains on the PeerJ blog that while the journal as such is no longer a necessary model for publication, we still hold on to it. “The journal is dead, but it’s nice to hold on to it for a little while.” 3. The project launched in June of this year, and while no major updates have been posted yet on the PeerJ website, they seem to be moving towards their goal of publishing in late 2012.
To submit a paper for consideration in PeerJ, authors must buy a “lifetime membership” starting at $99. (You can submit a paper without paying, but it costs more in the end to publish it). This would allow the author to publish one paper in the journal a year. The lifetime membership is only valid as long as you meet certain participation requirements, which at minimum is reviewing at least one article a year. Reviewing in this case can mean as little as posting a comment to a published article. Without that, the author might have to pay the $99 fee again (though as yet it is of course unclear how strictly PeerJ will enforce this rule). The idea behind this is to “incentivize” community participation, a practice that has met with limited success in other arenas. Each author on a paper, up to 12 authors, must pay the fee before the article can be published. The Scholarly Kitchen blog did some math and determined that for most lab setups, publication fees would come to about $1,124 4, which is equivalent to other similar open access journals. Of course, some of those researchers wouldn’t have to pay the fee again; for others, it might have to be paid again if they are unable to review other articles.
Peer Review: Should it be open?
PeerJ, as the name and the lifetime membership model imply, will certainly be peer-reviewed. But, keeping with its innovative practices, it will use open peer review, a relatively new model. Peter Binfield explained in this interview PeerJ’s thinking behind open peer review.
…we believe in open peer review. That means, first, reviewer names are revealed to authors, and second, that the history of the peer review process is made public upon publication. However, we are also aware that this is a new concept. Therefore, we are initially going to encourage, but not require, open peer review. Specifically, we will be adopting a policy similar to The EMBO Journal: reviewers will be permitted to reveal their identities to authors, and authors will be given the choice of placing the peer review and revision history online when they are published. In the case of EMBO, the uptake by authors for this latter aspect has been greater than 90%, so we expect it to be well received. 5
In single blind peer review, the reviewers would know the name of the author(s) of the article, but the author would not know who reviewed the article. The reviewers could write whatever sorts of comments they wanted to without the author being able to communicate with them. For obvious reasons, this lends itself to abuse where reviewers might not accept articles by people they did not know or like or tend to accept articles from people they did like 6 Even people who are trying to be fair can accidentally fall prey to bias when they know the names of the submitters.
Double blind peer review in theory takes away the ability for reviewers to abuse the system. A link that has been passed around library conference planning circles in the past few weeks is the JSConf EU 2012 which managed to improve its ratio of female presenters by going to a double-blind system. Double blind is the gold standard for peer review for many scholarly journals. Of course, it is not a perfect system either. It can be hard to obscure the identity of a researcher in a small field in which everyone is working on unique topics. It also is a much lengthier process with more steps involved in the review process. To this end, it is less than ideal for breaking medical or technology research that needs to be made public as soon as possible.
In open peer review, the reviewers and the authors are known to each other. By allowing for direct communication between reviewer and researcher, this speeds up the process of revisions and allows for greater clarity and speed 7. Open peer review doesn’t affect the quality of the reviews or the articles negatively, it does make it more difficult to find qualified reviewers to participate, and it might make a less well-known researcher more likely to accept the work of a senior colleague or well-known lab. 8.
Given the experience of JSConf and a great deal of anecdotal evidence from women in technical fields, it seems likely that open peer review is open to the same potential abuse of single peer review. While open peer review might make the rejected author able to challenge unfair rejections, this would require that the rejected author feels empowered enough in that community to speak up. Junior scholars who know they have been rejected by senior colleagues may not want to cause a scene that could affect future employment or publication opportunities. On the other hand, if they can get useful feedback directly from respected senior colleagues, that could make all the difference in crafting a stronger article and going forward with a research agenda. Therein lies the dilemma of open peer review.
Who pays for open access?
A related problem for junior scholars exists in open access funding models, at least in STEM publishing. As open access stands now, there are a few different models that are still being fleshed out. Green open access is free to the author and free to the reader; it is usually funded by grants, institutions, or scholarly societies. Gold open access is free to the end reader but has a publication fee charged to the author(s).
This situation is very confusing for researchers, since when they are confronted with a gold open access journal they will have to be sure the journal is legitimate (Jeffrey Beall has a list of Predatory Open Access journals to aid in this) as well as secure funding for publication. While there are many schemes in place for paying publication fees, there are no well-defined practices in place that illustrate long-term viability. Often this is accomplished by grants for the research, but not always. The UK government recently approved a report that suggests that issuing “block grants” to institutions to pay these fees would ultimately cost less due to reduced library subscription fees. As one article suggests, the practice of “block grants” or other funding strategies are likely to not be advantageous to junior scholars or those in more marginal fields9. A large research grant for millions of dollars with the relatively small line item for publication fees for a well-known PI is one thing–what about the junior humanities scholar who has to scramble for a few thousand dollar research stipend? If an institution only gets so much money for publication fees, who gets the money?
By offering a $99 lifetime membership for the lowest level of publication, PeerJ offers hope to the junior scholar or graduate student to pursue projects on their own or with a few partners without worrying about how to pay for open access publication. Institutions could more readily afford to pay even $250 a year for highly productive researchers who were not doing peer review than the $1000+ publication fee for several articles a year. As above, some are skeptical that PeerJ can afford to publish at those rates, but if it is possible, that would help make open access more fair and equitable for everyone.
Open access with low-cost paid up front could be very advantageous to researchers and institutional bottom lines, but only if the quality of articles, peer reviews, and science is very good. It could provide a social model for publication that will take advantage of the web and the network effect for high quality reviewing and dissemination of information, but only if enough people participate. The network effect that made Wikipedia (for example) so successful relies on a high level of participation and engagement very early on to be successful [Davis]. A community has to build around the idea of PeerJ.
In almost the opposite method, but looking to achieve the same effect, this last week the Sponsoring Consortium for Open Access Publishing in Particle Physics (SCOAP3) announced that after years of negotiations they are set to convert publishing in that field to open access starting in 2014. 10 This means that researchers (and their labs) would not have to do anything special to publish open access and would do so by default in the twelve journals in which most particle physics articles are published. The fees for publication will be paid upfront by libraries and funding agencies.
So is it better to start a whole new platform, or to work within the existing system to create open access? If open (and through a commenting s system, ongoing) peer review makes for a lively and engaging network and low-cost open access makes publication cheaper, then PeerJ could accomplish something extraordinary in scholarly publishing. But until then, it is encouraging that organizations are working from both sides.
Wennerås, Christine, and Agnes Wold. “Nepotism and sexism in peer-review.” Nature 387, no. 6631 (May 22, 1997): 341–3. ↩
For an ingenious way of demonstrating this, see Leek, Jeffrey T., Margaret A. Taub, and Fernando J. Pineda. “Cooperation Between Referees and Authors Increases Peer Review Accuracy.” PLoS ONE 6, no. 11 (November 9, 2011): e26895. ↩
Mainguy, Gaell, Mohammad R Motamedi, and Daniel Mietchen. “Peer Review—The Newcomers’ Perspective.” PLoS Biology 3, no. 9 (September 2005). http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1201308/. ↩
Crotty, David. “Are University Block Grants the Right Way to Fund Open Access Mandates?” The Scholarly Kitchen, September 13, 2012. http://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2012/09/13/are-university-block-grants-the-right-way-to-fund-open-access-mandates/.↩
Van Noorden, Richard. “Open-access Deal for Particle Physics.” Nature 489, no. 7417 (September 24, 2012): 486–486. ↩
Tuesday June 5th through Friday June 8th 2012, 500 creatives from numerous fields such as, computer science, art, design, data visualization, gathered together to listen, converse, and participate in the second Eyeo Festival. Held in Minneapolis, MN at the Walker Art Center, the event organizers created an environment of learning, exchange, exploration, and fun. There were various workshops with some top names leading the way. Thoughtfully curated presentations throughout the day complemented keynotes held nightly in party-like atmospheres: Eyeo was an event not to be missed. Ranging from independent artists to the highest levels of innovative companies, Eyeo offered inspiration on many levels.
Why the Eyeo Festival?
As I began to think about what I experienced at the Eyeo Festival, I struggled to express exactly how impactful this event was for me and those I connected with. In a way, Eyeo is like TED and in fact, many presenters have given TED talks. Eyeo has a more targeted focus on art, design, data, and creative code but it is also so much more than that. With an interactive art and sound installation, Zygotes, by Tangible Interaction kicking off the festival, though the video is a poor substitute to actually being there, it still evokes a sense of wonder and possibility. I strongly encourage anyone who is drawn to design, data, art, interaction or to express their creativity through code to attend this outstanding creative event and follow the incredible people that make up the impressive speaker list.
I went to the Eyeo Festival because I like to seek out what professionals in other fields are doing. I like staying curious and stretching outside my comfort zone in big ways, surrounding myself with people doing things I don’t understand, and then trying to understand them. Over the years I’ve been to many library conferences and there are some amazing events with excellent programming but they are, understandably, very library-centric. So, to challenge myself, I decided to go to a conference where there would be some content related to libraries but that was not a library conference. There are many individuals and professions outside of libraries that care about many of the same values and initiatives we do, that work on similar kinds of problems, and have the same drive to make the world a better place. So why not talk to them, ask questions, learn, and see what their perspective is? How do they approach and solve problems? What is their process in creating? What is their perspective and attitude? What kind of communities are they part of and work with?
I was greatly inspired by the group of librarians who have attended the SXSWi Festival which has grown further over the years. There are a now a rather large number of librarians speaking about and advocating for libraries in such an innovative and elevated platform. There is even a Facebook Group where professionals working in libraries, archives, and museums can connect with each other for encouragement, support, and collaborations in relation to SXSWi. Andrea Davis, Reference & Instruction Librarian at the Dudley Knox Library, Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA, has been heavily involved in offering leadership in getting librarians to collaborate at SXSW. She states, “I’ve found it absolutely invigorating to get outside of library circles to learn from others, and to test the waters on what changes and effects are having on those not so intimately involved in libraries. Getting outside of library conferences keeps the blood flowing across tech, publishing, education. Insularity doesn’t do much for growth and learning.”
I’ve also been inspired by librarians who have been involved in the TED community, such as Janie Herman and her leadership with Princeton Public Library’s local TEDx in addition to her participation in the TEDxSummit in Doha, Qatar. Additionally, Chrystie Hill, the Community Relations Director at OCLC, has given more than one TedX talk about libraries. Seeing our library colleagues represent our profession in arenas broader than libraries is energizing and infectious.
Rather than giving detailed comprehensive coverage of Eyeo, you’ll see a glimpse of a few presentations plus a number of resources so that you can see for yourself some of the amazing, collaborative work being done. Presenter’s names link to the full talk that you can watch for yourself. Because a lot of the work being done is interactive and participatory in some way, I encourage you to seek these projects out and interact with them. The organizers are in the midst of processing a lot of videos and putting them up on the Eyeo Festival Vimeo channel; I highly recommend watching them and checking back for more.
Principal of Fathom, a Boston based design and data visualization firm, and co-initiator of the programming language Processing, Ben Fry’s work in data visualization and design is worth delving into. In his Eyeo presentation, 3 Things, the project that most stood out was the digitization project Fathom produced for GE: http://fathom.info/latest/category/ge. Years of annual reports were beautifully digitized and incorporated into an interactive web application they built from scratch. When faced with scanning issues, they built a tool that improved the scanned results.
Data artist in residence for the New York Times, and former geneticist, Jer Thorp’s range in working with data, art, and design is far and wide. Thorp is one of the few founders of the Eyeo Festival and in his presentation Near/Far he discussed several data visualization projects with the focus on storytelling. The two main pieces that stood out from Jer’s talk was his encouragement to dive into data visualization. He even included 10 year old, Theodore Zaballos’ handmade visualization of The Illiad which was rather impressive. The other piece that stood out was his focus on data visualization in context to location and people owning their own data versus a third party. This lead into the Open Paths project he showcased. He has also presented to librarians at the Canadian library conference, Access 2011.
Jen Lowe was by far the standout from all of the amazing Ignite Eyeo talks. She spoke about how people are intrinsically inspired by storytelling and the need for those working with data to focus on storytelling through the use of visualizing data and the story it tells. She works for the Open Knowledge Foundation in addition to running Datatelling and she has her library degree (she’s one of us!).
Jonathan Harris Jonathan Harris gave one of the most personal and poignant presentations at Eyeo. In a retrospective of his work, Jonathan covered years of work interwoven with personal stories from his life. Jonathan is an artist and designer and his work life and personal life are rarely separated. Each project began with the initial intention and ended with a more critical inward examination from the artist. The presentation led to his most recent endeavor, the Cowbird project, where storytelling once again emerges strongly. In describing this project he focused on the idea that technology and software could be used for good, in a more human way, created by “social engineers” to build a community of storytellers. He describes Cowbird as “a community of storytellers working to build a public library of human experience.”
Additional people + projects to delve into:
Fernanda Viegas and Martin Wattenberg of the Google Big Picture data visualization group. Wind Map: http://hint.fm/wind/
Libraries and library work are everywhere at this conference. That this eclectic group of creative people were often thinking about and producing work similar to librarians is thrilling. There is incredible potential for libraries to embrace some of the concepts and problems in many of the presentations I saw and conversations I was part of. There are multiple ways that libraries could learn from and perhaps participate in this broader community and work across fields.
People love libraries and these attendees were no exception. There were attendees from numerous private/corporate companies, newspapers, museums, government, libraries, and more. I was not the only library professional in attendance so I suspect those individuals might see the potential I see, which I also find really exciting. The drive behind every presenter and attendee was by far creativity in some form, the desire to make something, and communicate. The breadth of creativity and imagination that I saw reminded me of a quote from David Lankes in his keynote from the New England Library Association Annual Conference:
“What might kill our profession is not ebooks, Amazon or Google, but a lack of imagination. We must envision a bright future for librarians and the communities they serve, then fight to make that vision a reality. We need a new activist librarianship focused on solving the grand challenges of our communities. Without action we will kill librarianship.”
If librarianship is in need of more imagination and perhaps creativity too, there is a world of wonder out there in terms of resources to help us achieve this vision.
The Eyeo Festival is but one place where we can become inspired, learn, and dream and then bring that experience back to our libraries and inject our own imagination, ideas, experimentation, and creativity into the work we do. By doing the most creative, imaginative library work we can do will inspire our communities; I have seen it first hand. Eyeo personally taught me that I need to fail more, focus more, make more, and have more fun doing it all.