Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Watzek Year in Review

Watzek Library just sent out links to our first online Year in Review. This continues the tradition that we started last year of a more creative take on the library's annual report. To announce it, we sent out this post card:

Thanks to Anneliese Dehner and Elaine Hirsch for their great work on this project. Its a work that really reflects the greatness of the library and the college.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Presentation on Library Outreach

At the end of last week, Interim Associate Director of Watzek Elaine Hirsch and I gave a presentation at the Northwest Association of Private Colleges and Universities gathering of library directors. The topic was innovative marketing and outreach efforts at a liberal arts college library.

Overseas Study, Digitally Mediated

One of our newer approaches to digital projects follows a model something like this:
  • we work with a faculty member to conceive of an evidence-based assignment for a particular class
  • students in a class go out in the field gather evidence with cameras or through other means
  • they analyze the evidence
  • the library helps them organize the evidence and analysis and present it on the web
We first followed this model in last fall's New York City Graffiti Art Project. Then did another variation on it for a Perspectives in Biology course in which students gathered and classified spiders in the area. This fall, students studying abroad in India have been documenting their experiences using a kind of flickr mashup. It provides a venue for students on the program to photograph things, describe them, and classify them according to a particular schema. The schema is oriented around topics that the students must address for an assignment including modernization, environment, culture and religion. Our site aggregates all the entries for the entire group of students so that their work may be viewed as an integrated whole.

One of the benefits of this kind of project is that the student work becomes highly visible to other students and perhaps this incentivizes higher quality work. The documentation also has the potential to enrich the entire web.

We have a couple other biologists interested in doing more documentation and another overseas program in the works. One of the challenges ahead is to try to develop a more general purpose web site to support these kinds of activities.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

lessons from Clinton Street Video

Yesterday afternoon, I dropped our Netflix DVD service, mainly because we've stopped sending the discs back and forth. Now we use Netflix streaming and Amazon video via a Roku more and more frequently. But part of the decision was also an intention to get back to using our local video store, Clinton Street Video. Clinton Street is about six blocks away with a great selection of films and the expected indie-Portland vibe. Walking down there with the dog used to be a cherished ritual. When I drove by a shuttered Blockbuster on Powell & 39th a week or so ago, the urgency of helping keeping this place in business was apparent (though I'm sure that was a good short term burst for Clinton St.).

So last night, the wife, kid, dog and I headed down there with romantic notions of browsing the collection and being inspired by the presence of physical media (at least in my head). In the back of my mind was also a move that we're considering at the library: whether to put the media collection out in the stacks.

The walk down there was great. (Sometimes things get out of control with dog and kid, but things were unexpectedly peaceful.) When I got there however, I was reminded of all the reasons that on demand video is better. Clinton Street Video was its usual charming, hip self. But there the new release section was crowded and as the dog barked outside and a few whines came from the three year old, I pushed myself through the crowd and attempted to browse.

One of the first things I immediately missed was the inability to easily dig deeper when looking at a title--the information was limited to what showed up on the box, with no easy way to hop on the internet for reviews or a trailer. My Android was in my pocket so I had an impulse to pull it out but because of the time crunch, I resisted. Also, given the limited categories of materials in the store, I felt a lack of curation compared to Netflix's various recommendation services. Then there were the "checked out" labels on the boxes...this was always annoying, but now it just seemed completely unnecessary to have to wait for someone else to finish watching something so I could get to it.

Maybe if I'd had more time, I'd have experience things differently. I could have enjoyed a leisurely browsing of boxes on the shelves. I might have tapped the knowledge of the staff for recommendations. A serendipitous conversation might have ensued with a fellow customer about films

Some reinvention of the local video store will certainly be necessary for long term survival, as this article asserts. The broad trend is similar for libraries: spaces are now important for events and connection with people as much as housing material.

Eventually we made it out of there with a DVD for the kid. The wife and I ended up watching something on Netflix streaming and then later Amazon video.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011


Someone recently asked me about my vision for the college library of the future. Here goes.

I would want a library that:
  • is service-oriented and rock-solid reliable. This never goes out of style.
  • is agile. The information environment is in constant flux, and an academic library needs to be flexible enough to quickly accommodate new trends in scholarly communication and research and communicate those trends to their local community.
  • provide spaces conducive to creativity, knowledge sharing, and contemplation. The library space should retain traditional elements associated with access to printed materials and quiet contemplation and also more collaborative spaces that facilitate the transfer of tacit knowledge between people.
  • raises expectations for research conducted by students. By working closely with students and faculty and by strategically developing collections and services, the library should enable really strong student research.
  • has character. The library should generally have a friendly and interesting vibe as evidenced by the general feeling in the space and the attitude of the staff.
  • is a strategic asset for the parent institution. Rather than simply being a generic set of resources and services on par with peer institutions, the library should help distinguish the institution from its peers though unique collections, opportunities for student research, excellent service, etc.
  • involves students in a pervasive sort of way. Students should take part in all the cool things that go on at the library as patrons, researchers, employees, practicum participants, etc.
  • acts as a laboratory. Even in the electronic age, the library should be a place where creativity, experimentation, and discovery takes place through encountering sources, using technology, or bringing together people to co-create.
  • has a creative, motivated, staff dedicated to the library and the broader institution.
Hopefully that about covers it.

Friday, September 2, 2011

incentivizing great student research

A recent piece in Inside Higher Ed reports on an ethnographic study that investigated college student attitudes and practices as they pursue information research projects. The results indicate that many students are far from prepared to do good college-level research. The comments on the article toss out a few ways of changing the state of things: information literacy programming, required library research classes, closer cooperation with faculty, etc.

One step that we at Watzek Library introduced this year takes the approach of highlighting strong student research through an undergraduate student research award in our first year Exploration and Discovery seminar course, which requires a research project in the spring term. The award is a celebration of what we're about at the library: great student research. But its also a subtle way of encouraging students and faculty to set high expectations for research, which should in turn help information literacy overall. Finally, it provides a great opportunity for students to practice up for more opportunities for academic honors and awards later in their undergraduate and possibly graduate careers.

Congrats to Sara Miller and Devin Owen, winners of the first-ever Watzek Student Research award!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Alliance shared ILS: it's about shared culture not shared technology

At the recent Alliance Summer meeting, I gave a presentation with Natalie Beach on the work of the Shared ILS task force. It was great to see all the interest in this initiative and now that Council gave the go ahead to proceed with procurement, the rubber will really hit the road.

I think there may be some misperceptions about where the value will come from with this initiative, however. In the last couple decades, many institutions shared an ILS in order to save hardware and software licensing costs and system administration costs. This is certainly a factor, but I don't see this as the primer driver of sharing an ILS in the consortium. With software available in the cloud, libraries should be able to acquire a fairly robust, feature loaded ILS on an individual basis at a reasonable price.

I think the real value of the shared ILS will come from shared workflows that the system can enable and foster. A simple one is of course borrowing within the consortium. A new system should support this existing practice in a more efficient way than the current system. Collaborative technical services could be a new shared endeavor, but it will really be the culture and practices of collaboration not the technology that determines the success of this.

The Alliance is an organization that at least as a starting point, is based on geographical proximity. In an increasingly electronic environment, this proximity matters less and less for the sharing and provision of information. But the proximity and the organization itself can continue to foster a culture of collaboration and sharing and going into the future. This will be the Alliance's biggest asset. The Alliance should invest not only in infrastructure that enables collaboration but also in that shared culture. That is, creating a culture of working together. The Summer Meeting and the upcoming shared technical services symposium are ways that we can begin to create that culture.

A big question related to the ILS in general is how relevant it will be in an increasingly electronic environment. In the print environment, the library could legitimately make the case that the ILS functioned to manage its collections. But the reality of the electronic environment is that collections come in large aggregations that are often cataloged and organized by the content vendor. In the future, the function of "managing" electronic content for your library could be as simple as flipping on or off a few hundred different content products. ILS vendors are making their best efforts to position their products as managers of highly complex electronic content. But there is a question in my mind about how complex of an activity this needs to be. An interesting twist is that a content vendor, Proquest, will be offering an ILS product through Serials Solutions.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Digital Initiatives at the Liberal Arts College: One Year On

About a year ago, I wrote a piece on synthesize-specialize-mobilize about our efforts at Lewis & Clark to develop a digital initiatives program. Since then the number of projects in our portfolio has expanded significantly and I think we are building momentum towards a solid and sustainable program. We have a library-led project with a regional interest and appeal in our poetry program (Oregon Poetic Voices), a faculty driven NEH sponsored digital project (Rabat Geneziah), a couple student-oriented projects around spiders and graffiti, and a number of "consulting" style projects in which we've provided advice, expertise and assistance but that are really externally managed by faculty. Coincidentally, we just had a nice piece about our digital initiatives program come out in our alumni magazine.

"Digital initiatives" is a somewhat imprecise label for a variety of different activities and programs that academic libraries pursue in relation to digital collections and digital scholarship. I like to make a distinction between the service-oriented approach to digital initiatives and the project-oriented approach, though there is plenty of fuzzy area between the two. Some organizations focus on a set of fairly well defined services around particular types of digital objects. See, for example Oregon State University's Center for Digital Scholarship and Services, which offers support for digitization, electronic publishing in the journal and monograph forms, and institutional repository services. Other digital initiatives units are more oriented around projects with a less precise focus on specific services. Brown University's Center for Digital Scholarship falls into this category, with a focus on providing support for thematic digital projects.

As I indicated in the post a year ago, I believe that the project oriented approach is the more fertile area for a few different reasons. First, some of these more transactionally oriented digital services such as digitization or scholarly repository provision may be more effectively handled by organizations that transcend the single college or university. Digitization can be outsourced and disciplinary scholarly repositories are often more effective than institutional ones (think of arXiv). Digital projects offer the opportunity to engage in a live scholarly project that may be focused on teaching, research or both. Furthermore, projects can offer the opportunity to leverage local expertise to move them forward: existing working relationships with faculty, connections to students who may contribute to the project, ties to a local technology infrastructure.

Perhaps the most compelling reason to focus on thematic digital projects is that there is more passion around them. We have an archive of electronic student theses that we've been diligently working to populate over the years. It is a useful, worthwhile project, one that students and faculty appreciate and we've got big ambitions to expand it to include multimedia. It's built much like our library collection through acquisition of items across subject areas. But there is limited passion around this project because it is simultaneously about everything and nothing.

If I look at our digital projects, however, every one of them is been borne of creative or intellectual passion, and often project usage stats on Google Analytics demonstrate that this passion is contagious. Doug Erickson, the founder Oregon Poetic Voices, has been traveling around Oregon to capture poetry readings in all sorts of obscure places and build out this archive. He lives and breathes this project. This applies absolutely to the other projects leaders as well: Ted Vogel and accessCeramics, Oren Kosansky and the Rabat Geneziah, Greta Binford and Spiders, Margo Ballantyne and Graffiti, Paul Merchant and the William Stafford Archives.

These types of projects demonstrate how scholarship intersects with sophisticated ways of organizing, presenting and analyzing information. Academic libraries, for the most part, rely on content vendors like JSTOR to construct libraries of the kinds of published material they used to organize on their shelves. We need to spend less and less time building our own library and instead shift our focus towards creating specialized digital libraries that advance teaching and research. This role is increasingly being labeled support for digital scholarship. For example, Brown recently renamed their Center for Digital Initiatives the Center for Digital Scholarship and Rice did the same. Recent large foundation grants to liberal arts colleges such as Mellon's grants to Hamilton, Occidental and the Five Colleges of Ohio focus on digital scholarship and digital humanities and retooling the library to support such endeavors.

Last winter we worked with our Sponsored Research Office to host a faculty workshop on digital scholarship. Digital scholarship and digital humanities are big buzzwords these days and we sought to capture some of that momentum. Despite the lure of THATCamps and great NYT's pieces on "Humanities 2.0" I do worry that some faculty might get scared away by these terms. At some schools, there are faculty who self identify as digital humanists but I don't think we have any like that here. In our case, the most promising approach has been to tap into their scholarly interests and passions and demonstrate what new possibilities that the digital can open up.

It remains to be seen how much our digital initiatives program can grow. As we recruit faculty to join the fold, I would say there is a spectrum of interest levels. Some scholars have a fleshed out idea about where they would like to go, and they are ready to put time and energy into the project to get it going. They may or may not need our help and resources. Other faculty have ideas, but they are more loosely formed, distant aspirations. Completion of tenure files and other more pressing priorities stand in the way. Other scholars may not have any specific ideas, but they are observing a flurry of activities in their own disciplines around digital resources and have an interest in keeping aware of what's going on. Ideas of their own may be germinating.

How do we move those that aren't quite ready to begin projects towards that stage? How do we bring faculty without an interest into the fold? Grants provide a strong incentive: the financial resources and the prestige attached can be a compelling motivator. Most of our projects have some degree of external funding. Finding opportunities to demonstrate the possibilities out there to faculty, including the grants and projects colleagues have been successful with can also help. Our workshop was an opportunity to do this. Above all, finding a way to demonstrate that a particular project can really advance a particular interest or passion is the best motivator.

And what about the perils of success? How do we handle it when we demand for digital scholarly support outstrips our ability to supply that support from our office. We have not developed a formal system for prioritizing projects yet but one could be envisioned that would take into consideration factors such as time commitment, research impact, scholarly impact, cost, etc. Most of our projects have as of now focused on creating a collection that in an of itself serves as a learning and/or research resource. The most compelling projects in a liberal arts setting, however are those that engage students in their creation.

As we seek outside funding for projects, we need to consider ways to provide elastic support mechanisms when large waves of projects, ideally with some level of external support, come our way. Perhaps this means developing relationships with some outside contractors, who can step in to provide expertise when needed. We have some experience with external web development expertise, and we've brought in external help in visual resources.

A bigger question relates to the expertise that makes sense to source locally versus externally. In redefining library services and expertise in our current environment, it is always worth pushing on this question. Project initiation and management done locally can help get projects off the ground with a low barrier to entry. Local project managers can tap into trusted networks of people and resources to move a project forward and sustain it in a stable fashion. They can organize a fundraising strategy that makes sense for the local environment, and orient the project in a way that elevates the institution. Design and technology done locally can tap into existing infrastructure that may get the project off the ground faster and allow it to be maintained over the long term. Projects can be a vehicle for bridging interdisciplinary boundaries at or even between institutions.

At the same time, there are real possibilities for more external models of support and I think the trend is in this direction. There is the cloud-based DIY approach. We've sent a few faculty to Omeka.net to run with projects on there own and this is working pretty well. There is the external contractor approach. Sometimes I wonder if giving faculty easy access to very specialized expertise on demand, say a GIS specialist or a web developer would be a good way to catalyze innovative projects. Also, tapping into digital projects done at other institutions seems like a natural approach for some projects, Furman University's participation in the Homer Multitext project being a nice example of this.

What would define success for a digital initiatives program at a small liberal arts college? Perhaps, if we advance scholarship and or teaching for 5% of the College's faculty and 10% of our students in a given year, that would achieve a significant and relatively broad impact on students as well as advancing faculty research and creative agendas. Should those numbers be higher or lower? In theory, the experiences that the projects offer to students and faculty could have a spillover effect into other scholarly endeavors with which we are not directly affiliated. Digital initiatives fit in with the larger portfolio of academic support we provide including traditional reference and instruction, collection development, and work with special collections so they might also be seen and justified as a part of this larger package.

From this interim director post, one of the things I strive to articulate is the entire spectrum of research and teaching support we provide, from assisting students with basic research questions, to designing assignments with faculty, to building innovative digital projects, to putting students in touch with unique archival documents. It's a humbling and exciting adventure and I will continue to provide updates on this blog.

Friday, April 29, 2011

thoughts on e-books and the ILS

I've been quieter about library systems and technology on this blog than on synthesize-specialize-mobilize, but I'm going to return to that realm for this post. I've had the privilege of joining the Orbis Cascade Alliance's Shared Integrated Library System Team this past month. This team is charged with analyzing the market for a shared ILS for the Alliance and investigating options for its procurement. The team read over RFI responses submitted by several vendors the other week giving us a general picture of the maturity of the market.

I'm not going to comment on those RFIs--we've promised to keep them within the Alliance. But I will say that this process and our library's recent exploration of the e book marketplace has got me thinking about where the next generation of library management systems should go.

I've been a champion of the WorldCat-based ILS for a long time now. Putting the world's largest cooperatively created catalog at the center of a library management system is a logical way to leverage network effects. It also could enable libraries to see data about their activities in the aggregate. OCLC clearly has a strategic advantage with WorldCat data as well as their resource sharing network. One of the main drivers of the Alliance effort is greater collaboration on traditional technical services activities like acquisition and cataloging of print materials and the shared WorldCat database might enable some deep collaboration here.

But if we really are moving into a world where e content becomes prevalent, or even dominant, the central nature of WorldCat bibliographic data is up in the air. When you have a scenario where libraries purchase large packages of electronic books, it doesn't necessarily make sense to do the cataloging for these in the distributed sort of way that WorldCat is built around where libraries do original cataloging as they get items in hand. It makes more sense to perform that activity at a higher level on the chain: the publisher, the book vendor, a national library. Likewise, if we load thousands of records for e books into our discovery system for demand driven purchasing, the records need to be created ahead of time in the absence of physical items.

Furthermore, the expectation for full text searching of books is growing, something the WorldCat database can't help with at this point. Fundamentally, WorldCat is based on records whose data was intended for cards in a print catalog. In a search engine world, an ILS built around managing a catalog, even a web-scale next generation one, may not make as much sense as it used to.

The ability to easily assimilate and manage large pools of vendor supplied data and metadata for licensed and purchased e content may be the most essential aspect of the next generation integrated library system. Serials Solutions seems to shine in this area historically with its e journal products and more currently with Summon while I've been less impressed with OCLC's record here.

It also seems logical to include digital collections management as a next generation activity of the ILS, though its also possible that the tools for this activity (DSpace, ContentDM, Omeka, Shared Shelf, etc.) are evolving too independently from the ILS market to try and bundle them in.

On another note, our library looked at purchasing some e book packages recently. Before looking closely, I had the impression that it was possible to license large aggregations of high quality e books. But what we're finding is that many e books are only available for sale, and at very little discount from the print even if purchased in aggregate packages. This situation really makes the demand driven acquisitions model seem attractive, though I'm leery of buying e books on one platform should that platform prove to be funky or worse, extinct, in the future.

Ebrary's 'Academic Complete' package seems to be a good deal. Offered for a modest annual fee, it provides access to some 50K e books. I get the impression its sort of like the NetFlix Instant library: it offers a wide array of quality content, but is by no means comprehensive and many of publishers' newer, popular titles are not included.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

libraries, sciences, and spiders

At the NITLE Summit session on library collections earlier this month, I advanced the idea that on liberal arts campuses, libraries might reorient themselves to provide more support for the humanities and social sciences while consciously putting less resources into support for the sciences. Ithaka studies have shown that though scientists value the online resources that libraries provide, they are less attached to the library as place and as an intermediary in the research process. Perhaps we should concede the scientists aren't as interested in the library, and concentrate on our role as a laboratory for the humanities and social sciences.

This idea was met with some consternation by many of the library directors in the room that have productive, valuable programs in place with the sciences on their campuses.

Well, I'm happy to report on an example from our campus that perhaps somewhat counters the notion that we should scale down our connection to the sciences. Last year, as we explored ways that our digital initiatives program could grow and support more academic areas, we talked to a few scientists on campus. We were suspecting that they might need help with data management. In a couple of the conversations, however, we heard about the need to educate broader audiences as an aspect of NSF grant projects. There was interest in the library's ability to get some of their research data out on the web and make it accessible in new ways.

Our first foray into this type of project involved Biologist Greta Binford, a scholar famous for her work with venomous spiders. This fall, in her introductory "Perspectives in Biology" course, Greta had her students collect, identify, and photograph spiders in the immediate vicinity of our campus. Our digital initiatives crew, chiefly Jeremy McWilliams, worked with the students to upload images of spiders, descriptive metadata, and genetic sequences to Flickr. Jeremy and Anneliese Dehner then did some web programming and design magic to pull together the work of the students into a website, The Spiders of Lewis & Clark. It even pulls in data and images from the Encylclopedia of Life API.

This project is a great example of a digital project that really involves students in its creation and pulls in data from the participatory web. It was gratifying to see the Encyclopedia of Life list us on their homepage after we contacted them about our use of their data. I think its clearly a first for us to make the homepage of one of the reference sources that we list in our research guides. And its particularly fitting because Encyclopedia of Life is a modern reference source built in an open, participatory, decentralized way from numerous information sources.

I'll bring this back to my previous post, and cite this as an example of students getting experience doing work, specifically scientific inquiry, that prepares them to work at the edge of knowledge creation. In this case the library brings the expertise required to organize and present this knowledge. In a sense the project goes beyond referring to information sources to create an information source of its own.

Friday, April 22, 2011

pulling the library out to the edge

One of the concepts in the Power of Pull that intrigues me is this notion of the core vs. the edge. The core has the resources and the authority; the edge is weaker but more innovative and experimental. We want our students to be able to work at the edge when they graduate.

Academic libraries by there very nature might be viewed as organizations that fit into the core of their institutions and for that matter, the core the broader higher education system. Much of what we do is organize, preserve and provide access to authoritative, validated information. Our information literacy initiatives often focus on teaching students to find and identify "appropriate," vetted sources of information, that is information backed by established authorities.

Could it be that this notion of information literacy is misguided or perhaps just half baked? That its basic premise is based on trying to teach students the old, "correct" way of finding information, when in fact this will not serve them well in an age of constant change. It's not that students don't need to know how to find reliable information from within stocks of knowledge. But knowing how to do this is only going to get them so far. If they are going to be at the edge of innovation in a particular field, they are going to need to know how to tap into knowledge flows.

How do we do this? How do we develop an information environment that challenges students for a world of constant change? We need to present them with problems that they can only solve by tapping into tacit knowledge of experts and engaging in current knowledge flows.

Think of a project where a student is tasked with producing original historical research from archival materials. She would likely enter an archive with the guidance of an archivist and perhaps work alongside other students and researchers, picking up tacit knowledge about historical research (a field that is in flux) the way. To make sense of what she finds, she might very well need to connect with other students/scholars that also are knowledgeable about the topic and this connection could be evolving and dynamic with multiple feedback loops.

Or think of a project where a class is charged with developing a digital archive of something. I'll use grafitti art in NYC to take an example from one of our recent digital initiatives. Given the ephemeral nature of this art form, students would need to tap into knowledge flows about where it is happening through both personal and online networks. As they capture images of the art, they might need those networks to understand how to classify the art and capture its context.

We need to be giving students the opportunity to make new discoveries and create new knowledge. We can do this by providing raw materials, expertise, virtual and physical creation spaces, and personal networks.

Monday, April 18, 2011

liberal arts futures

This IHE article captured some of the mood at the NITLE Summit in Virginia the week before last, which I attended. I find often at technology conferences there is a sense of religious reformation in the air and it this vibe was definitely apparent at this one. As is often the case there was a sentiment that educational and financial models at liberal arts colleges must change drastically.

The mood on my campus heading into the end of the semester, is vastly different. This past week, I attended a teacher-of-the year ceremony, in which students gave their own testaments about their favorite teachers. These accounts were inspiring, most commonly emphasized how effectively faculty convey their passions to students, and got me thinking that our model is certainly not entirely broken. Following on that came announcements of a bevy of Fulbright awards to students as well as a ceremony honoring undergraduate researchers.

Many of the remarkable things I hear about on campus involve student research, whether it be in the science laboratory or in the archives. And I think there is a connection here with the reform zeal of the NITLE Summit. John Seely Brown's talk emphasized the connection between thinking and doing and the importance of transferring tacit knowledge. Student research experience that give students the chance to tinker and put themselves at the cutting edge of knowledge gets at this mode of learning.

But is experiential learning of the kind advocated by JSB really all that new? I guess not. I think his point is that this kind of learning becomes more important as we navigate an rapidly evolving socioeconomic system with almost unlimited access to explicit knowledge. I have trouble buying the idea that change is as rapid as he says it is in all sectors of society, but I think he is on to something.

We were also interviewing candidates for our dean of the college job this week. One of the more interesting conversations that came up at one of the faculty candidate talks was around academic rigor. Many faculty believe that there is a deficiency here, that we need to develop a culture that asks more of our students academically. I think there is a tie-in here with the liberal arts value proposition: our expectations should be very high in selective liberal arts colleges and this can be something that sets us apart from other players on the education landscape.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

checking in from CLIR/NITLE Summit

I flew to Washington DC yesterday to attend the CLIR Symposium and NITLE Summit. I'm looking forward especially to hearing the keynote by John Seely Brown tonight. I am participating in the session on Library Collections: Strategies for Access and Preservation. Ahead of that discussion, I'll put down one idea that I have about a "liberal arts college digital library."

The Orbis Cascade Alliance is working on a demand-driven shared e book collection. Lewis & Clark is an enthusiastic participant in this endeavor as are our partner Alliance Libraries. I am concerned, however, that this endeavor might run up against some limitations because of the heterogeneity of Alliance Libraries, both in terms of size and the academic programs they support.

I'm wondering if there might be bigger opportunities for collaborating on purchased/licensed digital resources if a large group of libraries with similar budgets and academic programs pooled resources together. Say 100 liberal arts colleges came together and built a "liberal arts college digital library" stocked with e journals, research databases, electronic books and a top-notch shared web presence. The goal would be to cover say 70%+ of the average library's information needs with this shared digital library, which would be priced at a certain cost per FTE. The remaining 30% would be reserved for print books and journals, electronic resources not included in the deal, special collections, etc. There would be savings because of collective bargaining power but also through lots of staff time saved because selection, evaluation, and cataloging of resources and perhaps even the web portal would be done centrally.

A few potential gotchas: vendors might not give dramatic enough price breaks to make the electronic resources included in this package greater than what the average library could get for their money with current ala-carte consortial pricing; it might be hard to get libraries to pull out of state or regional consortial deals already in place; choosing a one-size-fits-all set of resources might be hard given that there are real differences in academic programs; how would previously purchased e resources fit in?; also, if we did use a shared web portal, integrating local-only resources could be a challenge. Some kind of study would need to be done to figure out how big these obstacles really are.

There is a rightful wariness on the part of libraries towards "the big deal," a sense that each library should be free to buy only what it needs. This would be the mother of all "big deals," but the package of resources selected would be done presumably by a a nonprofit collective with input from member libraries, not a vendor (though one could imagine a vendor inserting itself into this position at some point).

In a networked environment, why should 100s of libraries that basically serve a similar set of users all be devoting staff time to selecting, evaluating, purchasing, and organizing a similar set of resources? In a sense, I think the Tri-Colleges already do something similar to this proposal, but only on the scale of three institutions.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

paywalls rising

In my previous post, I mention the emergence of the New York Times paywall and provide an example of an e book sold through Amazon Kindle Editions, whose content is really not source-able through library channels. Both of these examples really point to highly current content marketed directly to consumers.

Libraries, particularly academic libraries, were never really geared towards providing information for current consumption as opposed to research. In the print world, if you wanted the Times or the Chronicle of Higher Ed at your home or office, you really had to subscribe yourself. And even if you wanted to get your hands on a popular current book, there were some good odds that the library might not have enough copies.

Could it be that in this new world where publishers are trying to extract revenues from current content ("information flows"), the library's is left to offering access to backfiles ("information stocks"). We know from John Seely Brown et al that information flows are where the action is. But perhaps in an information landscape balkanized by paywalls, broad and deep access to information stocks will valuable.

I was reading through comments on an Inside Higher Ed blogpost regarding the NYTimes paywall and was struck by how many people voiced support for the Times' move. There is a sentiment that as a society we need to be ready to open our wallets for high quality journalism. I find it comforting that the Times is taking a leadership role here. I'm not sure if they have their price level at exactly the right place on the demand curve but I agree with the you-get-what-you-pay-for principle of the whole thing.

Just maybe there is a growing recognition that high quality information costs money, money that is not always optimally provided by advertisers. This recognition could be a good thing for the broader information industry, including libraries.

Monday, March 14, 2011

the great stagnation and library disintermediation

There's some buzz in the media about a recent book by Tyler Cowen called The Great Stagnation. It's thesis goes something like this: we've have reached this productivity plateau in our economy because we have exhausted all the " low hanging fruit" (cheap land, energy, uneducated minds, etc.) that can lead to big rises in economic performance in consecutive years. As I gather, he's skeptical about how much good the internet has done for us in regards to the economy.

This book strikes one among many that evoke a sort of early 21st century digital age malaise. The Shallows by Nick Carr worries about what Google is doing to our brains, the shift index referenced in the Power of Pull points to lower and lower returns on corporate assets, and Academically Adrift, a volume that has touched some nerves on our small campus, argues that our higher education system is rather ineffective.

One remarkable thing about The Great Stagnation is that is is only released as an Amazon Kindle Edition, which is an electronic only short form publication. The cost is about $4. There's no sign of it in WorldCat and I take that to mean that it's not available in libraries at all. This is pretty remarkable considering how influential this little book is. I mean, we're talking reviews in the NYT, Economist, Mother Jones, the National Review. And this guy is an academic at George Mason, not a popular pundit, so this book would have both a broader public appeal and an academic one. If a college professor wanted to assign this book for a class, what options would she have for access besides Amazon?

The Kindle Edition format is a cool concept: a nice midway point between book and article. One of our faculty here, Pauls Toutonghi, writes short fiction in the format. It's unfortunate that we can't provide this content through the library, however. This is truly an example of the library being disintermediated in the information economy.

This also makes me think of the NYT announcement about digital subscriptions. We've gotten inquiries about the library providing this access to the NYT in light of this announcement. I'm not seeing any sign that the Times has a program for institutional access to its content (at least through its website), however.

Friday, February 25, 2011

digital scholarship and interpretive digital collections

I'm working on a draft of a book chapter right now for a volume on interdisciplinarity and academic libraries. The basic idea of my chapter is that digital initiatives are an opportunity for academic libraries to enable interdisciplinary work. One of the points I'm trying to make is that some library digital initiative efforts take a relatively flat and uniform approach to collections that mirrors traditional library collections. Other efforts are more thematic and interpretive in approach and really cross into the realm of digital scholarship.

If you look at a typical academic library's institutional repository or collection of historical images what you see is something very similar to a traditional library catalog or library research database: lots of discreet objects carefully organized in a uniform way with limited ways of interacting with them.

But if you look at some thematic collections like the Homer Multitext project, Hidden Patterns of the Civil War, the St. Gall Monastery Project, the Oregon Explorer or even our own William Stafford Archives you'll see a more interpretative approach to interacting with digital objects, information, and data.

Many institutions that support digital scholarship do it through organizational units outside the library. A configuration where the library handles the collection, organization, and preservation of primary materials and another unit, a digital scholarship center perhaps, creates tools and interfaces for interpretation of those materials is common. University of Richmond follows this model with its library Digital Initiatives unit and its Center for Digital Scholarship.

Things will play out differently depending on the institution, but I think libraries should move into the digital scholarship arena by developing interpretative digital collections. I think this is where we will find compelling projects and opportunities to interact closely with faculty and students.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

staying afloat

The other night, I heard that Powell's in Portland is laying off 7% of their non-managerial staff. Powell's remains a Portland landmark, one of our city's most popular destination's for visitors. Whenever I visit it, it seems to me like a busy and vibrant place and an inspiration to book culture and the business around it. According to this article, however, it's their online business keeping them afloat. On top of that, it sounds like Borders is close to bankruptcy.

As we all know much of what we might loosely conceive of as the information industry has been shaken up over the last decade or so. The business model of local newspapers-based on packaging a bundle of local and national news for a regional audience along with relevant advertising-has been decimated by Craigslist and online news sources. Bookstores are struggling because of competition from online bookstores and now e books.

Academic libraries haven't had an easy time of it either, especially since the great recession of '08. Budget cuts are common, and much of higher education remains in a fiscal mess, tied in part to the desperate finances of many state governments. But one does not commonly hear of academic libraries closing or, for that matter, of their very existence being questioned.

Why has the academic library organization remained fairly stable amidst such radical turmoil in the information industry? Like bookstores, record stores, and newspapers, we were created to supply information to a local community through physical media. Many of academic libraries have taken cuts, but I would venture to say that by in large we have faired better than much of the information industry. Why is this? I offer up some reasons below, some more comforting than others.

First, the information environment remains a hybrid and complex marketplace. To supply a college or university with the information resources it needs still requires managing a large number of formats, including analog ones. At least one study has shown that no matter how hard an academic library might try to move towards all digital books, there is a large swath of materials that simply aren't available in that format. Even as more and more material goes digital in various ways provisioning access to both digital and print formats is labor intensive and the heterogeneity of formats that we're dealing with tends to eat up the 'digital dividend' we might expect to get by switching to easy-to-manage digital aggregations of materials. There is no iTunes-like service for academic information that can supply most of what we need with one seamless purchasing mechanism. Likewise an open access utopia for scholarly communication has not emerged.

Second, we do more than supply information through collections and access. Increasingly we're acting as educators and service providers. We assist students in navigating a complex information landscape, serve as partners in information literacy initiatives, provide assistance with copyright, collaborate on digital scholarship, and provide collaborative learning spaces. The service turn is underway. The concern here is that these new service roles may not be seen as essential as the library's more traditional collection management role, that they might be viewed as peripheral to an institution's main mission and potentially expendable.

Third, I would argue that the rate of change itself in the information industry is actually helping keep us in business and this is very much tied to the first two points. The very fact that new tools and resources are continually emerging requires us to continually explore them, evaluate them, select them, and explain them to our local communities. Whether its new personal information management software like Zotero or Mendeley, digital collections, search engines, information visualization tools-things that we purchase or things that just show up on the consumer web-it's our job to introduce them to our communities. If we do somehow reach a plateau where things stabilize that's when we really start to need to worry about our jobs.

Fourth, in the humanities, many of the disciplines that we support are heavily oriented towards print culture and they value the printed medium. There's a bias here towards printed books and a genuine need to have the book as an artifact. If print books become more scarce, we'll be all that more important as their keepers, and this is where we might see an increased role for special collections and preservation. In some respects I am more certain about our return on investment expensive, rare items for our special collections than for monographs in our general collection. I know that a $1000 rare book will still be worth something in 5-10-20 years, but I'm not so certain about a recently acquired scholarly monograph.

Fifth, I think libraries serve as important advocates of certain values on a campus : information literacy, preservation of the cultural and academic record, intellectual freedom, interdisciplinarity, inquiry and learning independent of the curriculum. We're recognized for these perspectives because we bring them to various endeavors at our own institutions.

Along with these fairly sound reasons for our existence, there are other less optimistic reasons that we've continued to stay afloat over the last few years.

For one, there is inertia in the academic library and publishing industries. One can conceive of many different ways that scholarly communication and information research could take place in a digital environment, for instance open access publishing or direct purchasing of content by students and faculty. But libraries have the money and publishers have the content and we pretty much work from that premise, despite regular protests about increasing journal prices. JSTOR could have been marketed directly to scholars but it was built from the ground up to draw directly on academic library budgets. In the e book arena Eric Hellman recently described an aspect of this inertia as PIP "pretend its print": many publishers are trying to model e book sales on that of print because they are comfortable with it. Open access repositories, Google Scholar, and consumer access to e books have rocked the boat but they haven't upended it yet. We are still acting as the intermediary between content providers and content consumers in the academic marketplace, but that might not always be the case.

Second, we are not forced to sell our services to our clientele directly for our revenue. We 'sell' them as a bundle to our parent institution who in turn sells them as a bundle to students. This is very different than selling books or newspaper subscriptions to people directly and perhaps it insulates us somewhat from changes in user behaviors and preferences. It does not insulate us forever, however.

Third, the non-profit higher education industry is oriented towards institutional autonomy. If private colleges were for-profit business, there is a good chance that many would be bought up by larger entities and then merged together at some level to take advantage of digital technologies and realize economies of scale. Independence and uniqueness are important qualities of private colleges and integral to their success, but it is possible to conceive of several independent colleges sharing certain business functions (see Claremont Colleges) and this could include at least some aspects of library operations. Consortia clearly have a role to play here, too.

Fourth, colleges and universities take a long time to make decisions. Even if academic libraries are due for some radical changes, the governance structures in place may be slow to make those changes.

Fifth, I think libraries have a very powerful symbolic value. The concept of the academic library as an essential component of a college or university is highly ingrained. Our physical presence contributes to this. To many people, I think, their superficial conception of a library is 70% the physical building, 20% library resources and 10% people and services when the actual resources are allocated much differently. The symbolic value is a good thing as long as it's backed up by underlying value, but if the symbolic value is artificially insulating us from harder scrutiny, it is a dangerous thing.

Friday, January 28, 2011

the library literature landscape

I've got a book chapter assignment with a March deadline looming. The topic: digital initiatives and interdisciplinarity in academic libraries. I'm doing a literature review to get my head around the state-of-the-art thinking in the area. The process is awkward and cumbersome.

There is the library literature, which I often access through Library and Information Science index to which we subscribe. I also search Google Scholar.

When I find something, I often need to ILL it. The article usually arrives in a day or two in a more or less readable form generally scanned from the print. From the perspective of communication between scholars, this seems backward on so many levels. The whole ILL model of redigitizing content that is already digital but behind a paywall is a bizarre one, though I must admit it works on a pragmatic level.

I'm not a utopian who thinks that every journal even in our sector needs to be free to access. Just give me the ability to subscribe in one package for a reasonable price to all the important literature in the field.

Another category of literature is the report published by a nonprofit organization: CLIR, ITHAKA, OCLC, ACLS, etc. These are often data rich and useful.

And then there's the blogosphere, which come to think of it, I haven't tapped much. I'm off to Google Blog Search...

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

digital initiating

Jeff Leonard is Lewis & Clark's sole instructor in Electronic Music. Last week, Watzek Digital Services Coordinator Jeremy McWilliams and I met him in his studio, a tiny dark triangular room with three iMacs in it that is often packed with students because of the popularity of his courses. Jeff told us about his student projects and his ambitions to archive the best of them and we bounced around some ideas for creating a site that would do that.

He observed that students in the last few years are much more aware of copyright law and the whole concept of appropriating content. They know about creative commons licensing and some even know who Lawrence Lessig is. He showed us this student project, which is somewhat emblematic of that trend.

Yesterday Jeremy and Visual Resources Coordinator Stephanie Beene and I had lunch with Garrick Imatani, our Foundations professor in the Art department. Garrick's ideas for digital projects include a site that would support digital means of delivering art work, kind of like this one; pairing up a group of students with a parallel group in another part of the world to do an art project using a division of labor that would mirror and perhaps invert the one we see in current global trade; and building a website that would act as an exchange, archive, and curriculum generator for the emerging genre of Social Practice art.

These are just a few of the ideas that have been bubbling up following our digital scholarship workshop. Indeed, the most rewarding part of doing library digital initiatives is the opportunity to tap into the creative intellectual energy that abounds within a campus environment. We look forward to some of these initial meetings leading to future collaborative digital projects with the library.

10 years on

As I mentioned in a previous post, this retrospective piece I put together on Watzek Library afforded the opportunity to present some developments in the library over the last ten years. Some of the trends probably mirror those in other academic libraries:

The number of journals to which we have access expanded due to online aggregations of journals, while the cost of individual journal subscriptions rose substantially. Between books, periodicals, and online services (that is aggregated online resources like JSTOR or Lexis Nexis) online services grew the most as an expense category. If we see this shift continue, it could have big implications for our operations as the time it takes to manage big aggregations of electronic resources is much less than managing individual physical or electronic items. The general trend of aggregating supply of information resources could shake our foundations.

Visitors to the library were down by about 20% since 2001. Given the increase in online resources for research both library provided and on the open web, one could read this as a sign that our library building is still a vibrant place for study, events, gatherings, etc. It still certainly feels that way. So I'm looking at it as 80% full rather than 20% empty, but it does raise the question: are we getting the most we can of the space if its utilization is dropping somewhat?

Reference questions are down over the decade by over 50%. My interpretation here is that the mechanics of doing basic research have gotten simpler. Students can find a few articles on a topic without the kind of complexities that were required in the past thanks to full text, link resolvers, etc. At the same time, our one-on-one research consultation service is more popular as is library instruction sessions. Perhaps this reflects a more complex research environment or more ambitious student projects.

One interesting figure is our book checkouts. Despite the shift to electronic information in so many arenas, they have remained steady at about 90K per year over the decade. Activity on our Summit borrowing service, which gives us access to all major Northwest academic library book collections, increased by about 20% over the decade as that service expanded to include a much wider universe of materials. I think this reflects the continued primacy of the monograph in humanities research even at the undergraduate level. As we delve into e books more, we could see a shift, but we haven't yet.

Major growth areas for the library included Special Collections, digital initiatives and visual resources. These are just a few of the highlights from the report, which I won't post publicly since its a sort of internal working document.

Friday, January 21, 2011

what winter break?

As interim director, I was particularly relishing the prospect of winter break: a week and a half uninterrupted by any workplace distractions. My family took a vacation in Bend to get off the wet streets of Portland and into some real winter. Skiing, sledding, brewpubs and a hot tub all was part of the package. It was a great getaway, though I must say that introducing a 2 1/2 year old to winter sports with all the requisite gear is quite a handful. He liked the hot tub though. On my last day there, there was just enough time before check out for me and our dog Charlie to drive up to Wanoga Snopark and skate ski a couple laps with a breathtaking sunrise out over eastern Oregon as a backdrop. Since then, it's been back to reality.

That reality has involved two sizable projects both of which were due on January 13th. The first one was to come up with a report that identifies strengths, challenges, and potential future directions for our beloved Watzek for our faculty library/educational technology committee. This report was intended to inform our faculty and administration of possibilities for the library in light of the interim director situation in which we find ourselves in. Looking back over ten years was an interesting exercise and I hope to share more of it.

The second project was a digital scholarship workshop for faculty at Lewis & Clark. The library has been building a portfolio of digital projects, many faculty driven. I blogged about this phenomenon last spring. Our sponsored research officer and I put together this two hour session to bring new faculty into the fold and gauge interest in a bigger campus initiative around digital scholarship as we have seen at places like Hamilton and Occidental. We held the workshop on January 13th with something like 20 faculty (representing at least 12 academic disciplines in humanities and social sciences) and 9 academic staff on hand. Not bad for our little college.

There are other things on my mind as well, but these two initiatives have jump started my year.
Happy 2011.