When librarians are obstacles

Heading into the Open Ed Conference and especially the Mozilla Drumbeat Festival, I expected to be one of only a handful of librarians participating. Librarians haven’t been terribly involved or engaged with the open education movement, but our values and missions align so well that I expected to be welcomed by the professors and the edupunks as a peer and fellow traveller. Well, I got the first part right – I met only a couple of librarians all week – but the second, not so much. Imagine my surprise when the other two speakers in the session on libraries and the future of OER spent much of their time criticizing the ways in which librarians have engaged with open education, and lamenting the possibility of librarians being anything other than a liability.

Julià Minguillón, a computer science professor who spoke about digital preservation issues, described attempting to deposit an equation into his university library’s OER repository, only to be told that because his equation did not have a title, it could not be included in the collection. He then went on to criticize librarians’ obsession with the “useless” metadata of “author, title, date.” He argued that if we put librarians in charge of OER repositories (exactly the thing I argued for in my paper), we will sacrifice broad, immediate access in favor long-term preservation and proper metadata schemas.

R. John Robertson gave a paper about the role libraries can play in supporting OER initiatives but a significant portion of his presentation was given over to his concerns about librarian participation in this work. His experience with librarians is that they are so risk averse that the merest hint of a copyright issue is likely to send them running for the hills. Like Minguillón, he had anecdotes to back up his worries about librarians as obstacles in the field of open education.

In a word: Blergh! How did this happen? Why, despite biannual New York Times articles about how modern and hip librarians have become, are we still perceived on our own campuses as fearful impediments to progress?

Okay, I know why. Some librarians are fearful impediments to progress. Some librarians allow perfect metadata to be the enemy of good access. Some libraries, as institutions, do not foster innovation and experimentation, and are deeply resistant to change. It’s so disappointing.

It probably says something about the job I’ve had for the last year and a half that I see this primarily as a failure of management. On the plane to Barcelona I read a column by Meredith Farkas in American Libraries called “Nurturing Innovation: Tips for Managers and Administrators.” She offers a number of excellent suggestions for ways to adjust the institutional culture at libraries to support and embrace innovation: Encourage staff to learn and play, give staff time to experiment with potential new initiatives, keep an open mind, develop a risk tolerant culture. These suggestions kept coming back to me at Open Ed as I struggled to defend librarians and libraries against accusations of stodginess. I wanted to hand the article over to the people who complained about their uptight, change resistant libraries and say, “It doesn’t have to be this way. Go talk to your Dean. Make it better.” I also, in that way that sometimes happens, added one more suggestion to the list, thinking it was from Farkas but it’s from somewhere else, part of a theme that developed at Open Ed: Library administrators must make some room in their budgets for failure.

Innovation and progress can’t happen without failure. It’s how we learn, as individuals and as institutions and as species. Yes, library budgets are tight these days. Tighter than we ever thought they could get. With money so tight, and cuts so deep, it’s easy to think that now is not the time to take risks, but of course, now is exactly the time to take risks. How else will we prepared to address the challenges that await us in next year’s budget cycle, and the one after that, and the one 15 years from now?

To use one relevant example: The current commercial scholarly publishing apparatus is choking us. We know this. Knowing this, we have two choices: We can invest in activities that could ease the financial pressure – open repositories, deposit mandates, awareness campaigns – or we can choke. In this case, many libraries are experimenting, and sometimes those experiments even fail. As Farkas points out, when our experiments fail we still learn something valuable from them, something that can set us on a path to succeed the next time.

It’s not enough simply to encourage our staff to experiment. We need to give them money to play with, to set up a repository or buy a license to a promising tool or hire an expert to train staff in something new. It doesn’t have to be a lot of money, but it does have to be relatively free from strings. And then, we need to make sure our experimenting staff share what they’ve learned with colleagues in other libraries, the successes and the failures. It’s how we will all evolve.

So to wrap up this meandering post with a tidy bow: Higher education is changing, and our campuses are full of people (many of whom were at Open Ed and Drumbeat) experimenting with new models, tools, and philosophies related to teaching, learning, and research. The primary responsibility of academic libraries is to support teaching, learning, and research, and so those experiments and the people conducting them are highly relevant to us. We must make sure that we remain relevant to them. If they see us as an obstacle it is only a matter of time before we become obsolete. We want those experimenters and innovators to view the library as both a resource for and a partner in their work, and we can do that by funding innovation among our own staff, expanding our definition of the library’s role on campus, and embracing the possibility of failure. If we neglect to do these things, we don’t just risk becoming obsolete, we guarantee it.

31 thoughts on “When librarians are obstacles

  1. Many librarians just don’t venture outside the library often enough to gain a wider perspective on what it is they’re doing (or what else it is that they might be doing) Ask many a librarian, “What do you do for professional development?” and they’ll begin listing all the library conferences they attend. Until that changes, it will be an uphill battle. I applaud your idea of going to an Open Ed conference. My radical idea for today? I’d like to see library administrators begin reducing funding for anyone who just wants to go to yet another ALA or ACRL meeting. I suspect very little innovation is going to come out of those organizations.

  2. Blergh-worthy indeed. However, also blerghable is some faculty’s approach to copyright: full-on fingers in the ear “la la la la I can’t hear you” willful ignorance. Education is such a noble venture that pretty much anything short of armed robbery is OK if you call it fair use. I obviously don’t know the context of Robertson’s remarks, but I do have experience hand-wringing about what to do when I find an entire ebook copied chapter by chapter from a licensed collection and uploaded to a public course website. It’s actually not that hard to follow the rules. And between the library and the campus we have many tools available to help with that. But any perceived intrusion onto a faculty member’s academic freedom is met with the kind of sentiment you observed.

  3. Lots of great points. Having recently moved between two superficially-similar institutions, the differences in culture around innovation and risk-taking have been big surprises for me. While there are plenty of libraryfolk who are now & ever shall be obstacles in the way you describe, and there are the bleeding-edge early adopters (of concepts as well as technologies), I do think there is an untapped middle, and that a lot of folks in libraries are waking up to the possibilities, and moving (just slightly more slowly) towards the more uncertain world of innovative practices. Unfortunately, my impression is that many in the untapped middle are hampered by having permanently-obstacley administrators. Hoping that can change, too.

  4. @wallyg I like the idea of pushing librarians out of their comfort zones for networking and conference-going. Splitting my two work-supported trips between traditional and non has been working well. Last year I went to the Free Culture conference in DC, this year it will be Open Ed and then ACRL. The connections I make at those non-librarian conferences have been incredibly valuable, and I’ve been really lucky that I’ve never had a problem convincing my bosses to let me apply my travel funds to unconventional trips. Actually changing the funding incentives to encourage unconventional conference participation would be a bold move.

    @NS I think you’re right, the untapped middle is exactly the group we need to be going for. Those are the folks who are not obstacular (not a word) by nature, but because they have obstacular bosses and work under obstacular policies. The bleeding edge folks will always innovate, we couldn’t stop them if we tried, but the middle needs some nudging. The only way to get those folks to take risks and try new things is to make them feel supported by management.

  5. Well written and argues piece Ms. K.

    I agree with the general perception that libraries and librarians can be risk/change averse; it’s not too surprising to me given that they are charged with the protection and dissemination of society’s cultural heritage…taking your time when you have such a heavy responsibility is probably a good idea. Having said that, I fully agree with you that the library has a great potential to advance OER and open publishing in general. I think that we librarians should do more outreach, and make sure that faculty know the actual costs of the materials that they use.

    I am very hopeful that open publishing and OER will gain traction, even if I think they will do so incrementally. I’m really excited about for profit market based approaches like Flat World Knowledge. Maybe we at the library should help endeavors like those out?

  6. Hi Molly,
    great post!
    oops… it wasn’t my intention to talk more about obstacles than opportunities but I can see how I might have sounded like that. In part, I was trying to balance my paper, which hadn’t really considered the obstacles to librarian involvement and caution the audience (educators) that if they took this idea to their library, the library might not see connections or be interested in developing them, despite (from my perspective) some clear areas of cooperation (such as: info lit, resource description guidelines, IPR guidance). That said I left the session encouraged by the number of librarians in the session or who’d responded to the survey who were already engaged with OER, or who were interested in knowing more.

    I think librarians have key skills needed to help manage educational resources, particularly OER but, in comparison with to research resources, how they apply those skills requires a bit of a mind shift. Librarians are critical to the Open Access movement and I think they have a comparable, but different, part to play in Open Education.

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  8. As a librarian who worked on a failed digital archive project with a prof (because he didn’t want to deal with ANY metadata, archive structure, or conservation issues) I can say that there is another side to this problem. Maybe some librarians are *too* obsessed with long-term preservation and metadata, but it is our JOB, our ROLE, to bring those issues to the attention of the faculty, who often just want to plop things online with no strategy for its future maintenance and access. If you put an equation in an OER with no/little metadata, how would anyone find it?! We shouldn’t be intractable, but we are the experts in this field, and if we don’t help guide faculty as to the best way to do these projects, then why would we be involved in them at all?

  9. Valerie — I see (& agree with) your point that librarians have special expertise in metadata issues, and as such have a role in educating others about their importance. But I didn’t get the impression from this that the professor wanted to deposit an equation with no metadata. I got the impression that the professor wanted to deposit it but couldn’t because the librarians refused to unless it came with a boilerplate set of metadata — a set which didn’t make sense for the particular type of object he was trying to deposit. Mathematicians have very precise ways of describing mathematical objects and (as a math major) I suspect that, at a minimum, the professor could have supplied these, and at best he was keen on supplying them along with his equation. From his perspective, questions about the kind of metadata that you’d use for books would have appeared like needless roadblocks people were throwing in the way of his ability to deposit — questions which he not only didn’t have answers for, but which might not have answers at all, or ever be salient to practitioners in his field.

    I’m not really sure what to do with this tension. On the one hand, systematic metadata has certain benefits; on the other hand, different fields and types of objects have different metadata needs & conventions, and any given librarian is unlikely to be expert in more than a few (because that kind of expertise is not so much about metadata standards as it is about acculturation, and few of us have been acculturated into more than a handful of fields). But if these librarians were giving the patron the impression they were more interested in making him tick off a bunch of boxes than they were in archiving his data…that’s no good.

  10. The library profession, in general, does not do any applied R&D. Administration does not encourage it. Administration does not provide the resources for it. Librarians say they are too busy doing their “real” jobs and consequently they don’t have time for it. There are few, if any, rewards for doing research. Increasingly, the profession’s output is tied to computer technology. This smacks of science. Science requires the application of mathematics. Librarians, in general, don’t do math. These leaves the profession with humanities research. Humanities research is reflective, not progressive. Much of “library science” is about service — helping people. Much of “library science” is not about creating new knowledge but rather collecting, archiving, organizing, and disseminating old knowledge. The profession is stuck. –ELM

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  12. I’ve got to say, though, I have never had a project where the content provider was ever really happy with sketchy metadata once they see it in comparison to projects with rich metadata. “Why can’t we browse by date?” The other project provided individual dates for each journal issue, you didn’t. “Why don’t we have Table of Contents links?” Well, you didn’t provide page level metadata.
    There’s a point at which this all becomes a public service issue, and people always seem to want more than we provide.

  13. Andromeda: Molly’s post indicated that adding a title was the problem, so I’m going to add to Valerie’s and Chris Powell’s comments by noting that absent this, the only scenario I can come up with for how someone who is *not* Professor Minguillón could discover the equation is if he explicitly gave them the location in the OER. At which point, why not just send the equation?

    I always present working with an OER as a trade-off: It’s okay not to want or need long term preservation and access to a particular item. But if you do need those things, and want someone else to provide them for you, then a little metadata (author + title + date is indeed our minimum here at U-M) is the price you pay.

    It’s a fair price, and helps ensure that our OERs don’t fill up with valuable stuff nobody can identify and/or junk nobody wants. (The latter because, in my experience, some people hear OER and think “limitless free storage for stuff I don’t want to keep myself but can’t bear to throw away…even though I’ve forgotten what some of it is”.) I believe that the equation in question is something others want, so to make it useful the only thing that would have cost even a moment’s thought is title, since “Minguillón, Julià” and “2010″ are obvious, and took me 7 seconds to type. Even if it takes another minute or so to come up with and enter the title, that doesn’t strike me as too much to ask for that free storage, preservation, and access.

  14. Dspace, right? I agree that a lot of librarians get hung up on perfect. Our mantra with Joyner Library Digital Collections (http://digital.lib.ecu.edu) was “access to something is better than access to nothing” so we put thing up as soon as they are scanned with whatever metadata we can scrape together and then have an ongoing workflow of enhancing metadata. However, we are able to do this because we had the time and funding to build the thing ourselves and didn’t have to rely on a system we didn’t built that gave us requirements (like everything must have a title) that we don’t want.

  15. I am by no means a metadata-maven, by any stretch of the imagination. I’m actually far more concerned with the repository structure, because I’ve dealt with migration issues before, and I know that “quick and dirty” might mean you have fast, but temporary access, if you can’t feasibly move everything over to new formats/a new system. I think the upshot is that librarians have to learn to be a little flexible, but the profs and researchers have to learn to listen/respect our opinion on important issues. Compromises can be made, but all parties should at least understand what those compromises are going to actually mean in the wild (a la search capabilities, download times, streaming issues, server space, etc, etc).

  16. In springerLink, you can now search journals and ebooks by an equation or part of an equation. Yes, metadata helps discovery, but with the right search engine and a little imagination, it doesn’t have to be a requirement–and may not always be worth the candle.

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  18. A teaching opportunity was missed with the Math professor. Had you told him that bibliographic descriptions have a graph structure, and that name and date info served as links to separate name and date graphs (to improve discoverability), he would have been happy to comply.

    But the librarians would have to know that themselves. This is what some of us are trying to accomplish by clarifying the FRBR conceptual model.

  19. Dear all,

    I would like to make my position clear, as I think my message in OpenEd 2010 was not really understood, probably due to my limited English. I have to say that I enjoyed the discussion here, it is very useful to me.

    I would like using digital repositories to be a truly learning experience; by using taxonomies and better (more visual) user interfaces we can make our students to better understand how things are related one to each other. I want my students in the Statistics course to learn that Student’s t test can be used to compare two means. In this sense, learners will never use “title” or “author” or “publication date” when searching for examples about Student’s t test, for instance. And what about if we have fifty versions of the same exercise about the same concept, what would be their titles, “Exercise 1″, “Exercise 2″ and so? If we want to populate our repositories with small chunks of knowledge such as equations, raw data, definitions, exercises and so we need to rethink which metadata fields are mandatory and which aren’t.

    Of course I understand and appreciate librarian’s work. But, as a teacher, I don’t see why learning objects should follow the rules used for describing traditional documents such as books, articles and so. I know that in order to be OAI-PMH compliant we need such fields, but from my point of view the solution is improving OAI-PMH, not inventing titles and so.

    Best regards,

    Julià Minguillón
    UOC

  20. Nice post. Mostly rings true for my experience; I agree that risk aversion is an issue & we need room to fail. However, I’d also add that there are some systemic issues in academia (at least on my campus) that contribute to the image of librarians as “stodgy”. 1) librarians are often seen as staff, therefore in a non-faculty, non-administrative position: we are counted slightly above the janitors, secretaries & grounds crew, (& sometimes less because we can be so prickly & non-conformist.) 2) Success is measured differently for admin, faculty & staff: for example, on my campus, admin seem to be rewarded not for completing projects, but for thinking up new & cutting edge projects. It’s more in their interest to start something than to actually finish it. For staff, we are evaluated by what we finish. Problem: admin like giving staff more & more projects; staff can’t finish the projects they already have. It’s an inherent systemic problem. At some point we as librarians are forced to say: Stop! We can’t do another project! Hence, we look stodgy & backward-thinking, etc. etc. It’s win-win for admin, lose-lose for us. 3) Funding for staff is less than funding for admin or for faculty: we are given less to experiment with, providing us with further negative incentives.
    Of course not all campuses are like this; probably libraries that provide a tenure-track alleviate some of these issues. Those that don’t just exacerbate these conflicts.
    That is all…

  21. Thanks for jumping in, Julià! I shouldn’t have been surprised that so many commenters jumped on the metadata issue. You clarified your argument very well: It’s not that librarians should just give up on metadata altogether, it’s that we need to be flexible as we are faced with describing new and unfamiliar content types. I do think your message came across in your Open Ed presentation – it got lost when I tried to summarize here.

  22. I enjoyed your post and the comments.

    I understand the feeling of frustration as dealing with a library system brings up all the memories of frustration in dealing with librarians and archivists who stand between you and the text. The whole excitement of TAG’s was getting away from library rules and doing something more free flowing. Something I could do now rather than try and remember some set of rules.

    Now as the proud possessor of 1000′s of images, PDF’s and other electronic stuff I cannot remember where everything is or how to search it. Because computers cannot search my brain to remember what I tagged an image with on 5th April 2009 I loose access to information. I need a systematic structure for tagging don’t I.

    Which brings us back to the skills that Librarians and Archivists have in classifying things so that they can be retrieved (I even found an old Dewy manual for $0.50 which I got to help me!).

    It is the information skills that librarians offer that are critical to Julia being able to find her equation in five years time and better still understand why she wanted to file it.

    Iain

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  26. A teaching opportunity was missed with the Math professor. Had you told him that bibliographic descriptions have a graph structure, and that name and date info served as links to separate name and date graphs (to improve discoverability), he would have been happy to comply. But the librarians would have to know that themselves. This is what some of us are trying to accomplish by clarifying the FRBR conceptual model.

  27. @Jim: What I’m saying is the equation probably doesn’t have a title, and a title wouldn’t make it useful.

    Some equations and theorems have titles. There’s some biggies, like Stokes’ Theorem or the Cauchy-Schwartz inequality, that I would search for by their title. But most don’t. Seriously, I know my math major was a while ago and maybe I’ve forgotten some details, but even at the time I think I would’ve been hard-pressed to think of any significant number of equations with titles.

    And if I were looking for an equation — outside of those biggies — I wouldn’t use title to find it. I’d use field of mathematics and topic. So the title simply does not aid in access in most cases.

    (And — as you might have guessed from the above examples — if the equation *were* to be titled, it would be titled with the originator’s name anyway, so if you have author metadata the title is largely redundant.)

    So no, I don’t think an extra minute or two spent thinking of metadata to allow for access and use is too much to ask. But I think the metadata required should actually be relevant to access and use.

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