A change in direction

Two weeks ago, I quit my job at the University of Michigan Library after five great years. This week, I started a new life as a doctoral student at the University of Michigan’s Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education. This site was pretty dormant during my last two years working in library administration, so I’m not sure who reads it anymore besides the people who come for Creative Commons attribution guidance, but I figured it was worth documenting this life change here anyway. Especially since I expect to have all kinds of new and exciting reasons to post in the future. In my last position in library administration there wasn’t nearly so much that I could write about publicly, or that I thought would be interesting to the wider world. I hope that won’t be the case now that I’m a shiny new student full of wonder and excitement and ideas I’ll one day be embarrassed to have published on the internet.

All week in classes and at orientations people have been asking us to explain why we are in this program, and what our research interests are. I expect lots of people who know me already may be wondering the same thing. The answer I keep giving is that I’m in this program because I saw something that was broken in higher education – the system of scholarly and educational publishing – and I felt like I couldn’t fix it from my position as a librarian, approaching the problem one interaction at a time. I wanted to be able to approach it from a place where I might be able to make a bigger impact, at the level of organizational, institutional, and governmental policy, and to do that I was going to need to learn a whole lot more about universities, systems, incentives, statistics, economics, research methods, sociology, psychology, and on and on. I needed to go back to school.

So here I am. At the moment, I feel like an insect between shells. I was in Washington D.C. during the great cicada bloom of 2004, and I remember hearing on NPR that the cicadas are very vulnerable and tender (and delicious) right after they have emerged from their nymph skins, before their new exoskeletons have a chance to develop. That’s how I feel right now (minus the delicious). I’ve shed the safety of a profession I still identify with quite strongly, but I haven’t formed the comforting exoskeleton of the new one yet. The shared culture and language and practice of this new field is foreign to me. I have a pat one-paragraph explanation for why I’m here, but I’m hyper conscious of the fact that my interests are likely to change several times throughout the course of the program, and also, I’m not always convinced that my reason is not terrible (I appear to have mastered imposter syndrome right out of the gate). Being a full-time student again feels a bit like being demoted, especially in a college town where I’m still sometimes mistaken for an undergrad.

But I’m really excited anyway. My professors are excellent, my cohort is excellent, and I’m getting paid to read and learn all day. Speaking of which, I have a couple more chapters to get through for tomorrow…

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.

Defining Open Access. Again.

Next week is Open Access Week, and as has become my tradition, I will be traveling to another university (actually, two universities this year) to give presentations on copyright, scholarly publishing, Creative Commons and open access. This morning I ran into my former copyright professor. We got to chatting, he asked what I’ve been up to, and I mentioned my busy Open Access Week. My professor, as he is fond of doing, asked a good question.

“So, what does ‘Open Access’ mean when you talk about it?”

Flustered, I said something about how the organizers of international Open Access Week tend to focus on the classic definition and scope of OA, meaning peer-reviewed scholarly articles available for free online, preferably with open licenses attached. I also explained that the institutions I visit for Open Access Week tend not to have much expertise about copyright or publishing, and so rather than talk about Open Access what I actually do is teach a basic introduction to copyright and scholarly publishing. That’s all true, but it didn’t really do justice to the question. The definition of open access, and more importantly the public understanding of what open access means, was never terribly clear, but lately it seems to be getting fuzzier. That’s what my professor was really asking about.

As more and more open movements have sprouted and expanded over the last few years – open peer review, open education, open government – it gets harder and harder to tease them apart. Open means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, and we can’t assume that a roomful of people who care about openness care about the same thing. Chances are they really really don’t.

Within the Open Access movement alone there are a growing number of tactics for achieving openness, not to mention a gradual loosening of the requirements for labeling something open. On the tactics front, we have the Compact for Open Publishing Equity, flourishing institutional repositories, deposit mandates from both funding bodies and research institutions, and good old fashioned outreach to faculty. As for loosening requirements, we have been conflating Open Access with Free Online Access for years. Things got even muddier when publishers like Springer and Elsevier started offering the “Open Choice” publishing option, which gives authors the “opportunity” to pay several thousand dollars to make their work freely available online. The other night a friend of mine mentioned that she and her co-authors were given several different options from their publisher, all confusing; she knew she wanted the one that would make their work free to everyone, but wasn’t confident she could identify which option would do that. She just told her co-author to look for the one that had open in the name, and hoped she was right. It’s all a far cry from the Budapest definition.

Is it bad, this watering down of Open Access? Certainly it makes it harder to talk about. It makes it harder to brand and market. But nobody owns open. That’s the whole point. Despite the fragmentation and confusion, ultimately I think it’s probably going to be better for the public and better for our future to have lots of people approaching the problem of how to improve access to knowledge and scholarly output from lots of different angles. Names and definitions are useful for raising awareness and building community, but the ultimate goal of the open access movement is to make itself and its definitions obsolete. If this movement succeeds eventually we won’t need to distinguish between open scholarship and closed scholarship. It will all be scholarship, and it will all be accessible.

Personal update: New job, same library

I’ve been terribly slow in updating here recently (Blogs are dead! Long live Twitter!), but I wanted to announce that I started a new job at the University of Michigan Library in May, and am no longer the Library’s copyright specialist. My new title is Special Assistant to the Dean of Libraries. It’s a fancy title, eh? I’m still figuring it out what it means, but so far it includes a whole range of things: I work directly with Dean Paul Courant on assorted projects, especially research and writing relating to scholarly publishing; I attend administrative meetings; I serve as a liaison between the Library’s administration and the rest of the Library; I manage the annual budget writing process; I write first drafts of all kinds of documents; I attend more meetings. The easiest way I can explain it is that this job is like being an administrator-in-training. I get to observe library administrators in action, I take on responsibility for assorted projects related to administration, and over time I’ll learn how to do what administrators do. I feel very lucky to be doing this job at this library, and it’s been pretty exciting so far.

So what does this mean for this blog? I hope to get back to it and post a bit more regularly. I still plan to focus on copyright and scholarly publishing because those topics remain important and interesting to me, but I may also write about other issues in academic libraries as my new role develops and I start branching out into other areas. Outside of the U-M Library my work in the area of scholarly communications continues: I’m still a member of ALA’s Copyright Advisory Network, and this summer I’m also an instructor for ACRL’s Scholarly Communications 101 Roadshow. Occasionally people who find me through this blog send me questions or invite me to speak about Creative Commons or copyright instruction, and I still welcome those questions and invitations and will do my best to answer them promptly and accept as often as I can.

Thank you to everyone who has been reading this over the last year and a half for your insightful comments and questions. I hope this new era in my professional life provides fodder for more interesting discussions here and elsewhere.

Why Google’s dominance doesn’t bother me that much

A few weeks ago, I gave a guest lecture in a class on intellectual property and information law (SI 519) at Michigan’s School of Information, a class in which I was a student just a few years ago. The Google Book Search settlement had just been announced, so my original plans for talking about the various ways copyright is an issue for libraries got derailed and we spent much of the class talking about Google. I got kind of impassioned about how much good I think will come out of Google’s library partnerships. I also gave the students a bit of my personal history as it relates to the Google project and my attitude towards it: I used to work at a literary agency, and when I first heard about the project I thought it sounded like massive copyright infringement. I couldn’t get over my concern for the beloved authors whose interests I was in the habit of looking out for. A few weeks in SI 519 and my mind was changed forever.

A couple days after my guest lecture, I heard from a student in the class who was troubled by Google’s power, particularly in the area of secrecy, and she asked me to explain to her what made me feel so comfortable with such a powerful corporate monopoly. She wanted me to change her mind like my mind had been changed. I haven’t asked her for permission to reprint her email so I won’t, but I put a lot of time and energy into my response, and I realized it might be worth sharing here. Most people I know have mixed feelings about Google, and this email basically outlines my current thinking on the topic.

Here’s my reply, slightly edited for clarity:

Hi [Student],

If you feel that the problem with Google is 1) secrecy and 2) potential monopoly, then I don’t think I’ll be able to make an argument that would change your mind.

When the Google Library Project was first announced, the major focus in the press, and for me, was on copyright law. The project seemed to me like massive and systematic copyright infringement, and so I was opposed to it. After a few weeks in Jack Bernard’s SI 519, I became convinced that it wasn’t copyright infringement, that it was a fair use, and that it also had the potential to contribute enormously to the public good, which is one of the foundational goals of copyright law. That’s the issue on which my mind was changed.

Is Google huge and powerful? Yes. Is Google extraordinarily secretive? Yes. Does Google’s business model have large and potentially negative implications for privacy? Yes. But these things just don’t bother me as much as they bother a lot of people. While I haven’t given it a whole lot of thought, I think what it comes down to for me is that Google got to where it is by being better than everyone else and by innovating more. When Google started out in the search business there was plenty of competition, but Google’s product was head and shoulders above everything else in the field and so Google dominated. It didn’t employ anti-competitive practices like Microsoft, and it didn’t weasel its way to the top with government favoritism like Enron or Halliburton. It was just better. And I’m very uncomfortable with punishing a company for being better and more innovative than its competitors.

If an individual is uncomfortable with Google’s capabilities, then that person can choose not to use Google products. Google may end up with a monopoly on digitized out-of-print in-copyright book content, but there are still options for just about everything else one could want to do on the web, including email, search, maps, blogs, news, and shopping.

So as I said, I doubt we’ll be able to change each others’ minds. I’ve encountered many people who feel the way you do about Google, and we’ve never convinced each other of anything. I love Google because its products make my life better, and they’re all free. Furthermore, I believe that Google’s investment in development and innovation has produced a net benefit for society. I understand that Google’s power means it might have the capacity to do bad things, but that’s not the same as doing bad things.


That’s what I think. What do you think?