Tuesday, April 12, 2011

What is the relationship status between The Digital Humanities and The Digital Library?

Last week I read Bethany Nowviskie's what do girls dig? with a certain deju all over again feeling...

What follows from the comments of her original tweet and subsequent blog post is the start of a guarded conversation about gender, technology and academia.

Unfortunately, this conversation is one that librarians are all too well-acquainted with

(image has been edited)

It's not uncommon for technology-based library conferences to have a slate made up of mostly men even as they still make up only a minority within the profession as a whole (except for administration, natch). What's particularly disturbing is that there is an upcoming non-technology themed symposium on the Future of the Academic Libraries that has only 3 out of 21 speakers being women.

Gender and technology and the academy. It's a relationship that's... complicated.

And now, I'm going to complicate matters a whole lot more. * deep breath *

Not only is the Future of the Academic Library symposium problematic for its unabashed disregard to uphold McMaster University's formally established commitment to equity, it also draws another shadow for being organized by a University Librarian who has recently fired two librarians, set up the early retirement of five more and has recently gone on on record that it was likely that no more librarians would be hired, librarians would be moved out of supervisory roles, and the work of the library would largely be performed by IT staff and postdocs.

Not surprisingly, librarians are furious that they are being destroyed from within by their own leadership.

But I would like to know is what do the people from the Digital Humanities think of what is happening at McMaster University.

Personally, I believe that the growth of the digital humanities does not have to occur at the expense of librarianship and I take comfort that I know that I am not alone in this assertion. In fact, one of the reasons why I have been following and being involved in the field is that it provides a space where conversations about the work itself can sometimes come before introductions and titles.

Besides, the digital humanities and librarianship share many of the same values and grapple with many of the same issues. We work to understand and expand the human record. We strive to provide effective and caring teaching, online and off. We work toward making our work public and for the public. There's aforementioned fault line of technology and gender. And the Digital Humanities also struggle with  issues related to status from being alternative-academics and not "real" faculty.

Just yesterday, I met with the Head of the Humanities Research Group with a group proposal for a short digital humanities summer series to be hosted by the library. When I said I was not Dr. Williams, but Ms. Williams, the response was a smile and that it was good thing that I wasn't an academic, as becoming so would make me moldy. There are *so* many ways that I could unpack that statement but let's leave it at this:  recent events at McMaster University demonstrate that there is a struggle about who gets to decide what work has value in the academy.

Lane Wilkinson has a written a great post about the conflict between phds and librarianship and it's being well-received for good reason. Still, I believe that there is more to this issue that remains largely unsaid. The Council of Library and Information Resources sponsors the postdoc program a McMaster University Librarian describes as "the best thing we've done in the four years I've been in here". We need to ask ourselves how librarians can complement and extend the work of the humanities without the profession being destroyed in the process.

That all being said, I hope that the role of gender doesn't get entirely lost in the conversation just because it's complicated.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Cassandra and the future of libraries without librarians

If you are a young man and you are clever, poised, articulate and full of promise, you are called a 'golden boy'  and everyone knows what that phrase means. If you are a young woman, wise beyond your years and able to see the best course of action for the future of your community, well, you don't exist because there is no equivalent cultural description for you in the English language. The closest I can come up with is this: Cassandra.

On that note, let me tell you a future.  It's a future of academic librarianship.

There once was a golden boy who became the University Librarian of McMaster University. He promised transformational change for the University Library and he followed through on his promise. He fired two librarians and set up the early retirement of five more. He then went on record that it was unlikely that no more librarians would be hired, librarians would be moved out of supervisory roles, and the work of the library would largely be performed by IT staff and postdocs.

And the conditions that made this scenario possible at McMaster are the same conditions that exist in almost every other academic library today.

The first reason why this de-professionalization is possible elsewhere is because in many universities, librarians do not have tenure or they are not unionized. Those who are in unions are not necessarily in the same union as faculty, and thus, hold less bargaining power. Those librarians who are in the same union as faculty are still not ultimately responsible for the library as library departments are not formalized like academic departments in the university governance structure (for example, in my own institution, the University Librarian Administrative Council acts like a department but is officially only an advisory body to the University Librarian). In other words, you can be an academic librarian with tenure and in the faculty union and you still might be fired.

The second reason why a library without librarians is possible at a campus near you is due to the disruptive nature of the digitized human record. The majority of the online material made available by academic libraries is now largely licensed through large contracts signed by members of library administration. Instead of acquiring and processing many individual periodical titles selected and curated by a librarian, the entire suite of titles from a publisher is licensed through a provincial or national consortium. Books selected for the library collection are still hand-picked but a future in which ebooks are acquired en masse with a payment made by a single signature is altogether possible. Furthermore, the work of the building and maintaining The Digital Library is, by and large, being outsourced to companies such as Proquest, as academic libraries collectively spend millions on products like Summon.

A third reason why librarians may become a endangered species is that the library is a cost centre that is paid for through the goodwill by the communities they serve. If your campus believes that the presence of librarians are not essential to the maintenance and growth of the academic library, then it doesn't matter how many librarians from other institutions howl in indignation about the travesty of it all.

What is to be done?

Well, I'm not Cassandra so I don't know. But I do have some ideas.

First and foremost, we need to support the librarians of McMaster. If you have the pleasure of meeting one, give them a lollipop* or buy them a beer. And if you are planning to attend the now doubly egregious The Future of Academic Libraries Symposium, you might want to ask some pointed questions about the future of librarians in the future of libraries.

Secondly, we must ensure as academic librarians, that our work become more public, more widely used and re-used, more deeply connected to the lives of our students and faculty, and that the work we do embodies the values of the best of librarianship, scholarship, and community.

And lastly, we need to recognize that the future of academic librarianship depends on strong leadership that is committed to librarians. I'm very fortunate that at my place of employment that I have a library administration that champions the work of librarians on campus. Still, if you are committed to the higher ideals of librarianship, you damn well better grab the brass ring lest it falls into the wrongs hands again.

On that note, I want to thank Amy Buckland for ringing the alarm and I especially want to thank Jenica Rogers for demonstrating tremendous leadership by calling out the unthoughtful actions of Jeff Trzeciak publicly.

* This is an inside joke between myself and adr. I don't mean to sound flippant.