Tuesday, February 19, 2013

You Build A Library with Books

Back in December I was returning by train from Toronto where I had just spent the day at the 2012 Scholars Portal Day and keeping in the spirit of the day, decided to participate in my first #libchat on Twitter.

I got some curious replies to my answer to the evening's second question (above) and so I resolved to take some time in the future to expand what I meant by my admittedly pithy statement.  But I need to unpack some thoughts before we take that trip.

We are in a moment of time in which the number of librarians being hired is steadily dropping and yet, if I may glom on a passage that is not about librarians, but of humanities scholars, which may or may not include librarians, depending on your inclination...

this so-called crisis comes at a moment in which highly-trained humanities scholars are in fact most needed. They are needed to help grapple with the wholesale digital transformation of our cultural heritage. They are needed to help organize and preserve and begin to interpret the deluge of born-digital data that will form the primary material for scholars of art, literature, and history for years to come [too small too fail]

Why aren't librarians more of a presence at science conferences? Why aren't we in strong numbers at first year experience, composition conferences, or future of publishing conferences? [hat tip LSW]

Why are the only libraries represented at O'Reilly's Strata (the "making data work" conference) are only ones of code?

Why aren't librarians being hired in workplaces where the cost of not being able to find necessary information has been recognized and even quantified?

Studies by IDC, as well as organizations such as the Working Council of CIOs, AIIM, the Ford Motor Company and Reuters have found that:
  • Knowledge workers spend from 15% to 35% of their time searching for information.
  • Searchers are successful in finding what they seek 50% of the time or less...
  • 40% of corporate users reported that they can not find the information they need to do their jobs on their intranets....
  • Some studies suggest that 90% of the time that knowledge workers spend in creating new reports or other products is spent in recreating information that already exists

It's now largely recognized that we can never return to a world of information scarcity and that to protect and nurture ourselves that we all need to be net-smart and develop strong and ethical information filters.

So why isn't this a golden age for librarians?

I'd like to put forward one reason why is this the case.

It's the tools we use.  No one else uses them. And that's a problem.

I have a colleague who has a rule that one should - if possible -  only invest the time and effort to learn programming languages and software that has at least one O'Reilly "animal cover" book dedicated to it.  As a professional who has wasted hundreds of hours having to develop web pages using Lotus Notes Domino Designer, and in doing so, suffered a massive opportunity cost of not learning and keeping up to date with web standards and practices (until only recently - thank you Drupal!) let me tell you that there is much hard-earned wisdom embedded in that rule.

No software is an island. The strength of software lies in the strength of the community of developers who animate the code and bring it to life.  Island biogeography is a risky long-term strategy.

The library software community is not very big and not very strong. Just over two weeks ago another library software company was bought out by venture capitalists, one that includes a a former managing director of Bain Capital. When I said in November that the library profession uses technology like the Republican Party, I didn't think these words would end up being so literal.

And now a confession. I am no longer impressed by the work of talented, well-meaning librarians who spend hours and hours of effort wrestling with shabbily documented APIs and resort to even screen-scraping in order to turn the interfaces of shabby library software into something usable for non-librarians.  Here is my hard earned wisdom to share:  your development work is for naught.

Commercial library software is not based on iterative improvements.  The business model of library software is entirely based on vendor lock-in. Vendors only spend money on software development where the contracts are up and there's an alternative around.  All those things your staff complained about over the last five years? Fixed in this new version!

(Non-commercial ILS systems are based on iterative improvement based on open systems. The skills that you learn by managing them can be used elsewhere.  That publishers are sponsoring development in such systems is a really interesting and positive (err) development in this space).

True to their business model, most of the library software vendors are now selling what are known as URM systems (because their previous iteration as ERMS like Ex-Libris' Verde, didn't go over so well). These systems essentially do away with the library catalogue as we know it, and replace it with 'integrated to the point that they cannot be separated' discovery layer, the backend, the resolver and license records and put them all on one of their servers along with all of your records of library's collection and your patrons.

What could possibly go wrong?

In Canada, our National Library and Archives are being burned down by the Harper government. It is entirely plausible that our academic library system - especially the larger universities in these systems -might only remain to preserve our culture for our future.  We cannot outsource that responsibility.

We don't have to invest in our the library equivalent of Lotus Notes. We don't have to bet against the Internet. We can have open systems like Evergreen or Kuali OLE.  We can connect our systems and solve our pressing workflow issues by using the tools that non-library world uses such as Google App Scripting.

There are all sorts of tools we can use to solve our library's day to day work.

Just look through the O'Reilly book catalogue and see. Their publishing choices are based on evidence based trends that they discern from the book market.

I would love to see our future libraries built with the knowledge from books.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Chilling Effect and Banned Books Week

When you can find ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ readily available at your local grocery or drugstore, do we even need to worry about the Freedom to Read anymore?


In the United States, every September, a week is set aside to celebrate the freedom to read. This year Banned Books Week will run from September 22-28th. Banned Books Week is sponsored by the American Booksellers Association; American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression; the American Library Association; American Society of Journalists and Authors; Association of American Publishers; Comic Book Legal Defense Fund; the Freedom to Read Foundation; National Coalition Against Censorship; National Council of Teachers of English; National Association of College Stores; PEN American Center and and Project Censored.  It is endorsed by the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress.

In Canada, we celebrate Freedom to Read Week and this year it runs from February 24th to March 2, 2013. The event is sponsored by The Freedom of Expression Committee of Canada’s Book and Periodical Council, "the Umbrella Organization for Writing and Publishing in Canada." At the moment, there are two librarians on this committee from the Canadian Library Association:: Jane Pyper, Toronto City Librarian and Alvin Schrader, a Professor at the School of Library and Information Studies, University of Alberta.

The Freedom of Expression Committee has a Position Statement on the Freedom of Expression and the Freedom to Read. The Canadian Library Association has a Position Statement on Intellectual Freedom. Both are prefaced with a reference to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which states, as Fundamental Freedoms

Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms:

    1. freedom of conscience and religion;
    2. freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;
    3. freedom of peaceful assembly; and
    4. freedom of association.

What’s interesting are the differences in the choice of language between these two position statements.  

The first paragraph of The Canadian Library Association’s Policy statement on Intellectual Freedom is framed around every Canadian’s fundamental right to intellectual freedom. What follows is a brief outline of the responsibilities of librarians in support of these rights:

Libraries have a basic responsibility for the development and maintenance of intellectual freedom.

It is the responsibility of libraries to guarantee and facilitate access to all expressions of knowledge and intellectual activity, including those which some elements of society may consider to be unconventional, unpopular or unacceptable. To this end, libraries shall acquire and make available the widest variety of materials.

The first paragraph of The Book and Periodical Council’s position statement, on the other hand, is framed against the suppression of writing and the silencing of writers. But what I find very interesting is the their deference to the courts alone in the second paragraph on who decides our right to read.

The freedom to choose what we read does not, however, include the freedom to choose for others. We accept that courts alone have the authority to restrict reading material, a prerogative that cannot be delegated or appropriated. Prior restraint demeans individual responsibility; it is anathema to freedom and democracy.

I find this language quite interesting because at the moment, there is very important story that is still unfolding of a publisher who is using the Ontario Court System to suppress a librarian's freedom of expression. Edwin Mellen Press has filed two suits for libel and damages of over $4 million against Dale Askey, a librarian, for expressing his professional opinion about the quality of Edwin Mellen publications.

Dale Askey was a librarian at another university in the United States when he posted a blog post with his opinions on the press, which complicates the story. But what remains abundantly clear is the publisher in question is trying to suppress speech that it does not want others to hear. First it tried to employ pressure upon Dale Askey’s employer, McMaster University,  to force him to remove the post in question. When that failed, the publisher launched a libel and damages lawsuit again both parties. They are employing what is known as the chilling effect:  

In a legal context, a chilling effect is the inhibition or discouragement of the legitimate exercise of a constitutional right by the threat of legal sanction. The right that is most often described as being suppressed by a chilling effect is the right to free speech [Wikipedia]

I support Dale Askey and have signed the petition demanding the Edwin Mellen Press drop their lawsuit.  I am also working within other my institution and other institutions to find ways to lend  support to our colleague.

I have also dedicated myself to writing short profiles dedicated to librarians and library staff who stood up against forces that would curb freedom of expression and the freedom to read. These posts, like the one you are reading, are will be in the Creative Commons, if you would like to reuse them if you library is celebrating Banned Books Week at the end of the month. I’m hoping to get them finished by then. 

I think it's important that we tell our side of the story.