17 September 2013

Hack Library School... now a convenient eBook!

Hack Library School might be a derogatory name, or it may be an imperative statement.  Some might think it means library school is for hacks, letting us trade creativity for a steady paycheck; others will see it as an opportunity to deconstruct a required curriculum, allowing us to make something meaningful from an otherwise uninspired set of credentialing courses.  I prefer the the second take, because like any undertaking, the benefits from library school are largely equal to the effort put into library school.

The Hack Library School--a blog by and for library students, on the other hand, takes pride in both meanings.  They've also done us a great service by publishing the HLS Guide to Library School, which collects over 300 pages of advice for new and prospective librarians.  Beyond being full of good advice, this book does readers another favor.  It fills the "you don't need library school to do this job" niche (even though you DO need the library school credential to get the job), which means I won't bore you by trying to write that book.

21 August 2013

Book Review: The Great Dissent

Thomas Healy, The Great Dissent.  NY: Metropolitan, 2013.

Legislative history--the process of determining what a law was intended to mean--is generally very dull stuff: reading memos, committee reports, and testimony transcripts is only fun for the first few hours.  Healy, though, teaches law (at Seton Hall University), so he both knows how to do that sort of research, and how to make the work engaging.

Which is fortunate, because his subject is one of our most important laws: the first amendment to the United States Constitution, which guarantees our rights of expression, religion, and peaceable assembly.  While this law has been on the books since 1791, it was only in 1919 that we began to understand it as actually limiting the government's ability to prosecute people for what they say.  That we can now disagree openly about government policy or protest against its actions is directly due to a change in the way Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr, interpreted the words.

This book, unfortunately, comes too late.  By recounting one judge's evolution, occurring during the high communist paranoia after World War I, Healy shows the importance of this debate--and the importance of standing against governmental tyranny, something sorely lacking in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when fear of terrorism and the resulting Patriot Act chilled discourse; something we still struggle with as the NSA vacuums us every scrap of electronic data; something we traded for a false feeling of security.  Holmes' courage--to change his mind, to stand against the majority, and to support freedom over fear--should stand as an inspiration for us all, and Healy presents it as a readable political thriller.  This should be required reading in high school civics classes.

01 August 2013

Willingness to Return

Originally published in the ALLUNY Newsletter 38.2, August 2013

Spring means performance reviews at my firm, and reviews make me think about how we demonstrate our value as librarians.  My earliest columns looked at reference and usage statistics as a means of tracking our services, but these numbers seem to only address what we do, not how well we do.

That is a question only our users—clients, guests, patrons, and pests—can answer, and each might well give a different response.  None of them see the three hours’ digging it takes to find their answers—or the thirty seconds needed to navigate the correct database—but each has come to us with a problem, and each will leave with an impression of our skill—whether or not she leaves with the desired answer.  In fact, chances are good she won’t have the desired answer: some studies suggest that reference librarians ‘succeed’ only about half the time.  That feels like a lot of failure, even when the client understands that answers may not exist (if we’re lucky enough to have an understanding client).

How can we find success amid all the wrong answers?  Joan Durrance, one of my professors in library school, suggested a metric called ‘willingness to return’.  This is as simple as it sounds: is a client, upon completion of a reference interaction (‘successful’ or not), willing to come back to the same librarian with another request?

This question goes to the heart of our profession.  We act as information Sherpas, helping our clients navigate an otherwise unmanageable environment en route to a goal.  The desired path may be blocked; all routes to the summit might even be closed.  Our task is not to carry the client to the summit, but to show the path (and do most of the heavy lifting).  We cannot control the trip’s ultimate success, but we make our client’s success more likely, and our own success is a reflection of our client’s success—as we tell every new hire, we’re here to make you look good.  If the client sees our effort as a valuable contribution, she will likely ask us for help again—whether or not we were able to find what she wanted last time.  The return question, then, is our true measure of success, even if it doesn’t show up well on a performance review.

Further reading:

JC Durrance & KE Fisher, Determining how libraries and librarians help.  Library Trends, 2003

20 April 2013


Originally published in the ALLUNY Newsletter 38.1, March 2013

We recently received a copy of the latest Federal Security Laws of Municipal Bonds Deskbook.  But wait, there’s more! With each pBook (short for Physical Book or, for our purposes, ‘book’), the publisher also includes a FREE copy of the title as an eBook!  Which is nice, I suppose, but actually pretty useless to us in the library, unless I missed the Kindle packed in that box.

First, I have to point out that I like eBooks.  My iPad is full of free literature from Project Gutenberg, as well as beautiful eBooks from the Metropolitan Museum and NASA.  eBooks are easily portable, making it easy to carry a reference collection into any setting; they can do very interesting, otherwise impossible things, like bring in video files or interactive features like making notes or linking out to supplemental material; they can be (and are) instantly updated when new content becomes available.  I understand the benefits eBooks offer.

But for libraries, eBooks pose problems and do not offer solutions.  For starters, how do I lend an eBook?  The FREE copy I ‘received’ is device-specific: it can be downloaded to a single, particular electronic reader.  Where is the device to which it is to be downloaded?  That’s something we must supply, of course—meaning that, instead of a FREE copy, we must buy an expensive toy to use our material, which we can then lend.   eBooks are actually less valuable to us than database access to the same treatise titles, since our contract allows unlimited access, simultaneous access, and distributed access, as needed.

Perhaps we would prefer to keep our copy on a central server, to ‘check out’ or lend to various patrons as required, the way we would check out a print copy.  This is how eBooks work in public libraries; while that system still has obvious problems, such as arbitrary publisher limits on how often a copy may circulate, it is much closer to a usable model for libraries than the prior paragraph.  It also begins to consider an answer to the second problem eBooks present: how do I archive the material for future reference?

Oh, wait.  No one cares about archiving now, so being able to permanently retain a format-neutral copy on our in-house system doesn’t matter, does it?  Who would keep a print copy on the shelf, after all?  How could that ever be useful?

In addition to long-term preservation, books have an advantage as discrete physical objects that can be disaggregated from the collection and used individually, simultaneously, and in various locations.  They are easy to study, and to lend, as parts rather than as a whole: no one monopolized the entire collection by borrowing a volume of the NY Jur 2d.

In short, the benefits of eBooks accrue to two groups, neither of which is the library: the convenience and productivity features benefit eBook readers, while their potential for high profit margins thanks to low physical production and distribution costs benefit publishers.  That no efforts to benefit libraries have been made leads to the conclusion that our vendors prefer to sell to individual attorneys, rather than to libraries.  This forces each attorney to buy a copy of each title, rather than share a copy as needed.  As librarians, we should not abdicate our curatorial role, especially as this scheme is intended to make our clients spend more, with no bottom-line benefit.

Note:  The day this column was due, I received a message from the publisher announcing their new partnership with Overdrive to establish an eBook lending platform.  Perhaps our concerns are overblown, or already being addressed--I certainly hope so.  A better policy for the publisher, though, would be to express intentions BEFORE rolling out new processes, rather than trying to explain what's happening once it has begun.  A recording of the presentation is available here.