Are Libraries “Vanity Projects”?

Recently, Greta Van Susteren, formerly of Fox News, used her Twitter account to provoke controversy and remind viewers she’s not done yet.  She tweeted, “Colleges should stop building vanity projects like huge libraries and billing students-full libraries are on our smartphones!”  This seemed straightforward enough in that she was ranting against new library buildings.  After the inevitable twitterstorm, she, as those in the news when caught with an inconvenient comment like to say, “clarified” in this manner: “You all missed the point: I am not against libraries but building most new bldgs.[sic]; use what we have and not pass new costs to students.”

The story doesn’t end there as she continued to add and clarify and obfuscate.  As one who has, for the last sixteen years, been trying to usher in a new library building on this campus, it might be helpful to try to explain to Ms. Van Susteren—and those who agree with here—why new library buildings are not vanity projects.

Ms. Van Susteren’s comments are like deja vu all over again.  In the early 2000s when we began to discuss in earnest with our legislature a new library building, one opponent said, much like Ms. Van Susteren, that we didn’t need new libraries because now we could simply ‘zap’ books from one place to another.  As this was during the infancy of the Web, I replied with an article trying to explain the differences.

The article proved so popular that I followed it up with a shorthand poster.  An editor asked for a fuller discussion and so I supplied it.  As time went on and the Web matured, it became important to update the article, the poster and the book, which I did.  Of course, not everyone agreed then or agrees now, and obviously Ms. van Susteren doesn’t.

So, are libraries vanity projects, and smartphones all we need?

I doubt Ms. Van Susteren has been around many college or university libraries recently.  With rare exception, these buildings are twenty, thirty and, as in our case, more than forty years old.  It’s important to understand that age and why it’s important.  In the case of a warehouse, a forty-year-old building housing only spare parts might not be too old.  But in library-years, so to speak, a forty-year-old building is ancient.  I like to remind people that in 1980, businesses spent zero dollars on automation.  By 1990, that cost had soared to over one billion annually.  This factoid is important because those are roughly the same years that libraries experienced both a phenomenal rise in costs and an equal rise in the increase in computers in their buildings.

The Web has certainly matured and has a great deal to offer. It’s perfect for looking up a forgotten fact, a person of note, or what is generally referred to as common knowledge (e.g. the distance the earth is from the sun).  But even granting this no small glory, it has precious little in the way of peer reviewed, scholarly articles, Google Scholar and Google Books notwithstanding.  While open access may well change all that (and libraries are embracing OA as fast as they can), no one person can afford to access scholarly materials outside of an academic library.  Moreover, while most things are going digital and thus reducing the number every year, there is still an enormous amount of print materials that libraries provide that are not on the Web for whatever reason.

Meanwhile, libraries in forty year old buildings are trying to update their spaces for 21st century students.  Doing so does not come cheap.  I imagine that if Ms. Van Susteren were asked to work the news in a forty year old television studio, she would laugh hysterically.  It couldn’t be done, she’d argue.  Likewise, trying to repurpose library buildings built with the mentality then governing library architecture forty years ago, is no easy task, and neither is it cheap.  When we repurposed the main floor alone in Dacus, the cost was just short of one million dollars.

I would be the last person to argue that higher education needs to get any more costly.  I have argued against rising costs in other places, criticizing what at some institutions certainly appear to be extravagances in dorms, centers, and athletic complexes.  But the library, the cynosure of intellectual activity on campus (or so it is often said), is surely one place that should be funded reasonably well, both in terms of materials and surroundings.  The vanity, if present at all, is human knowledge.

Smart devices are certainly helpful.  But to those just getting used to research at a much higher level than high school, something more than a smart device that can find all sorts of both good and dubious materials in nanoseconds is needed.  Students are going to have to resort to the library to get a really solid education.  Don’t misunderstand me.  I’m no Luddite, nor do I have anything but awe and admiration for the Web.  But arguing that we can dispense with libraries because we can always check our phones is either forcibly naive, grossly simplistic, or both.  To argue that libraries are unnecessary because we have smartphones is as silly as arguing that feet are unnecessary because we now have shoes.

Do we think libraries are vainglorious today because all our ideas are only 140 characters long or can be contained in our pockets?  I hope not.  If that’s all our culture is then it may not deserve something as grand as a library after all.  No, I believe our culture is more significant than that and too big to fit in a mobile device — nor should it.  It needs room to spread out because it captures the collective of our civilization.  Someday we may be ready to jettison the Patience and Fortitude of our ancestors, the so-called library-lions that guard the entrance to the New York Public Library.  When we do, let’s choose a worthy equal, not a popular but weak ersatz.  Some say it takes a village to raise a child.  If true, then surely it takes more than a text or two, more than a bit or a byte, to preserve our education, our culture, our civilization.

Perhaps it hurts our narcissistic Web-based age to hear it, but libraries have never been about you or me, about only books and magazines exclusively.  What has made libraries last until now, and I hope forever, is that they are about us: the very best of us, when we shine in our shared greatness in the creation, pursuit, and acquisition of knowledge.


Open Access Week: The ‘Disastrous System’ of Scholarly Communication

“Reduced to its essentials,” wrote Robert Darnton, one-time Harvard librarian, in a New York Review of Books essay, “it goes like this:

[W]e academics devote ourselves to research; we write up the results as articles for journals; we referee the articles in the process of peer reviewing; we serve on the editorial boards of journals; we also serve as editors ( all of this unpaid, of course); and then we buy back our own work at ruinous prices in the form of journal subscriptions–not that we pay for it ourselves, of course; we expect our library to pay for it, and therefore we have no knowledge of our complicity in a disastrous system.

So, how did we get to this point?

For more years than any librarian cares to remember, libraries have been paying though the nose for scholarly communication, or rather their institutions have.  In the glory days of academic libraries, now more than sixty years ago, libraries had small budgets, but the cost of scholarly communication–books, journal articles, newspapers, etc.–was also small. In the fifties, sixties and even the early seventies, libraries often bought just about everything faculty said they needed.  Moreover, students  could also make requests and those were generally met as well.

But those were the days of $20 periodicals, the days of books that cost at most $15 each, and when entire sets of encyclopedias could be had for under $500.  Those were the days, my friends, and most of us around for those days really did think they’d never end.

But by the late seventies, they did begin to end, and by the eighties, they were unraveling faster than anyone could have imagined.  Today, academic libraries are lucky if they can afford only half of what they need.  Libraries share part of the blame. Those of us who work in them were blindsided by the skyrocketing costs.  When we did notice, no one else did.  The very few ears we could hold simply could not believe what we were saying: increases of 100, 200 and even 500%.  Surely, we were kidding. Alas, we were not.

Part of the blame, too, rests with faculty.  Publish or perish became the byword of the day, and faculty outvied one another to get in the most prestigious of journals, whatever their cost.  Of course,faculty wanted those journals in the library, too, and so librarians bought them.  Tenure and promotion committees didn’t help as they often granted either only for those faculty who published in the most prestigious (and often the most costly) journals.  When it became clear that libraries could no longer afford this  model, everyone was ‘in blood stepped in so far that, should [we] wade no more, returning were as tedious as going o’er.’

But then this thing called the Internet appeared, and it seemed it might well be the answer. Costly print journals that also cost even more to process and keep on a shelf gave way to electronic ones. Of course, ‘publishing’ an electronic journal cost virtually (pun intended) nothing and therein was the rub.  What had become the cash cow for many publishers might well have dissolved overnight.  But publishers, the last in this gang of three, being enterprising and bright, came up with the idea of the big deal: offer libraries hundreds of journals but at an aggregated cost.  Honestly, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

For example, during the print heyday of Dacus, we offered about 3,500 journals.  Today, students have access to more than 30,000.  More is better, right?  More also means more money, too.  Over the last fifteen years, our materials budget has doubled to just over one million dollars. It increases on average about 7.5% Trying to scrape together those funds is not an easy task.  For example, we have some databases to which we subscribe that cost as much as modest sports cars, just short of the $30,000 mark.

Meanwhile, publishers today are turning to a pay-to-play model in which authors are charged between $2,000 and $4,000 for a peer review.  This is no guarantee that said author will appear in a given online journal.  It’s merely the cost of admission to the narthex of the museum, so to speak.   Granted, many of these pay-to-play online journals have acceptance rates of 50% or higher.  Think about this model: pay-to-play publishers pick up four figures for peer review, for an article that will cost them next to nothing to post to a website.  Libraries will then be charged five or more figures to gain access to the journal.  No wonder Darnton called it “disastrous.”

Is there another solution?

Quite possibly that answer may be found in Open  Access, something I have written about in these pages before. With the addition of our Digital Commons, we are now set up for journal publishing of our own, or in conjunction with institutions in the state or region. Open access has it own problems to be sure, as Beall’s list proves.  But titles on that list are often the pay-to-play ones mentioned above.  Of course, for open access to work, tenure and promotion committees will have to agree to recognize it and/or digital commons publishing as genuine scholarly publishing.  With the right kind of peer review, that should not be a problem, though peer review is not the perfect academic imprimatur, either.  If faculty on those committees refuse to accept open access,we’re back where we started with just about any but the largest of libraries facing financial disaster.

Librarians and faculty working together can help fix this problem, but both groups are going to have to sacrifice some much beloved sacred cows in order for it to work.  If we do not, we’ll perpetuate a model than no university can support.



Libraries 2016: Where Are We Now?

The Pew Report, just released, mainly concerns itself with public libraries.  But mention is made here simply to underscore what is true for all libraries.  One of the main takeaways from the Pew Report this year is that libraries are valued in their communities, but only if they are used.

Now surely this sounds painfully obvious, and perhaps it is, but the meaning I take from it is that if libraries remain hidden, remain quiet little platoons in their communities, they will eventually be overlooked and forgotten.  Those who have never used libraries, or used them very little, see little reason to be concerned when they close.  You really don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.  I mention this point first because in Europe, libraries are vanishing as rapidly as snow on a hot tin roof.  I need not add that once they are gone, getting them back successfully falls along the lines of a Herculean labor.  All the more reason that libraries must develop a more ‘in your face attitude,’ as the is the common vernacular has it.

Other important findings center on what libraries should be offering.  Should they offer books, teach digital and literacy skills, provide access to eBooks and ejournals, make available comfortable collaborative spaces, and quiet reading areas?  Not only do the vast majority respond,” Yes,” it sounds more like Oliver Twist’s famous reply, “More, please.”

Sizable majorities have yet to come down on one side or the other about moving books out to make more room for other services.  Twenty-four percent support moving out the stacks to make more room for collaborative spaces, while 31% oppose the idea. Some 40% think libraries should at least consider the idea.  The result of this is a proverbial one for libraries:  you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t’.

A growing consensus is emerging about how librarians can help interpret information as well as find it.  Those surveyed also see a great value in libraries.  An overwhelming number of women see libraries as integral to their communities (proving once again how much smarter women are than men), while smaller and smaller numbers view the library’s community impact as negligible.

When you look at the results perhaps you can see why we at Dacus try to provide as much as we can in various modalities, as the philosophers might say.  We still offer print books, more than 450,000 of them.  We now offer a wide-ranging selection of eBooks, more than 150,000 of them.  We also offer laptops, iPads, and MacBooks.  Dacus also provides more than 100 PCs from which to work, as  well as nearly a  dozen Macs.  We’re open 24/5 during the school year, and now provide ways to stay fit and study for long periods of time.  These are just a few of the favorite things folks have told us they wanted.  Happily, we have them all, plus everything else mentioned in the Pew Report.

Libraries today are thriving, or attempting to, at a time when everyone wants something different.  We at Dacus try to provide all that in innovative ways, all the while still coloring within budgetary lines.  It’s never been an easy task, and users’ disparate needs make it harder than ever before.  But we aim to please, so let us know what else we can do to make your visit rise to, and even exceed, your expectations.

Faculty, Scholarly Communication and the Library

For as long as I have been in this profession (since 1979 for those keeping score), scholarly communication has been the blessing and the curse of libraries.  The blessing because, let’s face it, without scholarly communication there isn’t much reason to have a library.  A curse because figuring out how to pay for it has bedeviled every librarian since Callimachus.  Thousands of years later, we’re still trying to figure out the cost part of the equation.

But it isn’t just costs, either.  Preservation of materials, collections, housing, and access all figure into the imbroglio of providing scholarly communication in the context of a library setting.  A new study, however, sheds bright light on the matter.  Ithaka S+R is a not-for-profit group that tracks libraries and their changing digital landscape. Its most recent study shows that faculty attitudes about libraries and their work are more important than ever.  Students must not only graduate on time, but they must also be able to take their place in the world.  Any college graduate who cannot access scholarly communication easily and well is going to find herself behind from the start.

More than half the faculty respondents said that students’ ability to access scholarly communication is weaker than ever before.  In our ever wired and more digital world, this may come as a something of a surprise.  It isn’t to those of us working in libraries.  We see students struggle routinely with so-called simple research investigations, even seasoned students on the verge of graduation.

While the degree of oversight among faculty in the study differed from discipline to discipline, faculty in the Humanities  were the most critical with six out of ten faculty saying their students struggle with finding the simplest of scholarly work.  Most students still begin .. and end with a Google search.  While Google may well be an acceptable beginning point, it cannot be the end.  While Google is vast and quick, it is no mithridate to illness of research.  Most students find daunting the millions of possible sources in a given search and quickly decide to take the first three or six–not the best of all possible research worlds.

The vast majority of faculty also see the library as a partner in this work, and are looking to librarians to enable them to help students ferret out their way in the arabesque thicket of academic information.  One areas that most faculty agreed upon was the importance of a discovery tool rather than individual databases as a starting point.  A quarter of faculty respondents thought that being able to search across databases and disciplines far more important than starting in one and looking for others.  This is likely the result of Google and other search engines that search across vast oceans of information.

Fortunately for Winthrop students, Dacus has been in the business of teaching information literacy skills for decades.  Not only that, but with additional programs like Book-a-Librarian, Winthrop students can learn general searching skills in Writing 101, and then move to more advanced searching skills by making an appointment with any of nine librarians helping out with the program.

On every university campus there are really two kinds of scholars.  There are those in the classroom that you see each day who know the topic, who teach you what years of experience and training have taught them.  Then there are the other kinds of scholars, those who know how to find information on that topic–or any other–and these folks are in the library.  The study may be new, but its result merely confirm what we librarians have known for a very long time.  We make not teach in classes routinely but we do teach students how to find their way through the dark forest of scholarly communication.

We hope you’ll come by early and often to see us and let us help you find your way around the so-called information superhighway.  Google may well be the entrance ramp to it, but if that’s all you know, you’ll never make to the actual highway, much less your hoped-for destination!

Literacy, Millennials, and Workplace Readiness

Comparison are odious, or, as Shakespeare has Dogberry put it in Much Ado about Nothing, “Comparisons are odorous.”  That being said, we cannot always ignore comparisons entirely.  If for no other reason, comparisons give us a chance to measure ourselves against some chosen or random benchmark that may shed some light on where we are in relation to that benchmark.  Yes, it is true that all such comparisons have their limitations.  What a particular comparison may say about a group may well say nothing about a given individual.  Moreover, one never knows the mindset of those taking part: are they engaged, are they really trying, or are they pulling the researcher’s leg?

Still, comparisons, ‘odorous’ or otherwise, are not without some value.

One such comparison getting a lot of press these days is the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, or PIAAC.  PIAAC  began in 2012  with round one of 21 countries and 5,000 participants between the ages of 16 and 65.  The study focused on technology skills, literacy, numeracy, and the ability to solve problems in a “technology-rich environment” at home, in the community or at work.  Respondents are voluntary and some incentives are given to respondents.  PIAAC is the first global study of important workplace skills. U.S. millennials in the study would have been between the ages of 16 and 34 at the time of the survey.

Again, one must look at the context and not make too many broad generalizations.  (For those interested, here’s the FAQ on reliability.)  But in looking at U.S. millennials, the results of this study indicate that more work is needed.  Of the 21 countries that participated in round one, U.S. millennials finished behind 15 other countries.  Too many times, the U.S. was in a dead-heat for last with Spain and Italy. Whatever else one can say about the OECD study, we can say this: it’s not very good news.

It’s not good news because it means that millennials in that study weren’t very well prepared for the workplace.  It means that in solving problems in the context of our now well-wired world, millennials are not matching in ability their counterparts in most of the other countries in the study.  They are lacking behind or far behind, depending on what part of the survey we examine.

Furthermore, it means that we educators have to do a better job of providing those in our educational care the kind of background they need to be successful.  By successful, I do not mean that you go on to become a college professor the way most of in colleges and universities have.  By successful, I mean that they are able to take their place in this wired world and  do well in whatever endeavor they choose to pursue.

But it also means something for today’s students.  Your takeaway from this survey is not a very complicated one: your education requires as much from you as it does from those of us granted honorary permission to assist you.  You have as much responsibility to let us know what you’re not getting as we do in telling you what it appears you may be missing.  If you say nothing, it’s like going to your physician about an ongoing pain but not mentioning it and then blaming her when it blossoms into a full-blown illness or worse.

It is after all your education.  That is a possessive pronoun, meaning that you must possess it, just like you do your iPhone, your car, your playlist or your video games.

Your education isn’t a one-way street.  If you make it that by waiting for everyone else to do it for you, it can turn out to be an expensive dead end.


Getting Fit while Studying for Those Finals

By now most of you will have heard about, or seen, the two latest ‘editions’ to the Dacus collections.  I mean, of course, the two new FitDesks.  Now, what in the world is the library doing with gym equipment?

It’s a good question, and we ask ourselves not exactly that everyday, but questions like that, such as what is a library really about?  We don’t presume to know the definitive answer to that (because it’s always evolving) but we do know that it isn’t precisely what it’s always been, not exactly what it’s been for the last fifty years. But I digress.

Many now refer to sitting as the new smoking.  Whether you go along with this or not, we all know, and all have known for some time, that being sedentary is not in the best interests of your salubrious self, at least not over the long haul.  Since movement is important, no matter how insignificant, getting up helps keep the blood flowing, bike-oneespecially if you’ve been sitting for too long.  When the blood flows, ideas percolate, brain matter fires in the crucible of thought, and suddenly, things begin to make sense, sort of.

We moderns beat ourselves up too much about everything: how we look, how we act, how we think, how we vote and so on.  It’s good to be self-reflective, but occasionally we are a bit too self-reflective, too omphaloskeptic for our own good.  We worry too much about … everything.  Sitting may kill, but we know stress really does.

Having said all that, perhaps the best tonic is to stand up and get moving!  So, with that in mind, and with you heart in our hearts, we hope to make all of them better, stronger, and more invigorated. Hop on the new FitDesks with your favorite book or laptop and tell us what you think.  Do you want more of them?  Are two plenty?

We’ve placed them temporarily at the front of the building so we can monitor their use but they won’t stay there forever. If response is strong, we’ll add one or two more later this summer.

And no, our purchase of these FitDesks did not compromise, hurt or otherwise offend any books, serials, or other materials.



Are Open Access Textbooks the Answer?

Students complain to us most about the cost of textbooks. Who can blame them, really? When I was in school, I could count on spending perhaps as much as $100 additional dollars on textbooks. By the time I enrolled in my first graduate degree, the cost had soared to about $250, and by the time I began my second one, textbooks cost me more than the cost of one additional class.

Today’s students are lucky to get out of the bookstore without spending more than $1,000. The College Board, which tracks such things, argues that it may be as high as $1,200 annually. When you figure in tuition and other costs, one begins to see why many students—or should I say the parents of students—are questioning the cost of college. After four years and a sizable debt facing them as they enter what will almost surely be an entry level position, some students and parents are now viewing college as a luxury, not a requirement.  That spells sure danger for our electorate.

It’s true that until recently, college and universities were not doing very much to hold these costs down. Amenities caused costs to soar, and specialization caused courses to multiply.  A four-year degree that once cost about $5,000, now exceeds the cost of two new cars.

Yet one place that colleges and universities can carve out immediate savings for students is in the very place that students complain about most: those expensive textbooks. It’s taken more than a decade to iron out cheaper alternatives–textbooks are after all, a cash-cow for most textbook publishers—cheaper textbooks are now already here via open educational resources, or OER.

One such example is OpenStax College. OpenStax College (OSC) is an online repository of dozens of peer-reviewed textbook in Physics, Biology, Anatomy, Algebra, Calculus, Economics, Chemistry, Social Sciences, History and Psychology. Begun as an open access initiative of Rice University, it became OSC with the help of numerous foundations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Bill and Stephanie Sick Fund. College and universities that adopt OCS textbooks help students save millions.

OCS relies upon open education resources, or books that are published in the Creative Commons, bypassing current U.S. copyright laws. Once expensive textbooks can now be accessed electronically through entities like OCS.  It’s a win-win for everyone.

Open educational resources are also an initiative that many libraries are pushing (and Dacus is very much involved in) in an effort to secure scholarly materials at little or no cost.Scholarly communication is also currently one of the largest costs that libraries have to bear. Because most scholarly communication is esoteric in nature, its appeal is limited to narrowly focused audiences, such as other scholars or students studying those areas. Libraries become the revenue generator for these materials with access to commercially produced scholarly communication in the form of electronic databases costing five figures or more. Open access reduces that burden substantially and guarantees its creators copyright ownership in perpetuity.

OCS isn’t the only textbook player in this game, of course. There are several. Not all open access is equal, however, and this is one reason why faculties at many colleges and universities have been slow to adopt open access textbooks. But many of those problems have been addressed or are being addressed, and each faculty member teaching a course should make every effort to find an open access text.

It may well be a pipe-dream since the current model of charging hundreds of dollars for textbooks has been in place for decades. Changing all that is going to take time.

But if not now, when; if not us, then who?