Steve Lawson's weblog

Me, with a haircut

I guess this blog is still on? Hmmm.

Birds of a feather

The pseudonymous blogger “The Library Loon” writes about library conferences in her post, Professional Development,

She [The Loon] sees the same complaint about one particular set of conferences every year, regular as clockwork: “there’s nothing here to learn from.”

And every single such complaint, every single year, is followed by “but I’ll go back next time because I see my friends there.”

The Loon doesn’t buy this, and she doesn’t think libraries who are footing the bill should. If librarians want to see their friends, they can go on a damn vacation.

(Emphasis and third-person-ism in original.) The Loon goes on to make a few suggestions toward solving the problem as she sees it, which involve planning for discovering the library’s information needs and assigning conferences for staff to attend based on filling those needs.

I believe that The Loon may be taking people too literally who say, “I’ll go back next time because I see my friends there.” It seems as likely as not that those library people are really saying “I’ll go back next time because I learn so much from my friends there.” It’s also my experience that the people who are saying “there’s nothing here to learn from,” are the people who are primarily going to the conference in order to give presentations at that conference rather than attend them.

I will also venture so far as to guess that The Loon seems to be drawing conclusions from an extremely small and narrow set of library people who are vocal on social networks? The problem (if there is one) may not be as big as it seems in the convex mirror of social media.

In my own experience of listening to conference reports, I have drawn a conclusion almost opposite that of The Loon’s. The conference reports I have heard in the past tend to be heavy on “I went to this presentation,” and light on “I made these interesting contacts.” Were I to adopt a Loonish alter-ego of my own, I might instead mandate that staff include as part of their post-conference report a list of people they spoke to at the conference over coffee, cocktails, dinner, or while sightseeing. Those who attend conferences merely to acquire “information” would have to go to the back of the line, behind those who attend conferences in order to create a web of thought-provoking professional contacts. To “confer” is to discuss and exchange ideas; a conference should be a two-way street, or a multi-vectored…street (sorry, the metaphors aren’t coming): perhaps those who aren’t willing to make and renew friendships at a conference don’t deserve to attend them.

But I wouldn’t do that, because I don’t really believe that. I believe that there is more than one way to choose a conference and more than one way to get value from conference attendance.

Looking it up the old fashioned way

A student had a question for me at the reference desk. “I’m looking for these two short stories, and I don’t know where to find them. The first one is ‘Train From Rhodesia’ by Chinua Achebe, and the second one is ‘The Astronomer’s Wife’ by Kay Boyle.”

I told him, “OK, it can be hard to know what anthologies short stories are in. I’m going to search the titles as keywords in the library catalog; did you already do that?”

He said, “Well, kind of? I’m not sure I did it right.”

“Yeah, no problem. I’m not finding them that way, so you must have done it right. There’s an official way to find stories in anthologies by using an index, but sometimes I can just use Google to find them.”

“Oh, I did try that,” he said. “I couldn’t find the stories online anywhere.”

“That’s not too surprising,” I said. “I’m not really hoping to find the full story online, but I’m hoping to find out what collections the story appeared in. Hey, did you say that ‘Train to Rhodesia’ is by Chinua Achebe? Because all the hits on Google that I’m getting are indicating that it’s by Nadine Gordimer instead.”

“Oops, yeah, that must be right.”

“OK, great. Right here on the Google results page there’s a hit that says ‘”The Train from Rhodesia” is one of Nadine Gordimer’s earliest stories, first published in 1952 in her collection The Soft Voice of the Serpent and Other Stories.’ So let’s look that up… well, we don’t have that but we have her Selected Stories. Let’s look at that book, and if it’s not in there, we can look it up the official way. OK, so Kay Boyle, ‘The Astronomer’s Wife’ is the other one? When I Google that, I see that the story was first published in The White Horses of Vienna and Other Stories, which we…don’t own. Crud. OK, let’s quit messing around and do this the official way. The Short Story Index is over here in reference, it’s red, it’s about so big… ah, here it is.”

“Uh, thanks,” the student said. “I didn’t know how to find these stories, I’m sorry they are hard to find.”

“No, don’t apologize!” I said. “This is what they pay me to do. I am actually kind of excited we get to go use the old indexes.” I start with the most recent volume and start working my way backward. “Before everything went online, this is how we had to find things. It’s great to have these printed indexes, even thought it’s kind of a pain in the butt to have to search each of the volumes individually.”

I worked my way through the volumes, looking up “BOYLE, KAY” in each and seeing if there was any information for “The Astronomer’s Wife.” I found something in a volume covering the late 1970s. The student saw it, too. “Ooh, ‘The Astronomer’s Wife!’ Right there!” he said. “Right, excellent,” I said. “Looks like there are two anthologies that have it, and the first one is something called Fiction 100. Let’s go see if we have it in the library.”

Reader, we had it. We went to the stacks in the library basement and first found the Gordimer, flipped open to the table of contents, and found it right away. Then we walked down the aisle to find the Fiction 100 collection, and there was “The Astronomer’s Wife,” just as the Short Story Index had promised us.

“Thanks a lot,” the student said. “I’d looked online for a while and was about to give up when I thought I might as well ask you first.”

I originally thought about writing this up as a blog post because earlier today, Catherine asked the LSW, “How often does Google (or the search engine of your choice) answer your question within the results page itself?” Which reminded me that in one search, the page preview for the top result on Google had told me who the correct author was for “Train From Rhodesia,” and where that story had first appeared in book form.

But, of course, actually finding what the student needed took a bit more than a Google search; otherwise he would have found it on his own. Google conditions us to search for the thing we want, while often we instead need to start by searching for information about the thing we want.

I have been thinking a lot over the past few years about how to talk to students more research as part of the larger process rather than teaching what amount to database classes. But this pretty simple question makes me think that there’s a lot more to asking and answering research questions than I have even yet considered. Aside from specifically teaching something like the Short Story Index to students who might need it, how do I teach these habits of mind for assembling information, and knowing where to look? How did I learn them myself? How do I teach them skills and practices that are generalizable, or teach them to apply those general skills and mindsets they already have developed in other contexts? How do I avoid underestimating students’ need and capacity for more understanding and control of the research process while also avoiding boring them to tears?


The director of the library where I work, Carol Dickerson is retiring in just a few short weeks. Also retiring with the end of this academic year is Paul Keurbis, a long-time professor at Colorado College and more recently the head of the teaching and learning center.

We held a nice big party for them today, and I had the chance to grab the mic and present them with a small gift–blank books bound in the original orange carpeting from our library. (Long story, inside joke, you had to be there.)

But before presenting the gift, I couldn’t resist a short speech. Here’s more or less what I said:

Carol and Paul, thank you so much for your work here. I have learned a great deal about leadership from both of you. First, I admire the way you treat all your colleagues with trust and take joy in working with us. Second, I admire the way you keep our mission in mind at all times: to support and enable teaching and learning at this college.

I could have gone on more about this, but I think what I said gets at the heart of what I think a good leader does. With trust and a clear sense of mission, there’s no need to mirco-manage. No need to claim credit or appeal to your own authority.

There’s more to making a good leader than trust and mission, but I’m not sure you can lead without those qualities. They are qualities I hope to cultivate more in myself.

Persecuted moral authorities

From the November 11, 2011 TLS review by David Finkelstein of Michael J. Everton’s book The Grand Chorus of Complaint: Authors and the Business Ethics of American Publishing:

In the nineteenth century, American publishers were rarely viewed positively. They were vilified as thieves and predators engaged in the systematic business of “cutting each other’s throats,” to quote a late-century commentator. Yet contemporary publishers saw themselves less as villains than as merchants of culture and civility, using self-serving rhetoric that linked culture and competition, moral virtue and economic wealth.

. . .

Everton offers an unusual perspective on this issue, focusing on the bombastic debates over natural and moral rights that took place in American circles at mid-century. His perspicacious conclusion is that in this case, opponents of unethical publishers used language as a weapon to cast authors as persecuted moral authorities in a land dominated by crass commercial interests.

Yes. Some of the issues are different this time around, but let’s just substitute “libraries” for “authors” in that last paragraph and see how far it can go.

Reminder: Random House hates you

From “The Digital Shift,” Librarians Feel Sticker Shock as Price for Random House Ebooks Rises as Much as 300 Percent:

New prices for Random House’s ebooks took effect on Thursday, and as the details emerged a number of librarians across the country expressed dismay at the doubling and tripling in prices they are seeing.

“We’re very concerned. These are tough times for libraries. It’s very tough here in Louisville,” said Debbe Oberhausen, manager of collection services, at the Louisville Free Public Library. “We want to provide this service, but this kind of pricing is really going to take a huge chunk of our budget,” she said.

. . .

“We believe our new library e-pricing reflects the high value placed on perpetuity of lending and simultaneity of availability for our titles,” said Stuart Applebaum, a Random House spokesperson. “Understandably, every library will have its own perspective on this topic, and we are prepared to listen, learn, and adapt as appropriate,” he said.

“Simultaneity” here means that Random House’s titles are available to libraries on the same date the retail edition is put on sale. It is not referring to simultaneous, multiple user access. The model remains one book, one user.

I don’t know that you need any commentary from me about this. It’s just part of the pattern. Publishers are completely lost as to what they should do anymore. If they weren’t lashing out and hurting readers, libraries, and authors, I’d feel sorry for them.

Publishers hate you: readers’ notes as a “derivative work”

The problem with DRM

The problem with DRM, photo by djfiander, cc by-nc-sa. As DJF notes in his comment on the photo, “Spotted on the Toronto subway: if the publishers had their way, she wouldn’t be allowed to take this many notes in her copy of this book.”

Reminder, publishers still hate you. From The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Wired Campus blog comes this report, E-Textbook Vendor Sues Publisher for Ending Licensing Agreement. The actual fight between the parties seems like it may be more complex than they are letting on (and I admit that I haven’t read the entire lawsuit which is embedded as a document in the blog post), but here’s the crux of the matter from my point of view (with emphasis added):

The conflict began last August, when Kno introduced new features to its e-reader platform. One of those tools, Journal, lets readers take notes and make excerpts for later reference in the software. The next month, Cengage claimed the added note-taking feature enabled copyright infringement “through the creation of a derivative work,” according to the complaint.

There you go. Cengage hates you because you want to take notes and clip passages from its textbooks for later reference. They think that is unreasonable; so unreasonable that they are trying to get out of their contract with Kno, and are willing to endure a lawsuit.

They hate their readers and customers and fair use rights that much.

Thanks, Catherine Pellegrino, for pointing this out via retweet.

Fake Elsevier is Real Good

If you haven’t seen it yet, you should peek in on @FakeElsevier on Twitter. Here are some gems from the satirical accoutn:

But if you go there today, you’ll see that the satire is on hold for a day. @FakeElsevier is sending readers to a blog post–a sincere blog post, titled DEAR ELSEVIER EMPLOYEES, WITH LOVE, FROM @FAKEELSEVIER.

Where my publishers hate you post was a rant and took a shotgun approach to publishing in general, this post from @FakeElsevier (a research scientist in real life) is more sincere and more focused than what I wrote, but still angry and plain-spoken. Here’s the main point, emphasis in original:

In the internet age, Elsevier is doing an unbelievably shitty job of accomplishing its ONE AND ONLY PURPOSE: to distribute our work as broadly as possible

See now why we, as customers, are unhappy? You’re distributing our work to a really small audience, and you’re making even that access irritating and painful. Don’t patronize us by telling us how you are “committed to universal access”. If you were genuinely committed to universal access, you’d make things universally accessible. Your marginal distribution cost is effectively zero, so why not act like it?

Now, one could argue that he/she is begging the question that the one and only purpose of a publisher is to distribute its authors’ work as broadly as possible. But I still think this is a great rhetorical move, because if Elsevier wants to argue back about ensuring quality and trustworthyness…well, there are plenty of reasons that Elsevier might not want to get into a conversation about trust and honesty and so on.

Denver Zine Library fundraising campaign

The wonderful Denver Zine Library is seeking to raise $2,500 in operating funds through an IndieGoGo campaign. The DZL’s co-founder, impressario, and sparkplug, Kelly Shortandqueer, has done a great job keeping the DZL active and growing, and I have confidence that any money donated will be well spent.

I was flattered that Kelly asked my colleague, Jessy Randall, and me to record a video for their fundraiser. Kelly is posting a different video each day of the campaign to highlight all the different people who are interested in the DZL and all our different reasons for finding value and inspiration there.

They aren’t asking for a lot of money per supporter. I donated $25, but donations as small as $5 are helpful and welcome. If you are interested in zines, in self-publishing, in quirky independent libraries, please go to the fundraising site and donate some money to the Denver Zine Library.

Learning opportunities

NB: Only one of these is real.

The Copyright Clearance Center, Inc. a not-for-profit organization and leading provider of licensing solutions, announces its OnCopyright Education Certificate Program, comprised of industry-specific courses that target a variety of user communities and the challenges they face in managing copyright.

Reed Elsevier, a world leading provider of professional information solutions in the Science, Medical, Risk, Legal and Business sectors, announces its Open Access Publishing Certificate Program, a balanced look at the benefits and drawbacks of managing access openly with maximum added value.

The American Chemical Society, a congressionally chartered independent membership organization which represents professionals at all degree levels and in all fields of chemistry and sciences that involve chemistry, announces its new certificate program, Harmony of Interest, aimed at non-profits looking to leverage their positions as publishers with creative accrediting solutions for higher education.

Harvard University Libraries administration is pleased to announce its new certificate program in Change Management, comprised of case-study-based courses in openness, communication, and managing employee expectations.