Chronicle of Higher Ed Reports on Electronic Course Reserves Kerfuffle

In the Chronicle of Higher Education:

“Publishers and Library Groups Spar in Appeal to Ruling on Electronic Course Reserves”

This case is heading for appeal. The following quote expresses one the publishers’ key arguments:

In their brief, filed on Monday, the publishers argue that, if the lower court’s ruling stands, it will have implications that go far beyond Georgia State’s practices. The publishers play up the idea that e-reserves amount to course packs or anthologies of reading material. Judge Evans’s decision “invites universities nationwide to accelerate the migration of course-pack creation from paper to electronic format” and to sidestep legal permission to use copyrighted content, the brief states.

And this from the intrepid Association of Research Libraries:

…Brandon Butler, director of public-policy initiatives for the Association of Research Libraries, took issue with the argument that e-reserves put publishers at great risk.

“I’m baffled that the publishers continue to claim that course reserves pose some kind of existential threat to their business,” he told The Chronicle via e-mail. “It was established at trial that GSU’s practices are in the mainstream, so libraries are basically already doing what the publishers claim will put them out of business, and yet Oxford University Press reported $1-billion in sales last year, $180-million in profits. Is that what a publisher on the verge of collapse looks like?”

Let’s hope the principal of “Fair Use” continues to prevail.

Big Data Meets Literary Scholarship

The New York Times published a very interesting update on how humanists are applying big data approaches to their scholarship (see The New York Times, January 27, 2013, p. B3). The article begins with a description of research by Matthew L. Jockers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He conducted word- and phrase-level textual analysis on thousands of novels, enabling longer-term patterns to emerge in how authors use words and find inspiration. This kind of textual analysis revealed the impact of a few major authors on many others, and identified the outsized impact of Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott.

Jockers said that “Traditionally, literary history was done by studying a relative handful of texts…what this technology does is let you see the big picture–the context in which a writer worked–on a scale we’ve never seen before.”

The implications for comparative literature and other fields that bump up against disciplinary boundaries are compelling.This kind of data analysis has long been the domain of sociologists, linguists and other social scientists, but it is increasingly finding a home in the humanities.

Steve Lohr, the Times article’s author, provides a number of other examples. One of my favorites is the research conducted by Jean Baptiste Michel and Erez Lieberman Aiden, who are based at Harvard. They utilized Google Books’ graph utility–open to the public–to chart the evolution of word use over long periods of time. One interesting example: for centuries, the references to “men” vastly outnumbered references to “women,” but in 1985 references to women began to lead references to men (Betty Friedan, are you there?)

Studying literature on this scale is indicative of the power and potential of big data to revolutionize how scholarship is done. Indeed, the availability of useful data is subtly transforming humanist scholars to the point that interested humanists are gaining a new identity as computer programmers.

Lohr also points out that quantitative methods are most effective when experts with deep knowledge of the subject matter guide the analysis, and even second-guess the algorithms.

What is new and distinctive is the ability to ramp up the study of a few texts to a few hundred text. The trick will be to keep the “humanity” in humanism.

I also draw considerable inspiration from the growing awareness that pattern recognition–a daily exercise for information professionals–is gaining new attention as part of the research process in general.

Perhaps it’s time for some of us to collaborate as co-principal investigators….

My December Column in Computers in Libraries: “Making Our Own Futures.”

Computers in Libraries magazine usually devotes its December issues to trend-spotting and future-casting. In that end of year spirit, I take a look at “additive manufacturing” (aka 3D printing), “Zoomable user interfaces (ZUIs), “Unsourcing” (I love that use of irony), and widely distributed Print on Demand.  Have a look at the December issue of CIL.

In Search of the Next Value Proposition


An excerpt from my column in Computers in Libraries, November 2012, of the same title:

Although it is pretty easy to find colleagues who will express fatigue or frustration about the constant need for libraries to prove their value proposition, there is also an upside to the exercise of crafting a message that justifies our mission. The catch is that however good your crafted message may be, forget about finishing the dog-and-pony show once and for all. Information professionals live on the front lines of disruptive technology, and are subject to the forces of digital convergence, which are forever pushing knowledge workers closer together and challenging them to rethink what they do. The sheer cascade of new technologies throughout the workplace, the entertainment sphere, and society in general requires constant review of our top goals, how we frame them to our users, and what “deliverables” we rely upon to build an evidence-based record of our relevance. And then there is the future: we must search not only for this year’s value proposition, but also for next year, and for the year after that. Mind you, we’ve come up with some real winners over time; even so, the big payoff of creating winning “meme” essentially amounts to extending its lifespan from 12 months to 24.

The Never Ending Quest for Relevance

I enjoyed viewing Brian Kelly’s slides for his recent presentation titled “What Next for Libraries? Making Sense of the Future!”  The presentation was given at the Emerging Technologies in Academic Libraries conference, which was held in Trondheim October 1-3, 2012. Brian synthesizes our perceptions and beliefs about what is to come and how things don’t always work out quite as we think they will. He uses the monorail—a “bleeding edge” technology some 50 years ago—as an example of a promising technology that reached a dead end.

Brian’s UKWebFocus post about his presentation at EMTAC also “reblogged” Lukas Koster’s post title about the event: “Change or Be Irrelevant.”  This is a topic I always warm to, having been engaged in this debate, mission, or aspiration about library futures as long as I’ve been in the profession.

Librarians are rightly concerned about their future, as new technologies influence how people use information. But our recent history is one of continuous change, with many smart moves paying off in big ways. One example is our early move into Web-based database aggregation, and becoming content creators is my current favorite. But for now, I want to respond to the risk of irrelevance that seems to stalk us, and add one thought based on some reading I have done over the years.

We’re not alone.

Virtually every profession that styles itself the guarantor of quality service, advice or judgment is facing the same uncertainty that librarians do. The shrillness of the alarm that other professionals articulate can make librarians seem like calm, unruffled masters of the universe.

Some of the most august professions are confronting bigger challenges than librarians, with varied degrees of success. For example, law is currently the site of high anxiety about partner profits, new models for providing legal services more cheaply, what young lawyers ought to be doing once they leave law school, and even the demise of the practice of law as we know it. The prime culprit is once again technology, with a boost from the economic downturn.

Further afield, health care professionals of many stripes struggle to increase their status, sometimes engaging in fierce debate their fellow care givers. Nurses have seen their status grow, while doctors openly complain about the growing burdens they face in the administrative and bureaucratic arenas. Psychologists clamor for the right to prescribe medicines for mental health issues, while psychiatrists man the battlements and will not give an inch. My sense is that the entire system of professions is being upended by new technologies, new ideas, new players taking on the establishment and so on.

This is a good thing.

But technology along is not the sole driver of professional distress—which is being voiced in the trade journals of every field in one form or another. Competition between professions is another new and revitalized factor in the batter for relevance. Technology speeds up the impact of competition between people, and it challenges professions to respond. In a way, the “marketplace of ideas” that is at the heart of intellectual inquiry is joined by a marketplace of “skill,” which is marked by fierce competition and innovation. This process affects all professions.

The Battling Professions, and their “Treatments”

It is also not a new process. Any serious student of the future and of the information professions in particular has some required reading to do in the discipline of sociology. Andrew Abbott, a sociologist at the University of Chicago, penned a book in 1988 titled The System of Professions (University of Chicago Press, 1988). In this book he outlines the dynamic process by which all professions compete to gain special status, and then organize to hold onto it. One group can gain leverage over another by offering a better solution—for example, paralegals could offer in-depth services that step onto the turf of attorneys. This process is known as “treatment substitution.” Essentially new groups rise and offer a better “treatment” than the traditional players, and gain ground as a result. Abbott devotes an entire chapter to the information professions—of which librarianship, even in 1988, was just one among many.

Abbott returned to his study of librarians and the challenges they face in 1998, in his article titled “Professionalism and the Future of Librarianship”  (Library Trends, Vol. 46 (no. 3), Winter 1998, 430-443). This article gained some attention in its day, and both his book and the article have passed the test of time quite well.

A Basis for a Relevancy Strategy

The core of Abbott’s thinking is compelling, and holds many lessons for the library professions. If we can understand challenges to our status as professionals and in particular our ability to master new technologies as based in “treatment substitution”—that is, others moving into our turf—we are more likely to develop survival strategies that advance our own “unique skill.”  Essentially, we would be telling the professional world, “Our solution is the best solution. Here’s why.” –and take it from there.

Consider the idea of an organization’s mission statement. It should outline the core beliefs of the organization in ways that keep it on course and enable it to thrive. Likewise, a strategy that is based on the belief that all professions are certain to compete—especially in this present era of disruptive technology—is more likely to facilitate action-oriented thinking that looks to the future, rather than the past, for inspiration.

And so in the quest for relevance, I look not only to examples of dead-end technologies or the emergence of mobile and app-based computing; I look also to see what strategies new players in the information sphere are trying out to create a niche themselves.  We have solid data that tells us that people are not effective searchers when it comes to finding articles via Google or the Library Web site. Maybe that’s one issue that could inform a fresh strategy to make ourselves not only relevant, but indispensable….

Blake Carver: “Three Start-ups That Could Change The Market?” –Here’s My Fave

Blogger and all-around newshound Blake Carver is doubling as an emerging technology spotter (and has been doing so for years!).   Check out his post titled Three Start-ups That Could Change The Market? for a good read.

Of these three–all of which are intriguing by the way–his third pick is the most compelling potential game changer in my opinion:  BookShout!

If you entrust them with your personal data, they will aggregate your Kindle bookshelf and make an ebook library for you–one that you have already paid for, and so it would have to be regard as an authorized activity. Blake rightly describes the “hook” for this venture as the usage of loopholes at Amazon and Nook; I can’t help wondering if those loopholes will stay open…