From Library to Intellectual Ecology

(Note: the following article appeared in the January-February 2014 issue of Computers in Libraries. It elaborates on the bellwether report on the University Library at UC Berkeley which I refer to in a previous post.)

 

Information professionals are trained to recognize patterns in how knowledge resources are used, and also to look at information seeking behavior to discern the ways users think. It’s no secret why usability testing (also known as “human factors”) is a now a standard element in library and I-School curricula: We do it all the time and we are going to do it more and more. We are immersed in a professional culture of recognizing patterns—and that is a very timely advantage. If you are at all like me, you practice pattern recognition wherever you may find yourself. This habit makes us good allies to have, because we often have our hand on the pulse what is new and good, or what is about to appear. In other industries, this skill goes by names such as market analysis, future-casting, trend-watching and more. For us, it just comes with the territory.

Every now and then we reap substantial “payback” for the patient, long-term cultivation of the knowledge based alliances we build. More than ever before, the key alliances we form are with our diverse user communities. Of any potential allies, our users are the quickest to see the value of our services, and if we give them half a chance, they’ll even go to bat for us. But for that to happen we need to set the stage, foster the dialogues, and make sure our allies know what we need.

I’ve been writing a lot about a 2013 report that appeared in October at UC – Berkeley, titled “Report of the Commission on the Future of the UC Berkeley Library.” The Commission that published the report was charged by the campus administration to deliver a thorough review of the University Library and its ongoing needs. Their charge followed a very successful self-study process the University Library itself conducted, and which I also have commented upon (see “Survey Says, What Our Users Really Want Is Us.” CIL, May 2013 33 (4), p23-25).

The Commission spent a full year studying The Library, but the total review process was really more like a three year project. In this case, the time investment produced powerful results, and the authors of the report can only be seen as “users” of The Library’s services. As stakeholders in its future, they delivered an uncommonly insightful document that works quite effectively as a blueprint for any research library’s strategic planning. But it also can serve as an example how librarians form alliances, influence institution- and global-level debates about information, and work to create excitement and “buy-in” for bold ideas from their own user communities. It is this ultimate “deliverable” –good PR, delivered at the right time—that I am going to focus in this column.

Beyond “Heliocentric”

Don’t take my word for the quality of the document; be sure to have a look at the document itself (see http://evcp.berkeley.edu/sites/default/files/FINAL_CFUCBL_report_10.16.13.pdf).

As you read you will find a few key themes and sentiments that stand out.

First, the tone of the document is declarative and imperative. There is a pleasant surfeit of well-phrased prose throughout, but the principal sentiment this report conveys is certainty.

The authors leave no question as to the fact that the library is the heart of the university, to wit:

“The University and the Library cannot exist without each other. Because the Library—in both its physical and virtual forms—is ubiquitous in the everyday lives of faculty, students, administrative staff, scholarly researchers, and the general public worldwide, it is difficult to make a case for its role in sustaining the academic preeminence of the University except by imagining our University and world without it. The Library is the heart and circulatory system of our research mission…it makes research happen; it makes learning possible….”

Well. Certainly the authors have concluded that they, as faculty members, cannot function competitively without the help of the Library, and they are sufficiently convinced that they are clearly advocating for major new institutional support. But they also did their homework before going out on a limb. UC Berkeley’s collections funding was ranked 4th by the Association of Research Libraries in 2004; in 2011, it was ranked 14th. Yet in 2012, the Library provided 2.7M physical items and 33 million article downloads during 2012. Its “human touch” is deep, with millions of in-persons visits, online exchanges and phone conversations. One of the authors spent many weeks analyzing financial reports with the senior business officers of the Library as well, and so the level of understanding about operations among Commission members was substantial.

The second theme is the necessity of change, and the readiness of the Library to embrace that change. At no place in this report do the authors find any significant complaint with the Library’s level of resolve to make bold changes and to do so proactively. They rightly point out that a “heliocentric” model, which depends on branch locations and services that encircle a vast central library edifice is no longer big enough to respond to changing needs. Instead, the Library must embrace a new service and collection-building model.

The authors offer a long list of imperative recommendations, some of which we might expect, while others imply deep awareness of the potential of the future. Revitalize the Moffitt Undergraduate Library and open it 27/7; enhance existing collaborations with IT departments; create a second-generation Web portal that is responsive to the changing world of discovery—all great ideas, but no big surprises. Yet also: embed the Library in “virtual carrels” so faculty have better access to resources. Ensure that student-based “e-portfolios” that follow them from admission to graduation and beyond enjoy a robust library presence with the potential for human touch. Further still, embed the Library in online classroom platforms and in MOOCs—and not least, keep up live presentations in physical classrooms.

Hey: where these guys get all these great ideas? Answer: from talking not only to us, but to every user community that uses the Library.

“The Intellectual Ecology”

I have discovered my favorite new library appellation from the dearly departed year of 2013 in this report, too. It is called the “intellectual ecology.” Readers might have noticed that I often favor the phrase “diverse, information ecology,” in describing our enabling roles, but this group has raised the bar, declaring that library spaces (physical and virtual) comprise an intellectual commons that fosters all kinds of scholarship. This affirmative view of library space shows awareness that libraries carry authority and influence that is equal to any learned society or discipline of knowledge. Moreover, library space in all its forms and improves productivity and quality in learning.

Take note, all you who have gone through “library space wars” with competitors who want our learning spaces: you are custodians of a vital resource and should not back down an inch. Yet even though the authors give a strong vote for library space, they also affirm the idea of repurposing this valuable space to change with the times. The 20t century research library, they point out, has “…housed physical collections of textual inscriptions for the purposes of preserving human learning…since Bablyonian times.” In this century we must do that and so much more. This is where the importance of friends—especially among our own users—becomes crystal clear.

The Value of User Awareness

It’s worth noting that even as of this writing it still remains to be seen how the University will respond to the Commission’s report. But whatever fiscal outcomes may yet appear, I think it is safe to say that faculty and campus support for its University Library may be at an all-time high.

The reservoir of good will that flows from a clear understanding of the Library’s potential has incalculable value. Good will among allies makes it easier to explain our goals at the highest level, but it can also be quite handy in clearing the way for less lofty needs, such as entrée to physical classrooms, being at the table for institution-level strategic planning, or just getting the janitorial support you need. Further still, such good will among “high value” user community members, such as the faculty who served on the Commission, keeps on giving back in many forms: doors are more likely to be opened, dialogues can build shared outcomes, and perhaps even foster the hope of a broader role for the library in the digital future.

Perhaps that may be a lot to hope for. Perhaps I am once again the optimist I am continually accused of being. But early evidence, in the form of excitement and interest in this report, back up my upbeat sentiment. And important public institutions such as UC – Berkeley are often bellwethers for broader change in society, so what happens here is not parochial, but well worth following. More than anything, the Commission’s report is proof positive that our very long-range goal of cultivating allies is paying off—and that our users may be the best allies of all.

UC Berkeley Report: Revitalize the Library and Empower the People Who Operate It

In 2010, The University of California, Berkeley Libraries started a “self review” process, which led to a much more comprehensive review that was endorsed by the campus, and led by a “blue ribbon” faculty committee. The working group is called The Commission on the Future of the UC Berkeley Library. The commission studied the library, the profession, scholarly communications, and the many opportunities and challenges that lie ahead for a full year. It delivered its report to the campus administration on October 14, and the report is now available online.

Many eyes will be drawn to the financial recommendations, which are broad in scope: five million dollars in one-time funding to make up for lost time, and new funding each year at that same level. This proposal is not unprecedented; in the late 1990s, Chancellor Robert Berdahl made a similarly-sized investment in revitalizing the campus libraries. Now, newly inaugurated Chancellor Nicholas Dirks will have an opportunity to once again revitalize a great institution. Moreover, the recommendations of the report—read the executive summary—are audaciously forward-looking and paint a picture of an academic enterprise that is lean, innovative, creative, assertive, and not least, keenly interested in empowering people.

Point of disclosure: I manage an Affiliated Library, which is outside the reporting structure of the University Librarian. Affiliated Libraries report to deans, directors and department heads, but their collections data and other metrics are reported to the Association of Research Libraries as part of campus totals. The Affiliated Libraries work in close cooperation with The University Library.

A Key Finding: Librarians are GREAT

It’s heartening to see a group of faculty members state, in unanimity, that the human beings that run research libraries are a vital resource. Moreover, in an era of digital information (and misinformation), they have become more important to scholars, not less, in the business of helping people find, analyze and interpret what they need to know. In my view this is the most exciting of the many proactive recommendations that are made in the report. I urge anyone who reads my blog to check it out.

The press has also taken note.  Steve F. Brown, writing in the San Francisco Business Times, offers a very good “Cliff Notes” summary of the report and the issues.

Read the SF Business Times article: 

http://www.bizjournals.com/sanfrancisco/blog/2013/10/librarians-vs-search-engines-uc-berkeley.html

Read the Report:

http://evcp.berkeley.edu/sites/default/files/FINAL_CFUCBL_report_10.16.13.pdf

Data Discovery and Data Curation Go Hand in Hand

In just a few short years, data curation has been widely embraced by the profession and is recognized by many as an emerging core competency. The reasons are many, but the power of the web as a platform for mashing up diverse data sources is certainly a key factor. New government regulations require researchers to share data compiled in grant-funded research, which also provides a powerful incentive for taking a fresh look at how data can be preserved. In 2011, the Association of Research Libraries published an excellent summation of the potential of data curation for the library profession, titled “New Roles for New Times: Digital Curation for Preservation” (See http://www.arl.org/bm~doc/nrnt_digital_curation17mar11.pdf). This report was prescient in arguing that the volume of data and the need to preserve it is opening new opportunities for librarians to take center stage as collaborators.

Exciting times to be sure, but with all the new energy surrounding data curation of web- and crowd-sourced information, it is important to remember that new discovery techniques can also uncover fresh value in conventional data resources, particularly those that are generated by public mandate. For my part, I believe that there are significant “sleeper cells” of useful data—much of it gathered by public institutions—and these data can add value when they are added to born digital, linked data sets.

Many public information databases are compiled with a single need in mind: regulating construction permits, monitoring the growth of electrical grids, and so on. These data are often in digital formats, and they can be added to web- or cloud-based resources and used in ways that may not have been foreseen by the agencies that compile the data. The trick is to recognize not only what the primary goal for collecting is, but also to discover what value the data might have in different contexts. With that in mind, I will offer two examples of how data resources can empower new ideas in the broadest sense, and I will also share an old-fashioned data acquisition story “from the trenches.” The story shows how local data gathered by a public agency made the crucial difference in a research project—and suggests how it might gain value as part of larger-scale data analysis.

Big Data, Big Results

One of the best aspects of working with linked data is the ability to combine diverse sources of information and then extrapolate more nuanced meaning from the improved data set. This trend is accelerating, and currently it focuses on “new” and exciting areas such as crowd-sourced data generation and online consumer behavior-tracking. Rightly so: President Obama’s reelection campaign used data-driven strategies alongside its political and rhetorical vision, to considerable advantage. The 2012 U.S. elections proved beyond a doubt that smart data, carefully deployed, was worth more than the hundreds of millions of dollars that were hurled at the general electorate. The overall electoral cycle demonstrated that big data is recognized by politicians and entrepreneurs, as well as academics.

In the academic sphere, big data have created all-new approaches to research. The New York Times published an interesting update on how humanists can now analyze thousands of online novels (see The New York Times, January 27, 2013, p. B3). The article describes how Matthew L. Jockers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln conducted word- and phrase-level textual analysis of digital books to study long-term language patterns. The much larger sample revealed not only how authors use words, but also how they inspire other authors over the years. One surprise finding: a relatively small number of authors have had an outsized impact on other writers, with Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott at the forefront. This analytical approach is groundbreaking, insofar as it goes beyond the limitations imposed by much smaller samples of literature. The data application enables researchers to place authors in a larger historical context in ways that were not possible before.

Data driven political campaigns and large scale literature analysis demonstrate the blue sky nature of big data—and the attendant opportunities to curate the data that is being produced. Yet even as the new frontier expands at a rapid rate, it is still possible to find value in existing data sources. In my opinion, big data applications and data curation will reach their fullest potential when all sources, both old and new, are reexamined with the new tools.

New Value from Not-So-New Data

Not all data worth curating are born on the web. Agencies that oversee construction variances, hospitals, nursing homes, public works, and public health all gather data, but in many cases, their charge is to gather data for a single, specific purpose. The expected “data deliverable” might be tabular information for policy makers and urban planners, flowing from the stream of new construction permits, or other relatively mundane activities. It is easy to assume that such data may be well-targeted, but do not have transferable value. The following example of wage research proves the opposite.

During the 2012 election season, one of our researchers was monitoring “living wage” campaigns across the country and was very interested to see how they would fare. In the political discourse surrounding this issue, many voices argue that increasing the minimum wage is bad for business, raising costs and placing a burden on small firms in particular. Others argue that increasing low wages in nominal increments—75 cents, for example—has a negligible effect on the economy, and yet they help household incomes significantly. Our researcher wanted to assess the actual performance and policy ramifications of living wages to shed light on the debate, and needed help.

He needed to gather employee data on every fast food restaurant in a specific metropolitan region. Easily accessible sources indicated that there were more than 3500 establishments in all. Yet within that category, movie theaters, gas station convenience stores, and other purveyors of food-on-the-go needed to be winnowed out. None of the obvious data sources could provide such a pinpointed sample.

One of the library staff contacted the county agency that monitors food safety in restaurants, and eventually got through to their information technology department. She learned that the agency had detailed data on every establishment, including the exact number of employees at each location. This was the data our researcher needed to analyze low wage market dynamics and write a policy brief—just three weeks before the election.

The agency monitors restaurants for compliance with public health regulations. But—and this is a big but—that is literally all they are concerned about. They gather detailed data, but the data are only of interest when they find a safety infraction and must fine the offending restaurant. In our case, we had no interest in restaurant health and safety, but we very much wanted to know employee counts at every restaurant location. This sample would be useful as a basis for testing how living wage policies played out “on the ground.” The agency had exactly what we wanted, and we asked if they would be willing to share data set with us.

The IT manager agreed, with the proviso that no information about regulatory compliance would be sent to us—just the whole list of restaurants and their employee count. Once this was agreed upon, it took a few days to receive a data file that had all of what wanted.

These data provide a comprehensive resource for labor economists, and they will retain their value over the long term. Moreover, good relations with the regulatory agency have established a foundation for receiving data updates periodically. The dataset will also have added value if it is mashed together with other resources, such as state- and national level employee data, or coupled with Web- and cloud-based news and information about restaurants in the region.

Curate—But Counsel Too

This reference story drives home the fact that even while we are moving full-speed into an era when crowd-sourced, web-crawled, and tagged data are creating wholly new avenues for research, value still remains in ongoing data acquisition programs. Many public agencies produce data, and more often than not, they are well-managed and have a service mentality. When locally-gathered data of this nature are obtained and merged with other larger sources, the specificity of the local enriches the “big picture” that big data can reveal.

The emergence of big data research practices, which is revolutionizing how people parse data sets large and small, can actually strengthen the impact of library discovery skills. As a result Information professionals stand to benefit not through digital curation and getting involved in big data analysis, but also through the ongoing practice of reference and resource discovery. Because of this, I believe that it is important to promote our research and discovery acumen in the same manner that we are currently promoting the library as the “solution lab” for data curation. As admirable as that effort is, curation alone is, in my opinion, just half of the needed strategy. The crucial balance may be found by remembering that the skills inherent in reference work—discovery, pattern recognition, and analysis—offer a powerful means to convey our value proposition not only as data curators, but also as information counselors with advanced data acquisition skills.

This column appeared in Computers in Libraries, Vol. 33 (No. 3), April 2013.

New Publication: The Academic’s Guide to Self-Publishing

There is a growing cohort of Web-based startups and organizations that are promoting the idea of self-publishing to the Internet. Every now and then a guide to the basics and how-to of it all shows up too.

One example of this can be seen in “The Academic’s Guide to Self-Publishing,” which was written by Claire Morgan and may be found on the Web site of the Open Education Database.  OEDB is a directory of online degree programs.

Interested authors may want to have a look at the guide.

Duking it Out in the E-Book’s “Wild West” Marketplace

(NOTE: This article appeared in computers in libraries 33 (no 1), jan-feb 2013. in light of current litigation, I’m posting it to information | mixology)

 

The e-book is a new medium, but it follows many other breakthrough products with histories of disruption, adoption, market acceptance, and the forging of new business relationships. Perennials such as CD-Roms, DVDs and iPods come to mind, as each of these new technologies triggered important changes in commerce and entertainment. The disruption was real and has caused serious distress for publishers, but there is no getting around the fact that we are in a new era now. Publishers have gained expertise in digital media and are engaged in intensive experimentation. They are taking big risks with e-books and trying new innovative pricing models. And they are playing a tough game to protect revenue.

The e-book market is moving at “warp speed” and it is hard to stay abreast of events. Fortunately librarians have been lucky in our leadership. The American Library Association has been very assertive in advocating for the most expansive model acquiring and loaning e-books. The result has been a lot of “dialogue,” some tough new policies from the largest publishers, and a sense that it is hard to know what is going to happen next. Authors are involved too, and have their own turf to protect.

With so much ferment, what strategies should librarians adopt to become central to the e-book market? Also, what are the best avenues for revitalizing our long-term relationships with publishers? I see two fundamental strengths that might inform our actions. The first is our close relationship with our user communities. The second is a combination of two related sources of knowledge: how to perceive the e-book “market” from a user perspective, and how to collaborate. A collaborator understands the importance of keeping a balance between open access and making a profit—and that kind of awareness may be the “glue” that keeps libraries and publishers in conversation. Even so, the next few years might be bumpy for e-book collaborators. Here are few signposts of the times, and some thoughts about where we are collectively going.

Borrowing, Buying and Both

2012 has been a year for learning a lot about e-books—and recognizing that we need to know even more. We need better data, too. Blogger Jeremy Greenfield is one great source of intelligence. He is a journalist who follows the e-book industry, both on his own blog and for Forbes (see digitalbookworld.com). In June 2012 he reported on something many of us probably know:  libraries and publishers don’t understand each other. Publishers don’t “get” the operational side of libraries, and ALA President Molly Raphael allowed that librarians have more to learn about the e-book market and its effect on publishers and distributors. The result has been a great deal of dialogue, and that’s a good thing. We are talking intensively to publishers to advocate for better access to e-books and reasonable curbs on pricing.

We have good company in our quest to understand how to deploy e-books, too. Greenfield looks to the research findings of the Pew Project on Internet and Society, which has long been a leading voice in analyzing disruptive technologies. Pew reports that e-book consumers are likely both to buy and borrow e-books. What a fascinating approach; it suggests that there is personal joy and comfort in “owning” a digital copy of say, Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, while you might just want to “borrow” a new book by Dean Koontz have an enjoyable, one-time read.

So: buying, borrowing, and both: it’s a user’s solution to a complex market, and it works.  As an iPad Mini user, I enjoy checking out what e-books other people keep on their tablets whenever they allow me have a look. Here’s what I find: a collection of favorite books that tends to grow, slowly but surely. I also see a smart shopper’s independent streak concerning “where” they do their buying and “borrowing.” The Kindle app for iPad is widely used on iPads, even though it is an arch-competitor to iBooks. This open-minded “collection building” and shopping suggests a deep love for the artifact, even in digital form, as well as interest in value-shopping in every direction.

It’s hard not love books that enrich our lives, and it looks like the digital version, read on a retina screen, preserves that crucial value. But “process” matters too. Some people favor bookstores, others prefer Amazon Prime, and still more troll through Apple’s ecosystem of goodies.  Many are still in the process of deciding what they like best. That’s very big unknown factor for publishers, and our familiarity with user behavior gives us an edge. For example, a friend of mine recently bought a Nook e-reader, and set herself up with a library of favorite titles and authors. Within a month, she was back to print, because she didn’t enjoy the process and experience of e-reading.

The Risk of Rhetoric

It would be an understatement to say the libraries and publishers are worlds apart in how they approach the challenge of e-reading. One of the single biggest risks is frank and committed dialogue might give way to rhetorical warfare. Many advocates of open access already feel that large publishers, such as Harper Collins with its 26-times-only policy, or Random House, with its mammoth price increase to recover for simultaneous and persistent access, have gone over to the “dark side.” Fortunately ALA has taken a lead in trying to forge common understandings, which is helpful, since Jeremy Greenfield reports that 67.2 percent of libraries have been loaning e-books since 2011.  Moreover, experimentation is essential, but publishers face a serious obstacle:  they cannot collaborate to set prices without facing antitrust litigation. In the resulting free-for-all, every e-book publisher must come up with its own pricing plan. In some ways, the current e-book market has a wild west, “Dodge City” feel.

What strategies can librarians use in the “Dodge City” of e-book pricing? I can think of two. Stay close to their user communities and make sure they know that we are advocating for them, and also continue to keep a place at the table to debate a fair balance that addresses the needs of publishers, distributors, and libraries as collaborators.

“Windowing”

Other entertainment industries offer some guidance on how to sell and how to price, particularly cinema and music. But once again it is worth noting that conditions change fast. The iTunes Library faces competition from subscription services such as Spotify, and the market may change in the near term. But some of the lessons learned may be worth a look. Blogger Michael Schatzkin reports, Hollywood has perfected the art of “windowing” —delaying the release of DVDs until new movies have had a chance to earn their keep at the box office. Move studios are reluctant to hand over their entire catalogs to Amazon and NetFlix, for good reason, if they can still sell DVDs first.

The Windowing approach is an intriguing alternative for publishers, distributors, and libraries, but it has some built-in shortcomings. Most people want to read their favorite authors right away, and many people (myself included) reserve copies new releases months before they appear in print. Would library patrons accept waiting one or two years to borrow an e-book? That seems like a stretch. Therefore my theory is that publishers can certainly try a windowing approach, delaying the release of  e-books and perhaps employing a significant markdown, but I think they may face a reader backlash. Social media give activists a very handy tool for registering their dissatisfaction. Perhaps the e-book market will spawn a “reader’s guild” of activists, who could use the power of social media to shape policy.

What’s Needed: Unity

My first career was in independent bookselling, and for that reason I follow the publishing business closely. I find that the many “year of the e-book” debates that are running at full steam follow common threads that go back as far as the release of the mass-market paperback, which was seen as a force of doom for publishers—but was anything but that. The eventual outcome of the e-book debate carries high stakes for publishers, distributors, and libraries, but there is some good news too, showing up among all three stakeholders. Publishers have become much more skilled in handling digital media, and this is making them less conservative. We can now expect some healthy innovation from them. Distributors are crucial players in the sales process, and they have gained more clout. Perhaps they too will push back on pricing and access restrictions as a form of self-preservation. If so this may help consumers. Librarians have become the most articulate advocates for the importance of open access and fair use; we have done our homework and have a compelling “social good” to use as a rallying cry.

Each group has gained through innovation, and yet each  has more to learn about a very important function of markets: mutual benefit. At a time when the e-books debate threatens to push players into armed camps, it is vital to find common ground and build unity. If we fail to do that, we should have the courage to admit that the real losers will be readers themselves, who rightly expect us to do a better job of managing the emerging e-book market.

Barbara Quint: These are “Opportunity Times”

Information Today, Inc.’s newly minted Online Searcher magazine appears to combining the best of both its predecessors, ONLINE and Searcher.  (Full Disclosure: I have written for ONLINE over the years and hope to continue to do so.).  Part of me felt some concern about this merger when it was “coming soon,” for a simple reason:  both of the predecessors had a number of columnists and commentators I genuinely believe we cannot do without. We need voices.  Fortunately, they are still sounding out, loud and clear.

I could go on at length about the March/April issue, which has many good articles (disclosure: none by me!). But I really want to focus on senior editor Barbara Quint’s (“bq”)column, appropriately titled “Gimme! Gimme!”  Here are a few thoughts and ideas of my own in response.

Reinventing in Place, not “Aging in Place”

bq devotes her column space to the counter-intuitive but powerful belief that the more change, the more chaos, the more new technology we confront, the better the odds are for breakthroughs. In other words, “hard times” can become “opportunity times.”  This really resonates with me. I’ve been lucky to be associated with UC Berkeley’s Institute for Research on Labor and Employment for a long time (let’s just say, decades). The conventional wisdom would make me out to be a long-term hanger-on, obsessing on OPACs and circulation statistics and other thrilling issues of yesteryear: but no. Working in one location has not felt like “aging in place:” it feel more like “innovate or die.” And I’m not the only one: I do not see any “dead wood” in this joint.

I might have moved around to experience other workplaces and challenges, but heck, I didn’t need to. In the past 18 years, my core assignment and professional activities have been completely revolutionized and reinvented at least five times.

Ghosts of Librarianship Past

First there were those were those good ol’ “online” days, dominated by mediated searches on Lexis-Nexis and charging a hefty premium for mediated research. Next came the ubiquitous email and “digital conversations era, managed by the library, along with Gopher and the notion that networked information had, perhaps, just a bit of potential.

Boom, it’s the Web next, and I volunteered to be the Webmaster for this place (go ahead, ask me anything about 1990s Web best practices!). Nowadays I supervise two programmers and act as the digital publisher for IRLE.

More recently, the “online classroom” and MOOCs (massively open online courses) have created an urgency to make sure that research skills that were once taught in the library get taught online, in class, everywhere. And then there’s social media. Guess what: my staff are the folks who have taught a lot of the staff and graduate students how to use it.

A Band of Paradigm-Busting Sisters and Brothers

This is a not brag-list at all. I can think of at least 20 people who have taken similar risks, and reaped greater rewards in vastly different circumstances, so much so that I am humbled by what they have achieved.

It’s the unrelenting process of digital convergence that has switched out “aging” and pasted in “reinvention.” The digital era has had a way of making librarianship a cutting-edge field. And the caliber of new entrants into the field—who arrive with their social media and “disruptive” thought patterns fully honed—guarantee that we are not going to be a dull bunch in the coming years.

“Horrors! Open Access!”  Or, Does Opportunity Strike Again?

The “Gimme…” column that bq writes is a typical, bq-trademarked piece that challenges her readers to think up some good ideas and run with them. She lists many, but my favorite is the “specter” of open access. She cites OA as a key example of how a potentially “scary” concept is in fact an opportunity-from-thin-air. To quote:

“Open access needs editoring, stratification, categorization, ranking and anything else that can enable users to use it in a curriculum of learning.”

–That is, look at all the cool things we can contribute, instead of viewing open access as a threat to established revenue streams, a risk to the peer review process, and a force that will put publishers out of work.

I’m right with her on this one. I am surrounded by a distinguished cohort of faculty and students who are only now beginning to think about open access seriously. But mention “Gold OA” or “Green OA” and eyes begin glaze over. Opportunity time strikes again: just make your exegesis colorful and distinctive, and you shall win the hearts and minds of your audience. Tell a story that makes sense, and people pay attention. Indeed, my director will often ask me, “Do I need to be concerned about this?” when some new digital or data curation initiative is announced. Acting as the “interpreter” of new technology for very busy, very smart folks is not a bad place to be in an organization devoted to cross-disciplinary research.

The point is that the questions that open access raises, and the challenges it presents to the key players in the “information lifecycle” are in fact evidence that we have a very serious role to play in defining what education, universities, and online learning will look like in ten years. We are not on the sidelines; indeed, we know more about scholars and their habits and most other stakeholders. So bq’s ideas about what we could contribute seem very obvious, very relevant, and perhaps as evident to other folks as they are to us. There’s a reason for that: we were trained in library school to understand the dynamics of “pattern recognition.”

Let’s All Do A Little “Pattern Recognition”

In the struggle to reframe “tough times” as “opportunity times” we already possess the necessary tools: the ability to discern patterns in society and technology, and the tenacity to push forward based on what we perceive. At the consortial level, there would never have a SPARC or a Mellon Foundation-funded initiative to study digital libraries, if we had kept thinking “inside the box” of what information services are supposed to be. Ditto working with Google to launch a more far-seeing digital initiative, and thus giving birth to HathiTrust. Their commercial dream has a second life as our scholarly oasis, and everybody wins (including the attorneys).

At the institutional level, our boldest administrators allow their newly-hired net-gen librarians to get a little crazy and try new things, like—wow—online course reserves! And at the individual level, each of us has developed the mettle to face down non-library administrators who look quizzically at you and say, “What exactly do you do?”

So I do see some patterns at work. The first: technological change has disrupted everybody, and those who thrive are the ones who can separate useful, transferable tasks from existing modes of organization. The second: even though there are thousands of really smart people running around places like UC Berkeley or other great universities, far fewer people are gifted with the skill of framing what we are experiencing in coherent “stories,” and then telling those stories. Do that, and you are halfway to your own personal brave new world.

Third: “Pay attention, show up, speak the truth, and let go of the consequences.”

I know: that can to quite difficult do in academic committee meeting, but do it we must. Thankfully, it’s less difficult when we mix it up with a gang of like-minded digital citizens, who care about what our digital future will look like.

Competition in the Health Care Professions: A Distant Mirror?

I’ve written at length about sociologist Andrew Abbott’s 1988 book, The System of Professions (Chicago, 1998), and his very astute analysis about how the information professions—all of them, ranging from librarians to MBA consultants—compete with each other, obstruct competing groups when they reach for more power, and so on. He describes what professionals do as offering a “treatment,” which requires special training and knowledge, and the exercise of independent judgment. When a particular group wants to gain the upper hand, moving into an emerging market, for example, they practice “treatment substitution.” Essentially they are saying “I know a lot too, and my strategy is a better one.”

Since we all work together in the information professions, the actual dynamics of treatment substitution can be obscured by good vibrations, collaborative spirit and so on—or at least, we can hope so. However, oftentimes the easiest way to perceive the current of competition in our own field of expertise is to look to other fields and see what is happening there.  With respect to treatment substitution, there is no better example than the medical professions, and Andrew Abbott devoted many pages of his book to the medical fields along with the information professions.

Well, unsurprisingly, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is stirring up controversy and also creating opportunity. When opportunities abound, professional competition can heat up fast. And next comes treatment substitution!

Nurse Practitioners: Exercising New Muscle

On March 24, 2013, the San Francisco Chronicle reported on the current struggle of nurse practitioners to exercise more independent judgment in health care delivery. NPs already can diagnose acute and chronic illness, are trained in pharmacology and health care ethics, and they have become essential partners in care. They are regulated at the state level, and so what they can actually do varies by region. Chronicle Reporter Shannon Pettypiece describes the overall status of their struggle, which increasingly is playing out in the courts.

Physicians have always seen themselves as the “captain of the ship,” and they and their associations vigorously guard their primacy in the practice of medicine. Yet at the same time, there is a shortage of 13,000 doctors right now, and this shortage is forecast to grow to 130,000 in the coming years. Nurse practitioners argue that they could fill a crucial gap, if they are afforded the privileges needed to diagnose and treat patients. This is particularly true in rural regions.

Closer to Home: Opportunity from Atomization

In the information professions, there has been splintering of major concepts and established roles–you could even say atomization of “skill sets,” as the digital era unfolds. MIS managers, consultants, CIOs, information specialists and librarians all compete to offer the best information “treatments,” but new technology and ideas about social interaction are rewriting the rules. Treatments on offer include digital curation, digital publishing, preservation, digital conversations, reference consultations, and more. As digital convergence pushes us all closer together, we face more moments when we must choose to collaborate or compete.

In the journals marketplace, the emergence of SPARC and new strategies to promote open access scholarship are swiftly changing our expectations and assumptions about the future of information management and delivery. At the same time, technical skills can be learned readily by just about any enterprising person with a dream. These enterprising people can create apps and other tools that become “must-have” functionalities on our smartphones.

In other words:  competition, and treatment substitution, are alive and well in the information professions. We even have litigation over publishing markets and journal pricing, although our version seems a lot less personal than physicians’ assertion that they simply “know more” than nurses.

“A Finch Sang in Berkeley Square….”

I don’t think we have a single issue that defines current competition among the various information handling professions; rather we have a great many, and they are diverse. But for the moment, with the release of the “Finch Report” in the United Kingdom and its mandate to build “Gold Open Access” models to make research available to all, I’d say open access is a illuminating issue that defines what competition looks like. At what point does a publisher need the library, or for that matter, at what point does the library actually “become” the publisher? Or further: at what point do authors become the “agents of change” in an all-new style of writers’ guild, given that technology makes this possible, right now?

These and many other questions will not be answered soon, although the nature of competition may reveal some of the strategies that many of us will surely test. Meanwhile, while we continue to work together, we continue to hone our skill at monitoring the digital environment we work in, and the new opportunities that arise to extend our reach.