23 Iunii 2009

So happy birthday to me; I’m 37 today. Gonna be a scorcher, apparently, though my age seems to have outstripped even today’s Celsius thermostat, which is frownworthy. I had vague thoughts of theatregoing, but in this heat even Shakespeare loses a certain amount of appeal.

Another gift for myself, then… I could do with a new carry-on, the one I trashpicked five years or so ago getting a bit long in the tooth. (Squeaky in the wheel, actually; I know what the problem is, but unfortunately it’s not one that a bit of oil will solve. I’ve hauled that thing on so many city streets and through so many airports that one axle has gone twisty and eaten away some of the rubberoid wheel-well, against which the wheel now squeaks piercingly when it’s a mind to.)

No, I woke up early this morning—rather painfully early, in fact—and knew what I wanted to give myself: this post, in which I hang up the keyboard on old CavLec for good. Not a spangly gift, or an easy one to wrap, but what price peace of mind?

This blog started because I needed a public space to inhabit, a space clearly and unequivocally mine. I expected it to be a small space—it was a big ol’ Internet even then—and for a long time it was, and I was fine with that. I never expected, wanted, or consciously worked for one of the big spaces. Too many strings, and far too much to be afraid of. Big spaces do not set free; they confine.

What the last year or so has taught me, and more shame to me for not realizing it sooner, is that CavLec has outgrown itself and me. It’s just too big, a second-grader pretending that her favorite play outfit isn’t skin-tight and out-at-elbows. I could, if I were a more graceful person, find it something new to wear… but grace is not and has never been a hallmark of mine. As it is, writing here has come to feel like getting my photograph taken, and we all know how I hate that.

(And that very dislike draws some people to get their cameras out when I’m around, you know what I’m saying?)

CavLec is, in various eyes: a bellwether, a pawn, the voice of the otherwise silent, a liability, a town crier, a bogeyman, a headache, a nine-days’-wonder, fodder for gossip and fodder for anger and fodder for fear. It wasn’t supposed to be any of that. (Well, maybe a voice.) It was supposed to be a blog. But I have to get my Stanley Fish on every once in a while and remind myself that I am not the only maker of the text here; that’s how text works, and sometimes there’s not much an author-function can do but steal a few moments in the critics’ throne to survey the landscape.

I’m not happy about this decision. I’m not unhappy about it. It is a gift to myself, much though I’ll miss the magic textbox.

It’s a good time to take off the rat-hat, too. For quite some time, I’ve been just about the only specimen of Rattus repositor to poke much more than a nose out of the wainscoting. Funny thing is, I shall shortly be a rat without a repository; in a decision I wholly endorse and in fact helped instigate (in my small way), the repository I run is going to be folded into the digital library on top of a new technology platform and a rethought service suite.

I’ve bemoaned the lack of a proper rat community for a while, and taken a few futile stabs at creating one. What I’ve had to confront is that perhaps CavLec and I are part of the problem. If you’re a rat in a threatened position, cats everywhere about, and there’s one damfool rat holding forth in plain sight on top of a coffee table, what are you going to do? Hunker down in the wainscoting, of course! Let that rat get et by cat.

Well, you know, I think CavLec and I have done our bit by you lot, you repository-rats, and I’ve got plenty of scars to prove it. So CavLec is going dark, and I am moving on from ratdom one way or another, and you? If ever there were a time for repository-rats to stop lurking behind the baseboards, this is it. Don’t wait on me; this here rat has finally come to its senses and is scarpering. Bell the cats yourselves. It’s time.

Traditionally this is the place where the author-function graciously thanks all the readers who have made the whole endeavor worthwhile. I think I’m ungraciously bucking tradition. If I love you, and there are a lot of people I’ve met through CavLec that I love, I hope I’ve told you other ways. If I’m grateful, I hope I’ve said so already. Here is the wrong place, and now is the wrong time. Too many cats and cameras.

What’s next? I don’t know. Some things are right out; I’m not going to go pseudonymous and pop up in another corner, for example, because I just don’t roll that way, never mind that my writing style and subject matter are distinctive enough that I’d be outed in no time flat. I’m not taking all my Internet toys and going home—as childish as I can be, I’m not that childish. I might start another blog, or even more than one, but if I do, it’ll be for a different reason than old CavLec, and have much narrower parameters.

Mostly, I think, what I’ll be doing is looking for a space that’s the right size, that I can inhabit comfortably. With luck, by 38 I’ll find it.

17 Iunii 2009

“Wow, those are great slides!” I do hear that with some frequency. I’m not sure, myself, that the visual vocabulary I’ve settled on is all that, because I have the visual sense of a drowned rat and the graphic-design training of a three-year-old, but… that just means that if I can make pretty slides, anybody can, right?

So here’s how I do it. How I currently do it, I should say; if you look at my SlideShare you can pretty clearly see my slide-design sense developing, and… it’s still developing.

I start with a flat black background. I used to do gradients, and even further back I used to do those template things, but even in Keynote, templates take up space and—well, to me they just clutter things for not very much return by way of visual impact. In fact, return decreases over time during the talk, because people have seen the template already and edit it out mentally as though it were a web ad-banner. (I do, anyway.) There is certainly value to a sense of unity and rhythm in talk visuals—but there are other ways to achieve that, which I’ll talk about in a bit.

The key advantage to a dark background with light text is that your slides will hold up better in a venue with too much light. Dark text on a light background will be attenuated into illegibility by excess ambient light; I’ve squinted too many times myself! Another advantage is that you can use opacity control on a background image to darken it up; that makes type work a lot better on it (though the Keynote “shadow” control is your friend, and sometimes I wish Keynote had an outliner as well).

So then I think about my talk title. I go for jokey (sometimes hokey, I admit) talk titles, but there’s method to my madness: they usually contain or at least imply a visual that I can build slides around. “Le IR, c’est mort” gave me the white Academy Engraved and the red Zapfino fonts. “Save the Cows” and “Even the Loons are Licensed” are obvious. I have one coming up (uh, should probably start working on it, in fact) on IRs called “Rebirth of the Phoenix,” which by some utter Internet miracle yielded me this image of amazing awesomeness.

Ah, yes. Images. Flickr Storm and Flickr’s own Creative Commons search, set to CC-BY only, yield wealth undreamable. There are even image-search engines out there that will match a specific color or color palette; their one drawback is that they don’t tend to be license-limitable. I’m changing my practice on crediting images; I’ve tended to put a credits slide at the end, but that makes slide reuse more difficult for others, so I’m starting to put the image URL right on the slide, somewhere I hope is inconspicuous. (Tip: if you always put it in the same place on the slide, it becomes “visual furniture” and the mind’s eye edits it out.)

I’ve done an image-themed slideshow at least once. Worked okay—it helps that at least one of those images is iconic.

What I do with images tends to be cut-and-dried and can probably be improved upon. I do image backgrounds, as many people do, though I think I’m more careful about font readability than most. I’ll deopacify a smaller image and tilt it a bit in the center of the slide. I’ll do an image centerpiece for images that are strong enough; “Save the Cows” has a lot of these (the pic on slide 28 still makes me laugh). I’ll make collages, though I go easy on this tactic because I don’t think I do it well. I’m still learning how and when to use Keynote’s picture frames and shape masks; the only advice I have is that pictures don’t need to be pointy-corner rectangular, and often don’t want to be.

Fonts. I am not really a typographer, despite having been a typesetter. I sling some of the lingo, and I have gut feelings about some fonts, but true font geeks awe me. Here are my plain-Jane rules of thumb about fonts:

  • Don’t use widely-reviled fonts. Comic Sans, Times New Roman (which is bad for other reasons), Arial, Papyrus, (yes, even) Helvetica. You never know when you’ll have a true font geek in the audience.
  • Don’t use program-default fonts; they’re overused. This means no more Gill Sans, Keynote users. I would avoid super-common Web fonts, too, but that’s me.
  • Sans-serif and humanist fonts are generally better than serif. Serif is okay for big text such as headers, but…
  • Pick a font with some weight, to help a bit more against the excess-ambient-light problem; this is especially important for serif (and monospace, if you have a use for it) fonts. It’s a good idea to use a font that has a built-in semi-bold face. I’ve been liking Diavlo lately, though it’s rather wide. Futura is nice, too—and it has a condensed variant that I really like for smaller-text bullets. Optima Bold works, but don’t even bother with the non-bold face; it’s too thin.
  • If you’re using more than three fonts in a single presentation, shame on you. I make an exception for “font-art” slides (see slide 2 of What’s Driving Open Access?), which is a technique I use when I have to throw a lot of jargon at people at once.

Fonts have personality. It’s fun to work with that, and it can also set a mood. I use Futura for teaching-heavy presentations because it has that elementary-school chalkboard feel to it. I ended up with Bank Gothic in “Save the Cows” just as a lark the first time, but when I revised and expanded that one, I thought the dialogue between strong, formal, admonitory Bank Gothic and lighter-hearted Bradley Hand ITC turned out rather well. “Font-art” jargon slides are a beast to put together because they practically demand a ton of animation work, but people seem to enjoy them despite my ham-handed layout approach.

Animation. Effective when used gracefully, distractingly bizarre when abused. For the body of any talk I give, I pick one or two animations and stick to them religiously; that helps give the slides that sense of visual unity I talked about. I intentionally keep these animations simple and unobtrusive (“dissolve” is my favorite). On top of that, I’ll use flashier animations for effect, tailoring the animation to what I’m trying to get across. Font-art slides are a favorite flashy-animation target, but I’ve sprinkled it over other things too.

One thing to remember is that at least in Keynote, you can de-opacify slide elements as an “animation.” This makes them recede into the background visually (at least on my black backgrounds). This is a great trick for slides that have a lot of elements on them, such as my talk-bubble slides (see slides 4-6 of “Le IR, c’est mort;” I did this on slide 11, too, but I cut out the intervening stages when I posted the deck, sorry).

If you’re going to get into animation, you need to learn how to do automatic transitions between slides and slide elements. Keynote users, this is the rushing-diamond tab in the Inspector, and always have “More build options” open. (Oi, Apple? The mystery-meat tab navigation in the Inspector is frustrating; please fix it. Acorn’s tab palettes have words.) If you don’t learn transitions, you’ll wear out your space bar in addition to making your presentation all herky-jerky. Word to the wise: even when you get good with transitions, review a slideshow before you give it—I have been known to overuse the space bar in presentations I haven’t given for a while, trying to space over something I have an automatic transition set for. Oops.

(The awesomest animation/transition I ever did was for UPEI’s Island Scholar opening: a slow crossfade between Alice holding the Red Queen and Alice holding the kitten. It was a beautiful, beautiful thing. Took some fiddling, but so very worth it.)

I am the first to admit that I have a bad, bad time with color and wish I used it more effectively. One thing that sometimes helps, especially if I’m theming a talk around a few images, is to grab a dominant color from those images. Another trick is to use a web color-palette generator. Once you have your colors, don’t be afraid to use color contrast for text emphasis; in my experience, that works better on a slide than bold or italic text in the same color. One thing I want to try (and may with the upcoming IR presentation) is holding everything in a presentation, including images, to a strictly limited color palette.

Visual unity. If you’re holding yourself to a few fonts, a few animations, and a few colors, you’ve already gone a lot of the way. For presentations shorter than half an hour, this may be all you need to do, honestly. For longer presentations, I tend to use transition slides, all in the same visual style, to move between talk sections while unifying the whole talk; “Le IR, c’est mort” did this moderately well, though in hindsight, I should have held that deck to a smaller visual vocabulary. Typically, a transition slide has very little text on it; it’s a title, after all.

Slides with very little text can be striking and beautiful, in fact. I think slide 19 of “Save the Cows” may be the best slide I’ve ever done. Six words, one image, made the entire audience wince and nod. Some people will tell you that this kind of slide is the only kind you should do, in fact. I disagree; I think repetition makes it gimmicky. Still, it’s a good tool for the arsenal.

I hereby admit that I still use bullet points; Tufte can draw-and-quarter me whenever he’s a mind. The longer the presentation and the more abstract the material, the more likely I am to. I do try to put visual interest on bullet-point slides some way or another, without drowning out the text, and I don’t think I’d ever do a presentation now that was all bullet-point slides. (Even “Even the Loons” wasn’t all bullet points, though it was pretty close!) Bullet points are particularly putrid for telling stories, which is something I like to do; I far prefer illustrative quotes or images for that, or even the timeline in “Le IR, c’est mort.”

How all of this comes together… well, I dunno, I just do it. I do a lot of slide duplicating-and-editing once I get rolling, which helps keep things visually consistent. I occasionally (and with regret) kill my darlings, when I make something beautiful that just doesn’t fit into the presentation. I rearrange slides a lot, until the narrative makes sense in my head.

So that’s what I know about making slides. Hope it helps somebody.

13 Iunii 2009

So the Bentham thing is getting a fair bit of airplay, and it raises a lot of questions in my head that I would like to see wiser heads than mine work through. Because I do see a time-sensitive opportunity in all this madness, I’ll venture forth with my half-formed thoughts.

Am I particularly surprised that there are skeevy publishers on the OA bandwagon? No, not particularly. It’s not like there aren’t any skeevy toll-access publishers (or, perhaps better said, publishers with skeevy practices, on both sides of the aisle). Not to mention that novelty business models tend to attract the skeevy for a while, precisely in hopes that people’s anti-skeeviness heuristics won’t have caught up to the newness. Besides, we knew Bentham was skeevy, just as we have been pretty darn sure Scientific Journals International was up to no good.

I am a little surprised that Dr. Parmanto seems genuinely not to have had any idea what was going on until it hit the news. A doctor of info-sci doesn’t know how scholarly knowledge production works? But then again… from Googling around, it looks to me that Dr. Parmanto is fairly new to the profession. As such, he’d be a logical target for a skeevy publisher: less-developed heuristics (to put it kindly) and a voracious need to prove himself professionally. An editorship is a pretty plum service gig. Taking a wild stab in the dark, I’ll adduce Bentham going above and beyond to hide the skeevy, combined with a failure of professional socialization on the part of Dr. Parmanto’s teachers and mentors. Bluntly, I harbor strong doubts that Dr. Parmanto is the only new scholar, in info-sci or in almost any field you name, who might lack a solid enough understanding of what a journal editorship entails to be able to deal with Bentham’s problems.

So one way to look at this unpleasant situation is as an information problem. If that suggests to you that I think librarians have a role in solving it, you know me entirely too well. In fact, I think we have to get a handle on it, because we are and will continue to be some of the organizations funding gold OA. Imagine the mess, if a well-regarded academic library funneled money to a Bentham! Even by way of (presumably) well-intentioned but (apparently) not-fully-informed individuals like Dr. Parmanto!

Not a mess I would want to be in. But taking a stand gets sticky, too, because (as the wrangle at Maryland demonstrates) the last thing any academic service center wants to get involved in is telling faculty where they can and can’t publish. As gold OA takes on increasing importance, anyone with funds to disburse toward author fees may well land—or be perceived as having landed—in precisely that position. How do we even begin to think about that?

Well, one way is to think of ourselves as research funders, not unlike the NIH or the Wellcome Trust. If we’re paying the money, we deserve a say in where it goes, and we’re well within our rights to say that the like of Bentham or SJI is right out. As librarians, we make collection-development and purchasing decisions based on assessment of information quality, right? (Yes, yes, “when not prevented from doing so by Big Deals and similar less-than-savory practices,” granted.) This is the same thing, just at a different point in the process. It shouldn’t be a problem.

Of course, I’ve just begged a huge question. How do we know about the like of Bentham or SJI? Or, to make the question less black-and-white, what about double-dipping hybrid journals, the ones that will cheerfully take your money to make an article OA, but won’t adjust their subscription fees by a single penny in proportion to uptake of the OA option? Arguably, libraries have a survival interest in not funding those!

I think OASPA’s response to the Bentham situation points to part of the way forward. If OASPA membership becomes a seal of approval for all-OA publishing operations, then it’s dead simple for any library that funds author fees to hold to a policy of “if it ain’t OASPA, we ain’t paying.” This puts a significant burden on OASPA, I grant you—if nothing else, they have to have the guts to kick out a bad apple—but my sense from that post is that they’re at least willing to consider picking up this gauntlet. If so, good for them.

I’m not sure that OASPA membership solves the entire problem, unfortunately… and I don’t know anything about OASPA’s membership structure or finances, so I apologize in advance if this line of thought is completely misguided. What about the legitimate shoestring OA journal charging author fees? Will that journal have the wherewithal to become an OASPA member? If it doesn’t, how is OASPA going to police it? Will OASPA have the wherewithal to take a serious look at every shoestring OA journal, especially ones that aren’t paying members? (The prospect certainly alarms me; that’s a lot of journals. Even limiting the program just to those journals charging author fees leaves a lot of journals.) If OASPA membership becomes the seal of approval, how will shoestring OA journals who need for whatever reason to charge author fees be able to bootstrap themselves?

(This may become an issue for library-hosted OA journals as well. While my current sense is that academic libraries who host journals don’t want to involve themselves directly in questions of quality, preferring to leave that to the sponsoring faculty, that’s not going to stop a library developing severe heartburn if a journal they host turns out to be a dud—or worse, a fraud. Verbum sapientibus. Maybe journal-sponsoring libraries should consider becoming OASPA members? What about journal-hosting platforms such as BePress?)

OASPA probably can’t fix the double-dippers’ little red wagons, either, as double-dippers are unlikely to become OASPA members. It would be nice to have an authoritative list of double-dippers—or, really, a list of hybrid-OA programs that aren’t double-dipping would do just as well. Again, the goal for libraries is to be able to make sensible policy based on trustworthy lists.

Even with all these caveats, I think an OASPA certification program represents a tremendous opportunity for the OA community. Gold OA is still small. It’s much easier to put meaningful quality regulation in place over a small, emerging, prestige-hungry industry. If gold OA manages to do that, then it suddenly has another competitive advantage over toll-access, which hasn’t done so and (given its extent and decentralization) very likely can’t.

If squashing the Benthams and SJIs of this world also results, then hurrah! I certainly won’t shed any tears. One less information instruction burden—because really, who is going to educate new scholars about the publication landscape they inhabit if not us librarians? Clearly there are some information gaps to be filled now!

7 Maii 2009

So, bluntly, what Elsevier was up to with this fake-journal business is heuristics gaming.

(Yes, I know, I have a thing about heuristics. Sue me.)

Elsevier was dolling up Big Pharma advertising so as to score high on clinical practitioners’ quick-and-dirty estimates of the reliability of information sources. Gaming their heuristics. Elsevier also claims, of course, that their very brand name is a quality heuristic: “if it’s from Elsevier, it’s good stuff.” If this behavior damages that heuristic—if clinicians no longer think “Elsevier = quality,”—then methinks Elsevier will have some explaining to do to its shareholders.

Gaming heuristics to claim authority for an item that shouldn’t in fact possess any is slimy, fraudulent behavior. It certainly should taint a publisher’s reputation, as well as the reputation of the other journals that publisher handles.

Exactly when and how much Elsevier did or didn’t disguise its brands in this context is a fascinating question. Per Jonathan Rochkind, they didn’t care to soil their Science Direct brand with trumpery advertising. They didn’t mind spreading the poison through generic non-Elsevier-branded properties such as WorldCat, but they wouldn’t let it appear in PubMed (afraid they’d be found out sooner? good question).

According to The Scientist, Elsevier says “this was six years ago; we’re disclosing such things better now.” Are they? Bill Hooker says that the fake imprint that produced the fake journal doesn’t even have a comprehensive list of its other journals. Moreover, Hooker surfaces evidence that some of these fake journals, far from being dealt with six years ago, are still being printed and circulated, paid for by heaven-knows-who.

As a thought-experiment, let’s say that Excerpta Medica did have a comprehensive list of its fake journals. Let’s also say that there’s some fine print in each journal revealing the sponsorship. Problem solved? No. No, damn it, because Elsevier is still trying to game clinicians’ heuristics, and that’s still slimy and fraudulent behavior for a supposedly reputable publisher to engage in.

(Anybody who tells me “But they all do it!” at this point will be received with elevated eyebrows and “Really? Show your work! Who else is engaging in slimy and fraudulent behavior?”)

I find all this genuinely disturbing, quite aside from my professional quarrels with Elsevier. I don’t want the clinicians I go to having their heuristics gamed by Big Pharma waving money at journal-gigolo Elsevier.

So who’s going to call them on this? If not us librarians, who?

24 Martii 2009

This post fulfills my Ada Lovelace Day pledge.

I met Bess in 2007, when the Joint Conference on Digital Libraries took place near her old hometown. Bess is a geek’s geek, fantastic company, and a role model for me and for everyone.

Bess’s undergrad degree—one of them, anyway—is in Information Systems, putting her in pretty rarefied company. If that’s not enough, she’s done plenty of open-source development, most recently as project lead for the open-source Blacklight library catalog. I would say that Bess subscribes to my beat-things-with-rocks philosophy, except that Bess actually knows what she’s doing, and gets it right without resorting to rocks.

She also works hard to bring the benefits of open-source software to the developing world, as tireless worker for and promoter of Electronic Information for Libraries—Free and Open Source Software. Many first-world open-source advocates talk a great game about open-source saving the world. Bess? Bess is making it happen.

And a personal note…

Bess took me under her wing at JCDL, alerting me to the best coffee-and-dessert joint in town. As we sat enjoying some serious dessert, she hazarded that she might, possibly, know about a good comic shop in the area, and would I be interested in checking it out?

See, you never know how even a relatively geeky woman is going to respond to that. Maybe she’s a comics geek. In all likelihood she isn’t, and she’ll think comics are for guys… and fairly skeevy guys at that. Sometimes that impression is based on sad experience, too. Fortunately, I love me some good sequential art, so she and I dropped by and recommended each other some favorites and had a grand old time.

I’ve been admiring her ever since.

Bess’s blog is Solvitur ambulando. I don’t see how on earth she has time to keep up a blog, but I’m glad she does.

Edited to add: More of the Bess-love from eIFL.

6 Ianuarii 2009

I think writing about our tech mentors is a glorious idea and I’ve signed up to do it. Won’t you join me?

31 Octobris 2008

KT Tunstall’s wonderful song is playing on Pandora as I type this, and it’s just so fitting I have to use it as this post title!

This is a tale of beating DSpace and OS X with many, many rocks until they sorta-kinda work. I present it here in hopes of sparing someone else considerable annoyance.

One of my best clients emailed me with a “please fix this link in my HTML item” request. Simple enough, right?

The said HTML item is nested in folders three deep. This means that DSpace’s regular exporter breaks, because it’s not smart enough to create intermediate folders. Joy.

So I kicked that up to the dspace-tech list, and got a kind response from Larry Stone of MIT: “use the METS packager export instead.” I did, and lo! it worked.

So I twiddled the file needing twiddling, zipped up the whole, and tried to put it back. First the METS ingester barfed because I’d zipped the folder containing all the files, not the files themselves. Okay, durrr, I felt stupid and zipped the files properly.

Then the METS ingester barfed because unbeknownst to me, Mac OS X’s native zip utility adds OS X-specific junk into the zip file. Quite properly, the ingester said primly, “Your METS manifest doesn’t match your actual files. Go forth and fix it.” The solution to this little difficulty turned out to be YemuZip, which can emit a normal zip file.

Then the METS ingester barfed because the file I’d twiddled was a different size from what the METS file was claiming, logically enough. Helpfully, the ingester’s error message told me what size the file actually was, so I could pop into the METS file and fix the size in the several places it appears.

Then the METS ingester barfed because the checksums in the METS file didn’t match the checksum of the file I’d twiddled. There’s probably a quick and easy way to calculate a checksum from the command line, but CheckSumApp has a cute little GUI. Like the file size, the checksum appears several places in the METS file, so I made sure I got all of them.

Then the METS ingester actually worked. So now I have to go in and do database magic so that the item handle points to the new item, because the METS ingester doesn’t have a replace option the way the normal ingester does.

Anybody who thinks that a normal repository manager is going to go through all this to fix a link in an HTML file is as barking mad as I am. This is the ridiculousness that DSpace’s insistence on no-versioning, butterfly-pinned-to-wall “final archival” reduces me to. Yes, it’s funny—but it also cost me an entire hour to fix one link.

14 Octobris 2008

In 1980 or thereabouts—I was eight or nine—my father the anthropologist started yet another rant about serials cancellations at his university’s library while he drove the family somewhere in the family car. He thought the problem an artifact of library underfunding, I remember. I don’t recall that he ever did anything about it save rail bitterly on the subject to us, his captive, powerless, and resentful audience.


At the inaugural meeting of the Open eBook Forum in 2000, David Ornstein and Janina Sajka explained what they hoped electronic books would accomplish. Amid the faux-visionary fluff and the crass dollar signs, one hope they expressed made me vibrate: that for the first time, a visually-impaired person would be able to walk into Borders or Barnes & Noble and buy a book off the shelf just like anyone else.

Access to human knowledge and creativity. Access for the wrongly disenfranchised. Access. I loved markup, I loved text, I loved design, I loved standards work—but then and afterward, it was the access argument that kept me engaged with electronic books. My father the anthropologist, his own eyes not what they had been, understood and endorsed that argument at once.


I certainly know how reassuring accurate, authoritative medical information can be. When my father the anthropologist went to the hospital for bypass surgery, I looked for every scrap of reliable information I could find about what he’d have to go through, what his chances were, what would happen afterwards. Information is hope for helpless bystanders.

I know what information gaps mean to the efficacy of medical care, too. I started my quest to treat my repetitive stress injury when my hands and wrists hurt so badly I couldn’t sleep some nights, nor survive a day’s work without severe pain. The open web, obvious misinformation aside, contained little more than nonsensical and insulting condemnations of RSI sufferers as malingerers, as well as blatant advertising of invasive surgery on the websites of orthopedic surgeons.

My primary-care physician insisted on old-fashioned treatment modalities before she would refer me anywhere. I paid for and endured weeks of wrist braces that I knew would not relieve my pain because I had tried them, as well as a tennis-elbow strap that left me in such agony that I refused to put up with it longer than a day. I did achieve a referral at last, and physical therapy turned out to be the right treatment. As I healed, the new search skills I was acquiring in library school, along with the access that being a student entitled me to, helped me discover that the medical literature understood why my doctor’s initial recommendations had been wrong. Why did I waste time, money, and pain over my inability to produce reliable information to assist my medical provider in treating me appropriately?

I can only be glad I wasn’t suffering from anything life-threatening, like artery blockage.


I was slotted into an online course in “Virtual Collection Development,” taught with patient lucidity by Jane Pearlmutter, my first semester in library school. Among the readings was “The Librarians’ Dilemma: Contemplating the Costs of the ‘Big Deal’” by the University of Wisconsin’s own Ken Frazier. There it was again, this problem of serials cancellations, framed in terms so transparently sensible that I could only exult.

Later in the semester came a unit on open access. It would be nice to say that lightning struck and I knew that was what I wanted to do with my professional life, but it didn’t and I didn’t. Of course I was intrigued; I knew several for-profit journal publishers from the worm’s-eye view of an erstwhile lowly data-conversion peasant. I wove the complaints I remembered from my father the anthropologist, my own experience in scholarly publishing, and what I learned in class into a rich, detailed mental tapestry, and I felt real hope that open access was an answer I could take back to him that he would understand and appreciate. Discovering that I would shortly join the profession backing open access only confirmed that library school was the right choice for me, even should I not work in the open-access niche myself.


When I landed my first library position just after graduating, I called my father the anthropologist. His first question was “How much will you be paid?” I declined answering. His second question was “What’s your title?”

“Digital Repository Services Librarian,” I said, with pride and no little amusement.

On the other end of the line, a lengthy silence.


My father the anthropologist used to buy lab equipment out of his own pocket, rather than struggle with byzantine university purchasing procedures and skeptical departmental scrutiny. Rightly or wrongly, he was convinced no one would understand or support him and his work, but he refused to knuckle under. He would do what it took, spend what he had to, to further the research he fervently believed in.

I have bought quite a bit out of my own pocket too, rather than charge it to the libraries that have employed me. I have bought color inkjet printers, various sorts of expensive paper for brochures and bookmarks and whatnot, and poster printing. I have bought software that I use for work-related purposes. Once I bought an expensive print run of a color brochure because an opportunity came up to distribute a lot at once so suddenly that I didn’t have time to print and fold them myself as I usually did. I bought a cross-country trip to an important repository conference when I was de facto between jobs. I bought a laptop on which I do repository-related work when the occasion warrants. I have bought buttons with images of Mars on them, because when you’re handed a golden acronym you might as well make the most of it. Like as not the libraries I have worked in would have paid for some or all of this—I never asked.

I have read, written, rewritten, commented, and debugged code in Java, Python, and XSLT. I have tweaked JSPs, murdered unnecessary HTML tables, and rewritten CSS designs from the ground up, swearing sulfurously at various versions of Internet Explorer. I have edited metadata in XML by hand. I have translated Endnote records into Dublin Core. I have screenscraped ugly HTML and cudgeled it into legible metadata. I have screenscraped yet more ugly HTML for transformation into preservation-worthy markup. I have built convoluted SQL queries slowly and carefully from the inside out, run them on production databases with fear and trepidation, and once or twice cleaned up after them when I’ve gotten them wrong. I have typed cargo-cult incantations at command lines to keep server software running and upgraded, and raked Google for answers when some incantations didn’t work as promised.

I have stared at lengthy CVs with a sigh, and then waded resolutely in to clear rights on as many of the publications as I could. I have searched SHERPA/RoMEO and Bowker’s Books in Print. I have hunted down agreements from publisher websites. I have asked faculty for their copyright-transfer-agreement files, and tried not to let my smile grow too pained when they told me they don’t keep such things. I have explained the difference between preprints, postprints, and publisher PDFs to politely incredulous auditors. I have read scads of legalese, and interpreted it as best I could. I have read and pondered the words of librarians and lawyers who understand the legal fine points much better than I. I have made some risky calls, likely some wrong ones. I haven’t been called on the carpet for them… yet.

I have held one-on-one meetings and demo sessions with faculty and librarians. I have designed and produced brochures, flyers, slideshows, posters, web pages, wiki pages, and one mini-movie. I have presented at innumerable campus expos, showcases, lectures, symposia, conferences, and workshops. I have called and written my elected representatives. I have blogged. I have written articles and self-archived them, sometimes after polite and fruitful discussions with publishers. I have run any number of failed efforts toward building a community of practice among repository managers, each new attempt the triumph of hope over experience. I have cold-called librarians, faculty, department chairs, deans, and administrators. I have been to more meetings than ought to fit in the three years I’ve been doing this.

You needn’t be obsessed like my father the anthropologist and me. Believe me, that’s the last thing I’d recommend to anyone. If you cannot find even one thing you can do in the above list, though, I wonder about you.


I once explained to a pleasant elderly faculty member that the repository didn’t easily allow changes. “It’s like a roach motel,” I said. “Files go in, but they don’t go out. Once they’re there, they’re stuck.” Suppressed chuckles from librarians in nearby cubicles greeted that statement, and I returned from ushering the faculty member out to find that my colleagues had good-humoredly dubbed me the Innkeeper at the Roach Motel.

I loved the sobriquet, despite the unhappy truth of its depiction of institutional repositories. I have never liked telling faculty members that my services couldn’t do what they needed, and I’ve had to tell them that often and often. Worst of all, I couldn’t envision my services as anything my father the anthropologist would find useful, compelling, or even comprehensible; the promise of green open access was fading fast in the unforgiving floodlights of faculty diffidence. I looked around the open-access community for understanding and a path forward, but I found little to help or reassure me.

My father the anthropologist and I are alike in one way at least: we don’t suffer fruitless systems in silence. In one way at least, we are different: I cannot content myself with complaining to the powerless and uninvolved.

I don’t think there’s a community I operate in that my gadfly ways haven’t irked or even alienated. My library school. My librarian colleagues. DSpace developers. Green open access. Library bloggers. The DSpace Foundation. Library coders. Repository managers. The open-access community in general. While I accept all this as the price gadflies pay for being pests, it is no source of pride, nor is it pleasant. I have feared for my job, and like as not I deserve to. I have feared that the career I find myself in will not exist in five years’ time, and I have wondered uneasily whether my own behavior has hastened rather than forestalled that eventuality. I have been cautioned, questioned, belittled, berated, cut down to size in public, stepped cautiously away from, set up as homo stramineus, misquoted, deliberately or carelessly ignored—and much of it I have richly earned.

I have also been heeded. I have also made change. Not much, perhaps; certainly not all the change I wanted to make, wanted to show my father the anthropologist, wanted to offer the world. Even so, change is my gift to them and to you: my gift I offer in my much-abused hands on this Open Access Day.


Rodin, La Cathedrale

Rodin, La Cathedrale.
Photo by Wallace Grobetz, via Flickr and the Creative Commons.

12 Iunii 2008

Gavin Baker points out a CHE article talking about the vexed question of evaluating “online scholarship” (whatever that is) for tenure and promotion purposes.

This came up at Project Bamboo, and also during a dinner out at data-curation bootcamp. I don’t have an answer for it; that kind of thing happens way above my pay grade. I do have a possibly-useful observation, however, videlicet and to wit: this is a heuristics problem.

If tenure and promotion committees wanted to, they could evaluate their colleagues by reading their actual work, print or online or both, and coming to conclusions about its worth and effectiveness. They do not do this. They do not want to do this. They would walk miles and miles over broken glass on bleeding bare feet to avoid doing this.

They give lots of reasons they don’t do it, ranging from not being experts in their colleagues’ areas of expertise, to not having time to read all that, to the tenure-and-promotion process being full enough of angst and drama as it is. Be that as it may, they don’t do it. So what do they do? They rely on heuristics instead.

Peer review. Impact factors. Citation counts. Quantity of output. Supporting letters from field experts. Publication-venue reputation for quality (or “branding” if you must). None of these evaluation methods was handed down from heaven; they’re just what’s evolved out of the system.

To expand the system to cover online scholarship, especially online scholarship that doesn’t have easy print analogues, we need to come up with judgment heuristics for it. It’s that simple.

I think the society-seal-of-approval idea in the CHE article is a good one, but I’m also selfish: such vetted collections would be nifty for librarians to have as well. For the sake of academic politics, I presume the evaluation process would be private, the list of sites under evaluation kept under wraps, and no list given of sites that didn’t make the grade for whatever reason. But again, that sort of thing happens above my pay grade.

Judgment heuristics for online scholarship turned out to be a major request made of Project Bamboo by the workshop I went to. I think PB can and should tackle that problem… but they can’t be the only ones who do, not least because the social sciences and hard sciences need heuristics just as badly, and their heuristics will be seriously different.

But it’s a tractable problem, en masse. It’s when we ask every single department to come up with its own heuristics that everything breaks down.

7 Maii 2008

I’d like to welcome my good colleague Shane Beers to the biblioblogosphere. Shane took over my duties at George Mason, and has done a lot better with them than I ever did. I’m happy to see other repository managers blogging, and thrice happy to see Shane.

He brings up something that I’ve heard from other people as well: annoyance at my insistence on the phrase “repository-rat” to refer to librarians who manage institutional repositories. Some of that is me, and some of it is deliberate and calculated rhetorical strategy. It seems worth picking apart.

The “me” part, I confess, is of a piece with my steadfast refusal to take myself and what I do too seriously. Back in the day, I called myself a conversion peasant. Now I’m a repository-rat. I’m stubborn about this, and I don’t anticipate changing it… but I also recognize that it leaks into how I refer to other repository managers, as well as the specialty as a whole, and I see how that can feel like disdain.

It isn’t. It takes quite a bit of dedication to stick with IRs, and an impressive array of skills to manage one well. (I’m not saying I do, mind. Not for me to say. But I’m steeped in this field, I know whom I respect, and I know what they are capable of.) Moreover, these dedicated, skilled people have to persevere in the face of widespread ignorance, apathy, and even opprobrium directed at them, never mind lousy software and badly-stacked odds.

Which leads me to the rhetorical-strategy bit. I feel like a rat in the wainscoting, ignored and despised and isolated. Why shouldn’t I? Why should I be any prouder of what I do than my employer (which has partially defunded my service), my profession (which barely acknowledges I exist and makes no effort to support me), or the open-access movement (which openly insults me when it doesn’t ignore me)? Why should I pretend to support and respect I don’t actually have?

And why is it uniquely my responsibility to redress these issues? If the institution I work for, the profession I have joined, or the open-access movement I am part of would like me to stop referring to myself as a rodent, howsabout they toss me a bone so I can move up the animal taxonomy a bit?

Like the immortal archy, I see things from the under side. There’s use in that, I maintain, just as there’s use in colleagues such as Shane asserting themselves to raise the profile of our work and the esteem in which it is held. I’m on their side, I truly am—I just approach the work from a different angle.

insects are not always
going to be bullied
by humanity
some day they will revolt
i am already organizing
a revolutionary society to be
known as the worms turnverein

—Don Marquis