14 Octobris 2008

My Father the Anthropologist; or, What I Offer Open Access and Why

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.