‘Librariana’ Archive

13 Iunii 2009

Opportunity in opprobrium

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

Heuristics gaming

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

Bess Sadler: library geek

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.

9 Decembris 2008

Addenda and power relations

I’ve got an article coming out next year in Cataloging and Classification Quarterly with the utterly unscintillating title “Name authority control in institutional repositories.” For those few who might actually care, I am told that the issue should come out in April 2009 as v. 47 no. 3/4.

That’s not the interesting bit. (Trust me, I wrote the article and even I am not sure it’s interesting… though it’s found a couple readers already.) The interesting bit is what happened around rights.

C&CQ is published by Taylor and Francis. Their copyright transfer agreement is a pretty typical “we own your firstborn child in perpetuity” deal; the author can use her article herself, and can make it available at her institution, but that’s it.

I got an email from the issue editors yesterday morning, from which I will quote (sans permission):

Some of you expressed concerns about the inconsistencies between the copyright transfer form and the T&F statements on author rights. Several of you attached an author addendum to the publication agreement– a practice T&F ordinarily does not allow.

I’ve heard quite a bit about publishers turning down addenda. I read a blog post last week (which I can’t find, me and my steel-sieve brain) about the usual excuse being that publishers don’t have time or energy to run every single addendum past their lawyers, so they don’t accept any at all. The post I read last week pointed out rather acerbically that libraries have to deal with bizarre and inconsistent licensing deals from publishers, which is utterly true—check the Chronk or lisjobs.com for “e-serials” or “e-resource” librarians if you don’t believe me; licensing is most of what those folks do. The response from publishers was “well, we don’t have the resources to spend on lawyers.” The blogger’s response? “Well, if we didn’t have to deal with your licenses, we could spend more money on your materials!”

Which is true as well, but for my purposes beside the point. What I’m interested in here is the power relations. Publishers can shove ridiculous licensing terms at libraries because the negotiation there is anything but a libertarian’s egalitarian ideal. Publishers have the upper hand and they know it, because they have what patrons are demanding that librarians can’t get anywhere else.

A slightly later bit of the email from the issue editors read thusly:

Taylor and Francis will accept the SPARC author addendum for all authors
of papers in this special issue of CCQ.

Well, now. Isn’t that interesting, from a power-relations point of view. Faced with the worst-case possibility of yanked articles (open-access types are bulldogs) and a dead-in-the-water special issue, not to mention browned-off editors and authors, Taylor and Francis folded.

I don’t think this will work every time. Special themed issues are special; one can’t just put another article on the fast track to replace an article that’s been yanked, as one can with an ordinary journal issue. Librarians are special too; some of us are tenure-track and need every publication we can muster, but some of us aren’t and can therefore afford to be stubborn about things like rights.

Even without that stubbornness, though, it’s worth noting that author addenda put publishers in the uneasy position of saying “no” to authors, even refusing to publish an article, over something that is palpably unrelated to the article’s quality. Given publishers’ highminded avowals of existing purely for the furtherance of quality scholarship, I think the cognitive dissonance created in authors’ minds by addendum refusal is probably a good and useful thing… even though addenda themselves have proven to be weak sauce in the rubber-meets-road sense of literature hitting the Web. One more evidence of shifting power relations…

I should shamefacedly confess that despite my non-tenure-track status, I wasn’t one of the ones fussing about the copyright transfer. I’m living proof of the hypothesis that at least part of the OA citation advantage has to do with authors making their better articles OA. I’m not ashamed of the C&CQ article, mind you, but I’m also aware it’s not my best work ever. (I have to stop doing my best work so damn early in my career. I’ll never top the London presentation for sheer impact, and I doubt I’ll ever top Roach Motel either.)

Still, I signed me a SPARC addendum and sent it in. Free rights!

31 Octobris 2008

Miniature disasters and minor catastrophes

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

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.

12 Iunii 2008

Evaluation heuristics

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.

6 Maii 2008


A courteous interface is a marvelous thing. It gets out of the way. It intuits what you want, squeezing every tiny bit of information possible out of whatever tidbits you feed it. It doesn’t bother you with its nasty little internal troubles. It’s Jeeves, there with a pick-me-up when you’ve got a drink-fueled headache.

DSpace’s administrative and item-submission interfaces are more like the temporary Jeeves replacement Bertie got stuck with once, the guy who snarled all the time and snaffled socks. It is about as courteous as a New York cabdriver in heavy traffic. As a result, it wastes incredible amounts of human time—my time, my sysadmin’s time, my submitters’ time, the time of dozens of admins just like me. I promised to talk about that, so I will.

For example. Just this morning I got an unhappy email from a submitter who didn’t have access to all the collections in a given community. The said collections are two or three levels deep because of intervening subcommunities—and while I’m talking about wasted time, I’ll spend a few words on wasted cognitive capacity, because I have yet to meet anyone for whom the DSpace distinction between communities and collections is intuitive or useful. My submitters expect to be able to submit items to communities. They do not understand why some items on the sitemap (which is how they think of the communities-and-collections page) are bold and others aren’t. I hate wasting time and effort explaining this stupid and essentially otiose distinction.

Right. Back to my submitter and her problem. I had to click open every single collection in order to click again to check its submitter list. For those collections she didn’t have submit access to, adding it was a four-click process and could have been more: click to open the eperson list, click to go to the last page, click to select her address (she’s late in the alphabet), click to update the submitter group. Wasted. Time.

And don’t get me started on DSpace’s repo-rat–hostile habit of building impenetrable names for otherwise-unnamed submitter groups. COLLECTION_27_SUBMIT. Yeah, that makes all kinds of sense in my little rat brain, how about yours? (If you’re wondering, the number is the collection’s database identifier, which is almost impossible to figure out from the DSpace UI. Real friendly, DSpace.) And these names proliferate like rats, because there’s no way to tell DSpace “use the people I just told you about, plzkthx” without going through the added hassle of creating and naming an actual group, and no way to tell DSpace “use the standard access rules for this community” or “use the access rules for this other collection.”

So then I needed to set up a new collection for her. Could DSpace pick up on the submitter-selection work I’d already wasted a bunch of time doing? Could it hell. I had to go through the same clickety-clickety process all over again. There’s no access templating in DSpace; every single collection in every single community is sui generis. Just imagine how much time I get to waste when someone leaves the university and someone else takes over their DSpace deposit duties! Woo-hoo! Because obviously I don’t have anything important to do with my time.

Which brings us to the DSpace deposit interface. To be clear, I’m working from 1.4.2 here, not 1.5—but let’s be clear about something else too, namely that 1.5 doesn’t fix all of these warts, though the Configurable Submission system is indeed a step forward. So let’s waste some time, everybody!

You start your submission from a collection page, or you start from My DSpace, in which case it asks you to pick a collection. What does it do with this collection information? It determines whether you have deposit access, duh, and if your friendly neighborhood repository-rat has spent time customizing a metadata form for that collection, it uses that form. (Does DSpace ask on collection creation which metadata forms to use? It does not. That’s configured via a file called input-forms.xml on the server. Mm-hm, that’s right, I have nothing better to do with my time than seek out and edit—twice, because I keep a version in source control—bitsy little XML files DSpace leaves all over creation.) Anything else? Like surveying existing items in that collection for commonalities in order to prepopulate metadata fields? Nah. Machine learning would save a human being’s time or something. Can’t have that.

Next you run into this screen, which I loathe with a white-hot loathing neutron stars might envy:

First DSpace submission screen

The top question is just goofy. In my experience, this is true for less than one-tenth of one percent of submissions. The Québécois might have a use for that checkbox, but how many DSpace installations does Québéc have exactly, and why exactly wouldn’t a Québécois installation just put in dc.title.alternative by default? So why is every submitter into every DSpace installation forced to cope with that moronic checkbox for every single submission? Because DSpace doesn’t give a tinker’s damn about anybody’s time or cognitive load, that’s why. The default is correct, at least, but that’s decidedly small comfort.

(I suspect there’s a librarian at the bottom of this interface wart somewhere. What about MARC 246, someone must have screamed. Guess what? I don’t care about MARC 246. I care about efficient use of person-hours, which that checkbox unquestionably isn’t. I love my fellow librarians, except when I hate them. I hate them when they gleefully glomp every iota of patron time and effort they can get their little mitts on.)

The middle question is difficult to understand (for my submitters, anyway; more of them get it wrong than right), and DSpace doesn’t explain why you have to answer it. I get a lot of questions from submitters about putting in publication dates and citations, because my submitters don’t mentally connect those fields with that checkbox. But that’s what that checkbox does when checked: it adds fields to the next metadata screen for dc.date.issued, dc.publisher, and dc.identifier.citation. (How many repository-rats running DSpace just learned something? Don’t be embarrassed. It was months before I figured it out, too, and I had to go in and read code before I had it sussed.)

But it gets better (for “worse” values of “better”). Imagine Ulysses Acqua for a moment, trying to be nice to Dr. Troia and the little open-access basketology journal she wants to archive. He uses the input-forms.xml file to make a custom metadata form that puts basic citation information for the basketology journal in dc.identifier.citation so Dr. Troia doesn’t have to retype it every time. When Dr. Troia submits her first article, she doesn’t think to tick the middle checkbox, and DSpace doesn’t tick it for her. What happens?

SHE GETS AN ERROR MESSAGE. I kid you not. AN ERROR MESSAGE. It reads “You’ve indicated that your submission has not been published or publicly distributed before, but you’ve already entered an issue date, publisher and/or citation. If you proceed, this information will be removed, and DSpace will assign an issue date.”

I—I—I honestly have no words. Do I need them? Maybe I do. The Jeeves interface never, ever, EVER threatens to discard information Bertie has provided it. It’s hard enough to pry useful information out of Bertie as it is! And talk about your bizarrely opaque, unhelpful, and inappropriately finger-wagging error messages! (How does Dr. Troia fix the problem, if she wants to keep her citation information or date or whatever? The message doesn’t even say.) I am just agog that this grotesque interaction exists in a production software system.

(Yes, of course I’ve triggered it. How do you think I figured out it exists? I don’t go looking for smelly garbage like this, I assure you.)

But it even gets worse than that. Weird interactions between input-forms.xml and the deposit code can make checkboxes on this page disappear when they shouldn’t. I haven’t dug into how this happens—but it bit me hard, such that I had to be unhelpful and take a date.issued out of a thesis metadata form in input-forms.xml. Because hey, troubleshooting DSpace’s sclerotic deposit system is such a productive use of my time!

Returning to our initial screen once more: there is absolutely no need whatever to ask the submitter about multiple files. None. Simply assume that submissions may have more than one file! Asking submitters to think about it up-front instead of at upload is wasted time.

So there we have it. An entire wasted screen, multiplied by untold numbers of DSpace submissions. There’s plenty more in there, the licensing system not least; Jeeves interface, not so much.

EPrints, as a rule, is a much better gentleperson’s personal gentleperson than DSpace. EPrints, for example, asks for item type up front, and configures its deposit screens to match, without the intervention of either submitter or repository-rat. Who knows, this politeness may have something to do with developer attitude. The last time I waxed profane on matters repository-interface-ish, Les Carr was in my inbox less than a day later asking eagerly, “is this what you mean? would this solution I just came up with work for you?” Whereas DSpace gets on my case for being negative. I’m just sayin’ here.

No. No, I’m not just sayin’. It runs deeper than that. I’ve occasionally seen a few nods in the DSpace developer community toward EPrints interface accomplishments. Unfortunately, the feel of the discourse I’ve seen is “look at all the shiny AJAX! we want that!”

This is not about shiny AJAX, people. It’s not about shiny at all. This is about DSpace not wasting my time. There’s a ton of work DSpace could do with the aim of removing time-wasters before anyone writes a single line of Javascript or de-uglifies a single line of CSS. To do so, though, DSpace developers will have to learn to give a damn about my time and the amount of it DSpace has wasted and continues to waste. I see next to zero evidence of that learning taking place. (Tim gets it, which is why I say “next to zero” rather than just plain zero.)

Stop. Wasting. My. Time. That’s far and away the most important interface-development priority DSpace should adopt. For values of “me” that include “all repository-rats and willing depositors,” of course. DSpace’s interface needs to sit down at its mama’s knee and learn some courtesy.

30 Martii 2008

Is librarianship a profession?

There’s been a more-interesting-than-usual round of posts about librarianship as a profession, and how that works with the existence of paraprofessionals. See Rachel, Rachel again, and Meredith for background.

Me, I’ve got my Greg Downey glasses on again. You knew I would, right? So what is a profession from a labor perspective, anyway? I can tell you this much: the usual dictionary definition, involving specialized training, a professional association, and a code of ethics is the kind of thing a real labor theorist (which I’m not, of course) would laugh at and immediately start deconstructing.

The point of being a profession is monopoly labor protectionism, driving up the price of the Elect. End of story. All the training, all the oaths, all the conferences, all that other stuff amounts to pissing in a circle to mark territory, hoard resources (i.e. jobs and social status), and keep the unwashed out. Where an individual doing a particular kind of work can more or less swan about naming her own price, labor perceives no need for the trappings of a profession; this is why computer programmers don’t at this point have one. That day, however, may be coming, given that global wage arbitrage is hitting the US programming industry hard.

Some professions guard their borders better than others. The medical profession is damned good at it, and so is the legal profession, though both are finding themselves pressured these days. The free market, you see, does not like professions; they make the peons all uppity and stuff, getting in the way of capital flow from rich capitalist to other rich capitalist. The free market dismantles professions whenever it can find a way to do so, usually in the name of efficiency and cost-saving.

Academia as a profession is hurting bad, and is starting to realize it. They did it to themselves, of course, wildly overproducing Ph.Ds and turning over teaching (which is a much more visible part of the profession than research, despite the actual emphasis inside the academy) to brutalized adjunct labor. Remains to be seen whether they can recover.

Notice something about the preceding paragraphs? I didn’t say a thing about specialized skills, who’s got ’em and who ain’t. From a labor perspective, that doesn’t matter, it’s a big red herring. Can you guard your borders and command an over-market price? Congratulations. You’re a profession.

It’s possible to sport the trappings of a profession without quite being one. My favorite examples are financial planners and realtors. There are credentials; they’re thoroughly bogus. There are codes of ethics, often roundly ignored with perfect impunity. There are conferences. Boy, are there ever. What there isn’t is a successful effort to kick out the amateurs. I could call myself a financial planner tomorrow, and not a thing would happen to me. I could turn myself into a Realtor™ in a matter of weeks. If I did, though, the so-called “profession” would do nothing to protect the value of my labor. Heard of some Realtors™ going hungry now that the housing bubble is popping? Of course you have. Real estate salesmen haven’t protected the borders of their so-called “profession.” It therefore isn’t one.

So how does librarianship stack up? Well, that’s interesting. I’ve been sitting in on another Greg Downey course this semester, one on library history. If you go back to the mid-1800s when this “profession” jazz was just getting started, you find out that the “professionals” were a bunch of overeducated white boys who basically wanted some extra social status (so that they would compare favorably with their brothers in law, medicine, and the clergy) and an opportunity to get together and drink them some fine, fine martinis now and then. Think I’m making this up? Go find out for yourself what the first few proto-ALA meetings accomplished; you’re a librarian. Besides, it’s pretty funny stuff.

Notably, these overeducated white boys weren’t sitting at ref desks or writing up inventory lists (this being pre-card-catalog). Oh, no. That work was too menial for such as they. They were either running libraries (from back offices that had little or no contact with the librarygoing public) or writing treatises on how libraries ought to be run. Sometimes quite important treatises (hello, Mr. Cutter), but still. The boundaries of the “profession” were quite narrow, and they didn’t include most of the people doing work in libraries, especially if those people were women.

But they defended their value in the labor market, and they kept the pool of that labor suitably small, largely by denying women access to it. They were a profession, by gum, whatever else you say about ’em. (Me, I say that Dui was a loon. Crazy as a bedbug, that man.)

The Carnegie library movement shook up that nice monopoly. There weren’t enough overeducated white boys willing to move out to the sticks, is what it amounts to. All this female riffraff started encroaching. So running libraries couldn’t be the boundary of the profession any more. What became the new boundary? Library school.

Fast-forwarding to today… as a profession, librarianship is a muddled mess. The simple fact is that defining “librarian” as “MLS-holder” doesn’t stand up to five seconds’ scrutiny. One part of the problem resembles that caused by the Carnegie movement: there are libraries aplenty run by non-MLS-holders. Most of them are K-12 libraries; some are rural public libraries. Since we have heretofore been unwilling to define “library” as “space managed by an MLS-holding librarian,” that part of the barbed-wire fence around our profession has been trampled into the dirt. Good thing, bad thing, who knows? But it’s a fact, that’s all.

Another part of the problem resembles academia’s issues: we’re importing lower-priced labor to do some of what had been defined as our job. This is called “deprofessionalization.” Got a non-MLS ref-desk assistant or copy cataloguer? Yeah, then congratulations, you’ve eaten away some of the boundary around librarianship. In academic libraries, deprofessionalization takes on a slightly different form: the import of Ph.Ds sans MLS. From a good-of-libraries perspective, this makes perfect sense. From the perspective of librarianship-as-profession, it further erodes our boundaries and should be stopped. Make ’em get MLSes. It’s not like they’ll find it hard (and more on that in a bit).

Now consider why Gorman and Yee make such a big deal of MARC and AACR2 as “the core of the profession.” Secret knowledge is assuredly an effective way to guard a profession’s boundaries, and the more involuted the knowledge, the better. The problem with that tactic is that the knowledge has to remain in some way relevant and useful, and like it or not, the MARC/AACR2 empire is crumbling. Gorman and Yee can squall all they want; it won’t keep cataloguers professionals, because the value of their bizarrely byzantine descriptive practices is rapidly approaching zero. They’re defending the ramparts of a castle nobody wants.

Not that Gorman is wholly free of deprofessionalization’s taint, either. There’s his coauthor, that pesky Walt Crawford to consider. We ought to give him an honorary LIS doctorate in purest self-defense. I’m just sayin’.

Speaking of Walt, who’s a systems analyst by training and trade, a third aspect of the problem is the profession’s unwillingness to redraw its boundaries to include computers and the people who work with them. Why does this unwillingness exist? In a nutshell, because many current practitioners can’t do squat with computers and are scared of being pushed out of the profession should the computer folks take over.

I cannot begin to express how stupid, shortsighted, and counterproductive this is. Fall on your swords already, computer-phobics; it is absolutely necessary to do so if we are to preserve any kind of profession for the future. Mene mene tekel upharsin. We are Babylon, if we don’t expand our borders, Babylon divided between the non-MLS Medes and the programming Persians.

And then there’s library school. Oh, boy. Where to even begin? Well, first, it’s worth pointing out that LIS has serious trouble defining itself as a research specialization, and that tends to bleed over into library schools, notably in the substantial number of library-school faculty who have never set foot in a library except as patron. At UW’s SLIS, Greg Downey is half journalist, Kristin Eschenfelder got into LIS through a side door, their bioinformaticist is, well, a bioinformaticist—and I could go on, at some length.

Again, from a disciplinary-vigor standpoint, this isn’t all bad. Everybody knows I think Greg Downey is the bee’s knees. From a defining-the-profession (or -the-discipline) standpoint, it’s pernicious.

Second, library schools are just aware enough of the problem of libraries being run by non-librarians that they don’t actually dare set the intellectual bar (either of admission or of program content) very high. I knew some people in library school who were, I’m sorry, dumb as a box of rocks. They couldn’t have managed my other master’s program, any substantive master’s program, in a million years. They concentrated in a certain specialty which I won’t name (but we all know what it is, don’t we, librarians?). I don’t have an answer to this catch-22; either possibility hurts librarianship as a profession. If we kick the idiots out, we inevitably create even more libraries run by non-librarians. If we don’t, we’re stuck with our watered-down curriculum and box-of-rocks classmates.

Third, there’s the ALA, which is only making matters worse. Let’s review: library school now forms the boundary of the profession of librarianship—a porous and problematic boundary, to be sure, but a boundary nonetheless. It falls to the ALA’s accreditation process to defend that boundary, to make sure that the MLS bloody well means something.

It so happens that I have had a close-on view of a library-school reaccreditation process; I shall be intentionally vague about the where and when and how. I was, quite frankly, appalled. The accreditors were dumb as a box of rocks. They were stunningly rude, ill-behaved to the point of legally actionable harassment, toward a number of people at the library school (which, I may say, put a lot of effort into preparing for the reaccreditation process, and did its best to treat the accreditors like royalty). These accreditors spent incredible amounts of time and spilled ink on trivialities while ignoring quite substantive questions, in large part because they were incompetent to judge the substantive stuff. They made no attempt whatever to probe beyond surface appearances. The whole process was as transparent and auditable as a brick wall. I tell you what, if these slobs were medical-school examiners, we’d be in the middle of the next Black Plague.

You ALA members? Ask where your damn dues are going. Right now, they’re paying for these epic morons to continue devaluing your profession and its educational institutions. Never mind all the other ways ALA screws the profession over, as a profession.

So there we are. Are we, in fact, a profession? On balance, in academic libraries we are, in public libraries we mostly are, and in school libraries we’re not. But that could change and is changing. We may not have much time left to get our act together.

For myself, I’m not worried. I’m one of those folks who, based on developments in the research enterprise, is likely to be able to barter my labor individually for a decent price no matter what happens to librarianship as a profession. I’ll still call myself a librarian, no fear there. The question is whether people nod respectfully when I do—or laugh.

Edited to add: Walt corrects me on his training, and his sense of what he is and does. Mea culpa, Walt, and I apologize for the error.

21 Septembris 2007

Training-wheels culture

My students are the connected ones, the technically-minded ones, the ones unafraid of novelty. Some of them flat-out don’t believe me when I try to (more or less gently) pass out clues about the technical atmosphere of librarianship. That’s okay. They’ll find out for themselves, and they’ll remember what I said, and they won’t be as shocked by it as I was.

I read through the freeform comments on Nicole Engard’s survey about what people learned and wish they had learned in library school, and I recommend that you do the same. It’s a curious mix. There’s a raft of comments wanting more (and more practical) technology training. There’s also a raft of comments wanting more and better cataloguing training.

Wait, what? Cataloguing? Not “cataloguing and metadata,” not “information management,” not “bibliographic and other sorts of description.” Cataloguing. From a bunch of librarians who manifestly aren’t cataloguers. What gives?

I’ve been letting that question percolate in the back of my head since I read the survey responses. I’m afraid the answer is probably an it’s-all-more-complicated constellation of mindsets and external forces, but I want to push back against what I see as the easiest and most obvious conclusion that could be drawn from the evidence, which is that MARC cataloguing is the center of the library universe.

(It ain’t the center of my universe. I don’t get anywhere near it myself, and I’m firmly in the Roy Tennant “MARC Must Die!” camp. If that makes me not a librarian, well, okay. I’m sure Peter Murray-Rust would find work for me somehow or other.)

Some while ago I went to a library-internal meeting at which people shared what they’d learned at the last big ALA conference. Someone had gone to one of Roy Tennant’s ILS talks, and had emerged rather shocked by his ideas. After all, she said, structured bibliographic description can’t disappear forever!

Aha. So now we have one locus of confusion. MARC and structured bibliographic description are not equivalent, except (it would appear) to a lot of confused librarians. I’m willing to bet that some of the librarians in Nicole’s study are reacting to what they see as a threat to the larger world of information organization, perceiving MARC as a proxy therefor. This is nonsense, of course, but who’s going to tell them that in such a fashion that they understand it?

I am consistently boggled by people asking me for training on DSpace’s deposit interface. It’s a series of brain-dead web forms, for Pete’s sake. No, they’re not perfectly usable (in fact, there are some pretty brain-dead design choices in there), but they’re just web forms! If you can do your banking online, you can deposit stuff in DSpace. Training?

But I see this all the time; it’s a much larger issue than DSpace. Librarians are a timorous breed, fearful of ignorance and failure. We believe knowledge is power, which taken to an unhealthy extreme can mean that we do not do anything until we think we understand everything. We do not learn by doing, because learning by doing invariably means failure. So a librarian just won’t sit down with AACR2, Connexions, and the AUTOCAT mailing-list archive and work out how to catalogue a novel item. Nor she won’t sit down at the computer and beat software with rocks until it works.

She’ll sit passively, hands in lap, and ask for training, feeling guilty the whole time for displaying ignorance.

So what does this have to do with how often cataloguing came up in Nicole’s results? Well, I don’t think all these librarians are asking for cataloguing training because it’s vitally important to their everyday work. They’re asking because they feel ignorant about something that they have been told (hat-tip to Yee and Gorman) is the center of their profession, and they don’t feel capable of learning on their own. MARC/AACR2 is bloody complicated, after all—and the more complex something is, the more librarians shy away from learning by picking apart one piece at a time.

Fundamentally, cataloguing training is not going to help these people. It won’t help them feel confident about MARC and AACR2, because I don’t know anybody who does (and I do know some cataloguers, thanks). It won’t help them feel more confident about the future of the profession, because like the librarian at the ALA-wrapup meeting, they won’t understand that the external forces that are forcing MARC out of the picture don’t really threaten them. (“I don’t see how programmers can do any better [than MARC]!” blustered one of Nicole’s respondents. That’s not arguing from a position of considered strength. That’s flat-out ignorance, is what that is. Go sit in the corner until you’ve done some reading up on data mining.) And it won’t help them do their jobs any better.

What they need is to kick off the training wheels, honestly. Their locus of control vis-a-vis technology needs to move a long way inward. There is nothing more frustrating than dealing with fear-based apathy. I don’t mind intelligent skepticism; I’ll prove a given tool’s worth or I’ll abandon it. I don’t mind dealing with genuine problems. They happen.

I do mind, quite a lot, having to stand over a grown professional’s shoulder teaching her to use a set of essentially self-explanatory web forms because she cannot be bothered to learn by doing. And I do this a lot. Once I’m done with the repository redesign, I’m going to come up with a screencast on the subject so that I don’t have to do it so often.

I think training-wheels culture may be the source of a lot of the friction between so-called “twopointopians” and their opposite numbers. When “look, just give it a try, okay?” falls on wilfully deaf ears, strident advocacy is a natural, expected response. I myself roll my eyes at some of the more “moderate” responses to Library 2.0 and new OPAC developments and whatnot because I know perfectly well that training-wheels culture uses “moderate” responses as figleaf excuses not to change, not to learn, and not to try.

One of the things I’m trying to do with my class is encourage them to lose their training wheels. Some of them don’t have any—but a few do, and I’m hoping I can do my little bit to encourage the decline and fall of training-wheels culture.