The Strange and Unexpected Re-emergence of Printed Books

Printed book imageTypewriters, mechanical watches, vinyl recordings, newspapers, printed books –obsolete technologies, right? Get with the program: countless incumbent industries and professions have been rendered pointless: disrupt or be disrupted –right? This has been the dominant cultural narrative –right?

I first heard about the obsolescence of librarians 35 years ago at the start of my career. Columbia University soon after accepted dominant cultural narratives and closed their graduate library school, college of pharmacy, and departments of geography and linguistics. Pharmaceuticals? Digital and print librarians? Linguistics and languages? Geographic information systems? –all obsolete (Whoops!). Since those who proclaim their demise have usually been selling some replacement, cynicism follows fast. Another prediction of demise, another day.

Entirely outside of libraries, a counter-narrative has grown. David Sax popularized one in Revenge of the Analog: Real Things and Why Real Things Matter (PublicAffairs, 2016): we interface with the world in a tactile, communal world.   At Harvard Business School, Prof. Ryan Raffaeli studies organizational behavior, using field research.  He contributes much more sophisticated thinking about re-emergent technologies. He has found that "incumbent" technologies and industries can make a comeback. This story has important implications for libraries.

Some technologies re-emerge from disruption and destruction, especially those that had a long history. Count out VHS tapes and punch cards: those were transitional. Typewriters have had a long enough history, as do fountain or nib pens (extending the dip, quill-type pens since 1827) .

Printed books, like other technologies, brought whole occupations and kinds of work with them: not just printers, but also binders, sellers, retailers, and of course librarians. As a candidate for "innovative disruption" by digital books, the demise of the printed book, so loudly proclaimed ten years ago, mandated the demise of book stores, libraries, librarians, publishers, editors.  Now anyone can write a book (see Amazon); who needs editors? Who needs libraries or bookstores?

Some disruptions are truly innovative –others just disruptions, and others just hype, but shouting as real (see previous post). The disruption narrative is not sufficiently incorrect (although it can be applied poorly), but the consequence corollary of the incumbent industries' necessary inability to adapt –and certainty of their demise– is less well-founded.  Raffaelli's research shows that technologies can re-emerge, a cognitive process in two phases: first largely cultural, temporal, and narrative process; second a competitive process in a re-defined market with distinctive values not strictly established by price. His leading example is the Swiss mechanical watch-making industries; his second is the return and rise of independent book sellers in the USA.

Both the watch-makers and the book sellers lost substantial market shares when disruptive, good-enough technologies moved upmarket and claimed their most profitable customers: watchmakers with the rise of cheaper, more accurate quartz watches in the 1970s; book sellers with the rise of major chain bookstores in the 1990s, followed by Amazon. They keenly felt their losses: numerous Swiss firms closed or discontinued manufacturing; from 1995 to 2009 around 1,400 bookstores closed. Enough hung on, however, to rebound: how did they do it?

Raffaelli identifies the terms of competition: old terms such as price, availability, and quality change with the entry of disruptive technologies to market. The survivors have re-defined the competition: how they want to compete, and what value proposition they offer to their customers. He traces a complex process of de-coupling product and organizational identity and renegotiation of foundational concepts and business roles. The process is both bottom-up (from the "factory floor" or fundamental, front-line production or service) and top-down: from industry alliances, design thinking, and organizational management.

In the Swiss mechanical watch industry, he has identified entrepreneurs and guardians. Entrepreneurs are alert to market signals, cultural currents, and emerging narratives that suggest that new communities are forming new values. Guardians by contrast preserve older technologies and enduring values and counterbalance the entrepreneurs; both are necessary for the process of cognitive re-emergence. When the industry drew near to complete collapse, collectors began to purchase mechanical watches at high prices at auctions, signaling that their small community found genuine value expressed momentarily in price. Entrepreneurs realized that the market for mechanical watches had not completely disappeared, but changed: the value lay not in keeping time for a price, but in expressing a cultural signal. Guardians, meanwhile, had preserved enough of the technology that recovery was possible; veteran employees preserved crucial tools and skills that enabled a recovery. Each needed the other; the leadership necessary for re-emergence arose not just from the top level of the organization and industry, but from the commitment and wisdom of key skilled workers. Mechanical watches were then marketed as high-end, luxury items that "said something" about their owners. As new customers entered or moved up-market, they adopted such watches as a sign of cultural status and belonging.

Independent booksellers successfully re-framed their market as primarily community, secondarily as inventory. First the chain stores (Borders, Barnes & Noble) out-competed them on price, then Amazon on price and inventory availability. Independent booksellers have focused instead on 3 Cs: Community and local connections, Curation of inventory that enhanced a personal relationship with customers, and Convening events for those with similar interests: readings, lectures, author signings, and other group events. The booksellers' trade association (American Booksellers Association or ABA) facilitates booksellers' connections with local communities with skills, best practices, effective use of media, and outreach to other local business and organizations (–even libraries, once considered the booksellers' competitors). The re-emergent market was defined both by entrepreneurial booksellers, front-line service guardians, a growing social movement committed to localism, and industry-scale cooperation. Between 2009 and 2017 the ABA reported +35% more independent booksellers: from 1,651 to 2,321 nation-wide. A sign of the integration of booksellers with community spaces: for 2017 sales up 2.6% over 2016.

Like independent bookstores, the "library brand" remains strongly bound to printed books –after all, the name derives from "liber" (Latin), confirmed with "biblos" (Greek). The printed book, once thought to be a obsolete technology, shows strong signs of re-emergence as a stable cultural experience not apt to be interrupted by digital distractions or the dopamine kicks of addictive social media.  This brand identity will persist even though libraries offer many kinds of resources in many formats –including millions of digital books.

What does such technology and market re-emergence have to do with libraries? These cases suggest the emerging re-definition of libraries (as both old and new) is analogous to much of Raffaelli's work, and that the narrative frame of "disruptive innovation in higher education" can be –should be– challenged by a this more useful counter-narrative, "new and re-emergent technologies in higher education."

While libraries' role as mere "book providers" has been challenged by disruptive technological service entrants such as the Internet, Amazon, and social media, libraries' role as a channel for trusted, stable information is stronger than ever. The Pew Research Center survey data from Fall 2016 found that 53% of Millennials (those 18 to 35 at that time) say they used a library –a generational cohort (not just college students–the study focused on public libraries). This compared with 45% of Gen Xers, 43% of Baby Boomers, and 36% of Silent Generation. In 2016 Pew also reported that libraries help "a lot" in deciding what information they can trust, from 24% in 2015 to 37% in 2016. Women held that opinion more strongly, 41%. Recent anecdotes suggest that such opinions have not changed direction.

Boston-public-library-free-to-allLibraries are regarded as very strong assets to a community: the high values placed on pleasant space, safety, and community events also emerged in the Pew studies. Coupled with bottom-up initiatives from front-line librarians and individual organizations, the American Library Association has devoted substantial attention and resources to initiatives such as the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy in Higher Education, and the Libraries Transform campaign.  Libraries' free-to-all traditions (supported by tuition, tax dollars, and other sources) do not track community impact as easily as do independent bookstore sales figures. Their value proposition for their communities becomes clear in usage figures (at SHU growth in usage has outpaced growth in enrollment) and the faculties' documented turn towards librarians in helping undergraduate students develop research, critical analysis, and information literacy skills.

As a re-emergent technology, printed books sustain a host of skills, occupations, organizations, and cultural signals that do not boil down to a single, simplistic, marketable narrative. Conceived in the late 20th century as "information resources," books gave way to digital representation; conceived as "documented knowledge," the act of reading books in a library context provides a tangible experience of informed learning, cultural absorption, and community participation. Libraries provide many services. Without the "brand" of reading books, and the sustaining services of librarians, the library would turn into derelict, zombie storage spaces. Knowledge is a communal good as well as a private act; it is never simply an individual achievement: free to all. We are all culturally embedded in the minds of our predecessors and communities for weal and woe –and without libraries, bookstores, timekeepers, and printed books, we will not be able to progress from woe to weal.


Digital Commons, BePress, and Elsevier: what is Plan B?

The recent acquisition of BePress & Digital Commons by Elsevier has occasioned a flurry snowstorm of commentary and opinion.  Some of that has not been helpful, even though well-intended.  Sacred Heart University Library belongs to a 33-member group call the Affinity Libraries Group.  We are all private, Masters-1 universities (some with several doctoral degrees), relatively mid-size between the Oberlin Group of liberal arts college libraries, and the Association of Research Libraries (ARL).

Much of the following is going to be discussed at a meeting alongside or outside the coming CNI meeting in December in Washington DC –but since CNI is expensive ($8,200/year), SHU is not a member, nor are I suspect other Affinity Libraries.  I am hoping that, using one technology or another, the Affinity Libraries can have a conversation as well. 

Affinity Group has changed over the years; we (or they, meaning our predecessor directors) used to meet often, sometimes in quite successful stand-alone events not connected with another event, for example, ALA Annual.  Others have said to me that in some ways the Affinity Group (as it was then) really came down to “professional and personal friends of Lew Miller” (former director at Butler), and while I’m not sure that’s fair, it is accurate in the sense that personal relationships formed a strong glue for the group. As directors retired or moved on, group adhesiveness accordingly changed. I’m avoiding the word or metaphor “decline” here because sometimes things just change, and Affinity Group has been one of them.  No one has been sitting around in the meantime.

We do share a strong commitment to the annual Affinity Group statistics. Perhaps now a discussion about institutional repositories and Digital Commons in particular could garner some interest with attention directed to issues for libraries of our size.

Some of the hoopla surrounding Elsevier’s acquisition of BePress has simply given occasion to express contributors’ intense dislike of Elsevier and its business model of maximizing profits above all else, certainly a justified objection given the state of all our budgets.

I think the anonymous Library Loon (Gavia Libraria) has pretty well summed up various points (though I don’t agree with every one of her statements), and Matt Ruen’s subsequent comment on August 9 is also helpful.  Paul Royster at University of Nebraska—Lincoln wrote on September 7 on the SPARC list:

The staff at BePress have been uniformly helpful and responsive, and there is no sign of that changing. They are the same people as before. They have never interfered with our content. I do not believe Elsevier paid $150 million in order to destroy BePress. What made it worth that figure was 1. the software, 2. the staff, and 3. the reputation and relationships.BePress became valuable by listening to their customers; Elsevier could learn a lot from them about managing relationships–and I hope they do.  BePress is also in a different division (Research) than the publications units that have treated libraries and authors so high-handedly. The stronger BePress remains, the better will be its position vis-a-vis E-corp going forward. Bashing BePress over its ownership and inciting its customers to jump ship strikes me as not in the best interests of the IRs or the faculty who use them. 

Almost every college library has relationships with Elsevier already; deserting BePress is not a moral victory of right over wrong. The moral issue here is providing wider dissemination and free access for content created by faculty scholars. No one does that better than BePress, and until that changes, I see no cause for panic. Of course there are no guarantees, and it is always wise to have a Plan B and an exit strategy. But cutting off BePress to spite their new ownership does not really help those we are trying to serve.

I share Royster’s primary commitment freely to disseminate content created by faculty scholars. Digital Commons has done that for SHU in spades, and has been a game-changer in this university and library, in my experience. I know that many share such a primary commitment; many also share enduring and well-grounded suspicion of just about anything Elsevier might do.  As a firm, their behavior often has been so downright divisive and sneaky (we can tell our stories…)  When I first read of the sale, my gut response was, “Really? Great, here’s big problem when I don’t really want another.”   Digital Commons is one of the three major applications that power my library: 1) the integrated library services platform; 2) Springshare’s suite of research & reference applications, and 3) BePress.  Exiting BePress would be distracting, distressing, and downright burdensome.  As Royster writes, “there are no guarantees.”  Now we have to have Plan B and an exit strategy, even if we never use it.

What I fear most is Gavia Libraria’s last option (in her blog post): that Elsevier will simply let “BePress languish undeveloped, with an eye to eventually shrugging and pulling the plug on it.”  I have seen similar “application decay” with ebrary, RefWorks, and (actually) SerialsSolutions, several of which have languished (or are languishing) for years before any genuine further development.  I watched their talented creators and originating staff members drift away into other ventures (e.g., ThirdIron).  Were that to happen, it would be bad news for SHU and other Affinity members.  Royster’s statement “they are the same people as before” has not always held true in the past when smaller firms become subject to hiring processes mandated by larger organizations (e.g., SerialsSolutions’ staff members now employed by ProQuest).

On SPARC’s list, there has been great discussion about cooperation & building a truly useful non-profit, open-source application suite for institutional repository, digital publishing, authors’ pages (like SelectedWorks), etc.  Everyone knows that’s a long way off, without any disrespect to Islandora, Janeway, DSpace, or any other application.  DigitalCommons and SelectedWorks is pretty well the state of the art, and its design and consequent workflow decisions have benefited the small staff of the SHU Library enormously (even with the occasional hiccups and anomalies). Digital Commons Network has placed SHU in the same orbit or gateway as far larger and frankly more prestigious colleges and universities, and I could not be happier with that.  I have my own SelectedWorks page and I like it.  I would be sorry to see all this go –unless a truly practical alternative emerges.  Who knows when that will be?

In the meantime, we will be giving attention to Plan B –until now we have not had one or felt we needed one (–probably an unfortunate oversight, but it just did not become a priority).  I really don’t yet know what our Plan B will be.

I sense that if OCLC were to develop a truly useful alternative to Digital Commons (one well beyond DSpace as it presently exists), it might have some traction in the market (despite all of our horror stories about OCLC, granted).  Open Science Framework, Islandora, or others hold promise but really probably cannot yet compete feature-by-feature with Digital Commons (at least, I have not seen anything that really even close).  If you think I’m wrong, please say so! –I will gladly accept your correction.

11 Responses for my 1 Colleague at Dartmouth College

More than a month ago, Joshua Kim asked eleven questions of his colleagues at ACRL 2017 (Association of College and Research Libraries, Baltimore, March 22-25).  I simply cannot keep up the pace of writing and work that apparently characterizes Dr. Kim (I ask, as does Barbara Fister: "how does he do it?").  I don't have answers — but at an embarrassing long delay, here are my responses to his eleven questions:

Question 1: What is keeping academic librarians up at night?

Allergy to book mold?  Seriously: the mis-match between 1) the transformations of libraries and librarians now in process, 2) unrealistic expectations, both within and outside academe, about the transformation of higher education by digital technology, and 3) available financial resources.  There is barely enough money to fund our members' needs day-to-day, much less the future needs of members who will bring very high, very different expectations to their education and research.  Training and re-training librarians, even younger, newer ones, will also be not only a significant expense, but an unavoidable one if they are to remain relevant and aligned with their institutional mission.

Question 2: What will the academic library look like in 2025?

Libraries will still living in a both-and world: some members will continue to want printed books, but will use them differently than the recent past (2015).  Some printed books will explicitly engage digital resources as supplements and complements.  Some members will never want to see or open a printed book.  Some members will be working far more with data sets and non-textual (or ostensibly non-textual) information visualizations.  Libraries will have fewer printed books on site, more workspaces (and more different kinds), less reader or member privacy, and more commercialization by monetized information organizations.  Members will still want a physical library space to be a place to get and stay "on task."  Some members will never interact physically with a library, or personally with librarians, but will use library services every day through the information configurations that librarians will tend and troubleshoot.

Question 3: How is the academic librarian profession changing?

Already there is far more emphasis upon communication, instructional, and design skills than ten years ago (even than five years ago).   Technical, back-office skills are rapidly changing from the provision and editing of information to aligning interactive and interoperable information systems.  Library leadership is especially challenged to visualize what could be, might be, or will be, to our stakeholders, and figure out how to achieve all that, and yet negotiate present-day campus political, financial, and legal arrangements that often reflect patterns and processes that are already obsolete.

Question 4: What is the role of the academic library in leading institutional transformation?

Preface: If universities are like the proverbial elephant as regarded by the visually impaired, libraries are very well-positioned (almost uniquely) to see a great deal of the elephant. The daily life of a library interacts with faculty who are teaching and doing research right now, academic leadership, policy and planning, campus operations of all kinds, public safety and security, university financial offices, alumni/ae relationships, enrollment retention, student recruitment, faculty recruitment, information technology, instructional design, construction and facilities management, and sometimes even the food service.  As a library director, I have almost all of those people on speed-dial.

To answer this question: libraries are almost uniquely well-positioned to act as change agents by partnering with a wide variety of interests to achieve a cumulative social, educational, intellectual impact on campus beyond the abilities or purview of any one campus organization.  This requires vision, street smarts, and an ability to listen.  It requires seeing that library priorities are not always the institution's priorities, but when different they need to come into some kind of symbiosis.

Question 5: How do academic librarians think about learning innovation?

It's a broad term.  Librarians would love to collaborate with instructional designers, faculty members, and others to create pathways for learning that transcend previous classroom, lab, and practice settings.   Organizations, consultants, and academic specialists will all be part of that –but many academic librarians I know are increasingly suspicious of the corporate interests in the phrase "learning innovation."  The innovations to learning in higher education that will be most productive are those that will not be packaged and sold by corporate interests, but will be far more local, ad-hoc, and malleable by teachers and learners themselves.  When I view a video purporting to be about Learning Innovation, and the head of Thomas Friedman talks, then I begin to wonder whose interests are really going to be served.

Question 6:  What is the role of the academic library in leading institutional efforts [that will] drive progress in the iron triangle of costs, access, and quality?

Academic librarians have a lot of experience with the trade-offs of costs, access limitations, and quality (both of information per se, and of presentation and interface).  Part of my daily life is putting budget numbers and academic ways-and-means together.  I believe the academic library's role can be incubator, initiator, and assessor of costs for access and quality of outcomes but that role is not guaranteed.  I believe that academic librarians will also want to challenge the oft-encountered (perhaps dominant) idea that instructional quality is simply a cost that limits institutional net income.  The recent ACE paper Instructional Quality, Student Outcomes, and Institutional Finances (.pdf) points at research that needs to be done, and assumptions that should be interrogated.

Question 7: What does the academic library leadership pipeline look like?

I heard some real concerns at ACRL about how the field will mentor future leaders who will need the financial, political, academic, and social skills necessary to lead a complicated organization on a complicated campus (physical or digital).  The relative slow-down in professional movement, promotion, and retirements in the years after 2009, coupled with either outright downsizing or less (immediately) drastic holds on hiring, have produced a situation where there is not a sufficient number of opportunities for rising leaders to learn their craft.  The profession is greying, and I cannot blame recent college graduates who bypass library and information science programs in favor of fields in which they will be able to pay off their substantial student debts more readily.  Yet we really need those people, and we need creative, competent new professionals of every age who will contribute their perspectives and learn how business actually gets done in many institutions.

Question 8:  How is the academic library addressing challenges around diversity and inclusion?

This was also a major theme of the ACRL conference, and built up to the simply fabulous closing keynote by Carla Hayden, Librarian of Congress.  These challenges play differently in contexts: large academic library systems can pursue strategies and mentorships that may not be practical for much smaller libraries –where challenges and real needs for diversity of perspectives, persons, and inclusions of all kinds of persons are still very much present and felt.  I think this is a real opportunity for ACRL: to lead a multi-sided approach with library and information schools, foundations and grantors, large and small academic libraries, national, state, and regional library associations (in particular with library technology, and leadership & management divisions), and academic administrative organizations (AAC&U, ACAD, and HERC), for a cumulative impact on the profession, the libraries, and the universities.  I think that the professional leadership education offered by the Harvard Graduate School of Education is also a vital and viable venue to put together the efforts of many organizations.

Question 9:  What are the big arguments and debates within the academic library discipline?

I find so many that I will inevitably leave some out of even a very long list.  But here's my short list:

  • Privacy, user security, and trust: maintaining the academic library digital and physical space as a non-commercial zone of exception, as much as possible; and the way that user's searches and downloads can become monetized data points for commercial services that offer a false equivalent to a real library–and whether librarians can really do anything about that, or respond to it usefully;
  • Evolving understandings or interpretations of the Information Literacy Framework: what it brings in, leaves out, interrogates, and strengthens, and the sometimes yawning gap between the aspirations of the Framework and the sometimes frightening realities of many young students' lack of curiosity and joy;
  • The persistent tensions between "resilience" as a good term for a kind of creative flexibility in the face of adversity, and "resilience" as a substitution of a personal response for a solution to a structural problem.  I heard one speaker use the work and then immediately apologize for it after a standing-room-only presentation called Resilience, Grit and Other Lies: Academic Libraries and the Myth of Risiliency (.pdf)

Other attendees are welcome to point out all the good fights I missed.

Question 10:  How is the relationship between academic libraries and centers for teaching and learning (CTLs) evolving?

I'm not sure there is a consensus, since there are so many variables in academic contexts. I know of one case where a beautifully renovated CTL in fact combined about 10 other services formerly located elsewhere in a large university.  That set of new partnerships has required so much team-building and re-negotiation that librarians in the same building have not had as much contact as they previously anticipated (this may be changing recently).  Where the CTL and librarian partners have sufficient contact and are not completely frustrated by funding limitations (or non-existence), I have heard that enormously fruitful partnerships evolving.  Open Educational Resources, Open Textbooks, and so many other hot topics really call for multi-sided collaborations.  My favorite anecdote is of an information technologist with a strong secondary background in instructional design who exclaimed, "Wow, there's a lot of information technology in the library!"  I believe that many libraries, especially on undergraduate-oriented campuses, were attempting to be centers for teaching and learning before the phrase was invented, and in those places where turf is not a source of conflict, creative partnerships are forming.

The recent Ithaka S+R survey of library directors found that "while [many] library directors agreed that librarians at their institutions contribute significantly to student learning in a variety of ways, only about half of the faculty members for the Ithaka S+R Faculty Survey 2015 recognized these contributions." (pages 3-4) I suspect that both Centers for Teaching and Learning and academic libraries face a common challenge to communicate what they can (and do) contribute to faculty who are genuinely skeptical or worried about maintaining their turf.

Question 11:  What questions should I be asking about the changing academic library?

The fact that you are asking any questions is remarkable for many academic librarians, who have so often felt marginalized (for reasons good and bad) by campus technology and technologists in the past couple of decades.  You don't take anything for granted.

I can only really respond by suggesting the question that I'm asking as I lead my organization through a process of listening, thinking and planning together: what is our core mission in plain language?  What is our value proposition for our institution?  How do we show that we are doing that?  How does our mission and value proposition align with our institution's proclaimed commitments and priorities?

In this process I have spoken with many people on my campus, and (following advice from a mentor) I asked each of them simply:  "What is your job?  What difference does your office make here?  What's your biggest challenge?"  Their responses were amazing, and almost all of them pointed in one direction: "how do we communicate to a skeptical world what an amazing difference real learning can make in a student's life?"  To the extent that our library can respond to that question with grace and authenticity, we can also state our value proposition and our mission, and our alignment with our university.

Even with all the challenges, controversies, and constraints, this is the best time ever to be an academic librarian.

The Once and Future Library: when Once? and how Future?

At Sacred Heart University I have been leading the first phase of a strategic directions initiative to articulate the highest-level aspirations of the organization, and to mark ways that the Library can leverage its expertise and strengths to enhance the intellectual life of the University and advance its mission.

As part of listening, thinking, and planning together, we have read discussed some truly thought-provoking articles and reports. Two of these in particular are from MIT: Online Education: A Catalyst for Higher Education Reforms, and The Once and Future Library. These are very different documents: the first is a report of MIT’s Online Education Policy Initiative. The second is a report from the MIT News Office, and summarizes remarks by several MIT senior librarians made at (or responding to) a panel discussion concerning the future of the library.

Despite their differences in format and subject matter, the two documents converge on several questions and concerns about the changing role of the library is the quickly-evolving ecosystem of higher education.

  • Preserving the cultural record —both the “wild frontier” of digital preservation and the massive challenge of “analogue” preservation— complements the online education report’s call for fostering thinking communities that identify and develop the change agents and role models for implementing reforms. Without access to the materials, scholarly traditions of higher education, or the “thinking communities” that the report advocates, will be unable to realize the good intentions of the reformers. The past cannot constrain the future, but without it neither reforms can be adequately grounded both in prosaic institutional realities and perennial threshold questions that undergird scholarly disciplines.
  • The future of the collections (at MIT and elsewhere) will be entwined with increasing disciplinary collaborations across fields of research in higher education. Until the past few years it was common inside libraries to think about the “collections” that supported distinct fields of study: British literature, community nursing, entrepreneurship, or cellular biology, to name only a few. As the library’s role of assembling scholarly materials diminishes, however (insofar as so much is available digitally, with or without pay walls), the library’s role of publishing and codifying scholarly materials has grown. This suggests the simple question: What is the library for?  While the report may have intended “fields of research in higher education” to be those it named, from neuropsychology to meta-analysis and assessment, the importance of disciplinary collaborations and interdisciplinary conversation embraces widely disparate fields, and the library has a central publishing and fostering role as a digital and analogue commons. The threshold concepts that critically examine the interests, biases, and assumptions present in the information ecosystem suggest a unified field of varying forces that more hold the scholarly disciplines together than tear them apart –the threshold concepts that are fact "what the library is for" (both as purpose and as advocacy).
  • The Once and Future Library begins by noting how ancient libraries (such as Alexandria) held a lecture hall, refectory, and porch where scholars could talk, collaborate, read, and eat. Now the modern library —such as even Sacred Heart University Library— has versions of these facilities inside, and is far from merely a “reading room” or “book warehouse.” The Policy Initiative recognizes the numerous contributions of fields such as motivation and rewards in learning, health and nutrition, and learning spaces, and “the necessary mix of cognitive, social, and interpersonal skills needed for life and work.” (p. 18)  The library is both a literal and physical learning space.

These convergences (preservation, collaborations, and a holistic vision of learning) strongly imply a spectrum of abilities, practices, and habits of mind, that expands and deepens through engagement with the information ecosystem.  This is close to the definition of the Framework for Information Literacy published by the Association of College and Research Libraries in 2015.  Although higher education as an introduction to “life-long" learning has become a cliché, “life-long” still has great meaning to those on the receiving end of fundamental, continuing, and painful social change.  The disposition towards learning inherent in information literacy offers a pathway through the world as we are finding it.

The confluence of a kind of lazy, informal postmodernism and casual digital culture has led many to wonder whether the constitutive commitments to truth, goodness, and beauty that have characterized Western higher education for millennia have simply ceased to be relevant. Both documents from MIT suggest strongly otherwise —and coming from one of the fonts (MIT) of all things digital, constructivist, and cognitivist, this is surprising and reinvigorating at once.

The dynamic, digital scaffold proposed by the Policy Initiative could be able (or will be able to) extend the necessary mix of cognitive, social, and interpersonal skills that are thresholds to genuine engagement without limitations by the modes of pedagogy, either on-ground or online.

The Policy Initiative proposes a “learning engineer” at the center of that dynamic digital scaffold. At MIT “engineer” is a “good” word signifying “us, what we stand for,” while for those outside MIT "learning engineer" may connote “narrow, technical, and highly specialized” instead. I understand “learning engineer” to be local MIT-speak for “instructional designers,” and the “design thinking” at the heart of educational enterprise. The Policy Initiative’s strong recommendation that such individuals need far greater support and integration with subject-based academics is heartening.  Ironically, it also strongly suggests what instructional librarians have been trying to do for a long time with little fanfare, external comprehension, or support. “Design thinking” is now at the heart of librarianship, and can only strengthen on-ground, hybrid, and digital pedagogies.  In a sense a library is a perpetual "beta" of the Initiative's "dynamic digital scaffold."

At Sacred Heart University Library, our strategic directions initiative has already moved ahead with recalling and creating “the once and future library.” We are searching for an instructional design librarian, intentionally a hybrid kind of work, and we are engaging the university community in planning further library building, collections, and service renovations (re-newing, indeed!). What is most important about this initiative is not the resulting document, but the process itself of listening, thinking, and planning together.

Why Does Library Privacy Matter?

In 2009 Eric Schmidt, then CEO of Google, was asked whether users should be willing to share information with Google as if it were a trusted friend –and Schmidt famously replied, "If you have something you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place."  The Electronic Frontier Foundation noted that this is very close to the famous phrase, "if you've done nothing wrong, you've got nothing to worry about" –beloved of those who are seeking greater law-enforcement powers or processes.  It implies that people who seek to preserve privacy are doing something to worry about, not those who place them under surveillance.

That was then.  In the aftermath of Edward Snowdon's revelations –in particular those that detail the very cozy relationships between the NSA, major firms such as Google, and telecommunications giants such as Verizon– privacy has returned as a positive right, not merely a historical left-over.

A library is probably one of the last places where one can pursue interests and information unobserved.  A mere few years ago this was a sign of obsolescence rather than currency.  Libraries made data surveillance difficult because they weren't high-tech enough.  That has changed too.  Suddenly that obsolescence has become a feature (as in, "that's not a bug, it's a feature!").

Why does it matter?  If there is one thing that Pew survey after Pew survey has found –as well as OCLC and other survey producers– that thing surely has to be: people feel positive about the library "brand."  They want a vibrant, useful library in their academic, residential, or business community whether or not they intend to use it (or have used it).  A library is a "good thing."  People trust libraries, and trust librarians.

Trust is a huge asset, not to be thrown away or discounted casually.  Just ask General Motors, or for that matter, the NSA itself.

In general, libraries do a fairly accurate job of maintaining trust, but could do a lot better.  Circulation records of tangible items are not easily available for public discovery, depending on the laws of state and local jurisdictions.  (Connecticut has alarming little provision of the privacy of library records, for example.)  In any case, circulation records are hard to locate digitally because they are held in highly particular formats in integrated library systems, formats that don't translate readily to standards and common practices outside.  That's wasn't a bug, and now it's a feature.

Library use of external databases is a different matter.  In many systems, all traffic routed through a library proxy will be seen by parties outside the proxy as coming from one machine, one Internet Protocol address.  Separating the sessions would be far harder.  That doesn't cover all library database transactions, however, or even a large portion of them.  Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon —in French, GAFA— can monitor a great deal of transactions on library workstations unless those are properly protected.

Eric Hellman has written persuasively (to my mind, at least) about the Library Digital Privacy Pledge here and here.  It's an interesting concept, whether or not the pledge ever receives wide adoption.  Eric's primary focus at this point is to get libraries to use the secure HTTP protocol –HTTPS– as much as possible.  Library digital privacy has, of course, many other aspects that will need to be addressed.

Recently the small New Hampshire public library in West Lebanon (near Dartmouth College) was for the most part bullied away from using the secure browser system TOR by the NSA –although now they have recovered their courage.  TOR has been targeted in the past as the province of drug-dealers, pedophiles, and terrorists –what lovely company– and who would want to be associated with them?  The topic invariably circles back to law enforcement: if you haven't done anything wrong, you've got nothing to hide (even when grammatically challenged!).

In the library no one ever used to track your reading, and no one should now: 3rd article of the American Library Association's Code of Ethics.  Trust is easily lost.  Privacy is easily lost.  A library is a great place to think, write, and read privately.  It's not a bug, it's a feature.


Why Do Books Matter?

. . . Many people have concluded already that they don't. If you have concluded that they are irrelevant and old-fashioned, you probably will not be open to this discussion.  I encourage you, nevertheless, to have an open mind.

I’m a librarian and a book person (who’d have thought?) and therefore probably against the grain of American culture right now.  Books have been enormously influential in my life; they gave me an outlet, vision, and ambition when I was very young, and (some of them) have continued to challenge, delight, and astound me ever since.  Some books I count as old friends, and its a diverse lot: Lucretius, Søren Kierkegaard, Frederick Buechner, Karl Barth, Flannery O’Connor, Robertson Davies, Nora Ephron, Peter Brown, P.D. James — probably my educational and professional background shows there,  and some (like Brian Greene) I don’t understand very well.  I continue to read both printed books and digital texts; my current project is John Eliot Norton’s Bach: Music In The Castle Of Heaven.

To sum up a counter position: A “book person” is an anachronism: the world is digital, information moves at blazing speed, and care, nuance, and precision are luxuries of the past.  Readers have become users; teachers have become suppliers, and students have become customers.  The competition for attention drowns out the sustained attention any book requires, and the mark of the contemporary is multi-tasking, even though humans have been shown to do that very badly.  Instead of nuance, we have media scolds and bludgeons; instead of discussion we have talking points and position papers; instead of reading we have scanning or surfing.  Is it any wonder that we wind up with in a bitterly contentious, polarized society marked by increasing, sharp differences between the very rich, the poor, those caught in the diminishing middle, —where everything is on the market, and humans are either the customers or the product?  Disruption is the word of the moment, nevermind whether it is a well-establish and solidly argued social good or simple mediocrity —that it’s disrupted is enough to draw the line between the tired old and the shiny new.  Aaron Bady’s sharp questioning of Clay Shirky reveal how possible futures become taken for inevitable outcomes, and the slippery proposition that those outside any institution, profession, or work are bound to understand it better than its practitioners.  “Open is open” seems to end all discussion, period.  It is alleged, if you are part of “closed” (read “old) system, you couldn’t possibly understand.

Printed books are an “old” format bound for disruption, right?  Turns out: not so fast.  People continue to want them, and sales remain strong, despite Amazon’s assault on bookstores.  (And I do mean assault.)  The “friction” (or difficulty) of obtaining a print book —you have to go somewhere to get one: library, bookstore, or online— is also a friction for the publisher (lately restyled as the “intellectual property owner” —but that’s another blog entry).  Once published and sold, a print book can’t be disappeared in an Orwellian or Statist (Fascist) manner.  Case in point: last summer the merger of Penguin and Random House led to the disappearing of 1,400 Random House digital books from the SHU library catalog —the terms of the deal seems to have indicated that the new management (mostly from Penguin) would not continue the contracts with digital book aggregators (in our case, eBrary Academic Complete).  Suddenly links didn’t work, and a few weeks later records displaying them were deleted from our library system.  Had we purchase those 1,400 books as printed, the library would still have them available.  At least a few of them are bound to have been of enduring value and related to SHU’s curriculum (it was Random House, an “old” and “quality” publisher).  Now we have to pay more —either acquire print copies, or find where they are available digitally.

This doesn’t get at why books really matter, of course.  I’m thinking of academic books: scholarly books, and high-quality books for the wider market (such as Robert Caro’s everlasting biography of Lyndon B. Johnson).  What matters is not their format, but their content, their intellectual, nuanced exploration and exposition of a subject.  Format is not incidental, but neither is it crucial.

Books are critical to education and the life of a culture because of the sustained attention required to write and to read them.  Books are critical because they encode or contain thinking that can become part of a public discourse —can be challenged, confirmed, critiqued, welcomed, despised, all the possible outcomes of seriously considering a proposition or an argument.  A book sticks around in a stable form so that the author cannot suddenly alter  its contents to suit latter convenience, prove herself or himself right, or respond to critics.

Books are destructible, and tyrants have long sought to destroy them.  Book burnings became a badge of totalitarianism in the 20th century.  But otherwise all the copies of a book are hard to destroy.  A widely distributed supply and market system made it highly likely that somewhere, somehow, a copy might survive.  This has mattered in the face of tyrant, and it matter most during the period when so many texts went underground during the great disruptions of the early Middle Ages.  This list of ancient authors who survived to be read later on the basis of a single copy is a long list, and includes works by Aristotle, Lucretius, and Tacitus.

The idea that books as a technology of learning are obsolete takes a very short view.  To be sure: some books are obsolete: who bothers to look up past market prices for securities in a printed volume?  A much longer view sees the value in the conversations among and between generations.  Partisans of the “originalist” view of the U.S. Constitution need to know what those original views are; partisans or a more evolutionist view need a sense of difference over time, of intervening realities and developments.  At the far end of this this longer horizon is the Long Now Foundation, Stewart Brand’s striking question: what are we doing that could make any difference 10,000 years from now?  (See The Long Now Foundation)

A neo-liberal university in which the customer (students + parents) is king may be able to “satisfice” their information needs by simply pulling random hits from a casual Google search.  That sells students and learning short, perhaps disastrously short.  Learning is more than simply a private good to be parceled out to those who can pay.  I believe in books, because books give witness to thinking that might propell such a university away from a view which spells long term disaster for learning, for universities, and for free society.



Who Owns The Future Of Books?

My prevous post took a brief look at the religious ideas that permeate not only Jaron Lanier's Who Owns The Future? (whether he explicitly acknowledges those ideas or not). This post considers what he contributes about books, and the future of books.

(Lanier, author of Who Owns The Future? appears on the SHU campus on Wednesday, October 9, 7:00 p.m. Schine Auditorium)

Books have become a cultural flash point that inspire "maniacal scheming" (see pages 352-360) –an unwitting testament to books' enduring iconic, cultural power.  What bothers Lanier is that current development of networks –the Siren Servers that seek total computational awareness and control–might lead to losing "the pattern of what a book is in the stream of human life and thought." (353)  After sketching some possible future scenarios about the fate of books, authors, and readers, Lanier offers a definition (one of the very best I have ever read):

A book isn't an artifact, but a synthesis of fully realized individual personhood with human continuity. The economic model of our networks has to be optimized to preserve that synthesis, or it will not serve [hu]mankind.(358)

Lanier here touches upon the emotional salience and cultural power that books evoke.  The uneasiness Lanier shares with many is not just about texts (tomes, bindings), but about human lives.  "Human life is its own purpose," he continues.  "Thinking about people in terms of the components on a network is–in intellectual and spiritual terms–a slow suicide for the researchers and a slow homicide against everyone else."(360)  The ingestion of millions of e-texts into Artificial Intelligence divorces what humans write about from who they are, and what makes their lives meaningful to them.  "Whether we will destroy culture in order to save/digitize it is still unknown."(353) (Lanier references that metaphor to the Vietnam war.)

What makes a liberal education liberal–freeing–is the strong association (synthesis) of particular texts with particular people, moments, events, movements, points of view.  The real intellectual problem with Wikipedia isn't its alleged accuracy or inaccuracy. Rather, it "proposes that knowledge can be divorced from point of view." Note that Lanier writes knowledge –not data, not information, not the "flashes of thought" that might be "inserted meaningfully into a shared semantic structure" (ibid.)  Knowledge is what humans make for other humans.  Strictly speaking, computers can store, locate, index, and transform data, but can't know in the same sense.

These are my own thoughts, sourced in Lanier's text, which I found to enormously helpful in articulating the fundamentally different business model of a library from a database, even a sort of meta-database (a database of databases –a discovery service, in other words).  What libraries are about is the discovery of knowledge in human communities and continuities, in a symmetrical transaction that celebrates unanswered questions (intellectual risk) and acknowledges the presence of other sources of knowledge –whether living persons, libraries, databases, search engines, or other human syntheses of any and every kind.  

This transaction (process, pedagogy) thrusts libraries into an educational process squarely at odds with Siren Servers that are naracisstic (as though they alone collect data), risk-externalizing (questions and uncertainties never belong to the Server, always to the user), and depend upon extreme information assymetry –users can't know what the Server already knows about them, and how it seeks to modify their behavior.

Understanding the cultural term "book" a "a synthesis of fully realized individual personhood with human continuity" respects authors, readers, and the economic and intellectual chain of power and responsibility that connects them.  This also illuminates why some (many?) people care so passionately about books –what they care about is human continuity, personhood, what makes a human life worth living.  What better question could a liberal arts education pursue?  What could be more "relevant" to the challenges of living in a "flat," networked world?