About Lydia Fletcher

Aspiring librarian, occasional medievalist, full time nerd. Currently Science Librarian at UT-Austin!

In The (Local) News: Medieval Spectacles

Micah Erwin, a UT iSchool alumnus and fellow medievalist who now works at the Harry Ransom Center, has written this amazing blog post about the impression of a pair of medieval spectacles that was found on a bit of medieval manuscript waste that had been used to bind an early modern printed book:

Early printed book contains rare evidence of medieval spectacles

While conducting a survey of manuscript waste found in early printed books I noticed a faint reddish-brown impression of a pair of spectacles on the rear parchment endpapers of a copy of the Opera of Fr. Luigi di Granata. The endpapers in this book comprise a piece of parchment taken from a page in a medieval manuscript (it was a common practice in the hand-press period to reuse old disbound parchment manuscripts for endpapers, pastedowns, stubbs, or spine linings).

What a fascinating and exciting thing to find in a book here in Austin!  Tidbits like these are what make medieval studies so exciting to me.  Medieval history can be so amazing because, as Barbara Tuchman noted in the title of her book, it is a distant mirror of ourselves and our own time. Taking away the specific issues of banking crises, global warming, and what have you, we’re still struggling with some of the same fundamental problems that they were 600 years ago: sickness, malnutrition, insufficient housing, poverty, ignorance, superstition, prejudice and governmental selfishness.

And yet in the midst of all the filth and horror they contemplated the divine in ways that we just can’t. In Lincoln Cathedral there are carvings and bosses so high up on the ceiling that they are almost inaccessible, even to modern scaffolding. Why are they there? Why did anyone go to all the trouble of making them when they couldn’t even be seen or appreciated? They were made for the sheer joy and love of making beautiful things, even if the only person that could see them was God. Perhaps especially if God was the only one who could see them. People just don’t do that any more. The medieval world created so much beauty, and so much of it has survived! What’s going to survive from our time? New buildings built on the UT campus are designed to last 50 years now. Paper’s gotten crappier and crappier and no one can know how well eBooks and eReaders and other electronic media is going to survive. Medieval people lived with such dignity and inventiveness, and I just don’t see anything like their creations when I look around me now. I think that’s why I love the middle ages so much.

I think the similarities between us and medieval people get lost in translation so easily, because people focus on all the cosmetics that make our time different from them. But nothing has fundamentally changed since then! We’re still doing a lot of the same things! I mean, Hoccleve’s Regiment of Princes with a modern translation could so easily be marketed as the next big self-help book for corporate managers. (In fact… why hasn’t it? Hm.) We’re still wearing spectacles (and leaving them sitting on open books!) and we still have fingerprints.  For all our technology, we’re really not that different.


In The News (Again): The Cuthbert Gospel

Last July when I first started this blog, one of the things I wrote about was the British Library’s appeal to raise £9 million to acquire the Cuthbert Gospel for the nation.  The Gospel dates back to the seventh century and was produced in North East England.  It was on long-term loan to the British Library until its owner decided to sell it.  It would have been a great loss for Britain if the book had been sold abroad, but luckily the British Library was able to raise the funds!

British Library acquires the St Cuthbert Gospel – the earliest intact European book

The British Library has announced that it has successfully acquired the St Cuthbert Gospel, a miraculously well-preserved 7th century manuscript that is the oldest European book to survive fully intact and therefore one of the world’s most important books.

I am so happy that the British Library will now be able to continue displaying this amazing piece of English and world heritage!  I’m also happy that the book will be displayed part of the time in Durham, which is close to the book’s place of origin.

I am also ALSO happy that during the initial conservation assessment of the book, the British Library has digitised the entire manuscript and made the digital images available for scholars and other interested folks around the world.

Apples and Oranges: eBooks and the Justice Department

I’ve been reading a lot recently about the Justice Department’s decision to sue Apple and several major book publishers who are accused of “price fixing” eBooks. There’s a lot of debate, naturally, about Apple’s business practices and their market domination of music with iTunes (not to mention Amazon’s equally questionable business practices) and also about what the “real” price of an eBook should be (should it be more in conjunction with a print edition or should it cost less because it costs less to produce?). Personally, I side with the camp that finds Amazon more at fault than Apple, for setting prices that undercut both publishers AND authors, as nicely summed up in this New York Times article “Book Publishing’s Real Nemesis” by David Carr.

By coincidence, this is the week in my Collection Management class that we are discussing legal, copyright, and ethical issues in libraries, and one of our readings brought up this Supreme Court decision from the 1984 Sony Corp. of American v. University City Studios:

The monopoly privileges that Congress may authorize are neither unlimited nor primarily designed to provide a special private benefit. Rather, the limited grant is a means by which an important public purpose may be achieved. It is intended to motivate the creative activity of authors and inventors by the provision of a special reward, and to allow the public access to the products of their genius after the limited period of exclusive control has expired.

It seems to me that this quote speaks to the heart of the debate about eBooks and the battle between Amazon and Apple, and I think it strengthens Carr’s argument that allowing Amazon to create a minority in which eBook prices are artificially driven down to allow Amazon to drive Kindle sales is contrary to the Supreme Court’s position in 1984. Granted, the current Supreme Court Justices may think differently, but I believe it is wrong for the Justice Department to allow Amazon to create an almost state-approved monopoly that does little to protect the meager profits made of authors. In the long run, if authors can’t make enough money by writing to support future creative activities, won’t the number of books available eventually start to dry up? Or worse, be nothing but endless fanfiction-turned-legitimate-novel Twilight spinoffs?

In The News: British Library Science Manuscripts Online

Here’s an interesting piece of news from the British Library’s Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts blog:

Science Manuscripts Online Soon

The British Library’s Harley Science Project, generously funded by William and Judith Bollinger, has supported the digitisation of 150 manuscripts, spanning the period from the 9th to the 17th centuries, and embracing many branches of early scientific knowledge.

Ff. 158v-159r of BL Harley MS 3719: illustration combining the features of a bloodletting man with those of a zodiac man. (Image by the British Library.)

This is a project that combines two different professional interests of mine (manuscripts and the history of science/medicine) and absolutely delights my heart.  For those of you who wonder what it is I want to do when I grow up, this is pretty much exactly it!

Crowdsourcing Codicology

A conundrum solved, collectively: a 15th century Italian manuscript identified

In January 2012, we posted a plea for help in identifying a motif found in one of our medieval manuscripts: msBR65.A9S2 – a Pseudo-Augustinian Sermones ad fratres eremo. …within a few days we had re-dated the manuscript 100 years later, found out that it was probably made in Lombardy, had come to us via the French invasions of the late 18th century.  … What began as an experiment in a new way of tapping into new scholarly networks ended up telling us more about this manuscript than we have ever known.

From the blog of the Special Collection of the University of St Andrews, this is an incredible example of a library reaching out to the medieval manuscript studies community to learn more about a manuscript in their collections. I hope some day I can contribute to these discussions—or at least watch more of them from the sidelines! I think crowdsourcing questions like this one is exactly the kind of things libraries and other manuscript researchers should be doing in this digital age to increase our collective knowledge about a particular work as well as awareness of a particular library’s valuable holdings.

In The News: Long Overdue

Long Overdue: Changing student needs results in a new chapter for Milner.

When students were asked what they’d  like to see more of at Milner Library, the answer was surprising.

Outlets. No one said books, and a wander through the six floors tells you why…

This is an amazing article from the Illinois State University’s Milner Library about how they are changing the library’s physical space and services offered to adapt to changing student patron needs.  The Milner is among the front runners of libraries that I am familiar with in fundamentally changing the concept of what a library is and how it can best support the research needs of undergraduates.

On a personal note, at the PMA Library we’re currently putting together a report on what our physical space provides for students and what it lacks, and outlets is at the very top of the list of things we desperately want!

In the immortal words of Boromir:

I think that one of the most important things that libraries can do right now is begin to assess exactly what their patrons really need.  One of the best and most inspiring stories of libraries that exist with their community’s real needs in mind is that of the new Canada Water Library, which was built at the cost of £14 million by Southwark (London, UK) Council.  Faced with the closure altogether of several libraries across Southwark—a borough which covers much of London on the south side of the Thames—members of the community spoke out:

“Our libraries have been well managed over a long period of time and what we’ve managed to do is listen to people. Over 6,000 people said they would rather we did things like reduce hours or use volunteers than close libraries. That was enough people saying libraries were important.” (From: “Super Library in Southwark Opens Its Doors”)

The library will hold 40,000 books, but it also has a variety of community spaces such as a café, meeting rooms, and a small community theater.  The library even incorporates an entrance to the Canada Water London Underground tube station, so that patrons can easily access the library and its resources without having to go outside.  By listening to the needs of the Canada Water community, Southwark Council and its library staff are providing a building that provides not only books for education and pleasure, but meeting spaces, access to the Internet, and a community space that is by and for the local community.

What is the library of the future?  In my opinion, the librarians, archivists, and curators of the future must directly engage with their local community to provide institutions that respond to the actual needs of its patrons, not the perceived or idealized needs as dictated by archaic library science theory and philosophy.  The library, archive, and museum of the future should incorporate more than the traditional analogue collections generally associated with these institutions, but it should also be wary of rejecting these traditional collections for digital-only resources.  Above all, libraries, archives, and museums should embrace and respond to their communities’ needs and desires.


Rebel Alliances and Evil Empires in the Academic Universe

Probably the hottest topic discussed in my Collection Management class so far this semester is the problem of publishing conglomerates and their “Big Deals,” which lock libraries or library consortia into multi-year contracts with sometimes diminishing levels of access to online journals and eBooks for increasingly larger portions of the library budget pie. In one article, we read that some libraries spend over 50% of their total budget for collection management on these Big Deals from companies such as Springer, Wiley, and (the Emperor Palpatine of the academic world at the moment) Elsevier.

A great many people have summarised the arguments against Elsevier and the issues faced by libraries far better than I can, so here’s a small run-down of articles that have caught my attention lately.

In an age where most cost-saving measures at libraries include cutting subscriptions to printed versions of journals in favor of increasing online access to articles*, maintaining online access to major titles is an increasingly important consideration for libraries. However, sometimes not all volumes of a journal are available to researchers online. This is due to a variety of reasons related to the copyright restrictions on newer or older issues; the availability of funds for digitisation of issues published before computers; or fluctuations in what the publisher thinks libraries should be paying for each article.

In January, a sensationalised articled in the Atlantic accused JSTOR (an online archive of digitised academic publications, JSTOR acts as a hub or nexus for a wide range of journals but is not, itself, a publisher) of taking articles written “for free” by university and publicly-funded researches and selling it back to them. According to the Atlantic,

The public — which has indirectly funded this research with federal and state taxes that support our higher education system — has virtually no access to this material, since neighborhood libraries cannot afford to pay those subscription costs. Newspapers and think tanks, which could help extend research into the public sphere, are denied free access to the material. Faculty members are rightly bitter that their years of work reaches an audience of a handful, while every year, 150 million attempts to read JSTOR content are denied every year.

The article has major flaws, and was duly masterfully critiqued by by Nancy Sims, the Copyright Program Librarian at the University of Minnesota Libraries, who pointed out that academic publishing is full of problems. She writes,

But McKenna is really wrong about a bunch of specifics, and there are a lot of people out there (with a lot of money), who want to shape the narrative around the economics of academic publishing in a really different direction. This article is in a fairly high-profile and general interest publication, but it’s so factually incorrect in so many different ways that it invites ridicule to the whole position.

Sims’ article goes to the heart of the issues about journal subscription and individual article prices in academic publishing. As Sims’ points out, some for-profit publishers (such as Elsevier) make 32-42% profits from selling access to academic articles. That’s a bit ridiculous, if you ask me, and while I recognise that this is capitalism at work, my tree-hugging hippie socialist scumbag cries out for more open access to academic research, especially in important areas such as health research.

I fully support the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2008 which requires researchers who received funding from the National Institutes of Health to post their final, peer-reviewed papers on PubMed Central, an archival hub like JSTOR that is run by the National Library of Medicine, no later than a year after publication. The Consolidated Appropriations Act still allows publishers to get their share, in that in order to stay up to date with the most current research being published, scientists and doctors must subscribe to high-impact journals in their fields or pay for access to individual articles.

However, there is a great deal of opposition to initiatives like this from the major publishers, who view it as a threat to the profits they can make by selling access to research articles. For Elsevier in particular, their exorbitant journal and article prices were compounded by their support for the Research Works Act, which seeks to protect publishers’ profits by counteracting the Consolidated Appropriations Act. The RWA is often mentioned as related to the erstwhile SOPA and PIPA legislation that was shouted down by the combined voices of the Internet’s major players. Perhaps inspired by the Internet blackout movement and led by Timothy Gowers, a prominent mathematician at the University of Cambridge and winner of the Fields Medal, and his blog article from 21 January, over 7,700 researchers from around the world was signed an online pledge not to publish in, edit, or review journals published by Elsevier. Two great summaries of this action can be found in The Chronicle of Higher Education and on NPR’s On The Media.

In the wake of this mass outcry, Elsevier announced on Monday that it was withdrawing its support for the RWA. However, their carefully-worded announcement means that supporters of open access have only won the battle, not the way. As the humourous @FakeElsevier twitter warned:

Note that our relenting had nothing to do w/ ur puny rebellion. Now witness the firepower of this FULLY ARMED AND OPERATIONAL BATTLE STATION

Mike Taylor at Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week, or SV-POW!, fully decodes Elsevier’s announcement and this article from the New York Times does a good job of presenting both sides of the debate and contextualising it in terms of current American politics. It’s a thorny subject, and the levity of @FakeElsevier only highlights the real drama that researchers, librarians, and politicians around the world are paying close attention to.

* At the PMA Library, for example, we’ve recently cancelled our print subscription to all five series of Physical Review, each single issue of which was published weekly and weighed in at about the same size as the Austin yellow pages, in favor of improving access to the online versions.

The Skills You Don’t Learn In School

Over at Hack Library School, one of the contributors recently posted about The Skills You Don’t Learn In School: interpersonal skills. As they say in the post, “librarianship is a profession that’s all about helping people.”

I posted a bit about this last fall when I was first (re)starting graduate school. I’m lucky enough to have worked in the “real” world for a couple of years before diving back into graduate school, so I have experience of working with people in a professional setting and not just from my undergraduate days working on the computer lab help desk and selling soap at Bath Junkie. When I was interviewing for my Graduate Assistant position at the Physics, Maths & Astronomy Library, one of the skills that I had that made the biggest impression was my time working as a Marketing Coordinator, where I spent most of my day every day communicating with clients and answering the same questions over and over (“what do you mean I have to put the FDIC disclaimers on everything? They’re so long!” “BECAUSE IT’S THE LAW!!”) as well as effectively running my firm’s small in-house marketing department with almost no supervision. Excellent communication and interpersonal skills? Check! Ability to manage complex workload, prioritize tasks and complete work on time with minimum supervision? Check!

However, I know of other students in my program at the UT-Austin iSchool who worry about their resumes and their chances of getting jobs because they only have retail or work study experience from their undergraduate days. To quote again from Hack Library School’s post, “Even if you don’t have prior library experience, there are transferable skills that you can use in a library setting. I spent many years slinging coffee beans, working in customer service. I had no clue that the experiences I had at the coffee shop would actually help me as a reference librarian.” They also link to a post from April 2011 that gives concrete advice on Ways to Improve Your Soft Skills.

It’s Always Nice to Be Remembered

Sincerest apologies for disappearing — I can’t believe it’s January 2012 already! The end of last semester passed me by in a blur of papers, projects, readings, handings-in, celebrations, and blissful, guilt-free relaxation. When the dust had settled, I ended up with the grades I expected and the first (and highest, I think) hurdle of another graduate degree cleared.

This semester I’m taking:

Collection Management: Philosophical and social context, objectives and methodology of evaluating and selecting library materials.

Introduction to Archival Enterprise I: Introduction to the records aspect of archival enterprise, from acquisition to use, with emphasis on arrangement and description.

Conservation Risk Assessment and Management: Agents of deterioration, including physical forces, security, disaster, and environmental conditions; risk assessment, strategies to reduce risk, and personal safety

These classes represent the real meat and potatoes work I’ve come to do at the iSchool (as opposed to last semester’s classes, which were mostly grounding theory and more focused on the technological aspect of information management). In just these two short weeks, I’ve already started realizing some interesting and surprising things, so I’m going to work on writing up a blog post about each one.

Before I go, though, I’ll leave you with a link to the UTSA English Department’s news page, where (I believe) my undergraduate advisor got my recent publication mentioned. It makes me smile to think of how proud I am to represent UTSA well and to be remembered by them.

Graduate Studies: Frivolous? Necessary? Somewhere in-between?

The eight types of graduate student

“I initially figured that we must all be there because of a pure thirst for knowledge. I’ve since realised, however, that the impulses that draw someone to academic study beyond graduation are a lot more varied than that.”

This link came across my Facebook dash a couple of days ago and of course I had to pass it on.  It generated quite a few humorous responses, as well as a few more thoughtful comments.  Most of my friends (and myself) easily identified with one of the listed choices (I definitely identify with #7), and I found it telling that I could go through the list and put names of friends and acquaintances next to each entry, but it wasn’t long before people were pointing out the areas the article missed — my friend Jane Mason of Virtuous Bread said, “There does not seem to be one for ‘I could not think of anything else to do at the time'” and my friend Virginia followed that up with “I think I’m with Jane on this one. Does crushing boredom count as sufficient motivation?”

While boredom is a valid reason for going to graduate school, it was my friend Matt of three4history who really got me thinking about what types of graduate student Patrick Tomlin neglected to mention (which has naturally snowballed somewhat as I have reflected on discussions I’ve had with other people recently).  Matt said, ” Initially, my reason was going to grad school to obtain a usable degree in my field (history)…” [emphasis mine].

Matt’s degree is, if I’m not mistaken (and feel free to correct me, Matt!), a Masters of Public History in Archives and Records Management, which is a very close relative of my own degree-in-progress in Archives and Preservation.  These degrees fall under the missing item in Patrick Tomlin’s list, 9. The Professional Degree.

What makes our degrees “professional”?  Why wasn’t “I had to have a graduate degree to get a job in my field” included in the list of types of graduate student?  It’s not like there aren’t a lot of degrees and a lot of people that fall under this heading — I’d argue that law school and medical school fall under this professional degree heading, as well as the many public service and heritage degrees.  For my part, I doubt I would have come back to graduate school to do another master’s if it hadn’t been for the fact that the MSIS/MLIS is required to get full time employment as a full librarian rather than a paraprofessional library assistant.  I’m sure there are many people out there who would sympathize with my view and who would skip graduate school if they could.

So why ignore this wide swath of graduate students?  It was suggested to me recently that I’m not a “real” graduate student because I’m not in a “traditional” academic, research-focused department.  And it is true that being in a practical, professional degree program feels very different from being in an English literature graduate program — maybe that also has something to do with the fact that I’m older and far more focused on getting the very specific, practical skills that fulfill concrete real-life job requirements than in taking any class that sounds interesting (“Ooooh, ‘Imagining the Polity in England, 1377-1422,’ that sounds neat!  I like Gower!!”).

All of this feeds into the question whether or not MSIS/MLIS degrees are practical, professional degrees and whether they should be required for librarian jobs.  In Texas, there’s been a lot of debate recently about whether or not librarians should have their masters degree, especially in cases like public school librarianship — is it really necessary for someone to have a masters degree in library science to serve as an elementary school librarian in Small Town, Texas?  There’s been a push to remove that requirement in some school districts lately, partly as a money-saving initiative — why pay someone twice as much for a masters when they can do the job just as well without it?  It also has to do with job creation and opening positions up to more people.

I can see both sides.  Of course, any MSIS/MLIS candidate is sure to say “But of course the MSIS/MLIS should be required!!” because I’m sure no one wants to admit that they’ve spent two years and thousands of dollars getting a special professional degree that is, ultimately, proved worthless — and I’m sure none of us want to be in competition with even more people for jobs.  But at the same time, I think there is a lot to be gained by opening up librarian jobs to more candidates, especially in school districts that might otherwise not be able to afford to staff their library.

This is also related to some discussions of subject librarianship that I have read recently which suggest that reference librarians for specific subjects (for example, business or medicine) should have a degree or a minor in that subject — with the implication that unless you’ve studied and somewhat specialized in that field, you can’t understand it well enough to adequately serve the needs of your patrons.  As someone who has worked in two specialist libraries and provided reference services for two subject areas very, very far outside her specialty, I have to admit the idea that I’m not good enough at providing reference services because I didn’t minor in mathematics or astronomy kind of gets my back up.  I think subject reference librarianship is composed of one part transferable research skills that can be gained in any field, and one part specialist knowledge that is learned on the job.  The suggestion that I should get another degree or minor in physics to properly serve the students at my PMA Library is a bit absurd.