Librarians as Part of the Third Culture (and Other Thoughts)

Happy Blogversary to me!

To celebrate, I thought I’d post a little bit about some thoughts I’ve been having since I started my job at UC Irvine, particularly about the peculiar nature of my liaison assignments. For those who don’t remember, I was appointed to be the Research Librarian for the departments of Mathematics, Physics & Astronomy, and Classics. This puts me in the rather interesting (but not unique) position of being both a Humanities and a Sciences librarian at the same time. This odd combination means that I straddle the fence between the Humanities and the Sciences, and (I think) gives me a unique perspective on both worlds.

In 1959 British scientist C.P. Snow delivered a Rede Lecture at Cambridge University called The Two Cultures, in which he described the increasing demarcation of the intellectual regions of the arts from the sciences, a trend which has continued over the 50 years since the lecture. In libraries, we talk a lot in generalizations about the differences in the patterns of library activity that we observe in faculty on either side of the divide—humanities researchers use more books and science researchers tend to use more journals; humanities researchers prefer to browse a collection, while science researchers know the specific thing that they want and want it now. I’m in a particular spot to observe and think about these differences since I serve both sides of the divide, and I like to think that it makes me a more broad-minded librarian.

In 1964 in a second edition of the book of The Two Cultures, Snow described a third culture where those of the arts communicated directly with those of the sciences, but I see a third culture as the liminal borderlands between the two where humanities researchers use traditionally scientific, data-driven methods to conduct their research, and where scientists turn their eyes upon humanities topics. A great example of what this third culture, for me, is this incredible lecture by physicist Peter J. Lu that I got to see at UCI last year. Lu and his team used mathematical methods to examine girih (geometric star-and-polygon patterns in medieval Islamic architecture) and observed that after 1200 C.E. girih patterns were reconceived as tessellations of a special set of equilateral polygons (girih tiles) decorated with lines, which enabled the production of increasingly complex repeating periodic girih patterns.

I’ve been thinking about all these things a lot over the past eight months, and I believe librarians are the natural denizens of this third cultural space, especially librarians like myself who come to the sciences from the humanities. At UCI, we’re beginning to explore how we can support Digital Humanities researchers on campus, and some of our librarians have been involved in “cross-cultural” research (such as Dance researchers looks at Nursing topics). Since I’ve looked so intensely at research on either side of the divide, I feel like sometimes I have good ideas or a different perspective to offer that’s maybe beneficial to the discussions that we’re having. (Or maybe not, you’d have to ask my coworkers.) I wish more librarians had the opportunity to spend some time serving as a liaison for “the other side.”

However, this position is not without its challenges: it took me a while to understand how to code switch between helping a humanities researcher and helping a science researcher quickly, and while I understand scientific topics on a conceptual level I still look at physical equations and think “woah that’s a lot of random numbers a Greek letters.”

Over the next couple of years I hope to take advantage of the many professional development opportunities there are for science librarians to become better at helping science researchers (like the various Science Bootcamps), but I also want to look at how to get more young librarians with humanities backgrounds to consider science librarianship and how to improve the opportunities for continuing education for those of us who come to science without formal training as scientists.

I don’t know exactly where I’m going with all this, yet, but I hope it will be interesting.


Life After Library School, Chapter One

photo(13)It’s been five months since I graduated with my MSIS from UT and it’s been a summer of mixed experiences and feelings. At some point I intend to sit and reflect on my experience of job hunting, but before I do that I need to do some serious digesting and make a couple of announcements:

First, the finding aid for the Carl H. Pforzheimer manuscripts collection at the Harry Ransom Center has been published online! This includes my contributions regarding the Bulstrode newsletters (many of which have been beautifully digitized and made available online) as part of my final MSIS “capstone” project. I am still so proud to have been involved in the project, and SO excited to be able to share the link to them!

Second, as those of you who follow me on Twitter already know, I’ve accepted a position as Research Librarian for Physics & Astronomy, Mathematics, and Classics at UC-Irvine in California. I started my job about three weeks ago and so far I could not be happier with the way my job search concluded! My job includes all the aspects of librarianship that I love and I’m so excited to be a part of such an amazing and vibrant campus. I’m really looking forward to putting all the skills I learned at UT into practice at UCI, and I’m sure I’ll be sharing a lot of thoughts with you about my new life as a young librarian (starting with the exciting activity surrounding the UC system’s new Open Access policy!).

To those of you who left such thoughtful comments on my last blog post, I’m so sorry I haven’t sat down and replied to them yet. I still think it was an incredible moment and that there are some exciting conversations to be had along those lines in the future!

New Frontiers in Journalism: the Development of the Guardian’s “Data Journalism”

One of the classes I’m taking this semester seems likely to push me outside my “comfort zone” of book history studies and “traditional” library skills like cataloguing.  It’s called “Digital Curation” and it focuses on the active and on-going management of digital artifacts through their lifecycle, particularly by maintaining and adding value to a trusted body of digital information for current and future use.  I initially signed up for it because I thought it would complement my class on Digitisation, which is a practical course teaching both technical digitisation skills and digitisation project management (including grant-writing, something I am really looking forward to!), but after working through the readings and assignments on “big data” management this week, I’m also excited about the class because of the emphasis on data collection, analysis and visualisation.

As part of the class, we have to write blog posts each week on a topic related to this week’s readings, and this week I got to talk about one of my favourite websites, the Guardian’s Datablog, so I thought I would repost the text of it here:

In August 2011, London experienced some of the worst rioting it had seen in a generation.  Following the shooting of a young man in north London, the rioting spread across the city and to other areas of England over the course of four days.  To learn more about the events and timeline of the riots, the BBC maintains this excellent website with archived BBC coverage of the riots.

In the wake of the riots, the Guardian newspaper’s online editors undertook a massive collection of data generated by the rioters and victims of the rioters’ activities, and began to analyse it in cooperation with the London School of Economics.  They began collecting data by sending teams of online journalists to the London courts to document the public information related to each rioter that was arrested and charged with an offense: name, occupation, home address, crime committed.  They also began collecting data publicly available through social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook and publishing their findings as part of their (then) new Guardian Datablog and, eventually, as its own collection of articles and analysis: Reading the Riots.

By doing deep analysis of the data they collected, the researchers at the London School of Economics and editors and journalists at the Guardian were able to eventually begin drawing broad conclusions on the social and economic factors that contributed to the widespread and violent nature of the London riots, but the development of Reading the Riots also contributed to the Guardian’s realization that large data sets can make good journalism and led to the establishing of the Guardian’s Data Journalism site and creation of the Guardian Datastore, a webscale repository of journalistic data collected or curated by the Guardian.  Much like using Twitter to track the cholera epidemic in Haiti, data journalism tracks trends in data generated by social media to create analysis and visualisations related to major world events, such as the Olympics or public elections.

But is the Guardian’s capitalization on data collection and analysis as forward-thinking as all that?  It certainly sets them apart from other traditional newspaper companies in Britain, such as the Times, but does it presage a sea change in journalism as we know it?  Is data analysis “real” journalism, and do the articles produced by the Guardian’s Datablog deserve to be on the front page of the website?

Medieval Manuscripts Fragments as Binding Materials, a New Project at the Harry Ransom Center

A medieval manuscript text used as the binding material of a 1561 copy of Aesop’s Fables. Image from the Ransom Center Fragments Project’s Flickr.

Medieval and early modern people were great re-users.  The concept of processing used materials into new products to prevent the waste of expensive materials wasn’t an unusual or extraordinary idea to them: times were tough and in the business of manuscripts and books, materials were expensive and could be hard to come by.  There wasn’t a sense of uniqueness or the desperate need to preserve for future generations, as there is today, so parchment manuscripts that we might consider priceless today were scraped clean to have new manuscripts written upon them.

As horrifying as it sounds to us postmodern peoples, for whom any scrap of medieval manuscript text has enormous value, in the early modern period medieval parchment manuscripts were unbound, sliced, diced, chopped, and julienned to be re-used in the bindings of newer, “better” printed books.  Parchment was an ideal material for strengthening a book’s spine as a liner, or for use as an easy, cheap cover or endpaper.  Indeed, some scholars believe it was common practice to dismantle a manuscript book into such “manuscript waste” fragments once the book had been set out in type and printed.  We can be thankful the Winchester Malory manuscript of Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur did not meet this fate, as it spent several years sitting around William Caxton’s printing shop while he worked on his printed edition.

Since the practice of using and re-using manuscript waste was so prevalent, it’s not all that surprising to find bits and pieces of medieval manuscripts tucked into early modern books held by research libraries around the world, and it seems like cataloguing, describing, digitizing and exhibiting such finds is becoming more and more popular: two years ago, the Yale Law Library created an exhibit around 150 medieval manuscript fragments in early modern law books in their collections, called Reused, Rebound, Recovered: Medieval Manuscript Fragments in Law Book Bindings.

Closer to home (and my heart), the Harry Ransom Center is beginning a project of cataloguing, describing, and digitizing the medieval manuscript fragments in their collections.  Conducted by Micah Erwin (who recently discovered the impression of a pair of medieval spectacles on such a fragment, as I mentioned here on my blog), the project aims to survey the fragments and share  knowledge and awareness of them with other medieval manuscript scholars and librarians:

The Harry Ransom Center’s on going project to survey manuscript waste in their book collections. It is managed by Micah Erwin, Project Archivist, and supervised by Joan Sibley, Senior Archivist in the Archives and Visual Materials Cataloging Department.  The Harry Ransom Center is currently conducting a survey of medieval manuscript fragments and binder’s waste found in the Book Collection. We are posting low resolution images of some of these fragments on Flickr and Facebook to share with others. We would be grateful for any comments and/or additional information that you would like to contribute about these items.

It’s an exciting project to me, personally, as it draws on both my love of medieval manuscripts and my dream of using the resources made available to scholars and librarians by social media sites such as Flickr and Facebook to connect researchers to materials so that knowledge and understanding can grow out of such connections.  It’s the perfect example of my idea of book archaeology in the digital age!  By working collaboratively to identify the fragments, we can possibly learn more about early modern bookbinders and the spread of early modern books.

The first step, of course, is getting awareness of the project out there, and that’s what I’m hoping to help with!  Please consider liking the project’s Facebook page and sharing it on your timeline, or tweeting and retweeting the link to the project’s Flickr page!

The Kraus Maps Database Project

In addition to my job at the Physics, Maths & Astronomy Library at UT, I’ve spent my first year of library school volunteering at the Harry Ransom Center (HRC) completing a “boutique” digitization project to make images of the Kraus Map Collection available online.  The database’s website is up and running now, so you can all see the maps and globes here.

The Kraus Maps Collection features a wide range of individual maps of Europe and America, a few atlases, and a group of manuscript letters by Abraham Ortelius, as well as celestial and terrestrial globes by Vincenzo Coronelli and a 1541 Mercator globe.  The maps are all stunningly beautiful, and every detail can be seen in the zoomable viewers.  My favourite part of the project was being taken through the HRC stacks to see some of the maps in person—the c. 1610 manuscript map of Virginia is thrilling to behold, but my personal favourite was seeing the 1472 printing of Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae with its beautiful T-shaped world map, the first printed map of the world anywhere.

My role in the project was very small: I standardized the print and digital metadata and entered all of it into the database; I made minor image edits to remove colour bars from the scanned images; and I copyedited the text of the 1969 Catalogue 124: Monumenta Cartographica from the New York antiquarian dealer Hans P. Kraus for inclusion in the database as short “notes.”

Even though I didn’t have a hand in the initial planning, ditigization, or database creation, my work on the project gave me a lot of insight into what the “tail” of a digitization project involves.  I got to see the librarian managing the project discuss databse build problems with the systems librarian and hear anecdotes about the planning, permission and staffing problems the project had encountered.  This experience has fed into my awareness of how important digitization and digital humanities projects are for special collections and rare books librarians, and will help me as I begin to think about what I want to do in these areas as I plan my master’s capstone project experience.

Another amazing post about how rare books librarians and scholars are using new technologies to collaboratively discuss rare books and on why we should continue to do so.

Quote That: Positivity Edition

From Quote That: Positivity Edition:

Libraries as band aids may be obsolete, but that is not why we need libraries. We need libraries so we can fix our education system, so we can fix our economy, so we can fix our democracies yes. But we need libraries even more to discover new knowledge not found in any textbook. We need libraries to create whole new opportunities for innovation. We need libraries to give our communities a voice and power in the working of government. Libraries will never be obsolete so long as our communities dream, and strive, and work to ensure a world of insurmountable opportunities.

– David Lankes, Beyond the Bullet Points: Libraries are Obsolete

I love this quote, even out of context.  Yes, yes, yes, libraries will never be obsolete!

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.