Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media


Selection from Cites & Insights 7, Number 13: December 2007


Following Up: On the Literature

Full disclosure: Many (most?) of these additional comments on library literature are not responses to my August 2007 essay, at least not directly. Think of this as dipping again into an ongoing stream of discussion.

Rachel Singer Gordon, the Liminal Librarian (www.lisjobs.com/blog/), posted “Reading, ‘riting, and ranting” on August 13, 2007. She notes earlier discussion and questions Stephanie Brown’s assertion that “librarians are writing more on blogs than in print.” Gordon’s “not so sure” about this.

Some librarians are writing more on blogs than in print. Some librarians are reading more on blogs than in print. Some librarians still wouldn’t know a blog if it came up and bit them. I think it’s more useful to argue that different formats serve different purposes. Brown quotes Stephen Abram along the lines of: “It doesn’t matter where you write, just get your ideas out there.” Well, yes, and no. It does matter where you write if you’re working towards tenure. It does matter where you write if you are targeting a specific audience, or trying to impress your boss, or your work needs some editing, if you are worried about the longevity of your work, or want a bigger audience than might flock to your brand new blog, or ... It does matter where you write if you are concerned about timeliness or if your thoughts flow more freely in a more informal medium or if you have a built in audience online, or ...

One could argue some of those points. Should only formal print publishing count towards tenure? Since I’ve never been in a situation where that was an issue, I’ll avoid the issue. Does print publishing really assure longevity or reach a bigger audience? Unclear—just as blog posts aren’t all that ephemeral in some cases. Gordon doesn’t hide her role as a consulting editor to Information Today’s book division, so that may not matter. And after that string of “it does matter”s, Gordon comes down firmly (and in my opinion correctly) on both sides:

In principle, though, Abram has it right. The answer to the question of blogs or print is: YES. The more of us that participate, in whatever medium, the wealthier and more robust our profession.

I would argue that we benefit from informed participation or at least participation when people have something to say. I’m not sure we benefit all that much from forced participation, and I’m afraid some portion of the literature really is forced participation, written to satisfy job requirements.

There’s more to the post. I’m amused that she closes with a throwaway line, “Then again, you could always self-publish on Amazon.com!” You could indeed: I began the process of making Balanced Libraries: Thoughts on Continuity and Change available through Amazon three days after this post appeared, uploading the content and cover on August 16, 2007.

why I choose blogging

Morgan Wilson posted this on August 15, 2007 at explodedlibrary.info (www.explodedlibrary.info). He is following up on my essay and Lorcan Dempsey’s comment on that essay—specifically, the point that the term “grey literature” could apply either to blogs and non-refereed ejournals (because they’re excluded from indexing services) or to much of the professional library literature (because it’s, well, gray, but also because much of the journal literature is difficult to locate in full text, particularly for non-librarians).

Wilson’s own take on the situation:

It is a valid point that because blogs are not indexed and systematically archived, they may be very difficult to find in the future, even more difficult to find than a peer reviewed article published in an obscure library journal. I think it’s likely that as the blog medium develops and matures, more blogs will be indexed and archived in some form, if only on a selective basis (thus requiring the involvement of some sort of gatekeeper). This has already happened with projects like the Internet Archive and projects like PANDORA in Australia. My other response to this, is to trust that if a blog post had any impact, it may have been noticed by someone else—and that even if the blog disappears, some of the traces which the blog left on the blogosphere during its time may remain. That answer might not be be satisfying to a researcher, but as a writer, it suffices for me. It’s not quite the same as producing a physical item, such as a book or a printed journal article, and knowing that the physical item will be around long after I’m gone. But there’s more to posterity than physical objects—what is the point of being published if it means that you are less likely to be read in the present and short-term future than if your words were available online right now? Which reminds me that I don’t care much for posterity—I care more about what I’m writing now than what has happened to what I wrote five years ago.

I’d rather my words be scattered in the gigantic haystack where most people are playing than held in a closed stack where only the elite are allowed in.

There are other reasons why I choose blogging—I’m not going into them all here, but the medium of academic writing increasingly seems broken in the twenty-first century. Rising serial costs are making these sources even more inaccessible and obscure. There’s also the problem of the unacceptable delays between submission and publication (even up to five years!). It’s a game which has zero appeal to me, which is ok, because I probably wouldn’t play it very well anyway. And so I finish where I began, each to her or his own.

I play both sides of the print-and-electronic divide. My new position aims to build an online portal combining essays, collaborative pieces, exchanges of information and opinion and more—all of it electronic, most of it quite different from what I’ve done so far (I won’t be writing much of it). Will that portal offer resources that are as important to librarians who use them as traditional library literature? I hope so—but they’ll be different.

Communication

Lorcan Dempsey added more comments about the library literature in this August 20, 2007 post at Lorcan Dempsey’s blog (orweblog.oclc.org). A few excerpts from a post worth reading in its entirety:

I write quite a bit on this blog. It has been an interesting experience. From a writing point of view I find it quite liberating. Over the years I have written quite a lot for the professional literature. However, I write slowly. For me, the main procedural difference here is twofold. The first is that entries never get long enough to worry about structure. And the second is a continuing sense that this is still a fugitive medium. This means that an entry can be dispatched relatively quickly… It is good to have a place to ‘publish’ short pieces, to comment on what is going on, and to have stuff commented on…

It is also nice to see posts or concepts discussed here get into wider circulation. It is interesting to see blog entries being cited in the ‘literature’. Although it is very difficult to get a real sense of readership. That said, I do sometimes wonder about the opportunity cost of writing here in the context of a broader set of writing opportunities (or reading time, or whatever, ...)…

I sometimes wonder about curation and about record, especially given the volume of material now ‘published’ here. It has gone beyond ‘just for the moment.’ Much of what is in blogs is not worth holding onto, some is, as is shown by citation patterns. We don’t have good models here. There is a tension between the now (where the library literature and associated apparatus is difficult to access, to the extent, I suggest, that it is the new ‘gray’ literature, while the network literature is readily available) and the record (where we don’t have professional practices and services to ensure continued access for the ‘blog’ literature, while we do for the classical literature). And yes—we are seeing some closing of this gap. But slowly.

However, I think we have a very dreary ‘published’ literature. We have a set of niche publications, many of little sustained interest. The literature is a citation farm for those involved in formal research activity, and in the US, a necessary career convenience for those librarians who work within the tenure system. I remember once sending an email to a university colleague asking had she a copy of an article. This was on the basis of a related article which I thought was very good. She responded bemusedly that I shouldn’t be reading this article, that it was just something churned out towards an application for tenure. There are certainly many interesting articles published, but I wonder about the system as a whole.

Sarah Houghton-Jan followed up in “Library literature: academic and generally useless?” on August 22, 2007 at LibrarianInBlack (librarianinblack.typepad.com). Some of her comments:

I can speak from my own experience. My blog posts garner me far more email and IM comments, citations, and well, recognition, than most articles I’ve written. And my blog is not, by far, the most popular library world blog out there. I am not in a tenure-track job, so when I have a good idea for a lengthy article, I get to decide: does it go on LibrarianInBlack.net or do I try to get it published in a professional periodical. Here are the factors I use to decide:

LiB: quick and timely publication, more readers, guaranteed publication, no editors to deal with who might possibly butcher my work

Periodical: might get paid for it, LJ or Journal of Web Librarianship holds more cachet, looks good on the resume because it stands out separately from the general one-line mention of my blog, can send to my parents who then get all happy-like that that English degree paid off after all

Admittedly, the quick publication factor is the primary issue almost every time (sorry Mom and Dad). I think that if print journals, or even our online digital journals, could get their editorial schedule sped up a bit I might be more interested in going with them…Generally, I think the most about how I can get my words out to the most number of people quickly. And that is definitely not with a print publication any more.

I hate to say it, but every time I open up Information Technology and Libraries (LITA’s publication), I find maybe one article that is of interest and/or useful to me. That’s pretty bad, considering that is my area of interest and focus. And I’m going to put myself at risk now by admitting that that’s the only refereed journal I read, and only because I get it with my membership… I am going to go out on a limb and guess that many library workers are in the same boat, particularly in non-academic libraries.

So...what need do our professional publications fill? Are they filling supply or demand?...

There’s more, but I’ll leave it for you to read—including the comments.

Kate Davis added to the thread with “the state of the library literature” at virtually a librarian on August 31, 2007 (blog.virtuallyalibrarian.com). Davis considers two issues: rigor and a disconnect between the literature and library practice. On rigor, she refers to a section of Houghton-Jan’s post that I omitted and finds that “the degree of rigour in the library literature still disappoints me, at times.” Then there’s a possible disconnect between literature and practice. Most of what Davis adds:

In my opinion, our professional literature is disconnected from practice, and often lacks applicability in a practical context—particularly in a public library context. This frustrates me no end. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve gone to the literature, looking to find some data to support a decision I need to make. And it’s often just not there, even though I know there are other libraries out there grappling with the same issue I am.

But why is it not there? Partly, as the LiB says, because the literature that comes out of the US (which makes up a big chunk of the ‘scholarly’ publishing we have available to us) is driven by the tenure requirements of academic librarianship and grounded in theory.

But it’s also because, as a profession (and I’m referring here to practitioners) that values information and the sharing of knowledge and ideas, and that ostensibly values scholarly information above all else (a whole issue in itself), we are woeful when it comes to conducting our own research and documenting it in the literature. Our journals should be brimming over with content. Editors should be fighting authors off with sticks. But that’s not the case, is it?

I’m a big believer in evidence based practice. I want to make informed decisions, and I know the value that documented evidence has when you’re trying to persuade someone to go with an idea. Part of being committed to evidence based practice is being committed to writing and publishing. We need a good base of professional literature to inform our practice. And we’re the only ones that can build it.

Practitioners need to spend time taking an evidence based approach to their practice, and publishing somewhere (anywhere—more on that below) about the outcomes. Because that’s the only way the literature is ever going to be relevant and useful to practitioners.

Then, in a Monty Python/Spanish Inquisition touch, Davis discusses the third of her two issues:

Right now, we’re still negotiating whether blogs are a legitimate part of professional literature. My personal opinion is that yes, they certainly are. If Jo at Library X posts about his experience with Y issue, she’s contributing to the professional literature.

Blog reading has a huge influence on my professional practice. Blog posts get me thinking about issues that probably wouldn’t cross my radar otherwise. There are, however, differences between the way I use blog posts and the way I use ‘traditionally published’ professional literature. Blog posts get me thinking and challenge me to do new things. But what blogs don’t provide me with is the documented evidence I need to inform my decision-making. Not in themselves, anyway. People don’t typically publish the findings of their projects on blogs. But what people do use blogs for is to point to findings published elsewhere.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could harness the speed and accessibility offered by blogs to publish our rigorous, scholarly, evidence-based professional communications, rather than just to point to them? Then blogs really would form part of the “most compelling and worthwhile literature in the library field today.” So why don’t we do it? Now there’s a thought…

Is there rigorous, scholarly, evidenced-based library research that isn’t getting published? Possibly. If so, ejournals. One possible example is the open-access Evidence Based Library and Information Practice, a quarterly published by the University of Alberta Learning Services.

Publishing choices

T. Scott Plutchak saw an announcement soliciting contributions for a new journal, The Journal of Electronic Resources Librarianship, to be published by Haworth. In an August 24, 2007 post at T. Scott (tscott.typepad.com) he wondered why the journal was being founded.

He was particularly surprised when he saw the journal was using an Open Journal Systems template. Seeing the “very solid” editorial board and that the publishing platform was being hosted by an institution, he started asking what Haworth was bringing to the table—and what they’d be charging. I won’t repeat the bulk of the post, but one issue he raises is that the journal appears to have been Haworth’s idea.

Which brings us to the fundamental question, do we really need a quarterly “journal of electronic librarianship” in the first place?

The announcement says,

“This journal aims to inform librarians and other information professionals about evolving work-related processes and procedures, current research and the latest news on topics related to electronic resources and the digital environment’s impact on collecting, acquiring and making accessible library materials.”

Is it actually the case that there is so much being written on this topic, and so few publishing outlets that a new journal is necessary? You’d have a hard time convincing me of that.

As a member of LITA, I would first say, “What would appear in this commercial journal that wouldn’t make sense for ITAL?” It’s not the only outlet by a long shot. D-Lib would appear to be a first-rate outlet for much of what this journal aims to publish.

When do new niche journals make sense?

Ř      Good answer: When first-rate publishable work in the niche can’t get published in existing journals.

Ř      Bad answer: When there’s money to be made by publishing ever narrower niche journals.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 7, Number 13, Whole Issue 97, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, Director and Managing Editor of the PALINET Learning Network.

Cites & Insights is sponsored by YBP Library Services, http://www.ybp.com.

Opinions herein may not represent those of PALINET or YBP Library Services.

Comments should be sent to waltcrawford@gmail.com. Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large is copyright © 2007 by Walt Crawford: Some rights reserved.

All original material in this work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/1.0 or send a letter to Creative Commons, 559 Nathan Abbott Way, Stanford, California 94305, USA.

URL: citesandinsights.info/civ7i13.pdf