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


Selection from Cites & Insights 7, Number 9: August 2007


Perspective

On the Literature

I believe that gray literature—blogs, this ejournal, a few similar publications and some lists—represents the most compelling and worthwhile literature in the library field today.

To a great extent, the formal literature now serves as history, explication, formal results of formal research studies and background; the action is in the informal literature.

I don’t think I would have said that a decade ago, and maybe not five years ago. If I had aspirations to be a respected scholar, I might not say it today.

“Compelling and worthwhile” doesn’t necessarily imply scholarly or authoritative. Are blogs either scholarly or authoritative? A good question, one I may not be qualified to answer.

The Book and the Post

I’ve grown to rely on liblogs as my primary sources for contemporary library issues over the last two or three years. The extent of that reliance became obvious in Balanced Libraries: Thoughts on Continuity and Change. John Dupuis picked up on this in his superb review (June 6, 2007 at Confessions of a science librarian, jdupuis.blogspot.com). The relevant passage:

Another really interesting thing about this book was how it advanced the form of scholarship. Here’s a self-published book with very serious intentions, not lightweight at all, which mostly referenced blogs in the bibliography. I find that really interesting. A book that’s about how librarians should engage the most important issues in their professional practice and it’s mostly propelled by bloggers and not by reams of articles in the official scholarly journals. By my quick count, 151/187, or about 80% of the items in the bibliography are blog posts. And he makes us sound pretty good too. And I’m not saying that because my blog appears three times in the bibliography. For the most past, Crawford showcases the best writing and the best thinking out there among the liblogs (except for Chapter 8, mentioned above, but even that showcases some real passion too); we are committed and engaged and thinking about the issues. If you are a liblogger and your colleagues are a bit skeptical about the the worth of what you are doing, show them this book. What we do, if we do it well, is worthy for our tenure files, for our professional CV’s. Our work on our blogs should be counted the same as any one else’s contributions in traditional media based on its intrinsic quality not its format or place of publication. Thanks to Crawford, we have an example of what we are capable of presented in a somewhat more traditional format and written by someone whose contributions to the field cannot be easily dismissed. We appreciate the support.

“We are committed and engaged and thinking about the issues.” Indeed we are; that comes through more and more in several hundred liblogs.

“If you are a liblogger and your colleagues are a bit skeptical about the the worth of what you are doing, show them this book.” Please do…and show them this Perspective as well. Of course, if they’ve never heard of me or write me off as one of those flaky bloggers, it may not help—but, you know, I have published more than a dozen books in the library field through traditional means, so I’m not entirely a self-publishing nonentity.

“What we do, if we do it well, is worthy for our tenure files, for our professional CV’s. Our work on our blogs should be counted the same as any one else’s contributions in traditional media based on its intrinsic quality not its format or place of publication.” Dupuis is making an explicit case that quality blogging should count as professional work. I believe he’s right. If I’ve helped that cause along by offering “an example of what we are capable of presented in a somewhat more traditional format and written by someone whose contributions to the field cannot be easily dismissed,” I’m only too happy to have done so.

I didn’t think about those issues when I was preparing the book. I knew that most of the relevant source material was in blogs. Posts were—are—much timelier than the formal literature. The book appeared in March 2007. The most recent cited material is from February 2007. That material reflects thinking and library experience as of February 2007—making it six months to a year (or more) more timely than almost anything in refereed literature.

By June 13, 2007, it was clear to me that I needed to write this essay, so I did a “pre-essay” post at Walt at Random, including the quoted material above. Some of the rest of that post, noting that the reference to Michelle Boule partly deals with another controversy not followed here:

Formal language does not grant authority. And it is certainly not the case that proper columns in print publications (in the library field or anywhere else) avoid informal language and personal observations. I’m sure there are publications with such rigid Editorial Standards that all columns are mangled into Proper Lifeless Neutral Prose, but I give up on such publications pretty quickly. Columns should function differently than formal articles, just as scholarly articles should function differently than other kinds of articles and reports even in the same journal.

Let’s go a little further. In the library field, it is my belief that degrees don’t confer authority, that the form of publication doesn’t confer meaningful authority, and that the concept of The Important People and the rest of us has long outworn its shelf life.

Michelle Boule (”Jane”) says useful and important things–some of which I disagree with (this is by no means a bad thing). She also posts casual blog entries that are part of real life. That’s exactly, precisely as it should be; it’s how her blog works and intelligent readers have (I believe) no difficulty distinguishing the off-the-cuff remarks from the serious arguments.

I believe in print publications and the role of refereed articles…as part, but not all, of an increasingly complex set of media and interactions. I also believe that blogs serve increasingly important roles in exposing and discussing real-world issues in librarianship (and other fields, of course).

I followed the excerpt from Dupuis’ review with this note: “That was not accidental, and the shift in source material for Cites & Insights has not been (entirely) accidental” and a note that I needed to write up what I’m thinking and doing—this Perspective.

Scholarly, Authoritative, Timely?

I’m really not sure what to say about authority. I believe every named blogger offers informed, knowledgeable views on what’s actually happening where they are (“named” because some pseudonymous and anonymous blogs may be more facetious). They are authoritative in the sense of being credible within their own sphere. Authoritative as in The Final Word? I don’t believe such authority exists within librarianship, except for factual matters. Librarianship isn’t a religion. The issues worth discussing do not admit of authoritative statements. To take one example, if someone says “Games have no place in libraries, period,” the proper response is a razzberry—and that’s the same response appropriate if anyone was so brash as to say “Every library must be gaming to survive.” I could provide dozens of such examples. (Everything should be formally cataloged? It is to laugh! Cataloging is passé, tagging can do it all? It is also to laugh!)

Eric Schnell comments in a May 31, 2006 post at The medium is the message (ericschnell.blogspot.com), “Is blogging scholarly communication?” In part:

Blogs have enabled academics to connect with a larger general readership for their insight and expertise. Blogs also allow for a more relaxed discourse… While there are issues relating to preserving the historical record of our profession's communication, this is a technology issue and not a part of this discussion.

Blogging does have a real intellectual value. It meets the goal of scholarship and service that leads to national and/or international recognition that at the heart of the promotion and tenure process and is consistent with the mission of most academic organizations. However, blogging is not conventional academic writing. It does not fill the requirement that a publication be reviewed by peers before publication or dissemination.

I do appreciate the intent and purpose of the blind review process. In many professions the validation of research is a life and death situation. In library science what is the purpose? Is it to simply make sure submissions are within the scope of the journal? It is purely for editorial consistency? Or is the reason we pre-review is to identify those communications which are significant contributions to the profession?

The real time nature of blogging allows me to get my ideas out faster, and receive feedback faster. I am able to clarify my ideas based on often very critical comments. A print article pre-reviewed by three people may be cited over time or a blog posting that receives a dozen immediate comments and spawns a real time critical discourse on the challenges libraries are facing today, not a year ago. Which communication method is more valuable to the advancing the library as a profession?

Additionally, some of my electronic scholarly communication is more significant than if I were to hardcode my developing ideas on paper and submit them to a journal in which a handful of people may read before it may be published. It is also not uncommon for a print journal to take over a year to publish a paper. This is way too long for anyone who writes about technology issues. E-journals have shortened that turnaround time but still do not carry the same impact factor as print…

It is a mistake for promotion and tenure committees and academics in general to dismiss blogging altogether. In fact, some part of the blog concept may very well be the future of scholarly communication. Still, any junior faculty member that wants to get tenure should be careful that blogging does not eat up time that could be devoted to working on articles or a book.

When I picked up a printout of that post to comment on it, I didn’t realize it was May 2006 rather than May 2007. I suspect the argument would be roughly identical a year later, but I could be wrong. In later essays, Schnell noted the rough metrics I used in Looking at Liblogs: The Great Middle (C&I 6:10, August 2006) as offering “interesting ideas” for quantifying the impact of a blog, one measure of scholarly significance. He focuses on the number of links to a blog as “perhaps the strongest indicator,” and I’ll suggest it would be stronger if limited to a single post (thus eliminating blogrolls). It’s certainly comparable to the citation counts used in judging “impact” for traditional journals and articles—and, as one of the most cited authors in library literature, I can aver that being cited doesn’t automatically mean being “scholarly” by some traditional metrics. If it means being significant, hey, I can accept that. (In another post, Schnell notes being invited to participate on two panels based on a blog post—another indication of scholarly impact.)

Much more recently (July 3, 2007), Schnell posted about a slightly worse than typical delay for a formal, peer-reviewed, print publication and its implications in “Where is my manuscript?” Coincidentally, Michael Sauers (who, like me, has a strong publication record but rarely writes scholarly articles) posted “I’ve been peer-reviewed” at The travelin’ librarian (www.travelinlibrarian.info) on the same day.

Schnell’s story, in brief: He had a manuscript accepted for publication in a library journal in early 2005; after the normal review processes. He was informed it would appear in the summer of 2006. That’s a significant delay, but never mind.

That time came and went.

Wondering what happened, I looked at the publishers web site. I noticed the issue was pushed out until early 2007. No big deal to me since, for promotion and tenure purposes, having a manuscript accepted for publication is (almost) as good as being published—quality indicators aside.

Once again, that time came and went.

I went back to the publishers site, which now indicated that the issue would not be out until August 2007…

This is the second time something weird has happened to a manuscript with this publisher.

If it were not for this antiquated notion that only pre-publication peer-reviewed print publications hold any value as scholarly communication for promotion and tenure purposes I wouldn't even bother publishing in print.

Blogging supports all the reasons one publishes; to communicate ideas and research, impact on profession, personal and organizational reputation. Blogging allows one to communicate ideas and receive immediate feedback. It allows one to flush out ideas. While one could argue that comments and others blog postings based on a single post are indeed peer review, blogging is problematic for promotion and tenure primarily since there is no pre-publication peer-review..

Anyone out there have a credible blogmetrics algorithm?

A one-year delay in communicating a contemporary discussion is difficult in any case, but it’s worth noting that I’m citing a year-old post in this essay. Two years? For any contemporary issue, that ages the article so severely as to substantially reduce its usefulness. Consider Schnell’s antepenultimate paragraph (beginning “If it were not…”). If you’ve served on editorial boards or had refereed papers published, ask yourself: Does peer review within librarianship actually result in papers that are uniformly better than the best blog entries (or essays in Cites & Insights)?

Really?

For that matter, can you deny the cynical truism that peer review doesn’t determine whether a paper will be published, but only where it will be published?

Which would you pay more attention to, and which would you regard as more likely to move discussion forward in useful ways: An article in a third-tier print journal by someone you’ve never heard of, or an “unrefereed” blog post by, say, Lorcan Dempsey or Eric Schnell or Laura Cohen or Iris Jastram or, for that matter, Mark Lindner or Walt Crawford?

For Sauers, his peer-reviewed article is actually his first—a little unusual for someone with his track record. He regards peer review as a “nice added bonus,” since he’s not an academic. But he also says:

I do have one, not so much complaint, as a concern over this whole experience: the fact that an article I submitted to the journal back in July 2006, wasn’t published until July 2007. One year for a technology article to see print. These days that’s not even vaguely fast enough…

The world of peer-reviewed journals is not mine. I don’t have suggestions for fixing this, nor will I spend all that much time on it. I just needed to say all this, as I’m sure I’m not the only author with these concerns.

Cites & Insights essays tend to trail the posts that they’re based on by anywhere from two to eight months, sometimes more—but at least the posts are fresh. Delayed commentary makes sense. In a growing number of areas, one-year delays in primary articles may not make sense (much less two-year delays).

Scholarly? Eric Schnell would like to think so. Authoritative? Yes, I believe, if in different ways than the theoretical authority conveyed by peer review. Timely? Absolutely, far more so than any traditional journals, and that may be critical for many contemporary discussions.

It was certainly critical for Balanced Libraries: Thoughts on Continuity and Change. That book primarily reflects changes in the landscape since Midwinter 2006 (put in a broader perspective); it could not have come out the way it did if it was based on traditional source materials.

Print and History Still Matter

For me, blogs now represent a critical part of the library literature, perhaps the most important part of my own source material.

That does not mean print is dead. It certainly doesn’t negate the value of journals, the use of peer review (even if it’s easy to be snarky about it), the worth of carefully-prepared monographs.

Three posts address these issues in different ways. In the interest of space and because I don’t think any of the posts (and attached comments) lend themselves well to excerpts, I’m just going to point you to them:

Ø    Laura Cohen asks “What is worth publishing in print?” at Library 2.0: An academic’s perspective on June 21, 2007 (liblogs.albany.edu/library20/). She thinks some publications should be on wikis rather than in journals and offers reasons for and against print publication.

Ø    Mark Lindner asks “Keeping up, why is it always forward-thinking?” at Off the Mark on June 28, 2007 (marklindner.info/blog/). He’s noting the value of history within librarianship or any other field—asserting that reading the “old stuff” should be considered part of keeping up. It’s a casual but significant commentary, well worth thinking about; a range of comments follows.

Ø    Stephanie Brown asks “Blog- or print publishing?” at CogSci librarian on July 17, 2007 (cogscilibrarian.blogspot.com), after this essay was originally drafted. She’d like to see a conversation going: Does it matter that librarians are writing more in blogs than in print?

For now, for here, I’ll stick with the heading for this section. Print and history do still matter. I did not say that blogs were the professional literature; I believe they are now an important part of that literature. The refereed literature is another important part, perhaps less important by comparison than in years past—and books continue to provide history and fundamental checkpoints for the continuing issues. I’ll continue to pay attention to all of them; so should you.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 7, Number 9, Whole Issue 93, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at OCLC.

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

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

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

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