Recently I’ve been getting some requests for what I have called The Improbable Source. An improbable source is some source students hope to find that is exactly on the topic of their research essay, especially when that topic is somewhat obscure. The example I used then that still stands out as the top of this category is “scholarly books and articles on email as a form of civic friendship.” You can double check the philosophical literature if you like, or you can take my word for it that nobody has ever published a scholarly book or article on this topic. When I first identified the existence of the improbable source, I suggested that the problem “is that they want sources that already do their work for them.” To some extent, that’s true. Almost always, the improbable source students desire is one that already supports the exact thesis they hope to argue. If they found the source, then they’d have to change their thesis. However, I now think the problem is larger than that. It’s not just about a hunt for improbable sources, but also about a hunt for unlikely conversations.
Excellent post on a phenomenon I have already encountered on several occasions in this my first semester at an academic library. I liked it so much I printed it out to have a visual reminder of this idea as I prepare future instruction sessions.
I wasn’t entirely sure what the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) would look like when the long-awaited launch date of April 18 approached. The suspense is finally over: it looks great.
The DPLAs not going to be a digital version of your local public library’s collections and services – at least, not yet. It is trying to do three things right now: pull together digital assets from major national and regional digital collections into a well-organized, unified, easily searchable portal; provide digital tools and metadata that others can use to build new applications; and provide national leadership in the effort to encourage open and collective access to our shared cultural record.
Though libraries have always enabled discovery, we didn’t call it that until it was a software layer. We had catalogs, we had indexes, we had databases, and we had too many of them. Discovery layers to the rescue! This expensive and tricky-to-implement software takes in a simple search query and retrieves sources from all of those different databases. For the busy lower-division undergraduate who doesn’t need to fine-tune a search when all he needs is five scholarly articles, it offers something as easy as Google. Only … it turns out, maybe not. Because Google puts a lot into tweaking the relevance formula; discovery layers have a hard time being as slick. And in the end, students still have the same frustration. Turns out, it wasn’t that they couldn’t find sources. They simply weren’t finding the perfect source. And discovery layers don’t make that any easier.
This neatly summarizes my own personal skepticism about discovery layer systems. I would much rather point the students to a guide for their subject, which has stuff I’ve personally picked out with the most-likely-to-be-helpful database at the top of the list. But maybe that’s just me. :)
And, as always, the rest of the article is well worth reading.
What if the trade-offs many have been portending between big:small, old:new, and open:closed actually were dependencies?
A recent analysis of the scientific publishing marketplace focusing on the financial implications of OA policies and business practices presents these issues in between the lines, concluding that commercial publishers have weathered the storm and adapted to changes, making it unlikely OA would be much of a problem for them going forward, while suggesting that the ultimate solution to providing OA on a widespread and sustainable basis will depend upon a robust subscription market much like the one we have today.
This is an interesting conclusion, though I guess only time will tell whether it’s accurate.
Having just mentioned DOIs in an instruction session last week, this is good for pointing out the lingering problems with that system.
And of course, these big, toll-access, subscription-based Publishers trumpet all the Added Value that their publishing processes put onto the articles that we write and give to them (and referee for them, and persuade our libraries to buy for them, and…). So obviously that Added Value will extend to ensuring that all references have DOIs where available? A pretty simple thing to add in the copy-editing stage, I would have thought.
Except that they don’t. They display few if any DOIs in their reference lists of “their” articles. In fact my limited, non-scientific evidence-collecting suggests to me that they probably do the opposite to Adding Value: remove DOIs from manuscripts submitted to them. OK, I have no direct evidence of the removal claim, but I reckon there is pretty good circumstantial evidence.
One of the best summaries of the problem with academic publishing that I’ve seen:
Has there ever been a business more ripe for disruption than academic publishing? For anyone who’s not been following along, the business model of academic publishers, built on solving 18th century distribution problems, incarnates the Shirky Principle: that “Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.” Far from making research public, as the name “publisher” suggests, their business now works by accepting researchers’ donations of manuscripts, refining them by other researchers’ donations of editorial services and peer review, assuming copyright, and locking up the results — work that they neither wrote, edited, reviewed or paid for — behind paywalls. By artificially causing a scarcity problem, they’re able to sell solutions to that problem: subscriptions.
(The rest of the article is vastly interesting too. :) )
Kevin Smith at Duke draws the right conclusion from the ongoing outrage of the lawsuit against GSU.
If they’d been asked to find something written or painted or built during the middle ages, then find out whatever they needed in order to understand the thing they were examining and its context, and then to explain their observations in writing, I suspect they wouldn’t have been so spooked. It would still have a challenging writing assignment for new college students who don’t know much about the medieval world, but they would have gamely done their best, and they probably would have even enjoyed themselves. What surprised me was the deer-in-the-headlights stare, their anxious uncertainty about what, exactly, counted as a primary source, their inability to leaf through the anthologies of primary sources they had available to them and pick one to play with, the agonizing problem of committing to a particular direction for their paper.
There seems to be a sense that if libraries can’t please everyone all the time, if they don’t have as much market share and mindshare as possible, they are not demonstrating their value and … and what? They’ll be closed? I can’t think of a single case in which that happened. Libraries ought to pay attention to the student experience, to the role libraries can play in learning, to the little human things that can make a library visit pleasant or a pain, and they should use imagination when it comes to what they can accomplish. But why does it matter so much whether students recognize our brand and find it valuable for their own self-interest? When did being liked become our mission?
How college students find and use information [Infographic]
To say that “librarians are the original search engine” is to concede that search engines do what librarians do, which would be another way of saying that there is no reason to talk to a reference librarian if you can just Google it.
If you want a slogan for a coffee mug, I would prefer to see one with an SAT-style analogy, like, “Librarians are to search engines as astronomers are to telescopes.” People who don’t know much about astronomy can get some use from a telescope, but we understand that with an astronomer’s knowledge it can become much more powerful as a tool for discovery. We would not say, “Astronomers: The original telescope,” and we wouldn’t think for a second that that a slogan like that would be flattering to astronomers or supportive of the astronomy profession.
The [Library Loon] reminds me that, while I often enjoy being in the stacks, not all stacks are inspiring. They can be depressing when the floor isn’t clean, the shelves haven’t been straightened in a decade or so, and you can’t stop sneezing. They can be discouraging none of the books on your topic appears to have a publication date newer than 1958. They can seem threatening when stacks recede, row after row, in darkness except for a small pool of illumination where you’ve switched on a dim and buzzing set of lights, you haven’t seen another soul for the past hour, and there are signs all over the place advising you to not leave your belongings unattended. Whoa, what was that sound?
Sad to say, this sounds a lot like my library’s stacks. Except for the signs about belongings—we have closed stacks so there aren’t many people wandering around up there. Which is just as well, since it’s rather a maze, especially the part where there are three sets of call numbers and certain subjects can thus be found on three different floors (possibly four, if it’s recent enough to be in the overflow section). And don’t even get me started on the stuff that’s supposedly on the shelf but when you go look for it it’s not there and there’s not even space for it so it must have been missing for quite some time. Or the things that weren’t shelved properly… though I can sometimes guess at why it was misshelved and thus can find it where it doesn’t belong.
Don’t get me wrong, we’ve got great stuff squirreled away up there. But that’s just the problem: sometimes it seems like squirrels have buried the things you’re actually looking for. ;)