Reclaiming ground

(My apologies; this post inadvertently went up prematurely. If you were wondering where I was going with it, please read on!)

I met Steve Koch at Science Online 2010, where he wowed me showing off his students' open-notebook-science work. I love, just love, teachers who do that. I wish the sort of work I typically assign students was appropriate to it.

Because of the interactions Steve had with librarians at that conference, he's going back to talk with the digital librarian at his institution to see what they can do for each other.

I love that, too, though it makes me nervous. Consider a comment I got on a previous post:

I'am afraid the greater part of librarians are staring to their belly-buttons, and do not have the attitude or communication skills necessary to connect with their customers.

Ouch. Nor am I prepared to say that's incorrect. So when I send someone like Steve to meet with a librarian, I have to hope for a fruitful interaction. I can't rely on it.

Wondering where the commenter got that impression? Well, let's consider Steve Koch again. In a comment to another FriendFeed post, he said (quoted with permission; paragraph breaks mine, as FF doesn't let commenters paragraph their own comments):

I'm stoked about partnering with librarians going forward. I'm meeting with our digital initiatives librarian next week to learn what we can do regarding open data / open access / open science.

But a year ago, I was clueless about what university libraries were doing. Definitely a lot of that ignorance was my fault. But it makes sense if you think about my trajectory to current position as faculty. As an undergraduate and graduate student, most of my interactions with the library were moderately helpful at best, and sometimes completely hostile. For example, I had a comical (but infuriating at the time) battle over a $25 fine for using a 2-hour reserve textbook overnight (while the library was closed). And then all the frustration with copy machines & copy cards, etc. Basically, it sucked going to the library, and library & librarian were almost the same word.

So, with the advent of PDF, I was pretty much delighted that I never had to go to the library anymore. I discovered Inter-Library Loan and was proud that I didn't even know where the library was. Clearly all prejudices and a not clever on my part. However, I suspect that similar prejudices are shared by many faculty and other scientists.

I can think of two things that can be done: (1) educate current faculty, and (2) make things more pleasant for current grads and undergrads. In regards to (1), it's pretty tough to achieve. One idea would be to put advertisements in emails that deliver PDFs for ILL: "Do you like ILL? Your library can help you way more than that! email: ___"

Method (2) is likely more productive, IMO. I don't know a lot about it, but I suspect that undergrads and grads still have unpleasant relationships with the library. Making those more pleasant and collaborative will make for better partners in the future. Like I said, I don't know a lot about current state of affairs, and if indeed conditions have improved for students, maybe better advertising of that fact is called for?

What are we to take from this, we librarians, if we wish to regain ground among scientists?

  • We need to address three market segments: young proto-scientists, practicing scientists who have no idea what we do, and practicing scientists such as Steve who have been actively turned off by libraries and librarians. By and large, it seems to me, we're doing quite a bit to address the first group's needs, not much at all for the second—and nothing whatever for the third.
  • It's not enough to "be a library" any more. It has been enough for quite a long time—among other things, libraries were an important source of institutional prestige—but no more. The boundaries of science librarianship in the research institution are becoming the boundaries of the research enterprise. If we're not contributing to the research enterprise, we can expect to be in the gunsights.
  • Patron service matters, if we are not to mint more Steve Kochs by the dozen. Every patron turned away from a library by sticklers for rules or unhelpful service is a spadeful of earth from our own grave.
  • Our sixth column? Information-literacy instruction. Love your library instructors! They mint future academic-library patrons.
  • One more time: we're not going to fix this situation sitting behind desks in a library our target populations don't visit. What Stephanie and Christina and John and Bonnie and Hope and Molly and Paolo and I did to advance librarianship, we did at a science conference.

More like this

Part of this is where I was trying to go with my last post. I'm not sure we do do it right for the proto-scientists - but I hope things have changed since my undergrad. "Every patron turned away from a library by sticklers for rules or unhelpful service is a spadeful of earth from our own grave." -amen.