Librarians have been doing it for a hundred years! Interview with Christina Pikas

I've bumped into Christina's blog every now and then before, but only started reading it more regularly when she signed up for the first Science Blogging Conference. We also met at the ASIS&T meeting in Milwaukee, and then again at the second Science Blogging Conference four weeks ago.

Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Who are you? What is your background?

Hi Everyone! Thanks for inviting me to interview, Bora!

My background is a bit unusual. From high school (a small rural school in Maryland), I went to the University of Maryland where I majored in physics and participated in the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps (NROTC) through a cross-town agreement with George Washington University. When I got my BS, I was commissioned in the Navy and then after training served more than 4 years both on a destroyer (small combatant ship) and at the Navy Historical Center in DC. After a year at a Dot Com, I went on to get my Masters of Library Science. While studying for that part time, I started working at a large, very busy, ethnically diverse suburban library in reference (these are the people who man the info desk to whom you should direct questions). When I got my MLS, I then took a job as a solo librarian at an EPA chemistry lab library and then from there moved to my current job as a librarian at The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. In 2005 I started back to school part time, working toward my PhD in Information Studies. I'll finish my coursework this Spring (wooo-hooo!)

What is your Real Life job? What does it mean to be a Science Librarian?

I have absolutely the *best* job in the world with the best people! Imagine a treasure hunt every day or maybe a word puzzle. Working in a research lab that's 76% technical staff of whom 20% have PhDs, I'm around amazing people all day long. I'm also like a goalie - 10 people have to have tried to get the information first before they call me! So, the questions I get are either really tough or the scientist or engineer needs an exhaustive literature review. I do the fun part, interviewing the scientist to see what he or she needs, then doing the searching, summarizing and presenting the results -- and they do the hard work of making the world a better place... while I get to move on to the next project. There's a lot of variety. I also do some training and marketing things but I try to make them very targeted to tasks the people I serve need to complete.

What do you want to do/be when you grow up?

I always want to be a librarian, but I want to do research, too. I think it's very important to help scientists and engineers find, keep, re-find, and use the information they need to be creative, to solve problems and make good decisions. If we do not have good evidence then we can't design good systems and help make the world a better place.

Internet has turned the job of a librarian upside down. What does that mean specifically for science librarians? Is there a clash of cultures between librarians and information scientists, when the two are supposed to work together in rethinking The Library?

What? The librarian *is* an information scientist! We were there first. It's very exciting for us right now because there is so much information available, we have really had to change our search methods and tools to emphasize precision over recall (too techie, but I'm sure everyone gets precision). Others in my field are asking tough questions on organizing information, preserving this huge amount of information, and issues of information policy which are totally new. I work closely with computer scientists, records managers, archivists, information architects, taxonomists, and other folks in "information professions". Most of them do not have the future of the library as a concern. We are re-thinking the library and we'll take any help we can get from people of any research area to help us figure this out.

I, for one, get really frustrated when someone in an adjacent technical field "invents" something we've been doing for a hundred or more years. We also need to do a much better job in telling and showing people what we do so they aren't left to reinvent our work on their own!

i-d635c30c795dae49d23041de1358b3de-Christina.jpgIn discussions of Open Access on science blogs, at meetings, between scientists and publishers, most people talk about Gold, while librarians appear to prefer Green approach to Open Access. Can you explain to my readers what is the difference between the two and if you could speculate why people with different backgrounds may prefer one or the other?

Wow, what a huge question. I think green is self-archiving of published, peer-reviewed articles and gold is open access available from the publisher. First, it's not an either-or type thing. I do think that anyone who can, should archive a pre-, e-, or post-print on their web site and in institutional and disciplinary repositories. The thing with archiving on your web page is that it isn't really that findable and there's no plan for long term preservation and migration to new formats. IRs are much better at preservation, but the findability just isn't there, which is very sad. (OAI-PMH, Google, and sciencecommons all help but you still need controlled vocabulary, etc.)

I also like that money from grants, etc., be set aside for open access through journals. I trust journals to provide good access, good findability, and good preservation. We know the content will be indexed in powerful databases. I think journals do a good job of managing the publishing process and peer review. Innovative publishers like IOP are almost disaggregating the journal and then you have re-aggregations in the form of virtual journals from AIP/APS... so maybe it's not the actual "journal" model that makes sense, but these societies and professional publishers do add a lot of value that's really needed.

I'm really interested in what's happening right now in high energy physics. Essentially, the idea is to redirect library money that now goes for specific journals to pay for all articles in HEP to be open access. From what I've heard from my colleagues, they are very concerned that if all of the articles will be free, then their budget will not go to this pool, but to say, more chemistry journals. The other thing is that wealthy institutions will be subsidizing mid-range institutions and public schools. Maybe they should do this, but it shouldn't be by accident. If library money is diverted to pay for open access, then we could be in trouble, because we would run up much higher bills than we currently pay for journals, and this still wouldn't pay for research databases and the like which are also immensely expensive.

I'll leave more detailed analysis to people who know more about this.

When and how did you discover science blogs? What are some of your favorites? Have you discovered any new cool science blogs while following the Conference?

I've been blogging since about 2003 and I think I knew about a couple of physics blogs way back then. After my boss insisted I look into blogs more (thanks, Susan), I actually got really interested in retrieving information from blogs so I wrote a couple of articles for librarians on how to search blogs. Since I'm a science junkie, it was natural for me to search for science information on blogs. I am almost done a research project that looked at how and why physicists and chemists use blogs so I will *not* name favorites! I love you all :)

You are one of the "repeat offenders", i.e., coming to the 1st Science Bloggers Conference did not discourage you from also coming to the 2nd one. Is there anything that happened at this Conference - a session, something someone said or did or wrote - that will change the way you think about science communication, or something that you will take with you to your job, blog-reading and blog-writing?

I really, really enjoyed the session: Real-time blogging in the marine sciences. It clicked with a recent IEEE Spectrum podcast on how new communication technologies allow astronomers to redirect a terrestrial telescope within 2 minutes of a satellite imaging something of interest. Seems like a funny connection but the marine researchers spoke about contacting scientists ashore to get feedback while they were acquiring data and how blogging might support this. There were other elements related to the outreach responsibilities of some missions, too, that were neat. Boy, things have changed a bit since my at sea time!

It was great that many of us were in the same hotel. We chatted during meals, driving to events, and in the bar. The unconference started mid-day Friday and ended Sunday morning! I learned a lot during these sessions, too.

It was so nice seeing you again and thank you for the interview.


Check out all the interviews in this series.


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You know this sort of seals it for me. I was on the fence as to what program I'd follow for my graduate studies. I think a Masters in Library Science would dovetail nicely with my I.T. background and Info Science B.Sc.

Totally awesome interview Bora -- thanks for including the librarian in your science blog mix! I wish I could have gone to the science blogging conference, but I'll make do with the book. :-)

If library money is diverted to pay for open access, then we could be in trouble, because we would run up much higher bills than we currently pay for journals

How would that work? I would think that libraries currently pay a lot more for journal subscriptions than it would cost to have all of their institutions' research published OA.

(I can see a situation where you are asked to keep buying subscriptions after your budget gets diverted to OA, but that's just plain unfair; my question is about relative costs, not the relative sanity of administrators!)

For instance, Yale spent about $7.7 million on journal subscriptions in 2006, and PubMed says that "Yale" appears in an author's affiliation on 2350 papers for that year. If they spent 49% of that budget on STM journals, they could instead have published every one of those papers in a BioMed Central journal (average fee $1600/article). This, mind you, is assuming that Yale would be paying for every paper that lists a Yale affiliation, ignoring the average $460/article in direct (e.g. page) charges that the NIH already pays in addition to subscription fees, and forgetting, as everyone inexplicably continues to do, the fact that a solid majority of OA journals do not charge any author-side fees at all.

I picked that example because I had the numbers to hand, but clearly it would be good to have similar data for a representative sample of libraries. Moreover, I have no idea what proportion of a library's serials budget does go to STM journals -- though I suspect it's a lot.

So, I'm doing what I always do when I have a difficult question: asking a librarian! How would diverting a library's serials budget to pay up-front for OA cause the library to run up higher bills? And more importantly -- is this an unavoidable consequence of OA costs, or a likely result of administrative infelicity?

I was captivated during the whole interview. Librarian Science is nothing I really knew about. This was very interesting. I'm so glad you liked our session on Real Time blogging Christina!! We very much enjoyed your enthusiasm, perspective and contributions to the session. Hope to see you in 2009, maybe at a session on Extracting Information from Science Blogs...

Great to hear from a science librarian on Scienceblogs. I, too, am a special librarian but in a corporate/business role. I too am a veteran (Air Force). It's interesting how women working in library professions have a military background.

Tony P, your I.T. background most certainly would be a good match for an MLS. Like Christina, I am sometimes frustrated by I.T. people who "invent" things librarians have been doing for centuries. I equate it to teenagers who think they invented sex. It's good to have people who have both the I.T. grounding and the fundamentals of library science.

Librarians are sooo coool! Hunting for arcane knowledge in dusty old tomes... so romantic!
If I like googling and searching for info, should I go be a librarian? When I say I like it I mean I really really like it.

Erm... also, do you like eating bananas? ( )

"they could instead have published every one of those papers in a BioMed Central journal (average fee $1600/article)"
Bill- are you suggesting that all physicists, sociologists, analytical chemists, material scientists, aerospace engineers -- everyone publish everything in BioMed Central? Are you suggesting that the library could or should find a way to mandate where the researchers publish and then drop all subscriptions?
BTW- Yale also publishes in many, many journals that are not indexed in PubMed. Web of Science has 5,721 journal articles for Yale for 2006 and of course that doesn't include SPIE proceedings, ACM proceedings, AIAA proceedings, etc.
(thanks everyone for your kind comments)