The Warlord in the Library: Interview with John Dupuis

John Dupuis has been writing Confessions of a Science Librarian since the time blogging software was really physically soft, being made of clay and shaped like a tablet. We finally got to meet face-to-face at the Science Blogging Conference last month - a meeting long overdue until then.

Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. This is going to be an interesting reversal - it is usually you who gets to ask the questions in blog interviews. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Who are you? What is your background?

Yes, it is a bit of a reversal. But I'm not crazy enough to try and interview 40 people in 40 days, more like one every other month or so. And don't worry, Bora, I will get around to returning the favour and interviewing you!

As for me, I'm currently the Head of the Steacie Science & Engineering Library at York University in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. I've been at York since August 2000. However, like with so many librarians, this is my second career. My first career was as a software developer for a large multinational insurance broker, something I did for over 12 years. That was in Montreal, where I was born. I also have a undergraduate degree in Computer Science from Concordia University. Ultimately, I noticed that the thing I liked best about the software developer job was helping people with their information needs, to find the stuff they need to make decisions in their jobs. So, when various takeover and downsizing exercises began to wear me down a bit, I had a chance to really think about what I wanted to do: get a new job in the same industry or change careers entirely.

After some deep thought, I decided that it was time for a career change. Having some family and close friends already in library biz, it seemed like a natural progression for me. So, it was back to school for a Library and Information Science degree at McGill; while there I worked at the McGill Physical Sciences & Engineering Library for a practicum placement and got bitten by the science librarian bug. It was a great place to work with a passionate, commited staff
dedicated to helping faculty and students. Luckily, when I graduated a job came open at York in the science library and the rest, as they say, is history. Okay, the process of relocating from Montreal to Toronto was a bit more complicated than that but there are some things I'll only tell over beer in a hotel bar.

I've been writing my blog, Confessions of a Science Librarian, since October 2002. It really started as a bit of a lark. One day I was sitting in my office wondering what these new-fangled blogs were all about. Something strange possessed me and I went to the Blogger site and started my own blog. I wish I could take credit for the title, but I have to admit it was suggested to me by my friend and York colleague Patti Ryan. I don't think I ever expected it to have the long life that it's had -- 5.5 years is quite ancient by blog standards. It's made me a lot of friends and opened a few doors that might otherwise stayed closed. I feel priveledged to be part of two wonderful blogging communities, science blogs and library blogs.

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

My real life job is helping people. The people I help are mostly undergraduate students and I help them mostly with how to find scholarly, peer reviewed resources in science and engineering. (Okay, I also help them to find the bathroom and clear paper jams in the photocopier.) I sit at our Help Desk answering questions, I buy books and decide what journals and databases to subscribe to, I advocate for Open Access resources, I give Literature Search Skills sessions in science and engineering classrooms, I sit on committees and go to meetings. I try not to shush rowdy students too often, but my library is pretty small and we get complaints if it gets too noisy. Yes, the modern student still appreciates a bit of peace and quiet.

The great thing is that we librarians at York have faculty status so I also have a form of tenure and get to take sabbaticals every seventh year. I just came back from my first last August.

And I think a lot about what it will mean to be a science librarian in the future. But more on that in a couple of questions.

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

Well, when I was a little kid, I wanted to be Jean Beliveau. And then a little later I wanted to join The Legion of Super-Heroes or perhaps become The Warlord. Somehow those desires morphed into programming and libraries. What would the future hold, in the perfect world? I've always dreamed of having one of those big, cluttered, cozy, serendipitous used bookstores, just hanging out with others that love books, science, science fiction, mysteries, comics, and all the rest. However, I'm not too sure what kind of future those venerable institutions have these days, so I'll probably have to come up with something else for my retirement.

Internet has turned the job of a librarian upside down. What does that mean specifically for science librarians?

The future of my particular profession is an issue that has really obsessed me over the last couple of years. I've written about it extensively on my blog and I've even given a presentation on it at a recent conference. Whipping through those conference slides is probably the best way to get an overview of what my current thinking is.

In fact, the more I think about it, the less I seem to have a grasp about what the future brings. There are big challenges ahead for academic libraries. How do you get your physical layout just right, the balance between computer workstations, relaxing comfy chairs with coffee, group study rooms, informal collaborative spaces and, perhaps the thing that gets lost in the shuffle, quiet space for study and contemplation.

The other question that really obsesses me is what's worth paying for? We libraries have pretty significant budgets, mostly dedicated to journal and database subscriptions. Ultimately, what do we want to be spending this money on? For sure, more people to embed in labs and research groups, like Peter Murray-Rust suggests. People to build a compelling web presence, to make the stuff we buy more visible on the free web (we call this "discovery at the network level"), people to work with faculty on teaching students about scholarly communication. But what about stuff? Surely, we won't be buying a lot of paper books in the future but products like Morgan & Claypool's Synthesis, Knovel ebooks and O'Reilly's Safari are fantastic products, well worth paying for. It's no coincidence that I've interviewed people from all three of those companies: Mike Morgan, Sasha Gurke) and CJ Rayhill. I want to understand what makes them tick and how they're going to adapt and change in the future.

But how to let people know we have all those great products and how much time and effort they can save students and researchers? It seems to me that outreach, liaison and marketing are huge parts of what a librarian has to do these days.

Other things probably worth paying for are online journal backfiles like Nature back to the first issue. Now that's expensive, but probably worth every penny. There are also a lot of datasets and other databases that are proprietary and well worth paying for. Are abstracting and indexing databases like Web of Science or INSPEC still worth paying for? Just barely, but that might change in the future. How about SciFinder Scholar? Sure, they add a lot of value to the data they use with cool structure search and the like.

And look at what's happening in the High Energy Physics field with the SCOAP3 project! Imagine a world where libraries could band together to pay publishers to make their journals all Open Access. It's almost a utopian dream.

So, as the information landscape continues to get more and more complicated, the life of a science librarian hurtles on into the future surrounded by uncertainty but still finding ways to contribute to the scientific enterprise and make a difference in the lives of students and researchers.

In 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?

First, Definitions. And I have to admit that being colour-challenged (see below), I tend to have a hard time remembering stuff associated with colours anyway. Green Open Access is promoting OA via encouraging authors to self-archive a version of their acticles in some sort of Open Access venue, whether it be their own web page, an Institutional Repository or some sort of disciplinary repository (such as the physics arxiv). Here Open Access to scholarship isn't dependant on the whims of the publishers, but on the intentions of the authors. And this is pretty important because not all fields have access to a wide range of OA journals or even disciplinary repositories. Of course, authors do need to respect the copyright rules of the publishers; Sherpa RoMEO is a good source for the various rules used by different journals and publishers.

Gold Open Access is publishing in Open Access journals. This is obviously the best way to go, as all the articles published in OA journals are free to the world. But, like I said, some disciplines are poorly served here. Most of the humanities and social sciences and pretty well all the engineering fields, for example. Although, even some of these areas are seeing improvement.

As for librarians vs the rest, I have to admit I've never really thought about it this way. I guess librarians see Green as something we can have a more direct role in implementing and promoting, although many libraries now host Open Access journals on their own servers (York's hosted journals are here, although they're not all OA). I think librarians are also maybe somewhat resigned to the fact that it'll still be quite some time before we see a majority of all scholarly articles published in OA journals and in the meantime Green OA is a good way to get stuff out there. Computer Science, for example, is a field where maybe 80-90% of recent articles are posted on the authors' web pages. On the other hand, in fields that don't already have a strong tradition in Green OA, it's almost impossible to get people to post their articles in, say, Institutional Repositories.

Realistically, I think it'll be at least 5 to maybe 10 years before we see a widely dispersed OA tipping point, and a variety of publishing business models will still exist beyond that point. I hope I'm wrong, but I think my New York Giants were a better bet to win the Super Bowl.

As for researchers, well, read Peter Suber's Trends Favoring Open Access, I think he makes a good point on item #29:

Researchers themselves control the rate of progress toward OA, but after all these years most of them are still oblivious to its existence and benefits. As I've noted above, there is a trend toward greater familiarity and understanding. But there is also a longstanding counter-trend of impatience with anything that distracts attention from research. This preoccupation is generally admirable and makes researchers good at what they do. But even from the narrow perspective of what advances research, it is having perverse consequences and limiting the audience, impact, and utility of the research on which scholars are so single-mindedly focused.

I think the situation is more complex than an either/or with librarians and researchers working in different directions and more of a situation where if we all work together we can make more progress.

If Jorge Luis Borges lived today and was Internet-savvy, how do you think he would envision and describe the Library of Babel? Something like Gordon R. Dickson's The Final Encyclopedia or more like Vernor Vinge's Libraeorome Project in The Rainbows End? What is your own vision?

Good question. Kind of a cross between YouTube and Wikipedia? With half the shelves filled with porn, a quarter with news on Britney Spears, 12.5% with creationism and woo, 6.25% with racist sites, 3.125% with pirated music, 1.5625% with videos of teenagers lip-syncing pop songs and the rest with something useful.

My own vision? You know that old Star Trek episode where Spock goes back in time and hooks up with a cave woman (All Our Yesterdays)? They pass through a kind of library-like portal into the past. That's where I'd like to work!

If you could tell scitech faculty and students one thing about your job, what would it be.

Basically, I'm here to help you.

For faculty, I would say, "let my colleagues and me help you teach your students about the literature of science, where it is, how it's created and how to find it." There's a bit of a vacuum these days. So often it seems to me that faculty members just assume that new grad students (for example) know how to find the good stuff, but they don't. Interestingly, it's often the newest faculty members that are the most open to collaborating with librarians to teach students about these things. We've made a lot of inroads at York the last few years, collaborating with science and engineering faculty to help students learn about finding scholarly resources. Believe it or not, I even have a blog where I host pages for the courses I help with! ( Take a look and you can see some of the kinds of things I talk about. It's been quite successful with students and faculty seem to like it too. Some days I've had as many as 5 or 6 messages or chat sessions with students using the Meebo plugin.

For students, I'd say, "Don't be shy!" I'd like to tell them that your librarian is your best friend.

For grad students, you may not believe it, you may be getting by just fine, but especially at the beginning of your career we can really help. There may be things your supervisor assumes you know about, assumes you understand, assumes you know how to find. There's nothing wrong with not knowing. Every year I get the new Computer Science grad students at York for an hour as part of their orientation and that's what we talk about. What's a journal, what's a conference, what's the best and easiest way to find the peer reviewed stuff your profs expect you to find. And, while we're at it, what's peer review, the invisible college, all that stuff. They appreciate it and the faculty appreciate it too.

And the same kind of message for undergrads: Don't be shy. Come to the reference desk, chat with me on Meebo or send me an email or a message on FaceBook. When your prof asks you to find 3 peer reviewed articles on recycling asphalt, I can connect you with some full text online pretty fast.

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

Well, I actually discovered library blogs first. I was reading some before I started my blog, like EngLib, STLQ, LISNews and (Library Stuff and a few others. I think the first science blog I started reading was See Jane Compute, and probably Chris Leonard's dear departed Computing Chris blog when he was at Elsevier (My recent interview with Chris, now at PhysMath Central). I don't think I got into science blogs in a big way until the first iteration of ScienceBlogs came online a couple of years ago. It seems to me that a big part of my job is to understand how science and scientists tick and science blogs are a really important part of that for me.

As for favourites, I don't think I need to plug any of the ScienceBlogs stable here! In any case, the ones I follow the closest are in computer science and software development:
- See Jane Compute by Jane (Whom I also interviewed)
- Adventures in Applied Math by Rebecca
- Knowing and Doing by Eugene Wallingford
- Computational Complexity by Lance Fortnow and Bill Gasarch
- Coding Horror by Jeff Atwood
- Joel on Software by Joel Spolsky
- The Yourdon Report by Ed Yourdon

At the conference itself, a couple of the really interesting new ones I discovered are The Inverse Square Blog by Tom Levenson and Science and Religion News by Salman Hameed. Tom's getting mentioned in a lot of these interviews -- I think he owes us all a beer at the next conference for all the free publicity.

Of course, my newest favourite is the blog my 15-year-old son has started for a school project: Space Exploration and Us! If he keeps it up, maybe I'll bring him to the conference next year.

Is there anything that happened at the Conference - a session, something someone said or did or wrote, a new friendship - 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?

A couple of things really stood out for me. The first was the incredible sense of community among the bloggers. Everybody was so open and friendly and willing to talk about just about anything, at the restaurant, the conference and at the hotel bar. For example, did you know that Bill Hooker and I share red-green colour blindness? And talking about community, believe it or not I was chatting with a fellow science blogger right up until the very minute I boarded my plane for Toronto! That would be Deepak Singh, who was stuck at the airport at the same time waiting for his flight. The other thing that stood out was a sense of possibilities, that with enough ingenuity and elbow grease, we could use blogs for just about anything. The great discussions in David Warlick's session were genuinely inspirational. Hearing about what Salman Hameed is doing with blogs in his Science & Religion course was great, and then getting to sit down and talk to him about it in depth was even better.

It was so nice to finally meet you and thank you for the interview.

Thanks for the opportunity to unleash my geeky librarian soul on the world. Oh yeah, there are two of my blog interviews that I didn't plug yet: Timo Hannay of Nature and Richard Akerman of CISTI. Both great interviews!


Check out all the interviews in this series.


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Yes, Bill that's the link to the whole series so far. I average about one interview every other month.

And don't worry. I'll get to you one of these days...

One of the reasons I like reading science & faculty blogs as a librarian is that it helps us get to know each other. And if I know more about faculty & their publishing, they might let me do as John suggests: help them. The Internet is a big huge place, kind of like the Wild West -- and librarians are trained to make sense of it, and then teach YOU how to make sense of it. At least, enough to find what you want within 15-20 minutes -- "save time & find more stuff" is my motto.

Thanks, Bora, for another science librarian interview -- it helps all of us in the science community.