Your Library, Container, Concept

Tomorrow is the first EVER Five College Libraries All-Staff Event hosted by the Five College Digital Environment and Coordinating Committee (on which I represent Hampshire) and sponsored by the Five College Librarians’ Council. It will be an eventful half day with coffee, updates, a keynote from Yale University Librarian Susan Gibbons, Lightning Round talks by librarians about cool stuff they are doing, and breakout discussions around themes and topics like E-Books and Student Supervision. I am facilitating a discussion called “Library as Concept, Library as Container.” I threw it out there as a topic because I was inspired by a talk Char Booth gave during the fall called ”Library as Indicator Species: Evolution, or Extinction?” It dovetailed nicely with conversations I had at Yale before heading out the door about library futures, and whether or not this new generation of librarians would be tasked with ‘shutting off the light’ and ‘closing the doors.’

With all the discussions out there about library futures and libraries in crisis, it’s easy to jump on the Armageddon bandwagon and picture libraries where the reference desks are buried in tumbleweeds and books don’t circulate because everything is readily and freely available in digital form. If you buy into the idea of the library as a book warehouse, of the library as container of THINGS, then this nightmare scenario just might become reality. And maybe that’s a good idea for some, for whom libraries work best when one can get what he or she needs and get out with a little human interaction as possible.

Personally, I believe that the library is a concept, an important partnership with academic programs built upon a service orientation to support the development of critical thinking skills, digital fluency, and research education in our students. I believe that we are a neutral place for faculty and students to hash out ideas for projects and vent frustrations when work isn’t going well. We broker relationships between people to accomplish exciting work in the digital humanities. We are not a giant book warehouse, but a buzzing community where we curate collections to meet the demands of our communities with tools like book scanners, software, and troubleshooting know-how to empower our students to do new and exciting work.

Yesterday, a neat hashtag meme both amused and horrified me: #librariandrinkinggame. Some of the tweets really get at why I think we need to move past associating libraries with stuff and start thinking about them in terms of service. Like @LibSkrat’s “Empty the bottle when somebody says, ‘you need a master’s degree to shelve books?” or “Drink every time you hear someone say that they could get hired at a library because they like to read.” Concepts are flexible, wide-open – experimental. Containers – well, they just contain. They have boundaries. For the academic library of yore where access to print materials was essential, this was a good thing. But our patrons can access ‘stuff’ from the internet often without dealing with a human at all. A shushing librarian does not stand between them and the book or journal or long playing record. But the human interaction is essential now. We are Sherpas of data, guides to evaluating the wealth of materials available to our students and faculty that they have not even thought of until talking with one of us.

To me, libraries and librarians are concepts facilitating and mediating the container that is scholarship, data, and information, not shushing gatekeepers.

Disruptions: MOOC the Revolution?

I am a higher education junkie. I read the Chronicle with abandon every day, I intently follow the #highered hastag on Twitter, and I read blogs that discuss my industry. I can’t get enough of higher education reporting and analysis.

I became a higher ed junkie during my transition from humanities graduate student to academic librarian through the blog of Steven Bell, The Kept-Up Academic Librarian, a wonderful site that collects news from around American higher education. Reading this blog in 2007 gave me the first wave of awareness that higher education is an industry, not just a collection of noble institutions invested in educating students.

Last Friday, I had the pleasure of attending the Association of College and Research Libraries New England Chapter annual conference where Bell was the keynote speaker. True to form, he helped New England librarians look at the wider landscape of higher education and discussed our role in facilitating positive changes that will benefit our students.

There are many columns, articles, and think pieces out there about the future of higher education, especially about the emergence of MOOCs, Massive Open Online Courses. Why pay for an education when you can take classes for free at MIT, Yale, or Stanford? There’s a lot of emphasis on cost-savings and effectiveness. Personally, I think it’s too soon to gauge the effectiveness of the courses and how online courses affect job security across fields, but I am committed to learning more about them. However, the question of cost is far from settled.

This morning, my weekly edition of EdSurge hit my inbox and I found an array of links that got me going:

THE REVOLUTION WILL BE TELEVISED ONLINE: The much-acclaimed arrival of Udacity, Coursera, edX have many proclaiming the arrival of a “revolution,” including Thomas Friedman. Per usual, as with all revolutions in history, there’s always the question of who’s really leading the charge–and TechCrunch’s Gregory Ferenstein is placing his bets on Stanford. All this bickering over MOOCs may be moot, though, if we consider Dan Pontefract’s suspicion that the frantic pace and close proximity of their launches are ultimately driven by money and a “potential merg[ing] of corporate learning with academic institutions.”

The money question. Oh indeed. Education is a hot commodity for VCs and family foundations. Diane Ravitch has done marvelous reporting about the growing influence Gates and other wealthy family foundations play on primary and secondary education. There is serious money to be made in the higher education game. And I think we can’t blindly assume that VCs are investing this money in online education simply because they think education should be free. They expect to earn money.

For profit education in the United States is a leading driver in student debt; it leads the industry in the number of students who default on their loans, and scores of students start programs that they never complete. It’s been widely reported that public institutions of higher learning are receiving less and less state aid  -driving up tuition prices- and tuition at private colleges continues to rise. We can all agree that the issue of cost is central among our concerns about the future of higher education, but I don’t think that MOOCs represent the solution. What might be free now will cost someone, somewhere further down the line. Without clear business plans for these online course ventures, it’s unclear who will shoulder the burden, who will profit, or who will lose.

Locally Produced, Locally Published: Hampshire’s Scholarly Communications

As the semester wraps up, I am beginning to organize and prioritize my summer projects. Foremost among them is planning outreach activities around open access and scholarly communication with our faculty at Hampshire. A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to give a quick talk at the School of Critical Social Inquiry’s weekly meeting about these issues. Using my new favorite tool, Storify, I narrated my talking points. The faculty were really engaged and I had some follow up about articles and interest in exploring these issues in more depth. To that end, I am brainstorming about ways to engage faculty and students about these issues come fall.

In a recent edition of edSurge, there’s a topical posting about Harvard’s stand against the unsustainable pricing structure of academic journals:

“TOO DEAR FOR HARVARD: Last year Harvard spent $3.75 million in subscription fees for scholarly journals–including at least one with fees above $40k and others in the “tens of thousands,” complains the Harvard Faculty Advisory Council. “Prices for online content from two providers have increased by about 145% over the past six years,” says the note. Faculty are advised to “consider submitting articles to open-access journals, or to ones that have reasonable, sustainable subscription costs.” Estimated cost for an undergrad year at Harvard (including room & board): $52,652.”

True, it’s ridiculous that Harvard is crying poor over acquisitions prices when many other instituions, including mine, have far fewer resources, but I am impressed with Harvard’s support of open access. One of the giants needs to stand up to publishers, needs to lead on the charge to re-imagine scholarly communication for the 21st century that provides space for open access publishing and sustainable practices among commercial ones as well.  This is all in contrast to Yale’s silence on the issue, best captured in this article from the Atlantic. While I have faith in the grassroots effort to reform scholarly communication, it’s helpful that one of the big libraries in in the fight with us.

More food for thought as I make plans for the fall.

At Semester’s End

“In class and outside it, in casual conversations with other students and intensive bouts of reading deep in the bowels of the library, a light still goes on for no reason anyone can supply , and a young person or a whole class suddenly see as poem or a work of art illuminated in a new way.”

Yes, there are many problems in higher education. There are serious questions about sustainability, cost, and whether American higher education prepares our students to participate in the 21st century economy as fully employed citizens. Yet for all its problems, I still believe in higher education, the liberal arts, and the power of living and learning on a campus.

Which brings me to a specific memory from my senior year of college. That fall, I took a seminar about history and protest where we read Robin D.G. Kelly’s Freedom Dreams. This text explores the black radical immigration that provided the vision for social movements that defined the twentieth century. It’s a remarkable text, but one I struggled with during the week we discussed it in seminar. By the end of college, dreams for me always seemed pie in the sky, on a collision course with my goal to become self-sufficient and hold down a job with health insurance, one of my parents’ primary aspirations for me. Looking back, I have to laugh at my rigidity as it was dreams that inspired me to make a conscious choice to embrace my queerness as a teenager – consequences and privilege be damned – and to aspire to go to a place like Smith College in the first place. For so many thinkers, especially the ones in Kelly’s text, dreaming was dangerous, a luxury, a privilege, but it was dreaming that was instrumental in effecting the social changes we enjoy today. Which brings me to the students I work with at Hampshire.

Yesterday, I saw a student wearing a patch on her jacket that said ‘my education is endangered.’ That struck a chord with me as I am not sure my cohort of Smithies would have thought of our educations as anything less than essential to our development as citizens of the wider world. And the liberal arts are endangered. Recently, Florida Governor Rick Scott suggested that we don’t need more anthropology majors. Libertarian champion Peter Thiel has a program to encourage the great minds of this generation to drop out of college to become entrepreneurs. What would these men think of the work our Hampshire students do? As frivolous? As foolish? As impractical?

Dreaming is essential for our students’ self-directed work. Vision propels Hampshire students to undertake an ambitious course of study without the structure or safety of a major. I love watching students transform amorphous ideas into sets of questions, and sets of questions into manifestos, films, ethnographic studies, and built structures. These are experiences that will translate into important social transformations.

Beyond social change and the greater good is the empowerment that comes from careful study and consideration of big issues, of philosophy, of history, literature -among other subjects. Like the quote that begins this post states, when the light goes on for students, it’s a rush none like any other. I can recall so many moments in my own education where the material came to life for me, shifted my thinking and assumptions all for the better. But better than that were the questions I wrestled with where there was no easy resolution, when I felt frustrated, fought with myself, and forced myself to push my outlook into new territory. The Kelley text is a prime example, as I still wrestle with the dreams my students have. At what point do dreams need to be pushed, nurtured, re-directed, or killed?

For me, dreams and higher education now go hand in hand. When I work with students starting on projects, I like to ask them what their dream project is, what they would do if they could do anything at all, and then work with them to negotiate down to a manageable project, with reasonable sets of expectations. When not constrained by judgement or time, my students dream up so many amazing questions and projects. Questions and projects that could change the world. Of course, ‘curing cancer’ is not practical for a capstone project, but goals and dreams keep students going, keep them motivated. I know the saying goes that necessity is the mother of invention, but I’d also like to think that dreams are the mother of invention, too.