One narrow little viewpoint on academic library function

Scibling and library dude John Dupuis has a post up on:

The inherent insularity of library culture?

It focuses on librarian interaction with the rest of the academic campus. For the most part I'm just confused about where the problem lies, but I did seem to glean two things. One, he's concerned about budget shrinkage, "defenders" and "making a case" to the rest of the campus. Second, he's more or less soliciting opinion from non librarians.
My two cents about academic libraries after the jump.

The greatest and awesomest most eleventy information technology developments in the daily life of a scientist are two fold.
First, the searchable and unified database of academic literature. In a word, PubMed. If I know how to gild and ensparkle that word, I would, to give a pale shadow of the proper emphasis [proper emphasis a la becca]. You young whippersnappers in my audience have no. effing. idea. of what it is like to have to search through printed Abstract books. I do. PubMed is better. Like CNC machining versus knapping flints better.
Second, immediate and unfettered online access to any published work one finds by searching the aforementioned sainted database. Okay, so we're still working on this one. The potential is achingly, hauntingly there in front of our noses. We can see how it should be but we're just not quite there yet.
This brings me back to my original point about librarians and libraries. My most pressing need is to gain access to more of the academic literature with fewer hurdles. Access from my computer. Anywhere. With fewer clicks through proxy servers and specialized journal links.
I guess I don't really have any use for librarians per se. Except in so far as they get me closer to these unfettered access goals.

42 responses so far

  • Librarians have proved immensely useful for me when my institution, by all accounts, should have access to a particular paper or journal online, but said journal or paper is saying I don't have access. In each case I have either alerted a librarian to a problem (which was always fixed within a day or so), or I'm using the wrong provider (e.g. trying to get at a journal through Springer, when I should be going through Ingenta, or whatever).
    Also, their scanning service, for obscure or older papers that have not yet been digitized, is fantastic.

  • Also, librarians are great for training you to fight off the vampires.

  • hibob says:

    I think, like IT, librarians tend to be invisible until there's a problem.
    Your online access to journals? Librarians corral scientists into telling them which journals they want the library/institution to have, keep track of which ones they actually use, and deal with the fallout when people couldn't be bothered to notice that the subscription they want access to (but don't actually use) is scheduled to be terminated. The inter-library loan is pretty faceless as well, as long as it happens on time.

  • Mr. Gunn says:

    Oh, you've gone and done it now!
    I think librarians for the most part would like the same things you do. Proxies and 255+ character sciencedirect links weren't exactly their idea, and I think you'll find that librarians some of the best OA advocates you can find.
    Unlike certain scientific societies that just signed a letter of opposition to open source.

  • Namnezia says:

    Mr. Gunn: Which academic societies signed a letter against open access?

  • hibob says:

    @Namnezia, #5: The American Chemical Society (a subsidiary of the journal publisher, I believe) has been pretty strident about limiting open access, to the tune of $200,000 in lobbying.

  • travc says:

    I see libraries going in three different directions.
    One really important function (just now at least) is managing the byzantine world of publishers and subscriptions. Making sure we actually have access to what we want, hopefully without breaking the budget of the University.
    Another role is basically IT infrastructure and support. I would like to see this become more explicitly a function of the library and less it's own department. 95+% of IT is about making sure people have access to the information resources they need... and I think the libraries would probably do a better job of it since it is baked into "what they do" (unlike many IT departments).
    It is also notable that libraries already deal with "user generated" data, not just access to externally published stuff.
    Finally, I see librarians becoming more like consultants (such as stats consultants).
    Oh, and of course, libraries do the dissertation filing thing 😉

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Mr. Gunn: Which academic societies signed a letter against open access?
    As pinus points out, several, but I think Mr. Gunn was referring to me taking a few swipes at the ExecDirector of the APS, Martin Frank, on Twitter after he mentioned the APS position.

  • Pascale says:

    Librarians fight zombies:  A Librarian's Guide to Etiquette: Zombies, Fighting:

  • Thryn says:

    I think that libraries, academic and otherwise, are still redefining themselves and will continue as long as the technology changes, but one important role you left out is training. Librarians know both the physical library and its electronic holdings and often hold sessions on how to use them effectively. I took part in two such sessions as an undergrad, as well as one focused on using the science library's technology, and found them quite useful.

  • Mr. Gunn says:

    Not only ACS, but ASPET and ASBMB and a bunch of others. They've been talked into believing that open access would mean no one subscribes to their journals and that their society would lose all its revenue. The declining relevance of scientific societies is actually kinda similar in nature to the declining relevance of libraries, yet while libraries are adapting to remain relevant and are strong supporters of OA, the societies (under the influence of the publishers via the DC Principles aka PRISM lobbying group) are trying to cling to their past.
    That's going to work out as well for them as you might imagine.
    I've asked many society representatives how the believe they can stay relevant in the changing world and the replies generally fall into two categories:
    "What do you mean? The world isn't changing! Membership in our association is vital for their careers, scientists need us!"
    "We recognize we don't occupy the position of authority we once did, but we still can bring people together and promote shared causes. With revenue from memberships, events, and publication page charges, we don't expect to see much decline in income and we're actually somewhat excited about the new possibilities."


  • Namnezia says:

    I can't believe that letter from APS - it just seems so, well, self-serving and disappointing. The argument about open access reducing the quality of peer review seems weak, and that the NIH is spending to much money archiving papers instead of funding research is even weaker. But then the added bit about how people from "all over the world" can now have access to US-taxpayer funded research is downright Glenn-Beckish. I'm happy to see that at least the Society for Neuroscience didn't sign the letter.

  • LadyDay says:

    But, where else are spinsterly types against book banning and censorship going to hang out?

  • Craig M says:

    Well, apart from anything else, it would be a tragedy to see the end of the Hot Librarian trope.
    On a more serious note: I'm sure that I'm preaching to the choir here, but the fact that universal open access isn't already in effect is an absolute crime. It's entirely within our power to make every scientific paper ever published available within one searchable database with free worldwide access. Such a database would be of immense value to scientists everywhere. It would be especially valuable to researchers in the developing world, whose institutions tend to lack the funding required for the sorts of database subscriptions that are routinely provided in wealthier countries.
    The only thing stopping us is copyright nonsense, with the copyrights generally held by people who had very little to do with producing the science in the first place.
    Given that we live in a world that is facing a large number of urgent problems that cannot be effectively tackled without a great deal of research effort, can we really afford to let the financial interests of a handful of publishing companies impede the global scientific endeavour?

  • Cashmoney says:

    Librarians? Going after Librarians????. What's next, kicking puppies and bunnies?

  • Joe Kraus says:

    Note that the APS mentioned above = American Physiological Society and NOT the American Physical Society. I am not a member of the American Physical Society, but I am on their Publications Oversight Committee till Sept of 2010.

  • Otto says:

    Ah, I remember back in the good old days when Library Science just tried to ooze all over Artifical Intelligence.

  • Anonymous says:

    ^Artificial, dammit.

  • David says:

    I often face a requirement to submit a complete, structured search of the literature to a US or European regulatory agency. For those purposes, Pubmed is a useless toy. An adequate search requires the services of an information sciences professional. I'm thankful they still exist.

  • neurospasm says:

    Cashmoney sez:
    "Librarians? Going after Librarians????. What's next, kicking puppies and bunnies?"
    Yeah, this post makes me want to go down to the lake and strangle some ducks and turtles with plastic six-pack rings.

  • becca says:

    DM, when was the last time you *asked* a librarian for help with a literature search?
    Are you so sure you know everything, or has Pubmed made things so easy you don't care to plan time into your busy schedule to lit search?
    If you've talked to them, and you're doing everything the professionals would, bully for you. Let us know good tips!
    If not...
    isn't there usually a bit in every NIH grant that involves animal work about how you searched the lit and you aren't replicating? Wouldn't it be... ethically prudent... to consult librarians?
    @cashmoney-my sentiments exactly, except with saber tooth killer bunnies. Librarians are tough.

  • qaz says:

    There's more to life than PubMed. (Really. There are a lot of relevant journals not in PubMed.) And a lot more to the literature than what is available online. It always really gets to me when people will only cite stuff they find in PubMed or only cite stuff they can read online. (Of course, DM would never do that, right? But others do. I once saw a job talk where some guy in the back asked the job candidate about some obscure old paper on the topic. The candidate had heard of the author, but never read the paper because (and I quote) "I couldn't access it online." I'm sure you all see what that fool candidate did not - that the candidate was talking about a senior professor's PhD advisor. Needless to say, the candidate did not get the job. I bet that job candidate wished he'd talked to a librarian and gotten help doing a more complete search.)
    Librarians sit even more behind the scenes these days than they did before. The "free" access you have to specific journals is not free at all. You wouldn't believe what Elsevier charges for their online package, or how many different potential packages you can buy. Those decisions are all librarian decisions. But even then, if you actually go to your library (they still exist, and there are these things called "books" there), you'll find that librarians are critical to things like interlibrary loan (particularly useful for those books that are not online).
    Besides, cutting the librarians is like cutting the secretaries ("administrative assistants", they're called these days - but I want to differentiate the person who makes a department run smoothly from the aide-de-camp of an Assistant Vice Dean to the Assistant for Provost Research). They don't make that much money relative to the Assistant Vice Dean to the Assistant for Provost Research and they do most of the work that actually makes things run smoothly. (As compared to the Assistant Vice Dean to the Assistant for Provost Research.)

  • NancyNew says:

    Librarians are the secret masters of the universe. (Spider Robinson... the librarian in me tells me to always cite my sources).
    A prime librarian function is the collection of, preservation of, and indexing of information, with the chief goal of making it accessible to those who need it. You may THINK you don't need the librarian much, but the underpinnings of all that access to the information you seek is librarianship.

  • In an intro to research methods course in undergrad, one exercise was to use the print version of Chemical Abstracts to find a specific reference so we could appreciate the ease of using SciFinder Scholar (the electronic version of Chem Abstracts). If I had to use those volumes to find papers on a regular basis, I might cry.
    As far as the utility of librarians, I would say they are an oft overlooked and under-utilized resource. They are quite aware of the electronic resources and software that are available and know the tips and tricks to make them more accessible and useful. The medical library at my current institute runs brown bag series about using specific NCBI databases and citation software.
    Furthermore, thanks to librarians, if there is a paper that I can't access via the webz (even with annoying proxies), I get a nice pdf delivered to my email inbox instead of having to tear myself away from the lab to go scan/copy the article. As an aside, though, sometimes those hours spent in the library leafing through ancient volumes of literature can be fruitful, as you may run across a related paper that did not pop up in your very specific PubMed search.
    Regarding open access, I'm all for it, but I'm curious-who's going to pay for it? Almost all journals I've seen with OA options (whether applied across the board or providing authors the choice) work on an author-pay model-at the cost of $1000 or more. I'm sure that doesn't seem like much to the PI with plenty of funding, but to the new ass. professor that's 3+ vials of antibody or many, many hours of use on core facility instruments. A model where a PI has to choose between paying to publish and paying for new experiments seems to be sub-optimal. Can you even pay publication fees out of grants? If authors don't pay for OA, then who does? The institution? The society/publisher? The altruist in me sees the importance of OA for the rapid accessibility of work (especially for institutes not swimming in money) and for public access. The realist realizes that someone has to pay for OA and wonders who that is and how it will impact research and publishing.

  • Diana Hagan says:

    PubMed is a service of the US National Library of Medicine. Who do you think has been making it happen that academic literature is so much easier to access?

  • Michele says:

    I find librarians invaluable. They have helped me find papers that were cited incorrectly in journal articles; they have helped me track down resources on a particular topic; they have searched special collections and archives at institutions for me, for free and only with a simple e-mail request. They possess a very important and special kind of knowledge, the knowledge of how to find out stuff. They are responsible for indexing the journals in PubMed and Highwire and the other databases; they figure out how best to make these things accessible to the rest of us.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    qaz, you make my point. I.e., that the most important thing is to make more and more of that ancient literature available online. I love being about to reach that stuff in the journals that have bothered to go back to issue one back in the Stone Age..
    becca- actually those searches for animal protocol purposes can be highly scripted by the demands of the IACUC in many cases. typically it is not kosher to rely simply on PubMed. perhaps they consult librarians in developing their guidelines, I don't know.

  • Yeah, why speak with a *human* librarian, when you can get millions and millions of search results on any conceivable topic via a search engine?
    I rather like interacting with a human librarian who, first of all, is human, and secondly who can help me hone the focus of my research.
    Certainly for a very specific subject area like psychology or oil drilling or dachshund ranching, an electronic database of articles relevant to the topic is helpful, in part because it makes searchable and readily accessible the work that some human beings somewhere have already done to narrow the subject matter.
    For general research, however, I may not know where to look, let alone what I'm looking for. To hit up the organized and typically extremely well-read mind of a librarian to save *me* time in finding information I need is a terrific resource to have, particularly since many (e.g. at your local public library) will do this at no cost to you.

  • I wrote my entire PhD thesis in my institute's library, which was usually empty and also overlooked the break room, so I knew when to go and join my friends for coffee and lunch breaks. The resident librarian was absolutely invaluable to my success. Why? She brought me cups of tea and home-made cake, and consoled me after I had a yelling match with my supervisor one day. I won't have a word said against the profession 🙂

  • I find librarians to be very helpful in finding information and getting access to it. I am a little embarrassed to admit that after a year on campus, I have not yet set foot in any of the physical libraries, though!
    Almost all of the relevant scientific societies for my work have put their entire archives online, which is hugely helpful. In fact, I have not yet found an old paper I've needed that isn't online. I have found journals that put up old typed submitted manuscripts, not the final formatted journal article, resulting in eye-bleeding pages of Courier type text (Res Nucl Acids I'm looking at you). In that case, I do think about walking over to the library to save my eyes.
    IMHO, librarians have done a great job of updating their repertoires to stay relevant in the electronic age.

  • RachelW says:

    As a medical librarian, thanks to everyone who has commented pointing out the role of librarians not only in providing and maintaining your immediate online access to the materials, but also in providing expert assistance in finding information. In my job, I get questions from clinicians (what's the evidence on X? could Y be causing Z?), and I use my skills to search the literature (PubMed and beyond), select the best evidence (using knowledge of clinical research design and stats), and summarize for them the evidence specific to their patient. I contribute to systematic review products created by our AHRQ-funded EPC. I can even find you what is known about any given SNP, and understand what I'm talking about in the process. I am always up for applying these skills to help a researcher or clinician save time and be assured that they're being thorough, but one of my major challenges is letting people with traditional ideas about librarians *know* how much easier librarians can make things for them, and how much they might be missing with their approaches without even realizing it. Which is to say, librarians are awesome and can really be helpful if you think to ask them, and thanks to everyone who already knows that and said so.

  • lylebot says:

    This PDF uses fonts that I don't have on my system and that are not embedded in the document. All I can see is the letterhead; the rest is just blank. Underscoring of their opposition to open access, or hilariously apropos mistake?

  • ginger says:

    It opens fine for me, lylebot. Are you using the latest version of Acrobat Reader? (Freeware, albeit not open-source.)
    I love librarians on principle, but I'll just add my voice to the chorus here by acknowledging they have specialty knowledge about searching that I don't. Moreover, as those who handle the subscriptions and orders, they balance the majority and minority demands for materials, and help provide access to other library systems' through the arcane rules of interlibrary loan, local loans, and shared collections.

  • Craig M says:

    @BB: The "author-pay" thing is as much of a scam as the copyright lock is. Where does the expense come in?
    Printing and distribution costs? Once they're all online, there's no need for a hardcopy.
    Peer review? It's not like they pay us for doing their work for them.
    Servers and sysadmins to run the database, and the small staff required for editorial oversight? The cost would be minimal, and besides: paying for public-benefit non-profits is what governments are for...

  • Sal says:

    I use Google Scholar rather than PubMed ... Does that make me a bad graduate student?

  • Mr. Gunn says:

    Craig - Authors pay in other journals too, through page charges, color figures, and so on, so this isn't unique to OA journals. Legit OA journals don't publish everything, so they have a similar editorial burden as other journals. They also do publicity and marketing like traditional journals.
    PLoS has a summary of their costs here:

  • Craig M says:

    @Mr Gunn: Yes, I know that "author pay" isn't restricted to OA journals, and I think that it's despicable regardless of who is doing it. Scientific merit should be the only factor influencing whether or not an article is published; as soon as ability to pay enters the equation, the validity of the science is compromised.
    Yes, no journal is going to be completely without administrative costs; some degree of editorial oversight will always be required. But a for-profit copyright-locked model is an exceptionally bad way of managing these costs.

  • Andromeda says:

    As a recent library school graduate...yeah, I totally see where you're coming from.
    I was a math major undergrad. Most of my friends were in technical majors. Our use of the library mirrored yours (or would have, had we had that kind of online access back then, or does now, for those still in academic careers). But one of the things I've noticed -- now that I also have an MA in the humanities and an MLS -- is that different fields have very, very different uses of research materials, and they tend to be unaware (or underaware) of this, and to over-assume that their research habits resemble everyone's. This means that anyone who's engaging in library policy discussions needs to make a special effort to find out how other constituencies use the library.
    So two constituencies I think you should think about:
    1) Your colleagues not in the sciences. They are much more likely to need materials which were not born digital, and have never been digitized; they are much more likely to need material from decades ago; they are much less likely to have the funds for digitization. Therefore the ways they use the online and physical libraries, and what they need from librarians, will differ.
    2) Your undergraduates (if you have some). They start out never having heard of PubMed. They need to learn what the key journals are in the field, who are the major researchers. They need to learn about evaluating articles. They need to learn about lit reviews, about how to use citations they find in the literature, about how to format their own citations. They need to learn how to search those magical databases. There's a whole pile of information literacy tasks that are second nature to you by now but potentially opaque to them, and teaching those skills is one of the traditional roles of the academic librarian. Maybe you teach them explicitly (in which case, hugs and kisses!), but maybe you don't, or maybe you want them to be taught but don't want to do it yourself, in which case collaboration with librarians makes your life better. And lots of librarians have stories about undergrads who struggle with assignments in ways their professors never hear about, because the undergrads are getting help from the librarians instead of in office hours.
    So, yes. It's possible that the only function of librarians, vis-a-vis your research, is copyright clearance and database wizardry and other things that make your research process super-simple and transparent. And that's fine (although please to be remembering to tell your deans how much you love the librarians for making your job so much easier). But research probably isn't all you do, and your colleagues don't all do research in the same way.

  • mickey says:

    yes with the alliance in the left

Leave a Reply