Archive for the ‘Reference Rooms’ Category

From Boston to Peru: Reading Books at the Boston Athenaeum and the Peru Free Library

October 9, 2012

How are we to bring order into this multitudinous chaos and so get the deepest and widest pleasure from what we read? 

V. Woolf, “How to Read a Book”

Photo Credit: Megan Manton/Boston Athenaeum

“To enter the building is to feel an overwhelming impulse to read.”  So wrote Sarah Schweitzer about the Boston Athenaeum in a 2009 Boston.Com article.  Indeed, pushing back the building’s red, leather-bound doors, one plunges into the world of reading like a sea-creature slipping into the ocean’s depths.

How is it that a building can transform us from scatter-brained urban land creatures subject to Boston’s many disparate calls into more focused beings equipped to swim through the world of learning?  It may be that the library’s high ceilings and twelve floors expand our sense of possibility, inviting the mind to unbend.  Certainly, the Athenaeum’s quiet aura of uninterrupted work offers a refuge from the jostling noise of the city’s streets.  Fellow readers lost in concentration call us to our task.  Art, sculpture, newspapers, journals, 750,000 books, maps–all await, encouraging inquiry.  The interior’s opulence telegraphs the value of spending time with books, transporting us to a lost age when leisure allowed one to linger over fictions and treatises, sermons and histories, maps and art, with nothing more pressing awaiting than afternoon tea.

But the Athenaeum’s true luxury is something even more precious and more rare than comfort and splendor alone: it offers the order necessary for sustained reading.

We see this order in the carefully designed reading spaces enticing one to that concentrated state of mind so beneficial for reading.  Solid walnut tables provide space for research materials.  Desks tucked between bookshelves beckon. Upholstered chairs placed next to side tables allow readers to sit next to stacks of books and begin the task of browsing.  The reference room displays recent journals side-by-side on long tables (shown below) carefully ordering the chaotic possibilities before us.

Photo Credit: Megan Manton/Boston Athenaeum

In short, the library has been designed for readers by readers to encourage us to leave the tyranny of the present by plunging into the otherworldly and timeless worlds contained in books.  Seated at the Athenaeum, we can take down volumes and, in Woolf’s words, “make them light up the many windows of the past; we can watch the famous dead in their familiar habits and fancy sometimes that we are very close and can surprise their secrets, and sometimes we may pull out a play or a poem that they have written and see whether it reads differently in the presence of the author.”

Photo credit: Megan Manton/Boston Athenaeum

The Boston Athenaeum is a subscription library.  To borrow books and use the upper floors requires a membership fee beyond the reach of many.  But the first floor is open to the public six days a week, and the Athenaeum’s programs, including concerts, are open to the public free of charge.  Its value as a public space is at least threefold: it is a research and membership library; an art museum and public gallery; and a public forum for lectures, readings, concerts, and other events.

Perhaps most of all, the Boston Athenaeum is a valuable icon reminding us of the civic value placed by a community on reading.

Less palatial, but no less essential, are the public spaces created by our public libraries.  Situated by the apple orchards of upstate New York is the Peru Free Public Library (shown below), a lovely 1927 structure that blends the old and the new.  It maintains its early twentieth-century elegance, even as it runs on solar energy.

Photo credit: Theresa Sanderson

Smaller in scale than the Boston Athenaeum (it holds about 14,000 items), it, too, beckons readers with its carefully arranged reading spaces.  A fireside (below) often warms  readers working at the reference room’s long tables during the shortening fall days and throughout the winter.

Photo credit: Theresa Sanderson

Carefully arranged reading spaces offer an opportunity to clear one’s head:

Photo credit: Theresa Sanderson

A children’s reading room is designed to invite young minds to the world of books:

Photo credit: Theresa Sanderson

The Peru Free Library’s many activities bind the community through art shows, pottery shows, book sales, children’s activities, public lectures, and other events.  Like the Boston Athenaeum, the Peru Free Library is carefully and creatively managed.

Public reading spaces like the Boston Athenaeum and the Peru Free Library contribute immeasurably to their communities and to their readers, allowing them to expand their sense of who they are.   By orchestrating spaces designed to slow us down long enough to stop skimming and sink into deep reading, they encourage a more studied approach to thought than is possible away from books.  If we feel as Woolf did, that heaven is “one continuous unexhausted reading,” the Boston Athenaeum and the public libraries that share its commitment to encouraging reading make it a little easier to experience heaven on earth.

Digital Life Spans and Library Access

August 22, 2012

Today’s Inside Higher Ed has an article by Barbara Fister called “The Library Vanishes – Again” that may be of interest.

Fister reports that EBSCO, which provides the Academic Search Premier database,” no longer offers full access to The Economist due to a contract dispute.  Similarly, the ERIC database, an online database of education research and information, was taken offline because of undisclosed “privacy concerns.”  It will remain offline until the privacy issues are resolved.  Fister conjectures that the privacy issues ailing ERIC might well result from the searchability of digitized databases: now that ERIC’s 360,000+ documents are online, data within those documents, including confidential data, is simply easier to find.  As she puts it,

materials that were publicly available in a pre-web state tended to evade notice; web access  is wonderful, but it exposes things.

Fister’s article confirms the digital world’s double identity of promise and instability.  Digitization makes items accessible and at its best provides full-text searchability.  But until some core values are arrived at regarding how to guarantee digital life spans, a library’s promise of access, ever contingent on library budgets and whims, remains in question.

This fall may be a good time to give thought to the library as it is affected by digitization.

In the meantime, I recommend Fister’s brief article in full at http://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/library-babel-fish/library-vanishes-again#ixzz24HzGXGb1

The Big Bundle Steal: Open Access and Subscription Databases

August 12, 2011

In previous posts we have addressed access to subscription databases. Several recent news items offer a timely reason to revisit the subject.

On July 19, 2011 the New York Times reported the indictment of twenty-four-year-old Aaron Swartz, one of the forces behind the Open Library Project and longstanding internet activist, for breaking into the JStor database and downloading over 4.8 million articles. The material downloaded represented close to JStor’s entire holdings. On several occasions Swartz’s surreptitious activity caused some of JStor’s servers to crash. Once Swartz returned all the hard drives containing the documents and promised not to redistribute them, the nonprofit online journal provider expressed no interest in pursuing legal action. JStor issued its statement about the case the same day that the New York Times’s article appeared. The return of the material to JStor, however, did not alter the government’s stance toward the situation. As United States attorney, Carmen M. Ortiz, noted, “Stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars. It is equally harmful to the victim whether you sell what you have stolen or give it away.” If convicted, Swartz could face a 35-year prison sentence and a fine of one million dollars.

Swartz undertook the downloading while he was on a ten-month fellowship at Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics—a situation some may view as ironic and others as indicative of his strong commitment to open access for all information. Many have viewed the charges as over-reaching by the government, with some regarding the indictment as retaliatory for his internet activism as well as indicative of a lack of understanding about the digital environment. How could Swartz’s actions be called “theft” when the material remained on the JStor server? Isn’t this a matter of simply copying files? At the most wouldn’t his actions more appropriately fall under copyright infringement (although this scenario is complicated by the unwillingness of JStor to press charges)? That Swartz had legitimate access to JStor through his position at Harvard and that he conducted the downloading through unauthorized access of M.I.T.’s servers raise additional questions about illegal actions as well as his motivation. Was his purpose to analyze large data sets as he has in the past? (An explanation many have suggested, yet, as Michael Widner ponders in his recent ”JStor, the Semantic Web, and Bibliopedia” post, what aim could Swartz possibly have had in downloading so much content “that could not have been served via JSTOR’s Data for Research (DfR) API”?) Or did Swartz intend to make the JStor content freely available as the indictment, without citing any evidence, asserts?

A number of blog posts and other online articles have offered opinions about and analysis of the case, but Maria Bustillos’s post on The AWL (3 August 2011) offers a well-balanced look at the case. Besides providing valuable legal context and rejecting the possibility that Swartz would want or need to use JStor’s Data for Research for data analysis, she also helpfully distinguishes between nonprofit journal providers such as JStor and for-profit commercial enterprises such as Reed Elsevier. As Bustillos reminds us, costs, often significant, are involved in digitizing academic journals and maintaining reliable access to them. She also usefully clarifies that

JSTOR is paid (not by the public, but by institutions) for a service, not for content. The money that individuals pay for these articles goes not to JSTOR, but to the publisher that is making the material available.

I would add that a portion of the modest fees obtained by some scholarly societies from licensing their copyrighted journal and annual publications to JStor help defray their publishing costs, keep members’ dues down, and even on occasion provide funds for graduate student travel and scholarships. Bustillos rightly notes that JStor offers free access to nonprofit entities across Africa and other parts of the developing world. On its website JStor states that it furnishes over 600 institutions in the developing world with free access; its factsheet supplies some specifics and also announces the launch of a new alumni-access program. This announcement seems a welcome development and suggests that JStor is responding to a consistent complaint about access being withdrawn upon graduation from an institution.

Yet I should stress that this EMOB post is not meant as a paean to JStor. Like Bustillos, I believe that JStor should arrange for free access to the public domain material it provides. Rather this post is an effort to draw attention to the distinctions between nonprofit providers and for-profit providers of online materials. Indeed, I second Bustillos’s hope that “[i]f the Aaron Swartz case clarifies the position of open access advocates with respect to nonprofit services like JSTOR, that at least will be a good thing.”

JStor provides access through bundling—the practice of selling online access by assembling a number of journal titles as a package that libraries purchase for their patrons. Yet not all bundlers are alike, and it does seem odd to me that Swartz decided to copy JStor’s collections as opposed to those of other bundlers. In a 2008 piece, “Collection Sales: Good or Bad for Journals?”, Mark Armstrong evaluates the practice of bundling in terms of its effects on the journals (as opposed to readers). While he sees bundling as positive practice for journals, he does not see bundling by commercial publishers as salutary for nonprofit journals and interestingly sees JStor as a possible model that nonprofit journals may wish to emulate:

In the historic regime of stand-alone journal sales there was little tension when a nonprofit journal was published by a highly commercial publisher. Now, though, there is a tension, and non-profit journals might benefit from gradually disentangling themselves from the more commercial publishers. Both for-profit and non-profit journals, however, should surely make full use of the powerful instrument of bundling. In particular, relative to any stand-alone sales strategy, a non-profit journal will be better off if it joins the collection sales programme of a noncommercial publisher. The current example of JSTOR, which distributes a collection of largely non-profit journals (with a lag), might be a possible guide for how to disseminate the current output of non-profit journals. (21)

In the footnote that closes this paragraph Armstrong further explains,

JSTOR (www.jstor.org) distributes a large number of journals from several disciplines, with a preponderance of non-profit and society journals. Articles are distributed with a lag of several years, so as not to unduly cannibalize a journal’s library subscriptions. JSTOR is available to libraries on a bundled basis (with scope for libraries to choose only particular subject areas). Since JSTOR has always distributed collections rather than individual journals, there is no issue about basing its library prices on historical individual subscriptions. JSTOR is a non-profit enterprise and sets relatively low prices to libraries, and pays relatively low prices to participating journals for distribution rights.

Ted (Theodore C.) Bergstrom, an economics professor at the University of California Santa Barbara, has been studying academic journal pricing for more than two decades, and his work supplies an additional context for assessing the differences between for-profit and nonprofit journals and the practice of bundling. In a co-authored 2006 article that appeared in ”Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment” [4.9 (Nov. 2006): 488-495], he and Carl Bergstrom compare “The Economics of Ecology Journals,” and their findings seem to be in keeping with larger trends. One of the several graphs they furnish affords a visual view of the stark pricing differences and citation costs of journals published by for-profit entities, by commercial and scholarly partnerships, and by nonprofit publishers (p. 489).

Figure 2. For-profit publishers (yellow) charge institutions more per page for journal subscriptions than do non-profit publishers (blue), such as scholarly societies and university presses. Journals published jointly by scholarly societies and for-profit publishers (red) are typically priced intermediately. Solid lines indicate linear regression through the origin (Non-profit: slope = 0.25, r2=0.67. Joint: slope = 0.86, r2=0.83. For-profit: slope=l38,^=0.90. Note that the regression slopes are not equal to average prices per pages, because the latter effectively weights each journal by its size.) From Carl T. Bergstrom and Theodore C. Bergstrom, Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 4.9 (Nov. 2006): 488-495, p.489.

As the authors explain, this chart shows that the

average cost per recent citation for journals published by non-profit societies is $0.78. Journals published jointly between a scholarly society and a for-profit publisher cost on average $2.42 per recent citation and those produced by for-profit publishers without an affiliated society cost on average $433 per recent citation (Figure 2). Thus, whether we measure cost as price per page or price per citation, for-profit journals are approximately five times as expensive as their non-profit counterparts.

Given that one of their findings reveals that the “price differences between commercial and non-profit publications do not reflect an underlying difference in quality as measured by citation rate” (488), the cost-per-citation analysis should cause serious pause.

Bergstrom’s ongoing work with other collaborators in the Big Deal Contract Project charts the stranglehold that for-profit outfits such as Elsevier and Springer have held over academic libraries. Also notable are the widely different fees that libraries might pay from one of these providers for the same material. A posting on a 2009 talk Bergstrom gave at the University of Michigan reports that “as an aside, almost, [Bergstrom] tells us that while UMich and Illinois pay Elsevier about $2.25M for the “Freedom Collection”, Wisconsin pays about $1.2M for the exact same collection.”

Bergstrom has consistently concluded his articles with suggestions of how to address the various problems stemming from commercial publishers’ bundling practices. In the previously cited 2006 ecology article, he and his co-author stress that faculty should not abdicate purchasing decisions to librarians, noting that librarians depend on faculty and graduate student input in making such decisions. They forcefully conclude

The fraction of library budgets that is currently going to the shareholders of large commercial publishers could instead be used to provide services of genuine value to the academic community. Professional societies and university presses could help by expanding their existing journals or starting new ones. Individual scholars could advance this process in many ways: by contributing their time and efforts to the expansion of these non-profit journals, by refusing to do unpaid referee work for overpriced commercial publications, by self-archiving their papers in preprint archives or institutional repositories, and by favoring reasonably priced journals with their submissions. (495)

Over the years Bergstrom has adjusted his recommendations to address the shifting landscape effected by the ever-increasing move to digital access. In his 2010 essay “Librarians and the Terrible Fix: Economics of the Big Deal” essay, published in Serials, 23.2 (July 2010): 77-82, Bergstrom presents an array of possibilities. In this piece he now sees merit in the “sale of institutional site licenses for non-profit journals” (80). As he explains, unlike commercial entities that have made the most of price inelasticity [that is, when an increased price “results in a less than proportionate decrease in demand”—a situation Bergstrom describes as “a paradise for monopolists” (77)], “[n]on-profit institutions have no incentive to charge prices significantly higher than average costs, even if demand is price inelastic” (80). Moreover, he emphasizes that libraries should engage in hard bargaining with commercial publishers who charge prices that far exceed average costs. Nor should libraries be afraid of abandoning entirely the “big deal” if not satisfied with the price. Although he acknowledges that libraries should make their own decisions about the refusing the big deal, Bergstrom encourages such action by offering successful examples. Stanford’s and Cal Tech’s decisions to forego overpriced big deals exemplify prestigious research institutions who have benefitted from this stance.

Evidently more libraries are doing just that. In “Libraries Abandon Expensive ‘Big Deal’ Subscription Packages to Multiple Journals” (The Chronicle of Higher Education, 17 July 2011), Jennifer Howard reports on efforts by the University of Oregon library and other Oregon academic libraries as well as those by Southern Illinois University at Carbondale to abandon or fiercely renegotiate the “big bundle deals” offered by commercial publishers such as Elsevier, Wiley, and Blackwell and to return to purchasing individual subscriptions.

As this discussion has indicated, the big bundling deals that have received the primary criticism are those provided by commercial publishers such as Elsevier, Springer, and the like. As Bergstrom observes, “[A] library that signed its first big deal contract [with Elsevier] in 1999 would be paying 80% more in 2009 than it did in 1999” (79). Moreover, while Elsevier and Springer increased their 2010 subscription rates in 2009, numerous non-profit societies either froze or reduced their prices in response to widespread library budget reductions (79). Especially in light of ongoing financial cuts, that almost half of university library serial budgets is spent on these big bundle deals should concern us all. Open access is an ideal for which we should strive, but JStor does not seem to be the kind of villain in this larger narrative of access and bundling that some responders to Swartz’s case have painted it as being. According to JStor’s factsheet, “Since our launch in 1997, JSTOR has never raised archival collection fees for participating institutions. In addition, because we have added new content to each collection every year, users have access to more content for the same fee.” Frankly, I am puzzled by Swartz’s choice of bundle.

Does Surfing the Net Change How We Think?

June 17, 2010

It does, claims Nicholas Carr, in The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains (Norton, 2010).  Expanding his famous 2008 Atlantic piece, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” Carr delivers a measured but disturbing conclusion regarding the effect of long-term internet use: the brain’s cognitive activity is re-routed to skim, rather than to read deeply.

He opens with a confession that may sound familiar, especially to those of us who find increased resistance to deep-reading, either in the classroom or in our own work:

Over the last few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory.  My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing.  I’m not thinking the way I used to think.  I feel it most strongly when I’m reading.  I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or a lengthy article.  My mind would get caught up in the twists of the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose.  That’s rarely the case anymore.  Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two.  I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. . . the deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle (5-6)

Tellingly, Carr became unwired to write the book: he put his blog, Rough Type, on hold, moved from Boston to Colorado, and limited his social networking, including e-mail.  The Shallows appeared a year and a half later.

The Shallows probes how the Internet transforms cognitive activity by repeatedly “seiz[ing] our attention only to scatter it” (118).  The plasticity of the adult brain means that its circuitry adapts to the repeated pattern of having its attention splintered by competing demands from ads, e-mail, list-serves, hyperlinks, Twitter, Facebook, and the infinite possibilities of a Google search.

The brain’s plasticity can be positive.  For example, the area of the sensory cortext that processes signals from the left hand is larger in right-handed violinists than it is in right-handed non-violinists.  As violinists practice, the stimulation from their left hand physically changes the shape of their brain.  Similarly, victims of brain injury or illness can often use the brain’s adaptability to compensate for injury.  Even the neurons of sea slugs change, both biochemically and anatomically, in response to cognitive stimuli.

But neuroplasticity has a downside, too.  The “repetitive, intensive, interactive, addictive” cognitive stimuli delivered by the internet “have been shown to result in strong and rapid alterations in brain circuits and functions” (116).  As Carr puts in the May 24 issue of Wired,

When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning.  Even as the Internet grants us easy access to vast amounts of information, it is turning us into shallower thinkers, literally changing the structure of our brain.

Catering to the brain’s hunger for information and novelty, the internet provides an environment of  “constant distractedness”  (119).   Repeated heavy use of the Net has, as another neurologist, Michael Merzenich, notes, “neurological consequences” (120).  The time we spend on the internet is time away from reading linearly-driven narratives requiring concentration.  The disused neurons and synapses once dedicated to deep reading get recycled into the work of distracted skimming.  Carr concurs with Maryann Wolf’s conclusion that as we read online

we sacrifice the facility that makes deep reading possible.  We revert to being ‘mere decoders of information.’  Our ability to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction remains largely disengaged (122).

Michael Merzenich puts this more strongly, arguing that internet multitasking may be “deadly” for our intellectual lives (142).

Repeated internet use results in what Carr calls  “The Juggler’s Brain,” the title of a chapter that should be mandatory reading for all teachers.   Study after study is cited demonstrating that multitasking interferes with memory.  A Cornell study reveals that students typing on a laptop during a lecture perform more poorly on tests of the lecture’s content than students without laptops—even when the web pages visited pertain to the material discussed.

Similarly, a Kansas State study notes that students watching a CNN broadcast loaded with color graphics and a “textual news crawl” remembered less about the broadcast’s content than students who were given the the same program stripped of the graphics and news crawl.  This information might be useful the next time someone discusses multimedia teaching techniques.  And when a printed text becomes a hypertext, as it does on Kindle, comprehension is, studies suggest, compromised.

Carr’s most interesting chapter may be on memory.  He distinguishes between “primary memories,” which vanish soon after they come into being, and “secondary memories,” which can be recalled indefinitely.  When a boxer gets knocked out, his recent memories disappear, suggesting that it takes time for a “primary memory” to become a “secondary memory.”

Short-term memories don’t become long-term memories immediately, and the process of their consolidation is delicate. Any disruption, whether a jab to the head or a simple distraction, can sweep the nascent memories from the mind.  (184)

So while surfing the Net can yield a giddy confluence of ideas and connections, few of those connections are actually retained because the Net’s distractions interrupt their migration into secondary memory.  While computer memory is a database, pure and simple, human memory relies on processing information: “Biological memory is alive.  Computer memory is not” (192).

Behind all of this is a concern for deep reading, which is currently dividing the humanities and widely discussed by the media.  Recently, both  Stanley Fish and David Brooks argued for the need for deep reading in the humanities to cultivate wisdom.  A week earlier, the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a story about Stanford University’s Literature Lab, which features data-mining that allows students to “read” 1200 novels for one class.  Clearly, the latter kind of reading differs from the kind called for by Fish and Brooks.

As we consider the new kinds of reading made possible by the internet, including important practical questions, such as Laura Rosenthal’s recent query on The Long Eighteenth regarding how to read a long book in a screen-based medium like ECCO, we would do well to imitate Carr by remaining open to both old and new technologies.  An engaged Net surfer, with a clear understanding of the merits of being plugged in, Carr easily cites poetry and literary anecdotes that reflect his immersion in the world of printed texts.   That he is fully aware of the many advantages the Net offers makes his warnings about the erosion of concentration among internet surfers all the more alarming.  Intrepid internet boosters, like Clay Shirky, downplay the value of printed books as “just a side-effect of living in an environment of impoverished access.”  Shirky famously dismissed Tolstoy’s War and Peace as “too long, and not so interesting” (Carr, 111).  Carr eschews such extreme positions.  Though he put his blog on hold to complete his book, he has now returned to it.  He is not urging that we ban use of the internet.  But he provides extensive evidence for the need to be mindful of the internet’s transformative effects on our cognitive life.

Libraries through Students’ Eyes

February 15, 2010

One thing we have not discussed on this blog is the role of libraries, and particularly of reference rooms, in colleges.  Today’s  NY Times forum titled “libraries through students’ eyes” suggests some predictable student responses  to the question of whether libraries are needed:  students enjoy the tactile feel of books and the quiet of a space dedicated to reading.  Very few, if any, however, discussed the printed reference works to be found there. The value of the reference room was not mentioned.

The NYTImes forum pointed to twin pedagogical and institutional problems faculty, librarians, and students now face.  Forced to hunt for more space to accommodate computers, librarians look for printed texts that can be deleted from the reference room.  Are there rigorous strategies in place for what to do when an electronic source replaces a printed reference work?  Do colleges that subscribe to the new online Oxford Dictionary of English Biography, for example, simply throw out the older printed multi-volume set?  Does the online Encylopedia Britannica adequately replace its printed forerunner?  How do we evaluate an online “updated” version of a printed reference work to decide whether it ought to replace or merely supplement the older printed version?

Secondly, how can faculty best remain up-to-speed on the reference works students most use and, more importantly, be helpful in directing them to the sources, both printed and electronic, that are most appropriate for their work?  What strategies exist for encouraging greater and more transparent dialogue between instructors and librarians?  How do we help students make use of the two reference rooms–material and virtual–to which they have access?

Lastly, will the promising platforms of the future like 18thConnect include first-phase research tools, like encyclopedias, dictionaries, or the ODNB?  Will these platforms acknowledge printed resources that are also essential to research?  To what extent will these platforms be designed as introductions to research?


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