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It’s for my research, I swear!

This probably isn’t new to any librarian who’s been in collection development for some time, but it was new (and strange) to me. Last week, a discussion about student book requests erupted on the LES listserv (the Literatures in English section of ACRL). An academic librarian from a university in Illinois received a book purchase request from someone claiming to be a student. The email read as follows:

Dear [Librarian],

I am wondering: is there a way for students to request the acquisition of new books, or is this left entirely to the library staff (or faculty)? Specifically, I would like to know whether the library plans to order _Old Age, Masculinity, and Early Modern Drama: Comic Elders on the Italian and Shakespearean Stage_, by Anthony Ellis (Ashgate, ISBN 978-0-7546-6578-6).  I am interested in both Shakespeare/early drama and the study of old age. This book also appears to have a gender-studies focus, which could interest some people here as well. Thank you in advance for your time.

Sincerely,

[name]

The requested book would not be an unusual purchase for an academic library collection. What is suspicious, to me, is the language of the email. The author uses the word “acquisitions” and differentiates between library staff and faculty, indicating that they are more familiar with academic libraries than the average student (undergrad or graduate). The student also mentions the publisher, something that, in my experience, rarely happens unless the user submits a book request through a web form. It’s all a bit too formulaic.

Well, as soon as this email went out over the LES listserv, other librarians immediately responded (on the weekend no less!) indicating that they had received an identical email (or a subtle variation) from someone claiming to be a student but using a non-university email address. Most decided not to purchase the item for that reason alone. Some librarians followed up with the student of the same name at their university. No surprise: the student didn’t know anything about the request.

Apparently, someone is grabbing a student’s name from a university directory, creating a bogus email address, and emailing librarians. But to what end? Not for money, I would think. Academic publishing is not a high profit enterprise for individual authors (unless it’s a textbook). For the prestige? But then what would it matter to a single author if X number of libraries purchased their book? There’s only a snowball’s chance in hell that someone will serendipitously come across it, unless it’s mentioned in the professional literature. Rather than scam acquisitions departments, it would make much more sense to scam book reviewers. Get the word out. Academic publishing is all about the conversation: if you want prestige, you have to get people to talk about your book, not just buy it.

Ashgate is a reputable publisher and it would seem beneath them to resort to these type of tactics. I know nothing of the author of this book. So I won’t make any assumptions about who is behind it, but it does bring up a few interesting reminders:

  1. University email addresses. While there has been some debate over whether university domain emails addresses should still be required for all students, this is one situation where having the @school.edu handle would cut down on fraud. (Though, the same could be accomplished with a university ID)
  2. Collection development policy. As I said, the book is not out of character for an academic library collection, but having a clearly defined collection development policy that outlines preferred subjects, publishers, vendors, and consortia agreements would help younger librarians decide whether or not to make a firm order.
  3. Collaboration. As a result of the Illinois librarian emailing the listserv (and others chiming in with similar data), other libraries are more informed about fraudulent (and let’s be honest, kinda sleazy) marketing practices. Including… [thumbs up to chest]… this guy. Some people are shocked when I tell them I participate in listservs (“the 90s called…”), but some continue to offer great resources and a tight community of librarians.

The lesson here, I think, is to make sure what you order for your collection is a good fit for your institution. And, if you want to get people to buy your book, bribe students to email librarians from their own .edu addresses. 😉

But can you use it in a sentence?

Some classmates and I spent the good part of last month working on a glossary for virtual worlds as part of our Resources for Digital Humanities course at San Jose State SLIS. Admittedly, I’m skeptical about the future of virtual worlds like Second Life, but I was fascinated to learn that virtual worlds, at least when talked about in critical works, include more than just the digital kind: print literature, theme parks, cosplay, fan culture, and religion can all be discussed using the theoretical terminology of virtual reality.

Our glossary contained terms like avatar, effectors, in-world, metaverse, synthetic economies, etc. Some terms were only relevant to digital virtual worlds (hover text), but many were applicable to any virtual reality (which was the route I chose to take). Here are some of the terms I contributed:

Cyberpunk: A conflation of the words cybernetics and punk, it typically refers to (1) a sub-species of science fiction popularized by author William Gibson, (2) a particular style of life, fashion, etc. that mimics cyberpunk fiction, or (3) a mischievous character in an online virtual world. Cyberpunk culture explores the conflict between hackers, artificial intelligence, and mega-corporations and, thus, provide a rich language for discussing virtual worlds. Virtual worlds, especially computer-mediated ones, are an essential characteristic of cyberpunk fiction.

Immersion: Defined three ways: (1) The extent to which the viewer or participant in a virtual world is no longer aware of the medium used to create the world, (2) The process by which a participate in a virtual world no longer recognizes his/her presence in their immediate, physical environment, or (3) The intentional blocking of physical stimuli in favor of digital stimuli.

Paratexts: The discussions about a virtual world that do not occur in-world. These may include blog posts, discussion forums, IM chats, etc. Typically, paratexts are created by participants of the virtual world, but also could include editorials, press releases, and reviews written by non-participants. In some ways, paratexts are an extension/expansion of the virtual world into non-world space, ultimately bringing that space in-world.

Skeuomorphs: An item manufactured in one material that evokes items regularly made in another material. In pottery, for example, the fabrication of weave patterns on to the surface of a ceramic vessel mimics a reed basket. In virtual worlds and game development, a skeuomorph is a design feature that refers to a previous feature that no longer exists or is no longer functional.

Telepresence: The extent to which a user feels present in a mediated environment. This environment can be temporally or spatially separate from the user’s immediate environment. It can also be mediated by computer software to produce an animated, simulated, or digital environment. A heightened awareness of telepresence is directly related to increased levels of immersion.

Skeuomorph is by far my favorite and now I look for any excuse to use it in a sentence. =)

Today

… I will choose to believe in signs and portents, to acknowledge the existence of the mystical, to see meaning where none existed previously, and to read deeper into the fabric of time and space. Just for today…

Graphical displays and critical distance

From Drucker, J. (2011, Winter). Humanities approaches to graphical display. Digital Humanities Quarterly, 5(1):

Rendering observation (the act of creating a statistical, empirical, or subjective account or image) as if it were the same as the phenomena observed collapses the critical distance between the phenomenal world and its interpretation, undoing the basis of interpretation on which humanistic knowledge production is based. We know this. But we seem ready and eager to suspend critical judgment in a rush to visualization.
[…]
Nothing in intellectual life is self-evident or self-identical, nothing in cultural life is mere fact, and nothing in the phenomenal world gives rise to a record or representation except through constructed expressions. The rhetorical force of graphical display is too important a field for its design to be adopted without critical scrutiny and the full force of theoretical insight.

We’ve built the brand. Now let’s build celebrities

Does it matter that students don’t know what academic librarians do? Should we care that they usually cannot differentiate between student workers, staff members, and faculty librarians? If the answer to these is “yes,” then what can we do to improve the situation?

These are the issues underlying the research of Rachel Bickly and Sheila Corrall, the authors of “Student perceptions of staff in the information commons : A survey at the University of Sheffield,” published in the latest Reference Services Review. They surveyed students of the Information Commons at the University of Sheffield in the UK and for the most part confirmed what many already assumed, though had never explicitly studied in an IC setting. Among the key findings were:

  • Students are more likely to notice and hence approach younger librarians (e.g. trusting people they perceive as peers)
  • Students are unaware of the educational background of academic librarians
  • Students do not completely understand the academic function of librarians
  • Students are generally unable to distinguish between different types of library staff members
  • Most importantly: These attitudes haven’t changed over time.

Before getting into how these perceptions could be changed, one could ask, “Does it matter?” Does it matter if librarians are seen and not heard, not understood, or not fully appreciated in a way that we (only we?) think is appropriate? Is it possible to be effective librarians and simultaneously be invisible to the students we serve?

I’m sure there are some who would say that it doesn’t. That no amount of information literacy classes will ever make a student appreciate fine-tooth cataloging, curated resources guides, or tiered reference, but by making these things available, we are helping their research process nonetheless.

There are others who might argue that we could do so much more if students only understood how hard we worked. If they only knew what skills we possessed and the knowledge we brought to the table. After all, most assessments of bibliographic instruction, especially those that happen one-on-one, show that students have a positive perception of the experience (see also J. Fagan, “Students’ perceptions of academic librarians.” The Reference Librarian, 37(78).)

I would argue that it does matter. It does matter knowing that my primary care physician is also an ENT specialist. As a result, I am confident asking him certain questions knowing that he has a unique understanding of the subject. It matters knowing that my co-worker is a native-born German speaker because I can bring specific, German language cataloging questions to him. Etc. etc.

So what is to be done? According to this study, we haven’t been doing it right. Each institution is unique in its users and their needs, but I would start by recommend the following. All of these are based on one simple idea: make first contact with as many students as possible and make it in spaces where they work.

  1. Build relationships with grad students, especially TA’s. Knowing that students are more likely to talk to a TA than a faculty member, make sure your graduate student population knows the benefits of a strong relationship with a librarian. They’ll be the first ones to recommend you as an additional source of research help.
  2. Get into the CMS and onto course web pages. This can be especially useful for courses that are repeatedly offered each semester. Even before going to Google, many students use course materials for their research (reading lists, syllabi, etc.). If there’s a link on their course page or syllabus, you already have an in where it’s most likely to be seen.
  3. …Or create your own. Even if you can’t work your way onto a syllabus, you could create a research guide for a particular class. Again, this is also helpful for classes that are offered every semester. And if it’s popular, students are likely to pass along this information to their friends who are also taking the course.

Each of these requires building strong relationships with faculty and department liaisons. As this article and others have suggested (see Foster & Gibbons. (2007). Studying students: The undergraduate research project at the University of Rochester. ACRL, Chicago.), doing so increases the likelihood that professors will invite you into their classrooms and direct (or push off) students to you for additional research help.

Academic libraries have spent much of the past decade building their brand. We’ve seen some spectacular projects that raise students’ awareness of the existence of the library and it’s welcoming, always available services. Now let’s start working on building local celebrities.

The ebook user’s bill of rights

Librarians are up in arms about eBooks. HarperCollins recently announced that eBooks offered through their distributor, OverDrive, would be nuked after 26 uses. Librarians would then have to repurchase the book. Now, I recognize the need to provide materials to our patrons and the needs of authors, but I also know that librarians are gluttons for abuse (40+ years of “serials crisis” anyone?) and it wouldn’t hurt if they stood up for themselves from time to time.

That said, and without much equivocation, I advocate for Cory Doctorow’s stance:

You have exactly one weapon in your arsenal to keep yourself from being caught in this leg-hold trap: your collections budget. Stop buying from publishers who stick time-bombs in their ebooks. Yes, you can go to the Copyright Office every three years and ask for a temporary exemption to the DMCA to let your jailbreak your collections, but that isn’t Plan B, it’s Plan Z. Plan A is to stop putting dangerous, anti-patron technology into your collections in the first place.

I stand in solidarity with my librarian brothers and sisters by passing along this, an Ebook User’s Bill of Rights (via the Librarian in Black):

The eBook User’s Bill of Rights

Every eBook user should have the following rights:

  • the right to use eBooks under guidelines that favor access over proprietary limitations
  • the right to access eBooks on any technological platform, including the hardware and software the user chooses
  • the right to annotate, quote passages, print, and share eBook content within the spirit of fair use and copyright
  • the right of the first-sale doctrine extended to digital content, allowing the eBook owner the right to retain, archive, share, and re-sell purchased eBooks

I believe in the free market of information and ideas.

I believe that authors, writers, and publishers can flourish when their works are readily available on the widest range of media. I believe that authors, writers, and publishers can thrive when readers are given the maximum amount of freedom to access, annotate, and share with other readers, helping this content find new audiences and markets. I believe that eBook purchasers should enjoy the rights of the first-sale doctrine because eBooks are part of the greater cultural cornerstone of literacy, education, and information access.

Digital Rights Management (DRM), like a tariff, acts as a mechanism to inhibit this free exchange of ideas, literature, and information. Likewise, the current licensing arrangements mean that readers never possess ultimate control over their own personal reading material. These are not acceptable conditions for eBooks.

I am a reader. As a customer, I am entitled to be treated with respect and not as a potential criminal. As a consumer, I am entitled to make my own decisions about the eBooks that I buy or borrow.

I am concerned about the future of access to literature and information in eBooks.  I ask readers, authors, publishers, retailers, librarians, software developers, and device manufacturers to support these eBook users’ rights.

These rights are yours.  Now it is your turn to take a stand.  To help spread the word, copy this entire post, add your own comments, remix it, and distribute it to others.  Blog it, Tweet it (#ebookrights), Facebook it, email it, and post it on a telephone pole.

To the extent possible under law, the person who associated CC0 with this work has waived all copyright and related or neighboring rights to this work.