My heroes: Retraction Watch and the librarians who love them

I had the good fortune to hear Ivan Oransky, cofounder of Retraction Watch, at the Massachusetts Health Sciences Library Network (MAHSLIN) annual meeting on Friday. He talked about the groundbreaking and impactful work Retraction Watch is doing, and he praised librarians who helped create the Retraction Watch database.  He also pointed out they have a whopping 17,000 or so retractions listed, thousands more than any other such source, and they are the only ones (so far) tracking retractions from open access publications.

If you aren’t familiar with their work, check out what others have said — they’ve been featured in Le Monde, Wired, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and more. In a nutshell, they write about retractions of scientific papers — where they were published, who wrote them, if possible why they were retracted. They also keep a tally of the scientists and publications with the most retractions. All of this has contributed to improved public understanding of science publishing, scrutiny and reform of publishing practices such as allowing authors to recommend their own peer reviewers, and much needed discussion of retractions and how they are handled.

If you’re wondering why a person who examines publishers and researchers was speaking to librarians, Oransky noted we’re natural partners. Librarians are interested in helping people find accurate information, and it definitely alarms us that retracted articles still show up in discovery services (those all-in one search boxes on library websites meant to mimic a certain search box you probably use every day) because retractions are not removed or marked in different library resources the same way. As a profession, we have a tradition of exposing publishers who are unreliable — see Beall’s List, (created by academic librarian Jeffrey Beall) or those that profit from science research that is often publicly funded, or funded by the very institutions who then have to pay very high prices to subscribe to the journals that publish that research. Robert Darnton, former University Librarian at Harvard, helped bring that issue to light a few years ago.

People who are working on this are information heroes — shining light on misconduct, mistakes, and misleading research. Here’s to Retraction Watch and the librarians who love them.

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A fringe benefit of the Trump era for librarians?

I read a fascinating and also somewhat irritating piece today by David Beard at Poynter, contrasting two polls about public mistrust of the media in the Trump age with one establishing how high public trust of librarians, which has been a mainstay of our profession for a long time, is right now. Beard points out all the usual stuff about why people think highly of their libraries and librarians, and why they don’t think as highly of the media.

I found it interesting that he refers to librarians as journalists’ “information-gathering cousins,” especially since he writes for a “thought leader” (Poynter Institute) that lists fact-checking among its special concerns. So journalists are supposed to be, ideally, information gatherers. But don’t news organizations, large ones at least, have librarians on staff? In places where that isn’t the case, are journalists using library resources as they do background research?

Beard goes on to speak with Mike Sullivan, librarian Weare, New Hampshire, a town not far from mine, who started a library/town newspaper. It’s an interesting idea, for a library to step into what people see as a void of “fake news” and fill it with relevant information. Beard goes on to say that Sullivan is working to counter the common view that libraries are “free” and so not valuable, but then he veers into a new direction.

“Libraries cannot bring down a president, or regularly push accountability of government officials who may help fund the institution,” Beard says. I think librarians do just that in various ways and to varying degrees — ask Scott Bonner, of Ferguson, Missouri. By his actions in making the library a safe space when the police couldn’t or wouldn’t make the rest of the town one, he absolutely held officials accountable. Are we any more or less likely to bring a president down? If not down, at least rendered less effective. The American Library Association has worked for over a year to rally its members to oppose the administration’s immigration bans, budget priorities, and executive orders that “contradict core values” of our profession. Many librarians also stood firm against the privacy overreaches of The Patriot Act, refusing to turn over patron records. And we value radical hospitality in a society that is often segregated along social, racial, and economic lines.

Beard then goes on to suggest library/journalist partnerships, and speaks with Tom Huang of the Dallas Morning News:

“In areas not served by traditional news outlets, libraries, already trusted by the community, could become a hub for news collection, Huang says. There would have to be training on one-on-one interviewing techniques or how to be an assigner or “editor” for events or stories done by community members — as well as the understanding that these are beginning steps to journalism, not involved investigative pieces. ‘Ultimately, we could train librarians to do some of this stuff,’ Huang says. ‘It’s not like it’s rocket science.'”

So let’s get this straight. Librarians and libraries are seen as sources of reliable information for citizens, and in some cases they are taking that information to the public in creative ways, as with the Weare paper. But what libraries really need is for journalists — who Beard has just said are nearly reviled at this point — to teach them what to do because gee, even librarians could learn this stuff.

What do you think of all this? My view is that public libraries already know how to partner with community members and organizations including journalists, and that school, public, and academic librarians have been showing people how to find and use information effectively for as long as libraries have existed, which as far as I know is longer than the media has. We don’t need to be “trained . . . to do some of this stuff” to be effective partners. And we certainly don’t need to be told how to oppose repression or intolerance or expose lack in our communities. If anything, journalists might benefit, based on the public perception of our respective professions, from mentioning their own library use in their work. Maybe if journalists admitted looking things up at their local library, the public would trust them more.

Information literacy in real life

I’ve become a student again this fall, taking an online master’s degree program at University of Edinburgh. Approaching research and citations (in Harvard style, something I’d never seen before) from a student viewpoint has made feel for my information literacy students even more than I already did. It really helps to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.

One thing I’m surprised about is that while some of my classmates cite academic sources, others — almost all scientists and all working in jobs that require them to seek and use information — choose what I would consider weak sources, such as websites that wouldn’t pass the CRAAP test.  On the plus side, I have some new examples to show colleagues in a couple of weeks when I present an introduction to information literacy to fellow administrative and academic support staff at work. But I’ve also gained a new appreciation for how people in their daily lives and work could benefit from thinking critically about how and where they find information and how reliable it is, which are the keys to information literacy.

Yes, I did pay attention during the last national election and realize that people relying on poor sources of information is nothing new. But I thought much of the “fake news” problem was related to the way news is shared and also the way it is marketed today. I’m aware of the importance of teaching undergraduates information literacy, as they are emerging adults who don’t have much experience thinking critically. I hadn’t considered that basic information literacy could be enormously beneficial to adults and to their workplaces and communities.

Public libraries are offering more “how to spot fake news” programming and resources, which is useful, but again this puts the emphasis on news as the sources that might be misleading or counterfactual. Perhaps this should go further. Not all adults go to college or use libraries, so who can or should teach people to find and choose better sources of information in real life — work, volunteer positions, or even just looking stuff up at home? I know that high schools are not all teaching this, since most of my students have never thought much about evaluating information. Should there be public service announcements? Training in workplaces? Pop-up workshops in public places, led by librarians? “How to find reliable information” handouts for every registered voter, or enclosed with every drivers’ license?

What do you think?

 

 

 

Civil rights in libraries

This Fourth of July holiday weekend I’ve been thinking about our country. Specifically I have been examining how little I really know about racism and other types of bias (directed at women, transgender people, native American people, muslims, immigrants) in America. Not that I don’t know it exists, but I’m a glass half-full kind of person and until the most recent national elections, I bought into the “it gets better” narrative. Look at the progress we’ve made, I thought. A black president! Better protections for women, transgender kids in school. Support for refugees. It was easy for me, a privileged white professional, to assume that the rash of police shootings of unarmed black people was a blight on progress, not a sign that the progress I felt proud to support was really like a shiny coat of paint on a rotting porch — it covered up what had never been fixed underneath.

For me, that’s been the most eye-opening realization these past several months — not that our government has changed direction, but that institutions and systems of all kinds — political, commercial, social — and also communities of all kinds are hobbled by implicit bias. And that seems overwhelming, especially when I’ve seen myself as part of the solution, not just because I tried to raise my kids to do better, because I vote, pay attention, write letters, and sometimes protest, but also because I am a librarian.

What does that have to do with anything? If you’ve read Nocturnal Librarian over the years you know that I was a public librarian before I moved back into academia, and I have frequently championed the role of libraries as places of radical hospitality, the last public institutions truly open to all. Our professional organization, the American Library Association, actively works for the freedom to use libraries without fear of government intrusion — ALA and its members has for over a decade spoken up about immigrant and refugee rights, resisted the Patriot Act, spoke up about hate crimes, and more recently, opposed both the rolling back of protections for transgender students, and the Dakota Access Pipeline. Librarians are the good guys! Right?

In the most recent ALA magazine, American Libraries, there is an article about the Tougaloo Nine, and several other protests during the civil rights era where black people, often students, tried to use white only public and academic libraries. I knew in a I-learned-it-in-school kind of way that libraries were segregated like everywhere else, but these articles really grabbed me. These were librarians who told black students they had to go and couldn’t use the library or read library books. I cannot imagine ever denying anyone a book. Through this little thought experiment, picturing myself in that situation, I realized I have never really truly learned about the civil rights era struggles. I’ve read about that time, sure, I have shaken my head and wondered how on earth the South (because I always think of it as the South where institutionalized racism was born and where the vestiges of that infect society, another false perceptions I am trying to correct) could have been like that. I’ve felt ashamed that people were so terribly mistreated in my country.

But I’ve never placed myself in the stories. I’ve never tried to imagine wanting a book and ending up being beaten my police. I’ve never tried imagining denying someone that book. Not that imagining is experiencing, I don’t mean that at all, but imagining is stronger than just learning. I hope that making the mental leap to put myself right into someone else’s perspective will help me break down the implicit bias I, like all Americans, carry. I hope it makes me a better librarian, better able to truly serve every person who comes through our doors. I’m grateful that my professional association walks that walk, provides members with information about challenges to freedom, and expects that standing for “liberty and justice for all” is a part of what we do.

Information literacy, millenials, and the presidential election

I recently posted on my Facebook page that the current election campaign is a helpful example in my library instruction classes, because when I tell my university students that they need to think critically about what’s true when they search online, and really examine the source of the information, the motive and intent behind a post or website, etc., they really get it. An article in the Columbia Journalism Review , “What the News Media Can Learn from Librarians,” seems to validate my point.

Journalist Louise Lief refers to “the framework of information literacy” in her article, by which I believe she means the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy in Higher Education which replaced a previous set of standards and thresholds for information literacy. Academic librarians have critiqued The Framework for being a bit vague, unwieldy to apply, and hard to measure and assess. Lief made it seem quite practical and smart, and suggests that journalists could learn from it.

First she notes that according to The Pew Research Center, 18-29 year olds are fairly skeptical of the media. Contrary to the over-reported notion that young people believe everything they see online, Lief notes that “Although they prefer to get their news online and are more likely to see it on social  networking sites, many don’t trust information they get there. They are more likely than other age groups to sense media bias.”

She goes on to say that in her view,

“The information literacy framework offers them a more meaningful way to engage with and manage information. The librarians encourage users to focus on inquiry rather than opinion, to evaluate a range of sources, take into account diverse viewpoints and perspectives, and to develop the ability to pursue new avenues as they gain new understanding. They also urge users to assess the value of information in its various forms. Is it being used as a commodity, a way to understand the world, a means to influence, a path to educate, or some combination of these? They regard users not only as knowledge consumers, but also as knowledge creators.”

At my university we teach students the C.R.A.A.P. test for evaluating information on the web. We ask them to consider the currency, relevance, authority, accuracy and purpose of a site. Most of my students haven’t thought much about why online ads exist, or why a site with ads* may be selecting what and how to post in order to attract the highest number of clicks (and thus ad revenue). Another thing I don’t think students have generally thought of, and I admit I myself have given scant attention to, is that the very act of finding information online is rigged by corporations, as Angela Merkel pointed out this week. In case you missed it, the German chancellor said at a media conference that popular (and profitable) search engines like Google, and social media outlets like Facebook, are “distorting perception.”

What Google returns when you enter a search string is based on their proprietary algorithms. In other words, a huge corporation decides what you find out when you search for something online. And don’t forget, they are also harvesting information about your searches and profiting by providing that information to advertisers and companies eager to sell you things.

On Facebook, where many people get their news, according to the same Guardian article linked above, you are even more limited:

“This month, President Barack Obama’s former social media adviser Caleb Gardner highlighted the danger of filter bubbles – a phrase invented by the internet activist Eli Pariser. ‘More likely than not, you get your news from Facebook,” Gardner told students at Northwestern University in Illinois. “Forty-four per cent of US adults get news on the site, and 61% of millennials … if that doesn’t frighten you, you don’t know enough about Facebook’s algorithm. If you have a parent who’s a Trump supporter, they are seeing a completely different set of news items than you are.'”

Why does any of this matter? Most of us are not going to get partisan in our library instruction. But we can point out, as this Vox article does, that the real scandal this election season is how the repeated use of the word scandal, and others like it, has dominated media coverage, obscuring information about actual policy issues. Authority is constructed and contextual, the Framework begins. In the case of commercial media, publishing, and internet corporations, it’s constructed and contextualized in order to profit, first and foremost.

Should you stop searching the internet? No. But you should take the time to search beyond your own “filter bubble,” and to be a critical consumer of information. Think like an 18-29 year old, in other words.

*If you can see ads when reading my blogs, know that I didn’t have anything to do with them, but they are the cost of having a free space for The Nocturnal Librarian and bookconscious at WordPress.com.

Ties in the library

I’ve written here at Nocturnal Librarian about libraries that lend more than books, including one NYPL branch that lets kids borrow dolls, and other libraries that lend cake pans, telescopes, tools, art, and park passes. Yesterday I read about an unusual collection that might make sense for academic libraries to consider: interview wear, in this case, ties.

A public library in Philadelphia and another in Queens do this — turns out the librarian who started the collection in Philadelphia had visited the library in Queens. I read it and wondered “what about women’s interview wear?” but realized it’s different, a woman seeking a job can wear a broader range of clothes and still looked dressed up. We recently interviewed several candidates and only one of the men wore a tie. I wouldn’t choose someone because they dressed up but it does signal that the person felt this meeting was worth making an extra effort.

Some people in academia will say that teaching students to “dress for success” is really the responsibility of the career advising office. True, but libraries are uniquely positioned to lend things and manage lending collections, so we’d be a natural partner.  I haven’t found any academic libraries lending ties, but I did discover that Columbia University’s career center lends entire suits, for both men and women. Corporate partners donated the suits and a dry cleaner donates cleaning.

Lending interview clothes might help give students an edge when job hunting. It also might be a nice symbol of a university’s empathy and good faith toward students as they try to translate their educations into paying jobs. Whether libraries or career offices take the lead, this seems like a student-friendly initiative. I like the idea of ties, because they are smaller and simpler to store than suits and probably don’t need to be cleaned after each wearing. But I wonder what women students would think of that.

What do you think? Do you work in an academic library that lends anything unusual, or anything that you acquired to help another department on campus, like career services?  Is there an equivalent item to ties that women could borrow for interviews?

 

Won’t you be my patron?

This is for my librarian friends who wondered (some out loud, some with raised eyebrow or the digital equivalent of same) why I’d leave the turbulent but every-interesting world of public libraries, where I was seemingly thriving, for the calm, quiet halls of academe. Turns out, different library, same issues.

One of the interesting things I learned today as a number of our staff met to go over our database stats and discuss renewing or replacing various subscriptions is that academic libraries must market their services and resources just like public libraries. I think there is a misconception that we have a captive audience. Which is partially true. But unless our audience, no matter how loyal, knows what we have, they will be shelf sitters, or whatever the equivalent term is for digital subscriptions.

Strangely, I find this exciting, because this is something I’ve worked on a fair bit and feel like I can help with immediately. My LC classification may be more than rusty (I haven’t thought about cataloging since library school, if I’m honest), but I know about outreach and marketing. Some ideas we tossed around today included personal outreach to faculty, giveaways for students, and speaking with our sales reps about other academic libraries’ success stories.

If you’re an academic librarian, how do you market your materials to students and faculty? What has worked or not worked for you?

Back to the beginning

Today I went to my local public library. As a patron, not a staff member. It was, admittedly, a strange sensation, not least because I couldn’t find my hold, which turned out to have been cancelled (yikes! I’ll have to read those emails more closely) but one I will have to get used to. I’ve left the public library world to return to the place where Nocturnal Librarian began — a small private liberal arts university where I’ll be the assistant director of the library. It’s a good move for me, career wise, and I will enjoy serving the academic community again. But of course, I will remain a champion of public libraries, and I’ll be in good company.  I know of at least two colleagues at the university who serve as trustees at their own local libraries.

Educators are big library fans, and at my interview I actually got into a great discussion with some professors about the future of public libraries and their role in society. I love that kind of discourse, which is one reason I feel good about making this change. I also love helping people find the information they need, and am looking forward to those “ah ha” moments with students that I remember well from when I was a night reference librarian at this same college a few years ago. Universities are pretty much entirely staffed by members of the book tribe, which I love. So I’m pretty excited to start!

Stay tuned to hear about my adventures in academia. And see what I’ve been reading between jobs over at bookconscious.

 

 

 

Diversity in libraries

I subscribed to the recent ALA Reference and User Services CODES (collection development and evaluation section) conversation on diversity. I think of myself as someone who is concerned about all kinds of equality, and is aware of my privilege as a white middle class professional. Certainly I’ve championed libraries as egalitarian outposts in an increasingly divided society. I get that “we need diverse books.” And that even my very white state has become much more diverse in the last ten years.

What I hadn’t thought about is the bias in the way I’m marketed to, as a collection development librarian. Yes, I primarily make my purchasing decisions based on reviews in professional journals, but those journals are written and edited by, and feature books published by, people who are mostly very much like me, demographically. Some of the participants in the conversation online noted that it’s hard to even find reviews of books by diverse authors in genre fiction, like sci-fi or mysteries.

Andrea Gough of Seattle Public Library wondered if librarians are even biased in the way we think about diversity. She noted, “perhaps because we’re a largely white field, or because our culture normalizes a white viewpoint as a ‘neutral’ viewpoint, when we talk about diversity it’s often presumed the direction is from white to POC.” In other words, the entire conversation about diversity starts with making libraries and their collections less white. But that oversimplifies diversity and overlooks the complexity of contemporary American society.

As I read I made a mental list of some of the non-racial diversity in the community I serve: homeless people, former inmates, addicts, people with less than the average amount of education for our area, immigrants, transgender people, gay or lesbian or bisexual people, various religious minorities, and a wide range of people who are differently abled, physically or mentally, just to name a few. Yes, it’s important to consider the whiteness of publishing, and of the library profession, but that doesn’t mean we should overlook the other types of diversity in our communities.

Another fascinating point in the conversation was that it’s too over-simplified, and frankly, biased, for collection developers to simply purchase more “diverse” materials. One person told a story of a new library branch in an African American neighborhood where the music buyer had purchased a wide selection of rap and hip-hop. One of the first questions at the desk was whether there were any opera CD’s. Someone else pointed out the reverse is true as well — people in more homogeneous communities assume library patrons won’t want to read books with protagonists of a different race, religion, ethnicity, or cultural background and yet that there is no evidence of that, and it’s often just plain untrue. Think of novels like Things Fall Apart or The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime or The Kite Runner and of nonfiction such as Between the World and Me or The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. All enjoyed a wide audience.

One of the best things about books, of course, is that they take us into lives we’ll never live. And with that in mind, one of the contributors pointed out that the goal of a good library collection is not only to meet the existing needs of the library’s patrons but also to present materials that will affirm our common humanity and expand patrons’ experience beyond the walls of the library or the boundaries of a town.

This issue is obviously too vast to be covered in a blog post, but I intend to keep considering diversity and the ways my own “frames” need to be expanded or even better, abandoned, in order to best serve every person who comes through the library’s doors.

 

 

 

 

 

Why be a librarian?

The Guardian recently published two letters from librarians in the “Public Leaders Network” — a brilliant feature which the paper describes, “This series aims to give a voice to the staff behind the public services that are hit by mounting cuts and rising demand, and so often denigrated by the press, politicians and public.” I’ve written before about efforts to reduce funding, cut services, or close libraries in the UK. This map shows mixed results of campaigns to keep libraries open there.

The letters are interesting — the first, published on National Libraries Day, is by an anonymous librarian in the Northeast of England. After explaining the assistance staff provides to job seekers, parents & carers, and young people, the author sums up:

“I know many people think we don’t need libraries when there’s Amazon, kids can use Google for their homework, and supermarkets sell paperpacks for £3 and are open 24 hours. But libraries are so much more than books. They have ebooks, audio books, academic journals, online resources, online driving tests, genealogy research. They play host to art classes, carpet bowls, tea dances, cafes, dementia support sessions. They provide a space for carers to meet, and people to be part of a community when they may otherwise be socially isolated. I’ve lost count of the number of customers who have told me, “You are the only person I have spoken to all day.”” In the face of having to offer so much and on top of that, deal with budget cuts and politicians who believe all this could be done by volunteers instead of professional librarians, the writer goes on, “Who will want to become a librarian now?”

Although, I had to look up carpet bowls, this otherwise sounds pretty similar to pieces on blogs and in journals here in America. The second letter, a response to the first, is by someone who answered the first writer’s question. This writer sees becoming a librarian as a calling:

“For me, it boils down to one important point: the internet is a shallow (but extremely wide) surface-level summary of secondary, often opinionated information that sits on a bedrock of substantive knowledge that either isn’t on the internet, or lives behind a paywall, or is too expensive to purchase. Public libraries broker equal access to all that stuff. Get rid of them, and your information becomes drip-fed through Google filters (if you have a computer to access it). As a librarian, it will be my job to make sure those bridges are not burned, and that they’re well maintained and clearly marked, with delightfully efficient help points dotted along the way.”

The profession is in good hands with both writers — the first, a veteran of the culture war that argues libraries are somehow both unnecessary luxuries and basic community services that could be provided by volunteers, who still manage to end the letter, “even in difficult times, when I don’t know if I’ll have a job from one round of cuts to the next, I love it.” And the second, an idealistic newcomer to the profession. Both argue more or less this: libraries continue to be an essential public service.

The second writer’s perspective on this is eyebrow raising:

“A successful day in the library is one where people complain, like they would with any other local authority service. The Wi-Fi isn’t good enough; there aren’t enough academic texts; it’s too cold; it’s too loud; I don’t know my email password; why don’t you have this book? I love it. Complain and moan all you like – it’s your library service. It’s for you: take it, have it, use it. I’m your public librarian and this is your public library, and these are the hallmarks of public service.”

I am going to keep that in mind. It’s interesting to think that people only complain because they take for granted that libraries should be replete with well heated, quiet rooms bursting with every possible book and completely reliable Wi-Fi, regardless of having smaller staffs and budgets. But it seems a fine line between “Libraries should be doing all this much better, after all, they’re libraries!” to “Why do we even need libraries anyway, if they don’t even have/do ___?” I find that somewhat alarming. But I guess it’s cheerier to assume that people are only complaining because we’re essential. And it’s certainly heartening to know that people are choosing, even in quite uncertain times for libraries in the UK, to become librarians.