Gearing Up for Change in Charleston

This year’s Charleston Conference, held from November 6–10, addressed the theme “What’s Past Is Prologue.” As always, the conference was too packed with content for a single editor to do more than dip into a small sample. However, some commonalities did emerge across the sessions attended.
This year’s Charleston Conference, held from November 6–10, addressed the theme “What’s Past Is Prologue.” As always, the conference was too packed with content for a single editor to do more than dip into a small sample. However, some commonalities did emerge across the sessions attended.

More questions than answers

Jim O'Donnell, University Librarian, Arizona State University (ASU), asked some of the conference’s most intriguing questions, in a brief plenary on the future of print in open stacks, and later at a more in-depth session on the same subject. ASU, in partnership with MIT Libraries and looking for more collaborators, wants to bring print back into library spaces and encourage users to engage with the print materials thus displayed, and to make collections more inclusive as well. Though the university is still at the beginning of its grant-funded research process, and therefore has few answers, O’Donnell said that limited-time collections whose turnover encourages visitors to pay attention are part of the solution. The goal, he said, should be “the disindustrialization of the library: every customer and every book should be special and an opportunity for personalization.” Applying the open access (OA) model—well established and still growing in the journal ecosystem—to the ongoing issue of the sustainability of the scholarly monograph still provokes more questions than answers, though the questions are at least growing more specific, and efforts to answer them are getting underway. In “Wide Open or Just Ajar?” Amy Brand of MIT Press cited questions about OA books that are important to publishers, including how OA publishing impacts academic careers; Charles Watkinson of the University of Michigan spoke on questions important to funders (tricky, he pointed out, given the wide range of funders with differing missions and the further difficulty of finding actionable measures in their often sweeping but vague vision statements; lack of comparable reporting between platforms makes it hard to compare closed to open as well). And Hillary Corbett of Northeastern University Libraries spoke on questions of interest to librarians—a long list indeed. While individual institutions have embarked on efforts to analyze their own data, such as MIT’s tracking of who contributed what to each publication or Corbett’s analysis of citations by Northeastern’s own engineering faculty, it’s clear that such efforts have a ways to go to reach the scale needed. The Ingenta Open Access platform, to launch next year, may help, as may a just-released study by Knowledge Unlatched of OA books on JSTOR. Examining the library’s role in the replication crisis in scientific research, a panel of librarians led by the publisher of JOVE (the Journal of Visualized Experiments) drew a distinction between experiments that cannot be repeated because their methods are unclear and those which can be repeated but do not, when repeated, yield the same findings. After reviewing the scope of the problem, panelists concluded that “librarians can only fix a piece of this,” and shouldn’t have the hubris to imply they have a complete solution to a complex problem. However, they can help researchers make their methods more available by organizing and storing lab reports and making them available; raising awareness of the frequent use and citation of papers that feature good methods, as opposed to newsworthy results; serving as a neutral party between publishers and researchers; managing data; and providing additional info to tenure and promotion committees.

Getting granular

Some of the most interesting and actionable sessions focused tightly on a single initiative at a single institution. “Between Rare and Commonplace: Closing the Venn Diagram of Special and General Collections” concentrated on Brown University, delving deep into the separate parallel processes that disconnect the departments. But while the answers may be unique to the institution, the question is universal: “Why do we imagine use is different between general and rare” materials? Presenters Christopher Geissler and Boaz Nadav-Manes, representing special and general collections respectively, said that despite designing separate user personas, neither is “convinced we are talking about different populations.” As Geissler pointed out, issues of diversity and inclusion come into play. “If something is not digitized and described, you can only get to it in a mediated way, and we know most users will never approach that—only those who have training and entitlement. We have an access problem,” he concluded, which he hopes to solve by digitization and democratizing discovery. As part of this effort, Brown is deemphasizing acquisition of new special collection materials, in favor of “deconstructing the collections we have,” in support of which Geissler started a reading group with the colorful name “Curation is Death.” As an audience member summarized, “we are probably overspending on stuff and underspending on people.” In “Disability Inclusion and Library Collections: Initiatives for Greater Access for All,” staff from Texas A&M University Libraries outlined their process for trying to increase and ensure accessibility of library materials (and beyond). A dauntingly complex flow chart made clear the scope of the problem in an age of multimedia, but also that progress is occurring. The libraries caption all video produced in the library for instruction, but find “collections is a scope issue,” and thus focus on trying to advocate for accessible features with vendors at the point of negotiation. Sometimes this presents a dilemma when the providers of heavily used materials refuse to budge. Library staff are also advocating for more accessibility from the school’s ILS (integrated library system). After library-produced materials, reserves instructional material is the next focus, since it presents the most immediate learning need (and therefore has the highest lawsuit potential). The Association of Research Libraries is looking to build a captioning repository so that work need not be duplicated from library to library. In the meantime, the library hosted an accessibility hackathon, where the map librarian worked with students to map accessibility features on campus, and is focusing on putting accessibility data into standard metadata practice. Continuing interest in textbook affordability was demonstrated by the many panels on this topic scheduled throughout the event. While many such discussions focus primarily, if not exclusively, on Open Educational Resources, one particularly interesting take focused instead on traditionally published texts. It contrasted a relatively small scale, print textbook provision effort at North Carolina State University, where a single copy of each required text is placed on reserve for use in two-hour increments, with a UK-based pilot program in which the University of Manchester library simply purchased the textbook for each student in some 60 courses for personal, permanent use. The former started with some 1,200 books and adds a further 700 per year, at a cost of about $45,000. The latter program chose an electronic version, in part for its enhanced features, and in part for its insight into analytics, which became the basis for negotiating an innovative pricing model: the library paid up front for 50 percent of the copies, then paid above that for as many as were actually used. (In the rare event that less than half of students in the course accessed their text, the library negotiated a credit against the following term.)
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