Wednesday, December 25, 2013

For the Season

“People are at their best when they are able to use their talents and abilities — the traits and behaviors at which they naturally excel. Empowering your people to discover and develop their strengths will position them to do what they do best every day.” — Gallup Strengths Center

I want to continue my seasonal rumination with a point made earlier: that what we might be giving up in the quest for a “utilitarian’s paradise” are those things found in the critiques of modernity made by Aldous Huxley and C. S. Lewis, i.e. (quoting Ross Douthat) that “the entire vertical dimension in human life, the quest for the sublime and the transcendent, for romance and honor, beauty and truth” is missing or being ripped from our lives. In a recent post I brought this missing dimension closer to home while reviewing current academic employment opportunities in archives and special collections:

In my more caustic moments while reading the position descriptions I concluded that what most institutions are looking for are leaders, coordinators, collaborators, designers, overseers, and managers—not thinkers or writers who know something about the stuff to be cared for. These are positions, for the most part, more about providing access to the stuff, not a context for the stuff. We seem happy to leave the contextualizing to faculty, graduate students, and external scholars. We have dumbed down our collections by dumbing down the staff left to attend them.

One of my friends on a far coast, having read my post, picked out these sentences and offered a comment: “This has been going on in academia for a long time now. Schools are places for intellectual workers (as Josef Pieper called them), rather than scholars.” Her comment included a link to Pieper’s book, Leisure—The Basis of Culture, which I quickly checked out from the library and read this week.

Pieper’s book is very accessible, even to someone like me who is not accustomed to reading philosophical texts on a daily basis. In his essay on “The Philosophical Act” I was taken by the following passage:

Therefore, it is all the same whether I say that the philosophical act transcends the working world, or whether I say, philosophical knowing is useless or whether I say, philosophy is a “liberal art.” This freedom belongs to the particular sciences only to the extent that they are pursued in a philosophical manner. Here likewise is to be found—both historically and actually—the real meaning of “academic freedom” (since “academic” means “philosophical” if it means anything!); strictly speaking, a claim for academic freedom can only exist when the “academic” itself is realized in a “philosophical” way. And this is historically the reason: academic freedom has been lost, exactly to the extent that the philosophic character of academic study has been lost, or, to put it another way, to the extent that the totalitarian demands of the working world have conquered the realm of the university…. (emphasis mine)

Now, lest you think this is just a bit of philosophically charged hot air, consider recent accounts in the news (or evident on campuses across the country) of charges against higher education: that it is expensive and increasingly irrelevant to jobs or corporate interests (or, from the business perspective—that they cannot find enough “educated” candidates for currently open and available jobs); that it suffers from “administrative bloat”; that student debt is reaching untenable levels; (A colleague told me this week of reading a scholarship application from a graduate student who carried a current debt load of $120,000!); or that athletics (at the Division 1 level, at least) is an “arms race.” Purdue’s new president, Mitch Daniels, offered his own list of criticisms. Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal had more to say on bloat; my own institution was in their journalistic crosshairs. A search through the Internet will turn up more articles and essays on the current state of higher education. The critiques have even spawned a new area of study within (and without) the university: “critical university studies.”

I do not doubt that American public and private higher education—I have no sense of what’s going on in other places of the world—is in the midst of “a period of profound and possibly traumatic change” (quoting the article from “Inside Higher Ed”). I would lean a bit to the traumatic side in this characterization. What we may be witnessing is a struggle (dare I say war) for the “soul” of higher education. It is a question of whether or not the victor in this struggle will accommodate—or attempt to obliterate—the vertical dimension in human life. (For another perspective, one that touches on some of the vertical aspects, read the recent commentary piece by Ali Mohammad Al-Hussein Ali Al-Adeeb, Iraq's minister of higher education and scientific research.)

With these observations as preface, I find myself in a curious (and ironic/comic?) spot. My university, also known as my employer—stung by the comments about bloat (and hiring outside consultants to study the matter)—seems very interested in putting a lot of its staff through “StrengthsFinder©” training. The purpose of this training is clearly stated in the workbook I received at my session this last Tuesday: to increase employee engagement. As engaged employees (so we were told), we are loyal, productive, and less likely to have accidents or to steal. The Gallup folks (owners of StrengthsFinder©) claim that “research in business and industry showed a Strengths focus increased engagement, which lead to increased productivity, retention, employee satisfaction, and customer satisfaction” (quoting from the workbook, emphasis theirs). I find it interesting (and perhaps emblematic/symptomatic) that these findings in business and industry are wheedling their way into higher education. I might argue that I find my engagement through those vertical dimensions of my work. I’m not sure the Gallup folks would understand. The training (and its justification) smacks a bit of Pieper’s “intellectual workers” characterization.

What is comedic or ironic is that StrengthsFinder© —regardless of how it is employed in my work—may have accurately pegged me. One of my strengths—my “signature themes”—identified by the Gallup assessment was “Connectedness.” Descriptive phrases for this theme include a sense of being “part of something larger…Sensitive to the invisible hand, you can give others comfort that there is a purpose beyond our humdrum lives.” Another “signature theme” was “Intellection,” describing me, in part, as “the kind of person who enjoys your time alone because it is your time for musing and reflection. You are introspective…This introspection may lead you to a slight sense of discontent as you compare what you are actually doing with all the thoughts and ideas that your mind conceives…Wherever it leads you, this mental hum is one of the constants of your life.” Other strengths (or talents) identified by this assessment included “Learner,” “Context,” and “Deliberative,” but I’ll save you from a description of those themes.

Pieper, in concluding his thoughts on “the philosophical act,” makes these comments:

This is the path along which the self-destruction of philosophy has traveled: through the destruction of its theoretical character, a destruction which in turn rests upon habitually seeing the world as the raw material of human activity. When the world is no longer looked upon as creation, there can no longer be theoria in the full sense [i.e. the purely receptive stance toward reality, undisturbed by any interruption by the will]. And with the fall of theoria, the freedom of philosophy falls as well, and what comes in its place is the functionalizing, the making it into something “practical,” oriented toward a legitimation by its social function; what comes to the fore is the working character of philosophy, or of philosophy so-called. Meanwhile, our thesis…maintains that it is of the nature of the philosophical act, to transcend the world of work. This thesis, which comprehends both the freedom and theoretical character of philosophy, does not deny the world of work (in fact, it expressly presumes it as something necessary), but it maintains that true philosophy rests upon the belief that the real wealth of man lies not in the satisfaction of his necessities, nor, again, in “becoming lords and masters of nature,” but rather in being able to understand what is—the whole of what is. (emphasis his) Ancient philosophy says that this is the utmost fulfillment to which we can attain: that the whole order of real things be registered in our soul—a conception which in the Christian tradition was taken up into the concept of the beatific vision: “What do they not see, who look upon Him, Who sees all?”

The understanding of “what is—the whole of what is”—this is the vertical dimension, the wonder, that I seek in my work and my life, an echo of something said long ago in the Magnificat.

Some may not identify with the Magnificat; it is not a part of their faith—if they have a faith—or what defines them. So be it. Questions of faith or being may be far, far away from what concerns us in our work. I would argue that they are integral to our work. Whatever the case might be for you, at this time of year, I hope it might still be fitting and proper to point to something beyond ourselves: to wish for peace on Earth, goodwill to all. Or, as my Dickensian namesake would say: “God bless us, everyone!”

Thursday, December 19, 2013

An End of Semester Contemplation

“They died in their homes, not from an assassin’s bullet, and in their 60s, not in their prime. When C. S. Lewis collapsed in his Oxford bedroom, the presidential motorcade was leaving Love Field. When Aldous Huxley requested a final shot of LSD, a TV set in the next room had just blared the news that the president had been shot. And then the coincidence of two of modernity’s keenest critics dying on the same November day was lost in a storm of headlines and public grief.” — Ross Douthat, “Puddleglum And The Savage,” New York Times, 11/23/13

Thanks to a dear colleague for sending me a copy of Douthat’s piece in the New York Times. I missed this when it came out in the paper, but commend it to you now. A number of things happened between the publication of Douthat’s piece and today, notably the passing of Nelson Mandela, that are worth comment. But before doing so, let me return to Douthat’s piece; it sets up a string of thoughts percolating in my head (perking, but not necessarily clear, as you’ll see further on in this missive).

Douthat identifies Lewis and Huxley as “two of modernity’s keenest critics.” This raises the question: what were their critiques? Douthat answers the question:

Huxley and Lewis did not share a worldview — one was a seeker drawn to spiritualism, Eastern religion and psychedelics; the other was (and remains) the most famous Christian apologist in the modern English-speaking world. But they shared a critique of contemporary civilization, and offered a similar warning about where its logic might end up taking us.

For Huxley, this critique took full shape in “Brave New World,” his famous portrait of a dystopia in which the goals of pleasure and stability have crowded out every other human good, burying discontent under antidepressants, genetic engineering and virtual-reality escapes.

For Lewis, the critique was distilled in “The Abolition of Man,” which imagined a society of “men without chests,” purged of any motivation higher than appetite, with no “chatter of truth and mercy and beauty” to disturb or destabilize.

In effect, both Huxley and Lewis looked at a utilitarian’s paradise — a world where all material needs are met, pleasure is maximized and pain eliminated — and pointed out what we might be giving up to get there: the entire vertical dimension in human life, the quest for the sublime and the transcendent, for romance and honor, beauty and truth.
(emphasis mine)

Douthat makes other observations about the relationship of Huxley, Lewis, and Kennedy over the arc of history, but what I want to focus on is the critique of a “utilitarian’s paradise,” “what we might be giving up to get there,” and how this might touch on Mandela’s passing (or, for that matter, the Pope being named “Person of the Year.”) These things seem appropriate items for an end of semester contemplation.

I note this in part because recently I have had a distinct sense that my own work is being robbed of those vertical dimensions. This is not to fault anyone with whom I work. It is simply a statement of condition, one that has been building for decades and symptomatic of much in higher education (and other realms of work). My job—or how others perceive my job—now seems much more tied to managing, counting, or commodifying the items under my care. A sense of transcendence is being lost. (I commented—or at least hinted at this—in my last post.) For all the wonders that surround me in my work, I do not have a strong sense from colleagues or others that a library or archive is a place appreciated as a locus for mystery and wonder, i.e. transcendent or sublime.

Somewhat tangentially, but still relevant to this thread of thought, consider what Time gave as reasons for naming the Pope “Person of the Year”:

For pulling the papacy out of the palace and into the streets, for committing the world's largest faith to confronting its deepest needs and for balancing judgment with mercy…. What makes this pope so important is the speed with which he has captured the imaginations of millions who had given up on hoping for the church at all. People weary of the endless parsing of sexual ethics, the buck-passing infighting over lines of authority when all the while (to borrow from Milton), ‘the hungry Sheep look up, and are not fed.’ In a matter of months, Francis has elevated the healing mission of the church—the church as servant and comforter of hurting people in an often harsh world—above the doctrinal police work so important to his recent predecessors. John Paul II and Benedict XVI were professors of theology. Francis is a former janitor, nightclub bouncer, chemical technician and literature teacher.

I’m related to (and sometimes part of) the professorial class, so I cringe a bit at those last words. What may be one tiny thread connecting my own work with the Pope’s is a sense of “hands-on.” I like to get my hands on “the stuff.” It is one of the best ways I know for getting an intimate knowledge and feel for a collection. It is a sublime and transcendent mode of communication and one that is less available to me these days. Granted, this is not like feeding or clothing the poor. Higher education is still, in the eyes of a majority of the world’s population, a luxury. I need to keep reminding myself of this as I work through boxes, folders, or volumes of what the world might consider ephemera.

I don’t know if this makes sense; it still feels muddled to me. Mandela’s passing—or at least how his life and passing is interpreted by others—confuses that matter even more (at least in my mind). Consider, for example, the ending of President Obama’s eulogy:

We will never see the likes of Nelson Mandela again. But let me say to the young people of Africa, and young people around the world—you can make his life’s work your own…. He speaks to what is best inside us. After this great liberator is laid to rest; when we have returned to our cities and villages, and rejoined our daily routines, let us search then for his strength—for his largeness of spirit—somewhere inside ourselves. And when the night grows dark, when injustice weighs heavy on our hearts, or our best laid plans seem beyond our reach—think of Madiba, and the words that brought him comfort within the four walls of a cell:

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

What a great soul it was. We will miss him deeply.

His, was, indeed a great soul, a transcendent soul. But was he, really, the master of his fate and captain of his soul? Or did a little child lead him?

Monday, December 9, 2013

An End to the Curator-Scholar?

“Simply holding up three or four objects—virtual or otherwise—is no more telling a story than dumping flour, sugar, and eggs onto a table is baking a cake. You have to do the work of contextualization if you want the objects to signify.” — Erin Kissane, “The Scholar-Curator as Storyteller

Kissane’s essay, which I stumbled across on the Web, gets right to the heart of something gnawing me at the moment—a sense that an era of the resident scholar-curator (or curator-scholar) is passing away before my eyes. What gives me this impression? Am I correct in believing this is the case? Or am I unduly influenced by what I observe in my own surroundings or hear through the professional grapevine? Or did any such academic creature ever truly exist?

A first impression comes from my work. I no longer have the time (some might say the luxury) that I did in the beginning of my residency in archives and special collections to carve out moments during the workday to study a volume or body of work, become familiar with contents, illustrators, authors, paper, binding, typography, or the other accoutrements of a curatorial vocation. The only time I now feel justified spending in scholarly pursuit during a portion of the day are those moments associated with preparing a presentation (more often than not to a group external to the university)…or perhaps writing this blog. What is more often the case is that occasions for study, reading, contemplation, or writing are stolen from early morning, lunchtime, or late evening hours. It is difficult, however, during those wee hours of the day to examine a book, binding, or manuscript when the thing itself is safely nestled in the vault, far from whatever home workspace or bus seat I might occupy. It is less an issue when all that concerns me is text. Such can be retrieved and consulted almost anywhere, time, or place. But, if I need to examine an artifact as a part of my study, those moments are fewer and farther between.

Such was not always the case. By saying so, I acknowledge (or assert) that a sliding scale of expectations are placed on staff at certain points of a career trajectory. These expectations may differ among institutions, but my general impression is that professionals early in their careers are given more latitude, opportunities, time, and money—within their regular schedules—to apply themselves to scholarship, presentations, professional engagement or development. We want them to succeed in their work, bring notice to our institution, engage in the institutional mission, and attain tenure or continuous appointment (for those institutions still offering it). The expectations for productivity remain (and increase) after a certain career point is reached, e.g. tenure, but the latitude, opportunities, time, and money offered by the institution dwindle or disappear entirely. This void is filled by a new expectation: matured professionals will find their own creative ways to fill the vacuum left by a departure of institutional support. Their desire to study, write, think, or engage professionally is now on their own dime and time—unless they are very good grant writers.

A second impression comes from what I read in current job postings. For example, as of this writing, twenty-six positions in academic libraries with a focus on special collections or archives are present on the online job list of the American Library Association. Titles for these twenty-six positions include: research library fellow; instructor; special collections librarian; project archivist (temporary two year position); processing archivist (3); assistant department head; digital collections librarian; associate director for creation and curation services; head of special collections and archives (2); assistant archivist; cartographic reference and digital projects librarian; processing and public services archivist; librarian/curator of print materials; head of special collections; public service coordinator; archives and special collections librarian; catalog librarian; associate director/special collections; chair; department of special and area studies collections; public policy papers project archivist (say that one fast five times); rare books curator; curator…and librarian for East Asian Studies; research informationist and science informationist. Given this daunting list, how many positions include expectations we might expect of a curator-scholar, i.e. someone who is expected to read, write, and publish scholarly, peer-reviewed material (or even popular essays, for that matter) as part of their job?

I read each of the job postings and—given a loose or forgiving hermeneutic—came to a result of seven positions that met my somewhat nebulous criteria, slightly under a third of the list (and frankly, better than I expected): research library fellow; instructor; librarian/curator of print materials; archives and special collections librarian; associate director/special collections; rare books curator; curator…and librarian for East Asian Studies. My favorite line of text from one of these postings, the one that came closest to what I sought, was this: “to provide access to this dynamic special collection…by teaching, writing and speaking about this expansive resource.” (emphasis mine)

In my more caustic moments while reading the position descriptions I concluded that what most institutions are looking for are leaders, coordinators, collaborators, designers, overseers, and managers—not thinkers or writers who know something about the stuff to be cared for. These are positions, for the most part, more about providing access to the stuff, not a context for the stuff. We seem happy to leave the contextualizing to faculty, graduate students, and external scholars. We have dumbed down our collections by dumbing down the staff left to attend them.

Or perhaps dumbing down is not the correct phrase. It is unkind to many I hold dear. Instead, let me tone down my criticism by politely saying we have shifted our emphasis away from knowledge of collections and towards access to collections. We are successfully dealing with our backlogs. We can congratulate ourselves (and the substantial funding from generous grantors) for accomplishing this work. But I still think we have neglected our subject expertise in the process.

Kissane begins her essay by noting a quote from Washington Matthews, offered by Henry Wessells on his blog The Endless Bookshelf. Matthews wrote:

Someone has said that a first-class museum would consist of a series of satisfactory labels with specimens attached. This saying might be rendered: “The label is more important than the specimen.” When I have finished reading this paper, you may admit that this is true in the case of the little museum which I have here to show: a basket, a fascicle of plant fibres, a few rudely painted sticks, some beads and feathers put together as if by children in their meaningless play, form the totality of the collection. You would scarcely pick these trifles up if you saw them lying in the gutter, yet when I have told you all I have to tell about them, I trust they may seem of greater importance, and that some among you would be as glad to possess them as I am. I might have added largely to this collection had I time to discourse about them, for I possess many more of their kind. It is not a question of things, but of time. I shall do scant justice to this little pile within an hour. An hour it will be to you, and a tiresome hour, no doubt, but you may pass it with greater patience when you learn that this hour’s monologue represents to me twelve years of hard and oft-baffled investigation. (emphasis mine)

— Washington Matthews. “Some Sacred Objects of the Navajo Rites,” Archives of the International Folklore Association I (1898); scanned version available via Google Books.

It is the “twelve years of hard and oft-baffled investigation” that I value, which I believe brings a “value added” to the collections under our care as curators. I feel we are losing, or have lost, this value.

Last Friday I delivered a short informal talk about Dr. Philip S. Hench and his discovery of the “true” location of the encounter between Sherlock Holmes and Professor James Moriarty. It was a talk derived from experiences I had this last year in developing an exhibit. But it was also a talk that stemmed, in part, from research and reading done two years earlier about Dr. Hench and his trips to Switzerland. And it was a talk that ultimately arose from a long acquaintance with the Sherlock Holmes stories and the collections in my stewardship. Last Friday’s talk could not have been conceived or delivered without those long years “of hard and oft-baffled investigation.” My little presentation was a mere essay in the master’s craft I’m sure was present in Washington Matthews hour-long presentation on sacred objects of the Navajo rites.

My third impression, which I’ll not go into detail with here, comes from reading obituaries or tributes to those deceased or long retired from the curatorial world. (I am, after all, of a certain age when the reading of obituaries becomes a more frequent activity.) I am struck in those readings by the combination of scholarship, administration, and collection knowledge present in their world and absent from ours. Is this, indeed, a passing (or past) era? Or might we still have the opportunity, as Matthews did, of a certain “luxury” in the course of our work? “It is,” as Matthew noted, “not a question of things, but of time.”

Monday, November 18, 2013

Whatever It Takes

“‘She was a quiet, brilliant thinker,’ said Diane Geraci, interim codirector of libraries at MIT, who added that Ms. Wolpert ‘worked harder than anyone I knew.’…When Ms. Wolpert wasn’t staying late in her office, she traveled widely giving speeches and sharing ideas with librarians around the world.” — Melissa Hanson, obituary for Ann Wolpert in The Boston Globe

I never had the opportunity to meet or work with Ann Wolpert, the late director of libraries at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. What I know of her I learned by reading her obituaries. Reading those, I wondered what rock I’ve been hiding under for the past seventeen years. Why was I so unaware of her and her work? I felt chastised by my ignorance.

At the same time, I felt challenged by her legacy and by the observations of those who knew her best. I was especially drawn to those comments quoted above which spoke to her work ethic and energy. One of my colleagues, now working on the East coast, once described me as the hardest working archivist he knew. I was pleased by the comment at the time. But I think anything I might have offered, then or now, pales in comparison to what Ms. Wolpert accomplished during her career at MIT.

Inexplicably (or not, as the case might be), I thought about Ann Wolpert ten days ago, while in the woods of central Minnesota. I was deer hunting with my eldest son. On opening morning my son downed a large buck. Unfortunately, the buck expired in the middle of a swamp. Yards and yards of boggy water, some of it up to our thighs, separated us from the deer. Leaving the buck was not an option; it needed to be retrieved, brought to dry land, field dressed, hauled back to our truck, and eventually taken to the meat market for processing. It was not easy work, but we needed to do what any responsible hunter would do: tend to our quarry and bring it home. Nearly three hours later, soaked to the bone by chilly water and wind, exhausted by the long haul—some of it across a recently disked and muddy farm field—we lifted the buck into the back of the truck, drained our boots of water, put on warm socks, and rested. After a short interval, I headed back to the woods; there were more hours to hunt and my field lunch awaited me at the base of a tree.

This might seem like a strange juxtaposition—thinking about an influential member of my profession at the same time I was engaged in the struggles of a sport some might question (or object to). My purpose here is not to argue the benefits of a hunt (or the rich bibliographic trail such an activity engenders). Instead, what I am asserting is that my recollection of Ms. Wolpert’s legacy in the middle of a Minnesota swamp made—and makes—perfect sense when thinking about our work and profession. There are times when what we do, and how we do what we do, demand attention and action. Moments will confront us, as they did for Ann Wolpert (and me in the swamp), when the time for talk ends, when we must act. Inaction is not an option. To do nothing, or to ignore the situation presented to us, is unacceptable. We need to move, act, and accomplish the thing set before us.

There is more than a hint of this inexorable confrontation (and how it should be faced) in the obituary of Ms. Wolpert written by Nate Nickerson of the MIT News Office.

Wolpert began work at MIT just as the Internet was emerging, and her tenure was marked by her passionate response to the opportunity and upheaval that resulted for research libraries. In scientific, research, and university communities around the world, a debate, still unresolved, came to the fore: how the decades-old system of peer-reviewed scholarly journals ought to operate in the digital world.

Wolpert became a leading voice in that discussion; she argued for unrestricted online access to journal articles. In a February 2013 essay in the
New England Journal of Medicine, she not only made the case for such access: She also called it an inevitability. “There is no doubt,” she wrote, “that the public interests vested in funding agencies, universities, libraries, and authors, together with the power and reach of the Internet, have created a compelling and necessary momentum for open access. It won’t be easy, and it won’t be inexpensive, but it is only a matter of time.”

I have argued with myself in the past, and in these posts, about expectations—those set for us by others and those motivated from within ourselves. I objected to what I felt were unreasonable or unjust expectations, of being told that my work was more than forty hours a week, that I needed to do “whatever it takes” to accomplish my job. I still object to a life that does not allow necessary re-creation or rest, what some ancients called Shabbat, a Sabbath (or an occasional sabbatical of study and writing). And I reject a lifestyle and profession that puts work above all else. Such priorities are out of whack and out of place.

But what Ann Wolpert taught me, even in her passing, is that there are certain times and places—even within the twelve to seventeen hour days I have occasionally endured in the last weeks—when you need to recognize certain imperatives demanded by our profession, by our work, and by situations staring you straight in the face. In those moments it is time to double down, buckle down, and get the job done—whatever it takes. “It won’t be easy, and it won’t be inexpensive, but it is only a matter of time.”

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Bound Fragments of Time

“One seeks those objects which reflect his interests. He awakens to the possessive urge to gather them about him. He treasures them for those qualities which bespeak his interest, often far better than his own words. They form the historical background of his present cultural environment. He, in effect, becomes a collector.” — James Ford Bell, "Bound Fragments of Time"

I thought I would devote this week’s post to a little history and an important library collection. One of the more notable events on campus last week was a celebration of the sixtieth anniversary of the James Ford Bell Library. The celebratory party was held on Wednesday evening featuring a short program, good food, and the opening of an exhibit to mark the event. The exhibit, “Bound Fragments of Time: 60 Years of Collecting at the James Ford Bell Library” will run until February 1, 2014 in the T. R. Anderson Gallery on the fourth floor of Wilson Library, West Bank Campus, University of Minnesota—Twin Cities.

On October 30, 1953 Bell formally gave his collection to the University. In an address given on that day he noted: “What I have collected has been carefully chosen and is, I think, of a quality and an extent to form at least the nucleus of a library which…may help to make the generations of students that will pass through the University of Minnesota good trustees for posterity of the boldness, confidence, vision, and wisdom which these books contain as gifts from the past.” The establishment of the Bell Library in 1953 and the Kerlan Collection of Children’s Literature in 1949 marked, in essence, the beginning of what would become an amazing assemblage of collections now under the rubric of archives and special collections. Other collections—the Social Welfare History Archives (1964) and the Immigration History Research Center (1965)—added valuable research materials for scholars and students.

In an historical sketch I wrote some time ago for an exhibit at the Weisman Art Museum, more of the story becomes apparent.

In the beginning days of the library, curiosities and rarities were part of the domain of the University Librarian. It was the Librarian who made book-buying trips to England and the Continent, or who arranged to meet with dealers and purchase items in the fields of history or literature that might both strengthen the curriculum and add to the prestige of the library….In the mid-1920s Walter Library was built and its rarities found a new home—a small safe and a locked, fireproof vault within the library…. At about this same time, Minneapolis Journal publisher and bibliophile Hershel Victor Jones donated his collection of seventeenth-century newspapers to the library. During a tour of the new library, Jones asked to see his gift, was led to this small sanctuary, and was comforted by the security and respect shown his collection. That distinctive collection of Stuart tracts and newspapers was expanded through the efforts of James Thayer Gerould and scholar/dean
Guy Stanton Ford into an English history collection numbered in 1921 at more than forty-five hundred items.

History and literature—English and American—continued as subject strengths in the collection building that laid the foundations for Special Collections and Rare Books. As the collections in Walter grew, the outlines of a future department began to take shape. Additional reading room space was secured in the Upson Room and, with the addition of another rare book collection in 1953, the James Ford Bell Library, the library devoted more attention to rare materials. But it was not until the mid-1960s when the term "special collections" began to be used in the library.
With the hiring of a curator of special collections…and the building and occupation of the new Wilson Library on the West Bank campus in the late 1960s, the notion of a separate department of special collections and rare books took form. And with this new form, the collections that were firmly rooted in history and literature begin to expand into other areas such as art, philosophy, religion, and science.

Bell was a “leading figure in the American flour milling industry and founder of General Mills, Inc.” He was born in Philadelphia 1879. At the age of nine his family moved to Minneapolis, where his father became a general manager for the Washburn Crosby Company. (The initials WCCO, now attached to our local CBS television/radio stations, find their roots in the same company.) Bell graduated from the university in 1901 with a degree in chemistry and then joined the Washburn Crosby Company. “During World War I,” so a brief biography on the Bell Associates website reads, “he was appointed chairman of the Milling Division of the U.S. Food Administration and in this capacity accompanied President Herbert Hoover on his European Hunger Relief Mission in 1918.” Bell “became president of the Washburn Crosby Company in 1925; three years later he was responsible for the founding of General Mills, a consolidation of many western and Midwestern milling companies. He became chairman of the board of directors of the company in 1932, an office he held until his retirement in 1947. Throughout his life, he was active in national and international affairs and in the growth of his community.”

The Bell Collection has grown from James Ford Bell’s original gift of around 600 volumes to a collection “of more than 30,000 items in the form of books, maps, manuscripts, pamphlets, broadsides, and assorted printed documents. It ranges in scope from invoices for rope, ships' logs, and gilt-edged trade treaties between Western and Eastern monarchs to diaries, travel narratives, and missionary accounts. The items in the collection currently date between 400 C.E. and 1825 C.E.”

I served for a year as interim curator of the Bell Collection, following the retirement of curator Carol Urness in 2001. In a way, it was the repayment of a favor: Carol served as the interim curator of Special Collections and Rare Books until I arrived in 1998. Four years later, thinking a career move might be worth considering, I was one of three finalists for the Bell curatorship. I was unsuccessful in my bid, but it was all for the best. Current curator Marguerite (Maggie) Ragnow joined the staff in 2005 and is a valued colleague. The Bell’s original curator, John (Jack) Parker, was an inspiration to me. Shortly before his death in 2006, I wrote Jack a short note of thanks, which included these words:

I say thank you because, to a large extent, I am what I am, and am doing what I am doing, as a result of you, your life, and your work. I still remember, with some awe, the feeling I had as a graduate student in the library school when I paid my first visit to the fourth floor of Wilson. I felt as if I had entered “the holy of holies.” Your care for the collection, your scholarship in support of (and through) the collection, and your welcoming presence into the collection has stayed with me to this day. I want to provide the same care, and encourage the same level of scholarship, and to be as much of a welcoming presence to the collection, as you. To paraphrase a marketing slogan from some time ago, “I want to be like Jack.”

The Bell Library—and its curators—occupy a special place in my heart. I have enjoyed knowing and working with all of them, and celebrate with those still present the anniversary of a remarkable collection.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

30th Year Reflections/60: Next Steps

“The Road goes ever on and on | Down from the door where it began. | Now far ahead the Road has gone, | And I must follow, if I can, | Pursuing it with eager feet, | Until it joins some larger way | Where many paths and errands meet. | And whither then? I cannot say.” — J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

On June 14, 2012 I posted the first of what quickly became a series of posts floating under the title “30th Year Reflections.” In that first post I noted that

Thirty years ago this October I entered the library profession. Over the course of those thirty years I have held five positions, four of them in an academic setting: instruction/reference librarian, library director, medical librarian, director of archives, and curator of special collections and rare books. The path I mapped out for myself at the beginning of my career was altered a bit along the way. But for the most part I ended up where I hoped I would end up: in a large academic research library. My initial career map thirty years ago did not get down to specific job titles or duties so it is still a bit of a surprise to me (and maybe to others as well) that I ended up where I am, in the world of archives and special collections as a curator of special collections and rare books. The question I’m facing at the moment is: will I stay here?

I went on and observed that this was a good moment for me to reflect on my career. “The time for such a reflection is perfect (for me if for no one else): by my reckoning I am about two-thirds of the way through my career; I have worked for thirty years and anticipate retiring after another fourteen to sixteen years of labor.” The calculus on my retirement date might change, but as it now stands I plan on retiring sometime between 2024 and 2027. Young whippersnappers with an eye on my chair can plan accordingly.

This is my last post in the series. I’ll continue to write and post things here, but will orient my gaze more to present and future concerns and less a remembrance of days past. For the most part, I met what modest goals I had for this series: to remember, reflect, and celebrate thirty years in the library profession; to energize a flagging blog; and to maintain a discipline of weekly writing. Along the way, I picked up another writing project that morphed into a book on the closing of the University of Minnesota library school. The manuscript for the book is finished. All I need now is a publisher.

I want to emphasize, as I did at the beginning, the celebratory nature of these posts. As I wrote over a year ago, “I am glad to be a librarian; I have no regrets. It is, to borrow from the religious world of my father (and also my second son) my ‘calling.’ This is the profession I was meant for, that I was created for.”

The opening quotation to this last post is from one of my favorite authors. Tolkien expresses, better than I ever could, my mind and being—professional and personal—at this moment in time. Like Bilbo of the Shire, a great part of my adventure is over. I’ve confronted dragons, riddled in the dark, seen many parties come and go. Also, like Bilbo, there are times when “I feel all thin, sort of stretched…like butter that has been scraped over too much bread.” And yet, my days are far from over. “I want to see mountains again.” There is much still to do. “I must follow, if I can, | Pursuing it with eager feet.”

The question Tolkien’s song raises in my mind is: what is “it?” Is “it” my remaining professional ambitions and desires? If so, what are they? To see books or articles published? Yes. Participate in the work of professional association committees? Maybe. Continue teaching? Yes. Maintain a discipline of writing? Yes. Administer a larger unit? Probably not. Encourage and mentor younger professionals? You bet. I want to continue learning, retain my sense of humor, nurture friendships and collegial relationships. I am happy at my post (while even here there is more that needs to be done, in a better fashion). But I yearn for more.

What might this be? Is “it” an expanded vocational calling, of being stretched in new ways that grow me as both a professional and person, of joining “some larger way | Where many paths and errands meet?” I hope so. The digital world is in many ways a fearful place, full of challenges. Perhaps continuing to abide in such a world requires a hobbit’s heart: stout, brave, yet cheerful and optimistic. If so, I will cultivate those sensibilities (along with the occasional need of a “second breakfast”). I do not know what the remaining days of my professional life will bring. “And whither then? I cannot say.”

I would, in concluding this series, make one correction to an observation I made in the very first posting. There I wrote about “the path I mapped out for myself at the beginning of my career.” There was, indeed, a path and a map. But I had little to do with its making. The map was there long before I arrived on the scene. And as to the path, it was made apparent to me more by others than by me. I needed the counsel of the Wise, my own Gandalf, to help discern the way. Others in the fellowship went before me, others guided me on my way and joined me on the path. It was rarely a case of my forging ahead on my own, and when I did, more often than not it was a wrong turning. I am thankful for the companionship along the way that made this part of the journey so memorable and rewarding. I look forward to the future, until a breaking of the fellowship, and even beyond. Mára mesta! Namárië!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

30th Year Reflections/59: By Example

“The older I get the less I listen to what people say and the more I look at what they do.” — Andrew Carnegie

A few weeks ago I gave graduate students in my preservation management class an assignment. I asked them to watch a presentation given on September 30th at the University of Minnesota by Elliott Shore, Executive Director for the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) and James Hilton, Dean of Libraries and Vice Provost for Digital Education Initiatives at the University of Michigan. This joint presentation was made possible by University Librarian Wendy Lougee (who also serves as ARL president), and appeared under the general title “Research Libraries at Scale: Moving from 19th Century Origins to 21st Century Solutions.” While watching this presentation, I asked my students to keep in mind three questions and to write a 1,500 word short paper based on answers to those questions. The questions were these: What did Shore or Hilton say that relates to preservation? Does it make sense? Does what they said give you a roadmap to think about preservation planning in the future? Perhaps not the most profound questions, but intentional all the same. I wanted my students to: a) have a chance to hear two influential professional leaders speak about the future of libraries, and b) pull out and assemble thoughts on a topic not immediately apparent in the theme of the Shore/Hilton presentation, i.e. library preservation programs and planning.

My students handed in their papers last Saturday. Before reading them, I thought of another experiment (akin to my MLA pre- and post-conference experience of the last two posts): commit my own thoughts to paper, post them to the blog, and see how they stand up against my students. This, like my MLA reflections, is a bit risky (for me and my students). But why ask my students to do something if I’m not willing to do it myself? In my piece I spend more time than my students might at the beginning summarizing the Shore/Hilton presentation; I think it is necessary for context. I then wrap up with some observations on preservation. Here, then, are my reflections on the Shore/Hilton presentation as they relate to preservation programs and planning.

* * * * * * *

The long-term preservation of culturally and educationally important materials is a core function of libraries. Shore—in setting the table for Hilton—argued “that how we are acting now (or trying to react to what we are seeing) is deeply and inexorably rooted in a period of human history whose foundations are now crumbling” and whose practices and habits, developed across all cultures of the world, “mark our habit of thought and continue to be present in how we make our decisions.” He further argued that “the library is the central institution that bears the most marks of the thinking of the last century and a half” and that it was his firm belief “that if we understand our habits of mind better, we may be in a better position to make choices among a seemingly infinite number” of possibilities. Preservation, as a core function, bears some of these marks and habits of thought.

Shore assisted us in this historical introspection by noting, in essence, our bad habits, i.e. the things we need to break. He observed: “The penetration of the dynamic, changeable nature of digital, web-based, linked information technologies to universities and to research libraries has shown the fissures and exposed the assumptions in some of the fixed structures into which we have organized ourselves and how we think about our work.” These habits include (but are not limited to) a propensity towards reducing problems to discrete parts and tasks; creating (and continuing)—through classification and sorting activities—information silos; organizing ourselves and our work hierarchically; assuming that items in our care are, by their nature, discrete and finished. By breaking these habits (and perhaps healing our scars in the process), we can move from a discrete, contained, hierarchical, rigid, single profession mode of existence toward something that engages us in a fluid, ubiquitous, diverse, collaborative, and interprofessional reality.

Beyond introspection (to continue a psychoanalytic or religious metaphor), Shore asks us ostensibly to perform a professional confession, i.e. to acknowledge our current state: We have lost control; we need to get beyond our “binary oppositions” of centralization versus decentralization, control versus openness, fixed versus shifting categories; we are jolted by the rapid appearance and aggressive behavior of commercial, social, and personal entities in “our” domain; we are not alone; there is a way out; we need to seek a middle ground.

The confessional ends with the realization that there is a middle ground, but even here questions arise, the principal being: “Where do we differentiate ourselves from one another and where do we work together?” Is it, as Shore seems to say, that this middle ground, this new place of professional identity and activity is in both these areas of difference and collaboration? For examples, he points to aggregators and cultural commons, e.g. the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) and Wikipedia, and quotes Charles Henry’s observation (“Higher Ground”) that the next two decades “could witness an extraordinary fluorescence of activity among universities and colleges focused on repositioning, consolidation, and convergence.” Is this the middle ground of which he speaks? If so, what does this mean for the core function of preservation?

Hilton, in response to (or continuing) Shore’s presentation, framed matters another way, i.e. if Shore’s talk was classical music, then Hilton offered free-wheelin’, pickin’, kinetic bluegrass sprinkled with the blood of a Baptist preacher. His presentation, like a preacher’s sermon, included three major points: the emergent nature of change, irresistible forces, and opportunities/imperatives (aka celestial navigation).

On the emergent nature of change, Hilton noted that “our notions of change don’t serve us well.” We think of change as calm waters punctuated by rapids, when in fact it is really rapids all the time, all the way. Viewed this way, change is disruptive, messy, not orderly, planned, or predictable. While Hilton did not adequately define what he meant by emergence (as understood, for example, in systems theory) he did point to it as a strategy for dealing with change. In this sense we have a known starting point and desired direction, but an unknown end point. Part of this strategy involves identifying and adjusting “fundamental conditions” so that “new opportunities will emerge.” It also entails instilling “a discipline of ‘fine-tune as you go’ and refinement based on experience. Hilton likened the process to sailing.

Taking up the sailing theme we might quote Seneca: “If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.” Hilton might respond that the port is not important, just the direction. (We would hope he wants to hit land at some point, if for no other reason than to reprovision his ship—assuming the natives are friendly and their stores abundant.) We might also amend his earlier image of change (which included pictures of canoes or kayaks on calm water and rapids) to a sailing image that includes the natural forces of massive swells, towering waves, smooth seas, and doldrums. These maritime dynamisms would correspond (by name if not by nature) to the four irresistible forces, i.e. emerging conditions, outlined in his talk: higher education, consumerization/relevance, unbundling, and digital.

Under these conditions—adjusting the tiller—we might expect nearly continuous evaluation or redefinition of the purposes and meaning of education, who participates in education, and how it is financed. We might also expect incessant gusts from port or starboard in the form of commercial blowhards (I mean entities) telling us how they can do it better, cheaper, more efficiently, etc. As an example, Hilton gave us a charming thumbnail portrait of his colleague at Michigan, Paul Courant, and the interaction between Courant and the Elsevier publishing company on the topics of preservation and digitization.

Elsevier: “Look, we were Galileo’s publisher. Trust us. We’re going to be fine.”
Courant: “We have the hubris to be unimpressed with your track record of longevity.”
Courant: “Where did you go to get your backfiles for digitization?”
Courant: “You’re going to go to your board of directors and propose something with a perpetual, binding liability with no revenue stream behind it?”

Hilton’s conclusions, his celestial navigation, led him to five final imperatives: 1) re-orient around durable access, 2) tie our fate to collaboration, 3) harness economies of scale, 4) be Switzerland on steroids (i.e. neutral and highly engaged), and 5) double down on audacity.

Let me return to the three questions I posed to my students as they relate to preservation planning in libraries. If the five major components of preservation planning are environmental control, emergency preparedness, security, storage, and handling/use, then at first blush Shore/Hilton said little in specific terms about this core library function. But in broad terms, and as a roadmap to the future, they gave us plenty to think about.

First, Shore challenged us to examine those habits of thought and work that have become embedded in our professional consciousness. In terms of managerial planning and conservators’ treatments we might question the amount of time, staff, space, and money spent on treating individual items in loco. If we are collaborating, i.e. practicing what Hilton called an “intentional interdependence between organizations,” and working to scale it would seem we would want to invest more of our resources on regional treatment centers to which numerous institutions could send individual items for attention. Something like the Regional Alliance for Preservation might provide a model or a vehicle for this type of work.

This also argues for active, real-time discussions across institutions and among staffs/faculties of what should be sent for treatment to such regional centers, what can be done in-house, or ignored. Such a discussion overlaps Shore’s concern for a middle ground and the question: “Where do we differentiate ourselves from one another and where do we work together?” If we differentiate ourselves, in part, through our special and rare collections, then we are long overdue for a conversation (let alone collaborative work) about physical and digital preservation planning for these materials. This conversation, among regional or consortial curatorial staff, needs to happen sooner rather than later. The Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC) have a number of initiatives that address physical and digital preservation: the Shared Print Repository, Hathi Trust Digital Repository, the Google Book Search Project. But almost all of this activity addresses circulating or journal collections, not rare or special materials. It is time for curatorial staffs (and associated faculty) to gather, talk, and act.

Some might argue that digital humanities initiatives or cultural commons projects like the DPLA meet this need. This may be the case on the digital front, but I do not think it adequately addresses Hilton’s call to re-orient around durable access. Here he pointed to “traditional content,” (books and paper) as being less problematic, i.e. put it on the shelf in an environmentally stable, secure, place and we’ll be fine for five hundred years. This may be so, but we do not, at present, have the necessary capacity for such storage. The physical is being shortchanged in favor of the digital. We need to be collaboratively audacious on both fronts.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

30th Year Reflections/58: MLA 2013--After The Gold Rush

“Bet you didn't think I knew how to rock 'n' roll / Lord, I got the boogie-woogie right down in my very soul.” — Eric Clapton

Forgive me the mixed rock and roll metaphors by using a Neil Young song for the title of this post and a Clapton lyric to open the set, but I wanted to capture some of the spirit (and fun) I had at the Minnesota Library Association annual conference last week in St. Cloud—and their conference theme: “Libraries Rock.” It was a most excellent show! (I even came away with a conference T-shirt.)

As promised, I’m returning to my pre-conference list of expectations to give a little post-conference analysis. A week ago I stated my hopes with the sessions I’d marked out for myself from the conference schedule. Here, then, is my assessment of those sessions:

All Facts Considered: a Conversation with an NPR Librarian (Kee Malesky and Sasha Aslanian)

This promised to be a conversation between Malesky and Aslanian and it was. I was a little surprised that Sasha turned the questioning over to the audience so quickly, but I’m sure those in the audience didn’t mind a chance to pepper Kee with questions. In her opening, Malesky nodded to the Minnesota crowd with references to Senators Klobuchar and Franken, the politics of the medical device tax, and our favorite son, Garrison Keillor. And we got a flavor for some of the nuts and bolts of the operation, for example:

• a snapshot of her office and surroundings
• dealing with “cataloging emergencies
• the systematic approach to digitizing NPR’s collections (back to 1971, confronting their backlog, public availability back to 2008)
• working with IT staff on designing news and music databases (Artemis and Orpheus)
• unusual reference questions (How much water in the Great Lakes system; answer: 6.25 quadrillion gallons)
• use of experts (“Whatever fact I’m looking for, there is someone whose job it is to know that fact, and they’re waiting for us to call them.”)
• size of the library staff (fourteen, all located in Washington, DC, servicing 17 foreign bureaus and 16 domestic. Minnesota Public Radio apparently does not have a librarian on staff.)
• professional pointers (“You’re an intelligent adult. Use the advance search option whenever possible.”)
• the fact that two jobs are currently open at the NPR library (watch the applications stream in)
• words of wisdom (“Libraries and journalists are essential for a functioning democracy.”)
• the amazing internal NPR wiki
• some of the weekend personalities, e.g. Daniel Schorr, Susan Stamberg, Scott Simon. Simon once asked Kee for “a list of blonde women who are not dumb.” Simon and Sylvia Poggioli are her favorites to work with; she would not “dish” on who was the “quirkiest.”

There were a few complaints about the sound system/acoustics in the large hall. It was hard, at times, to hear the commentary. My favorite quote from Kee was this: “Have you ever been stumped? No, we’ve never been stumped. But why did you call five minutes before going on air?” This opening keynote, despite the poor acoustics, delivered what it promised, and more. While I didn’t find out what might have been Kee’s greatest challenge (I didn’t ask) or what trends she sees for the future, Kee and Sasha kicked us off in great fashion.

Hidden in Plain Sight: Libraries Respond to the Aging of America (Diantha Schull)

Schull spoke to a packed room (many of them “boomers”), indicating an interest in her topic. She started out with an overview, observing that there are no codified best practices for this demographic group, the landscape is wide open, and that this was a period of “second adulthood” or “encore careers.” One of the big surprises for me was the growth in the segment of the population that will hit the age of 100 (or more), and the growing diversity of these older segments of the population. Getting into more specifics, Schull mentioned a number of programs (e.g. Fit for Life, Life by Design, Conversation Salons, and Wise Walks) while also pointing to model programs (e.g. Multnomah, Allegheny, New Haven). Surprisingly, only 3 of 31 MLIS programs she studied had courses related to older adults. My biggest take-away: Libraries are hiding senior adult programming, it is not apparent on their websites. Libraries need to get this stuff out front like they do for children and young adults. Schull also noted that senior adults are not as far behind the technology curve as we think; many are active with gaming and social media.

As with the opening keynote, Schull met most of my expectations. She did not say anything about challenges with search technologies, and most of her presentation seemed geared to a public library setting, but there was enough here to think about programming and outreach in an academic setting.

Legislative Update (Mark Ranum and Elaine Keefe)

In some ways this was a “no brainer,” i.e. we (a small group) received (and appreciated) a thorough briefing from Keefe on the past legislative session. We were treated to an additional panelist with Sam Walseth (also a lobbyist at Capitol Hill Associates with Keefe), who gave us a look at the upcoming session. The bonding bill, transportation, education payment shift, and possibly the minimum wage will be considered in a session colored by election year activities. There were no observations on the federal shutdown, but I did throw Keefe a bit of a curve with a question about who might be at risk for reelection.

ARLDapalooza (Meeting and Poster Session)

The business meeting of the division, including revisions to the bylaws, was swiftly dealt with. This left us more time to chat and enjoy the poster session. I’ll admit to being a bit distracted at this point (after a delicious lunch and time in the exhibit hall). I scanned the posters (kudos to those who prepared them) and got a glimpse of their interests. It was a good time to chat with colleagues (and also enjoy the beautiful fall air).

Future Focused—Trends Impacting Library Services: the Minitex Perspective (Valerie Horton)

This may have been my “home run” session of the day or conference (to mix baseball with rock music). Valerie was a whirlwind as she addressed various trends and spectrums (e.g. physical/virtual, individual focus/community focus, collection library/creation library). And she was very quotable and provocative.

• On describing the exponential expansion of information: “If you want to be afraid, now is the time.”
• On the authoritative nature of libraries/librarians/information versus the non-authoritative nature of mash-ups, crowd-sourcing, randomly created/organized information, etc.: “We’ve already lost. We cannot be the ‘heavy hand.’”
• On the march of technology: “Old technologies never die; they just find their niche.”
• On libraries and books: “If books are everywhere, why go to libraries?”
• On our own skill set: “Digital publishing is the next library skill.”
• This follow-up question: “Is the creation library our next great mission?”
• And this contextual observation: “The library story is a local story.”

There are more quotes, I’m sure. I was surprised by her observation that we are past the explosive growth of e-books; I’m not so sure. In the end, she gave us a picture of an anytime, anywhere library staff (mobile, embedded), enabling community research experts, local digitization and local publication. What will not change is access for all, in multiple formats, with abiding concerns for fair use, intellectual property, intellectual freedom, and privacy rights. We live and work in an individual place that is also a community place. I did not come away with a specific sense on how all this will translate into legislative action, but a roadmap was given all the same. These are exciting and interesting times.

MLA Membership Meeting

As with the division meeting, the membership meeting went smoothly. The amendments to the bylaws were approved; and there was some discussion and slight tweaking of the legislative platform, but no food fights.

What Is This Thing Called Digital Humanities? (Bahnemann, Oberg, Schell)

This early morning second day session sparked a number of things for me to think about, especially with geo-tagging/GIS. As I listened to the panel, ideas kept spilling out, some related to collections I curate and others to my own research: linking GIS data with a biographical study I did of early Swedish-American ministers; digitally mapping Swedish immigrant settlements; more aggressive use of Omeka for digital exhibitions; geo-tagging scans from our postcard collection, medieval manuscripts, and cuneiform; crowd-sourcing our papyri fragments; even mapping locations in the Sherlock Holmes stories. This session delivered the goods in unexpected ways.

A Rock Band Needs a Roadie: Using Guide on the Side for Tutorials (Hootman, Lee)

This session did the least for me, not because of anything in the delivery, but because it became apparent that the kind of tutorial we might need for archives and special collections could not be met (at least at first blush) by “Guide on the Side.” It seems geared more toward tie-ins with periodical indexes or other research tools, but not in a more comprehensive approach to working with archives and special collections materials. I might explore this a little more, but I’m not sure this open source software will fit the bill.

Surviving the Public: Customer Service the Unshelved Way (Ambaum, Barnes)

Ambaum and Barnes gave me just what I needed: comic relief and a pick-me-up. Well done!

Rocked and Rolled: Lessons From Closing the U of M Library School

Others might offer comments on my session. I’ll simply note that thunder and lightning erupted during my presentation. It was nice of the divine (or Mother Nature) to add the special effects, all too appropriate to the topic at hand.

Off-Label Uses for Books (McKean)

I’ll admit that by this point my mind was mush and I was winding down from my presentation. I found a quiet seat in the back of the hall and soaked it all in.

Thanks to the program committee, MLA leadership, and everyone else involved in the conference. It was a great two days! My expectations were met or exceeded. You can recap the conference (or experience it vicariously/virtually, if you didn’t have the chance to attend) by following the Twitter feed, hashtag #mnlib13. Rock on!

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

30th Year Reflections/57: MLA 2013 Expectations

“Checking the results of a decision against its expectations shows executives what their strengths are, where they need to improve, and where they lack knowledge or information.” — Peter Drucker

I do not know if what follows is a true thought experiment, following classic lines. But after the previous post here in which I talked about the upcoming MLA annual conference, I concluded that the post was not really a personal reflection that fit within this series of thirtieth year ruminations; it was an advertisement for the conference. And so I decided to come back to this drawing board and attempt something different: to list in advance all the sessions I marked out for myself from the conference schedule and state my expectations. Then, after the conference, I will come back to the list and make some judgments on whether or not those sessions met my expectations. I realize this is a bit risky, for me and the presenters. I’m publicly stating my hopes; in the week to follow I’ll offer my assessment. Here, then, is my session list and expectations:

All Facts Considered: a Conversation with an NPR Librarian (Malesky and Aslanian)

This promises to be a conversation between Malesky and Aslanian. What I’m hoping to hear are inside stories of what it is like to work at one of my favorite (and trusted) news sources, what might have been most challenging for Malesky during nearly three decades at NPR, insights into some of the individuals she’s met over her career, how her work has changed over thirty years, and what trends she sees in news reporting and her interaction with that reporting (including preservation and access to this record) in the future.

Hidden in Plain Sight: Libraries Respond to the Aging of America (Schull)

I’m in the demographic group Schull will address during her session. She will “review the changing landscape of services…highlight innovations in libraries…offer ideas and examples useful for professionals in both public and academic libraries.” Part of my curiosity with this session is how much Schull will look externally at patrons and internally at libraries. I’m especially interested to see how she sees 50+ folks interacting with technologies, especially search and social media. Also, I’ll be curious to see what she says about programming and outreach to this segment of the population.

Legislative Update (Keefe and Ranum)

This session is pretty straightforward, an update on MLA legislative activities “and issues of interest to all types of libraries.” Keefe and Ranum are pros when it comes to tracking legislative activity. What I’ll be looking for are issues I can track once the legislature is in session so that I’ll be ready to lobby when Legislative Day rolls around. I'm hoping they might also make some observations on the impact of the federal shutdown.

ARLDapalooza (Meeting and Poster Session)

This is an Academic and Research Libraries Division meeting. There are proposed revisions to the bylaws (which I need to review before the meeting) and perhaps other business to attend to in short order. The poster session is the main draw; I’ll be interested to see what my colleagues are up to.

Future Focused—Trends Impacting Library Services: the Minitex Perspective (Horton)

Valerie will have a list of trends which we’ll be invited to explore and a chance to “provide input on the strategic position of Minitex’s programs and services for the future.” I’m always interested in trends and will be attentive to what she focuses on. Our unit provides copies of rare materials for Minitex, so I’ll keep an ear cocked for anything that might relate on this front. Since Minitex is such a “player” when it comes to lobbying the Legislature, I’ll be listening for anything in the trend/strategic discussion that translates into legislative action.

MLA Membership Meeting

More proposed amendments to the bylaws, including a change to the dues structure. My expectations are generally fairly low for a business meeting; I’ll walk away happy if the meeting was well-run, meaningful business efficiently conducted, with no food fights.

What Is This Thing Called Digital Humanities? (Bahnemann, Oberg, Schell)

I’m surprisingly a bit out of the loop on DH so I’ll look forward to what two of my colleagues from the U (and a former colleague, now at Macalester) have to say in their panel discussion that will get me back up to speed. Since I’m keeper to a wealth of material relevant to DH, I’ll be especially attentive to what technologies I might employ and the types of material of interest in curricular support.

A Rock Band Needs a Roadie: Using Guide on the Side for Tutorials (Hootman, Lee)

We’ve talked for some time within our department about tutorials. I’m not sure, for all our talk, that we’ve ever launched something successful online that might be useful in the area of archives and special collections. We do have a web page with pointers to external tutorials and other useful links. But I think our own product is still “in the can.” So I’ll be interested to see what “Guide on the Side” might have to offer.

Surviving the Public: Customer Service the Unshelved Way (Ambaum, Barnes)

This is another “headliner” in our two day biblio-rock festival. Given that this falls sometime around lunch, I’ll be looking for some comic relief and a pick-me-up.

Rocked and Rolled: Lessons From Closing the U of M Library School

I’m offering this session so my self-expectation is to be at the top of my game and provide a lively and informative presentation to those attending.

Off-Label Uses for Books (McKean)

The final “headliner” performance before the conference ends. I’ll be coming down from my session so my biggest expectation here will be something that sends me on my way with a bit of zip and energy. My hope is that I’ll be pleased with what I experienced over the last two days, excited to be in this profession, and eager to take what I learned back to work and share it with others.

This is the "meat and potatoes" of the conference; I've not mentioned any of the social times or "fun" activities scheduled for early morning, midday, or in the evening. I'm looking forward to those as well, but I'll spare them any post-conference analysis. See you in St. Cloud!

Monday, October 7, 2013

Libraries Rock! MLA 2013

“This premier educational event equips library staff with new ideas and tools to stay up-to-date, innovate, and succeed in their careers, and attracts more than 400 library professionals, Friends of the Library, and library trustees from across Minnesota.” — Minnesota Library Association

On Thursday and Friday I will be in St. Cloud, Minnesota, site of the 2013 Minnesota Library Association Annual Conference. This year’s conference theme is “Libraries Rock!” The program takes its cues from a multi-day rock music festival, complete with headliners, sets, jam sessions, intermissions, and after-parties. Headliners and featured presenters include: Kee Malesky, National Public Radio librarian, with Sasha Aslanian, Minnesota Public Radio senior reporter; Overdue Media’s Bill Barnes and Gene Ambaum; Erin McKean, founder of Wordnik; The Geek Girls; and authors Mary Sharratt and Laura Salas. (I first met and worked with Sasha Aslanian from MPR years ago—I can't remember the exact date—I think on a documentary related to Eugene McCarthy. It will be good to see her again.) According to a recent Twitter “tweet” over 550 folks will be attending. If you’re unable to attend, you can follow the conference hashtag on Twitter: #mnlib13. You can also join the festivities on Facebook or follow the blog. Check out the MLA website for additional information. I’m presenting during “Set 6” (Rocked and Rolled: Lessons From Closing the U of M Library School) and looking forward to a great time.

The MLA news release (from which I quote below) gives a little more information about “Libraries Rock!”

New for 2013 is the Talkin’ ’Bout My Generation mini-conference focused on library services for older adults, featuring hands-on activities, displays, and breakout sessions with:

• Diantha Schull, author of 50+ Library Services: Innovation in Action
• Brain Fitness – Keeping brains sharp; public libraries and the Alzheimer's Association working together
• Maura O’Malley, presenting Encore: Libraries, the Arts, and Older Adults
• Joyce Yukawa, presenting Finding the Fires that Burn Within: A Community-Based Framework for Developing Older Adult Services

The 2013 Annual Conference offers more than 60 sessions across nine simultaneous tracks (Administration & Leadership; Authors, Literature, and Programming; Children & Young Adults; Collection Management & Technical Services; Digital Information & Technologies; Diversity; Professional Development; Public Services; Library Trustees & Friends), Appy Hour breakfast showcase, a silent auction fundraiser, countless networking opportunities, and an exhibit hall with more than 40 vendors showcasing library products and services. New features this year include a Battle of the Bands Trivia Night and a member directory photo booth.

Perhaps the greatest benefit to me at the MLA conference is a chance to converse with colleagues I don’t see every day, to hear about their lives in the trenches, to pick up a few new tidbits of information that will assist me in my work, and to be provoked toward longer, more contemplative thoughts. Not every conference does this for me, but I’m full of hope that this year’s MLA offering will give me some things to bring back home and chew on. This year MLA also offers a conference “app” for creating a personalized schedule. I’ve plugged in sessions of interest into the app and am ready for the first headliner on Thursday morning.

I may have more to say after the conference. For now, I’m concentrating on making sure I have my act together for my presentation on Friday. With my book still in search of a publisher it has been a while since I’ve given a close look at the manuscript. But I’ll have facts and figures, stories and personalities at the ready on Friday afternoon. In the meantime, I’m trying to cram five days of work into three. The weather promises to be clear and warm, perfect autumn days in central Minnesota. I hope to see many of you there!

Sunday, October 6, 2013

College Football—And Libraries—Live Here!

Sometimes an opportunity to promote collections drops into our lap, out of the blue. Occasionally such chances link our materials with surprising partners, those we’re not used to dealing with on a daily basis. Such was the case when I received an e-mail note from Cathie Hunt, an associate director for the global cable/satellite sports television network ESPN in mid-September. The University of Minnesota Golden Gopher football team was scheduled to play the San José State University Spartans that coming weekend. As television broadcaster for the game, ESPN had an interest in things beyond the stadium. (The title for this post is a takeoff on the ESPN College Football tagline.) As I soon discovered, this Saturday gridiron contest provided new venues of exposure for our collections and the Libraries, invited new connections with the University’s Athletic Department, and confirmed the importance of our online presence.

Cathie’s initial note was short and to the point: “I am the Associate Director for ESPN's football broadcast this weekend. When we come to a University we like to show something that is different and unique about the school and the campus. The Sherlock Holmes collection is something that I am sure our viewers would love to see. If it is possible, I would like to have our photographer come to the library on Friday morning and shoot some of this collection. He would only need an hour at the most to set up and shoot. Please let me know if this is feasible.”

My first response, before answering Cathie, was to check with the Libraries’ Director of Communications, Mark Engebretson. We are encouraged to contact Mark whenever an approach is made by media outlets to ensure we’re following correct protocol (and to keep him in the loop on these various contacts). Mark quickly responded and urged me to go ahead and make the arrangements. He alerted the University’s News Service about ESPN’s interest. I also notified Wendy Lougee, University Librarian; Kris Kiesling, Andersen Library director and head of the Archives and Special Collections department; and Rob Strnad, our building manager.

Having taken care of all internal notifications, I enthusiastically responded to Cathie: “We'd be delighted to have an ESPN photographer come on Friday to shoot some of the collection. Just let me know what time your photographer would like to set up and shoot and I'll be sure to be available.” Cathie thanked me for a quick answer and added a thrilling response. “I am extremely excited that you will be available for our photographer on Friday. We are setting up the schedule for shooting things tomorrow so I will be able to give you an exact time for him to arrive….I will call you tomorrow and we can discuss the specifics.”

Cathie and I worked out the details. I was to meet “Dutch,” the ESPN photographer, and his assistant in front of Wilson Library at 10:30 Friday morning. Cathie also asked for additional information that might be useful to the producers and game announcers. “It can be as generic as you want or if it correlates with what Dutch is shooting that is good too. If there is a couple of ‘rare’ collectibles that he can shoot that would enhance the montage of pictures that also would add to the uniqueness of the collection.” I sent her specific blurbs on the Holmes Collections and more generic material on Special Collections/Archives and the University Libraries. I also threw in one other possibility that might interest her. “If we have time, we can walk a couple hundred feet to Andersen Library where the collection is housed 90 feet underground in environmentally controlled caverns. Dutch might be interested in some cavern shots.” Pitching her a further idea (after getting permission), I whipped off a quick note: “crazy idea for the shoot, if you want to pursue: the underground caverns are about 2 football fields in length, 24 feet high, 70 feet across. Maybe a couple of players tossing the ball amidst the stacks?”

Both Cathie and Dutch were intrigued by the caverns. As for players tossing a football underground, she replied: “I'll throw it past my producer.” In the end, we didn’t get the players or tossed footballs. But Dutch seemed pleased with his shots. After shooting Holmes items in Wilson Library—including our permanent exhibit of the sitting room at 221B Baker Street—we ambled over to Andersen Library, stopping briefly at the head of the pedestrian bridge running across to the East Bank campus to capture footage of students walking to and from classes. Once in Andersen, Dutch shot a few items from the Holmes exhibit before descending via elevator to cavern level. In one of the caverns Dutch was able to capture some exciting “dolly shots” of the stacks. The entire shoot, as promised, lasted about an hour.

After parting with Dutch and his assistant, I informed Cathie that we’d finished the shoot, that I had some still images of the caverns (if needed), and that Dutch thought the cavern footage might work well as another segment, aside from the Holmes material. I also sent her additional information about Andersen Library and the caverns, for use by the announcers. She thanked me for all my help with the shoot and also let me know that one of their “tape guys” was “a huge Sherlock Holmes fan” and was coming over to the library on his lunch break to take a look at the collection. I followed with one last request for a copy of the raw footage taken by Dutch. Happily, she said a copy could be provided and that I could stop by the production truck that evening to pick it up.

As the sun set Friday evening, I walked across campus and found the production trucks parked east of the football stadium. Cathie was not there—she had a production meeting—but in communications later that evening we arranged to meet early Saturday morning at the truck. At 5:30 on game day morning I returned to the production trucks and soon found Cathie at her desk, facing a wall of television monitors and other production equipment. I was tickled to see, if ever so briefly, this side of preparing for a football game and was amazed at all the people up and about so early on a Saturday morning: television crews, security personnel, vendors, and even fans setting up to tailgate before the game (with kickoff scheduled for 11am).

I couldn’t watch the game as I had a previous engagement to speak at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts later that morning, and so relied on social media to keep me informed if and when the library footage was used during the broadcast. During the shoot, Dutch told me that the clips were scheduled for the second quarter of the game, but that this could change depending on how the game unfolded. My Facebook and Twitter informants later confirmed the appearance of two short clips during the game. I was thrilled.

This experience reminded me of the important roles played by our Internet presence and with social media as part of our outreach toolbox. ESPN discovered our Holmes Collections online. Web-available text and images provided producers and announcers with important contextual information as they prepared for the game. From the time of my first encounter with Cathie and ESPN, I posted comments on Twitter. Some of my “tweets” were “re-tweeted” by others, including Sherlockians, the Athletic Department, other libraries, and colleagues. This gave us even greater exposure; the re-tweets amplified our message. And what is that message? The University is home to Golden Gopher football and world-class libraries, archival, and special collections, housed in state-of-the-art facilities. College football is a huge and powerful enterprise, gathering many fans. We were pleased to be a part of that energy on game day and thankful to ESPN for the opportunity. Perhaps those brief clips, played during a break in the action, along with my “tweets,” gathered a few more Libraries/Archives/Special Collections supporters. Go Gophers! Go Libraries! Game on! Ski-U-Mah!

Thursday, October 3, 2013

30th Year Reflections/56: Shutdowns and Strikes

“A wide range of academic research across the country, from sophisticated biomedical experiments at the National Institutes of Health to undergraduate political science essays, was being interrupted Wednesday as the federal government shutdown continued for a second day -- with no clear path to a resolution.” — Michael Stratford, Inside Higher Ed, October 3, 2013.

I have lived through few strikes, lockouts, furloughs, or shutdowns during my career; I can count the number on one hand. The only time I have been a member of a union was one summer during college, when I worked for a large rubber company known for its tires, belts, and hoses. During that summer, one of the company’s factories experienced a strike. As a member of the union, I was expected to contribute to a strike fund in support of workers at that factory. I reluctantly paid some of my future tuition money into the fund. I considered the payment, and my experiences over the summer, part of my education. The one time I experienced a furlough (of just a few days) was a year or two ago, the result of a tough economy. I’ve lived through a couple of strikes, and may live through one or two more. But I’ve always been on the “management” side of the equation. My job under those circumstances has been to prepare in advance of the strike and keep the lights on once the strike is underway.

All of which is to say that I cannot fully imagine what my colleagues working in federal government libraries are experiencing right now. What does one do when shut out from their place of work? Are personal finances robust enough to make it through the stoppage? I know I don’t have enough in the bank to make it for very long, if I was locked out and not receiving a paycheck. I’m sure some of my federal colleagues are in a similar position. All of a sudden a host of uncomfortable questions arise: How will I pay my rent or mortgage, my student loans, and other obligations? Will we have enough money for groceries? What do we do without? How long will this last?

My colleagues should not have to ask these questions. If those who govern truly understood our shared social contract, they would never jeopardize the health and security of fellow citizens, especially those in public service. To use an old-fashioned term, our elected officials should be ashamed of themselves. But shame, alas, is out of fashion. It is no longer a prime factor in our common enterprise. And so we turn to other means to declare dissatisfaction. If social media is any indicator, there is an immense amount of frustration among the populace with the government shutdown. The last one of these we lived through was eighteen years ago. I—along with others—voiced my concerns on Facebook. I also wrote and called my Congressman. I will also let my Senators know my perturbations. Informed advocacy is my hammer in the toolbox.

There is another aspect that comes to mind as I think about this disruption in our social fabric: how we relate to those in opposition, on the other side of the table or strike line. If I’ve learned nothing else during my professional career, I have come to value the importance of respect. It is a small but freighted word, one deserving serious consideration and vigilant attention. For some, respect needs to be earned. And in a way this is true. But for me the word has deeper roots. Even before it is earned, respect is there. It has a transcendent quality, connected to our very being. If one takes seriously, as I do, that we are all created in the image and likeness of God, then the very fact that another exists—outside of myself—commands an attentiveness to who and what they are, their needs, desires, dreams, and toils. Respect is born with the beginning of time. But as with shame, I understand that such a view of the cosmos is out of fashion, not useful in our technologically driven, gadget-filled world. We have little or no place for any being higher than ourselves. We are left to squabbling, finger-pointing, name-calling; the worst of who we are. I will seek a more excellent way and continue to live and work within a cosmology and metaphysics that makes sense to me and which never, of its own accord, shuts someone down or out.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Rare Book Cataloging: A Policy Review

Much of what we do happens beyond the public eye. Rarely do students, faculty, or researchers observe us unpacking collections, crafting finding aids, or scanning materials. However, all of these activities—and more—have a profound impact on how information consumers discover and use archival and special collections. We constantly scan our own procedures and practices looking for ways to improve service and access.

One example of this “back office” work involves our rare book collections. These volumes constitute some of the “crown jewels” in the Libraries’ catalog and are found in various repositories around (and off) campus. Primary gatherings of rare books are found in the Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine, the James Ford Bell Library, Special Collections & Rare Books, the Riesenfeld Rare Books Research Center in the Law Library, and the Andersen Horticultural Library at the University’s Landscape Arboretum in Chanhassen.

For the past several months, staff members from these collections have engaged with colleagues from cataloging and metadata services to review the Libraries’ rare book cataloging policy. You, gentle reader, might be tempted at this point to offer a disinterested yawn or plead to be spared a microscopic examination of a rare book catalog record. Consider your plea heard; the remainder of this post will not dive into the minutia of such a process. But we do want to share with you a few tidbits from the process and the kind of questions considered from a researcher’s perspective.

The current draft of our rare book cataloging policy is based primarily on a similar document conceived by colleagues at the University of Illinois. Our policy was written by Marilyn McClaskey and Christine DeZelar-Tiedman. It covers items “distinguished by notable characteristics of age, high value, format or production (particularly items printed on the hand-press), or by their inclusion in discrete collections of materials with these characteristics.” The objectives for our policy are closely related to researchers’ interests and needs and take their cues from the Bibliographic Standards Committee of the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section of the Association of College and Research Libraries. By properly cataloging a rare book we want users of our materials to be able to:

• discern and identify different editions or “states” of a book.
• answer questions they might have about a book without having to physically examine the book.
• investigate the various printing, illustrating, paper making, binding or “post-production history and context” connected with a book.
• access information, perhaps of a technical nature, on the creation of a book for use in identification or “advanced bibliographic purposes.” This might include information on the construction of the book, its format, paper manufacture, binder, or illustration techniques.

When we think about this policy from a researcher’s perspective, a number of scenarios present themselves for consideration (and provide lively conversation):

• How do we describe a book that includes notes made by a reader in the margins (or back cover, flyleaf, or other part of a book)? The presence of annotations is often important information for a researcher to consider and examine.
• How are personal libraries described, cataloged, and arranged on the shelves? Do we keep such collections together as discrete units or intersperse the collection? If the collection is not kept as a discrete unit on the shelves, how will the catalog identify a book as belonging to a personal library or specific collection?
• Should important reference works associated with rare books be cataloged in a similar manner?
• Should facsimile volumes (some expensively produced) be cataloged as rare books?
• If a fine press publisher creates a prospectus for a volume, should that prospectus be cataloged (and shelved) along with the volume?
• How do we describe a book if it has been rebound or received some sort of conservation treatment? What do we do if a binding is signed or identified as the work of a significant bindery?
• In the process of cataloging a rare volume how should it be marked as University property?
• How do we handle “laid in” material or ephemera, e.g. clippings, photographs, or letters placed inside the book?
• How is a book described if it includes an autograph, inscription, or bookplate?
• If a book comes with a special enclosure or book jacket, how should these be treated and described?

This is just a sampling of questions our committee confronts as we review this policy.

The work of review and improving our rare book cataloging policy is necessary, not onerous. Our meetings take place near some of the most amazing collection spaces in the University Libraries. Once, taking advantage of delightful summer weather (and sparing a colleague the long drive to the Twin Cities campus), we repaired to the Andersen Horticultural Library at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. It was an enchanting (and invigorating) setting in which to discuss rare book cataloging issues.

Other meetings and discussions will follow. In the end we’ll have a better policy for use by catalogers as they describe new and wonderful items added to the collections. That policy will also be “user-focused,” providing as much useful information as possible to all who discover our collections in an electronic environment. Those of us in the University’s rare book community still desire onsite visits, to have individuals and classes see and handle original items. But when such visits are not possible, we want to insure that the best and most useful information is available to any who use our online discovery tools. A review of our current policies and practices help make this possible.