Why academic librarians need to stop going to library conferences

ala conference - 'the stacks'
The vendors at the ALA conference, "The Stacks". From flickr.com user Squid!

And start going to the conferences our users – especially the faculty we work with – go to.

OK, we don’t have to completely stop going to library conferences, but unless we engage with our users more fully, I think we run the risk of being forgotten.

A bit of background.

At the ScienceOnline2010 conference, two librarians held a session attempting to tell scientists and researchers about library tools that were available.  The ensuing discussion between librarians and scientists solidified some ideas that I’ve been having for a while now about the library world.

Overall, there was a disconnect between the library world and the research world.  Scientists and scholars aren’t aware of what librarians do, beyond the whole ‘buying books’ thing.  And I don’t think that librarians are spending enough time listening to scientists and scholars to figure out what they really need and want.

After reading about this discussion online, a medical researcher responded in a blog post with a rather provocative title about what he thinks librarians can do for researchers.

Librarians – we need to listen to what the researchers are saying, and we need to play an active role in the discussion.  As a profession, I think we are more insular than we should be.  This needs to change.

That’s why we need to start attending the same conferences as the scholars we serve.

By engaging more fully with our users, we will better understand their needs (perhaps even anticipate some of them), and the library conferences we do attend will be more useful.

So, to that end, even though the freebies are more plentiful, I will not be attending the ALA annual conference this summer.  Hopefully, I will head to Denver for the Geological Society of America national meeting in October.  And perhaps the year after that I will make it to the American Chemical Society conference.

Data, Data, Data – ScienceOnline2010

The other major theme to emerge from the sessions I attended at ScienceOnline2010 was data.  All kinds of data.

Data storage - old and new
Data storage - old and new. Courtesy of Flickr user lan-S

Data about articles and journals.  Data about oceans and fish and climate.  Data about scientists, their DNA, their babies (and their babies DNA too, I suppose).

20 years ago, getting your hands on a data set meant knowing someone who knew someone who might be able to send you a disc.

These days, more and more data sets are being shared on the open web.  Sometimes they are easy to find and use, and sometimes not so much.  Sometimes the data require a bit of skill with Excel, and sometimes the data require multiple servers and extensive programming skills.

But it’s out there.

I attended a very interesting session led by John Hogenesch about cloud computing. Some of this was way over my head – I’m not as familiar with bioinformatics as I’d like to be one day, and I only have minimal knowledge of how geneticists are actually using this information.  None-the-less, it was informative to learn about the various trends in cloud computing.  Some of them I am already very familiar with – like wiki’s, Gmail, Google Docs.  I learned more about some services that I only know a bit about.  For example, Google Knol is being used by PLoS to write and publish their “Currents Influenza” online.  Since the authoring, editing and publishing is done online, the journal can quickly get items published and available.  I learned about some services that allow for remote storage and query of information, and how these services can be less expensive (and easier to run) than hosting your own servers.

Jacqueline Floyd and Chris Rowan presented a session on “Earth Science, Web 2.0+, and Geospatial Applications”.  Since my background is in geology, I was particularly intrigued by some of the resources discussed here.  The discussion at the end of the talk centered around some of the difficulties of finding spatial information (some of which I have discussed before).  For example, the USGS provides a wide range of spatial data – geophysical data, hydrological data, geologic data.  Some of this is easier to find (and use) than others.  For example, recent earthquake data is available is an easy to use Google Earth format, but data older than one month requires more complicated searching  (including detailed latitude and longitude coordinates) and the search output requires manipulation to create a visualization.  It could be easier.

One of the last sessions I attended at the conference was a presentation by PLoS managing editor Peter Binfield about article level metrics.  Peter discussed some of the things that the PLoS journals are doing to attempt to measure the impact of individual articles, not the entire journal.  The new metrics were announced in a blog post last summer, and you can see the metrics at work on any article in any of the PLoS journals.  They are using open data and API’s from lots of sources: social bookmarking (like CiteULike and Connotea), citation information (from Google Scholar and Scopus), page views and PDF downloads and lots more.  I think that this is an exciting new way to shed more light on what is going on with individual articles, but there are some challenges ahead.  How will tenure committees analyze this stuff? (Will they bother?)  What does it mean if your article was only downloaded 300 times but your colleague (in a larger discipline like genetics) had an article downloaded 3000 times?  And all of this data they are collecting can lead to lots of analysis.  Librarians have traditionally used citation analysis as a way of understanding the literature of a community, and hopefully these new metrics will give them more tools to use.

Relationships online and off – ScienceOnline2010

ScienceOnline2010 Logo

One of the major themes of the ScienceOnline2010 conference was actually personal relationships.

Despite the stereotypes of scientists, effective communication of science comes down to effective personal relationships online or off.  For bloggers, journalists, researchers and librarians, personal relationships are an essential part of doing their job well.  In a session called “Trust and Critical Thinking” moderator Stephanie Zvan and panelists Greg Laden, PZ Meyers, Deiree Schell and Kirsten Sanford discussed how essential it was to establish trust and authority in your online or media presence.  We discussed the hope that as more scientists communicate authentically with the public, pseudoscience might be pushed aside – it would be nice if the top Google search results on certain science subjects would come from authoritative folks.

A lightly attended session from librarians Dorothea Salo and Stephanie Willen Brown entitled “Scientists! What can your librarian do for you?” turned into a great discussion about the need for scientists and librarians to work together.  The librarians discussed repositories, how they can help scientists understand copyright, and how they can help teach students about scientific communication.  Since most researchers get a lot of information from their peers, the scientists suggested that one of the ways librarians can be helpful is to help them make these connections – recommending social networks and other tools to assist them in finding collaborators.  (A great list of resources discussed at the session can be found here, and Dorothea’s slides are available here.)

The last session of the conference got a little interesting – called “Online Civility and Its (Muppethugging) Discontents”.  Panelists Dr. Isis, Dr. Free Ride and Sheril Kirshenbaum lead a discussion about what “civility” means and how it applies to online environments.  At one point two participants were kind enough to demonstrate one type of online disagreement – the kind where two folks disagree vehemently about something, but it turns out that they were both talking about something slightly different.  I tend to dislike conflict, but the session gave me an opportunity to think about how ‘civility’ can be used as an excuse to prevent some members of a community from participating fully.

Of course, one of the best parts about a small conference like this is the chance to talk with folks over snacks, tea and available power outlets.  I got a chance to talk with some other librarians and a few scientists – these conversations are wonderful for helping me make sense of the formal talks and giving me ideas for how some of the concepts I learned about can be applied at my library and my college.

Institutional repositories and small institutions

On Friday morning I attended an excellent pre-conference workshop at ScienceOnline2010 lead by Dorthea Salo.  You should read her very interesting article about repositories called “Innkeeper at the Roach Motel“.  The workshop was mainly a discussion with librarians and researchers about the uses, possibilities and problems with institutional repositories.  Most of the participants were from larger universities – those with graduate students and larger faculties than the institution I work at.

For a small institution like mine, having our own institutional repository might not make sense.  We probably don’t have the library staff to run it well.  So what are our options?

Well, first there is a SUNY-wide institutional repository.  Each SUNY campus has some space on it – and each campus seems to be using it for very different purposes – some are using it for archiving documents, some are using it for internal communications.  At the moment SUNY Geneseo isn’t even listed.

Other options include disciplinary repositories.  The most well known is arXiv.org for physics, math and other related fields.  Some of our faculty have deposited pre-prints here.  For our faculty with NIH grants, PubMed Central can be the repository of choice.

But for many of our faculty, their only way of archiving their papers may be to post them on their own personal website, where they might not be as easy to find.

How much does this matter?  How vital are institutional repositories to public access to scientific information?  As publishers grant open access to journal archives and more high quality open access publications become available, will repositories have a function in the future?  I don’t know the answers, but I’ll be paying attention to folks like Dorthea to see how this might work out.

ScienceOnline 2010

This weekend I am in the Raleigh-Durham area for the Science Online 2010 conference.ScienceOnline2010 Logo

The ScienceOnline 2010 conference is a collection of science writers, bloggers and researchers gathered to discuss the dissemination of scientific information in all its forms online.  Of course, I think one could make the argument that almost all scientific communication is now online.  How many scientific publications aren’t available online?  None come to mind.

More specifically, topics at the conference relate to some of the new forms of communicating science (to the public and among scientists) – blogs, twitter, new forms of scientific journals, software applications and more.

I spend a large part of my time at work teaching undergraduate students about how scientists communicate with each other – teaching them to tell the difference between news stories aimed at the general public and scientific articles, teaching them how a review article is different than a primary research article.

One of the things I struggle with is how we teach students to deal with the new and exciting changes that are developing in science communication.  How can students evaluate a comment on a journal article over at PLoS ONE?  How can they locate a journal article that is available free in an institutional repository but not on the publishers web site?  Where does a blog post about a primary research article (like those at ResearchBlogging.org) fit in with news articles, primary research articles or review articles?

So far I have only attended one workshop and the opening keynote address, both of which have been excellent.  This conference is a great opportunity to discuss some of these issues with other folks who are thinking about the same things – I’m really looking forward to the sessions over the weekend.