The 2017 conferences held by the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) and Electronic Resources & Libraries (ER&L), in March and April respectively, covered trends ranging from diversity to emerging technology.
The ACRL conference, held in Baltimore March 22–25, broke conference records for both attendance and fundraising. More than 5,200 academic library professionals, exhibitors, speakers, and guests were on hand—nearly 3,500 in person and more than 246 virtually, representing all 5 states and 31 countries. More than 1,320 of them were first-timers, another record.
One strand of content very much in evidence was a do-it-ourselves spirit, pairing low-cost tech with invention to produce results unavailable, or unaffordable, through commercial offerings. These included Wisconsin-based Madison Area Technical College’s creative repurposing of Tutor Trac software, already in use in its writing center, to track outcomes of library instruction. The data was used to advocate with deans and cabinet members, resulting in both more budget dollars and formal recognition to get more buy-in. The next steps? Ensuring that the library is as effective for all students, and working with the vendor to develop a library-specific product.
Meanwhile, the University of Houston–Clear Lake, TX, used eye-tracking software to rethink LibGuides. Working with a cognitive think-aloud protocol, in which test subjects explain their thought process as they go, librarians learned that a lack of size differentiation between headings and text, color choices, and the organization of the visual hierarchy were confusing students. Takeaways for future research include the desire to add a retrospective, in which the researchers watch video of the interaction with the students, and a quantitative analysis.
In one of the most Maker-inflected projects, librarians at Virginia Tech built their own smart sensors and attached them to chairs in the library, adding low-cost components to tell how long students are sitting in chairs, if and when the chairs are moved, and when the device is being tampered with. The open source design is available for others to adopt and adapt.
Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion
A major theme was the need to keep pushing for equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) in the field and the larger institutions and communities it serves. The issue was front and center from author Roxane Gay’s keynote—which she began by acknowledging the whiteness of the audience and went on to call on the librarians in attendance to “give voice over and over to the human cost” of bias, to “make sure the American people have unfettered access to accurate info about the state of the world backed by rigorous research,” to avoid dismissing people who don’t live in cities, and to run for office. She also cautioned against a facile belief that if we could bridge silos and filter bubbles it would fix the political climate. Said Gay, “I don’t believe that if we all sit in a room and have a conversation and recognize each other’s humanity that everything is going to change.”
In “What If I Say the Wrong Thing: Interrupting Bias in Ourselves and Others,” consultant Vernā Myers took the conversation to the next level, stating that we need to move beyond approaching diversity by saying “‘Why can’t they be like the people that are already here?’ Y’all want the whitest black people, the straightest gay people, the most baby boomer–like Millennials. This is not diversity…. If we are going to invite in difference, we are going to have to do something different.” Myers called on attendees to recognize how many of their own standards they assume are universal are really just their particular cultural lens, and suggested that they seek out cultural informants who can help investigate other perspectives. To find our own biases, Myers suggested looking for who you default to when it’s a fast decision. And to interrupt that? Look for missing information, who is not being included, and issues of time, access, or safety that may act as barriers.
Antonia Olivas of California State University, San Marcos, studied the motivation of underrepresented minority librarians to lead. “I know why we leave,” she said, “why are staying?” Those in her sample reported a strong desire to make positive change, to help their communities, and to pave the way for other underrepresented minority academic librarians. They had in common confidence, persistence, and networking; and a strong sense of paying back (and forward, through mentoring). They also reported being quiet leaders who did not mesh with their institution’s’ style, being challenged more by their peers based on their ethnicity, and fear of losing a connection to students by moving up into higher leadership roles.
In “Who Steers the Boat? On Women in a Feminized Profession,” speakers Roxanne Shirazi, dissertation research librarian at the Graduate Center, City University of New York; Emily Drabinski, coordinator of instruction at Long Island University, Brooklyn, and a 2014 LJ Mover & Shaker; and Nicole Pagowsky, research and learning librarian and instruction coordinator at the University of Arizona Libraries (who was patched in via video) discussed the manifestations of librarianship as a feminized field—and how this plays out in service role expectations and an overall devaluation of the work. The audience shared a wide range of experiences with microaggressions in the field, and while a solution is not yet in the cards, the panelists offered a solid resource list to help raise awareness.
One of the conference’s final programs, “What’s Social Justice Got To Do with Information Literacy,” looked at a cooperative, multi-institution information literacy initiative that uses social justice as its frame. Lisa Burgert, reference librarians at the University of San Diego; Margaret Brown-Salazar, instruction coordinator and librarian for the School of Education at St Mary’s College in Moraga; Elisa Acosta, instructional coordinator at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles; Joseph Garity, coordinator of library instruction at the University of San Francisco; and moderator Gina Kessler Lee, information literacy librarian at St. Mary’s College took as a starting point the missions of their mostly Catholic institutions—which, as Garity pointed out, all have social justice as part of the their original mission statements. As a result the librarians developed instruction sessions, outreach activities, and campus-wide campaigns that taught needed hard skills oriented toward issues of human rights and a greater awareness of inclusion and equity at the same time.
Advocacy in Action
The current political climate was top of mind throughout ACRL 2017. An initial run of 1,000 postcards reading “Libraries are a smart investment” and preprinted with a form message for elected officials were filled out by attendees on the first day; another 1,500 were quickly printed to meet demand.
At Friday’s Town Hall meeting Corey Williams, federal lobbyist at the National Education Association, offered a series of concrete and actionable suggestions on ways that attendees can directly address new federal regulations that affect academic libraries. Williams, who served as senior lobbyist for the American Library Association from 2008–13, made a compelling case for individual involvement, noting that she hadn’t seen such a high-stakes environment in her nine years in Washington.
Straightforward suggestions included cultivating relationships with elected officials and focusing on areas in which it’s possible to work together. Sign up for the Legislative Action Alert system, setting up alerts for issues that are important to you and your campus. When those issues come up for action, said Williams, tweet to your members of Congress, email, and call—“When you can shut down the phone network of Congress, that is when you’ve gotten your message through,” Williams explained. Attend local town halls and invite elected officials to your campus. And don’t forget to write thank-you notes to those who vote on your side. Then keep it up. “Advocacy is akin to a muscle,” said Williams. “You can flex it once, send a tweet or email, but this is a marathon and we’re a mile in…. We need to get in shape.”
Challenging times notwithstanding, said Librarian of Congress Carla D. Hayden in a rousing final keynote, it’s a good time for libraries. Hayden described the work she is initiating at the Library of Congress, particularly the push for primary materials, information, and programming to be accessible beyond the library walls, as representative of what libraries across the country are taking on as well. Librarians are having a moment, Hayden declared to cheers. “Let’s seize the moment. Let’s claim it.”
ER&L 2017 Conference
The Electronic Resources & Libraries Conference (ER&L) in Austin, TX, April 2–5, offered attendees presentations and panel discussions on topics ranging from emerging technology to organizational strategies. Following a Sunday of preconference workshops, Anna Lauren Hoffman, postdoctoral scholar at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley, presented the opening keynote Monday morning: “Data Violence: Dignity, Discrimination, and Algorithmic Identity.”
The collection of data and the use of algorithms to sort and evaluate people can generate virtual doppelgängers that bear little resemblance to the people they would purport to represent, sometimes to tactless and humiliating results, Hoffman explained.
Citing a widely reported example from 2015, in which Google’s Photos app had tagged a photo of a black computer programmer and his girlfriend as “gorillas,” Hoffman noted, “It’s hard to quantify and capture the kind of harm that emanates from these moments.” In another example, a transgender woman was blocked from the dating app Tinder for “inappropriate behavior,” despite a clear bio and a profile photo in which she is carrying a large canvas tote bag reading “proud to be trans,” because so many men kept selecting her photo and then blocking her.
And these are just examples of blatant indignities. Algorithm-driven systems are rarely designed with marginalized groups in mind, yet these “opaque and invisible models” can perpetuate bias and now shape everything from Facebook news feeds to hiring processes to Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screening procedures. However, Hoffman concluded on a positive note, these systems can be changed, and companies such as Tinder, Google, and Facebook have been willing to make adjustments when problems come to light.
Budgets and OA
Many academic libraries have been facing budget cuts, even as the cost of journals and other resources continue to rise. Dealing with this squeeze has become a regular topic at ER&L.
Facing a $500,000 budget cut (17 percent) for FY17, the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, library was forced to consider breaking up its “big deal” subscriptions, librarian Mitchell Scott explained during his Monday “short talk” presentation. Three electronic journal packages—from Elsevier, Springer, and Wiley—accounted for a third of the library’s collection budget. Following an analysis of average uses per title and interlibrary loan (ILL) requests for subscribed package content, the library ultimately broke up the Springer and Wiley big deals, subscribing individually to journals that received an average of at least 150 uses per year and planning to have ILL and “Get It Now” from the Copyright Clearance Center provide access to less frequently used publications.
In the same session, Caroline Mills of Furman University, SC, discussed how her library, in 2007, identified 60 underused journal titles that together cost $170,000 per year and migrated to a mediated pay per use model for those journals the following year. Mediation, however, recently began taking too much staff time, so the library enabled unmediated access for faculty and students via Get It Now. There were some initial concerns about the potential for cost overruns, and occasionally people do waste money by using the service multiple times to access the same article, rather than downloading it once. But Mills noted that in FY16, Furman spent almost $96,000 on pay per use articles from 865 unique journals, which compares favorably to the $170,000 the university was spending on 60 underused titles a decade earlier.
In a separate session, Kevin Garewal, University of Akron, and Richard Wisneski, Cleveland State University, discussed a cooperative collection management strategy that their university libraries had been pursuing owing to significant budget cuts at both institutions.
Anna Dabrowski, Eric Hartnett, and David E. Hubbard, all from Texas A&M University, College Station, discussed the success of their Open Access to Knowledge Fund (OAKFund), which encourages faculty to submit articles to peer-reviewed, nonhybrid open access journals by underwriting article processing charges of up to $3,000. Established in September 2013, OAKFund initially had a budget of $25,000 from the library, with an additional $20,000 in matching funds from the office of the vice president for research. It has grown to $85,000 for FY16/17.
Monica Bulger, leader of the Enabling Connected Learning Initiative at the Data & Society Research Institute in New York City, presented the closing keynote, “Fake News, Reliability & Questioning: A Researcher’s Struggle To Navigate the New Information Landscape.” Noting that many people get their news from social media and that she often reads breaking or recent news from trusted contacts on Twitter, she encouraged the audience to consider how often they had forwarded, liked, or retweeted articles without fully reading or vetting them.
This year’s ER&L had about 1,000 in-person attendees, along with thousands more watching sessions via live stream. Those recordings, along with tape-delayed content, are available at electroniclibrarian.org/2017-online-conference.