“I am on the verge of making a radical decision,” a professor told me in an e-mail note a couple of weeks ago. The plan taking shape was “to get rid of almost all the books I have in my office,” he said, “based on their almost total superfluity.”
He found that he regularly consulted around two dozen volumes – “references, timeless classics, a couple of recent and invaluable syntheses.” But they were always the same titles. The rest were starting to look like “ugly wallpaper.” The sight was getting oppressive and he started to imagine what it might be like to have a change of scenery.
“I feel increasingly overrun by these things that, day by day, seem less useful,” he explained. “I am thinking of keeping only those books I refer to on a regular basis for writing lectures. Anything else, I can get from the library, or in a pinch, find a citation via Google Books or Amazon. I've already stopped keeping most paper journals, though there are a few things that aren't available online. Is this crazy? Is anyone else you know making this kind of decision?”
The implied notion was interesting: my correspondent seemed to think this urge to purge might be a product of the increasing ease of instant access to material not on one’s shelves. I have no idea whether or not this is the case, or whether it represents anything like a trend. But the sense of being overwhelmed by accumulated books is only too familiar. My office and library are at home, and it has been necessary to trim the excess books on occasion, sometimes hundreds of books at a blow, just to keep them from piling up on the floor. (This is known as “preserving domestic tranquility.”)
It seems like a fair guess that, digital access or no, many other people share this daydream of a book apocalypse-in-miniature. I asked my correspondent to keep me posted if he decided to go through with it. As it turned out, this was a formality, for his first note seems to have been a matter of psyching himself up to face the job.
He gave permission to quote from his messages. He is an up-and-coming professor in the humanities who – so it emerged from some passing references – has in recent times taken on some administrative responsibilities. I won’t identify him or name his field, for reasons that are not too hard to understand. There is a potential breach of collegiality in clearing away books by one’s friends or peers.
At the start, my correspondent estimated that he had 130 feet of books occupying his office. That works out to the equivalent, with ordinary bookshelves, of about 40 to 50 shelves’ worth. He said the moment of decision came when he realized that reducing the collection to “the hard core of actually useful information [without] a lot of filler” would have a fringe benefit: “I could fit a comfortable reading chair in my office.”
It sound like the first thing to go was the dream of reducing his holdings to just two or three dozen titles necessary for preparing lectures. This extreme ambition was revised to trimming down to roughly 60 feet of books. The effort would take a few days, he thought; and he hoped to finish before leaving on a trip that would take him away from the office for a week or so.
“I guess the first thing is, we're talking about work-related books,” he said early in the process. “Maybe that's a distinction most people don't make. But P.G. Wodehouse books get kept, at home, and re-read. They're on separate bookshelves and don't count for this discussion. The books that really form intellectual landmarks for me aren't in my office anyway. Things like the essays of William James or Isaiah Berlin, they're at home where they can be dipped into at leisure.”
After a couple of days, I asked how things were going. Progress was steady, he said, but his new role as bureaucrat was imposing demands on his attention, plus he had just signed up with Facebook. But it sounded like the biggest impediment to ruthless purging came from the mixed feelings that accompanied by the process. “I find it hard to pull the trigger,” he said.
“I'm worried I might suddenly want one,” he wrote. “I feel strangely attached to books I haven't opened in, no kidding, 12 years. What if I need to? (You won't need to. Anyway there's a copy in the library.) What if my colleagues see I don't have these books anymore? Will I lose intellectual street cred?”
As the veteran of several such deep purges, I can understand his misgivings, and will say that all of them are completely justified. You will rue the cuts you are making. You will be chagrined when something you need, and once owned, is not readily at hand. There is no getting around this. It’s a trade-off: The pleasure of substantially reduced clutter comes only at the price of regret.
Still, it is possible to create so much momentum in the process that you blast right through the second thought – getting rid of books in a kind of frenzy, something akin to the “berserker” state. There is a kind of exhilaration to it. But it requires full acceptance of the reality that there will be pain later: the remorse over titles you never retrieved from the discard pile.
But this professor’s schedule didn’t leave him the option of getting worked up to go all Viking on the task at hand.
“I'm not being ruthless enough on the first pass,” he said, “ and I will have to go back through and cull, again. In hard cases, the question is, how guilty will I feel if I toss it?”
After he’d been at it for a while longer, I asked if he had established a method or a routine.
“It's going like this,” he responded. “First few minutes of the morning, look over shelves on home office. Shuffle books around, begin to pull books that I don't think I should really keep. Put in bag. Take to office. First few minutes at office, shuffle books around, pull books I don't think I should really keep. Look at pile of discards, pull one irresolutely out, flip through to see if I'd written anything in it and if I can tell how long ago. Fidget, put disputed book back on shelf. Remove from shelf and put back in pile. Take a walk up the corridor and back, get impatient, throw all discards in bag, leave in a place where graduate students can pick them over and take what they want.”
Monographic works tended to find their way to the discard pile without doubt or long delay.
“The exercise," he wrote, "has confirmed concretely what had hitherto been an abstract conviction: it's a rare monograph that's actually worth a book. You can digest the idea, pick out a few key pieces of evidence, decide whether or not it really changes your mind about an overall interpretation, and then you're really, sadly, done with it. Scarcely ever will you revisit it -- scarcely ever will it repay you to revisit it, except to check a citation maybe -- unlike a good essay or synthesis, which you can always come back to for insights.”
On another day, he wrote: “Monographs suffer unduly in this process; mostly, one gleans them for information and/or ideas. One can very easily remember that a monograph had a particular fact or quotation in it, and can if need be discover it again via Google Books or Amazon’s ‘Search Inside.’”
My correspondent also found himself developing a new appreciation of his library at home. Apart from holding the absolutely essential titles he might want to read on the spur of the moment, it constituted a kind of professional safety net.
“I can always tell people who want to know why I don't have many books in my office anymore, ‘Oh, I have bookshelves at home.’ True enough, and maybe that monograph of yours is on them.”
But it turns out he won’t be needing that escape clause after all. “In the end,” he wrote near the close of our exchange, “my colleagues' books all stayed, though one former colleague's went.”
Along the way, he minted an aphorism: “A personal library is the physical version of a bibliography or ‘for further reading’ section in something you’ve published; some books are there because you actually used them, some are there because everyone else thinks they should be there, and some are there because your friends wrote them.”
On Friday, before he took off for a break, I asked if he’d met the goal of reducing the books on his shelves to 60 feet’s worth – a cut of more than half. He said he had.
“Still some shuffling around to go,” he wrote. “In the end, I decided I could have ‘household gods’ at home, in the household -- so shelves of favorite thinkers available first thing in the morning. Reference works, surveys, things needed to look in when giving lectures, are at the office. But generally speaking, the great purge occurred, and it left room to grow.”
The comment about leaving “room to grow” seemed ominous. Having gone through this process myself a few times now, I contemplated the situation with the sense of mingled familiarity and apprehension that Prometheus might feel, upon waking, at the sight of of his new liver.
This might be the right time to adopt the outlook of Mae West. A friend asked her what she wanted for her birthday. “Just don’t get me a book,” she replied. “I’ve already got a book.”
Open Library is a new online tool for finding information about books – even (perhaps especially) for titles that are out-of-print, scarce, or likely to find one reader per decade, if even that. It is, so to speak, a catalog with benefits. If a text is available in digital format, there is a link. you to it. Citations and excerpts from reviews will be available. Likewise, cross-references to other works on related topics. A user of Open Library can see the cover of the book and, in some cases, search the contents.
The project is still very much under development. Force of habit makes us speak of the pre-optimal version of a site as its “beta” version. With Open Library, given its ambitions, chances are that “gamma” is probably more accurate.
But here's an encouraging sign: The basic framework is being established by my appallingly accomplished young friend Aaron Swartz -- who, at the age of 21, has already helped create RSS (that was in his early teens), published a couple of computer-science papers, and developed Infogami, a system enabling his digitally clueless elders to set up their own websites.He studied sociology as an undergraduate at Stanford University, presumably in his spare time. Aaron has written an essay called “How to Be More Productive” that can be recommended on the grounds that the author does know something on the subject.
I recently sent him a number of questions about the project. Some of his answers were, it seems, typed into a mobile phone. A transcript of the e-mail interview follows.
Q:How is Open Library funded? Are you working on it full time? And how many people are involved in the project?
A: It's currently being funded by the Internet Archive, with the help of some state and federal library grants. We have some volunteers, but also about 5 people working full-time (a couple programmers, a designer, and a product manager).
Q:What will Open Library offer that you can’t already find online? What was missing from the existing array of online book-data resources – WorldCat, Google Books, Amazon, etc. – that makes it worthwhile to create a new one?
A: As the kind of person who reads Intellectual Affairs (an academophile?), I'm often looking for interesting books on an obscure topic. I can look on Amazon, but its coverage of out-of-print books is pretty poor. (In my experience, most of the really interesting books are out of print.) I can search an academic library or WorldCat, but the quality of data is pretty weak -- you can get basic bibliographic info, but no reviews and weak search and a painful interface and most require a subscription.
So I wanted to build a site where one could more easily find those hidden great books, by combining all the data we have on them in one place and letting the people who love them go back and annotate and highlight them.
Q:With any Web 2.0 project, the question of safeguards comes up. Are any built in? I mean, to keep people from going through and systematically attributing the complete works of Shakespeare to Francis Bacon, or whatever.
A: Our plan is to leave it open and then lock things down as need be. Right now we're watching all the edits so that we can revert things if people do that and we hope to let users watch their favorite pages and so on. That kind of thing has worked pretty well for Wikipedia and we're hoping it will work similarly here. But we're willing to try other things if it doesn't.
Q:Some serious questions have come up about the shrinking depth of subject cataloging from the book records issued by the Library of Congress. That might sound like a problem just for librarians, but it isn't. It’s basic infrastructure for intellectual life, pretty much. To anyone doing research, having books adequately cataloged by subject offers tremendous benefits. Will Open Library be taking up the slack on this?
A: Yes, it's amazing the amount of politics around Library of Congress Subject Headings. (And I had no idea that they were thinking about abandoning them -- that's incredible; thanks for the pointer.) Lots of people have different opinions over how things should be characterized and cataloged and which things were important. When we first started the project, librarians kept arguing about which system we should use.
We decided early on to not be partisan but to be a clearinghouse for all the cataloging data we could get our hands on. So in areas where the Library of Congress doesn't do the cataloging, or doesn't do the cataloging to your taste, we'll try to make that data available.
We're hoping we'll be able to pull series data from the specialized libraries so that you can view them on our web site. We'll also republish them so that other libraries can import them from us.
Q:Will you be asking permission before incorporating data from, say, an academic library's online catalog?
A: Yes, we're talking to the academic libraries to make deals on how to import their catalogs. Our main pitch so far has been that this is an opportunity to contribute to a public commons -- contribute your library catalog to the public, and not only make it available to interested library users everywhere, but also contribute to a system where you'll get back everyone else's work, just like libraries have done with RLG.
Q:Open Library will also serve as a central directory for books available in digital formats. Some such material is freely available to everyone (e.g., the Project Guttenberg editions). And some of it has more limited access. Will you link to the latter? And do you have a policy or opinion about dealing with Google Books?
A: Yes, we hope to link to everything interesting -- free or not, although obviously we prefer free and can do more with it. We're planning to link to Google Books and we're hoping we can get copies of their public domain books.
Q:Do you have a long-term plan to make digitizing books part of the Open Library project? Or does it make more sense to leave that kind of initiative to others?
A: The Internet Archive has a big book digitization project, with scanning centers at the University of California, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the Brooklyn Public Library, Library of Congress, and others. We hope Open Library can raise money to increase their scanning.
Q:I have a question about Open Library to pass along from Matthew Battles, a senior editor of scholarly books at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the author of Library: An Unquiet History (Norton, 2003). It’s about metadata – an important issue that I will admit just barely understanding. So before going on to the question itself, would mind giving a crash course on the topic?
A: This is a bit tricky. Metadata generally is stuff like cataloging data. It's what lets you find books when you want to do a search more complicated than "which books have these words in them?" (or when you don't have the full text of every book made available for searching, as seems to be the case for the foreseeable future). Whenever you look for everything by a particular author or in a particular subject, you're using metadata.
It becomes useful in two cases: When you don't have all the data and when you want to ask more interesting questions. If you just want to find a particular page, searching by full text is usually enough. But if you want to do something more interesting -- like graph an author's output by year, or see which country has produced the most romance novels, or find out which genre has the most growth in the past six months -- you need metadata. Here's a dorky metaphor for you: data is literary criticism and metadata is Franco Moretti.
Q:OK, now on to the question from Matthew Battles: “I wonder how much a resource like Open Library can make itself open to metadata mashups--giving developers openings through which they might take metadata, bibliographical info, and text and organize it in undreamt-of ways... and how robust and open will the system become not only with respect to image formats, but metadata concepts? In less convoluted terms, will it be possible for Open Library to ‘accrete’ tags and other metadata, to layer cross-references and hyperlinks--for its metadats to ‘learn’ from users?”
A: Yes, opening up our data to others is a key part of the plan. We will have full database dumps and XML and other formats as export. A big hope of mine is that by making all of this data available in a centralized place, we'll make it vastly easier to build applications around books. Want to build a site that lets people find other people who have the same books who live near them? No longer do you have to build a whole bunch of infrastructure to locate and refer to books -- instead, you just need to build the part relevant to your application. (Like the geolocation stuff.)
As for "accreting" tags, we spent a lot of time building an advanced new type of database for this project so that we could load in data of all sorts from numerous sources. So if someone has been keeping track of, say, the fonts used in every book, we can import all that data and store it with the other stuff we have. Similarly for any user-created data.
Q:So what is your sense of the master plan for this project? The future course of development?
A: We're taking it step by step. Our first goal is to get catalog information for every book -- a big project in itself. We've been calling all the publishers and national libraries and research libraries to get copies of their catalogs (we'd love readers' help with this, by the way!) and then we're working on algorithms to integrate all that data into one coherent site.
After that, we want to work on improving the book-reading interface for books that we have scans of. We're hoping to make the scanned text into a wiki as well, so that people can fix typos and correct errors in our processing (OCR) of the scan. We'd also like to think about new ways that people can work with a book's full text online and what the proper interface for that should be. And, of course, we want to think about ways we can get more books scanned. One idea is a "Scan this book" button on every out-of-copyright book, where for $50 to $100, we'll page the book from a library, deliver it to the scanners, and then email you a PDF of the book and put the full text online, with a little nameplate thanking you for funding it.
And then, of course, we want to expand beyond just books. We're eager to do the same thing with journal articles: one open site where we list every journal article, all the journal articles by a particular author, sorts by subject and topic, the abstracts and references, and links to places where you can find a full text copy. I just got back from a science conference and the folks I talked to there loved the idea. And after that there's music and movies, naturally.
Q:One last thing... People should be using index-card catalogs to find print-and-ink books in brick-and-mortar libraries! This is just one more effort to turn the US into a nation of screen potatoes! Admit it -- you just hate books, don't you? (I say this tongue in cheek, but there are bound to be people muttering it in all earnestness.)
A: You found me out: I love books. Every time I walk into a library, my face just lights up. There's something so grand and inspiring about collecting all those books just to share them with people. And I visit them constantly; I always have a dozen books checked out at anyone time, with a couple new ones each week. I'm sure that's nothing for most IHE readers but to my friends in the computer industry, it's like I'm some kind of bizarre alien. I do this because in a world of Googles, Amazons, and Wikipedias, all encouraging people with computers to stay at home and talk to their screens, I want to have at least one countervailing force encouraging people to go find dusty library books off of disused shelves.
My corner of the Internet has been abuzz over a muckraking article that recently appeared in The Guardian on the subject of Facebook. Tom Hodgkinson, the highly principled slacker behind The Idler and author of How to Be Free, makes some familiar complaints: online friends are a pale imitation of face-to-face relationships, Facebook encourages high-schoolish obsession with popularity, it prompts its members to reveal too much about themselves, and it uses that information for commercial gain. But the article goes further. Facebook is not just an American-owned company with global ambitions. According to Hodgkinson, it’s highly influenced by a “neocon activist” board member and funded by a venture capital firm that has ties to the CIA. Their ultimate aim: “an arid global virtual republic, where your own self and your relationships with your friends are converted into commodities on sale to giant global brands.”
Ironically, The Guardian helpfully provides a “share” link so you can send the article to all of your Facebook friends.
One of the most interesting responses to this article bubbled up on A-Librarians, a forum for anarchist and radical librarians. (Yes, I am, in case you’re wondering. And “anarchist librarian” is not an oxymoron. Look it up.) While other lists were debating whether the article’s claims were credible, or whether Facebook is valuable regardless, the members of this list were getting down to philosophical basics. Why does the concept of property so thoroughly infuse our understanding of rights? Are our conceptions of privacy dependent on owning one’s individual “self”? If we own our identity, is our public persona a form of intellectual property, as a trademark is?
I don’t know the answers to those questions, which relate not only to Facebook, but the debates over Google’s project to digitize great university library collections, and the fights over access to journal articles written by professors whose institutions can’t afford to gain access to them. But as a librarian who is in favor of sharing ideas freely, these debates made me rethink the fundamental relationship between the individual’s desire to share their thoughts and experiences with others and the commercial entities that provide the distribution channel for that act of sharing. It seems to me the crux of the problem is that the profit motive influences both sides of the equation – differently.
Corporations like Google and Facebook are worth a lot of money, which is a bit odd. They don’t create their content, and what’s there, they give away for free. They mediate the space where we go to express ourselves, and where find out what others think. Sure, we have to put up with a bit of advertising, but that’s just a minor irritant for something that’s free.
But there is a cost.
These corporations provide us with a space to play, engage with others, and make connections. We get to build our own identities in a public way. In return, we give them (perhaps without realizing it) a panopticon view of our lives, a chance to gather data on what we think, do, read, say, enjoy, and with whom we associate -- our "communities of interest" in the parlance of the FBI, or "friends" in Facebook’s lexicon. It’s exceedingly valuable information because it can be sold to companies who want to follow trends and focus their advertising dollars on just those individuals most likely to respond. The more people involved, the more valuable the data.
Facebook embarrassed itself last fall by overestimating our enthusiasm for this exhibitionist social contract. They launched Beacon, a service that would send information about one’s online purchases to a Facebook member’s friends unless an obscure “opt out” box was checked quickly before it disappeared from sight. Their assumption was that everyone would enjoy sharing their shopping lists as much as their playlists -- your friend Mike just bought Hanes underwear and thinks you might want to buy some, too! -- but that idea hit an invisible barrier of resistance. Whoa, that’s going too far! We got cold feet when the commercial consequences of our sharing was made visible. The outcry, ironically mobilized through Facebook itself, forced them to back off.
But on the whole, the public is content to go along. Just give me a place to express myself to the world, and you can do ... whatever it is you do.
People trust these playful-seeming corporations to not do evil far more than they trust their government. In 2007, an ACLU poll found a majority of the public opposed warrantless wiretapping. Earlier, tens of thousands of people signed petitions opposing the government’s ability to track what they were checking out of libraries or buying at bookstores.
Libraries have always taken privacy seriously – not because it’s valuable in itself, but because it’s a necessary condition for the freedom to read whatever you want without risk of penalty. When the PATRIOT Act was passed, librarians checked to make sure their databases erased the connection between a book and its borrower as soon as the book was returned. That erasure, however, makes it harder to offer the kind of personalization, such as recommendations based on previous book choices, that the public increasingly expects from online systems. After all, it’s what they get from Amazon.
Suspicion of the government does not extend to corporations running the Web 2.0 playground. Those guys just seem so ... nice. And after all, if they give us the tools to tell people we read a good novel or like a particular band, why not let the company make a little money from it?
The complexities of private/public digital tradeoffs have been debated in many different contexts. Siva Vaidhyanathan has questioned why libraries, a public good, should partner with Google, a private corporation, to digitize their contents; aren’t we concerned that Google will control the most complete library in the world? Others defend the practice because – well, without Google’s deep pockets, it simply wouldn’t happen on so vast a scale. Besides, the books go right back on the library’s shelf once digitized. What’s the harm in sharing?
Let’s set aside the contentious copyright issue for the moment and concentrate on why Google is providing “free” resources. Unlike libraries, Google gets content for free, gives it away for free, and makes its money by being an enormous distribution channel for everything from physics research to 19th century scanned books to the latest YouTube video. By watching the traffic through those channels, they are able to provide highly-specific information on who’s interested in what. The more we use Google, the more information they accrue about what we’re using, and the more valuable that mountain of information becomes.
And, let’s face it: we have selfish motives, too. Social networking blurs self-expression and self-promotion. The idea of property and its exchange has so infiltrated our culture as a defining concept that many people do, in fact, think of their public persona as their brand. It’s important to “be out there.” Their lives grow more valuable as more people recognize and acknowledge their ideas, their tastes, and their interests.
This isn’t just a youthful obsession. Facebook has recently opened its service to everyone, regardless of school or college affiliation. A novelist I know was just advised by her agent to set up a Facebook profile to increase her online presence and engage in “relationship marketing” with potential customers. In other words, she’s expected to act as her own sock puppet so she can sell more books. Make friends and influence people.
Here’s the interesting paradox: The only way to increase the intellectual property value of your identity is to give it away. That’s the only way it can be shared, linked to and recognized by others. Trading a little personal information for a public platform, whether for personal expression or self-promotion (or both), seems a fair exchange.
Does this sound eerily familiar? It should.
As scholars, our ideas gain value as we make them public, and we have been historically myopic about the consequences of trading the rights to our ideas for access to distribution channels. This unexamined practice put us all over a barrel when publishers required the academy to ransom those ideas back through prohibitively expensive journal subscriptions for libraries. The personal advancement attached to making our ideas public only added to the problem; more publications translated into higher prestige. There was just too much stuff for libraries to buy back, and not enough budget. The Open Access movement is on track to significantly change the “terms of service” when it comes to scholarly communication. Though the battle’s far from over, we’ve made real progress.
But we’ve barely begun to examine the unintended consequences of the Faustian bargain we strike when we share content through privately-owned digital domains of the public sphere.
Tom Hodgkinson says we have a choice: we can help Facebook’s right-wing investors make a lot of money, or we can simply opt out of “this takeover bid for the world.”
But hold on – it’s our world. And we didn’t approach the problems of scholarly communication by ceasing to publish. We started by educating the community about the consequences and renegotiating the terms of our relationship with publishers.
Scholarly work isn’t the only form of communication worth fighting for. The privately owned digital public sphere is a fertile if febrile commons where millions of people play out their identities and share ideas. The bargains we used to routinely accede to in order to get our research published were easy to ignore because we personally benefitted from them. In fact, we didn’t read the fine print, and we didn’t anticipate the consequences. Something very similar is going on in social networking.
Scholars and librarians champion the value of free and open exchange of ideas for the public good. It’s time to take those values beyond the academy. If we made an effort to help the public understand the tradeoffs we make to be part of the digital social sphere, maybe we’d all think more critically about how our public identities are formed and exploited – for what they are worth.
Barbara Fister is academic librarian and professor at Gustavus Adolphus College.
When the online, anyone-can-edit Wikipedia appeared in 2001, teachers, especially college professors, were appalled. The Internet was already an apparently limitless source of nonsense for their students to eagerly consume -- now there was a Web site with the appearance of legitimacy and a dead-easy interface that would complete the seduction until all sense of fact, fiction, myth and propaganda blended into a popular culture of pseudointelligence masking the basest ignorance. An Inside Higher Edarticle just last year on Wikipedia use in the academy drew a huge and passionate response, much of it negative.
Now the English version of Wikipedia has over 2 million articles, and it has been translated into over 250 languages. It has become so massive that you can type virtually any noun into a search engine and the first link will be to a Wikipedia page. After seven years and this exponential growth, Wikipedia can still be edited by anyone at any time. A generation of students was warned away from this information siren, but we know as professors that it is the first place they go to start a research project, look up an unfamiliar term from lecture, or find something disturbing to ask about during the next lecture. In fact, we learned too that Wikipedia is indeed the most convenient repository of information ever invented, and we go there often -- if a bit covertly -- to get a few questions answered. Its accuracy, at least for science articles, is actually as high as the revered Encyclopedia Britannica, as shown by a test published in the journal Nature.
It is time for the academic world to recognize Wikipedia for what it has become: a global library open to anyone with an Internet connection and a pressing curiosity. The vision of its founders, Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, has become reality, and the librarians were right: the world has not been the same since. If the Web is the greatest information delivery device ever, and Wikipedia is the largest coherent store of information and ideas, then we as teachers and scholars should have been on this train years ago for the benefit of our students, our professions, and that mystical pool of human knowledge.
What Wikipedia too often lacks is academic authority, or at least the perception of it. Most of its thousands of editors are anonymous, sometimes known only by an IP address or a cryptic username. Every article has a "talk" page for discussions of content, bias, and organization. "Revert" wars can rage out of control as one faction battles another over a few words in an article. Sometimes administrators have to step in and lock a page down until tempers cool and the main protagonists lose interest. The very anonymity of the editors is often the source of the problem: how do we know who has an authoritative grasp of the topic?
That is what academics do best. We can quickly sort out scholarly authority into complex hierarchies with a quick glance at a vita and a sniff at a publication list. We make many mistakes doing this, of course, but at least our debates are supported with citations and a modicum of civility because we are identifiable and we have our reputations to maintain and friends to keep. Maybe this academic culture can be added to the Wild West of Wikipedia to make it more useful for everyone?
I propose that all academics with research specialties, no matter how arcane (and nothing is too obscure for Wikipedia), enroll as identifiable editors of Wikipedia. We then watch over a few wikipages of our choosing, adding to them when appropriate, stepping in to resolve disputes when we know something useful. We can add new articles on topics which should be covered, and argue that others should be removed or combined. This is not to displace anonymous editors, many of whom possess vast amounts of valuable information and innovative ideas, but to add our authority and hard-won knowledge to this growing universal library.
The advantages should be obvious. First, it is another outlet for our scholarship, one that may be more likely to be read than many of our journals. Second, we are directly serving our students by improving the source they go to first for information. Third, by identifying ourselves, we can connect with other scholars and interested parties who stumble across our edits and new articles. Everyone wins.
I have been an open Wikipedia editor now for several months. I have enjoyed it immensely. In my teaching I use a “living syllabus” for each course, which is a kind of academic blog. (For example, see my History of Life course online syllabus.) I connect students through links to outside sources of information. Quite often I refer students to Wikipedia articles that are well-sourced and well written. Wikipages that are not so good are easily fixed with a judicious edit or two, and many pages become more useful with the addition of an image from my collection (all donated to the public domain). Since I am open in my editorial identity, I often get questions from around the world about the topics I find most fascinating. I’ve even made important new connections through my edits to new collaborators and reporters who want more background for a story.
For example, this year I met online a biology professor from Centre College who is interested in the ecology of fish on Great Inagua Island in the Bahamas. He saw my additions and images on that Wikipedia page and had several questions about the island. He invited me to speak at Centre next year about evolution-creation controversies, which is unrelated to the original contact but flowed from our academic conversations. I in turn have been learning much about the island’s living ecology I did not know. I’ve also learned much about the kind of prose that is most effective for a general audience, and I’ve in turn taught some people how to properly reference ideas and information. In short, I’ve expanded my teaching.
Wikipedia as we know it will undoubtedly change in the coming years as all technologies do. By involving ourselves directly and in large numbers now, we can help direct that change into ever more useful ways for our students and the public. This is, after all, our sacred charge as teacher-scholars: to educate when and where we can to the greatest effect.
Mark A. Wilson
Mark A. Wilson is a professor of geology at the College of Wooster.
Academic librarians want their Web sites to attract faculty and students the way flowers invite insects for a visit. The urge to plunge into the cornucopia of electronic riches that lies waiting in the library’s highly organized portal should be irresistible. Exclusive research databases, costly electronic journals and digital books and treasures lay in wait for those who need and are willing to seek them out.
For faculty, at least two powerful motivators should drive their personal interest in expecting a great library Web site. One is their own need to easily find scholarly content that supports their research. The other is a desire to have students discover the resources that strengthen their research and result in high quality assignments.
It should be a scholar’s dream, but there’s trouble in paradise. In August 2008 the Ithaka Group released a report, “Studies of Key Stakeholders in the Digital Transformation of Higher Education,” on the relationship between faculty members and their libraries’ electronic resources. As librarians already knew well, Ithaka’s report showed that faculty perceived the library’s collective electronic resources, particularly in business, science and technology, as far more critical to scholarship than print collections are. But there is a significant disconnect when it comes to faculty use of the library’s website as a gateway, or portal, to access that wealth of electronic content.
According to the Ithaka report, academic librarians rated the function of the library as a gateway for locating scholarly information as “very important.” Asked to assess the performance of libraries as their portals to scholarly information, however, faculty in all disciplines rated them considerably differently. Compared to earlier years of this Ithaca study, faculty no longer perceived the library as an important portal to scholarly information. While the library Web site is not specifically mentioned in the report, for the 21st century library, the Web site is the de facto gateway to electronic research content. The report makes clear that faculty increasingly access what they need elsewhere or simply find alternate routes around the library Web site to get to their desired library e-resources.
Consider as well these other indicators of the declining value of the library Web site as information gateway:
A September 2008 a report from Simon Inger Consulting titled “How Readers Navigate to Scholarly Content” presented data about researchers’ preferred starting points. The two most frequently preferred starting points are specific specialist databases, which suggests scholars simply bookmark the library databases they use most often, and general Web search engines. Library Web sites are even less frequently used than publishers’ Web sites, non-library gateways to journals, and even e-mail-based journal alerts.
An articled titled “Measuring the ‘Google Effect’ at JSTOR” by Bruce Heterick appeared in the June 2008 issue of Against the Grain, and it documented the increased access of JSTOR content via Google Scholar. JSTOR usage has increased dramatically since its inception in 1997. But more recently a new growth wave is propelled by referrals from non-traditional sites. Heterick writes “another order of magnitude change in scale is introduced when we begin to look at the number of links coming to JSTOR directly from Google and Google Scholar.” The number of links to JSTOR articles from Google-referring URLs increased by 159 percent from 2006 to 2007. It’s just one more reason to avoid the library Web site as a research starting point.
LibQual is a satisfaction survey administered by many academic libraries. Faculty will know it by its distinctive structure that requires respondents to identify not mere satisfaction level with the library but one’s minimum, desired and perceived levels of satisfaction with the library. What have academic librarians learned from LibQual? If there’s one thing the respondents dislike more than completing the LibQual survey, it’s the library’s Web site. There is only one question about the library’s Web site among the 20 or so asked on the survey instrument. I attended a meeting of librarians where we discussed LibQual and learned how to use it more effectively. We attendees discovered we all had something in common; none of our users cared for our Web sites.
It is debatable that faculty and students ever perceived the library as the starting point for their research, but these indicators offer convincing evidence that the library’s web portal, more than ever, can make no such claim to that title. We may be fortunate when they go there at all. The future of the library Web site as information portal is bleak. But that’s good news. Libraries have grown too dependent on their Web sites as gateways to electronic scholarly content, and have invested too much time trying to fix what is broken.
This needs to change. The academic library community’s general response to the dissatisfaction is to improve the usability. Tabbed interfaces, simple search boxes and more personalization are a few of the new features site designers are employing in chasing better focus group responses. All of this change suggests rearranging the deck chairs on this Titanic. Now is the time to let this ship sink to its watery grave.
The primary function of the contemporary academic library Web site is to connect a user to content, be it an article database, e-book or e-journal article, and to do it with minimal barriers and maximum speed and ease. Faculty and students tend to have their one or two favorites, for example, JSTOR for many faculty and Academic Search Premier for students. For those highly popular e-resources the portal may get the job done. A serious flaw needing correction is the failure of the academic library Web site to invite the user community to, in simple ways, discover the full range of resources available for their research. Bruce Springsteen laments having 57 channels and nothing to watch. Faculty and students can access from dozens to hundreds of databases with little or no idea what they are or how to find them.
So it is little surprise that faculty and students rarely use the library’s Web site to connect to content that satisfies their scholarly needs. Instead they invent their own backdoor routes to the content, but in doing so may miss related or new electronic resources made available by the library. You may argue that faculty and students forged their own paths to circumvent the library back in the print only days, but now the possibilities for and associated risks of missing important resources are astronomically greater.
Advocating a much needed transformation of the library portal leads to two questions. First, how can libraries more effectively create awareness about their content so users can discover it? Second, what should replace the library portal? The answers are intertwined, but the changes needed depend on faculty recognizing that it is a change they must help to facilitate.
Several years ago academic institutions shifted control of their Web sites from technology wizards to marketing gurus. At the time there was backlash. The change in outlook was perceived as a corporate sellout, a philosophical transformation of the university Web site from candid campus snapshot to soulless advertiser of campus wares to those who would buy into the brand. I observed that academic librarians feared what the marketers wrought, and would resist efforts to let any advertising consultant or marketing vice-president take control of the library Web site. They might just make it more about marketing than connecting people to information.
I was one of the resisters. Now I think the marketing people got it right. The first thing librarians must do after ending the pretense that the library Web site succeeds in connecting people to content is understand how and why the institutional homepage has improved and what we can learn from it. Doing so will allow academic libraries to discover answers to that first question; how to create user community awareness about the electronic resources in which the institution heavily invests.
It’s not that academic library Web sites completely ignore marketing. It’s just done badly. News about the library’s programs, events or new resources are often crammed into a corner of the page, are limited to small bits of text or are relegated somewhere out of the F-zone, the area, according to usability experts, to which most web users’ eyes naturally gravitate. Those prime real estate areas are instead dedicated to lists of links to catalogs, database lists and things with names that mean little to anyone other than a librarian. More libraries are moving to a single search box powered by a federated search engine that retrieves information from multiple resources at once. In order to emulate search engines those boxes are relegated to some familiar space at the top of the page.
Rather than attempting to mimic search engines academic librarians should aim to differentiate their Web sites. They should devote the most eye-catching space to information that promotes the people who work at the library, the services they provide and the community activities that anchor the library’s place as the social, cultural and intellectual center of campus. That shifts the focus from content to service and from information to people. Academic libraries must promote their human side. The library portal experience should emphasize the value of and invite stronger relationships with faculty and students. That means going beyond offering a commodity that, by and large, the user community can well access without the Web site. The next generation academic library Web site must leverage what academic librarians can do to help faculty and students improve their productivity and achieve success.
But if libraries radically change the nature of their homepage, where will all the links to content go? How will the library make those expensive databases accessible to faculty and students? Academic libraries are already moving in new directions that may provide the answers, and it suggests the library portal no longer needs to compete to be the one-stop portal where faculty and their students begin their research. These pioneering libraries distribute the content across the institution’s network and beyond. They are putting the links where faculty and students can find them easily. It changes the library website paradigm from “you must visit our portal” to “we’ll be where you are.”
Course sites are ready made for links to library content. Academic librarians are making it easier than ever for faculty to integrate an array of research tools into course management software or even a faculty member’s personal website. At the Temple University Libraries the librarians create customized content packages that contain just the right databases that students need for their assignments. They can even add in custom Google search boxes and non-library links that may be of use to instructors and their students. If faculty desire links to specific articles, those can be added as well. The content package is sent to faculty as an e-mail attachment. Faculty then simply upload it to their course site. The content installs itself as a unique courseware page and even adds a library link to the course menu. It eliminates any faculty excuses for not integrating the library into their course.
Libraries are also offering new technologies that blow the doors off those traditional subject guides to which faculty and students long ago stopped paying attention. LibGuides is an example of an increasingly popular guide creator that allows librarians to create a highly customized research guide for any single course or assignment. Research conducted by academic librarians made it clear that students preferred customized course and assignment guides to broad subject guides. Why? It puts the links they need to complete research assignments right where they need them. Scavenger hunts through library portals to locate needed databases or e-journals can become a practice of the past. While LibGuides can exist outside of courses, faculty can certainly make it easier for students to discover them by adding links to the guides. They can even take it a step further and allow a librarian to integrate the guide into their course.
The faculty is the catalyst in this transformation of the library portal concept. What they must do to accomplish this task is open the door to greater collaboration with academic librarians. While there are ways librarians can force their presence into institutional courseware, primarily by getting the system administrators to add links to the library here and there in the software, the most effective and direct route is to work with a faculty member to integrate the library’s electronic resources into the course site or class Web site itself. Faculty members can also facilitate this process by becoming more familiar with the library’s electronic resources in their disciplines. Working with academic librarians faculty can achieve both goals: creating greater e-resource awareness and shifting discovery paths from the mysterious bowels of the library portal to the more transparent course site.
To help bring about the demise of the library portal site as we know it today, faculty need to increase their personal awareness of library e-resource content and endeavor to raise the awareness level among their students. OCLC’s research, compiled in a 2006 report titled “College Students’ Perceptions of Library and Information Resources,” confirms that students are heavily influenced by faculty recommendations for electronic information resources. Working collaboratively with their campus librarians faculty could become a more reliable conduit to reaching and enlightening students about the library’s wealth of e-resources. Librarians and faculty share a common goal in wanting to see students succeed academically as they develop the skills needed to mature into the next generation of scholars. Working together to transform the library portal would advance progress in attaining that goal.
In the print era the research library building’s design was intentional in seeking to invite in the scholar and then draw them into the stacks and those places where discovery and intellectual awareness could take hold and grow. In the early stages of research library Web site design, perhaps the same approach made sense, but it no longer works if it ever did. With faculty advocating e-resource awareness and distributing links to the library’s e-resources throughout the academic network, a dedicated portal to those same resources makes less sense. Add to that a body of evidence that clearly points to the growing irrelevance of the “be all things to all campus constituents” library homepage and Web site.
Put simply, the library portal as we know it today is unsustainable. It, along with a host of other indicators such as declines in reference questions and shifts from print to e-resources, signals that for academic libraries a “let’s just keep doing business as usual” mentality is a sure path to obsolescence. If academic librarians fail to grasp the urgency of needed changes to their portals it is quite possible we will read in a future article something along the lines of “Academic librarians thought they were in the information gateway business, but they were really in the learning and scholarly productivity business. They just didn’t recognize it.”
When professors assign a library project to undergraduates, just what do they expect students to learn from the research part of the experience? What do professors think students are doing to come up with the sources in their papers? If there is a discrepancy between pedagogical intent and actual student research behavior, how do faculty members address it? Or do they care, especially since they may not spot a student’s research problem until the end of a course and may well not see that student again? Does the end of a well-written, well-supported argument justify whatever means a student uses to acquire sources?
These are issues I often fret about, both in private and aloud when I compare notes with other academic librarians. My concern arises not from a general suspicion that students are engaging in what I call WIGWAM research (Wikipedia – Internet – Google – Without Anything More), but from what students themselves have been telling me for decades. It is clear from e-mail, reference encounters, research consultations in my office, and questions that arise in library instruction sessions, that most students simply do not retain the concepts and logic involved in discovering information sources — never mind the principles for evaluating the sources they do turn up. Even students whom I’ve counseled extensively in the past, and whose projects turned out well, seem clueless the very next semester when they face a research assignment in a different course.
Here are the most persistent and troubling confessions I’ve heard from students over the years, with my speculation on their cause and cure. Some of these statements have been blurted out, others are responses to a question I’ve asked.
1. "I have no idea [about the dates or details of my topic]."
Students naturally assume that their textbooks and lectures provide adequate background for their research assignment, but that is rarely the case. Faculty can remedy this problem by having students explore their intended topics using, in addition to the inevitable Wikipedia, a specialized encyclopedia and factual tools such as chronologies and biographical or geographical dictionaries. Librarians will be glad to suggest titles, in both electronic and print formats.
2. I’m wondering why I can’t I find this periodical article in the library’s catalog.
This confusion is understandable: Students are programmed to throw any phrase they come across into a search engine or an online catalog. The antidote is for instructors to make a conscious effort in class to parse an article citation taken from something the students have already read, stressing that one needs to search the journal title in the online catalog, not the article title. (The same difficulty arises when students search for a chapter by name rather than the title of the collection it’s in.) Instructors can also use this discussion to explain what bibliographic style they want students to use.
3. This magazine isn’t digitized, so I guess we don’t have it and I can’t get it.
The issue here is two-fold, the conviction many students have that all periodicals have been scanned in entirety, and the corollary notion that if the college library lacks something, it is therefore impossible to obtain. Librarians are responsible for describing the physical format(s) of every resource they have and for promoting interlibrary loan and other services that supplement their collections. Faculty can assist by reinforcing the fact that source identification is often a separate step from source procurement. The goal is for students to understand their options for acquiring what they have discovered.
4. I need to change my topic because there’s not enough stuff [sic] about it.
Partly this comes from the student’s frustration in a high school or public library with limited collections, but mostly it comes from limited acquaintance with a thesaurus. Keyword searching in an online catalog or article database is very powerful—provided one uses pertinent terms and truncates wisely to account for variant word forms and spellings. Students likewise need a sense of hierarchy (if there’s nothing about the species, try the genus) and a refresher on Boolean logic. Librarians can coach students in these matters, but the occasional faculty riff about vocabulary, both common and specialist, would underscore its importance.
5. I’m not clear about what makes an article scholarly or a book a monograph.
What we have here is jargon that puzzles many undergraduates, especially since they see mention of peer-reviewed, refereed, academic, or juried articles. We cannot expect students to recognize synonyms if they don’t grasp the underlying concept. Both faculty and librarians should make it their business to define these terms in every research context.
6. I can’t find books about [an event that occurred last month].
This belief will seem far-fetched, even to advanced undergraduates, but I assure you, it does exist and is best refuted by an anecdote in class about the time that elapses between an insight or discovery and its formal communication to others in the field.
7. I’m confused about the difference between a primary and a secondary source.
This is the single most complex idea for students to master, largely because the nature of a source — its utility for the project at hand — is determined by the research question. It takes several assignments in different disciplines before students understand that one person’s primary source for Topic A can be someone else’s secondary source for Topic B. In my ideal world every professor and guest lecturer who speaks to undergraduates would routinely reflect on the range and role of primary and secondary sources in their own research. Conclusions and interpretations can be brilliant, but novice researchers also need to learn about the intellectual road an expert travels to those ends.
8. I’m afraid I’ll be cheating if I take references from someone else’s bibliography.
You may shake your head at this confession (I certainly do), but it highlights how uncertain students can be about the boundary between plagiarism and scholarly practice. Here again, the best solution is for both faculty and librarians to extol the benefits, and acknowledge the pitfalls, of footnote tracking.
Interestingly, these revelations have not changed significantly in the past few decades, except that students now have how-to questions about technology as well. What worries me most today is the absence of undergraduate concern about evaluating sources as their research proceeds: They almost always want to gather sources first and then assess them, going back to the well for more if, and only if, their professor says they need additional support for one of their points. In other words, they do not see library research as a dynamic, iterative process, but as a hunt-fetch-and-finish drill. Further, students arrive in college believing that if a source exists and seems relevant, then it must be good and sufficient for their project.
Their savvy about what’s possible in a “free” Web world is at odds with their understanding — which is almost nil — of how knowledge of various sorts is created, packaged, transmitted, delivered, and paid for. These are serious misunderstandings with profound consequences, but if faculty and librarians share their perceptions and find ways to coordinate their messages, then student admissions of the future should, at the least, be different.
Shortly after last week’s column appeared, I headed out to Iowa City to attend -- and, as the occasion required, to pontificate at -- a gathering called Platforms for Public Scholars. Sponsored by the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies at the University of Iowa, it drew somewhere between 100 and 150 participants over three days.
This was the latest round in an ongoing conversation within academe about how to bring work in the humanities into civic life, and vice versa. The discussion goes back almost a decade now, to the emergence of the Imagining America consortium, which fosters collaboration between faculty at research universities and partners in community groups and nonprofit organizations.
That effort often runs up against institutional inertia. You sense this from reading "Scholarship in Public: Knowledge Creation and Tenure Policy in the Engaged University" (the report of the consortium's Tenure Team Initiative, released last year). Clearly there is a long way to go before people in the humanities can undertake collaborative, interdisciplinary, and civic-minded work without fearing that they are taking a risk.
Even so, the presentations delivered in Iowa City reported on a variety of public-scholarship initiatives -- local history projects, digital archives, a festival of lectures and discussions on Victorian literature, and much else besides. Rather than synopsize, let me recommend a running account of the sessions live-blogged by Bridget Draxler, a graduate student in English at the University of Iowa. It is available at the Web site of the Humanities, Arts, Sciences, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (better known as HASTAC, usually pronounced “haystack”).
Word went around of plans to publish a collection of papers from the gathering. I asked Teresa Mangum, a professor of English at U of I, who organized and directed the event, if that was in the cards. She “built the platform,” as someone put it, and presided over all three days with considerable charm -- intervening in the discussion in ways that were incisive while also tending to foster the collegiality that can be elusive when people come from such different disciplinary and professional backgrounds.
“My goal is to have some kind of ‘artifact’ of the conference,” she told me, “but I'm trying to think more imaginatively what it might be ... possibly a collection of essays with a Web site. We definitely want to produce a online bibliography but maybe trying to use the Zotero exhibition approach there.”
It was a symposium in the strict sense, in that food was involved. Also, beverages. On the final day, a roundtable assessment of the whole event was the last item on the agenda -- only for this discussion to be bumped into the farewell dinner when things ran long.
Unfortunately I was unable to attend, for fear that a persistent hacking cough was turning me into a pandemic vector. Instead, I retired to the hotel to scribble out some thoughts that might have been worth taking up at the roundtable. Here they are -- afterthoughts, a little late for the discussion.
Most people who attended were members of the academic community, whether from Iowa or elsewhere, and most of the sessions took place in university lecture halls. But the first event on the first day was held at the Iowa City Public Library. This was a panel on new ways of discussing books in the age of digital media -- recounted here by Meena Kandasamy, a young Tamil writer and translator whose speech that evening rather stole the show.
Holding the event at the public library opened the proceedings up somewhat beyond the usual professorial demographic. At one point, members of the panel watched as a woman entered with her guide dog, stretched out on the ground at the back of the room, and closed her eyes to listen. At least we hoped she was listening. I think there is an allegory here about the sometimes ambiguous relationship between public scholarship and its audience.
In any case, the venue for this opening session was important. Public libraries were once called “the people’s universities.” The populist impulse has fallen on some scurvy times, but this trope has interesting implications. The public library is an institution that nobody would be able to start now. A place where you can read brand-new books and magazines for free? The intellectual property lawyers would be suing before you finished the thought.
So while musing on collaborative and civic-minded research, it is worth remembering the actually existing public infrastructure that is still around. Strengthening that infrastructure needs to be a priority for public scholarship -- at least as much, arguably, as "the production of knowledge." (This phrase, repeated incessantly in some quarters of the humanities, has long since slipped its original moorings, and owes more to American corporate lingo than to Althusser.)
Institutions can be narcissistic; and one symptom of this is a certain narrowly gauged conception of professionalism. often indistinguishable in demeanor from garden-variety snobbery. Any real progress in consolidating the practice of public scholarship has to involve a strengthening of ties with people in the public sector -- especially librarians and teachers.
It is not that scholars exist over here while something called “the public” is over there -- off in the distance. Rather, people are constituted as a public in particular spaces and activities. The university is one such site, at least sometimes. But it isn’t the only one, and public scholarship needs to have moorings in as many such venues as possible.
The problem being that it is often hard enough to drop an anchor in academe, let alone in the wide Sargasso Sea of civil society. I am not a professor and have no advice to give on that score. But it seems important to pass along the comments of someone attending Platforms for Public Scholars who confided some thoughts to me during some downtime. I will pass them along by permission, but without giving away anything about this person's identity.
During one panel, a couple of tenured professors mentioned being concerned that their civically engaged scholarship might not count for promotion. One even noted that people who had done collaborative work in the humanities tended to discount it as part of a tenure file -- saying, “Well I did my mine without getting credit for it, so why should you?”
At the time, I raised an eyebrow, but didn’t really think much about it. Later, though, someone referred back to the session in tones that suggested chagrin and longstanding doubts about having a career in the humanities.
“These are people who actually are established, who have some power in their institutions," this individual told me. "I don’t have that. I don’t even have a job yet. And I want them to show some courage. If you really have a conviction that collaboration and public engagement are important, then do it without worrying so much. And support it. Make it possible for someone like me to make doing public work part of my scholarship. Otherwise, what are we even talking about?”
In my two years working in the president's office at Harvard University, before I was laid off in spring, I gave myself the job of steward of her books. Gift books would arrive in the mail, or from campus visitors, or from her hosts when she traveled; books by Harvard professors were kept on display in reception or in storage at our Massachusetts Hall office; books flowed in from publishers, or authors seeking blurbs, or self-published authors of no reputation or achievement, who sometimes sent no more than loosely bound manuscripts.
I took charge of the president’s books because it was my assigned job to write thank-you letters for them. I would send her the books and the unsigned draft replies on presidential letterhead; for each one, she sent me back the signed letter and, most of the time, the book, meaning she had no further use for it. Some books she would keep, but seldom for very long, which meant those came back to me too, in one of the smaller offices on the third floor of Mass Hall where there was no room to put them. Furthermore they weren’t so easily disposed of. Often they bore inscriptions, to President Drew Faust or to her and her husband from people they knew; and even if the volume was something rather less exalted — a professor from India sending his management tome or a book of Hindi poems addressed, mysteriously, to "Sir" or to the "vice-chancellor of Harvard University" — these books obviously couldn’t end up in a secondhand bookshop or charity bin or anywhere they could cause embarrassment. All were soon moved to an overflow space at the very end of the hall, coincidentally looking out at a donation bin for books at a church across the street.
One might feel depressed sitting amid so many unwanted books — so much unread knowledge and overlooked experience — but tending President Faust's books became my favorite part of the job. No one noticed or interfered in what I did, which in a president's office like Harvard, where everything is scrutinized, is uncommon. Even a thank-you note can say too much. I developed my own phrase for these notes — "I look forward to spending some time with it" — as a substitute for saying "I look forward to reading it," because the president can't possibly read all the books she receives, and there was always the chance she would run into the author somewhere, who might ask if she'd read his book yet.
Any Harvard president attracts books from supplicants, and this particular president attracted her own subcategory. Many books came from publishers or authors not at all shy about requesting a presidential blurb. These were easy to decline, and became easy to decline even when they came from the president's friends, colleagues, acquaintances, neighbors, and others met over a distinguished career as a Civil War historian. This was the subcategory: thanks to her specialty, we were building up a large collection of Civil War books, galleys and unpublished manuscripts — not just professional monographs, but amateurish family or local histories. These soon filled the overflow space in Massachusetts Hall, where water leaking from the roof during the unusual March rainstorms resulted in our having to discard several.
For everyone who sent us a book, the signed note back from the president mattered more than the book itself; both sides presumably understood that the president could buy or obtain any book she actually needed. The replies were signed by her — no auto-pen — which meant that even if she didn't quite read your book the president still held it in her hands even for a moment, perhaps scribbling something at the bottom of her note with a fine black pen, or crossing out the "Ms." or "Professor" heading and substituting the author's first name.
I had all kinds of plans for these books. The inscribed books we had to keep, of course, no matter how dire or dreadful. (The archives would want its pick of them anyway, deciding which books would become keepsakes of this particular era at Harvard.) But the many good titles that remained could go to struggling small foreign universities or schools, to our soldiers and Marines overseas, or to local libraries as an act of goodwill from a powerful and oft-maligned neighbor. They could go to the Allston branch of the Boston Public Library, for instance, perhaps to be dubbed “the president's collection,” with its own shelving but freely available to Allstonians to read or borrow.
None of these ideas came to fruition. All of them would have required me to rise to a realm where I was no longer in charge — indeed, where I didn’t have a foothold. I would have to call meetings, bring bigger players to the table. Harvard’s top bureaucracy is actually quite small, and most of it was, literally, in my immediate presence: two doors to the left was one vice president, two doors to the right, around a tight corner, was another. But these were big-gesture folks alongside a resolutely small-gesture one (me), and without an intermediary to help build support for my ideas my books weren’t going anywhere except, once, into a cardboard box outside my office just before Christmas, where I encouraged staff to help themselves; perhaps two dozen books, or half what I started the box with, went out that way.
In all this, the important thing was that books were objects to be honored, not treated as tiresome throwaways, and that everyone in the building knew this. Books are how, traditionally, universities are built: John Harvard was not the founder of Harvard University but a clergyman who, two years after its founding, bequeathed it his library. I used to joke that the most boring book in our collection was the volume called the "Prince Takamado Trophy All Japan Inter-Middle School English Oratorical Contest," but if I hear it isn’t still on a shelf somewhere in Mass Hall 20 years from now, I won’t be the only one who’s disappointed.
Eric Weinberger has reviewed books in the The Boston Globe, where this essay first appeared, since 2000, and taught writing at Harvard for 10 years.