Professors Should Embrace Wikipedia

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 Ed article 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
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Mark A. Wilson is a professor of geology at the College of Wooster.

The Library Web Site of the Future

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.”

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Steven J. Bell
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Steven J. Bell is associate university librarian at Temple University. He blogs at The Kept-Up Academic Libriarian.

Admissions of Another Sort

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.

Mary W. George
Author's email:

Mary W. George is senior reference librarian at Princeton University Library. She is author of the new bookThe Elements of Library Research: What Every Student Needs to Know(Princeton University Press).

The Public Option

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?”

Scott McLemee
Author's email:

All the President's Books

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
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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.

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