Here are some quick thoughts on The Globe and Mail’s announcement that it will create a paywall around their online content on October 22, 2012. On the one hand, I’m okay with this. Creators ought to be compensated for their work, and though The Globe has very, very deep pockets, I believe that it’s important that consumers begin to remember again that content isn’t free, labour has been invested into the journalism they are reading, and that there is a cost to what they want to read and view online. (Of course, let’s hope the price stays fair. Journalism may have value, but no one wants to be gouged a few years down the line).
My professional perspective, though, is marked by a somewhat cynical reaction against change:
Putting my librarian’s hat on, my first thought is that Globe’s paywall will alter how students find, access, and use news and current events in their assignments. Showing our users the obvious benefits of using scholarly databases (i.e., do you want to find high-quality material or do you want instant, yet sub-par results?) can already be a trying experience, and I wonder how many people we might lose – people who won’t want to turn to our Factiva and Lexis subscriptions to get the Globe’s perspective – after the paywall is installed? Why bother loading up Yet Another Database when there are so many other free newspapers to consider, or even just Google News?
Of course, it isn’t that bad. Once students are told that scholarly databases are a requisite for their research, and once they’re given an opportunity to test and learn them, many do use them, and many do use them well enough. So when next term’s assignment calls for two or three newspaper sources alongside the scholarly resources, we’ll show them how to use Factiva and Lexis, and many of our users will navigate these databases effectively. Come down off the cliff, librarian. Things are going to be okay.
But I still have a concern about this paywall announcement, and it lies in the everyday consumption of news information. Honestly, I quickly got over the Librarian’s Dilemma that I noted above; I sincerely do think that things will be okay (or at least “okay enough”). But I’m thinking about the day when most reliable journalism sources will have instituted a paywall, and how the constraints that this subscription model places on our ability to read top-flight information would affect our culture. While I desire a balance between access to information and valued compensation to information creators, producers, etc., I do want to see easy, widespread access to high quality information. I don’t ever want to see an Internet that has priced the best reporting, art, opinion, and literature out of the hands of the majority of internet users, and I hope that a “paywalled” web will not inhibit our society’s ability to access and consume the best content out there.
Let me put it another way. I’m not really a fan of opera (even though I’d like to be) and I don’t go to the opera, but I appreciate that opera is no longer an exclusive night out for the highbrow elite amoung us. Today, opera is accessible and affordable, and anyone who can at least get to a stage can catch a performance if they want to see one. Let’s hope that the come age of Internet paywalls doesn’t price most of us out of the best art and news and content that this medium can deliver. So yes, I think a paywall is acceptable, but let’s just make sure we will all still be able to get to goods that same way that many of us can see legitimate theatre when we want to.
One of the things I’m constantly doing as a government documents librarian is giving lessons on Statistics Canada geographic areas. Census geographies can be downright confusing to the new user (and to sometimes to the seasoned expert!). The names are riddled with acronyms and jargon, and their relationships to other areas and spaces can be complicated. One legally incorporated township may be considered a census subdivision while another may be classified as only a census agglomeration. Another city may be classified as a census subdivision, and also be part of a census metropolitan area of a similar name, e.g., Toronto CSD and Toronto CMA. Or, a city may be classified as a census subdivision and exist not only in a CMA with a similar name, but also a census division (I’m looking at you, City of Waterloo CSD, Waterloo Region CD, and Kitchener-Cambridge-Waterloo CMA). And if you dare introduce census tracts the first time through, your short introduction to the “Russian dolls” nature of census geographies runs the risk of turning your lesson into an information dump about privacy and data validity when all that your first-year economics student wanted to know was why it’s so hard to get comparable income and migration numbers for Kitchener, Ontario, and The Pas in northern Manitoba.
Confusion abounds. One of the problems we encounter are the tools we use to explain these geographies, which should be easily understood but are often abstract – we may live in towns and cities, but we refer to them as census agglomerations or CMAs. What can you use to show how spaces relate to one another, or how certain concepts can be measured and expressed spatially? The answer is a map, of course. God lov’em, those maps. Maps help us express numbers – quantities, amounts, rations, proportions – with colours and shapes, and in the regions we live in and travel through each day. Face it, “big data” wouldn’t be as big as it is today if we didn’t have “big maps” to help use make sense of the numbers. However, StatCan’s digitized maps are large, layered PDFs that aren’t always user-friendly. The Standard Geographical Classification (SGC) PDFs are great reference items, but they aren’t very accessible. And this creates a learning gap for so many of our users.
To overcome this gap, I’m constantly pulling out the old SGC print maps, and I’m also cutting and pasting and hacking together magnified screenshots of the PDFs into my slide deck. Typically, if you need census help and you’ve found me in person, then there stands a good chance that I’m going to crack open the SGC and unfold a map somewhere in the office (I even keep the southern Ontario CD-CSD map posted to a wall). I started doing this last Spring after I moved to Waterloo and had to learn the region’s geography and confirm its census divisions, subdivisions, and CMAs for myself, and I realized this was a simple and effective tool that should be used more often, especially with new StatCan users.
Typically, I bring students to a nearby conference room and unfold the map on a large table. I find that being able to “walk around” the entire map and point to the places where the lines that signify the different geographies merge, separate, and then merge again, helps students understand some of the logic behind the regions (at least in terms of distance and population). They may not always be able to recall all the differences between a census division, subdivision and metropolitan area after a session, but they at least remember that there are differences, and these differences are important enough to affect their research.
The classroom is a different story, though. When working with only one person or a small group, there is a persuasive element at work that captures everyone’s attention. Carefully unfolding and presenting a map to a small group of people is like opening a box that holds a surprise. (Let’s call this surprise “knowledge” and we’ll call ourselves awesome for charming our audience so handily into learning something). But if we take that same map into the classroom or lecture hall, it risks becoming an awkward, cumbersome prop. It can become a distraction or even a failed means to demonstrate your expertise in such a short time to such a large group of people.
Maps that unfold to become wider and taller than you put the room’s attention onto your map-wrangling skills (however good or poor they might be) instead of on the knowledge you have share, so I avoid them. You’ve never caught me walking to a classroom with a print map, and I doubt many other librarians do that today.
Instead, I give the class what they want and what they expect, and that means I work that map into my PowerPoint deck. Any time I’m introducing StatCan resources and geographies to a class, I insert three images of the same PDF map, each one magnified more than the last. This helps people “zoom in” with their eyes and see the many relationships and regions that are defined in one place alone. The length of time I spend on these slides depends on the classroom’s needs: sometimes, I spend only a few moments on these slides, and other times, I’ll spend five or ten minutes. What matters is that after I’ve finished up and am headed back to the office, I know that the instructor can pass around a slide deck that always refers to all these different areas.
I know I’m not presenting anything new in this post: maps have long been a tremendous tool within government documents librarianship. Perhaps the takeaway lies more in information literacy than it does anywhere else. Is your digital resource, as presented to you, the best way to help the user understand the resource? You may want to turn to the print resource or manipulate the digital resource, as I do with StatCan maps, to improve learning and synthesis. It’s just one more tool (or two, in this case) in our IL toolbox.
For years now, academic librarians have been stressing that we must improve our research services and also show our colleagues outside the library that librarians are not analogous to the collection; we do far more work than collecting itself. This fact alone should be enough to remind ourselves that government documents librarianship is not situated merely in the government documents collection. If academic librarianship is focused today on the use of a library’s resources instead of the mere collecting of resources, then our government documents librarian’s work must necessarily be focused as much on our patrons’ discovery, access, and use of government publications just as our history librarian’s work is focused on our patron’s discovery, access, and use of history resources. On a purely argumentative level, if X Subject Librarianship is focused on use, then so must Government Documents Librarianship be focused on use.
But let’s move beyond arguments and consider what the government documents librarian brings to the library. Ask yourself what specialized knowledge the government documents librarian at your library has developed after years working in this niche. On the one hand, the subject areas in which a government documents librarian works, e.g., health, economics, culture, etc., could be parceled out to a university library’s subject librarians since they often understand the general scope and breadth of government publications related to their field. What is often missing, however, is an understanding of the mechanics of government and law, of the relationships between departments and Parliament, of the role of the judiciary, of the history of administrations, and of the history of government publishing. Knowledge and work in these areas is what develops an understanding of the organization of government information, and this is what a government documents librarian can offer his or her peers and patrons. When you have a librarian tasked to work in government information, you have a librarian who knows how to navigate the mountains of pamphlets, papers, reports, and publications that governments produce annually.
Let’s use a real-world example to show how the government documents librarian’s knowledge benefits the library and library patrons. For the past week, I’ve been helping a graduate student track the course of multiculturalism policy, budgets, and actual spending since the early 1970s. In that time, “multiculturalism” grew from a statement made in Parliament into a policy, and then a programme. Multiculturalism policy and programming lived in many different places, starting in the Department of State (yes, Canada did once have a Department of State), moving to its own Department, then to Heritage, and then finally into Citizenship and Immigration. The volume of materials also changes throughout the years:
some Parliaments had standing committees on multiculturalism, and some didn’t
some of the Departments I mentioned offered substantial annuals reports, and some didn’t.
after the passage of the 1988 Multiculturalism Act, annual reports were submitted to Parliament, but many are only executive summaries
for a time in the late 2000s, CIC worked real hard to not use the term “Multiculturalism” in its documents
What’s more, through the 1980s and 1990s, the Canadian Government’s annual Estimates (i.e., documents that forecast departmental expenditures for the pending fiscal year) changed drastically. They expanded in size by offering more detail, but were also separated into dozens of issues and volumes per year (sometimes based on department and sometimes based on departmental programme), and the name of their issuing agency changed several times, as well. Library patrons unfamiliar with what RPPs, DPRs, and the other parts in the annual Estimates are good for, let alone who the issuing agency is, may not know what document to use or even where to look for them online or in the catalogue.
All of this meant that the graduate student had a devil of a time tracking the information she required through this time period. On more than once occasion did the student say to me that it feels like the government was deliberately making it difficult for people to access this public information. While the government may rightly be accused of such a thing from time to time, on this issue it is actually a matter of knowing where to look, and this is where the Government Documents Librarian comes into play. Having a librarian focused on the organization and access to government information means that your patrons will have a better chance of understanding how to access and use that information. What the Government Documents Librarian brings to the library is an understanding of governance and of the entire government publishing apparatus. The question, “Whither Print Gov Docs?” should not be construed at all as “Whither the Gov Docs Librarian?” Regardless of publication format, your government documents librarian has a specialized knowledge and skill set that increases your organization’s value to its users.
The question, “Whither Print GovDocs?” should not be construed at all as “Whither the GovDocs Librarian?”
But let’s get back to those government announcements I was talking about at the beginning of this post. You may disagree with me and I could be wrong, and maybe the world doesn’t need government documents librarians anymore. But I still don’t see it that way. I have one more point that supports my argument that government documents librarians will remain a vital part of the academic library: open data and open government. If ever anyone has complained to you (and they have) that a government documents collection is difficult to browse, imagine how bothered that person will be when there is no print collection, when everything exists in the cloud with no organizing principles, and when more and more publications are being uploaded everyday because a ministry has committed itself to promoting open government initiatives but not to funding the management of these collections. The torrent of government publications that has caused many libraries to question the value of cataloguing electronic records is only going to become stronger, and this makes the government documents librarian’s job even more essential to the library’s mission to improve resource discovery, access, and use.
What it comes down to is this: we are venturing into new territory with government documents, people. When you don’t have a map that gives the lie of the land, you turn to a guide. And that’s your government documents librarian.
I’ve decided to start listing some of the links I keep open in my tabs over the week. As for the title of the post: that’s an idea I blatantly stole from an old friend, Jhameia Goh. (Jaymee, hats off to you!)
– Wikipedia is also suffering from a dearth of admins. The Atlantic explains that fewer people are volunteering to help maintain the site even though it continues to grow. (If one of these these bullets about Wikipedia bother you, and especially if two of them bother you, and especially if you’re a women, then you may want to contribute to one of the greatest websites on the free web.)
– OCLC’s 2010 Perceptions of Libraries Report. I’ve been trolling this (and other reports) for an internal report I’m collaborating on regarding online teaching and learning. I think this is the OCLC report featuring a poll that said that no students started their research with at the Library or at the Library website.
A funny thing happened while Mark Lamster was writing about how libraries are more popular than ever for Metropolis Magazine. Well, two funny things happened. First, he didn’t really give enough evidence to prove his claim. And second, he rhymed off the different ways that libraries have manifested themselves through the ages.
(I’m not going to fault Lamster for not sufficiently explaining his popularity claim since I assume that an editor wrote the headline. Besides, this is from a news site that is focused on architecture as opposed to information science. His concern lies elsewhere.)
I think all librarians need to read this article. And I don’t mean that everyone should skim it between e-mails. I mean everyone should sit down and read it. It won’t take long to do, I promise, so you don’t have to give me the tl;dr line. What’s so important about this article is that an outside observer is speaking to other outside observers about what libraries have looked like in the ages-old past, in the recent past and present, and what they will look like in the future. Lamster’s article inadvertently explains that the library as so many of us like to think of it – as a wondrous cathedral of knowledge and public reading room – is only a recent understanding of the term. Rather, libraries have been closed buildings with closed stacks and difficult-to-use technologies for centuries. Libraries have been loci of state power much longer than they’ve ever been the democratic, open, free spaces we think of them today. But as society shifted to become freer and more egalitarian, so did the nature of the library shift to become what we know it to be today. And libraries will change again, and again, to meet the needs and opportunities that future users bring.
I’m linking to Lamster’s article because I want to stress that libraries are not defined wholly by their collections. I don’t think that libraries must be filled with books in order to have any use to the world. Libraries with books are great. Libraries with books are beautiful, wondrous things, actually. But have no need to fear the library that has fewer books compared to x years ago. Libraries with fewer books can still be information hubs and community centres. A library that gives up stack space for meeting rooms and research space, that moves books off-site to make way for local business support centres or for information portals such as geospatial data centres, language labs, digitization centres, local collections, archives, etc., is still a useful space that serves the public good.
There’s a good chance some you will object or reserve judgment since the jury is still out on the long-term viability of collection models the prioritize access to licensed material rather than purchasing content outright. Some of the people Lamster interviewed also expressed consternation that libraries are adapting to the digital world in ways that don’t suit them. That’s okay: we can continue Whither Print? debate another time. My argument is not whether collecting print is good or bad. My argument is that we must honestly come to terms, as a profession, with the effects that advances in information technology has on our services and spaces. The world around us has changed, full stop. Online information repositories have increased in number and become easier to access, and our users now keep Internet access devices (read: smartphones) in their pockets where ever they go, so libraries must continue adapt.
Don’t fear change, fellow librarians, and don’t fear technology. Embrace it, because your users have done so already. It’s better for us to be part of the online access movement and be able to guide its direction than to react to it. Let’s build and be present in the networks that link people, the places they inhabit (physical and digital), and the information they seek in their lives.
Part of me is cringing since I’m typing this today, in 2012. And another part of me wonders if writing this on a blog will only preach to the converted. That may be so. But I feel a need to continue flying the flag and to declare what our role can be in this online environment. I hope you do, too.
A few years ago, I designed a few rudimentary Google maps of Halifax from StatCan data. This was before I really knew anything about stats and data (n.b. I still don’t think I know much more than “some things” about stats and data), licenses, and how to properly interpret them. One map that I created showed Halifax’s population change, tract by tract, from 2001 to 2006. I’m giving myself embarrassment cringes by linking to it, but all the same: view it here.
Of note: the suburbs clearly rule the roost when it comes to Halifax’s population changes from 2006 to 2011. The only tract on the peninsula showing a significant increase (i.e., over 11.9%) is Tract 2050019.00, in the middle of the peninsula. The increase in this tract is due, I’m certain, to the Gladstone redevelopment, the first major phases of which were completed – if memory serves me correct – in 2007 or 2008.
For what it’s worth, I’m not sure if I’m going to build a google map from 2011 census tract data. The work is time-consuming and there are other people in my field who have the expertise and software to do a much better job than I can. (And besides, my own hobby at the moment has more to do with plotting historic maps with Google Earth!) My work finding socio-economic data, making the odd remark here and there, and helping others make sense of it, is enough work – and fun – for one person. 🙂
Finally, here are a few outbound links to keep you interested:
This is the last release of longitudinal data from the Survey of Labour and Income Dynamics. Effective with next year’s release of 2011 data, only cross-sectional estimates will be available. [source] [PDF]
There has been a flurry of comments in various corners of the Internet about this cancellation. Some people see this as an outright cost-cutting measure, while others consider it in terms of a cost-benefit analysis, e.g., where should StatCan put its limited resources, staff, and funds? I have my opinions – it’s not good a idea to let this whither on the vine – but I’ll leave it up to you to decide how to to consider this action.
I will, however, draw your attention to two posts by Canadian academics who know a thing or two about socio-economic data and the mechanics of longitudinal surveys:
Miles Corak writes a nice eulogy for the SLID, but his main point lies in the constraints that StatCan‘s longitudinal surveys face. long-term funding of such surveys are not always clear since they are administered by a creature of government:
At Statistics Canada funding is annual, subject to the trade-offs in managing a whole portfolio of statistical products. It is also dependent upon financial support and direction from particular government departments whose interests and priorities ebb and flow, and are tied to broader government objectives.
. . .
In a recent interview the current Chief Statistician of Australia, Brian Pink, made a revealing and important comment: “Neither the Treasurer nor Prime Minister can tell me how to go about my business. They can tell me what information to collect, but they can’t tell me how to do it, when to do it or how often to do it.”
But it is telling that the Australian longitudinal labour market survey—The Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia Survey—which was started in 2001 and has guaranteed funding for 12 years, is not being run by the Australian Bureau of Statistics but rather by an institute at the University of Melbourne.
The current Chief Statistician of Canada is in a more challenging position. He also has the responsibility to manage surveys that form no part of Mr. Pink’s mandate, surveys whose value is in the long-term, much longer than a fiscal year, and even longer than an electoral cycle.
As Canadians embark on another experiment in longitudinal survey taking they should have confidence that Statistics Canada will design and manage the technical details in an efficient, effective, and indeed innovative way; but past experience, both here and abroad, may also make them wonder if the managerial structure and financial responsibility is designed to match the long-term horizon these data require. [source]
Corak, I think, is asking us to consider if it’s time for other agencies to administer longitudinal surveys in Canada (at the very least, he’s making the observation that things are done differently in other countries). Blayne Haggart puts it in very plain terms:
[Corak] argues that the real problem may be that, as a government agency with a one-year budget horizon subject to political whims, Statistics Canada isn’t the best placed agency to handle projects with time horizons that stretch beyond electoral cycles into decades. This means that even throwing the bums out wouldn’t solve the underlying problem. New boss, meet old boss and all that. [source]
As for me, it’s too early to decide. I’m not sure what yet to think. I definitely have dogs in this race, but I’m not yet in a position to agree or disagree worth Corak and Haggart. My preference is to have well-funded government statistical agencies who collect and disseminate socio-economic data, and to have well-funded government knowledge centres (e.g., LAC) that can improve the preservation of and access to government information. But on the question of longitudinal studies, perhaps Corak and Haggart’s opinions have enough merit for us to have a discussion on whether Canadian not-for-profits and university research centres should make a big step forward and take a decisive lead in the future.