A Library is Not a Library is Not a Library

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This morning many of us in the UK woke up to these headlines: ‘Libraries lose a quarter of staff as hundreds close’ (BBC); ‘Libraries: The decline of a profession? (BBC)’; ‘Libraries facing ‘greatest crisis’ in their history’ (Guardian). [Post-publication Update: at the same time I was publishing this post, the Telegraph published a piece titled ‘Don’t mourn the loss of libraries – the internet has made them obsolete’].

You will notice that the three headlines start with the term ‘Libraries’.  The second headline suggests ‘a profession’ (we are to understand ‘librarianship’) is or might be in decline. Like many people I saw the headline shared on Twitter. I suppose the headline is meant to promise the reader an answer in the linked piece; it is designed to make the reader click on the link and therefore read the piece: is the library profession as a whole in decline?

In this brief comment I will not be providing the reader with alternative statistics (those so inclined can look at Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals‘ CEO Nick Poole’s CILIP 2020 strategy slides). I was however moved to write this quick post as a means to briefly expand on some thoughts I have already shared this morning on Twitter.

The BBC Freedom of Information requests results have been made available as a Google spreadsheet. The BBC offered some insights:

Change across UK

4,290 Council-run libraries in 2010

3,765 Council-run libraries now

343 libraries closed, 207 of them buildings, 132 mobile and four “other”

232 transferred, 174 to community groups and 58 outsourced

50 new libraries started, 20 of them buildings, 8 mobile and 22 “other”

111 proposed for closure over the next year

Source: BBC FOI requests

These are, no doubt, distressing figures, and they provide evidence of the extent of  public budget cuts to Council-run libraries. I don’t think there is anyone remotely related to the Library and Information sector who won’t think this is frankly terrible, but I don’t think there is any of us who were suprised by this news. It mainly confirms the extent of the damage of the government funding policy in the last six years to the public library sector.

What I would like to say here though is that the way the news have been disseminated, and this includes the way it is being shared and discussed in the media including social media, shows to me there is now more than ever before a need for Library and Information Science skills. Take for example the obvious absence of the adjective ‘Public’ or the adjectival phrase ‘Council-run’ from the headlines and bodies of the BBC and Guardian news items linked to in my first paragraph. The result is the confusion of  public or council-run libraries and the library sector as a whole.

A library is not a library is not a library because not all ‘libraries’ face the same challenges and not all librarians do the same jobs. Abbreviating ‘public libraries’ to merely ‘libraries’ creates misinformation as it feeds cultural anxieties regarding the role of information professionals in a digital age.  Confusing ‘public libraries’ with all libraries and even worse with a whole profession confuses a specific situation (public library closures in the UK due to public funding cuts) with ‘the demise of a profession’. The library profession is practised well beyond the specific realm of public or council-run libraries, and often in places that at first sight do not look at all like what many people would idenfity as a ‘library’.  Like GPs and other medical specialists, or lawyers, or most other professionals, those in the library profession are active in many sectors requiring advanced information and knowledge literacy and management skills, which in the 21st century amounts to most organisations in most if not all domains.

Like Gertude Stein’s rose in her ‘Sacred Emily‘ poem (1913), the word ‘library’ names a phenomenon which invokes the imagery and emotions that individuals in a particular context associate with it. All libraries, of course, have something essential in common. At the very least they share the professional, systematic selection, organisation, storage, management, preservation and dissemination of information, amongst other taks requiring specialised skills. However, it is important to be able to make distinctions, and state what may seem obvious, that not all libraries are the same: public or council-run libraries face a series of quite specific challenges, in the same way that academic libraries, or libraries in say legal or media organisations face different challenges that public libraries do not.

Everyone interested in libraries as a whole should be concerned about the demise of public funding for council-run libraries, but this does not mean that the whole library profession is facing a ‘demise’.  Everyone interested in the public good should be concerned about the demise of public funding for public services, and this includes council-run libraries. The vicious circle is clear, as media coverage and public discourse around the closure of public libraries often goes back to expressing cultural anxieties regarding the role of libraries in general in a digital age. Innovation is accepted as a pressing need, but without funding technological innovation including the hiring of specialised human resources proves harder if not impossible. You need the funding to up your game but if you don’t up your game, the official narrative goes, you won’t get any funding because you haven’t upped your game.

Technological ‘solutionism‘ is a great cover for politically motivated budget cuts to public services. This is where lack of context leads to even more misinformation, and where the debate expresses, to a meta level, the pressing need for specialised Library and Information Science skills as 21st century critical information literacy skills. Take as an example the public opinions of a news editor of a ‘free market think-tank’ this morning on Twitter: [screenshot anonymised]


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These opinions are well-known by most information professionals, as they reflect a widespread misunderstanding about access to information today, namely, in the case of the example above, that 1) reading as an activity (particularly fiction) is a ‘hobby’ and therefore not important for a society’s welfare, that 2) owning a smart phone can replace billions spent on libraries, and that 3) Google Scholar provides access to millions of documents directly, making libraries unnecessary.

The example above is only a needle in a massive haystack of myths and misunderstandings about how the Internet and the Web operate, and more importantly about what it is that public libraries do. Let’s focus only in the third opinion above. For the sake of argument let’s suppose everyone in the UK has access to fast, robust, reliable Internet at home and own and know how to use a reliable up-to-date device to access it (we know this is not the case).  If you can access any full content of quality through Google Scholar it is because a library or network of libraries were doing hard and expensive work behind. Even if all academic content were Open Access, or at least publicly freely available to read online, it would also have been the result of concerted efforts with libraries and librarians, even if you accessed it from the comfort of your home or train carriage. The publishing  and discovery of said hypothetical content online via Google Scholar  would have always-already meant the result of specific library and information skills and technologies, such as mark-up languages like XML, including taxonomies and ontologies, schemas and search algorithms, all working for your enjoyment behind the scenes. And that is just a superficial, quick example.

The narrative we need to see more of is that Library and Information Science skills are today more needed than ever before. Precisely because of important technological and cultural developments such as widespread access to the mobile Internet and search engine indexing services such as Google Scholar, LIS skills must come to the public fore as an essential critical skillset to idenfity, filter, curate, disseminate and interpret data and information of all types.

The news today have revealed again that the political arena is a rapidly-changing information landscape. The crisis of UK public libraries is a political problem. It is a situation created by a political, ideological agenda that has chosen to privilege free market as extreme individualism (the privileging of algorthimc access to information is free market ideology in full effect). The crisis of UK public libraries is not simple, but a main driver for the current crisis is not the lack of relevance of librarianship as a profession, but very clearly the result of ideologically-motivated budget cuts to public services.

I suggest that at the very least we should avoid an apocalyptic tone in discussions about libraries in general. We must be able to contextualise and to focus on the specifics of each phenomenon. Phenomena can be related to each other, and solidarity and empathy are important, but this does not exclude the importance of distinguishing domains. We must frame the crisis of ‘UK libraries’ as presented in the news today as a crisis caused by particular public funding policies affecting the everyday functions of council-run libraries. The crisis of ‘UK libraries’ is part of a larger crisis caused by, essentially, funding cuts to public services.

The larger cultural context of digital transformations demands from all of us interested in libraries and information to up our game in successfully demonstrating why the word ‘library’ means many different things to different people, and why ‘the profession’ should be more needed than ever in an age of overwhelming data deluge and information overload.

If the unfounded, misinformed opinion that smartphones or Google can replace all types of libraries and information professionals keeps gaining currency, the future will look increasingly grim. It will be grim because it will mean the triumph of an impoverished vision that privileges only the hyper-privileged, leaving the rest of the public doomed to accessing only the information they are given or the information they can personally afford.

Suggesting that librariship as a whole is in crisis and that the ‘solution’ lies in giving people smartphones only benefits those who benefit from dismantling public services, including the public right to council-run libraries as professional, reliable, fair, safe spaces for creativity, education, research, entertainment, and in a nutshell good ol’ public good.


A #citylis 2014-2015 Term 1 Twitter Archive

#citylis logo

The taught component of Term 1 of the 2014-2015 academic year at the Library and Information Science scheme at City University London has finished today. #citylis is our hashtag and it is used by staff, students and members of the public.

Throughout the term I archived the Tweets tagged with #citylis and I have now uploaded to figshare a spreadsheet containing 4940 Tweets (there’s likely to be some duplicates there, and it includes retweets).

Priego, Ernesto (2014): A #citylis 2014-2015 Term 1 Twitter Archive. figshare.


Retrieved 18:14, Dec 12, 2014 (GMT)

All the usual information about collection methods, limitations etc. are included in the ReadMe sheet of the file.

The data is shared as is. This dataset is shared to encourage open research into scholarly activity on Twitter. If you use or refer to this data in any way please cite and link back using the citation information above.

#citylis term 1 twitter actitvity top tweeters


A Dataset of 8,438 Research Papers with Keywords “racial” and “ethnicity”

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I have shared a file containing a sheet with a list of 8, 348 journal articles obtained from a basic search for the keywords “racial” and “etchnicity” in research papers mentioned online anytime as tracked by Altmetric.

Priego, Ernesto (2014) Altmetric Report of All Mentioned Articles with Keywords “racial” and “ethnicity” as of 28 August 2014 12:00 BST  figshare. http://dx.doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.1153816

The file contains a sheet with the list of all 8,438 bibliographic entries, including DOIs and URLs, and mention counts on different Web services as tracked by Altmetric.

The entries are ordered from the highest-scoring (best quality of online attention) down. The Altmetric score is a quantative measure of the quality and quantity of attention that a scholarly article has received.

I have edited the spreadsheet adding columns H, I and J, hoping any users of this data are interested in adding the type of access, license and, if applicable, price of each output.

This file has been shared with the intention of creating awareness of the scientific/academic literature mentioning the above-mentioned keywords being mentioned online as currently tracked by the altmetrics service employed to obtain the dataset. Data might require refining and deduplication.

Please note that the academic disciplines and methodologies represented in this dataset reflect the sources curated by the service employed. This is an unedited report obtained through a basic automated search so not all entries might be considered relevant and users will require to refine the data to fit their own needs. There is some very interesting and useful stuff there.

I created and shared this file with a Creative Commons- Attribution license (CC-BY) for non-profit academic research and educational use.

Data obtained with the Altmetric Explorer, available at http://www.altmetric.com/

If you use or refer to this data in any way please cite and link back using the citation information above.

Ebola: Publisher, Access and License Types of the 100 Most Mentioned Papers

I made a quick alluvial diagram showing the publisher, access and license types of the top 100 papers in our dataset.

Alluvial Diagram Showing the Publishers of the Top 100 Ebola Papers According to Altmetric as of Wed Aug 06 2014 16:44:28 GMT+0000 (UTC)  By License and Access Type

Priego, Ernesto; Lewandowski, Tomasz; Atenas, Javiera; Andrés Delgado; Isabel Galina; Levin, John; Murtagh, John; Brun, Laurent; Whitton, Merinne; Pablo de Castro; Sarah Molloy; Petersen, Sigmund; Gutierrez, Silvia (2014): Articles with Ebola mentioned online anytime as tracked by Altmetric, with crowdsourced type of access and license. figshare.

Retrieved 10:22, Aug 15, 2014 (GMT)

Ebola: Access and Licenses of 497 Papers Crowdsourced in 7 Days

From  (2014): Articles with Ebola mentioned online anytime as tracked by Altmetric, with crowdsourced type of access and license. figshare. http://dx.doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.1137162

Yesterday I shared a spreadsheet containing references to 497 papers on Ebola including the access and license type of each paper. The access and license types of each paper were crowdsourced. Fourteen volunteers participated in completing the dataset.

On Wednesday 6 August 2014 I shared a dataset on a Google spreadsheet of references to 497 papers on Ebola exported from an Altmetric Explorer report (see my previous post here).

One of the intentions of sharing the dataset, apart from sharing a file containing links to 497 scientific articles on Ebola mentioned online, was to crowdsource the access and license type of each paper. I promoted the file and the task amongst my followers on Twitter.

The task was to manually click on each link and personally verify which papers were open access, which were paywalled, which were ‘free to read’, etc., and to verify under which licenses they were published. We also added another column for ‘Publisher’. Contributors were asked to add their names and Twitter usernames on a column next to the Access, License and Publisher rows they had completed.

By Wednesday 13 August 2014, the whole dataset was complete (only a few Publisher rows remained to be completed, which I did). I closed the shared Google spreadsheet for editing and did a little bit of manual data refining; and verified some of the access and licenses types. I then downloaded it and did a bit more refining on Excel; and edited the spreadsheet so it contained a documentation ReadMe sheet and two extra sheets; one sheet with only the Open Access (in this case we included SA, ND and NC Creative Commons Licenses; though as we know fully-fledged Open Access requires CC-BY licenses) and another one with only the CC-BY entries for easier location of the open papers. I shared it last night on figshare, including everyone who helped crowdsource as co-authors of the spreadsheet:

Priego, Ernesto; Lewandowski, Tomasz; Atenas, Javiera; Andrés Delgado; Isabel Galina; Levin, John; Murtagh, John; Brun, Laurent; Whitton, Merinne; Pablo de Castro; Sarah Molloy; Petersen, Sigmund; Gutierrez, Silvia (2014): Articles with Ebola mentioned online anytime as tracked by Altmetric, with crowdsourced type of access and license. figshare.
Retrieved 07:39, Aug 14, 2014 (GMT)

Last night I did a quick chart about the number of papers per type of access. It was late so it may contain errors. One of the reasons why the spreadsheet has been shared openly is so that others can do their own analyses and contrast any information about it.

Number of Ebola Papers in Dataset Per Access Type chart CC-BY Ernesto Priego
Number of Ebola Papers in Dataset Per Access Type. Click to enlarge.


Access type Number of papers in dataset per access type
All Open Access (includes NC; 95 CC-BY) 133
Paywalled 138
Free to Read but not OA (All Rights Reserved research papers) 211
“Advance Access” (Free to read but not OA) 1
News Items (Free to Read but not OA) 6
DOIs not found or unresolved 4

[Please note total is not 497 in the charts above as some license/access types were either not present or unclear; for example there’s cases of papers labeled as “Open Access” but the license for that article was absent of hard to find. In any case this chart needs to be revised and editorial decisions need to be taken about what will count as what. The charts are shared in the knowledge errors can still remain].

Depending on your interests, there is a series of different analyses that could be done from the data. I’ll be working on that; but since we have shared the dataset openly, why not see what you can do with it? (Don’t forget to cite the dataset!)

A Visit to Down House

Down House sign

Many times I have written before that I want to write more. Life during and after a PhD can do things to one’s attitudes to writing and particularly public writing. Blogging is an excercise that requires practice. Blogging post-Facebook and post-Twitter is very different to what it was before them. A culture of constant surveilance is paradoxically entrenched in a hyper-competitive economy of attention in which people won’t click on your links even if you pay them to.

When people in a competitive culture realize that attention is a commodity, and that ‘sharing’ can be measured, those not keen to non-self-interested collaboration are likely to use lack of attention as a form of capital. I personally find it hilarious some people are so keen on paywalling their research in this climate, in which no one seems to care about what anyone else is doing. The selfie is the sign of the times after all. (Remember those years in which the main criticism of blogging was that it was all about narcissism? How little did we know of the joys of social media and “viral” selfies!).

Anyway I wanted to write this quick blog post about our visit last weekend to Down House. It was a gorgeous Spring day and that was perfect as the house has a lovely garden, and one can go walk along the beautiful Sandwalk, Darwin’s own “thinking path”. The web site in the previous link will give you a good idea of how awesome this place is and what an excellent job has English Heritage done to preserve it and keep it open to the public. It is more than worth the entry price and visiting it will be a great experience for adults and children alike. I took a lot of pictures but the ones on the Down House web site (and the 360 panoramics if you have the right software in your computer) will give you a very good idea of how gorgeous the place is.

I have been fascinated and intrigued by Darwin’s life and work since I was a kid.  (Simon Gurr and Eugene Byrne‘s Darwin: A Graphic Biography is a lovely book that should get anyone who isn’t already into Darwin). Visiting Down House was a very good complement to the fragmented knowledge I had of Darwin’s life. Some bullet points of the ideas I took with me:

  • The vital importance of the work that English Heritage does in preserving England’s historical buildings and cultural memory, keeping them alive for the enjoyment of the community and visitors alike, turning an educational activity into one of leisure and enjoyment and vice versa
  • The beauty of the Kent countryside in Spring
  • Confirming that Darwin was born into social, economic and intellectual privilege, and that his name and fame are not independent from that of his ancestors, the same way some of his children’s academic careers cannot be disconnected from that of their father
  • Confirming that Darwin’s greatest achievement was a consequence of his leaving England and traveling on the Beagle
  • Confirming that intellectual/academic/scientific work cannot be disconnected from its social and material conditions of production
  • Confirming that Darwin couldn’t have possibly worked and published his theories had he suffered adverse material and social conditions
  • Discovering how much Darwin packed into his day, even when he was physically ill, performing lots of physical activities such as handwriting, working in his garden, doing his walk every day before lunchtime
  • Confirming he did not have to do the washing up and other domestic chores
  • Confirming that walking and exercising are important parts of the researcher’s day, providing time and space to think differently
  • Discovering the importance that the post had for Darwin’s work; he used written correspondence over the post the way some of us use email, blogs and social media to communicate with our colleagues
  • Confirming that in spite of the long itme he self-embargoed his Origin, Darwin did share a lot of information with others, via the post
  • Confirming that Darwin used librarianship and information science skills to do what he did; that collecting, cataloguing, classification and curating were essential parts of his research;
  • Confirming that taxonomies, schemes, metadata creation was a contribution to knowledge
  • Seeing with my very own eyes how beautiful and amazing his journal and notebooks were; that he wrote and drew, combining the written word with visual thinking
  • That his scientific publishing career was defined by the culture and conditions of his time, and also spurred by competition rather than collaboration
  • That there’s no such thing as total originality, and that scientific/academic success is not just about the ideas or the work (ask Wallace)
  • That research that does not get disseminated becomes forgotten and ignored, and that ideas that get widely disseminated do live a life of their own outside their original platforms/vehicles of dissemination
  • That “science”, in spite of its pretense of “objectivity”, is always-already the result of empyrical experience and the particular conditions/positioning of the subject that does the research
  • That gardens are a work of art and a source of scientific and literary/poetic inspiration and discovery

Visiting Down House definitely inspired me to try to keep on writing more, to keep using my notebooks and to keep doodling and sketching.

Ah, and we bought Ruth Patel’s Darwin: A life in Poems at the shop. Listening to a couple of the poems in the voice of the author in the audio guide along the Sandwalk was a moving experience, though one also felt the urge to remove the earphones to listen to the sounds of that beautiful English Spring day.