The Invisible College

I’ve been reading The Age of Wonder, a book about Romanticism in the scientific explorations of the 18th century. Though part of my enjoyment of this book comes from the in-depth look at the history of science, particularly astronomy (and Caroline Herschel!), what has particularly struck me is the prominence of personal relationships in the furthering of scientific discovery. Beyond what we now term “networking,” friendships and even familial relationships among talented and enthusiastic observers of the natural world helped fuel the age’s engine of science.

This social model of intellectual support is a form of invisible college, a term Diana Crane used to describe the networks of scientists that contribute directly or, more often, indirectly to their research paths. You may or may not ever co-publish with a fellow of your invisible college, but his or her intellectual influence on your life enriches your own work. (I’m paraphrasing and extrapolating the idea pretty heavily here, as I don’t have a copy of Crane’s original study on hand. A good overview, with editorial by Crane, is available here: I was introduced to the concept during coursework on scholarly communication with Debbie Rabina at Pratt.)

These kinds of relationships, paired with modern ease of information sharing, are helping to fuel not only formal interdisciplinary study but also the general tide of awareness of current ideas. Yesterday I posted a congratulatory note here in support of the bedrock of my personal invisible college. She and my friends in disciplines ranging from architecture to international policy to law help enrich my intellectual life through the sharing of articles and news items from their areas of expertise and through challenging me to act as a nascent expert in information science and cultural studies. My close colleagues from library school help keep me up-to-date on the aspects of the field that I don’t interact with directly but benefit from familiarity with. We use social media not only to share personal information or the latest comedic video, but to expand the horizons of our understanding.

I’m grateful for the tools at my disposal and the ability to use them with ease. I’m also enormously lucky to have been part of a vibrant intellectual community at Pratt and to have stumbled into friendships with brilliant people.

We are living in an age of shifting social options, a deluge of information, and enormous challenges to the academy. I don’t think it’s outside the realm of possibility that we may some day return to the personal model of scholarly pursuit illustrated in The Age of Reason.

Then again, maybe I’m just a romantic.

Games in Libraries – Sort of

It’s the week of GenCon Indy, which means my Twitter feed is saturated with updates from colleagues in the gaming industry talking about the convention. For those who’ve never been to GenCon, it’s an impressive spectacle – about the size of ALA annual, but with a significant minority of attendees in some form of costume. Like ALA, GenCon Indy is the premiere professional event for the gaming industry, but unlike ALA, GenCon is also a huge entertainment event, with games run by and for fans of various gaming media.

The gaming community constitutes a small but growing subculture in many Western countries, with tabletop (think Dungeons and Dragons), LARP (live-action-role-play — similar to those mystery dinner party games), and video games for consoles, PCs, and portable devices proliferating. Unlike comics, which are finding increased footing in the academic world, gaming and its books and paraphernalia still have a significant stigma. Much as “genre fiction” (sci-fi, fantasy, mystery, western, and romance) is still not taken seriously by many public and academic libraries, gaming books seem to be regarded as exotic yet frivolous ephemera. Of the nearly 200 WorldCat holdings of the most recent D&D Player’s Handbook (a major release from a leader in the field), only 5 were at American universities, though both Oxford and Cambridge universities have a copy in their collections.

Gaming is finding its footing as entertainment in our public libraries, but will we ever reach a point of cultural saturation where building a collection of gaming books as a part of our cultural heritage will be viable? These are usually bound books, far more capable of withstanding abuse than many of our pamphlets, flyers, and other ephemera of our archives and collections. They can serve a dual purpose – like popular literature collections – of source text for researchers and entertainment for laymen. Research in video gaming and its players is taking off, so why is “pen and paper” gaming still languishing in the basement?

ALA Annual 2010 – Shifting Expectations

The annual ALA conference was in Washington, DC this past weekend and I went into it eager for the energy of the conference bubble. I was hoping that the vibrant professional community that I’d already experienced at ALA Midwinter in Boston would help me recapture the enthusiasm I’d lost after graduation and my rather abrupt move from NYC.

Instead, with a few marvelous exceptions (detailed below), I found myself hearing professional librarians present material that was tangential at best and irrelevant and out-of-date at worst. One presentation on metadata featured reassurances that as librarians, we could just use MARC for all our metadata needs. More than one session featured dry readings of the history of whatever aspect of librarianship was under discussion.

The energy of ALA Annual seemed to be largely contained in the exhibitor’s hall and in the “special” events – book cart drill team, Battledecks, etc. — whose appeal escapes me. My conference roommate (@librarygilana), whose professional inclinations are far different from mine (she’s more sensible and less of a research nerd), had a wonderful time. I just found it to be largely missing the genuine newness and intellectual vibrancy that I’ve found at other professional events.

That said, there were two really outstanding sessions that I had the pleasure of attending: First, the session on technology in academic libraries in developing countries was broad in scope and blessed with committed and knowledgeable speakers (including the perpetually charming Peter Young from the Library of Congress and IFLA president Ellen Tise). Secondly, the expertly-presented session on evidence-based practice in instruction managed to give me a jolt of professional enthusiasm that made the disappointments of other sessions fade significantly. Megan Oakleaf and Diana Wakimoto managed to get a large room of attendees buzzing and interacting with each other while still presenting serious research that can help move American librarianship forward. Some former Pratt classmates and I (including @speercommajess) walked out with big ideas and energy to match.

Every professional event I attend helps me pinpoint my true passions in the field, so I value even the parts that make me grumpy. I’m looking forward to ACRL next spring and I hope to find some local and regional events between now and then that will keep me energized and focused.

The Writing Center and the Library

At the institution where I work, the writing center is a kind of strange appendage to the library. To get to it, you have to go into the library and through the stacks, yet the center is administratively and practically separated from the actual library. (The center’s entrance is a former fire exit.) Library staff have only the writing center’s flyers to rely on for staffing hours, and are sometimes forced to merely grimace sympathetically when a frantic student can’t find writing help and the ref desk is swamped.

A dear friend of mine is a graduate student in English and works part-time in the writing center at her institution. She and I have had discussions trying to find the boundary between the library and the writing center. When one of her students has a paper that is grammatically solid but lacks good references, does she shoo him onto the library? She’s trained in composition but not library structure and information literacy. When a student comes to the reference desk with a request for resources that don’t match the assignment he’s working on (or his other sources), do I recommend contacting the writing center? Why are these entities separate? Is it primarily an administrative issue? (Writing center staff is often composed of graduate students in English or Composition.) Is it a territory issue? It is a space issue?

LIS literature has shown that undergraduates tend to research and write to the assignment, in a model unlike that of advanced graduate students, faculty, or librarians. (See Fister 1992, Leckie 1996 and others for more on this.) To put it simplistically, our students want to write effective and well-researched papers because they want to get good grades. Our faculty want our students to write good papers because they want to pass on the standards that shape their professional worlds.

I as a librarian and my friend as writing instructor want the same things from and for our students. Physical location of the writing center into the library is a great first step. One-desk service models that include writing center staffing are even better. I’d like to see cross-training of writing center and library reference/instruction staff. Make it clear what resources are available. Develop relationships among writing instructors and librarians. Academic libraries are moving to a model that’s more enmeshed with coursework and teaching. Shouldn’t strengthening our relationships with the academic service whose mission is arguably closest to ours be a top priority?