Countdown to Detroit

5 May

The annual meeting of the Medical Library Association is almost upon us. This year we’ll be meeting in Detroit, MI and be joined by our colleagues from the Special Libraries Association. I’m very much looking forward to both of these aspects of the meeting, along with all of the expected great networking, seeing old friends, making new friends, finding new ideas and energy for the work ahead. But I’ve also never been to Detroit (other than stops in the airport and once shuttled through on my way to Ann Arbor) and I really appreciate the membership of SLA. During my time working for the UMass Center for Clinical & Translational Science, I joined SLA. I found it a great home during those years. The work I was doing in evaluation and the aspects of clinical and translational science coincided with those members of SLA who are rooted in pharmaceuticals, biotech, biological sciences, and other related industries. I believe having our two organizations together in Detroit will bring a lot to all of the attendees.

And thinking of MLA annual meetings, a friend reminded me that it was 10 years ago today that I gave the “Welcome to New England” bit at the opening of the meeting in Boston that year. I was the president of our regional chapter of MLA that year (NAHSL) and thus got the chance to do the welcome. So I wrote a little poem. My friend posted a video of me reading it and I had to go look it up. It was a stroke o’ genius, that one. Clearly came to me from some other realm! 🙂

I’m scrambling today to finish up a presentation for this coming Monday’s annual meeting of the Massachusetts Library Association. They call themselves MLA, too, but that confuses me. My presentation is on the interplay between creativity, empathy, and justice. I’m needing another one of those genius strokes to pull it together. I have so much material that I’m having a hard time getting it to come together the way that I want it to. But I still have the weekend!

It feels so good to be thinking about and attending meetings again. I find the in-person connection to be vital to my mental health, as well as my professional growth. The pandemic opened our eyes to new ways of doing conferences that do make them more accessible to everyone, but I’m just not a person who gets as much from virtual meetings. I’m happy to be back together with my frolleagues. Looking forward to seeing folks soon!

Back to that presentation!

A Lamentation for a Bird

21 Apr

NPR recently announced it would no longer post new content to Twitter. WBUR, on of my local NPR affiliates recently followed the same path. I understand, in part. Without climbing on a soapbox and ranting on with the particulars of the demise of my favorite social media platform, I’ll simply say that since its sale to Elon Musk, it is a (dark) shadow of its former self. And it makes me very sad.

My Twitter profile tells me that I joined the platform in 2009. That was back when people scoffed at it, claiming it was nothing more than a place where people shared pictures of kittens. I vividly remember a researcher at my institution say, in response to a presentation that I’d given on the role of social media and science, that Twitter represented nothing more than a bunch of people with too much time on their hands, posting pictures of baby animals and stupid cat memes. It was no place for anything substantive, certainly not science.

He was wrong then and wrong now – well, the now of just a few months ago. Twitter was a vital source for legitimate news, a way for people to discuss and connect. Through #medlibs (an interest group of medical and health sciences librarians on Twitter), I met colleagues, made friends, learned about new resources, had great discussions about issues in our field. The monthly get-togethers unknowingly prepared us for virtual happy hours and Zoom meetings that would become the norm of 2020 and beyond. It was novel – and fun – to connect virtually then.

What made me most sad about the announcement from NPR is that Twitter was the one social media platform that gave one the chance to actually reach a reporter, the host of a show, without any walls. If Scott Simon caught something I tweeted to him about a story he covered, he could tweet back. Ari Shapiro tweeted back to me when I swooned over Stevie Nicks saying to him at the end of their interview, “Bye, bye, honey.” He was swooning, too.

Twitter was a way to let writers know that you appreciated their work, it gave you a means to ask them questions directly, it made it possible to reach people you’d never been able to connect with so easily before. It allowed users to follow musicians, artists, actors as they shared real aspects of their lives – picking up kids from school, making lunches, binge-watching Netflix. For me, Twitter made the people that I admired from afar, real. Not really real, of course. Following someone on Twitter isn’t the same as knowing someone, but it offered a better sense of understanding of those folks.

I met Matt Shipman (@shiplives) on Twitter. Matt’s a science writer and media person for NC State University. Over Twitter, we discovered that we’d grown up in the same small-ish town of Petersburg, VA, spending many hours at the same branch library in the same neighborhood.

I met Tom Garrett (@TheAxisOfEgo) on Twitter. Tom and I are on different sides of many things politically, but we had some good discussions – civil discussions – arguments that weren’t heated, but ones that allowed us to share our differing opinions. We didn’t yell or swear or call one another names. We didn’t have to agree (though we DID almost always agree on the doom and gloom of the Washington Football Team).

I met countless others like Matt and Tom, people who shared funny stories, raised serious issues, opened themselves up for debate. People organized over Twitter, shared conference proceedings over Twitter, practically overthrew governments on Twitter (I speak of Arab Spring, NOT January 6).

One night back in 2011, I was watching “Jeopardy!” and following along with something on Twitter. Rosanne Cash posted something funny and I simply tweeted back a reply as if I was sitting in the room with her. And she answered me. Then I answered. Then she answered. And for a couple minutes, we had a brief little chat. Me and Rosanne Cash! Then Roseanne, an early Twitter celebrity, started following me. And we tweet-chatted every now and then. And since that night, I’ve met Rosanne, backstage and on-stage and walking down the streets of Brattleboro, VT together. She recorded a blurb for my radio show that makes me smile every single time that I play it. Twitter made that happen.

And I met Amy Dickinson on Twitter. Amy and I became friends, thanks to Twitter. Amy’s given me advice, as a friend, not via her syndicated column. We met in person at the small public library in Lenox, MA one summer when she was giving a book talk and she introduced me as her first friend of Twitter. Amy invited me to sit with some of her family at a taping of “Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me” in Providence, RI. She sends me Christmas cards. I write letters to her home address. Amy Dickinson agreed to be a keynote speaker at an annual meeting of NAHSL one year. She made me shine as the program chair that time, for sure. I’ll never forget it. Twitter made that happen.

When Jack Dorsey led the fledgling Twitter, I remember his claim that it was a simple way to bring people together. It did that. For a while. I’ve not left it yet (these blog posts still get shared there), but I also don’t keep it open daily as I once did. The things trending are of little to no interest, the tone has changed, and now legitimate news sources are leaving. I do subscribe to The NY Times and the Washington Post, and I listen to NPR almost daily. But I trusted their posts on Twitter to keep me up-to-speed during the day. When I couldn’t read the paper or listen to the radio, I could pop over to my Twitter feed and catch a quick glimpse of what was happening in the world. With those sources gone, I fear the void left behind and the frightening vacuum that will fill it.

A man bought Twitter for a joke. And he’s turned it into just that.

Makes me sad.

The Irony of Open Access

14 Apr

In her song, “Everything is Free,” the singer-songwriter Gillian Welch sings:

Everything is free now
That’s what they say
Everything I ever done
Gonna give it away
Someone hit the big score
They figured it out
That we’re gonna do it anyway
Even if it doesn’t pay

She wrote the song in the days of Napster, when she felt her livelihood threatened by the unlawful sharing of artists’ work via the service. Napster, of course, faced legal challenges and eventually shut down as part of a settlement. But the horse was out of the barn, so to speak, and today Spotify and Apple Music (disclosure: I subscribe to the latter) continue to pay artists less-than-pennies on the dollar so that we can enjoy their talents.

I thought of this song as I was listening to the latest episode of the podcast, Radiolab, called The Library of Alexandra. The episode focuses on the shadow website, SciHub, and its creator, Alexandra Elbakyan. I’m not going to use this time and space to cover the details of SciHub (you can listen to the podcast), but for those who are unfamiliar, it’s a file sharing site, like Napster, but the files it shares are published journal articles. Also like Napster, it’s illegal.

Elbakyan, as well as SciHub’s champions, claim that the site provides an essential service. The scholarly publishing enterprise is broken. It charges obscene amounts of money to access articles, either via subscriptions (thank your library) or through individual payments for individual articles. Researchers – or rather researchers’ libraries/institutions – end up paying to access the work that they created themselves. The availability of research is also enormously skewed towards those with money, creating significant inequity in research across the globe (yet one more example).

You get no argument from me on these points. A handful of large publishing houses overwhelmingly control the vast majority of academic journals. For years they have had the upper hand, increasing subscription prices at a pace that broke library budgets, resulting in cuts to all kinds of resources and services. Yes, it’s a broken system. But as I listened to Lulu Miller and Latif Nasser, the co-hosts of the show, as well as Eli Cohen, the reporter for this episode, giggle and gush and breathlessly sing the praises of SciHub and Elbakyan, I cringed. I honestly kept thinking that a punchline had to be coming. Surely they were joking.

How could respected journalists condone this behavior? How could Lulu Miller (LULU MILLER?!), who gave one of THE best keynote lectures I have ever heard when she spoke at the annual meeting of the Special Libraries Association several years ago, be guffawing over a website and a practice that seriously damages libraries and librarians? They all laughed when Elbakyan said, “We will break copyright.” Hah, hah. So funny. I about blew a gasket when Cohen declared that he discovered SciHub while trying to learn how to use the library in college. It was just so much easier. Laziness and theft. Like Pandora’s Box opened up. What the… ?!?!

And so I took to Twitter and I shared some comments. I wondered how journalists would feel if someone busted through the paywalls of the world’s newspapers. I wondered if they’d just give their work away for free. I wondered if they worked for free. Nasser tweeted back:

Well, that’s true. They are a public radio show. Kind of like a public library. Everything is free.

What a ridiculously shallow reply. Nothing is free. Public radio, like public libraries, depends upon taxpayers, subscribers, donors, foundations, so many generous sources, in order to stay afloat. NPR recently experienced its largest layoff in its history due to a lack of advertisers and drops in other financial support. So hey! Stuff costs money. And when people righteously steal, pretending to be some kind of Robin Hood, other people suffer.

Thankfully, at the very end of the episode, the story FINALLY got to modern day (SciHub was started 12 years ago) when it discussed open access and the recent moves by the Biden administration towards immediate open access of all government-sponsored work (the Nelson Memo), beginning in 2025. Since 2008 (longer than SciHub), federal law has required that all research funded by the National Institutes of Health be made publicly available within 12 months of publication. The Nelson Memo is the next step in this progress towards an arena of open science. (And I beg to differ with the conclusions of the Radiolab folks, i.e., we don’t owe all thanks to Alexandra for pushing the world to open science. I think there are a good many others who have worked in legal ways over these years to see this come to fruition. And oh yeah… we had a global pandemic that forced paywalls to come down for the sake of developing a vaccine.)

On Wednesday, I attended a truly enlightening panel discussion hosted by the Society of Scholarly Publishing entitled, The Nelson Memo…Now What?. (Sorry folks, you can’t watch for free.) The panel featured a university librarian (Yale) and three individuals representing three different levels of publisher – large (Springer Nature), decent sized society publisher (American Physiological Society), and a small, niche, clinical publisher (American Society of Clinical Oncology). It was fascinating to hear the different perspectives, the genuine questions and fears, doubts for the future, the positives and negatives. In the end, there were no answers because there are no answers. The only thing anyone knows for sure is that scholarly publishing is facing a foundational shift in how they operate. And so are academic libraries.

And as I listened and took notes, all I kept thinking was, “How ironic.” For years this is what we’ve wanted, what we’ve worked for. Research should be available to everyone to read and build upon. Data should be available to reuse and expand. This is open science. It’s all great.

But again, NOTHING is free. Who is going to pick up the tab? It remains to be seen.

(Aside: I also saw this week that the New York City restaurant, Serendipity3, is bringing back its $214 grilled cheese sandwich, and that the misogynistic creep of a human being, Daniel Snyder, who is under federal investigation for his horrid reign over the Washington Commanders football team now has an offer from a group to buy the team for $6 billion dollars. He paid less than a billion for it. So somebody has the money to foot the bill.)

Public radio is not free. Public libraries do not operate without costs. Academic libraries provide so much to their faculty, students, and staff that quite frankly ought to be appreciated, not usurped or stolen. SciHub may be free, but it comes with a cost to those of us who seek to change the law, not break it.

I like Radiolab. Just not today. And I abhor obscene wealth. Every day.