Library Changes with Callan

Callan Bignoli was hired as Olin’s Library Director at the end of July 2019. Since she has started she has been aiming to improve the library with student input. The library has been drastically updated because of the efforts of the library under the direction of Callan. Because of the vast changes, I sat down with her for an interview. 

Callan collected student feedback by conducting focus groups in the fall and surveys both in the fall and spring. She conducted another survey with alums of 2019. To accommodate how busy staff can be, she did several one-on-one meetings with them instead of focus groups. 

To do these surveys, Rebecca Matthews, Institute Research at Olin, was happy to help her make her survey and put them on Qualtrics. Rebecca also helped her organize the results and make reports of how people responded.

Additionally, Callan did an internal survey with the other librarians of 4-5 open ended questions related to what to prioritize and which of these  results they were surprised by.

From the data Callan had collected, she made a 9 page proposal called the Strategic Plan, which outlines the steps she plans to take to respond to the feedback she collected. It proposes a three-year plan that covers from this semester to Spring 2022

Callan says she was overwhelmed when she got here because  she didn’t know how to do what the community wanted. But she was invested in asking what people wanted instead of  just moving forward based on her preconceived notions from working at a different library. There were pretty significant changes that needed to be made, but she didn’t have an idea of where to start.

Callan really emphasized that although she could’ve guessed which actions to take first based on previous experience, it would have been dishonest and self serving.

The Action Plan has two parts. One that focuses on the first year and one that is more long term.

Within the first year, Callan has already started to move books around and will be getting new furniture for the bottom of the library. As mentioned in the email she sent out about book movements, the fiction books are now upstairs, the art books downstairs, and some books removed completely.

The longer term plan is to replace the rest of the furniture and to recarpet but that will depend on her budget being approved. Since presentations and some classes are held in the library, Callan is looking to make the seating more functional to support these activities.

Part of her desire is that the library is one of the first parts that visitors and guests see.

Callan has also put a lot of thought into the bookshelves. The bookshelves upstairs were becoming unstable and from holding at least 700 pounds of art books with heavy paper. Some students had been injured by the shelves making them no longer safe to be moved around as intended.

To combat this, books that hadn’t been checked out in 3 or more years were donated. The textbooks that were now out of date were harder to rehome so they were given to the artists in residence. Those heavy books were also moved downstairs to the static shelves and the lighter fiction books were brought up. Additionally she placed extraneous materials like CDs and some books on carts which the community was allowed to take for free. 

The biggest change to the library will actually be to the software. Callan was able to add us to the Minuteman Library system, and with that comes many perks. For example, the library software will be more stable and allow you to see what you’ve checked out, renew your own books, and do Inter Library Loans by yourself. People would also be able to check out books from the libraries in the system which contain 17 very rich libraries such as Needham and Wellesley Public Library. We will switch over on July 1st of 2020. When students come back in the fall, there will be an orientation that will help us explore the mobile app and give us access to a barcode sticker that will replace the “type-in-your-name” system we currently have. 

The Minuteman Library system also includes local tech support that will be able to help the library as it needs without hiring additional people. Without the student workers a lot of the changes would not have been possible. They helped box outgoing books and worked with Callan quite a bit. With all  the equipment the library has, like the cameras, screen printer, and sewing machines, without the student workers, it would be nearly impossible to upkeep the equipment and run trainings.

Callan has enjoyed that people are always willing and wanting to step in to help. Whether it’s idea generation, getting help making surveys, coding data, or even spray painting shelves, people have been excited to take part in improving the library.

The interview I had with Callan really showed me how willing she is to work with the community. She was excited to schedule time to talk to me and was open to answer my questions. I’m hopeful of how the library will change for the better in the next few years, and I’m happy to share that Callan cares about the Olin community and has already done so many things for us.

You’ve Run Out of Free Articles This Month

tl;dr: Publishers are crushing the life out of libraries. They’re undermining libraries’ efforts to democratize access to information and advance learning. You can push back by refusing to be a part of this broken system and deciding to make your own scholarly work more accessible to all.

A few weeks ago, officials in Citrus County, Florida denied a local library’s request for funding its subscription to The New York Times.

“I’m going to be a ‘no’ for this. Fake news. I agree with President Trump,” one of the county commissioners said as he explained his position. “I will not vote for this. I do not want The New York Times in this county.” The commissioners laughed at the thought of paying for the paper, especially digital access to it. One asked, “Why the heck would we spend money on something like that?”

Librarians around the country, including the three of us here at Olin, are alarmed by the implications of this. Should an official’s political views be grounds for deciding what content a library can make available? How about a publisher’s profit margins?

At the beginning of November, Macmillan, one of the five largest publishers in the U.S., declared they’re instating embargos on all libraries looking to obtain multiple copies of new ebooks until eight weeks after their release date, in order to boost paper book sales. 

Imagine there were 20 Olin students who wanted to borrow an ebook copy of Edward Snowden’s new memoir Permanent Record back when it was first released in September. Under Macmillan’s rules, our library could have purchased one e-copy of Permanent Record on its release date, waited eight weeks, then purchased additional e-copies. If, after those eight weeks, we bought three additional e-copies and loaned each of them out for two weeks apiece, this would have cost us $210 (vs. $120 for four paper copies) and there’d still be borrowers waiting to be able to read a digital copy of Permanent Record. If you had to wait three or four months to read something, would you just go buy it, or maybe just not read it at all? (The library does own one paper copy of the book, by the way.)

In the words of the American Library Association, this “limit[s] libraries’ ability to provide access to information for all. It particularly harms library patrons with disabilities or learning issues. [Ebooks] can become large-print books with only a few clicks, and most ebook readers offer fonts and line spacing that make reading easier for people who have dyslexia or other visual challenges.” As a librarian wrote in an editorial for Publisher’s Weekly, “[W]hile Macmillan’s ebook embargo aims to squeeze a few more sales out of frustrated library users, it unfairly disadvantages ebook readers who use the library out of need. Equal access to information regardless of ability to pay is foundational to a democratic society and is why public libraries exist.” It may not be as blatantly censorious as what the Citrus County commissioners are up to, but the embargo prevents people from being able to read what they want to read when and how they want to read it.

Macmillan and its ebook policy present a problem to libraries that amounts to censorship by a thousand cuts–or maybe a thousand invoices. By pricing libraries out or denying them access altogether, companies are limiting what people can read and, in the process, creating a user experience so frustrating that many people give up on it. Streaming media platforms are another challenge. There is next to no conversation happening about how libraries can provide institutional access to services like Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime. When librarians try to engage in agreements with these companies, they tend to hear nothing back. We’re so far out of their line of sight because we aren’t profitable. After all, our business model is essentially “take very small amounts of money from people through taxes or tuition and translate it back into lots of free stuff for those same people to use.” Theirs is “charge lots of people quite a bit of money for just enough access to things they like that they keep autopaying their subscriptions.” Doesn’t mesh well.

This is bad because at some point in the near future, the physical media libraries can easily provide access to in the form of DVDs will cease to be a viable option for many borrowers. In early 2019, Samsung announced it was going to stop manufacturing DVD players. We’ve seen Oliners experience the joy of running around trying to find external DVD drives on campus, and we’ve talked to faculty flummoxed by how to provide access to documentaries they’d hoped to show in class. Libraries are already contending with certain exclusive streaming shows and movies never being sold as physical copies. This is only the beginning as we move to an era where DVDs become a thing of the past and theatrical releases go straight to streaming, again creating a division of access based on who has or doesn’t have the $9.99/month for a Netflix account (and the $9.99/month for a Hulu account, and the $6.99/month for a Disney+ account, and the cable subscription for an HBO GO account, etc.).

The bloodiest battle between libraries and publishers of all, and the one that’s closest to home for us at Olin’s library, is happening in access to academic research. Olin pays for access to ebooks and other electronic content, such as databases of scholarly research and online periodical subscriptions. We do not pay a small amount of money for these things to begin with, but virtually all publishers try to tack on an increase when it’s time to renew our subscriptions–not just once every few years, but every year. The percentage growth in academic and corporate libraries’ expenditures on these resources was 673% between 1986 and 2015. That’s not missing a decimal point. Olin didn’t exist in 1986, but if we did, you can bet your buns that our budget wouldn’t have gone up by nearly 700% in the thirty-odd years between then and now.

In the early months of 2019, the academic library world was rocked by the news that the University of California system ended negotiations with publishing megagiant RELX (you may know them as Elsevier) for a new journal subscription contract. This was huge; as a piece from Inside Higher Ed put it, “no [institutions that have tried negotiating] in the U.S. have the financial and scholarly clout of the UC system — which accounts for nearly 10 percent of the nation’s publishing output.” In a decision that took hundreds of opinions and dozens of departments unified in their mission to fight back against the debilitating costs of accessing research and reliable sources, UC brought widespread attention to the matter of price gouging and the importance of open access publishing.

That leads us right into why we should care and what can we do. 

Open access publishing means making research freely available, as opposed to lurking behind paywalls. If you’ve ever maxed out on free stories on a news website or searched our library resources, you’ve ran into these nasty things, tempting you with the contents of an article or ebook only to find it’s in a database we don’t subscribe to because it’s prohibitively expensive for us. To give some context here, Elsevier’s profits in 2017 – profit rooted in the publication of others’ scientific work – were an obscene $1,170,000,000, a profit of 37% over their operating budget. As a response to this extortion, open access takes shape as a commitment made at the college or university level to ensure that faculty or student research is accessible internally for free or in open access journals, or both.

How does this impact your education? Open access furthers research and innovation in all fields, and engineering is no exception. Even if you aren’t doing much research or writing right now, you will if you go to grad school, if you choose to teach, or when you file patents, author white papers, or do other fact-finding projects at work. Unfortunately, we’re very far away from a purely open access world. The prestige of publishing in certain journals combined with the greedy, powerful vendors–can’t live with ‘em (pay through the nose) or without ‘em (kill access to research)–keeps access exclusive and profit margins high.

Any library’s ability to sustainably and easily provide access to quality resources is vitally important to its existence and relevance to its community, but because publishers are so fixated on profits, it’s increasingly becoming impossible. Circling back to ebooks and streaming media, even if you haven’t set foot in a public library in years, think about the good they add to this world. They aspire to offer equal access to information that many individual patrons might not be able to afford, whether it’s in the form of a New York Times subscription, an electronic copy of a hit bestseller, or a handful of DVDs to watch with family over a holiday break. But because libraries can’t foot publishers’ bills, the public is effectively being divided into information haves and have-nots, undoing the work that public libraries have done to democratize access in the past century and a half.

Here at Olin, and at institutions throughout the world, our ability to continue providing access to reputable academic resources is at stake. Would you want to see engineering, computer science, or any other field base its research conclusions solely on what you can find on page one of Google search results? (Be real, no one ever goes past page one.) If subscription costs go up another 673%, that very well could be the future we’ll be living in 30 years from now.

There are things we can do at Olin; we are tiny but mighty and we can set a new example for how to approach this problem. First, we need a refreshed discussion about the importance of open access. Your librarians feel it is our duty to make trusted, reliable content available to our students and faculty. By following an open access policy, we can ensure together that the Olin community, now or in the future, won’t pay for the research generated by its own scholars.

The library also needs community input so we can think strategically and proactively about how to provide the content and resources you need. We need to critically evaluate what we’re paying for now and find alternatives. Over time, our model might look a lot different than what we’re doing today–it might be more time curating open educational resources and less time (and money) spent on managing subscription packages–but librarians can’t make those big decisions or push back against the broken publishing system alone. When you’re ready to join this conversation, we’re ready to listen.

In the meantime, you can help libraries today by signing these two petitions: