Q&A: Libraries dean talks digitization, open access, information justice

· 13 min read

Q&A: Libraries dean talks digitization, open access, information justice

Craig Chandler | University Communication
Claire Stewart, dean of University Libraries, has worked with faculty and staff to develop a strategic plan that will carry the libraries through the 2022 fiscal year.

If information is the lifeblood of a university, its libraries are the beating heart.

On arriving at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln in August 2019 to succeed the retiring Nancy Busch as dean of University Libraries, Claire Stewart found a strong, steady pulse. Its Digital Commons, an online repository of research materials authored by Husker faculty, staff and students, had recently been ranked in the top 15 of roughly 2,300 global counterparts. Its partnership with the College of Arts and Sciences had spawned the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, yielding more than a decade of information-rich projects on Willa Cather, the Omaha tribe, enslaved African Americans and other historical figures both recognized and marginalized.

Stewart also arrived at the outset of the BIG Collection, an ongoing initiative designed to grant all members of the Big Ten Academic Alliance — the 14 Big Ten members and the University of Chicago — unprecedented, unfettered access to the library collections of their peer institutions. Combined with HathiTrust, a joint Big Ten-University of California database that now holds about 50% of Nebraska’s entire University Libraries collection, more Huskers have easier access to that collection, and others, than ever before.

But Stewart, who previously worked in the library systems at Northwestern University and the University of Minnesota, also saw plenty of opportunities for reflection, growth and improvement in her new academic home. The dean, faculty and staff of University Libraries have now laid out those visions in a strategic plan that will carry the libraries through the 2022 fiscal year.

Nebraska Today recently spoke with Stewart about the promises and pitfalls of digitization, the importance of cultivating information literacy in students, and the urgency of amplifying voices that have long been muffled in library collections.

The plan calls for adopting strategies that will offer greater access to research literature, much of which resides behind the paywalls of academic publishers. What are the primary challenges to that? How might University Libraries and its peers go about overcoming those challenges?

My own view on this whole scholarly publishing ecosystem is that it’s beyond messed up. It’s way out of whack. We have a real problem with information justice, particularly now. COVID is such a great example, when you think about how critical, and potentially life-saving, having access to information in that area can be. The fact that you would have any research that’s paid for by government funders or by universities, and then given away for free to commercial entities that then sell it back to us at grossly inflated prices… That, on its face, is just wrong. And when you start layering, on top of that, the differential impacts that can have on people’s health and well-being … you quickly get into some really deeply inequitable and unjust things.

Disseminating research used to be something that universities did directly, most notably through its presses, which are still such an essential part of what we do. I think there’s a lot that goes into why faculty (now) give away their research. What they really feel they need to do is publish, because they’re trying to advance within the profession, to achieve promotion, to achieve tenure. So there’s an incredible amount of pressure on those faculty. They, themselves, don’t bear the cost of giving away the research, but they also have no power in that situation.

I think the publishing industry deserves a lot of blame for a lot of shenanigans over a long period of time: everything from starting up too many new journals and trying to drive people to publish more by creating metrics like the impact factor, trying to convince people that they have to publish in certain venues and with certain publishers, and really focusing on prestige in publishing — cranking it way, way, way up. And then, raising the prices, because it’s not a competitive market. If you’re a library that’s serving a particular field, you have to have that one journal. You can’t say, “Well, I’m not going to buy that one for you, but I’ll buy you this other one.” Because it’s totally different content. It’s an almost perfect monopoly, because the publishers don’t have to pay for the content. They get complete control. Not only do they get the copy of the paper, but they often are able to secure the copyright. So they’re controlling the first distribution, but then they’re also controlling all subsequent uses.

I think universities have to be a lot smarter about this. I think we have to take more responsibility for our role in disseminating research. I’d love to see us invest more in making sure university presses stay healthy, making sure we have alternatives for faculty who either want to — or have to, because their funders say they have to — make their research openly available. I think we’re doing better in some areas, like with research data. That generally hasn’t been enclosed yet by the publishers, although they’re really trying hard to do it. And we have to be kind of hardheaded about what it actually costs to publish these things. We have to be willing to walk away. We have to be willing to stop paying publishers such as Elsevier, Springer Nature, especially if we don’t believe they’re conducting themselves in an ethical manner, from a pricing standpoint.

The digitization and preservation of content is an area of strength and point of pride at Nebraska. How is University Libraries working to reinforce and expand on that strength?

Our institutional repository is one of the best and the biggest in the country. The team here in the University Libraries has invested decades in building that and really has had a very, very strong commitment to making as much Nebraska research open as possible. Unfortunately, we’re kind of unusual in that — what we call green archiving, which is freely, openly available. We didn’t have to pay a publisher to open up those articles that are deposited in our repository. If every university in the country had done that, we would be in a very different place, and we would have fewer issues with publishers. Unfortunately, it’s a massive investment of resources, time, energy, and it’s not something that we’ve all done.

We have the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities. There’s our investment in the Google Books project and HathiTrust. We have a media services unit that does a lot of wonderful digitization projects for faculty who are working with images and video. What we haven’t done is think about how that scales and what we’re missing. None of those is a systematic digitization of all of our archives and special collections, for example. We’ve got all these amazing pieces. Some of them are much better than the pieces that exist at any other library in the country. How can we bring those things together and then scale them up? What are the collections that our faculty and our students want to be able to use digitally for their community projects, for doing digital histories, for whatever it is?

We’d like to get to a place where we’re ahead of things. Personally, the moonshot for me is: I want everything digitized. I want the other 50% of our print collection, and I want all of our archives and special collections, digitized for both preservation and access reasons.

How has the pandemic — the dispersal of students, faculty and staff, in particular — informed your perspectives on that effort?

Libraries have been investing in going digital for decades, so we were actually in pretty good position when the pandemic hit. But, of course, the demand for content in digital form has just skyrocketed, and we’re honestly never really going back. That doesn’t mean we won’t still collect books, or that’s not still important. But it’s so obvious that we need to be able to provide robust services in the digital space.

I feel like it just made everything more urgent. Yeah, we need more digital. Yeah, we need stuff to be more open. Yeah, it’s even more important that we have really good integration into classes and make sure that we’re able to be present to help develop information literacy.

I’m actually really proud of the university, because I think it did a good job of doing right by its people — giving faculty and staff the opportunity to make choices about being present physically on campus or doing work remotely. I think it was different at some other libraries and institutions, so they have a very different task, to make change within an environment that’s a little less supportive than ours was.

You mentioned information literacy, which is another point of emphasis in the strategic plan. How do you define it, and how are you looking to foster it going forward?

I think the simple way of thinking about information literacy is: What are the information practices that are relevant to our students — or to our faculty, for that matter — as they work within their disciplines? What are the things that our students need to know when they graduate in order to get jobs and be effective in their first jobs? What are the things they need to know about how information works?

That means very different things depending on what discipline or what practice someone is going into. One of the things that you see in our strategic plan is to do some mapping, so that we can say, for first-year chemistry students: What are the information practices that they need to become familiar with? They need to get to a point where they understand how to read a scientific article. If you are a practicing, fully trained chemist, how would you read a scientific article? Would you download 50 articles and start at the beginning and read all the way to the end? No, that’s not how you do it. And that’s not how we want students to do it, either. We want them to learn by understanding how to look at abstracts and understand what the abstract is telling you about the content in the article, to understand how to read a methods section so you understand how they conducted the experiment.

That’s what I mean by being very discipline-specific. A historian and a chemist have totally different needs, the same way they do in terms of learning how to write. But it’s so foundational. Nobody can really function in society unless they know where information comes from, how to find it, who paid for it, and then, how to understand and process it. That’s where we’re trying to get with information literacy. Of course, it’s a shared process. The faculty and staff in the libraries work collaboratively with disciplinary faculty to co-design assignments or teaching experiences so that we’re integrating those concepts fluidly within the other objectives of a course.

One of the principles is understanding how authority is constructed, and that it’s contextual. One way that we like to introduce students to that is to take them through archival collections so that they understand what different sources are influencing the development of a philosophical argument or the creation of a history.

It sounds like you’re looking for ways to help students more carefully consider the agendas and the intentions of the people and entities that are disseminating information.

I think we’ve been getting a full-on lesson on that over the last year, in particular, between the pandemic, and the election, and the debate about social media and the rise of misinformation and disinformation. One of our other principles in information literacy is that information has value. There’s a whole economic system behind the production of information, and obviously, it can be a political system, too. This library is focused on our student and faculty population. We have to get them to a point where that’s a reflex. They think about those things; they know how to evaluate not just what they’re reading, but where it came from.

That seems to dovetail with another through line of the strategic plan: addressing the marginalization of underrepresented groups and being actively anti-racist.

I think, as a university and as a library, we’re in a very strong place in terms of awareness. This library — the people who are here on the faculty and staff — have been invested in working to change things and raise the awareness for decades. They’ve been very early in bringing attention to issues of equity and inclusion. But I think what becomes challenging is: How do we translate that into the work that we actually do? How do we make sure, in every department and every kind of work that the University Libraries does, that we’re really thinking about what that means and examining the work that we do?

I think there has been some really difficult reckoning about the language that we use in our catalogs to describe people and collections. There’s just this deeply rooted white supremacy. There’s a strong tradition of othering communities of color. You have to really ask yourself some very hard questions and think about undoing that. These are things that have been built up over centuries. How do you actually purge subject headings out of the library catalog systems that are international records, that are being shared all over the world? Libraries are very standards-based, and you can’t have one going off in one direction. Everybody has to agree to move in the same direction at the same time. It’s slow going.

How might that emphasis extend to the collection process itself?

Our traditional approach to building archives and special collections is: We are this big institution. We take things and we bring them in to our collection, and we keep them safe. Well, if you think about it, that really is doing violence to some communities at a certain point. You may very well be keeping them safe, but you’re also taking them away from the communities that created them. And we’ve already started to think very differently about that in terms of Native American communities and indigenous communities and their artifacts.

In some ways, we’ve been thinking about that for a long time. I just don’t think it’s penetrated all the way into libraries and archives yet. What would it take for us to get to a place where we do not assume that our collection building has to be, “We take it from there and we put it over here”? We have all this amazing digital technology. There’s a massively important amount of community archiving — little community groups that don’t have a lot of money or resources that are trying desperately to preserve and keep their history safe. They should not be faced with a choice of either, “You give it away, or it’s going to die and disappear.” Why can’t we be using that (technology) to collaborate and to try to help safeguard those collections where they are?

And thinking about the silences in our collections: We’ve got an awful lot of white men represented in our libraries, just like most do. What about all those people who were writing and doing research but, for one reason or another, we didn’t pay attention to them? We didn’t collect those voices. How are we going to fill those gaps and those silences?

At Minnesota, we had a saying, which was, “Diversity is everyone’s everyday work.” I really like that, because it makes it personal, and it makes it about everybody, and everybody has a commitment, and everybody has to do something. That’s why we’ve tried to weave it through our entire strategic plan.

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