Tag Archives: Google Scholar

Privilege: Library Edition

When I came out against privilege, over a month ago, I wasn’t thinking about libraries. But, last week, while running some errands at three local libraries (within an hour), I got to think about library privileges.

During that day, I first started thinking about library privileges because I was renewing my CREPUQ card at Concordia. With that card, graduate students and faculty members at a university in Quebec are able to get library privileges at other universities, a nice “perk” that we have. While renewing my card, I was told (or, more probably, reminded) that the card now gives me borrowing privileges at any university library in Canada through CURBA (Canadian University Reciprocal Borrowing Agreement).

My gut reaction: “Aw-sum!” (I was having a fun day).

It got me thinking about what it means to be an academic in Canada. Because I’ve also spent part of my still short academic career in the United States, I tend to compare the Canadian academe to US academic contexts. And while there are some impressive academic consortia in the US, I don’t think that any of them may offer as wide a set of library privileges as this one. If my count is accurate, there are 77 institutions involved in CURBA. University systems and consortia in the US typically include somewhere between ten and thirty institutions, usually within the same state or region. Even if members of both the “UC System” and “CalState” have similar borrowing privileges, it would only mean 33 institutions, less than half of CURBA (though the population of California is about 20% more than that of Canada as a whole). Some important university consortia through which I’ve had some privileges were the CIC (Committee on Institutional Cooperation), a group of twelve Midwestern universities, and the BLC (Boston Library Consortium), a group of twenty university in New England. Even with full borrowing privileges in all three groups of university libraries, an academic would only have access to library material from 65 institutions.

Of course, the number of institutions isn’t that relevant if the libraries themselves have few books. But my guess is that the average size of a Canadian university’s library collection is quite comparable to its US equivalents, including in such well-endowed institutions as those in the aforementioned consortia and university systems. What’s more, I would guess that there might be a broader range of references across Canadian universities than in any region of the US. Not to mention that BANQ (Quebec’s national library and archives) are part of CURBA and that their collections overlap very little with a typical university library.

So, I was thinking about access to an extremely wide range of references given to graduate students and faculty members throughout Canada. We get this very nice perk, this impressive privilege, and we pretty much take it for granted.

Which eventually got me to think about my problem with privilege. Privilege implies a type of hierarchy with which I tend to be uneasy. Even (or especially) when I benefit from a top position. “That’s all great for us but what about other people?”

In this case, there are obvious “Others” like undergraduate students at Canadian institutions,  Canadian non-academics, and scholars at non-Canadian institutions. These are very disparate groups but they are all denied something.

Canadian undergrads are the most direct “victims”: they participate in Canada’s academe, like graduate students and faculty members, yet their access to resources is severely limited by comparison to those of us with CURBA privileges. Something about this strikes me as rather unfair. Don’t undegrads need access as much as we do? Is there really such a wide gap between someone working on an honour’s thesis at the end of a bachelor’s degree and someone starting work on a master’s thesis that the latter requires much wider access than the former? Of course, the main rationale behind this discrepancy in access to library material probably has to do with sheer numbers: there are many undergraduate students “fighting for the same resources” and there are relatively few graduate students and faculty members who need access to the same resources. Or something like that. It makes sense but it’s still a point of tension, as any matter of privilege.

The second set of “victims” includes Canadians who happen to not be affiliated directly with an academic institution. While it may seem that their need for academic resources are more limited than those of students, many people in this category have a more unquenchable “thirst for knowledge” than many an academic. In fact, there are people in this category who could probably do a lot of academically-relevant work “if only they had access.” I mostly mean people who have an academic background of some sort but who are currently unaffiliated with formal institutions. But the “broader public” counts, especially when a specific topic becomes relevant to them. These are people who take advantage of public libraries but, as mentioned in the BANQ case, public and university libraries don’t tend to overlap much. For instance, it’s quite unlikely that someone without academic library privileges would have been able to borrow Visual Information Processing (Chase, William 1973), a proceedings book that I used as a source for a recent blogpost on expertise. Of course, “the public” is usually allowed to browse books in most university libraries in North America (apart from Harvard). But, depending on other practical factors, borrowing books can be much more efficient than browsing them in a library. I tend to hear from diverse people who would enjoy some kind of academic status for this very reason: library privileges matter.

A third category of “victims” of CURBA privileges are non-Canadian academics. Since most of them may only contribute indirectly to Canadian society, why should they have access to Canadian resources? As any social context, the national academe defines insiders and outsiders. While academics are typically inclusive, this type of restriction seems to make sense. Yet many academics outside of Canada could benefit from access to resources broadly available to Canadian academics. In some cases, there are special agreements to allow outside scholars to get temporary access to local, regional, or national resources. Rather frequently, these agreements come with special funding, the outside academic being a special visitor, sometimes with even better access than some local academics.  I have very limited knowledge of these agreements (apart from infrequent discussions with colleagues who benefitted from them) but my sense is that they are costly, cumbersome, and restrictive. Access to local resources is even more exclusive a privilege in this case than in the CURBA case.

Which brings me to my main point about the issue: we all need open access.

When I originally thought about how impressive CURBA privileges were, I was thinking through the logic of the physical library. In a physical library, resources are scarce, access to resources need to be controlled, and library privileges have a high value. In fact, it costs an impressive amount of money to run a physical library. The money universities invest in their libraries is relatively “inelastic” and must figure quite prominently in their budgets. The “return” on that investment seems to me a bit hard to measure: is it a competitive advantage, does a better-endowed library make a university more cost-effective, do university libraries ever “recoup” any portion of the amounts spent?

Contrast all of this with a “virtual” library. My guess is that an online collection of texts costs less to maintain than a physical library by any possible measure. Because digital data may be copied at will, the notion of “scarcity” makes little sense online. Distributing millions of copies of a digital text doesn’t make the original text unavailable to anyone. As long as the distribution system is designed properly, the “transaction costs” in distributing a text of any length are probably much less than those associated with borrowing a book.  And the differences between “browsing” and “borrowing,” which do appear significant with physical books, seem irrelevant with digital texts.

These are all well-known points about online distribution. And they all seem to lead to the same conclusion: “information wants to be free.” Not “free as in beer.” Maybe not even “free as in speech.” But “free as in unchained.”

Open access to academic resources is still a hot topic. Though I do consider myself an advocate of “OA” (the “Open Access movement”), what I mean here isn’t so much about OA as opposed to TA (“toll-access”) in the case of academic journals. Physical copies of periodicals may usually not be borrowed, regardless of library privileges, and online resources are typically excluded from borrowing agreements between institutions. The connection between OA and my perspective on library privileges is that I think the same solution could solve both issues.

I’ve been thinking about a “global library” for a while. Like others, the Library of Alexandria serves as a model but texts would be online. It sounds utopian but my main notion, there, is that “library privileges” would be granted to anyone. Not only senior scholars at accredited academic institutions. Anyone. Of course, the burden of maintaining that global library would also be shared by anyone.

There are many related models, apart from the Library of Alexandria: French «Encyclopédistes» through the Englightenment, public libraries, national libraries (including the Library of Congress), Tim Berners-Lee’s original “World Wide Web” concept, Brewster Kahle’s Internet Archive, Google Books, etc. Though these models differ, they all point to the same basic idea: a “universal” collection with the potential for “universal” access. In historical perspective, this core notion of a “universal library” seems relatively stable.

Of course, there are many obstacles to a “global” or “universal” library. Including issues having to do with conflicts between social groups across the Globe or the current state of so-called “intellectual property.” These are all very tricky and I don’t think they can be solved in any number of blogposts. The main thing I’ve been thinking about, in this case, is the implications of a global library in terms of privileges.

Come to think of it, it’s possible that much of the resistance to a global library have to do with privilege: unlike me, some people enjoy privilege.


Google for Educational Contexts

Interesting wishlist, over at tbarrett’s classroom ICT blog.

11 Google Apps Improvements for the Classroom | ICT in my Classroom.

In a way, Google is in a unique position in terms of creating the optimal set of classroom tools. And Google teams have an interest in educational projects (as made clear by Google for Educators, Google Summer of Code, Google Apps for schools…).
What seems to be missing is integration. Maybe Google is taking its time before integrating all of its services and apps. After all, the integration of Google Notebook and Google Bookmarks was fairly recent (and we can easily imagine a further integration with Google Reader). But some of us are a bit impatient. Or too enthusiastic about tools.

Because I just skimmed through the Google Chrome comicbook, I get to think that, maybe, Google is getting ready to integrate its tools in a neat way. Not specifically meant for schools but, in the end, an integrated Google platform can be developed into an education-specific set of applications.
After all, apart from Google Scholar, we’re talking about pretty much the same tools as those used outside of educational contexts.

What tools am I personally thinking about? Almost everything Google does or has done could be useful in educational contexts. From Google Apps (which includes Google Docs, Gmail, Google Sites, GTalk, Gcal…) to Google Books and Google Scholar or even Google Earth, Google Translate, and Google Maps. Not to mention OpenSocial, YouTube, Android, Blogger, Sketchup, Lively

Not that Google’s versions of all of these tools and services are inherently more appropriate for education than those developed outside of Google. But it’s clear that Google has an edge in terms of its technology portfolio. Can’t we just imagine a new kind of Learning Management System leveraging all the neat Google technologies and using a social networking model?

Educational contexts do have some specific requirements. Despite Google’s love affair with “openness,” schools typically require protection for different types of data. Some would also say that Google’s usual advertisement-supported model may be inappropriate for learning environments. So it might be a sign that Google does understand school-focused requirements that Google Apps are ad-free for students, faculty, and staff.

Ok, I’m thinking out loud. But isn’t this what wishlists are about?


How Can Google Beat Facebook?

It might not be so hard:

As I see it, the biggest shortcoming of social-networking sites is their inability to play well with others. Between MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn, Tribe, Pownce, and the numerous also-rans, it seems as if maintaining an active presence at all of these sites could erode into becoming a full-time job. If Google can somehow create a means for all of these services to work together, and seamlessly interact with the Google family, then perhaps this is the killer app that people don’t even realize they’ve been waiting for. Google gives social networking another go | Media Sphere – Josh Wolf blogs about the new information age – CNET Blogs

Some might take issue at Wolf’s presumption. Many of us have realised in 1997 that the “killer app” for social networking services is for them to work together. But the point is incredibly important and needs to be made again and again.

Social Networking Services work when people connect through it. The most intricate “network effect” you can think of. For connections to work, existing social relationships and potential social relationships need to be represented in the SNS as easily as possible. What’s more, investing effort and time in building one’s network relates quite directly with the prospective life of SNS. Faced with the eventuality of losing all connections in a snap because everybody has gone to “the next thing,” the typical SNS user is wary. Given the impression that SNS links can survive the jump to “the next one” (say, via a simple “import” function), the typical SNS user is likely to use the SNS to its fullest potential. This is probably one of several reasons for the success of Facebook. And Google can certainly put something together which benefits from this principle.

Yeah, yeah, Wolf  was referring more specifically to the “synchronisation” of activities on different SNS or SNS-like systems. That’s an important aspect of the overall “SNS interoperability” issue. Especially if SNS are important parts of people’s lives. But I prefer to think about the whole picture.

Another thing which has been mentioned is the connection Google could make between SNS and its other tools. One approach would be to build more “social networking features” (beyond sharing) into its existing services. The other could be to integrate Google tools into SNS (say, top-notch Facebook applications). Taken together, these two approaches would greatly benefit both Google and the field of social networking in general.

All in all, what I could easily see would be a way for me to bring all my SNS “content” to a Google SNS, including existing links. From a Google SNS, I would be able to use different “social-enabled” tools from Google like the new Gmail, an improved version of Google Documents, and the Blogger blogging platform. Eventually, most of my online activities would be facilitated by Google but I would still be able to use non-Google tools as I wish.

There’s a few tools I’m already thinking about, which could make sense in this “Google-enabled social platform.” For one, the “ultimate social bookmarking tool” for which I’ve been building feature wishlists. Then, there’s the obvious need for diverse applications which can use a centralised online storage system. Or the browser integration possible with something like, I don’t know, the Google toolbar… 😉

Given my interest in educational technology, I can’t help but think about online systems for course management (like Moodle and Sakai). Probably too specific, but Google could do a wonderful job at it.

Many people are certainly thinking about advertisement, revenue-sharing, p2p for media files, and other Google-friendly concepts. These aren’t that important for me.

I can’t say that I have a very clear image of what Google’s involvement in the “social networking sphere” will look like. But I can easily start listing Google products and features which are desperately calling for integration in a social context: Scholar, Web History, Docs, Reader, Browser Sync, Gcal, Gmail, Notebook, News, Mobile, YouTube, Ride Finder, Blog Comments, Music Trends, University Search, MeasureMap, Groups, Alerts, Bookmarks…

Sometimes, I really wonder why a company like Google can’t “get its act together” in making everything it does fit in a simple platform. They have the experts, the money, the users. They just need to make it happen.

Ah, well…


Scholarly Search

Was looking for a resource to import citations/references for book chapters into a citation manager. Turns out Google Scholar does export to several citation managers:

Google Scholar Help
How can I add the full citation of a result on Google Scholar to my bibliography manager?

Just visit the Scholar Preferences page and select your preferred citation format in the “Bibliography Manager” section. We currently support RefWorks, RefMan, EndNote, and BibTeX. Once you’ve saved your preferences, you can import a citation by clicking on the appropriate link in your Google Scholar search results.

Had been using Google Scholar since it came out but had never noticed this feature. D’oh! (Simpson 1989).

It’s not perfect, of course. The data for most citations is quite minimal (initials instead of first names, no abstracts…) but the principle is sound. Plus, Google Scholar links to a lot of external resources, including full-text articles, which usually do have much more data. It helps to either be on-campus at an institution which subscribes to most of the important resources or to have a VPN to such a campus. In that case, Google Scholar’s links do bring you to a lot of full-text articles.

No idea what the API for Google Scholar allows but chances are that some neat features could be added from within a citation manager. The open-source ones would be good bets. At this point, my favourite open-source citation manager is BibDesk. It uses the BibTeX format and takes advantage of several features of Mac OS X such as the Services menu and Spotlight searching.
While it’s not open-source, RefWorks is a very interesting citation management system which often available to all members of an academic institution. Because it uses a Web interface, RefWorks can be difficult to connect to some other tools. But it has a surprisingly large range of features and can be used as a central repository for references. Among its most useful features for courses, RefWorks allows for reference sharing.
Thomson’s EndNote has become something of a de facto standard in the world of academic publishing. It has several disadvantages, including a habit of expensive incremental updates and lack of support for a wide range of text editors and word processors. EndNote also has several interesting features, including connection to library catalogs through the Z39.50 standard and data visualization. Because of its prominence, it tends to be well-supported by most reference databases, including Google Scholar. Indiana University has site-licenses for EndNote and other citation managers.

And there are many other tools available, each with their own sets of features. The citation management scene has evolved nicely, in my humble opinion, but the perfect solution is still far on the horizon, it seems. Ah, well…