satifice

operating on the principle of good enough

Almost but Not Quite

This post is almost but not quite the post that has been on the tip of my tongue for the past week (two weeks?). I haven’t made any firm decisions/my resolve hasn’t quite firmed up, so I’m still feeling ambivalent about a lot of things.

I’m a little depressed to realize that it is just over a year since I wrote this post about how I think that this is my last (only) library job I’ll ever have:

I’m fairly certain that this will be my last library job that I’m able to get (unless I’m somehow promoted within my current institution). Don’t get me wrong, I’ll stay in this position for as long as they’ll have me, but it’ll probably take a miracle for me to get another one.

Since writing that post, I managed to snag two more interviews! Which is pretty amazing and shows that I’ve finally levelled up my cover letter/CV skills such that I can pass this muster. My interview skills are… decent. I’m not a particularly charming or charismatic person, so I do my best (and at my best, is when I’m genuinely enthusiastic about a potential position). One position I interivewed for, I was under-qualified and so I understand that one. The other position…. well, I met all the qualifications. I also didn’t, in my interview, address one of the aspects that the committee was really looking for. But I also had an astonishingly quick ‘no’. Like… less than 24 hours after the interview and while first round interviews were still happening. While my subjective feelings say that I didn’t bomb the interview so thoroughly as to warrant such a firm and resounding “NO”, it could be the case.

In between both interviews… #teamharpy happened. Looking back at that post from a year ago…. I can’t help but feel that I was right. Between then and now, I also have been very active in the professional sphere. Giving talks at conferences. I published my very first article. My tech skills have definitely grown since then (I regularly write simple bash and ruby scripts nowadays). I’ve been growing and developing as professional in the ~right~ ways. Yes, I’ve not been an ideal job hunter (missing the deadline for an ideal position is totally and utterly on me).

But I can’t help but think “What else could I possibly be doing to better position myself for a full time position?”. I have no real answer for this question.

And then I think about the hours and all the energy I’m pouring into uncompensated labour so that I remain an active professional…

Is it worth it?

It doesn’t feel that way to me. I do love libraries and libtech. But I also love a lot of other things. Things that I have less time for because I’m putting my time and energy into projects that are… idk how to put this… too indirect for the stuff I’m super passionate about.

I’m doing a lot of soul searching about where I’m at right now and where I want to be and how I might get there. What I’ve been doing isn’t working. And something needs to change. And, yeah, this might mean walking away from all of my professional activities.

I’ll just quietly work at my PT job until they kick me out. And then I’ll do something else. What… idk. I’m literally at a point where I’m making either suicide plans or trying to figure out whether or not I could survive doing the homeless thing. I mean. I can be super realistic, there is always one way for an Asian ladyboy like myself to make money…1

(And. I wonder how many people will read this and think I’m being hyperbolic or just trying to get attention. No… I’m not doing this for attention or even to get people to encourage/comfort me. I’ve always been too honest. Yes. I’m going through major depression right now and this is obviously having an impat on my worldview. And, actually, I’d prefer it if people didn’t respond to this post with encouraging comments or – worse – with advice. Commisseration is fine and helpful. Please respect my boundaries.

Remember… I’m just thinking aloud in this post. I haven’t made any actual decisions. This is most esp. true of the suicidal ideation. Do not call the cops or anyone else about my mental health without my consent – anyone you could call is not the sort of people who exist to actually help people like me.)


  1. Sadly, this isn’t even the first time of my life that I’ve had to seriously consider doing sex work.

Sustainable Library Advocacy

Based on a twitter convo the other day, I think with @MagpieLibrarian, I want to talk a bit about library advocacy. I think the conversations arose from my tweets about library budgets and about how the budget crisis is fake and how there is more than enough money to better fund libraries…1

I believe she mentioned that advocacy was an exhausting second job to have to take on that ends up exhausting and disillusioning librarians.

This? Zero doubts about.

This is actually why I so fervently talk about collective action rather than trying to discuss what we can do as individuals. Systemic problems like the underfunding of libraries but overfunding the police will never be solved by a single advocate. They likely wouldn’t even be solved a small team of dedicated advocates.

The best path is collective action where the majority of the people (ie, all of the librarians and staff and patrons) all work together towards a common goal. This is the way to get sustainable advocacy and, better yet, real and lasting change. At least in my humble opinion.2

One of the main problems I have with a lot of the discourse around trying to solve problems within the libraries is that they rely too heavily on white notions of individualism. They put the bulk of the onus on the individual to advocate for the change they believe, rather than addressing the problems in a systemic manner.

The problem with this is that individuals cannot sustain the levels of energy/effort required to push for widespread and lasting systemic change. They might be able to achieve their goals, certainly, but the end result far too often is burned out and bitter idealists who basically give up and become the cogs in the machine that tends to be most rewarded in our current society.

But working together, we can share the resources and burden of advocating for change. We can also really support each other’s efforts so that none of us are forced to stick our neck’s out with little hope that if it gets axed, we’ll have people around to pick up the pieces.

This lack of intra-community support is, I think, one of the biggest barriers for participation for a lot of people. Advocacy can involve taking on a lot of risk… but it is less risky if you have people to spread it amongst. People can take breaks or reduce their involvement without feeling like they are betraying the ‘movement’ or like everything depends on them.

Plus, we really are stronger when we work collectively. Both in terms of the amount and kinds of support we can offer to each other, but in terms of our opposition.

Advocacy isn’t a one person obligation.


  1. See this post

  2. There may be other viable paths that I’m not considering.

Knowledge, Agency, and the Individual in Institutional Oppression

So, yes, my brain is on fire after reading Barbara Fister’s recent blog post on knowledge creation in libraries. Please go read it…

Some choice quotations (and the one’s that have been sticking in my brain since I read the post) are:

Unfortunately, I think librarians are often using the corporate identity of the library to shield us individually from taking responsibility. That’s partly because our organizational structures tend to look far more like administrative units than academic departments, even when librarians are tenured faculty. Very often we actually don’t have agency; we have coordinators and committees and we have to ask permission. It’s also because we’re conditioned to think that providing stuff on demand is our fundamental function, though treating knowledge as a consumer good for individuals is wreaking havoc on the knowledge commons and we know it’s not how we should be spending our limited collective resources.

and

When we spend most of our time feeding a completely dysfunctional system, the idea of librarians collaborating on knowledge creation (rather than on organizing access to finished products) begins to sound like a pipe dream. I think it’s where we need to go, but we aren’t going to get there by ourselves. The future of libraries belongs to the people who rely on them. How do we come together if those people are too busy to look at the big picture and librarians are afraid to say no?

(Although the paragraph between these two with the rants with examples of how our current library systems are dysfunctional is well worth reading.)

After I wrote my last post on workplace politics, I had at least one person say: but we have to consult faculty/admin on stuff we do, they are the community we serve. True. But. I’m tired of this framework that suggests that libraries must always be subservient to the rest of the campus. It is part of what enables dysfunctional systems.

More importantly, this consultation isn’t reciprocal. Do faculty consult us before doing a thing? Does the admin always consult us before doing a thing?

The answer, of course, is ‘no’. Sometimes, for good or ill, these parties will decide to do something in their best interests which may or may not align perfectly with the rest of the campus. As a result, the other parties simply have to adjust and deal. I don’t necessarily think that this is a problem. The competing interests create necessary tensions because the admin and faculty (and other parties) have different values and will work towards achieving those goals. This isn’t a problem. It means that negotiation and communication are critical to have a functioning whole. Again, not a problem.

So why is it that libraries necessarily must consult with everyone else before we do anything? I mentioned sarcastically in a tweet that we don’t go around telling researchers how to research, so why should they be allowed to tell us how to library? We know what is best for the library. Moreover, since we do have domain specialization, we also know how to best steer the library so that it can do what we want it to do (facilitate research and knolwedge creation and support students).1

It’s funny, but while my article on institutional oppression and libraries was all about the institution, as is most of my writing about this. But the point I make about how libraries participate in white supremacy via Orientalism and Fister’s post, should make it clear that libraries actually do play a role beyond a passive storehouse for books. Thus, it also means that librarians are more than simply automotons who exist at the whim of admin and faculty.

Regardless of how a lot of librarians act (as if we really are automotons), we are agents and the library is already an agent. Trying to defer responsibility and culpability by saying “oh, we’re just following orders” is a cop-out. So is pretending that we don’t have the power that we do. And neither of these things actually works as a viable ethical defense for the ways that we are complicit in institutional oppression.

This is what I also mean when I say that we can just ‘seize the means of production’. We already have this power. Choosing either to not weild it or, as is most often the case, choosing to allow others to weild it as they desire, is all on us. And understanding this is a matter of shifting perspective, not necessarily one of organizational restructuring (although, some organizational methods enable or hamper).

The thing is? All this time we’ve had the agency and requisite power to say ‘no’. We already spend a lot of our agency and power saying ‘yes’. And, for something like scholarly communication, I think we can do better than waiting until we’ve reached a crisis point before we do say ‘no’ (or rather saying ‘we can’t do this anymore’ after our options have reached zero).

Yes. Initiatives to tackle the serials crisis would be a million times more powerful and better if we could get broad community support. But… How long has the OA movement and other initiatives been attempting to obtain broad community support? More than a decade by now, if memory serves. Have things substantively changed? Not really. OA journals are still less than 5% of all journals. Gold OA, despite being just as unsustainable as non-OA journals, has become the main way to do OA. Journal prices are still rising despite constantly shrinking library budgets.

Abdicating our responsibility for how this crisis has been created by saying “what could we have done?” is just… disingenuous. We identified the problem ages ago. But most of our solutions require external validation before they can be effective… despite the reality that we’ve always had the power to deal with the crisis on our own.2 Why would publishers lower prices or stop raising them when we continue to pay whatever they ask for? They have no motivation to do so.

I digress…

The point of this post is that we aren’t passive institutions or people who have little choice but to do as we’re told. This is a position we consciously choose to occupy as a means to defer responsibility and relinquish the hard choices that being agents forces us to make. We already have agency and the power to back it up. All we need to do is start using it.


  1. This latter I think is actually one of the more important and unique aspects of the library, since we (as a whole) truly care about undergrads beyond their ability to pay tuition. It is a level of care that I never saw in faculty while I was an academic. In a university where the tenured professor is at the apex, I know many librarians who are very much deeply concerned about the educational experiences of undergrads.

  2. Especially true around the time that the serials crisis was first really understood. Way back before a lot of content was digitized or available online. Do you get how easy it would have been, back then, to force publishers to stop raising prices via collective action? Before big deals and the like locked us into multi-year contracts?

Caveat Re: Workplace Politics

Just a quick caveat on my previous post about workplace politics because I’d feel bad if I inspired someone to individually take on the advice of saying no or breaking most workplace cultures of politicking.

Do note that my example is with the ARL, not individual libraries. And I generally spoke more about the library, as institution, doing these sorts of things vs. individuals. When problems a large, systemic, and/or institutional, it is usually fairly pointless for a single individual to attempt change on their own.

Rather, the key here is utilizing collective power and organizing to work together. The ARL example could only have an impact if all of the ARL libraries (and, better yet, non-ARL libraries) were to all work together towards this common goal.

I can’t remember where I recently saw this analogy, but I know some believe that an individual can have a ripple effect, like a stone thrown in a still pond. The thing is, is that institutions are more like rivers. So that if you throw a single stone in, yes it’ll create ripples, but the ripples will soon be subsume by the flow of the river. And a single peble cannot substantively change the course of a river, if it makes any impact in this regards at all.

Many pebbles, however? Especially if placed with planning and foresight (rather than thrown in ad hoc)? This can make a difference.

If the day comes… I’ll likely play the game to the best of my abilities, since I have bills to pay. And I imagine you do to.

When I write posts like that, they should be understood as collective calls to action, not invidual. Don’t martyr yourself, it really doesn’t help anyone.

Workplace Politics

Now that I’m (sadly) involved in meetings at MPOW – after years of craftily avoiding them – this is the sort of thing that makes me want (if not for the poverty) stay a part-time librarian and not be a ~real~ librarian.

The problems aren’t necessarily the meetings themselves. Given how exhausting I find them, I definitely consider meetings real work. And they are. I know I groan about them and a lot of others too, especially when it appears to cut into what we consider our real jobs. But. This is work. Perhaps not the part of our jobs that we actually enjoy doing. But work nonetheless. They can also be super stressful when you have a bunch of other things that also need to do and it is easy to resent the time you appear to be doing ‘nothing’. Sadly, meetings remain one of the best mechanisms for workplace communication, particularly in a relatively siloed type of environment that universities tend to support.

What I don’t like, however, is seeing all the frankly ridiculous bullshit politics that appear to be inevitable when working within a large organization (and probably small ones too). Like. The amount of supervisory/management people who treat their respective areas like small fiefdoms and act like petty tyrants just boggles the mind. The amount of carefully eggshell walking and ego stroking needed to accomplish what often seems like relatively innocuous and simple tasks just makes me want to go and work at Starbucks again.

My patience for this sort of thing is pretty small. And it is probably for the best that I don’t really have to deal directly with any of this sort of thing. I’m also, in general, pretty terrible at this sort of thing. Not only do I tend to miss out on a lot of this sort of nuanced social interactions, even when I do notice (or someone is kind enough to tell me) I can rarely be bothered to actually incorporate this into my behaviour. And, tbh, I’ve really stopped even trying.

I literally do not care. I don’t want to care.

Yes. I’m well aware that me saying this likely means that I’m doomed as a librarian in the academy. And this is true. I know this. I’ve known this for quite some time. I made my peace with this years ago.1

I read things like “How to Scuttle a Scholarly Communication Initiative” and all I can think of is “why bother?”. Likewise with the “coordinator syndrome”. There is a reason why I tend to advocate plans of action that circumvent dealing with politics. Like, with open access and stuff? Yes. I want libraries to seize the means of production. I don’t want us consulting with ~faculty~ anymore. I don’t even want us consulting with the larger university admin. No more dealing with publishers. No more waiting for government policy. Direct, collective action now.

I say this as nicely as I can: fuck all of them.

Yes. I imagine a lot of people think “easy for nina to say, she doesn’t actually have to deal with these people directly”. And, yeah, it is easy to say. What of it? The thing is, all I ever really hear a excuses rather than reasons I can stomach for why stuff like this isn’t happening. Why don’t the ARL libraries throw their collective weight against academic publishers? Anyone?

I sort of mentioned this on twitter before. If the ARL collectively decided to pressure academic publishers by not buying anything for a quarter or two, we’d likely find that we had a lot more leverage when we deign to renegogiate. Yeah, this would disrupt the research capacities of the university for a significant period of time. But if we can recognize that our current situation is unsustainable and the university itself refuses to actually increase our budgets to keep up with the ridiculously rising costs, then what other option is there?

Anyway, I digress. But the point is there.

I see how much time my colleagues have to spend placating admin and other gatekeepers. How much effort is spend trying to work around the non-sensical barriers set up to prevent them from effectively working, how much simply isn’t done because it would offend some unrelated person’s delicate ego.

And a lot of the times, I wish that I saw more librarians using the power of ‘no’. No to faculty who literally act like we should feel honored that they’ve come to us to demand services in high-handed and disrespectful fashions. No to administrators who keep telling us to do more with less while blocking potentially useful suggestions/initiatives from their staff. No to patrons who think that because we provide a public service we have to cater to their individual demands. No to work place politics and hierarchies that serve to entrence fiefdoms and petty tyrants.

Just…

No.


  1. Yeah, this also means that there are probably a bunch of professional types of careers that I just won’t succeed in unless I want to actually play politics at work. I’m okay with this too.

More Feels on the Question of Conferences

I think part of this has been burbling in the back of my brain since my BF told me about how he went to some green party something or other and they actively encouraged most of the participants to take the train or similar types of more sustainable transportation.

Before I get into the meat of this post, I do want to say that I don’t really believe that individual consumer behaviour can have a large enough impact on current trends in the upcoming environmental apocalypse to actually prevent it. What is often left out in the figures about per-capita pollution/water consumption/etc in place like Canada and the US is that the vast majority of pollution and what not is produced by industry, not individuals. What is happening to the environment is a systemic and institutional problem. And requires systemic and institutional solutions to have a real impact.

This caveat is only somewhat relevant since I’m partially talking about individuals but I’m also talking about institutional practices. Conferences, esp in academic library land are considered a pretty important part of what we do. It is part of our ongoing learning and professional development. It also, depending on where you work, is important for tenure and promotion.

I know I’ve talked a lot on this blog about conference accessibility and diversity…

But I also wonder about the sustainability of our current professional practice of holding large inter/national conferences. I especially have in mind the really large ones like the ALA but also the small ones that involve people coming in from all of the place.

Most of us, when we attend a conference, will travel by air. Flying, as it happens, is an incredibly wasteful way to travel, in comparison to something like trains. Now, if we lived in a place like Europe or China where they have large networks of rails that can get you to most of the places you need to go and don’t cost a fortune (travelling by train within most of Canada is significantly more expensive than our already expensive domestic air fares), perhaps travelling by rail to conferences would be more common. There is, of course, the question of time since rail is much slower in Canada and the US and travelling from coast to coast would be a fairly long trip.

But none of this really matters when the reality of our current environmental situation is looking pretty dire. And while one person deciding to do a thing may not have a large impact, the 20k or so people who attend ALA annual does actually make a decent sized impact.

So what can we do?

I don’t know. I know that there would likely be huge amounts of push-back if I suggested that we just don’t have conferences… I do think that regional/local conferences are not only better (for networking and such) but would reduce overall environmental impacts, especially if people took the bus or train instead of flying (or car-pooled).

I suppose conferences could start looking into purchasing carbon offsets for the people who’d be travelling, but then this would increase the overall cost and this is likely to reduce diversity, since conferences as they are are already too expensive for someone like me.

As in the title… this is mostly about my feels and I have no real solutions. But I think it is far past time to really think about the sustainability of conferences within the library field.

Making Gifsets for Tumblr (or Library Instruction?)

I just wanted to post this here! I did a ruby script for making gifsets (for tumblr) but it can be for other things as well.

I especially have this Leadpipe article about using animated gifs for library instruction in mind. Since this script could be run for from an instructional video to create a series of gifs with very little effort.

Making Gifsets
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#!$path-to-ruby/bin/ruby

#This is a ruby script I made with the intention of creating gifsets for tumblr. 

#This is intended to be run from the *nix commandline and requires both ffmpeg and imagemagick to be already installed on your machine.

require 'csv'

#Having an 'info.csv' isn't strictly necessary, but I found that it helped a great deal if you're planning on making more than one gif from a video. The csv should have four columns with (timestamp,duration,frames,width) as the columns)
file = "info.csv"

#Gets user input for the video's filenname (inclusive of the extension)
puts "video name"
fname = gets.chomp

#Gets input for the resulting gifname. No extension necessary.
puts "gif filename"
gname = gets.chomp

#timestamps, in the csv, should be of the form HH:MM:SS
timestamp = []

#the 'duration' is the number of seconds _after_ the timestamp. My experimenting shows that durations longer than 4 seconds produce gifs over 1mb.
duration = []

#'frames' determines the number of images ffmpeg extracts from the video. My usual method is the great number of seconds, the lower the frames. So for 2s duration, I usually put '15'. For 3s or 4s, I put '10'. You can play around to see how this goes. 
frames = []

#I'll be honest, my intentions for this is really to make gifsets for tumblr. So full width is 520, half 268. This sets up your resize for those widths and automatically adjusts the height to retain the aspect ratio.
width = []

#This gets each column of the csv and puts them into arrays.
list = CSV.foreach(file, :col_sep => ",", :return_headers => false) do |row|
    timestamp << row[0]
    duration << row[1]
    frames << row[2]
    width << row[3]
end

#Again, since this was done with tumblr in mind, you can only do a maximum of 10 images per photoset. Obviously, you can adjust this range as needed.

for i in 0..9

#These make the necessary commands with the data from the csv arrays
    ffmpeg = "ffmpeg -i #{fname} -r #{frames.fetch(i)} -vf scale=#{width.fetch(i)}:-1 -ss #{timestamp.fetch(i)} -t #{duration.fetch(i)} %03d.png"

    convert = "convert -ordered-dither o8x8,16 -delay 10 *.png -coalesce -layers OptimizeTransparency +map #{gname}#{i}.gif"

#Runs the commands in the shell.
    `#{ffmpeg}`
    `#{convert}`
#cleans up the images
    `rm *png`
end

My Vision for a Levelling Up Tech Skills Workshop

Okay. Okay. I’m going to do the blog post anyway. :D

So I was talking on twitter how I’d work out a workshop/series/thing for levelling up tech skills for non-coders/programmers/developers/engineers/etc. Basically for librarians or students wanting to level up their tech skills but aren’t necessarily wanting to learn how to code. Or who do want to learn how to code, but are completely green n00bs.

Basically…

What I want is the tech workshop I desperately needed/wanted when I start at Islandora (or even before). Getting that position was fantastic and was a crash course to level up my tech skills and set me on a new path and really allowed librarianship to become a passion for me, rather than my backup plan for a failed academic career.

So. For me, the key takeaway from such a workshop would be learning to interact with your computer in a different/new way. But also deepening your understanding of how computers operate. Even more critically, beginning to understand how to solve your own tech problems.

The actual skills I’d focus on are probably the commandline (CLI) and git. These two things alone are so important and foundational to the current tech environment (also somewhat helps promote open source, which is definitely a nice tie in with librarian values).

Ideally, for me, I’d like to see these workshops spread over a month or at least more than just one or two days. Time between sessions for people to play around and practise (if they want). Maybe some homework and a place to pose questions in between sessions that other people can answer or for the ‘instructor’ to do so. A forum would be a good one because so much tech support comes from forums anyway and this, again, is a useful part of tech culture that is important to learn but not many seem to teach.

The slowness of it all is important to me because one of the problems I’ve had with the workshops I’ve been too is pace… Not because it moves too fast, but because it means that the instructor (or helpers) spend a lot of time troubleshooting and solving hiccups that prevent the lesson from moving forward. Except… in my experience, learning how to troubleshoot these problems yourself is one of the most important tech skills because almost nothing works perfectly all the time. And understanding the errors that the CLI throws up and learning how to solve problems (ie ‘googling it’ but also understanding which stackedit solution actually applies) is more important than memorizing *nix commands.

So something like this:

  • Week 1: Introduction to CLI
  • Week 2: Working with CLI and git basics
  • Week 3: Using the CLI and git together
  • Week 4: Do a collaborative project with a group.

Yes, an entire week to practice stuff and actually try a collaborative tech project. Using something like github (or gitlab, whatever). Why? Because I expect a lot of things to break. Like, I don’t know what kind of project, but something fairly easy to do and solve. Nothing that involves coding of any significant kind. But does involve working in the CLI and version control (pull requests, etc). But the breaking of stuff and (hopefully) fixing it will hopefully get a lot of the previous skills to be learned… (at least partially).1

Like, for me, the focus wouldn’t really be on making a functional whatever, but about the process. With a focus on problem solving. For my part, one of the things I truly enjoy about doing tech stuff is the problem solving. I enjoy the puzzle-like nature of trying to get things to work. What is engrossing and satisfying for me is the process of doing it, not necessarily the end product. And while this won’t be true for everyone, one of the things I know I had before levelling up my own tech skills is that frustration of not being able to do something or not knowing why something isn’t working as I thought it should but having no recourse to try and fix it.

Tech is often a frustrating thing to get involved with. But I think a decent level up is learning that ‘problems’ have solutions as a why to ameliorate that frustration so that people continue to persist with their explorations and attempts to learn. For me, it is this persistance (and the attendant practise) that has got me from being a complete CLI n00b about 3-4 years ago to the point where I regularly write bash scripts to solve problems and am now contemplating instructing others on how to do the same.

And, no, this isn’t about learning how to code, since tech skills are so much broader than that. I don’t think every librarian needs to learn how to code. But these skills at least open up the door to coding if people want (like writing basic bash scripts!). They’d also open up a lot of other doors since this stuff and the methods can be applied to a lot of different areas. And a deeper/better understanding these machines we rely on everyday is good for anyone, even if they just go home and never open a terminal again.


  1. And the breaking of stuff means a lot of using git as it should be used! And I’ll be honest, git still confuses the hell out of me at times and I often don’t know how to resolve problems, like when it asks you to ‘dif’ stuff and I’m like… O.o wut? How do? But git is a nice safety net where you learn that you can hopelessly break stuff but ‘fix’ it by going back to an earlier version. It can encourage exploration because you don’t have to worry about being perfect.

Higher Ed: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

After my last post on why OA is doomed, I started having a lot of thoughts about elitism in academia and the OA notion of making research available to the ‘public’. Part of the reason I think OA will fail (or fail to make a significant impact) is the general requirement that academia be elitist. The academy has always been about elitism. Whatever its publicly stated values are, its existence depends on elitism (and authority).

The notion of the ‘university’, in the European tradition, started way back when education was only for the most privileged of society, the ruling class. They were literally the only ones with the time and money to do this kind of learning. This is something that has largely remained true up until the modern era and the rise of the middle class. But all this means (the inclusion of a middle class) is that the ‘elite’ of higher ed simply expanded somewhat to include more people.

As has been noted, education (in Canada and the US at least) is priced as a luxury good. And even when it isn’t (many European countries offer very low or no tuition) educational products are still priced as luxury goods. As librarians we are keenly aware of this. Indeed, the fact that educational products are luxury goods is exactly what motivates the OA movement.

One of the most interesting elements of OA rhetoric, to me, is the notion of publicly funded research should be available to the public. In a lot of ways, this feels deeply paternalistic to me, since who is considered ‘public’ is rarely ever explored. Nor does it ever seem that the ~public~ has a voice in this discussion. Did the ~public~ ever actually say it wanted access to niche monographs of esoteric subjects? Or did it ever actually claim to want to read high level physics articles?

Another key element to OA is that it relies on the internet. While I could speak to the strangeness of claiming something freely available on the web counts as ‘open access’ when digital divides exist, I’m more concerned about how existing in a networked environment significantly challenges the construction of a ‘public’. Looking at a social network like Twitter, where people are not always using their ~real~ names, how do we coherently say “these are academics” and “this is the public”. When you look at the hashtag #canihazpdf (or #canhazpdf) a lot of the people needing access to research are… academics. Or professional researchers of some kind. Is this the public that OA is hoping to reach?

Part of what I’m getting at here is that the OA focus on making stuff available to the ~public~ appears to be… simple rhetoric for the real problem, which is that libraries can’t actually afford to buy stuff for their research communities any more. This is where my comments about libraries seizing the means of academic production come into play. The real problem is that academic research is a luxury good. Why is it a luxury good? Because the academy is all about elitism. Literally almost everything about how it functions is about supporting this elitism.

This is the rock.

Now for the hard place, the rise of neoliberalism in higher ed. Many have noted how this is a serious and sincere problem for the academy. Unfortunately, as I heard during my brief listen of the opening DLF keynote today, many point to a fictitious ‘golden’ age of higher ed. The speaker, Bethany Nowviskie, pointed out things like the New Deal or the Veterans Act (can’t remember real name), which helped break down some of the class barriers to higher ed in the US.

In looking backwards like this with nostalgia glasses on (and I see this all the time, especially amongst people decrying the apparent dying of the humanities) certain historical realities are erased in an effort to make this significantly more elitist academy appear a better option than the new, neoliberal one of today.

My first thought (which is a frequent thought for me these days) is “a plague on both your houses!”.

The period of time she glowingly mentions was a period in which my parents marriage would have been illegal. I wouldn’t have been allowed to go to school with white people (or, because I’m light skinned, I might have been able to pass as white so long as I was willing to entirely walk away from my pilipin@ heritage and family – providing they’d have even been able to get into America at the time, despite being a colony). Passing would have been my best bet for getting access to higher ed. But then there is the whole trans thing… and, yeah, it gets complicated really fast.

Is looking to past elitism the answer to the neoliberalization of the academy? No.

The academy wasn’t better before neoliberalism. It was just oppressive in a different way. At no point in history has higher ed ever not been oppressive and a site for entrenching social disparity. This is literally one of its main functions.

The commitment to elitism in higher ed is often disguised as ‘rigour’. I have in mind my recent article where I took an ethical stance against citing non-OA resources. I’ve also been recently thinking about maybe trying to do a PhD again, since this whole librarian thing seems to not be working out all that well for me. But when I think about trying to do academics again, I realize that there isn’t any room for someone like me. Not with my current beliefs and ethical feels. Would I be allowed to do a dissertation on research ethics that refused to use non-OA resources? No. Because of ‘rigour’. Could I write a dissertation using mainly blog posts and such as my sources?1 No.

I actually don’t think that the elitism of the past has been subsumed by neoliberalism. Rather, the two fit rather snugly together since part of the function of neoliberalism is to entrench and widen disparities. Which brings us to an academy that prices itself as a luxury, but is marketed as being ‘for everyone’, while creating an entire generation of students with the most education and the most debt.


  1. Note, I’m not talking about studying blogs and posts as the subject for my research, but as the sources for critical and intellectual thought relevant to my topic.

Some Thoughts on Why Open Access Is Doomed

Earlier this week, I had a series of tweets about OA and the means of production. It was sparked by someone’s happy post about publishing an OA monograph. Monographs are one area where OA hasn’t made a great deal of inroads. OA has done better with serials and with the sciences, which is kind of interesting given that I imagine your average person might be somewhat more interested in reading stuff in the humanities or social sciences than an article on physics…1 The humanities are still very much monograph focused and so there is just a lot less OA discussion and materials.

But when I read that article and it noted that the cost to publish OA was over $10K, I was just… This is patently ridiculous. Really. I’ve said before that I think gold OA is bullshit, but this is a great indication for why it is bullshit. This is truly an absurd amount of money to pay, especially when the author isn’t going to be making any financial gains from royalties. At this point, not only have you done a great deal of uncompensated labour (writing the damn book), you are also now paying more than half of my annual income to for the great honour of publishing it with a company that only cares about making money. And, for that matter, will still make a profit from your OA monograph.

Now, the main argument usually provided for why these publishing costs are need (or why we need the publishing industry at all) is the value-add on services like editing, cover design, book design, and so on. Which… okay… but what I don’t understand is why people think that the only editors, book designers, graphic designers, and so on work for publishers. What would happen if we took OA funds and, um, you know cut out the middleman? Why not just pay other human beings directly to edit your book? To design it? To create a cover? I can understand needing publishers if they only way to access these services was through them. But this isn’t the case…

So what is the actual issue here?

Credentialism/elitism/and related notions.

One of the primary reasons why closed access journals continue to thrive is that all the ‘best’ ones are closed. Academics must publish in those journals because of the name brand effect. We can try to dress this all up into the endless discussions about bibliometrics and impact factors, but this is really about brand names. This is also why university rankings are critical. It isn’t about the relative quality of your education, but about the brand name you are able to slap onto your CV. Likewise, you need to publish via a publisher because of the brand.

What these brands serve to do is to impart a sense of quality and luxury to your academic work (and CV).

And these brands live on because, well, the academic world only gets increasingly more niche, siloed, and complex, so the brands allow people to judge value via the association rather than an critical assessment of the content.

One thing that always strikes me as wonderfully hypocritical is the academic assertion that they care about the free study and dissemination of ‘knowledge’ but if you ask them to read a self-published work on critical theory…. Especially if that self-pub’ed work has errors or whatever, all they’ll be able to concentrate on is these superficial details.

I experience this on the blog all the time. People who think because I don’t care to re-read and edit my posts, leaving them with grammatical errors, typos, and so forth, that it impacts not only my credibility, but the quality of my ideas.

As the academy becomes increasingly organized by neo-liberal principles, the importance of brands will only remain constant or become more more important.

The problem with OA is that it attempts to address one of the symptoms but nothing about the causes of the crisis in ‘scholarly communication’. I mean, why tell people to publish in industry journals and presses at all? Given the state of technology and the networked environment where we currently work, we could easily just sidestep the publishing industry.

Obviously, things like the PKP projects for Open Journal Systems and Open Monograph Press attempt to do this, but they still require some centralized management. And it still, ultimately involves relating yourself to a brand (since most instances are tied to an institution of some kind).

But why not self-publishing for academics? Write a paper? Just post it on your academia.edu profile or website. Write a book? Create the pdf and epud and likewise post it. Want to make a little money from it? Set up a gumroad account and charge a small amount of money (while still having an OA version). You’d likely make more money this way than going through a press.

But where do libraries fit into this? Or the rest of the publishing ecosystem (reviewers, etc.)? No idea. And the sad thing? Neither do libraries.

Not too long ago I remember reading something about how difficult it is to get libraries to consider buying your self-pub’d book (but let’s stick to OA). So how would libraries get and acquire OA books? Given how reliant collection development is on reviews and other things contained within the publishing industry, it is hard to see how libraries could possibly start extricating themselves from it. Even as there is a clear demand for non-traditionally published works (remember that kickstarter campaign for just such a service?).

The question though, strikes me: why aren’t libraries even trying? Again, because of the brand name issue. In an era of limited budgets, it is generally better to go with what faculty want (luxury brands) because they want it and because (when they don’t) it is a ‘safer’ way to spend your funds and time. You also have to make fewer decisions for collection development. Buy this self-pub’d book or one published by Oxford University Press?

I think my basic problem with OA is that one of its underlying assumptions is that ‘scholarly communication’ is primary about disseminating knowledge. This doesn’t appear to be the case in reality and in practice. Scholars care about disseminating knowledge, but they don’t particularly care how it gets disseminated. Scholars care about accessing knowledge, but where the knowledge comes from matters more than the knowledge itself.


  1. I’m somewhat saying this because of all the math involved. However, I don’t mean to suggest that social sciences or humanities scholarship is anymore cognitively accessible to teh ~public~ given the disciplines’ love of jargon and dense prose.