Berkeley’s budget woes and the Library

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Though the economy is strong again, many public universities continue to see declining support, or at least not see growth commensurate with an economic boom. UC Berkeley is facing a sixth year of frozen tuition (which was already low compared to peers), hard limits on out-state enrollment, no state financing for capital projects, and new responsibility for pension costs. Here is a message I shared with our staff and external advisory boards:

“By now you most likely have heard about Chancellor Dirks’s announcement that Berkeley has a serious annual, unsustainable budget deficit. If you haven’t, here is a link to his public statement: http://goo.gl/DQCHqP. The basic fact is simple: revenues are about $150 million a year less than expenses. That’s a big gap. To address this, our Chancellor has launched the campus on a major and necessary strategic re-alignment process. He has assured us, everything is “on the table”, with a simple guiding rule: we will make choices to uphold Berkeley’s world-leading commitment to excellence and access.

What do the long-term budget shortfall and accompanying strategic re-alignment of Berkeley mean for the Library?

The first and most immediate consequence is that for the second year in a row, we have been instructed to reduce our activity by about 4%. We also had a 4% cut last year. Over the next few months we need to find quick ways to reduce activity without seriously damaging our most important contributions to Berkeley’s excellence and access (in our case, access to information).

We have a smart and resilient staff, and together we’ll manage this immediate challenge. What about the future? Because of the size of the campus annual deficit, we must anticipate further cuts in our campus funds in coming years, as well.

As I wrote to you when I started this job — just a bit over five months ago — we have tremendous opportunities in front of us. There is no better time in history to be an information professional. But the public is providing less and less support to public higher education. The implication is straightforward: we need to prioritize, aggressively.

So we are launching a strategic planning process. Our challenge in a time of opportunity is not to work our staff to exhaustion and bitterness, to try to do more with less. Rather, we have to choose the very most important things, and do those excellently well. We will engage our staff, the faculty, the students, alumni and donors to discuss what those most important things are, and then we will prioritize.

We are not starting from scratch. The Library has been facing resource challenges for over a decade, and there has been a lot of strategic thinking already. Some directions are too obvious to ignore. We may not be able to prioritize them all, but we have to discuss them.

For example, we have one of the best collections of information resources of any research library in the U.S. Books, photographs, manuscripts, illustrations, videos, audio recordings, maps, journals, pamphlets, on and on. Those resources are held in trust for the benefit of the public. Shouldn’t we be doing everything in our power to set those treasures free? To support Berkeley’s commitment to access by providing as much universal access to our treasures as is possible? Today we can do so in a way not possible until just a few years ago. We can create high-fidelity digital representations, and once created, there is essentially zero technical cost to sharing our treasures with everyone on the planet, through free and open networks. (The only limit is time, for those resources that remain under copyright for a while still.) We have started this project, but progress has been modest. Should we commit to this moonshot, to set our treasures free?

Another example: Berkeley provides the best public college and graduate education in the world. But 21st century leaders need more than we are providing today. Whatever path through life they will follow as artist or engineer, doctor or novelist, they need to be information professionals. They were not born into the agricultural age, nor the industrial age. They were born into the information age. The big information problem facing each Berkeley student today is not the scarcity of information, but the information flood. And so every well-educated citizen needs to be their own librarian, because the quality of their life — social, cultural, economic, political — will depend on being able to find, evaluate and use high quality information. Shouldn’t we, the information professionals on campus, the librarians, be greatly increasing our efforts to educate so that every Berkeley graduate is 21st century information literate?

We know about another major opportunity: the Library provides not only information resources, and information literacy education, but very special spaces for our students and faculty to learn and engage in scholarship. In fact, we are the primary provider of public, open, shared learning space on campus. And our space is needed more than ever by our students: with soaring Berkeley rents, they are living further away, and crowding more and more people into tiny apartments. They need space on campus to study and learn. And to be the best they need modern space that support collaboration, innovation and connection: connection to information resources around the world and right on our campus, connections to other learners around the world and right on our campus. The Library’s spaces should be our campus’s best designed and best equipped hubs for connected learning.

These are big opportunities, and there are others. We will prioritize so that we can take on ambitious challenges. We have to: Berkeley’s excellence depends on the Library, and we can’t let Berkeley down. Just as Chancellor Dirks promises for campus, we, the Library promise: we will come through this strategic re-alignment stronger and better, focused more than ever on Berkeley’s commitment to excellence and access.”

Communicating more effectively

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A modern research library is a sprawling, complex beast.  We develop traditional and special (rare) collections and archives; provide instructional services; license and assist all comers with using data; support research data management; provide connected learning spaces with flexible furniture and information technology resources to support students working together to discover and learn; provide streaming video service; maps and GIS tools; etc., etc.

To serve our constituency (students, faculty, and the public beyond campus) we need to let them know what we can do for them, and what resources we have for them to use.  And in this era of declining public support, we need to let potential donors know about how we help make this great university great.

So, we’re re-organizing the way we do communications, starting by hiring our first Director of Communications.  Into a new Office of Communications we’ll be pulling in many (not all) of our communicator staff who are currently scattered across units: writers, social media experts, graphics and exhibit designers, web designers, photographers etc.

If you know a talented modern communicator who wants to lead a strong group of professionals, and help make this most public-serving of campus institutions — the library — more visible and successful, please encourage her or him to apply: http://madlibbing.berkeley.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Director-of-Communications-Library-job-announcement.pdf.

Building the future of scholarly resources

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We at Berkeley Library have just posted a position for an Associate University Librarian for Scholarly Resources, an evolution of our current AUL Collections position. I’d like to offer some thoughts about what we think leadership in scholarly resources means for a research library.

Our mission, as I see it, is to help people find, evaluate and use information resources to build a better world. We seek an AUL for Scholarly Resources to lead our efforts in three key areas that advance this mission

  1. development and management of access to scholarly resources
  2. improving practices in scholarly communication
  3. systematically assessing resources and services

Access to scholarly resources

For more than 4000 years one of the most important functions to serve our mission was to create collections. Hence, our profession is known as librarianship: we are the people who create and maintain libraries.  Building collections was critical because information was expensive to publish and distribute, and thus information resources were scarce.  We couldn’t help people find, evaluate and use information without making a collection of these scarce resources available to them.

However, the economics of information production, discovery and access have changed radically in the past 20-30 years as a consequence of the digital revolution. Now the cost to reproduce and distribute most information is vanishingly close to zero, so we are faced not with scarcity, but abundance of information resources. (NB: the cost is about zero, but that doesn’t mean the price is always close to zero: more on this below.)  Our mission really has not changed in the past 4000 years, but the role of collecting to serve this mission has greatly changed.

To keep the focus on our mission to serve people’s information needs, it is more useful for us to say that, rather than a primary focus on building collections, the critical role is providing access to resources.  We pursue a mixture of strategies to make information resources available.  For example, we establish portals and way-finding assistance to help people locate useful resources wherever they might reside.  We license access to many resources (most notably, at present, scholarly journals), without ever owning or “collecting” them.  (Indeed, in our library, about 60% of our current resources budget is spent on licenses for access to digital resources.)

This does not mean that we are no longer in the business of collecting!  Some important information resources still are scarce and expensive, and so we still need libraries to collect these.  This is especially true for resources that are still primarily produced in print format (which currently includes most scholarly monographs, particularly those published outside North America and Europe).  And, of course, rare historical resources that are in print (or other analog) formats (our “special collections”) need to be collected by institutions if they are to be available to the public in the future.  Also, for some types of learning and scholarship, print format is sufficiently more useful than digital that we need to bear the higher cost of collecting print, rather than (solely) providing digital access.  After all, our mission is to serve our users who want to use the information, not to minimize cost (though we can’t ignore the trade-offs that the higher cost of print impose on us).

Another reason we still need to collect and maintain many print resources is that the information they contain is artificially scarce and expensive because it is under copyright, so we can’t (yet) digitally reproduce and distribute it at a price that approaches the near zero cost of doing so.  For example, Berkeley is a member of the HathiTrust consortium, which has an archive containing full-text searchable digital files of nearly 14 million volumes scanned from research libraries…but less than 40% of that is in the public domain; the other 60%+ cannot be read online (by most users).

So, yes, it is still vital that we continue to collect, but that is only one role — and frankly, a decreasing one in the broader function of providing access to scholarly resources.

Thus, we need an AUL for Scholarly Resources who is ready for and enthusiastic about dealing with the vast array of resources now relevant to students and scholars, in many different analog and digital formats.

It is important to realize that the revolution is not over.  Though the fundamental science of the digital revolution is mature, the physical and social engineering of the digital world is still immature and far from complete. Formats and affordances for use are evolving.  Business models and market structures are changing.  And user adaptations and uses are changing.  Thus, we need an AUL-SR who is a lifelong learner, who is adaptable and indeed embraces change.

Transforming scholarly communications

Let me turn to the second area in which we need scholarly resource leadership: scholarly communications.  Because the economics and technology of information production and distribution are radically changing, the ecosystem in which scholars communicate their results is also radically changing.

For example, much work is widely distributed in self-published form before it is peer-reviewed and “published” by an arm’s length organization. And even for formally published communications, because the cost of reproduction and distribution is zero, the socially optimal business model is to make access universal and free to all (open access).  Of course, there are still substantial “first copy” costs, even aside from the cost of keeping the author in food and clothing (costs, for scholarly resources, that are typically paid by university or laboratory salary budgets).  First copy costs include editorial selection, peer review, copy and style editing, and providing professional publication quality.  But when costs of reproduction and distribution are zero, the socially efficient way to provide for first-copy costs is through lump-sum up-front (pre-publication) payments, not through ex post per copy pricing.  Commercial business models are adapting to these social efficiency imperatives — but painfully slowly, and until we successfully navigate this transition to open access publishing, society is paying too much, and receiving too little access to the discoveries and insights of our scientists, scholars, artists and inventors.

In addition to necessary changes in the business of scholarly communications, we need to advance changes in the formats and media through which scholars communicate.  With the collapsing costs of digital media production, scholars are no longer constrained to publish solely in traditional formats such as the monograph.  Shorter — and longer — forms are feasible. Multimedia and interactive formats are feasible.  Living documents and contemporaneous, community-annotated editions are feasible.  The effectiveness of scholarly communications will be increased as we learn to use richer and more varied forms of communication, just as our communications are improved when we improve our writing skills.

However, our social and commercial institutions — including the behaviors of change-averse (that is, human) scholars — are slow to adapt. To benefit from the potential for reduced cost and improved access and distribution, we need to push hard on changing the scholarly communications culture.

So, we seek an AUL-SR who is knowledgeable and passionate about helping Berkeley play a leadership role in transforming the scholarly communication ecosystem.

Assessment

Finally, there is something else we need. With a mission to help people find, evaluate and use resources to build a better world, we can only succeed if we are a user-centric library.  We must discover and learning about the needs of our users (and non-users, since we’d like to start serving them too).  And we need to evaluate how well we serve those needs.

This point should be obvious for a leader overseeing the expensive business of providing access to scholarly resources: we can’t buy or license or provide expert finding assistance for everything, so we need to assess user priorities and ensure we are serving those priorities well.

But assessment is more important than ever in the current era of vanishing public support for public higher education.  Leading public university systems now survive with only about 14% of their operating costs provided by public support.  If we want to continue to deliver excellent information resource support to public higher education, we have no choice but to do more with less.  This may sound like an argument for the dreaded “corporatization” of higher education, but after we step away from political sloganeering, I think it’s clear that being more efficient in how we fulfill our mission is crucial for our service to the public.  And crucial to increasing our efficiency is to do a better job of assessing our users’ needs, and evaluating ourselves on how well we are serving those needs, so we can engage in continuous improvement in our provision of service to our students, scholars and the public.

Looking forward

There has never been a greater time to be an information professional.  We in university libraries are in the business of helping students and scholars find, evaluate and use information in their quest to build a better world.  And we live in a time when we can provide vastly more access, ever better tools for evaluating information quality, and explosively improving ways of using these information riches.

An AUL for Scholarly Resources at a leading university will be able to lead our top professional teams who are helping advance how scholars communicate, and how they find, use and evaluate information.

Looking for a postdoc in software / data curation

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The UC Berkeley Library is offering a two-year post-doc for a promising applied scholar to work on software and data curation issues, possibly with a focus on social network data. We especially are interested in advancing our understanding and support for organizing, preparing, and preserving — for re-use — data from open source software projects, including the code with all of its gnarly revision and forking history, the documentation, check-in remarks and other metadata, and the communications of the social network that often is layered on top of the software development platform. Think of Github as a canonical example.

The rich history of cooperative and sometimes collaborative development is somewhat available to researchers as long as the platform remains open and supported. However, not only does that not protect these rich data for future researchers, but the data are typically not organized, encoded, marked-up or otherwise curated for re-use by scholars.

We had a post-doc open last year, through the CLIR program, but there were too few applicants to fill the handful of similar CLIR-supported positions. PLEASE let promising post-doc candidates know about this, and circulate widely to any friends and colleagues who might have candidates.

Though employed in the Library, the post-doc will be co-advised by a Berkeley faculty member (or team); depending on interest it could be someone affiliated with the Berkeley Institute for Data Science, the Computer Science Department, or any number of other units. Given Berkeley’s leadership in data science, information science and computer science, this position is a wonderful opportunity.

Please employ the CLIR Postdoctoral application program to apply (http://www.clir.org/fellowships/postdoc/applicants/dc-science). Applicants seeking more information specifically about the position at UC Berkeley can get in touch with Erik Mitchell, Associate University Librarian (emitchell (at) berkeley (dot) edu).