Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” — Mark Twain

You would think that librarians, as a rule, would be more skeptical of data, facts, and other pieces of information than the general public. Most of us spent at least a couple of years working on a graduate degree in library and information science that ostensibly should have prepared us to ask the “hard questions” about what we read and hear in our professional discourse. Perhaps I’m more skeptical than many, but I expect librarians to have a pretty sensitive bullshit meter with the ability to work through information like data and statistics to discern the “damned lies” from reality.

Source: Wikipedia

Therefore, I was taken aback by the sturm un drang over the recent statistics in the Library Journal’s annual placements and salary issue by members of the profession.  Social media and the library blogosphere lit up with posts and statuses that bemoaned the plight of librarianship and the lack of jobs in the marketplace. After all, Library Journalone of the more respected sources of information in the profession, paints a dire outlook for the profession with confusing statistics that appear to show employment rates of recent graduates hovering in the area 10-15% for many schools. Dismal indeed! Additionally, the usual suspects that you would expect to call out this type or rhetoric, like the Annoyed Librarian, even took the bait, and saw the results of the survey as “not pretty”. Taking the data at face value does indeed paint a dreary outlook for our profession.

As you dig into the data a little further, you realize that there are some glaring problems with how the data is presented and represented. I’m no statistical wizard, but I could see immediate problems with much of what was presented. Population data is compared side-by-side to sample data. Response rates for the survey are not readily available. The data in the tables is a hybrid of survey responses and data provided by the placement offices of a few schools. The list goes on and on.

I don’t blame Library Journal for the way the data is presented. Could they have done a better job? Sure. Is the data misleading? Yes. Should they have been more forthright with how they presented the data? Absolutely. But as librarians and information professionals we should have dug deeper into the facts presented and drilled down a bit before snatching the doomsday ball and running with it. I guess I expected better from the profession. How can we teach our patrons to be enlightened consumers of information when we were so easily swayed by this information? Do we think that librarianship is such an enterprise bereft of value that we are willing to buy the “big lie” that it’s going to hell in a handbasket?

I wish I had answers to these questions. I know that I have spent the last two weeks talking colleagues and new grads that I am mentoring away from the proverbial ledge. In my own Facebook post about this I learned of many new positions opening at various libraries. Yes, the economy as a whole is pretty bad right now, but there’s no reason to think that were seeing rates of 90%+ unemployment for recent LIS grads. Librarianship will weather this “storm” just as it has previous “storms”. The sky is not falling. Librarianship does indeed have a bright future. Of this I am sure. Regardless of what the pundits and naysayers and their “damned lies and statistics” say about this.

N. B.: There were some in librarianship who saw the errors and  called them out on their blogs, including Jacob Berg, His post was the catalyst for me digging into the data and writing this post.


Readers of the Lost ARCs

As usual, the post-ALA Annual Conference euphoria has given way to the general nastiness that typically permeates libraryland, at least in online social media circles.  Case in point: This week’s latest scandal, ARCgate (complete with its own hashtag: #ARCgate), which goes something like this. Non-librarian, but book blogger, purchases an inexpensive exhibits only pass to the 2012 ALA Annual Convention, pounds the pavement of the exhibits floor, and walk away with hundreds of Advance Reading Copies (ARCs) of books to be published over the next year. Librarian, who paid full price for the conference and couldn’t spend all day on the exhibit floor because she was busy and had a real life, is upset that the non-librarian got all the good ARCs, leaving her with something less than she was hoping for. Librarian finds out about non-librarian’s exploits and score of delectable ARCs and is pissed. She fires of a blog post and causes the twitterstorm-du-jour in libraryland.

Because it’s hard to fit all of my thoughts into the 140 characters of twitter, I’d like to make a few points here:

  1. ARCs are not the sole purview of librarians and are distributed widely and freely by publishers. The raison d’etre for ARCs is to generate press, word-of-mouth, buzz, and publicity for the forthcoming book. Therefore publishers distribute ARCs to librarians, bookstores, bloggers, reviewers, magazines, book club gurus, Oprah, college faculty, your mom, and anyone else who the publisher thinks will provide “good press” for the book and cause more people to buy it when it comes out. Librarians do not have the market cornered on ARCs, and although it’s sad that ARCgate Librarian didn’t get an ARC of the books she was looking for at the ALA Conference, this could be resolved by contacting the publisher directly. There really isn’t a scarcity of ARCs.
  2. Publishers do not care that “non-librarians were scarfing up ARCs at the ALA Conference”. See my point above. ARCs are meant to be distributed. Publishers do not care who they distribute them to, as long as they think you will read it, and inform others about it. Publishers give out ARCs at ALA because they know a lot of influential folks in the industry will be there, librarians and non-librarians alike, and it’s a great place to get your product in front of as many bibliophile eyeballs as possible. Publishers do not think to themselves “we’re keeping these ARCs for librarians because they are who we intend to reach at this conference”. Instead, they give them out on a first-come, first-served basis to anyone in the exhibit hall, which alleviates the need to pack it all back up and ship it back to the home office. Visit the exhibits hall on the final day of ALA. Publishers will practically beg you to take the inventory they have off their hands.
  3. ALA is not the American Librarian Association and represents more than just the interests of professional librarians. As the American Library Association, it supports the interests of librarians and non-librarians with an interest in libraries and librarianship alike. Library board members, paraprofessionals, library consultants, publishers, vendors, bibliophiles, and many others attend ALA conferences and are even members of the association. During the ARCgate twitterstorm many called for limitations on exhibit passes or participation in the Annual Conference on non-librarians, which is patently wrong, in my humble opinion. ALA is a “big tent” organization and limiting participation, in even a small way, by a group or groups of individuals would be a very bad idea indeed!

I’m glad that people are passionate about this profession. It gives me hope for libraries and librarianship. I just wish we could take some of this passion and corral it for issues that really make a difference, instead of trotting out our sour grapes every time something doesn’t go our way.

Librarians and Google: Differing Motivations

Eric Rumsey brings up some interesting points on his blog this morning in his post “Google & Librarians as Cousins“. He argues that librarians and Google are cousins due to our shared “understated modesty” and interest in making the Web an “user-friendly place where people can actually find what they’re looking for”, and I would agree that on the surface, this would be true. The difference between librarians and Google are our motivations for doing what we do.

Google is a corporation that serves the needs and desires of its shareholders. Google’s primary motivator is profit, and as Siva Vaidhyanathan illustrates in The Googlization of Everything, Google’s true product is us. As users of Google, it is our preferences, searching habits, and online usage that is being served up to advertisers for a price. I don’t deny that Google has helped us all immensely by making the Web better, easier to navigate, and more “user-friendly”. I just wish they would be more honest about why they do this.

Librarians on the other hand provide information, help people find what they are looking for, and make all information — print and digital — more “user-friendly”, because we have a calling to this profession and it is what makes up our very essence. And often times, we do this with very few strings attached, and typically with the motivation that it is our vocation to “help people find what they are looking for”. That is why society, through public institutions like schools and public libraries, pay us to do what we do. Instead of trying to be more like Google, librarians must strive to get corporations like Google to be more like us. Failing that, we must continue to compete with Google in the hearts and minds of society and show them our way is the best. This is our vocation as librarians.