Thursday, June 23, 2011

Anecdote = #Fail!

I'm a lover of stories. When I read for pleasure it's almost always fiction. I love a tall tale, a well-spun yarn, an eloquent narrative. But I've come to believe that the anecdote is failing librarians. I mean specifically the anecdote presented as evidence for a thing, or as justification for our behavior or action. I think we do ourselves and our profession a desservice when we resort to the anecdote to support our claims of fact. And it's even more egregious when we wield the anecdote as an excuse for our own inaction.

A few examples might help me illustrate my point. After the Durham Statement came out I was researching the reasons for the apparent resistance to a shift to e-only publishing of law journals. I wanted to make the case that e-only would save law schools money. I based this argument on the anecdote I've heard about these publications for as long as I've been aware of them. "Law journals are loss leaders for their home institutions." I tried to find hard evidence, as I had foolishly assumed there would be, to support my anecdotally-based argument. I was hoping for a scholarly article with actual figures, or at the very least a footnote somewhere. I have yet to find such evidence. But this anecdote is alive and well.

Another example of a pervasive anecdote emerged as I tried to understand this insistence on print journal publishing. That is, the purported article author's lament: "I want to send a copy of the article to my grandma so she can see my name in print." Really? Is the hue and cry of these student authors so vociferous that all of our well-informed efforts to persuade them otherwise have failed? Or have we simply passed around this well-worn anecdote to relieve us of the responsibility to persuade?

One final anecdote relates to acquisition decisions and often affects me directly in my work. This one, typically proffered whenever we're discussing why a library might decide to acquire a particular resource despite widespread opposition to the terms, pricing, access model, etc., seems to be an unassailable precept: "Our faculty have to have/demand it!" Again, Really? When you were faced with the decision did you sit down with the faculty member(s) in question and explain what's at stake? Did you share the cost/benefit analysis? Did you tie it back in to the budget of the library? To the principles and best practices of librarianship? Did you explore what the faculty member(s) really needed and offer alternative resources that would meet their information needs?

At last week's Future of Law Libraries meeting, John Palfrey called us to lead our own destiny, rather than react to one thrust upon us. "Shame on us!" he declared, if we don't shoulder that mantle. I could not agree more! In order to do it, we have to shrug off these useless anecdotes that elevate the whims and fancies of others and devalue our skills, knowledge and expertise. So if you should hear me spouting one of these (or any other) hackneyed justifications, call me on it will you? I'm going to try to do the same for you.

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