Returning to the Ranks

In January I “returned to the ranks” (I stepped down as an administrator and became a non-management librarian again). At least I think I did this. There might be some doubt.

Some context.

Having served as Chief Librarian and CIO at the University of Guelph for many years, I decided to stop being an administrator and go back to professional practice. I took a sabbatical and now am a librarian at Guelph who teaches in our First Year Seminar Program.

The prospect of returning to the ranks got me thinking about how faculty do this (relatively often) but librarians not so much. In fact most Chief Librarians/Library Deans/University Librarians either retire from the job or go on to other administrative jobs.

So I decided to interview a few people and see what was happening around this issue. I presented the results in a paper at the inaugural annual conference of the Canadian Association of Professional Academic Librarians. This lead to a paper that has just been published in Partnership: The Canadian Journal of Library and Information Practice and Research.

Here’s the key point of all this: I was talking to a colleague about the paper (he had read it) and he said: “Do you think you’ve actually returned to the ranks?”

Say what?

Apparently while I may think I’m a “librarian” again, others may not be so sure. Once an administrator, always an administrator.

And perhaps that’s why the whole issue of stepping down from an administrative role and staying in the profession needs some attention.  A more holistic career path for librarians would see administrative appointments as part of a natural and cyclical progression: as a stage, not a destination. If you are interested in more about this, see “Returning to the Ranks: Towards an Holistic Career Path in Academic Librarianship.”


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Open Shelf: Towards the Launch (the logo)

Open Shelf

Open Shelf

I’m the Editor-in-Chief of Open Shelf, the magazine of the Ontario Library Association. Well, to be accurate, the as-yet-to-be-launched magazine of OLA. We’ve been in development mode for months. Can I tell you how hard it is to do this? Rewarding. But.

Open Shelf is the online successor to Access, the print quarterly that published by OLA from 1994-2014. With the re-imagined digital magazine we will be able to publish more frequently and engage with readers more effectively. The formal launch is still TBD. More on that later. Today, it’s all about the logo.

The title, Open Shelf, was meant to evoke both traditional and emerging aspects of library and information management. The concept of “open” is important in two ways: we are an open access magazine but we are also open in the sense of encouraging all views and diverse contributions. The “shelf” word echoes the library stacks and the heritage it symbolizes. A shelf is also a platform for things, a place to put things, and place to discover things.

Creating an Open Shelf logo to reflect this was a challenge. I wanted something distinctive and memorable. Most magazine logos are dull and boring. I’m delighted with the result.

[Full disclosure: the logo designer is my wife, Lynn Ridley.]

The logo reflects how we want Open Shelf to evolve: a place for useful things, a challenge to conventional thinking, and a colourful perspective on the opportunities before us.

Open Shelf is fueled by the interests of OLA members but as an open access magazine the audience is all those interested in libraries and information management. We all have stories to tell and insights to share. What’s your story? What insight would you like to share? Let me know. The shelf is always open.



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Beyond Literacy: A Class, An Event, A Conversation

Logo_SquareEvery time I teach the Beyond Literacy course (a First Year Seminar at Guelph) I am wonderfully delighted by the students. Frankly very few of them ever buy the premise of the course (“Reading and writing are doomed. Literacy as we know it is over. Welcome to the post-literate future.”) but it doesn’t matter. Like any good learning experience, it’s all about the journey. And it’s always quite the journey.

The students in the course are required to work on a single, final class project. They can do almost anything as long as 1) it explores and amplifies the course content, 2) they work together, and 3) the result is public in some way.

The last criteria is perhaps the most important to me. The public component sharpens their critical capacity and it puts some accountability into their work.

In previous years students have created podcasts, written an e-book or a magazine article, created videos on YouTube, and hosted a debate.

This year the class decided they wanted to host a book burning.

As it turns out (surprise!) that’s not so easy to do … anywhere, for any reason.

So they decided to host a book shredding instead.

That was no problem. So they did it in the Library.

They formed four teams: event planning, video interviewing, video editing team, and overall project management group.

They promoted the event on Facebook and other places, and on Wednesday March 26th at 12:30 in the main entrance of the McLaughlin Library, they invited people to step, rip a page out of a book, and put it through a shredder.

Let the wild rumpus begin.

As you might expect, people were confused, upset, intrigued and outraged. Some were disturbingly enthusiastic. One faculty member called it “pornography” and another said days later that he was still troubled by what he saw.

But the event did what the students wanted; it allowed them to engage in conversation about what we think about reading, writing, alphabetic literacy, and the future of all those things. It opened up a dialogue and it was a powerful learning experience.

As part of the assignment the students interviewed a number of people and recorded the book shredding event.

Here’s the final video:

And here are two reactions from James McGarry, a colleague at Guelph:


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CRKN IDSE Preliminary Report

The CRKN Integrated Digital Scholarship Ecosystem (IDSE) project has released its preliminary report. You can read a Summary as well as the Full Report in PDF or HTML.

Full Disclosure: I’m the Project Manager.

While this is a status report, updating those interested on our progress to date, it also highlights a number of issues or themes that have emerged over the initial months of discussions, deliberations, and interviews.

It is not implied that these issues are comprehensive or even the focus of recommendations contemplated for the final report. However, they are an indication of what those in the ecosystem are talking and thinking about.

The upcoming priorities for Sabina Pagotta (IDSE Project Analyst) and I are to analyze the Library Director’s survey, issue and analyze the survey of collections staff, follow up on innovative services and resources identified through the surveys and interviews, continue interviewing stakeholders in the ecosystem, and continue reviewing key research studies. We will endeavour to collect many of these studies on the IDSE website.

One recent study of particular interest is “Canadian Researchers’ Publishing Attitudes and Behaviours“, a report commission by Canadian Science Publishing.

There is lots to consider from this important report but two findings seemed especially relevant to the IDSE investigation:

Value of OAThis finding suggests that the business models for OA are still problematic or misunderstood. Scholarly communications cost. Who pays and how they pay continues to disrupt the ecosystem.

Reasons for OAThis finding is quite promising (from an OA advocacy perspective). It suggests that for a substantial number of researcher (25%) their reason for publishing in OA journals was based not on ideological reasons (supporting the principles of OA) but because the journal was good and one of the best places for them to publish their work.

Money and quality. Some things never change.

As the IDSE project continues we encourage you to contact us: via the Forum on our website, email ( or ( or by using the #CdnIDSE hashtag.

We are on track to present the final report to the CRKN Board of Directors on June 22nd. It is anticipated that the Board will release the report widely and encourage feedback. Throughout the summer and at the CRKN AGM in October, the recommendations of the report endorsed by the Board will be discussed and prioritized by CRKN members.

The desired outcomes are opportunities for CRKN and its member libraries to improve and enhance the shared ecosystem we all support and rely upon.


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Podcasts from The Social Life of Information Course

Information-Graphic-Cropped-SmallThis semester (along with MJ D’Elia, Amanda Etches, and Doug Horne) I taught a First Year Seminar course entitled The Social Life of Information. With acknowledgement to John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid for the inspiration and guidance, the course explored how information in its many forms shapes the way we think and our society operates.

Mostly it was a course that helped students engage in informed dialogue.

One of the more interesting aspects of the course was that students created podcasts based on the group presentations they lead in class. None of the students had done this before. Kelly Jones, independent radio producer extraordinaire, provided a series of background and skill development workshops. She then helped them put together the podcasts in the CFRU studios (the community radio located on the University campus).

Social Media and Jobs: will social media use impact future employment?

Privacy, Social Media, and Sports: how are athletes constrained in their use of social media?

Jingles and Music: how do advertising and brand jingles impact our behavour?

Cursive Writing: should cursive writing be taught in schools?

The students did a wonderful job and it was a great learning experience for us all. The pedagogical value of radio continues to impress me.


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Open Access: Publishing *and* Reading (Status Report)

Open AccessYou might remember my plan to read only open access (OA) articles during this year.

You may be wondering, “how’s that going for you?”

Well, not too well. In fact, it has been a complete failure. And as you may recall, I’m a big fan of failure. So, in true Orwellian fashion, my project has been a raging success.

I use JournalTOCs as one tool to track new articles of interest to me (excellent service; high recommended). You can identify OA journals on JournalTOCs so it was easy for me to trim my list of tracked journals to only those.

My academic interests are mostly around libraries, librarians, information, information technology, higher education, and literacy. The fields differ with respect to OA. In turns out there are only a small number of higher education OA journals (they dried up to a trickle when I changed the setting on JournalTOCs), and a relatively modest number of IT journals focused on my particular IT interests. Unsurprisingly, journals on libraries and librarians do better.

While this allowed me to focus my reading on OA material, what I really discovered was how modestly I use traditional research journals. The vast majority of my professional and research literature comes from blogs and the grey literature (reports for example). Twitter, Feedly, and Facebook (ouch) are my most useful awareness tools and they mostly reference OA-like material.

The central reason for the failure of this project was in regard to materials for the courses I’m teaching this semester. At first when I discovered a good article for the class in a non-OA journal I looked for a pre-publication, repository version (and with some success). For those not available, I asked for one to be put in a repository (thanks to my very supportive colleague K. Jane Burpee for suggestions on how to do this effectively and employ tools like the Open Access Button). Sadly I did this only once (unsuccessfully). Instead (blush) I sent a few non-OA articles to the class without reading them myself.

At this point alarm bells went off and red flags appeared everywhere. What the hell was I doing? This was inappropriate and unacceptable.

So, the experiment is over.

It was probably over 10 minutes after my initial blog post (just as some of my more insightful colleagues suggested). But like all experiments, I learned some important things about the disciplines important to me and my own habits.

As my yearlong experiment ends almost as soon as it started, I declare victory.


Posted in AboutMike, Digital Culture, Information, Teaching & Learning | Leave a comment

Tale of Two Archives: NARA and LAC

nara-logoOn Wednesday night David Ferriero, the National Archivist of the United States, inspired us with stories about how an archive can become central to the national fabric. His I.P. Sharp Lecture at the iSchool, University of Toronto was memorable and instructive on so many levels.

After less than 5 years on the job (having been previously at NYPL, Duke, and MIT) Ferriero had a mandate to shake the place up. And did he ever.

With a renewed focus on citizen engagement, National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has done stunning work with social media and citizen engagement. And the results demonstrate it. Their online catalogue got 7M views in 2013; linking up with Wikipedia to include NARA content (and do they have content!) on Wikipedia pages resulted in 1.3B (yes billion) page views during the same year. Go where the people are. What a simple yet effective strategy.

What was refreshing about Ferriero’s talk was not the great stories about famous people (Whitman, Emerson, Elvis) and the documents pertaining to them in the NARA collections (here are some of his “favourite” documents). And it was not even the sales pitch he clearly has for the value of the archives (which was quite compelling). What was truly impressive was his commitment to making NARA a resource and service for the American people. For the average citizen. It is their stuff. It’s their record. It’s their institution.

I know lots of archives have that sort of attitude and approach. But to see it professed and actually accomplished at what is a ginormous institution is very impressive. It comes as no surprise that their new strategic plan is called “Being Bold“. There is some real (and effective) attitude here! Ferriero references himself as the “Collector in Chief”, his blog is called AOTUS  (a wonderful riff on POTUS), and he is active on Twitter @dferriero.

Ferriero has set a very large and tradition-bound ship on a new course. He has proven that institutions must (and can) change dramatically.

Leadership makes a difference. Creating a mandate, and letting visionary people run with it, makes a difference. Responding to real, average citizens, makes a difference.

NARA is making a difference in the lives of Americans. I wish I could say the same about Library and Archives Canada.

The leadership vacuum continues at LAC. Average Canadians are paying the price.


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Open Shelf: Towards a New Digital Magazine for OLA

OLAOne of my current projects is to move the Ontario Library Association (OLA) magazine from print to online. I’m the Editor-in-Chief.

I’m tweeting about it @OpenShelfOLA as it evolves but I thought a longer reflection might be of interest.

As we move the magazine online we are also rebranding it as Open Shelf (the print version was called Access). I like the new title for a number of reasons. It suggest accessibility, an invitation, a platform or opportunity, a place, and also a philosophy (we are an open access magazine). It also alludes back to our past while intimating our future. It is evocative, and a bit of a challenge.

I’ve been editor of Access since 2011. Once upon a time (in a professional galaxy far far away) I co-edited one of the first online journals in the library field: Public-Access Computer Systems Review (Charles Bailey was the founder and the other co-editor). We used listserv as the foundational technology. Why? Simple, available, known to our readers, and easy to maintain. The obvious limitations of listserv didn’t outweigh the advantages.

So when I started to think about Open Shelf, the same thoughts occurred to me. We need the foundational technology to be: simple, available, known to our readers, and easy to maintain. As a result we are using WordPress. And we are going to be as vanilla as possible. That doesn’t mean it won’t be an engaging product (fingers crossed) but it does mean we are willing to accept the limitations for the other benefits.

A big change is frequency. Access was a quarterly. It was easy to forget about it between issues. Writers could wait 6 months before their articles appeared. But, of course, they appeared in print … on actual paper …. that arrived in their mailbox. I remain surprised (how naïve of me) that getting published in a paper magazine/journal is still so appealing. But it is. And it will be a challenge for Open Shelf to attract some writers (and readers) because of this.

Back to frequency. Digital allow us to publish whenever we want. We have chosen to publish regularly but not on a specific timetable; articles, columns and features will be issued on a continuous basis (when they are ready, when we feel the time is right to release them). Open Shelf will regularly inform you of new content by a variety of means, and those visiting the site will see frequent additions. We want to get your attention and hold it.

Another major issue is readability. On one hand this is about the style and tone of the magazine. It will be the same as before: conversational, accessible, and of general interest. We are not an academic journal nor a news magazine. We strive for reflective, thoughtful, and intriguing.

But readability has another important dimension: reading on the screen. So many websites and online magazines are cluttered, hard to read, dense with text, and/or littered with images. We want something different.

The design and UX is still underdevelopment but the focus is on light, open, pleasurable, and easy to read on any device (responsive design is very important; we anticipate most readers will experience Open Shelf on their smartphone).

And perhaps most important of all, we want Open Shelf to generate conversation among our readers and writers. Whether that is by comments on the site or tweets or other blog posts is irrelevant. We simply want to nurture engagement.

The launch date is sometime in May; the exact date is TBD.

If you are still reading this post you may also be interested in contributing to Open Shelf. We are always looking for great stories and interested writers. To be clear, we are an open access magazine (under the Creative Commons C license Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 CC BY_NC-SA 4.0), and we are unable to pay writers. Lots of fame, not so much on the fortune.

Contact me at, @OpenShelfOLA or add a comment to this post.


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Organizational Culture

Over the years I’ve participated in a number of external organizational reviews (for academic libraries, public libraries, and IT divisions). While all organizations are truly different, even unique, there are two characteristics that almost always emerged as key issues during these assessments:

  1. Communication
  2. Culture

I’m going to come back to “communication” in a future post. For today it’s about culture.

“Culture” is one of those things everyone thinks is a problem …. and everyone has a different answer to “fix”. And there’s the rub …. “fix”. You don’t fix culture, you nurture the culture you want (or that’s needed). Remember  Peter Drucker:

Culture eats strategy for breakfast.

But let’s be clear about this, culture is a strategic element of a successful organization. It doesn’t “just happen.” It is organic but it’s managed. A tilled garden.

I’m also reminded that we often don’t see organizational cultures going bad when we are sitting inside them. What Hemingway said about how you go bankrupt is also true about how organizations develop a dysfunctional culture:

Gradually, then suddenly.

So, what to do?

My thanks to Harvey Schachter (Globe and Mail) for pointing me to the post by Katzenbach, von Post, and Thomas “The Critical Few: Components of a Truly Effective Culture” in strategy+business. This is an excellent, pragmatic approach with three key messages:

1. identify and promote critical behaviours: focus on a few core behaviours that will reflect and encourage a new cultural direction.

2. honour the existing culture: select and nurture the positive traits from the current culture that will connect the past to the future.

3. focus on the critical informal leaders: learn from these people how an emerging culture will look and feel. They are your role models, not your ambassadors.

Excellent strategies; required reading.


Posted in HigherEd, IT, Leadership, Libraries | Leave a comment

Fundraising: the Old School Way

One of the biggest changes in the role of a senior academic administrator in recent years is the amount of time spent fundraising. It can be easily be 30% of one’s time and for many it can be considerably more.

Fortunately, we all get training and follow the advice of professionals in the field. Development staff have proven techniques and well-honed practices that help us do the right thing.

It wasn’t always like this.

Consider how the University of secured a $1M donation to support the building of its new library in 1968.

Albert Thornbrough

Albert Thornbrough

Albert Thornbrough was the Chair of the Board of Governors at the time and responsible for raising money for the Library. He decided to visit his friend Sam McLaughlin to ask for support.

Thornbrough was CEO of Massey Ferguson and McLaughlin, fondly known as Colonel Sam, had founded a car company that became General Motors of Canada.

Thornbrough drove to McLaughlin’s estate to make his pitch. As he pulled up in front of the house McLaughlin came out to meet him.

Samuel McLaughlin

Samuel McLaughlin

The two men greeted each other and McLaughlin said to Thornbrough:

“Punch me. I’ve been getting in shape. Punch me in the stomach.”

At that time Colonel Sam was in his 90s so Thornbrough had no intention of hitting him, not even playfully.

“Come on” McLaughlin insisted “punch me. Hard!”

So, Thornbrough punched the very man he had come to ask money from. Not hard but not playfully either. Enough to satisfy McLaughlin.

Apparently contented, Colonel Sam guided Thornbrough into the house where he immediately wrote a cheque for $1M, the single largest donation to the Library and the reason it is called the McLaughlin Library.

Yes, fundraising has changed.


So, how do I know this story? Some years ago I visited Albert Thornbrough at his home in Boca Raton. Over a wonderful lunch at his club he told me this and many other stories. Perhaps it’s apocryphal but, hey, it’s a good story. For another good, and likely less suspect story, ask me about Thornbrough and Conrad Black someday.

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