Together at the Seams: Tim Sherratt and metaphors of access, C-EBLIP Journal Club May 11, 2017

By Craig Harkema
University Archives and Special Collections, University of Saskatchewan

Sherratt, T. (2017). Seams and edges: Dreams of aggregation, access & discovery in a broken world. [online] discontents. Available at:

As a librarian who has focused on digital initiatives over the course of the past 8 years or so, I’ve followed with great interest the many projects and programs that have emerged out of Australia during this time. I find myself regularly checking in on some of the incredible hackers, artists, culture curators, and innovators from Oz.  Their names – Tim Sherratt  (formerly at the Trove, currently at the University of Canberra), Sarah Kenderdine (University of New South Wales), Paula Bray (DX Lab, New South Wales), Mitchell Whitelaw (Australian National University) and Seb Chan (Australian Centre for the Moving Image), among others – continue to pop out of my mouth when discussing digital cultural collections with my colleagues.  So when asked to select and lead a discussion about an article of my choice for the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice (C-EBLIP) journal club, I knew I’d likely pick something from one of the above.

As it happens, three years ago I was lucky enough to be in Canberra and stop in to visit the good folks at the Trove.  Near the end of my time there, I had the chance to talk with Sherratt, standing out just a touch in his casual attire, wearing red Converse Chuck Taylors. Mostly we chatted about these sorts of initiatives as platforms for developing tools and about the possibilities for use and reuse of digital content found in places like the Trove, Europeana, DPLA, and, on a much smaller scale, Sask History Online (the project I was leading at the time). Later that week he presented a talk called “Seams and Edges: Dreams of Aggregation, Access, and Discovery in a Broken World” at the Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA) Conference.  I’ll get back to it in a bit, but I feel this particular talk/blog post is as good a place as any to begin learning what Sherratt’s work is about. I think the Trove itself is a great example of how these large initiatives can support a wide range of research and public interest objectives; objectives we as library people should be most interested in.

Although he has now moved on from the Trove, Sherratt’s influence on the program will undoubtedly be long lasting. As much as anything, he has advanced the concept of the Trove as a platform for building tools and collections through the API. Trove is much more than a search engine that delivers results instantaneously. I’m hopeful this will continue in his absence and in the wake of massive budget cuts from the Australian government. Not surprisingly then, part of the Trove’s mandate is to develop a systems infrastructure and community that encourages and enables folks to reuse content. For Sherratt, the Trove has been just that, a store of valuable, quirky, surprising, and baffling materials that can be pulled apart and woven back together. It’s clear that he has developed a multifaceted and multilevel scholarly practice over the past several years, one that follows from a concerted effort to take a different tack from many of his peers:

A scholarly practice that has room for the angry and the weird alongside the rigorous and detached. That sees in digital technologies not just the chance to crunch huge quantities of data, but the opportunity to tinker with our preconceptions, to be playful and political, to explore emotions as well as evidence, to create bots as well as books ( “#Borderfarce…”, September 2015).

He has long been illustrating how this can be done and, often using the Trove’s API, has developed several new approaches to exploring and interacting with the content.

One example of this is his Eyes on the Past project, an experimental interface built in a weekend – the quick agile development worth noting – using facial recognition software. Like his Faces project, it is meant to reinforce to users that history is made up of stories about real people. The interface allows users to navigate the collections by scanning the faces and/or eyes of the individuals who are featured in the textual content. As he says in “Seams and Edges”:

By focusing on the stylish minimalism of the search box, we discard opportunities for traversing relationships, for fostering serendipity, for seeing the big picture. By creating experimental interfaces, by playing around with our expectations, we can start to think differently — to develop new metaphors for our online experience that are not framed around technological conquest.

The ability to work with content in these ways enables Sherratt and others to develop news ways of engaging with culture and history. Which brings me around to one of the reasons Sherratt’s work is so interesting to me and, as it turns out, to the folks who showed up at the C-EBLIP journal club.  I think as 21st-century librarians and archivists we should consider more carefully the metaphors and jargon used by purveyors of systems and content providers, and indeed those used by ourselves.  As the title of the article suggests, Sherratt hones in on problems associated with the terms “seamlessness” and/or “seamless discovery” – metaphors matter. Pursuing “seamless discovery” in the wake of Google means engaging with questions of politics and power.” So what does it mean, for example, when Ex Libris promotes Primo (their discovery layer) as providing “users with a consistent discovery across devices, quick access to frequent actions, and seamless patron services – all from a single, intuitive web interface.”  More importantly, what are we giving up and what do our users need to know when using a system that promises seamlessness and quick access? As Sherratt suggests, “seams are not simply obstacles to a smooth user experience, they’re reminders that our online services are themselves constructed. There’s nothing natural or inevitable about a list of search results.” Do we consider this every time we perform a search? Do those we help work with these systems? And what role do we play in revealing seams and edges? Or in the development of systems, tools, and approaches that help us become aware of and engage with them?

I’m not sure Sherratt’s work is explicitly a call to action, but for me, his hacker ethos combined with critical approaches to historical research challenge me to consider the standard ways we do our work. The profession would be well served by challenging the status quo more often and by developing our own creative solutions to our own complex problems. By making room for the angry and weird, tinkering with our preconceptions, and developing new metaphors, we have the opportunity to make important changes to the way people interact with the information we help provide and preserve.


This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.

Information Privilege and the Undergraduate Student

by DeDe Dawson Science Library, University of Saskatchewan

Privilege seems to be one of those things that you don’t realize you have until you no longer have it. This is not the case for some types of privilege of course. Someone’s race or gender will, in most cases, not change during their lifetime so privileges associated with these traits may be difficult for many to recognize. But someone’s ability to access information is likely to change.

One of the most frequently asked reference questions at an academic library is actually from recent graduates: “Why can’t I access e-resources anymore?” Libraries work hard to make access to electronic journals and literature databases as seamless as possible… so much so that undergraduates often don’t realize that they are using articles paid for by the library. Not until they graduate and lose access that is.

A bright and enthusiastic undergraduate student was my guide recently for a tour of the Canadian Light Source on the University of Saskatchewan campus. She explained to our group that scientists don’t pay to use the beamlines since they are conducting academic research, whereas companies pay by the hour. The distinction, according to our guide, is that the company is conducting research for their own profit whereas the academic is going to share his research in scholarly journals that everyone can read! I might have thrown up a little at that moment. But I did not want to hijack the tour by climbing on my open access soapbox right then. Reality will come crashing in once she graduates. Or… she could continue on to grad school, and then maybe on to become a faculty member, at large, rich institutions in the Global North and remain oblivious to the information privilege she currently enjoys.

Luckily, there is a growing awareness of this privilege among academic library users:

My intention in sharing the anecdote of the tour guide is not to shame the student. I was no different as an undergraduate (actually she’s a lot brighter than I was!), and her misunderstanding is understandable. My intention is to highlight the importance of teaching undergraduates about the scholarly communication ecosystem… and all of its warts: including its financial unsustainability and inequity of access. The Information has Value frame of ACRL’s Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education can serve as a guide in this.

For years now I have incorporated such messages in my instruction sessions. I clearly tell students that we are lucky to be at a relatively wealthy university, so we have access to X number of journals, and X number of databases that the library pays for. Students and researchers at smaller institutions or in developing countries are not as lucky. Even members of our own community who are not affiliated with the university are not as lucky (including others on the tour with me that day).

When teaching database-searching I am hyper aware of the irony of it all. Sure, these database-specific skills of controlled vocabulary searching and refining of results lists will help students in completing that upcoming assignment – but what good are these non-translatable skills when they graduate and no longer have access to that expensive resource? Only a small portion of our students will go on to grad school and use that database again.

This is why I now include a brief discussion of Google Scholar in these classes as well: emphasizing that it is also a useful resource – and will likely be the only one they have access to once they graduate.

I am far from the first to recognize this problem: see Char Booth’s excellent blog post On Information Privilege in which she describes an information literacy session she taught:

…I opened by challenging the fallacy that information is free by diagramming the library’s multi-million dollar materials budget against the “open web,” then facilitated a discussion about the implications of a system in which significant areas of knowledge are available to a privileged few (e.g., them). This may seem like a counterintuitive approach, but among my students it was a literally jaw-dropping illustration of a paywall that none of them knew existed. Choice responses (mirrored in other classrooms where I’ve used this approach) included:

“Why in the world does it cost so much?”
“It doesn’t make sense!”
“You mean all libraries have to pay like this?”
“Why can’t we use this stuff after we graduate?”


I feel strongly that we librarians have contributed to this current dysfunctional scholarly publishing system by (well-meaningly) sheltering faculty and students from the costs. This has emboldened publishers to aggressively inflate their subscription fees beyond inflation (and beyond reason) because they know that the end users are blissfully unaware… and because they know that librarians have a strong service ethic and will bend over backward to provide our patrons with the resources they need.

Let’s pull back that curtain now. Undergraduates are our future researchers and our allies in advocating for a more sustainable and equitable system. Even if undergraduates don’t go on to become researchers they will be tax-paying members of society funding that research. They should understand the system that their money funds and demand change.

This article gives the views of the author and not necessarily the views the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.

Library Resources (AND, OR, NOT) Google: C-EBLIP Journal Club, March 20, 2017

By Elizabeth Stregger, Discovery & Access Librarian, University of Saskatchewan

Perruso, C. (2016). Undergraduates’ use of Google vs. library resources: A four-year cohort study. College & Research Libraries, 77(5), 614-630. doi:10.5860/crl.77.5.614

There are so many ways to get to our library content. Students can start their research with the catalogue, discovery layer, research guides, library and archives websites, Google Scholar, and of course, Google. In consultation sessions with librarians and library staff over the past year, I’ve learned a lot about how these tools are perceived and taught in different areas of the University of Saskatchewan Library. I chose this article for the C-EBLIP journal club because it includes the question: does library instruction impact students’ initial choice of search tool?

A whole bunch of “value of libraries / librarianship” questions lurk around this topic, like pesky book reviews retrieved in a low relevancy search. Does library instruction make a difference? Why bother with library discovery systems if students will use Google anyway? Why do students even need libraries if they can write a passable paper using open web resources? One of the journal club members put a stop to these questions with the following zinger: “Is it valuable for kids to go to kindergarten?”

Getting back to the article, we wouldn’t have chosen “Google vs. Library Resources” as the options in the student survey described by the author. Google is a search tool, not a resource. We thought that more appropriate comparisons would include “Google vs. library systems” or “open resources vs. subscribed content.”

The data collection for this longitudinal study began in 2008 when we might have thought differently. So much has changed since then. It is easier to access subscribed resources from Google Scholar or even Google, depending on authentication workarounds. Librarians and archivists put effort into making special collections and other OA resources more discoverable and accessible to all. In a systematic review context, Google searching for grey literature is a recognized expertise. To sum up our conversation: the emphasis is less on what the student is using and more on how they are using it.

These changes in how we think about Google and student searching prompted a discussion of the challenges in conducting longitudinal research in libraries. The survey used in this study was administered a total of eight times over four years. This is a lot of sustained effort for everyone involved. Longitudinal research is subject to significant practical challenges including attrition, which was a factor in this study. It does not have the flexibility to allow for the reframing of survey questions in response to change. These changes become limitations of the research. The discussion section of this paper included many interesting questions and observations.

The discussion section of this paper included many interesting questions and observations. One of the ideas from the discussion section that we found intriguing was the maturation effect. A lot happens in the years that students spend at university. Library instruction and faculty requirements (the two variables in this study) may have a cumulative effect on how students approach research, but there are many other influences in student life. We discussed several of the other influences that might have an impact, such as interactions with peer mentors or student library workers.

In the end, that is what I will take away from our discussion. A student’s experience is made up of lots of interactions with the library, our people, and our systems. We have less control over the variables than we think. And I’ll hang onto that zinger about kindergarten as I continue learning, experimenting, and making things better.