Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The Price of Style

Dear Reader,

It's time we had a serious talk.  I've put this one off for a long time because the difficulty students have in citing sources is a tired and well trod battlefield, but the topic isn't going to go away and there are in fact some solutions.

Are you ready?

The topic is this:  the cost of style manuals.  I'm looking at you, publishers of MLA, APA, and the Chicago Manual of Style.  The day has passed when the only place to get the details of a bibliographic style was to break down and buy it or figure out which reference desk kept it in a supervised yet accessible "ready reference" area so it was a reliable presence.  And its cost was typically of the amount that only student who had pledged a troth to a major or entered a graduate program would see it as a reasonable and necessary investment.  Sure, many undergraduate first year English courses would choose a text that included examples of the major styles, (e.g. my beloved Heath Handbook I have used since my undergrad days) but to really get on board with why a style works the way it does, frequent exposure with the manual itself is required.

So, why does your Bookcharmer care?  Well, let me tell you that my library brethren have been the lifecoaches, lifeguards, and rescue crew to many a panicked student who not only had never seen a manual before much less navigated its terrifying index, in the desperate hours before a paper was due. Like an emergency delivery of a baby on the side of the road instead of in a home or hospital, we can do it, but its not ideal conditions and were all just happy if the baby (the paper in this case) survives.

Now faculty, let's look at your role.  Before you get your hackles up too far, ask yourself:  what class in your institution is charged with introducing students to style manuals?  If it something students "are supposed to know," then you must explain to me how is it the student will come to know it.  If you are a large university with students coming from a variety of places around the world or even just around your county, how is it they will know what a style manual is and where they can get it?  I have observed that a certain style is taught in Freshman Composition and then students must learn about another style when they take classes in their major.  I don't expect that to change.

The procuring or accessing a style manual--now here's the rub.  While I will agree that there are certain costs of publishing an up to date style manual, which in these days means coming to terms quickly (yes I said quickly) with emerging data platforms, and hosting up to date editions electronically, let's cut to the chase and figure out if you are serving your hostages oh I meant audience by keeping it beyond the paywall.

I'm not going to pick and choose among price tags and point fingers.  You know how much you are charging for print and electronic access, style manual publishers.  What I will ask you to do is to figure out how to put the most crucial parts online for undergraduate students in a open access (that means free) format in places they will find it.  You could even use a Creative Commons license to do so.

If you don't cultivate the undergraduates, your industry of managing scholarly publications will continue to narrow.  There is a generation of people in the United States who have been deprived of quality high school libraries who are tossed into the deep end of library research when they come to college with maybe a tour, an online tutorial, or a one credit class introducing them to the library. We are in a fantastically complex world of online and print sources and accurately citing a source is an added hazard.

Back in the slower days of print sources with an emerging scattering of databases, a student once informed me that "the bibliography is the punishment for finishing the paper."  I was stunned by this revelation as it illuminated the deep separation between seeing sources as the lifeblood of a paper and mere props for fulfilling requirements like "you must have eight to ten sources."

I'm not here to fight about how library research is taught--I'm really not.  Given the size and spread of higher education even just in the state where I reside, I know that agreement on this issue is carved up across upper and lower division, majors and programs, North of the Wall and South of the Wall.  But where I think we could all make major progress is in making style manuals more accessible and affordable to students so that they could actually learn how to use them.

Now, to be sure, the courageous and benevolent creators of the Online Writing Lab at Purdue, the OWL, have generously supported this effort for many years.  This resource is one that librarians all over the place rely on: and we owe them our thanks.  But it isn't enough.

Some databases kindly offer examples of how an online source could be cited, but patrons are cautioned to "double check against the manual."  The Bookcharmer is a devotee of RefWorks, but I maintain that a bibliographic management tool requires some working knowledge of a how certain style represents sources because that ideally is reflected in the writing and crafting of content.  But I digress.

Here's my proposal:  I call on the Big Three, APA, MLA, and Chicago to enter a race.  Who will be the first to deliver via a Creative Content license the most critical part of your manual?  The part that most undergraduates will need to have in hand to manage the type of writing their major courses will require.  You can keep the super sexy high level publishing stuff behind the paywall if you feel you have to do that to cover costs, I'm ok with that.  Make people pay for topics likes how to handle special mathematical symbols, how to cite a psychological test, or how the review process works for journals in your field.  Trust me, the first year student desperate to figure out where the year of publication in a citation is supposed to go is not looking for that information yet.  But imagine if a large percentage of undergraduates had a positive feeling about accessing and understanding how to use a style manual?

I mentioned Creative Commons earlier--if you haven't got acquainted with their various licenses, you can find that information here:  If you are wary of your sustainability as an organization if your content is freely galloping around the world, you could use one of the most restrictive licenses, which is described here:

Keepers of the manuals, if you don't believe that offering the documentation section of your manual would be transformative for students and librarians, come sit with me or one of my brethren at a reference desk for a shift or two. I offer you a seat at the table to collaborate with libraries to assist students in putting manuals to work as they were intended, to assist in the documentation and further distribution of knowledge.

Bookcharmer.  "The Price of Style."  February 17, 2016.

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