Archive for: March, 2011

Reinventing Discovery with Michael Nielsen at York University!

If you're in the Greater Toronto Area next Tuesday, please drop by and see Michael talk. I'm thrilled that my library is co-sponsoring such a fantastic event!

Presented by:

  • Janusz A. Kozinski - Dean, Faculty of Science and Engineering
  • The Division of Natural Science
  • The Steacie Science and Engineering Library

Location: Paul A. Delaney Gallery, 320 Bethune College
Date: Tuesday, March 15, 2011
Time: 12:30 p.m. - 2:00 p.m.

Refreshments will be served courtesy of Steacie Science and Engineering Library

Prof. Nielsen will describe an evolution in how scientific discoveries are made driven by new online tools that help scientists work together in new ways. Prof. Nielsen will describe examples that enable large groups of amateurs to make discoveries, and online markets in scientific problems.

This talk will be a blend of presentation, Q&A and discussion.

Abstract: In this talk I describe a remarkable transformation now underway in how scientific discoveries are made, a transformation being driven by new online tools that help scientists work together in new ways. I will describe examples that include massively collaborative approaches to solving mathematical problems, citizen science projects that enable large groups of amateurs to make discoveries, and online markets in scientific problems. These and other projects use online tools to amplify our collective intelligence, and so extend our problem-solving ability. This promise is only part of the story, however, for today there are also cultural barriers strongly inhibiting scientists from using online tools to their full potential. I will describe these cultural barriers, and how they can be overcome.

Bio: Michael Nielsen is one of the pioneers of quantum computation. Together
with Ike Chuang of MIT, he wrote the standard text in the field, a text which is now one of the ten most highly cited physics books of all time. He is the author of more than fifty scientific papers, including invited contributions to Nature and Scientific American. His research contributions include involvement in one of the first quantum teleportation experiments, named as one of Science Magazine's Top Ten Breakthroughs of the Year for 1998. Michael was a Fulbright Scholar at the University of New Mexico, and has worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory, as the Richard Chace Tolman Prize Fellow at Caltech, as Foundation Professor of Quantum Information Science at the University of Queensland, and as a Senior Faculty Member at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. Michael left academia to write a book about open science, and the radical change that online tools are causing in the way scientific discoveries are made.

The flyer is here.

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Digital Humanities Librarian, York University Libraries

Mar 10 2011 Published by under escience, faculty liaison, job, librarianship, yorku

A terrific new opportunity at my institution. I'm not in the reporting department or on the search committee, but I can answer general questions about York and the environment. My email is jdupuis at yorku dot ca.

Position Rank: Full Time Tenure Stream - Assistant Librarian
Discipline/Field: Digital Humanities Librarian
Home Faculty: Libraries
Home Department/Area/Division: Scott Library
Affiliation/Union: YUFA
Position Start Date: August 1, 2011

Digital Humanities Librarian (Continuing Appointment)
Scott Reference Department

York University Libraries seeks a creative, motivated, innovative, and responsive librarian to provide leadership in the development of digital humanities resources at York, while serving as a member of the Scott Library Reference Department.

York University offers a world-class, modern, interdisciplinary academic experience in Toronto, Canada's most multicultural city. York is at the centre of innovation, with a thriving community of almost 60,000 faculty, staff and students who challenge the ordinary and deliver the unexpected.

The York University Libraries are comprised of one large central library, the Scott Library, and three branch libraries. Our collections contain over 6 million items, including over 45,000 electronic journals; 300,000 e-books; 2.5 million print volumes; and significant holdings in film, music, maps, data, and archival materials. We also play a strategic role in promoting York research in an online environment by providing online journal and conference publishing services, hosting an institutional repository, and collaborating with members of the community on digitization projects. The Scott Library Reference Department offers research services, participates in the Learning Commons @ Scott, has an active information literacy program, and is responsible for collection development in the humanities, social sciences, fine arts and environmental studies.

In the twenty-first century, digital libraries are as essential to humanities scholarship as physical libraries have been in the past. Digital humanities is an evolving specialization in librarianship. The incumbent will work closely with researchers, students and other subject librarians and provide leadership in incorporating technologies into the research activities of the humanities community at York University. This librarian will work collaboratively to develop strategies and environments for disseminating library resources in support of humanities research; contribute to the processes of digital media production, practice, and analysis in the humanities; engage in scholarly communication initiatives; and liaise and collaborate with digital humanities researchers. The successful candidate will also participate in the development of the collection in an area(s) related to his or her academic background.

The successful candidate will participate in teaching, reference, collection and liaison activities in the Libraries and elsewhere on campus, and be proactive in developing new programs and services. The chosen candidate will play a role in the ongoing development of information literacy initiatives; participate in special projects, such as assessment, and the development of web-based resources; participate in collegial processes of the Reference Department; serve on committees of the Libraries and of the University; and contribute to librarianship by carrying out professional research and scholarly work. Some evening and weekend work is required.

The successful candidate will have the following qualifications:

  • An ALA-accredited MLIS degree or equivalent with up to five years post-MLIS experience;
  • A strong educational background in the humanities;
  • A solid understanding of the research process and the ways in which new technologies are affecting the production, dissemination, and reception of texts in the humanities;
  • Demonstrated ability and interest in exploring and evaluating emerging technologies in support of digital humanities;
  • Understanding of scholarly communication and publishing issues and trends;
  • Demonstrated understanding of collection development and ability to liaise with faculty;
  • Demonstrated ability to provide reference, research instruction, and consultation in the humanities and social sciences;
  • Broad knowledge of print and digital information resources relevant to the social sciences and humanities;
  • Demonstrated understanding of the concepts, goals, and methods of information literacy instruction and an ability to teach in a variety of settings and formats;
  • Willingness to undertake work on library and university committees;
  • Willingness to contribute to the literature through professional development, research, and scholarship;
  • Expertise with current web technologies;
  • Demonstrated understanding of assessment strategies;
  • Evidence of leadership ability, professional initiative, and flexibility;
  • Excellent analytical, interpersonal, and communication skills;
  • Demonstrated ability to work effectively in a collegial setting;
  • Ability to work with a large and diverse clientele;
  • Strong public service ethic and background.

This is a continuing-stream (tenure track) appointment to be filled at the Assistant Librarian level and appropriate for a librarian with up to five years post-MLIS experience. Librarians at York University have academic status and are members of the York University Faculty Association bargaining unit (http://www.yufa.org/). Salary is commensurate with qualifications. The position is available to commence in August 2011. All York University positions are subject to budgetary approval.

York University is an Affirmative Action Employer. The Affirmative Action Program can be found on York's website at www.yorku.ca/acadjobs or a copy can be obtained by calling the affirmative action office at 416-736-5713. All qualified candidates are encouraged to apply; however, Canadian citizens and Permanent Residents will be given priority.

York University resources include centres relating to gender equity, race and ethnic relations, sexual harassment, human rights, and wellness. York University encourages attitudes of respect and non-discrimination toward persons of all ethnic and religious groups and regardless of gender or sexual orientation.

The deadline for applications is 11 May 2011. Applicants are directed to submit a covering letter outlining their relevant qualifications and experience, a current curriculum vitae, and the names and contact details of three referees. Applicants are also asked to have two of their three referees submit written letters of recommendation directly under separate cover by mail, or email/fax with a mail copy following before the application deadline. Referees should be provided with a copy of this position advertisement. Applications and letters of recommendation can be sent to:

Chair, Digital Humanities Librarian Appointment Committee
York University Libraries
310 Scott Library
4700 Keele Street
Toronto, Ontario
M3J 1P3
Fax: (416) 736-5451
Email: yulapps@yorku.ca

Applications should be sent by mail, or email/fax with a mail copy following.

Posting End Date: May 11, 2011

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A letter to Patrick Deane, President, McMaster University

Mar 09 2011 Published by under academia, education, librarianship

This is about the symposium upcoming at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, The Future of the Academic Library. The symposium is co-presented by Library Journal and McMaster.

It was announced on Twitter this past Sunday and there was a bit of a Twitter-storm about the conference as quite a few people (myself included) thought the program participants a bit problematic, to say the least.

But I'll let my University of Windsor colleague Mita Willliams take it from here. With her permission, I'm reposting the letter she wrote yesterday to President Deane.

I am writing this letter to you today on International Women's Day. Or, to be more accurate I'm writing you this letter *because* it's International Women's Day.

I am writing to ask you if you think that it's acceptable for a symposium that you will be a speaking at - The Future of Academic Libraries - to have what appears to be only 3 women presenting out of a possible 21 speakers.

The percentage of women in Canadian academic librarianship is 73% [CAUT Almanac, pdf].


Last night I got a call from a student from McMaster as part of the University's current Alumni fund-raising drive. She was kind, clear, engaging and polite. When I told her that I was able to apply my geography and environmental science degree from McMaster in my work as a science librarian, she told me that she really appreciated librarians and just recently a McMaster librarian helped her find the data she needed for her GIS class.

But as able as she was, she was not ultimately effective in getting closer to her fund-raising goal for reasons that were not her fault. So after I told the student my reasons why I would not donate to McMaster University, I told her that I would write you personally and tell you those reasons myself because... well because it only seemed fair.


I support McMaster librarians and the excellent work that they do. I'm looking forward to working with them at Code4Lib North (that McMaster University is kindly sponsoring) and I hope to run into them again at The Humanities and Technology Camp being held two weeks later at UWO. (As an aside, did you notice that there are no McMaster Librarians speaking at The Future of Academic libraries at the symposium? Others have.)

I will not be attending The Future of Academic Libraries Symposium because 15% doesn't sound fair to me. I want a future that's more fair than the present, for myself and for the student I spoke to last night.

Mita has it exactly right.

Consider me an additional signatory to Mita's letter.

Another thing that I find problematic is that most of the presenters from the library world are senior administrators -- university librarians and others at that level. While I have nothing against senior administrators per se, it seems to me that a symposium on the future of something could certainly benefit from some younger blood. See Peter Brantley's excellent call to arms, Get in the goddamn wagon, for some further thoughts in that direction.

A panel discussion featuring some of McMaster's front-line librarians would seem to be a natural for dealing with at least some of the aforementioned issues -- lack of women, lack of Mac librarians and lack of early-career and front-line librarians.

I realize that it's probably too late to change the program significantly, in particular since the schedule of events seems inordinately packed. However, I feel the three prominent omissions seriously damage the credibility of what should have been a significant event in the spring calendar for academic librarians in southern Ontario.

8 responses so far

Stealthy zombie vampire librarians

And I mean zombie vampire in the best way, as a comment on how hard it seems to be to kill my Stealth Librarianship Manifesto. It's even been translated into French! (Merci, Marléne!)

For a post I mostly wrote in an hour of white hot typing from midnight to 1 a.m. some weeknight when I should have been sleeping it sure has some legs.

There have been three posts about the manifesto fairly recently, mostly more critical than complimentary but with a lot of input that I really value.

Let's take a look.

Identity crisis? No. Or why I think we need to move beyond "stealth librarianship." by Kendra Levine.

My frustration with this rebranding is just a part of the narrow vision many librarians have about the profession and its role in the information seeking world. This LSW thread from today sort of embodies it. What? There are other types of libraries besides public and academic? Now, as I did in that thread, allow me to put on my SLA hat. One of the greatest things about SLA, to me, is the diversity of its members and how very few are just traditional librarians in the narrow sense. There's a very wide world out there, but it seems like lots of people forget that, which is our loss. When Dupuis notes that librarians should stop joining traditional librarian professional associations, I wonder if he's actually been involved with SLA?

But back to the the concept of "stealth librarianship". Basically, Dupuis calls for librarians to be part of their user community, not just observers but participants. I agree. I also know that several librarians already are and have done for decades. It's not new. It's also not as common as it perhaps should be, but making it as a new concept is not necessary and might just muddle things. Really, how is it any different from being embedded? Or just being a really involved member of your community? I am not seeing why we need a manifesto, other than maybe to empower those who felt out of place?

Stealth librarianship or just good librarianship? by Krista Godfrey

My question is whether this really needs to be termed as stealth librarianship? Using this term, it seems more sneaky and underhanded than it needs to be. I don't think quietly infiltrating is the right answer - and I know this isn't exactly where the manifesto is going - but then why call it stealth librarianship? There is nothing wrong with proudly representing your profession among those who can value your expertise.

These thoughts may be coming on the heels of the HarperCollins affair - we're being loud and clear in our dislike with the present circumstances (though again, we seem to be in the reactionary position). Maybe it's our raised voices that's making me think negatively about the "stealth" aspect of the manifesto.

Regardless, being involved in our communities - both librarian and user - is the essential thing. And isn't that just plain good librarianship?


"User Services" ... or helping people in an academic library
by Stephanie Willen Brown

# I've been intrigued by conversations with John Dupuis, who blogs at Confessions of a Science Librarian. We've been cyber buddies for a few years and have met at two ScienceOnline conferences in RTP. Dupuis recently blogged about stealth librarianship, whereby we infiltrate (my word) ourselves into the work lives of our faculty colleages. Dupuis strongly believes we should step away from being so library-focused and "collaborate with faculty in presentations" and "...we must make our case to our patrons on their turf, not make our case to ourselves on our own turf." There are some interesting additional opinions at the In the Library with the Lead Pipe blog: Lead Pipe Debates the Stealth Librarianship Manifesto.

I'm not going to comment in any detail on the specific points raised in the posts because I'm not sure getting into any kind of defensive "this is what I really meant" or "this is the context I set" conversation is that useful. The criticisms are valid and I do take them to heart.

On the other hand, I will let Andrew Colgoni speak for me a bit in the comments to Godfrey's post:

I think John's gone and done exactly what he intended - stirred up the nest a bit. Do we need a manifesto? No, not really. Is it really about being stealthy, no it's not that either. Are we talking more about engaging our user groups on their turf - absolutely, and that's the important part.

I guess 'good' librarianship is really about discovering and meeting user needs and expectations, and there's many ways to do that. It's easy, though, to stay at home and guess. It's harder to venture forth and find out.

Yes, that's exactly what I meant to do 😉

That being said, I do have some things to share that have come out of this experience.

  • The whole "manifesto" thing worked for some people. Others, not so much. It's a bit polarizing and turned some people off and I accept that. On the other hand, it made people look.
  • I didn't intend to imply that no one is doing good work along these lines or that progress isn't being made in a lot of places. If people saw what I wrote that way it is my fault and I apologize.
  • It's hard to separate the different audiences in different library environments. I explicitly aimed my piece at academic libraries because that's the environment I know. Librarians who work in other environments obviously read it and some found useful resonance in the manifesto and others also found it lacking.
  • "Stealth" probably wasn't the best word to use. In fact, it was probably a mistake. I'm not sure what would have been better but I'm open to suggestions. I consciously didn't use "embedded" as that has a generally accepted context in librarianship and I wanted to suggest something a bit different. Maybe Integrated or Guerrilla or Undercover or something like that would have been better.
  • To quote myself,

    As with all manifestos, this one is subject to the failings of hyperbole and oversimplification. Think of it as a series of provocative statements not a realistic plan of action. For example, I don't really think we should all abandon our professional associations.

    I think this is the thing that people had the most trouble with and I suppose that's the problem with setting up a series of really strongly worded statements. People took me at my word and I guess I have to own those words.

    My intention was to undermine or subvert my manifesto. I wanted it to be provocative enough to be interesting yet at the same time I wanted to leave space for other people's ideas too -- to give it a sense of it's own absurdity, something I think the Taiga people were unable to do with their Provocative Statements. Sort of like what this post is doing.

    In the end, it's safe to say that I don't really expect people to give up librarian conferences, to abandon professional associations or stop reading and contributing to professional publications in our field. I'm not going to actually give up any of those things either.

  • I'm really serious about remixing and repurposing what I've done. Andrew and Marléne have done a great job already. I did my best but the failings of my manifesto are many and apparent.

    It's not hard to imagine:

    • A Loud & Proud Breaking Down the Doors Librarian Manifesto
    • An Embedded in Researchers Workflow Librarian Manifesto
    • An Institutional Librarian Part of the Team Manifesto
    • A Corporate Librarian Already Absorbed in the KM Department Manifesto

    And others, I'm sure.

I'll hearken back to what Dorothea Salo said about the chasm between scientists and librarians at Science Online 2010 but which I think is broadly applicable:

I can tell you this: we will not bridge this chasm from behind our desks in our libraries. We will not bridge it at library or publishing conferences. We might be able to throw some ropes across the chasm online, but we won't do it if all we do is hang out in our own little corners of the Web.

I'd love to see them and hear about peoples successes. In fact, there are quite a few stories in the comments of the original post that I find very inspirational. If you're doing exciting things: embedded in a lab or classroom, presenting with faculty at conferences, mingling at society meetings, teaching in their classrooms. If you're forging a path to the future, if you're building a bridge across that chasm, let us all know.

Write about it: in a blog, a journal, a trade magazine. Present at a conference -- library or patron, whatever.

I guess my message is: Don't be stealthy.

Here's an updated list of all the posts (including mine) that mention my manifesto:

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Friday Fun: H.P. Lovecraft's 10 favourite words

Mar 04 2011 Published by under ebooks, friday fun

Over on the Tor.com blog, mysterious librarian blogger RuthX tells us the story of how she created a free ebook (downloaded!) with all the public domain stories that were published by noted horror author H.P. Lovecraft.

In the course of compiling the book, she was able to analyze the word usage patterns of the famously overwrought and verbose Lovecraft. And it's hysterically predictable what she came up with.

The post on the Tor blog is here: H.P. Lovecraft's 10 Favorite Words and a Free Lovecraft eBook.

A more complete analysis is here: Free Complete Works of H.P. Lovecraft for Nook and Kindle and Wordcount for Lovecraft's Favorite Words.

And the countdown is:

  1. Loath (ing/some)
  2. Accursed
  3. Blasphem (y/ous)
  4. Abnormal
  5. Madness
  6. Singular (ly)
  7. Antiqu (e/arian)
  8. Nameless
  9. Faint (ed/ing)
  10. Well, you'll have to check out the original post for this one!

Update 2011.03.04: Added link to more word count information: Wordcount for Lovecraft's Favorite Words.

6 responses so far

HarperCollins and The Capitalist's Paradox

I saw this just after I published my previous post and think it really encompasses what I'd like to say to HarperCollins and its fellow travelers.

This is from The Capitalist's Paradox by Umair Haque.

So here's my question: Does what you're doing have a point -- one that matters to people, society, nature, and the future?

Beancounters, listen up. To paraphrase Shakespeare, I come not to praise you, but to bury you. I don't care about your "strategy," "business model," "campaign," "product," or "deliverables" (sorry). All that stuff is focused on outputs. What matters to people, in contrast, are outcomes: did this bring a tiny slice of health, wealth, joy, inspiration, connection, intellect, imagination, organization, education, elevation into my life, that lasted, multiplied, and mattered to me -- or was its final result merely to make me just a bit fatter, wearier, unhealthier, disconnected, dumber, duller?

What I care about is whether you can change the world, radically for the better -- whether you can attain deep significance, and matter in human terms. Why? Because the world needs, wants, is crying out for changing -- and if you can't change the world, a rival who can is going to make your latest, greater so-called blockbuster look mediocre, the people formerly known as customers are going to tune you out, communities are probably going to self-organize against you, and, when all is said and done, you're probably going to end up at the mercy of hurf-durfing "investors" whose idea of "long-term" is speed-dating on steroids.

That's it, HarperCollins. Create more value than you destroy.

3 responses so far

Towards a library ebook business model that makes sense

Over the last week or so a huge issue has sprung up in the library and publishing world, which I touch on in my eBook Users' Bill of Rights post.

The publisher HarperCollins has restricting the number of checkouts an ebook version of one of their books can have before the library needs to pay for it again. The number of checkouts is 26 per year. Bobbi Newman collects a lot of relevant posts here if you're interested.

There was a comment on my post by William Dix:

Publishers are shooting themselves in the foot on this issue. As well as alienating a lot of the potential market with idiotic proprietary formats and frustrating DRM schemes. I do wish that more publishers would follow the example of Baen Books with their no DRM multiformat approach to epublishing.

I responded over on that post but I thought it would be worth expanding on what I said here.

Some more-or-less thought out thoughts and impressions.

The way I see it, HarperCollins' decision merely reflects the the book publishing industry's fears that the napsterization that hit the music industry a decade ago is immanent. They fear that their current business model based on selling physical objects will be undermined by the web without anything to replace it.

And with good reason. This is definitely a rear-guard action that is part of the publishers' long term losing battle to impose the same kind of monetization structure on digital content as for print.

The print business model grows out of scarcity. Physical objects cost money to produce and are by definition limited in numbers. The last time I checked, there was no scarcity of text to read online.

The only scarcity that is potentially exploitable in the online world is of good text and publishers need to find a way to insert themselves into the equation by convincing people that filtering the wheat from the chaff and organizing and curating the good stuff is worth paying for.

Libraries potentially blow up the scarcity of digital content by mutualizing community resources to share purchased or licensed digital content. In other words, we use the pooled monetary resources of a community to buy stuff for that community that most individuals wouldn't be able to afford on their own. With digital content libraries can basically share digital content with everyone without the same kinds of per unit costs that pad the bottom line for publishers.

If I have a digital file and I say I want to share it, that's great. But to somehow to say I can only share it with a certain number of people for a certain period of time is absurd. It's not like a physical resource that has a real, concrete scarcity attached to it. The scarcity that DRM tries to impose is completely artificial in the case of digital files. It tries to graft the limitations of a physical format where it doesn't belong.

Publishers fear and mistrust the kind of sharing libraries are committed to for precisely that reason. It exposes the absurdity of their false scarcity.

Let's say Harry Potter 8 comes out some day. Great. California's public library systems buy a few thousand copies of the physical book and pay some sort of fair price for it, say $20 dollars per copy. The people of California get to read those copies one at a time for as long as they last. When they wear out, California will buy new ones. If they get less popular at some point, they'll be weeded and probably sold off at book sales.

Now, those very same public libraries want to provide digital copies to their citizens who happen to have one of a range of devices that can read ebooks. How many copies do they buy? Well, just one, really. They only need one copy on their servers (or on a publisher's server) to share with the millions of people of California.

Of course, thousands or millions of people from California or even the whole world can actually read that one copy simultaneously because that's the way digital works. When I want to read something you have, I just make my own copy. The marginal cost of making that one copy is essentially zero.

That's where DRM comes in. Because that kind of arrangement doesn't work for the publishers or authors very well. They'll want to impose an artificial scarcity on the digital copy they "sell" to California so only a limited number of people can read it. In effect, even though California only really buys one copy, they'll want the transaction to look like they've really just purchased a bunch of paper copies that people just happen to be read on electronic devices. Publishers want to monetize every act of reading.

It's not hard to see parallels to the music industry here in the way that the publishers want to hide from the implications of digital rather than embrace them.

What's the answer? What should California pay for one digital copy of Harry Potter 8? $20? $20,000? $20,000,000? Maybe ten cents or a dollar for every time it's downloaded?

What's the business model that properly compensates content creators, that gets enough cash flowing to allow a book/ebook ecosystem to flourish and grow and expand. Most importantly, what's the business model that gets the content into the hands of the people that want it and that makes piracy irrelevant? That monetizes the reading transactions that need to be monetized and leaves alone the ones that don't?

I have some ideas, and I think they'll flow from the same kind of arrangement that companies like Morgan & Claypool, O'Reilly and others have forged in the academic and technical content spaces, a set of business model that libraries can work with, that often frees content, that trusts readers, that sees libraries as partners rather than adversaries.

Even business models that use DRM like Books 24x7 or Safari can be library-friendly.

When I talk to publishing people or authors and they get all worried about how libraries are denying them sales, the one thing I tell them is this: Think of libraries as the one partner in the content ecosystem that is actually willing to pay good money for quality content. Always has been, always will be.

Or I could be all wrong.

(All of this is as true for public libraries as for academic libraries. But I think that kind of speculation might be for another post.

And I'm still thinking of doing a giant link dump of all this HarperCollins/Overdrive/ebook mess.)

3 responses so far

The Henrietta Lacks effect, or, The recipe for popular science success

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (TILoHL) by Rebecca Skloot was far and away the top science book of the year in my Best Science Books 2010: The top books of the year post from last month. In that post I took all the Best Science Books 2010 posts and tallied up the books with the most mentions. TILoHL was mentioned in 41 out of the 60 lists I found. The next highest was 17 mentions for The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee.

So, a pretty decisive victory. TILoHL was by far the best reviewed science book of the year.

What was interesting to me was that it seemed to cross-over quite a bit into an audience that wouldn't normally find and read science-themed books. It was really a very unique case of a breakout book that was able to find a much larger potential audience than a science book would normally have access to.

Was that just a feeling I had or was it backed up in some way. As I was compiling and posting the Year's Best lists, I did take note of the number of times TILoHL was the only science book mentioned or perhaps with just one other.

So, this analysis. Using the "data" I collected in the form of all those year's best lists, I decided to extract all the lists where TILoHL was the only book mentioned or where there was just one other. I've got all those lists below. From them I extracted the descriptive text that accompanied the book's selection. I looked at some key passages in that text.

What are the lessons?

Well, there is no "one answer," no secret ingredient that makes a science book cross over into a mass audience. And I also can't emphasize enough that this isn't real evidence, that what I'm looking at here is a very selective reading of the reviews and mentions of Skloot's book. Even of all the singleton listings I found, there's really only a handful that really jump out. But jump out they did.

And this is what I see as significant to the success of the book. People that were predisposed to like science books loved it and that shows through. More tellingly, however, are the cases where the reviewer didn't seem predisposed towards science books at all but still loved the story of Henrietta Lacks. Those were the key to the crossover/breakout success, the word of mouth that pushed the book over the top and into the stratosphere.

And what was it that drew those normally non-science friendly reviewers -- and the readers that flocked in their wake?

If there's any common theme it's that these normally picky reviewers loved TILoHL because it's more than "just" a science book. They saw it as a book that's also about people and society and ethics. Of course, from the point of view of someone inside the science world, we tend to see most science books as also about those things as well -- we don't see the practice of science as separate from human society. But somehow Skloot's book performed that most rare crossover and convinced everyone else that a book about science could also be about people.

So, if you're writing a popular science book and hope to break out to a broader audience, heed the lessons of these reviews well.

  • A spoonful of sugar of sugar can make the medicine go down. It goes without saying that any book that hopes to reach a mass audience should be entertaining and engaging at the most basic level but it probably bears repeating.
  • A strong narrative really sucks people into a book and carries them to the end.
  • A lesson to be learned by all science writers -- you might have an interesting scientific story to tell, but why should "normal" people care? Your story has to connect with people's everyday lives and concerns. This can be a challenge for lots of areas of science, like theoretical physics, but it's key to be able to tell a story that ties directly to people's lives.
  • Related to the previous point, the book needs to be primarily about people, not machines or bacteria or whatever.
  • People also care about larger social issues, like medical ethics and the challenges of racism and poverty. Setting the scientific story against the background of these types of compelling social issues is a great way to cross over to the huge audience because it connects to what they see around them not some abstract theory or intimidating lab setting.

A caveat: I don't mean to imply by these points that there is only one way to write a science book. Every book, every author, every story will require different strategies. Similarly, success can be judged in different ways, not just by the degree of "crossover." But I do think these factors apply in this particular case and that there are some broader lessons that can be learned.

The analysis I've done here is somewhat superficial and hardly unique or original in the kinds of points I make. But at the same time, it's starkly apparent when you look at the reviews below what the key to Rebecca Skloot's success were: she had a great story, she told it exceptionally well and that story was one that held strong interest for people beyond the normal science audience. The reason for that strong interest was that the narrative of the book touched a lot of people on an intensely personal level as well as exploring important social issues.

Who wouldn't love a book like that.

Sounds easy.

And now for the admission of guilt. Yeah, I haven't read it myself. I don't even own a copy yet. And that's partially what got me writing this post because I'm certainly going to be among the first in line when the book comes out in paperback next week.

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Here are the ones where TILoHL is the only science book mentioned. I've bolded some bits that seem particularly relevant. I think each review could be a lesson for a budding science writer on how to approach source material and turn it into stories people care about.

Salon.com

In 1951, a sample of cancer cells was taken from an African-American woman in Baltimore's Johns Hopkins Hospital. Henrietta Lacks died not long afterward, but her cells live on, proving to be so exceptionally easy to culture that if you were to gather together all the tissue grown from them, the result would weigh 50 million metric tons. Lacks' famous cell line (christened HeLa) is now used in virtually every medical lab in the world, a remarkable scientific success story. Yet, as Skloot thoroughly and sensitively documents, Lacks' own descendants muddle through without health insurance or the education required to understand what their forebear contributed to the world. In fact, the Lackses have had a long, fraught and confused relationship with Johns Hopkins Hospital itself, characterized by mistrust on one side and condescending utilitarianism on the other. Skloot's skillful account of Henrietta's dual legacy is not, however, an indictment of particular researchers or labs. Instead, it masterfully reflects the tricky intersection of science and society and an American medical establishment responsible for both astonishing triumphs and lamentable failures.

New York Magazine

Skloot uncovered, then spent ten years researching, one of the world's great untold stories: the human origin of biology's most famous cells--an undying strain, used in labs to help solve problems from polio to AIDS to cloning, known only as "HeLa." Skloot returns these syllables to their owner: The cells were harvested from Henrietta Lacks, a poor black woman dying of cancer in 1951 Baltimore.


Largehearted Boy

The "best of 2010" book lists are popping up everywhere, and Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks seems to be on them all (and deservedly so).

Skloot tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, whose cancer cells live on long after her death. These HeLa cells have become key facets in modern health research, and Skloot's research uncovers not only Henrietta Lacks' life, but also that of her her family and the medical advances her cells have helped bring. The book doesn't shy away from questioning medical ethics, but Skloot doesn't preach, she clearly provides the facts and lets the reader make up his own mind.

Simply put, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is the most arresting work of nonfiction I have read since Dave Cullen's Columbine, and is an always engaging and important book, an arresting combination of biography, science, and ethics.

Slate

Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a detective story about a poor black woman and her magical cells. Born on a Southern tobacco farm, Henrietta Lacks died in 1951 after being treated for cancer at Johns Hopkins. Without her knowledge or consent, scientists cut cells from her cervix and cultured them. In the lab, they grew into a cell line, called HeLa, that proved more robust than any before it. Lacks' cells were the ingredients for research into everything from the polio vaccine to chemotherapy and gene mapping. Skloot follows the cells on their scientific journey, using them to teach us about major medical advances. Even better, she takes us deep into the Lacks family, which learns about HeLa almost by accident and then grapples with feeling excluded from its powers. "Them doctors say her cells is so important and did all this and that to help people," Lacks' daughter tells Skloot. "But it didn't do no good for her, and it don't do no good for us." This is a voice not often heard in discussions of science. Skloot gets credit for bringing it to the fore and carefully thinking through the hard questions surrounding informed consent. Best of all, her book sings. She spent 10 years reporting and writing, and the effort pays off--she has turned unlikely material into a pleasure read.

Wichita Eagle

Sixty years ago, a woman named Henrietta Lacks was treated for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Her cells were taken, without her knowledge or consent, for research and grew into a thriving cell line called HeLa, shipped all over the world for research. This book, a gripping combination of biography, science and history, tells the story of Henrietta's life and her family's realization of her contribution to science, plus the changes in medical ethics over the past few decades.

USA Today

Oprah Winfrey (who has bought the rights) is among the fans of this moving true story about a black woman whose cells were used extensively in research after her death -- without her family's knowledge.

Chicago Sun-Times

My choice this year was not the kind of book I typically read, but it was without question my favorite of 2010. Rebecca Skloot's "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" is chock-full of science writing but don't let that scare you. Skloot weaves the tale of one of the most important developments in the history of science -- the reproduction of HeLa cells -- with the human story behind it. She breaks down the science so it's easy to understand, and the story of Henrietta Lacks, whose cells are still used 60 years after her death for scientific research, will break your heart.

Chamber Four

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is the bizarre story of a tobacco farmer whose cancer cells have been used in scientific research for decades after her death. The book features a rare combination of great writing, fantastic storytelling, and deep social significance. Skloot admirably weaves several storylines--Lacks's life and death, the growth of HeLa cells, the many scientific advances those cells have made possible, the lives of Lacks's decedents--into a cohesive and gripping book. But Immortal Life sits on top of my list because of its social importance. The story of Henrietta Lacks was a generation or two from being completely forgotten. It would have been a shame to lose this piece of our history, not just because of the scientific significance of HeLa, but also because of the perspective Lacks's life and death adds to the Civil Rights struggle. Thankfully, with this book, Rebecca Skloot has made Henrietta Lacks truly immortal.

Here are a couple where only one other book is mentioned.

The Daily Beast

A surprisingly gripping account of the life of one Henrietta Lacks, unknown to most but touched by all because her line of cells were used in some of the biggest scientific breakthroughs of the 20th century. Skloot's biography finally and masterfully recognizes her unheralded contribution.

O Magazine

An uneducated black woman dies young and poor, but her cells live on, leading to countless medical breakthroughs--and to this multilayered narrative of race, class, and family.

Barnes & Noble (review here)

In contrast, science writer Rebecca Skloot also had a Helen Lane footnote moment in high school, but saw in that footnote the nucleus of a story about science and society. After ten years of HeLa sleuthing, Skloot's hunch has paid off handsomely: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a modern classic of science writing.

Let me qualify that. This isn't science writing in the sense of Stephen Jay Gould or Richard Dawkins: Skloot doesn't spend a lot of time describing or extolling scientific discoveries. For her, the science is a bit player -- though an important one -- in a complex and fascinating drama about how medical research intersected the lives of a poor black family in America. Her mixture of science and biography is sui generis, and its themes profound: racism, ethics, and scientific illiteracy. (excerpt of review)

US News & World Report

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. A true account of Henrietta Lacks, who died eight months after she was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1951. Lacks's tissue cells, taken without her permission, are alive today and have been a cornerstone of the multibillion-dollar biomedical research industry--used to develop the polio vaccine and in research for cancer, cloning, in vitro fertilization, gene mapping, and Parkinson's. Skloot explores the human consequences of the intersection of science and business, rescuing one of modern medicine's inadvertent pioneers from an unmarked grave.

Seattle Times

In the 1950s, the doctors who took cancer cells from Henrietta Lacks, a poor African American farmer, never imagined creating HeLa -- the "immortal" cells grown in culture that live on and save lives around the world. Skloot's tireless reporting is sensitively done and written with unusual clarity; she erases the line between lab and humanity with inspiring deftness.

And a bonus review from Brian Switek because it's so telling.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a triumph of science writing (it is truly one of the best nonfiction books I have ever read), and I was deeply affected by it on a personal level. The story reaffirmed that small events can have major repercussions, and as sad and angry as the tale of the Lacks family made me by the end of the book, I was glad that [Rebecca] Skloot had worked so hard to reach them. Through something as simple as wanting to learn more about Henrietta's life, Skloot and the Lacks family were able to create a fitting tribute to Henrietta and her legacy. For the first time, the most important woman in modern medicine is having her story told, and I truly hope that it gets the attention it deserves.

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