Home 9 Featured Posts 9 ATG Interviews Curtis Michelson, Founder of Minds Alert, LLC

ATG Interviews Curtis Michelson, Founder of Minds Alert, LLC

by | Jun 11, 2018 | 0 comments

By Tom Gilson (Associate Editor, Against the Grain) gilsont@cofc.edu
And Katina Strauch (Editor, Against the Grain) strauchk@cofc.edu


ATG: Curtis can you tell a little bit about your company Minds Alert? What does Minds Alert do? How does it relate to libraries and publishing?

CM: I founded the firm a few years ago because I wanted to have a consulting practice focused on Higher Ed in all its many beautiful aspects – universities campuses and administrations, libraries, learned societies and presses. My background going back a couple decades was building metadata systems for University Presses and when you work with metadata, you touch just about every part of a publishing workflow and you get to know many parts of the scholarly comms ecosystem. This consulting practice keeps me close to the nerds I love to hang with, too.

ATG: You recently published an article on the Educause Review website entitled “NextGen Innovation in Scholarly Communications: An Exemplary Collaboration between a Research Library and a Technology Partner.”  Exactly what partnership were you referring to? How did their collaboration work? Were students and/or faculty involved in the project?

CM: Well, it was a partnership between JSTOR Labs and Columbia Libraries and I think it was exemplary because, unlike many projects funded by big donors focused on big mission, this was bootstrapped, and pursued co-creatively. And, I should add as a personal note, ran circles in terms of quality output, around another project I had consulted on a year before. I was humbled. How did they pull this off? And how did they hit on such a good approach using less money and delivering working software in less time than everyone else. I wanted their secret sauce!

ATG: You mentioned it was “bootstrapped.” Where did their money come from?

CM: “Bootstrapped” in the sense that both sides provided resources, mostly in-kind. Columbia provided their own staff which consisted of a VP Technology, as well as two librarians, and of course they provided the meeting space itself for the design workshops, and they helped recruit end-users for testing the prototypes along the way. JSTOR Labs provided their own staff’s time and expertise. I interviewed five of their team members – Christina Spencer (ITHAKA’s manager of user research), Alex Humphreys (project lead), Ron Snyder (the technical architect), Matthew Loy (strategic initiatives manager), Beth Dufford (project facilitator) and Laura Brown (JSTOR Director). From the library side, I interviewed Barbara Rockenbach (Associate University Librarian for Research and Learning) who certainly felt the time invested was worth it for them.

ATG: In this collaboration between JSTOR Labs and Columbia University Libraries what did each of the partners need to bring to the table to make it a success?

CM: JSTOR Labs brought two ingredients if you will – the tech in their labs (some natural language processing technologies for parsing and making meaning from texts) and their quite evolved approach to value discovery. By that last part I mean they have a wonderful way of getting diverse folks together to collaborate and discover new solutions to vexing problems. That’s not easy in any context – for profit, nonprofit, or government, particularly in academe, where silos still rule and pecking orders persist a plenty.

Columbia libraries provided the just right location for idea exploration and testing, in context near the customer, as we like to say (it was an effort focused on improving the monographic reading experience after all). And they provided key library stakeholders and were able to lend credibility and gravitas to draw in heavy hitter directors from folks like AHA, MLA, etc.

ATG: You note that JSTOR Labs has a wonderful way of getting diverse folks together to collaborate and discover new solutions. Are you aware of examples other that this project?

CM: Yes, they do. In fact, when I called Alex Humphreys for some amplification on that point he said, “We’ve used a variation of this process on almost every one of JSTOR Labs’ projects and are big believers in how generative, effective and just-plain-fun it can be. We’ve tried, both in blog posts, videos, and many, many presentations to describe this process to encourage anyone who might want to try it.  I’m also encouraged that we’re now seeing forward-thinking grant-making organizations approach us about using the process on projects.”

ATG: Are the heavy hitter directors that JSTOR Labs was able to draw in names our readers would recognize?

CM: Sure, folks like Seth Denbo, executive director of AHA, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Director of Scholarly Communication at MLA, Amy Brand, director of MIT Press, Jevin West, from the DataLab at U of Washington and Laura Mandell, head of the Digital Humanities research center at Texas A&M. The key here is the diversity of the stakeholders who brought so many different skills and disciplines to the table; like, publishers, data scientists, librarians, etc.

ATG: We notice that the resulting Topicgraph tool is in beta. Is it available for other libraries to examine and provide input on?

CM: Yes, it is. And there’s a companion product called Text Analyzer which is even more extensible and able to be used by libraries via JSTOR’s rich APIs.

ATG: Do you have to subscribe to JSTOR to have access to the text analyzer?

CM: For libraries who just want to experiment with Text Analyzer’s simple direct interface, just go here, and try it out. That’s free and open to use, but of course, click thrus to the actual artifacts (full text) would require JSTOR account.
Text Analyzer also has a developer program which is in beta. But if you sign up for their partner program, your library’s dev team can access the power of Text Analyzer to catalog the library’s own material.

I’d also like to point out another really nice example of how this team communicates in a user-centered way the value of their products: this promo video for Text Analyzer is brilliant. Much that libraries can learn from their style of communication, too. Imagine if library OPACs documentation were put together like that?!

ATG: From your perspective, what makes the project exemplary? How is it unique? What are your key takeaways from observing this collaboration?

CM: Based on the interviews I conducted with the key players and my visit to the Labs’ NY office to get the scoop, my takeaways are:

  • Power of partnerships. Like I said earlier, there’s a DIY can-do spirit at work there that allowed JSTOR Labs and Columbia Libraries to lay out their own timeline and be free from traditional funder constraints. I’ve worked on well-funded new product initiatives that have advantages (money, attention, credibility) yet fail to deliver because too many assumptions are baked in too early regarding the final direction of the initiative.
  • An agile approach to early phase product discovery projects is what’s needed and the Labs team were smart to go that way. Agile is not just how the cool kids develop software. It’s a mindset and method for all kinds of organizations to collaborate more effectively in small bursts (called timeboxes), delivering little bits of value (called increments) to stakeholders who get actively engaged in the process of co-creative discovery and development. And this is not just for more small teams anymore, it’s for whole libraries, whole universities. [for more, see: HBR May-June issue “Agile at Scale”]
  • Design Thinking. Design thinking is used in many sectors now and it helps open up many paths of product discovery, for landing on the sorts of things nobody could have foreseen but turn out to have high customer value. The academy is exploring design thinking but results have been mixed. JSTOR Labs has made it foundational and it’s part of everything they do, so they’re really good at it. [for more, see: “Can Design Thinking Redesign Higher-Ed?” from CHE Sept. 2017)  I give Alex Humphreys a lot of credit here. As the director of the Labs, he’s really moved their practice far ahead of what I see many other places.
  • Technology(ists) in the service of the business and the user. In other words, not the usual tail wagging dog that so often happens when tech solutions go looking for problems instead of the other way around. What I specifically mean is that there is not a vendor coming in from the outside foisting their finished system/platform on a library and offering to “customize” it for them. This is a situation where the ‘vendor’ FIRST says “what’s the problem we’re trying to solve?”, and then works collaboratively with the library to define a technical solution path based on their unique technical capabilities.

ATG: The JSTOR Labs and Columbia University Libraries project involved proactive strategic discovery of monographs. How could such a collaboration be focused on developing monograph collections?

CM: Well their project was really focused mainly on the reading experience itself. Their hypothesis was, how could we make the use of e-book monographs (even plain old PDF ones) way more useful to scholars. Now, the implications for monograph discovery (as in locating just the right work, or chunk of work at just the right time) are certainly intriguing and indeed their TextAnalyzer tool as I mentioned before is already being explored by some publishers to build dynamic discovery systems. There’s no reason a forward-looking library staff couldn’t do the same.

ATG: Aside from this JSTOR Labs and Columbia University Libraries collaboration are you aware of other similar successful library/technology partner projects. Have you been involved directly in such collaborations?

CM: Not per se. But I’m watching the library sector more closely now and looking forward to doing some interviews in Charleston this year. Libraries and librarians pursuing unconventional or out-of-the-box new approaches, if you’re reading this, I want to talk to you!

ATG: You’ve said that “a library is an ideal setting for a project looking to explore innovation in scholarly communications. Why? What is it about a library that makes it an ideal setting to explore innovation?

CM: What I think makes libraries so good as places for innovation is that firstly they are perhaps symbolically and often literally the University’s common meeting point, at the intersection of disciplines, and as such, naturally serve as ‘neutral ground’. From an information-centric perspective, they are literally at the center, sitting on enormous stores of data and metadata. And I’d argue that they are perhaps the most well known and important public resource in a local community. This is an undervalued asset.

In Central Florida where I live, there’s a very hot area of growth called MedTech and it encompasses many disciplines and pulls together different schools (medical, comp sci, education, etc.) and local vendors/technology entities from the simulation and gaming sectors and even NASA just 30 miles away. That’s a Central Florida-specific thing. Yet where is the UCF library in all this beehive activity?

To be fair, I’m sure they are involved, but they could facilitate so much more of the intersectional activity around Medtech, hosting mini-conferences, events, providing design thinking facilitators to assist in helping folks discover new partnerships, and so on. And when you get down to it, librarians just have the right attitude and hard-wiring. They want to help. They are what Robert Greenberg called Servant Leaders. In agile and design thinking initiatives, those are the kinds of folks that step up and bring diverse teams together to common ends. Who else besides librarians and libraries are most naturally fit for this role? I can’t think of anyone.

ATG: You’ve also noted that libraries need to innovate and take charge of their futures. What steps would you recommend to libraries that want to take up this challenge?

CM: Well, I’d say take inspiration from one of your colleagues I spoke to a couple weeks ago. Her name is Angi Faiks, and she’s the Associate Library Director at DeWitt Wallace Library in Macalester College out of St. Paul. I interviewed her about the way they pulled together an innovation and entrepreneurship center inside their library. They were very strategic about it. For a couple years they started planning how they would move the stacks and make a whole floor available for idea exploration and creative play, kind of a maker space, too. And when the funding came through they hired the architect and a design firm (who used design thinking by the way!) to put a first-class space together.

Macalester College Idea Lab

Macalester library is a great case in point in partnering, too. They had a 3-way partnership between the school technology team (for the digital components), an entrepreneurship group (for the skills) and the Library (for the space, mission, and skills). For actual running costs under $5k per year, they are delivering multiple benefits like library weekly visits up from 10k to 12-14k (on a 2,000 person campus), and all kinds of network connections and collaborations being spawned both curricular and co-curricular.

Did they have headwinds, political blowback from professors and students decrying the death of the library and all that it stands for? Yes, of course. Did they let that stop them? Not at all. And what’s so cool about their story is that the actual uses of the space really have surprised and delighted everyone. Not just being a place for digital art and DIY sewing, Angi said even an English prof recently decided to pull her students in to the lab so she could teach literary deconstruction, while literally constructing and deconstructing with paper and scissors in their play space. Who could have foreseen that?

ATG: Yes, but is this an area in the past reserved for public libraries rather than academic libraries? Are there other examples of academic libraries being successful in this area?

CM: In speaking with Nancy Herther (librarian for Social Sciences & Professional Programs at University of Minnesota) recently, she pointed me to an ever growing list of academic institutions and libraries that are hosting creative collaboration centers and innovations labs, similar to JSTOR’s own labs – places where diverse stakeholders get together to explore problems in new ways and seek solutions together. [see Nancy’s full list below ]

ATG: You often work with university presses. From your experience how can libraries collaborate with university presses to improve scholarly communication?

CM: The University Press is such an important institution on any campus lucky to host one. A couple years ago I worked with the Association of University Presses on a project that aimed to support these institutions in their monograph discoverability. It was a Mellon funded initiative called UPScope. Although no specific technology or tool came out of that project, it represented a very healthy conversation with the UPress community (some 50 or so interviews with press directors and dozens of interviews with scholars), and one of the things I saw close-up was how different each press can be in terms of their business model. Some with endowments or other assets generating recurring revenue are in a much better financial position than some smaller ones.

Generally, regarding university presses and their future, some of the market signals have not been so good of late. New Mexico Press announced big layoffs and changes last year and now Dartmouth is shutting down its distribution center University Press of New England. Consolidations seem to be on the rise. On the other hand, the space is open for innovation (there’s that word again) and many of those will come from partnerships. For example there was a lovely article recently about some small Upresses which shows the value of presses partnering with each other or their holding institutions.

Moreover, as conferences like Library Publishing Forum and Collaborative Knowledge Foundation are highlighting, the emerging future for scholarly comms is one in which stakeholders collaborate much more and the publishing tools are designed and developed in a modular way. They are designed for interoperability. There will be no one tech ring to rule them all, no one amazing platform or vendor we need buy into. The new publishing technologies coming online like Luminos and Manifold create openings for library publishing and traditional publishing alike. I think the next decade is going to be very exciting indeed.

In the specific case of traditional presses partnering or being subsumed under their institutions library, there was a healthy discussion in Scholarly Kitchen last year in a point-counterpoint between Joe Esposito and Rick Anderson called “Two Perspectives on Library-based University Presses”.  Anderson, speaking from the library perspective makes a great case for why things are just simpler when the press and library live in the same budgets, reporting lines, business unit – the strategic sharing of information (the breaking of traditional info silo) is the key advantage to both sides, even if as Esposito correctly points out, it’s not a formal partnership. Joe lays out the various functional units in each entity, and I think the key is to then go the next step and visually map the many ins and outs of these units and how one can feed the other.

Taking one example, consider the press’s acquisition team. What inputs do acquiring editors rely on and base their acquiring decisions upon? They look at potential usage in their own library and other libraries, and scan the society conferences for trends in scholarship, and many other downstream sales potential of the work. Which functional units in the library can bring meaningful and timely information to bear for these acquiring editors trying to make these decisions? One could imagine in a “cooperative environment”, how the library collections team could probe their stores of search and usage information from their backend systems. With some clever tooling, tools could be built for press editors to dynamically get at this data. Again, when the silos come down, many things are made possible. Seems to me the future of university presses will be deeply tied to collaborating, partnering (or whatever term one wants to use) with libraries. It just makes sense.

ATG: Do you think that allowing access to all this data might raises privacy issues for the library and its patrons?

CM: In this day and age, any project should begin with protecting user data and privacy. What we were exploring with UPScope involved tracking user behavior in the aggregate (x number of users did searches of this type), and we wrote a data privacy policy as one of our final deliverables to Mellon. Now libraries, if they partner with presses as discussed above, should emphatically craft their own privacy policies (in simple non-legal language) and at the same time, they should aggressively be tracking all kinds of usage data. That’s data that belongs with the library and I think they have every right to get access to user logs, click behaviors, search results, but the user logs should at most show an IP address, never a user name or any other identifying information.

A forward-thinking and high security approach to this problem would be to leverage one of the many “identity and access management” (IAM) providers that are appearing now. For example, Tim Lloyd the founder of LibLynx is one of those with special focus in the academic sector. He points out quite rightly I think that it’s in the interest of publishers, societies and libraries to get  control of their user data, and that it should be something explicitly managed, rather than simply a by-product of resource access. But libraries are not all of one mind on this topic. Some see user data as opportunity, some as a plague. But as he aptly pointed out to me, “while libraries have mixed feelings about tracking usage of their resources, it’s hugely valuable in determining the effectiveness of online resources towards their mission and today’s tech allow libraries to choose the level of anonymity appropriate to their organization.”

ATG: Curtis we’ve asked you a lot of questions but is there any question that we should have asked that we’ve missed?  Is there a question you would ask yourself?

CM: Yes, I suppose it’s the question I would ask any library director these days – how can you invest in your future customers while also tending to your present ones? In other words, how do you balance your portfolio of initiatives and projects to both keep the lights on AND to pursue new opportunities and even disruptive offerings?  I like to use a gardening metaphor to talk about this. This might sound a little like the kooky sage Chauncey Gardiner from Being There by Jerzy Kosiński but go with me. The ‘garden’ for me represents the growth and health of any business. In the case of academic libraries, it is their student and faculty facing services, their backend systems and all those vendors, and many different stakeholders, funders, institutions that shape the space (ARL, ACRL, NISO, etc.)

I think of tending the garden (balancing the investment portfolio) like you might when picking out a fertilizer. Each fertilizer has three essential ingredients – nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P) and potassium (K), those three numbers on the front of the bag. When you want growth in the stems, you need high nitrogen. For budding flowers or fruit, apply high phosphorous. And for long-term root health and drought tolerance and resistance to disease, apply potassium. All are important but in different measures. And of course, great organic soil rich in compost is always a pre-requisite. So, let me translate this into library terms.

Your compost is your full ecosystem. All your partners and future unknown partners who form the network of connections for value exchange. Much talk has been given to Scholarly Comms being a network model, but we need to visually map this, so we can quickly see how no part is an island and how libraries are connected to data vendors to distribution companies, to presses, to professors, associations, standards bodies, and on and on and on. Every library should keep, maintain and make visible to all its staff at all times this kind of network map.

Lastly, know when to apply each type of fertilizer element. For boosting growth in current areas, you figuratively need nitrogen; i.e., you need to invest in optimizing your current workflows and library systems, making them more efficient, easy to access and use, etc. For extending your current library offerings to new users/customers, you need the phosphorous; i.e., you need to reach out into your network (that map I was referring to) and explore “what would X say about this?” or “could Y benefit from this idea?”, “how might we bring z into this idea?” Angi Faiks’ team did this beautifully. And lastly, for the longterm health and vitality of the library, reserve and apply some potassium; i.e., pay attention to outliers and get way out of the box. Charleston will hit on this last component in a new way in 2018 in fact.

That last element (potassium) is the most difficult to cost justify. Political powers-that-be will say it’s a waste of time, there’s no provable ROI around it. But let’s be real. Anyone today can be disrupted by an upstart. Organizations that weather the long-term storms, figure out how to sort of disrupt themselves by pursuing (carefully exploring and testing) whole new business model ideas and revenue strategies. This is where futurists and scenario planning types, design thinkers, agilists, technologists and others come together and dream across the longest time horizon. And, where better to do that work, than, in a library!




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