An Unfortunate Mis-HAPLR

October 10, 2008

It’s been a rocky month, made unexpectedly rockier for American Libraries by a telephone call from Tom Hennen (just as the October issue of the magazine had mailed and the newly redesigned Chicago Tribune was arriving on my doorstep) informing me that he’d unwittingly used the wrong dataset to tabulate the latest edition of his HAPLR rankings. We immediately shifted into damage-control mode and began the process of apologizing and trying to set the record straight, an undertaking that continues into this issue.

I received my own October issue of American Libraries in the mail yesterday, and it only served to remind me that we would be trying to set this record straight for months, or at least until we can get the corrections into print. Although corrected pages are available for download on the AL website, and we issued a press release that went to all ALA members (who have e-mail addresses in their membership records) through American Libraries Direct, we cannot take back what we have put in print.

The next morning, I looked at the newly redesigned (and widely panned) Tribune, thought about HAPLR, and said to myself, “This is all wrong. Why is the newspaper trying to compete with the Web, trying to sound like a blog? What is the point of trying to force into print that which is most easily accessible, most practical and useful, and most easily and cheaply corrected online?” Things like statistical ranking tables. Granted, everyone involved with print publishing is trying to reinvent, repurpose, and retrain; but when print pits itself against online, tries to look and act like online, it loses.

Tom Hennen continues the mortifying job of calling libraries that dropped off the Top Ten lists or moved significantly in the ranking to warn them of the error before they issue a press release touting their HAPLR rating status. A surprising number of empathetic message have arrived in my mailbox from people who work with statistics and know that stuff happens. Both Tom and I continue to beat ourselves up over what we could have done to prevent it—some simple comparisons or another double check. The fact is, rushing is the biggest error producer of all, and we were rushing. So, apparently is the Tribune, judging by the rising rate of minor typos. But I can tell them that it's only a matter of time before they make a really big one.

Meanwhile, the company continues to reorganize and reinvent and redefine. And what's the fallout for us? American Libraries is currently advertising for an Associate Editor, and we have received a wildly unprecedented 130 applications from well qualified people (this is after HR screens out the unqualified!), many of them listing the previous employer as none other than the Chicago Tribune.