Of Connection and Disconnection

A couple of days ago, I read the latest Library Journal BackTalk article, “Embracing the Shhhhhtereotype”. This essay laments the gradual move away from the quiet sacrosanct environments of the libraries of yesterday in favor of the noisy world of cell phones, gadgets, and devices. This evolution is seen as bad as there is an industry popping up that works to help people disconnect from the constant barrage of media and (for lack of a better phrase) connectedness. Given the trends of the last twenty to thirty years, I’m not sure how this could this could have been predicted by libraries, but it matters not. The opinion piece concludes by urging libraries to consider offering similar settings where a person can disconnect (or be mindful of their connectedness, if ever there was a clunky phrase). Overall, I find myself agreeing with the author’s end point even if I don’t agree with how they got to it.

In considering this over the last couple of days, I can see the opportunity that can be created here as implied by the author. What could a library offer to someone who is connected with cell phones, tablets, eReaders, and other gadgets? An escape from being connected. Whether it is through pin drop quiet and strictly enforced quiet reading/writing/study areas or meditation, yoga, and tai chi classes, or other stress relief via disconnection, it is a way to offer people something that they don’t have. To the connected, we could offer a disconnect.

To me, it makes sense and add an element of balance to the equation. To the disconnected (most notably the ones on the other side of the digital divide), the library already works to remedy that situation through internet access, material lending, and program. We already work to eradicate the lacuna of access that exists in every community. Furthermore, libraries offer to help people make their own connections through literature discovery and programs and classes that teach skills or hobbies or offer social opportunities. There are connections being made and that’s still a good thing (even if at times it is a noisy thing).

It makes me wonder if one could size up a member at their service desk and figure out whether they are trying to make a connection or a disconnection. Are they reading or watching a movie to escape or to have something to talk about with others? Are they signing up for a program to take a break from their busy lives or find others who have the same interest? Are they at the library to take an uninterrupted breath in their lives or are they here to find materials and people that add meaning to it?

I want to give this some more thought, but I think there are some legs to considering how the library can help people connect or disconnect.

This YA Title is Not Yet Rated (Yet)

A recent study poked the slumbering YA giant by evaluating the instances of profanity in 40 top selling children’s books and calling for a rating system in order to help parents make selections for their children. (You can read the BYU press release here.) Needless to say this suggestion has been greeted with the usual eyeroll and a ‘here we go again’ sentiment, an attitude that falls between “Why are people trying to outsource the duties of parents to determine suitability of what they read?” and “As children progress differently in terms of maturity and reading ability, what is the rubric that could possibly be used to determine age appropriateness?” In this era of the overscheduled child, the parents of said child don’t have the time either to evaluate anything but rely n blurbs and reviews of packaged products that outline all pros and cons. Even then, I’m certain there would be the usual headaches from people complaining that their child was reading something too advanced or being denied reading something that the parents feel they are mature enough to handle. If the people who want ratings systems really meant it, they’d offer to answer the complaint calls.

I got my hands on a copy of the study in question, but in reading through it there are still a couple of questions regarding some of the choices made in the study.

  1. Why was the date range of June 22nd to July 6th, 2008 chosen? Was this a random determination or a targeted date range?
  2. Where the profane words simply counted as they appeared? Was there any notations taken regarding the context in which they appeared? (I see that rich, attractive, and popular characters were noted as swearing more, but not the situations in which the swears appear.)

As the study itself indicates, it simply covers the use of profanity. No sex, no drugs, and no other situations or topics that make some adults uncomfortable are covered. It does leave a lot out in terms of the overall content of YA book which would play into any rating system scheme. Personally, I thought the most fascinating line in this article came from the conclusion:

“We are not advocating that book covers be required to contain content warnings regarding profanity. We understand that providing content warnings on books represents a very hot debate, and that inclusion of such warnings is extremely controversial.”

Given what Dr. Coyne has told the media, she appears to be diverging from the written conclusion made in the paper. I’d be curious as to how the language was agreed upon with her fellow co-authors, but I guess the question is really moot.

If people like Dr. Coyne backed away from an age based rating system, they would have a better and more dangerous argument in favor of content labeling systems. Rather than say that this book is for a particular age, it would give a rundown about what potentially objectionable content exists in the book. Movies, television, music, and video games have taken it upon themselves to offer this kind of labeling on their products. Yes, the movie rating system is ancient and archaic; the television one is a bit more specific in labeling yet still limited; music is a binary labeling (it either has explicit lyrics or it doesn’t without saying what those lyrics are explicit about); and the video game is extremely detailed in terms of content but still tries to box games into a small number of ratings. These are entertainment industries that have opted to self-police rather than deal with government intervention or interference; it logically leads to the question, “If these people can do it, why not books?”

In answering the idea of book labeling, I found YALSA Executive Director Beth Yoke’s answer a bit unfortunate: "ALA’s interpretation on any rating system for books is that it’s censorship." I say unfortunate because I think there is a better counterpoint to make that hones in on the actual effect of a label system and that is this: putting age or content labels on books is equivalent to putting bulls eyes on books. Rather than read and evaluate a book on its merits and context, such labels would be a short cut for people who want to challenge any book that contains content that they find distasteful. It removes the individual responsibility for personal conduct and places it in a rating system that may or may not be universally objective. In addition it moves judgment from the content level to the book spine label, providing the instant outrage when someone happens upon a book that is rated 17 and older in a high school library (what if a 15 year old found it?) or a book that has sexual situations in the YA area at the public library (think of the children!).  And yes, it would lead to people deciding against the purchase of certain books because of specific content labeling. Either there is some internal staff rationale presented or they simply don’t want to fight people about the contents on their shelf. In either event, the label would prove to be a barrier to purchase.

Personally, I do find book labeling to be odious and unwelcome, a concept that would become a circus sideshow and a distraction to many libraries and librarians. But my pragmatic side tells me that any labeling system should originate from librarians to do the self-policing, not publishers, retailers, or the government. If the social and political winds were to change in that direction, librarians better have a damn good labeling solution to put forth rather than simply intensifying resistance. At such a point we might not be able to control the outcome but we ought to retain control over the implementation. In the meantime, one study is not enough to change the whole scheme of things. It’s the studies in the future that we have to be mindful.

If Information is Food, Ctd.

From the comments to the previous post, I feel there is a lot to unpack from that post so I decided to write a follow up. Some things I got wrong, some things I still feel are right, and a couple of things that have me scratching my head. I’m going to try to lay them out in some sort of logical order, but it might take some leaps around at times. So, bear with me.

In breaking down the “information is food” analogy from the previous post, one of the major problems is that it doesn’t translate consistently. While considering it through the non-fiction lens, it holds decently: there are sources that clearly show a better “nutritional” content than others by a demonstration of authority (for example, the New England Journal of Medicine versus Psychology Today). There is an established criteria that evaluates the information sources and determines that one source may be better, equal to, or inferior to another (otherwise known as authority). In other words, the product of scientific and/or research rigor is something that can be proven as a better resource than another piece of information that is the result of ‘junk science’. (Yes, I’m certain there are some exceptions to this notion, but that’s what they are: a tiny minority that is mathematically possible but unlikely.)

In attempting to apply the “information is food” analogy to work of fiction, this is where I made a mistake. The nutritional value of food is a quantifiable set of data; you analyze it for its molecular makeup, list its ingredients, and give a recount of a food’s vital statistics in terms of calories, fats, proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals. Works of fiction, on the other hand, do not lend themselves as neatly to any such metrics. While one could run different works through a computer and attempt to perform such measurements, it will still never be right because of the very subjective human element. “One man’s meat is another man’s poison” would be the very succinct way of summarizing this human element and also very fitting in the scope of the “information is food” analogy. In light of that element, the analogy falls abysmally short.

Setting aside that for a moment, I think the best way to describe the lacuna that emerged between myself and the commenter is “literature is not flat, but personal preference literature is”. In other words, not all literature is the same in terms of quality of prose but personal preference does not take such a factor into account. From the existence of literary awards and the plethora of “best books” lists, I can easily infer that there is literature that is marked as ‘better’ than other works by experts in the field over a set time period that can be as short as a year and as long as a century (or beyond). Therefore, there is a literature hierarchy in which some books are better than others from the expert point of view. Under this rationale, does this make some books ‘gourmet’ and others ‘junk food’? Possibly, but it all depends on the person who is dining.

[As an aside, I believe there is some Darwinism to the survival of books over the years as “classics”. As it was pointed out in a comment in the previous post, there are books that got mediocre reviews when they were first release (Wuthering Heights being the example given). To me, this is a reasonable example about how the book that lasts in the culture longest is able to move on to be read by future generations. I’d reckon that some better regarded writers who were contemporaries of Emily Bronte are gone from our shelves because they did not have the cultural staying power to maintain their sway on the shelf. Thus, the best writers may not survive compared to those who can make themselves immune to the discarding hands of all people. -A]

In examining personal preference in library material, I’m going to chop this topic up into many pieces for the purposes of examining and providing nuance to some of the issue. When it comes to entertainment, I will agree with the commenters to their position of “what I want to read, see, or hear is my business”. What we find pleasurable in this world is quite subjective and I’ll go along with the ‘none of your damn business’ element. Fair enough.

When it comes to getting library material for the purposes of education or self-educations, I find myself with some specific concerns. As to what people want to learn or educate themselves, once more that is a personal choice and I should do my best to facilitate that. However, one of the previous commenters brought up a viewpoint that I felt was too absolute and can be paraphrased as “do not offer your judgment unless asked”. For myself, that’s far too unreasonable in principle and unfeasible in practice.

To provide a real life example, I was sitting at the reference desk one day and overheard a conversation that was happening in the next aisle over in front of our medicine collection in the non-fiction section. Two people were talking about trying to find a book about a certain ailment and in listening to their discussion I realized that they were factually incorrect. In considering the this situation, here are my possible multi-tiered options: I can go over and offer the correct information so that they get the correct book or I can wait and see if they ask for help. If I wait and they ask for help, then I can provide the correct information without interjecting into their conversation in the stacks. If they don’t ask for information and begin to leave with what they think is the right book, the absolute rule above would tell me that since I was not asked I should not offer to make a correction. Otherwise, if I did intercede uninvited, it would be an unwelcome intrusion even if I had the correct answer and material.

For the curious, what I did (and hopefully what the other 99% of you in reference would do) was get up off the desk, walk over, excused myself for interrupting, corrected them, and then got them headed in the right direction. I can’t imagine anyone in their right mind would simply sit there and let this play out with the hopes that they’ll be asked to provide the correct answer. Some might consider that a librarian party foul, but the two people I was helping didn’t. An absolute such as the one given above would otherwise turn the reference desk into a waiting area, for being proactive and engaging members before they pose the request for assistance becomes taboo. I really can’t imagine anyone actually doing this, but I’m sure I’m going to still get some pushback regarding ‘interference’.

Overall, I think the concept of ‘interference’ in librarian is one of those shadowy creatures that will always be the constant source of debate. While there are extremes that everyone could agree to, it’s the large lump in the middle that will get people aggravated. In the example I gave above, was I interfering? I’m sure there are good arguments for either case. As I’m sure there is a good case for librarian interference by what we say or don’t say to someone with an inquiry on the basis of our own decision regarding its relevance. The list of possible examples, as you could imagine, is nigh infinite.

The thing that really got me wondering is that promotion of the idea of “I care about my library members, I just don’t care what they do or take home with them”. On its face, I don’t think it is irrational to have that kind of compartmentalization; I love my dad even though we do not see eye-to-eye when it comes to politics. That kind of relationship can exist and work. What bothers me is that there is a tinge of impersonal to that in which the librarian draws back from a potential personal area of the relationship. While some of our members might be happy for the space, I would suggest that there are others who want that kind of relationship. They would want the librarians to care about what they were reading or watching or doing; that to them it is an important basis of contact to have with the library. It is a deeper level of connection and makes the library experience more personal for that member. Why is there an inclination to be remote under all circumstances? I can understand the idea above as a professional principle, but there’s something impersonal about it in the practice that doesn’t sit well with me.

I’d go on about other aspects of librarianship that seem impersonal to me, but I’ve gone on too much for one post. I hope this clears some things up and leads to other discussion.

Why Are Librarians Picking So Many Fights?

At the end of last week, I asked on Twitter if people thought Amazon was a threat. This was on the heels of their announcement that the company was getting the Harry Potter books for the Kindle Lending Library. There was a ripple through the librarian social media and I wanted to get a barometer reading from my Twitter followers which seemed split between saying yes and no.

Over the weekend, I’ve started to think that it’s the wrong question. Hell, it’s the wrong line of thought. This feels like the picking of a fight; worse, it is the instigation of an unnecessary conflict. Why? Because some company deigned to add a service that mimics a function that the library serves. To add insult to injury, they made a reference to the long waits for library eBooks in their announcement. If my peers are going to get up in arms about one line in a product announcement, this just demonstrates how thin our skin is at the moment.

Perhaps it is more of a reaction to the unfairness felt by public librarians at the hands of publishers over the issue of eBooks, but Amazon isn’t the culprit for the eBook lending woes. Whether Amazon will allow library lending from their own publishing arm is something yet to be seen; I would not rule it out nor would I hold my breath waiting for it. But that move will not make or break public libraries either.

Another company that raises some librarian blood pressures is Google. Aside from killing ready reference (in the nicest possible way), there are intermittent rows over privacy policies, that book scanning project that been stalled, the scholar search they created, and possibly that library partnership they abandoned a few year ago. While these differences are bound to occur between a global company and a vast and varied network of library entities, it does not rise to the declaration of war or threat level that some of my peers have proclaimed. Yes, there is overlap in some of the services that Google and the library provide, but there are still a vast number of differences in goals, direction, principles, and execution that do not put the two on a collision course.

As of this moment, I have yet to see Amazon or Google (or any other company for that matter) as being the reason cited that any library has been cut or closed. It’s always been a matter of political will, whether it is local, state, or national. The threat is not from these companies or ones like them; it is from our own communities. In fact, our communities are a bigger actual threat than the imagined threats from these outside entities. Our communities are the investors, the stakeholders, and the immediate purse string holders. It doesn’t get any more “power over life” than that.

I should say for the record that there are some fights that are worth picking. (*cough*the academic publishing model*cough*inadequate public funding models*cough*recognition of the school librarian as a fellow teacher and educator*cough*) But looking for a fight with anyone who glances over at our setups is a bit, well, psychotic. There are real threats out there that need to be confronted, but this inclination to fight any threat (real or perceived) sounds very Dick Cheney-ish. Such continued behavior is a waste of valuable resources (most notably time and energy), it leads to issue and threat fatigue, and distracts from the attitudes, perceptions, and people who can ultimately shut a library down.

So, before you go and shout to the world about something that is a ‘library killer’, please take some time to get some perspective on how and why it would. The world is full of enough fears, it doesn’t need someone to conjure up new ones.

Want to be a Subversive Librarian? Teach a Class!

For all the onerous topics that face the library, I believe that the best way to confront them is to teach our communities about them. I don’t believe that the public in general is apathetic to the issues that face libraries from publishers, content providers, and web companies; they just don’t know enough of the situation to consider involvement. I was reminded of Dave Meslin’s great (and short) TED talk on the barriers to involvement in politics. How can people know what is going on in the library or library issues if they don’t know how Overdrive operates, the terms under which databases provide access, or how social media generally funds their operations? Show them behind the curtain!

I teach all the computer classes at my library as well as offering help using the Overdrive system and our subscription databases. I tell people about the pro’s and con’s of sharing information on Facebook and Google and how they use any account information. I inform patrons that certain eBooks are not available because some publishers do not allow for library lending. I caution students and researchers that some of the results in a database search may have to be purchased unless it’s from an open access publication. For all the issues that I want the public to be informed of, I try to teach a class that relates to it or make it part of my reference desk repertoire.

For any who might be aghast at this suggestion or feel that I am acting out on behalf of an agenda rather than providing service, I should add a few things. First, teaching the class or skill comes first. When people leave the class or service desk, they know how to use Facebook, download books from Overdrive, or search the database. I’m not running a propaganda laden re-education camp in the computer lab or at the reference desk. Second, I am perfectly frank about the pros and cons of everything that the library offers. I don’t want them to discover something and have them come back with the accusation, “You never told me about this [glaring privacy invasion/hideous legal term of use/hidden huge cost]!”. I label all my personal opinions as such and offer both sides. Third, I emphasize that it is still up to them to make the decision. If I’m asked, I’ll tell them what I would do and why I would do it, but the decision is always theirs. Furthermore, I am still resolved to help them no matter what they choose.

Finally, I feel that the facts speak for themselves. Four of six major publishers do not allow for library eBook lending. As the newly coined saying goes, “If you’re not paying for it, you’re the product being sold” when it comes to internet or social media websites that collect personal information. There is academic research behind paywalls as well as open access resources that are equally credible and citable in papers. It’s a disservice to the community and to the profession to gloss over or dismiss some aspects in order to facilitate a happy-shiny-everything-is-rainbows-and-candy-here-in-the-library façade rather than confront the ugly (and sometimes uncomfortable) realities behind the goods and services people want to use. I am not in the turd polishing business. Quite frankly, given all of the spin that permeates our culture these days, a little candor goes a long way.

I believe there is nothing more subversive than an informed patron. So, go on. Teach a class.

 

*I will applaud Google and Facebook for simplifying their Privacy policy language, but they are still extremely verbose.

Fight the Future

“In the end, more than freedom, they wanted security. They wanted a comfortable life, and they lost it all – security, comfort, and freedom. When the Athenians finally wanted not to give to society but for society to give to them, when the freedom they wished for most was freedom from responsibility, then Athens ceased to be free and was never free again.”

That quote by the English historian Edward Gibbon was a favorite of my Grandfather. So much so that he printed it out, framed it, and hung it in the family room. It was only years later that we noticed a spelling error (responsibility sans the b, a funny reminder of the man years later) and now it hangs in my apartment above a shorter set of bookcases.

I’ve been thinking about that quote since I read Anthony Molaro’s post, “Libraries Gave Up Control” last week. His self-described rant talks about the lack of control within the public library and his points should give the reader pause whether you agree with this overall premise or not. Personally, I think the issue is twofold: how much control over content, tools, and services do we have and is there a will to reclaim it?

As to the former, I can see the nucleus of a culture of complacency (or, for the cynical, laziness) argument. Why work towards the development of a better ILS or better databases presentation platforms or expanding rights over library content when we can pull out a catalog or get a vendor proposal or basically have someone else do it so we can use our time to complain about the lack of choices, services, or bureaucracy? If we can’t get it pre-packaged, ready to go from day one, then I guess it’s not worth having or doing. This is the kind of mindset that sends people to fast food places every night rather than cooking at home. Given the related obesity rates, we can guess how that’s going to work out in the long run. I sometimes wonder how many librarians go to work with the idea of a good day being one in which no one challenges them on how the library is run or the order of things. Not a good thought to contemplate given the current fluid nature of the profession.

In addressing the latter, I’d like to imagine there is a will to reclaim it (mainly because I’m an obnoxious optimist). Barbara Fister’s recent post about taking back librarian professional literature from publishing companies who would be all too happy to sell it back to us certainly warms my heart. Given the course of eBooks, perhaps it is a good thing that the majority of publishers are pulling out. To me, it signals a chance for libraries to assert their terms if publishers want to deal with us again in the future. (First term: no taking your ball home on whims.) In looking to reclaim our content and services, it’s going to be a fight, one which I suspect will be a marathon over the course of decades and generations of library professionals (as is always the case in a change in culture).

In returning to Gibbons, this will mean forgoing the security of packaged solutions and prefabricated services to reclaim the responsibility as cultural curators and information educators. This is not a wholesale rejection of library vendors, but a call to rethink how solutions to library problems are reached. I don’t think there is a better time to be a librarian, given this communication and information digital age that is coming into being. But, to me, I’d like to see less complacency and more agitation when it comes to our current practices.

Our collective future is at stake here.

If Libraries are More than Just Books, Then Where are All the Damn Technology Awards?

The first draft title for this post was “If Libraries are More than Just Books, then Why Are There So Many Damn Book Awards?” but I figured that some humorless literal folks would see it as a challenge to giving out book awards. I don’t have any qualms about recognizing authors and illustrators for their fine efforts and I’d rather not get bogged down sidetracked with the elaborate interworkings of the book awards world. However, if the case is being made that libraries are more than just books and then the largest and most visible library association in the United States (the ALA) hands out awards mainly to people who create books, then there is some sort of dissonance afoot.

In looking through the Awards and Grants page on the ALA website, the first section entitled “Books, Print, & Media awards” has thirty eight awards of which only three are for non-book accomplishments (ABC-CLIO Online History Award, Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Children’s Video, and the Odyssey Award for Excellence in Audiobook Production). Two of these are duplicated “Youth Media Awards” which lists seventeen awards. None of these are for the creation, development, and/or use of technology in the library (although there could be a very muddled argument for the ABC-CLIO one).

To be fair, there are probably technology based awards in the Professional Recognition section; I only scanned the list for any that sounded promisingly and didn’t click on all of them. I will concede that there are probably some technology awards hidden in there that I just didn’t discover. But my counterargument would be that those professional awards don’t share the same stature as a Newbery or Caldecott or Printz accolades. They aren’t public facing nor further a idea that the library is collaborative learning space or internet and information access location.  

I will also concede that the awards I have mentioned specifically predate the digital age and are the product of years of reputation building. There is a lot to be said about the continued tradition of recognition in this aspect and I fully support the continuation of such awards. However, given the movement towards digital and technology integration into the modern library, shouldn’t there be national library association awards to reflect the innovations and efforts of individuals and industries that exemplify that?

Somebody call Bill Gates. He’s a fan of libraries and seems to know a thing or two about the digital age. He might just like the sound of the “Bill Gates Library Technology Award” complete with his face in a bronze medallion. Traditions start somewhere and this one should begin with recognizing the people who make library technology and information retrieval possible at a national level. If libraries are more than just books, then this would be a start to acknowledging it as part of our own professional culture.