Disruption

I’ve had a hard time bringing fingers to the keyboard in any sort of blog entry lately. It’s not that I haven’t had any thoughts or things I’ve wanted to write about, but I feel like I’m stuck in a manner of speaking. Since I don’t get it out and onto the screen, they just start to pile up like the old McDonald styrofoam food packaging: discarded but not going to degrade on any short time scale.

On one hand, my thoughts towards libraryland feel like they are building a callus of cynicism. It’s hard to get terribly excited about anything, even the pet issues that I’ve come to champion over time. While it would be convenient to blame it on a social media culture that foments persistent outrage, I take some of the blame for basic naivety as a person who is still relatively new to the profession (new being less than ten years in). It’s hard not to think that there will be more rapid action, but the library innovation cycle doesn’t follow the much more highly visible technology version that has brought us so many within the last decade. It’s only so glaring because our fortunes seem to be linked so closely with this technology as part of our information access and education mission.

On a similar train of thought, I’m not sure what library disruption looks like. One of my first blog posts on LISNews was about finding the next big thing in libraries; now, about five years later, I feel like I’d have a hard time identifying it. eBooks are hardly disruptive given how much we have to treat them identically like their print counterparts. Makerspaces are just the arts and crafts programs that libraries have had for years but for adults and more costly equipment. Social media profiles are just the heir apparent to email and the grandchild of telephone reference. What does truly disruptive library innovation look like? Because I’m guessing we haven’t really seen it if one simply takes existing offerings and just adds expensive tech to it.

On the other hand, I feel my cynicism melt away every time I look at the sonogram printout of my in utero son. It’s so very cliche, but I simply can’t help it. I now have new facet of understanding to some of the feelings and emotions that I have heard from new parents, something that is impossible to quantify outside of experience. I feel young again, alive in the moment, and full of curiosity and hope and wonder. I want to hold onto that moment for when I’m up in the middle of the night with a sick kid or changing a diaper that qualifies for Superfund designation or a pain in the ass teenager. I know I have a lot to learn and that there will be moments of frustration, but I want that kernel to always be with me in my journey into parenthood. I don’t know if it will or how it will change, but I’m just hopeful in ways that I haven’t been in a very long time.

That could be some of the tension I am feeling as I turn away from some library interests and towards this new step in life that is parenthood. It’s not that I don’t think I could do both at the same time (a choice that is certainly easier as a man in society), it’s that I am choosing one over another. In imagining my post-childbirth life, I’d much rather be the best father I can than the next big leader or pundit or consultant in libraryland. The library world has been my life for so long and through great personal and emotional adversity; and now something is coming that will usurp that from the peak of my personal priorities. It may end up being my saving grace, for it really sharpens a lens onto which issues are true concerns and which are just babbling bullshit. Or perhaps, like all things, the relationship between my life and my work will just be… different.

If you were to ask me what the most pressing issue has been in the last month, I’d have to say looking at different stroller models. Seriously, these things are the types of engineering-based punishments that would have made the Greek gods says, “Shit, you are screwed, bro.” I’d have to think about a library issue that has really caught my attention in that same time period. It’s not that I don’t care deep down, but that my focus has changed. I don’t think of this as good or bad, it just is. And it’s where I want to be.

This Is What A Blog Post about What Librarians Look Like… Looks Like

This week, two things happened on one day: librarians participated in The Day We Fight Back, a nationwide call to action to protest NSA practices of privacy intrusion and metadata collection. People were encouraged to reach out to their elected officials to express their discontent with current practices and to push for the USA FREEDOM Act, a bill that would curb or eliminate certain governmental data collection practices. It had the grassroots groundswell that I hope will lead to real change, even as my cynical side starts to snicker while settling in with a bucket of popcorn to watch my optimism writhe. 

The other thing that happened is the article “This Is What A Librarian Looks Like“, a photo essay featuring librarians whose portraits were taken at the most recent ALA Midwinter Meeting. The genesis of this opportunity comes from this post on the Librarian Wardrobe tumblr which calls for twenty librarian volunteers. The photographer Kyle Cassidy had done a similar portrait project with Occupy Wall Street participants (see those pictures here) which was subsequently covered by the Huffington Post. The resulting article features ten librarians along with personal testimonies on the profession. Personally, I thought it was a good article outside of the usual librarian media that paired excellent portraits with personal statements.

So, which do you think got the larger emotional social media reaction? If you guessed the fight for privacy and data protection against the NSA (both of which are highly valued librarian professional ideals), then you would be wrong.

As the article moved through social media, it didn’t take long before the nitpicking began. Not a diverse enough group, nobody from technical services or other specializations, claims of idea theft, and sighs about articles taking on stereotypes made its way across my Twitter feed. I could offer a rebuttal to each of these points, but I think it’s missing the greater problem here: the issue of the librarian public image is a quagmire within the profession. 

When it comes to the librarian’s image, I believe there is an internal struggle between giving an accurate portrayal of the profession versus showcasing the diversity. On the one hand, statistically, the profession is mostly white (87%), female (80%), and most likely heterosexual (I have no data to back this up other than inferences based on overall population demographics which places it at about 4%; if someone has a study on this, please share it in the comments). Like it or not, if the question was what does a typical librarian look like, that would be the most accurate answer; and giving the most accurate answer is an occupational pride point.

On the other hand, librarians are champions of minority causes, whether it is opinion, sexuality, race, creed, or otherwise. Our ideals are caught up in bringing these voices to the forefront, to give them a home within our institutional walls, and to curate and nurture them into the public eye. Shouldn’t portrayals of librarians reflect this aspect by presenting professionals from these minority populations? It follows the notion that those individuals from these demographics aren’t simply part of our collections, but they are part of our rank and file as well. 

To my way of thinking, that’s where the tension resides. It is what turns articles like the Slate one into argument flashpoints in which good and decent public image pieces are dismissed in favor of an unobtainable “perfect” article. It’s the drive to present a richly diverse profession when the reality simply doesn’t support that. You would need the next two years worth of library science graduates to be exclusively African American in order to reach percentage parity (12.6%) with the United States population; you’d need the next two and a half years graduates to be exclusively Latino to achieve the same (16.4%). Offhand, it would take nine years of graduates to be exclusively male to meet US gender ratios (48.8%). (For my math, I’m using the ALA Diversity Counts statistics and the Library Journal Placements & Salaries for the number of graduates.) It’s not a situation that will resolve itself in the near term, but will require multiple generations of librarians with focused recruitment to achieve demographics that fall in line with society at large. We are kidding ourselves if we reject positive articles out of hand when it’s going to take decades to reach the population diversity that we aspire to achieve. Everything is a step and there is no jumping to the end.  

Furthermore, I believe that the people who are least properly equipped to rehabilitate the image of librarians are librarians. I really don’t have faith when one of the most oft quoted lines in rejuvenate the image of the library is “we are more than just books”. Seriously? If we consistently bungle the public image of the library within popular culture, we are certainly not qualified to helm our own professional image campaigns. We need people who are creative, smart, media savvy, and not librarians to do the talking for us. What this really means is giving up control and putting ourselves into the hands of others. Just as people ask us for help, we shouldn’t be shy about asking it for ourselves. We can’t research ourselves out of this mess; we need professional help.

I’ll leave you with this thought that Peter Hepburn tweeted to me: “[L]ibrarians, to our users, look like anyone who helps them at a service desk, simple as that.” Now that’s a self portrait of the profession that everyone can fit into. 

Library Internet Filtering and the Courts

In the news this past week, there was a short report about a library that had settled a lawsuit with the ACLU over the use of internet filters to block “occult” materials. The short version (from both the news story and the court’s consent order) is that an adult had asked the library to unblock websites that related to searches regarding Native American spiritual practices and traditions. At the time, the library had opted to filter out websites that fell into the category of “occult” and “criminal skills” (whatever that means) as well as the usual suspects of “adult image”, “pornography”, “proxy anonymizer”, and “viruses”. (Not sure who gets to decide what fits into those categories, but I digress.)

After the time she was brushed off by library management and before she filed the lawsuit, the filtering software provider contacted the library and informed them that some of the blocking was overly broad (shocking, I know) and that other organizations had raised concerns about their inclusion.  At this time, the library was offered a chance to revise the categories they wanted blocked; they choose to drop “occult” and “criminal skills” from their filtering software. The purpose of the lawsuit was to seek a permanent injunction against filtering those categories as well as damages and fees. In arriving at a consent order (a voluntary agreement between both parties), the library is prohibited by a federal court to expand filtering beyond the categories it currently blocks unless required by state or federal law. The suit is over and the file is closed.

This should all seem straightforward, right? A library made a mistake in the way they filtered their internet, they were taken to court, and now things are as they should be (or as best as they can be, considering they are under the thumb of mandated filtering policies), and this person now has access to Constitutionally protected speech. But for me, the story doesn’t quite end there.

A couple thousand miles away in the state of Washington, Bradburn v. North Central Regional Library District had wound its way to a federal court last year. Some might remember this case from its Washington Supreme Court ruling which held that its library internet content filtering (includes refusing to unblock Constitutionally protected speech for adults) policies do not violate the free speech protections contained within the Washington state constitution. In shifting to the federal level, the ACLU plaintiffs were pressing the case as a violation of their First Amendment rights. Last April, a federal court granted a motion for summary judgment in favor of the library on the grounds that the content filtering policy and the refusal to unfilter computers for adults was not a violation of the First Amendment. The ACLU declined to appeal the judgment and so the ruling stands.

So, as I see it, what we have here is one federal court that has ruled that an expansive filtering policy is not an undue burden while another federal court has expressly prohibited the expansion of filtering policies beyond those required by the law. My question (or more wonder, I should say) is why the Missouri library didn’t use the Bradburn v. North Central Regional Library District ruling as a cornerstone for a defense against the case. In terms of timelines, Bradburn’s state ruling was on May 2010 and their federal ruling was on April 2012; the lawsuit was filed in January 2012 and the settlement was March 2013. In looking at the timeline, this means that there was a ruling in place that the library attorneys could have used as part of their case.

Now, I will freely admit that I’m not a lawyer; I did attend law school for a year but that hardly qualifies me for in-depth legal analysis. But from what I did learn is that in arguing a case you look for other identical or similar cases to bolster your side by showing legal precedent. Here, Bradburn would have been an excellent similar case where a District Court (the same venue as the Missouri case) made a decision in favor of library filtering policies. Coupled with the majority opinion from the Washington Supreme Court, to me it would seem like it would provide a lot of ammunition in favor of library filtering policies. But, instead, the library opted to settle and consented to a court order against discretionary expansion of filtering. But why?

Perhaps the time and cost of a lawsuit was enough to induce a settlement. Maybe the removal of the filters in question made a trial moot. While I’ve been able to track down the original complaint and some of the other documents, I’m probably missing some other information (as well as legal training) that would make this picture make sense. But, right now, I’m left wondering how future courts will riddle out library filtering practices when two similar federal courts have differing outcomes.

A Kinder, Gentler DRM

From ArsTechnica:

On Friday, an association of e-book publishers—including major companies such as Harper Collins, Random House, and Barnes & Noble—issued a statement suggesting an outline for a new “Lightweight DRM.” This proposed Digital Rights Management standard could increase interoperability of books on hardware like e-readers.

Before the excitement starts, this is a suggestion for an outline for a DRM system that would allow books to be moved from different devices (for example, Nook to Kindle) without hindrance. In reducing the amount of hardware and software needed for people to unlock books on their devices, the idea is to make moving eBooks a bit more customer friendly. It certainly reads like a step to get out from underneath Amazon’s Kindle thumb so that it is less locked into the Amazon matrix, but to me it seems (for lack of a better term) half-assed.

It’s a short article so take the time to give it a gander. Clearly, publishers want something in place to protect their content but also be a bit more flexible than previous incarnations. That’s a balancing act and one that they even admit to losing before the game has already begun.

That’s not to say the IDPF imagines that any new specifications would be enough to deter piracy: “To be very clear on this point: we expect that a lightweight DRM (in reality, any DRM) will be cracked, and we are relying on anticircumvention law for some level of crack protection,” the statement read.

This has to be the “lemon slice with your glass of water” of DRM: little effect on the desired product (water) with all the annoyance of removing the offending addition (no one gets that lemon slice out without getting a little wet). To me, it also signals that the road to a DRM publishing world is getting pushed back until they exhaust all of their possibilities. We as purchasers and consumers will just have to endure it.

[I would like to note that this ability to move between platforms was one of the points covered in the eBook Reader’s Bill of Rights that Sarah and I put together last year. One down, a few dozen to go? –A]

E-Book Takedown

The best quote from David Pogue’s Scientific American TechnoFiles column:

The biggest problem of all, though, is the e-books themselves. The publishers insist that e-books must be copy-protected. Predictably, each company uses a different protection scheme. You can’t read a Kindle book on a Barnes & Noble Nook or a Sony Reader book on an iPad.

You can still read a 200-year-old printed book. But the odds of being able to read one of today’s e-books in 200 years, or even 20, is practically zero.

This article is a nice and tidy takedown of ebooks. It won’t give anything new to the people who have been following the debate, but it is a good simple introduction to the issues of ebooks for people who are just tuning in. 

Personally, I think the article is at its best when it is articulating the DRM issue (as illustrated in the quote above). For the newcomer, that’s going to be “wait, what is that?” moment when it comes to ebooks and ereaders. While it is relatively seamless on the front side, the issues that DRM (and what it means to own something digital) can present are not readily apparent. As digital purchases go up in numbers, I believe that such ownership will become more of a pressing matter, eventually giving way to similar ownership rights as with physical property.

Unfortunately, while the article is long on bringing the issues forward in simple terms, it does not provide any solutions. The questions that Mr. Pogue brings up are left hanging in the text for the reader. Still, it’s a good solid non-librarian view on ebooks in a popular journal. It’s nice to heard some of the same sentiments outside of libraryland.

(h/t: Resource Shelf)

The Reports of Our Professional Deaths Have Been Greatly Exaggerated, Part 2

From an opinion piece titled "Enough Already: Information Overload" in Business Day in New Zealand:

We can’t blame the internet for it all. Whilst it’s undoubtedly exacerbating the issue, information overload has been around for decades. It’s just that today it’s instantaneous. With transmission of data from one person to another so effortless, we’re oblivious to the potential anxiety of the person who may not need (or care about) the information we’re conveying.

The opinion piece refers to a survey done by LexisNexis in which white collar workers detailed their frustration in dealing with the massive volume of information (such as papers, emails [especially cc’d emails], faxes, social media, and other sources) coming their way. In reading the summary of the survey, it hits on three issues that the workers identified:

  1. “a surfeit of information” (people passing on too much information due to fear of passing too little);
  2. “a lack of relevance” (employees left to sort all the information that they get);
  3. inadequate systems for storing and retrieving information easily

Compare the results of that survey to this article from The Economist from earlier this year in describing the new superabundant information world that the advances in computing and communication have afforded us. (I wrote about it when it came out.) Now, if the survey results are to be trusted and combined with the increased data outlook in the Economist article, I daresay the librarian profession could capitalize on these trends to assert their value in the private sector (either as an ‘embedded’ librarian, consultant, or information service provider). I’m sure some savvy librarian entrepreneurs out there could make the case to companies that, as the oft quoted motto is “time is money”, the loss of productively could be offset with training in information vetting, effective and efficient searching, or even someone on staff who is trained in information management.

I can see such a niche industry popping up within the next five years, if not sooner. What do you think? Is this something that the profession would rise with the moment? Or has that train left the station?

Twain Had It Right

If you haven’t seen this excerpt from recently assembled autobiography of Mark Twain, I implore you to read it now. It’s worth the click.

The restriction or removal of material does in fact present a slippery slope of what is “moral” (to use the example from the Twain anecdote) and that which is not. Moral relativism is the actor in that story in which the portrayal of the virtue of truth (and the vice of dishonesty) are unequally applied as criteria to the inclusion of materials in that library of the last century. Once you banish a book on the grounds that it features a liar, you need to banish all of the books that feature the same.

But I’m going to guess that this is nothing new, nothing surprising to the readers who find their way here. The ideals of librarianship, portrayed throughout the graduate school experience as well as to society at large, is that the library contains materials for all interests, for all ages, and for all curiosities. The reality is that we (the royal ‘we’ as a profession) are biased. We do it everyday with the resources we recommend, the search engines we use, the databases we go to, the books that we order, and the websites we read. These biases serve a very practical purpose: they prevent us from becoming frozen into inaction from attempting to be as neutral and unbiased as possible.

If a patron asked me to look something up online, I could run a search on Bing, Google, Ask, and Yahoo to find the greatest variety of answers. Instead, I just use one search engine (for myself, mainly Google). I could be missing results from another search engine, but that kind of reasoning greatly overcomplicates the situation and stymies the reference process. Of course, if I don’t like the results I get from Google, I can go to the other search engines. The truth is that the ideal (looking to provide the largest range of correct results by being ) does not meet up with the reality.

Likewise, with material selections, all librarians are limited by their budgets. They cannot possibly hope to get all of the materials on every viewpoint with their subject or collection scope. With this, they must pick and choose which materials join the collection and which do not. There will always be something left out; the goal is to be as inclusive as possible by hitting all of the major works or vantages. That’s why we have “go to” resources, material recommendations, and our own judgments when it comes to the library collection. Each of these represents a viewpoint of “the essentials” of a collection, something that raises certain materials above the others of its type. This is a bias, no matter how you frame it.

The critical thing here is to recognize our own personal biases and see them for what they are. It’s what Twain did with that librarian over a hundred years ago; he showed how the same set of criteria could disallow for another book (using the Bible, no less). There is no humanly way for us to reach our ideal of being completely unbiased and neutral; but we should never stop trying to do so.

I think it would make ole Samuel Clemens proud.