Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

A couple of days ago, there was another attempt to move the minute hand of the Library Doomsday Clocktm towards midnight. I really couldn’t say that I was outraged since it was a basic recycling of “who needs a library when you have the internet lol” argument. What pushed superficial response aside was a contempt at the effort; not that someone would dare utter the words, but more of a “Really? Is that the best you can do?” I mean, come on! Simply supporting the thesis of end of libraries with “isn’t it obvious?” is either lazy trolling or just link bait. Initially, I just made a series of replies on Twitter of which Jacob Berg embedded the highlight reel in his post on the topic. But really, folks, these kinds of posts don’t merit our limited time, effort, or sanity.

Hell, if you want an idea of how old and tired this “heresy” is, it’s old enough to drive, vote, and most likely not get carded at bars. From the journal The Electronic Library back in 1983, this “end of libraries” article has the most wonderful abstract:

In terms of size, arrangement and catalogues, the conventional library has reached an organisational and financial impasse. Coincidentally there has emerged a pre-emptive new technology for the storage, handling and transmission of information, potentially better suited to the convenience of users. Libraries may disappear like the dinosaurs; or they may, by returning to first principles, be able to adapt and successfully survive.

You hear that? Even by 1983 standards, we were in danger of extinction. The Commodore 64 was going to put libraries out to pasture. Now I have word document files that are bigger than the entire memory of those old machines.

“Death by internet” gets some play in this New York Times article from 2002:

And contrary to predictions about the death of libraries in the Internet age, in the last decade local libraries have grown more essential than ever to social life in the county. They have become community centers, the beating heart of Westchester’s towns and villages and cities.

There are probably a ton more examples of this kind of artistic license in which the library is either saved or damned by the internet, but you get my point. It’s overplayed and makes a nice headline, but it really lacks that pesky thing known as evidence.

For myself, my reasons for writing this post are not to show how weak that argument is, but that librarians are made of tougher stuff. In peering through the history of the profession, the profession has been on the forefront of important societal issues such as women’s suffrage, civil rights, and gay rights. The ALA had called for women’s right to vote, the end of racial segregation, and the recognition of homosexuality as a acceptable sexual orientation long before there was popular support. These pursuits are part and parcel to our belief in intellectual freedom and equality of information access. And, even in this grand age of the internet, the challenges of fulfilling these ideals remain.

In my perspective, what has changed is the battleground. Copyright, net neutrality, and intellectual property are the next major societal conflicts which will require different tactics and solutions in order to resolve. For certain these are hard issues, ones that will require great minds and greater efforts to change. But so was a woman’s right to vote. As was ending segregation and enacting civil rights. And supporting gay rights from the early days to present victories.

Librarians were on the right side of those issues and we continue to be on the right side when it comes to the present challenges. We can and will overcome. We are heirs to dedicated women and men who changed the world. Never forget our legacy. And most importantly, never let anyone take it away from you.

Our future depends on it.

Hurtling Towards Relevance

In the last few years, the navel gazing around the question of the library’s relevance in modern life makes an regular appearance. There isn’t anything in particular right now that made me think of the topic, but it crossed my mind towards the end of last week. In running errands last weekend, the thought occurred to me that the library isn’t pulling away from the information trends of contemporary society, but rather we are squarely in the path. It’s all in a matter of how you measure it.

In essence, I see it under the umbrella perspective as to how information is treated and managed. Copyright and intellectual property are the elephant in the room for the economic vitality of not only the United States, but the world. It’s a simple idea (the benefits of the creator versus the general public) that has become a deeply complicated global problem subject to the sway of money, politics, and power. It’s part of the emergence of the knowledge economy, one that is based on services that essentially collect, process, analyze, and package information. Manufacturing is never going to be what it once was in the United States, not when Chinese and Bangladeshi companies will do the same job cheaper. But the products of creativity and intellect are ones generally do not need geography, so rights and ownership are the hotly contested principles that should easily fall into the library realm. This is a chance for librarians to make the case on behalf of the public for laws and regulations that make sense in the digital world, both in rewarding the creator and in making their creation available as widely as possible.

This connects into the academic world with announcements such as the University of California faculty adopting an open access mandate. The elemental nature of this part and parcel to the librarian ideal of information access. The tide of Open Access (in its various incarnations) represents a breaking of the knowledge silos that keep knowledge within the confines of paywalls and embargos. It’s an exciting prospect in which researchers and academics have the possibility of getting new discoveries faster. It’s an opportunity for librarians to make new and better connections between research areas and data sets as well as the latest results.

There are other connections to make here, especially in the physical sense. Broadband access to rural locations are part of our information access ideals as well as essential in the aforementioned knowledge economy. This physical end of the digital divide plays a real role in the education and economics of the areas that are beyond the fiber lines. The triumphs of digital education are lost in the slower signal of the DSL or modem squeal. Libraries are common community focal points for those looking to reach the online world; this is our chance to push for them to meet this most basic of needs.

I’m certain there are others, but I think this illustrates my point. If we look to our old metrics for determining relevance, we are going to lose. But if we look at the issues that are pressing right now, we could not possibly be more relevant. A information professional in an information world; it really doesn’t get any more front-and-center than this. The only thing irrelevant here is doubt.

The Long Suffering Librarian

Beyond the intellectual freedom, information access, and other lovely sounding principles, I’m thinking that one of the common bonds between librarians is a masochism streak. I’ll take some liberties with this notion and accept one of the Merriam-Webster non-sexual definition entries that uses a great phrase, “a taste for suffering”. While we as a profession find common cause in working towards justice in its social, economic, and educational forms, it is our nature at enduring suffering that build the bonds between us faster than an open bar at a vendor social event.

Right now, you don’t have to travel very far to get antagonized. To the general public, the Internet is frontrunner for putting the library out of business as all that is needed to replicate the form and function of a library is an internet connection and Kindle. It’s a world that conflates information for knowledge, as if the prerequisite for performing open heart surgery is finding a video of it on YouTube. Don’t get me wrong, the internet is a strong contender as a reference desk killer for general and trivia kinds of inquiries like who won the 1958 Best Picture Oscar. But it has a long way still to climb in transitioning as an academic support model to full blown education program (MOOCs are a transitional state for this ideal, in my estimation). Even then, we know internet access is not universal whether we are looking at computer labs in urban areas or waiting for broadband in rural ones. Nevermind how the Kindle and eBooks in general are not panning out to be the paper killer, something an email account could have told them in the story of the paperless office. The information access haves seem to be perpetually surprised by the have-nots, even though the haves possess access to the resources that would tell them all about the have-nots.

Wrap your head around that enigma.

But the animosity doesn’t stop here. Public librarians get caught up in the loop of anti-government anti-tax sentiments that ignore the basic cost/benefit analysis that would reveal that their tax money is actually working. They are the soft targets of governmental budget crunches, a place where money can be borrowed or taken to pay off other outstanding expenses. School librarians get the unique disrespect of not being considered educators just like teachers, as if learning was dependent on the existence of a classroom setting. They are swept into the category of administration, the fancy term for overhead, and given their walking papers in lean times despite evidence about how they impact student achievement scores. Academic librarians face pressures for various angles, whether it is the deprofessionalization of their positions or static budgets with increasing journal subscription costs while publishers tangle with thoughts of print embargoes and open access. I thought I read an article relating how faculty have lowered the importance of the library as a higher education research, but I can’t find it. I don’t know what to say for special librarians, but I would guess it falls somewhere between funding issues and probably some prick out there who thinks that whatever they are curating and collecting isn’t worth it.

While we are at it, toss in the suffering at the hands of publishers and industry vendors. The strange and strained relationship with publishers is one in which they need us for promotion and purchasing but quietly lobby against our underlying principles: First Sale doctrine, copyright, and fair use. eBooks is just a quagmire of rights and licenses, wrapped up in schemes at both taking the most amount of money and control away from libraries. In terms of vendors, the vast amount of anguish comes through their concept of interfaces. If the ILS systems are the eyes into the window of the library’s catalog soul, they are the gaze of the damned, doomed to needlessly consume the user’s time. If I work there and I have problems finding things in the catalog, what chance does the regular person have? Why does this continue to play out this way?

The topper to this litany of disrespect are the well played out stereotypes and typical questions that come with being a librarian. The public image sways between a ribald sex kitten and bun headed shushing methuselah, readers who can’t tolerate any noise above a whisper. The men are gay or unusually effeminate, the women are secret whores, but hey, at least people think librarians are smart. Then the questions or jokes play out: Do you know the Dewey Decimal system? So, you like to read? And the king of these unmindful questions: Librarian is still a career? (Runner up: You need a degree to do that?) The astonishing, mind numbing part is that people think that it is a perfectly valid query and not the rude, obnoxious loaded question that it actually is. Are the rules of decorum suspended because one doesn’t think a career is real, despite strong evidence to the contrary?

But, personally, I think this kind of anguish pales in comparison to what the profession can do to its members and itself. This is well trod territory for this blog over the years and a recurring theme when I talk to librarians about the profession. These days, I don’t which is worse: the stuff that is said out loud or the stuff that people remain silent on. I was going to recount some of the behaviors that are poisonous, but I’d be cannibalizing my previous material. Needless to say, it is an extension of the suffering we endure.

I’ll concede that the whole job isn’t just suffering or that we take pleasure in suffering. But I think that there is a vast amount of suffering the profession will and currently does endure and I’m not sure how much of it is needless. Do we languish in our own agony? Is it easier to suffer than to stand up and make a change? And, if so, why is that?

Self-Censorship in Libraryland

When I was in Australia on a semester abroad, I remember watching some television show in the giant common room of the dorm where I was living. Imagine rows and rows of well worn red loveseat couches pointed towards a large television in a corner with college students liberally sprawled around the room, either in a seat or on top of each other. I can’t remember what we were watching, but I do remember a particular commercial that came on. I can’t remember what they were selling, but it was probably a soft drink or candy or something with an unhealthy amount of sugar in it.

In any event, the part I remember shows a boyfriend sitting in a dressing room when his girlfriend comes out of the fitting room in a very revealing skintight cocktail dress. (The Aussies don’t have the television morality police like here in the States.) The boyfriend is eating or drinking whatever product they are selling when the girlfriend asks a variation of the stereotypical question that has been getting men into trouble since the dawn of clothing: “Does this dress make my butt look big?” After a product placement moment, the boyfriend looks her up and down and says, “Yes, but it takes attention away from your face.”

Needless to say, there was a very mixed reaction to this punchline although it did not play out strictly on gender lines. In recalling this admittedly questionable anecdote that is certain to sour some of the moods of the readers, this was my very roundabout way of getting to the topic of self censorship. The ad reminds me of a instance in which the concept of keeping one’s mouth shut fails, albeit to satisfy a comic premise. However, I believe the concept enjoys a high success rate when it comes to honest dialogue in libraryland, especially in the online version of the profession. I keep wondering why this is so in a profession that is deeply invested in the ideal of freedom of speech, expression, and curiosity. Why is it that people feel the need to self censor when it comes to library discourse?

The biologist in me that has lurked there since I was an undergrad reminds that the big, beautiful organ that resides between our ears is a self-censoring machine. The body is in a constant state of information update, relaying every single update from the senses in what could only be imagined as the world’s worst news crawl. (“Feet reporting that there are still socks on them… Nose update: still no new smells yet… Teeth still touching each other…") Rather than be overwhelmed by all of these signals, the brain filters these things out to allow the important messages to make it through to the higher areas of the brain. As you can imagine, there are lots of good evolutionary reasons for this development that routinely ignores a lot of stimuli.

The amateur psychologist (sociologist? anthropologist?) in me wonders about the mental and social constructs that have developed over time that favor self censorship. The instincts that make you bite your tongue when you’re in a tense or emotional situation, the mechanisms that make people lie about positive outcomes in determinedly negative situations, and (unlike the gent in that commercial) the inward controls that make you ignore your first impulse to give an honest and possibly insensitive answer. How much do these kinds of social factors contribute to self-censorship in libraryland?

In considering external causes, the first factor that popped into my head is the librarian job market. For lack of a better term, it’s a buyer’s market; there are more librarians than there are jobs. Why jeopardize yourself by writing something in a tweet or on a blog that could hurt job prospects? The counterargument to that point would be that by writing online you are distinguishing yourself from the other applicants. But even that has its flaws because it encourages people to say things that are generally agreeable to popular opinion. A person would be less likely to take a stance about, oh, let’s say the inclusion of anti-gay children’s books in a collection if it was anything other than “Hell no”. Barring other normal collection development considerations (such as community, interest, and quality of product), a person could make a case for adding such a book to a collection under the premise of presenting differing viewpoints. But they’d need a flameproof suit in order to survive the royal drubbing they would receive at the hands of their peers. The easier action is to make a safe argument or not say anything, even if a logically valid but emotionally charged argument could be made.

Another factor that I considered is how much time and energy it takes to put something like a blog post together. In crafting a case for a controversial or unpopular opinion, do I want to be saddled with the task of defending it? This might seem like a surrender of principles, but as someone who has written things that get people snapping at me, it is a tiring process to gear up and do battle online for any longer measure of time. For myself, sometimes the choice comes down between putting forth the effort that will get people up in arms versus doing something else that’s fun like video games or spending time with family and friends. Part of this falls into the time honored tradition of “picking one’s battles”, but there have been instances in which I felt like I really should have said something at the time. The moment passes, the library news cycle moves on, and I just shrug and hope I can make up for it later. While it’s true that putting together a tweet doesn’t use the same of work, it also doesn’t say much nor allow for nuance nor work well in making the case for something. The 140 characters of Twitter simply doesn’t convey the same message or importance as a longer form of blogging.

A third factor that arises revolves around gender; as in, this is a female dominated profession and (speaking in the most generic tropes) woman are less likely to speak up or draw attention to themselves in a professional forum. I’m not going to trod down that road simply because I think there are other people who have written better blog posts on the topic.[1] (I’ve linked to them at the end.) I don’t think gender is the whole explanation for self censorship in libraryland writing and debate, but I do think it is a contributing factor.

Personally, I think the profession is tipped toward hiring “safely”, meaning employing people who won’t rock the boat, initiate any bold and scary projects, or stir any sort of controversy. As a manager, I can understand and respect that; you really don’t want to enlarge your daily challenges by adding staff challenges into the equation. The library members can be hard enough as it is to deal with on a regular basis, but having someone internally who is looking to make moves or change things can throw off the mojo for the entire staff. Who wants to make a bet adding an iconoclast when there is a safe choice who can ensure better workflow and dynamics? It’s better to hire a ‘book lover’ than a ‘book fighter’, the preference being for the person who will display their love for the book as an object rather than fighting for the important underlying aspects that the books represents.

But such practices come at a high cost in terms of experimentation and innovation. The profession seems to cry out for leadership and innovation but then hires followers and ‘best fits’ for the current work paradigm. It is the ironic shock of hiring someone who is (for lack of a better term) boring and then being surprised when they don’t step outside the role that they have been chosen. To be fair, not every position is one that is invested in creating ideas and change, but I believe too often the majority end up that way. It’s a cyclical arrangement in which the similarities trump the differences.

Even in writing that previous paragraph, I go back and forth on whether I’m barking up the wrong tree. But I’m putting it out there to test the response and get some feedback. Why do you think librarians hold back in discussions, articles, and blog posts? What’s keeping us from putting ourselves out there to our peers? If you agree that it is an issue, what can be done about it?

It feels very odd and wrong that a profession so deeply invested in the spectrum of intellectual freedoms has its own issue with punishing those who take advantage of it within the field, but that’s what it seems to be.

 

[1] If you want to read more on gender in this discussion, The Library Loon has been writing on similar vein with “Silencing, librarianship, and gender: what is silencing?” and “Silencing, librarianship, and gender: who can break The Rules?”. You should check those out.

How to Answer “So You Need a Degree to Do That?”

“You need a Master’s degree to be a librarian?”

This oft encountered, teeth grinding question is something of a rite of passage for every one who joins the librarian field and was part of Tumblr post that came across my feed. I’ll even admit it makes my eye twitch as I summon up the willpower to provide a rationale and polite answer to this query. Hell, you can’t even get out of the profession without it being a source of contention as librarians themselves wonder why an advanced degree (as opposed to a bachelors) is a requirement. Beyond that, it spirals into a conversation about what MLS/MLIS programs teach and their standards, but I want to get back to examining the original question.

To wit, I am thinking that the question itself is not necessarily an indictment of the profession, but an indication as to how much literature and information access is taken for granted in our modern society. The United States (as well as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the UK for my international readers) boasts a literacy rate of 99% for citizens over the age of 15.  Books are a short drive or a click away, depending on your preference of medium, and are relatively cheap. The same case could be made for movies and television shows, another lending staple of the public library, as people are able to get them on different formats, On Demand and premium channels, or by subscription (NetFlix or Amazon Prime). The internet killed the encyclopedia (and, in my opinion, your average reference collection) by creating a platform for people to be able to both search and share information on any topic that you can possibly imagine. Wi-Fi (specifically, the free kind) is rapidly becoming a staple of the retail experience, creating an consumer expectation and by proxy creating even more internet connection points. With their rapid technology cycles, cell phones now provide the instant access to both the internet and personal contacts to access information. You’d have to take yourself into some pretty rural areas to not be able to pick up any signal at all, be it Wi-Fi or cellular.

You get the picture.

That’s why I’m considering that the question is less about being a librarian and more about how much literature and information exists in the lives of people these days. It’s the kind of thing that librarians of the last century only dreamed about; being able to provide quick and accurate answers wherever the people happen to be. Even the computer novices that I teach are infected with this concept as they wait only a few seconds before re-clicking on a website link. (“Have some patience,” I tell them. “You do realize that the signal to the website is possibly traveling hundreds of miles if not thousands of miles on your behalf in only a few seconds, right?”) Information has become fast, cheap, and ubiquitous. Why would it take an advanced degree to curate, manage, and disseminate?

That is where the ignorance of the origin of information begins. Those Wikipedia articles? Someone had to write them. The internet browser and connection protocols? Someone had to program them. The transmission lines that carry information packets around the country and the world? Someone had to place them there. The modern ease of access gives rise to the false sense of ease of creation when nothing could be further from the truth. The generations of multi-disciplinary efforts have created this connected world where the benefits are so taken for granted that a lack of access is seen as unlikely, odd, and almost unrealistic. It belies the enormous effort to keep all of these things running, from server farms to metadata management to IT infrastructure. As anyone who has put together a project or performed knows, the time and effort it takes to make it look easy is tremendous.

In looking at the question again, I’m seeing it as less of an attack and more of a chance to demonstrate how the library comes together. Everything has been selected for the community, be it the materials, the services, or even the furniture. These selections have been made by educated professionals who have familiarity with the items in question. It’s an institute built around providing the best answers, not the fastest. The sheer volume of information that is being generated on a daily basis is staggering, nevermind the assortment of mediums that it comes in. Would you really want someone without an advanced degree sifting, sorting, curating, and maintaining it? Especially on your behalf for your benefit and future generations?

I don’t think so.

How to Troll Librarians and Make Money in Five Easy Steps

 

librarianship-is-a-art

It’s pretty simple, really.

  1. Make a list of professions that includes librarians as the “best” or “worst” profession based on some vague criteria.
  2. Write a one or two paragraph justification for their inclusion on the list. Be sure to incorporate as many stereotypes as possible to ensure maximum outrage. (Good: “With everything now online…” Better: “These shushing people…” Best: “Surrounded by musty old tomes…”)
  3. Place this list on a webpage surrounded by ads. The more ads, the more profitable your link bait will be. Ad quality doesn’t matter so long as their checks still clear.
  4. Wait for the inevitable outrage.
  5. Profit.

There’s an article that is now making the rounds about the “least stressful jobs of 2013”. I won’t link to it directly, but putting everything in quotations into The Google will take you to it if you are still curious. As you can guess, librarians are on the list. While we’re not #1, the fact that we are on the list has caused some, ahem, stress.

The most prominent reaction to this non-stress stress was on Twitter through a hashtag appropriately named #librarianstress. What @bitchylibrarian and @winelibrarian started as satire was rapidly hijacked by other librarians expressing the stress that they feel on a daily basis. From difficult customers to hostile workplaces, I don’t believe there was a stone left unturned in the airing of the grievances. It even showed up as a top trend on Twitter briefly that afternoon as the number of tweets picked up the pace. Even as some (including myself) still played up the satirical elements, it was impossible to ignore the outpouring of statements and sentiments.

In taking a moment to look back on what happened on Friday, there are some observations I’d like to make. First, I found it remarkable that some people would actually chide others for saying that their job was stressful. It was rather judgmental and ironic for a profession that takes great pains to not do that when it comes to other people’s preferences, viewpoints, and opinions. This is a principle most commonly captured in collection policies and most succinctly summed up in the phrase, “Every reader their book”. It was a bit disconcerting to see tweets saying “Oh, your job isn’t stressful, stop whining” next to ones detailing personal harassment, confrontation incidents, and hostile workplaces. Yes, I will concede that such chiding could have been aimed at some legitimate whining, but without aiming it towards those direct comments it became inconsiderate generalizations. I would hesitate to tell anyone else their librarian position isn’t stressful without spending some time doing it.

Second, this kind of reaction touched upon a wide array of insecurities. Some of these are pretty close to the surface in the form of job security within tightening budgets. It’s hard to plan for a uncertain future, especially with some facing a constant struggle to keep their jobs. The threat of unemployment can wear down anyone over the course of time. Other tweets expressed a deeper concern relating to societal perception of the library as a institution, librarianship as a career, and the benefits that a library (be it school, academic, corporate, or public) provides their service community. Even minor slights like this article (and others like it) brings that feeling to the fore, eliciting a response to push back. It is part of the inherent reactive nature to the profession where services and highly sought materials are not always foreseen. The first instinct is to counter the notion presented, but it needs to be tempered with some objectivity.

These kinds of link bait web articles really shouldn’t be taken as gospel. It’s a list, a poorly written one at that, without research or merit. Should we take the word of a website using unknown methodology and specious rationale? This is the kind of stuff we warn our students and members of the public about and educate them in regards to evaluating sources for accuracy and authority. It suits the profession poorly to be taken in by the same drivel that we tell others to ignore in their own search results.

I understand the worry here, but I highly doubt that such dubious interent postings will result in actual erosion of public opinion. Even those who are ignorant of the value of libraries adjust their estimations after any sort of actual investigation; I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say, “Oh, I didn’t know the library did that!” when I’ve told them of a service or material. While these personal anecdotes are not universal evidence, it does give me hope that people change their minds when faced with new and accurate information.

In the meantime, don’t feed the trolls.

Front Seats at the Information Big Bang

I think it was reading someone else’s lament about people writing papers or giving presentations about the ‘future of X’, where X is something I can’t remember but it was something that annoyed the hell out my friend. It got me to thinking about the present and looking at what is going on now and not what people think will happen. It is not a matter of whether they are right or wrong (being irritating is another measurement) nor is it one that rejects any sort of prognostication (Lord knows we need it), but just glancing around at the world as it exists at this very moment. It is the mindfulness of the present for tomorrow never comes, as they say.

I am a science geek at heart and perhaps it was hearing the theme to the TV series Big Bang Theory over and over again as my girlfriend and I work our way through the series that I began to think about the information explosion of the last fifteen to twenty years. As I kept thinking about it, parallels began to emerge in my reckoning.

Prior to the Big Bang expansion, the universe existed in an incredibility tiny mass where even photons (light) couldn’t move. This would be akin to the scarcity of books and other printed materials that rarely (if ever) moved beyond the hands of their owners. Knowledge was locked up in formats that were centralized within the hands of nobility or religious orders. Even as the centuries progressed into the 20th, the medium was still limited albeit a bit more agile in its movements. Illiteracy combined with communication and transportation limitations still kept information relatively locked down to its place of origin, a higher education institution, or a centralized location (like a library).

The implementation of the commercial internet (not the previous military incarnation) is the moment of the information universe expansion; call it an information Big Bang, if you will.. With the addition of faster communication mediums (phone modems, cable modems, fiber optics), the acceleration of the expansion increased exponentially. Like the atomic components that would come to exist in the hearts of stars, the explosion of mediums and platforms followed in this expansion. Digital mobile devices along with handheld computers combined with online platforms that encompassed the many varieties of social interactions that humans have come to adapt.

I was curious to see if I could find some data to back this kind of idea. While my search is by no means exhaustive, it felt that it was illuminative. While the trend is upwards, the measure of the data is not always consistent.

Whoa.

Granted, there could be some quibbles about estimating the amount of information in the world in terms of bytes. I tried to find data sets that are roughly parallel in their measurements and didn’t really dig to find older estimates. But I don’t think it refutes the idea that the librarian profession has front row seats at the information Big Bang.

Unlike cosmologists, we have the luxury of being at the beginning of the expansion of the information universe. I’m not entirely sure what that means. At the moment, I’d say it means being mindful of the current state of expansion and examining the directions it is taking, whether it is computing, mobile, or personal device.

Moreover, we stand at the beginning of an even greater information universe that is only going to grow faster. It’s up to us to work with it, to shape it where we can, and to try to understand it for others. Now is the time for such things.

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.