April 22, 2016

Around the World: Libraries, Archives and Public Life

KIAS2016

The Kule Institute for Advanced Study (KIAS) and the School of Library and Information Studies (SLIS) at the University of Alberta are helping bring together a conversation on Libraries, Archives, and Public Life from universities around the world, including speakers from Australia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Canada, Malta, Scotland and the United States:

Paul Arthur, Professor, Digital Humanities, School of Humanities & Comm Arts, Western Sydney University, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Guylaine Beaudry, University Librarian, Concordia University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Michael Carroll, Director, Program on Information Justice and Intellectual Property, Washington College of Law, American University, Washington DC, USA

Richard J. Cox, Professor, School of Library and Information Sciences, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA

Alice Crawford, Digital Humanities Research Librarian, University of St. Andrews Library, St. Andrews, Scotland

Brendan Edwards, Head, Library & Archives, Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Mario Hibert, Lecturer, Department of Comparative Literature and Librarianship, Faculty of Philosophy, University of Sarajevo, Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Marc Kosciejew, Head of Faculty of Media and Knowledge Sciences, Regional Business Centre University of Malta, Malta

Konstantina Martzoukou, Course Leader, MSc Information & Library Studies, Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, Scotland

Nigel A Raab, Associate Professor of History, Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, California, USA

Seamus Ross, Interim Director, Coach House Institute, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Frank Tough, Associate Dean (Academic) and Professor, Faculty of Native Studies, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

Sam Trosow, Associate Professor, Faculty of Law, Faculty of Information and Media Studies, Western University, London, Ontario, Canada

and others, including graduate students from the MLIS program at the University of Alberta.

In the digital age libraries and archives, arguably more vital than ever, are contested entities and commodities. Technologies can be great boons or severe limitations. The world of information is enlarged or shrunk depending on the availability, scope and distribution of services. Just as influential are geo-political location and a funding climate. Not all sectors and, in fact, not all populations enjoy equal influence and benefits. Concerns about access, sustainability and preservation affect and often determine the content, media and technology housed within libraries and archives. The social construction of knowledge and information behaviour emerge as key ways of understanding the changing roles of libraries and archives as meeting, creating and thinking spaces. The internet conference will explore these suggestive themes by attending to a central question: what are the implications for public life?

Background: The Around the World forum, organized for the fourth time this year, is an experiment that brings together scholars from around the globe to talk about digital culture without the environmental cost of traditional conferences. Institutes and researchers are invited to participate either through presenting or by joining in the discussion. The conference is live-streamed world-wide and archived after the event.

For further information and the archived talks from previous years please see: http://aroundtheworld.ualberta.ca/

February 21, 2016

Ramsey Kanaan on Resistance Radio

Ramsey Kanaan of AK Press and PM Press talked to Derrick Jensen on Resistance Radio again. (You can listen to a previous interview from August 16, 2015.)

Resistance Radio introduces him thusly:

Ramsey Kanaan has been involved in attempting to disseminate the good word for well over three and a half decades now. As a young teenager, he founded AK Press (named after his mothers initials) from his bedroom in Scotland. Hes co-founder and Publisher with PM Press. You can check out his current efforts at www.pmpress.org. Today we talk about the collapse of the book industry, and the implications for social change.

Don’t worry about the animal sounds at the beginning of the program. That’s how Jensen introduces his shows, instead of using theme music.

February 16, 2015

MUSICat

Just a brief note about the thing that stuck in my mind the most from ALA Midwinter. It is called MUSICat (i.e. “Music @” as well as Music Catalog, a logical name for what it is). They had a booth across from ours, and I chatted with Kelly Hiser about their service.

What they do is work with an area’s local musicians and local libraries to put them together, so that the local music is licensed and available for free to local library patrons. They provide an interface that libraries can us, and provide assistance to libraries in setting up license agreements with the musicians. The musicians get more local exposure, and library patrons get their local culture more easily. I haven’t seen it in action, but they have a service with the Madison Public Library (Madison, Wisconsin, where MUSICat is based), and they are working to get something launched with the Edmonton Public Library in a couple of months.

If you think this idea would work for your library, you should get in touch with them, via www.musicat.co.

January 12, 2015

Cyberattacks against numerous French library websites

Nicolas Beudon reports that last night there were cyberattacks against numerous French library websites, evidently by Islamist groups. They hacked into these sites using vulnerabilities in Drupal, WordPress, and ISS, as well as by cracking simple passwords. The messages they left on homepages objected to the identification of Islam with the terrorists, referring to it as brainwashing. Beudon refers to a more general article by Damien Bancal, on his site Zataz, which reports on attacks to a broad range of French government institutions’ websites. He writes, “Despite the hashtag #Contre_Charlie, the hackers are not supportive of the attacks that took place in Paris. However, their cyber warfare operation is in competition with Anonymous, who posted their intention to tackle the jihadists on the internet.”

December 5, 2014

Statement by Former New Republic Editors and Writers

As former editors and writers for The New Republic, we write to express our dismay and sorrow at its destruction in all but name.

From its founding in 1914, The New Republic has been the flagship and forum of American liberalism. Its reporting and commentary on politics, society, and arts and letters have nurtured a broad liberal spirit in our national life.

The magazine’s present owner and managers claim they are giving it new relevance while remaining true to its century-old mission. Instead, they seem determined to strip it of the intellectual, literary, and political commitments that have been its essence and meaning. Their pronouncements suggest that they hold those commitments in contempt.

The New Republic cannot be merely a “brand.” It has never been and cannot be a “media company” that markets “content.” Its essays, criticism, reportage, and poetry are not “product.” It is not, or not primarily, a business. It is a voice, even a cause. It has lasted through numerous transformations of the “media landscape”—transformations that, far from rendering its work obsolete, have made that work ever more valuable.

The New Republic is a kind of public trust. That is something all its previous owners and publishers understood and respected. The legacy has now been trashed, the trust violated.

It is a sad irony that at this perilous moment, with a reactionary variant of conservatism in the ascendancy, liberalism’s central journal should be scuttled with flagrant and frivolous abandon. The promise of American life has been dealt a lamentable blow.

Peter Beinart (Editor)
Sidney Blumenthal (Senior editor)
Jonathan Chait (Senior editor)
David Grann (Senior editor)
David Greenberg (Acting editor)
Hendrik Hertzberg (Editor)
Ann Hulbert (Senior editor)
Robert Kuttner (Economics editor)
Robert B. Reich (Contributing editor)
Jeffrey Rosen (Legal editor)
Peter Scoblic (Executive editor)
Evan Smith (Deputy editor)
Joan Stapleton Tooley (Publisher)
Paul Starr (Contributing editor)
Ronald Steel (Contributing editor)
Andrew Sullivan (Editor)
Margaret Talbot (Deputy editor)
Dorothy Wickenden (Executive editor)
Sean Wilentz (Contributing editor)

November 25, 2014

IFLA Internet Manifesto 2014

IFLA approved its first Internet Manifesto in 2002. This provided an early recognition of the vital role that the Internet plays in the work of library and information services, and ensuring that individuals and groups have free access to information and can freely express themselves.

The world has changed significantly since 2002 both physically and digitally, and we now have a greater experience and understanding of the role of the Internet and digital resources in our services, and in developing connected societies where individuals have the skills that they need to exploit the opportunities that technologies can bring. We also have a greater understanding of the threats that can be posed through the Internet including the impact on human rights of inappropriate monitoring and surveillance, and from criminal activity.

See: Internet Manifesto 2014

This update to the Internet Manifesto reflects this experience and reinforces the vital role of library and information services in ensuring equitable access to the Internet and its services in support of freedom of access to information and freedom of expression.

Martyn Wade
Chair, FAIFE

The Internet Manifesto 2014 was endorsed by the IFLA Governing Board in August 2014.

The FAIFE Committee will review the IFLA/UNESCO Internet Manifesto Guidelines in the coming months, in light of the Internet Manifesto 2014.

November 21, 2014

Ursula K Le Guin’s speech at National Book Awards: ‘Books aren’t just commodities’

“To the givers of this beautiful reward, my thanks, from the heart. My family, my agents, my editors, know that my being here is their doing as well as my own, and that the beautiful reward is theirs as much as mine. And I rejoice in accepting it for, and sharing it with, all the writers who’ve been excluded from literature for so long – my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction, writers of the imagination, who for 50 years have watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists.

Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality.

Right now, we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximise corporate profit and advertising revenue is not the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship.

Yet I see sales departments given control over editorial. I see my own publishers, in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an e-book six or seven times more than they charge customers. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience, and writers threatened by corporate fatwa. And I see a lot of us, the producers, who write the books and make the books, accepting this – letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish, what to write.

Books aren’t just commodities; the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.

I’ve had a long career as a writer, and a good one, in good company. Here at the end of it, I don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. We who live by writing and publishing want and should demand our fair share of the proceeds; but the name of our beautiful reward isn’t profit. Its name is freedom.”

November 12, 2014

Should the United States Follow France and Declare Books an ‘Essential Good’?

The French Government has declared books an “essential good.” Daniel Mendelsohn and Mohsin Hamid in the NYT yesterday explore the idea of doing the same thing in the U.S. Here is a brief excerpt:

Whatever the cultural reasons, books in France are indeed an “essential good” — the designation coined by the French government that served to justify the very concrete steps it has taken over the years to protect its precious literary culture. The most prominent of these are laws outlawing the advantages (deep discounting combined with free shipping) that big chains and Amazon enjoy over independent booksellers in the United States and other countries. These help explain a phenomenon that inevitably strikes American visitors to France today: As even big chains such as Borders and Barnes & Noble have faltered here, every block in central Paris seems to sprout at least two small, intelligently stocked bookshops.

Read more…

November 5, 2014

Morris Berman on a dumbed-down America

In light of the 2014 midterm elections, I am sharing a passage from Morris Berman’s book from a few years ago, The Twilight of American Culture. Berman has generously agreed to let me share this passage, which is about the deplorable state of ignorance of the American people. The facts and data in this passage are a bit old, but all signs suggest that things have gotten worse since then, not better.

The Twilight of American Culture, pp. 33-40.

Turning to Item (c),The collapse of American intelligence, we find a picture that is unambiguously bleak. The following data are going to seem invented; please be assured, they are not.

– Forty-two percent of American adults cannot locate Japan on a world map, and according to Garrison Keillor (National Public Radio, 22 March 1997,) another survey revealed that nearly 15 percent couldn’t locate the United States (!). Keillor remarked that this was like not being able to “grab your rear end with both hands,” and he suggested that we stop being so assiduous, on the eve of elections, about trying to get out the vote.

– A survey taken in October 1996 revealed that one in ten voters did not know who the Republican or Democratic nominees for president were. This is particularly sobering when one remembers that one of the questions traditionally asked in psychiatric wards as part of the test for sanity is “Who is the president of the United States?”

– Very few Americans understand the degree to which corporations have taken over their lives. But according to a poll taken by Time magazine, nearly 70 percent of them believe in the existence of angels; and another study turned up the fact that 50 percent believe in the presence of UFOs and space aliens on earth, while a Gallup poll (reported on CNN, 19 August 1997) revealed that 71 percent believe that the U.S. government is engaged in a cover-up about the subject. More than 30 percent believe they have made contact with the dead.

– A 1995 article in the New York Times reported the results of a survey that revealed that 40 percent of American adults (this could be upward of 70 million people) did not know that Germany was our enemy in World War II. A Roper survey conducted in 1996 revealed that 84 percent of American college seniors cannot understand a newspaper editorial in any newspaper, and a U.S. Department of Education survey of 22,000 students in 1995 revealed that 50 percent were unaware of the Cold War, and that 60 percent had no idea of how the United States came into existence.

– At one point in 1996, Jay Leno invited a number of high school students to be on his television program and asked them to complete famous quotations from major American documents, such as the Gettysburg address and the Declaration of Independence. Their response in each case was to stare at him blankly. As a kind of follow-up, on his show of 3 June 1999, Leno screened a video of interviews he had conducted a few days before at a university graduation ceremony. He did not identify the institution in question; he told his TV audience only that the students he had interviewed included graduate students as well as undergraduates. The group included men, women, and people of color. Leno posed eight questions, as follows:

1. Who designed the first American flag?
Answers included Susan B. Anthony (born in 1820,) and “Betsy Ford.”

2. What were the Thirteen Colonies free from, after the American Revolution?
One student said, “The East Coast.”

3. What was the Gettysburg Address?
One student replied, “An address to Getty;” another said, “I don’t know the exact address.”

4. Who invented the lightbulb?
Answers included Thomas Jefferson.

5. What is three squared?
One student said, “Twenty-seven;” another said, “Six.”

6. What is the boiling point of water?
Answers included 115 degrees ?.

7. How long does it take the earth to rotate once on its axis?
The two answers Leno received here were “Light years” (which is a measure of distance, not time,) and “Twenty-four axises [sic].”

8. How many moons does the earth have?
The student questioned said she had taken astronomy a few years back and had gotten an A in the course but that she couldn’t remember the correct answer.

It is important to note that not a single student interviewed had the correct answer to any of these questions. Leno’s comment on this pathetic debacle says it all: “And the Chinese are stealing secrets from us?”

– A 1998 survey by the National Constitution Center revealed that only 41 percent of American teenagers can name the three branches of government, but 59 percent can name the Three Stooges. Only 2 percent can name the chief justice of the Supreme Court; 26 percent were unable to identify the vice president. In the early 1990s, the National Assessment of Education Progress reported that 50 percent of seventeen year olds could not express 9/100 as a percentage, and nearly 50 percent couldn’t place the Civil War in the correct half century–data that the San Antonio Express News characterized as evidence of the “steady lobotomizing” of American culture. In another study of seventeen year olds, only 4 percent could read a bus schedule, and only 12% could arrange six common fractions in order of size.

– Ignorance of the most elementary scientific facts on the part of American adults is nothing less than breathtaking. In a survey conducted for the National Science Foundation in October 1995, 56 percent of those polled said that electrons were larger than atoms; 63 percent stated that the earliest human beings lived at the same time as the dinosaurs (a chronological error of more than 60 million years;) 53 percent said that the earth revolved around the sun in either a day or a month (that is to say, only 47 percent understood that the correct answer is one year;) and 91 percent were unable to state what a molecule was. A random telephone survey of more than two thousand adults, conducted by Northern Illinois University, revealed that 21 percent believed that the sun revolved around the earth, with an additional 7 percent saying that they did not know which revolved around which.

– Of the 158 countries in the United Nations, the United States ranks forty-ninth in literacy. Roughly 60 percent of the adult population reads as much as one book a year, where book is defined to include Harlequin romances and self-help manuals. Something like 120 million adults are illiterate or read at no better than a fifth-grade level. Among readers age twenty-one to thirty-five, 67 percent regularly read a daily newspaper in 1965, as compared with 31 percent in 1998.

– In a telephone survey conducted in 1998, 12 percent of Americans, asked who the wife of the biblical Noah was, said “Joan of Arc” (reported on National Public Radio, 13 June 1998.)

– In 1997, as a hoax, the attorney general of the state of Missouri submitted a proposal to an international academic accrediting agency (not identified) to establish an institution he named Eastern Missouri Business College, which would grant Ph.D’s in marine biology and genetic engineering, as well as in business. The faculty would include, inter alia, Moe Howard, Jerome Howard, and Larry Fine–that is, The Three Stooges; and the proposed motto on the college seal, roughly translated from the Latin, was Education Is for the Birds. The response? Academic accreditation was granted.

Now, this story was reported on the radio program “Car Talk,” hosted by National
Public Radio, and I have no idea whether it is true. It itself could be a hoax. But what I
find interesting is that I am unable to dismiss it out of hand, a priori, as a joke. In fact,
it could very well be true–which ambiguity itself is a sign of the times.

– In 1998 the Massachusetts Board of Education instituted a literacy test for teachers, pegged at the level of an exam for a high school equivalency diploma. Of the eighteen hundred prospective teachers who took it, 59 percent failed. In response to this, the interim commissioner of education, one Frank Haydu III, announced that the passing grade would be lowered. The board finally reversed the decision, and the commissioner resigned. But that 59 percent of a large group of potential teachers had severe problems with high school spelling and punctuation, and that an educational administrator would declare this no obstacle to the performance of their jobs, are as good indicators as any of the twilight phase of our nation.

– In a similar vein, when the College Board, which administers the SAT exam to high school seniors applying to college, discovered that the average verbal score had dropped from 478 in 1963 to 424 in 1995 (this on a scale from 200 to 800,) it “recentered” the scoring so that 424 became 500, and 730 became 800 (a perfect score.)
? According to the Wall Street Journal (31 March 1989,) only 10 percent of applicants in Chicago were able to meet the minimum literacy standard for mail-clerk jobs, and the Motorola Corporation reported that 80 percent of all applicants screened nationally failed a test of seventh-grade English and fifth-grade math.

These kinds of horror stories are multiplying in our culture at an alarming rate, and they are corroborated by the most casual observations that many of us now make on a daily basis. It is as though America has become a gigantic dolt-manufacturing machine. We now see common words misspelled on CNN, for example, or on labels in supermarkets (CAESER SALAD.) Below are some personal anecdotes; I am guessing you have a list of your own.

Item: A fancy restaurant I had lunch at in Salt Lake City, bearing an elegant carved wooden sign done in Art Deco style, listing hours of operation, with the word Sunday spelled “S-u-n-d-y” on it–actually carved into the wood. A sign outside of a hospital clinic in Washington, D.C.: INFANT, CHILDERN, & ADULT CARE.

Item: A visit I made a few years ago to several creative writing classes at a college in the Midwest, only to discover that not a single student in any of these classes had ever heard of Robert Browning, whereas I was memorizing “My Last Duchess” when I was in high school. A colleague at this same school telling me that one of his students, a twenty-year-old male, told him that he had never read a novel.

Item: The growing inability, which I have observed over nearly three decades of teaching, of the majority of undergraduate students to analyze an argument, or identify the evidence for an argument, or construct a grammatically coherent sentence. Essays turned in with sentences such as “In this paper I are going to show that . . . “ My asking one student, in all innocence, what her first language was, only to be told it was English.

Item: A listing in the Portland Oregonian (10 April 1998,) under “Literary Events”: “Hear works from William Butler Yeats, Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot read allowed.” (Such a notice is itself, one might venture to say, a literary event.) An announcement on National Public Radio (early in 1999) that they would be interviewing Edmund White, author of a book on Marcel “Prowst” and recipient of a “Guh-genheim” fellowship.

Item: A phone call I make to the foreign currency department of a major commercial bank because I have received a bill from Holland and need to know the guilder-dollar exchange rate. The clerk can’t find a listing for Holland because, as it later turns out, it is listed as the Netherlands. “Is Holland the same as Denmark?” she asks me.

Item: I am asked to give a lecture at a southwestern university on the “crisis of American intelligence,” and the talk is written up for the school newspaper by a student in her late thirties. In an article of fewer than 250 words, there are seven errors of elementary grammar and one completely incoherent sentence. (I am guessing that this was not a deliberate attempt to satirize the lecture, which would, in fact, have been wonderful.)

Item: An interview I have for a job as an editor of publications for a national higher education association. The association–I’ll call it the NA–has, as part of its declared mission, “the improvement of the quality of liberal arts education.” What it means by this, however, is not the preservation of any type of core curriculum or academic standards, but the moving of students toward “social action” (vaguely defined) and the acquiring of hands-on skills useful for jobs in the twenty-first century. (For this purpose, the NA receives heavy corporate funding.) In the course of the interview, I raise the issue of knowledge for its own sake of knowing what makes oneself, and society, tick. The NA president, who is conducting the interview, stares at me for a moment and says, “Well, that’s fine, if one is interested in a withdrawn or contemplative life.” I say, “I don’t think it necessarily leads to that.” “What else would it be good for?” she asks, almost angry now. And, much the way I might have to explain the concept to a college freshman, I reply, “Well, ideally, at least, such an education changes your sensibilities. Its aim is the transformation of the psyche. Students can be very active in the world, but they have a much larger understanding of what the world is about, and how they fit into it.” My interviewer nods imperceptibly; it’s obvious she has no idea of what I am talking about. And I think: This woman is a leader in the field of higher education, and she has literally no idea of the deeper meaning of a liberal education. Whereas my influence on higher education is virtually nonexistent, hers is enormous. It’s not that through her influence students learn to scoff at a nonutilitarian notion of a liberal education; rather, they never get to learn that such a notion even exists.

September 10, 2014

An ironic concern over net neutrality

In her January piece on net neutrality in Wired Magazine that I have just now seen, former ALA President Barbara Stripling says, “…[W]ithout net neutrality, we are in danger of prioritizing Mickey Mouse and Jennifer Lawrence over William Shakespeare and Teddy Roosevelt. This may maximize profits for large content providers, but it minimizes education for all.” (I found this article linked from Margaret Heller’s informative discussion of net neutrality on the ACRL Tech Connect blog, but that is not what I want to focus on here.)

The comment I have to make about this quotation from Stripling is that it is ironic given the increased focus on popular media in public libraries since the early days of the “Give ’em what they want” philosophy of collection development, pioneered by Charlie Robinson and Jean-Barry Molz of Baltimore County Public Library in 1979. This marked the beginning of collection development guided primarily by circulation stats, and it had the effect over time of stripping collections of materials deemed elitist and of interest to a limited number of patrons. It had the effect, really, of prioritizing Mickey Mouse and Jennifer Lawrence over William Shakespeare and Teddy Roosevelt. This trend has been in place for a long time and public library collections have been reshaped by it. I have never liked this trend, because I believe in the educational function of public libraries, but in my experience most public librarians really do not, believing that our role is not so “top down.” So this particular objection to net neutrality (and there could be others) lacks authority coming from the leader of a social institution that made the same baleful turn decades ago. Stripling may believe in the educational role of libraries as I do (I don’t know), and she may share my disgust at the way public libraries have developed since Charlie Robinson had his major influence, but I have not heard her offer the same argument regarding prevailing collection development policies as she has about net neutrality.

I apologize if I am unfairly focusing on a statement made in passing, but I think it does reveal a certain hypocrisy among the library community at large if we are so concerned about net neutrality favoring the interests of popular consumerism over higher cultural values when we are unconcerned about the same problem in our libraries.

July 16, 2014

Teaching Sophistry

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In the first years of my career as a librarian, I was working on the Reference Desk when an undergraduate student asked for help finding articles on a rather general subject in the social sciences.  My suspicion was that he would do better if he were able to refine his topic, and so I began a typical reference interview.  After a few questions from me, he smiled and told me that it really didn’t matter what the articles he came away with said, since he had already written the paper.  He was just looking for five sources to append to the paper to fulfill his professor’s requirement.  It was no surprise to me that there were students who were doing essentially faux research, but I was surprised that this student would be so up front about it.  Over the years, I have come to realize that faux research is quite a bit more common among undergraduates than I originally had thought.  Worse yet, the assignments that are being given by well-meaning professors and instructors, particularly at the freshman level, are encouraging this sort of thing.  Prior to becoming a librarian, I myself made such assignments, not realizing just how these assignments defeated the goal of training students to conduct serious, open-minded inquiries into important questions.

A common English 101 assignment where I work is for a student to develop a thesis on a controversial topic and then to go to the library (or the library’s web portal) to conduct research.  The student is required to find articles for and against their thesis and write a paper that defends their thesis, offering positive reasons for their position and refuting the arguments against their position.  As an English course, it is an exercise in composition and argumentation and an opportunity to get some experience with library resources.  Communication 107 requires something similar when the students compose a “persuasive speech.”  All of that is fine, of course, and I’m sure that very often the assignment is quite beneficial, but as this is often a student’s first experience with college-level writing, too many of them come away with the view that this is how research is done:  the researcher uncovers reasons to confirm their beliefs and thinks up clever arguments to dismiss what they don’t believe.  They are unconcerned about the cogency of their arguments and consequently are rewarded by employing all manner of fallacies.

In some instances, the thesis that they begin with does not lend itself well to the “taking sides” approach.  I recall one student whose thesis was that concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) were environmentally destructive.  She understood that there was a controversy about CAFOs and that many people claimed that they were environmentally destructive, so she assumed that there must be people “on the other side” who thought they were not destructive.  After finding a lot of sources that described the detrimental environmental effects of CAFOs (and spending a lot of time on this), she was frustrated by not being able to find any sources taking the “con” position.  She thought they surely must be out there, since CAFOs were so controversial.  Of course, her problem could have been solved if the instructor had been able to make it clear to her that the environmental impact of CAFOs was not a live debate.  Instead, the controversy lay with the larger questions about animal welfare, consumer choice, the economy, and the role of environmental regulations, but I doubt that the student had approached her instructor about the topic or discussed it in a manner that was sufficiently clear to get better direction about framing her thesis.  In any case, had she done so, I suspect her initial disposition against CAFOs probably would have caused her to fall into the advocacy trap taught in English 101.

Consider a more appropriate assignment model:  Frist, students form teams which select a topic about which they know little or have no strong opinion and are sent to the library to learn about it independently of each other.  They are to accumulate a variety of sources on the topic – the more the better and the more diverse the better – but there should be no suggestion that there are only two views (pro and con).  The students would then rank the sources according to which in their judgment was strongest and most insightful.  Second, they would share and read one another’s sources and convene their teams to discuss the relative merits of the sources.  Third, they each would write a paper based on the team’s sources, defending a thesis that the student would develop after completing the second phase of the assignment.  Finally, each student would read and comment on the quality of the work of each member of their team.

The assignment model I describe above provides a far better introduction to the actual process of serious research. It asks students to engage in a genuine inquiry, recognizes that they must learn from previous research, affirms the importance of hearing and understanding the views of others who are doing similar research, and asks them to make an honest judgment about the matter based not on their preconceived notions, but on the facts and/or values that truly bear on the question.  Most of all, it will help students avoid the trap of simply finding ways to confirm their own opinions and dismiss or ignore the serious arguments against those opinions.  It puts them in a situation in which they must listen to other opinions and honestly assess the strength of those opinions.  It potentially exposes them to a variety of research methods that they might not have considered and, of course, requires that they compose a quality essay that will stand up to review by their peers.  I wish I had made assignments of this sort when I was teaching Philosophy 105: Contemporary Moral Problems as well as a few other philosophy classes.  It even might have been useful as the only assignment in a capstone seminar.  As a librarian, I would love to work with students who are genuinely engaged in learning about an issue and not merely constructing an argument to complete an assignment.  We need to be certain that what we are doing is training students to be open to whatever evidence bears on their research question and especially open to whatever conclusions that evidence indicates.  We must be careful not to train them in the techniques of the sophist.

This leads me to a larger concern that too much of this sort of education has bred a population that conceives of public discourse to be English 101 writ large and that the disregard for the facts of the world and the principles of reason have turned public discourse into something that more resembles a verbal wrestling match or worse, a boxing match and not a conscientious discussion of important public matters aimed at collective agreement on a workable public policy.  I hear this on radio talk shows, read it in social media, in mainstream journalism, and in the comment sections that follow what is ostensibly news reporting; and it certainly appears in the numerous blogs that have the express purpose of advocating a particular view.  Certainly, this style of discourse always has been with us, but I sense that it is particularly virulent today.  I count the 1982 debut of the CNN program “Crossfire” as my first clear encounter with it in a national forum.  “Crossfire” was (and probably again is, though I have not watched its recent manifestation) a program in which guests were badgered by loaded questions, not allowed to finish their answers, and sometimes simply shouted down; a program which routinely produced more heat than light.  It valorized the worst style of dialog and sadly became something of a model for future public affairs talk shows.  Tellingly for the connection between this style of discourse and academia, George Washington University became the host site from which the program aired before a live audience for about three years.

The format reached the height of absurdity with the “Jerry Springer Show” which, of course, did not deal with public affairs and was purely “entertainment,” but nonetheless made confrontation the primary form of interpersonal interaction.  Eventually, partisan media coverage of public affairs retreated to their own corners and devolved into outlets for partisan propaganda first introduced by right-wing radio and FOX News, but quickly followed by Air America and MSNBC.  I would not maintain that there is parity between these ideological opponents, but their techniques for adversarial argumentation are formed in the same mold, and it is the mold that we subtly and sometimes not so subtly are teaching to our undergraduates.

I also am not suggesting that there is a position of pure objectivity that one can and should assume when discussing public affairs, but we are capable of exercising a little self-criticism and a sense of fairness.  We can recognize self-serving attitudes – even our own – and demonstrate respect for others with whom we disagree.  We can adopt an attitude that promotes a serious-minded search for public policy solutions that just might lie outside of our own pre-conceived notions.  Too often we lack the virtues of humility and charity in our discourse.  Humility recognizes that we are one among many people, each with a unique and limited experience of the issues, that we each have misconceptions and incomplete understandings of complicated questions, and that personally, the best thing that can come out of a dialog is that we ourselves will discover our misconceptions, expand our experience, and change our views to arrive at a corrected understanding of the issues and the world.  Charity recognizes that the arguments made by others may not always be couched in their strongest form and that instead of seeking chinks in one’s opponent’s armor, one should seek to construct the strongest case for everyone in the conversation.  By doing so our own views are better tested and can be legitimately corroborated or discarded for superior views.  These are the virtues of the Enlightenment which has received, I believe, unfair criticism for the short comings of certain Enlightenment figures.  It was best described by Immanuel Kant in his essay “What Is Enlightenment?” as “the public use of reason.”  The public use of reason promises solutions to a huge number of problems we face, but it requires dialogical virtues that are rare today.

Perhaps the clearest distortion of public discourse through sophistic techniques has come from those who are against taking action to mitigate climate change by reducing the production of greenhouse gases.  The engines behind this distortion are the professional blogs established by groups that promote a libertarian economy regardless of obvious market failures and supported by the fossil fuel industry.  Anyone who is familiar with the research into the climate change will easily recognize the patent lies and distortions, the ad hominem attacks, and various other fallacies employed by these bloggers to confuse the public debate.  Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s landmark book The Merchants of Doubt remains an excellent exposé of the network of self-serving climate change denial and its history.  The denial industry’s power rests on the extraordinary wealth of its patrons. Beyond the blogs, our culture of discourse has become so debased that many people take their cues from these bloggers and engage in debates where they seek victory at any cost, regardless of fact or reason.  Their contribution to the discourse ranges from canny deceptions to incendiary trolling, and too often, their opponents fight fire with fire.  It is a sad and dangerous state of affairs perhaps best described in the lyrics from Bob Dylan’s song “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding):”

While money doesn’t talk, it swears / Obscenity, who really cares / Propaganda, all is phony.

As an educator and librarian I feel a responsibility to uphold the Enlightenment values that promote a fair-minded understanding of the world, but I feel swamped by an ever devolving culture of propaganda and sophistry.  It’s hard to know the way out.  If anyone has a compass, I’d love to hear from you.

July 14, 2014

Quiet Please (film about homeless library users)

QUIET, PLEASE from Quincy J. Walters on Vimeo.

About homeless people who use the library….

June 24, 2014

Baudrillard on the futility of information

There’s a passage from the first part of Jean Baudrillard’s In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities that always resonated with my more pessimistic moments of doing library instruction. There is a faith involved in pursuing information literacy, a passionate belief in the empowerment of people, especially students, though teaching them to find, filter, and use information. For Baudrillard, there was a God behind that faith, and he is dead. I always read Baudrillard with a healthy dose of skepticism, because he took things to such extremes and wrote as if history had reached its endpoint. With all we are hearing now about rising sea levels, ocean acidification, and mass extinction, his words are seeming more relevant. For an idea about why the public largely ignores these issues, consider this passage:

The Abyss of Meaning

… Whatever its political, pedagogical, cultural content, the plan is always to get some meaning across, to keep the masses within reason; an imperative to produce meaning that takes the form of the constantly repeated imperative to moralise information: to better inform, to better socialise, to raise the cultural level of the masses, etc. Nonsense: the masses scandalously resist the imperative of rational communication. They are given meaning: they want spectacle. No effort has been able to convert them to the seriousness of the content, nor even to the seriousness of the code. Messages are given to them, they only want some sign, they idolise the play of signs and stereotypes, they idolise any content so long as it resolves itself into a spectacular sequence. What they reject is the “dialectic” of meaning. Nor is anything served by alleging that they are mystified. This is always a hypocritical hypothesis which protects the intellectual complaisance of the producers of meaning: the masses spontaneously aspire to the natural light of reason. This in order to evade the reverse hypothesis, namely that it is in complete “freedom” that the masses oppose their refusal of meaning and their will to spectacle to the ultimatum of meaning. They distrust, as with death, this transparency and this political will.They scent the simplifying terror which is behind the ideal hegemony of meaning, and they react in their own way, by reducing all articulate discourse to a single irrational and baseless dimension, where signs lose their meaning and peter out in fascination: the spectacular.

Baudrillard could have been talking about Facebook, but that was published in 1983, in a small book from Semiotext(e), In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities, pp. 9-11. The book is a pessimistic response to the likes of Habermas – or at least it seems pessimistic to someone who believes in Habermas. I’m not sure Baudrillard would have called himself a pessimist; he rather would have said he had made an adjustment to a new state of affairs.

June 14, 2014

Interview with Vincent Mosco about his new book

Vincent Mosco is Professor Emeritus, Queen’s University, Canada. In his career he has focused on the political economy of information, communication, and the media. Back in the 80s he co-edited a book with Janet Wasko that was very influential to me as I was developing my thoughts on libraries and related subjects – The Political Economy of Information. (I used to have two copies of it but it seems I’ve given both of them away. The paperback edition is still in print.) Among the books he is responsible for more recently are his important texbook titled The Political Economy of Communication, now in its second edition from SAGE, and his The Digital Sublime: Myth, Power, and Cyberspace, from MIT Press. Both of these books are highly recommended to anyone who is interested in the kinds of things Library Juice has given attention to over the years. A new book by Dr. Mosco has just come out from Paradigm Publishers: To the Cloud: Big Data in a Turbulent World. He has graciously agreed to do an interview about this new book.

Dr. Mosco, thanks for agreeing to do this interview. I feel privileged to get to ask you some questions about this book. First, I wonder if you could briefly tell us what this book is about?

VM:
Thank you Rory. It is pleasure to share my thoughts with your readers.

To the Cloud is about cloud computing, which moves data, applications, and software from the desktop or on-site data center to a distant location, and big data which analyzes quantitative data typically stored in the cloud. It is the first critical examination of cloud computing moving beyond the affirmative, promotional and mythic tone of what has been written on the subject. As such, it concentrates on the growing concentration of corporate power in the industry, the environmental damage caused by large data centers and their massive power demands, the menace to privacy in the surveillance that the cloud enables, the threat to jobs, especially in the IT industry, and the dangers of the digital positivism that big data unleashes for many different ways of knowing. Nevertheless, if it were strictly regulated and organized as a public utility, cloud computing holds the potential for expanding access to information and communication and creates new opportunities for democratic social planning.

RL:
I have to comment that these represent a set of very important trends to talk about, and cloud computing is a convenient way to group them, but in most cases what you are talking about are phenomena that do not proceed directly from the specific innovation that cloud computing represents. So, regarding the concentration of corporate power, environmental damage caused by the industry, the menace to privacy, and even the problems to be found with big data, it seems that all of these things are linked to the internet in general as much as to cloud computing specifically. I wonder if you could talk about how cloud computing as a new development has affected some of these issues which were already problems in the internet era going back a decade or two. Certainly these problems have had your attention for some time. What are the new developments to be concerned about?

VM:
Correct. Cloud computing deepens and extends longstanding problems in what might best be called digital capitalism and its current trajectory forecloses opportunities for democratic communication. The industry is hardly a decade old and is now dominated by Amazon which, along with a handful of others like Microsoft, uses predatory pricing to drive out competitors and fight off all forms of regulation. Even the CIA relies on Amazon for cloud services. As companies and governments recognize the cost savings in cloud computing, the global demand for data centers is growing. The need for 24/7 service makes massive demands on the power grid for processing and cooling servers and requires environmentally dangerous back up systems including diesel generators, chemical batteries and flywheels. The shift from PCs and in-house storage to the cloud makes surveillance easier and big data analytics extends the power of surveillance. It is no coincidence that the NSA is building one of the largest cloud computing systems in the world. Moreover, the cloud poses a massive threat to IT jobs. In fact, one expert describes cloud computing as nothing more than a global drive to eliminate and outsource IT labor. Finally, the spread of big data analytics enshrines a singular way of knowing that relies solely on quantitative data and correlational analysis and denies the value of theory, history, subjectivity and qualitative ways of knowing. A common line among enthusiasts is that “the data will speak for itself”. In essence, cloud computing brings together digital capitalism and digital positivism in ways that threaten democracy. It is therefore imperative that we begin a discussion of how to control the cloud and how to realize its genuine potential as a public resource.

RL:
It’s a really exciting book that pulls together a number of threads that have to be understood in relation to each other. It suggests more books on each of its related topics: for example, I think we need a book about big data in particular that extends the criticisms you bring to it here. But at the same time, the combinations of many of these phenomena present a new complex that I think you are right to try to understand as a whole. The new reality of surveillance via the cloud may be a problem in itself, and the digital positivism of big data may be a problem in itself, but in combination we are talking about a digital-positivist surveillance of individuals that renders our subjective choices and meanings into limited variables and quantities, all adjudicated at a level beyond our knowledge and control through these corporate structures that own the cloud. Your analysis presents a fairly dystopian vision – scary stuff – and yet you find reason to be hopeful about the cloud as a public resource. How do you envision that possibility? Can all of these problems be solved via more democratic control of these resources?

VM:
It is scary stuff. You get a clear sense of how important the cloud and big data are for surveillance capitalism and the surveillance state by examining how fiercely they are being promoted. In the chapter “Selling the Cloud Sublime,” I take a close look at the role of advertising, blogs and other social media, private think thanks like McKinsey and Company, international organizations like the World Economic Forum, lobbying, and trade shows in marketing the cloud and big data.

Nevertheless, it is important to think broadly and dialectically about the relationship between technology and society. Doing so helps me to identify counterpoints to the cloud envisioned by big companies and the NSA and counterpoints to the singular way of knowing advanced by big data enthusiasts. Examining the history of the cloud computing concept takes me to variations on the public, information, or computer utility concept which was prominent in research on computers in the 1950s and 60s, in the West, in the Soviet cybernetics program for national economic planning, and in the 1970s in the experiments with using computers to promote democratic socialism in Chile. Each of these strains of thought suggests another way of thinking about cloud computing emphasizing public purpose and social planning over commercialism and corporate profit. I think we are at a point not unlike that of the electrical industry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when unbridled capitalism shaped decisions on who had access to electricity with no public oversight. Ultimately, citizens and the great social movements of the time refused to accept the view that corporate greed should determine access to technology and created public utilities that, however unevenly and problematically, guaranteed universal access at affordable rates. I envision a similar movement taking shape today around the scourge of inequality and led by activist educators, librarians and other knowledge workers. Such movements are not guarantees of a democratic outcome but provide the means to fight for one and the hope necessary to carry on the struggle.

Moreover, in the concluding chapter of the book I address the counterpoints to big data drawn from an epistemological critique of digital positivism (the failure to consider qualitative data, history, theory, subjectivity and the limits of correlational analysis) and a broader critique from what I call “cloud culture,” or the humanistic tradition that spans Aristophanes’ play The Clouds, the medieval text The Cloud of Unknowing, and David Mitchell’s magnificent work of fiction Cloud Atlas. All of these provide a rich stew of alternatives to the narrow singularity of big data’s imperious and dangerous digital positivism. The times and our many problems call for many ways of knowing that need to be revived and supported. There may be numerous dark clouds forming but there are also many bright spots on the horizon including growing attacks on the many failures of big data analysis and the recognition by a surprisingly large number of technical experts, social scientists and humanists that other ways of knowing are essential.

RL:
Thanks for talking to me about your book. Any thoughts on what is next for you in your writing life?

VM:
I am beginning to think about a book on the so-called internet of things which, like cloud computing, is grounded in mythic thinking . But whereas the cloud imagines a universal intelligence available to all people, even as corporations and the surveillance state sequester it for their interests, the internet of things envisions a universal intelligence embedded in all matter, even as those same business and their partners in the state design it as an instrument of profit and control. Does it too contain a democratic potential?

However the subject gets formulated, my approach has been fairly consistent over the forty years that I have been writing about technology. First, stay ahead of the curve and “plant a flag” of critical thinking when you arrive so that those following can cut through promotional thinking and deepen opportunities for political intervention. Second, situate what you find ahead of the curve in a historical context that enriches alternative ways of thinking. Finally, carry out research with the mind of an activist and act with the mind of a theorist. The goal should be praxis or the unity of theory and activism.

Thanks for the opportunity to discuss my book.

November 20, 2013

Email discussion on the recent Google Books copyright decision

An interesting, overlapping discussion about the recent Google Books copyright decision took place on the Progressive Librarians Guild email discussion list and the Social Responsibilities Round Table discussion list over the past few days. I have permission from the participants to reproduce that discussion here. I used to do this frequently with the original Library Juice webzine but have done so only rarely in the past few years. This thread may see some invited comments as a follow-up.

Shouldn’t librarians’ enthusiasm about this be tempered by the understanding that Google is not the do-no-evil corporation it once represented itself as being?

We have much evidence of how the profit-making corporation is not operating strictly in the public interest, never mind in ways entirely consistent with librarians’ code of ethics. I won’t review this here, but I am sure most of you are familiar with the record. In any case, Google’s attempt to present its book project as being an attempt to create “the world’s largest library” should certainly give us pause.

Am I the only one here to wonder , given what Google does in collecting and cashing in on data about users’ browsing what they will do with the data from the book search? Am I wrong in thinking that now they will know, in addition to our other browsing activity,  not only what books we are looking at but what we are reading in those books? There are other aspects of this project too which deserve more critical examination.

What do you think?

Mark C. Rosenzweig
co-editor, Progressive Librarian

Thanks Mark!  Not only do I wonder about that, I also think about the fact that so many colleges and K-12 schools have embraced “Google Apps for Education,” meaning that not only does this for-profit corporation have increasingly profound access to our reading habits, but also to our documents storage and communications.
 
Melora

I  really have to wonder where the ALA Washington Office gets the idea that “libraries” consider this a great victory. Or where they get the OK to sign on to alliances with Google in the name of the association and the profession.

The issues involved are matters of some contention among librarians , there is no consensus, but somehow the Washington Office seems to think it is “speaking with one voice” on our behalf.

We need a much more robust debate in the Association about the implications of monopolistic tendencies in corporate domination of information and, indeed, the entire human record.

Mark C. Rosenzweig

Dear Mark

The Washington Office’s infatuation with Google has always baffled me, as is the idea that this is a ‘victory for libraries .’  A company that exists to sell advertising (a global Leopold Bloom), to cosy up to authoritarian regimes, and to peddle the personal information of millions has won a court case that will add even more to their zillions of $$s.  Meanwhile, libraries limp on, underfunded and undervalued.  What a victory!

Michael Gorman

Library colleagues:

I just wanted to point out that I, as a researcher and cataloger, have benefitted tremendously from the results of Google Books. I can’t imagine ever uncovering certain citations or facts had these documents never been digitized and put on the public web. I can tell you from professional experience, it is transforming the speed, accuracy, and depth of original cataloging. Does that mean that I love Google, or think that it is noble? No. But under capitalism there are some developments that serve the broader public as well as the corporation. This is one, and we should appreciate the fruit of that contradiction.  

I don’t know if some of the libraryland hostility is because this was done by a corporation or if, in concept, mass digitization is a bad idea. As with the earlier furor over JSTOR, it’s important to remember that these companies do not retain exclusivity over the content. In a perfect world, such a project might have been undertaken by a consortium of universities – but that didn’t happen. And I’ll bet that references to obscure publications are driving up book sales and library usage, not curbing them. I know that I’ve bought more than one used volume because it came up in Google Books. How about you?

yours in struggle,

Lincoln Cushing
archivist

Mark,
 
Thank you for another good observation. I think , as libraries, especially K-12 public school libraries and public libraries and library consortia, especially medium to small size libraries, find themselves with dwindling budgets, dwindling staff, dwindling services and dwindling stature and status, as essential capital assets for the community good, Google is increasingly looked upon as the salvation for access to information. Sadly, this happens at a time when I think our profession became much more conservative in its worldwide view of things. Yes, thankfully, there are still librarians motivated by a strong socially responsible ethic. However, I feel that number is also among the things dwindling in our societal responsiveness.
 
I would _LOVE_ to hear what younger, and new members of SRRT have to say, but again, sadly the number of students joining SRRT has been dwindling for quite some time, and I think that number is getting to a point where it must be addressed in the near future.
 
The primary reason why we should be concerned about Google? Mark said it succinctly in noting that things, “deserve more critical examination,” and one of those things needing examination is ALA’s fiscal relationships with Google. Perhaps the situation is much worse, and “everyone” feels Google has so saturated “the markets” than most ordinary people just no longer care and use it, and use, and use it. The Wal-Mart model: You have to use us, especially when we take away all your alternatives.
 
Fred Stoss
 

Frederick:
 
I’m not a “young” librarian, but if 44 years of age qualifies as youthful in any context, I’ll take it as compliment. I am a recently enrolled member of both SRRT and PLG, and I look forward to renewing my membership in these organizations for years to come.
 
What compelled my interest in social responsibilities and progressive librarianship was a quote by then President Maureen Sullivan who, in the March 18, 2013 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education said: ‘It’s important to remember that there is a difference between the work and role of the teaching faculty…and the work and role of librarians.’ When one recalls the fact that Ms. Sullivan at the time was doing consulting work at East Carolina University where the university administration was deciding to end tenure for librarians, her words seemed especially suspect. Many of my colleagues sent a letter to ALA headquarters demanding that Ms. Sullivan clarify her statement. In response, she updated her Facebook page to say that she supported the Joint Statement on the Status of College and University Librarians (2012). Many librarians on this list may recall that the original 1973 Joint Statement defined librarians as equal to faculty and deserving of tenure whereas the 2012 revision defers to policy set by local administrative authority. In sum, Ms. Sullivan clarified her position by endorsing a document that blurs the line between due process (tenure) and at-will employment. Our responses to this turn of events ranged from cynical acceptance to bemused disdain. Granted, we did not expect ALA to act in the role of a labor organization. Yet we did not believe that ALA would actively collude in the de-professionalization of librarianship itself, either in word or deed.
 
You could say that we were naïve.
 
In the months after this episode, I investigated the opinions and writings of other members of the ALA hierarchy, both past and present, and was bowled over by the sheer volume of corporate-style discourse that passes for critical thought among the most esteemed members of our profession. I always had the impression that the management literature in librarianship was positivist, rationalist, and prone to technological utopianism. But the scale and depth of what is termed by John Buschman and others as ‘neoliberal reason’ in librarianship is so widespread and deeply rooted that it presents an existential threat to the mission of our profession. We may be witnessing a transformation of librarianship from its traditional democratic values to a monetized, market-oriented, agile enterprise that harnesses human capital to maximize ROI in a competitive and customer-driven environment. (Say that three times fast).
 
And we see elements of this “belief system” at work in the unreservedly positive response to the recent Google books ruling. The ALA leadership seems to have forgotten that Google is a corporate entity, and thus may have interests beyond altruism. Moreover, as you point out, both the ALA and the public at large have embraced Google as “the salvation for access to information”. Indeed, if one reads the amicus brief filed by the Library Copyright Alliance on behalf of Google you will note that on page 4 the heading “GBS Serves the Public Interest”. What follows is a passionate infomercial asserting the essential goodness of Google’s digitization project. A project which, once the Authors Guild is assuaged, will result in the largest known searchable corpus of texts in English hosted on the privately owned servers of a corporation which bases its business model on deriving revenue from the aggregation and monetization of user data.
 
But if rank and file librarians cautioned the ALA leadership against their credulous assertion that a corporation can serve the public interest as well as—or even better?—than the cultural institution known as “the library”, would those leaders listen? My own personal experience, and the work of Buschman, John Budd, Ronald E. Day, Douglas Raber, Christine Pawley, and many others predict that such concerns would be blithely dismissed.

?Sincerely,

Michael Matthews

As a younger librarian (I’ve been in the profession only since 2009), I think I do have a slightly different viewpoint on this case. To me, it’s not really about Google. It’s about asserting fair use, and the parameters of fair use. It’s asserting that enabling the kind of access to texts that Google (and Hathi) are enabling is fair use, and does not violate copyright. And I think THAT is why I see this as a huge victory. 

The kind of access scholars can have to our literary corpus now is amazing, and I get very excited when I think of the kind of work in the digital humanities that can happen, and about how scholarship, especially in the fields of English and Literature, will be changed. 

I think this case is a positive development in a string of copyright decisions that have tended to limit the kind of access we can have to our cultural heritage. And I can’t help but feel good about that. 

Laura Krier

Here’s a short reply to Mark and Kathleen’s comments to my Google Books comment the other day.

I’m not going to get into a big thing here. I’m not saying “What’s the problem” or that those who are critical of Google Books have no grounds to complain (although I was not that shocked by Nunberg’s article; cataloging is one of those professions where you pretty much get what you pay for, and since this cost libraries nothing I’m not surprised that there’s crappy metadata.) Corporate-driven incursions into library practices should always be inspected for lice. As I learned when Nicholson Baker wrote Double Fold and evoked a firestorm of libraryland protest, this is a profession that has trouble dealing with criticism. As with microfilming and newspaper disposal decades ago, new errors were made at high levels with Google Books.

But the notion that Google has cornered the market on our intellectual heritage neglects the huge amount of material that fell outside of their scope.  Underground newspapers? Brochures? Political posters? That’s up to us.

What’s missing here is, what are the alternatives? How can we support non-profit, public access ventures that do this better? There are several, and I consider the giant online poster archive I’m building through the Oakland Museum of California as being one. There are others.

And to Kathleen’s point, we need to reinforce better pedagogy and research practices. Bad metadata in Google Books? Expect that. Use it as a starting point, not the end. If you want to beat up on low hanging fruit, take a whack at Wikipedia. Research and scholarship are ever evolving.

The genie’s out of the bottle, we can’t put it back.

Lincoln Cushing

Google is interested in redefining the infosphere in its own image and for its own purposes. The sheer size, power and influence which Google has achieved make it , not one of many tools, but the framer and decider of the form and content of bibliographic –and, moreover, informational– reality. It is not , as Lincoln would have it, a genie out of the bottle, ready to do our bidding if we but know how to wish wisely and ask properly. Nor is it something we can just ignore as we cultivate our own little islands of bibliographic quality.

To take just one aspect of the problem, Google Books  , in its rush to complete Google’s domination of the infosphere, is recklessly creating a bibliographic muddle whose junk bibliographic information is crowding out the results of the scrupulous efforts librarians have made over centuries to bring bibliographic order and rationality to the textual universe. Google is creating pseudo-editions of already published works, replete with false attributions and incorrect meta-data,  rife with countless uncorrected scanning errors which obscure and distort the meaning of texts –all of  which mistakes, note well, becoming part of the permanent bibliographic record – illegible, scrambled and illegitimate bibliographic garbage polluting the information pool because of Google’s disregard for, nay, contempt for, bibligraphic integrity.

As for the judgment of the court in the recent case of the Authors’ Guild v Google, we can argue, of course, about the correctness of its interpretation of “fair use”. But I am struck by the insensitivity of the library community to the case of authors and their publishers. Google, in any case is not interested in the “fair”part of “fair use”: it will force the law to conform to its projects’ demands because it can, because it has the power, and it is doing it, not in the public interest, but in the corporate interest of Google.

The colonization of the infosphere and the cannibalizing of the bibliographic record, these are the hallmarks of Googlization. What can we do about it as librarians? Lincoln Cushing suggests there is precious little we can do. We should just make th ebest of it. Well, we can at least ask our Association to not make common cause with Google in legal cases! The so-called “fair use” case of Google is questionable enough for ALA not to have felt compelled to side with Google against authors and publishers rights. That it did so only expresses to me a craven and pathetic hope that siding with the giant is going to somehow prevent the giant from eating us up and spitting us out.

Mark C. Rosenzweig

The bibliographic inconsistency of the database and its quality are indeed unfortunate, as is the fact that it is controlled by Google and not the institutions that own the material: some materials I needed for my history thesis required multiple searches for different issues of the same periodical. Once I did find them, because Google owned the digital copies, the universities that provided the print copies couldn’t give me even temporary access to the digital copies, so I had to go where paper was kept anyway.

However, IMO the missed opportunities go back farther than this court case.  Had the large research institutions implemented the project themselves and retained control, its development would have been slower, but the quality problems Mark mentions would not have developed.  Had the profession been able to embrace and integrate information technologies to such an extent that we merged rather than separated completely from the technicians, network admins and coders, we’d be on the cutting edge rather than the trailing.

Given the state of the project and our profession, perhaps as Lincoln’s message implies, the best we can do at this point is make good use of it. Metadata, anyone?

Another thing we can do is continue to explain the intricacies of fair use: people always want simple answers, even though there aren’t any.  

We’ve also had some success advocating for privacy–we can and should keep doing that, as the unprecedented access of this monolith to our reading, recreation, research, writing and other communications makes that effort increasingly vital.

Melora