January 16, 2012

The Rise of the New Groupthink

Susan Cain offers a most welcome statement in yesterday’s New York Times: “The Rise of the New Groupthink.”

January 13, 2012

Evidence of Evil at Google, from a faraway land

The CEO of an internet business in Kenya called Mocality has posted a report to his blog about what seem to be some unethical and probably illegal business practices by Google, involving trolling their database in order to poach their customers for their own competing service, and lying in the process. If this report is true, it deserves to be a scandal. Mocality’s Stefan Magdalinski’s post is titled, Google, what were you thinking?

The New York Times, Compromise, and the Past

Arthur Brisbane is New York Times Public Editor, a position outside the regular editorial team that is supposed to act as the reader’s representative. Followers of this blog have probably already heard about his recent post, “Should the Times be a Truth Vigilante?, which many readers found maddeningly stupid. Brisbane was asking whether NYT reporters should challenge statements by journalistic subjects that the journalists know to be untrue. Brisbane was responding to broad public discussion about “He Said/She Said” reporting, in which the truth tends to get lost, although he seemed not to realize that this was the context of his post when he followed up on it yesterday. (Ostensibly, he was responding to an op-ed by Paul Krugman published in December, but he must know that the discussion about this problem has been much broader and been going on for a long time.) An informative early response to his initial post was from the tireless watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). (I will also point to a useful note from FAIR about “both sides are right” presumptions at PolitiFact, the political fact-checking blog.) What is so maddening about Brisbane’s question to readers is that it verges on questioning a fundamental principle of the fourth estate as the supporter of the public sphere – to be an independent monitor of power. At a time when traditional journalism is in a crisis for reasons beyond its control, it is difficult to comprehend why the public editor of America’s paper of record would flirt so explicitly with the idea of giving up on that principle that is the source of journalism’s enduring value to people. What it seems to me that he was doing in asking that question was asking the public to validate a journalistic trend that has been in progress for some time, that seems to be born of a failure to stand up to political pressure. The public hates He Said/She Said reporting. I think Brisbane simply miscalculated in his hope that the public would take the paper off the hook by providing a number of useful responses supporting this sorry trend.

I have said in the Library Juice blogging pledge that we won’t write about news topics that other people are writing a lot about unless we have something new to add, so let me attempt to add another angle to the discussion. What I would say it’s worth considering in light of this debate is that issues like this one have been debated from the beginning of modern journalism, and those earlier discussions can offer much to us now. Some recommendations along those lines. First, an article in Acadame, the AAUP’s journal, by Eric Alternman, summarizing the 1920s debate between Walter Lippmann and John Dewey over a broader question about the way journalism works in relation to democracy. Lippmann held that (even at the time) real policy issues were too complex for the public to understand through a simple presentation of accurate information, and that the main service of journalism is to provide the basis for conversation rather than information, and that this conversation is the real basis of democracy. In the time I spent as a reference librarian at the California Research Bureau providing service to policy analysts and legislative staffers, I came to sympathize strongly with this kind of view, because I saw that in fact public debate was highly simplified and dramatized versus the more sober and technical discussions that go on in the policy sphere, and this was partly because of the orientation of the public toward issues. Dewey’s side of the debate was more idealistic. It may be that journalism’s insiders see this problem partly from the perspective of the policy sphere about which they are charged with reporting to the public, with the result that in the process of negotiating the level of technical detail versus drama that they provide in news, they also negotiate with the level of truth.

An answer to this apology for compromised journalism could be found in many sources, and I will cite a couple of them. First, a book that is dated in its examples but not in its overall thrust: The Experts Speak: The Definitive Compendium of Authoritative Misinformation, by Christopher Cerf and Victor Navasky. This book provides thorough evidence of the the kind of positive falsehoods, as opposed to oversimplifications, often offered by experts and reported unquestioningly by journalists. It is dated, but to the point.

More important, however, is the rich area of work surrounding the effects of the capitalist organization of the institutions that give us the news. From the most recent past era, a cornerstone work is Ben Bagdikian’s The Media Monopoly. Though it is from before the internet era, I think it is still essential reading for anyone wanting to understand the core problem behind “He Said/She Said” journalism and related failures (such as that steady stream of PR that makes up so much of what is presented as news). There are other important works related to Bagdikian’s from the same era, including Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s Manufacturing Consent and works by Robert McChesney. Not long ago these books were essential starting points for anyone wanting to think progressively about journalism, but new issues are causing them to fade into the background. It’s time for new to works deal with the same issues in the new media context. But these works and older ones are still important. For an understanding of how far back these market effects on journalism have been a problem, books worth consulting would be Upton Sinclair’s 1919 The Brass Check, which is freely available in various forms; a compilation of media criticism edited by Robert McChesney and Ben Scott, titled Our Unfree Press: 100 Years of Media Criticism; and a new book out by Amy Reynolds and Gary Hicks, Prophets of the Fourth Estate: Press Critics of the Progressive Era. (Full disclosure: Litwin Books is the publisher of the latter one).

I think the historical and political-economic context Brisbane’s question to readers is worth understanding better through some reading beyond the blogosphere, where past work is easily forgotten.

January 7, 2012

Nice fake site example for info lit instruction

A site set up by tricky spammers, potentially useful in information literacy instruction: “CNBC” report on “income at home system.”

December 16, 2011

Interview with Jennifer Szunko, director of paid-review service Clarion Review

Rory Litwin:
I’m talking with Jennifer Szunko, Clarion Services Director. Jennifer offered to be interviewed for Library Juice to talk about Clarion’s services in doing paid reviews for authors and publishers.

Thanks for being willing to do this interview. Jennifer, can you explain a bit about what you do at Clarion, and how it is different from Foreword Magazine, which I understand is the parent company?

Jennifer Szunko:
Thank you for inviting me.

For the past 14 years ForeWord Reviews has offered pre-publication reviews of good books from independent publishers in our print magazine. Like most magazines, it is supported by advertising. Ten years ago, librarians were asking for more reviews than what we could accommodate in the magazine and with the explosion of books being published we were receiving hundreds of books each month that we just could not fit into the magazine–the Clarion Review fee-based service was born. I manage the orders that come in for books to be reviewed for a fee and work with the same pool of reviewers as we use in the magazine.

The reviews in our magazine are all pre-publication and are all for good books–those reviews are all very positive. But there are millions of authors that would still want a review but their books just didn’t qualify–either due to the publication date or the editorial content didn’t align with the magazine’s calendar, or the book just hasn’t captured the attention of an editor. That is when the author will order a Clarion Review.

Thanks for that description. Just to clarify, when Foreword Magazine was new and before Clarion Review was started, did Foreword Magazine offer paid reviews?

No, we have never charged for reviews that appear in the magazine. We only started the fee-based review service to accommodate the “overflow” of requests from authors to get their book reviewed. And it offers librarians many more reviews–all of which are archived with Bowker’s Books-In-Print online, Baker & Taylor’s Titlesource 3, and Ingram’s iPage, in addition to Google Books and the Foreword Reviews Website.

Interesting. Where else might librarians or readers encounter the reviews?

The authors will also use the review (if its a positive review) in the marketing of their book, on the back cover, or on their own Website. All of our reviews reflect an honest and unbiased look at a book, however, we only publish reviews of the best books in the magazine. You will find everything from a one star to a five star review on our website. The difference between the reviews in the magazine and a Clarion Review is that the Clarion Review gives a critical analysis of the book–useful information for librarians and booksellers.

So it is possible for a paid review to receive a one-star rating? I can imagine that that would result in some unhappy customers.

I recently pulled a report of all of our reviews and found an almost perfect bell curve. We have mostly three-star reviews but we about the same amount of one-star reviews as five-star reviews. And the two and four star reviews are balanced, too. Its never easy delivering a negative report to an author but more often than not they appreciate the honesty. With digital technology, it’s easy to implement many of the changes that are mentioned in the review; so the author ends up producing a better book. So everyone wins!

Thanks for the info on stats. That is reassuring. About how many paid reviews do you publish a month? And just to clarify, you’re talking about paid reviews there, right?

Yes, the Clarion Reviews are purchased by the author and those are the only reviews that receive the star rating. We publish about 70-90 reviews on our website each month and share those with the licensees I mentioned earlier. We do give the author the opportunity to “kill” their review if they feel it is too negative. Most recognize the value of a professional review so they don’t go that route.

Even though the highest proportion get only three out of five stars. That is a more credible system than I thought, I have to admit.

I think it’s to Foreword’s credit that Clarion Review is open about selling paid reviews. However, I wonder if there is any disclaimer to that effect in the reviews that are published through these licensees, and whether at least Clarion is identified as the source.

Clarion is identified as the source on all the reviews that we write for a fee. Our integrity is extremely important and if anyone thought the reviews were somehow compromised because of the fee, we wouldn’t have survived this long. All of our reviews are objective opinions about a book, and there has been some reticence by a few publishers or authors who prefer to do business using an outdated business model, one that can no longer support itself due to declining advertising dollars. I don’t know any librarians who criticize the paid review service. Librarians are the reason we added the additional review service; they want as many quality reviews as they can get and look to us as a trusted resource. Our brand speaks quality and they can depend on us, and they are the biggest users of subscription services at our licensing partners…who are also dying for all the reviews we can provide them–regardless of whether the funding comes from ad dollars or a straight up fee.

Are you familiar with the review service BookNews?

BookNews also produces brief reviews that are published by book jobbers for the benefit of collection development librarians, though I suppose they may focus on the academic market. Their reviews are all solicited; as a publisher I receive requests for titles from them for review. I believe their source of funding is the book vendors themselves. I don’t know about the quantity of reviews that they publish, but I do know that they select the books that they choose to review.

Interestingly, ForeWord was the first to offer a fee-based review service and took a great deal of grief for it for several years but now we are one of many. To get around the stigma of a “fee-based review” other companies call it a publicity fee or a marketing fee but when you get to the bottom of it –we are all offering a professional service and professionals are paid to deliver a professional product. The BookNews model sounds more like the model for our magazine–our editor solicits for books based on our editorial calendar.

Regarding the question of the disclaimer… While Clarion Review is out there advertising paid reviews, do you think that most librarians or readers will be clued into that fact when a review is credited as coming from Clarion? I think this is an important point, because even if the highest proportion of reviews are mediocre, there has to be a market effect on the reviews Clarion gives in order for the service to be financially successful. Yes, authors want credible reviews, but they also want reviews that will lead to sales, which is the purpose of it from their point of view. Normally, or at least in the “outdated business model,” the appearance of a review usually constitutes a recommendation in and of itself. If it weren’t for the fact that so many of the paid reviews come from self-published authors, I think the bell curve you cite would be less troubling. I do find it a little hard to believe that given the nature of the customer base that so many books would be judged as being basically pretty good.

That’s an interesting position. Its not an argument that I have come up against. If you look up the word review, I think you will find it to say something like a critical analysis and not a recommendation. So maybe that is where the distinction lies. Clarion reviews reflect strict editorial standards and positive consideration is given to well-written and produced books–anything less than that must be mentioned in our reviews. It probably helps that there is at least a one person buffer between the reviewer and the author–the reviewer has no emotional stake in the transaction. We don’t hesitate to have a reviewer rewrite a review that sounds too much like an attempt to sell the book–we exist to provide honest information on books. That doesn’t always make us popular with authors or publishers.

What is the profile of the authors and publishers who use the paid review service? Do well-known publishers use them? What is the proportion of self-published authors using the service, as far as you know?

And regarding the judgment of quality, it is a relative thing. It just seems to me that in a paid review situation, if there are a lot of self-published authors, in order to maintain a bell curve the standards are going to have to be lower than they would be in a selective review source.

Good point about the self-published author as a big part of our client base. We have seen a tremendous improvement in the quality of the books from self-published authors in the past two years (and we have been doing this for ten). Remember that we do offer the option to “kill” the review and it is more likely that a one-star review will be put to death than a five-star review; the numbers do skew a bit in that sense.

How many reviews get killed relative to the 70 to 90 published a month?

ForeWord has always only reviewed books from independent publishers. We have not reviewed books from any of the Big Six or their imprints.

What about the proportion of reviews going to self-published authors versus books published by small publishing houses? (Small publishing houses being selective by necessity.)

I have not tracked the number of reviews that are “killed” each month but I would guess more than half of the one and two star reviews do not survive. So, yes we do actually write many more negative reviews than five-star.

Of the one-star reviews that do not survive, are you counting them in the bell-curve cited earlier or not?

Reaching the small press market with the Clarion product may well be our biggest challenge but we have kept very busy with self-published authors which make up about three-quarters of our fee-for-review service. The landscape is changing quickly and with the exponential growth in book production–authors and publishers are looking for ways to get noticed. That is true for self-published authors and those that have a contract with a small publishing house.

The bell curve that I mentioned earlier is only the reviews that are actually posted on our website.

Regarding the stats on the one-star reviews, that is encouraging from my point of view.

I have something to disclose that leads me to a question. About ten years ago I was very active in the group Alternatives in Print, which was a part of the Social Responsibilities Round Table of ALA. A major focus for us was advocating alternative press publishers, which for us meant small publishers publishing books that we felt were kept out of the mainstream market because of their political viewpoints. A big part of what we wanted was for books from these publishers to be more widely reviewed, and we were looking for ways to accomplish that. We were often asked for advice by these small publishing houses about how they could get their books into libraries, and reviews were a part of the answer. I think it was in that context that I first had contact with someone at Foreword Magazine, so I believe that I am probably one of the librarians you’re counting as asking for more reviews from these hidden sources. From my point of view, however, what Clarion is doing is not exactly what I was asking for (just to speak for myself), in that what I was talking about then had to do with the commercial nature of publishing, and the role of money in the marketing of books to libraries. What we were advocating in AIP was for a more non-commercial review sector that would compensate for the advantage that major publishers have in getting reviewed, by virtue of their economic power. The publishers we tended to advocate were publishing a lot of anti-capitalist books, and to them I think something like a paid review service would be anathema. Our analysis about the distortion in the market had to do with the political nature of the books we wanted to advocate, whereas for you I would imagine it has to do with the place of the little guy in the overall scheme. How would you approach small press publishers who may have a bias against something like paid reviews for these kind of idealistic reasons? I mean, to someone with that kind of a point of view, it smacks of the Better Business Bureau pay to play scandal.

I do think we are on the same page in the end–librarians want to be notified of the true contents in books and authors want visibility and an honest evaluation. This is true for all publishers, but you’re right: the bigger budgets get the bigger splash. Foreword is about the little guy and bringing attention to good books. My question would be…how would a small business owner support their staff if all of their product was offered at no charge? In the ideal world we could charge an extremely high rate to our 15,000 librarian subscribers for the privilege of reading our reviews–in reality, we would not survive. Instead we choose a per piece model so we can offer the quality we demand at a fair price to our customer. Every Clarion Review is worked on by four editors before it is returned to the publisher or author–that type of commitment to quality comes at a price. We never set out to be all things to all people but we do have a growing body of publishers and authors that value our service. There are non-commercial review sources but they are inconsistent and their quality is questionable–they don’t have anything to lose. We guarantee our quality and stand behind our reviewers opinions.

I disagree that non-commercial sources of reviews tend to be unreliable. Being in academia, where all the reviews are produced non-commercially, from my perspective the situation is the reverse of what you say. As a librarian who has worked in all types of libraries, I would just offer that in my opinion there is no demand for reviews of a great number of self-published books. I see nothing wrong with a business model that requires reviewers to be more selective; including more small press titles can easily fall within that framework if there were stronger regulations against the kind of pay to play practices that result in reviews not being given in sources like PW or LJ where the publisher doesn’t purchase ad space. I have never seen a need for the reviews that result from a pay to play review service. But I can only speak for myself – obviously you have access to more objective information about the market for reviews.

So, I have offered my opinion now. Before we say goodbye is there anything else you’d like to add?

Just that I have enjoyed our discussion and its a very exciting time in the publishing industry and we are thrilled to be a part of it all.

I want to thank you for all the information you provided about Clarion Review. I learned a lot from our conversation and enjoyed it as well.

Readers can get more information from the ForeWord Reviews website or the Clarion Reviews website advertising their services to authors.

December 14, 2011

CFP – 2nd Milwaukee Conference on the Ethics of Information Organization


2nd Milwaukee Conference on the Ethics of Information Organization

June 15 – 16, 2012
Milwaukee, WI

Information organization, like other major functions of the information professions, faces many ethical challenges. In our literature, ethical concerns have been raised with regard to, topics such as, the role of national and international tools and standards, provision of subject access to information, deprofessionalization and outsourcing, education of professionals, and the effects of globalization. These issues and many others like them have serious implications for quality and equity in information access. The Information Organization Research Group and the Center for Information Policy Research of the School of Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee join in presenting this second conference to address the ethics of information organization.

Like the first Ethics of Information Organization conference held in Milwaukee May 2009, this conference (June 2012) welcomes papers on ethics and any element of information organization from cataloging standards to tagging; subject access; technology; the profession; cultural, economic, political, corporate, international, multicultural and multilingual aspects.

Opening Speaker: Jens-Erik Mai
University of Toronto

Closing Speaker: Richard Smiraglia
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Other invited speakers will be announced

We invite submission of proposals for papers which will include: name(s) of presenter(s), title(s), affiliation(s), contact information and abstracts of 300-500 words. Presentations will be 20 minutes. Time will be set aside for questions as well as broader discussion. All abstracts will be published on the Web site of the UW-Milwaukee Information Organization Research Group. Full papers will be published in a special issue of Knowledge Organization.

ABSTRACTS DUE: February 15, 2012
FULL PAPERS DUE: July 15, 2012

Submit proposals via email to: Hope A Olson, Conference Chair (holson [at] uwm.edu)

CFP poster available here

October 30, 2011

CFP: Queers Online: LGBT Digital Practices in Libraries, Archives, and Museums

CFP: Queers Online: LGBT Digital Practices in Libraries, Archives, and Museums

(An Edited Collection to be published as part of the Series on Gender and Sexuality in Information Studies)
Litwin Books and Library Juice Press

Rachel Wexelbaum, Editor

Emily Drabinski, Gender and Sexuality in Information Studies Series Editor

Contact Information:
Editor: Rachel Wexelbaum, Collection Management Librarian, Saint Cloud State University:
rswexelbaum [at] stcloudstate.edu

Book Abstract
In the 21st century, there are more LGBT information resources than ever before. The challenges that arise both from the explosion of born-digital materials and the transformation of materials from physical to electronic formats has implications for access to these resources for future generations. Along with preservation concerns, making these numerous digital LGBT resources available to users becomes more difficult when they swim in an ocean of websites, EBooks, digitized objects, and other digital resources. Librarians, archivists, and museum curators must engage in a range of new digital practices to preserve and promote these numerous LGBT resources.

A “digital practice” in libraries, archives, and museums includes, but is not limited to, the digitization of physical objects; the creation of online resources and services that improve access to these objects; the use of online catalogs, databases, and metadata to categorize such objects; and the online social media and Web 2.0 tools used to connect users to these resources. Information professionals engaged in digital practices must also understand the information needs, online searching behaviors, and online communication styles of their patrons in order to make them aware of the digital resources that may be of use to them.

This is the first book to specifically address the digital practices of LGBT librarians, archivists, and museum curators, as well as the digital practices of seekers and users of LGBT resources and services. More broadly, this collection aims to address these issues in the context of the technical, social, economic, legal, and political challenges of creating LGBT-specific digital collections, electronic resources and services.

Objective of book
This book, to be published in Library Juice Press in Spring 2013, proposes to consider the following questions:

  1. What advances have been made in the digitization of LGBT books, art, music, film, primary sources, and other LGBT physical objects?
  2. What types of LGBT-specific online resources and services have been created to promote visibility of LGBT-specific content, as well as to organize and market such content?
  3. What LGBT-specific institutions have created electronic LGBT resources and services of interest to libraries, archives, and museums? What mainstream institutions and vendors have created electronic LGBT resources and services of interest to libraries, archives, and museums?
  4. What are the technical, social, economic, legal, and political challenges of creating LGBT-specific digital collections, electronic resources and services?
  5. What are the digital practices of seekers and users of LGBT resources and services, and how do they influence the development and marketing of online LGBT resources and services?

Target audience
Professionals and non-professionals involved in the work and study of libraries, archives, and museums, as well as publishers and content providers for such institutions, will find this book helpful in building awareness of electronic LGBT resources and services, in libraries, archives, and museums and the practices that connect users to them.

Suggested topical questions

Suggested topics include, but are not limited to:

  • What are the histories of LGBT digital objects and practices in libraries, archives, and museums? How does LGBT information seeking change in a digital environment? How does digitization affect the organization of LGBT resources?
  • How are libraries, archives, and museums responding to the shift to mobile content and services? How are institutions making resources and services accessible through mobile devices (mobile phones, EReaders, tablets, and apps)? How does the shift to mobile information improve access to LGBT digital resources?
  • How does digitization change the ways LGBT populations access information? Are there differences related to race, gender, class, immigration status, or geographic location? Do LGBT populations with special needs (Deaf, visually impaired, physically handicapped, others) use particular technology/online resources/digital resources to find LGBT-specific information?
  • How do electronic formats, including ebooks, electronic databases (e.g., GLBT Life), digitized museum and archives collections, and open web resources (e.g., www.outhistory.org), change the LGBT research landscape? How do these new formats change traditional library functions, including collection development, reference, outreach, and instruction?
  • What problems and possibilities are presented by metadata about LGBT-related materials in a digital environment? What are the critiques of LGBT-related subject vocabulary/subject headings in online catalogs and/or databases that could restrict access to information or mislabel it?
  • What LGBT-specific digitization projects for print and non-print materials have taken place in your library, archives, or museum? What were the challenges that you faced during the process? How are digital collection marketed, and how is usage calculated? How are digital collections kept updated?
  • What kinds of digital projects exist to preserve and make accessible LGBT primary sources (personal papers, manuscripts, oral histories, government documents, ephemera, etc)?
  • How are LGBT-specific Web 2.0/social web tools used in libraries, archives, and/or museums?

Submission procedure

Please submit abstracts and chapter proposals of up to 500 words and a short author’s statement to rswexelbaum [at] stcloudstate.edu by April 1, 2012. Chapter authors will receive notification of acceptance by June 1, 2012. Final manuscripts of between 3000 and 5000 words will be due September 1, 2012. Final edited chapter manuscripts will be due to Library Juice Press January 1, 2013.

Students at the University of Denver Want Books

Here is a guest post from Julie Teglovic, an MLIS student at the University of Denver, where students have been protesting a decision regarding the library…

Library as Space: University Students Want Books

This April, the paper books at the University of Denver’s Penrose Library began a move into a storage facility 10 miles away in preparation for the library’s gutting and renovation. I, like most students not hearing otherwise, assumed that the move would be temporary, until I happened across the “Keep the Penrose Library Book Collection on Campus” Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/savethestacks) in early May. According to this page, secret dealings had been made “behind closed doors and at the last minute” by the university Chancellor and Board of Trustees, culminating in a decision to retain 80% of the books at the storage center and return 20% to campus after the renovation.

About six students and a few faculty members, led by undergraduate English and Psychology major Brandon Reich-Sweet, united to disseminate information through the Facebook page and a website (www.savepenrose.com). They distributed online and paper petitions, contacted news outlets and university officials, made t-shirts and signs, and organized check-out/sit-in protests in and around the library. Because of these efforts, as of right now, university administration has agreed to return 50% of the books to campus (this is according to library faculty and student organizers; no official communication to students has been released).

Concerns over environmental sustainability and transparency were important to the group’s arguments (books will be driven by truck to and from the storage facility indefinitely, and neither students nor library staff were asked for input on the initial decision), but perhaps more interesting here are this group of non-librarians’ deep concerns about the library, its space, and its purpose.

I’ve read a lot in library school thus far about adapting to survive, about the need to see the library as community space, meeting space, and cutting-edge technology space. As gaming space, video-editing space, music-recording space. I’ve taken classes on ebooks and seen the skills requirements for programming languages and systems analysis on academic librarian job descriptions. Librarians want to redefine their collective image, to be tech-savvy and rethink education; we champion webinars and iSchools and digital repositories as solutions. Penrose is certainly not the first academic library to move a large number of books off-campus. Some students supported the Chancellor’s original decision and spoke out in the student newspaper The Clarion, asking why a book that’s never been circulated should gather dust. They argue that the way students learn has fundamentally changed in the last 20 years, and by designing a library with more collaborative learning space, the university is responding to this change.

Yet the (mostly undergraduate) students protesting—the library users, not the librarians—organized this movement and voiced—loudly—a different opinion: they want the books. As symbols of academic rigor, as visible history, as an elegant reminder of long-form reality itself to Brandon—the pages mean something to them. The millennials we jump to categorize as attention-deficient and gadget-crazed are perhaps more attuned to the emotional, existential, and intellectual redemption that a brick of words, a collection not on a screen, can provide than we as a profession would like to acknowledge. “The decision by a group of number-obsessed business-types to remove almost all of the books from a LIBRARY was really just a small symbol of a broader cultural trend,” Brandon says in an editorial for the Clarion. He writes about “Things without meaning…the terrible anxiety that comes standard with existence in modern human society…The victory of the Save Penrose movement then is not only one of logistics but one of meanings.”

-Julie Teglovic

Kierkegaard on impact factors

I was just reading a bit of Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript, and came across a section that I think applies to the bibliometric obsessions with impact factors, h- and g-indexes, and other quantitative measures of the value of a scholar’s work. The following is from pages 119 and 120 of the translation by Swenson and Lowrie (1968 edition):

…Ethics and the ethical have to raise against this entire order of things. For in our age it is not merely an individual scholar or thinker here or there who concerns himself with universal history; the whole age loudly demands it. Nevertheless, Ethics and the ethical, as constituting the essential anchorage for all individual existence, have an indefeasible claim upon every existing individual; so indefeasible a claim, that whatever a man may accomplish in the world, even to the most astonishing of achievements, it is nonetheless quite dubious in significance, unless the individual has been ethically clear when he made his choice, has ethically clarified his choice to himself. The ethical quality is jealous for its own integrity, and is quite unimpressed by the most astounding quantity.

It is for this reason that Ethics looks upon all world-historical knowledge with a degree of suspicion, because it may so easily become a snare, a demoralizing aesthetic diversion for the knowing subject, in so far as the distinction between what does or does not have historical significance obeys a quantitative dialectic. As a consequence of this fact, the absolute ethical distinction between good and evil tends for the historical survey to be neutralized in the aesthetic-metaphysical determination of the great and significant, to which category the bad has equal admittance with the good. In the case of what has world-historic significance, another set of factors plays an essential role, factors which do not obey an ethical dialectic: accidents, circumstances, the play of forces entering into the historic totality that modifyingly incorporates the deed of the individual so as to transform it into something that does not directly belong to him. Neither by willing the good with all his strength, nor by satanic obduracy in willing what is evil, can a human being be assured of historical significance. Even in the case of misfortune the misfortune may obtain world-historical significance. How then does an individual acquire historical significance? By means of what from the ethical point of view is accidental. But Ethics regards as unethical the transition by which an individual renounces the ethical quality in order to try his fortune, longingly, wishingly, and so forth, in the quantitative and non ethical…

September 1, 2011

An Illinois Man Is Facing 75 Years In Jail For Filming Police (video)

Not exactly a library issue, but one which rests on the same ideals.

It seems urgent to me that we legalize making video recordings of on-duty police officers. (Only illegal in some states.)

August 28, 2011

My problem with Banned Books Week

Some of my colleagues in the Progressive Librarians Guild used to complain that Banned Books Week was an unfortunate distraction from the greater problem of a propagandistic media system. I shared that view and still do, but it is not the objection that I want to explain today.

My problem with Banned Books Week is one that is probably shared by some conservatives, and it has to do with the loose definition of what a “banned book” is, and what a “challenged book” is. Over time, as I have come to understand my own politics better, I have realized that what I care about is rational discourse as the basis for a democratic society. In rational discourse, as I see it, it is important to be clear about what you are actually saying, to ask critical questions with a patience for detail, and to reject strategic communication and to minimize rhetoric. The Banned Books Week project, well-intended as it may be, is a propaganda exercise that fails to model good standards for democratic communication.

Here is what I mean.

The history of book banning is a history of inspiring stories, stories of mass suppression of ideas, copies of books collected so that they can be burned, publishers incarcerated, often ultimately to no avail as the power of an idea proved greater than the power of the state or of a fascistic party. Book banning, good people agree, should be fought against, and is a source of inspiration to fight for what is right. Banned Books Week taps into people’s response to these historical narratives and aims to prevent the suppression of ideas from recurring. A noble intention and a narrative resource.

The problem that I see with Banned Books Week is that what counts as a “banned book” is actually a “challenged book,” and what counts as a challenged book is something quite different from an effort to prevent a book from being published, sold, or even made available in a library. Most of the cases of challenged books that are reported as a part of Banned Books Week are cases where a parent of a child objects to a book being a part of their child’s school curriculum, or at other times in the school’s library, on the grounds of “age appropriateness.” Defenders of intellectual freedom, to my dismay, have an unwritten policy of never addressing the question of age appropriateness, leaving it as an unstated assumption that anything selected for the curriculum by educators as opposed to by parents is automatically age-appropriate, as though educators are incapable of error.

School districts have policies in place for reviewing challenges to books on the basis of age-appropriateness. Challenged books are reviewed and evaluated by committees that are charged with that responsibility, and then the school district makes an official decision regarding the book. Regardless of what the school’s decision turns out to be, regardless of its reasonableness or unreasonableness, and regardless of the objectivity or bias within the decision-making process in a specific case, all challenges to a book by a parent get counted as an attempt at book banning.

Personally, I agree with intellectual freedom orthodoxy that says that one family should not have the right to determine what other students are taught, and this is part of what public education is. But when a book is challenged and reviewed on the grounds of age-appropriateness, it is ultimately not the family that brought the challenge that makes the decision. The decision is made by the educational institution itself. We can hope that more often than not these decisions are well-informed and based more on educational psychology than they are on pressure from an ideological community group. They may not always be. But the decision about whether a book should remain a part of the curriculum or not is ultimately made by the public institution that put the book in the curriculum in the first place, which means that book challenges happen as a part of a process that the institution puts in place in order to get feedback from the community on the curriculum. (In some other areas, we on the left are fighting for more opportunities to influence local policies to meet local needs.)

What I want to emphasize about this is that the “book banning” that is the subject of Banned Books Week is not book banning as we understand it historically but part of the cultural fight over the school curriculum. Now, I am prepared to fight hard to keep rationality and science and humanism in the school curriculum, against the theocrats who seem to be making incredible progress in rolling back not only 20th century liberalism but the values behind the Constitution itself (i.e. secular democracy). But in fighting that fight over the curriculum, what I am ultimately fighting for is rational discourse as opposed to irrationality. If I give up basic standards of rational discourse and resort to strategic communication and propaganda… well, as we said about Al Qaida during the debate over the PATRIOT Act: “They have won.”

August 19, 2011

Suppression of science has continued, despite Obama’s Scientific Integrity Initiative

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility is coming to the defense of biologist Charles Monnett, who is being hounded by the Interior Department because of a 2006 publication that communicated alarming news about the effects of global warming on a polar bear population. Since the publication was in a peer-reviewed scientific journal and the investigators have not raised any specific questions about its scientific validity it seems to be an effort to suppress a finding for political reasons. Read more on the website of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. Thanks to Fred Stoss for sharing this information.

July 31, 2011

CFP: Information Literacy and Social Justice: Radical Professional Praxis (An Edited Collection)

CFP: Information Literacy and Social Justice: Radical Professional Praxis (An Edited Collection)

Shana Higgins and Lua Gregory are instruction and reference librarians at University of Redlands. They recently co-taught a first-year seminar titled, “Bleep! Censorship and Free Speech in the U.S.”

In her award winning essay “Information Literacy and Reflective Pedagogical Praxis,” Heidi L.M. Jacobs draws out the inherent democratizing and social justice elements of information literacy as defined in the “Alexandria Proclamation On Information Literacy and Lifelong Learning.” She suggests that because of these underlying social justice elements, information literacy “is not only educational but also inherently political, cultural, and social” (258). We propose to extend the discussion of information literacy and its social justice aspects that James Elmborg, Cushla Kapitzke, Maria T. Accardi, Emily Drabinski, and Alana Kumbier, and Maura Seale have begun. If we consider the democratizing values implicit in librarianship’s professional ethics (such as intellectual freedom, social responsibility, diversity, democracy and privacy, among others) in relation to the sociopolitical context of information literacy, we will begin to make intentional connections between professional advocacy and curriculum and pedagogy. We hope this book will encourage a renewal of professional discourse about libraries in their social context, through a re-activation of the “neutrality debate,” as well as through an investigation of what it means for a global citizen to be information literate in late capitalism.

Objective of book:
This edited collection, to be published by Library Juice Press in Fall 2012, poses the following questions: What are the limits of standards and outcomes, such as ACRL’s [i.e. Standard 1.2 The information literate student identifies a variety of types and formats of potential sources for information. ], in fitting information literacy instruction to the complex contexts of information in the real world? Would the teaching of social justice and the democratizing values of the library profession strengthen critical information literacy in the classroom? And how do we balance the need to teach search skills and critical information literacy in our instructional efforts?

Target audience:
The target audience for this book includes instruction librarians, library instruction program coordinators, faculty and instructors interested in information literacy, and all librarians interested in the political, economic, social, and cultural contexts of the production, dissemination, suppression, and consumption of information.

Possible topics:
We encourage proposals on the intersections of information literacy instruction with the democratizing values of the library profession.

  • Possible topics may include information literacy aspects of media coverage of war and embedded journalism, renewal of the Patriot Act, market-based censorship, for-profit libraries (Library Systems & Services), EPA library closures and access to environmental information, immigrants and library access, Wikileaks and government censorship, corporate censorship, anti-communism and anti-socialism in the media, classification of government documents, international and comparative studies on censorship, First Amendment protection to whistleblowers and the press, British Petroleum and oil spill research, global warming censorship, and library database mergers.
  • Examples of information literacy sessions focusing on the above topics and/or framed by democratizing and social justice values of the library profession. Examples can also be aimed at specific disciplines.
  • Discussions of theories/theorists (e.g. Noam Chomsky, Edward S. Herman, C. Wright Mills, Paulo Friere, Peter McClaren, etc.) and their usefulness in illuminating sociopolitical contexts of information within the classroom.
  • Discussions on the “neutrality debate” in light of the sociopolitical and cultural context of information.

Submission Guidelines:
Please submit abstracts and proposals of up to 500 words to ilandsocialjustice@gmail.com by September 15, 2011. Notifications will be sent by November 1 and manuscripts from 1,500-7,000 words will be due by March 1, 2012.

July 26, 2011

The bullshit problem #debtceiling

As a friend pointed out to me that The Daily Show has noted, the debate about the debt ceiling is ongoing because of a bullshit problem. I realized this while listening to President Obama’s speech about the debt ceiling last night. People are so accustomed to bullshit, especially in politics, that the default response to anyone’s statement is to assume that it is bullshit like everything else and dismiss it. That means that it can be very difficult to be heard when you are not bullshitting, even when you are the President of the United States (or perhaps especially when you are an elected official).

If you’re interested in this problem, then I would recommend a small book by philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt titled On Bullshit, from Princeton University Press. Videophiles can watch a 10-minute interview with him on the Princeton University Press website.

If, as Frankfurt says, the problem of bullshit is endemic of our times, how should librarians respond, given our role and potential role in the information ecology? (Not to extend the metaphor of bullshit to fertilizing the growth of plants…)

June 10, 2011

Articles on Canadian Media Studies

Just sharing this link to a nice-sized collection of articles on media studies and media ecology, most with a Canadian-theory slant. These articles are not heavy reading, and provide a good intro to a number of topics that you may be curious about.