December 8, 2014
More “right-sizing” bullshit.
Barnard faculty frustrated by plans to remove 40,000 books from library
Barnard’s faculty and staff claim they were shut out of the decision-making process for the new library, which faculty say also led to the resignation of the Dean of Barnard Library and Information Services Lisa Norberg.
Administrators outlined the plan for the new Teaching and Learning Center, which includes removing 40,000 books from Barnard’s on-site collections and moving research librarians to cubicles rather than offices, at a Dec. 2 faculty meeting, according to faculty and library staff present at the meeting.
October 22, 2014
Readers may know Naomi House as the founder and manager of INALJ.com (I Need a Library Job). I follow what Naomi is doing, and recently noticed that she is behind a new venture called T160K, which appears to be focused on preserving the famous library of historical treasures in Timbuktu. Naomi agreed to be interviewed here to tell people about this group and how they can get involved.
Naomi, thanks for being interviewed. I went to the website for your organization, t160k.org, and find that it gives tantalizing bits of information, but doesn’t answer the questions that one usually goes to an NGO website to find. It has the feel of an internet startup. Could you tell us what, and who, T160K is?
To start T160k isn’t an NGO. It’s a social impact startup–one of the latest breed of Internet startups who are applying technology to solving social problems. Crowdfunding has been a boon to socially-conscious project all around the world. That’s why we’re launching a crowdfunding platform specifically to focus on cultural preservation and development in Africa.
T160K, which was focused on preserving the famous library of historical treasures in Timbuktu previously, is now going beyond Timbuktu and creating a crowdforming platform helping to further the work of cultural preservation and artistic creativity in Africa. Many librarians and archivists are familiar with the Indiegogo campaign Libraries in Exile, that my co-founders Stephanie Diakité and Tony Dowler worked on in partnership to raise funds for the preservation of the rescued manuscripts in Timbuktu. I met Stephanie in Cape Town, South Africa when we spoke on the same Breakout session panel at a conference. She was also the keynote speaker. We discussed the need to have the manuscripts cataloged, which will be one of the first of the new T160K campaigns. I was drawn to the aspect that we would be helping fund raise in support of people as well as projects. I have spent the past four years volunteering my time at INALJ helping others find jobs. A few months later we began discussions about forming a social purpose corporation and creating a crowdforming platform helping to further the work of cultural preservation and artistic creativity in Africa, which will launch on October 27th.
Wow, that sounds very exciting, and it sounds like important work. I recall reading about the situation with the library in Timbuktu, but I don’t remember the details. I had not had any idea that you were involved with that effort. But I wonder if you could clarify a little bit what is going on with cultural preservation work in this context. I understand that your group raises money, but are you working with other organizations who work on the ground there, or are you doing that part as well? How does it work, and how do the funds get used?
I am a relative newcomer to T106K.org. We were formed as a social purpose corporation / crowdfunding platform this past summer so I wasn’t around for the fundraising efforts last year for the preservation of the rescued Timbuktu manuscripts. In its previous life T160K was formed to help raise funds to preserve rescued manuscripts. T160K wasn’t doing the actual preservation work; archivists and librarians on the ground in Mali were, but we were running the Indiegogo campaign to raise funds for materials and partnered with the actual preservationists in Mali to do so. Shortly after the manuscripts were rescued the rainy season started. T160K raised funds on Indiegogo which were used to purchase moisture traps, archival boxes, and the additional footlockers required to safely store these manuscripts, as well as to cover the significant labor effort required to un-box and re-pack the manuscripts for preservation.
Now looking forward we will be running a new campaign with those on the ground who rescued the manuscripts and preserved them to catalog them. Our role is as a fundraising platform. One thing we do that is special to T160K is that we partner with organizations that have oversight on the projects on the ground. We select projects that have made incredible contributions to preserving various African cultural traditions and who will work with us to get the message out.
T160K.org is expanding its scope beyond its original Timbuktu manuscript project to include a wide variety of partnerships and projects with a focus on African patrimony (culture/ heritage/ arts). We have already lined up the Timbuktu manuscript cataloging project, Circus Debre Berhan in Ethiopia, i4africa.org West African musical tradition teachers and more as partners for our crowdfunding platform launch on October 27th!
That sounds good. Thanks for clarifying. So when you launch the new crowdfunding platform, will there be more detail about what the funds will be used for? I know that I would be more interested in donating if I had a clear picture of what would be happening as a result, who the preservationists and catalogers are. I think their stories would be inspiring. Or are the plans for the money that specific at this point?
Definitely! We will provide clear descriptions of what the funds will be used for. I’d consider that a best practice for any crowdfunding campaign, ours included. Every project is submitting a budget as part of the concept note. We may not provide a line-item breakdown on the page, but in most cases we have that level of detail from the beginning. One of the reasons I believe strongly in what we are doing is that we help raise funds for the people on the ground who are doing the work as well as the materials, etc.
We have already begun sharing images on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest with the permission of our partners and we will be blogging about the projects as well so you can get a better sense of the mission of each one. I am making individual boards on Pinterest for each project, for example, and many of our partners have a web presence already. In addition to the Timbuktu manuscript cataloging project we are also partnering with Circus Debre Berhan, in Ethiopia, a troupe and training program that focuses on marginalized individuals, and instruments4africa, which was formed to teach traditional music and the arts in West Africa, specifically Mali. This is just the beginning, but each project/partnership is vetted by T160K.org staff.
Also the crowdfunding projects that we will be sharing are often in established organizations with a specific desired fundraising project. I know my co-founder, Stephanie Diakité, has met with many of these partners in Mali, Ethiopia and beyond. Stephanie has a wealth of gender and transformational development capacity building experience in Sub-Saharan Africa. And now we are launching T160K.org as a global crowdsourcing mechanism in support of African cultural patrimony and heritage preservation, promotion and development. Our partners are doing amazing work and we hope through T160K to further the work of cultural preservation and artistic creativity in Africa.
I am sold! That is sounding really great. It’s not tax-deductible though, is it? Have you thought about organizing as a non-profit?
We did – but the social purpose corporation is a better fit what we are trying to do as a business. 🙂
Do you plan to be listed on Charity Navigator?
Unfortunately, Charity Navigator only evaluates US-based 501.c(3) charities. As a Social Purpose Corporation, T160k doesn’t meet their criteria for evaluation. I think as Social Purpose Corporations grow in popularity, we’ll see more public interest in sharing their missions. B Lab is a great resource for learning about socially-conscious businesses and what they are doing.
One of the big plusses of Charity Navigator is information about a charity’s transparency and ratio of revenues that go into administrative costs. Do you think you’ll share that kind of info?
We are dedicated to being transparent. Currently we are collecting a 15% crowdfunding fee on the funds collected. Everything else goes to the organizations we’re supporting. We’ll always make sure that the fees we collect are clearly shown on our web site.
Excellent. I think that will give people confidence in donating. Is there anything else you’d like people to know about T160K before we close?
One of the reasons we decided we wanted to create a new crowdfunding platform as opposed to running campaigns on existing platforms is we wanted the flexibility for both short term projects as well as long term patronage fund raising efforts. We wanted the flexibility to create the campaigns our partners need, and not be limited by but inspired by that. Each partnership will be unique and we will be involved at every stage. We know our partners and believe in the work they are doing, something larger platforms simply cannot be.
That makes sense. Thanks for telling us about T160K. It sounds like it’s very well-thought out and something that will be very helpful to African cultural patrimony.
Thanks 🙂 I am thankful to be a part of it, truly.
November 8, 2013
SustainRT Virtual Discussion
Free; Open to the whole library community
Help shape the future of SustainRT, ALA’s new Sustainability round table!
Dec. 11, 2013
12:00-1:00 pm (EST)
The discussion will be recorded and available later to those who register.
Objectives of this open meeting:
1) Provide a brief history and status update of SustainRT including upcoming nominations for officers
2) Capture YOUR input, needs, and vision to help shape the future of SustainRT (the mission of which is “to exchange ideas and opportunities and provide resources for the library community to support sustainability.”)
3) Provide a venue for meeting virtually to continue our important networking and dialogue.
From the SustainRT Steering Committee:
Rebekkah Aldrich, Jonathan Betz-Zall, Madeleine Charney, Mara Egherman, Elaine Harger, Ashley Jones, Carrie Moran, Leighann Wood, Bonnie Smith
For more information, contact Ashley Jones email@example.com or 513-529-2887
March 13, 2013
I have just interviewed Beth Knazook, an image archivist who has worked for the Ryerson University Archives & Special Collections and as the Photo Archivist for the Stratford Festival of Canada. Her expertise is in photographic preservation and photographic collection management, and that is the subject of her introductory course for Library Juice Academy next month, “What Do I Do With All These Pictures? Getting Started With Digital Image Collections.” Beth agreed to be interviewed to give people a better sense of what they will learn from the class and about her background as an instructor.
April 10, 2012
(I’m usually pretty lackluster when it comes to generating blog post titles, but at least for this one I ignored my brain when it repeatedly suggested “A Radical Archive Grows in Brooklyn.”)
A few weeks ago, a group of librarians was invited to an evening at the new Interference Archive in Brooklyn, NY, not far from the Gowanus Canal. The Interference Archive “explores the relationship between cultural production and social movements,” according to its mission statement. The space opened in mid-December 2011 and represents 20-25 years of the collecting of countercultural and political memorabilia in the areas of feminism, punk rock, criminal justice, and more.
Two of the three collective members, Josh MacPhee and Molly Fair, met with us librarians and archivists and talked about the present and future of the Archive. (The third collective member is Kevin Caplicki, and the late Dara Greenwald is also an integral element.) The Archive began, inadvertently, around a quarter century ago when Josh and Dara independently started saving print and other materials related to the movements they were active in. When they decided to open a public space, the guiding question was how to translate longstanding personal collections into something accessible and relevant to other activists.
Josh and Dara felt that the collection they had amassed should be controlled by the community and not risk falling through the cracks if it were given to an institution. It should be accessible — literally and emotionally — to activists, non-students, and others who may not feel comfortable trying to use a university archive. The Archive’s philosophy is to privilege use over preservation (and, in the process, to get the stuff out of the living room).
Just how much stuff are we talking about? Josh and Molly estimated that the Archive includes 3000-5000 books, roughly the same number of pamphlets, 20 drawers of posters and prints, and hundreds of newspapers, plus t-shirts, buttons, and other items that social movements produce. At a guesstimate, they said that 40% of the materials are from outside the U.S.
The shelving and drawers that hold the items are in the middle third of the space. At the front is an open area for displays. Right now, they have a Squatting Europe Kollective Library exhibit up, and they’re organizing future exhibitions, to change on a quarterly basis or so. There’s even a small public coworking space in the rear. The collective’s vision for the Archive, besides the obviously archival function, is for it to serve as a space to socialize and engage with history.
The Archive’s inspirations include Brooklyn’s own Lesbian Herstory Archives and the Freedom Archives in terms of their autonomy, commitment to community, and representations of living history. Another model is “Signs of Change,” an incredible, wide-ranging exhibit that Josh and Dara themselves organized at Manhattan’s Exit Art gallery in 2008.
One key difference between the Archive and more traditional institutions is that while materials may be well-preserved in a museum, the staff there doesn’t necessarily know what they have, and they cherry-pick the highest-profile artists. Josh talked about visiting the archives at the Museum of Modern Art, which displays the Keith Haring and Claus Oldenberg work but leaves the American Indian Movement posters and other items “not cool enough to catalog” (a real staff notation, Josh swore) in drawers. As Josh and Molly put it, they don’t follow the “hero” model.
During our visit, there was a lot of discussion about how to build an Interference Archive catalog. Molly is looking into Collective Access for the database. They want whatever platform they choose to be able to store data that’s meaningful to activists — such as whether a poster was printed in a movement print shop. An archivist from a labor library pointed out, to several heads nodding in agreement, that archivists these days know a lot about metadata and the technology of archival access, but they don’t necessarily know — or care — about finding the context of the material. Projects are grant-driven, and the people who get hired are the ones with the data skills.
At any rate, digitization is not the answer here — it doesn’t automatically lead to permanence anyway, and the Archive collective is very sensitive to the fact that the experience of viewing a PDF is simply not as rich as handling the actual poster. They also recognize that images shouldn’t just be available online, floating around without context. Otherwise, they’re just “empty signifiers,” as Josh said.
The subject of copyright came up. Josh and Molly framed the issue as the question of whether they’re in the service of the movement and its inheritors, or of the producers of the materials. Essentially, the collective is still working out how to deal with creators’ rights regarding reproduction of their images — complicated terrain, to be sure. They also noted that their and others’ research on the context of production will help keep people from claiming ownership of collectively-produced pieces, which has happened in the past.
So, what’s next for the Archive? A major policy question they’re grappling with now is what to do about intake. Josh and Molly talked about needing a collection development policy as well as a referral list for people who are offering items that ultimately don’t fit in the archive. They’re also figuring out how to shelve materials. In the absence of a database that can assign multiple descriptors to an item, where it’s physically located is a key determination for the time being. More conceptually, they need to confront their own bias. The collective members come from anti-authoritarian, horizontal traditions and tend to privilege materials in that vein, but they don’t want to be just an anarchist archive.
If you’re in the NYC area and are now totally amped to help out at the Interference Archive, here are some things you can be a part of:
- The Archive is open only Sundays for now, and the collective is looking for reliable people to get involved and ideally allow the space to be open more hours.
- Right now all the funding is out of pocket, and they’re looking for funding models as well as a fiscal sponsor.
- They’re also looking for people to facilitate events that are connected to the collection — for example, themed critique and analysis sessions, art-making workshops, and cataloging parties.
- And they wouldn’t turn down DIY preservation tips. They need to balance preservation with a low budget, and buffer paper is expensive!
October 13, 2011
I spent the better part of Wednesday at VuStuff II, a small regional gathering hosted by Villanova University’s Falvey Memorial Library, which focused on the intersection of technology and scholarly communication in libraries. The attendees were an interesting mix of people from academic and special libraries, and included library directors, archivists, systems librarians, special collections librarians, reference librarians, technical services librarians, and more. In the group discussion session, some of us regretted the lack of representation from public libraries. It sounded like it is now on the agenda to do outreach to that sector next year.
I’ve been impressed with what’s going on at Villanova for awhile now. Not only are they doing some of the most interesting, cutting-edge work that I’ve seen in terms of presenting digital content from their special collections, but the culture of their library work environment is very different (and I might judge it as “better”) than what I know of in other libraries and work settings. This is an outsider’s view, based on perceptions gleaned from what people who work there have told me and things that I’ve read. The following are some of the things I find particularly intriguing and feel might serve as a good model for other places to consider: 1) Falvey library staff are given time to explore special projects based on their own interests. By doing this, the library is taking a risk – some work hours may indeed be “wasted,” but new products and new services may be born. A lot of workplaces harp on the need for employees to be “creative,” “collaborative,” and “innovative,” but very few actually provide the time and space to support their staff in doing this. 2) Falvey funds technology. Money for digital projects and technology-based services is written into the budget. Many workplaces expect staff to “make do” with no financial support or else fund projects on an ad hoc basis. Falvey models the fact that superior technology-based projects require dedicated, on-going funding. 3) Falvey diversifies the responsibility for technology. There is no one staff position that is responsible for technology initiatives; rather, various aspects of technology are integrated into the job descriptions of numerous library staff members. This means that if a library staff position is cut or a staff member leaves, technology initiatives don’t evaporate along with that change. 4) Falvey supports open access. The VuFind product they’ve developed for use as a flexible library resource portal is available for free through a GPL open source license. The digital library content they present is available freely to anyone (with a few exceptions for some materials with outside restrictions). Instead of partnering with commercial interests to market a product, Falvey keeps to the ideal of libraries providing information and resources free-of-charge.
I think that Joe Lucia, Villanova’s university librarian and the director of Falvey Memorial Library, deserves a lot of credit for his leadership in these areas. I missed his opening remarks at the conference, but found his questions and comments throughout the sessions to be interesting and thought-provoking. He seems to be looking further forward than many library directors, asking questions like “What does it mean for libraries if the ILS as we know it is dead in the next five to eight years?” “What does it mean if 80% of the content of our book collections is available electronically?” A word to the wise is that the two books he specifically mentioned were Siva Vaidhyanathan’s The Googlization of Everything and R. David Lankes’ The Atlas of New Librarianship.
The presentations at the conference were informative and sometimes inspiring. Amy Baker of the University of Pittsburgh described the preservation of archival mining maps project that her institution has been involved in, spurred by a mining accident in western Pennsylvania. Working in conjunction with the Pennsylvania Department of Environment Protection, this project is a good example of a university/government partnership that provides publicly available information in order to help protect people and property. It reminded me that while librarians and archivists rarely see our work as possibly having life-or-death consequences – sometimes it does.
Eric Lease Morgan of the University of Notre Dame demonstrated the Catholic Research Resources Alliance website (the “Catholic Portal”) and explained how it uses the VuFind product to draw together metadata from various formats and sources into one seamless product. I was particularly interested in its ability to perform full text searches and construct KWIC word concordances. I’m not sure how well known or well utilized this site is, but I think it holds a great deal of potential for researchers in literature, history, religious studies, and other fields to mine text data for a variety of purposes.
Eric Zino of the LYRASIS library network explained the Mass Digitization Collaborative, undertaken to help libraries digitize selected resources in a cost effective way. Unique items of historical value have been the major focus, although participating libraries are free to choose any materials they wish to include (provided copyright restrictions are met). Digitized materials are made publicly available via the Internet Archive, and can also be hosted locally. This project underscored the benefits of libraries working together to cut costs, minimize staff time spent on projects, produce consistent products, and share content more broadly.
I missed the final presentation of the conference, which was Rob Behary of Duquesne University speaking on his library’s project to digitize the Pittsburgh Catholic newspaper. His presentation highlighted some of the benefits of moving from microfilm to digital content. Most librarians will agree that efforts like this, to preserve smaller regional publications with a unique focus or viewpoint, are an important service that libraries should be involved in.
All in all, this was an interesting day with plenty of time for networking built in. I enjoyed reconnecting with former colleagues and students, and meeting some new people as well. It was particularly rewarding to be with a group of people who were interested in moving library services forward into the 21st century, while still retaining the traditional library value of open access to information. I suspect that organizers may be seeking larger quarters for future VuStuff gatherings as its reputation continues to grow.
May 16, 2011
MiT7 was a great conference – intimate, warm, stimulating, interdisciplinary, and cutting-edge. There were some brilliant minds at work. I plan to post a few comments on the conference later. For now, here are links to podcasts from the three topical plenary sessions:
Media in Transition 7: Unstable Platforms
Archives and Cultural Memory
Power and Empowerment
May 11, 2011
Media in Transition 7 (MiT 7), a small conference at MIT, is starting Friday and running ’till Sunday. I will be there; if you will be there too please say hello.
Anyone wanting to follow the Twitter hash tag can look for #mit7.
March 25, 2011
I am not personally diving into the discussion of Judge Chin’s decision on the Google Settlement, because I am too war-weary of fighting it out with other librarians on issues where I feel like a lone dissenter, but I will go as far as to say that I like this post on the topic by David Crotty: The Google Books Settlement: Where Things Stand, and Some Suggestions for What’s Next….
September 22, 2010
An item in the New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” section in the last issue is about the difficulty of keeping track of a valuable information object over time: a concert ticket. How do people remember where they put it? This one has to do with a long awaited reunion show by Pavement, in Central Park. It’s what I would call a Gen X information experience.
June 21, 2009
A cultural theme in America for the past few decades has been a certain conservative populist “anti-elitism.” Barack Obama’s victory despite his vulnerability to the charge of elitism – owing to his statements about small town America “clinging to guns and religion,” his educational background, and his personal choice to assume an intelligent audience when he speaks – may mark the beginning of the end of this trend, for now. But the theme of cultural anti-elitism is still evident in the culture in a wide variety of forms – in popular culture, marketing, religion, and backlash against social ideas that have a strong foothold in the academy.
Oddly, as Thomas Frank has observed, America’s present anti-elitism is not directed at the power elites whose existence is what keeps America from its ideal of democracy but always at cultural elites – you know, people who think they know more than the average Joe or talk in ways that the average Joe doesn’t understand. In Frank’s diagnosis this problem was initially the fault of upper-middle class liberals who, because of their social class, could afford to protest the Vietnam war while the same generation’s working class lacked the leisure of college students and lacked the resources to escape the draft when called up. As a result, over the decades the education/class gap manifests as resentment against a class of liberals who, to “mainstream America” “just don’t get it.”
Thomas Frank’s recommended strategy for the Democrats in his 2005 book, What’s the Matter With Kansas, was to emphasize economic issues that the party’s traditional base cares about and to de-emphasize social issues for which the working class and a growing population of Hispanic voters supposedly have less sympathy – gay rights, abortion rights, funding for the arts, funding for higher education, etc. Frank’s recommendations were heard within Washington’s corridors (he moved there from Chicago after the book was published) and seem to have had some effect on Democratic policy directions.
Cultural anti-elitism is not always tied to anti-liberal backlash, however, at least not directly. I have encountered it in institutions of higher education over the years, coming from administrators who are more in touch with the pulse of funding than they are with the pulse of academic life, or from students who clearly aren’t in college because they are interested in intellectual pursuits but because they want that ticket to a middle class job. Administrators and tuition-payers want the curriculum to be “more relevant” to the needs of today’s college students, who, after all, have a louder voice than in the past because of the increased role of tuition and fees and the declining role of state subsidies in higher education. “Relevant,” unfortunately, means (on balance) less demanding and less theoretical, because today’s students are not inclined to spend much time reading for class, are less intellectually prepared for college-level work, are over-scheduled due to full time jobs and social activities, and relatively uninterested in academic subjects. To administrators, faculty who insist on high intellectual standards 1) have their heads in the sand and 2) don’t know which side their bread is buttered on. Faculty who get this message understand what is going on, but wonder who, if not they, are going to preserve, pass on, and encourage cultural achievements and the life of the mind.
After all, people whose lives are lived in the midst of poetry, science, art, and philosophy seldom choose to refer to themselves as “cultural elitists;” the term implies a populist perspective. From their own perspective, their ability to engage in these cultural pursuits, and the existence of an educational system that opens doors to this world to people of all backgrounds, is a primary measure of a society’s attainment of civilization.
It is one thing to make the populist argument that academics are out of touch with real world problems (sometimes they are, sometimes they’re not) but it’s another thing to devalue their cultural contributions or show hostility toward their values in favor of “real world, practical concerns.” Unfortunately, hostility toward what E. M. Forster called the aristocracy of the sensitive is present in academic institutions, which one would expect to be a refuge.
So there is the story; here is what it means in the context of debates in academic libraries.
A number of related trends that are influencing decisions in academic libraries are supported by cultural anti-elitism (though other factors of change may be more fundamental to them). The first is that of “adapting to the Millenials.” Among other things, this means retooling our services to suit students who we take it as a given will study by spending 20 minutes watching YouTube videos rather than six hours reading (selling them short in the process). The second trend is that of “making the collection more relevant.” Among other things, this means catering to popular tastes and duplicating the offerings of local public libraries, with circulation statistics to back up the shift of resources. The third trend that finds anti-elitist support is the continuing rationalization of work processes in libraries through automation, outsourcing, and bureaucratic efficiency measures, and the deprofessionalization into which it factors.
There is an enforcement dynamic that accompanies these trends. If you question the wisdom of moving in these directions, you are “against change.” The expectation is to demonstrate that you are a forward thinking librarian (countering the stereotypes) by de-prioritizing precisely what is offered by academic libraries alone in society – a rich collection of scholarly and literary texts and a high level of knowledge of what they contain in order to provide meaningful access to them. Instead, there is pressure to put emphasis on what people in other enterprises are already doing better and for which they are looked to first – social media, new media, and web technology. In jumping on the bandwagon we are jumping out of the boat. Anti-elitist pressure pushes in this direction because of what it values and de-values.
I think it is worth shifting the discussion away from the meaningless frame of “change, for it or against it” (as though “change” can only mean one thing) and toward the more relevant, underlying issue of anti-elitism versus the cultural pursuits that the academy is here to protect and cultivate. There is a thread of anti-intellectualism running through much of the talk about relevance and change that must be pointed out and identified on the spot – on blogs, at meetings, at conference presentations – so that it can be tied to its specific roots and manifestations, and separated out from a rational discussion of where to go from here. We should ask, who is being served and what is being undercut by specific changes? What is behind them? And, we should reject references to “change” in general as though its specifics are a given and not subject to intelligent planning, with consideration of the ends we want to achieve.
It’s funny how a lack of perspective can make cultural decay look like progress….
May 4, 2009
MIT has posted podcasts from the five plenary sessions at Media in Transition 6, at the Comparative Media Studies program’s podcast page. The plenary sessions were on “Archives and History,” “New Media, Civic Media,” “Institutional Perspectives on Storage,” “The Future of Publishing,” and “Summary Perspectives.” I think these plenary sessions were the best part of the conference. Glad they’re posted.
April 27, 2009
I attended Media in Transition 6: Stone and Papyrus, Storage and Transmission in Cambridge, MA, April 24-26. (Follow that link for a summary of what the conference was about.) Here are my thoughts about the conference after returning home.
Of primary interest to me, coming from Duluth, MN, where it was below freezing yesterday, was the beautiful weather and quaint, New Englandy setting of Cambridge. It was warm, approaching the 70s. Second after the weather and the architecture the most noticeable thing about Cambridge, coming from the Midwest and California before that, are the sharply drawn, heavily defining class lines. You can feel that it matters what your background is to people in that part of the country. While it is refreshing to be in a place where intellectualism is generally respected, it is annoying how that appreciation always seems to come with a measurement of rank (what university you’re associated with, etc.).
Walking into the Sloane building at the kickoff of the conference, what was most noticeable was the way that people looked. Black clothing, trendy eyewear, and hip messenger bags created an impression of with-it-ness and sexiness that matched the paper abstracts on the website. Beginning to speak with people personally, though, I quickly realized that, more than hip and sexy, this was a crowd of extremely interesting and dynamic individuals.
Listening to papers over a couple of days, I did notice a certain degree of academic vanity and ego that is an underlying issue in academia, perhaps more at MIT6 than in some other places, because of the sexiness of the subject matter. You could hear the effort that many of the young scholars put into stringing together impressive and artful sentences, and I felt a little embarrassed to recognize my own writing priorities in theirs (since those artful sentences could have been written just as clearly without the showiness). I think it is a rare person who pursues a profession as an intellectual who can remain uncorrupted by the issues of ego and vanity that run through academia.
The conference, since it was so much about what is new and changing, had the feel of young intellectuals staking their claims, but not everyone there was young. The inter-generational dynamic was important. There were a number of well established senior faculty who held forth and got respect, but sometimes seemed to be struggling to keep up with the pace of change that younger academics at the conference were aggressively pushing forward with papers on Youtube and how it has reshaped things, etc. To get a sense of the energy of the young scholars at the conference, take a look at the action on Twitter over the past few days.
While there were a lot of women at the conference, there were few minorities, and some women noted how male-dominated the large-scale discussions tended to be. This is despite gender and multiculturalism frequently appearing as aspects of presented papers.
As a librarian, and not a professor or a grad student, and not immersed in media studies, I felt somewhat outside of the intellectual currents that flowed through the conference. Thankfully, it was an interdisciplinary-enough event that most people were less than totally familiar with the discourse that underlay most others’ papers, which put everyone in more or less the same boat, at least part of the time. That said, I definitely felt aware of my own non-specialist, perhaps dilettante-ish approach to scholarly discourse. I like having the freedom to engage in an idea briefly, communicate an original thought to someone who might make use of it, and move on. My interests are too wide-ranging to focus on a topic for years on end the way a professor is required to do. I can only admire the work that many of the academics at this conference put into developing their ideas about new media into solid works that might have an influence on the way society solves problems or navigates the way forward, but I am also glad that that is not a part of my job description. I don’t have quite the attention span or temperament for it.
One of the MIT Communications Forum members who kicked off the conference on Friday said that there were over 300 papers being presented. The abstracts and many of the actual papers are online on the MIT6 site – I encourage you to peruse them. Over the course of the weekend I found the energy and sheer volume of discussion and ideas to be overwhelming, so that Sunday morning my head was spinning, and I sat out that day’s sessions. The conference was larger than expected, and attracted so many bright, original young thinkers who want to push ahead with social research about new media and the web that I am left with the impression that this may have been a landmark conference – if not delineating then at least marking a point of fruition and maturity in studies of new, social media, Web 2.0 and the like. The conference was at MIT, and the book table showing MIT Press’ new publications in the area of new media and related topics was a further indication of the what a state of fruition this area of study is in. Take a look at the MIT Press website to see what I mean.
I mentioned that I felt somewhat an outsider at the conference because of my reading interests and work role. Making me feel further outside, or against, the current, was the fact that this conference was very much about the future – speculating about what it will be as well as creating it – while I am often more interested in what we can learn from the past. The sheer volume and energy of the ideas about the future and the rapidly transforming present made me feel my age, and I’m not that old yet.
When I go to conferences, I like to think about what questions are set to emerge but are only suggested in the papers and discussions. One set of questions that I think we will begin to face in librarianship concerns the death of the public sphere and the emergence of disparate publics, and how these relate to social media and digital archives. Many presenters worked from the assumption of a public sphere (whether their ideas concerned journalism, archives, youtube, or communities that would form around electronic books). The question of “publics” versus “the public” did come up explicitly in the question/ answer period following a session about the “new civic journalism,” where Patricia Aufdferheide and Mary Bryson debated Afderheide’s deliberate use of the term “publics” in a way that referred to an ultimate appeal to a broader public sphere were social problems can be communicated and refereed. The sheer volume of communication, and the sharp differences between potential audiences, made me wonder if such a public sphere is possible any longer (I’m very late in doubting it), and how access to discussion about texts will end up being negotiated – how social media groups will form or be formed and access to their discussions regulated.
The ideas that circulated at this conference will, I believe, eventually find their way into our smaller pond of library studies, and I believe we will have many uses for them. I recommend the MIT6 archive of presented papers as a store of ideas.
I did find myself wishing, on a number of occasions, that more LIS people were present. For example, there was a lot of interest and discussion of digital archives and the role of the archive in society, but no academics who could speak to the issues in archival theory and archival appraisal that were glossed over by speakers, who seemed almost unaware that such a discipline exists. In the first plenary discussion, for example, there was an unquestioned assumption that archivists want to keep everything, with no reference made to archival appraisal, which was very much at issue.
This conference really wore me out. I think I will pass on the next one, but I hope it is attended by more librarians and archivists than this one was.
April 22, 2009
From today’s Inside Higher Ed, “Digital Archives That Disappear,” a brief article about Google’s shutdown of the historical newspaper archive Paper of Record, which it secretly purchased in 2006.
This is a good example of what many people have feared about Google’s success – that turning over information resources from shared, public control in library-related settings to the private, for-profit sector we would begin to see public access constrained.
Google has restored access to Paper of Record temporarily, but, being who they are it would be foolish not to assume that they will be spending the time figuring out how to effectively monetize the resource to make back their investment. Historians will have to pay for access to the resources that they need, in a case where the resources in question had already been paid for and were publicly accessible.
April 9, 2009
If you’re like me, you work in a library that is facing tough decisions (no irony intended by that cliché phrase) as a result of budget cuts during the economic crisis. The choice between cutting staff and cutting the budget for materials is the easy one – protect the people who work in the library and do with less than an adequate budget for books and videos until things turn around.
Beyond that the decisions begin to get more difficult, because acquisitions budgets were already tight before the economy entered into a recession.
I would like to emphasize what I believe is an important consideration as we think this problem through, one based on the long view and the preservation function of libraries. I can see us looking back on this period 20 years from now, and being saddened by a tragic hole that exists in the written record because of a lack of funds for collecting certain materials for some number of years. What kinds of materials might we end up wishing we had collected but now find it tempting to cut out of the budget? In terms of preservation, it is most likely going to be materials that aren’t collected and preserved by a major research library, which probably means materials published in your own region or locality, or in a specialty that is unique to your institution. For example, if you are paying to have a local or regional newspaper microfilmed or digitized, there may be no one else doing it if you discontinue that activity now. If you’re considering discontinuing a print subscription to something obscure that has an important role in the activities of your own faculty because it’s been picked up by an aggregator, you should consider that the written record may ultimately depend on your maintaining that print subscription. And to make matters more difficult, institutions aren’t sharing much information with each other at present about what they are considering cutting.
What I want to point out is that our preservation role is at its most important during those times when it’s hardest to maintain, because others, under the same pressures, may not be doing the job.