February 7, 2016

A book I regret passing on – The Gen-X Librarian

Robbie Franklin of McFarland Publishers was generous in his advice when I was first starting Library Juice Press back in 2005/2006. So I have often thought of his press in relation to books we’ve been working on. In 2010 and 2011 there was a project we had gotten going on Generation X librarians and the issues they face. The project was in the works for a few years, at a time when people were still talking about Generation X, and Millennials had not quite yet taken their place in the world. They were thought of as students, while generation X-ers had come back from their post-college slacking in the former Czechoslovakia and were in the workforce, dealing with Boomer supervisors. The editors of this collection of chapters pulled it all together and sent it to me, and at the time I was unhappy with it. I was interested in sociological studies about what made Gen Xers different, and the book ended up emphasizing case studies and personal reports of workplace issues. I was not happy with that, but I had also grown somewhat bitter about the discussion of generational issues in general, and increasingly skeptical of that discourse. So I decided not to publish the book, and I suggested to the editors that they take it to McFarland. McFarland published it in 2011, and I think it was a successful book for them. (It is still in print.)

I now regret not publishing the book, because I find myself bothered by the way my generation seems to have been forgotten. The discussion is all Millennials versus Boomers now. Boomers used to be very anxious about Gen-Xers and what our differences implied for society. There was a discussion in librarianship at the beginning of the internet era about the “new breed” of librarians, who had tattoos, etc., and who were more connected to technology. Now that we are no longer the new breed, it has become less clear what we represent. Part of the Gen X discourse in the 90s and early 2000s was about how we were getting the short end of the stick economically, and existed on the fringes of a society that was geared toward Boomers. I think it’s clear that Millennials are the ones who really got the short end of the stick economically, but Gen Xers still seem to be in the margins in some way, at least in the margins of people’s awareness of generational difference.

My feeling about generational differences, really, is that the way generations are described would be more accurately understood as descriptions of what our society is like at the present moment, for anyone who is really connected to the present moment. That is why it always bothers me when Gen Xers or millennials are blamed for their supposed failings. These “failings” are reflections of the society in which the new generation enters, not of character issues that young people can be held responsible for. I hate seeing younger generations bashed by older generations, as though generational differences originate from anything other than the world that older generations have left in their wake.

I also feel that the way generational differences are so much discussed and emphasized is a product of the “generation gap” of the 1960s, which was stronger than previous intergenerational experience. I think that has resulted in a heightened awareness among Boomers in particular of generational differences, where Gen Xers or Millennials might not have found them so important independent of these discussions. (Not a criticism, just an observation.)

So those are the thoughts that fed into my decision to drop the project after the editors had finished it. I regret it now because as long as these generational differences are going to continue to be discussed, I would like to play a part in seeing Gen Xers remembered in it. Not that it makes a difference; the book has done well with McFarland. I hope people will continue to buy the book and read it. I think it’s still relevant.

May 22, 2014

Why I dropped out of a PhD program

As a rule, this is not a personal blog. I have only taken the liberty to talk about my own life a few times over the years. I’ve decided to make an exception here, to tell people why I dropped out of a PhD program in information studies.

I know a lot of people who are in PhD programs who think about dropping out from time to time, and I know people who are considering going for a PhD and want to think about their decision carefully. This is a pretty popular topic for people to blog about in academia, but every person’s situation is a bit different, so I don’t feel that another voice will be redundant. My issues taken together were unique to me as a student, but people might relate to some of them, and I hope that these reflections will be helpful.

First, why I decided to go for a PhD in information studies in the first place. When I was getting my MLIS in the late 90s, I thought that I would never want further schooling in the field. But working as a librarian was never completely fulfilling for me. I was unhappy as a librarian; over the years I made do by pursuing outside projects: publishing the Library Juice email newsletter and continuing it as a blog, starting Library Juice Press, being active in SRRT and PLG and serving on ALA Council. I consistently felt that the real life for me in librarianship was in professional activities outside of my actual job – working on committees, writing and reading about librarianship, publishing books in the field. So eventually when the time came to leave or die inside, taking the step into the “meta-profession,” the academic field of LIS, seemed like a logical thing to do. It would also allow me to explore some growing intellectual interests that weren’t directly about libraries, but indirectly related.

Fast forward to the Fall of 2011. I entered the doctoral program in information studies at UCLA. Back on the West Coast where I felt like I belonged, in a stimulating intellectual environment. In my courses I quickly found that my previous outside work served me well as a student. I was already familiar with most of the authors we read, and in fact had met many of them personally. I enjoyed many of the readings, and enjoyed what my fellow students brought to the discussion. Over the course of the first year, however, I grew increasingly uncomfortable with my new life on a number of fronts.

First, it turned out to be not as ideal an intellectual fit as I had thought it would be going in. Despite having more room for humanistic studies in IS than many other schools, the emphasis in the program is still strongly on social science research methods. I wanted to apply post-Cartesian philosophical ideas to information technology and its role in society – looking at artificial intelligence, the role of algorithms, automated knowledge organization, etc. My perspective on these kinds of issues is informed mainly by the German philosophic tradition going back to the 19th century romantics and up through the phenomenologists and post-Heideggerian hermeneuticists. I also like Marcuse and Habermas and other people in the Frankfurt School, and I felt that their approaches to technology and system-versus-lifeworld could be useful as a way of pursuing my interests. There are people in the social sciences who have adopted related approaches to knowing about the world, but I had trouble finding a way of studying my topics in a social science context. I wanted to theorize philosophically. If I had stayed in the program, I would have found a way to do something along these lines, but it would not have been an easy path, because despite the great faculty, there is nobody there who is well qualified to serve as a thesis adviser based on this kind of approach. I learned also that there aren’t a lot of people in the field who share my interests or views, and in fact I encountered people who said that what I wanted to do was not information studies. I feel confident that it was, but at this point I would rather advance related positions as a publisher than as an academic.

There were other serious issues. I was an older student, and faced typical challenges. The main difficulty that older students face in doctoral programs is that they already have a life that leaves limited room for being a student. Younger students have the freedom to throw themselves into their studies completely. Often the outside commitments older students have are family or a job. In my case it was publishing books. Although my book publishing activities slowed down while I was a doctoral student, they still took much of my attention, and it was something I was unwilling to give up. Older students have some advantages as well, such as a tendency to be more organized in the use of time and less of a need to blow off steam. I had those advantages, but my life had competing demands that outweighed them.

The financial aspect of grad school and future career prospects are something it is unwise not to consider seriously. California faced a budget crisis while I was there, and we learned toward the end of the first year that funding would be tighter going forward. I had had fairly generous funding for the first year, but that was going to be reduced and eventually to end. Even if I won fellowships, I would need to take on student loans, which I did not want to do. Working more was a possibility, but time for studying was already squeezed by my publishing activities. Then there is the fact that faculty salaries in the field are not much better than what I had earned as a librarian, and the fact that the academic job market is tight, and would be especially tight for someone whose dissertation was outside the norm, as mine would have been. If I was not able to land a tenure track job in an acceptable geographic location, I might be stuck doing adjunct teaching, which pays poorly and lacks job security.

Grad school gives you a taste of academic life, an opportunity to ask yourself, “Is this the life I want?” Academic life affords a lot of freedoms, comes with a lot of perks, but comes with a lot of pressures, from different directions. You are always being evaluated as an academic – by your peers, by your students, by administrators, by reviewers at scholarly journals, by committees that give grants and fellowships, by potential employers, by audiences at conferences, and more. There is constant pressure to perform at many levels. You need to be a well-prepared and effective teacher. You need to publish frequently and in well-reputed journals, which means getting research grants, performing the research, doing the writing, getting the work accepted, revising it, and doing it all again. Many academics enjoy this work, but all are affected by the pressures it brings at the same time. Additionally, you need to serve on committees, deal with campus politics, write letters of recommendation, present at conferences, serve as a reviewer, write grant proposals; the list goes on. This is exciting work for a lot of people, but all of it is being evaluated, often by people with whom you have intellectual or political conflicts, and the opportunities for failure are many and not always possible to control. It is a tightrope walk. Often decisions that affect you will be made for political reasons. Egos are involved as well. Power relations are involved. Some people thrive in that environment. I found that in that environment I would always feel anxious and would not feel free. As much freedom and discretionary time as I would have in other ways relative to most workers, I would essentially always be on the job, would have little time for a life outside my work as an academic, and would have few opportunities to take a breath. As I was already in my mid-40s, I didn’t relish the thought of spending my later decades in that style.

More than most students, I was also aware of having other career options. My foray into book publishing had been a success, and I would have no trouble finding job opportunities with a publishing company, or in another academic library. I had also had enough experience as an entrepreneur to begin to do more in that regard. So I decided that I could do the PhD for my own personal enrichment and not for the purpose of advancing along a normal academic career path. But the expectations of academic life were a part of my life as a grad student already, and I found it mentally and emotionally taxing. I was also not earning much money and would soon need to take on debt to continue. So I began to question whether the personal enrichment of a PhD program would be worth the price to my sanity and to my bank account.

The question was not an easy one to answer, because I felt I had made a commitment to the program, and because I recognized that being at UCLA’s IS department was a great opportunity to develop myself intellectually. It would be a lot to give up. I struggled with the question in the back of my mind through the spring quarter of 2012, and knew that I would have to make a decision before the second year began. As it turned out, I was granted a reprieve by a health problem that left me bedridden through the summer, and allowed me to take a leave of absence for the fall quarter. While I was laid up with a herniated disc, I made plans for a business venture that would support me while I continued to study. I organized Library Juice Academy and got it off the ground in October. I quickly found, however, that running it left no time for school, and my decision was made. I dropped out of the program and found myself a full-time entrepreneur. I recovered from my back injury in the fall with the help of cortisone injections, and moved back to Sacramento in December to be closer to family in the Bay Area and to live more affordably.

I made the right decision – for me. I am my own boss, and I have a life that suits my temperament and needs. I gave up the path to an intellectual contribution that I feel may have been valuable, but the timing for it, and other factors, were not right in my life. And I am in a position to facilitate the contributions of others about whom I am enthusiastic, which feels very good. I don’t regret spending a year in a doctoral program; I grew during that time, learned about myself, and discovered new possibilities.

So what advice would I give to someone who is considering entering a PhD program? It is simply that whether or not the path turns out to be right for you, it is not a bad idea to give it a try in order to find out. If it turns out that you are not meant for an academic career in today’s university, it most likely will not mean that trying it out was a waste of time. It likely will turn out to have been a great learning experience. Give it your best effort and see what it feels like. Don’t be too open about this intention when you are applying to programs, however. They will not be interested in you if you tell them you just want to try academia on for size – they are considering making a certain investment in you, and want to feel confident that you have a good chance to succeed as an academic and promote their good name as your advisors and teachers. And keep in mind that you may in fact go on and do that. Make a sincere effort in that direction before taking stock. I would not have benefitted much from my year at UCLA had I not worked hard at it.

I hope this story is helpful to a few people.

October 10, 2013

Comment’s on Eric Hellman’s note on eBook Copyright Pages

Eric Hellman, founder of Unglue.it, has a note in the current issue of the New York Law School Review titled, “The eBook Copyright Page is Broken.” It is a quick read, and what I have to say is in response to it, so please read it in order to understand what I am commenting on.

Hellman is active in the area of eBook publishing, exploring new economic models for their distribution, and very interested in how eBooks are changing the conditions of what we call publishing. I support his general project and agree in general terms that the technological foundation of eBooks has implications for the way the book trade works. However, I think that in his note on eBook copyright pages, what Hellman has done is simply to notice the way that copyright pages are broken in general, in terms of print books as well as eBooks.

I am a publisher of print books that have e-versions in most cases, and I sign contracts with authors, contributors, translators, illustrators, designers, and other publishers, contracts that involve the trading of rights under copyright. So, I am familiar with some of the complexities behind copyright and its role in book publishing.

Hellman enumerates seven ways in which he says eBook copyright pages are broken. In almost each case, as I was reading I said to myself, “Well this applies equally to print books, and publishers know this, but the copyright page is not intended to communicate the full picture of rights ownership behind a book.”

Let me address each of Hellman’s discovered problems with eBook copyright pages.

1) “Since there currently are not any copyright formalities, the copyright symbol means nothing. The work is subject to copyright with or without the copyright symbol.”

This rather obviously applies to print as well as eBooks.

2) “The work may also not be subject to copyright, for example, if Eric S. Hellman is a government employee, a robot, or a non-creative compiler of factual information. In these cases there is no copyright even if there is a copyright symbol present. There is no legal duty for a publisher to put a copyright symbol only on a copyrightable work. How is the ebook user supposed to know the true copyright status of a digital work?”

This states that a copyright can be falsely indicated when a work cannot be copyrighted, and also that the copyright status of a work is not required to be stated. I understand this to mean mainly that copyright does not rest on a copyright page, and that is worth pointing out, but again, it is rather obviously true of print books as well as eBooks. (Not all of my points will be quite this obvious.)

3) “Eric S. Hellman” is an uncommon name. But suppose the author is named “John Smith.” What use, then, is the copyright statement? It does not specify which Eric S. Hellman or which John Smith is the author.

This again applies obviously to print books, but furthermore, it is a complaint that can be answered in general terms. The copyright page gives some indication of rights ownership even though it doesn’t not paint the full picture or give a lot of specificity. In terms of identifying the true author, if the author is the copyright holder, normally a person would use other available information to figure out which “John Smith” is indicated. If the copyright page has CIP information from the Library of Congress, then the LoC’s name authority information will be included in the cataloging (normally indicated by a year of birth). Sometimes, finding the identity of the rights holder could take additional work. But it doesn’t follow that the copyright statement, incomplete as it may be, is without value. At a minimum, it indicates whether the author or the publisher owns the copyright (even if, in terms of control of rights, it may provide misleading information given stipulations in a contract about transfers of rights limited to a certain number of years, etc.) So Hellman’s observation is of one of quite a few ways in which the copyright page of a book, regardless of format, leaves something to be desired as a complete statement regarding rights holders. I don’t think this means that the copyright page is “broken,” however; it simply relates to the fact that the copyright page is not intended to be a full statement of rights.

4) “The asserted name of the copyright holder can’t be relied on because text in a digital file can be altered without a trace. It’s simple to take a digital copy of Merchants of Culture and change its asserted copyright holder to “John Smith,” then redistribute it. This is a negligible problem in the print world.

This one is clearly about eBooks and not print books, as Hellman points out specifically in this case. However, what he is pointing out is not merely a problem for the copyright page. It is also a problem for the actual copyright status of an eBook. If an eBook is altered and redistributed, the alterations likely represent a copyrightable creative contribution that is not reflected in the copyright statement. Or is it? Why should we presume that if the book is altered the copyright statement is not also altered? Not to alter the copyright statement would simply mean not finishing the book responsibly and creating a product into which false information has been introduced. This means that the copyright page in this sense is only broken when someone breaks it. And this is only if we accept Hellman’s assumption that we should look at the copyright page as something that is intended to paint the full picture of the copyright status of a book.

5) “The asserted date of publication may be unrelated to the date of the underlying copyright. For purposes of copyright (for example, when a work is produced as a work-for-hire), re-publication of a book does not change the copyright expiration date of the underlying text.”

This is true of print books as well, and it may come as a surprise to some that it can be a problem with first editions of print books, given the time that it takes to bring a work to publication once it is complete. Aside from the fact that normally only the year is given on the copyright page of a book (as opposed to the date, and, why not, the time), it is often the case that a work that is completed in one year does not reach publication until the next. There is, unfortunately, no agreement as to whether the date given on the copyright page represents the date of completion of the work (the copyright date) or the date of publication. Sometimes the copyright page will be clear as to whether one or the other is indicated. At Litwin Books, we like to be specific and state both the year of copyright and the year of publication when the two are different, but most publishers do not do this. And it is something that is not generally considered in the book world. For example, the rules for a book award may state in one place that the book needs to have been published the previous year and in another that it needs to have been copyrighted in the previous year, or where, in considering books for an award, stated copyright dates are taken as evidence of publication dates or vice versa. Unlike some of the other problems with copyright pages that Hellman notes, this one affects people who don’t even have a need to know information about who owns the rights. But it would be mistaken to think that it is a problem that effects eBooks specifically.

6) “There is no specification of the work being copyrighted. In print there’s not much ambiguity, but digital books are composite objects (text and graphics are always separate entities in a digital book file) and are frequently distributed in pieces. Some ebooks even have front matter distributed as a pdf file completely separate from the chapters. In other cases, an ebook may be displayed on a website that has a separate set of copyright statements.”

Hellman is correct to point out that when a print book is pulled apart and no new copyright information is provided about the separate parts of the book, a new problem is introduced. However, there is a related problem that existed already, which is that the simple copyright page never represented the complex status of rights regarding the different parts of a print book. A preface may be a work for hire owned completely by a publisher, and illustrations may be owned by the illustrator (or another publisher) and used under license. That complex state of affairs regarding the rights behind a book is standard, but I have never heard of a publisher attempting to represent it fully on the copyright page of a book (or what would have to be a copyright section if they were to attempt to represent all of the information concerning rights). If a new problem is introduced with eBooks in this regard, it is in the fact that new discrete digital objects are sometimes produced that have no copyright information attached to them.

7) “If the digital book is legally on your ebook reader, then, somehow, the rights holder has granted you some rights, perhaps under the terms of an explicit license or with the license implicit in its availability on a website. Either way, “all rights” have not been reserved. Licenses are not needed for printed books, but they may be needed for ebooks.”

The license agreements between publishers and consumers of information in electronic form are the big area, in my opinion, where the situation regarding the book trade has changed, and which librarians especially need to pay attention to. Where “all rights reserved” appears on a copyright page, presumably it has been placed there prior to a license agreement. Also, we can presume that it refers not really to “all rights” but to “all rights that we own” (since, for example, it is never taken to be denial of first sale doctrine). I think Eric is correct that in an eBook environment, this statement has to be modified in order to most correct, and further I think it is an easy modification to make. It could simply be amended to say, “All rights reserved where not covered by license agreement,” or words to that affect. However, it could also be argued that the statement is intended to apply to the content prior to a license, which is the same as the situation with print books. Publishers grant licenses all the time that allow specific parties, usually other publishers, to make limited use of content controlled by that publisher (e.g. a chapter in a book where the publisher still controls the rights). In that sense, “All rights reserved” indicates that a license is required for a transfer of rights. We often don’t know where such licenses are already in effect. But that is a somewhat technical point, and I will agree that Hellman has identified an issue here.

I think that my main point–that the issues Hellman has raised regarding copyright pages apply to print books as well–is fairly obvious. So, I wonder why these issues seem salient regarding eBooks and not so much to print books? I think the reason is that eBooks are forcing us to pay focused attention to issues of rights that have become unstable and have entered into play in new ways with digital content, and that this focus has inspired Hellman to turn a critical eye to traditional copyright pages. Perhaps we need complete statements of the rights situation surrounding works in a way that we didn’t before eBooks. If that is the case, then I could agree with Hellman that the eBook copyright page is broken, but only in the sense that it does not address a new set of needs. Perhaps Hellman assumes that but doesn’t state it directly. In any case, I think it would not be an entirely correct assumption, because print books and eBooks don’t exist in separate legal spheres, and copyright issues that have recently become salient affect print books today in ways that they didn’t previously, even if the change is related to e-publishing.

April 28, 2013

On Timeliness and Timelessness in Book Publishing

I’m working on a “Publisher’s Pledge to the Library Community” that we will release soon. I’ve put out some feelers regarding what people want to see in this pledge, and one concern came up that I feel is too complex in its implications to respond to in a bullet point on the pledge, and that is “timeliness of publication.” It turned out that this question was coming from an author’s perspective, which is fairly valid for the purposes of a pledge to the library community, since most book authors in the professional literature are librarians and many librarians have publishing expectations as a part of their job responsibilities. The question of timeliness is also relevant to collection development and acquisitions librarians, both in terms of the timeliness of the content of a book in the context of its use and in terms of organizing the process of buying books based on publishers’ advertised publication dates. In terms of advertised publication dates, I will readily admit that Litwin Books and Library Juice Press have not always published our books by the advertised publication dates, and can say in our defense only that it is difficult to work on that kind of a schedule when much of the work is subject to factors we can’t control. Among these factors may be other responsibilities of contractors to whom we send production work, permissions issues, and the ability of editors of collections to submit their manuscripts on time (given that they too have issues beyond their control that can affect their schedules, especially for work that is not their primary responsibility in life). So there are factors that are difficult or impossible to control that can affect how long it takes to bring a work to publication once we have announced it and set an expected publication date. As a result I have begun to build in a longer period of time for the expected publication date, for the sake of truth in advertising.

There is always the possibility of cutting corners to make the work go faster, and we avoid doing this, because quality has a different balance point with timeliness in book publishing than it does with faster forms of publishing in the information ecology. Often, I feel that an expectation of “timeliness” of topics is a little misplaced with regard to books. The long form and permanent nature of the book format gives room for the long view as an intellectual approach. I think the perspective of time is one of the contributions that book publishing has made culturally, and not only because we have a lot of old books around. The format encourages work that takes a long time to write, work that is the product of reflection over greater spans of time. Not all forms of book publishing are like this or should be like this. Software manuals, for example, become useless quickly. In academic subjects, the intellectual duration of long-form works can vary by discipline and sub-discipline. My feeling as a book publisher, though, is that if people are less interested in books than they used to be and read fewer of them (which may or may not be true, if you want to be inclusive of e-books, and we are), then the importance of long-form publishing for creating a space for intellectual culture has only increased. Compromises with faster forms of publishing represent compromises with the long view. Timeleness isn’t exactly irrelevant, but I want it to be in balance with quality, and with something that with some exaggeration I will call “timelessness,” by which I mean that I want to publish books that will be of interest to people in ten or twenty years and not just next year, and a few books that will be of interest for much longer than that.

So that is what I bring with me to conversations with impatient authors or contributors to edited volumes. Often, their impatience is based in part on a lack of understanding of all that is involved in the publication process. We had a problem with a book recently that was held up for a long period because the editors had personal issues to deal with, but because they didn’t communicate about this with contributors, we as a publishing house took the heat (and it had to do with people’s tenure portfolios, among other things). So I have experience with authors who have had serious issues regarding timeliness of publication. But because it is not always possible to make people happy regarding their expectations of timeliness, I don’t feel it’s possible to make “timeliness of publication” a promise in our pledge to the library community.

What about the option of saying that we will “make every effort to ensure timeliness of publication,” as was suggested to me by the person who brought this up? That would allow us to avoid promising what ends up being impossible. The problem I have with that option, though, is that it places too much stress on the value of timeliness in a form of publishing that is less about timeliness than other forms. So I have arrived at this:

“We pledge to balance timeliness, quality, and ‘timelessness’ in our choice of book projects and our processes for bringing them to publication.”

I’m interested in readers’ feedback on this.

April 3, 2013

Comments in response to Lead Pipe editorial, “DIY Library Culture and the Academy”

In the Library with the Lead Pipe published an interesting editorial this morning titled, “DIY Library Culture and the Academy,” though editorial may not be exactly the right word for it, because mostly it is a call for discussion of the ideas it presents. Library Juice Press is mentioned as an example of a DIY project, and so as you might guess I have some comments.

Lead Pipe editors Emily Ford and Micah Vandergrift both refer to the history of DIY, Emily stating that it is (in a way) what academic librarians have been doing all along, and Micah calling on the specific meaning of DIY in punk culture as a standard we should be keeping in mind. I would like to talk about it in terms of something that happened in the 60s and 70s that was called the “new careers movement,” and what sociologists of the professions at the time were calling “the revolt of the client,” because it was an important DIY moment that relates to this one. I am drawing these comments largely from a couple of papers written by sociologist Marie Haug: her 1969 paper with Marvin Sussman titled, “Professional Autonomy and the Revolt of the Client,” in Social Problems 17.2, and her 1975 paper titled, “The Deprofessionalization of Everyone?,” in Sociological Focus 8.3, which was a response to an influential paper by Harold Wilensky in 1964 titled, “The Professionalization of Everyone?”

Marie Haug developed a concept of deprofessionalization in response to the idea first proposed by Daniel Bell (famous for the term “the information society”), that the rapid proliferation of knowledge and technology would give more power to professionals and would also increase the share of knowledge-work as part of the economy, as machines would gradually take over all of the less-skilled work. Haug thought about this idea in terms of something that had begun happening in the late sixties, which sociologists termed “the revolt of the client.” What this referred to was the way “the person on the street” had started to feel alienated by the authority of professionals of whom they were clients, started to see them as “The Man” and started demanding the right to take care of needs that the professions had a monopoly over fulfilling, at the street level. Simultaneous to this revolt against the authority of the professions were some other social changes that had begun to enable non-professionals to perform some of these roles. Haug focuses on the medical profession, but we can see how the same changes gave power to people working in paraprofessional or non-professional roles in various institutions or outside of institutions completely. Haug observed that the professions’ monopoly on knowledge was being eroded by the general increased level of schooling, and also by the rise of computers, since data-driven software allowed for professional knowledge to be codified for access by non-professionals (essentially what happened later with desktop publishing software). So Haug argued that contrary to the main stream of the sociology of the professions at the time, these factors would lead to a loss of autonomy for professionals, who had previously enjoyed a strong monopoly on the knowledge on which their practice was based. In medicine specifically, the “new careers movement” was the beginning of the trend of giving nurses and nurse practitioners more of the privileges of MD’s in terms of basic medical practice. There was a gender element to the new careers movement and the revolt of the client in addition to a class element. So, I think that moment is important to think about in the context of DIY, because it links what are now a couple of separate meanings that DIY may have – the punk idea that Micah Vandergrift evokes in order to talk about the political reasons behind DIY, and on the other hand the power that desktop software gives people to do a lot of things pretty well that formerly required a professional (like desktop publishing). At the time of the “new careers movement,” the social trend toward deprofessionalization that Haug saw just beginning was motivated at one level by the desire for a sort of revolution in a political sense, and was enabled at another level by mass education and computerization.

While the rise of the new careers movement and the erosion of the professions’ monopoly on knowledge might seem simply like something to celebrate, Haug was concerned that it would lead to an increase of power for the bureaucrats who worked in professional institutions, resulting in less autonomy for professionals. This does seem to have happened and seems still to be happening (and in an ironic way may be part of the impetus for DIY practice among professionals now). At the same time, she acknowledged that people did become empowered outside of the professions in meeting needs formerly in the total purview of the professions. There is a certain way, however, I think, in which changes that enable DIY and sub-institutional work can redistribute and veil professional control as much as they can undo it. The reason for this is way software that makes use of professional knowledge in a codified form has decisions embedded into it, so that what for the professional may be questions of judgment to apply in various different contexts become software limitations of which users may not be aware, not having the background of a professional who can articulate the questions that the software has already answered for the user. Software that empowers us also makes decisions for us, decisions that are by nature outside of our focus as we are using it. (This is part of the argument for open source software.)

As librarians, we occupy an ambiguous position in the space defined by these changes. We claim an area of professional expertise but do not claim a monopoly over it; in fact, our professional ideology goes against the monopoly of knowledge on which professions are traditionally based. Our self-defined role is to empower people with knowledge, yet we try to protect our status as a profession as having a unique ability to do it. We also occupy an ambiguous position as designers of systems at the same time we are users of systems in which professional knowledge is embedded that we don’t necessarily have access to (think about the opacity of function of next-generation discovery tools). This may mean, in Haug’s terms, that we function both as professionals, with authority over a knowledge domain and a need to protect our autonomy from encroachment by the bureaucracies of our institutions, and as allies of clients who want solutions outside of the professions, in pursuit of an opening-up of professional privileges (though copyright battles, through access to medical and legal knowledge that we can share, etc.). In light of this, I think DIY work can accomplish a number of goals. First, it can enable us to do things that our bureaucracies have made difficult for us to do, despite the fact that we are ostensibly the professionals in our organizations. Second, it can demonstrate for our users that we are their allies who work in the same “DIY consumer space,” meaning that we understand the limitations they confront or feel that they confront. Third, DIY tools that are sold to consumers can afford us the benefits of professional knowledge outside our own fields without the cost of high-level business-to-business deployment, which we can’t control as individuals anyway.

I think there is also a dark side to observe, as well as a danger in attempting to understand DIY entirely through a historical lens, and that is that the kind of DIY affordances we are talking about are a part of a major economic shift that has taken place over the last half-century, away from Fordist production toward more software-driven, small-scale, customizable production and the different economic relations (and subjectivities) that Post-Fordism entails. There is a lot written about these changes in the field of political economy, but I would like to mention one article that relates to DIY specifically: Yiannis Mylonas’ article in Triple C, titled, “Amateur Creation and Entrepreneurialism: A Critical Study of Artistic Production in Post-Fordist Structures.” (Full disclosure: Mylonas has a chapter in the upcoming Litwin Books title, Piracy: Leakages from Modernity, edited by Martin Fredriksson and James Arvanitakis.) Mylonas suggests that the DIY orientation is a part of the transformation of everybody into an entrepreneur, i.e. the spread of neoliberal subjectivity. So, I am careful about getting behind it as a “cause,” though I like to take part. Furthermore, I can admit to having the ambition to bridge the gap between DIY voice and institutional voice, and to cross that bridge, as entrepreneurs generally do.

Rory Litwin was an academic librarian prior to working full time as a small press academic publisher and continuing education provider with Litwin Books, Library Juice Press and Library Juice Academy.

December 16, 2012

Year-End Message to Friends and Customers

We haven’t done this in the past, but I think I would like to begin a tradition of sending a “year-end update” to friends and customers. Why now? Probably because 2012 was a year that saw a lot of changes, and we are planning for 2013 to be a big year as well.

To begin with our major news of 2012, we started Library Juice Academy, which offers online courses to librarians and library workers for continuing education. We started lining up instructors in July and August, and started offering online classes beginning in October. We have a nice, diverse range of courses offered. These classes are skills-oriented, so that librarians can feel justified in asking for professional development funds to pay for them. It has been very exciting getting Library Juice Academy off the ground, and it has been successful so far. We are always looking for new instructors to offer online classes of two- or four-weeks in duration, so if there is something you would like to teach then please go ahead and contact us.

There is another activity into which to enlist your help regarding Library Juice Academy. In just the past few days we have launched the Sponsor a Librarian program, which is intended to help unemployed librarians pay for their continuing education, in order to keep their skill set fresh. Details about this are on the Library Juice Academy website, but to summarize, the way it works is that unemployed or underemployed librarians can create profiles on the Sponsor a Librarian site indicating what classes they want to take, and other librarians, or friends or family, can donate funds to pay for these classes. It’s premised on the sense that the library profession is a community that helps its members. You can participate in this by creating a profile, if you are unemployed, or by donating funds to sponsor an unemployed librarian to take classes (once the profiles have been posted to the site, which should be soon). We hope that this proves to be a helpful service.

In other Library Juice Academy news, soon into the new year we hope to begin offering one or more webinar series, the nature of which is currently under wraps. You can keep up to date on Library Juice Academy news by following the twitter feed mentioned later, or by subscribing to email updates on the website.

Also happening now are the last weeks and days of our campaign to “unglue” Lauren Pressley’s book, So You Want To Be a Librarian. We are working with Unglue.it to crowd-fund a creative-commons licensing of the ebook version of Lauren’s book, so that it can be freely accessible to college students, recent grads, and career-changers who are considering going into librarianship. Our goal for the campaign is to raise $9000, and we are only about 22% of the way there with a deadline of December 31st. That doesn’t seem very good, but this kind of campaign often has the bulk of its donations in the home stretch. We hope you will consider donating to this campaign. Donations will be acknowledged in the new e-version of the book, with generous donations earning more verbose and prominent thanks in the new acknowledgments section. Donating on behalf of someone else or on behalf of a cause that will be acknowledged might make a good holiday gift.

On the publishing side, an accomplishment in 2012 that we want to highlight is the long-awaited release of the electronic version of Alternative Publishers of Books in North America (APBNA), compiled by Byron Anderson. The book’s seven prior editions have been published by a number of publishing houses, including ours for the sixth edition. Many people who saw the book had the same question to ask: Why isn’t this on the web? In response to that question, we started working with Byron, and also with the Alternative Press Center, to create a new electronic resource. The Alternative Press Center (APC), cooperating with the Independent Press Association, published three editions of Annotations: A Guide to the Independent, Critical Press. Annotations was a guide to periodicals in the same way that APBNA was a guide to book publishers. Working with Byron Anderson and with Chuck D’Adamo of APC, we combined the two resources into a searchable database that lives on the Library Juice Press website, with the new title, Alternatives in Print. The database will be updated regularly by Byron and the APC, when we get the editing interface done (it is in the works, as I keep promising them). This is a very useful free resource, for collection development or for shopping your work if you are an author. We think you should list it in your catalog for your patrons to find.

2012 was relatively slow for releasing new titles, but the titles we did release were good ones. On the Library Juice Press imprint, we released Greening Libraries, which is a guide to green and sustainable practices in libraries, edited by Monika Antonelli and Mark McCullough. We also released Wayne Bivens-Tatum’s Libraries and the Enlightenment, which is an enlightening read, if I may say, about the history of libraries and the ideas surrounding their development, primarily in the 18th century.

Bivens-Tatum’s book is now under contract to be translated into Japanese and published by the Kyoto Institute for Library and Information Science. 2012 saw two other new translation agreements, both with Brazilian publishers and both on archival-studies topics. John Ridener’s From Polders to Postmodernism: A Concise History of Archival Theory, published by Litwin Books, is being translated into Brazilian Portuguese for publication by Editora da UFF, a university press. Richard J. Cox’s Personal Archives and a New Archival Calling: Readings, Reflections and Ruminations, also published by Litwin Books, is under contract to be translated into Portuguese by Brazilian university press Editora UFMG.

The Litwin Books imprint also released two new titles in 2012. Prophets of the Fourth Estate: Broadsides by Press Critics of the Progressive Era, by Amy Reynolds and Gary Hicks, was released at the beginning of the year. Make Your Own History: Documenting Feminist and Queer Activism in the 21st Century, edited by Lyz Bly and Kelly Wooten, was published mid-year, as the second entry in the Series on Gender and Sexuality in Information Studies, with Emily Drabinski as series editor. A third Litwin Books title was canceled, unfortunately after we announced its publication. Richard Cox’s collection of essays about Lester J. Cappon will be published as separate articles in archival studies journals. Dr. Cox’s Series on Archives, Archivists, and Society has not suffered as a result of this, however, and planned titles within it are moving along well.

2012 also saw the launch of our imprint for general readers, Auslander & Fox, with the publication of two titles, the children’s book Allie and the Monster Who Said Blah Blah Blah, and the novella by Ian Stoba, titled, Walt.

Between these three imprints, we presently have 23 projects under contract at various stages of development, including a handful with expected release dates in the first half of 2013. These can be mentioned here, since they should be available fairly soon. We are republishing H. Curtis Wright’s biography of Jesse Shera, which I personally love and which I can say serves me as a personal touchstone. Also on the Library Juice Press imprint we will soon be publishing Information Literacy and Social Justice: Radical Professional Praxis, edited by Shana Higgins and Lua Gregory, and Informed Agitation: Library and Information Skills in Social Justice Movements and Beyond, edited by Melissa Morrone. The most significant title to date from Library Juice Press may also reach press by mid year, a reference book titled, The Library Juice Press Handbook of Intellectual Freedom: Concepts, Cases and Theories, edited by Mark Alfino and Laura Koltutsky. This book has been years in the works and is nearing completion. On the Litwin Books imprint we are also expecting titles in the first half of 2013. Also several years in the works is The Feminist and Queer Information Studies Reader, edited by Patrick Keilty and Rebecca Dean. This will be a major work that we think will serve as a point of reference for the field. Also in the first half of the new year will be Piracy: Leakages from Modernity, edited by Martin Fredriksson and James Arvanitakis; Queers Online: LGBT Digital Practices in Libraries, Archives, and Museums, edited by Rachel Wexelbaum; Ephemeral Material: Queering the Archive, by Alana Kumbier; and Digital Identity Narratives, by Stacey Koosel. In the works on the Auslander & Fox imprint are a coffeetable/reference book about secessionist and nationalist separatist movements by Chris Roth, and a new translation of Voltaire’s play, Fanaticism, or Mahomet the Prophet, which we expect to be controversial and a conversation-starter.

As always, we invite book proposals and manuscript submissions within our editorial scope.

2012 saw another development that we did not announce to the extent that it warranted. We enlisted Alison Lewis as Chief Acquisitions Editor for the Library Juice Press imprint. We work closely with Alison regarding many aspects of the business, as well as with two others who deserve mention, Emily Drabinski and Martin Wallace.

As a final bit of news, we now have someone handline Twitter posts. We had not been participating on Twitter the way a lot of librarians and academics like to do, and decided to rectify that. So, now we are twittering, with the help of Halsted Bernard, who is known to many on the librarian’s internet as “Cygnoir.” Halsted has run the “Library Lovers” Livejournal for over ten years, and has been following Library Juice and Library Juice Press throughout that time, so she is well placed to do this for us. We are using the @litwinbooks handle for the Litwin Books imprint now, instead of for everything, and we have added the handles @LibJuicePress and @LibJuiceAcademy in addition, so add those to your feed if you would like to be kept up to date in this way.

Some of you know that I started Library Juice Press and Litwin Books while I was working as a librarian at the University of Minnesota Duluth, and continued it as I entered the doctoral program in information studies at UCLA in the Fall of 2011. A major development in 2012, in my life anyway, has been that I left the phd program in order to devote all of my time to Litwin Books, Library Juice Press, and related endeavors. This was a difficult decision but in retrospect rather an obvious one, given the demands of the months ahead on the publishing front and with Library Juice Academy.

Watch our blog for news about a party in Chicago during ALA Annual, and stop by and say hello.

Rory Litwin
President, Litwin Books, LLC

November 30, 2012

You would not say, “Astronomers: The Original Telescope”

I HATE the slogan, “Librarian: The Original Search Engine.” It is on a coffee mug that was given to me as a gift by a family member, and it seems to appear in my Facebook news feed every month or so. I find it problematic as an attempt to promote the services of librarians or the value of the library profession, and I don’t know why more people don’t see this.

To say that “librarians are the original search engine” is to concede that search engines do what librarians do, which would be another way of saying that there is no reason to talk to a reference librarian if you can just Google it. While it is true that before the internet, many people relied on reference librarians as a source of factual information that is now readily available through a search engine, it is a sad thing to see librarians tacitly accept the idea that this kind of provision of simple factual information adequately describes what it is we do by sharing this slogan.. A better slogan would be designed to get at what librarians can do that search engines don’t know how to do, and would communicate something of the way a librarian’s general knowledge and understanding of people gives her the ability to translate a user’s question into a search of resources (including Google) that will actually help. Very often, library users come to the reference desk after having hit a wall searching Google because of something specific that they do not know or do not understand about their subject of inquiry or the nature of the resources that will help them. Given that kind of knowledge gap, Google alone can only take them part of the way, and what they need is the consultation of an educated and understanding human being. Google, Microsoft, and others are investing a lot into research that will allow their search engines to take steps in the direction of interpretation and guidance, but AI researchers almost always underestimate the breadth and creativity of human intelligence as they seek to imitate it. So if we say that librarians are like search engines at all, we are misunderstanding our own skills, role, and social contribution, and in the process failing to see what we need to do to expand our expertise or train future generations for the profession. If you want a slogan for a coffee mug, I would prefer to see one with an SAT-style analogy, like, “Librarians are to search engines as astronomers are to telescopes.” People who don’t know much about astronomy can get some use from a telescope, but we understand that with an astronomer’s knowledge it can become much more powerful as a tool for discovery. We would not say, “Astronomers: The original telescope,” and we wouldn’t think for a second that that a slogan like that would be flattering to astronomers or supportive of the astronomy profession.

The other problem with the slogan is that it only has in mind the librarian at the reference desk, who is the tip of the iceberg of the library profession. Users talk directly to reference librarians, and as a former reference librarian I would never want to understate the breadth and depth of the skills involved in helping people find information in that role (retrieval and access). However, a good slogan for the library profession should also encompass the other roles that librarians play in their institutions, as selectors, organizers, and preservers of information resources who have their communities in mind, and as the creators and maintainers of the systems and intellectual infrastructures that facilitate the connections between them.

In conclusion, please don’t buy a librarian a coffee mug or other item that says, “Librarians: The Original Search Engine.” What to do if one is given to you is a more complicated question.

February 15, 2012

New issue of InterActions

The latest issue of InterActions: UCLA Journal of Education and Information Studies (Volume 8, Issue 1) is available at interactions.gseis.ucla.edu.

Table of Contents:


Stop Speaking For Us: Women-of-Color Bloggers, White Appropriation, and What Librarians Can Do About It
By Julia Glassman

How Much Knowledge Can They Gain? Women’s Information Behavior on Government Health Websites in the Context of HIV/AIDS Prevention
By Jing Chong

The Making of Violent Masculinities: Exploring the Intersections of Cultural, Structural and Direct Violence in Schools
By Shenila S. Khoja-Moolji

An Examination of Institutional Factors Related to the Use of Fees at Public Four-Year Universities
By Alaine Arnott

Book Reviews

Book Review of “Gifted and Advanced Black Students in School: An Anthology of Critical Works”
By James M. DeVita

Book Review: Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle
By Patricia Garcia

Book Review: Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century by John B. Thompson
By Rory Litwin

Book Review: Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics, and the Limits of Law by Dean Spade
By Z Nicolazzo

Book Review: The Fourth Paradigm by Tony Hey, Stewart Tansley, and Kristin Tolle
By Clinton Joseph Regan

January 13, 2012

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.

September 20, 2011

What Google permits and does not permit in Google eBooks

Given Google’s dominance in search and the scope and integration of their Google Books product (hate to use the word product, but libraries have been converted into product here), we should be especially aware of their policies regarding what they will permit and what they will not permit in terms of inclusion in their full text digital library of eBooks for sale.

Call it censorship or call it collection maintenance criteria, but Google has a a set of Content Policies governing what kinds of materials publishers are allowed to include in the Google eBooks database. I have no criticism of these policies or the fact that they have them. Given the complexity of speech law and their legitimate interest in avoiding legal liability, they have no option but to have these policies in effect and to design them according to their lawyers’ most diligent work.

What I would argue is that because Google’s dominance of the market in certain respects gives them a degree of monopoly power, these policies are to an extent public policies and should be discussed in public fora, under the assumption that Google should be held, to a degree, publicly accountable for these policies, and conversely, that if the public has a role in shaping these policies, that the public itself also share a degree of accountability for their consequences.

The categories of Google’s Content Policies are: spam and malware; violent, threatening or disgusting materials; hate speech; sexually explicit material; child safety; Personal and Confidential information; Illegal activities; and Copyright. Note that these are categories for which they have designed some succinctly stated rules. Users can “Report Abuse” to cause an eBook to be reviewed according to these policies, and then somewhere in the Google offices they make a decision regarding the item according to their interpretation of the policies.

Vendors – bookstores, etc. – have always had policies regarding what they will stock and present to customers, but Google’s status as a total search utility with an overwhelmingly dominant position makes the situation different, to the extent that I think we need to look at these policies in light of intellectual freedom concerns.

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.”

May 27, 2011

Turning the Reference Desk into a Reference Bureau

Librarians have responded to the internet and other technologies that have reduced people’s demand for our services in a couple of complementary ways over the past 20 years or so (or more). On the one hand, we have pointed out all of the reasons that libraries are still needed and still heavily used, and on the other hand we have embraced new roles as information technology designers. These strategies have worked fairly well for libraries as institutions, but not for all specializations in library work. At the reference desk (my own encampment), we have seen steadily declining interest in the service we offer, because most of the simple factual questions that people used to come to us with are now more easily answered via the web. When people do come to us with simple, factual questions, we often have a sense that these questions don’t demand much of our expertise as reference librarians, and could easily be handled by other staff or by student workers with a little training. Yes, there are times when the reference interview reveals that the real question is somewhat different than what we have been presented with, or that behind the question there are important considerations that we are able to help the patron incorporate. But most of the time, the simple, factual questions that people present make us feel as redundant as we are said to be.

In academic libraries, we are often called on to do a little bit more, to engage with students in a learning process that has to do with helping them become competent in their new intellectual world. That is one avenue for expanding the role of reference librarians – to become more integrated into the teaching mission of the institution as educators. But I will leave that aside for now to talk about a different potential direction for reference librarians that can exist outside of educational settings, one that could involve provision of a new kind of public service.

I got the germ of the idea at a job I once had at a government special library. In the California State Library, a unit called the California Research Bureau provides reference service to the State Assembly and the Governor’s Office according to the model set by the Library of Congress’s Congressional Research Service. At the California example, librarians, and other employees with the job title of “researcher” (mostly with masters degrees in public policy), respond to requests from the offices of Assembly members. Reference questions typically had a turn-around time of one to two days, and the response, rather than a suggestion of some resources that the user might consult, was a packet of printed-out documents containing the information that the requester wanted. We selected documents with a high degree of attention to relevance, knowing that our users did not have time to wade through irrelevant matter. We used Lexis-Nexis, the physical collections of the State Library, policy papers that we found online or requested directly from research organizations, or other materials. The research we did for patrons – as reference librarians – often involved telephoning potential sources of relevant information and asking if they would share it with us. The jobs of the Researchers (the non-librarians) at the CRB was different. They were assigned research projects that took weeks or months to complete, according to the needs of legislators who wanted to write good policy, and they used social science methodologies. They did original research. Among the researchers there were people with backgrounds in different areas of policy, as specializations on top of their masters degrees. The reference librarians supported their research in addition to providing reference service directly to legislators. This organization worked with efficiency and smarts (and still does, I’m sure, I am just no longer there), constantly proving its worth to the legislature that was responsible for renewing its funding.

Since leaving there in the early 2000’s I have often felt dismay that the same degree of interest in good research to inform policy is not a part of the American political culture in general, especially in the news media. When political questions are debated it often occurs to me how good it would be to have certain relevant data, in order to check the assumptions that are in play (often contradictory assumptions). And when people toss numbers or other factoids into a discussion without knowing where they came from or how they are arrived at, without the slightest worry that they may be bunk, I feel that the services of reference librarians are very much in need, and painfully in need, but that few realize it. I think this is true with respect to many topics that interest people, whether they are policy questions or not.

So why not set up, as part of a public library organization, a “Public Library Reference Bureau,” that gathers up, sorts through and compiles already-published data in the service of clarifying the questions of the day? I will not worry here about the logistical issues around how to determine what questions are researched and for whom, except to say that one option could even be to develop the questions internally with the idea of sharing the results with the news media.

Let me provide some examples of the kind of research I think would be appropriate for this type of a service.

Regarding “Freedom” as a distinctive American value, distinguishing us from other societies, are there ways of measuring the degree of freedom that we enjoy in comparison to other countries? One possibility would be to gather information on how many activities in the United States require a license (with a fee, or a test, or both), whether granted federally, at the state level, or locally, as compared to other countries (e.g. Mexico). Another example would be a more micro-level analysis that researches all of the steps that a person would have to go through, and the severity of each barrier to entry along the way, in order to start a business doing a particular thing (e.g. selling fresh-squeezed juices) in a number of different countries. Parallel to this research would be to find information on the effectiveness of each of the regulations and license requirements that account for various barriers in terms of achieving their policy aims.

So that’s one example.

Another would be to find data relevant to the idea of domestic and foreign auto makers. We have an idea that may or may not still be valid that certain car manufacturers are American and certain others are foreign. Ford and General Motors are American companies, Toyota is a Japanese company, etc. But what do we mean when we say this? In fact, shares of large publicly traded companies are owned by international investment banks and by various equity funds that are located all over the world. Cars tend to be manufactured in factories that are as close as possible to the markets for those cars, meaning “foreign” cars are manufactured in U.S. factories by U.S. workers. Many “foreign” cars are also designed in the United States. And Americans are not always aware of the extent to which Ford and General Motors have a presence in other countries not as a foreign car manufacturer but as a domestic car manufacturer (especially Ford, but also General Motors brands like Vauxhall and Opel). Many cars are the product of joint ventures between companies that are based on different countries, or are licensed to be “badged” with the brand of a car company that had nothing to do with designing it or manufacturing it. Often an auto maker will own a large percentage of shares in another car company in another country. All of this isn’t to argue that there is no such thing as a foreign versus a domestic auto maker, but to say that we could use some data to find out to what extent that idea still makes sense. The data could be along the lines of the question: for each of the top ten global auto makers, what proportion of the workers doing manufacturing, engineering, design, marketing and management are located in what nations (and how much of the stock is held in what nations)? The numbers are out there for librarians to find and compile, and only by doing that can we get an accurate sense of what is a foreign or domestic automaker. (By the way, are the Big Three now Ford, General Motors, and Fiat?)

Another example is a very practical area for compiling information for the public: the hot policy issue of immigration and immigration reform. So many people have strong opinions with little to no awareness of the relevant numbers, just some basic “pro-” or “anti-” passions. But there are so many relevant questions to which answers already exist. How many non-citizens are there in the U.S.? How many are here legally on visas? On green cards? How many are here on overstayed visas? How many of those who are on overstayed visas are here because of paperwork delays at the INS, and how many of them are deliberately avoiding the INS? How many are here without visas at all? With all of those questions, from what countries? What are the existing immigration quotas, in terms of visas (and types of visas), green cards, and citizenship, by nation of origin? What is the history of those quotas, and their rationales? What is the history of amnesty? What are the types of amnesty? What are the policies in place that effect people who are here illegally? How much do illegal immigrants pay in taxes? (Not just whether they pay taxes.) What are illegal immigrants paid versus legal workers at the same jobs? How risky is it, in terms of the actual enforcement of the law, for employers to hire undocumented workers in various sectors and regions? What determines the policies on enforcement of the laws affecting employers versus immigrants? What rights do undocumented workers have or not have in the workplace, de facto and de jure? What is their contribution to the economy? How are they included or not included in economic statistics? What were the conditions of undocumented workers in their countries of origin, in terms of wages, rights, conditions? Etcetera. Personally, not knowing objective answers to these questions, I feel that I can have very little to say about immigration policy. (I do often say an aspect of immigration policy, broadly considered, is the de facto maintenance of an unenfranchised population who are here by choice; but I can’t say as much about that idea as I would like without having this kind of data.)

How nice it would be if reference librarians were given the role of finding, compiling, and critically presenting existing data as it relates to questions like these. It would be a way of putting our skills to work that is more efficient in terms of what we get out of it as a society. As a reference librarian, I may enjoy those times when someone comes to the desk with a question that is unusually challenging and meaningful, but how many people are helped by the research that we do together? Unless the patron is a researcher whose work is going somewhere, perhaps only the two of us. So wouldn’t it be good to find a way to leverage the higher-level work that we are able to do in such a way that many people can benefit from it? We could not only help individuals who came to the desk, but perhaps through some kind of media channel we could reach the public. Maybe some creative TV producer needs to help us out with this….

February 26, 2011

Some objections to our use of library statistics

The use of certain library statistics, mainly related to circulation and its electronic semi-equivalents, has taken on a high degree of importance in library management since 1979, when Charlie Robinson introduced the “give ’em what they want” philosophy of collection development at Baltimore County Public Library. Circulation statistics provide an easy way present an argument to higher level administrators that you are moving in the right direction, if you can take steps to increase them. But there are a number of problems in the way that we often use these statistics. I would like to talk briefly about some of the problems that I have observed in an academic library setting.

1. A download does not imply relevance.

From the perspective of a reference librarian who works with students and faculty who are conducting various types of research, it is important to keep in mind that the circulation of a book or the download of an article is not the end point of our concern. Especially in an educational institution, it is important not only that the resources the students walk away with will help satisfy the formal requirements of their assignment (which may include instructions to “use five articles from scholarly journals”), but that they will help them learn. Sometimes students who haven’t yet figured out how to weed through search results to find what is relevant to the needs of their argument will download numerous articles that they will not read. That boosts circulation stats, but also represents a failure on our part. Policies that are geared toward boosting stats will not address that problem and will not promote learning.

2. Some usage counts for more than other usage.

While it may go against the grain for many democratic-minded librarians, not all usage of library materials is equal. When a lower division undergraduate reads a book that introduces them to a topic, their use of that book is very different from the way a professional scholar uses a book in her own field. This is not to say that the scholar’s use should count for more, necessarily, but to acknowledge that it counts differently and may be more expensive due to being specialized. It is a difference that should affect our use of statistics to draw conclusions. Some might look at patterns of use and argue that resources should be shifted toward whatever is used more. It is important to see that if a library goes in that direction, it is not simply a shift of resources toward “what users want,” but a shift of resources toward what one group of users want (lower division undergrads) and away from what another group of users want (researchers). The proportion of the budgets for resources in each of these areas should be determined differently at each institution according to its own educational policies and the type of place that it is, rather according to a simple market calculus that says “give ’em what they want,” which would tend automatically to hurt users of more specialized resources.

3. Incompatible data.

Because of the perceived need for statistics in reporting to entities outside the library, it is tempting to compare data that is collected differently or simply represents different things. A play of a track in a music database does not represent the same thing as a download of an article in JSTOR, yet they are stats that exist side-by-side in the context of electronic resource statistics. While a person will likely leaf through a book in the stacks before deciding to check it out, an electronic book needs to be “checked out” (counted as a circulation) in order to leaf through it to decide whether or not to use it, yet these stats exist side-by-side in the context of circulation statistics. COUNTER-complaint statistics aim to solve this problem, but they still only measure interactions with the interface rather than use of the material. (If we were to gather information about actual use of our information resources, there could be multiple dimensions to the data.)

4. Patterns of use differ across scholarly communities.

The ways that people use information resources in different disciplines and sub-disciplines, and for different purposes in general, can create distortions in our interpretation of the data if the potential for these differences is not kept in mind. We may calculate a “cost per download” for a given database and compare it to the cost per download for a database used by another department, in order to determine where our money is being spent most effectively, without realizing that a single download of an article may be more or less significant as a part of the overall research for a given project. One scholar may need to download 50 “articles” (which, according to what resource is being used, may not be an actual journal article) in order to get 50 facts, while a researcher in another discipline will download a few texts for the purpose of close reading. The first database might seem to have a much lower “cost per download” than the second (if these scholars’ use of the resource was typical) while the “cost per project” or “cost per research hour” may be the same.

5. The problem of accurately identifying causes of change over time.

The answer to many of these sorts of objections is sometimes to say, “We can still use these stats to identify changes over time,” and that is true, but drawing operational conclusions from those observations requires correctly identifying the causes. For example, when undergraduates began turning to Google to do research for writing assignments, librarians and vendors concluded that in order to compete with Google they needed to implement simplified, Google-like search interfaces to multiple databases. But these simple-to-use federated search products have not done anything to boost download statistics in full text databases of scholarly articles. This means the reason for students’ preference for Google may have been something else. I think it may have been because lower division undergraduates found more content that they could make sense of through Google than in the high-level original research in scholarly journals (which librarians, most of the time, to our great discredit, described to them simply as “more reliable”). If that turned out to be the true cause, the implications for planning would be different (not to mention not automatically clear).

To take another example, I think it’s not uncommon for library administrators to have the attitude that declining book circulation stats indicate a need to shift funds to electronic resources, while declining download stats indicate underutilization and a need to better promote those resources. The unstated assumptions are with respect to the cause of the change in the numbers – on the one hand obsolescence of the format and on the other hand insufficient publicity. It is important to realize that while the stats (these hypothetical ones) give us some information, they do not tell us that this common interpretation of the data is correct. Another possible explanation could be a decline in the amount of reading done by students, regardless of format.

6. Even if the cause of a change in the statistics is correctly understood, the response may be a question of philosophy and little else.

Let’s say that through some research done internally at a university, it is learned that undergraduates are arriving as first year students less well prepared, are spending less time studying, and have fewer and easier writing assignments than ten years ago, and faculty have less time to carefully evaluate their work. That finding would provide a good explanation for a decline in overall circulation. And let’s say that a healthy demand for DVDs for entertainment purposes had grown, that service to university staff members had increased as a proportion of the total, and that students viewed the library increasingly as a study space and decreasingly as an information resource. Is an obvious response implicit in these findings? I think not. I think there are many ways that a library administrator could respond to these changes, and the response would depend greatly on his own philosophy and the prevailing philosophy at the university. The data provide essential information, but they do not say a) it is imperative that the library boost circulation, or that b) circulation should be boosted by following a particular strategy.

7. Steps taken to boost statistics may have unintended pedagogical consequences.

A further potential error in the thinking that says that every use of a resource is equivalent lies in the potential pedagogical effects as well as the potential content implications of formats. If we shift funding from monographs to academic journals or from physical to electronic formats on the basis of perceived demand or future demand, we should not do it without acknowledging that the choice may have an impact beyond “serving more users” (assuming that we are even correct about the direction of demand). There are general differences in the content of monographs and academic journals, and collection development should attend to the question of what those formats contain in relation to the curriculum, aside from what may be suggested by data about use patterns. (It is commonly said that students “want articles that they can use from home and that aren’t too lengthy to deal with,” but seldom acknowledged that the original research in scholarly journals is mostly out of reach of lower division undergrads in terms of the expected background knowledge. One of the most common requests at academic library reference desks is for a “scholarly journal article” that provides an introductory overview to a major topic; such things are rare.) Likewise, as EDUCAUSE recognizes but tells us not to worry about, technologies affect the way that people learn, and these effects should be considered in terms of the educational objectives of the institution, and not taken for granted or taken as a market imperative.

8. Inherent conflict between pedagogy and markets.

The use of circulation and download statistics to guide decision making in libraries reflects a broader trend in higher education and in public institutions to orient themselves as a part of the market economy. (See John E. Buschman’s Dismantling the Public Sphere: Situating and Sustaining Librarianship in the Age of the New Public Philosophy for a thorough treatment of this problem.) In higher education in particular, there is a sharpening conflict between the logic of the market (what students demand) and pedagogical needs that stem from the institution’s desired educational outcomes. Simply stated, the conflict is brought to us by students whose educational aims only somewhat overlap their teachers’. Educators can rightly say that students don’t yet know enough to direct the curriculum (and in a very relevant sense, in terms of information literacy, our own bailiwick, they do not yet know how to separate themselves from the influence of advertising and commercial propaganda, which to a great extent shapes their demand for our resources). And students can rightly say that their tuition is paying for most of the show, and that the piper has a right to call the tune.

In real terms, the economic shift away from subsidized higher education to a more tuition-based model puts educators in a weaker position in terms of the conflict between pedagogy and markets. But it does not change the fact that the conflict is inherent to the educational project as long as professors profess to have something to teach and students have their own reasons for going to college, which are more and more about class anxiety. (Collection development librarians, to the extent that we claim relevant expertise, are caught in the same conflict between pedagogy and markets.)

9. Internal qualitative research.

A way forward for administrators who are stuck in a market situation may be to use more internal qualitative research about library users and use. In-depth profiles of a variety of users and focus groups designed to elicit unanticipated information are approaches to qualitative research that can provide both ideas for new directions for growth and useful talking points for reporting purposes. These techniques allow data collection to preserve important differences among types of use and types of users, and also allow for the generation of insights regarding the causes of change over time that circulation and download statistics are not able to do. Some qualitative data is already collected as part of many libraries’ assessment programs. What I am advocating here is a shift of emphasis, as a way of better capturing the connection between library collections and services and the mission of the university.

My philosophy about this.

Regarding the role of philosophy in interpreting library statistics and acting on them, I will be up-front and say that I favor an an alternative to chasing after the majority of users or potential users. I start with the assumption that educators are not there to educate students (transitive verb), but to to provide opportunities and assistance to students who want to educate themselves. If I worry about all of the students who don’t use the library or who use it poorly, I will die of depression, because the more we dumb down the collection or our interaction with our users, the more we will find ourselves competition with mass media. I prefer to make a range of serious resources available to students who have the motivation to make use of them. Their numbers may be small at times, but when a student who is motivated downloads an article from one of our databases and actually reads it and thinks about it, that download is worth immeasurably more to me, as a librarian, than the more numerous downloads of articles by uninterested students who are doing the minimum amount of work required to pass a class. The university is responsible to provide the best educational opportunities possible to its students, but students are responsible for their own education. Our use of circulation statistics should consider the fact that what we provide are opportunities for intellectual growth. The students have to meet us halfway.

February 12, 2011

How many control freaks does it take to screw in a light bulb?

A bit of satire in response to the question, “How many control freaks does it take to screw in a light bulb?” Any resemblance to organizations you may have heard of is completely coincidental.


To the Control Freak Light Bulb Screwing-In Community:

A friendly member of our committee has asked a question of us, which members have every right to do, and we will give him the benefit of the doubt as to the constructive intentions behind it. The question is, “How many control freaks does it take to screw in a light bulb?” After conferring in an exemplary way with a minimum of bristling and rancor, we of the informal leadership group have decided that this is an opportune time to share with the Committee the Committee’s guidelines, which have been changed by us only slightly since the last time they were shared. We believe that our friendly member’s question is answered as well as possible by the guidelines, which follow:



The name of this committee shall be the Control Freak Light Bulb Screwing-In Committee.


The purpose of the Control Freak Light Bulb Screwing-In Committee shall be to shed light on the complex realities of social life, political conflict, and objects in rooms by screwing in light bulbs when requested by authorized persons.


The motto of the Control Freak Light Bulb Screwing-In Committee shall be, “Please Stand Aside So That We Can Bring Light out of Darkness.”


a). “We” (or “Us,” or “Our”) has a two-fold meaning. In the first sense, it refers not to the committee as a whole nor to the governing subcommittee but to an undefined group of leaders (“The Leadership”), some of whom, at any given time, are original founders of the committee. The Leadership have a deep understanding of the committee’s reason for being and are driven by a total commitment to its purpose. The term “inner circle” is not an approved term, and those who use it are to be considered ideologically questionable, at best, and are to be shunned (mandatory). In the second sense, the word “We” refers warmly and generously to the control freak lightbulb screwing-in community as a whole insofar as it is composed of people who recognize the Leadership and our deep understanding of light bulb screwing-in in its political and social context. The committee as defined by its official membership may or may not be congruent to this larger sense of “We,” depending on the situation at hand.

b). “Light” may seem to the uninitiated to be a term with an obvious meaning that need not be defined here. However, the centrality of Light to our mission has required us to investigate its social underpinnings and subject it to analysis. The paradox that “turns the bulb,” as it were, lies in the fact that while light is irreducibly ideological, it is also required for seeing (at least for those who have not fully purged themselves of ideology, which is the accomplishment that allows us, the leadership, to see in the dark when others cannot). Because of the inherent ideological structure of light, and by extension any light-emitting devices such as light bulbs, the seriousness of our mission and its dire importance to society should be self-evident. The analysis of the social structuration of light and light bulbs is a complex matter requiring a hard-won consciousness of the electromagnetic spectrum, and may be explained to members from time to time as we find it necessary (in terms relative to the Leadership agenda).

c). “Guidelines” is a term with a deliberately different meaning from “Bylaws,” and our choice to use the word “Guidelines” rather than “Bylaws” stems from our commitment to democracy and informality. The term “Guidelines” has a looser meaning, which shows that we are relaxed, hip, and informal. It also implies flexibility, which we favor, because rules, as we know, are imposed undemocratically. Because we have guidelines rather than rules, we have some “wiggle room” that we might need at times when things are tricky. As a result, accountability is informal, which is appropriate among friends like us. Disagreements are resolved with reference to our vague defining principles, about which the Leadership has the final say. (To complain about this is unfriendly and inappropriate in an informal, friendly group such as ours.) We are proud to provide the wider world with such an example of democratic self-government, since democracy is in such short supply outside of our own committee.

d). “Control Freak” is a derisive term which we have re-appropriated to emphasize our dedication to a mission and a set of values. This mission and values-set is one that others may not understand or may lack the ethical commitment to prioritize over expediency and bourgeois comforts. Accordingly, it is also a mission and values-set that we are generally unable to explain to others to their satisfaction. But the ignorant remain ignorant by their own choice, and this is the basis for our entitlement to control in the crucial area of light bulb-screwing-in.



a). Composition. [Nota bene, inquirer.] The Light Bulb Screwing In Committee is composed of an even number of elected control freaks, including the chair, serving in three year terms, elected in a staggered sequence (see ARTICLE VII: ELECTIONS). The number of members is variable and must equal either seven or a one-twentieth portion of the represented stakeholders (voting constituency) (rounded up) needing light at nightfall thirty days before the election, whichever is greater. This formulation was arrived at through a process of spirited discussion spanning several years, and is an “unfinished work,” meaning that it is subject to change at the discretion of the Committee.

b). New Members. The Leadership encourages – IN THE STRONGEST TERMS POSSIBLE – new people to stand for election to the committee. We recognize the importance of new ideas for adapting to changing circumstances. New ideas are good. We are not afraid of them, and we are not afraid of new people. We are not opposed to change. Change is needed at times. New ideas are needed at times. Our ideas were new once and in some senses remain new and always will be new. However, many people who show an interest in participating in our light bulb screwing-in project have not yet learned to see light bulbs in the full scope of their social and historical context, and to understand the political nature of every turn in the screwing-in process. The bulbs, the ladders, the technique – all exist within a network of actions in a utopian political context and cannot properly be understood apart from their sorry history. Sometimes there is corrosion. Do you know what to do about corrosion? We, you see, know what to do about corrosion. You may have read something about toothbrushes and baking soda. But potential problems with that technique – not to mention its factional origins – have been pointed out. It is complicated. But, as we say, we encourage new people to join us and we encourage new ideas. People wanting to stand for election to the committee are advised to first find a sponsor on the committee, which will ensure publication of their standing for election in the newsletter prior to the election. New committee members wishing to propose a new idea are invited to submit their idea to the chair for review. Upon review, the idea will be shared with the rest of the committee with the endorsement of the chair. New ideas distributed to the committee without first being submitted to the chair will be regarded as an attempt to undermine the solidarity of the group. We appreciate having everyone on the same page and committed to the same mission. It would be one thing if we were just a debating society. But we are organized for an active purpose, and for that purpose to be accomplished, sometimes lines need to be drawn. We do this – and how regrettable it is that it needs to be said at all – in order to fully realize our commitment to a democratic society, which is what lightbulb screwing-in is all about.

c). Purgation, Blacklisting, and Threats Thereof. This section of ARTICLE VI is in order to make it clear that no members of the Control Freak Light Bulb Screwing-In Committee have ever been purged or ever will be purged, nor has any community member been blacklisted nor will be blacklisted, nor have any threats related to such political tactics been made or will be made. Some former committee members, with motivations about which we will nobly refrain from speculating, have told false tales of purgation, blacklisting, or threats. As a group that prizes democracy in all of our processes, we are above such tactics, and do not take kindly to their suggestion. Those who have spread such rumors have gone on to regret it.

d). Chair. After each election a member of the committee shall be chosen by the committee to serve as its chair. The committee member selected will serve as chair over the course of the following year. Everyone seems to be happy with me in the position of chair, however, so until there is evidence to the contrary, we will proceed informally and forgo a formal selection process.




In keeping with Gandhi’s exhortation to “be the change you wish to see in the world” (because we are such followers of Gandhi and his peaceful ways), we have a policy of ignoring money issues for as long as possible and only dealing with them when someone else steps in and starts dealing with them for us. This policy has worked out for us pretty well so far, so we’ll just stick to it. Thank you, Gandhi, for your moral example, the claiming of which seems to entitle us to all kinds of bailouts from our parent organizations. “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” and we don’t mean nickels and dimes. And be sure to look for those subsidized compact flourescents when available. A dollar for a twenty-watter is a good deal, and those twenty-watters shed a lot more light than they seem to, when their lumens are measured using the proper equipment. Leaving financial matters to someone else may not seem like control freak behavior, but like most passive-aggressive strategies, part of its value lies in its deflection of non-utopian reality.




These bylaws were approved by a meeting of the ad hoc governing subcommittee by a unanimous vote on February 15, 2010.

October 11, 2010

Get out the books, not the vote

I am very serious in the view that we should not be trying to increase voter turnout, in this or any election. Let me explain why.

Most of us have the idea that voter turnout rates are a measure of the success of our democracy. If people are “participating,” by voting, then the will of the people will really be reflected in the outcome of the election. That is an idea shared by most Americans who care about democracy, with the result that it’s accepted as a given that more voting is good and that it is important to “get out the vote.” But the idea needs to be examined in light of the basic civic responsibility of self-education and critical thinking.

For democracy to function (as we all acknowledge before moving on) the public needs to have critical thinking skills and needs to have an understanding of the issues that is not completely shallow. Yet, when is the last time you have seen a public campaign for self-education or critical thinking skills? When do you see it acknowledged that Americans tend to be relatively ignorant about the issues that affect them, and that they sometimes get fired up about? Rather than promoting self-education and critical thinking skills to a high standard, it seems that most civic-minded people would prefer to use propaganda to get people to vote a certain way, lacking an understanding of what they are doing. I find that unethical (or at least anti-democratic), regardless of the intended outcome.

Think about the voting public for a moment. Studies have arrived at the following disturbing findings about them. One fifth of them believe that Obama is a Muslim, and only 34% of them know that he is a Christian (PEW Center poll). Half of Americans aged 18 to 24 can’t find New York on a map (2006 National Geographic study). 42% of Americans don’t accept the theory of evolution (PEW Center poll). 26% of Americans don’t know what country the United States declared its independence from (Marist poll). 75% of Americans believe that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin (Barna Group). We’ve all heard these kinds of scary poll results showing the ignorance of Americans, and yet we persist in blindly encouraging people to vote without any concern for their level of knowledge or ability to think rationally about the candidates and issues they’re voting on.

I value the right of every American to vote and oppose things like a literacy requirement or other gatekeeping methods. But I oppose the practice of encouraging everyone to vote or talking about voting as though it is a civic duty. The basic civic duty is not to vote. The basic civic duties are learning and critical thinking. Regarding voting, we should impress upon people that if they do choose to vote they are assuming a grave responsibility that requires careful study and patient, self-questioning thought.

The culture we have around democratic participation currently is not working.