August 10, 2013
NSA Data Center — Bluffdale, Utah
In a recent post to this blog, I outlined how the debate regarding the National Security Administration’s data gathering activities pitted privacy against national security and sought to “balance” the two competing values. I suggested that framing the debate in these terms misses the more important concern that the NSA’s data gathering activities are a significant threat to democracy. In what follows, I will explain my concerns.
Although most reporters suggested that Edward Snowden was primarily concerned about the invasion of privacy when he revealed the NSA’s data gathering activities, Snowden himself made it clear that his primary concern was for democracy itself. In an interview about the reasons for his actions, Snowden worried that through his work for the NSA, he was “extend[ing] the capabilities of … [an] architecture of oppression” and that the government unilaterally was “grant[ing] itself powers to create greater control over American society and global society.” Snowden was calling on us to see the dangers of the NSA’s surveillance programs more broadly. These programs do not simply pose harms to individuals, they have the potential to transform the character of all political life in the country.
But what is this “architecture of oppression” that Snowden mentions, and how will it “create greater control over American society?” The answers lie in understanding the significance of collecting and accessing Big Data which is really the core of the NSA surveillance activities.
Far from merely poking into the privacy of individuals, Big Data potentially provides its owners with the ability to modify the behavior of individuals and entire demographic groups. The most obvious example of this is the data collected by internet companies like facebook and Google. By collecting information about a person via their voluntarily constructed on line profile or through recording their search behavior, facebook, Google, and other such companies are able to craft advertising messages that are increasingly able to direct our behavior on and off line. To be sure, the algorithms used to customize advertising and search results are not perfect, but one need not succeed in every instance to increase the odds that members of a market segment will be persuaded to make a purchase or view a website. Such is Big Data’s role in commerce – a role that is not especially worrying.
We should be concerned more, however, with the political use of Big Data. In the past, political strategists employed data collected by Boards of Elections. One’s voter registration record usually contained one’s name, address, date of birth, political party affiliation (if any), and the elections in which one voted. From this, campaigns tried to identify likely and unlikely voters as well as sympathetic and unsympathetic voters. Door-to-door campaigns could then be run more effectively. Furthermore, the campaign message could be tailored to specific groups to maximize voter turnout in favor of the candidate and suppress turnout for the opposing candidates.
Now, with the availability of Big Data, a campaign can understand the voting population much better. This data often is available freely on government websites, e.g., the US Census Bureau and the Federal Election Commission. These sites can inform a campaign about the socio-economic status of a precinct, the breakdown of renters versus home owners, an individual voter’s history of campaign contributions, and much more. Conceivably, other Big Data repositories could be made available from the private sector. Knowing which voters purchased SUVs, have health insurance, shop at discount stores, take advantage of “back to school” sales, subscribe to specific magazines, purchased home security systems, or visit certain websites can help identify individuals with specific interests that then could be exploited by the campaign. The candidate who has the most extensive access to these data sources and can hire the data analysts capable of mining the data will have an enormous advantage over candidates who do not.
This style of campaigning is not merely a prospect for the future. During the 2012 presidential campaign, the Obama reelection committee employed Big Data (or at very least a lot of data and very sophisticated data analysis) to contact voters with messages that brought them to the polls in numbers far greater than anyone expected. According to Jonathan Alter the analyses were sophisticated enough to tell the campaign “why placing ads on reruns of The Andy Griffith Show made sense on some cable systems but not on others.” Furthermore, data was collected to test campaign messages and to measure the persuasiveness of particular door-to-door volunteers. The data analysis used by the Obama campaign, however, mostly focused on creating a nation-wide database that linked likely voters, volunteers, and donors in order to make donors of volunteers and volunteers of donors. So in this sense, it was not as sophisticated as it could have been. Still, it was really only the first concerted attempt to run a Big Data campaign. It often has been credited for winning the election, and so it likely will become the model for future political campaigns that will make greater and greater use of data analysis. (For an illuminating account of the Obama campaign’s use of data in 2012, see Jonathan Alter’s recent book The Center Holds.)
But where is the danger to democracy in this? After all, it is still the voters who are deciding the outcomes. Well, the danger arises long before the voters have anything to say about the election.
As campaign data analysis becomes more sophisticated, voters will only be presented with candidates who have access to the largest data sets about the voting population and who have the resources to analyze these sets. All others will be screened out of the electoral process long before any serious campaigning begins. For a campaign to be successful, it will need to have supporters who own important data sets and can provide the technical expertise to exploit them. Such friends cannot come from the working or underprivileged classes. Obama’s digital campaign had a budget of over $25 million dollars and costs for future campaigns surely will be higher. Consequently, the only entities capable of amassing the financial and digital resources will be extremely rich individuals, major corporations, internet companies, and broad industry groups. The ability to affect an election will not be based on the democratic principle of one person – one vote. It will be proportional to the donor’s wealth. Even more so than today, these groups will have effective veto power over who will be a “viable” candidate for state and federal office. If the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United advanced the cause of plutocracy, then the private ownership of Big Data and its use in elections will ensure that plutocrats will be unchallenged in perpetuity.
George Orwell’s 1984 warned that video surveillance might ensure that a political party would one day establish unassailable control over a society. He wrote, “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever. There is no way the Party can be overthrown. The rule of the Party is forever. Make that the starting point of your thoughts.” Today’s surveillance technology is not just Orwell’s simple video cameras. It is also the ubiquitous data and metadata harvesting by public and private entities. The NSA is merely one institution that is amassing this data, though it is doing so on an unimaginable scale and with an enormous budget. It currently is constructing a data center in Bluffdale, Utah, containing four 25,000-square-foot halls, filled with servers that will be able to handle yottabytes of information. (A yottabyte is equally to approximately 500 quintillion or 500 x 1018 pages of text.) Meanwhile, the NSA has only the slightest democratic oversight and ominously, it is working in support of a bloated National Security State that defends a plutocratic government. One might be tempted to call it an “architecture of oppression.”
I suspect (hope) that Orwell’s image of the future as a boot stamping on a human face is too extreme, at least for US domestic politics. More likely, if you want a picture of the future, it will not be much different from the present, but it will be less corrigible. We will see a wide disparity of wealth with a large, struggling underclass that is alienated from the benefits of economic progress. These condidtions will be guaranteed by governments that first of all serve the owners and managers of society. The pretense of democracy will survive only in the carefully manipulated elections contested by competing elements within the ruling class, and one of their most important tools for social control will be Big Data.
August 1, 2013
The recent revelations that the National Security Administration has been collecting metadata for the phone calls of American citizens and that they have been acquiring data from Google, Yahoo!, facebook, and other internet companies comes as no big surprise to many. Sen. Frank Church’s investigation in the 1970s into government surveillance revealed a long history of surveillance. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, its subsequent amendments, and the PATRIOT Act left enough clues to create a disturbing picture of what the government might be doing. Furthermore, there have been plenty of past news reports providing evidence of surveillance; but with the revelations from Edward Snowden, any room for willful ignorance is now over. The surveillance programs are out in the open and have sparked a media debate. Even Congress took up the issue.
According to news reports, the debate is about “balancing” national security against privacy. Numerous news sources and blogs have published (verbatim) the sentence, “The revelations have reopened the post-Sept. 11 debate about individual privacy concerns versus heightened measures to protect against terrorist attacks.” Obama put the question this way: “How are we striking this balance between the need to keep the American people safe and our concerns about privacy?” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi put it most succinctly, “We have to have a balance between security and privacy.” Even critics of the surveillance policies have adopted this framework. American Library Association President Barbara Stripling writes, “We need to restore the balance between individual rights and terrorism prevention.”
The problem with framing of the debate in this way is that it tends to overestimate the benefits and underestimate the harms. Worse yet, the most important harms are overlooked entirely. Our attention is directed to benefits that accrue to the whole of society (national security) and to harms posed only to individuals (the invasion of privacy). We are led to think that the NSA surveillance programs protect us from terrorism, while the only down side is that certain individual’s rights to privacy might be underweighted in the “balance.” Framing the debate this way seems to ask: should the government be prevented from setting up an anti-terrorist database on the grounds that some security analyst might – as a side effect – discover that someone is secretly visiting internet porn sites or dialing 1-900-SEX-CHAT? Framed in this way, personal privacy amounts to a dispensable luxury, particularly when Obama assures us that the surveillance programs pose only “modest encroachments on privacy,” and that “nobody is listening to your phone calls” – they’re just collecting metadata.
Of course, embarrassing publicity can have important political consequences, particularly as it might be used against politicians, but the public is likely to conclude that a sexting politician is too stupid to deserve much sympathy. Beyond damaging particular high-profile political careers, there are more serious concerns. FBI agents might be led to discover who is organizing climate change rallies or Tea Party meetings and then obstruct these movements by causing trouble for perfectly law-abiding citizens. But even in these cases, the public is likely to conclude that targeting peaceful political groups will be limited by the FISA court and that covert interference with fringe political movements will be a criminal aberration made rare by the integrity of intelligence agents and the threat of prosecution. So much for privacy concerns.
In contrast to this, we are asked to consider national security, specifically, “terrorism.” The Director of the National Security Administration, Gen. Keith Alexander, tells us that the controversial surveillance programs “help[ed] prevent” fifty-four “potential terrorist events” – whatever that means. The terrorism threat, however, has been enlarged well out of proportion. The number of Americans killed or harmed by terrorists pales in comparison with the number harmed by the most routine dangers we face every day. Moreover, the harms that might come from “terrorist events” are largely speculative and vague enough that a scenario can be concocted that is so grim as to put any civil libertarian on the defensive. Think of Condoleezza Rice’s remark, “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” Even our ostensibly liberal president assures us that these programs “help us prevent terrorist attacks.” It is no wonder that many Americans are unconcerned about (even welcome) these surveillance programs.
What is seldom mentioned is that these massive surveillance programs do not just pose a threat to individual privacy. They pose a profound threat to democracy. When the threat to democracy is mentioned, it tends to be a rhetorical addendum. For example, Barbara Stripling writes, “the surveillance law erodes our basic First Amendment rights, all while undermining the very fabric of our democracy.” Stripling deserves great praise for her remarks on this issue, but we are left to figure out for ourselves how the fabric of democracy is undermined. I will explore this danger in a future post to this blog.
August 14, 2012
In a Library Juice blog post some time ago, Rory Litwin recommended an essay by Karl Mannheim entitled “Conservative Thought.” In the essay, Mannheim argues that political groupings can be distinguished by specific “styles of thought” (though a style of thought will not be limited to politics). Styles of thought characterize more than just the subjective thinking of individuals. At the same time, they are not entirely objective. Individuals participate in a style of thought which will survive their coming and going, but it does not exist apart from the individuals. Mannheim goes on to illustrate this by describing the style of thought that made up the German conservatives of the 19th century. In essence, Mannheim was trying to answer the questions, “who were the German conservatives and what was it that made them a distinct and coherent political group?”
This got me thinking about what unifies political groupings today which led me to read George Lakoff’s Don’t Think of an Elephant, Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?, and Chinni and Gimpel’s Our Patchwork Nation. Each of these works examines political identities in recent U.S. politics more or less in the manner that Mannheim sought to make sense of the political identity of 19th century German conservatives. Lakoff examines what distinguishes conservatives from liberals. His attempt to discover a master trait that explains all or most of this political divide comes closest to Mannheim’s attempt to find a “style of thought” that governs German conservativism. In contrast to this, Frank examines the distinctions between moderate Republicans, conservative Republicans, and liberals. Here the similarity with Mannhiem is that Frank defines conservative Republicans in opposition to liberals rather as Mannhiem defines conservativism in opposition to Enlightenment rationalism. Chinni and Gimpel take a slightly different approach by positing and examining twelve different “nations” within the United States, each composed of counties having similar demographic characteristics. It is noteworthy that Lakoff contrasts two abstract ideological systems as does Mannheim, while Frank and Chinni and Gimpel approach the question more concretely by distinguishing specific policy positions and character traits that hang together sociologically.
There is much in each of the three works on the U.S. political landscape to recommend them. Chinni and Gimpel is perhaps best; however, each of them underestimates the complexity of political groupings within the U.S. If librarians are to understand better our patron populations and their relations to politics, we’ll need to see deeper into the body politic than any sociological assessment thus far has seen and we’ll need to be sympathetic to a multiplicity of political perspectives. We need not abandon our own political views, but to accurately understand the views of our patrons, we must see them as complex rational individuals and avoid the easy shorthand of political stereotypes.
Of the three works under examination here, Lakoff’s book is the most ambitious in that it purports to identify a master trait that distinguishes liberals from conservatives; however, in doing so, it becomes the most superficial. Lakoff believes that American politics are driven by two models of the family: the Strict Father Model and the Nurturing Parent Model. These models serve as frames for how conservatives and liberals respectively think, not just about family life, but also about politics and other spheres of life. Lakoff argues that conservatives implicitly have recognized that emphasizing the values inherent in the Strict Father Model reinforces voters’ tendency to employ these values when thinking about politics. After emphasizing this family model for four decades, conservatives have established in the electorate a way of thinking about politics that prevents voters from accepting (and sometimes even understanding) the policies advanced by liberals.
Lakoff’s theory is initially attractive, as one often can see ties between the family models and a number of Republican and Democratic political positions; however, as important as family dynamics are to establishing our world views, the idea that all of the variations within U.S. politics are rooted a single social-psychological character trait that admits of only two values overlooks the complexity of the political world in the interest of theoretic simplicity. I suspect that Lakoff’s dichotomy was both generated by and helped to entrench the Red-Blue vision of U.S. politics that has done so much to mask political reality. Mostly, the Red-Blue divide is an artifact of our two party system which requires people of quite diverse opinion to band together against a single political opponent. Were our two party system to be transformed into a multi-party democracy, the importance of the two family models might quickly disappear.
In contrast, Frank’s work distinguishes three political groupings: moderate Republicans, conservative Republicans, and liberals. Mostly, Frank examines the two Republican groups. Frank’s thesis is that the working class population of Kansas has become hopelessly distracted by hot button social issues and has been fooled into voting for moderate Republican politicians who are undermining their economic interests. Working class conservatives are trading away their economic future in exchange for lip service from moderate Republicans on social issues. While there is something to this argument, it fails to understand economic issues from the conservative’s perspective. Frank clearly is viewing the question from a liberal perspective, i.e., that one’s attitude toward the legal framework regulating economic activity should be based on how well-off that framework will make you. I suspect that this view may not be shared by the great majority of working class, conservative Kansans. Instead, they are – true to their words – “values voters,” but not simply in the sense of caring about abortion, “traditional” marriage, and prayer in school. They also bring their values to economic questions, particularly, the values of personal responsibility, self-sufficiency, respect for fair play, and most of all meritocracy.
Republican doctrine has long opposed taxes and regulation. They are seen as alien impositions on the main business of America which is, on this view, business. Taxes and regulations are merely ways by which the productive members of society are made to support and defend politically powerful, but unproductive, members. If one sees the main activity of life as making a living within the constraints of a fair system of rules, then such a point of view may seem not unreasonable. Surely, many if not most working class people in Kansas find making a living an all-consuming activity. This is particularly true of people who are self-employed or sell their labor job to job. For them, taxes (no matter how progressive) are an obstacle to getting ahead or even just staying afloat. Furthermore, regulations on businesses limit the kind of economic activity that they believe is necessary to remain in business or simply remain employed.
In addition to this, the ideology of individualism, personal responsibility, and fair play can seem to trump government assistance for the disadvantaged. Material well-being may certainly be an important value for the conservative working class, but if earning what you acquire is a greater value, then taxation, regulation, and social programs can be seen as undermining this more important meritocratic value. Living in a meritocracy might mean that one is not made as well-off as one might otherwise be, but getting what you deserve and only what you deserve seems to be important to the ideology of the working class conservative.
Of course, what liberals will find missing in this analysis is the importance of equal opportunity. A libertarian economic order provides only the legal pretense of an equal starting point for economic success. It does not recognize the unequalizing effects of such things as sex, gender, and racial prejudices, and especially class privileges; but in the case of the Kansas working class, the degree of inequality of opportunity may not seem so great as to justify liberal programs like affirmative action, housing assistance, publically financed health insurance, and food stamps. They may find their own situation is too close to the beneficiaries of public assistance to be sympathetic to transferring any of their wealth or opportunity to the least well-off. To speak productively with the working class conservatives, one might do well to speak in meritocratic terms, but to emphasize how the accidents of birth undermine meritocratic values. The liberal needs to make clear and convincing that what is preventing the working class from realizing the deserved benefits of their own efforts is not transfers of wealth to the least-well off, but systemic advantages accruing to the richest of the rich in our society. The liberal must make the case that these advantages distort meritocracy much more than social programs for the least well-off and that social programs are a way to rectify distortion of a meritocracy.
Chinni and Gimpel’s Our Patchwork Nation is motivated by the desire to avoid the Red-Blue dichotomy that Lakoff examines. Instead, Chinni and Gimpel divide the electorate into twelve distinct communities, and maps them onto the nation county by county. Hence, one county may be part of “Tractor Country” while the neighboring county is part of “Immigration Nation.” Very much is gained by this nuanced analysis, but even here, there is a tendency to disregard minority populations within counties or even majority populations. For example, “Immigration Nation” is composed of counties that have a large Hispanic population: on average, 44% of the people who live there are from Spanish-speaking backgrounds. This, of course, is enough to make these counties significantly different from others that do not have such a high percent of Hispanics, but labeling the county part of “Immigration Nation” masks the other 56%. Counties in “Evangelical Epicenter” are composed significantly of white fundamentalist Christians, but they sometimes contain a significant number of African-Americans who are the essential (though seldom the majority) element of “Minority Central” counties. All of this is simply to say that the demographic constitution of Chinni and Gimpel’s twelve communities are more complex than their labels can allow and that much more must be considered to understand adequately the electorate. In all fairness, though, a single work can only do so much. Theory can never completely describe reality, but theorize we must.
After reading Lakoff, Frank, and Chinni and Gimpel, I am led to think that Mannheim’s investigation into “styles of thought” and other sociological studies of its kind must be handled with care. The best of them might reveal some subset of features of an electorate, but they are more likely to lead one into the trap of thinking that one’s theory about political ideologies is more accurate and stable than it is. Political groupings in the U.S. may have much less to do with a shared political ideology or “styles of thought” and much more to do with a two party system that requires uneasy alliances. Applying these insights to our patron populations can help keep us from falling into the trap of serving a cardboard cutout of a patron. Instead, it may remind us to serve the patron who actually stands before us.
January 22, 2012
Library Juice blogger Alan Mattlage has posted a review of Prophets of the Fourth Estate: Broadsides by Press Critics of the Progressive Era, on his own blog. His review provides a good description of what is offered by this book.
December 21, 2011
Libraryland is a-buzz about a new role we can play in the pursuit of scientific knowledge: data curation. Data curation serves, in particular, the new scientific methodology that goes under the name e-science. E-science involves the collection of data sets which are made widely available to the research community. Researchers then “mine” these data sets by using automated systems to find statistically significant relationships within the data. The library’s role is to curate the data, i.e., identify, acquire, and manage the data sets through the course of their life cycle. As exciting as this new methodology is, one should be aware of its weaknesses. E-science can be a valuable addition to traditional scientific methodology, but by itself, it is no panacea.
In a commentary entitled “Implications of the Principle of Question Propagation for Comparative-Effectiveness and ‘Data Mining’ Research” in the Journal of the American Medical Association, 35(3), 2011, Mia and Benjamin Djulbegovic argue that data mining does not provide definitive answers to research questions. Instead, it should be considered merely a hypothesis-generating technique. Their first point already had been demonstrated vividly by a piece of data mining research entitled “Testing Multiple Statistical Hypotheses Resulted in Spurious Associations: A Study of Astrological Signs and Health” published in the Journal of Clinical Epidemiology, 59(9), 2006 by Peter Austin et al. Austin et al.’s research showed that residents of Ontario, Canada who were born under the astrological sign of Leo had a higher chance of suffering from a gastrointestinal hemorrhage than others in the population, and those born under the sign Sagittarius had a higher probability of being hospitalized for a humerus fracture. These results were statistically significant, even after being tested against an independent validation cohort. The study “emphasizes the hazards of testing multiple, non-prespecified hypotheses.” In other words, it warns us that given an enough data points, one can, after the fact, find any number of ways to connect them.
The second point in Djulbegovic and Djulbegovic, that data mining should be used as a hypothesis-generating technique, is, on the other hand, undermined by Austin et al. Austin et al. point out that the statistical methods that are at the heart of data mining are not able to distinguish real from spurious associations. Data mining employs the automated examination of enormous bodies of data. Its usefulness is thought to be proportional to the size of the data set that it collates; however, as the data set becomes larger and as the number of attributes that serve as potential relata increases, the number of potential relationships increases exponentially. Importantly, the number of spurious associations also increases. With enough data, no significance test will be stringent enough to provide assurance against the kind of results found in Austin et al. What is needed, according to Austin et al. is a “pre-specified plausible hypothesis.” For statistical analysis to be useful, the researcher must begin with a hypothesis, preferably a plausible one, if the research is to be valuable.
What exactly is a pre-specified plausible hypothesis and how can we generate it if data mining can’t do that for us? The question was posed some sixty years ago by the philosopher Nelson Goodman using different terms: Goodman believed that a critical question for epistemology was to distinguish between “projectible and non-projectible hypotheses.” One can more or less replace “pre-specified plausible hypothesis” with Goodman’s term “projectible hypothesis.” According to Goodman, when we seek to understand what hypothesis is (or is not) projectible, we do not come to the problem “empty-headed but with some stock of knowledge” which we use to determine what is (or is not) projectible. Projectible hypotheses will be those which do not conflict with other hypotheses that have been supported in the past. They will commonly use the same terminology of previously supported hypotheses. The terminology appearing in the hypotheses will have become “entrenched” in the language. This goes a long distance toward explaining why we don’t find the link between one’s astrological sign and medical conditions plausible. Twenty-first century Western medicine is not accustomed to linking astrological signs to ailments and so must find any hypothesis that does so implausible.
If Goodman is correct, then data mining is of little use without an historical understanding of the field of science to which the data pertains. Library administrators should keep this in mind when allocating resources. Clearly, purchasing data sets is a necessary part of serving our research patrons, but the emphasis must be not on the mere accumulation of data, it must be on the selection of data that is critical to continuing the scientific discourse. While data sets that distinguish astrological signs are clearly insignificant for medicine, there are many other attributes that form the basis of data sets that are more or less reasonable. Librarians must be able to perform the complex task of distinguishing the more from the less. It is the curation of data that is important, i.e., the acquisition and management of data sets through the whole of its life cycle; and most importantly, the curation of data sets that are of interest and value to the scholarly and research community.
Here, we have another argument for allocating library resources to pay for librarians with deep subject expertise. As e-science develops, vendors will make more and more data sets available, regardless of their actual worth to researchers. To effectively choose the data sets that are of value, librarians must have a thorough understanding of the research needs of their patrons. To do this, they must have a deep understanding of the field. Unfortunately, with the excitement swirling around e-science, the mere access to large data sets threatens to become the be-all and end-all in collection management. If we aren’t careful, we may find ourselves with mountains of data from which everything and nothing can be concluded.
November 30, 2011
The recent assaults by the police on various Occupy movement encampments highlight the tenuousness of our right to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances. Certainly, there is good reason for municipal ordinances against permanently occupying public spaces. Under many circumstances, this would amount to appropriating public spaces for private use, but the Occupy encampments do not fit these circumstances. The Occupy encampments are of a kind with the recent and ongoing occupations of Tahrir Square in Cairo, the 1989 occupation of Tiananmen Square in Beijing, and the occupation of the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk in 1980. All of them are or were peaceful efforts to confront a nation’s political power structure and to rally fellow citizens to oppose corruption, abuse, and undemocratic institutions. President Obama has condemned state violence against Egyptian protesters, but it is no surprise that he and his administration remain silent when the right to assemble for political expression is denied in U.S. cities. The impulse to silence dissent (or to allow dissidents to be silenced) is strong among those in power.
Apologists for police repression in the U.S. point out that the crackdowns in Egypt, China, and Poland were far more brutal and of a greater scale than what is happening in our cities; however, the violation of our first amendment rights is no less a violation simply because less violent tactics are employed against smaller demonstrations. The ostensible reason for destroying the encampments is to protect public health, but it would be quite easy to work with the protesters to address any issues related to sanitation and public health, while respecting the right to assemble and petition the government for redress.
Beyond the right of the people to peaceably assemble, the freedoms of speech and of the press are also under attack. This has been made evident by the reported arrests of and assaults on journalists and the restrictions placed on them by police at encampments. It also has been dramatized recently by the confiscation and destruction of the People’s Library during an attack on the Occupy Wall Street encampment in Zuccotti Park. The People’s Library contained over 6,000 volumes. Its destruction by the police illustrates the disregard that the New York Police Department and Mayor Bloomberg have for political expression. City officials are more concerned with fostering a certain image of the city and protecting Wall Street than they are with our constitutional rights. They are using City ordinances to crush political dissent.
Some might attempt to excuse the destruction of the People’s Library on the grounds that much of the collection was not unique and that it might have appeared to the police to be an ad hoc, ephemeral assortment of books and not a “real” library. It might have been seen as one of many things to be cleared from the park. However, American Library Association President Molly Raphael correctly observed that “the very existence of the People’s Library demonstrates that libraries are an organic part of all communities. Libraries serve the needs of community members and preserve the record of community history. In the case of the People’s Library, this included irreplaceable records and material related to the occupation movement and the temporary community that it represented.” She went on to express support for the librarians and volunteers working to reestablish the People’s Library. Roughly discarding tents and sleeping bags is one thing, but destroying the media of public discourse is a direct assault on democracy.
It is clear that the real intent of these police actions is simply to suppress political dissent. This serves no good purpose. Indeed, allowing the protest to continue would be of great benefit to everyone – both those who are sympathetic to the protest and to those who are not. It would allow the public and politicians to understand the depth of support for the Occupy movement. Without police interference, the size and longevity of the protest would be proportional to the indignation felt by the protesters and the popularity of their cause. If the grievances are trivial, the protest would soon evaporate. If they are serious, the growth and staying power of the encampments would make this known to everyone. Destroying the encampments merely obscures the issue, while it makes a mockery of our most prized civil liberties. It has, however, demonstrated the narrow boundaries of acceptable political dissent in the U.S. We owe great thanks to the occupiers for the sacrifices they are making to push back those boundaries and enlarge our freedom.
October 7, 2011
I was honored when Rory Litwin asked me to write for Library Juice. I have followed the blog for some time now and have always found it a source of interest. As this is my first post, I thought I’d write on an issue that I find to be central to librarianship, namely, the tension between our role to provide general access to information and our roles as reference librarians or research assistants. Historically, librarians were responsible for relatively discrete collections about which few people had much knowledge. Consequently, the main service that librarians provided was to help patrons find resources — particularly the best resources – available in their collections. Furthermore, there wasn’t much chance of accessing holdings outside of those collections, so when librarians could acquire more resources, they needed to be very sure that the new acquisitions were the best that were available. Librarians were constantly making judgments about the quality of the resources that they were providing to their patrons.
To some extent this is still true, but during the past half century or so, our profession has concentrated on expanding access. Our roles as reader advisors, research assistants, and collection curators have declined, and our role in linking our patrons to vast storehouses of information through interlibrary loan systems, aggregated databases, and automated search tools has expanded. In many circles, arranging access seems to be taken to be the whole of librarianship. It isn’t surprising, then, that the success of Google and other popular search engines has caused such anxiety among librarians. If access is our sole reason for being, then what do we do when our “competitors” can satisfy our patrons’ needs more quickly, easily, and effectively?
Recently, I’ve come to think that we should remember that providing access is only one of our professional responsibilities, and that it probably has become overemphasized. We need to reengage in the activities we left behind when we turned our efforts so much to providing access. In a time when information availability is exploding, we should remember that our patrons need guidance through the morass of data that lurks behind every poorly constructed search. We can do this, not just by “going to where they are” and offering to do their searches for them, but by seeking out the best resources and making those particular resources more readily available.
Practically speaking, this means that librarians must begin to de-emphasize the value of access in general and re-emphasize their role as research assistants. We need to provide our patrons with the reader advisory services that were once a core element of our work. In academic libraries, this can be done most readily by creating guides to the literature, but those guides need to go far beyond what we see in most guides. They need to be more than simply lists of useful databases and video tutorials on using various search tools. They need to do such things as introduce patrons to the nature of the field of study, provide a history of its devepment, and identify its most important figures, and its classic and important current works. Library administrations will need to hire subject specialists with significant expertise, who are potentially capable of teaching courses in the departments they serve.
Of course, this presents a challenge to our desire to remain “neutral” or “unbiased” with regard to the subject matter that we make available, but we need not shy away from the challenge. We must conscientiously identify the information that we judge to be most worthwhile, while remaining reasonably humble about our abilities to discriminate the wheat from the chaff. We need to exercise our right to the freedoms that our teaching colleagues have in expressing our views about our fields of expertise. We owe it to our patrons to apply our professional judgment about the value of the resources available to them and not simply serve as human cogs in an access providing machine.