August 31, 2007

Are we the friendly produce consultants of the information age?

After offering reference help to a student the other day and having it refused, I had what I can only call an evil thought. I’d like to share this evil thought with you now, at the risk having an evil influence on library discourse. Sometimes it takes a devil’s advocate, though, to inspire work on the foundations.

Imagine if you will, walking into your local supermarket to buy ingredients for tonight’s dinner. The produce section is first. In a prominent location, in front of the fruit, is a middle aged woman sitting at a desk, under a sign that says “Reference.” She looks at you with a pleasant smile and eyelids raised to communicate approachability. You walk up to her skeptically, out of curiosity, and she speaks first, saying, “May I help you?”

Your natural response is, “Oh, no, I’m just here to shop for supper – sorry to bother you.”

She puts a hand on your arm to stop you from leaving, saying, “No, that’s what I’m here for, to help you select the best produce for your needs. What are you planning to cook?”

“Well, just a stir-fry – but really, I’ve got a shopping list, and I’d like to just do my own shopping.”

She says, “Wait a moment! Not to imply anything about your knowledge of produce, but I am an expert, and I can help you make better produce purchase decisions than you would likely make for yourself.”

“(Ahem) Ok, well, could you just point me to the snow peas?”

“Of course – yes, they’re over there next to the mushrooms.”

“Thanks very much,” you answer, and continue with your shopping, wondering what kind of supermarket you’re shopping in.

As an analogy to reference service, this is obviously evil, because library users do understand what the reference desk is for, expect it to be there, and appreciate our assistance. But most reference librarians are also aware of how many library patrons seem to have no need for them. On my campus of 10,000 students, I know that only a small number make use of the services of reference librarians. Last year one student assumed that the desk was there for surveillance purposes, that the person sitting at it was a security guard, watching the students to make sure they didn’t do anything wrong. The student I offered to help the other day first felt uncomfortable accepting my help because she didn’t want to waste my time, and then didn’t want it because she felt she could do a better job responding to her own information needs than I could, and more efficiently. I have no way of knowing that she was wrong, not having the opportunity to do more of a reference interview and lacking knowledge of her own research strategy. It does seem that students and many members of the public today consider themselves more self-sufficient in their information seeking than they did a generation ago. So the devil’s question is, how unlike an unwanted vegetable consultant is the reference librarian of today, really? What do you think?

August 30, 2007

Jean-Yves Mollier on Google Print and Europe’s response

French historian Jean-Yves Mollier is happy with neither Google nor with Europe’s plans to counter Google’s anglo-american hegemony with digitized libraries of its own. Here is a translation of the start of an essay he wrote (French text available from the translated post) calling for language-based rather than nation-based digital libraries, out of an interest in avoiding the marginalization of the cultures of smaller countries.

I picked this up from this morning’s Chronicle of Higher Ed email.

August 24, 2007

Progressive Archivists Meeting at SAA

There will be a meeting of the Progressive Archivists on Friday, September 1, 2007, Noon – 1:00PM, at the Annual Society of American Archivists meeting, at the Fairmont Hotel, 200 N Columbus Dr, Chicago IL.

For conference attendees, this is a brown bag meeting, so you may bring your lunch.

Check your program or conference literature for location.

Agenda is open.

And greetings to our members outside the U. S.!

August 23, 2007

New journal: Information, Society and Justice

Information, Society and Justice
an inter-disciplinary electronic journal
(website under construction)

Information, Society and Justice is a peer-review, open-access electronic journal based in the Department of Applied Social Sciences (DASS) at the London Metropolitan University. The journal is governed by an Editorial Board drawn from UK and overseas. It seeks to provide a proactive space for critical discussion of the linkages between social information, justice and democracy. It will focus on issues of equality, human rights, social inclusion, economic justice, and struggles for liberation and democratic expansion.

The central role of information in these areas will be explored in depth. It will focus on the role that librarians and information workers together with libraries and information services can play in safeguarding, highlighting and communicating on issues such as equality, human rights, social/economic justice, social policy, and liberation. Creative work on these themes will also be considered.

The journal will publish original research, communiqu?©s, interviews, reports and other material on these and other fields. It is not limited to any one disciplinary perspective and will accept contributions from academics, professionals and information workers working in any disciplines.

The journal invites relevant articles from academicians, policy practitioners, and civil society activists. It also encourages submission from students and their participation in the administration of the journal.

ISJ is expected to be published twice a year. The first issue is expected to be published in November 2007.

August 20, 2007

PLG Report from the U.S. Social Forum

The Progressive Librarians Guild had representatives at the U.S. Social Forum in Atlanta in March, in partnership with representatives from Radical Reference. Elaine Harger and Kathleen de la Peña McCook wrote a report on their activities and their experience at the Forum. I think it’s a good restatement of how librarianship and the Left are connected and offers some inspiration, some rejuvination, and the challenge of a good example for anyone who wants to mix Left activism with their librarianship but has become inactive out of a sense of disaffection and hopelessness in the Bush years.

A big thank you to Elaine and Kathleen and to Radical Reference reps Melissa Morrone, Dena Marger, and Susie Husted for making the trip and participating. I hope the experience generates a lot of new activity.

August 18, 2007

Wikipedia Scanner

One nice thing about true open source software, especially when it’s running a huge website like Wikipedia, is that creative programmers can make useful add-ons to it.

Wired Magazine (which I generally dislike) has an interesting article in the August issue about Virgil Griffith’s Wikipedia Scanner, which can tell you what organizations have edited what pages on Wikipedia and what their edits were. When someone edits a page on Wikipedia, even if the edit was made anonymously, the editor’s IP address is recorded and permanently associated with the edit in the database. Wikipedia Scanner processes the entirety of Wikipedia into a database of IP addresses, and then uses other tools to connect those IP addresses to the institutions that own the associated computers. As a result you can look up voting machine maker Diebold, for example, and quickly see where someone who works for them removed unfavorable information from the article about them (which was quickly restored). It is possible to look up edits made using computers coming from major corporations and government agencies. This really shines a helpful light on Wikipedia. In a way, this tool is a good argument for open source as a model for information production, because it’s the openness of Wikipedia in this instance that allowed a user to make a contribution that helps to overcome the downside of allowing anyone to make edits. I think it would be good if this tool were incorporated into the Wikimedia platform.

Thanks to my work friend Mags for sharing the link with me.

August 17, 2007

Two minor correctives and one broadside on Library 2.0 madness

First, two new ethnographic studies of undergraduate research habits, each offering a corrective to assumptions at the foundation of Library 2.0 thinking:

Anthropologist Nancy Foster led a study at the University of Rochester, and presented her findings at the ACRL conference this year. The study will be part of a book published by ACRL soon. The Chronicle of Higher Education talked about the study in an article yesterday (apologies to those who can’t access it through institutional subscriptions) and pointed out an interesting finding: the assumption that all the Millennial kids are wired is far from true. In fact, they are divided (just like other groups) between those who are comfortable and highly skilled in the new technologies with which they are associated and those who are not. According to Foster’s study, there are a significant number of undergraduates who are technologically inept (at least at the University of Rochester; she is careful to point out that her results are not generalizable, and institutions should conduct their own ethnographic research).

Alison Head has a study of undergraduate research published in the new First Monday that has comparable implications for how we think of our students. In “Beyond Google: How Students Conduct Academic Research” she has found that undergraduates doing research papers don’t use the public web, especially Google and Wikipedia, as much as we think they do, and are more comfortable than we have thought with the traditional research tools that librarians promote as academically appropriate, and actually do turn to them first most of the time.

While these studies don’t have huge implications for Library 2.0 thinking, I think they go to the heart of some of the assumptions behind the Library 2.0 craze.

But here is something more pointed: Mark Rosenzweig’s response to an article in the new American Libraries on the ALA Council listserv:

The document, “A Librarian’s 2.0 Manifesto” by Laura B. Cohen — touted in all seriousness in the table of contents of the Aug 07 issue of American Libraries as “A Manifesto for our times”– is, first of all, not so much a manifesto as an unconsciously parodic cross between a “12 Step Program,” the Catholic “Credo” and the Old Testament decalogue, written however naively in the current demotic style — which has become the inflated currency of our devalued culture — of wide-eyed religious fervor for being born-again in the ethers of the internet by letting the Savior of the WWW into our hearts, and aimed at promoting abandonment of any and all resistance, collective or personal, to the New Dispensation of “Web 2.0.”

A collection of self-described “affirmations”, it is , in its entirely “inspirational” intent, completely lacking in (and, moreover, hostile to) any analytical, never mind critical, content.

Critique, analysis, and, heaven forbid, doubt, are the enemies. Even practical calculation is thrown to the winds. This is a call, above all, to forsake all reasoning, questioning, measuring, and all that it entails. “Ours is not to reason why,” apparently.

This piece is an illustration par excellence of a toxic fusion of technology enthusiasm and inspirational/religious literature It is trying to induce a “mindset” — to use its own word — conducive to the seamless integration of librarians. libraries and librarianship into the irresistably evolving technostructure, no matter what form that evolution takes.

It’s tone is that of countless ludicrous and meretricious credos associated with media-hyped self-improvement movements rather than anything associated with the historical notion of a real manifesto, the use of the term “manifesto” only meant, editorially, to somehow elevate the painful banality of this exercise in the “power of positive thinking” above the narcissistic chattering level of the blog world whence it arises.

It is not “for our times,” but “of our times”: a symptom, alas, of the reign of hype, branding, logos, psychobabble, and marketing jargon.

Full of intended-to-be-stirring pronouncements of faith like “I will not fear Google or related services,” besides sounding laughable to any reasonable librarian, the main message ts point is, apparently, to warn against the evils of critically examining the sacraments which have been bestowed upon us, or the limits of the thing, or the motives or schemes of the bestowers, lest the illusion of cosmic harmony and technologically-assured progress be perturbed.

The admonition: “I will enjoy the excitement and fun of positive change and will convey this to colleagues and users” is something the tenor of which is right out of the Moonies or some other weird cult. Scary! We have to be told, it seems, what is “exciting” and “fun,” as if, in any case excitement and fun clinch any argument.

The faith that whatever “evolves” through this (definitionally) “positive change” is a priori good and the imperative that it should necessarily be celebrated is not only naive but pernicious. I hope I am not alone is seeing this baneful document as a broadside against reason and our professional values.

Mark C. Rosenzweig
ALA Councilor at large

Mark is not entirely alone here. While I have to admit that I agree with most of what is in Cohen’s piece if examined on its own terms, the background to it, and the sense of it being needed and a “manifesto for our times” is something I don’t like. I personally do find Web 2.0 stuff fun and exciting, but I am worried at the way the library profession seems to have forgotten reason in our approach to it.

Generally speaking, we have no trouble dealing with sales reps who visit us from book and technology vendors in our libraries, and try to sell us their products at conferences. We’re clear about what our needs our and clear on the need for diligence in order to avoid getting ripped off or otherwise wasting money or compromising our independence. For the most part, we have a good understanding that our relationships with vendors are a kind of adversarial partnership. I think we really need to realize that the Web 2.0 sites we’re talking about using in a library context, even if they don’t send us invoices (yet), are businesses whose services we pay for in one way or another. If we decide we need what they offer, we need to treat them as vendors, not as the Messiah. We need to chill out and be colder in our our thinking about Library 2.0, and less drunk on the excitement of the internet’s ability to create new possibilities. The present craze for Library 2.0, not to discount the fact that it offers a lot of interesting possibilities for future library service, really IS scary, because it has all the dangers that groupthink always has – fundamentally that it puts tremendous pressure on people to conform to its message, rendering a questioning attitude incorrect at a spiritual level. (“You aren’t against change, are you?”) If there is one thing about libraries that needs to be protected, it is, to paraphrase Michael Gorman, our service to society as a protector of rational thought….

August 12, 2007

San Francisco libraries have become neighborhood best-sellers

Here’s some great library PR from regular San Francisco Chronicle columnist C.W. Nevius. It’s an example of the kind of newspaper coverage that I think we mostly want.

August 8, 2007

The Response of Socially Aware Librarians to National Crisis…

Kathleen de la Peña McCook just pointed me to a very interesting Master’s Thesis by Carla Valetich: The Response of Socially Aware Librarians to National Crisis: A Case Study of Selected Electronic Mail from the Social Responsibilities Round Table, September 2001 – July 2002.

The abstract says:

At the time of the attacks on September 11, 2001, little known information was available to the public. It was an event that was without precedent and led to a scrambling for clear and known information from trusted figures and institutions. It is the intention of this paper to examine the impact that September 11 had on the professional discussions of librarians. The paper asks, “Have the post-September 11 exigencies brought the practice of librarianship into tension with the personal convictions of librarians?” Working on the investigator‚Äôs assumption that socially aware librarians would be more vocal and reflective on the issues raised during a national crisis, this paper presents a case study of post September 11 comments posted to the Social Responsibilities Round Table Action Council – Listserv (SRRTAC-L). This paper offers a glimpse of how librarians respond to national crisis and the tensions that they face in their profession.

It’s a very interesting paper.

August 1, 2007

Martha Yee on abdication in cataloging

A short essay by Martha Yee titled “Will The Response Of The Library Profession To The Internet Be Self-Immolation?” has been circulating in the cataloging blogosphere. I found it rather late, when it hit the JESSE list, which is read by LIS educators. It’s a good example of a statement that is being dismissed by many as “traditionalism” in a way that I think sidesteps its arguments. Comments on JESSE have been interesting, but I’m afraid I no longer republish email discussion threads, so I will leave it to you. I think the weakness of Yee’s argument is in the fact that library catalogs tend not to work as well as they are supposed to, but I think she’s very much right on the whole, in that MARC just does a lot more for users than the things that are being used in its place, which tend to dumb down the entire information cycle.