October 25, 2009
This post is a presentation of two lists of priorities – first, priorities of the Social Responsibilities Round Table (SRRT), and second, a list of the kind of issue that I think SRRT ought to emphasize instead. The first list is as complete a list as I was able to compile of the subjects of SRRT’s official resolutions from mid-2002 to mid-2005 (the time during which I was SRRT Action Council Coordinator). The second is a list of many of the important progressive issues in librarianship according to the way I personally see things. They are the issue areas that have given me my motivation as an activist and now a publisher in librarianship. Because those issues have been my priorities but not always SRRT’s or the Progressive Librarians’ Guild’s, I often felt out of place in those groups even as an insider.
First, the list of topics addressed by SRRT’s official resolutions between mid-2002 and mid-2005 (at least the ones I was able to find):
- Health insurance
- The Iraq war (a number of these)
- The war in Afghanistan
- Freedom to travel to Cuba
- Workplace speech
- Disinformation in the public sphere (this one was actually initiated by me)
- Cultural democracy as a core value
- Racist training materials used by the U.S. Military
- ALA partnerships and sponsorships
This is a very partial list, but based on my own memory I think it gives a fair representation of the scope and proportion of SRRT’s resolutions. I personally agreed with a lot of these resolutions.
The resolution on disinformation, which had to do with Bush administration tactics, arose from a discussion within Action Council in which I complained that too many of SRRT’s resolutions were not directly related to library issues or even issues of information ethics in general. In answer to the question, “What do you propose we do instead?” I drafted an earlier, unused version of that resolution. Part of the fallout of that discussion was that some members of action Council began encouraging me to try the Intellectual Freedom Round Table as a better place to pursue my priorities.
Here is my own list, not exhaustive, of the kind of issues and topics that I would like to see addressed from a progressive perspective and in an organized way. Some of them concern intellectual freedom, but most do not. They could all be said to be in the realm of information ethics, and in most cases have a political angle that can be drawn out through a bit of intellectual work.
- Privacy (of library users, web users, and citizens)
- Copyright and the Open Access Movement
- Workplace speech
- Deprofessionalization and deskilling
- Librarians’ pay and status
- “Next generation library catalogs”
- Cataloging trends
- Market effects on intellectual freedom (media monopoly)
- Academic Freedom
- Internet filtering
- Net neutrality
- Information as a public good
- Government secrecy
- Privatization of information and information services
- Trends favoring casual users over researchers
- The dumbing down of culture and of educational institutions
- Funding crises / library closings
- The decline of publishing / changes in the publishing industry
- Digitization as a funding priority
- Conflict over the foundations of the library profession
- Education 2.0 and critical thinking
- Critical perspectives on multiple literacies and media shift
- The digital divide
- The literacy divide
- The middle class bias of public libraries
- Serving the underserved
- Racism and sexism and libraries
- Capitalism and trends in the information landscape
- Library of Congress priorities
- American Library Association priorities
- OCLC priorities
- Library education and the iSchools
- Media, information overload, and the educational psychology of reading
- Critical pedagogy and library instruction
- Queer theory, information access, and information organization
- Neutrality and advocacy
- Bias in systems of information organization
- The crisis in journalism and its meaning for the public sphere
- Change in the nature of the public sphere
- The digital preservation crisis
- The role of local perspectives and local needs
- Commercialization of libraries
- Corporate funding (of libraries, of ALA)
- Indigenous knowledge and Intellectual Freedom
- Intellectual Freedom and hate literature/hate speech
- Research standards in the profession / bias in research
- Google Books settlement
First, to be fair to the Progressive Librarians’ Guild, I should say that they have often done a better job than SRRT of addressing many of these big-picture issues. Also, to be fair to SRRT, I should mention that many SRRT members are not interested in the resolutions that SRRT Action Council passes and do their work within the issues-based Task Forces that are a part of SRRT, and I have not represented their activities here.
To me, the issues on the second list have as much urgency as the war in Afghanistan, and are within a sphere which we can claim as our own by virtue of being librarians. I would like to see SRRT do more to address these kinds of issues and less to address issues that are not related to libraries. That is not to say that ALA has “no business” addressing non-library issues. I think ALA has a right to talk about the war in Afghanistan and may see the need to make statements on such issues from time to time. But I don’t think it should ever be our primary focus, not when there are urgent matters to address within our own sphere. And just because these issues relate to our professional qualifications does not make them apolitical. Part of the point of addressing these issues from a political angle would be to demonstrate the ways in which our profession is tied up with politics in various ways.
So is this a call for action? I suppose I could make it one:
- More issues of information ethics and information politics in SRRT
- More talking and thinking and writing about these issues
As always, Library Juice Press is accepting manuscripts and book proposals…
John Miedema gave his talk at the Library of Congress the other day, and has posted his text and bibliography.
John is working on an interesting follow-up project to Slow Reading…
October 24, 2009
We have just set up the website to accept credit card and Paypal payments. This means you can now order from us online without going through an online bookstore like Amazon.
Try it out if you like.
October 22, 2009
From Salon: “Is the Internet melting our brains?” “No! The author of “A Better Pencil” explains why such hysterical hand-wringing is as old as communication itself.” By Vincent Rossmeier.
From The Australian: “Specialist Pleading,” by Frank Ferudi. “ONE of the most influential contemporary cultural myths is that our era is characterised by the end of deference. … Commentators interpret the declining influence of traditional authority and institutions as proof that people have become less deferential and possess more critical attitudes than in the past. However, it is less frequently noted that deference to traditional authority has given way to the reverence of expertise.”
From the L.A. Times: “The lost art of reading,” by David L. Ulin. “The relentless cacophony that is life in the 21st century can make settling in with a book difficult even for lifelong readers and those who are paid to do it.”
From Policy Review: “Orwell’s Instructive Errors,” by Liam Julian. “The edifying commentator is also a flawed one.”
October 17, 2009
We (Litwin Books and Library Juice Press) have a presence on a number of social media sites – Facebook, Twitter, Goodreaders, Livejournal, LibraryThing – but we’re not using them to their full potential. I’ll own up to it – I don’t relate to some of these services (especially Twitter – I just don’t get it). And, also, I would rather have someone who is not me in charge of the conversations with readers, because it takes a lot of time and I’m not very good at it.
So, I’m hoping to find someone who loves our books and social media too to handle our presence on these sites and develop them, work with them, and generate actual conversations. I feel old and slow on a lot of these sites and would be very happy to have someone help me out so that I can just be aloof and edit books. Does that make sense?
Please contact me if you’re interested.
October 15, 2009
It comes up periodically and gets a little more serious each time. The Special Libraries Association is asking members to approve a name change to the “Association of Strategic Knowledge Professionals,” or ASKPro.
Lots of SLA members say, “What’s in a name? It’s a matter of being recognized as what we are. Don’t take words too seriously.”
What is at issue is a struggle over the organization’s soul, not just words. This is because librarianship as a profession is undergirded by a framework of values, a framework that is referred to, along with a set of skills and institutions, by the words “library,” “librarian,” and “librarianship.” Some SLA members work in libraries and are called librarians, some not. Some work for government agencies, for academic institutions or non-profits, and some work in the private sector. There is a good deal of variation among SLA members regarding the nature of their work, the nature of their institutions, and the values that they are fulfilling through their work.
If SLA members vote to approve the name change, it may be a sad thing for some members, but, numerically, not for the majority. I would simply take it as a statement, by SLA members, of who they consider themselves to be. The vote, either way, will give the library community useful and important information about who consider themselves members of it and who do not. SLA members who want to be included in the professional solidarity we enjoy as librarians might need to let us know who they are, if it’s not spelled out in their job titles, because membership in their association would no longer imply anything that connects us.
And they may feel fine about that. I know I do.
October 12, 2009
This post presents a second look at the familiar story regarding the transformation of information consumers into information producers and the idea that this shift is making book publishing companies obsolete. While the effects of the technology revolution have certainly empowered individuals, this common story overlooks some important aspects of the role that publishers play, and puts too much faith in a leveled-out, organization-less system. This essay presents an argument for the continuing value of the publishing house as an important factor in an information ecology.
I would like to point out the following roles that book publishing companies play in the book market:
- a filtering or gatekeeping role, by controlling the titles that reach market channels according to quality and marketability;
- an editing role, aimed at improving the quality of authors’ works;
- a production role, which includes design and printing according to better standards of quality and efficiency;
- a marketing role, which consists in organizing the information that makes the book market function by building title lists according to an editorial scope and disseminating that information to the appropriate audiences;
- a creative role, in generating and nurturing projects;
- and a financial role, by rewarding and sometimes financially supporting its authors.
A final consequence of the technology revolution for publishers may be that we will have smaller and more numerous firms selling to smaller audiences, but publishers will continue to play an important role in the book world, both print and electronic.
The filtering role
The period of the internet boom has been a period in which the filtering or “gateway” role of publishers, and other institutions as well, has been coming under pressure. This development has been welcomed by many people who have found a feeling of empowerment in it. The argument was made beginning in the 1980s that because publishers were driven by profit and owned by large corporations they filtered out important works that were critical, challenging, or innovative. As this argument was being made a number of trends were noticeable. First, small, independent publishers sprang up like wildflowers as alternatives to the mega-publishers, and then either died off or matured into important venues for critical, challenging, and innovative works. Within a decade or two, the internet emerged as an alternative means for individuals to make their voices heard, and digital technology enabled individuals to self-publish books more easily, as well as lowering the barriers to entry for new publishing companies. It was the dawn of the era of the consumer as publisher, and along with it came a suspicion of expertise and of the elitist role of the gatekeeper, the professor, and the technocrat. People began to put more trust in “people like themselves” than in people whom society’s institutions held up as experts or arbiters of quality or truth. We may have reached a point where this trend has reached it limit and is reversing, now that Americans have elected a President who represents technocratic competence rather than good ole’ boy common sense, and it is now mostly right wing crackpots who complain about the “elitists” in gatekeeping roles.
As the new information landscape has settled into a more or less stable framework, we have formed a new set of expectations:
- Many of the more interesting books on niche subject areas are published by small, independent publishers, and being a small, independent publisher in itself does not indicate lower standards of quality but simply a narrower projected audience for its titles;
- The trade market, which is focused on developing blockbuster titles and selling them in bookstores, is in a state of decline that is likely permanent;
- The internet has become the default way to buy books, whether in or out of print;
- The ways of finding out about books have multiplied;
- People read fewer books;
- While book publishing has been democratized, there is general recognition that The Memoirs of an Average Joe From Racine and the millions of self-published titles like it are not worth reading by people who are not friends or family of said Average Joe;
- The lowering of the barriers to entry in the industry has meant more titles, more niche foci, and smaller print runs for the average book; and
- Consequently, the average publishing house is less capitalized, which has the effect of reducing the overall financial support for writing as a profession, and encourages writing as an amateur pursuit.
Whether a publisher is trying to sell 50,000 copies of a book on the trade market or 500 copies of a book in a niche or academic market, it has an audience in mind that understands quality in a particular way and trusts the publisher’s brand to deliver that form of quality in its offerings. “Quality” may have more possible meanings than it once did in the book market, but it still means something to all but the most epistemologically anarchistic readers. If a book is self-published and has not been vetted by some publisher’s editorial acquisitions process, then readers who manage to find out about it in some way – usually on a blog – will have fewer reasons to feel confident that it is a good book. Authors who successfully publish their own books are able to do so because they are well-enough known not to need a publisher’s imprimatur for their readers to feel this confidence. (Edward Tufte is not like your average iUniverse author.) This means that the role of publishers as gateways, even if these gateways are more numerous and based on a broader range of standards and ideas of the meaning of quality, remains important in the marketplace.
The editing and production roles
Publishers have a natural interest in maintaining a standard of quality in their offerings in all dimensions. This means not only accepting some works and not others, but also editing those works to improve them. It also means having systems and talent in place to do higher-quality book design and high quality printing in a cost-effective way, bringing prices to a level that makes good sense in the book market. An individual who self-publishes a novel may take advantage of an author services company such as iUniverse, and this will allow him to make a book that looks generally good, but his choices of cover art are extremely limited, there is no editorial assistance provided to him, and the final price of the book will be inflated.
The marketing role
In this new book world the multiplicity of sources of bibliographic information – blogs, online booksellers, etc. – has made the list-building role of a publisher somewhat less important than it was in the past, but has not eliminated it as the primary organizing function of the marketplace. If I am a book selector in the field of rhetoric, I will get catalogs sent to me from Parlor Press, among others; if I want books about baseball history, a publisher with a strong list in that area is McFarland. Many important publishers maintain series that readers and collectors can follow to keep up with a field. Even large publishing houses that develop bestselling titles tend to be known for certain kinds of works, genres, and subject matter. The publisher’s imprint can lead a reader or collector from one book to another by grouping works editorially. There is no equivalent for the organizational function of the publisher’s imprint in the world of self-publishing.
The grouping function of the publisher extends to its marketing and advertising efforts. A publisher may purchase advertising space in a venue that is relevant to its editorial scope, and use that space to lead readers to more than one book. This means that publishers can spend resources on marketing and advertising more efficiently than self-publishers can.
The creative role
The preceding may be obvious to many readers, but the creative role of publishers is less familiar to people. Acquisitions editors don’t only read submitted manuscripts and make decisions about them. They also generate ideas for books, find the right authors for them, and nurture the writing process. At Litwin Books and Library Juice Press, five of our seventeen books now in print originated with in-house ideas. Another seven were existing manuscripts that we uncovered in our wide research, and the remaining five were submitted to us cold. Most of our twenty or so forthcoming book projects got started in conversations between us and the authors. As I understand the book industry, this collaborative process of developing titles is common if not typical. The publisher contributes creativity coupled with a studied sense of what the book market needs. Often even the most creative people need encouragement or other people to “think with.” The publisher offers the author a creative partnership that helps to develop ideas and make them real.
The financial role
Some people who write books make a living from it, while others do not, and the difference is the most important line of separation between large trade publishers and smaller niche and academic publishers. A bestselling book can easily generate income for an author that is equivalent to that of a full time job, where sales of a 500 copies sold of a typical university press title generate merely supplemental income. A professor may be expected to write books as a part of her job, but with librarians or authors in other niche markets the relative lack of remuneration for significant labor is a problem in the present information ecology. Writers will write, and there are rewards other than money, but making a living is always a more important priority, and this limits what many writers are able to produce for small, independent publishers. Small publishers can reward authors financially to a degree, but not enough to support them doing it full time. However, the opportunities they can provide to authors are opportunities that may not have existed at all previously.
The meaning for libraries
The shift from larger to smaller publishers is mostly good for librarians. There used to be a strong complaint of de-facto censorship of library collection development as a result of large publishers’ domination of information channels. Over the past decade or so, however, professional tools for library collection development – distributors’ lists, approval plans, review sources, bibliographies, publishers’ websites – began to inform us to a greater and greater degree about the offerings of small, independent presses. The publisher’s roles as a filter or gatekeeper and as an organizer of title information have been essential in making these tools work in the context of a broader marketplace, by helping reviewers and vendors know where to look for the good stuff that is being published in this or that area. Ten years ago, a publisher with the profile of Litwin Books would probably not have been on a major vendor’s approval plan, but because vendors have recognized the role of smaller publishers in focusing on specific subject areas, Litwin Books and Library Juice Press are now on the core list of publishers of both Blackwell’s and Yankee Book Peddler, which means that our titles are included in approval-based book shipments. The main obstacles that small, independent publishers now face in reaching the library market are simply their narrower target audiences and competition with the numerous other publishers in the marketplace.
The democratization of publishing has opened up great possibilities for authors and ideas, but I believe we are bouncing off of its limits and seeing the need for organization, expertise, and intellectual soundness. Publishers offer gatekeeping based on a myriad of principles, according to their niche. They also offer quality control, efficient pricing, information channeling, creative partnerships with authors, and a way to reward intellectual work. The landscape for books and reading has changed, but the basic role of publishing companies is re-emerging as the theme of individual empowerment has come up against the need to bring quality to the surface.
October 8, 2009
From “How Technology Changes Society,” by: William Fielding Ogburn. Published in Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 249, Social Implications of Modern Science (Jan., 1947), pp. 81-88.
Between the patenting of an invention and its use, the old adage is appropriate: there is many a slip betwixt the cup and the lip. An illustration of this may be the form of facsimile transmission which produces a newspaper by radio in the home or office. We do not know how much use it may have in the production of newspapers. In the first place, there is a low-priced substitute in a newspaper printed at a central printing press and distributed by mail or messenger. The delay in newspaper delivery to farms, however, may mean that farmers will buy this facsimile instrument. On the other hand, only farmers with electric wire are likely to buy it, or perhaps there are many other inventions which a farmer would rather have than a machine to print his newspaper in the home. And, of course, he can hear the news at less cost from radio commentators.
October 6, 2009
I look forward to Republicans coming out against this….
THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release October 1, 2009
NATIONAL INFORMATION LITERACY AWARENESS MONTH, 2009
– – – – – – –
BY THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
Every day, we are inundated with vast amounts of information. A 24-hour news cycle and thousands of global television and radio networks, coupled with an immense array of online resources, have challenged our long-held perceptions of information management. Rather than merely possessing data, we must also learn the skills necessary to acquire, collate, and evaluate information for any situation. This new type of literacy also requires competency with communication technologies, including computers and mobile devices that can help in our day-to-day decisionmaking. National Information Literacy Awareness Month highlights the need for all Americans to be adept in the skills necessary to effectively navigate the Information Age.
Though we may know how to find the information we need, we must also know how to evaluate it. Over the past decade, we have seen a crisis of authenticity emerge. We now live in a world where anyone can publish an opinion or perspective, whether true or not, and have that opinion amplified within the information marketplace. At the same time, Americans have unprecedented access to the diverse and independent sources of information, as well as institutions such as libraries and universities, that can help separate truth from fiction and signal from noise.
Our Nation’s educators and institutions of learning must be aware of — and adjust to — these new realities. In addition to the basic skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic, it is equally important that our students are given the tools required to take advantage of the information available to them. The ability to seek, find, and decipher information can be applied to countless life decisions, whether financial, medical, educational, or technical.
This month, we dedicate ourselves to increasing information literacy awareness so that all citizens understand its vital importance. An informed and educated citizenry is essential to the functioning of our modern democratic society, and I encourage educational and community institutions across the country to help Americans find and evaluate the information they seek, in all its forms.
NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim October 2009 as National Information Literacy Awareness Month. I call upon the people of the United States to recognize the important role information plays in our daily lives, and appreciate the need for a greater understanding of its impact.
IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this first day of October, in the year of our Lord two thousand nine, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-fourth.
# # #
Call for Papers
*Politics, Libraries and Culture: Historical Perspectives*
*Library History Round Table (LHRT) Research Forum, June 2010*
The Library History Round Table (LHRT) of the American Library Association (ALA) seeks papers for its Research Forum at the 2010 ALA Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C., June 24-29, 2010. The theme of the Forum will be historical perspectives on the ways in which politics and libraries interact and influence one another. In this instance, politics should be considered broadly—not simply as concerning the administration of governments (international, national, state, local) but also the politics of other institutions and groups. Possible topics might be the effects politics have had on the history of libraries, archives, government documents and other cultural records. How have individual and institutional efforts of librarians influenced public policy pertaining to information access, reading, and services to the public? How have political concerns shaped the collection, preservation, availability and use of libraries and other repositories in different periods, locations, and jurisdictions? How have libraries, archives, and similar institutions tried to shape information politics and society through copyright law, the right to read, public library funding and other efforts?
LHRT welcomes submissions from researchers of all backgrounds, including students, faculty, and practitioners. Proposals are due on November 30, 2009. Each proposal must give the paper title, an abstract (up to 500 words), and the scholar’s one-page vita. Also, please indicate whether the research is in-progress or completed. Proposals should include the following elements: a problem or thesis the study addresses, a statement of significance, objectives, methods, primary sources used for the research, and conclusions (or tentative conclusions for works in progress).
From the submissions, the LHRT Research Committee will select several authors to present their completed work at the Forum. The program will be publicized in January 2010. So that the Forum’s facilitator may introduce and react to each author, completed papers are due June 4, 2010. The Research Forum will likely occur on Sunday, June 27, 2010. All presenters must register to attend the conference. For registration options, see ALA’s events and conferences page at http://www.ala.org/ .
*DEADLINE FOR PROPOSALS*: November 30, 2009
*DEADLINE FOR COMPLETED PAPERS: * June 4, 2010
Please submit proposals and direct inquiries to:
*Melanie A. Kimball
LHRT Vice-Chair/Research Committee Chair*
*Graduate School of Library and Information Science
300 The Fenway*
*Boston**, MA 02115*
Telephone: (617) 521-2795
October 4, 2009
Leveraging our impact with technology means certain things. It means substituting machine processes, which are good at certain kinds of thinking, for intellectual processes, which are good at other kinds of thinking.
In terms of “recommender engines” or other systems intended to connect people with information automatically, it means relying on aggregate data and averages. The attempt is to predict without trying to understand (without trying to understand the user, the question, or the resource/object).
Using machines for decisions and judgment means measuring popularity or consensus – quantifiable factors that statistically analyze everyone’s opinions and characteristics. People’s reasoning is not examined.
There are feedback loops in the formation of the opinions and preferences that are tabulated by these systems. Most people do a little thinking for themselves, but are heavily influenced by what other people think and by the impressions that they get from the way information is presented to them, often through the same systems that are polling them for their opinions.
At any given moment, I think it is a relatively small minority of people – not the majority – whose views on anything are well reasoned. They are not necessarily geniuses. It is simply that rationality is a virtue that most people do not care much about, so they are content with lazy thinking. Also, people are busy, and don’t have time to spend thinking about most questions the way an expert has to.
The populist idea of finding the truth in the average degrades public discourse by mathematically privileging such non-thought. Our use of machines is part of the problem because they are so good at computing those averages, and their power in this regard results in more of our thoughts being put back to us in quantifiable terms. For example, a numbers-based system related to movies will try to tell you how “good” each movie is, or how “good” you will probably think it is, on a scale of one to five. It is the nature of the tool that has led to the focus on such unenlightening questions. Questions that don’t have quantitative answers, such as questions about what something means or what we can learn from it, are asked less frequently as we go forward. Their answers cannot be scaled up because they can’t be put in quantitative terms. We answer them in an individual way, through a process of discourse that has a rational element.
Scaling up decisions with technology means bypassing the process of analysis that looks at people, texts, and situations in an individual way and reasons about them. In order to do this, it is necessary to construct tables of rules and assumptions that only apply some of the time, and to only ask questions that can be answered in quantitative language. The result of this is a gradual reconstruction of our shared reality according to this quantitative worldview.
As these systems grow larger, their hunger for data must be satisfied, so we feed them data without putting much care into questions of what the data is actually measuring. I frequently see data sources described in extremely simple terms that positively misrepresent what the data actually is counting. Much, if not most, of the data that provides the computational fodder for these systems is misrepresented by salespeople and marketers, with the result that the answers we get are often determined by preconceived notions rather than sound methods. The very act of determining how things will be counted is determinative of the kind of picture that will be created by the numbers.
The basic problem is that we are gradually turning over our role in the world as thinkers to systems that look only at inputs and outputs and make no attempt to understand what is happening in between, or what things mean, with little or no concern for methodological soundness. As we go down this road, critical thinking, the kind that actually involves reasoning and an attempt to find the truth, is growing rare, despite the lip service we pay to it.
Philosophically, the transition seems to come from a passive decision, accepted gradually and without notice, that “truth” is a meaningless category, that all there is is representation and consensus. The personal search for truth is replaced by the quantitative search for the mean. It is called a “social” transition, but it is important to look at what constitutes the new social fabric versus the old. Is it a meeting of minds, as the word implies? Or is it a way of living that is organized by the principles of our machines, and given over to measuring ourselves against “Das Man,” as Heidegger called it?
October 3, 2009
From the LHRT site:
“The Library History Round Table publishes a bibliography of library history in each semi-annual issue of the LHRT Newsletter. LHRT has consolidated the bibliographies from the 1990s and early 2000s to improve searchability.”