August 27, 2010

Save the Date: New Orleans, June 2011

Save this date if you’re planning to be in New Orleans next June for the ALA Annual Conference. Saturday, June 25th Library Juice Press, possibly with one or more other groups, will be hosting a party of some kind. What to call it? It will be more lively than a reception or a meet-and-greet, but less wild than some of the things viewed on public computer terminals.

Please contact me if you’re with a group that has similar interests and would like to co-host our … maybe it should be a cocktail party? Sazeracs, of course.

August 22, 2010

Extinct Citations, Missing Links and Other Bibliographical Wonders

Chapter one of Vanishing Act: The Erosion of Online Footnotes and Implications for Scholarship in the Digital Age, by Michael Bugeja and Daniela V. Dimitrova, is now online:

Extinct Citations, Missing Links and Other Bibliographical Wonders

A decade ago, most research was done in the library rather than through its Web site, and scholars, editors, graduate directors and librarians were meticulous about the integrity of footnotes. They knew that citation was the backbone of research, from agronomy to zoology in the sciences and from art history to Zen studies in the humanities. The footnote upheld standards because it allowed others to test hypotheses or replicate experiments. Testing and replication are at the heart of the peer review and scientific processes upon which academe is based, from papers by first-year and transfer students to grants by postdoc and professor.

Because so much depended on the foundation of all scholarship, the footnote, academicians admonished students for sloppy or erroneous citation. This was the norm even a decade ago when most research was done in the library rather than through its Web site. Our discipline of communication scholarship was as exacting as any other in the academy, especially when it came to footnotes. Students submitting dissertations and faculty, journal articles, were fastidious about the accuracy of footnotes, knowing that their reputations relied on the fine print at the bottom of the page or at the end of the manuscript. Unacceptable were citations that simply named the source without specifying the document, as in “U.S. Mint, 801 9th Street NW, Washington, DC 20220-0001.” The worst types of mistakes would contain particulars, including an article’s title and date of publication, but might locate it in the wrong volume and issue of a journal. Indeed, if dissertation advisers went to the stacks to verify citations, as they often did, they would be aghast at checking a citation and finding none in any volume or number, or finding it with wrong pages or other particulars, and discovering a journal with those pages ripped out and missing. Those mistakes could doom a letter of recommendation for a job or advanced study. More…

Tracking Cookie Opt-Out (Behavioral Advertising)

I blog about tech stuff only very rarely, but this is something I really want to share. If you’re at all concerned about online privacy, you will want to know about the Network Advertising Initiative’s “Behavioral Advertising Opt Out Tool.” Go to it, and it will show you which advertising networks have installed tracking cookies on your computer. You can check the boxes and click through at the bottom to instruct all of those networks to opt you out of their spying, which they are legally obligated to do. Now, it is also possible to block specific sites from setting cookies on your computer using complicated settings in your browser, but this tool is easier, and lets you opt out of networks that have not found you yet.

To say something general, I would say that it is a good thing that so far we have been able to get national policies set up that allow us to opt out of privacy-compromising systems, and we have to keep doing that, but our right to opt out is meaningless unless we are actually able to figure out how to do the opting-out process, and then go and do it.

Personally, I find it hard to take seriously the claim of some that they “want to see more relevant advertising served up on [their] browsers [or wherever else].” Advertisers never know us as well as they think they do, and when they do hit close to home, it’s just spooky. I am not comfortable when the opaque networked computer that is everywhere with the soft synthetic voice knows what I had for breakfast. There is too much of a potential for power without accountability when we lose our privacy in that way.

There are other useful tech tools for privacy that readers might tell us about in the comments. This is one I like because it is so quick and easy and doesn’t require me to go through ten proxy servers, etc. Some readers may also be able to provide information about the limitations of this tool.

(Be sure to read the comments below if this interests you – Commenters have some important things to add here.)

August 19, 2010

Brief note on libraries and elitism

The 1980s began the “give ’em what they want” era of library collection development, when it became irredeemably elitist for librarians to think they occupy some kind of teaching role as selectors and reference librarians for their communities.

In 2010, the war of the populist cultural conservatives against the latté sipping liberal elitists is wearing itself out as Palin and the tea partiers gradually grow too ridiculous to take seriously. (Those on the left who call anyone sexist who calls Palin stupid are only making things worse.) At least that is the hope of this latté sipping librarian whose strategy is to ride it out.

The questions I have are a rhetorical one followed by a philosophical one, going to our idea of our role in society as librarians. First, if one in five Americans believes that Obama is a Muslim, are we obliged to stock one book that claims he is a Muslim for every four that say he is a Christian? Or, to bring geography into the mix, swing the proportion higher or lower according to the community in which we work? Obviously not, but then the real question: On what basis do we claim to know more than our communities? I am looking for a positive answer, along the lines that we are professionals, trained to make selection decisions about books and other resources, that we are in a position of authority regarding what public libraries should contain. If you’re not willing to stand up and make that claim for the profession (at the risk of being called elitist by a political leader and Presidential hopeful who thinks “Americans should refudiate the ground zero mosque”) then what good are we?

August 18, 2010

Our niche and how to get back into it

More and more, I find that the library profession’s efforts to stay relevant in the age of information technology are in fact eroding our relevance. As a result of these efforts, it is becoming less and less clear what we offer that is different from what everybody else offers in the information economy. The reason is that our response to change around us has mostly been to repress those aspects of librarianship that are not directly reflected in new technological tools that other people claim as their domain more securely than we do. We keep saying that as librarians we are web designers, information architects, web searchers, information scientists, user experience experts, and on and on, when each of those things is already a profession filled with people who make a stronger claim to it than we do. What we can claim is librarianship, yet most people – not only outside but within the profession – have forgotten what that consists of other than “books.”

In ALA, accreditation standards for masters degree programs in library science still refer to areas of competency that can be taken to define the profession. Yet in nearly all other ways, ALA is attempting to sell libraries and librarians on the basis of skills that everybody knows other people offer more distinctly, and so, it seems, are most library bloggers and magazine commentators.

Despite the relative consistency in accreditation standards over time, it is presently a challenge to point to practicing librarians in order to demonstrate to people what it is that librarians do that others can’t do so well, simply because, and I hate to say it, most of us are not so exemplary. There has been intense pressure on librarians for decades to focus on technology at the expense of something that is now difficult even to remember, that being a set of intellectual components to what we do that concern our knowledge of what is IN our libraries (physical and digital) and a well-practiced insight regarding the connections to be made between that information and our users.

Consider the great and not-so-great librarians you have known. In my experience, the great ones are great (I am thinking about reference librarians here, just to be clear, because that is who I have worked with) because of a combination of an enthusiastic desire to help, good communication skills, insight, general knowledge (not to be underestimated in its importance), and a compound of skills at connecting the dots between the particularities of users, their needs, the clues, the relevant bits of knowledge in memory, the access points, the information structure, and the hermeneutics and heuristics of helping. A library school curriculum providing a mix of traditional librarianship and intellectually challenging multidisciplinary studies (instead of the busywork that is challenging mainly for the physical stamina it requires) can support these defining skills. (Even if there is no strong case to be made for the existence of a tested knowledge base that we can called “library science,” it is still necessary to support the work of librarians on the basis of relevant theory and research, and to teach it in master’s degree programs. Because of librarianship’s theoretical foundations, multidisciplinary though they may be, we are able to make a claim to professional status, and we are able to claim a degree of autonomy in institutions that allows us to do work that matters.)

Now, we all have good days and bad days, but how many of us know as much as we really should to be good at the “librarian” part of our jobs? I have a good idea of how I use my knowledge of our resources, and I know that I wish I knew more. I don’t wish I knew more about our search tools – those are designed to be easy to use for librarians and the public alike, and I don’t regard our ability to use them as anything special. Where I feel that greater knowledge would help me to be a better librarian is across the board – within my assigned subject areas, yes, but in all subjects, and particularly about things like scholarly communities, the research into reading behavior, learning theory, media studies, and all of those fields that are connected to what we do. I think that improving my general knowledge and working to improve my insight into people are the most effective ways I can work to become a better librarian.

The place I return to for an idea of librarianship that is singular yet multidisciplinary, and humanistic yet technological, is Jesse Shera’s work in the field, specifically his text from the early 70s, The Foundations of Education for Librarianship. Shera had his greatest impact as an early developer of library automation systems in the 50s and 60s, but following that he worked to define librarianship per se in its new technological context. His view of librarianship was in part based on the idea that automation should give librarians time to focus our attention on the problems of communities and their information needs, and how to connect to them, freeing us from technical busywork. He lived long enough, however, to see the profession become machine-oriented and dedicated to refining these tools of efficiency. As he wrote in the decade before his death, “Librarians would do well to remember Moses or Pieta and think somewhat less frequently of Shannon and Weaver,” and “Librarians persist in sublimating librarianship to the lure of the machine.” (From “Librarianship and Information Science,” in The Study of Information: Interdisciplinary Messages, ed. by Fritz Machlup and Una Mansfield. Published by Wiley, 1983.)

There is no Jesse Shera for our time, but I can echo Juris Dilevko’s call to “re-intellectualize the profession” (The Politics of Professionalism: A Retro-Progressive Proposal for Librarianship) and recommend Richard J. Cox’s thorough diagnosis of contemporary library education (The Demise of the Library School: Personal Reflections on Professional Education in the Modern Corporate University). I recognize that librarianship should be different from what it used to be, but I think it ought to be more than what it has recently become.

Jaron Lanier Op-Ed on AI

Jaron Lanier has an Op-Ed in the August 9th issue of the New York Times, titled, “The First Church of Robotics.” It is a brief revisitation of some ideas from his recent book, You Are Not a Gadget, which was reviewed in the Times earlier this year. What Lanier has to say about artificial intelligence in information systems and its consequences is highly relevant and timely.

August 16, 2010

Jeremy Dibble reviews Slow Reading

Jeremy Dibble, of the PhiloBiblos blog, has reviewed John Miedema’s book, Slow Reading, which was published by Litwin Books last year. I am late in linking to the review. Jeremy Dibble’s blog consists of “[r]eviews of books old and new; news and commentary on book history, library culture, archives and related subjects.”

August 12, 2010

Remembering Ralph Shaw

Ralph Shaw was an academic librarian, an educator, and in 1950, the founder of Scarecrow press. He was known as an outspoken guy who forged his career more on the basis of saying what he thought than making friends. I first read about him in Ken Kister’s biography of Eric Moon, which is a great book for learning about the library scene of the mid-20th century. Ralph Shaw’s efforts have inspired me as I have been building up Library Juice Press and Litwin Books along some of the same lines. The barriers to publishing were higher then, and came down most significantly around 1990, when the cost of printing dramatically dropped and many small presses such as mind sprouted up. The way he did it at that time though, as an academic librarian jumping into the scholarly book market, was a method that still applies in my case: operating on extremely low overhead and hustling to find good books that major publisher either miss or don’t want to risk their less-efficient money on. (Don’t read into that that Library Juice Press has lower standards than other publishers in the field. On the contrary, we have directed several projects to better-known publishers over quality concerns, who have taken them on.)

All of this is to introduce a link to an old article that is now freely available on the web: “To Remember Ralph Shaw,” from Current Contents #23, June 5, 1978. I am not sure why the library at U Penn has posted the article, but I’m glad that they did. The article is from Eugene Garfield’s regular column, titled, “Essays of an Information Scientist.” (Eugene Garfield founded ISI.)

August 10, 2010

Richard J. Cox reviews Vanishing Act

Richard J. Cox of the University of Pittsburgh i-School has posted a review of Michael Bugeja and Daniela Dimitrova’s Vanishing Act: The Erosion of Online Footnotes and Implications for Scholarship in the Digital Age to the group blog “What SIS Faculty Are Reading. (Full disclosure: Dr. Cox is the author of two books for Litwin Books/Library Juice Press.)

August 9, 2010

The Onion: Nation Shudders At Large Block Of Uninterrupted Text

From The Onion

Unable to rest their eyes on a colorful photograph or boldface heading that could be easily skimmed and forgotten about, Americans collectively recoiled Monday when confronted with a solid block of uninterrupted text. …

Nation Shudders At Large Block Of Uninterrupted Text

August 7, 2010

Tony Judt has died

The New York Times has reported that Tony Judt has died. I have been a regular reader of Tony Judt’s columns in the New York Review of Books and saw him as a guiding light. I was amazed back in April to read his “Open Letter on ALS,” where he described his physical condition to the public for the first time. I found it incredible and still find it incredible that he remained so engaged in the world and provided such intellectual leadership in the depths of Lou Gehrig’s disease. A library science professor I know remarked to me as an aside in an email last month, “The most important book I have read this year is Tony Judt’s Ill Fares the Land.” I don’t often feel anything for a dead celebrity, but Tony Judt was truly a great human being, and the loss is terrible, though we can be thankful that he stayed with us as long as he did given his condition. Ill Fares the Land was just published recently.

August 6, 2010

Buy 5 or more books and get 30% off in August

If you buy 5 or more of our books we’ll give you 30% off the price, ’till the end of the month. Just contact us at to place an order.

August 2, 2010

Chris Hedges on Howard Zinn’s FBI file

By the end of the file one walks away with a profound respect for Zinn and a deep distaste for the buffoonish goons in the FBI who followed and monitored him. There is no reason, with the massive expansion of our internal security apparatus, to think that things have improved. There are today 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies working on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States…