March 27, 2012

New online resource: Alternatives in Print

Alternatives in Print is a directory of book publishers and critical periodicals, consisting of the former print resources, Annotations and Alternative Publishers of Books in North America (APBNA). Library Juice Press published the 6th edition of APBNA, and the Alternative Press Center has been the publisher of Annotations, the periodicals directory. We have been working together on an online version of these two reference books for some time, and finally have it completed. It will be updated continuously by the original compilers of the directory information.

The website lets you search the directory by title, subject, or keyword, limiting to either periodicals or publishers (or both in the advanced search). The “front matter” has introductory essays about the alternative press. Library Juice Press is very happy to provide Alternatives in Print as a free online resource.

March 22, 2012

Litwin Books Series in Archives, Archivists and Society

Litwin Books Series on Archives, Archivists and Society

Richard J. Cox, series editor

The notion of archives and the archive and the work of archivists and related professionals are undergoing great changes today. While archives have been around for thousands of years, it is only in the past century or so that the notion of an archival profession has emerged in the modern sense. Despite the archival quest to preserve a documentary heritage, the mission, profession, and practices of archivists are anything but static. The emergence of digital recordkeeping and information systems and the rise of postmodernism have challenged everything from the notion of an archival record to the definition of archival work. Various societal groups, from LGBTQ to indigenous populations, have also pressed for new ways to consider archives and archivists. This publication series provides various perspectives from both within and outside of the archival community on the idea of archives, the education of archivists, the historical foundations and newer aspects defining archival knowledge, archival leaders and theorists, and new ideas (such as digital curation) influencing how we now see and value archives and archivists in our present age. These publications are intended for working archivists, scholars and others interested in the nature of archivists and the archive, and students preparing for archival careers – individuals interested in the past flux of archives and the predictions about their future.

The Series Editor is Richard J. Cox. Richard J. Cox is Professor, Archival Studies, University of Pittsburgh School of Information Sciences. He has worked as both an archivist and records manager in a private historical society and in state and local government. Dr. Cox is the author of sixteen books on archives and library and information science topics. He is the only three-time winner of the Waldo G. Leland Award given by the Society of American Archivists for the best book on archives in a given year. He is also a Fellow of the Society.

Published in the series:

Forthcoming in the series:

Also of interest:

Please submit queries, proposals, and manuscripts to Richard J. Cox, rjcox111 at comcast.net.

March 19, 2012

Expertise and Psychology (And a Mention of the Blogosphere)

I also had a strong reaction to Rory’s recent post on “Deprofessionalization and the Library Blogosphere.” Others have made good points about his criticism of library blog-discourse, and I won’t repeat those. The main issue I have his emphasis on “expertise.” I think this is problematic because what is just as important is breaking down barriers of intimidation between the library staff and the users. (Now, I should say that I’m speaking specifically about the public library context, which I don’t know if Rory was really thinking of. I was a student worker at the university library during my MLIS program and hear a lot about academic librarianship through blogs, articles, and friends, but I can’t speak to the changes happening in that setting, much less in other types of libraries.)

Rory writes:

Making the case for the importance of maintaining our presence in libraries as professionals, is, as I mentioned, dependent on being able to claim an area of indisputable expertise. This expertise should be understood as constituting what it means to be a librarian. The knowledge and skills that make up this expertise, and the work that goes into advancing that knowledge and those skills, should be our primary concern as librarians, and should be the main content of our communication with each other as librarians, especially where that communication is before the public.

Yes, but…Expertise, knowledge, and hard skills is not all of it. To quote this terrific post by Sara at The World Is Yours:

Librarianship is not just a mystery-shrouded field of uber-professional people talking about information theory and culture to each other in academic journals. Librarianship is also talking to and about people, full stop. Librarianship, and its related fields, are functionally, in the end, fields in which our goal is or should be to help people find and use the information they need and want in their lives. It is a social field, a public field, and one in which an air of mystique and mystery is not always conducive, needed, or even desired.

My proximate goal at work may be to teach yet another patron how to email an attachment or do a title search in the OPAC, but my ultimate goal is to promote critical thinking (with a super-ultimate goal of social change and making the world a better place, but I try to keep my occupational vision modest). And who would look to me as a credible model of critical thinking without trusting me as much as a personality as a title?

I’d be shocked if any of the patrons I’ve talked to in the almost-ten years I’ve worked at my library knew or cared that there are blogs by librarians. It’s neither here nor there. Same, I think, with why the young librarian has tattoos or has an ironic bun or whatever. (Note to self: “Ironic Bun” – name for new band?) Bigger problems are that the librarians may not be receiving the ongoing training they need to give good, knowledgeable service to the people who come into the library, and that the people who don’t come into the library already doubt that they can get good, knowledgeable service, and that’s why they don’t even bother.

And even being a knowledgeable authority does not solve the problem of the complex psychology involved in information-seeking and learning. Why, for example, does belief in climate change indicate a political leaning? After reading Too Big to Know, I noted a long passage on p. 151 that includes the following:

[E]ven scientific knowledge exists in a messy web of humans where we make decisions – for better and often for worse – based not just on information and knowledge but within a social realm of social striving, personal interests, shared hopes, motivating emotions, and barely sensed stirrings.

People who come to the public library may be scared, exasperated, annoyed, or—let’s not be totally negative—tentatively excited at the prospect of coming to one of us for help. And why do they come? They want book recommendations (yes, spontaneous reader’s advisory still happens!). They want to—ever so shyly—get a schedule of computer basics classes. They’re 15 and wondering what to do with the screenplay they just wrote. They need articles about elementary classroom management and books about black inventors and CDs about learning English for Urdu speakers. They want images of characters from Russian fairy tales for a personal art project. They want a list of accredited culinary schools in New York City because they’ve heard of the French Culinary Institute but it’s so expensive. They want to become nurses. Some of them need a nurse. In none of these cases would pure expert “professionalism” alone see you through, and it might even hinder the interaction.

I don’t think the public needs to see us as experts qua experts. They need to see us as informed, as kind, as knowledgeable, as intelligent, as caring. Our jobs in the public libraries have a lot to do with literature and culture, but we also do a lot of “community center”-type things. This is a fact and it’s probably helping our doors stay open. We need expertise, and our practice needs to be backed up by coherent theory. But it’s the practice that the public experiences.

March 8, 2012

Philosophy and Democracy in the Public Library

Something that never fails to charm me is discovering the ways that acquaintances use the library, especially when it comes up before they find out that I work there. That’s what happened one day in our main library when I bumped into someone I know from the salsa socials, and it turned out that he’s a regular at one of our philosophy discussion groups. My library system has two long-standing philosophy discussion groups, and their existence also makes me happy. It’s not an activity that will ever make it onto a bus ad or be the object of a grant proposal. They wouldn’t work in every branch. And when we have “vision”-type conversations about the library, we rarely if ever mention this sort of program – you won’t hear, say, “How will e-books change the library, and how can we strengthen our philosophy discussion groups?”

A PhD candidate I know told me she sees a push among new LIS students towards thinking of the library as place. People in the field are also considering the future of library buildings as print (and DVD!) collections surely dwindle. Can public libraries thrive as sites of creation, learning, and connection?

We’re all familiar with the long-held idea of libraries as “fostering democracy,” which has for a while struck me as being part of the overpromising that we librarians do. (Library historian Wayne Wiegand recently argued against the “conventional thinking and professional rhetoric grounded in a user-in-the-life-of-the-library perspective [that] identif[ies] the public library as a neutral agency essential to democracy because, we’ve convinced ourselves, it guards against censorship and makes vital information accessible to all.”) But I think that these philosophy discussion groups and similar programs that encourage reflection and peer education may be as close as we can come to this ideal.

I asked my two colleagues who run these programs to elaborate on them. Ed D’Angelo – also the author of the Library Juice Press-published Barbarians at the Gates of the Public Library: How Postmodern Consumer Capitalism Threatens Democracy, Civil Education and the Public Good – has been leading a philosophy discussion group twice a month at a south Brooklyn branch for just shy of nine years. And Nomi Naeem, in the social sciences division at our main library, has been running a monthly program for the last seven years. An average of 16 people attend each of Ed’s discussion groups, with a core of about half a dozen who make it to nearly every meeting. Nomi sees 15-20 people at his programs, with 10-15 regulars.

Ed chooses readings from the Web and databases and makes copies of selected articles, representing a range of views on the topic, for meeting attendees in preparation for the following discussion. His group is a topical discussion group and as such might read excerpts or summaries but never entire books. Similarly, Nomi’s group rarely reads full books and usually discusses, in his words, “topics of current and educational relevance which are explored from multiple perspectives: natural science, social science, arts, humanities, East, West, premodern, modern, postmodern.” Topics are selected in consultation with the participants.

(Ed) The context of our discussions partly determines the content of our discussions. Since we are a group of strangers meeting in a free public space to discuss whatever we agree to discuss, we discuss topics of common public interest. And since it is a philosophical discussion, we attempt to subject our discussion to logical analysis and to search for the fundamental or root principles behind the topics we discuss. In practice that means that most of the topics revolve around some social issue or other, and since most social, political, cultural or economic issues are ultimately rooted in moral problems, many of our discussions concern moral issues.

What does everyone talk about? Ed’s past topics include the following:

  • Is there a right to health care?
  • What is democracy?
  • The general assembly model of democratic decision making at Occupy Wall Street
  • Is ignorance bliss?
  • Does philosophy make you happy?
  • Extra-terrestrial intelligence (the Fermi Paradox, etc.)
  • Why be good?
  • Greed
  • Forgiveness and revenge
  • Manners and etiquette
  • Pride and arrogance
  • Moral egoism
  • Islam and democracy
  • Capital punishment
  • Romantic love
  • Should prostitution be legalized?
  • Economic inequality

And here are some of Nomi’s past topics:

  • The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain De Boton
  • The Infinite Book: A Short Guide to the Boundless, Timeless, and Endless by John D. Barrow
  • Philosophy and cultural identity
  • Philosophy, gender and culture
  • Philosophy and banned books across cultures
  • Philosophy and personal relationships
  • Philosophy and ethics – East and West
  • Why read Spinoza now?
  • Philosophy and the modern media
  • Philosophy and everyday dilemmas
  • Philosophy and Machiavelli
  • Philosophy and Buddhism
  • Philosophy and violence
  • Why read Plato now?
  • Philosophy and consciousness
  • Philosophy and death
  • Philosophy and American history
  • Philosophy and world history
  • Philosophy and human rights

I asked about group dynamics and memorable moments.

(Nomi) One time a devout Christian approached to hug a Muslim after a heated debate on religion. After the regular discussion, the patrons get together again for coffee. Some of them have formed strong friendships (inter-racial, cross-cultural, etc.) because of attending the philosophy discussions together. The discussions are not without laughter and forgetting despite [the] gravity of some sensitive topics such as religion, race, class, sexuality, gender, identity, politics, war, unconscious (biological, cultural, political, personal). Philosophy indeed is everybody’s business.

(Ed) The philosophy discussion group is not a democratic polity, but a democratic society requires public discussions on topics of common interest such as the ones we have in our group. Unfortunately, very few people in our society, including those who are college educated, are prepared to have these types of discussions, or have any experience with discussions of this kind. […] One of the obstacles, besides lack of education in relevant subject areas, is an inability or unwillingness to listen to others and to different points of view, and a lack of etiquette or respect towards other participants. Many people come to the group only to have a platform to broadcast their own ideas, but are not willing to listen to anyone else or to engage others in conversation. There is also a tendency to reduce all arguments to ad hominems and to personalize beliefs. When we are discussing a philosopher, for example, members of the group will immediately ask about the philosopher’s life and draw conclusions about the philosopher’s ideas based on their biography. Disagreements in the group have too often been taken as personal insults and devolved into fights.

I take these as challenges, not as irremediable problems. One of the chief successes of the group has been that members who stick it out long enough do eventually overcome these challenges and learn how to carry on a rational discussion with strangers in a public space on topics about which they disagree. This is not something that happens suddenly in a dramatic moment – the dramatic moments are marked by hostility and madness – but something that happens slowly over a long period of time.

One regular member of Ed’s discussion group who now lives out of state sent me some feedback of his own. After noting that the library branch is only blocks from his alma mater of New Utrecht High School – an institution associated with two of the Three Stooges and “Welcome Back, Kotter” – and referencing “12 Angry Men,” Mike went on: “THIS is the Philosophy Group. An exploration of subject to be sure, but at least as interestingly, an exploration of people, their experiences, likes and dislikes and, yes, biases. […] I could describe the personalities in brief form, but I won’t. I leave that to your most vivid imagination. What I will say is that no subject is ever discussed in a sterile vacuum. The insights are wide, deep, sad, humorous, often ‘off-the-wall’ but always entertaining, stimulating and enlightening. This is where Ed has learned, quite imaginatively, to ‘herd cats.’ Of course, there is also the group dynamic where over time, people get to know about one another: their problems, families and joys.”

Jing, who attended the same discussion group in high school and part of college, wrote: “I give the Group a lot of credit because it is my observation that there is a ‘market’ for philosophy among the young and the very old. This may be due to the former’s adolescence and creativity, and the latter’s earned right to contemplate. In either case, I think the library’s programming would benefit a lot from giving this area more development.”

I’ll end with some of my colleagues’ thoughts on the role of these sorts of programs in the public library.

(Ed) If the purpose of the public library is to provide information to the public in order to facilitate public discussions that sustain the democratic process, then the philosophy discussion group offers in microcosm a perfect model of the ideal public library. […] I hope, too, that some [attendees] will learn an even more important lesson, which is that learning is an ongoing process and one that can be largely self-directed as your research on one topic leads you to another. The philosophy discussion is not a passive process of learning, but one which requires active participation.

(Nomi) Development of an informed and educated population who can distinguish between truth and propaganda is one of the foremost values of public librarianship. Besides, what brought me to librarianship was not just the love of books but a hope that I perhaps can rise above my own natural narcissism, and the powerful forces of cultural conditioning, tribal propaganda and parochial identity (religious, political, national, ethnic, etc.) which human children are subjected to from the moment they start breathing. […] Being a work is progress is the only identity I want to subscribe to and [I] always hope to be mindful of what Spinoza said: ‘I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them.’

March 7, 2012

A Different Kind of Archive: The Svalbard Global Seed Vault

The most recent Weekend Edition Saturday on NPR had a story about a different kind of archive: a vault containing seeds from the world’s grains, for preservation purposes. Central to the story is the Global Crop Diversity Trust.

This is interesting in a number of ways. One rather academic question it raises is whether seed vaults are about preserving information or preserving life. It’s easy to make the case that seeds are a format for storing genetic information, but this involves an abstraction of the information they contain from the natural context where the DNA functions. We can think of seeds as carriers of information only because we have developed a technological mode of relating to nature that enables us to separate and extract information, made up of mathematical values or discrete signs (like the DNA code), from natural processes so that we can intervene in them. The seeds in the vault could be used to map their genomes at a later time (pure information), or they could simply be planted. If they are simply planted, we could say that we are retrieving the information contained in them, but this may only be to apply the abstraction of “information” that belongs to a more scientific way of using a seed. Is it information if it is never put in informational terms? Our concept of information has a history, and its history is linked to modernity…

March 6, 2012

ALEC Exposed, and some food for thought

I want to provide a link to some admirable and important work being done by the Center for Media and Democracy: ALEC Exposed. (ALEC is the American Legislative Exchange Council, a group that serves as a clearing house for model state government legislation written to further the interests of corporations.)

The work of the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) and the work of ALEC are good examples of the odd state of public information in this country today. On the one hand, and CMD shows, the political process is corrupt, and contrary to ideals of democracy, the public has little influence over the state of their own governance. On the other hand, despite the domination of society by corporate interests, we still have the access to government information and the free speech rights that enable CMD to do the work that they have done in exposing ALEC’s role in state legislation. It is a shame that these rights and the work done by CMD don’t have more of an influence than they do, but the potential is there.

This raises a question for librarians. We talk about our role in supporting the conditions for a democratic society, but what are libraries doing with the kind of information that CMD compiles and disseminates? What role are libraries actually playing in the public sphere where essential issues such as this are concerned? Concerning the support for democracy, what is the potential of libraries and what are libraries actually accomplishing?

And where does the new thinking in libraries, about serving the information needs of a Web 2.0 audience for example, address these questions? How is the new thinking of libraries addressing the GOALS of libraries as opposed to reacting to perceived changes with the goal of “staying relevant?” Should “staying relevant” be a goal in itself, or should we rather form external goals (like furthering democracy), which, in reaching them, satisfies any internal goals that may be thought up. It is like the difference between a young person whose goal is “to be successful” and a young person who has a goal to achieve advancements in his area of interests. He is successful if he accomplishes his goal. We are relevant if we accomplish our external goal of supporting democracy. We may need innovative strategies in order to do it, and traditional ways of doing things in libraries may be obstacles. But unless we focus on the goals instead of the tools, we will flounder around lost.

March 1, 2012

New Book: Libraries and the Enlightenment

Libraries and the Enlightenment

Author: Wayne Bivens-Tatum
Price: $25.00
Published: March 2012
ISBN: 978-1-936117-42-0

Contemporary American libraries are products of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment–the intellectual and political movement that emerged in 18th century Europe–consolidated various scientific and political ideals into a worldview advocating scientific discovery and experimentation, reason as a touchstone of truth, intellectual freedom to study and publish, skepticism about received traditions, individual liberty, political and social equality among all persons, democracy, and toleration of diverse opinions among other beliefs. From the 17th century on, libraries were crucial to the development and dissemination of Enlightenment ideals. Early modern “universal libraries” such as the Bibliothèque Mazarine attempted to collect books on every subject to promote study and research and preceded the rise of research libraries supporting another Enlightenment creation, the research university, with the goal of collecting, classifying, and disseminating the human and scholarly record. Early circulating and subscription libraries such as the Library Company of Philadelphia were founded by enterprising citizens who wanted to educate themselves about the latest scientific and philosophical knowledge. They led to the development of the public library movement in the 19th century, founded on the premise that people needed access to books and information to continue the education necessary for citizens in a democratic republic. These two goals of Enlightenment–to support the creation of knowledge and to disseminate that knowledge throughout a free society–provide the philosophical foundation for modern American libraries, with the ultimate ideal of a universal library universally accessible. There can be libraries without Enlightenment, but no Enlightenment without libraries.

Wayne Bivens-Tatum is the Philosophy & Religion Librarian at Princeton University