August 31, 2013

Voltaire’s Fanaticism, or Mahomet the Prophet: A New Translation

Voltaire’s Fanaticism, or Mahomet the Prophet:
A New Translation

Author: Voltaire
Translation and Introduction: Hanna Burton
Preface: Malise Ruthven
Price: $15.00
ISBN: 978-1-936117-81-9
Published: September 2013
Printed on acid-free paper.

Voltaire’s play Fanaticism, or Mahomet the Prophet was controversial in its own day, and has stirred up controversy in recent decades as attempts to mount stage productions have been met with protests. Originally intended as an oblique criticism of the Catholic Church and religious fanaticism in general (as Voltaire understood it), the play stands today as an entertaining melodrama marked by gleeful irreverance and historical imagination. This new prose translation into English by Hanna Burton brings the text to modern English-speaking audiences. The translator’s extensive introduction sheds light on the history of the work and its reception by Voltaire’s contemporaries.

August 29, 2013

Robert Darnton on “5 Myths About the Information Age”

The Chronicle of Higher Education published this succinct editorial by Robert Darnton, noted defender of the book and of libraries, titled, 5 Myths About the “Information Age.” Nicely, this is freely available on the web, not just for people whose institutions have access to the Chronicle. You might know Robert Darnton for his The Case for Books, which was based on a series of essays he did for the New York Review of Books (correct me if my memory is misleading me). This editorial in the Chronicle encapsulates some important points.

August 19, 2013

Interview with Annie Downey

Annie Downey tught a class for Library Juice Academy recently, titled, Techniques for Creative Problem Solving in Libraries. Next month she will be teaching another one for us: Academia 101: A Crash Course on How Colleges and Universities Work. She did a second interview with me, about the new class being offered in September.

August 16, 2013

Interview with Beth Knazook

Beth Knazook has taught a course in managing digital image collections for Library Juice Academy a couple of times, and we interviewed her about it back in March. Now she is going to teach a follow-up class titled, Describing Photographs for the Online Catalog. Beth holds an MA in Photographic Preservation and Collections Management from Ryerson University/George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film. She has previously worked as the Curatorial Specialist for Ryerson University Archives & Special Collections and as the Photo Archivist for the Stratford Festival of Canada. She agreed to do another interview with us to give people a good sense of what this new class will cover.

August 15, 2013

Interview with Jeremy McGinniss

Jeremy McGinniss is the Library Director at Baptist Bible College and Seminary in Clarks Summit, Pennyslvania. He is the instructor for the Library Juice Academy offered next month on Student Staff Development. Jeremy agreed to an interview to give people more of an idea of the content of this course and his background as the instructor, as well as some of his interests.

August 10, 2013

Democracy and Big Data

utah data center

NSA Data Center — Bluffdale, Utah

In a recent post to this blog, I outlined how the debate regarding the National Security Administration’s data gathering activities pitted privacy against national security and sought to “balance” the two competing values.  I suggested that framing the debate in these terms misses the more important concern that the NSA’s data gathering activities are a significant threat to democracy.   In what follows, I will explain my concerns.

Although most reporters suggested that Edward Snowden was primarily concerned about the invasion of privacy when he revealed the NSA’s data gathering activities, Snowden himself made it clear that his primary concern was for democracy itself.  In an interview about the reasons for his actions, Snowden worried that through his work for the NSA, he was “extend[ing] the capabilities of … [an] architecture of oppression” and that the government unilaterally was “grant[ing] itself powers to create greater control over American society and global society.”   Snowden was calling on us to see the dangers of the NSA’s surveillance programs more broadly.  These programs do not simply pose harms to individuals, they have the potential to transform the character of all political life in the country.

But what is this “architecture of oppression” that Snowden mentions, and how will it “create greater control over American society?”  The answers lie in understanding the significance of collecting and accessing Big Data which is really the core of the NSA surveillance activities.

Far from merely poking into the privacy of individuals, Big Data potentially provides its owners with the ability to modify the behavior of individuals and entire demographic groups.  The most obvious example of this is the data collected by internet companies like facebook and Google.  By collecting information about a person via their voluntarily constructed on line profile or through recording their search behavior, facebook, Google, and other such companies are able to craft advertising messages that are increasingly able to direct our behavior on and off line.   To be sure, the algorithms used to customize advertising and search results are not perfect, but one need not succeed in every instance to increase the odds that members of a market segment will be persuaded to make a purchase or view a website.  Such is Big Data’s role in commerce – a role that is not especially worrying.

We should be concerned more, however, with the political use of Big Data.  In the past, political strategists employed data collected by Boards of Elections.  One’s voter registration record usually contained one’s name, address, date of birth, political party affiliation (if any), and the elections in which one voted.  From this, campaigns tried to identify likely and unlikely voters as well as sympathetic and unsympathetic voters.  Door-to-door campaigns could then be run more effectively.  Furthermore, the campaign message could be tailored to specific groups to maximize voter turnout in favor of the candidate and suppress turnout for the opposing candidates.

Now, with the availability of Big Data, a campaign can understand the voting population much better. This data often is available freely on government websites, e.g., the US Census Bureau and the Federal Election Commission.  These sites can inform a campaign about the socio-economic status of a precinct, the breakdown of renters versus home owners, an individual voter’s history of campaign contributions, and much more.  Conceivably, other Big Data repositories could be made available from the private sector.  Knowing which voters purchased SUVs, have health insurance, shop at discount stores, take advantage of “back to school” sales, subscribe to specific magazines, purchased home security systems, or visit certain websites can help identify individuals with specific interests that then could be exploited by the campaign.  The candidate who has the most extensive access to these data sources and can hire the data analysts capable of mining the data will have an enormous advantage over candidates who do not.

This style of campaigning is not merely a prospect for the future.  During the 2012 presidential campaign, the Obama reelection committee employed Big Data (or at very least a lot of data and very sophisticated data analysis) to contact voters with messages that brought them to the polls in numbers far greater than anyone expected.  According to Jonathan Alter the analyses were sophisticated enough to tell the campaign “why placing ads on reruns of The Andy Griffith Show made sense on some cable systems but not on others.”  Furthermore, data was collected to test campaign messages and to measure the persuasiveness of particular door-to-door volunteers.  The data analysis used by the Obama campaign, however, mostly focused on creating a nation-wide database that linked likely voters, volunteers, and donors in order to make donors of volunteers and volunteers of donors.  So in this sense, it was not as sophisticated as it could have been.  Still, it was really only the first concerted attempt to run a Big Data campaign.  It often has been credited for winning the election, and so it likely will become the model for future political campaigns that will make greater and greater use of data analysis.  (For an illuminating account of the Obama campaign’s use of data in 2012, see Jonathan Alter’s recent book The Center Holds.)

But where is the danger to democracy in this?  After all, it is still the voters who are deciding the outcomes.   Well, the danger arises long before the voters have anything to say about the election.

As campaign data analysis becomes more sophisticated, voters will only be presented with candidates who have access to the largest data sets about the voting population and who have the resources to analyze these sets.  All others will be screened out of the electoral process long before any serious campaigning begins.  For a campaign to be successful, it will need to have supporters who own important data sets and can provide the technical expertise to exploit them.  Such friends cannot come from the working or underprivileged classes.  Obama’s digital campaign had a budget of over $25 million dollars and costs for future campaigns surely will be higher.  Consequently, the only entities capable of amassing the financial and digital resources will be extremely rich individuals, major corporations, internet companies, and broad industry groups.  The ability to affect an election will not be based on the democratic principle of one person – one vote.  It will be proportional to the donor’s wealth.  Even more so than today, these groups will have effective veto power over who will be a “viable” candidate for state and federal office.  If the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United advanced the cause of plutocracy, then the private ownership of Big Data and its use in elections will ensure that plutocrats will be unchallenged in perpetuity.

George Orwell’s 1984 warned that video surveillance might ensure that a political party would one day establish unassailable control over a society.  He wrote, “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.  There is no way the Party can be overthrown.  The rule of the Party is forever.  Make that the starting point of your thoughts.”  Today’s surveillance technology is not just Orwell’s simple video cameras.  It is also the ubiquitous data and metadata harvesting by public and private entities.  The NSA is merely one institution that is amassing this data, though it is doing so on an unimaginable scale and with an enormous budget.  It currently is constructing a data center in Bluffdale, Utah, containing four 25,000-square-foot halls, filled with servers that will be able to handle yottabytes of information.  (A yottabyte is equally to approximately 500 quintillion or 500 x 1018 pages of text.)  Meanwhile, the NSA has only the slightest democratic oversight and ominously, it is working in support of a bloated National Security State that defends a plutocratic government.  One might be tempted to call it an “architecture of oppression.”

I suspect (hope) that Orwell’s image of the future as a boot stamping on a human face is too extreme, at least for US domestic politics.  More likely, if you want a picture of the future, it will not be much different from the present, but it will be less corrigible.  We will see a wide disparity of wealth with a large, struggling underclass that is alienated from the benefits of economic progress.  These condidtions will be guaranteed by governments that first of all serve the owners and managers of society.  The pretense of democracy will survive only in the carefully manipulated elections contested by competing elements within the ruling class, and one of their most important tools for social control will be Big Data.

August 9, 2013

Facebook Group for “Philosopher Librarians”

There is a Facebook group that will serve as the start of a network for librarians with philosophy backgrounds. It is called Philosopher Librarians. Join if this description works for you:

Welcome, librarians who have degrees in philosophy, whether they be undergraduate degrees, masters degrees, or phds. We’re here because of what we have in common, and perhaps also to plan an event. Interested in the philosophy of libraries? The philosophy of information? Collection development for philosophy departments? Quirky things that only philosopher-librarians say? We’re a different breed; here is the place where we can speak our language. The group is also open to people who just know they belong here.

I am hoping that we will build enough of a network to have a luncheon at ALA, perhaps with a speaker and the announcement of an award winner.

August 6, 2013

Solidarity Statement from Librarians and Archivists to Palestine

Librarians and Archivists to Palestine has just published a post-delegation statement (reproduced in full below). The statement has also been posted on the widely-read Middle East website Mondoweiss, where there is some additional discussion and context in the comments (one commenter even wrote, “Once again, it is librarians who step up where others fear to tread,” which may not be totally accurate but is still nice to hear). If you want to join LAP’s (low-traffic!) email announcement list, send a blank message to You can also follow @Librarians2Pal and like our Facebook page, and stay tuned for a full report and events, possibly in a town near you!

Update, 8/6/13: There is one edit and one addition to the statement. See asterisks below.

We are an independent group of librarians and archivists who traveled to Palestine from June 23 – July 4, 2013. We come from the US, Canada, Sweden, Trinidad & Tobago, and Palestine. We bore witness to the destruction and appropriation of information, and the myriad ways access is denied. We were inspired by the many organizations and individuals we visited who resist settler-colonialism in their daily lives. We connected with colleagues in libraries, archives, and related projects and institutions, in the hopes of gaining mutual benefit through information exchange and skill-sharing. We learned about the common and unique challenges we face—both in different parts of Palestine and in our home contexts. In all our travels and work, we respected the Palestinian civil society call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel and did not partner with any organization that violates this call. As librarians and archivists, as people who believe in access to information, we affirm that institutional academic and cultural boycotts are appropriate responses to curtailed freedoms and are effective tools for change.

Our group was small, our scope limited. We traveled only to Palestine, and only to parts of Palestine. We were not able to visit Palestinian communities in Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, or elsewhere, and our trip was only the first step in creating a network of information workers. We were privileged to visit cities, villages, and refugee camps, and to meet with grassroots activists and institutional representatives. In the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and 1948 Palestine (Israel), we engaged with librarians and archivists about their projects and their struggles.

As we travelled we saw barriers to movement everywhere: walls, checkpoints, turnstiles, metal detectors, segregated roads, surveillance watchtowers, military patrols, security cameras, and settler militias. We saw communities devastated by criminalization and incarceration. We visited the rubble of villages that were destroyed in 1948, and we witnessed the ongoing Judaization of Palestinian communities through new housing developments, unequal provision of municipal services, and the Hebraization of place names. We saw new Israeli settlements hovering on hilltops above Palestinian villages, evidence of the forcible land grabs and displacement that Palestinians have been facing for decades. We met families that have struggled and suffered through egregious violence and yet work every day to secure education, opportunities, safety and a more just world for their children.

The erasure of Palestinian culture and history is a tactic of war and occupation, a means to further limit the self-determination of the Palestinian people. Yet the richness, beauty, and complexity of Palestinian existence was everywhere evident, in the historical and contemporary cultural material produced by writers, poets, journalists, artists, archivists and librarians, and in the histories passed down through stories and from person to person. We bore witness to a culture of resistance, which in all its myriad forms resoundingly refutes the notion that Palestine does not exist.

Our experiences in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and 1948 Palestine (Israel) were complex, challenging, beautiful and deeply meaningful. We met creative, committed, and courageous activists, visionaries, cultural workers, artists, librarians and archivists. Everywhere we went we witnessed the daily lived realities of occupation and colonialism, as well as ongoing resistance and the persistent quest for justice:*

  • At Aida Refugee Camp located in Bethlehem, we saw how the Apartheid Wall prevented the community from accessing nearby olive groves which had been used for relaxation, studying, animal grazing and agriculture. We also heard about the Lajee Center’s project to map the people’s histories of the camp.

  • In Nabi Saleh weekly nonviolent demonstrations against the confiscation of the community’s land and water are met with extreme violence from the Israeli military. The villagers are using video to document the violence they experience, as well as collecting the empty tear gas canisters and shell casings which are used against them. This documentation is used by the community to honor their resistance, to communicate their struggle with the wider world, and to dispute false accusations in the courts.

  • School librarians described the difficulty in obtaining Arabic language children’s literature, especially in 1948 Palestine (Israel). Many of the available books are low-quality translations from Hebrew, and Palestinian children have little access to their own literary heritage.

  • We visited the destroyed town of Saffourieh and heard from former resident Abu Arab about his experiences fleeing the town as a child during the Nakba. Abu Arab has a museum of Palestinian material culture, which he developed out of his work as an antiques collector. The museum challenges the process of ethnic cleansing and the erasure of cultural memory. Abu Arab is the brother of poet Taha Muhammed Ali.

  • Throughout Palestine we encountered cultural production by youth to preserve traditions, by the Yaffa Youth Movement in Jaffa, the Yafa Cultural Center in Balata Refugee Camp, and the Lajee Center in Aida Refugee Camp.

  • We witnessed the documentation of prisoners’ lives, a central experience in the Palestinian struggle against occupation. At the Nablus Public Library we saw the marginalia and creative book repairs in a former prison library collection, and at the Abu Jihad Museum for the Prisoners Movement Affairs we learned about a project to collect and digitize prisoners’ notebooks from across the West Bank.

  • We learned from the Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association that the Israeli military is currently detaining 4,900 Palestinians, including 236 children and 8 members of Palestinian legislature.

  • In East Jerusalem we visited the Nashashibi Center for Culture and Literature, a rebuilt family library from which all the books were stolen during the Nakba in 1948. We also visited the Orient House, which was closed by the Israeli government in 2001 and had significant portions of its archival collections confiscated.

  • Librarians at Birzeit University told us of their success in petitioning the Library of Congress to adopt a call number for the First Intifada, recognizing it as a unique historical period even as it was still happening: DS128.4.**

  • During a meeting with the organization alQaws for Sexual & Gender Diversity in Palestinian Society, we learned about the process of organizing across the West Bank / 1948 Palestine border, the articulation of Palestinian-specific understandings of sexual identity, and the Singing Sexuality project, which discusses sexuality through music.

  • In Lyd, not far from Tel Aviv, we saw where the library of the local school was removed and replaced with a police station.

  • We visited the Wadi Hilweh Information Center in Silwan, where residents of the neighborhood create grassroots media about the settler violence they experience on a daily basis.

  • At the El Bireh Municipal Library we learned about the Tamer Institute, which produces and publishes Arabic language children’s books that are distributed to libraries and community centers throughout Palestine.

Recognizing the barriers to movement and access that often keep the aforementioned organizations and projects from connecting with each other, and appreciating the importance of accountability to the communities that hosted us in Palestine, our delegation organized a public forum in Ramallah on our last evening together. We shared our initial ideas and asked for feedback about our observations.

While the delegation has ended, our work will continue: we will seek out and convene events in our home communities where we can share our knowledge about the effects of occupation and colonialism on libraries, archives, and Palestinian society; we will publish reports, articles, and zines that document the challenges faced—and the amazing work being done—by Palestinian information workers; we will develop an international network of information workers to facilitate skill-sharing, solidarity work, and community among librarians and archivists in Palestine and abroad; we will lobby national and international library and archival organizations to take tangible steps against the occupation and in support of Palestinian perspectives in information work; we will join Palestinians, Israelis, and international activists in campaigns for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israeli apartheid and colonialism. We will continue to learn and adapt our strategies to changing realities and will engage in critical examinations of our own positions of privilege. Through these activities we will work to support access to information in and about Palestine and Palestinian self-determination.

Librarians and Archivists to Palestine 2013 Delegation:

Bronwen Densmore – New York City College of Technology
Molly Fair – Interference Archive; Justseeds Artists’ Cooperative; CUNY TV
Che Gossett – Independent Archivist, Philadelphia
Amy Greer – Doctoral Candidate, Simmons College
Blair Kuntz – Near and Middle East Studies Librarian, University of Toronto
Grace Lile – WITNESS
Josh MacPhee – Interference Archive; Justseeds Artists’ Cooperative
Rachel Mattson – University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana; Jews for Racial and Economic Justice
Hannah Mermelstein – Saint Ann’s School Library; Adalah-NY: The New York Campaign for the Boycott of Israel
Andrea Miller-Nesbitt – Liaison Librarian, McGill University
Bekezela Mguni – Independent Librarian; New Voices Pittsburgh: Women of Color for Reproductive Justice
Melissa Morrone – Public Librarian
Vani Natarajan – Barnard College Library
Elisabet Risberg- Librarian, The International Library in Stockholm
Maggie Schreiner – Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archive; Rude Mechanical Orchestra

All organizational affiliations are listed for identification purposes only and in no way indicate a position taken by such organizations on the issues raised in this statement.

*For a more complete list of projects and organizations we visited, please see this handout we distributed at our public forum in Ramallah at the end of our delegation.

**An earlier version of this statement listed the call number as DS119.75. Birzeit University librarians have clarified that DS128.4 was the number assigned during the First Intifada, whereas it appears that the Library of Congress assigned a new number (DS119.75) after the Intifada ended. Birzeit University continues to use DS128.4. We apologize for the error.

August 1, 2013

Privacy and National Security

photo to use

The recent revelations that the National Security Administration has been collecting metadata for the phone calls of American citizens and that they have been acquiring data from Google, Yahoo!, facebook, and other internet companies comes as no big surprise to many. Sen. Frank Church’s investigation in the 1970s into government surveillance revealed a long history of surveillance. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, its subsequent amendments, and the PATRIOT Act left enough clues to create a disturbing picture of what the government might be doing. Furthermore, there have been plenty of past news reports providing evidence of surveillance; but with the revelations from Edward Snowden, any room for willful ignorance is now over. The surveillance programs are out in the open and have sparked a media debate. Even Congress took up the issue.

According to news reports, the debate is about “balancing” national security against privacy. Numerous news sources and blogs have published (verbatim) the sentence, “The revelations have reopened the post-Sept. 11 debate about individual privacy concerns versus heightened measures to protect against terrorist attacks.” Obama put the question this way: “How are we striking this balance between the need to keep the American people safe and our concerns about privacy?” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi put it most succinctly, “We have to have a balance between security and privacy.” Even critics of the surveillance policies have adopted this framework. American Library Association President Barbara Stripling writes, “We need to restore the balance between individual rights and terrorism prevention.”

The problem with framing of the debate in this way is that it tends to overestimate the benefits and underestimate the harms. Worse yet, the most important harms are overlooked entirely. Our attention is directed to benefits that accrue to the whole of society (national security) and to harms posed only to individuals (the invasion of privacy). We are led to think that the NSA surveillance programs protect us from terrorism, while the only down side is that certain individual’s rights to privacy might be underweighted in the “balance.” Framing the debate this way seems to ask: should the government be prevented from setting up an anti-terrorist database on the grounds that some security analyst might – as a side effect – discover that someone is secretly visiting internet porn sites or dialing 1-900-SEX-CHAT? Framed in this way, personal privacy amounts to a dispensable luxury, particularly when Obama assures us that the surveillance programs pose only “modest encroachments on privacy,” and that “nobody is listening to your phone calls” – they’re just collecting metadata.

Of course, embarrassing publicity can have important political consequences, particularly as it might be used against politicians, but the public is likely to conclude that a sexting politician is too stupid to deserve much sympathy. Beyond damaging particular high-profile political careers, there are more serious concerns. FBI agents might be led to discover who is organizing climate change rallies or Tea Party meetings and then obstruct these movements by causing trouble for perfectly law-abiding citizens. But even in these cases, the public is likely to conclude that targeting peaceful political groups will be limited by the FISA court and that covert interference with fringe political movements will be a criminal aberration made rare by the integrity of intelligence agents and the threat of prosecution. So much for privacy concerns.

In contrast to this, we are asked to consider national security, specifically, “terrorism.” The Director of the National Security Administration, Gen. Keith Alexander, tells us that the controversial surveillance programs “help[ed] prevent” fifty-four “potential terrorist events” – whatever that means. The terrorism threat, however, has been enlarged well out of proportion. The number of Americans killed or harmed by terrorists pales in comparison with the number harmed by the most routine dangers we face every day. Moreover, the harms that might come from “terrorist events” are largely speculative and vague enough that a scenario can be concocted that is so grim as to put any civil libertarian on the defensive. Think of Condoleezza Rice’s remark, “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” Even our ostensibly liberal president assures us that these programs “help us prevent terrorist attacks.” It is no wonder that many Americans are unconcerned about (even welcome) these surveillance programs.

What is seldom mentioned is that these massive surveillance programs do not just pose a threat to individual privacy. They pose a profound threat to democracy. When the threat to democracy is mentioned, it tends to be a rhetorical addendum. For example, Barbara Stripling writes, “the surveillance law erodes our basic First Amendment rights, all while undermining the very fabric of our democracy.” Stripling deserves great praise for her remarks on this issue, but we are left to figure out for ourselves how the fabric of democracy is undermined. I will explore this danger in a future post to this blog.