May 31, 2014

CFP: Organize and Assemble IV

PLG Edmonton invites submissions for our fourth annual symposium, Organize and Assemble IV, taking place on October 18, 2014. Practitioners, scholars, activists, students, and other members of the general public interested in library, archival and allied information services are asked to speak on topics pertaining to this year’s theme: the commodification of information goods and library services.

Recent political, economic, and technological change have resulted in the growing commodification of information and the marketisation of library services. The consequences range from increasingly restrictive intellectual property rights to the recasting of library patrons as customers to the outsourcing of entire libraries to private companies. Resistance to this trend has emerged, aimed at safeguarding the intellectual/knowledge commons and advancing alternatives to intellectual property. Tension around the economic nature of libraries and information is a core issue for all librarians and information professionals.

This one-day refereed event will provide an interactive forum for the identification and exploration of contemporary issues of commodification of information, access, equity, and social justice as they connect with and disconnect from the rhetoric and reality of library and archival studies and services locally and globally. This year’s keynote speaker will be Dr. Samuel E. Trosow from the University of Western Ontario — a leading expert in Canadian copyright — who has served on the CLA copyright committee and is co-author of the recently published, second edition of Canadian Copyright: A Citizen’s Guide.

In keeping with the theme, possible topics include but are not limited to the following:

• Market rhetoric in library services (e.g. customers, library CEOs)

• Intellectual property rights (copyright, patents, etc.)

• Alternatives to intellectual property and promotion of the knowledge/information commons (gift/sharing economy, open access, open source software, etc.)

• Fees for services and the role of cost-recovery vs. for profit models in libraries, museums, and archives

• Outsourcing and privatization of library services

• The intersection of the information marketplace and issues of race, gender and/or class

• The economics of library services and information (public vs. private information, artificial scarcity, pricing models for information)

We are also thrilled to announce that the conference proceedings will be published in Progressive Librarian, thereby exposing the content of our local symposium to an international audience. Accordingly, we are inviting proposals for print materials such as cartoons, poems, resource lists, reviews, etc. to be considered for inclusion in the issue.

Please submit proposals (not to exceed 500 words) for individual and group contributions (e.g., papers, debates, round-tables, critiques, panels, posters, exhibits, manifestos, performances, and mini-workshops) and for print materials to be included in the conference proceedings via email to by midnight July 4th, 2014. Submitters will be notified of their acceptance by July 18th.

The PLG supports progressive and democratic activities in the area of information services, and the Edmonton Chapter’s Program Committee will review all submissions that recognize (or challenge!) this stance and the PLG statement of purpose more broadly.

May 30, 2014

H-Net review of Prophets of the Fourth Estate: Broadsides by Press Critics of the Progressive Era

Andrew Salvati of H-Net has written a review of the Litwin Books title, Prophets of the Fourth Estate: Broadsides by Press Critics of the Progressive Era, by Amy Reynolds and Gary Hicks. His review starts like this:

Comcast, Disney, NewsCorp, TimeWarner–in the second decade of the twenty-first century, the corporate parentage and commercialization of American news organizations are widely recognized and well entrenched. Even PBS has gotten into the ratings game by subscribing to Nielsen. For critics, the commercial orientation of the news media inevitably conflicts with ideas about the role of a free and independent press in a democratic society. As media ownership is concentrated in fewer hands and becomes organized on a for-profit basis, it seems less likely that journalism can provide a venue for public deliberation or present an effective check on these powerful interests.

In their recent book Prophets of the Fourth Estate, communication scholars Amy Reynolds and Gary Hicks show us that this kind of critical perspective on the press is part of a tradition in American journalism that predates the rise of corporate media in the late twentieth century. Turning to the activist journalism of the Progressive Era, Reynolds and Hicks republish some of the earliest expressions of press criticism–a strand of muckraking that denounced the corrupting influence of commercial interests on American newspapers and periodicals. Featuring the work of Oswald Garrison Villard, Charles Edward Russell, and Moorfield Storey, among others, the reprinted articles presented in Prophets of the Fourth Estate, together with Reynolds and Hicks’s contextualizing essays, are a worthwhile addition to the existing literature on the critical journalism of the early twentieth century.

Read more here

May 26, 2014

Dalton and Thatcher commentary – “There is a need for a critical data studies”

Craig Dalton and Jim Thatcher’s provocative piece “What does a critical data studies look like, and why do we care? Seven points for a critical approach to ‘big data’” begins like this:

As the public discourse around data turns from hubristic claims to existing, empirical results, it’s become nearly as easy to bash ‘big data’ as to hype it (Carr 2014; Marcus and Davis 2014; Harford 2014; Podesta 2014). Geographers are intimately involved with this recent rise of data. Most digital information now contains some spatial component (Hahmann and Burghardt 2013) and geographers are contributing tools (Haklay and Weber 2008), maps (Zook and Poorthius 2014), and methods (Tsou et al. 2014) to the rising tide of quantification. Critiques of ‘big data’ thus far offer keen insight and acerbic wit, but remain piecemeal and disconnected. ‘Big data’s’ successes or failures as a tool are judged (K.N.C. 2014), or it is examined from a specific perspective, such as its role in surveillance (Crampton et al. 2014). Recently, voices in critical geography have raised the call for a systemic approach to data criticisms, a critical data studies (Dalton and Thatcher 2014; Graham 2014; Kitchin 2014). This post presents seven key provocations we see as drivers of a comprehensive critique of the new regimes of data, ‘big’ or not. We focus on why a critical approach is needed, what it may offer, and some idea of what it could look like.

Read the rest in Society and Space, a journal of critical geography.

May 22, 2014

Why I dropped out of a PhD program

As a rule, this is not a personal blog. I have only taken the liberty to talk about my own life a few times over the years. I’ve decided to make an exception here, to tell people why I dropped out of a PhD program in information studies.

I know a lot of people who are in PhD programs who think about dropping out from time to time, and I know people who are considering going for a PhD and want to think about their decision carefully. This is a pretty popular topic for people to blog about in academia, but every person’s situation is a bit different, so I don’t feel that another voice will be redundant. My issues taken together were unique to me as a student, but people might relate to some of them, and I hope that these reflections will be helpful.

First, why I decided to go for a PhD in information studies in the first place. When I was getting my MLIS in the late 90s, I thought that I would never want further schooling in the field. But working as a librarian was never completely fulfilling for me. I was unhappy as a librarian; over the years I made do by pursuing outside projects: publishing the Library Juice email newsletter and continuing it as a blog, starting Library Juice Press, being active in SRRT and PLG and serving on ALA Council. I consistently felt that the real life for me in librarianship was in professional activities outside of my actual job – working on committees, writing and reading about librarianship, publishing books in the field. So eventually when the time came to leave or die inside, taking the step into the “meta-profession,” the academic field of LIS, seemed like a logical thing to do. It would also allow me to explore some growing intellectual interests that weren’t directly about libraries, but indirectly related.

Fast forward to the Fall of 2011. I entered the doctoral program in information studies at UCLA. Back on the West Coast where I felt like I belonged, in a stimulating intellectual environment. In my courses I quickly found that my previous outside work served me well as a student. I was already familiar with most of the authors we read, and in fact had met many of them personally. I enjoyed many of the readings, and enjoyed what my fellow students brought to the discussion. Over the course of the first year, however, I grew increasingly uncomfortable with my new life on a number of fronts.

First, it turned out to be not as ideal an intellectual fit as I had thought it would be going in. Despite having more room for humanistic studies in IS than many other schools, the emphasis in the program is still strongly on social science research methods. I wanted to apply post-Cartesian philosophical ideas to information technology and its role in society – looking at artificial intelligence, the role of algorithms, automated knowledge organization, etc. My perspective on these kinds of issues is informed mainly by the German philosophic tradition going back to the 19th century romantics and up through the phenomenologists and post-Heideggerian hermeneuticists. I also like Marcuse and Habermas and other people in the Frankfurt School, and I felt that their approaches to technology and system-versus-lifeworld could be useful as a way of pursuing my interests. There are people in the social sciences who have adopted related approaches to knowing about the world, but I had trouble finding a way of studying my topics in a social science context. I wanted to theorize philosophically. If I had stayed in the program, I would have found a way to do something along these lines, but it would not have been an easy path, because despite the great faculty, there is nobody there who is well qualified to serve as a thesis adviser based on this kind of approach. I learned also that there aren’t a lot of people in the field who share my interests or views, and in fact I encountered people who said that what I wanted to do was not information studies. I feel confident that it was, but at this point I would rather advance related positions as a publisher than as an academic.

There were other serious issues. I was an older student, and faced typical challenges. The main difficulty that older students face in doctoral programs is that they already have a life that leaves limited room for being a student. Younger students have the freedom to throw themselves into their studies completely. Often the outside commitments older students have are family or a job. In my case it was publishing books. Although my book publishing activities slowed down while I was a doctoral student, they still took much of my attention, and it was something I was unwilling to give up. Older students have some advantages as well, such as a tendency to be more organized in the use of time and less of a need to blow off steam. I had those advantages, but my life had competing demands that outweighed them.

The financial aspect of grad school and future career prospects are something it is unwise not to consider seriously. California faced a budget crisis while I was there, and we learned toward the end of the first year that funding would be tighter going forward. I had had fairly generous funding for the first year, but that was going to be reduced and eventually to end. Even if I won fellowships, I would need to take on student loans, which I did not want to do. Working more was a possibility, but time for studying was already squeezed by my publishing activities. Then there is the fact that faculty salaries in the field are not much better than what I had earned as a librarian, and the fact that the academic job market is tight, and would be especially tight for someone whose dissertation was outside the norm, as mine would have been. If I was not able to land a tenure track job in an acceptable geographic location, I might be stuck doing adjunct teaching, which pays poorly and lacks job security.

Grad school gives you a taste of academic life, an opportunity to ask yourself, “Is this the life I want?” Academic life affords a lot of freedoms, comes with a lot of perks, but comes with a lot of pressures, from different directions. You are always being evaluated as an academic – by your peers, by your students, by administrators, by reviewers at scholarly journals, by committees that give grants and fellowships, by potential employers, by audiences at conferences, and more. There is constant pressure to perform at many levels. You need to be a well-prepared and effective teacher. You need to publish frequently and in well-reputed journals, which means getting research grants, performing the research, doing the writing, getting the work accepted, revising it, and doing it all again. Many academics enjoy this work, but all are affected by the pressures it brings at the same time. Additionally, you need to serve on committees, deal with campus politics, write letters of recommendation, present at conferences, serve as a reviewer, write grant proposals; the list goes on. This is exciting work for a lot of people, but all of it is being evaluated, often by people with whom you have intellectual or political conflicts, and the opportunities for failure are many and not always possible to control. It is a tightrope walk. Often decisions that affect you will be made for political reasons. Egos are involved as well. Power relations are involved. Some people thrive in that environment. I found that in that environment I would always feel anxious and would not feel free. As much freedom and discretionary time as I would have in other ways relative to most workers, I would essentially always be on the job, would have little time for a life outside my work as an academic, and would have few opportunities to take a breath. As I was already in my mid-40s, I didn’t relish the thought of spending my later decades in that style.

More than most students, I was also aware of having other career options. My foray into book publishing had been a success, and I would have no trouble finding job opportunities with a publishing company, or in another academic library. I had also had enough experience as an entrepreneur to begin to do more in that regard. So I decided that I could do the PhD for my own personal enrichment and not for the purpose of advancing along a normal academic career path. But the expectations of academic life were a part of my life as a grad student already, and I found it mentally and emotionally taxing. I was also not earning much money and would soon need to take on debt to continue. So I began to question whether the personal enrichment of a PhD program would be worth the price to my sanity and to my bank account.

The question was not an easy one to answer, because I felt I had made a commitment to the program, and because I recognized that being at UCLA’s IS department was a great opportunity to develop myself intellectually. It would be a lot to give up. I struggled with the question in the back of my mind through the spring quarter of 2012, and knew that I would have to make a decision before the second year began. As it turned out, I was granted a reprieve by a health problem that left me bedridden through the summer, and allowed me to take a leave of absence for the fall quarter. While I was laid up with a herniated disc, I made plans for a business venture that would support me while I continued to study. I organized Library Juice Academy and got it off the ground in October. I quickly found, however, that running it left no time for school, and my decision was made. I dropped out of the program and found myself a full-time entrepreneur. I recovered from my back injury in the fall with the help of cortisone injections, and moved back to Sacramento in December to be closer to family in the Bay Area and to live more affordably.

I made the right decision – for me. I am my own boss, and I have a life that suits my temperament and needs. I gave up the path to an intellectual contribution that I feel may have been valuable, but the timing for it, and other factors, were not right in my life. And I am in a position to facilitate the contributions of others about whom I am enthusiastic, which feels very good. I don’t regret spending a year in a doctoral program; I grew during that time, learned about myself, and discovered new possibilities.

So what advice would I give to someone who is considering entering a PhD program? It is simply that whether or not the path turns out to be right for you, it is not a bad idea to give it a try in order to find out. If it turns out that you are not meant for an academic career in today’s university, it most likely will not mean that trying it out was a waste of time. It likely will turn out to have been a great learning experience. Give it your best effort and see what it feels like. Don’t be too open about this intention when you are applying to programs, however. They will not be interested in you if you tell them you just want to try academia on for size – they are considering making a certain investment in you, and want to feel confident that you have a good chance to succeed as an academic and promote their good name as your advisors and teachers. And keep in mind that you may in fact go on and do that. Make a sincere effort in that direction before taking stock. I would not have benefitted much from my year at UCLA had I not worked hard at it.

I hope this story is helpful to a few people.

May 20, 2014

Historical context of The Speaker, to screen at ALA, and now also on the web

ALA has announced that there will be a screening and discussion of the controversial 1977 film, The Speaker, produced by ALA to educate people about intellectual freedom. ALA has now also made the film available on the web (details at the above link). The film was perceived by many to advocate an unacceptable tolerance of racism, and the firestorm that engulfed ALA at the time was severe. I think the event in Las Vegas stands a chance of being very interesting, but would be helped by sharing a bit of the context surrounding the film’s original release. To that end, I am copying here a passage from Ken Kister’s excellent biography of Eric Moon, published by McFarland in 2002 (a book very much worth buying)…

The Speaker: Secret Project

Unfortunately for [Eric] Moon, these questions [of a National Information Policy] were not uppermost in the minds of many ALA members in Detroit, nor would they be at anytime during his presidency. Instead, beginning in June 1977 and continuing well into 1978 the attention of most members was riveted on a much more emotional – and inflammatory – concern: what to do about an ALA-sponsored film called The Speaker, which, shades of the 1960s, again brought the association face to face with the sickening smirch of racism? Moon was nonplussed. The last thing he wanted was a great commotion diverting attention from his information policy initiative, which would be difficult enough to achieve in the best of circumstances. Yet neither he nor anyone else in the association had the power to quell The Speaker controversy once it raged out of control. Like a virulent disease, animus created by the film infected and overwhelmed the association in 1977 and 1978, and national information policy, never a crowd pleaser, got lost among all the angry words and hurt feelings.

Prior to the Detroit conference, the large majority of rank-and-file ALA members knew little or nothing about The Speaker, though several items in the library press, that spring, notably a John Berry editorial, “A Whimper for Freedom,” in the June 1, 1977, issue of LJ [Library Journal], warned that the film had problems and could be trouble. In addition, some insiders, including members of the Executive Board, had viewed the film at private screenings in April and May, and there had been a festive “premiere” in California in mid-May for the cast, production crew, and invited guests. Once in Detroit, however, everyone had an opportunity to see The Speaker and learn the basic facts.

Subtitled A Film About Freedom, the 42-minute 16mm color production was completed in April 1977 and ALA, the copyright holder, began processing 150 advance orders in the middle of June, just days before the opening of the Detroit conference. The ALA Intellectual Freedom Committee sponsored the film, with Judith Krug, director of the association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, credited as executive producer. Lee R. Bobker, president of Vision Associates, the New York production company that made the film, was producer-director. Bobker also coauthored the script (originally called Days in the Death of Freedom) with Barbara Eisberg.

From the outset The Speaker project was envisioned as an exploration of the First Amendment in contemporary American society. The film’s plot, originally suggested by Archibald Cox (of noble Watergate fame), involves a fictionalized account of real-life efforts to prevent Dr. William Shockley, a Nobel Prize laureate in physics, from publicly speaking about his theories on race and specifically his belief that black people are genetically inferior to whites. The fact that Shockley had been denied the right to speak at Harvard University and other college campuses in the early 1970s disturbed Cox and like-minded academics concerned about the future of free speech in America. In the film, a high school current events club invites a Shockley-like character (called Dr. Boyd) to discuss his ideas about race at a school assembly, but others at the school and in the local community are outraged and pressure the club and its adviser, history teacher Victoria Dunn (played by acclaimed actress Mildred Dunnock), to rescind the invitation. Dunn and the club refuse, but in the end the speaker, who is never actually seen or heard in the film, is banned the the school board. The Speaker drew on the school’s student body and faculty for its interracial cast.

How did a film with such a story line come to be associated with ALA, especially since the plot has nothing directly to do with libraries? How did it happen that an organization riven by excruciating racial conflict just a dozen years before came to puts its imprimatur on a project built around the premise of black inferiority? Why did the controversy caused by the film dominate ALA business for practically an entire year, during which time Moon’s information policy proposal was wiped off the association’s radar screen? How did all of this happen? Who was responsible? …

To find the answer you’ll have to read the next 20 pages in the (7″ by 10″ format) book (available on Amazon).

While we’re on the topic of books from McFarland, I have two others on my shelves that have sections devoted to The Speaker and the controversy surrounding it: A Passage for Dissent: The Best of Sipapu, 1970-1988, by Noel Peattie, published in 1989, and Zoia! Memoirs of Zoia Horn, Battler for the People’s Right to Know, published in 1995. These books were part of the inspiration for our own contribution, the Library Juice Press Handbook of Intellectual Freedom: Concepts, Cases, and Theories, published this year. If this topic is interesting to you then you might want to take a look at it.

May 13, 2014

Barbara Fister interviews Rory Litwin

Barbara Fister has interviewed me about Library Juice Press and Litwin Books:

Rory Litwin: Pressing Issues for Librarians

May 9, 2014

A Guide for People Navigating the Expanded Powers of Surveillance in the 21st Century

Some people from Radical Reference have put together a zine with anti-surveillance resources for the discerning library worker-slash-activist. (Full title: We Are All Suspects: A Guide for People Navigating the Expanded Powers of Surveillance in the 21st Century.) As I wrote on that site, the zine includes “know your rights” info; suggestions for applications, browser plug-ins, and other tech tools for online privacy; and, of course, a reading list!

Download it from the Rad Ref page, where there’s also contact information if you want to get involved in similar privacy education projects.

anti-surveillance zine cover

We Are All Suspects: A Guide for People Navigating the Expanded Powers of Surveillance in the 21st Century