Confessions of a Digital Packrat: ALCTS President’s Program with Erin McKean

This is a continuation of my series of  the sessions I attended at ALA 2013.  Erin McKean is the former Oxford University Press editor-in-chief for dictionaries and currently the founder of, a site which collects multiple definitions for words. I was familiar with her from her TED talk and was eager to hear her speak.

McKean calls herself a data packrat. She wants to collect as much data as possible in the areas in which she is interested. She sees this as primarily a problem of organization. She illustrated the problem with images of old hard drives, Moleskine notebooks, and boxes of sewing patterns in her home.  Now McKean also has data she can save digitally. She uses an Evernote notebook and a Pinterest account, which she uses not for its intended purpose but to save texts that are of interest.  She recommends a browser extension called “Findings” which allows one to clip a sentence and associate it with a URL, to serve as a reminder of why the URL was interesting in the first place.

McKean explained the relationship between data packratism and lexicography with reference to James Murray, the editor of the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. He gathered clippings of quotations showing words in context to use in the dictionary.  McKean compared dictionaries to a slurry; lexicographers grind sentences into a paste. But it would be better to avoid the lunchmeat model and show the words in context.  The definitions people give of words as they use them are free-range definitions and more closely correspond to how words are used in everyday life.  McKean’s goal is to gather all these sentences and associate them with words.  She traces this idea back to Wittgenstein and  Richard Chevenix Trench, who had to do with the origins of the OED.

Today, lexicographers’ role is to find the words and the quotations, more than to make the slurry.  They don’t want to be like Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass, arbitrarily dictating the meanings of words. McKean prefers to think of definitions as sculpture, not meatloaf—she listens to the people who are using the words in order to allow the definitions to reveal themselves.

Although more data is available now than in the nineteenth century, it is still difficult to get at the information that is needed.  Sometimes this is a needle-in-the-haystack problem. Other times, the data is too messy to be usable. For instances, in some cases OCR does not work on these texts, and they are too numerous or extensive to transcribe by hand.  Sometimes, when documents are opened, the text is not accessible. Data mining can be messy and destructive. Many amazing data sets are trapped in obsolete formats, legal copyright traps, or simple obscurity.  And sometimes, things just aren’t knowable; she referred to an idea that one writer had read everything there is to read, but there are several versions of this story with different writers, and it isn’t possible to know to which writer, if any, this achievement should be credited. McKean started Wordnik with the intention of adding as much data as quickly as possible.  She has a large collection of words that aren’t in dictionaries just because nobody has had the time to study them yet.

McKean addressed some of the problems with data hoarding and the reasons to hoard less.  She has made great use of the Internet Archive; she doesn’t have to save all the websites because Brewster Kahle will save them for her. Libraries also play a role in preserving texts and making them available.  She says, when the processing is ready, the data will appear (a play on the Zen saying, “When the student is ready, the master will appear”).  Information overload is an old problem; McKean cited a newspaper article about excessive information availability from 1915.  Instead of having data stores that people must seek out, McKean asks, what if data could be everywhere?  She referred to some websites that allow data to be layered on top of what’s already known, like the site Findery,  which allows people to attach notes or photographs to places. Much of this is user-generated.  She imagined layering all the speeches that had been given in the conference room in which she spoke, admitting that this could be intimidating to speakers. Computers and storage are cheap now, but connecting people to the right information at the right time still is not easy.

Wordnik has an open API, and when it first began, its founders were worried that people would copy it, but that hasn’t really happened.  What has happened is that many interesting projects have been built on its data, including Amazon Random Shopper (@tinysubversions), who uses it to buy random items on Amazon.  Other projects have used it to write GRE study apps or just to cheat at Words with Friends.  McKean and her team are now enabling data hoarding rather than engaging in it themselves and have learned that there are always more questions to answer.

McKean stressed the need to promote data sets and says that if any librarians email or tweet her about their data sets, she will blog and tweet about them.

She concluded by discussing why we want these data sets.  For her, there is no overwhelming “why” to it; these data sets are beautiful because they are there.  Every data set is its own Mount Everest.

The question and answer session was also fascinating, but this is getting a bit long, so I won’t summarize them.  Ask me if you want more. In any case, this was one of my favorite sessions of the conference, even though I don’t have a practical use to put to it right now.  McKean is an incredibly engaging speaker and her project is fascinating.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Comments Off on Confessions of a Digital Packrat: ALCTS President’s Program with Erin McKean

Myth and Reality of the Evolving Patron (ALA 2013)

This was a presentation by Lee Rainie of the Pew Internet and American Life Project of some of the data that Pew has recently gathered. I find Pew’s work fascinating and Rainie an interesting speaker, so I make sure to attend his talks as often as convenient.  As usual, the talk was filled with both data and analysis and covered a lot of ground.  I took as many notes as I could.  This is a boiled-down version, but there’s so much information it’s hard to make this concise.  A recording of the session and the slides are also available (slides are from the conference site).

For those who are not familiar with it, the Pew Charitable Trust is a “fact tank” with many branches, including this branch. They do large-scale social scientific research, largely consisting of telephone surveys. The Internet and American Life Project provides information about how people’s lives are affected by technology.  They don’t advocate for anything and strive to provide information in a neutral and bias-free way.

Rainie pointed out five major changes affecting the way that people use libraries:

  1. Searching and browsing for information have changed with new technology
  2. User behaviors change as people progress through life. It’s not just that people use what’s familiar to them; their behavior changes over time.
  3. Life stressors.  The way people value time has changed with technology. It’s affected the amount of information people have available to them and how people pay attention. Libraries are at the intersection of these needs.
  4. Demographic differences.  Changes in the use of technology are tied to demographics.  Different people are using the library in different ways.
  5. Librarians are innovating and driving change in many ways.  This reshapes user expectations.

However, we are also shaped by inertia.  There is one group of patrons that wants to see new and exciting changes and another group that wants to maintain all the valuable services libraries already offer, and lots of people in between. This is a continuum.

Who’s using the library?  Fifty-nine percent of Americans have used the library either virtually or physically.  Women are more likely to use libraries than men, especially women under the age of sixty-five.  Fewer seniors use the library, but those who do are very active and likely to do many more things with the library.  People with more education and higher income are more likely to use libraries, as are parents of minors, especially mothers.  Parents are more likely to use many services of libraries, not just services for children.

What are people doing in the library? Borrowing print books was the most popular activity among all users, and browsing was also very popular.  Library users under the age of thirty were more likely than others to research topics of interest.  Half of all library users got help from a librarian, but were more likely to do so if they were African American, over fifty, or poor.  While people in these demographics were less likely to use the library, the library users among them were more likely to use services like reference.  Some patrons, especially people of color and young people, enjoyed the library as a quiet place.  Young people’s use of databases is also high.  Women are most likely to attend events for adults, and parents are most likely to avail themselves of online classes offered by the library.

Who uses the library website?  About thirty-nine percent of all adults had access a library website in the past year; women were most likely to access library websites and seniors were least likely. Wealthier and more educated patrons were more likely to use library websites, as were parents.  Thirteen percent had accessed a library website from a mobile device, and they tended to be urban or suburban, college educated, and under fifty.

Rainie identified three tech revolutions that had influenced these changes: the broadband revolution, the mobile revolution, and the social networking revolution.

The broadband revolution has happened since 2000, when almost nobody had broadband at home, to today, when sixty-eight percent of Americans do. Very few still use dialup.  The availability of ubiquitous fast internet access made the internet a much more central part of people’s lives. Many more people began to share information over the internet, forming a new “fifth estate.” If the official media are the fourth estate and value gatekeeping and neutrality, the fifth estate is partisan, personal, and democratized.  For librarians, this means that there is more need to help people make sense of it all.

The mobile revolution has passed the halfway mark; fifty-six percent of Americans now have smart phones, and ninety percent have cell phones of one type or another. One third of Pew respondents have tablets.  Although the data pushes smart phones and tablets together for some analysis, the uses of these devices are very different. Smart phones are for information snacking, which tablets provide a more paper-like experience.  There is a double-screen phenomenon, especially with television; people watch television, but they have their phones with them in case something more interesting happens. Mobile devices encourage multitasking and what Linda Stone calls continuous partial attention.   On the other hand, it is also easier for people to reach deeper levels of knowledge without having credentials or going through gatekeepers. Information is also faster; people can get real-time updates on things that are happening.  Data can be used to navigate physical spaces. Librarians need to think about how data can be used responsibly and without compromising privacy.

The social networking revolution has changed how people use their networks.  Senior citizens are becoming more likely to use online social networks and are enchanted by the restoration of latent bonds and the ability to connect with people who may be dealing with some of the same things they are, especially health issues. Facebook is the biggest social network and is used by sixty-eight percent of Americans; Twitter is comparatively tiny (eighteen percent of Americans use it), but Twitter users are influencers who are deeply engaged with their communities.  Pinterest is almost as large and is also populated by (largely female) influencers.  Tumblr and Instagram are popular among young people.  Despite popular perception, there has not been a large transfer of users from Facebook to Twitter and other sites. However, social network users, especially young people, may segment their social networks by using different services for different kinds of interactions.  The internet has affected the composition and character of social networks. People now have a much larger network with which to interact, and tend to segment it, using different people to meet different social needs. Trust has shifted from institutions to networks.

Social networks provide some of the filtering that the traditional media once did; many people treat their social networks like a newspaper by checking in first thing in the morning. People want what’s relevant to them first of all.  Librarians are exemplars in this regard because they are good at evaluating information and telling people what is new in the world.

Networks are important audiences.  People want to feel like someone is listening. Followers and friends are something to cultivate.  New media are the new neighborhood. Sharing stuff is a prerequisite to forming neighborhoods.

Every dimension of what libraries do is now up for grabs.  People enjoy the ubiquity of information and the independence it affords, but hate noise, interruptions and junk.  Information is abundant where it was once scarce, so libraries’ value no longer comes from the efficiency of bringing information physically into one place.  We can help things go to people where they are and make it meaningful and important to people. Innovation comes in ways of giving people something worthwhile with the time they want to spend.

With the new digital divides, there are new winners and losers. Librarians got into business to ameliorate those schisms, so we want to think about this. We are already thinking about ethics in this environment.

We are serving many different audiences with different needs, different ways of doing things, and different relationships to technology. Most people aren’t aware of all the services libraries offer.  Libraries have a great story to tell about what they are doing and have to make sure that they tell it.  People think that libraries are important to their communities; even people who don’t visit libraries believe this. But they don’t know how innovative libraries have been, so it’s important to make people familiar with the new services that are available.

All of the above is the talk without comment from me.  I found the analysis of how online social networks influence the social networks that people carry around in their heads to be especially interesting; I guess the immediate application is obvious, but I wonder more about what research will come from it (and should probably look into this more). I’ll probably read Rainie’s book on that.   But the question of who uses the internet and for what is also very interesting, and here too, this data seems like it’s just the beginning.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Comments Off on Myth and Reality of the Evolving Patron (ALA 2013)

Creating Game-Based Makerspaces (ALA 2013)

This was, again, an interesting session about something I’m not doing right at this moment, but might consider for later.  I’m a (board) gamer myself, so I usually try to go to at least one session about gaming so I can keep track of how gaming is interacting with my professional world.

Scott Nicholson, Professor of Library Science, Syracuse University

It’s not about making good games, it’s about the good things that happen when you make games. What happens when you inspire your folks to make games? When we talk about using games in libraries, we usually make these somewhat tenuous connections to the skills that are valued by librarians, but when we have people actually make games in the library, there is a much more direct connection to these skills.  Here are some steps in game design:

  1. You need to develop a narrative (writing skills)
  2. If you use a historical setting, you need to do research about that area or time period.
  3. Most games are about resource management, so you have to create an economic system, and understand probability and statistics.
  4. Digital games have to be programed. Analog games involve graphic design.
  5. Games need to be playtested, which means that people have to be able to take critique and do iterated design.
  6. Writing rules.  This is a difficult form of technical writing.
  7. Pitching the game: public speaking.

This is easy to justify, because of all the skills that it helps to develop.

Brian Mayer, Gaming and Library technology specialist who provides support for 22 school districts.

Brian Mayer talked about his experience using game design.  He is especially interested in creating an authentic play space for students who don’t respond to other approaches and recommends his online toolkit with approaches that have already been vetted.  He gave a series of steps for setting up a program of this type in a school.

First, the students have to play games. He has been building up a collection of board and card games for this purpose. He wants to expose students to modern games to give them a toolkit they can draw from.  If they only know about mass market games which use mechanics like roll and move or trivia, then they won’t know that they can do other things in games.  He recommends picking resources that fit what you want to teach. If math is important, use games that represent good integrations of math.  If teaching social studies, look at games with good historical themes. Also consider the style of the game, for instance, whether it is cooperative or competitive. You don’t want students to just make ten Monopoly clones.

The second stage is brainstorming. Students come up with nuggets of ideas.  It’s important to have realistic expectations. Don’t expect an awesome, polished game, because that takes much longer. The important things here are progress and growth.  He gives them time to sit together and come up with “nuggets” and then gives feedback.

Design is the third stage. He provides objects which can serve as game components, partially by cannibalizing old games and thrift store games. He also provides a full sheet of labels, card stock, and penny sleeves.  This is where students begin to develop and playtest their games.

Next is the feedback stage. Students meet with teachers and pitch their games. Then the teacher talks about the curriculum and how it is reflected in the game. Then they discuss how the game concepts are incorporated.

Finally, students get to play the games. They can share their games with each other. This requires a clear, legible ruleset.  They are not allowed to teach their own games, so the rules must be well-written.  They play each other’s games and then reflect on both process and the games themselves. What did they learn? How did it get them to think about curricular components?  Then, they give feedback back to the program designers.

They’ve done this with board games and interactive texts, but nothing digital so far.

Jeff Gingers, Ph.D . Student, UIUC

Monster or bust! : The UIUC FabLab.

Gingers talked about 3-D printing.  What do you do with a 3-D printer?

The FabLab is in part an outreach program to the community. People don’t like to come to the university, so UIUC has set up lots of little FabLabs around town, including at the public library.

This isn’t a dedicated space.  Instead, they keep all their materials on carts in the closet, so that they can make a maker space on the fly 2-3 days a week.

One problem with using 3-D printers is that 3-D design is hard! It takes a long time to learn and requires patience and inspiration. It’s intimidating. Some people solve this problem by just buying a printer and then going to Thingiverse, which has many downloadable models, but we should do more than just download. We can create models via game tools. These tools have playful interfaces that are easy to learn.

Gingers recommends Spore, which costs $12 for PC and has developed a design-sharing community.  It’s more efficient to do some of these manipulations in the game than it is with a real rendering program, and this gets us past the empty canvas.  You get a digital lump of clay which you can manipulate with a mouse.  You can add parts to it. It makes noises as feedback, reacting to what you do to it. This is fun.  You do have to teach some rules. For instance, you can’t have more than two overlapping parts because it doesn’t work in 3-D.

The next step is going from the digital to the physical. You can export your designs with the command line.  A lot of kids don’t get into the command line anymore, so this is an opportunity to teach that. There is a EULA for this which only allows noncommercial use, so you have to think about what that means. You can also export to Blender, a free and open source 3-D modeling program. You can remove the animation here, too.

The program makes air bubbles where the joints are, so you need to learn to use a mash merge. One thing this does is teach the term “Boolean!” Then, you need to export it into a 3-D printing program so that you can actually print it.

The Champaign Urbana Community Fab Lab provides lots of tutorials for how to do all the things that happen in maker spaces.

What do you teach with a program like this?  It teaches digital literacy, which is not exactly information literacy, because it involves more than creating information.  You also teach kids about making tools relevant in their lives, and how and why we use them. Kids are used to downloading and being done.  They don’t learn patience, which is important for computers, so we socialize that.  This isn’t a finite process like a test in school. You keep trying and messing around. It also teaches informal learning. Teaching tech is hard for schools, but libraries can do this.  This is part of the democratization of information. Now you can make your own game and your own monsters.

This helps to foster interdisciplinarities because there is input from all directions.He’s interested in STEAM—that is, putting the ART in STEM. It’s good for entrepreneurship because you are creating the world and looking into the black box of technology. You get to interrogate and mess around with the world. Making is connecting. It creates relationships among people. And as a bonus, you can scan your head and add parts to it from Spore.

An audience member doesn’t feel comfortable teaching this sort of thing and asked if it is possible tap into some professional market that already knows this stuff and can teach it.  Gingers recommends getting kids to do it.  Many kids are on the cutting edge of games and they are teaching him. It’s important to have smaller groups so they can teach each other.  Another audience member asked if it’s possible to print things like furniture and clothing, to which he recommended searching YouTube to see how people are doing this.

Scott Nicholson again!

He presented an activity for families called the Junkyard Track Meet, originally developed by Bernie De Coven. First, you talk about what a game is and introduce concepts like play and rules. Then, you talk about the junkyard track meet, which involves making things out of junk, or out of what you can get in the exhibit hall. He sometimes picks up items from the dollar store. Let them pick out the junk they want to use, Hunger-Games-style.  Let participants play and develop the rules.  Then, split the table in half. Make sure everyone can explain the games. Half will play, the other half will monitor and facilitate. Let them give points to the game and record the high score list.  This is quick: fifteen minutes to talk about what a game is, one hour for design, .half an hour to play.  Then, use construction paper to make awards.

Yes, most of the games that are made like this are bad. What’s interesting is they use packaging (?? My notes are confusing here).  They can trade with others.  It’s cheap and works well.  Nicholson has run this event for both children and adults and finds that the grown-ups take much longer because they are confused by this idea and don’t know how to play.

The moral of the story is that game design doesn’t have to take a lot. The previous night at ALAPlay, there had been a tiny game design contest. Game design doesn’t have to take a lot of money or time to get the good stuff.

Last year, he created Game Designer’s Guild. It’s open to the public. They have met once a month over the last year.  At first, it drew lots of students, but now lots of community members and families attend.  Each meeting, someone who needs a game pitches what they are looking for. They’ve had career counselors and museums. The members of the Game Designer’s Guild create a prototype.  For instance, a science museum needed a game jam for 7th and 8th graders and later came back for a dinosaur LARP for kindergarteners. After this, they open the floor for playtesters.

He’s currently writing a grant for game designers’ guild hall. Libraries are the perfect setting for this. There are lots of people who want to make all the games for themselves.  You have gamers in every community who want to be game designers.  What you get is a community group with members of the community making games to benefit community members. This is a noticeable impact that extends library’s reach.

Caitlyn Schafer, just graduated UW. Verona Public Library.

She works at a public library with an active Minecraft community.  It is very active in teen programming. How are gaming and game creating programs being assessed?  Using Terraria, Halo Maps, Game Maker, coding and programming, she is looking through IL lens.  The standards can show how what happens in these programs aligns with the standards. What skills are they taking away? She has been working on an evaluation tool that can be used when observing these events. What’s going on here? It creates a sense of community.  When she talked with them, she learned that these teens preferred collaboration over PvP.  Because it is almost entirely observation-based, this is a type of authentic assessment.  You can put those together to make a nice evaluation tool. She is writing a paper on this.

The session ended with two plugs from Scott: his website,  It includes a Crossed Paths, a free role playing game.  He’s working on a meaningful summer reading program.  He also promoted International Games Day, which is November 16 this year.  The registration form is currently open.  They also have Facebook page where you can contact them.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Comments Off on Creating Game-Based Makerspaces (ALA 2013)

Library Texts and the Library in the Digital Age: New Collaborations for European and American Studies

As the title suggests, there was a lot going on in this session.  The three speakers included a library dean (Paula Kaufman), a digital humanities director (Laura Mandell), and a digital humanities librarian (Glen Worthey).  Although, as Glen Worthey pointed out, the title of the session doesn’t mention digital humanities anywhere, the session was largely about digital humanities, which is not something that is currently relevant to my job. However, I find it very interesting and am trying to keep up with things for the time when it may become relevant.  The other theme of the session had to do with collaboration, especially interdepartmental collaboration, and I enjoyed that the speakers dealt with that in a thoughtful way.

Paula Kaufman, Dean of Libraries, UIUC

“Let’s Get Cozy: Evolving Collaborations in the 21st Century”

Kaufman mostly focused on collaborations and the requirements for collaborating well.  She talked about why we collaborate (to do things we can’t do well alone, to create tools, to share resources) and how to collaborate.  She cited an author named Cantor who had done studies on collaboration, who set out this process for collaboration:

  1.  Find collaborators based on self-analysis, good chemistry and compatibility
  2. Explicitly set the rules of engagement.  Set boundaries.  Try to articulate exactly what the responsibilities of each collaborator will be.
  3. Articulate goals and visions, while identifying governance and legal issues
  4. Plan for the end of the collaboration.

She discussed interdepartmental and state/regional collaborative efforts, and pointed out that some of them, like the Hathi Trust and the Digital Preservation Network are collaborative efforts among librarians, technologists, subject faculty and administrators.

One thing Kaufman has learned from all this collaborative work is that, as she put it, you need to build your own table. You don’t want to go to someone else’s table, because there you are an invitee. You want to be a collaborator rather than a guest.  To make this possible you need administrative support.  We can’t do most of our work alone anymore, so we need to work together in new ways at new tables.

How do you build a table? You need to work with your director, who, in most cases, works directly under the provost and often meets with deans.  This can help you to establish these relationships.  You need to ask for committee charges, too—another way to build the table.  We also need to respect our own knowledge. Librarians should not take the servant-like attitude that faculty members need to come to us and ask us to do things for them.  We have a lot of knowledge and should approach faculty colleagues the same way we approach library colleagues.  This has always been a symbiotic relationship, but we haven’t always approached it that way.


Laura Mandell, Director of the Initiative for Digital Humanities, Media and Culture at Texas A&M

From a humanities faculty perspective, there is a divide between research and service: service is not research. Digital humanities proves that this is wrong. We had this idea that librarians create the infrastructure and humanities faculty provide the meaning, but infrastructure is not separate from meaning. We know print books so well that it’s easy for us to overlook how they are designed, but new formats clarify this for us.

Mandell argued that research is a design problem, and cited some prominent digital humanities projects as evidence:

These projects help us to put texts side by side in a way that wasn’t possible before.  This is a design problem.

Bigger projects, like the Hathi Trust and the DPLA, bring infrastructure and research closer together by creating opportunities for toward network-scale scholarship and curation.  We can have tech-oriented librarians working with faculty who care about big data sets.

Other digital humanities projects show that things that would traditionally be considered service, like teaching semantic searching or doing TEI-encoding of poetry, can be research.  The Collected Letters of Robert Southey pull out all the names of Southey’s correspondents, and distinguish between those names and the names he’s writing about.  This requires a lot of knowledge both of Southey and of the math on which all this is built. In fact, it doesn’t end at the metadata; it’s data structures all the way down. We’ve eliminated the boundaries between the cover and the book.  The Early Modern OCR Project, which is developing better OCR, is another good example; it needs to be done by people who can accurately read the original texts.  They’re building partnerships with vendors, submitting projects for peer review at NINES, and getting them approved by MLA.  This is scholarly work that requires collaboration among librarians, literature specialists, and technologists.


Glen Worthey, Head of the Digital Information Service at Stanford.

“How Library DH Is Made”

Worthey began by noting the absence of the term “digital humanities” in the title of the panel and a certain weariness toward this term in general.  It sounds like a tech buzzword, but his talk explored the origins of digital humanities.  He referred to an important article by Boris Eikhenbaum, “How Gogol’s ‘Overcoat’ is Made.”  This article analyzed Gogol’s short story, “The Overcoat,” in terms of its skaz, or stylized voice, which represents a form of orality. It focuses on tone and style, showing that the narrative voice is really gestural.  By focusing on the story’s formal elements, which at the time was a new mode of analysis, this article marked the beginning of Russian Formalism.  Later formalists developed this idea further.  Shklovsky introduced the idea that art is a device for making things strange.  Tynianov advocated for the study of noncanonical writing.

Now we have digital humanists like Franco Moretti, who wants to map the style of the entire literary landscape through distant reading, and Matt Jockers uses network graphs to show stylistic similarities among authors.  These projects focus on the formal, stylistic aspects of literature, much like the formalists.  Jockers’s work with graphs defamiliarizes the texts by visualizing them.  In fact, the Literary Lab’s first pamphlet was titled “Quantitative Formalism: An Experiment.”   Digital humanities is a way of looking at how literature is made.

Libraries provide the raw material for this work.  We select procure, and curate the raw materials.  Library digital humanities is done by recognizing that DH has been around for a long time.  It’s serious scholarship, not to be accomplished by slapping on a title.  We need to commit to supporting digital humanities structurally.  We have to become makers and collaborators, because even faculty who won’t approach us as collaborators can’t do it by themselves.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Library Texts and the Library in the Digital Age: New Collaborations for European and American Studies

Bridging Deaf Cultures @ Your Library (ALA 2013)

Back in April, I attended ACRL and was quite pleased to see that there was more information on accessibility in libraries, and ALA continued this trend.  I wasn’t able to go to many of the sessions related to this topic, but I made it to this one. It was listed as a discussion group sponsored by ASCLA (the Association of Specialized and Cooperative Library Agencies), but they actually had a speaker presenting information, if somewhat informally, and answering questions.

The speaker was Alec McFarlane, President of the Library for Deaf Action and advocate for the creation of the Deaf Cultural Digital Library.  He was quite an engaging speaker and argued strongly for the creation of more resources for the deaf.

McFarlane explained that few libraries do a good job of providing such resources.  There exist some libraries for the deaf, but only a few, and those that exist are often 1-person programs, which die when the person who is responsible for them leaves for another institution.

He took a few moments to define what he means by terms such as “deaf” or “hard of hearing.”  People may self-identify with many different terms and may have many different levels of hearing. McFarlane himself is completely deaf, but there are different degrees of deafness in general.  However, he prefers an inclusive definition, so that we can focus, not on deciding who “counts” as deaf, but on what we can do to serve people who have some degree of deafness.

As I have indicated above, McFarlane supports the creation of a Deaf Cultural Digital Library, which draws on the idea of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. In general, there are many more resources available for blind patrons than for deaf ones.  NLS has staff members who study blind education and other blind issues, but there is no equivalent for the deaf community.  The Deaf Cultural Digital Library could serve that function.  This is important because most deaf children are born to hearing parents and don’t want to go to a School for the Deaf.  They need a neutral place to find out about deaf issues and libraries that serve the deaf community.

There’s been some work on deaf issues in Maryland. There was Maryland legislation mandating service to the Deaf, but it was protested because it didn’t specifically mention American Sign Language.  McFarlane thought that it was fine not to get that specific because it would need to be flexible. He’s worked with Molly Raphael, former ALA president. A resolution for Deaf history month has been sitting on the shelf since 2006.

So what are the problems with the library for deaf users?  Not all deaf people can read, so using a library can be frustrating.  This is especially true for those for whom ASL is their first language; this makes it more difficult to learn to read in English. They may also at some point have been sent to the library for a punishment, which creates negative associations.  Some libraries offer reading programs but don’t really serve the Deaf community.  We should keep in mind that anyone can become deaf at any time. In fact, hearing loss is the top disability for veterans and we are not providing for them.

So, how do we push for a Digital Library of Deaf Culture as a national program?  We can start by transforming libraries’ programming and outreach.  We should think about what we are doing already and how much involvement the community has.  Sometimes we tell the deaf community that the library is there as a resource, but the resources they need are not there.  We need more people to be involved.  He mentioned The Red Notebook, originally published in 1978 by Alice L. Hagemeyer, long the only tool designed to promote deaf community involvement in libraries. Now there is an online version of it which includes library toolkits and programming.

The challenge for the library community is to bring in people who may not realize what the library offers.  Scheduling workshops can help.  We also need to assess our resources for deaf people.  If you walk into the stacks, how many books on Deaf culture can you find? We want to have that information.  If there were a state foundation, that would be your resource for these issues. Academic libraries tend to have more than public libraries, so ILL needs to be in place too. The California Public Library has been blogging about these issues. Blogging is a written medium, so it doesn’t reach everyone, but this is still good because there are many different deaf populations. Someone also mentioned an ASL book club.  McFarlane expressed approval of these projects but also reminded us that 90% of deaf people don’t identify as Deaf and don’t know ASL.

After McFarlane’s speech, there was some interesting discussion. He explained further that he hopes that the DCDL will function as a series of state level libraries that serve the same area as the NLS does.  It should have staff members who study and collect information and know how to meet ADA requirements.  It can work with providing interpreters and toolkits and explaining how to set up programs.

Someone asked whether he works with the DPLA (Digital Public Library of America).  He says that they are not reinventing the wheel, and in fact he is a member of the Digital Content Working Group.  He points out that digitization has done a great deal to help change materials into formats accessible to the blind, but not for the deaf.  Similarly, there are many treaties to ensure service to blind populations, so why can’t we build the same for deaf? One format that is more accessible to (some) deaf populations is video.  There has never been a TV program without a written script, even the news, so captioning should be available.

I’ve come across another write-up of this session which considers these issues a little more deeply, and which I would recommend.

I found the session to be a very interesting one and I’d certainly love to see more resources available for this population.  But what occurred to me in the session is that it’s very important, especially in libraries with a specific user population (including academic libraries) to figure out what kinds of disabilities people in my community have, so that I can look at this more specifically.  We try to make our website accessible, especially to people who are blind or color-blind, but what are we doing for deaf students, or students with other disabilities?  Doing one thing does not mean we are meeting ADA standards.  I am guessing that a trip to our Office of Special Services would help me to think about these issues more clearly.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Comments Off on Bridging Deaf Cultures @ Your Library (ALA 2013)

ALA 2013 Unconference

I am writing up my notes from ALA 2013 and thought it might be nice to post some of them here where people can see them.  I’m doing this one session at a time, and I’ll start with the Unconference; stay tuned for more posts!

The ALA Unconference this year was different from unconferences I’ve attended in the past.  The room was perhaps half the size it should have been; it was very crowded, too many people were forced to squeeze in at each table, and several folks tried to get in but ended up standing at the door or sitting along the wall, which didn’t exactly facilitate discussion.

Since there was no room for people to move from one table to the next, the format was also a little different from what I’m used to seeing.  Traditionally, unconference participants propose topic, vote on them, and then self-assign themselves to tables at which the topic most interesting to them is being discussed. Often, there is a second session for which the participants switch tables.  However, in this case, we voted on several topics which we then discussed as a group, one by one.  I was a few minutes late, so I’m not sure exactly how the decision to change formats was made, but I think that the tiny space had something to do with it.  It was interesting getting to hear from more people and cover more topics, but the discussion had far less depth.

The first topic was “Changing Roles,” but it veered almost immediately into a discussion of the change in user expectations and meeting users’ needs online.  Some participants felt that users now value convenience over privacy, are less willing to wait, and want customized recommendations.  Patrons want information about their prior activity, which libraries do not retain for privacy reasons, although some catalogs allow opting in to this data.  The problem is allowing patrons access to their own data while keeping it private from everyone else. One participant suggested that it may be technically possible to design a system that does something like this, but because librarians and ALA value privacy so highly, it is unlikely that such a system will be made available.  One librarian suggested that patrons’ desire for such a system may open up some good opportunities for talking about privacy and what they are giving up, which many in our society are not considering deeply.  Another librarian pointed out that there are many patrons who do appreciate the privacy of their data.

A few other topics related to changing roles were also discussed, including many comments on reference.  One librarian noted that there are no more middle of the road questions, only directional questions and serious, complex research questions.  Some library users aren’t aware that we answer these questions or seem to feel guilty about asking them, which shows that more outreach is needed. One participant suggested that we need to do more promote all the services that are available in libraries, but also pointed out that there is no budget for this.

The second topic was about new metrics.  Two of the participants were using interesting new assessment tools: Gimlet which compiles more complete reference statistics, and SUMA ,which assesses the use of space. Another participant had recently participated in LibQual and had found that the qualitative comments were the most useful part, although they had to be carefully coded.  There was an interesting discussion about comments generally and how seriously to take them. One participant said that he takes the comments most seriously when they reference something that happened one time, because they are more trustworthy than comments that say things like “usually” or “sometimes.” Others said they trust negative feedback more than positive feedback, and noted that there’s usually more of it, because when people are angry, they write things down.  It’s also important to know who is commenting; comments made online are often taken less seriously because they may not be from a patron.  What is difficult is getting feedback from non-users or feedback about things we don’t have.

There was a brief discussion about why and how we use metrics. Are they for accreditation, assessment, or for learning outcomes? Are we using them to learn more about our services or to get something out of our respective administrations?  The answers to these questions should tell us something about the kind of data we need.

Finally, a few other ways of assessing were mentioned. Taking pictures can be very powerful; one library used pictures showing trip hazards to apply for a grant to put in more power outlets. Others were interested in gathering feedback via social media.  The most old-fashioned of metrics, money, was also mentioned; it’s important to assess the budget to see whether it aligns with library goals.  Of course, assessment itself also costs money.

The third topic was “Enhancing Customer Experience.”  Personally, I have a particular aversion to referring to library users as “customers” and also to the sort of business jargon used here.  However, that was what was used. What’s interesting is that throughout the discussion, the moderator and others tended to shy away from it.

This is also the part of the unconference during which the weaknesses of this discussion format were most apparent; many issues with little relationship to each other were brought up and acknowledged, but then the discussion moved on.  There was very brief discussion of very disparate topics.  For instance, the question of homeless patrons was considered, as were food and noise in the library. One participant suggested candy and puzzles as a way of being more inviting and hospitable, while another talked about her experience in a one-room library where there is not enough space to have both quiet and noisy areas.  There was also some discussion of design aesthetics for both digital and physical spaces, including talk of coffee shops and why people choose them, and the use of patron participation. One library was renovating and had made some flyers on the temporary wall available for kids to decorate.

The final topic was collaboration and resource sharing.  Many librarians shared stories of outreach and collaborative projects.  There is no way of consolidating these examples, so I’ll just mention a few of my favorites.

One participant, a public librarian, spoke about collaborating with the local university and public schools through the One Book, One Community program.  This allows the community to engage with students. They use a parallel program wherein they use a children’s book that has a theme or element similar to a book for adults. Teachers incorporate it into their curricula.  This unites academic, public and school libraries.

There is a collaboration effort among the University of Illinois, Fab Lab and the public library called the Teen OpenLab.  Creating a community FabLab for teens.  They have all kinds of tech stuff so they can all come together for youth-oriented education program.

A librarian from a Minneapolis/St. Paul nontraditional college works with the community branch of the public library in a campus building.  The collaboration goes both ways; it encourages students to go back to school and there is a shared book club.

There was also some discussion of the challenges with collaboration; these include license agreements but have more to do with finding good partners.  A school librarian pointed  out that school librarians are very busy because they essentially have two jobs, so a better way of framing a proposed collaboration is to show that you are offering something useful rather than bringing them a new project.

Ultimately, I’d have to say that the strange format and the small space of the unconference hurt its usefulness.  Unconferences are often better at identifying problems than solving them, but this tendency was even more extreme under the circumstances, because there was little opportunity for real discussion.  I understand that there have been some complaints and expect a more typical unconference next time.  However, I hope that my summary has show that it was at least of some use.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on ALA 2013 Unconference

Thoughts and Doubts on Transliteracy

I appear to be a bad blogger, or at least, not a very prolific one.   Hmm. Perhaps I can do better.

There’s a post that I began writing late last semester and never finished, after seeing Lane Wilkinson’s presentation on libraries and transliteracy. It’s a very interesting presentation and I recommend following the link to check it out.

For those who don’t like to follow links, however, I’ll summarize.  Wilkinson gives several definitions and a very clear overview of the concept of transliteracy, which many in the library world have been promoting as a new way of thinking about how students use information. It’s distinct from information literacy because rather than emphasizing the formal organization of information and the steps that one might take in order to use it well, it describes the practice of navigating among several different kinds of media in order to create/access information.  Wilkinson connects this concept to information literacy by arguing that information literacy can give students transferable skills that they can use in whatever medium they are operating. The need to access, evaluate, and integrate information doesn’t go away just because students may be reading an article and integrating what they find into a presentation that they subsequently turn into a video and put online with commentary. Wilkinson suggests that librarians need to focus on the skills that students can use in all of these situations and avoid what is specific to particular types of resources.  Instead, we can show similarities among many kinds of resources.

My reaction to this was simultaneously strong and ambivalent.

I have a bit of a composition background—certainly not as strong as some folks, but I’ve studied enough of its theory to become immediately suspicious whenever I hear the term “transferrable skills.” I encountered it in a department in which we were very carefully taught that writing is a deeply context-dependent activity which depends heavily on understanding the accepted practices of the community in which one operates and the expectations of whatever genre one is attempting. At the same time, we were cautioned that writing is often thought about as a transferrable skill—that there is an unreasonable expectation that we can put students in a first-year composition class and prepare them to write well in business, nursing, sociology, philosophy, whatever.  It doesn’t quite work that way.  Obviously, it does not follow that no skills whatsoever are transferrable, but as I hadn’t thought carefully about whether that might be the case with research and information, I felt very cautious about the assertion that it involves such skills. Research is a different domain, but a related one, and I wanted to think about this.

In my library, we have subject specialists, who liaise with different departments, with the idea that some of us are more familiar with how information in each field is organized, what sorts of keywords one might use, what kinds of resources are most appropriate to particular inquiries, and so on.  This is a fairly common system, and of course it doesn’t always work perfectly—I know that in many libraries, librarians with little expertise in a subject may nevertheless be assigned to it—but the premise is that there are differences in different types of information. My experience suggests that there is truth to this, and actually, it seems to follow naturally from the idea that the writing is different in each of these disciplines, because different types of materials will have different rules and knowing those rules is very helpful when it comes to searching. This is a matter of subject content, of course; does format work the same way?

Sometimes yes, sometimes no.  I know I use different strategies when I am looking for articles than I do when I am looking for books. I look in different places and I use different keywords (broader for books, because books are broader in scope).  I take into account whether I am searching full text or whether there is some kind of indexing.  When I’m searching the Web, I’ve noticed that Google (and perhaps other search engines as well?) actively encourages what I would consider “bad” searches in another context—for instance, searches that use full sentences or ask questions—and they often seem to actually work!  Video searching is very limited and is something I don’t know as much about as I’d like.  So there are different rules when it comes to the technical aspects of searching.  The more conceptual stuff may be different too.  For instance, we know a lot about evaluating sources based on their scholarliness or other closely related attributes—but a student who is doing an intensive multi-media presentation may have other criteria in mind.  Maybe such a student is looking at images and needs them to be visually compelling and available under a Creative Commons license that would allow re-use.  Do we teach that? Do we even think about this sort of thing when we talk with students about evaluating sources?

Wilkinson recommends starting from the similarities and teaching by analogy. This is a really interesting idea, but I think we have to carefully think through what the similarities are and understanding where the analogies break down.  I am wary of teaching students that an unfamiliar kind of research is just like a familiar kind of research, except for X, Y and Z because I fear that it may set up unrealistic expectations and cause frustration down the road—especially since many of them already feel they know more than they really do.

However.  It is interesting and, I think, useful, to see the relationships among different types of research activities. The way you get around the non-transferability of writing which I described above is to help students understand what the landscape is and where the differences come in.  Beginning writers are taught to understand unfamiliar genres by looking for good examples of that genre, to try to understand what the community expects, and in general by becoming good at figuring out what the rules are.  Maybe it would be useful to think about research in a similar way.

So that was my sticking point. The other point that caught my interest, though, had nothing to do with that.   I was astonished and, actually, delighted to hear the description of transliteracy, because I had heard of transliteracy before, but I hadn’t realized that it was actually what I was working on! At the moment, I’m very interested in the rise of e-books and am trying to figure out whether they will be useful, will continue to grow in popularity, and so on.  Currently, I’m trying to see how these different reading media—print books, e-books, online articles, things students print out—all fit into students’ lives and how and when students decide to use one instead of another.  This is one kind of transliteracy, and I’m happy to be able to put a name to it, even if it’s sometimes considered a rather silly one.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Public Domain in the Future

(Note: I’m not a copyright expert.  If I’ve made any factual errors here, please feel free to point them out. )

Last month, I spent a lot of time putting together an exhibit on the public domain.   It was a very interesting process for many reasons.

I’d initially planned to organize it based on date. I wanted to show what had fallen into the public domain at different periods of history, in order to make a strong visual point about the end of the twentieth century, which has been characterized by no new materials entering the public domain.  In the end, this was a bit too difficult and precise, so I organized it by medium instead, but as I was doing the research for this exhibit, I found myself thinking about it from a slightly different angle.

Since the 1978 copyright act worked retroactively to extend the length of copyright on everything that wasn’t already in the public domain, nothing has entered the public domain since it passed.  Curiously, we have had another copyright extension between then and now, so we’ve pushed it back even further without allowing enough time for works to expire under the previous law.  There’s plenty of commentary out there about the problems with extending it so far, but the problem that I think hasn’t been sufficiently discussed is the increased difficulty of identifying public domain material under the current term.

This is a serious problem with basing copyright terms on the life of the author rather than the date of publication.  Prior to 1978, works would remain under copyright for a specified amount of time, with one extension allowed.  The 1910 law allowed for a 28 year term with a possible extension for another 28. It’s possible to debate about whether that was long enough, too long, or whatever, but at least it was a known fact that after 56 years, a work would be in the public domain.

The 1978 law changed this certainty by basing copyright on the length of the author’s life.  It said that copyright would last until the author had been dead for 50 years; in the 1990s, this was extended to 70 years.  This means that an additional piece of information is needed to determine the copyright status of a work.  In 1955, it was absolutely certain that every work published in 1899 or earlier was in the public domain.  A person wanting to create interesting derivative works without a license could easily compile a list of works that had been published by that date and choose among them.  After all, publication date is one of a few pieces of basic bibliographic information that is attached to everything that is published and can be easily searched.  Works that had been published from 1927 onward might have been in the public domain, but it depended on whether they’d been renewed, so those works would have had to have been evaluated one by one (and finding out whether a copyright was renewed is not as easy as one might hope).

Right now, our situation is fairly similar, except that the dates in question are much more distant. The magic date is 1923; almost anything published before that is public domain (with some weird exceptions for GATT and music recordings, but let’s not get into that now).  Works published between then and 1950 may be in the public domain if their copyright was not renewed.  However, these works require additional labor to identify and so they get less attention.  In general, 1923 is treated as the magic date because it’s a clear line and it’s relatively easy to work with.  HathiTrust is trying to do some of this important identification work, but it’s a major undertaking to do anything like this on a major scale.

So, the practical public domain tends to end at the end of what can be easily and clearly identified—in this case, at the magic date of 1923.  What does this mean in the future?

In 2019, barring any further copyright extensions, works from 1924 will enter the public domain, giving us a new magic date. (Works that were already under copyright when the 1978 act was passed were granted a 95-year term.)  This will carry us through to 2072, when the new magic date becomes 1977—and that will be the new magic date.  By then, some works will also have entered the public domain under the new rule—that is, all the work of any author who died in 2002 or earlier.  So, a work published in 1979 would still be under copyright if its author had lived beyond that date, but a work published in 2001 by an author who died the following year would be copyright-free.  This is odd, but what is more troubling to me is that the latter work would be unlikely to be treated as a public domain work.  What’s more likely is that those looking for works in the public domain will focus their efforts on looking through works from the middle of the twentieth century. Works between 1977 and 70 years before the current year will fall into a zone of uncertainty where additional effort is needed to figure out what can and can’t be done.  In my example this gap is only thirty years, it’s not a huge problem, but after this point, the magic date will no longer advance, so the gap will only grow.

Now, finding out who the author of a work is and when that person died isn’t a very difficult problem for an individual work.  It’s certainly much easier than trying to figure out whether a copyright was renewed.  My concern here has more to do with identifying many items at once.  Suppose, for instance, that one wanted to engage in large scale digitization projects. With a date-based system, it is very simple to search for a particular date. On the other hand, the date of an author’s death is not immediately considered basic bibliographic information, and it’s quite difficult to get it included, since when a work is published, we do not usually know when the author will die—so the only way to do this is to find out, every time anybody dies, whether he or she had written, painted or recorded anything and then add that information to every record that exists.  I’m not sure who is supposed to be responsible for keeping track of that.  Even on a smaller scale, it’s not going to be easy to identify items that aren’t already known to be public domain, especially if they are not famous already.

Yes, this is a long term concern, it’s too late to worry about it anyway, and it’s not nearly as pernicious as some other disturbing things that have been happening in the realm of copyright lately, but I do think it’s something that wasn’t adequately considered when these laws were passed.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

How is a Writing Center like a Reference Desk?

In another lifetime, I was a writing teacher.  I taught first-year composition, and, before that, I worked in a writing center. In fact, a writing center is where I really started to learn about teaching.  This means that I still think of learning through a writing-centric lens at many times, and that I have high expectations of writing centers and very specific ideas about what I think they do there that may not actually apply to any particular writing center.

So, when I am working on the reference desk, I often end up doing things that could very easily be described as writing instruction. I don’t usually look at drafts, but I help students interpret assignments. I work with them on their topics to help them figure out what is feasible and to determine the appropriate breadth of a paper topic.  I talk with them about how sources can be used.  Sometimes we talk about scholarly discourse, though I don’t use these words explicitly. Some of this probably comes from the background I’ve described, and some of it is just the nature of the reference desk. Students who come to the reference desk are often writing papers, and their struggles are sometimes related to sources and sometimes stem from an unclear idea of exactly what is expected of them or exactly what they want to do.

When I worked in a writing center, we were committed to working with students at all stages of the writing process. We often talked about research—it’s part of writing, after all—and we were very conscious of figuring out where students were in the process.  We were pretty explicit when talking with them about this process and what we thought the next steps were, and we were realistic about not being able to take the paper all the way to where it needed to be in a single session. It was important to give some thought to exactly what could be done at that particular moment and to be aware that there are other stages and other relationships involved in students’ writing.

I think this is a good model.  I think librarians do a lot of these things instinctively; at least, I hope we do, because we don’t spend a lot of time talking about it.  We talk about the reference interview and finding out what a student’s needs are, but not about identifying what stage the student is stuck at, and certainly not to make these connections to writing.  The ACRL information literacy standards appear to describe a (simplified, idealized) linear research process, and we don’t always complicate it by talking about how messy research can be in real life—and if research is complicated, teaching research certainly isn’t simple! But our models tend to simplify.  I have often encountered an assumption that we intervene at a very particular part of the writing/research process and that the help we provide to students is very specific—that we help them to identify useful resources and demonstrate how they may do so for themselves.  In reality, though, sometimes helping the students to understand what they need involves delving into this writing process.

But it can be overwhelming to encounter a student who needs serious writing help at the reference desk.  Such students may well see my writing advice as peripheral to their question, since after all, they don’t expect writing help from a librarian.

I talked with some librarians at ACRL who were presenting posters on writing center/library collaborations; it seemed at the time like such an obvious, brilliant thing to do, and it still seems that way. I wonder if there are other ways to build up relationships with the writing folks on my campus.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Romanticizing the book?

I know, I know. Blogging is supposed to be timely, and it’s already been a long time since ACRL.  But I wanted to write about the Jaron Lanier keynote, and despite delays, I will.

This April, I attended ACRL for the second time. I like conferences in general, and I’m fond of ACRL in particular. I enjoy learning about all the fascinating things that people do at other libraries, getting ideas, and becoming reinvigorated by contact with librarians outside my home institution. It’s one of my favorite parts of being a librarian.  There, I attended the Saturday morning keynote by Jaron Lanier.  I haven’t read his book (should I?), but I was still eager to hear what he would say.

There were several strains to his speech, but the one that’s been bothering me, the one I needed to start a blog to address, was about the role of libraries in the age of informational ubiquity.  His argument was that libraries “romanticize the book” and that librarians need to make books special.  The idea is that technology is decreasing our appreciation of a book, both by enabling easier access and by allowing books to be compiled and combined into one database where, for instance, you can have NGrams. Or where you can pull chapters out of several books and put them in any order that you want.  A book as a thing loses its shape under such circumstances. We need, according to Lanier, “ritual inconvenience” to impress us with the importance of things that matter, and books are included among them.

That’s an interesting argument, but it worries me.  I’m an academic librarian who works in a highly diverse institution, and I wonder what this sort of attitude toward books does to my students.

Through pure serendipity, I happened at the same time to be reading Hunger of Memory.  I hadn’t read it before (I know, I know, I should be ashamed) and I found myself deeply frustrated by many of the arguments that Rodriguez makes, almost all of which I won’t address here. What interests me is the degree to which he romanticized books and how detrimental that could have been to his education.

If you, my hypothetical reader, have not read Hunger of Memory, you should know that it’s an autobiographical work about how the author, a man from a Spanish-speaking family who was the first in his family to be educated, interacted with academic institutions throughout his life, ultimately earning a PhD in English literature.  He writes about his early childhood experiences with books, which included remedial reading instruction from a nun:

One day the nun concluded a session by asking me why I was so reluctant to read by myself.  I tried to explain; said something about the way written words made me feel all alone – almost, I wanted to add but didn’t, as when I spoke to myself in a room just emptied of furniture. She studied my face as I spoke; she seemed to be watching more than listening. In an uneventful voice she replied that I had nothing to fear. Didn’t I realize that reading would open up whole new worlds? … I listened with respect. But her words were not very influential. I was thinking then of another consequence of literacy, one I was too shy to admit but nevertheless trusted.  Books were going to make me ‘educated.’

I put these together and I worry. Rodriguez describes himself as a both a good student and a bad student because, while he worked very hard and read many books, he read them believing that they had some magic power to change him and not as a conversation in which he could engage, or in which he had any right to engage. He read to extract some “core essence” from each book, because “if this essence could be mined and memorized, I would become learned like my teachers.” He was “not a good reader. Merely bookish, I lacked a point of view when I read. Rather, I read in order to acquire a point of view.” Critical thinking was not part of his relationship with books until much later in his education.

I quote this passage because it’s such a good description of how a romanticized book might look to students, particularly students for whom a book is not a commonplace object. Now, Rodriguez is a success story. The very fact that he was able to write this about himself proves that he moved through this stage and past it.  I’m quite sure that some of my students are like him: attracted to books precisely because they see them as part of some different, special world, one that is not readily accessible to them.  This isn’t great if we want them to become critical thinkers or if we want them to learn stuff, but at least these students are reading.

But we have lots of students.  Think of the flip side of this: the student who is intimidated by books, who feels out of place and reluctant to participate as a result.  For this student, romanticizing books puts them out of reach. Imagine, too, the student who believes that things that are romanticized are only beautiful or special and never useful, and who therefore does not turn to books for their utility.

I’m an academic librarian. I want my students to use books (and other kinds of information resources) to think critically. I want them to understand that books are part of a scholarly conversation in which arguments are hammered out and refined—that all these books are talking to each other. I want them to know that different kinds of texts are produced and used under different circumstances and what those circumstances are.  And I want them to take in ideas from what they read, compare them, weigh them, and eventually come to their own, better informed, conclusions.

What I don’t want is for them to be lost in awe.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 2 Comments