Posts in future of libraries

To Criticize, To Hope, and To Library

I’ve been struck by something on library Twitter recently. I doubt that anything has changed, but i seem to be noticing this more and wanted to dig deeper into my response to it. What I’m seeing is a lot of “either for us or against us” response to criticism of libraries. A lot of what I’m seeing is good push back, I’m certainly not arguing against the content of what people are saying. Instead, what I want to do is to look at criticism of and in libraries and see if there is something to learn in the general reaction, as opposed to simply choosing a side or deciding who is right and who is wrong. 

This is coming from a place of self-contemplation. At my intersections of gender, race, class, and other demographics I’m learning how to examine my initial emotional responses to external criticism and temper my defensiveness with listening. For example, when friends post online “Men are awful!” or something to that effect, instead of responding “YOU’RE WRONG! I’m not awful.”  I’ve been taught to listen to the complaint and to try not to be awful. When this happens, above all, don’t say #notallmen.

Maybe because I’ve been paying more attention to how I respond when groups I belong to are publicly criticized, I’ve seen that when libraries and librarianship are criticized, our first responses aren’t quite what they could be. So there are three examples of criticism of libraries and librarians that showcase our response. Again, my point in writing this is not to determine who is right and who is wrong, but instead, I want to figure out how can we best respond to criticism.

@theangriestlibrarian’s excellent rant to an uninformed library critic

(librarians) are so convinced that we must defend libraries against threats that we are defending libraries against improvement

In this lovely rant, @HalpernAlex takes down someone who suggests that libraries are no longer needed, or at least are no longer the most efficient way to provide the public with access to information. I have zero criticisms of the rant; I think that it’s is accurate. What I’m worried about is that we, as a profession, are more interested in preserving libraries as institutions than we are in fulfilling the mission of libraries. When we see bad ideas about replacing libraries, whether it’s this one (give the books to schools and close the buildings) or others (buy everyone Kindle Unlimited and stop funding libraries or academic libraries are vanity project that have already been replaced with smartphones) we (myself included) gleefully dogpile on the poor benighted fools who dare question the invaluable contributions of our vocation to the public good. My question is this: when librarians face a choice between libraries and something new that more efficiently serves our mission, how will we respond? Part of me worries that it will be with torches and pitchforks.

At least, this is what I’m afraid of. I’m afraid that we (librarians) are so convinced that we must defend libraries against threats that we are defending libraries against improvement.[1]Though, obviously in this case, just dumping books in schools and closing libraries is the opposite of improvement.

@rdlankes’ tweet about a continuum of library quality and @lisalibrarian (& others)  response to this.

I’m really intrigued by this exchange. There are two good (and not mutually exclusive, in my view) arguments being made here. One: some libraries do bad work or at very least, bad libraries are the result of bad library work. The other: referring to library work as bad in public forums is disrespectful of library workers. So what do we do about libraries that fail in some aspect of their work?

The first example that comes to mind is the Florida librarian who broke the law and patron privacy ethics by calling the FBI to report on suspected library usage by 9/11 perpetrators.  If that is too ambiguous an example, nina de jesus’ article Locating the Library In Institutional Oppression and Cheryl Knott’s book Not Free, Not For All: Public libraries in the age of Jim Crow provide undeniable examples of not just bad libraries and bad librarianship, but libraries (the concept writ large) in the service of oppression.

if good library work is our goal, positive and nurturing conversation is more likely to achieve it than running down and disrespecting our colleagues

So I guess I’m taking a position here. I’m against the unwritten rule that orders librarians not to tell the truth about bad library work. On the other hand, I’m on board with the argument that says if good library work is our goal, positive and nurturing conversation is more likely to achieve it than running down and disrespecting our colleagues. As a personal rule, I try to talk about bad libraries and bad library work, but not bad librarianship or bad librarians. Failing this, if I’m talking about bad librarianship, it’s best to assume I’m talking about myself. We’ll see in the next example that I don’t always follow my rule here, but similar to the first example there’s a tension between telling the truth about library work and providing a consistent narrative most likely to lead to better library work in the future.

My tweets about bad library instruction and the responses to them.

I wrote some tweets earlier this month about bad library instruction and my response to it. There was more engagement with these thoughts than there is with most of what I write, so I appear to have struck a nerve with others. However, it wasn’t the same nerve that I had struck in myself. Reading how others responded to what I wrote, I saw a lot of people concerned about their own library instruction being seen as shit. I was more concerned with interacting with the course instructors–what do we do when then inevitable bad day of instruction happens? How do we safe-guard instruction programs from instances of low-quality work? I know that author intent theory is dead and what I intended is not more important that what the readers perceived, but it was hard to see the thread of conversation get away from me.

It was especially hard because my casual use of profanity and the scatological metaphor [2]I’m sure this reads as pompous, but it was SO MUCH FUN to type that I’m leaving it in. only amplified the disconnect. When instruction librarians are fighting for the time, respect, and resources we need to succeed, it must have felt awful to have another librarian say that our work is shit.[3]I wasn’t trying to say that at all, but that’s really beside the point. Swearing about librarianship helps me, as a professional practitioner, to shed rose-colored glasses I have to wear at work. There are a lot of contexts in which I rightfully treat librarianship as holy. These make it necessary to have a space where I can blaspheme with critical thought. Otherwise I’ll have no choice but to believe my own marketing copy and drink the Kool-Aid. When we’re shifting perspectives or code-switching, hyperbole, profanity, and blasphemy can be contextually confusing. I’m confused as well. I still strongly believe that the library instruction I was writing about was undeniably shitty and that talking about shitty library instruction is a first step towards making better library instruction. Yet by not making my criticism general enough or impersonal enough [4]I really don’t think it matters if original  example was someone bad at their job or just someone having the inevitable bad day. I appear to have disrespected my colleagues and caused pain.

So What Do We Do About Criticism?

What do we do about criticism? We accept it. We listen to it. We don’t have to agree with it or obey it, but we should hear it. Librarians should strive to hear criticism of our profession without treating it as a personal attack. Library critics (myself included) should strive to hear the push back that tells us overly mean criticism tears down rather than building up. Criticism is a means to an end and that end is the public good, the good of the people who use libraries. The end we are pursuing is not the good of libraries or librarians, it is the mission of libraries.

We embrace criticism and we pursue to provide better criticism. We seek out criticism that provides hope for better libraries to come. I don’t have a better example of this than a talk given by Eli Neiberger in 2010.  Neiberger tell us that libraries are screwed, explains why, and then gives us reason for hope and a vision for services that better meet the information needs of our communities. For me, this is the platonic ideal of how do provide criticism. I worry that if we’re not able to hear that libraries are screwed, if we’re not able to hear that there are bad libraries out there or that if we make bad choices, we get bad libraries, and if we’re not able to hear that some library instruction is shitty, then we’re not able to avoid these fates.

 

There’s no intrinsic value in making us feel bad about libraries. There’s nothing to be gained in nihilism or in being a pretentious know-it-all who looks smart by correctly predicting that there is no hope. However, the path towards hope, the path towards a better future, the path towards better libraries goes through criticism, not around it.

Vocational Awe: A concept that helps us go forward here

Finally, I want to refer to someone else’s words and thoughts that do a better job of describing the dangers I’m trying to write about. Fobazi Ettarh wrote a great piece on Vocational Awe I strongly encourage y’all to read it. I’ve pulled two key passages here to explain the term vocational awe:

As we were brainstorming, I mentioned that I was interested in deconstructing this idea of vocational awe in librarianship. I saw the concept as the root of a lot of problems within librarianship, especially in creating a work/life balance and in larger critiques of the field. ~Fobazi Ettarh

So what exactly is “vocational awe?” Well simply put, it is the idea that libraries as institutions are inherently good. It assumes that some or all core aspects of the profession are beyond critique, and it, in turn, underpins many librarians’ sense of identity and emotional investment in the profession. The closest that Sveta found to a similar concept was occupational mythology in the journalism world.

My fear is that we (librarians) feel so much protective love for our work and our patrons and we feel so much justified fear that changing attitudes towards funding the public good and changing information technologies will undermine and destroy libraries; we feel this so much that we lash out against all criticism, even the criticism we need in order to have hope for a better future. Vocational awe is a thing that keeps us from building better libraries because we are afraid of listening to criticism. Vocational awe is what makes us define program assessment as “making the library look good to the administration so they don’t cut our funding” instead of as a practical tool to doing our work better. We can do better.

Hope.

Here’s the hope I have to offer. No matter how real the threats we face are, our cause is just. We can wrap ourselves in the confidence that when we teach people to find and use quality information, we are improving their lives. When we help kids learn to love literature, stories, and information we are making their futures brighter. When we library[5]That’s right, a library isn’t a book warehouse, library is a verb!, we are doing the good work. This confidence is well-founded and it can replace vocational awe. We don’t have to be afraid of criticizing the library that we love, because we know that the library is unquestionably lovable. We don’t have to shy away from ugly truths about the shifting foundations beneath our feet, because our mission is clear.

We’re going to have to face a lot more ugly truths about the future need for today’s library services. We’re going to have to confront the ways in which our library structures prop up oppressive structures in society. We’re going to have to face the unpleasantness of learning that some of the ways in which we library are misguided. We are wrong about a lot of our thinking about libraries. That’s where the hope is. We can do better. We can find new ways to library that aren’t shit. We can find new ways to library that don’t exclude the marginalized. We can find new ways to library that continue to meet the changing information needs of our service populations. As long as people need information, librarians need to library.

 

Note: This post has been updated to correct the spelling of Fobazi Ettarh’s name. My sincere apologies for being careless.

Notes

1 Though, obviously in this case, just dumping books in schools and closing libraries is the opposite of improvement.
2 I’m sure this reads as pompous, but it was SO MUCH FUN to type that I’m leaving it in.
3 I wasn’t trying to say that at all, but that’s really beside the point.
4 I really don’t think it matters if original  example was someone bad at their job or just someone having the inevitable bad day.
5 That’s right, a library isn’t a book warehouse, library is a verb!

Free Primary Sources: dp.la, european.eu, and the Magic of Metadata Harvesters

This post is a summary of a presentation given at the 2015 ILAGO Summit in Hood River, Oregon.

DP.LA and Europeana.eu have become my go-to tools for primary source materials. Metadata harvesters (this is the fancy name for the kind of tool that dp.la and europeana.eu are) are amazingly useful, fun to explore, and rely on open content and sharing in a way that warms my cold librarian heart. I gave a presentation on these tools at the ILAGO (Information Literacy Group of Oregon) Summit and I wanted to share it with you all. Here is my slide deck, followed by a brief synopsis for my fellow preferrers of text.

I have three goals for this talk. First, I want all of you to be able to go back to your libraries and share how rich, deep, and amazing the content available through metadata harvesters is. That’s the key point: metadata harvesters are really freaking cool. Once we’ve established that, I want you all to be able to explain to your coworkers what underlying technologies and standards are behind the magic of metadata harvesters. Finally, I want to close on the question of how to integrate metadata harvesters into our existing suites of tools for discovery and reference.

Metadata harvesters are really freaking cool.

Showing off the dp.la and europeana.eu is easy. It’s pretty easy to manipulate the interfaces and both tools do an adequate job of helping novice searchers. Let’s use an example to see how searching metadata harvesters work. Here’s the scenario: a student comes to the library with an assignment to find primary source materials on a historical figure represented in current popular culture. This student is interested in the Cercei Lannister character on HBO’s Game of Thrones series, so we are looking for primary sources about her historical inspiration Margaret of Anjou. Searching for Margaret of Anjou, including alternate spellings, returns quite a few interesting primary and secondary sources in europeana.eu. My favorite is a letter she wrote using veiled language to threaten people who were molesting tenants under her protection. The ease of finding materials really shows off the power and usefulness of metadata harversters like europeana.eu and dp.la.

Standards and technologies behind the magic

Turning to the underlying technology & standards that enable metadata harvesters to work, we’ll see that Dublin Core, XML, and RDF are foundational technologies. Metadata harvesters like europeana.edu and dp.la rely on dublin core and rdf to build standards. The key concept is that the metadata harvesters publish a standard that digital archives can use. Digital archives that wish to share their metadata must publish their metadata using these standards. Then this metadata will harvested and become discoverable. It is important to note that the digital objects themselves are not harvested and remain on the hosting archives’ servers.

Integrating metadata harvesters into our discovery tools

How we can make the amazing sources and resources that are discoverable through metadata harvesters available to our library users? At WSU Vancouver, we make them available through a Libguide. Reflecting on this, I’m starting to be concerned how free sources are largely segregated (made available to students in a different place) from the sources we pay to get access to. Are there strategies we can use to close this gap? It may also be useful to discuss the similarities between library discovery layers and metadata harvesters. Both can make use of the same underlying technology, OAI-PMH, but in my limited experience, the tool built on open standards and sharing is much more successful at providing discovery than the proprietary solutions.

On allying myself with #TeamHarpy and others

I Am #TeamHarpy

I ally myself with Lisa Rabey and nina de jesus. Lisa and nina are friends of mine and colleagues who are facing a SLAPP suit to silence their frank and open discussion of another colleague’s behavior.  While there is a lot to be said about the case and the deep-rooted conditions in our professional culture that are behind it, this post is a personal meditation on what it means to ally with others.

The Ally Label

I don’t like to describe myself as an ally. It feels more like a marketing campaign than a positive action. Still, I don’t have a better term to describe collaborating with the oppressed to work towards justice. With the way the world is organized, I’m much more likely to benefit from injustice than to be a target of it. So, when I read @evilangela’s words about this on Twitter, they resonated.

@evilangela:  “Ally” only has any meaning when used as a verb. As a noun, it’s meaningless, self-congratulatory bullshit.

I’ve also been thinking about nina de jesus’ clear and sharp words about finding herself on the front lines of a fight for justice. She framed her involvement in a way that helps me frame my support.

#TeamHarpy has my support, but I’m not their ideal supporter. I’m biased and I my internal censor is unreliable in its advice on when to speak and when to be silent. I also am more interested in where we disagree than were we safely agree and so I focus on divisive issues. I have to wrestle my stubborn independence in order to be a team player and I’m more concerned with avoiding fundamentalism than I am with enforcing what’s good. I’m also complicit in the problem. I’m trying to be the best colleague I can, but I’m a flawed human and the product of an oppressive culture. I’m trying to be part of a solution but my intentions go astray and I’m not always guided by the better angels of my nature.

Researching the Topic

In the past after I had asked for help sorting through a different situation , I was guided to Community Change Incorporated and their excellent resources on social justice, including insights into how to support justice efforts in productive ways. These, plus voices for social justice on Twitter have guided my thinking. I have been guided by wiser minds and I’m curating what I’ve learned from them in this post. I don’t claim credit for any wisdom, but all of the faults are mine.

 Grounding Thoughts

These are points I’m using to keep me from getting swept away in a movement. While there are other thoughts out there for how to do good work, these are mostly about avoiding common mistakes.

  1. I’m complicit in the problem.
    It’s tempting to hide my guilt behind enthusiasm for the cause, but changing teams doesn’t change who I am.
  2. I don’t just benefit from the problem, I participate in it.
    This is not a confessional (see point 3) but I have behaved badly and will again despite my best efforts to the contrary. So any self-righteousness I feel is going to be a kind of hypocrisy.
  3. The problem is bigger than my feeling bad about something, so its resolution can’t be the first thing that stops me from feeling bad.
    If I stop allying with others at the point I stop feeling bad about the injustice, I’m less useful as an ally than if I simply ignored the injustice in the first place.
  4.  I need to own my risks.
    Sometimes the best action is for me to speak up. Sometimes the best action is for me to shut up and listen. It may be up to others to decide which choice was best, but the choice and the risk are always mine. It takes courage to stand for one’s values, in front of friends as much as in front of foes, but I’m not bringing anything useful to the table if I’m not willing to own my risks.
  5. It’s not about me.
    I’m not responsible for finding the solution, (even though I should participate.) I’m not responsible for the problem, (even though I’m complicit.) If I’m allying myself with others, it’s not about me. If it is about me, I’m not really allying myself with others, am I?

These are the best thoughts I can gather on allying with #TeamHarpy and other movements. I didn’t invent them and I don’t embody them particularly well, but they sum up what I’m trying to do and what I’m trying to avoid doing.

My Silence on Gender Issues in Libraries and Technology

I started writing this post a while ago and shelved it, waiting for more insight. Gender issues, technology, and librarianship is a huge issue. I didn’t want to get something this important wrong, so I didn’t finish my thought and hit the publish button. While I’m not certain I have more insight today, I do think it has become timely again and I want to air my thoughts this time, warts and all.

Attention Distribution Disorder

This week on the library blog Hi Miss Julie, Julie aired her discontent with the way attention is distributed to librarians. I have some trouble with some of the underlying assumptions behind the post, but it is undeniably honest and timely. It very clearly strikes a nerve and resonates with a lot of my colleagues in a way that is worth paying attention to. Make no mistake, this is an important issue.

The post also offers indirect but clear insults to people I am friendly with. The insulted are adults who can handle criticism or mild Internet bullying. However out of loyalty and fairness I want to be direct and point out what I perceive to be a lapse in manners. ( I hesitate to pick a fight and refuse to choose sides, but I am loyal to my friends and I respect Julie enough to take her own advice on speaking up when we witness a perceived wrong.)

The reason Julie’s recent piece draws my response is that I couldn’t figure out how to respond to it. She clearly has identified something about gender and power in our profession that resonates. I want to understand that better. I also observed that at least three eminent library speakers offered excellent advice on raising one’s profile as a speaker. Their advice is spot-on, practical, and following it will lead to the desired outcome, but I didn’t get the feeling her original post was seeking advice. I don’t share some of the post’s assumptions, but again, I didn’t get the feeling that the appropriate response was to engage it in critical dialog. So I returned to the draft of this post that I had started and abandoned. When I read my earlier thoughts about gender disparity in libraries and technology I found my answer. The appropriate response to Julie’s post on gender and attention was to listen to it.

So I sat down and read it again. I listened. I divorced it from the context of ongoing librarian Internet feuds or disagreements about whether books ARE stories or if they just CONTAIN stories. I tried to listen to the piece and it told me that gender influences attention in our profession in disturbing ways. A significant number of smart and competent librarians don’t feel smart or competent because people like me get more than our fair share of attention. I don’t have a metric for the attention economy, but I believe my work has received its fair share of attention. I believe I’ve done damn fine work and that my awards, attention, and paid speaking gigs are justified by my competence. But I’m not fool enough to believe that there are not smarter, more competent, and more eloquent librarians who toil in relative obscurity. It is unlikely that many of these overlooked librarians are male. That sucks. So this is what I’ve decided my appropriate response to Julie’s post is: first listening carefully to what she has to say and then mourning the fact that many of my smart and competent female colleagues don’t feel as brilliant and accomplished as they deserve to because our culture is diseased. This is a tragedy.

I have ideas on how we can change this on an individual scale and I have some problems with other things she wrote in the post, but since no one asked me, I’m just going to stick to listening and mourning at this time. It is a tragedy that competence and hard work do not always receive their just deserts. It is a crime that our culture allows this to happen to females so much more often than to their male counterparts.

Below is the post stub that generated these thoughts:

Mansplaining, 1reasonwhy, and gender issues in library technology leadership

Society, at least the American, educated, technological society that I inhabit most of the time, has a problem with gender. I’m probably not best placed to identify and describe this problem, so I’ll just point to three examples. The first is explained clearly by Rebecca Solnit in 2008 Men Explain Things to Me. This piece has circumnavigated the Internet several times and each time it comes around again it has been heavily linked, liked, and retweeted. It has become the seminal work on mansplaining. My second example is the twitter hashtag #1reasonwhy. Each #1reasonwhy tweet relates one reason why there aren’t more women in the video game design industry. Third is Roy Tennant’s Library Journal piece : Fostering Female Technology Leadership in Libraries.

Looking at them in reverse order, these examples explain that libraires need more women in positions of technology leadership, that women in technology fields are often treated poorly, and that men (such as myself) may not be best placed to articulate or remedy this problem. It’s the third point that gives me trouble. The first two seem well established. So let’s work backwards through these and see if we can uncover additional insight when we get back to the sticky point.

Is Fostering Female Leadership a man’s role? I don’t know, but I want more of it.

First, Roy Tennant’s piece on fostering female technology leadership in libraries. My response to this is: “Yes, please. Let’s have more.” I’ve been fortunate enough to work for two women who ran both libraries and campus IT. It seems natural to do things that way, but I know my experience isn’t the norm. I’ve also had the very good fortune to be mentored by amazingly brilliant and technologically adapt women. Every job I’ve had in libraries and academe I’ve had the opportunity to be trained and mentored by brilliant women whom I am striving to accomplish enough not to bring shame to their legacies. I bring this up because I’ve been where Roy wants us to go (as a profession) and it is a wonderful place. Why hasn’t it happened yet for more of us?

#1reasonwhy libraries need to do better: the rest of the world sucks.

Second, I want to compare this experience to my experience working in non-libraries IT. It ain’t the same thing. Before library school I worked in a tech support call center where thousands of stereotypical male geeks toiled under the leadership of aging bros and fraternity brothers with MBAs. It. Was. Hell. Oh my gods it was awful. Having gone through that nightmare I believe I can empathize (without fully understanding what they go through daily) with the contributors to the #1reasonwhy hashtag. When the culture is actively hostile yet refuses to acknowledge that any privilege or oppression exists, a reasonable existence is not possible. If my first point was to acknowledge that I have it good because I have the good fortune to work for brilliant women, my second point is to acknowledge that my situation is relatively unusual and not everyone is so fortunate. Technology fields can be actively hostile towards those it needs the most.

Let me ‘mansplain it to you:

Which brings me to my third point: Solnit’s piece and mansplaining in general make me loathe to comment on gender issues. What do I have to contribute? (The fact I don’t ask this more often is perfect evidence of straight-white-male-privilege.) More than that, what happens when I disagree with a woman on a gender-related topic? There does not exist a safe party line I could toe, even if I was inclined toward that kind of intellectual safety, but how can a guy struggling to be cluefull avoid looking like the buffoon in Solnit’s piece? To use a line from Quentin Tarrantino (of all people): “the less a man makes declarative sentences, the less likely he is to look foolish in retrospect.” Sometimes the appropriate answer risking looking like an ass and sometime the appropriate answer is silence.

My Silence

I’m not saying males don’t deserve to speak, our opinions don’t matter, or I need to be silenced. It’s not that our voices doesn’t have a place, but silence itself is a space to be filled. Cluefull men can leave pregnant silences to be filled by others. Others may be waiting for silences to be filled. Others may not be brought up and acculturated to believe that their words are desired and useful in all conversations. As a teacher, I see every week that the voices most comfortable speaking in class are not always the voices with the most to contribute. As a professional, something I would like to become more skilled at is offering my silence to my colleagues, especially in matters such as this. Gender equity is important, but I may not be the right person to talk about it. I may be the perfect person to be silent and listen.

Of course, I’m not silent now, I’m writing and adding my voice. I’m also not promising to submit to ideas that I find unreasonable. It’s just that the more I think about this issue, the more convinced I am that finding ways to indirectly defer to previously silenced voices is the best way forward.

Godin and Gee on the future of libraries and books

This started as one point of a three-point response to Godin’s piece. When I finished with this piece, it seemed to stand on its own and it worked better to put Godin and Gee directly into conversation about the future and use of reading/books/literacies. It may be a less balanced or complete than my original 3 point outline, but I suppose it is better to leave some unsaid than to drone on at tedious length. Plus, the other two points: Don’t Confuse the Container for the Goods Contained and The Medium is the Massage seem to rather directly contradict each other.

Seth Godin’s look at the future of libraries has become the topic du jour. My initial response was along the lines of “Well, clearly, this may be news to non-librarians, but those of us in the business have been preparing for this change for years.” There have been some articulate counter-arguments, but these don’t seem to dispute Godin’s main point (the future of libraries is not to warehouse books); they just point out that the future hasn’t arrived yet and/or it has already arrived and we’re already doing what he predicts is going to happen. Read More