Browsed by
Month: May 2007

Ephemera, Dignity, and Control: Should Libraries collect Blogs?

Ephemera, Dignity, and Control: Should Libraries collect Blogs?

This morning my friend Jeremy blessed us with a post about a project at the library school at UNC Chapel Hill entitled Blogger Perceptions on Digital Preservation. Not only is my comment on Jeremy’s post 5 times longer than everything he had to say about it, I still have more rant left in me that’s going to have to spill out here. (One can only abuse other people’s blogs so much.)

From their project website:

This research study grew out of calls in the literature of information and library science to regard these new vehicles for communication and information dissemination as valuable additions to the human record. The purpose of this research is to survey bloggers’ own perceptions on digital preservation. It is hoped that the results of this study will inform development of recommendations for impacting stewardship of weblogs at the level of creation, and the development of strategies for capturing the content of blogs for perpetuity.

I’ve heard about this kind of thing before. There are many librarians who think collecting blogs is the right thing to do. These are usually the pro-internet ones, the one who like blogs, use the term “web 2.0” with some fluency, know what a wiki is, have a profile on facebook, and maybe even use an RSS reader. They think it would be progressive for libraries to archive blogs in the same way they archive academic journals and Time Magazine. There’s a cultural currency at play there; as librarians, we underscore the value of one form of publishing when we opt to collect one variety of publication and exclude others. In selecting the American Historical Review and not The Inquirer for our permanent collection, we privilege one form of expression over the other; we say, this is worthy of your attention and a portion of our funds; this other thing is not. So I understand why so many digitally hip librarians are trying to widen the net and start scooping up blog posts as well as academic serial publications. It would be a act of friendliness toward us, of certain kind of regard; it would be, on one level, an act offering us a level of dignity that we so often fail to engender among the general population.

The first time I heard a librarian suggest that libraries start collecting blogs, it was like a punch in the stomach. I had a very irrational, visceral reaction to it that went like this: absolutely not, no, no way, stop now, please leave me alone. It was only later I stopped to think about it and tried to deconstruct why I had such a strong reaction to the idea.

The first issue is control. My blog is mine, and I can go back at any time and edit bits and pieces of it as I see fit. I’m particularly sensitive to the control issues around blogging, because I’ve been a blogger for many years and have been through many life-changing experiences throughout my time as a blogger. Not only have I dropped out of one graduate program and completed another, I’ve completely changed careers, moved many times, picked up and dropped hobbies, and thus I’ve changed the based focus of my blog multiple times. I’ve also grown up a lot since the beginning, and I learned through trial and error what is and is not appropriate to put on line. Actually, no, that’s not entirely a fair way to phrase that: it’s not nearly that simple. The things that were appropriate for me to put online in 2001 when I started blogging are no longer appropriate for me now that I’m a professional with a professional online presence. There are things I used to talk about on my blog back in 2001 and 2002 that I wouldn’t dream of posting now; it’s less a matter of cut-and-dried internet privacy and more a matter of direction. I’ve changed my direction, I’ve changed the purpose of my blogging, and so I’ve edited and pruned my blog as I went along. What if my blog had been archived back in 2001, and at intervals thereafter? What if someone had felt that I was part of creating a permanent public record?

I did say it in public, after all. Do we give up our rights to edit our work once it’s in the public sphere? Historically, yes; hard copies would be distributed, and the sheer logistics of it make that editing impossible. But we aren’t talking about a hard copy world, here. Why are we suggesting that the hard copy rules need to follow us into the digital sphere?

When I merged the first iteration of my blog (blogspot) into this one (wordpress), I brought it all over, the picked through it and locked a whole ton of posts. It wasn’t entirely a matter of being ashamed or having something to hide; they just weren’t in keeping with my current perspective on this blog. They didn’t fit into the open portfolio I’m keeping here. At some point, should those posts become relevant, I may re-release them minus the lock and refer to them. I deleted a bunch of stuff that just struck me as trite and boring, too. This is my archive, built and maintained primarily for myself and my friends, but others are welcome to visit and have a look through it as well. Does this openness strip me of my right to tweak my work?

There’s part of my objection: I felt that, should libraries collect my blog, keep a permanent archive for the public record, I would be losing something that’s important to me. I would be losing some ability to control my own work.

Most of the issue here seems based on a difference between old and new media, or old and new publication methods. We have ideas about works in progress, and we have a definite idea about what it means to be “finished”. We freeze things when they’re finished. We take a picture and say, there it is, it’s done now, and we mass produce the result. Novelists write and write, edit and edit, and finally finish their novels and hand them over. They’re published and, for the most part, that’s the end of the story. There are rarely revisions to published work; it’s gone out into the wild, it’s over now. There are millions of copies out there and there’s no taking them back. I know many writers who cringe when they look at their own published books, because they can still see errors that they can’t edit anymore. We take these fixed iterations of their work and put it in the library, because they’re done now. The stone tablet has been carved. This version of archiving is based entirely on the idea that the master copy is finite and complete, it’s the movable type all set in order, it’s the means of production rather than the product. The end user doesn’t have access to the master copy; once they have their version, they don’t look back at the master. But in the world of blogs, the master copy is the product. Sure, everyone takes their own copy; technically, every time you look at a website, you take a copy of it. In theory it’s the same master copy/copy world. But in practice, that copy is so ephemeral people often fail to understand that it even exists. They can fish a copy out of their browser caches, they can save copies down to their hard drives, but the vast majority of people believe that there is a single version of, say, a website, and in order to view it, they need to go to it and look. And when they do, their old copy is replaced by the new copy.

So why are we talking about taking still versions of blogs and sticking them in archives? Why are we taking a living document, killing it, and taking a picture? Where putting novels in libriaries provides the author with a distribution network, putting archived copies of blogs in repositories doesn’t increase distribution for the blogger. It merely creates a new master copy that the blogger has no control over. It takes away from the blogger.

However: libraries could always respect the rights of the blogger to constantly change their master copy simply by collecting their RSS feeds rather than the blog proper. If their parser checks back with the original document and syncs it, much like a browser does when a user goes back to a website and sees that something has changed, I could accept that. We could filter what goes to the library, and be very clear that some things are okay from that perspective and some things we keep just for us. That requires librarians to accept that we don’t have a complete or permanent record, however. We only have access to that information the blogger allows us to see, when they allow us to see it. And there’s no guarantee it will be the same the next time we go to look at it.

And that raises the question of the historical record. As a former historian-in-training I suppose I should be more sympathetic to this argument; someday some poor graduate student will do a dissertation about phd dropouts who become librarians and will want access to my blog. Well, that’s too bad for him, I’m afraid. He’ll have to hope that people like me will put something into the permanent historical record and not hope that someone someday will see the joy in archiving my digital voice, because I have no intention of ensuring that my blog stays around for centuries after my death. I’m not writing this for that future graduate student; I’m writing it as part of the dialogue that exists right now, a sort of extended public square conversation. It doesn’t exist in a vaccum, and is so dependent on the digital swirls of dialogue around it that I’m not sure it would make sense on its own. In fact, I’m not sure we should understand blogs as singular, decontextualized entities in the first place. (Though: can we even consider books as singular decontextualized entities, and am I inching toward complete nihilism here?)

I recently had a drink with a faculty member at my place of work who told me that his father destroyed all of his personal correspondence prior to his death. What right did he have to do this? Every right in the world, I have to say. Every right. There’s dignity in radio silence. Those letters weren’t written with the understanding of permanence. When we ask students to write something that won’t be seen by others and won’t be attached to their names, we can’t change streams weeks later and decide to make them public. We should have some respect for the boundaries in which a work was created.

When I was an undergrad I did some work in the National Archives of Canada on a project using letters written to the Prime Minister during the depression. As it turns out, if you really want to get into the permanent public record, send it to the Prime Minister’s office; they microfilm everything. EVERYTHING. The letters were private pleas from the desperately poor to the millionaire businessman prime minister at the time, R. B. Bennett. There were letters from children asking for skates, or for shoes so they could walk to school, or for pencils and paper. There were letters from men who couldn’t get jobs, and from women who were so distraught about their husbands’ financial emasculation that they sent secret letters to the PM asking for help. One of these letters had a note at the bottom: please destroy this letter once you’ve read it. That was from a woman so ashamed of the details she was writing about, so scared for her family, that she didn’t want a permanent record of it. And there I was, sitting in the archives in front of the microfilm reader, sixty years later, reading it. I felt sick. They should have destroyed that letter, and I couldn’t stomach the idea of taking notes on it and using it in my paper. I scrolled past it instead. Why did they film it? Did the person who took the shot of it cringe the way I did? But she did send it, didn’t she. She put it into the public record, with a postage stamp attached. It wasn’t intended for my eyes. At the time I knew I’d rather preserve her dignity than get one more source for a paper with hundreds and hundreds of sources already. There were other letters I could draw from to write that paper, there are other ways to get at that information without breaking a sort of historical trust. She had been wronged.

Some things were created to be, and should remain, ephemeral.

Wikipedia as Community Service

Wikipedia as Community Service

If I were “You”: How Academics Can Stop Worrying and Learn to Love “the Encyclopedia that Anyone Can Edit”. I’ve spouted off about this a million times before, and I’m glad to see someone else finally saying it too:

This recognition of the extent to which the Wikipedia has engaged the imagination of the general public and turned it to the amateur practice of scholarship suggests what I think may prove to be the best way of incorporating it into the lives of professional academics: since the Wikipedia appears unable to serve as a route to professional advancement for intrinsic reasons, perhaps we should begin to see contributions to it by professional scholars as a different type of activity altogether—as a form of community service to be performed by academics in much the same way lawyers are often expected to give back to the public through their pro bono work. A glance at almost any discussion page on the Wikipedia will show that the Wikipedians themselves are aware of the dangers posed to the enterprise by the inclusion of fringe theories, poor research, and contributions by people with insufficient disciplinary expertise. As certified experts who work daily with the secondary and primary research required to construct good Wikipedia entries, we are in a position to contribute to the construction of individual articles in a uniquely positive way by taking the time to help clean up and provide balance to entries in our professional areas of interest. In doing so, we can both materially improve the quality of the Wikipedia and demonstrate the importance of professional scholars to a public whose hobby touches very closely on the work we are paid to do—and whose taxes, by and large, support us.

I’d like to insert a little more concern about access to information by the general public, and perhaps add just a glimmer of the serials crisis into this article, but I guess that’s for librarians to do, not academics. Though it will never cease to amaze me that academics don’t seem to realize that they give away their intellectual labour all the time to support a third party distribution system that takes money away from the universities, thus making academics the number one threat to library budgets and the number one reason why those with access to the internet but no access to university libraries can’t get a hold of scholarly works, but hey. It’s Monday morning, and this article is a start.

Via Jason.

Stop being so damn nice

Stop being so damn nice

Steven Bell suggests that we librarians are too nice for our own good.

As one explores and delves into the world of library blogs it soon becomes apparent that the rules of disengagement dominate the landscape. There one is likely to see a repetitious flood of posts exclaiming “What a great post by so-and-so” or “She’s got a must read post today”. Rarely does one see a post that starts with “I have to disagree” or “Boy, does he have it wrong.” Most commenting is no better. It’s mostly gratuitous back patting. But why bother anyway? Comments are secondary to actual posts and they reach a much smaller audience. One exception might be ACRLog, a blog for which I write. Geared specifically to academic librarians it still allows fairly unrestrictive commenting, and on occasion comments may offer brilliant opposing views. But these are few and far between; the overall dearth of comments, even for posts that make controversial statements, is shockingly surprising for this profession.

I’ve got two reactions to this; the sympathetic one, and the raised eyebrow one.

One one hand: yes, librarianship is not the world’s more ‘rigorous’ when it comes to scholarship. I would be very happy to be challenged a little more often, particularly as a relatively new librarian who still has a heck of a lot to learn. And when I find an article in the literature dealing with my precise struggles and challenges at work, it’s pretty disheartening to see trite, sophmoric and downright pathetic options listed as best practices in some of the supposedly sterling journals of the profession. I’ll be among the first to jump up and agree that we tend not to think deeply enough or research long enough. We’ve got a million other things to do, unfortunately, and I don’t know a single librarian who isn’t flailing a little under all the work. So yes; it would be nice to dig a little deeper.

But let’s move on to the raised eyebrow. (Steven, you know you asked for it!) The basic accusations here centre around us being “too nice”. We don’t stir up debate enough. We don’t disagree enough. We don’t show our selves off as true (aggressive) social scientists, clinging to the stats as ultimate truth and displaying our hard-won research to the world. We don’t fight amongst each other, in an academic kind of way. We are, as he says, “the nice guys of higher education.” But you know what? No we’re not. We’re the nice women of higher education. Librarianship is, for the most part, filled to the brim with women. Women, who were attracted to librarianship in the first place based on its positive, affirming and stress-reduced traits. It’s not generally acceptable in western cultures for a woman to be aggressive, and certainly not aggressive in the workplace; what’s considered confidence in a man would label a woman strident at best or a bitch at worst. Why would we go out of our way to do a bellyflop into someone’s work and say, “I completely disagree with this ridiculous argument” in blatant, argumentative terms? We have way more powerful tools in our arsenal. We have agreement to play with. And silence to lay on thick.

Rather than an absence of debate in the profession, I submit to you that we have lots of it, but you need to be more subtle in your interpretations to understand it. Librarians use a more cautious, conciliatory approach to debate. Let’s take Steven’s examples: he mentions contentious posts that recieve no comment. Well, isn’t “no comment” a comment as well? Sure, you could call it passive aggressive, but I prefer to think of it as using praise to reinforce the good, and silence to discourage the bad. The best thing you can do in a situation where someone has said something clearly offensive is ignore it, and spend your time instead of speaking only of the things you do agree with. That way, we take up more bandwidth with the things we think are worth it. This is otherwise known as “don’t feed the troll.” It’s generally good advice.

First: we don’t blog for pay (well, most of us don’t, at least), so why should we waste our time thinking and writing about things we don’t find useful? (It’s true that critical reactions to things are learning experiences too, but no less so than responding to things that are challenging in a more positive and reinforcing way.) Silence is powerful; librarianship has opted to eshew open hostility in favour of positive discussion and praise. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. Librarians will certainly tell me when they disgree with me, but why must they be aggressive about it in order to be seen as rigorous or thoughtful? Most librarians would rather pick the one thing about my argument that they liked or that resonated with them, and ignore the rest. They are not just patting my head when they do this; they’re pointing out their disagreement in a most polite and subtle way. In a sophisticated way.

Why must we be aggressive in order to be seen as rigorous? There is no natural relationship between those things, unless the purpose is to denigrate cooperative and collaborative knowledge construction in favour of a more war-like, negative debating style of learning. It’s not really fair of me to suggest that one is the way of women and one is the way of men, but there are gender distinctions in western communications, and and this is one way to describe them. Roughly speaking. Why should librarianship model themselves after male-dominated, aggressively negative disciplines? Why is that seen as a better means to an end? Is their output really so much better?

We all work in the same tiny pools, and we need each other in many ways throughout the our (usually long) careers. I think it says a lot about us that we don’t want to make enemies of each other; a person who says something you disagree with today might be your best ally tomorrow, and I think we all know that. It is more functionally productive for us to try and see the positives in each other’s thought rather than focus on the negatives in a space where collaboration is the best way forward (and I believe quite strongly that it is).

Sure, it’s easy to read through the literature and roll your eyes (as I expressed quite clearly above that I have done). But I’m not going to name names. It would be more useful for me to instead take my criticisms, bolster them with bigger, better, more creative and sustainable ideas, and write a whole new article, citing the useless ones with grace. I am far more likely to enact positive change by rising above petty debate. Denigrating the ideas of others is far more likely to make it look like I’m feathering my own nest and trying to look super smrt in front of my peers than actively trying to make the world a better place. And maybe that’s the distinction here; librarians are not defined by their scholarship. Librarians are defined by their work, which is, writ large, an attempt to make the world a better place. We put our efforts toward that rather than toward showing off.

Let’s not stop the nice. Nice isn’t weak. Nice is a form of power.

Or, as Margaret Atwood wrote in her story “Gertrude Talks Back” in Good Bones and Simple Murders: “I’m not wringing my hands. I’m drying my nails.”