Browsed by
Category: rants

Books vs. Screens: The Disingenuous Argument

Books vs. Screens: The Disingenuous Argument

The UT Librarians Blog posted another authorless post I have attempted to comment on; while they announced some time ago that the blog would no longer put comments in a moderation queue, I seem to be stuck in one. Again. And thus:

The post in question is a link to the Globe and Mail article entitled, “Books Vs. Screens: Which should Your Kids be Reading?” The article contains such wisdom as:

In Britain, University of Oxford neuroscientist and former Royal Institution director Susan Greenfield revealed a far different vision – one that could have come straight out of an Atwoodian dystopia – when she warned that Internet-driven “mind change” was comparable with climate change as a threat to the species, “skewing the brain” to operate in an infantalized mode and creating “a world in which we are all required to become autistic.”

Less dire but no less pointed warnings have come from Maryanne Wolf, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University in Massachusetts. “I do think something is going to be lost with the Twitter brain,” she said in an interview.

The UT Librarians (apparently collectively) said:

Is this something we should be thinking about? Deep Reading vs. Screen Reading? In today’s Globe & Mail, Dec. 12, 2011, John Barber, examines recent studies on screen reading vs. what is being called deep reading – something to consider as educators and leaders in our fields.

On the platform, reading

And now, finally, my reply from the moderation queue:

This is blatant scare-mongering, and disingenuous to boot. Comparing reading novels to reading tweets is like saying the card catalogue, with it’s tiny bits of information, was a threat to “deep thinking”.

There are many kinds of reading, and literate people engage in many of them, sometimes within the same afternoon. People who follow Margaret Atwood also, as a general rule, read novels. “Screen reading” pontificators need to spend some time looking at the actual reading (and writing) going on on the internet. Like BookCountry, from Penguin, which is practically brand new, and fictionpress. Look at all that reading and writing going on! Reading and writing of lengthy bits of writing, no less, and on screens! If you’re brave, look at Fanfiction.net (there are 56k stories on there about the television show Glee alone) or AO3 (which, for the record, has works over 100k words long with as many views and thousands of comments from readers). Lots of people read online, and form communities around texts. It might not be the kind of reading you want to see, but it’s sustained, lengthy, uninterrupted, and on screens.

We need to stop fixating on the form content takes. What the screen is providing is a platform for people who would never get their work passed through publishing houses and editors, and while you may scoff at that (because we all know money is the ultimate test of whether or not something has value, right?), there is more text to read and engage with now than ever before, and people are engaging. Young people are engaging. Some of that text is in short format (like twitter). Some of it is so long publishers would balk at the idea of trying to publish it in physical form. It doesn’t matter if it’s on a screen. Content in content. This new form has the potential to save the monograph, not just to kill it. The form of the novel, the short story, the extended series, the monograph are all alive and well and being published online.

I think, as librarians, we should be concerned with providing access to content, and, perhaps, providing platforms for content to be published, found, and engaged with on every level (deep or browse). Marrying ourselves to paper is the death knell of this profession.

Spooky and I enjoy the Nook--Daily Image 2011--October 2

Compassion

Compassion

I’m starting to think that compassion may be a learned skill rather than an innate trait. I know we like to think of all the best qualities of human beings as something we have intrinsically but society squeezes them out of us, but I suspect compassion may be more complicated.

Or maybe not. Maybe we just live in societies that make it harder to keep at the forefront.

What is it they say? That our societies have grown too big, and that’s why urban dwellers have all these ticks to help them avoid noticing that the herd they’re running in is far, far too large to fully comprehend? Ignoring strangers on the bus, keeping our eyes averted while walking on the sidewalk? Is the absence of compassion a result of all that?

I don’t know. But it seems to me that it’s work to remember that every human being has struggles of their own that you may not be able to read on their bodies and faces (if you bothered to read their bodies or their faces, that is). And I’ve decided that compassion is something I’m going to spend more time deliberately drawing out of myself. I shall consider it constantly.

I say all this because I’m increasingly aware of the absence of compassion we tend to show students. We so often seem to assume the worst of them. I don’t really know why; we were all students ourselves once. Why is it so easy for us to forget what it was like? Or are we actually contemptuous of our younger selves, the ones trying to sneak a better grade in any way possible, rejoicing at every holiday and snow day, sleeping through morning lectures and drinking into the wee hours? Is it a form of self-flagellation to assume that all students are lazy and need to be controlled through our obscure and pointless policies?

Or is it just that we get so used to answering the same questions over and over, or dealing with bad behaviour every day, that we assume everyone is stupid and/or malicious? Relentless familiarity? Do we see faces we classify as “students” so often that they all start to look the same, and become some giant annoying creature who just never learns? I guess that’s where my call for compassion comes in.

But then I’m an optimistic sort, I don’t tend to imagine the worst of people. Quite the opposite, I think everyone is basically good and wants to do the right thing. (I suppose this may not actually be true, but I struggle to completely accept that.) I don’t usually deal with the same questions every day, but when I do, I generally remember that this is the first time this particular person has asked that question. When I will try to remember is that if they’re asking this question at the very last possible minute, there may be for very good reasons for that which are none of my business.

So my word of the day/week/year is compassion. And I will go on trying to hone my skills in that department.

The Plight of Future Historians

The Plight of Future Historians

Today, the Guardian warns:

“Too many of us suffer from a condition that is going to leave our grandchildren bereft,” Brindley states. “I call it personal digital disorder. Think of those thousands of digital photographs that lie hidden on our computers. Few store them, so those who come after us will not be able to look at them. It’s tragic.”

She believes similar gaps could appear in the national memory, pointing out that, contrary to popular assumption, internet companies such as Google are not collecting and archiving material of this type. It is left instead to the libraries and archives which have been gathering books, periodicals, newspapers and recordings for centuries. With an interim report from communications minister Lord Carter on the future of digital Britain imminent, Brindley makes the case for the British Library as the repository that will ensure emails and websites are preserved as reliably as manuscripts and books.

I don’t have a lot of sympathy for this imaginary plight of future historians, in spite of being a librarian. And it’s not because I don’t see the value in content that’s on the web. There are two sides of the question that I take issue with.

First: “everything should be archived”. This is simply impossible, and is actually misunderstanding what the internet is. If you understand it as a vast publication domain, where things are published every day that just don’t happen to be books, then this desire to archive it all makes sense. But is the stuff of the internet really published? Well, what does “published” really mean?

To be honest, I think the term has no meaning anymore. At one point, “published” meant that a whole team of people thought what you wrote was worth producing, selling, and storing. It comes with a sense of authority, a kind of title. It’s a way we divide the masses into those we want to listen to and those we don’t, in many different arenas. It connotes a sense of value (to someone, at least). Many people object to the idea that there’s value of any kind of the wild open internet, because just anyone can “publish”. I learned in my reference class at library school that one should always check the author of a book to see who they are and what institution they’re associated with before taking them seriously; if you fall outside our institutions, why, surely you have nothing of value to say, and you’re probably lying! Wikipedia: case in point. We have our ways to determine whether we ought to consider what you’re saying not based on the content, but on who and what you are. Apparently this protects us from ever having to have critical reading skills. We are afraid of being duped, so we cling to our social structures.

So many people just turn that “publish” definition on its head and say everything on the internet is “published”, everyone has a pulpit, everyone can be heard in the same way. I object to this as well. Turning an ineffective idea upside down doesn’t get us any closer to a useful definition of a term, or a practice.

Currently, this is how I define “publication”: blocks of text that are published by a company have been vetted and determined to be sellable to whatever audience the company serves. This holds for fiction, for academic work, etc.

Is content on the web “published”? What does that even mean? I think we start shifting to turn that meaning into “available”. If I write something and post it online, it’s available to anyone who wants to see it, but it’s not “published” in any traditional sense. If I take it down, does it become unpublished? Can I only unpublish if I get to it before it gets cached by anyone’s browsers, before Google gets to it? What if I post something online, but no search engine ever finds it and no one ever visits the page? Was it published then? If I put something online but lock it up and let no one see it, is it published?

I think we need a more sophisticated conception of publication to fully incorporate the way we use and interact with the web. I don’t think the traditional notion is helpful, and I think it presumes a kind of static life for web content that just isn’t there. Web content is read/write. It’s editable, it’s alterable. Rather than dislike that about the content, we should encourage and celebrate that. That’s what’s great about it.

There has always been ephemera. Most of it has been lost. Is that sad? I suppose so. As a (former) historian-in-training, I would have loved to get my hands on the ephemera of early modern women’s lives. I would love to know more about them, more about what drove them, what they’re lives were like. But I don’t feel like I’m owed that information. Ephemera is what fills our lives; when that ephemera becomes digital, we need to come to terms with our own privacy. Just because you can record and store things doesn’t mean you should.

And this comes to the heart of the matter, the second element of the desire to archive everything that irks me. The common statement is that we are producing more information now than ever before, and this information needs archiving. The reality is this: we are not producing “more information” per capita. We simply are not, I refuse to believe that. Medieval people swam in seas of information much as we do, it’s just that the vast majority of it was oral, or otherwise unstorable (for them). These are people who believed that reading itself was a group event, they couldn’t read without speaking aloud. (Don’t be so shy if you move your lips while reading; it’s a noble tradition!) Reading and listening were a pair. In our history we just stored more of that information in our brains and less of it in portable media. If you think surviving in a medieval village required no information, consider how many things you’d need to know how to do, how many separate “trades” a medieval woman would need to be an expert in just to feed, clothe, and sustain her family. Did she have “less” information? She certainly knew her neighbours better. She knew the details of other people’s lives, from start to finish. She knew her bible without ever having looked at one. Her wikipedia was inside her own head.

Today we have stopped using our brains for storage and using them for processing power instead. Not better or worse, just different. We use media to store our knowledge and information rather than remembering it. So of course there appears to be more information. Because we keep dumping it outside ourselves, and everyone’s doing it.

Not to say that a complete archive of everyone’s ephemera, every thought, detail, bit of reference material ever produced by a person throughout their life wouldn’t make interesting history. I think it would, but that’s not what we think libraries are really for. We do generally respect a certain level of privacy. It would be a neat project for someone out there to decide to archive absolutely everything about themselves for a year of their lives and submit that to an archive. Temperature, diet, thoughts, recordings of conversations, television programs watched, books read, everything. We you want to harvest everything on the web, then you might as well use all those security cameras out there to literally record everything that goes on, for ever, and store that in the library for future historians. Set up microphones on the street corners, in homes, in classrooms, submit recordings to the library. A complete record of food bought and consumed. Everything. That’s not what we consider “published”, no matter how public any of it is. We draw the line. Somehow if it’s in writing it’s fair game.

But that’s not what people are generally talking about when they talk about “archiving information”. I know this is true because the article ends with this:

“On the other hand, we’re producing much more information these days than we used to, and not all of it is necessary. Do we want to keep the Twitter account of Stephen Fry or some of the marginalia around the edges of the Sydney Olympics? I don’t think we necessarily do.”

There’s “good” information and then this other, random ephemera. I will bet you that Stephen Fry’s twitter feed will be of more interest to these future historians than a record of the official Sydney Olympics webpage. And that’s the other side of this argument.

This isn’t about preserving information for those sacred future historians. This is about making sure the future sees us the way we want to be seen; not mired in debates about Survivor, or writing stacks and stacks of Harry Potter slash fanfiction, or coming up with captions for LOLcats. Not twitter, because that is too silly, but serious websites, like the whitehouse’s. We’re trying to shape the way the future sees us, and we want to be seen in a particular light.

I object to that process.

Libraries/Homeless Shelters

Libraries/Homeless Shelters

From America Gone Wrong: A Slashed Safety Net Turns Libraries into Homeless Shelters:

In a democratic culture, even disturbing information is useful feedback. When the mentally ill whom we have thrown onto the streets haunt our public places, their presence tells us something important about the state of our union, our national character, our priorities, and our capacity to care for one another. That information is no less important than the information we provide through databases and books. The presence of the impoverished mentally ill among us is not an eloquent expression of civil discourse, like a lecture in the library’s auditorium, but it speaks volumes nonetheless.

This is exactly the kind of thing I needed to read in this moment when I’m seriously considering how best to understand the term “Information Professional”. [via Jeremy]

If you could change only one thing…

If you could change only one thing…

I got this idea from Creating Passionate Users. If you could change only one thing about anything (or many anythings) what would that be?

Library Catalogues
If I could change one thing about catalogues, it would be the level to which cataloguing occurs. Someone would have made the decision years ago that the content of journals, books, and edited volumes is as significant as their titles and sought to catalogue those as well. That way, when the digitization thing started, we could have just encorporated full text instead of having to outsource the searching AND the content. But since that’s not one thing I can change, I’d like librarians everywhere to change their minds about Google. I’d like academic librarians everywhere to embrace Google scholar and do everything they can to make that the best source there is.

Reference
More service points. While I’m of two minds about the “get rid of the reference desk” idea, I’m very keen on multiple service points; mobile, digital, in your face, in your office, in the foyer, in the stacks, reference everywhere all the time.

Virtual Reference
An acknowledgment of the value of local reference as more important than 24/7 access. It’s more important to get the right person than it is to get some person. I’d also like to see v-ref stop being a reference-only tool and start being a system-wide communication option.

Blogs
Blog posts don’t have to be short. I hate this idea, everyone always says blog posts are short and unthoughtful. Why would that be so? Is there a word count limit on a blog post?

WordPress
A really, really good threaded comments function.

Canada
An extensive light rail system. Better public transit. And this is a second thing, but can we join the EU? Come on, were sort of European. Ish. (I’d wish for another two years before an election, but I know that’s a pointless plea.)

Streetsville
A cheeseshop. Is that so much to ask? Oh, and a real bakery would go a long way, you know, somewhere that sells bread. Inability to get bread caused the French revolution, you know.

Writing
More time to do it. That’s really it.

The Final Frontier: Investigating Undergrads

The Final Frontier: Investigating Undergrads

Some time ago, I read an article called Undercover Freshman. It told the story of a faculty member from the anthropology department taking a year off and applying to live in the student dorms for a year.

Nathan had been worrying that students were starting to seem “like people from a different culture,” and it upset her that she didn’t understand this culture with which she interacted every day. The experience in the course she audited only added to her frustration. She saw that once students removed the title “professor” from her persona, they were more than willing to open up. She just couldn’t get them to do that the same way in the classroom.

So we she went undercover. She let students believe that she was recently divorced and living in the dorm while taking undergrduate courses. She experienced the undergraduate student life by sneaking in, listening through the walls, and watching. She’s using an assumed name to publish the results, because her subjects still don’t know about the ruse.

That study made me bristle for all kinds of reasons. First, I’m not all that keen on those sorts of colonialist observational methods. I realize anthropology has been through the ringer about this already, and I’m hardly qualified to add to the pile, but I’m squeamish about observing and writing other people’s reality as truth (at least as non-fiction).

And when it comes down to it, I don’t like the divisions that are being erected here; undergrads are not actually in a separate culture than faculty are. The institution (and society) itself may foster walls between the two groups, but undergrads are adults living in the same town as the faculty members, probably going to the same restaurants and the same bookstores. They are not aliens. There are other ways to meet and communicate with undergraduates than lying to them about your job and eavesdropping on their conversations. Even the article about this woman’s research indicates that students were perfectly willing to talk to her when she was auditing a class, even when they knew she was also faculty. The bridge she’s trying to build is between an instructor and an instructee, not between the high reaches of the faculty and the seething scum of the undergraduate residences. An iota of respect, please! Surely there is a better way to cope with power differentials than this.

What also put my back up was the presumption that undergraduate life is this hidden frontier, that such a study was required in the first place. There are lots of staff and faculty members at any university for whom interacting with undergraduates in a non-class room setting is their mandate. There are staff living in the residences. There are student staff living next door to first year students, helping them with the adjustment to university life and getting to know them as people. When I read this article about Dr. “Nathan” and her research project, I felt as though she had opted to shut down everyone else, she was going to go experience it for herself rather than examine some “secondary” source material first. In the end, from the sounds of the article, the research was more about professional development on the part of this one nameless faculty member rather than ground-breaking research. She didn’t uncover anything those of us who have been working with undergraduates didn’t already know.

Now there’s a similar but entirely different project underway at the University of Rochester. But this time, they’re being upfront about it. The research is being conducted by an anthropologist in conjunction with the library, in order to help tailor services to the specific needs of undergrads.

To get the data, the researchers did such things as interview students about all the various steps they took from the time they got an assignment to the time it was turned in and give students disposable cameras with which to shoot everything from where they do their research to the contents of their backpacks.

The library’s research team — among them, librarians, a graphics designer and a software engineer — then brainstorm over the findings.

I’m interested in the results of both of these studies, but I’m quite certain the former will not hold a candle to the latter. What a great way to re-invent library services! How much more respectful!