Monthly Archives: April 2008

Truth, Information and Knowledge: u r boring me

A funny and ultimately disheartening? article in the Washington Post portrays librarians as the last defenders of truth in a decadent culture consumed with trivia and superficialities, even going so far as to describe librarians as “trench warriors for truth.” Here’s a dramatic excerpt from a chat reference service:

“We’re losing him! We’re going to lose him!” Chad Stark frantically clicks back and forth between two windows on his computer screen.

Stark is the sweater vest-wearing, 30-something Hyattsville librarian currently manning AskUsNow, a 24/7 online chat open to Maryland residents who need research help.

AskUsNow, developed four years ago, helps patrons find accurate online information so they don’t have to fumble blindly in Google. Librarians: reliably on the front lines of truth protection.

Stark types that he’d be happy to help, but he’s not fast enough for the user:

“dude u r boring me.”

Librarians have been known to stand for many noble things, reading, learning, free speech, and now truth! Although it may feel like we are the orchestra that supposedly played on while the Titanic was sinking, there are worse ways to go down. I wrote about librarians and truth in a book review here; for more on librarians and truth see Don Fallis’s work on social epistemology.

The article goes on to raise the issue of the distinction between information and knowledge, which I have always found more puzzling than helpful. The most useful discussion of this I’ve read recently is in Dominique Foray’s Economics of Knowledge. Foray points out that the main distinction between information and knowledge is that knowledge depends on human cognition, whereas information can simply be words on a page. Information can be reproduced quickly and cheaply with a copy machine, but reproducing knowledge is far more expensive and time consuming because, well, teaching others is hard. Here’s Foray:

These means of reproducing knowledge may remain at the heart of many professions and traditions, but they can easily fail to operate when social ties unravel, when contact is broken between older and younger generations, and when professional communities lose their capacity in stabilizing, preserving, and transmitting knowledge. In such cases, reproduction grinds to a halt and the knowledge in question is in imminent danger of being lost and forgotten.

Can we use the distinction between information and knowledge to articulate a role for libraries and librarians in the digital age? Although information is bountiful and some of it seemingly cheap, tons of knowledge is being lost and forgotten everyday. Academic libraries and librarians are part of institutions that help to stabilize, preserve, and transmit knowledge as opposed to information. Hmm, how’s that? Good start, maybe, but needs work.

The article goes on to raise disturbing questions about the psychology of knowledge acquisition, noting that even when people are told repeatedly that something is false, the fact that they have heard it somewhere makes them think it is true. Politics immediately comes to mind here, but this raises a serious concern with all the new media that allow for the rapid reproduction of bits of information.

Quite thought provoking for a newspaper article, but once again reading the news gives me the feeling that we are doomed.

Sorry But You Can’t Have It All

I recently gave a keynote talk at a meeting of a statewide library directors group. I called the talk “The Search for Tomorrow’s Library Leaders in A ‘Dissin’ the Director’ Landscape” and part of the talk referred back to some previous ACRLog posts on leadership and library directors. I mentioned some of the reasons that Gen-X and Gen-Y librarians are disillusioned with library management. With their negative perceptions of library directors these individuals can find few good reasons to aspire to careers as library administators. Why else are nextgens disinterested? Past research indicates they want a better work-life balance and were hesitant to make the necessary sacrifices required to lead libraries from the director’s office. I made that point with a quote that appears in a chapter titled “Preparing the Next Generation of Directors and Leaders” by Nancy Rossiter from a book titled “Making a Difference: Leadership and Academic Libraries” by Peter Hernon and Rossiter:

Rachel Gordon Singer found that Generation X and Generation Y librarians have a negative view of managment…the amount of time a library director devotes to the position is potentially a turn-off; younger librarians do not want to detract from time spent with family and friends..One of Gordon’s respondents stated “There is no amount of money or prestige that would entice us to sacrifice our families, our home lives, and our sanity for the long hours and Sisyphean ordeal of a directorship.”

That led to some interesting discussion and thoughtful reactions, both pro and con. One director said this was all well and good but that the current generation of directors needed to give their nextgen colleagues a dose of reality. Getting the job done, said the director, requires certain personal sacrifices, and that a work-life imbalance, staying late, working weekends, getting emergency calls in the middle of the night, is occasionally necessary. Bottom line: you can’t have it all. But another director expressed concerns about the blurring of work life and personal life in an increasingly 24/7 connected society. This director thought that library administrators needed to be more sensitive to the next generation’s desires for the work-life balance. If the work-life practices and behavior of the current generation of directors establishes a model upon which the next generation forms its attitudes towards library administration then today’s library directors, as part of their effort to recruit and shape the next generation of leaders, needs to live and promote an image that will attract the best and brightest to academic library leadership.

Not unexpectedly, there was no clear resolution on how to best attract the nextgen librarian to the library directorship. What we do know is that perceptions are important. As long as nextgens see the current crop of directors working long hours without a clear sense of the potential rewards, it’s unlikely they’ll be motivated to enter into directorships. The current generation of academic library directors need to better communicate that their jobs do occasionally involve long hours, but that there can be great rewards. Chief among those rewards is fulfilling a vision about how an academic library can best serve the needs of its constituents. Here’s my message to those nextgens who diss their director and whose own vision is in conflict with what they see coming out the contemporary’s academic library director’s office: You may be the best person to become a library director; there’s no better way to fulfill your vision of what an academic library can and should be for your community. And if you can do it while creating a better work-life balance for yourself and your next generation of leaders then go out and create some change.

I finished my talk with a quote to emphasize that today’s library leaders do have a responsibility to the next generation of leaders. It comes from the book Crucibles of Leadership:

As the scholar Noel Tichy argues, leaders must be teachers – and the leaders in this chapter offer precisely what Tichy calls a “teachable point of view.” He argues that leaders’ responsibility is not only to provide direction and judgment in the moment, but to strive continuously to develop leadership in others, now and into the future.

So you could argue that it is incumbent upon the current generation of leaders to help the next generation to learn about leadership. Today’s library directors must think more clearly about how their leadership style and the examples they set send a message of learning to our next generation of leaders.

A Surprise Ending

At ACRLog, I try to write about the biggest issues I can wrap my head around, and I try to write primarily for librarians who are new to the profession, especially those who are only a year or two into school or who have recently graduated. I think of this as following the imperative to “write what you know.” Since I don’t know any less about the biggest issues than I do about the smallest, I stick to the biggies, and since I enrolled in my first library class just eighteen months ago, having never worked in a library, I write mostly for my peers.

It’s been a fantastic eighteen months, perhaps the best eighteen months of my life: if you had told me then that I’d be where I am now, I would have thought you were crazy. Meredith Farkas has just published real advice on how to achieve real success, and I suppose I’ve managed to do some of the things she wrote about, though for me it’s mostly been a matter of stumbling uninvited into committee meetings and writing about things that interest me.

Fortunately, that seems to have been enough. While getting your first full-time library job can be tough, other sorts of opportunities seem all but limitless, even for new librarians. I’ve had a chance to meet dozens of people I consider role models, and probably hundreds more I admire. Incredible people have agreed to let me visit their libraries, allowed me to publish and make presentations, invited me to join them on committees and boards, and have agreed to work on thorny, long-term projects with me.

Which is a long way of not writing that a funny thing happened on my way to my first full-time job at an academic library: as of May 1, I’ll be director of the Collingswood (NJ) Public Library. It’s a wonderful library, with a fantastic staff and board and friends group, and I’m incredibly excited about working for my neighbors. I’ll really miss academic librarianship, but some opportunities are too good to pass up. Though the specifics will change, I hope to find similar opportunities in PLA, NJLA, and LAMA.

As for ACRLog, this is it for me. As much as I’m dying to publish it, I can’t imagine that anyone would read 2,000 words on how bibliometric analysis of every student paper, thesis, and dissertation, and every faculty article and book, is not only technically possible, morally defensible, and cost effective, but may be the most relevant assessment tool for academic libraries. And not just for its traditional use, evaluating collections, but also for measuring how effective we are as educators: if reference interactions and instruction sessions don’t lead to scholarly citations, then how useful can they possibly be? Given the possibilities created by expanding the scope and importance of automated bibliometric assessment, now seems like an ideal time to work with scholars to standardize on a single, simple, open citation format. It would also be a good time to study academic libraries’ annual reports, codify best practices, and develop a data specification that facilitates quick and accurate benchmarking.

Which is to say, thank you for reading. And be sure to look me up next time you’re in Collingswood.

Another Meaning of “Access”

Pardon me while my head explodes.

The word “access” is one with generally good connotations among librarians. It’s in a lot of mission statements. It takes on a more mercenary meaning when it refers to the relationship between the press and power. And The New York Times has a very scary story about it today. Forgive me if what follows seems a little politicized, but hey – I take this personally.

Those retired generals who go on television to give their expert analysis? Many of them were briefed by the Pentagon. And given contracts for reconstruction and whatnot. That’s another definition of access. It’s no wonder that people have a lack of trust in the press. As the number of newsroom employees shrinks, these hacks pick up the slack.

An example: During the “Revolt of the Generals” – ones who were not paid by Fox or CNN to be experts, but ex-military officers who criticized the conduct of the war – two of the shills put their talking heads together to write a commentary for the Wall Street Journal, got stuck, and contacted the Pentagon, which quickly forwarded talking points and statistics. You could say they were simply going to the source, or you could call it ghostwriting. War room, meet news room.

news room

In a class I teach, we just talked about how anxiety is used to form and shape social issues. Fear is a potent lever for influencing public opinion, and here’s how it works:

First, you define an issue by naming a situation that is believed to be a challenge to commonly-held moral values (in this case “the war on terror,” a phrase that predates 9/11, just as warrantless wiretapping did, but the phrase became viscerally meaningful thereafter.)

Claims-makers associate their agendas with that threatening condition so they can gain support. (That wall we’re building between us and Mexico? That’s to keep our borders secure from terrorists. Right.)

The domain of concern is expanded to include as many potential victims as possible. Don’t just be afraid. Be very afraid.

Issues are typified through dramatic story-telling (like telling us a handful of delusional nutcases in Miami were a credible threat to the Sears Tower a few months before the 2006 election when they were, in fact, a handful of delusional nutcases given an action movie script by a federal informant).

As James Kincaid has said, “Doing away with demons is only one part of the job; the other is providing them.” And of course when you provide hydra-headed demons, somebody has to give you lots of money to keep lopping their heads off.

Communication studies scholar Joel Best says there are four key players in the formation of social issues: the media who seek compelling stories to tell, activists who want to promote their solution to the crisis, governments that can use issues to gain support for regulating behavior, and experts who want their work to have influence. In this case, the Pentagon pretty much has it all wrapped up. The experts are ex-generals paid by the media for their access to the Pentagon; the Pentagon pays the ex-generals for their access to the airwaves and writes their copy. The solutions that are promoted put money into their pockets. It’s all pretty well summed up in this snip from the NY Times:

Torie Clarke, the former public relations executive who oversaw the Pentagon’s dealings with the analysts as assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, had come to her job with distinct ideas about achieving what she called “information dominance.” In a spin-saturated news culture, she argued, opinion is swayed most by voices perceived as authoritative and utterly independent [my emphasis].

And so even before Sept. 11, she built a system within the Pentagon to recruit “key influentials” — movers and shakers from all walks who with the proper ministrations might be counted on to generate support for Mr. Rumsfeld’s priorities.

Forget “authoritative and independent.” “Perceived” is the operative word, here.

The news is never objective. It’s influenced by claims-makers and by audiences that ask the media to tell compelling stories. But clearly, the line between “expert” and “shill” has blurred here, and the shills are getting government contracts. The pentagon has cynically controlled the manufacture of crisis.

Sorry, Ike. We didn’t take you seriously enough. It’s now the military industrial and information complex.

(This is largely cross-posted from my blog; the image is courtesy of Eric Olson.)

Web 2.0 and Open Science

Drexel University Libraries’ annual Scholarly Communication Symposium focused on web 2.0 in general and open science in particular. This is fast becoming my favorite conference: I can walk there; it’s free; it’s well organized; everyone there is smart, friendly and from diverse backgrounds; you get to eat a great lunch and it’s all over by 1:30!

Keynoter Jean-Claude Bradley (Chemistry) described UsefulChem and his mash-up of technologies for disseminating his work. I was struck by his pragmatic approach–some articles are better suited for peer-reviewed journals, some items better suited for blog posts or wikis, some items for mailing lists. He described what he called “open science” which is making your lab notebooks and all data available to anyone who would like to look at it. He claimed the old way to evaluate information was to see if it was peer-reviewed, the new way is to make all the data available and let everyone look at it to see if they can find any problems.

A questioner in the Q and A asked about patents and giving up the power to exclude. Bradley responded, “if you are trying to get a patent, I wouldn’t recommend this approach. But if you have a project in which you don’t care about a patent, it’s a great way to find collaborators.” The costs of 2.0 may include giving up the power to exclude, but in return you often get feedback on your work where previously you wouldn’t get any and you get found more.

Bradley struck me as an example of the kind of scholar who has figured out how to mix the new tools with the old and use them both to advance his own work and to advance his field. Whether he has any life outside his work and posting to his blogs and wikis is harder to say.

He mentioned a few tools I hadn’t heard of. He described Friendfinder as some kind of friend feed app that informs you what your friends are doing, who finds you interesting, who finds you boring. (At this point an old Blondie song jumped to mind–once had friends it was a gas/ soon turned out/ to be a pain in the ass…) The point was this is how he keeps up with new information, through his social network. ChemSpider is a free hosting service of 20 million molecules, JSpecView allows people to look at fine details of your spectra, which is apparently very important in chemistry; and something in Google called InChiKey, again having to do with molecules. The overall idea was how the web was able to provide more detail that was formerly not available with just the peer reviewed journal article.

When asked if 2.0 is truly transformative, he said, “collaboration is not necessarily new or different, but now you can do it faster and with people all over the world. In a large enterprise like science this can make a big difference.” Well put.

Two other points. Bradley predicted open science would lead to the day when computers could do the number of experiments that took his students a year to do in one weekend; and when asked if he worried about the archiving of his work he said he tried to take care of this through 1. redundancy, and b. that in 5-10 years all his work will be obsolete anyway. (!)

The panelists and my roundtable were full of engaged people with lots to contribute. Banu Onaral, in particular, raised some provocative issues, including the idea that Asia will lead the way in the new certification of academic credentials, and she asked the question, what happens when another country (e.g. China?) that maybe doesn’t share our values buys up these formerly free hosting services (e.g. Google etc?) and they decide to restrict them and we trusted them with our collective genius?

Thanks to Drexel University Libraries for another stimulating scholarly communication symposium.