Monthly Archives: April 2008

Selective Dissemination of Information

A researcher recently discovered something odd: she couldn’t use “abortion” in a keyword search Popline, a standard database on reproductive health hosted at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins. What the–?

Turns out, it’s now a stop word. Like “a” and “the.” Something you want excluded from a search. What the–?

Turns out, federal funding can’t go to anything that supports abortion, and the database gets funding from USAID, so to keep the database from being stopped itself …

There are workarounds to find the 25,000 or so records in the database that deal with the topic, but … shhhh! We can’t talk about it.

I waited a bit before posting this, thinking it had to be a … I don’t know, a late and not very funny April Fool’s joke. But the joke’s on us.

More at Wired. With an update here.

UPDATE: the other shoe has dropped. Here’s a press release from the Dean of the JH School of Public Health:

Statement Regarding POPLINE Database

I was informed this morning that the word “abortion” was blocked as a search term in the POPLINE family planning database administered by the Bloomberg School’s Center for Communication Programs. POPLINE provides evidence-based information on reproductive health and family planning and is the world’s largest database on these issues.

USAID, which funds POPLINE, found two items in the database related to abortion that did not fit POPLINE criteria. The agency then made an inquiry to POPLINE administrators. Following this inquiry, the POPLINE administrators at the Center for Communication Programs made the decision to restrict abortion as a search term.

I could not disagree more strongly with this decision, and I have directed that the POPLINE administrators restore “abortion” as a search term immediately. I will also launch an inquiry to determine why this change occurred.

The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health is dedicated to the advancement and dissemination of knowledge and not its restriction.


Michael J. Klag, MD, MPH
Dean, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

Okaaaaay….. that’s good, but it does seem a not unreasonable response to being told certain information does not belong in a database on reproductive health because it’s against the party line. So – will any more shoes drop? Or should I say sabots…?

My Thoughts on ACRL’s Springboard Event

Today was an important day in the history of ACRL. Even from my newly-minted librarian perspective, I can recognize this as a momentous occasion. ACRL listened to the needs of their members and offered their first ever free webcast. Only members were able to participate in the webcast, something that I think is completely reasonable. As Steven mentioned in his post announcing the event, it’s only right that we get something back for the hefty dues we pay. Believe me, as someone who has recently made the switch from student dues to librarian dues, the word “free” means a lot!

I wasn’t really sure what to expect from the webcast; according to the March 10 press release, the subject was billed as “a lively discussion examining the skills and fluencies students will need for the 21st century and what the library can do to prepare for the future of higher education.” I was a little nervous that the talk would be dry or, at the worst, irrelevant, but I was very pleasantly surprised. The featured speaker was an intelligent and interesting man by the name of Henry Jenkins, Peter de Florez Professor of the Humanities and co-director of the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT. His talk today focused around his MacArthur funded New Media Literacies Project. I felt his presentation was thought-provoking and extremely relevant to modern academic librarianship.

Jenkins discussed a concept called the “participatory culture” that many young people live in. Characteristics of this culture include low barriers for engagement, strong support for sharing creations with others, informal mentorship, members who believe their contributions matter, and members who care about others’ opinions of themselves and their work. Since many students are growing up within this culture, there is the ever-present need for them to become media literate. This requires the students to build social skills and cultural competencies such as appropriation, multi-tasking, collective intelligence, and networking. Jenkins assured us that these new literacies do not, of course, replace traditional literacy: students will still need to know how to read and write in order to keep up in this participatory culture. To illustrate his points, Jenkins used relevant, real-world examples such as the potential “poster boy” for new literacy, Soulja Boy (a young rap musician who made it big purely through exposure on YouTube and MySpace and encourages fans to remix and circulate his hit song Crank That (Soulja Boy) through social networking).

So where do we, as librarians, fit in? Remember the “mentorship” component of participatory culture? That’s us. Jenkins stressed the need for librarians to act as information facilitators rather than curators of collections (we ought to market ourselves, as a cartoon he displayed so aptly put it, as “human search engines”). It’s important for students to recognize that we do have up-to-speed technology skills and that we are available as a sort of coach or mentor for communicating via social networks. This is especially vital for students who don’t have round-the-clock access to computers and the Internet. These students need to know that we can guide them through the use of these tools so that they don’t get left out. In the same vein, it’s important to stand up for students’ right to use social networking tools such as MySpace or Facebook, rather than banning them from library computers. We already know this is one of the main ways students communicate, and it wouldn’t it be better, instead of shutting them down, for us provide guidance to students navigating through the highly public, often ethically-challenging world of this new culture?

I’m happy to report that although this program lacked in cost, it most definitely did not lack in content. I hope many of our readers also participated in the webcast, and that some of you are willing to share your thoughts. Did you find the speaker/topic to be relevant? Was it worth your time? Would you “attend” another such event? Thanks again to ACRL for this great opportunity! I can’t wait to see what they offer us next time.

What Is The Value In An LIS Technology Course

As a part-time library science educator I pay attention to trends in LIS education. A notable one is the increase in courses that spend an entire semester introducing students to web 2.0 and other trend technologies. I ask ACRLog readers, many of whom are the future employers of LIS students, if this seems like a good idea to you. A typical LIS student gets to take 12 courses, maybe fewer if he or she receives field experience credit. What is the value for you in having your future employees spending 12 to 16 weeks learning how to create and use blogs, wikis, social networks and podcasts? This may be one of those “it depends” type questions as in it depends what is really being learned and how will it be applied in the workplace.

Now maybe I’m being narrow-minded here. Yes, right now these technologies are all the rage, and you could take the perspective that the courses are focusing on teaching students to be risk takers who can experiment, take chances, exploit new technology, etc. All good lessons indeed. But does that require a semester long course? Could a week dedicated to the topic of hot new technologies communicate the same information, especially in the context of a broader course about developing skills that will allow for constant adaptation to the latest technologies. Are there better ways to ingrain these desirable skills in our LIS students?

Personally, I’d much rather see more LIS programs introducing instructional design courses that would give students a far more powerful understanding of how and why to incorporate technology into practice – and knowing when it is and isn’t appropriate based on field assessment. This approach would be far more likely to give our future employees a theoretical foundation that informs their practice and pedagogy, and which provides them with a skill that can be applied to an endless number of technology innovations over the course of their careers. As the use of educational technology ramps up in higher education, those entering academic librarianship today need to think of themselves not simply as librarians using technology to promote information storage and retrieval, but as learning technologists who apply technology to help faculty and students achieve academic success.

The current web 2.0 technologies will no doubt be bypassed by disruptive new technologies before we know it, and then what will our library 2.0 savvy students be left with from these courses. Put another way, are you still using those skills you learned in that course you took on putting cd-roms and laserdisks to practice in libraries? On the other hand, I suspect you learned how to search DIALOG. As an academic librarian you probably don’t use that system anymore, but you do make regular use of all the skills you developed related to online information retrieval. It was the theory that informs your practice. Those are the types of courses we need, the ones that teach an understanding of the practice of academic librarianship that will be of value to students in a landscape of shifting technology and user expectations.