Evolving Discourse Communities

An article that has been discussed recently on the ILI-L discussion list (sponsored by the Instruction Section of ACRL) is well worth reading. “Librarians as Disciplinary Discourse Mediators: Using Genre Theory to Move Toward Critical Information Literacy” by Michelle Holschuh Simmons (published in portal: Libraries and the Academy, 5.3: 297-311) shifts the focus in information literacy efforts from finding and using information to the interpretive work of understanding both the context of the texts students use and the disciplinary conventions that shape it. Simmons argues that librarians are uniquely situated as mediators among disciplinary discourses and that by helping students understand the rhetorical underpinnings of texts we will help them “see that information is constructed and contested not monolithic and apolitical.” It’s well worth a look, since we frequently stumble when it comes to the aspects of information literacy that involve evaluation and understanding the ethical, economic, and social issues surrounding information called for in the IL Standards. This article is not available free online but can be found in some libraries through Project Muse.

I admit I thought of this article when reading a story in today’s Inside Higher Education. In “Too Much Information?” Scott Jaschik raises the issue of faculty members blogging before they have tenure. In part, this is really a genre question: will scholars take blogging seriously as a form of expression? how do blogs blend otherwise distinct genres – opinion, scholarship, personal narrative? is blogging is invading the space previously owned by journalists and public intellectuals, where speech is limited to those who hold the proper credentials? The more our genres morph and reinvent themselves, and as new kinds of discourse communities arise, the more agile we all need to focus information literacy on the critical work involved.

Another Take on the Digital Library

The Chronicle has reported that, like Google, Yahoo is in a project to digitize libraries – with a difference. Yahoo is partnering with a number of players in something called the Open Content Alliance, inspired by Brewster Kahle of the Internet Archive. Libraries will pay a minimal cost per page to add their volumes to the collection, but they must be either not under copyright or have permission of the copyright holder. The New York Times calls it a “challenge to Google” – for a number of reasons. Results won’t be available only through one search engine, entire texts rather than snippets will be visible, and – gasp! – books will be chosen specifically for the project, rather than entire libraries being scanned wholesale.

First we had Amazon’s Search Inside, then the Google project, now this alliance. All of them are interestingly different takes on making the full text of books searchable online, all of them with a different commercial bent and each with different strengths and weaknesses. One thing that they do reveal, though, is these publicly traded corporations all seem to believe there is a future in making books searchable. And each offers varous challenges to traditional notions of copyright in a digital world.

“Opinionated, Humorous, and Scathing”

Library Journal has a piece on blogging in libraries. One interesting comment: “unlike a transaction at the reference desk, blogs needn’t be neutral. In fact, many librarian-authored blogs are personal, opinionated, humorous, and scathing.”

The notion of neutrality came up in one of the Chronicle pieces on tenure that we’ve been talking about here. In arguing that tenure hampers our work, Deborah A. Carver says “librarians are also expected to maintain neutrality with respect to political, moral, or aesthetic views.” So where does that leave our bloggers?

Actually, I think what librarians must do is welcome a wide range of perspectives onto their shelves and through their doors. We shouldn’t provide services or instruction that push a singular perspective. We should be disinterestedly avid in the pursuit of knowledge, but that doesn’t mean we should have nothing to say for ourselves (and therefore no need for academic freedom or tenure).

Nevertheless, this issue is a rich one when it comes to blogging because this truly is a new genre and the authorial voice, whatever its source, is rarely neutral.

Open Your Browser and…

Another interesting piece in the Chronicle’s special supplement on libraries – this one from a professor of English who worries open stacks are a thing of the past. In “Libraries Lost” Fred D. White expresses dismay that automated retrieval, remote storage, and dependence on online browsing will discourage serendipity and diminish the possibility that students will experience the tactile pleasures of books.

Contrary to any number of “next gen” or “millenial” predictions, the students I know are fond of physical books and mostly averse to online versions. Once they get the hang of the unfamiliar LC system, they use browsing effectively as a necessary supplement to online searching. Cataloging and classification truly do belong together as the yin and yang of discovery.

There is an issue that faces libraries, though–where do you put all the stuff? Apart from adding space or converting the social areas into stacks, there’s the problem that good books will be lost in the clutter – and in that way be just as inaccessible as if they were in remote storage. College libraries do a much better job of choosing new books carefully than getting rid of books that frankly aren’t useful anymore. Yes, one can debate “useful to whom?” but for libraries concentrating on building a solid collection for undergraduates, we need to pay as much attention to what shouldn’t be on the shelves anymore as to what’s missing when we think about collection development.

First Drafts, Final Drafts

One of the big challenges for information literacy is helping students understand where information comes from – and how to evaluate it. I’ve been collecting some news stories coming out of New Orleans and Mississippi because they illustrate the issue so well. Journalism is famously the first draft of history – and some of the edits are just coming in.

One of the first critiques came when the Public Editor of The New York Times chided the paper for neglecting stories that turned out to be fit to print. Then, early this week, the Times offered a good discussion of how rumors leaked into the news.

Yesterday’s Chicago Tribune has a column by Clarence Page that goes into some detail on what actually happened at that bridge in Gretna where rednecked white police allegedly turned black evacuees away – but Page, digging deeper, found Gretna was a city that was as overwhelmed as New Orleans; officials there were angered when New Orleans officials told residents to go to a location where they couldn’t be helped. Page ends by calling for an independent investigation into the inadequate response to the crisis.

And in a startling editorial just across the page – the Trib reveals that the president of Jefferson Parish, who sobbed on television about the woman who drowned in a nursing home after days of promises, got it wrong. The woman actually died four days earlier. It’s still a tragedy – but that stirring story of days of neglect wasn’t true. (It’s unclear whether the president of the parish knew that.)

On the other hand – the editorial also says categorically that the Corps of Engineers hadn’t shortchanged the levees. While it’s true they only made them ready to withstand a category 3 hurricane because that’s what Congress ordered, the NY Times reported yesterday that the levees actually couldn’t handle even a category 3 storm.

All of which illustrates how hard it is to get the details and the context right – particularly in a world in which news and rumor rub shoulders and we all expect a much quicker news cycle. It’s bad news for all of us that several large news organizations – including the Times – recently announced layoffs in the newsroom. If we won’t pay for good news coverage, journalism will be the first, imperfect draft of history – and the final version (according to another aphorsism) will be written by the winners.