Finding Footnotes and Chasing Citations

This week’s New York Times Book Review includes an essay by Alexandra Horowitz straightforwardly-titled Will the E-Book Kill the Footnote?, in which she laments that footnotes become endnotes when books move from paper to screen. Horowitz suggests that while this change means that the main text of a book may be more easily read from start to finish, something is lost when the intrusive interruption of a footnote morph into the more easily ignored endnote. After all, how many people actually read endnotes?

This article reminded me of one published last year in the Chronicle of Higher Ed about link rot and footnote flight (paywall alert), which made some of the same points for academic texts that Horowitz makes for popular books: electronic writing may suffer from both losing footnotes as well as from link rot, in which hyperlinks go dead over time as the site or page linked to is moved or abandoned.

Both the conversion of footnotes to endnotes and link rot can affect anyone reading a text, scholars and students alike. For scholars, I have to assume that if the information is valuable enough to be used in a research project, the researcher will have the tenacity to track down the necessary sources, whether that means jumping back and forth between endnotes and the main text or searching for the new home of a page at the dead end of a link. While it can sometimes be annoying to have to spend time chasing citations, I think many scholars actually enjoy this kind of work (or maybe I’m just looking at the task through my librarian-glasses?).

Students are busy, so I’d bet that they’re less invested in reading endnotes in electronic texts (and even footnotes in print books), and more likely to see them as an aside or as unnecessary. Of course students are very familiar with jumping from link to link on the web, and now that web browsers support tabbed browsing the process of moving between hyperlinks and the main text can come very close to the experience of reading a print volume with footnotes. And what about Wikipedia, where hyperlinks and endnotes abound? It’s easy to draw parallels between the Notes and References at the bottom of most Wikipedia entries and the same in scholarly texts. Maybe electronic texts can effectively be used to encourage students to chase down those citations and read those extra words in footnotes and endnotes.

Where’s The Real Discussion On Our Discussion Lists

Though they may seem a bit behind the times, e-mail discussion lists (since “listserv” is a registered name the proper generic term is “discussion list” – it’s like using “xerox” instead of “photocopy”) are still important to academic librarians. In his Chronicle article about the status of discussion lists, Jeffrey Young writes that “the time of scholarly e-mail lists has passed, meaningful posts slowing to a trickle as professors migrate to blogs, wikis, Twitter, and social networks like Facebook.”

I would agree with the academic librarians quoted in the article who express their ongoing interest in and dependence on the discussion list. On the other hand I’d agree with Young that they are no longer a forum for scholarly exchange. But were the discussion lists of academic librarianship ever about exchanging scholarly ideas? I don’t think so. Take Collib-L for example. You may disagree, but I never saw it as platform for the exchange of scholarly ideas. But I can recall, prior to the advent of blogs, more discussions about philosophical topics and more responses to postings that raised questions about what we ought to be doing as academic librarians about different issues in higher education. Think back, for example, to Chronicle articles such as Carlson’s piece on the deserted library or Wilder’s essay on information literacy. In the aftermath of those posts there were some great exchanges on Collib-L with much back and forth conversation, good debate on the issues, and folks from many different institutions joining the discussion. It was quite lively.

Most of that discussion has, I think, migrated to blogs and the comments to blog posts. Now, the real value in Collib-L is as an exchange for what works and what doesn’t work. Need to know how to get involved in Facebook? Ask on Collib-L. Need to know if you should convert that remaining Dewey Decimal collection to Library of Congress? Ask on Collib-L. Wondering how you can get your provost to look more favorably on tenure for librarians? Ask on Collib-L. What people to take your survey? Ask on Collib-L. And it seems that the more mundane the topic, the greater the number of responses to it. But these days it seems the more challenging and thoughtful questions, the ones that could lead to a debate and the exchange of many different views, are the ones that die a quick death with little response.

When Bernie Sloane recently pointed to a new Chronicle study that stated “There is very little that students cannot find on their own if they are inspired to do so” he asked Collib-L subscribers what they thought of that statement. Did they find it a “kinda scary contention from a librarian’s perspective, especially since it’s in a research report from the Chronicle of Higher Education.” There were all of two responses (and another one or two “I agree with what he said” posts) to Sloan’s post to the list, and yet this was a fairly thought provoking question that should have elicited a good many responses and perspectives. Why so little response? Are list subscribers just too busy to think about their response to a question like this one? Are they thinking “That’s an interesting question but I’ll leave it to the bloggers and Twitter crowd to deal with that one.” It certainly is easier and less time consuming to rattle off a response to a concrete “how do you do it at your library” question.

I’m not suggesting there is anything wrong with the exchange of such grounded, day-to-day practice questions. Collib-L remains a thriving community of academic librarians who are there to help each other do a better job; the sharing of information is great. Well, when you get to the 20th or 30th response to a question about whether you stamp your library’s name in the front or back of the book, maybe it’s not so great. But I can’t help but feel academic librarianship suffers a loss of some sort when our discussion lists become void of real discussion and devolve into forums for the most practical types of information. If this is what the e-mail discussion list has come to perhaps Young is correct when he says they need to “change or die”.

Faculty Blog Round Up: Teaching with Technology

Editor’s Note: A few weeks ago we put out a call for someone to be our new faculty blog correspondent. With this post I’d like to introduce Laura Wimberley, the librarian we’ve selected to keep us up-to-date on what’s happening in the faculty blogosphere. Laura works at the Medical Center Library at the University of California San Diego. In addition to her MLIS – which she just completed – she also has an MA and PhD in Political Science. Her research interests include information policy, scholarly communication, and collection development. In addition to her posts here, you can read her at Libri & Libertas. We look forward to Laura’s future posts.

Much of what’s going on with faculty is very similar to what’s going on with librarians: Conferences are great, highly specialized, but exhausting! Or: Why, oh why, do students not cite sources after we work so hard with them? These experiences, we know.

What we don’t usually observe is the teaching, and this is one of the parts we need to stay in tune with. Here I’ve highlighted three posts with really innovative technology teaching techniques – ideas that you might not have thought about how to support from the library. Or maybe you’re dying to include blogging, Wikipedia, and gaming, and you didn’t know how to find faculty who are doing it, too. Either way, here’s a sample.

Acephalous is the blog of Scott Eric Kaufman, who teaches English at the University of California Irvine; he also contributes to the faculty group blogs The Valve (mostly literature) and Edge of the American West (mostly history).

SEK is blogging with his students in his undergraduate writing course the Rhetoric of Heroism. Because the course relies so heavily on detailed analysis of film and other visual iconography, a blog with embedded images seems like a wonderful way to communicate the material. I expect they’re watching and discussing the films together in class, but images are usually not the kind of thing students are accustomed to taking notes on (especially in the dark).

Jeremy Boggs, who blogs at ClioWeb, is a graduate student in American history at George Mason University. He’s also creative lead at the Center for History and New Media, so it’s not too surprising that he’s willing to take on the bete noire – Wikipedia. In his undergraduate American History Survey course, he assigns students to not just use, but create, Wikipedia articles, including citating sources, monitoring for follow-up collaboration, and writing a reflective essay. One of his students wrote the article that developed into the entry for Living Newspapers.

Another history professor, Rob MacDougall of the University of Western Ontario, blogs at Old is the New New (with a charming original steampunk blog theme). Rob uses the game Civilization to frame the course Science, Technology, and Global History. He asks his students to write an essay that reconceptualizes technology not as a serial, linear progress of development – as the game depicts it – but in some other way. How could we play a game that thinks of history as more contingent or branching or cyclic?

In this assignment, the game is laying bare a lot of social assumptions we carry around without realizing, and making them something students can analyze. If you ever need to justify a games collection in your library, this kind of work is a stellar example of such a collection could do.

Think you know Wikipedia? You might… or you might just think you do

Up until about two weeks ago, I was a Wikipedia snob. I thought that I knew what it was and how it worked. I had looked at the site, browsed through a few entries, and edited a couple of test pages anonymously to see how easy it was to screw with the entries. I had read a few articles & blog posts (including in ACRLog) that were skeptical about the site. I would say things like, “Sure, Wikipedia has its place. Just leave it at home.” In my opinion, Wikipedia was a project of the unwashed masses who had no idea what real information was.

I thought I could sum up the complex creature called Wikipedia in a few dismissive phrases, but I was wrong. I think differently now.

After sitting in on a workshop with an inspiring colleague — Glenda Phipps from the Miami Dade College Libraries — I find myself actually excited about Wikipedia. Better late than never, thank you Glenda. As she worked through her informative talk about the site, I surfed. I hit the “Random Article” link over and over again just to see what would come up. And after a while, dense as I am, it began to dawn on me: this thing is incredible. The energy and care and passion that have gone, and continue to go, into creating this open, free, public encyclopedia… wow. I mean, where else can you find so many people who are so passionate about knowledge? (A library, perhaps?)

True, it is not an authoritative resource. There will always be a debate about its reliability, and it is my prediction that no one will ever solve that problem with Wikipedia. So don’t think of it that way. Think of it as an ever-evolving massive collection of popular knowledge. And give it a chance.

It might help if I mention here a few things I have recently learned about Wikipedia that helped to change my opinion:

1. Anyone who creates an account can also create a “watch list” of entries that you have created or otherwise feel some ownership of. So if somebody makes a change to one of those entries, you’ll get an alert.

2. Those who have (like me and Alexander M.C. Halavais) tested the system by purposefully adding misinformation have found that our planted errors are corrected quickly.

3. It’s fun! Go ahead, try it. Search for an entry on something you care about. If it already exists, add your knowledge. If it doesn’t, create it. Then see what you think about Wikipedia.

Computing Wikipedia’s Authority

Michael Jensen has predicted

In the Web 3.0 world, we will also start seeing heavily computed reputation-and-authority metrics, based on many of the kinds of elements now used, as well as on elements that can be computed only in an information-rich, user-engaged environment.

By this he means that computer programs and data mining algorithms will be applied to information to help us decide what to trust and what not to trust, much as prestige of publisher or reputation of journal performed this function in the old (wipe away tear) information world.

It’s happening. Two recent projects apply computed authority to Wikipedia. One, the University of California Santa Cruz Wiki Lab, attempts to compute and then color-code the trustworthiness of a Wikipedia author’s contributions based on the contributor’s previous editing history. Interesting idea, but it needs some work. As it stands the software doesn’t really measure trustworthiness, and the danger is that people will trust the software to measure something that it does not. Also, all that orange is confusing.

More interestingly, another project called Wikipedia Scanner, uses data mining to uncover the IP addresses of anonymous Wikipedia contributors. As described in Wired, Wikipedia Scanner:

offers users a searchable database that ties millions of anonymous Wikipedia edits to organizations where those edits apparently originated, by cross-referencing the edits with data on who owns the associated block of internet IP addresses. …

The result: A database of 34.4 million edits, performed by 2.6 million organizations or individuals ranging from the CIA to Microsoft to Congressional offices, now linked to the edits they or someone at their organization’s net address has made.

The database uncovers, for example, that the anonymous Wikipedia user that deleted 15 paragraphs critical of electronic voting machines originated from an IP address at the voting machine company Diebold.

Both of these projects go beyond the “popularity as authority” model that comes from Web 2.0 by simultaneously reaching back to an older notion of authority that tries to gauge “who is the author” and fusing it with the new techniques of data mining and computer programming. (Perhaps librarians who wake up every morning and wonder why am I not still relevant? need to get a degree in computer science.)

If you prefer the oh-so-old-fashioned-critical-thinking-by-a-human approach, Paul Duguid has shown nicely that one of the unquestioned assumptions behind the accuracy of Wikipedia–that over time and with more edits entries get more and more accurate–is not necessarily so. Duguid documents how the Wikipedia entry for Daniel Defoe actually got less accurate over a period of time due to more editing. Duguid shows how writing a good encyclopedia article can actually be quite difficult, and that not all the aphorisms of the open source movement (given enough eyeballs all bugs are shallow) transfer to a project like Wikipedia. Duguid also provides a devastating look at the difficulties Project Gutenberg has with a text like Tristram Shandy.

Evaluating authority in the hybrid world calls for hybrid intelligences. We can and should make use of machine algorithms to uncover information that we wouldn’t be able to on our own. As always, though, we need to keep our human critical thinking skills activated and engaged.