Scott Carlson has a good article (subscription required) in the Chronicleâ€™s special section on libraries in which he touches on the major issues and trends in the design and building of new academic libraries. Here at TCNJ, our library followed the alluded to formula of natural light + cherry wood + comfy chairs + internet connections = 200% gate increase. Why not just build a big study hall? Why not just build a big computer lab? It turns out the library is a complex place that cannot be reduced to any one of its amenties or services. When we first moved into our new building, some of our materials, archives in particular, took a little longer to get out of the moving boxes. What are the chances someone would ask for an item from archives in the first weeks? But ask they did. And they asked for books. And bound periodicals. And microfilm even. (Microfilm!) As well as for computers with word, for printers, and for librarians they knew by name. Could it be that the romantic notion of the library as the heart of campus is not all sentiment and symbolism, and that there really is something to this idea of library as place?
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.
I’m at the Pennsylvania Library Association Conference the next few days. I just left Carrie Gardner’s (faculty at Catholic U.’s LIS) presentation on “Communicating Your Intellectual Freedom Message.” Although it was geared somewhat more to the public library sector I think Carrie gave some great advice for understanding what information is illegal (e.g., child pornography, libel, slander, dangerous speech and obscenity) versus what might be deemed offensive, disturbing or unethical. Her key point was that we all need to be effective communicators when it comes to sending out a strong message that there are critically important reasons why our libraries must have the freedom to collect and offer access to a wide variety of materials in all formats, even some that might offend – as long as they are not illegal. I asked Carrie about academic freedom versus intellectual freedom, and whether the latter does afford some protections to those who lack academic freedom. This is one of those “gray area” issues. At many of our institutions, and it can certainly depend where it falls within the conservative-liberal spectrum, non-tenured staff may have a wide berth in their rights to speak and write what they like because there is a fundamental belief in the importance of intellectual freedom and the contribution it makes to a spirtited academic environment. However, Carrie was clear that intellectual freedom, despite its conceptual benefits, would not provide the protections of academic freedom. This is a fairly complex issue that I’ll continue to explore, but I’m glad that Carrie is out there teaching our future students about and working with ALA on these issues. If you want to share your perspectives on or interpretation of how intellectual freedom relates to academic librarianship and would like to help us explore and understand it further, we invite your comments or will consider publishing a post from you.
A standard ethical question raised in library school classes is some variation of dilemma of the hypothetical bomb builder who comes to the reference desk asking for information. You’re the reference librarian–what do you do? David Wessel in “Better Information Isn’t Always Beneficial,” in the Wall Street Journal (free) points to more subtle cases of information ethics in which technology makes it easier and faster to obtain information that has detrimental social costs, such as finding out which judge is more likely to grant you a patent or rigging Congressional districts so that one party is guaranteed to win. Librarians tend to think that more information is always better and anything less is censorship. These examples, however, call that view into question. Discussion of the social costs of the use of information fits into standard five of the Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education to “understand the economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information, and access and use information ethically and legally.”
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.