How Information Is Organized

card catalog with childI like to point out, whenever possible, how library systems encode bias just as newer algorithmic search systems literally encode it while seeming blissfully, mechanically, inhumanly incapable of being anything but neutral. I’m reminded of something one of our faculty members said when discussing what critical concepts about information our students should grasp.

Information has to be organized and how it is organized matters.

That’s profoundly true, and so easy to forget when helping students find information in systems that are complicated enough without explaining how they got that way. The exoskeleton of the library stacks is hidden from view unless you step back and wonder about why this subject is next to that, or why there’s loads of room for one subject but not for another.

But the embedding of named categories inside a call number . . . this post from a metadata blog with a terrific name (I Never Metadata I Didn’t Like) shows just how ubiquitous and problematic our ghostly past of categorization is. It’s a piece of call numbers used in academic libraries all over the country and once you see it you can’t unsee it. Continue reading “How Information Is Organized”

Practicing Freedom for the Post-Truth Era

practicing freedom This is the text of a talk I gave at the University of New Mexico last week sponsored by the Marjorie Whetstone Ashton endowment and the university library instruction team. Thanks, team!

A PDF version can be downloaded from my library’s institutional repository or from Humanities Commons.

Abstract: Why do we encourage students to read widely, think critically, and conduct their own research? We are preparing them for lives in a world filled with ambiguity and complexity, where we don’t actually know the answers to what’s on the test. The surprising outcome of the recent election has prompted us to examine our assumptions about how knowledge is arrived at and shared – and why it matters. Librarians and faculty in the disciplines have long helped students learn how to find and assess scholarly information, but we haven’t always been explicit about why it matters. What we’ve come to call “information literacy” must be more than learning how to evaluate websites and recognize “fake news” as an information consumer. It’s gaining an understanding of the ways information systems shape our world while gaining the confidence and conviction that we ourselves can shape the world for the better. Paulo Freire urged us to think of education as the practice of freedom. We will explore ways to prepare students to enter a world saturated with personalized propaganda and “alternative facts” as free human beings and motivated citizens.

Continue reading “Practicing Freedom for the Post-Truth Era”

matter of facts

truthReposted from Inside Higher Ed; image courtesy of Martin Sommer

Remember “truthiness”? Stephen Cobert, in his parodic role of a brash conservative talk show personality, coined it in 2005 and it seemed to nail a fact of political life: politicians often said things that seemed true, that felt true, that appealed to an audience as true while sliding off to one side of demonstrable facts. He was giving a name to the political polarization that made Americans line up behind different sets of known “facts” along with a tendency to prefer assertions that carried an emotional charge.

“Truthiness,” named the 2005 Word of the Year by the American Dialect Society, has given way to the Oxford Dictionaries 2016 Word of the Year, “Post-Truth,” which was a bit depressing until it was eclipsed by the furor over “fake news.” That last shape-shifting phrase means all kinds of things, including any news you don’t like. Entire news organizations have been labeled “fake news” by our president. Continue reading “matter of facts”

commonplace newsletter #1

lettersThis has been one hell of a week. I suspect there will be many more like it. The bad news is that we’re this close to a coup led by nihilistic Nazi, Steve Bannon. The good news is that a lot of people are taking to the streets. We are not alone. We are not accepting this. We are paying attention.

So what a weird time to start up a newsletter, eh? I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling as if I’m dog-paddling as fast as I can in a fast-running current of massive amounts of information. I probably shouldn’t add to it. Continue reading “commonplace newsletter #1”

a Woody Guthrie moment

Woodie Guthrie photo by Al Aumuller, courtesy of Wikimedia and the Library of Congress.

Woody Guthrie famously had a sign on his guitar: THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS. I’ve been thinking about that line a lot in the past week, this strange new world in which a man-child signs orders written by a nihilistic Nazi, throwing the world into chaos gleefully and viciously. It’s encouraging to see mass resistance form spontaneously, though I remind myself that there were mass protests against Hitler, too. There’s work to do. There are values to defend. It won’t be an easy road, and I’m not sure where it will all lead.

I am printing up some stickers for my laptop, which is about as close as I get to a guitar.  I wimped out and used “fights” instead of “kills” because I’m an angry pacifist who likes to think libraries, books, and writers can all oppose this violence with words and ideas. Continue reading “a Woody Guthrie moment”

burning Issues for Operation 451

Welch-McCarthy hearings, 1954
Welch-McCarthy hearings, 1954 via Wikimedia

Reposted from Inside Higher Ed.

A lot of people were disgusted when they heard Simon & Schuster will publish a book by Milo Yiannopoulos, a notorious right-wing troll who makes a career of offending people and hounding his chosen enemies through mass intimidation. He has even been banned from Twitter, which is incredibly difficult to do. He tried to offend his publishers with grotesque jokes as well, to no avail. They really wanted to publish his book.

Continue reading “burning Issues for Operation 451”

my top reads of 2016

I made a habit of sharing my top ten crime fiction reads of the year over at my former blog, and I want to carry on the tradition. But first, I’m going to mention some other books that left an impression.

First, three non-fiction works that I keep urging on everyone.

EvictedMatthew Desmond / EVICTED: POVERTY AND
I am not sure what impressed me the most about this book: the extraordinarily deep and respectful research into the lives of people that includes ethnographic and quantitative methods, the power of the narrative about these people, or what I learned about the complexity of daily life when the rent’s too damn high. All three, really. It’s incredibly moving, informative, and in a year of great disappointment, profoundly decent. I hope it’s widely read and creates the momentum for change, though that’s a difficult hope to hold onto, given we just elected a rapacious racist property developer as president and Tweeter-in-Chief.

Continue reading “my top reads of 2016”

make America [fill in the blank]

liberty club neon signReposted from Inside Higher Ed; photo courtesy of Jasperdo

I’ve been giving a lot of my Twitter feed a raised eyebrow lately. No, it’s not at all likely that electors will denounce Trump and vote differently. Huh, that must-read thread seems kind of dumb. No, I don’t think calling for recounts is a great idea just after we kept insisting the vote couldn’t possibly be rigged.

Continue reading “make America [fill in the blank]”