Odds & Beginnings

odds and endsI started to type “odds and ends” as a title for this post, and then had to make a pun. Forgive me, but this is my first post-IHE entry. It has been odd to not have a weekly deadline breathing down my neck, having been blogging for food since 2009. But it has also been freeing and I just have to get used to that freedom and use it for good. Here are some things I’m doing and reading.

So, this is happening – I get to go back to ER&L, a gathering of technically-inclined and savvy librarians in my long-ago stomping ground of Austin, Texas this March. I get to talk about the Project Information Literacy study I’ve been working on with researcher extraordinaire and PI Alison Head and Twitter maven and all-around-wordsmith-and-scholar Margy MacMillan. This is what I promised to talk about:

How prepared are librarians, and the students they serve, to navigate technologies that are fundamentally changing how we encounter, evaluate, and create information? In the past decade, a handful of platforms have become powerful information intermediaries that help us search and connect but also are tools to foment disinformation, amplify hate, increase polarization, and compile details of our lives as raw material for persuasion and control. We no longer have to seek information; it seeks us. Project Information Literacy has revealed college students’ lived experience through a series of large-scale research studies. To cap a decade of findings, we conducted a qualitative study that asked students, and faculty who teach them, what they know and how they learn about our current information environment. This talk explores what students have taught us, where education falls short, why it matters, and how time-tested library values – privacy, equity, social responsibility, and education for democracy – can provide a blueprint for creating a socio-technical infrastructure that is more just and equitable in the age of algorithms.

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the Cassandra in me

photo of a person against a digital backgroundI had a long and interesting chat last week with my partner. He knows I’m a bit obsessive about privacy and the social consequences of Google, Facebook, YouTube, and the rest of the Silicon Valley marauders. But somehow we had never quite connected the dots to the rise of populism and the erosion of trust – particularly that classical propaganda move, throwing up enough disinformation that people don’t trust anything and simply give up, either putting their trust in a leader whose lies are their lodestar (because he proclaims everything else to be fake and the work of their enemies) or assuming they have no power because there’s no way to know the facts. My partner pointed out that in my “last” Inside Higher Ed post I talked about the last ten years but not what’s in front us. So he persuaded me to make one last post – something short to encapsulate the ideas we’d talked about. I’m reposting it here.

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So Long, and Thanks For All the Fish*

Atlantic Cod image

For ten years, I was an Inside Higher Ed blogger. I was a bit stunned and sad to get the call to tell me it was over, but after ten years I may have worn out my welcome. (Ever since the days of sharing my opinions on library Listservs in the 1990s I have always imagined eyes rolling as my name pops up: not that woman again! I’m sure hearing too much from one Librarian With Opinions gets old.)

I’ll carry on blogging here, though without deadlines and a paycheck I suspect I will be a bit more ad hoc about when I post. A more relaxed schedule will give me time to work on that book project that I’ve  pushed aside for too long. (It’s  about libraries as proof-of-concept for information as a public good, the values Silicon Valley lacks, and what we should do about it.)

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subject to change

broken phoneI was talking to my partner one evening last week when my phone died, midsentence. The apple symbol flashed a few times, then the screen went dark. Plugging it in didn’t help. All the usual resuscitation moves failed. I was phoneless, and it rattled me.

It’s discombobulating to have your phone stop working when you’re traveling. It would be disruptive at any time, really (it’s embarrassing to look at the charts showing how much time I spend staring at that little screen every day) but when I was away from home, it seemed especially disorienting. I am so used to figuring out where to go using Google’s map advice, finding the time I’m supposed to be somewhere by pulling up my email, keeping in touch with family by text message — even talking to people occasionally, though that’s rare. It was as if half my brain stopped working.

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evidence and authority in the age of algorithms

(Presented at “Teaching Writing in a Post-Truth Era,” University of Notre Dame, August 20, 2019)

I come to the issue of teaching writing in the post-truth era from a somewhat different perspective than our previous speakers. I’m a librarian who has long been interested in the ways students get ideas, interact with other’s ideas, and how their experiences as writers in college shape their identity as people with agency and a grasp of how knowledge is made and negotiated by people – people like them. I’m taken with the parallels between writing instruction and what librarians do.  Your writing program has as a goal ethical and moral use of words and evidence.

Making an argument is an ethical activity, one that helps students develop intellectual and moral virtues.

It’s about learning how words work and how to use those words ethically. This is also what information literacy is about. Learning is the primary purpose for librarians’ work with undergraduates. My library’s definition of information literacy is similarly ambitious – not just how to find and use information in the library and online, but more deeply to understand where information comes from, how it’s connected to social processes, and how they can participate in those processes with a clear sense of right and wrong.

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how I became a librarian

Girl in a migrant camp library during the depression, As the year finishes and the library becomes quiet, I find myself thinking about how I became a librarian.

It wasn’t a well-planned career move. When I was in college I fell in love with a major that let me read big fat novels for credit. As I neared graduation, I bristled when my mother suggested, “why don’t you go to library school?” As a child of the Great Depression she had a practical bent, and she knew my chosen major wouldn’t be able to support me in a long-term relationship. “Something to fall back on,” she added, which only made it worse. I loved being in libraries, I even worked in one, but it was the life of the mind that swept me off my feet. The kind of work I imagined librarians did – safe, boring, routine – nope, not for me. I had dreams.

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information literacy’s third wave

curling wave We’re developing a seven-week course that we proposed after a history professor urged the library to teach a course on fake news that everyone should have to take. We’re not using the fraught phrase “fake news” and we have no plans to force it on anyone, but it’s a great opportunity to think about what we mean when we say “information literacy.” Students think librarians know stuff about libraries, which is where you go to find information for school. We actually know stuff about information systems that are not mediated by libraries and information literacy is more than finding sources for assignments. This course will focus on information that we encounter through various channels, how those channels work, how to quickly verify a doubtful claim and (to use Peter Elbow’s phrase) how to play the believing game as well. As Mike Caulfield has demonstrated, students don’t need to learn skepticism as much as they need to learn when to trust. We’ll see how it goes.

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another tech is possible

biting shopping cartI submitted this piece to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, which published it under the headline “Freedom of information and personal data: Big Tech should take cues from public libraries” and the deck “They’ve developed a robust set of core values that strike the right balance.” You nailed it, Strib!

By the end of 2018, whatever faith we may have once placed in the giant technology corporations that we use daily was growing threadbare. YouTube made a show of removing Alex Jones’ breathless conspiracy theories for repeatedly violating their guidelines, but a subsequent report from Data and Society showed the platform continues to promote extremist content through its sensation-seeking algorithm. Amazon has rolled out a powerful facial recognition system, but it is flawed and biased, according to the ACLU, which found it falsely matched members of Congress with criminal mug shots. Facebook was apologetic about personal information scooped up by Cambridge Analytica and claimed it was a one-off violation of policies. Then we found out, thanks to a December New York Times investigation, that Facebook has given over a hundred companies routine access to troves of users’ personal data.

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2018 in Crime Fiction

As usual, I’m trying to highlight ten books read in 2018 that seemed especially memorable. Most of these have a political edge, with immigration playing a role in several. A couple are more introspective and psychological. Many are by authors making a repeat visit on my Top Ten list. Emma Viskic is the best discovery of the year – compelling writing and a vivid Australian setting.

Previous lists (not sure what happened to 2010 and 2011) – 2017 2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2009 2008 2007

Resurrection BayResurrection Bay / Emma Viskic
An Australian private investigator who happens to be deaf has to go home to Resurrection Bay to solve the murder of his associate, and to see if he can reconcile with his wife, an Aboriginal artist. I also loved the sequel, AND FIRE CAME DOWN, but this is one to read in order to sort out the complicated backstory.

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