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.
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.
I 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.
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.
Resurrection 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.
I posted this top ten list over at Inside Higher Ed. I’ll be adding my traditional top ten in crime fiction before too long.
Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, and Harold Roberts Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Poltiics (Oxford).
A thorough examination of the ways technology has been used in recent months to shape our political culture and influence events, based on an analysis of millions of stories posted and shared on networks in three decisive years. I haven’t finished reading it yet, but it’s a lucid, fascinating explanation of how these networks operate and how our news environment has split into two distinct spheres, contributing to polarization and radicalization. If your library’s copy is checked out, you can read the open access version.
Maybe some chickens are coming home to roost. Tech stocks have become less irrationally exuberant. People seem annoyed about Amazon’s stunt extort bribes from cities in return for making housing more unaffordable and transit more crowded, just to attract some high-paying jobs to cities that already have a big wealth gap. UK members of parliament have grown so irritated that Facebook has ignored their inquiries that they dragged a tech startup founder who was visiting London to Parliament, forcing him to turn over documents about Facebook that he had obtained thanks to a pending lawsuit. (He just happened to be carrying copies of documents obtained through discovery on his laptop. Let that be a lesson to us all.) And whoops, turns out Facebook’s chief operating officer actually was aware that they’d hired a sleazy firm to discredit Facebook opponents, including George Soros who has become a useful all-purpose boogeyman for anti-Semites and conspiracy theorists.
Continue reading “innocence and experience”
I was discouraged, hearing Trump repeat the bogus conspiracy theory that George Soros is behind the demonstrations against his Supreme Court nominee, claiming that all of those women storming Congress were paid “crisis actors,” that Trump is channeling Info Wars from the White House. Discouraged, but only with a vestige of shock. His behavior is numbing (intentionally).
I was a bit shocked, though, when that ridiculous and inflammatory claim was picked up by Republicans who could have simply touted their success at confirming a controversial justice, but instead are stooping to absurd false narratives to turn up the heat for their already-inflamed base. I was genuinely shocked this morning, when the same claim popped up on my local television station in an attack ad against the Democratic party candidate in my swing district. I guess I shouldn’t be. The Republican party knows they can’t top Trump, and their best chance is to act like Trump and suppress enough vote to keep their majority. So sure, parrot the line that all opposition is paid for and isn’t genuine even if that means there is no actual debate about issues anymore, just accusations that the people, like the press, are fake.
It seems as if Charlottesville was several years ago. It was a shock, seeing Nazis and white supremacists carrying torches on the campus of the University of Virginia campus, then invading the town carrying guns and the kind of gear that you’d think belonged to an angry offshoot of the Society for Creative Anachronism, unleashing threats, violence, beatings, and even murder. There was outrage, but since then there has been a strange drift toward accepting white supremacy. It’s fueling candidates for office. It shows up on talk shows where hosts say America won’t be America if we don’t get rid of immigrants.
This is nothing new. What’s new, I think, is the way in which social media and journalism are trying to negotiate new forms of expression and argument in the midst of the vast and immediate distribution of text, images, and video through new channels. I’m trying to figure out how to help students understand the information they encounter, and our usual discussions of evaluation of sources simply doesn’t apply without a broader grasp of the sociotechnical moment we’re in. Understanding events like Charlottesville and the hate-inspired violence that keeps happening is likewise impossible without understanding the ways information outside the library flows. Continue reading “can’t argue with that”
Supporting intellectual freedom is a bedrock principle for libraries, yet it carries with it a host of issues. Public libraries deal with challenges to books, displays, and programs constantly. They have policies and procedures in place to smooth the path, yet it’s not always a simple matter. For two years in a row, library staff in Utah were forced to remove a LGBTQ display because the library system director (who does not have library training, though he has an MBA) thought it was too controversial. This year, when required to replace their LGBTQ display, they created a “libraries are for everyone” theme, which managed to skirt the ban while including LGBTQ folks.
Similar challenges were launched last year at libraries in Texas and North Dakota, where the library directors pushed back. I wonder, though, if those libraries have had a similar display since. Nothing like having a state legislator say the library had promoted “an ideology of sexual fluidity, promiscuity, experimentation and deviation” to put a chill on things. (The North Dakota lawmaker also complained they didn’t include anti-LGBTQ books in the display to show “both sides.”) Meanwhile, in Iowa a group protested the presence of LGBTQ books in the Orange City library. The group includes in their arguments that the library should avoid encouraging people to learn about sexuality because gay people are in danger of committing suicide. Gee, I wonder why? The same group attacks local churches and church-affiliated colleges in Iowa for theological error and “false teaching,” but the library seems a particular focus for their activism.
A few days ago, Forbes published a blog post by an economics professor that argued we should close public libraries because Amazon could fill that increasingly insignificant niche, which would help the economy and stop wasting taxes. It turned into a Twitter spectacle.