aggravating ourselves to death

car stuck in mudIt’s mud season. Not in terms of the calendar – things are still frozen around here – but there’s a political primary happening and that means mud is being flung. It’s nothing new. Happens every time. It just seems more immersive than ever because we get news, opinion, commentary, and outbursts of anger continually through the devices we turn to when we want to relax. Relax? Hah!

In 1985 Neil Postman argued we lived in a world where television, driven by advertising, had turned news into entertainment, which turned politics into a sporting competition and political figures into entertainers. Now we live in a world where our information sources, driven by advertising, make politics a sporting competition, and … yeah, like he said, only now news comes through non-news channels, which add layers of perverse incentives, and entertainment plays on a different set of emotions. Not amusement, but fear and anger, which turn out to be especially useful for keeping us engaged, which converts into advertising on systems that give everyone the chance to participate in the ad market by becoming brands.

Are we entertained? I’m not. I’m really tired of people trying to jack into emotions that I don’t enjoy at all. So this morning, I decided to go off Twitter, take some deep cleansing breaths, and remind myself it’s mud season. It happens with every election. Yes, the Russians are tossing mud, but they didn’t elect Donald Trump, Americans did. Facebook didn’t elect Trump, Americans did. Fox News … well, it’s unfortunate, but Americans decided to vote for people who loosened regulations and here we are. We own this mess, and we need to fix it, and there’s no easy fix, no simple villain to blame. No soothing conspiracy theory that will explain it all and let us off the hook.

While the mud is being flung, I don’t want to let my emotions be manipulated. I don’t want to see others to waste their time having their emotions jacked up. (Remember complaints that people were wasting their time on cat videos? Good times, good times.) I don’t want to feed the machine that encourages mud flinging. I want to say simply “vote for the person whose policies seem best. Then, in a few months, vote for whoever is running against the candidate whose policies seem worst.”

Meanwhile, avoid letting the juggernaut that has so polluted our lives – platforms that sell our attention to advertisers – jack into our emotions, distract us from doing what we think is best, waste our time by manufacturing unpleasant emotions, and aggravate us to death just to sell ads.



dear leader

Louisville bread line 1937There’s a lot going on in the world. Scrolling through my Twitter stream lets me skim across the top of it, dipping in here and there, saving an article, but mostly skimming. It’s oddly comforting, when things seem to be falling apart, to skim the surface.

But a tweet from a provocateur I don’t follow keeps coming up as people who I do follow throw up their Twitter hands (wings?) in frustration. A Library Leader thinks we should should embrace the gig economy, stop hiring full time library workers, and let a thousand gig jobs bloom. Because if you have a lot of gig jobs, you can be your own boss and make lots of dough if you hustle enough! Also, you will free yourself from the tyranny of the stable job and its “lack of flexibility.” Wake up, sheeple! It’s what those youngsters want! “The future workforce has less appetite for monotony as their grandparents.”

No kidding! Life is so not boring when you have a pile of school debt, no home you can afford, a looming climate catastrophe, and the thrill of not knowing what tomorrow will hold! A job? Three jobs? A fantastically exciting puzzle of what to do for child care when you have no idea what your schedule will be tomorrow? So flexible! But that absurdity isn’t what made me pause long enough to try and put my thoughts into words. It was the word “monotony.”

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balancing acts

cover of info lit in the age of algorithms reportThe latest Project Information Literacy report is out, and I hope you’ll have a chance to read it. I was so honored to be able to work on this one and have the opportunity to hear what students have to say about our current information environment. I hope it will contribute in some way to our broadening what we mean by information literacy. These days, as we’re inundated with news and information, we need to prepare students to do more than use libraries for academic purposes. We need to make clearer how the skills students practice in school relate to information use beyond classroom assignments.

I was going to say more about the report, but my attention got waylaid when I listened to an excellent episode of the On the Media podcast (they are all excellent, by the way) that reported from the recent gun rights rally in Richmond, Virginia. The rally was planned for MLK day – yes, that’s symbolic. It also happened to be Lobby Day, when Virginians are encouraged to bring their issues to the capital. That day there was only one issue on the agenda, and only one perspective permitted. Second amendment purists brought their body armor, militia insignia, and long guns to say clearly and loudly “our right to bear arms trumps every other right, including your right to disagree with us.”

Nobody was killed. Hurrah. It was considered a success.

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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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