how libraries became public II

keyboard Reposted from Inside Higher Ed; photo courtesy of Toshiyuki IMAI

Here’s another interesting thing about the origins of American public libraries. We have women to thank for most of them.

Oh, sure, Andrew Carnegie had something to do with it. Unlike his fellow mega-rich philanthropists who built libraries, he didn’t want to build palaces. He wanted to produce relatively humble public libraries on an industrial scale, promoting the establishment of libraries in neighborhoods and small town throughout the country using a common set of standards, processes, and even architectural plans. He thought access to libraries could improve those among the working classes who wanted to improve themselves. They could be better workers, and some of them might even rise above their circumstances and become rich.

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how libraries became public

Fortitude at NYPL Reposted from Inside Higher Ed; photo courtesy of ktbuffy.

Of all of our cultural institutions, the public library is remarkable. There are few tax-supported services that are used by people of all ages, classes, races, and religions. I can’t think of any public institutions (except perhaps parks) that are as well-loved and widely used as libraries. Nobody has suggested that tax dollars be used for vouchers to support the development of private libraries or that we shouldn’t trust those “government” libraries. Even though the recession following the 2008 crash has led to reduced staff and hours in American libraries, threats of closure are generally met with vigorous community resistance. Visits and check-outs are up significantly over the past ten years, though it has decreased a bit in recent years. Reduced funding seems to be a factor, though the high point was 2009; library use parallels unemployment figures – low unemployment often means fewer people use public libraries. A for-profit company that claims to run libraries more cheaply than local governments currently has contracts to manage only sixteen of over 9,000 public library systems in the U.S. Few public institutions have been so impervious to privatization.

I find it intriguing that the American public library grew out of an era that has many similarities to this one – the last quarter of the 19th century,when large corporations owned by the super-rich had gained the power to shape society and fundamentally change the lives of ordinary people. Continue reading “how libraries became public”

what kind of free is speech online?

free signReposted from Inside Higher Ed. Image courtesy of JwvanEck.

A Pew Research has just published a fascinating in-depth report titled “The Future of Free Speech Online.” (The PDF version of the study is 75 pages – there’s a lot to it.) Lee Rainie, Janna Anderson, and Jonathan Albright surveyed a number of tech experts to get their predictions about where online discourse is headed. And while nearly 20 percent of the experts are optimistic, most of them think the climate for online discourse will either stay the same or get worse.

The framing of study seems . . . odd, though. The implication is that we can either design online platforms that control behavior (by doing things like prohibiting anonymity, developing reputation systems, or using artificial intelligence to moderate contributions) or we can have freedom. This is where some of internet culture seems to intersect with libertarianism: any attempt to shape the overall tenor of a group conversation is a restriction on individuals’ right of free expression. Or to put it differently, the power to shape the tone of a social interaction is liable to be misused by the powerful. Continue reading “what kind of free is speech online?”

commonplace newsletter #2

lettersImage courtesy of Ken Douglas.

I think I’m getting the hang of this Newsletter plugin for WordPress. It sent out a nicely-formatted email yesterday – April Fool’s Day, appropriately enough, given that the common thread of the links I selected was what we talk about when we talk about “fake news.” (One think I’ve learned – I need to check my spelling, because it wasn’t automatically checked for me. Sorry about that, newletterers.) Here are the links I shared:

The Fake News Course (A Sillybus) This satirical project is subtitled How to Write and Read Fake News: Journullism in the Age of Trump. While it’s the Onion of syllabi, it actually goes a long way toward showing how false narratives are created. The course is the work of Talan Memmott and Mark C. Marino and is part of UnderAcademy College, an artistic adventure in tongue-in-cheek critique.

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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.

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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”