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.
To continue my posts relating core library values to our broader information landscape, I am going to scramble them up a bit. I had intended to go alphabetically (an order that does not seem absolutely obvious and natural to many of our students – they probably have a point, there). But when the American Library Association adopted a revision to a statement about how intellectual freedom applies to meeting rooms it created a storm of discussion and anger, so it seemed right to skip right ahead to intellectual freedom and why this library value matters beyond libraries. And is no simple matter.
Intellectual freedom means librarians strive to represent all perspectives and resist censorship that’s based on partisan or doctrinal disapproval or bias against a work’s creator. That’s pretty foundational for libraries, just as debating ideas freely is foundational to higher education.
Mike Caulfield has written a handy (and free!) classroom-ready book about fact-checking and provides useful case studies for students and anyone who wants to fine-tune their bullshit detector. Also, he has explained why simply studying a document for clues (a checklist approach) doesn’t work and four moves you can make instead: corroborate, trace the story’s origin, confirm (aka “read laterally”), and don’t get stuck in a rabbit hole (“circle back”). I have to also give a tip of the hat to Marc Meola who made a very similar point back in 2004, though we didn’t need it quite so badly back then.
I was super excited to speak at a symposium at Metro, the Metropolitan New York Library Council, which organizes some wonderful programs for librarians and other cultural workers in the city. The theme was Libraries in the Context of Capitalism and it drew participants from all over and from different lines of work. Two days of really informative and thoughtful talks about publishing, teaching, labor conditions in libraries and other cultural institutions, the metaphors we use, labor issues, how to organize, the ways homeless folks innovate in library spaces set up for tech entrepreneurs . . . lots of great stuff. Here’s what I said how we got our core values and why we should apply them to wider information systems. (There’s also a PDF version.)
There’s another fascinating study out from the Stanford History Education Group, the folks who studied high school and college students’ capacity to figure out what news is fake, finding that they don’t really know how to do that. Turns out – surprise! – trained historians don’t really know how to do that, either. Historians tend to focus on critiquing textual evidence, unlike trained fact checkers who immediately confirm and corroborate with other sources, something the report calls “reading laterally.” No doubt historians would have gotten the answers eventually, but on a timed test, close reading didn’t work as well as lateral reading. We rely too much on training and trust.
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.
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”
I 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”
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.
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”