Disruptor of NYC, or Why I Live in the Middle of the Country.

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We installed the ethos that pedigree was over and all money was now equally valuable. The mythology of Silicon Alley was forced to coalesce for good, with City Hall’s fervor behind it. The start-up culture wars—a fresh beef with the West Coast, except boring!—intentionally pitted us against the weirdo jerks of Palo Alto. The scrunchy-face foxy Foursquare co-founders appeared in Gap ads, clad in mediocre jeans but form-fitting venture capital. You were a good person if you were an entrepreneur. You were creating jobs, until you weren’t. The big floor-through lofts of Broadway between Houston and Spring filled up with inexpensive furniture and even less expensive young people, each with a bitter mouthful of Adderall, each office bright and identical. So far, we’ve disrupted a few things, mostly coffee-related. – Choire Sicha, Let Me Tell You About the Most Heartfelt $200 I Ever Made

Quote that:

Automated, frictionless sharing is certainly not a solution. As I’ve often observed, human problems are almost always solved by human solutions, very rarely by technical solutions. We have to ask ourselves what the real solution is, given that we’ve negotiated an arc from immersion in a social community (with all that entails) to helplessly private insularity to immersion in a virtual world that lacks privacy, but that also lacks human contact. It may be that dating sites are so consistently popular because they are the only online services that require human contact to work. -Mike Loukides, The Privacy Arc

Serendipity, Looseness, and the Creative Turn in Libraries

Perhaps the books have outlived their original intended purpose, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other ways to use them.

You could pull almost any image in the library out of its context and it would probably be nearly impossible to identify its source or its meaning. In other words, the bizarre quality of the images might not necessarily be a function of the texts that they live in.

I wouldn’t want to prescribe a particular approach. I think that books are really interesting objects in part because they are relatively stable. Unlike electronic information, books are relatively difficult to change and revise.

-Zach Friedman and Anrew Beccone, Bomblog: Reanimation Library

In the face of the eroding perceived value of books, this lays out an interesting proposition, which relies on the strange combination of durability and the ability to be lost. Much of library practice relies on the idea that we need to keep information from getting lost, but as the reanimation library demonstrates, this is sometimes necessary for continued creation. Despite the increasing availability of full-text searching in ebooks, access to the ideas in books are heavily dependent on how they are represented in various titles, or, for the more cautious researcher, by the author and her affiliations. The upside of this being, you are more likely to read something that isn’t exactly what you were looking for. Conversely, the same looseness exposes the author and their work to unintended audiences. The Reanimation Library thrives on a more extreme version of this mechanism:  As a result of this serediptious proccess, the creative, unintended uses come to the fore.

Groups like the Library as Incubator Project and discussions by PublicPraxis move one step beyond this by shifting the definition of information, opening up new possibilities for libraries. About a breakdancing competition in a library:

We talk about how libraries have the ability to change the world for their users by providing access to information. Information is conveyed in many forms, not just the printed word or digital content but also via workshops and classes and exhibitions. A breakdancing competition won’t work in every library, nor need it. -Laura Damon-Moore, Elizabeth Hough, and Sharon Grover, Collaboration, Innovation, Incubation 

Scrapertown from California is a place. on Vimeo.

By organizing a group around the bikes they own, they promote creativity (they style their bikes, they make their own music), education (both formal K-12 and P2P), responsibility, self-respect (you must ride in style), community–and together they’ve created a world for themselves that meets important needs. All of these needs can be understood as information, as can all of the resources that fulfill those needs. So this is not some lofty far-out library moon colony, this is library terra firma. The way that Scraper bikes engage the members opens up knowledge, values, and opportunities that individually, these Oakland kids may not find widely accessible. -Meg Backus, Alternative Libraries

Both of these examples expand the definition of information, and by doing so expand the role of the library in the world. This is a much more aggressive tactic than what Reanimation Library employs, but the end results reach for the same goal: the breaking down of traditional understandings of what counts as “useful” information. They do this successfully be demonstrating that truly useful information is that which is put into action in a community. All of these projects demonstrate by freeing information from the constrictions we as librarians put on it, it has the chance to become something more–knowledge. For a more formal argument, consider this paper by Jennifer Nutefall and Phyllis Ryder. Serendipity, not a practiced lack of information control,but a openess to the rough edges of it, is actually a method that students and scholars use. Serendipity has always played a key role in learning about the world.

Not Worried About Circulation

 
The shocking truth about print books: 49% of our stacks has never circulated since 1996. #academiclibraries #printbooks
 
This tweet came through the other day, and frankly it didn’t bother me the way it used to. It leans on a little bit by Raganathan’s first law, which is “Books are for use.” If they’re not being used, then why keep them? I like to make the arguement that we can’t always anticipate how things will be used by others. Consider Mendelssohn’s “rediscovery” of Bach. Books are not just for current use, but they easily translate into future use.

There is some precedent for this; the logical methods of observation and refinement at the dawn of the Scientific Revolution enabled the creation and improvement of the microscope and the telescope. In turn, these tools both grew and shrank our sense of the world, enhancing the idea of hierarchies. Much social and scientific organization followed that path and destroyed its predecessors. We build the tool to change things, and then the tool changes us. -Quentin Hardy, How the Internet is Destroying Everything

This is the logic that leads most folks into a postmodern tailspin, where everything eats itself. It’s a fun place to be, and the revolutionary excitment is great, but it leaves you with a hangover. Hardy leaves his editorial with this thought on David Weinberger’s illustration of the internet as dragon eating-its-tail: “Instead of giving us of a new and better way of seeing the world, the Internet is a tool that embodies how we have wanted to see the world for some time. We have built it according to our new ideas about the world, and it gained a power that is destroying pre-existing structures.” Which is all that and then some, but:

Though of course, when a Harvard researcher values something because it affords a more accurate picture of reality, the end of hierarchy and a quest for ultimate understanding seems a long way off. -Quentin Hardy, How the Internet is Destroying Everything

 It’s pithy, but it stings because it is true. The internet relies on massive underlying power structures, they are just in different hands that those who made books, although there’s some overlap, clearly. A Harvard researcher is part of a big support system, that elevates his status and gives him or her a part in an institution where he can create something not only with broad impact, but lasting impact. Same for a New York Times writer. What shouldn’t be bought is the easy bill of sale for something that actively destroys lasting value in order to create current value, because frankly, Weinberger isn’t making that trade either.

So I am not worried about the end of books as material objects—in archives and private collections, at least. I think they will always be needed and valued. The changes that most college libraries are undergoing have created an era of unparalleled opportunity for collectors and teachers, like me, and who can foresee what the outcome of this reshuffling of printed materials will be? I look forward to the apocalypse as much as any romantic, but if we are witnessing new forms of creative destruction, I think we are also seeing a counterbalancing, reflexive trend toward the creative preservation of the past using both traditional and digital means. -William Pannapacker, We’re Still in Love with Books

There’s a lot of shifts coming up, and yes, it’ll be nice to have more shelf space, but libraries also need to protect the culture of learning over time, not just its resources. So yes to creative destruction, yes to weeding more, yes to being more criticial about the books we take in, but think about your core values as opposed to the values that are sold to you, because often, you’re paying a price. Value is more than money, and it’s our job to build value over time. That includes not just current use, but future use.

 
 
 

On Theory and Blowing Open the Doors

As far as I can tell, we need to have prior beliefs about the ways the world is structured, and only ever use digital methods to try to create works which let us watch those things in operation. Some, I’m sure, would want to scream ‘confirmation bias!’ at this–but the wonderful thing about the humanities is that they have always allowed scholars to work from problem to evidence, not vice-versa.

The digital humanities is perfectly poised at the moment to optimistically and beautifully affirm the world through all of history as it is now, full of progress and decentralized self-organizing networks and rational actors making free choices; or it might also try to take up what Adorno called the only responsible philosophy: to reveal the cracks and fissures of the world in all its contradictions with otherwordly light. That’s the demand placed on DH by theory, and it needs to come first: all else is mere technique. -Benjamin Schmidt, Theory First.

The beauty of the humanities is that they allow for a reversal of the scientific method, which as Benjamin Schmidt pioints out, can lead to charges of “confirmation bias,” which is only really a concern if “objectivity” was what you were shooting for in the first place. In reality, humanists are in a luxury position of being able to create and analyze texts in the same motion, and work best to examine all of the human underpinnings of them. I think this creates a large problem for humanist librarians, espcially as we try and operate in the field now called “library science.” It’s got an attractive ring to it, that we  are social scientists exploring the reality of libraries. In all honesty, this is a fine way to explore the realities around us, but it does very little good when it comes to the things we do as practitioners, which is make something new. Architects, journalists, artists, musicians, writers, designers, etc., all do this without the compulsion to call themselves scientists. They start with a theory or idea of how things ought to go, and then they make it happen. There’s a vision that is called into being and they create the evidence for it. Anything less than that, while good, is an exhibit of technique. Schmidt callson the eternal snob, Adorno, to make the point.

It is now librarianship’s time to join the humanities again. It is time to look at the cracks. The theory that this is a science is troublesome because we are beginning to ” optimistically and beautifully affirm the world through all of history as it is now, full of progress and decentralized self-organizing networks and rational actors making free choices,” which if you have taken a quick glance at the news, has not been working out as well as we’d like to pretend. If you’re inclined read Chis Lehman’s scathing Rich People Things . Librarians ought to be looking at theories which expose the cracks and faults of the world as it is.

Here’s an example: I believe that students ought to be taught to create openly while they explore their choosen academic fields. There is no reason to cheapen this and call it “play,” which can also be highly structured. I’m basing this on critical theory a la Paulo Friere. You can see examples of it in Critical Library Instruction, where learing starts from the student’s perspective and you go from there. It’s the exact opposite of this:

I could not help but to think of Bloom’s Taxonomy as a model for this transition. In fact, progression through the program is similar to ascending the various levels, steps, or stages. They are learning the language, behaviors, and knowledge base of their discipline. They are expanding their exposure and proficiency which leads to the goal of contributing something new. – Brian Matthews, “What It Takes to Become a Scholar

The theory here is based on a description of what already is: if you play by the rules, you will build up slowly through the accepted levels and will maybe succeed. What is essentially taught are the rules of the game, not an understanding of how to succeed on one’s own terms. Isn’t that what information literacy is supposed to be? A similar problem came up in a blog post that wandered it’s way through twitter:

  It’s about arguing and displaying the value (in both monetary and intrinsic terms) of libraries, librarians and citizen-centred knowledge.  When it comes to keeping, organising and disseminating information and knowledge, the key has always been evolution.  In this field we should always be wary of revolutionary theories – they always lead to loss of information, knowledge and culture. -Hugh Rundle, Evolution, The Death of Libraries and the End of History.

I’d like to emphasize the idea of “citizen-centered,” because it resonates with the idea at the heart of critical literacy, and it goes in with the evolution of thought that started as far back as Jaques Ranciere. There’s not much that is revolutionary with  these theories, they’ve evolved over time, and are part of the history of libraries. We’ve come a long way from chaining books to tables, or from being closed-stack, and began providing people with the means to put things together their own way. We need to build and explore library theory that reflects those interests, and not lock ourselves into the world as it is. That’s merely technique.

“Occupy” and going Back to the Future

I’m occupying LIS research literature. I’m indignant that its impact on practice is minimal, and I don’t believe it is only practitioners’ lack of application or researchers’ lack of skill – it’s a gap that both sides need to help fill. For practitioners, this may come in the form of a shift from relying on anecdotal information in making decisions about services and collections; for researchers, it could be a focus on how the results of a study are communicated.

-Eric Frierson, “Occupy the Research and Practice Divide

I like where Frierson is going with this, I’d love to see more research I can use, and conversely, would like to see more work time justified to do so, I would also like to raise a rhetorical question: is this really part of the “Occupy” strategy? This is a call to more actively participate in a already existing system, which is to say, engage it and support it by participation and/or resistance. It’s not a perfect system, and I’m a part of it too. But Occupy calls for things beyond that. By way of Slavoj Žižek in the Parallax View, Occupy starts at Bartleby’s “I’d prefer not to.”

It requires a look back to a much less institutionalized time to really see some radical work being done, and to some extent, I don’t think that PHD programs nor in general, viewpoints that diminish “anecdotal” perspectives will be the primary movers, if you are strategically invested in the “Occupy”, a better place to look would be further back in history, and also, to the public libraries. It’s not that theory and practice should not meet, but that “Occupy” exists in a space much different than our own, and while institutions can and should engage in the discussion, the real action is more dynamic. As the occupiers of Taqhir Square wrote to those in Oakland:

We stand with you not just in your attempts to bring down the old but to experiment with the new. We are not protesting. Who is there to protest to? What could we ask them for that they could grant? We are occupying. We are reclaiming those same spaces of public practice that have been commodified, privatized, and locked into the hands of faceless bureaucracy, real estate portfolios, and police ‘protection’. Hold on to these spaces, nurture them, and let the boundaries of your occupations grow. After all, who built these parks, these plazas, these buildings? Whose labor made them real and livable? Why should it seem so natural that they should be withheld from us, policed and disciplined? Reclaiming these spaces and managing them justly and collectively is proof enough of our legitimacy.

The research arm of librarianship is full of privatized interest and buracracy. They are over-policed and interested in protecting the status quo: “information” over wisdom and knowledge, statistics over a view of life which is full of humanity. If librarianship is going to thrive, it’s not going to be in those journals, nor in the endless hype cycles of library blogging on trendy, technologially driven topics. It’s got to be about people. Over at Monoskop, a extended piece by architect Nikki O’Loughlin examines the practices of public libraries in the United States. O’Loughlin unearths various models for the distribution of books in public space, both urban and rural. These set up a confluence between spaces in people’s lives and the presence of knowledge artifacts that might interest them for whatever reason. By doing this, dialogs across life-spaces could happen, with the library directly involved. All of this is facilitated by an inexpensive and transferable technology (books, in this case). The a heavily institutionalized library just can’t do this with the same aplomb, and digital products don’t provide the physical, social space for interaction, on top of their barriers to entry. I’m not recommending slavishly reproducing the past, but rather to look at times of radical change and how libraries dealt with them. What was that about doomed to repeat it?

Read the whole thing, breath in the radical and stop thinking about theory and practice as seperate. That only holds you back. Librarians, join your 1% to your 99%.

 

The confluence of marginalia (how this post came about).

Sarah Werner makes some excellent points as to how limited the imagination is for digitizing objects (why focus only on text?) along with the ideas that most digitization conflates copy and edition, and it allows others to make important decisions for you.

I often look at scanning machines and wonder about how much they cost. They seems like a lot. Good digital cameras have come down in price, and the know-how of taking good pictures is not outside the reach of most people. So, as Werner points out, you lose the bespoke elements in digital work. Harder, better, faster, stronger is the motto, which runs counter to the whole view of special collections and archives as being places that hold unique items. Considering the difficulty and expense of traditional models for digitization that requires special software, hardware, expertise and training, how many countless hours and expensive plane tickets could be saved with a Nikon? It’s high time that digitization becomes not just a collections tool, but a reference tool as well.