Big Dumb Ideas and the Archive

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Research libraries may not know as much as click-obsessed Amazon does about how people interact with their books. What they do know, however, reflects the behavior of a community of scholars, and it’s unpolluted by commercial imperatives. -David Weinenberger, A Good, Dumb Way to Learn From Libraries 

But it appears that the author wants to change that. Big data is a shorthand for actual use and understanding especially to compare across communities, which Weinenberger gets. But the man must have no idea what collections, acquisitions, reference, liaison librarians or bibliographers do. Also, he seems to have a blind spot for the common functions of library management systems. Instead he proposes spending inordinate amounts of time and money building goofy websites like Stacklife. That’s fine if you’re Harvard. But what is the point of doing all this, and asking others to devote their time to it? He says “Too bad we can’t put to work the delicious usage data gathered by libraries,” but never answers why and to whom this is important. It’s big data as the new “library 2.0″ and it is pretty cool but also pretty useless, unless you want to make your library an echo chamber. He even admits that potential for this kind of system to do this, but suggests it anyway.

I am here to defend the archive from the canon. By giving a little number to books, and ranking them that way, it will remove any need to think about what books to grab. Scholars, and students alike function on the principle of least effort for research. (Cite) By making use the main metric of books, ruts of thought will be carved out faster and faster while anything off of those paths will be ignored. Big data is statistical groupthink and it is not good for building critical thinking. We as educators and as keepers of archival forms of knowledge know this, but that doesn’t make for pitching “good, dumb” ideas.

And let’s be honest, we don’t need any more inroads for privatization. It is well and good for Harvard to make a somewhat useless website, but the private takeover in public goods is real. It’s bad enough in higher education, but this is also instructive: that pesky data protection will always be eroded in the face of business interests, laws notwithstanding. Homogenization through big data is a real danger as we try and conform to the ways of looking that are proposed by those in centers of influence and power. Consider the following cases in point:

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When I look around, I see the culture we’ve built turning from a liberating revolution into a repressive incumbency. We’ve built magical devices, but we don’t care enough about protecting ordinary people from harm when they use them. -Pete Warden, Nerd Culture is Destroying Silicon Valley

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I am over hearing from people within jogging distance of the Chelsea galleries that the whole of contemporary art is over; that art is no longer emotionally or intellectually fulfilling; that art is too expensive even for millionaires. I’m done reading articles titled “Why Does So Much New Abstraction Look the Same?,” written by people who haven’t figured out that Manhattan has bridges and tunnels and a subway. And I’m tired of pretending that a global elite has a monopoly on the expression of “ideas and feelings,” when there are thousands of people working every day outside of that slipstream as proof otherwise. -Ric Kasini Kadour, I Don’t Care About David Byrne Anymore?

The last thing that I posted was the dangers of microfascisms and what Weinberger proposes here is a real one. So yes, it’s a dumb idea, but not for the technical dumb/smart technological reasons, but because it is an idea that runs so counter to archival knowledge and the production of critical thought that is is an embarrassment to the concept or education. There is little need for more ghosts in the machines. To say that this is learning from libraries is disingenuous. This is pure resource extraction.

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Participation and Academic Exclusion

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Let’s talk about the innovation culture. Let’s talk about how to make something simple and beautiful into something ugly. The problem with many innovations is that they conflate innovation for specialization. There’s a great new skateboard that can easily ride down stairs, but you can do that and many other things with any deck.  The tools of academic publishing have run into the same problem: we have specialized journals for everything, but few places that allow for broader participation, with Aaron Swartz’s death, a lot of discussions about this came up:

To put it bluntly, the current state of academic publishing is the result of a series of strong-arm tactics enabling publishers to pry copyrights from authors, and then charge exorbitant fees to university libraries for access to that work. The publishers have inverted their role as disseminators of knowledge and become bottlers of knowledge, releasing it exclusively to the highest bidders. Swartz simply decided it was time to take action. -Peter Ludlow, Aaron Swartz Was Right.

But Ludlow misses another important point: for good or bad, these costs have a hidden benefit for academics themselves:

With the majority of academic literature hidden behind a paywall, there is no way for the public to determine whether claims of irrelevance are valid. Instead, they rely on slanted media coverage – “Feds pay $227,000 to study magazine photographs,” crowed the Washington Times – and politicians’ charges of elitism, which paywalls help validate. The paywall sends a signal to the public that their interest in scholarship is unwelcome, even though their money may have helped pay for it. -Sarah Kendzior, Academic Funding and The Public Interest: The Death of Political Science.

Libraries and publishers have been in this system of exclusion for a long time, there’s no one side to blame. But Kendizor takes it one step further: even our language is to blame:

Furthermore, writing in a style decipherable to the public opens one up to public scrutiny. “Bad writing,” argues political scientist Stephen Walt, is “a form of academic camouflage designed to shield the author from criticism.” -Sarah Kendzior, Academic Funding and The Public Interest: The Death of Political Science.

We are living in a time where the ability to access knowledge is at an all-time high. But the structure of publishing, of tenure and promotion and our language itself have given rise to new levels of defensiveness for academics. It’s time to get to the Harlem Shake of academia, something so obvious that anyone can do it. Many academics are trying things out, from open access journals to blogs to non-academic but thoughtful sites like thestate.ae. It’s time to really put everything out there because now more than ever, we’re hiding when we shouldn’t. Open access journals are the Stair Rover to HTMLgiant‘s firecracker and it’s clear that by creating something so functional, we’ve created something ugly.

Bored in the Library, Luxury of the Mind

Stop Trying to Fill Every Hour of Your Day: Ever wonder why you get most of your ideas in the shower? It’s because the shower is among the last sacred spaces where we aren’t distracted by colleagues or technology. Our ideas need time to ferment and connect with other ideas, and being bored allows our minds to accomplish this naturally. -Sean Blanda, Five “Good Habits” You Need to Unlearn

This is not about quiet, but the idea of quiet. Libraries have always been leaders in third space, as Montgomery and Miller argue that in times of fiscal constraint, the academic library fills that niche, and further, the library is a place of individual productivity during finals. Most importantly, the library:

(O)ffers a comfortable welcoming environment for informal gathering where people come and go at their leisure and “nobody plays host” (Oldenburg 1999). The relaxed atmosphere of the third place provides users with the chance to be around others where they are not restricted by time, nor are they compelled to be there. -Montgomery and Miller, The “Third Place”: The Libary as Collaborativeand Community Space in a Time of Fiscal Contraint

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The place we are trying to get away from is a noisy one. Stuart Sim puts forth the idea that the noise we are trying to get away from is integral to the business culture of the United States, where it functions as a way to get our increasingly divided attention (Manifesto for Silence). Pushing this one step further, John Stewart connects the noise of the consumer society to an even deeper place: our identities:

It seems the attitudes toward noise are being shaped and changed by consumer society…..It also means that many people do not know life without noise; if it were not there, a void would open up in their lives. They would notice the silence. They have become oblivious to the noise. Why Noise Matters, p.9-10

The “fear of silence” is so unsettling because without the noise, our attentions have no easy external focus, no desire drive spurned on, no object or idea with which to attach. The stuff brings the noise and brings our identity additives with it. This is the place where libraries get their power, both in terms of physical space, but also the space that an instruction librarian  can bring into the classroom. Shutting down the noise and unsettling that drive allows students to really connect ideas with other ideas. Blanda may think that is because they are bored, but perhaps that is exactly the point. He equates not having to deal with the hassles of life to boredom and specifically, a lack of noise. Being able to avoid the invasion of noise (corporate or otherwise) has always been the purview of the well-to-do, and is a key factor in defining a luxury product:

Luxury vehicles make a statement — but too often, you can’t hear it over the roar of their engines. So the makers of top-line craft are dummying up the decibels, with a technological silence that’s 24-karat golden. Indeed, keeping quiet has become a science of its own. -Alexander George, The Silence of Luxury

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Libraries provide that sacred third space of silence, both from sound and from other mental distraction, much the same as what Blanda finds in the shower, and what your average 1%-er finds in the comfort of the newest Learjet. What libraries excel at is keeping down the cost. Best of all, unlike the cluttered and loud identities that can be forged through the consumption of consumer goods, the library provides a quiet place, sometimes literally, but often figuratively.

Quote That: WHY I READ THEORY

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In other words, the theory and methods I discovered and then committed myself to offered ideas not to be applied to the work but rather inherent in it—or at least inherent to my understanding of it. In a sense, then, these ideas served to reaffirm, expand, and deepen my own hunches, legitimizing but also pressuring my burgeoning thinking, even as they offered a vast context to enter. -Johanna Burton, Outtakes from Another Conversation: Thoughts on Curating and Education.

Ima Read, Ima Research

This song came from a twitter feed. Being a librarian, the words “IMA READ” act like a sign post for “please investigate.” It turned out to be a music video for a song which had blown up over Paris Fashion Week, specifically Rick Owen’s show. I won’t recount the shock this video first registers. The thing is pure unadulterated menace and cool.

With the slightest bit of internet digging, it comes to light that the song is not specifically a misogynist chant, but the work of a ballroom scene traveler and artist Ojay Morgan, who created the alter-ego of Zebra Katz for his musical projects. At least to Morgan, to read someone is  a high form of insult. Basically, making the other person a passive object to be taken in and dismissed in the face of one’s own place. Interestingly enough, the thing also came from a college experience:

 The song has always been my self-mantra—it’s just something I would always say to myself as a joke, because I took this class called  “How To Read A Play,” and I couldn’t stand the teacher, so I was always like “Ima read that bitch.” -Zebra Katz, Zebra Katz is Booking It

Namely, the song primarily seems to be in the voice of a teacher. Someone who from their own knowledge can quickly sum up and judge:

That really helped make it a song that you can pay reference to, even if you don’t know anything about ball culture—hopefully you went to school, then college, then at that point, hopefully you would write a dissertation so you can excuse your shit! -Zebra Katz, Zebra Katz is Booking It

The requirement of “reading” someone, and specifically “taking them to college” implies both violence and education, and the powers that it grants. Nothing so dire came of Morgan’s classroom experience, but the song highlights those fraught relationships anyone can feel in a classroom: when the students are bored and feel unchallenged, or feel that the teacher looks down on them, and the instructors saddled with curricula they dislike but have to deliver, or shoehorn previous work into, or feel that their students are in fact, facebooking, text-message spewing ignoramuses. Whatever the reasons, as a librarian, your heart goes out to both sides as they work out a difficult student-teacher relationship as the tensions escalate faster than we can breathe the words “critical literacy.”

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I was glad to read that Morgan saw the value in education despite the violence it can unwittingly do, so he can write a dissertation and excuse his own shit. In any case, Morgan dropped the R-word and the C-word in another interview, and it goes a long way in making the song make sense, and even, to him, a funny self-mantra from his college days:

“When the song hit Paris, it completely skyrocketed,” Mr. Morgan said. “All these people in the fashion industry that I looked up to had to listen to that song, and I knew a lot of people weren’t going to get the context right away. You have to do the research to get what I’m saying.” -Eric Wilson, You Have to Know the Context

Libraries and librarians can always help create a context for education, and even if it’s not a pretty one, often knowing it goes a long way to help all of those participating in higher education. And the only way to get the context is to do the research, both for the class and about the class, to understand the content and the form of the classroom and the school. This is why we are the archive that can help critique a canon.  You can’t take someone to college until you give yourself some knowledge. Ima Read, Ima Read, Ima Read.

The Canon and The Archive

A general l rule, fundamental principle, aphorism, or axiom governing the systematic or scientific treatment of a subject…
“canon, n.1″. OED Online. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/27148?rskey=OpD2lb&result=3&isAdvanced=false

…a canon exists and is cherished for representing the solid core of work that centers activity in the field.
Anita Silvers, The Canon in Aesthetics. From “Canon,” In Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, Oxford Art Online. http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/opr/t234/e0100

It’s always trouble when you lead with definitions. In this case, I’ll make the argument with these definitions that much of what students experience in a classroom is canonical in nature. Not a canon in the contested, literary sense, but in any classroom, there are underlying structures of thought in the layout of a curriculum. That’s fine, otherwise the teaching of any class or session would be difficult at best. But one day, as I was killing time in the stacks, I saw a brightly colored stack of journals, and browsed my way to this quote:

Archival items are rarely or never communicated or interpreted….While the canon makes the past present and relevant, the archive preserves the past as past.

When the canon tends to stagnate or become instrumental, mythic or chauvinistic, the archive provides a critical corrective and invites the rediscovery of alternative sources.

Kristin B. Aavitsland, From Nationalism to Cosmopolitan Classicism: Harry Fett’s Concept of Cultural Capital p.29

Working backwards, I realized this encapsulated the potential the library has to upend canons, and more importantly, the way it opens up the possibility to challenge the great pyramid of bloom’s taxonomy. If we are going to take informed learning or critical literacy seriously, then the dated, hierarchical divide between acts of understanding and creation of knowledge shouldn’t be as  drastic. Nor should one be prized above the other if the skills we want to teach are going to relevant in the much-hyped (over?) “2.0/3.0″ information ecosystem. Libraries are the places where students can create knowledge that can compliment or challenge what they learn in the classroom, so if the archives are going to have that kind of relationship to the canon, then creating needs to come into play much earlier in Bloom’s taxonomy than at the top.