An apology for the complex OPAC.

I’ve written a little bit about kairos in this blog before. In reading an apology for the role of the librarian, I also found a little bit to say about the complexity of the OPAC. Many have called for its demolition, and to have it replaced with single search boxes. It has been endlessly assaulted by many inside the profession as having too many functions, and a recent comment about educational technology reminded me of that fact:

In education, digital-based obfuscation was unintentionally built into some monolithic learning management tools….Simply because we have the ability to create vast systems with our ingenious programming languages and architectural schemas does not mean those systems are good.

That makes sense to me. I teach classes on Microsoft Office software. I also have seen the slightly astounded look I get when I mistakenly blaze through a catalog for a patron in a hurry. But perhaps all of that complexity underlies a more humane objective than what we give the designers of these softwares credit for. That is the “the ability to respond productively to the moment and its demands.” This kind of responsiveness demands complexity of some kind. As it was discussed at In the Library With the Lead Pipe, that is also who we are as librarians. Our jobs are often multi-faceted, and rarely do we perform a single task. Instead we educate user and fellow staff, we perform outreach, reference, circulation, collection management, programming, provide subject and technology expertise, and make sure that people don’t bring their entire dinner to the library. We’re like our OPACs. Happily, we also have friendlier user interfaces.

Alas, poor OPACs.

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Online and In-Person Trust

For years, one thing that librarians have pounded away at is the evaluation of online materials. In classrooms and on the reference desk, we constantly harped at online information (and we ought to do so for all information, really). It’s been decried as a fault, a relic from the days of geocities, where “anyone can post anything.” We used to tell people to look for authors, last updates, the names of organizations–any indication of adgenas, for good or evil. The model used at Duke University of “Authority, Purpose, Currency, Objectivity, and Support” all still ring true, although I’d argue currency isn’t always a good indicator of anything. Does  old knowledge always go bad?

What it really comes down to is trust: who do you trust, and why?

The USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism just released its 2010 Digital Future Study, which had some interesting findings:

  • 61% of internet users said that half or less of the information online is reliable.
  • 14% of internet users said that a “small portion” to “none” of it is reliable.
  • 53% of internet users said most or all of the information from search engines is reliable.

For better or worse, we’re becoming more skeptical of online information, but that third bullet point threw me. The conflation of trust between what a particular search engine finds and “trustworthiness” scares me, especially since search engines lack something everyone has: a brain that can critically evaluate things. Perhaps the semantic web will eventually do all of that thinking for us, but any software includes the bias of its’ creator, intentional or not. Conversely, there are many good websites that search engines can find, but the “best” (if you go by Duke standards) might not show up in the first two pages of results. This is the librarian’s dead horse.

A good part of me wishes this skepticism was extended to the rest of the library. Our organization and our resources all contain their own biases. That is our blessing and our curse. Each library, seemingly so similar with the same databases, the same titles, the same call numbering systems, etc., all hide the differences shaped by the communities we serve and the staff we employ. Furthermore, every book on our shelves can be examined by the criteria of “Authority, Purpose, Currency, Objectivity, and Support.” Worse than the illusion of information online being wholly reliable, is the myth that print is above the biases of authors, publishers, schools, governments, and libraries. It’s our job as librarians to navigate this, and not just worry about the internet.

Special Collections! Alongside reproducibility, quality, and luxury.

I have extremely mixed feelings about how easy it has become to duplicate other people’s words, music, and images (both still and video). But I can imagine the joys of living in a world where all things were as easy to reproduce at will…..In a world where everything is completely level and where nothing is difficult to obtain, does desire remain?

Coming from a new music blog, this really got me thinking about the cultural capital that libraries accrue. There are the oohs and aaahs that I frequently indulge in when I go into pretty much any special collections room, or the highly revered language I use to describe my short but sweet time at the Newberry in Chicago.  The oldness, the rareness, the fanciness. They all short-circuit my critical thinking and make me speak in librarian-googly-mush. These are the places where we can see treasures of cultural heritage, where memory can be served like nowhere else. At first, it  seems like the key to all of this is rarity.

But, it’s nice to know that digital reproducibility doesn’t take away from that. Take any spec. coll. digitized collection, and a lot of that mystique doesn’t fall away. It stays constant, even passed as bits over a screen, at least for me. While not as high impact as a physical thing, it still acts as a quick look into a privileged world. It allows us to see its rarity, and the digital copy taunts us as a near-copy of an unreproducible experience. As some folks in the know tell us:

We believe that luxury is rarity. We believe that innovation – the pursuit of new rarity – needs to be a redoubled goal of all luxury brands.

But I have to take a step back. Is rarity the only part of desire? I desire a cup of black coffee, a new CD, and the occasional ability to rescind my adulthood. None of those things are rare at all. There’s something else that explains this: rarity does not mean that something is actually of good quality. And quality is what really, truly counts. If you can make quality reproducible, you’re sitting on something valuable. Now, where’s the coffee pot?

Libraries in the thick of it….

Auld Public Library Pic

I get a lot of questions from distance and non-traditional students. I give a lot of credit to them; while I took my sweet time lazing about on grassy lawns while getting my undergraduate degree, they are out there hustling, working, and having incredibly complicated lives while getting and education. Of these intrepid souls, I hear the following:

“Don’t they know they should be going to their school’s library?”

Generally, the answer is yes, they do. But they also understand that libraries, in general are places where they can get some access to the long-form conversations that take place in books, magazines, newspapers, and journals take place. What they are missing is the fact that public libraries have that format, but not the same content. It’s actually pretty cool that they understand more of the context of libraries than the content. This has become an excellent jumping off point for me as a reference librarian. Having recently been in school, I’m pretty well versed in what resources are available to them, and I often spend time helping them navigate their choices.

widner library

All of this really came together, when I was skimming across Art:21, which made the well-worn point that,

As both a process and an outcome, art is inseparable from the people and places where it is displayed, made, bought, performed, or destroyed. To leave this out of an education in the arts is to simply miss the most crucial component of art – experience.”

The stuff that higher education is made out of is accessed from the campus, and a large part of it is still in the libraries: the books scholars and teachers write, the electronic access to the articles they publish, the proceedings from the obscure conferences they attend. These are the artifacts that all the hubbub on campuses creates. The campus library is the context for that particular content, and by not being there (physically or digitally), the student misses out on the process of making, buying, performing, displaying, and destroying of these things that record work on campuses. It hearkens back to The Warhol Economy. But for higher ed.

All  of  this nonsense got its’ legs when I read a Snarkmarket post by Tim Carmody about Author and Work Functions. Here’s two quotes that get to it:

“[W]hat we’re deal­ing with now, I think, is the ram­i­fi­ca­tion of hav­ing long-form writ­ing not nec­es­sar­ily mean­ing phys­i­cal objects, not nec­es­sar­ily mean­ing com­mis­sion­ing edi­tors and pub­lish­ers in the man­ner of mak­ing those phys­i­cal objects, and not mean­ing any of the sales chan­nels or the pre­ex­ist­ing ways of pro­duc­ing cul­tural focus. This is really clear to me as some­one who writes and pub­lishes both on a weblog and books. There are cer­tain chan­nels of con­ver­sa­tion in this soci­ety that you can only get into if you have writ­ten a book. Terry Gross has never met any­one in her life who has not JUST pub­lished a book. Right?” (From an interview with Clay Shirky)

“The way our culture works, depending on what field you’re operating in, certain kinds of objects (or in some cases, events) generate more cultural focus than others. Shirky gives an example from painting: “Anyone can be a painter, but the question is then, ‘Have you ever had a show; have you ever had a solo show?’ People are always looking for these high-cost signals from other people that this is worthwhile.” In music, maybe it used to be an album; in comedy, it might be an hour-long album or TV special; I’m sure you can think of others in different media. It’s a high-cost object that broadcasts its significance. It’s not a thing; it’s a work.”

I think libraries provide more of the context that gives works their own cultural significance, in addition to the publishers, the authors, and the author’s backing institutions. Shirky’s comment can be co-opted by library folk this way:

There are cer­tain chan­nels of con­ver­sa­tion in this soci­ety

that you can only get into if you go to a library.

And it matters what library that is. More than anything else, this is the takeaway that I give to distance and other non-traditional students. You are taking part in a conversation. You are learning to talk so you can join, and the context matters. Public libraries and librarians can help you. But if you’re going for 100%, you need to be in that context.