Concision and attention.

I read with continuous partial attention and I don’t care that I am frequently interrupting my own reading. I despise the discourse that says we are all shallow, that we are all flighty, distracted, not paying attention. I am paying attention, but I am paying attention to everything, and even if my knowledge is fragmented and hard to synthesise it is wider, and it plays in a vaster sphere, than any knowledge that has gone before.

It’s an interesting idea, that we’re paying attention, but just to more things. It makes for a great defense of those things that are “interdisciplinary” or those that interrupt the work/life divide that many people wish they could maintain. Most importantly, it provides librarians with a solid argument for their wide-ranging activities, and also comforts those of us who are looking beyond our discipline for answers to our problems, whatever they might be.  James Bridle wrote this post on the future of publishing, and how we need to stop kidding ourselves about things we claim to love. I’ve posted about slow media before, I too need to confess that slow, focused attention is no longer part of my reading, and largely, not really a part of my professional work either. Having bounced around the industry quite a bit, I’ve made a living by not getting too attached to any idealized version of my career, outside of what I am capable of, or capable of learning. That’s a helpful thing when it comes to dealing with reference and instruction, to not limit the scope of importance by what we presume about the people we are helping. They are more widely varied than the labels we give them, and their attention is a larger part of the equation than we sometimes consider.

Marketers are more like circus ringmasters than ever before. Far better, it seems, to concentrate on the few (fleas) willing to slow down, the few willing to stop acting that way and actually pay attention and stick around. -Seth Godin

Godin’s point here is a good one, finding those who are willing to invest time is a good strategy, but in the face of a bum-rush of information, we can’t afford to be so picky. It’s our job to serve everyone who wants something, no matter how focused they are or how deep the need, so we should try and meet them at their level. Shortness, a possible result catering to too-divided attention spans, has a positive spin: concision.

And short isn’t necessarily a shortcut. When you have only a sentence or two, there’s nowhere to hide. I’m not suggesting that colleges eliminate long writing projects from English courses, but maybe we should save them for the second semester. Rewarding concision first will encourage students to be economical and innovative with language. Who knows, we might even start to leave behind text messages and comment threads that our civilization can be proud of. -Andy Selsberg, Teaching to the Text Message, NYT.


Language keeps me locked and repeating: marketing and the ebook.

This link made me think hard about the sabre-rattling that goes on around ebooks. Yes, wave-of-the-future, death-of-print, this-is-what-our-patrons-want, the-market-is-growing-at-800%. Ultimately, it looks like a marketing strategy. Perhaps people are reading less, but the big drive for ebooks comes from Amazon as a market leader, and all who aspire to compete with them, libraries included. But looking at the big picture, I can’t help but feel that the 8% market share of ebooks in the U.S  is pushed from above by these companies rather than by any real need for them. Sure, publishing and libraries are in a squeeze, economically, and ebooks provide an way for publishers to cut costs and stay afloat in the face of a constricted market. But the 8% figure is only in the U.S., and compared to the intake of “books” is quite small. The UK numbers are between 1-9%, and in the rest of the world, it’s 1% or less. Is industry-driven growth in the US and the UK really an indicator that this is the future? Like any other product, the ebook has been marketed to us as our salvation, when in reality, it is the next way for the publishing industry to gain profit. It’s been shown that the image of the library is tied to that of the book, but libraries need to position themselves beyond that. The challenge for us is to act as a barrier between those who produce material and those who disseminate it. Tim Wu’s conception of net neutrality is a helpful model to consider reading in full:

It would be foolish to assume that anything is unbiased, that anyone can operate without some conflict of interest. But as our digital tools become ever more essential, pervasive, and complex, the challenge is being able to detect those biases. Tim’s solution is what he terms “the separations principle,” a premise that, like the separation of Church and State, demands that the people in charge of carrying the content are not also the same ones producing it.

Finding ways to help people access information, for pleasure or otherwise, and then giving them the tools and the know-how to create new knowledge is bigger than books or ebooks. The true mission of the library is to lower the barriers for access into the “information economy” and frankly, the ebook is a distraction from the real mission of libraries. The recent dust-up over limiting ebooks has shown that libraries are not longer buying into the salvation myth, and we’re moving forward.

Truth and voices in librarianship.

We must wrestle with truth because:

Even if we admit that not all information-seeking behavior is directed at determining the truth, we have to admit that a large percentage of it is. And, if librarians are to develop policies about how to organize information, develop procedures for handling morally difficult reference requests, instruct others in appropriate evaluative techniques, or any other of our duties, then we need to understand this thing called ‘information’ and how it relates to ‘knowledge’. Given that truth is integral to knowledge (and perhaps to information, too) it follows that truth is a professional concern.

-Lane Wilkinson, Sense and Reference

We are engaging in information literacy and have to be  clear about what truth, to us, actually is, because:

Baudrillard’s pataphysical projections of his own fantastic universe of runaway signs encourage academics to embrace ludic forms of postmodernism for the radical posture it affords them as a cover for their role as passive supplicants of history and to avoid the concrete politics that Freire speaks about.

-Peter McLaren and Tomaz Tadeu da Silva, Decentering Pedagogy: Critical Literacy, resistance, and the politics of memory, p.85 in Paulo Freire: A Critical Encounter (1993)

Making truth an integral part of our instruction is a first-order priority. If we say we are teaching patrons and students to be “information literate,” which is to be able to navigate the multitude of voices around them and use information and knowledge to create their own voice, then we cannot shy away from truth, and especially not the social, political, and economic problems that surround the systems of information management and the creation of knowledge. We need to refine our voices, and understand how we play into those problems as well. I’m looking at you, librarians.

Libraries as the heart of open information.

This is heartening: libraries being perceived as a central place for open access. It’s also worth reading the whole report, there is a lot of good stuff on the future of university presses, which I love.

A number of other presses have partnered with their campus libraries to host their digital books,
as detailed above. These press-library partnerships are all limited to open access publishing,
however. Libraries are committed to open access as part of their mission, and digital library
systems, for the most part, do not accommodate the kind of business systems necessary to sell
content (although most can restrict access to a particular group, and Michigan’s MPublishing
program has the capacity to sell print editions of titles in its collections).

From the report “Sustaining Scholarly Publishing” by the Association of American University Presses

The Flood and canon-less context

Gleick’s book has an epilogue entitled “The Return of Meaning,” expressing the concerns of people who feel alienated from the prevailing scientific culture. The enormous success of information theory came from Shannon’s decision to separate information from meaning. His central dogma, “Meaning is irrelevant,” declared that information could be handled with greater freedom if it was treated as a mathematical abstraction independent of meaning. The consequence of this freedom is the flood of information in which we are drowning. The immense size of modern databases gives us a feeling of meaninglessness. –Freeman Dyson’s review of Glieck‘s The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood

The idea that information is something that can free of meaning works against the goals of information literacy. It makes me think of art. The only way to “get” it is by one of two ways: read up on it, or go see a lot of it. These are not bad things in themselves, but they require more time and effort than a lot of folks have. At Art Fag City, Paddy Johnson makes the case that in a culture where intellectual default is institutionalized deconstruction paired with populist leanings, “it’s worth mentioning that one of the few ways we afford expertise in a culture that rejects the canon is by demonstrating that we have more work experience than others.” To Johnson, the result is an emphasis on consuming a high volume of art as a marker of expertise over having a good eye for quality, although she and everyone knows that volume only goes so far, regardless. What volume does get you, above and beyond anything else, is context in he absence of an official canon.

Information literacy should be the art of helping students build up a context. What strikes me as odd about the ACRL information literacy standards is how little they discuss an understanding of context (especially the student’s own) before jumping into the “determination of extents of information,” perhaps it would be wise to back up and ask students to examine the whole field in front of them, even the small parts they already know. The resulting context gives them a chance to develop their taste for information, whereas a contextless search leaves them floundering with the results. In this case, meaning is highly relevant in the information retrieved because it anchors everything in a context: a ongoing conversation that envelops research. By founding information literacy outside of context, we strip the most important part from true literacy: meaning.