Here’s to the Gray Areas

These days, a popular way to make a splash in the media is by making some drastic proclamation on the future of libraries. These edicts usually start by citing the explosion of ‘free’ information, readily accessible to ‘everyone’ and go on to declare the death of the book or the librarian or the library itself. They spend little time discussing the facts, like accessibility issues, the backlog of digitization, the quality of the cataloguing/indexing of large-scale digitization projects, the false sense of technological confidence and poor assessment skills of younger generations or the history of the integration of new technologies.

As an academic librarian in love with books and technology – and the places where they intersect – I sometimes take these attacks to heart. After all, these declarations are not only assaults on my livelihood and the future of my profession, but indictments of my worldview and vision of our collective, democratic future.

image for 5 myths about the 'Information Age'

from The Chronicle of Higher Education, Bob McGrath

Which is why it was so refreshing to see the article “5 Myths About the ‘Information Age’” by Harvard professor Robert Darnton in The Chronicle of Higher Education today. There are no difficult, futurespeak concepts here. The article lays out the five simple myths and grounds them in plain good sense and a healthy dose of media history. Not only does Darnton point out the issues listed above that are so often missed by the library-slayers, he includes fascinating tidbits like our potential misunderstanding of the nature of reading in past centuries and underlines the current popularity of libraries both on and off campuses.

Darnton is no luddite ivory tower dweller. He’s been at the centre of recent discussions on creating a US national digital public library and sees the endeavor as a step in fulfillment of the democratic potential of his nation. Instead, however, of grabbing a attention with radical rationalizations cheaply achieved, Darnton argues against the sound-bite specialists with a few well-researched statements which pointedly avoid hyperbole.

The most intriguing aspect of this article, for me, is its example as an antithesis which both refutes the end-of-the-library manifesto and shows how a truly considered opinion can be arrived at and constructed. In this guise, it underlines a trend I’ve been noticing develop in social media, one that came up recently in – of all places – an episode of a favourite podcast, WTF with Marc Maron. It was during a very thoughtful and intelligent conversation between Maron and Conan O’Brien that the latter observed that there had been a drift in the North American cultural conversation towards extremism and intolerance on matters of opinion. As the late-night comedian saw it, there was no longer room in the public discourse for nuanced viewpoints or seeing value in things that you’re not passionately in like with. You LOVE it or HATE it, there’s no room for sort-of-liking-the-character-and-attitude-but-not-connecting-with-the-message-so-much-but-it’s-easy-to-see-how-it-connects-with-people-who-had-that-experience…

O’Brien placed the blame for this squarely on the current extremist attitude in US politics and the ongoing fight for national identity, but I think a case can be made that Twitter and Facebook, with their limited-character status updates and tacit encouragement of attention-grabbing declarations (what’s lonelier than a FB status update with no likes or comments?), seem to foster all-or-nothing opinions. Taking over where the TV soundbite left off, the overwhelming interactiveness and content-generation of social media mean the opinions have to get even more extreme to be heard.

Don’t get me wrong – I love social media. There are so many new and exciting ways I can interact with friends, colleagues and strangers. However, more than once, I have stopped myself from commenting or liking a post because I felt I wouldn’t be able to approach the subject honestly or with enough justice to the range of my thoughts and I was reluctant to be misinterpreted by enforced brevity. There are plenty of tools that allow for this deeper interaction, it’s just a matter of promoting the right ones for the right tasks.

The ways in which new technologies play out in our shared and individual lives are never right or wrong – they always contribute in both positive and negative ways to society. Like Darnton, we need to be interested in yesterday, today and tomorrow, as well as in understanding the full and multi-layered trajectory of the path technologies take in our lives. While the extremists are declaring the imminent demise of my livelihood, I’ll be looking for ways to use social media to deepen the discussion and make my chosen career an integral, viable one for many years to come.


The right balance of personality and information

The Chronicle of Higher Education’s ProfHacker has a nice, brief post today about the impersonality of Twitter and the nice fit that makes for using it as a teaching tool.

This has been something I’ve been thinking about since I started using social media for my work a few years ago. Getting into the social for “business” purposes is tricky, and the potential to become creepy, unwanted intruder is high. This is especially true in FB, where it can feel like you’re wandering univited into a party or someone’s bedroom.

I like Jones’ view that Twitter seems ultra-personal – and has been used in a confessional mode by more than one user (hello @CourtneyLove), but its brevity and simplicity allows for a friendly but professional distance. There are no personal pictures or expectations of a closed “friends only” setting – just the feeds and 140 characters at a time. That isn’t to say libraries shouldn’t be on FB and other social spaces, but navigating those areas is much trickier, especially with undergrads.

My library still has no social media presence (slap my wrist…I’m working on it!) but when I used Twitter (and FB status) to push information in the past, I tried to maintain a friendly-yet-impersonal tone, the same one I’d use for in-person encounters with the students who asked for help. I’m wondering how or if that barrier can be slightly pushed to really maximize student engagement.

The Dark Side…

Even before Facebook so rudely changed my profile without asking me, then had the gall to tell me it had been my choice, I had already been getting more and more frustrated with software and cloud program privacy agreements/terms and conditions. Then I saw this awesome graphic on Mashable:

infographic depicting stats on privacy agreements

This infographic was created by SelectOut, an ad-tracking opt-out initiative..

Data data data

gleened from Stephen’s Lighthouse – can’t wait to dive in!

Fear Factor

Allan’ provocative post got me thinking more about a few topics:

1. the progressivist/regressivist narrative re: the internet and social media

2. the tool/task-centric narrative approach of much library 2.0 literature

3. the transliteracy model and the current redefining of librarians’ relevance/professional mandate

These all seem to be interconnected to me in a space many librarians find downright scary, where fear is a prime motivator. How many of us are adopting these tools and moving our services into this space because we are afraid of being left behind, of becoming irrelevant, of losing ground in the areas where our clients congregate? Are we becoming cheeleaders for new media without understanding what our actual message is? How many librarians are adopting social media and spending more professional time online, while simultaneously harbouring fears of the long-term change that new media is creating not only in our work and our society, but inside our own skulls?

A few days ago, The Guardian published a fairly balanced, yet ultimately alarmist, article by John Harris entitled, “How the internet is altering your mind.” The impetus behind the piece is the UK publication of Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, and Harris admirably provides a forum for both supporting and critical voices (as does the Globe and Mail in their review of the book here). However, Carr’s message – that scientific evidence is showing that these tools are not just making us less creative but dumber – and his own behaviour patterns seem to have spooked Harris enough that his article has a distinctly pessimistic tone. Harris’ reaction is an altogether human one – and one which can be found in latent or blatent form in many ‘stories’ of library 2.0, be they tales told in numbers or words.

Transliteracy – defined on as “the ability to read, write and interact across a range of platforms, tools and media from signing and orality through handwriting, print, TV, radio and film, to digital social networks” – provides shape to an opposing, positive narrative outlook to search for in library 2.0 literature. Whether termed “transliteracy” or not, this vision of librarians using social media to be active agents in the creation a multi-literate society is a powerful one, and definitely one I will keep in my own mind as I design applications for 2.0 tools in my own library.

“Google doesn’t do social media well.” Discuss.

Ahniwa Ferrari of Washington State Libraries, one of early adopters I met at the Internet Librarian conference last year, passed on this provocative entry from Adam Rifkin’s …ifindkarma… blog, “Pandas and Lobsters: Why Google Cannot Build Social Applications“, which dissects Google’s character as an online megalith and makes the pronouncement that its essential nature precludes its success with social media apps and platforms. Barring YouTube, which it purchased as opposed to developing itself, Google’s track record in creating spaces in which people want to gather and share is pretty dismal.

Personally, I made furtive stabs at Google Wave and Google Buzz, but have found neither anywhere near good enough to replace my other social media tools, or to even use at all. Conversley, I was let in on Google Voice last year and it became my go-to real-time communication tool, after Skype. Proving “Panda’s and Lobsters” thesis that Google makes great tools, not great social connectors.As librarians, we obviously need both, and this post provides some nice insights into how we can evaluate the programs, apps, and platforms that come our way. Understanding the nature of the beast is a large part of successfully making it our pet.

Futures Thinking, Past Publishing

Today, the ACRL released the 33-page “Futures Thinking for Academic Librarians: Higher Education in 2025” by David J Staley (director of the Harvey Goldberg Center for Excellence in Teaching in the History Department of Ohio State University) and  Kara J. Malenfant (ACRL scholarly communications and government relations specialist). I have come across Dr Staley’s work before in projects relating to the use of technology to present history and historical collections and have been impressed by his early grasp of the ways in which new technologies would and should profoundly change the nature of academic writing. [Staley, David J, From Writing to Associative Assemblages: ‘History’ in an Electronic Culture. from Writing, Teaching and Researching History in the Electronic Age. 1998. Sharp.]

This will undoubtedly be a provocative report and the impetus for much professional soul-searching. However, there is a definite irony in a futures report in which the “editable” appendix (with a suggested activity for academic libraries) is offered in the form of a Word document as opposed to being published one of the many suitable tools available in the social media/online collaboration realm. Was this choice borne of

  • a fear of the transience of “the cloud”,
  • an (perhaps unwitting) adherence to familiar writing/publishing tools,
  • the desire to give the feeling of ownership over their version of the appendix to the participating libraries,
  • the belief that the more traditional formats will be more acceptable to a larger audience, or
  • a combination of these and/or other factors?

This seems to point to an opportunity to study not only what is being said about libraries and social media but how this work is being presented and shared. Are highlighted trends and suggestions in reports such as this one being reinforced by their publishing format?