Education, technology, a better world

I was in the BART the other day, and noticed a young woman wearing a bright blue T-shirt with a quote on the back.  The quote was this:

Education is for improving the lives of others and for leaving your community and world better than you found it.

— Marian Wright Edelman

I was just back from ALA, feeling tired and idealistic, and the quote really struck me.  That’s right, I thought.  That’s the best encapsulation I’ve seen of why I’m in this business.

Then I noticed that the BART was full of young men and women wearing these T-shirts.  They must have been part of some kind of summer education program.  It was pretty incredible:  blue shirts everywhere up and down the platform, on all these high-school or junior-college-aged kids, all with this quote on the back.

I had a brief vision of a better world, where public transit would be the norm, where money would be heaved at health and planning and education the way it’s currently heaved at corporations and the military, and where young people would grow up with some idea of who Marian Wright Edelman is.  (And yes, it’s funny and hopeful that I linked to Wikipedia there.  Wikipedia, for all its faults, is a utopian education project, and I’m very fond of it.)

And then, walking into the library this morning, I noticed this headline on The Washington Post (yesterday’s paper):  “Text Messages Giving Voice to Chinese : Opponents of Chemical Factory Found Way Around Censors.”  Activists opposing the construction of a chemical plant used cell phone text messages to mass thousands of protesters and stop the project.

Stories like this give me hope that we can actually be sensible about the tools we create.

Just a little idealism for a Friday morning.

DC debrief

I’m home from ALA Annual in Washington, DC, where the weather was fine and where I wore out two pairs of sandals and two feet.

I spent most of my time in meetings, as I’m incoming to a couple of new positions in LES, IS, and ACRL. One is a *very* new position–that is, I’m co-chairing a brand-new “Greening the Conference” subcommittee for the ACRL 2009 Conference Planning Committee. My co-chair is Charles Forrest at Emory University, who works in library planning and architecture (among other things.) Emory is a leader in green design, with several LEED-certified buildings (and a mandate that all new buildings will be at least LEED Silver certified), so I think we’ll do great things. I’m very excited about doing something to tie libraries to sustainability. Two good ideas, no waiting!

I’m also pleased to see that my colleague Jesse Silva, federal government documents librarian par excellence, has been getting recognition for some of his work, and for a project we’re working on together. We’re joining forces to build a better online tutorial, a more “Web 2.0” version of the by-now-traditional screencasting tutorial. Our basic idea is to merge Captivate screencasting with live searching in a database (Lexis-Nexis Congressional, in this case) in a single screen using a wiki, with RSS feeds to top it off. Sound crazy? We’ll see. Starr Hoffman mentions the project here, along with some of the other cool ideas Jesse is working on. We’re working on the tutorial now and will have it ready for fall, for the UC Berkeley librarians’ conference on Web 2.0 I’m helping to organize.

I have a mountain of email to climb, so the posts I have in mind about Technology: The Middle Way and How to Bundle Online Apps (?) will have to wait. I also need to go see what went on at some of the programs I missed while I was trudging around D.C., map in hand, internal compass spinning madly. It’s a very good thing I’m not a GIS consultant. Wayfinding in the real world is definitely not my forte.

Seeking tutorial feedback

Fellow TLIBers,

Merinda McLure at Colorado State University and I created a Captivate tutorial [<>] for the virtual poster session accompanying the ACRL Arts Section / Instruction Section Conference Program at ALA Annual this year.  There’s a wide selection of interesting posters on visual literacy on the site.

If you have comments or suggestions for our tutorial, I’d love to hear them , either here or at the ACRL blog linked above.

Michael Gorman, Fisher King

Oh boy.

I remember seeing Michael Gorman deliver the keynote at a BCLA conference while I was still a library school student.  At the time I thought a lot of Mr. Gorman.  He seemed intelligent, well-spoken, well-rounded, a person with humanistic concerns in a profession that sometimes spends too much energy on maintaining its own bureaucracies.  Gorman read, and clearly cared about, books.  He had a clear value structure having to do with the individual and communal life of the mind.  He was an old-school librarian in some satisfying ways, the way Robertson Davies was an old-school writer and journalist and playwright in some satisfying ways.

But Robertson Davies, God love him, wrote some regrettable screeds in his time, and Michael Gorman seems unable to stop himself from doing the same.  In the last couple of years, Gorman has come out against digitization technologies, blogging, and other kinds of social software  in some big and unfortunate ways.  In those links above, he’s blogging on the Britannica site about Web 2.0, essentially calling it out as a symptom of a lazy, wayward, dim-witted society.

There’s some irony in the fact that Gorman lumps bloggers and Wikipedia readers in with creationists (??), as self-indulgent dumbos.  I hope the irony is obvious, but just in case it’s not:  I blog, I consult Wikipedia, I use, and sometimes I even doubt the infallibility of credentialled experts–but that doesn’t mean I think God made the world in seven days.  Gorman uses the same cheap rhetoric and lazy classification that he claims to despise, in order to cut the legs out from under…well, I can’t tell, exactly.  Libraries contributing to the Google Books project?  Students using Google Scholar to find books and articles?  The general public, for uploading videos to YouTube?  I honestly can’t tell what Gorman thinks he’s doing, for whom he’s saving the world.  The world, made up as it is of dumb and clever people, late and early adopters, the left, right, and middle of the road, seems to be moving along as usual.

One thing in particular that drives me a bit nuts in Gorman’s posts is his strange insistence that library catalogs do a better job at discovery than, say, Google.  This is so patently ridiculous, so unexamined and unsupported, that it actually makes me momentarily sympathetic to Gorman’s dislike of the easy-going, blah-blah style of blogs.  I’m not sure what he means by “library catalogs,” but if he’s talking about those old standbys, card catalogs, I don’t think we can really claim they ever did a more efficient or complete job of finding materials than Google does.  If he’s talking about OPACs, well…which ones?  Which configurations?  I happen to regularly use an OPAC that can’t interpret diacritics, so materials in foreign languages just fall right out of the search.  (It has other flaws, too–don’t get me started–but the good news is, we’re working on it.)

What Gorman’s argument for library catalogs over Google web searching seems to boil down to–what many of his arguments boil down to–is the primacy of expertise.  It’s important, Gorman says, to develop expert search skills, so you know how to navigate vendor databases and library catalogs (not to mention print bibliographies and government documents and topographic maps and…everything else.)  If you use the tools the library developed and you don’t find everything you need, the problem is not with the tools, it is with you.  And here, Gorman and I must part ways. 

How many times have I gone looking for an article I *know* to exist, come up empty-handed in the databases, and found it via Google Scholar because I had a word wrong in the title, and Google Scholar was gracious enough not to care?  (Many times.)  How many times have I plugged keywords into our catalog, traced subject headings, found all I can find on a topic, then gone to Google or Amazon and found more out there, stuff that hadn’t made it into the catalog yet, or that hadn’t been assigned any of the same headings, or that didn’t share a single word in common with the titles I had, but that was recommended by another reader?  (Many times.) 

Gorman might say the problem is with me–I’m one of those lazy searchers who never learned to use the tools with precision.  It may be true–search has never been my life’s passion.  Like most people, I prefer to find, by any means possible or necessary.  But that’s the point–most people aren’t expert searchers, and they aren’t interested in becoming expert searchers, and why in God’s name should they?  We have the technology to build more inclusive systems for discovery–should we not use them, because we spent two years getting the MLIS?  Or because we’re somehow eroding intellectual culture by adopting intelligent search tools that actually work?

Like Michael Gorman, I have concerns about where we’re going as a society, intellectually and culturally.  I see the gap between academe and the world outside growing ever wider, and I see the humanities in particular struggling to remember, and explain, why they’re relevant.  I see Antioch shutting down, and I worry.  I don’t want to live in a world where people don’t read. 

I want to live in a world with more equal opportunities for the next generation, a world that’s educated enough to know what’s going on in Darfur and New Orleans, and compassionate enough to care and take action.  I think libraries are a pillar of that civilized, educated society.  That’s why I work in one.

I don’t think we’re going to get to that brave new world by turning our backs on our best ideas and our most useful tools.  I do think we’re going to need our principled humanists, as well as our dedicated technologists, to get us there in one piece.  That’s why I’m so disappointed in Gorman right now–he’s a spokesman for intelligent humanism, and he’s turned his back on us.

Back from vacation, reading again

I’m back from two week’s vacation (and from getting married–hooray!), and am reading back through some things that arrived in my inbox while I was away.  Right now I’m really enjoying the trains of thought in John Hubbard’s presentation Going Virtual: Technology and the Future of Academic Libraries.

This, together with a presentation in our library this morning by Nancy Fried Foster about how users use libraries, has got me excited about how library services and roles are changing.

I’m thinking a lot these days about where we’re going, not just in terms of instruction or individual texts, but more in terms of general behaviors and approaches to traditional resources.  Others are way ahead of me, but I’m fascinated by how digitization and simple, friendly 2.0 Web technologies are changing how our users behave.

As Hubbard says, we are no longer the information resource of choice for most users.  That battle is lost.  It’s the repositioning, and reimagining, that we have to do now, that really interests me.