The Case for Books by Robert Darnton. Uncases the book from its traditional bindings to give it a fresh take in the digital age.

The case for booksRobert Darnton was the Director of the Harvard University Library during two important events, the Google Book Search project and the university’s open access movement. In The Case for Books, Darnton provides a perspective on the interplay of private and public interests in libraries.

Google Books involves the digitization of public domain and out-of-print books to form the world’s largest digital library. This project entails scanning the works of research libraries, and Harvard was an initial partner. Darton approves of making books more accessible through digitization, but he is concerned that the libraries who provided these books will have to pay to access them. How high will these costs get? Google is a private enterprise and has an effective monopoly on digital books. Good intentions or not, the profit motive inevitably puts the squeeze on public interests.

The profit motive can also help define the essential niche of libraries. The public library first emerged as a response to the exclusive access of royals to library collections. Darnton predicts that Google Books will make libraries more important than ever. Google will not digitize everything. Copyright still protects new books. Being profit-minded, Google will focus on the 80% of mainstream interest books, not the special collections of research libraries. Scanning causes errors; 99% accuracy is still two or three letters wrong in the average book length paragraph. Version control may be an increasingly important role for research libraries.

In his position at Harvard, Darnton defended a motion in favour of the open access movement. Open access makes scholarly articles available free of charge on the web. It addresses the contradiction of being charged exorbitant rates for freely generated content, crippling libraries and scholarship. As I see it, this long-term interplay of private and public interests may not be an unhealthy one. Private companies tend to lead with innovation, making digital journals available in the first place. I am not sure libraries would have accomplished this feat on their own. Sooner or later, private interests confuse profit as tactic with profit as strategy. It threatens the ability of libraries to provide their service. Open information is the solution. It is a repeating pattern. First there was the open source operating system. Open access to academic journals is another instance. More recently in libraries, we have seen the emergence of the open source ILS to redress gouging by vendors over the years. Open information is a promising pattern.

Darnton uncases the book from its traditional bindings to give it a fresh take in the digital age. He has creative ideas about the evolution of the ebook, but still prefers the usability of the print book. According to Bowker’s Global Books in Print, more new titles are appearing every year. Soon a million will be published annually. Will digitization ever be able to keep up? It is worth remembering that digits are also a physical resource, with concomitant scarcity. Compound that with the scarcities imposed by copyright and the private interests, we can be sure of the ongoing need for libraries to provide public access to books.

Library: An Unquiet History by Matthew Battles. The history and future of libraries is a story of fire.

LibraryThe history and future of libraries is a story of fire. Many have heard of the burning of the Library of Alexandria in ancient Egypt. It may have been burned by Arab invaders or started by Julius Ceasar to forestall an invasion. In Library: An Unquiet History, Matthew Battles observes that book burnings are not always fatal to knowledge. The burnings inspire the writing of other books. Also, while many books are lost over time to natural decay, scrolls blackened by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79 are now being reclaimed using spectral photography. As he concludes his first powerful chapter, “the most complete ancient library accessible to us today survived because it burned.”

The pattern of burning and advancement of libraries is likewise true of the twentieth century. Book burnings were popular in Nazi Germany where incongruent thought was fatally punished. However, the need to sort one kind of book from another created “a perverse golden age for librarians”. Battles observes that German librarians attempted to redirect the Nazi idea of the Volk to promote the public nature of libraries.

Fire is a combustion of material releasing energy. No doubt librarians have made efforts to protect their collections from physical fire, but fire is also symbolic of other kinds of change. We think that information overload is a modern problem. The history of libraries could be considered a series of innovations in the face of that problem, from the pressmarks of Antonio Panizzi to Melvil Dewey’s precisely measured card catalogues. Fire also runs in the electrons of today’s digital libraries, but it is a conceit to think that they are the only ones to innovate.

Battle’s history of libraries treats many other subjects. He talks with affection of his library at Harvard. “The people who shelve the books in Widener talk about the library’s breathing — at the start of the term, the stacks exhale books in great swirling clouds; at the end of the term, the library inhales, and the books fly back.” Battles also traces the co-evolution of libraries and readers, trending toward the ideal of a universal library. Not just one big library, or the same library everywhere, but a gradual progression of libraries toward free and open knowledge for everyone.

I read Battle’s history once when I started library school, and once again now that I have finished. Fitting book ends. Recommended for all devotees of books, libraries, and history.

Information Ecologies by Nardi and O’Day. The keystone species of the library is the librarian.

Information EcologiesInformation Ecologies is the antidote to polarized thinking and propaganda about technology. Nardi and O’Day reject both the rhetoric of inevitability about technology, as well as mindless resistance to it. They take a larger view, observing that questions and concerns about technology have a long history. The key lesson is that a technology may make sense in one context, and not in another.

The authors compare metaphors of technology. When we look at technology as a tool, we evaluate it by its affordances, its capacity to control things. The metaphor of system tends to get us caught up in questions of efficiency. Technology has sometimes been treated as text, a carrier of meaning. Each perspective offers some insight, and the metaphor of an information ecology offers another, potentially broader metaphor, using both complexity and locality to evaluate technology.

They challenge questionable assumptions about technology. One, technology is not neutral; once we introduce a technology it becomes an end to serve. Two, people are not completely in control of their technology; it has unexpected social costs. Three, most of us do not understand our technology, so it tends to have an agenda of its own. The metaphor of an information ecology prompts us to be sensitive to local complexity, and choose what fits there.

A library is a clear example of an information ecology. A library involves many systems; a changes to one part affects other parts. A library tends to be diverse, offering niches of service that evolve depending on patron needs. A library has keystone species, without which the ecology would collapse. They suggest the keystone species is librarians. Agreed. As I see it, another keystone species is print books. Take those away, and what is left? A server room? A computer lab? A community centre? A video store?

This book provides a much needed theoretical framework for understanding the complexities of technology. It is a refreshing perspective and is highly recommended.

Read Chapter 4 of the book at First Monday

Library Juice Concentrate by Rory Litwin. “Information” used to mean facts but now refers to electronic bits.

Library Juice ConcentrateInformation has been defined as the reduction of uncertainty. The definition is incomplete, for there is a second indispensable kind of information that increases uncertainty. Rory Litwin’s Library Juice Concentrate is of this second kind. Concentrate is a selection of writings from Litwin’s webzine, Library Juice, published between 1998-2005. It contains 27 essays, interviews and articles, provoking questions and offering alternative views on library issues.

Litwin meditates on the deeper meaning of words that librarians sometimes bandy about too easily. “Neutrality” is often just a defense of the status quo. “Information” used to mean facts but now refers to electronic bits. I found myself wondering how Litwin would analyze “open source”, something I regard as a positive trend in library technology, but a cause for reflection when pitched by library vendors.

I liked the title of the article, “Print Virtue and the Ontology of the Bo-ring.” I can just hear the technophiles chanting, “bo-ring”, to librarians critical of Google’s simple search box, for example. “Don’t make me think” is the mantra of web design. There is nothing wrong starting a search with Google, but there is a problem if searches routinely end there. Unlike print, Google’s results are indexed by popularity, good enough for trivia, but hardly a complete response for more significant questions. Search requires that people think. In the face of the burgeoning web and its diminishing returns, someone might have to start a relevance revolution.

Litwin challenges popular errors about free speech such as “ideas aren’t dangerous”. Well-meaning librarians express this view to discourage censorship. In fact, ideas do make people uncomfortable, and lead to action that disrupts people’s lives. Positive change requires a tolerance for disruptive ideas.

Several other views are represented in this collection, including Mark Rosenzweig writing on humanism and the foundations of librarianship, Barbara Tillett offering a Library of Congress take on subject heading reform, and others. In the “Interview with Jessamyn West”, I was persuaded that a librarian can subscribe to anarchist politics while having no objection to a hierarchical catalogue. Ideological purism, now that’s a dangerous thing. Essays by Neugebauer and Sparanese reveal the interference of US interests through the so-called “independent librarians” of Cuba.

The book closes with an assortment of limericks, quotes and student resources. In a piece on amusing search queries, one patron asked, “When did the information age take place?” I guess that depends on what the person meant by information. Concentrate earns the pun in its title, requiring thoughtful attention by readers and encouraging vigilance on library issues that matter. A worthy read.

Note: Litwin writes at the Library Juice blog, and is the publisher of Library Juice Press and Litwin Books. My book, Slow Reading, is being published by Litwin Books.

Questioning Library Neutrality edited by Alison Lewis. Neutrality is a convenience to hide indifference.

Questioning Library NeutralityQuestioning Library Neutrality, edited by Alison Lewis, is a collection of ten essays and one annotated bibliography originally published in Progressive Librarian, the journal of the Progressive Librarians Guild. The essays make a persuasive case that neutrality is not a library value but instead a convenience to hide indifference.

Rosenzweig counters librarians who complained about ALA’s lack of neutrality in its stand against the first Persian Gulf War. Librarians have not historically been neutral, he says, nor should they be. McDonald warns that the corporate idea of choice is no more than the insignificant differences between grocery store cereals. In the library, this notion of choice amounts to censorship, obscuring better materials that need to be critically selected. Iverson prefers the feminist definition of objectivity as situational knowledge. This shift means that librarians are politically engaged, with an obligation to advance an equitable society. Sparanese relates how her list posts unexpectedly led to the saving of Michael Moore’s book, Stupid White Men. It demonstrates that even small deliberate acts can make an important political difference. Durrani and Smallwood caution that global libraries, disconnected from local needs, will indeed become neutral, like McDonald’s restaurants. Good’s essay, Hottest Place in Hell, provides a fitting conclusion, asserting that neutrality is ultimately an immoral act.

The essays are persuasive that neutrality is a dangerous attitude for librarians. Still, I am less certain than some of the authors that some “fringe” materials are not worth collecting on the grounds that they are not scientific, e.g., intelligent design. Neutrality is equally difficult for scientists, masking biases of a different sort. I agree with the writers that not all views deserve equal shelf space. It is like minority rights. The dominant view has to provide at least some measure of representation.

I heartily second Anderson’s call for LIS programs to teach information criticism. As he explains, the term “information” only seems neutral, suiting it to the managerial and technical discourse in LIS programs. Questioning Library Neutrality is replete with references and recommended reading, and would serve as an excellent text for an improved LIS curriculum. It is equally important to citizens about the vital role of the library in advancing democracy.

Revolting Librarians Redux edited by Roberto & West. There should be one of these for each generation of librarians.

Revolting Librarians ReduxIs thirty years too late for a sequel?” K.R. Roberto and Jessamyn West didn’t think so, and another five years isn’t too late for a review. Revolting Librarians Redux is the sequel to Revolting Librarians, edited by Celeste West and Elizabeth Katz (see my review). There should be one of these for each generation of librarians. Like its predecessor, Redux is a collection of essays and expressions by outspoken librarians seeking progressive change in their profession. It is a timely publication, therapy for the hangover from the 90’s deep draughts of digital technology and corporate modeling, and a wakeup call in the face of the Patriot Act. After all these years, revolting librarians still have plenty to say.

Redux opens with updates from the original cast. The spirit of Celeste West is clearly living in her revolutionary language. “Each one teach one. Each protegee become a mentor. Each mentor become a dare-devil’s apprentice.” Sandford Berman notes with concern that library leaders are increasingly enamored with the corporate mainstream. But is it already waning? Varlejs sees library students less enchanted with technology and corporatism.

Today’s revolting librarians offered Redux many opinions of which I disagreed as often as I agreed. If an MLIS course tried to teach me professional dress and hygiene, I would run screaming in the opposite direction, though I can’t object to needing to learn more about outreach. Bourrier-LaCroix’s disdain for “stupid” people was rather unpalatable; what is she doing in reference? On the other hand, Beachamp’s monitoring of the US political right sounded like a terrific job, and Tsang’s analysis of the effect of the Patriot Act on racial profiling was instructive. While I found Denton’s anarcho-terrorist background chilling, I appreciated his insight that libraries provide a non-violent mechanism for revealing the true nature of the state.

Getting deeper in library issues, Litwin observed with dismay that those who defend traditional library values are accused of being “stuck in the ’60s”. Boomers now see themselves as defenders of the status quo, deferring the responsibility for social change to the next generation. Sigh. With a foot in each generation I have to agree. I admit to finding my way to progressive librarianship somewhat slowly, sometimes preferring the rush of technology, but ultimately seeing a bigger and more engaging picture. As I observed at the end of the review of the first Revolting Librarians, if there is no radical in the librarian, if nothing is professed with passion, something that challenges us toward real progress, why then a profession? Turn it over to the business administrators and technicians.

Several other entries touched on lingering problems with librarian stereotypes and subject headings; good fights. More entries vented frustrations about patrons; get over it. As Willa Cather famously said, there are only two or three human stories. If you feel like you’re in a rut, recall that each story is being repeated as if it never happened before. Try again listening for the first time.

So are you a revolting librarian? Am I a revolting library student? As Roberto and West said, revolting librarians are not defined by what they are, but by what they do. Can you count my occasional posturing here at this website? Soon I hope to post, An Unofficial and Uninvited but Hopefully Not Unwelcome Belated Contribution to Revolting Librarians Redux.

Revolting Librarians Redux … The Book is Out!
Revolting Librarians Redux Review: A Short and Inexact History of Progressive Librarianship

Revolting Librarians by West and Katz. “Do copy, do something, no rights reserved, no wrongs preserved.”

Revolting librariansNearly two generations after its publication, I offer a review of the original Revolting Librarians, edited by West and Katz. That would seem odd if my intent was to generate sales for a title that is out-of-print, but my purpose is to begin an inquiry into progressive thinking in librarianship, and this book is an early milestone. The full text is available for download¬†(thanks Owen Massey McKnight) under¬†copyleft: “Do copy, do something, no rights reserved, no wrongs preserved.” One article that caught my eye was missing from the online version due to individual contributor copyright, so I obtained a print copy from a used book store called Books and Old Lace via AbeBooks. Dedicated to maverick librarians everywhere, the book is a compilation of librarians speaking frankly in a time when a feeling of radical change was stirring the profession.

The late and greatly respected Celeste West introduced the book with a key theme, a conflict of interest between life and the work of librarianship. The contributors expressed their personal responses to this conflict, often with some degree of anger. I suppose one way to reduce the tension is to shrink the scope of the profession, rendering it less important; Kyson advised reducing library school to three practical courses and sending students off to work. I cannot help but think that this sort of training would mold librarians like Dunbar’s Miss Philpott, technically proficient, yet delighted to take an early lunch so the government inspector could sneak a look at patron records, eerily familiar under today’s Patriot Act. Contributions were written during the Viet Nam war, “under the non-leadership of shallow and frightening man” (131). Have times changed so little?

Other contributors sought to enlarge the profession to match personal truths. Plotnick launched the popular NO SILENCE sign campaign in libraries that rejected the long-standing stereotype of librarians as shushing old ladies. Osborn advocated for teen services in a library where even pregnant teens needed a note from their parents to access materials on reproductive health. Wolf and others challenged blatant biases in the Library of Congress classifications, such as gayness under deviancy. In Libraries to the People, Berman denounced the lack of diversity in library collections, and descried the racist, sexist and ageist subject headings. Management will tell upstart librarians that classification is merely descriptive of its community. If that is true, it is an alarming wake-up call for modern libraries that are increasingly outsourcing their classification work to central facilities. Local classification means that libraries in more progressive communities can both objectively describe their community and stand as a positive outlier, calling to attention the need for change.

Are you a librarian? Do you feel comfortable in your own skin at work? How much can a person expect to reconcile personal values with the workplace? In We Lost it at the Library, McKenny and Ericson documented their initial hope and ultimate dismay when they took seriously the offer of a library director promising radical change. In those days, ‘experimental’ in libraries meant taking social and political risks, not technological ones. A number of creative ideas tried there could still be implemented today, e.g., an Alternatives Room for collection materials too controversial for a particular community. The article is proof that librarians were innovating long before Library 2.0. Like innovators of all ages, many of the author’s ideas were rejected by management. One has to admire the lengths these librarians were willing to go to change their world. In her Free Libraries article, Katz imagined librarians living in the library. I would not recommend it. It is vital to find one’s way home at the end of the day, both physically and psychologically.

The missing title that caught my eye was called Bibliotherapy. When the print copy arrived by mail, I found it to be a poem by Tod Hawks; it did not seem very radical. But I noticed that many of the contributions in Revolting Librarians were creative pieces: allegories, poems, and plays. Radicals often use the arts because their ideas are still forming, like the Alternatives Room, not yet ready for the mainstream.

Is there a radical library element alive today? I do not hear about it in library school. The subject of the day is library technology. So … radicalize it, fuse it into the cause. Even in the pre-Web seventies, the authors sensed and welcomed a revolution in media technology. I noticed that the cover of Revolting Librarians is the banner image of the Progressive Librarians Guild Facebook group. There is Radical Reference, a group of volunteer library workers connected over the web to support activists and journalists with research. They recently hosted an LCSH Blog-a-Thon to identify timely changes to the Library of Congress subject headings. A discussion of radical themes in librarianship seems overdue. As I see it, if there is no radical in the librarian, if nothing is professed with passion, something that challenges us toward real progress, why then a profession? Turn it over to the business administrators and technicians.

Balanced Libraries by Walt Crawford. “The library voice of the radical middle”.

Balanced LibrariesJust on the heels of Walt Crawford’s release of Public Library Blogs: 252 Examples, I have managed to put together a few words on Balanced Libraries. Here are a few highlights from my reading, peppered with several thoughts of my own.

Balanced Libraries is a response to the discussions surrounding Library 2.0, the movement that has tried to use Web 2.0 technologies to reinvigorate library services. Some assert that Library 2.0 is about much more than technology, with each stone in the library system being overturned and re-evaluated, hopefully leading to better service for library patrons. Inevitably, change is met with resistance. The library crowd is reasonably adept at getting at the best of the enthusiasts and the resistors, but sometimes an experienced and clear voice is needed. In his book, Crawford lives up to his blog tag-line, “The library voice of the radical middle”. It could be the bible of the Slow Library movement.

A basic premise of Web 2.0 is increased user participation; technologies such as blogs, wikis and tagging allow for it. Library 2.0 also emphasizes increased patron focus. But how far should that go? Is the customer always right? Following the often demonstrated Pareto principle, private bookstores will focus their services on the twenty percent of customers that make up eighty percent of their business. Isn’t it the role of library to look after the ones who aren’t getting their needs met by other sources? And which minority would that that be? The small group of high-end users who think that bookstores are not technologically advanced enough (the Library 2.0 enthusiasts like me) or the group of patrons who are reluctant to use technology for whatever reason? Not a hard call. It’s never as simple as that, but libraries need to be careful not to let 2.0 mislead them from their traditional mission.

A common motive for Library 2.0 is a concern that traditional library services may be stagnating, in jeopardy of being replaced by competition from the private sector: bookstores, Amazon, Google, eBooks, information brokers, etc. Another is a belief that electronic resources are becoming more important than print resources. Crawford asserts, “The great digital debate is not only boring but over” (pg. 37). Almost, anyway. It’s never been a zero sum game. Crawford observes that information brokers tend to be dedicated library users. High end users of electronic research tools also tend to be high end users of print research tools. I recall other research stating that high end users of film, television, and recorded music tend to also be heavy readers. Is this a new law of library science? Something like … “an increase in forms of information causes an increase in usage of all forms of information” … or some variant. Call it the Crawford principle. Seriously, with each passing year we understand more clearly that digital technology has only displaced a portion of print resources, creating a broader spectrum of complementary information resources.

There have been prodigious efforts to define Library 2.0. The efforts can be zealous, sometimes ostracizing those who disagree, even if not intentionally. A sensitive question is whether Library 2.0 is a technological movement versus a larger library mission movement. Crawford prudently avoids stoking that debate, but suggests the waning zeal over Web 2.0 might help cool things off. In my view, a mature movement is able to define both what it is and what it is not. To define all good change as being about Library 2.0 is to risk displacing other good movements in the library field. Also, as an old hack in the web development field, I have sometimes rolled my eyes at all the hype about Web 2.0, knowing that these ostensibly new technologies have been implicit in the web from day one. As Crawford says, take a breath, Library 2.0 is just a name.

Balance is not a sexy idea, but Crawford helps makes sense of the debate, showing how both change and stasis can be troublesome for libraries, providing a fresh take on the timeless wisdom that technology must serve the library mission, not the reverse.