Knowledge panels, and Wikipedia as a force for good

In my information literacy classes I frequently blow students’ minds (and faculty even more so) by praising Wikipedia. I’m a librarian, aren’t I supposed to be telling them that Wikipedia isn’t a reliable source? I don’t. I tell them truthfully that I love Wikipedia, which is a community of people who agree with Jimmy Wales, the site’s co-founder, that all humans should have access to all human knowledge. It is a great example, like citizen science project Galaxy Zoo, of the power of crowd-sourcing.

And now I’ve read that Wikipedia and many of its dedicated collaborators are working to help local newspapers be better represented on its site, which is the source of many “knowledge panels” on Google and Facebook, through a project called Newspapers on Wikipedia (NOW). In a terrifically interesting article on Medium, Eni Mustafaraj explains why this project and knowledge boxes matter.

If you’re thinking you don’t know what the heck a knowledge panel is, you do. Here’s one:

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It’s that little box that appears in the upper right part of your screen, or at the top of your results list, in Google. Mustafaraj and colleagues looked into how knowledge boxes can unduly influence publics’ understanding of news sites’ credibility. Some sites’ knowledge boxes seem to be watered-down or spiced up to make them seem more reliable or inoffensive.

Mustafaraj notes that a benefit of the NOW project is that many smaller community papers will be better represented not only on Wikipedia but also with knowledge panels, which come mainly from Wikipedia entries. So once again Wikipedia is a force for good in the struggle for information literate. There I go again, equating Wikipedia and information literacy. Yes. It’s a great place for students to learn to decide for themselves how thoroughly an article has been written, cited, and edited. It’s a place where knowledge professionals and subject matter experts converge to share what they create with all humanity. It’s a place that is democratizing access to a wider variety of news sources than most Americans are routinely exposed to.

But, as Mustafaraj explains, knowledge panels aren’t necessarily providing people with accurate information, and they may not even address a source’s reliability or accuracy. Some of the examples she provides are quite eye opening — Google and Facebook are claiming publicly to fight fake news and even have a tool —  knowledge panels — to help publics find out about sources, but these powerful companies are not always using those tools to inform. Here’s the link to Mustafaraj‘s article again in case you are too discouraged to scroll up.

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What is nontraditional? Who is online?

Librarians aren’t the only ones who categorize information. Humans are really, really comfortable sticking with what we know, and rejecting whatever counters what we know. It’s all a part of our brain’s effort to defend us from the unknown — a phenomena known as confirmation bias.

For example, everyone knows that most college freshmen are 18-19 year olds whose parents pay for everything  right? Obviously not. But, I’ll bet that your brain was cozying up to at least one thing in that sentence: that college freshmen are 18-19. I have to admit, even though I am opposed to stereotypes and I work at a community college, where the population is diverse in many different ways, I fell for that part myself. I know not everyone in college today is fresh out of high school, but I would have said the majority of students are.

Wrong. I came across an article on NPR’s website about a researcher whose work is to study these demographics (Alexandria Walton Radford) and it turns out what college administrators and faculty call “nontraditional” students are actually the majority and have been for some time. You can see all the traits that are included in “nontraditional” in the article. Things like not being a recent high school grad (or not graduating from high school at all), having kids or caring for other family members, working full time, going to college part time, being on their own financially, etc. The article notes that according to Radford’s research, “close to 74 percent of undergrads” meet one of the criteria she uses to define nontraditional, and around 66% meet more than one.

Turns out FiveThirtyEight wrote about this two years ago. But the mainstream culture continues to hold onto the stereotype. Speaking of, another common stereotype our confirmation bias loves is “everyone” is online. Everyone has the internet in their pockets, right? We’re all zipping around shopping, playing games, and streaming movies wherever we go? That’s also wrong. As I recently noted, Pew Research Center reports that 1/3 of adults in America don’t have high speed internet access at home, and many of the have-nots are poor, older, rural, or minorities. Today I read that Pew delved deeper into this research and fully 58% of rural Americans feel their lack of broadband internet access is “a problem” (24% think it’s a major problem, and 34% say it’s a minor problem). Rural Americans are twice as likely as their urban counterparts to never go online at all — 22% don’t, which really shocked me. Only 66% have smartphones, versus 83% of city dwellers.

So, no everyone is online. And college students are much more diverse in age, experience, and financial standing than we think. All of this very much impacts academic library services because I think it’s safe to say our confirmation biases tell us that online resource and service are what “everyone” using our libraries wants or needs.  And we tell ourselves “everyone” can get to our services, especially since mobile access is often growing (possibly because our students can’t afford laptops, but that’s another blog post). But the conversation on my campus lately is that these assumptions are not only wrong, they are important for us to counter, because some of our students are simply not able to access what they need to for class because not everyone is online. I’ve looked into wifi hotspots, which some public libraries lend, but for students who live outside of areas with good cell coverage (I lose cell coverage between work and home frequently) this may not be a viable solution.

As librarians, we need to check our confirmation bias, examine who our patrons really are and what they need, and think about alternatives.

Is textbook adoption immoral?

On Friday a higher ed newsletter headline caught my eye: “Outrage over university’s $999 online textbook.” It wasn’t a typo — the book for a 200 level accounting course at University of Louisiana at Lafayette costs that much.

A couple of weeks ago I attended my community college system’s annual summer symposium. The most compelling presentation I heard was from Robin DeRosa of Plymouth State University. She talked about a subject I’d spent a good bit of time thinking about this summer: OERs, or Open Educational Resources. If you haven’t heard of them, here is UNESCO’s definition: “Open Educational Resources (OERs) are any type of educational materials that are in the public domain or introduced with an open license. The nature of these open materials means that anyone can legally and freely copy, use, adapt and re-share them. OERs range from textbooks to curricula, syllabi, lecture notes, assignments, tests, projects, audio, video and animation.”

Like community colleges around the country, mine is concerned with making education as affordable as possible, and one of our system-wide efforts is to make OERs a priority. I put together a LibGuide for my campus so that faculty can see some choices and learn about how to adopt/adapt/create their own, and I have found some faculty are already doing this. So I was already an OER believer.

Novelist Paul Harding speaks of writing so readers will think “That’s true, and I’ve always known it but I’ve never seen someone put it into words like this before.” That was how I felt, listening to DeRosa. I already knew much of what she said — students often don’t have a plan for textbook costs like they do for tuition, 2/3 of students report either dropping a class because of expensive textbooks or not buying a textbook because of cost, students who can’t afford textbooks do worse in their classes, and textbook costs have risen more than healthcare.

But then she delivered the words I knew but hadn’t heard said that way before: we’re preventing access to knowledge by continuing to require traditional textbooks, and for those of us in “public” education (in NH, the university system where DeRosa works only receives 10% of its funds from state appropriations) this is a moral issue. She wondered aloud, how can educators require our students can’t afford, in good conscience? How can we support a system that is inhibiting the transmission of knowledge?

And then she went on to describe how she worked on an OER early American literature book collaboratively with her students. This work is known as open pedagogy, and really appeals to me as exactly what education should be about: students not as consumers, but agents of their own education, synthesizing what they learn in work that demonstrates not only mastery, but application of their new understanding to a real world problem or question. Our son was fortunate to have a professor, Patricia Siplon, who was ahead of the curve on this at St. Michael’s College and a few years ago, he was in her class on the politics of HIV/AIDS, where the final project was to write a chapter for a textbook she planned to use with future classes. That’s open pedagogy: learning, synthesizing and producing knowledge, collaboratively.

DeRosa’s class’s anthology is now a Rebus project and she predicts that by the time it is finished later this year, it will replace traditional print anthologies sold in college bookstores around the world. Rebus is a place where people come together to work on OERs. I am hopeful that this is the future of textbooks. Librarians’ role in OERs and open pedagogy is simple. We just need to do what we already do best: teach the research skills that help faculty and students seek, evaluate, and use information effectively and then collect, index, and make accessible the knowledge creation happening on our campuses.

 

Community college librarians and student success

A study came out this week looking at community college libraries and student success.  This isn’t a new topic, but a new approach —  the authors asked college students to define success, and only touched a bit on libraries. They plan to use this information to design and test library services around these findings. Interestingly, while students cited things like passing required courses, improving grades, getting a degree, and increasing job prospects, they also mentioned more “intrinsic” goals – “those focused on advancing personal development” like gaining knowledge, finding community, and even things like “feeling a sense of accomplishment, bettering themselves, and being happy.”

How can libraries help with happiness, other than by bringing in therapy dogs, which I am psyched about, myself? Other studies have looked at traditional library work like collaborating with faculty, helping students learn to use resources, and teaching information literacy (the skills needed to seek, evaluate, and use information effectively and responsibly) — and have unsurprisingly found that both faculty and students perceive those as helpful. In a North Carolina community college study authors found student success improves with “embedded” librarianship, defined as “Librarians moving out of their libraries to create innovate ways of informing their clients” which in turn “makes the expertise of librarians more immediately available to those who need it by integrating librarians into instructional and administrative teams.” The authors further note that the benefits of this model are mutual — librarians become better acquainted with the needs of their clients and faculty and students receive more customized support. Makes sense.

One interesting point in this new study is that community college students often face a number of challenges in their lives and seek out the library for a very basic reason — they need a distraction free space to study. The authors caution against overly crowded or noisy libraries: “When these libraries are used for purposes beyond their remit, community colleges are at risk of not meeting student needs by failing to provide the quiet, distraction-free space that is so critical to students being able to complete their work.” It’s so true —  libraries are one of the few places you can count on to find at least some area that is silent. We need to preserve that.

Sadly, the new study also found that students did not seek out librarians and often relied on search engines rather than library resources to complete their assignments. They did, however, turn to faculty for help, which to me means that the model in the North Carolina study, where librarians are proactive partners collaborating with faculty to support students in their classes, is even more vital. If librarians can engage with students through their courses, rather than waiting for students to approach them for help, we’re much better positioned to help them succeed.

Fortunately at my community college, we have some strong faculty partnerships and are involved in instructional design in both the required college English course most students take and the “essentials” class — a one credit course designed to orient students to college and help them define their paths. We’ve written a LibGuide for the English course and a Canvas module for the essentials class. Last week I emailed all the faculty teaching this semester to make sure they know about library resources and services, are aware of us as potential partners, and know how to connect us with students. As we gear up for the new academic year, I’ll be thinking about how our students might define their own success and thinking about  what libraries should — and shouldn’t — do to support them. At our community college system’s annual symposium today I heard Dr. Kim Hunter Reed speak and she talked about her work in Colorado, where students cited knowing “somebody cares about me” as the key to success.

That, we can do.

The once and future library

I was fascinated by the various news stories about a Roman era library unearthed in Cologne, Germany recently.  It housed around 20,000 scrolls and was state run – although researchers aren’t sure whether access was restricted to more influential Roman citizens. The archeologist in Germany quoted in Alison Flood’s Guardian story, Dr. Dirk Schmitz, thinks it was public: “The building would have been used as a public library, Schmitz said. ‘It is in the middle of Cologne, in the marketplace, or forum: the public space in the city centre. It is built of very strong materials, and such buildings, because they are so huge, were public,’ he said.” It’s really remarkable to think that in only the second century, well before books as we think of them existed, there were libraries.

I have a soft spot for ancient libraries, because scholars believe they were, like today’s public libraries, much more than just repositories for important works. The Library of Hadrian in Athens (where my Twitter profile photo was taken) is about the same age as the newly discovered Cologne library, and is thought to have been an archive as well as a place for lectures and discussions. As Lonely Planet explains, “It essentially functioned as Athens’ civic centre in Roman times . . . .” Sounds a lot like public libraries today!

Last week after I heard about the Roman library in Cologne, a coworker called to let me know that while looking at colleges with her daughter, she heard about Temple University’s planned “robotic library,” which will open next spring. It turns out they are installing BookBot, a system is use at several other universities, including NC State. The idea is to use dense, space saving compact shelving with a robotic retrieval system, so more of the library’s public floorspace can be available for other uses, like meeting and collaborative spaces or performances. You can see how BookBot works in this video. I was glad to see that despite the robotic retrieval system, human library staff have an important role in using BookBot. I also wondered, as someone who seems to put in a LOT of IT tickets at my job, how often they have software or hardware issues!

Speaking of technology and the need for human librarians, today I came across a wonderful article at Atlas Obscura that speaks to the once and future power of good old fashioned librarianship. It’s about the NYPL librarians who help find books people only partially remember. This was one of my favorite activities at the public library: a patron calls or emails or comes in and says “I read this book x years ago, and it was about y and I know there was a z in it.” And you’re off.

As Jessica Leigh Hester explains in her story about NYPL’s “‘Title Quest’ hackathon,” despite the internet, librarians’ knowledge work is in demand: “they’re still experts at finding the answers to tricky questions.” And that is what stays the same, no matter how much technology evolves, or society changes. I’m guessing that in the second century, people in the Roman empire relied on librarians to find answers, and at libraries large (like NYPL, or the Temple and NC State libraries) or small (like my community college library, and the thousands of libraries in communities around the world), librarians are sleuthing their way to answers for people every day.

 

 

 

 

The lasting impact of librarians

First, thank you to all the recent followers of Nocturnal Librarian. My response to the infamous Forbes piece about closing libraries because we have Amazon and Starbucks is up over 1300 views, and many of you have also left me comments about what libraries mean to you. On Monday, it was my very great pleasure to spend an hour discussing why libraries matter on the Morning Show at Wisconsin Public Radio. One of the things I’ve noticed as I’ve heard from many of you, this past week and over the years, is that it’s not only the idea or physical presence of libraries that make such a difference in people’s lives. Nor is it solely the economic or social value libraries have in their communities. It’s the librarians.

Librarians like my friend Barbara White, who helps ensure kids who visit the Akron-Summit County Library can get a snack. She let me know that “Our terrific staff, in partnership with the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank, served 27,976 after-school snacks in the 2017-2018 school year.”  And librarians who mail books to the homebound or in some cases, to anyone who doesn’t live near a library. And librarians who bring books wherever people are, by bike or traditional bookmobile or by visiting nursing homes or retirement centers, schools, and parks. Librarians who are there for every member of their community, helping people who are often identified as “other” — recent immigrants, the homeless, and job seekers, for example — to feel included.  And at academic libraries, librarians who contribute to student success.

But the stories I like best aren’t even about librarians going the extra mile to make an impact. Last week a young man in his 20s stopped by my office. He had a question, and he came to me because there’s a sign on my door that says “Keep Calm and Ask a Librarian.” The question was not related to anything we have on offer in the library — but he knew I’d help, because his mother had taught him that when he needed to know something, he should ask a librarian.

If that wasn’t already pretty cool, the next part is even better. He said he grew up in New York his neighborhood library was the place he could go after school. A safe place. A place he told me “opened up the world” to him. A place where he was known, and where people were happy to see him. Librarians welcomed him and answered his questions and he grew up knowing he could always count on that.

Far beyond the wonderful places they work, the terrific collections and resources they manage, the community-oriented services they offer, and the inspiring and helpful programs they offer, librarians are doing the simplest and most impactful thing of all: being there for the people they serve. Remembering and getting to know their patrons, greeting them, recalling what they like to read or what they are curious about, reminding them there is a place in the world where they are known. Being open to every new person they meet in their work. Being present. Librarians, like the places they work in, are for everyone.

 

You can hear me on Wisconsin Public Radio on Monday!

Thanks to former NHPR host Brady Carlson, who is now at WPR, I’ll be on The Morning Show this coming Monday 7/30 at 8am central/9am eastern talking about my most recent post, “Really, libraries don’t need reinventing, thanks” and the incredible response from all of you out there who love and rely on libraries! I’m wicked excited to talk about how libraries serve our communities and why they rock.

Since so many of you use your libraries regularly, I’d love to hear about cool things happening at your local library. What’s the best program, service, or interesting thing you can check out?

 

Really, libraries don’t need reinventing, thanks

Two stories have made their way to me from around the internet lately. A few weeks ago it seemed everywhere I looked people were sharing the story of a small, “DIY” library in Brooklyn at a work sharing space. LitHub’s Phillip Pantuso speaks with a number of people, including Heather Topcik, director of the library at Bard, who gush that this is a revolution in serendipity where people can actually browse bookshelves. She actually says, “I think there’s some nostalgia there, because people don’t use libraries, unless you’re a student.” Maybe she should drive a couple of hours south and visit some of the NYPL branches Jim Dwyer visited for his piece in the New York Times a few years ago.

Pantuso goes on to say, “Digital classification has abetted the evolution of the library. In the past, a librarian would be tasked with deciding whether to shelve a book about art nouveau metalwork in the art nouveau section or the metalwork section. Now, given that most people will first encounter the book via an online search, it can functionally exist in both places. But the act of browsing and its concomitant serendipitousness are less available.”

I can’t decide which I find more ridiculously elitist — that “people don’t use libraries” or that “the act of browsing and its concomitant serendipitousness are less available” because of digital cataloging. So, no, actually, the shelves are still there, and so are the people. Browsing is not less available than it ever was, just because you can also see a digital catalog. But I tried to ignore this article, because it’s really not reality for most people — a hipster invitation-only set of books in Brooklyn is not a threat to libraries as most of us know them, and if people want to experiment and play librarian in their private, privileged spaces, they can go for it. Have fun.

Then this weekend, my friend Paul and many other outraged people were sharing Panos Mourdoukoutas’ article for Forbes. His main point seems to be: we’ve all got Amazon and Netflix, and Starbucks to hang out in, we don’t need libraries, let’s close them and save taxpayers a bundle. He also makes several unsupported comments like “There’s no shortage of places to hold community events,” and “Technology has turned physical books into collector’s items, effectively eliminating the need for library borrowing services.” Both of which are mindbogglingly inaccurate. Libraries in my area are actually regularly turning people away who are looking for space because it’s hard to find places for community groups to meet. And as the American Booksellers Association regularly reports, independent bookstores are thriving — because people are buying what he flippantly calls “collector’s items” but the rest of us still call books.

Also, I was left wondering as I usually am when I read articles like this, have any of these tone deaf, privileged writers set foot in a public library lately? Try it and see your fellow citizens wandering in the stacks, looking at what’s new, what’s shelved beside their favorite authors, or just what’s on the shelf in the aisle they’ve wandered down or the display they’ve come across. Yes, there are patrons who look up what they want to read online, and come to the library for that very thing, or even download a copy on their tablet or phone, but that is not evidence that serendipity or browsing are dead. In fact, given the rate at which I used to have to replace display books when I worked in a public library, I’d say browsing is popular. Don’t take my word for it, look at Pew, which has been reporting for years that Americans value public libraries.  And also, something I’ve discussed here at Nocturnal Librarian before, people prefer print books over eReading.

And I’m sure that someone who thinks stockholder profit is more important than access to public libraries would not stop to consider this, but only 2/3 of American adults have broadband internet access at home. That means that 1 in 3 people do not — and guess what? Many of the have-nots are poor, older, rural, or minorities. Maybe Mourdoukoutas thinks poor people, the elderly, and anyone not living on a coast doesn’t deserve to read? Because you cant download an Amazon eBook without broadband. Nor can everyone afford Amazon Prime, which is the only way to access what Mourdoukoutas  calls Amazon’s “online library.” Which is not actually a library. It’s a marketing tool.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, people who think they don’t need libraries really have no business deciding for the rest of society that they aren’t important. Amazon doesn’t need libraries to die in order to thrive (in fact, they don’t need bookstores to die either, as bookstores are doing just fine and Amazon continues to grow). Americans don’t need a giant corporation deciding what we read. But above all, libraries are often the only egalitarian spaces in American communities, radically welcoming of everyone who comes through their doors, providing vital space, quiet, internet access, resources, community, and yes, print books, magazines and newspapers to people of all walks of life, who rely on their libraries and use them.

 

Full catastrophe living for libraries

Many years ago when I was first learning about mindfulness, I read John Kabat-Zinn’s Full Catastrophe Living. He writes about how mindfulness — in brief, being in the moment, observing and nonjudgementally letting go of thoughts not related to being present in the moment — can help us deal with the “full catastrophe” of contemporary life, from actual physical pain or illness to the anxiety, panic, fear, and other uncomfortable emotional states we might be in as a reaction to things beyond our control. As I read American Libraries Direct the past two weeks I realized libraries are kind of in a full catastrophe moment along with the rest of the world.

In those two issues alone, there are articles about about the American Library Association’s and children’s literature authors’ stands on family separation at the border, about library equity issues such as the threat to LGBTQ books in Hong Kong, freedom of access to information issues, the long history of pubic libraries advocating for the poor or marginalized, librarian’s in the Iowa trying to help those in Puerto Rico still reeling from last year’s the hurricanes, and a man from Alabama leading a drive for books for his school district’s library (which it can’t afford) by climbing Mt Kilimanjaro. Meanwhile in the everyday trenches libraries of all kinds are facing flat or reduced budgets, position cuts or reductions (even directors in my state are part time in smaller libraries), and loss of school or even public libraries, depending on the state or country. Many of these issues result in contentious disagreements among people — sadly, almost everything in our culture now seems to be fraught with that possibility.

The good news is we as a profession can get through all of it — the full catastrophe — the same way individuals can get through their own. We can be professionally mindful, present for and with the people in our libraries. We can be mindful of what libraries bring to people, and how we approach our work. We can let our anxieties and fears about the future of our workplaces and our profession go, and focus on what’s right here now, which in my experience makes us even more open to trying new things, rather than being afraid of change.  In doing that, I predict, we’ll be ready to meet any catastrophe, we’ll thrive where we are, and our libraries will benefit and be welcoming places that meet our patrons’ needs.

In 2014 in this space I wrote, “What we do is awesome. What we do is community-building. What we do is hope-fueled and potentially narrative-changing. What we do can fill in the broken spaces in our communities, in our lives and the lives of those we serve. What we do is empowering — people can learn and grow and be their best selves because of the books and services and programs and presence we offer. What we do is shepherd the most egalitarian places in America. Our libraries when they are at their best are the very best of what our society can be.”  I was writing about public libraries but this describes academic libraries just as well. It’s full catastrophe some days, but we can handle it

Woes and whys of weeding

I started at my new library as director this week, and one of the first things my small staff wanted to discuss is weeding. A recent assessment of our print collection revealed it’s not very up to date, and since we’re serving a community college, we want to be sure our students have access to relevant, which often means newer, material. But, print books don’t check out very much. But, maybe they don’t check out very much because they’re not as recent as digital library materials. And so it goes. The perpetual woes and whys of weeding, which every library faces.

We made a decision in our first staff meeting at the end of the week to pull books that are in bad condition, use terminology that is either dated or no longer appropriate, or is older than ten years old in STEM and health fields. Then we’ll review everything, and ask faculty for input. Of course the biggest fear is that our materials budget won’t allow us to update everything we need to pull, and that our shelves will look too empty. So, we’ll take it slowly and see what we find, before actually withdrawing titles.

Fortunately, we’re part of a system of community colleges across our state, and we can also get books from other academic and public libraries easily. But even with resource sharing and a good collection of e-resources, print weeding still seems to be painful for many libraries and librarians, and can sometimes be a public relations nightmare. I think the key is to know our goals and communicate them, which means we need to understand what our priorities are, and what our vision is. We’ll be drafting a collection development and management policy and thinking carefully about the college’s programs and the needs of our students and faculty.

Should be fun!