Two tech stories

One of the things both academic and public libraries provide is internet access; it’s hard to carry this out of the building. A few library systems lend wifi hotspots but I recently looked into this and they are reliant on cell phone coverage since the cell providers offer the hotspots, and where there is poor coverage (outside of towns and cities), there is poor wifi. Nearly all the papers students write in high schools and colleges depend on their access to search engines of various kinds, whether databases their schools subscribe to or the ubiquitous giant search engine that starts with a G. Two stories caught my eye this week, related to the need for students to do online research and challenge of getting internet access to rural areas.

First, Pew Research Center studied public trust of algorithms. While their study focused on the kinds of algorithms that make decisions — like who should be hired (algorithms are used to screen resumes and applicants’ answers on job applications), be up for parole, or get certain financial perks — it also looked at attitudes towards the algorithms that decide what you see on social media. Majorities of people in the Pew study don’t trust algorithms, yet, whenever I teach an information literacy class, I have a hard time convincing students that the results they see when they search online are delivered to them not because they’re the best sources around but based on algorithms that calculate what they should see, based on what else they’ve seen and clicked on.

Similarly, many people I know seem to feel confident that while there are misleading or “bot” generated “news” stories online, they don’t see anything like that in their social media feeds. And yet, what we see on social media is also highly controlled by proprietary and opaque algorithms that are controlled by a handful of tech companies. While I don’t know any students who use those sources for their academic papers, I have started asking classes where they get news and stay current, and they nearly all say social media. So, I guess I need to keep talking about algorithms, because people seem to be properly cautious of those, even as they seem to trust the name brands that use algorithms to control the information they see.

The second story that I saw is about an obscure FCC rule that currently exacerbates unequal access to high speed internet access. Just under 1 in 5 students can’t get online at home in rural parts of America. But it turns out there is actually an “untapped spectrum” that due to this little known rule sits available for broadband right now, and the FCC will soon decide whether it can be licensed by school districts rather than sold to internet companies. Since this spectrum was originally “reserved for educational television broadcasts in the 1960s,” it makes sense that the FCC should license it to schools and help mitigate broadband inequality. States that are hoping for access to the spectrum have plans to “broadcast wirelessly into surrounding rural communities” from existing wired school internet networks.

Would that mean fewer people in the library? It would certainly mean fewer people in the parking lot and outside the front door trying to get on the wifi. And it might mean a new role for libraries, as partners in this kind of statewide broadband program, or maybe even more appreciation for school libraries (which have suffered cuts all over the U.S.), because librarians can play a key role in teaching students the information literacy skills they will need to be good researchers.

 

 

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The undead and the unfree

Grad school started back up so I’ve been busy. But two stories caught my eye this Halloween. One was about a library in the Atlanta area offering a pandemic program with a zombie theme. The library had “a bit of pushback from staff about the zombie-themed marketing.” But the programming coordinator went for it anyway. The program sounded great — a public health information session on preparing for emergencies, learning about vaccines, and understanding pandemics. Perhaps some staff thought it was too frivolous a marketing theme for a serious subject. But since it is a really important topic, shouldn’t the marketing be designed to attract the most people possible?

Meanwhile, I also read yet another story about prisons banning books, and requiring prisoners to use their eReaders instead (at a high cost). Right now my library had an inter-library loan that is overdue at the federal prison in our state. They aren’t easy to lend to — my access services coordinator says this is not the first time they’ve held onto an item long past its due date. But this article gave me pause and made me realize what a valuable service it is to lend to prisons. Reading in jail has been linked to lower rates of recidivism. Books can help inmates learn about the laws that have impacted their lives. And I certainly couldn’t live without books. It seems to me that if people have lost their freedom we don’t need to also refuse them access to information and reading. It also seems silly to ban books rather than just inspect them with greater scrutiny.

Happy Halloween.

More knowledge for good: research as resistance

I heard about a project recently that I somehow missed — Emily Dreyfuss wrote in Wired about it in June, when the family separation crisis was still in the public eye. A band of what Columbia University librarian Alex Gil is quoted as calling “digital ninjas” from all over came together online, gathered data from public records, and created Torn Apart/Separados, “an interactive web site that visualizes the vast apparatus of immigration enforcement in the US, and broadly maps the shelters where children can be housed.” This must have taken forever, right? It took a week.

That, my friends, is some serious bad-ass librarianship. Torn Apart/Separados Volume 2, which is live now, shows “the territory and infrastructure of ICE’s financial regime in the USA. This data & visualization intervention peels back layers of culpability behind the humanitarian crisis of 2018.”

Did I mention how badass these people are? This is all just volunteers using their research skills to shine a light on some serious darkness. Alex Gil also created what he calls a Nimble Tents Toolkit, so that other researches can put together their own “relief mapathon” (Gil was also involved in mapping Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria to help aid workers) or “rapid response research.”

I told a class today that I freakin’ love Wikipedia — they stared at me, the crazy librarian with the rainbow chickens and colorful cat on my door raving about the beauty of making all human knowledge available to all humans — but they listened when I said that crowd-sourced knowledge is what will keep the world moving forward. I asked them what was more important, that a source accurately express a well reasoned, well supported opinion, even an unpopular one, or that it be strictly factual and “unbiased.”

By the time we were done, we’d had a very heartening conversation about how their generations (mostly 20s and 30s — yes, those very same Gen Y and Millenials that so many people malign, who in my view are our future and are doing the best they can with what they have to work with) are tearing apart old definitions and building a more equitable, inclusive world. And that taking a stand — being “biased” by naming your values, gathering data, and making a rock solid argument in favor of a better world, a better future — is why they are in college.

I am glad to be part of the same profession as Gil and other badass librarians. And I am glad I could strike a chord today with a few students who are going to feel a little bit better about crowd-sourced knowledge and about taking a stand (properly cited, APA or MLA, your choice).

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.

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?