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).

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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.

Critical Information Literacy

I’ve been taking an online course from the ALA called Introduction to Critical Information Literacy: Promoting Social Justice Through Librarianship. It has been really interesting, and even though I had a basic understanding of critical information literacy, and have been interested in social justice all my life, the class discussions and assignments have opened my eyes to new ideas and possibilities.

The idea of critical info lit is to work with students to put research in context in terms of whose voices are included or excluded, what power structures prevent participation in or access to research, what inherent biases exist in publishing,  and in librarianship’s frameworks, like cataloging and classification, and so forth. Even though I do some cataloging, it’s mostly from existing records, not from scratch (also known as original), so I haven’t noticed that there are a lot of words missing from the Library of Congress Subject Headings — mass incarceration, for example, as I used The New Jim Crow in one of my assignments.

There’s been a lot of conversation online about whether libraries are neutral — they aren’t, of course. Nothing humans do is neutral, when you get down to it, which is ok, as long as we think about how we’re biased and who it’s impacting. For example, some core principles of librarianship are to make information and services available and accessible to all, and to welcome everyone — which are biases, even if they are well intended, and as public librarians know they sometimes upset patrons who wish “everyone” wasn’t quite so inclusive.

Since this was a class aimed at college and university librarians, we also looked at peer review, which as you know I have been looking at critically anyway (see my last post about Retraction Watch) at work and in my courses for the MSc in Science Communication & Public Engagement at University of Edinburgh. The more I learn about it, the more I wonder if it can be fixed, especially since people deeply involved in trying to make it better agree that it might not ever be.

We talked in this course about fake news as well, and interestingly, how our desire to teach students to question everything has led to more and more people questioning legitimate sources. I maintain that if the questioning is systematic and is meant as a way to test whether a source or an article has been produced in a way that strives to be factual, accurate, and clear, and isn’t a kind of ‘trust no one’ questioning, this won’t happen. I prefer to tell students to think carefully about everything — they’ll be able to tell whether something is unfair, misleading, inaccurate, or biased if they think.

And we talked about zines, something I hadn’t really thought about much. I know of them, but hadn’t thought of zines being in libraries, or turning up on works cited lists. But zines are, like letters, diaries, blogs, and other first person accounts, primary sources. They often tell stories that have been left out or haven’t yet been discovered by mainstream researchers. One of my classmates offers the option for students in a composition class to create a persuasive zine rather than an essay, using many of the same rhetorical techniques. That seems like a pretty creative idea to me. I like the fact that zines could be an entry point into scholarly conversation for people who don’t feel like they belong in that conversation.

For our final project, we had to create a zine about the class. Below is one of my pages.

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Civil rights in libraries

This Fourth of July holiday weekend I’ve been thinking about our country. Specifically I have been examining how little I really know about racism and other types of bias (directed at women, transgender people, native American people, muslims, immigrants) in America. Not that I don’t know it exists, but I’m a glass half-full kind of person and until the most recent national elections, I bought into the “it gets better” narrative. Look at the progress we’ve made, I thought. A black president! Better protections for women, transgender kids in school. Support for refugees. It was easy for me, a privileged white professional, to assume that the rash of police shootings of unarmed black people was a blight on progress, not a sign that the progress I felt proud to support was really like a shiny coat of paint on a rotting porch — it covered up what had never been fixed underneath.

For me, that’s been the most eye-opening realization these past several months — not that our government has changed direction, but that institutions and systems of all kinds — political, commercial, social — and also communities of all kinds are hobbled by implicit bias. And that seems overwhelming, especially when I’ve seen myself as part of the solution, not just because I tried to raise my kids to do better, because I vote, pay attention, write letters, and sometimes protest, but also because I am a librarian.

What does that have to do with anything? If you’ve read Nocturnal Librarian over the years you know that I was a public librarian before I moved back into academia, and I have frequently championed the role of libraries as places of radical hospitality, the last public institutions truly open to all. Our professional organization, the American Library Association, actively works for the freedom to use libraries without fear of government intrusion — ALA and its members has for over a decade spoken up about immigrant and refugee rights, resisted the Patriot Act, spoke up about hate crimes, and more recently, opposed both the rolling back of protections for transgender students, and the Dakota Access Pipeline. Librarians are the good guys! Right?

In the most recent ALA magazine, American Libraries, there is an article about the Tougaloo Nine, and several other protests during the civil rights era where black people, often students, tried to use white only public and academic libraries. I knew in a I-learned-it-in-school kind of way that libraries were segregated like everywhere else, but these articles really grabbed me. These were librarians who told black students they had to go and couldn’t use the library or read library books. I cannot imagine ever denying anyone a book. Through this little thought experiment, picturing myself in that situation, I realized I have never really truly learned about the civil rights era struggles. I’ve read about that time, sure, I have shaken my head and wondered how on earth the South (because I always think of it as the South where institutionalized racism was born and where the vestiges of that infect society, another false perceptions I am trying to correct) could have been like that. I’ve felt ashamed that people were so terribly mistreated in my country.

But I’ve never placed myself in the stories. I’ve never tried to imagine wanting a book and ending up being beaten my police. I’ve never tried imagining denying someone that book. Not that imagining is experiencing, I don’t mean that at all, but imagining is stronger than just learning. I hope that making the mental leap to put myself right into someone else’s perspective will help me break down the implicit bias I, like all Americans, carry. I hope it makes me a better librarian, better able to truly serve every person who comes through our doors. I’m grateful that my professional association walks that walk, provides members with information about challenges to freedom, and expects that standing for “liberty and justice for all” is a part of what we do.