Information pollution

I’ve been trying to be more active on Twitter, in part because a lot of open education people and librarians share experiences and thoughts there. This morning I saw a thread that a librarian I follow had retweeted, originally posted by @Viveka, that got me thinking about something that came across my desk from the ALA’s Center for the Future of Libraries in their newsletter Read for Later a couple of weeks ago. The Twitter thread was about a bot tweet that was making its way around Twitter, trying to drum up outrage about the way Disney has cast the forthcoming live action Little Mermaid movie. I won’t go into detail because I don’t want to grant this message any more attention but the gist is that it’s written to divide people and drum up racial strife while saying on the surface that it’s not about race. Which sounds like something a human might actually do — claim not to be racist but then make a point that attempts to divide people over race. But Viveka notes in the thread, “we know it’s a bot because it behaves unlike any human” and then goes on to explain the tells that make this so.

If you are not as observant as Viveka or just accept the content at face value without interrogating this tweet too carefully — and let’s face it, that’s mostly how the majority of tweets are read, quickly and without much thought — you might miss it. Viveka points out, “It has the right hashtags, the petition link works, call to action is clear.” Which might make it seem real enough that in the seconds it takes to skim it, most people would either ignore it, engage with it, or feel moved enough to click the petition.  But it’s been posted “about every ten minutes, as a reply to other tweets mentioning the movie or the actess” (@Viveka).

A bot can do that, a human can’t. Which is why I went back and re-read the New York Times article by Cade Metz & Scott Blumenthal that appeared in Read for Later, “How AI Could Be Weaponized to Spread Disinformation.” Metz and Blumenthal write about two AI companies that are making fake news generators that are getting better and better at mimicking human writing openly available — so that researchers know what we’re up against, as more and more content like the thread above proliferates. Why does it matter what people think about the casting of a Disney film? It doesn’t, but the humans behind this bot creation probably have an interest in dividing Americans over cultural issues. Perhaps so we will vote emotionally, or so we’ll be busy arguing while our government cages children, or tries to start a war somewhere, or . . . you get the idea. And AI makes it more likely that we’ll have trouble identifying what’s bot generated and what’s not.

So why is this a library issue? Libraries of all sorts encourage information literacy, or in the case of school and academic libraries, teach it. Information literacy is a set of skills and habits of mind that allow people to seek, evaluate, and use information effectively and responsibly. Will we be able to keep doing this work if, as Metz and Blumenthal quote OpenAI researcher Alec Radford, “The level of information pollution that could happen with systems like this a few years from now could just get bizarre.”

I’m not sure. Yes, we can keep teaching people to examine and consider information carefully but we have to be careful not to go so far as to convince them to trust nothing, as dana boyd cautions in her article “Did Media Literacy Backfire?” which I re-read every few months to remind myself how hard this work is. Will the media be susceptible to information pollution in the same way social media is? Is it already, in the “balance bias” of its coverage of major issues like climate change?

There are no easy answers. I believe information literacy is a help, but knowing how to do something doesn’t mean someone will do it. Ultimately the fight against information pollution is a matter of will — we have to spend more than a few seconds scanning something online before deciding whether it’s valid or not. I’d like to think libraries have a role in encouraging that, but in the end, it’s probably up to each of us to be smart information consumers.

Libraries: Clinics of the Soul?

First a shout out to Diane Mayr who posted the article I am about to swoon over on the NH Library Association Facebook page. If you’re a repeat visitor to Nocturnal Librarian you know one of the things I write about frequently here is my strong belief that libraries do not need to rebrand, reinvent, or repurpose. We don’t need to be called something else (I’m talking to you, “teaching and learning commons”) or asked to transform ourselves (sorry, ALA) because what we are is already awesome, and has been, and will be. If are just left alone to actually be libraries.

So when I read Alberto Manguel’s article “Reinventing the Library” in the New York Times, via the aforementioned NHLA post, I found myself nodding and saying, “yes, exactly.” Repeatedly. This should be required reading for people who make decisions about libraries’ continued existence and purpose the world over.

To give you a sense of why I loved every word, I will quote Manguel, although I also encourage you to read the whole beautiful article.

“It is in the nature of libraries to adapt to changing circumstances and threats, and all libraries exist in constant danger of being destroyed by war, vermin, fire, water or the idiocies of bureaucracy. But today, the principal danger facing libraries comes not from threats like these but from ill-considered changes that may cause libraries to lose their defining triple role: as preservers of the memory of our society, as providers of the accounts of our experience and the tools to navigate them — and as symbols of our identity.”

I’m with him, especially about ill-considered changes, but I’d urge Manguel and you, dear reader, to listen to this poignant piece on NPR about Benghazi (the place, not the political brouhaha) and hear a Libyan journalist remember how much he loves the library, now nearly inaccessible because of conflict. Anyway, back to Manguel’s point. We have a pretty bad-ass role already. Preserve, provide accounts of, and teach people to navigate our common human experience. He goes on:

“Most libraries today are used less to borrow books than to seek protection from harsh weather and to find jobs online, and it is admirable that librarians have lent themselves to these very necessary services that don’t traditionally belong to their job description. A new definition of the role of librarians could be drafted by diversifying their mandate, but such restructuring must also ensure that the librarians’ primary purpose is not forgotten: to guide readers to their books.”

In many places, Manguel may be right. I got so excited last week because TWICE at the service desk I actually got to recommend books to people. But libraries exist everywhere, and outside of cities, all over New Hampshire and wherever you live as well, libraries and their patrons are pretty much the same as they’ve ever been — people coming to check out books and to share what they’re reading, learning, and doing. When I talk with my colleagues around the state, it’s clear that the public hand wringing about the future of libraries is done by people who don’t go to small town libraries and are unaware that they are still serving a very important, highly valued, and dare I say, traditional role in their communities.

Back to Manguel:

“Librarians are not trained to act as social workers, caregivers, babysitters or medical advisers. All these extra tasks make it difficult, if not impossible, for librarians to work as librarians: to see that the collections remain coherent, to sift through catalogues, to help readers read, to read themselves. The new duties imposed on them are the obligations of civilized societies toward their citizens, and should not be dumped pell-mell onto the shoulders of librarians. If we change the role of libraries and librarians without preserving the centrality of the book, we risk losing something irretrievable.”

That phrase, “preserving the centrality of the book” is what really got me — no matter what else we’re called upon to provide, what makes a library a library? Books. You can’t have a library without books; if we were just computers  and wifi we’d be an internet cafe. Just a place to get warm, a shelter. Just a building for classes and mah jong and lectures and movies, a community center. But none of those other places have what we have. And most don’t even try to; yet paradoxically, we’re often expected by decision makers to offer a good bit of what those other places provide, as well as job searching, computer skills training, and sometimes even social services.

Manguel concludes, “If libraries are to be not only repositories of society’s memory and symbols of its identity but the heart of larger social centers, then these changes must be made consciously from an intellectually strong institution that recognizes its exemplary role, and teaches us what books can do: show us our responsibilities toward one another, help us question our values and undermine our prejudices, lend us courage and ingenuity to continue to live together, and give us illuminating words that might allow us to imagine better times. According to the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, one of the ancient libraries he saw in Egypt carried above its entrance the words: ‘Clinic of the Soul.'”

I love Manguel’s view of what books can do, for the mind and for the soul, and I stand by libraries’ central role as places where there is unfettered access to books. Long live the centrality of the book.

Supporting libraries

My husband sent me this great article from the New York Times, Denying New York Libraries the Fuel They Need.” Jim Dwyer provides some startling facts, like this: “The city’s libraries — the fusty old buildings, and a few spiffier modern ones, planted in all five boroughs — had 37 million visitors in the last fiscal year. . . . So the city’s libraries have more users than major professional sports, performing arts, museums, gardens and zoos — combined.”

Dwyer notes “No one who has set foot in the libraries — crowded at all hours with adults learning languages, using computers, borrowing books, hunting for jobs, and schoolchildren researching projects or discovering stories — can mistake them for anything other than power plants of intellect and opportunity. They are distributed without regard to wealth.” And yet, he goes on to explain, the city’s professional sports teams have enjoyed hundreds of millions of dollars in capital funding and tax incentives while the public library system faces a fight each year for adequate funding.

Here’s where I’d better remind you, dear readers, that my opinions are mine and not that of my employer, a public library.

That fight goes on in your town too — it’s known, in public sector parlance, as the budget process. In New York, it seems, libraries have to fight for their hours every year, as part of a carefully choreographed dance between elected officials who are haggling with each other for their preferred projects. I am guessing that process isn’t so different in your town, or mine, just on a smaller scale than New York’s.

Meanwhile it seems every year there’s some non-librarian academic expert who comes along and fuels the idea that libraries are obsolete. Public officials love this, and it does libraries a disservice during the budget process. The latest is John Palfrey. Palfrey’s book is called Bibliotech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google and the Washington Post review is provocatively titled, “Do We Still Need Libraries?” Palfrey’s main point seems to be that libraries as we remember them from  our childhoods — and as I’ve noted in this blog before, in most towns across the country, they are still very much the same — must transform themselves into highly connected digital hubs, or die.

Palfrey should ask Dwyer to show him around the libraries of New York (or any neighborhood in America, I’d wager) and talk to the patrons who are using what he rightly notes are the backbone of egalitarian society. In our public libraries, where information is free and available to all citizens, people are reading or making readers of their kids. Mostly in print, which is still a better deal for libraries and the taxpayers who support them, because physical books don’t expire after a certain number of checkouts or a certain amount of time, as many library e-books do. When they open these books, people are discovering all the things that make us human, and what that means to them. They’re getting to know their neighbors. They’re becoming informed citizens.

Nostalgic and old fashioned? Ok, if you say so, digital experts. But in a society where there is almost nowhere to be quiet, study, or think, libraries offer that space. In a society where it’s hard, on a limited income, for retired people to meet friends and chat over the day’s newspaper, libraries offer that community. In a society where after school enrichment for kids almost always costs more than the working poor or even the middle class can afford, libraries offer that opportunity. In a society where the under and unemployed have almost nowhere else to access the internet, learn computer skills, apply for jobs, or print important documents, libraries offer those resources. In a society where the mentally ill, the disabled, the homeless, and the recently imprisoned are often unwelcome, libraries offer radical hospitality — we are open to all.

From information and books to early literacy, education and support for marginalized adults and new Americans, community and small town (or big city) culture, public libraries’ work is not diminished by people claiming that Google can replace your local librarian, or that libraries should “hack” themselves into “‘nodes in a larger network’ of organizations and must move toward ‘the digital, networked, mobile, and cloud-based library'” Palfrey envisions. And imagines private philanthropy will fund.

Space. Community. Opportunity. Resources. Books. These are real life, everyday services of public libraries. That we fund vast caverns where millionaires play sports and then leave libraries to fend for themselves every budget cycle sounds crazy because it is. That we think placing our hopes in some hypothetical network of charitably funded digital collections will improve upon what’s already going on in library branches all over America is silly. Build your fancy networks, go ahead, but in the mean time, don’t patronize the vital role of public libraries as “nostalgic” when for many ordinary citizens, that so-called nostalgia is actually a vital service they rely on.

 

Oh you beautiful doll

A few months ago I blogged about library service of the future and mentioned unusual lending collections. This morning I read a wonderful New York Times piece by Corey Kilgannon about a really cool example: a circulating American Girl doll at the Ottendorfer branch of the New York Public Library. Someone had donated the doll, the library thought it was too valuable to display, and it was sitting around on a shelf until a creative children’s librarian, Thea Taube, decided to let children borrow her.

Apparently there is no precedent or policy for cataloging or circulating a doll in her library system, so Taube “kept it unofficial,” allowing kids to take the doll home without asking for library cards or identification. That this would happen anywhere in contemporary America, let alone in our largest city, floored me. I can just hear the naysayers insisting the doll would never be seen again.

This unofficial doll-lending has gone on for years, and although the doll’s hair is now matted and her accessories have been lost (due to what Taube says is “a lot of love”) she has always been returned. The article explains she’s been a treat both for kids whose families couldn’t afford an American Girl doll and those whose parents opposed buying the toy on principle.

I can’t say what I love best about this story: the innovative thinking on the part of the librarian, the fact that her nontraditional idea worked so beautifully and for so long, the hand-written note (from a child who took the doll home) that ran with the story, the varied experiences of the children who borrowed her and the ways the doll touched so many lives? I love the whole thing.

Kilgannon writes that Taube feels the doll lending “exemplified the library as a community center” and closes by quoting Taube: “I tell the kids that the library belongs to them.” I am still smiling about this, just thinking of how those kids will feel about libraries for the rest of their lives.

What’s in your library’s storage room that could be a creative lending item?

Bookmobiles to the rescue

I have fond though somewhat vague memories of visiting a bookmobile when I was a kid. A recent thread on the New Hampshire State Library’s email list confirmed that most libraries in this area of the United States no longer have bookmobiles. I’m hoping some of them are in storage somewhere.

This morning in the New York Times I was happy to read that in the Rockaways, where several Queens Borough Public Library branches were damaged by Hurricane Sandy, an old bookmobile bus is making a real difference to residents impacted by the storm. The article says that while information, power outlets, and free coffee were the initial draws, books are what people are seeking now. And that the staff actually drove to Connecticut for fuel. Librarians rock.

American Libraries reports on the Queens bookmobile as well as the library’s programs for families in area shelters. The article also mentions other flooded and damaged libraries in New Jersey, New York, and Massachusetts, and efforts to aid their recovery. Galley Cat reported on storm aid from publishers for libraries and schools, and also noted that Brooklyn Public Library’s bookmobiles were delivering relief supplies earlier this month. The library’s website listed other ways they are helping storm victims, from online learning to pop up library service.

So if your library has a mothballed bookmobile, it might not be a bad idea to give it a tune-up from time to time. It may come in handy if there is a natural disaster. And it also might be wise to think about how your library could help the community in case of a large-scale emergency. Our colleagues in  Sandy-impacted states are providing plenty of inspiration.

Stillness Capital of Imaginations

I love Ben Ratliff’s paean to old-school stacks browsing at the Butler Library at Columbia University in today’s New York Times “Still Life” column: “the Butler stacks, the stillness capital of my imagination.”  Wow.

Stillness. The antidote to the busyness of websites, social media, viral videos, and other enemies of quiet reflection. Ratliff says, “I think by writing, and I write on a computer; the computer also contains the Internet, which manufactures express-service context as well as overstatement, sociopathy and lameness.” Amen, brother.

He goes on to praise physical stack browsing: “Doing it the inefficient way, you use the senses. You look at a row of spines, imprinted with butch, ultra-legible white or black type; your eye takes in more at any time than can be contained on a computer screen. You hold the books in your hand and feel the weight and size; the typography and the paper talk to you about time.”  I say again, amen.

And then this: “You can also create luck in any given spot: You turn your head to the opposing row of books. A different subject area can arise, perhaps only partly to do with your areas of interest. This is non-link-based browsing. You can discover, instead of being endlessly sought.” Alleluia!

Sing it, brother Ratliff. This is the soul of library browsing. Libraries are caught up right now in being technologically savvy. We are working hard to use QR codes, Google indoor mapping, mobile catalogs, blogs, Tumblr feeds, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and whatever else might attract “digital natives.”  We lend e-books and even e-readers. We teach database navigation.

I understand libraries have to serve all our patrons and that there are benefits to efficient online searching. But what if our core mission is to be the stillness capital of imaginations? We must continue to be that, no matter what other services we provide.

A bookish break and more musings on e-reading

The Nocturnal Librarian has been on spring break. I visited family in Austin, TX and had a very good time. Besides good company, excellent restaurants, funky local shoppingUT’s museums, warm sunny weather, and live music, I relished the bookish delights of the Austin area. We shopped at the Austin Public Library Bookstore, Recycled Reads, and the indie bookstore BookPeople, visited the Ransom Center‘s King James Bible exhibit, and saw some of Dr. Suess’s original Lorax drawings at the LBJ Library and Museum and an exhibit of his work at Art on 5th.

On planes and in airports, I saw more e-books than print. On one flight, I noticed my seat-mate reading The Hunger Games on an iPad, (which explained why he was in no hurry to de-plane). As Michael and Ann observed on the Books On the Nightstand podcast (#170), it is increasingly hard to pick up reading ideas while traveling because e-readers make books nearly anonymous. I made a dent in my “to-read” piles and am hopeful some fellow traveler snooped on the titles, because they are both terrific: Homer & Langley by E. L. Doctorow and In the Stacks: Short Stories About Libraries and Librarians edited by Michael Cart.

When I got home I reminded my son, who is home this week, that we now subscribe to the New York Times electronically. He made a very sharp observation which I had overlooked, since my husband and I read the paper in shifts (he departs for work while nocturnal people are still sleeping). You can’t enjoy communal newspaper reading — swapping sections around the breakfast table — with an e-reader.

Shortcuts, distractions, & discovery

The book club I attend discussed Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie last week. Flavia de Luce, Bradley’s precocious detective, lives in a rambling house in postwar England. She spends much of her unstructured, unsupervised spare time tinkering in an old chemistry lab.

Flavia lives in a world where  information travels slowly and schedules are not stuffed with activities. She can’t Google to find out what she wants to know; she gleans it through a combination of experiences, experiments, conversations, and observations. And she reads.

At the reference desk, I often field requests for film versions of assigned books. I see students (and anyone else using a computer, myself included) frequently distracted by email, social media, 24/7 “news,” and the temptations of the information superhighway with all of its scenic byways and circuitous routes.

The book club’s consensus was that Flavia represents a childhood free from modern shortcuts and distractions. Which sounded good, in light of my squeamishness at abetting college students in shirking their reading. I frequently urge my teens to turn off the screens, to realize how much time they would have if they focused.

But an essay in the New York Times today gave me pause. Writer Hanif Kureishi lauds the creative benefits of distraction and suggests that drug treatment of children who have trouble focusing is mostly a way to regulate behavior in the interest of conformity and obedience. He considers the “attempted standardization of a human being” to be the real problem.

So, are students who are finding ways around assignments actually creative problem solvers, rather than bluffers? Are they modern-day Flavias, wandering a very different but potentially fruitful and interesting garden path? Will their serendipitous travels in virtual worlds lead to good old-fashioned discovery?

All the news that is fit to e-read

As a bibliophile and technology skeptic (hold your fire: I see many benefits, I’m just not convinced it’s always better), I was never very excited about e-books. I love the look and feel of physical books. I love owning books that belonged to earlier generations.

When e-readers became popular, I tried reading a few library books on an iPad. I wasn’t really impressed. Other than the fact that I could read without a book light, I didn’t really understand the appeal.

I fall firmly on the side of those who, like Canadian author and librarian Ian Colford, feel books are already good technology and that their existence as enduring objects is worthwhile. As Lev Grossman wrote so beautifully in the New York Times Book Review last fall, the codex, which allows nonlinear reading, is in many ways superior to the e-reader, which works more like a scroll.

But I am now e-reading daily. After a number of delivery problems and some number-crunching, I gave up home delivery of the New York Times in favor of a digital subscription. I don’t love it, but I can see a number of advantages beyond the obvious physical and financial benefits.

Although I’ll have fewer papers for mulching my garden, I can read news as its published, and it won’t be late, missing, or wet. From within an article, I can take links to videos and slide shows or read related blogs. I’m saving trees (although there is evidence that the environmental and human impact of iPad production isn’t so great), but I’m still supporting a newspaper whose writing I admire.

I realize my attachment to newsprint is partly sentimental. If you know of a good “clipping” app, please leave a comment. Meanwhile, I’ll be sipping my morning coffee, tapping a touch screen, missing the rustling of paper and my cat’s attempts to lie on whatever page I’m reading.