Three ways libraries are serving the world

I read three stories this week that caught my eye — at the same time that I was asked to answer some questions about why I work in my library for a display going up later this month to help students at my university get to know library staff. In doing this I noticed that the university’s mission, “Transforming hearts and minds to serve the world,” is actually similar to core values of librarianship, a profession also dedicated to transforming and serving the world.

In Kokomo, Indiana, the public library is serving the world by displaying a rescued piece of street art by Banksy. The unusual exhibit is bringing people together to talk about street art and its place in culture. Fostering this kind of public conversation is definitely a transforming act.  Getting people to talk — especially about something controversial like Banksy’s art — is valuable public service.

In Germany, several libraries are welcoming “provenance research,” which is the ongoing work of locating art and other cultural and personal property looted by the Nazis, determining who it belonged to and returning it to victims and their family members.  The Lost Art Foundation is conducting the work, which is publicly funded. Imagine the U.S. government funding a massive effort to return items seized from other cultures. Yeah, I can’t imagine that either. Anyway, the German efforts are another example of libraries at the forefront of cultural and social transformation — serving as a conduit of reconciliation for their communities and the family members of those whose property was stolen.

Finally, two young women have managed to start a bookmobile style library in Greece to serve refugee communities. They kitted out the mobile library and stocked it entirely with donations, and run it for free. I was shocked to read that there are communities where their efforts are not welcome — I assume because some people must resent the presence of refugees, but who shuts down a library? Not only do these lovely human beings continue their work, but they also dream of this idea taking off throughout the world wherever displaced people are living. Two quotes in this story caught my eye: “Naude and Zijthoff were determined to provide a quiet space, amid the upheaval and uncertainty, where people could use their time rather than just fill it. ” And, “But those who come to the library love it: children say it feels like home . . . .”

Julian Sheather, the Guardian reporter who wrote those words, is spot on — the article really sums up the essence of what a library is for me. In fact, in my response to “Why I work in the library” for the display I mentioned, I used those exact words: Libraries feel like home to me. And libraries of all kinds, public, academic, private, mobile, current and past, intact or lost to conflict or other disasters, represent the transformation of lives — the lives of people who come together in libraries to learn, find quiet, pursue their hopes, strengthen their communities. Whenever I feel bogged down by everyday librarianship (hey, it happens, it’s not all glamorous, you know), I recall this sense I have that what we do is powerful, transformative, and in many ways radical service.

 

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Information literacy, millenials, and the presidential election

I recently posted on my Facebook page that the current election campaign is a helpful example in my library instruction classes, because when I tell my university students that they need to think critically about what’s true when they search online, and really examine the source of the information, the motive and intent behind a post or website, etc., they really get it. An article in the Columbia Journalism Review , “What the News Media Can Learn from Librarians,” seems to validate my point.

Journalist Louise Lief refers to “the framework of information literacy” in her article, by which I believe she means the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy in Higher Education which replaced a previous set of standards and thresholds for information literacy. Academic librarians have critiqued The Framework for being a bit vague, unwieldy to apply, and hard to measure and assess. Lief made it seem quite practical and smart, and suggests that journalists could learn from it.

First she notes that according to The Pew Research Center, 18-29 year olds are fairly skeptical of the media. Contrary to the over-reported notion that young people believe everything they see online, Lief notes that “Although they prefer to get their news online and are more likely to see it on social  networking sites, many don’t trust information they get there. They are more likely than other age groups to sense media bias.”

She goes on to say that in her view,

“The information literacy framework offers them a more meaningful way to engage with and manage information. The librarians encourage users to focus on inquiry rather than opinion, to evaluate a range of sources, take into account diverse viewpoints and perspectives, and to develop the ability to pursue new avenues as they gain new understanding. They also urge users to assess the value of information in its various forms. Is it being used as a commodity, a way to understand the world, a means to influence, a path to educate, or some combination of these? They regard users not only as knowledge consumers, but also as knowledge creators.”

At my university we teach students the C.R.A.A.P. test for evaluating information on the web. We ask them to consider the currency, relevance, authority, accuracy and purpose of a site. Most of my students haven’t thought much about why online ads exist, or why a site with ads* may be selecting what and how to post in order to attract the highest number of clicks (and thus ad revenue). Another thing I don’t think students have generally thought of, and I admit I myself have given scant attention to, is that the very act of finding information online is rigged by corporations, as Angela Merkel pointed out this week. In case you missed it, the German chancellor said at a media conference that popular (and profitable) search engines like Google, and social media outlets like Facebook, are “distorting perception.”

What Google returns when you enter a search string is based on their proprietary algorithms. In other words, a huge corporation decides what you find out when you search for something online. And don’t forget, they are also harvesting information about your searches and profiting by providing that information to advertisers and companies eager to sell you things.

On Facebook, where many people get their news, according to the same Guardian article linked above, you are even more limited:

“This month, President Barack Obama’s former social media adviser Caleb Gardner highlighted the danger of filter bubbles – a phrase invented by the internet activist Eli Pariser. ‘More likely than not, you get your news from Facebook,” Gardner told students at Northwestern University in Illinois. “Forty-four per cent of US adults get news on the site, and 61% of millennials … if that doesn’t frighten you, you don’t know enough about Facebook’s algorithm. If you have a parent who’s a Trump supporter, they are seeing a completely different set of news items than you are.'”

Why does any of this matter? Most of us are not going to get partisan in our library instruction. But we can point out, as this Vox article does, that the real scandal this election season is how the repeated use of the word scandal, and others like it, has dominated media coverage, obscuring information about actual policy issues. Authority is constructed and contextual, the Framework begins. In the case of commercial media, publishing, and internet corporations, it’s constructed and contextualized in order to profit, first and foremost.

Should you stop searching the internet? No. But you should take the time to search beyond your own “filter bubble,” and to be a critical consumer of information. Think like an 18-29 year old, in other words.

*If you can see ads when reading my blogs, know that I didn’t have anything to do with them, but they are the cost of having a free space for The Nocturnal Librarian and bookconscious at WordPress.com.

Digital attention spans

Like many academic libraries, mine holds a vast number of full text journals online, via our databases as well as some electronic serials subscriptions. So I was interested to see a recent article arguing that perhaps the internet hasn’t killed attention spans, and readers are capable of taking in longer articles online.

Except when I read it, I learned that the Pew study the article references didn’t paint nearly as rosy a picture when you dig into it. First of all the study was examining internet news consumption, which is arguably easier to read than academic journal articles. Pew found that “the total engaged time with articles 1,000 words or longer averages about twice that of the engaged time with short-form stories: 123 seconds compared with 57.”

123 seconds per long article. I was curious about the average words read in a minute, so I looked that up. According to both The Guardian and The Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science the average adult reads about 300 words per minute. So, if people are spending 123 seconds, or just over two minutes, on articles over 1000 words, they are probably reading just over half or less, depending on the article’s length.

That may very well be the reality of the digital journal reading. Who among us hasn’t skimmed to get to the part of an article we wanted to read, skipping stuff that doesn’t seem as relevant or important? I’ve done it, especially at work. I think this kind of reading can be important when time is short and the material I’m trying to tackle is voluminous. I’d also argue that our educational system promotes this kind of skimming for comprehension because it’s an essential skill for standardized test taking.

But when I do have time, say on a relaxing Sunday afternoon, to read every word of a long article in the newspaper or from a pile of magazines that stacks up all week, or to dive deeply into a good book, I savor that kind of reading. So for me, print triggers a desire to “slow read,” and electronic content seems to motivate me to skim. But that could be a factor of where and when I am doing each kind of reading. Work isn’t conducive to “slow reading.” Home is.

Regardless of how I or anyone else feels about digital or print reading, I think what really caught my eye is that Pew merely found in its study that people are engaging with long form online content, but the article I found (linked in an OCLC newsletter, as I recall) seems to think the study proves the Internet hasn’t diminished attention spans. That seems like a logical fallacy to me. I’ll be interested to speak with students in the fall to see how they feel about reading digital content and how engaged they are with what they read online. It’s an important, and very basic, question for academic librarians to ask as more and more of our materials are available digitally. Are our users engaged with the resources we’re providing?

 

 

 

Why be a librarian?

The Guardian recently published two letters from librarians in the “Public Leaders Network” — a brilliant feature which the paper describes, “This series aims to give a voice to the staff behind the public services that are hit by mounting cuts and rising demand, and so often denigrated by the press, politicians and public.” I’ve written before about efforts to reduce funding, cut services, or close libraries in the UK. This map shows mixed results of campaigns to keep libraries open there.

The letters are interesting — the first, published on National Libraries Day, is by an anonymous librarian in the Northeast of England. After explaining the assistance staff provides to job seekers, parents & carers, and young people, the author sums up:

“I know many people think we don’t need libraries when there’s Amazon, kids can use Google for their homework, and supermarkets sell paperpacks for £3 and are open 24 hours. But libraries are so much more than books. They have ebooks, audio books, academic journals, online resources, online driving tests, genealogy research. They play host to art classes, carpet bowls, tea dances, cafes, dementia support sessions. They provide a space for carers to meet, and people to be part of a community when they may otherwise be socially isolated. I’ve lost count of the number of customers who have told me, “You are the only person I have spoken to all day.”” In the face of having to offer so much and on top of that, deal with budget cuts and politicians who believe all this could be done by volunteers instead of professional librarians, the writer goes on, “Who will want to become a librarian now?”

Although, I had to look up carpet bowls, this otherwise sounds pretty similar to pieces on blogs and in journals here in America. The second letter, a response to the first, is by someone who answered the first writer’s question. This writer sees becoming a librarian as a calling:

“For me, it boils down to one important point: the internet is a shallow (but extremely wide) surface-level summary of secondary, often opinionated information that sits on a bedrock of substantive knowledge that either isn’t on the internet, or lives behind a paywall, or is too expensive to purchase. Public libraries broker equal access to all that stuff. Get rid of them, and your information becomes drip-fed through Google filters (if you have a computer to access it). As a librarian, it will be my job to make sure those bridges are not burned, and that they’re well maintained and clearly marked, with delightfully efficient help points dotted along the way.”

The profession is in good hands with both writers — the first, a veteran of the culture war that argues libraries are somehow both unnecessary luxuries and basic community services that could be provided by volunteers, who still manage to end the letter, “even in difficult times, when I don’t know if I’ll have a job from one round of cuts to the next, I love it.” And the second, an idealistic newcomer to the profession. Both argue more or less this: libraries continue to be an essential public service.

The second writer’s perspective on this is eyebrow raising:

“A successful day in the library is one where people complain, like they would with any other local authority service. The Wi-Fi isn’t good enough; there aren’t enough academic texts; it’s too cold; it’s too loud; I don’t know my email password; why don’t you have this book? I love it. Complain and moan all you like – it’s your library service. It’s for you: take it, have it, use it. I’m your public librarian and this is your public library, and these are the hallmarks of public service.”

I am going to keep that in mind. It’s interesting to think that people only complain because they take for granted that libraries should be replete with well heated, quiet rooms bursting with every possible book and completely reliable Wi-Fi, regardless of having smaller staffs and budgets. But it seems a fine line between “Libraries should be doing all this much better, after all, they’re libraries!” to “Why do we even need libraries anyway, if they don’t even have/do ___?” I find that somewhat alarming. But I guess it’s cheerier to assume that people are only complaining because we’re essential. And it’s certainly heartening to know that people are choosing, even in quite uncertain times for libraries in the UK, to become librarians.

 

 

 

 

The Good the Bad and the Snowy

It’s snowed an awful lot here in northern New England in the past two weeks, as you’ve likely heard in news briefs. We’ve had feet of snow and the forecast is for snow today, snow tomorrow, snow right into the next day.  It’s a good time to read, all snug and warm inside. It’s not so great for slogging off to work, but we all manage.  Today my library is hosting an “Over the Rainbow Songfest” (we’re singing along to a film with Dorothy, Toto, et all, but our movie license forbids me from revealing the title). We’re hoping people are tired of staying in and will come out in costume to have a good time despite the white stuff falling from the sky.

In the library world, there’s been good news and bad this week. Close to home for me, in Brattleboro, Vermont, a janitor left millions of dollars to the benefit of others, including his local public library. Woot! In Great Britain it’s National Library Day and the Guardian‘s books blog is celebrating with shelfies.

In Wales, cuts threaten to reduce library services in Cardiff but people came out in large numbers this weekend to voice their support. Across America, there continues to be strong public support of libraries as well — 95% find them important, according to Pew — but municipal leaders do not necessarily reflect this value in their budgets. It’s budget season in many library systems, and as we all work to make our numbers as lean and workable as possible, we hold our collective breaths and also dream a bit of what we could do if funding reflected the love of libraries we share with so many of our fellow citizens.

That said, just as we manage to muddle through storms and carry on with the job at hand, we’ll carry on, in libraries large and small, the world over. I posted a review of When Books Went to War this morning on bookconscious; author Molly Guptill Manning describes how librarians came together during WWII not only to provide books to servicemen through a national book drive, but also to champion the books and author banned in Nazi occupied Europe and here at home. Librarians are resilient and books cannot die. I salute my colleagues in Cardiff and hope the tide will turn for them.

A prescription for books

I’d heard about Britain’s National Health Service planning to prescribe library books to people diagnosed with what The Guardian calls “mild to moderate mental health concerns.” But until I saw an article about the scheme on Library Journal‘s website, I didn’t realize it’s also a program designed to bring another patient back to full health: the UK library system, which has been wounded by recession austerity measures.

According to The Independent, “200 libraries closed last year with reports of a further 300 facing closure or to become run by volunteers this year.”  So it’s a program covered by the health budget that keep librarians working and will boost both public and government awareness of the benefits of libraries. Brilliant!

Two organizations are behind this: The Reading Agency, “a charity with a  mission is to inspire more people to read more” and the  Society of Chief Librarians, “a local government association” of UK library directors. The Reading Agency notes the “backing” of organizations of British doctors and nurses, including psychological and psychiatric societies, on its website. Surely patients appreciate taking a prescription to the library and receiving the book they need at no cost.

As the media have pointed out, there is science behind the program, although the study most referenced, from the journal PLOS ONE, appears to focus on self-help books and the prescription list includes novels, poetry, and nonfiction as well (some titles are listed in The Independent‘s article). I have no medical or scientific expertise, but I’ve certainly “self-medicated” with favorite or uplifting books when I’m feeling blue, and my grandmother, who was quite healthy for most of her 96 years, swore by mysteries as the cure for feeling down.  So I suspect there’s something to this, and I will be very interested to see how it works. I’ve always believed reading good literature is healing — it feeds the soul, filling basic human needs to think about something greater than ourselves, to explore big ideas, and to experience beauty.

That said, I can’t imagine a formal “book prescription” program in America. Even at the local level our health care system is so fragmented, it seems unlikely a coordinated national effort could take off. I also wonder if doctors here would fear lawsuits if reading didn’t benefit the patient as hoped. But individual doctors already recommend books, and sometimes libraries. A patron recently asked me for help finding books about her mental health diagnosis, and said money is tight so her doctor sent her to the library. I’m glad libraries are there for everyone who needs them.