Monthly Archives: July 2009

Plus ca change…..

Here’s a couple of interesting quotes:

“library education is too important to be left to the educators. Yes this is what has happened in the past two decades, and with disastrous results”

“A glance at recent library history helps us to understand the task that the profession faces in restoring the library community to health”

“A survey of library personnel offices in acadmic libraries outlined some of the skills considered important for beginning librarians. A host of nonbibliographic competencies emerged, including business skills, networking and research methods”

No, these are not part of the discussion on the latest COA Standards for LIS education but quotations from a series of articles on the field published in Library Journal a quarter of a century ago, 1983 to be precise. The articles make interesting and depressingly familiar reading today. If you really think we’ve progressed, take a look at this op-ed from the the CSM. I’d comment more on that shrill diatribe if I thought it warranted any further comment, the real point is that LIS education’s natural state seemingly is crisis, permanent crisis. And the chief culprits are:

Library schools in general
iSchools in particular
Library managers
Young people
the education system
You and me

Now, if we could just deal with that little list we could get Library Schools back where they belong…….now where was that Nirvana exactly?

Text in further decline? The cost of paper in an academic life

Am in the middle of a major office move as the iSchool packs up from its current home and shifts to a new dedicated 40,000 sf space in a new building. Years of effort come down to a packing frenzy this week and in the course of it I have come to realize just how much paper I really have accumulated over the years. Determining what to keep and what to delete has taken a particularly poignant turn with academic journals. Books I keep but journals? Through memberships of editorial boards or professional societies, I have acquired a couple of decades worth of academic journals such as JASIST, IJHCS, BIT, ACMTOCHI, IwC and so on, not to mention innumerable issues of various others. The unfortunate truth is that I just don’t need them. If I want an article, rather than cross my office to locate it I tend to pull it up on line from our library. I started working this way years back and have given up on the paper versions. Everyone speaks of serendipity as the irreplaceable quality of browsing shelves but I can experience that digitally too by browsing. Of course one imagines needing the paper back up but I never have and I have now to recognize the reality – I could save a lot of trees, space and mailing costs if I could opt out. Sadly, not enough societies or publishers make this easy enough. Worse still, all that paper seems to be unwanted by anyone (and as I browse through some of it, I realize why — there is a lot of rubbish published in some fields). Piles of discarded books and journals sit in our corridor with an invitation to anyone interested to ‘help yourself’ to anything. The piles rarely get smaller. Libraries don’t want my old journals and while I’ve not yet tried e-bay, I have to ask, who is willing to pay the cost of shipping these somewhere? A colleague tells me she threw out all her old JASIST as part of this move as the students did not even want them for free. I just did it this morning with a load of old (and no so old) SIGCHI conference proceedings — let’s see how long they stay there. I have to say it all feels somewhat liberating but will we regret this someday?

Text in decline?

In a short but provocative piece at Berkeley’s Marti Hearst suggests we will see text decline in favor of video and speech based interactions in the future. This is not the first time the predictions for the power of new media have been made (David Jonassen infamously predicted in 1982 that the book would be dead within a decade) but Hearst’s argument is more nuanced and based on emerging trends in video search retrieval and mobile technology use. Of course, the real bottleneck here is text input – for years I’ve argued that we are slaves to qwerty keyboards and that the really meaningful and valuable parts of our information resources can be transported and stored easily except for this handicap of needing a screen and a keyboard to access them. That said, I don’t see text in decline as much as unfortunately shackled to interfaces that in turn shackle us, and it’s not clear to me that a shift from text to video solves this particular problem. Ideally we would find ways of providing input and display technologies pervasively in the built environment or about our persons so we can access what we want where we are without carrying a keyboard everywhere. It speaks volumes to the power of the keyboard that so many people are willing to use one even when it’s reduced to the size of a telephone keypad. Text has evolved a series of affordances that extend beyond the mechanics of input and output however — the text genre of science reflects social practice and the cognitive advantages of being able to re-read and navigate through a familiar structure cannot be easily replaced or even replicated. Imagine ‘reading’ the Hearst article as a video (well, it might be more pleasant if Marti herself was delivering it) and try jumping around to revisit some points. The smoothness with which you can do this on the textual display is very hard to replicate with voice and video. Add to this, we can process textual information as skilled readers faster and in more fluid temporal forms than we can listen to a voice.

Naturally I am biasing my argument to the design side informed by human psychology, and there is obviously a set of related arguments about culture and the decline of typing and written text in favor of chatting, watching, demonstrating and presenting via images, It may be true that, as others have argued, serious extended reading is in decline and the communicative forms we will share and create in the decades ahead may well be shorter and less textual. But it is also possible that we will just retain text and supplement it. Remember, digital technology was supposed to be the death of paper too, until we realized that printing and faxing were so easy. Still, Hearst argues that video and images, not text, will do the cultural heavy lifting in the future and if nothing else, the point is worthy of consideration. I’m just not sure what medium is doing any of that lifting at the moment given the apparent insatiable appetite people have for images of a pop singer’s funeral when the world’s leaders are discussing global warming but the public gets what the public wants, as Paul Weller put it so memorably, in a song not a text (and can you be information literate without knowing that reference?)

JCDL success and the summer of paper

The ACM/IEEE Joint Conference on Digital Libraries was held here in Austin with the School of Information as host, and by all accounts it proved a great success. Worries about attendance turned out to be unnecessary as over 270 people joined us for the week. The weather was hot, the venue cool, and Austin is a pretty fine place for conference if you are willing to walk more than a 100 yards from the hotel. I chaired the final plenary which was a panel conversation on the theme “Google as Library” with Clifford Lynch, Gretchen Hoffman and Mike Lesk. I had to cut off the questions as we just had too many for the allotted time but it was a lively, engaging gathering that pretty much summed up the conference: enthusiastic people, more projects and good ideas than you could capture, and nobody allowed to hog the microphone or pulpit for more than their allotted time (oh how so many other conferences could use a little time and speaker management). Gerhard Fischer and Chris Borgman also gave boundary spanning addresses that were better than I’ve heard at many recent conferences I’ve attended. If you missed it, too bad. For once, the lack of engagement that usually comes with attending a conference in your home town did not not affect me, I enjoyed not having to travel and being able to sleep at home at night.

Meanwhile, the school is bracing itself (collectively) for the most significant change since renaming ourselves in 2002, with the move to new premises at 1616 Guadalupe now imminent. I am having a massive clear out of my office papers for the first time in years (8 precisely, since I last changed jobs) and it is a reminder about how tied we all are to paper: books and journals are obvious but all those reports, letters, memos, scribbled notes of meetings and ideas, student papers, dissertation drafts, magazine articles, records, budget forms, rules and regulations etc….they certainly pile up in our lives and I don’t foresee a change in this no matter how digital I become. Naturally this reminds me of the line that the most successful applications of information technology are the printer and the photocopier — (or is it the fax?), paper-generators all. There is discipline to being organized that I am not sure I possess but also a human tendency to keep items rather than throw them away unless you have to or are certain you will never need them again. As I look around our school, I am reminded again of how we can preach about information behavior far easier than we can practice it.