Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Vanishing Librarians

When the business models and practices invades every aspect of our lives, from our public services to our colleges and universities, this is what happens to a profession.

Here's one snippet:
The success of the enterprise is measured in the number of products collected by patrons, now called “customers.” It is no longer measured in the usefulness or impact of the service on the quality of life in the community served.
I had the experience of working briefly in a public library where my manager called all library patrons "customers" and I spent a lot of my time, a professional librarian, showing people how to use the self-checkout station. I didn't stay there long.

Libraries have distinct missions separate from those of bookstores and other businesses. Such distinctions can be found in the ALA Library Bill of Rights and the Code of Ethics. Examples:
  • "Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves. Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation."
  • "Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval."
  • "Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment."
  • "Libraries should cooperate with all persons and groups concerned with resisting abridgment of free expression and free access to ideas."
  • "A person's right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views."
  • "We [librarians] provide... equitable access..."
  • "We uphold the principles of intellectual freedom..."
  • "We protect each library user's right to privacy..."
Bookstores and other businesses are not obligated to:
  • provide resources for enlightenment,
  • serve all people in its community,
  • provide materials providing all points of view,
  • challenge censorship,
  • resist abridgment of free expression,
  • provide equitable access to information,
  • uphold principles of intellectual freedom, or
  • protect their customers' right to privacy.
As long as businesses are beholden to shareholders, their primary mission is making money. Yes, business models and practices can bring tremendous cost savings and efficiency to enterprises, but the values listed above are neither cheap nor efficient to provide. That is why libraries exist as public entities. The community makes available to itself a place where individuals can access the world of information and find a broad range of resources free from censorship with multiple points of view and can read and use those materials privately.

A big part of professional library education is becoming acculturated to and conversant in these values. John Berry's article behooves us to fight for these values and against the business creep into our libraries, whether they be public or academic.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008


Privacy has been a core value in librarianship for some time because, as Barbara has recently explained, "it’s a necessary condition for the freedom to read whatever you want without risk of penalty." It's a topic that is being reconsidered in the profession, because strict privacy "makes it harder to offer the kind of personalization, such as recommendations based on previous book choices, that the public increasingly expects from online systems. After all, it’s what they get from Amazon."

So it's timely that Siva Vaidhyanathan discusses the state of privacy in our society in a recent review article published in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Privacy is important, but why? He explains:
When we complain about infringements of privacy, what we really demand is some measure of control over our reputation in the world. Who should have the power to collect, cross-reference, publicize, or share information about us, regardless of what that information might be? ... Through a combination of weak policies, vapid public discussions, and some remarkable technologies like camera phones and the Internet, we have less and less control over our reputations every day. ... Rehabilitation demands substantial autonomy and control over one's record — or at least forgiveness. As long as we are held highly accountable for youthful indiscretions that are easily Googled by potential employers or U.S. customs agents, we limit social, intellectual, and actual mobility. And we deny everyone second chances.
Because privacy "is not a clear and common set of traits," Siva defines four types of privacy domains:
  • Person-to-peer
  • Person-to-firm ("the flow of information to companies from and about consumers")
  • Person-to-state ("Because the state has a monopoly on legitimate violence, imprisonment, and deportation, the cost of being falsely caught in a dragnet is worth considering no matter how unlikely it seems to be.")
  • Person-to-public ("the ways we regulate what those around us know or assume about us")
Moving from defining privacy to examining its invasions, Siva contends that we work in a "Nonopticon," which is the "state of being watched without knowing it, or at least the extent of it." Indeed, "[t]he most pervasive surveillance does not reveal itself or remains completely clandestine... We don't know all the ways we are being recorded or profiled. We are not supposed to understand that we are the product of marketers as much as we are the market. And we are not supposed to consider the extent to which the state tracks our behavior and considers us all suspects in crimes yet to be imagined, let alone committed."

Companies, Siva writes, "want us to relax and be ourselves. ... They are devoted to tracking our eccentricities because they understand that the ways we set ourselves apart from the mass are the things about which we are most passionate. Our passions, predilections, fancies, and fetishes are what we are likely to spend our surplus cash on." And "[e]ven the state wants us to be ourselves": "It wants subversive and potentially dangerous people to reveal themselves through their habits and social connections, not slink away in the dark to avoid obvious surveillance."

Siva believes nothing will really change from small changes, "like better privacy policies." Instead:
We must demand to know the terms of surveillance by our state and its partners in the private sector. We must be allowed to be agents in the construction of our reputations. We must insist on fairness, openness, and accountability in those institutions that commit such widespread surveillance. Otherwise we will cease being citizens. We will be subjects...

Monday, February 18, 2008

Thinking about academic librarianship?

If you are pondering a possible career in academic librarianship or have graduated from library school and are preparing for interviews, read up on issues facing our profession in two important reports:

The Association of College and Research Libraries' Environmental Scan 2007. [PDF]

The EDUCAUSE 2008 Horizon Report.

Librarians ahead of the curve...

For our Minnesotan readers, you might enjoy this post over at the MINITEX Reference blog. Turns out Minnesota librarians are already providing their residents with the Governor's proposed "world-class, digitally stored, always available, anywhere, anytime, jaw-dropping, eye-popping teaching toolbox accessible to all our teachers and students."

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Stand out as a librarian

I found this post, Nine Simple Ways to Stand Out in Your Career, at the blog The Simple Dollar, to really ring true to me. I have practiced these suggestions to different degrees and have found all have advanced my career in various ways during my first three years as a professional librarian. But these are good to keep in mind whatever year we're at in the career.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Don't take our word for it...

U.S. News and World Report names librarianship one of the top careers in 2008!

Their narrative description is a bit simplistic, but I do agree that it is an underrated career.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Why I am a Librarian

Free Exchange on Campus started a meme on "why I teach." I weighed in on "why I am a librarian" and tagged some others. I hope we'll collect a few more, since they offer some real insight into both the daily pleasures and the philosophical reasons for being in this profession.

Free Exchange (Barbara Fister)

Info-fetishist (Anne-Marie Dietering)

Karen Munro, E-Learning Librarian

All of the "Why" posts can be found here if you scroll down a bit.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Librarians and classroom faculty: Defining roles in information literacy

For you academic librarians and wannabes on the list.

I appreciated the article "A Discipline-Based Approach to Information Literacy," by Ann Grafstein, published in the Journal of Academic Librarianship (July 2002, pgs. 197-204). I think there is a lot of confusion, especially among classroom faculty and young librarians, about the roles of each in teaching information literacy.

Grafstein first highlights a key assumption in the information literacy literature:

"The [information literacy] literature conveys a widely held belief that because the content of disciplines is constantly changing, subject content cannot be taught effectively; therefore, teaching should focus on process." (200)

But Grafstein goes on to argue that we must distinguish between different types of content: information and knowledge. This leads her to argue:

"Bearing in mind the distinctions between knowledge and information, it can be truly stated that information--not knowledge--is constantly changing. ... The paradigms and knowledge-base of a discipline are a conservative force, and are not subject to rapid, sudden changes." (200) (emphasis mine)

(This, of course, is a reference to Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.)

We librarians, then, must respect that subject-based knowledge is just as important as "information retrieval" in helping to develop an information literate person, i.e. one who has the skills of "analytical reasoning, critical thinking, and learning to learn" (200). Indeed, there is "a substantial body of research that supports the view that prior related knowledge is an essential element in the acquisition of new knowledge" (200).

All this is Grafstein's long way of coming to define what she sees as the appropriate roles for librarians and classroom faculty in teaching the skills needed for information literacy. Librarians should teach the following:
  • Searching skills
  • Generic critical thinking skills, such as the evaluation of information using the criteria of timeliness, authority, bias, verifiability, and logical consistency. (This list looks awfully familiar to those who teach evaluation of Web information.)
Classroom faculty, one the other hand, should focus on the following "evaluative skills... within the context of [their respective] discipline[s]" (202):
  • Evaluating the content of arguments
  • Assessing the validity of evidence
  • Proposing original solutions
I think if we librarians can keep these distinctions in mind, we might be able to better reach out to those classroom faculty who think we librarians want to come into their classrooms and take over teaching the content of their courses. We just have to remind them what we do well and praise them for their own subject expertise. I have faculty time and again tell me that they are amazed by the search strategies they learn from me when they bring their classes into the library. This makes sense; we librarians have search skills. I, on the other hand, am always amazed by what I learn from faculty when I sit in in their classes. So, let's work hand in hand, each with our own expertise complementing the other's, and teach our students to work critically with information.

Reading: Diminishing? Or was it never here anyway? [edited]

I have become really interested lately in the national discussion about reading. The National Endowment for the Arts believes the quantity Americans are reading is diminishing at an alarming rate, with devastating consequences for our democracy and culture. If you want to read more about this debate, here are some relevant citations. I am interesting in finding more, so please share then, if you have any.

Google and librarians [edited]

Some big name bloggers are wondering if Google "cares" about libraries and librarians. See here and here. My take? They care enough at least to work with libraries to access to their books for the Google Books project. But even this project is suspect. They have their mission (profit) and we have ours (access). While we can appreciate the power of Google's capital to do the big projects we can't do, we can't lose sight of the divergent missions.

By the way, here are some readings if you want to learn more about the Google Books project or ebooks in general: