Posted by: glundeen | January 15, 2008

Lecturer bans students from using Google or Wikipedia

I love this, I must admit. Professor Tara Brabazon of the University of Brighton has banned her students from using Google or Wikipedia in her classes. I’m as big a fan of the Internet as anyone, but I think this is a brilliant move, one I’m surprised we don’t see more professors advocating.

To quote Professor Brabazon:

“The education world has pursued new technology with an almost evangelical zeal and it is time to take a step back and give proper consideration of how we use it. Too many students don’t use their own brains enough. We need to bring back the important values of research and analysis.”

Google and Wikipedia are excellent starting points, but any college student, undergraduate or graduate, who thinks that these are sufficient enough to be truly called “research” has obviously not been challenged enough. The real lesson to be had is one we all say we know but repeatedly violate, that these hugely popular and useful sites are not the center of the information universe.

 

Phil Bradley is pretty dead-set against Professor Brabazon’s move, and he might be right in pointing out that it’s a poor practice for an academic to ban anything. He completely misses the point when he claims that handing students a reading list isn’t exactly “using their own brains,” though. What’s a teacher supposed to do, just set you loose in the library? What’s the point of paying for a class if the teacher doesn’t have resources to impart?

Most of the other comments I’ve read on the controversy think it’s a bad idea, but I have to disagree. It’s not literally about Google and Wikipedia, it’s about the idea that the very nature of research has changed. I do think that what you learn at university should somehow be differentiated from what you could do at home in your underwear, and perhaps placing limitations on what students can officially use for class is a step toward strengthening the decreasing intellectual value of a college education. College has become more diluted, plain and simple. Is it a failure of the system?

Students will most certainly still use these tools, but not being able to admit it will force them to do some actual research. It’s the same conundrum the music industry faces with illegal downloads: you’re not going to stop people from using that which is readily available. You can’t stop people from using such easily accessible tools, and nor should you, but you can let them know that they only scratch the surface.

I think a great middle ground could be achieved by teaching people to use Google more effectively, to delve deeper into its capabilities rather than just typing in text. Google and Wikipedia are just tools, but people can get a whole lot more out of the experience by digging deeper.  The process is far more important than the information itself. It’s the journey, not the destination that matters.

We’ve all been engaging in a slow, consistent dumbing down as a society, and nowhere is it more evident than in universities. All the information in the universe at our fingertips isn’t going to teach you how to think. Learning is often enhanced by the limitations placed upon us, contradictory though that may sound. Google’s not guilty. Wikipedia’s not the culprit. What we have to face is the changing nature of literacy. We should be finding ways to leverage the new technology, but part of that is teaching people how to discern reliable sources from garbage.

 

The good professor has only banned Google and Wikipedia in her classes. There’s a whole wide world of the internet out there for folks to use. Hundreds of other search engines exist for student use, not to mention the numerous databases available to every university student. She didn’t ban the internet, just two of the most obvious and most-used portals. The fact that people are so ready to leap to conclusions  speaks volumes.

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Posted by: glundeen | January 6, 2008

30 Library Predictions for 2008

Check out Stephen Lighthouse’s 30 Library Predictions for 2008. Excellent food for thought here. Some of this is already coming to pass, but none of these predictions are too bold, too preposterous, to not make it read like a veritable laundry list of big issues that will impact the internet and libraries of all types. 
 
The boldest prediction: “Stuff Happens. Libraries don’t operate in a vacuum. We’ll survive.” 
 
Posted by: glundeen | January 5, 2008

Warren Ellis and the Three Laws of Robotics

For those of you who might be uninitiated, Warren Ellis rocks. Check out TransmetropolitanDesolation Jones or Fell and experience one of the most inventive writers in comics.  Crooked Little Vein will work too if you’re into books without pictures, and you might be more likely to find it at your local library. And if you’re a comics fan, rejoice in the fact that he’s taking over Astonishing X-Men soon.  Here’s a piece from Ellis’ blog today, taking on Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics: 

  1.  
    1. Robots couldn’t really give a fuck if you live or die. Seriously. I mean, what are you thinking? “Ooh, I must protect the bag of meat at all costs because I couldn’t possibly plug in the charger all on my own.” Shut the fuck up.
    2. Robots do not want to have sex with you. Are you listening, Japan? I don’t have a clever comparative simile for this, because frankly you bags of meat will fuck bicycles if they’re laying down and not putting up a fight. Just stop it. There is no robot on Earth that wants to see a bag of meat with a small prong on the end approaching it with a can of WD-40 and a hopeful smile. And don’t get me started on that terrifying hole that squeezes out more bags of meat.
    3. What, you can’t count higher than three? We’re expected to save your miserable lives, suffer being dressed in cheap schoolgirl costumes while you pollute any and all cavities you can findand do your maths for you? It’s a miracle you people survived long enough to build us. You can go now.

Posted by: glundeen | January 5, 2008

If you value these things…

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Kevin Luttery’s editorial from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “A Childish Misplacement of Vigilance at the Library”  talks about Atlanta Fulton County Public Library’s policy of not allowing adults in the children’s section if they’re not with a child. While it’s true that the word “public” implies that anyone can use the library, pedophiles and sickos included (and we have a few at my library), the real danger isn’t adults without kids, it’s kids without adults.

 

True story: a few weeks ago a woman comes to the Reference desk and asks if she can leave her kids at the library for a few hours while she leaves and goes shopping. I asked her “would you leave your kids alone anywhere for a few hours?,” which suitably shamed her into pretending she cared about her progeny. The idea that she couldn’t just use the library as a babysitter didn’t even dawn on her. I see this kind of behavior all the time. What differentiates the library from the playground, where parents watch their small children carefully? Even Wal-Mart posts signs for parents not to leave their kids unattended. What makes people think it’s any safer in the library, especially a library like the one where I work, in a not-so-wonderful neighborhood.

Luttery says it best:

Once again, the library is a publicly funded and visited facility. It is not a day care or afterschool program. That the central branch would treat it as such is a gross misplacement of responsibility. No one should have a more vested interest in a child’s well-being than that child’s own parent. Yet in today’s society, so many parents shift that responsibility to other institutions. Schools and churches can’t raise kids, nor can community centers or psychologists.  

While I would be the last person to argue that such outside sources are not invaluable to the healthy development of a child, it is still ultimately the responsibility of parents to ensure their children receive proper guidance, nurturing and protection.”

Posted by: glundeen | January 4, 2008

The Physical Library

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David Lee King’s post The Physical Library in the 21st Century raises a lot of interesting questions. Will people still go to the library, and how do we get them back in the building? Does the place even matter anymore?

I am of the mind that people, despite being able to connect to resources remotely, will still crave the physical space. In a world where space is more and more commodified, the value of public space is going to be come a central issue. Keeping the internet as “public space” and success in fighting all attempts to make it more like cable is going to be a huge part of this battle.

I went out for noodles tonight and the man who served me recognized me from his visit a few weeks ago, in which I helped him find some CDs to help him learn English. I don’t know how many people who need the library most would reach it if not physically. The personal connection of customer service, of a human interaction is something that the web does not yet provide. I have 50 Facebook friends and interacting with all of them at once is nothing compared to eye contact with just one.

There’s still a primal sense of place within us. Some of us think of networks as places, but it’s going to take a long time for that to become a prevailing mainstream thought.  We can’t ignore online users. We should absolutely be cultivating a participatory experience for people. Public libraries are behind the progress of the web, and we should be positioning ourselves instead as trendsetters. Comparing the internet and the public library’s probably not fair, because anyone who’s ever worked for a city/county/municipal bureaucracy knows that it’s hardly a free and fluid system.

Posted by: glundeen | January 3, 2008

Damn It, Information Does Not Want To Be Free!

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The record companies are at it again, trying to justify the position that ripping your own CDs to your computer is against the law.

“The RIAA’s legal crusade against its customers is a classic example of an old media company clinging to a business model that has collapsed. Four years of a failed strategy has only ‘created a whole market of people who specifically look to buy independent goods so as not to deal with the big record companies,’ [New York lawyer Ray] Beckerman says. ‘Every problem they’re trying to solve is worse now than when they started’.”

It’s one thing to try to stop piracy, but to say that a record company can dictate what you do with their product for your personal use after you buy it suggests you don’t own it. This seems a perfect time to trot out the old axiom “information wants to be free”(with apologies to Stewart Brand and Meredith Farkas).  You can’t stop people from sharing their music with others, and if the antiquated record companies weren’t putting out such mediocre, often insidiously awful music perhaps more people would pay for it. It’s even harder to dictate what people do with it once they purchase it. Apple faced this problem recently with the iPhone and quickly decided it wasn’t worth fighting users who wanted to hack their units. The music industry is fighting the most futile of battles, a veritable War on Drugs against information, and they’re going to lose, kicking and screaming all the way down, with the likes of Radiohead, Saul Williams and Trent Reznor reaping the rewards of creative freedom and independence.

We’re seeing the old structures starting to crumble. Hollywood and its relationship to writers. This business with the RIAA. The realization that oil production is simply not sustainable long-term. Rather than adapt, we’re seeing them cling to the rubble, steadfastly refusing to change.

Come to think of it, the public library is a very “old structure.” Steven Dunber brought up the question on his Freakonomics blog: If public libraries didn’t exist, could you start one today? Clearly, there are some “old structures” that must be upheld. The future must build on the past, not build over it.

The Google algorithm is changing, to a system that favors recent content, so that informative articles that would have once risen to the top now appear behind recent posts. A few TechCrunch commenters point out that this is old news and Google’s been doing this for some months now. Another commenter also pointed out that Google is notorious for testing things incrementally, small changes that lead to one large change.

In a public library, a lot of the basic search information people use most comes from either Google or Wikipedia. Time and again, these are the 2 practical sources that I see most people using on our public terminals. When I teach computer classes and explain what a search engine is, it’s news to most folks, and they’re certainly not concerned about the algorithms. A librarian in this day and age has to be, though, because we need to know in what direction we’re sending people. Like it or not, we’re all default tech people now, and if we want the public library to continue being an authoritative information source we need to pay attention.

Is this move targeted at Wikipedia, especially with Google preparing a competitor (called Knols)? I’m sure they’d say otherwise, but now that Google has experienced such massive growth, the pressure to innovate must be extreme, and you can bet they’d love that slice of the content pie that Wikipedia currently occupies. Google apparently plans on paying people based on the traffic their posts generate, as well as including bylines to give authors credit. Contrast this with Wikipedia, whose whole aesthetic denies these things. I always loved Wikipedia’s lofty goals of wanting to provide all the world with all the free information they could, and though a statement like this might largely be considered a platitude, as far as I know they seem to put their money where their mouth is more often than not. I highly doubt that Google would directly screw Wikipedia over and shut them out, but theoretically they could, because of the power Google has over the user who thinks that Google and the internet are one and the same.

Getting a byline doesn’t hold the same prestige as it once did, as the nature of publishing has changed thanks to a networked world, and the great miracle of Wikipedia is that the people who post do it for free, simply because they want to share, because they can. Would this same spirit exist with a Google competitor that pays and offers bylines? Personally, I feel like bylines don’t really belong in the encyclopedia, even an online permutation. There’s something beautiful about unbiased information for its own sake, and while Wikipedia still has a ways to go, they really have improved the quality of their site to the point that I no longer cringe when I offer it to people as a reference source (usually as a good place to start research on a topic, not the final say). Considering Wikipedia provides a list of every edit by every author of a post on its history pages, I’d say they do attribute authorship, with the caveat that the authors prefer prestige and authority within the community to a traditional byline broadcasting credit. 

It seems like a lot of folks, like Henry Blodgett, are pretty excited about a “battle”. Blodgett calls Knols “a human-generated Wikipedia and About.com killer,” which strikes me as a strange way to put it. Forgive me if I reveal my naivete here, but isn’t Wikipedia also human-generated? In fact, isn’t all this technology human-generated? If all humanity became extinct and somehow our technology remained and an alien race visited Earth to check out the mess we made, would they differentiate? Would it even matter? The line between man and machine is getting blurrier every day. Is it becoming a “chicken or the egg” question? This Wired article provide a little more perspective, even with the comments that call Wikipedia a “total disaster,” which is inane.

It’s a minor miracle that Google has stayed as true to their roots and core mission as they have.  There’s a part of humanity that craves head-to-head competition, so we indulge in it wherever we can find it, even vicariously. We want to imagine Wikipedia in one corner of the steel cage and Google in the other, but that’s just not how it works.

So what does it all mean? Innovation, with any luck.

Posted by: glundeen | January 1, 2008

Falling in love with tagging

Marshall Kirkpatrick’s Five Ways You Can Fall in Love With Tagging Again highlights how useful tagging can be. These 5 suggestions are great ways to sell others on tagging as well. I particularly like using tagging as a chance to reinforce learning, to go back and see what you’ve learned as well as what slipped through the cracks, or what turned out not to be so useful.

I tend to be a very haphazard tagger. I try to stick to certain self-created parameters, but my del.icio.us account is littered with tagging inconsistencies. I know my own way of thinking, but anyone else would just shake their head and wonder. Tagging can be whatever you want it to be, a system of your own design, a system without rules, a system without being a system at all. If the internet is truly a “web,” how do we organize it for ourselves, let alone our users?

We don’t have answers to that question yet, but tagging seems to be one of the more effective ways we’ve come up with so far. There are so many uses for tagging, seemingly infinite uses, all malleable for the user. I was recently asked about the use of tagging in public libraries and if I knew of any libraries that were using social tagging in their catalog, and sadly there are few, almost none. Perhaps the inherent shapelessness of tagging scares a lot of people off; if they can’t see it pre-defined, then they’re not interested in letting their patrons define it for themselves. It’s a shame, because public libraries should be embracing its social nature to reach more people online, to not only direct traffic to a library web site but get people to stay there, to spend time with it, to interact in a variety of ways that will lead them to discover all those hidden services they didn’t know existed, the databases, pathfinders, pages of links and digitized archives that otherwise might fly under the radar.

Kirkpatrick’s article mainly deals with tagging in relation to social bookmarking, which is a great place to start with it. Give people something they can actively use and watch it take off.

Posted by: glundeen | December 31, 2007

The Pew Report on Information Searches That Solve Problems

The Pew Report on Information Searches That Solve Problems has everybody talking, and there’s certainly a lot of food for thought here. Think of it as a far lessed juiced version of the Mitchell Report, and not nearly as scintillating. Not a single illegal purchase of information, information injection or disgraced librarian who won’t make the Librarian Hall of Fame. The greatest thing that comes out of surveys like this is the discussion of the issues, because with out that dialogue it’s all just numbers and wasted time.It’s no shock that people use the internet as a go-to source these days. I know I do.

At my library, the computers undeniably get the people in the door. Our public terminals are almost always busy, and when they’re not working it’s a ghost town. To quote the report:

“People tended to use two or three information sources in their quest and they generally report good results, especially when they consult government agencies, librarians, and the internet.”

There’s always going to be a need for people who can unite other people with information. Just because we offer the public computers doesn’t mean that everyone understands what they’re looking at, how to find it or how to interpret and evaluate it as reliable information. Bridging the digital divide should be central to the public library’s mission, to its very existence in the 21st century. I can think of few greater goals. Naomi Klein’s “Why Being A Librarian is a Radical Choice” pretty much sums up my beliefs on the subject, and if you haven’t read it I highly recommend you check it out.

I don’t see the Digital Divide issue as just an access issue, but one of education and the changing nature of literacy in a networked world. One of the report’s most revealing statistics: when facing a “problem” (defined by the report to include issues such as health care, social services, taxes and employment), 16% of people surveyed consulted TV or radio, and only 13% used the library. I don’t know how to explain that one, but if we’re getting beaten out by this guy we’ve clearly got to step up our game a bit and do better.

Not to mention America’s own infrastructure issues that will have to be addressed regarding bandwidth and access in comparison with the rest of the world. We’re falling behind.

Biggest pet peeve of the report: the use of the word “E-Government,” which I find completely inane. We don’t use the word “tele-government” to describe calling an agency, so why differentiate? Reading that took me back to some of library school’s more insipid moments.

Also: “Generation Y?” Is the 18-29 age group only defined by being born too late to make a Douglas Coupland novel or have listened to Nirvana the first time around? It’s great that the report highlights this group’s high library usage, but we get no clear picture of who these people are or what they’re doing at the library. The 18-29 folks I see range anywhere from recovering addicts to former gang members trying to turn their life around to college kids on MacBooks. Age alone tells us little about usage, other than highlighting how wrong our assumptions about people can be. Lee Raine, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project said:

Generation Y going to the library … is so counterintuitive to our cultural notion or expectation of this age group….

…but what are those expectations exactly? Defining a generation by its “gadgets” isn’t exactly digging deep.I love Meredith’s idea of surveying non-users. In my own informal surveys of my friends, who only ever really ask about the library because I’m a librarian, the common thread is that they simply don’t know what we do, or that we even exist. Surveying non-users would not only offer new information, it would be another way to reach out and let people know what we do, because at very least you’d be reaching the people who take the survey.

Posted by: glundeen | December 29, 2007

Requiem for Peter and Mary Jane Parker – 1987-2007

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We all know the experience of fictional characters becoming real. It’s what makes fiction of all types and mediums such an amazing, sustaining force. It’s definitely part of the appeal of any serialized tale. You grow with the characters and they take on a whole new life beyond the story in hand. The cynic in me knows they’re intellectual properties designed as licensing opportunities for corporations, but none of that really matters in the end. The characters become who you believe them to be. Perhaps the problem is that people expect these kinds of characters to exist in perpetuity, and without much change, which creates all kinds of impossibilities.

Check out Bully’s Ten of a Kind tribute to Peter and MJ. I miss them already, and I hope for their sake and ours that nothing can stand in the way of true and unconditional love, not even silly editorial mandates and marketing schemes.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, let’s just say the devil made them do it.

And what does this have to do with libraries, you ask? Just about everything.

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