On Kindle Singles

My days in the humanities are far behind me, and however much I like to think that I live in the world of the arts, most of my days are today spent in the social sciences.  But although I do love researching the odd piece on information theory or learning styles, or drilling down through StatCan datasets (The #longform is dead; long live the #longform), there’s a big part of me that still is interested in the way arts and culture affect our lives.

So it’s always nice when something like Amazon’s Kindle Single comes along, which can not only shake up both camps, but also bring them together.  Face it, the Single is a marketing tactic that will encourage the production and consumption of a different (I don’t want to call it “new”) literary form.   Perhaps our society’s collective ADHD, brought on by the very devices that gives us books in a digital format, will be a captive and willing audience for the Single, and perhaps the Single is just what we need – literary value found in something somewhat longer than a short story but nowhere near as long as a novel.  It’s a novella, but not quite – it’s a Single.  It’s short, it’s catchy, and it’s just what you need to finish your day while sipping a sugar-laden coffee-style drink in your favourite third place somewhere between work, home, and daycare.

But I digress, wildly.  I’ve read and listened to some complaints about the Amazon Single as a potential driver for new literary production, i.e., that a marketing tool might affect literary production or objects of literary value.  I’ve got to take issue with these complaints, which I think are so often borne of the idea that every book is a sacred text.  I love literature and I love writing (e.g., beside the Austen and Conrad on my bookshelf is a mechanic’s guide to engine repair from the 1950s) but I’m well aware that the literature we read is not a stream of eloquent prose that comes to us straight from the author’s mind.  The writer may have a muse, that’s for certain, but the writer also has a literary agent, an editor, and a publisher.  And the publisher has a designer for the book’s cover, a PR team to handle merchandising, marketing, and general promotions, and a budget to push the text far and wide so that we, the loving reader, might be hooked.   And I also know that the physical form of the book has not been static.  The book – the physical object that contains the text – is dynamic, and the container has certainly affected the contents in the past.  Penguin Books developed the affordable paperback in the 1930s, which facilitated the production, promotion, and popularization of the longer text, and ostensibly turned the novel into the grand literary form we count on it to be today; Gutenberg increased accessibility to the written word, but so much of the texts from the early modern period are pamphlets; the great epic poems that we read in our Great Books and Classics courses often had no container at all and therefore were developed  around mnemonic aids which helped the poet and speaker memorize the content.  Texts of high(er) literary value will continue to exist, regardless of the form of their containers.

I’m not a scholar in the history of the book and I don’t pretend to be.  Many of the claims I just made are bold assertions that have been painted with broad strokes and may not stand up in a real argument.  But one thing I will contend is that literary value will still be found in texts we produce for digital readers, whether their length has been determined by the writer’s inspiration or if the writer’s inspiration has been affected by the constraints of the container or of the publisher’s promotional aims.  Is literature “improved” by the written word in longhand?  A case can be made, certainly, but at the same time I refuse to believe that digital readers, e-books, or Kindle Singles pose a complete threat to literature, writing, and reading.

What is a Library? Thinking about what Alberto Manguel thinks about

Over the October long weekend, I had the occasion to get some pleasure-reading done.  I took a trip to Iceland and packed some real ink-on-page books in my case.  On planes, on busses, in cafés, and in hotel rooms, I turned the pages of Alberto Manguel‘s The Library at Night (2007).  Reading the book made me think about what we want a library to be versus what it actually is.

What is a library?


Blueprints to the Chicago Public Library (1897)
Blueprints to the Chicago Public Library (1897)


Manguel’s text is not a treatise or essay you’ll find in JASIST or Library Administration and Management.  There are no surveys, no reports, and no methods sections.   Manguel is a writer and thinker whose essays read like poetry. He’s unafraid to infuse his own opinions into the arguments he proposes, and he writes with a narrative arc and rhetoric that won’t allow the beauty of the written word to become lost in the work’s subject.  (It’s a form of prose I admire and admittedly try to emulate with little success.)    With this style in mind, Manguel’s idea of a library is hauntingly romanticist: the library is a refuge and a pleasure-house; it is a place of intellectual ambition and of location of imaginative indulgence.  And the librarians who help manufacture these libraries are the heroes (and sometimes the villains) who make it all possible.

Through the first half of the book at least, Manguel’s idea of library is just that – an ideal.  It is a concept that we should aim for.  Manguel’s rhetoric suggests that there exists a perfect, complete form of “library” we should aim to create, a wonderland of knowledge and of perception we can spend the rest of our days in.  This library is the library we all want to work in: it is a Xanadu of intellectual content.  It is at once a refuge from the din of society and a staging ground for us to take on what lies beyond its doors.  Playing on Borges time and again, Manguel’s library is an encyclopedia of the universe, of our singular and group existence.  The library records knowledge and creates histories, but it also expects us to nourish it with new information and to create our own tales within it.  I think this is why there is almost a dreamland quality to this sort of library: in spite of the fact that the library holds all the knowledge known to man, it is left to our own imagination and wit to piece this knowledge together as we see fit.

We know, however, that the libraries in our lives are not the libraries in Manguel’s dreams.  Manguel’s library is a fantasy, a myth.  In Manguel’s library, nothing must be managed, controlled, budgeted, or evaluated.  Manguel’s library is perfectly built to last to the ends of time; its only expansion will be a steady increase of knowledge-texts that complement what already has been collected.  But libraries as we know them today are managed, physical spaces that hold documents, workspaces, and the systems that provide access to electronic texts.  Physical collections in today’s libraries (at least today’s academic library) have been reduced in size so that space can be found for more people to work with the collection itself.  And to many users of libraries, the actual print collection, which surrounds them when they work in the library’s confines, is subordinated to the electronic collection which can be accessed whether one is at or away from the building.  The browsable library, full of dusty texts and their marginalia that records one patron’s notes for another to use, has been supplanted by the searchable (searched?) library, a collection of electronic indexes, proxy servers, and license agreements.

All the same, part of me longs for Manguel’s library.  Although I’m very much a realist on this issue and understand that libraries as we know them today have more to offer the communities they serve than ever before, I realize I’m still the kind of person that longs to “get lost in the book,” or better yet, “get lost in the library.”   If a library really is an encyclopedia of the universe (or of Heaven, as Borges sometimes put it – he couldn’t ever decide between the two), then I’m more than happy to create my own worlds by wandering the stacks and drawing connections between otherwise random texts, as Manguel wonderfully notes.


Abbey Library of Saint Gall, Switzerland
Abbey Library of Saint Gall, Switzerland: where worlds are made manifest


This may be one of the reasons why I love working at the reference desk of any library – academic, public, or special.  When you are at the reference desk, people come to you with questions and puzzles about their own special subject, riddles about the worlds they are creating in front of you.  The texts we reference may no longer be physical, but they remain objects that inspire people, objects that nourish our intellect and imagination, objects that drive us to respond, react, and recreate.  (Is it any wonder that librarians are the biggest defenders of intellectual freedom and the biggest fans of mash-ups and copyleft?  We’ve been helping people build worlds from texts for thousands of years now.)

When I asked myself the question, “What is a library?” in a plane cabin high over the north Atlantic ocean, I had to chuckle because I haven’t given the subject any thought since my first days in library school several years ago.  I try to avoid these questions since the answers tend to illuminate the division between the ideal and the real without explicating on the real at all. But now that I work as a librarian in a library, and everyday I see people working with library collections to complete their research, I wonder if I can reconcile Manguel’s musty ideal with the here-and-the-now.  Most of the people I pass as I walk to my office probably don’t know who Manguel is and likely wouldn’t care about his book, but I can see in the time they spend in the building, working with our texts and resources, that things get done in the library. And that’s got to count for something.  Their work may not always be an elevated treatise on renaissance aesthetics or on classical music theory, but the work nonetheless is validated by the work completed before it.  In the library, one uses prior knowledge to create new theories, new arguments, and new art.  If the Manguel’s ideal library allows for constant renewal and regeneration in the person and in the collection, then I’m definitely along for the ride.

The Zeds is now on Facebook! (We may have a logo, too.)

In honour of this week’s premiere of The Social Network, I decided to get with the times and create a Facebook fan page for the website.   I don’t really know if it will bring in more traffic, but it will definitely make it easier for some current users to know when a new post has been uploaded, i.e., I won’t spam your Facebook wall anymore; now it’s automated.  🙂

The Zeds. The answer is yes.

Through it all, I may have created a cheesy logo, too.  We’ll see what happens on that front, as well.


The iPad is great. Scholarly e-Book interfaces on an iPad are awful.

Last night I borrowed an ipad from my library/place of work to see how our vendors’ e-reader platforms stack up. In a word, the interfaces which the vendors provide are not ipad/tablet friendly at all. EBL, ebrary, and MyiLibrary all show content on their framed pages, i.e., what we’re used to seeing on our desktops and PCs. This may be acceptable to some when you have a widescreen monitor, but it doesn’t work well at all on a tablet. It is terribly difficult to zoom in on the page in order to click on the vendors’ own zoom functions, which hampers the reading experience.

Obviously, it’s still quite early in the game, but I think the vendors could learn a little from the e-book platforms used for devices and GUIs such as the Kindle, the Sony e-reader, etc. Books used on these devices are stored in a similar PDF format, but it is far, far easier to scroll through, to zoom, and to annotate on these than it is with vendor ebook interfaces. This became as clear as day once I tried out the iPad‘s own  iBooks Bookshelf: this different piece of software – used on the same device I was trying to read our ebooks on – gave me so many more functions than the vendors’ software could.

I’m not writing off the use of tablets, in the least.  I adore the iPad and will buy one shortly.  I also think that there will be a time when most textbooks will be purchased and read on them, and I think that time is much closer than we expect. But we’re at a point where the hardware exists to support the idea, but the software interfaces still need to catch up.  Apple does have a fine product; I’m curious to see how our vendors will react to it.

In the mean time, check out an iPad if you can and compare vendor-supplied e-books to books on the Apple iBooks bookshelf (some are pre-loaded for free), and then check out other books – also on PDF – on the Project Gutenberg website. You’ll see the difference in spades.

n.b. i am referring to browser-based e-reader interfaces in this post, which are substantially different from the Apple iBook bookshelf.  But that’s my point – we need to see great software from vendors to really make the ebook work.

New Degrees and New Jobs

This week I begin a new position working in Information Literacy and Reference Services at the Dalhousie University Libraries.   I’m excited about this posting and expect to do some great things and have a little fun along the way.  I’ve been a student and a community member at Dal for a number of years so it’s heart-warming to get the call and be asked to join the team.  Of course, there will be days that may feel more frustrating than fun (what job doesn’t have them?), but I think that on the whole everyone is going to come out ahead when it’s all said and done.

This opportunity to work at Dal and my graduation this spring from their MLIS programme at their School of Information Management has kept me busy thinking about what I’ll do with myself in my new profession. At Dal, I’ve been hired to work in information literacy and in research and reference services, and sure enough I’m experienced in both areas.  I like the service aspect of both fields, i.e., the opportunities to help students learn how to learn, to identify how to use information resources effectively, or to help someone find the tiny kernel of truth that can set a paper straight.  I’m also going to try to find some time at or outside of the workplace to do some publishable research in IL.  A large part of my time will be creating learning tutorials (something I’m already acquainted with) and maybe making use of social media, so I’d like to possibly examine their value and worth to academic librarianship.  Creating streaming instructional material can be a cumbersome process that requires a lot of time and collaboration, and the end result is often a finished project that can’t be easily tweaked, so I’m thinking about researching means to improve production rates, or researching alternative ways to produce materials which will remain adaptable to changing environments.

But I know that my professional and academic interests aren’t limited to these fields alone.  For several years now I’ve been interested in the intersections between technology and culture.  In my MLIS programme, we called this the “information society,” which is an apt term, but I’m also concerned about how tech and information affects the things we make and consume in this society – hence, the “culture” aspect. Aside from my work in IL and Reference, I’m determined to spend my evenings working on a half-finished MA thesis on the effects of modern technology on Shakespearean adaptations, but at this point I may instead convert what I’ve done in this area into an MA focused on the Technological Affects rather than on the literature itself. This would require course transfers to a different programme, but it would better reflect my research interests.

I’m leaving the most important thing to the end of this post (a definite no-no when it comes to blogging), which is my interest in applied ethics in information science.  Understanding information ethics is an imperative for me – my morals, the ethical guidelines of my workplace, and of my profession guide my thoughts and actions.  I’m also a firm believer in social justice, so I’d like to one day not only do more research in this area, but also put it into practice.  We’ll see how it happens.

So there’s a list of action items and aspirations for you.  On Tuesday, I’ll enter the trenches in my new position, so you may see a few more posts related directly to information literacy.  But with a little luck, you’ll find a few posts about technoculture and information ethics arrive in your feedreaders as well.


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Reading Lessig’s Remix : Copyright Regulating Culture

Lessig at Meet the Media Guru
Lawrence Lessig will tell you what copyright does to culture

My summer reading this year includes Lawrence Lessig‘s Remix, and it’s so far been refreshing to read about how copyright drives and hampers our culture.  Tonight, though, I’m hung up on a dark, sour fact about copyright, especially as it exists in America, which is that an act that was meant to control professional duplications (i.e., piracy) now regulates the lives of everyday citizens.

Lessig explains that American copyright legislation, as it was originally crafted in the 1790s, regulated the ‘printing, reprinting, publishing, and vending’ of works (2008, p. 100), i.e., it meant to prevent the professional reproduction and sale of texts; it wasn’t until the early 1900s that the law was redrafted to refer to the general copying of a text by a variety of means and for a variety of reasons.  As Lessig explains, “as the range of technologies that enabled people to ‘copy’ increased, so too did the effective scope of regulation increase” (p. 101).

On the surface, there isn’t anything necessarily wrong with this increased regulation – it should be well and proper that an individual’s creative works be protected, right? To an incredible degree, the answer is yes. A problem lies, however, in the fact that “every poet is a thief,” especially in a post-modern technoculture.  So much of art is inspired by one’s encounters with people, places, and texts (in a broad sense), and so many of these texts are today developed and then reserved under license by various copyright holders.  Art today, and our responses to art, are a pastiche of other objects (Lessig would call it a collage), which means that our ability to communicate freely is hampered by a law that has inadvertently grown out of control:

More and more people use technology to say things, and not simply with words. Music is remixed; video mash-ups proliferate; blogs begin to build a culture around the idea of talking back . . .

. . . Digital technology also changes how RW [remix] culture and copyright interact.  Because every use of creative work technically produces a copy, every use of creative work technically triggers copyright law.  And while many of these uses might be fair use . . . the critical point to recognize is that this is still a vast change to the history of American copyright law. For the first time, the law regulates ordinary citizens generally . . . For the first time, the law reaches and regulates this culture. Not because Congress deliberated and decided that this form of creativity needed regulation, but simply because the architecture of copyright law interacted with the architecture of digital technology to produce a massive expansion in the reach of the law.

(Lessig, p. 103.)

The point to take home is this: Copyright as we know it is an old law.  So many recent changes to it (e.g., the DMCA) have maligned the original law’s intention and are encoding into law the regulation of culture.  This isn’t to suggest that we should run back to 1790 or 1909 and interpret the act as lawmakers would have then, but it is to state that our current interpretation of Copyright doesn’t account for the effects that modern technology has on our culture’s relationship with an old statute.  The maligned interaction between copyright law and digital technology was not deliberate, so we have no reason to assume that any modernization should enshrine this faulty status quo.

Readings: Lessig, Remix (2008) – Media Matters

Lawrence Lessig, <i>Remix</i>
Lawrence Lessig, Remix

I’m reading Lawrence Lessig‘s Remix for the first time and it’s a thrill.  Frankly, it makes me want to pursue doctoral work in information culture and the information society – a thought I’ve flirted with for a number of years.

Something that struck me about fifty pages into Remix is Lessig’s contemplation on the nature of fair use and citation with books versus the nature of copyright infringement with other media.  Lessig notes that in literature, academics, and to a certain extent, law, people are expected to borrow and acknowledge other people’s works; the citation serves to create a thread that connect similar ideas to one another.  The example he uses is the production of an English essay on Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, where:

citation is required.  But the cite is always sufficient payment.  And no one who writes for a living actually believes that any permission beyond that simple payment should ever be required.  Had Ben [Lessig’s friend, a former English major and now an attorney] written the estate of Ernest Hemingway to ask for permission to quote For Whom the Bell Tolls in his college essays, lawyers at the estate would have been annoyed more than anything else.  What weirdo, they would have wondered, thinks you need permission to quote in an essay?

Lessig, L. (2008). Remix.  New York: Penguin.  p. 53

But on the following page, Lessig asks us to consider how the act of citing the text of For Whom the Bell Tolls differs from citing, quoting, or referring to Sam Wood’s filmed adaptation of Hemingway’s book: in today’s DMCA culture, permission would have to be sought from a film company for anyone to “use” a clip.  This entire passage struck me because just last week I had written commentary about labor rights in a personal blog after reading John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.  I included in the post a quotation from the book – Tom’s famous “I’ll be everywhere” speech, followed by YouTube clips to the Ford filmed adaptation, and to Bruce Springsteen‘s and Woody Guthrie‘s songs about Steinbeck’s character, Tom Joad.  I knew I was likely violating some sort of DMCA regulation even though my post could probably be considered Fair Use (it certainly would be considered Fair Dealing in Canada).  I was aware of this while I wrote a proper citation for each work.  And I was aware of the fact I might be DMCA’ed not only for the film clip (a “remix” Ford probably secured rights to), but also for the Guthrie and Springsteen clips (where it’s questionble if either performer ever asked Steinbeck or his estate for permission to use the text).  In short, I can cite Steinbeck’s book with ease, but my ability to use these clips might be trumped by corporate rights-holders through the DMCA, even though my reasons for doing so – academic, critical, and commentary – would be considered fair use, even though the content in these clips is not necessarily “original”, and perhaps most important, even though the artists who produced this now-protect content did not not always seek permission to create their own adaptations, derivations, or remixes.

Lawrence Lessig, a different sort of culture warrior
Lawrence Lessig, a different sort of culture warrior

Lessig’s friend’s essay on Hemingway and my compilation of clips inspired by Steinbeck are great examples of what Lessig would call “remix culture”.  The legal manouvres made by the producers of these clips to ensure copyright protection, meanwhile, are great examples of everything that’s wrong with copyright law today.  Fair Use deems it okay to cite from a text, but the MPAA and the RIAA, through the DMCA, would trump Fair Use and demand that I take down these YouTube clips because I never secured permission – even though they are excerpts of cultural products that are remixes or adaptations of a wholy different and antecent cultural product.  The MPAA and the RIAA might claim that I am infringing on their copyright to Springsteen’s “Ghost of Tom Joad” even though Springsteen was inspired by (or to use the rhetoric of the day: pirated) the works of another.

Why is our relationship with books difference than with all other media?  By studying Lessig’s quotation above, we can see that some of it lies in two areas, value and purpose, and they are closely related to one another:

  • On Value – Lessig frames this as “payment”.  The citation his friend Ben makes to Hemingway’s text is not only an acknowledgement but a transaction of cultural or intellectual value.  Ben saw enough importance in Hemingway’s work to tell his readers that his own ideas were inspired by it.  It also creates a cultural and informational chain that links the consumers of Ben’s work to Hemingway’s book, which in this case is the “original” text.  But as Lessig later writes, since the value transaction Ben makes is not financial, his fair use of the work, his essay, and the citation is generally a non-issue to DMCA rights-holders.
  • On Purpose – Lessig makes clear in this paragraph that no lawyer would care about a silly permission when Ben wants to cite Hemingway’s work for an essay.  Things are different, however, when the object of the remix / cultural adaption / reproduction has discernable commercial purposes.  In my Steinbeck example, John Ford ostensibly secured the rights to adapting The Grapes of Wrath because his art’s mode of transmission (i.e., film) created a financial model that would benefit many others.  Perhaps Bruce Springsteen should have sought permission because his “remix” of elements of Grapes, “The Ghost of Tom Joad“, might have commercial value (see above), but I imagine The Boss didn’t bother because his song is written and performed in a folk tradition that often eschews the merits of capitalism.

Before I get ahead of myself, let me state that Lessig isn’t foolish enough to propose that the production of art should be divorced from the economic engines that drive it.  After all, there are fundamental differences between the economic value of an undergraduate essay or scholarly article and that of a motion picture or song. Lessig’s anecdote reminds me, however, that copyright law and copyright enforcement as it exists today not only protects the interests of the copyright holder (instead of the creator). And furthermore, copyright law is the de facto piece of legislation that regulates society’s relationship with culture (Lessig, 2008).  Something is wrong when I can’t talk online about how a book, its filmed adaptation, and songs derived from its main character, affect me without first securing the permission of rightsholders, especially since the Internet has become the dominant form of communication in western society.  There is something wrong because regardless of the cultural work’s mode of transmission:

  1. my consumption of it affects me so that my discussion is not wholly about the cultural product but about how I have interpreted the cultural product, and,
  2. any ecomomic model that demands constant permission from consumers to so much as talk about a product is rotten at the core.

Imagine having to call Atlanta every time you want to talk about Coca-Cola, Santa Claus, Polar Bears, and the business’s beautifully produced Christmas commercials.  That is not a recipe to control the the Coca-Cola brand and product – it’s a method to destroy any good will the company has with its consumers.  Although my first point is more important to me, I honestly have never been able to figure out why members of the MPAA or RIAA would carry on their ridiculous DMCA business on account of the second point, which is directly related to their ability to remain a going concern.  Creating barriers between the consumer’s ability to interact with your product is a sure-fire way to drive the consumer away from what you’ve got to sell.

For whatever reason, I can quote from Steinbeck’s book without any threat of litigation, but the moment I quote visually from Ford’s adaptation, I better be prepared to deal with a DMCA violation warning.  This may be one of the reasons why Lessig wants the world to open its eyes to the control that culture producers have over the consumer’s ability to interact with a cultural product.  It’s moved well beyond the point of restricting some people (i.e., culture pirates) from intentionally stealing cultural products.  At this point it about controlling the way that all consumers actually consume a work, right down to watching it, reading it, listening to it, and then talking about it. It’s no longer about the regulation, protection and control of the cultural product.  Now, it’s an unfair regulation of our lives.

On Tories, Politics, and the StatCan Crisis

I’m not going to speak much about the Long-Form StatCan fiasco that the Tories have created this summer because so many other people and news organizations are covering it so well. David Eaves and Datalibre.ca have strong commentary and lists of organizations against it.  The Globe and Mail and The National Post have both kept their attention on the issue, too.   Aside from the fact that great resources already exist on this file, I haven’t offered my thoughts on it yet because so much of the issue lies in rhetoric, ideology, and politics.

Munir Sheikh, speaking truth to power. Click for details.

The Conservative Party of Canada, in its role as government, can if it so desires tell Statistics Canada to ditch the long form.  And Munir Sheikh, as the former director of StatCan, protests the only way he could by tendering his resignation.  Sheikh, like a proper civil servant, spoke truth to power and should be commended for it.  On these points, most people will agree.

If the Conservatives really do believe that the Long Form issue is about compelling citizens to offer information to the government under threat of a prison term (as PMO spokesman Dmitri Soudas keeps saying, as wannabe PM Maxime Bernier keeps suggesting, and as Tony Clement, I suspect, has been ordered to continually argued), then all the government must do to rectify this is change the StatCan Act so that individuals would be rewarded instead of punished for filing the long form.   I won’t take credit for this idea, since I’ve heard it several times in the media in the past week: Offer a $20 tax credit upon completion and submission of the long form. Anyone who has filed income taxes will appreciate the idea of a tax credit, and anyone who has filed income taxes also knows that a $20 credit does not equal $20 in tax savings, either.  This incentive could be a win-win for all parties.

As for the second-most argued point of contention about the long-form – whether or not the government should collect what might be privileged, personal data, e.g., what time you go to work in the morning, how many bedrooms are in the house, I think the CPC is making political hay.  What’s important is not how many bedrooms I, Michael Steeleworthy, possess (2), whether I rent or own (rent), or what time I go to work in the morning (between 8 and 830, depending on the time I wake up).  What matters is the aggregate data that comes of it.  No one is ever going to look at my own data to compromise my privacy – the government has not enough time on its hands to snoop into such arcane matters and has more important things to do.  And frankly, StatCan data is closely guarde  Its data is not freely available to the public, and its original files are kept under lock and key; not even Misters Harper, Soudas, Clement or Bernier could access my census form.  Really, if the government is keen on turning themselves into libertarian ideologues instead being the administrators of representative governance when it comes to the issue of data collection, then it should also stop collecting income taxes at CRA, and as Dan Gardner noted in the Ottawa Citizen, it better bow out of FINTRAC as soon as possible, since if there was ever an Orwellian “spy-on-your-neighbour organization out there”, this is the one.

What’s more, if the CPC is bothered by the collection of information, it may as well shred its own database of party members, which is a storehouse of information that their grassroots base would presumably disagree with (if the current CPC rhetoric about data collection is to be believed) in the first place.  Dear Stephen Harper, I’ve heard that teaching by example is the best way to give a lesson, so let’s start this Data Collection Disruption at home and send the CPC’s own files to the great Shredder in the sky.

Former Ontario Minister Snobelin, famous for wanting to create a "useful crisis" to promote political aims. Click for details.

Snarky comments aside, the long form issue is a political issue, and I don’t see the CPC moving back from it.  I may be wrong – I’m not a seasoned political observer, I’m only a fairly bright fellow living on the east coast.  But one thing is clear: in the tradition of one-time Ontario PC Minister of Education John Snobelin (cf. Mike Harris and the Common Sense Revolution; Snobelin served alongside Ministers Clement and Flaherty, I might note), the best way to create change in government is to create a crisis.  And that’s what’s happened with the Long Form.  The CPC has created a crisis.  Even if Stephen Harper, through Tony Clement, were to suddenly make peace and reach for consensus, they will have shifted the status quo closer toward their own political ideology.

How To Use Social Media in Libraries

Brigham Young University‘s Harold B. Lee Library shows us this week how librarians can use social media to broadcast their message well beyond the library walls.   On July 15, 2010, they released their send-up to the Old Spice’s Smell Like A Man, Man, viral marketing campaign:

Did you know that 8 out of 5 dentists say that studying in the library is 6 bajillion times more effective than studying in the shower?  Study like a scholar, scholar.

Librarians will surely find this clip funny – how can’t we?  It’s about libraries and using them.  It promotes the use of libraries as an effective learning space on the campuses students go to learn for four years.  But I think the commercial (that’s what it is – it has serious promotional value) teaches us a lesson when it comes to using social media and innovative technology to promote what librarians do and what goes on in libraries.

BYU’s New Spice Man hits the ball out of the park by embedding two messages into his speech – that libraries are great study spaces, and that libraries have an inordinate number of resources for students to use.  In between torn shirts, flash-cut set changes, monster sandwiches and carts, students learn that the library’s got what they need when it comes to completing assignments

Even more important, I think, is the video’s popularity.  This Youtube clip was viewed more than 112,000 times in one day (see the original youtube page for info).  This is a direct result of its high production value.  Clearly, serious planning – and a fair number of resources – were employed to ensure this clip can effectively get the message out. The video’s statistics show us why librarians need marketing and PR skills: because if we can’t explain to our patrons (or whatever you want to call them) what we can do, then the resources won’t be used as often they could be.  Our inability to show people what can be done in libraries means missed opportunities.

I’m not suggesting that libraries ditch all communication models for this single approach.  That wouldn’t work because:

  1. Not all libraries has the financial resources to do what BYU has done, and
  2. The communications approach used in this video was likely chosen to fit the message and the medium.

The second point is the most important: this video’s message is sheer PR – come to the library.  And the message’s medium or vehicle – viral movement across the internet through Twitter, Facebook, etc – fits the cheeky satirical approach BYU has employed.  Good on them.

This is the sort of creativity we should all pay heed to, especially when we approach students by using communications channels outside of the typical academic setting.  Students don’t expect to hear from their library on Facebook or Twitter, so when they do, the message must be crafted to work with the texts and videos that cross on these platforms.  If we don’t do this, then there stands a good chance that the message will be willfully ignored or not even noticed, which means our work will be lost.

Here are two other videos that show what libraries are doing right with online video.  ASU’s Library Channel is seen as the pinnacle for Social Media PR in academic libraries because it quickly produces videos that provide helpful information, and it produces them in a manner that won’t bore the user (i.e., it uses this tech to answer mainly directional reference queries).   And the following A Plagiarism Carol, from the University of Bergen Library, shows us all what we dream of doing if we had the time, energy, and creativity that these people do.

What do you think libraries should be doing with social media, and how can they do it effectively?  Or, how mindful are we of the different types of content we need to deploy, as well as the tools we use to broadcast to our audience?

[Update: even The Chronicle has taken note of the video.]

Web 3.0 (Librarian 3.0?)

Web 3.0 is an exciting documentary (for some of us, at least!) that introduces the semantic web to the non-technical expert.  Kate Ray has done an incredible job interviewing people who not only are experts in the field but are also able to explain in plain terms what people actually mean when they refer to the semantic web.  The documentary is under 15 minutes in length, so you should watch it for yourselves.

The arguments made in Web 3.0 have a definite LIS ring to them even though Ray didn’t interview any librarians.  We find computer scientists, social media experts and other gurus talking about the issues that turn information discovery a difficult problem on the Internet.  But to the LIS professional, the documentary shows us that although we have expertise in electronic information organization, retrieval and research, we’re don’t always sit at the table when the future of our macro information systems and structures are discussed.

Consider some of the statements made at the beginning of the documentary.  Having watched the film and and read the transcript a couple times, I’ve picked up on an argument covered time and again in library schools. We have a problem called “too much information,” and we know that librarians can deal with it, but we’re not certain if we’ve done a great job telling others that we can help to fix this mess.  And the words spoken by these professionals who aren’t librarians reveal this:

John Hebeler, uber-experienced software developer:

You have all this data, all these access points, and there’s really no way to really help you deal with it except for stuff you can pull into your human brain. And you can only pull in so much. So you’ve got this massive amount of potential, but there’s not any real tools to harness it.

David Weinberger, Author, “Everything is Miscellaneous”:

We have so much stuff that we have to deal with. Individually, as a culture. So much – that it just bursts the bounds of any physical library. You know if we had a Dewey Decimal System for everything on the web, the trillion pages and all the subpages and all that, we wouldn’t find a thing, that system simply can’t work.

Hebeler is on to something when he thinks there’s no feasible way to deal with all the “access points” we must know in order to acquire the information we want to learn.  The development of the Internet and the World Wide Web created so many information nodes that it’s difficult to be an expert in Subject X as well as in Subject X’s information sources.  Hebeler’s only got it half-right though, since several sectors of librarianship work to understand access points and pathways in a particular field.  And to bring Weinberger into the equation: there may not be a proper index to the Internet as there might be to a book, and the web certainly isn’t ever going to be classified in the way DDC does to a library, but librarians have developed means to solve these problems.  We’re experts in data location and retrieval because we study the topography of our information sources.  We can plot a course through Parts Unknown to find the treasure.

I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m picking on Hebeler or Weinberger, because I’m not.  These people are talking about organizing the Internet and I’m talking about getting librarians to realize that they, too, can play a role in this feat. But is this what happens when librarians don’t properly explain what they do to other information professions and to the public?  People outside of LIS often aren’t aware of the Great Things We Can Do ™ in LIS; I think another statement by Hebeler shows this:

There should be enough information out there that you should be able to ask for something extraordinarily specific, but you can’t. You pretty much have to do all the integration in your own head, you’ve gotta come back and see all the stuff that comes back from Google, and say, Oh, I wonder how I could ask that, cause this was kinda right but this was wrong…Oh, I see why it came back, came this out, that isn’t what I want though.

Hebeler’s words show where the division between librarianship and information architecture appears.  Whereas any librarian with his salt would say, “But I can help you with that.  I know how to integrate things, how to tie all the loose ends together so you can get what you’re looking for,” the more tech-savy amoung us might suggest that the loose ends can’t be tied up at all with our present tools and that we only think we’re doing a bang-up job when really we’re only half-way there.  While we are creating new paths with the tools we have, others see a gap and are creating tools that improve on what we’re working with today.

Here’s the crux of the matter: Ray’s interview with Hebeler shows librarians where things are and where we aren’t. Although we are constantly developing new means to cut a pathway through the information jungle to locate data for our clients and patrons (and we’re doing a good job at it), others are improving the tools we use with little input on out part.  The people who are working on the semantic web don’t always understand that we often have something to offer to this discussion. That’s not their fault.  It’s ours.  We should be finding a chair and sitting down at this table.

Some librarians organize data, and other librarians discover and access it.  The semantic web is going to continue to develop and I think it’s important that we insert ourselves into the ongoing dialogue because we play such an important role in the way that people store and access things in their lives.  To cut to the chase: we’ve got something to contribute and it would be a shame if we couldn’t help in this endeavour.


Still wondering what the Semantic Web is?  Hebeler summarizes it in a nice jargon-free way at 4:30 into the documentary:

Hebeler: The Semantic Web, at it’s lowest level, is just an expression of information, that’s all it is. So the, how the web works today, for the most part, is human to human. A human being puts something in some format, the computer is, all it knows about is formatting information. It knows it’s supposed to make this bold, it knows it’s supposed to underline this, the computer doesn’t know anything more than it’s just a bunch of bits. So semantics merely adds extra information to help you with the meaning of the information.

[Notes.  I discovered this video at Information Literacy meets Library 2.0 in late June.  Kate Ray provides interview transcripts on her website.  Pertinent links can be found on the film’s page.]