Thursday, July 29, 2010

Summer Reading

Partridge pea (Cassia), in the woods

It's time for my annual break from blogging.

"Extreme busyness, whether at school or college, kirk or market, is a symptom of deficient vitality; and a faculty for idleness implies a catholic appetite and a strong sense of personal identity." - Robert Louis Stevenson, "Apology for Idlers" in Virginibus Puerisque, 1881

I'll be back later in August as we gear up for the fall semester. In the meantime, here's what I'll be reading:

Cognitive Surplus - Clay Shirky's name has been cropping up in various places recently. Alright, alright, you've got my attention.

The Shallows - by Nicholas Carr, of Is Google Making Us Stupid? fame. I'll be curious to find out whether my suspicion that Carr's thinking is at best binary (ha) and at worst paranoid is correct. There was an interesting review of it in the New York Times.

The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It - The title is a bit misleading, as author Jonathan Zittrain is no Luddite. Rather than questioning the entire existence of the internet, he is concerned about its current direction.

In Search of Zarathustra by Paul Kriwaczek

Moo! by Jane Smiley

Straight Man by Richard Russo

Neill! Neill! Orange Peel! An autobiography by A.S. Neill, a reference in which prompted me to read some of R.L. Stevenson's essays. One is quoted at the beginning of this post, one is now in the blog's subheading, and here's one more, from "Walking Tours":

For we are all so busy, and have so many far-off projects to realise, and castles in the fire to turn into solid habitable mansions on gravel soil, that we can find no time for pleasure trips into the Land of Thought and among the Hills of Vanity. Changed times, indeed, when we must sit all night, beside the fire, with folded hands; and a changed world for most of us, when we find we can pass the hours without discontent, and be happy thinking. We are in such haste to be doing, to be writing, to be gathering gear, to make our voice audible a moment in the derisive silence of eternity, that we forget that one thing, of which these are but the parts -- namely, to live.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Information Literacy: Why? Selling It to Faculty

crepe myrtle, in bloom on campus

I am perplexed. I am a supporter and a believer when it comes to the value of information literacy. But in trying to promote it recently, and integrate it into a classroom assignment, a professor asked me why. Is there money for information literacy? Is there prestige associated with it? Is there a mandate supporting it?

I am very glad this question has emerged so early in my career, because I think the simple answer to all those questions is no. (Although granted, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education does recognize information literacy as a characteristic of excellence in higher education.)

I know that information literacy proponents are highly organized, locally and beyond, and that it is ready for assessment. I know that in the state of New Jersey, information literacy can count toward a Technology credit for transfer from a community college to another institution in the General Education curriculum. And information literacy is getting national attention and support.

However, is there any research I can point to that clearly demonstrates its value? So far I have been unable to find studies showing its benefits. It makes intuitive sense to think that information literacy is good for higher-level teaching and learning, but there are plenty of things that are theoretically good for teaching and learning that don't make it into the classroom.

From where I sit, as a non-faculty instruction librarian, the best I can do is offer my services to support faculty in their teaching. Offering my skills and knowledge in order to collaborate may be the most useful thing I can do, whether or not I make a point of mentioning the phrase information literacy.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Importance of the Digital World, Besides Search

Deptford Pink (dianthus armeria) near the athletic track

No-one would deny the importance of online search at this point. It illuminates previously dark or hidden corners of the world, for better or worse, in a way that has never been possible before in history. It makes information accessible to people who in the past were never able to reach it, and it can relieve geography of its constraint.

This democratization of access is impressive to say the least, but widespread digitization doesn't change the existence of information -- only the way of getting to it. Accordingly, I struggle to find examples of meaningful changes to human knowledge.

It is true that new technologies enable certain endeavors in the realms of business, medicine, and even the arts, and also serious scholarship that technology companies such as google are encouraging. It is even mainstream to believe that computers are opening up new ways to teach and learn. (This last reminds me of the high hopes for television when it was new. At best, that one turned out to be a mixed bag.) As much as I appreciate and use technology in my everyday life, occasionally I wonder whether it's all one giant convenience masquerading as something more enduring.

Someone recommended a book called In Search of Zarathustra to me this week. In my local library system, I can only get it as a browser-based e-book. This is the first time this has happened, and so I tried to read it exclusively online. It drove me nuts, and I'm to the point of making the effort to get a printed copy. I've heard other people recount what I'm experiencing: I'm trying to do a close reading, engaging with an entire composition, rather than searching for something or skimming it, and the e-book is failing. For searching or skimming, an e-book is fine, but in trying to seriously pay attention to a piece from beginning to end, the format doesn't work.

In the past when I've heard people say this, I've frankly been a bit dismissive. I figured they weren't trying hard enough. But usually, the reason to adopt a new technology is that it makes something easier. I had to work really hard to read a browser-based e-book in the way I'm accustomed to reading a printed book. It's true I wasn't using a devoted e-reader, but I was reading on my relatively new flat screen computer monitor, which I use regularly to read on the internet. Maybe the lack of an e-reader is the problem? Right now, I'm not inclined to try and solve a technology problem by throwing more technology at it.

And so I continue to swing between whole-heartedly embracing new technologies and hoarding printed books out of fear that they will disappear in my lifetime. Next, to get a copy of Zarathustra.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Permanence, Impermanence, and Libraries

black-eyed susans (rudbeckia) amongst boxwood

Things are changing in academic libraries. Everyone knows this. Librarians discuss it ad nauseum. The end results are not yet entirely clear, but the way librarians manage collections, the way we all find things, the ways scholarship is performed -- all this and more is adapting to the times.

In more pessimistic moments it reminds me of the very short story by Arthur C. Clarke, "The Nine Billion Names of God." At other times it seems natural and orderly and something like progress.

This week I've been thinking about the sometimes contradictory desires to both have everything accessible at your fingertips, and also to be able to hold something Real that is not just a piece of technology connecting you to a virtual version. In the past I haven't quite understood the appeal of espresso book machines for printing on demand, but maybe that type of thing is important in the way that it supports the urge to possess while complementing electronic content. One of the things I learned when studying the history of the book is that when printing was new, the quality of printed materials was often very poor -- smudged ink, pages missing or bound incorrectly, type letters worn out. Maybe printing technology is heading back in that direction. Maybe binding books by hand will come into fashion again.

While cloud computing almost guarantees that we will never be able to completely 'lose' something on the web, anyone who takes advantage of the convenience of modern technology is also aware of the potentially catastrophic effects when it fails. This is partly why a tangible object still has value when it comes to durability. No matter how much you love your iPhone today, it will be dead and gone in a few years, replaced with a newer and shinier one.

I found the recent news about Stanford's Engineering Library's books unsurprising; what is perhaps more interesting is that an engineering library would continue to find 10,000 books worth holding onto. That's still a lot of books, and if book production in the U.S. and elsewhere has finally peaked after centuries of growth, those 10,000 are now imbued with particular importance. The other 75,000+ can languish in the cloud, but those 10,000 are the select, to be honored with shelf space and a groomed physical form.

I don't think people who appreciate printed books are just being nostalgic; I think the design (the technology) of a book really is still very useful. (I'm probably too far down the rabbit hole for this to be relevant, but personally when I want to read a particular book, I never choose the e-book version when I have the option of the printed.) Technology can be fussy and unreliable, and there is a learning curve to it. It makes its presence felt as an intermediary in a way that a printed book rarely does.

What I'm leading to is that from a usability standpoint there is still room for both printed materials as well as collections that only exist online. The question is whether economics will ultimately support both.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Higher Education: Sanctuary or Superstore?

Limenitis arthemis, a.k.a Red-spotted Purple butterfly, see previously. The above lacked spots.


I'm still reading Why We Buy and enjoying it, but I've run into an apparent hitch when I go to apply some of the ideas to libraryland: The usability research discussed in the book supports goals having to do with increasing buying and selling in retail environments.

Does it benefit academic libraries to behave as though we are competing for customers in a marketplace? Libraries would not compete with each other, presumably, but with other sources for scholarly information. We have already lost the war if we are hoping to compete with google, for example.

Though not a true business, higher education is not free, and it sometimes seems that patrons expect the same kind of treatment from a college as they would if they purchased a cruise. There are a number of problems with seeing those two expenditures as equivalent.

This is not to say that libraries should make services and spaces inhospitable, but that a tendency to focus on all-inclusive service encourages those being served to avoid independent thinking, action, and exploration. These last form the basis of academic inquiry. Am I wrong in thinking that inquiry is the heart of higher education? (If this sounds familiar, I've wrestled before with providing service via instant gratification or via a lesson with more enduring value.)

The library is not the only sector in higher education being influenced by ideas from the business world -- I've noticed many students approaching their classes with a transactional mentality. They register and pay for a class, and then seem to carry to their instructor the sentiment "I have paid for you to teach me X subject. Here I am, so if I don't learn X subject and get an A in the class, it is your fault." This is along the path toward getting a job, for which a degree is a requirement. If this perception does exist, shouldn't we in higher education be working to gently correct it, rather than encouraging it?

Back in library school I myself noticed the irony of paying someone to assign me to do lifelike work, and this is one of the limitations of skills-based education. Learning how to do a specific task equips you to do a certain thing very well, but it does not encourage independent, flexible, or creative thinking.

I am not alone in these concerns. A lot of my reading about higher education recently has been the irreverent Margaret Soltan at her blog University Diaries. Consistently skeptical of the intersection between money and education, one post in particular this week asks questions similar to the ones I've raised above.

I also happen to be reading the novel The Pillars of the Earth at the moment, which concerns the psychology behind building medieval cathedrals. I notice that certain monastic ideals are surprisingly familiar in their emphasis on a higher purpose excused from commercial life. (Symbolically, the grounds of college where I work were once a seminary.)

Perhaps nowhere else is the tension between the commercial and the non-commercial more overt than at a community college, where extremely practical education (skills training) sits side by side with more traditional education (arts and sciences). Both of these directions in secondary education have fervent constituents, and they both rely on funding and support from the local community, but their attitudes toward the 'real world' are strikingly different.

I'm afraid I fall with the monks on this issue, but I'm not confident I'm on the winning side.