Monday, December 1, 2008

The Illusion of Printed Objectivity

Last night, while being softly rocked between airports and timezones I watched a documentary of the Romanian revolution during the fall of communism in 1989. [Videograms of a Revolution] It is a beautiful, haunting film composed of a composite of footage from those fateful days in December 1989. As the popular uprising against Ceau┼čescu gained momentum and dissidents took over the streets and the airwaves, it was interesting to see who they chose for their spokespersons. Some were organizers, some were army generals, but one of the ones they were most proud of, who they took the most time in introducing, was a poet.

This summer, while working on a paper discussing censorship in East Germany, it became clear how important the writers were to organizing and vocalizing criticism of the government. Ironically, they became the beloved voices of the people criticizing a regime that was supposedly ruled by the people. Moreover, these citizens were so hungry for voices from outside the ideological cultural and political monolith of communism, that every novel was read in hopes of a whispered meaning that had escaped the censor's attention, regardless if the author had intended any such hidden meanings.

At every turn, it becomes clear that literature is an ever powerful tool to create a representation of the world as the author wishes the reader to experience it. And with every powerful tool, it has been contentious, a struggle over the power to define reality. It has always been plagued by these politics of this representation. Plato and Aristotle argued back and forth on the morality of poetry. The church of the middle ages burned heretics for disagreeing with or disproving scripture. Luther translated the bible into the language of the people, and thereby made the texts accessible to them. The Nazis burned books and libraries. The Allies disposed of some 3 million volumes from German research libraries after the end of the Second World War.

Since the induction of the ALA Library Bill of Rights in 1948 which elevated the concept of intellectual freedom to a fundamental right, libraries have bolstered the bulwarks of their ships in the rough seas of politics using the argument of objectivity. They are not meant to endorse any particular politics, but rather to support the political process.

After reading these histories and others of book challenges across the US, I can't help but wonder if that posture of objectivity is impossible, as the very nature of communication is through subjective bodies. However, I don't know if I would move away from the discussion of objectivity. I think it stands in for a discussion of assimilation in the face of plurality. And I very much want to make an argument for a pluralistic society, where the many facets that already exist within any given community are allowed to exert their presence.

So perhaps objectivity in librarianship is being able to say "this isn't for me, this isn't for you, but it's for someone." The difficulty with this argument then arises surrounding the question of how an outsider knows that the item is needed. It gets into the question of whether libraries have a reactionary versus a leadership role in defining who items are for. If libraries have a leadership role, then they can be held responsible for addressing the social problems of the community. If libraries have a reactionary role, then they are at the mercy of the social problems of the community.

Hmm... this doesn't seem like a recipe for success. No wonder libraries walk such a fine line with collection development and seem only too happy to put a certain amount of the responsibility in the hands of vendors.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Atomic Super Babies

I was working on my homework and one of my housemates came over and commented on the topic headings for the week:

Lecture 1: What is Normalization?
Lecture 2: Dependencies and Determination
Lecture 3: Design Tips

At which point I realized that it sounded like we were creating a fascist breed of atomic superbabies rather than studying some of the more mundane points of database design.

Yes. This is all I have that qualifies as intellectual discourse at the moment. It is THAT point in the semester.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


We were sitting in one of my classes the other day, wondering what it would be like to be librarians during the early days of Wisconsin librarianship. We had been reading about that century's library commission and the circuit librarians, traveling from township to township, delivering books via horse and carriage. However, even in this age of precision bombs and satellite television, not every library runs on oracle and xml, and not every librarian has a computer:

I still secretly wish that there were more burros in my job description. And as my pedagogy teacher so aptly reminded us in class last night, it all comes down to engaging with and caring about your students and giving them the tools they need to learn.

And thanks to The Lost Albatross for sharing the link.

Monday, October 20, 2008

RIP Celeste West

I encountered Celeste again and again in the print world of my universe, from Synergy magazine to the book 'Revolting Librarians'. And perhaps the most powerful thing I could say for her is that she made me feel more welcome and more involved in the world and in libraries, without ever having the opportunity to meet her. I probably would never have considered library school if I had never stumbled upon 'Revolting Librarians' in the stacks one day. So it was no surprise to read this call:


Co-editors Toni Samek and KR Roberto are seeking articles, stories, poems, photographs, letters, thought pieces and other individual and collective memories of Celeste West, lesbian, feminist librarian, publisher, and activist, for a festschrift to be published by Library Juice Press in 2009. Celeste passed away in San Francisco on January 3, 2008 at the age of 65. She was a pioneering progressive librarian and one of the founders of the Bay Area Reference Center (BARC), Booklegger Press, Synergy [Magazine], and Booklegger Magazine. She was also co-editor of the now classic title Revolting Librarians. From 1989 until 2006, Celeste worked as the library director at the San Francisco Zen Center. She was a radical library worker whose practice challenged established library traditions by encouraging librarians to speak up about the need for systematic change. West initiated questions and challenged assumptions (such as library neutrality) that continue to be central issues examined in critical librarianship today. However, while Celeste released a lot of work to the world as author and editor, not much was ever shared about her as subject.

Thus, we are seeking your contributions to a Celeste West festschrift book project.

For an historical snapshot of some of Celeste´s key contributions via Booklegger Press, please see: Toni Samek. 2006. “Unbossed and Unbought: Booklegger Press the First Women-Owned American Library Publisher” in Women In Print: Essays on the Print Culture of American Women from the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Edited by James P. Danky and Wayne A. Wiegand. Foreword by Elizabeth Long. Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press in collaboration with the Center for the History of Print Culture in Modern America at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Pages 126-155. Available in print and as an online book.

For a more contemporary introduction to Celeste´s way of thinking, see: Revolting Librarians Redux: Radical Librarians Speak Out by K.R. Roberto and Jessamyn West.

Please direct your ideas and queries to the FESTSCHRIFT Editorial Assistant and Project Manager Moyra Lang (moyra @ The final deadline for all contributions is December 10, 2008.

If you have not encountered the name Celeste West until now, please see here: and here:

THANK YOU! Toni Samek, KR Roberto, and Moyra Lang.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Link of the Week: Stories for Change

People have been telling stories for as long as we have had memories to remember them. History itself is just stories upon stories stiched into a patchwork of a larger picture.

Well, one of the latest iterations of storytelling is via digital technologies. Thus it is no surprise to find an organization dedicated to teaching folks to share their stories with a wider audience. Stories for Change offers stories you might not otherwise hear in a sleek interface that pairs usability and design with a solid metadata schema.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Dream Jobs

Whenever I get bored or dissatisfied in my classes I start looking for jobs. Over the years I've enjoyed looking for jobs on:

And after working in a number of different library departments, I decided that this is pretty close to my dream job:

It includes teaching, interacting with folks, getting to travel, getting to be geeky about technology, helping people be more efficient with their use of technology, and so on.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Link of the Week: MaintainIT

Finally, a place for public libraries to share information, tips and tricks for dealing with their technology:

Things I like about it:
  • The language is accessible for the techies, but non-intimidating for the non-techies.
  • It's full of lots of different kinds of information, from print-like publications to webinars to audio interviews with various folks, which is sparkles my interest.
  • the design seems highly functional. The color scheme makes me a little crazy, but it didn't stop me from being drawn into the website and finding interesting stuff.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Museum of Jurassic Technology

While in Denver last month, I visited the Denver Zine Library and saw a short documentary on the 'Museum of Jurassic Technology' located in Culver City, California. It is an entirely different pretext of creating a public event, part science, part art, part question, and part answer. On one of their sites, they comment:

"The rarest and most precious knowledge is not that which is imposed, but rather, that which is absorbed, inhaled almost, from the ephemeral substance of the world in which we are contained."

Unfortunately, I have the feeling none of these sites successfully capture the nature, the aboutness of this enterprise. It plays upon that which we already know and take for granted, and push those assumptions to their edge, twisting them just slightly into the realm of myths, but rooted in a level of childlike wonder for the complexity of the world.

If this Museum of Jurassic Technology merges the lines where science and myths intersect under the name of 'museum', what would a library along the same pretext look like?

Friday, August 29, 2008

Surprisingly, White House found to be lacking formal records management system

I hate to admit, I'm not a real big reader of the news these days. I love the act of drinking tea and reading the paper in the morning, let's face it though, it just doesn't fit into the sleep deprived schedule of your average graduate student. But I do get sucked into various virtual newsrooms periodically in an attempt to keep myself somewhat informed of the world outside my head.

And despite my reclusive tendencies, I know we've landed in strange times when is reporting on the email archival practices of the white house:

White House missing up to 225 days of e-mail
published Wednesday, August 20, 2008

At a hearing on Capitol Hill in February, the White House told Congress it was trying to determine how many e-mails were missing. An earlier analysis from 2005 estimated the number of days of missing e-mails at 473 over a period of 20 months.

"We will continue to work with members of Congress and the National Archives and will communicate the results of our accounting effort at an appropriate time," White House spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore said.

Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, has said the White House's failure to properly archive e-mails violated the Presidential Records Act. The top lawyer for the National Archives has expressed disappointment the White House did not have a formal records management system in place. (Pete Yost, AP)

Monday, August 11, 2008

An Apology to Hytemlia

Over many years of living in cramped cities, I have inadvertently found myself becoming a disciple of Asphaltia, goddess of parking. I am not an ardent believer, but rather I find myself offering up incense and incentives while circling blocks and blocks of cars seperated only by slim margins of driveways and fire hydrants. Being that I gave up my car earlier this summer, I find myself wondering if I will miss her benevolent presence in my life, or if she will instead confer her benevolence on my thin skull whilst I pedal my way betwixt impatient drivers.

But I fear I must also offer up an apology to Bitonia, goddess of code and Hytemlia, goddess of the internet. For I have created indescretions against them. Forgive me, Bitonia. Forgive me, Hytemlia. I am complicit in using software that creates mauled and ugly code through the use of a buggy WYSIWYG HTML editor. I promise that I understand the weakness of my ways. Please understand, I shall to atone by creating a beautifully simple and yet effective hand coded informational page, marked up in validated XHTML, and laid out like a haiku declaring my dedication to your wisdom.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Simplicity of Basics

I make a habit of trying to explore different libraries in different corners of the country. Many libraries seem in a struggle for identity, caught between being archives of history, warehouses of books, educational institutions, public spaces, study areas, social anchor points, and purveyors of print culture and reading.

These things all sound so similar, but the tension between them is clearly in our discussions of 'library as place' and whether the 'library without walls' is ever going to replace the brick and mortar edifice of my youth. It's also in the tension between food policies and the coffeeshops, as well as the struggle to serve youth in the same space as the elderly, poor, and homeless.

Yesterday I was sitting in the periodicals section of the Penrose Library at the University of Denver (Colorado). Sitting there, completing an online training for managing federal records, my eyes kept wandering to the brightly colored magazines surrounding me. My fingers were itching to touch the glossy cover of the news magazine from Africa, but then, looking around, I realized that every third magazine interested me enough to want to pick it up: Ms., Bitch, Natural History, Der Spiegel, Popular Mechanics, and so on. I think I heard a soft slurping sound as I stood up and was thoroughly sucked in by the collection.

I don't remember the last time I was in a browsing collection that was so simple and yet effective. Comfy chairs + visually engaging materials + display shelves = drawing in readers. In my four hours there, I did manage to complete my online training, but I also learned about the issues of air quality in Peking surrounding the Olympic games, as well as how Obama's trip last month to Berlin was organized.

And yet, despite the struggles that many colleges and universities are having with basic literacy, the libraries that I have been to lack the encouragement to read for pleasure and background understanding of larger issues. Sure, we're all too busy these days to take time out to read the paper. And sure, our budgets are being maimed by the lack of fiscal support for the public sector. But somehow, when the chair and the shelves are both at my fingertips, it seems a lot less daunting to squeeze it in, like a furtive cigarette between my classes and work.

In an educational institution, sometimes service doesn't mean just giving the patrons what they need for their classes, but rather giving them the room to grow beyond their current understanding of the materials.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Other Blogs and Reading: @ the Library

Because the blogosphere wouldn't be complete without talking about other blogs, this has been one blog that is consistently interesting to read. And a 'must read' for any student considering becoming a librarian. His vivid anecdotes of patrons along with news snippets and intellectual freedom commentaries provides a sharp perspective of library work.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Reference: Digital Dictionaries

For a language that was initially considered to be too base to use in royal courts, German grammer is full of complex points, cases, directionality, and a number of segregations and labels that would impress even the most seasoned cataloger.

Over the years, I've just gotten used to looking up every fourth word in the dictionary, not because I didn't understand the meaning, but rather because I can't seem to memorize what most Germans consider to be simple operating details of the language. Like if the preposition 'through' should be used with the accusative or the dative case. Or if a spoon should be referred to with masculine, feminine or neuter articles.

Who thinks about spoons as having gender anyway? And if the spoon is masculine, why on earth is the fork feminine? And then why is the knife, the most phallic and suited to violence of all the silverware, neuter? I don't know anyone who would think of knives as being neutered. Then there are the plurals that don't have any kind of regularity in their endings. None of that English laziness where you just slap an s on the end. Nope, sometimes there's an ending change, sometimes a vowel change, sometimes both, sometimes neither.

But regardless, I've developed quite a thumb for thick dictionaries that include genders, plurals, cases, and idiomatic expressions, and so I was more than pleased to discover this dictionary project from The Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences:
(sample record)

I was pleased because I can type far faster than I can look up something in the dictionary, even if I am pretty fast with those wiley reference tomes. Up until that point, I had been using this other project run by educators and academics in Munich:

Although the DWDS is a work in progress and many of the entries are incomplete, it is a beautiful accomplishment, even in the midst of its inadequacies. It includes all the information you might get from a standard dictionary as well as other features such as word relationship diagrams, a pool of example texts where the word occurs, and a list of synonyms.

It's a dictionary that's been redefined without the limitations imposed by the medium of bound paper, and it makes me hopeful. Because if digital dictionaries can become so effortlessly free of the limitations of the historical print format, maybe online catalogs can get there eventually as well.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Travel Destinations for Library Geeks: Philological Library, Free University of Berlin

What library nerd isn't going to swoon over a library designed to be shaped like a brain? Honestly, I was skeptical when I first visited the Philological Library in the southwestern corner of Berlin, Germany. I've seen too many architectural feats of design that were beautiful but entirely impractical for the reality of shelving books and accommodating patrons. But in this case I was pleasantly surprised by the success of form and function.

With the stacks resembling the lobes and the folds and the stem consisting of the central staircase, this language and philosophy library in the student union of the Free University, Berlin is a great example of modern architecture working as a modern library. The whole building is a solid investment in design, from the environmentally friendly heating/cooling to the passive lighting, from the staffing to the study areas. Despite the artistic bent of designing the building to look like a brain, the function of the library was clearly weighted equally in the design process. The whole library can be run in the evenings by one or two staff members. The bright (and warmer) upper levels offer a variety of study space, while the interiors of the lower levels house the books.

The attention to detail in the design and execution is carried out on the digital side of the equation as well. Searching the catalog yields your standard lists of books and resources, but also offers the user a floor plan of the library with the location of the book clearly marked. This sounds like an obvious innovation for an online library catalog, but has been terribly slow in being implemented in most libraries.