Teasing Apart the “Normal Library” and Finding Room for Traditional and Innovative Library Services

I appreciate how Alia Wong’s article, College Students Just Want Normal Libraries, raises the issue of what people value in libraries as a critical part of their higher education experience but I also want to address some points that are missing in that piece. Wong begins by accurately pointing out that academic libraries have weathered change before as they dealt with space constraints and the onset of the Internet. She mentioned that they survived but didn’t mention how.  Libraries and librarians survive by paying attention to the change in formats, technologies, economics of publishing, and educational philosophies and have dealt with changes spanning millennia. Questions as varied as “scroll or codex?”, “manuscript or printing press?”, “catalog in print or on computer?”, “cassette or DVD?”, “DVD or streaming video?”, “ebook subscription with which vendor?”,  “what aspect of information literacy or digital competencies are we teaching our students?”, “how do we preserve and maintain access to all these materials?” are all issues that have challenged libraries and have helped them to evolve.  Libraries and librarians (and their predecessors) have always been involved in a changing landscape of information as participants and change agents on behalf of the community they serve. The article would have benefited from having this context in place to help understand why some of these technologies and techniques are showing up in libraries right now.

The second point I need to critique is the title’s reference to a “normal library” which is something that does not exist.  Often when someone says a “normal library” they mean their preferred or familiar kind of library and it seems to be the case here. Wong’s point could benefit from widening the conversation and acknowledging what students and researchers see or value will depend on their past experiences in other libraries, their academic discipline, their demographic, or their institutional context (community colleges have different needs and demographics than large research-focused universities).  It is certainly true that many students and faculty prefer print materials. It is certainly true that students prefer quiet space to study in solitude. However, it is also true that some prefer the convenience of digital resources and will be satisfied with “good enough” even if they might prefer print. Some are actively seeking out a chance to try new technologies like visualization tools for personal enrichment, preparation for future employment, or as a part of their scholarly inquiry. Some want to meet in a group to discuss a project and eat some snacks. These do not have to be mutually exclusive kinds of services.

University Library gathering spaces for study and innovation

The third point I want to address is that the article sets a tone of an either/or choice for traditional services and innovation. Even with pressures coming from constricting budgets, it is possible to have a both/and approach to traditional services and innovative ones. It is true that some places might use innovative services or technology for the “glitz factor”, but many, if not most libraries, adopt new services or resources based on how they serve the curricular, research, and lifelong learning needs of their community in alignment with their institutional and educational mission. At our small to medium size private liberal arts university in the Midwest, different students can come to our library to find a quiet study space, to seek help finding articles from a librarian, record and edit a video, and test out a virtual Egyptian tomb with VR headsets in our makerspace. Sometimes the same student may come in to the library for one kind of service and shift to a different kind in the same day. Our own internal ethnographic research has found that students want quiet space to study alone or in the midst of others who have a similar focus to get work done and find quality materials. We have also found that like the September 2019 Ithaka research report on student needs in community colleges that:

  1. Students have different struggles and needs for support,
  2. Students value support for information needs within the curriculum and outside of it,
  3. Students need greater access to technology.

Some students need a print book and some need a 3d printer. Some students need to research a certain school of philosophy and some students need to understand how the design process works in 3d modeling. Some students are reading 19th century British poetry and others are coming together to record video of their debates over the themes and interpretations of that same poetry. We serve the needs across the academic and curricular spectrum and it is not detrimental to learning to have both. In fact, it is necessary that libraries continue to grow and adapt to the varied needs of their communities. If anything, that is what a “normal library” is: a dynamic and intentional service that meets a variety of informational needs for their community.

I recommend some other excellent responses to this article on Twitter by Librarians and Library researchers Meredith Farkas, Eileen Daly-Boas, and Christine Wolff-Eisenberg. Wolff-Eisenberg is the co-author of the Ithaka S+R research report on student needs in community colleges that Wong cites at the end of her article and Wolff-Eisenberg explicitly confronts Wong’s either/or conclusion by saying that:

“Our research indicates that students are looking for libraries to both build on what their roles have traditionally been AND innovate around new services to help them navigate college, connect w/ social services, provide family friendly spaces, & more.”

Digital Skill Landscape for Librarians in Digital Scholarship and Digital Humanities

The Case for Digital Skills Development for Librarians

Digital skills are increasingly in demand from the 21st century workplace while the digital divide continues to widen and this is a key concern as libraries seek to support the needs of their communities and pursue professional development.  Marketplace Tech recently interviewed Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Mark Muro about this topic and the content of a 2017 report that he and his colleagues wrote called Digitalization and the American Workforce. The Marketplace segment focused on the part of the report that shows how the digital divide is widening between rural and urban areas. Librarians are always looking for ways to bridge the digital divide for their communities and one way to do this is through professional development.

The broader focus of the report analyzed how digital skill levels changed in 545 different occupations from 2002 to 2016. 517 of the 545 occupations had an increase in digital skills including Librarians (Figure 1) and Library Technicians (Figure 2) based on a digital score between 0-100. Both Librarians and Library Technicians moved from the medium range to the high range scoring between 60-100 with Librarians at 65.9 (+27%) and Library Technicians at 62 (+35%) moving up from their 2002 scores of 52 and 45.8 respectively.

Figure 1 - Librarian

Figure 1 – Librarian | Courtesy of The Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program

Figure 2 - Library Technicians

Figure 2 – Library Technicians | Courtesy of The Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program

The area of digital scholarship in librarianship is one manifestation of these changes in academic libraries. It is becoming more likely that a librarian will be asked to create a database in addition to being able to search them. It is increasingly likely that librarians will be asked to teach the use of digital creation tools like timelines, maps, and digital archives as well as the consumption of information from the outcomes of these tools. The Digital Scholarship resource page at the Library of Congress Labs is a great example of this trend in librarianship and is full of great resources to get started including Eileen Jakeway’s Digital Scholarship 101, that focusing on six digital tools that are relatively easy to learn.

Some more advanced tools that are worth learning that are not on the Library of Congress Digital Scholarship page are programming languages Python and the R Project for Statistical Computing, or just R, that can be used for text mining or data visualization projects. They are both a big part of data science and involved in many digital scholarship and digital humanities projects. An R user and researcher, Robert Muenchen, published a report, The Popularity of Data Science Software,  tracking the most popular data science software in job postings and in scholarly literature. Figure 3 shows the results of his study of data science-related job postings on Indeed.com in February 2017 and highlights where Python and R fall on that list.

popular data science software in job postings

Figure 3 | Chart copied from Muenchen’s site on November 2018 and I added highlights to Python and R.

Figure 4 shows the prevalence of R and Python in the scholarly literature through the whole year of 2016.

occurance of R and Python in scholarly literature during 2016

Figure 4 | Chart copied from Muenchen’s site on November 2018 and I added highlights to Python and R.

Free Resources to Learn R and Python

With these trends in mind there are many resources a Librarian can seek out to develop skills in these areas. To learn R or Python within the context of digital scholarship and digital humanities, Programming Historian, is an excellent source of tutorials to learn some of these skills from the perspective of fields that do not typically have computer programming experience. To get a deeper understand of Python while starting out as a beginner, Automating the Boring Stuff with Python, by Al Sweigart is a great free textbook with quality exercises and explanations. Code Academy’s free Python tutorial is an easy way to get some experience with Python without having to load it onto your computer. I was also reminded by a colleague about Python Anywhere, which is a free online platform that has the environment set up with different versions of Python and a place to store your code files. It works very well for workshops, tutorials, and classwork because it is web-based and avoids some of the pitfalls of loading Python onto a personal computer or onto shared, enterprise computers.

Subscription-based Resources to Learn R and Python

If you have access to Lynda.com through your institution or local library, it has a rich variety of video tutorials to learn about data science, Python (my playlist), and R (my playlist).

Note: [post updated Jan 2, 2019 with Python Anywhere mention]

Fake News, a New Media Ecology and Information Literacy

In an era of fake news and technology-enabled meddling with elections, the need for information literacy, media literacy, and digital competency is greater than ever. It is now possible to record 20 minutes of a person’s voice, rearrange some text, and replay a completely different sentence that the person didn’t say with a new kind of software. While this kind of technology is not yet available to everyone, the need for critical engagement with technology should be a concern for anyone from policy makers to educators to general citizens.

In addition to the audio modification technology,  labs and centers at different universities are currently investigating and improving face modeling video technologies. A research paper about a technology called Face2Face from scientists at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, Max-Planck-Institute for Informatics, and Stanford University show how they can modify YouTube recordings of George Bush, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Daniel Craig and Donald Trump in real time by overlaying a second person’s facial expressions on top of the original recording. The WNYC podcast, RadioLab, explored this topic even further by investigating how detectable this kind of technology would be to experts and how concerned we should actually be. They got mixed answers from experts and decided to pursue their own investigations while trying to create a fake video of their own.Fake News RadioLab video

It can be tempting to disengage and be discouraged at the level of disruption that this can cause. However, we can also take this as motivation to more deeply understand the technological context around us and become more informed and skeptical at the same time. Jad Abumrad, Robert Krulwich, and Simon Adler took the approach to engage the technology that concerned them and came out with an informed respect and wariness while also dispelling the most paralyzing fear that there was now no way to discern the truth.  We must continue to wrestle with Pandora’s box and this is another challenge for librarians and digital humanities practitioners to pursue.

Artificial Intelligence: Concerns, Benefits, and Libraries

artificial intelligence

Gerd Leonhard

The city of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University are growing centers for the development of artificial intelligence and a recent Studio 1A program had an interesting panel discussion on the development of the technology and how it is impacting the city. I was struck by the discussion at the end of the panel summarizing artificial intelligence’s drawbacks and benefits. One important drawback was communicated through astrophysicist, Steven Hawking’s, quote from a few years ago that artificial intelligence would outpace humanity in development by the mid-21st century based on our differing rates of evolution. The real strength of computers is their speed of calculation and efficiency, and helped by algorithms developed by people that help them to learn independently, they can develop systems and environments faster than humanity without the input of emotions or ethical considerations. In a way it sounds like a scenario where parents raise children to be efficient and fast without teaching them values or community ethics. That is a world that concerns me.

It was also interesting to hear that one of the benefits of artificial intelligence was “freedom from pain” which sounds like a benefit until you hear how it echos the promise the arch-villian, IT,  gave to Meg, the hero, in the classic novel by Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.  IT is an evil, disembodied brain that subjugated a whole planet to its will and in order to break down Meg’s resistance, IT promised her that if she gave in she would be free of the burden of having to make decisions and experiencing pain.

There are certainly benefits worth considering for artificial intelligence and knowing about them and how they work is crucial to our future. The benefits discussed in the Studio 1A program include how  a city transportation system driven by AI would be more efficient and would be likely to have less accidents. The core technology driving artificial intelligence is algorithms, the steps involved in solving problems and doing calculations. This 1-hour documentary,  The Secret Rules of Modern Living: Algorithms (available on Netflix or if your institution subscribes to Films on Demand), discusses what algorithms are and shows an example of how they are used to match kidney donors and recipients in the UK health system. matching algorithm graphicThis example of artificial intelligence takes a large amount of health data and processes it using algorithms designed to find patterns that will match donors and recipients across the country much faster than existing human-run networks can do.

So what does this have to do with Libraries? The capabilities to find matches across vast stores of data and dispersed communities reminds me of Interlibrary Loan. I wonder what would happen if artificial intelligence was applied to the matching process of libraries lending to one another?  What data would we apply algorithms to?  What algorithms already exist or could be further developed?  What ethical concerns are there when applying AI to this context? What is the role of the librarian in this scenario?

Why We Shouldn’t Be Surprised by the Cambridge Analytica Facebook Issue

One of the chilling aspects of the Cambridge Analytica Facebook relationship is how they used sophisticated psychological profiles based on personal data to market and influence individuals during the presidential election. While the level of detail and manipulation of personal data is shocking this methodology is not new. Advertisers and groups seeking wide societal influence in modern times have used targeted profiling and data to focus their efforts and gain influence since the 1950’s.

Rites of Men coverReading this passage, written in 1999, in Varda Burstyn’s Rites of Men: Manhood, Politics, and the Culture of Sport about how advertising and spectacle sports became more deeply intertwined reminded me of the issues at the heart of the Facebook Cambridge Analytica story:

In the 1950’s and 1960’s, advertising relied on demographic measurement to help design effective campaigns. In the early 1970s, the industry took a major step forward in enhancing the power of their appeals by introducing a technique called ‘psychodemographics.’ A product of the impact of psychology and neurology on the advertising industry, psychodemographics could evaluate the effects of a given visual-auditory messages on the feelings and behaviors of demographically grouped viewers, and then aid in producing tailor-made advertisements to stimulate particular responses.

Burstyn goes on to quote Joyce Nelson, The Perfect Machine: TV in the Nuclear Age (1987, 74):

According to the new model of communications that emerged the human receiver is by no means an empty vessel waiting to be filled with a potent message. Rather, the human receiver is a bundle of needs (many of them unconscious or below the threshold of awareness) and a compendium of emotional experiences (many of which are common to all of us as members of this society)…the receiver is a highly involved participant in the communication. The goal is to shape the message so that it matches the unconscious needs, emotional experience, and coded expectations of the desired audience – so that it speaks to, or resonates with, their deepest feelings and beliefs. This isn’t putting something into the receivers, it’s drawing something out of them and attaching it, or labeling that emotion with the product being advertised.

Watchers of Mad Men, the series about the advertising business in 1960’s New York, may recognize some of these ideas in the market research scenes.

Facebook reactions for like button

When Facebook added Reactions to the Like button in February 2016 users now had the ability to literally label items with six different emotions,  deepening their psychoprofiles along with any personality quizzes they may have participated in. Some anticipated that this feature had a purpose beyond broadening user expression which eventually came to light as Cambridge Analytica utilized that data to influence people in ways that Nelson describes in ways that one could refer to as mind control.  Some of my colleagues at Bethel in Political Science, Computer Science, and Neuroscience discuss this in a podcast last May called Social Media and Mind Control.

Keeping in mind what is new about this situation and what is a progression of an established practice help to frame our responses. For instance, the Congressional hearings about this with Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, may have gone better if the Senators were more informed about this advertising practice and what is unique about Facebook’s technology and data practices.

Review of Mary Aiken’s Cyber Effect

The Cyber Effect: A Pioneering Cyberpsychologist Explains How Human Behavior Changes OnlineThe Cyber Effect: A Pioneering Cyberpsychologist Explains How Human Behavior Changes Online by Mary Aiken
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For anyone who is a parent or spends significant time online this is an important and terrifying book. Dr. Aiken is a psychologist who specializes in forensics and public policy regarding the Internet, particularly in the international context with INTERPOL. She is also a consultant for the television show CSI:Cyber and has a position to influence public knowledge of these concepts through that medium as well. With this focus, she understandably comes into contact with the worst corners of the Internet. She begins the book by establishing a foundation of how human behavior changes online such as: increased inhibition and the ability to amplify and spread behaviors more quickly. She goes on to survey a wide swath of Internet activity from gaming, online dating, social media, black markets, predatory behavior, hacking and fringe communities finding each other on the Internet.

As a librarian that stands for a healthy exchange of ideas in society, her advocacy for limitations on the Internet and mentioning China as a model for segmenting the Internet from its citizens is a bit unsettling. However, she does mention the importance of a balance between regulation and the protection of personal privacy. The free exchange of ideas is one that she sees more as a risk and danger rather than a social good. There is a whole aspect of hacker culture and ethics that she misses because of her focus on criminal and malicious hacking activity. Because she is grounded in cybersecurity and forensics and librarianship is grounded in providing access and information to all, there is an understandable tension between our philosophical and professional perspectives.

With that said, there are some truly nasty and disgusting corners of the Web that I wouldn’t want to go and certainly wouldn’t want my children coming into contact with. As a parent it is important that I train my kids to learn how to navigate the Web and be aware of the dangers as well and blocking off access for their benefit. Her portrayal of child predator behavior online is worth the price of the book alone as a parent. Also, her attempts to get countries to cooperate with each other on legal jurisdiction to combat trafficking and sexual exploitation are good to read about. There are also technological measures that can be taken and her algorithm to detect cyber-bullying on social media is a promising aspect of using technology in a positive way.

I recommend this book with the qualification that it be read alongside a book that takes a deeper and philosophical approach like Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together. Turkle’s book fills the gaps in research that Aiken doesn’t cover and does a better job of balancing the positive and negative aspects of technology. Turkle has also done decades of research on the aspects of how behavior changes online. Aiken, pulls work like Turkle’s into the broader world of security and public policy. Parents and professionals will have a more complete view of this topic if this book is not the only one that is read about the impact of the Internet and online behavior.

View all my reviews

Found and Not Found: Scholarly Literature on the Web

Spurred by a recent New Yorker article about the birth and necessity of the Internet Archive, and how it helped identify who might have shot down the civilian plane in Ukraine, I looked into Jill Lepore’s sources to learn more.

She references a December 26, 2014 and a May 9, 2014 article in the open access journal PLOS ONE that are significantly related to information literacy and scholarship on the Web.  I would be curious to hear your responses.

1. Not Found

Lepore mentions “reference rot” and an article that found that 1 in 5 links used as citations in scholarly literature no longer work.  The research was conducted by library researchers who analyzed Science, Technology, and Medicine journals between 1997 – 2012. This is certainly an important point for us to note and help our students and faculty choose wisely.

2. Found

Another set of researchers attempted to identify how many pieces of scholarly literature were freely available on the Web.  Of the 114 million English-language articles they found, 24% or 27 million were freely available.
I wonder how these two impact our services and how they contribute to and inform the perception that “everything is available online” in the domain of scholarly literature.  I can’t help but notice that the open access nature of the articles in PLOSOne helped update and enrich the information in this more “popular” magazine with scholarly information.