It’s been a while since I last wrote a post for this blog. This is nothing new for me. I am a sporadic sharer-of-information when sharing at a distance, even at the best of times. Very quickly, here’s the short version of what the last year or so has looked like for me:
• I was hired at Linfield College as a visiting faculty librarian.
• My wife became a production and stage manager at Artists Repertory Theatre.
• Over the course of the last school year I collaborated with thirteen other faculty members in eleven departments at Linfield to teach information literacy. I taught for a combined total of 41 hours with 245 students. Half of the classes I taught were freshman seminars; the rest were 200 and 300 level classes.
• I took over two big projects at work: training and supervising my library’s team of student reference workers, and analyzing data from the HEDS Student Research Survey that we administered back in 2013/14.
• I took steps to becoming a point-of-contact on our campus for questions related to copyright and intellectual freedom.
• I applied for, and was offered, a tenure-track faculty librarian position at Linfield.
• I wrote one short play, which was produced in concert with several others written by my colleagues in Playwrights West, by Shaking The Tree Theater in Portland.
• I commuted approximately 17,766 miles – 567 hours spent in the car, listening to between 30 and 35 audiobooks and a comparable number of individual podcast episodes.
• I was, effectively, a single father for 18-20 weeks out of the last school year whenever my wife was stage-managing a production.
• I was overjoyed when my son started to develop, in addition to his love of other tabletop games and Pokemon, a passion first for Magic: The Gathering, and then role-playing games.
• Heard my daughter bemoan the fact that she doesn’t get homework anymore this year, and then realized that she loves school more than her genius big brother; and immediately fell in love with that little girl all over again.
• Watched my wife, almost 50 years old, apply herself to finally getting her driver’s license.
As you can see, it’s been a busy year. I trust that, if you read this blog, you’ll forgive me for not writing more. I have a six-week break coming up, though, so I plan to write more.
Update – May 29th, 2015: When this post was originally written, Sellie’s chapter on Meta-Radicalism was available at a different link. I have corrected the post to include the new link the the chapter: http://academicworks.cuny.edu/gc_pubs/14/. In addition, there was an error in the original post. Alycia works at the CUNY Graduate Center Library, not the CUNY Academic Commons. Apologies to Alycia and CUNY for the mistake.
This morning I read a book chapter authored by Alycia Sellie, a librarian at the CUNY Academic Commons whose research focuses on radical librarianship and print culture. The chapter is titled, “Meta-Radicalism: The Alternative Press by and for Activist Librarians.” It was originally published in the collection, Libraries and the Reading Public in Twentieth Century America, and a pre-print version of the chapter is available on the CUNY Academic Works repository.
Reading this piece, Sellie inspired me to think more about the concept of balance. To me, librarianship is very concerned with balance: maintaining a balanced collection, balancing your views by considering other, different views, and balancing the needs of separate patrons when they come into conflict are only a few examples. This chapter challenges the reader to think about this concept via the lens of collection development, specifically collection of alternative texts like zines, underground pamphlets, and self-published newsletters.
Sellie focuses, among other things, on the dis-inclusion of certain materials because of inside censorship. Sellie writes,
Inside censorship occurs when a librarian avoids adding materials to their collection — not because of any policy, but because they fear that the material will be challenged, cause conflict, or because the items would be too difficult to acquire.
She continues, adding that:
Alternative periodicals have long fallen victim to inside censorship: beyond difficulties with acquisition, these publications come in nonstandard formats and offer content that is vastly different from what is presented in the mainstream (Sellie, 2012, p. 3-4).
By creating and publishing alternative literature, certain librarians attempt to do activism from the inside, encouraging their peers to take these publications seriously and to collect them as a way of balancing out mainstream publications and views in the main library collection. In doing so, they engage in meta-activism, or as Sellie puts it, “Meta-Radicalism:” using the medium for which one advocates as a tool of advocacy.
I understand the collection balance issue that she brings up in the following way:
When someone typically thinks about maintaining a balanced collection, it may be tempting to think in terms of opposing viewpoints: liberal/conservative, creationist/evolutionist, western medicine/eastern medicine, etc. It could be argued that large, popular publishers – not always, but there is precedent – focus on these opposing sets of issues by selecting, printing, and disseminating books that speak to those opposing sets, often because those values are very, very visible with big readerships. These sets tend to become more visible as they are supported by publishers, and that work influences more readers which also support them, which creates a higher demand for materials that speak to those dichotomies. Even in academic publishing, it can be difficult to break out of the mold of “Either/Or,” “On The One Hand/On The Other Hand,” “Chocolate/Peanut Butter,” and so on. Colleges and universities require their students to be exposed to multiple viewpoints, which makes a different kind of thinking about balance essential.
Most of the academic librarians I have worked with tend to look at cultivating a balanced collection more like this:
Seen from the top, our view of the librarian is very different. The “Either/Or” dichotomy only occupies maybe 20˚ or 30˚ of a 360˚ circle of balance. Focusing on one side or the other means that you can still fall backward, or on your face. When a librarian looks to collect around a certain viewpoint, they are not just looking at “Either/Or;” they are looking to include many viewpoints in an effort to support critical thinking and learning within a subject area. Sellie argues that if you don’t include alternative publications in this collection, you still miss a significant portion of this circle of balance: authors and works that aren’t represented by mainstream publishers, and whose voices are ignored, though important, in the overall conversation.
For me, this question of balance extends into other areas of librarianship. For example: when we teach students how to evaluate information, we teach them to look for bias. Sellie quotes librarian and activist Celeste West, who said,
“We can try to be fair but not unbiased. We either speak out and select or else keep quiet. Keeping quiet is just another way of supporting what is going on, which is a political stance” (Sellie, 2012, p. 5).
I’ll get to the second part of the quote later, but in the first part, West essentially states that everybody is biased. Everybody privileges a certain point of view. If we accept that, then teaching students about bias is not enough. We also have to teach them how to know when an author’s bias is justified and when it’s not, and when it needs to be. We need them to learn to notice when an author has sufficiently considered other viewpoints and when they haven’t, and to decide when an author is edging into the territory of confirmation bias (which is a fallacy distinct from the common experience of everyday bias) and when they aren’t. And, most importantly, we need them to be able to identify the contexts in which information is disseminated, because that also affects bias. In short: though identifying bias is important, being able to weigh the balance of bias within a context is equally if not more so.
Another area of librarianship where we have to focus on balance is in our very mission as librarians. R. David Lankes has famously written that,
“The mission of a library is to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in the community” (Lankes, 2012, p. 33).
One way to do that is to become knowledge and information creators ourselves. It could be argued that by publishing zines, by including maker spaces within the library, by teaching others, or (in my case) by creating podcasts and radio shows, we become both a generative force and a positive example in the communities in which we serve. Furthermore, by engaging in activism, librarians seek to directly impact their communities and workplaces and make them better, and to provide a model of what we want librarianship to be. However, this has to be balanced against the fact that there is also a place and a need for us to be information guides and mediators: the finger pointing the way. This requires us to step out of the way and let others lead and to find their own path. In this part of our mission, we don’t forge the way, we show all of the available paths and let the patron choose. This balance of Yin and Yang, of Passive and Active, of Introvert and Extrovert, and of many different ways of being a librarian, is more important than any one view of what we do, or what we should be doing. A living system is a changing, adaptable system. Negotiating those changes and approaches also requires balance, and appreciation and acceptance of diversity, and discerning openness.
One way in which Sellie’s writing challenged me is that it was hard for me to accept – at least on one reading – that dis-inclusion of alternative literature from library collections was completely due to inside censorship. Sellie herself admits that there are many limitations on collection development: staff size, budget, and institutional focus are just three. Providing direct evidence that censorship, definably a restrictive process, is happening within library collection development in this regard, and that it isn’t a matter of selection instead, is difficult. No librarian going to come right out and say, “We’re keeping zines out of the library because ‘x’.” It’s more likely to be framed in terms of choosing to select other materials, or a general ignorance about zines and what they offer, either individually or within the institution itself, or a lack of available collection budget or time in which to collect alternative materials, or not knowing what specific titles are out there and not having the time to research it. And these complaints may be not just sincere, but accurate. This leaves us trying to prove that it isn’t selection, and how do you prove that something is not?
Thus, Celeste West’s claim that silence in the collection indicates approval of dis-inclusion within it, as far as censorship in this instance goes, doesn’t appear to me to fit the complexity of what goes on in individual libraries. Aside from my going back and citation-chasing through Sellie’s article, and reading more of her work (as I will do, because if you couldn’t tell she makes my brain work in groovy ways), I would like to see a study that effectively looks at the reasons why zines are dis-included from library collections. I will continue to look for them, and if you, the reader, know of any, please cite them in the comments below.
Lankes, R. David. (2012). Expect more: Demanding better libraries for today’s complex world. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. Available to read for free at http://quartz.syr.edu/blog/?page_id=4598
Sellie, Alycia. (2012). “Meta-Radicalism: The alternative press by and for activist librarians.” From CUNY Academic Works: Faculty Works, Paper 14. Available at http://academicworks.cuny.edu/gc_pubs/14/
I am of the nature to believe
that which is familiar and assumed
over that which is complex and unknown.
I have not gone beyond bias.
I am of the nature to believe
that the things on which I am biased
are truths, unassailable and invulnerable.
I have not gone beyond prejudice.
I am of the nature to believe
that if a thing corroborates my perspective,
then it is true, and all else is false.
I have not gone beyond misinformation.
I am of the nature to believe
that if an opposing thinker argues with me,
then it is down to their faulty position, not mine.
I have not gone beyond arrogance.
I am of the nature to believe
that when someone speaks words that I don’t understand
then they are confused, where I am clear.
I have not gone beyond error.
All of the things I think I know,
comforting and emboldening, will change;
it will all become strange to me.
I am the owner of my thinking.
I am the puppet of my thinking.
I am irresistibly chained to my thinking.
I exist because of my thinking.
Of my thinking I am created,
and through my thinking I will be undone,
every second of every day.
Whatever I think, for good or evil,
of that I am the heir.
A Note On Intention: I do not intend for this set of recollections to be objectively descriptive, but to be personally prescriptive. I wrote it primarily for me. It is not meant to be used to identify and condemn confirmation bias in others; it is meant for me to identify, understand, confront, and treat confirmation bias in myself. If you find it useful, then by all means use it. If not, then feel free to discard it.
This is the first installment of what I hope will be a recurring segment on this blog: Dad-Splaining. “Dad-Splaining,” in this case, is not like Mansplaining. It’s an attempt for me to figure out how to explain things in an accurate and succinct way, on a number of subjects, to my dad. Dad is one of the most intelligent people I know, and he is regularly able to find the gaps in an argument, or your thinking or knowledge, or an explanation and cut to the heart of things. And I typically have a lot of gaps in my argument. At least when I’m talking to him. Because dads and sons, y’all.
“If I buy a book, it’s mine,” Dad said. “Why should an ebook be any different?” He has a fair point. Telling somebody that they can’t buy a book, they can only license it, is not just counter-intuitive. It feels plain wrong.
The problem lies in what we think we’re buying when we buy a book. Let’s say I want to pick up the latest novel by, say, Joe Hill. I go to Powell’s Books, or Barnes & Noble, or another bookstore, I grab the book off of the shelf, I take it to the cashier, give them my gigantic wad of disposable cash modest spending money for the week, and it’s mine to take home. But what am I actually buying? I’m not buying the story. The story is an idea. It has no physical substance. If it doesn’t have physical substance, then it can’t be bought or sold. The idea, however, is embodied by words in a work of authorship. Once that idea is cemented in an authored work, that work becomes the property of the author. This applies as soon as the words are set down by a writer. This concept is codified in U. S. Copyright Law.
So are we buying the words, or the work? Clearly not. That belongs to the author: in this case Joe Hill, or any other author whose novel we care to buy. When a person plagiarizes, what they’re really doing is committing an act of theft. They are taking the words that belong to someone else and using and presenting them as their own for profit, monetary or otherwise. One might then ask, “Well if that’s so, then how can a publisher print so many books with words that aren’t theirs?” They can do it, because the author grants them a license to do it in a contract that typically includes an up-front price for the license, royalties from future sales, and an advance on those royalties. The ownership of the work resides with the author, and the author grants permission to the publisher to reproduce the work in a partnership that hopefully benefits both parties. This is how authors can make a living doing what they do.
This is obviously a big generalization about how things like this work. The point of it is that when you buy a book, you’re not buying the content inside of it. Text is different from content. You can, and do, buy tracts of text all the time. Content is not so easily bought or sold, and as this new age of access has taught us, information is slippery. Once it’s free in the world, it goes wherever there are people to consume it. What you’re buying is the package: the cover, the pages, the printed text, and that nice dust cover with the pretty illustrations on it.
Making sure authors get paid for their work demands that the law create a set of rules that recognize rights of authorship. It is precisely these rules that protect content rights-holders, whether they be authors or the companies they might sell their rights over to (yes, you can do that), as well as the slippery nature of content and information, that make ebooks so tricky to deal with for everybody. If, when you buy a book, what you’re buying is the package, then what happens when the package is itself a piece of writing?
That’s right: the package that holds an ebook is not physical. It’s not your Kindle, or your Kobe, or your Nook or even your iPad; it’s the programming code that holds the content together as a coherent piece. And code has to be authored by somebody. Therefore, when you pay for an ebook, you still pay for an information package, but that package is, itself, an authored work, and in order to use it, you can’t buy it. You have to license it.
This places the control of how you use it in the hands of the rights-holders of the information package, which is, in the case of ebooks, a company. Companies and corporations are not people, but they do act like living things in certain ways. One of those ways is in their purpose: to survive, to thrive, and to make sure they continue to do so. One major way companies do this is through the movement of money. When a company asserts its digital rights by restricting and curtailing access to ebooks, whether to individual consumers or to larger entities like libraries, what they’re doing is protecting their vital interests, and their main interest is money, because that’s how companies maintain their survival and grow. And that isn’t going to change anytime soon. And, fortunately or unfortunately, they have a right to protect their interests, because their interests are those of the people who run them and, hopefully, also of the people work for them; though in certain cases, that second claim is doubtful.
None of which makes it right for companies to restrict access to information. All it means is that they are protected by law, and that their reasons for doing what they do are understandable, regardless of whether they stifle innovation and prevent people from accessing information in the formats they need and want. This makes the whole issue, in a word, thorny.
My dad didn’t quite see the complexity of it, because I wasn’t so great at explaining it to him. His response is to say, “They should just make it so that if you buy a book, you buy it. That would simplify everything for everybody.” And he’s right. It would. One might argue that by simplifying matters, you could still assure a profit for companies and give people what they want – though I’m not confident enough to argue that point. But under current U. S. law, that can’t happen, because as far as I can tell, there’s nothing differentiating a coded software application from a novel in terms of authorship and rights-holding. And in my opinion, as long as that’s the case, we can’t even begin to untangle this mess.
So, how did I do Dad-Splaining this issue? Did I get it right? Wrong? Did I miss anything? Please leave a comment below and let me know.