The Common Good

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I’m a true believer in the “common good”. The common good is the notion that a community builds shared assets, typically from taxes or other public revenue, that are shared with, available to, and enjoyed by all members of the community. The common good is founded on the human realization that by pooling resources we can be, and ultimately are, stronger as a community than as individuals. The common good forms one of the “core values of librarianship” as defined by the American Library Association, and one of the core values of my own personal philosophy and worldview. I’d be a true believer in the common good if I weren’t a librarian; my being a librarian only solidifies my resolve on this issue.

Many assets can be thought of as “common goods”: Public roads, public parks, public libraries, public schools, colleges, and universities, public hospitals, social security, public housing, supplemental nutrition assistance programs, public health care, and the like. Although we may lag behind our peers, the United States of America has a long history of creating these assets to serve the common good. These assets benefit everyone, and we are all richer, more prosperous, and better off because of them. But the common good appears to be under constant attack in contemporary America.

Much of the current political debates over the Affordable Care Act, funding of Medicare and Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Social Security, and the social safety net in general, at the federal, state, and local levels, is about the common good. Whenever the citizens of a municipality vote to deny funding to schools, parks, or libraries a piece of the common good dies in that community. Whenever a state legislature votes to defund student aid or education programs, the common good dies in that state. Whenever the federal government shuts down over fiscal matters, or cuts funding for social programs, education, health, and the welfare of the citizens of this country, the common good slips away.

For at least as long as I have been a librarian (15 years), there have been debates over the “future of the library” and whether public libraries are a necessary common good in our communities. On Sunday, a post in TechCrunch, a technology news site, mused about the “end of the library” stating the author’s assertions that the usefulness of the library had ended when “the internet has replaced the importance of libraries as a repository for knowledge” and “digital distribution has replaced the role of a library as a central hub for obtaining the containers of such knowledge”. While I do not disagree with the author that the internet and digital resources have changed the information landscape, I am an ardent believer, with many others both inside and outside librarianship, that libraries will and must remain to serve the common good.

There is no denying that there is a “digital divide” in this country. The gap between affluent “haves” who can afford technology and access to information on the internet and through e-books, and poorer “have nots” that do not have the means to afford this technology or access is growing. Libraries often function as a means of bridging this divide and ensuring that all citizens have equal access to contemporary information sources regardless of their “ability to pay”. Libraries have always lived out this mission to serve the common good.

Although the concept of the common good has taken a beating in recent years, I think that the future of the library and other assets that meet the common good are strong. But the common good needs people to assert its usefulness in the community and advocate for community assets that serve this common good. If we do not nurture the common good in our communities, it will wither and die. As librarians, we can become advocates, not only for our libraries, but fall all assets in our communities that serve the common good. We need to turn our anger from news of the demise of the common good into positive action supporting it on our communities.  Let us all believe in the power of community and coming together to make something greater than we can as individuals, and spread this belief among our patrons, friends, neighbors, and communities. I’m a true believer in the common good, and want you to be a true believer as well.



The Nonexistence of “Digital Natives”


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Jacob Berg does a great job of dispelling the myth of the “digital native” in his blog post this morning, The “Digital Natives” Myth and Library Science Education. I’m not sure why library and information science, especially LIS educators, have taken such a shine to this concept. Perhaps it’s because we see it as a way to “keep up with changing times”, but as his post (and a lot of subsequent research) has shown, the profession is chasing rainbows in tying itself in knots by looking for new collections and services to serve this “new group” of users.

Sure, college students and younger folks are more tech savvy than others. But what do we really mean by tech savvy? I find myself helping plenty of college-aged students use Microsoft Word or Google Search while they run circles around me in the features of their iPhone or downloading music from the web. I think there’s a long way to go to bridge the divide between “knowing how to use a smartphone” and being a true “digital native”, where being a productive member of the Information Age, with a mastery of technology and information sources, is as natural as breathing. A long way, indeed.

I agree that we need to stop using the terms “digital native” and its cognates “born digital” as soon as possible and face up to the fact that individuals are complex organisms with varied talents, skills, needs, and abilities. We need to be smarter as librarians and information professionals in gauging these needs and responding to these talents, skills, and abilities. If we can do that, a true revolution in our profession will occur.

I Code, Therefore I Am

Image: nikio on Flickr

I have tracked the rise of the “coding movement” in librarianship with great interest. It began over 10 years ago with groups like Code4Lib, consisting of tech gurus and programmers who had a love for libraries and were working in or working with libraries on programming, website creation, and other IT-heavy projects. Markup languages like HTML and XML were starting to be taught in ischools and LIS programs. There was a great deal of buzz a few months ago about whether coursework in coding should be part of the LIS curriculum for all students. Finally, I have watched with great interest the DEV DEV Summer of Code camp for teens play out at the Chattanooga Public Library lead by the talented Justin Hoenke. My take on all of this is that it’s great for libraries and great for librarianship.

First a bit of background on my experiences. It must have been about 1982 or 1983 when my father signed my younger brother and I up for “computer courses” at Radio Shack. My father the visionary knew that computers were the future, and he wanted to make sure that we had the skills necessary to meet this “brave new world” head-on. We learned BASIC and LOGO and how to do the most rudimentary of coding. We got books and magazines filled with programs and came home and tried them out on our Apple ][e. We tried, through trial and error, to make the programs better, and fix typos or oversights that the original authors had made.

But more importantly, we learned how to think in a structured, ordered, and organized way. As I progressed through high school and college, my knowledge of computers, coding, and systems analysis grew, and my appreciation of learning “how to think like a programmer” increased. I learned Unix shell scripting, FORTRAN, and C++. I tried my hand at HTML 2.0 and created the most rudimentary of web pages. I learned TeX and BiBTeX to format documents for large academic printing jobs and my term papers. But above all, I learned how to think like a programmer.

Learning how to think like a programmer not only made me good at working with technology or learning programming languages, but it made me a better problem solver. After all, coding and programming is simply a means of solving problems in a technological way, and learning this new “language” was deeper than just learning C++ or BASIC. It was learning a new way to problem-solve. As I learned about loops, and flow charts, and regular expressions, I also learned about solving problems in a systematic, regularized, heuristic way using algorithms and logic. Approaching problem-solving with this new way of thinking ultimately makes me a better librarian.

In addition, this new way of thinking proved invaluable as the Internet took off and technology seemed to creep into every corner of our daily lives. I prided myself on being able to “bridge the gap” between the techies and librarians and library staff in my first two post-MLS jobs working for library automation vendors. My master’s degree taught me how to think like a librarian, but my coding skills taught me how to think like a techie, and this was sorely needed then and now. This ability to operate in two worlds simultaneously — the tech world and the world of librarianship — is something I feel has become incredibly important and a necessity in 21st century librarianship. We are often called upon as librarians and library staff to not only be masters of information, but masters of information technology as well, and  training in coding, programming languages, and system analysis and design goes a long way to make sure that librarians are well equipped to operate wherever they are needed.

I am grateful that my father planted the seed that fostered the need in me to understand technology and work with it on an intimate level at an early age. Additionally, I think that all librarians and library school/ischool students benefit from learning this new way of thinking and new way of problem-solving we call “coding”. Coursework in system design, programming, and coding should be part of the LIS curriculum, not to make librarians into coders, but to give librarians an understanding of the way coders think and problem-solve and the way that information technology functions on a level beyond that of an end-user. The only way that libraries and librarians can master technology is to truly understand it, and understanding comes through learning how to code: learning how to think like a coder and problem-solve like a coder.

Digital Nativity?

Digital Nativity?

There has been much ado made in library and information studies and higher education about meeting the needs of “digital natives”, those born around or after the nascence of the Internet and due to the ubiquity of the Internet during their formative years, are thought to possess an innate digital skill set. There have been many articles, studies, and posts debunking this myth, but we information and education types are still buying into it in full force.

Take, for example, the postcard I received today about an upcoming book “The New Digital Scholar: Exploring and Enriching the Research and Writing Practices of NextGen Students” published by Information Today, Inc. A note about this book up-front: I have not read the book (and don’t own a copy) but am simply basing my observations on the marketing postcard and associated write-up. Not only does it use the ever-so-trendy moniker of “NextGen” to describe these “digital natives” but calls upon us as educators to throw out decades of good pedagogical research because the “practice of research-writing is mired in practices poorly suited for digital natives”. This book is ostensibly “designed for the information universe that NextGen students inhabit”. And that would be the universe of Angry Birds and texting?

Yes, it’s true that this “NextGen” may have a smart phone with them at all times. And yes they know how to text and play games. And they like to think themselves savvy consumers of all things “digital”. In my experience, however, many of these students know little beyond the superficial in the “information universe” and are much less savvy that they appear to be on the whole, especially with information gathering, writing, and the formation of ideas. I would argue that instead of pandering to these “digital natives” by throwing out traditional pedagogy around research and writing, in favor of “digital” projects that this generation is neither interested in or has the skills to complete, we ought to be assessing the needs of this  generation of “digital natives” and finding ways to make tried-and-true methods and theories of pedagogy speak to this generation.

Assessment is the key to creating both pedagogy and information services and products that speak to a target group of individuals. As soon as we abandon this myth of “digital nativity” and determine the real wants and needs of this generation, we will have a real nativity of new ideas and methods of teaching research, writing, and other subjects to the NextGen.

Join the Collaborative Marketing for e-Resources Project « E-Views

Interesting uses of marketing/promotion of electronic resources. From the post:

In essence, the project “proposes a model for a national distributed project to develop marketing plans for electronic resources while collaboratively building benchmarks for the marketing of electronic resources in college and university settings.” [from the poster session] By participating in the collaborative working group you can learn how to employ a typical marketing plan at your library, complete one marketing campaign from start to finish, and contribute to a national project that will determine if collaborative benchmarking for marketing electronic resources is feasible.”

Join the Collaborative Marketing for e-Resources Project « E-Views.

Blogging Once Again

After a long hiatus and busy summer consumed with library renovations, staff changes, and other sundry projects, I finally have some time to start blogging again. I’m going to try and use the blog as more of a “professional stream of consciousness” and write more often about my current research, the state of the profession, and where I see library and information science heading. There will, of course, be forays into technology, diversity, and higher education in general — three more areas of professional interest.

Thanks for sticking with me, those of you who subscribe. I promise I’ll be a little more forthcoming in the future.

Librarians and Google: Differing Motivations

Eric Rumsey brings up some interesting points on his blog this morning in his post “Google & Librarians as Cousins“. He argues that librarians and Google are cousins due to our shared “understated modesty” and interest in making the Web an “user-friendly place where people can actually find what they’re looking for”, and I would agree that on the surface, this would be true. The difference between librarians and Google are our motivations for doing what we do.

Google is a corporation that serves the needs and desires of its shareholders. Google’s primary motivator is profit, and as Siva Vaidhyanathan illustrates in The Googlization of Everything, Google’s true product is us. As users of Google, it is our preferences, searching habits, and online usage that is being served up to advertisers for a price. I don’t deny that Google has helped us all immensely by making the Web better, easier to navigate, and more “user-friendly”. I just wish they would be more honest about why they do this.

Librarians on the other hand provide information, help people find what they are looking for, and make all information — print and digital — more “user-friendly”, because we have a calling to this profession and it is what makes up our very essence. And often times, we do this with very few strings attached, and typically with the motivation that it is our vocation to “help people find what they are looking for”. That is why society, through public institutions like schools and public libraries, pay us to do what we do. Instead of trying to be more like Google, librarians must strive to get corporations like Google to be more like us. Failing that, we must continue to compete with Google in the hearts and minds of society and show them our way is the best. This is our vocation as librarians.