hail and farewell

FriendFeed, my primary social network, is going away in a few short days — not because of an argument or a lack of interest or a complete meltdown, but simply because Facebook, which owns FriendFeed, has decided not to keep it going. I’ve gotten to know many fine people through FriendFeed, and while I’ll find them elsewhere, it won’t be the same. And the Library Society of the World, though it will doubtless also find another place to meet, won’t be the same either. Joe asked us what we’d learned, and since that thread will vanish in a few days, too, I’m going to repost my answer here:

Before I became a librarian or ever thought of it, I was an activist. I organized and demonstrated and got arrested and generally worked my tail off to try to change the world and make people’s lives better — sometimes those of my colleagues; sometimes those of people I’d never met. When I started working in libraries, I felt I lost a lot of that. I still believed in the work, but, like most of us, I was caught up by and stymied in the bureaucracy and politics that are the reality of most institutions, especially large, slow moving ships of state like libraries. The LSW gave me back what I’d been missing — purpose, immediacy, common cause with people who were smart and scrappy and passionate — people who did stuff. FriendFeed, as a social network, was just like the LSW — small, often overlooked, sometimes prone to crashing, and yet fast and collaborative. Suddenly we had the people and the place, and we were on fire — raising money for the Louisville Free Public Library after it flooded, taking down Clinical Reader, planning unconferences with people we’d never met, fighting for the good and making lifelong friends. That’s what this place and you people have given me — or given back to me. I’m eternally grateful.

And then, because I’m always looking for this quotation when discussing the LSW, or any movement I’ve been a part of that I’ve loved, I’ll add this, from Michael Rossman’s The Wedding Within the War:

We conducted a long struggle, assuming responsibilities we should not have been made to assume, heartbreakingly alone until the end, taking time out from our studies and our lives to do a job that should not have needed to be done. And we comported ourselves with dignity and grace, on the whole unexpectedly so, and with good hearts and trust and kindness for each other.

Confronting an institution apparently and frustratingly designed to depersonalize and block communication, neither humane nor graceful nor responsive, we found flowering in ourselves the presence whose absence we were at heart protesting.

technology football

Back when I first moved to Wyoming, my friend Jim was attempting to teach me to talk about sports. Largely this is because he thought it would be very entertaining if I were to walk into the Wea Market some morning and say to the guys, “Wow, the Patriots just ran right over the Bills last night.”

I never did it, because, among other things, I’d have had to pay attention to the names of the teams playing and who won,* and because the only other cliches I could remember were “the penalties are just killing them!” (for football) and “they’re not lettin’ ’em play!” (for basketball), but I was always convinced I’d get them mixed up, and God knows I hate more than anything to sound like a fool.

I’ve been thinking about these sports cliches, though, and about the nature of sports commentary in general, which seems, on television at least, to involve largely meaningless statements made by guys in poorly-fitting suits, when I was listening watching the commentary on Google+ roll by over the past couple of weeks.

You could set yourself up as a tech commentator about as easily as I could set myself up as a sports commentator. Just memorize a few key phrases — “______ killer,” “privacy concerns,” “the new Facebook,” “if Microsoft/Apple designed a ______” — and you’re set to go. Since you’ll probably be doing this all from the comfort of your computer, you don’t even have to wear a suit (or anything at all, for that matter).

As I’ve never been a sports fan, I’ve always found the talk inane. I suspect I’m wrong at least in part — I’m sure that out there, if you look, and if you care, there are people saying intelligent things about sports, just as, if you look hard enough, there are people saying intelligent things about technology. But the fact is that most people who are interested in one or the other aren’t necessarily looking for great wisdom — they’re looking for a chance to shoot the shit. The guys hanging out at the Wea Market the morning after a game talk about it in part because it’s a nice way to avoid starting the workday for a bit longer, but mostly they do it because they like talking about it, the way one likes repeating one’s favorite bits of movie dialogue.

I can complain all I want about the idiocy of tech talk, but that didn’t prevent me from getting a Google+ account the minute I got a chance.

This is turning into less an interesting post about an idea and more into a moralistic post about tolerance — but I do think it’s worth thinking about. It’s maddening to me that people make a living from saying “Nexus S is the iPhone killer,” but, in point of fact, I recently got a smartphone and spent a long time considering which one I wanted. We can complain all we want about the inanity of tech talk, but until we ourselves stop using the tech, it’s bound to be a bit hypocritical.

*And, indeed, I would not have had an example for this post were it not for Steve Lawson.

at your fingertips

If you’re reading this, you are sitting in front of a computer screen (or, perhaps, some kind of mobile screen — or, I suppose, you are reading a printout, but at some point you, or someone, got it from online). I’d like you to think for a moment about that time you spend sitting in front of a computer. I myself spend most of my day that way.

If I’m listening to a story on the radio, and I hear them say, “to see an interactive map of thus and such and hear more of whatever, go to npr.org,” I can quite easily stroll over to my laptop (if I don’t have it open already) and check it out. If I want to try again to order some black boots for my extremely long narrow feet (this is, I think, a fruitless quest, but I keep trying), I can spend all the time I want clicking around on Zappos and reading customer reviews. I can work on my taxes online and call my mom to ask a question about them at the same time. If you are reading this, chances are that you are able to do these sorts of things too, and that you do them without much thought.

Now I’d like you to imagine that you don’t have a computer with internet access.

I’d like you to imagine, in other words, that you are like a lot of the people who walk in to the average public library.

How much time does the average public library patron usually get to spend on a computer? 30 minutes to an hour is fairly typical, and that’s 30 minutes to an hour only once a day in a lot of places.

Think about all the things you did on a computer yesterday. Imagine that you had to do them all in one hour, on a computer that does not have all your favorite Firefox extensions, that quite possibly is missing the latest update of Flash, that probably won’t let you burn a CD.

I love the internet. I love that libraries are one of the few places in the world that provide free internet access. But when we talk about electronic resources and the wonders of the web and putting the world at people’s fingertips, I think it’s good to remember that for a significant number of people, we’re giving them an hour of that world at a time, quite probably on Internet Explorer 6.

reading offline, reading online

When Walt Crawford announces a new issue of Cites & Insights, I usually immediately click over to citesandinsights.info to check the table of contents and see what I have to look forward to. If I’m interested in a piece, I’ll click through to the html version and skim through it. If it’s something I’m particularly interested in, I make a note to print out the PDF later. (I’d read the whole thing online, but the html versions are too wide to make for comfortable reading, and the PDFs involve too much scrolling.)

The most recent C&I contains an essay that falls into that print out the PDF category — I’ve skimmed it and look forward to reading it for real when I print it out. It’s called “Writing about Reading,” and it takes a good long look at the National Endowment for the Arts studies of recent years that claim to show there is a Drastic and Dire Crisis in this country because Nobody Reads Anymore.

As you may gather by my use of sarcastic capitalization, I am unimpressed with the arguments the NEA makes on this count. If you’re in any sort of business that deals with books and learning and reading, you’ve probably heard a good deal of talk about how the web has decimated people’s ability to do sustained reading of complex texts. Nicholas Carr — or his headline writers — have gone so far as to wonder if the internet is making us stupid.

I spend a lot of time on the internet, and I don’t think I’m any stupider than I was before.

Actually, in some ways, I think I’m smarter.

I started using the web in 1995, with Netscape. I used to sit in my dorm room and read ICON, the alternative weekly paper in my home town that I later ended up writing for. I also remember quite early on discovering the site Literary Kicks, which is still around but is far more robust than it was then. And I poked around the library website, and most any place else that links or WebCrawler searches could take me.

When I first started moseying around the web, I was baffled. I’d get to a page of text, and I’d start reading the text, and then there’d be a hyperlink — usually in the middle of a sentence! — and I had to figure out what to do. Should I continue reading the rest of the sentence and then go back to the hyperlink? Should I click the hyperlink in the middle of reading the sentence? And then when I got to the page that the link led to, what was I supposed to do? Quite frequently, the page that was linked to would similarly be a text with links and would create similar dilemmas. It was confusing and made for an unsettled and unsatisfying reading experience. I met a guy at the college radio station that year who said he was working on the Great American Hypertext, and I thought, Dear God, please tell me I will never have to read such a thing.

Flash forward about a decade, and I’m sitting at my old job reading my feeds and I come across this post by Steve Lawson, in which he talks about how he expects to be able to link to things when he’s writing:

my natural inclination is to write something like this:

John Blyberg’s ILS Customer Bill of Rights kicked off a lot of discussion regarding what libraries might demand of ILS vendors, especially in terms of enabling individual libraries to create our own services to sit on top of the ILS. The new North Carolina State University library catalog, which uses an Endeca front-end on top of its Sirsi catalog, and Casey Bisson’s WordPress front-end for a III catalog are two examples of experiments in this vein, while the report of the University of California’s Bibliographic Services Task Force, Rethinking How We Provide Bibliographic Services for the University of California (PDF) puts some of the same concerns in the wider context of an enormous state university system.

That seems like the natural way to write things now to me, too. In the last few papers I wrote for library school, I constantly found myself wishing I could just link some text instead of inserting a footnote. The link would take people directly to the thing I was talking about. The footnote could help them get there, but it wasn’t immediate, and how often do you go track down the source mentioned in a footnote? I’ve done it, but it is increasingly a hassle.

When did I go from “OMG how can I possibly take in all the information in this document and all its links?” to “that is totally the way to read — and write — everything?”

I’m not sure. But it is clear to me that when we talk about the web taking away the ability to do sustained reading of complex texts (and I think the jury’s still out on that one), we neglect to consider the skills that the web has led us to develop. It is useful — and becoming essential — to be able to read a hyperlinked text, to be able to bounce around from screen to screen, to skim a document and find out if it’s something you need to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest or something you just need to get the gist of.

Ezra Pound liked to say that it was not actually necessary to read an entire work in order to understand it and learn from it. I often like to think of Pound on the internet, and how right he is. I don’t mean to dismiss close reading or slow reading: I still think both are still important and have a place. But we live in a world in which so much text is produced on an hourly basis that you simply could not take it all in. You couldn’t even take in, say, all the material that pertained to some interest of yours. You have to figure out how to filter it — how to get what you need, how to find the bits you want to go back to. If bouncing from document to document is a sign of stupidity, then yes, the web has made me stupid. But I wish that the doomsayers would, rather than simply lamenting the skills they believe we have lost, look at the skills we have gained.