Archive for the 'Library stuff' Category

Early reading list on machine learning

In the preliminary report from the MIT Task Force on the Future of Libraries, we make several references to the importance of optimizing library content, data, and metadata for machine learning applications.

We imagine a repository of knowledge and data that can be exploited and analyzed by humans, machines, and algorithms. This transformation will accelerate the accumulation and validation of knowledge, and will enable the creation of new knowledge and of solutions to the world’s great challenges. Libraries will no longer be geared primarily to direct readers but instead to content contributors, community curators, text-mining programs, machine-learning algorithms, and visualization tools.

I am convinced that machine learning is going to have a major impact on the advancement of knowledge in lots of ways we can’t anticipate, and I want to understand it better. I am also convinced that without the intervention of folks who understand the biases built into our collections in terms of content, organization, and description; machine learning applications will re-inscribe and reify existing inequalities.

To that end, I’m trying to put together a reading list to get smarter about what machine learning is, what it can do for libraries, and what libraries can do to support and inspire creative, productive, just and inclusive applications of machine learning. Here’s my very incomplete initial list. Additional suggestions welcome in the comments.

By the numbers playlist

Came up with this idea while sitting in traffic on the way home from Connecticut this weekend: a playlist of songs from my collection with numbers in the title, sequentially, until I run out of songs. For most numbers, I have more than one song, so these are just the ones I picked today.

  1. Give me one reason – Tracy Chapman
  2. Two – Ryan Adams
  3. Those Three Days – Lucinda Williams
  4. Four Winds – Bright Eyes
  5. Five Cups of Coffee -The Jayhawks
  6. Number Six Driver – Eddie from Ohio
  7. Seven Curses – Bob Dylan
  8. Dinner at Eight – Rufus Wainwright
  9. Nine tonight – Bob Seger
  10. Ten Year Night – Lucy Kaplansky
  11. Mornings Eleven – The Magic Numbers
  12. 12 Bellevue – Kathleen Edwards
  13. Thirteen – Elliott Smith
  14. Feb 14 – Drive-By Truckers
  15. Fifteen Keys – Uncle Tupelo
  16. Sixteen Tons – Johnny Cash
  17. Seventeen – Sex Pistols

That’s as far as my personal collections takes me. Guess I should go download some Alice Cooper.

when words matter

I don’t think words are enough, but I do think words matter.

On November 9, I was not on campus with my library colleagues. I was in South Bend, Indiana; giving two talks to librarians and archivists at the University of Notre Dame. I honestly am not sure what I talked about. I threw away my notes, acknowledged how hard it was to be away from home and away from my MIT colleagues, and tried to make some claims about how the election of a president who ran on a platform of racism, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia, ableism, and a general disregard for science and facts made the work of libraries and archives more important and urgent than ever. Again, I really don’t know what I said, but a few folks cried and a few thanked me for being real. I couldn’t do anything else.

In between my 2 talks at Notre Dame, I sat down and sent a quick and heartfelt note to my MIT Libraries family. I was only back at MIT for a day, before the Veteran’s Day holiday, then a trip to Chicago for some ARL business. While in Chicago, I worked with Mark Puente and the amazing staff at ARL headquarters to get a statement out on behalf of ARL, affirming our values of diversity and inclusion.

When I finally got back to MIT, I hosted “open hours” so members of the MIT Libraries could come together to share their thoughts with each other and with me. We brainstormed some ideas for action, including ways we could support one another and our community members. I asked them if they thought I should make a public statement on behalf of the libraries or if we should do something more grass-roots, perhaps signed by those who wanted to contribute to a statement (a great example of the latter is from our colleagues at University of Oregon).  They said we should do both. And they asked if I would give folks a chance to comment on and contribute to the official statement.

That is how we ended up with a strong statement reaffirming MIT Libraries’ commitment to diversity, inclusion, equity, and social justice. The statement is stronger, clearer, and more inclusive because my colleagues contributed. It reflects the culture of our library and the input of many of my phenomenal colleagues. But make no mistake, as a leader, I stand ready to take full responsibility for any backlash; hence the statement came out under my name.

Words aren’t enough, but words matter. As a leader in this profession, I want my colleagues – especially those who are most marginalized and most vulnerable – to know that I have their back, and that the organizations that represent them do as well.

(I’m not really going to weigh in on the ALA statements, because there are others who are way more qualified than I am on ALA politics, so read what Emily Drabinski said and what Sarah Houghton said.)

Care for one another

I sent this note to my MIT Libraries family in between talks this morning. It holds for my larger community as well. 

I also call your attention to the words of my colleague KG Schneider and this love letter to libraries from Zoe Fisher. 

And this letter from Duke President. MIT President Reif sent a beautiful note to the MIT community as well but I can’t find it online yet.  

In difficult times, leaders speak. 

My dear friends-

It is very difficult to be away from campus, away from you all today, and away from my family (I am giving talks at the Notre Dame Libraries today).

This election season has been more  divisive than any in recent history, and the results of our Presidential election have left many of us feeling dismayed, scared, and angry.
For those of us in marginalized communities, especially communities that have been targeted for derision, dismissal, and denial of rights by Trump and Pence, there is a heightened sense of vulnerability.

I wish I had reassuring and soothing words to share, but I am at a loss. I want to believe that “the arc of the moral universe … bends toward justice”, but right now it seems only to be long and stalled.
What I do know is that as a community, we can and must care for one another. We must listen to one another with openness and as much empathy as we can muster. 

We must be patient with one another; and when we are able, we must band together to continue to fight for social justice, mutual respect, and care — within our organization, and in our communities.

This work has never been more important, more urgent, or more difficult. And I will be honored to do it with you all.

I will fight for all of you – you each matter dearly to me. Fight for one another please, and care for one another.
All best,
Chris

Hack the library

This is the text of a talk I gave at a recent MIT Libraries all-staff meeting to introduce the recommendations in the preliminary report from the Institute-wide Task Force on the Future of Libraries. A colleague suggested I share the notes more broadly, as she considered it not just a rallying call for the MIT Libraries community, but also a good recap of the core themes in the report. I gave this talk about a week before the report was released. 

I am very excited to have this chance to start sharing with you the results of our nearly yearlong engagement with the Institute-wide Task Force on the Future of Libraries.

What this community has done in convening this Task Force, soliciting the input we got, hosting the range of conversations we had, and really listening to our community, is remarkable, and honestly unheard of in my experience of academic libraries.

The very fact that the 30 members of the Task Force, and the literally hundreds of other members of our community spent their time, energy, and brain power developing a vision for the future of research libraries and producing a set of recommendations for MIT to move us toward that future is amazing. We had faculty from all 5 schools (over 20 faculty in total), plus students and staff, thinking about, talking about, and ultimately writing about libraries since October.

Their engagement, and frankly their confidence in us to realize the bold vision they have laid out for us, is a testament to all the work that all of you have done to earn their faith, respect, and enthusiastic support. Everything you all and your colleagues have done made the work of this Task Force possible and is the enabling lifeblood that runs through this report.

I know you all have been waiting for this report for a while now, we have been in a state of transition and a state of preparing and building our capacity to enact a new vision and new strategic priorities for some time; and I want to thank you for your patience and say that I hope you are as certain as I am that it has been worth the wait.

Working with this Task Force to gather input, to really listen to the community, and to try to synthesize and make sense of everything we heard, and everything we collectively know and think and want out of libraries and higher education has pretty much consumed my time and my energy and my soul for the last 10 months. This has been the most intense, hardest, and most important work I have done in my library career to date. 

And this kickoff with you all is perhaps the most important step now that the report is so close to approval and public release. We are the ones, collectively, who are going to make the vision and recommendations in this report a reality. This report confirms that the MIT community expects big things from us; and I for one wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Barry Bonds hitting one into McCovey Cove, by Chris Bourg

To use a baseball analogy, with this Task Force and this report, we are swinging for the fences. But I’m a San Francisco Giants fan, and I had the privilege of watching Barry Bonds in his glory years. I watched him swing for the fences in games where he only got 1 pitch to hit; and still he connected more than any other player in history. If you want to hit a homerun, you have to swing for the fences. (I may have also adlibbed something about this report being “research library on steroids” to complete the analogy-although I still choose to believe Barry never knowingly used steroids.)

For the less baseball obsessed amongst us, I’ll say that this is our moonshot. And really a moonshot is a better analogy, because hitting a home run, as majestic as that is, is a solo act. Getting to the moon though, that’s a team effort.

And like a moonshot, this vision we have in front of us only gets off the ground once you all are invested in it too. And to get there, I know you all need time to think about it, talk about it, ask questions about it.

Certainly your expertise and your experience and your ideas on how we can move these recommendations forward will be crucial. We need to, and will, have conversations about where we start, what we need, and success will look like – in short, medium and long term. We also need to ask questions together, come to a shared understanding, and develop a shared sense of excitement and commitment. The impact of the Task Force and the report will be realized through your engagement.

You have all, I hope, read the Executive Summary by now; and you know even from that, that the Task Force has painted a high-level aspirational, but not vague, future for us. One of the most inspiring sub-texts of the report and the conversations in the forums we held and in the Task Force meetings themselves was the confidence our colleagues throughout the Institute (faculty, staff, students, and alumni) have in us; and their desire to collaborate with us as partners in providing the content, tools, services, expertise, spaces, and technologies needed to do what MIT does best – advance knowledge, educate students, and solve the worlds biggest problems.

I believe this report goes well beyond any other strategic plan or library vision I have seen, in that it recommends that we not just respond to changes in scholarship and teaching, but that we become a platform through which research, teaching, and learning is transformed.

Let me talk a little about the Task Force’s process and the vision and recommendations in the report.

First, the Task Force had a number of passionate conversations where there was some pretty vigorous disagreement on a range of topics, such as:

  • the relative role of digital versus print collections,
  • the degree to which MIT & the MIT Libraries should push Open Access for all scholarly publications,
  • the degree to which MIT ought to prioritize our obligations to a global community versus our service to the on-campus local community.

These and other topics inspired some heated debates and were the source of some tensions in the Task Force … but ultimately, we found remarkable levels of agreement around a common set of principles and values. That consensus formed the basis for the vision and set of recommendations that ultimately landed in the report. The values that animate the vision of the Task Force are things like the importance of the advancement of knowledge, privacy, openness, service, innovation, and support for diversity in all aspects of our work.

As the executive summary makes clear, the Task Force articulated a vision of a future where access to information is ubiquitous and open. The Task Force and the folks we talked to envision a world where data and knowledge and scholarship flows freely, and where anyone can access it, share it, contribute to it, and exploit it as needed. They want libraries to build and maintain that world, and collaborate with others to build it.

Through all the different opinions and approaches to the future of libraries, the Task Force was united in affirming that at their core, libraries have always been about sharing information, providing community spaces, and preserving knowledge. In the report, the Task Force sketches a vision for what those functions could and should look like in a truly networked, fully digitally enabled world.

This image of the open dome is the key illustration of the new vision of a research library that fully exploits technology to operate as an open global platform.

global-platform

We want the libraries to be that platform in a physical and a networked digital world, and we seek collaborators from within MIT and throughout the world to help us build that platform.

This platform idea, which is both a set of networked repositories of content, metadata, tools and services, and a set of physical spaces, services, and human expertise; is symbolized by the iconic MIT great dome, and it rests on a set of pillars. Those pillars represent community, discovery, stewardship, and research.

The vision and the recommendations are all based on the shared mission and set of values that the Task Force agreed on — MIT’s and librarianship’s values of openness, service, advancing knowledge, innovation, and diversity.

There are recommendations associated with each of the pillars.

Let’s start with Community and Relationships. The Task Force report calls on us to think of our community and our relationships in global terms, and to think of our spaces and our services, especially our educational role, as open and integrated into the full life of our communities.

Recommendation 1: The Task Force asserts that the MIT Libraries must be a global library serving a global university and its audiences. The MIT Libraries should conceive of the communities they serve as concentric circles, from the closely affiliated circle of current students, faculty, and staff to increasingly larger circles of cooperating scholars, MIT alumni, participants in MITx classes, the local Cambridge and Boston community, and the broader global community of scholars.

Recommendation 1 says that we need to think of ourselves as a global library for a global university; and that we should think of our audience in terms of concentric circles – striving to provide as much access as possible to people in all circles.

This recommendation came about in recognition of the way MIT scholars work – both the fact that they frequently work from remote locations all around the globe, and the fact that they collaborate with other scholars, formally and informally, from all over the world. As MIT seeks to take on research questions and grand challenges that are global in nature, MIT faculty need to be able to easily share articles and data and access with colleagues who are not officially part of the MIT community. The Task Force recognizes that all scholarship is better when more people can participate, and opening up access as widely as we can helps move that vision along.

The value of openness also came up in discussions of the library spaces – we heard over and over how much the MIT community appreciated that our libraries, unlike many other private university libraries, are open to the public. Students spoke of the libraries as a “haven” on campus; faculty and staff described our spaces (and their vision for renovated spaces) as intellectual and social gathering spaces. And one department head told me that she credits the library for their best graduate student yield in years, because they held their graduate student reception in the library during preview weekend.

Recommendation 2: The Task Force recommends that the Institute create a new planning group to make specific recommendations regarding the redesign of the MIT Libraries’ physical spaces, reflecting the vision and themes of this report.

Recommendation 2 is about bringing focused and expert attention to developing a vision for library spaces that fits our vision for the library more generally. There is early support by the administration for convening this space planning group; and I think we will be able to make progress there rather quickly.

Recommendation 3: In supporting the research and teaching mission of MIT, the Libraries will provide educational opportunities to equip MIT community members with essential skills and habits for critically and effectively using information. It also will teach them the skills required to responsibly generate new knowledge and to create the platforms, systems, and networks to disseminate it, guided by the values held dear by MIT and by the library profession.

Recommendation 3 goes beyond usual information literacy roles for librarians, and recognizes that both our expertise and student need is much more complicated than how to search. Students at MIT are more than consumers of information.  As individual creators of knowledge, they need to understand patents, standards, copyright, trademarks, regulations and all the rules of engagement in the global landscape where commerce, academia, and research take place.  In addition to creating new knowledge, students are also actively developing apps, algorithms, platforms and tools that enable dissemination, sharing, and consumption of information by others – it is essential that MIT students critically understand the impact and social consequences of technical choices and design decisions.

This recommendation validates much of what we are already doing, and gives us the support and mandate to do more; and to really do some interesting and innovative things with our instruction program.

The Discovery and Use section of the full report is the most detailed, and not surprisingly, the most technical.

Recommendation 4: In support of the MIT mission and values of openness and service, the MIT Libraries should be a trusted vehicle for disseminating MIT research to the world.

In Recommendation 4, the Task Force is saying they expect us to continue to be the primary trusted dissemination platform for OA articles, but/and also calls on us to expand that to include taking responsibility for openly providing rich, comprehensive, well-described, and well-structured data that will fuel an ever-evolving scholarly ecosystem. In the Task Force discussions with faculty, many scholars talked as much about wanting to discover people and ideas as they did about wanting to discovery articles – even, especially people & research happening right here at MIT. They want the libraries to take responsibility for collecting and providing access to all kinds of research outputs. The Task Force recognizes the importance of having a repository of information about MIT’s research efforts, with carefully curated links to its resources, authors, contributing organizations and topical areas; and they are signaling their support for the libraries leading those efforts.

Recommendation 5: The MIT Libraries will provide comprehensive digital access to content in our collections and/or content needed by MIT’s global community by expanding our capacity to acquire and make available born-digital content, and by embarking on an ambitious project to digitize much of our analog collections.

Recommendation 5 came out of some of the most passionate debates the Task Force had. There were members of the Task Force who do everything online, and who believe that better technology and changing user behaviors and expectations will make the need for print materials go away sooner rather than later. Other members were just as passionate about the need for tangible materials for some kinds of learning and some types of research. But, even those who make heavy use of print resources also need online access to digital resources. Eventually we all agreed that in an ideal world, everything would be available in digital form; and some things would also be available in physical formats.

It took a bit of data to help some members of the Task Force see just how much of the scholarly record is actually not digital, or not digital in accessible, findable formats.

Although I like to refer to Recommendation 5 as our “Digitize Everything” mandate – it is actually considerably more nuanced than that. Yes, it does call for an ambitious digitization project, but/and it also calls for efforts to ensure our digital collections are available in minimal computing environments and in formats optimized for text-mining and other computational analyses.

Recommendation 6: Through interdisciplinary institutional and external partnerships, the Libraries should generate open, interoperable content platforms that explore new ways of producing, using, sharing, and preserving knowledge and that promote revolutionary new methodologies for the discovery and organization of information, people, ideas, and networks.

Recommendation 6 follows from 5. It isn’t enough to just digitize everything – we have to then create and maintain open, interoperable, and networked platforms of content so that we aren’t simply creating new silos of digital content. The content platforms we create have to work with existing digital libraries, and have to be open so that scholars can be creative in how they access, discover, and use the content. Many members of the Task Force were most excited about the prospect of the libraries building and expanding its content platforms so that new kinds of discovery tools could be built – ideally by and for scholars, reflecting scholarly needs and academic values. While many faculty rely on third party tools like Google Scholar, academia.edu, Mendeley and the like; they see the long-term value and benefits of such tools emanating from within academia – where there is a commitment to sustainability and a history of trust.

Recommendation 7: The Task Force recommends that the Institute convene a new Ad Hoc Task Force on Open Access to review the current MIT Faculty Open Access Policy and its implementation with an eye toward revising and expanding current policies and practices, where appropriate, to further the Institute’s mission of disseminating the fruits of its research and scholarship as widely as possible.

Recommendation 7 reflects the high level of interest the Task Force heard from faculty, students, staff, post-docs and others in Open Access. At almost every meeting we had, someone asked “what are you going to do about OA?” or more pointedly “what are you going to do about the publishers?”

The Task Force wisely realized that while the libraries have significant interest in and expertise in facilitating open access to scholarship, MIT’s OA policy is a Faculty policy, and any revisions to it must come from an MIT coalition much broader than the libraries.

On to recommendations in the area of Stewardship & Sustainability. Our responsibility as the long term stewards of scholarship, and especially of the Institute’s memory, is ever more important and we are being called upon to expand and accelerate our leadership in developing sustainable models in digital preservation.

Recommendation 8: Through its archival programs and practices, the MIT Libraries will serve as a durable, trusted repository for research objects produced at MIT and the metadata associated with MIT scholars and scholarship, as a continuation of their mission to serve as the “Institute’s memory” and record of research and learning.

These recommendations reflect the dual ideas that the library has to continue to serve as the Institute’s memory, and that long-term stewardship of records, manuscripts, data, articles, and other kinds of research objects is a real and pressing challenge in a digital age.

Scholars are putting their papers up on personal and department websites, and sharing their data and graphs on commercial sites like Mendeley and Figshare. While these are expedient short-term solutions that work well enough for an individual scholar, the Task Force recognizes that the Institute and academia in general is best served when the libraries are the trusted long-term repository for the scholarly record. Our challenge in accomplishing this recommendation is as much an organizational and a resource one as it is a technical one; but having this kind of a recommendation from the Task Force provides a strong organizational mandate to build on.

Recommendation 9: The MIT Libraries should continue to actively engage with and, in many cases, provide leadership to collaborative global efforts to develop viable models and systems for the long-term stewardship and preservation of digital research.

Recommendation 9 says we can’t do this alone, and provides us with the encouragement to continue to lead where we have the expertise, and to partner and collaborate with promising coalitions that are working on the hard problems of digital stewardship & preservation.

Recommendation 10: The Task Force recommends that MIT establish an Initiative for Research in Information Science and Scholarly Communication, based in the MIT Libraries, to enable bold experimentation and to serve as a hub for best-in-class research on the great challenges in information science and scholarly communication.

Recommendation 10 is where the Task Force signals just how serious they are about this vision.

Much of what we want to accomplish in building and sustaining a library that operates as an open global platform requires significant investment in research, development, and experimentation.

An Initiative for Research in Information Science and Scholarly Communication would accelerate progress on a number of key issues of importance to scholars and practitioners at MIT and across the globe.

An initiative of this kind would leverage several strengths of MIT and the MIT Libraries to achieve significant progress in interdisciplinary, applied research, and experimentation in information science and scholarly communication.  MIT Libraries have a uniquely close relationship with the MIT Press, an existing research program in information science, a donor-funded Digital Sustainability Lab working on solutions to digital content management challenges, and access to scholars and students doing groundbreaking work in relevant fields at MIT.

The Task Force imagines research projects that draw on local and external expertise in, for example, brain and cognitive science, media arts and design, computer science, and business modeling.

I think that the big message from the Task Force report is that Libraries have always been the platform upon which new knowledge and understandings are built; and that even, especially at a place like MIT, libraries remain a central part of the scholarly ecosystem and have a crucial role to play in transforming research and learning in a digital age. There is also a recognition in this report that the work we are being asked to do is hard, and that in many cases the models don’t yet exist. There are gaps in the knowledge needed to advance some of recommendations – so the libraries also have to be a home for research and development.

At its core, this report is an affirmation that libraries and our collections are for use – that is the root of our conception of the library as a global platform. This report and the vision it promotes is an invitation – we are inviting MIT and the world to hack the open global platform that is our library.

We are all are part of that invitation – with this report and starting with this conversation, we are all being invited to invent the future, to build the components (technical, social, educational, political) of a global library, and to simultaneously hack the library in exciting, clever, productive, and creative ways.

Batter up!

 

Educause 2016: Libraries and future of higher education

Text of the talk I gave at Educause 2016

Like all good talks, I’m going to start out by telling you what I’m not going to talk about.

As fewer people “go to the library” there has been a growing genre of literature I’ll call the “how to save libraries” genre.

Trends like declining circulation of print books and, in some cases, declining foot traffic in physical library buildings, has led to all kinds of strategies for “saving libraries”.

For academic libraries, that has usually been about turning libraries into information commons, always with coffee shops inside; and/or pumping up the role of librarians in teaching study skills, info-seeking skills and otherwise tying the work of the library folks into student success.

These are all good things, and make for good talks and articles, but my talk today will not be part of that genre. This will not be a “save the libraries” talk.

(this talk by David Lankes, where he references a great talk by Char Booth ,is a much more nuanced take on this than my soundbite intro here)

Let me go ahead and give away the punch line now: I don’t think we need to save libraries, but I do think we might need libraries to save us.

And maybe that’s the kind of hubris you might expect from a library director at a place like MIT; but so be it.

I believe it strongly and am willing to take some time here to try to convince you of it as well.

To convince you that libraries can save us, I figure I need to talk a bit about what libraries (really what librarians, archivists, and all those folks who work in and for libraries and archives) do in addition to building, maintaining, and circulating big collections of physical books and managing physical spaces.  I also need to talk about why what we do is so crucial in higher education a right now, and frankly in the nation and in a global context. To do that, I’ll share with you some of the ideas in a recently released MIT report on the future of libraries.

But before all that, I should probably be clear about what I think we need saving from.

This is the gloomy part of the talk, and I’m not really saying anything you don’t all know, so I’ll try to keep it brief.

At a global level, the challenges we face include ridiculous levels of inequality, poverty and hunger; refugee crises triggered by violence and environmental disasters; climate change; energy and water shortages; civil unrest and violence across the globe; an increase in human trafficking; and more.

At the national level, we are of course affected by the same global horrors, including a growing inequality gap, increasingly divisive and inflammatory political rhetoric, and a frighteningly polarized population.  And the most recent headlines tell us that 51% of likely voters fear election day violence, and in many counties across the countries schools are cancelling classes on election day because of the same fear. I mean, that’s not really how democracy is supposed to work.

But I don’t want to talk about anything as touchy and controversial as politics; so instead I’m going to talk about race.

(there was some uncomfortable laughter from the audience at this point)

Some of you likely know these data, but let me highlight some of the staggering racial differences in the US experience.

wealth-inequality-by-race-ethnicityOne troubling trend is the growing wealth inequality by race and ethnicity in the US – the current gap between blacks and whites has reached its highest point since 1989, and the current white-to-Hispanic wealth ratio has reached a level not seen since 2001. What data from the Pew Research Center show is that whites currently enjoy a level of wealth 13 times that of blacks, and 10 times that of hispanics.

There is a persistent income gap as well. We all know about the gender pay gap — that women make 80 cents for every dollar earned by men — but the race and ethnic income gap is even larger: 2014 census data show that black men earned 70 cents for every dollar earned by white men, black women, 63 cents. Hispanic men earned 60 cents on the dollar, and hispanic women earn 54 cents for every dollar a white man makes.

There are persistent racial and ethnic differences in educational attainment, health outcomes, home ownership, you name it. And residential and occupation segregation persists as well.

Look around the room and you’ll see evidence of occupational segregation – higher education, information technology, and librarianship are all overwhelmingly white occupational fields.

But racial differences in this country are not just demographic differences.

When polled about a variety of social issues, blacks and whites have very different opinions. Perhaps not surprisingly, for example, black americans are about half as likely as white americans to have positive views of whether the police treat members of all racial and ethnic groups equally, and whether police generally use the right amount of force.

On a huge range of topics, black people, other people of color, and white people all see the world differently.

By now, some of you may be wondering if you walked into the wrong talk – what do racial differences and racial inequality have to do with libraries and the future of higher education?

Bear with me just a bit longer as I call your attention to last fall, when students on many of our campuses came together to demand that America’s colleges and universities own up to the systemic racism that exists in higher education and in our nation, and to insist that we take steps to reduce discrimination and promote social justice.

I am talking not only about the high visibility student protests at places like the University of Missouri, and at Yale University; but also about the actions of students and community members at hundreds of colleges across the nation; including MIT.

Students have called our attention to ubiquitous and blatant incidents of racial harassment, they have demanded that we hire more faculty from underrepresented groups, and they have called for faculty and staff to be educated on unconscious bias.

And, like the Stanford law school students who hung this banner in January of 2015, they have insisted that we simply affirm that Black Lives Matter.

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Given the very real racial, political, social, and economic inequity, tension, and divides in this country and on our campuses I think how those of us who work in higher education respond will determine what kind of future we have.

Bridging our divides to find common ground and common solutions requires both individual education and awareness; and dialogue — and libraries are really good at facilitating those things.

Libraries are and must be key partners in the academy and in our communities for making progress on global, national, and local challenges.

And one of those challenges is that we haven’t yet figured out yet how to provide quality education to the billions more people who need and want it, people who are going to be stuck with solving the wicked problems and challenges we leave them with.

Two necessary conditions for making progress on the kinds of challenges we face are sound research and a well-educated populace.

This is where libraries come in.

Libraries and librarians can and do play a crucial role in creating a more open, connected, and equitable future for higher education (and for our communities) through our support and facilitation of open access to scholarship and through our role in providing inclusive spaces that facilitate community building and formal and informal learning.

Let me talk first about openness.

And I want to talk about more than open access when I talk about openness, but let’s start with Open Access.

And here I borrow liberally from Harvard’s Peter Suber, who literally wrote the book on Open Access (published by the MIT Press). A book I recommend to anyone who wants to a quick but thorough introduction to the basics of Open Access. The e-version is available for free, the print version for under $20.

First, what is Open Access? It is work that has been made available to a global audience, digitally, online, free of charge and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions.

According to ROARMAP, the Registry of Open Access Repository Mandates and Policies, there are nearly 800 registered Open Access policies across the globe; mostly adopted by research organizations & universities; but also adopted by funding agencies and by sub-units of major research organizations – such as departments or schools within a university.  And the number of policies has grown significantly in the last decade.

If you believe, like I do, that equal access to information and knowledge is a social justice issue; that higher education is a social good; and that education and research are essential to finding solutions to the problems I mentioned earlier; then ensuring everyone has open and equitable access to research and scholarship is really important.

This is one of the key themes in the preliminary report on the future of libraries just released by MIT on Monday:

For the MIT Libraries, the better world we seek is one in which there is abundant, equitable, meaningful access to knowledge and to the products of the full life cycle of research.

And lo and behold, it is libraries and librarians who are implementing Open Access policies in our research organizations and who are doing the heavy lifting to make journal articles (and some other forms of scholarship, like data and in some cases books and textbooks) openly available in meaningful, organized ways through institutional repositories and through educating authors on their rights and options.

Right now we are doing that in a hybrid environment, where much of the content that libraries provide to our communities is still not openly available. We provide content to “authorized users” only, based on the contracts we sign with publishers – many of whom are for-profit entities who dabble in open access publishing, but who at the end of the day are still driven by a profit motive — not an educational or social good motive.

Having research locked away behind corporate paywalls and/or behind our institutional authentication systems means that access to information is not only not free; but is fragmented and cumbersome.

The current landscape of scholarly literature consists of multiple silos of information, accessed through library websites, journal sites, aggregators sites, Google and Google Scholar, social media sites, you name it.

Not only is this hard to navigate as a whole and at each site; but the distributed nature of current access makes it nearly impossible to use the ideas and topics and data in a scholars’ research output to make connections for that scholar to the full range of other research and other scholars that might be relevant, interesting, and important to them. And the need for those kinds of connections and insights was something MIT faculty and researchers brought up often in our conversations with them about their hopes for the future of libraries.

In response to this fractured environment, one way many libraries, MIT included, are re-thinking the way we provide collections to our communities is by applying the “inside-out” framework offered by Lorcan Dempsey of OCLC.

The inside-out library concept describes  a pivot from an old model of libraries where we went out into the world and collected all the stuff (books and articles and such) that was written and published elsewhere, put it on our shelves and loaned it out 1 at a time to our students and faculty; to a new model where we focus on being a trusted repository and disseminator of the research outputs of our own scholars.

In the inside-out model, libraries take responsibility for gathering up and organizing the research and teaching outputs of our own scholars, and making it available to the world.

In the report on the Future of Libraries out of MIT, we use this image of the iconic great dome  at MIT to symbolize that mission.

global-platform

From the preliminary report of the MIT Task Force on the Future of Libraries

(note that the dome is opened in the image, but not in real life)

The overarching theme of the Task Force’s vision is that the MIT Libraries must become a global library for a global university. We conceive of the library as an open platform serving the needs of our communities.

Through this open global platform, we will disseminate MIT research to the world.

We want to do this not just because of a philosophical sense that it is the right thing to do, but also because open access facilitates the verification, replication, reinterpretation and application of research.

Open access accelerates the development of new materials, new technologies, new theories, new policies, new understandings of our world and new solutions to our grand problems — including the kinds of seemingly intractable social problems I described at the beginning of this talk.

Right now, a remarkable 44% of recent journal articles written by MIT faculty members are freely available online through our institutional repository.

As we make progress on the recommendations in our Future of Libraries report, we expect to increase not just that percentage, but also the kinds of research outputs available and the kinds of MIT authors whose work we disseminate.

Now imagine if all, or even most, or every some decent number of research universities and organizations, committed to doing the same thing, at scale. And imagine if the content platforms we built for storing and disseminating our universities’ research outputs, were all compatible and interoperable and built on a common set of standards and metadata practices.

That is the information future we imagine at MIT and it is an information future that contributes to social justice –directly through open, free, and equitable access to information for individuals; and indirectly (but no less powerfully) because open access is good for science.

The report also highlights the need to create content platforms that are for use not just by people reading articles one at a time, but also by machines and algorithms.

We envision the library as a networked set of global platforms replete with content, data, metadata, images, audio files, laboratory notebooks, course materials, and more. We imagine a repository of knowledge and data that can be exploited and analyzed by humans, machines, and algorithms. This transformation will accelerate the accumulation and validation of knowledge, and will enable the creation of new knowledge and of solutions to the world’s great challenges.

That is a really important part of our vision — that the data, collections, and metadata that the libraries have would be open for others not just to read, but also to build tools on top of; and to aim machine-learning algorithms and APIs at.

At MIT, there is a long history of student hacks – ostensibly harmless, but clever pranks carried out with some degree of secrecy, bravado, creativity, and engineering know-how. The most famous MIT hacks have involved putting things on top of the great dome I showed earlier.

And by things, I mean things like whole firetrucks.

firetruckondome-erik-nygren

Photo credit: Eric Nygren

So we used the dome in our illustration because we hope our platform inspires clever, creative, and productive “hacks,” in the form of innovative uses, tools, and programs that extend and amplify our work. For libraries and library collections to have maximum impact, we have to open them up to a full range of possible uses and users.

We have to build open, flexible environments because there are uses for our information and findings to be discovered via our data that we can’t yet imagine.

This is a vision of libraries that is more than books and buildings, and that takes us beyond libraries as high-tech study spaces or gateways to paywalled journal literature.

And yet, it is a vision of modern libraries that is firmly rooted in the traditional and historic role of libraries as providers of information and as institutions that contribute to democracy and the social good.

The theme of radically more open access to information and knowledge is central to the MIT report on the future of libraries.

Another key theme in the report is the importance of libraries as  a space—virtual and physical—where communities of students, scholars, local citizens, and global learners can gather to interact with one another and with scholarly objects and tools.

At MIT, our library spaces are used for everything from a classical music hackathon to dog therapy stress relief during exam week.

Libraries are special places on campus and the Libraries and their staff occupy an essential role in the intellectual and social life of our college and university communities, perhaps especially for students.

The Libraries are a place of research and learning, and library staff are subject-matter and methodological experts who are committed to supporting student success.

One important characteristic of library staff that distinguishes them from faculty is the lack of any authoritative or evaluative role over students. This makes the Libraries places where students might be especially free and comfortable asking questions, seeking help, experimenting with nascent ideas and thoughts, and making mistakes.

Combine that with the fact that Libraries are places where intellectual freedom and privacy are deeply valued and fiercely protected, and it is quite possible that libraries will be the places our students and other community members might feel the most comfortable talking about difficult topics. Perhaps we could start to bridge some of the racial and other divides on our own campuses in and through the libraries; through formal and informal learning and dialogue in our spaces and through exposing students to an inclusive range of credible sources of information and knowledge and research.

To wrap things up I’ll just repeat that at MIT, the idea of the library as an open global platform is central to our vision for the future of libraries. So too is the assertion that library buildings provide unique and necessary spaces for students and other community members. The future of libraries is both digital and physical; and it is open, connected, and inclusive.

I don’t know if that is the kind of talk you expected about libraries; but in case it wasn’t I’ll end with the most stereotypically librarian slide I could come up with, complete with a cat and a card catalog (courtesy of Jackie Dooley).

slide15

Libraries, technology, and social justice

Here’s the text of the talk I gave at Access 2016. I reused some stuff from earlier talks, but there’s some new stuff in here too. There is a video of the talk too.

(argh. I spelled Bethany Nowviskie’s name wrong on the slide in my talk. I hope she doesn’t notice.)

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Thank you for inviting me to this beautiful location and to this fantastic gathering. I want to give a special shout-out to James Mackenzie and the program committee for inviting me and for taking care of all the logistics of getting me here and especially for answering all my questions.

When I am asked to speak at conferences, I try to remember to ask a set of questions that include:

Do you have a code of conduct?

Do you have scholarships for people who might not otherwise be able to attend?

Are you making efforts to ensure diversity in attendance and a diverse line-up of speakers, panelists, presenters?

Access was a YES on all 3.

img_3834

Fredericton is a very beautiful place

And Fredericton earned bonus points on the secret private criteria I use, which is “is it in an interesting and beautiful location?”

So it was really a no-brainer and I am thrilled to be here; and to have a chance to talk to and with all of you.

I want to start by saying that I’m so glad that Dr. Maclean acknowledged that the land on which we gather is traditional unceded territory.

The importance of acknowledging that we work on lands that are the traditional territories of First Nations people is something I am learning from my Canadian colleagues and from my Native American colleagues. It is, I think, a much needed way of showing recognition of and respect for aboriginal peoples.

I will say though, that it is a practice that is not as widespread in the US – yet.

But there is some movement in the US among colleges and universities to wrestle with their racist pasts; to acknowledge the role of slavery, and the mistreatment of native americans in their founding and early success.

Dozens of American universities – including Harvard, Brown, Columbia, Georgetown, and UVa — are in the process of publicly acknowledging their ties to slavery, including their dependence on slave labor; and these schools are beginning the work of trying to find paths to restitution, if not full reparations.

And this is not unrelated to the topic of my talk.

If I recall correctly, the abstract of this talk proclaims that libraries aren’t neutral, that technology isn’t neutral; and that we can and should leverage both in the service of social justice.

I figured I should spend at least a bit of time unpacking the claims that neither libraries nor technologies are neutral.

And one place to start for libraries – for academic libraries – is to acknowledge that our parent institutions are not and never have been neutral.

My point of reference is US colleges and universities, but I suspect the general theme is true in a Canadian context as well.

American colleges were originally built as exclusive institutions for well-connected white men; and in many cases American universities were actually built literally on the backs of enslaved African-american labor. Many of our institutions were built on land taken from native peoples; and almost all of our colleges and universities excluded in practice if not also in policy, women, non-white men, queer people, and other marginalized populations.

We start from these histories of exploitation, appropriation, enslavement, and displacement. And I believe we have a responsibility to acknowledge that we give our labor to institutions with often troubled histories with regard to the treatment and acceptance of women and non-white men. And even acknowledging that is a political act – but/and ignoring that past is also a political act. There is no neutral here.

In the US context I think it is important to give credit to the students – predominantly students of color — who came together on campuses across the country last fall, and continue to come together, to demand that universities own up to the systemic racism that exists in higher education and across the US, and to insist that we take steps to reduce discrimination and promote social justice.

Many of you likely heard about the high visibility student protests at the University of Missouri, and at Yale University; but in reality students and community members at hundreds of colleges across the nation took up the call and protested and demanded action from their own schools.

At MIT and at colleges all across the country, students have called our attention to ubiquitous and blatant incidents of racial and sexual harassment, they have demanded that we hire more faculty from underrepresented groups, and they have called for faculty and staff to be educated on unconscious bias.

In short, they have said – it isn’t enough to welcome students from marginalized groups to our campuses with words and policies; we must take concrete action to create welcoming, inclusive, and integrated communities. And in some cases, they have called on us to leverage the academy and its resources to address society level failings.

So what does that mean for us?

Well, that’s exactly what I want to talk about today – as folks who work in and around library technologies, how can we leverage our work in the service of social justice?

First, what is social justice and what does it look like?

I’m going to cheat a bit with the answer to what does social justice look like and cite a couple of things I’ve written or co-written in the past:

In an article titled Diversity, Social Justice & the future of Libraries that I had the honor of writing with Myrna Morales and Em Claire Knowles, we defined social justice as:

“The ability of all people to fully benefit from economic and social progress and to participate equally in democratic societies.”

If you believe like I do, that equitable access to information and to the tools to discover, use and understand that information; is a core enabling feature of a truly democratic society; then it is easy to see that libraries are crucial to social justice.

What would a social justice agenda look like in a library?

I was asked several months ago in a joint keynote I gave with my colleague Lareese Hall, now dean of libraries at the very prestigious Rhode Island School of Design, what a queer feminist agenda for libraries would look like, and I think that answer stands for a general social justice agenda too:

“A … feminist and queer agenda in an academic library would be one where the collections and services are not centered on the experiences of cis-straight, white western men; where the people who work in the library truly do reflect the diversity of the communities they serve; where the staff and patrons are empowered; and where the tools, systems, and policies are transparent and inclusive.”

For this crowd, at this conference; I want to talk about tools and technologies.

First, let me run through a few examples to illustrate what I mean when I say technology is not neutral; and really to convince any skeptics that technology itself – not just the users of it – is often biased.

Let’s start with search technologies. Most librarians will agree that commercial search engines are not “neutral” in the sense that commercial interests and promoted content can and do impact relevancy

But of course, declaring one thing as more relevant than another is always based on some subjective judgement – even if that judgment is coded into an algorithm many steps away from the output.

Or, as my colleague Bess Sadler says, the idea of neutral relevance is an oxymoron (this is a line from our Feminism and the future of library discovery article).

And of course, you can’t talk about bias in search tools without talking about the fantastic work of another one of my library sheros: Safiya Noble.

Safiya Noble’s work demonstrates how the non-neutrality of commercial search engines reinforce and perpetuate stereotypes, despite the fact that many of us assume the “algorithm” is neutral.

What Noble’s analysis of Google shows us is that Google’s algorithm reinforces the sexualization of women, especially black and Latina women. Because of Google’s “neutral” reliance on popularity, page rank, and promoted content, the results for searches for information on black girls or Latina girls are dominated by links to pornography and other sexualized content.

Noble suggests that users “Try Google searches on every variation you can think of for women’s and girls’ identities and you will see many of the ways in which commercial interests have subverted a diverse (or realistic) range of representations.”

So rather than show you those results, I encourage those of you who might be skeptical to do some of those searches yourself – google Asian girls, or latina girls, or black girls or native girls. And then Imagine being a girl or woman of color looking for yourself and your community on the web.

Or, just imagine you’re a tech worker

We know that the stereotype of a “tech worker” is young, male, nerdy … and the google image search verifies and reinforces that.

screen-shot-2016-10-03-at-2-51-21-pm

Google image search for ‘Tech worker” is pretty much all dudes

And labels matter – look at the different images you get when you search for “Librarian” vs. “Information scientist”

 

We all like to think that library search tools can do better – and they can; but only when we are intentional about it.

Another example of technology that isn’t neutral comes from cameras and photo editing software.

Photographer Syreeta McFadden has written about how color film and other photographic technologies were developed around trying to measure the image against white skin.

The default settings for everything from film stock to lighting to shutter speed were and are designed to best capture “normal” faces – that is faces with white skin. What that means is that it is difficult to take photos of non-white faces that will be accurately rendered without performing post-image adjustments that sacrifice the sharpness and glossy polish that is readily apparent in photos of white faces.

And how many of you heard about the Twitter Bot that Microsoft created that became a crazy sexist racist idiot in less than 24 hours?

Last Spring, Microsoft unveiled a twitter bot named Tay; programmed to tweet like a teen. What could go wrong, right?

Tay is backed by Artificial Intelligence algorithms that were supposed to help the bot learn how to converse naturally on twitter. But what happened is that the bot learned quickly from the worst racist sexist corners of twitter – and within 24 hours Microsoft had to shut the experiment down because the bot had started tweeting all kinds of sexist, racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic garbage. Again, use your google skills to find them, I’m not sharing them from the podium.

For me the Microsoft experiment with a machine-learning twitterbot is a stark example of the fact that passive, mythical neutrality is anything but neutral. And sure you can blame it on the racist creeps on twitter, but creating technology that fails to anticipate the racist and sexist ways that technology might be used and exploited is not a neutral act. And I would venture to guess that it was a choice made by people who are least likely to have been the targets of discriminatory crap on the internet.

My bigger point here is that while crowd-sourcing and leveraging the social web are hot trends now in tech, I want to encourage us to think hard and critically about the consequences. Basically, I think we need to be very aware of the fact that if we crowd-source something, or if we rely on the social web or the sharing economy; we have to at least try to correct for the fact that the crowd is racist and sexist, and homophobic, and discriminatory in a whole bunch of horrifying ways.

There are all these great new services, that are part of what we call the Sharing economy that eliminate the “middle-man” and let people sell services directly to other people – to share things like rides and rooms with strangers. So there are ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft and services like Airbnb, where you can avoid hotels and hotel prices and stay in someone’s spare bedroom.

Stories abound in the US of Uber & Lyft drivers refusing to pick up passengers in minority neighborhoods, or canceling rides when they learn that a passenger is disabled and requires accommodations or assistance.

But I find the case of Airbnb especially interesting, because they are trying to fix their racism problem with both policy and technology.

So here’s what happened with AirBnB – first there was an experimental study out of Harvard about a year ago showing that renters were less likely to rent to people with black sounding names; then there were several reports of renters cancelling bookings for black guests; only to then rent to white guests for the same time period.

Honestly, this shouldn’t surprise us – the amount of social science evidence confirming that people act in biased ways in a huge variety of settings is overwhelming. What is interesting is that AirBnB is trying to do something about it, and they are being unusually transparent about it; so we might learn what works and what doesn’t.

First, they are having everyone who participates as a renter or a host sign a community agreement to treat everyone with respect and without bias. And there is some evidence that community compacts introduce some mutual accountability that has some positive effects, so that’s a good start. They are also providing training on unconscious bias to hosts and highlighting the hosts who complete the training on their website – which is a decidedly not neutral way of driving more renters to hosts who have completed the training.

What’s really interesting is that they are also working on technical features to try to eliminate instances where hosts claim a room or house is booked when a black renter makes a request; only to then immediately rent for the same time period to a white renter. Here is how they explain it: With the new feature If a host rejects a guest by stating that their space is not available, Airbnb will automatically block the calendar for subsequent reservation requests for that same trip.

They are also adding new flagging tools so people can report discrimination and hate speech.

And they have a team of engineers, data scientists, and designers who are looking for other ways to mitigate discrimination and bake some anti-bias features into their platform.

Would it have been better if they had anticipated the racist behavior enabled by their platform? Sure. But now that they are trying to make corrections, and to use technology to do it, I think there might be a real opportunity for us all to learn how we might leverage technology in combatting discrimination.

So, I’ve given some examples of how technology itself is not neutral. My point with these examples is to convince you that technology does not exist as neutral artifacts and tools that might sometimes get used in oppressive and exclusionary ways. Rather, technology itself has baked-in biases that perpetuate existing inequalities and exclusions, and that reinforce stereotypes.

How do we do not just try to mitigate the bias but also actually bring a social justice mindset to our work in library technology?

How do we promote an inclusive perspective, and an agenda of equity in and through our tech work?

First, we do everything we can to make sure the teams we have working on our tools and technologies and projects are actually inclusive and diverse.

And that is admittedly hard; but we do know some things that work. And by know, I mean there are actual scholarly studies that produce some evidence of practices that for example, discourage women from pursuing tech careers or applying for jobs. If I told you of a couple of simple things you could do that have shown they would remove some social barriers to women pursuing tech careers, would you be willing to do them?

(I stopped and waited until most of the room nodded their heads yes)

OK – here goes.

First things first – Don’t be this guy.

code-like-psycopath

Don’t be the guy who says: “Always code as if the guy who ends up maintaining your code will be a violent psychopath who knows where you live.”

Don’t share advice like this; and don’t talk like this or joke like this.

This is some of the most horrendous advice about anything I have ever seen – or at least the worst I’ve seen about coding. And quite frankly I am certain it was written by someone who has a blind spot about the fact that women have to worry about being doxed by violent psychopaths just for being on the internet; or being stalked, attacked and too often killed for ignoring the advances of strangers, or for confronting cat-callers. Queer and trans people are also overwhelmingly more likely to be victims of violent crimes; especially trans women of color.

So using, even in jest, the specter of a violent psychopath, to encourage good coding practices is not just a crappy thing to do – it also reinforces a culture that is hostile to women and to other marginalized groups.

And I know we don’t want to admit it, but technology has a culture problem – even in libraries. Remember those search results for “tech worker” – they reflect the predominant image of who works in technology.

So what are some ways we can make technology work more inclusive?

I want to talk about 3 ways:

  1. change the image of the “tech guy”
  2. change the work environment
  3. watch your language (but not in the way you might think)

First, let’s talk about the “tech guy” image.

Some colleagues of mine at Stanford, sociologists Alison Wynn and Shelley Correll, have done some very interesting work looking at how well people who are already working & succeeding in technology jobs felt they matched the cultural traits & stereotypes of a successful tech worker; and how that sense of a match, or in the case of most women, the sense of a mismatch, effects a number of outcomes. (I don’t have a citation for this study, because it is still under review for publication. Because Shelley is an old friend, I knew about the research and got to read an unpublished version; which she gave me permission to reference in talks, but no citation. Scholarly communication is broken.)

First they developed a composite scale based on how tech workers, men and women, described successful tech workers. Ask people to come up with some adjectives to describe a “successful tech worker” and not too surprisingly the stereotype that emerged was masculine, obsessive, assertive, cool, geeky, young, and working long hours. In other words, The “Tech guy” stereotype is wide-spread and well-known.

And as we would expect, their data show that women tech workers are significantly less likely than their male counterparts to view themselves as fitting that cultural image of a successful tech worker.  Where it gets interesting though is that their research goes on to show that the sense of not fitting the cultural image has consequences.

Because women are less likely to feel they fit the image of a successful tech worker, they are less likely to identify with the tech field, more likely to consider leaving the tech field for another career, and less likely to report positive treatment from their supervisors.

Reminder that their sample was men and women currently working in tech jobs in silicon valley tech firms. So successful women in tech see themselves as not fitting in; and as a result are leaving the field.

The bottom line is that cultural fit matters – not just in the pipeline, as women decide whether to major in STEM fields or to pursue tech jobs – but also among women who are currently working in technology. In other words, stereotypes about tech work and tech workers continue to hinder women even after they have entered tech careers. If we want to ensure that our technologies are built by diverse and inclusive groups of people, we have to find ways to break down the stereotypes and cultural images associated with tech work.

And that brings us to the Star Trek posters – which is somehow always the most controversial part of talks I give on this topic.

But let’s get to the research — In a fascinating experimental study, psychologist Sapna Cheryan and colleagues found that women who enter a computer science environment that is decorated with objects stereotypically associated with the field – such as Star Trek posters or video games– are less likely to consider pursuing computer science than women who enter a computer science environment with non-stereotypical objects — such as nature or travel posters. These results held even when the proportion of women in the environment was equal across the two differently decorated settings.

The Star Trek posters and other seemingly neutral nerdy dude paraphernalia we use to decorate our communal tech spaces serve to deter women – and I expect some of it deters men from marginalized groups as well.

So, to sum up – we can make tech more inclusive if we stop using the term “tech guy”, if we try to promote images of tech workers that aren’t just geeky, obsessive dudes who work long hours, and if we get rid of the Star Trek posters in our communal & public spaces.

And I know some of you are thinking “but I like my Star Trek posters”, but I hope your commitment to diversity wins out over your devotion to your Star Trek posters. Because increasing the number of women in tech is hard, and we have very little research to guide us; but we do know that the Star Trek stuff makes tech work less appealing to women.

And finally, watch your language.

Research also shows that certain words in job ads discourage women from applying. Research shows that women are less likely to apply for engineering and programming jobs when those ads have stereotypically masculine words like “competitive” or “dominate”. Women are less likely to apply and are more likely to feel that they wouldn’t fit in or belong when words like that are part of the job description. This is a case where technology can help – there are text analysis programs that can tell you if you are using gendered language in your job ads and can suggest more neutral language.

But again, this just points to the fact that if we want our technology to work towards diversity, inclusion and equity; we have to intervene and design it explicitly to do so.

That’s one of the lessons learned by a set of researchers who trained a machine learning algorithm on Google news articles then asked the algorithm to complete the analogy:

“Man is to Computer Programmer as Woman is to X.” The answer came back: “Homemaker.”

In fact, when asked to generate a large numbers of

He is to X as She is to Y analogies, the algorithm returned plenty more stereotypes:

  • He is to doctor as She is to nurse
  • He is to brilliant as She is to lovely
  • He is to pharmaceuticals as She is to cosmetics

The corpus of text the machine learning algorithm learned on was itself biased and filled with stereotypes and stereotypical associations.

But again, there are ways to de-bias the system using human intervention.

In this case, a team of researchers flagged associations the algorithm had made that were gendered and added code instructing the algorithm to remove those associations. The algorithm could be taught to recognize and remove bias.

OK – I started off with the notion that libraries aren’t neutral and technology is not neutral; and I’ve talked about lots of examples of technologies that aren’t neutral either in their design or in their execution or both. And I’ve offered some research to help bring more diversity to our library technology teams, in the hope that more diverse and inclusive teams building our technologies will lead to design choices that favor social equity and justice.

But let me be clear – I don’t think increasing the percentage of women, and men of color in our technology departments is a magic bullet and I certainly don’t think we need to wait until we are more diverse to start thinking about how to leverage our technology work to promote social justice. I think we need to increase the diversity of our libraries, in technology and throughout the profession – but numbers aren’t the only answer.

I have some general ideas about how we might build library technologies for social justice and I’ll share them quickly because I want to hear your ideas.

First, I think we need to consciously think about social justice principles and try to build them into every step of our work. For me social justice principles are feminist principles – transparency, participation, agency, embodiment. We should also ask who is missing from our work, or from the personas we develop. And if the answer is women; then we need to dig deeper and ask which women? Too often we think adding white women fixes our diversity problem.

If we really want to work on tech projects that promote social justice in our communities then we need to talk to our most marginalized community members. At my institution, that would be the racial and ethnic identity student groups, the queer and the trans students, the Muslim students. If we reach out to these groups specifically and try to find out what they need, what they struggle with in the library and more generally at our institutions, we might realize that there are technology projects that would help.

And in all of our work, I think we get closer to social justice the more we practice the art of truly listening to each other and to our communities.

I also want to promote an ethic of care and empathy which is something 2 of my favorite humanists have recently written about: Bethany Nowviskie, executive director of DLF wrote about this in a piece titled “on capacity and care”; and just this weekend Kathleen Fitzpatrick, president of the Modern Language Association wrote about a new project she is calling “Generous thinking.” I recommend both to you.

And in that spirit of listening, it is time for me to wrap this up and to hear from you. I hope you will feel free to say whatever you want, to make comments of all kinds, no need to phrase it in the form of a question. A conversation among all us is much more interesting than me answering questions. So I’m ready to listen now. Thank you

Talking at Harvard about Libraries and Social Justice

 

Text of talk I gave at Harvard University recently as part of the Strategic Conversations at Harvard Library series.

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Thank you so much for inviting me to talk with you today. It is customary at invited talks to say what an honor it is to be invited, but in this case that’s really true. This Strategic Conversations series has quite a reputation, and I am a bit intimidated by the slate of speakers and topics you have invited over the years. I truly am honored to be a part of this.

The truth is, ever since being invited to speak here some months ago, I’ve been having some feelings that go above and beyond the usual stress about giving a talk to a roomful of peers that likely includes plenty of folks who know more about whatever topic I decide to talk about than I do.

I’ve been having some special feelings of doubt and imposter syndrome about talking at Harvard.

I mean, its Harvard.

What has been popping up in my head on and off since I got the invite is that people like me don’t give talks at Harvard.

I suspect that may sound odd — after all, my CV is full of elite private universities a lot like Harvard; including the Harvard of the South — Duke — and the Harvard of the West –Stanford.  Although, as best I can tell so far, MIT is a different beast and despite our proximity, really doesn’t consider itself the Harvard of anything.

But let’s just all be honest, in the American (and maybe the global) psyche there is no place that carries the kind of reputational weight that Harvard does – especially for the vast majority of people who are not deeply entrenched in the nuances of higher education and therefore would not necessarily know that actually MIT is ranked #1 overall in  world rankings and Stanford beats almost all of the Ivies in certain disciplines (cough – sociology – cough). Sorry – had to get that part in there … But I digress.

My point is that Harvard, and all that it represents and symbolizes, always seemed to me like a place other people went to, other people worked at, and certainly other people gave talks at. Those other people, in my mind, were the kind of people born into a lifestyle and a family where going to Harvard, working at Harvard, speaking at Harvard was normal. Now I know that not everyone at Harvard comes from the kind of white upper middle class background that most of us associate with Harvard; but it is a powerful cultural association that has at least some basis in reality.

Anyway, the lifestyle and background we typically associate with the Harvard type is definitely not my background. Now I’m not going to spin a tale of woe about some horrid upbringing, but I do want to just be up front about who I am and where I’m coming from. 

My grandparents are from small towns in Virginia and North Carolina; only 1 of the 4 graduated high school. Neither of my parents went to college. But they worked very very hard to make it possible for me and my 2 older sisters to go to college.

Still, when I showed up at Duke University 30+ years ago (with my tuition payed for by an Army ROTC scholarship), and I parked my beat up 1972 Ford Country Squire station wagon among the new BMWs and Mercedes, and next to the Porsche with license plates that read “Busch” (owned by one of my new hallmates; Susie Busch, heir to the Anheuser-Busch fortune), I can’t say I really felt like I belonged there.

And when I walked into my new dorm room, with my clothes in garbage bags because I spent my graduation money on a new-fangled boom box instead of luggage, a vaguely familiar man with large ears and red hair greets me

“Welcome to Duke. I’m Ted Koppel; Deirdre’s father.”

Deirdre was apparently going to be one of my roommates that disorienting freshman year. But far from making me feel at home, Ted’s well-intentioned welcome just reinforced for me that I was entering a world that belonged to other people, not to me or people like me. I was being “welcomed” and given a chance to live and study amongst folks like Deirdre Koppel and Susie Busch for a few years, but this world belonged to those from very different socio-economic and family backgrounds than mine.

That feeling of being out-of-place and not quite belonging  came back over a decade later, when I showed up as an Army veteran and single parent foolishly starting graduate school at Stanford University.

And nearly 2 years into my job at MIT, I still pinch myself a few times a week because I sometimes can’t quite believe that a kid like me — a 1st generation college student whose dad worked a 2nd job stocking produce shelves at a grocery store — really is the director of the libraries at one of the most prestigious colleges in the world.  That feeling of not quite belonging still crops up from time to time.

I tell you all of that only partially because admitting to those feelings, and admitting that giving a talk at Harvard really triggers them; helps me put them aside and give you the best talk I can; but also because the topic I chose – how libraries are responding and can respond to student demands for social justice – has a lot to do with how we might help more and more students (and staff and faculty) who are from backgrounds and social groups who have not always been welcome on our campuses feel included and feel like they belong.

Several years ago, I had the great pleasure of hearing a talk by Beverly Daniel Tatum, the then president of Spelman College. Spelman College is not just a historically black college, but it is a historically black college for women of African descent.  I still remember the “a-ha moment” I had when Dr. Tatum described how important and powerful it is for young black women to be on a campus that was literally and intentionally built for them. It was at that moment that I could see how most of our campuses are literally not built for people from marginalized communities — our campuses were not built for people with disabilities, our campuses were not built for transgender students or any students who fall outside a gender binary, and our campuses were not built for students of color.

In fact, many of our colleges and universities were not only not built for people of color, but were actually built by and at the expense of enslaved African Americans.

Right now dozens of universities – including Harvard, Brown, Columbia, Georgetown, and UVa — are in the process of publicly acknowledging their ties to slavery, including their dependence on slave labor; and these schools are beginning the work of trying to find paths to restitution, if not full reparations.

I believe that if we want to make progress on making our campuses more welcoming to marginalized students, we have to acknowledge our histories of exploitation,  appropriation, enslavement, and displacement. We have to acknowledge that we labor in institutions with often troubled histories with regard to the treatment and acceptance of women and non-white men.

We work for institutions that were founded as exclusionary places, and in many cases remain exclusionary – if not in official policy, then certainly still in culture.  Our colleges and universities were mostly not built for anyone who was not a well-connected white male with considerable cultural and social capital.

While higher education has a progressive recent record of increased openness; histories and legacies matter. Moreover, we cannot ignore the very real current ways in which we fall short of being truly diverse and welcoming communities; just as we as a nation must come to grips with the ways in which the life chances, opportunities and lived experiences of people of color are not equal to those of white people.

And here I think we have to give credit to the students who came together on campuses across the country last fall to demand that universities own up to the systemic racism that exists in higher education and in our nation, and to insist that we take steps to reduce discrimination and promote social justice.

I am talking not only about the high visibility student protests at places like the University of Missouri, and at Yale University; but also about the actions of students and community members at hundreds of colleges across the nation; including at places like Harvard and MIT.

Students have called our attention to ubiquitous and blatant incidents of racial harassment, they have demanded that we hire more faculty from underrepresented groups, and they have called for faculty and staff to be educated on unconscious bias. And they have insisted that we affirm that Black Lives Matter.

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Black Lives Matter banner, Stanford University Law School

In short, they have said – it isn’t enough to welcome students from marginalized groups to our campuses with words, we must take concrete action to create welcoming, inclusive, and integrated communities. And in some cases, they have called on us to leverage the academy and its resources to address societal failings.

So how (and why) should libraries respond to these calls to action? And more generally, how can libraries and the library community as a whole advance diversity, inclusion and social justice?

Maybe best to start with the why.

For me, one obvious answer to “why libraries and why librarians?” is because of our values – we are one of the few professions that boldly proclaims diversity, democracy, social responsibility, intellectual freedom and privacy as core values.

Our spaces are interdisciplinary gathering spots, and we have the expertise and the organizational mission to provide access to the information and the tools students and other community members need to understand both historical patterns of exclusion and oppression and to make sense of current events and controversies.

And while I reject the notion that libraries are or should be neutral, we can and should be inclusive in our services and our collections. By doing so we can provide much needed credible context for evaluating news and issues in this increasingly polarized political and social environment. We can and should and are at the forefront of equipping people with the critical thinking skills needed to make sense of a real time global news cycle, competing opinions, and ubiquitous data.

Another important answer for me to the question of why libraries should be involved in promoting social justice and responding to students and others on issues of diversity and inclusion comes from the nature of the role we play on campus.

We are smart, caring people, who are dedicated to helping students succeed; but we are some of the only adults on campus who generally have no real authoritative or evaluative role over students. We aren’t going to grade them.

This makes the library a place where students might be especially free
and comfortable asking questions, experimenting with nascent ideas and thoughts, and making mistakes.

Libraries can operate as essentially judgement-free zones for our community.

When we also ensure our libraries are welcoming places where all students feel a sense of belonging; we can leverage those characteristics to advance social justice on our campuses.

I guess it is obvious that I really do believe that libraries and those of us who work in them can and should be leaders in promoting diversity and inclusion on our campuses.

And I suspect that plenty of you do as well.

The motivation and the intent is there, but sometimes the question of what to do and how and where to start seems overwhelming.

I’m not suggesting I have the answer to that, but I do want to share with you a framework that I have been using to try to organize my thinking and ultimately the work we do at MIT and in ARL on these issues.

So let me show you a model I’ve been kicking around at MIT, and so far in just one other public forum – I showed a hand-sketched version to a crowd of library students at Simmons last spring.

What I’m trying to do with this model is to suggest that it might be useful to think about a diversity & social justice agenda in libraries as being manifest within and through different communities; and to think of these communities as concentric circles.

slide2

A framework for social justice work in/through libraries

I think of the boundaries between the communities as fuzzy and porous – with plenty of overlap. And actions in each circle affect and are affected by actions at the other levels.

As with most actions, this models starts with the individual at the center.

At the individual level, examples of things we might do to advance diversity and inclusion goals might include:

  • Learning to recognize and avoid micro-aggressions and unconscious bias
  • developingInclusive interpersonal communication skills, learning techniques for bystander interventions
  • inclusive and equitable treatment of peers, supervisors, subordinates, and student employees,

At the Workplace level, I think it is useful to think about policies, practices, and organizational culture:

  • develop and promulgate best practices in hiring & retention practices,
  • training and learning opportunities for staff
  • generally includes all the things we might do to Develop inclusive organizational climate/culture

These first 2 circles are really about making sure our own house is in order even as we also try to work in our broader communities.

Within our local communities (on our campuses, for MIT and Harvard in the Cambridge/Boston community):

  • being really intentional about representing and promoting marginalized communities in our services, programs, and resources
  • here we really have to be intentional to correct for histories of not very inclusive collecting; and for the fact publishing and book reviews and literary awards also lack diversity and are usually dominated by the works of straight, western, white males.
  • we can evaluate our policies and practices to see if they are in any way unintentionally exclusive or not welcoming to some populations of students or community members
  • we can do directed outreach and advocacy to student and staff affinity groups – which is a great way to find out how welcoming we really are and how we might improve
  • we can work to ensure our community/local archives reflect the diversity of our communities and we can ensure our collection and archival practices are developed in concert with members of the communities

Within the professional LIS communities, we also have plenty of work to do:

  • sharing of best practices and lessons learned
  • mentoring and networking outside your own workplace
  • conferences, presentations, publications
  • advocacy for professional standards
  • one of the most pressing things we need to do at this level is make some progress on diversifying the profession — we are still at 85% white as a profession and the MLIS student population isn’t much more diverse.

In our Global communities, there are also a number of ways to advance a social justice agenda:

  • promoting open access is a social justice issue
  • making collective collection development and preservation choices to ensure full spectrum of scholarship and of human experience is collected and preserved.
  • advocacy, policy work (ex. Marrakesh Treaty)

I find this model helpful, because there are multiple ways to engage these issues, and there is work to be done at all levels of community. And I sometimes find we get stuck focusing on a single community or level; and for me this model helps move us to a more holistic approach. The model really is very much a work in progress, so I’ll be anxious to hear your feedback.

But I think I promised via my title and abstract that this presentation would not be all theoretical, but that I would also talk a bit about what we are doing at ARL, and what we are doing at MIT to try to make some progress and to engage more fruitfully in conversations on our campuses and in our communities.

At the ARL level, the cornerstone of our efforts around diversity and inclusion has traditionally been a set of recruitment, retention and leadership programs.

These include the flagship program – the Initiative to Recruit a Diverse Workforce. The IRDW provides tuition assistance, leadership training, and mentoring to MLS students from racial and ethnic minority groups. Since 2000, the program has supported approximately 200 MLS students, and over 75% of participants do end up working in academic libraries.

ARL also sponsors the Career Enhancement Program – which provides MLS students from racial and ethnic minority groups with internship experiences in ARL libraries; and the Leadership and Career Development Program is an 18 month program designed to provide leadership training to mid-career librarians from racial and ethnic minority groups. And there are special programs to recruit members of racial and ethnic minority groups into music librarianship and into archival jobs.

These programs are well regarded and generally quite successful – successful in the sense that the vast majority of individual participants rate the programs very favorably and consider the programs important or very important to their career in librarianship.

But … since 1999, the percentage of non-white librarians in ARL libraries has increased only 4% – from 11% to 15%. Over that same time the percentage of non-whites in the US population has grown from 29% to 37%; and non-whites made up 42% of the college student population in 2012, and that figure continues to grow (credit to the incomparable Mark Puente at ARL for these data).

Put another way, we are a really white profession – whiter by far than the communities we serve.

So while I absolutely agree with my colleague and hero, Mark Puente, the Director of Leadership and Diversity Programs at ARL, that we have to consider what the demographics of librarianship and of the ARL workforce might look like if these programs didn’t exist; we also have to acknowledge that we remain a very, very white profession that does not reflect the diversity of our communities.

And while I don’t think numbers are everything or that representation should be our only or even necessarily our primary goal, I do think having a more diverse profession matters. I think our role in campus diversity conversations and in social justice efforts in our communities is to some degree hindered when as organizations and as a profession we are so lacking in racial and ethnic diversity.

So one of ARL’s goals in the next 12-18 months is to review our diversity programs – with an eye towards making sure they remain well supported; and looking for ways to amplify the most effective elements of our existing efforts while simultaneously beginning to think about ways we might intervene earlier than the MLS stage to attract members of marginalized groups into librarianship.

We at ARL are also taking a hard look at the ways in which the structure, requirements, application process, and expectations of our diversity programs actual reflect, reinforce and perpetuate the “whiteness” of the profession.

I recommend to you an article from the online open access peer-reviewed journal In the Library with the Lead Pipe called White Librarianship in Black Face: Diversity Initiatives in LIS by my dear friend and colleague April Hathcock at NYU. 

In the article, April asserts that “Our diversity programs do not work because they are themselves coded to promote whiteness as the norm in the profession and unduly burden those individuals they are most intended to help”

It is a harsh criticism, but one I think we have to take seriously. We have to be willing to question the model of diversity programs that are designed to attract underrepresented minorities to “our” profession and our libraries and then mentor them so they “fit” in.

What student protestors have been telling us is that rather than focusing on teaching marginalized people how to fit into cultures and organizations that weren’t built for them; maybe we need to spend more time changing our cultures and acknowledging our histories.

With that in mind, another big priority for the ARL Diversity & Inclusion committee right now is to execute a very deliberate pivot in our focus – to pivot from focusing primarily on programs designed to recruit members of underrepresented groups into libraries and archives; and then train “them” on how to succeed in “our” institutions and “our” cultures; to a deliberate focus on preparing and equipping library leaders – the directors like me – to create and sustain diverse, inclusive, and welcoming cultures and practices.

This is really, really important. Because I believe that we absolutely mean well in libraries and on our campuses; we are a generally liberal open-minded, accepting, tolerant bunch and for the most part we genuinely believe that libraries and higher education are welcoming places for members of marginalized groups.

But if we look at the demographics, and we really listen to what students from marginalized groups are saying; we have to be willing to admit that we may not be as welcoming as we think we are; and we probably aren’t doing all we can to make progress.

So, specifically ARL has introduced programming at our ARL meetings – these are the semi-annual gatherings of the directors of the top 125 or so research libraries in North America and Canada.

At our meeting last fall, we had someone from Project Implicit lead us in an interactive workshop to help us recognize and try to counteract our own unconscious biases. At our recent spring meeting, the most popular session was all about how to engage in uncomfortable conversations around social justice issues on our campuses.

 And this Fall, we are hosting the 1st even ARL Fall Forum devoted entirely to Libraries and Archives as Agents of Social Justice.

We encouraged library directors to invite those senior leaders within their libraries and in their universities who are working on social justice and diversity issues at their campuses.

And of course, individual ARL Libraries are doing any number of things to address diversity issues and to engage with student activism around social justice. The staff at ARL collected info from ARL libraries last spring documenting some of their activities – which ranged from archiving social media, web sites, and other materials related to student protests; hosting events within library spaces; recommitting to intentionally diversifying our collections; and providing workshops for staff on topics like microaggressions and how to be an ally.

So again, activities at multiple levels of engagement in that model of concentric communities I showed earlier.

I am new to ARL, but I can tell you that I sense an energy around these topics and a real hunger amongst the leadership to equip themselves and their staff to make a difference.

Before I wrap up, its only fair that I talk a little bit about what MIT is doing to engage with diversity, inclusion, and social justice work.

And first, let me just say that MIT Libraries has an active and very effective committee for the promotion of diversity and inclusion that pre-dates my arrival. In fact, lunch with that committee during my interview for this director job was one of the key factors that ensured that when MIT made an offer, I was ready to accept.

So we do have an active committee that arranges speakers and workshops, and sends out a weekly resource email with readings and local events of interest. They also convened the set of conversations that led to our recently released Diversity statement that you see here.

One of the overarching themes of what we are trying to do around these issues at the MIT Libraries is that we are consciously trying to inject a focus on diversity, inclusion, and social justice throughout the library – in every department, at every level, pertinent to every job and every staff member. To that end we added a section to everyone’s annual performance review where the employee can describe ways in which they sought to promote the organizations’ values of diversity and inclusion in their work and in their interactions on the job.

While that move has not been easy or entirely non-controversial; it has sparked some really great conversations and led to the formation of a task force within our collections directorate focused on Creating a Social Justice Mindset. One of the powerful things that is coming out of that work is a commitment to incorporating and expressing our values in everything we do – including our budgeting, our license negotiations, our access policies. We see open access as a social justice issue, and we believe a more equitable world is one in which there is abundant, meaningful access to information in all communities across the globe.

Our recent move to put our collections budget under the oversight of our scholarly communications program was explicitly about our commitment to using our collection dollars in ways that reflect and transmit those values.

One final example of something we are sponsoring through the MIT Libraries and the MIT Press that is literally about engaging in and promoting campus conversations on diversity is our new MIT Reads program.

 MIT Reads is an all-MIT reading experience that aims to build community and foster understanding. Our goal is to bring the campus community together through the act of reading; with a theme this year of diversity & inclusion. For our inaugural reading, we are partnering with LBGTQ@MIT and the Gender Fluidity Group and we are reading Redefining Realness by Janet Mock, a black transgender activist. Throughout the fall, we will schedule community discussions about the book and the topics raised. The MIT Press bookstore is selling copies of the book at much reduced prices and we have several copies on reserve in the libraries of course.

There is so much more going on at MIT, the staff of the libraries are doing amazing work in these areas and they inspire and challenge me daily. But I think that is probably enough from me.

I hope I’ve provided some food for thought, and for discussion, on how and why libraries can engage in promoting diversity, inclusion, and social justice on our campuses and in our communities.

I really look forward to your comments and to a discussion. You can, of course, ask questions, but I can’t pretend to be the only one with answers; so feel free to share comments and stories even, especially if they aren’t really questions. Let’s talk.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

a dissertation finds her readers

By now, I hope y’all have heard of SocArXiv, a new open social science archive. I think it is one of the most promising new projects in open access scholarship right now. Of course, I’m a bit biased, being on the Steering Committee and all. But the fact that this was started by social science faculty who immediately reached out to the library community for collaborators, is a big part of why I find this whole endeavor so promising. This isn’t one of those “build it and they 1 will come” archives. This is a “they built it and want us to partner with them” archives.

But a funny thing happened on the way to open social science. When SocArXiv did a soft launch on the OSF platform, I uploaded a few of my own papers. I posted an OA article from Code4Lib that I wrote with Bess Sadler (Feminism and the Future of Library Discovery). I also posted an unpublished manuscript (Bowling with Veterans) that I had submitted to a top-tier sociology journal in 2000 or 2001. It got rejected back then, but in a very gentle and helpful way.  I got 2 incredibly supportive and helpful reviews, and a letter from the editor with strong encouragement to submit to a more specialized journal (military sociology is still not very popular in mainstream sociology). I revised it some, but then abandoned it to finish my dissertation. It’s a good paper, and I was happy to finally have somewhere to put it.

But the really interesting thing is what happened when I published my 2003 dissertation (Gender Mistakes and Inequality) on SocArXiv.

It got read. A lot.

In fact, it has been downloaded 160 times so far,2 making it the most dowloaded paper on SocArXiv right now. Before SocArXiv, I’m not sure anyone outside my committee and a few generous colleagues had read it.3 It has been cited once, albeit by a colleague who was just a year or two behind me in graduate school, so it was pretty easy for her to discovery it.

I actually like my dissertation, and I used to wish I had gotten it published in the traditional way some time closer to when I finished it. But I was a year into my new career in academic libraries by the time I finished the dang thing, and I just never did find the time or energy to revise it to make it suitable for journal submission. But lo these many years later, my dissertation has found her readers. 4

Aside from the ego boost, I actually think this is a great example of the power and usefulness of open access archives. I hope those folks who have downloaded it find useful ideas to build on in it. That was really all I ever wanted–for my dissertation to be useful. But to be useful, it needed to be read; and to be read, it apparently needed SocArXiv.

___________

  1. “They” being shorthand for faculty, who we are often told don’t want OA, or don’t care. Obviously some don’t; but some do. Coalition of the willing and all that.
  2. I know reading and downloading aren’t the same. Whatever.
  3. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t “peer reviewed”. It was reviewed by an all-star committee (Ridgeway, Tuma, Olzak, Jost). Karen Cook and Shelley Correll also read drafts and gave me feedback.
  4. Why yes, I am invoking Ranganathan
  5. And yes, I did just gender my dissertation. But I might be mistaken.

lots of folks like to discover

Modified Text of talk I gave at Ivy Plus Discovery Day at MIT. 

(Note that I tidied up this text while watching the DNC last night, so blame Pat Spearman, the Collins brothers, and Michelle Obama for any errors.)

Slide01

I love that this gathering is Discovery Day, not search day, and not find day. Because, to paraphrase that sort of famous Roy Tennant quote from way back in 2001 “Only librarians like to search, everyone else likes to find … and lots of folks like to discover”.

And that’s where the title for this talk comes from, so thanks Roy!

Lots of folks like especially to discover things they didn’t know they were searching for and didn’t know they wanted to find.

I know it isn’t cool for librarians to talk about serendipity anymore; but I think it might be time for librarians to make serendipity cool again. More importantly, I think it is time for librarians to take serendipity seriously.

I want us to take serendipity seriously for at least 3 reasons:

  1. Because some scholars really think it is important to their work
  2. Because facilitating real serendipity through and in our discovery environments, is one way we could actually contributing to more equitable and open access to information and to learning and research
  3. Because serendipity is fun

Slide02

Some other time, I’ll unpack and explain what I mean about # 2 there – the equitable open access part of discovery.  For this talk, I want to concentrate on the  that discovery and serendipity are important and fun.

I’m going to assume you know what fun is, and what important means,  and what discovery is; but let’s define serendipity, or better yet, let’s just let the OED do so (I would link, but paywall):

From Oxford English Dictionary: Serendipity = The faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident. Also, the fact or an instance of such a discovery.

Slide03

And of course, you can’t talk about serendipity without talking about browsing. Over and over, we hear faculty –usually but not always, humanities faculty — talk about the importance of browsing precisely because of the sense that browsing facilitates serendipity. Often these defenses of browsing and serendipity seem to be part and parcel of a concern over the loss of space for physical collections and the lamentable fact that on every college and university campus I know of, a higher percentage of physical library collections are in off-campus, non-browsable storage every year.

But I find that when we really listen to faculty talk about the value of serendipity and browsing to their work, it really is not just nostalgic luddite longing for a mythically comprehensive physical library of yore.

What I’m increasingly hearing, especially here at MIT and in the context of the conversations we have had as part of our Task Force on the Future of Libraries, is an excitement about and a yearning for a new kind of online discovery environment that does more than replicate physical browsing but actually capitalizes on the promises and affordances of technology to facilitate even greater serendipity and to make browsing even more productive and even more fun.

[Interesting side-note: the faculty I’m hearing from at MIT don’t actually use the terms browsing or serendipity. They talk instead very explicitly about wanting tools that will point them to things they don’t know that they don’t know.]

What we are hearing are scholars who want us to build tools, or facilitate the building or deployment of tools, that will allow them to see connections to their work and their teaching and their interests that they cannot see now. They want to discover articles and books and data and images and maps and primary sources and teaching objects and people on the fringes of their own areas of focus, but that are otherwise kind of in their blindspots. They want to make happy & unexpected discoveries; and they want it not to be by accident, but to be because the library has provided the tools, the data, and the metadata to make it so. [One of the many things I love about MIT is how many faculty and students really do seem to get the important role the libraries play in creating and maintaining metadata and infrastructures to provide discovery and access to content.]

And it is important to note, that these are faculty and researchers at MIT we are hearing from; and they are mostly NOT humanists – they are primarily engineers and scientists.

I don’t know about you, but the idea of developing and/or deploying and supporting discovery environments and tools that create and inspire entirely new kinds of serendipity and browsing sounds pretty exciting and fun.

And, it sometimes feels like it is way past time to do it.
When I talked about this to a group of women alumni from MIT, one woman in the audience was quick to tell me about work done 20 years ago at MIT on this very topic. (Yes, that was a bit of serendipity for me, brought about not by technology but by in person interaction.)

In 1994, the famed designer and scholar of design Muriel Cooper, who founded the MIT Media Lab’s Visual Language Workshop, gave a presentation at something called TED5 – which may have been the precursor to what we now know as TED talks, I haven’t verified that yet – but anyway at this talk in 1994, Muriel Cooper wowed the audience with her concept of “information landscapes”.

And here I’ll quote from a 2007 text titled “This stands as a sketch for the future: MURIEL COOPER and the VISIBLE LANGUAGE WORKSHOP”.

In that text, David Reinfurt describes Cooper’s information landscapes as

immersive three-dimensional environments populated not by buildings but by information… In an information landscape, the user appears to fly effortlessly through the infinite zoom of a textual space, reading along the way, creating connections and making meaning.

Unfortunately, there is no video of the 1994 talk, but after Cooper’s death some of her students made a video about the Information Landscapes concept, and I want to show you a bit of it.

(I only showed a few minutes of the video at the talk – I started it at about the 5:00 mark. You should watch the whole thing, and definitely stick around to the very end for a delightful bit of Muriel herself).

I love the contrast between the dated feel and sound of the voiceover and the truly prescient ideas about a 3-D information space full of advanced, user-controlled data visualizations and multiple ways to link and organize concepts. Muriel Cooper sadly passed away less than a year after presenting these ideas at TED5 in Monterey; and while her students and others have continued to do amazing work on immersive technology and data visualizations, Muriel’s vision of an information landscape hasn’t really penetrated the way we search for, find, and discover information and knowledge.
I have to say it is a little sad to me that 2 decades later, our best library search environments look like this:


The rest of the search world, even best in class like Google and Amazon, aren’t really that different:

 

 

The library search community went through its phase of trying to be more like Google and Amazon – for good reasons, our patrons wondered impatiently why we weren’t more like them– and now I’d say we are mostly pretty close.  At least in all the basic structural and conceptual ways:

  • one search box to rule them all
  • results displayed in a linear list that is ranked on some meaningful dimension
  • the goal is to find items, 1 at a time; not concepts, not relationships

Why is that? Why are we still searching in 2-D, linear interfaces for items rather than for concepts?

I think a big part of the reason is because it works well enough. And in fact, it works really well for finding stuff we know we want.

And here is where it is really important to point out that what the Task Force on the Future of Libraries heard from library staff about discovery was very different from what faculty and students told us. The MIT Libraries staff made it abundantly clear that the most common struggle our patrons have is with finding a known item – that is the most common kind of question we get and I’m pretty sure it is what our data tell us is the most common kind of search in our catalog.

So how do we reconcile this seeming contradiction?

People want to find what they want and they expect library search tools to be just as good as Google at helping them do that.

But/and, when asked to describe an ideal discovery environment of the future, scholars – at least the MIT folks we have heard from (and folks I talked to while I was at Stanford) – imagine something much more exploratory, more relational, more immersive, more inspiring, and more playful than what any of us have right now. It is as if they trust that the tools that allow them to find what they know they want are good enough and will always be good enough; so when they think of a future they want something they can’t do now (to be fair, that is what we asked them to think about).

To be clear, I don’t think they want this hypothetical immersive and playful and serendipitious environment to completely replace the utilitarian search tools they have at their disposal right now. They are happy to keep using the combination of tools they use now when they need to find what they need to find.

But that means that we in libraries have I think felt kind of compelled to keep trying to give them what they want right now, while not really having the resources to try to develop the kind of information landscapes Muriel Cooper imagined more than 20 years ago.

It is a difficult dilemma, with no easy answers. And it is even more complicated by the fact that the corpus of stuff we in academic libraries are trying to help people discover and access is part of a scholarly communication landscape that is far more complicated than it needs to be and that is, in large, shaped the way it is because so much of it is controlled and disseminated by commercial players whose interest aren’t always aligned with the mission-driven interests of academia (I digress — that’s actually a whole other talk I should give sometime).

And to highlight something we all know — we in academia and in libraries don’t have unlimited resources. So I think we need to be smart about partnering with those commercial players whose visions do align with ours and whose resources and partnerships can help us move closer to a new kind of discovery without having to abandon what works well enough right now.

Back in the early 2000s, I was involved in a project at Stanford Libraries, where we partnered with a start-up called Groxis on developing a visual search tool called Grokker.

It was a really fun project and a promising tool that generated a fair amount of buzz in the library world and in the search world. Grokker basically organized your search results into circles or bubbles by concept; so if you searched for “jaguar”, for example, you would get a bubble with items about the luxury car; another bubble with items related to the animal; and another with stuff related to the English heavy metal band Jaguar – which is a great example of how tools like this can help you discover things you didn’t know you didn’t know. I had never heard of the heavy metal band Jaguar until I got involved with the Grokker project.

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Unfortunately, this is the best image for Grokker I can find – from a 2004 Stanford Libraries newsletter. And I can’t demo it; because the company and the product pretty much disappeared after a hostile take over of the board by members who apparently wanted the company to abandon the education market in favor of a seemingly more lucrative corporate focus. That didn’t work out so well for them, and searching for any evidence of Grokker or Groxis now leads to a few articles and blog posts (mostly by librarians) and lots of dead links.

But – working on Grokker and testing it with faculty and students at Stanford gave us/me a sense of the possibilities of new ways to search. There were, of course, the usual concerns with new things like this – if the content included isn’t “comprehensive” in a way that matches the user’s expectations, then they tend to think it doesn’t work.

BUT – lo these many years later, I still remember that nearly every person I talked to who tried Grokker described it as fun and spent considerable time playing with it.

Fast forward over a decade later, and we at MIT Libraries are poised to give our community the chance to play with something that looks a bit like Grokker but is actually even more intriguing – and that’s Yewno.

Yewno’s ‘search’ is powered by machine learning, computational linguistics, and semantic analysis; and its interface combines data visualization and concepts from neural networks to create a discovery experience that is closer than most to the way the human mind actually works. It doesn’t quite achieve the fully immersion landscape feel of Muriel Cooper’s vision, but it goes beyond what Grokker did to provide a more interactive visual journey through information about a concept. At the risk of sounding like a Yewno commercial, I’ll quote from their promotional material:

Unlike traditional search, which strives to provide the singular correct answer as quickly as possible, Yewno enables the connection of multiple concepts and information.

This is a tool that aims not to be better at search, or to help people find what they are looking for more efficiently. This is an environment that aims to help people discover and to learn about what they don’t know they want to learn.

I think we will learn a lot about discovery and about new ways of navigating information from Yewno. My secret hope is that some really brilliant MIT student or faculty member will play with Yewno, be captivated by the idea, decide that the interface is lame, and build something based on the same idea but better.

My dream discovery environment is one that provides the experience of browsing and interacting with books and articles in print and online simultaneously – I don’t know what it looks like exactly, but I imagine a virtual or augmented reality environment that simulates the best tactile (and emotional) experiences of browsing in a physical library with the vast resources and accessibility of digital resources and the efficiency of online browsing. Imagine if you really could browse the collections of all the great libraries at once  – their physical books, their electronic resources, even the books that are currently checked out – from wherever you are; and your mind and body would feel like you were “in a library”.

And my dream discovery environment is playful and fun. Discovering something you didn’t know you wanted is fun. Finding what we are looking for is certainly satisfying (and not finding it is frustrating), but realizing some new connection you hadn’t thought to eplore, stumbling on some piece of information that adds a new dimension to your research or takes you down an unplanned but totally productive path – those kinds of discoveries are fun. There is joy in that kind of learning while researching.

I guess the big take away for me is that what I have heard from our community compels me to try to shift my focus from satisfying immediate user needs by continually improving the tools at hand to making progress and supporting progress towards a discovery environment we can’t yet imagine (because most of us are not Muriel Cooper) but which provides fun, intuitive, maybe immersive opportunities for discovery.

Some closing provocations:

Let’s consider what we might do, even in and with our current tools, if we took seriously the faculty who say they want to make happy and unexpected discoveries in the library – even, especially, in a library that is primarily digital.

What if we decided that the set of current tools for searching and finding are just fine, and we freed ourselves up to work on discovery?

Are there ways we can do that by promoting and supporting and partnering with organizations and people who are trying to create entirely new information systems and landscapes?

Are there ways we can do it by promoting fun and serendipity in our own existing tools and environments?

What can we do to learn more about what works and to spur our own and our communities’ collective imaginations about what discovery could be?



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