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NC is a no-go: bathrooms, libraries, and the limits of welcoming

Text and some of the slides of talk I gave (remotely) at/for TRLN17AM:

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Title slide below. See what I did there?

Slide01

The original version of this talk started out with an explanation about why I’m doing this talk remotely  (which is all about HB2 and included several bathroom stories); and then tried to use some of those stories to segue into talking about diversity & inclusion in libraries more broadly. But then this happened yesterday:

Slide02

(My slide shows 45’s 3 tweets declaring a ban on transgender people in the military, and includes a pointer to credible data and info on the issue.)

Despite huge amounts of data to the contrary, the president took to twitter to declare transgender service members a burden and a distraction; and to issue a directive that they be denied the full rights and responsibilities of citizenship.

As a veteran and a member of the LGBTQ community, it was a punch in the gut. And this talk went from being a little bit about trans and queer issues to being pretty much mostly about those issues. And it went from being a detached analytical prescription of things libraries can do to being a personal and emotional description of ways we are falling short, and a plea to do better.

And I’m mostly OK with that. My colleague Greg Eow gave a talk at SAA17 last night and he talked about being authentic and bringing your whole self to the workplace – he says that’s something I say and encourage; so that’s what I’m doing this morning.  I’m going to share some tales of what it is like to be a queer person in libraries and in the country today, and I hope that focusing on queer issues in my examples still allows us to talk about broader issues of diversity and inclusion in libraries.

But even if it doesn’t, maybe it’s the right time for a talk that is mostly about queer issues … I’m not sure we do that very often in this profession; and this seems a pretty appropriate moment for such a talk.

First comes the explanation for why I am giving this talk remotely, instead of in person in North Carolina. Note that the explanation, and much of this talk, involves stories about bathrooms. And I have way too many stories about bathrooms to tell, but I’ll try to tell just ones that illustrate bigger issues of inclusion and/or that can spur conversations about those bigger issues.

I feel like I might need to start by declaring my deep love for the state of NC. It is honestly one of the great heartbreaks of my life that it is an unrequited love.

While I grew up in VA, my mom grew up in NC – specifically in Laurinburg, and she lives in Wilmington now. I spent some of my best summers with my Grandparents and my aunts and uncle; barefoot, drinking sweet tea and Mt. Dew; and eating my share of bbq, okra, fried cornbread, collard greens, hush puppies. We vacationed every year at Ocean Isle Beach, and when it was time for me to go to college, naturally I headed to the Tarheel state; which should have made all my Tarheel-loving family members very happy and proud, except … I picked Duke. Basketball season has been hard for all of us ever since. Mom & I just agree not to talk in March.

I really do love much about NC, but over the last several years, it has become a state that isn’t safe for me anymore. And yes, I’m talking about HB2  – both the passage of a bill aimed at keeping trans and gender non-conforming folks out of public bathrooms; and all the surrounding rhetoric and attention that has made just trying to pee a complicated and potentially dangerous thing for a woman like me in a state I still love and miss very much.

So my not traveling to NC, either for this talk or to visit my mom, or to watch some Duke hoops at Cameron, isn’t a boycott, and it isn’t about punishing NC or the good people who live and work in the state, or about trying to apply economic pressure to change a bad law (Not that there’s anything wrong with that).

But not traveling to NC (or any of the other dozen or so states with similar laws or pending laws) is about safety and accessibility and equity.

And, it isn’t just about me.

Traveling to states with bathroom bills is not safe for me, and it is also not safe for any of our transgender, non-binary folks, genderqueer, gender-fluid and gender non-conforming colleagues.

In April of 2016, when HB2 and a similar bill in Mississippi passed, I realized that I could not in good conscience ask anyone to travel on MIT business to a state where they might be harassed, intimidated, or arrested just for trying to pee.

So in the interest of equity, we decided at MIT Libraries that we will not ask or encourage anyone to travel to any place where we wouldn’t all be safe.

Specifically, we stated that:

we will neither require nor encourage anyone to travel on MIT Libraries business or on MIT Libraries-funded professional development to any state with laws that restrict the rights and safety of our LGBTQ colleagues.”

ARL also made a statement which read in part:

The potential impact of these and similar proposed bills is a threat to our patrons, to our employees, and to the core mission of our profession as we endeavor to create safe spaces for open dialogue and opportunities for intellectual, artistic, scientific, historical, and philosophical advancement that will improve our society and world.”

I think these were and are important statements, and that they are entirely consistent with the values of our organizations and our profession.

And, having taken that stand for the MIT Libraries, even if I myself was not personally affected by these bills and laws, I would still have to decline the invite to attend this event in person, in support of MIT Libraries stance on equitable and safe travel opportunities for all. But/and – in this case I am personally impacted.

For another, more complete, take on bathroom bills and professional conferences, see this storify of a self-described twitter rant by Kate Deibel.

I said earlier that NC isn’t safe for a woman like me, so let me back up and unpack just what I mean by that.

I’m a cisgendered woman who identifies as butch and lesbian and queer and genderqueer. Cisgendered means that I was assigned female at birth (AFAB) and I identify now as female, and my pronouns are she, her, and hers. Cis or cisgender is a term that describes those of us whose gender identity matches the sex we were assigned at birth.

I also identify as butch.  I don’t want to define butch for anyone but myself, but for me butch means my gender presentation is masculine of center – it means that the clothes I wear and the look I present is self-consciously and deliberately a look that is associated with maleness and masculinity in our culture. I also describe myself as genderqueer, which is an umbrella term often used for and by people who transgress gender distinctions and norms, or people who queer gender.

Language around gender, sexuality, gender identity and gender expression (like language in general) is evolving and proliferating; and I know some folks get confused, and overwhelmed. I can’t and won’t define all possible terms and identities, but I do suggest that if you aren’t already familiar with the range of terms around gender and sexuality, that you make the effort to become familiar.

So here’s a bit of advice, and some good resources:

“Learning how to talk about trans people is not difficult, and doesn’t require any specialist knowledge. Just as you would in any other situation, you just have to reflect back the words a person uses about themselves.”

from The Production of Ignorance, CN Lester

So, now that you know who I am, and why I can’t physically be with you today, let’s really talk about bathrooms, shall we?

First an assertion: Bathroom bills like HB2, that insist everyone use the bathroom that corresponds to the sex they were assigned at birth and/or the sex on our birth certificates are dangerous for transgender folks and for genderqueer and gender non-conforming folks like me as well.

I stand by that claim, I know it to be true from my own experience and the experiences of others, and I don’t really want to debate that claim because the truth is that single-sex or sex-segregated bathrooms have always been ground zero for gender policing. Because public spaces are never neutral, but are always sites where power and privilege are enacted. Understanding public spaces (like bathrooms and like libraries) as inherently non-neutral places helps us understand how our colleagues and patrons from marginalized groups experience our spaces, our organizations, our profession, and the communities we occupy. In other words, sometimes a bathroom is more than a bathroom.

OK, time for some stories … these are my stories, but they are also stand-ins for the stories of many, many of your colleagues, your friends, your neighbors, and your patrons. These things happened to me, but/and they happen to many of us.

Story #1:

There was the time I was at a small community theater production, and went to the ladies’ room while my wife went to get us a cookie or something.
While in the stall, I hear a man outside the restroom loudly saying “Don’t go in there, there is a man in there!”, and I know its about to get awkward. I go to wash my hands, at a sink visible from the door to the restroom, and the older gentleman steps into the restroom (which has now been vacated by all but me), and aggressively tells me “This is the women’s room!”
Note that at this point, he is the one in the ‘wrong’ restroom.
I respond as politely as I can (I’m frankly a bit shaken up by now) “I know, I’m a woman.” He pauses for a long few seconds as he looks me up and down to confirm my statement for himself, before telling me “Well, your attire had some of the ladies very concerned.” So not only has he thoroughly embarrassed me, but he has also made it my fault.

Story 2:

Then there was the time a docent/security guard at an art museum followed me into the restroom and yelled at me through the stall door.
Docent: “Hello!!”
Yours truly: “Yes?”
Docent: “this is the WOMEN’s room!”
Yours truly: “um, I know …”
After I assured her I was in the right restroom, she huffed about women being worried, and about it being a perfectly understandable mistake. Ironically, this was at the national museum for women in the arts in DC.

Then there are the weekly stories of someone telling me I’m in the wrong restroom, sometimes kindly, often aggressively; and of women entering restrooms and then doing a double-take when they see me and checking to see if they are in the right restroom.

And ever since HB2 passed, and bills like HB2 have been in the news and on the dockets in states, cities and counties across the nation; these encounters take on a more dangerous and menacing tone.

After Target announced its transgender customers and employees could use store bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity, Orlando-based Liberty Counsel president Anita Staver said she would be taking her Glock .45 into Target’s restrooms, saying the gun “identifies as my bodyguard.”

In 2016, a GOP candidate for Sheriff in Denton County TX said:
“All I can say is this: If my little girl is in a public women’s restroom and a man, regardless of how he may identify, goes into the bathroom, he will then identify as a John Doe until he wakes up in whatever hospital he may be taken to.”

Check out the comments section on any story about bathroom bills and you will find plenty of these sorts of threats – primarily men threatening violence as a way to protect their wives and daughters from “men” in the restroom.

And since I am mistaken for a man in restrooms several times a week (more when I’m traveling), these threats are personal. For a heartbreaking and very, very real description about what it feels like to be scared to pee in public, see on restrooms, gender and fear by Emily C. Heath.

But thank the goddess we don’t have to worry about extremists like that in the library profession– librarians aren’t like that, am I right? In fact, we reject that kind of hate and ignorance. We’re all very progressive and welcoming and its safe here in our libraries, and on our campuses. Everyone is welcome here, right?

And that is probably mostly true. But/and just because we are fairly confident that outright threats of violence against transgender folks or other marginalized colleagues and patrons are rare in our organizations doesn’t mean we don’t still have some serious problems and shortcomings around diversity and inclusion in our libraries and in the profession.

Let me tell another story, a story I haven’t really told to anyone outside my circle of close friends until I started preparing this talk. Partly I didn’t tell it because I’m still not sure what it means, partly because even though I know it is the other person who should feel this way, I get embarrassed telling and living these stories, and partly because the impulse to protect others, even, especially when they do or say clueless things around diversity topics is strong.

This is my “Welcome to our bathroom!” story.

Not long after HB2 passed, I’m at a meeting of my library directors peers. At this point I’m still new to being a library director, so I don’t really know very many of my peers. So, I’m at this meeting with about 100 other library directors, and a colleague I don’t know except by name and institution starts a conversation with me. She’s older, straight, cisgendered, white. With no prompting from me, she starts this conversation with me and proceeds to tell me how horrible HB2 is, and how “the transgenders” (sic) aren’t a threat to anyone, and just generally how against HB2 she is. This is literally the first conversation I have ever had with this woman, so I smile and nod along awkwardly, silently praying this convo will end quickly. Eventually it does end, but our story does not. Later that day, during a break in the meeting, I head to the restroom and end up behind this woman in line.
She turns to me with a big sweet smile, and says, loud enough for everyone to hear: “Welcome to our bathroom!” I think she even patted me on the shoulder or something.

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She meant well, I assume; but there’s a lot that went wrong in that interaction, for me. And there is much to unpack about assumptions, intent, and whose feelings got centered, and who got singled out, and how much more awful it would have been if I were trans, or if I weren’t white (like every other person in that bathroom – after all it was a conference full of library directors). If it is helpful to you, I suggest you might use this story to talk amongst yourselves about micro-aggressions, and about good intentions gone wrong.

But I want to use this story – my “Welcome to our bathroom!” story – to point out some ways library diversity and inclusion efforts often fall short, or worse.

I think this story is a pretty decent example of ways in which folks who think they are being welcoming and who are trying to embrace diversity actually end up doing more harm than good.

And it is really hard to resist the urge to apologize for how harsh that sounds – because there is a prevailing narrative – especially popular in librarian circles, that says social justice advocates have to be patient and understanding and kind and nice and forgiving when people try to “be good allies” but mess up. And certainly we need to allow people to learn from mistakes and missteps, but/and in order to learn we have to be specific about when and how our seemingly well-meaning efforts fall short.

What I’m saying is, we need to move beyond the notion of being welcoming and we need to consider real fundamental, cultural and structural changes that would foster inclusion and justice.

I want to really zero in on the “Welcome to our bathroom!” story and talk about one of the many ways it is problematic. Whatever other assumptions might have been going on in that statement, by welcoming me to her bathroom, this nice straight lady made it very clear that she conceived of the women’s restroom as hers; and not really “mine” until women like her welcomed me.

And I think this is also what we in libraries do when we declare ourselves “welcoming” to librarians and archivists of color. We welcome “them” to our spaces, and to our profession, without really doing the work to actually make our profession and our cultures inclusive, and without doing the work to undo the decades of exclusion and discrimination that are the history and legacy of our profession and of most of our institutions.

And, we focus our diversity and inclusion efforts on programs that are designed to recruit members of underrepresented groups into libraries and archives; and then we train “them” on how to succeed in “our” institutions and “our” cultures.

And because representation matters, recruitment programs for librarians and archivists of color continue to matter. We remain an unbearably white profession, and progress towards becoming more diverse is and has been really slow; certainly far slower than the rate of change in the demographic make up of the country and/or of the college student population.

So, yes, our recruitment programs matter, but/and they are not enough. We also have some serious retention problems; and I think that has a lot to do with us resting on our good intentions, and assuming that being nice welcoming white ladies (and we are mostly women in this profession) is enough.

It is not enough.

When I talk about diversity, inclusion, and social justice with white librarians, I always hear from people about how much better libraries are than the rest of society, about how liberal and welcoming librarians are, and about how our lack of diversity is really just a pipeline problem. (I also hear a lot of “shouldn’t we be neutral?”, but in the interest of time, let’s take up that neutrality myth in the Q&A if you want). And there’s always at least one dude who wants to talk about the plight of males in this predominately female profession. Don’t be that dude. Not today.

At any rate, I’m pretty tired of hearing those tropes – and I’m willing to bet our colleagues of color are also really tired of hearing them.

Many librarians and archivists from marginalized groups do not experience our profession or our organizations the same way us white folks do. Which should not be surprising – there is ample evidence across many domains that demonstrate that the life circumstances of people of color are different from those of white folks.

At any rate, my experience is that many of us think we are being welcoming, but we are often just about as ham-fisted and unwelcoming as the woman who welcomed me to the ladies’ restroom after assuring me she was down with the gays and the transgenders.

I’m sorry to say that much of what we do in libraries in the name of diversity and inclusion is just as performative and is often less about making real changes and is more about making us look good and feel good about ourselves.

I want to call your attention to some blog posts from some colleagues I admire very much:

These colleagues write about the emotional, physical, and intellectual toll of being a librarian of color in an overwhelmingly white profession, full of well-meaning nice white ladies (and a few men) who likely think of themselves as liberal and accepting and welcoming and not at all racist. (and I imagine there are some folks in the audience who are uncomfortable, or maybe even offended by the phrase “nice white ladies”, so let’s talk about that in the Q&A).

April talks about ALA as “Five days of having “nice white ladies” tell you to be “civil” and “professional” when you talk about the importance of acknowledging oppression and our profession’s role in it.”

Sarah writes of hearing some white women use the words “inclusive” and “welcoming” to describe our association. And then she reminds us that It’s not up to the majority to determine whether or not the space is/has become welcoming and inclusive. Those sentiments are aspirational, not reflective.

And Fobazi calls our attention to this post by a white woman on a Facebook page I won’t be linking to:
Slide15
The post reads:

One of my greatest takeaways from #ALAAC17 was seeing the beautiful diversity in our profession. We truly represent all those we serve and I’m proud to call you my people.

Not only are we really not that diverse, and we certainly don’t “truly represent the people we serve”; but this kind of statement renders our non-white colleagues as props on some self-satisfyingly diverse stage we can admire. As Fobazi says (sarcastically), “I love knowing that my body is seen as diverse. Not as a person. But as a pat on the back.”

And too often this is exactly what we do in libraries. We don’t want to dig deep, we don’t want to confront our own ingrained racism and homophobia, and we don’t want to examine the racist and oppressive histories and legacies of our institutions; so we talk about how we love diversity and how welcoming we are.

And we tell the one queer librarian we know that we are against HB2 and we welcome her to our bathroom, and we tell anyone who will listen how much we love seeing the “beautiful diversity” of our profession — while we remain 88% white and while our culture and our policies and our bathrooms continue to reflect and enforce a traditional gender binary.

You know that saying “We’ve come a long way, baby”? Well, we haven’t really come very far … and don’t you dare call me baby.

In the meantime, at the Society of American Archivist meeting, we laugh at all-gender restrooms.

And to make matters worse, we get defensive when we are called on our “nice white lady” micro-aggressions. We tone-police people of color and queer activists and we tell them to be more patient, and that they/we will make more progress if they act more professional; without ever interrogating the inherent classism and racism and heteronormativity built into our conceptions of professionalism.

And we complain that the language and the concepts of social justice are too advanced, and that the activists among us need to slow down and provide an on-ramp for those of us who are trying to catch up to diversity work.

Too much of our diversity work is based on an unstated assumption/attitude that libraries belong to us (white folks), and out of the goodness of our progressive and definitely not racist hearts, we need to welcome ‘diverse’ people. That framing, that way of approaching this work is itself a micro-aggression and is part of a culture that keeps us from making any real progress toward inclusion and social justice. And it is the same attitude and culture that makes it OK for a nice straight lady to welcome me to her bathroom.

I think that our diversity and inclusion work and our diversity and inclusion committees have to move away from questions of how we can be more welcoming; and we have to tackle the harder questions about how we create cultures and policies and practices and organizations that are inclusive and that foster and promote equity and social justice. To do that, we have to admit that no matter how well intentioned we may be, libraries and archives are not magically welcoming spaces for people from marginalized communities.

Think about it – I shared with you my own stories of being marginalized by well-intentioned straight colleagues and allies; but/and I come to these encounters with a whole bunch of privilege. My queer identity intersects with loads of privilege — I’m white, I have too many degrees from too many Ivy Plus schools, and I’m the director of the best library in ARL. And I still steel myself against the inevitable micro-aggressions I will experience at library conferences, and I get stressed just trying to pee when I travel.
And y’all, the stuff I have shared today is just the tip of a very chilly iceberg. Ask me about fund-raising and job interviews …

But enough about me – here’s another example:

At ACRL, Carla Hayden, Librarian of Congress, spoke about the importance of having a regular outlet for her frustrations as a woman of color in a profession that is overwhelmingly white. The most accomplished, most senior librarian in the country admits that she calls her mom to regularly vent about real and pervasive frustrations of being a black woman in this profession.

Some of you, maybe many of you, didn’t need convincing that we have a lot of work to do – individually and as organizations; but I’m willing to bet that some of you did need either convincing or reminding. I hope this talk has done some of that.

I know you will be talking about diversity & inclusion later today, and you will be discussing ways to promote diversity and inclusion in TRLN and your individual institutions. I hope you will ask yourselves and each other some hard questions. I have a few starter questions to suggest:

  • What needs to change at my institution to go from passively “welcoming” to actively inclusive?
  • How does my library enforce a gender binary?
  • How is our definition of “professionalism” classist, racist, heteronormative, etc.?
  • How might we better understand ways we fall short, as individuals and organizations?
  • What are we doing that is queer-affirming in my library?

And I have a few suggestions for queer affirming things you can do in your libraries:

  • Gender neutral bathrooms
  • Pronouns, preferred names
  • Queer-affirming content in ALL displays, libguides, etc. (not just in June)
  • Ally training
  • What else …?

I tweeted this morning that this talk might well end up being the queerest and most personal talk I’ve ever given. I think that might be true.
This was a hard, but cathartic talk for me to prepare and to give. I hope it was helpful to you, and the work TRLN intends to do.

Let me close with this – if you are queer, if you are trans, if you are any part of the big glorious LGBTQ+ community, please know that I see you, you belong here, you are valued, and I will never stop fighting for you – for us.

Carla Hayden’s mother

Hayden spoke of the historical significance of her confirmation and the importance of having a regular outlet for her frustrations as a woman of color in a profession that is overwhelmingly white. “My poor mother knows more about everything than she ever needed to know,” she said.

ACRL Closes with Carla Hayden, American Libraries Magazine

I have written before about the Unbearable Whiteness of librarianship, but that post was mostly about the demographics. Here I want to call our attention to the fact that the most senior and the most recognized librarian in the country publicly acknowledged that the whiteness of librarianship exacts a toll on librarians of color at every level of our profession.

Think about it folks — The Librarian of Congress regularly vents to her mother about the struggles of being a person of color in our very, very white profession. I would hope that my peers (fellow library directors and white library staff in general) and I were already listening to the concerns and experiences of our non-white colleagues; but I also hope that Dr. Hayden’s comments at ACRL are a catalyst for renewed attention not just to the demographic imperative of diversifying our profession, but also to the harder and more entrenched cultural challenges of creating inclusive organizations. The whiteness of librarianship is more than just a demographic reality, it is a cultural one. Like most wicked problems, admitting you have a problem is the first step.

Thank you, Dr. Hayden, for your vulnerability in admitting that the struggles and frustrations of being a woman of color in this profession are real and pervasive. I hope your honesty spurs my peers and I to double down on a commitment to supporting people of color in our organizations, and to creating and sustaining truly diverse and inclusive cultures.

What happens to libraries and librarians when machines can read all the books?

Revised text of talk I gave for the Harvard Library Leadership in a Digital Age program.

The description of this course promises that “you will identify fundamental changes occurring in the field of knowledge management and consider their implications for libraries, information services, and library leadership.”

I think my session maybe breaks the rules a bit (which is my first leadership tip for you: when it feels like the right thing to do, break the damn rules!).

One of the things I think is important for library leaders is that we look at fundamental changes outside of knowledge management and consider their implications for libraries and the work we do.

I think looking outside of changes in our own field is essential if we want to be active, effective leaders who don’t merely respond to change, but who create and shape the change we believe is needed in libraries and archives.

So, I want to talk about AI and libraries in at least 2 ways:

  1. Substantively, I want to share with you some of my thoughts and speculations about the potential implications of AI and machine learning for libraries and librarianship .
  2. I also want to talk a bit about AI on a more meta-level – that is to say, I want to use my own commitment to learning about and thinking about AI and its implications for libraries as an example of the more general tension leaders face between tending to immediate, local challenges and thinking about, preparing for and creating the future.

So let’s start with why I’m interested in machine learning and AI.

Basically, it is because I think that it is past time for us to take digital libraries to the next level; and I think the next level is likely to involve machine learning and optimizing our collections, services, and spaces for machine learning applications.

Where are we in digital libraries right now? We are still in the midst of the initial digital shift in libraries (really from the mid-to-late 1990s to now).

In this shift, we have gone from libraries being a place where individuals came to find physical books and journal articles (and manuscripts, and images, and lots of other stuff) so that they could read those books and articles themselves, to libraries being a service that individuals use to gain online access to journal articles, and e-books, and digital images and manuscripts and more so that they can read and use those things on their own digital devices.

This ongoing digital evolution of libraries and of how students and faculty use scholarly content is significant and has arguably made research and teaching more efficient and more productive.  The advent of online and digital libraries has also made more information more accessible to more people than ever could have been possible when scholarly materials were available only in tangible, physical formats.

But if this switch, from individuals reading books and articles one at a time in print to individuals reading books and articles one at a time on their own digital device is all we get from the digital revolution, then it won’t have been much of a revolution.

In the title of the talk, I ask “what happens to libraries & librarians when machines can read all the books?” But the truth is that we are already there – or at least the machines are. So it behooves us to be ready for it – intellectually, strategically, and operationally.

I think an important part of leadership is not just responding to changes, but actually getting in front of those changes when we can.

Let’s start with some definitions.

From the MIT Press Essential Knowledge book Machine Learning:

AI is “Programming computers to do things, which, if done by humans, would be said to require “intelligence”.

Machine learning is a kind of AI, where the computer is programmed to optimize a performance criteria using examples or past experience. The machine does what the data tell it to, not what a program tells it to.

In describing the advent of machine learning, Ethem Alpaydin says:

“nowadays, more and more, we see computer programs that learn – that is software that can adapt their behavior automatically to better match the requirements of the task. We now have programs that learn to recognize people from their faces, understand speech, drive a car, or recommend which movie to watch … once it used to be that the programmer who defined what the computer had to do … now, for some tasks, we do not write programs but collect data”

Since I’m not a computer scientist or an engineer, I use the terms in relatively loose ways and often interchangeably.

When I think of AI and machine learning in the context of libraries, I think of computer programs and algorithms that can extract/derive meaning and patterns from data, make predictions and inferences about and with new data, and in doing so, solve problems at scales not possible by humans only

Slide05At an MIT symposium a few years ago Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, talked about the existential threat of AI and suggested a need for regulatory oversight. Specifically, he said “With artificial intelligence, we are summoning the demon.”

So let’s talk about the fears and concerns, maybe they aren’t as existential as Musk’s (I find librarians tend to be more practical), but I’m sure we have some. I certainly do.A

What are the dangers of AI, especially in relation to libraries and the things we support — especially research & learning? Here are some common concerns:

    • Robots will take our jobs – In an article in Library Journal in April 2016, Steven Bell writes about the Promise and Peril of AI for Academic Librarians – and he asks “Could artificially intelligent machines eliminate library jobs?
    • One reason people argue that AI will not replace library or other jobs is that machines can’t replace the deeply human skills of creativity and interaction; which may mean that those skills become more valuable or could mean that AI will usher in an era where creativity and empathy are devalued and rare
    • Another fear is that AI will eliminate the relationships between people and books, and between librarians and their community members
    • And one concern I think is very important to take seriously is the reality that without explicit counter-measures, machine learning & AI will re-inscribe & magnify existing systems of inequality and racism, sexism, homophobia and the like.

Here’s a cautionary tale about that last concern:

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.

Even, or especially, with those concerns in mind, I think we need to think about AI and machine learning and the implications for libraries.

My thinking about AI, machine learning, & libraries, is guided by 3 kinds of questions:

  1. What role can libraries play in making sure we don’t summon the demon; or at least that we have the tools to control or tame the demon?
  1. How might we leverage AI in support of our missions? How might AI help us do some of our work better?
  2. How might we support AI and machine learning in ways that are consistent with and natural evolutions of the long-standing missions and functions of libraries as sources of information and the tools, resources, expertise to use that information?

Let me address the 1st issue and offer some thoughts on libraries as demon-slayers in our AI future. First, we need to accept that AI and machine learning are becoming more prevalent in our daily lives, and in many learning and research contexts.

Then we have to think about what concerns around AI that libraries and librarians are maybe especially well-suited to addressing; like privacy, context, authority, and ensuring the data used to train AI is inclusive and diverse and of high quality.

This last one seems to be to be especially urgent – as an example, when Apple hired a new Director of AI research, he spoke about the promise of AI as a research tool, imagining — “If I ask you something about a particular thing, can your system basically go to Wikipedia, read a few different articles, learn some facts about the world, and provide you with the right answer?” As much as we all love and use Wikipedia, I suspect that makes some of us cringe. Wouldn’t it be better to have “your system” go to the actual scholarly literature on a topic?

The 2nd area we should think about is how we can leverage AI in our work?

A typical area we think about is reference – this is Steven Bell’s concern that AI chat bots will replace reference librarians.

There is also plenty of potential around using machine learning in search – the 2 articles that were assigned reading for this session cover that ground fairly well (see list of references at end of this post).

We might also imagine leveraging AI for recommendation systems, and for cataloging and organizing our collections.

What if we turned my original question around and asked what would we do if librarians we could read all the books?

Slide07

If we really could absorb all the information in our collections and make some sense of it, what would we do? What could we do if we had the capacity to read all our books, and maybe all the books in our peer libraries, and derive patterns from them?

What would we do that we can’t do now? What would we do better that we already do?

Can thinking about AI and machine learning in that way help us conceive of ways to leverage the fact that machines actually can do that now?

Finally let’s talk about how machine learning and AI might change or be changing research; and how we might start to think about optimizing our libraries to support new kinds of research made possible by text & data mining, AI and machine learning.

Let me share 2 really interesting examples:

Prof Regina Barzalay and her students and colleagues at MIT are using machine learning to extract information and predictions from the unstructured data in tens of thousands of pathology reports. Faster, as accurate as humans; and based on much larger amount of data than humans have access to.

Another example I learned about from my colleague Sara Lester, Engineering Librarian at Stanford, is GeoDeep Dive is a tool for geologists that uses machine learning to extract data that is buried in the text, tables, and figures of journal articles and web sites, sometimes called dark data, about rock formations.

GeoDeepDive is based on open source code, that can be repurposed on other datasources. Should libraries be exploring how tools like this could help us extract even more meaning and information from deep within our collections?

I think it is important not just that we know about these kinds of efforts, but that we proactively ask where can AI and machine learning be leveraged in the service of better science?

And how do libraries leverage our resources and skills to ensure it really works – and is infused with and informed by values we care about (inclusion, privacy, democracy, social justice, authority, etc.)?

Where can we intervene to make sure the research based on AI and machine learning is as good as it can be?

We help students find the best books and articles for their learning; so can we help programmers find the best data for their algorithms to learn on?

Can we help them think about the questions they want their machine learning applications to answer? Can we help fit the data to the question?

A final string of thoughts, provocations, and questions that keep me up at night:

As I begin to fully appreciate the fact that machines really can read all the books, and can “learn” from them; I am convinced that we need to think more rigorously about reading.

What are the different ways of reading, and what are the various goals of reading?

What can we learn best, as individuals and/or as society, through human reading? what can we learn best through machine reading?

Can we start thinking about how to design libraries to maximize the unique payoffs of many different kinds of reading?

How can texts (and images, and data) be maximized for human discovery and reading? For discovery via algorithms and reading by machine learning applications?

What does it mean to maximize our collections for humans and what does it mean to maximize them for machines and algorithms?

OK – really wrapping it up now:

Machines can already read all the books. Or at least they can read all the books (or articles) that they can read.

(sidebar about how the proliferation of AI should compel us to double-down on mass digitization and on open access)

Trying to understand a little bit about AI and machine learning has taken me way outside my cognitive comfort zone, but I think it is the kind of thinking we need to do to be effective library leaders and to be effective stewards of the future of libraries, librarianship, and for those of us in research libraries, for the future of scholarship.

I think it will be crucial that we avoid the temptation to continue to serve primarily individual human readers and let the computer scientists worry about how to apply machine learning and AI to vast libraries of resources.

I think we would be wise to start thinking now about machines and algorithms as a new kind of patron  — a patron that doesn’t replace human patrons, but has some different needs and might require a different set of skills and a different way of thinking about how our resources could be used.

Slide11

For further reading:

Serendipity as prick

(How’s that for a click-baity headline? Am I doing it right?)

This is just some fleshed out notes from a short talk I gave to kick off the Codex Hackathon at MIT this weekend. My instructions were to get folks excited about the theme of Serendipity (not coincidentally, a favorite topic of mine).

I’m obsessed with serendipity.

Serendipity gets a bad rap sometimes, and is often associated with some pretty sexist and ageist stereotypes about bun-headed, pearl-clutching librarians who cling to their books and their browsing just in case someone might discover some unfinished, never before played sonata by German Composer Robert Shummann; or some unknown, uncatalogued, forgotten short stories by Zora Neale Hurston.

Those kinds of things actually do happen — those actual examples happened.

But Serendipity – at least the kind I am obsessed with is about so much more than just stumbling on some unexpected treasure in the bowels of libraries or archives … Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

I hope we can all think expansively and creatively about serendipity – about what it is, why it ought to be encouraged and facilitated (especially now), and how we might leverage technology to democratize access to serendipitous encounters.

The OED says Serendipity is a happy, unexpected, accidental encounter with new information (paywall, so no link. But trust me).

I think of Serendipity as exposure to ideas, people, perspectives that we didn’t know we wanted to or needed to be exposed to.

And lately, I’ve been thinking of Serendipity as a pin prick that might burst our filter bubbles.

The most famous quote about serendipity is attributed to Louis Pasteur, who is said to have said “Serendipity favors the prepared mind” — which if you ask me is a little elitist.

In a print-based world, scholarly serendipity certainly favors a well-connected and well-placed mind.  In the print-based world; happy, unexpected, accidental discoveries of ideas, and knowledge and perspectives is only possible for those with access to the people and the books and libraries and archives where those ideas reside. And that access has always been limited to elite communities.

The internet and the growth of digital libraries holds the promise of democratizing access not just to knowledge, but to the opportunities to discover things you didn’t know you wanted to discover.

In my ideal world, the likelihood  of a serendipitous discovery is limited only by our openness to the possibility.

We need serendipity now more than ever – and we need it for as many people as possible. Because encountering new, unexpected ideas and information – being exposed to data, arguments, concepts – through books, for example — that we didn’t know existed, just might be the key to helping us all think in new ways, see the world through a different lens, and see new ways to solve old and sticky problems.

So my hope for this weekend is that you hack with an eye to using the tools, the data, and talent assembled here to promote more accessible and equitable forms of serendipity.  I think our democracy, our world, could really use it right now.

 

 

 

 

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.

10639354_10101303374863123_1573726173760322439_n

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).

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