Posts Tagged 'reading'

feminism and the collective collection

Text of my talk at BLC Networking Day 2015 below:

title slide: feminism & collective collection

title slide: feminism & collective collection


I guess I should start by explaining my title a bit.

Here’s the deal – In April of this year, a paper I co-authored with Stanford colleague Bess Sadler, titled Feminism and the Future of Library Discovery was published in code4lib journal. It got a lot of great feedback and in general was pretty well-received. So of course, I joked on twitter that I clearly needed to title everything I wrote now on “feminism and …”

So when I was asked to give one of the keynotes today for the Boston Library Consortium Networking Day, I had no choice but to talk about “Feminism and the collective collection.”

I’m kidding, of course, well mostly kidding.

I’m talking about the collective collection because that’s sort of what we are about as libraries right now – not just at the BLC, but every research library I know of is looking for ways to leverage partnerships with others to supplement their own collections. And almost every vision for the future of research libraries includes a call for increased collaboration – especially in areas of print and digital archiving, resource sharing, and collection building – in other words the same kinds of collaborative projects that are at the heart of the work of the BLC.

rosy the riveter socks

rosy the riveter socks

And I’m talking about feminism because I’m an old feminist.

(This is where I showed off my new Rosie the Riveter socks).

I was a sociologist before I became a librarian; and in my sociology training in the mid-90s I discovered the work of some of the great black and queer feminists of our time: bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins, Jack Halberstam, Audre Lourde, Adrienne Rich, June Jordan, and many others. Their work certainly influenced my sociology and my politics, but also my approach to librarianship.

In fact, about 2 years ago I wrote explicitly about bringing a queer and feminist agenda to libraries – all in the context of a firm belief that without an explicit feminist and queer agenda, the work we do in libraries will reflect the same inequities, biases, and discrimination that are still too prevalent in our society – and I think this is borne out in the demographics of our profession, and in some cases in our services, and in our collections.

I’ve also written before about the fact that everyone has an agenda, and that I subscribe to the feminist ideal that instead of seeking some mythical objective, neutral stance; one should simply be transparent about one’s positionality, theoeretical lens, and yes – one’s agenda.

So, it isn’t just that I bring a particular set of values and theoretical perspectives to librarianship, but also that I am convinced that libraries are not now nor have they ever been neutral.

In fact, far from being merely neutral repositories of knowledge, libraries at their core are actually pretty progressive.

In fact, a few years ago a Chicago blogger called out libraries as explicitly socialist — I’m not sure if anyone has gotten him to fess up to whether or not he intended the article to be a parody piece or if he was serious.

But in truth, we are actually all about collective ownership and free distribution of goods – which is kind of the definition of socialism.

What could be more socialist and value-laden than the idea that community members ought to have free access to books, computers, experts and other sources of information and the means to use that information?

The library as an institution is a downright radical idea.

So is it really such a stretch to apply feminist principles to our work? Especially our collective work?  Obviously I don’t think so, and I hope by the end of this talk some of you will agree.

Of course, there are many kinds of “feminisms”, so let me be explicit again about the fact that the kind of feminist thinking and agenda that animates my work is heavily influenced by black feminist thought and by intersectional feminism, and not so much by the straight, white corporate feminism exemplified by the whole Lean In movement.

So what are the essential tenets of black feminist thought?
Black feminist thought argues that sexism, classism, racism, homophobia, and plenty of other forms of oppression are interlocking and intersecting forms of oppression and have to be examined and understood as such if we have any hope of trying to dismantle existing systems of power and privilege.
Black feminist thinking also compels us to “decenter” straight, white, western, male knowledge and ways of knowing and to place formerly subjugated and marginalized forms of knowledge at the center of our analyses.

What would that mean in practical terms for libraries?
An example might be to imagine a library classification system that put the experiences and perspectives of black women at the center. In such a classification system the works of James Joyce, for example, would appear under a subject heading of “White men fiction”; and Toni Morrison’s novels would simply be categorized as “Fiction”.

Of course, there are some of us who already think of them that way … but our catalogs reflect the white male centric model.

And here is a pretty stunning example of the ways in which default library practices serve to center whiteness:

This is WorldCat’s relevance ranked list of items returned for a search on the subject of “African American Women Fiction” …

African America Women - fiction

African America Women – fiction

Yes, that’s right —

The Help, a novel written by a white woman about a white woman’s story of the experiences of black women, is the #1 item in a relevancy ranked list of titles in WorldCat with the subject heading “African American Women Fiction”.

I’m interested in leveraging feminist thinking as a way to decenter whiteness, and to ensure that our work promotes diversity, inclusion and social justice – not just in terms of gender, but with attention to the intersecting axes of race, class, sexuality, ability and other forms of inequality, exclusion, and marginalization.

I am motivated by a concern/fear is that we are so focused on collaboration as a rational and practical response to budget pressures and/or the very real need to free up shelf space that we rarely step back to look at collaborative ventures as opportunities to enact the values that matter to us.

Let me stop here and remind you all how new I am to the BLC – I recognize that it is entirely possible, I hope even likely, that there are ample examples of BLC work – either collectively or at some of our individual institutions – that does reflect and promote progressive, even feminist values. I hope you will share those examples once I’m done here.

Some of the core feminist values that I think align well with core librarian values are values like community, inclusion, advocacy, equity, and empowerment.  These are the kinds of values that allow us to leverage our collective activities in ways that might resist and push against the biases and unconscious patterns of discrimination that have left us with collections that are too white, too male, and too western; and with classification schemes and technologies that center whiteness and that reflect and perpetuate inequalities, stereotypes and discrimination.

Again, this is not to say that all of our collaborations are hopelessly oppressive and wrong and bad  — obviously we do great work together and some of our collective efforts already reflect and advance feminist values.

I actually think that the rise of borrow-direct style resource sharing is not only a boon to our scholars, but is also a nice example of individual empowerment, community, and inclusion. By providing more choices directly to our scholars, we are empowering them and providing them with a more diverse set of resources than any of us could provide through our individual collections alone.

So I’m not saying that we aren’t already pursuing initiatives that reflect our values, But what I want to do is nudge us to think about an even more activist approach to our collaborative work.  And to do that, I’ll try to provide a bit of context for why I think an activist approach is warranted.

Before I do that, we have to talk a bit about “neutrality”.

There are those who think libraries and librarians ought to avoid activism, that we should suppress any political agendas, and simply passively and “neutrally” provide our users with the resources and services they want.

I use air-quotes around the term neutrality, because I don’t think neutral is possible, and I certainly don’t believe that any of our social institutions can credibly claim neutrality.

The problem with attempting “neutrality”, perhaps especially with respect to collections, is that there is nothing neutral about the context in which we are making collection development decisions, or in which our students and faculty are making their reading decisions.

Moreover, the collection development decisions we make, at our individual institutions and collaboratively, have profound impacts on who and what is represented in the scholarly and cultural record.

We have to be willing to acknowledge that the decisions we make about what books and journals and archives we collect are inevitably biased, based as they are on some combination of individual and collective human judgements, and on popularity. It doesn’t take a sociologist to tell you that we all bring various forms of conscious and unconscious biases to the decisions we make — including the decisions we make about collections.

Beyond acknowledging the potential for individual bias, we also have to recognize that systemic biases exist which affect access to the resources necessary for a writer to publish her work, and to have that work marketed and recognized as authoritative. I want to talk about some of those systemic biases and how they create a skewed context for our collections development work.

As Ta-Nehisi Coates says: “there are ways that our reading is shaped and limited by the biases of the dominant literary gatekeepers”. In his essay, All the sad young literary women, Coates describes the ways gatekeepers like publishers, book reviewers, and book sellers favor works by and about men – especially white men. And since book reviews – especially favorable ones – can impact a books popularity and sales; gender and/or racial disparities in whose books get reviewed will impact whose books sell well, and therefore who gets a contract to write a second book, or a third.

And I would submit that, like it or not, libraries act as gatekeepers too … we are complicit in this when we don’t take active steps to counteract the biases that affect scholarly publishing and user preferences.

So, what kinds of biases are there in the world of publishing and books? I have a few examples.

A group called VIDA has been providing breakdowns of book reviewers and books reviewed in major literary publications by gender for the last few years.

Let’s look at what they have found.

This graph shows the gender breakdown of books reviewed by the New York Review of Books over the last 5 years.

Gender and NY Review of Books

Gender and NY Review of Books

In general the 2014 VIDA counts show some improvement in the gender balance of authors reviewed, many of the major mainstream publications are still far from gender balanced in their reviews.
Looking at this data from The New York Review of Books, for example, we see that they have improved from female authored books representing only 16% of the titles they reviewed in 2010 to a review list that was nearly 1/3 female authored books in 2014.

Racial disparities are even more dramatic.

To determine self-identified race of women whose literary works were reviewed by major publications, VIDA attempted to contact women authors whose work has appeared in the journals they cover, and asked them to self-identify their race/ethnicity based on standard census categories.
While the data they collected is still incomplete, the results are stark … starkly white one might even say.

As an example, here is the breakdown of women authors reviewed by the Times Literary Supplement over the last 5 years. The purple bar is all the white women – 88% of the female authors reviewed are white.

Women of color - Time Literary Supplement

Women of color – Time Literary Supplement

Here’s the graph for the Boston Review. Again, the large purple bar is the white women – the other tiny bars are small categories of women of color.

Women of color - Boston Review

Women of color – Boston Review

Graphs for The Atlantic, Harpers, London Review of Books, The Nation, The New Yorker, etc. etc. etc. look remarkably and depressingly similar. All dominated by the purple bar of white women.

Some more data to consider:

Here is an excerpt from a recent article on the 2015 NY Times summer reading list.

NY Times Summer Reading List: Peak Whiteness

NY Times Summer Reading List: Peak Whiteness

Although the NY Times summer reading list recommendations are usually pretty pale, this year the list achieved peak whiteness — not a single book written by a person of color.

Let’s hope none of our library colleagues are basing their summer reading recommendations on such a biased and white-washed list.

Finally, lets look at awards.

Novelist Nicola Griffith has compiled data on gender and major literary awards.

She concluded that books about and/or by women are far less likely to win big awards that books by and about men.

This chart show the breakdown of Pulitzer Prize winners for fiction over the last 15 years.

Gender and Pulitzer Prize for fiction

Gender and Pulitzer Prize for fiction

Note that exactly 0 of the last 15 Pulitzer Prizes for fiction went to books written by women about women. 8 of 15 went to books written by men about men or boys, 3 went to books by women about men or boys, 3 went to books by women about both men and women; and 1 went to Middlesex. In 15 years, not a single book written wholly from the point of view of a woman character was considered worthy of the Pulitzer.

The National Book Award, the Hugo Award, The Man Booker prize all show similar patterns where books by and/or about men far outnumber books by or about women among award winners.

OK – so all these sources of information about books – reviews, recommendations, awards, even our own classification systems are pretty clearly white and male centric. Books by and about men and white women are more likely to be reviewed, recommended, awarded and seen as relevant than books by and about people of color.

How should that information influence our collection development practices – especially our collective practices?

For me, these data demonstrate  exactly why we need a feminist agenda for our collections and our collaborations – we need explicit feminist values as a corrective to the lack of diversity in publishing, reviewing, and other gatekeeping venues.

If we rely passively on big publishers, trusted reviewers, and reader popularity to build and promote our collections, then the collective collections we build and preserve for future generations will quite simply be biased and skewed towards white male authors and topics. If we are willing to admit that we are developing collections within a publishing context that does not adequately represent nor promote the actual diversity of our culture and society; then it seems to me we ought to be willing to commit to actively seeking to inject the values of diversity and inclusion into our collective collections work.

In other words, in order to ensure that our collections truly do reflect our stated commitment to diversity, academic librarians must actively and aggressively collect resources by and about underrepresented groups. Relying on patron driven acquisitions programs and circulation data alone will almost certainly result in a less diverse collection now, and an even more biased version of the scholarly record preserved and made available to future generations.

So what can we do and how can we leverage our collective resources and collective will in the service of inclusive values?

Here’s where I want to turn the traditional question and answer time around;

I’m not a big fan of the “sage on a stage” style Q&A after a keynote, where audience members are supposed to ask questions of the all-knowing speaking and long comments subtly disguised as questions are discouraged.

I’m as interested in the thoughts and comments and ideas that a talk might inspire as I am in the questions.
So instead of stopping to invite you to ask me questions, I want to pose some questions for us all to explore together:

With that in mind, here are some prompts based loosely around the theme of what would a feminist agenda for our collective collections look like?

  • What might our resource sharing initiatives look like if we made diversity a priority – alongside of or even instead of cost-savings?
  • What kinds of interfaces, or policies might we design if we wanted to explicitly use borrow-direct to shift the center of our collections, such that works by people of color were highlighted, and promoted?
  • Could we collectively use demand driven acquisition not just to ensure we are only buying items that will be used; but instead use DDA and PDA explicitly and intentionally to free up resources (staff time and collection dollars) to collect items outside the mainstream?
  • If we prioritized community building and the common good, would we be less worried about free riders in our collaborative projects?
  • If our goals for the collective collection were diversity, access, and empowerment for all our users, would that change the nature of our partnerships?
  • If diversity were a goal, for example, would we stop looking for “peers” from similar institutions to collaborate with and instead look to partner with libraries whose users, history, and context are very different than our own; in the hopes that their collection profile might also be different from ours?
  • What could we do collectively about our metadata as a corrective to the ways our current classification schemes marginalize some works and center the works by and about western white men?
  • Would feminist values compel us to consider the role we play in patronizing and supporting small and independent presses that might be more likely to produce works by and about people of color, queer people, indigenous people, and other marginalized populations?
  • Are our interests so well aligned that we should we be working with such presses to find new sustainable business models?

These are just some of the questions we might tackle if we were to look at our collective projects through a feminist lens.

Access to information and socio-economic status

In Online Information, Ebooks, and Moral Panic, Rick Anderson asks:

What percentage of poor children has access to a decent public library collection, as compared to the percentage that has access to the Internet?

It is a very important question and gets at the kind of information librarians need as we make decisions about how to provide the best possible access to information to the widest possible set of people.

Some time ago, I joked on twitter “Never ask a librarian a hypothetical question … you are likely to get a real answer … with citations.” I guess I should amend that to “Never ask a hypothetical question on a library blog … you’re likely to get a real answer …with data.”

So yes, let’s see if we can answer that question. First, we need to operationalize our concepts in ways that render them measurable. Easier said than done, it turns out; but let’s give it a go.

If the point of the question is to determine whether an ebook or other online information is more accessible to low-income patrons than print, then I think it is fair to operationalize “access to the Internet” as “access to the Internet at home”. In my opinion that is a rather conservative measure of access to the Internet, since many people (especially kids) in low-income families share computers, making it more difficult to read long-form information than for those who own their own computer or e-reader. But let’s go with “access to the Internet at home” as our measure of access to e-books and other online information.

According to a June 2013 report prepared by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the Economics and Statistics Administration, and the US Department of Commerce: “Just under half (46 percent) of households with incomes of less than $25,000 access the Internet at home.”

Operationalizing “access to a decent public library collection” is even more difficult. In theory, everyone has access to public libraries, right? But meaningful access really means a library that can be accessed via a reasonable commute – preferably walking or safe, affordable public transportation. Good luck finding a measure of that. On the other hand, it seems safe to assume that visiting a public library indicates access to a public library. In fact, using “visited a public library” as a measure of access is likely to grossly underestimate access — surely we can agree that more people have access to a public library than actually visits one, right? But let’s play it safe and go with actually visiting a public library as our measure of “access to a public library”.

Since I couldn’t find any articles or reports containing statistics about public library access or use, I decided to use the SDA: Survey Documentation and Analysis site from UC Berkeley to do some quick and dirty analysis of the General Social Survey data. A quick cross-tab tells us that in 2008 65% of respondents in households with household incomes under $25,000/year visited a public library at least once in the past year. In 2012, 64% of such respondents visited a public library at least once. I used the VISLIB variable (asked in 2008 & 2012 only) and the INCOME variable, recoding them both into dichotomous variables for simplicity’s sake. Please feel free to do your own analysis.

“What percentage of poor children has access to a decent public library collection?”
At least 65%.
“…as compared to the percentage that has access to the Internet?”
No more than 46%.

Online information is less accessible than printed information in a public library to the 54% of poor kids who do not have home internet access. Sure, those kids can access online information at their public library, but unlike the printed books, they can’t check that online information out and take it home with them. Any assertion that online information is radically more accessible than print ignores the reality that online information is radically inaccessible to over half of our poorest citizens. Note also that only 57% of African-American households and 58% of Hispanic households have home internet access (pg. 26, Exploring the Digital Divide), so ebooks and other online information is pretty inaccessible to over 40% of African-Americans & Hispanics too.

Another question Anderson poses is “If you really want to get a book into the hands of a maximum-possible number of poor kids, is encoding it into a physical document (rather than, say, making it available via cellphone) really the best way to do it?”

Considering that even among low-income individuals who own a cell phone, only 55% of them use their phones to go online (Cell Internet Use 2013, from Pew), making information available via cellphone may not get that info into more poor kids’ hands than having it available in a public library (where 65% of low-income kids will visit in a year).

Another bit of data from the Pew Internet report on e-book reading is suggestive of whether print books or ebooks are more accessible to poor kids. According to the Pew data, 19% of people with household incomes below $30,000/year read at least 1 ebook in 2012, compared to 44% at the highest income levels. E-book reading is growing across all income categories, but at a much slower rate among low-income individuals than among higher-income readers.

The difference in reading between income levels shrinks considerably when you look at reading on all platforms (print and electronic), with 66% of those in the lowest income bracket reading at least 1 book, compared to 84% in the highest income bracket. Moreover, there is little difference between the mean number of books read by low-income readers (14), and the mean number read by high-income readers (15). Actual behavior would seem to indicate that being in a low-income household has a stronger negative impact on ebook reading than on reading across all platforms.

I long for the day when technology really does fulfill the promise of enabling equal access to all kinds of information for all kinds of people. But the data I can find sure seem to indicate that we simply are not there yet, and I believe that “solutions” that ignore that reality are likely to increase rather than mitigate current inequalities.

Final note: I would love to be wrong about this. If anyone has different data and/or does a more careful analysis of the GSS data and proves me wrong, bring it.

Buy a paper for the bus driver

Marguerite hybrid shuttle bus

Buy a NY Times for your bus driver! Photo credit: Deyra N. Rodriguez

One of the CalTrain workers on my usual train was complaining last week that he never gets to read the paper any more. Now that everyone reads their news on their phones, tablets, or e-readers; there are fewer copies of paper newspapers left on the train for him to read.  Folks working on public transit are generally not allowed to use their own mobile devices during work; but they are allowed to read a newspaper during down times.

I thought this was an interesting unintended consequence of the decline of print news. So, if you think we are all better off when everyone is well-informed, buy a print newspaper for your bus driver, your CalTrain conductors, your Bart drivers, etc.

(You do use public transit, right?)

Gone Reading, gender and librarians

This is the first time I have done a blog post that could be construed as a commercial endorsement, but I hope you will agree that the circumstances are pretty interesting and compelling.

I got an email from Brad Wirz, Founder & CEO of Gone Reading International, LLC asking if I would mention his recent philanthropic startup called Gone Reading International here at Feral Librarian. I don’t get too many of these sorts of requests, and I needed a diversion from some onerous work tasks, so I went over to the site and poked around. I like their mission:

We market a line of interesting products for book lovers, and donate 100% of the after-tax profits to provide new funding for libraries.

The site is well-designed and organized, and has some cool products and good content. The Gone Reading blog has content that is likely to be of interest to some of my readers as well.

But, when I clicked on the Gifts for a Librarian section, I was troubled to see only Women’s t-shirts. So, I wrote back to Brad and said:

Tell ya what — I will mention GoneReading in a blog post, if/when you add some t-shirts for men to your Libraries and Librarian collection. We wouldn’t want to perpetuate any tired old librarian stereotypes, would we?

Well, within the hour, two of Gone Reading’s awesome Men’s t-shirts were listed in the Gifts for a Librarian section. So, if you are a librarian of the male persuasion, or if you know one, or if (like me) you prefer the fit of men’s t-shirts, or if you’re as pleased as I am at Brad’s quick response; please head over to Gone Reading and see if there is something there for you. Remember, it is for a very good cause.

An adventure in blended serendipity

I subscribe to over 60 blogs via Google Reader, and I try to scan through the headlines a few times a day. Dan Cohen’s blog is one I almost always stop to read in full. Yesterday, I read his post Reading and Believing, and immediately went searching for the 2 books he mentions: The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction and Thinking, Fast and Slow.

My first stop was SearchWorks, where I found an available copy of The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction in the stacks just two floors up from my office. (Alas, Thinking, Fast and Slow is on reserve at the Law Library, and on order for the Business Library, so I might decide to download the Kindle edition).

I texted myself the call number from SearchWorks, and headed upstairs to get my book and start reading. As I was heading back down to my office, I start to skim the Introduction (only later realizing that reading and walking at the same time — on stairs no less — could have ended badly).

Right there on the first page, Jacobs mentions the Mortimer Adler classic How to Read a Book. I haven’t read Adler since my first year of teaching at USMA in 1994, so I immediately decided I wanted to re-read it.

iStanford results for How to Read

SearchWorks results on iPhone

I stopped halfway down the stairs, pulled out my iPhone, opened up iStanford, clicked on the Library app, found the record for How to Read a Book, and headed back to the stacks to retrieve it.

I was not planning on checking out any books yesterday, but a combination of RSS feeds, blogs, iPhone apps, and words in a printed book led me to two books to take home, and one to download.

For me, yesterday’s adventure in blended serendipity is a very good reminder not to get sucked into the either/or debates about serendipity and online vs. physical browsing/discovery. It doesn’t have to be just one or the other … in this case a nice combination of tools and methods worked just fine.

The books we don’t read

A couple of recent articles have me thinking about the value of all those books we don’t read. In Confined by Pages: The Joy of Unread Books, Kirsty Logan writes beautifully about the emotional satisfaction of have hundreds of unread books on her shelves. She also talks about learning from books she has not yet read:

Sometimes I hold these books in my hands and imagine what I will learn from them. These books have affected my writing, and I haven’t even read them. Maybe we can learn as much from our expectations of a story as we can from the actual words on the page.

A Telegraph article recently reported on a study that found that simply having books in the home has a direct impact on a child’s educational outcomes, irrespective of parents’ education, occupation and social class.

In many ways, browsing is about books we don’t read. Perhaps the real value of large, browsable print collections is in the vast number of books that scholars look at but don’t check out. In my own work with undergraduates, I talk to them about the importance of “taste testing”; and I warn them that they are likely to look at many, many more books and articles than will actually end up in their bibliographies.

Donald Barclay argues that the intellectual defense of browsing is largely a myth, and I have certainly questioned whether claiming the need to protect serendipity is an adequate defense for maintaining large print collections. And yet … there is clearly some hard-to-define and harder-to-measure value to all those books that rarely (or never) get read. There is value to individual scholars (and children), and there is a value that accrues to a community as well. We just need to get a better handle on how to define, measure, and defend it … because Barclay is right when he notes that “huge onsite collections have become an unsustainable luxury.” Many academic libraries are already full, and new books keep coming in the door. Figuring out the optimal on-site collection has to include considerations beyond circulation numbers alone if we want to honor and leverage the value of the books we don’t read.

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Keep the Yankees out of my book


The NY Times essay, Keep Your Team Out of My Book, is so good that I am willing to overlook the Duke hate:

My revulsion does not end with the Yankees. I also refuse to read books whose characters or authors have any affiliation with the Dallas Cowboys, the Los Angeles Lakers, the Duke University men’s basket­ball team, the University of Southern California football team or Manchester United, the Yankees’ European football evil twin.

My favorite part are the examples of passages deleted from manuscripts by editors who understood the difficulty of marketing characters who are fans of hated teams:

“Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know. I got a telegram from the home: ‘Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Lakers tickets still available.’ ” (“The Stranger”)

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Confessions of a Sportswriter

If you are a fan of sports, or a fan of writing, and especially if you are a fan of sportswriting, you need to read Sometimes the Bear Eats You by Sports Illustrated writer and NPR Morning Edition contributor Frank Deford.

The piece is a joy to read, and is full of great stories about sports and about writing. Deford clearly loves both.

He touches on the role of serendipity in writing in his story of how he and Sports Illustrated introduced Bill Bradley to the world, and how he came to write about The Toughest Coach There Ever Was.
He talks about how an earlier version of the Sports Dead Zone led to the notorious tradition of the SI Swimsuit issue. He talks about gender, the impact of new media, and explains how a whole profession could miss steroids.

Seriously, this is a great article. With all the March Madness hoopla, I had gotten behind in my Sports Illustrated reading. I’m glad I saved this issue, because this is one of the best sports articles I have read in a long time. I’m hoping it is an excerpt from a forthcoming book, but there is no indication that it is.

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Experts agree Google not making us stupid

According to a new report out of the Pew Internet and American Life Project:

76% of the experts agreed with the statement, “By 2020, people’s use of the internet has enhanced human intelligence; as people are allowed unprecedented access to more information they become smarter and make better choices. Nicholas Carr was wrong: Google does not make us stupid.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Nicolas Carr, of course, agrees with himself, and argues:

What the Net does is shift the emphasis of our intelligence, away from what might be called a meditative or contemplative intelligence and more toward what might be called a utilitarian intelligence. The price of zipping among lots of bits of information is a loss of depth in our thinking.”

The Google employees among the experts naturally defend the impact of Google (and the web generally) as the facilitator of new kinds of knowledge and thinking, and of increased access to information across the world’s population.

The rest of the respondents present compelling and nuanced responses that are well worth reading. Many of them expound on the basic premise that “The question is flawed: Google will make intelligence different.”

The major themes identified by Pew among their respondents are:

  • The resources of the internet and search engines will shift cognitive capacities.
  • We won’t have to remember as much, but we’ll have to think harder and have better critical thinking and analytical skills. Less time devoted to memorization gives people more time to master those new skills.
  • Technology isn’t the problem here. It is people’s inherent character traits. The internet and search engines just enable people to be more of what they already are. If they are motivated to learn and shrewd, they will use new tools to explore in exciting new ways. If they are lazy or incapable of concentrating, they will find new ways to be distracted and goof off.
  • It’s not Google’s fault if users create stupid queries.
  • The big struggle is over what kind of information Google and other search engines kick back to users. In the age of social media where users can be their own content creators it might get harder and harder to separate high-quality material from junk.
  • Literary intelligence is very much under threat.
  • New literacies will be required to function in this world. In fact, the internet might change the very notion of what it means to be smart. Retrieval of good information will be prized. Maybe a race of “extreme Googlers” will come into being.
  • One new “literacy” that might help is the capacity to build and use social networks to help people solve problems.
  • Nothing can be bad that delivers more information to people, more efficiently. It might be that some people lose their way in this world, but overall, societies will be substantially smarter.
  • Google itself and other search technologies will get better over time and that will help solve problems created by too-much-information and too-much-distraction.
  • The more we use the internet and search, the more dependent on it we will become.
  • Even in little ways, including in dinner table chitchat, Google can make people smarter.
  • ‘We know more than ever, and this makes us crazy.’
  • A final thought: Maybe Google won’t make us more stupid, but it should make us more modest.

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Why I’m reading Lacuna on my iPhone

The story of how I ended up downloading and happily reading Lacuna on my iPhone got me thinking anew about the relationship between content and format. When we wonder if print is better than digital, or if a podcast is better than a lecture, we are asking the wrong question. It is more complicated than which is better, and it is more complicated than personal preference. We need to understand how the combination of format and content effect outcomes. Under what conditions is digital delivery of content going to produce better learning outcomes than print? Under what conditions is it more pleasurable to read a book in print than on a Kindle or an iPhone?

I began “reading” Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver as an audiobook. It was perfect for my wife and I to listen to on the way to our honeymoon in Mariposa, and on the daily drives into Yosemite that week. But we got through only a quarter of it, and when we tried listening at home I would get too distracted.
My wife plunged ahead without me, listening to it on her daily commute. I very much wanted to continue reading Lacuna as well, but I bike to work and don’t think I could listen fully and bike safely at the same time (feel free to insert walking and chewing gum joke here).
Yesterday I had 4 unplanned hours to kill in the Dallas airport so I naturally went to the bookstore. I almost bought a print copy, but Lacuna is not out in paperback yet. The hardcover was just too pricey and too unwieldy for travel reading. I’ve also found hardcovers unwieldy for my other usual pleasure reading locations–the bathtub and the bed. So, I resigned myself to waiting for the paperback.
Later, while playing with Duke’s Library app for iPhone, I searched for “Lacuna” and discovered there was a Kindle edition available (loaded on a Kindle available for check out at Duke). I quickly downloaded the Kindle for iPhone app, bought a copy of Lacuna for $9.99, and happily read a few chapters on the plane.
I was surprised at how easy it is to read a novel on the iPhone. I generally hate reading anything more than 2 pages on my laptop, so I didn’t expect to like reading on the iPhone. But size matters — the iPhone is light enough and small enough that it is like a very small paperback. You get about a paragraph per screen, and you turn the page with a flick of the finger.
Now, anytime I have some spare time, I can get back to reading my book, without having to carry a heavy book around. I can read it in bed, and am going to get a waterproof cover so I can read in the bathtub as well. In this case, my goal was portable pleasure reading, and the iPhone works great. I suppose an actual Kindle (or other e-book reader) would work too, but I don’t have one, and don’t really want to have to carry another device around with me. For my purposes, reading Lacuna on the iPhone is a perfect fit.

(Oh, and for those interested, I wrote about 3/4 of this post on my iPhone. I finished it up, edited, and added links on my laptop.)

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