Skip to content

Category: Libraries and Librarians

The User is Not Broken

Published on Upworthy

Every few years this picture makes the rounds on the internet, and every time it does the booksellers and librarians of the world nod in understanding. Public librarians and booksellers get this question day in and day out – academic librarians less so. (Most of our books in academic libraries don’t have their fancy covers on anymore, so this question would be pretty much impossible here anyway.)

Here’s the thing, though. It’s not that “people annoy us” with this question. It looks to me like there was some frustration behind this particular display, sure, and the result is wording that pokes fun at patrons in a way that makes me squirm, but that’s not the norm for people I’ve talked to. Most librarians and booksellers I’ve encountered are proud to know their collections and clients well enough to be able to match people with the books they want!

No, the thing that’s frustrating is that it’s hard for us when we can’t figure out the answer to the question (we’re very all-in on the identity of being able to answer questions), and our systems don’t let us search by cover design features. That mantra of librarianship, The User Is Not Broken, means that if we’re getting tons and tons of the same question, that means that the system isn’t set up right.

Of course, another piece of the frustration is that we often don’t have a ton of control over our search systems. Don’t get me started on the refrain from vendors about “what users want” that almost never matches what the people I work with every day ask me about… And, sure, often what people want and need aren’t technically feasible, or aren’t feasible within shrinking budgets, or aren’t feasible with reduced staff or with staff that gets less and less training.

But if we actually can’t change the systems, we can embrace the fact that we can foster humans who can say “Oh, maybe you’re thinking of this red book?” Humans are pretty incredible!

Leave a Comment

2020 Census: the demo software, data, and more on the debate about differential privacy

Since last I wrote, I’ve been able to learn more about a question that had plagued me: what of IPUMS, that unparalleled resource for census micro-data? For one thing, I was sure they must be thinking about privacy already – micro-data must be handled with care. For another, the 2020 Census “Privacy Budget” work is likely to make IPUMS’s work pretty complicated or even impossible.

Turns out, they are of course way ahead of me. Here’s their page on the topic, which also links to the Census’ released software and documentation, as well as to data available from IPUMS that researchers can use to test that software.

I also happen to know someone who works at IPUMS, and he says they’ve already been doing record swapping and injecting “noise” into their data to protect unique cases.

I certainly hope that everyone involved can figure out how to protect people’s privacy while still allowing vital research. This seems like an impossibly tangled knot to me.

Leave a Comment

It’s all coming up data

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

My roots are about as humanistic/artsy as they come. I majored in English and minored in Art. Then I got a masters in literary studies. Then I got my masters in library and information science. That last degree was first time the word “science” was part of my life in any way more substantial than checking the box next to required credits for graduation. (It took me a long time, actually, to figure out why “library science” was a pair of words that go together, but be that as it may, my official degree is Master of Library and Information Science, which sounds very scientific to me.) From there I became the Librarian for Languages and Literature here at Carleton. All my previous passions neatly packaged in a single job.

This week I’ve been thinking a lot about an almost-decade-old paper by dana boyd and Kate Crawford. “Six Povocations for Big Data” made a big impression on me back in 2011 purely because epistemology and ways of knowing are my stock in trade, and this paper felt somehow Very True to me at the time. (Plus I’d just heard dana boyd talk at a library conference and was pretty much determined to listen to anything she ever said from then on.) This week I pulled it out of my Zotero library for a refresher, and it felt even more Very True to me now.

Part of my current re-fascination with this piece is that my liaison departments have taken a decided turn toward data. It has become increasingly clear to me that a major role I can play for my new liaison department (Computer Science — hey look! a second science in my life!) is to become a Data Librarian Lite(TM). Not a huge surprise there, and something I’m greatly enjoying learning. But they’re definitely not the only department I serve that’s turning to data. I’ve gotten more and more requests for linguistics corpora (spawning a new page on my Linguistics Research Guide just this weekend). And multiple faculty in the English department are working with digital textual analysis and literature corpora.

So yes, the phrases that stood out to me 8 years ago from boyd and Crawford’s piece stood out again: “Big Data is no longer just the domain of actuaries and scientists. … Big Data creates a radical shift in how we think about research … about the constitution of knowledge, the process of research, how we should engage with information, and the nature and categorization of reality” (pages 2-3).

But then there was this gem: “Claims to objectivity and accuracy are misleading” (boyd and Crawford, page 4). That meant one thing to me in 2011, but a lot has happened since then that has made me understand this statement in new ways. First there’s all the research into bias in algorithms (e.g. Safiya Noble). Then last week there was a talk presented in the Computer Science department here about “differential privacy” and (tangentially in the talk, but centrally to my world) the 2020 census’ plan to add deliberate small inaccuracies into reported results in order to protect respondents’ privacy. So not only are claims to objectivity and accuracy misleading, but too much accuracy has become harmful enough that we’re backing away from it in key areas.

Meanwhile, as epistemologies shift and the world of research continues to remake itself, I’ll be over here learning to be a librarian who navigates the various worlds of data in addition to being a librarian who absolutely values close reading and minute observation. And I’m loving it.

Leave a Comment

Enabling, in a good way

One of the things I love about my job is that my overarching function is to make things possible. I love making things possible.

Sometimes this means pointing people toward a resource that fits their information need, but more often it means helping them think about what would make their work possible. Helping them translate their questions into the language and mechanisms of search systems and information pathways, helping them think about what part of their overwhelmingly large research question might make for a manageable project while still feeling meaningful, helping them think about what broader concepts might give context to a frustratingly specific question, validating their curiosities, validating their sense that the process isn’t necessarily easy or straightforward, and on and on. At the very least, we’re always looking for concrete next steps while keeping our eyes on some (hopefully) meaningful and interesting goal. Honestly, a lot of the work is making things that feel scary and uncertain and anxiety-provoking feel manageable and actionable.

I’m really lucky that this kind of enabling can be my role in life.

Leave a Comment