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Category: Libraries and Librarians

It’s all coming up data

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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.

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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.

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Learning to Support Indigenous Studies

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As the librarian for American Studies, I’ve supported a few relatively minor Indigenous Studies projects. Now, though, I’m supporting a class that’s just enough outside of my comfort zone that it’s forcing me to slow down and really think differently about what I’m doing. And I’m realizing that a) my past approaches aren’t going to work with this class, and b) I might have been wrong all along.

Just as a couple of examples, I hadn’t come to grips with the challenges of reconciling the essence of something as simple and work-a-day (for me) as a research guide (with all its implied and overt messages about Proper Research in Academia) with the realities of the harm that colonial epistemologies have done and continue to do. I hadn’t realized or grappled with the importance of foregrounding indigenous voices or ways of knowing, or of not relying on academic sources to legitimize observations and analysis (which is such a reflexive move in Western academia). I hadn’t ever coached students to recognize authority clues in contexts and constructions so far outside of my own background and training.

Of course, I haven’t solved these issues, and I’m sure I haven’t even recognized a whole world of similar issues. And on the one hand, one of my primary roles in the lives of these undergraduates is and should be to mentor them through academic ways of knowing. But on the other hand, I’m hoping to learn ways of doing this that don’t also do harm — ways that promote ethical, respectful, thoughtful approaches to research in general and to cultural research in particular.

As I start grappling with these questions, I’m reading. So far I highly recommend:

There’s so much to say about these readings, but here’s a quote that helped me come to terms with the uncertainties I was feeling.

“Because these culturally based hierarchies of access to certain domains of cultural knowledge are often determined by an individual’s gender, age, ancestry, clan, and status, they are directly in tension with some of the underlying principles of librarianship that place a high value on free and equitable access to information.”

Becvar and Srinivasan, page 422

The simple act of naming these tensions helped me sit more comfortably with the new-to-me epistemologies and their implications for my work, and it helped me begin the process of first recognizing and then integrating unfamiliar epistemologies. (From here, moving on to Christen’s article was quite lovely.)

And one last quote that stuck with me:

Can the imagination and technological prowess that promoted open access publishing, open source software, and Creative Commons licenses exist side-by-side with those alternative systems of knowledge production that rely instead on social relations maintained and forged through negotiated interdependencies, which have as their goal the mutual gain between stakeholders in social, economic, and cultural terms?

Christen, page 2880

Christen thinks this is possible, with work. I’m on board for the work.

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Libraries Are About Connections

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People tend to see libraries as houses for collections. Sometimes they also see that we’re full of other things, too. People often see librarians as people who know how to navigate the various systems associated with the library. Sometimes they also see that we navigate other things, too.

I see librarians as people primarily attuned to the gossamer threads that connect people, connect information, connect artifacts. What makes those connections vibrant? What kills them? We cultivate our awareness of various kinds of connections, and we study how to pull on the right threads at the right time to foster new connections. We see that these connections mean more than the information bits themselves.

Discrete bits of information are worthless, but they come alive when connected to other information and to a person’s curiosity or need. I don’t want to say that a person without information or social connection is worthless, but I’m also not sure what that existence would actually look like. I can’t imagine it, so I can’t say anything useful about it.

I’ve been thinking a lot about these gossamer threads — where I see them, what they mean — and the more I think about it the more I see the care and feeding of these connections as the foundation of all that we do in libraries. Sure, I connect patrons with books, articles, and artifacts of various kinds, but I also encourage them to see the connections between that work and other works, that author and other authors, that system and other systems. And when I read an article, it turns out that I read it primarily for the ways in which it maps out its connections for me: which words are in the “dialect” of this community of practice? which mechanisms help us name and follow established connections (keywords, subjects, bibliographies, etc)? which works/creators (credited or assumed) form the work’s foundations? which works carried on the conversation afterwards, does this creator know these other creators personally? do they go out for drinks together? do they subtweet about each other? which connections build up the authority of this thing? which connections are ossified into fact or convention and which vibrate with potential for new exploration or embodiment?

And what happens when you put this undulating set of connections next to another set of connections? What gets remapped? What blossoms? What fades?

As a librarian, I know a lot about our search systems, our collections, collections available elsewhere, information flow in an academic context, my community…. But what I really see and tend and navigate all day every day are these gossamer threads. The connections that give everything meaning.

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