Saturday, January 22, 2011

Too Much To Know

For those who think that Google Books, Wikipedia, and various forms of social computing are new challenges, Ann M. Blair, Too Much To Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010) may come as a surprise. Blair, a historian at Harvard University, contends that every age faced information overload, a point others have made. Blair focuses on the period up to 1700, examining various approaches to managing information, including sorting and storing, summarization, note-taking, dictionaries, sentence collections, commonplace books, indices, bibliographies, and encyclopedias. Blair pushes back on the claims for the influence of printing on the creation and use of scholarly references, arguing that most of the methods of scholarly reference were in place before the advent of printing. She weaves through her narrative, rich in detail about the techniques of early information management, political, educational, religious, cultural traditions, and technological influences and issues.

Friday, January 21, 2011


From today’s Chronicle of Higher Education, Richard Vedder reviews Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, by Richard Arum of New York University and Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia. Vedder notes that Arum and Roksa conclude that “students study little and, as a consequence, learn little.” Drawing on some results from test instruments, these researchers conclude that “gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills (i.e., general collegiate skills) are either exceedingly small or empirically non-existent for a large proportion of students”; 36 percent of students experienced no significant improvement in learning over four years of schooling; “less than one-half of seniors had completed over 20 pages of writing for a course in the prior semester”; “total time spent in academic pursuits is 16 percent”; “students are academically engaged, typically, well under 30 hours per week”; “scholarship from earlier decades suggest there has been a sharp decline in both academic work effort and learning”; “students…majoring in traditional liberal-arts fields…demonstrated significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills over time than students in other fields of study. Students majoring in business, education, social work ,and communications had the lowest measurable gains”; “35 percent of the students sampled spent five hours or less a week studying alone; the average for all students was under 9 hours.” This ought to be disturbing to a school like ours recruiting students from such undergraduate programs.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Taking Our Pulse

Jackie Dooley, Katherine Luce. Taking Our Pulse: The OCLC Research Survey of Special Collections and Archives. Dublin, Ohio: OCLC Research, 2010.

Issued as a followup to the Association of Research Libraries 1998 survey which resulted in the emphasis on exposing hidden collection, Taking our Pulse reminds us that “much rare and unique material remains undiscoverable, and monetary resources are shrinking at the same time that user demand is growing.” (p.9) I was particularly struck by the finding that two thirds of the respondents reported that they have special collections materials in secondary storage – so bring those collections back home and put that expresso bar somewhere other than in the library’s “empty” stacks.

Also sobering is the finding that while nearly all respondents have completed at least one special collections digitization project, many of these projects were specially funded one-offs and production levels achieved were not sustainable or scalable. This echoes the concerns about "boutique digital collections" raised by Paul Conway for at least the last 10 years. While it was not surprising that the data reveals a “widespread lack of basic infrastructure for collecting and managing born-digital materials” (p. 13), there is also some ambiguity as to who should manage these digitized collections as that responsibility does not necessarily return to the originating special collections department.

Overall, a useful state of the art review, which poses questions that we could begin to answer in our courses.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

A View of a Crucial Document

Jill Lepore, “The Commandments: The Constitution and Its Worshippers,” New Yorker, January 17, 2011, pp.70-76, provides an interesting examination of how a particular document has taken on symbolic significance in contemporary political debates. Citing evidence about how few Americans have read this document or possess any idea of what is in it [even though it is only 4400 words long], Lepore acknowledges that “Ye olde parchment serves as shorthand for everything old, real, durable, American, and true – a talisman held up against the uncertainties and abstractions of a meaningless, changeable, paperless age” (p. 72). She discusses the Constitution’s history as an archival artifact, how it been used and abused in debates, and how it often frames or shapes political discourse.

Monday, January 10, 2011

A different view of copying

Marcus Boon, In Praise of Copying (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010) offers an alternative perspective on the debates of intellectual property and copyright by exploring a variety of non-Western and other philosophical perspectives and cultural practices about the copy and the processes of copying. Boon argues that copying is a fundamental part of being human and that that inherent need is often at odds with legal and commercial ventures.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

God's Librarians

There is an interesting essay about the efforts to modernize the Vatican Library in Daniel Mendelsohn, "God's Librarians: The Vatican Library Enters the Twenty-First Century," New Yorker, January 3, 2011, pp. 24-30. The essay provides a good sense about the tensions between access and secrecy to the fabulous resources of this library and archives.

A New View on Public Scholarship

Beth Luey, Expanding the American Mind: Books and the Popularization of Knowledge (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2010).

Luey, with extensive experience in scholarly publishing, makes, with this book, a valuable contribution to the literature on what has been dubbed public scholarship. She leads us through the changing technologies of publishing and the history of publishing to consider when and where occurred the interests in writing and disseminating books intended to reach and educate a broad audience. More specifically, Luey notes how the growth in academic specialization and the stress in research as a means of evaluating faculty has made the task of reaching or educating the public more problematic. Research and research funding has pushed aside teaching as a means of evaluating faculty and the old model of the tea her-scholar has been weakened, even lost, in many universities. The loss of the public as the audience has led to highly technical, opaque writing, or, to put it another way, has shrunk the audience of many academics to small groups of their colleagues or even farther down to their tenure and promotion committees. This is not a book that is concerned with the debates about the future of the printed book or that of reading, choosing instead to consider how the idea and practice of public scholarship has changed and how it needs to be re-established. Luey brings both a fresh perspective to the volumes of advice on academic writing, based on deep reading and extensive experience.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

The ethical archivist

Elena s. Danielson, The Ethical Archivist (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2010).

Those looking for the best introduction to archival ethics will be satisfied with Danielson's book, although they might be dissatisfied with the open-ended nature of much of her discussion.  She states openly, right at the beginning, that this book will raise more questions than answers and while this does not bother me in the list it will certainly irritate some practitioners. She starts with an overview of the nature of ethics, the nature and role of professional ethics codes,  the role of ethics in the role of archives in contributing to a sense of collective memory and human rights, and ethical issues in using archives as a means for social accountability.  Then Danielson leads the reader through a detailed discussion, with numerous case studies and questions for reflection on ethics codes, appraisal and acquisition, disposal of records, access, issues about personal privacy and corporate proprietary information, forgery, and the dilemmas posed by displaced records.

Danielson is particularly good at grappling with tough issues, while not taking a particular side (something I am not good at) and still manages to be provocative.  In discussing the nature of ethics codes, for example, she makes this comment: "If the profession continues the policy of providing an aspirational code rather than enforcing ethics with penalties, there needs to be a forum for the concerns of archivists who take a different form" (p. 40). At the moment, the forum is in the classroom, and while that is a start it is not where the profession needs to be. Another emphasis by Danielson is her belief about how much is changing and how fast this is happening, such as when she considers privacy: "After decades of efforts by archivists to protect the rights of individuals, people are surrendering their privacy of their own accord" (p. 205). Such an environment makes it difficult to figure what the ethical stance ought to be. And Danielson is very adept as drawing attention to severe contradictions and murky areas, such as discussing the complicated nature of legal protections for whistleblowers, while further noting that archivists who make consider such a step could be seen as violating their trust andante their own ethics code.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

In this Year, Books Are Not Going to Disappear

We continue to be reminded that printed books are not going to disappear. David Ulin, LA Times book critic, provides a compelling defense of the value of reading books in his The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter In A Distracted Age (Seatlle: Sasquatch Books, 2010). He sees the reading of books as an "act of contemplation" (p. 16) whereas the present more prevalent browsing of blogs, web sites, and so forth Ulin characterizes as "an odd sort of distraction" (p. 34). Ulin's text reminds you of earlier works such as those by Sven Birkerts, and for those who still buy and collect books that is not problem. Jo Steffens, ed., Unpacking My Library: Architects and Their Books (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), is testimony to the value of books, featuring interviews with New York architects and engaging photographs of their libraries.