I am pleased to announce the launch of the Visual First Amendment, a project I have been working on for the past year with my colleague Dr. Chris Sula, and our wonderful group of graduate assistants.
But while the project took life this past year, it was born a few years back, in the semester of Spring 2006. I was teaching Information Policy and we were discussing in class the erratic nature of Supreme Court decisions.
How is it possible, students asked, that requiring students to salute the flag was considered constitutional in 1940 (Minersville School District v. Gobitis), but three years later, the Court ruled that this requirement violates students’ free speech (West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette). Is it because the understanding of freedom of speech has changed so dramatically over the years, or is it because the composition of the court has changed? How do such changes in the court affect rulings? Can we predict how someone will be vote if we know their nominating president, their gender, their religion, their law school?
These are all questions that can be answered, but until recently, with the rise of empirical legal research, finding these answers was a labor-intensive process in which the researcher would have to sort case-by-case, justice-by-justice, to identify any patterns in the connections between cases, justices and topics.
My colleague Chris Sula, whose research areas are in information visualization and digital humanities, also takes a great interest in First Amendment rights, and we joined forces to turn this idea into reality.
What followed was a year in which Chris and I, alongside with our graduate assistants, collected data from various sources (First Amendment Center, Wash. U, LII, Oyez, Wikipedia and more links), in various sizes, and in various formats. We met weekly as the VisualFA took shape. As we moved through the stages of development we discussed our vision for the VisualFA, we looked and many examples, thought of our target audience, what questions we would like to answer, what underlying data would we need to answer that, where do we get it, what format does it come from, how do we define the fields, what networks are we linking, how do we balance narrative with visualization, how do we present the tool. We read extensively about empirical legal research and contextualized our work with larger theoretical frameworks, particularly Critical Information Studies. We looked for software solutions that are open-source and easily manipulated. Our graduate assistants used their coursework to contribute to the projects, using courses in information visualization, government information, legal sources, programming, GIS and more. We rolled the project out slowly, not advertising it, but showing it to small groups, including during presentations at the GL15 and iConference. We introduced it to a group of student in the Fall 2013 semester, and two of our graduate assistants, conducted user/usability studies during Spring 2014.
And now: Drumroll: We are ready to officially launch the VisualFA. We consider it in perpetual beta and have many plans to development. But since those are never done, there is no end to how long you can delay the release. We encourage you to use the VisualFA and write to us and let us know about your experience. We are seeking suggestions to improve the tool, as well as intuitional partners (ACLU, Georgetown, any takers?). You can contact us at or @VisualFA
The verdict is in, and the verdict on this particular occasion takes the form of student evaluations. Let me tell you, you never stop feeling a bit wary of them. When the envelope comes, or—as in the past two semesters—the PDFs, my heart skips a beat before I begin to read them. But that is a little beside the point. I was just reminded of the downside of the one-size-fits-all evaluation form we get from the Brooklyn campus, namely the question asking students to indicate to what degree the course increased my understanding of environmental sustainability. Sustainability? Why am I asked to teach sustainability? When did that become an overarching societal value? Why should my courses not increase compassion, or reflection, or social responsibility, or understanding of First Amendment rights, given that we are an information school?
And to this list of values I would like to add resilience. Resilience asks “how to support people and create systems that know how to recover, persist, and even to thrive in the face of change.” Andrew Zolli is a “thought leader and curator of a new idea, ‘resilience thinking,’” and was recently interviewed on On Being [all quotes are from the transcript] about his ideas and his book Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back.
Zolli tells us that
the ecological system, the economic system, the geopolitical system, the climate system, the food security system are all connected to each other in ways that cause very complex highly unpredictable nonlinear outcomes. So all of those systems being connected leads us to a place where increasingly instead of trying to find an equilibrium in a planet that’s out of balance, we also have to try and manage with the unbalances, the imbalances.
We have to manage in a world that’s intrinsically out of order.
He goes on to describe the decade that began with the events of 9/11 and continued through expensive and deadly wars, economic crisis, international terrorism, and unprecedented natural disasters. Zolli asks how can we weather such system failures, and answers that in a world where systems are so interdependent, we need to have redundancy in our systems. He says:
… a big part of that story is about emboldening the local. Because we’ve so tightly connected all of these systems, it’s important that we have redundancy. It’s important that we have spare capacity. It’s important that we have the right kinds of social networks, so that we can share with each other. It’s important that we have a shared wisdom, a body of knowledge that helps us be more locally self-reliant.
While this is my first introduction to Zolli (copies of his book are on order at PMC), creating redundancy in systems so that they are more resilient against vulnerabilities is a familiar notion in collection preservation. In fact, it is the principle at the heart of LOCKSS (Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe), a dispersed digital preservation system from Stanford University. Instead of preserving materials in a centralized way, exposing content to system failure, LOCKSS allows each participating library to preserve its own digital collection through a distributed network, cooperating with one another to assure that the content remain accessible and intact.
This is just one of several examples that ran through my mind as I was applying resilience thinking to libraries and models of scholarly communication. I hope to further explore these themes in my fall course, Academic Libraries and Scholarly Communication. I am excited about introducing students to the concept, and discussing with them its relevancy to academic libraries. Resilience thinking could provide libraries with a roadmap to growth, while sustainability—for all its emphasis on the future—has had very limited positive affect on libraries. Time to write the syllabus.