Working with incarcerated persons

For the past eighteen months I have been working with New York Public Library correctional services program to answer reference questions from incarcerated people. NYPL forwards me the questions and students taking Information Services and Sources answer inmates’ letters as part of their course work.
My colleague Emily Drabinski (who joined the project with her section of the course a year ago) and I, have written two extensive research articles on the topic, which will be published in RUSQ later this year.
In the meantime, Newsweek did a short piece on the project which really captures very little of the project and overlooks some important facets, such as the importance of information for facilitating reentry upon release.
Another aspect of the project that I am concerned with is how well the project meets the learning objectives of students. And for this, I would like to quote one of my students from the Fall semester:
Screen Shot 2015-01-26 at 5.15.51 PM
… each of the letters I received had such a real, genuine human voice to them – fears of re-entry and what would happen if they did not acclimate to society well, a desire to pursue a higher education, and so on. The program gave me a chance to interact with the inmates in a unique context that otherwise would have been very unlikely. I do hope the answers I provided were of help to each of the inmates, as that was my aim throughout the program.


In Memoriam, Jerry Breeze

It was a shock to wake up this morning to the news that Jerry Breeze passed away on Saturday from a sudden heart attack.

Jerry retired recently (summer 2013) from his long time position as Government Information librarian at Columbia University. It was government information that brought us together and we met regularly at Metro GoDig meetings, at DLC, and at Columbia. He was and early adopter of any information technology and a supporter and promoter of online access. He created some wonderful subject guides to government information, and I use them regularly.
Jerry was my go-to GovDocs librarian for the Jewish holidays – he would teach my classes on those occasions when the two were on the same night.

Jerry Breeze (center) with students

Jerry Breeze (center) with students

We had that kind of professional friendship that develops over years. In addition to government information, we shared a neighborhood, a love for the Middle East and many shared values.
It was just under a year ago that Jerry and I, along with two other govdocs librarians, met for a celebratory dinner in honor of Jerry’s retirement. Jerry was telling us about his plans to travel to Turkey and Egypt, two trips that he has since then completed, he just returned from Egypt in October.

Since then we have kept in touch on Facebook, and Facebook, what can I say, is a wonderful thing. Jerry shared posts about Open Access policies, Humans of NY, and photos from his trip to Egypt. His soft spot for dogs, underdogs and justice told the story of the person Jerry was. In the photos, there is always a happy sparkle in Jerry’s eye, and you can see how much he’s enjoying life. That’s how we will remember him.


Launching the Visual First Amendment

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. VisualFA
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


NYPL Map Warper tutorial

We are pleased to present to you a new edition of the Map Warper tutorial, created Dec. 2013 and uploaded March 2014.
In this tutorial, you will learn how to use the New York Public Library’s Map Warper tool to bring the past into the digital present.
This tutorial will show you how to overlay historical maps onto present day locations by georectfying, or warping maps from the NYPL collection.
The Map Warper allows you to align an historical map with its contemporary counterpart.
Rectified maps can be useful for a variety of reasons. “They can be used to study the rate of population growth, or the effects of a natural disaster on the landscape, or maybe you just want to compare your present day neighborhood to what it looked like in the past” (Rossy Mendez & Eric Mortensen, 2014, unpublished map tutorial)
Rectifying maps contributes to the public domain. Once a map is rectified it becomes part of the NYPL rectified map collection and can be used and accessed by subsequent users.
The Map Waprer allows users to become urban archeologists using digital tools to dig into the past and connect it to the present.

This tutorial was created by Corina Bardoff, Leah Honor and Bill Levay, MLIS candidates at Pratt Institute, School of Information and Library Science. This project was as assignment for the course Information Services and Sources. The class partnered with the Map Division at NYPL to update their tutorial, which was very long (over 10min.) and outdated.
Working in groups of 2-4 students and using Camtasia, the class created eight tutorials. All were excellent in their own way and the competition was hard, but ultimately the good people at NYPL, led by Matt Knutzen selected this tutorial (See on NYPL website).

The assignment helped students demonstrate several of Pratt SILS program-wide student learning objectives, specifically in the area of
Communication – Students demonstrate excellent communication skills and create and convey content
Technology – Students use information technology and digital tools effectively
User-Centered Focus – Students apply concepts related to use and users of information and user needs and perspectives
LIS Practice – Students perform within the framework of professional practice

We are glad to have had this opportunity to work with NYPL and look forward to future collaborations.


2013 booklist

[complete list] First, for the quick and dirty reviews. I end the year on a strong note with The correspondence of Paul Celan & Ilana Shmueli. The correspondence spans the last year and a half of Celan’s life, before he took his own life at 50. Shmueli is a Screen Shot 2013-12-26 at 7.51.19 PMchildhood friend to Celan, they reunited many years later, when she lived in Israel and he in Paris. They became lovers and confidants. During this year and a half, they met on three occasions, once in Jerusalem and twice in Paris. They corresponded daily, and one can not help but notice how efficient airmail is, a 3-4 day turnaround time in 1969-70). The letters are beautiful and painful and raw. She is both needy and strong and all there for him at the same time. He in sinking into depression and manages to emerge and embrace her here and there. He sends her poems and they write about poetry and his depression and together provide great insight into love, art and depression.
Best fiction books of the year are Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver, The Son by Philip Meyer, and Pow! By Ma Yan (2012 Nobel laureate in literature). All three books do a wonderful job in transporting the reader to another world, another existence, and justify a totally different moral framework. All three books made me more understanding towards the “other”. Adam Johnson’s The orphan master’s son, belongs here are well.
Notable mention, also in the fiction category, goes to Claire Messud for The Woman Upstairs.
Best non-fiction go to David McCullough’s The greater journey, Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve and The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. McCullough’s book on Americans in Paris between 1830-1900 was a great book to read as a backdrop for my visit in Paris. I learned so much about the state a medical training, or art and art trade, of sea voyages, of much much more. America was very backwards in many ways. Greenblatt’s The Swerve is another magic book. Concisely packed into 368 pages is the story of the recovery in the early fifteenth century of a Roman Screen Shot 2013-12-26 at 7.49.30 PMmanuscript by Lucretius. And with that a history of literacy and the power of the written word, popes and anti-popes and the bloody wars between them (the Middle Ages certainly make you feel better about the 21th century), and Epicurean philosophy and More’s concept of Utopia (which was a bit lost on me).
The third book in the category is The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks, a book that was so well covered in reviews, it needs no introductions. Of course, of special interest (let’s face it, I’m not into biology) were the privacy and research practices that were taken at the time, or lack thereof, and to what extent this became a game changer. And if I were to predict, this game is about to change again.
What disappointed? First on the list is Just Kids by Patti Smith. I will not deny I read it through, but I found the writing to be rather plain. It has plenty of pace but little emotion or insight, and very little beauty. Another disappointment was Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. This time last year is was hailed on all the book shows as one of the best of 2012. I made it to about two-thirds of the book with a growing sense of discomfort, before deciding that these are all very twisted people and that I want no part in it.

And now, for the numbers:
I read a total of 22 books this year (down from 31 last year). Of these 12 (58%) were from the library and 10 were bought. I read more print (14) than kindle (8) books. Half of the books I borrowed from NYPL (6 of 12), were kindle books. Six of the books were in translation (from German, Swedish, Chinese, Portuguese) and three were in Hebrew.
I learned of 12 of the book from book or radio reviews, six were recommended by friends, and four were picked up while browsing in bookstores.
NYPL continues to be my first choice, although I can’t control the flow, and often end up returning books unread, or not even picking them up (The Goldfinch awaited me twice). My favorite bookstore continues to be Book Culture and Amazon plays an important role as well. I also buy quite a few children’s books as gifts, and for that Bank Street Bookstore is the only place to go (and they both need website makeovers).
Next year I’ll have 3-year cumulative data and will post aggregated stats with tables, and until than, I wish us all a great year in reading.


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