Some thoughts on DLC 2015

I just came back from DLC 2015, having to leave a day early so I can teach tomorrow, and came back thinking that this is best DLC I can recall in recent years. Not sure if the change is on my side or on DLC’s.

On my side, I am two years removed from serving on council, and those dreary monthly conference calls are beginning to fade away. They were always a challenge for me because the feeling was that you were listening to text and sub-text at the same time, but you never know which was which. Unless there was someone to keep you in the loop it was easy to be clueless (thanks fellow council members for keeping me afloat.)

On GPO’s side, maybe I was naïve, but I seemed to sense that a lot of good stuff was going on. I am quite impressed by the demo of the new FDsys and my sense was that the audience was as well. If it lives up to the demo, and there is every reason to believe it will, it will be in a league of its own. For people like me who still miss and never took to, this is an appealing alternative.IMG_8721

I wish I could have cloned myself to attend multiple sessions, but here is some of what I ended up going to:

  • Info Lit in Action and Framework for Info Lit. both focused on teaching government information within academic libraries. Both Seth Porter and Shari Laster provided interesting examples from their work. Sharri’s mirroring of the ACRL literacy guidelines to government information was particularly interesting to me as someone who teaches in these areas.
  • The Monday morning kickoff, which already seems days away, was quite cheerful. Council chair Hallie Pritchett has an upbeat personality and she set a nice tone with her delivery of the traditional morning calisthenics (on second count, I realized I need to move from the 5-10 category to the over 10 category)
  • It was nice to see the libraries that received Depository of the Year award, and to count among them two of my fellow former council members Suzanne Sears for UNT libraries and Stephanie Braunstein  for LSU Libraries. Later that afternoon I got to hear in more detail about the work that Suzanne and her colleagues do at University of North Texas, Eagle Commons Library.
  • After lunch, Cass Harnett  and I presented Where has all the data gone: Citizen Created Tools. It was great creating this presentation with Cass and pulling our strengths together across two coasts. The presentation was about tools created by different groups such as developers, hackers, universities, foundations; what they all have in common is that they use data (numeric and textual) from the federal government. This can be the FR in XML, bulk data from FDsys, Census files and more. I think our presentation was well received, or at least a number of people told me so.
  • I enjoyed all the education sessions I went to and learned a lot. Highlights included some interesting non USPTO sources for searching patents for genealogical research, and some interesting things about FOIA and GAO reports and learning about NLM. The poster session was a particular delight, and not only because one of the presenters was a former students who is now at the HSS.

    Leah Castaldi presenting on Minority Health Reports from

    Leah Castaldi presenting on Minority Health Reports from

On the lighter side, after years of complaining about the Doubletree Hotel, even that wasn’t so bad this year. The rooms were not freezing and there were no snuggie jokes and the wifi and technology worked everywhere.

Looking forward to 2016!

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:
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… 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

From Sustainability to Resilience

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.
Screen shot 2013-06-16 at 12.42.04 am
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.


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