2015 booklist – into Africa

With a trip to South Africa planned for the end of 2015, books about Africa, and South Africa in particular, dominated this year’s reading list.
The best of the lot was Rian Malan’s My Traitor Heart. malanMalan, a South African journalist writes and observes, documents and reflects on Apartheid from the vantage point of someone who carries the weight of the sins of his fathers. He does not for a minute take any undo credit for his anti-apartheid stand, no pats on the back, and is completely honest about his own struggles with biases and conflicts and his place of privilege. It reminded me in some ways of My Promised Land, only 10 times better and much more honest.

Richard Dowden’s Africa: Altered states, ordinary miracles covers the continent as a whole, with each chapter devoted to a country or issue. Dowden, a British journalist, has been coverings Africa since the 1960s and offers both access and insight. There were not that many miracles and the overall sense is rather depressing and hopeless. Everyone got it wrong about Africa, from the colonists, through the super-powers, the aid organizations and the national governments. It’s a hot mess where no-one is spared responsibility (except maybe some missionaries) and good intentions can not redeem.
African fiction complemented the non-fiction readings and mostly demonstrated that real people live in these countries and while they are never really removed from politics, the everyday activities that dominate their lives are very much those of young people elsewhere.
S.J. Naudé, The alphabet of birds is a series of interconnected stories about mostly young South Africans, moving between countries and struggling with national, personal and sexual identity and their place in the world. NoViolet

NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names is a story of a young girl growing up in Zimbabwe in a shantytown with no indoor plumbing and singing Lady Gaga. It enforces some of Dowden’s thoughts on the role of NGO’s in African countries and like all the other books on Africa, turned upside-down my notions on good-bad, home, desired outcomes, personal and national responsibility, and what one can do to help.
While each book was excellent, I was left feeling despondent and ashamed of my pathetic attempts to help by buying books from Better World Books. It turns out that sending our discarded books to African libraries may not be such a good idea after all. First, it fills the shelves with, at best, children’s books that have nothing to do with the African experience, and at worse, with useless 2004 Excel manuals that local libraries are loathe to discard since the book as an object is given high status and weeding the collection is not common practice. In addition, it turns out the donating books to local libraries undermines the local publishing industry that are producing high quality books that are more relevant to the local population.

Africa aside, I read a total of 30 books in 2015, 20 in print, 10 on the kindle, 16 from the library, many many good ones. In addition to the ones described above, the best literary fiction: Rachel Cusk, Outline. The funniest (humor is really hard to achieve and when done right it’s so wonderful) was Julie Schumacher, Dear committee members. Deserving of the credit it received is Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the world and me and the classic that I missed and glad I caught up on is Eugen Herrigel, Zen in the art of archery as well as Death in Venice.


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 Thomas.gov and never took to Congress.gov, 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 HHS.gov

    Leah Castaldi presenting on Minority Health Reports from HHS.gov

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:
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


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