It’s been a rough year for the planet. It’s been a rough year for the country. It’s been a rough year for libraries. We face a lot of problems that are complex and scary and it’s easier to name them than to figure out what to do next. But when I look back on 2014 I see some amazing people doing the things that we librarians profess as our core values. Since there’s something about years coming to an end that leads to lists and resolutions, I thought I’d look back and give a shout out to a few of the librarians who have taken difficult situations and made courageous, difficult, affirming choices. These are just some of the many librarians who make me proud to be in this profession.
The president surprised many people when he added his comments to the 4 million submitted to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) about whether and how the government should set rules that will shape the future of the Internet. What was surprising was that Obama came out with a short but quite pointed outline of what many of us feel would be exactly the right moves to take. Citizens of all political persuasions have strong feeling about the value of keeping the Internet open. How exactly to do that is what’s tricky. Because simplistic metaphors, such as asking whether Internet access is more like cable TV or like electricity, as a recent New York Times article put it, don’t really work, I thought I’d try and untangle what exactly is under debate.
Harvard historian Jill Lepore’s takedown of Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation in The New Yorker has been getting a lot of attention. Twitter subsequently presented me with a fascinating analysis of how this theory has influenced higher education. Essentially, individual entrepreneurs are considered valuable because they find cheaper ways to reach new markets. We don’t want smart and knowledgeable workers, because they will frustratingly improve things incrementally rather throw everything out in the race to cut costs and get ahead of entrepreneurial smash-a-thons.
I heard a couple of very interesting presentations this spring given by extremely smart people on ways that libraries can do more with data to improve the user experience, help students succeed, and make a case for the value of libraries. Last week, a group of brave speakers decided to start their slide presentation with a cow and conclude with a grilled steak, asking us to consider whether it was time to finally tackle this library sacred cow: privacy.
In a course I teach, we spend a little time thinking about the role fear plays in the construction of social issues. Philip Jenkins and Joel Best have both written persuasively about the ways in which anxiety is a potent lever for influencing public opinion and gaining attention for various causes. Once a problem has been identified and named, various claims-makers have incentives to associate their pet issues with the named threat, often expanding the domain of the problem by widening its purported influence. In the process, the threat is often distorted.
The first phase of the Lever Initiative is nearly complete, so it seems a good time to share what we’ve learned. In 2010, I sent an email to a group of liberal arts college library directors suggesting a crazy idea: what if we jointly investigated the possibility of starting an open access press? We formed a task force to explore the idea. The next step, should we decide to go forward, will be to explore what exactly we might do and how we would fund it.
Facebook just turned ten years old. A lot has changed in that decade. We’ve grown accustomed to sharing details of our lives through a single platform that tracks our likes, dislikes, friendships, and interests, and follows us when we leave the site to browse the web. We’ve gotten used to using our Facebook login to sign up for other services. We’ve grown resigned (to the point of indifference) to the panopticon that corporations like Facebook have created by using our activity on the Internet as our window on the world and their big-data window into ours.