Information and the Future

This is the blog of the Information and the Future task force of the Rolfing Library at Trinity International University. The IF task force exists to explore the role of libraries in the future of Christian higher education.

Friday, February 27, 2009

RE: Online Community

The video Matt posted was interesting. I was especially struck by what Hipps said about looking for people who agree with you online. In a PBS video, Growing up Online, that was a major thing young people said they liked - being able to find people online who were like them, when they felt misunderstood in their real world communities.

We had an interesting conversation related to this in class this week. There was a youth pastor who said he had grown their youth group largely due utilizing online communities, such as a Sony community. He noted how it created another way to connect with the kids, since often they would share things more freely online than they would in real life. He did say, however, that you need the real life interactions in addition to the online. (Someone else I talked to said there's also a problem when the kids will share something online but are unwilling to talk about the same thing in person.)

Someone brought up the example of Christ - how he could have chosen to connect to people on a mass scale, but he chose to come in a physical body to a few people. But another person also noted how there was a form of technology even in the early church - Paul wrote letters that he sent to the churches. He wasn't there physically, but still managed to have influence and some form of relationship with a large number of people from a distance. (Although he did say he wished he could see them in person!)

Monday, February 23, 2009

Shane Hipps on virtual community

I really appreciate Shane Hipps' thinking about media and communication especially as it relates to the church so I thought I'd share this video of him talking about virtual community.

I discovered this video by reading a discussion of it on the Jesus Creed blog. Scot McKnight has a more positive view of virtual community that is also worth reading.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Reading Machines

Speaking of the future of reading, I just ran across a book on the topic:
Ex-foliations: Reading Machines and the Upgrade Path
by Terry Harpold.

I didn't quite understand what it is all about. Apparently it looks at early ideas of hypertext, such as the Memex and Xanadu. Memex had the idea of storing a large research library in a machine (now true!) and was supposed to be a "Memory Extender." The book also examines hypertext fiction, and looks at "questions of media obsolescence, changing user interface designs, and the mutability of reading." The author proposes that "we may detect traits of an unreadable surface—the real limit of the machines’ operations and of the reader’s memories—on which text and image are projected in the late age of print." (Whatever that means!)

One of the interesting things when I was looking at the book was that it was set up so it could be a print version of hypertext. Each paragraph had a number, and there could be references in one paragraph to a different paragraph using the number.

Librarians' role

I was pondering more my question about what librarians will have to offer that regular professors wouldn't. As I thought about it more, I think that at least for the foreseeable future librarians will have a very valuable skill to offer to professors - being more up-to-date on the latest research methods. I taught a class recently, and the professors were very impressed with the latest tools they didn't know about (particularly Google Books & Google Scholar). I think even with all the new technology available (or perhaps because there is so much new technology), students (and professors) need help learning how to do good research.

A while ago I read an article that studied what professors thought about teaching research: "What Faculty Think–Exploring the Barriers to Information Literacy Development". They discovered that many of the professors learned to do research on their own through trial and error, and figure that students should learn to do it that way as well. I've actually talked to professors who have said that it is the students' fault if they don't know how to research properly.

If that was ever true, I think it's even less so now, because it's very easy for students to fall into poor ways of researching that seem to work. So I think it actually takes more education to teach them how to break away from that and do higher quality research. And it seems like it should also be something that builds on itself: they should be taught to do higher levels of research in college than they did in high school, and grad school than undergrad, for example. Of course, professors have to expect higher-level research for that to work. And so part of it is also educating professors on what they can expect from their students.

I find Matt's ideas about encouraging reading intriguing. It would be fun to have a book discussion group in the library. Although the students here have so much reading already and discuss books in class, so I wonder if they'd want to add something else on. I bet a movie discussion group would be more popular. In fact, I was talking to a couple students who thought that our campus should have that - opportunity to view and discuss theological ideas in movies. (Of course, that wouldn't fit with Matt's idea of encouraging reading!)

Another idea - at Lake Forest College, when a professor published a new book, the library would host a forum for the professor to talk about their book and for people to ask questions. They were quite popular - especially with the other professors and members of the community. (Here I imagine students would also be very interested.) We have such great authors here, it would be cool to do something like that.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Research in a Digital Age

So far, we have found that no matter where students are enrolled, no matter what information resources they may have at their disposal, and no matter how much time they have, the abundance of information technology and the proliferation of digital information resources make conducting research uniquely paradoxical: Research seems to be far more difficult to conduct in the digital age than it did in previous times.
This is the preliminary conclusion of Project Information Literacy, a research project from the University of Washington. A project that is interviewing students across the country at a range of schools from community colleges to Harvard and UIUC.

The researchers suggest that the biggest struggle for students is "context" - understanding the big picture, the appropriate language, the task, and the tools available. The study also looks at similarities and differences between academic and non-academic or personal research with the former being rated much harder by students. The study is interesting and you should read the report.

I wanted to briefly relate this report to the conversation we've been having on this blog. I think that one reason research is perceived to be harder today is that traditional research at least in the humanities, is rooted in a world of books and presupposes a practice of reading that seems increasingly rare, esp. in undergraduates. Rebecca helpfully asks if courses like college writing, already cover this which is not something I'd thought about previously. But when I talk about reading below, I have in mind a set of skills that are developed by practice and may (ideally) nurtured by a community. I think of it like learning music. You may have a course that explains music theory but you only become a musician through a cycle of practice and performance.

If research dependent on traditional ways of reading is valuable (as I suggest here) then as librarians, I think it is part of our task to foster the type of community that nurutures the practice of reading. This may in part be explicit instruction, but also has to do with the type of space we provide, making book review and literary publications available, having space for people to intentionally discuss what they are reading and probably much more (ideas?).

Participating in this reading community and developing good reading practice will be helpful for understanding the context of research - how reference books relate to journals and monographs for example and for learning to understand and question text.

Finally, it is not my position that this is all the librarian is about - we also need to help people understand digital technology and appropriate it effeciently and constructively. This is where I cycle back to the need to articulate what research is and why it is important as the first step towards tying together these disparate strands (i.e. our responsibility with respect to both print and digital technology).

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Librarians as professors

In response to Matt's post below, I could see librarians moving in more of a direction of being more professorial in the future. I think it's already a trend with more librarians teaching credit courses on research.

Some of the skills Matt mentions on reading sound like skills that are (or should be) taught in basic English classes on reading and writing. But there is overlap with research as well. In the research class I teach, I definitely teach some of those things (when to skim, reading the texts critically, etc.).

So... do you think librarians will move toward doing some of the things English professors do now? Or working more with them to supplement what they do?

Evaluating sources

I was thinking more about some professors' strategies to not have research projects so that students can focus their attention on the class texts. I could see some value in this. However, I also think that in the information age we live in, it's important for students before they graduate to know how to navigate the wealth of information out there. They will need to know how to do this in their personal lives and for their jobs.

It is true that new technology could help students with finding more reliable sources. But there are still other elements of evaluation, such as determining if a source really fits their specific needs. Born Digital talked about how different people have different needs for information, depending on who they are (a doctoral student versus a high schooler, for example) or what they're using it for (i.e. personal interest vs. scholarly study). Although it sounds like Web 3.0 technology might address this too! Apparently they're working on search engines that could learn what the person's level and needs are and return results based on that information. -I could see problems with that (what about if you switched from doing mostly personal research to more scholarly research?) but I imagine they could tweak it.

But given that, it still takes some level of human discernment in deciding what to use and how to use it. That's also part of the creative, human process in crafting a paper, reflecting on what you've found and creating something new based on it...

Technology & Research - Continuing the Conversation

I would like to continue the conversation Rebecca and I have been having on technology and the future role of librarians. In a comment to a previous post Rebecca writes:
This takes it a step further to look at integration and use of the information. However, it makes me wonder about the librarian's role in this. (Always a blurry question with instruction.) It seems like this is something that fits with the professor's role in teaching the students to think more deeply about the topics they're teaching.

First, I think this raises an important issue - are (or should) librarians be considered faculty? I don't mean simply in rank but are or should there be similar expectations of scholarly expertise and expert level knowledge of fields beyond librarianship? Not perhaps at the exact level of the faculty but close enough that librarians can speak with authority on various disciplines. I think scholarly acumen used to be more commonly expected of librarians and perhaps we should reclaim the idea of librarian as scholar.

Second, I think there is a need to teach a basic literacy that moves beyond the content specific instruction of the university classroom. The helpful blog post, Academic Research a Painful Process For Students, points out that many students struggle with basic skills such as formulating a topic.

I think we can't assume that students have experience reading serious and lengthy books (and articles) and that the ability to do so is not a trivial accomplishment. Nor is this something likely to be covered in most classes. So I think librarians may have an opportunity to help teach the skills and especially foster the practices that lend themselves to understanding the world of books. Among those skills are:

Ability to understand metaphors
Ability to question written texts
Ability to persevere with a text
How and when to skim and how and when not too

This is all off the top of my head and I could say more but will stop for now.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Book Reading - A Disappearing Skill?

Sunday's NY Times had an article about a local school librarian entitled "The Future of Reading - In a Web Age, Library Job Gets Update."

After talking about all the information literacy instruction now provided by school librarians the article ends by reporting this exchange:

“Does anybody like books?” Ms. Rosalia asked. Several students stared blankly. The Russians, who spoke some English, shook their heads.

So Ms. Rosalia pulled up the home site for Teen People magazine, and Katsiaryna Dziatlouskaya, 13, immediately recognized a photograph of Cameron Diaz. Ms. Rosalia knew she had made a connection.

“You can read magazines, newspapers, pictures, computer programs, Web sites,” Ms. Rosalia said. “You can read anything you like to, but you have to read. Is that a deal?”
I have sometimes thought that as librarians we hold onto books mainly b/c that is what we know and change is difficult. That is a natural human reaction. But I think we do lose something important if we lose the skill of reading and comprehending books. Specifically the ability to handle complex stories and nuanced argument as well as an important connection with our past.

I think it is important to teach what we've come to think of as "information literacy." Namely how to discern quality information from dubious facts and how to navigate the digital world. But as I suggested yesterday, I think we (academic librarians) may need to think about how to teach an older kind of literacy - the ability to concentrate and analyze long passages and digest complete works.

If we accept this as a task, I think it will inform the way we organize and present our library collections and the type of spaces we house them in. More broadly, I think that as educational institutions if we wish to encourage students to move from skimming to reading we need to look at the assignments we give and the way we assess students. I don't think we can (or should) simply go back to an earlier time but I do think identifying things we like to change can be an important first step towards bringing that change about.

h/t Owen Strachen

Monday, February 16, 2009

On the human task of research

Below Rebecca wonders aloud about the future prospects of our species. Specifically if our place will be eclipsed by machines. I think this is an important and relevant questions for librarians to be engaging with.

In my experience, typically when someone suggests that human can be replaced by machines it is not b/c the machines are so great but because their few of humanity is so small. If research, for example, was only finding and evaluating information and then summarizing and arranging the data it is possible that machines could do all of that. But I think that misses the point of research.

I believe that research, on the one hand, should be about asking questions, specifically the creative, philosophical questions that only a human can ask. Beginning with the research problem, or thesis, the question asking continues as data is found and explored from different angles. Angles that are often most fruitful when they connect with our own stories and experiences. Posing philosophical questions, like appreciating sunsets is something that I think is crucial to being human and not the type of things that microchips can do meaningfully.

On the other hand, I think that research is a practice which bestows great rewards to the practitioner. To take on a research project is to embark on a quest to discover what you don't know. Along the way the researcher (hopefully) develops patience, diligence, and the ability to empathize with different points of view. It is likely that the development of these character traits is often more to be valued then the results of the research. Thus I think research can be understood as promoting virtue - helping us discover the good in a moral not mechanistic sense.

Unfortunately, I think the library profession does not do enough to highlight these aspects of research. It becomes easy for us to make finding more and better sources the focus of research often leaving the researcher so swamped with data that they have no time to ask meaningful questions and spend time simply pondering. Likewise, in our attempt to help make the process as efficient as possible we diminish the character building aspect of research. The final paper becomes more important than the practice. Research is just a hoop to jump through to get the degree and the more the process can be expedited the better. So much so that one wonders, can't a machine just do this so we don't have to be bothered.

There is a lot more that could be said on this topic. I know that if I were ever to assign a research project in the future, I would encourage students to spend more time with fewer texts hoping to encourage more thinking and less hunting for more and more data.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Humans obsolete?

I was pondering more on Matt's question (below) about the role of libraries and librarians in the future. It was interesting, because for all the roles I saw, I could envision technology in the future doing the same thing better than we can. For example, the role of evaluating, selecting and promoting quality information - there is speculation that Web 3.0 could do just that. It sounds like there is technology being developed that could read, interpret and give a quality assessment for the massive amounts of information out there. It could do this quicker, cover more information and potentially do a better quality job than us.

If in the future technology could do all our tasks better than us, what would be our role? Would it be to provide the human contact? Even for that, there is speculation about robots in the future who could simulate human relationships. I would argue no matter how closely these robots were to humans, there would always be the essential humanness missing. But many people might think that loss worth it to have most of the positives of relationships without the negatives.

In my technology class today we watched a video of a technologist talking about how he sees technology as being the next stage in evolution:
Kevin Kelly - "How technology evolves"
Of course, all this brings up questions about whether humans would even be necessary in a world where technology is superior to us in every way.

I feel like I'm becoming a technology pessimist! But as Dr. Mitchell pointed out in class, the struggle is how to be technologists, while resisting a trend that wants to evolve us out of existence.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Physicists change the publishing system

In the Jan. 30 edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education there was an article about researchers and libraries are putting pressure on physics publishers to offer free online articles. The way it would work is that the libraries would all agree to pay fees to a non-profit organization, who would then give money to the physics journals, who would then provide their journals free online.

The publishers are understandably nervous about this, probably wondering what would happen if the libraries decide to pull out after a while. But it does sound nice from a user's and library point of view, especially given the high price of science journals!

Google, Amazon, and Libraries

I wanted to share a couple of blog post that have caught me eye recently.

In this post Karen Coyle discusses the future impact of Google books on libraries now that they've settled with publishers. She asks if administrators and government officials will be able to tell the difference between Google books, which promises instant access to 7 million volumes and counting, and libraries. Other than the obvious difference that Google books is bigger and likely to seem cheaper than most libraries.

In a different post Jim Stogdill ruminates on Kindle, Google, and the end of history. He theorizes that we are becoming so accustom to instant information that if something does not exist in digital form, it simply does not exist. He thinks we are losing the will and the skills to track down information in dusty physical world.

These posts lead me to reconsider the idea that libraries are primarily about providing access to information. If that is true we are losing badly to the Googles and Amazons of the world. I think we need to re-articulate are role as the owners and preservers of information. We collect materials and that is an important task.

Second, I think we need to start a serious conversation about what information is and why it is important. Is all information equal? What is the relationship between information and reality? How does information help us or further our education? Is the process by which we obtain information significant - why or why not? Is information more like a common tool or a priceless treasure?

How we answer these questions will go a long ways toward helping us decide if paying for a librarians, library buildings, and library collections is a good investment or if we should accept the "every book available to download in 60 seconds" promise of Amazon.

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Monday, February 09, 2009

The New Kindle is Announced

Amazon officially announced the release of Kindle 2 today. The announcement on Amazon's home page boasts increased memory, sleeker design, and improved display.

More information and videos can be found on the Kindle 2 page.

The Kindle community blog was/is hoping Amazon will also announce that their ebooks will be able to be read on other platforms. Kindleist fears that Apple and/or Google may be positioning themselves to become the leading ebook distributor and that Amazon's dominance in the book world is based on selling titles not devices. It will be interesting to see what moves Amazon, Google, and Apple make.

One might think that libraries would play a part in determining what the new book distribution channel will look like but that seems unlikely to me.

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Thursday, February 05, 2009

Our New Blog

Today we are announcing our new library blog entitled ThInc.

Whereas the blog you are reading is primarily to discuss information technology and changes in library practice, ThInc is an attempt to communicate with the student population of Trinity.

Monograph librarian Rebekah Hall will author the posts on the new blog. She has stated the mission of ThInc to be: engage, expand, explore. Rebekah will not only be posting library announcements on the blog but also sharing her thoughts on living faithfully at school. We want to encourage people to see the library not just as an institution but also as a collection of knowledgable and dedicated people and to enhance the unique community that exists at Trinity.

We would also love the new blog to open up a new channel of two way communication where we as staff can hear from the library users. I hope you check it out.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Multimedia sources for information literacy

I just got sent this wiki that contains multimedia sources (mostly videos) to use when teaching information literacy. I got in the spirit and contributed a couple of fun videos I've used in a class before!