On reading Harris, Hannah & Harris

NB: This is a paper written in the heat of passion after reading Harris, Hannah & Harris (H3). It is probably disrespectful, ill thought through and missing the central point of their paper “Librarians Confront the Post-Industrial Era”, and that’s because when I got the feeling they were opposed to great technological change (a notion based on word choice in the article), I skipped directly to the summary, and then did my own reading. The overall point here is that technology is here. You can quibble with the “paperless” part of Lancaster’s article all you want, but that won’t make e-books go away.

Yelling at Clouds

            There have always been two ways of looking at the future, from the dystopic Asimovian world of humans are beguiled and cuckolded by machines, to the Gene Roddenberry-esque adventures with other versions of our own humanity. Some things about the future never change. The first is that it is a critical unknown. The second is that technology will be the ringmaster.

I read H3 with a growing sense of disbelief. What began as an introduction to streams of thought about technology and their origins quickly dissolved into a three-headed hydra. What, they asked, was the role of the library in the modern world? Was the library, that public good, to be privatized and become pay-to-play? Why did people believe “simple-minded… mastery of technology” would save the future for librarians and for the population at large.

I certainly don’t want to criticise or trivialize the concerns raised in the paper. The issues raised are deep and central to information work. Information, and the accessing of it, has never been such a big topic in social discourse, but I feel like H3 have missed something critical here. That something is opportunity. I feel like they’re facing the future, and they are afraid.

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Infoplasticity

Amazing comment on BoingBoing’s continued coverage of what’s happening in North Africa and the Levant.

“the net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” (sic)

Our bodies do this too. Limbs that are damaged atrophy while other limbs get stronger and pick up slack. Neuroplasticity is constant and ongoing but is profoundly apparent in cases of brain damage.

I’m struck by the way our information systems seem to mimic the mechanisms of the body. It’s one thing to look at an information system that behaves like a human mind (sort of), but something else to watch an information system behave in a profoundly biological way. I think I’d call that infoplasticity.

The Importance of G.R.O.S.S.

I was in a hurry to do my undergrad, so when I had a few months off, I decided to take some correspondence courses. I didn’t give much thought to how hard it would be to try to motivate myself every day to study – especially not after three years of back-to-back schooling and during a particularly balmy and beautiful summer. Luckily, I picked classes I was really interested in and I’m stubborn. Picking classes I was interested in meant I was motivated to learn the material. Things would have been much harder if I’d been trying to study, say, calculus or stats. Being stubborn was a huge asset. I had told my friends I was doing distance classes and they responded with stories of forgotten classes, missed exam dates and general mayhem. The implication was that I wouldn’t be able to finish my classes. I sure do like a challenge, and, hey, I like to be right. I worked my buns to the bone, hit all my marks and almost certainly carried an air of smugness around me for weeks afterward.

Doing those classes that summer was a really good way for me to prepare myself for taking my Masters long-distance. I learned a lot of skills and, in the end, created my Acronym for Success: Be G.R.O.S.S. That means being a Goal-setter, Realistic, Organized, Systematic and Sincere. Setting small goals (get chapter 1 done by Friday, say) was just as important as the big goal of finishing – if not more! Being realistic meant not overloading myself with work. Being Organized, well, that meant keeping an eye on the calendar and not losing my readings as the very least. Being Systematic meant creating routines, reaching targets and being careful not to miss readings, exercises or events. It also meant changing some of my priorities. (When I was taking classes in the classroom, if I didn’t make it to class, hey, I could get notes from someone and catch up on missed material over coffee with my friends. Taking distance courses mean that if you miss something you might just have to go without it. That means making it to every meeting and logging on as often as required. Sure, life gets in the way, and there’s no way I’ll be logging on if I’m down with a particularly disgusting form of stomach flu, but my cavalier attitude to my undergrad classes, where I could pick up what I missed if I just didn’t feel like hauling my bum out of bed had to change.) Sincerity meant picking only classes I was genuinely interested in. It’s hard enough to motivate myself to study after an 8 hr day of work, when there world is full of great reasons to leave the books untouched on the desk, I didn’t need to be struggling with disliking the subject matter too!

I was glad to see that what came naturally to me showed up in the Skills section of Libr 203’s lessons. The San Diego CC quiz highlighted a few things I hadn’t thought of before – what do I do if my computer blows a gasket and dies? What happens if I suddenly lose my internet connection? Yikes. Contingency plans had to be made! And the SJSU site reminded me of a few skills, particular to this program, that I need to add to my Acronym o’ Success, namely, being web-enabled, happy to work as an individual, and tech-smart. (Maybe G.R.O.S.S. will become G.R.O.S.S.E.S.T (e=web Enabled, S=Self-reliant, T=technologically up-to-date?) Hmmm.) At any rate, G.R.O.S.S. worked well for me and I’m looking forward to working with its big brother. Having a code by which I would study proved a good way for me to navigate those first few classes I took, and has helped me so far with Libr 203.

I’m really glad I had the opportunity to do a few distance ed classes before I committed to an online Master’s. I feel like I’ve tried and tested my particular combination of problem solving and time management skills. And, just like before, I like the material, so I’m motivated to learn it. It’s perfectly G.R.O.S.S. and I like it that way.

The Meat in Team and the Importance of G.R.O.S.S.

Part the First: The Meat in Team

Oh man. Teamwork. I hate it. At least, I think I do. Or, I thought I did.

See, when I think about teamwork in a school setting, I’m instantly transported to high school, where being keen on good grades was out and seeming bored and disinterested and only doing the bare minimum work to prevent open rebellion and exile was totally in. I think of my biology class, where we were put in teams, er, “teams”. Remember how everyone would scramble to get the smart girl in their group so that she would look after the actual science bit and everyone else could just paste paper to the display board and color in a picture of a frog? I sure do (I was the girl with the pencil crayons and glue stick). Maybe that was just me. Maybe your experience of teamwork in high school was a harmonic symphony that ended with a grand presentation, fast friendships and an A+ for everyone. But probably not.

When I think of academic team work, that’s what I think of. But I think that my mental image of “team work” and the reality are actually quite divorced. I was watching the Haycock lecture and as he talked about the difference between horizontal and vertical teams I started thinking about my old workplace. There I met regularly with my boss, and my boss’s boss. We would go through the budget, discuss what we needed to buy and when, and set goals and priorities. Hey, that’s a vertical team!

And I got thinking about horizontal teams and realized that, crazy though it seems, my work book club is a horizontal team. We certainly went through all the stages Haycock lists. Here’s how it went: Everyone was excited about forming the club (forming) but not everyone wanted to read the first book on the list by the date and getting together to talk about it was a bit of a struggle (storming), then we all got feeling bad about letting one another down and finally got ourselves organized and did it (norming). Now we meet regularly, even with folks who’ve gone on to other careers. If that’s not performing, I dunno what you call it. Haycock wasn’t kidding when he said that every team goes through those stages!

When I think of  teamwork, I am exactly like the students Irwin is envisioning. I do roll my eyes, I do groan (inwardly, or quietly, but groan none the less) and I do get a feeling of dread. I’m sure it’s because I’m instantly back in Biology, slacking off, or in Social Studies, doing everyone’s work so that I can get a good grade. But when I think about what teamwork means for me, here and now, and all the different sort of teams she mentions, I stop feeling dread and I start to feel interested and excited (I’m actually stoked to start Libr 202 – she says the students get to build a team database. Sounds like a challenge, and a fun one). That’s because I work in teams all the time, and I happen to think do my best work in teams too. I reach my goals more often, I feel more satisfied with the final result, and I’m more willing to take on complex or difficult projects (especially at work!).

So, it looks like I don’t actually dislike teams. Weirdly, it looks like I actually seek them out and enjoy being in them. Madness! Who knew? Up till last night, I certainly didn’t.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised to find I actually like teams. Now that I’ve had teams defined and explained and learned the stages of teamwork, I realized that I actually work and I play in them all the time. And, as Irwin says, I’m going to be using them to enhance my learning experience and, in turn, use that experience to enhance my work. That’s where the, um, meat is in a team; it’s virtuous, the feedback loop is endless. The skills you learn, the experience you gain, the friendships you forge, the work you get done, and the milestones you meet, they’re not just for school – they’re for life. Most people can read and summarize a textbook, but how many people can build a database with twenty other people? That is something I’m actually looking forward to. Go figure.

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Why Library School?

Six months ago, I was in the eye of a perfect (personal) storm. Up till that point I’d been living the dream. I was a coffee taster and YA writer and things were pretty good. Then I started feeling… not so good. I’d gotten The Look from my MD who told me I could have my health or I could drink coffee, but I couldn’t have both. I’d realized I was 29 and could only move laterally in my workplace. My husband declared it was time he went back to school. I started to hear the pitter-patter of little feet.

I had always wanted to be a librarian. My idol when I was in my formative years was Nancy. She was a woman of immeasurable knowledge and grace who was not only the teacher-librarian at my school but also my friend’s mum. Unlike the other adults I knew, she was open about the sort of work she did, the ups and downs of running a library in a high school, and what it was like to be a librarian. She was passionate about her work, learned, friendly and she was the most urbane and cosmopolitan woman I had ever met. No Marian the Librarian she.

Before I got carried away writing books when I was supposed to be studying ancient history, I asked her what I had to do to become a librarian. That conversation, had on a warm summer evening over a glass of wine and barbecued chicken didn’t have the weight of a portent behind it or anything. It was just one of those conversations you have when you’re eighteen and you’re not totally sure what you want but you know it’s not what you’ve seen. Ten, no, eleven years later I realized I’d always kept that conversation somewhere in the front of my mind. I realized that when I was studying for my BA I was also keeping one eye on library school, keeping my grades up and wondering what it would take to get in. After my perfect storm, after the bottom fell out of my comfy life and my body told me to shape up or it was going to ship out, I realized I’d been waiting for a good reason to do what my mentor had done. I applied to library school, and I got in. And here I am.

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