Are you attending ALA Midwinter in Philadelphia? If so, please join your fellow LES members on Saturday, January 25 from 6-8 PM at Maggiano’s in Center City. LES will provide appetizers. Drinks and additional food can be purchased.
This is also a great opportunity for those interested in the LES section to meet some of our members. Library students, recent graduates, and literature and humanities librarians are welcome to attend!
LES is also hosting virtual discussion group meetings for Midwinter that are open to all. You can learn more about these meetings, and other relevant meetings that will be held at Midwinter at http://www.acrl.ala.org/lesblog/?p=364.
Note: This post makes heavy use of web content from Google Search and Knowledge Graph. Because this content can vary by user and is subject to change at anytime, this essay uses screenshots instead of linking to live web pages in certain cases. As of the completion of this post, these images continue to match their live counterparts for a user from Providence, RI not logged in to Google services.
This That, Not That That
Early this July, Google unveiled its Knowledge Graph, a semantic reference tool nestled into the top right corner of its search results pages. Google’s video announcing the product makes no risk of understating Knowledge Graph’s potential, but there is a very real innovation behind this tool and it is twofold. For one, Knowledge Graph can distinguish between homonyms and connect related topics. For a clear illustration of this function, consider the distinction one might make between bear and bears. Though the search results page for either query include content related to both grizzlies andquarterbacks, Knowledge Graph knows the difference.
Second, Knowledge Graph purports to contain over 500 million articles. This puts it solidly ahead of Wikipedia, which reports having about 400 million, and lightyears ahead of professionally produced reference tools like Encyclopaedia Brittanica Online, which comprises an apparently piddling 120,000 articles. Combine that almost incomprehensible scope with integration into Google Search, and without much fanfare suddenly the world has its broadest and most prominently placed reference tool.
For years, Google’s search algorithm has been making countless, under-examined choices on behalf of its users about the types of results they should be served. But at its essence, Knowledge Graph presents a big symbolic shift away from (mostly) matching it to web content — content that, per extrinsic indicators, the search algorithm serves up and ranks for relevance — toward the act of openly interpreting the meaning of a search query and making decisions based in that interpretation. Google’s past deviations from the relevance model, when made public, have generally been motivated by legal requirements (such as those surrounding hate speechin Europe or dissent in China) and, more recently, the dictates of profit. Each of these moves has met with controversy.
And yet in the two months since its launch, Knowledge Graph has not been a subject of much commentary at all. This is despite the fact that the shift it represents has big implications that users must account for in their thinking, and can be understood as part of larger shifts the information giant has been making to leverage the reputation earned with Search toward other products.
Librarians and others teaching about internet media have a duty to articulate and problematize these developments. Being in many ways a traditional reference tool, Knowledge Graph presents a unique pedagogic opportunity. Just as it is critical to understand the decisions Google makes on our behalf when we use it to search the web, we must be critically aware of the claim to a newly authoritative, editorial role Google is quietly staking with Knowledge Graph — whether it means to be claiming that role or not.
Perhaps especially if it does not mean to. With interpretation comes great responsibility.
The value of the Knowledge Graph is in its ability to authoritatively parse semantics in a way that provides the user with “knowledge.” Users will use it assuming its ability to do this reliably, or they will not use it at all.
Does Knowledge Graph authoritatively parse semantics?
What is Knowledge Graph’s editorial standard for reliability? What constitutes “knowledge” by this tool’s standard? “Authority”?
What are the consequences for users if the answer to these questions is unclear, unsatisfactory, or both?
What is Google’s responsibility in such a scenario?
He Sings the Body Electric
Consider an example: Walt Whitman. As of this writing, the poet’s entry in Knowledge Graph looks like this (click the image to enlarge):
You might notice the most unlikely claim that Whitman recorded an album called This is the Day. Follow the link and you are brought to a straight, vanilla Google search for this supposed album’s title. The first link in that result list will bring you to a music video on Youtube:
Parsing this mistake might bring one to a second search: “This is the Day Walt Whitman.” The results list generated by that search yield another Youtube video at the top, resolving the confusion: a second, comparably flamboyant Walt Whitman, a choir director from Chicago, has recorded a song by that title.
Note the perfect storm of semantic confusion. The string “Walt Whitman” can refer to either a canonical poet or a contemporary gospel choir director while, at the same time, “This is the Day” can refer either to a song by The The or that second, lesser-known Walt Whitman.
Further, “This is the Day” is in both cases a song, not an album.
Knowledge Graph, designed to clarify exactly this sort of semantic confusion, here manages to create and potentially entrench three such confusions at once about a prominent public figure.
Could there be a better band than one called The The to play a role in this story?
This particular mistake was first noted in mid-July. More than a month later, it still stands.
At this new scale for reference information, we have no way of knowing how many mistakes like this one are contained within Knowledge Graph. Of course it’s fair to assume this is an unusual case, and to Google’s credit, they address this sort of error in the only feasible way they could, with a feedback mechanism that allows users to suggest corrections. (No doubt bringing this mistake the attention of ACRLog’s readers means Walt Whitman’s days as a time-traveling new wave act are numbered.)
Is Knowledge Graph’s mechanism for correcting mistakes adequate? Appropriate?
How many mistakes like this do there need to be to make a critical understanding of Knowledge Graph’s gaps and limitations crucial to even casual use?
Interpreting the Gaps
Many Google searches sampled for this piece do not yield a Knowledge Graph result. Consider an instructive example: “Obama birth certificate.” Surely, there would be no intellectually serious challenge to a Knowledge Graph stub reflecting the evidence-based consensus on this matter. Then again, there might be a very loud one.
Similarly not available in Knowledge Graph are stubs on “evolution,” or “homosexuality.” In each case, it should be noted that Google’s top ranked search results are reliably “reality-based.” Each is happy to defer to Wikipedia.
In other instances, the stub for topics that seem to reach some threshold of complexity and/or controversy defers to “related” stubs in favor of making nuanced editorial decisions. Consider the entries for “climate change” and the “Vietnam war,” here presented in their entirety.
In moments such as these, is it unreasonable to assume that Knowledge Graph is shying away from controversy and nuance? More charitably, we might say that this tool is simply unequipped to deal with controversy and nuance. But given the controversial, nuanced nature of “knowledge,” is this second framing really so charitable?
What responsibility does a reference tool have to engage, explicate or resolve political controversy?
What can a user infer when such a tool refuses to engage with controversy?
What of the users who will not think to make such an inference?
To what extent is ethical editorial judgment reconcilable with the interests of a singularly massive, publicly traded corporation with wide-ranging interests cutting across daily life?
One might answer some version of the above questions with the suggestion that Knowledge Graph avoids controversy because it is programmed only to feature information that meets some high standard of machine-readable verification and/or cross-referencing. The limitation is perhaps logistical, baked into the cake of Knowledge Graph’s methodology, and it doesn’t necessarily limit the tool’s usefulness for certain purposes so long as the user is aware of the boundaries of that usefulness. Perhaps in that way this could be framed as a very familiar sort of challenge, not so different from the one we face with other media, whether it’s cable news or pop-science journalism.
This is all true, so far as it goes. Still, consider an example like the stub for HIV:
There are countless reasons to be uncomfortable with a definition of HIV implicitly bounded by Ryan White on one end and Magic Johnson on the other. So many important aspects of the virus are omitted here — the science of it, for one, but even if Knowledge Graph is primarily focused on biography, there are still important female, queer or non-American experiences of HIV that merit inclusion in any presentation of this topic. This is the sort of stub in Knowledge Graph that probably deserves to be controversial.
What portion of useful knowledge cannot — and never will — bend to a machine-readable standard or methodology?
Ironically, it is Wikipedia that, for all the controversy it has generated over the years, provides a rigorous, deeply satisfactory answer to the same problem: a transparent governance structure guided in specific instances by ethical principle and human judgment. This has more or less been the traditional mechanism for reference tools, and it works pretty well (at least up to a certain scale). Even more fundamental, length constraints on Wikipedia are forgiving, and articles regularly plumb nuance and controversy. Similarly, a semantic engine like Wolfram Alpha successfully negotiates this problem by focusing on the sorts of quantitative information that isn’t likely to generate so much political controversy. The demographics of its user-base probably help too.
Of course, Google’s problem here is that it searches everything for every purpose. People use it everyday to arbitrate contested facts. Many users assume that Google is programmatically neutral on questions of content itself, intervening only to organize results for their relevance to our questions; Google, then, has no responsibility for the content itself. This assumption is itself complicated and, in many ways, was problematic even before the debut of Knowledge Graph. All the same, it is a “brand” that Knowledge Graph will no doubt leverage in a new direction. Many users will intuitively trust this tool and the boundaries of “knowledge” enforced by its limitations and the prerogatives of Google and its corporate actors.
Consider the college freshman faced with all these ambiguities. Let’s assume that she knows not to trust everything she reads on the internet. She has perhaps even learned this lesson too well, forfeiting contextual, critical judgment of individual sources in favor of a general avoidance of internet sources. Understandably, she might be stubbornly loyal to the internet sources that she does trust.
Trading on the reputation and cultural primacy of Google search, Knowledge Graph could quickly become a trusted source for this student and others like her. We must use our classrooms to provide this student with the critical engagement of her professors, librarians and peers on tools like this one and the ways in which we can use them to critically examine the gaps so common in conventional wisdom. Of course Knowledge Graph has a tremendous amount of potential value, much of which can only proceed from a critical understanding of its limitations.
How would this student answer any of the above questions?
Without pedagogical intervention, would she even think to ask them?
Are you planning to come to Anaheim for ALA this June? Whether you are a member of LES or simply interested in what we’re doing, you are invited to come to LES meetings, discussion groups, and conference program. Below is a schedule along with a brief explanation of each event’s purpose. We hope to see you in June!
Pre-Conference Workshop: Digital Humanities in Theory and Practice: Tools and Methods for Librarians
This requires separate registration and fees. It’s selling out very quickly!
Learn how humanities librarians can participate in, create, and lead digital humanities initiatives. In addition to introducing theories and practices that characterize the digital humanities, explore several examples of how librarians currently lead library digitization initiatives, collaborate on faculty projects, and participate in national grant-funded efforts. Investigate project management complexities, digital humanities’ impact on research collections, humanities librarians’ work with faculty to manage their digital humanities research, and digital humanities’ role in scholarly communications.
Saturday, June 23
8:00-10:00 a.m. — Disneyland Hotel-North Exhibit Hall Room IJ
Executive Meeting I
Meeting of the officers and committee chairs of the Literatures in English Section of ACRL. Open, but it’s a business meeting and probably not of interest to the general public.
10:30-12:00 p.m. — Disneyland Hotel-North Exhibit Hall Room DE
MLA IB in Academic Libraries Discussion Group
Not an LES meeting, but of interest to many members. Get updates on the state of the MLA International Bibliography from vendors and MLA representatives.
1:30-3:30 p.m. — Hilton Anaheim-Palos Verdes Room
Fair Use, Intellectual Property, and New Media
As libraries continue to acquire digital content (books, films, websites, and other media), they face an increasing demand both to adhere to relevant intellectual property laws, and to open up materials for teaching and research purposes. This session will feature a panel of professors, lawyers, and librarians to discuss how librarians can assert fair use rights and understand the complex range of issues concerning intellectual property rights over new media materials.
4:00-5:30 p.m. — Disney’s Paradise Pier Hotel-Pacific Ballroom B
New Members Discussion Group & General Membership Forum
Discussions pertaining to the role of the literature librarian, and an opportunity to connect new literature librarians with each other and seniors in the field.
5:30-7:00 p.m.— (Location TBA. Watch LES-L for more details.)
LES Social Hour
Sunday, June 24
10:30-12:00 p.m. — Disneyland Hotel-Disneyland Grand Ballroom North
Collections and Reference Discussion Groups Combined Meeting
LES Collections Discussion Group and Reference Discussion Group meet to discuss current topics of interest to practicing literature librarians.
4:00-5:30 pm — Disneyland Hotel- North Exhibit Hall Room BC
Digital Humanities Discussion Group
A new ACRL discussion group that may interest LES members.
Monday, June 25
8:00-10:00 a.m. — Disneyland Hotel-Castle A&B
All Committees Meeting
Simultaneous meetings of LES committees: Virtual Participation, Strategic Planning, Conference Planning, Membership, and Publications. These are business meetings,but might be of interest to those thinking of joining a committee.
This week Inside Higher Ed picked up the story of a report that is likely to aggravate many of the faculty members we serve as English Literature specialists. Does it have any resonance for us as librarians?
Emory University Professor Mark Bauerlein’s paper was produced by the Center for College Affordability and co-hosted by the Cato institute (a Libertarian think tank). Bauerlein is also the author of a book called The Dumbest Generation, about new media’s degrading effects on education, attention span, etc. So, it is fairly safe to suspect some bias underlying his audit of contemporary literary scholarship.
“Many professors enjoy their work, finding it rewarding and helpful to their other professional duties, but if their books and essays do not find readers sufficient to justify the effort, the publication mandate falls short of its rationale, namely, to promote scholarly communication and the advancement of knowledge,” Bauerlein wrote in the report. “To put it bluntly, universities ask English professors to labor upon projects of little value to others, incurring significant opportunity costs.”
Bauerlein is no doubt right that something is not working quite the way it should be in scholarly publishing in the humanities. I’ll be the first to agree that tying academic credentialing to monograph and article publication has gotten out of control. As a librarian, too, I sometimes have to think long and hard about buying monographs that are costly but seem narrowly focused in a way I can’t believe will be useful to others. But none of this seems to be his real focus. He claims to be advocating for more emphasis on teaching, which sounds fine, but is this kind of report really likely to lead administrators to change credentialing criteria or is it likely to help them justify hiring fewer permanent faculty?
Further, as the Inside Higher ed notes, tracking citations proves little about impact when studying the Humanities. After all, Humanism tends to privilege individuality over consensus, persuasion over precedent.
What do you think? Does the kind of efficiency Bauerlein seems to be describing come at a cost that is justifiable or not? Are there other, better ways to address the problem he identifies? Are there problems with academic publishing in the field that he is overlooking (or other dynamics in the profession he should be taking into account)?
Today’s post is a “reblog” post from Laura Braunstein, English Language and Literature Librarian at Dartmouth College. It was originally posted on the ACRLog.
I was chatting recently with a professor in my liaison department who was beginning research for a new book. Did she have everything she needed? Was there anything I should look into ordering? Yes, she said, the library was pretty well stocked with books and journals for the topic. However, many of the books she needed we only had as ebooks – for those, she would order print copies through interlibrary loan.
One of my colleagues had a similar experience. He was talking to several of his liaison faculty about a new ebook collection in the Humanities. The collection would be great, they told him, when they needed to look something up quickly, or search for a mention of a particular topic. But they would still want print books for serious study – ebooks weren’t the same, they told him, “we just don’t read that way.”
Many of these professors own Kindles or other ereaders, and love them – for reading the latest Ruth Rendell mystery on a six-hour flight to France to visit an archive. It’s one thing, they tell us, to read for pleasure on a screen – but it’s quite another to read for understanding, for critique, for engaging in the scholarly conversation. And this isn’t a generational matter – some of the faculty I know who seem most committed to print are younger than forty.
Does reading in the Humanities necessitate the long-form, linear, analog experience of the codex? Even when I tell these professors about the features available in some of the new ebook platforms – highlighting, annotation, sharing notes, etc – they still assert that they “just don’t read that way.” (And what applies to reading is even more crucial in writing – when it comes to tenure or promotion, they tell me, no monograph “born digital” would ever “count” in the way a print book would.)
Ebooks seem like sweet low-hanging fruit – they have enhanced searchability, accessibility at any time or place, and reduced storage and preservation costs. What’s not to love? Ebooks seem to make our students very happy. Often they don’t want to read a book cover to cover (although their professors might wish they would), and searching for relevant passages seems to satisfy their needs for many assignments. And journal literature seems exempt from the preference for print – I haven’t heard many complaints about deaccessioning back runs of print journals represented in JSTOR’s collections, for instance.
Is a user who routinely requests a print copy when the ebook is in the library’s holdings just multiplying the costs we thought we were saving? Should we deny these requests? Should we tell our Humanities faculty that even if they “just don’t read that way,” they should, because that’s the way the world of scholarly communication is moving in most other fields? Do we need to change their habits of reading, and habits of mind? Do we lead them to new formats or follow their preferences?
MAR = New Orleans Marriott
DOUB = Doubletree
MCC = Morial Convention Center
Friday June 24
~ 9:00-11:00 a.m. Literary Walking Tour with Inez Douglas. (exact time and meeting place TBD). $15/person. Space is limited! Contact Liorah Golomb at email@example.com to reserve a spot.
Saturday June 25
8:00-10:00 a.m. LES Executive Committee Meeting I — MAR-Regent
1:30-3:30 p.m. General Membership Forum — MAR-Mardi Gras H
4:00-5:30 p.m. New Members Discussion Group– MAR-Mardi Gras H
5:30-7:00 p.m. LES Social Hour — TBA
Sunday June 26
8:00 a.m.-noon Conference Program, co-sponsored with ANSS: The Aftermath of Katrina and Rita: The Effects on Libraries, People, and Neighborhoods — MCC 356-357
10:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Reference and Collection Development Discussion Groups — DOUB-Crescent B
1:30-3:30 p.m. MLA Int’l Bibliography Discussion Group* – MAR-La Galerie 2
Monday June 27
8:00-10:00 a.m. All Committees Meeting — MAR-La Galerie 4
10:30 a.m.-noon LES Executive Committee Meeting II — MAR-Regent
All LES meetings are open to all. The All Committees meeting is when all LES committees meet simultaneously. If you are interested in serving on an LES committee, consider attending to get a sense of what we do.
*Not hosted by LES, but of interest to many members.
Although I’m a little hesitant to post my first blog entry while a significant portion of the LES group is immersed in the ALA Midwinter Convention, I’m sure many others like me will be staying put this week and looking on virtually.
It is significant for us all, certainly, that the MLA convention is also taking place just up the road in Los Angeles, and today’s panel session there (3:30-4:45) sponsored by the new Libraries and Research in Languages and Literatures discussion group gives me an excuse to broach a subject many of us are thinking about. The panel is called “Literary Research in/and Digital Humanities” and features six presentations on the potential and problems of collaboration in digital environments between Literature Librarians and Literary Scholars. A nice group of presentation abstracts is available in a LibGuide set up by panel organizer Jim Kelly at: http://guides.library.umass.edu/MLA2011.
I wish I could make it to this panel, as I find myself thinking about digital scholarship more every day. In lieu of that though, I’d love to get comments from those who are able to attend. I’m sure other readers would be interested, as well. I’d also like to hear non-presenters (those who were or weren’t able to make it to the MLA panel) about how this panel corresponds to ongoing or anticipated activities at their home institutions.
My questions are several. But most basically I’d like to hear what kinds of digital Library/English department collaborations are happening around the country right now. The panelists at the MLA event give us a glimpse at some, and I’m aware of many others via my work with the EEBO-Text Creation Partnership. Still, it seems to me that a more categorical list of what is happening would be helpful to all English Literature Librarians as they work to develop their sense of the digital services the discipline is starting to demand.
There have been plenty of efforts to pin down a sense of what the elusive “Digital Humanities” are (or can be). As a useful first step, there seem to be many discussions floating around about what Humanists (and by inference Literary specialists) do with the objects of their study. Digital Humanists presumably do those same things but with the help of digital prosthetics. Two brief and rather elegant accounts of what Humanist do may be found, in fact, in a piece by Mary Claire Vandenburg in the most recent issue of our own BiblioNotes.
Mary cites John Unsworth’s short-list of common humanities activities: “discovering, annotating, comparing, referring, sampling, illustrating and representing” (7). She then goes on to suggest that the Humanities is really “a set of skills or ‘ways of doing’ which allows us to make sense of our world” (8). Here again, one infers that the digital addition to this set of practices would be in keeping with our increasing immersion in a world that is digitally mediated – or, that the Digital Humanities is a set of ‘ways of digital doing’ that allows us to make sense of our digital world).
Given all this, I’m very curious to hear more about what these digital “ways of doing” look like or entail in specific cases and how they make use of the skills/resources we have to offer as Literature Librarians.
My sense is that, currently, most digital literary scholarship fits roughly under the rubric of curatorial and/or editorial work. Do others share this sense? I notice, for example, that Unsworth’s list does not include words like “analyze,” “interpret,” or “explain.” Perhaps he covers this territory with his “illustrating or representing,” however.
Of the abstracts for the MLA panel, Manuel M. Martin-Rodriquez’s project strikes me as the most explicitly inquiry-driven use of digital tools insofar as it seeks to capture and manipulate literary information in a way that would be hard to accomplish without computers. It seems to have what we might call a literary research question built into it from the outset and to be using digital methods to “discover” (to use another of Unsworth’s terms) an answer or answers to the question. I don’t mean to say this is a more proper way of proceeding than the curatorial/editorial approaches. Each has its benefits and limitations. I would imagine Martin-Rodriguez’s work would be a less flexible tool for other, future scholars precisely because it is asking a question from inception. Projects like Heather Bowlby’s and Marija Dalbello’s might well have broader applicability because they have fewer built-in assumptions about the kinds of inquiry pertinent to their study.
What do you think? Did elements come to light in the panel that I could never anticipate from reading only the abstracts? And, what’s going in your departments? Are the digital scholars you work with more interested in inquiry or edition-making? If this is a false binary, then how do you see things shaping themselves? What are the objects of digital literary study and what digital tools are required to make sense of them?
Collections Discussion Group
Hilton, Hidalgo E
Sunday, January 9, 2011
Nooks and Kindles, iPhones and Androids, Google E-Books, oh my!
Among the topics proposed for discussion are many connected to the changes in English librarianship being discussed at the New Members DG. Come see what your counterpartsare handling the new mobile library, the one that has nothing to do with bookmobiles.
Realizing the importance of recruiting future librarians, the ACRL Literatures in English section has begun a job shadowing program for those interested in becoming Humanities Librarians. Job shadowing is a way for potential librarians to learn more about the field of librarianship and the day-to-day work of a librarian. It will also help future librarians form mentoring relationships and begin the important work of networking. This program is open to anyone in the United States. We welcome undergraduate students, graduate students, and those considering switching careers. LES will match those interested in a job shadowing opportunity with volunteers from LES. The actual job shadowing usually takes place over the course of one day.
If you are interested in being hosted by an LES librarian, please fill out this form. We will attempt to match you with an academic librarian working at an institution in your area.
If you are an LES member who would like to volunteer to host someone, please contact Arianne Hartsell-Gundy at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’ve previously expressed interest in hosting someone, your name is on the list and there’s no need to let me know again.
Please feel free to pass this information on to anyone you think might be interested. More information can be found here.
At the New Members Discussion Group/General Membership Meeting this June, LES members gathered for a discussion session titled, “Do They Still Teach Edith Wharton?: Keeping Current with the Field of English.” Participants shared a variety of strategies to help busy librarians stay abreast of developments in English studies. Here are some of our favorites.
1. Learn your English department.
As the field of English is so broad, participants suggested focusing on the current research interests of your students and faculty.
One of the simpler ways to find out what’s being taught at your institution is to consult the schedule of classes on your campus or to contact the office of institutional research. Want to know what’s covered in those survey classes? Stop by the university bookstore to see what books are required reading.
The English faculty are themselves a valuable resource. Take a few hours to check out institutional repositories of faculty publications. Request copies of syllabi. Target specific faculty in areas of interest and ask them to coffee. You can use the visit to find out what they’re using in their curriculum and their research.
Finally, investigate the interlibrary loan requests in your discipline, if possible.
2. Take a cue from publishers.
Interested in where the field of English is going? Publishers have a pulse on the future. Review approval plan slips to see what’s being published or subscribe to the RSS and Twitter feeds of publishers. (Click here for a directory of publishers on Twitter.)
More than one member has noticed a trend towards Caribbean Studies. What else is around the corner?
MLA International Bibliography, limit your search to the last year
Year’s Work in English Studies
Studies in English Literature
Studies in American Literature
Year’s Work in Critical and Cultural Theory
And what about the Modern Language Association Conference? Veteran LES members prefer regional literature conferences to the MLA, which can be daunting by virtue of its size. However, the Literary Research Methods Discussion at the MLA is helpful.
4. Turn to peers.
When in doubt, post a question to the LES list-serv. You can be sure of a good response.
What other ideas do you have for keeping current in English studies? Please share them in the comments.