REBLOG: “Leaves of Graph” by Pete Coco

August 23rd, 2012

About Aaron McCollough

English Literature Librarian, University of Michigan

Originally posted ato ACRLog (http://acrlog.org/2012/08/23/leaves-of-graph/) by Pete Coco. Pete is the Humanities Librarian at Wheaton College in Norton, MA and Managing Editor at Each Moment a Mountain: Archivally Inspired Art and Inquiry.

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 bearsThough 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 speech in 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.

Some Questions

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?

Well Yeah

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.

So:

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?

LES and Related Meeting Schedule for Annual 2012 (Anaheim)

May 17th, 2012

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!

Friday, June 22

9:00 a.m.–4:00.pm. – Anaheim Convention Center-208B

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.

10:30-12:00 p.m. – Disneyland Hotel-Monorail B&C

Executive Meeting II

See description of Executive Meeting I.

 

National Poetry Month (still)

April 18th, 2012

About Aaron McCollough

English Literature Librarian, University of Michigan

We’re already half way through April, which is (as we all know) National Poetry Month. Here at the University of Michigan, we have a very well regarded graduate program in creative writing, and I’m happy that the library has been enthusiastic about partnering with the English Department to highlight the poetry talents of the faculty. This year, we put on three poetry events in our library gallery space. Two of the events were poetry readings (featuring Keith Taylor, Tung-Hui Hu, Raymond McDaniel, Ken Mikolowski, Linda Gregerson, Laura Kasischke, A. Van Jordan, Benjamin Paloff, and Cody Walker). The other event was a panel discussion on the subject of “poetry and difficulty,” featuring professors Benjamin Paloff, Douglas Trevor, and John Whittier-Ferguson. All of the events were well attended, and they seemed to produce real excitement in the audience. I was pleased to get many people from the university community into the library for this and to cast focused attention on poetry for a few days.

April isn’t over, but our semester is, which means we probably won’t be doing much more for poetry month here this year. My wheels are turning for next year, however. I wonder what others are up to. Do you do special things to observe National Poetry Month at your library? If so, I’m sure many of us would love to hear about it (and maybe steal some of your ideas…).

If you’re still working on Poetry-month-related programming, here are some other interesting idea sources:

* The Academy of American Poets Official National Poetry Month pages
— including this nice list of “30 Ways to Celebrate”
— & including this nice calendar of events
* We’re six days off form “POEM IN YOUR POCKET DAY,” and easy guerilla-style way to celebrate
*The Poetry Foundation also has lots to offer on the subject
* This may not be a very good poem, but it does talk about moustaches:

 

NB: Video of all of three of this years’ MLibrary National Poetry Month events was captured, and it will be posted on the library’s website as soon as I have all of the consent forms back from the participants.

What is a Library Function, or, When should the mission creep? Instruction Controversies.

February 13th, 2012

About Aaron McCollough

English Literature Librarian, University of Michigan

An interesting conversation is brewing on the ILI-I listserv (beginning with this post http://lists.ala.org/sympa/arc/ili-l/2012-02/msg00125.html) over the range and limitations of “library function” and “mission creep.” The specific question pertains to citation instruction and related questions of academic integrity. Although it is pretty well established in the various Information Literacy guidelines (ACRL, AASL, etc.) that knowing how to “use information” is a key student learning outcome (along with knowing how to locate and to evaluate information), there is plenty of room for debate about what “use” means. Thus, the poles of the discussion on ILI-I seem to be: proper citation is a writing issue and therefore outside the scope of library function–on the one side–and–on the other side: proper citation is both a writing issue and a library issue… we need to be collaborating with writing programs insofar as we can.

I’ve refrained from entering the fray up to this point. In part, my feeling is that others have expressed my basic position, which is something like this: we all recognize that the world of information is changing in deep ways and at fairly high velocity, and we also want to foster student learning in whatever forms that world is taking, so “mission creep” might not be the right analogy here. In addition to this, I’d add that I think proper citation and a focus on academic integrity are really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to spheres of overlap between the information literacy goals tacitly operating in most introductory writing course learning outcome statements and potential growth areas in library-based information literacy instruction. In other words, I think “writing issues” are “information issues” and that they are the responsibility of many programs/units (including writing programs and writing centers, obviously, but also libraries). I also think that framing this responsibility as a new burden rather than a new opportunity is unfortunate. I’d rather view it as a way to think about demonstrating our value in new ways. Evolving.

Don’t most of us LES members have a vested interest in seeing library instruction and writing instruction finding fellowship, especially as writing pedagogy trends towards focusing more on They Say, I Say-style engagement with the moves successful writers make and less on the traditional “research paper”? Shouldn’t we be trying to articulate what the library can offer students trying to make successful writing moves, and–anyway–isn’t this a vital question in how to “use” information?

ARL Guide to Fair Use for Librarians

January 26th, 2012

About Aaron McCollough

English Literature Librarian, University of Michigan

Yesterday, in a conversation with faculty and graduate students, the question of fair use came up, as it often does. This time the problem had to do with making streaming copies of Iranian and Chinese films available (in their entirety) to students for class. This is a sticky problem of course, because “legitimate” streaming versions of these films are not easy to get. Asynchronous access to streaming films is extremely appealing to faculty, because it doesn’t cut into class time. Currently, there isn’t any easy solution. No news there. Happy to learn, however, that the ARL Guide to Fair Use has just been made available. Hardly filled with solutions, it is nevertheless a nice asset in the ongoing effort to identify what we can and cannot do in good conscience…

 

http://www.arl.org/pp/ppcopyright/codefairuse/index.shtml

ALA Awards in Cutting Edge Library Services 2012

January 25th, 2012

About Aaron McCollough

English Literature Librarian, University of Michigan

ALA (OITP & LITA) has announed the winners of this year’s Cutting Edge Technology in Library Services awards. These are pretty cool projects. Even though these are very *techie* (in many senses) projects, they hold promise for all kinds of exciting implementations by our users.

Take a look:

 

  • Snap & Go, Contra Costa County Library, Calif. 
    Using QR (Quick Response) codes, Snap & Go serves as an innovative delivery mechanism for traditional library services. From local transit ads to posters to newspaper ads, Contra Costa County is delivering instant access to library materials and services to cardholders with mobile phones. By scanning the code with a reader on their phones, users are directed to downloadable e-books and audiobooks, virtual museum passes, interactive reference service, account and catalog search and readers’ advisory tools. QR codes placed on popular titles take readers to “read-alike” lists created by library staff. Usage of the library’s mobile site has increased 16 percent since Contra Costa implemented Snap & Go. http://guides.ccclib.org/qr
  • Participatory Platforms for Learning, New Canaan High School Library, Conn.
    New Canaan’s Participatory Platforms for Learning program strives to cultivate curiosity throughout the learning community and encourage experimentation with new tools for content creation, publication and participation. The program includes deploying the full complement of Google applications; advocating a culture of intellectual freedom; using Twitter for current events research; and using Facebook groups for students to record their research process and provide feedback to others in the group. The program enmeshes learning and the “real world” to teach students digital citizenship by encouraging them to become responsible information consumers, creators and contributors in the public domain. Their online portal is at: http://nchslibraryannex.blogspot.com/
  • Map Warper Toolkit, New York Public Library, New York
    The Map Warper toolkit allows staff and the public to virtually stretch (or geo-rectify) historical maps onto a digital model of the world à la Google Maps or OpenStreetMap, transforming old atlases into interactive spatial environments. Participants also can go deeper, tracing and transcribing specific map features into a growing public database. The project adds to the historical and scholarly record while engaging library patrons in building digital resources. The service is managed by the NYPL Labs group, developed in collaboration with EntropyFree, an open source geospatial software firm. The tools are in the process of being published to an open code repository for other libraries, scholars and cultural heritage workers to use and build upon. http://maps.nypl.org
  • Gimme Engine, Scottsdale Public Library, Ariz.
    The Gimme Engine mobile website helps customers find a great book to read based on a library staffer’s recommendation and review. Gimme combines library catalog MARC data, content enrichment service images and descriptions and library staff book reviews on Goodreads.com to create a unique experience. Gimme, which was developed with monies received from an LSTA grant, was created to meet a need stated by both library and non-library users; they wanted book recommendations powered by library staff. The Gimme engine is a creative solution to meet these customer needs. You can use Gimme for yourself by visiting: http://gimme.scottsdalelibrary.org

(original press release may be found at American Libraries news page).

Evaluating Digital Scholarship [PMLA]

December 13th, 2011

About Aaron McCollough

English Literature Librarian, University of Michigan

All of us are faced with new questions about collections in the massively-networked digital age. The Modern Language Association has commissioned a special batch of articles on the subject of “Evaluating Digital Scholarship,” which is freely accessible on the PMLA site.

 

Susan Schreibman, the editor of the section, has this to say:

The series is introduced by Susan Schreibman, Laura Mandell, and Stephen Olsen, with contributions by  Steve Anderson and Tara McPherson (‘Engaging Digital Scholarship: Thoughts on Evaluating Multimedia Scholarship’), Geoffrey Rockwell  (‘Engaging Digital Scholarship: Thoughts on Evaluating Multimedia Scholarship’), Bethany Nowviskie (‘Where Credit Is Due: Preconditions for the Evaluation of Collaborative Digital Scholarship’), Jerome McGann (‘On Creating a Usable Future’), and Katheleen Fitzpatrick (‘Peer Review, Judgment, and Reading’).

These articles provide an important intervention as digital scholarship and digital scholarly methods and practices are becoming more mainstreamed into traditional academic work

For the most part, these pieces are not directly addressed to the questions and concerns of library collections, but the entire conversation is highly relevant for us, and I hope we might begin some conversation here regarding that relevance.

 

 

Publishing in Literary Studies

November 23rd, 2011

About Aaron McCollough

English Literature Librarian, University of Michigan

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.

Here’s a short snippet from the Inside Higher Ed piece (citing Bauerlein):

“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)?

“We Don’t Read That Way”

November 9th, 2011

About Aaron McCollough

English Literature Librarian, University of Michigan

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?

Post-text scholarship? What do English Lit. Librarians think?

October 13th, 2011

About Aaron McCollough

English Literature Librarian, University of Michigan

Last week over at the Chronicle of Higher Ed, Brian Matthews broached the subject of “post-text scholarship” and its relationship to the English major of the future. A presentation claiming that “Film & Media” are poised to become the “new” English major prompted his thoughts .

This may be true in a sense. It may be that “new media studies” are poised to overtake the study of literature in terms of popularity and pride of place in the academy. It is harder to believe that it will simply replace the English major or that English major will stop doing what it has been doing for the last century plus in exchange for a new curriculum. That is, of course, open for debate, but my sense is that new media studies is developing as its own discipline, sometimes overlapping significantly with English departments, sometimes growing into its own department. Also, new media aren’t that new. The cost of entry has dropped in the last decade from prohibitive to nearly nil, and distribution networks like YouTube have emerged where there once were none. As a result, proponents of multimedia literacy are well-positioned to argue for greater institutional attention to the subject. I think they are right to do so. This gets us back to an old question about the English major, however. Is it about Literature or about composition? Many (maybe most) people would say both, but the American academy is littered with all sorts of bureaucratic arrangements that suggest the question is unresolved. Some writing programs are securely housed within the English department. Some are fully independent. Some live in a space somewhere between departments. Then there are the writing centers. Some English departments are wholly separate from the “writing program” as such or partner with the writing center as a kind of service outpost. Some times these centers are basically departments in their own right, sometimes they are part of a bigger service enterprise (like the library).

My point is that thinking of New Media as the English major of the future might not be the best way. For many situations, it just isn’t accurate. Also, it feels like a scare tactic. English department chairs certainly can’t afford to ignore the popularity and power of New Media, and there will undoubtedly be a significant increase in English/New Media course offerings over the next decade, but YouTube videos and written argument is not an apples-to-apples comparison.

Matthews’s post is interrogative for the most part, of course:

Imagine that the majority of students coming to your desk/office/studio are not writing a term paper but developing a video-based argument–using sound, data, images, and so forth. If this is how they are being evaluated, how do we help them? And likewise, if this is a major output for faculty and researchers, how do we enable them?

We tend to be a very text-based operation. And even as we migrate to digital content, it’s still text. What does this mean in a film-focused world? What’s the role of the library in a post-text world?

My feeling is that many silent assumptions are being made here. Certainly, we (the library, and we English Lit. subject specialists) need to be adapting to increasing “post-textual” needs, and based on local experience I can say that we are. But are we really heading for a “film-focused world” or a “post-text world”? Are we really meant to believe that A/V-based argumentation will be a replacement rather than a complement to “traditional” written argumentation? I’m skeptical, and it’s not because I’m old and set in my ways (although I may be both of those things).

I could go on, but I’d rather open things up for conversation. What do you think? Am I right to be skeptical? If you don’t share my skepticism, maybe you have thoughts on how we should be preparing for the future of video-based argument? Also, what about the other side of English department work (i.e., making new knowledge about literature, most of which is “historical” and “text”)? Whence Literature in an English major replaced by New Media studies?