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Wikipedia and Knowledge

Marcus and I had an email exchange about Wikipedia while I was at the NLM Long Range Planning Panel meeting last week, sparked by his coming across the Nature article comparing Wikipedia and Brittanica.   He noted some of the changes Wikipedia will be making in order to address some of the legitimate criticisms that have been made, specifically that they'll be introducing a process for tagging an article as "stable" once it has reached a certain "quality threshold" -- that threshold to be determined by having users rate article quality. 

There's an interesting epistemological issue here, and it is much broader than just Wikipedia -- what does it mean for us to know something?   What, in fact, is "the truth"?    The self-correcting principle that Wikipedia relies on could mean: give enough monkeys a typewriter and eventually they will inevitably come up with the truth; or, the truth is simply whatever enough monkeys eventually agree on.  These are very different things.

The principle of "authority" in traditional reference works, now so derided by wikipedia fans, is based on the principle that there is an actual objective truth to be discovered, and that it is best explicated by someone who has made a special study of the case and is willing to put their name to it in order to be tested and to have other experts challenge their findings.   (There is no implication that the "expert" might not get it wrong, and, of course, much of the meat of academic discourse is made up of the disagreements of experts.)  But underlying the "hive-mind" approach to wikipedia is the notion that the truth is whatever enough people agree on.  Is this the wisdom of the hive-mind or the tyranny of the mob-mind?

Consider Wikipedia's discussion of "open access."  While it gets many of the facts right, the tone of the entire article assumes that open access is an unmitigated positive.  There is much on the advantages of open access, with very little discussion of opposing views (the Highwire Press and DC Principles approaches & criticisms are not, for example, even mentioned).  While I personally agree with much of the article, it is ultimately a work of advocacy, not an objective, balanced presentation of the issues.   

So what does that say about "truth"?  If the majority of the wikipedia editors (who've bothered to look at the article) agree with the tone, does that make it true?  I suspect that under a user-rating scheme, the majority of wikipedia readers would be inclined to think the open access article is good, because it supports their own biases (supporters of traditional publishing practices are unlikely to be avid wikipedia users).  So would it be tagged as "stable," i.e., the definitive word? 

In the long run, I completely agree that wiki technology offers the promise of preparing better reference works, more quickly updated, with more of an opportunity for more voices to be heard.  But we need to give more thought to what it means to say that something is true and reliable.  The history of lynching in America, to give just one particularly horrifying example, should give us pause whenever we think to rely on the wisdom of crowds.

The People We Learn From

When I was at NLM in the mid-eighties, I worked with a graphic artist named Joe Fitzgerald.  He taught me how to do the layout and pasteup for the NLM Technical Bulletin, and the couple of hours that I spent with him every month (these were the days when we were still laying out boards with adhesive wax!) were ones I always looked forward to.

I met him first when he was one of the instructors for the Associates when we were learning presentation skills.  I remember sitting across the table from him, looking into his leprechaun eyes as he told me, "Don't ever apologize -- just keep going."  It's advice that has served me just as well as a musician as it ever did as a speaker. 

He loved small oil paintings (and did his own and showed frequently in DC galleries).  In those days I was learning about the great big abstract artists and little oil landscapes held no interest for me.  We'd talk about art (and I still remember -- and quote -- some of the lines that he gave me), but he was way, way ahead of me.

When I was at the Freer the other day, looking at those little Whistler oils that I've come to love so much that I get teary standing in front of them, I thought about Joe and realized that I'd finally come to understand what he was so passionate about.  I thought it'd be great to stop in and see him and tell him that I finally got it!  But I didn't even know if he was still at NLM.

So today, at one point, I googled him and found this

What a marvelous achievement.  He had such a quirky, irreverent, inconoclastic sense of humor, I can only imagine how tickled he must have been to have designed the new nickel.  It would have greatly appealed to his sense of the absurd, as well as to his sentimental love for his country.  And that he speaks of the nickels themselves as "little sculptures" is just perfect.

The article also points out that he retired nine months ago, so my fantasy about popping into his office remained unfulfilled.  But the remembering was a great pleasure, and I will never look at a nickel the same way again.

Blues in Birmingham

It seemed quite appropriate to be sitting around the Big Pink Guesthouse and have Lost Jim Sings & Plays Mississippi John Hurt pop up on the iPod.    Jim's got a beautiful rich smooth voice and is a fine, fine guitar player.   He was the opening act when we saw Edie Carey last time at the Moonlight and I was quite knocked out by his playing & singing.   I bought all the CDs he had for sale there and have been listening to them regularly since. 

The Delta Blues Museum emphasizes the fact that the blues is living music.   When Dylan ripped apart folk music in the early sixties it was partly because the afficianados had become so sanctimonious and calcified in their love for the music.  They were killing it with adoration.  Some blues "purists" are like that as well.   Pretty ironic, since the bluesmen & women who are most revered were radical experimentalists, all of 'em.

On this album, despite his demur that his approach is "not particularly original," Lost Jim (and his fine group of collaborators) makes the songs sound as if he'd just knocked them together himself, sitting with friends around the studio.  I'm sure Jim'd say that's just because John Hurt wrote such great, timeless songs.   Too modest, by half.

It's clear, by the way, when you explore some of the rest of Jim's catalog (he's actually musician & music journalist Jim Ohlschmidt), that the blues is just one of his influences. Not About Me, recorded as Jim O, is superb contemporary singer/songwriter stuff and he's done some brilliant instrumental work as well.   

Every time Tambourine Grrl and I go to the Moonlight we come away shaking our heads over all of the great music surrounding us.   The big record companies can fuss and moan about declining CD sales and music piracy and all of the things that make their accountants break into a cold sweat.   Ignore 'em.  Modern music is in great shape -- you just have to look around and listen.


Mum sends me this in an email late last night:

I have ice on the insides of my windows. We have a wind chill advisory. We are at -20 degrees and the expectation is it will go to 40 or 50 below before morning. it will only be a couple of days this cold and it is already the middle of February. Remember when dad was in the hospital and the daytime temperatures were 30 and 35 below? I remember Ron VV taking me to see Dad in his truck.

I remember it well.  I had the night shift.  I'd sleep during the day, and head to the hospital around 7:00 in the evening.  I'd sit up all night in the visitor's lounge just outside the ICU.  I'd talk to Lynn on the phone.  I'd read.  I'd drive back to Mom & Dad's house at dawn.

I remember the night that we almost lost him, when his lungs filled up and the cute ditsy nurse turned into a tyrant of healing energy, calling me from the lounge to help pound on his chest while she drained fluid.  I remember the intensity of the look in her eyes as she worked and willed him to keep living.  And how she calmly slid back into cute and ditsy when he was stabilized.

And finally, a few days after the beginning of the new year, he seemed to be through the crisis and Mum convinced me it'd be good for me to go down and see Lynn.  She and I were still trying to convince ourselves that we were just friends, but there was certainly no friend I wanted to be with more right then. 

The day before I left, the temperature had risen enough for another blizzard, and then it plunged back to twenty below.  I drove to the airport between six foot snowbanks, not even minding the cold, because that's just the way it is in Wisconsin.

The next day Lynn served me lunch out on her deck.

That was twelve years ago.

Josie Turns One

I have called Marian the great unexpected joy of my life.  When I fell in love with her mother, and decided that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her, Marian was simply part of the deal.  And I understood that, from Lynn's point of view, in the lifeboat built for two, I was the one going over the side.  That seemed right and proper to me.  That Marian and I quickly and easily built our own deep friendship was a greater gift than I could have imagined.

0002_1How, then, to describe Josephine?  Unexpected, certainly.  And now, on the day after her first birthday, I have trouble remembering what the world was like without her.  Julie Miller sings,

the only thing that doesn't change
makes everything else rearrange
is the speed of light, the speed of light
your love for me must be the speed of light

She's singing about Buddy, of course, and when I sing the song, it's about Lynn.  But the notion of love that strong as an anchor that the rest of the world rearranges around rings true to me for the impact that Josie has had on our life.  I'll confess that in the months before she was born, although I was eagerly looking forward to her birth and to being a part of her growing up, I wondered, and maybe even worried a little, about the adjustment.  I'm jealous of my time and I'm used to my solitude.  I looked around at parents & families fussing with their little kids and, remembering the devotion of my own parents, wondered how I'd deal with the endless demands that would be involved as Lynn and I helped Marian raise Josie.  Maybe I even worried a little that I'd resent it.

It turns out that rearranging everything around Josie is as easy and comfortable as following the light.


First MLA Board Meeting

It isn't as if I don't have a pretty good idea of the inner workings of the Board of Directors of the Medical Library Association.  During my six years as JMLA editor, which coincided with Lynn and Nancy both going through their terms on the Board, I've become pretty familiar with the issues and the processes and the challenges involved.

Still, sitting through my first board meeting (as a guest -- the newly electeds are invited to attend the winter meeting, but we can't vote on anything), was illuminating.  Not that I learned anything surprising, or that the dynamics were very different from what I expected, but just that it was interesting to see which issues drew the most attention, and to see how things are addressed.

Volunteer organizations are strange creatures.   They run off the drive and energy of the terminally overcommitted, so there are never really enough resources to bring to bear.  People gather  at meetings and make proposals and plans and fully intend to follow through, and then they get home and back into their real jobs and responsibilities and all their good intentions are for naught.  And then people get frustrated and angry and impatient.  Frankly, it's a wonder we get anything done at all.

What I might actually be able to contribute is still unclear.  Each Board member serves as liaision to one or more committees and task forces and I don't have my assignments yet.  There are certain issues facing the profession that are important to me, so I'll be looking for opportunities to push those.    There was talk at the meeting about how we can incorporate some of the social networking tools to increase the capabilities for members to get involved, so we'll definitely see more activity in that area.  But more fundamental is how we think about what we do and what we're trying to achieve -- individually, as an association, and as a profession.

I continue to believe that these can be great days for individual librarians who are willing and able to look critically at what they do, and aren't too worried about stepping outside of their comfort zone.  My involvement with MLA has been a great help to me, mostly through the people that it has put me in contact with over the years.   It is, after all, an association.  A gathering of people committed to working together to achieve some things they can't achieve on their own.  Sometimes we're successful, sometimes we fail.  Always our reach exceeds our grasp.  I like it that way.

Living With Cats

Ghost Kitty is becoming translucent.   She is the most mysterious and waifish of the five cats, still carrying the lines of the kitten that she hasn't been for over fifteen years, although she is now almost weightless.  Properly, her name is Sasha, but all of the cats have multiple nicknames that are accrued and discarded over the years as their habits, shapes and behaviors shift.  These days, Sasha seems often to inhabit the border between this life (or these nine) and the next, so I call her Ghost Kitty.

She is also the Levitating Kitty, still able to move from floor to an upper bookshelf with no apparent effort.  When I met her, she was a mottled orange, with a hint of Siamese in her background that gave her an exotic look.  Her huge blue eyes were always on alert for the presence of humans.  She was untouchable and would disappear in an instant if a human approached her.  She barely tolerated Lynn & Marian, but even with them would rather not be touched.

She was devoted to Sebastian T. Butler, the tuxedoed cat.  SB was as friendly to people as Sasha was aloof, but she was his special friend.  Every night they curled up together at the foot of Lynn's bed, and it was the only time that the haunted look in Sasha's eyes relaxed into contentment.

When SB died, Sasha's grief was palpable and she mourned for two years.  When we moved into this house, there was a neighbor cat who looked very much like SB.  He would come wandering into our yard and Sasha would sit in the window, pawing at the glass, howling and screeching.  She was sure it was her Sebastian and she could not understand why we didn't bring him in.  Then that cat moved away and for awhile we thought that Sasha would simply melt into nothingness.

So we started reaching out to her -- literally.  Very gently and carefully getting close enough to her to touch her, stroke her fur lightly.  And gradually she came to accept it.  She will still instinctively flinch and draw back when I reach out a hand towards her, but she'll stay and let me and then warm and cuddle under the touch.  And even, sometimes, when Lynn or I are sitting reading, or on weekends watching a movie, she'll come up and curl in a lap and go to sleep.   Lately, I've even seen her being friendly with guests.

Her fur has faded.  The markings are still faintly there, but she is now nearly white.  Yet she remains as agile and kitten-like in her movements as ever.  Lynn took her to the vet awhile back and she is now getting a pill daily to help regulate her thyroid.  The vet told Lynn that she is completely blind.  I find this impossible to believe.  It is true that her eyes often seem flat and pupil-less, depending on how the light strikes them, but she dashes around the house when the mood strikes her and never seems at a loss for where she is.  Can she be doing this entirely on scent and sound?

She sleeps long hours, has her few favorite spots.  Often, now, she sleeps on the bed with us at night, and occasionally I'll be awakened to the almost-not-there weight of her walking across my back.  Sometimes she disappears entirely.  Then, just when I think that she must have somehow gotten outside and run off, she comes trotting through a hallway, as if having simply re-emerged out of the sunbeam. 


Towzie heard that we were from Alabama.  He came over to talk about Bear Bryant.  We had to confess that we were not football fans.  That seemed to puzzle him only slightly and he went on to telling other tales, stories about family (there were four generations in the restaurant, including his son behind the grill and his great-granddaughter clearing tables) and the Italian immigration into Mississippi, what happened to his brothers in World War II, and the sixty years he spent as a travelling salesman in the Delta.  We ate eggs and sausage and hashbrowns and agreed that it was one of the finest breakfasts we'd ever had.  That was the Delta Amusement Cafe.

The Big Pink Guesthouse lived up to our memories of being here with Bruce last May.    Tom & Susan were just as in awe of the place as we were when we first walked in, their faces full of that disbelief that we really had the entire amazing place.  I mentioned (twice, I think) that the little Marriott hotel room I'd had in DC had cost only a few dollars less than what we were paying Claire for the entire house.

When we were here in May, we'd had only a few hours -- arrived around 4:30 Saturday afternoon and left at 11:00 the next morning.  We did manage to pack a lot in.  This trip, we had more time to explore, so after breakfast on Saturday we stopped at Cat Head (where Roger, the owner, "knows everything that's going on in town"), and spent a leisurely hour at the Delta Blues Museum before heading out to the Hopson Plantation to check out the shacks.

It had been rainy & foggy on Friday when we drove in, and we were expecting more of the same Saturday & Sunday, but the day opened up crisp and cool with a perfectly blue sky.   The plantation grounds are littered with old tractors and broken down cars and there's a layer of rust and decay over everything.  We walked into the commissary, where a couple of guys were standing at the bar drinking beer and talking quietly.    One of them turned out to be Jimmy D, one of the Shackmeisters, so I bought a beer and talked some about where we were from and what we were doing and where we were staying, and he talked about the history of the place a little bit and how they'd originally moved one shack onto the property so that cousin Tommy'd have a place to write when he came down from Nashville, but then other people wanted to stay there too, so they kept moving more shacks in and now they were so busy that Tommy still didn't have a place to write (which is why he'd moved the other commissary onto the slab next to the Big Pink Guesthouse, even though Jimmy D had told him that it wouldn't work until they took the slab down some, but Tommy ignored him and wouldn't you know it worked just perfectly, but that was okay because Jimmy'd been wrong once before, back around 1973, and he figured that wasn't too bad of a record...)

I asked about seeing one of the shacks, if they weren't all occupied and Jimmy told me they were shooting a music video out there today, so he wasn't real sure, but he could let us out through the kitchen and if we went over to the tin shed and asked for Bill, he'd let us know what the situation was.  So we talked with Bill for awhile, and all guests had indeed checked in, so we couldn't tour any of the shacks, but he gave us keys to look at a couple of the Cotton Gin Inn bins, which were so comfy looking we were ready to move in right then and there.

And of course, both evenings we heard great music, at Red's and at Ground Zero.   There's an endless parade of musicians & movie types stopping through, so the mix of the crowd is always interesting, and you never quite know who you're going to find onstage sitting in.

I don't know if all the crazy people behind all of this can really pull it off.   There's a fanatical dedication to the music and the land that they believe is worth celebrating -- in their own slightly off-kilter way.   They're gambling that they can make the experience of the Delta enough of a tourist destination to keep it all alive.  Spend some time browsing the links on the Shack Up Inn website, and you'll begin to believe they're right.


As I was saying at lunch the other day to Matt Martin & Jerry Eonta from EBSCO, "A dozen years ago, publishers and librarians didn't really need to know much about each other.  You guys were the intermediaries -- you told us what the prices were, you told them what we were buying.  That's all anybody needed to know.  Now, it's very different."

Which is why the gathering yesterday in the conference room at the offices of the American Physiological Society in DC was so timely and so important.  About 25 of us, evenly split between librarians and people associated with some of the DC Principles Coalition publishers, just talking for five hours about how scholarly publishing is changing, what the challenges are, what some of the goals might be, and how we can work together to create a system that advances all of our interests.

Mike Keller from Stanford University Libraries and  Highwire Press, and Marty Frank from APS were the chief instigators.  Keller did a great job of running the meeting.  They'd cooked up a loose topical agenda, and we did manage to touch on about half the items there, but getting through the agenda wasn't the point.  Keller made it clear at the beginning that consensus on any of the issues wasn't the goal -- getting the ideas out on the table and really listening to each other was.  So he used the agenda as a starting point for discussion, but then let the conversation follow whatever threads came up, making sure that everybody got a chance to speak, and gently steering the conversation back to particular issues if it seemed to be veering too far afield.

We spent a lot of time talking about "digital archives" -- what the term actually means (many people felt that it is actually too vague to be really useful), how the various experiments currently underway differ from each other, what the goals of each seems to be.  We spent some time talking about the NIH manuscript submission policy and PubMed Central, but it was far from a dominant theme.  Of the people at the table, I probably have the best insight to how the folks at NLM view those projects (in part due to my work with the Long Range Planning Panel), so I tried to speak to that some (without suggesting that I was necessarily representing their viewpoint), which I think was useful.

We talked about how the society publishers might be able to distinguish themselves from the commercial publishers by drawing more attention to their social role as academic societies as opposed to the economic issues that surround their publishing activities.  As I've said before, librarians and societies share the same goals -- the wide dissemination of scholarly information for the creation of knowledge.  This opens up the possibility of a fundamentally different relationship from that which we can have with commercial publishers.  The societies need to make money in order to further scholarly communication; the commercial folks further scholarly communication to make money.  Nothing wrong with the latter approach, but it means that I can create alliances with the societies based on a commonality of goals that I will never have with commercial publishers.

As the last item, Keller asked us to go around the table, say if we found the meeting worthwhile and if we thought it should happen again.  Resounding, unanimous "yes" on that one (to no one's surprise).  There were a couple of suggestions for more focused meetings, a tighter agenda.  That might be useful as well -- but this kind of loose, messy, wide-ranging conversation with no particular outcome in mind is exactly the kind of thing we need to be doing right now.   There's no doubt in my mind that yesterday's meeting is going to lead to more of it.

Greatness Abounds in Alabama

Scott Stantis is the Birmingham News editorial cartoonist.  He leans slightly to the right politically, I think, but as a good cartoonist, he manages to enrage the conservative letter writers just as much as he does the liberals.  Yesterday, he published one that is simply magnificent.

One of the things I love about living in Alabama these past ten years is that I've been privileged to live in a state that has turned out some of the most magnificent Americans the country has ever seen.   Much of the worst of the evil side of the US has taken place on this ground, but it's also home to some of the very best and finest.