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July 2008

Which Country Am I Living In?

We joke about those in the south who still speak of the Civil War as "The Recent Unpleasantness" or "The War of Northern Aggression."  But then, we are currently making our way through the officially designated Jefferson Davis month.   The governor's proclamation inspired this letter to the editor in yesterday's paper:

Alabama Gov. Bob Riley's proclamation designating June as Jefferson Davis Month is a tribute to the president of the Confederate States of America, who stood for the patriotic principle of "free and independent states," which is written bold-faced three times in the Declaration of Independence.

Whereas Davis was the last real American president, as envisioned by the Founding Fathers, Abraham Lincoln became America's first dictator when he brutally violated the Constitution, throwing tens of thousands of Northern citizens into prison without trial and closing down hundreds of opposition newspapers.

Lincoln's invasion and violent overthrow of the states abolished local self-government by the citizens and established a centralist government in Washington, reducing the states back to the status of colonies.

The Southern states were more right in withdrawing from the United States in 1861 than the colonies were in seceding from England in 1776, because the states created the United States, but the colonies were created by England.

In like manner, the United States would have the right to secede from the United Nations today, because the United States helped create the United Nations.

Davis was right.

I'm afraid the letter writer is going to have trouble figuring out who to vote for come November.

There's probably not a month goes by where there isn't at least one letter to the editor showing that the sting of that defeat is still sharp among many down here.

Then there's this, in response to last week's Supreme Court decision on Guantanamo:

Who checks their ability to render an opinion? So they are superior to all other branches, and they get to review every other branch? That's the mindset we're operating under and they're operating under - that somehow they have the authority and responsibility to superintend everything that goes on in government and, if it offends their sensibilities, they're going to do something about it. But that's not the constitutional structure.

What is striking about this isn't the disagreement with the decision (a five/four decision will always be controversial), but the notion that the Court doesn't have the right to rule in this case, primarily because it's a matter of national security.  The speaker is Jeff Sessions, US Senator from Alabama and a former federal prosecutor.

The Constitution has taken a beating over the last half dozen years.  The doctrine of the unitary executive has been very effectively promoted, primarily by Dick Cheney.   When Roberts and Alito were appointed to the Supreme Court it appeared that it would become the dominant political philosophy of the court, cementing the view that the President's decisions in matters of war and national security cannot be challenged.

Every president has sought to expand their power and privilege.   Bush has taken it to rather remarkable extremes, but his desire to govern with as few restraints as possible isn't anything new.  And while both Obama and McCain have expressed concern over the years about some of the actions the Bush White House has taken, I've no reason to think that either would significantly buck the trend.  It just seems to go with the office.

That even as conservative a court as this one is still willing to challenge the imperial presidency is encouraging.  But the closeness of the decision indicates how fragile the checks and balances remain.

Saying What You Mean

I'm not quite as concerned about the impending demise of the sentence as James Billington seems to be in this article from last Sunday's Washington Post, but the "creeping inarticulateness" that he speaks of is certainly apparent everywhere.   I confess that I still find it shocking that in the early discussions of the definition of "Library 2.0" there were many proponents of the term who argued that it didn't matter, or that it was even preferable, that we not have a clear definition of the term, that it's very vagueness was actually an advantage.   That librarians, society's guardians of knowledge, were saying this, still depresses me.

One sees a similar attitude among some bloggers who describe their posts as "just getting my thoughts out", or "trying out ideas", or "just doing rough drafts" -- as if ideas and the language they're expressed in are somehow separable. 

I first began to appreciate the beauty and critical importance of sentences from reading the great short story artist Harold Brodkey, who was absolutely manic and obsessive in his devotion to getting each sentence right -- the right words, the right tone, the right balance, the right music.  All of those carry meaning, and if one element is off, the writing fails.

As an editor, one of my roles was to pay a lot of attention to sentences.  I recall many instances where I would spend a considerable amount of time on a single paragraph, going over it again and again, trying to sort out exactly what the author was really trying to say.  The challenge then was to come up with alternatives that maintained the tone and voice of the author, while clarifying and conveying the actual meaning.   It would be easy enough to rewrite it to sound like me -- but I always wanted it to sound like the original writer.  That's what makes an editor.

Those who see "publishing" as simply a matter of doing some kind of peer review, clarifying some of the facts & conclusions, and then putting things up on a website, miss the importance of that kind of editing.   A well edited article carries the reader along -- it feels effortless.  Without it, reading becomes a chore.  How many ideas never get the distribution that they deserve because the prose they're encased in makes reading just too damn much work?

Language is dynamic, of course, and I don't consider the shorthands and emoticons that are used in chats and tweets and texts to be evidence of the degradation of the written language.  They're useful and often quite clever ways to convey simple meanings within certain technological constraints.  But they're a  very thin thread to hang complex meaning on.

As I grow older, the notion of "story" becomes increasingly important to me.   I was talking to someone about the presentation that I was working on for Scotland.  "I've got the arc of the story figured out, now it's just a matter of pulling together the images that I want to illustrate it, and making sure the transitions work the way that I want them to."  I always think of a presentation as telling a story, as having a plot, as requiring a certain flow to take the listener from beginning to end. The Post writer makes the point, "The sentence itself is a story, with a beginning, a middle, and an end.  Something happens in a sentence."

I often get compliments on my writing, and I'm grateful for that.  But it's quite simple, really.  The first thing I try to do is write good sentences.

Impact Factors For Library Literature

Notwithstanding all of the usual caveats about the misuse of impact factors, I'm pleased to see the numbers that have just been released for the Journal of the Medical Library Association.   It now stands at #14 out of the 56 journals included in this year's "Information Science & Library Science" category.   The thirteen journals that have higher impact factors tend to be more "information science," so it's not surprising to me that many of them would have higher IFs.  Of the more library oriented journals, Portal comes in next at #20, College & Research Libraries is #22, Library Quarterly is #32, and the Journal of Academic Librarianship is #33.

During the time that I was the editor, I viewed the scope of the JMLA as very broad, and we often published articles that would be relevant to the general library and information science community.  The numbers would indicate that this trend has continued under the current editorial team, and I hope that it will progress even further as Susan Starr transitions into her role as the new editor. 

Endless Variety of Music

I've been wanting to see The Roots for a long time, ever since hearing an interview with ?uestlove a few years ago that made it clear he was one of the most intelligent, creative and intriguing people working in music today.  Last night I got my chance, as they closed out the Miller stage on the first night of this year's City Stages festival.  They did not disappoint, starting out with Captain Kirk playing a twanged-out bluesy solo on a beautiful Les Paul, while the rest of the band slowly strolled out one by one, taking their places, the music building and rolling and rising down to the moment when Black Thought came out and picked up the mic.  Thrilling.  Watching Kirk and Tuba Gooding, Jr. prance joyfully around the stage with the sounds swirling as if they were channeling the whole heart and soul of all of American music wrapped up inside them somehow I could only have pity for people who'd hear they were a "hip-hop" band and derisively decide they couldn't possibly be worth watching and listening to.

That's the great thing about City Stages and it's a shame that some people only come to the festival when there's a "name" band that they want to see, or when they get here only go to hear the music that they're familiar with.  I'd walked over to see The Roots after spending some time on the other end of the grounds listening to the Old Crow Medicine Show.  I don't suppose there's a lot of overlap in the fan base of those two bands, but it seems to me that Old Crow were doing to bluegrass something akin to what The Roots were doing to soul and hip-hop.  I love American music.

In every issue of Rolling Stone there's somebody whining about the sad state of the music business.  Could be.  I'm not sure I'd want to have my livelihood depending on it.   But the  music itself is in great shape.

Every year I end up with a bunch of CDs  from people I've never heard of before (or since, in some cases) that I listen to over and over and that become a deep part of me.  The last couple of years we've stayed  at the Tutwiler Hotel, which is right outside the main gate.  It makes it easy to stroll over early in the afternoon when things are relaxed and it's easy to sample what's happening on the different stages.  That's when I come across some of my most remarkable finds.  And there's a great kids area where Josie and I will undoubtedly spend some time.

I have no idea what kind of music I'm going to hear this afternoon and this evening (although I'm hoping to catch a bit of Al Green, some Buddy Guy and some Ben Harper).  But I know that I'm going to have a wonderful time, and that I will be amazed.

Open Access 2.0

In general, when Joe Esposito posts to the liblicense-l list, I find that I agree with him about 65% to 70% of the time (a high percentage for me, I hasten to add).  But in his new article in the Journal of Electronic Publishing, "Open Access 2.0: Access to Scholarly Publications Moves to a New Phase," his percentage has definitely moved up a notch.

He does an excellent job of describing the broad functions of publishing that I was clumsily alluding to in my post this morning (had I read his article sooner I could've saved myself some typing and just linked to it there).  Part of what he describes so well, and which I wish that my librarian colleagues would get a better handle on, is just how various publishing is -- how different publishers can be from one another in their intent and their reach and their audience and their services, and how, as a consequence, whenever we make blanket statements about publishers they are invariably wrong or trivial.

His "nautilus model" for scholarly communication is, I have to say (just having returned from a trip to the UK), brilliant.  It's clear, accurate, and provides a wonderful template for a much more nicely nuanced discussion of open access than we usually see.  What is so refreshing about Esposito's discussion is that he clearly doesn't have an evangelical axe to grind either way -- he's just trying to figure out where open access might fit within the very broad spectrum of scholarly communication.

Do I agree with 100% of what he says in the article?  Of course not.  But hell, on any given day, I don't agree with myself 100%.

The invisible parts of publishing

Amongst all the prognosticating about the future of publishing, Sara Lloyd's manifesto is one of the best things I've seen.   It's nicely balanced (e.g. while she understands the potentials for networked books, she also understands that not all books will need to be networked.)  She digs into the complexities of publishing to seek out those areas of expertise that will continue to be needed as we move into a more porous world.  I was particularly struck by this passage:

In this scenario publishers would need to move back further into the territory of filter and editorial consultant and to refocus energies on their (oft forsaken) role as career nurturers for authors (a space currently shared at least by agents in the trade space). They would also need to develop brands...

We often have a tendency to glibly think (in the world of scholarly publishing, at least) that nothing of significance happens between the completion of peer review and the appearance of the published version (whether that be in print or digital form).  Some of the ire directed against publishers (in the vein of, "the authors don't get compensated, the editors and peer reviewers work for free, and then you have the audacity to charge me for the final product?") stems from this fundamental misunderstanding.  But, as Tom Richardson pointed out in his presentation at CILIPS last week, at the New England Journal of Medicine (along with most other publishers), there is an army of copy-editors and illustrators and fact-checkers who come into play after the article has been accepted, all of whose skills are needed to put that article into final form and make sure that the authors' intent is conveyed in the very best way possible.  You can't do that kind of work with volunteers.

And then there's the matter of getting somebody's attention.  Take any article from the latest issue of NEJM, Nature, or JAMA.  Do you really think that if you posted it on a website and invited comments (even in some mediated way so that it approximated serious peer review), and used those comments to modify and further develop the piece, it would get anywhere near the attention that it would get from having been published in one of the high-profile journals?  We have a tendency to ignore the critical importance of brand in helping people make their way through the morass of content that is available.

And the necessity for developing these sorts of brands is only going to grow.  As articles become disaggregated from journals, it becomes increasingly difficult to figure out what's worth reading.  Social networks will help (although there is always the worry that they tend to favor the popular over the critically valuable.)  But I think we will find that we increasingly rely on the critical (and largely invisible, it seems) expertise that people from the publishing community bring.

Lloyd is focusing on book publishing, but the issues she's wrestling with cross all publishing sectors.  And just as librarians need to change almost everything they do in order to remain true to the core of what they are, publishers need to "break their traditional boundaries" and make "a step change in their form, culture and approach."

Publishers will need to view themselves as shapers and enablers rather than producers and distributors, to take a project rather than a product approach and to embrace their position as merely a component element in a reader, writer, publisher circularity.

It's worth noting that while Lloyd's manifesto is clearly directed to her colleagues in publishing, it will be appearing in Library Trends.  Let's hope that my colleagues read it, learn from it, and take it to heart.  You can't be a good librarian anymore if you don't make a place for yourself in this conversation.


I've been keeping a journal since my early teens.  It was erratic and inconsistent at first, and I might go weeks, and on one or two occasions, even months, without writing, but by my early twenties it had settled into a daily occurrence, and now there are not more than half a dozen days a year that I don't start out by putting at least a few lines into a notebook.

Around 1990 I started keeping the journal on my computer.  I liked the fact that I could go faster on the keyboard than with a pen (although I had enjoyed the tactility of writing with a pen).  It seemed that I could more easily keep up with my thoughts.  In the years before Lynn and I got married, I wrote to her everyday (with a fountain pen on fine stationery), but afterwards, when the letters became more rare (although I still write to her on occasion), it was not uncommon for me to go weeks without picking up a pen for anything other than scribbling a grocery list or signing my name to something at work.

A couple of years after we got married, feeling somewhat bored with the keyboard and in need of something to spark the journal writing, I picked up a pen again and found that writing by hand had become very difficult.  I thought that perhaps I had actually lost the facility.  My penmanship has never been good, but the sentences that I was scratching out now were almost painful to write and certainly indecipherable.  But I wanted that tactile feeling back, and I felt the need for the enforced slowing down of thought that handwriting requires, so I pushed myself to continue.  It didn't take too long for the comfort level to return and ever since then I do my daily journal writing in a good notebook with nice paper using one of the many fountain pens I have scattered around my study.

I was thinking about this yesterday while I was reading Nicholas Carr's essay, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" in the Atlantic Monthly.   "I'm not thinking the way I used to think," says Carr.  "Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. ... That's rarely the case anymore.  Now my concentration often starts to drift..."

It's a good essay.  He quotes others who are experiencing a similar discomfort, notes that the emergence of writing, and then the emergence of printing raised similar cautions in their day.   But the most compelling point he makes is near the end of the essay where he refers to the work of the developmental psychologist Maryanne Wolf, who argues that deep reading is indistinguishable from deep thinking.   Says Carr,

The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author's words but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds. ...  If we lose those quiet spaces, or fill them up with "content," we will sacrifice something important not only in our selves but in our culture.

David M. Levy makes similar points in his article, "No time to think: reflections on information technology and reflective scholarship."  He points out (referring back to the work of Josef Pieper) that there are two distinct modes of thinking, the analytical and the reflective, and that in the information overloaded world in which we increasingly operate, we are in danger of losing the mental space that allows for the reflective and creative kind of thinking that is as essential as the processing of content.

I'm not sure, as Carr suggests, if the kind of skimming and browsing that we typically do on the internet is actually "re-wiring" our brains, making us incapable of immersing ourselves in deep reading or deep thinking, but certainly we are losing the habit.  Humans are lazy creatures.   If we're becoming stupid, it isn't Google that's doing it -- it's our own tendency to follow the path of least resistance.

Librarians used to make fun of those medical students or young researchers who acted as if they believed that medical research began in 1966 -- originally, that was as far back as Medline went, and if they couldn't find a citation in Medline, they didn't bother to look any further.  But these days I read many comments from librarian bloggers who say they don't bother to read the library literature, or much of anything in print.  They say that everything they really need to know they can get from other blogs.  They're idiots -- or well on their way to becoming idiots.

I think Carr's on to something in his essay, but he misidentifies the culprit.

Even when I'm not working,  I'm as likely as not to be foraging in the Web's info-thickets -- reading and writing e-mails, scanning headlines and blog posts, watching videos and listening to podcasts, or just tripping from link to link to link.

But Nicholas, Google isn't forcing you to do that.  Go pick up a book.  It'll be like me getting back to my fountain pen -- it'll be a little tough for awhile, but you'll get the hang of it again and you'll feel better for it.

The Instability of Information

In the second part of Darnton's essay in the New York Review of Books, he makes a strong case for the continuing importance of large academic research libraries.  As a self-described "Google enthusiast," he believes that "Google Book Search really will make book learning accessible on a new, worldwide scale, despite the great digital divide that separates the poor from the computerized."  But he goes on to argue eloquently that not only will this mass digitization not make research libraries obsolete, it will make them more important than ever.  I think his arguments are compelling, although they will not come as any surprise to librarians who have been thinking clearly about the issues.

It's the first part of his essay that I found particularly illuminating.  Darnton argues that, contrary to the "common view that we have just entered a new era, the information age," which he sees as rooted in the long-term view of technological transformations, "every age was an age of information, each in its own way, and that information has always been unstable."

As a cultural historian with an outstanding reputation, he is well-suited to making this claim.  Years ago I was fascinated by his book, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History, in which he shows how our understanding of history is shaped and molded by the ways in which unstable information is passed on and examined.  In the NYRB essay, he has a couple of excellent examples to make the case that "news has always been an artifact and that it never corresponded exactly to what actually happened. ...  News is not what happened, but a story about what happened."

The common wisdom here in the internet age is that things are radically different from the way they've been before.  This is the point of view that I criticized in my comments on Everything is Miscellaneous in response to Rothman's question about what I didn't like about the book.  This predilection to see the present as radically discontinuous from the past isn't new, of course, and it isn't restricted to views about information.  My peers and I in the late 60s believed that our generation represented a radical break, not just with our parents', but with every generation that had gone before.  We were foolish in this belief because we were ignorant of history.

The point is not that things aren't changing, or that the world isn't different today from what it was a couple of decades ago.  The point is that this has always been the case, and our tendency to think that the world of our predecessors had a kind of stability that is lacking in the present world is an illusion.  Change is continuous and incremental and multivariate and beautifully complex.  When we look at the past, or try to understand the present, we break things up into epochs and ages for convenience sake.  We label the decades and try to pin them like butterflies to a display board.  We categorize and classify time just as we do everything else.  But that's just a way for us to abstract things so that we can find ways to understand and talk about them.   Realities are far more complex.

Faulkner said it best:  The past is never dead.  It's not even past.


Duke's wife Mary is the official Bearded Pigs photographer (most of the pictures on the website are hers).  So who knew what a fine photographer Duke is as well?  On the Scotland trip, he brought a camera and really captured much of what we saw.

He's a car nut, so there's lots of pictures of cars, but also of Peebles itself, some of the pubs and shops, Melrose Abbey, Troquair House, Neidpath Castle, the Hydro hotel & grounds, and some of the marvelous people that we met.

As I said earlier, it was a magnificent trip.  Duke's pictures take me right back there.


Some years ago, when I was in London speaking at the ASA conference, BtheA gave me a copy of Iain Banks' Raw Spirit as a parting gift.   I read it on the flight back home and was amazed at its casual brilliance.  There seemed to be at least three or four story lines coursing through the book, and Banks moved among them effortlessly.  I learned a lot about whisky, and a lot about Banks, and by the time I got back, I was eager to read more.

Banks alternates between mainstream fiction and science fiction (twelve of the former and ten of the latter, so far).  In the months after reading Raw Spirit I read three of the mainstream novels and two of the science fiction and finished each one being more impressed than ever.  The easy facility with sentences is always evident, along with an astonishing imagination, great characterizations and fascinating plots.  He likes to put twists into the endings and I've always been nicely surprised by how he brings each book to a close in a completely satisfying way.   Regardless of the genre he's working in, his underlying concerns are always ethical -- what are one's obligations to others and to oneself, how does one deal with the challenges of love and responsibility.  His novels often contain scenes of terrible violence and injustice, but he is one of the most humane authors I've ever read.

After reading those five books, I moved on to other things, so when I was packing for Scotland, I grabbed the remaining unread sf novel that I had on a shelf and tossed it into the suitcase to read on the flight home.  Then, when we stopped into Whiting's on our last day in Peebles to pick up a jigsaw puzzle for Josie, I bought two more of the mainstream novels.  I finished one of those on the plane, then started the sf novel I'd brought with me.  I finished that one yesterday and started the other mainstream novel.  Each one is remarkably different and completely engaging.

I may take a break from Banks again after I finish this one, but there's a strong temptation to just keep going.   Given the rate at which he churns these out, I might never catch up!