coming together and falling apart

Things have been a bit slow at the library lately, as often happens in the summer when the weather is good, and so I’ve been getting to some of the far back burner items on my list. Today I decided I should check out my toread list in (You may already be thinking that this was a bad idea, and possibly it was, although it is not nearly as bad an idea (so far) as the time a couple of summers ago when I decided I wanted to reorganize all my tags. Don’t do that. Trust me.)

My account started in July 2005, just a few months after I started blogging. Today I’ve looked at some of the very first things I tagged to read and some of the most recent ones, and I’m struck both by how charmingly archaic early articles on folksonomies have become and by how relevant some of the ideas still are. User tagging of the catalog is not something that has really taken off, but user generated content in other areas has become incredibly valuable. I can’t imagine how I ever figured out what sort of consumer electronics products to buy in the days before Amazon reviews.

One of the newer things I’m reading, which I’ve really only started to peruse, is The Hyperlinked Society: Questioning Connections in the Digital Age. In the first essay of the collection, James G. Webster talks about how technology has brought about media fragmentation — we now have hundreds of cable channels and millions of websites where once we had only three networks. According to the fragmentation theorists, mass culture is now over, and technology is taking us all to the skinny end of that long tail, where we’ll all get just exactly the things we’re looking for but won’t have anything in common with society as a whole.

That’s a seductive argument, to be sure, but what struck me as I read about that and thought back to when I first heard of folksonomies is that in some ways, the technology that has developed alongside the idea of a folksonomy has actually the effect of bringing us back together. Consider, for instance, hashtags in Twitter. The election in Iran became a mass culture event in large part because of new media. People around the world were able to follow minute by minute news direct from Iran thanks to #iranelection. They were able to turn their avatars green and look at all the other people with green avatars and feel like they were a part of something. (I’m not, for the moment, interested in debating whether that actually constitutes doing something or being a part of it — the point here is that for the people involved, it clearly did feel that way.)

It’s true that watching a trending topic on Twitter is not the same kind of mass culture experience that, say, listening to Walter Cronkite give the latest body count from Vietnam was, and I doubt the numbers are anywhere close to the kind of viewership the evening news once had. But it is, I think, evidence that technology can gather as well as it can fragment, and I find that fascinating.

the library of the mind

The one area in which I find bookstore classification preferable to library classification is literary nonfiction. A good book store will have a section reserved for essays, and sometimes longer nonfiction narratives. At such a store, you can get one-stop shopping for the works of Annie Dillard, John McPhee, Gretel Ehrlich, et al. In both Dewey and LC, the work of these authors will be split up and shelved by topic. You may read McPhee because you are interested in geology or bark canoes or oranges or cod fishing, but it is more likely that you read McPhee because you love his writing, because you find that, like the best teachers and conversationalists, he can make any topic interesting. You learn from reading him, but you don’t set out to learn.

Several discussions dealing with fiction, nonfiction, reading, and learning have been wending their way around the biblioblogosphere of late, and they’ve gotten me thinking. Nonanon has written recently that she loves nonfiction because it pulls her into the world and teaches her things, whereas fiction tends to pull her away from the world. There’s a lively discussion going on in the comments about what you can learn from each. The NEA, in its Reading At Risk report, has been telling us for some years that there is a crisis in American reading because fewer people are reading–although it should be noted that to the NEA, reading means reading literary fiction. Thrillers and suspense novels don’t count, but apparently reading Refuge or An American Childhood doesn’t count either, which is rather a slap in the face to those of us who spent time and money studying nonfiction writer. And then, as Karen notes, there are people who believe that we shouldn’t be reading fiction because we can’t learn any information from it.

This last statement is so ludicrous that I was considering a blog post consisting just of information I learned from reading fiction: you can test for oxygen by lowering a candle into a well hole — if the flame goes out, you shouldn’t go down, because you won’t be able to breathe (the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder). You ride a horse by gripping with your legs, not by hanging on with your hands (The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis). Medieval Poles feared invasions by the Tartars (The Trumpeter of Krakow by Eric P. Kelly) — I even once got to use this information when taking a geography test. The layout of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg). I could go on–as I imagine could most of you–what information have you learned from reading fiction?

I have been using as my e-mail signature of late one of my favorite bits from Samuel Johnson (or to be more precise from Boswell’s Life of Johnson):

Idleness is a disease which must be combated; but I would not advise a rigid adherence to a particular plan of study. I myself have never persisted in any plan for two days together. A man ought to read just as his inclination leads him: for what he reads as a task will do him little good.

Almost everything I believe about reading is summed up in that passage, and it explains why I became a librarian and not a teacher. It also explains my rather peculiar study habits. It is not, of course, a good way to organize a public library (although it serves to some extent as the basis for the Prelinger Library, and it fits well with the everything is miscellaneous nature of the digital world), but it is the way the library of the mind works. Those who wish to proscribe what we should read and why, and what we should take from our reading, would be better advised to stop talking and start wandering in the stacks, trusting in serendipity, that greatest of all library attributes, to lead them in the right direction.

organization: or why I am not a cataloger

This is a post I wrote by hand when my computer was off getting fixed. I didn’t get around to transcribing it until now.

Once my grandmother asked my father and her cousin how she ought to organize her books. One said “Size!” and the other said “Color!” and, well, it went downhill from there. Despite my talk of growing up in a house with a card catalog, I’m not so great at organization myself. I’m amazed by Lindsay’s habits; I’m totally bowled over by Joy’s.

In fact, I sort neither by size nor by color. I have a folder on my computer called “Library School.” It has some subfolders for different classes, but I usually don’t create those until the semester’s over. (And it gets worse–the versions on my computer aren’t usually final–those are mostly saved on my end drive at school, and they’re in no order). I have a single notebook in which I take notes,
and a 3-ring binder with some dividers that holds syllabi, readings, assignments, etc. I keep my calendar in the student handbook that they give out for free at the beginning of the year.

Actually, this all works for me. I generally have what I need; I always have enough to get by. What I’m really having problems with is my account.

I’m seriously mystified by some of the tags I’ve come up wiht. What for instance, does web mean? Surely in some respect everything that I tag could be called web–things tagged on are of the web just by their very nature, though of course they are not necessarily about the web. Perhaps that’s the difference. Tech seems a little more straightforward–at least it did until I started thinking about it. Does it mean actual bits of technology or just stuff related to technology? Is it of or about? And honestly–I have 40 or so things currently tagged tech–how am I supposed to find the one I’m looking for among them? I could go on–what is the difference between tools and tricks? And what about hacks (or rather hack, which is apparently the tag I actually used)? Do I bookmark the blog post in which I read about a new resource (handy because it generally includes a review of the resource) or do I just bookmark the resource itself (more direct, fewer clicks)? You get the idea.

As you’ll see, the problem extends as well to the categorizing of posts on this blog. I was all excited initially at the thought of figuring out what all I was writing about. I’m still interested, but I’m nowhere near finished. I’ve categorized about half the posts, I think, but I’m not totally happy with the ones I’ve chosen. The people who are Technorati-tagging their posts have the added disadvantage of trying either to pick one tag or to come up with all its possible variants–l2, library2.0, library20, etc.
Don’t get me wrong–I love, I love tagging, I love the wisdom of the crowds–but I also have a newfound respect for the catalogers and ontologists of the world. They’ve got their work cut out for them.

Now really–size or color?