it’s always a little more complicated than you think

Yesterday I was scrolling through some shared items in Google Reader when I stumbled on a post from BoingBoing about the Salvation Army requiring proof of US citizenship before they gave children gifts. I tend to get a little irate about anti-immigrant policies, and so, casting aside all my good librarian skills, I immediately forwarded the piece — without even reading it fully — on to my mother and my friend.

Now as it so happens, yesterday my mother and my friend both beat me at the information literacy game. My mother clicked through to the actual post and saw the update from Cory Doctorow, wherein a Salvation Army PR person explains that they don’t require proof of immigration status; they just ask for things like birth certificates and Social Security numbers to make sure that people aren’t double-dipping. My friend, who is a Lutheran pastor, clicked through and saw the update and wrote to me a little more about her own experiences with the practice:

when I provide Salvation Army services I’m required to take their social security number. It’s one of the hardest parts of my job with them. People, as you might understand, get really upset saying that just because they are poor etc, they shouldn’t have to give their ss number to me. However, as it is is a unique number to each individual it’s a very convenient number for the Army to use.

As a national charity that is more reputable than the Red Cross they need to be able to track the needs of the people. One such example might be an influx of foot traffic from the South to the North as people seek jobs, or an increase in women and children seeking emergency housing due to abuse as unemployment rises. That said, there are ways around all of these stipulations and the article doesn’t do the Army justice about this. I have a woman right now who isn’t able to provide a social security number for her son because the card is with his father, but I’m still going to fill out a voucher for him to get a new winter coat, and some clothes due to their emergency relocation.

If you read through the comment thread on the original post, you see a little of the same thing happening. There are a lot of knee-jerk reactions like mine to start out with. Then there are some people who come in with defenses and explanations. Then there are counter examples, some with citations. And of course there are some more snarky comments (I mean, it is BoingBoing, after all). But the end result of reading through all of these things is, I think, that one feels more confused than convinced — and I think that’s not necessarily a bad thing. That confusion forces you to think about things like poverty and homelessness and charity in a practical way. It’s easy enough to say, “no one should be homeless.” It’s much harder when you have to run an actual shelter, and then suddenly you have a fire marshal to deal with, and zoning regulations, and the needs of a variety of people to keep in mind, and suddenly you do have to institute rules and turn some people away, and that’s terrible, but it’s also reality. If you have too many people in your shelter, the fire marshal will shut you down and you won’t be able to provide shelter to anyone. Librarians reading this blog are, I suspect, all too aware of the difficulties.

But I’m getting away from my topic. This morning I was reminded of this whole little saga by a couple of threads in the LSW Room on FriendFeed which further the eternal question of how we teach people to interrogate information, to ask whether it is credible or useful or even accurate. And the answer, it seems to me, is always that it is much more complicated than you think.

The ability to judge information depends on a lot of things. It depends on avoiding knee-jerk responses, and it depends on having a set of criteria you can use, and it even depends on having some previous knowledge.  I can’t teach all of that to a class of fifth graders in a one-shot session. I doubt you can teach all that to a class of college students over the course of a semester. Oh, you can help them find criteria, and you can help them gain a bit more of a knowledge base, and you can probably help them get better at this whole information literacy game. But as with many things, the only way you actually get better at this game is by playing it and playing a lot of it. I, for one, have a good deal left to learn.

behind the curtain

As you will remember if you’ve seen the movie (or read the book!), the Wizard of Oz is not the great and terrible voice that overwhelms the supplicants who come to the Emerald City. He’s actually just an ordinary man manipulating things behind a curtain.

In the past couple of weeks, I have been doing several things that have gotten me thinking about that curtain and what is behind it. I did a teleconference for the Education Institute in Canada that was basically an expansion of my Internet Librarian presentation on our website, and I did a webinar for Get on the Bus: Join the Online Social Library Community, which is Wyoming’s 5 weeks/learning 2.0/23 things program. There are few experiences eerier than sitting in front of your computer and talking over the telephone to people in other places whom you can’t see. You don’t have any of the normal cues you get from an audience, and you have no way to tell whether they’re following you at all or falling asleep or even there. You are doing education all wrong — with the exception of a question and answer period at the end, there is no interactivity. And yet I think we will see more education done this way, not less, and so it behooves us to figure out how to make it as good as possible.

But I also recently did an in-person training on EBSCO databases for a group of regional librarians. I called it EBSCO Behind the Curtain in part because I was thinking about the machinations of the database and in part because it gave me a good excuse to use an image that has ascended into the public domain. (You can see the results on the handout [.doc].) One of the biggest difficulties libraries face, I think, is that so much of our content isn’t visible. We have about 25,000 volumes here in my little library. You can wander the stacks and pick things up and flip through them, you can look at covers and tables of contents and indexes. You can get a sense of what is there. But for all the information contained in those 25,000 volumes, there is even more stuff that you can’t see — specifically, the contents of all our databases. So this time, I thought I’d start by asking the question I ask fifth graders when I go teach them about doing research: How does stuff get on the internet? Who puts it there? You have to know what there is to find before you can go about finding it.

So we talked about what there is in different places. What’s on the internet? What’s in the catalog? What’s in these mysterious databases? And, perhaps even more importantly, how does the tool that we use to find the stuff work? Many people have a dim idea of how Google works (looks for keywords, checks for popularity), but very few people I’ve asked can tell me what order the results are in when you search the catalog, and even fewer have any idea of how complex databases work. So we talked a bit about indexing and finding and item types and why different databases work differently. And I’m not really sure how enlightening it was, but it has gotten me thinking about how as technology trainers and librarians we can get behind that curtain and how we can show the machinations that take place behind it to the world.

I suppose a lot of the world doesn’t really care about those machinations and doesn’t want to — but they should. And we should encourage them to learn. As more and more of our data leaves the open stacks and hides behind the curtain of the internet, it is incumbent upon us to know what’s back there, and to know how best to work the system (the systems, really) to get it out.

privacy: another chapter

Update: the first link should actually go to the post in question now–thanks to Mark for noticing the error.

Awhile back I wrote a preface.

I just got back from teaching my final digital photography class of the season at the library. Our summer hours start on Tuesday, and we won’t be open again in the evenings again until after Labor Day. I’m scheduled to do the class up at the main branch in Cody over the summer at least once; we’ll see if they want me back.

I’ve done the class three times, and it’s been a little different each time. The first time, many of the attendees were over 70 and mostly not very comfortable with technology, and we spent a lot of time just learning to take pictures and getting over the fear that film was being wasted (“remember, there is no film!” is the mantra). The next class was pretty down with taking pictures (though it also had some people looking to try out a few cameras before they bought one), so we spent more time playing with Picasa and e-mailing and uploading pictures to various sites. Tonight I just had one student. We spent part of the time getting the student’s camera (a Kodak Easy Share) set up with batteries and a memory card and taking some pictures with it. (We also attempted to put together the fancy base that came with the camera, which apparently lets you charge batteries, transfer pictures to your computer, and look at your pictures on your TV, but it seemed to be missing a piece, so we gave up on that.) Then we took the card out again, stuck it in the multi-card reader I have hooked up to one of the computers, and watched the computer magically import them into Picasa. We played with them there a bit and then took a quick look at Flickr and KodakGallery and loaded a few pictures on to each.

My insanely long handout gives a bunch of different options for online photo-sharing and storage. During class I usually show people Flickr and KodakGallery, as those are the two I’ve used and have accounts with. I say that I use Flickr because I have a lot of friends (plus “imaginary friends,” as Steve Lawson calls them in the first comment on this excellent though unrelated post) who use it, and because, frankly, I mostly take pictures of my cat and stuff around my house and of places I go hiking, and I don’t really don’t much care who sees them. I tell people that if they do care who sees their pictures, a service more like KodakGallery or Shutterfly might be for them. (It is, I know, possible to make photos private or friends or family only in Flickr, but it requires that the people you want to show your pictures to have Flickr accounts, be on your friends and/or family list, etc. etc. That’s often a little more complicated than I want to get into in an introductory class.)

Some students have been very interested in learning about the level of privacy afforded by different sites. Like everyone else, they’ve been bombarded with MySpace hysteria. They’ve heard that social sites on the internet just a haven for pedophiles, and they don’t want their kids serving as fodder. And I can’t blame them.

I don’t have kids, but I’m aware that, quite frequently, you think about a lot of things differently when you do. I suspect that if and when I do have children, I’d follow the same policy with them that I use for other pictures I put on Flickr that have other people in them–unless they’re people I know don’t mind having their picture out on the web, I make them “friends only” pictures. I have lots of people marked “friend” that I don’t know personally but know from their blogs. But for some people, I suspect, knowing someone from online doesn’t seem like enough.

A couple wees ago, This American Life did a show called “How We Talked Back Then” (Elizabeth Meister–you offer so many wonderful things on the site! how about some permalinks?!), which rebroadcast, among other things, some stories about how people were using Internet in 1997. As Ira Glass noted, back then it was kind of odd and scary to think about meeting someone you only knew from online. To many of us now, that’s not a big deal at all. But when I say “us,” I don’t really mean it generically. In this context, “us” means people reading this blog–people who for the most part (I think) already have a fair amount of online life. That’s still not true for everyone. I suspect that for a lot of people, the Internet is kind of the way it was for me back in the mid-1990s–cool but kind of overwhelming.

I realize as I’m writing this that I’m pretty much repeating what I’ve said before: that I don’t have any problem putting my life out there on the web, but I’m reluctant to force that on other people, and that what “we” think of as a normal level of interaction with technology may be pretty extreme for some people–and in that respect, maybe this post has more to do with Luke’s than I originally thought. I’d like to think of myself as Library 2.0 friendly (or, at any rate, generally not L2 hostile), but I’d hate to have to be L2 compliant–it sounds far too much like a test.
For a more lengthy, and thoughtful, consideration of L2 and privacy, go read Rory’s post on the subject, if you haven’t already. I may have more to say on it all in another five months or so.