What The New Yorker Got Wrong About Lawrence Lessig

In its October 13, 2014 article about Lawrence Lessig’s Mayday PAC, The New Yorker writes:

In 2001, Lessig co-founded Creative Commons, an alternative copyright system that allows people to share their work more freely.

In fact, this isn’t quite right. Creative Commons is not an “alternative copyright system.” It is a licensing regime that uses the existing framework of copyright law to make it easier for copyright holders to release their works under open terms. This is an important distinction in thinking about what Lessig is trying to do with the Mayday PAC, which aims to use the loosening of restrictions on campaign donations that resulted from the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision to raise millions of dollars specifically in order to elect candidates dedicated to campaign finance reform. The New Yorker titled its piece, “Embrace the Irony,” and the Mayday PAC is indeed an irony. But in the context of Lessig’s earlier work on Creative Commons, it is a familiar one. Both efforts seek to use existing legal frameworks to subvert a status quo those frameworks were intended to support.

Nobody cares about the library: How digital technology makes the library invisible (and visible) to scholars

There is a scene from the first season of the television spy drama, Chuck, that takes place in a library. In the scene, our hero and unlikely spy, Chuck, has returned to his alma mater, Stanford, to find a book his former roommate, Bryce, has hidden in the stacks as a clue. All Chuck has to go on is a call number scribbled on a scrap of paper.

When he arrives in the stacks, he finds the book is missing and assumes the bad guys have beat him to it. Suddenly, however, Chuck remembers back to his undergraduate days of playing tag in the stacks with Bryce with plastic dart guns. Bryce had lost his weapon and Chuck had cornered him. Just then, Bryce reached beneath a shelf where he had hidden an extra gun, and finished Chuck off. Remembering this scene, Chuck reaches beneath the shelf where the book should have been shelved and finds that this time around Bryce has stashed a computer disk.

I like this clip because it illustrates how I think most people—scholars, students, geeks like Chuck—use the library. I don’t mean as the setting for covert intelligence operations or even undergraduate dart gun games. Rather, I think it shows that patrons take what the library offers and then use those offerings in ways librarians never intended. Chuck and his team (and the bad guys) enter the library thinking they are looking for a book with a given call number only to realize that Bryce has repurposed the Library of Congress Classification system to hide his disk. It reinforces the point when, at the end of the scene, the writers play a joke at the expense of a hapless librarian, who, while the action is unfolding, is trying to nail Chuck for some unpaid late fees. When the librarian catches up with Chuck, and Chuck’s partner Sarah shouts “Run!” she is not, as the librarian thinks, worried about late fees but about the bad guys with guns standing behind him. Chuck and his friends don’t care about the library. They use the library’s resources and tools in their own ways, to their own ends, and the concerns of the librarians are a distant second to the concerns that really motivate them.

In some ways, this disconnect between librarians (and their needs, ways of working, and ways of thinking) and patrons (and their needs and ways of working) is only exacerbated by digital technology. In the age of Google Books, JSTOR, Wikipedia, and ever expanding digital archives, librarians may rightly worry about becoming invisible to scholars, students, and other patrons—that “nobody cares about the library.” Indeed, many faculty and students may wonder just what goes on in that big building across the quad. Digital technology has reconfigured the relationship between librarians and researchers. In many cases, this relationship has grown more distant, causing considerable consternation about the future of libraries. Yet, while it is certainly true that digital technology has made libraries and librarians invisible to scholars in some ways, it is also true, that in some areas, digital technology has made librarians increasingly visible, increasingly important.

To try to understand the new invisibility/visibility of the library in the digital age let’s consider a few examples on both sides.

The invisible library

Does it matter that Chuck couldn’t care less about call numbers and late fees or about controlled vocabularies, metadata schemas, circulation policies, or theories collections stewardship? I’m here to argue that it doesn’t. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not arguing that these things don’t matter or that the library should be anything but central to the university experience. But to play that central role doesn’t mean the library has to be uppermost in everyone’s mind. In the digital age, in most cases, the library is doing its job best when it is invisible to its patrons.

What do I mean by that? Let me offer three instances where the library should strive for invisibility, three examples of “good” invisibility:

Search: We tend to evaluate the success of our web pages with metrics like numbers of page views, time spent per page, and bounce rate. But with search the metrics are reversed: We don’t want people looking at lots of pages or spending a lot of time on our websites. We want the library web infrastructure to be essentially invisible, or at least to be visible for only a very short period of time. What we really want with search is to allow patrons to get in and get out as quickly as possible with just what they were looking for.

APIs and 3rd party mashups: In fact, we may not want people visiting library websites at all. What would be even better would be to provide direct computational access to collections databases so people could take the data directly and use it in their own applications elsewhere. Providing rich APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) would make the library even more invisible. People wouldn’t even come to our websites to access content, but they would get from us what they need where they need it.

Social media: Another way in which we may want to discourage people from coming to library websites is by actively placing content on other websites. To the extent that a small or medium-sized library wants to reach general audiences, it has a better chance of doing so in places where that audience already is. Flickr Commons is one good example of this third brand of invisibility. Commentors on Flickr Commons may never travel back to the originating library’s website, but they may have had a richer interaction with that library’s content because of it.

The visible library

The experience of the digital humanities shows that the digital can also bring scholars into ever closer and more substantive collaboration with librarians. It is no accident that many if not most successful digital humanities centers are based in univeristy libraries. Much of digital humanities is database driven, but an empty database is a useless database. Librarians have the stuff to fill digital humanists’ databases and the expertise to do so intelligently.

Those library-based digital humanities centers tend to skew towards larger universities. How can librarians at medium-sized or even small universities library help the digital humanities? Our friend Wally Grotophorst, Associate University Librarian for Digital Programs and Systems at Mason, provides some answers in his brief but idea-rich post, What Happens To The Mid-Major Library?. I’ll point to just three of Wally’s suggestions:

Focus on special collections, that is anything people can’t get from shared sources like Google Books, JSTOR, LexisNexis, HathiTrust. Not only do special collections differentiate you from other institutions online, they provide unique opportunities for researchers on campus.

Start supporting data-driven research in addition to the bibliographic-driven kind that has been the traditional bread and butter of libraries. Here I’d suggest tools and training for database creation, social network analysis, and simple text mining.

Start supporting new modes of scholarly communication—financially, technically, and institutionally. Financial support for open access publishing of the sort prescribed by the Compact for Open-Access Publishing Equity is one ready model. Hosting, supporting, and publicizing scholarly and student blogs as an alternative or supplement to existing learning management systems (e.g. Blackboard) is another. University Library/University Press collaboration, like the University of Michigan’s MPublishing reorganization, is a third.

Conclusion

In an information landscape increasingly dominated by networked resources, both sides of the librarian-scholar/student relationship must come to terms with a new reality that is in some ways more distant and in others closer than ever before. Librarians must learn to accept invisibility where digital realities demand it. Scholars must come to understand the centrality of library expertise and accept librarians as equal partners as more and more scholarship becomes born digital and the digital humanities goes from being a fringe sub-discipline to a mainstream pursuit. Librarians in turn must expand those services like special collections, support for data-driven research, and access to new modes of publication that play to their strengths and will best serve scholars. We all have to find new ways, better ways to work together.

So, where does that leave Chuck? Despite not caring about our work, Chuck actually remembers the library fondly as a place of play. Now maybe we don’t want people playing dart guns in the stacks. But applied correctly, digital technology allows our users and our staff to play, to be creative, and in their own way to make the most of the library’s rich resources.

Maybe the Chucks of the world do care about the library after all.

[This post is based on a talk I delivered at American University Library’s Digital Futures Forum. Thanks to @bill_mayer for his kind invitation. In memory of my dear friend Bob Griffith, who did too much to come and hear this lousy talk.]

One Week, One Book: Hacking the Academy

Dan Cohen and I have been brewing a proposal for an edited book entitled Hacking the Academy. Let’s write it together, starting at THATCamp. And let’s do it in one week.

Can an algorithm edit a journal? Can a library exist without books? Can students build and manage their own learning management platforms? Can a conference be held without a program? Can Twitter replace a scholarly society?

As recently as the mid-2000s, questions like these would have been unthinkable. But today serious scholars are asking whether the institutions of the academy as they have existed for decades, even centuries, aren’t becoming obsolete. Every aspect of scholarly infrastructure is being questioned, and even more importantly, being <em>hacked</em>. Sympathetic scholars of traditionally disparate disciplines are cancelling their association memberships and building their own networks on Facebook and Twitter. Journals are being compiled automatically from self-published blog posts. Newly-minted Ph.D.’s are foregoing the tenure track for alternative academic careers that blur the lines between research, teaching, and service. Graduate students are looking beyond the categories of the traditional C.V. and building expansive professional identities and popular followings through social media. Educational technologists are “punking” established technology vendors by rolling their own open source infrastructure.

“Hacking the Academy” will both explore and contribute to ongoing efforts to rebuild scholarly infrastructure for a new millenium. Contributors can write on these topics, which will form chapters:

  • Lectures and classrooms
  • Scholarly societies
  • Conferences and meetings
  • Journals
  • Books and monographs
  • Tenure and academic employment
  • Scholarly Identity and the CV
  • Departments and disciplines
  • Educational technology
  • Libraries

In keeping with the spirit of hacking, the book will itself be an exercise in reimagining the edited volume. Any blog post, video response, or other media created for the volume and tweeted (or tagged) with the hashtag #hackacad will be aggregated at hackingtheacademy.org (submissions should use a secondary tag — #class #society #conf #journal #book #tenure #cv #dept #edtech #library — to designate chapters). The best pieces will go into the published volume (we are currently in talks with a publisher to do an open access version of this final volume). The volume will also include responses such as blog comments and tweets to individual pieces. If you’ve already written something that you would like included, that’s fine too, just be sure to tweet or tag it (or email us the link to where it’s posted).

You have until midnight on May 28, 2010. Ready, set, go!

A Google Books Cautionary Tale

This one made the rounds of Twitter earlier today thanks to Jo Guldi. This month Wired Magazine tells a cautionary tale for those following the progress of Google Books. Entitled “Google’s Abandoned Library of 700 Million Titles,” the article reminds readers of Google’s 2001 acquisition of a Usenet archive of more than 700 million articles from more than 35,000 newsgroups. Incorporated today into Google Groups, the Wired article contends the archival Usenet material is poorly indexed and hardly searchable, rendering much of it practically inaccessible. The article concludes, “In the end, then, the rusting shell of Google Groups is a reminder that Google is an advertising company — not a modern-day Library of Alexandria.” Something to remember when considering the Google Books settlement and its implications.

Privatizing Holocaust History?

For the past few years, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has undertaken a series of public-private digitization partnerships, especially with a company called Footnote.com. These partnerships provide NARA with free digitization services, and visitors to NARA’s reading rooms with access to the products, but allow Footnote.com and NARA’s other private partners to charge offsite users for online access public documents. I have never been particularly thrilled with this arrangement—charging the American people for access to their own records and all that—but in the past the projects have focused mainly on older document collections of mainly genealogical interest. Now NARA announces that online access to its collection of Holocaust-related material is being made available through Footnote.com, free for the month of October, but presumably for a fee afterwards. Something about this doesn’t sit right with me: should we really be limiting access to a history we desperately don’t want to repeat?

Another concern is Footnote.com’s extensive use of social media. Web 2.0 technologies provide tremendous opportunities for knowledge sharing and creating community around cultural heritage. But when dealing with topics as difficult as genocide, the values of sharing and openness need to be tempered by caution and sensitivity towards victims and their memory. For topics like the Holocaust, public tagging, spontaneous tweets, and YouTube mash-ups may not be the most appropriate or productive vehicles for public discussion and reflection. Indeed, this difficult question of how best to implement social media around topics of conscience is the premise behind CHNM and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s upcoming event, The Conscience Un-Conference, which remains open for applications until October 13, 2009.

SI and Flickr Commons

Originally published in the journal Archival Science, the Smithsonian Institution Libraries has just released under open access terms a report of the Institution’s experience with Flickr Commons. Written by Martin Kalfatovic, Effie Kapsalis, Katherine Spiess, Anne Van Camp, and Mike Edson, the report recounts what the authors deem a mostly successful experiment with Web 2.0, one that provided insights into the opportunities and challenges of both social media and library, archives, and museum collaborations. Stressing the importance of “going where the visitors are,” the report also recognizes that engaging visitors in external commercial venues like Flickr cannot be a replacement for local digital preservation and outreach programs and strategies:

Our Flickr pilot project is part of an emerging strategy to ‘‘go where they are’’ in the Web 2.0 environment. The Smithsonian seeks to ‘‘go there’’ to increase access for educational and research purposes, and fully realize that in doing so we are going to a virtual location that is commercial and not a trusted website in many educational environments. Therefore, our strategy is to use this type of site in context and in parallel with development of access to these collections through Smithsonian web sites.

Briefly Noted: Timetoast; Google Books Settlement; Curators and Wikipedians

Via Mashable, yet another timeline service: Timetoast.

Many readers will have seen this already, but Robert Darton’s February piece in The New York Review of Books is the most readable discussion I have seen of the Google Books settlement.

Fresh + New(er), the Powerhouse Museum’s always interesting blog, describes that museum’s recent open house for local Wikipedians and the common ground they found between expert curators and amateur encyclopedists.

Briefly Noted: Creative Commons Choices; Radical Transparency; Presidential Sex

Creative Commons logo Creative Commons has released a statistical analysis of the licensing choices of Flickr users. My summary: most people are happy to provide open access, but they don’t want you messing with their stuff. Some commentators lament the fact that so few Flickr users allow derivative works or commercial use of their materials. But for me the important thing about Creative Commons and its use on sites like Flickr is not the particular licenses people choose, but that they choose open licenses—under terms that are clearly explained and easily understood—at all. It is the clarity that Creative Commons licensing brings and the spur to open access this allows that’s important to education, scholarship, and cultural heritage.

This has made the rounds, but for those of you who haven’t seen it, Indianapolis Museum of Art Director Maxwell Anderson’s recent lecture, Through the Looking Glass: Museums and Internet-Based Transparency is an important statement of the value of openness. Not simply a good talk, IMA is walking the walk.

Our good friend Rob MacDougall points to painter Justine Lai’s series picturing herself having sex with past U.S. presidents. Check your modesty before clicking the link.

Briefly Noted: Surviving the Downturn; Help with Creative Commons; Yahoo Pipes

The American Association of State and Local History (AASLH) provides cultural heritage professionals with some relevant information on surviving the economic downturn.

JISC provides advice on choosing (or not choosing) a Creative Commons license.

Missed it at the launch? Didn’t see the point? Don’t know where to start? Ars Technica has a nice reintroduction and tutorial for Yahoo Pipes, a visual web content mashup editor. Here’s an example of the kind of thing you can do very easily (20 minutes in this case) with Pipes: an aggregated feed of CHNMers’ tweets displayed on a Dipity timeline.