If Second Life is the answer, what was the question?

28 February 2008

The Library 2.0 proponents believe that we should meet our users in whatever spaces they choose to inhabit. As you know, I only partially agree with that notion at the best of times.

But what about when that space is a notorious haven for violence, perversion, pornography and criminal activity?

Australia’s greatest exponent of Second Life in libraries is without a doubt Kathryn Greenhill, Emerging Technologies Specialist at Murdoch University Library, also known by the alias Emerald Dumont. Task 22 of the 23 Things program salutes her passion for virtual worlds by asking us to investigate Second Life and how libraries are using it.

There are a number of influential library bloggers who push for libraries’ involvement in ‘gaming’, not for play but for learning. I’ll be posting on the Swinburne Library Blog in the near future (so stay tuned!) about how Swinburne internet architecture researchers use gaming technologies to measure our CPU usage. But how many true ‘gamers’ amongst our library user population would be involved in gaming for the sake of learning? Call me old-fashioned, but I imagine most of them just want to escape from the realities of work and study life and be entertained. And that’s perfectly fine.

I love the idea that new technologies can help libraries reach users whose access has previously been limited by distance, time and/or disability. Peter Lor’s inspiring plenary at VALA2008 (PDF) pushed us to think of our libraries as politicised spaces. It’s an angle I’ve always been reluctant to accept, as I believe that our role is to provide an information service with as few barriers as possible, not to push a political agenda. Yet arguably, our anti-censorship, pro-freedom stance already places us in direct opposition to any form of government, no matter how (purportedly) democratic.

The notion of librarian as anarchist is so divorced from the popular culture concept of conservative, tweed-and-pearl-wearing shushers to be laughable. Yet anarchy actually much closer to the reality than the stereotype will ever be. Underneath the calm exterior, we librarians like to stir the pot.

IFLA (in the person of Peter Lor) encourages us to bring our politics to work with us. Lor argues that we need to become skilled manipulators of the information economy to ensure that no-one is excluded or left behind. To that end, Africa-specific table of contents service Africa Journals Online has been created to help journals published in the developing world gain international exposure. Similar projects in Nepal, Vietnam and Bangladesh are also underway. Contributions to the PKP support forums indicate that the development of free, open source journal hosting software allows academics from developing countries to disseminate their research both in local and worldwide spheres, free from the usual barriers of cost, distance, language, and cultural imperialist prejudice.

I’d love to think that we could use Second Life in similar ways, but it’s an unrealistic goal. Firstly, there’s a technology barrier that for the moment remains insurmountable. Dana notes that the technical specifications for Second Life require better-than-average graphics cards and fast internet connections — beyond the capabilities of most middle-class Australian households, let alone the unreliable PC access available to users in developing countries. This barrier may go some of the way towards explaining the remarkably low Second Life adoption rates in Australia (again, thanks to Dana for an excellent interpretation of the stats). On the basis of these statistics, librarians’ usual argument for participating actively in Second Life — because our users are there — is at best misguided.

Secondly, while there are no humans in Second Life — only an endless parade of impossibly beautiful avatars — it is nonetheless run by humans, and sadly we seem as incapable of creating a socialist utopia in virtual space as we are on earth. Virtual worlds have sparked considerable media and legal controversy over cases of virtual rape and paedophilia.

If we’re going to coax people out of their comfort zones and into new and exciting places, we need to be sure that they’ll be safe. With the lack of control in Second Life — which is admittedly its defining characteristic and perhaps its greatest benefit in an entertainment context — we can’t make any such promises.

Thus, I’m inclined to disagree with ‘Priceless‘ that Swinburne Library will eventually need to inhabit Second Life, because I’m (thankfully) not the only one in vehement opposition. I support those of my colleagues who think it would be more beneficial to master the real world libraries first, before trying to expand into virtual ones.

I’m afraid that for me, A Librarian’s Guide to Etiquette has the final word on this:

‘Librarians should think twice before joining Second Life in an attempt to connect with patrons. Your patrons don’t want to be friends with you in real life, so it’s not likely that they’ll be interested in hanging out with your avatar.’

Further links:


Google is not the enemy … ignorance is

29 January 2008

I’ve made this claim before and I stand by it:
Google is not the enemy … rather, an overbearing friend.

Yet sometimes I wonder if I’m a lone wolf crying into the night. A rather dogged media and communications professor in the UK has been attacking Google and Wikipedia, describing them as ‘white bread for young minds’, and claiming that ‘easy access to information has dulled students’ sense of curiosity’.

I have a tendency to take things far too much to heart. So as I read this Times article, I felt like Tara Brabazon’s argument came across as a personal attack. In criticising streamlined access to information, she struck a bayonet through the heart of what it means to be a librarian. Everything we do, either on the Web or through our physical collections, is designed to help patrons gain access to material that might otherwise have been restricted by cost, time, geography, and/or access to PCs. In fact, we exist to facilitate eas(ier) access to information.

Professor Brabazon argues that academics ‘can no longer assume that students arrive at university, knowing what to read and knowing what standards are required of the material that they do read.’ My question is this: did they ever? Undergraduates are called ‘freshmen’ in the US for a very good reason — they’re fresh from school, naive, and ill-prepared for the mind broadening and liver damage that comes hand in hand with higher education.

The Professor claims that reliance on the Web in university education has ‘the effect of “flattening expertise”’, as ‘every piece of information … [is] given the same credibility by users.’ I dispute this. If we’re really using social software as much as the proponents tell us, who wouldn’t be able tell the difference between a frivolous MySpace page and a reputable peer-reviewed journal? And if university students can’t tell the difference between scholarly information and a global-edit encyclopaedia, surely both academics and librarians have a responsibility to step in and assist?

Yet Professor Brabazon doesn’t see it this way. Despite her attachment to print material (she believes universities prefer digital formats because they’re a ‘cheap’ option … ’nuff said), Brabazon thinks libraries are ‘in decline’. (I challenge her, and anyone else with this attitude, to visit this building between 12pm and 4am in the lead-up to exams and still retain that viewpoint). Instead of mentorship and advice, Brabazon believes the solution to students’ apparent struggle with authority in their resources is to ban them from using Google and Wikipedia at all in their first year of study. How, I wonder, is she going to police that out of hours?

(‘Wikipedian protestor’, from xkcd.

One of the commentators on The Times article responded to Professor Brabazon’s opinion with this very reasonable argument: ‘If your [sic] at university then you hopefully have a mind so if students decided just to use wikipedia then that is there [sic] fault and I hope it would show up in the marks.’ Unfortunately, as you see, the commentator in question struggles with correct grammar, punctuation, gender agreement and capitalisation, which sadly devalues his argument when speaking out against academic snobbery. He, of course, is not alone. This response is along the same lines but a little more polished.

It’s obvious that this article struck a chord with me, even though I should have been able to laugh it off. Academics are incredibly intelligent people, well beyond the scope of the rest of us, yet some, like Professor Brabazon, clearly lack common sense. And there’s a certain irony, too, not only in the existence of a Luddite ‘media and communications’ professor, but also in the fact that the professor’s negativity alienates a large chunk of her potential audience. Librarians rigorously encourage students to look beyond Google and Wikipedia for valuable resources. Yet the Professor’s unfortunate manner means these normally mild mannered people have taken offence. I hope I speak for other librarians when I say that the solution to this omnipresent problem is not to ban Google, but to make it work for us by repackaging the kind of scholarly content we want our users to find, and letting Google index it. If librarians and academics are dissatisfied with the content provided by Wikipedia, the easiest solution is not to ban it, or to ignore it and whine about students using poor quality resources, but to fix inaccurate information ourselves. All anyone needs is a login.

Oh, and on a final (random) note, if you believe everything you see on current affairs shows (and sadly, too many people do), then you’ll know that all the food we eat is full of growth hormones, which clearly make us smarter. Especially chicken … and white bread.

Does anyone really want to talk to a librarian?

23 January 2008

This might sound like a desperate plea from my dwindling social life, but it’s actually part of a wider professional question: does social software belong in libraries?

I have a Facebook profile. I’ve had it for about 12 months now. It’s a novel idea for me—I didn’t get involved in any of the preceding ventures like Friendster or MySpace—but a friend of mine travelling overseas recommended it … and of course I bowed neatly to peer pressure.

2007 was a big year for Facebook, which began modestly at Harvard University as a means for freshmen to keep track of people they met in classes or dorms. In September 2007, Facebook recorded the third highest hit ranking on the Web, increasing not only in membership but also in user engagement and stealing some of the market share from arch rival MySpace. Facebook actually eclipsed MySpace in the UK, and the startup made steady progress to increase its presence in the rest of Europe in the second half of the year. In the United States, Stanford University began to offer Facebook development classes.

One of my fellow 23 Things bloggers found Facebook a great tool for keeping in touch with old work colleagues and getting to know new ones. I started at Swinburne in November 2006, and while only two of my old colleagues were on Facebook, I agree that it was good to share a little of my personality with my new colleagues to see how well we clicked (if you’ll pardon the pun). However, parading your personal life in front of work colleagues, particularly older and/or supervisory ones, is always going to be fraught with danger. Like Jane suggests, I try to be cautious about how openly I communicate on Facebook for fear of how my silly offhand remarks might be (mis)interpreted.

I don’t think it’s a bad idea for any of us to regard our online presence as though Big Brother (the Orwellian version, not Gretel Killeen … creepy) might be watching us. Dana, who declares that she has had more experience with social software than I, notes that Facebook has the most flexible privacy settings of any on the market. Yet there is no guarantee that this will continue to be the case; the Beacon debacle, which attempted to use profile data to generate targeted ads, confirmed this fear. Tom and Dana both delved sensibly into the topic of privacy early on in the 23 Things program, because they recognised the potential for inexperienced users to divulge too much information about themselves when creating online content. But I’d like to take a different tack.

A recent study from the United States indicated that almost 50 percent of the University of Michigan students surveyed would not want to contact a librarian via Facebook or MySpace for help with research. 14 percent believed it was ‘inappropriate’. One respondent even commented that ‘it’d be weird to contact a librarian that way‘. (That gave me a chuckle; it’s not everyone, after all, who would choose to ‘poke’ a librarian—only about 80,000 ‘poke’ at all).

Libraries have always been reluctant to openly market themselves; perhaps part of the students’ resistance is that, as Doug suggests, libraries appearing in Facebook and MySpace look like advertising. It’s certainly true that library services need to be proactive rather than reactive; the literature talks extensively of our collections moving from a ‘just in case’ to a ‘just in time’ model. But the truth is that these new collections, while not taking up space on the shelves, still require planning. Our staff and students might now have instant access to articles from a vast range of journals across a variety of disciplines, but this is no happy accident. Careful managing, budgeting and negotiation goes into providing such a magnificent suite of online serials.

Similarly, involving libraries in the social software phenomenon will also require careful consideration. We can’t just go out lobbying for users to join our spaces; they’ll feel harassed and resentful, like I do when someone tries to sell me something I don’t want to buy. We need our users to come to us willingly. Libraries have enough trouble appealing to the younger generation, without being accused of attempting to spy on their online lives.

Early last year, I attended a seminar with danah boyd, a leading researcher in the use of social software. Many of the attendees were secondary school teachers wondering, after seeing students post potentially compromising material online, how much it was safe or indeed appropriate to engage with their online activities. danah boyd cautiously recommended that concerned teachers build a simple Facebook or MySpace profile, then sit back and wait for students to add them as friends. She emphasised that teachers should definitely not attempt to ‘friend’ students themselves.

In an earlier post, I discussed my belief that mandatory installation of internet filters has the potential to irrevocably damage the bond of trust between parent and child. I acknowledge that parents and teachers have a vital role to play in the nurture of children’s values so I can see why they might be concerned about the ease of access to harmful content on the Web. However, teachers expect to maintain some level of privacy from their students outside school hours (I’ve been told that once you become a parent, there is no such thing as privacy, so I’ve left parents out of this debate), and I don’t think it’s unreasonable for students to expect the same courtesy. Students have no right to burst into teachers’ private residences uninvited, so surely teachers have no right to invade students’ online spaces outside school hours and attempt to moderate their behaviour?

It is questionable that librarians are obligated to play any role in the moral development of children. I think our role is chiefly to assist in the pursuit of knowledge (regardless of the perceived morality or immorality of that knowledge) and help break down barriers in access to information. We’re straying into dangerous territory if we try to assume any other kind of moral responsibility.

This puts us in a perilous position in online social environments. We look ridiculous if we try to make friends with students on their own terms, but we’re not interested in attacking their right to say and do what they like in their own online spaces. Librarians may want to use Facebook at a social level, but I don’t see why we should feel obligated to use it at a professional level too. By the same token, if I’m asked to struggle with the terrible interfaces of MySpace for the benefit of my users, I’ll do it, but I have no desire to risk having my intellectual property appropriated by posting my innermost thoughts online in a personal context. Librarians in an online social environment flounder somewhere between the devil and the deep blue sea, and I think we’d be better just to swim away.

Alternatively I suppose we could start to desperately flog the profession as: Become a librarian and get paid to play on Facebook!

(‘No Facebook – Blessington St, St Kilda’, from avlxyz’s Flickr photos and reproduced under a Creative Commons License)

Other links:

  • 13 predictions for Facebook in 2008: read these at the end of the year and see how accurate they were, or whether in fact Facebook made it through the year at all
  • Facebook Easter eggs?  Facebook developers hide little bits of entertainment in their code
  • Building a social networking environment at the library: If you insist on getting involved, you should probably read this
  • Facebook and rapport: Some suggestions on how to involve libraries in social networking without compromising professionalism
  • 360Gadget: a Facebook application that allows you to subscribe to RSS feeds, access your POP mail account, search the web and watch YouTube, all from inside Facebook (assuming you want to spend even more time there)

The only sure weapon against bad ideas is better ideas*

4 January 2008

I read a thought-provoking post on censorship on Derek’s ALIA Blog this afternoon. I wanted to respond, but the comment I drafted quickly became longer than Derek’s original post. I realise that ideally, all bloggers want comments so they know they’re being read, but I didn’t want to be one of those insensitive commentators who hijack people’s blogs for their own ends. So I’ve moved the discussion over here where any such rants of mine more rightfully belong. But Derek, please consider this a comment on your post!

Derek writes:

‘The Minister [Telecommunications Minister Senator Stephen Conroy] announced that the Government proposed to require all internet service providers to provide “clean feeds” – internet content that is “free of pornography and inappropriate material.” This would be mandatory for all households, schools and libraries.’

I read an article in The Age back in August that I felt completely misrepresented libraries’ attitudes towards internet censorship. Our (admittedly idealistic) belief that information should be freely accessible to all with as few barriers as possible was reduced to this borderline-defamatory (and undeniably inflammatory) remark:

‘Explicit pornography can be viewed in many Victorian public libraries — including the State Library — because some decline to install internet filters on the basis that it imposes overly strict censorship.’

It seems that Derek’s comments as ALIA Vice-President were taken particularly out of context. He stated (perfectly reasonably) that current filtering software is clumsy and often inhibits legitimate research, using the example of breast cancer to indicate how this might be problematic. The Age, however, seems to have translated this to ‘libraries are ambivalent towards protecting children from harmful content, and more worried about complaints from patrons regarding the quality of their net filters’.

Librarians should pride ourselves (and don’t worry, I regularly almost break my arm patting myself on the back) that libraries are one of the last bastions of true democracy. In the United States, librarians would rather go to jail than reveal the borrower records of their patrons. In libraries, we don’t discriminate against people on the basis of their gender, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, physical or mental capacity, or the colour of their skin. It’s a pity that we don’t always receive the same courtesies in return, but that doesn’t stop us putting our users first. We ask them what they want from our services, and we do our best to accommodate their wishes. Hell, our users said they wanted 24 hour access to the Library, so this year, that’s exactly what they’ve got!

Yet this vitriolic article suggests we librarians should hang our heads in shame. Usually ridiculed in popular culture for our perceived conservatism, librarians are depicted by The Age as sex-crazed, small-L liberals out to warp the minds of little children. One intelligent young woman of my acquaintance was so incensed by The Age‘s article that she wrote a letter to the newspaper criticising it. I wish I’d had the guts to do the same, to defend both my profession and my beliefs, but since I didn’t, I think it’s time I set the record straight.

I am utterly opposed to internet censorship, especially when the government attempts to mandate it. It’s not that I’m likely to be interested in any of the sites that parent groups and government ministers are attempting to block, but in a (so-called) Western democracy we don’t like to think that anything we do is censored (even though deep down, we know it is).

From a purely practical point of view, internet users always find ways to circumvent filters. The prime example of their uselessness is the $80m attempt by the previous government, which managed to defeat an Australian teenager for a grand total of 30 minutes. It made us a laughing stock throughout the world. Knowing this, why do both sides of the political spectrum (if one still believes there’s a difference between federal ALP and Liberal) continue to waste time and money on creating doomed filtering products? Doesn’t our government give us any credit for intelligence?

My parents didn’t often monitor what I read or watched on TV as a child. They taught me to judge for myself – if I saw something I wasn’t comfortable with, I looked away. Many would be horrified by this policy (especially as we had SBS!), but I still believe most of the harmful content on TV and the Web comes from news and current affairs bulletins. I am not a parent (important disclaimer), but I am a daughter, and I know what I value(d) most about my relationship with my parents, both then and now, is trust. The first thing parents lose when they start surreptitiously monitoring their children’s internet usage is that very valued commodity. Without trust and respect, any attempts to shape a child’s morality are ineffective, and frankly hypocritical.

Is it so far-fetched to think that a better use of time and resources is presenting children with a cleaner world, rather than attempting to hide them from the reality of the one we’ve made? Politicians who endorse warfare and commit troops to fight on one hand, cannot with integrity make grand plans to shield children from internet violence on the other. And while advertisements like the extremely degrading Nando’s pole-dancing mother commercial are allowed to remain on television, despite over 300 complaints to the Advertising Standards Board, because it is ‘extremely popular with our target audience, the great majority of whom understand and appreciate Nando’s irreverent sense of humour’, the government has no credibility whatsoever when it argues for compulsory filters to ‘protect children’. It’s a joke.

* ‘Books won’t stay banned. They won’t burn. Ideas won’t go to jail. In the long run of history, the censor and the inquisitor have always lost. The only sure weapon against bad ideas is better ideas.’
A. Whitney Griswold, past president of Yale University.

Blogger’s note: Griswold was a smart man.