I meant to post this week about the forthcoming reading, though after today’s seminar, I’m thinking more about As We May Think, and there’s enough rattling around in my head to warrant a post-seminar entry on that topic. We’ll see how the week goes regarding a post on this week’s very interesting reading.
Predicting the Future
I was struck as we discussed Vannevar Bush’s work that the group had a radically different reaction to the piece than the first group I read it with. My first encounter with As We May Think was in library school, where the general reaction was more astonishment at the spot-on-ness of Bush’s technology predictions (surprise despite the evidence that his predictions influenced the creation of said technologies) than questioning. Then again, one entire section of his article is devoted to libraries (section 6), and another is devoted to what we’ve come to know as hyperlinking and is deeply related to classification (section 7). For a library crowd, who is primed to be thinking about the nature of information and information retrieval, it was an amazing read.
Giving it a second read, about a decade later, I found it even more remarkable. Initially I saw the connection between what Bush was describing and the personal computer as pretty clear, as well a clear reframing of how one might access text (No remote building of books! All available at your desk! Keyword searching rather than card catalogs!), and the primacy of links between information (rather than linear organization we have hyperlinks, metadata, and social information to help navigate the landscape!). I also saw clear connections from what he was saying to digital photography and speech-to-text technologies that were beginning to be more common at the time.
Now, more than anything, I was stunned at his prediction for Google Glass as he described a scientist who could instantly snap photographs during experiments, create speech records as tasks were performed, and generally keep an ongoing log of the processes, all from a headset with a small camera by the wearer’s eye. It gives me pause and causes me to consider his predictions in the last section regarding what can only be interpreted as a brain implant to facilitate storing information and retrieving from thought rather than manually inputting it with our hands or hearing it via the bones in our ears.
I adore that he brings up that there is so much to read that one couldn’t possibly read it all when producing information. True today as it was in the 40s.
What of Libraries?
I gave a related talk for faculty at my previous institution. The basic outline of the talk was why the library is changing and the role of the librarian. It’s here:
Where the Dream Was Not Realized
I can see where people might be critical of Bush’s ideas, and I have some critiques of my own.
Access and Copyright: Though my critiques are less with Bush as a thinker and more with what we did with his ideas. Primarily my issue is that of ownership of information. Bush imagined a future in which every person would have their own library, where the cost of acquiring information (in financial terms–he didn’t address the cognitive work of building a collection) was minimized. That has not been the case. The closest I can see to this is in the ebook market. If you have an extensive collection of ebooks (as I do), you likely don’t own them. If your ebook reader is associated with any of the mainstream providers, you essentially have a leasing agreement for your ebooks. There are terms of service agreements that you might be violating if you share them, and you can’t move ebooks between competing devices. Further, that’s only true for the books you buy. To have an entire collection of works as Bush imagines, you probably have to be affiliated with an academic library, and then there are limits to what you might have access to depending on organizational size and budget, vendor arrangements, or the fact that not everything is digitized. Even when you have full access to an academic library, some materials have restrictions on how many people may view them at the same time, and notes you make on ebooks, for example, are only persistent if you create an account. All of that to say we’ve come so far, but not yet gotten to Bush’s idealized state. (As an aside, in seminar, I brought up Cory Doctorow and his approach to open information and DRM free works, if you’re interested.)
Meaningful Links: We’ve all seen the power of linking on the web, of the vast, interesting information you can find due to friends on social networks sharing links. What I find saddest in the realization of Bush’s vision is that though we created the basic link making system, it lacks some of the depth of what he described. If I share a link on pinboard, for example, I have to be intentional enough to include text and tags to explain why. And in those shared links I hardly ever think to reference another site I’ve seen that’s relevant. I would love to annotate files on my hard drive, Google Drive, or Dropbox, to explain why I’m keeping a given file, what stage it’s in, or what it’s connected to, but the best hack I’ve found to achieve this is to put the file in an Evernote note with a description, which is hardly a good file saving system. I’m always posting professional links to my PLN on Twitter or Facebook, but they’re barely contextualized in 140 characters, and certainly not tying into something greater. And as much as I learn from my colleagues who likewise share links, I often long for something to tie together the big themes. So, I think, I really am just pining for the “new profession of trail blazers, those who… [establish] useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record” in a deeper way than we’ve yet seen.
All of that to say, though I might have a few criticisms, I find Vannevar Bush to be amazing in his foresight and cultural impact. In so many ways he was spot on, and our world would likely look very different if we hadn’t had his work as part of the larger cultural discussion. I look forward to reading As We May Think in the years to come, as new technologies emerge and things that seem like magic today become more commonplace.
So my boss wrote a blog post. And I’m totally down with it.
In it he talks about “personalized virtual communities for teaching and research” and says:
I think we’re seeing a shift occur. In the past it was “how to use a blog in your course” and now it’s “how to build an online social learning environment for your specific needs.” These conversations are the result of faculty becoming more comfortable and sophisticated using the social web. I’m finding many who are eager to expand their platforms and try new things.
And I was struck by how useful the framing was. For years I worked on this type of project. I (along with collaborators) partnered with faculty to design rich online learning environments, but we didn’t think of them that way. We thought of it more from an instructional design perspective: What goals does the faculty member have? What tools might enable them to reach those goals? How can we design the information environment to utilize appropriate tools and help them meet their goals? But really, all of this was basically creating the “personalized virtual communities for teaching” that Brian describes.
What does it look like, you might ask. (People often do.) It’s a lot of discussion, listening, and brainstorming with the faculty member about what they hope to do with their class. A few examples of things that came out of this process:
- A wiki platform to create a dynamic, course created encyclopedia for a sociology class that could be built on semester after semester.
- A highly customized blog theme to allow a french class to publish a journal for french readers (particularly high school french students).
- An easy to use process for making videos and podcasts that we frequently introduced classes to (including accounting and education classes!).
- A google doc systems for collaborative paper writing in LIB100.
- A google site that surpassed what the available CMS could do for online learning.
It was good work to do.
And, in fact, I wonder if the “personalized virtual communities” framing will help libraries see this as a realm that makes sense to explore. In my old way of thinking of this work, it blurred the line with what a lot of Teaching and Learning Centers do. That was the lens we used when we decided to transition this type of work to the TLC in my previous experience. However, I have always seen it as an “information environment” issue that makes sense in libraries. Even more so when I think of the “personalized virtual communities” that not only require some instructional design skill, but also information architecture, usability, and other domains that are frequently part of library work. So now, it looks like I’m back to exploring that issue (which, in many ways, has its roots in Blended Librarianship).
The Library’s Role
A topic I was batting around with a friend the other day was kind of related to this. In his organization, the library provides blogs, but not much support beyond that. (This is related to the categories of support Brian outlined.) We were wondering where the line is. Should libraries leave blogs to IT? Automate the creation of whatever web system the class is using and accounts? Offer customizations to platforms? Partner with faculty to develop a system together?
We easily agreed that the power is in the partnering. It’s not scalable, but it can create a powerful experience. And it makes use of the information expertise we bring to the table. At my library we’re framing it as more of a “boutique” experience. That is where the most value add is.
My friend and I were talking about writing something on this. I’m feeling an even stronger pull to do it now. (Watch out, friend.)
Assessing the Work
As Brian pointed out, it’s a challenge to think about how to frame this for reporting, since it’s not in any of the standard information gathering forms we deal with, and isn’t something that’s necessarily quantifiable. You can say how many virtual environments you built, but not the depth of relationships that came from the experience or the difference it made in students’ perceptions of the course or materials. That’s apparent more in stories, and shifts of attitudes about the library in the long term.
Anyway, I’m very excited about the potential in building personalized virtual learning communities, and, if you add a software engineer to the mix, the possibilities become even more compelling. And today, in 2013, with Google Glass, new online platforms, and an increasingly rich world of digital materials to work with, it’s even more exciting. Here’s to a fun (and productive!) semester!