2013 – My Year in Review, Part 2

This is part 2 of my look back at what I’ve accomplished over the past year, focusing more on my professional life. While part 1 focused on my life as an MLIS student, of course these 2 parts are strongly interwoven. 

Part 2 – My Professional Self

Of all my many projects this year, the one that is nearest and dearest to my heart is HistoricDress.org. I’m very lucky to be a part of an amazing team whose members share my vision for innovative digital tools that will increase the educational impact of historic clothing by allowing for specialized access to diverse digital collections of historic clothing and related materials. My car now knows the route to Smith College by heart from my frequent travels for this project: in addition to regular planning meetings, I worked with students and colleagues from 5 Colleges (a consortium of colleges in Western Massachusetts) throughout the year to continue to develop content and structure for our prototype website, and to make plans far beyond what our current prototype is able to do. a close-up view of a paisley shawl with an overlay of text for Historic Dress: The Center for the Study of Clothing, Costume, Fashion and CultureThis work included some wonderful outreach opportunities this past fall, which have left me feeling very energized with great feedback from the education, library, archive, museum, and costume history communities that will engage with the resources we have in the works. We’ve also had some great input from the team developing a related project on the other side of the world,  the Australian Dress Register. I won’t go much further to describe our project here, as I’m hoping to write a longer post soon for our project’s blog to describe the insights that have emerged from our process over the last two years.

I will just mention a related event –  I greatly enjoyed the “Narratives of Dress” symposium hosted at Smith College on November 1st and 2nd, where numerous wonderful speakers raised awareness of the ways in which articles of historic clothing are a rich resource for study, especially in terms of women’s history, whether for undergraduate students or established scholars (http://www.smith.edu/narrativesofdress/resources.php). This event involved several members of our team from HistoricDress, as it was organized by Kiki Smith and included presentations by Nancy Rexford and Marla Miller.

My work on HistoricDress also led me to attend the March conference on Women’s History in the Digital World, at the Albert M. Greenfield Digital Center for the History of Women’s Education (at Bryn Mawr), to present about that project and about my work on a 2011 digital exhibition for Vassar’s research collection of historic clothing. But hopefully you already know about that from my post last April!

Another project that is dear to my heart though not yet near enough to my heart is the DPLA (Digital Public Library of America, at dp.la). I have been following this project as much as my busy schedule will allow, which of course is not enough. However, continuing in the vein of conferences and talks, I was lucky enough to be able to attend Dan Cohen’s talk about the DPLA at NYU in April, which I believe was his first public talk about it after having been appointed Executive Director for this ambitious initiative. I was proud to be among the first to hear his stump speech about the 3 P’s of the DPLA (portal, platform, public – read more, and watch the wonderful video at http://dp.la/info/). I drafted a blog post on the train ride home from that invigorating talk, but shelved it; now I’ll be sure to try to resurrect it and add more thoughts, especially since attending the DPLAFest in Boston during October. That day of workshops brought together multitudes of us who are passionate about the potential of the DPLA – it was a day of hope and excitement and all the digital library jargon I could have dreamed of, reminding me that my decision to become a digital librarian was the right one, and that these are my people!

a yellowed image of 1954 bride MaryLee Hartzell, with overlaid text "For Better and For Worse: Sixteen Decades of Wedding Wear at Vassar"But back to my more tangible efforts this year: one of the most significant projects I worked on was our exhibition, “For Better and For Worse: Sixteen Decades of Wedding Wear at Vassar.” In January I gathered together students and colleagues who had volunteered to help plan this exhibition, and shared with them my struggle to find a “way in” to this subject. One student helped a great deal with this, pointing out that much of the relevance of discussing marriage and weddings right now is in the context of marriage equality. In addition to displaying objects we already had in our collection, we sought loans of additional objects and photographs, and conducted an oral history project, to tell a story of diverse perspectives of weddings. This stayed open in the Palmer Gallery through Vassar’s Reunion weekend, and we had wonderful feedback from the many alumnae who contributed to this project (coincidentally, it was my own 20th reunion at Vassar, but I decided to keep my curator’s voice separate from my alumna voice and didn’t include any photos of my own wedding dress, but yes, it was red). For the moment, you can see a few photographs and read a little more about this project on our collection blog, at http://pages.vassar.edu/vccc/?tag=for-better-and-for-worse, but this is just to tide you over until we are ready to launch our digital version of the exhibition. Before we struck the exhibition, we took photographs of almost all the objects on a turntable, to be able to create rotating objectVR views. In December, several students helped to process those photos, along with the audio and transcriptions of the oral history project, and we’ll be trying to wrap that up this January, so stay tuned.

an image of 5 very different wedding dresses and 2 groom's outfits

some highlights of “For Better and For Worse: Sixteen Decades of Wedding Wear at Vassar” including 5 wedding dresses from 4 generations of the same family of Vassar alumnae, and two grooms’ outfits from a same-sex wedding

Speaking of this upcoming digital exhibition, I was very pleased to find that students used our online collection (for Vassar’s research collection of historic clothing, at http://vcomeka.com/vccc) for projects in two different classes this past fall. While an average introductory face-to-face visit to the collection may be around 90 minutes at the most, this contact allows us to help students understand what to look at when examining historic clothing. Then, they have 24/7 access to visit our online database and view detailed images and information about the objects they saw in person, and many more. I always wish we had more time to devote to this digital resource, but the fact is that this work is only a small aspect of my job at Vassar, and it is rare for me to be able to steal myself, or my students, away from our costume construction projects for Drama department shows. Work with the collection typically happens at the beginning and end of the semester, when productions aren’t in full swing. So, our digital collection page layouts may not be as pretty, or our interface as intuitive, or our metadata as high quality as my ever-increasing digital librarian standards would like, but there’s still a great deal of content there that is useful to students. After a few tips and tricks from me to navigate the site, they’re off and running.

So, yes, there’s also that matter of all the shows and all the classes I worked on for my day job as Costumer for the Vassar College Drama Department. Please remember that all of the above (and in my last post) was done in addition to working 3 days a week in the Costume Shop at Vassar, supervising 15 undergraduate students to do whatever it takes to produce all the costumes for our Drama Department shows, which this past year included: Cripple of Inishman, House of Spirits, Eurydice, Rez Sisters, Little Dog Laughed, Ghosts, Way of the World, and Mouthful of Birds (a Caryl Churchill piece which I adore and which incidentally I have now worked on 3 times, all at Vassar, all in the Powerhouse, including designing costumes for it in 1993 and 1999). In the summer I also worked with Vassar’s Powerhouse Theatre Apprentice Company as I have done each summer for many years, helping the Apprentice Company to costume their own shows, which this year included Blood Wedding, Agamemnon, and As You Like It.

Did I forget anything? Oh, yes, I also launched my first commercial website, for a friend’s massage therapy business in New Hampshire, at http://moondancemassage.info/ That’s built in WordPress, using the fabulous Mantra theme, which I highly recommend, especially because I can’t believe something so customizable is also free.

Enough? All right, now that I’ve sufficiently reflected, on to 2014. If I were to make a new year’s resolution it might be to write about things in a more timely fashion, as they happen – but I don’t really believe in new year’s resolutions, do you?

(by the way, if there’s an ad below this, please don’t hold it against me – one of these days I’ll set aside some time to move to a self-hosted WordPress installation so I can be ad free)

Women’s History, and . . . Metadata?!

Toward the end of March I had the wonderful opportunity to present at an inaugural conference on the subject of Women’s History in the Digital World (#WHDigWrld on Twitter), at the Albert M. Greenfield Digital Center for the History of Women’s Education (at Bryn Mawr). Not only did this event allow me to meet many people doing wonderful work with digital women’s history, but it also allowed me to bring together people I know from two different projects: HistoricDress.org, and the digital library at Vassar College.

Early students at Vassar College

Please encode us with dignity! Early students at Vassar College; photograph courtesy of Vassar College Archives and Special Collections

The event began Friday night, and I arrived just in time for the introductions and the keynote by Laura Mandell. Her talk got us thinking about “Feminist Critique vs. Feminist Production in Digital Humanities.” This overall theme carried us through the entire weekend, reminding us of the need for feminists:

  • to be at the table when systems are designed for collecting, encoding, and disseminating information
  • to create projects that provide positive models of how to represent less privileged groups and individuals
  • to peer review each other’s work
  • to provide support for each others’ grant proposals.

The highlight of her talk for many of us, however, was a slide with an example of some of her XML encoding for one of her projects. This is code that holds metadata (“data about data” is the quick definition) about a person, place, text, object – anything, really – and allows information to be understood by a computer. There was a collective gasp from the room when she showed that the TEI (Text Encoding Initiative) preferred code for gender (when encoding a person) was 1 for male, 2 for female.

A tweet from @ProfessMoravec stating ".@mandellc #WHDigWrld 2nd sex has become canonized, when you encode women in TEI the # is 2!"

A tweet from @ProfessMoravec during Laura Mandell’s keynote

I’ve been processing this ever since, thinking about who was at the table when that standard was developed, and why it couldn’t have been m and f, or something else entirely. Eventually it occurred to me that it could be an issue of internationalization, using numbers to avoid one language’s terms. Sure enough, looking into it further, it’s based on an ISO standard, ISO 5218, to be specific. Still, I couldn’t help but keep thinking of different ways to approach this issue – what about other non-serial numbers so it wouldn’t feel as hierarchical? How else could we approach this?

Well, checking in on this again today, a quick search yielded a discussion board conversation on this topic at the SourceForge site for TEI documentation, begun by Melissa Terras. Following through this months-long discussion thread, it appears that in the weeks since #WHDigWrld, the TEI Council has agreed to make a change, allowing the use of alternative or locally defined systems for encoding gender (take a look at the updated specification). Great news, but there’s still much work to be done.

Indeed, Mandell’s XML slide served as an example of how to perform subversive encoding to simultaneously work within current systems and create new systems. Her example pointed out that predominant name authorities, such as the Library of Congress (LOC), sometimes define a woman’s preferred name in the format “Mrs. (insert husband’s name here).” Her slide provided an example of double/triple subversive encoding, including the ISO 5218 and LOC standard terms, but only as alternate terms, following terms and ontologies more appropriate to the given project and to the representation of women as primary figures. It is inspiring to imagine how our projects can meet current standards and interact with other existing projects, yet simultaneously set new standards for like-minded work which could gain traction and someday overtake our current hegemonic standards.

All of this re-opened a door in my mind. I’m in the middle of a Metadata class right now, and up to attending this conference, I had been (for the most part) uncritically accepting the practice of using established authority files for names, places, and subjects, and accepting the preferred terms from such authorities. Disambiguation is the name of the game, and I understand and embrace that. But after seeing Mandell’s example, I am reminded that any “preferred” term must be coming from a preferred group, one that speaks from a position of power and privilege that other groups and other terms cannot attain.

Now that I’m back in school, I’m reminded of how easy it is to just be one of the herd and follow along with what you’re being taught in class. Back when I was getting my first masters, in costume design, my cohort jokingly adopted sheep as our mascot. Of course back then it was more obviously a joke – as a designer you are expected to have a style of your own and not to blend in with the herd. As a librarian, not so much – though I’m lucky that my program at SU seems to be very supportive of discourse. We need to see more examples like Mandell’s, to think more critically about the systems of organization that we are working within, to create alternative systems when necessary, and to stand up and try to make changes in existing standards.

The rest of the weekend continued in this vein, with a wide assortment of wonderful projects from across the country. I’ll highlight the presentations I was able to attend, but please visit the conference website to read more about all the ones that I unfortunately had to miss.

  • The perfect start for me on Saturday was a presentation by Patricia Keller about the Sampler Archive Project. Pat was also involved in the Quilt Index, and I’ve enjoyed learning from Pat about both these two projects, which have been pioneers in presenting focused collections of material culture. My team at HistoricDress.org can learn much from Pat’s work on these projects.
  • Bridget Baird and Cameron Blevins (a mother/son team!) presented Digital Diaries, Digital Tools: A Comparative Approach to Eighteenth-Century Women’s History. They provided a great introduction to topic modeling, and its pros and cons in application to the diaries of Martha Ballard and Elizabeth Drinker. I was reminded of how the entries in many historic diaries are not unlike the mundane tweets of which we are critical today. They also made me think about how calendars/planners now carry much of the data that diaries did then – I wonder how they will be studied in the future?
  • Jen Palmentiero (from Hudson River Valley Heritage), and  Joanna DiPasquale and Laura Streett (from Vassar, where I’m very lucky to have their support and advice for my own project) presented Using Archives and Metadata to Uncover Women’s Lives: Challenges and Opportunities for Scholarship through Archives and Digital Libraries. Their 3 presentations worked perfectly together,  showing the trajectory of tech development to use. Several of their examples demonstrated how technological choices are impacted by factors that are decidedly non-technical, such as funding and institutional culture. Laura’s examples of findings in the digital archive indicated how digital search and discovery can lead to the consideration of different search terms and other practices moving forward.
  • Erin Bush, a PhD student at George Mason University, presented Beyond a Reasonable Doubt: Executions of Women in the United States, showing how she is using data science both to help frame her research questions and to try to answer them. Considering the questions she was asking of this particular dataset, she got me thinking about what questions we can ask of objects, given the datasets that are coming available as museum collections are beginning to share APIs for access to data. What questions will a PhD student in 10 years be able to ask of the data coming out of the APIs of the DPLA, or of the projects I’m working on, like HistoricDress.org? What different metadata do we need to be collecting about objects to be able to ask different, better questions? I tried to touch on this briefly in my own presentation, a little later.
  • Monica Mercado presented On Equal Terms? The Stakes of Archiving Women’s and LGBT History in the Digital Era, raising important issues around some of the tensions of building digital collections related to gender and sexuality history.
  • Mia Ridge presented New Challenges in Digital History: Sharing Women’s History on Wikipedia, a subject I’ve been very interested in, though I regret that I didn’t have the time to participate in the #tooFEW (Feminists Engage Wikipedia) project through THATCamp Feminisms last month. A highlight of her talk, for me, was the simple act of changing a name to red to indicate that there is no dedicated Wikipedia page for that person (making the archival silence visible, as it were), and then the power of changing that red to blue by completing a page for that person.

In our own presentation we ran into some tech difficulties which resulted in me presenting from my laptop screen to a crowded table, but our wonderful moderator, Marla Miller, kept us on track, and we made some great connections in our packed room, with a wonderful (though too brief!) discussion. I shared my work on Fashioning an Education: 150 Years of Vassar Students and What They Wore, which you can also see as a Prezi.  Next, Astrida Schaeffer presented on The New Hampshire Historic Dress Project. Finally, Kiki Smith closed our session by discussing our goals, and our work so far, on HistoricDress.org.  This was a great opportunity for members of the HistoricDress.org team to connect and continue to brainstorm our next steps, and even to grow as we identified new partners among conference goers.

Throughout the weekend there were concerns both for the segregation of women’s history and for the failures of “add women and stir” models. This has had me thinking about how historic costume collections are both victims of sexism and examples of reverse sexism – men’s clothing artifacts are preserved much more rarely than women’s. Of course, this means that costume collections aren’t respected in broader circles, as they are considered feminized and therefore superficial. Digital costume projects have great potential to use artifacts of clothing to fill in some of the narrative of women’s history that is missing, but we have to challenge the stereotypes of superficiality at every turn.

Michelle Moravec summed it up well with the title for her blog post following the event – Was Women’s History in the Digital World the First Berks of Digital Women’s History? Indeed, I hope to be able to attend the 2014 Berkshire Conference of Women Historians, and to see many from #WHDigWrld there, and to return to Bryn Mawr for a 2nd conference on this theme in the future. Many thanks to Jennifer Redmond and her team at the Greenfield Center for bringing us all together.

Intellectual Buffet*: The End of Books?

Two weeks ago I attended an event for Vassar faculty on the subject of the future of libraries and scholarly writing. The full title was “The End of Books? Knowledge Creation, Scholarly Communication and Shaping the Library of the Future.” I’ve seen tweets and blog posts from others around the country after similar events, so it seems this subject is on the collective mind of higher education. Overall, the evening seemed to be standard fare in terms of the conversations around the country, with the following presentations:

A photograph of stacked books raising the level of a computer to create an impromptu standing desk.

We’ll always need books!
Here’s a friend’s impromptu standing desk.

  • facts and figures about the percentage of the library’s volumes that have never circulated, and the percentage of volumes that are available in digital format through the Hathi Trust
  • the technological virtues of the codex and the intellectual virtues of curling up with a book in codex form and reading it without interruption
  • the pressures on scholarly publishing, as even an established scholarly author is asked to sign away his royalties and front $15-20,000 for publication expenses
  • facts and figures about the economic factors of the choice between printed books and e-books, in terms of both finance and carbon footprint

The conversations after were as varied as the four presentations, but each conversation I moved in and out of had an element of the participants’ personal preferences (digital or analog, shall we say) and an element of fear for their students’ future. I just have a few thoughts to voice again here in response to all that.

First of all, that love of curling up with an “old-fashioned” book makes several assumptions, all based on a position of privilege. To be able to curl up with a book you have to have:

  • access to the book in the first place, either able to buy it or borrow it. The presumption that library access is available to all is false, as library privileges can be based on finances – a library card holder can have borrowing privileges rescinded if she can’t pay the fine for that book she (or a family member) lost
  • not only the ability to read, but the ability to understand the narrative of the book, which may include cultural references understood only through an advanced education
  • eyesight
  • two functioning hands, able to hold a book for a long period of time with one hand, and flip pages with the other
  • the time to spend reading, a luxury for many who are required to work overtime, or more than one job, or who are care-takers for family, and are too fatigued after such work to read at length without falling asleep

Of course, in our privileged institutions, it is rare for either faculty or students to have personal concern for any of these issues (except maybe the last), so these are all moot points in this particular discussion, but I wanted to remind us all of the privileged position from which we speak. Acknowledging such privilege, haven’t we agreed (and doesn’t the ADA enforce) that what is important in the act of knowledge creation is the intellectual content, not the physical format?

So what of the fear for our students’ future, for the future of research and scholarship? What of the fear that a Vassar student today is unable to sit down and read a book from cover to cover without giving in to numerous electronic and extra-curricular interruptions?

  • do we really think this is that different from 20 years ago, or even 50 years ago? Haven’t Vassar students always been over-committed, and struggling to learn to prioritize? I know I was 20 years ago (yes this is my reunion year, class of 1993), and my mother has agreed that she was 45 years ago (also a Vassar alum, class of 1968)
  • what curricular motivation is given to a student to sit and focus on one book? The last I checked, most syllabi included more articles or chapters than full length books, jumping from topic to topic and from author to author to cover a wider range of knowledge on a particular subject (for good reason). Typically, only literature courses allow for close reading of one volume
  • Also, we have to remember that the nature of a liberal arts education, which we prize, is that the 4-5 classes a student will be taking simultaneously are likely to include a range of subjects that in themselves are likely to “interrupt” each other (as they enrich each other), as a student moves from a literature paper to Russian homework to a chemistry lab assignment.

I will venture to say that a great deal of what we are talking about here has to do with work habits, something that takes our students four years or more to develop. It is the job of faculty to develop meaningful assignments that will motivate students to set aside the interruptions for a while, whether these are digital or analog interruptions. An important part of a student’s development is that ability to prioritize which academic assignment (of many) should come first, and where their extra-curricular commitments should fall into the plan. This doesn’t happen overnight, and even when it does happen, that book (in whatever form) may not rise to the top of the list.

There is much much more to be said on all of the subjects presented at the Intellectual Buffet; this is a conversation that continues all over the country. I look forward to seeing how the conversation develops, and whether or not the conversation will be that different 10 years from now when my daughter may be in college.

*note on the Intellectual Buffet: I believe this is a yearly event for faculty at Vassar, though this is the first time I’ve gone. No, they don’t eat the intellectuals, they eat after the intellectuals speak on a given topic – though I think it might be fun to fight over who is the most intellectual and therefore would make the tastiest treat. I am far from the top of the intellectual list in that crowd, so I would be safe.

The Undead Object (Halloween edition)

I don’t believe in ghosts, I believe in history.

That’s the voice that speaks to us from beyond the grave. It is all around us, speaking out to us wherever we go, but only some of us can hear it (or choose to). It doesn’t need to have the magic of the occult, the mystery of the paranormal, to get its strength. For me the voice of history can be loud and clear, and sometimes scary, without the metaphors of ghosts. But that’s not true for everyone, so perhaps it is natural that popular culture has taken historical artifacts in this direction.

image of 4 doll heads on a shelf

Creepy Heads All in a Row
CC image courtesy of Michael Connell on Flickr

I keep running into examples in TV and film of what I think of as the “Undead Object,” an artifact that has taken on a supernatural life of its own long after the demise of the people who made or used it. Perhaps you’ve had similar thoughts when watching Ghostbusters, Child’s Play, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Mummy, Tomb Raider, Harry Potter – oh, and there’s the Librarian series, which I haven’t actually watched yet – I have to get my hands on that. Many of these are concerned with objects that derive their power from a sacred connection, but think of the term sacred as relative.

I started thinking about all of this when the TV show Warehouse 13 first appeared back in 20091. I was intrigued by the premise – that a pair of Secret Service agents are responsible for tracking down supernatural artifacts (including Lewis Carroll’s mirror and Edgar Allan Poe’s pen) and packing them safely away in the warehouse, where they can’t hurt anyone. The issue of access to historical objects is one that’s very important to me, so I’m fascinated by the vision of a collection manager hoarding things carefully away. It makes me think about how museums perhaps conspire in developing this kind of aura around an object. Really, when an artifact is packed away in a drawer, or even out on view but behind glass, most of the time it’s to protect the object from its audience – but how clever to get the general public to think it’s the other way around – that we need to be protected from it.

Certainly the object behind glass easily comes to have that feeling of being Undead – once so connected to living, breathing people, but now cut off from them. A phrase in Sherry Turkle’s book Evocative Objects: Things We Think With (2007), started to articulate some of this for me:

Some [objects], however, seem intrinsically evocative – for example, those with a quality we might call uncanny. Freud said we experience as uncanny those things that are “known of old yet unfamiliar.” The uncanny is not what is most frightening and strange. It is what seems close, but “off,” distorted enough to be creepy. It marks a complex boundary that both draws us in and repels . . .  (p. 8)

As much as we may love to visit museums and historic estates, architecture and objects can indeed be creepy: costumes on mannequins without heads, objects untouchable, enshrined behind glass. Most of the time, attempts to include context are brief, and so much is missing, leaving the object feeling empty, stolen. The objects feel incomplete without a connection to the people who made them and used them. They feel sad, longing:

The chair that no one will ever again sit in,

the cup that no one will ever again drink from

the dress that no one will ever again wear.

I certainly am not advocating that we sit, drink, wear. With sitting, drinking, wearing, we wear objects out, and their voices are silenced sooner than later. This is why I feel so lucky to have had the training and experience to know how to properly handle clothing artifacts, so that I can work with such objects hands on, in a way that is less formal and more personal. In this way I have more of a direct connection to the people implicated by the object, so the voice of history that I hear is friendlier and more complete, not as much a mystery as an open conversation. I get to flesh out this conversation beyond the brief exchange with an object behind glass and its tombstone2 label on the wall. This is the conversation that I want to open to a wider audience, using the access that digital tools can provide.

But I recently found that even the aspect of digitization has been touched by the supernatural when played out on TV. When I was originally watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer on TV the first time around, how did I miss the episode called “I Robot You Jane”? I’m starting to watch the series over with my daughter, and I was delighted to find this episode, which specifically addresses the power of a demon entering the internet through a scanned book. What an incredible warning to digital librarians like myself! However, in the real world, the general concern with digitization is just the opposite – that the digital surrogate can never come close to capturing the aura of the original object. The digital librarian’s challenge is to find the right balance of capturing some of the essence of the object while paying respect to its physical original.

Regardless, the fact is, I see dead people.

Sitting in the chair,

drinking from the cup,

wearing the dress.

It’s not spooky at all. It’s just history, an appreciation of what can be studied from the past, coupled with imagination. I want to help you to see them, too, and to hear their voices.

1Unfortunately, the show just wasn’t as good as its premise, in my opinion, and I don’t think I’ve watched it since 2009.

2Did you ever think about why they call it a tombstone label? Dead? Or Undead?


Turkle, S. (2007). Evocative Objects: Things We Think With. The MIT Press.

you know you’re in LIS . . .

On my commute to work, I pass several different institutions that are (or used to be) convents or monasteries or seminaries, nestled in along the Hudson River. There’s also an episcopal church that has one of those lettered signs out front with interesting and often funny sayings to get your attention. But one of the seminaries seems to be under “new management,” shall we say, and has a flashy new sign with a computerized display and some fairly evangelical messages.

The one that caught my eye the other day was “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”

I don’t think the train of thought that followed is what they had in mind.

a view of a building at Mount St. Alphonsus

Mount St. Alphonsus
CC image courtesy of joseph a on Flickr

The beginning of wisdom . . . this rings a bell. Yes, as a first year library and information science student, I’m thinking a lot about the whole data – information – knowledge – wisdom paradigm. Where would “Fear of the Lord” fall in this paradigm? Would “Fear of the Lord” be knowledge, and if so, what raw data would lead to making someone fearful, and how would that data be taken in as information, and then transformed into knowledge? If it’s only the beginning of wisdom, what other knowledge needs to join it, for it to truly become wisdom? What form would this eventual wisdom take? What if the same data is interpreted differently by someone else, and it does not lead them to be fearful, but rather to feel a different way? Is their interpretation a mis-interpretation and therefore will not lead to wisdom?

What about all the different aspects involved in facilitating knowledge creation, as described in the “Facilitating” thread of Dave Lankes’ The Atlas of New Librarianship (p. 66): access, knowledge, environment, motivation. What environment builds fear? What motivates fearfulness? Who has access to whatever might make you fearful? What existing knowledge do you need to build fear?

Don’t take me too seriously/theologically here, folks – this is just a tongue in cheek look at how I’m starting to see everything with librarian-vision!

Now, since driving past, I’ve looked this phrase up and found that it is from both Proverbs 9:10 and Psalm 111:10 of the Bible. I’ve also found an article in the local paper about how this site was formerly the Mount St. Alphonsus seminary of Redemptorist priests, and is now becoming a high school for the Bruderhof community, a protestant community with some similarities to the Amish and Mennonites.

So, how about you – have you ever had a moment when something you saw along the side of the road sent your brain into the land of theory? If so, please share it as a comment so I know I’m in good company!


Lankes, R. D. (2011). The atlas of new librarianship. Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press .

capturing the conversation

Rothschild Canticles (in Latin)
CC image courtesy of Beinecke Library on Flickr
Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University

As a part of librarian bootcamp, we had a field trip to visit Special Collections at SU, and to “oo” and “ah” over some amazing artifacts. One of my classmates asked if any of the objects had been digitized, and could be viewed on a website, and shared with others. Afterwards I found that for some of these objects, the answer is yes. But the host for our visit, Dr. Lavender, gave a quick and more general reply, about the difficulty of capturing the essence of these three dimensional objects in a digital format. Of course he’s right, but of course my classmates and I have good reasons for wanting to be able to “visit” these objects again, even if it’s just a digital visit. I have written about this in other places, including a couple of posts on this blog – I feel strongly that digital collections are an extremely important supplement to physical collections of historic objects. But, yes, careful scanning of such rare and fragile objects is difficult, dangerous, and expensive.

But what if we could just videotape Dr. Lavender’s presentation? I think that sharing videos of people interacting with objects is a great compromise. We can’t yet digitally capture the feeling of the weight of the book, or the texture you feel when you turn the pages, or the smell that wafts up when you open it. But we could capture his passion for these objects, his explanation of what each object expresses to him. We could get a sense of the weight and the texture by how he holds it, or how he verbally describes it. In such a video, we would benefit not only from exposure to the object, but also from exposure to the librarian’s expertise and emotion.

Yes, ideally we would also want a format in which the object could speak for itself, with as little mediation as possible, to allow for alternative perspectives from different people. But for many historic objects, especially ones that are rare and fragile, only a select few highly qualified people are ever allowed that kind of unmediated access. The rest of the time, it’s a part of a brief and supervised visit, or inside a glass case. What if we could use video, even just at its most cheap and efficient, as a way of capturing not just the object, but also the interaction with it, and the conversation it inspires?

identity crisis

So, yes, the librarians come last. The thread on “Librarians” in The Atlas of New Librarianship, that is.

While writing these posts, it has been very hard to divide these ideas into separate threads, they are so deeply woven together into the whole cloth of librarianship. Of course, Lankes had to deal with that himself, so I certainly can’t expect to have an easier time of it. It’s the librarians that are really woven in throughout this book and these concepts.

But, guess what? This is the part that I struggle with the most. Throughout these posts I’ve been talking about librarians and referring to myself as one, but that doesn’t actually come trippingly off my tongue. On the one hand, traditional (mis)perceptions of librarians (the shushing, pinch-faced bunhead who will protect the book, not the reader) are firmly ingrained in our culture. On the other hand, during this Information Age, both the values and skills of librarianship are now distributed among many different people, jobs, places, and tools. The mission expressed in the Atlas is carried out far beyond libraries, and far beyond librarians. So why on earth am I paying dearly with my time and money to go back to school to become a librarian?

There’s a real irony here. I want to become a librarian so I can be a part of changing the world to be a place where everyone can be their own librarian. I am pursuing a degree through online education, so that I can position myself to help break down the current system of academia and help build a system in which everyone has access to knowledge building and can be recognized for their knowledge and skills, not just their credentials.

What I want to do as a librarian is to help teach our communities how to take on librarian-like behavior themselves. If a community is filled with the spirit of librarianship, then does it matter if someone is specifically designated as librarian, or has an advanced degree? I’ve been librarian-ish, without realizing it, without even thinking of wanting to formally become a librarian, for most of my life. Can’t I help draw that out in other people? How much of our mission is to provide our skills in our communities, and how much of it is to spread our skills to our communities?

There’s a whole uproar right now over the idea that in online environments, people are calling themselves curators or archivists to describe their information organizing activites, even though they don’t have any credentials. Some of it is pretty abominable, but rather than criticize this behavior, I think it’s our job to spread the knowledge of how to do it better. Digital technologies and other aspects of 21st century culture have led people to be more self-sufficient, in many ways, including their information seeking behavior. I think we should support this rather than criticize it.

So, what’s the place of the librarian in the future? Perhaps I need to settle more into the idea of being a librarian in the present before I can really tackle that question. I’ll get back to you.


Lankes, R. D. (2011). The atlas of new librarianship. Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press .

making better decisions

The Mission of Librarians is to Improve Society through Facilitating Knowledge Creation in their Communities (Lankes, 2011)

It is significant that “improve society” is at the beginning of this mission statement, not at the end – chronologically it should be at the end, but conceptually we need to put it first. If we’re not trying to make the world a better place, even just in some small way, why bother?

But how? It’s easy to feel powerless with all the challenges our world faces today (and has faced, and will face). What is our power?

“Librarians believe that more information from more sources will lead to better decisions.” (p. 119) This sentence may sum up how I have found my calling in librarianship. At my worst, I overthink things. At my best, I research issues extremely thoroughly, leading to the best decisions –  informed decisions. Perhaps I need to work on my efficiency in this regard, but being thorough is definitely one of my strong suits.

One of the challenges of any attempt at thorough research is the need to be flexible, and open to surprise.  It’s impossible to be completely unbiased – as soon as you choose a word to search, some bias has entered the equation, even just by virtue of the language of the word you choose. So an important skill is to be open to, and even to specifically seek, resources that contradict your expectations.

There’s lots of conversation about the fact that we now live in an age of information abundance, contrasted with the world of information scarcity that librarianship evolved from. Our challenges are not so much information seeking as information choosing.  Lankes discusses the idea of “satisficing,” from the research of Herb Simon, describing a tendency for people to choose convenient information over information that is “potentially higher quality” (p. 119). Not necessarily because of laziness, but more because of a desire for efficiency: “they trade what is at hand against the uncertainty of whether they can do better” (p. 120).

I have found that teaching my students time management is as important as any of the other content I might share with them. Our world seems to be getting more and more complicated every day, and most of us have more and more demands on our time. There is a time and place for satisficing! But it’s important that we learn, and that we teach, when it’s appropriate to settle for convenient information vs. when it’s important to search more deeply for “better” information.

My work of late has been very tied to history, and to artifacts, but in service of this goal of helping people make informed decisions. I find that it’s sometimes easier, across more distance of time, to consider the factors that affected decision-making processes in the past. I also find that an analysis of seemingly unimportant decision-making, like what was eaten for dinner or what was worn on a particular day, can be very eye-opening when considered many years later, showing how even the smallest decisions relate to larger issues. It’s hard for us to see this in our own lives, as we’re living them, but when we consider it in the past, it draws attention to the factors that affect our decision making even now.

One of the best ways we can help the world is to help the people in it to make thoughtful, informed decisions. There’s a whole scale of how active, or not, that this help can be, but at any level, this is our power.


Lankes, R. D. (2011). The atlas of new librarianship. Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press .

of the people

While I was on campus at SU for my week’s residency with IST511, I worked on a group project on the subject of embedded librarians. This had me thinking night and day about community. Several times in The Atlas of New Librarianship, Lankes suggests that librarians need to be “of the people,” not just “for the people” (p. 66). This fits very well with the concern for advocacy in my work (see more about this in my post on my superhero identity), which in my mind does require being “of the people.” To give you an idea of where Lankes is coming from, the section on Embedded Librarians is within a section titled “Go to the Conversation” (p. 114).

You may or may not be familiar with the idea of Embedded Librarianship. It’s most commonly associated with special librarians, who work not in a library, but rather are embedded in the field, in the community they serve. The examples commonly given are medical librarians who go on rounds with doctors in the hospital and help find information relevant to the cases at hand, or law librarians who  sit in on meetings with lawyers and then help find information necessary to try a case. These librarians don’t wait for someone to come to them, in the library, and ask for help. They’re there, in the field, offering help where they see  the need for it.

Our group chose to focus on the broadest definition of embedded librarianship that we could find:

“Embedded librarianship is a model of librarianship in which the librarian builds a relationship with members of a particular information user community, focuses on understanding the activities of the community and contributing to it, and becomes an integral member of it” (Shumaker, 2012).

We found this to be a much farther reaching model, one that resonates with this general idea of being “of the people” not “for the people” and could be an aspect of the work of any librarian. When we presented our poster for this group project, I really enjoyed stretching the mindset of several librarians who came by. They didn’t consider themselves to be embedded librarians, but I encouraged them to think about the important activities that they already do, or could be doing, with their communities.

For our group project I focused on academic librarians who are embedded in the departments they work with. The studies I looked at, especially from the University of Calgary, made me consider how this is a case of “everything old is new again.” My mother was a career public high school English teacher, and from her I’ve learned to recognize when a “new” trend is a catchy new name, usually with some bullet points, applied to a concept that has been in use for ages. At the University of Calgary, embedded librarianship was implemented across the campus, starting with a structure where most librarians would have at least 4 office hours per week in the physical space of the department they were working with. Younger/newer librarians found that this put them on a fast track to getting to know their community, and being invited into department activities. But for the “longer service” librarians, the structured office hours in department space were not necessary. They had built the same kind of relationships over time in other ways, and were already established as respected members of their departments (Clyde & Lee, 2011, p. 399).

This strikes me as something that someone who cares about her work would be doing anyway, regardless of what you’re calling it, or whether it’s trendy right now. The moral of the story for me is that all librarians have the ability to embed themselves into their communities, at least in some small way. Being “of the people” gives you a better chance of answering the needs of the people. A caveat, though: I can imagine scenarios where being of the people could lead to someone having a strong bias. This brings up another important challenge of embedded librarianship – that librarians need to have opportunities to connect with other information professionals, to be reminded of their mission. While being entirely unbiased is unrealistic, it still is important that the search for information is open to whatever surprises it might turn up. Which leads us to our next thread: Improve Society . . .


Clyde, J., & Lee, J. (2011). Embedded reference to embedded librarianship: 6 years at the University of Calgary. Journal of Library Administration, 51(4), 389–402. doi:10.1080/01930826.2011.556963

Lankes, R. D. (2011). The atlas of new librarianship. Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press .

Shumaker, D. (2012). Who let the librarians out: How digital content is freeing librarians for new roles. Texas Library Association Conference. April 18, 2012.