Information behavior

March 14, 2009

One of my first information school classes was called “information behavior.” I always thought this was a silly name, because, well, how does information behave exactly? Information misbehavior—now that would be an interesting thing to study.

It turned out to be not so much about how information behaves, but rather how people interact with information. The idea of using such a general term, I think, was supposed to suggest all the multifarious ways in which people and information interact: people produce, seek, encounter, disseminate, use, and avoid it, to name a few examples. The course mainly focused, though, on one component of information behavior: information seeking.

In a way this makes sense. Librarians tend to consider helping people find what they’re looking for a pretty important part of their job, and we tend to think of our clients as people who need information that we can help them get access to. But I’ve often wondered if there are other ways in which librarians can help people interact with information.

I got to thinking about this again the other day, when I got a chance to listen to my astute classmate Jen Waller present about research she’s doing on the information needs of small farmers. Here’s the interesting thing: on the whole, the farmers she’s interviewed feel pretty good about finding the information they need on their own. The information need they want help with is distributing information about their farms to consumers. Jen talked about some ideas she had for addressing this problem by improving a website that connects farmers and consumers.

In some ways this isn’t very radical—you can’t help people seek information if you don’t have a system of distribution. But the information distribution librarians do is generally organized from the perspective of helping the seeker: how would it change our methods if we thought more about helping the distributer as well?

I’ve been trying to read more fiction lately, and to stretch myself to read a little more widely, outside of the “good” books I usually feel drawn toward. (I just finished a not-nearly-as-bad-as-I-expected-it-to-be Nora Roberts.)

As I spend more time reading this unfamiliar stuff, I find myself rethinking why it is that I like to read, what value it gives me. And since I want to be a librarian, what good am I doing the world by recommending books to people?

It’s a complicated and interesting problem, and I believe there’s a lot more to it than “reading is good for you” or even “reading good books is good for you.” I’m working on a longer post considering this question, but this afternoon I stumbled across a paragraph that makes a few steps toward answering it.

This is from Jane Smiley’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, which I discovered the other day on my library’s new books shelf (oddly, since it was written in 2005). She is considering the “compulsive habit of reading” that she and most other novelists were guilty of as children:

Undoubtedly, we were reading for all the wrong reasons—escape, pleasure, avoidance of responsibilities and human contact. We were reading because it was easy and fun and because we were unsupervised. We were reading to find companions more congenial than those around us. We wanted to fill our heads with nonsense and tune out practical considerations. We were not, most likely, athletic or useful sorts of children. We were reluctant to help around the house or to go outside and play. We did not have very good manners, because in numerous ways to be cited later, reading books is deleterious to good manners. We did not have good sleep habits, because if we had, we would not have read under the bedcovers with a flashlight, or held the book up to the moon that shone through the window, and ruined our eyes. We were reading because we had two lives, an inner life and an outer life, and they were equally important to us and equally vivid.

This seems like a pretty good starting point for some of the reasons why we (not just novelists) read. I’m still working on articulating why it matters. More to come, I hope, on this question. I know I’ll be thinking about it.

Unplug and connect

November 21, 2008

I recently stumbled across an LA Times article on the debate over cell towers and wireless access in national parks. After listening to many discussions about cell phone use in libraries, this provided an interesting perspective.

“This is a commercial service that is using public resources and land,” said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

The introduction of wireless service is an added insult, he said. “The park service is saying unplug and connect with nature — but when you come, you can check your e-mail and trade stocks.”

Yellowstone does not permit televisions in its hotel rooms, but officials contend that wireless Internet is different. “It’s a way to get information,” Ollitt said. For example, visitors could research bison after seeing them in the park.

Snapping photos of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone on a recent afternoon, Bic Ngo brightened when he heard the park might introduce wireless.

“I’d love to get my pictures on Facebook tonight,” said Ngo, 33, of Toronto.

I’ve often thought that parks and libraries shared a similar set of tensions: between preservation and access; sanctity and convenience. At least no one is trying to build cell towers in the library.

I’m in American Libraries

November 20, 2008

Not to toot my own horn. Well, actually, toot!

An essay I wrote entitled “Not Just the Facts: Toward a Library and Information Humanities” has been published in American Libraries, the magazine of the American Library Association. It’s about why “library and information science” is a deficient way of understanding librarianship.

You can read the article online here. (You will need to download ebrary Reader.)

The C word

November 16, 2008

I had a great summer. Really, it was terrific. Except for the fact that it ended and I had to come back to school.

But here I am, and it’s actually not so bad. For the first time in a long time, I’m really happy with all of my classes. And, more importantly, it’s the beginning of my final year of school. Which means that I can no longer avoid thinking about the big C, my career.

I recently got a chance to meet Camila Alire, the president-elect of ALA, who visited my school and gave a presentation to students about the job search. Her big pieces of advice were to get job experience and get involved in professional associations. She also offered up that evergreen: you can either be geographically picky or picky about the kind of job you want to have.

I think this is true. As I have watched my classmates graduate and go job-hunting, the ones who are most successful are the ones who are willing to do just about anything or the ones who are willing to move just about anywhere. But those who are more picky—though they may be extremely smart and well-qualified—have a more difficult time finding stable employment. I have a friend who graduated a year and a half ago and is now in her second temporary job. A new co-worker just got her first permanent professional position after being in temporary jobs for three years. A former co-worker commutes 100 miles round-trip for a 20-hour a week job after a year of unsuccessful job-hunting. Another friend is working in a part-time, non-professional job while he looks for a job that actually makes use of the degree he just spent two years (and thousands of dollars) earning; another is working as a nanny to supplement her part-time children’s librarian position.

I could go on. All of these people are excellent librarians (or would be, if they could find work). But they are all unwilling to move halfway across the country and unwilling to work outside public libraries. And while unfortunate, it’s really just simple math: there are far more qualified applicants than there are jobs, especially when you live in close proximity to the only library/information school in the region.

I would add one more category to the flexibility matrix: salary. It’s a lot easier to find a job if you don’t care how much money you make. And just as geographic flexibility usually means “willingness to live in a crappy place,” and job flexibility often means “willingness to work at a crappy job,” salary flexibility translates as “willingness to work for crappy pay.” Salary flexibility is closely related to the other two types of flexibility: here in Seattle, starting salaries for public librarians are pretty good. But go just one county north or south and you’re looking at about a $10,000 a year pay cut.

Of course, the economy the way it is these days, flexibility starts to look more and more necessary. Obviously it’s not just librarians who are faced with dwindling employment choices.

It isn’t really news that librarians don’t get paid very much, and that their salaries are decreasing. So it was disappointing, but hardly surprising, when the Marathon County Public Library recently cut three librarian positions and replaced them with new “customer service librarian” positions, which pay $10,000 less per year.

What was surprising was the formal response from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s School of Information Studies. Elizabeth Buchanan, director of the SOIS Center for Information Policy Research, posted the following statement on a Wisconsin Public Library email list:

The School of Information Studies, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee wishes to respond formally to the recent job postings that called into question the professional status of the Master of Library and Information Science degree. We firmly believe that the role of a professional librarian should be valued, and, should be compensated appropriately as other professional degrees are. The value of professional librarians, and the complex work they do, should be taken very seriously. Libraries are indeed a public good, bridging information rich and poor and providing unfettered access to information. Professionally trained librarians, in collaboration with other library workers, benefit all members in a community. We encourage library administrators, library boards, and local officials to remember that the library has been shown to definitively improve the economic, educational, and social value of a community. Keeping this in mind, we urge those making personnel and budgetary decisions to maintain the professional status that communities expect and deserve in their libraries by providing a living wage that recognizes the value of trained librarians.

I think this lacks some force as an argument: The fact that libraries are valuable to communities doesn’t really support the contention that librarians should be paid well, and it doesn’t address the very real budget problems faced by Marathon County library administration. Also, the school has more than just an interest in the community value of libraries: they want their alumni to make decent wages. Still, it’s nice to see an information school taking a political stand in favor of libraries. In my experience, information schools generally try to raise the salaries of their graduates simply by encouraging them not to work in libraries.

Of course, the UWM School of Information Studies isn’t a member of the iCaucus—the self-styled elite group of iSchools that have banded together in their study of information, also known as the iField. (I’m not kidding.) So maybe this makes them more willing to recognize their responsibility and ties to to the field of librarianship.

Via LISNews

The right to be uninformed

February 21, 2008

In a speech at UCLA early this month, Michelle Obama suggested that “Barack will never allow you to go back to your lives as usual, uninvolved, uninformed.”

This has gotten Hugh Hewitt and Jim Geraghty riled up. Writing at the National Review, Geraghty invokes the Constitution, and asks, “what if we kind of like our lives as usual? What about Americans’ freedom to be uninvolved and uninformed?”

Read the rest of this entry »

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