libraries | play | information | media | policy | culture


The Kindle Is Dead

Recent efforts by Amazon to tout how the first run of Kindles sold out smacks of desperation, because the fact is we don't know what that means. Amazon refuses to release sales figures. They could have made only 100 devices and sold them all, which would make it hardly the runaway success they're trying to say it is.

Among the many problems with the Kindle I've written about before, add another noticed by Mrs. Librarian (who keeps me Playful): we have yet to see a single person on the subways, buses, or commuter trains using the device.

We don't own a car, so we use a lot of public transportation and have witnessed all manner of human behavior on it. But the Kindle, which is now six months old and was released in time for the 2007 holiday gift-giving season, is not part of it. It has simply not made its way into people's workaday world.

By contrast, within a day of their respective releases, we saw people using Sony's PSP and the iPhone. We also still see countless people reading paper-based books and magazines and newspapers on public transit—this includes, by the way, school-age individuals, who as part of the Google Generation supposedly should have taken to the Kindle like, well, moths to the flame.

I think it's safe to say the Kindle's light has gone out.


Cyndi Lee Dislikes Wii

I've resisted discussing Nintendo's Wii mostly because others better equipped than I have already praised the game system's groundbreaking design and engineering. But the Wii Fit marks an even more impressive debut than the base system, because through Fit Nintendo promotes a social good even as they stand to make a mint off it.

The New York Times interviewed four people, two fitness experts among them, to evaluate Wii Fit. The response was generally positive, if lukewarm. The response that gave me pause, however, was from Cyndi Lee, founder of Om Yoga:

This is a little dumbed down and they are teaching more from a fitness or gym perspective. They’re saying things like, "Tighten your glutes," which we would never say in yoga.
Could she possibly have missed the point any worse? First, the manufacturers of this hugely popular system are trying to encourage gamers to exercise more than their thumbs. Second, they've included yoga—a practice that not too long ago was looked upon with suspicion by a good portion of the American public—as a quarter of Fit's featured exercises.

Perhaps the Wii Fit doesn't, um, fit into Lee's conception of yoga. Perhaps she sees it as a threat to her business or as a dilution of her practice, neither of which can be very strong if Fit truly is a threat. But isn't it possible that a few people otherwise averse to yoga will try it and get hooked? It's even possible that Lee could gain a few new students as a direct result of Wii Fit.


Desiring Sexy Digital Librarians

Recently on the Information Architecture Institute listserv there was a thread regarding job titles. It was merely the latest among many such discussions I've been party to among information workers. Like most information professions, which are by and large still in their relative infancies, information architecture is working out its identity and justifying its existence.

This IAI listserv is private and member-driven, so I won't quote from it or name any of the posters who took part in the thread. I will say that the general tone of the thread was that job titles don't matter—job descriptions, experience, and work samples do. A noble and meritocratic sentiment, one that echoes a larger cultural attitude against pigeonholing people into roles. But I couldn't disagree with this trend more.

Labels and categories can be confining when misused, but they're quite useful, too. And no one should be more aware of this than an information architect, whose sole purpose is to make an information object better, simpler, easier to use. If accurate and descriptive, a job title can be a meaningful thing, and it can do a lot of the heavy lifting up front when it comes to job justification.

I've heard of librarians who, when given the option to assign their own job title, choose "information alchemist." This may be fun and playful and perfectly appropriate to their workplace, but it doesn't tell the average patron what that person can do for them. In fact, the average patron might be a little wary of approaching an "alchemist" for help with homework or finding a good book to read. Furthermore, would the HR manager, or the machine resume screener more and more HR departments are using, know which job the alchemical applicant wants?

The point is that information workers should care about labels. It's what we do. And rather than throw out a whole category of labels as inherently bad, we should be striving to set an example and make them better.

As if to prove my argument that titles matter, my site statistics program tells me that this and this are my two most popular individual entries.


Sucking Fumes

Is there a stronger symbol of American individuality and independence than the car? Setting aside the actual umbilical dependence upon their cars most Americans have, the automobile itself represents power and speed. Most of all, it represents control—over one's climate and one's geography.

Though there are many high points in the history of our autophilia, I think its apex came during the era of the drive-in theater. If not for the extreme love of our cars, why else would Americans take an inherently social and communal activity, as going to a movie is, and relocate it to a parking lot, where we sat in our pods to watch grainy film projected on a far-away screen, listen to crackling audio, and eat greasy concession fare? At least we got to make out.

I was reminded of the drive-in recently when my friend Marc forwarded me coverage of another technology-induced activity that's apparently all the rage among the kids these days, the silent rave. At long last we've overcome the final hurdle to having a good time while dancing—being in complete control of the soundtrack.


Public Libraries and Fiscal Sponsorship

Establishing nonprofit status with the IRS takes so much time and effort that it's a wonder we have any charitable organizations in this country. It does help explain why there are so few successful grassroots nonprofit initiatives, which usually lack the expertise and resources to navigate tax law. And even if they do so successfully, they're often left with little energy to see through their original idea. There is an alternative, though, within U.S. tax code: fiscal sponsorship.

Nonprofit organizations that have already achieved a 501(c)(3) designation from the IRS can act as a fiscal sponsor for people or organizations with a charitable purpose. Basically, the larger nonprofit agrees to be a guardian of grants for the small organization, thus enabling the smaller charity to solicit grants and donations under the aegis of the larger nonprofit and pursue its specific goal.

Usually for the fiscal sponsor this involves receiving moneys for the sponsored program, allotting these funds to the program to cover its expenses, and filing all sponsored program moneys within its own annual audit and tax return. The sponsorship can also include use of the nonprofit's physical or human resources.

The benefits for the smaller charity are obvious. In addition to the infrastructure and 501(c)(3) designation the sponsor provides, the sponsor also offers credibility because benefactors and grant givers are more likely to provide funds to well-established entities.

The benefits to the sponsor are equally tangible. Through fiscal sponsorship, established nonprofits get to support the goals of like-minded people and groups and potentially have a direct impact on their community in a way their larger bureaucracy might otherwise be incapable of. Freed from the concerns of infrastructure, small-scale programs often deliver effectively on their mission and to the people who will most benefit from their projects.

Fiscal sponsorship is a perfect way for public libraries, most of which carry a 501(c)(3) designation, to have an even greater impact on their communities. Through fiscal sponsorship, public libraries could support one-off noncommercial art projects, help launch social startups that otherwise don't have the infrastructure to get off the ground, or provide a foundation for necessary but not-sexy community programs.

Granted, there would be an additional administrative burden placed on the libraries, which are already overburdened in many cases. But the burden would be marginal compared to the potential impact it could have, including improving the local economy and quality of life. Furthermore, sponsoring libraries can legally charge their sponsored programs for services rendered.

Public libraries cannot afford to overlook such opportunities to punch above their weight, especially when there are mouth breathers out there like this guy with a public forum.


Narrative and Classification

Most histories of classification place the origins of the art in the hands of Aristotle. His discussions of “being” in his metaphysical works certainly are among the earliest recorded attempts of making sense of the whole by parsing its parts. However, as Geoffrey C. Bowker and Susan Leigh Star point out in Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences, it is likely that homo sapiens have always classified:

To classify is human. Not all classifications take formal shape or are standardized in commercial and bureaucratic products. We all spend large parts of our days doing classification work, often tacitly, and we make up and use a range of ad hoc classifications to do so. We sort dirty dishes from clean, white laundry from colorfast, important email from e-junk.
Though their examples are modern, it is not hard to project Bowker and Star’s reasoning into the distant past. Surely ancient civilizations sorted their laundry, too. And even if they did not, their nomadic ancestors at least had to sort edible plants from poisonous ones, or else we would not have survived as a species. Even that word, species, is a testament to the human drive to classify. For it was the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus who, in the eighteenth century, helped to unify the study of biology around his hierarchies of plants and animals grouped by similar physical traits—and in the process became known as the father of modern taxonomy.

In short, it is safe to say that since humans developed the use of language and other communication systems, we have classified, because to classify is to label and the means of labeling is communication. Language and classification coexist as complementary paths to meaning. They are the tools with which we seek to understand our environments, and like all good tools, they facilitate the building of more specialized and refined tools to further aid understanding. This process explains in brief the existence of the sciences, both hard and social, and it explains why such things as taxonomies, thesauri, ontologies, and indices exist.

Aristotle, it seems, was a busy man, for the roots of narrative analysis are often said to be in his Poetics, which explains the human need for fictions by our equally human need to imitate. Why this need for fictions or, in Aristotle’s word, mimesis? The literary scholar J. Hillis Miller answers in his essay “Narrative,” published in Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin’s Critical Terms for Literary Study:
We learn the nature of things as they are. We need fictions to experiment with possible selves and to learn to take our places in the real world, to play our parts there. . . . A story is a way of doing things with words. It makes something happen in the real world: for example, it can propose models of selfhood or ways of behaving that are then imitated in the real world.
In other words, narratives help us to make sense of the world. Narratives are yet another aid to our anticipation and understanding of our environments and our reactions to them. Put that way, narratives and classifications have much in common on a broad scale. Both grow out of our experiences with our surroundings, yet both likewise inform our future interactions with those same surroundings. Given these broad commonalities, I argue that the study of classification as it is practiced by cultural arbiters both in the for-profit sector—most visibly in Internet commerce—and in the nonprofit sector—most visibly in libraries—would benefit from some of the basic methods of narratology.

A field of inquiry that formed out of Russian formalist and French structuralist literary criticism, narratology coalesced into its own in the 1970s. Although there are myriad approaches and methods to its practice, at its core narratology is the theory and study of narratives and narrative structure and the ways they affect our perception. As M. H. Abrams, himself a relentless taxonomist of literary theories, explains it in his A Glossary of Literary Terms:
The general undertaking is to determine the rules, or codes of composition, that are manifested by the diverse forms of plot, and also to formulate the “grammar” of narrative in terms of structures and narrative formulae that recur in many stories, whatever the differences in the narrated subject matters.
Because narratology is fundamentally structuralist in nature, narratologists tend to categorize to break a narrative down into its most basic constituent parts.

The most foundational and top-level of these narratological breakdowns was devised by Mieke Bal, who identified three levels of narrative in her book Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative:
  1. Fabula, or the sequence of events or raw information.
  2. Story, or the structure and possible paths through the fibula.
  3. Narrative, or the final rendering of the chosen narrative path.
As we see, this process closely reflects the process of taxonomists working within any subject domain.

Viewed from the reverse angle, a taxonomy has all of the necessary elements of a narrative. Taxonomies are built with representative descriptions that exist in defined relationships to other representative descriptions. If one thinks of the representative descriptions—the terms—as nouns and their relationships—how they exist in relation to each other, or their state of “being”—as verbs, then it is easy to see how the collective taxonomy presents meaning in a manner not unlike a narrative. Using Miller’s phrasing, a taxonomy “is a way of doing things with words” through which “we learn the nature of things as they are.”

Viewed in this way, taxonomies and narratives share common DNA.


Shameless Self-Promotion

One of my last acts as an Employee of H. W. Wilson was to edit the collection of essays Celebrity Culture in the United States. It was just reviewed favorably on a site owned by one of Wilson's main competitors. If interested, you can read my Preface to the collection here.

Get Place-Based or Get Better

Fortune magazine's latest issue has an interesting article by Geoff Colvin about China's rising economic influence. According to one forecaster, China is set to take the crown as the world's largest economy as early as 2015, spelling the end of the United States' 125-year run at the top. One thing I didn't realize: when we assumed that mantle in 1890, we took it from China.

According to Colvin:

China was the largest economy for centuries because everyone had the same type of economy - subsistence - and so the country with the most people would be economically biggest. Then the Industrial Revolution sent the West on a more prosperous path. Now the world is returning to a common economy, this time technology- and information-based, so once again population triumphs.
This holds potentially dire consequences for the American worker, who has about a decade to adjust. Colvin's advice:
You can avoid competition with Chinese workers by doing place-based work, which ranges in value from highly skilled (emergency-room surgery) to menial (pouring concrete). But the many people who do information-based work, which is most subject to competition, will have to get dramatically better to be worth what they cost.
The question for librarians, then, is: how do we make ourselves worth more than cheaper overseas information services, or conversely, how do we make our highly skilled work more place based?


I Never Saw Her Shush Me

Screw Black Belt Librarians.
Get me some Ninja Librarians!

[Image from Doug Savage's
Savage Chickens via [BB-Blog]]