Material vs Post-Material Visions of Community

Being online has a weird effect on people.

When I read my timelines,  I hear much about one community or another being spoken of in very broad terms, without so much as a whimper about what these communities mean. If I play a game, am I a gamer? If I once was a librarian, will I always be a part of the library community? If I have an autistic son does that make me part of the autism community or do I also have to be aneurotypical to belong? If I liked Anthrax at some time in my life, am I a metal head?

Sometimes we seek ‘communities’ out and other times ‘communities’ are pushed on us. But what do they mean? Well, I think you need to distinguish between what are material communities and what are post-material or symbolic communities. Although that is the sort of separation that will be harder to define in some cases than in others.

But perhaps we can start with the idea of community as being versus community as doing. Community as being is mostly a symbolic thing. I am French in the sense that my parents were (mostly) French. I am not French in the sense that I speak the language fluently. Being French is mostly a symbolic notion of the French community. It means I can pretend to have a lot in common with some of my favourite French people like Pierre Bourdieu, Jean Baudrillard and Bruno Latour. The irony of all this is that while I have an affinity for these philosophers, I lack the actual ability to communicate with them! This distinction is what I mean by material versus post-material visions of community. In symbolic (post-material) terms I have access to the French community because of my last name. In material terms, I offer them nothing nor they me – there’s no real relationship that defines us as being in the same group.

But these symbolic ideas about identity do make a difference. Bourdieu’s Distinction offers a pretty convincing catalogue about what determines people’s tastes (usually class identity). If you are French, you get pay-offs for looking the part, even if you don’t do French. That’s why I typically brag about wanting to be an old man with a flask of Calvados, espouse the value of free speech (likely to a greater extent than others) and have tourtiere for Christmas Eve. It’s also why Nova Scotia has a tartan, when the actual social make-up of the province is almost anything but Scottish.

On the other hand, there is something in the post-material idea of community that lets us off the hook. In a discussion about the anti-vaccine movement I heard someone talk about an affinity for “the autistic community” as if that had salience beyond the words used. The autistic community I know includes a range of people including social workers, parents, sisters, brothers, babysitters, health professionals, psychiatrists and, of course, people with ASD. For my son, autism is something that is thrust upon him, he’ll have none of it. He belongs to an “autistic community” for two main reasons: 1) He is not accepted in the mainstream at school and 2) he benefits from treatments that are offered to him by health and social services. Otherwise his “community” consists of a few loyal friends, frequently of people older than he and his family. There are people around him that do “autism” and he variously loves and hates them for it. But the key point here is that in the “doing” community, he has people who both support him and hold him accountable when he doesn’t meet the expectations of the group. To me, that’s the “real” (material) autism community. It stands in contrast to the more idealist “autistic” community consisting of Sheldon Cooper, the silicon valley and any number of ubercool geeks. It’s possible that I am being unfair to my anti-vaccine person (by the way, vaccines do not cause autism and yes, you should vaccinate your kids. Also, if you don’t vaccinate your kids, I do think its okay for the government to force you to to protect others), but I did not see any evidence of “doing” autism in her/his tweets.

On the other hand, my son has material needs as well. And frankly, there are very rare and and special people who are willing to provide these to him. Things like friendship and support and understanding. People do not learn these things by receiving information, hearing recitals of theory or watching memes. Instead, they discover how to give these things through conversation, not only the in the occasional generosity of silence (“please listen”), but also the generosity of authentic feelings about the world.

I thought about this after reading this article by a male feminist writing about people in the MRA. Behind every marxist, capitalist, feminist, mra, gamergater, libertarian, hippy, yuppy hipster is a real story of how they got to where they are. It is a real gift when you can get that story, no matter how privileged or oppressed the person is. To me, critical theory (or rather their practitioners) forget this at times. And that power is more fluid than personal or group identities. The only thing worse than having power and privilege is not bothering to use it to make the world a better place.

Socrates says that getting to that point of clarity and learning requires nothing short of intellectual midwifery.  Whoever you are, it’s inside you and getting it out is going to be painful, arduous and messy. We need more people with the kind of empathy and understanding that bring new things to this world.

Make No Mistake: Taxes Are An Evil, However Necessary

I am not about to weigh in on who I think should win the federal election or even whether I’d like to see a majority or a minority.   To be honest, I would love to pick and choose among the policies among all the parties – of course, real politics don’t work that way.

But I would like to weigh in on something that really does need to be said, because I think it can work as a bridge between right and left-leaning policies:  the role of taxation, and why, in fact, the market is preferable in most cases.

Take this all-too-familiar supply-demand curve:

In this case we have a before-tax supply curve (green), an after-tax supply curve (red) and a demand curve (blue).

Tax incidence, deadweight, tax burden
Description of deadweight as it pertains to a tax.

As you may (or may not) have learned in a basic economics class, the ‘invisible hand’ will guide the market towards the price and quantity that matches where the demand and supply curves meet (where green meets blue).  Let’s say that this location is $10 and 10 gajibazillions units sold for a total of $100 gajibazillion dollars.

Now we add the tax.    In this graph, it’s a straight-forward per unit tax, like gas, say at $1 per unit (if we did a percentage tax, like the GST, the space between the two supply curves would get bigger as you moved to the right, but per unit is easier to deal with, so let’s go with that).

When consumers find out that the costs is, in fact, $1 more than the stated cost, they will realize that they are not getting the same amount of product for the higher price (because $1 is going to the government).   “Oh no!” many will say, “the product is not worth all that much money. ”   They will drop out of the market.   Suppliers, responding to the change in demand, will drop their prices slightly so to maximize their profits.   Let’s say the new price is $10.75, and the new lower quantity is 9 gajibazillion units.   This change in behavior of consumers and suppliers in response to the tax is called a market distortion.

Okay – so now some math.   We’ve already discovered that the market volume with no tax is 100 gajibazillion dollars.   The market volume after the tax is $9.75 (remember, $1 goes to the government to pay the taxes) times 9 units or $87.75 gajibazillion dollars, for a difference of 12.25 gajibazillion dollars.

Ah – but of course, the government will be absolutely efficient and non-bureaucratic and responsible with our tax dollars, so we are going to get the value  of those taxes one way or another right?   Sure.   Except, they are collecting $1 for each of the 9 gajibazillion units for a grand total of 9 gajibazillion dollars, well short of the $12.25 gajibazillion dollars that was lost in the economy.  A grand total of 3.25 gajibazillion is lost – a completely unrecoverable loss in the economy simply by applying the tax – and that’s before we consider anything about the costs of administering the tax, whether that tax gets used effectively or efficiently by the government and so on.

This is why taxes are evil.   The flip side, of course, is that there are a number of other things that are more evil than tax burdens.   Things like large government deficits, lack of support for the poor, lack of equality, lack of established order and so on.

This should mean that we ought to consider a few things:

  • anyone who tells you that they are building the economy by using your tax dollars is lying.   Deficits are merely deferred taxes.   You can temporarily stall an economic downturn, or you can build certain sectors of the economy, but when push comes to shove, any tax *takes away* from the economy, and never recovers what was taken away.
  • given a proportional tax rate (eg. income tax, where the tax rate increases as income increases), the market distortions at the higher pay scales will result in even higher market distortions.   This is a pretty solid argument in favor of reducing taxes for those with higher wages, especially if you want to build your economy on a highly skilled labour force.   Another solution is to offer a flat tax rate, which has the added benefit of reducing the administrative costs of calculating your taxes every year.
  • Unfortunately, this implies an inequitable distribution of funds in the economy.   By doing the best possible things for the largest group of people, those at the bottom of the totem pole appear to benefit the least.  BUT, the bottom line is that bottom of the totem pole still benefits – just not as much as those at the top.
  • Anytime you see a promise about a new government program, it is always at least a little bit wise to wonder if those benefits couldn’t otherwise be provided by, well, um YOU.  You earning more money by bringing more value to the consumer contributes to reducing the deficit.   While some would argue with me, this applies to public servants as well (assuming that the service cannot otherwise be provided by the market).
  • Re: corporate taxes – if you pay taxes when you cash in your mutual funds, do you really think you should be paying taxes *again* when your investment turns a profit?   Remember, those corporate taxes are also a tax on your pension.
  • We should be getting away from deficits as soon as possible.  2-3 years is more than enough to stall the economic downturn.  Now it’s up to the private sector to start turning the wheels.
  • Don’t trust party reputations when considering this.  Conservative does not always mean conservative.  Nor does liberal necessarily mean liberal.
  • Yeah, this is all just theory.  If you do not believe that people act rationally (they don’t), nor have perfect information (they don’t), you have reason to question all of this.

Wikileaks: Where the Hole is Big Enough to Drive a Truck Through

When I first heard about Wikileaks, I felt that possibly they were providing a much needed ‘heads up’ to the public on important International concerns such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.   When I heard about the recent cable releases, I thought they caught the United States in some particularly heinous territory with their International Policy — something that represented a serious shift from the norms of behavior that the country’s citizens would expect from the people who represent them abroad.

Instead, it’s just a leak of cables.   Stories of Omar Khadaffi oogling voluptuous Ukranian blonds.   CSIS members complaining about lawyers.   Frank opinions about Russian dignitaries.    All great stuff to sell newspapers and boost the ego of the ‘leakers’ but nothing representing an international emergency.    Given this lack of urgency, it is my opinion that Wikileaks did the wrong thing when they leaked this information.     There is no ethical standard that I can apply that justifies their actions here.    Let’s go over some of the tests.

Let’s start with Emmanuel Kant’s ‘categorial imperative,’ act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.   I do not accept left-wing minds ought to be allowed to leak private documents to undermine aggressive international policy because I know that right-wing minds would more than enjoy the opportunity to leak medical documents and doctor reports to undermine expensive public health care.

Now, I do not accept Kant wholeheartedly.   I do believe we should make room for exceptions in cases where the action provides a benefit, or prevents a negative that greatly outweighs the negatives that come from the action.     A deontological (Kantian) mind must have a utilitarian conscience.   So, taking the Trolley problem example, I do think there is some justification for pulling the switch that kills one person when it means saving the lives of thousands.    With some clear (and very important) caveats:

  • there is clear evidence of public benefit
  • there is no apparent self-interest in pulling the switch
  • the one person is not known to be vulnerable within the society (see Rawls)

Clearly, I do not see a clear public benefit to the leaks.    I do, however, see plenty of self-interest as media outlet after media outlet uses the juiciest elements of the cables to sell their papers.    The damage that this leak causes, however, will never be quantified.    Government Services will be regulated and secured to the point that they are no longer services in any sense of the word.   Foreign Affairs agents will always be thinking about their (needed) frank opinions in the context of these leaks.   In the best case scenario, this means embarrassment for public officials.   In the worst case scenario, this means a disconnect between diplomacy and policy – which is a euphemistic way of saying “stupid Wars caused by miscommunication.”

The final test is one of my favorites, put out by John Rawls — the ‘original position’ test.   This test would offer that people should act as if they came into society with no understanding of its norms or structure.    The person in this position would want the society that protected its most vulnerable members (because, given no prior understanding of status, someone would want to ensure that they had a decent lifestyle no matter their status).      The so-called transparent society that so many internet lovers desire is not to the advantage of the most disadvantaged.    For one, the most disadvantaged likely have no clue whatsoever that this whole Wikileaks thing ever happened.    All they’ll know is that some authority figure in their country will put two and two together (correctly or incorrectly) and accuse them (correctly or incorrectly) of treason based on pieces of evidence found in these documents.

In short, there is no real ethical justification in my mind for leaking these documents to the public, only a half-baked and obnoxious internet ideology.    It was a wrong-minded action and it should be punished in my view.   Fortunately for the people involved — people who are by no means the vulnerable people John Rawls wanted us to consider — they will be punished in a country that believes in ethical treatment of their citizens and fair trials.

For shame.

Bureaucrat 101 – or how to be a good libertarian

Dan Leger’s article  Liquor Store Lunacy: Time to privatize NSLC and the subsequent arm-chair economists complaining about government monopolies has me screaming for someone — anyone — to provide the public with a basic tutorial on public finance and policy.   I suppose it is a great thing that people who find themselves going through a business degree, learning the very basics of theoretical microeconomics (you know,  supply and demand, ‘invisible hand,’ OMG don’t mess with the markets.  EVAR! theory) can take their learnings and become blowhard political pundits because of it.    Such is democracy.    But, it’d be nice to hear from some of the people who actually learned the very basics of public policy, the role of government in the economy, and that, despite what business gurus will tell you, everything is not about efficiency.

It just turns out that I took a degree in Public Administration, so am in a position to comment in general about public bureaucracy and the economy and when (and not when) it might be a good time for the government to get involved in the market.

For the record, I am in favor of the deregulation of beer and wine (not the privatisation that Leger calls for, which would just transfer the assets belonging to the NSLC to some private organization).   I think the ability to sell beer and wine would give a little bit of stability to smaller retailers who could then complement their beer and wine with local goods and compete more effectively against the big box stores, providing more consumer choice and lower prices.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s just say that I’m a hard-line ‘NSLC should stay a crown corporation’ pundit.    What lines of argument might someone use to support government control of a market?    There are four major ones:

Natural Monopolies

Some products, usually because they require a large amount of capital to produce, result in monopolies when left to free markets.    A good example for this is electrical power.   Usually the first company to open up a power grid in an area wins, and has a great deal of power to keep others out of the business.   Generally, governments respond to Natural Monopolies in one of two ways – 1) taking ownership through a crown corporation (as was once the case a long time ago) or 2) regulation (which is the current case).   Natural Monopoly does not apply to liquor, though.    Liquor is a basic retail product.   Check one for the liberatarians.

Market Failures

Products that can turn a profit usually have at least two traits.

First, they are rival goods meaning that one person consuming the good prevents another from also consuming it.   A hotdog is rivalrous because if I eat my hotdog, it means you cannot.     This (non-DRM’d) blog post, because it sits on a server, is non-rivalrous.  You can read it, and so can everyone else.

Second, they are excludable, meaning that it is possible to prevent people who haven’t paid for a good from getting it.    The hot dog is excludable, because it will sit on the Dawgfather’s barbeque until you give him the money (although rumor has it that he’ll let you pay him back later, no questions asked).   Marine cod (in the water, not at the store) is non-excludable because you basically need an army to keep people from fishing the ocean.

Goods that are either non-excludable or non-rivalrous result in something economists call market failures.   Because the market will not provide these on its own, some level of government involvement is necessary.   For instance, copyright law is a way to get around the non-rivalrous aspect of an MP3 file.     Selling fishing licenses is a way around the non-exclusivity of marine fish.   In cases of both non-rivalrous and non-excludability (eg. National Defense), you usually have the government offering the service itself.    Liquor is not a market failure.    Score another for the libertarians.


Related to market failures is the idea of externalities.    Externalities occur when an individual’s market behavior has an impact on others, distorting the market and creating inefficiency.   The best example is pollution.   Governments will tend to get involved in high-polluting industries because they can make everyone else miserable when making a profit for themselves.    Sometimes the action is regulation, other times it’s taxation.  Ronald Coase has a neat response to externalities as well – the argument is that if you assign property rights (through law), the market will adjust to the most efficient outcome.    So, if the government decides that I own the lake I’m polluting, people effected by my pollution will pay me to reduce the level of pollution in the lake (and because I’ll make a profit, I’ll oblige).    This is called Coase Theorem (not to be confused with another Coasean theory about the nature of the firm, oft cited by Clay Shirky).

It should be noted that externalities can happen in a positive way too.    For instance, me writing blog posts provides the internet with much entertainment that I am not getting paid for, creating an externality and economic inefficiency.    Coase theorem, therefore, would be one argument favoring the use of DRM to protect copyright.

The consumption of liquor does create an externality because public drunkeness, drunk driving, alcoholism, and poor judgement by intoxicated people can have a negative impact on the happiness of others.     So, because liquor has this negative impact, it is fair for the government to assign property rights on drinking to a Crown Corporation, forcing business that want in on the business to pay for expensive licenses, high taxes and jump through complicated hoops to profit from liquor.     This one is debatable, however, because government could also assign property rights to a private agency just as well.   Let’s say score a 3/4 point for the Crown Corp side.

Social Policy

The strongest argument in favor of giving the rights to sell liquor to a private agency is social policy.    In short, the goal of non-privatised liquor has nothing to do with economic efficiency, but instead addresses community concerns instead.     The list for this is long, possibly exhaustive:

  • to prevent the intoxication of minors, including the enforcement of age limits
  • to reduce alcoholism
  • to control the use of alcohol in the workplace (and prevent Health and Safety incidents)
  • to reduce the possibility of promoting alcohol to minors
  • to provide some level of public accountability for how the intoxicating effects of alcohol could be used to create profits (eg. the combination of alcohol and gambling comes to mind)

The argument here is not that governments prevent alcoholism, but instead that if alcoholism becomes a serious social issue, governments would have an incentive (and responsibility) to do something about it.   In private hands, the public has less control over the degree of product that gets out to market and except for a little bit of brand damage (which would mean literally nothing to someone who is addicted to alcohol) no real clout to force said private agency or agencies to change their behavior.

The NSLC puts considerable money into campaigns against drunk driving.     They are frank and to the point.    In private hands, I would argue, such campaigns would be non-existant – and if they were somehow mandated, they would be purposely done to satisfice, rather than address the real public concern.    We cannot forget that liquor is a drug – possibly the drug that is most responsible for death in Canada, not to mention being responsible for a wide range of other problems we have in our communities.

In short, the community has a strong vested interested in who gets to sell alcohol and who does not and despite silly marketing ploys,  there are very good reasons not to privatise the NSLC.   That’s about 10 points in favor of NSLC as a Crown Corporation, I would say.

Back to Reality

Despite, my rant pro-NSLC, I still favor some de-regulation of alcohol in Nova Scotia.    I think the benefits that having beer and wine in small stores outweigh some of the social negatives I outlined.

My bigger beef is that libertarian ideology overrides common sense, when it should be the other way around.   I can favor reduced government involvement in a lot of places for sure, but to suggest that there is never a good reason for a government to get involved, or to have a monopoly on a service (in reality, any government service *should* be a monopoly because ideally goverments should offer things that cannot already be provided by the market) is just plain false.    There are a few cases where governments ought to be involved in markets, and the smart libertarian ought to discount these cases before calling for privatisation.     Bureaucrats are not as stupid and lazy as your average Joe wants to make them out to be.     It’s just that they do not have a whole lot of opportunity to bring the logic behind their decisions into the public forum.   Maybe they should have more power to debate policy issues to the community.    I am not sure how to make that possible, but it seems to be a fair comment in a society that expects increased accountability from the public sector.

Ten Reasons Why ‘Professional Librarian’ is an Oxymoron

Before you comment, yes, this is an unbalanced look at professionalism.    Yes, I am trolling a little bit – but with a heart that wants to lead discussion on the topic of library professionalism.    Please do write a post about why these ten reason are bullocks.

On the other hand, I often see librarians and library school students that take professionalism as a given.   I see this as unrealistic, especially in an era of rapid change.    I believe we are taught about the struggle for the professionalization of librarianship, how this is tied to sexual discrimination, and seem to rely on Ranganathan’s 5 laws every time something puts our professionalization into jeopardy.

In reality, it is the exceptions that prove the rule.    If librarians cannot personally address the following anti-professional assumptions as individuals, they cannot call themselves professional.    What I am saying is that the MLIS or whatever equivalent a librarian has on their wall cannot count towards any status in society.   Each librarian needs to respond personally to the following 10 things to claim their status as professional.

1.  Librarians Have No Monopoly on the Activities They Claim

You need to pass the bar exam to practice law.    You cannot perform surgery unless you are a surgeon.    You cannot build a bridge without an engineering degree.    Information is free.     Your 12-year-old kid can help their grandma do a Google search.

2.  There are No Consequences For Failing to Adhere to Ethical Practices

Besides the risk of being considered unemployable, a librarian has no real professional obligation to adhere to any of the values claimed by the ALA or any other so-called professional body.    There is no agreed-upon process for dealing with ethical breaches, nor an entity to report those ethical breaches.

3.  Librarianship is Too Generalized to Claim Any Expertise

The number of books in the field written ‘for librarians’ is analogous to books written ‘for dummies.’     The issue is that librarians, rather than having a specific area of expertise, actually need surface knowledge of variety of things – management, technology, community development and so on.   While one could say being a generalist is the expertise, there are larger and more in-depth areas of study like Management, Engineering and Education that could claim the same thing.

4.  ‘Librarian’ Assumes a Place of Work, Rather than the Work Itself

Despite claims otherwise, ‘librarian’ comes from ‘library’ which is a place where there are books.    It’s not an activity, but a product or service.   Thus, librarians rightfully should be treated as if they were providing any product or service.

5.  Peer Review in Librarianship Does Not Work Because There is No Competitive Process to Go With It

The reason why library literature is often horrible is that librarians are collaborative beings by nature.    Articles get accepted because they satisfy a minimum standard, not because they represent the best and brightest research in the field.    True professionals are much more harsh with their peer review because they have an individual interest in refusing competitors the privilege of being published.

6.   Values Are Not Enough

Common values occur in a wide variety of communities, many of which are leisure activities.    There is nothing associated with the values of librarians that differs from any other advocacy group.    Librarians do not deserve to be rewarded simply because they think information wants to be free.

7.  The Primary Motivation for Professionalization is the Monopoly of Labor

The main motivation for librarians to assert their professional status is so that they can lay claim to higher-paid “ALA Accredited Degree or Equivalent” positions in library institutions.   We cannot accept any librarian’s claim of professionalism without objective evidence because there is an inherent self-interest laying in that claim.

8.   Accredited Library Schools Do Not Adequately Prepare Students for Library Work

The process for creating ‘professional’ librarians has long been criticized for its lack of relevance to real life library work.    It’s like saying we are great espresso-making experts because we understand the secrets of tea bag design.

9.   Competing Professions Are Offering Different Paradigms to Achieve the Same Goals

Computer Scientists and Engineers are discovering ways to make information accessible to the public using search algorythms, interface design, and social media platforms.    Current library practices are following their lead, not the other way around.

10.   Nobody Can Name a ‘Great’ Librarian

Go to a typical university and ask the professors to name a great Doctor (‘Albert Schweitzer’), Architect (‘I. M. Pei’), or Lawyer (‘Johnny Cochrane’).      No librarian stands out the same way that these great professionals do.    No one outside the library field is going to come close to naming Ranganathan either.

So there.    I hope these ten items put a little devil on the left shoulder of every librarian who claims professional status without a good dose of self-doubt to go with it.    In reality, I think these 10 items put a special responsibility on so-called ‘professional’ librarians to step up and provide exemplary service to their communities.    Professional status means nothing to the information world – you have to earn your entitlement.

Neither Libraries Nor Information is Free

Oh The Future of the Library is still in question.   This time it’s Seth Godin weighing in.   I actually agree with most of what he has to say.   I think alot of what he thinks is shaped by an aged or narrow sample of libraries.   I find it kind of like saying ‘It’s over for Restaurants’ after getting poor service from an old-style greasy spoon that’s been around for 50 years.   It’s the future of ‘restaurant’.   Not ‘restaurants’.

Librarians have weighed in as well.   One of them is Sarah Glassmeyer.    I have to say I am disappointed in her response.    When it is fairly obvious that Seth is talking about Public Libraries, her response is to refute by reminding that we also have academic, legal and special libraries.   That’s pretty weak.   The latter libraries serve a specific purpose and are available for a specific audience.   I would not expect Seth to have a beef with Academic libraries, unless he had a beef with academics in general (which might be the case, but it’s kind of a different story).    Public Libraries have to stand on their own two feet, thank you.     We need to comfortably explain what we do in very specific terms.   We have to envision a future of service that meshes with reality.

For instance, Seth speak in particular about offering DVDs for rental and how this is a fairly uninspiring use for public libraries.    It’s a bit of a sham argument, actually because it offers flawed anecdotal evidence.   DVDs may circulate more often than other items, true, but they also have shorter borrowing times (they used to have 1/7 the allowed borrowing time at MPOW;  we just changed that to 1/3.) and tend to have larger fines when they are late.    In short, by nature every DVD we circulate will have the opportunity to be borrowed 7 times before a book gets returned.   Not to mention that DVDs tend to be on hold, so they are un-renewable, and so-on.

DVDs also act as a catalyst for other library uses.   It’s plain good old fashion solid business practice, like offering a coupon for Prime Rib Roast knowing that people will also pay full price for the horseradish, potatoes and string beans to go with it.   And, well, some of those DVDs are the popular renditions of Pride and Prejudice, and The Lord of the Rings trilogy and encourage reading (re-reading, even) just as well.

But enough about DVDs – we need to talk about the future of libraries.

Part of the problem is that a public library is not specifically about individuals, but a learning community.   Take, for example, the idea that we could just buy everyone a Kindle and be done with libraries.   At this time, the Kindle offers a selection of about 336,000 books.   As an individual, that is a huge collection of books to choose from, and almost certainly bound to improve my learning.   On a community level, 336,000 books is dismal.   We do not want or need a community that reads the same 336,000 books, and probably the same 336,000 books that will be yammered on about in the usual channels.    Maybe Amazon will fulfill this important community knowledge diversification need in the future, but I would suggest that they have no incentive to do so.   On some scale, for a good 25 years at least IMHO, communities will need to share their resources in an organized way for the interest of the community.   Some libraries will fulfill this need very well.   Others will not.   The former will succeed and flourish; the latter will die a slow and painful death (until another model emerges from the ashes).

(Notice that I haven’t brought up the many other issues with things Kindle-ish, like Jessamyn West has previously.)

In other words, this one idea about libraries (which covers about 50% of library work, I would say), while admittedly declining, still has a fairly good shelf-life on it.   I would also remind that no librarian in the 21st century is advocating for a faster horse here.   Public libraries are dropping those reference books like they were no tomorrow.   They’re also getting rid of those old books that no one is borrowing too.   Public Libraries are no archives.    We don’t keep artifacts on any large scale (although it’s a bit of a political thing to admit that we do actually throw books away when they’ve had their time.)

I haven’t brought up the plethora of other things that libraries can, have and continue to do.   For one (shameless self promotion) MPOW is hosting Podcamp Halifax, which (i think) strives to do precisely what Seth suggests is the right thing:  Train People to Take Intellectual Initiative.    Except it’s not really training.   It’s better.  It’s providing space, moments-in-time and opportunities for people to gather and train themselves.   Actually, training is not even the right word.    When a space is designed right, the learning is self-organized.   Learning is a natural human behavior, provided that barriers don’t get in the way.   Oh hell – Angela Mombourquette explains it all much better than I do.   In short, we need more unconferences in communities and public libraries are one avenue to help make sure these happen.

And you know what?   I’ve been talking about this for years.    My very first post (July 2006) is an interesting look at how to help people take intellectual initiative.    Not too long after that, I was talking about Open Space and The Law of Two Feet.   The way I see the future of public libraries then and now is still the same and Seth pretty much hits the nail on the [side of the] head.   It’s not about training.   The public, as a rule, doesn’t want training per se.   They would go to school for that stuff.   What they want are places to learn.    Places that have, among other things, DVDs to borrow.   (It’s always nice to bring a little bit of library home with you. )  Places with a little bit of friendly nudging to keep you motivated about learning.   Sometimes with a bit of facilitation.   Sometimes with a bit of structure.   Other times but just leaving them the heck alone to read in a nice quiet spot.   No one is filling this niche right now on any grand scale.    It’s a market failure.    That’s why we need public funds to fill it.   For now and into the future.

Finally, this article needs a shout out because Erin Downey speaks my mind about information and learning as well.

Michael Jackson and 5 Other Things I Do Not Care About

I love the man’s music. I have deepest sympathies for the family, especially his kids. But that’s where it ends for me. Michael Jackson’s death is a personal matter for those close to him. I really wish the media and all his so-called ‘fans’ would butt out — like one of the characters in Gates of Heaven (one of my favorite movies) says, “Death is for the Living.”

People appear to want to draw attention to so many things that I believe should be low on the totem pole of attention.   We have such short lives, why is it that we want to spend large quantities of it worrying about what Paris Hilton and Brittney Spears are wearing (or not wearing)?   It all makes me want to be more concious about what matters and in turn, to be concious about what does not matter.   Here is my list of things I am conciously deciding not to worry about.

Domestic Poverty

Domestic poverty is off my list for two reasons:   1)  I’d rather focus my attention on World Poverty and 2) Domestic Poverty is really a symptom of other equity issues such as support for mental health, access to child care, and equity, especially for those with disabilities.   In my view, Canada is a country with tonnes of opportunity, and sufficient infrastructure to ensure that a population will not starve.   This does not mean I will not donate to organizations like Feed Nova Scotia, but it does mean that my ears will shut off if you are trying to lobby on a platform of poverty.

Preserving Heritage

The key to this statement is preserving heritage.   I think heritage is important, but because it represents a living, breathing entity – not because it is old and needs to be protected.    What I value about my elders is not that they old, but that they have a story to tell.   Some things are historically valuable and need to be preserved, sure – but certainly not everything, and absolutely not everything at the expense of a living, breathing city environment.   Librarians know all too well that an old rusty copy of War and Peace will do nothing to protect the value of Leo Tolstoy’s work.    A new, fresh, exciting-looking copy will have people reading and re-reading the book —  that’s the way you protect heritage, by helping people re-live the past.    That means you weed the old and replace it with new.


Don’t get me wrong.  I would never spy or harrass others or want to be spied or harrassed.   Nor would I ever breach a confidentiality policy of any employer I may work for past, present or future.   But, I feel that the wholesale protection of privacy is costing us immensely in terms of service, and therefore I am just not going to pay much attention to this issue.   The lack of progress in a wide range of services in the name of privacy is astounding, and I’m sure that an audit of government would show a huge amount of time and money wasted to prevent that one case where someone discovers prematurely that their wife or husband wants a divorce, or that their young daughter or son is using birth control.   So much of this information is already available on the web if someone wants to look for it anyway – I do not think we can pretend we have private lives for much longer.

Funding for Elite Sports

OMG!   Another country might have more medals than us at the olympics!  How will the next Sydney Crosby thrive if we do not put ourselves into massive debt to provide special facilities for sports?   “Who cares?” is what I say.

What I see in a good amount of even semi-elite sports is not pretty.   The level of single-minded “win at all costs and blame the ref when you don’t” attitude in many sports is astounding.   The things that mattered to the originators of the Olympic Games concept have been pushed aside.   Remember words and phrases like “sportsmanship?” “sound mind, sound body?” and how sports was tied to education?   That seems all out the window in favor of money-making.   I don’t believe in sports anymore.  It used to be an opportunity to think about myself as a better person, now it is a crass illusion that parallels rather than promotes “success.”    There are exceptions, where sports figures are respected for both mind and body (Steve Nash comes to mind), but that’s the exception and not the rule in my view.

“We Need More Funding For. . .”

Just the general premise that we will only solve problem x if our governments make problem x a priority and provide it with funds is just not going to resonate strongly for me.   I believe in some of the work that John McKnight has done around asset-based community development, and agree with the general position that professionals invent problems and issues inside communities that they can solve and then use the community’s funds to solve those problems when the community had the ability to cope with those issues all along.

Here is a librarian example.  A librarian does a study on university students searching only to discover what is the most obvious thing:  university students are not the same as librarians!   That is, students do not automatically use boolean operators or advanced searches to find materials for their research.   Said librarian then uses this information to justify training sessions (ie. hire more librarians) so university students can become more like librarians.   The thing the librarian does not ponder is whether university students need to behave like librarians to be successful at their research; nor does he/she consider the impact of increase education costs (caused in part through funds spent on librarians) on that student’s capacity to learn how to research more effectively.

In short, I really dislike any movement  that blindly asks governments to give organizations more money.   I do not think professionals do it on purpose, but it is a really bad habit that I see over and over again.      Communities need resourcefulness from their not-for-profits, not funding.    And most importantly, communities need not-for-profits that shine the light on what communities already do well, so they can encourage these behaviors.

Well, that’s my list of things I am going to conciously not spend anymore attention on.     What is your list of non-issues in your view?    Am I unfairly representing any of these issues?

Sustainability and Libraries: Is Anyone Challenging Our Assumptions about Digitization?

Among the best things about conferences (besides karaoke, right Greg?) are hearing ideas from people you had not previously met.   One of the memorable conversations I had was with Sarah Cohen about whether libraries were really on board with the what, whys and hows regarding sustainability.  I think we came to the conclusion that libraries & librarians abiding by what others say about sustainability is no longer enough.   We need to be leading, particularly in those areas where we have expertise.

This has been on my mind since about the time I presented at the Information Without Borders conference put on by the School of Information Management students at Dalhousie University (yes, students were crazy enough to put on a whole dang conference while they were struggling through their umpteen gazillion pages of assignments on their plate).  I spoke alongside Stephen Abrams and Mark Leggott (I have the text of my speech “The Triple Bottom Line and Digital Technology” in a Google document) about digitization and we had a discussion about whether libraries can be managed entirely as an open-source shop.  Factors such as the long-term possibility of wide-range collaboration among libraries, monetary sustainability, the feasibility of licenses, the role that librarians play in making opac apis a mess to create and/or use and so on were all discussed.

The Triple Bottom Line and Libraries

One of the things I introduced to the discussion was something I learned while taking an MBA course in strategic management:  the triple-bottom line.   The Triple Bottom Line (TBL) is a way of measuring performance that takes the environment and social responsibility into account to go along with economic success.   When I asked the audience whether the TBL was discussed during the conference about sustainability, it hadn’t been.   And that was part of my complaint — while businesses are almost obsessed about arguments (to or fro) about the TBL, libraries are nearly silent.  Maybe we just assume that we are socially and environmentally friendly because we are librarians?   That’s a really big mistake in my view.

Also in that MBA class, I remembering discussing a case about Nike and the issue of sweatshops.   There were a number of important things mentioned, but some of the biggies included:

  • on the way to normal operations, and with almost entirely good intentions, any organization can find itself doing outrageous harm.
  • top managers in big corporations obsess about social corporate responsibility.
  • justice matters to people.  That includes customers, staff and other organizations.
  • even private business depends on tax-payer dollars (libraries almost certainly do as well).   We need to respect the community that creates an environment for safe, sustainable business to happen.

In my view, libraries try their best to show their success in circulation numbers, reference stats and customer comments.   Do we think about measures in other ways as well?   How do we go about measuring, say, environmental responsibility?   Well, my personal view on this is that if we really cared about the environment we would have had the measures a long time ago.   The lack of benchmarking infrastructure is a sure sign of us falling down on this apparatus.

What Librarians Need Besides a Kick in the Pants

Looking at what I see in the library world, to be leaders where sustainability is concerned we need:

  • Research : the most challenging part of the sustainability equation is complexity.   Where we once may have thought we could categorize certain products or activities as “bad” or “good” for the environment, we no longer can make these assumptions.   Sure, making a book available digitally does increase access to that book, but what about the energy expended in managing servers?   How about the fact that everyone needs a computer in their home and a good amount of space to go with it?   What does a digitized world mean to our life decisions like where we choose to live, the products and services we buy, and the amount of “stuff” we do to live in this kind of world?   Librarians should be asking some big questions here and finding empirical data to find answers.   What does a digitized world mean for real human beings?   How does gaming in libraries effect communities outside the library?  
  •  Benchmarks :  I covered this earlier, but a framework needs to be developed so that libraries can account for outcomes besides mere counts of books read.    What about fuel & energy consumption?  Does your library board get to see the usage trends for gas and electricity?   What about paper consumption?   What about surveys of customer travel over time?   Are our libraries located in the right space to encourage sustainable transport behaviors?
  • Innovation:   Web 2.0 is not the only area where we can be innovative, although sometimes that seems to be the only way libraries can show themselves as “up-to-date.”   How about outdoors activities at your library?   Where’s the section on sustainability and community in the library success wiki? (Note how technology takes up a huge section of the front page).
  • Partnerships :  Libraries absolutely need to understand that their days of pwning the information world are over.   We never could store and maintain the whole of the world’s knowledge and we definitely cannot do it now in a Web 2.0 world.   Our ability to do our job will depend on the work of other organizations — hospitals, universities, large corporations, small business, not-for-profits, web 2.0 services, entrepreneurial individuals — you name it.   Library 2.0, if it exists at all, includes a trust in the non-library world to do library-ish things for themselves and others — with or without our help.  If a service, individual or whatnot is getting people to information in ways that we cannot (think of, say, LibraryThing), then we should be standing beside those folks and clapping hard.   Then we should be inspired to innovate on our own.

In the end, despite all the fun we see going on in the Web 2.0, we need to see ourselves as part of a machine that needs not to kill the environment or marginalize social groups to do what we think is important.   I also think that the burden of proof sits with us — we need to prove we are not doing harm, rather than having someone prove that we are — if we are going to make claims about how important we are to the community, democracy, freedom, happiness or whatever other big philosophic abstract we want to apply to ourselves.