digital literacy

'Assume that discovery happens elsewhere, and focus on fulfilment'

An observatory, and lots of pretty stars I came across the phrase in the title when browsing through Tony Hirst’s review of the Arcadia project from a couple of years back. (You can read the review here, in PDF format. The Arcadia Project is a programme looking at the role of the academic library in the digital age – you can read more about Arcadia here.)

The sentiment is one every right-thinking information professional will now be familiar with, but I’ve never seen it encapsulated quite so perfectly. It is an eloquent riposte to those who believe we should still be clinging on to an anti-Google or anti-Wikipedia stance, rather than embracing as ‘let us help you with that’ mentality.

In fact, I think you could adapt it to ‘Assume that discovery happens everywhere, and focus on fulfilment’ and you have a mantra for all of libraries going forward, a subtle repositioning to better deal with all the “asynchronous and asymmetrical threats” (Stephen Abram) we face in the modern age. We are the service, rather than the container.

- thewikiman

Spoon feed them, then give them the spoon, then chuck away the spoon

I seem to have a different view to a lot of information professionals in that I'm all for spoon-feeding. It's a loaded term - I'm actually all for the process it involves, rather than the philosophy it evokes. Above all, I think libraries are there to provide information and we should do this in as straightforward a manner as possible. Crucially, I think we can spoon-feed the students AND give them the skills they need to ditch the spoon entirely over time. Big old spoon

(There's an on-going debate in academic librarianship about spoon-feeding - should we give students all the help they need and make things as easy as possible, or should we be looking to educate them so they can fend for themselves? For example, providing digitised materials via the VLE - many people object to this, because if the reading is put on a plate for them, how will the students learn to find good quality literature? Etc. Simon Barron wrote a very thoughtful post on the subject yesterday, and linked in the comments are other bloggers' views on the same subject: Jo Alcock, Georgina Hardy and Sian Blake.)

Ideally, though, spoon-feeding should be the first step in a structured approach to helping students navigate their way through a degree, with the library embedded and responsive at all stages. I'm all too aware of where the phrase derives from because I have a 17-month-old daughter (or "17 month-yearold" as I always seem to call her) - we feed her with a spoon. We also give her a spoon of her own so she can feed herself. We're just starting to get rid of the spoon, and let her loose on a fork. The point being, spoon-feeding isn't a directive or a philosophy or an way-of-life, it's a stage - just as it should be with information in education.

She absolutely had to be spoon-fed at first because she couldn't feed herself - it was spoon-feed or no food at all. This is analogous for undergrads, for me - I think we underestimate how stark the change is from school and Further Education to Higher Education, and they have a LOT to adjust to in their first term without the library contributing to their problems as part of some misguided belief that it's for 'their own good'. If possible, we should be digitising all the core readings for undergrad modules, and putting them in the VLE, so that the students definitely get to read what they need to read. This allows them to participate fully in their lectures and seminars, which is more important than their level of information literacy at this stage. I used to run a digitisation service that did this, and the lecturers loved it because it allowed them to teach in the knowledge that EVERYONE had done the reading - without it, there were always people who couldn't get hold of the book in the library in time.

One department had a pedagogical objection to the digitisation programme and didn't use it - they said this wasn't preparing the students for real life because they didn't have to come to the library, learn to use the catalogue, find books on the shelves etc. But of course, real life isn't like that - real life is using Google because in 99% of cases that's perfectly adequate. I liked this quote from Georgina Hardy:

We must be very careful not to value process above principles.  Because, let’s face it, the skills of getting good results from a Library Catalogue, remembering to reserve books over a month in advance in order to photocopy a single chapter, and negotiating a complicated, publisher-specific, multi-stage login procedure to access journals from off-campus are skills only useful to those students who wish to go on to become Librarians.

Or, indeed, researchers / academics...

Once students get past the crazyness of their first couple of terms, that's when we can start trying to help them develop the skills to find stuff for themselves. I'm currently looking after English at my institution, and I really like the approach of one of the lecturers - she's requested that the core readings be digitised, but she's got me in to do a workshop (or 7 workshops, actually...) in the second term all about how to find secondary readings, via e-journals, Google Scholar and so on. This is just right, for me - give the students what they need to function, AND teach them how to get stuff for themselves. It doesn't have to be one or the other - spoon-feed whilst teaching them to use the spoon is surely the way forward?

Ideally the library shouldn't be only involved in teaching at the start and the end of the degree. This is often how it works - we do loads of stuff during induction (literally week 1 of their academic lives!) and then get parachuted in at the end to provide much needed aid on the eve of exams or dissertations. Ideally, we'd do some stuff in the 2nd year - guiding their hand as they use the spoon themselves - and again at the start of their 3rd year - getting rid of the spoon and giving them the skills they need to find food for themselves from any number of sources. This 2nd and 3rd year intervention should be based on the level the students have reached, and the needs they have then.

This way, we get to be helpful in the way students actually want (and in the way that will ensure good NSS scores which is, of course, The Only Thing That Matters In HE) and will expect for their 9k a year, and we get to teach them to help themselves in the way they actually need in the long-term. Quite apart from anything else, if the students are getting what they perceive as a good service from us (i.e. we have the provision they need to help them study, so they spend their time studying rather than searching for materials) they'll be more receptive to our instruction about info/digital/all-the-other literacies later.

Spoon-feeding is a useful service to provide, at the beginning of the student lifecycle; we shouldn't eschew it entirely just because we want to teach them to fend for themselves later on.

- thewikiman


How would you behave if Privacy didn't exist?

Picture of a padlock

A lot of the prominent stories recently emanating from our world, and the wider world, are linked by the subject of Privacy. It runs like a vein through so many contemporary stories, that I wonder if people will look back on the years around the turn of this decade as a tipping point for privacy. Perhaps we're about to go one of two ways - a future in which nothing is really private, or something a little more Orwellian where privacy is shut down, globally, off the back of Bush-administration style rhetoric about 'national security'.

Sometimes, the privacy stories directly intersect with library stories (such as the controversy around the Library of Congress's handling of the wikileaks saga), but even when they don't, it's all relevant. Privacy is about access to information, and we are the Information Professionals.

The big stories

Many of the biggest stories at the moment are privacy related. The phone-hacking scandal currently rocking the Murdoch empire, for example. Of course Wikileaks is the most obvious one - there are many levels of privacy involved here. People were doing or saying things they thought were private, which were recorded by third parties who in turn thought this would be kept private. Then along comes a whistle-blower who makes the information available to a website, who in turn make it available to the world. For the most part the information only has value because of some distinctly librarian-like intervention between the data being leaked, and we the public ingesting it. 300,000 files on a memory stick is pretty useless on its own - hours and hours of collating, sorting, curating and research, in this case by journalists, give the information the accessibility it needs to be communicable to a large audience. Information overload is also a factor here - absolutely incredible stories, scoops of the year in their own right at any other time, get down-graded because of their proximity to so many other high-interest pieces of information. We become immunised to scandal when we get too much of it at one time.

It is interesting to think how much revelatory material is currently waiting to be unearthed, once someone has done the research to make it viable for public release. It is interesting to wonder how diplomacy will work in the future, if everyone knows that everything they say may one day be read in the paper by you or I.

Recent events in Egypt have taken in Privacy related elements too. The Government wanted privacy; they didn't want easy communication between the people and the outside world, regarding the week-long protests that have been happening in Cairo and elsewhere.  So they turned off the internet.

Surely these two examples show the two ways this could go? Everyone knowing everything, or no one being allowed to communicate anything.

The logistics of leaking

As the excellent Guardian Week in Review podcast pointed out, it is very easy to breach privacy these days. Wikileaks gets hold of 300,000 files at a time - can you imagine trying to carry that many pieces of paper out of a building, at all, let alone covertly? You'd need a lorry parked outside, for a start. Electronic data transfer facilitates leaks - you send things across the ether, or you can save them onto a memory stick the size of your thumb.

Not only that but technology tends to become smaller as it gets more advanced, and so a: more discrete and b: more ubiquitous because you can fit it into more stuff. An absolutely extraordinary number of people own mobile phones – some estimates put the figure as high as 5 billion mobiles in circulation – and pretty much all of those being sold today have cameras and video cameras as standard now. This is technology which would have been super-spy territory a couple of decades ago - devices capable of recording anything, that can fit in your pocket, and that look like something else and give no indication they're recording? Everyone can create the news now.

Not only that, but we have plenty of technology at our finger tips which allows pretty much instantaneous dissemination of whatever we have to share.

The smaller stories

Many privacy stories come about simply because people act differently if they don't think they're accountable for their actions. If they don't think their private actions will become public, they don't attempt to filter their behaviour. When they do become public, the people have to apologise and show contrition - as if it was only the fact that their actions came to light publicly that somehow enlightened them as to the fact those actions were wrong.

The MPs expenses scandal is an example of this - they were comfortable with what they were doing, until the private actions came under public scrutiny, and then they were all suddenly aware of their moral failings and very sorry. The recent departures of Keys and Gray from Sky's football coverage is similar - they acted in a way they knew was inappropriate in the eyes of the public, only because they didn't think those eyes would ever see those actions.

We all do this. I'm glad Keys and Grey are gone, they were buffoons. Their comments were indicative of their misogyny, and unpleasantly bullying. But who hasn't said something privately that would get them into enormous trouble if it was made public? As a case in point, I played poker with some male friends on Friday night, and we spent much of the night satirising Gray and Keys, impersonating them and so on. But context is everything - if you were to see footage of our conversation with the context stripped away, it would be just six men sitting round a table drinking and making sexist remarks.

Our stories

This is relevant to us and to libraries and to information, for many reasons. Particularly the way we use Search Engines. Because we use them, for the first part, thinking we are doing so in private. Would we use them differently if we knew our actions would become public? As the experience of the recent Yahoo! leak shows, I think we would. It's not just that people use the internet to access the seedier side of human existence, it's that our whole lives can be pieced together from the questions we ask of Yahoo!, Google and the rest. Our hopes, our fears, our indiscretions, our health, our finances, our plans - our identity. Google is keen not to be evil now, but the information it has on us already will be around forever. Forever! Who knows what the next generation of owners / CEOs will do with it all.

Facebook is much more openly evil, and plays around with your privacy all the time. We all know this, but as Bobbi Newman pointed out to me, a large percentage of its half-billion-plus users (that's one in four internet users in the world) will not be fully aware of this or of its implications.

The future

How would you behave if privacy didn't exist? Most of us would behave differently, I think. Our private morality would be more closely aligned with our public morality. The tabloids who, happy in their own rank hypocrisy, crow about Gray's 'disgraceful' sexist comments about a female referee whilst simultaneously trying to objectify her in the accompanying out-of-context pictures of her at a nightclub, would not find it so easy to preach about what they so clearly don't practice themselves. But it occurs to me that if this IS a tipping point in privacy, then perhaps we're already happily revealing everything about ourselves, it's just that the information will be made public retrospectively.

So perhaps we should all start behaving as if privacy didn't exist now, to save embarrassment later..? In any case, the role of the Information Professional will surely be of increasing importance, in providing guidance and education, as the stakes associated with digital literacy, information literacy, transliteracy, grow ever higher.

- thewikiman

NB: Hilariously, since writing this piece this morning, and coming back to proof-read it and add the links this afternoon, I've since read a piece by Charlie Brooker in the Guardian this very day saying, in some cases, pretty much exactly the same thing - except more entertainingly... You can read his article here.