Notes on what I've been reading

Last week I launched a new newsletter – Libraries & Learning Links of the Week. You can subscribe to that via email, RSS, or Mastodon just like Marginalia! LLLotW will be links relating primarily to library learning services, OER, and library technology, and inevitably that means there will be a bit less of those topics here on Marginalia. Feel free to choose one of the other, or subscribe to both, depending on your interests.

Services run on processes

Anna-Sophia Zingarelli-Sweet

This month's first Marginalia actually features in last week's LLLotW.

That’s it. That’s the punch line and thesis statement of this post. Services run on processes.

Zingarelli-Sweet thinks through her experiences working for a retail store in many roles, and how the front of house services and “customer delight” always rely on robust and well-articulated processes. As a huge fan of documentation and formal process, this brief blog post spoke to me. “YES! THIS IS WHAT I'VE BEEN TRYING TO SAY!” I yelled to nobody in particular, in my head.

...even the best front-end public services talent in the world can’t deliver an excellent customer/patron experience without time and talent dedicated to the back-end. Without excellent processes, services will fail. Without excellent technical services, libraries will fail.

Anyway that's why I put it in two different newsletters, so spread the Good News about good and well-documented processes underpinning all good service.

I would prefer not to

Ellena Savage

Ellena Savage writes for Overland about the ideas of education, “good jobs”, and young people without a future under neoliberal capitalism. Perhaps I was taken by this article because my father, too, was a high school teacher – though it seems my father and I are a decade older.

Savage writes what is in some sense a “coming of age” story. Youthful innocence replaced with the knowledge of what the demand to live a life means under neoliberalism:

The problem was that, like capitalism, the trail of crumbs led nowhere in particular... Failure was in-built. Everyone failed, because there was nothing win.

Savage goes on to identify all the maladies afflicting every generation, more intensively the younger they are.

The pathologies are easy to name, because they're visible, yet the most common symptom has no clinical name, it's just some grim feeling between cynicism and despair.

Nearly everyone I know and take seriously exudes this feeling. It drives Doomerism, yet the desire to reject what seems to be our fate also drives a passion for life – quite a different life, perhaps, to that our parents hoped for.

Design lessons from guitar pedals

Clive Thompson

I was directed to this wonderful piece via Mita Williams' University of Winds

It's a celebration of physicality, clarity, and robustness in design, but also of a deep understanding of context. Guitar pedals are designed to be stepped on, and used in the dark – they have to be ruggedly built, and simple to 'read'.

There’s something existentially thrilling about using a piece of electronics that you’re not worried about breaking. In a world where our digital gear has become increasingly delicate and thin — and increasingly crafted from glass, for god’s sake — a guitar pedal’s ruggedness makes you bold. You want to use it, enthusiastically and aggressively and often.

More tech should be that tough.

Waste not

Tynan Stewart

Here we learn about the “Lomi” – a countertop composting device selling for $499USD, plus subscription.

Stewart uses the Lomi to discuss the strangely sterile culture of Silicon Valley, obsessed with youth and growth, and terrified of anything suggesting death or decay.

Not composting so much as support for a particularly sterile vision of life untouched by decay yet somehow still blessed with renewal.

The aim is not to solve death for everyone but to rework it as a tool to intensify existing hierarchies, even beyond present disparities in human life expectancy.

To Stewart, the Lomi exemplifies the Silicon Valley bros' penchant for misunderstanding the world, its complexity, and what problems need to be solved. Indeed, the Lomi is such a good example of this because the making of compost can, in many ways, be seen as the antithesis of capitalist logics.

The point of composting is not simply that it produces a useful end result; it also forces one to slow down and participate in a cycle of transformation that is not driven by the capitalistic drive for efficiency and economic growth presently consuming the planet. Its pace is set by the organic process of decay, not the demands of profit.

I live in a small apartment so I understand the logistical difficulties of household composting in high-density cities. Those looking for reality-based solutions to this problem look – as my local council has – to communal action via giant municipal compost heaps. Ultimately the key problem with the Lomi is that it's an antiseptic individualistic solution to a communal need for things to rot.

The artisan farmers taking on Victoria's meat regulator

Mahmood Fazal

A bit of a change of pace for my last marginalia note this month. Background Briefing had a really interesting episode recently about how Primesafe's blanket approach to regulation and draconian enforcement has pushed Victoria's small meat producers out of business. I knew about this issue from connections in the organic and small-producer industry (I've visited the Jonai pig farm that features in the show), but hadn't really understood the background to why it is so difficult for small producers to find abattoirs. Mobile abattoirs would be less stressful for animals, make small and regenerative farms more financially viable, and quite likely result in better biosecurity, but as usual money and power politics are getting in the way of sensible food production and distribution practices. Worth a listen.

Until next time...

I managed to – perhaps predictably – get Covid at the VALA conference in June. Something more positive thing to come from the conference was Justin Kelly’s paper on using machine learning to describe photographs in the State Library of Victoria’s collections. Kelly resists the whizz bang cheerleading of many discussions of machine learning in library applications to take a sophisticated look at the ethical as well as technical consequences of using this technology.

Recently Craig Murdoch from AUT Library wrote a great short article about the open source tech AUT Library uses, and why. Murdoch makes the key point that the decision has very little to do with money (Open Source is not necessarily cheaper, nor necessarily more expensive), but rather with agency. Open Source and Free software can be bugfixed, extended, connected, or improved without having to wait for someone else to decide it should be done.

Christopher Allen has an interesting piece about intimacy, liminality, and technology. Allen explain the architectural concept of the “intimacy gradient” where more private spaces tend to be at the “back” and more pubic spaces to the “front”, with clearly defined transitions between them. Allen explores how this concept could be applied to online experiences and why it is so hard to create distinctive transitions between intimate and public space online.

In Logic Magazine, Will Luckman defends the irrational. Whilst positioned as an essay on the deficiencies of machine learning, Luckman’s piece goes well beyond that. It’s a commentary on the whole rationalist program – which includes of course things like all the various organisational tools used by librarians, archivists, museum curators, and so on. The point is not that we should stop using these, but rather that they must be constantly re-examined and amended by democratic processes:

When the options for human activity are reduced to a set of “optimal” choices made available through a machine-generated recommendation, other courses of action—and thus other possible future outcomes—are eliminated. We cannot allow this reduction to put limitations on the world in which we live. Instead, if these systems are to be salvaged, we have a responsibility to relentlessly interrogate who and what constitutes “data,” how it is made, what patterns we seek within it, and what we do with the insights that are surfaced. These questions must be put to the widest public forums available, and the decisions about how to respond must be made democratically. Then those questions must be asked again and again.

I can’t help thinking about this in relation to the increasingly loud calls within Librarianship for changes to standard classification systems and vocabularies, and the many people who are saying “nothing about us without us”, desiring to be subjects rather than objects.

Mita Williams shared this hilarious/useful talk by Nicky Case in her weekly email newsletter, and now I’m sharing it with you. Some people just want to see the world learn, so Nicky is here to tell you How to Explain Things Real Good.

Last up for this month is The Pandemic Was Office Culture and Middle Management's “God Is Dead” Moment by Ed Zitron (2021). I’m not a fan of writing about the Covid pandemic in the past tense (especially almost exactly one year ago!!!) and Zitron is very much talking about “information worker” industries. With those caveats, I think he’s pretty well right about modern office management culture. This certainly resonated:

The stigma of middle management is symptomatic of tying management to career progression rather than seeing management as both a skill and an organizational function, which is why so many awful managers exist.

Stay safe, be brave.

Sarah Lambert and Habiba Fadel’s final report for their national scoping study, Open Textbooks and Social Justice, has been released! This is a hugely important study that provides some really useful context and data for anyone interested in social justice, open education or – frankly – effective and accessible education. The key thing Lambert and Fadel do that is a little different to previous studies internationally is explicitly look at recognitive and representational justice in relation to OER. This really needs to be read by anyone who goes anywhere near academic liaison or library publishing roles.

Want to know whether that journal is scamming you? Introducing the Retraction Watch Hijacked Journal Checker! From Anna Albakina and Retraction Watch comes a new tool. Currently it’s simply a shared Google spreadsheet, but I can see this becoming part of a standard journal-choosing workflow pretty soon.

Alison Hicks has an interesting piece on the UK-based Information Literacy Group’s blog – A wealth of knowledge? Debt collectors, prison sentences and the implications for how we conceptualise, teach for, and assess information literacy. Hicks writes about the idea of “financial literacy” and how what it means depends to a large extent on the background and worldview of the person defining it:

assessing whether someone is literate or not is often a hugely subjective process that draws upon our own biases and culturally specific understandings related to what constitutes valid or appropriate ways of knowing rather than a broader appreciation of how local practices, tools and beliefs are used to negotiate literacy events and episodes.

The online advertising industry is at the heart of many of the worst aspects of modern society. As is often the case, Real Life has brought together all the pieces, this time to point out how dangerous ad tech has suddenly made the world for American women:

if advertisers could purportedly predict who was pregnant before, they may also be able to predict who is no longer pregnant or who still should be pregnant, and pass that information to whoever wants to pay for it, perhaps under the guise of merely wanting to show them an ad.

The big problem with the ubiquitous, all-pervasive data-sucking apparatus of the modern advertising industry (aka Google, Facebook, and the comet-tail of data companies that circle around them) is that it is impossible to function in most of the modern world without becoming ensnared in their tracking system:

Even Enemy of the State levels of tech paranoia, if they were sustainable and not patently unfair to those being driven to adopt them, would not be enough to stave off all the tentacles of the ad-tech apparatus. Such paranoia would, however, certainly make one a social pariah, which is a part of the predicament we're in.

Almost all our routine social practices and information-gathering methods rely on technology that is infested to the root with the worms and parasites of the ad-tech business, which is already fundamentally premised on deception and privacy violation — it “works” only to the extent that it overrides people's will.

Have I mentioned the Kunstbibliothek before here? It seems surprising that maybe I haven’t. This amazing art library takes library book RFID tagging to its logical conclusion:

The dynamic order of the Kunstbibliothek and the idea of arranging a library in a completely different way in general, namely based on personal research, resulted from Daniel Rohner’s personal approach to collecting books. When setting up his library, the book collector and cofounder of the foundation Daniel Rohner was in the habit of repeatedly distributing his books throughout the space, and grouping and stacking them in unexpected, but fascinating combinations. He always refused to arrange the books based on conventions for organizing libraries.

This approach to identifying the location of books using an RFID reading device facilitates inventory of the library at such frequent intervals that it is possible to speak of a continuous inventory. And it also makes the dynamic order of the books possible: in contrast to conventional libraries arranged based on call numbers labels, the books in the Kunstbibliothek have no fixed location; in principle, everyone may place the books randomly anywhere on the shelves. Thanks to the continuous inventory, every book can nevertheless be found at any time, since the location of the books is regularly updated in the catalogue.

I love this so much. No racist shelf numbering classifications! No book is ever in the wrong place! It also would make a fascinating study to chart how the book arrangement changes over time.

I’ve been a little distracted over the last month, so that’s all for now. Be well. Look after each other.

Authenticity and Information networks

One of my weekly joys is reading the latest email from Real Life magazine. Recently they explored (Real Results) the idea of “authenticity” online, and what commercial platforms mean by it.

“Real” is when you are not being intentional, when you are not selling something but are being sold to, when you are not active but passive, reacting rather than acting. Reddit posts are a resource only insofar as the posters aren’t trying to capitalize on them themselves but instead dutifully offer them up with a kind of ignorance or indifference about their commercial value. Only certain people can afford to be indifferent or ignorant like that, which biases the information in a subtler way.

Project Information Literacy interview Whitney Phillips and Ryan M. Milner in Thinking ecologically about our polluted information networks. Phillips and Milner describe what they call an “ecological understanding” of online information, encouraging us to think about what we believe to be misinformation, disinformation or hateful speech as “pollution”, sidestepping any need to determine the original intention of a given message, and thinking about the consequences of sharing:

An ecological understanding helps people shift from asking, “How do I protect myself from the lies and hate coming at me?” to asking, “How can I share in a way that protects others from a whole range of harms?” The shift emphasizes the consequences of our collective information footprint over the individual motivations behind individual posts…

…We want students to get the correlation between feeling better and sharing better; it’s as essential to media literacy as tracing sources and checking facts.


CAUL has published an Open Research Toolkit in the form of a LibGuide (what else?):

The Open Research Toolkit was created by the Open Research Working Group, comprising representatives of the Australasian Research Management Society (ARMS) and the Council of Australian University Librarians (CAUL). The Toolkit supports Australasian institutions to implement or further develop open research policy, strategy and practice.

The Toolkit contains information, resources and good practice examples related to all aspects of open research, including policy, governance, pathways and processes. It also includes resources for individual researchers interested in engaging in open research practices and training materials for support services fostering open research within their organisations.

The always-fascinating Shannon Mattern writes about tool kits in general for Toolshed in Unboxing the toolkit:

Kathryn Shroyer describes how we can “cognitively offload information into the environment through the organization of tools”; kits are a mechanism for distributed cognition.

Mattern writes about the history and meaning of toolkits, why we make them and why sometimes maybe we shouldn’t:

Especially given the proliferation of kits as methodological and political tools in design and development, we need to think about how kits are aesthetic objects that order and arrange things – and how those aesthetics are rhetorical and epistemological: they make an argument about “best practices,” about what matters, and about how we know things.

…A box full of surgical gloves and staplers isn’t going to thwart a persistent plague. In the face of sustained suffering, a kit is no substitute for robust, enduring, local, on-the-ground resources and expertise.

Power in the library

Finally, after decades of pretending that sites of neutral and objective knowledge creation and maintenance can exist, and that libraries are an enaction of this, suddenly everyone is talking about libraries as places of contested power.

It’s not that nobody ever questioned library practices before, but some combination of librarians increasingly disassociating their professional identities from the institutions they work for, and the across-the-board delegitimisation of governments and institutions more broadly, seems to be forcing some reckoning with the reality of power in libraries and librarianship.

In Shhh… What a library’s social character reveals about the logics and politics of source creation, Keiran Hegarty takes a sociologist’s view of libraries and archives and the “hidden work” that happens within them – or more to the point, used to happen within them, but now happens outside of them:

Now that the selection of library material is contingent as much on its accessibility as its content, contemporary library collecting can be used as a site to interrogate who or what exerts control over the cultural record. On a world wide web dominated by large commercial companies, access to web data is often contingent on the terms set by those companies. With this in mind, the lack of Facebook content in library collections can be read not as a gap in the historical record, but rather as evidence of contemporary struggles over data governance and Facebook’s refusal to allow access to data unless it is on the terms it stipulates.

Another kind of power struggle is that between workers and bosses. Last month the American Library Association recovered from their vocational awe and elected the socialist librarian running for President of the American Library Association, as Jacobin referred to Emily Drabinski. You love to see it.

This article is worth a read if you want to understand both why Drabinski won, and what might be in store for the ALA. But its this line that has stuck with me:

Libraries are at once immensely valuable and perhaps equally frivolous, because a life well lived doesn’t limit itself to useful things.

I really can’t think of a better way to describe what modern libraries are all about.

Another source of power in libraries is that of controlling the means of production, expression and use of the catalogue and the collection. With this in mind, Kat Cuttriss’s recent article for the CAUL/CAVAL Digital Dexterity blog about moving Massey University’s library management sytem to FOLIO is worth a read. It sounds like an interesting approach that was focussed more on learning from mistakes and experiments together than trying to perfect everything on the first go. How refreshing.

If you’re a librarian and haven’t yet read OCLC’s Reimagine Descriptive Workflows: A Community-informed Agenda for Reparative and Inclusive Descriptive Practice you really need to rectify that as soon as possible. You might be surprised to see me pushing an OCLC report, but I have no doubt that–despite obviously having gone through a few edits to tone it down a little–this report is destined to be an important trigger for libraries in the UK and the settler-colonial states it produced to start doing something–anything! – to fix our metadata and change how we approach resource description in a systematic way.

“But – what should we DO Hugh?”

I’m not a cataloguer, but Alissa McCulloch is, and she has some typically sensible and considered thoughts already, which she shared in Reimagining Australian descriptive workflows: where should we start? She also has this to say:

‘You all need to do something. You’ll fuck it up, and get it wrong, and need to fix things. But the worst thing you can do is to do nothing.’ I can’t remember where I heard Kirsten Thorpe say this—possibly relayed second-hand from someone else. But I think about it a lot. My well-meaning efforts might be misguided, I’ve undoubtedly made mistakes already, and I definitely don’t have all the answers, but at least I can stand up and say that I’m doing something. What will you do?

Let’s get on with it.

In Real Life magazine, M. R. Sauter writes about what we can learn from Sidewalk Labs’ Toronto project, Susan Sontag’s thoughts on photography, and the datafication of everyday life.

Proposed systems like Sidewalk Toronto’s ever-observing KOALA camera risk becoming self-referential and self-sustaining: images and the data derived from images, about images, and for images dominating the social, computational, and global spheres.

Barbara Fister writes for Project Info Lit about how information literacy is taught in US four-year college degrees, and the dangers she sees. In Australia we generally teach 3 year degrees without the ubiquity of the first year curriculum she describes, but many of Fister’s arguments are still relevant outside the States.

When information-seeking is cast as a matter of making personal choices or winning arguments, social responsibility can seem to be in conflict with self-interest (which, in late capitalism, has become the definition of “freedom”). That conflict is ripe for exploitation and in-group/out-group antagonism.

She also has important things to say about how we teach and manage search systems.

Privileging of simplicity and efficiency implies that if your search doesn’t lead to satisfying results quickly, you must be doing it wrong. In reality, authentic and open-ended research is messy and complex.

Meanwhile, Jill Barshay reports on a study that has some bad news for those of us hoping to rely on students’ own assessment of whether they learned anything from our teaching efforts. In short, “College students often don’t know when they’re learning”.

Real learning is hard work and it often doesn’t feel good. When you’re struggling to solve a problem in an active learning classroom, it may feel frustrating.  Making mistakes and getting feedback to correct misunderstandings is where the learning happens…

…“Sports and music instruction make this really clear,” McCarty said. “Watching [Roger] Federer play tennis can get you really excited about tennis, but it’s not going to make you a great tennis player.” 

The final thing I’d like to share this month is Masud Khokhar’s Tips for developing a successful work relationship with your new (Library) Director. Masud has some great advice here for anyone with a boss. My personal picks are “Do your homework”, and “Clarify expectations”.

Look after each other.


You may have forgotten about Marginalia. After issue 24, I had a rethink. One of my many personality flaws is a tendency towards snark and too-clever-by-half criticism. I try to suppress or redirect these energies, but when it came to Marginalia, I was failing. Indeed, this was part of the reason I stopped using Twitter, and that decision was partially what led to the newsletter in the first place: as a way to share articles and web tools I found interesting, outside of a Big Social account. So I paused it for a while.

I still think the original idea, however, was sound. So this is a Marginalia reboot. This time around, the intention is to make it a little more like Eleanor Colla’s Little Library(ish) Links – so not as much actual marginalia, but I will generally indicate why I think it’s worth sharing. Happy reading!

Why Three Perspectives? A human centred design approach to supporting digital dexterity: People, Design and Systems Thinking

The University of Wollongong Library geniuses have a really interesting approach to professional development, and a well resourced commitment to design thinking and user-centred design (led by the indomitable Kristy Newton). Here they explain what’s behind it and how it works.

Growing Open Educational Practice with OER grants

Another one from the Digital Dexterity blog, Angie Williamson writes about a trial of writing grants to incentivise academics to publish Open Educational Resources. This is a really important issue because academic incentives are weighted almost exclusively in favour of publishing in “highly ranked” journals, meaning academics are effectively punished for spending time creating high quality teaching materials.

You are not a patron. So act like it.

Mean Laura pointing out the obvious, but frequently forgotten or denied, point that addressing user needs requires listening to actual users.

The power of microinteractions: a guide for galleries, libraries, archives and museums

Artefacto with a really fantastic article about the magic that happens when you sweat the small stuff and focus on making key service moments joyful.

Same Old

In Real Life, Sun-Ha Hong writes about the static conservatism of so much science fiction when it comes to social relations.

In Marginalia 23 I mentioned Julia Reda’s GitHub Copilot is not infringing your copyright. Reda noted:

Those who argue that Copilot’s output is a derivative work of the training data may do so because they hope it will place those outputs under the licensing terms of the GPL. But the unpleasant side effect of such an extension of copyright would be that all other AI-generated content would henceforth also be protected by copyright.

Well, the day has already arrived in relation to copyright’s close cousin, the patent. This is a blow against open society and democratic public affairs. In short: the people most likely to control the machine learning power capable of spitting out patentable “discoveries” are already rich. This legal precedent means they can simply buy some compute and further monopolise “innovation”. It’s certainly not going to incentivise any human creativity.

This story gets top billing in today’s Marginalia because it combines two strands that have been on my radar recently: technology monopolies, and machine learning aka “artificial intelligence”.

In The rise of community-owned monopolies, Konrad Hinsen writes “One question I have been thinking about in the context of reproducible research is this: Why is all stable software technology old, and all recent technology fragile?”

One response would be to point Hinsen to selection bias, and the (in)famous second world war “bullet holes in planes that returned to base” diagram. Old technology that is still around is likely to be still around because it is stable. New software could be expected to be unstable in part because it’s new. But this isn’t the whole story and he does have some interesting things to say about how even in an “open” and “free” project, a type of community monopoly can evolve:

While in theory Open Source is good for supporting diversity (“just fork the code and adapt it to your needs”), the reality of today’s major Open Source communities is exactly the opposite: a focus on “let’s all work together”. Combine this with the chronic lack of funding, and thus also a lack of incentives for developing the structured governance that would administrate funding and create activity reports, and you end up with large number of users depending on the work of a small number of inexperienced developers in precarious positions who cannot reasonably be expected to make an effort to even understand the needs of the user base at large.

Another line that caught my eye is “Standards-based markets can only form when there are multiple competing producers right from the start”. This is also true when there may have been competing producers at the start but for whatever reason there are fewer and fewer over time. Clear examples of this at the present are web browsers, where there are essentially three competing browser engines (Blink, WebKit, and Gecko), but Mozilla is so reliant on funding from Google/Alphabet that arguably there are only two independently funded endeavours. Web rendering engines are so complicated that there is no realistic opportunity for competitors, and the computing technology giants control the standards, so that’s not likely to change.

Rich Harris sounds the alarm on where this control has led with his post Stay Alert:

A short while ago, Chrome broke the web by disabling alert(), confirm() and prompt() dialogs from cross-origin iframes. The justification was that “the current UX is confusing, and has previously led to spoofs where sites pretend the message comes from Chrome or a different website”; removing the feature was deemed preferable to fixing the UX.

One may or may not agree with Harris’ stance on alert()but that’s not really the point. Chrome, and more importantly Blink (which also drives Microsoft’s Edge browser), has such a large market share that effectively what they decide determines where web technology goes. Even if you think they’re right this time, it’s extremely dangerous.

We also see this in library “science”, at least in the English speaking world. You’ve read me complaining about this before but why are the extremely weird and particular needs of the United States Congress used as the basis for both classification and controlled vocabularies in libraries across the United States, let alone those in the UK, Australia, and many others? Standards monopolisation.

Graham Lee provides an interesting take on how software develops and who gets left behind and why, in Majoring in versions. He also has some great and funny lines:

“Scripting language” does not actually mean anything. It is said by people who want to imply that a programming language is less worthy somehow because it is easier to use.

But beyond that, Lee provides a really great explanation of what has happened in Python with the migration from Python 2 to Python 3, and more importantly, the incredible complexities of trying to reach consensus in a community-managed software project used by literally millions of people (my emphasis in the below):

The last release of the 2.7 lineage was in April 2020, two decades after the first release, two decades after the discussions of py3k started, 14 years after the migration path was published, and 11 years after the release of version 3.

And people still felt that they had not had enough warning.

In fairness, some of them had not. They were not Pythonistas per se, they were computer users who happened to engage with Python when using a computer. Climate scientists, perhaps, who relied on their library vendors and their site administrators to keep everything ticking over. But they did not realise that their library vendors did not have funding for maintenance, and that their site administrators were relying on the operating system package maintainers.

The operating system package maintainers did not dare upgrade the default Python package, because that would break people’s scripts. Better to ship version 2 tomorrow so that everybody’s programs from yesterday carry on running.

Nobody was responsible for migrating to Python 3, so nobody did. It was not until 2.7, when people were finally told that this was the final release of Python 2, that these Pythonistas noticed the corner that they were painted into.

Ed Summers, in a much shorter post (Opinionated), covers some of the same ground:

Software always takes sides, and expresses opinions–and in fact often embodies multiple opinions in multiple arguments or controversies, rather than just one. The question is, do you understand the opinions it is expressing, and the decisions that are being made to express them? How can these decisions be negotiated as a group that includes the designers and users of the software?

So that was a bunch of reading about monopolies and sameness. My last few links are about splitting things into more discrete focuses – for better or for worse.

First up, two really cool things.

Brigham Young University wanted to analyse their chat logs to spot any issues with how they were responding to student queries or any patterns in terms of problems students were experiencing. The problem was that nine years of chat history was about 90,000 different transcripts. Enter machine learning. What I like about this project is (a) they did the analysis themselves with downloaded logs rather than some cloud service and (b) they shared exactly how they did it in an open access journal.

I have also been meaning to share this interesting podcast episode from What’s new? about The Women Writers Project:

Since the dawn of the printing press, women have written and published works of prose and poetry, and yet these texts have almost always received less attention than books written by men. In the early years of the internet, one project sought to redress this imbalance, and to make women writers not only more visible, but available for students and researchers to study in entirely new ways.

This project is basically the opposite of the chat analysis project – it uses humans to manually code text from nineteenth century women’s novels, allowing researchers to find links between texts, authors, and styles that would otherwise by missed. A fascinating metadata story.

Finally, there’s this garbage from Clarivate earlier in the year. In short, they’ve found a new way to artificially slice knowledge about the world into arbitrary categories. But allegedly it’s “bottom up” (though why this is “bottom up” rather than “top down” or “sideways in” for that matter isn’t really explained). Don’t get confused. There are no “responsible” research metrics. This is not about creating new knowledge or more “natural divisions” or any other marketing rubbish. This is about creating new “specialties” and therefore new journals and therefore new profit streams. In an interview with Emergence Magazine earlier this year Suzanne Simard talked about the way the academia-publishing complex conspires to reduce our understanding of how things are connected:

In academia, you get rewarded for the number of papers that you publish. They still count the number of papers. You get more money, you get more grants, you get more recognition, especially if you’re the lead author. Then you see, in areas like microbiology or even satellite imagery and remote sensing, if you can dissect your paper in these little bits and bites and publish these small ideas and have many, many, many papers, you’re much further ahead than writing that one big, seminal paper that integrates everything together, that’s going to be really hard to publish.

And so academics do. They put them in these little bite-sized pieces. I find myself doing it too. It’s how you can survive in that environment. And so it is a self-fulfilling system of always having these little bits of papers. It’s the antithesis of holistic work.

I’ve given you some bite sized pieces here, but hopefully it’s building a holistic work.

Barbara Fister recently published two windows into her thoughts on information literacy and the mis-information and dis-information economies. For a more general audience, I assume she didn’t choose the headline used by The AtlanticThe Librarian War Against QAnon. Of course, this is a topic that librarians have been working on well before the bizarre phenomenon of QAnon. On the Project Information Literacy website Fister provides a slightly different version of the same message (and Lizard People in the Library) is a much better title!

Fister leaves us with a lot to chew over:

As the historian of science Jacob Bronowski wrote in 1973, “There is no way of exchanging information that does not involve an act of judgement.” We’ve grown accustomed to many of those acts of judgement being made by algorithms that have a commercial goal in mind.

So how do we make those judgements? And who gets to make them? As has been noted elsewhere, conspiracy cults like QAnon are as much about feeling a sense of control as anything else. From Lizard People:

Those who spend their time in the library of the unreal have an abundance of something that is scarce in college classrooms: information agency. One of the powers they feel elites have tried to withhold from them is the ability to define what constitutes knowledge. They don’t simply distrust what the experts say, they distrust the social systems that create expertise. They take pleasure in claiming expertise for themselves, on their own terms.

But wait, what does Fister mean about classrooms lacking information agency? Isn’t education all about providing students with information..?

While school-based efforts to promote information literacy are typically tied to producing information (college papers, digital projects, PowerPoint slide decks), students are not as frequently invited to reflect on how information flows through and across platforms that shape and are shaped by participatory audiences and influencers. They aren’t learning much about how information systems (including radio, print journalism, academic and trade-book publishing, television, YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram) make choices about which messages to promote and how those choices intersect with political messaging and the social engineering of interest groups.

Fister makes this same point from The Librarian War a little more pithily back in Lizard People:

Too often what passes as information literacy continues to be instruction on how to satisfy the requirements of assignments that may explicitly forbid students from using information that doesn’t pass through traditional gatekeeping channels.

But this is all just one librarian’s opinion, right? Well, a group from the Stanford History Education Group really put the boot in to typical university library information literacy training in an October 2020 working paper Educating for Misunderstanding: How Approaches to Teaching Digital Literacy Make Students Susceptible to Scammers, Rogues, Bad Actors, and Hate Mongers.

Based on a study of 263 students but also reflecting on the typical instruction by libraries across North America (Australian academic libraries have a broadly similar approach), this paper has some alarming results, but insightful observations. Students struggled to identify problems with the sources of online information in the study, but the Stanford researchers quickly realised that this was at the very least partially due to the very techniques for assessing information sources they had learned from librarians. The much-maligned and much-relied-upon “CRAAP test” comes in for particular criticism, but it is just one of many long-standing techniques that come under the SHEG blowtorch. This is compulsory reading for all academic librarians and indeed anyone interested in information literacy.

And speaking of standard practice in academia that is self-defeating, Utrecht University has formally abandoned “impact factor” in assessments of researcher performance. I will leave it for readers to decide what rating on the ironometer this gets for being published in the Nature blog.

Oh, irony? How many of the references in Niamh Quigley’s thesis on Open Access do you think were paywalled?

Well we’re a way into this edition of Marginalia and I still haven’t mentioned the robot art or the software gardening. So here goes. ABC Science asked a new kind of AI art tool to make 'paintings' of Australia. They’re weird, but perhaps not as weird as you might expect.

“These programs have only existed since January,” [Katherine Crowson] said.

“We're not even a full 12 months into their existence and we already have art critics going around making sure everyone understands they're not to be considered 'real art'.

“Of course, this is about the surest possible sign something has become real art.”

Meanwhile, Seb Chan of ACMI is Opening a conversation on ‘soft tech infrastructure as community garden’:

As Dan Hill pointed out in his talk in the same session, gardens can be planned but not ‘controlled’. Gardeners ‘tend’ to gardens rather than ‘manage’ them. It helps that the relationship between gardens and gardeners is much more widely culturally understood than that between software systems and programmers. With gardens comes an explicit understanding of the need for continuous care and maintenance — this is the tending, and of lifecycles and evolution. A garden is understood to never stay still.

But how on earth are you supposed to make sense of all this? 3Blue1Brown has a great introductory video on neural networks which might help you to understand how the “robot art” works. And Loleen Berdahl tells us How to assess shiny new ideas and invitations on her Academia made easier Substack. It’s a useful little tool for next time you need to check whether the new thing you just heard about is really what you should focus on, or you’re just procrastinating.

I’ve missed a few weeks of Marginalia – sorry about that.

Regular correspondents will be familiar with my views on the invisible work of systems maintenance in libraries. Sorry but it can never be said too much. Here’s Danielle saying it again:

In my 10 years in libraries there’s been a definite move toward vendor supplied solutions for most library systems. And while there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, it’s given libraries the false belief that systems just run themselves. It’s hidden the complexities of technology and the work of keeping them running.

Under the circumstances, it’s no wonder libraries are addicted to the bright and shiny things that get them good publicity and make them popular with funders. But what is often forgotten is that for libraries to do the showy things they need good systems and librarians who can make that happen.

She wrong of course about there being “nothing inherently wrong with that”, but everything else is right 😆

MPOW has just announced a long-anticipated restructure that will ultimately end with 200 people seeking new opportunities. The driver is a sea of red ink in the financial books triggered by Australia’s international student market suddenly closing at the beginning of the COVID pandemic, but there’s been plenty of rhetoric about automation and efficiency. When the filing cabinet was invented, it too was going to make everyone more efficient:

Now, in the early 21st century, the file cabinet is associated with inefficiency. No longer an exemplar of productivity, rationalization, and speed, it instead represents our collective failure to save time and optimize labor. A file cabinet’s storage capacity now embodies the facility of bureaucracies — impersonal and procedure-oriented — to produce paper, to delay, to leave us waiting.

Hmm, maybe not. Craig Robertson’s The Filing Cabinet, from Places journal, does however provide a fascinating history of this ubiquitous office technology. A seemingly simple piece of furniture (though never described as such), the filing cabinet popularised a dangerous idea that we in the “information sciences” have swallowed greedily:

The filing cabinet contributed to the rise of a popular nontechnical understanding of information as something discrete and specific. Critically, it illustrates the moment in which information gained an identity separate from knowledge, an instrumental identity critical to its accessibility... In this historical period, filing technology provided a conceptual gateway for understanding information as a thing that could be standardized, atomized, and stripped of context — information as a universal and impersonal quantity.

Of course, now physical filing cabinets have become rare. Some large government bureaucracies still actively use them, but most organisations migrated their filing practices to computers – which to a large degree still merely replicate the logic of filing cabinets and the files they housed. Still, computers have made work life easier for everyone, right? Alas:

Initially promoted as a kind of personal assistant, the proliferation of computers meant that many high-level white-collar workers no longer had somebody else to do their clerical chores.

Laine Nooney picks up the story in VICE, with How the Personal Computer Broke the Human Body which at the time of writing is returning a 404, but hopefully VICE will pay their web storage bill soon. With the introduction of PCs into offices

Work became a process of filling in blanks; there was no longer anywhere for the clerks to experience decision-making in their jobs. …As intellectual engagement with the work went down, the necessity of concentration and attention went up. What the computer did was make the work so routine, so boring, so mindless, clerical workers had to physically exert themselves to be able to focus on what they were even doing.

Probably not since the automobile has there been a technology that is so insistently reorganized how we use our bodies in day-to-day practice—and the long arc of these transformations are still being played out.

Don’t forget to get up every 20 minutes and stretch.

With a history like this, it’s hardly surprising that Jackie Brown and Philippe Mesly write, in Real Life, that

when social change is framed primarily in terms of choice of technology, the debate necessarily centers the activity level of a productivist society, not a paradigm shift from growth to wellbeing.

Any technology we adopt should be both appropriate to the world as it exists and to the future we desire.

Brown and Mesly’s article explores what E. F. Schumacher’s ideas on “appropriate technology” tell us nearly five decades after his famous book Small is Beautiful. It’s a complicated story, and as usual not as straightforward as either his supporters or his detractors have expected. A couple of years ago Os Keyes, Josephine Hoy and Margaret Drouhard wrote a fantastic paper on Human-Computer Interaction called Human-Computer Insurrection: Notes on an Anarchist HCI. Their paper is a nice primer for anarchism as much as for HCI, and one of things I most like about it is the plain, jargon-free language it uses.

In the long term, there are other ways of running things. Our concern is not organisation but who gets to define the terms under which things are organised, and how consensual participation in and departure from systems is: with autonomy and decentralisation. Rather than an absence of technologies, we are talking about technologies built in a way that centres the communities using them and avoids reserving for some third party the powers to modify, adapt, and repair; about design processes in which the members of that community are treated not as participants but as accomplices.

So let’s look at a couple of tech projects that have been in the news, and the terms under which things are organised. Last year (I think? It was probably longer than that but pandemic-time is confusing), the machine learning model GPT-3 was all over the news. Ed Summers shared some thoughts about it in February:

GPT-3 is an example of an extraction project that has been underway at large Internet companies for some time. I think the critique of these corporations has often been confined to seeing them in terms of surveillance capitalism rather than in terms of raw resource extraction, or the primitive accumulation of capital. The behavioral indicators of who clicked on what are certainly valuable, but GPT-3 and sister projects like CommonCrawl shows just the accumulation of data with modest amounts of metadata can be extremely valuable.

In the last couple of weeks I’ve seen a lot of comments about Microsoft’s new beta product GitHub Copilot, and the observation that it too is an example of “primitive accumulation of capital” or what normal people call “stealing”. But the smartest take I’ve seen, and one that has rightfully gained a lot of eyeballs, is Julia Reda’s GitHub Copilot is not infringing your copyright. Reda notes that many Open Software advocates are concerned that CoPilot uses software published under the General Public License (GPL) as source material, yet CoPilot itself is a closed-source subscription service, which they claim violates the GPL.

Those who argue that Copilot’s output is a derivative work of the training data may do so because they hope it will place those outputs under the licensing terms of the GPL. But the unpleasant side effect of such an extension of copyright would be that all other AI-generated content would henceforth also be protected by copyright.

If we return to the point our anarchist HCI experts made, it should be obvious that the problem not CoPilot, nor even Microsoft using GPL-licensed works as training data. The problem is that gigantic monopolistic billion-dollar corporations are allowed to exist. “Copyleft” licenses are a clever hack, but I’ve always had a concern about the way many Free Software advocates centre their rights as individuals in discussions around freedom. Defending individual rights against copying by a corporate titan chooses the wrong battlefield, even if it’s the right enemy.

On a light note, there’s a beautiful community project that combines all the the things I’ve been writing about above – tech giants, bureaucracy, volunteer-driven tech projects. Mitch Anzuoni’s True Fans Translate: Fansubbing BookStory explains how he recruited a community of translators, using a Google Sheet, an old version of Visual Basic and a lot of spare time to create an English translation of an old Japanese computer game where you play as a book store manager.

Finally, if you liked Lim, Hellard and Aitken’s classic 2005 paper The case of the disappearing teaspoons: longitudinal cohort study of the displacement of teaspoons in an Australian research institute, you’re going to love Confronting Indifference Toward Truth: Dealing With Workplace Bullshit. Not only is this a paper with a fun name, it actually does provide really useful suggestions for dealing with the problem (as well as demarcating the important distinction between liars and bullshitters).

Happy reading 😀

This week I have some stories to share about the simplicity of complexity, the fragility of simplicity, and how the very best infrastructure is invisible. Some of this stuff has been sitting around in my “marginalia” file waiting for the right context. Some of it I read this week.

Sabu Kohso writes a letter to The New Inquiry:

For most of us across the world, with the expectation of a worsening pandemic, ongoing oppression, and other disasters, future prospects are dark, yet strangely exhilarating for their unknown character. We are immersed in mixed feelings – between the apocalypse of the world’s end and the aspiration for a possible planetary revolution. Overlapping them lies another layer of emotion: a deep sorrow for the loss of invincible nature, and a burning rage against those who are responsible for the degeneration of the world.

What's that? You heard that crypto-currencies like Bitcoin will be part of that revolution? LOL – Cryptocurrency is an abject disaster. Not only are “proof of work” crypto-currencies contributing to the climate crisis, not only are these “currencies” used almost exclusively as stores of wealth instead of mediums of exchange (unless you're in the ransomware business), but these “decentralised” “currencies” are held and controlled by a tiny number of very powerful people. These twin aspects of shitcoins are to be expected, because that's how the more conventional economy works too. If you or the policy maker you're trying to convince need some conventional economic research to believe the fairly mundane observation that a more equal world would be easier to decarbonise, Yannick Oswald has you covered.

Cryptocurrency isn't the future, but it is Futurism. Futurism brough us Fascism, and its sibling, Ayn Rand's faux-philosophy of Objectivism. Ironically former US Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan was one of Rand's chief acolytes, and now the very people who claim to be opposed to “fiat currencies” and central banks like the one he led for 19 years are following basically the same simplistic and mean-spirited lifestyle championed by Rand. They've looked at something complex, and tried to replace it with something that is simple yet complicated.

Jet travel is futurist too. That's why airports die, and thousands of empty “investment properties” and unhoused people can be found within the same cities. Barcelona has a solution:

This week [July 2020], the city’s housing department wrote to 14 companies that collectively own 194 empty apartments, warning that if they haven’t found a tenant within the next month, the city could take possession of these properties, with compensation at half their market value. These units would then be rented out by the city as public housing to lower-income tenants, while the companies in question could also face possible fines of between €90,000 and €900,000 ($103,000 and $1,003,000), according to Spanish news outlets.

The Barcelona city government doesn't actually want to take possession of these apartments, they just want them to be available to people at a reasonable price or indeed at all. Their policy simply changes the price signals in the property market, because the city government recognises that houses are for living in, not for speculating on. This sort of halfway-house of collective power against capitalist waste isn't exactly Red Vienna, but also it's 2020, not 1920. Better to house people now under a less-oppressive arrangement than maintain your purity and leave people to live out on the streets. Which is why I really like the new laptop company Framework, who just opened pre-orders for fairly high-end laptops designed to be repairable, upgradable, and customisable. Somewhat “back to the future”, but refreshing in a world where it's increasingly impossible to have the machines we use repaired, let alone repair or upgrade them ourselves.

My favourite news story so far this year was definitely Ben Collins' deep dive into cultural burning practices in the Kimberley, in a beautifully produced story by the ABC. Collins interviewed a number of Karajarri rangers working the Indigenous Protected Area, including Bayo, who shared what he and his community have learned since reclaiming title over the area and resuming preventative cool burns to avoid the sort of enormous summer conflagarations we saw in 2019/20. Bayo's big revelation is that contrary to the popular refrain from many settler land holders and conservative pundits, comparing evidence of historic burning practices to what is happening now, we're burning too much. But also too little. Because it's the interaction of both time and space that matters. Traditional Karajarri land burns weren't “preventative” as such. The Karajarri used to be on the move every few days. Burning a little bit here to clear a campsite or flush out some game, then moving on a few kilometres and doing the same again. I'm certainly not doing it justice so go read and experience it yourself. But the key point here is that Karajarri land cultural burns and other land management can be thought of as living infrastructure. They built a landscape that was filled with animals and plants, reasonably unlikely to succumb to massive hot burns, and contained diversity of landscapes and habitats – as part of their everyday lives. This is management without rigid control.

Mark Matienzo wrote a really thoughtful piece on a different kind of (potential) infrastructure that is nevertheless also, mostly, designed to be a combination of deliberate creation and uh, perhaps we could say “extra curricular activities”? Anyway, Matienzo's description of the promise, threat and complications of the Sourcery application/platform is worth a read for anyone interested in technology, labour, or archives.

Another piece from late last year on labour and the related field of libraries is Lynne Stahl's really excellent meditation, Librarian, read thyself published in The Rambling. Vocational Awe under conditions of COVID-19 and twenty-first century capitalism is a combustible and exhausting mix:

During this time, I’ve been monitoring my impulses—many of which cry out to help, go the extra mile, get something done sooner or better than needed. I imagine many academics, librarians and otherwise, have been grappling with similar impulses throughout the pandemic. They’re signs of passion and shared ethos, but I now also recognize them as narcissism (a need to prove to myself that my work truly matters) and anxiety under capitalism (a need to prove to my employer that my work truly matters to their survival).

Students and faculty need me, but more than that I need them to need me so that I can document my neededness to justify my continued employment through impending austerity.

Sam Byers (though not on the topic of libraries at all) writes of a similar malaise in ‘We will have to choose our apocalypse’: the cost of freedom after the pandemic:

We are encouraged to challenge power, punch up, resist. And yet at the same time we are exhorted to grow and glow, strive, achieve, become. The result is an excruciating double bind. Only through a more robust sense of self, we believe, can we muster the rebellious energy by which the unjust world around us might be changed. And yet, deep down, we know the truth: that our unjust world depends for its survival on the very project of selfhood in which we’re all so desperately over-invested.

Caroline Busta, in Document Journal, explains that The internet didn’t kill counterculture—you just won’t find it on Instagram. I confess I didn't expect to find counter-culture on Instagram (on which I don't have an account), but this is a pretty interesting piece regardless, and explores some of the same terrain as Byers and Stahl. Busta writes of the difficulty of expressing ones rejection of the dominant power, when that power is so good at feeding off the very act of expression:

The power of today is firmly situated in minimalism, restraint, and ease—it’s only power under threat that turns to physical displays of strength. Actual power is controlling the means by which lesser power can be displayed—i.e., congrats on the 500K likes on your polling numbers, @jack still owns all your tweets. Actual power keeps a low profile; actual power doesn’t need a social media presence, it owns social media.

So what does today’s counter-hegemonic culture look like? It’s not particularly interested in being seen—at least not in person. It gets no thrill out of wearing leather and a mohawk and walking past main-street shops, which are empty now anyway. But it does demonstrate a hunger for freedom—freedom from the attention economy, from atomization, and the extractive logic of mainstream communication.

Or as Sam Byers puts it:

...liberation is not about what we gain, but what we are willing to abandon. Far from the freedom to “be ourselves”, true freedom in this sense would mean an end to ever needing to be ourselves again. This is why, when faced with even the possibility of a better, more just, more liberated world, we claim to long for it, only to reactively stifle its emergence. It’s because we know that real freedom would entail nothing less than the erasure of all the boundaries and signifiers by which we have defined and comforted ourselves; that it would, in effect, destroy us.

Sumana Harihareswara outlines an effort – !!Con – to break out of some of these logics even whilst leaning into them. In Toward a !!Con Aesthetic, Harihareswara writes:

I hope here I’ve sketched the contours of a particular pro-subjectivity, pro-joy, anti-hierarchical, anti-dismissiveness approach to in-person tech talks and conferences that I see in the !!Con aesthetic. To the extent that mainstream programming culture stifles vulnerability and maintains an elitist hierarchy, !!Con is countercultural. If mainstream programming constitutes a public, then !!Con is a counterpublic — a “discursive arena” where we “formulate oppositional interpretations of our identities, interests, and needs”.

Which brings us, in a way, to Fermenting Culture, an interview with David Zilber from Noma restaurant's Fermentation Lab, with Emergence Magazine. Zilber talks about fermentation with reverence and enthusiasm, but also about how fermentation really pushes against the needs of modern restaurants. Fermentation is wild, and barely controllable. It resists standardisation. This is a really great interview – you can listen to the audio as I did, or read the transcript. There's a lot there, but I especially liked this suggestion:

I think it would be worth it if, instead of being taught civics class in high school, people spent six months in the wilderness learning how to keep themselves alive. I think that’s more important to someone’s long-term well-being, both mental and physical, than a course on what American president was doing what in 1792.

What other foundations of liberal democracy could we replace with something more ...counter cultural? Lynne Stahl has some ideas:

Libraries will never be irrelevant in a country whose richest one percent owns more wealth than the bottom ninety percent. They’re integral indeed to a society built by slave labor on stolen lands, where inequality is structural and pervasive, even constitutive. This framing confronts us with a curious and disquieting reality: that libraries are intrinsically reactive institutions whose essence at once inheres in their ability to meet needs and relies upon the continuation of unmet needs. In this sense, the obsolescence of libraries is a wonderful goal, because it would indicate that many of the public’s needs were fulfilled.

I confess that I – a fellow librarian – have had the same thought more than once.

I'll leave the final word today to Sabu Kohso, who I think nicely connects everything we've explored here:

What do radiation and the pandemic reveal? They paradoxically tell us something essential by way of what they destroy. They speak to us in the negative. In the philosophical sense, catastrophe is a message or an education – a lesson about its own origin as an event that takes place in the boundary between what humans do consciously and their unconscious effects on the planetary body. Radiation teaches us the indispensability of the rapport between people and land, by giving a fatal blow to it. The pandemic demonstrates the necessity of physical interaction among bodies, by making it hazardous. Their ultimate message is that we have nothing if not for these two relationalities.

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