Inherent Bias in Classification Systems

December 10th is Dewey Decimal System Day. Maybe it’s only librarians who care much about it but to us it’s a big deal.

The entire history of our profession has been a quest to organize information. Sometimes organizational schemas were focused on preserving resources, on merely keeping a list of a collection’s holding, and sometimes systems were intended to restrict access. Indeed, for most of our history, knowledge institutions were exclusive and exclusionary.

But beginning with the birth of public libraries in the 1800s, we conceived the idea that knowledge should be accessible for the betterment of all people. The challenge was—and continues to be—to find ways to accomplish this goal through practical application in real-world situations, in day-to-day activities.

Melvil Dewey’s system was a massive paradigm shift. It seems like such an esoteric thing to celebrate but realize this: before Dewey’s organizational scheme, there existed no universal method for organizing collections of materials, and too many systems were obscure and overly complicated, to the point where people were often discouraged from attempting to access them.

Dewey created a system that anyone could understand and use. For the first time, people could walk into a library and find what they wanted on the shelf, or explore the catalog, without the mediation of a specialist. In a real sense, the Dewey system effectively transferred our collections of knowledge out of the hands of specialists and into the hands of the general populace. *

Still, for all my appreciation and admiration of Dewey’s achievement, when a coworker asked if I wanted to participate in Dewey Day activities at my library, my response was this:

“I have no interest in celebrating the Dewey system. It’s an archaic monument to Western superiority and colonial oppression which obscures the diversity of human cultures and silences diverse voices.”

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How Can Libraries Compete with Amazon?

I’m so bored by this question. Let’s talk instead about some things Amazon can’t do:

  • Amazon can’t be part of a community.
  • Amazon can’t build meaningful, multifaceted relationships with people at a local level.
  • Amazon can’t provide communal space.
  • Amazon can’t provide boots-on-ground, in-the-trenches, front-line community services.
  • Amazon can’t provide anything beyond purely commercial transactions.
  • Amazon can’t be assumed to care about the common good.
  • Amazon can’t build trust with people.

Libraries do all these things. Libraries do so much more than these things. All without ever advertising to you, without leveraging your needs for commercial gain.

Amazon values monetization. Libraries value people.

Can libraries compete with Amazon? This isn’t a legitimate question. If you think Amazon is competition for libraries, then you fundamentally don’t understand what libraries do.

The truth is this:

Amazon can’t compete with us.

This Is Why I Love Libraries

In my post about hatred the other day, I mentioned my life motto: “I am human: nothing human is alien to me.” (In the Latin, “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.”)

And all at once it strikes me—this is why I have always loved libraries.

Libraries give me access to the full depth and breadth of humanity. All of our thoughts and ideas, our hopes and dreams, our fears, our creativity and cultures, our histories, our plethora of worldviews and philosophies and beliefs.

All our stories.

I can access all of this through my library. If my library doesn’t have it on the shelf, they can find it and get it for me.

Libraries are where I go to learn how to be human, in all our myriad aspects.

My Twitter Year

One of my goals this year is to participate more in professional conversations and debates. For me, this means getting more active on Twitter. That’s where I keep track of most of my professional connections.

This past week saw my first forays in that direction.


There’s a quote from Donny Miller that has become ubiquitous among information professionals:

“In the age of information, ignorance is a choice.”

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Hate Speech in Libraries

There have been several reports over the last few weeks identifying a rise in incidents of hate speech, racist graffiti and slogans, and acts of violence toward members of various minority groups throughout the country. Several libraries have been targeted—books and buildings have been defaced with swastikas, racist, sexist, homo- and transphobic epithets, explicit threats of violence toward minority groups, etc.

Libraries are targets because we stand at the vanguard of promoting inclusion and diversity. We seek to empower the disempowered, to give voice and provide access to all individuals and groups within our community. We hold as a core value that no one be excluded from the tools and services we offer, that no one be silenced or impeded from equal participation in our community. Libraries function as a safe space for anyone who needs it.

Libraries pose a great threat to those who seek to exclude all those who are different from them.

Libraries hold a resolute belief in the freedom of speech and expression. This is fundamental to everything we do. How, then, are libraries supposed to handle incidents of hate speech?

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On Customer Service & Reference Interviews

When I went through my library & information science graduate program, I took the required reference classes and I learned the basics of how to conduct a reference interview. The idea behind a reference interview is pretty simple:

People don’t always know how to ask for what they really need.

We all frequently struggle to voice our needs properly—we say things badly, misunderstand ourselves, head down misleading paths, etc. Also, library patrons often aren’t aware of all the options and resources that are available to meet their needs—but they usually think they know what the best option is, and so come in asking for something specific without realizing that there may be much better resources for them.

When it comes to digital library services, the issue tends to be that patrons don’t understand how these systems work, aren’t fully aware of what they can and can’t do, so when a service doesn’t behave the way they expect it to, they assume that it’s broken.

As librarians, it’s our job to connect our patrons to the best resources to answer their needs. The purpose of the reference interview is to make sure we know what their need really is, so we can find the best resources for them, or teach them how to get the most out of the services we provide.

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The Genres that Scare Me

I spend a fair amount of time talking about the importance of diversity in our stories and reading culture. I fully support the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement. I’ve made a commitment to increase the diversity of my own reading, both in terms of authors and characters.

I read two posts over the past couple of weeks which spin the idea of diverse reading in a slightly different direction:

I Can’t Even with Librarians Who Don’t Read Diversely by Molly Wetta (posted on Bookriot, August 12, 2016)

Call to Action: Get Out There and Read Something You Are “Afraid” Of by Becky Spratford (posted on RA for All, August 22, 2016)

Normally, we talk about diverse books in terms of the ethnicity and cultures of characters, authors, and story traditions. What speaks to me about the two articles linked above is the call to increase the diversity of the genres I read. The call to “read outside [my] own taste and interest” (from Bookriot), to read things I dislike or that scare me to try (as per the RA for All post).

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