The Moral Obligation of Literacy & Access

In my years working as a librarian in the Digital Branch at the Kansas City Public Library, one thing I witnessed over and over again was the need to pair digital access with teaching digital literacy. It didn’t do any good to give patrons access to tools they didn’t know how to use. People need to develop digital literacy in order to use the tools we provide access to.

To resort to metaphor:

When someone is lost, it doesn’t help to hand them a map if they don’t know how to read it.

Then I read Reader Come Home by Maryanne Wolf and came across this passage:

[T]he study was to investigate the effects of providing books and digital access in libraries to underserved children and families. The results ran counter to every hoped-for outcome: simply providing access to digital tools to underserved children could actually have deleterious effects, if there was no participation by parents. The children in that study did significantly worse on tests of literacy than other children did, and the disparities between groups increased after technological devices were introduced. … This study highlights a pivotal and persistent mistake in the use of digital technology for education. The positive effects of digital learning cannot be reduced to issues of access or exposure.

It actually does harm to provide access without guidance. It’s worse than simply not helping. It would be less harmful to not provide access at all.

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Book Review: Weird Earth: Debunking Strange Ideas About Our Planet by Donald R. Prothero

Cover of the book Weird Earth: Debunking Strange Ideas About Our Planet by Donald R. Prothero
Weird Earth: Debunking Strange Ideas About Our Planet
by Donald R. Prothero
Red Lightning, 2020

This review was first published by Booklist in August 2020.

In his latest, science teacher and proud skeptic Prothero takes on a raft of pseudo- and anti-scientific beliefs and handily debunks them: flat earth, hollow earth, young earth, geocentrism, moon landing conspiracies, faked fossils, flood myths, Atlantis, dowsing, and more. He briefly describes these schools of thought, where they come from, and summarizes the scientific evidence which shows that these beliefs are incorrect. But he wants to do more than just debunk. He believes scientists need to explain why and how they come to the conclusions they do. He ends most of the chapters with a section called “How We Know,” listing all the evidence supporting the relevant scientific conclusions. Also valuable is his introduction, in which he neatly summarizes how science works, how it evaluates evidence, the requirements for peer review and burden-of-proof, and how that process offers trustworthy understanding. Finally, he explores the reasons why some people reject science. Popular trust in science is eroding alongside decreases in scientific literacy; Prothero wants scientists to show their work to help earn that trust back.

Empathy, Prejudice & Structural Inequity

I’ve written often about the importance of reading for the development of empathy. I believe developing empathy is essential to address the deep divides and problems we face in our society.

But I also know you can’t fix structural inequity and intolerance by addressing individuals. If your strategy to overcome prejudice is to change the minds of prejudiced people, then you’re going to fail.

These convictions contradict each other. But I’m certain both are correct and necessary.

In his speech for the Book Award Celebration at the 2020 ALA Virtual Conference, Jerry Craft said:

“We can’t change the way the world sees us if we don’t first change the way we see ourselves.”

This perfectly encapsulates my division over this issue.

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F*ck the Books

Now that I have your attention with my intentionally confrontational, click-baity post title…

Last month (May 2020), my library reopened our book returns in preparation for limited reintroduction of material circulation in our community. The course of the pandemic in our service area was on a trend that indicated it would be safe to do so. The best data we have suggests we need to let returned materials sit for 72 hours before processing them back into the collection, onto the shelves, and into patrons’ hands.

Which is why a few of our branches have giant piles of books dumped on the floor:

Pile of books on a library floor

(From this news item: “Johnson County libraries busy after restarting dropoffs, holds and pickups,” Carey Wickersham. Fox 4, Nexstar Media Group, Inc. https://fox4kc.com/tracking-coronavirus/johnson-county-libraries-busy-after-restarting-dropoffs-holds-and-pickups/. Accessed June 18, 2020.)

Images like this one were presented in the media as my library reopened our book returns. It caused a minor furor online: people were offended we would treat books so callously. There were outraged comments on Twitter. Even the article this image is taken from can’t seem to avoid a slightly judgmental tone:

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Vocational Awe

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about vocational awe. There’s been significant research done on this in multiple fields and it’s a legitimate issue. Our work as librarians is important and worth working hard to deliver. It’s right and good for us to take pride in our commitment. Our desire to serve motivates us to do the best work we can for the sake of others. We can make the world a better place. Our respect for our work, our desire for doing it, empowers us. It gives us deep satisfaction and helps people in our communities. That’s a good thing.

But our desire to serve makes us vulnerable, too. People can leverage it to manipulate us in ways we shouldn’t allow. I’ve been guilt tripped into doing work I shouldn’t have had to do, without sufficient compensation, because I wanted to be helpful. Our desire to do good can be used against us. It happens and it’s a problem. Our work is important but not enough for us to risk our health or well-being. It’s not important enough for us to work so hard for insufficient compensation.

We all deserve appropriate pay for our work, a healthy work-life balance, and safe working conditions. But it can be a challenge for those of us driven by a desire to serve to draw and hold appropriate lines when our communities depend on the services we provide. We should be proud and celebrate what we do! But we shouldn’t get lost in it.

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On Furloughing Staff: A Story of Changing My Mind

The opinions and positions expressed on this blog are always my own and should never be assumed to express the opinions or positions of my employer nor any other party other than myself.

I want to talk about something that happened where I work and how it changed my perspective. I want to talk about some lessons learned.

My employer, the Johnson County Library in Johnson County, Kansas, has furloughed 58% of our staff. We did this as part of a wider furlough strategy undertaken by the Johnson County Government.

I support this course of action. I think this was the right decision both for our staff and for the library as an organization. No one has lost their jobs. Everyone remains employed and retains their health insurance and other benefits. All furloughed staff are eligible for unemployment benefits.

Many of you read and responded positively to a tweet thread I posted last month near the beginning of this pandemic, in which I very strongly expressed my opposition to any form of unpaid leave or layoffs for staff. The fact that I now support furloughing JCL staff probably screams of hypocrisy.

I want to explain why I changed my mind. For all my grandstanding on principle and my moral certainty, this is a complex situation which makes practical action messier than I want to admit. I’m a big fan of lessons learned and I learned some difficult ones through this.

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Transformational Ideation vs. Original Ideatation

Or: Why ’80s Pop Bowie Is Better than ’70s Glam Bowie

David Bowie is one of the most important musicians in my personal pantheon. And I’ve always liked the pop music he made in the 1980s better than the glam rock that made him famous in the 1970s.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to define why I like ’80s Bowie better than I ever liked ’70s Bowie. Part of it is because I’m a child of the ’80s and that’s the pop music I grew up on. But there’s more to it than just that. And it leads me to an interesting insight into the nature of ideational work.

Our modern culture prioritizes innovation to the point of fetishizing it. Because of this, we assign the greatest value to people who can come up with new ideas. This is an immensely valuable skill.

But it’s not the only skill necessary for us to do our best ideation work.

I’ve known people who weren’t any good at coming up with new ideas but who were brilliant at exploring the ideas of others. They can take your idea and discover potential in it you never saw. They can develop your idea into something better than you ever envisioned.

I’ve known people who were geniuses at connecting ideas together. They can take your idea and match it to some other idea you never would have thought related, and together these ideas become better than anything you imagined.

To borrow from the language of copyright law: There’s original work and transformative work. Some people are brilliant at doing the transformative work even if they’re not skilled at doing original work.

This sort of exploration and development work is as important as the work of coming up with new ideas. This is the work that transforms ideas into their best possible versions.

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Critical Questions of Social Justice Movements

I’m an ally. I’m an ally for LGBTQIA+ folk. An ally for #TransRights. For #MeToo. I support #OwnVoices and #WeNeedDiverseBooks. In general, I ally with anyone fighting for equity and justice, and against intolerance and discrimination.

There are some critical questions I want to ask about many of these movements and organizations. Sometimes I see things that give me pause, that concern me. Actions taken or statements made which seem problematic or counterproductive. There are questions I want to ask.

But I shouldn’t ask them. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why I believe I shouldn’t ask them.

I’ve always believed it’s good and healthy to ask critical questions of the world. I believe there’s great benefit in it.

I was raised in a very intellectual home. Both of my parents have Masters degrees in history; my father has an EdD and spent his career in higher education administration. My mother has the equivalent of a Masters in architecture. I spent my childhood surrounded by books on history, art history, philosophy. I immersed myself from a young age in my father’s science fiction collection and grew up wanting to be scientist and a philosopher. I grew up wanting to be a learned man. I was formed in an environment of inquiry and exploration and sincere critique.

I genuinely want what’s best for those fighting for equity and justice. I believe it’s crucial and beneficial to ask critical questions.

So why have I decided I shouldn’t ask them?

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Libraries: Everything to Everyone?

Or Jack of All Trades but Master of None?

Justin Hoenke recently voiced the argument that public librarians need to be “everything to every community member.” This argument unleashed a lot of push back from librarians. Stephanie Chase posted a tweet thread in response to the push back and it’s worth reading.

Her essential argument responds to librarians who, as she perceives, don’t want libraries to be different than what they were in our romanticized youths.

She states:

HARD FACTS TIME: THE LIBRARY OF YOUR YOUTH DOESN’T EXIST ANYMORE.

I agree with this 100%. There are librarians who resist change because they don’t want the library to evolve. That’s a real problem. She also links to a recent LitHub article, “Stop. The library isn’t your private, childhood memory palace.” I love this article and I agree with it 100%. I tweeted it out myself when it was first posted online.

I came to libraries because they’re so adaptable. Because I’m excited to serve my community in a time of tremendous change. Because I relish the challenge of figuring out how to respond to changing needs and demographics. In his book, Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library, Wayne Wiegand points out public libraries have always adapted to changing needs and circumstances. There’s always been resistance to change, both internal and external. This is all to be expected.

Libraries should never be static entities—we need to be adaptable. The core of what we do is timeless—access, information, self-directed learning, self-directed entertainment—but of course our communities’ needs will change, and even the timeless needs will manifest differently, and technology will continue to alter how we access and consume information, sometimes in radical ways. This is good and healthy and exciting.

But I can’t completely agree that librarians need to be all things for all people. It’s not for the reasons Ms. Chase thinks. It starts with the following statement from her tweet thread:

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Libraries and Information Literacy

I have a friend who’s currently in school to earn an MLIS. They asked me recently if my library offers “information literacy guidance to your patrons? Like any sort of program to help gauge legit info from ‘fake news?'”

My answer turned out to be a bit more involved than I expected. Turns out, I have thoughts about this. I can’t say my thoughts are particularly well sorted at this point but I think they’re worth sharing. Here’s a slightly edited and expanded version of the answer I sent my friend:

My library doesn’t currently do any dedicated programming on this kind of information literacy, although we help guide people when they come to us with questions. We provide access to resources that teach information literacy skills and direct patrons to these resources when we see a need. I know a lot of libraries are exploring different ways to handle this issue and some are offering programming. My library is talking about the idea.

My personal perspective on it: It’s turning out to be more complex than I thought upon first glance.

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